Yesterday on the radio show Talk of the Nation (click that to see the transcript we’re working from) Republican Representative Ron Paul was a guest, along with independent Senator Joe Lieberman, talking about what lies ahead after their respective retirements from Congress next year. The host of the show brought up comments Paul made about secession after President Obama’s re-election in November. Some Texans have been talking about their state seceding from the union as a result of this election, and Paul joined in to confirm the right of any state to secede, comparing it, as people defending secession so often have, to the Revolutionary War. Paul made the comments the show was referring to on Fox News’ Cavuto program on December 1 (the lead-in for which was a host saying “Well, President Obama’s in, now more states want out”—surely an exaggeration, given that the number of people signing secession petitions in all of the states involved but Texas range in the low ten-thousands out of populations of millions). Paul began by saying he did not support secession, but averred that secession is allowed in the U.S. He couldn’t say it’s constitutional, of course, because secession is not provided for there, but called upon those ever-flexible Founders to say that secession is a non-extreme idea that they would have supported.
The states which have residents signing petitions are strangely familiar as a group: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South and North Carolina (and Arizona, the odd man out here).
On Talk of the Nation, Paul offered this bizarre scenario when asked about his statements: “What if today, Greece, seceded from the European Union? The European Union got together, invaded Greece and killed about 50,000 people? We would frown on that.” One can only extrapolate that Paul is comparing the U.S. Civil War to this EU scenario, and criticizing the U.S. decision to fight the Civil War against the Confederacy (though one can’t figure out where the 50,000 number comes from).
Paul went on to say: “I think the freedom to leave is the description of whether or not you’re free. The Soviet system was so bad you could not leave. If you left, you got shot. So you have to have the right to leave. In secession, leaving—coming together is voluntary, so once you can’t leave, you lose your right of independence and self-determination becomes a very bad situation.”
This is a constant argument that Americans touting the right of secession use and, except for the Soviet reference, of course, the argument proslavery southerners made before the Civil War. The idea is that the United States are united by choice, not force, and therefore are free to leave the union whenever they want. This is simply untrue. Joining was voluntary; continued participation in the union is not. There is no protocol in the Constitution for states to leave the union, because if any state could leave at any time, it would be impossible to maintain a functioning nation. The only attempt by states to leave the union was answered by war. Being required to continue within the union is not equivalent to being imprisoned in a police state. The difference between the Soviet Union and the United States is that citizens of the states are able to participate in politics and create the change they desire.
Referring to the Revolution is also invalid, because the situation of colonies within an empire is not the same as states within the U.S. Colonies are goverened as satellites, without full rights as citizens. Colonies that break away from an empire know they must fight a war to do so, because they have no representation within the government of the empire, and are controlled for profit alone, a profit the empire will not want to lose. The states of the U.S. are not in that situation, as the American colonies once were, and so secession since the War is not the same as fighting for independence from an imperial government.
So far in the radio interview, Paul had only toed the usual misinformed line on secession that aligns it with the Founders and 1776, just as proslavery secessionists did in the late antebellum period. But then he veered into even more myth, claiming that during the War of 1812, New England tried to secede: “If you study history carefully, I think you’ll recognize that it was well accepted and recognized north – the New England states, you know, were much more into secession than South was, you know, early on in the 19th century.”
Unfortunately, host Neal Conant affirmed this myth. The facts, however, are that during the War of 1812, which, like the Revolution, hit New England harder than other regions of the country, some New England Federalists threatened to call a convention to discuss secession. Like all Americans who call for secession, they claimed that they were “defending the true principles of the Constitution and of the nation itself” (Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, by Elizabeth Varon, 37). This Federalist fringe was immediately attacked by Democratic Republicans north and south, and by the time of the Hartford Convention in December 1814, any support New England secessionists had had withered away to almost nothing, and attendees of the Convention did not even discuss secession. Southerners, however, would hold the Convention over New England’s head for decades, at first chastising the region for its treason, and, in the 1850s, using the incident as proof that secession was legal (Ibid., 38-9 – for more on the changing nature of secession talk between 1787 and 1861, see Disunion: the battle over slavery before the Civil War).
So secession was never “well accepted and recognized” in the north, nor is it true that “New England states, you know, were much more into secession than South was”. New England was shamed and humiliated for decades afterward by its brief and very partial interest in threatening to secede, and most of that shame and humiliation was heaped on by the south—until the south wanted to defend secession as patriotic, at which point it praised New England for its early bandwagoning.
Paul went on to add to his misinterpretation of history by saying, “they recognized that it wasn’t like – it wasn’t evil, that they weren’t evil people because they wanted to separate themselves”. But of course New Englanders were made to feel evil because of the actions of a small fringe group, and New England in general did not want to separate itself.
Paul then wrapped up by dragging out the tired horse of states’ rights, saying “just having the right to secede or nullify would restrain, you know, the advancement of the central state. Now, if you lean towards saying, well, no, we need a stronger, more centralized control, then, of course, you don’t want that. But those of us who are strict constitutionalists and libertarians and all, we want government, local and at home, and not at the central level because we don’t believe in the central economic planning, whether it’s social planning or economic planning.”
The idea here is that if all the states were individual, not bound in a federal union, each would just have its state government, and we would not be subject to the horrors of big federal government. How “strict constitutionalists” could hold this position,which is clearly not part of the U.S. constitution, is unclear. But the idea that state governments are all good and pure, and would never trample the rights of state citizens like the federal government, and that the states are locked in an eternal battle with the evil empire in Washington, is not only an old one but one that is patently false. If the complaint against the federal government is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and so states must strip the federal government of its power, what happens when states have all the power? Then each absolute state government will become absolutely as corrupted as the federal government is believed to be, because each will be the only government for its citizens. If the idea is that a state government is more responsive to its constituents because it is closer to them, and answers only to the people of its own state, that would surely be undone if the state government became the only government, with absolute power, and no outside, federal power to monitor its fairness.
The moral of the interview is: follow whatever political course you like—that’s the premise of the United States. But get the details right, and don’t ignore, or remain ignorant of, historical facts that interfere with your preferred world view. …and if you’re going to advocate “studying history carefully”, make sure you lead by example.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Here we pay homage to Patrick Henry and his speech of March 23, 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention. The speech ends with the well-known line “Give me liberty or give me death!”. but the whole speech is well worth looking at, and makes the ending even more incredibly stirring than it already is.
