What History is For

What did the federalist debates do?

Posted on July 23, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Here we conclude our re-running of our colossal series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution by wrapping up its impact on the U.S., in its own time, and over the centuries since 1787.

 

We haven’t hit all the topics of debate in this series; for example, we haven’t looked at the worthy Anti-Federalists criticisms of the Supreme Court (they balked at the idea of having an unelected, lifetime-term body that could overturn the laws of Congress as it pleased; as usual, the Federalists replied that any body in service of the just Constitution would never become tyrannical). We have also left out the demand for a Bill of Rights, which was general on both sides, Federalist and Anti-Federalist (more on that in a later series).But we have gotten a sense of the categories of debate in general: the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government as small and, crucially, as local as possible to avoid its corruption; and the Federalists wanted to give the federal government elastic powers to meet unforeseen dilemmas in the future, as well as to control the all-too-real and familiar dilemmas the young nation was already facing.

But in a larger sense, the Federalist debates were important not for their content, but for their happening at all. After popularly elected delegates met to create a new body of national laws, the entire nation was invited to participate in the debate over their ratification as our Constitution. Every aspect of the proposed Constitution was dissected and put under the microscope, and dissenters were free to publish their dissent, their criticisms and fears, in the free press. 85 Federalist Papers were published between October 1787 and August 1788. This is a far cry from the usual press treatment of big issues today, which usually feature a flurry of intense coverage for a week or so, then a near-complete dropping off of interest. For nearly a year the nation weighed the pros and cons of the proposed Constitution and the government it would create in a public forum where no holds were barred. Then the states elected delegates to participate in ratification conventions, and in most states people thronged outside the building where the conventions met, waiting to hear what they had chosen—to accept the new Constitution or not. Over 10 months, the required 9 states voted to ratify, which the caveat that a Bill of Rights be written and added to the Constitution as the first order of business of the  new government.

This democratic process must have inspired some Americans to believe in the Federalist promise that republican virtue could be relied on  even in a large population. No one had been censored, no one arrested or imprisoned, no one lost their property or their livelihood as a result of the position they took on the Constitution. Americans must also have been inspired by the near-blinding modernity of the ideas in the Constitution, and the futuristic nation they at once created and imagined.

We have seen over the centuries since 1788 that the Anti-Federalists got a lot right; their questions about state power to counter federal power, the danger of giving any government body unlimited power to act in the name of national security, and the tendency of power to corrupt have been proven pertinent many times over. Yet we see that the Federalists’ main precept was correct: any government, even a small, local, state government, can become corrupt if people lose faith in the principles of democracy. Keeping things local is no guaranty against corruption. And we can’t rely on one segment of the population—the small farmer or, to add today’s like category, the blue-collar worker—to provide all the republican virtue. Everyone has to be raised up in the tradition and discipline of democracy. Every citizen has to be committed to upholding the Constitution. And the most committed citizens should serve in our government—not the richest or celebrity citizens. If we believe in the principles the Constitution offers, we will send people to Washington who also believe in them, and will actively uphold them in the face of temptation to corruption.

And so we leave the U.S. in 1788, with its newly ratified Constitution, and centuries ahead of it to work out the million problems old and new, expected and completely unanticipated, that would challenge the strength of that document and the commitment of those citizens. We should take with us as we go a bit of their republican virtue to solve the problems we face in our own time.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Eisenhower’s D-Day failure message

Posted on June 17, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We just celebrated another anniversary of D-Day, and rightly so. We also honor the role of General Dwight Eisenhower in leading the successful invasion.

But the way people use that term, “leader”, is often not quite right. They mean to say that Eisenhower played the key role in inspiring the men, and that his example was so inspiring they were bound to succeed. Or that Eisenhower had the courage to grab a brief and tenuous window of good weather when others hesitated or had doubts.

Let’s define what made Eisenhower a hero, and a leader. Eisenhower was not solely responsible for the success of Operation Overlord. Planning had been going on for a full year before he was given command of the invasion force. Thousands of Allied officers drilled and trained hundreds of thousands of soldiers for months before June 6, 1944. Weather forecasters were tasked with predicting when the notoriously stormy English Channel might be quiet enough to launch the myriad small boats carrying the soldiers. As commander of all Allied forces in Europe, Eisenhower was kept apprised of this preparation, but of course he did not personally carry it out, or even lead it in the sense of having those thousands of people report directly to him. The hundreds of thousands of people who carried out the D-Day invasion include heroic practitioners of leadership that we will never know about. They will never be famous. Their contributions have sunk to the seabed of history.

Instead, it is Eisenhower who was the visible “Leader” who gave the order to launch the assault, and the Great, Victorious Leader who announced the success of the operation. As commander, he could do so.

And, like any single person in a position of high authority, if the risky invasion had failed, Eisenhower could have passed the blame to any dozen of the high-ranking men just below him in the chain of command. He could have blamed the weather forecasters, the ship pilots, the equipment, the choice of landing site, etc.

