Thoughts on the Boston Massacre

The following was originally posted by me on TBOH’s Facebook page, but I felt like it was something I wanted to archive here as well.


 

On March 5, 1770 in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, frustrations between government and civilians came to a head.

“Redcoats” had been stationed in Boston, lodging in the homes of civilians, in response to the colonials resistance to the Townshend Acts. Many of these redcoats were good men who joined the British army to defend their country or sought to make a living when their prospects otherwise were dim. Many of the colonials were good men who had grown frustrated with what they considered the government’s abuse of power which the redcoats were there to enforce.

That day in March, colonials were harassing the redcoats out of frustration and the redcoats were overwhelmed and feeling cornered. Whether they were confused or just hit a breaking point, the soldiers ended up firing into the crowd and five civilians died. Nine redcoats were arrested. Trying to prove that the colonies could do the right thing and ensure justice, John Adams and Josiah Quincy defended the soldiers in court and were able to get them acquitted.

Over two centuries later, it’s still hard to say who was right and who was wrong. No doubt good men suffered on both sides and both sides had not so good men. To the colonials, even a redcoat who was otherwise a good person was not to be trusted because he was there enforcing laws that were unjust. Either way, the events of that day were dubbed the “Boston Massacre” and contributed greatly to the eventual American Revolution.

Right now in this country we have a portion of our civilians frustrated by government abuses, abuses often occurring at the hands of those they are supposed to be able to count on to “serve and protect.”

Perhaps most police are good people, though civilians get frustrated by their enforcing laws that are unjust or the fact that some abuse their power and seem to get off with mere slaps on the wrist.

Likewise most civilians are good people and wouldn’t harm a police officer. Police officers can’t always determine who might though and distrust civilians just as they themselves are distrusted.

Who is “right”? Maybe everyone, maybe no one. The Boston Massacre was important because it was the result of systemic injustice that reached a boiling point because it was not addressed and fixed earlier. It doesn’t really matter whether the redcoats were justified in shooting that day and it doesn’t really matter if the civilians who died were good men or criminals. To their friends and families it mattered. To the courts it mattered. To society what mattered was that there was a larger problem that needed to be fixed and hadn’t been.

Right now there are major problems with our justice system, problems with being ensured due process or that our constitutional rights are protected. Does it matter to society whether the people involved in certain events are good people or criminals? Whether they mean well or meant to abuse power? Or even who is right? No, not really. It matters to their friends and families, but what matters to society is taking steps to ensure that this is addressed so that more people don’t suffer.

Take off the rose colored glasses. Stop drawing lines in the sand as if everyone on one side is an angel and on the other devils. Start looking at the reasons these issues keep coming up. Look at what we can do to fix the problems in the system itself. Find ways to hold people accountable for their actions regardless of whether they were a uniform or not. Learn from history for once.

Early Elections and the Development of Political Parties

After the recent primary craziness, I’ve seen a lot of comments pertaining to choosing between the lesser of evils among candidates and whether or not third party nominees are worth your vote. I think it’s time to take a look at the history of our voting system and how we got to this point of choosing between Republicans and Democrats.

Some may not realize that our method of electing Presidents has changed a bit over time. I remember the Electoral College being a major topic around the Bush/Gore election and the debate always seemed to be “this is how it’s always been” versus “we need a fairer system.” Not knowing any better, it was easy for me to assume that because we have had the Electoral College from the beginning that we have also had this party system from the beginning. That’s the first thing I want to make clear here, that the electoral college versus popular vote debate is a separate issue from how and why we have two parties dominating our political system.

The Original Constitution

At the founding of this country we did not operate with a party system as we recognize it today. There were political parties (like the Federalists) but that didn’t determine who ran. Being a part of a political party didn’t necessarily mean anything more than just having a label to quickly and easily summarize your beliefs. There were no running mates – the candidate with the most votes became President, the candidate with the second most became Vice President. Each elector had two votes so they could essentially place a vote for both positions. In the event of a tie, the House would choose. If even the House’s vote resulted in a tie, then the Senate became tie breaker. (See Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution to read more.)

In our first Presidential election in 1789, George Washington and John Adams both ran and are considered widely as representing the Federalist party. Washington got the most votes and so was elected President, though you’ll be hard pressed to find anything saying Washington considered himself part of the Federalist party. Adams got the second most and so became Vice President.[1] In the third election, when Washington declined to serve a third term, we saw more variation in the candidates, the main ones being John Adams (Federalist), Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican), Thomas Pinckney (Federalist), and Aaron Burr (Democratic-Republican). It’s not to say these groups didn’t have in mind a specific one of their own for President and another for Vice President, but it was set up in such a way that securing one position didn’t mean that party secured the other. It also means that if they had many candidates from their party running the votes could be split resulting in someone else completely winning. So we see that the parties weren’t really relevant when it came to who could be a candidate and there wasn’t truly a party system as we know it today.

