Friday, November 20, 2020

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

“The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was one of the most important documents in early U.S. religious history. It marked the end of a ten-year struggle for the separation of church and state in Virginia, and it was the driving force behind the religious clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791. 

The Statute was first attempt to remove government influence from religious affairs 
Drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 and accepted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786, the bill was, as Jefferson explained, an attempt to provide religious freedom to “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and [the] infidel of every denomination.” In effect, it was the first attempt in the new nation to remove the government’s influence from religious affairs. 

Jefferson created law to undo established churches in Virginia 
When the bill was first introduced during the legislative session in 1779, the Episcopal Church, which had just recently declared its independence from the Church of England, was the state-sponsored or established church in Virginia. Tax monies were used to support the church, and colonial laws compelled mandatory church attendance. Enlightenment thinkers such as Jefferson and James Madison had long opposed established churches, because they believed that religion was a natural right best protected without governmental coercion. Furthermore, they objected to the limited religious freedom available to other religious entities in Virginia—most notably Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians—although they confined their protest to a few friends during the early years of the American Revolution. The situation changed, however, in 1779, as the war was winding down. That year, Jefferson’s bill was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly, but it was soon postponed. In response, in 1784 the fiery, headstrong Patrick Henry countered Jefferson’s bill with a bill of his own that called for a general assessment tax to support “Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Each taxpayer was allowed to choose what church or minister could receive his tax money. It was, then, a proposal to replace the Episcopal Church with “multiple establishments” of religion, creating a tight church-state network in Virginia that would use government dollars to support all Christian churches, not just Episcopalian Christianity. With Jefferson in France serving as American minister during the 1780s, the task of opposing Henry’s bill fell to Madison, Jefferson’s close friend and collaborator. Madison proceeded to pursue successfully three goals, which led to the defeat of Henry’s bill and the passage of Jefferson’s. First, Madison secured an alliance with evangelical sects that were opposed to the assessment bill. Second, he supported Patrick Henry’s election to the governorship in 1784, thereby removing him from the legislature. And, third, he penned a finely crafted pamphlet called “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment,” opposing Henry’s bill, supporting Jefferson’s, and calling for a separation of church and state. 

James Madison supported the Statute in a pamphlet 
In the “Memorial” Madison eloquently articulated the principles at stake: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.” The pamphlet was an instant hit. It was widely circulated in Virginia, and it was signed by over two thousand Virginians, many of whom were Presbyterians and Baptists who thought Henry’s bill posed a threat to religious liberty in the Old Dominion.  In addition to the pamphlet, Madison guided Jefferson’s bill to passage; it was finally enacted on January 16, 1786 by the Virginia General Assembly.”[1] 

The Statute affirmed freedom of conscience 
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom stands for the proposition that no human authority (civil or religious) should impose its religious views or opinions on individuals. It confirms the natural rights of all men to form their own religious beliefs and to exercise freedom of conscience. In its opening sentence Jefferson wrote that,  “Almighty God hath created the mind free.”  James Madison fully agreed, arguing that men have property not only to earthly possessions, but also property in their “opinions and the free communication of them...” and stated that, “conscience is the most sacred of all property.”[2]  Attesting to this principle Thomas Jefferson declared that he had, “sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”[3]

Writing his own epitaph, Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered as the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and as father of the University of Virginia [photo above of Jefferson's grave at Monticello]. 

Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786 

Section I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of Legislators and Rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess, or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously, of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow-citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil Magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he, being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of Civil Government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them: 

Section II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or Ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. 

Section III. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right.[4] 
_______________________________
[1] The First Amendment Encyclopedia https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/880/virginia-statute-for-religious-freedom (2009) by: Matthew Harris (professor of history and director of legal studies at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He teaches and writes on the US Constitution, with a particular emphasis on Religion and the Law and Race and Religion), accessed 19 Nov 2020. 
[2] James Madison, Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999) pp. 515-517. 
[3] Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian Boyd (Princeton University Press, 1950) 32:168.
[4] Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 346-348.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower

After a tempestuous ten weeks at sea, on November 11, 1620 (O.S.), the ship known as the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. On board were 102 passengers, including adventurers, tradesmen, and English Separatists, along with 30 crew members. After leaving England for Holland in 1608, the Separatists had remained there until 1620. Seeking greater religious freedom, and the opportunity to govern themselves and earn a better living, a number of the Separatists purchased boats to cross the Atlantic for America, which they considered a “new Promised Land.” 