Instead, Eisenhower, using every reserve of courage in the face of an operation that stood a very good chance of failure, wrote a remarkable message to be delivered in that event.

failure-message

It reads:

Our landings in the

Cherbourg – Havre area

have failed to gain a

satisfactory foot hold and

^I have withdrawn the troops have been 

withdrawn. This particular

operation My decision to

attack at this time and place

was based upon the best

information available and

The troops, the air and the

Navy did all that [crossed out]

Bravery and devotion to duty

could do. If any blame

or fault attaches to the attempt

it is mine alone.

When people transcribe this message, they usually leave out the words Eisenhower crossed out. But those are the most important words in the message. They remove passive-voice constructions that would have let Eisenhower quietly shift the blame for failure onto anyone that the world wanted to blame. Instead of writing that the landings has failed “and the troops have been withdrawn”, he writes “I have withdrawn the troops.” He reiterates his agency and his responsibility, changing “this particular action” to “My decision to attack”. It’s his action that has failed, his decision that was wrong, his responsibility to tell the world that he has left it in terrible peril.

Eisenhower deliberately states that the troops, pilots, and sailors did their utmost. “If any blame or fault attached to the attempt it is mine alone.” That’s how he ends the message. That’s the last thing he wants people around the world to remember.

Never were edits to a handwritten message so moving, or so revealing of a person’s character. Eisenhower understood that being a commander did not mean being above the fray, above the chaos of battle, but owning it. He allowed others to make decisions, to train, to analyze, to recommend. He knew he needed their expertise. But he also knew that, in the end, he had been made commander of Allied forces in Europe for the sole purpose of leading the D-Day invasion, and that “leading” meant inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to lay down their lives. Veterans of the invasion talk about how they were told they could only trust in God or luck to survive once they landed; no one was under any delusions that an overwhelming number of the men attacking would not die, most of them instantly.

The only way for Eisenhower to accept that kind of responsibility, and to honor that kind of bravery and sacrifice, was to give the forces all the credit if they were victorious, and himself all the blame if they were not. It was the least he could do, though of course the consequences of owning that failure would have been tremendous for him.

As we move on through the 21st century, let’s remember the lesson Eisenhower teaches us here, that leadership is about helping to make it possible for others to make change in the world, and that often the only way to do that is to understand yourself as successful only if they are, and not to blame others for letting you down. Eisenhower led the D-Day invasion because he took responsibility for actions he did not entirely control, for the efforts of hundreds of thousands of other people, in order to inspire those actions and efforts and to earn them. He was with the invasion force in every way.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Eisenhower’s message to the troops before D-Day, June 6, 1944

Posted on June 5, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , |

We interrupt our continuing series on the Federalist debates to honor the anniversary of D-Day. We’ll start with an important and inspiring document: the “Order of the Day”, or the message Eisenhower had read aloud to all 175,000 of the Allied soldiers, medics, and personnel about to leave the British shore and sail to Normandy.

This version comes to us from the Kansas History Gateway, which is fitting since Dwight Eisenhower moved from his birthplace of Denison, Texas to Abilene, Kansas at the age of two with his family.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

SIGNED: Dwight D. Eisenhower

 

 

The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere did cross the Channel with that force. All eyes would be on Normandy, including Nazi eyes; the Nazis did indeed fight savagely. You can see actual footage of the landing at the Smithsonian website–begin at 16:31. The first transport vessels approach the shore at 19:59 and all you can hear is cannon fire. At 21:34 you are inside one of them, and the faces of the men as they listen to the barrage they are about to enter are profoundly moving. One American chews gum, and the sense that he is consciously enjoying this innocent pleasure for the last time is hard to escape. The Nazis prepare. At 23:29, the first transports land.

If ever human beings fought for a noble cause, this was it. And Eisenhower’s message bring them on to victory is deeply stirring, But on June 7, we’ll post a different message from Eisenhower, that we find even more inspiring. Stay tuned.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Veterans’ Day 2018: In defence of liberty

Posted on November 12, 2018. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

This Veterans’ Day, we offer a photo from a high school in America that was embellished by students as a repudiation of a hate crime was committed at the school (in the form of swastikas, anti-Jewish and anti-gay slogans spray-painted on the walls one night).

The current students’ annotation of the WWI memorial on the front of their school was a just and fitting tribute to the students of 1916-1918 and what they fought for:

Defence of liberty close-up

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Should we ever compare modern situations to Hitler’s fascism?

Posted on November 9, 2018. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Good historians are extremely cautious about comparing problems–even very serious ones–to Nazism. Claiming that someone is “like Hitler” or “as bad as Hitler” cannot be done lightly. The enormity of the crimes committed by fascists in Europe before and during WWII is so overpowering that a slipshod or weak comparison diminishes both the horror of the Nazis and the credibility of the warning one is trying to raise in the present day.

