“Hamilton” Finds Its Way into My U.S. Survey Course

As I posted earlier this week, I am teaching a course on the “Age of Hamilton” in the Fall.  We will be discussing the history behind the Broadway musical “Hamilton” and I will be making extensive use of the soundtrack.

As I prepare the course, I have tried-out a few Hamilton songs in my United States Survey to 1865 course this semester (Spring 2019).  For example, I used the song “You’ll Be Back” to introduce my students to the deeply embedded royal culture in the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution:

We are now covering the 1790s in the course.  On Wednesday I used the soundtrack to help my students make sense of Hamilton’s debt assumption plan and the Jefferson/Madison opposition to it.  These two songs were very helpful:

I will probably use one more Hamilton song next week when I lecture about U.S. foreign policy in the late 1780s and 1790s:

Not all the “Hamilton” songs work well in a U.S. Survey course (largely because many of them are historically inaccurate), but I have found that several songs bring to life the debates between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans and help my students make sense of this material.

What Would Madison Think?

285e0-james_madison

Over The Atlantic, Jeffrey Rosen offers a nice primer on how America is now living “James Madison’s worst nightmare.”  Here is a taste:

Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. Rather than encouraging deliberation, mass media undermine it by creating bubbles and echo chambers in which citizens see only those opinions they already embrace.

We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare. How did we get here, and how can we escape?

Rosen still has hope:

To combat the power of factions, the Founders believed the people had to be educated about the structures of government in particular. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both,” Madison wrote in 1822, supporting the Kentucky legislature’s “Plan of Education embracing every class of Citizens.” In urging Congress to create a national university in 1796, George Washington said: “A primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government.”

The civics half of the educational equation is crucial. Recent studies have suggested that higher education can polarize citizens rather than ensuring the rule of reason: Highly educated liberals become more liberal, and highly educated conservatives more conservative. At the same time, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that citizens, whether liberal or conservative, who are educated about constitutional checks on direct democracy, such as an independent judiciary, are more likely to express trust in the courts and less likely to call for judicial impeachment or for overturning unpopular Supreme Court decisions.

These are dangerous times: The percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a liberal democracy is plummeting, everywhere from the United States to the Netherlands. Support for autocratic alternatives to democracy is especially high among young people. In 1788, Madison wrote that the best argument for adopting a Bill of Rights would be its influence on public opinion. As “the political truths” declared in the Bill of Rights “become incorporated with the national sentiment,” he concluded, they would “counteract the impulses of interest and passion.” Today, passion has gotten the better of us. The preservation of the republic urgently requires imparting constitutional principles to a new generation and reviving Madisonian reason in an impetuous world.

Read the entire piece here.

What is Treason?

trump

On Monday, Donald Trump said that the Democrats who refused to applaud during his State of the Union address were committing treason.  Yesterday the Pittsburgh Tribune ran an article on Trump’s remarks that quotes University of California-Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson, who is writing a book about treason and the American Revolution.

Here is Larson’s definition of treason:

For starters, treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution. And it specifically makes it a crime to adhere to or give comfort to the enemies of the United States.

Discussion of the topic has been around for some time. And by that, we mean a long, long time.

The New York Times reported in “Treason Against the United States” — an article published in 1861:

• Section 110, Article III, of the U.S. Constitution:

“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open Court. The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason.”

• The U.S. Congress in 1790 enacted that:

“If any person or persons, owing allegiance to the United States of America, shall levy war against them, or shall adhere to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States, or elsewhere, and shall be thereof convicted on confession in open Court, or on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act of the treason whereof he or they shall stand indicted, such person or persons shall be adjudged guilty of treason against the United States, and SHALL SUFFER DEATH; and that if any person or persons, having knowledge of the commission of any of the treasons aforesaid, shall conceal, and not, as soon as may be, disclose and make known the same to the President of the United States, or some one of the Judges thereof, or to the President or Governor of a particular State, or some one of the Judges or Justices thereof, such person or persons, on conviction, shall be adjudged guilty of misprision of treason, and shall be imprisoned not exceeding seven years, and fined not exceeding one thousand dollars.”

• James Madison, founding father and former U.S. president, said:

“The Constitution confines the crime of treason to two species; First, the levying of war against the United States; and Secondly, adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”

John Mitchell and Philip Weigel–two of the so-called “whiskey rebels” of 1791–were the first people convicted of treason in the United States.

Read the entire Tribune-Review piece here.

Slavery at James Madison’s House

madison

Alyssa Rosenberg reports on efforts to tell the story of slavery at James Madison’s Montpelier.  A permanent exhibit titled “The Mere Distinction of Colour” opened on June 5.

