The Founders

Is representative federal government possible? American colonists said no

Posted on September 27, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, The Founders | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 in our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the transformation of American political understanding in the 13 colonies in the 1760s and 70s. We left off in part 2 talking about the impossibility of 1:1 political representation and Americans’ growing discomfort with the idea that the ever-increasing size and diversity (read new immigrants) of their population meant that the old days of towns being peopled by four generations of a dozen families, and governed pretty representationally by representatives of those families, were over. As we say in one post in our earlier series on the Federalist Papers:

The idea of equal numbers of Senators for all states, and proportional representation in the House did not pit Federalists and Anti-Federalists against each other. But the reality of defining “proportional representation” did. Anti-Federalists pointed out the impossibility of one person capably and honestly representing the wants and needs of 30,000 people. The Federalists replied that lowering the number (1 Rep for every 1,000 people, for example) would not solve the problem of one person representing multiple constituents—any time one person represents a group there is no way that person can fully represent their wants and needs unless that group is fully united. Since it is very rare for any group to be fully united, no representative can ever do justice to that group. But as usual, the Federalists used this flaw of human nature as a strength: the one thing that can give a Representative some authority to say that he accurately represents his many constituents is elections themselves. In elections, the people are forced to choose someone they think will do the best possible job representing their basic wants and needs. Not everyone will be happy, but the majority of the people will be satisfied, and if too many people are not satisfied, then they elect someone new. Elections will also force the people to focus their wants and needs into a few main issues, on which candidates will campaign. What the people really want most will come out during election campaigns, and the person who best represents what the people think is most important will go to the House.

The Federalists also pointed out, yet again, that the growing nation would soon have so many millions of citizens that it would be impossible to have 1:1 or even 1:1,000 or 1:100,000 representation in the House. The House had to be a figurative representation of the nation; it could not be a literal one.

This kind of thinking was over a decade away in the 1760s. It was the cauldron of political crisis that boiled through the 1760s and 1770s, and the Revolution it led to, that melted down traditional colonial thinking about government and reshaped it into virtual representation to Congress.

Part of that cauldron of crisis was the ever-stronger reaction against the wholesale rejection of virtual representation. This came mostly from Tories in America. Bailyn quotes one who complained that

…by the patriots’ reasoning, “every man, woman, boy, girl, child, infant, cow, horse, hog, dog, and cat who now live, or ever did live, or ever shall live in this province [must be] fully, freely, and sufficiently represented in this present glorious and august Provincial Congress.”

Traditionalists responded vigorously, insisting that the old American way of giving explicit, limited instructions to local reps in writing was the only way to avoid the trap of federal corruption. It’s really interesting to read how very, very strongly the majority of American colonists were against giving a federal government power. It could be Parliament in London, it could be Boston in Massachusetts, it could be Williamsburg in Virginia. Give a legislative body in one town a general mandate to make laws and it became suspect. (It’s also interesting to note that Americans did not feel this way about courts, and spent a great deal of time in their courts, persistently pursuing and appealing to higher and higher courts whenever possible.) Bailyn spends the earlier part of his book dissecting this fear of federal corruption in colonial America, and it’s fascinating to see him locate it ultimately in a fear of unchecked power that remained strong in America for centuries. It’s worth noting that it lives on today in a common hatred or disdain for the federal government in Washington, while the unchecked power of Wall Street is celebrated and protected by the same people who would dismantle Congress. Some unchecked powers are better, it seems, than others.

