Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Continental Congress’

Charles Rappleye, in an op-ed published by the L.A. Times on August 12 (I just caught up with it via the Bangor Daily News), might seem at first glance to be saying pretty much what I’d been saying in my New Deal 2.0 post of August 1 (also on AlterNet and Salon) regarding the framers of the Constitiution and the issue of public debt — a subject especially relevant to specious Bachmann/Norquist/Tea Party efforts to construct balanced budgets and zero debt as constitutionally essential.

Liberals will tend to like Rappleye’s piece for suggesting that enlightenment minds of the kind liberals admire had a logical, well-informed rationale for founding the nation on a public debt supported by taxes. The piece thus flies in the face of certain right-wing preconceptions, and it may be taken as giving modern liberalism at least as strong a claim as the Tea Party’s on the founding generation’s values regarding financial issues so hotly debated today.

But beyond noting that contrary to the populist right’s view, the Constitution was in fact created largely in order to fund a national debt via federal taxation (an assertion outrageous enough for Constitution-romanticizers both left and right), Rappleye and I take directly opposing views of the significance of that founding debt, and especially of the domestic goals of the confederation Congress’s financier, Robert Morris, a mentor of Alexander Hamilton, in yoking a large public debt to national aims, indeed to the aim of having a nation at all.

Employing a tone of knowledgable, disinterested, slightly amused, “above the fray” superiority, which I find all too typical of commentary that we might  borrow a term from Leslie Fieldler and call “liberaloid,” Rappleye must lionize Robert Morris (Rappeleye is the author of a Morris biography that does so on a larger scale), playing up certain features of Morris’s goals and ideas, downplaying others, and declining to give the economic context that, from a modern liberal point of view anyway, would substantially darken the Morris-Hamilton founding-finance story. (more…)

Read Full Post »

To the young democratic resisters in Egypt, some of whom I’ve heard saying in street interviews that they admire the American Revolution, I want to say something complicating. (No, I don’t literally think they’re taking time out of changing their country and the world to follow my blog — but hey, you never know!) This: It’s a somewhat bleak fact that the only successful American founding-era revolution for democracy occurred in Pennsylvania in 1776 — and that wasn’t the Continental Congress’s declaring independence from England.

This may be annoying. There may be times for believing in the big, uncomplicated American narratives, and this may be one of them. But Egyptians want democracy, and our famous Declaration was not a declaration for democracy, and since that’s what my books are about, I’m seeing events in Egypt a certain way.

(For what it’s worth, that is. Back when I was shouting and waving my fist in the steet, I didn’t live in a military dictatorship. And I sure didn’t go back the next day to sweep up. Respect.)

Anyway, the real 1776 democratic revolution I’m talking about is at once an inspiring and a cautionary one for worldwide democratic revolutions today.

I should note that everything I know about politics in Egypt I’ve learned from the papers and the radio in the past month. Like so many others, I’ve followed the uprising there with bated breath because of its nonviolence and the strange — possibly unique? — relationship of the military to both the protestors and the regime. With everyone else, I await next steps. Will a government that has been a military one for generations actually enable real elections and subordinate the military to representative civilian authority? Maybe. But if so, the ironies will be many. BBC and others have reported that it is the younger officer corps (not young, younger) that groks the civilian-control thing — and that’s because unlike their Soviet-tutored elders, they’ve grown up under the influence of the U.S. alliance and studied in our war colleges. That would mean our long alliance with a military dictatorship may have had a liberalizing influence on its military. Hm.

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Over at American Creation, there are a couple of related posts from the always thought-provoking Jonathan Rowe on topics with great appeal for me. One is a link to an older post, on Rowe’s other site The One Best Way, about John Adams’s liberal ideas on religion; the other is on the illiberality of the Puritan tradition that Adams sprang from.

It’s a tradition I admire in certain ways, intellectually, so it’s always good to get a reminder, which Rowe gives in the piece, of the Taliban-like nature of its criminal code. In writing about the fallacy of associating ideas in the Mayflower Compact, say, with ideas in the Declaration of Independence — something Rowe rightly says “Christian Americanists” (and I’d add liberal, consensus-oriented history teachers) are wont to do — he has fun with the stark fact that Adams’s thoughts on religion would have gotten Adams executed in Puritan New England. Good stuff, just the kind of conflict people should be entertained and enlightened by thinking about.

Rowe’s discussion throws new light for me on the importance of Samuel Adams, not John, in bringing about American independence in 1776, and why that importance has been so little explored in a realistic way. That’s what I do explore in Declaration, and an important part of that story turns on the strange partnership between Samuel and John, with John then the junior player, beginning to emerge.

The religious differences between them are only implicit in the book. But now I think it would have been a good move to bring those differences out more fully, as part of my Boston back-story chapter. Samuel’s deep roots in Puritan thinking are key to my story — he famously wanted to make New England a “Christian Sparta.” But I glossed over John’s rationalist, skeptical, possibly unitarian religious leanings, although they are part and parcel of something I did try to bring to life, his more pragmatic approach to politics, his becoming a man of New England’s liberal future, a Yankee, not a Puritan.