In his Farewell Address, Washington specifically addressed the party system and cautioned against it (emphasis mine):

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

The Twelfth Amendment

As time passed, the political climate of our young country drove more and more of our leaders, even founders themselves, to stick to their parties. Trying to get their candidates in office with the original voting procedure proved problematic and so it seemed imperative to change things.

The Twelfth Amendment held slight changes for the electoral process and was passed by Congress on December 9th, 1803 and then ratified June 15th, 1804. This came primarily as a solution to issues surrounding the 1796 election where Jefferson was able to secure Vice President because the Federalists weren’t united in their voting for Vice and then again in the 1800 election with the Jefferson/Burr tie. It required that one vote be given for the President and one vote be given for Vice President. It also changed how many candidates the House and Senate could choose between when serving as tie breakers. Although it’s been a near thing, the House of Representatives hasn’t actually decided the outcome of an election since 1824. However, it’s important to note that if there was ever enough of a tie that would mean that the lowest population states would have equal power as the highest population states in the election outcome.

Back on topic, the Twelfth Amendment created the party ticket we have come to expect with one person put forth as President and another put forth as Vice President. This is partly because there were concerns that a President from one party and a Vice President from another (as happened with President John Adams and Vice Thomas Jefferson) would result in difficulties working together… though some might contend that is a good thing and in truth the Vice President has limited powers anyway unless the Vice has to take over the role of Presidency for some reason. Perhaps that was the real rub, the idea that their candidate could win President but then by some fluke of poor health, assassination or whatever else the position could end up in the hands of their opponents. It also prevented that pesky problem of votes getting split among a party to their own detriment.

By this time, so soon (relatively) since the warnings of Washington, elections had taken a partisan turn making them eerily similar to what we see today.

One Fish, Two Fish…

Certainly in recent memory the two main parties have been Democrat versus Republican and many seem to feel that it’s inevitable that one of those two are the only possible winners. I wonder if people realize that it has not always been these two or if they think that Democrat versus Republican is just a renaming of the two original groups that seemed to emerge. In fact, we have had Federalist presidents, Anti-Federalist, Democratic-Republican, Democratic, National Republican, Whig, and Republican. While these names sound familiar to each other, the platforms of parties have varied and developed substantially over the years. There have also been other parties that, while not winning a Presidential election, did win electoral votes in many states – parties you’ve probably never heard of like Constitutional Union, People’s/Populist Party, Progressive, States Rights Democratic (“Dixiecrats”), and American Independent.

In truth, we as a people could choose any party we wished and it doesn’t have to be one of the main two. The real upper hand that they have, beyond just the power in general of being incumbents, is the fact that Republicans and Democrats get federal funding for every Presidential election and have since 1976. This involves millions of dollars to each which go to contribution matching and funding of their national conventions, conventions that are run by whatever rules those parties decide on. Though minor party candidates have qualified for this funding before, it’s more difficult for them and some have challenged whether the setup of this funding and the party requirements is even Constitutional.

Have we somehow forgotten, though, that we live in the age of the internet? We are not confined to ignorance and now more than ever any party should have an equal shot if the people have the backbone to vote their conscience rather than continuing to subscribe to “lesser of two evils” and “third parties are wasted votes” mentalities.

Geographical and Cultural Differences

One of the excellent observations made by Washington in his Farewell Address was that:

“In contemplating the causes wch may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern, that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by Geographical discriminations–Northern and Southern–Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavour to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views.

One of the expedients of Party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions & aims of other Districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies & heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render Alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal Affection.”

Isn’t that what we have seen repeatedly in our past? Yet, as Washington adds, “[w]ith slight shades of difference, you have the same Religeon, Manners, Habits & political Principles. You have in a common cause fought & triumphed together–The independence & liberty you possess are the work of joint councils, and joint efforts–of common dangers, sufferings and successes.” Remember this is the same man who welcomed Muslims and who exact beliefs on Christianity remain mysterious. This was not an insistence that we are solely a Christian nation or that we must all agree on controversial topics, but a reminder that our disagreements only divide us so much as we let them. If we managed to learn how to mind our own business and not attempt to control others we might even run out of things to argue about. At least, argue as much about.

[1] http://www.270towin.com/1789_Election/

The Faith of the Founding Fathers, Part II: George Washington

As mentioned previously, I want to show you the true spectrum of beliefs and acceptance of other belief systems during the Revolutionary War. Yes, many of our founding fathers were Christians but that doesn’t negate the wide array of beliefs and opinions they held. If you haven’t read the last post, check out Part I: Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush.

I had originally meant to make each post about two founders, but I got a little sidetracked with this one!

