The Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDROver at Religion & Politics, Eric C. Miller interviews James Bratt about John Woolverton’s A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  When Woolverton died in 2014, Bratt finished the book.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Religion & Politics: Your work on this book was somewhat atypical. How did you end up finishing it? What was your process?

James D. Bratt: The editing process was actually kind of fun. Professor Woolverton had done such an excellent job of research in the archives and secondary literature that I didn’t have to worry about correcting or supplementing things. Only one addition was required—the brief chapter on FDR’s death, funeral, and burial rites. The folks at Eerdmans said that readers expect biographies to end with this sort of wrap, and so I supplied it.

For the rest, the job involved trimming and reorganizing the manuscript so as to bring out the main theme of each chapter in clear focus and efficient development. It’s probably easier to do this with someone else’s writing than with your own because you’re looking down at a landscape from some height rather than having hacked out a path thru the thicket in the first place. So I just ploughed along, chapter by chapter.

My copy editors were sharp and kind and saved a number of errors. The most difficult part here was tracking down quotations that had come untethered from footnotes in my editing process. (A couple different word-processing programs had been involved along the way, and weren’t always compatible with the new system into which I integrated everything.) This did set me off sleuthing through FDR’s published speeches and personal correspondence, which is a very revealing road into the nuts and bolts of a person’s life and mind. I managed to track down every reference but one, which felt like quite an achievement, and I got in better touch with FDR as a person along the way.

R&P: Readers are likely familiar with Roosevelt the Democrat. What kind of a Christian was he?

JDB: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a lifelong Episcopalian. He was taken to St. James’ Church in Hyde Park, [New York], as a lad, even though he didn’t much care for it at the time. His father was on the vestry, and Franklin himself became a member of the vestry in adulthood. He was loyal to his church, he knew the liturgy and revered the music, and he cared much more about the ceremonial aspects than about the theology. He loved the social ethics most of all.

His attachment to the liberal branch of Episcopalianism was solidified during the years that he spent studying at the Groton School in Massachusetts, under the famous headmaster Endicott Peabody. Groton at that time was one of the heartlands of the Social Gospel movement. So I think you could say that he was a liturgical Episcopalian and a Social Gospel Christian.

Read the rest here.

*Piety and Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House*

PenceJournalist Tom LoBianco has published a religious biography of Vice President Mike Pence.  I have not read the book, so I cannot endorse it.  But I can say that I spent significant time on the phone with LoBianco as he conducted research for the book.

He writes:

As part of my general research for this book, I relied on a handful of insightful books (and highly recommend them for anyone interested in understanding Mike Pence better).  I’ll start with Pence’s two favorite books: the Bible, and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.  Additionally, I relied on John Fea’s tour of evangelical history and the Trump campaign, Believe Me; The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, as well as Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson’s review of the start and disbanding of the Moral Majority, Blinded by Might.  And for all Hoosier-philes, I highly recommend James Madison’s The Indiana Way.  I also feel like I found my own  bible in this process, Jon Franklin’s Writing for Story.

Obama’s Legacy?

white-house-staff-obama-speech

Is it healthcare? The Paris Climate Agreement?  His election as the first black president?  Something else?  Over at Dissent, Corey Robin reviews eight books on the Obama legacy.  Many of these books are written by Obama staffers.  Robin’s calls them the “Obamanauts” and suggests that they may be Obama’s legacy.

Here is a taste:

Since the 2016 election, many members of the Obama administration have written their memoirs in the hope of defining that legacy. In addition, more than a hundred men and women who worked in and around the White House have given their reminiscences to Brian Abrams, who has composed a remarkably fluid oral history of the Obama years. We’ve not yet heard from the man himself. While it’s not unprecedented for the president’s men and women to get the first word, the effect of his silence and their volubility is to decenter a presidency that, more than most, was centered on one man and his words. Obama had an uncanny ability to make sense of his place in history, to narrate what it was that he was doing. His politics had its limits, but they were often, and often knowingly, self-imposed. No matter how circumscribed the view, Obama managed to conjure a sense of what lay beyond it. With one exception, none of his people has that sense of time or place. They’re bound by a perimeter that is not of their making and that lies beyond their ken.