Here is a taste of Rosenberg’s piece at The Washington Post:

…The new galleries, which opened on June 5, do something radical: They treat the people who were enslaved at Montpelier as if their lives were as worthy of historical examination as that of the man who owned them.

These displays at Montpelier provide ample evidence for visitors to consider as they reckon with the fact that the same James Madison who drafted the Bill of Rights also spent considerable time trying to track down a runaway slave named Anthony. (Madison’s own enslaved valet, John, went to his grave without telling Madison anything about Anthony’s whereabouts.) But that sort of reconsideration, important as it is, still risks consigning the people who were enslaved by the Founding Fathers to a subordinate role. If museums limit themselves to those assessments, they send, intentionally or not, the message that enslaved people’s importance lies in the way they illustrate the moral frailties of great men, rather than in their own lives and accomplishments.

Montpelier does not stop there. The people who were enslaved by the Madisons emerge from the displays as lively individuals.

Read the rest here.

Montpelier to Open Exhibit on Slavery

james-madison-s-montpelier

A local CBS news outlet is reporting that James Madison’s Montpelier will soon be telling the story of the slaves who worked at the mansion.

Here is a taste:

Working in the shadow of Montpelier, kneels Terry Brock, Senior Research Archeologist for the mansion.

Brock is part of a greater effort by Montpelier to tell the story of the slaves who once lived and worked at the mansion.

“Over 100 people were enslaved on this property,” Brock said. “So that means that the vast majority of the people who lived and worked here were enslaved African-Americans.”

Finding new artifacts almost every minute, Brock and his team have been able to unearth a substantial amount of information on the slaves of Montpelier.

“We see a lot of evidence of trying to create your own space on the landscape,” Brock explained. “For example, a pipe bowl that is found in a slave quarter, therefore definitely belonged to an enslaved individual, has the word ‘liberty’ on it.”

Now, Brock’s discoveries are being used in a new, multi-million dollar exhibit at the mansion that takes a comprehensive approach to explaining and understanding slavery.

The new exhibit is called “The Mere Distinction of Colour.”

Read the rest here.

Can the Constitution Really Save Us?

GansehGanesh Sitaraman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, argues in a piece at The New Republic that the Constitution of the United States was not designed to get us out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

Here is a taste:

Long before Trump came along, America was already mired in a constitutional crisis—one that crept up on us gradually, as historical transformations always do. The reason is simple: Our Constitution wasn’t built for a country with massive economic inequality and deeply entrenched political divisions. The three times in our history when the republic has faced a threat to its very existence—the Civil War, the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, and the present moment—the crisis arose because America had evolved in ways the Founders could only dimly imagine. In each instance, the social conditions of the country no longer matched the Constitution.

Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the crisis we now face. It is written, in fact, into the very fabric of our society. And the only way we’ll avert the disintegration of our political system—as Lincoln and the abolitionists did in their day, and the Roosevelts and the progressives did in theirs—is first to understand its origins.

Read his entire piece here.

Mary Sarah Bilder on “Originalism”

6c546-madisonSome of you may recall our Author’s Corner interview with Mary Sarah Bilder on her book Madison’s Hand” Revising the Constitutional Convention.

Yesterday Bilder turned to the pages of the Boston Globe to challenge the “originalist” interpretation of the United States Constitution.

Here is a taste:

The tradition of American constitutionalism, practiced by judges of all political persuasions over two centuries, has always held out an important place for history in the interpretation of the Constitution. But originalism is not constitutionalism. When the word “originalism” began appearing in legal periodicals in the 1980s, a number of influential scholars and judges, primarily on the right, quickly came to treat it as the sole legitimate method to decide constitutional cases. Originalists initially thought that the judge should interpret the text of the Constitution according only to the intent of the men who drafted and ratified it. Today, most originalists contend that a judge should abide by the text’s “original public meaning” — a term of art that originalist scholars have written thousands of pages trying to explain.

Originalism reads our Constitution as if it were a modern technical contract written by experienced lawyers or a contemporary statute written by a team of legislators and staffers, parsing and perfecting every word as they wrote it.

Yet this vision of the Constitution is far different from what we see when we read the historical sources of that moment. In 1787, the framers were struggling to save the United States from division, potential invasion, and collapse. No one had the luxury of even imagining that each and every word possessed an invariable, sacred meaning.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Andrew Shankman

Original Intents.jpgAndrew Shankman is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University at Camden.  This interview is based on his new book, Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the American Founding (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Original Intents?

