Thursday, May 30, 2013
Monday, May 27, 2013
Americans honor those who have served every Memorial Day and acknowledge the sacrifice that untold thousands have made, and are making, in the service of their country by attending parades, thanking a veteran, wearing a poppy, or posting on their social media pages. We thank the veterans for serving their country and those who gave “their last full measure of devotion” dying for their country and for the principles of liberty and republican self-government as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
During this weekend, as a nation at war, we naturally think of those who have fought abroad since September 11, 2001. We also think much of our fathers who fought in Korea or Vietnam during the Cold War or our grandfathers who struggled against the forces of darkness in Iwo Jima or Normandy during World War II when “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” But, when Americans commemorate the sacrifice of their soldiers and the principles for which they fought, they also reach back into the distant past.
The tradition of fighting for American principles of liberty and self-government was seen in the horrendous battles of Antietam and Gettysburg when brother fought against brother for a “new birth of freedom.” They fought for those principles at Fort McHenry and in New Orleans against the British in the War of 1812, what many historians have called the “second war for independence.”
But, we reach even farther into the past to honor who defended freedom and democracy in ancient Greece against the Persian Empire who offered submission, slavery, and tyranny. On the plains of Marathon in 490 B.C., a mostly Athenian army stood against King Darius and slaughtered over 6,400 of the enemy while suffering only 192 losses, soon revered as the “Marathon Men.” At the Hot Gates of Thermoplyae in 480 B.C., Spartan King Leonidas and his band of 300 (and several hundred allies) slew as many as 20,000 Persians, delaying King Xerxes’ invasion and teaching him about the power of armies defending their lands, their families, their freedom, and their consensual governments. While Xerxes burned a deserted Athens later that year, free men sailed out at Salamis and handed the Persians a decisive defeat that caused the king to flee home. On the fields of Plataea in 479 B.C., the Greeks pledged an oath before their victory that, “I will fight as long as I am alive, and I shall not value living above my being free . . . And I shall bury in the same spot the dead of those who have fought as my allies, and shall leave behind none of them unburied.”
For me, Memorial Day weekend has always been a time of reflective reading in the history of soldiers and their wars. I have spent time over the years reading books from Stephen Ambrose’s epic histories of D-Day and World War II to David McCullough’s 1776 narrating the dramatic events of Washington’s heroic Crossing of the Delaware.
Here are some recently published books this spring that will help citizens reflect on the soldiers throughout history that have contributed to the legacy of liberty and free government.
Victor Davis Hanson, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars that were Lost – From Ancient Greece to Iraq (New York: Bloomsbury). Hanson, one of our greatest classicists, military historians, and writers has penned a series of portraits of important generals including Themistocles, Belisarius, William T. Sherman, Matthew Ridgway, and David Petreus, who have snatched victory from desperate moments of seemingly lost wars. Hanson tells us that he chose generals from consensual societies because “the very notion of ‘savior’ is embedded within some sense of a moral universe that should be saved.” Hitler’s generals often won against great odds, but “their causes ultimately were better lost than won.”
Paul Cartledge, After Thermoplyae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Greco-Persian Wars (New York: Oxford University Press). Cartledge is one of the best academic popularizers of ancient Greek history. He debunks the origins of the Oath of Plataea but provides a nice study of the Greek world and the wars with the Persians. He argues that Plataea “was one of those historic rarities, a truly decisive battle. Moreover, its result brought a surprisingly positive outcome not just for the Greeks but arguably for the entire future of western civilization as a whole.”
Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (New York: Viking). Philbrick is a popular historian and non-fiction writer who has produced a solid narrative history of Bunker Hill, seeing it as a result of a decade of British tyranny. He writes of the importance of the battle: “The Battle of Bunker Hill is the critical turning point in the story of how a rebellion born in the streets of Boston became a countrywide war for independence.”
Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Knopf). Guelzo, arguably the finest living scholar on Abraham Lincoln, has produced an outstanding military history of the Battle of Gettysburg. Guelzo rejects his fellow academic historians who scoff at the writing of military history and notes its significance: “We cannot talk about the American nineteenth century without talking about the Civil War, and we cannot talk about the Civil War without acknowledging, even grudgingly, that the Civil War’s singular event was a war,” and the singular battle in Guelzo’s eyes was Gettysburg.
Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Night: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (New York: Henry Holt). Military historian Rick Atkinson ends his epic trilogy of Americans liberating Europe from the iron grip of Nazi tyranny in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and now Northern France. His massive achievement is the crowning story of the courageous men who stormed the beaches.
Finally, two recent books, Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor, as well as Joseph Ellis’ Revolutionary Summer, promise to be excellent books on the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the principles for which soldiers fought and died for. We at the WJMI honor the sacrifice of those who fought for Western and American freedom from the plains of Marathon to the mountains of Afghanistan.
