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Posts Tagged ‘Declaration of Independence’

It won’t surprise many who follow Glenn Beck to hear that his The Original Argument is one weird book. The premise: Those famous essays by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, gathered in 1788 as The Federalist, are so critical to understanding the nature of the U.S. Constitution, and therefore to renewing our nation today, yet so hard to understand — so downright boring — that they cry out for handy summary and translation into modern English by none other than Glenn Beck.

And yet the main text doesn’t come from Beck. He wrote an introduction and put his name on the front cover and his photo on the back, but in what is easily the most interesting part of the book, one Joshua Charles describes its real genesis. (I use the term advisedly: Charles discerns the hand of Providence in the affair.)

In 2009, as a piano performance major at the University of Kansas and a fan of Beck’s radio and TV shows, Charles began translating the Federalist essays, unbidden, into modern English. Then he heard Beck himself say on the radio how badly the country needs just such a translation. The youngster’s jaw dropped. After going to genuinely amazing lengths to meet the man, Charles succeeded in pressing his early versions on Beck, and in what Charles justly calls a dream come true, the master and the acolyte teamed up.

Together they’ve identified seven “core themes” in the 85 Federalist essays, and they’ve selected 38 of the essays to publish in modern translation, re-ordering the essays by grouping them under each theme. Federalist essays 9, 10, and others, for example, come under the theme “A Republic, If You Can Keep It” (drawn from Franklin).  78 and 80 are grouped under “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (drawn from Superman).

Charles’s essay translations were refined via group effort, and “Glenn and his team,” Charles says, wrote easily scannable, one-page, cheat-sheet summaries for each of the translated essays, breaking them down by “The Message,“ “Original Quote,“ and “Relevance to Today.“ The team also wrote brief, generously sub-headed intros for each of the major themes.

Hence the oddball volume here under review: a preface by Joshua Charles explaining all that; an introduction by Beck amping the Federalist essays’ importance to the founding and reminding us that reading the original essays can be “boring … okay, excruciatingly boring”; introductions to each of the seven themes; the 38 translations themselves, each with its one-sheet summary; and appendices presenting the Constitution as cross-referenced to the essays, the Articles of Confederation, and Jay’s Address to the People of New York. That’s the new Glenn Beck book.

Since in the original Federalist essays, obscurely defensive rhetorical flourishes proliferate, especially from Hamilton — “I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the oppositions of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicions)”, etc., etc. — it’s fair enough to call them boring, and it’s undeniable that few people have read all or even 38 of them. While some of the more obscure numbers can be revealing in various historical and political contexts, it’s never been clear to me that reading or knowing the gist of more than a few major ones would be critical to any fundamental, active engagement with our country. It’s a truism that Madison’s ideas about the purpose and mechanics of representation and republican separation of powers are benchmarks of historical literacy that Americans would do well to engage with, and many guides and annotated anthologies exist to serve that purpose.

“Translating” the essays manifestly doesn’t serve that purpose. (more…)

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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…)

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Responding here to a bunch of comments posted during recent months, since I don’t like burying and scattering the discussion:

Elites versus the crowd. Working backward and starting with lacithedog’s comment on my “New Deal 2.0″ post. Laciethedog is reading Declaration and comments further on the “New Deal” post here. I appreciate the interest and support. And I have a concern about the idea that the founding fathers “incited the masses” and then found “the mob” hard to control. In both Declaration and that “New Deal” post, I do discuss tensions — indeed, outright enmity, at times — between the adherents of populist democracy and the adherents of republican liberty who banded together to defeat reconciliation with England in 1776. But I think I also show that I see the alliance as a matter of mutual manipulation, with ordinary people possessing plenty of initiative, intelligence, and what the historians call “agency,” and not of a mindless mob being incited and then imperfectly controlled by elites. Not sure if laciethedog is thinking of it quite that way, but the terminology gives me pause.

War on Christmas. Laciethedog also comments on my “war on Christmas” post. Point taken. Can’t agree that anything would have made either Adams literally a Tory — but even without a time machine, John Adams’s “Good God!” on reading the radically democratic PA Constitution of 1776 (and his predicting that PA would soon want George III back), and Samuel’s calling for the death penalty for the so-called Shays rebels, made many at the time think the Adamses and others had reverted to a kind of Tory authoritarianism. Neither Samuel’s nor John’s disgust with the populism they’d collaborated with in 1776 represents a reversion, however — which is really the well-taken point of laciethedog’s comment. While they differed in influences, emphases, and personal styles, both Adamses remained pretty consistent in their elite Whig republicanism throughout the period. Whigs were not democrats.

