August 27, 1787: George Mason: The Judgment of Heaven

The more I study the Founding Fathers, the greater my respect for their wisdom.  Such an example was on full display at the Constitutional Convention on August 27, 1787, when George Mason of Virginia got up to speak.  Although a slave owner himself, Mason had long recognized what a pernicious evil it was:

This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British Merchants. The British Govt. constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing States alone but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. had slaves been treated as they might have been by the Enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves, as it did by the Tories. He mentioned the dangerous insurrections of the slaves in Greece and Sicily; and the instructions given by Cromwell to the Commissioners sent to Virginia, to arm the servants & slaves, in case other means of obtaining its submission should fail. Maryland & Virginia he said had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain if South Carolina & Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands, and will fill that Country with slaves if they can be got through South Carolina & Georgia. Slavery discourages arts & manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of Whites, who really enrich & strengthen a Country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgement of heaven upon a country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren had from a lust of gain embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the Right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential in every point of view that the Genl. Govt. should have power to prevent the increase of slavery. (more…)

Published in: on August 27, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on August 27, 1787: George Mason: The Judgment of Heaven  
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Thomas Jefferson the Miniseries

A very well done fan made “trailer” for a Thomas Jefferson miniseries, with the trailer consisting of clips from the John Adams miniseries.  Such a miniseries would be challenging.  Jefferson was one of the most complicated of the Founding Fathers, and there is plenty of his legacy to fight about still.  I love the Declaration of Independence, yet I think clearly Alexander Hamilton had the better plan for the economic development of the country.  I agree with Jefferson on his concern about too much federal authority over states, but he loses me with his embrace, prior to his presidency, of nullification. Jefferson spoke and wrote against slavery his entire life, yet he made no plans, as did Washington, to free his slaves after his death.  A man who railed against government debt, he was so profligate in his personal finances that all of his property, including his slaves, had to be sold after his death to pay his debts.  A man who deeply cherished the teachings of Christ, yet denied His divinity.  A man averse to standing armies and war, yet he supported the French Revolution at its bloodiest, and could talk glibly about the blood of patriots watering the tree of liberty, while he never served a day in the Continental Army. (more…)

Published in: on July 9, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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To the Shores of Tripoli

Most Americans are unfamiliar with the First and Second Barbary Wars fought in 1801-1805 and 1815, which is a shame.  They were filled with enough derring do to fill an Errol Flynn movie.  If Mr. Flynn had made a movie set in that period, a great role for him to have played would have been that of Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, the man whose exploit caused the line “To the Shores of Tripoli”, to be inserted in the Marines’ Hymn.

The Barbary Pirates were muslim corsairs who operated out of North African ports, primarily Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers.  Since the 16th century these bandits had been preying upon European shipping, with European nations sometimes fighting them, but often paying them protection money to be left alone.  The young American republic attempted initially to have peaceful relations with the Barbary States controlled by the pirates.  When that proved futile, President Thomas Jefferson decided to fight.  The war was waged on the sea by American naval squadrons.

In 1805 one of the most colorful characters in American history, William Eaton, a former US consul at Tunis, hatched a plan to topple the government of the Barbary State, Tripoli, and reinstall Hamet Caramanli as Pasha of Tripoli.  Assembling a motley force of 500 Greek, Arab and Berber Mercenaries, and 8 Marines at Alexandria, Egypt, he embarked upon this unlikely adventure on March 8, 1805.

Leading the Marines was First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.  Born in the year of his nation’s birth, 1776, O’Bannon was a Virginian and had been a member of the Corps since 1801.  His Marines were the only portion of his force that Eaton could rely upon and  were instrumental in putting down attempted mutinies by some of the mercenaries during the 50 day trek across the Sahara. (more…)

Election of 1800 Aftermath

I hope the aftermath of the current presidential election is not as chaotic as the outcome of the election of 1800.  Initially the outcome of the election was clear-cut enough.  Jefferson defeated Adams, garnering 73 electoral votes to 67 for Adams.  Then the circus began.  When the electoral college met, the Republicans planned that their electors would cast 73 votes for Jefferson and 72 for Aaron Burr.  The reason for this was that under the Constitution as originally drafted, the candidate who received the highest number of electoral votes would be president, and the candidate who came in second would be vice-president.  Each elector could vote for two candidates.  The Republicans bungled the vote, and Burr and Jefferson each received 73 votes!  With a tie the election would be decided in the House of Representatives.