Henry founded the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, was a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and was a member of the Convention which began meeting on March 20 in St. John’s Church (as it is known today) rather than the Virginia capital at Williamsburg because it had been prevented from meeting by British officials (just as Massachusetts’ Assembly had been outlawed and forbidden to meet in Boston). This was exactly 30 days before hostilities in Massachusetts between British soldiers and patriot milita led to the first battles of the Revolutionary War (see The Revolution did not begin at Lexington and Concord), so the possibility of armed conflict between a colonial militia and the redcoats was not out of the question, even in Virginia, where tensions were not running quite as high as in New England.
Patrick Henry presented a formal proposal to form a militia to Convention President Peyton Randolph. We do not have a contemporary transcription of his speech; no one wrote it down at the time, but Henry’s first biographer William Wirt pieced it together from the recollections of men who heard it, and remembered especially its stirring conclusion, and from notes in Henry’s papers. Here it is as we have it, until the day that some new finding tells us that this version is all wrong. Frankly, we think that if this isn’t the speech Henry actually gave, it should have been, and whoever wrote it if not Henry was a master of the rhetoric of liberty we wish we could celebrate by name:
“MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve.”
—Clearly some men have spoken out against forming a militia; Henry will now oppose them as forcefully as possible.
“This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”
—If only our members of Congress today could harken back to this guiding idea(l) that “in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate”; it seems today that the more important the issue, the less real debate is allowed, and only grandstanding and accusations of non-patriotism are allowed.
“Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.”
—For Henry the situation is very clear: they as Americans are in a “great and arduous struggle for liberty”, even before any battles are fought or any war is declared against Britain. As protectors of liberty, all Americans are called to “know the whole truth” and prepare for the worst—a war with Britain.
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.”
—Here, when speaking of “our petition”, Henry is referring to The Declaration and Resolves drafted by the First Continental Congress in October 1774 demanding the repeal of the Coercive Acts (known to us today as the Intolerable Acts). Britain would not respond formally to the petition, and instead sent more and more troops to the colonies.
“I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain.”
—When he talks about “the last ten years” Henry is referring to the protests which began with the Sugar Act in 1764. Americans had been protesting punitive British taxes and restrictions of American liberties, both violently and nonviolently, since that date—to no avail, as the influx of troops and the rejection of The Resolves and Declaration proved.
“Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!”
—Here is where Henry really picks up steam and gets the blood of a patriot singing. Will Americans “abandon the noble struggle” which they have “pledged never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained”? Or will they—will we—fight for our liberty, for our freedom? We must fight, according to Henry, even if our only ally in that fight is God himself.
“They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”
—Again, this was no idle threat or imagining, as the Quartering Act mandated that Americans offer food and lodging to British soldiers, and by this time, about half the population of Boston, Massachusetts was made up of British soldiers who were part of the troop surge to the colonies.
“Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”
—One can almost picture those three million people cloaked in the aura of “the holy cause of liberty”, “invincible by any force”; it is a righteous army indeed that Henry conjures up for the Convention. And, as the Bible puts it, if God be on our side, who can be against us?
“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable, and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.”
—By “election” Henry means “choice”. The clanking of the chains of slavery now heard in Boston, cannot be long delayed in reaching Virginia. Henry would be proved right that the war was inevitable by the fighting outside Boston a month later.
“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Nothing we can say here adds anything to this mighty conclusion. The men of the Second Virginia Convention remembered rising from their seats in what we might call an adrenaline rush by the time Henry got out the last words, and this time, unlike when he spoke out against the Stamp Act in 1765 in the Virginia House of Burgesses, no one cried out “Treason! Treason!” (That speech was the source of Henry’s other famous ultimatum, in his reply to the shouts—”If this be treason, make the most of it.”)
Patrick Henry’s eloquence ruled the day, but was even more powerful when vindicated by events a month later in Massachusetts. He became a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment in August 1775, and served as Virginia’s governor from 1776-1779. He was a member of the Virginia Assembly from 1780-84, and died in 1799.
We are justified in our frustration and disgust at Henry’s slaveholding; it is our cross to bear that many of the men who spoke of and fought for liberty enslaved black Americans. We can only take comfort in the fact that 62 years after his death, Henry’s words sound remarkably like the language of abolitionists, and could well have been used to inspire the men who fought the Civil War to end slavery.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
Welcome to part 6 of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, in which we wrap up this 100-law codification of Puritan law with the section on capital crimes and the section on churches. We won’t look at each of the laws in these sections, for time’s sake, but pull out the laws that are most indicative of the nature or gist of the Body. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.
We should note here once again that “man” is used pretty consistently, except in the short section devoted to the liberties of women and minority populations. Otherwise, it’s all about “men” in the Body. This does not mean that the laws that follow did not apply to women. It means two things: “man” was used to mean people; and some of the laws were about men only (such as the laws about military service). Women could be banished and fined just like men, so laws about those things applied equally to both sexes.
Some might assume that the Puritans assigned capital punishment to all infractions, including sneezing; the truth, of course, is that the section on Capital Laws is very short—12 laws. As we read, we need to keep in mind that relatively few people were executed in Puritan Massachusetts, and that like capital laws in England in the 18th century, these laws were meant to scare people straight, and were often bent to prevent an actual execution. Let’s take a look. (All spelling has been modernized in the following excerpts.)
94. Capital Laws
1. “If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god but the lord god, he shall be put to death.”
—You get one strike on worshipping false idols, then you are put to death. This is straight out of the Ten Commandments—thou shalt have no other gods before me. Law 3 in this section also dips into the Commandments, punishing blasphemy—”high-handed blasphemy”.
2. “If any man or woman be a witch (that is hath or consults with a familiar spirit), they shall be put to death.”
—Yes, at last it’s a law about witchcraft! and the only one in the Body. Note that it applies to men and women equally, and that it narrowly defines witchcraft as communicating with a “familiar”, or evil spirit. This would be very hard to prove, and there would be few cases of witchcraft that made it through court in Massachusetts (see Did the Puritans believe in witchcraft? for a more in-depth study).
4. “If any person commit any willful murder, which is manslaughter committed upon premeditated malice, hatred, or cruelty, not in a man’s necessary and just defense, nor by mere casualty against his will, he shall be put to death.”
—This is the first of three laws about murder. #4 states that premeditated and cold-blooded murder will be punished with death. Self-defense and accidentally killing someone (“mere casualty against his will”) do not count. This definition is enhanced in the next law, #5, which states that slaying someone “suddenly in his anger or cruelty of passion” is a capital offense, making crimes of passion capital crimes. Law 6 in this section spells out that killing someone “through guile, either by poisoning or other such devilish practice” is a capital offense.
