The real “Greatest Generation”

I was going to say that it would have to be the Founding generation. But then I changed my mind.

TV news anchor Tom Brokaw put out a book a few years ago called The Greatest Generation, in which he identified Americans who grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, then fought the Second World War in the 1940s, as the greatest generation of Americans.

Great as the difficulties were for this generation of Americans, they must pale in comparison to those facing the Founding generation. If you were 20 years old in 1780, you would have trouble remembering a time before the crises of the 1770s, and then the Revolutionary War. As you lived on, you would experience a failed U.S. government (that operating under the Articles of Confederation) that was dismantled in 1787, a referendum to vote on the new and radical Constitution, desperate poverty and inflation, two armed citizen rebellions (Whiskey and Shays), and then when you were 52, the British would invade the U.S. and burn down the White House.

That’s a lot to face, especially with no history, really no inkling of experience with a democratic government. You would be building democratic government with your own hands and brain. There were no guideposts to reassure you, and several times the whole experiment of your new nation seemed on the brink of failure.

People growing up in the 1930s had a long history of being American, long experience of our form of government, and generally clear and well-established standards of American/democratic behavior to guide them.  If they were tempted to abandon these, that might be understandable, but the fact that they did not simply speaks to their historical advantages over the Founding Americans.

Well, that’s the case for calling the Founders the greatest generation. But after all, I did change my mind about the whole idea of choosing one group to be the greatest Americans.

The real Greatest Generation of Americans is each and every one that lives up to the principles this nation was founded on, the principles of promoting and protecting natural rights and equality of opportunity for all Americans. Every generation that does this is truly the greatest, simply because it’s very hard to do. Our founding principles demand that we rise above human nature in many ways, and offer justice and freedom to all. Any generation that does this deserves our praise.

That opens up the opportunity to those of us living in America right now to be the next greatest generation. Rather than thinking we missed the boat and cannot partake of the glory of any past generation of our ancestors, we must see that they simply carried the baton for a while, and have now passed it to us. It can’t go out on our watch, lest we fail the next greatest generation coming after us.

American Revolution, 1638

The Massachusetts Bay Colony had an ongoing battle with Parliament over its royal patent, issued by Charles I and given to John Winthrop to carry over to New England with the Puritan settlers in 1630.

The patent gave the colony’s governor and officers the power to make laws for themselves and basically to be self-governing, so long as their laws did not contradict the laws of England.

What’s interesting there is that the colonists were supposed or allowed to make their own laws. If those laws were not supposed to contradict those of England, then why allow them to make laws at all? Why not just say “follow the laws of England”?

The answer may be twofold. First, on England’s side, there was no real written body of laws, no constitution, to copy and take with them. Second, on the Puritans’ side, there was the understanding that special and/or unexpected conditions in the New World might call for new laws not pertinent to England. But on MBC’s side, there was also the firm if unspoken intent to function as a nearly sovereign state. The battle it fought to remain so is amazingly similar to the battle against royal authority in which Massachusetts took the lead in the 1770s.

As early as 1634, the Commission for Regulating Plantations, headed by Puritan foe Archbishop Laud, was seeking a revocation of MBC’s patent. In September 1634 Winthrop received a letter from the Commission stating its power to oversee MBC, call in its patent, make its laws, remove and punish its (elected) governors, “hear and determine all causes, and inflict all punishments, including death itself.” Sounds remarkably like the terms of what we call “the Intolerable Acts” of 1774.

In January 1635 we find the MBC reacting to this threat, calling all ministers, the governor, and the assistants together in Boston to discuss “what we ought to do if a general governor be sent out of England.” The decision was “we ought not to accept him but defend our lawful possessions (if we were able); otherwise, to avoid or protract [the confrontation].”

This very early decision not to accept direct rule from England is startling. This is from a colony only 4 years old, and far from secure. The MBC perceived threats from the French in Canada and today’s Maine, the Dutch in New York and western Connecticut, and potentially the Pequots or Narragansetts in Eastern Connecticut. Yet it was determined to manage its own affairs.

Over the years, the MBC used the “avoid or protract” strategy to parry many requests that it send its patent back to England for “review.” Winthrop particularly used a wide variety of ruses to avoid this. Once a demand for the patent was included in a packet of personal letters for Winthrop, and so, since the demand had not come by the usual official government messenger, Winthrop decided it was not a valid demand, and instructed the person who had delivered it to him to say the letter did not exist.