 

Burr, without a doubt the most unscrupulous major political figure in American history, seized the opportunity to attempt to become president instead of Jefferson.  From February 11-17, 1801 the House cast 35 ballots and seemed deadlocked.  Almost all Federalists supported Burr.    Jefferson received the support of 8 states, by majority vote of each state delegation, one state short of the necessary majority.  The stalemate seemed destined to stretch on indefinitely until Alexander Hamilton stepped in.  Hamilton had no love for Jefferson, but he truly despised Burr, his arch rival in New York politics, who he regarded as a dangerous demagogue.  Hamilton convinced enough Federalists to switch their support for Jefferson, with Jefferson becoming president with the votes of ten state delegations, one more than necessary. (more…)

Published in: on November 12, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Election of 1800 Aftermath  
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Marbury v. Madison

A dramatization of the events surrounding the case of Marbury v. Madison.  Part of the Equal Justice Under Law series that ran in 1977 on PBS.

William Marbury was one of the “Midnight Judges” appointed by President Adams in the waning hours of his administration, 16 Federal district judges and 42 justices of the peace, all members of Adams’ Federalist party.  The Senate, still controlled by the Federalists, approved his appointments en masse the next day on March 4, 1801, the same day Thomas Jefferson was sworn in.  Acting Secretary of State John Marshall, who was also the newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, sent out the commissions to be delivered to the newly appointed judges and justices of the peace.  Not all could be delivered prior to Jefferson assuming office, and he ordered Levi Lincoln, Attorney General and Acting Secretary of State pending the arrival of James Madison in Washington, not to deliver the remaining commissions.

Marbury was among the justices of the peace who did not receive their commissions.  He petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus requiring Secretary of State James Madison to give him his commission.

In a 4-0 decision John Marshall, who should have recused himself from this case due to his involvement with the commissions, gave his enemy Jefferson a short term tactical victory and a long term strategic defeat.  He ruled that Marbury had a right to the commission, but that the Supreme Court lacked the legal authority to order Madison to give him the commission.  The Judiciary Act of 1789 had given to the Supreme Court the power to order writs of mandamus.  Marshall found that Congress could not enlarge the original jurisdiction that the Constitution gave to the Supreme Court and that thus this provision in the Judiciary Act was unconstitutional and that the Court lacked the power to grant such a writ as a matter of original jurisdiction.

Thus did the Court grant itself the key power of judicial review, a power nowhere granted in the Constitution, although some members of the Constitutional Convention assumed that the federal judges would have the power to declare null and void an unconstitutional act.  Hamilton argued in Federalist 78 that the Federal courts would have the power of judicial review.

It would be over a half century before the Supreme Court would strike down another act of Congress, in the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sanford.  However, the Court was not reluctant during that period to use judicial review to strike down state statutes that they ruled ran afoul of the Constitution. (more…)

Published in: on September 25, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Marbury v. Madison  
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July 14, 1789: First Bastille Day

 

Thomas Jefferson remained enamored of the French Revolution long after most of the Founding Fathers, sickened by the atrocities of the Revolution, became critics of it.  Jefferson was the American Minister to France at the start of the Revolution, and here is his account of the storming of the Bastille:

 

On the 14th, they send one of their members (Monsieur de Corny, whom we knew in America) to the Hotel des Invalides to ask arms for their Garde Bourgeoise. He was followed by, or he found there, a great mob. The Governor of the Invalids came out and represented the impossibility of his delivering arms without the orders of those from whom he received them.
De Corney advised the people then to retire, retired himself, and the people took possession of the arms. It was remarkable that not only the Invalids themselves made no opposition, but that a body of 5000 foreign troops, encamped within 400 yards, never stirred.
Monsieur de Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of Monsieur de Launai, Governor of the Bastille. They found a great collection of people already before the place, and they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the parapet. The deputation prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor, and in that instant a discharge from the Bastille killed 4. people of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired, the people rushed against the place, and almost in an instant were in possession of a fortification, defended by 100 men, of infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges and had never been taken. How they got in, has as yet been impossible to discover. Those, who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories as to destroy the credit of them all.
They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners and such of the garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lieutenant governor to the Greve (the place of public execution) cut off their heads, and set them through the city in triumph to the Palais royal. (more…)

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Jefferson on the History of the American Revolution

 

On August 10, 1815, Thomas Jefferson set pen to paper to respond to John Adams’ letter to him of July 30, 1815.  Go here to read that letter.  Jefferson was no more optimistic than Adams that a true history of the American Revolution could be written:

