Got Burr?

A comedic follow up to Paul’s  post here on Alexander Hamilton.  Alternate history has always fascinated me.  What if Hamilton hadn’t been killed by Burr at that fateful duel on July 11, 1804?  Could he have led a revival of the Federalist Party?  Would he have finally achieved his lifelong ambition of military glory in the War of 1812?  If he had become a national hero in the War of 1812, would I now be blogging about President Hamilton?  So many possibilities snuffed out by the well aimed pistol of the worthless Burr.

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 6:19 am  Comments Off on Got Burr?  
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James Madison on Secession


James Madison in his old age lived through the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833.  He was against nullification and secession, which he saw lurking clearly in the background of the Crisis.  As the author of the Virginia Resolution of 1798 which contended that Congress had no power to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison had his own words thrown back at him, and he took pains in his letters to explain the differences between his Virginia Resolution and the revolution South Carolina was attempting to initiate.  I find his words on secession to be of great interest in light of the battle over the right to secede fought after Madison was long in his grave.  Here is a letter to Nicholas Trist on December 23, 1832 in which Madison makes his position clear.


Montpellier, Decr 23, 1832.

Dr. Sir I have received yours of the 19th, inclosing some of the South Carolina papers. There are in one of them some interesting views of the doctrine of secession; one that had occurred to me, and which for the first time I have seen in print; namely that if one State can at will withdraw from the others, the others can at will withdraw from her, and turn her, nolentem, volentem, out of the union. Until of late, there is not a State that would have abhorred such a doctrine more than South Carolina, or more dreaded an application of it to herself. The same may be said of the doctrine of nullification, which she now preaches as the only faith by which the Union can be saved.

I partake of the wonder that the men you name should view secession in the light mentioned. The essential difference between a free Government and Governments not free, is that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them therefore can have a greater fight to break off from the bargain, than the other or others have to hold them to it. And certainly there is nothing in the Virginia resolutions of –98, adverse to this principle, which is that of common sense and common justice. The fallacy which draws a different conclusion from them lies in confounding a single party, with the parties to the Constitutional compact of the United States. The latter having made the compact may do what they will with it. The former as one only of the parties, owes fidelity to it, till released by consent, or absolved by an intolerable abuse of the power created. In the Virginia Resolutions and Report the plural number, States, is in every instance used where reference is made to the authority which presided over the Government. As I am now known to have drawn those documents, I may say as I do with a distinct recollection, that the distinction was intentional. It was in fact required by the course of reasoning employed on the occasion. The Kentucky resolutions being less guarded have been more easily perverted. The pretext for the liberty taken with those of Virginia is the word respective, prefixed to the “rights” &c to be secured within the States. Could the abuse of the expression have been foreseen or suspected, the form of it would doubtless have been varied. But what can be more consistent with common sense, than that all having the same rights &c, should unite in contending for the security of them to each.

It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers who make the name of Mr. Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them. You have noticed what he says in his letters to Monroe & Carrington Pages 43 & 203, vol. 2,1 with respect to the powers of the old Congress to coerce delinquent States, and his reasons for preferring for the purpose a naval to a military force; and moreover that it was not necessary to find a right to coerce in the Federal Articles, that being inherent in the nature of a compact. It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion; and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by one who understands the subject.

I know nothing of what is passing at Richmond, more than what is seen in the newspapers. You were right in your foresight of the effect of the passages in the late Proclamation. They have proved a leaven for much fermentation there, and created an alarm against the danger of consolidation, balancing that of disunion. I wish with you the Legislature may not seriously injure itself by assuming the high character of mediator. They will certainly do so if they forget that their real influence will be in the inverse ratio of a boastful interposition of it.

If you can fix, and will name the day of your arrival at Orange Court House, we will have a horse there for you; and if you have more baggage than can be otherwise brought than on wheels, we will send such a vehicle for it. Such is the state of the roads produced by the wagons hurrying flour to market, that it may be impossible to send our carriage which would answer both purposes.

Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 6:44 am  Comments (9)  
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Jefferson: Science, Progress and Permanent Revolution

This will be the final post in my series on the political thought of Thomas Jefferson.  We have explored some of the key tenets of his political philosophy, and now we will see how they all fit together to mold what was a very radical vision of society.

In a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, dated March 3, 1818, Jefferson wrote:

When I contemplate the immense advances in sciences and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches.[1] (more…)

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 9:39 pm  Comments Off on Jefferson: Science, Progress and Permanent Revolution  
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The Preamble

From Schoolhouse Rock.  For those preferring a more dramatic, or histrionic, reading:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 5:03 am  Comments Off on The Preamble  
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Alternate Georges

On the birthday of the Father of Our Country it is proper to take a moment and reflect that in all likelihood the United States of America would not exist today but for the leadership shown by George Washington during the Revolution.  The poets Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet explored long ago some of the many different paths the life of Washington might have taken which would have altered our history so profoundly.  We call Washington the Father of Our Country not to honor him, but as a simple statement of fact.

