Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Religion and the American Founding

The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute is pleased to announce that its next Seminar for Virginia Secondary School Teachers will be held on Friday,  February 17, 2012 from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm at Prospect Hill near Charlottesville, Virginia.  The topic will be "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic."  One of the best resources for this subject may be found online at the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/  In addition to the online materials, the exhibition with over 200 works of art and artifacts previously toured various locations in the United States.  (The exhibition and related programs are made possible by generous grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts, Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. (Bud) Smith, and the Lilly Endowment Inc.).  As stated on the Library of Congress website:

This exhibition demonstrates that many of the colonies that in 1776 became the United States of America were settled by men and women of deep religious convictions who in the seventeenth century crossed the Atlantic Ocean to practice their faith freely. That the religious intensity of the original settlers would diminish to some extent over time was perhaps to be expected, but new waves of eighteenth century immigrants brought their own religious fervor across the Atlantic and the nation's first major religious revival in the middle of the eighteenth century injected new vigor into American religion. The result was that a religious people rose in rebellion against Great Britain in 1776, and that most American statesmen, when they began to form new governments at the state and national levels, shared the convictions of most of their constituents that religion was, to quote Alexis de Tocqueville's observation, indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. The efforts of the Founders of the American nation to define the role of religious faith in public life and the degree to which it could be supported by public officials that was not inconsistent with the revolutionary imperatives of the equality and freedom of all citizens is the central question which this exhibition explores."

 The Institute's Seminar will explore the topics of "The Role of Religion in the American Revolution," "George Washington and the Hand of Providence," "Jefferson, Madison and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom," and "Thomas Jefferson and Religion."  This continuing education seminar is being offered at no cost (luncheon included) to U.S. Government and U.S. History high school and middle school teachers including, but not limited to, teachers in Albemarle, Amherst, Augusta, Bedford, Campbell, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Nelson, Orange and Richmond Counties.  For early registration, or to receive an agenda, please contact Jody Weierholt, Event Coordinator: jody@wjmi.org.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas with James & Dolley Madison

"Today when we think of Christmas, we think of Christmas trees in houses and town squares, carolers in the snow, and houses decorated with lights and bows. The season of Christmas is a visual feast everywhere you look. At this time of year, visitors often ask our guides how Montpelier would have looked during the Christmas season two centuries ago. The answer is a bit surprising.

Christmas, both the day and the season, was celebrated differently in the Madisons’ time. Many of the Christmas customs we know today did not become popular until the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th; other Christmas traditions were introduced when the Madisons were in retirement. Santa Claus comes from German and Dutch traditions, and St. Nick made his first appearance on a wider stage in America in Washington Irving’s History of New York, published in 1809. The first record we have of a Christmas tree in Virginia isn’t until 1842, in a house in Williamsburg. What, then, was Christmas like for the Madisons? 

Christmas in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was a time for visiting family and friends, hosting or attending large parties, balls, and dinners. In early December 1834, Dolley wrote to her niece Mary with news about what the family members at Montpelier were doing: “Anna & her sisters have gone to a dancing part at Newman’s – they are to keep the Christmas from this time to New Years day.” [note: Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, December 11, 1834, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.] Little more than a year later, a friend writing from Richmond told Dolley that everyone there was still “feasting, dancing & making merry,” despite the cholera epidemic in the city.1

Although no one sent Christmas cards, letters sent at that time of year between friends or family often contained the wishes of the season. Dolley wrote to her friend James Taylor “I offer you many good wishes my kind friend on this mild Christmas day.” 2 Sometimes they sent gifts as well, although these were generally foodstuffs. The 1834 letter from a friend in Richmond that describes the seasonal parties also explains that the author had meant to send a gift – two barrels of oysters – but the barrels arrived late and with the wrong contents – vegetables instead of shellfish! Apparently, some things don’t change all that much.