As devout Christians, the "English Separatists" (men and women who had separated themselves from the Church of England, and who are sometimes mistakenly referred to as Puritans) read directly from the Holy Bible (the Geneva Bible was common), sang Psalms, and believed in having a personal, covenant relationship with God. They believed, that as God’s covenant people, they would be identified as “Saints.” They also believed that living a godly life was man’s duty, guided by his conscience—described by them as “the voice of God in man.”[1] While the Separatists believed that the only way to live according to Biblical precepts was to leave the Church of England entirely, and while they shared much in common, the Puritans thought they could reform [or purify] the church from within.[2]

During that historic voyage, the crew and passengers of the Mayflower encountered many turbulent storms. In the middle of one such storm, young John Howland fell overboard. By all accounts, that should have been the end of Howland. However, as William Bradford, also a passenger on the Mayflower, reported: 

“In these storms the winds were so fierce and the seas so high the Pilgrims were forced to remain below deck. And one of them John Howland came above and, with a roll of the ship, he was thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of a rope that was trailing in the water and held on though he was several fathoms under water till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat-hook and other means got him into the ship again and his life was saved; and though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after, and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.”[3]

"About four years after they arrived in the New World, John married fellow Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley, a brave and committed daughter of God. They eventually had 10 children and nearly 90 grandchildren. But that is not where the story ends. Today, an estimated 2 million Americans trace their roots to John and Elizabeth. Their descendants include three U.S. presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush; American poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and two influential 19th-century American religious leaders—Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother Hyrum Smith [founders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints]."[4]

Before setting anchor, the men drafted and signed “The Mayflower Compact,” a solemn agreement to govern their civic affairs as a “political body” in the new Plymouth Colony: 

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.

William Bradford, a farmer, and signatory to the Mayflower Compact—went on to serve as Governor of the Plymouth Colony (recurrently for about 30 years between 1621 and 1657). “If not for Bradford’s steady, often forceful leadership, it is doubtful whether there ever would have been a colony. [And] without his [record] Of Plymouth Plantation ... there would be almost no information about the voyage with which it all began.”[5]  Bradford later wrote, “they knew they were pilgrims,” which label stuck. 

The moment the Pilgrims stepped ashore in the new land was also described by Bradford in his journal: 

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.”[6]      

“The Pilgrims had originally hoped to reach America in early October using two ships, but delays and complications meant they could use only one, the Mayflower. Arriving in November, they had to survive unprepared through a harsh winter. As a result, only half of the original Pilgrims survived the first winter at Plymouth. Without the help of local Indigenous peoples to teach them food gathering and other survival skills, all of the colonists may have perished.”[7] 

A year following the Pilgrims’ landing, and after enduring the hard winter, the new colonists enjoyed a bountiful harvest. Early in October of 1621, Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and their neighboring Native Americans. They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them in their celebration. Their chief, Massasoit, and 90 braves came to the celebration which lasted for three days. They played games, ran races, marched and played drums. The Indians demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow and the Pilgrims demonstrated their musket skills. Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, but it is believed the celebration took place in mid-to-late October. The tradition of a holding a thanksgiving feast and gathering after harvest time became a religious holiday perpetuated in the American colonies and states for over two centuries. 

In conclusion, “The Pilgrims of the Mayflower arrived on the American continent with the hope and promise of a new life of freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience.”[8]  Their example of individual faith, humility, work and sacrifice for the common good, along with their decades-long association and friendship with the Native Americans, sets an example that we should reflect upon and always remember.

__________________________________

[1] Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Penguin Group, New York, 2006), p. 7.
[2] "What's the Difference between Pilgrims and Puritans?" History.com [accessed October 28, 2020].
[3] William Bradford,"Of Plymouth Plantation" Early Americas Digital Archive (EADA)
[4] "The Lords Hand" M. Russell Ballard, October 20, 2019, Worchester, Massachusetts.
[5] Philbrick, p. 7.
[6] William Bradford, "Of Plymouth Plantation"
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower [accessed October 27, 2020].
[8] mayflowerpromise.com [accessed October 27, 2020].

