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The Founding

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A very happy 232nd birthday to our American republic. In the year 2008, frankly, our record is mixed. On one hand, we’ve continued to stand by while our witless joke of a president has assumed many of the dubious royal prerogatives that originally propelled our forefathers toward Independence. On the other, we stand poised to make history this November in a way that would make the founding generation gasp in awe at how far we’ve come.

So, let’s enjoy the 4th, and take a moment not only to remember how precarious the American experiment once was, but also to ponder what we hope to make of it in our own time. For, regardless of how terrible the past eight years — or forty years, for that matter — have been, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.

Update: The Muppets are celebrating too. (Via Bitten Tongue/Gideonse Bible.)

The Age of Federalism.

To give credit where it’s due, tonight’s installment of John Adams went in exactly the direction I’d hoped, spending much more time on the political and less on the personal than previous episodes. We had Hamilton and Jefferson fighting over Federalist fiscal policy, Jefferson and the Adamses debating revolution and the health of France, Citizen Genêt, the Jay treaty, the consternation of Washington over the Republican-Federalist divide, and the first transfer of presidential authority, all of which I greatly enjoyed.

I have only two minor quibbles: Some mention of the Whiskey Rebellion would’ve been grand (and could’ve been used to further dramatize Adams’ fear of the Mob, as soon to be represented in the Alien and Sedition Acts.) And, more importantly, the forgotten Founder in the series thus far has been James Madison, who — unless he’s been one of the backgrounders — has yet to appear. Even the good Doctor, Benjamin Rush, has had more screen time (although that’s probably due to his reconciliatory role in Episode 7.) Madison was in the House while Adams presided over the Senate, so shoehorning him in might’ve been unwieldy. Still, I’d have been content to have seen even a tiny nod to the writer of the Constitution — Instead of screen time, they could’ve just “cast big” a la Rufus Sewell for Hamilton, signalling Madison’s importance with a decent-sized cameo. (Now that I think about it, they should’ve done the same with Tom Paine earlier on.)

But, like I said (and my fondness for Franklin’s Parisian shenanigans notwithstanding), this was probably my favorite episode since part 2, on the Continental Congress. Heck, I even made my peace with Morse’s putty nose tonight. “I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!”

Birth of a Nation.

‘He United the States of America’ is the miniseries’ motto, giving credit to Adams for everything. Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) is a rascal; Washington (David Morse) is a sapskull. Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) is distracted and, finally, deluded. And poor Thomas Paine seems never to have been born…“John Adams” is animated as much by Adams’s many private resentments as by the birth of the United States. It is history, with a grudge.Speaking of Jill Lepore, her review of HBO’s John Adams appeared in The New Yorker a month or so ago. Now that we’re four weeks in, I’ll say that John Adams has worked as a decently acceptable Sunday night methadone for early Wire withdrawal. I particularly enjoy Stephen Dillane’s Jefferson, and (like many Americans of the early national period, I’d presume) would rather spend more time with him than with Giamatti’s Adams. Tom Wilkinson’s Ben Franklin is also worth relishing, but he’s somewhat hamstrung by the fact that virtually every other line he gets is one of Franklin’s famous epigrams. (The jury’s still out on David Morse and his putty nose — I’ll reserve judgment until after Washington’s presidency next week.)

My biggest problem with the show thus far, and this reflects my own historical biases more than anything else, is the sheer amount of time spent on John and Abigail’s relationship and family trials. This is not to say I’m totally averse to the social history: The smallpox inoculation, for example, was a intriguing addition to Episode 2. But, more often than not, I’d rather see much more birthing of the United States and much less of the domestic drama. Tonight’s episode, for example, spent more time on the respective travails of the Adams children than it did on the writing of the Constitution. Now, granted, this is partly because John Adams had very little to do with said writing (although you’d get no sense here that he was nevertheless defending it from afar.) Still, Adams and Jefferson discussed our founding charter for only one brief scene, thus shoehorning Jefferson’s thoughts on generational revolution, Franklin’s “republic, if you can keep it” riposte, Jefferson as “the American Sphinx,” the brewing of the Adams-Jefferson conflict, and the venerable undergraduate essay question, “Was the Constitution a continuation or repudiation of the American Revolution?,” all into five or so minutes. As a political history aficionado, I eat this stuff up like catnip. But then there’s at least 30-40 minutes devoted to John and Abigail doing variations on their Saltpeter-Pins schtick, and/or Sarah Polley and the rest of the Adams kids all grown up, courting and drinking. (Gasp!)

