American Dialogue

I am really excited about Joseph Ellis’ newest book, American Dialogue.

Like his previous histories, “American Dialogue” follows particular founders into (and not always out of) hard-fought and consequential disputes. But in one key respect this book is a departure: Ellis’s subject is not only the founding era, but also our own, and the “ongoing conversation between past and present.” In chapters labeled “then,” Ellis considers Jefferson’s contemptible views on race, Adams’s premonitions about the rise of an American aristocracy and the emergence of a grossly unequal society, Madison’s belief in the Constitution as a “living document” and Washington’s brand of foreign policy realism. In chapters labeled “now,” he listens for echoes of these ideas in 21st-century America. This, it turns out, is a dispiriting exercise: Mostly what Ellis hears is noise. Our civic dialogue has broken down, Ellis observes, and our “divided America,” contentious in all the wrong ways, is “currently incapable of sustained argument” on any subject — the kind of argument that goes somewhere other than round and round, the kind that yields understanding and possibly, over time, solutions.

Buying. Now!

The Constitutional Amendment That Reinvented Freedom

T.J. Stiles has a powerful essay today on the 14th Amendment in light of its upcoming 150th anniversary.

The 14th Amendment is felt by all of us, every day. If it did not invent freedom, it transformed and strengthened it, codifying a universal definition of individual rights and national identity that has been an example to the world. But the failings of those who wrote it linger on. Many of us still have not internalized the idea that an American can look like anyone in the world. Whoever calls the police on a peaceful, unarmed black or brown person is acting in a long, grim tradition. Complaints about the immigration of Muslims, Latin Americans or people from “shithole countries” restate the original arguments against the 14th as opening the doors to “heathens” and “pagans.” Even debates over the intrusiveness of the federal government and the rights of corporations are rooted in the amendment that forever altered Washington’s role in American life.

Read the rest here.

The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor

The New York Times has an entertaining piece today on Civil War re-enactments.

Despite the obsession with historical detail, there were plenty of re-enactors who brought air mattresses, propane burners, flashlights and jugs of Gatorade. Some camped out with entire families in tow.

There are many hard-core re-enactors — the kind of people who want to know what it felt like to march 25 miles in disintegrating shoes, sleep in ditches and subsist on hardtack and rancid salt pork — who eschew Gettysburg as a mainstream event. But at least one Union unit spent several days marching along highway shoulders to get to this year’s re-enactment, retracing the movements of the Army of the Potomac.

Read the full article here.

NYC Trip

I was recently in New York City for a couple of days for work. I was busy most of the time I was there, but I did manage to sneak in a walk from my hotel near the Flatiron to St. Paul's Chapel a block from the World Trade Center.

St. Paul's Chapel is an Episcopal chapel built in 1766, around the time of the Declaratory Act. It is the oldest surviving church structure in Manhattan, and, according to Wikipedia, "one of the nation's finest examples of Late Georgian church architecture." It's also a National Historic Landmark.

The history of this church is fascinating. I wanted to check it out mainly because it served as the place of worship for Washington on his inauguration day in 1789 but check out the video below for some more of its amazing history.

On my way to St. Paul's, I made a stop in Washington Square Park as well to check out the Washington Square Arch which was built in 1892 to celebrate the centennial of George Washington's inauguration. If you're thinking, gee that looks exactly like the the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, well its design was directly influenced by it. 

A couple of days later I was directing a shoot up state and came across these paintings in the hotel lobby:

The paintings are from John Gould who I had trouble finding much information on. He died in 1996 and seems to have made a series of paintings depicting fanciful scenes of the revolutionary era for the bicentennial. 

TRAVEL: Mt. Rainier National Park

We had an incredible time exploring Mt. Rainier National Park today. What an amazingly beautiful place.

Mt. Rainier National Park was established on March 2, 1899 as the fifth national park in the United States. There are now 60 National Parks across 28 states. I'm really looking forward to reading about John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt and the entire story of the establishment of the National Park system. The whole idea of the National Parks is really inspiring to me and I can't agree more with the below quote from Wallace Stegner.

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
— Wallace Stegner
This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.
— John Muir



Facebook Tags Declaration of Independence as Hate Speech

A few weeks ago, the Liberty County Vindicator, a Texas newspaper, decided that it would be good if Americans read the Declaration of Independence in full.

To make it a little easier to digest that short but formidable historic document, the newspaper broke the Declaration down into 12 small bites and one to post each morning from June 24 to July 4.

The first nine parts posted as scheduled, but part 10, consisting of paragraphs 27-31 of the Declaration, did not appear. Instead, The Vindicator received a notice from Facebook saying that the post “goes against our standards on hate speech.” 

The offending passage of the Declaration reads as follows:

“He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

“He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

“He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Read the full, hilarious, account here.

The Legacy of Monticello's Black First Family

Monticello recently unveiled several new exhibits that underscore the centrality of slavery on the estate.

The exhibit underscores the fact that the Jefferson estate was an epicenter of racial mixing in early Virginia, making it impossible to draw clear lines between black and white. It reminds contemporary Americans that slave owners like the Jeffersons often held their own black children, aunts, uncles and cousins in bondage. And it illustrates how enslaved near-white relations used proximity to privilege to demystify whiteness while taking critical measure of the relatives who owned them.

America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?

The New York Times editorial board examines the 14th Amendment in light of Justice Kennedy's recent retirement.

Another truth soon became self-evident: If America was to survive, it would have to be reborn. That rebirth was embodied — after 80 years and a brutal civil war — in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which together represented a radical recommitment to our first and highest principles. They outlawed slavery, made the newly freed slaves American citizens and guaranteed their right to vote.

The 14th Amendment, in particular, “hit the reset button on American democracy,” as Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, put it recently. It extended the protections in the Bill of Rights, which applied only against the federal government, to cover people in their dealings with the states. Its best known and most litigated provision, Section 1, went even further, guaranteeing for the first time the basic equality of all people, no matter their skin color, station in life or citizenship.