 

 

On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask Who shall write it? who can write it? and who ever will be able to write it? nobody; except merely it’s external facts. all it’s councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. these, which are the life and soul of history must for ever be unknown. Botta, as you observe, has put his own speculations and reasonings into the mouths of persons whom he names, but who, you & I know, never made such speeches. in this he has followed the example of the antients, who made their great men deliver long speeches, all of them in the same style, and in that of the author himself. the work is nevertheless a good one, more judicious, more chaste, more classical, and more true than the party diatribe of Marshall. it’s greatest fault is in having taken too much from him. I possessed the work, and often recurred to considerable portions of it, altho’ I never read it through. but a very judicious and well informed neighbor of mine went thro’ it with great attention, and spoke very highly of it. I have said that no member of the old Congress, as far as I knew, made notes of the discussions. I did not know of the speeches you mention of Dickinson and Witherspoon. but on the questions of Independance and on the two articles of Confederation respecting taxes & voting I took minutes of the heads of the arguments. on the first I threw all into one mass, without ascribing to the speakers their respective arguments; pretty much in the manner of Hume’s summary digests of the reasonings in parliament for and against a measure. on the last I stated the heads of arguments used by each speaker. but the whole of my notes on the question of independance does not occupy more than 5. pages, such as of this letter: and on the other questions two such sheets. they have never been communicated to any one. do you know that there exists in MS. the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the Constitutional convention of Philadelphia in 1788.? the whole of every thing said and done there was taken down by mr Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension. I presume that our correspondence has been observed at the post offices, and thus has attracted notice. would you believe that a printer has had the effrontery to propose to me the letting him publish it? these people think they have a right to every thing however secret or sacred.

The last sentence is perhaps a fitting rebuke to those of us looking over the shoulders of Jefferson and Adams as they drafted these private missives.  However, History is not bound by the division of public and private, and men who are at the forefront of great events cannot expect that historians will allow good manners to overcome the necessity to ferret out all available knowledge.

Published in: on July 9, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Jefferson on the History of the American Revolution  
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Jefferson on the Declaration

On May 8, 1825, near the close of his life, in a letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson discussed the Declaration of Independence:

 

Of the paper you mention, purporting to be instructions to the Virginia delegation in Congress, I have no recollection. If it were anything more than a project of some private hand, that is to say, had any such instructions been ever given by the convention, they would appear in the journals, which we possess entire. But with respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. The historical documents which you mention as in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.

Published in: on July 5, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Jefferson on the Declaration  
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March 2, 1807: Congress Prohibits Importation of Slaves

 

One of the last examples of how non-controversial some restrictions on slavery were in the early Republic, the passage of an Act prohibiting of the importation of slaves was passed on March 2, 1807 with the enthusiastic support of President Thomas Jefferson.  The Constitution had prevented Congress from passing such an Act until January 1, 1808, so Congress was acting on the earliest possible date.  In 1794 Congress had already prevented American ships from being outfitted as slavers.  Although prior to the Civil War some pro-slavery fire eaters called for the re-opening of the slave trade, the Confederate Constitution prohibited it.  Quite a few observers at the time thought that the elimination of the importation of slaves would lead to the death of slavery in the South.  More’s the pity that this prediction proved erroneous.  Here is the text of the bill: (more…)

Published in: on March 2, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on March 2, 1807: Congress Prohibits Importation of Slaves  
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Adams v. Jefferson: the Necessity of Government

A debate between Adams and Jefferson from the John Adams mini-series on the necessity of a written constitution.  I am all on the side of Adams.  Putting one’s faith in the good sense and decency of people in general, and being cavalier about political arrangements as to government, is a short route to chaos as History woefully tells us.  Jefferson’s views on this topic were tellingly set forth in a letter to William Smith on November 13, 1787:

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

Jefferson, for a man who did not spend a single day in the Continental Army during the Revolution, was quite free in his talk about bloodshed.  Most of the Founding Fathers, including Adams, viewed the misery and the blood of the Revolution as a regrettable necessity in the setting up of a new nation, and dreaded a repetition of such a conflict.  Not so Jefferson who seemed to view such conflict as a necessary and normal part of a free society.  Fortunately, heads wiser than Jefferson’s helped frame an enduring Constitution.  James Madison, ironically the closest political associate of Jefferson throughout most of Jefferson’s later political career, summed up the necessity of government well in Federalist 51: (more…)

Published in: on November 17, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Adams v. Jefferson: the Necessity of Government  
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