At the same time, not only do the Obamanauts wish to salvage Obama’s legacy from Donald Trump; they also believe Obama’s legacy can save us from Donald Trump. “My hope in writing this book,” says Dan Pfeiffer, who ran communications in the White House, is that “if we learn the right lessons” from Obama, “we can ensure that Donald Trump is an aberration.” That puts Obama’s legacy at a double disadvantage: defended by some of its least persuasive advocates and defined by what it is not. Burdened by a future he had a hand in making but no intention of creating, Obama gets reimagined in these memoirs and reminiscenses in light of everything he sought to avoid: the destructiveness of the president who came after him, and the irresponsibility of the Republicans who came before him and dogged him throughout his time in office. Instead of a clear outline of the man, we get the shadow of his enemies. That’s not fair to Obama, but as he’s the one who chose these people to speak for him while he was in office, they are the ones who’ve chosen to speak for him when he’s out. So it will remain, until he writes his memoirs.

The Obamanauts have an argument that they think can be used to defeat the Republicans. It is an argument that sets out what liberals and Democrats should be saying, and how they should be saying it, in the next election and beyond. It is part sense—about economic policy, foreign policy, and so on—and part sensibility: about norms, the presidency, and how our public life should be conducted. Because the sense is so thin in these memoirs, the sensibility winds up mattering more. Which is probably for the best. For it’s that sensibility that gives us the clearest view of what Obamaism, beneath and beyond Obama, was all about. It’s the style of leading sectors in the Democratic Party, currently embattled against the left, though we hear little mention of that battle here. But most of all, it’s that style that answers the question: What is Obama’s legacy? For better or worse, and at least for now, it’s the Obamanauts themselves.

Read the entire piece here.

When France Meddled in American Elections

 

Over at The Washington Post, historian Jordan Taylor reminds us that “the founding fathers knew first-hand that foreign interference in U.S. elections was dangerous.”  He points to French ambassadors Edmond-Charles Genet, Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet, and Pierre-Auguste Adet in the 1790s.

Here is a taste:

 

Throughout the 1790s, France’s ambassadors repeatedly sought to influence the results of American elections, hoping to sway policy in their favor.

Even after this meddling ended, fear of foreign influence persisted, ultimately making subsequent untainted elections seem illegitimate. Public faith in the democratic process had eroded. The entire experience convinced the founding generation that democracies live or die based on the integrity of their elections — a lesson we must remember today.

In 1793, a quirky and energetic man named Edmond-Charles Genêt arrived in the United States to assume his position as the new ambassador of France. Many Americans responded enthusiastically to Genêt at political gatherings and social engagements as he integrated himself with the Francophile Democratic-Republican party that opposed the Federalist Washington administration.

Unsurprisingly, relations between Genêt and the Washington administration quickly soured. George Washington’s repeated refusal to align American interests with France angered Genêt. According to some accounts, he warned that if the president continued to rebuff him, he would “appeal to the people” themselves. This threat earned him immediate infamy, because it suggested that Genêt might seek to influence the American elections in 1794 to build support for policies friendly to France. To prevent him from taking such actions, the Washington administration demanded that France recall Genêt.

The new French ambassador, a sulking, stubborn man named Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet, practiced greater discretion in advancing French interests. But though he was not as flamboyant as Genêt, Fauchet nonetheless paid small subsidies to Democratic-Republicans as they fought against the adoption of the looming Anglo-American “Jay Treaty” that would harm France’s interests.

Read the entire piece here.

The Benefits of Impeachment: Some Lessons from Andrew Johnson

Johnson

Historian Gregory Downs thinks that Trump should be impeached even if the Senate keeps him office. There is a good chance that the time between the impeachment in the House and the trial in the Senate might “curtail Trump’s worst behaviors” and neutralize him politically.

