A Time for Citizenship

Citizenship

It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

Would the Founders Have Recognized GOP Arguments Against Trump’s Removal?

Impeachment Image

As we enter the 2020 election season I have been trying to do more writing for local and regional outlets here in Pennsylvania. This morning I have an op-ed on the impeachment trial at LNP/Lancaster On-Line (formerly Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era).  Here is a taste:

Other Republican senators, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Pennsylvania’s own Pat Toomey, argued that Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president was “inappropriate,” but did not rise to the level of impeachment.

This last group of senators justified their acquittal votes in two ways.

First, some of them argued that the Founding Fathers would have opposed a partisan impeachment. (No House Republicans supported impeachment.)

This is not true.

In Federalist Paper No. 65, Alexander Hamilton, one of the most prolific defenders of the Constitution during the ratification debates of 1787-1788, predicted that impeachments would always be political. As a result, the Senate should always proceed with caution, prudence and wisdom.

Moreover, the framers of the Constitution would never have referred to an impeachment trial as “bipartisan,” since at the time of its writing there were no political parties in the United States.

The second way that this cohort of Republican senators justified their acquittal vote was by claiming that “the people” should decide whether Trump should be removed from office and this should be done when they cast their ballots during the November presidential election.

The Founding Fathers would not have recognized such an argument.

Read the entire piece here.

Lamar Alexander’s Statement is Full of Historical Problems

lamar-alexander

If Lamar Alexander wants to oppose witnesses in the Donald Trump impeachment trial he has that right.  But spare us the “history” lesson.

Alexander statement says:

I worked with other senators to make sure that we have the right to ask for more documents and witnesses, but there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the United States Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense.

So it sounds like Alan Dershowitz’s “absurd” and “baffling” argument convinced the senior Senator from Tennessee.  In embracing the Dershowitz argument, Alexander has chosen to reject the consensus of legal scholars and American historians.

Alexander continues:

“There is no need for more evidence to prove that the president asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter; he said this on television on October 3, 2019, and during his July 25, 2019, telephone call with the president of Ukraine. There is no need for more evidence to conclude that the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this with what they call a ‘mountain of overwhelming evidence.’ There is no need to consider further the frivolous second article of impeachment that would remove the president for asserting his constitutional prerogative to protect confidential conversations with his close advisers.

“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation. When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law. But the Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.

So what is the difference between an “impeachable” offense and an “inappropriate” offense?  Again, Alexander has been swayed by Dershowitz’s argument.  Alexander believes that the president is guilty, but he does not believe that Trump committed an impeachable offense.  (Dershowitz doesn’t think Trump is guilty of anything). This is also clear from the next part of Alexander’s statement:

“The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did. I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday.  

“The Senate has spent nine long days considering this ‘mountain’ of evidence, the arguments of the House managers and the president’s lawyers, their answers to senators’ questions and the House record. Even if the House charges were true, they do not meet the Constitution’s ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors’ standard for an impeachable offense.

Alexander goes on:

“The framers believed that there should never, ever be a partisan impeachment. That is why the Constitution requires a 2/3 vote of the Senate for conviction. Yet not one House Republican voted for these articles. If this shallow, hurried and wholly partisan impeachment were to succeed, it would rip the country apart, pouring gasoline on the fire of cultural divisions that already exist. It would create the weapon of perpetual impeachment to be used against future presidents whenever the House of Representatives is of a different political party.

“Our founding documents provide for duly elected presidents who serve with ‘the consent of the governed,’ not at the pleasure of the United States Congress. Let the people decide.”

On the issue of “partisan” impeachments and the founders, here is historian Joanne Freeman:

Moreover, as historian Kevin Kruse has been reminding us, there were no political parties when the founders wrote the Constitution:

Alexander also suggests that the “founding documents” teach that “the people” should decide whether to move a president.  Here he is connecting “impeachment” with the vote and will of “the people.” But the Constitution makes no such connection.

First, as James Madison made clear in Federalist 39, “The President of the United States is impeachable at any time during his continuance in office.” In other words, the president can be impeached during an election year.