The next three laws are about sex. #7 forbids bestiality, and orders that the human culprit be killed and the animal be “slain and buried and not eaten.” #8 forbids homosexuality; interestingly it is only applied to men—”If any man lies with mankind as he lies with a woman”. In actual fact, Puritan records show cases where men repeatedly had sex with animals (generally cows) or other men and were not executed because they confessed their “sin” and vowed to repent. It generally took several occasions for someone to finally be executed. #9 addresses men who commit adultery with “a married or espoused wife”, saying “both of them have committed abomination [and] both shall surely be put to death.” Again, these cases came up fairly often and were often handled without recourse to execution (the offending parties were given a chance to repent), but unrepentant adultery was met with execution in most cases.
10. “If any man steals a man or mankind, he shall surely be put to death.”
—This oddly worded law seems to apply to enslaved or indentured people.
11. “If any man rise up by false witness, wittingly and or purpose to take away any man’s life, he shall be put to death.”
—This hearkens back to the sections on freemen’s rights and judicial proceedings, where committing perjury in court is punished.
#12 is about treason: “If any man shall conspire and attempt any invasion, insurrection, or public rebellion against our commonwealth, or shall endeavor to surprise any town [or] fort therein, or shall treacherously and perfidiously attempt the alteration and subversion of our frame of polity of government fundamentally, he shall be put to death.”
—It’s telling that this law equates an actual, physical invasion or rebellion with attempting to alter the colonial government. The Puritans of Massachusetts believed passionately in their proto-democracy, which they had created basically out of whole cloth, on their own, and it was a powerful component of their identity. They would fight and, later, die to protect the liberties they had established for themselves, and anyone who threatened them was a traitor.
So ends the section on capital punishment. Now to the final section, “A Declaration of the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches”. Notice that these liberties are given by Jesus, as opposed to the 97 other liberties in the body, which are given by the General Court. This interesting division of labor means that the liberties in this section are purely theological; they describe how Congregational churches in Massachusetts operated. Four years after the Body was published, in 1645, minister John Cotton would spell out the basics of Congregational doctrine in The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England… a book that led to a codification of church law known as the New England Way. For now, the Body gives a brief overview of purely church law, outside civil law.
95. 1. “All the people of god within this jurisdiction who are not in a church way, and be orthodox in judgment, and not scandalous in life, shall have full liberty to gather themselves into a church estate, provided they do it in a Christian way, with due observation of the rules of Christ revealed in his word.”
—One of the things Puritans railed against in England was that every citizen was required, mandated, to attend their local church, no matter how sinful they were. They were required to take communion, even if they did not believe in God, or blasphemed God. The Puritans wanted their churches to be voluntarily populated by believers only. This liberty states that the godly have the opportunity to go to church, and to gather together to found churches. Only the godly may do this, which means the churches stay pure and membership remains voluntary.
The next eight liberties all deal with the freedom and independence of each congregation to govern itself: “full liberty to exercise all the ordinances of god,” “free liberty of election and ordination of all their officers [ministers, deacons, etc.]“, “free liberty of admission [and] dismission…of their officers and members”, “no injunctions are to be put upon any church”, “every church of Christ has freedom to celebrate days of fasting and prayer”, “the elders of churches have free liberty to meet… for conferences and consultations about [church] questions”, “liberty to deal with any of their members in a church way”, and “liberty to deal with any magistrate, deputy of court or other officer whatsoever that is a member in a church way”.
These liberties do not mean that a congregation was above the law, free to do whatever it wanted. They mean that there would be no over-arching church governing body—no bishops, no regional or national conferences, no governing body of ministers who decided policy for all churches. Unlike the Catholic or even the Anglican churches, the Congregationalist church did not have a small group of high-level officials assigning ministers to churches, settling church disputes, or disciplining churches or ministers. Each church was in complete control of its own affairs. The congregation chose their minister and officials, and each church disciplined its own members. Earlier in the Body it is made clear that when it comes to breaking civil law, no church member, minister, or official is above the law—they can’t get out of their due punishment because of their church standing. But these liberties are about church self-government, covering strictly religious issues. Just as an earlier liberty said a minister can be charged with breaking civil law and punished, so here the last of these liberties states that civil officers (politicians) can be charged with breaking church law and be punished.
Having outlawed any kind of over-arching church governing body, the section clarifies in the next liberty that churches can, if they wish (“with the consent of the churches”), send their ministers and elders to meet once a month to spend a day “in public christian conference about the discussing and resolving of any such doubts and cases of conscience concerning matters of doctrine or worship of government of the church as shall be propounded by the brethren of that church, with leave also to any other brother to propound his objections or answers for further satisfaction according to the word of god.” That is, while ministers can’t hold meetings in which they mandate church policy, they are allowed to gather once a month to debate and come to agreement on issues facing their church members. Crucially, those church members are also allowed to attend these meetings, to speak, and to object publicly if they don’t agree with the solutions the ministers arrive at. This is to help prevent the trampling of individual congregations’ rights—”no thing may be concluded and imposed by way of authority from one or more churches upon another, but only by way of brotherly conference and consultations.” If church A comes up with a solution it likes, but church B doesn’t like it, church B cannot be forced to go along.
In the next liberty, the civil authorities are asked to respect these ecclesiastical liberties, and to allow “full power and liberty to any person that shall be denied or deprived of them, to commence and prosecute their suit”.
Wrapping up, Liberty 98 states that every law in the Body be “read and deliberately weighted at every General Court that shall be held within three years, and such of them as shall not be altered or repealed they shall stand so ratified.” It’s very like the Puritans of Massachusetts to take six years to write up the Body of laws, six years of writing to the towns to get their draft laws, and sending drafts back to the towns to be approved, and then to say, Now that we agree on these laws, there’s still a three-year trial period to confirm that we’re all on board with them. If any General Court failed “or forget” to read them each year, every Assistant would be fined 20 shillings, and every deputy 10 shillings.
And so we come to the end of the 1641 Body of Liberties. In the next and final post, we’ll recap its significance, in its own time, and for us today.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 5 so far )
Part 5 of our series on the 1641 Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colony leads us to the rights, or liberties, of minority populations—women, children, servants, “foreigners and strangers”, and “brute creatures”. As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the fact that there are special sections for these categories within the Body does not mean that the other liberties described in the document do not apply to women, children, etc. It means that while some of the laws in the Body were about men only (such as the laws about military service), women, servants, and others had recourse to the law—they could bring law suits and defend themselves in court, they could be banished and fined just like men, and so laws about those things applied equally to all people. In these special sections, however, the Puritans addressed issues that could only apply to the groups mentioned, issues they wanted to call out and make clear within the law.
