Should the Government Promote Prayer During a Pandemic?: The Case of Andrew Jackson

jackson-portrait

Over at The Washington Post, Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin reflects on how Andrew Jackson handled the the arrival of cholera on American shores.  Here is a taste:

At the time, it was a standard and orthodox belief that any disease was divine punishment. Cholera was supposedly “a rod in the hand of God,” smiting the atheist, the sinner and the non-Protestant immigrant. The suffering was a rebuke and a call to repent. Individuals and communities were, accordingly, told to fast and pray. City officials and state governors received petitions from churches and citizens’ groups to enact days for public prayer and fasting, and many places complied, including at least 11 states.

Despite attempts to convince Jackson to declare a national day of fasting and prayer, he refused. In a widely reprinted letter of June 12, 1832, he agreed with “the efficacy of prayer” but stated that for the United States to have a national day devoted in any way to religion was “transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president,” a violation of the constitutional protection of freedom of religious belief, including lack of belief.

This was unorthodox. Three previous presidents, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison had, by contrast, recommended fast days during earlier crises. Jackson was by no means an atheist. He was raised in a Presbyterian household and became a member of that denomination later in life. He also understood the dangers of contagious disease. His mother had died, in her early 40s, while nursing Revolutionary War soldiers, having caught “ship fever” from them, probably typhus.

But as a populist and anti-establishment politician, “Old Hickory” distrusted and opposed the college-educated clergy, who were established figures of authority in the 1830s. Jackson and his supporters in the Democratic Party caricatured them as the equivalent of the Catholic clergy ousted (temporarily) by the French revolutionaries: medieval, superstitious remnants who undermined modern democracy. To the Jacksonians, the clergy must, by definition, always be trying to unite church and state, against the clear admonition of the Constitution.

Jackson defied them, and because of that, encouraged growing public support for alternative solutions to epidemics. These included, for example, creating civic boards of health that, with doctors’ advice, would track contagion, disinfect public areas and declare and uphold quarantines. Not all these measures were appropriate against cholera, whose transmission was not yet well understood. But the shift toward secular and civic solutions to epidemics represented a trend that would eventually protect public health.

Here is Chaplin’s conclusion:

Whatever Jackson’s reasons for deriding college-educated clergymen, he endorsed the view that human governance of material forces is a secular business and requires action. President Trump may have made a point of hanging a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, but his recent actions make him more like Clay. He lacks personal piety but has called for prayer as a response to covid-19. Against the advice of public health experts, he stated a goal to “have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” as if a Christian holiday ought to mark time throughout the nation, before backing away in past few days. Old Hickory is on record as opposing pulling religion into the handling of a pandemic like this. It was an admirable example of how a national leader ought to address a public health crisis — way back in 1832.

Read the entire piece here.

“The Coalition That Made American Independence Possible”

Brothers in ArmsEducation and Culture: A Critical Review is running my review of Larrie Ferreiro’s Brothers in Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.

Education and Culture is John Wilson’s new venture.  For over two decades Wilson edited Books and Culture.

Here is a taste of my review:

The recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was the impetus for an interesting Twitter exchange between Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Chair of Early American History at Harvard University, and Ted Cruz, the junior US Senator from Texas. Chaplin was not happy about Trump’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement and used the 140 characters allotted to her on Twitter to express her dissatisfaction. On June 1, 2017, she wrote, “The USA, created by int’l community in Treaty of Paris in 1783, betrays int’l community by withdrawing from #parisclimateagreement today.” Cruz, appalled by the suggestion that the “international community” created the United States, fired back: “Just sad. Tenured chair at Harvard, doesn’t seem to know how USA was created. Not a treaty. Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.” Later in the day, the Texas Senator continued on the offensive: “Lefty academics @ my alma mater think USA was “created by int’s community. No—USA created by force, the blood of patriots & We the People.” As might be expected, most academic historians rushed to defend Chaplin, while conservative websites viewed the exchange as another battle in their war against so-called liberal élites.

We should not make too much of this short Twitter exchange. Both Chaplin and Cruz used the social media platform to marshal historical evidence in support of their own political preferences. But the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up, and the reaction to it, does tell us a lot about how Americans understand and misunderstand, use and abuse, the past. Chaplin’s attempt to connect the Treaty of Paris to the Paris Climate Agreement was a stretch. On the other hand, her insistence that the United States was not forged in a vacuum is a point worth making. Cruz’s tweets reflect an older version of the American Revolution that serves the cause of American exceptionalism. Scholars sometimes describe this historiography of exceptionalism as “Whig history.” Cruz’s understanding of the nation’s founding—one that celebrates the “blood of the patriots” and “We the People”—ignores the fact that the colonies were part of a larger transatlantic world that influenced the course and success of their Revolution. Cruz’s brand of Whig history offers a usable past perfectly suited for today’s “America First” foreign policy and the Trump administration’s skepticism regarding globalization. It is also wrong.

Read the entire review here.

Richard Bernstein Weighs-In on the Chaplin-Cruz Dust-Up

BernsteinLast night while scanning Facebook I ran across Richard Bernstein’s take on this whole Joyce Chaplin-Ted Cruz debate. He was gracious enough to let me share it here.