While Montpelier at Christmas would have lacked most of the current signs of Christmas- trees, bows and ribbons, shining ornaments – the attitudes of the people and their enjoyment of the season would, we hope, seem very familiar. As Dolley wrote to her nieces in 1836, we at Montpelier send our readers “a thousand wishes for your happiness and prosperity on every and many Christmas days to come!” 3  
At Montpelier.org I found this great post on their blog, and trust that they won't mind if I share it with my readers.  It is quoted entirely from:  http://montpelier.org/blog/?p=2567#more-2567

1 Sarah Coles Stevenson to Dolley Payne Madison, December 24, 1834, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
2 Dolley Payne Madison to James Taylor, December 25, 1834, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.
3 Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts and Dolley Payne Madison Cutts, January 2, [1836], Library of Congress, Washington, DC, United States.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Betsy Ross and the Stars & Stripes

“Betsy Ross (Elizabeth Griscom) was born on January 1st, 1752 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   Betsy was brought up a Quaker and educated in Quaker schools. On her marriage to John Ross, an Episcopalian, in 1773, she was disowned by the Society of Friends.  Her husband was killed in 1776 in the Revolutionary War while serving in the militia, and Ross took over the upholstering business he had founded. According to her grandson, William Canby, in a paper presented before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870, Ross was visited in June 1776 by George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross, her late husband's uncle. The story is that they asked her to make a flag for the new nation that would declare its independence the following month. A rough sketch presented to her was redrawn by Washington incorporating her suggestions. Betsy Ross then fashioned the flag in her back parlor—again, according to the legend. She is supposed also to have suggested the use of the five-pointed star rather than the six-pointed one chosen by Washington. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the national flag of the United States.

It is known that Ross made flags for the navy of Pennsylvania, but there is no firm evidence in support of the popular story about the national flag. There is, however, no conflicting testimony or evidence, either, and the story is now indelibly a part of American legend. Ross married Joseph Ashburn in 1777, and, after his death in a British prison in 1782, she was married for a third time, in 1783, to John Claypoole.  She continued the upholstering business, which became very profitable, until 1827, when she turned it over to her daughter. The Philadelphia house in which Betsy Ross lived and from which she ran her upholstery business still stands; it has been restored and is open to the public.” (1)

“Samuel Wetherill was a good friend of Betsy Ross. In fact he and Ross were the last two members of the Free Quaker Meeting House and together shut its doors for the last time in 1834. The Wetherill family oral tradition holds that he visited Betsy shortly after her meeting with the Congressional Committee. She told him what had just transpired. Wetherill, recognizing the historic import of that meeting, asked if he could keep the 5-pointed star which Ross had cut for the committee. She gave it to him. In 1925, the Wetherill family safe was opened and inside was that 5-pointed star. Until recently, that star was exhibited at the Free Quaker Meeting House, a few blocks from the Betsy Ross House. It has since gone missing.” (2) 

In April 2009, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission officially recognized Betsy Ross's contributions with a historic marker in front of her house, stating, “Credited with making the first stars and stripes flag, Ross was a successful upholsterer. She produced flags for the government for over 50 years. As a skilled artisan, Ross represents the many women who supported their families during the Revolution and early Republic.”

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Founding Farmers

Thomas Jefferson considered himself a farmer by profession.  He was continually searching for more progressive ways to work his plantations at Monticello. Jefferson diligently recorded notes about the varieties of vegetables and fruits he experimented with and planted, sowing locations, harvest dates, and weather conditions.  He was always interested in new seed varieties, and soil conservation was a particular passion. Jefferson was zealous about the need for farmers to share innovative ideas, improved crops, and new machinery. He invented a more efficient plow but never patented his design so that other farmers could freely benefit from the idea. 

John Adams’ father was a modest but successful farmer.  When John was young his parents began to worry that he was wasting his gifted intellect. His father asked him at age ten, "What would you do, child?" John answered back, "Be a farmer." The next day John's father took the boy to fields and worked him as hard as any adult. The night after young John came back tired, sore, and covered in dirt, his father asked John, "Well, John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?" His father, hoping he had taught his son a valuable lesson, was surprised by the answer. "I like it very well, Sir."  Although he eventually went on to become a lawyer, John and his wife Abigail cultivated 40 acres of cropland and orchards at their own home and farm, Peacefield, near Boston.

