American history

What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Johnson’s We shall overcome speech

Posted on April 3, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV to the nation on March 15, 1965. In this post, we will begin our close reading of this pivotal declaration that America was founded on the promise of civil rights for all—if not immediately, then inexorably, as time passed, and we grew wiser and more powerful in our commitment to natural rights, human freedom, and an American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Let’s get right into it, as Johnson did that evening:

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.

I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.”

—Somehow the phrase “Members of the Congress” leaps out at us as more than a description of the House and Senate. We are all, as Americans, members of a congress that was and to a large extent still is unique in the world. We are a congress of nations and peoples joined together in a perpetual union as Americans. This is reiterated by Johnson’s description of us as being from “all religions and all colors, from every section”. To this Congress of Americans, Johnson speaks “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy”; the two are inseparable, one can’t live without the other. This is a message that some Americans have always and are still trying to shut down, but Johnson is putting it in the spotlight.

“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.”

Connecting—equating—the white policemen in Selma with the British regulars at Lexington and Concord and with the Confederate leadership at Appomattox was daring. Johnson is very clear here: the white police of Selma fought and killed Americans trying to exercise their rights and freedoms as Americans. There is no other way to define it. They were not protecting Southern society, or Southern womanhood, or keeping down violent blacks, or maintaining law and order, or upholding the law of the land, or any of the other justifications racial violence was so constantly wrapped in by its perpetrators.

“There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government—the Government of the greatest Nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.”

—The U.S. federal government has heard the cries of its people, and is about to come to their aid. Again, the idea of an American Congress made up not of a few hundred elected officials but of all American citizens, a “convocation of this great Government” is powerfully presented. Our great Government can be summoned into action by any of its people—not just whites. And that is because its mission is to take action to ensure justice, for all. When Johnson says that the mission of the U.S. federal government is the mission of the nation itself, the founding principle and demand placed on that government and on all Americans, he, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is making a powerful argument: it is not an attack on the U.S. to criticize it for failures to provide justice for all. It is a course correction. Equal rights for all races is not some foreign idea that a few people are trying to force into American government and society, it is the original basis for that government and society. The Founders intended that rights be extended to all, over time if not immediately. The history of America is one of extending rights: the right of black men to vote, then of women to vote, then of all people over 18 regardless of race, sex, or origin; the right of interracial couples to marry, then of gay couples to marry; the right of black children to attend schools with white children, and then of mentally challenged children to attend mainstream schools, and eventually of all children to attend public schools without being hampered—the list goes on. In the U.S., we extend rights, through trial and error and argument and sometimes ferocious antagonism, to more and more people. Because that is what this nation was founded to do. That is its mission.

So to demand equal civil rights for black Americans is not some disruptive, un-American demand that the nation abandon its identity and heritage and tradition. It is the usual, necessary texture of America itself. It is what Americans do, and only those who fight to restrict rights are un-American.

“In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For with a country as with a person, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

—It is Johnson speaking the words, Johnson who believed in them; Johnson who would dedicate himself to the civil rights movement, and Johnson who was willing to “betray” his southern identity by standing up for black Americans, but we must take a moment to express our thanks and gratitude to the man who wrote these magnificent words that gave Johnson a platform to stand on: presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin (husband of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; she also worked for President Johnson). Here, through Goodwin’s words, Johnson is saying that Cold War America may think its biggest problem or threat is Communism, especially in the growing war in Vietnam, but in reality, that threat is external. It does not “lay bare the secret heart of America itself”. Fighting Communism is just a way to stand up for stated American values of freedom. Fighting for civil rights, however, runs the risk of exposing our internal conflicts, our failures to live up to our ideals, our values of freedom, our inability to fully guarantee freedom at home even as we try to export it to the rest of the world. Fighting for civil rights takes the case off the watch so everyone can see the mechanisms inside that can become stuck or loose or rusty.

Civil rights is not about external threats, from Communism or an economic downturn, but about our internal health as a nation: are we who we are supposed to be? Because in the long-term, that internal health dictates our success and our national future. The greatest threat to our national security during the Cold War does not come from outside but from within. If we do not fight for civil rights, then we have no democracy to oppose Communism with. Fail to provide civil rights, and “we will have failed as a people and as a nation”, no matter what happens in Vietnam. We could, in fact, “gain the whole world” for democracy, winning the Cold War and stamping out Communism, and be in more danger than we were before, because we lost our own American soul by denying our own people their freedom. For a Cold War American president to say that fighting Communism was not the  most important thing Americans could do was astounding.

And then the magnificent, unequivocal statement: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” For centuries, black Americans had been treated as aliens by people and by our laws; they were not full citizens, not “real” Americans, and in demanding equal rights, black Americans were traitors who wanted to destroy the good society white Americans had built, one which gave black people a “place” in service to the superior race. Here Johnson, through the words of Goodwin, demolishes this lie. Blacks were not wrong to ask for equality, the problem is not some regional issue the rest of us don’t have to worry or care about, Northerners who journey South to join the fight are not traitorous instigators of a new civil war. There was murder in Selma a week earlier because Americans had yet to fully live up to their national mandate of freedom. Americans had failed, and Americans would find a solution—now.

“This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal”—“government by consent of the governed”—“give me liberty or give me death.” Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.”

—Just as the white police of Selma are comparable to British regulars during the Revolution, so the black Americans they attacked and killed are comparable with every white American who ever fought and died in the name of his country. Black Americans are guardians of American liberty—this is an astoundingly bold and honest statement of fact that no previous president had made since Lincoln. Even Truman and Eisenhower, the only presidents we could say made a real effort to end segregation, and men who were personally repulsed by racism, did not go this far. Black Americans had been treated as people we should pity and do favors for, out of the kindness of our hearts. Now they were the Minutemen who rode out to risk all to protect the rest of us who stayed home. They were the men in the statues erected in memory of heroes who gave their lives for liberty. Black Americans held the torch that white Americans had tried to blow out, and, failing that, had tried to hide away.

“Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being. To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.”

—Again, we are getting a radical revision of America, in which black Americans are the heroes whose memories we dare not dishonor, and the un-American way is to discriminate, the true Americans are black, and they are leading the way for the rest of us to follow.

Lyndon Johnson was not an attractive man. He was, in 1965, still seen by many Americans as a pale substitute for the man he replaced in office. His voice was a little grating, and he did not modulate his rather hectoring tone or his Texas accent. (And this at a time when wealthy Americans still faked a semi-English accent as a sign of their sophistication–watch any movie from the 1940s or 50s.) He couldn’t stand in front of the nation and assume its good will. He couldn’t assume they would be won over by his charm or his popularity. He could, on the other hand, assume that his Southern allies in Congress and in state governments would be infuriated by this speech and feel personally betrayed and attacked by an erstwhile comrade. Whatever popularity Johnson did have was in the South, and that was potentially evaporating by the sentence as he spoke on March 15.

Yet Johnson forged ahead, and we will too, continuing our close reading in the next post.

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

Federalists and Anti-Federalists: which one really wanted a Union?

Posted on February 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution. Last time, we looked at the Federalists’ conception of national security and how it demanded a strong centralized government with unlimited power of taxation. Here, we look at the Anti-Federalist reaction to this vision, and how it led, oddly, to accusations on both sides that the other side did not really want a United States.

The Federalists had the obvious position: the Anti-Federalists’ insistence on sovereign states wielding state militia to defend themselves was, the Federalists insisted, a clear sign that the Anti-Federalists did not really want a union. They weren’t really committed to joining together with other states to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. What the Anti-Federalists really wanted, said the Federalists, was for each state to eventually go its own way and exist as an independent republic.

The Anti-Federalists’ accusation of disunion was more subtle: in their insistence on a national security state, the Federalists themselves undermined the idea of a union by taking away citizens’ rights in the name of defense. The Federalists would tax indiscriminately, and likely impose other burdens impossible to even think of at the present time, and take away all the freedoms and all the political participation of citizens that define a republic. The Federalists would create an oligarchy in all but name.

In their argument, the Anti-Federalists were touching on an issue that actually worried the Federalists, too: republics in history had always been very small. They had to be small, reasoning went, because everyone had to be able to participate, and if you had a huge population that would be impossible (what building could hold them all in a Congress?) and if you had a large geographic footprint that would also be impossible (you would be forced to impose a random central point where the government would exist that would necessarily be far away from most of the people). The United States already had the huge footprint—just the 13 states together were much larger than any previous republic, or any previous kingdom, for that matter—and the population was bound to grow to match it. Even the individual states, as Federalist Alexander Hamilton pointed out, were already each much larger than any previous republic. Only Rhode Island was close to the small size necessary for republican government. Every other state in the Union would have to be broken up into smaller states to be true republics.

This endless splintering would spell the end of trying to create a Union. The component pieces would be so small they would feel no need to give up their government to someone else, and would only create treaties with neighboring states, for trade or for mutual protection. And if there were 39 states in the geographic area that had been occupied by just 13 states, what would happen as the U.S. expanded across the continent? You would end up with hundreds, even thousands of states, and no federal government could hold all their delegates.

While this argument made the Anti-Federalists doubt whether Union could or should be attempted, it galvanized the Federalists to argue for something that has become familiar to us today, but was new then: American exceptionalism. The United States was not like a republic of the distant past, they said. The U.S. is not ancient Greece. The U.S. is a modern republic, and it can make its own rules—it can update the definition of republic, or even redefine it. Look at those past republics, Hamilton and Madison said: they all failed. They didn’t even last very long. So why are we supposed to follow their rules? America is all about new ideas, new ways of doing things. Look at our Declaration of Independence, they said; it is the first of its kind. We are creating a new government from scratch to meet new conditions and new possibilities, in a new world of modern Enlightenment ideas. Why should we be bound by Iron Age thinking?

The Federalists acknowledged that there would be trial and error in this approach, but they made the case that the rewards were worth the risk. Let’s bind a huge landmass into a republic, they said, and find a way to represent all the people and give them an active political role nationally and locally. Let’s expand to fill this North American continent and still remain a republic. Let’s become a republic of millions. Let’s redefine what it means to be a republic, and make a new government for a new time and place.

This was an exciting argument for many Americans, but it smacked of recklessness to others. It also failed to satisfy the questions about national security—what was so new and exceptional about a government with unlimited power to tax its subjects? Isn’t that the definition of a monarchy, or a dictatorship? And what are our guarantees that a central government with that kind of power won’t unilaterally change the Constitution that gives the citizens their rights? In the end, are we re-defining republicanism, or abandoning it?

Next time, we’ll see how prescient the Anti-Federalists were about that.

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

The Federalists on Unlimited National Security

Posted on January 29, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Welcome to part 3 of our series on the Federalist debates; here we see how the men who supported the new constitution answered the Anti-Federalists’ concern that the strong federal government proposed by that document would degrade the republican virtue of American citizens by weakening local government, which they could take a more active, immediate role in. The Anti-Federalists made a passionate case that corruption would follow the distancing of government from the people, and challenged the Federalists to prove them wrong.

The Federalists replied by completely ignoring the whole argument as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Their response focused on foreign policy and national security. A strong central government was absolutely essential to national security, they said—there’s no point worrying about domestic citizen virtue if the United States has been destroyed by a weak foreign policy and national defense. To survive in the world, the US had to be able to negotiate treaties in good faith; other nations had to believe the US would obey international law and live up to the terms of those treaties. For that to happen, the US had to have a strong federal government that could make sure the states lived up to the terms of the treaties. Without this mechanism for good faith negotiating, the US would open itself to invasion and dissolution.