Giving reps explicit instructions from which they could not vary also underlined that politics was a job. Representatives were not young idealists who wanted to make a better nation. They were men chosen to get something specific–that bridge or mill–from an outside source and that was it. Politics were remorselessly practical. The idea that men in a legislature sought “the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole”, as Edmund Burke put it, was nonsense. Because it’s such a part of our Constitution and our political tradition as the United States, it’s hard for us to realize today that colonial Americans had very little sense of “common good”. A sense of politics serving humanity as a whole, of existing to provide liberty and justice for all, was hard-won from the cauldron of crisis. Until then, most American colonists agreed with Arthur Lee’s assessment that elected reps were “trustees for their constituents to transact for them the business of government… and for this service only the, like all other agents, were paid by their constituents”; Lee complained bitterly that these paid employees had come to find it “more advantageous to sell their voices in Parliament and [become] independent of the People.” [Bailyn 171]

So we have most Americans firm in the belief that reps are basically hired to do a specific job obtaining concrete items for their constituents in the colonial legislature, after which they return home as soon as possible. Reps were not to make decisions about philosophical issues concerning the greater good or the American colonies as a whole. They were not to make decisions about other towns, let alone other colonies. They were not “the representatives fo the whole kingdom” but of “a particular part.” They were not to know better than the people who elected them, but to be an invisible delivery system through which their electors’ voices were heard. They were, as James Wilson said, the “creatures” of their constituents”. [171]

Bailyn goes into the practical effects of this belief next, and we will go with him.

 

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We are in the very midst of a Revolution: John Adams sets American hearts racing

Posted on July 19, 2018. Filed under: Politics, Revolutionary War, The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Even at a distance of centuries, the words of John Adams inspire us with zeal to uphold the founding principles of this nation.

In a letter to his friend Judge William Cushing, dated June 9, 1776, from Philadelphia, where Adams was attending the Continental Congress as a member of the delegation from Massachusetts, Adams describes his work in the Congress, which has replaced his old work as a lawyer traveling to courts on the Eastern Circuit, in language that is stirring without being stiff, labored, or seemingly very different from Adams’ usual mode of expressing himself, as he calls no special attention to it—we decided to highlight that language ourselves, in bold. But the words themselves make any reader or hearer sit up and take notice:

It would give me great Pleasure to ride this Eastern Circuit with you, and prate before you at the Bar, as I used to do. But I am destined to another Fate, to Drudgery of the most wasting, exhausting, consuming Kind, that I ever went through in my whole Life. Objects of the most Stupendous Magnitude, Measures in which the Lives and Liberties of Millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before Us. We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations. A few Matters must be dispatched before I can return. Every Colony must be induced to institute a perfect Government. All the Colonies must confederate together, in some solemn Compact. The Colonies must be declared free and independent states, and Embassadors, must be Sent abroad to foreign Courts, to solicit their Acknowledgment of Us, as Sovereign States, and to form with them, at least with some of them commercial Treaties of Friendship and Alliance. When these Things shall be once well finished, or in a Way of being so, I shall think that I have answered the End of my Creation, and sing with Pleasure my Nunc Dimittes, or if it should be the Will of Heaven that I should live a little longer, return to my Farm and Family, ride Circuits, plead Law, or judge Causes, just as you please.

Why would Adams describe his history-making work in the Congress as “Drudgery of the most wasting, exhausting, consuming Kind”? Because it is! That’s the great lesson to take from this. If you want life, liberty, perfect government, political freedom and independence, sovereignty, and the pursuit of happiness, whatever it may be (for Adams it was to return to his farm and family and law practice), you have to be prepared to work hard for it.

Lately there’s been a push in the U.S. to restrict working for all of those things to the military—a message that only military service makes all of those things possible, that fighting wars alone protects those things we hold dear in America. But that is not the case. Wars are rare compared with the daily struggle that must be endured in local, state, and federal government, in the justice system, in schools and in law enforcement, to uphold, defend, and preserve the life, liberty, and happiness we define ourselves by in this country.

So let’s all do that wasting, exhausting, consuming, and often thankless work that answers the end of our creation. Let’s remain in the midst of a revolution.

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Again, Washington was not a murderer: adieu at last to Adam Ruins Everything

Posted on May 24, 2018. Filed under: Historians, Revolutionary War, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode focuses on the concluding statements.

Disillusioned narrator: So George Washington was a wealthy elitist and murderer who led drunks into battle against their will to fight for a cause they could not care less about.

Adam: No, you’re exaggerating! The modern myth is designed to inspire us, and that’s valuable. It just blinds us to more important truths.

