Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

George Washington and American Jews

Touro-Synagogue

On August 18, 2019, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island had its 72nd annual reading of George Washington’s letter to this Jewish congregation.  The speaker that day was Jed Rakoff, a United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York.

The New York Review of Books is running an excerpt of Rakoff’s speech.  Here is a taste of Washington’s Legacy for American Jews: ‘To Bigotry No Sanction.’“:

George Washington’s letter of August 1790 (sixteen months after he became president) responding to a letter from Moses Seixas, Warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, is rightly celebrated as one of the definitive statements of religious freedom under the new US Constitution. Washington’s assertion that “the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” made clear that our nation’s first president would not permit the power of the new government to become an instrument of religious intolerance….

But is it still true? There may be cause to worry. Two years ago, in August 2017, neo-Nazi marchers, some of them carrying Nazi flags, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Some of these neo-Nazi demonstrators, carrying semi-automatic rifles, surrounded a local synagogue and posted messages online threatening to burn the temple down. Finally, James Alex Fields Jr.—a confessed Hitler admirer—intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring twenty-eight others.

Then, last October, an expressly anti-Semitic mass murderer entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing eleven members of the congregation and wounding several others. This, the single most violent anti-Semitic incident in US history, was followed, just a few months ago, by a synagogue shooting near San Diego, California, that left one Jew dead and several others injured.

Needless to say, Jews have not been the only victims of the acts of domestic terrorism that have become all too common in our country. Black and Hispanic people, and others, have suffered much worse, as recent events in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, so horribly attest. But that a violent hatred of Jews is once again rearing its ugly head in certain quarters is difficult to deny. Although in America, in contrast to anti-Semitism in many other parts of the world, this hatred and accompanying violence is mostly the work of small fringe groups of political extremists, it is apparent that such attacks are increasing in both number and ferocity. American Jews, so fortunate in so many ways, need to be more alert to these threats, both to others and to ourselves.

I do not wish to seem an alarmist, and all of this must be put in perspective. Despite the recent increase in anti-Semitism in the US, we Jews owe the overwhelming majority of our fellow Americans a huge debt, both for according us what Washington called our “natural rights,” and for increasingly welcoming us into the life of the American Republic without obliging us to abandon our traditions and beliefs. As Washington envisaged in his letter, Americans have in so many ways become “a great and a happy people,” Jewish Americans not least among them. But just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, so we cannot be sure that such happiness will continue if we do not acknowledge, and confront, the growing dangers we face.

Unlike the Moses Seixas of May 1790, who feared to give offense, we must be like the Moses Seixas of August 1790, who asserted our rights, as Americans and Jews, to lead our daily lives free of fear.

Read the entire piece here.

Boris Johnson Wants to Suspend Parliament. Could Trump Suspend Congress?

Boris

In case you haven’t heard, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament for five weeks so he can silence dissenters as he leads Great Britian’s departure from the European Union.  Get up to speed here and here.

Could something similar happen in the United States?  Could the President of the United States suspend Congress?  Eliga Gould, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, explains why such a move would be unconstitutional.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

When Americans started debating what sort of government they wanted for the United States, they knew they needed an executive with some of the vigor that they associated with a monarchy. What they had in mind, however, was different from the British crown. The monarch, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in the “Federalist” essays, was a “perpetual magistrate,” who had powers that were limited only by whatever rules he or she chose to observe.

The newly created role of U.S. president, by contrast, had clearly defined powers under the Constitution, as did Congress. Crucially, the power to summon or dismiss Congress belonged to the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together decided when to convene and when to adjourn. The position of president, in other words, was intentionally designed without the authority to reproduce the 11-year tyranny of King Charles – or the five-week suspension of Queen Elizabeth II and her current prime minister.

Read the entire piece here.

America as Rome?

Roman Empire

I am asked this all time:  Is America going the direction of the Roman Republic (or even the Roman Empire)?  In an age of Trump it might seem like the answer is a definitive “yes.” But historians will be quick to tell remind us that “this too shall pass.”