Socialist Pilgrims. Michael Pichowsky makes a thought-provoking comment regarding my post on the “Socialist Pilgrim” flap. But even given all of Pichowsky’s nuanced understanding of the Calvinist-socialist problem, I’m still unconvinced that it’s fair to see the very specific Plymouth experience as revealing some big truth about the virtues of free markets versus a centrally planned economy. Bradford does seem to have been reading the lesson pretty much that way, though.

Inalienable rights and God. My Constitution posts are leading me toward an article that would qualify as something other than a post, more like what I call a “work” in this post — whether I end up publishing it here, on another blog, or in a magazine. Interesting comments in this regard included Martin’s, of What Would the Founders Think?. Martin raises the issue of where the in- or un-alienable rights come from and says that Glenn Beck gets it right: from God. Liberal readers may be surprised to hear me say that, in this context, I agree: (more…)

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I have a brief post on New Deal 2.0 this morning, partly reviewing ideas in my far longer Boston Review piece on the 19th-century war between liberalism and populism, but partly tying that story back to the founding story I tell in Declaration:

… Every time liberal commentators open their mouths, no matter what they say, they make the populist-right case: Liberalism is elitism. … Some may protest that during the New Deal an alliance did prevail between liberalism and populism. Braintrust meritocrats and salt-of-the-earth laborers got together, struggled out of the Depression, beat fascism, and elected a president multiple times. Yet the New Deal was a period of astonishing change. It may have been exceptional, but it blocks our longer view — maybe because that view is grimmer than we want to know. … the war between liberalism and populism goes back even farther than that. It goes all the way back to our beginnings. More

Please feel free to comment on the post over at New Deal 2.0. I’m pleased to be on that site — vigorous, nuanced liberal debate (with much more newsy items than mine!) goes on there every day.

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This is the third in a series of posts about how people from Tea Partiers to pro-choice, anti-gun liberals invoke and rely on what they call “the Constitution,” often without being able to say anything very specific about it. The first post was on the First Amendment and religious freedom; the second was on the Second. Comments on those posts, some related off-blog correspondence about them, some related statements on Twitter, and a remark on my Facebook author page inspire this one.

But first, for context, this mess (anyone who follows me on Twitter will have seen my outbursts about it):

In a piece in Saturday’s New York Times, offering perspective on the Tea Party’s reverence for the Constitution, Samuel G. Freedman wrote:

… Constitution worship has not historically been the province of any one political faction. Despite the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass intoned its language about equality and inalienable rights.

The gaffe is that the Constitution doesn’t say anything about inalienable rights or equality. [UPDATE: By "equality" I meant anything that Frederick Douglass would have been intoning; the Constitution does of course have things to say about equality in the post-Civil War amendments. But Freedman meant Douglasss's reference to "all men are created equal."] That language is found — and pretty memorably too! — in the Declaration of Independence.

Gaffes are gaffes. I’ve made my share. This one is painfully revealing of a significant problem in liberal thinking. [UPDATE: I think I mean "for liberal thinking." That help?] Freedman nodded, it happens, but so did his editors. A lot of people fussed with that piece before it went out. Nor has the error been corrected since, nor do I see any uproar about it online. That means the Tea Partiers, too, though hairtrigger sensitive to NYT slight (and they would have taken Freedman’s piece as a slight), read right past it.

So what’s the big hairy deal? Why am I knocking NYT and liberals who don’t their Constitution so much harder than I knock Christine O’Donnell for not knowing hers? Or, to put it the way David Tuttle (a cousin, and nice to hear from him even in this weird postmodernist manner) put it on my FB author page: Is the Times error so much worse than what David calls the Tea Party’s effort to deny separation of church and state?

Yeah. It’s a lot worse. (more…)

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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…)

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... and she never / hollers cuckoo ...


The talk I gave on Declaration at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to air this weekend on C-SPAN “Book TV”: Sat. 7/31 at 4:00 PM and Sun. 8/1 at 8:00 P.M.

A minor note for the record: I seem to recall the very able Doug Swanson, who put the event together, saying in his introduction to the talk that film rights to my novel The Surrender of Washington Hansen are under option to Warner Brothers. Not so — they were under that option, for many years, and in my bio I use the past tense, but the Archives’ edited version missed that.