By September 1638, there was “a very strict order” from the Commission for sending back the patent. Again the governor (Winthrop) and the court of assistants agreed not to do so, “because then such of our friends and others in England would conceive it to be surrendered, and that thereupon we should be bound to receive such a governor and such orders as should be sent to us, and many bad minds, yea, and weak ones among ourselves would think it lawful if not necessary to accept a [royal] governor…”

It’s pretty astonishing to see English colonists in 1638 stating that only the bad or the weak would think it lawful to accept a governor from their home country, from the king they are supposed to be loyal to, from the government supposedly governing them.

The final quote on this could have come from 1775: in February 1641, the Long Parliament was in session, and its triumphant English Puritans wrote to MBC asking for its best men to come back to England to join Parliament and further their great work. The MBC’s response?

“But consulting about it, we declined the motion for this [reason], that if we should put ourselves under the protection of the parliament we must then be subject to all such laws as they should make, or at least such as they might impose upon us, in which course though they should intend our good, yet it might prove very prejudicial to us.”

It’s no surprise that Massachusetts led the way to Revolution in the 18th century. From its English settlement it was led by people who were determined to self-govern. This determination was largely if not completely based on religion, in that the Massachusetts Puritans had left England in order to live under a government consonant with their religious principles. Before 1640 they would not be ruled by an Anglican Parliament. After 1640, they would not be ruled by any Parliament. (The English Parliament’s espousal of toleration and presbyterianism quickly and completely alienated the Massachusetts Puritans, who then had dangerously difficult relations with the English Puritan government.)

The active leaders of rebellion in Massachusetts were mostly born in the 1730s and 40s. Those people would have had grandparents born in the late 1600s, who remembered when Massachusetts was at last subdued under a royal government in 1690.  Those grandparents would have known and told stories about their own grandparents, who fought Parliament in the mid-1600s. So the link between the rebellion of the 1630s and the rebellion of the 1770s is not so distant. When we look for the seeds of rebellion in America, we need to look all the way back to the beginnings of colonization, in the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts.

Time to retire “people of color”?

I was reading Lacy Ford’s fantastic article “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838” and had reached page 116 where Ford discusses how slaveholding American southerners began to sour on the idea of sending black Americans “back” to Africa because the slaveholders felt that it was really a plan to end slavery rather than a plan to get freed black people out of the country and “whiten” it. I found this statement:

“As the Georgia legislature later explained, whatever support the [colonizers] initially enjoyed in the lower South resulted ‘from the general impression in the Southern states’ that its object ‘was limited to removal’ of the ‘free people of color and their descendants and [not slaves].”

What phrase leaps out at you? “People of color.” This phrase was being used in 1827 by slaveholders as a euphemism for formerly enslaved black people.

I was under the impression that “people of color” was a 21st-century phrase (hey, my specialty is the 1600s; I’m not up on everything). But now we see it has a long and ugly history, just like every other word used for black Americans, from Negro to the other n-word to darky and even colored.

In fact, “black” seems to be the least-baggaged term used to describe black Americans.

The real problem with “people of color” is that it makes it so that black people are the only people on Earth who have a race. If a black person has “color,” that implies that a white person does not. Therefore race remains a stigma, something white people are free of. All other people are raced, but white people just are. It’s as if whiteness was the norm and all other people have been tainted with a color.

“People of color” reminds me of a conversation I heard years ago. Someone described another person as having an “ethnic name.” To which the other person replied, “What name isn’t an ethnic name?” That is, what name is not from a geographic place? Jones is an ethnic name. Mitchell is an ethnic name. All names are ethnic.

And all people have race. We are all people of color. To cleanse white people of race by referring to black people (and sometimes Asian or Latino people) as people of color is to say, “Normal people are white, but other people are colored.”

White is a race. It’s even a color. Everyone has a race, everyone has an ethnicity. Whites are not magically free of racial markers or racial history. For too many centuries white people have been tempted to see themselves as distinct from people of other races. But they’re not. We’re all colored and we’re all people, and it may be time to retire yet another term that seems to contradict that.

Warren Harding and his “Negro” percentage

Someone somewhere has once again rolled out the old story of President Warren Harding (1921-23) having a great-grandfather who was black.

