Honoring James Madison, the go-to guy, on his birthday

March 16, 2014

James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, and the Father of the Constitution, was born March 16, 1751, in the Tidewater area of Virginia.

Is it sinful that we do not celebrate his birthday with a federal holiday, fireworks, picnics and speeches and concerts?

Maybe you could fly your flag to day.  If the neighbors ask why, tell them you’re flying it for freedom on James Madison’s birthday.  They’ll say, “Oh,” and run off to Google Madison.  You will have struck a blow for the education that undergirds democracy.

A few years ago I was asked to talk about freedom to a group of freedom lovers in North Texas.  I chose to speak about James Madison’s remarkable, and too-often unremarked-upon life. Later, when I started this blog, I posted it here, with an introduction.  All of that is below, in honor of the birth of James Madison.

Did you know that Madison is the shortest man ever to have been president?  His stature is measured in freedom, not in feet and inches.

(Originally a post on July 31, 2006)

James Madison, 1783, by Charles Wilson Peale.  Library of Congress collection

James Madison, 1783, miniature by Charles Wilson Peale. Madison would have been 32. Library of Congress collection

I don’t blame students when they tell me they “hate history.”  Heaven knows, they probably have been boringly taught boring stuff.

For example, history classes study the founding of the United States. Especially under the topical restrictions imposed by standardized testing, many kids will get a short-form version of history that leaves out some of the most interesting stuff.

Who could like that?

Worse, that sort of stuff does damage to the history and the people who made it, too.

James Madison gets short shrift in the current canon, in my opinion. Madison was the fourth president, sure, and many textbooks note his role in the convention at Philadelphia that wrote the Constitution in 1787. But I think Madison’s larger career, especially his advocacy for freedom from 1776 to his death, is overlooked.

Madison was the “essential man” in the founding of the nation, in many ways. He was able to collaborate with people as few others could, in order to get things done, including his work with George Mason on the Virginia Bill of Rights, with George Washington on the Constitution and national government structure, Thomas Jefferson on the structure and preservation of freedom, Alexander Hamilton on the Constitution and national bank, and James Monroe on continuing the American Revolution.

We need to look harder at the methods and philosophy, and life, of James Madison. This is an opinion I’ve held for a long time. Below the fold I reproduce a “sermon” I delivered to the North Texas Church of Freethought in November 2001.

James Madison White House portrait, John Vanderlyn, 1816

James Madison’s official White House portrait, by John Vanderlyn in 1816; in the White House collection

I have left this exactly as it was delivered, though I would change a few things today, especially emphasizing more the key role George Washington played in pushing Madison to get the Constitution — a view I came to courtesy of the Bill of Rights Insitute and their outstanding, week-long seminar, Shaping the Constitution: A View from Mount Vernon 1783-1789. The Bill of Rights Institute provides outstanding training for teachers, and this particular session, at Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, is well worth the time (check with the Institute to see whether it will be offered next year — and apply!). I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss these times and issues with outstanding scholars like Dr. Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University, Dr. Adam Tate of Morrow College, and Dr. Stuart Leibiger of LaSalle University, during my stay at Mount Vernon.

James Madison by Gilbert Stuart c. 1821

James Madison, portrait by Gilbert Stuart c. 1821; National Portrait Gallery

My presentation to the skeptics of North Texas centered around the theme of what a skeptic might give thanks for at Thanksgiving. (It is available on the web — a misspelling of my name in the program carried over to the web, which has provided me a source of amusement for several years.)

Here is the presentation:

Being Thankful For Religious Liberty

As Presented at the November, 2001 Sunday Service of The North Texas Church of Freethought

Historians rethink the past at least every generation, mining history for new insights or, at least, a new book. About the founders of this nation there has been a good deal of rethinking lately. David McCullough reminds us that John Adams really was a good guy, and that we shouldn’t think of him simply as the Federalist foil to Thomas Jefferson’s more democratic view of the world. Jefferson himself is greatly scrutinized, and perhaps out of favor — “American Sphinx,” Joseph Ellis calls him. The science of DNA testing shows that perhaps Jefferson had more to be quiet about than even he confessed in his journals. While Jefferson himself questioned his own weakness in his not freeing his slaves in his lifetime, historians and fans of Jefferson’s great writings wrestle with the likelihood of his relationship with one of his own slaves (the old Sally Hemings stories came back, and DNA indicates her children were fathered by a member of the Jefferson clan; some critics argue that Jefferson was a hypocrite, but that was Jefferson’s own criticism of himself; defenders point out that the affair most likely was consensual, but could not be openly acknowledged in Virginia at that time). Hamilton’s gift to America was a financial system capable of carrying a noble nation to great achievement, we are told – don’t think of him simply as the fellow Aaron Burr killed in a duel. Washington is recast as one of the earliest guerrilla fighters, and in one book as a typical gentleman who couldn’t control his expenses. Franklin becomes in recent books the “First American,” the model after which we are all made, somehow.