We can actually look at each of the laws in these sections, because there aren’t many. This is a sign that the Puritans of Massachusetts saw all its people as covered by the Body in general, with only a few occasions where special populations needed special protections. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.
Modern spellings are used throughout.
Liberties of Women
79: “If any man at his death shall not leave his wife a competent portion of his estate, upon just complaint made to the General Court she shall be relieved.”
—Men have to provide for their widows. Some men would leave all their estate to their children—their sons or sons-in-law—in order to pass down the estate intact to their line, reckoning that their widows would remarry and benefit from some other man’s property and goods. But the Body shows an understanding that this may not be the case, and that every husband has a duty to provide for his wife, and thus allows wills to be contested in the widow’s favor.
80. “Every married woman shall be free from bodily correction or stripes by her husband, unless it be in his own defense upon her assault. If there be any just cause of correction complaint shall be made to authority assembled in some Court, from which only she shall receive it.”
—No husband can beat his wife (“stripes” meaning whipping). A man bodily attacked by his wife can defend himself, but in all other cases, if a husband has a complaint against his wife (a “just cause of correction”) he can go to court and present his case. If the court finds a wife guilty of an offense—of breaking a law in the Body—the court will fine or otherwise punish her. Domestic disputes are the domain of the law, not the whip.
Liberties of Children
81. “When parents die intestate, the elder son shall have a double portion of his whole estate real and personal, unless the General Court upon just cause alledged shall judge otherwise.”
—This is fairly clear: an estate will be broken out amongst the surviving children, with the eldest son, if there is one, receiving a double share. The chances of a law- and lawsuit-loving Puritan dying without a will were likely small, but it could happen.
82. “When parents die intestate having no heirs male of their bodies, their daughters shall inherit as co-partners, unless the General Court upon just reason shall judge otherwise.”
—Women, even girls, can inherit land and estate from their parents. As we’ve mentioned before, it was rare for the Court to overturn a legal will, so women who inherited land and estate generally kept it.
83. “If any parents shall willfully and unreasonably deny any child timely or convenient marriage, or shall exercise any unnatural severity toward them, such children shall have free liberty to complain to authority for redress.”
—The old image of the stern, horrid Puritan father refusing to let his child marry—or forcing her to—is undone here, along with the image of the Puritan constantly beating his child. While children were not allowed to bring suit to or testify in court, they could be represented in court by an adult, and could give their testimony to that representative.
84. “No orphan during their minority which was not committed to tuition or service by the parents in their lifetime shall afterwards be absolutely disposed of by any kindred, friend, executor, township, or church, not by themselves without the consent of some court, wherein two Assistants at least shall be present.”
—A child whose parents die can’t be abandoned to a life of indentured service by uncaring relatives, their town government, or even their church. Unless a parent arranged for a child to go into service, that child had to be taken in and cared for by some family. This was so important that we see that not even a court could send an orphan into service without at least two Assistants—members of the governor’s council—hearing the case and agreeing. The Puritans believed in the necessity of nurture to raise up a godly child, and did not want extended families shirking their duty to orphaned nieces, cousins, grandchildren, etc.
Liberties of Servants
85. ”If any servants shall flee from the tyranny and cruelty of their masters to the house of any freeman in the same town, they shall be there protected and sustained til due order be taken for their relief. Provided due notice thereof be speedily given to their masters from whom they fled. And the next Assistant or constable where the party flying is harbored.”
—No servant has to endure harsh treatment, and all servants, male and female, have the right to leave a house where they are physcially harmed. Masters have to be told where the servant fled to, and the town constable (or, if in Boston, an Assistant) has to be told about the situation as well. Liberty 87 is also about violence against servants, specifically stating that a servant who is maimed or disfigured by a master’s abuse is immediately free from that master’s service and may be entitled to a cash settlement.
Liberties 86 and 88 deal with fair treatment of servants. 88 says diligent servants who have served for at least seven years can’t be dismissed without pay (“shall not be sent away empty”), and, conversely, bad servants can’t be dismissed until they have “made satisfaction” to their masters.
Liberties of Foreigners and Strangers
Liberty 89 protects religious and other refugees (“any people of other nations professing the true Christian religion [who] flee to us from the tyranny or oppression of their persecutors, or from famine, war, or the like… they shall be entertained and succored amongst us”); and Liberty 90 states that shipwrecks or foreign ships will not be looted but the goods “preserved in safety”.
Liberty 91 states that “there shall never be any bond slavery, villainage, or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons does morally require…” This allows prisoners of war and Africans to be enslaved. The boggling clause in this liberty is “such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold”—thus equating voluntary entry into slavery and being forcibly sold as a slave. This is the first liberty in the Body to contain such a bald, disturbing contradiction, and keeps this liberty from truly limiting slavery to those, like enemy soldiers, who might possibly “deserve” it.
Of the Brute Creature
92. “No man shall exercise any tyranny or cruelty towards any brute creature which are usually kept for man’s use.”
—The same phrase used in the liberties concerning servants, “tyranny or cruelty”, is used here to prevent cruelty to animals.
93. “If any man shall have occasion to lead or drive cattle from place to place that is far off, so that they be weary, or hungry, or fall sick, or lame, it shall be lawful to rest or refresh them, for a competent time, in any open place that is not [a corn field], meadow, or enclosed for some particular use.”
—Land ownership was the be-all and end-all of the Puritans. Disputes over land were unending, as borders were disputed and people fought over who had rights to use common land (which was not purely common; people paid to use it). There were many disputes over livestock, as people sued for crop damage and destruction of property caused by animals allowed to stray off their own land. So to have a liberty here that says any animals who are being exhausted and endangered by a long journey have the right to graze and drink water on land that is not being used is a big deal. People at this time did not see any land as totally free—if land was not being used, it was fair game to be claimed. Travelers who rested animals on open land ran the risk of someone suing them because he had informally claimed that land. So long as animals did not trespass onto land that was clearly being tilled, they had the right to use the land themselves.
Thus end the special sections of the Body. We see that these sections do not represent every law or the only laws that applied to these categories of people and creatures, but are special cases that could only apply to these categories. There are many instances in the Body’s other sections where it is stated that the liberties being described apply to all inhabitants, be they strangers or servants or women or children. These sections, then, are like a little Bill of Rights for the minority populations, expressly stating liberties that are not made explicit within the other, general sections.