Second, the framers were skeptical about trusting the people to make decisions about important matters such as impeachment.  The framers did not trust the “ballot”on impeachment.  Read the Constitution as it was written in 1787.  Senators were not directly elected by the people.  They were appointed by state legislatures. This is precisely why the framers believed that the Senate was best suited to serve as judges in an impeachment trial. The “people” in the House of Representatives brought charges in the president (impeachment), but the Senate, those so called “gods on Mount Olympus,” would decide whether or not the people were right (removal). As Madison wrote in Federalist 10, the passions of the people needed to be filtered through “a medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”  In fact, the framers of the Constitution had such a mistrust of the people that they did not allow them to vote directly for the president.  It is worth noting that they did not even record the popular vote in presidential elections until 1824.

In the end, Lamar Alexander can oppose impeachment trial witnesses for all kinds of reasons, but please don’t appeal to the founders.

Alexander’s sketchy use of the founding-era is particularly troubling considering that he has always been a strong advocate for more history and civics in public schools.

Some Context for Adam Schiff’s Hamilton Quote

Hamilton

Adam Schiff opened the first day of arguments in the Trump impeachment trial with a quote from an enclosure in an August 18, 1792 letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Washington.  His choice of texts is getting a lot of attention today.

Hamilton’s enclosure was part of his reply to a July 29, 1792 letter from Washington.
While the president was home at Mount Vernon he heard from fellow Virginians (probably George Mason and Thomas Jefferson) who were critical of the way the Federalist administration was conducting policy and interpreting the Constitution.  Washington asked Hamilton to respond to twenty-one popular criticisms of the Federalist-controlled government.

Washington’s criticism No. 14 read: “That the ultimate object of all this is to prepare the way for a change, from the present republican form of Government, to that of a monarchy; of which the British Constitution is to be the model.”

This was a pretty common Anti-Federalist critique.  It was also common among the members of the Jeffersonian opposition to the Federalist administration after ratification in 1789.  These men believed that the Constitution gave too much power to the national government and relied too heavily upon British political customs.  They feared that Washington, Adams (VP), Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury), and the members of the Federalist-controlled Congress would replace the President of the United States with some form of monarchy.

These Jeffersonian fears are understandable.  Washington often acted like a king.  And everyone knew that Hamilton was an Anglophile.  During the Constitution Convention Hamilton argued that the newly created executive should have a life term.  This, he believed, was the only way of maintaining order and preventing the people from having too much power.  James Madison, who summarized Hamilton’s six-hour speech at the Constitutional Convention, wrote:

As to the Executive, it seemed to be admitted that no good one could be established on Republican principles.  Was not this giving up the merits on this subject.  The Hereditary interest of the King was so interwoven with that of the Nation, and his personal emoluments so great, that he was placed above the danger of being corrupted from abroad–and at the same time was both sufficiently independence at home, one of the weak sides of Republicans was their being liable to foreign influence & corruption.  Men of little character, acquiring great power become easily the tools of intemedling Neibours, Sweden was a striking instance.  The French & English had each their parties during the late Revolution which was effected by the predominant influence of the former.  What is the inference from all these observations?  That we ought to go as far in order to attain stability and permanency, as republican principles will admit.  Let one branch of the Legislature hold their places for life or at least during good behaviour.  Let the executive also be for life.

Of course Hamilton’s ideas were not adopted. The framers decided that the executive would serve a four-year term. But some thought Hamilton had not fully abandoned his earlier commitment to an executive for life.

Below is an excerpt from Hamilton’s response to George Washington  Hamilton argues that Jeffersonian worries about the Federalists turning the presidency into a monarchy are absurd. The real threat of tyranny is not the current administration and its policies, but the possibility that a leader might emerge who would tap into the passions of the people.  I have highlighted the passage used by Adam Schiff this afternoon.

The idea of introducing a monarchy or aristocracy into this Country, by employing the influence and force of a Government continually changing hands, towards it, is one of those visionary things, that none but madmen could meditate and that no wise men will believe.

If it could be done at all, which is utterly incredible, it would require a long series of time, certainly beyond the life of any individual to effect it. Who then would enter into such plot? For what purpose of interest or ambition?

To hope that the people may be cajoled into giving their sanctions to such institutions is still more chimerical. A people so enlightened and so diversified as the people of this Country can surely never be brought to it, but from convulsions and disorders, in consequence of the acts of popular demagogues.

The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.

Those then, who resist a confirmation of public order, are the true Artificers of monarchy—not that this is the intention of the generality of them. Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected. When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind…”

The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.