This was no imaginary scenario in 1787. Even as the Federalist debates raged, the US was in violation of its treaty with Britain ending the Revolutionary War. In that treaty, the US had agreed to either return property seized from Loyalists during the war or reimburse those Loyalists for their losses. That was not happening, because state governments were not enforcing those terms, and that was the stated reason why Britain was not removing its army from the western frontier as it had promised to do. The US had also signed a treaty with Spain promising to keep US citizens east of the Mississippi River, out of the lands that would one day be the Louisiana Purchase but were in 1787 Spanish territory. Americans were moving into the regions that would become the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky—pressing right up to the Spanish border, and clearly intending to cross it. That could provoke a war with Spain in the west, which could activate a war with Britain in the west as well, and both countries could sweep east and divide up the nascent US between them and that would be that.

We have to have a strong federal government, said the Federalists, to enforce international treaties, deal with foreign powers to avoid war, and to organize a national defense if war cannot be avoided. A strong central government protecting the states will deter other nations from attacking individual states to pull the US apart piece by piece. Of course, the “government” itself wouldn’t fight a war: the government would have to raise a standing army.

This was political dynamite to many Americans in 1787. Getting the British standing army out of America had been a major war aim, and most Americans saw a standing army—an army maintained during peacetime—as a tool of tyranny. What government would resist using its army to keep the populace down, intimidate people, and prevent them from criticizing the government? And who would pay for it—the states? They were already maintaining their state militias; why add the expense of funding a national army? Why couldn’t the US fight any future war the way it fought the Revolutionary War, by sending states militia to join together in one army until the war was over, then to return to their states? When the Federalists added that the US would also have to have a strong navy, the call only confirmed suspicions that these forces would be used to tyrannize over the people, not protect the nation.

The standing army and navy also represented another problem: clearly, to create and maintain these armed forces, the federal government would have to tax the states. The Federalists did not mince words here. They said that the federal government must not only tax the states, but have an unlimited power of taxation.

Remember that under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government could ask the states for money, but could not levy a tax the states were required to pay. Remember also from part 2 of our series that the Anti-Federalists had criticized the idea of the federal government ever levying a tax, and made only the small concession that if a war came up the federal government could ask the states for money to fight it (without a guarantee that the states would pay it; they would, in fact, most likely have refused to pay it, focusing instead on beefing up their individual state defenses/militias). If the Constitution was adopted, that would radically change to allow the federal government to enforce any tax it liked in the name of national security.

The Anti-Federalist writing under the name “Brutus” (we do not know who this was) stated in his/her 8th essay:

“These powers taken in connection, amount to this: that the general government have unlimited authority and control over all the wealth and all the force of the union. The advocates for this scheme, would favor the world with a new discovery, if they would show, what kind of freedom or independency is left to the state governments, when they cannot command any part of the property or of the force of the country, but at the will of the Congress.”

Alexander Hamilton, rather than dissemble, agreed heartily. Yes, he said, the federal government will have unlimited authority over the “force” of the union, and over its wealth when it comes to preserving that union. In Federalist Paper 23, he said that because we cannot predict the future, and know what threats we may face, we have to be ready to face anything, and that means being ready to pay anything (all capitals are his, not ours):

“These powers ought to exist without limitation, BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances; and ought to be under the direction of the same councils which are appointed to preside over the common defense. … And unless it can be shown that the circumstances which may affect the public safety are reducible within certain determinate limits; unless the contrary of this position can be fairly and rationally disputed, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority which is to provide for the defense and protection of the community, in any matter essential to its efficacy that is, in any matter essential to the FORMATION, DIRECTION, or SUPPORT of the NATIONAL FORCES.”

If the threats we face as a nation are “infinite”, then our capacity to respond to those threats must also be infinite. You can’t say, We’ll allow the federal government to tax the states to raise $100K for national defense in 1788 because that’s how much we needed in 1787. You can’t even say, let’s double it to $200K just in case. You cannot ever put a limit on the power of the government to tax the states to defend the nation because then you run the risk that what you need is $700 million, and you only have $200K.

This seemed preposterous to most Americans. How could so unexpected a threat arise? What on earth was going to change to make such huge amounts necessary?

In Federalist Paper 34, Hamilton answered this by saying, I don’t know. Who knows? Who can know the future? Who can say what unimaginable threats might arise in 50 or 100 years? You have to remember, Hamilton said, that we are talking about how the US government will function not just in our lifetimes, but for hundreds or even thousands of years:

In pursuing this inquiry, we must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages, according to the natural and tried course of human affairs. Nothing, therefore, can be more fallacious than to infer the extent of any power, proper to be lodged in the national government, from an estimate of its immediate necessities. There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity. In framing a government for posterity as well as ourselves, we ought, in those provisions which are designed to be permanent, to calculate, not on temporary, but on permanent causes of expense.

That is, the federal government must have the “capacity” to expand its expenditures when necessary, with no set limits. You can’t limit the government of 2014 to a certain amount of taxation because that’s what worked in 1787; we know, Hamilton says, that what works in 1787 is not going to work in 2014—it just can’t. Change is constant, and we can’t handcuff the federal government by forcing it to remain in 1787 as time marches on. We also can’t force the federal government to beg the states to approve each and every change it needs to stay current, or risk the states refusing that approval.