Of the major figures of these founding eras, James Madison is left out of the rethinking, at least for now. There has been no major biography of Madison for a decade or more, not since Ralph Ketcham’s book for the University of Virginia press. Madison has a role in Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers, but he shares his spotlight with Hamilton and Jefferson. I think this is an oversight. As we enter into the first Thanksgiving season of the 21st century, we would do well to take a look back at Madison’s life. Madison gives us a model of reason, and more important, a model of action coupled to reason. America’s founding is often depicted as a time of great thunder — if not the thunder of the lightning Ben Franklin experimented with, an experiment he parlayed into worldwide respect for Americans, it is the thunder of the pronouncements of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, or of George Washington, just generally thundering through history.

The use of a bolt of lightning as a symbol for this group is inspired, I think. I’m a great fan of Mark Twain, and when I see that bolt of electricity depicted I think of Twain’s observation:

“Thunder is good; thunder is impressive. But it is lightning that does the work.”

Thunder at the founding is impressive; where was the lightning?

I’d like to point out two themes that run through Madison’s life, or rather, two activities that we find him in time and again. Madison’s life was marked by periods of reflection, followed by action as a result of that reflection.

We don’t know a lot about Madison’s youth. He was the oldest son of a wealthy Virginia planter, growing up in the Orange County area of Tidewater Virginia. We know he was boarded out for schooling with good teachers – usually clergymen, but occasionally to someone with expertise in a particular subject – and we know that he won admission to Princeton to study under the Rev. John Witherspoon, a recent Presbyterian transplant from across the Atlantic. Madison broke with tradition a bit in attending an American rather than an English school. And after completing his course of study he remained at Princeton for another year to study theology directly under Witherspoon, with an eye toward becoming a preacher.

Witherspoon is often held up as an example of how religion influenced the founders, but he was much more of a rationalist than some would have us believe. He persuaded the young Madison that a career in law and politics would be a great service to the people of Virginia and America, and might be a higher calling. After a year of this reflection, Madison returned to Virginia and won election to local government.

In his role as a county official Madison traveled the area. He inspected the works of government, including the jails. He was surprised to find in jail in Virginia people accused of — gasp! — practicing adult baptism. In fact Baptists and Presbyterians were jailed on occasion, because the Anglican church was the state church of Virginia, and their practicing their faith was against the common law. This troubled Madison greatly, and it directed an important part of his work for the rest of his life. In January of 1774, Madison wrote about it to another prominent Virginian, William Bradford:

“Poverty and Luxury prevail among all sorts: Pride ignorance and Knavery among the Priesthood and Vice and Wickedness among the Laity. This is bad enough. But it is not the worst I have to tell you. That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close Gaol for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear talk or think of any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us.”

By April, Madison’s views on the matter had been boiled down to the essences, and he wrote Bradford again more bluntly:

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”

Madison must have done a fine job at his county duties, whatever they were, because in 1776 when Virginia was organizing its government to survive hostilities with England, Madison was elected to the legislative body.

Madison was 25, and still raw in Virginia politics. He was appointed to the committee headed by George Mason to review the laws and charter of the colony. Another who would serve on this committee when he was back from Philadelphia was Thomas Jefferson. George Mason was already a giant in Virginia politics, and by the time Madison got to Williamsburg, Mason had already completed much of the work on a bill of rights to undergird the new Virginia government. Madison noted that freedom of religion was not among the rights enumerated in Mason’s version — but it was too late, Mason said. The work was done.

Madison quietly went to work on Mason, in committee, over dinner, during social occasions — noting the great injustice of jailing people solely because of their beliefs, and urging to Mason that it did Virginia no good to keep these fathers from providing for their families.

Mason ultimately agreed to accept the amendment.

The pattern was set.

Perhaps a better example of this reflection and action cycle occurred nearly a decade later. By 1785 the war was over, independence was won, but the business of government continued. While serving as governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson had drafted about 150 proposals for laws, really a blueprint for a free government. About half of these proposals had been passed into law. By 1785, Jefferson was away from Virginia, representing the Confederation of colonies in Paris. Jefferson had provided several laws to disestablish religion in Virginia, and to separate out the functions of church and state. With Jefferson gone, however, his old nemesis Patrick Henry sought to roll back some of that work. Henry proposed to bring back state support for the clergy, for the stated purpose of promoting education. (Yes, this is the same battle we fight today for church and state separation.) After Jefferson’s troubled term as governor, Virginia turned again to Henry – Henry ultimately served six terms as governor. His proposal was set for a quick approval in the Virginia assembly. It was late in the term, and everyone wanted to get home.

Henry was, of course, a thundering orator of great note. Madison was a small man with a nervous speaking style, but a man who knew the issues better than anyone else in almost any room he could be in. Madison came up with an interesting proposal. Picking the religion for the state was serious stuff, he said. A state doesn’t want to pick the wrong religion, and get stuck with the wrong god, surely – and such weighty matters deserve widespread support and discussion, Madison said. His motion to delay Henry’s bill until the next session, in order to let the public know and approve, was agreed to handily.

You probably know the rest of this story. With a year for the state to reflect on the idea, Madison wrote up a petition on the issue, which he called a “Memorial and Remonstrance.” In the petition he laid out 15 reasons why separation of church and state was a superior form of government, concluding that in the previous 1,500 years, every marriage of church and state produced a lazy and corrupt church, and despotic government. Madison’s petition circulated everywhere, and away from Patrick Henry’s thundering orations, the people of Virginia chose Madison’s cool reason.