In the next post we’ll look at a very short section on capital crimes—one might expect that to be the longest section of a Puritan body of law, but it is not. It does, however, at last provide us with the single mention of witchcraft in the Body… which applies to men and women equally.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Welcome to part 4 of our series on the 1641 Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last time we looked at judicial laws; this time we focus on freemen’s liberties. One of the first things John Winthrop did, at the second Court in May 1631, was expand the definition of “freeman” in the colony to include almost all adult males—there were no property-ownership requirements. So the liberties we’re about to examine applied to 99% of the adult males in the colony.
Did they apply to the women of the colony? As we pointed out in part 2, there is a short section in the Body devoted to the liberties of women. That section, which we’ll cover later in this series, specifies a woman’s treatment by her husband, disallowing abuse and mandating that a wife be fairly treated in her husband’s will. Otherwise, it’s all about “men” in the Body. This does not mean that none of the laws applied to women. It means two things: “man” was used to mean people; and some of the laws were about men only (such as the laws about military service). Women could be banished and fined just like men, so laws about those things applied equally to both sexes. In this section, however, we are dealing with voting rights and jury rights, and so these apply strictly to men.
We won’t look at each of the laws in this section, for time’s sake, but pull out the laws that are most indicative of the nature or gist of the Body. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.
Modern spellings are used throughout.
Liberty 58: “Civil authority has power and liberty to see the peace, ordinances, and rules of Christ observed in every church according to his word, so it be done in a civil and not in an ecclesiastical way.”
—This reminds us of Liberty 1, in that it seems to blur the line between church and state, but in reality it is once again mandating that separation by saying that the civil government does not have authority to govern the churches—it can’t exercise power “in an ecclesiastical way”. This means that the civil government can intervene if a problem in a congregation is causing civil disturbance, but it can’t step in to meddle with or dictate how a church operates. On the other hand, church disputes will not be allowed to interfere with civil government or the peace of the colony. This is most likely hearkening back to the Antinomian crisis of the 1630s involving Anne Hutchinson, where problems in the Boston church led to near civil war, as the elections for governor were disrupted and rioting broke out.
Liberty 59: “Civil authority has power and liberty to deal with any church member in a way of civil justice, notwithstanding any church relation, office, or interest.”
—Another separation of church and state, this one saying no one can be above the law, no matter how high a position they may hold in a church. Church officials, ministers, and pastors are under civil authority…
Liberty 60: “No church censure shall degrade or depose any man from any civil dignity, office, or authority he shall have in the Commonwealth.”
—…and vice-versa: if a church member or official is removed from his church office, or is censured for a religious matter, he will not also be removed from any government position he may hold. Remember that ministers and pastors were not allowed to hold political office; this would apply only to church members or men serving as deacons.
Liberty 66: “The Freemen of every township shall have power to make such by-laws and constitutions as may concern the welfare of their town, provided they be not of a criminal, but only of a prudential nature, and that their penalties [shall not exceed] 20 shillings for one offence. And that they be not repugnant to the public laws and orders of the country. And if any inhabitant shall neglect or refuse to observe them, they sall have the power to levy the appointed penalties by distress.”
—Towns are semi-independent: each makes its own laws, so long as they do not assess unfairly high fines and so long as they don’t go against the laws of the colony. This tradition of town meeting, where each town made its own laws and public comments on colony affairs, was a powerful galvanizing force during the run-up to the revolution, and continues in Massachusetts today.
Liberty 67: “It is the constant liberty of the free men of this plantation to choose yearly at the court of election out of the freemen all the general officers of this jurisdiction. If they please to discharge [these officers] at the day of election by way of vote they may do it without showing cause. But if at any other General Court we hold it due justice that the reasons thereof be alleged and proved. By general officers we mean our governor, deputy governor, assistants, treasurer, [and military] general. And our admiral at sea, and such as are or hereafter may be of the like general nature.”
—Freemen elect all civil officers; this is a liberty found in very few places in the world at this time. Elections were annual, held each spring at the General Court (the Court in October was for writing laws). This liberty says that anyone can be voted out of office without explanation, but once someone is elected they can’t be removed from office without some cause; they have to be accused and then proved of some wrongdoing. So you can’t be elected in May, show up for duty in October and suddenly be told you’re out.
Liberty 69: “No General Court shall be dissolved or adjourned without the consent of the major part thereof.”
—England in 1641 was about to collapse into civil war, in large part because King Charles I refused to allow Parliament to meet. He had dismissed Parliament in 1629 and refused to call it until 1640. This “Eleven Years’ Tyranny” was unpopular amongst the small but growing number of English people who believed Parliament should be a permanent partner—and counterweight—to monarchical rule. In Massachusetts in 1641, the people took the step of making their Parliament, the General Court, incapable of dissolution without its consent. No governor could ever exercise “personal rule” by shutting out the freemen from their government, as Charles did.
Liberty 70: “All freemen called to give any advice, vote, verdict, or sentence in any court, council, or civil assembly shall have full freedom to do it according to their true judgments and consciences, so it be done orderly and inoffensively for the manner.”
—The participation of freemen in their government was not figurehead. They were meant to truly advise and shape their government without any pressure, and their only obligation was to act honestly and according to their own judgment, and to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion.
Liberty 75 is quite lengthy, so we’ll paraphrase here to say that it states that if a Court makes any laws that concern religion, lead to war, or result in a public Article, and there are members of the Court who disagree with the majority vote, they are to publish their dissenting decision (their “contra remonstrance”) and have it recorded in the records of the Court.
—This is a voice for the minority that makes governing by precedent more informed, and makes the members of the public aware of the dissenting opinions in the Court.
The section on the liberties of the freemen, then, secures separation of church and state, the right of freemen to vote for their politicians, the independence of town governments, a voice for dissent, and the right of the legislature (General Court) to exist, thus preventing tyranny by the governor and his assistants. The rights and duties of juries are also covered in this section.
We’ll look next at the sections on women, children, “foreigners and strangers”, and brute creatures. As we shall see, these are positive laws and are called out in separate sections only to emphasize that these populations had rights as well.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
“Remember the Alamo!” is one of those phrases from American history that most Americans know, but don’t understand (right up there with Washington crossing the Delaware and “one if by land, two if by sea“). As is the case whenever history is lost, myth has grown up around the Alamo, not really regarding what happened there but why it happened.