Just don’t want any filmmakers thinking the novel’s film rights are encumbered, as they say. They’re free and clear — as are Declaration rights so far!

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George Whitefield Preaching

[UPDATE: I always feel a need to note, when we talk about the upscale founders being Christian, the degree to which so many of them were reflexively, traditionally, and virulently anti-Catholic, a feeling shared in most cases by the evangelical working-class left discussed below ...]

Smart post from Jonathan Rowe at American Creation (whence the picture of Whitefield preaching) on nuances in the historiography of the question “Were the founders Deists or Christians?” It’s a hot political one. With George Washington getting constructed by the religious right as a fervent born-again evangelical, and secularists hoping against hope that none of the famous American founders would believe in anything they couldn’t repeat under laboratory conditions, Rowe’s thinking is helpful. He says in part: 

I’ve concluded that the “key Founders” — the FFs on American currency — if pushed would have considered themselves “Christians” not “Deists.” Though they may have endorsed an understanding of Deism that didn’t view itself as incompatible with “Christianity.” Yet many in the academy endorse the line “the FFs were Deists not Christians.” . . . The standard line from “Christian America” is the FFs were virtually all “Christians” and the bad, secularist revisionists “stole” that heritage, knowingly and duplicitously. That narrative, of course, is as phony as “the Founders were all Deists” narrative. 

Rowe tells what really happened: the rational, liberal Christianity that most of the famous founders would probably have signed on to was condemned by evangelical [UPDATE: Probably less evangelical than just old-light orthodox?] clergy of the day as no better than Deism. (Maybe because it wasn’t? I suggest. But that’s another story.) Thus was the founders’ Christianity branded a closet Deism by more fervent [UPDATE: orthodox?] peers. “That kind of irony,” says Rowe, “I dig.” Me too. 

I have a feeling most of the founders would privately have shrugged. They professed a rationalist Christianity, which had some natural connections, at least, with Deism; they were skeptics about “literal truth”; and they may not have cared what the clergy thought about any of it. I don’t get the feeling most of them lost sleep over this stuff. 

What’s most interesting to me, which might interest Rowe too (I don’t know his work all that well yet) is that pace the secularist liberals, there were fervent Christian enthusiasts present and significant at the founding — they’re just not to be found (pace the Christian right) among the famous founders, who even if they were professed Christians, professed a Christianity that many on today’s evangelical right too would condemn (possibly wisely) as no better than secularism.  (more…)

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(Part One is here. )

From a modest but notable spike in page views for my first entry in this category, I get the feeling these lists might have some actual value. I’ll interlink them as I go. (The “Tory History” list, coming soon, will be briefer and might be interesting too. Others may follow after that.)

As a reminder: The biggest category at play here is “works of serious academic scholarship — by trained historians, that is — that have had an impact on the stories I tell in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.” In those books, I try to base genuinely page-turning, character-driven narrative on the conflicts exposed by genuine critical  history. I don’t see many other people really going for that, so my lists are uncomprehensive, personal to my work.

Some works I cite are good reading and some just aren’t. I’ll try to annotate that as I go, but I don’t know the tolerance levels of any particular reader in this area, so wouldn’t want to try to be definitive on “readability.” Many books people find highly readable (those by a certain late Swedish crime novelist, e.g.) I find unreadably banal and inept, so who knows.

I invite comment on these lists, which might even lead to dialogue among teachers, students, readers, etc.? — And if so inclined, push elsewhere to those who might be interested.

As to this particular post: It continues the sub-category, “left history”– real left history, Marxist by extraction, not the lefty-liberalism defined as “far left” by right-wing talkshow hosts. … (more…)

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Via J.L. Bell of Boston 1775, Snopes has an admirably accurate and fun piece from 2007 on fictions surrounding John Hancock’s huge signature on the famous copy of the Declaration — and related fictions about the signing as a whole, alluded to in Declaration and discussed in books by Garry Wills and Pauline Maier.

Hancock would make a great secondary or tertiary character in a premium-cable mini-series. Snopes doesn’t get into his work with the reconciliationists to obstruct Samuel Adams in Philadelphia, or into John Adams’s rivalry with Hancock, or Hancock’s purple suits, big hats, and ostentatious  rides and family history in the smuggling business. He was something else.

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