When the legislature reconvened in 1786, it rejected Henry’s proposal. But Madison’s petition had been so persuasive, the legislature also brought up a proposal Thomas Jefferson had made six years earlier, and passed into law the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom.

This was a great victory for Madison, and for Virginia. He celebrated by convening a convention to settle disputes between Virginia and Maryland about navigation on the Chesapeake Bay. Having reflected on the nature of this issue — a dispute between colonies — Madison had sought advice from others having the same problems, such as New York and New Jersey. In that effort he got the support of a New Yorker working on the same problems, Alexander Hamilton. In the course of these discussions Madison thought it clear that the difficulty lay with the form of government that bound the colonies together under the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton agreed, and they got their respective states and conferences to agree to meet in Philadelphia in 1787 to try to fix those problems. [Since I first wrote this, I've learned that it was George Washington's desire to get a federal government, to facilitate the settling of the Ohio River Valley where Washington had several thousands of acres to sell, that prompted him to push Madison into the Annapolis Convention, and who made the introduction between Madison and Washington's old aide and friend, Alexander Hamilton; Madison's work with Washington runs much deeper than I orignally saw.]

James Madison, 1792 portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa

James Madison, 1792 portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa

Amending the Articles of Confederation was a doomed effort, many thought. The colonies would go their separate ways, no longer bound by the need to hang together against the Parliament of England. Perhaps George Washington could have got a council together to propose a new system, but Washington had stayed out of these debates. Washington’s model for action was the Roman general Cincinnatus, who went from his plow to lead the Romans to victory, then returned to his farm, and finding his plow where he had left it, took it up again.

Madison invited Washington, and persuaded Washington to attend. Washington was elected president of the convention, and in retrospect that election guaranteed that whatever the convention produced, the colonies would pay attention to it.

You know that history, too. The convention quickly decided the Articles of Confederation were beyond repair. Instead, they wrote a new charter for a new form of government. The charter was based in part on Jefferson’s Virginia Plan, with lots of modifications. Because the Constitution resembles so much the blueprint that Jefferson had written, and because Jefferson was a great founder, many Americans believe Jefferson was a guiding light at that Philadelphia convention. It’s often good to reflect that Jefferson was in Paris the entire time. While America remembers the thunder of Washington’s presiding, Franklin’s timely contributions and Jefferson’s ideas, it was Madison who did the heavy lifting, who got Washington and Franklin to attend the meeting Madison had set up, and got Jefferson’s ideas presented and explained.

It was Madison who decided, in late August of 1787, that the convention could not hang together long enough to create a bill of rights, and instead got approval for the basic framework of the U.S. government. In Virginia a few months later, while Patrick Henry thundered against what he described as a power grab by a new government, it was Madison who assembled the coalitions that got the Constitution ratified by the Virginia ratifying convention. And when even Jefferson complained that a constitution was dangerous without a bill of rights, it was Madison who first calmed Jefferson, then promised that one of the first actions of the new government would be a bill of rights. He delivered on that promise as a Member of the House of Representatives in 1789.

It is difficult to appreciate just how deeply insinuated into the creation of America was James Madison. In big ways and small, he made America work. He took the lofty ideas of Jefferson, and made them into laws that are still on the books, unamended and unedited, more than 200 years later.

When the ratification battle was won, when Madison had won election to the House over Patrick Henry’s strong objection, partly by befriending the man Henry had picked to defeat Madison, James Monroe, Madison could have savored the moment and been assured a place in history.

James Madison in 1804, by Gilbert Stuart

James Madison in 1804, by Gilbert Stuart. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia. Gift of Mrs. George S. Robbins

That’s not what a lightning bolt does. Journeying to New York for the opening of the First Congress and the inauguration of Washington as president, Madison stopped off at Mount Vernon to visit with Washington, apparently at Washington’s request. In what was a few hours, really, Madison wrote Washington’s inaugural address. While there at Mount Vernon, Madison stumbled into a discussion by several others on their way to New York, wondering what high honorific to apply to the new president. “Excellency” was winning out over “Your highness,” until Washington turned to Madison for an opinion. Madison said the president should be called, simply, “Mr. President.” We still do.

Once in New York, Madison saw to the organizing of the Congress, then to the organizing of the inauguration. And upon hearing Washington’s inauguration address — which Madison had ghosted, remember — Congress appointed Madison to write the official Congressional response.

Years later, in Washington, Madison engineered the candidacy of Thomas Jefferson for president, and after Jefferson was elected, Madison had the dubious honor as Secretary of State of lending his name to the Supreme Court case that established the Supreme Court as the arbiter of what is Constitutional under our scheme of government, in Marbury v. Madison.

Wherever there was action needed to make this government work, it seemed, there was James Madison providing the spark.

James Madison was the lightning behind the thunder of the founding of America. We should be grateful that he lived when he did, where he did, for we all share the fruits of the freedoms he worked to obtain. And in this Thanksgiving season, let us look for appropriate ways to honor his work.