Most Americans do know that a group of Americans—including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett—holed up in the Alamo, a fortified mission in today’s San Antonio, Texas, and fought to the death, outnumbered, against the Mexican forces of General Antonio López de Santa Anna. This happened in February 1836. The mix of roughly 200 Americans and Mexicans (fighting against their own country) held out through several charges by Santa Anna’s much larger army but were eventually killed. The Alama became a rallying point for Americans fighting for Texas independence and American liberty.
As we point out in our post The U.S. declares war on Mexico, the real story is not as grand as the myth:
“American citizens who moved to Mexico to settle its northern state of Coahuila y Tejas decided, after a short residence, to create an independent state there called Texas. The Mexican government responded in 1829 by levying a property tax, putting high taxes on American imports, and prohibiting slavery. Because Americans in Coahuila y Tejas outnumbered native Mexicans, and because internal political strife in Mexico made it difficult to fully command the northern states, they were able to ignore those laws, particularly the one against slaveholding. But when General Antonio López de Santa Anna became dictator of Mexico in 1834, he was determined to bring Coahuila y Tejas firmly back under Mexican control, and when the Texans declared their independence in 1836, Santa Anna traveled north to squash them.”
It was in part their determination to enslave black Americans that drove the Texans in their fight for independence. If Mexico had not begun to phase out slavery in 1824 (the last enslaved people were freed there in 1829), the Americans in northern Mexico would likely have continued to live as citizens of the Mexican state for much longer, until their numbers were much greater and a break much easier to make and to defend. But when the president of Mexico, Anastasio Bustamente, ordered that abolition be enforced in northern Mexico—Texas—the Americans living there orders began to think seriously of breaking away from Mexico and forming their own nation.
It shouldn’t have been hard to do. Mexico’s government was weak and its ability to enforce the law in its very far-flung northern territories (California as well as Texas) was limited. The Americans should have been able to break away and force Mexico to terms when it realized it could not put down the distant revolution in a small district that seemed to have no essential value to the nation.
But Mexico decided to take a hard line, and in April 1830 it forbid any further American emigration to its territory. Mexico didn’t want the number of Americans in Texas rising and rising, and hoped to subdue those already in rebellion. This strategy failed in 1832 when Americans fought a small battle, the Battle of Velasco, against Mexican forces. In that year and the next, Texans formed a Convention that asked the Mexican government for reforms, which were rejected by Mexico. The 1833 Convention drafted a constitution for Texas which was also rejected. The war officially began on October 2, 1835, with the Battle of Gonzales. The Texans were victorious in the next few battles, including the Siege of Bexar in December, which led to the American capture of San Antonio.
Now comes the battle of the Alamo, a fortified mission in San Antonio which the Americans occupied, first under the command of Ben Milam, then William Travis. On February 23, 1836, Santa Anna arrived to recover San Antonio. Santa Anna was particularly adamant that Mexico fight off any foreign claims to its territory, and was willing to spend money and lives to do that when both were dear. The Americans held out againt Santa Anna’s superior numbers from February 23 to March 6, when another Mexican charge finally breached the fortified walls of the Alamo. The Americans inside fought hand-to-hand until all were dead. San Antonio was recovered by Mexico.
Unbeknownst to the men at the Alamo, on March 2 the Convention of 1836 adopted the Texas Declaration of Independence. Members of the Convention had been receiving updates on the siege, and when word reached the Convention of the loss of the Alamo and the stand made by Americans there, the Declaration and the war were given greater impetus, and Remember the Alamo! became a rallying cry of the Texans. On April 21, Texans led by Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Santa Anna withdrew, and Texans celebrated their independence (a little too early, as Mexico never formally ceded the territory, and when it was accepted into the U.S. as a state in 1845, the Mexican War was the result).
There are many legends about exactly what happened inside the mission. The most famous story is that Travis drew a line in the dirt and asked every man willing to fight to the end to cross it, and all but one did (that man was allowed to leave). Movies have portrayed all the men as paragons of liberty and integrity, fighting extremely venal, bloodthirsty (and rather foppish) Mexicans who want to establish a police state. Santa Anna is particularly portrayed as a cross between an effete pretender and a cruel dictator. It’s ironic at best, since it was Mexico that wanted to abolish slavery in the territory, and Mexico that was fighting to keep its land against strangers who had been allowed to settle there and suddenly announced that the land was theirs. But we in the U.S. tend to get the idea that it was Mexico trying to take American land away from its rightful owners.
No one can deny the bravery of the men who fought at the Alamo. But the cause for which they fought was not true liberty. Like the United States it would soon join, Texas fought for the ideal of liberty but not the full reality, as it kept black people enslaved. It would take the Civil War to end slavery in Texas, and fulfill its original mandate of liberty. The Alamo was also a battle in a war to seize a section of northern Mexico without just provocation. The Alamo is important to remember clearly, objectively, and with an eye to understanding what really happened there.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )
In our last post in a series on Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, we come to the conclusion of this message to the nation and its posterity. Here Washington sums up his main points in a very personal way, using “I” repeatedly to emphasize that these are his own thoughts, his personal conclusions; we’re getting a look inside the man who has been our President for eight years, getting a chance to see the workings of his mind and thus an understanding of why he has made the decisions he has made. For a private man like Washington, this must have been hard. But he knew it was his final message to the nation, and he wanted to be transparent—in large part, so that if its audience read the Address and felt that Washington’s reasoning had been faulty, they could change course for something better, and not be tied to any bad policies simply because they were Washington’s. He knew how the country venerated him; he did not want it to be tied to his mistakes. And so he sums up his thoughts, actions, and motives:
“In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.
How far in the discharge of my official duties I have been guided by the principles which have been delineated, the public records and other evidences of my conduct must witness to you and to the world. To myself, the assurance of my own conscience is, that I have at least believed myself to be guided by them.”
—Part of the appeal of the Address is its eerie focus on the future—on us. Washington was aware that his presidency set precedents, simply by being the first, and he wanted to take the best parts of what he had accomplished and pass them on. He knows that the advice of one man, no matter how great, can’t change human nature. He is not a dictator. But if we heed his warnings about “[moderating] the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism”, that will be enough to keep us aware of the right path, and see it as right not because it was his, but because it works to keep us strong.
“In relation to the still subsisting war in Europe, my proclamation of the twenty-second of April, 1793, is the index of my plan. Sanctioned by your approving voice, and by that of your representatives in both houses of Congress, the spirit of that measure has continually governed me, uninfluenced by any attempts to deter or divert me from it. After deliberate examination, with the aid of the best lights I could obtain, I was well satisfied that our country, under all the circumstances of the case, had a right to take, and was bound in duty and interest to take, a neutral position. Having taken it, I determined, as far as should depend upon me, to maintain it, with moderation, perseverance, and firmness.”