George Washington

I believe Washington came as the greatest surprise to me as the rest I either knew little about or already knew their beliefs. I think legends like that of young George Washington and the cherry tree give us this idea of a man who was quite devout, yet that doesn’t seem to apply to him in the way some would think. I ended up going down quite the rabbit hole of research when I got to him, making a post entirely devoted to him seem appropriate.

There is so much material about Washington and so many opinions, but I came to the conclusion that there are a few quotes which quite aptly summarize his attitudes.

From my readings, Washington regularly attended church and did at different times take Communion. However, in his own writings and speeches you’ll notice that he sticks to words like “God” or “Providence,” acknowledging a supreme being without throwing his support behind a specific denomination or even, really, a specific religion. There is one letter attributed to him containing “Jesus Christ” but it seems to have actually been written by an aide on his behalf and is not Washington’s chosen wording. He supported religion and supported having faith in God, clearly believing in a higher power but without supporting a national religion or manner of religious observance. There is a lot of guesswork where people have claimed one thing or another about him but nothing I’ve read seems conclusive and certainly nothing conclusive from Washington himself.

Washington’s religious beliefs were as much a mystery to others of the time as they are today. Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they thot they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.

I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.”[1]

On Other Beliefs:

Much easier to ascertain is Washington’s thoughts on religious diversity and being open to differences in religious beliefs. He repeatedly spoke in favor of welcoming other faiths, preferring to judge people on how they acted rather than which religion they professed. In 1779 an anonymous writer referred to Washington as:

“…strictly just, vigilant, and generous; an affectionate husband, a faithful friend, a father to the deserving soldiers; gentle in manners, in temper rather reserved; a total stranger to religious prejudices, which have so often excited Christians of one denomination to cut the throats of those of another; in his morals irreproachable; he was never known to exceed the bounds of the most rigid temperance; in a word, all his friends and acquaintance universally allow, that no man ever united in his own person a more perfect alliance of the virtues of a philosopher with the talents of a general” (emphasis added).[2]

In a letter from George Washington to Tench Tilghman regarding the purchase of an indentured servant/slave, he speaks of welcoming any religion or nationality to Mount Vernon. ‘Palatine’ was a term for certain German immigrants and ‘Mahometans’ was referring to Muslims.

“I am informed that a Ship with Palatines is gone up to Baltimore, among whom are a number of Tradesmen. I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner & Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) & you would do me a favor by purchasing one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines. If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect—or they may be Athiests—I woud however prefer middle aged, to young men. and those who have good countenances & good characters on ship board, to others who have neither of these to recommend them—altho, after all, the proof of the pudding must be in the eating.”[3]

In another instance, Washington wrote to the Presbyterian Ministers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire (also called the first Presbytery of the Eastward) in response to a letter they had written which included a complaint that the Magna Carta (Constitution) of the United States ought to have contained “Explicit acknowledgement of the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.”[4] Ever the “old fox” as noted by Jefferson, in his response to them Washington wrote:

“The tribute of thanksgiving which you offer to “the gracious Father of lights” for his inspiration of our public-councils with wisdom and firmness to complete the national constitution, is worthy of men, who, devoted to the pious purposes of religion, desire their accomplishment by such means as advance the temporal happiness of their fellow-men—and, here, I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna-Charta of our country.”[5]

In all his actions and words, Washington seems a man who judged people by their choosing to live a virtuous life and having a sincere set of religious beliefs, not by what those beliefs happened to be.

 


 

[1] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Vol. 1. 2/12/2016. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/800>

[2] Baker, William Spohn, 1824-1897. Early Sketches of George Washington: Reprinted With Biographical And Bibliographical Notes. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott company, 1894. < http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006785149>

[3] “From George Washington to Tench Tilghman, 24 March 1784,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0174 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 1, 1 January 1784 – 17 July 1784, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992, p. 232.

[4] “From George Washington to the Presbyterian Ministers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, 2 November 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0193 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 274–277.

[5] Ibid.

Why bother studying history?

When I was a kid I became interested in genealogy. Some of my most treasured belongings are these surveys my mom and I put together and sent to all of my grandparents asking them to list their parents, grandparents, childhood stories and other family history information. Some of my grandparents didn’t bother, thinking I really wouldn’t be interested in it. The irony is that the one grandparent who took the most time to fill it out with information and stories was also the one who issued this caution: Be careful of looking in the past. You might find a horse thief.

