What should we make of Trump’s 1776 Commission Report? Part 3

Read previous installments in this series here.

It is now difficult to find the 1776 Commission Report, but I managed to locate a copy in the Internet Archive.

The authors begin with the Articles of Confederation. The report teaches a “critical period” approach to the 1780s, arguing that “American statesmen and citizens alike concluded that the Articles were too weak to fulfill a government’s core functions.” What this view of the Constitution of the United States fails to mention is that the 1787 document was barely ratified in some states because so many “statesmen and citizens”–Patrick Henry, Luther Martin, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, James Monroe, Mercy Otis Warren, and George Clinton, to name a few–were relatively happy under the Articles of Confederation and worried that the Constitution took too much power away from the states. American historians talk about these debates and differences with their students when they teach the 1780s. They provide students with primary sources to evaluate both sides of an issue so that they can detect bias and understand ideas in larger contexts. They ask questions like: “Whose critical period?”

In fact, I think the entire 1776 Commission might be a valuable resource in the history classroom. I would use it alongside the 1619 Project or Howard Zinn’s People’s History to help students see how the past can be marshalled toward political ends.

Good history teachers understand the complexity of the past. For example, the 1776 Commission Report insists that there is a direct link between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It fails to mention that many ordinary men and women believed that the Constitution curbed their liberties and squashed some of the democratic practices of the states during the 1780s. Many believed that Madison’s “large republics” would weaken their political voice. The Electoral College filtered the voice of the people. As we saw in 2016, it is possible for a presidential candidate to win the votes of the people and still lose a presidential election. There were people in the eighteenth century who worried about this possibility.

So what were the links between the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? This question would make for a wonderful pedagogical exercise. Instead, this document offers only one side. In the end, it does the exact same thing the conservative authors of the document accuse those on the left of doing.

Finally, the 1776 Commission’s section on the Constitution says nothing about the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention. It says nothing about the three-fifths compromise. The paragraphs on the Bill of Rights focuses almost entirely on religious liberty and the right to bear arms.

Today Inside Higher Ed has a piece on the 1776 Commission and its connection to conservative Hillsdale College.

I also learned today that South Dakota pro-Trump governor Kristi Noem is asking for nearly $1 million to revamp the teaching of social studies in her state so that students learn “why the U.S. is the most special nation in the history of the world.” We will have to see if the 1776 Commission Report will play a role in Noem’s plans. Whatever happens, the history wars will continue.

Some of the descendants of James Monroe’s slaves do not want the former president’s statue removed from the College of William & Mary

The statue of Monroe on William & Mary’s campus was erected “a few years ago.” Monroe attended the William & Mary before he dropped out in 1776 to join the Continental Army.

Here is a taste of Wilford Kale’s article at The Virginia Gazette:

Cousins Jennifer L. Stacy and George R. Monroe Jr. do not want the College of William & Mary to remove President James Monroe’s name from a residence hall, nor would they support the removal of the new statue of the fourth president of the United States placed on campus a few years ago.

The family members are descendants of enslaved persons who labored for Monroe more than two centuries ago at Highland — his Albemarle County plantation now owned, maintained and interpreted by William & Mary.

Stacy and Monroe also are members of the Council of Descendant Advisors, working to tell a broader story at Monroe’s homesite.

Recently, some students and faculty at William & Mary have raised the question as to whether the names on certain buildings on campus are appropriate in light of questions regarding social and racial justice.

“Removing (Monroe’s) statue and name does a disservice,” Stacy explained. “It is not something I support, because that’s taking one part of a man’s life and ignoring the contributions he made to our country. He was a Founding Father.”

Read the rest 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!

Interpreting Slavery at James Monroe’s Plantation

Monroe

Highland, the Virginia home of James Monroe from 1799-1823, is coming to grips with its history of slavery.  Here is a taste of Jordy Yager’s piece at National Public Radio:

Today the area is surrounded by wineries and other tourist draws, like Thomas Jefferson’s nearby plantation, Monticello. In fact, Jefferson helped Monroe buy the Highland property, which is now run as a historic site, hosting weddings, concerts, and thousands of visitors each year.

Until recently, however, the enslaved weren’t much talked about. Guides at Highland knew only that some of the enslaved had been sold and sent to Florida. And then, about two years ago, George Monroe, Jr. paid Highland a visit. He approached a staff member at the visitor’s center and said, “My last name is Monroe and my family comes from off this plantation.”

Since then, George Monroe, Jr. has been working with Highland’s Executive Director Sara Bon-Harper to build relationships with more than a dozen descendants in the immediate area and across Virginia. Bon-Harper wants them to tell the story of Highland.

“The theme of having one’s eyes opened to reality that one was completely ignorant of, I think, goes through race relations in Virginia,” said Bon-Harper. “And my response is to be completely open to learning the things that I have not known and Highland is really, really, excited to have these contacts now and having the willing collaboration of the descendant communities is tremendous.”

Read the entire piece here.

“America is only three presidents old”

Monroe

James Monroe

Very interesting analysis here from Philip Bump of The Washington Post.  A taste:

[George H.W.] Bush was born when Calvin Coolidge was president, who was born when Ulysses Grant was president, who was born when James Monroe was president, who was born when the United States was a British colony. (At that point, Britain was led by George III, who was born when George II was king, who was born when George I was king.)

Read the rest here.

More “Good Feelings”

Independence_Day_Celebration_in_Centre_Square

Last week we did a few posts on Sara Georgini’s series at the U.S. Intellectual History blog on “The Era of Good Feelings.”  Today we call your attention to Erick Trickey’s piece at Smithsonian.com.  Here is a taste:

Monroe won the 1816 election in a landslide and developed a plan to, in his words, “prevent the re-organization and revival of the federal party” and “exterminate all party divisions in our country.” His motives were mixed. Like Washington, he believed that political parties were unnecessary to good government, but he was also furious at the wartime Federalist secessionist movement. He froze out the Federalists, gave them no patronage, and didn’t even acknowledge them as members of a party. But publicly, Monroe made no partisan comments, instead appealing to all Americans on the basis of patriotism. “Discord does not belong to our system,” he declared in his inaugural address. “Harmony among Americans… will be the object of my constant and zealous attentions.”

 

Emulating Washington’s tours of the nation as president, Monroe set out on his first goodwill tour on June 1, 1817. He spent all summer touring the nation, traveling by steamboat and carriage and on horseback. Like politicians today, he shook hands with aging veterans and kissed little kids. He toured farms, hobnobbed with welcoming committees, and patiently endured endless speeches by local judges.

Boston was the biggest test of Monroe’s goodwill. Massachusetts was the nation’s citadel of Federalism, and it had voted for Monroe’s opponent, Rufus King, in 1816. But Boston seized the chance for reconciliation, greeting Monroe with boys clothed in mini-versions of Revolutionary attire and 2,000 girls in white dresses, decorated with either white or red roses, to symbolize the reconciliation of the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.

The night of his victorious appearance on Boston Common, Monroe attended a dinner hosted by Massachusetts Governor John Brooks. To his surprise, other guests included John Adams, the Federalist ex-president, and Timothy Pickering, the former Federalist secretary of state who had recalled Monroe from his diplomatic post in Paris in 1796. “People now meet in the same room who would before scarcely pass the same street,” marveled Boston’s Chronicle and Patriot newspaper.

Boston swooned. On July 12, the Columbian Centinel, an ardent Federalist newspaper, published a headline, “Era of Good Feelings,” that would define Monroe’s presidency. “During the late Presidential Jubilee,” the story began, “many persons have met at festive boards, in pleasant converse, whom party politics had long severed.”

Read the entire piece here.

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.