George Washington grew wheat and corn at Mount Vernon, but struggled with the region’s thin topsoil.  He undertook crop rotation and also engaged in numerous experiments to find the best form of fertilizer. He subscribed to a publication titled The Practical Farmer, which advocated the wise use of agricultural by-products and adding organic matter to improve the soil.  After many trials with composting, Washington applied manure, river and creek mud, fish heads, and plaster of paris to his fields with some success.  His devotion to implementing the agricultural innovations of his day was more than just the natural desire of a farmer to improve his yields. He was acutely aware of the need for the new American nation to establish itself in the world, and farming was the first occupation of the country. His commitment to agriculture was expressed in a letter from April 1788:

"Every improvement in husbandry should be gratefully received and peculiarly fostered in this Country, not only as promoting the interest and lessening the labor of the farmer, but as advancing our respectability in a national point of view; for, in the present state of America, our welfare and prosperity depend upon the cultivation of our lands and turning the produce of them to the best advantage."

Today, agriculture continues as a major industry in the United States and the country is a net exporter of food. "As of the last census of agriculture in 2007, there were 2.2 million farms in America.  About 40 percent of the land in the United States is used for agriculture of some form, including livestock grazing. This includes 431.1 million acres of cropland, 396.9 million acres of pasture, and 71.5 million acres of forests. Progress in technology and crop yields has made the United States among the most productive agricultural producers in the world. The United States produces about half of the world's corn and 10 percent of its wheat. It also accounts for 20 percent of the globe's beef, pork, and lamb. With such progress in increasing output and the efficiency of agriculture, food prices for American consumers have had little increase over the past 20 years. Americans spend less on food, as a proportion of their income, than any other nation in the world."[1]

May we ever be grateful for our Founding Farmers and the rich agricultural heritage and blessings we enjoy in this bounteous land.
See also: Andrea Wulf, Founding Gardners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of a Nation (Vintage, 2012).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Equality of Women in America in 1838

Alexis de Tocqueville was an aristocratic Frenchman who came to the U.S. in 1831 (at age 25) and later wrote Democracy in America, a two-volume study of the American people and their political institutions.  In Chapter 12 he wrote his observations concerning American women:

“…in Europe …women [are] nevertheless deprived of some of the greatest attributes of the human species and considered as seductive but imperfect beings.”

“Americans …conduct to women always implies that they suppose them to be virtuous and refined; and such is the respect entertained for the moral freedom of the sex that in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used lest her ear should be offended by an expression.”

“…the Americans can conceive nothing more precious than a woman's honor and nothing which ought so much to be respected as her independence, they hold that no punishment is too severe for the man who deprives her of them against her will.”

“Thus the Americans do not think that man and woman have either the duty or the right to perform the same offices, but they show an equal regard for both their respective parts; and though their lot is different, they consider both of them as beings of equal value.”

“…while they have allowed the social inferiority of woman to continue, they have done all they could to raise her morally and intellectually to the level of man; and in this respect they appear to me to have excellently understood the true principle of democratic improvement …I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position…”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1838), Chapter XII.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Rise of Political Parties

"The reign of party spirit in the United States began with the adoption of [the Constitution] by the Convention. Between this date and that of its ratification by the States the Federal and Anti-Federal parties struggled for supremacy, the former being in favor of a strong central government, the latter favoring the practical independence of the States. The ratification of the Constitution by the States ended this contest. The prominent Anti-Federalists announced their intention of supporting the Constitution, and for several years there was practically but one party in the country. George Washington was the first President elected, the electoral vote in his favor being unanimous. John Adams was chosen for Vice-President. Until about 1824-28, electors were generally chosen by the State legislatures, not by the direct vote of the people, as since that period. The two persons receiving the highest electoral vote became respectively President and Vice-President.

Opposition to the Federal party began in 1790, when Hamilton broached a project for the assumption of State debts by the central government. It grew stronger in 1791, when he proposed to establish a national bank. Jefferson, who had been the first Secretary of State, was now found at the head of a party in open opposition to the administration. This party, though adopting the name of Republicans, advocated the principles of the older Anti-Federalists, claiming that there was a scheme to subvert the State governments and establish a strong central government, and denouncing the Hamilton party as monarchists. Democratic clubs soon after arose, instigated by, and imitating many of the follies of, the Jacobin revolutionists of France. They had the one good effect of introducing political discussion among the masses of the people, and in a few years the Democrats coalesced with the Republicans as a single national party. The Federalists, however, continued in the majority, and in 1792 Washington and Adams were again elected President and Vice-President.

During this second term the power of the Republican party rapidly increased. The acts of the administration were fiercely attacked, and when, at the approach of a new election, Washington announced his intention to retire, a hot political contest arose, which nearly resulted in a Republican victory. Of the electoral votes Adams received seventy-one, and Jefferson sixty-eight, the latter receiving all but two of the Southern votes. The new administration was therefore organized with Adams for President and Jefferson for Vice-President.