I think sometimes when people talk about studying history or learning about their ancestors they have this mindset where it’s all about bragging rights. They want to find out they were descended from a president or royalty or who knows what else. They have these rose colored glasses on and aren’t so interested in the stories of five generations who lived in poverty but worked hard or maybe the story about the great-great-grandfather who grew up in a poorhouse and was always bitter and mean from such a rough childhood. They don’t want to know about the grandmother whose husband forced her to drink turpentine to cause an abortion because he didn’t want another mouth to feed. These are stories of real life and, yes, a sample of the things I learned when I began to look at my own family’s history. Is it all warm and fuzzy? No, but I don’t regret knowing it. I don’t regret understanding what they went through that made them who they are and eventually led to me. I’m okay with them not being a president. I’m proud to come from stock that endured so much and managed to carry on.

Also when I was a kid I learned about history from my school textbooks and what movies and books I was introduced to. For the most part nobody in my family had an interest in history (though that developed after I became interested and was constantly rattling on about some historical fact or event I’d learned about). That early introduction to history was… flat. Lifeless.

We learned about Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving… but they kinda scanned over the parts about introducing diseases to the Native tribes and just how those tribes were steadily pushed out of their land.

We learned about the American Revolution… but not about the internal struggle of the founding fathers regarding whether or not to rebel. It was portrayed as this simple decision because of taxation without representation and they didn’t really explain the thoughts of the American Loyalists or what was going on in the British parliament.

We learned about the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We didn’t learn that the states still considered themselves separate and many states like Virginia even specifically stated in their ratification of the Constitution that they reserved the right to leave the union of states if they so desired in future.

We learned about slavery… We learned that the slaves were black men, women and children that had been brought over from Africa. We learned that it was the South that owned them and profited from the trade. We learned that the slave-owners were all rich white people and that the South was full of this huge, sprawling plantations with hundreds of slaves each. Of this paragraph, every single sentence is half-truths.

That’s what we have been taught though. A series of half-truths which give us an incomplete big picture and yet that big picture is what most of the nation judges each other by.

Everyone is being cheated of their heritage. Everyone is being cheated of understanding where they are from, why their family ended up where it was, what made their grandparents and great-grandparents the sort of people they were.

Start turning over rocks and looking at information you haven’t looked at before. You might find your own horse thief. You might find sadness and pain in that history. Then again, you might find something else too. You might find out that your ancestors were survivors, facing terrible odds and coming out of it the other side. You might find that they fought for something you hadn’t known they fought for, or that the reasons for it weren’t the reasons you’d thought they were. History isn’t pretty. Never has been, never will be. It is full of the very best and the very worst of people. It is full of atrocities. It is full of hate and pain and loss. It is also full of joy and triumph and kindness. Don’t deprive yourself of the one just because you’ll also find the other.

What sparked your interest in history? Were there topics you were uneasy with reading about or things you hoped not to find? What changed your mind? (Or has it?)

The Faith of the Founding Fathers, Part I: Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush

It can be very easy to generalize the beliefs and opinions of our founding fathers as the culture of the time seems much more simplified than now. Perhaps ironically, that generalization differs depending on who you ask. Some say they were all “Christian” as if that leaves no room whatsoever for variances in beliefs. Some say many or must were Deists in an attempt to separate them from religious belief. Some say that the colonies were intended for the religious freedom of Christians, as if it was only considered acceptable if the beliefs fell within that spectrum. Often we hear about the United States’ “Judeo-Christian heritage.” At this point you get the idea.

What I want to do here is show you the true spectrum of beliefs and acceptance of other belief systems during the Revolutionary War. Yes, many of our founding fathers were Christians but that doesn’t negate the wide array of beliefs and opinions they held. And for that matter, many colonists didn’t even welcome all Christians. Now people often think that different denominations and all doesn’t really matter but back then differences of opinion on theological issues could be a major point of contention. I think this is something that many people could use a reminder of.

If you know of any quotes that would make a good addition, feel free to suggest it in the comments below! (I’ll only use information where citations are available, so if you know that too I appreciate the help.)

Thomas Paine

I couldn’t resist making Paine my first post because he was an unusual character and yet his writing contributed so much to our American Revolution. Paine was scandalous for the time in many ways, daring to challenge conventional thought and unconcerned about whether he made people uncomfortable in the process. His pamphlet Common Sense was instrumental in convincing many colonists of their rights to and the necessity of secession from Great Britain.

His Beliefs: Paine was, to all intents and purposes, a deist though he had been accused by some of being an atheist. He believed in a supreme, heavenly being but refused to subscribe to any one religion. His Age of Reason goes into a great deal of detail on this. To describe himself, Paine wrote:

“I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” [1]

He wrote of Deism by name as well, stating that:

“The only religion that has not been invented, and that has in it every evidence of divine originality, is pure and simple Deism. It must have been the first, and will probably be the last, that man believes.”[2]

On Other Beliefs: Although Paine was content to simply believe in the existence of a creator and in doing right to those around us, he does express that others have “the same right to their belief as I have to mine.”[3] That didn’t mean that those other beliefs were free from his criticism though.