Bernstein is a historian who teaches law at New York Law School.  He is the author of several books, including The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2015); The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (Oxford, 2009); and Thomas Jefferson (Oxford, 2003).

Not familiar yet with the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up?  Get up to speed here and here.

There is a dust-up on Twitter between Harvard’s Joyce Chaplin and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about the consequences of President 45’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. Prof. Chaplin argued that the US was created by the international community as a result of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and Cruz fired back an angry and bitter retort insisting that the United States was entirely self-created by the following equation: “Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.”

Well, Prof. Chaplin is a bit off, but Senator Cruz is way off. Here’s one historian’s take on the matter, rooted in various books that I’ve written and in the research supporting them:

The United States was self-created on either 2 July (the adoption of the independence resolution) or 4 July (the adoption and promulgation of the Declaration of Independence) 1776. Its first form of government (omitted by Cruz from his equation) was the Articles of Confederation, framed in 1777 and ratified in 1781. Of the three resolutions introduced by Richard Henry Lee (VA) in the Second Continental Congress in June 1776, one pertained to declaring independence; a second pertained to framing articles of confederation; and a third pertained to securing foreign alliances, showing the importance that the founding guys placed on the international dimension of the struggle.

* The treaty between the US and France in 1778 was the first by which a foreign power recognized the United States; other treaties with other nations confirmed American independence in the eyes of those nations making the treaties.

* The Treaty of Paris of 1783 is the instrument by which Britain officially recognized American independence, though one could argue that, by entering into full negotiations with American diplomats, Britain recognized American independence earlier than 1783. The step of opening negotiations was the first step in a process culminating in the treaty, and thus in full recognition.

The creation of the United States is a process with domestic and international dimensions, as set forth above. It ended with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and its effectuation on 4 March 1789. On receiving news of the Constitution’s ratification, Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration) said, “‘Tis done. We have become a nation.” One could argue that the United States first took shape as a confederation of states in 1776 and then reformulated itself into a federal republic, an independent nation, by 1789. Note, however, that the Constitution does not include the word “nation” — in fact, during the Convention, the delegates were so leery of that word that they specifically excised it from the document.

Apparently, Ted Cruz is an idiot. He seems not to realize that a formal treaty between Britain and the United States, under which Britain recognized American independence and nationhood, was an essential part of the creation of the United States. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay did not make that mistake, nor did they miss the importance of the treaty they were appointed by Congress to negotiate. It is sad that a graduate with honors of the Harvard Law School is so stupid as to miss that essential point about the origins of the United States. Cruz insists on the Battle of Yorktown (1781), but he misses that the treaty negotiations were the direct consequence of the UH-French victory over Britain at Yorktown.

Indeed, regarding the use of the word “nation,” Abraham Lincoln was the critical figure in establishing the legitimacy and importance of defining the United States as a nation. His predecessor in that argument, of course, was Alexander Hamilton, who in THE FEDERALIST No. 85 wrote, “A nation without a national government is to my mind an awful spectacle.”

In sum, the creation of the United States as an independent nation was a long, arduous process, one with both domestic (national) and international elements – one that can’t be contained in a tweet.

Chaplin vs. Cruz: Part 2

treatyofparis

As far as I can tell, this is the first thing I have read from Joyce Chaplin since Ted Cruz attacked her on Twitter.  As I have now said a couple of times, I hope she will write something to put this all to bed.  On the other hand, I would fully understand if Chaplin does not want to open herself up to more attacks.

Here is a taste of Joanna Walter’s Guardian piece:

Fighting broke out in Britain’s American colonies on 18 April 1775, at Concord, Massachusetts. On 4 July 1776, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. British forces did not surrender until 1781, after the battle of Yorktown, in Virginia.

In 1783, representatives of King George III met in Paris with Americans including founding fathers Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Representatives of France and Spain also signed the United States of America into formal, internationally-recognised existence.

Chaplin said: “The Declaration of Independence was necessary but not sufficient. The American patriots knew that they needed international assistance to win the war. Even before [4 July] 1776, they sent a diplomatic envoy to Paris – foreign aid and recognition were top priorities.”

She declined to comment on the tone of Cruz’s criticism and his more personal points, saying: “Personal attacks cannot alter the historical record.”

On the history, she added: “Before they recognised the US, the French referred to the Americans as “insurgents” … not citizens of a separate nation … the full spate of recognitions only came after the treaty. Those who recognised the US before were demonstrating antagonism to Great Britain.”

The 1783 Paris treaty formalised the boundaries of the US: north of Florida to the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi.

“The treaty … in terms of law created the US as one nation among others,” Chaplin said. “By relinquishing claims to the US, Britain also gave force of law to its territorial boundaries, which had not been clear before, from anyone’s perspective …There is scholarly consensus on this.”

She called 4 July 1776 “a first step” on the road to national independence.

Asked if the US now owes it to the rest of the world to stick with the Paris climate deal, Chaplin said that accord was the culmination of centuries of quid pro quo.