Hamilton is saying that the real threat to republicanism is a populist demagogue.  You can see why Schiff thought this passage was appropriate for an impeachment trial.

What Did the Founding Fathers Say About Impeachment?

House Managers

House managers in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump filed their brief to the Senate today.  The brief describes Trump’s behavior with Ukraine “the Framers’ worst nightmare.”

So what did the Framers of the United States Constitution say about impeachment?

Here is a nice summary from the United States Constitution Center:

One of the most hotly debated clauses in the Constitution deals with the removal of federal government officials through the impeachment process. But what did the Founders who crafted that language think about the process and its overall intention?

The need for the ultimate check, and in particular the removal of the President, in a system of checks and balances was brought up early at the 1787 convention in Philadelphia. Constitutional heavyweights such as James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris debated the Impeachment Clause at the convention, and Alexander Hamilton argued for it in The Federalist after the convention.

Today, impeachment remains as a rarely used process to potentially remove the “President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States” if Congress finds them guilty of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

In all, 19 federal officials have been brought up on impeachment charges by the House of Representatives since 1789, with eight people convicted after a Senate trial. Two Presidents – Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton – faced Senate trials but were not found guilty by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

The threat of impeachment remains a power check, at least in theory, against the abuse of power, and it is sometimes discussed in times of political controversy, as well as in cases where there is a clear issue with personal conduct in office. Of the eight persons impeached and convicted in Congress, all were judges who faced charges including perjury, tax evasion, bribery, and in one case, supporting the Confederacy.

At the 1787 convention, delegate Edmund Randolph quickly brought up the subject as part of his Virginia Plan. William Patterson’s rival New Jersey Plan had its own impeachment clause. National Constitution Center scholar-in-residence Michael Gerhardt explained the differences in his book, “The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis.”

Read the rest here.

Some Founders Wanted an Impeached President to be Suspended from Office Until Tried and Acquitted

gouverneur-morris-hero

Gouverneur Morris

This did not make it into the Constitution, but John Rutledge of South Carolina and Gouverneur Morris  of Pennsylvania thought it might be a good idea.

September 14, 1787:

Mr. Madison. The President is made too dependent already on the Legislature by the power of one branch to try him in consequence of an impeachment by the other. This intermediate suspension, will put him in the power of one branch only. They can at any moment, in order to make way for the functions of another who will be more favorable to their views, vote a temporary removal of the existing Magistrate.

James Madison’s at the Constitutional Convention on “Impeachment of the Executive”

e89b2-madisonJuly 20, 1787:

Mr. Madison thought it indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the Community agst the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate. The limitation of the period of his service, was not a sufficient security. He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers. The case of the Executive Magistracy was very distinguishable, from that of the Legislature or of any other public body, holding offices of limited duration. It could not be presumed that all or even a majority of the members of an Assembly would either lose their capacity for discharging, or be bribed to betray, their trust. Besides the restraints of their personal integrity & honor, the difficulty of acting in concert for purposes of corruption was a security to the public. And if one or a few members only should be seduced, the soundness of the remaining members, would maintain the integrity and fidelity of the body. In the case of the Executive Magistracy which was to be administered by a single man, loss of capacity or corruption was more within the compass of probable events, and either of them might be fatal to the Republic.

Italics are mine.

The Omohundro Institute and George Washington Library Team-Up for Digital Collections Fellowship

 

The George Washington Presidential Library - DC

Here is Jim Ambuske of Mount Vernon at the blog of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture:

The historian’s craft is a collaborative enterprise. For all of the long days and quiet nights we spend laboring in the archives or in front of computer screens, many of our best insights, discoveries, and claims rest on contributions from our colleagues.

This is especially true in the digital realm. Collaboration has long been a hallmark of the digital humanities and digital history, which leverages the expertise of humanists and technologists to produce new knowledge about the past or create the means to do so.

That is why the Washington Library at Mount Vernon is very excited to collaborate with the Omohundro Institute to offer the OI-Mount Vernon Fellowships for Digital Collections in the American Founding Era. The OI-Mount Vernon Fellowship builds on the OI’s leadership in digital history and its efforts to create digital collections that enrich our understanding of Vast Early America. By offering grants to foster new research into the American Revolution and Early Republic, our goal is to inspire partnerships between scholars and archival repositories that lead to the digitization of primary sources from the Founding Era. 

Read the rest here.

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.