George Washington by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét

Sing hey! For bold George Washington,

That jolly British tar,

King George’s famous admiral

From Hull to Zanzibar!

No–wait a minute–something’s wrong–

George wished to sail the foam.

But, when his mother thought aghast,

Of Georgie shinning up a mast,

Her tears and protests flowed so fast

That George remained at home.

Sing ho! For grave Washington,

The staid Virginia squire,

Who farms his fields and hunts his hounds

And aims at nothing higher!

Stop, stop it’s going wrong again!

George liked to live on farms,

But when the Colonies agreed

They could and should and would be freed,

They called on George to do the deed

And George cried “Shoulder arms!”

Sing ha! For Emperor Washington,

That hero of renown,

Who freed his land from Britain’s rule

To win a golden crown!

No, no, that’s what George might have won

But didn’t for he said,

“There’s not much point about a king,

They’re pretty but they’re apt to sting

And, as for crowns–the heavy thing

Would only hurt my head.”

Sing ho! For our George Washington!

(At last I’ve got it straight.)

The first in war, the first in peace,

The goodly and the great.

But, when you think about him now,

From here to Valley Forge,

Remember this–he might have been

A highly different specimen,

And, where on earth would we be, then?

I’m glad that George was George.

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 5:40 am  Comments Off on Alternate Georges  

Father of the United States Navy


1745 was a busy year in the history of the misnamed British Isles, with Bonnie Prince Charlie doing his best to end the reign of the Hanover Dynasty in England, so I guess it is excusable that no note was taken of the birth date of John Barry in Tacumshane, County Wexford, Ireland. During his childhood John received, along with all the other excellent reasons given to Irish Catholics over the centuries to love Britannia, good reason to look askance at the British when his father was evicted from his poor little farm by their British landlord, and the family went to live in the village of Rosslare. Yet the nameless landlord, completely unintentionally of course, did John a good turn, because it was in Rosslare that young John found his life’s calling: the Sea. Nicholas Barry, his uncle, lived there and was captain of a fishing skiff. John decided to follow in the footsteps of his uncle and seek his fortunes on water.

This was a completely rational choice on the part of John. The British imposed penal laws, summarized by the great Edmund Burke as follows: “For I must do it justice; it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts. It was a machine of wise and deliberate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” Rendered helots in their own land, almost all ambitious Irish Catholic lads and lasses had to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Additionally, for a poor ambitious young man in Europe in the Eighteenth Century, the Sea offered a path to wealth and social advancement. If he was willing to work hard, learn to read, and learn enough math to chart the course of a ship, a poor sailor, with luck, could rise to be captain of a ship one day. Compensation for the crew of a merchant vessel was often based on a share of the profits, with the merchants who bankrolled the vessel usually taking between a half to two-thirds with the remainder being divided among the crew: the greater the rank, the larger the share. An able captain could eventually become a wealthy merchant. His daughters might marry into the aristocracy. His sons might become wealthy bankers and eventually be ennobled if they played their political cards right. Although this path was precluded to Irish Catholics by the anti-Catholic Test Act, a poor sailor in the Royal Navy might end his days as an admiral, and there were always a few admirals in the Royal Navy in the Eighteenth Century who had begun their careers in just such a fashion. However, if the Sea offered opportunities it also had severe risks. Life aboard ship was cramped and unpleasant, with bad food and putrid water tossed in as a garnish. Discipline was often brutal and risk to life and limb was an every day occurence. According to Dr. Samuel Johnson, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” Ports were filled with crippled sailors who eked out a miserable existence with any light work they could get, selling wood carvings and begging. As Lord Nelson noted, the average British sailor, due to a hard life, was dead by forty-five.

Defying all challenges, John flourished at sea. Flying through the ranks of cabin boy, seaman, able seaman and a mate’s rating, he proved himself tough and determined. It also didn’t hurt that he was as strong as a sea-going ox, and grew into a giant of a man, standing six foot and four inches in a time when the average height of an adult male was five feet and five inches. During his career he would suppress three mutinies aboard his ships single handedly, and his great physical strength was a key asset in the very rough world afloat. In 1766 he achieved his dream of becoming a captain and skippered the Barbados with a home port of Philadelphia. It was on the Barbados that he began his habit, that he kept up in peace and war, in having the day start with a reading from the Bible to the crew. Captain Barry fell in love with Phillie, a town where he could freely practice his Catholic faith, and a bustling, prosperous port. Barry specialized in the West Indies trade and enhanced his reputation around town when it was noted that he successfully sailed various ships to and from the Indies in nine profitable voyages. In 1772 he was placed in command of the merchant vessel Peg owned by one of foremost mercantile houses in Philadelphia, and in 1774 he began a life-long collaboration and friendship with Robert Morris, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, and who earned the title Financier of the Revolution by putting his considerable financial skills at the service of his country during the War for Independence. Barry was assigned command of the 200 ton Black Prince in 1774 and in that year set a speed record that endured throughout the Eighteenth Century, traveling 237 miles in a 24 hour period. As he grew in wealth he never forgot his humble origins. Early in his career as a ship captain he joined the Charitable Captains of Ships Club, an organization dedicated to supporting the widows and orphans of sailors. Not only Barry’s financial life prospered but also his personal life. In 1767 he married Mary Clary, a Protestant, at Old Saint Joseph’s Chapel. She converted to the Faith during their marriage and died tragically at 29 in 1774 while John was away at sea. In 1777 he married Sarah Keen Austin. Sally as she was called, also converted to the Faith, and although their marriage was not blessed with children, they joyfully raised two of John’s nephews after his sister Eleanor died. The Barrys attended mass at Old Saint Joseph’s, Old Saint Mary’s and Saint Augustine’s in Philadelphia. (more…)