As historian Tom Holland writes in the New York Review of Books, Americans have been comparing themselves to Rome for a long time.  As he puts it: “America is not Rome.  It just thinks it is.”  Here is a taste:

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been. At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion. In 1919, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, The New York Times warned that the Huns and the Vandals were massing again. “The Roman Empire and its civilization were destroyed by barbarian hordes coming from the East—and it is from the east that comes the wind.” Thirty years earlier, visiting the abandoned Roman city at Baalbek in Lebanon, Brooks Adams—the great-grandson of John Adams—had been inspired by the spectacle of shattered greatness to dread that his own country’s gilded age was bound to end in similar ruin. In the decades before the Civil War, opponents of slavery repeatedly cited the fall of Rome as a warning of what might happen to a slave-owning society. In the 1830s, opponents of Andrew Jackson cast him as a dictator and a demagogue whose tyranny would inevitably bring the infant republic to share in the fate of the ancient empire. Present anxieties that Trump’s presidency portends America’s decline and fall are the contemporary expression of a tradition quite as venerable as the United States itself. 

Just as Americans today look back wistfully to the Founding Fathers as patrons of an age of rugged independence and virtue, so did the Founding Fathers look back with an equal wistfulness to the early years of Rome. There, for any young republic victorious in a war against a great monarchy, a morality tale was to be found that could hardly help but serve as inspiration. The Romans, like the Americans, had originally been ruled by a king; then, resolved no longer to live in servitude, they had dared in a heroic and ultimately successful campaign to expel him. Repeatedly, whether by standing alone on a bridge against fearsome odds, or by plunging a hand into fire rather than submit to tyranny, or by riding a horse into a bottomless abyss in the certainty that such a sacrifice would secure the republic against ruin, Romans had demonstrated their commitment to liberty.

Read the entire piece here.

Breen: “George Washington Would Hate Trump’s July 4 Parade”

Trump 4th

T.H. Breen brings the thunder:

President Trump has invited the American people to what he claims will be the biggest and best Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s history. Influenced by the huge nationalist displays he witnessed in Europe, Mr. Trump promises “a really great parade to show our military strength.” And he will treat the country to a “major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”

All Americans should be appalled. Even during an era of extreme hyperbole, the unabashed narcissism driving the parade plans is astonishing. It runs counter to the explicit aims and faith of the ordinary Americans who founded the United States.

The focus on a single leader — on the construction of a cult of personality — would have incensed the men and women who sacrificed so much to create a new nation. As Capt. Joseph Bloomfield explained to a company of New Jersey troops preparing to fight in the Revolutionary War, the American states had “entered a new era of politics.” He warned the soldiers to be on guard against the rise of an “aspiring Demagogue, possessed of popular talents and shining qualities, a Julius Caesar, or an Oliver Cromwell” who “will lay violent hands on the government and sacrifice the liberties of his country.”

At a moment when exclusionary forms of national identity are on the rise, we should remember that the ordinary people who suffered so much during a long war believed that their sacrifice legitimated a system of government in which ordinary people like themselves had a meaningful voice. There would be no more doffing the cap to noblemen. No more claims to special privilege. In the independent republic all citizens would be equal under the law.

The Author’s Corner with Carli Conklin

The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding EraCarli Conklin is Associate Professor at The University of Missouri School of Law.  This interview is based on her new book, The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History (University of Missouri, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: I had long wondered why Thomas Jefferson would choose a phrase as seemingly vague as “the pursuit of happiness” to be included as one of only three unalienable rights he specifically listed in the Declaration of Independence. That the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” was left untouched throughout an otherwise lengthy and quite detailed drafting process only further piqued my curiosity. I began to wonder if “the pursuit of happiness” had been left untouched because it was so clearly-defined and widely-accepted among the Founders that it required no editing or if it had been left untouched because it was so vague as to have no specific or controversial meaning to the Founders, at all.

In their later writings, Jefferson and John Adams both claimed that the Declaration was not intended to be a statement of new ideas. Taking my cue from them, I began exploring old ideas–key strands of thought that were most influential at the Founding: English law and legal history; the history and philosophy of classical antiquity; Christianity; and the Scottish Enlightenment’s focus on Newtonian Science. These strands of thought, while conflicting in their particulars, nevertheless converged at a place of particular meaning. That place of particular meaning was the late-eighteenth understanding of “the pursuit of happiness.”

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: Far from being a glittering generality or a direct substitution for property, “the pursuit of happiness” had a distinct meaning to those who included the phrase in two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential legal texts: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). That distinct meaning included a belief in first principles by which the created world is governed, the idea that these first principles were discoverable by man, and the belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia, or human flourishing.

JF: Why do we need to read The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era?

