Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

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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

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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.

Kevin Hayes’s *George Washington: A Life in Books* Wins the 2018 George Washington Book Prize

HayesCongrats to Kevin Hayes.   Click here for our Author’s Corner interview with Hayes.

Here is the Mount Vernon press release:

MOUNT VERNON, VA – Author and historian Kevin J. Hayes has won the coveted George Washington Prize, including an award of $50,000, for his new book, George Washington: A Life in Books (Oxford University Press). One of the nation’s largest and most prestigious literary awards, now in its 13th year, the George Washington Prize honors its namesake by recognizing the year’s best new books on the nation’s founding era, especially those that engage a broad public audience. Conferred by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Washington College, the award will be presented to Hayes on May 23 at a black-tie gala at Mount Vernon.

In George Washington: A Life in Books, Hayes presents an intellectual biography of Washington that should permanentlydispel popular misconceptions of America’s leading Founding Father as a man of all action and no ideas. Washington scholars have long known that he owned an impressive library of more than thirteen hundred volumes. Hayes has gone further by meticulously paging through Washington’s surviving books held at the Boston Athenæum, the Washington Library at Mount Vernon, and other collections, as well as nearly nine hundred pages of Washington’s notes on his reading, to create a portrait of him as a reader. By closely examining Washington’s notes, Hayes has uncovered an intellectual curiosity that dozens of previous biographers have missed. As a young man, Washington read popular serials such as The Gentleman’s Magazine and The Spectator, which helps to bridge the long-imagined gap between him and his learned contemporaries like Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams.

“Kevin Hayes shattered myths and calumnies against George Washington and has done much more,” said Douglas Bradburn, President and CEO of Mount Vernon. “He’s added to the depth of the man helping to reveal why Washington is such an effective leader.”

Established in 2005, the George Washington Prize has honored a dozen leading writers on the Revolutionary era including Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical Hamilton. For this year’s prize, a distinguished jury comprised of notable historians Denver Brunsman, Flora Fraser, and Peter Onuf selected the seven finalists from a field of more than 50 books.

Mount Vernon’s event on May 23 will also honor the six finalists for the 2017 prize:

Max EdelsonThe New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Harvard University Press)

Eric HinderakerBoston’s Massacre (Harvard University Press)

Jon KuklaPatrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (Simon & Schuster)

James E. Lewis, Jr.The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis (Princeton University Press)

Jennifer Van HornThe Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America (University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture)

Douglas L. WiniarskiDarkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture)

George Washington Did Not Like Military Parades

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Trump was quite enamored with the 2017 Bastille Day military parade in Paris (via Creative Commons)

I got to know Lindsay Chervinsky a few years ago during my stint as a visiting fellow at Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  Her book project, “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution,” is going to make a big splash when it appears in print.  She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

Last week Chervinsky published an excellent and timely piece in The Washington Post titled “Why George Washington rejected a military in his honor (and why Donald Trump should, too).

Here is a taste:

This year, on Nov. 11, the federal government will throw a parade to celebrate the nation’s military past, including period costumes and reenactments from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and both world wars. To accompany the soldiers and veterans, the air will be filled with many generations of military planes. The parade is intended to proclaim U.S. military dominance, rather than the typical somber reflection at the cemetery. A White House report admits that the cost for the celebrations could exceed $30 million.

The significantly expanded parade comes at the request of President Trump, in an effort to one-up the Bastille Day celebration he witnessed last July in France. By celebrating current military strength, rather than honoring veterans’ service, the parade breaks with a long tradition of civilian leadership dating back to President George Washington.

Washington, the first in the pantheon of American military heroes to become president, refused pomp and circumstance as the trappings of monarchy, not a virtuous republic. If the parade occurs, it will demonstrate Trump’s contempt for civilian authority and flout the established governing norms of the republic.

On Oct. 24, 1789, President Washington entered Boston on the back of a large white stallion. This visit was the first time he had returned to the city since the Continental Army had liberated it from the British fleet in March 1776. Washington could have ridden into Boston a conquering hero with full fanfare — parades, feasts, military demonstrations, fireworks, cannons and countless toasts.

