I’m sure several of you are shaking your heads, wondering if I got the title wrong. But while American political figures officially declared their independence on July 4, 1776, winning it was another matter. And that came on a hot day in June, instead of a cold day in December.
There’s nothing wrong with your textbooks, of course. Emboldened by George Washington’s ability to maneuver the British out of Boston thanks to positioning his artillery at Dorchester Heights, America’s 2nd Continental Congress did declare their independence in Philadelphia. It’s all grandly captured in David McCullough’s book 1776 as well.
But what the texts often forget, but McCullough doesn’t, is what happened to the Americans after Independence Day. Washington suffered his worst defeat, at the Battle of Long Island. 1776 continues to be a year to forget, as Americans lose Ft. Washington and other key outposts. The army is in full retreat, and it looks bleak.
But while wins at Trenton (the famous attack on the Hessians after Christmas) and against a rear guard at Princeton give Americans a little hope, it’s dashed the following year at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. The British capture the American capital at Philadelphia in 1777. Many in politics want Washington replaced, by either Charles Lee or Horatio Gates.
While the British enjoy the homes and comforts of the City of Brotherly Love, Washington and his men suffer outside the town at Valley Forge. But they don’t just suffer. They train with Lafayette and Von Steuben in the snow, while the British take it easy, and the King’s officers party away. By contrast, the American officers share the miserable conditions with their men.
The next test takes place on June 28 of 1778 at Monmouth Court House (a battle reenacted every year), as the British march across New Jersey. Washington hits General Henry Clinton’s army in broad daylight, out in the open. This will be no holiday ambush, or hitting a small portion of a force. It means attacking British regulars at their full strength.
General Lee, who dislikes the plan, leads it poorly and produces a disorganized retreat. Washington relieves him of command on the spot, and organizes a rally. “Mad Anthony” Wayne, General Stirling, and Henry Knox’s artillery, the goats of Germantown, are ready to withstand an attack by General Charles Cornwallis.
The result is spectacular. Washington’s men stop Cornwallis’ attack cold, a combination of snipers and stiff resolve (and heroic stories like the legendary Molly Pitcher). While America’s cannon rake the enemy, the British guns are off on their timing. As temperatures climb to well over 100 degrees, Washington’s order for his men to leave their coats behind is brilliant. The “by-the-book British” keep the heavy items, and lose hundreds more than the Americans to heat stroke. And it’s clear who has been hard at work, practicing over the winter. Americans lose fewer soldiers in the pitched battle, and hold their ground, as the British leave the region for New York City.
But there’s a final piece that Monmouth battle archaeologists discovered, as seen on the History Channel’s Battlefield Detectives. They found, arguably for the first time, buttons issued with a simple pair of words: U.S. No longer would we see ourselves as New Yorkers first, or North Carolinians first, or Rhode Islanders first. We would be THE United States of America. And that’s a spirit the British could never beat. We’re still united, and can’t be divided.
By: John A. Tures, Professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga; The Blog, The Huffington Post, July 3, 2015
“Fundamentalist Constitutionalism”: Punctuation Marks, Antonin Scalia, And The Farce Of “Originalism”
I have no idea whether Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is heading to the beach this summer now that he has made America safe for religious employers to discriminate against their female employees. Nor do I have any idea whether Danielle Allen’s new book “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality” is on his beach-reading list. But it should be.
You have probably heard about the book and its assertion that there is a significant typo smack in the middle of the Declaration’s most famous part. We read the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with a “.” at the end. It’s not there in the original, according to Prof. Allen. It was added in later versions, as a mistake or perhaps even as a small spot of errant ink. The result, Allen asserts, is a dramatically different meaning to the entire document.
Historians will debate the conclusions Allen has drawn from her detective work, but those conclusions aren’t the reason Scalia ought to read the book. Rather, it is that starting premise about the punctuation that should give him pause (I know, it won’t) because it succinctly puts the lie to the entire enterprise of Constitutional “originalism” upon which Scalia has built his career.
Originalism, briefly put, is a jurisprudence resting on the following wobbly assumptions: the Constitution only has one meaning; that meaning can be known without ambiguity (by those smart enough to read it); all laws ought to be judged against that singular, unchanging meaning. Not too long ago originalism resided on the lunatic fringe of legal thinking, sort of like Ayn Randian economics. Over the last generation it has entered the mainstream, sort of like Ayn Randian economics, and no one has been more responsible for that than Antonin Scalia.
Opponents of originalism have often argued instead that the Constitution needs to be a “living” document, adaptable to a changing society. That view became prominent a century ago as legal thinkers, among them Woodrow Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, tried to reckon with a rapidly changing industrial society. And to these Scalia and his comrades have said that the Constitution is resolutely dead and should be read historically, not in light of contemporary society.