James Madison circa 1829-1839, portrait by Chester Harding.  National Portrait Gallery

James Madison, 1829, portrait by Chester Harding. National Portrait Gallery. “In 1829, Madison came out of retirement to attend a convention for revising Virginia’s constitution. While there, he posed for this portrait by the Massachusetts painter Chester Harding.”

The Madisonian model of thoughtful reflection leading to action is one that is solidly established in psychological research. It is the model for leadership taught in business schools and military academies.

I would compare religious liberty to a mighty oak tree, under which we might seek shade on a hot summer day, from which we might draw wood for our fires to warm us in winter, or lumber to build great and strong buildings. That big oak we enjoy began its life long before ours. We enjoy its shade because someone earlier planted the seed. We enjoy our freedoms today because of men like James Madison.

How do we give thanks? As we pass around the turkey to our family, our friends, we would do well to reflect on the freedoms we enjoy, and how we got them.

Finally, remembering that someone had to plant those seeds, we need to ask: What seeds must we plant now for those who will come after us? We can demonstrate our being grateful for the actions of those who came before us by giving to those who come after us, something more to be grateful for. A life like Madison’s is a rarity. Improving on the freedoms he gave us might be difficult. Preserving those freedoms seems to me a solemn duty, however. Speaking out to defend those freedoms is an almost-tangible way to thank James Madison, and as fate would have it, there is plenty of material to speak out about. A postcard to your senators and representative giving your reasoned views on the re- introduction of the Istook Amendment might be timely now – with America’s attention turned overseas for a moment, people have adopted Patrick Henry’s tactic of trying to undo religious freedom during the distraction. I have had a lot of fun, and done some good I hope, in our local school system by asking our sons’ science and biology teachers what they plan to teach about evolution. Whatever they nervously answer — and they always nervously answer that question — I tell them that I want them to cover the topic fully and completely, and if they have any opposition to that I would be pleased to lend my name to a suit demanding it be done. We might take a moment of reflection to ponder our views about a proposed Texas “moment of silence” bill to be introduced, and then let our state representatives have our thoughts on the issue.

Do you need inspiration? Turn to James Madison’s writings. In laying out his 15-point defense of religious freedom in 1785, Madison wrote that separation of church and state is essential to our form of government:

“The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people.”

How can we express our gratitude for such a foundation for religious liberty? Let loose a few lightning bolts, in remembrance of Madison.

Copyright © 2001 and 2006 by Ed Darrell. You may reproduce with attribution. Links added in May 2013.

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January 21: Odd conjunction of history with Louis XVI and Vladimir I. Lenin

January 21, 2014

This is mostly an encore post.

The Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press inform us that France’s King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793.  In 1924, Russian revolutionary Vladimir I. Lenin died on January 21.

Portrait of Louis XVI

France’s King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793.  He is seen here in his most famous portrait, in happier times. Image via Wikipedia

Both died of strokes, but of different kinds of strokes.  Lenin’s was a cerebral stroke; Louis’s was the stroke of the blade of a guillotine.

Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925,  by Isaak Brodsky - Wikipedia

Lenin died on January 21, 1924.  Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925, by Isaak Brodsky

Ruminations on the date, and the men:  How much of current history can be understood by studying those two events, and those two men?  How much if we add in George Washington, and Napoleon, other men affected by revolution?

A few years ago I had a sophomore student spell out the importance of people in history.  Israel Pena observed that  Americans got rid of their king through revolution, and ended up with George Washington as leader, and then president.  Washington’s modeling of his life after the Roman patriot Cincinattus led Washington to resign as commander of the Continental Army when the warring was done, instead of declaring himself king, and then later to step down from the presidency after two terms, to promote peaceful retirement of presidents.

The French got rid of their king through revolution in 1789, but in the chaos that followed, they got Napoleon who took over the government after battlefield victories against France’s enemies.  Then Napoleon declared himself emperor, and took off on a reign of conquest and war across Europe.

France’s revolution produced Napoleon; America’s revolution produced Washington, and that has made most of the difference.

Mr. Pena’s commentary compared only those two nations.  What if we add in a third nation and revolution:  Russia?  Russia got rid of its king (czar) through revolution in 1917.  In the chaos that followed it got a government led by Lenin, and upon Lenin’s early death, taken over by Joseph Stalin.

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart - Wikipedia

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart – Wikipedia

Is the future of a nation written by the character of the men who run the government?  One might make a good case that the deaths of these men paint most of the picture we really need to have. Louis XVI died at the age of 39, on the guillotine; Vladimir I. Lenin, died at the age of 53, of stroke.  Both still worked to cling to the strings of power; Compare the deaths of Washington and Napoleon. George Washington. died in 1799 at the age of 67, of complications from a strep throat, but in retirement and in his bed at Mount Vernon, Virginia; while Napoleon Bonaparte died at 52, probably from stomach cancer, while he suffered in humiliating exile on the far distant South Atlantic isle of St. Helena, in 1821.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 - Wikipedia

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 – Wikipedia

Revolution marked these men. Three of them led revolutions, and the fourth was put out of power by one.  Whose life would you have preferred to follow?  Which of these lives is most meritorious of modeling?

Which one lived the life that put his nation on the more secure footing so that its citizens might live good lives, and die of old age in their beds, rather than at war?

Can one person really push the history of a nation so much?  Or are these four lives simply emblematic of the nations they ruled?

Something to ponder on a January 21.


Odd conjunction of history: January 21, Louis XVI and Vladimir I. Lenin

January 21, 2012

The Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press inform us that France’s King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793.  In 1924, Russian revolutionary Vladimir I. Lenin died on January 21.

Portrait of Louis XVI

France's King Louis XVI died on January 21, 1793. He is seen here in his most famous portrait, in happier times. Image via Wikipedia

Both died of strokes, but of different kinds of strokes.  Lenin’s was a cerebral stroke; Louis’s was the stroke of the blade of a guillotine.

Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925,  by Isaak Brodsky - Wikipedia

Lenin died on January 21, 1924. Painting of Lenin in front of the Smolny Institute, circa 1925, by Isaak Brodsky

Ruminations on the date, and the men:  How much of current history can be understood by studying those two events, and those two men?  How much if we add in George Washington, and Napoleon, other men affected by revolution?

A few years ago I had a sophomore student spell out the importance of people in history.  Israel Pena observed that  Americans got rid of their king through revolution, and ended up with George Washington as leader, and then president.  Washington’s modeling of his life after the Roman patriot Cincinattus led Washington to resign as commander of the Continental Army when the warring was done, instead of declaring himself king, and then later to step down from the presidency after two terms, to promote peaceful retirement of presidents.  The French got rid of their king through revolution in 1789, but in the chaos that followed, got Napoleon who took over the government after battlefield victories against France’s enemies.  Then Napoleon declared himself emperor, and took off on a reign of conquest and war across Europe.

Mr. Pena’s commentary compared only those two nations.  What if we add in a third, Russia?  Russia got rid of its king (czar) through revolution in 1917.  In the chaos that followed it got a government led by Lenin, and upon Lenin’s early death, taken over by Joseph Stalin.

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart - Wikipedia

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart - Wikipedia

Is the future written by the character of the men who run the government?  One might make a good case of that in the deaths paint most of the picture we really need to have, that of Louis XVI, at the age of 39, on the guillotine; of Vladimir I. Lenin, at the age of 53, of stroke, both still working to cling to the strings of power; and compare the death in 1799 of George Washington, at the age of 67, of complications from a strep throat, in retirement and in his bed at Mount Vernon, Virginia; and of Napoleon Bonaparte, 52, probably from stomach cancer, while he suffered in humiliating exile on the far distant South Atlantic isle of St. Helena, in 1821.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 - Wikipedia

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis David, 1812 - Wikipedia

Revolution marked these men, three of whom led them, and the fourth of whom was put out of power by one.  Whose life would you have preferred to follow?  Which of these lives is most meritorious of modeling?


U.S. Day

March 4, 2011

If March 2 is Texas Day, March 4 can be U.S. Day, right?

Can’t call it Constitution Day — there are a couple of those in the fall.

March 4 is the anniversary of the enactment of the Constitution, in 1789.  All the ratifying was done, Washington had been elected President, the first Congress was elected, and it was time to open for business.

In New York, neither house of Congress could get a quorum — too many members not in town yet.  So the new government adjourned for a week or so.

Bad precedent, if you ask me — though, to be fair, the Congress met for a total of 210 days.

Letter describing the first day of the First Congress, from Robert Morris to Gouverneur Morris

Letter from Robert Morris to Gouverneur Morris, describing the first day of the First Congress, March 4, 1789.

From Birth of a Nation:  The First Federal Congress, a site at George Washington University:

This letter, written on the day established for the first meeting of the Congress, sets the scene as the members began to gather in New York City. Morris’s concern that the “public expectation seems to be so highly wound up that I think disappointment must inevitably follow after a while, nothwithstanding that I believe there will be inclination and abilities in the two houses to do every thing that reasonable and sensible men can promise to themselves, but you know well how impossible it is for public measures to keep pace with the sanguine desires of the interested, the ignorant, and the inconsiderate parts of the Community.” eloquently expressed the challenge that faced the members of the new Congress.

Odd stuff:

  • New York City was bustling with 29,000 residents in 1789

Quote of the moment: Hamilton, on taxes and the Constitution, Federalist #30

October 16, 2010

They claim to be constitutionalists, and they claim to want to uphold the U.S. Constitution.  But here’s an excerpt from Federalist #30, in which Alexander Hamilton explains why it is necessary for a federal government to tax, and sometimes to tax heavily.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton: "Money is, with propriety, considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions."

This is the U.S. Constitution and the “Founding Fathers” the Tea Partiers hope you will never see, and this is the Constitution and Founders they work hard to hide (some highlights added):

IT HAS been already observed that the federal government ought to possess the power of providing for the support of the national forces; in which proposition was intended to be included the expense of raising troops, of building and equipping fleets, and all other expenses in any wise connected with military arrangements and operations. But these are not the only objects to which the jurisdiction of the Union, in respect to revenue, must necessarily be empowered to extend. It must embrace a provision for the support of the national civil list; for the payment of the national debts contracted, or that may be contracted; and, in general, for all those matters which will call for disbursements out of the national treasury. The conclusion is, that there must be interwoven, in the frame of the government, a general power of taxation, in one shape or another.