This Federalist argument is very much alive today. The federal government has defended NSA surveillance on the basis of anticipating threats we can’t even imagine. Some Americans believe that national security should trump personal privacy and liberty; others argue that the federal government should have to justify its actions and expenses to the public. For some Americans, no expense is too much if it is spent to protect the nation from threats real or imagined; others demand oversight of national security expenditures. Hamilton was prescient in his understanding that the definition of “threat” could change beyond all rational expectation. Whether he was right in saying the federal government must have the freedom and power to meet those threats by any means necessary is still a question in the United States today.

Next time we’ll see how this argument led to charges of trying to destroy the union being made by both sides.

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

Virtuous Republicanism and the Federalist Debates

Posted on January 21, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

In part 2 of our series on the Federalist debates, we look at the pros and cons of a strong federal government as argued at the time.

The Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government local. They did not want to change the sections of the Articles of Confederation that gave power to state governments and relegated the federal government to handling defense and foreign relations. That is, they wanted a confederation, not a union, of sovereign states that decided on their own whether they would heed calls from the federal government for taxation, or a military call-up, or a foreign treaty, etc. For instance, as we’ll see later in this series, when Alexander Hamilton proposed that the federal government must have the right to tax the states, unilaterally, in time of war, the Anti-Federalist response was to say, why not have the federal government go to the states when it felt it needed to raise money for war and the states would vote on whether to pay it. To us today that seems unworkable at best, crazy at worst, but it is clearly grounded in English law: the monarch had to go to Parliament to ask it to levy a tax to fight a war. This was a check on the monarch’s power meant to keep a monarch from bankrupting the kingdom in endless or losing wars. Parliament decided whether it would grant the money or not, considering whether the tax was in the best interest of the people. On the other hand, it was the breakdown of this system that had led to the English Civil War in 1642.

It’s obvious that the Anti-Federalists were worried that a strong federal government would begin to tyrannize over the states, as the British government in London had tyrannized its American colonies. But that British tyranny was just a symptom of a larger problem to the Anti-Federalists: the loss of virtuous republicanism.

Enlightenment political theorists described a successful republic as fueled by the private virtue of its citizens. Serving the state selflessly, devoting one’s energies to ensuring that the state fulfilled the common good, was an end in itself in the ideal/successful republic. All republics in history had failed, said the theorists, because civic virtue broke down—corrupted by power, or weakened by lazy inactivity. Of all the types of government, republicanism alone depended on the dedication of its citizens to the greater good and virtue as an end in itself.

This kind of republican virtue could only exist locally, according to the Anti-Federalists. When do people care about government? When they own it. When local people in local bodies make local rules, when you know your representatives and live next door to them and do business with them, then government is honest and effective, because it is truly representative, and any participant who goes against the common good is quickly voted out of office. State governments run by locally elected reps who live among their constituents can’t go wrong, especially in America, where the common people had proved their great republican virtue during the Revolutionary War by keeping their elected governments running and their local militias fighting.

The chances of local state governments remaining uncorrupted were made even greater by the fact that state reps would be elected by, and would mostly be themselves, farmers. Thomas Jefferson is the most famous of the advocates of the virtue of the yeoman farmer. A romanticized view of men who were “close to the land, close to God” was very popular during the Federal period, and continues on to a certain extent to the present day. To quote just one of Jefferson’s typical effusions:

“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”

(How a man who saw most farming done by enslaved men and women whom he described as incapable of virtue could wax so poetically so often is a riddle.) At any rate, farmers were seen as the polar opposites of bankers and businessmen: farmers did not make their money off of other people, did not get rich collecting interest on debt, etc. Farmers made an honest living working the land. Therefore, farmers should be the heart and soul of local government. Of course, in the late 1700s, the American economy was predominately agricultural, and most people were farmers, so to have a government run by farmers was not only possible, but natural, and truly representative.

To remove government from the states to a federal government, no matter how centrally located, was to strike a blow against republican virtue. Reps sent to that distant national capital would be necessarily distanced from their constituents, and lose touch with them. Local interests in one state would have to fight with the local interests of another state in the capital. State needs could be overruled by cooked-up “national needs”. Traveling to and from the capital, in an era when the nation had few good roads, meant reps would be on the road or in the capital most of the time, not living amongst their constituents. Farmers would not be able to be away from their farms for months at a time to do this, so citizens might stop electing farmers, people like them, and start electing urban businessmen who could wheel and deal more effectively, but, as a result of that, politics would become sleazy. And, crucially, local needs and local focus would take a back seat to national needs and national focus, which impinged on the sovereignty of the states—when you focus on national laws and taxes, you prioritize the national over the state/local, and the states become cogs in a machine rather than separate political entities. As the nation grew, any capital, no matter how centrally placed in 1787, would become distant and out of touch with its far-flung state citizens, and then tyranny inevitably beckoned.

Again, we recognize here an argument that has never died out of American politics. “Washington insiders” are “out of touch” with “the American people”, “Wall Street” tyrannizes over “Main Street”, and the world “outside the Beltway” has nothing in common with the world inside it. “Big government” is ruining the nation, and government itself “is the problem”. We still even like to idealize farmers, at least in produce and truck commercials. And the push to weaken the federal government and return more power and sovereignty to the states has been going strong since the 1980s.

But the belief that state governments, because they are smaller than the federal government, cannot become corrupt was strange in 1787 and it remains strange today. Power corrupts, and any entity given power runs the risk of corruption. We see corruption at all levels of our government, from city halls to state legislatures. If the federal government were wiped away tomorrow, and the states ran everything, local corruption levels would rise commensurately. Mayoral elections in cities large and small are generally characterized by claims that the candidates do not reflect or represent the people; the same thing happens in elections for state government and governorships. Our population is too diverse for any one person, to fully represent all her/his constituents. And gerrymandering and redistricting efforts make sure that no group of legislators can accurately represent the people of their state.