“If we turn our backs on the rest of the world now,” she said, “when climate change requires all hands on deck, we are denying centuries of cooperation in a community of nations.”

As linked above, I wrote about this here.

A few more thoughts:

  1. The conservative backlash is very revealing.  Most of it comes from political pundits who, like Cruz, see this as another chance to pounce on so-called liberal Harvard professors.
  2. Cruz and the conservatives, as I wrote in my original post, are incapable of seeing the nuance on this issue because they cannot see Chaplin’s remarks as anything other than politically motivated.  (And yes, Chaplin opened herself up to this critique by making the connection between Paris 1783 and Paris 2017. This is a stretch. It is not as sensitive to change over time as it should be). This is why we need more historical thinking in our schools and in our society.
  3. In reality, the creation of the United States was a very complex process that included the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the years under the Articles of Confederation, the Treaty of Paris (international recognition WAS essential), and the Constitution.  When this complex history is subordinated to contemporary politics, any attempt to understand the past in all its fullness stalls.
  4.  Twitter is no place to deal with these complex issues.
  5. Anyone who wants to really explore these issues should begin here:  David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History; Eliga H. Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire; Larrie Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.  This is a start.  Feel free to add new works in the comments or via Facebook and Twitter.  Let’s turn this unfortunate incident into an opportunity for learning more about the American Revolution.
  6. Some of the conservative stuff written in defense of Cruz is simply hogwash. This was especially the case with Jay Cost’s piece at The Weekly Standard.  I like John Haas’s take on Cost at his Facebook page.  Here is a taste:

Jay Cost–who knows a thing or two about US history, btw–has weighed into the Twitter kerfuffle that’s erupted between Senator Ted Cruz (a Harvard grad) and Joyce Chaplin (a Harvard historian)…

They both have some of the truth here. If Cruz is insisting that the war was necessary to get Britain to the table, that’s obviously true–but it’s also nothing Chaplin denied. Cruz and his followers are assuming that if Chaplin didn’t mention it, she must be denying its importance. That’s silly. (If Cruz is going further, as many of his followers seem to be going, and is saying our “total victory” over GB allowed us to just dictate terms to them, well, no. There’s such a thing as “total war” I suppose (it’s meaning isn’t entirely clear, but people say it); there is “unconditional surrender”; but I don’t know what “total victory” is.

Chaplin is also correct that without international recognition, you’re not a nation yet. That’s why the Confederate States of America was so eager to gain recognition. Just ask the Basques about that.

As for Cost: This isn’t his finest hour. He makes six points:

1) The Treaty of Paris was bilateral, US and GB, not multilateral. Sure. But now every nation with relations with Great Britain knew the US was now no longer its colonial possession, and was free to treat us as sovereign without incurring the wrath of Great Britain. Point to Chaplin.

2) “The Treaty was a recognition of the facts on the ground, which were that, after their defeat at Yorktown, the British had no chance of reclaiming their American colonies.” A very weak point from Cost. Better to say Britain had no interest in reclaiming the colonies, not “no chance.” As with the US and Vietnam, if GB had really determined to fight that war all out, who knows what might have happened. They were nowhere close to “defeated.” They just lost interest.

3) He says there was no international community. Well, no UN, but sure, there was a community of nations that generally respected each others’ nationhood, accepted their delegations, made treaties with each other, etc.

4) “Insofar as the international community did exist, it was on the side of the United States.” Irrelevant.

5) Also irrelevant.

6) “Chaplin’s logic leads to ridiculous propositions. Did the ‘international community’ sanction the Glorious Revolution of 1688? Of course not. But, per Chaplin’s logic, Queen Elizabeth II is not the legitimate monarch of Great Britain . . .” This is just dumb. The international community did sanction 1688 by treating William & Mary as legitimate. But more important, it wasn’t really a “revolution,” much less a civil war; it was a major assertion of Parliamentarian authority and a change of monarch. Not at all comparable to our Revolution.

Cost calls Professor Chaplin “pathetic,” “ridiculous,” and “embarrassing.” He should probably apologize. But he won’t. It’s the #AgeOfTrump

Joyce Chaplin vs. Ted Cruz

Perhaps you have seen the Twitter battle taking place between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Joyce Chaplin.   Cruz ran for POTUS In 20016.  Chaplin is an early American historian and chair of Harvard’s American Studies program

Chaplin’s claim that the United States was formed by an international community through the Treaty of Paris (1783) is true.  Having said that, to connect the Treaty of Paris with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement seems to be a bit of a reach. I hope Chaplin will write a longer piece on this.  I am less interested in the connections between Paris 1783 and Paris 2017 and more interested in Chaplin’s understanding of the relationship between the past and the present on matters like this.

Cruz, of course, can’t stay away.  His tweets reveal his simplistic understanding of the American Revolution.  As Cruz proved during his presidential campaign, he is incapable of nuance, especially when history does not conform to his view of American exceptionalism.

I wonder what Cruz would say about me if he ever found out that I tell my students that the Americans would not have won the Revolutionary War without the help of France, Spain, and other European powers.

Here are the tweets: