Monday, June 23, 2014

John Adams on Sally Hemings Debate

I’ve never paid that much attention to the Jefferson-Hemings debate.  I’m perfectly okay believing either side of the coin, honestly leaning more towards, yes, he did father those kids. The ins and outs of the relationship also haven’t greatly interested me either, as Jefferson was always clearly a slave owner and this is a typical issue of slave owners, one of the many reasons why slavery was a terrible institution.   

I’m currently reading Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis (incidentally the article I referenced above was written by Ellis as well….although I didn’t do that on purpose!), which I think I mentioned before, but I had gotten distracted from it and only recently returned to it.  Anyway, I just got the section about the rekindling of the Jefferson-Adams friendship and interestingly enough Adams didn’t believe the stories that were circulating then about Jefferson and Hemings.  Ellis writes:
Adams claimed to give no credence to the scandalous stories about Jefferson’s alleged relationship with Sally Hemings, his mulatto slave.  As a fellow victim of similarly venomous vendettas, Adams empathized.  But he went on to speculate that the allegation was "a natural and almost inevitable consequence of the foul Contagion in the human Character, Negro Slavery.”  Jefferson was seriously contaminated by that contagion and could not escape the prevalent suspicion that “there was not a planter in Virginia who could not reckon among his slaves a number of his children.” Even though the Sally Hemings story was probably not true, Adams surmised with obviously satisfaction that it would remain “a blot on his Character” because it symbolized the inherently immoral condition in which all slaveowners, Jefferson included, lived.

I never thought about Adams having an opinion on this matter, although it makes sense given when the story first broke, so I found this interesting enough to share!  I couldn’t find a full copy of this letter online (MHS let me down….), so sorry about that.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Skydiving for his 90th!

So George HW Bush went skydiving for his 90th birthday!  Good for him!  Here's a bit of backstory to go with this:
Mr. Bush said his first experience skydiving was leaving his plane during World War II when his engine caught fire and waiting for hours to be picked up out of the ocean.

“I did it wrong, I pulled the jump cord too early and hit the tail of the plane,” he said. “I decided later on that I wanted to do it right. That did spark my interest in making another jump.”

Mr. Bush said he often thinks about the two other men in the plane with him, both of whom died, and why it was him who survived. Despite that, he said he’s thoroughly enjoyed his second chance on life that’s included serving in Congress, as an ambassador to the United Nations, as director of the CIA and as the 41st president.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Did Wilson have a brain malfunction?

This article argues that Wilson had serious issues well before his stroke:
Wilson’s judgment seemed grossly impaired by the war years. He was extraordinarily petulant and irrational by 1918, and contemporaneous observers who were in a position to know commented often on his strange and quirky ways.

In 1919, Wilson’s pre-existing medical and mental conditions arguably led to a breakdown months before his paralytic stroke, which occurred on October 2. The nature of this breakdown could be seen as early as February, in a series of words and actions that prefigured his behavior of November and December, at which point he was clearly out of his mind.

When Wilson sailed to Europe aboard the USS George Washington, he had — typically — no substantive strategy for preventing the kind of vindictive peace that he had warned against in his 1917 “Peace Without Victory” speech. One of the advisers recruited for the U.S. peace delegation, Yale historian Charles Seymour, recalled that Wilson turned to him during the voyage and asked, “What means, Mr. Seymour, can be utilized to bring pressure upon these people in the interest of justice?” It was very late indeed for Wilson to be thinking in these terms, especially after the many missed opportunities in 1917 and 1918 to build the political pre-conditions for “peace without victory.”

This talks about a major shift in his health and behavior:
...something drastic seemed to happen to him on April 28 — something that did not come to light until many years later, when historian Arthur S. Link was editing the Wilson documents from 1919. Let Link and his editorial colleagues tell the story: “It became obvious to us while going through the documents from late April to about mid-May 1919 that Wilson was undergoing some kind of a crisis in his health . . . . Whatever happened to Wilson seems to have occurred when he was signing letters in the morning of April 28” when his handwriting changed and became almost bizarre.