Yet that is exactly why we can’t completely discount the Anti-Federalists’ desire to pin government to citizen virtue. If everyone felt they really had ownership in their local government, they would work harder to safeguard that government. They would vote, and run for office, and insist on reps who really represented them. A representative democracy like ours is a rarity in the world; only a relative handful of nations really have truly representative democracies. And it does rely on its citizens’ virtue: they have to really believe in life, liberty, and justice for all, and be ready to put their fortunes and even their lives on the line for it. Our current federal government, as well as our state governments, work well only when stocked by people who have that kind of virtue.The Anti-Federalists were right to insist on this.

So how did the Federalists answer these domestic concerns? Find out next time.

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

Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and the Debate over the Constitution

Posted on January 16, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to our series on the Federalist debates. We have to admit that this is a topic we’ve avoided for a long time here on the HP; somehow these impassioned, immediate debates over the very nature of our founding principles, carried out with and for the general public, have failed to capture the imagination. Part of this, perhaps, is because the Federalist debates are one of the worst-taught areas of U.S. history in American schools. You’re told there was a debate over whether to have a strong federal government, the Anti-Federalists are represented as idiots fighting an obviously good idea, and you’re sat down to read a laboriously expressed Federalist Paper or two, and that’s that. The debates seem pointless, and the Papers seem unreadable.

The debates weren’t pointless, however, and the Anti-Federalists weren’t idiots. The Papers can be dense: classical references; long, semi-historical digressions; sentences that are a full paragraph long, using more semi-colons than even the HP would dare. But generally when they have a point to make they hammer it home with minimal rhetoric and maximum good sense. So we’re going to quote from some of the Papers in this series, to make our own points. (We are also indebted to the powerhouse lectures on the Federalist debates of Dr. Thomas Pangle, UT Austin, for the flow of our series.)

We do this because Americans in the 21st century are still having the Federalist debates. The questions the anti-Federalists raised are still valid today, and not just for that minority of Americans who want to dismantle the federal government completely. The questions the anti-Federalists raised, and the answers the Federalists gave, are eerily modern, and the most eerie part is that Federalists like Hamilton explicitly stated in 1787 that they were thinking forward hundreds of years, trying in vain to fully anticipate the problems the nation would face centuries after them, and trying to build in protections for the government and liberties for the people to preserve freedom in the face of threats they could not even imagine. As Hamilton put it, in Papers 23 and 34 (the capital letters are his, not ours):

“IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances… We must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages… There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity.”

These remarkable statements not only anticipate cyber-age threats no one could have dreamed of even 40 years ago, let alone 227 years ago; they also describe an argument about government power that is whipsawing American society today as we face the reality of NSA surveillance.

But that’s leaping ahead. Let’s start this series with a quick update to refresh the collective memory:

The Articles of Confederation adopted during the Revolutionary War by the Continental Congress established, as the name says, a confederacy: a league of friendship between sovereign political entities—in this case, the 13 states. The federal government, which consisted of a single-house Congress, did not impinge on the sovereignty of these states very much: it was authorized to handle foreign policy, national defense, disputes between states, interstate commerce, and legislating for new territories under U.S. control but not yet organized into states.

There was general concern that the states were headed for disputes that the weak federal government would not be able to resolve. Populist state governments were making zealous proclamations/warnings about maintaining their sovereignty, and it seemed increasingly likely that if the U.S. did face an external threat, like war with Britain or Spain, the federal government would be powerless to stop each individual state from going its own way—making separate peace treaties, or joining blocs of states that followed different policies, or refusing to pay federal taxes needed to levy an army in favor of prepping its own militia to defend its own borders and nothing else.

James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York were the main leaders of a convention called to revise and edit the Articles of Confederation in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. The delegates to the convention met in secret, which worried many Americans, who were afraid they would make and pass substantial changes to the government without public input, and present the new Articles as a done deal after the fact. Those fears were realized in part when the delegates decided not to revise the Articles but to scrap them completely and write a new document. But fears that the new document would be railroaded through were not realized.

This is one of the amazing facts about the Constitution: the finished document was not referred back to the existing Congress for approval (many Americans think that members of Congress met at the convention, but while some delegates were also members of Congress, most were not; they were specially appointed by their states to go to the convention). The new Constitution was also not sent to the state governments for ratification. Instead, the proposed Constitution was sent directly to special conventions set up in each state and made up of delegates elected directly by the people. The Founders’ faith in the people, and their dedication to creating a republic where the people ruled, was unprecedented in western history. As the first Federalist Paper put it:

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”

In other words, the American people will decide what system of government they will have because they have earned that right, “by their conduct and example”. A people so devoted to liberty, as proved by their conduct in fighting the Revolutionary War, must be “capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”

And so the debates in the special conventions began, and the Anti-Federalists and Federalists began their writing campaign to instruct and sway the people. The Federalist Papers, as well as the many documents written by the Anti-Federalists (they have no one unifying name) were published in newspapers and broadsides from October 1787 through August 1788, as the state ratifying conventions met, to educate the people about the issues at stake so they could influence their state conventions. It was a remarkable campaign on both sides to impact a vote not with lies, scandal, rumors, or personal attacks, but with logic, reason, examples, and thoughtful questions. Passions ran high, to be sure, but the passion was for the truth, and the best form of government, not for personal or party gain.

We won’t address every issue canvassed during the campaign to ratify or reject the Constitution, but we will look at those which are most pertinent to us today, in our “remote futurity”, so that we can call upon the Founders once again to help us decide our important issues of good government.

Next time: the pros and cons of big government

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

Happy New Year! 2014 and a history of New Year’s Eve in Times Square

Posted on January 2, 2014. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , |

Welcome to another year!

We at the HP can’t take credit for any original research on this post, but happily pass along the history of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square, New York from the people who give the location its name–the New York Times. Click here and scroll down for a wonderful video history.