AS: I was excited by the charge given to me by Oxford University Press—to write a book that would advance scholarly knowledge of the nation’s constitutional, political, economic, and financial origins, but that would be entirely accessible to any reader and that could be completely understood without any prior knowledge of subject.  Oh, and to keep it under 200 pages!  That was an exciting challenge.  Scholars are very good at writing for other scholars, and some of them get good at writing for a general audience.  That such a prestigious press wanted me to write a book that the general public could enjoy and learn from, and that would not sacrifice any complexity—would not “dumb it down”—and so would benefit scholars too—that seemed such an exciting and a great idea, and a very worthy challenge to take on.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Original Intents?

AS: Original Intents examines the political, constitutional, and economic ideas and policies of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison from the American Revolution through the early 1790s.  Original Intents argues that Jefferson and Madison had profound disagreements with Hamilton about the meaning and purpose of the Constitution and the future of the nation, and that the ideas of all three were shaped, evolved, and changed by their ongoing and heated arguments with each other.

JF: Why do we need to read Original Intents?

AS: Original Intents recreates in close to real time the step by step ways in which Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison came to realize what they thought and who they were.  They came to their understanding through intense engagement with each other during the most significant, creative, and productive period of their lives. The arguments the three had with each other from the American Revolution through the early 1790s (mostly it was Jefferson and Madison agreeing with each other and seriously disagreeing with Hamilton) established the framework for how Americans came to understand their Constitution.  Their arguments also began the debates that continue to our day about the proper relationship between the national and state governments, how much and in what ways governments should tax and take on debt, and what sort of nation we the citizens should aspire to have.  In their different ways, all three of them believed the United States was an ongoing experiment, that its institutions were only as strong and durable as the citizens who made use of them, and that the Constitution provided the basis and the beginning for a never-ending conversation among citizens and between those who governed and the people they were governing.  Original Intents explores how all that began, and how three of the people most responsible for shaping and overseeing the new Constitution quickly discovered that they disagreed about what it said and what it meant.  Understanding their ideas—their differing original intents—allows us to better understand the immensely important historical legacy we have inherited, and the tremendous burdens, responsibilities, and also privileges that come with being a citizen.

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

AS: From an early age I knew I wanted to study history.  I loved mythology, the middle ages, the Civil War, the old west.  But I decided to try to become a professional historian and specialize in late 18th and early 19th century American history in the fall semester of my junior of college at Northern Illinois University, in 1991.  That semester I took a course in American diplomatic history to 1898 with a wonderful professor who died this past December named Carl Parrini.  The first eight weeks were all about the 1780s and 1790s.  Learning about Hamilton’s financial system, the crazy 1790s when Americans were accusing each other of being secret British agents scheming to restore monarchy, or of being crazy radical operatives of revolutionary France plotting to erect a guillotine in Philadelphia—all that stuff was amazing to me.  The paintings make all these 18th century folks look like boring wax figures wearing wigs.  To learn that they weren’t that at all, to learn just how fascinating and passionate and complex they all truly were, and how wild and wooly it all really was, I was hooked, and I’ve stayed hooked.

 JF: What is your next project?

AS: My next book moves forward in time to the period between the end of the War of 1812 (1815) and the Nullification Crisis (early 1830s), which was when South Carolina argued that it could nullify federal law within its state borders.  I’m looking at a group of younger (for the most part) followers of Jefferson, who came to be known as the National Republicans.  By the end of the War of 1812 the National Republicans began to fear that much of what they had expected to be true about the United States was not going to happen.  They had assumed three things: first, that the U.S. could and should remain almost exclusively agricultural.  Second, that the national government could be very inactive most of the time, especially domestically.  And third, that slavery would naturally grow less and less significant over time.  Between 1815 and 1825 people like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Mathew Carey, Richard Rush, and many, many others came to believe that none of those three things was true or was going to happen.  My book will be about why they concluded that, what they tried to do about it, and why, by the early 1830s, they had provoked a large national movement in opposition to them that defeated them.  I’m writing a story of thoughtful, principled, and often deeply flawed failure.  I plan to title it The National Republicans: Capitalism, Slavery, and the State during the Long 1820s.

JF: Thanks, Andrew!

No, Stephen Miller. That’s Not How it Works.

This post is pretty basic, but it needs to be said.  In this day and age there are a lot of “basic” things that need to be said about how our government works, how republics are maintained, and how a democratic society functions.

In case you missed, here is Trump adviser Stephen Miller suggesting on CBS’s Face the Nation that Donald Trump’s power to protect the country are “very substantial and will not be questioned.”

No Mr. Miller, that’s not how the United States government works.  We have a system of checks and balances in this country for the very purpose of “questioning” every decision that the President makes.

Here are some passages from James Madison’s Federalist #47:

The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

The reasons on which Montesquieu grounds his maxim are a further demonstration of his meaning. “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body” says he, “there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.” Again “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary controul, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor.” 