So we were cautious when we heard about this short video by Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale, that’s been going around. But we feel it is on target, and so we link you to If you’re not scared about fascism in the U.S., you should be.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 9 so far )

Truth v. mythologizing the past

Posted on August 16, 2018. Filed under: Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We were reading an interview with Jason Stanley, who has a new book out called How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Of course when he mentioned truth v. myth, the HP’s bat senses were alerted:

Q: Anti-intellectualism has been present throughout much of American history. How is the kind of anti-intellectualism linked to fascist ideas different? Or is it the same?

A: Our suspicion of elites and what could be seen as anti-intellectualism can be healthy at times; we can see the American philosophical traditions of pragmatism and empiricism in this light, which can in fact serve as counterweights to the grandiose myths of fascist politics. But even this version has proven to be a weakness, one that makes us more susceptible to being manipulated politically. We have seen this play out in the case of climate change, where essentially apolitical scientists were successfully demonized as ideologues. We also have a history of what I think of as more classically fascist anti-intellectualism.

Fascist anti-intellectualism sets the traditions of the chosen nation, its dominant group, above all other traditions. It represents more complex narratives as corrupting and dangerous. It prizes mythologizing about the nation’s past, and erasing any of its problematic features (as we see all too often in histories of the Confederacy and the Reconstruction period, or of the treatment in history books of our indigenous communities). It seeks to replace truth with myth, transforming education systems into methods of glorifying the ideologies and heritage of the members of the traditional ruling class. In fascist politics, universities, which present a more complex and accurate version of history and current reality, are attacked for being places where dominant traditions or practices are critiqued. Fascist ideology centers loyalty to power rather than truth. In fascist thinking, the university is simply another tool to legitimate various illiberal hierarchies connected to historically dominant traditions.

If readers of the HP know anything, it’s that history is complex. That’s why we end up writing so many 12-part series on what seem like the simplest events. Anyone looking for a quick fix on the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon we all read in college or high school, or on the Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, or “Who was Anne Hutchinson?” will look in vain for the “short version,” the crux of the argument, in the first 3 or even 4 posts. A lot of context has to be set to make sense of that crux when it does come.

So while the words “Welcome to our series on…” may strike boredom or terror in the hearts of HP readers, we feel that in the end that careful and thorough setting up of a problem or question or person or event is necessary. That’s all we have to say here.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

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.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

The Restless Wave–a great excerpt

Posted on June 2, 2018. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , |

We’ve had our issues with John McCain over the years (see “Country first–but first” and “Bad History: John McCain as Holden Caulfield”) but we heard an excerpt from his new memoir, The Restless Wave, of one of the chapters he read as an audio book on the radio and we were stirred:

Before I leave, I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations. I’d like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different. We’re citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it. Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect, as so long as our character merits respect, and as long as we share for all our differences for all the rancorous debates that enliven and sometimes demean our politics, a mutual devotion to the ideals our nation was conceived to uphold that all are created equal and liberty and equal justice are the natural rights of all. Those rights inhabit the human heart, and from there though they may be assailed, they can never be wrenched. I want to urge Americans for as long as I can to remember that this shared devotion to human rights is our truest heritage and our most important loyalty.

That is advice we would like to see all Americans take to heart, as we do. There’s little we can add to this statement. Instead, we’ll be uncharacteristically short and close with one more quote from McCain:

Moral values are not conceptual artifacts, to be manipulated at will and imposed by fiat; they live and thrive in the midst of interconnected practices and historically validated norms.

In other words, that’s the hard work that makes America great, when it is great. Let’s all keep our shoulders to that wheel.

 

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Virtual visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Posted on May 29, 2018. Filed under: Civil Rights, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

There’s a great article on the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama that gives a full description and photos of this long-overdue addition to American memorials.

Known informally to most people as the lynching memorial, the NMPJ is part of an effort to officially commemorate and honor heroic actions of black Americans to gain their full civil rights as promised in the law. Here’s an excerpt of the article:

There are dozens of markers or monuments to the Confederacy in Montgomery, but it was not until the 1990s that the fuller picture of the state’s heritage was recognized, and even longer for some other Southern states.

“There was not a historic marker of where Rosa Parks was arrested,” says Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism. “There was not a historic marker where John Lewis was beaten up as one of the Freedom Riders.”

Alabama now markets its civil rights trail, and Montgomery embraces a complicated story that can be summed up on a downtown block that has the site of a slave market, the department store where Rosa Parks got on the bus, and the building where the telegram was sent to instruct Confederate troops to fire on Fort Sumter.

“You’re talking about two of the most significant movements in American history literally a block apart,” says Sentell.

But he says no attraction has taken the point of view visitors will encounter at the National Peace and Justice Memorial.

“Most museums are somewhat objective and benign,” Sentell says. “This one is not. This is aggressive, political. … It’s a part of American history that has never been addressed as much in your face as this story is being told.”

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

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.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )

« Previous Entries Next Entries »

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...