(And note that the proprietors of the former site of New Year’s Eve in the city, Trinity Church, were happy to see the party move uptown because it was too raucous and violent—the same complaint the Massachusetts Puritans had about holidays in general 300 years earlier.)

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

Christmas in Puritan New England, or not

Posted on December 19, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America | Tags: , , , , |

In December we think of Christmas and the ever-evolving forms of celebration of that holiday in America. And being the HP, we think of the very long period over which Christmas was not celebrated in New England.

The Separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans, the two English groups who settled what is now New England, did not celebrate Christmas because they did not celebrate any holidays, because they believed that every day was given by God, and so every day was holy. It was humans who picked and chose certain days to be better than the rest, thus impugning God’s holy creation by identifying some days as unimportant and boring. Holidays were the creation of humans, not God, and an insult to God in more ways than one: not only was the creation of holidays a disparagement of other days, but the usual form of celebrating holidays in England was a disparagement of morality. Religious holidays in Europe were times of drunkenness, gaming, gambling, dancing, and licentiousness, and as a major Christian holiday, Christmas involved high levels of all these things—let’s just say there were a lot of babies born the next September. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas,” wrote the reformist Bishop of Worcester Hugh Latimer in the mid-1500s, “than in all the 12 months besides.”

While they lived in England, the Pilgrims and the Puritans withdrew from Christmas celebrations, conspicuous by their absence from the raucous partying in the streets. When they removed to America, both groups took great pleasure in putting an end to the observance of holidays, Christmas in particular. Both groups observed many special days, either of thanksgiving or fasting. When something particularly good happened, a thanksgiving was held. This involved a church service and then a special dinner at home or in groups (see Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving for more). When danger threatened, or something bad happened, a fast was held. This involved a day of church services preceded by fasting, which meant not eating and even refraining from sex the night before. (Puritans knew that nothing humbled people like hunger and celibacy.) No other special days were observed.

So December 25 was just like any other day for the Pilgrims and Puritans. If it was a Sunday, you’d go to church and perhaps hear a sermon that referenced Jesus’ birth. If it was a Tuesday, you got up and went to work as usual. In Plimoth, where the Separatist Pilgrims were outnumbered by unreformed Anglicans, Governor Bradford had a hard time stopping the Anglicans from celebrating Christmas. The Anglicans would not learn from the example of the Separatists, who were hard at work on Christmas day 1621. Here is Bradford’s good-humored account of a run-in he had with unreformed celebrants that day (he refers to himself in the third person here as “the Governor”):

“And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth than of weight. One the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, as was used. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of [Christmas a] matter of devotion, let them keep [to] their houses, but there should be no gaming or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly.” [Of Plymouth Plantation, 107]

When the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed the Pilgrim Plimoth Colony into itself, and Massachusetts came under direct royal control in 1681 (losing its political independence), the Anglican governor assigned to the colony brought back Christmas celebrations. In 1686, when King James II created the Dominion of New England, composed of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and East and West Jersey, and designed specifically to destroy Puritan political independence and religious identity, the royal governor James chose, Edmund Andros, was bitterly resented by all his new subjects. When Andros went to church to celebrate Christmas in Boston in 1686 he needed an armed escort to protect him.

Now Christmas was associated with royal dictatorship and all the grief of the Dominion, and the people of New England and especially Massachusetts continued to boycott the holiday well into the 18th century. When the Revolutionary War began, Christmas boycotts rose in popularity as the day was again tied to royal control and tyranny. After the war, Congress met on Christmas Day, businesses were open, and while private celebrations were not uncommon, there was no official recognition of Christmas in New England. In fact, no state recognized Christmas as an official holiday until Alabama took the plunge in 1836. President Grant made it a federal holiday in 1870, and that was about the time that New England at last gave up the remnants of its ancient resistance. (Readers of Little Women, which Louisa May Alcott began to write in Concord, MA in 1868, will remember that while the Marches celebrate Christmas with gusto as well as reverence, Amy March is able to go to a store first thing Christmas morning to exchange a gift, revealing that Christmas was still a day of business in Massachusetts at that late date.)

It’s ironic, given this history, that the winter scenes created by Massachusetts-based lithographers Currier and Ives became the template for “a traditional New England Christmas” in the 1870s, complete with one-horse open sleighs and jingle bells. Sleigh rides, roasting chestnuts, spiced apple cider—all these Christmas traditions originated in New England, but they were not specific to Christmas when New Englanders enjoyed them in the 18th century. They were just part of winter. Even the “traditional” white Christmas relies on a cold northern winter, a defining characteristic of the region.

Today, there are still branches of Protestantism that look down on “the observance of days”, and urge that all days be seen as equally holy and important. But Christmas is here to stay… for the foreseeable future, anyway.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )

TLC’s Who do you think you are; or, where were you in high school history class?

Posted on August 27, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil War, Historians | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We’ve been watching the TLC series Who do you think you are?, which answers family history questions for different celebrities. Chelsea Handler was able to put the fear that her maternal grandfather had been a Nazi to rest, Chris O’Donnell found out he had ancestors serving in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Zooey Deschanel learned about her Quaker ancestress’ involvement with the Underground Railroad, etc.

We were alarmed by the big holes in the story of Christina Applegate’s paternal grandmother, where data written on documents shown on screen was ignored to provide a comforting version of her family history. No self-respecting genealogist would have signed off on that episode. But more upsetting to the historian were the O’Donnell and Deschanel segments, where the celebrities in question displayed an astounding ignorance about some very basic moments in U.S. history.

Chris O’Donnell’s pride in his ancestor serving in the Mexican War was misplaced, as it was a war of naked aggression and conquest against Mexico, but we will let that go (see our series of posts on that war here). A quote from The LIberator from February 1847 on that war will do for now: “…the present war is offensive in essence. As such it loses all shadow of title to respect. The acts of courage and hardihood which in a just cause might excite regard, when performed in an unrighteous cause, have no quality that can command them to virtuous sympathy.”