CC: Today, we continue to invoke our unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness in a wide variety of settings. The right to “the pursuit of happiness” shows up everywhere from music and movies to U.S. Supreme Court cases, with a bewildering array of meanings attributed to the phrase. This work clarifies the meaning of the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness by placing the phrase within its broader eighteenth-century legal and historical context. The methodology behind this exploration highlights not only the interdisciplinary depth and breadth of the Founders’ intellectual world, but also the unexpected places where a variety of these influential, eighteenth-century schools of thought converged.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CC: Throughout college, I pursued my love for English and education while remaining interested in law. I was particularly fascinated by the ideas that are embedded in our laws and how those laws—and the ideas undergirding them–change over time. Following my graduation from Truman State University, I learned of the University of Virginia School of Law’s dual degree program in American legal history. I still vividly remember the excitement I felt as I read the program description—it was everything I had ever wanted to study! I am happy to say that I could not have found a more welcoming and intellectually invigorating home for the study of early American legal history. As an early American legal historian who views scholarship as an extension of teaching, I remain so grateful for the outstanding education I received from Truman State University in teaching pedagogy, critical thinking and analysis, and the close reading of texts and the fantastic education in law and American legal history I received at the University of Virginia, first under Barry Cushman and Charles W. McCurdy in the J.D./M.A. program and then when I returned to Virginia to work under Prof. McCurdy again for my Ph.D. It has been a true joy to work in this field.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I am fascinated by how our legal use and understanding of “the pursuit of happiness” has changed over time. I am currently working on a project entitled The Pursuit of Happiness after the Founding: Case Law and Constitutions. This project explores the use of “the pursuit of happiness” in key legal texts from 1776 forward, including constitutions and court cases at both the state and federal levels.

JF: Thanks, Carli!

Episode 50: The Religious Beliefs of the Adams Family

PodcastDon’t be confused by the title, we are not talking about the spooky family from the 1960s. Rather, in this episode, we turn to the religious history of one of America’s founding families. By focusing on the Adams family, one can trace the evolution of American religion as John, Abigail, JQA, and others wrestle with Providence, the Enlightenment, and a changing political landscape. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by Sara Georgini (@sarageorgini), the author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Joseph Ellis: The Founding Fathers Wanted a Green New Deal

Mount Vernon gardens

Mount Vernon

Would the founding fathers have supported a Green New Deal?  I have no idea.

But historian Joseph Ellis‘s thoughts at CNN are worth considering here.  A taste:

From the very beginning, there were critics who challenged the claim that “We the people” referred to a collective or public interest shared by all American citizens. This is what the most vocal opponents of the Green New Deal get wrong when they call the plan “socialist” — they fail to realize that pursuit of a collective good is the very essence of the Founding Fathers’ vision for America. There is an alternative vision. It includes: the Antifederalists, who lost the debate over the Constitution in 1787-88; the leaders of the Confederate States of America; the captains of industry who dominated the first Gilded Age; the Southern defenders of Jim Crow and enemies of the civil rights movement; and the current corporate leaders of our second Gilded Age. What ties all these apparently different groups together is an anti-government ethos with libertarian implications and deep-seated reluctance to share resources with multiple versions of “them.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Brook Poston

james monroe a republican championBrook Poston is Associate Professor of History at Steven F. Austin State University. This interview is based on his new book, James Monroe, A Republican Champion (University Press of Florida, 2019).

JF: What led  you to write James Monroe?

BP: Monroe was right in the thick of every major event during the first half century of American history, yet he is probably the least well known of the major American founders. Also, because his career began during the Revolutionary era and ended in 1825, the study of his life offers a window into two different generations of American political figures. I also liked that Monroe wanted to be remembered alongside the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison but was never quite able to match their accomplishments. It makes him a little more relatable, more human.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of James Monroe?

BP: Monroe attempted to craft a legacy for himself as a champion of an American style of republicanism (dedicated to the protection of liberty) by helping to secure it within the United States and spread it overseas. Monroe tried to secure republicanism at home by purchasing Louisiana, fighting the British during the War of 1812, and acquiring Florida, but his true passion was spreading republican ideals abroad which he tried to do during both the French and Latin American revolutions, culminating with his famous Monroe Doctrine which he hoped would secure his own legacy as a champion of republicanism.

JF: Why should we read James Monroe?

