Utah Senator Mike Lee’s Failed Attempt at American History

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Hamilton

Over at Politico, Utah Senator Mike Lee, the author of a new book on the Anti-Federalists titled Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government, warns against using history to “seek out confirmation for our pre-existing beliefs.”  He then goes right ahead and uses history to seek out confirmation for his pre-existing beliefs.

His article “How the ‘Hamilton Effect’ Distorts the Founders” calls us to remember the Anti-Federalists, those men who opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution.  Lee paints a picture of the United States Constitution as a “compromise” between Federalists and Anti-Federalists” and argues that Alexander Hamilton was not in favor of “big government.”

Here is a taste:

It’s understandable why progressives would imagine Hamilton as their partisan, Big Government comrade. But this understanding of Hamilton is based on a deeply distorted image of him.

Call it the “Hamilton Effect”: Twisting history to suit one’s ends, willfully ignoring and ultimately erasing it when it stands in your way.

If we knew our history—the true and complete stories of how our nation came to be—we’d know how to fight back against the progressive agenda. And we’d be a lot less likely to accept its overreach.

Our Constitution was the result of a brilliant compromise between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists—between those who championed a divided and limited but strong central government, and those who feared that almost any central government would expand its authority at the expense of individual liberty and state autonomy. During the debates surrounding the Constitution’s drafting and ratification, the doubts, skepticism, and outright fear of what it would bring ultimately made the document stronger and more just.

We are the beneficiaries of the Great Compromise between those two factions, but too many of us don’t fully understand or appreciate that fact. And that is because history, over time, tends to remember only one side of the argument, crowding out dissenting voices and obscuring the full story of the American experiment.

Most of us, for example, are never presented with the arguments raised by the Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution’s ratification based on concerns that it would vest too much power in the federal government and thereby imperil liberty. And just as disturbing, many of the Federalists have been mischaracterized as early advocates of big government. Some have tried to portray the founders as proto-progressives, even though the founders lived a full century before there was anything even resembling a “progressive.”

Read the entire piece here.

A few thoughts:

First, I agree with Lee when he says the Anti-Federalists do not get the attention they deserve.  This is largely because they lost the ratification debate.  It was close in some states, but they eventually lost and the Constitution was ratified. On this story I highly recommend Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828.

Second, by calling the Constitution a “compromise” between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, Lee can conveniently affirm his present-day states-rights position and not appear to be challenging, like the actual Anti-Federalists did, the very existence of the Constitution.  This makes for a shrewd political move since Lee has strong connections to the Tea Party movement, a conservative political movement that prides itself on defending the Constitution. The very fact that Lee has to do this dance means that he is using the past for political purposes and does not really care about doing history.

Third, since Lee is a Mormon who supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 election, he might be interested in knowing that there were some Anti-Federalists who opposed the United States Constitution because it did not mention God. Here is what I said about these Anti-Federalists in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

While Anti-Federalist opposition was always more political than it was religious, many Anti-Federalists rejected the Constitution because it did not make any appeals to God. Even some statesmen who were prone who were prone to give their support to the Constitution on political grounds wondered why the framers had not made the slightest mention of God in drafting the document.  The writings of these constitutional skeptics present an interesting dilemma for those today who want to argue that the Constitution was a Christian document.  In the eighteenth century it was those who opposed the Constitution who made the strongest arguments in favor of the United States being a Christian nation.

When Luther Martin reported on the events of the Constitutional Convention to the Maryland state legislature, he could not help including some editorial comment about the way that the convention handled the question of religion.  According to Martin, “there were some members so unfashionable as to thin, that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some secuirty for the good conduct of our rulers.”  For Martin, the United States was a “Christian country” and the Constitution should “hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.”