He was especially critical of Christianity:

“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics.”[4]

Some additional quotes from Age of Reason:

“Each of those churches shows certain books, which they call revelation, or the Word of God. The Jews say that their Word of God was given by God to Moses face to face; the Christians say, that their Word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say, that their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of those churches accuses the other of unbelief; and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all.”

“Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.

Each of those churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God. The Jews say, that their word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say, that their word of God came by divine inspiration: and the Turks say, that their word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from Heaven. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.”

“When the Church Mythologists established their system, they collected all the writings they could find, and managed them as they pleased. It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as now appear under the name of the Old and New Testament are in the same state in which those collectors say they found them, or whether they added, altered, abridged, or dressed them up.

Be this as it may, they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made should be the WORD OF GOD, and which should not. They rejected several; they voted others to be doubtful, such as the books called the Apocrypha; and those books which had a majority of votes, were voted to be the word of God. Had they voted otherwise, all the people, since calling themselves Christians, had believed otherwise — for the belief of the one comes from the vote of the other. Who the people were that did all this, we know nothing of; they called themselves by the general name of the Church, and this is all we know of the matter.”

“Some Christians pretend that Christianity was not established by the sword; but of what period of time do they speak? It was impossible that twelve men could begin with the sword; they had not the power; but no sooner were the professors of Christianity sufficiently powerful to employ the sword, than they did so, and the stake and fagot, too; and Mahomet could not do it sooner. By the same spirit that Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant (if the story be true), he would have cut off his head, and the head of his master, had he been able. Besides this, Christianity grounds itself originally upon the Bible, and the Bible was established altogether by the sword, and that in the worst use of it — not to terrify, but to extirpate. The Jews made no converts; they butchered all. The Bible is the sire of the Testament, and both are called the word of God. The Christians read both books; the ministers preach from both books; and this thing called Christianity is made up of both. It is then false to say that Christianity was not established by the sword.

The only sect that has not persecuted are the Quakers; and the only reason that can be given for it is, that they are rather Deists than Christians. They do not believe much about Jesus Christ, and they call the scriptures a dead letter. Had they called them by a worse name, they had been nearer the truth.”

“Nothing that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practised was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before; by the Quakers since; and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.”

Benjamin Rush

Not as well known as some but Rush was a very interesting man. Born in Pennsylvania, he was a skilled physician, wrote the first American textbook on chemistry, served as surgeon-general of the Continental Army and was later a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately for his patients, Rush was an avid supporter of the practice of bleeding. [5]

His Beliefs: Rush was a Presbyterian and wholly supportive of the Christian religion, up to the belief that we should base our public education on the Christian faith and teachings.       

On Other Beliefs: Despite Christianity being his first choice, Rush was not opposed to the followers of other religions. He wrote:

“Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.”

Further, he said:

“It is foreign to my purpose to hint at the arguments which establish the truth of the Christian revelation. My only business is to declare, that all its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society, and the safety and well being of civil government.”[6]

 


 

[1] Paine, Thomas. Age of Reason. http://www.ushistory.org/paine/reason/singlehtml.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/rush.htm

[6] The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush. Edited by Dagobert D. Runes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch18s30.html

The Intent of the Second Amendment

As Abraham Lincoln said, “if you read it on the internet it must be true.”

I dearly hope that at least 99.99% of readers realize immediately that the above is a joke. The sad fact of the matter is that there is a great deal of misinformation on the internet and that includes wrongly attributed quotes. This tendency seems to reach a formidable height when it comes to the second amendment, where everyone and their brother will copy any quote in sight to justify their position.

The debate on whether guns contribute to or prevent crime is a completely separate discussion and while I have opinions enough when it comes to that I won’t be getting into it just now. Right now what I want to do is look at documents from the early days of our republic to see what exactly was intended by our Founding Fathers when it comes to the Second Amendment.

First, let’s look at the full text of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The Bill of Rights

The initial Constitutional amendments that form the Bill of Rights are of a nature which are to protect the rights of individual citizens, not to protect the rights of governments (by plural I mean federal, state, or local). Even if you don’t know the history of what brought about the Bill of Rights, you have only to read through the other amendments added early on to see that the rights of the individual was their concern after already detailing the rights and responsibilities of government in the Constitution itself.

These amendments are something that were debated at length following the writing of the Constitution. Some felt that there was no need for a Bill of Rights because the government had no right to do anything not specifically granted to it by the Constitution. Zachariah Johnson, in Virginia’s state convention regarding ratification of the Constitution, addressed the concern by saying that as things stood “[t]he people are not to be disarmed of their weapons. They are left in full possession of them.”[1] He also objected to making any amendments to the Constitution which were redundant by addressing fundamental rights the people were already known to possess.