…this is pretty staggering, considering that earlier in the very same episode Adam Conover said, and we quote, “Support for the war effort was so minimal that Washington resorted to killing his own men just to keep his army of bribed, drunk, confused, and impoverished colonists together to fight for a cause they had no interest in defending–economic freedom for wealthy elites.”

You can’t claim someone was a liar and a murderer, then make a faint attempt to undo it without undoing it just to conjure up a “learning moment.” The episode did say everything the disillusioned narrator claims it did.

Beyond that, what on earth does it mean to say that myths are meant to inspire us, and that’s valuable? What on earth does it mean to say that and then immediately say that these myths blind us to important truths? The writing veers at this point from faulty and harmful to just plain incoherent.

And why? What’s the point of it all? The show has the classic problems of the uninformed, reckless, and non-thoughtful critic: it peddled myths in the name of truth, and chose to denigrate a truly heroic leader in American history with half-cited, mis-cited, and some just plain imaginary sources just to grab viewers’ attention. It fell for the common wisdom that cynicism is always smarter than belief. And it traded on its own reputation for doing research and presenting truth in a way that is either unbelievably lazy or unforgivably cynical.

The end result is that most viewers of the show will walk away depressed about American history, convinced that our founding principles are nothing but a pack of lies. They will join those who believe that attacking America as hypocritical is somehow doing good, and increasing justice in the world.

There are certainly terrible passages in our national history. The Revolutionary War was not one of them. Want to read some truth? Check out Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution, by actual historian Benson Bobrick. Or just read what the men and women who fought for our liberty actually said–all of it, not just cherry-picking to find what you want, to satisfy your prejudices. That’s the only way not to ruin everything.

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The Great American Experiment–a reminder

Posted on November 15, 2017. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

It seems apropos to rerun this post as we look back on a year of the Trump administration. We originally ran it in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected, and we re-ran it last year when Trump was elected. Perhaps we will run it every November, that great election month, to remind people of what is at stake each time they vote.

 

America is an experiment. From the time of its establishment as part of a New World in the late 1400s, the land that has become the United States of America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles of liberty and justice for all that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant military veterans living in a small country town built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy—even when they don’t entirely fit that description given above.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America, the ideal that is represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere.

Sometimes we elect a president who is such an American, and his (so far only “his”) election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

Sometimes we elect a president who is not such an American—we elect someone from the loud minority who want to shut down the lab and restrict liberty and justice to some, not all. In that case, real Americans must redouble their efforts to restore our proper focus.

Whatever time you find yourself in, live up to your duty as an American, and keep the experiment going, not because it is easy, as one president once said, but because it is your birthright.

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George Washington had slaves

Posted on August 17, 2017. Filed under: American history, Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , , , |

We depart from our long-held commitment to refusing to talk about black slavery in America in order to make a point and address a worryingly common argument.

When Trump said yesterday that the anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville were worse than the Nazis, he put it this way:

…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

This is the insidious poison of fascism: making false equivalences. We have to admit that when we first heard this, we thought that Trump was saying Lee and Jackson, Confederate generals, were heroes in the same way Washington was–military leaders, great Americans.

But it’s actually worse than that: he gives voice to the false equivalence that since Washington enslaved people, he and the Confederates had the same beliefs, the same goals, and the same impact on this nation.

This lie was ably debunked by Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, on NPR news:

SIEGEL: What clearly distinguishes a Robert E. Lee statue from a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue since all those men owned slaves?

SOMIN: There are two big distinctions. One, nobody honors George Washington precisely for the fact that he owned slaves, whereas the Confederate leaders, when they’re honored, are honored almost entirely for their service to the Confederacy, which was created for a purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery.

Second, while I think it’s very much correct to criticize the Founding Fathers for owning slaves, those of them who did, they also had great achievements in other areas which do legitimately deserve honor. By contrast, the Confederate leaders – very few of them would be remembered today but for what they did in the Civil War to protect slavery.