Money is, with propriety, considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions. A complete power, therefore, to procure a regular and adequate supply of it, as far as the resources of the community will permit, may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution. From a deficiency in this particular, one of two evils must ensue; either the people must be subjected to continual plunder, as a substitute for a more eligible mode of supplying the public wants, or the government must sink into a fatal atrophy, and, in a short course of time, perish.

In the Ottoman or Turkish empire, the sovereign, though in other respects absolute master of the lives and fortunes of his subjects, has no right to impose a new tax. The consequence is that he permits the bashaws or governors of provinces to pillage the people without mercy; and, in turn, squeezes out of them the sums of which he stands in need, to satisfy his own exigencies and those of the state. In America, from a like cause, the government of the Union has gradually dwindled into a state of decay, approaching nearly to annihilation. Who can doubt, that the happiness of the people in both countries would be promoted by competent authorities in the proper hands, to provide the revenues which the necessities of the public might require?

The present Confederation, feeble as it is intended to repose in the United States, an unlimited power of providing for the pecuniary wants of the Union. But proceeding upon an erroneous principle, it has been done in such a manner as entirely to have frustrated the intention. Congress, by the articles which compose that compact (as has already been stated), are authorized to ascertain and call for any sums of money necessary, in their judgment, to the service of the United States; and their requisitions, if conformable to the rule of apportionment, are in every constitutional sense obligatory upon the States. These have no right to question the propriety of the demand; no discretion beyond that of devising the ways and means of furnishing the sums demanded. But though this be strictly and truly the case; though the assumption of such a right would be an infringement of the articles of Union; though it may seldom or never have been avowedly claimed, yet in practice it has been constantly exercised, and would continue to be so, as long as the revenues of the Confederacy should remain dependent on the intermediate agency of its members. What the consequences of this system have been, is within the knowledge of every man the least conversant in our public affairs, and has been amply unfolded in different parts of these inquiries. It is this which has chiefly contributed to reduce us to a situation, which affords ample cause both of mortification to ourselves, and of triumph to our enemies.

What remedy can there be for this situation, but in a change of the system which has produced it in a change of the fallacious and delusive system of quotas and requisitions? What substitute can there be imagined for this ignis fatuus in finance, but that of permitting the national government to raise its own revenues by the ordinary methods of taxation authorized in every well-ordered constitution of civil government? Ingenious men may declaim with plausibility on any subject; but no human ingenuity can point out any other expedient to rescue us from the inconveniences and embarrassments naturally resulting from defective supplies of the public treasury.

More

IT HAS been already observed that the federal government ought to possess the power of providing for the support of the national forces; in which proposition was intended to be included the expense of raising troops, of building and equipping fleets, and all other expenses in any wise connected with military arrangements and operations. But these are not the only objects to which the jurisdiction of the Union, in respect to revenue, must necessarily be empowered to extend. It must embrace a provision for the support of the national civil list; for the payment of the national debts contracted, or that may be contracted; and, in general, for all those matters which will call for disbursements out of the national treasury. The conclusion is, that there must be interwoven, in the frame of the government, a general power of taxation, in one shape or another.Money is, with propriety, considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions. A complete power, therefore, to procure a regular and adequate supply of it, as far as the resources of the community will permit, may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution. From a deficiency in this particular, one of two evils must ensue; either the people must be subjected to continual plunder, as a substitute for a more eligible mode of supplying the public wants, or the government must sink into a fatal atrophy, and, in a short course of time, perish.

In the Ottoman or Turkish empire, the sovereign, though in other respects absolute master of the lives and fortunes of his subjects, has no right to impose a new tax. The consequence is that he permits the bashaws or governors of provinces to pillage the people without mercy; and, in turn, squeezes out of them the sums of which he stands in need, to satisfy his own exigencies and those of the state. In America, from a like cause, the government of the Union has gradually dwindled into a state of decay, approaching nearly to annihilation. Who can doubt, that the happiness of the people in both countries would be promoted by competent authorities in the proper hands, to provide the revenues which the necessities of the public might require?

The present Confederation, feeble as it is intended to repose in the United States, an unlimited power of providing for the pecuniary wants of the Union. But proceeding upon an erroneous principle, it has been done in such a manner as entirely to have frustrated the intention. Congress, by the articles which compose that compact (as has already been stated), are authorized to ascertain and call for any sums of money necessary, in their judgment, to the service of the United States; and their requisitions, if conformable to the rule of apportionment, are in every constitutional sense obligatory upon the States. These have no right to question the propriety of the demand; no discretion beyond that of devising the ways and means of furnishing the sums demanded. But though this be strictly and truly the case; though the assumption of such a right would be an infringement of the articles of Union; though it may seldom or never have been avowedly claimed, yet in practice it has been constantly exercised, and would continue to be so, as long as the revenues of the Confederacy should remain dependent on the intermediate agency of its members. What the consequences of this system have been, is within the knowledge of every man the least conversant in our public affairs, and has been amply unfolded in different parts of these inquiries. It is this which has chiefly contributed to reduce us to a situation, which affords ample cause both of mortification to ourselves, and of triumph to our enemies.