—Again, here Washington is letting us in behind closed doors to understand why he went for neutrality in 1793, and why he stuck with that position despite opposition.
“The considerations which respect the right to hold this conduct, it is not necessary on this occasion to detail. I will only observe that, according to my understanding of the matter, that right, so far from being denied by any of the belligerent powers, has been virtually admitted by all. The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations.
The inducements of interest for observing that conduct will best be referred to your own reflections and experience. With me a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.”
—The choice to remain neutral has paid off, both in foreign powers honoring that neutrality and in giving the U.S. time to grow and stabilize without being derailed by war. Indeed, U.S. neutrality has been a noble obligation to “maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations”. Jumping into war for no good reason, into wars that don’t involve you, is as bad as starting useless wars. The U.S. is a good example to other nations if it can stay out of war on principle, and fight only when there is good reason for it to fight.
“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
—This is so reminiscent of Washington reading a letter from Congress in 1782 to his men after the Revolution, when the coffers were so depleted that the soldiers were about to be sent home without months of back pay, and the officers were mulling over a revolt and a coup that would place Washington at the head of government. Washington had found out about the plot and addressed the men, but not quite convinced them not to assault the liberty they had just fought for. So he went to read the letter, to bolster his case, but he could not find his glasses. When he found them he paused, then said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
As a Major Samuel Shaw put it in his journal, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.” The mutiny fell apart immediately, and the men reproached themselves with their own greed when their leader was ready to sacrifice all that he had for the cause of American liberty.
And here in the Address we see that Washington once more. What American could read this line in the Address and not feel a tremble of emotion: “I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
“Relying on its kindness in this as in other things, and actuated by that fervent love towards it, which is so natural to a man who views in it the native soil of himself and his progenitors for several generations, I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”
—What American would not give her all to make this happen for Washington? To make it possible for him to live out his life in the happy enjoyment of a job well-done, of a peaceful, free nation, a good government, and the knowledge that his good work would not be thrown away? To protect and preserve the founding principles of this nation is to honor Washington. He would be proud to see that connection, just as we are inifinitely lucky and proud to have had a first president who did so much to make us a proud nation.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In part 3 of our series on Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, we continue our close reading, picking up near the middle of this long text. So far, Washington has explained why he feels the nation is stable enough for him to safely resign the office of president, and he has urged Americans to remember these things:
—the government they live under is their own creation;
—there will be many groups, foreign and domestic, who have no faith in that representative democracy Americans have created, and they will try to tear it down. Only dedication to the principles of liberty that found our government will save the American people from disaster;
—regional in-fighting will be the death of the United States. Every region must remember its dependence on the other regions, and turn to the federal government to resolve disputes.
Now Washington turns to other threats, in a section that is eerily prophetic of our own troubled political environment today, and a proof that Washington’s Address is pertinent and valuable to us today:
“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
—This is the part of the Address that most people remember (the idea, if not the actual words). Here Washington is warning against political factions, and he equates the formation of political parties with inevitable dissension. This definition of what can happen when partisanship runs rampant must sound familiar to us today: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension… leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual [who] turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.” When the political process grinds to a halt because one or more political parties refuses to work with others, only a charismatic individual can take the lead, and this kind of cult of personality is antithetical to democracy.
“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another. There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
—Political factions or parties “[serve] always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Again, so familiar to us today, at a time of great partisan conflict.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric? Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
—Washington says that religious belief is critically important to upholding democracy because without belief in God and the consequent devotion to goodness that it brings, we cannot perform the duties of a just government. But he never goes on to say that therefore we must have a state religion, or that anyone seeking office must be a member of a religion. And his call for “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge” seems more a call for higher education—colleges—than churches.
“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”
—This is a great passage, in which Washington says if we carry out the duties of government with good faith and justice, joining our sense of personal morality to a demand for political justice, we will be a free, enlightened, and someday soon a great nation. Democracy is, at this point, “too novel”, as no other nation enjoys the system of representative democracy that the U.S. does. It will be hard to maintain this very high level of personal and public morality, but the rewards are incalculable. Is it impossible? Are humans just too flawed? This was the common argument against the U.S. experiment, but Washington has faith that Americans can carry it off.
“In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.”
—We must have clear heads: you can’t think clearly if you aren’t objective. You can’t just hate a certain nation and love another, overlooking evidence to the contrary, because this leads to bad foreign policy and leads Americans themselves to sell out their country’s interest to promote the interests of their favorites. Washington is thinking of the France-Britain debate in the U.S. at the time, with many Americans passionately hating the British who enslaved us and unconditionally loving the French who Britain were at war with, and other Americans passionately hating the French and loving powerful, familiar Britain. Each faction wanted the U.S. to form a lasting, binding, political alliance with its favored nation, mostly just to hurt its hated nation. But Washington says that U.S. government policy, domestic or foreign, cannot be about making one or the other foreign nation happy, or making the U.S. appealing to one or the other. We have to do what is objectively right and objectively best for us. Loving or hating other nations is just another form of dangerous partisanship.
“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
—For now, while we are weak and Europe is strong, and while our political interests are so different from theirs, let’s have economic relations and trading partners, but keep it economic. No political alliances. It’s hard to do that now, when we’re weak, and other nations ignore our neutrality and impress our sailors and put garrisons on our western lands, but as we grow stronger they will start to back off, and we will be feared and respected and left alone without ever having to make an agreement with anyone. We won’t have to buy peace—we’ll command it.
That’s basically the end of the section people know about. Next time, we’ll read the gracious conclusion of the Address, and allow our Founder to express his love and concern for us once again. For he was concerned about us, he was addressing us; Washington so often says he’s talking about the nation in 1796 so that the nation that develops later will have the best counsel. We will hear what he has to tell us once more.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
In the second installment of our series on George Washington’s Farewell Address, we do a close reading of the first section of the first president’s parting remarks as he left office in 1796, to get at the heart of his message to Americans of his own day and their posterity—us. I have reproduced about 75% of the text here, omitting some of the elaborations on core ideas.
“Friends and Citizens:
The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.
I beg you, at the same time, to do me the justice to be assured that this resolution has not been taken without a strict regard to all the considerations appertaining to the relation which binds a dutiful citizen to his country; and that in withdrawing the tender of service, which silence in my situation might imply, I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness, but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.”