One of the more scathing critiques of the godlessness of the Constitution came from William Petrikin, an Anti-Federalist from Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Writing under the pseudonym “Aristocrotis,” Petrikin attacked the framers of the Constitution as elitists who preferred a refined religilon of “nature” over a religion of “supernatural divine origin.”  In doing do, he sounded a lot like a twenty-first century working-class evangelical complaining about the so-called secular liberal elites who had no respect for the Constitution.  The difference, of course, was the Petrikin was attacking the U.S. Constitution and the men who framed it.  Using stinging sarcasm, he argued that the framers believed that the Christian religion was the religion “of the vulgar in this country” and its “precepts are…so rigid and severe, as to render it impossible for any gentleman of fashion or good breeding to comply with them in any sense, without a manifest violation of decorum, and an abandonment of every genteel amusement and fashionable accomplishment.”  Petrikin did not stop there.  He chided the members of the Constitutional Convention for denying a belief in God, the “immortality of the soul,” the “resurrection of the body,” a “day of judgement,” and a “future state of rewards and punishments.”

Anti-Federalists especially attacked Article VI because it placed no Christian qualifications on officeholders.  “Samuel,” an Anti-Federalist from Massachusetts, worried that the lack of a religious test for office would mean that “Pagan” or a “Mahometan” might serve the country in the “most important trusts.”  “A Watchman,” writing from western Massaschusetts, feared that the Constitution opened a door for the “Jews, Turks, and Heathen to enter into the publick office, and be seated at the head of the government of the United States.”  A “Friend of the Rights of the People” also feared the possibility that “a Papist, a Mohomatan, a Deist, yea an Atheist” might be elected to the “helm of Government.”  And a New York Anti-Federalist, writing under the name Curtopolis,” was particularly harsh on Article VI because he feared it would allow the following kinds of people to serve in the national government:

“1st Quakers, who will make the black saucy and at the same time deprive of us the means of defence–2dly, Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the trinity–3dly. Deists, abominable wretches–4thly, Negroes, the seed of Cain–5thly Beggars, who when set on horseback, will ride to the devil–6thly, Jews & c. & c.  It gives the command of the whole militia to the President–should he hereafter be a Jew, our posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem.

I am not sure if Senator Lee is willing to endorse this kind of Anti-Federalism. (His connections to Ted Cruz might be relevant here).  I guess I will need to read his forthcoming book.

Fourth, I agree with Lee when he says that Alexander Hamilton could never have imagined the kind of “big government” we have today.  I would take this idea even further.  The founding fathers could not have imagined most of what happens in the United States today–that includes political partisanship, rampant individualism, corporate capitalism, etc…  This is why we need to be careful when we appeal to them in order to promote this or that agenda.

Fifth, Hamilton believed in an active, centralized government modeled after Great Britain.  His view of government was fundamentally different from the one the country was experiencing under the Articles of Confederation.  Hamilton’s belief on this front deserves more than the mere caveat that it gets in Lee’s article.

Sixth, when we use the phrase “big government” today we usually associate it with progressive reforms such as those put forth by so-called “progressive” presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.  We also think about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson.  Some of us might associate “big government” with Ted Kennedy’s late twentieth-century vision for the nation.  Of course one can also trace activist government back to the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).  These Republicans used the full power of the federal government in a failed attempt to integrate the South in the wake of the Civil War. In the end, states rights triumphed over these “big government” humanitarian efforts and the racist South managed to uphold their way of life for another hundred or so years.

I hope Lee’s book, unlike this article, acknowledges that history is complicated and does not easily fit the molds of our political preferences.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Martin Luther and the Usable Past

lutherThe Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association ended yesterday afternoon, but reports from The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondents who covered conference continue to roll in.  We were pleased to have Zachary Cote write for us this weekend.  As a middle-school history teacher he has brought a unique perspective to this annual gathering of historians.  In his final post, Zach reports on a couple of sessions he attended on Martin Luther.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2017 posts here.–JF

One of the perks of attending the 2017 AHA annual meeting was being able to sit-in on a couple panels that were created with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in mind. As a Protestant, I have always been interested in Luther.  So I was eager to see how historians were going to commemorate the quincentenary of his 95 Theses. I attended two sessions, the first entitled “Memories of Reform: German Commemorations of the Reformation” and the second, “Luther and the ‘Second Reformation’. A common thread in both of these panels was how generations after Luther interpreted his work, impact, and theology.