BP: This work changes our understanding of Monroe and his era in some important ways. Because of his experience during the American Revolution and his subsequent apprenticeship to Thomas Jefferson, Monroe came to believe that the creation and hopeful spread of American republicanism was arguably the most important cause in human history. This mindset helps explain Monroe’s position on the French Revolution, which he saw as analogous to the American Revolution. As the American minister to France during the 1790s Monroe tried to build a lasting alliance between the two nations in defense of republicanism. When the Federalists rejected the French Revolution and President Washington dismissed Monroe as his minister in Paris, Monroe saw it as a major defeat for the republican movement. After Jefferson’s election in 1800, Monroe shifted his focus to securing his own political career and republicanism at home. This helped guide his decision making as he purchased the Louisiana territory, negotiated the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty, and helped fight the British during the War of 1812. Nevertheless, the memory of the lost opportunity in France stuck with Monroe as that country drifted away from republicanism under Napoleon. By the time Monroe reached the nation’s highest office in 1817, republican revolutions were breaking out all over Latin America and Monroe saw it as a chance to correct the mistakes the U.S. made during the French Revolution. Monroe therefore saw his doctrine not primarily as a tool to promote American hegemony in the western hemisphere but as part of the ongoing battle between republicanism and monarchy.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BP: Like many college history majors I decided to go to law school after undergrad. I enjoyed certain aspects of the law but I was unsure about a legal career as I finished up my time at the University of Kansas. Luckily a KU law professor named Michael Hoeflich convinced me that it wasn’t crazy to want to get a PhD in history after I graduated from law school. A year of practicing law drove home the fact that I didn’t want to be a lawyer for the rest of my life and I ended up going back to history and finding a new, and far more satisfying, career.

JF: What is your next project?

BP: I plan to write another Monroe book, this time on his relationships with Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, the Adams’s, and Jackson. This project will look at Monroe’s interactions with these men through the lens of the rise, fall, and rebirth of American political parties.

JF: Thanks, Brook!

“Avenue of Our Founders” and “Avenue of Freedom”

Franklin Court

Two new street names in Philadelphia.  Here is a taste of a piece at Philly.com:

Two dozen people gathered outside the Independence Visitor Center for a ceremony christening Market Street between Front Street and Eighth Street as “Avenue of Our Founders,” in honor of the country’s founding fathers. At the same time Sixth between Race Street and Lombard Streets was renamed “Avenue of Freedom” to mark key sites of black American history.

Read the entire piece here.

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

founding-fathers-strip

For never imagining “a crook like Trump

For overthrowing kings and aristocrats, such as the “wealthy and educated gentlemen” who “still dominate the government.”

For believing that a republic will only survive if we have an educated electorate

For being slave owners and leaving us with a legacy of racism

For creating a system of government that allowed “ideological disagreements to be hashed out peacefully.”

For not establishing religious tests for federal office-holding

For never envisioning a “super-majority requirement in the Senate” to advance policy changes.

For giving us the right to free speech

For defending an unalienable right to life

For creating a presidential seal that includes the color red

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

The Problem of “Reconciling Irreconcilable Values”

FugitiveAndrew Delbanco‘s new book is titled The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War.  While I was on the road last week I listened to Delbanco’s interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio.  I recommend it.

Over at The Atlantic, Delbanco explains what the 19th-century debate over slavery can teach us about our own contentious political moment.  Here is a taste:

With the united states starkly divided and with many Americans asking what kind of nation we are, it seems a good moment to look back to November 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Abraham Lincoln tried to answer the same question. Consecrating a Civil War battlefield where thousands of young men and boys had died four months before, he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For most Americans since, and for much of the world, those words have at­tained the status of scripture. We draw our sense of collective identity from them. They were, however, not strictly true, and Lincoln knew it.

Five years earlier, he had been more candid. Speaking in Chicago in the summer of 1858, Lincoln noted that when the republic was founded, “we had slavery among us,” and that “we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted” slavery to persist in those parts of the nation where it was already entrenched. “We could not secure the good we did secure,” he said, “if we grasped for more.” The United States, in other words, could not have been created if the eradication of human bondage had been a condition of its creation. Had Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the nation was con­ceived not in liberty but in compromise, the phrase would have been less memorable but more accurate.

The hard truth is that the United States was founded in an act of accommodation between two fundamentally different societies. As one Southern-born antislavery activist wrote, it was a “sad satire to call [the] States ‘United,’” because in one-half of the country slavery was basic to its way of life, while in the other it was fading or already gone. The Founding Fathers tried to stitch these two nations together with no idea how long the stitching would hold.

Read the rest here.

George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790

TouroSynagogue_02

In August 1790, President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and others traveled to Rhode Island.  On August 18, they stopped at the Touro Synagogue in Newport.  Later in the day, Washington wrote this letter to the congregation:

Gentlemen.

 

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address1 replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport,2 from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

A President of the United States at a Jewish synagogue.

For more context on this letter and the trip click here.