When we honor Washington, we honor him for his selfless devotion and unceasing effort in the fight to establish democracy in this country. We honor his refusal to become king when it was offered to him. We honor his wise leadership.

The list of achievements accruing to Confederate leaders is quite different. They promoted slavery, first and foremost. They were traitors to their country. They helped create the de facto enslavement of black Americans in their states after the Civil War.

That’s why statues of these people should never have been allowed to stand in this country. Somin goes on to address this:

SIEGEL: One of the arguments that’s heard is that a statue of Robert E. Lee reminds us of a dark chapter in our past, that it’s part of our history. Removing it is akin to erasing history. Does that argument hold any water for you?

SOMIN: I don’t think so. We should definitely remember this period in our history. And in fact, nobody proposes that we forget. But there’s a big difference between remembering history and honoring people who fought in defense of slavery. And what these statues do is they honor these people. They don’t simply commemorate them. If the goal was just simply to remember what happened, that could be done with museums, or that could be done with more appropriate public monuments, ones that actually acknowledge the evil of slavery.

The statues of Lee, Jackson, and all the rest of them are not reminders of the past, they are loving tributes, often hysterical in their lamentations over the Lost Cause. The honor and courage of all Confederates are consistently vaunted, as on this memorial in Tampa, Florida:

confederate 2

Enough is enough. It’s time to end the myth that the Civil War was begun by the Confederacy for any other reason than to promote slavery, and to end all false equivalencies that would connect George Washington with men who had no qualms about enslaving their fellow Americans.

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Robert E. Lee was not a hero, white supremacists are not Americans

Posted on August 16, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

There is no need to be careful about this. Anyone who served in the armies of the Confederate States of America was a traitor to the United States; anyone who led those armies all the more so. They were part of an armed rebellion against the U.S., which is the definition of treason.

That in itself is enough. But the fact that Confederates were fighting to protect and advance slavery, to create a slave state, means their rebellion was not just political, against the political entity that was the United States, but ethical, moral, and philosophical. They specifically rebelled against the U.S. move to end slavery of black Americans, and just as American abolitionists and antislaveryites based their work to end slavery on moral principle enshrined in the Constitution—that “all men are created equal”–American proslaveryites based their work to continue and expand slavery on a rebellion against that American principle.

The Confederacy was explicitly founded to protect and promote slavery. Its leaders made absolutely no secret of that at the time (see Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion for all the evidence from primary sources that you need). As Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens said in his famous “Cornerstone speech“,

…the new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. …The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. …Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.

I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal. [our emphasis]

We quote Stephens at nauseating length to show that the Confederacy was explicitly dedicated to the anti-American principle that non-white people are biologically inferior to white people. The Confederates themselves expressed it this way, as a rejection of and rebellion against the Founders’ plan and hope that slavery would inevitably end the United States because it was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically”, and the United States would not tolerate this because the nation was founded on the principle of equality.

Why does this matter now, on August 16, 2017? Because Stephens still has followers in this country. The Confederacy still has supporters. There are still people living in this country who do not support our Constitution or our law, or any of our founding principles. They call themselves Americans, and most were born here, but they are not. Americans are dedicated to the founding principles of the United States of America, which include the premise that all men are created equal. Anyone who fights this is not American.

And the man currently holding the title of President of the United States is one of them. Donald Trump is no American. He is, clearly, a Confederate president, taking up the torch from Alexander Stephens. In his press conference after a white supremacist/KKK/Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA in which one woman was killed while protesting against the racist rally, Trump said that Americans protesting fascism were just as bad, and in some ways worse, than Nazis posing as Americans, and he took the fascist side:

What about the people of the alt-left, as they came charging at the alt-right, as you call them? [shouts] What about the fact that they came charging, they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day… wait a minute; I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day. …I will tell you, I watched this closely, more closely than any of you people, and you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. I think there’s blame on both sides and I don’t have any doubt about it and you don’t have any doubt either.