It’s occurred to me so many times, and now in a newly focused way, that establishment history has favored the liberal, rationalist, unitarian, Deist, tolerant (yet more or less observant) founders like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams, and has never known what to do with the illiberal ones, like Samuel Adams. Paine is another example. When it comes to supposed outliers like them, religion and politics meet strangely in historiography. And founding history gets distorted. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Thos. Young to VermontersHere’s a printed document from Dr. Thomas Young, one of the more flamboyant radical democrats in Declaration. It’s a message he sent to his friends in “the Hampshire Grants,” which were becoming known as Vermont. Young’s old friend from the lower Berkshires, Ethan Allen, had been running a remarkable strongarm operation in the Grants.  Allen’s Green Mountain Boys threw out New York settlers, who had a claim on the area,  and basically took it over for themselves and their friends and families. Allen was an outlaw; he’d embarrassed the Congress by taking Fort Ticonderoga largely on his own hook on the Congress’s behalf (with the conflicted collaboration of Benedict Arnold, who found Allen outrageous) when the war was still supposed to be defensive.

Here Young passes the May 15, 1776, resolution of the Congress, with the preamble on to the Vermont outlaws. He calls Vermont (he’d come up with the name himself) a free and independent state, like the others, although it had no standing as such. He advises the inhabitants on how to become accepted as a state by the Congress (that didn’t work out until the 1790′s, I think; in the meantime, the self-described Vermonters had made overtures to the British). Young suggests the May 15 resolution as a way of pushing New York’s sovereignty out of the Grants for good.

I hadn’t seen this document until the other day, when Doug Swanson of the National Archives sent it to me; one of the archivists had attended my talk there and came up with this. Cool to see it.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

Read Full Post »

Delighted to have the WSJ review over the holiday weekend, but there’s a fact that needs correcting, so I’ve done so in a letter to the editor, published in today’s edition. The gist:

Mr. Bakshian cites John Adams … quoting the famous letter to Abigail Adams in which John predicts that America’s independence will one day be celebrated with parades, bonfires, etc. … That letter was written on July 3, 1776, and refers not to the document adopted on July 4, but to Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence, which had passed July 2, and which in fact made America independent.

I also note that Adams called the July 2 resolution a “declaration,” causing later confusion.

Read Full Post »

I’m going around saying that the story I tell in Declaration, despite its centrality, is little known. Yet one of the better-known dates, pivotal to the story, is Wednesday, May 15, 1776, when the Congress voted to add a preamble to a resolution it had passed on Friday, May 10. Because John Adams co-sponsored the May 10 resolution, and wrote the preamble that was tacked on its front on May 15, adoption of the preamble was an important moment both in Adams’s emergence as the “colossus of independence” and in the Congress’s movement toward declaring independence. Many founding-father biographers and writers on the Continental Congress have therefore mentioned and even dwelled on that day.

Some have even said that on May 15, America effectively declared independence. Adams certainly liked to think so.

But the context in which the preamble was adopted, and the political work that Adams intended it to do — outside the Congress — has been glossed over, at least in most books for general readers. The inside story, which I try to bring to life in Declaration, raises many issues that certified narratives of events of 1776 have naturally found difficult to cope with. For the Adams preamble isn’t an edifying document, and May 15, though Adams rightly thought of it as “an epoch” in American independence, wasn’t an edifying day. (more…)

Read Full Post »

The other day  — May 4, to be exact — the Smithsonian American History Museum posted this on Twitter: “Today in history: Rhode Island declares independence.”  I like and promote the Smithsonian’s posts. But I have a problem with this one, which draws on a longstanding tradition, promoted especially in Rhode Island, that Rhode Island declared independence from England two months before the Continental Congress did.

In the most literal sense the tradition is probably not wrong. But especially at its Twitter length, which allows for no context or nuance, it feeds widespread misconceptions about how the American colonies became independent.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Over on Twitter, I’m trying a “today in history” countdown from May 1  to July 4, 1776. (So as of now, I’ve already posted May 1-3.) That is, I’m giving the story of Declaration away, in a superficial day-by-day rendering, leading up to the Independence Day climax about nine weeks from now. It’s tricky because I’m also occasionally posting there on other things, so the story can get lost; I’m therefore organizing it under a double hashtag that, at the moment, returns only the Declaration countdown. To see it all line up, search Twitter for this: #1776 #history

The idea is copped, in a quick-and-dirty way, from PatriotCast, whose astonishing eight-year mission is to go day by day through the entire American Revolution. I picked up on PatriotCast right around April 18, so it’s been exciting so far. A very impressive concept — and a daunting execution. (Per the subtitle to my book, I’ve only got weeks to get through, and it’s mainly on a single front.) PatriotCast also has a Website and a Facebook presence.

I’m hoping people will want to alert American history-buff friends to my Declaration countdown — like the book, I think it will be surprising —  and to PatriotCast’s much more ambitious effort.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 883 other followers