Others, like Patrick Henry, felt that specifying a Bill of Rights was imperative to protect the rights of the individual against those who might later attempt to claim such things were not rights at all. This is the foundation of why we have our Bill of Rights – the individual. Yes, the wording of the founders refers to militia because they considered that to be the entirety of the people but the key purpose to specifying the second amendment in the first place is to protect the right of the individual person to keep and bear arms just like it protects the right of the individual to free speech.

In fact, the lack of assurances of individual rights in the Constitution itself was a major concern for many:

“Madison also wrote to Edmund Pendleton, just three days later, noting the dangers of a new constitutional convention, which antifederalists were advocating. The alternative was that Congress would propose a bill of rights: ‘In the mean time the other mode of amendments may be employed to quiet fears of many by supplying those further guards for private rights which can do no harm to the system in the judgments even of its most partial friends.’”[2]

There were concerns among many that the militia would become a select force with those in it having a greater power over the citizens versus a general militia comprised of all citizens. Richard Henry Lee wrote that “to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.”[3]

“A well regulated militia…”

This is the part of the amendment that seems to draw the most controversy so let’s also look at what constituted “militia” in 1791 when the Second Amendment was added. While in the modern day “regulation” is considered as being laws or restrictions, keep in mind that a meaning less often used now refers to something being in good working order, functioning well.

To go a little further back to our days as colonists, the militias were meant to defend the colonies in the absence of the British army. During conflicts like the French and Indian Wars, the colonial militia fought alongside the British army in defense of the colonies and in support of Great Britain’s interests. The militia laws in the colonies at this time “required every able-bodied male citizen to participate and to provide his own arms. Militia control was very localized, often with individual towns having autonomous command systems. Additionally, the colonies placed relatively short training requirements upon their militiamen: as little as four days of training per year.”[4]

Though these laws were in place, as the colonists moved closer to revolution and the British tried to disarm them the colonists began forming their own militia that didn’t report to the colonial governors. These militia belonged to the people and operated based on the wants and needs of the people.

During the American Revolution militia didn’t have the best reputation, for while they had undoubtedly made a difference (Battle of Concord and Lexington) military leaders often lamented their reputation for being unable to stand and face the British as was needed (Battle of Camden). That reputation was so well known that Brigadier General Daniel Morgan was able to use it to his advantage in the Battle of Cowpens, drawing the British into a trap when they assumed that yet again the American militia was running from the battle. The end battle in The Patriot, a Mel Gibson film loosely based on various people and events of the American Revolution, is inspired by that Battle of Cowpens where the character Benjamin Martin proposes that they use the militia’s poor reputation to their advantage. Militia were loosely organized, local men gathering to protect their homes using what weaponry they had, and in the early United States of America they were considered under the control of the state.

The published materials on the history of militias are rather lacking from what I have found and quotes from our Founding Fathers allow for a variety of interpretation. One of the most enlightening documents I came across when researching this topic was actually the Militia Act of 1792. This was the first legislation on a federal level to address how our militias should function since the beginning of the war other than the Constitution’s mentions of who had the authority to call form or organize them. This act went in far more detail than the Constitution and sheds a good deal of light on what the Founders’ envisioned for the organization of our militias. In this act the militia is specified as comprising of every (male) citizen from age 18 to 45 and required that every such citizen arm himself with a musket or firelock, bayonet, cartridges, powder, musket balls and other items to be kept on hand.[5]

As mentioned earlier there were known weaknesses of militia for the defense of the nation and that led Congress to pass the Dick Act in 1903 and the National Defense Act of 1916. These provided for the formation of the National Guard and a centralization of power over them, in turn giving them support and resources from federal funds.[6] These and later acts have fundamentally changed the modern perception of what “militia” means but does not and cannot change what it meant historically.

Tench Coxe, who was a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress from 1788 to 1789, wrote that:

“The militia of these free commonwealths, entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared with any possible army, must be tremendous and irresistible. Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? It is feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American. . . . [T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.”[7]

If we are to assume that “militia” refers only to those bodies organized, supplied and maintained by the government, then why do we have an amendment guaranteeing that the government have access to weapons? Is it not inescapable that governments have access to weaponry? They hardly need a Constitutional amendment to guarantee the right of the government to have weapons. The government doesn’t need protection from itself but rather the individual needs protection from government overreach as is the entire purpose of these other amendments that were added in the same time period. This is a fatal flaw in my estimation to the supposition of some that the right to bear arms refers only to entities like the National Guard.

Conclusion

In the modern day the right to own a gun is considered by many as a privilege granted by government to those who are deemed worthy, subject to certain limitations. However, that was certainly not the view of our Founding Fathers. To them the private ownership of guns by law abiding citizens, barring a religious objection to violence, was not just the right but the responsibility of Americans.