Joseph Ellis’s New Book is About the Founding Fathers

EllisEllis is a productive writer and historian, but I can’t keep up with all his books about the founding fathers.  Here is a taste of Jeff Shesol’s review of his latest: American Dialogue: The Founders and Us:

If the historian Joseph J. Ellis has a project — an unfairly pedestrian term to describe his rich body of work — it is to restore to the nation’s founders some measure of their humanity. In books like “Founding Brothers,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and “American Sphinx,” a brilliantly drawn portrait of Jefferson, Ellis renders the founders in fine shadings: wise and bold and prescient, yes, but also, at times, blinkered and uncertain, men in conflict with one another and even themselves. Ellis is not a revisionist; he is not pulling down statues from their pedestals. He does not begrudge the founders their disagreements or the fact that more than two centuries later, so many of their arguments remain unresolved. As he writes in his newest book, “American Dialogue,” the founding generation’s “greatest legacy is the recognition that argument itself is the answer.”

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Gienapp

41ZCgkF5jaL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJonathan Gienapp is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University. This interview is based on his new book The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Second Creation?

JG: I had long been interested in Revolutionary American political culture, intellectual history, and constitutionalism. Initially, I focused most of my attention on the period leading up to the drafting of the United States Constitution. Like so many historians, I instinctively distinguished the pre- and post-1788 periods, assuming that the formal ratification of the Constitution marked a sharp break in American history and a convenient way of bringing the Revolutionary period to a close. But then I found myself attracted to the 1790s and the post-ratification period. I was especially drawn to early debates over constitutional interpretation, not least because they had been far less studied than more famous debates that took place at the Constitutional Convention and then during ratification. Moreover, I began realizing that these early constitutional debates were sprawling and untamed. They often began focused on something specific before quickly morphing into broad, unfettered debates that grappled with what seemed to be almost meta-constitutional questions. That is, participants were not simply applying the Constitution to emerging problems; more fundamentally, they had to gain a deeper understanding of what the Constitution itself even was in order to even begin to know how to apply it. It became clear to me that participants kept having to discuss these broader matter because they were attempting to engage in constitutional debate without the benefit of any working rules for acceptable constitutional argument. They had to invent those rules, those practices, those norms as much as they could simply apply them. In other words, they had to invent the practices that made the Constitution intelligible and usable. From there I became really taken with the idea that the post-1788 period was as a much a chapter in constitutional creation as it was one in constitutional interpretation and it was worth reevaluating the whole period from that perspective.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Second Creation?

JG: It is often assumed that the United States Constitution was fully created in 1787 and 1788 when it was written and ratified. But because so much about the Constitution was shrouded in uncertainty even after these processes were complete, debates immediately following the document’s ratification did as much to give the Constitution its definitive identity as anything that came before.

JF: Why do we need to read The Second Creation?

JG: In forcing readers to reimagine the conventional story of American constitutional creation, The Second Creation forces historians and American citizens alike to reimagine the Constitution itself. It tries to show how certain ways of thinking about the Constitution, ones that are often taken to be essential, are in fact quite contingent; that it wasn’t simply the Constitution’s raw essence that made people begin assuming that it had certain kinds of definitive features. In fact, a lot of those habits of thought–habits that continue to inform how people think and argue about the Constitution today–were invented after the Constitution was written during the explosive decade that followed its ratification. Recognizing this fact is especially important in light of the charged debates over the theory of constitutional originalism that continue to dominate modern constitutional argument. Today, originalism is as popular and powerful as ever and its champions continue to insist that the Constitution should be interpreted now in accordance with its original meaning–the meaning it had when it was first written and ratified. Yet, as I attempt to show, all efforts to recover the original meaning of the Constitution must first reckon with the fact that the Constitution was not fully created in 1787-1788, that the original Constitution itself was in profound flux when it first appeared. Debates over originalism–which are as much about the Constitution’s role in American life today as what happened in the 18th century–ought to be informed by a deeper understanding of the original Constitution itself.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JG: My father was an American historian so I like to say that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. But I was first intensely drawn to early American history as an undergraduate when I read Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and shortly thereafter Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic for the first time. What I remember most vividly was less the content or even the arguments of either (although both were stimulating) but more the approach that each embodied: that recapturing the intricacies of the intellectual world of the American Revolution required a meticulous exhumation of a lost conceptual world. I was drawn to the idea that the study of history, even a period and place as seemingly familiar as Revolutionary America, required this kind of deep excavation. I found the past so much more interesting when I realized that understanding it required this kind of careful, immersive work. And I found the historian’s task that much more urgent since it seemed to primarily consist of learning how to climb inside other people’s heads and make sense of their world from their perspectives. It required bracketing one’s own working assumptions and learning how to think like somebody else once had. I have never lost sight of those lessons and, as much as my thinking has changed and developed since those early days, those experiences remain formative. They continue to explain why I became a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