Instead, the day before his arrival, Washington pleaded with Gov. John Hancock to limit the celebrations. He then informed Maj. Gen. John Brooks, commander of the Middlesex Militia, that he would not review the militia or observe any special military maneuvers. As a private man, he could only pass down the line of troops assembled to greet him. There would be neither military parades nor any military operations for the newly inaugurated civilian leader.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump, Porn, and the Coarsening of Culture

 

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Rihad, Saudi Arabia,

Trump and his wife.  He allegedly cheated on her with a porn star

I have spent a lot of time at this blog challenging the idea, popular among conservative evangelicals, that we should elect candidates who promise to “restore” or “return” America to its supposedly Judeo-Christian roots.  I have been critical of politicians and others who want to “reclaim” a Christian golden age that may never existed in the first place.  Trump’s phrase “Make America Great Again” is extremely problematic, both from a historical perspective and an ethical perspective.  We can’t go back.  We may not want to go back.

Yet I sometimes find myself in agreement with conservative Christian cultural warriors when they talk about the coarsening of America culture.  I am thinking, for example, about the kinds of public discourse, violence, and sex that we tolerate on our television screens.  The bar for what is acceptable behavior in public has lowered significantly in recent decades.  Our kids are exposed to unhealthy images–on television, at the theater, at school, on their computers and phones, and on their video games– at a much earlier age than I was.  I don’t think I am engaging in nostalgia here.  Anyone who has watched the culture develop over the course of the last couple of decades cannot miss this.  Even if you disagree with my use of words and phrases such as “unhealthy” or “acceptable behavior” or “coarsening” to describe these changes, you would still have to admit that things on this front have changed over time.  In my view, they have declined over time.

Let’s take pornography.  I think a lot of people, whether religious or not, would agree that porn has a negative effect on American culture.  I am guessing that one does not have to be an evangelical Christian to conclude that pornography degrades women, destroys families, teaches young people (who are watching it in increasing numbers via the Internet) an unhealthy view of sex, and leads men to throw away their money.

As if it wasn’t already easy enough to become addicted to porn, we now have a President of the United States who is in a legal battle over an adulterous affair he had with a porn star.  Stormy Daniels is everywhere.  Last weekend CNN reporters covered her stripping at a Florida men’s club.  I imagine that her free porn videos online are going viral. I am sure Stormy has been a great boon for the industry.  Like it or not, she is now part of the political mainstream.  A porn star may have found her way onto the pages of American history textbooks.

I think there might be lessons here for two groups of people.

First, and perhaps most obvious, are the court evangelicals.  Frankly, I was appalled when Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, tweeted:

Stormy Daniels, a porn star, is “irrelevant?”  Trump’s playboy lifestyle and strong connections to the porn industry have made a porn star a household name in America.  I am sure Jeffress has counseled people who are addicted to porn.  I am sure he knows about families that have been torn apart because of porn.  I am sure he knows about men who have squandered away their savings or ran up massive credit card debt on Internet porn sites.  How could a pastor say that Stormy Daniels is irrelevant?

I ask the same question of the other court evangelicals, especially Tony Perkins, the champion of “family values” who gave Trump a “mulligan” on his affair with Stormy Daniels.  Is Perkins’s vision so narrow that he does not see the consequences of Trump’s sin on the culture at large?  I thought guys like Perkins wanted to clean-up the culture, not give a pass to a guy who brought a porn star into the center of public life.

But I also have a word here for all of my secular friends who think that evangelicals are obsessed with sex.  Many secular liberals, especially folks on college campuses, will be quick to condemn Trump’s relationship with a porn star.  I am glad to see that they have managed to find their moral footing on this issue.  But where have they been before Stormy Daniels came on the scene?  Why aren’t they working with evangelicals to curb pornography?  Is there common ground here?  It seems that only the most extreme libertarian can look the other way when they encounter the negative effects that pornography has had on our social institutions.  Rarely does one hear a college professor talk about the coarsening of our culture.  Perhaps they do not want to be labeled Puritans or Fundamentalists.