Downs uses the impeachment of Andrew Johnson to make his point.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

Johnson’s adept attorneys succeeded in protecting his tenure in office in two ways. First, they sought to delay the Senate trial. Then, they used that delay to persuade Johnson to keep his hands off Reconstruction. As the trial hung over him and then dragged on through April and May, a chastened Johnson pledged to appoint a moderate secretary of war, stop shuffling generals in the Southern states, and let the Army and African American Republicans complete their work in the South. By April, a half-dozen former Confederate states had ratified their new constitutions and asked Congress for readmission. Only then, in mid-May, did the Senate finally vote on Johnson’s fate.

Even with his acquiescence to Reconstruction, Johnson survived only by a single vote in that Senate tally. Although the 14th Amendment was not ratified until July 1868, the impeachment trial that put Johnson’s fate into question allowed freedpeople, white Southern Republicans and the Army to freely engage in the crucial work of making what some scholars call a “Second Constitution,” a refashioning of the federal government’s role in protecting individual rights through the 14th Amendment’s pledges of equal protection and due process. Most significantly, those reconstructed states provided the votes to ratify the proposed amendment, which has subsequently shaped Supreme Court decisions on desegregation, voting rights, same-sex marriage, freedom of speech and assembly, and many other basic rights we enjoy today.

Impeachment also did play a role in Johnson leaving office by weakening him politically. In 1866, Johnson had explored the creation of a new party that combined Democrats and conservative Republicans. When that collapsed, he spent part of 1867 trying to engineer nomination by the Democratic Party, his old home. But the trial helped make him untouchable, and the Democrats turned to a different candidate, New York’s Horatio Seymour, leaving Johnson off the ballot.

Analogies are never perfect. We are not now in a period of Reconstruction, or a moment when Congress and the president are primarily at war over such a specific set of laws. Nonetheless, as Johnson did, Trump threatens the nation’s stability by attacking our faith in elections and the rule of law, as well as our global alliances. His tweets and incendiary rhetoric are dangerous, and although no one can say how he would respond to a looming trial, one possibility is that he, like Johnson, might tone down his behavior to avoid removal. And this possibility makes it worth taking the political risk posed by impeachment.

Trying to judge the worthiness of impeachment solely by whether it ends in conviction and removal would be a mistake. If the presence of a trial disciplines Trump to stop encouraging foreign interference in U.S. elections and to start curtailing his destabilizing rhetoric, impeachment will have been worth it, whether it ends in conviction or acquittal, in 2020 reelection or defeat. While many will call for a speedy impeachment trial if the House votes to impeach, senators might look to the Johnson case to ask whether a deliberate process will sustain pressure on the White House to behave more responsibly, and give the president the opportunity to save — or destroy — his tenure in office.

Read the rest here.

Four Historians of Presidential Foreign Policy: “We’ve never seen anything like this”

Trump on mall

Here are the four historians:

Elizabeth A. Cobbs : Melbern Glasscock Chair in American history at Texas A&M University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Kyle Longley: Snell Family Dean’s distinguished professor of history and political science at Arizona State University.

Kenneth Osgood: Professor of History at the Colorado School of Mines.

Jeremi Suri: Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here is a taste of their piece at CNN:

It is rare to get such a real-time look at presidential conversations with foreign leaders. As historians of US foreign relations, collectively we have read many thousands of similar documents from past presidents. We have also listened to audio tapes of conversations between presidents and their international counterparts. In our numerous books on presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama, we have examined how American leaders conduct US foreign policy — the good, bad, and ugly. Nothing really surprises us anymore.

Until now.

Trump’s documentary record differs dramatically from his predecessors. A worrisome thread runs through each conversation. Trump appears laser-focused on his own fortunes to the exclusion of the national security of the United States. Unfortunately, this is part of a larger and startling pattern of Trump promoting his personal agenda ahead of the nation’s interests.

Read the entire piece here.

If Not For Abraham Lincoln’s Hat, Trump Would be the “Most Presidential” President in American History

Lincoln cartoon

In addition to suggesting that the whistleblower should be executed, announcing that Congressman Adam Schiff has a thick neck, stating Joe Biden is “dumb as a rock,” and calling the press “animals,” Trump also made another Abe Lincoln reference in his recent closed-door meeting with U.S. diplomats.  Here is Yahoo News:

At one point, Trump said his only predecessor to appear more presidential than he was Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m the most presidential except for possibly Abe Lincoln when he wore the hat. That was tough to beat,” Trump said. But he added: “I have better hair than him.”