Here is Madison in Federalist #48:

In a government, where numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of a hereditary monarch, the executive department is very justly regarded as the source of danger, and watched with all the jealousy which a zeal for liberty ought to inspire.  (See my post “Political Jealousy is a Laudable Passion“).

Here is Madison in Federalist #51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to controul the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Here is George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address:

The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes.

Here is Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold on us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.

For a nuanced explanation of all this I recommend Aaron Blake’s piece at The Washington Post.

Quote of the Day

Madison and Jefferson“The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue to be for many years to come.  The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but at a more distant period.”  –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, March 15, 1789

Slavery and Historical Interpretation at Monticello, Montpelier, and Ash Lawn-Highland

slaveryatmonticello C-Ville, a website covering life in the Charlottesville, VA area, is running a nice piece on slavery interpretation at the homes of Virginia presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Here is a taste:

The sickeningly horrible institution of slavery was a blight on our nation until the Civil War ended it in 1865 at the cost of 750,000 American lives. Despite the passage of 150 years, however, and despite the country’s best attempts at education, the interpretation of slavery at historic sites—the presentation of the lives of those enslaved—is still controversial, emotionally charged. At some historic properties, the perceived emotional comfort of the visitors, and that of the guide staff itself, preclude the accurate retelling of the awful conditions under which slaves toiled and lived. Here in central Virginia, however—at the plantations owned by Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe—slavery interpretation is thriving. Indeed, it’s expanding.

“Slavery is an important part of the American story,” says Katherine “Kat” Imhoff, president of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that operates Montpelier, the Orange County home of our fourth president, Madison. After his presidency from 1809 to 1817, he lived out his remaining 19 years at Montpelier.

“Without understanding the role of slavery in the founding era,” says Imhoff, “you can’t understand what happened afterward. …It’s such a painful subject for all Americans that we’ve tended to turn away from it, to gloss over it. I really believe strongly that that’s a disservice to all of us. As the leader of a cultural institution dedicated to telling a complete, accurate and human story about our country, I see the improved interpretation of slavery as crucial.”

Read the entire piece here.

A Comical Look at the Original Intent of the Second Amendment

Madison and JeffersonJohn Quaintance of The New Yorker offers a fictional exchange of letters between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson on the original intent of the Second Amendment.  Very funny.

A taste:

December 5, 1791
James Madison
House of Representatives

Dear James,

How is it almost 1792?! Quick question on the right to bear arms thing in your “Bill of Rights”—the wording and punctuation are slightly confusing. Did you mean that the right of the people serving in the militia to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, or people in general? I’m assuming the former, but don’t want to make an ass of you and me! (Franklin made that up, but I’m using it everywhere!) Could you please send me a quick note whenever to clarify?

TJ

P.S. To be honest, I’m still meh about “Bill of Rights” as a name.

* * *
December 7, 1791
Thomas Jefferson
Office of the Secretary of State

Dear Tom,

I know, it’s so crazy how fast this year has gone—I just got used to writing 1791 on my deeds of purchase (of slaves)!

As far as the amendment, of course it’s the former. If every private citizen had the right to carry a musket, a thousand people would’ve shot Patrick Henry by now, am I right? Don’t worry about it. Everyone will know what it means.

JM

P.S. You’re not back on “The Ten Amendments” are you? It’s trying way too hard to sound Biblical.

* * *
December 9, 1791
James Madison
House of Representatives

Dear James,

Hahaha re: Patrick Henry. And I agree it should be obvious. It’s just, why not make it so clear that even the biggest Anti-Federalist looney tune can’t misinterpret the meaning? I’d add “while serving in the militia” to line three. Also, not to be a grammar redcoat here, but the use and placement of the comma isn’t helping. Can we change it? It will take two seconds.

I know I’m being annoying!

TJ

P.S. How about “Constitution, Part Two?” (Not a serious pitch, unless you like it!)

* * *
December 11, 1791
Thomas Jefferson
Office of the Secretary of State

Dear Tom,

There is literally zero chance that anyone will misconstrue this, and the great news is that if someone actually does, the Supreme Court will set them straight. I don’t want to change it. It won’t take two seconds, because the addition would push a page and I’d have to do the whole rest of it over again and W. is breathing down my neck about it. Plus, I like the way my signature looks on the version I sent you, and you know I always hate the way it looks on important stuff.

Not trying to be snippy, but you’re worrying about nothing.

JM

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Mary Bilder

Mary Bilder is Professor of American Legal and Constitutional History at Boston College Law School. This interview is based on her new book, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Harvard University Press, 2015).

 
JF: What led you to write Madison’s Hand?
 