…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

Our quotes for all but the last paragraph were taken from video on Fox News’ website. So far as we saw the Fox News coverage did not include the last statement. Their commentator did describe these statements by Trump as part of a “brave and honest press conference, he pulled no punches… brutally honest, maybe too honest.”

Honest. We can’t help thinking of Stephens gloating that the premise that all people are created equal had finally been debunked as a fantasy, as fanaticism. If it’s “honest” to say that American protesting fascism are the criminals, and the fascists are the true Americans, innocent Americans, then we have entered a second civil war—or a second Confederate States of America, brought into being without a shot fired in official war.

For over 150 years, the citizens of the United States perpetrated a dangerous wrong by allowing statues of traitors who fought against the U.S. politically and morally, traitors who were dedicated to the lie that all people are not created equal, to stand. “Oh, it’s not about slavery,” people would say; “it’s just their culture.” We once heard someone say there are no statues to Nazi leaders in Germany. Why are there memorials to Confederate leaders in the United States? Now we see the result of 150 years of dedicated fighting after Appomattox by people who will never be real Americans, and a concentrated effort over the last 50 years, since the Civil Rights movement, to revive the Confederate States of America.

Needless to say, we can’t give in. While Trump has basically invited and urged Nazis to show up when the statue of Jackson is taken down, and has given new hope and excitement to Nazis in America, we Americans have to fight. It’s much harder to fight a guerrilla war than it was to go into actual battle during the Civil War. Right now the best path is to meet the Nazis wherever they go, and not remain a silent majority.

Every nation has a fraction of its population that urges fascism and hatred. Sometimes they manage to monopolize the microphone and take up more space in the media than their numbers justify. Now is such a time in the U.S. Now is the time to muscle these people back into the shadows if we can’t drive them out of the country. That’s the “brutally honest” truth.

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Obama’s farewell address: economics and liberty

Posted on February 6, 2017. Filed under: The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go with post three in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. President Obama had just spoken about the “call to citizenship” that must reinvigorate each generation of Americans to inspire them to live up to our founding principles.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

—He begins with a theme dear to our HP hearts, that America is exceptional not because it’s “great” or because the American people are naturally superior to all others, but because of our founding principles. When we live up to those, America is the greatest nation. When we don’t, when we avoid or reject the hard, contentious, and bloody work of democracy, of ensuring liberty and justice for all, when we stop our forward motion, America is not great. Worse than that, it is a perverted parody of what it is supposed to be. Every generation must recommit the nation to the work of real democracy.

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

—If you hold up each of these accomplishments against the litmus test of “does it promote liberty and justice for all?”, then the Obama Administration scores very high. Job creation can be good or bad; restricting immigration to “protect jobs for Americans”, or lowering taxes on the wealthy by calling them “job-creators” and promoting the so-far mythical promise of “trickle-down economics” are bad. But in the case of the Obama Administration, job creation was mostly good.

In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. No, no, no, no, no. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected President to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.

—Again, this was a speech in front of a large, live crowd, so when Obama began this section, people who did not support Trump booed. That’s why Obama says “no”. We have been alarmed at the HP by the constant hauling out of the old trope that “nothing represents our democracy better than our peaceful transfer of power”. That peaceful transfer is important, but only when we are not handing the presidency to a would-be tyrant whose stated purpose is to destroy the federal government. Then it is right to protest that hand-off of power, and to not go quietly into the brave new world.

Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.

Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

—Obama salvages things somewhat by saying even under Trump, we are all still obliged by our founding principles to “make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we face”, and by reminding us that none of our human potential means anything without our democracy—and our decency, which we may define, once again, as “liberty and justice for all.”

And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.

There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids and create good jobs and protect our homeland.

In other words, it will determine our future. To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.

(APPLAUSE)

—Before the president transitions into a list of economic wins, we pause to linger over this section, which speaks for itself. All we would add is that our Founders worked long hours to create a system of government that could not only withstand troubled times, but was built to power through troubled times and create a bulwark against trouble. Our system of government is not weak and outdated and harmful and unable to keep us free. Just the opposite. It’s only when we undermine its workings that we expose ourselves to danger.