Published in: on February 18, 2010 at 6:17 am  Comments (3)  
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Jefferson Davis-Birth

Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, a little over six months before the birth of his great adversary Abraham Lincoln, in Christian County Kentucky.  His parents were Samuel and Jane Davis.  He was the youngest of ten children, and, his mother being in her 49th year, his parents gave him the middle name Finis in the expectation, or hope perhaps, that he would be the last of their children.

His father had fought in the Revolution, a fact that Jefferson Davis always took pride in.  The family moved to Louisiana in 1810, and then in 1811 in Mississippi.  With the help of his oldest son Joseph, already an established planter and lawyer in Mississippi, Samuel Davis became a prosperous planter in Mississippi, although in 1820 his fortunes began to decline.

His father made certain that Davis was well-educated by the standards of the day, as will be detailed in a future post on the education of Jefferson Davis.  One anecdote Davis told about his father involved Jefferson running away from school.  His father said that was fine but that he would have to pick cotton with the field hands.  After two days of that Jefferson decided that school wasn’t so bad after all, a conclusion his father intended he would reach.  Davis was shattered when his father died when he was 16, but his eldest brother Joseph quickly became a second father for Jefferson, a fact that Jefferson acknowledge gratefully throughout his life.  The mother of Davis would live until 1845, and he cherished her in life and her memory after death.  Davis, unlike Lincoln, was blessed with a happy home life as a child, and all his life was extremely close to his siblings.

Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 6:20 am  Comments Off on Jefferson Davis-Birth  
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Millard Who?

Time for my annual rant on Presidents’ Day.  I see no reason for a day to honor all presidents.  The great presidents, my personal list includes Washington, Jefferson, Polk, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman and Reagan, are deserving of  honor, and should not be lumped in with bad, mediocre and justly obscure presidents.  One of our worst presidents is also perhaps our most obscure president, Millard Fillmore.  Therefore, on a holiday I dislike, I will write about a President who deserves to have something toxic named after him.

Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800, in Moravia, New York,  the first of the American presidents to be born after the death of George Washington.  At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a cloth maker.  Not wanting to spend his life making cloth, Fillmore attended the New Hope Academy in New Hope, New York for six months in 1819, and began to study law, that never failing route of social advancement for people who are glib but have no other discernible talent.  Admitted to the bar in 1823, he hung out his shingle in East Aurora, New York.   In 1826 he married Abigail Powers who he had met at the New Hope Academy.  They had two children, Millard Powers Fillmore and Mary Abigail Fillmore.  Fillmore prospered as a lawyer and in 1834 he formed a law partnership, Fillmore and Hall, which eventually became one of the most prestigious law firms in western New York.

In 1828 Fillmore took his first step into politics by being elected to the New York state legislature as a member of the anti-Masonic party.  The anti-Masonic party came into being to oppose Freemasonry after the disappearance of a William Morgan in 1826 in Batavia, New York.  Morgan had left the Freemasons and had made it known that he intended to write a book exposing them.  After he disappeared, a public furor erupted, with many people suspecting that Freemasons had murdered Morgan.  The anti-Masonic party was the result, with members vowed to oppose the influence of freemasons in society.  The party grew in strength as it became a vehicle for protests against social and political ills, and waned in strength as anti-Masonry lost its saliency as a driving issue, with most of the members of the party becoming Whigs, opponents of the Democrat Party established by Andrew Jackson. (more…)

Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 6:14 am  Comments (2)  
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The Presidents’ Song

My children were of the cartoon viewing age back in the Ninties, so they and I saw this video a lot.

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 6:21 am  Comments Off on The Presidents’ Song  

The Lincoln We Need

I am a day late to the celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday.  I was back at work for the first time in a week and simply had no time.  But I couldn’t let the event pass without linking to this superb post by Todd Huston at Right Wing News.  While acknowledging Lincoln’s imperfections, Huston demolishes two strands of anti-Lincoln criticism: that he was a racist, and that he was a tyrant.  It’s a fantastic piece that should be read in its entirety.

Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 4:56 pm  Comments Off on The Lincoln We Need  
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