 The editors continue: “Wilson’s handwriting continued to deteriorate even further. It grew increasingly awkward, was more and more heavily inked, and became almost grotesque.” Link summoned some medical specialists who told him that in their own opinion there was simply no doubt about it: Wilson had suffered a stroke on the morning of April 28.

And then he threw away yet another opportunity to strike a blow for “peace without victory.” When the terms of the Versailles treaty were made public there was widespread outrage regarding their severity. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, was stricken, and he called the British delegation together on June 1. Their decision was unanimous: the terms of the treaty should be softened.

But when Wilson was approached, he declared that the severe terms were perfectly appropriate. According to one account, he proclaimed that “if the Germans won’t sign the treaty as we have written it, then we must renew the war.”

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Quoting Madison

This article talks about how we quote Madison on the Constitution, but Madison is very contradictory:
The publication of Lynne Cheney’s new blockbuster biography of James Madison revives one of our most cherished founding myths: Madison was the “father” (assertive textbook version) or “chief architect” (modification for a more sophisticated audience) of the Constitution. The New York Times headline writers selected “American Architect” to announce Gordon Wood’s review of Cheney’s book. This honorific appellation calls forth Madison’s claim to fame and his tug on our hearts.

Much is at stake here. If Madison were truly the chief architect of the Constitution, what he said and wrote (in 1787) bears heavily on the meaning of that document. Through the informal doctrines of original intent and original meaning, so pervasive in our political culture, Madison’s views become scripture. Then, if we casually omit the key words “in 1787,” what he did, said, or wrote at any time in his career wind up guiding Constitutional interpretation. Madison conceived the Constitution. Madison believed thusly, so that’s what the Constitution says. Our public policy, to follow the Constitution, must follow James Madison. By applying this sloppy syllogism, pundits, politicians, and Supreme Court justices can redirect the course of the nation. It all starts with that initial premise: James Madison, American Architect.

Was Madison the (chief) architect of the Constitution? An architect lays out a plan that that will be put into effect. Even metaphorically, this does not describe James Madison’s relation to the United States Constitution.

In fact, Madison did not always get his way at the Federal Convention of 1787. By one tabulation, he offered an opinion on 71 motions but lost out on 40 of these.1 This is not to denigrate Madison in any way; perhaps we would have been better off if other framers had followed his advice more often. But if Madison had had his way, the edifice created by the Convention would look very different than it does.

Why does this matter according to the author?
Viewing Madison as the architect of the Constitution has political overtones. Madison’s ideological evolution, from his expansive nationalism in 1787 to his advocacy of strict construction and states’ rights in the 1790s, can be and is manipulated into a distorted view of the Constitution’s meaning. If the alleged architect of the Constitution said the powers of the federal government are limited to those that are “expressly delegated” in the Constitution and states have the right to “interpose” between the people and the federal government, enemies of federal power backdate these words, implicitly but erroneously, to 1787. Once there, they become proof positive that the Constitution favored the states. Madison-the-Architect said so.

This unwarranted notion has penetrated to the core of our public discourse. It informs constitutional jurisprudence at the highest levels and affects national policy. In their dissent to the 2012 Affordable Care Act decision, Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito complained that the “power to tax and spend for the general welfare” has unfortunately come to extend “beyond (what Madison thought it meant) taxing and spending for those aspects of the general welfare that were within the Federal Government’s enumerated powers.”18 The words within parentheses speak volumes. “What Madison thought it meant,” in this context, stands for “what the founders thought it meant” and finally “what the Constitution really means.” On this view, Madison supposedly favored a strictly limited government, so that is what the document must prescribe. However misguided, Madison-the-Architect mythology is embedded within the default logic of constitutional reasoning, and it tilts that reasoning subtly yet significantly toward the right.