MB: I wrote an article about James Madison’s law notes and how they revealed his mind. I was curious about what we could learn about Madison from his famous notes of the Convention. After reading the late-nineteenth century transcript of the Notes, I began to realize that there were many mysteries surrounding Madison’s Notes. Historians had used Madison’s Notes as an almost objective source to tell the history of the Convention, but very few people had explored the actual manuscript.
 
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Madison’s Hand?
 
MB: The Notes do not date in their entirety to the summer of 1787, but were revised by Madison as he changed his understanding about the Convention, the Constitution, and his own role. Over fifty years, Madison transformed the Notes from an incomplete political diary, taken in part for Thomas Jefferson, to a seemingly impartial and objective account of the writing of the Constitution.
 
JF: Why do we need to read Madison’s Hand?
 
MB: Many people have used the Notes as if they were a contemporaneous and objective report of the writing of the Constitution. They were not. Even in the summer of 1787, Madison wrote the Notes with hindsight and focused on his political commitments and disappointments. He understood his subsequent revisions as repeated efforts to create a record—his record—of what he saw as significant in the Convention. Yet each revision—small and large—increased the distance from the summer of 1787.
 
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
 
MB: In my last year of law school, Professor Bernard Bailyn taught a course on the History of the US Constitution. A friend told me to take it. I was astounded that I had spent 3 years in law school studying the Constitution but no one had ever talked about how and why it was written. I was fortunate to clerk for a federal judge who loved history and encouraged me to go to graduate school. Because I was an English major in college, I have been particularly interested in the history of the book and cultural and material history.  
 
JF: What is your next project?
 
MB: I believe that all historians have an obligation to contribute to making available new documentary sources. This book, for example, could not have been written without the work of many people who created documentary editions of Madison’s materials.  In the late nineteenth century, for example, a small team of State Department employees created a remarkable transcript of Madison’s Notes showing the revisions. I could not have written my book without their effort. My contribution, however, is in an area unrelated to Madison’s Hand. Several colleagues and I are working to complete a digital catalogue of all the cases and printed briefs appealed to the Privy Council from the American colonies, the Caribbean, and Canada before 1783. Historians have not been able to write about the law of the British empire or early American colonial constitutional law because these sources were never printed or made available. I hope that these sources will help other historians create new arguments and insights about slavery, women’s property rights, commercial law, and a myriad of other issues addressed in these cases.
 
JF: Thanks, Mary!


Carson Digs A Deeper Hole for Himself

I like Ben Carson.  He seems like a good guy.  I even agree with him on a few things.  But he is just not cut out for a presidential run.  He seems very uncomfortable in this role.  He is a brilliant neurosurgeon and a person of deep Christian faith who, to put it frankly, is in over his head.

Let’s take his recent claim that Thomas Jefferson wrote the United States Constitution.  Here is part of what I wrote on Monday about this whole incident:

Carson needs to be more careful in the way he references American history.  I think we should expect our presidential candidates to have a working knowledge of our country’s history. (I know this is asking for a lot).

I will not be voting for Carson, but part of me wants to give the guy a break on this latest Jefferson blunder.  Perhaps he just misspoke.  I do this all the time when I am lecturing.  Maybe he got confused for a moment.  


Yet instead of simply admitting that he made a mistake or misspoke, Carson went on Fox News and doubled-down on the erroneous claim that Jefferson was somehow involved in crafting the Constitution.

Here is the video.  The Jefferson stuff picks up about the 4:30 mark.

http://video.foxnews.com/v/embed.js?id=4628962819001&w=466&h=263Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com

As I predicted in my earlier post, Carson blames the media for trying to corner him with another “gotcha” question.

What is even more interesting about this interview is that Carson seems to parroting a piece that appeared earlier in the day at USA Today. The author is David Mastio, the deputy editorial page editor of the newspaper.

Mastio writes:

...here’s an interesting historical footnote to the Constitutional Convention. At the time, an early version of email was available. It was the social media of its day, called “letters.” Important people, say, the U.S. minister in France, could give pieces of paper to ship captains who’d take them by boat all the way to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, other important people would read words scratched onto the paper and respond in kind with a “reply.”

In this fashion, early Americans could discuss important matters like constitutions and other government stuff ministers would care about. This was called “correspondence.”

Guess who was writing these letter thingies? Thomas Jefferson.

And do you know who was replying? George Washington and James Madison, among the most important framers of our Constitution.

So here’s the crazy thing: Jefferson, Madison, Washington and others were discussing how the U.S. Constitution should be written.

After the Constitution Convention was over, Jefferson had this other idea called a “Bill of Rights,” which you might have heard is a part of the Constitution. Jefferson sorta played a key role in all that First Amendment, Second Amendment stuff. If you don’t believe me, go ask the American Civil Liberties Union, which is big on rights like free speech and freedom of religion.