But as the business of the pesky punctuation in the Declaration of Independence reminds us, words can mean different things and can be read in different ways. and even small changes in a sentence can yield different ideas. We know what Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy says, but any high school junior can tell you that it might have any of several meanings. Or all of them. Or none of them.
Pretending that reading a document like the Constitution is a simple, transparent and an entirely objective and neutral task is naïve at best, intellectually dishonest at worst. All acts of reading are necessarily acts of interpretation, and as a consequence there are no objective truths nor single meanings. The most we can do is achieve a best consensus, recognizing that it might change in the future.
Scalia knows all of this, I suspect. I don’t think even in his extraordinary arrogance and self-regard he believes he can know exactly and perfectly what was in the minds of all the delegates who wrote the Constitution. And indeed, whatever one thinks of Scalia as a jurist, his track-record as a historian is shoddy, filled with cherry-picked examples, incomplete understandings and downright risible conclusions. The history Scalia presented as part of his majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller wouldn’t pass muster in my undergraduate seminar.
Scalia’s real goal in promoting “originalism” is to remove Constitutional issues from the realm of political debate altogether and treat them instead as theological dogma.
“Originalists” like Scalia read the Constitution in much the same way that fundamentalist Christians read the Bible. In the world of those conservative Christians, the Bible says what it says, there is no room for any interpretation of it, and the Bible is inerrant. In fact, we might coin a new term, “fundamentalist Constitutionalists,” since there is now a small but growing number of people convinced that the Constitution, like the Bible, may have been written by men but was actually inspired by God.
While this kind of reading may be intellectually indefensible – or downright silly – it does have the advantage of bestowing extraordinary power on those who can claim to possess The Truth, whether huckstering evangelical, tyrannical bishop, or snarky Supreme Court justice.
Ironically, of course, we will look back on “originalism,” or “fundamentalist Constitutionalism,” as being entirely of its political and cultural moment. One hundred years from now, we will see it as engineered by revanchists like Scalia who recoiled at the dramatic social changes of the recent past – civil rights, feminism, gay rights, and more – and thought they could use the Constitution to retreat into a past largely of their own invention. Future scholars might even debate what, exactly, Antonin Scalia meant as they parse his body of writing, and might find that his very words could be subject to multiple readings. That would be the final, most delicious and fitting irony for “originalism.”
By: Steven Conn, Author/Professor, Ohio State; The Huffington Post Blog, July 7, 2014
“Jim DeMint, Constitutional Revisionist”: Deliberate Conflation Of The Declaration Of Independence With The Constitution
RightWingWatch’s Brian Tashman runs across an interview with Jim DeMint in which the Heritage Foundation president and avatar of “constitutional conservatism” utters gibberish about slavery, and charitably suggests he is “confused:”
Heritage Foundation head Jim DeMint appeared on Vocal Point with Jerry Newcombe of Truth In Action Ministries last week, where he insisted that “no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves.”
DeMint, a former US senator from South Carolina, told Newcombe that “the conscience of the American people” and not the federal government was responsible for the end of slavery.
In the interview, DeMint seemed to confuse the US Constitution with the Declaration of Independence and implied that William Wilberforce, a British politician who died almost thirty years before the Civil War, did more to end American slavery than the federal government.
Here’s the relevant portion of the transcript:
Newcombe: What if somebody, let’s say you’re talking with a liberal person and they were to turn around and say, “that Founding Fathers thing worked out really well, look at that Civil War we had eighty years later.”
DeMint: Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.
Jim’s not being “confused” here. His rap is based on a series of palpable falsehoods that are extraordinarily common in the exotic world of “constitutional conservatism:” the deliberate conflation of the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution (this is how they sneak God and “natural rights”–meaning property and fetal rights–into the latter); the idea that the Civil War was about everything other than slavery; and the claim of Lincoln’s legacy, even though the Great Emancipator was in almost every respect a “big government liberal” as compared to the states rights Democrats–DeMint’s ideological and geographical forebears who touted the Constitution even more regularly (and certainly more consistently) than today’s states rights Republicans.
For dessert, DeMint mentions Dred Scott, a hoary dog whistle to the antichoicers who like to compare that decision to Roe v. Wade.
What’s most interesting about hearing DeMint say all this stuff in one big mouthful is that it makes it so abundantly clear the man is engaging in all sorts of revisionism about well-known aspects of American–and constitutional–history. What makes it amusing is that he claims to be an “originalist.” Only if he gets to rewrite history.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, April 9, 2014