 


 

[1] As quoted in Halbrook, Stephen P. The Founders’ Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms.

[2] Halbrook, Stephen P. The Founders’ Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms. pp. 247-248.

[3] Published as Letter from the Federal Farmer in May 1788. As quoted in Reynolds, Jack. A People Armed and Free: The Truth about the Second Amendment.

[4] Chuck Dougherty, The Minutemen, the National Guard and the Private Militia Movement:Will the Real Militia Please Stand Up? , 28 John Marshall Law Review 959, 962-970 (Summer 1995) (195 footnotes). Excerpt found online at http://academic.udayton.edu/health/syllabi/Bioterrorism/8Military/milita01.htm

[5] The Militia Act of 1792, Passed May 8, 1792, providing federal standards for the organization of the Militia. Retrieved from http://www.constitution.org/mil/mil_act_1792.htm

[6] Romano, John F. “State militias and the United States: changed responsibilites for a new era.” Air Force Law Review Winter 2005: 233+. General OneFile. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

[7] Published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on February 20, 1788. As quoted in Halbrook, Stephen P. The Founders’ Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms.

 

Freedom or Fear?

When the Europeans came to the New World they brought with them civilization. A funny word because essentially what it means is “our way of life is the right way and you will comply or we will force you because we are right and your differences cannot be tolerated.” The native American tribes had their own religious beliefs, some of which were not far from Christianity but different enough that it was a threat. So over years it was stamped out. Only Christianity could be tolerated among the natives because any other belief is a threat. Fear of their differences won out, even when it was among tribes they were allied with.

I remember when I was about nine years old reading a book called the Witch of Blackbird Pond. That book was one of my favorites and even as I grew older I’d still occasionally read it. It was set in the late 1600s in New England and there was a character named Hannah Tupper who was an elderly Quaker woman that lived on her own. She was suspected of being a “witch” essentially because she didn’t conform to the social norm of her community. Her greatest “sin” was in being a Quaker, a variation of Protestant faith that emphasized the relationship between a person and God rather than putting faith in a central church. To the Puritans of New England this was abhorrent, a threat to them and their faith. They had both been persecuted in Europe but when the shoe was on the other foot the Puritans had no problem persecuting the Quakers because they allowed their fear to rule them.

Around the late 1700s and early 1800s there was discussion about Islam. Many of the slaves brought into the country followed that faith and this required some careful thought on the part of those Christians already established here. Some founding fathers were opposed but many including George Washington actually either found merit in the Muslim teachings or at the very least supported their freedom to continuing practicing that faith. After all, had we not just fought a war for freedom, to create a country where we could have differences but still work together?

Into the 1800s, forgetting how we had worked together to gain independence, the divisions in the country once again began to fester. Tariffs unfairly targeting certain sections of the country, no matter that we had objected against unfair taxation practices from King George. It festered and it festered and when things came to a head with secession fear was once again used to control the populace. The Union, as Lincoln admitted, was terrified of losing the tax revenue from the South if they successfully seceded since they had been financially supporting the majority of the federal government as well as subsidies to many industries that didn’t wish to take a financial hit (the early days of our crony capitalism). The South was afraid of losing their autonomy as they lost more and more power within the government while their share of the taxes seemed to only get higher. For some there was a fear of abolition, though that was far from the only fear. In that war, terrorizing others became a favorite tool. Rarely did the Confederate armies attempt to cross into the Union but in the South civilians, both free and slave, were being targeted by the Union armies. All food was stolen, homes burned to the ground, women were raped, black men regardless of whether they were free or slave were forced into leaving and joining the Union army, graves of the newly dead were desecrated on the off chance that civilians might be attempting to hide supplies. Fear and destruction were the tools to obtain compliance.

Following the war came a period known as Reconstruction which is somewhat glossed over by the history classes. Immediately after abolition of slavery the southern legislatures had passed laws of their own volition, modeled after laws in the north, in order to make sure the newly freed would have no trouble with their rights to travel freely, etc. However, soon after more and more started migrating from the north to buy up land and take political power. There began to be laws and policies meant to divide the races, to keep everyone as separated as possible to keep the south weak and ensure the northerners maintained control. Fear was the order of the day. Whites, fear blacks. Blacks, fear whites. Worry about each other and don’t look over here at what we are doing. The racial tensions from that still rock us to this day.

Over the next few decades the world continued to turn and life went on. Technology was developing quickly and there was so much going on in the world. Wars happened, as they always do.

Fast forward to World War II and the Nazis were quickly gaining control in Europe. We knew Jews were being persecuted but that wasn’t on our doorstep and it was easier to say we didn’t want them here. After all, they had money. They could figure something out and it wasn’t our problem. Besides, we were just coming out of the Great Depression so we really didn’t have the resources to be helping foreigners… If millions died, well, we had to protect our own first. Why didn’t the Jews do more to stand up to the Nazis if it really was so terrible? And there could have been Nazi agents that snuck in with them had we accepted the refugees!