In the 1617 celebration of the 95 Theses Luther was used to either remind a town of the perceived horrors of Catholicism or to promote local exceptionalism, as was the case in Ulm, Germany. The tercentennial celebration looked at the German monk as a “Luther for Everyone.” For Luther’s 400th birthday, in 1883, the new nation-state of Germany used the anniversary to promote German unity; after all, even “German Catholics were better than the others.” In 1967, on the 45oth anniversary of the Reformation, communist East Germany had to come to grips with the fact that so much of the Reformation originated in that region.  East Germany interpreted the Reformation to fit its own agenda, and therefore made it a secular event heavily attached to the Early Bourgeois Revolution of the Peasants’ War. Luther took on a new identity for each of these commemorations.  He became the Luther that the people of each specific time and place needed.

Luther’s impact on others in the “Second Reformation” revealed similar insights. For example, Luther informed John Wesley’s doctrine of sola fide. While Wesley’s theology often looked much different than Luther’s, his scant references to the German reformer point to an implicit influence on his theology of justification.  Seventeenth-century Puritans, too, found encouragement from Luther when it came to the importance of temptation in the lives of Christians. To these Puritans, Luther “was clearly recognized as a symbol of piety” despite his stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Lastly, in mid-eighteenth-century Denmark, Luther’s historical reading of the Old Testament would eventually lead Danish theologians to end their traditional evaluations of civil law in Amsterdam. This, in turn, actually led to a secularization of Amsterdam’s government.

Listening to these panels enlightened me on the role of Luther over the centuries and left me questioning what Luther will look like in this year’s festivities. But perhaps even more importantly, the research presented by the historians at each panel illuminated a larger theme within history.

Something that we emphasize in our classes is that history is the study of change (and yes, continuity) over time. But the study of Luther demonstrates that history itself changes over time. Not simply in the academic historiography of any given subject, but also in the public’s use of the past.  Luther was perceived very differently by people over time, and perhaps may not even recognize himself in those perceptions; nonetheless, it is through perceptions like those that most understand history. I am reminded of what George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.” How true that is for American society today.

With this in mind, may we, as those who study and teach the past, recognize that history itself is changing, and continue to pursue the goal to teach our students how to navigate those changes in order to paint the most accurate picture of the past available.

Will Carly Fiorina’s Medieval History Degree Help Her Fight ISIS?

The GOP presidential candidate is taking a lot of heat for saying that her study of medieval history as an undergraduate at Stanford will help her fight terrorism as president of the United States. 

At a town hall meeting in Windham, New Hampshire Fiorina said: “Finally my degree in medieval history and philosophy has come in handy because what ISIS wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally.”

First of all, it is impossible for ISIS to literally drive us back to the Middle Ages unless they are able to engage in time travel.  But I digress.

Fiorina continued: “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages, so we can’t avert our eyes and pretend it’s an exaggeration that ISIS wants to take its territory back to the Middle Ages but that is in truth what they want to do and are attempting to do.”

I am not a medieval historian so I do not know just how comparable these medieval “techniques” are to the techniques ISIS is using today, but I am willing to admit that they are similar.  I am also more than willing to say that the study of history can help us make sense of the present.  I think more presidential candidates need to study history.  I am also willing to say that the study of the past could provide understanding about ISIS that could aid in its defeat.  So in a lot of ways, Fiorina should be applauded for invoking her study of history.  But I think that there are some serious problems with the way she invokes it.

I could riff on this myself, but I think I will get a real medieval historian take it from here.  David Perry teaches teaches medieval history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Guardian titled “No, Carly Fiorina, a degree in medieval history doesn’t qualify you to fight Isis.



I’d like to state unequivocally that my years of training to become a professor of medieval history in no way make me fit to be appointed commander-in-chief of the US military. While the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time, Fiorina unfortunately almost always gets the lessons of history wrong.