Read the entire Yahoo piece here.

The Author’s Corner With Thomas Balcerski

BalcserskiThomas J. Balcerski is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University.  This is interview is based on his new book Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Bosom Friends?

TB: Bosom Friends began as the first chapter of my dissertation at Cornell University. One of my central research questions since graduate school has been the role of bachelors, and more generally the unmarried, in U.S. politics before the Civil War. From bachelors, I came to the historical category of friendship, about which I wrote my first article, published in Pennsylvania History in 2013. In the dissertation, I looked at several examples of intimate male friendships in the antebellum period, but for the book, I decided to dig deeper into the relationship of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. Given that the focus had shifted from a range of actors to just two individuals, I decided to write the book as a dual biography.

Famously, James Buchanan is our only bachelor president (or more properly, the only president never to marry, since Grover Cleveland was elected a bachelor in 1884). Less well known to history is William Rufus King, who was elected vice president under Franklin Pierce in 1852. King is perhaps most widely remembered for being the only president or vice president ever inaugurated outside the United States, having done so on his deathbed in Matanzas, Cuba. The pair, Buchanan and King, served together in the U.S. Senate from 1834 to 1844, during which time they often lived together. From there, the bosom friends separated, but their correspondence increased, which reveals a portrait of two Democratic bachelor politicians striving to obtain power. While both men lived, they wanted nothing more than to unite the North and the South in a bachelor ticket; however, it did not come to pass.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bosom Friends?

TB: My book argues that an intimate male friendship shaped the political and personal lives of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. I reveal the many intricacies of their conjoined lives and, in the process, help to clear up much misinformation about the pair.

JF: Why do we need to read Bosom Friends?

TB: The relationship of James Buchanan and William Rufus King is interesting both in a historical and historiographic sense. I find it fascinating how interpretations, both among academics and the general public, have changed about the pair. There’s no getting around the fact that, today, most people assume that they were gay and, further still, that they shared a sexual relationship. My book takes a different approach, as I read the evidence more carefully within the historical context of intimacy in nineteenth century America. For this reason, readers can expect a reassessment of what they think they know about manhood, friendship, sexuality, and politics in the era before the Civil War.

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

TB: I credit an excellent high school teacher for my initial interest in American history. My class read Thomas Bailey’s American Pageant, and I was hooked. The narrative style, the memorable descriptions (John Adams as “frosty” lingers in my memory), and the idea that the past, somehow, actually mattered to the present made their impression upon me. I have always enjoyed the ebb and flow of the antebellum period—I like the contingency of events, the colorful characters who populated David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and the sense that maybe, just maybe, the war could have been prevented. Beyond the graduate training that I received at SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, I realized that those initial passions for the causes of the Civil War are like a deep reservoir of historical research to which I come back to again and again.

JF: What is your next project?

TB: I am currently working on a history of the Democratic Party from its early origins in the Federalist era to its unraveling in the 1920s. Tentatively titled “The Party of No: When the Democrats Were Conservative,” I want to understand the longer history of an important question that I am often asked, a version of which: “When did the Democratic Party and the Republican Party switch their politics?” I think a study, part biographical of party leaders and part political history of the period, would help to explain the events that preceded this change.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

When a President Visits Those Who Survived a Mass Shooting…

Here is Trump in an El Paso hospital:

CNN also has coverage here:

Back in 2017, Joshua DuBois, head of Barack Obama’s Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2009-2013, described Obama’s meetings with families of the children killed during the 2012 mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School i n Newtown, CT.

Here is he wrote:

That news began a weekend of prayer and numbness, which I awoke from on Saturday only to receive the word that the president would like me to accompany him to Newtown. He wanted to meet with the families of the victims and then offer words of comfort to the country at an interfaith memorial service.

I left early to help the advance team—the hardworking folks who handle logistics for every event—set things up, and I arrived at the local high school where the meetings and memorial service would take place. We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how to prepare; it was the best we could think of.