We helped our allies from a ‘safe’ distance but that sense of safety wasn’t to last. Pearl Harbor happened and our fears skyrocketed. We had so many Japanese immigrants already, what if they turned on us too? If they didn’t agree with what the Japanese had done to us, why weren’t they doing more to speak out against it? Keeping our borders safe and preserving our culture was the most important thing, so we rounded up all the Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps to make sure they couldn’t act against us. Though, if they wanted to serve in our military we would let the young men out and arm them with guns and planes to go into battle. The women, children and elderly though? They were scary. They needed to stay in the camps so we could feel safe.

Now, in 2015, we have forgotten the threat of the Native American faiths, the Quakers and other dissenting Protestant faiths, the Japanese… but some fears we still cling to. Why? Are we better people for allowing our fears to rule us?

Yes, we are told to fear the Syrian refugees. We are told we have enough economic troubles as it is, that these are Muslims who hate us, that they could do something else and don’t need to come here, that there could be agents of ISIS among them. If they truly oppose ISIS, why haven’t they done a better job of standing up to ISIS?

My question is, “Why are a people who claim to cherish freedom so quick to cling to fear?”

Exploring Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation”

There are some things that I suppose I take for granted knowing about and just assume most Americans know it as well. Yeah, I’ve been told what happens when we assume. I had a conversation the other day with a friend and to make a long story short the topic of “separation of church and state” came up while we were talking and it made me realize just how common it is for our children to go through a K-12 education then often 4 more years of a college education and at the end of it still take for granted that these things we hear everyone reference must be accurate and in context.

Even more rare than those who know the origin of this phrase is those who have actually read the letter that prompted it. Are you lost? Read on and I’ll explain.

First and foremost you have to understand that Great Britain had long had a state religion. First Catholicism, then the protestant Church of England, then back to Catholicism, then protestant… ANYWAY, if you weren’t a member of the religious group in control at that particular moment you might face prejudice or worse over your beliefs. This part is fairly straight forward and most people (I think? I hope?) are familiar with this as the reason that some early American colonists traveled to the New World.

Due to these experiences and knowledge of their own history, those citizens of the newly formed United States of America were cautious about allowing a state religion that might interfere with their freedom to pursue their own religious beliefs in their day to day lives. This is NOT to say they wanted the government to be completely separate from religion but rather than they didn’t want the government to mandate that only one set of religious beliefs were acceptable under the law.

Now the Danbury Baptist Association was a group of representatives of Baptist churches in Connecticut and New York. In their area they were vastly outnumbered by Congregationalists and the laws had been interpreted in practice as setting up the Congregationalist views as having the government’s support. This had them concerned — hadn’t they just fought a war over freedom, only to have it once again threatened? With this in mind they wrote a letter to the recently elected President Thomas Jefferson. The key paragraph of their letter read as follows:

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour: But Sir, our constitution of goverment is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our goverment, At the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, & such still are; that religion is consider’d as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expence of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistant with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondred at therefore; if those, who seek after power & gain under the pretence of goverment & Religion should reproach their fellow men—should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ. (1)

I believe it’s important to read the letter of the Danbury Baptist Association first because it gives that background for understanding what exactly Jefferson is responding to. Yes, Thomas Jefferson’s response is the entire basis of the “wall of separation between church and state.” It is not a phrase in our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, in a law passed by Congress and then signed into law by a president. It is just personal correspondence of a newly elected president who helped with the formation of this country and therefore has insight into the intentions of those founders.

In his response, Jefferson wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. (2)

That “wall of separation” refers to how our founding fathers meant to directly prevent mandates that you must adhere to a certain religion or that you can’t exercise freely the religion you’ve chosen for yourself. It doesn’t mean that you can’t bring up God in government, it doesn’t mean that you must bring up God in government. It means that citizens are free to believe whatever they want, worship in accordance to those beliefs, and acknowledge those beliefs freely.

Too often people hear about the separation of church and state and think that means we can’t have a shred of religious anything anywhere near a government building or mentioned in government papers or whatever else. No, all it means is exactly what the First Amendment states, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That’s it! The early United States did plenty that supported religion and churches so to say that the founding fathers didn’t intend any overlap whatsoever, or in the words of the Supreme Court that this wall of church and state “must be kept high and impregnable,” is preposterous. That’s plan and simple not how the young nation was treating religion. So for all that is holy (in whatever your religious beliefs are), stop reading more into it than that. It’s not there except in modern interpretations.

 

(1) https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/danbury-baptist-association

(2) http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/jefferson-s-letter-to-the-danbury-baptists