—We are forced to recall, right off the bat, that President Washington was a dedicated student of etiquette all his life, and therefore his writing style reflects the proper style of the day, which is to be a little circuitous in coming to the point. Long sentences, multiple clauses, all well-executed but foreign to us for the most part today. What he is saying here is that he wants to explain why he’s not running for a third term, in part so that people will focus their attention on new candidates and not say, I think Washington should run and I’m holding out for him. He also doesn’t want other candidates to feel uncomfortable in creating their own platforms (“it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice”). In the second paragraph, Washington wants to make clear that it’s not that he feels he’s unpopular or unwanted, or that he no longer cares about the welfare of the nation. That said, he will explain his refusal to run for another term as president.
“The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement from which I had been reluctantly drawn. The strength of my inclination to do this, previous to the last election, had even led to the preparation of an address to declare it to you; but mature reflection on the then perplexed and critical posture of our affairs with foreign nations, and the unanimous advice of persons entitled to my confidence, impelled me to abandon the idea.
I rejoice that the state of your concerns, external as well as internal, no longer renders the pursuit of inclination incompatible with the sentiment of duty or propriety, and am persuaded, whatever partiality may be retained for my services, that, in the present circumstances of our country, you will not disapprove my determination to retire.”
—Here Washington is fairly blunt: serving as President has been a burden, and he longed to refuse a second term, but from “motives I was not at liberty to disregard” he sucked it up and served another four years. In particular, he worried about “our affairs with foreign nations”—England and France, each of whom was continually angling to involve the U.S. in their war. He does not mention it explicitly, but Washington was also concerned about “internal” rebellion, such as he faced in the Whiskey Rebellion, and wanted to remain in office to help strengthen the authority of the federal government. That accomplished, and foreign affairs stable for the moment, he is, happily, now able to “retire”.
“The impressions with which I first undertook the arduous trust were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust, I will only say that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the organization and administration of the government the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious in the outset of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps still more in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.”
—While he had all the goodwill in the world and did his best, Washington is no politician, and he feels his lack of experience at every turn. Every issue he has dealt with as president has reminded him of what he doesn’t know, and as he gets older that burden gets heavier. Any special appeal he has as president is temporary, and (though he doesn’t come out and say this) the result of his status as a war hero. All that said, he has done his duty as best he could, and thus done all that patriotism requires.
“…If benefits have resulted to our country from these services, let it always be remembered to your praise, and as an instructive example in our annals, that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead, amidst appearances sometimes dubious, vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging, in situations in which not unfrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”
—A valuable lesson to learn from his terms of service is that even though the public were divided at times, and argued about the right thing to do, they did two crucial things: they supported a president who was acting in good faith, and they voluntarily chose to abide by the terms of the Constitution. When they disagreed with Washington, they did not rise up, or react with violence—they worked within the law, and continuing to put the Constitution first will be what makes the U.S. great.
“Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me, on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. Nor can I forget, as an encouragement to it, your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion.
Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.”
—He’s going to give us some advice, which we should take as the objective advice from a loving friend that it is. He’s not trying to influence later U.S. policy, or the men who serve as President after him. He’s just going to speak from the heart.
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.
For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”
—You love your democracy and your democratic government, and you should. But remember that it is a painfully new idea, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy, and get you to go back to the old ways. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.
“But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.
The North, in an unrestrained intercourse with the South, protected by the equal laws of a common government, finds in the productions of the latter great additional resources of maritime and commercial enterprise and precious materials of manufacturing industry. The South, in the same intercourse, benefiting by the agency of the North, sees its agriculture grow and its commerce expand. …The East, in a like intercourse with the West, already finds, and in the progressive improvement of interior communications by land and water, will more and more find a valuable vent for the commodities which it brings from abroad, or manufactures at home. The West derives from the East supplies requisite to its growth and comfort, and, what is perhaps of still greater consequence, it must of necessity owe the secure enjoyment of indispensable outlets for its own productions to the weight, influence, and the future maritime strength of the Atlantic side of the Union, directed by an indissoluble community of interest as one nation…
While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations; and, what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments… Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty. In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”
—Here Washington addresses the regional factions that were growing in the nation between North and South, East and West. You all benefit from each other; you’re all mutually dependent, he says; recognize this and embrace it. Remember that if you start to fight amongst yourselves, you make the nation vulnerable to outside attack. If you’re all united, you won’t be threatened by internal disputes or external attack, and so you won’t have to support an “overgrown military establishment”, which so often leads to military rule.
“These considerations speak a persuasive language to every reflecting and virtuous mind, and exhibit the continuance of the Union as a primary object of patriotic desire. Is there a doubt whether a common government can embrace so large a sphere? Let experience solve it. To listen to mere speculation in such a case were criminal. We are authorized to hope that a proper organization of the whole with the auxiliary agency of governments for the respective subdivisions, will afford a happy issue to the experiment. It is well worth a fair and full experiment. With such powerful and obvious motives to union, affecting all parts of our country, while experience shall not have demonstrated its impracticability, there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands.”
—Washington elaborates on this principle for a few more paragraphs, imploring Americans to turn to their government for help with regional problems, and to remember that they are unified by nothing more than their desire to live in a democracy and their willingness to obey the Constitution they have created. They have begun an experiment, Washington says, and devotion to a great result is both carrot and stick to Americans as they face the internal divisions that will inevitably come to such a large nation.
Having warned Americans to treasure their political and philosophical unity, Washington will turn to other threats.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Welcome to the first in a short series on President George Washington’s farewell address of 1796. Most students of American history learn a little about this address, and the one thing that usually sticks with them is that Washington warned the nation not to make permanent or even long-term alliances with other nations. While this was a guiding principle of Washington’s presidency, it’s not the only or even the main point of note in his address.
We have to say “address”, rather than “speech,” because contrary to common perception, Washington did not read his message publicly. He sent it to the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser, which printed it on September 19, 1796, and it was picked up and reprinted by other newspapers around the country. But the address has become a speech since Washington’s time: in 1862, in the depths of the Civil War, the people of Philadelphia petitioned Congress to have the address read aloud at a joint meeting of the House and Senate to celebrate the 130th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Senator Andrew Johnson presented the petition saying, “In view of the perilous condition of the country, I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live.” In 1888 it was read again to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Constitution, and since 1896 it has been an annual tradition to read the address aloud to the joint session each February (and was read by Jeanne Shaheen on February 27 of this year).
In this series we’ll look at the address and do one of our usual close readings to get at the messages Washington wanted to send to the nation he had done so much to found and protect and set on the right course.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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