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Liberty requires Unity


"[Y]our union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other." --George Washington 

Unity was indispensable to the formation of our nation and the establishment of the Constitution. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, said: "The unity of government... is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize... it is of definite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness... accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as the palladium of your political safety and prosperity." All three authors of the Federalist Papers proclaimed the benefits of a strong union. James Madison stated: "[E]very man who loves liberty ought to have it ever before his eyes that he may cherish in his heart a due attachment to the Union of America and be able to set a due value on the means of preserving it." Madison also stated: "We have seen the necessity of the Union as our bulwark against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce and other common interests, as the only substitute for those military establishments which have subverted the liberties of the old world, and as the proper antidote for the diseases of faction, which have proved fatal to other popular governments." John Jay, stated: "[T]he prosperity of America depend[s] upon its Union." Finally, Alexander Hamilton said: "I have endeavored, my Fellow Citizens, to place before you in a clear and convincing light, the importance of Union to your political safety and happiness. I have unfolded to you a complication of dangers to which you would be exposed should you permit that sacred knot which binds the people of America together to be severed." Their messages instruct us that in unity, encompassing more than the mere union on paper of the states, there is mutual strength and safety. 

Unity requires adherence to common principles -- a shared vision. Such principles include democratic standards of justice, fairness, equality, and individual freedom of religion and speech, among others. Thomas Jefferson eloquently stated in his Inaugural Address: "[E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have been called by different names brethren of the same principle... Let us then pursue with courage and confidence . . . our attachment to union and representative government." In order to create and maintain unity, as evidenced by the very process by which the Constitution was forged, personal opinions must be tempered and often compromised for the benefit of the whole. Thus, the spirit of compromise is essential to the workings of our republican form of government; and the spirit of mutual commitment essential to democracy. 

In this regard, the Founding Fathers warned that "factions" are destructive to the Union and to the spirit of unity (Federalist No. 10). What are the prime causes of "the diseases of faction"? Pride, or selfishness, and greed. A proverb states: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." (Proverbs 16:18). The central feature of pride is enmity (Benson). Enmity, or animosity, may be pitted against persons or groups in society. Through selfishness, greed and envy, the enmity of pride leads to contentions and strife, causing divisions and factions, thus destroying unity. Humility, gratitude and camaraderie serve as primary antidotes to dispel pride, shield principle and preserve the unity necessary to sustain liberty. "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'" --Abraham Lincoln (quoting Mark 3:25). 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America

Reviews of Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004). This significant book should be read by all who are interested in learning more about the end of slavery in America, including the political, philosophical, and military factors that President Abraham Lincoln grappled with (not to mention his own personal and religious struggle) in determining to emancipate the slaves during the Civil War.

A PROCLAMATION

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom...

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God...”

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

“No other words in American history changed the lives of so many Americans as this plain, blunt declaration from Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. But no other words in American history have been so often passed over or held up to greater suspicion. Born in the struggle of Lincoln's determination to set slavery on the path to destruction, it has remained a document of struggle, as conflicting interpretations and historical mysteries swirl around it. What were Lincoln's real intentions? Was he the Great Emancipator or just a Great Fixer? What slaves did the Proclamation actually free? Or did the slaves free themselves? Why is the language of the Proclamation so bland, so legalistic, so far from the soaring eloquence of the Gettysburg Address? Prize-winning Lincoln scholar Allen C. Guelzo presents, for the first time, a full-scale study of Lincoln's greatest state paper. Using unpublished letters and documents, little- known accounts from Civil War-era newspapers, and Congressional memoirs and correspondence, Guelzo tells the story of the complicated web of statesmen, judges, slaves, and soldiers who accompanied, and obstructed, Abraham Lincoln on the path to the Proclamation. The crisis of a White House at war, of plots in Congress and mutiny in the Army, of one man's will to turn the nation's face toward freedom -- all these passionate events come alive in a powerful and moving narrative of Lincoln's, and the Civil War's, greatest moment.”  Google Books https://books.google.com/books/about/Lincoln_s_Emancipation_Proclamation.html?id=DJmTUq9hYUoC [accessed 8-18-20].