What remedy can there be for this situation, but in a change of the system which has produced it in a change of the fallacious and delusive system of quotas and requisitions? What substitute can there be imagined for this ignis fatuus in finance, but that of permitting the national government to raise its own revenues by the ordinary methods of taxation authorized in every well-ordered constitution of civil government? Ingenious men may declaim with plausibility on any subject; but no human ingenuity can point out any other expedient to rescue us from the inconveniences and embarrassments naturally resulting from defective supplies of the public treasury.


A missed Bill of Rights anniversary, and the 27th Amendment

September 26, 2010

September 25, 1789, Congress had approved and enrolled the proposals, and sent twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution to the states for ratification.  Ten of the twelve amendments were approved, rather quickly, and by 1791 the were attached to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

The two proposals that failed to earn the required approval of three-fourths of the 13 states fell into a special limbo for Constitutional amendments that became clear only in the late 1970s when Congress discussed how long to wait for states to approve the Equal Rights Amendment (this is a much-simplified explanation, I know).  Congress put deadlines on the ratification process in the late 20th century, but the first twelve proposals had no deadlines.  In the 1980s, Congress passed a law that said any amendments floating around, unapproved, would be considered dead after a date certain.

Before that date passed, more states took a look at one of James Madison’s 1789 proposals, liked it, and passed it.

That amendment became the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, on May 7, 1992, 203 years after it was proposed:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.


Bugs Bunny on the Constitution

August 30, 2010

Was this from 1989, the Constitution’s Bicentennial?  I dimly remember these PSAs.

This one isn’t brilliant — n.b., the Constitution can be amended — but it is Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

I just stumbled into it on YouTube.  Is there a good collection somewhere?  Are the others better?


Imaging the French Revolution

March 4, 2009

How can you tell I’m behind the scope and sequence?

I was just reminded today of how neat this site is:  Imaging the French Revolution. Good stuff comes out of George Mason University from time to time.  This site is part of that stuff.

Place Vendome, in the French Revolution (George Mason U image)

11. Le plus Grand, des Despotes, Renversé par la Liberté (Place Vendôme). [Place Vendôme, The Greatest of Despots Overthrown by Freedom] Source: Museum of the French Revolution 88.170 Medium: Etching and colored wash Dimensions: 17.2 x 24.4 cm Commentary (numbers refer to pages in essays): General analysis – Day-Hickman, 5 Reasonable crowd – Day-Hickman, 2

Oh, also:  Take a look at this site:  Some guy named Frank Smitha has assembled a history of the world, claiming to be trying to avoid bias.  The French Revolution page is a pretty good run down, much more thorough than the average textbook.

Beheading of Louis XVI, via Frank Smitha

The beheading of King Louis XVI, an execution opposed by Thomas Paine, who favored Louis’ exile to the United States – Image from Frank E. Smitha’s Macrohistory and World Report, The French Revolution


Encore Post: Constitution Day!

September 17, 2008

Are you ready for it, teachers?

Howard Chandler Christy's painting of the Scene at the Signing of the Constitution

2008: I wasn’t ready to blog about it today.  Texas requires one day of instruction on the Constitution in every social studies class.  In government today, it happened to fit.  We discussed the Constitution earlier in world history, and we will return to it at various points through the year.



Founders online, great interactive site

December 12, 2007

Our friends and benefactors at the Bill of Rights Institute put up a great branch of their site, Founders Online. A grant from the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation made the project possible.

Bill of Rights Institute logo

Check it out:

John Adams | Samuel Adams | Alexander Hamilton | Patrick Henry
Thomas Jefferson | James Madison | GeorgeMason | Gouverneur Morris
James Otis | Thomas Paine | George Washington | John Witherspoon

This page should be a first stop for your students doing biographies on any of these people, and it should be a test review feature for your classes that they can do on the internet at home, or in class if you’re lucky enough to have access in your classroom.

Good on-line sources are still too rare. This is stuff you can trust to be accurate and appropriate for your students. Send a note of thanks to the Bill of Rights Institute, and send your students to the site.

Just in time for Bill of Rights Day, December 15 . . .


Constitution Day! Monday, September 17, 2007

September 14, 2007

Are you ready for it, teachers?

Howard Chandler Christy's painting of the Scene at the Signing of the Constitution


Constitution Day, September 17

September 9, 2007

Get ready.

Constitution Day is September 17, 2007. It’s the anniversary of the day in 1787 when 39 men signed their names to the proposed Constitution of the United States of America, to send it off to the Continental Congress, who was asked to send it to specially convened meetings of citizens of the 13 states for ratification. When and if nine of the former colonies ratified it, it would become the document that created a federal government for those nine and any of the other four who joined.

Banner from Constitution Day website

For Texas, the requirement to commemorate the Constitution was changed to “Celebrate Freedom Week” effective 2003. This week is expected to coincide with the week that includes national Veterans Day, November 11. School trustees may change to a different week. (See § 74.33 of the Texas Education Code) Texas does require students to recite a section from the Declaration of Indpendence. (Recitation is highlighted below the fold.)