JG: My next project seeks to rethink the rise of American democracy in the late 18th and early 19th-century United States by interrogating, not how American political culture came under greater popular control, but how a peculiar understanding of “democracy” emerged in the first place. A technical concept in political science up to that point, “democracy” came to acquire novel and expansive meaning during this period, morphing into the definitive norm by which all modern political practice has come to be judged. To explain why, classic accounts often focus on popular political transformations. But these transformations did not necessitate a corresponding shift in political language and consciousness. They could not, in their own right, force anybody to call such transformations or the practices they initiated “democratic.” During this period, “democracy” and its cognates took on profoundly new meanings as it was aggressively mobilized in several distinct contexts and in service of several distinct purposes. The project seeks to understand why Americans’ usage and understanding of this crucial word and concept transformed in such fundamental ways–why democracy became such an authoritative standard of political life.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!

Action Alert: I Teach Distorted History

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The American Family Association of Pennsylvania has issued an “Action Alert” yesterday in “celebration” of Constitution Day.  Here is a taste of it:

The United States Constitution was signed on this day in 1787. This was our second attempt at a national governing document.  The 1777 Articles of Confederation, which went into effect in 1781, quickly proved to be inadequate.  In 1786 the Annapolis Convention called for a group to assemble to address the many weaknesses.

After months of sometimes contentious debate, the Constitution was introduced to the citizens of the new nation.   Did you know that many of the delegates involved in the writing of the Constitution were trained in theology or ministry?  Abraham Baldwin, James Wilson, Hugh Williamson, Oliver Ellsworth are a few examples.  The Constitution was then sent to the states for ratification.  Among the delegates selected, the states elected about four dozen clergymen to serve in the ratification process for the Constitution.

U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge stated in 1919:

“The United States is THE WORLD’S BEST HOPE…

Beware how you trifle with your marvelous inheritance … for if we stumble & fall, freedom & civilization everywhere will go down in ruin.”

However, in recent years attacks on our Constitution have increased,  as well as the idea that there is any Christian influence on the founding of this nation or the writing of the Constitution.  Messiah College (Cumberland County) professor  Dr. John Fea has been an outspoken critic of the idea the United States had a Christian founding and recently insisted that the Founding Fathers did not want the clergy to be involved in politics.    Just imagine what distorted history Christian students in that school are being taught!

I am not sure what an “Action Alert” means.  What kind of “action” does the American Family Association of Pennsylvania want to take against me?

The author of this “Action Alert” is referring to this Religion News Service piece in which I showed how many of the framers of the state constitutions formed in the immediate wake of Independence did not permit clergy to hold office.  The site links to a David Barton piece that criticizes the piece.

Just for the record:

  • I AM an “outspoken critic of the idea the United States had a Christian founding.”
  • I am also a Christian.
  • I do not hate the Constitution, but I do not believe it is a Christian document.
  • It looks like the American Family Association of Pennsylvania is located in Franklin, PA.  According to Google Maps, Franklin is located about four hours from Messiah College.  I would be happy to drive up to Franklin to meet with the staff of this organization for a civil dialogue on this topic.

It’s Official: Monticello Affirms Thomas Jefferson Fathered Children with Sally Hemings

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It was announced on June 6, 2018.  Here is the press release:

The issue of Jefferson’s paternity has been the subject of controversy for at least two centuries, ranging from contemporary newspaper articles in 1802 (when Jefferson was President) to scholarly debate well into the 1990s. It is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s view that the issue is a settled historical matter.

A considerable body of evidence stretching from 1802 to 1873 (and beyond) describes Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemings’s children. It was corroborated by the findings of the Y-chromosome haplotype DNA study conducted by Dr. Eugene Foster and published in the scientific journal Nature in November 1998. The DNA study did prove paternity of a Jefferson family member and corroborated the ample documentary and oral history evidence. Other evidence supports Thomas Jefferson’s paternity as well, including his presence at Monticello during Sally Hemings’s likely windows of conception, the names of Hemings’s surviving children, and the fact that all of her children were granted freedom – they were either allowed to leave the plantation, or legally emancipated in Jefferson’s will, a unique occurrence among Monticello’s enslaved families. The summary of the most important evidence proving Jefferson’s paternity is listed below.1