Tony Williams is Program Director of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute, is a teacher and an author of four books on the Founding period, and lives with his family in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
“[The Federalist Papers] have thrown new light upon the science of government; they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.” --George Washington
“[The Federalist Papers] will merit the Notice of Posterity; because in it are candidly and ably discussed the principles of freedom and the topics of government, which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in Civil Society.” --George Washington
“[The Federalist Papers are] the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” --Thomas Jefferson
“For all posterity the "Federalist" must remain the most authoritative commentary upon the Constitution that can be found; for it is the joint work of the principal author of that Constitution and of its most brilliant advocate.” --John Fiske (American author and historian)
“These essays have been appraised as 'the greatest treatise on government that has ever been written,' and its writers have been ranked as of the same order with Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Locke." –J. Reuben Clark, Jr. (Solicitor and Undersecretary of the U.S. State Department, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico).
“The Federalist letters are among the classics of American literature. Their practical wisdom stands pre-eminent amid the stream of controversial writing at the time.” --Winston Churchill
“[The Federalist Papers are] the most important work of political science ever written in the United States.” --Clinton Rossiter (Professor and historian, Cornell University)
“The Ideas of The Federalist should be essential elements of civic education, because they are core values and principles of the American heritage and foundations of national unity in a pluralistic society.” --John J. Patrick (Professor and author, Indiana University)
“It would be difficult to overstate the significance of The Federalist for understanding the principles of American government and the challenges that liberal democracies confront early in the second decade of the 21st century.” --Peter Berkowitz (senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution)
“We must learn the principles of the Constitution in the tradition of the Founding Fathers. Have we read the Federalist papers?” --Ezra Taft Benson (former Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower)
If you have not read the Federalist Papers, you simply cannot fully understand the Constitution, its principles and purposes. Available free online at the Library of Congress (among other sites): http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpapers.html or order in paperback from Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/The-Federalist-Papers-Alexander-Hamilton/dp/1441413049/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1368904730&sr=8-1&keywords=federalist+papers+rossiter. I invite you to start today...
Saturday, May 11, 2013
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. His opponent in the election would be Stephen Douglas. Upon his nomination, Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in the war of words of what would culminate in the Lincoln-Douglas debates later that year.
Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, reports that Lincoln composed the speech by writing out drafts on small scraps of paper which he numbered. He then put the pieces of paper in his tall hat for safekeeping. When he thought he had completed the speech, Lincoln assembled the pieces into their proper order and wrote out the entire speech.
The humble beginnings of the speech from a couple of scraps of paper to Lincoln’s masterpiece started with a well-known biblical quote (for a biblically literate audience) from the Gospel of Matthew 12:25: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”
The topics he addressed would be the “popular sovereignty” doctrine enunciated by Douglas in the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the more recent Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision by the Supreme Court. Kansas-Nebraska allowed for popular sovereignty, or the principle that the territories could decide whether to allow slavery. The Dred Scott decision declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because the Court decided that Congress could not regulate slavery in the new territories. These would be the object of Lincoln’s attack on the morality of slavery and its spread in the new territories.
Lincoln opens the speech by declaring that Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act with the intention of quelling the agitation of the slavery question. That object was a fool’s hope and the act augmented rather than soothed the sectional tensions. Lincoln therefore predicted that, “In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.”
After quoting Matthew, he then predicted that, “This government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free . . . . It will become all one thing, or all the other.” Lincoln had a moral vision of self-government and slavery. He understood that logically slavery must eventually exist everywhere or nowhere according to the popular sovereignty doctrine. If slavery were right, then “its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new – North as well as South.” If it were wrong, however, then, “The opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.”
Lincoln believed that the Founding Fathers compromised temporarily with slavery to create the Union, but they thought it wrong and put it on the path to gradual extinction. He and the Republicans wanted to restrict slavery to where it already existed and yet halt the expansion of the institution into the territories. The Congress had the plain power to regulate the territories in Article IV, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott reversed the constitutional authority to ban slavery in the territories.
Lincoln lambasted popular sovereignty as “squatter sovereignty” and nothing more than moral relativism. He embraced the right of self-government but thought that Douglas’ version was “so perverted” that it reduced self-government to the idea that, “If any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.” Lincoln, like Thomas Jefferson, did not believe that one had a natural or constitutional right to do a wrong. The foundation for republican government was rooted in natural law. As Jefferson stated in his First Inaugural Address: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Therefore, if popular sovereignty included the right to enslave another, the system would eventually spread throughout the Union.
Finally, Lincoln detected a conspiracy to expand slavery among Douglas, former President Franklin Pierce, Chief Justice Roger Taney, and current President James Buchanan. Lincoln charged that they were erecting a framework and scaffolding to promote the acceptance of Dred Scott and popular sovereignty among the American people. Buchanan, Lincoln said, “fervently exhorted the people to abide by the forthcoming decision, whatever it might be.” Meanwhile, Douglas’ popular sovereignty doctrine worked to “educate and mold public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, not to care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.” In other words, they plotted to erect a morally relativist republic where slavery could be decided on by a democratic vote and spread all over the Union.
Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, but the two would square off again for the presidency in 1860. Throughout these campaigns, Lincoln consistently maintained that slavery was an evil that should be restricted to where it already existed. Thus, his ideas accorded with those of the Founders and the natural law ideals of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the “apple of gold” in the “picture of silver” as he would put it.
Read Abraham Lincoln’s “A House Divided Speech” here: http://www.constitutingamerica.org/blog/?p=4305
Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute, which teaches teachers American Founding principles and documents, in Charlottesville, VA. He is also the author of four books, including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.