And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again.

(APPLAUSE)

The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.

Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said, and I mean it, anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.

(APPLAUSE)

Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit. But to make people’s lives better.

(APPLAUSE)

But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

—In other words, when you have liberty and justice for all, the economy improves. As he goes on to elaborate:

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.

The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.

And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.

(APPLAUSE)

To give workers the power…

(APPLAUSE)

… to unionize for better wages.

(CHEERS)

To update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now.

(APPLAUSE)

And make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and the individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.

(CHEERS)

(APPLAUSE)

We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.

—Complacency is indeed the enemy of a representative democracy in a world with very few representative democracies.

Next time: tough talk on race

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Trump and the Great American Experiment

Posted on November 10, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Today we’re re-running a post written at the very start of this blog, for reasons that will become evident as you read, on the second day of living in anticipation of a new presidency that is dedicated to perverting and destroying America’s founding principles.

From this point on, the HP is going to increase its focus on civics, our founding principles, and the fight for liberty and justice for all under the Constitution, because all Americans will need that information going forward into a Trump presidency that will not only allow that man to exercise his ill-judgment, but open the door to all Americans who have no faith in their nation’s founding principles. To destroy those principles is treason. The HP fights treason in all forms.

So, with a quote from the great Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper, we begin this new era:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

 

America is an experiment. From the time of its first white settlement, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Barack Obama is such an American, and his election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

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We never used to claim America was a Christian nation

Posted on February 3, 2016. Filed under: The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , |

It’s short but sweet: in 1797 the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Barbary States (today’s Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and what was called Tripolitania). These were autonomous provinces of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa that made a living harassing shipping in the Mediterranean. Barbary pirates were a scourge to Ottoman, European, and U.S. shipping, and the U.S. attempted to use diplomacy to protect its shipping (though the U.S. would eventually fight two wars with the Barbary States in 1801 and 1815 to put a stop to pirate attacks).

Article 11 of the treaty reads thus:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries

Let’s break that down: 1) the U.S. is not founded on Christian principles; 2) the U.S. would not sign a treaty with any state that had “entered into any war or act of hostility” against a Muslim nation; 3) religious difference can never be used as an excuse for war between the U.S. and the Barbary States.

We offer this not to the ongoing debate about accepting Muslim refugees from the wars in the Middle East, nor to say there is no difference between Islam as practiced in 1797 in North Africa and Islam as practiced today in nations the U.S. is in conflict with. We offer it as rebuttal, from the Senate itself, of the poisonous idea that the U.S. was founded to be a Christian nation with a religious mission. Read any founding text and you will fail to find that belief proffered in any way. The mission of the U.S. is to promote representative democracy, liberty and justice for all, and that’s it.

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Saints and Strangers: getting it wrong, getting it right

Posted on December 9, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our brief series on the NatGeo channel’s Thanksgiving offering Saints and Strangers. Here we’ll go over highlights of part 2.

The episode begins with the English party going out to meet the Wampanoags who have kidnapped an English boy as a reprisal for the English raiding the Indians’ corn stores the previous Fall. This is a prime example of the show getting some things wonderfully right and others bafflingly wrong. It is accurate in presenting kidnapping as an Indian tactic, and in showing the kidnapped boy treated very well, and given clothes and gifts by his captors. Most kidnappees, Indian or English, were fully adopted into the groups they were kidnapped by (often to replace young men lost in battle) and treated very well. It is inaccurate in showing William Bradford apologizing for stealing the corn.

Remember how episode 1 showed Bradford refusing to help fix the mast on the Mayflower, even though the ship would sink without the repair, because he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath? This is a complete fabrication, but it was conjured up out of thin air to try to make a point about how devout Bradford and the Pilgrims were (as opposed to the non-Separatists on board). Having him apologize for stealing the corn is another fabrication meant to make us identify with Bradford as a good man. This is  acceptable in the context of reminding modern viewers that the English settlers did not come over with the intent of murdering as many Indians as possible, or with an immovable hostility toward all Indians. But the way in which it’s inaccurate is large and complex.