Now I understand McCullough’s book is above all else a biography, and some of this is par for the course. But — call me old-school, top-down, whatever — I’m really hoping the final three episodes, and particularly the next two on the “Age of Federalism,” spend significantly more time concentrating on the affairs of the early republic, and both John and Abigail’s important role in them, than on the domestic bliss and family squabbles of the Adamses themselves.

Obama and Madison.

“Let the argument about the viability and practicality of Obama’s major message go forward. But as it does, even his critics need to acknowledge that he is not a weird historical aberration. His message has roots in our deepest political traditions. Indeed, it is in accord with the most heartfelt and cherished version of our original intentions as a people and a nation.” In the LA Times, historian Joseph Ellis (of American Sphinx, Founding Brothers, and His Excellency) argues Obama’s public interest message has roots in the writings of the Founders. “There are several passages in Obama’s memoir, ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ that suggest a familiarity with the founders’ legacy. He recalls teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago and always going back to ‘the founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution,’ which provide ‘the record of the founders’ intentions’ and ‘the core ideals that motivated their work.’

The Duke of Braintree.

HBO’s forthcoming mini-series of David McCullough’s John Adams looks to be in the can, and you can now watch the teaser (with a rather breathless endorsement by the author) at the official site. (It begins airing March 16, presumably after the close of The Wire.) The cast includes Paul Giamatti (John Adams), Laura Linney (Abigail Adams), Danny Huston (Sam Adams), Sarah Polley (Nabby Adams), Rufus Sewell (Hamilton), Tom Wilkinson (Franklin), Stephen Dillane (Jefferson), David Morse (Washington), and Bad Putty Nose (Washington’s Nose).

Me Read Pretty One Day.

America. Land of the free, home of the obese illiterates? “We are doing a better job of teaching kids to read in elementary school. But once they enter adolescence, they fall victim to a general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading. Because these people then read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they do more poorly in school, in the job market and in civic life.” An extremely frightening new study by the National Endowment for the Arts finds that, despite the best efforts of the First Lady (which I applaud) over the past seven years, Americans increasingly can’t read so good. “The NEA reports that in 2006, 15-to-24-year-olds spent just 7 to 10 minutes a day voluntarily reading anything at all. It also notes that between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of college graduates who tested as ‘proficient in reading prose’ declined from 40 percent to 31 percent.

Uh, what?! How can over two-thirds of college graduates not be able to read “proficiently”? This is the type of dire news that demands a Sputnik-level response from our political leaders. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both, as James Madison put it in 1822. “[A] people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives” Or, see Thomas Paine: “[I]t is monarchical and aristocratical government only that requires ignorance for its support,” and that’s what we’ll be getting (more of) if this troubling trend continues. Not to get all progressive up in here, but education and citizenship are the lifeblood of the republic. Without them, the whole experiment falls apart.

Old Soldiers Never Die.

“Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action, — and bidding an affectionate farewell to this August body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” After much negotiation with the family who’s held the draft for generations, the State of Maryland acquires the original version of George Washington’s military resignation speech of 1783 (in which he announced his standing-down from the Revolutionary army and helped set the precedent of civilian control over the newly-independent United States.) The manuscript will be unveiled today, as part of Washington’s birthday festivities.

Scribbling Adams | Exhuming Neville.

Two recent history-minded links courtesy of the NYT: National Review‘s Richard Brookhiser evaluates the marginalia of John Adams, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg examines the recent revival of Munich among the Bushies (as does the WP‘s Eugene Robinson.)

Creators, Kingfish, and consiglieres.

Some quality historicizing in today’s Washington Post Book World: Michael Kazin reviews Richard White’s new Huey Long biography, H.W. Brand’s looks at Godfrey Hodgson’s new bio of Edward House (right-hand-man to Woodrow Wilson), and novelist David Liss briefly surveys recent works on the Founders.