Maybe it is time to talk once again about virtue–the kind of common morality that the founding fathers believed essential to the preservation of a healthy republic.  Whatever you think about the founders, their flaws, and their failure to live-up to many of their ideals, they did believe that the survival of a nation was impossible without at least some kind of moral core.  It is hard to play the identity politics card on this one.  The negative effects of porn impact people of all races and classes and both genders.

American citizens will have robust debates over issues such as abortion or the nature of marriage, but I hope that they can find common moral ground on something like pornography.

The fight against pornography was once a Christian Right issue. But if reform is going to happen on this front it will now need to be led by religious and non-religious anti-Trumpers.  The court evangelicals have lost all moral authority to speak on this issue.  The next time I hear a pro-Trump evangelical leader condemn porn I will respond this way.

The Author’s Corner with Jeanne Abrams

abrams comp final (004)Jeanne Abrams is a Professor, University Libraries at the University of Denver. This interview is based on her new book, First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role (NYU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: It was actually my last book, Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health, which sparked my interest in the way our inaugural first three ladies carved out a role for themselves in the political life of the early American republic. Revolutionary Medicine examined the lives of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison from the perspective of sickness, health, and medicine in their era. In the process of writing that book I gained a deeper appreciation for the role these formidable and path-breaking women, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, played in the grand experiment which transformed America from a colonial outpost to an independent nation.

JF: What is the argument of First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, the three “first” First Ladies of the United States, invented the position without a roadmap to follow to accommodate the demands of a new republican government. Although they had to walk a fine line between bringing dignity to the position and distancing themselves from the courtly styles of European royalty that were seen as inimical to the values of a republic, these three spirited women, who in their time could not even vote or hold office, exercised intelligence and initiative to play a substantial role in the nation’s early political life.

JF: Why do we need to read First Ladies of the Republic?

JA: First Ladies of the Republic demonstrates that the creation of the United States was not only a male enterprise. Although they were constrained by the customs of their era, elite women like the inaugural First Ladies played a substantial role in the nation’s early political life. All three helped shape the nation’s political culture and were able to transcend boundaries between the private and public sphere. The lives of these three extraordinary women intersected on many occasions, and they learned from one another as the brand new position of First Lady evolved. Moreover, though most historians have looked at male and female socio-political roles in their era as a binary divide, I argue that it is more useful to view the manner in which they operated together with their presidential husbands as members of a family unit. For early members of America’s governing elite, political life was often a joint cooperative undertaking, an effort in which they participated actively as part of a close-knit family circle. The three First Ladies were all deeply committed to the public good and the principles of independence and liberty which had first emerged in Revolutionary America and continued to develop in the early national period, but at the same time, they also worked to burnish the public images of their presidential spouses and advance their family interests.

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

JA: As a freshman in college many decades ago, I had to write a paper on American Loyalists in the American Revolution for a history class. I paid a visit to the New York Historical Society, and too my astonishment and gratitude, I was handed a box of letters written by Loyalists in the 1760s and 1770s. I couldn’t believe I was holding historical documents from two centuries prior in my hands, and the experience launched my on the road to becoming an historian. That fateful day, I immediately fell in love with primary sources, and it is a love affair that has endured to this day.

JF: What is your next project?

JA: I am now working on a book manuscript about the European journeys of John and Abigail Adams and how their time abroad influenced their increasing admiration for their home country of America and commitment to the republic of the United States.

JF: Thanks, Jeanne!

The Founding Fathers and Gun Laws

CornellI have been waiting for Fordham University historian Saul Cornell to weigh-in on guns and the Second Amendment in the wake of the Parkland shooting.  In this piece at “The Conversation” he suggests “five types of gun laws the Founding Fathers loved.”

They are:

  1. Registration
  2. Public Carry
  3. Stand-your-ground laws
  4. Safe storage laws
  5. Loyalty oaths

See how Cornell develops these thoughts here.

And then go read his A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  Cornell is the National Rifle Association’s worst nightmare.

 

“Passion of the Christ” Sequel to Feature Jesus Helping Founding Fathers Establish America

Passion

The Babylon Bee continues to deliver the satire.  A taste:

HOLLYWOOD, CA—According to industry sources, director Mel Gibson’s highly anticipated sequel to The Passion of the Christ will center around the resurrected Jesus traveling to the Western Hemisphere to help the Founding Fathers establish the United States of America—God’s chosen nation.