Knowledge of the Constitution is abysmal, according to most surveys. Students are eager to learn the material, I find, especially when it comes presented in interesting ways, in context of cases that interest the students. The trick is to find those things that make the Constitution interesting, and develop the lesson plans. Some classes will be entertained by Schoolhouse Rock segments; some classes will dive into Supreme Court cases or other serious issues, say the legality of torture of “enemy combatants” or warrantless domestic surveillance. Some classes will like both approaches, on the same day.

Texas teachers have two months to get ready for Celebrate Freedom Week. Constitution Day is just a week away for anyone who wants to do something on September 17.

Sources you should check out:

Read the rest of this entry »


They come in threes: Stooges, branches of government

July 25, 2007

Is it true that a survey shows more teenagers know the names of the Three Stooges than know the three branches of government?

Justice Sandra O'Connor, by Matt York, AP

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor warned the National Governors Association that lack of education — ignorance — threatens justice in the U.S. According to the Detroit News:

O’Connor said growing disrespect for judges and erosion of independence of the judicial branch are partly due to students not learning much about American government in school.

“The key to maintaining our system lies in the education of our citizens,” O’Connor told the 19 governors who stuck around for the final day of the summer meeting.

She added in her 12-minute speech that surveys have shown fewer teenagers can identify the three branches of government than can name the Three Stooges.

“Now I enjoy Larry, Moe and Curly, but” it’s distressing that students don’t know the most basic concepts of government, said O’Connor, a Reagan appointee who retired last year after 24 years on the high court.

But, the Three Stooges? That’s almost too perfect a quote. It seems even more fantastic when one considers that the Three Stooges are not broadcast nearly so much as they were in the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s. Where did O’Connor get that factoid?

  • Photo: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by Matt York, Associated Press

Read the rest of this entry »


Happy birthday, Lady Justice

June 22, 2007

Today is the 137th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Department of Justice, June 22nd, 1870.

Then-AG John Ashcroft with Lady Justice - unknown photo source

Among other interesting points:

  • The post of Attorney General was created in 1789; who did the serious work until 1870? There is no evidence the Attorney General personally presided over illegal torture or illegal firings of federal employees before 1870 — nor before February 2005.
  • Edmund Randolph was the first Attorney General
  • None of the 80 Attorneys General served as president, either before or after serving as AG
  • The motto of the Justice Department comes from the Seal of the Attorney General: Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur. No one knows what the motto means, exactly, or when the seal was created. The Latin of the seal is archaic, and can’t be translated well. Among the better guesses of what the motto is supposed to mean is this: “The Attorney General, who prosecutes on behalf of Lady Justice.”

Lady Justice, against the sun

Image of Lady Justice against a sunset; FBI photo; hope remains, since no body has been found. Photo is not from a current investigation.  Image at top: Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in front of The Spirit of Justice, sculpted by Paul Jennewein in 1933; photo in the lobby of the Department of Justice.  Source not listed — probably a news photo.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Utah Policy Daily


Constitution Day, September 18

September 17, 2006

On September 17, 1787, delegates to the Philadelphia convention met at Independence Hall to sign the document they had labored all summer to produce, to send it to the Continental Congress to be sent to the states for ratification. Ultimately 39 of the delegates would sign it.

We celebrate Constitution Day annually on September 17 in honor of this event (September 18 this year, because the 17th is a Sunday).

Texas requires all students to get a dose of Constitution (and Declaration of Independence) in social studies classes, each year — Freedom Week*. For that matter, there is a federal requirement, too (it would be fun to analyze whether such a requirement runs afoul of the law that requires the federal government to stay out of curricula, sometime). Where to find materials?

The Bill of Rights Institute has wonderful stuff — posters, videos, lesson plans. Much of what a teacher needs for Constitution Day is available for free on their website page for Constitution Day. I had the great good fortune to attend a week-long institute put together by this group, at Mt. Vernon, Virginia. Their scholarship is top notch; their materials are well researched, keyed well to the various age groups, and packaged to make their use easy. The Bill of Rights on Demand feature is good for quick lesson plans, too.

Christy Painting of Signing of the Constitution

Here is one of my favorite sources: Prof. Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University created an interactive version of Howard Chandler Christy’s famous painting of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. If you can project from your computer, you can show students the history — roll your mouse across the painting, and you get the name of the delegate with a link to get more history on that man.

The National Archives has lesson plans for Constitution Day, to get students to study and understand the Constitution and other contemporary documents directly.

This site, Constitution Day, makes me nervous. Yes, they have Colin Powell leading the nation in the Preamble this year — but they also highlight former Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who has little understanding or respect for the Constitution and Bill of Rights, in my opinion. Still, I haven’t found much other stuff that is objectionable, though I have a sneaking suspicion it’s there somewhere (they have car flags for sale, for example — they display of which is a violation of the flag code — but I digress). The authors appear to be well-intentioned, if less informed than I prefer.

Texas’ Region XIII Education Service Center features several lesson plans and other materials, keyed more to Texas but probably suitable for use in other states, too. Read the rest of this entry »


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