  1. Madison Hemings provided an account of his mother’s life that was published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. The basic outline of Madison Hemings’s account, including his mother’s “treaty” with Jefferson and the freedom granted to him and his siblings, was well known to his community before it was published. His narrative is the most important extant evidence and much of the corroborating evidence supports the outline of his narrative.
  2. The Foster et al. (1998) DNA study revealed that male-line descendants of Eston Hemings (a son of Sally Hemings) and male-line descendants of Field Jefferson’s father (who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather), shared the same Y-chromosome haplotype.  This demonstrates that Eston’s father was a Jefferson male. This result not only corroborates Madison’s account in the Pike County Republican, it definitively refutes the claims by Jefferson grandchildren, including Ellen Randolph Coolidge and her brother Thomas Jefferson Randolph, that either Peter or Samuel Carr (they could not agree on which one) was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.
  3. Madison Hemings was described by a U.S. census taker as the son of Thomas Jefferson in 1870.
  4. Israel Gillette Jefferson, formerly enslaved at Monticello, corroborated Madison Hemings’s claim in the same newspaper, referring to Sally Hemings as Thomas Jefferson’s “concubine.”
  5. Eston Hemings changed his racial identity to white and his surname to Jefferson after moving from Ohio to Wisconsin in 1852.  Newspaper accounts in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1887 and 1902 recalled that Eston resembled Thomas Jefferson.
  6. The two oldest surviving children of Sally Hemings, Beverly Hemings (a male) and Harriet Hemings, were both allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit and were described as “run away” in Jefferson’s inventory of enslaved families. In an 1858 letter to her husband Joseph Coolidge, Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, (while denying Jefferson’s paternity) described Sally Hemings’s children as “all fair and all set free at my grandfather’s death, or had been suffered to absent themselves permanently before he died.”
  7. Jefferson’s records of his travels and the birthdays of Sally Hemings’s children reveal that he was present at Monticello during the estimated dates of conception for all six of Hemings’s documented offspring. Statistical modeling shows the likelihood of this coincidence for any other male (if we assume that Thomas Jefferson is not the father) as 1 percent, or 1 chance in 100 — strong evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.2
  8. Oral tradition connecting the Hemings and Jefferson families was transmitted among the descendants of both Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings over many generations. Madison Hemings calls Jefferson his “father” in his 1873 recollections, a fact repeated by his descendants.  Eston Hemings’s descendants altered their family history to state that they were related to one of Thomas Jefferson’s relatives in order to hide Eston Hemings’s decision to change his racial identity when he moved to Wisconsin.
  9. Jefferson freed all four surviving Hemings children (in accordance with the terms of his negotiation with Sally Hemings, as reported by her son Madison). He did not grant freedom to any other enslaved nuclear family.
  10. The names of Sally Hemings’s four surviving children — William Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, James Madison Hemings, and Thomas Eston Hemings — suggest family ties to Thomas Jefferson. Annette Gordon-Reed outlines these naming connections in her book, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).  A man named William Beverly accompanied Jefferson’s father on an expedition through Virginia in 1746, and he was connected to Jefferson’s mother’s family by blood and marriage. There were multiple Harriets in the Randolph family, including a sister and a niece of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law. Madison Hemings was named at the request of Dolley Madison, whose husband, James Madison, was one of Jefferson’s close friends. Historian and biographer Fawn Brodie offered two possible explanations for Eston Hemings’s name: Eston was the birthplace of Jefferson’s maternal ancestor, William Randolph, in Yorkshire, England. Thomas Eston Randolph was also a first cousin of Jefferson; Jefferson described their two families as being “almost as one.”3Furthermore, it was convention for Jefferson to be involved in the naming of family members. His children with Martha Jefferson were given the names of his sisters and mother, and he personally named each of his grandchildren.4

Why Remove the Qualifiers?

As the Thomas Jefferson Foundation began planning The Life of Sally Hemings, an exhibit that relies on the account left by her son, Madison Hemings, it became apparent that it was time to reexamine how to characterize Jefferson’s paternity. For nearly twenty years, the most complete summary of evidence has remained the report authored by the Foundation in January 2000. While there are some who disagree, the Foundation’s scholarly advisors and the larger community of academic historians who specialize in early American history have concurred for many years that the evidence is sufficiently strong to state that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings.

In the new exhibit exploring the life of Sally Hemings, her choices, and her connection to Thomas Jefferson, as well as in updates to our related online materials and print publications, the Foundation will henceforth assert what the evidence indicates and eliminate qualifying language related to the paternity of Eston Hemings as well as that related to Sally Hemings’s three other surviving children, whose descendants were not part of the 1998 DNA study. While it remains possible, though increasingly unlikely, that a more comprehensive documentary and genetic assemblage of evidence could emerge to support a different conclusion, no plausible alternative with the same array of evidence has surfaced in two decades.