John McLaughlin apparently barged into the comments of a guest on his news show “The McLaughlin Group” who was expressing excitement about Barack Obama running for president by saying, sternly and loudly, “You act like there’s never been a black president before.” As the guest paused in confusion, McLaughlin shouted, “Warren Harding was a Negro!”

Why he chose to say “Negro” is unclear. Suffice it to say McLaughlin looked absolutely crazy when he said it. But the saddest thing about his comment is that now people will once again pointlessly debate whether one of Harding’s great-grandfathers was black (something that should be pretty easy to prove or disprove).

I find this at once sad and hilarious because it gets all of us 21st century modernites talking and thinking like 19th century quack doctors. Grown, modern American adults start talking about what “percent” black blood Harding may have had, what “percent” of black blood makes you black, etc.

While you can have percentages of ancestors (for example, one can say “50% of my ancestors were black, 20% were Chinese, and 30% were white”), you cannot have a percentage of blood. The blood in a body is not 50% or 10% or 1% anything but blood.

It’s also sad and hilarious, but more sad, that Barack Obama, whose father was black, is not considered black by some Americans, while Harding, who may or may not have had one multiracial great-grandfather, is considered black therefore by some Americans.

What we all are is 100% American, and presidents should be judged on how well they uphold our founding principles, and nothing else.

Roger Williams: saint of Rhode Island or lunatic of Massachusetts?

There’s a great article on Roger Williams at American Creation, a new blog devoted to studying religion in early America. (Disclaimer: I contribute articles on the Puritans for this blog from time to time.)

Williams was a complicated character. He caused the Puritans of Massachusetts nothing but trouble, yet he was so charismatic and charming they could not bring themselves to punish him for years.

The article at American Creation tells most of the story. I’ll just add that Williams not only challenged the bases of Puritan theology, but also claimed that the royal charter that created Massachusetts Bay Colony was null and void because it was granted by King Charles, a sinner and false king, who had no earthly authority.

Williams would have had the Puritans go back to London, rip up their charter, try to convert Charles, and get a new, valid charter. For Puritans trying hard not to arouse an already hostile king’s anger, this was too much.

Williams was supposed to be sent back to England in chains as a traitor, but John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, intervened. Williams claimed that Winthrop told him what was being planned, and urged him to escape secretly. Winthrop had every reason to detest Williams, but he did not. He saw Williams’ sincerity and youthful innocence, and perhaps had faith Williams would eventually settle down. They remained close throughout Winthrop’s life.

Williams took off for what is now Rhode Island, and many years later got his own royal charter. By that time (1663), he had undergone a radical change from a man who had excluded everyone but his wife from the list of the saved to a man who welcomed everyone as equal.

This is the Williams who is well-known and loved. The story of how he got from A to B is a fascinating one.

National security v. elites at the Constitutional Convention

We tend to think that our politics in the 21st century are uniquely characterized by fears that powerful elites are in control of the government, robbing the people of their voice. But whenever this fear is raised, and people question those in power, those in power turn the conversation toward national security, justifying their grasping power by saying it is necessary to protect the nation.

But all this is as old as the United States. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution claimed that it empowered elites to run the government at the expense of the “real” people, mainly the yeoman farmers. Jefferson was of this group. The problem as they saw it was that by centralizing the government in Washington, the Constitution took representatives out of their states, far from the poverty and problems of their constituents. In Washington, surrounded by men of privilege, those representatives to Congress would start making laws that benefited the rich.

The Federalists who supported the Constitution decided that the best way to win this argument was to ignore it and turn the subject to national defense. A strong centralized government was needed, they said, to maintain national security by observing treaties, protecting American shipping, and dealing with other national governments. In fact, the majority of the enumerated powers of the federal government laid out in the Constitution have to do with national defense.

At a time when the young United States were vulnerable to outside attack or harrassment by more powerful nations, this was a strong argument, and it won out over fear of elitism.

The difference between then and now is that the security of the country was not guaranteed by violation of the rights of the people, or of the checks and balances of the government. The early federal government observed the terms and spirit of the Constitution Congress had written, and accepted the Bill of Rights the people wrote (through their state assemblies) as an addendum or even a corrective to that Constitution.

Let’s hope we are returning to that system, our original and founding principle of democracy.