The Problem of the 1780s

ArticlesOver at The Nation, historian Richard Kreitner interviews Seattle University Law Professor George William Van Cleave about his new book We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution.   I hope to read Van Cleave’s book at some point since I don’t think I have ever read a book-length treatment of the Articles of Confederation.

Here is a taste of the interview:

RK: The overarching problem of the 1780s, as you write, was “stalemate government.” Why were things so blocked up?

GWVC: There are two basic reasons. First, the structure of the Confederation itself. The government designed by the Articles of Confederation made it easy for relatively small groups of people—especially individual states or sections of the country—to block any change. There was a requirement for every single state to agree to alter the powers of the Confederation. At least nine states needed to support any significant fiscal or military legislation. Any section could say, “We’re opposed to this, so it’s not gonna happen.” This happened repeatedly throughout the period I’m writing about.

The other significant reason is that from the beginning the Union had been a pretty loose alliance, so people felt relatively free about saying they just didn’t feel like going along with a particular policy. New York is a great example. New York City had one of the major ports in the United States, and the import taxes were very profitable for the state, which didn’t have to raise other kinds of taxes. But the rest of the states wanted to pass a federal import tax, which would have forced New York to give up its own. That was anathema for New York’s political leaders, who thought about how they could block such a tax every time they got out of bed. But, under the Articles of Confederation, there was no way for Congress to impose sanctions on New York for holding out, even if all the other states wanted to go forward. The result was stalemate.

Read the rest here.

 

David Barton Can’t Let Go Of This John Adams Quote

This appeared on Barton’s Facebook page today:

Barton Quote

Sounds pretty good if your a Christian nationalist.  But let’s take a deeper look at this quote.

I have excerpted the pertinent parts of the letter below.  Warren Throckmorton, who wrote about this letter yesterday on his blog, has highlighted those passages that Barton quotes in the above meme.

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.”* Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. 

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. 

Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

A few comments:

  1. This is a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson dated 28 June 1813. I do not own this document. I read it at Founders Online, a National Archives database of the writings of the Founding Fathers.  Don’t be fooled by David Barton when he tells you that he has some special insight into the nation’s founding because he owns original documents.  Most of what he owns is accessible to anyone via this database. I found the document in less than a minute.  You can too.  I encourage you to match Barton’s selective use of quotes with the actual documents in the database.
  2. Barton is always complaining that so-called “liberal” historians use ellipses to leave out parts of documents that mention God or religion.  Notice the quote in the above meme.  Then read the actual letter.  It seems to me that the material left out by Barton’s ellipses goes a long way toward helping us understand what John Adams really meant here.  It looks like “liberal” historians are not the only ones who have this problem.
  3.  In the first paragraph, Adams is describing the religious affiliations of the men present at the Continental Congress.  Notice that the list includes “deists” and “atheists” along with more traditional Christian denominations.
  4.  In the second and third paragraphs, Adams notes that the group who met in Philadelphia was so religiously diverse that the only ideas holding them together were the “general principles of Christianity.”  What does he mean by this phrase?  It is hard to tell at first glance.  But if there were indeed “deists” and “atheists” in the room, these “general principles” must have been understood by Adams as a system of belief that was far less orthodox than the Christianity of the ancient creeds.  An “atheist” might be able to find common ground around a Christian moral code (say, for example, the Sermon on the Mount), but could not affirm the existence of God. A “deist” would have rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and, in some cases, God’s providence in human affairs, but he could certainly unite behind a moral code based on the teachings of Jesus. (I titled my chapter on the highly unorthodox Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus”). So let’s return to our original question.  What did Adams mean when he said the Continental Congress was held together by “the general principles of Christianity?” If we take the beliefs of the “atheists” and the “deists” (and, I might add, the “universalists, “Socinians,” and “Preistleyans”)  seriously, the “general principles of Christianity” was a phrase Adams used to describe a very vague moral code that all of these men–the orthodox and the unorthodox–could affirm.
  5. The third paragraph also affirms that these men were united by the “general principles of English and American liberty.”  This tells us that in addition to some very basic moral principles compatible with the ethical teachings of Christianity, the founders shared a common belief in liberty.  This should not surprise anyone.  A belief in liberty was part of their English heritage.  No English heritage of liberty, no American Revolution.  As I tell my classes, the English taught the colonists how to rebel.
  6. The fourth paragraph tells us that Adams believes that these “general principles” of Christianity and liberty could be easily affirmed by a host of secular writers, including Hume and Voltaire, two of the Enlightenment’s staunchest critics of organized Christianity. These “general principles of Christianity” must have been pretty watered-down if Hume and Voltaire could affirm them.  Again, the reference here is to a vague morality, not the particular teachings of orthodox Christianity.