President’s Day 2006.

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism…The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them…let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.” — George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796.

Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” — Abraham Lincoln, “Speech to One Hundred Fortieth Indiana Regiment” (March 17, 1865)

Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.” — George Washington

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” — Abraham Lincoln, “Address Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin” (September 30, 1859)

All About the Benjamin.

“If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” Scientist, inventor, philanthropist, statesman, diplomat, epigrammist, satirist, exemplar, and a bon vivant and ladies’ man to boot…If George Washington is the Father of our Country, then he’s definitely our Favorite Uncle: Ben Franklin turns 300. Happy birthday!

The Lowest Grade of Ignorance.

Wanna see something really scary? GOP freakshow Rick Santorum invokes the Founders to rail against the pursuit of happiness. Yes, Rick, the Founders did care about public responsibility, republican citizenship, and the common good, and they went out of their way to explain that these revolutionary American ideals were most assuredly not the province of narrow-minded theocratic nutjobs such as yourself.

(Civil) Servants of the Republic.

‘It seems obvious that a great republic cannot sustain itself unless its citizens participate in their own government,’ Byrd said. ‘But how can they participate meaningfully if they don’t know the fundamental principles on which their government is founded?‘” Senator Robert Byrd introduces legislation that requires federal workers to learn more about the Constitution. I’m all for the principle — in fact, I strongly believe in more civics education in public schools — but, by the time people start working for the government, it’s probably a little late. Still, no harm, no foul.

“A Republic, If You Can Keep It.”


‘I think there is more significant history in this corridor than in any comparable space in America,’ Moe said. ‘There’s been a lot of encroachment already, particularly in the form of residential development. If this continues, the character of this region will be changed forever.’” Richard Moe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation adds the expansive Tri-State region between Gettysburg and Monticello to its list of most endangered historical sites.

President’s Day 2004

“As the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first to be laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.”George Washington

“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”Abraham Lincoln

National Man of Mystery.

A recently discovered manuscript explains how Nathan Hale was captured. Turns out he was a better Patriot than he was a spy.

Happy Independence Day.

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved…”

Hedging their Bets.

In the wake of Dubya’s embrace of preemption, historian Joyce Appleby wonders whatever happened to Congress as a center of foreign policy. As James Madison put it, “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Govts demonstrates, that the Ex. is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl. But the Doctrines lately advanced strike at the root of all these provisions, and will deposit the peace of the Country in that Department which the Constitution distrusts as most ready without cause to renounce it.” Looks like recent experience has proven him right.

Unfortunate Sons and daughters..

The party of sacrifice? Get your priorities straight. As Ari Fleischer warns America to expect American casualties in the coming conflict, the Republican Congress promises the Iraq war will have no bearing on tax cuts. As CCR put it, Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,
Well, they help themselves, yeah.
Then as now, the poor may lose their sons and daughters, but the rich will get their rebates.

Regarding another recent facet of GOP hysteria, I know it’s fun to pick on the French, what with the Maginot Line and the Rainbow Warrior and all that. But next time you hear some idiot like Tom DeLay say the French are good-for-nothing, remember Lafayette. The fact of the matter is, we would never have gained our freedom (or our freedom fries) without the aid of the French during our Revolution. Something to consider before our former Gallic friends are written out of the history books in a fit of revisionist patriotism.

A Lack of Liberal Imagination.

Paul Berman of TNR writes on what Dubya could learn from Lincoln, explicitly refuting the Kagan “Power and Weakness” piece linked the other day. (For their part, National Review is offering up Madison instead.)

Happy President’s Day.

“As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality.” – George Washington

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

“As the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first to be laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.” – George Washington

“Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” – Abraham Lincoln

“People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” – Abraham Lincoln

“It is not merely for to-day, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives.” – Abraham Lincoln

Mr. Washington’s Congress.

In a show of commitment to NYC a year after the attacks, Congress convenes once again in Federal Hall, just as it did in the days of Washington. To my mind, this is one of the classier displays churned out by the 9-11 memorial industry this week.

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