  • 1.All the evidence enumerated comes from the unpublished Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, TJMF, January 2000, section IV, pp. 6-8, and Appendix F, “A Review of the Documentary Evidence,” pp. 1-7. The entire report and other resources are available online at https://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/jefferson-hemings….
  • 2.Bayes’ theorem allows us to measure just how strong. To take advantage of it, we need to be willing to summarize the strength of evidence that Jefferson was the father, based on other evidence (say the DNA result and Madison’s testimony), as a “prior” probability. Bayes’ theorem allows us to rationally update this prior probability, using the 1 percent likelihood, to yield a posterior probability that Jefferson was the father of all six children. Given a prior probability of 50%, Bayes’ theorem yields a posterior probability of 99%: 99 chances out of 100 that Jefferson was the father of all six children.
  • 3.Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974).
  • 4.Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999) pp. 196-201.

“Amending America” Exhibit Comes to Lancaster, Pennsylvania

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You can see the National Archive’s exhibit “Amending America: The Bill of Rights” at LancasterHistory.org in Lancaster, PA.  Learn more from Jennifer Kopf‘s piece at Lancaster Online.  Here is a taste:

Two years ago, on the 225th anniversary of that Bill of Rights, the National Archives curated an exhibit that explores how those first 10 amendments were composed. “Amending America: The Bill of Rights” then went on a cross-country tour of America that arrives in Lancaster later this week.

When “Amending America” opens at LancasterHistory.org Saturday, it will be the 11th stop on a tour that’s taken the exhibit to the presidential libraries of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, the home of Founding Father George Mason, a museum in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, and, most recently, to the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.

Using reproduction documents and petitions, political cartoons and interactive stations, the exhibit also will have a feature none of the other stops on the tour has had.

Local curators have assembled a complementary exhibit on President Jame

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s Buchanan and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Both immensely powerful mid-19th-century politicians and both Lancastrians, Stevens and Buchanan held radically different ideas about what powers were permitted and prohibited by the Constitution.

Robin Sarratt, vice president of LancasterHistory.org, says the timing of the exhibit’s arrival here “is fortuitous.”

“Amending America,” Sarratt says, encourages the process of asking questions, of thinking about what citizenship means, about what the words in the Constitution and Bill of Rights meant in that era — and what they mean today.”

Read the entire article here.

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

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For protecting the separation of church and state

For not declaring English as the official language of the United States of America

For giving rights to the states (so we can all have clean water)

For their connection to the same church as Bishop Michael Curry

For their support of an archaic electoral college

For providing the POTUS with the power to pardon

For giving the power to make war to both the Congress and the President

For being enthralled with the Greeks and Romans

For wearing tricorn hats and knee breeches

For only allowing property owners to vote

For their emoluments provision

And we could go on.  The Founders are invoked every day.   Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?

The Founding Fathers and Foreign Meddling in American Elections

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Were the founders worried about foreign meddling in American elections?

Yes.

Check out Jeanne Abrams‘s piece at History News Service.  Abrams teaches at the University of Denver and her book First Ladies of the Republic was featured in a March 2018 Author’s Corner at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Here is a taste:

In 1787, the new United States Constitution was being debated in Philadelphia, and both Jefferson and Adams followed developments closely from afar. In an oft- quoted letter written by Adams to Jefferson on December 6, 1787, Adams referred to the “Project of the new Constitution,” and the various objections both men had to the evolving document. Adams famously declared “You are afraid of the one – I, of the few.” Jefferson detested the institution of monarchy and was concerned that the installation of a powerful executive would overturn the principles of the American Revolution and create a quasi-monarchy. Adams, on the other hand, feared the creation of an elite aristocracy in the form of senators. Because of his concern about such a possible oligarchy, Adams therefore maintained “I would have given more power to the President and less to the Senate,” and he advocated for a strong executive.

What is more surprising, and for the most part overlooked, about Adams’s letter is his discussion of the potential danger of foreign meddling in American elections, a subject that is especially timely today. “You are apprehensive of foreign Interference, Intrigue, and Influence,” Adams wrote. “So am I, – But, as often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs.” To counteract that danger, Adams maintained that the less frequently elections occurred, “the danger of foreign influence will be less.” Of course, Adams’s view did not prevail and regular elections and the peaceful transfer of power are still regarded as hallmarks of American democracy.

Read the entire piece here.