The families came in and gathered together, room by room. Many struggled to offer a weak smile when we whispered, “The president will be here soon.” A few were visibly angry—so understandable that it barely needs to be said—and were looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Mostly they sat in silence.

I went downstairs to greet President Obama when he arrived, and I provided an overview of the situation. “Two families per classroom . . . The first is . . . and their child was . . . The second is . . . and their child was . . . We’ll tell you the rest as you go.”

The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.

The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.

And the funny thing is—President Obama has never spoken about these meetings. Yes, he addressed the shooting in Newtown and gun violence in general in a subsequent speech, but he did not speak of those private gatherings. In fact, he was nearly silent on Air Force One as we rode back to Washington, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself—never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view.

Jesus teaches us that some things—the holiest things, the most painful and important and cherished things—we are to do in secret. Not for public consumption and display, but as acts of service to others, and worship to God. For then, “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you,” perhaps not now, but certainly in eternity. We learned many lessons in Newtown that day; this is one I’ve kept closely at heart.

Read the entire piece here.

Papers of Martin Van Buren Project Publishes 327 New Documents

Van Buren

Here is the press release from Cumberland University:

The Papers of Martin Van Buren project at Cumberland University recently published 327 documents as part of Series 7, which covers the period of Van Buren’s vice presidency under Andrew Jackson from March 4, 1833 to March 3, 1837.

The newly published documents include correspondence related to Van Buren’s participation in the Bank War and his presidential campaign to succeed Andrew Jackson. Van Buren also received correspondence related to foreign affairs, including the growing friction between the United States and Mexico as Americans settled in Texas.

“These documents shed light on a number of important issues that consumed Jackson’s second presidential term and of necessity drew in Van Buren,” project director Mark Cheathem said. “Van Buren was also looking ahead to the 1836 presidential election. His correspondence with American voters who wanted to know his opinion on a number of issues gives insight into his political principles on issues such as slavery and religion.”

The digital edition of the Van Buren papers will make accessible approximately 13,000 documents that belonged to the eighth president. Over 1,000 of these documents are now available at vanburenpapers.org.

The Papers of Martin Van Buren project is sponsored by Cumberland University and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and is produced in partnership with the Center for Digital Editing at the University of Virginia.

For more information about the Papers of Martin Van Buren project at Cumberland University, visit http://vanburenpapers.org.

Mark Cheatham and his team are doing some great work 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.

Federalist #69 and the Mueller Report

FederalistDanielle Allen of Harvard University makes the connection in a piece at The Washington Post. Here is a taste:

The Mueller report has finally brought us face-to-face with the need to address the “delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility” in the nation’s chief executive, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist 69.

To quote the Mueller report: “The President has no more right than other citizens to impede official proceedings by corruptly influencing witness testimony.” In addition, the president bears a second burden of personal responsibility — not merely to execute the powers of his office (for instance, hiring and firing) but also to execute those powers “faithfully.”

That question of faithfulness is what Hamilton had in mind when he referred to the “delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility.” The constitutional apparatus gave to Congress the power and responsibility of addressing that delicate matter. The most important question now before us is whether Congress will use its power — and indeed, rebuild it after a period of decline — to reinforce two core principles of the Constitution: that the president is not above the law and that he or she should be held to a standard of faithfulness.

Read the rest here.

Here is Hamilton in Federalist 69:

The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law. The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution. In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware.

Presidential Historian: “Trump has none of the traits the founders thought essential for presidents”

george-washington1Here is Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History:

This willingness to put country before self is why Washington’s presence lent legitimacy to the controversial convention, why delegates immediately voted him the presiding chair and why they ultimately designed the presidency with him in mind. Put simply, they trusted him and knew he would put America first.

Not every president would. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin assured the convention, probably nodding in Washington’s direction as he spoke. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.”

So delegates designed a mechanism for removing a dangerous president, one who did what Washington never would: impeachment for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

That pesky phrase, “high crimes and misdemeanors” has befuddled Americans ever since. It shouldn’t. The Constitution’s authors understood that impeachable treachery need not, in fact, be a literal crime at all, but rather a demonstration that a president’s presence harmed the body politic, the people, either through maliciousness or selfishness.