Moving on to O’Donnell’s ancestor in the War of 1812, we learn with him that said ancestor was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore (see our article detailing the battle there). As the public historian at the fort tells O’Donnell that his ancestor manned the cannon that quickly became useless against the British ships and their long-range missiles, and how night fell as the ships continued their bombardment of the fort, O’Donnell remains completely unaware that this is the battle commemorated in the National Anthem—that this was the “perilous fight” that had “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. The historian finally has to tell him this is the battle, and O’Donnell seems completely astounded.

There were those in our viewing group who believe he was told to feign ignorance so the television audience could learn it along with him, but we remain doubtful of this.

Moving on to Zooey Deschanel, we will also let pass the idea promoted by the show that Quakers were always abolitionists, and the first religious denomination to reject slavery in America—the Baptists were early abolitionists in the 17th century, though Virginia Baptists would do a 180 after the Revolutionary War. Methodists were also abolitionists, and many southern Quakers were slaveholders. It was not until 1776 that the Quakers banned slaveholding within their denomination.

The real problem here is that Deschanel had either never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law, or is a great actress who made it seem like she had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law. As most of us know, the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest move of proslavery forces to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to enslave free black Americans, and encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. The Fugitive Slave Law attacked the liberties of black Americans and white Northerners, and was the most galling example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government to antislavery whites and even the professedly neutral.

We learn about the FSL when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union. This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced to help slavecatchers or be fined and jailed. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had not previously taken a stand on slavery.

So the Fugitive Slave Law is famous and important, and it’s very hard to believe that someone would not know anything about it today, would not have even a vague recollection of learning about it, or just recognize the name. This reminds us that Kelly Clarkson had no idea what Andersonville prison was during the Civil War, and was shocked to learn about the brutal conditions there.

These are not obscure little corners of U.S. history; the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Andersonville are major turning points in our national history. Only two men were executed for their role in the Civil War, and one of them was Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville. We sing about Fort McHenry before every sports event. We can only hope that viewers of Who do you think you are? have a better understanding of their history than its subjects do.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 5 so far )

DOMA ruling overturned 2013

Posted on July 12, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. The majority opinion reads in part:

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

It’s actually not the clearest of statements: we’d parse it as “the federal law is invalid because it tried to disparage and injure gay Americans living in states that legalized gay marriage. Those states said gay married couples had the same personhood and dignity as straight married couples. DOMA tried to displace this protection, thus violating the Fifth Amendment.”

The Fifth Amendment ensures all U.S. citizens equal protection under the law. So if a state legalizes gay marriage, that means gay marriage has the same protected status as straight marriage.

DOMA, a 1996 law, “defended” marriage by saying even if you were legally married in your state, as a gay person you were not allowed federal benefits that straight married people received, from tax exemptions to being able to receive Social Security payments when widowed to Family and Medical Leave to care for a family member. DOMA joins other examples of discrimination enshrined as law in U.S. history, taking its shameful place with Plessy v. Ferguson, the Chinese Exclusion Acts, the Indian Removal Act, and others. Conservative politicians who decried “big government” and sought to strip the federal government of every power suddenly rushed to pass a federal law making gay marriage second-class marriage. Marriage laws had always been the exclusive domain of the states, but as states began to legalize marriage for gay Americans, these politicians had a change of heart regarding big federal government and pushed DOMA through to “defend” “normal” marriage.

As is usually the case in the U.S., a radical minority got their way through activism, but in doing so aroused the suspicion and then resentment of the majority of Americans, who saw that the principles of liberty and justice for all were being overthrown. Many married gay people took their protests to local courts, and appealed up the hierarchy until at last one reached the Supreme Court, where justice was done.

Not everyone was pleased. Predictably, Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, on dubious and irritating grounds:

“In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s Court can handle. Too bad. …the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better.”

The truth is indeed more complicated than describing DOMA supporters as “hating their neighbor”. Many DOMA supporters act out of fear and ignorance rather than hate. But fear and ignorance open a wide door for hate, and that’s the problem with choosing to sympathize more with the fearful and ignorant rather than the supporters of blind justice.

Scalia went on to say that the Constitution “neither requires nor forbids our society to approve of same-sex marriage, much as it neither requires nor forbids us to approve of no-fault divorce, polygamy, or the consumption of alcohol.” The majority’s opinion, he wrote, declares “open season on any law that (in the opinion of the law’s opponents and any panel of like-minded federal judges) can be characterized as mean-spirited.”

This is beyond specious, and we have a feeling Justice Scalia is well-aware of that. No, the original Constitution does not require or forbid us to approve of same-sex marriage, just as it does not require us to make a judgment on slavery, racial segregation, or the collection of federal income tax. The Constitution does not address specific items like this; it provides a general framework of justice and equal opportunity that we are allowed to amend as particular cases come up that challenge that framework. The Constitution does not ask anyone to “approve” of anything. It asks U.S. citizens to uphold the founding principles of this nation, applying those general principles as described in the Constitution to whatever specific cases may arise in our own times. Perhaps there are Americans who would have described “whites only” and “coloreds only” facilities not as unjust but as “mean-spirited”. Those people would never have brought Brown v. Board to court. It’s those Americans who saw racial segregation as a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment who brought that case, and it’s the same type of American who brought the DOMA case—Americans who want being American to mean something; to represent a high standard of justice.