The financial condition of the country had now greatly improved. A sound credit was established, funds were provided for the payment of the national debt, and treaties were concluded with the Indians and with several of the European powers, while a very rapid increase in population and in agricultural and commercial wealth had taken place. During the summer of 1800 the seat of government was removed from Philadelphia to Washington, as at that time the centre of the country. The Republican party continued to develop in strength, mainly on account of the passage of laws which tended to strengthen the central government, and which were unfavorably received by the people. The "Alien Law," which empowered the President to order from the country any foreigner whose presence he deemed dangerous to the public safety, and the "Sedition Law," which visited with fine and imprisonment "any false, scandalous, or malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President," were deemed tyrannical measures; while the effort to pass an act establishing a standing army added to the unpopularity of the Federalists. In the election of 1800, therefore, the Republicans were victorious. Jefferson became President, and Aaron Burr, who had prominent control of the Democratic party, was made Vice-President. Jefferson and Burr, indeed, received an equal number of votes, and Congress had to decide between them. With this election the power of the Federal party ceased, and for many years thereafter the "State Rights" Democratic-Republican party continued in the supremacy. The effort to strengthen the central government unduly at the expense of the power of the States had failed, and the Federalists, as a distinct party, gradually vanished from existence."

Hubert H. Bankcroft, ed., The Great Republic By the Master Historians, Vol. II (c. 1900)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vindicating the Founders

The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute's next educational seminar will be on the subject of “Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America based upon the book by Thomas West (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).  The Seminar includes presentations by Tony Williams, Williamsburg Author and Teacher, and Steve Brown, Associate Professor at Auburn University, on the topics of “Slavery & Liberty” and “Property Rights and the Property Requirement for Voting,” respectively.  The seminar is primarily for Virginia middle and high school U.S. Government and U. S. History teachers, and will be held Friday morning, September 16th at Prospect Hill near Charlottesville (for an invitation contact jody@wjmi.org).  There is no cost for teachers to attend.  Following is an excerpt from a review of West's book:

“Thomas West, a political scientist at the University of Dallas, has risen to the challenge with Vindicating the Founders.  What looks like grown-up sophistication by the critics he shows to be childish petulance based on misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

Slavery is the foremost charge in the indictment. The Constitution failed to abolish slavery, indeed compromised with it; and some Founders were actually slave-holders. So how could they believe that all men are created equal? One eminent historian says the Declaration meant merely that "all white men are equal."

Mr. West is able to quote all the Founders strongly denouncing slavery for blacks. Then was their eloquence all for naught? The reductionist view reads their words in the light of progress today: We think slavery is wrong and abolished it. If they did not abolish it, they must not have thought it wrong.

"Naivete" is one excuse for such reasoning, envy for a generation far more accomplished than ours is another. Not only did it make no sense for the Founders to exclude the slave states, from the new union of 1787, which would have allowed a slave Confederacy an unopposed beginning on an equal footing with a free republic—but also, as Mr. West reminds us, the principle of equality was as subversive as it was foundational. While compromising with slavery, the Founders asserted a principle that undermined that very compromise—"condemning [slavery], confining it, and setting in motion the forces that would ultimately destroy it, " in the words of the historian Bernard Bailyn.

Nor was the compromise based on mere amoral calculation. Mr. West points out that the principle of equality itself has two parts that often conflict. One is equal rights; but among those rights is the right of consent to government. The trouble is that through prejudice people may not accord equal rights to others; yet the right of consent belongs just as much to people with prejudice as to the enlightened.

So the principle of equality requires an effort of persuasion, even if it may ultimately fail, as in the period leading up to our Civil War. It was precisely in accord with the principle of equality that the Founders—and later, Abraham Lincoln—made an effort to persuade those opposed to equality for blacks. In doing so they set an example of democratic behavior ignored by their facile critics, who suppose that what seems easy to us must have been easy for them.

Mr. West's book is not confined to the issue of slavery. He also discusses such topics as [property rights], women's rights, poverty and immigration...”  

“Men of Principle”
by: Harvey C. Mansfield
The Wall Street Journal (Minneapolis, MN), November 26, 1997.