For example, any president “who has practiced corruption” to win election, a Pennsylvania delegate argued, should be impeached. So, too, in the eyes of Virginia’s James Madison, should any president who “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression,” or any who “betray[ed] his trust to foreign powers.”

And what of a president who used his immense pardon power to conceal his guilt, perhaps by promising a pardon to subordinates he ordered to break the law? They thought of that, too. “If the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person,” who schemed against the republic, Madison argued during ratification debates, “and there be grounds to believe he [the president] will shelter him,” impeachment should follow. No one debated the point.

Read the entire piece here.

Mount Vernon CEO Doug Bradburn Explains What It Was Like Giving Donald Trump a Tour

Bradburn and Trump

Doug Bradburn, the CEO of Mount Vernon, gave Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron a tour of George Washington’s estate in April 2018.

Now Bradburn is talking about the Trump visit.  Here is a taste of an article at Politico on Bradburn’s attempts to keep Trump interested on the tour:

During a guided tour of Mount Vernon last April with French president Emmanuel Macron, Trump learned that Washington was one of the major real-estate speculators of his era. So, he couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself.

“If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”

The VIPs’ tour guide for the evening, Mount Vernon president and CEO Doug Bradburn, told the president that Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.

Here is more:

The president’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain Trump’s interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property which he later described to associates as “truly bizarre.” The Macrons, Bradburn has told several people, were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the president.

A former history professor with a PhD, Bradburn “was desperately trying to get [Trump] interested in” Washington’s house, said a source familiar with the visit, so he spoke in terms Trump understands best — telling the president that Washington was an 18th century real-estate titan who had acquired property throughout Virginia and what would come to be known as Washington, D.C.

Trump asked whether Washington was “really rich,” according to a second person familiar with the visit. In fact, Washington was either the wealthiest or among the wealthiest Americans of his time, thanks largely to his mini real estate empire.

“That is what Trump was really the most excited about,” this person said.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is what I wrote about Trump and American history in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

But the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them.  His approach to history also reveals his narcissism.  When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story.  As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”  Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.”  The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself.  Not all presidents have been perfect, and other have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office.   Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.  Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity.  This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst.  Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries.  Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” 

Sam Wineburg, one of the country’s foremost scholars of historical thinking, writes:

“For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.”

I chatted with Bradburn in this episode of his Mount Vernon podcast and you can listen to our interview with Bradburn in Episode 17 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Is Jimmy Carter an Antidote to Trump?

David Siders thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Politico:

“Carter almost takes us out of the entire realm of what our politics has become,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Carter and Howard Dean. “He’s the anti-Trump … I mean, we have almost the polar opposite as president, somebody who is so an affront to everything that’s good and kind and decent.”

Maslin said, “I have felt for some time that a candidate who is not just good on the issues but can marshal a moral clarity about what our politics ought to be, in contrast to what it has become, that person … that could be the currency of 2020.”

In fact, Carter has become a constant point of reference early in the campaign for Democrats polling outside of the top tier. John Delaney, the little-known former Maryland congressman who by August 2018 had already campaigned in all 99 counties in Iowa, has likened his focus on the first-in-the-nation caucus state to Carter’s.

And after her pilgrimage to see Carter this year, Klobuchar wrote on social media, “Wonderful lunch with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter today at their home in Plains. Tomato soup and pimento cheese sandwiches! Got some good advice and helpful to hear about their grassroots presidential campaign (when no one thought they could win but they did)!”

Read the entire piece here.

I still think Carter’s 1979 “malaise speech” is one of the best presidential speeches I have heard in my lifetime.