Saith the ACLU: “The American Bill of Rights, inspired by Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, was adopted, and in 1791 the Constitution’s first 10 amendments became the law of the land.”

The ACLU even quotes Jefferson’s argument: “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse.”

To get the basics of Jefferson’s role in the creation of the Bill of Rights, which are, as I mentioned, a pretty important part of the Constitution, all you have to do is read the Spark Notes version. Or you can get it in easy Q&A format from the U.S. Archives.

All that laughing I did at Carson’s expense? I take it back. I guess he sorta did know what he was talking about, after all.

A website is now demanding that in the wake of the Mastio piece fifteen news agencies and “verified Twitter accounts” owe Ben Carson an apology for the way they covered this issue.

Some thoughts:


1). I am still trying to figure out if Mastio’s piece is sarcasm.  I’m not sure.

2).  I am guessing that Carson’s handlers saw the Mastio piece and thought it might be useful in fending off critics on this issue.

3).  If the piece is not meant to be sarcastic it is still filled with historical problems.  Here is historian Kevin Gutzman (used with permission from his Facebook page):

One more time: 1) there is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson had any — any — effect on the “crafting” of the US Constitution, and 2) the Bill of Rights was *not* “his idea.”
1) He was in France in summer 1787, at a time when it took six weeks for a letter to cross the Atlantic to the east and longer to the west. The delegates to the Convention were all sworn to secrecy, so they could not have consulted him even if they had desired to do so and it had been practicable.
2) The first promise to seek a bill of rights was made by Federalists in Massachusetts to get Governor John Hancock and other waverers to support ratification. None of them consulted Jefferson–who was still in France, if anyone in Boston had cared. James Madison was finally persuaded to favor a bill of rights, which he had opposed, by political imperatives in Virginia: the North American Baptist movement happened to be centered in his home county, and local Baptists insisted he promise to seek amendments, particularly one like the Establishment Clause, before they voted for him over James Monroe for Congress. Everyone knew this was his motivation at the time.

Again, Carson should have just admitted he made a mistake, noted that he did get the facts straight in his book, and move on.  It is never a good idea for a political candidate to try to challenge a historian. After all, we do this stuff for a living.

Are Madison’s Notes From the Constitutional Convention Unreliable?

Perhaps “unreliable” is too strong a word, but most historians would have no qualms about saying that Madison’s notes do not provide an objective account of what happened in that Philadelphia summer of 1787.

Mary Sarah Bilder, a law professor a Boston College and the author of a new book on Madison and the Constitutional Convention, reminds us of something that most serious students of history already know–primary documents should be read critically and are often biased by the beliefs of their authors.  This is clearly the case with Madison’s “Notes.”  Here is a taste of Bilder’s piece, published this week at The History News Network:

Madison’s Notes are the only source that covers every day of the Convention from May 14 to September 17, 1787. No other source depicts the Convention as Madison’s Notes do: as a political drama, with compelling characters, lengthy discourses on political theories, crushing disappointments, and seemingly miraculous successes. The Notes are, as the Library of Congress catalogs them, properly considered a “Top Treasure” of the American people.
But the Notes do not date in their entirety to the summer of 1787.  They are covered in revisions. This fact is known – but the number is a shock. When I saw the manuscript in the conservation lab at the Library of Congress—in the aptly named Madison Building—the  additions appear in various ink shades, with handwriting, some youthful, some with the shake of Madison’s later years. Madison even added slips of paper with longer revisions.
The revisions do not detract, but enhance Madison’s manuscript. Madison’s Notes were revised as he changed his understanding about the Convention, the Constitution, and his own role. Madison’s Notes were originally taken as a legislative diary for himself and likely Thomas Jefferson. They tracked his political ideas, his strategies, and the positions of allies and opponents. The original Notes reflected what Madison cared about.
I love talking about the Notes with students because they know that one cannot take notes of oneself speaking. When they are called on, they either leave their notes blank or they compose that section later, reflecting what they realized afterwards was the right answer. Madison’s own speeches are thus the most troubling in terms of reliability. In fact, in the years immediately after the Convention, he likely replaced several of the sheets containing his speeches in order to distance himself from statements that became controversial. 
Madison never finished the Notes that summer. In late August, as the Convention debated the first draft of the Constitution, the delegates sent controversial issues to committees. Madison served on the three most important committees: dealing with slavery, postponed matters, and the final draft. Moreover, he became sick—something that he seemed susceptible to under stress.
Madison stopped writing the Notes. He was too involved in drafting to bother with a diary. Moreover, he likely could not keep distinct decisions made in committees and those in the Convention. Thus at the very moment when the Convention decided many of the issues we debate today—certain congressional powers, impeachments, the vice-president, the electoral college, presidential powers—and the groupings and relationship that converted twenty-three articles into the final seven—the Notes are the most unreliable. Yet this collapse of the Notes reflected the contemporary inability of the delegates to see the final Constitution in the sense that we mistakenly imagine they could.   

Read her entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Carol Berkin

Carol Berkin is residential Professor of History at Baruch College and a member of the history faculty of the Graduate Center of CUNY, Emerita. This interview is based on her new book, The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties (Simon & Schuster, May 2015).


JF: What lead you to write The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties?

CB: I wanted to challenge many of the myths that surround the first ten amendments. I knew that many Americans thought they were written at the constitutional convention, or that they were unanimously advocated by all the ‘founding fathers’ or that, from the moment they were ratified, they became the American credo. None of this was true — and the true story was far more fascinating. I knew I had to carefully read the debates in Congress over these amendments and to understand them in the context of 18th century America. Only then, could I share the story of these amendments with the reading public.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties?
CB: The Bill of Rights was Madison’s brilliant tactic to crush the strong opposition that continued even after the Constitution was ratified. In modern parlance, he hoped to separate the opposition’s base [the many Americans who honestly worried about a strong central government and its potential for tyranny] from its leadership [men who wanted to eviscerate the power of the new government, taking away its right to tax and regulate commerce]. Madison believed a bold statement of the rights of the people would calm popular fears even though the federal government actually had no power to enforce those rights in 1789. Most of Madison’s fellow Federalists thought a bill of rights was unnecessary, even useless but Madison persisted and eventually won.

JF: Why do we need to read The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties?
CB: I think readers will find the book tells a fascinating story. As the men in Congress debated Madison’s proposals, they drew on their memories of British abuses and expressed their anxiety over the future of the new republic. They argued over the proper balance of power between the federal government and the state governments, an argument that still resonates today. Tempers flared; egos were exposed; foolish comments abounded. Following these debates, we can see that these men understood what a great gamble the creation of a republic was, how fragile the peoples’ liberties actually were, and how heavily the burden of preserving the new nation lay on their shoulders.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CB: I decided to become an American historian while I was a student at Barnard College. I loved the idea that History was a form of time travel and I wanted to visit the past and try to understand people whose views and perspectives were so different from mine. I chose the history of my own country so that I could better understand the origins of issues that matter to us today.

JF: What is your next project?
CB: My next project, The Republic in Peril, is a reevaluation of the first decade of the nation under the Constitution. It looks at how fragile this experiment in representative government was and how worried its leaders were that the experiment might, despite their best efforts, fail. I am going to look closely at four crises the Federalist in power faced, two domestic challenges to the federal government’s authority and two foreign challenges to its sovereignty and independence. As in my two previous books— A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, which looks at debates at the constitutional convention, and The Bill of Rights: the Fight to Secure America’s Liberties— I want to show the men who founded the nation as ordinary human beings, aware of their great undertaking, concerned that they might fail but determined to persevere.

JF: Thanks Carol.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Thoughts on Hobby Lobby: Is a Corporation a Person?

The American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History asked me to write a short piece on the Hobby Lobby decision as part of a historians forum on the landmark Supreme Court case.  The forum also includes short essays by Ruth Bloch, Naomi Lamoreaux, and Alonzo Hamby.  My contribution is titled: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all corporations are created equal.” Here is a snippet.

But can a corporation have religious liberty? I obviously don’t know how Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, James Madison, or Thomas Jefferson—the great early American defenders of religious liberty—would have responded to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, but there is little doubt that they would have considered such a proposal to be very strange. For these men, religious liberty was a very personal thing. Religious liberty was meant to protect deeply held spiritual convictions that found their home in the “soul” or “conscience.” Religious liberty was an inherently Protestant concept. It stemmed from the belief that people could read the Bible for themselves and draw their own religious conclusions. It has always been a religious idea applied to individual human beings. Can a for-profit cooperation have a soul? Can it truly practice liberty of conscience?
We might also ask, as political scientist Patrick Deneen has done so brilliantly, whether a big box store such as Hobby Lobby, located in a massive shopping center constructed on a slab of asphalt at the edge of town, can be considered a person. And if it is a person, can it exercise religious liberty? What happens to a traditional and historical understanding of a person—a human being embedded in political, religious, and local communities exercising virtues such as friendship, love, duty, and citizenship—when it is defined in the context of a soulless corporate world with the primary purpose of maximizing profits?
Read the entire post here.

Did Madison and Jefferson Influence the First Amendment Religion Clauses?

James Madison

In a recent article in American Political Thought which I have yet to read, Mark David Hall argues that there is little evidence to support the claim that the men who ratified the first amendment were influenced by James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance (1785) and Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Liberty (1786).  I have heard Hall make this argument before.  I am glad to see it is now in print.