“Allen C. Guelzo's meticulous and imaginative analysis of the origins and impact of the Emancipation Proclamation resurrects that beleaguered document as the cornerstone of freedom for America's four million slaves. Abraham Lincoln's personal commitment to emancipation has suffered egregiously at the hands of critics, both scholarly and popular, who discount his proclamation's centrality to emancipation while pointing to his zest for compensated emancipation and colonization as an indication of his true feelings—lukewarm, vacillating, and even racist—toward African‐American freedom. Guelzo's masterful reconstruction of Lincoln's motives and methods, rendered within the political and military context in which they played out, challenges the notion that the Emancipation Proclamation “accomplished nothing” (p. 2) and reinforces Lincoln's genuine personal commitment to end slavery. The crux of Guelzo's argument is his portrayal of Lincoln as an “Enlightenment president” who was steadfast in his pursuit of freedom...” 
The American Historical Review, Volume 110, Issue 4, October 2005, Pages 1186–1187.

“There was a time when every schoolboy learned that Abraham Lincoln was the “Great Emancipator” who freed the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation, they also learned, was a critically important step in achieving that goal. Many historians have called this old conventional wisdom into question, arguing that Lincoln was not really motivated by commitment to end slavery. The proof, they claim, is his famous letter to Horace Greeley in which he wrote that “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery, If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Many of Lincoln’s critics, especially African-Americans, go so far as to claim that he was no friend of blacks and did not want to risk the political fallout that would surely result from emancipation, but was eventually forced by circumstances to do so. In the words of Julius Lester, “Blacks have no reason to feel grateful to Abraham Lincoln. How come it took him two whole years to free the slaves? His pen was sitting on his desk the entire time.” Many also have questioned the real significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, arguing that it was merely a piece of propaganda and that it actually freed no slaves. As Richard Hofstadter wrote, “had the political strategy of the moment called for a momentous human document of the stature of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln could have risen to the occasion.” Instead, he produced a document with “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” In addition, the document he issued only freed slaves where the federal government had no power. It did not apply to slaves in the loyal slave states or in those parts of the Confederacy under Union control. Indeed, Lincoln did not free the slaves; they freed themselves.

Unfortunately, Lincoln’s defenders often don’t do him any favors. They claim either that he “grew in office,” progressing from a position of moral indifference and ignorance regarding emancipation at the time of his election to one who came to favor black freedom by the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, or that he had the patience to wait for the opportune moment to issue the proclamation.

In his magnificent new book, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, Allen Guelzo makes a strong case for the old conventional wisdom: Lincoln was indeed committed to ending slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation played a central role in achieving this goal. Guelzo argues, indeed, that “the Emancipation Proclamation was the most revolutionary pronouncement ever signed by an American president, striking the legal shackles from four million black slaves and setting the nation’s face toward the total abolition of slavery within three more years...

The Emancipation Proclamation may lack the rhetorical elegance of the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural, but Guelzo makes it clear that the Proclamation is the most epochal of Lincoln’s public pronouncements. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is the definitive treatment of emancipation. Allen Guelzo deserves our immense gratitude for returning this critical document to its place of honor in the history of the American Republic.”
--Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Abraham Lincoln Saved the Union, But Did He Really Free the Slaves?” Editorial, Ashbrook Center, March 2004 https://ashbrook.org/publications/oped-owens-04-guelzo/ (Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, Associate Dean of Academics and Professor of Strategy and Force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island).
____________________________

Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and the director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which won the Lincoln Prize in 2000, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, which won the Lincoln Prize in 2005, and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, which won the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize in 2008. His most recent work in Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln As a Man of Ideas (a collection of essays published in 2009) and Lincoln, a volume in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions series (also 2009). His book on the battle of Gettysburg, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Knopf, 2013) spent eight weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

His articles and essays have appeared in scholarly journals and in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, and he has been featured on NPR, the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, Brian Lamb’s BookNotes, and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He is a member of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, the Society of Civil War Historians, and the Union League of Philadelphia.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

"Yes, Even George Washington Can Be Redeemed"


By: Richard Lim[1]

George Washington was a slaveholder.

For some Americans, this is reason enough to exclude our first president from the national pantheon.

According to one poll, 18 percent of respondents believe he should be removed from Mount Rushmore. Others expressed themselves by defacing or toppling Washington statues.