Scalia almost approaches a justifiable complaint in one way: many news commentators we heard reporting this case claimed that public opinion, having swung so profoundly from homophobia to support or at least acceptance of homosexuality, must have an impact on the Justices’ decision. This is untrue, and a very un-American attitude. As we point out in many posts, notably “The judiciary saves us from the tyranny of the majority”, the Courts are supposed to ignore public opinion. If they did not, we would most likely not be enjoying Brown v. Board and other Supreme Court rulings that went against prejudiced majority opinion. Most Americans were not completely supportive of Miranda v. Arizona—why should someone the police “know” committed a crime be allowed to have a lawyer present before they are questioned? Most Americans did not support Tinker v. Des Moines—why should kids in public schools be allowed to wear political protest items of clothing? Majority opinion is not meant to be a guide for the courts because the majority often tyrannize the minority, depriving them of their civil rights simply because they can. The courts protect that minority population of Americans who want women to be able to vote, schools to be desegregated, or poll taxes and other barriers to voting to be abolished.

Once the minority wins out in the name of justice, the majority usually goes along within a generation or two, and we have an improved nation. In Windsor v. United States, the June 2013 case ending DOMA, we may have less of a hill to climb in that respect. For now, we can all take pride in our system and let this case remind us that while our journey toward upholding our founding principles is never on a clear upward trajectory, and rulings like the one striking down the key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also delivered June 2013, will happen, we must remain determined to keep fighting for justice. We, like Edith Windsor, must maintain our confidence that in the United States, justice will eventually be done—or else it won’t be.

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

Henry VIII v. Wikipedia

Posted on June 12, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

We notice, as historians, that certain popular stories about historical figures are repeated in textbooks and other learning material even though they are untrue. The most glaring example we can think of at the moment is not from American history, but it’s illustrative: almost any resource you read will say that when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, he renounced the Catholic Church and became a Protestant, and this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England.

We are exposed to this story frequently as scholars of the English Puritans. The truth is that Henry remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life, persecuted Protestants, and rejected the Reformation. What really happened was that Henry made himself the head of the Catholic Church in England (not the head of a new Protestant Church), putting himself in place of the Pope. The English monarch was now the head of the Catholic Church in England, and this is why it was so dangerous to be a Protestant during Henry’s reign—to reject Catholicism was not just a religious act but a political one. It was to reject the authority of the king, and as such Protestantism was treason, and punishable not just by excommunication but by death.

Protestants would labor in secret during Henry’s reign to sway the Church of England toward Reformation, and under Henry’s successor Edward VI, who actually was a Protestant, and a fanatical one, the C of E did become Protestant. But under his successor, Mary I, a fanatical Catholic,  the C of E returned to the authority of the Pope, and Protestants were notoriously persecuted. Mary’s successor Elizabeth I maintained a middle ground, making the English Church the mix of Catholic and Protestant practice that it remains today, and after the brief experiment of Puritan rule under Cromwell, the Anglican Church was set to remain a Protestant sect with many lingering Catholic elements.

But all that is less clear-cut and dramatic than saying Henry VIII was mad at the Pope and so he became a Protestant. It’s also easy to blur things unintentionally, as the BBC website does when it says “His break with the papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the Reformation.” Yes, the break with Rome gave English Protestants hopes that the Catholic Church in England would be reformed, and paved the way for Henry’s son Edward to receive a humanist, Protestant education (carefully hidden from Henry), and for Elizabeth to one day enact a gentle shift to middle-ground Protestantism that would be challenged once more during the English Civil War but restored under Charles II and, after one last threat from James II, securely established… but that long string of events stretching  from the 1534 to 1688 is not the story you get from the line “Henry began the Protestant Reformation.”  Most resources sum up the long story as “Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church to get a divorce.”

So a general consensus is built by people who have not devoted time to studying the English Reformation that Henry was a Protestant. This view becomes so well-known that it is repeated in many venues, including history materials meant to teach students about English history. That’s the problem with an uninformed consensus—it creates stories so well-known that when you point out that a story is wrong, you are the one who seems crazy. As editors of history materials, we know that when we correct items like Henry VIII broke with  the Catholic Church, or Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for being a woman, or the Pilgrims left Holland for America because their children were turning Dutch, we often get flack. Does it really matter? we are asked, by educators. Isn’t the general gist correct?

We insist that it does matter. It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass. Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today. Unfortunately, the double standard seems to say that accurately describing what landmark Supreme Court decisions made possible in the United States is less important than getting all the plot twists of Game of Thrones down right on a fan site.

The power of the erroneous consensus is most evident on Wikipedia; many historians have told their stories of trying to correct common-knowledge errors on the site and being reprimanded or banned for their efforts because Wikipedia honors consensus over fact: if a thousand people say the Pilgrims were Puritans, that’s what Wikipedia will go with, even though it’s wrong. 1001 people have to say they were Separatists for them to allow their entry on the founders of Plimoth Plantation to be corrected. Ironically for our argument here, the Wikipedia entry for Henry VIII is completely accurate: “Besides his six marriages, Henry VIII is known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry’s struggles with Rome led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and his own establishment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Yet he remained a believer in core Catholic theological teachings, even after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.” Somehow the truth has been allowed to stand on the site, and we hope our article here won’t mess with that. But too often, resources beyond Wikipedia—would-be educational materials—follow its policy of accepting common knowledge and, what’s worse, resisting correction when its fallacy is pointed out to them, as the dictatorship of consensus makes its power felt.

It’s hard to know when you are not being told the truth; all we can recommend is that the next time someone on TV is telling you what the Second Amendment ensures, or what Lincoln thought about civil rights, or what the Boston Tea Party was about, take the time to find a reputable book by a scholarly author and read it. Then read a few more. You will most likely get to the truth, and find that you are actually willing to spend that much time studying the history of your country, your own history, because it’s interesting and because it explains the world you inherited and because the truth, as they say, has this uncanny ability to set you free.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

« Previous Entries

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 51 other followers