For more see Jon Rowe’s post at American Creation.

The Undemocratic Senate

Anyone who studies American Constitutional history knows that the United States Senate was never meant to be a “democratic” institution.  In its original design, the senators were not elected by the people.  The so-called upper house was meant to be a “check” on the more popular House of Representatives.

For example, think about the impeachment process.  The “people” bring impeachment charges against the president, but the Senate serves as the jury.  The Senate, to use the words of Henry Hyde during the Bill Clinton impeachment trial, are the gods on “Mount Olympus.”  In the minds of the founders, the Senate was to be made up of wiser, more educated men who would keep “the people” in check. The so-called gods of Mount Olympus did not see fit to remove Andrew Johnson or Bill Clinton from office, despite what the “people” wanted.

Granted, the 17th Amendment made the Senate a more democratic place by establishing the direct election of senators, but according to Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin, the upper house is still the place “where democracy goes to die.”

His post is informed heavily by the work of Stanford historian Jack Rakove and this New York Times piece by Adam Liptak.

A taste:

Every once in a while I teach constitutional law, and when I do, I pose to my students the following question: What if the Senate apportioned votes not on the basis of states but on the basis of race? That is, rather than each state getting two votes in the Senate, what if each racial or ethnic group listed in the US Census got two votes instead?

Regardless of race, almost all of the students freak out at the suggestion. It’s undemocratic, they cry! When I point out that the Senate is already undemocratic—the vote of any Wyomian is worth vastly more than the vote of each New Yorker—they say, yeah, but that’s different: small states need protection from large states. And what about historically subjugated or oppressed minorities, I ask? Or what about the fact that one of the major intellectual moves, if not completely successful coups, of Madison and some of the Framers was to disaggregate or disassemble the interests of a state into the interests of its individual citizens. As Ben Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention, “The Interest of a State is made up of the interests of its individual members.  If they are not injured, the State is not injured.” The students are seldom moved.

Then I point out that the very opposition they’re drawing—between representation on the basis of race versus representation on the basis of states—is itself confounded by the history of the ratification debate over the Constitution and the development of slavery and white supremacy in this country.

Something to think about.  Read the rest here.

HT: Amy Bass

Environmental Conservatism?

I have always wondered why more conservatives weren’t environmentalists or conservationists.  Don’t conservatives like to conserve things?  With this in mind, I found Peter Blair’s review of Roger Scruton‘s recent book How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism (Oxford) to be very interesting.  According to Blair, “Scruton argues that conservative thought is actually a better resource for environmentalism than liberalism.”

Here is a taste:

In order to prevent people from externalizing the costs of their risks—from passing on those costs to people who did not incur them—conservatives support what Scruton calls “homeostatic systems.” Such systems are self-correcting, making use of negative feedback loops to react to change and to keep people accountable for the costs of their risks. Markets, traditions, customs, families, civil associations, and the common law are all examples of homeostatic systems. 

Conservatism aims to preserve and maintain renewal of these systems, especially the “civil associations” that Scruton calls society’s “little platoons,” in the words of Edmund Burke. The little platoons—families, local clubs and institutions, churches and schools—keep us accountable to ourselves and our environment, teaching us how to “interact as free beings, each taking responsibility for his actions.” Daily life in these civil associations assimilates and connects us to a settled home, a place and a people we identify as peculiarly “ours.”

In the conservative vision, threats to one’s home, environmental or otherwise, are met by public spiritedness, by volunteering efforts united by what Scruton calls “oikophilia,” love of home. Politics then becomes modest, about compromise and enforcing the conditions that allow homeostatic systems to function properly. It also becomes localized, because it is only attachment to local civil associations that can solicit people’s loyalty and inspire them to accept the sacrifices that the common good requires. “Such associations,” he writes, “form the stuff of civil society, and conservatives emphasize them precisely because they are the guarantee that society will renew itself without being led and controlled by the state.”

And another taste:

Scruton also defends environmental conservatism with arguments less often heard from American conservatives. Central to his case, for example, is his view that a local, voluntary, patriotic culture can motivate environmental care. Under local stewardship, people don’t defend the environment because they are on a global campaign to save the world. They defend it because they have thick ties to their home, and they want to keep their home safe and beautiful.

Yes, all well and good. I might even find Scruton’s vision attractive. But conservatives also believe in human limits.  Christian conservatives might call this human sin.  If conservatives believe such things about human nature can they really trust their fellow human beings to practice this kind of conservatism or stewardship of the earth without some type of government regulation? After all, as James Madison reminds us in Federalist #51, if men were angels (and took care of the planet), government would not be necessary.

I’ll have to give this some more thought and read Scruton’s book.  In the meantime, comments are welcome.