Are these critics right?

On the surface, it might seem so. American slavery was inexpressibly gruesome. Accounts from the time reveal the horrors of enslaved African-Americans being separated from their families, violently beaten, routinely raped by their owners, subjected to monotonous, backbreaking labor, and forced to live in filthy dwellings with no hope for improvement.

This was reality for millions of American blacks.

Washington benefited from slavery his entire life. He bought and sold slaves and sought to reacquire runaways. These facts are undeniable.

Does this make Washington, as a New York Times columnist states, a “monster”?

This critique fails to account for the specifics of Washington’s personal journey. Within the tragic reality of his owning slaves lies a unique and unexpected story.

Like his fellow southerners, Washington was born into a society that accepted slavery. It is true he expressed no qualms about the institution until the American Revolution, but once he did, an extraordinary transformation began.

The earliest change perhaps can be detected in Washington’s correspondence with Phillis Wheatley, an African-American poet who had composed verses dedicated to him. Washington wrote to her in 1776 praising her “great poetical Talents” and expressing his desire for a meeting. The request broke strict etiquette between slaveholders and black people.

Their correspondence highlights something Washington understood about African-Americans lost upon his contemporaries: their abilities and humanity. Compare Washington’s reference to Wheatley’s “genius,” with Jefferson’s harsh assessment that her poems “are beneath the dignity of criticism.”

Many of Washington’s closest associates during the war opposed slavery, such as Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette. These individuals inclined Washington against the institution. Perhaps the greatest influence, however, were the many black people that served courageously during the war.

After the Revolution, Washington began to speak of slavery in moral terms. He pondered ways to provide slaves with “a destiny different from that in which they were born.” He hoped such actions, if consummated, would please “the justice of the Creator.”

Washington freed his slaves at his death—but this raises two questions: first, why didn’t he do so in his lifetime, and second, why didn’t he speak against slavery publicly?

First, we must note that Washington detested breaking up slave families, making it a policy not to do so. He realized, however, that freeing his slaves might make family breakups inevitable. Most of the slaves at his estate, Mount Vernon, belonged to his wife Martha’s family, the Custises, which meant he couldn’t legally free them. At Mount Vernon, Custis and Washington family slaves often intermarried. The Custis heirs regularly sold slaves, breaking up their families. Washington knew that if he liberated his slaves, some in the slave families would be free while the others would remain enslaved in Custis hands, vulnerable to being sold (which eventually happened).

Mary V. Thompson's excellent book The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret recounts that, as president, Washington developed elaborate plans to emancipate his slaves. Secret letters to family friend David Stuart reveal Washington trying to convince the Custis heirs to join him in manumitting their slaves together, preserving the families, and hiring them out to tenant farmers. Unfortunately, talks with potential tenants fell through. Washington continued to agonize over a situation where emancipation meant separating black family members.

Second, we must note, while many founders were antislavery, several sought—threatening disunion—to protect the institution, such as South Carolina’s John Rutledge. This left antislavery founders in a difficult situation. They believed the nation could win independence, initiate a risky experiment in self-government, and survive in a dangerous world (threatened by predatory British, Spanish, and, later, French, empires) only by uniting the strength of every state into one union. This necessitated compromises with slave states during the founding, most notably in the Constitution.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis believes these concessions were necessary, writing “one could have a nation with slavery, or one could not have a nation.” African-American leader Frederick Douglass saw the utility of the union the founders crafted, compromises included, arguing that, if the states separated, northern antislavery forces could less effectively influence southern slavery.

Washington believed slavery was so divisive that it threatened the nation’s existence, potentially ending any hope of liberty for all Americans. He had good reason to believe this—during his presidency, an antislavery petition signed by Benjamin Franklin provoked much southern outrage.

Washington couldn’t find a satisfactory solution to slavery in life, but he sought to do so upon death. In his will, he ordered that his slaves be freed, the young be taught to read and write and to learn certain trades, and the orphaned and elderly slaves be provided for permanently. He forbade selling any slave “under any pretense whatsoever.”

These were revolutionary acts—educating slaves threatened the entire system. It revealed Washington’s belief that black people could succeed if given the chance. Again, compare this to Thomas Jefferson who once said they were “inferior to whites in endowments both of body and mind.”[2]  Jefferson and other Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, believed the two races couldn’t coexist and that the answer was to recolonize African-Americans abroad. Washington never supported these ideas and his will reveals he envisioned black people thriving alongside whites in America. 