In the end, if we look at the parts of the letter Barton does not mention in his meme we would get a very different view of the role of Christianity in the American founding than the Christian nationalist message he wants to convey to his Facebook followers.  This is cherry-picking at its finest.

(Thanks to Warren Throckmorton for the inspiration to write this post).

“A suit of tar and turkey-buzzard feathers”

samuel-seabury-1729-1796-granger

Samuel Seabury

The Monmouth County, New Jersey Committee of Observation and Inspection REALLY didn’t like the pamphlet Free Thoughts on the Resolves of the Congress.  The author of the pamphlet was listed as “A.W. Farmer,” a pen name for Westchester, New York Anglican minister Samuel Seabury.  Some of you recognize Seabury from the musical “Hamilton.”

Here is a taste of the Committee’s minutes from March 1775:

At an early meeting of said Committee, a pamphlet entitled Free Thoughts on the Resolves of the Congress by A.W. Farmer, was handed in to them and their opinion of it asked by a number of their constituents then present.  Said pamphlet was then read, and upon mature deliberation unanimously declared to be a performance of the most pernicious and malignant tendency; replete with the most specious sophistry but void of any solid or rational argument; calculated to deceive and mislead the unwary, the ignorant, and the credulous; and designed no doubt by the detestable author to damp that noble spirit of union, which he sees prevailing all over the Continent, and if possible to sap the foundations of American freedom.  The pamphlet was afterwards handed back to the people, who immediately bestowed upon it a suit of tar and turkey-buzzard’s feathers; one of the persons concerned in the operation justly observing that although the feathers were plucked from the most stinking fowl in the creation he though they felt far short of being a proper emblem of the author’s odiousness to every advocate for true freedom.  The same person wished, however, he had the pleasure of fitting him with a suit of the same materials.  The pamphlet was then in its gorgeous attire, nailed up firmly to the pillory post, there to remain as a monument of the indignation of a free and loyal people against the author and vendor of a publication so evidently tending both to subvert the liberties of America and the Constitution of the British Empire.

Apparently violence was not only directed toward other human beings during the American Revolution.  It was also directed to pamphlets!

Happy Independence Day

july_2nd

I wanted to get this post up before midnight. Why?  Because July 2, 1776 is the actual day that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain.  July 4th, as historian Joseph Ellis points out in today’ Los Angeles Times, is the day Congress sent the Declaration of Independence to the printer.

Ellis explains:

On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote two letters to his beloved Abigail exuberantly reporting that history had been made: One day earlier, the Continental Congress had voted to declare American independence from the British Empire. Henceforth, Adams predicted, July 2 would be celebrated by every generation with parades, speeches, songs and what he called “illuminations.” He got everything right, even the fireworks. But he got the date wrong.

Or perhaps we get the date wrong. The widespread assumption is that the Fourth of July is the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, the actual moment the founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the Great Question of Independence.

The popular musical “1776” dramatically depicts a signing ceremony on the Fourth. And the iconic painting “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, a version of which hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, is often captioned “July 4, 1776.”

But neither the musical nor the caption is historically correct. Trumbull’s picture depicts the moment on June 28 when the committee that drafted the declaration presented its work to John Hancock, chair of the Continental Congress. The play’s signing ceremony is theatrically compelling, but it never happened.

There was no singular moment when all the delegates signed the document. Most put pen to parchment on Aug. 4. (It had taken some time for the final draft to be “engrossed” — formally hand-copied.) Some signatures were added as late as November.

So why do we celebrate the Fourth? Because that is the day the declaration was sent to the printer, who then put that date on the top of the document, copies of which were distributed throughout the colonies and beyond. It became the date that readers then, and Americans ever since, recognized as the anniversary of American independence, even though nothing of historical significance actually occurred on that day.

By all rights, Adams’ choice, July 2, makes more sense. That was the day independence was officially decided and declared: “A Resolution was passed,” John told Abigail, “without one dissenting Colony ‘that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States….’ ” The revolutionary lightning struck at that moment, and the publication of the Declaration of Independence two days later was merely the thunderous aftermath, the sound following the fury.

Read the rest here.

Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of the Press

Today the POTUS tweeted:

I responded:

Freedom of the press is included in the same First Amendment that protects religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.

I think it is fair to say that no POTUS has liked the press.   But to declare the press the enemy undermines the First Amendment.

Let’s see what Thomas Jefferson thought about a free press:

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

Jefferson said a lot more about the press. Some of it was critical and some of it might provide a usable past for Trump.  See some more of his quotes here.

Here’s the Continental Congress.

The last right we shall mention, regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.–Continental Congress, October 1774.

The Founders were a bit more nuanced about freedom of the press than these quotes suggest, but I do think these quotes represent the Founders’s general understanding of the subject.