When we use the word “medieval” to characterize something we don’t like, be it Isis, the Ferguson Police department or Russia’s driver’s license regulations, we are trying to impose chronological distance between ourselves and things we find unpleasant. Thinking of these distasteful or evil aspects of the modern world as belonging to the past makes it harder, not easier, to understand their root causes and fight them.

That hasn’t stopped Fiorina from bringing up her medieval history training surprisingly often. It used to just be part of her “self-made” mythology: she graduated from Stanford with a degree that taught her how to think, but no specific skills, dropped out of law school, then clawed her way to the top.
The veracity of that story has been called into question, but she does make good points about the value of a humanities education, saying: “My medieval history and philosophy degree … did prepare me for life … I learned how to condense a whole lot of information down to the essence. That thought process has served me my whole life … I’m one of these people who believes we should be teaching people music, philosophy, history, art”. I wish more of her Republican colleagues would take these words to heart.
Lately, though, it’s all about scoring partisan points. She’s incorporated her quip about Isis driving us back to the Middle Ages as a standard part of her stump speech since at least last March. It’s a joke, perhaps, but given that her complete lack of national security credentials is a campaign issue, it’s not a throwaway line. She really does seem to be claiming that her undergraduate degree will enable her to make sound foreign policy decisions, despite her lack of experience.

Perry concludes his piece by suggesting a few things that the study of the Middle Ages should teach us today:

If Carly Fiorina really wants to draw on the Middle Ages for inspiration, I do have some suggestions. Lesson one: support universities, scholars, writers and artists, as their contributions outlive us all. Lesson two: peasants, oppressed for too long, always rebel. Lesson three: don’t go to war in the Middle East without a good exit plan.

A Church and State Primer: ""History Alone Cannot Resolve the Ongoing Debate"

In case you have not heard, the Supreme Court ruled that Greece, New York can open town meetings with Christian prayers.  

Over at History News Network, Ira Chernus writes:

The Supreme Court has ruled, 5-4, that Greece, New York, can open its town meetings with a prayer, even though nearly all the prayers have contained distinctively Christian language. No doubt advocates and critics of the opinion are scouring American history, looking for proof that their view is correct.
If they look with an unjaundiced eye, they’ll quickly discover one basic principle: Whatever position you hold on this issue, you can find some support in our nation’s history. So history alone cannot resolve the ongoing debate. But it can help inform the debate.


After a very useful primer on the history of church and state relations in the United States, Chernus concludes:

The Court still reflects the climate of public opinion, which remains divided and uncertain about the proper relation of religious life to the body politic and the lives of individuals, or what we have come to call “church and state.” So the debate initiated by the 1st amendment goes on — which may be just what the founders intended.

Read the entire piece here.  I respect Chernus’s willingness to acknowledge the complexity of this issue in United States history and the limits of trying to use history to argue one way or another on this matter.


Is There Anyone Left for Pundits to Compare to the Republican Party?

Michael Schaffer, writing at The New Republic, has come up with a list of “novel comparisons for the GOP ultras” who he believes started the whole government standoff.  Here is the list:

Colonel Walter E. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now  (Ross Douthat, New York Times)

V.I. Lenin (Jonathan Chait, New York)
Leon Trotsky (Richard McGregor, Financial Times)
The Weather Underground (David Horsey, Los Angeles Times)
Maoists (Michael Hirsh, National Journal)
The Know-Nothing Party (Paul Rosenberg, Salon)
Sonny Corleone from The Godfather (Kathleen Parker, The Washington Post)
Osama Bin Laden (Kathleen Parker, The Washington Post).
The Jacobins (David Corn, Mother Jones)
The John Birch Society (Christopher Parker, The Monkey Cage)
Joe McCarthy (Carl Bernstein, Morning Joe)
Occupy Wall Street (Michael Gerson, The Washington Post)
Poujadists (John Cassidy, The New Yorkers)
Conservative American Republicans (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker)
Major T.J. “King” Kong from Dr. Strangelove (Jason Cherkis, Huffington Post)
Wow!  I think there is a lesson in here somewhere about the dangers of pursuing a “useable past.”