George Washington’s achievements are well known—winning independence, presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and serving as the first president. While we cannot ignore his participation in slavery, we shouldn’t discount his remarkable transformation into someone who wished for its abolition and took steps personally to make things right, becoming the only major founder to free his slaves.

We can acknowledge Washington’s monumental victories for liberty while recognizing his personal struggle with slavery. In this time of national angst, Washington’s story helps us understand how the same country that once held humans in bondage can also be the world’s greatest beacon of freedom.
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[1] Richard Lim is is the co-founder and host of the This American President podcast.
Source for this Article: The George Washington University, History News Network
[2] See also: "Jefferson and Slavery" 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

All Men are Created Equal: America's Defining Creed

Our nation has and continues to be in the throes of a debate and conflict, sometimes violent, over the history and meaning of the phrase in the Declaration of Independence, which declares that, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The author of that language, Thomas Jefferson, is also under attack – both his character and legacy – as well as his image forged and carved into statues and monuments. This Essay, focusing on the words of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass, is written in an effort to address those questions and defend against those assaults, while hopefully providing helpful evidence, answers, and insights, that we might yet embrace and uphold America’s “defining creed.”
 
Read the Essay: http://www.liberty1.org/EQUAL.pdf

Thursday, June 18, 2020

History of Juneteenth

“Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln's authority over the rebellious states was in question. Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began most significantly with:

"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer." 

The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former 'masters' - attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territories. The celebration of June 19th was coined "Juneteenth" and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

A range of activities were provided to entertain the masses, many of which continue in tradition today. Rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self-improvement. Thus, often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. Prayer services were also a major part of these celebrations.

Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as strawberry soda-pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors - the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations...

On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America.”
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See: https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Pox and the Covenant

"Tony Williams tells a rollicking good story about the contagious crisis experienced by Colonial America. The Pox and the Covenant is a superbly nuanced and well-written account of the interactions of human disease and events." -- Howard Markel, MD, PhD, George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine, the University of Michigan, author of When Germs Travel.

"For one hundred years, God had held to his promise, and the colonists had as well. When the first Puritans sailed into Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, weak from the ocean journey, they formed a covenant with each other and with God to establish a city on a hill-a commitment to live uncorrupted lives together or all suffer divine wrath for their collective sin. But now, a century later, the arrival of one doomed ship would put this covenant to its greatest test.

After several days of skirting the North American coast, on April 22, 1721, the HMS Seahorse arrived in Boston from the West Indies, carrying goods, cargo, and, unbeknownst to its crew, a deadly virus...

Boston, the largest city in the colonies, had a population of roughly eleven thousand souls. With such a large number of people, Boston rivaled the cities of mother England, save only for London. Boston was moreover one of the great hubs of the Atlantic trade network. It gathered goods from the farms of the New England hinterland and from smaller cities and ports along the American coast. These commodities were shipped all over the Atlantic while other goods were imported into the city and sent elsewhere. For a virus, a better place to contaminate could hardly be found....

After docking in Boston harbor, a skeleton crew was left on board the Seahorse while the rest of the crew and officers went ashore. At least one of the crew carried an infectious disease, one that would send a city into chaos, and put to its greatest test the covenant between the Puritans and their God. 

Soon, a smallpox epidemic had broken out in Boston, causing hundreds of deaths and panic across the city. The clergy, including the famed Cotton Mather, turned to their standard form of defense against disease: fasting and prayer. But a new theory was also being offered to the public by the scientific world: inoculation. The fierce debate over the right way to combat the tragedy would become a battle between faith and reason, one that would set the city aflame with rage and riot.

The Pox and the Covenant by Tony Williams is a story of well-known figures such as Cotton Mather, James Franklin, and a young Benjamin Franklin struggling to fight for their cause among death and debate-although not always for the side one would expect. In the end, the incredible results of the epidemic and battle would reshape the colonists' view of their destiny, setting for America a new course, a new covenant, and the first drumbeats of the Revolution."

See: https://www.amazon.com/Pox-Covenant-Franklin-Epidemic-Americas/dp/1402260938