Read the rest here.

Today the Founding Fathers Were Invoked…

founding-fathers-strip

For their ability to carry a tune

For not “envisioning career politicians

For having tensions with the free press

For believing in the right to bear arms

For not making racist, bigoted, and depressing remarks

For supporting and “educational vision” centered on “local control.”

For having their pictures replaced by pictures of football players

As radicals

For making sure we were a republic and not a democracy

For writing a Constitution that distributed power between the states and the federal gvoernment

For respecting the rights of conscience

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?

Religious Freedom in Historical Context

RagostaOver at Religion Dispatches, Frederick Clarkson interviews John Ragosta, the author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (University of Virginia Press, 2013).  January 16th is Religious Freedom Day.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Clarkston: What’s most striking to me about the Virginia Statute is the part that reads: “…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Jefferson emphasized that the bill was meant to protect everyone, including as he later wrote, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This idea–that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law–seems to be as relevant today as it was then.

Ragosta: Absolutely. The Statute was intended to create a free market of ideas, including religious ideas. Religion would thrive based not on government decisions but on what people believed and chose to support–the “voluntary principle.” The result was an explosion in religious ideas and denominationsand religious leaders were held responsible to their congregants rather than the government. Some conservative ministers who had initially opposed separating church and state admitted that it was the best thing that ever happened to the church.

People sometimes assume that if you want to keep religion out of government and government out of religion you are against religion; Jefferson suffered the same attack. But he and his evangelical supporters wanted a strict wall of separation between church and state–and yet [they] believed that there would be a vibrant religion on the “other” (non-government) side of the wall.

At the same time, while belief is completely free from government regulation and government cannot directly regulate the free exercise of religion, government can pass “neutral” laws (not targeted at religion) which may happen to be inconsistent with a person’s beliefs.

Jefferson used the obvious example of child sacrifice or a law which prohibited the slaughter of lambs when the military was in short supply of wool uniforms. The best modern example is laws against racial discrimination: While many people insisted that interracial dating or marriage violated their religion, the Supreme Court, in the 1983 case of Bob Jones University v. United States, rightly refused to grant an exemption to anti-discrimination laws based on religion.

This is exactly what is at issue in the claims for exemptions from laws dealing with LGBTQ rights. Government cannot tell a church that it must marry gay people (that would be a direct regulation of religion), but government can say that if you want to run a business (using public streets, public utilities, police and fire protection, etc.), you cannot discriminate against customers based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Of course, if people don’t like particular laws, they can be changed, but Jefferson was very clear that you can’t use religion or religious freedom to claim an exemption from an otherwise valid law.

Read the entire interview here.

Christ Church in Alexandria is a Church, Not a Museum

George_Washington_memorial_-_Christ_Church_(Alexandria,_Virginia)_-_DSC03516In case you have not heard, an Episcopalian church in Alexandria, Virginia is taking down a plaque memorializing George Washington.  When Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington owned a pew.  He attended the church whenever he was in town to conduct business.  It is located about nine miles from Mount Vernon. Washington also served as a vestryman in the church.

According to this piece in The Washington Times, Christ Church will also be removing a memorial marker dedicated to another famous parishioner: Robert E. Lee.

Here is a taste:

While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said in a letter to the congregation that went out last week.

The decision was also announced to parishioners on Sunday.

The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.

Read the entire piece here.

Let’s remember that Christ Church is a functioning congregation.  If the leadership of this congregation believe that people will be offended by commemorative material related to Washington or Lee, or if they believe that these plaques will somehow hinder the advancement of the Gospel in their midst, then the materials should definitely be removed from the sanctuary.  Finally, I am not sure political figures or military generals belong in a church sanctuary.  I would say the same thing about the American flag.

I am also glad to see that the church will be creating a separate space where the commemorative items can be explained and contextualized:

The new display location will be determined by a parish committee. That location will provide a place for our parish to offer a fuller narrative of our rich history, including the influence of these two powerful men on our church and our country,” she said in the email. “We look forward to this opportunity to continue to learn more about our own history and find new ways to introduce it to the wider community.

Read the statement from the Senior Warden of Christ Church here.