First, just as he approved fixing the mast on a Sunday, Bradford approved stealing the corn. There were two reasons: first, the settlers knew about the smallpox epidemic that had devastated the Indian population in today’s southeastern New England and actually fully consumed some groups, so when they found the corn caches untouched, they assumed the people the corn belonged to were dead. Therefore, taking their corn was not a problem. Second, even when he found out the corn’s owners were not dead, Bradford maintained the position that the corn had to be taken for the settlers to survive, which is true—they did not have enough food to last the winter.

The show’s determination to make Bradford sorry for stealing is part of its attempt to make a 17th-century person conform to 19th- and 20th-century cultural norms. The show portrays Bradford as apologetic because he recognizes the Indians as his equals, despite their race. That is a 19th/20th-century idea. For early-mid 17th-century Europeans, the only differentiator that really mattered was religion. Indians were not alien to the settlers because of their race; it was their religious difference that mattered most. They were not Christian, but almost more importantly to the Separatists, they were not people who had left the Anglican church to practice more pure Protestant worship. It was that specific for them. As we point out in The Puritans and Freedom of Religion, in Europe at that time, most people saw those who did not practice their exact form of religion as demons, heathens, spiders, monsters, and antichrists. The vitriol showered over Catholics by Protestants—and vice-versa—will turn your stomach if you read it. And within Protestantism, the proliferation of different sects produced just as much hatred. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the principalities that became Germany, produced war crimes and atrocities that boggle the mind, and justified them on the basis of religion. Whole towns were set on fire and the population kept inside to be burned alive because they were Protestant, or Catholic.

So the Separatists in Plimoth did not hate the Indians for being heathens as much as they hated the Catholics and disdained their unreformed Anglican brethren. At least the Indians, unlike the Catholics, had the excuse of not ever having heard the Gospel. Neither did they hate the Indians for their race. Race was a concept just getting off the ground in the mid-1600s, as African slavery came to the Americas. When Bradford faced the Wampanoags, he faced them as potential allies or potential enemies, and practiced as sophisticated a diplomacy as he could to maintain them as allies. But he wouldn’t have apologized about the corn because he would have maintained that God provided it for his people. He would have told Massasoit this, to impress upon him the supernatural support the little group of settlers enjoyed. That godly support was a bargaining chip, and it was hard for Massasoit to completely dismiss it, after seeing his people and neighboring groups harrowed by disease that the English people seemed immune to.

That’s a long, long digression on a short point, but it seems like an important one.

Here’s something the show gets very right: when Bradford wants to build a separate church building, Stephen Hopkins counters that they need to focus their energy on paying off their investors, which was absolutely true. The colony lived under the threat basically of repossession if it didn’t send valuable raw materials back to England that its investors could sell. Copper and gold were the (vain) hope; fur was the sure thing, but timber was the resource that the settlers were able to send first. Any trees cut down that first year after houses were built had to be prepared for shipment back to England, not for building a church.

Hopkins also claims that the colony is first and foremost a commercial venture, which is exactly how the non-Separatist majority of settlers saw it. The friction between them and the Separatists who saw they colony as first and foremost a religious safe-haven would eventually see the Separatists buying the non-Separatists out so they could go their “separate” ways.

One badly anachronistic moment is when, after joining forces with Hobbamock to attack the Massachusetts, English military leader Miles Standish tells the surviving Massachusetts “if you force us to violence it will reverberate for generations to come”. This foreshadowing is something that would never have occurred to Standish. It wasn’t the kind of threat Europeans made at the time. They would have said “we will kill every single one of you right now so you have no posterity”. There were to be no future generations reverberating with anything for heathens.

Another thing the show does well is to keep us guessing about Squanto’s loyalties. We will never know what his motives or goals were, whether he loved the settlers or hated them or saw them merely as pawns in his own game of power and survival. We will never know if he loved Massasoit or hated him or saw him merely as a pawn in his own game. We just don’t know. All we know is that both settlers and Wampanoags mistrusted him from time to time. So when Squanto does not translate Bradford’s words accurately when Bradford is addressed Canonicus, sachem of the Narragansetts, and turns Bradford’s words into an insult, we are left wondering why, just as everyone at the time was left.