  • Notice that Carter used the phrase “I feel your pain” before Bill Clinton popularized it.
  • The speech has a streak of populism in it.
  • It is deeply honest and humble. Can you imagine a president today reading criticism of his presidency before a national audience?
  • Carter identifies the loss of national purpose and a “crisis of confidence” as a “fundamental threat to American democracy.”  It is a forward-looking message of hope and progress.  Carter speaks with conviction, often raising his fist to strengthen his points.
  • Carter says that self-indulgence, consumption, and materialism undermines citizenship. According to historian Kevin Mattson, this comes directly from historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch and his best-selling The Culture of Narcissism.
  • Carter points to the many ways the country has gone astray–Vietnam and Watergate and economic dependence on Middle East oil.
  • Carter offers “honest answers” not “easy answers.”  Of course no one wants to work hard and make sacrifices, they want individualism and freedom instead.  A little over a year after this speech Ronald Reagan defeated Carter with just such a message of individualism and freedom.
  • Carter warns us about the path of self-interest and fragmentation.  This is what America got with Reagan.  See Daniel T. Rodgers’s The Age of Fracture.
  • Carter sees the national discussion of energy as way of bringing a divided nation together.  This seems more relevant than ever today.  Green New Deal aside, a green solution to energy would create jobs and strengthen the economy.
  • When Carter talks about foreign oil and America’s dependence upon it, he is invoking founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton who worked tirelessly to make the nation economically independent.
  • Interesting that in the 1970s Democrats still saw coal as a vital energy source.  He also champions pipelines and refineries.
  • Carter calls for a strengthening of public transportation and local acts of conservation.  This kind of self-sacrifice, Carter says, “is an act of patriotism.”  This reminds me of the non-importation agreements during the American Revolution.    To stop drinking tea or buying British goods was seen as a similar act of patriotism. See T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution.  Carter says “there is no way to avoid sacrifice.”
  • As I have noted above, this speech hurt Carter politically.  But it is deeply honest and, in my opinion, true.

Did Lincoln Offer a “verbal cake and ice cream” to slaveowners?

Who was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation?  Was it Lincoln?  The Republican Party? The slaves themselves?  Gettysburg College Civil War scholar Allen Guelzo makes a case for Lincoln in his recent piece in The Wall Street Journal.  Here is a taste:

In an age when rocking century-old statues off their pedestals has become a public sport, no historical reputation is safe. That includes Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.

It is “now widely held,” Columbia historian Stephanie McCurry announced in a 2016 article, that emancipation “wasn’t primarily the accomplishment of Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, but of the slaves themselves, precipitated by the actions they took inside the Confederacy and in their flight to Union lines.” Ebony editor Lerone Bennett put this argument forward in his 2000 book, “Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” The Zinn Education Project, which distributes Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” to students, claims that Lincoln offered “verbal cake and ice cream to slaveowners,” while slaves themselves did “everything they could to turn a war for national unity into a war to end slavery.”

The case against Lincoln is a lot less energizing than it seems. Slavery, as it emerged in American life and law, was always a matter of state enactments. There was no federal slave code, and Madison had been particularly eager to ensure that the Constitution gave no federal recognition to the idea that there could be “property in man.” But there was also no federal authority to move directly against slavery in the states.

The attempt by the Southern slave states to break away in 1861 seemed to offer several ways to strike at slavery. Some U.S. Army officers attempted to declare slaves “contraband of war,” and therefore liable to seizure like any other military goods. But the “contraband” argument fell into the error of conceding that slaves were property, and, anyway, no legal opinions on the laws of war regarded such property seizures as permanent.

Congress tried to put a hand on slavery through two Confiscation Acts, in 1861 and 1862. But “confiscating” slaves wasn’t the same thing as freeing them, since the Constitution (in Article I, Section 9) explicitly bans Congress from enacting “bills of attainder” that permanently alienate property. Confiscation would also have had the problem of ratifying the idea that human beings were property.

Lincoln tried to dodge the constitutional issues by proposing, as early as November 1861, a federal buyout of slaves in the four border states that remained loyal to the Union—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. But the representatives of those states rebuffed the offer, telling Lincoln that they “did not like to be coerced into Emancipation, either by the Direct action of the Government, or by indirection,” as a Maryland congressman reported.

Many slaves didn’t wait on the courts or Congress, and instead ran for their freedom to wherever they could find the Union Army. But the Army wasn’t always welcoming, and there was no guarantee that the war wouldn’t end with a negotiated settlement including the forced return of such runaways. Fugitive slaves were free, but their freedom needed legal recognition.

If you can get past The Wall Street Journal paywall, you can read the rest here.