The show goes to great lengths to tell us that Bradford really loved Squanto as a friend, and risks the colony’s survival to protect him when Massasoit demands his head. But Bradford’s own account says that he protected Squanto because “[the attack on Squanto] was conceived not fit to be born; for if [the English] should suffer their freinds and messengers thus to be wronged, they should have none would cleave unto them, or give them any intelligence, or do them service afterwards; but next they would [attack the settlers] themselves.” [160]

Bradford later writes this very direct assessment (he writes in the third person):

…they [the English] began to see that Squanto sought his own ends, and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear, and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself; making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they [the English] kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much terrify the Indians, and made them depend more on him, and seek more to him than to Massasoit, which procured him envy, and had like to have cost him his life. For after the discovery of his practises, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly; which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died. They also made good use of the emulation [jealous rivalry] that grew between Hobbamock and him, which made them carry more squarely. And the Governor [Bradford himself] seemed to countenance the one [Squanto], and the Captain the other [Hobbamock], by which they had better intelligence, and made them both more diligent.

This is powerfully different from the show’s presentation of Bradford’s deep friendship with Squanto. Here Bradford says he, and all the settlers, began to see that Squanto would use anyone to get more private power, and that he only stayed with the settlers because he was afraid of being killed if he left Plimoth. When Squanto and Hobbamock became enemies, Bradford prudently pretended to trust Squanto while Standish pretended to trust Hobbamock, so they could get as much information out of both men as possible to protect themselves.

This is just Bradford’s side of the story—we don’t have Hobbamock’s or Squanto’s—but it rings true for the English approach to American Indians. Bradford appreciated the practical help the settlement got from Squanto regarding planting and farming, and believed God provided Squanto to help them in that way. (Bradford would likely have been glad that Squanto had been sold into English slavery so he could learn English and eventually help them.) But he did not trust Squanto, and seems not to have considered him a friend.

Oh criminy, then comes the First Thanksgiving. The biggest problem here is that Wampanoag women are shown at the tables, which did not happen.  As we point out in Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving, only Wampanoag men came (about 90 of them eventually) and the time was spent hunting and holding shooting games. No women. A tiny note is that there a lot of chairs at the tables as well as benches, but chairs were an expensive rarity in Plimoth in 1621.

Mrs. Billington yells “damn them!” twice when the men heading to Wessagusset steal the settlers’ corn, which would have gotten her whipped and/or fined in the real Plimoth, where cursing was not allowed.

When Squanto dies, Edward Winslow and Bradford talk about him, and Winslow says Squanto was a schemer. Bradford grabs him by the shoulders and says “The Lord forgives you for believing you are better than that man,” another example of 19th-century religion being foisted onto 17th-century Plimoth. The Separatists did believe that they were better than Indians—and Catholics and unreformed Anglicans and anyone else who was not an English Separatist.

Right: Winslow goes to help tend Massasoit when he seems to be dying. This was a critical turning point in the difficult relations between the two groups, and the Wampanoags seemed to have believed Winslow’s god helped their sachem.

The show nears its end with a terrible myth, which is Bradford saying we have to prepare for our second Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was not an annual tradition in Plimoth. Thanksgivings were held when appropriate, to thank God for his beneficence, just as days of humiliation and fasting were held to beg God’s mercy. There was no “second Thanksgiving” at Plimoth, but the show insists on it. At this mythical Thanksgiving, Indian women are again present and dance with English men, which was out of the question at that time.

At the very end, Bradford has a voiceover: “They called us Pilgrims, but what have we become? Saints, strangers, savages. We came for God, to move forward, for ourselves and our children.” His son arrives from Holland that Spring, and the circle is complete. Though no one ever called the Separatists Pilgrims in the 1600s.

We’ll quickly wrap this up next time—we promise it will be brief!

 

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