Farewell, James Marion Sims … And Hello, Kim Jong-un

When is it appropriate for us to engage in a public commemoration? Most would consider doing so when the honoree is a person, an event, or an idea that makes a permanent impact on society.

For instance, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC memorializes a suitable person. Local towns’ fireworks displays on Independence Day are worthy events. And the Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, is an exemplar of an appropriate idea.

But there are times when the progression of history modifies our perceptions about people, places, and ideas. When that occurs, permanent commemorations may become socially awkward, and may even be removed from view.

Consider, for example, last month’s decision by the City of New York to remove a statue of Dr. James Marion Sims from Central Park. The physician had been memorialized as the father of modern gynecology.

But there was a dark side to his fame. Prior to the American Civil War, Dr. Sims perfected his surgical skills by experimenting on human slaves without using anesthesia. In response to public protests, government officials in New York City decided to move the statue to his gravesite, and to present it in historical context there.

When the statue was first erected in the 1890s, Dr. Sims’ honorees could not anticipate the day when public opinion turned against his legacy. In other situations, though, the obsolescence of a commemoration is relatively foreseeable.

For instance, consider the commemorative coin that the White House of the United States recently issued in advance of a scheduled meeting between the American President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It portrays the two men in a head-to-head pose, and even refers to the latter as Supreme Leader.

Some commemorations, like the Sims statue, survive for more than a century. But the memorial coin immediately became a relic as soon as President Trump cancelled the meeting.

From large statues to small coins, our memorials are designed to remain in place forever. Nevertheless, their continuing presence is subject to changes in public opinion and the tides of history.

The Key to Understanding the Second Amendment is its Curious Preamble

In the wake of another public school massacre in the United States, the debate rages anew over the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Many citizens persist in the belief that the Amendment’s protection of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is sacrosanct. Others insist that the Amendment is an obsolete relic of an earlier era, and call for its repeal.

Relatively few on either side of the debate, though, examine the curious preamble to the Second Amendment. In its entirety, the Amendment declares that:

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.

So what is the meaning of the word Militia? And why did the Founding Fathers believe that it is necessary to sustain a free nation? If that belief is still valid, then it may be reasonable to conclude that the right to keep and bear Arms may also remain valid.

Merriam-Webster defines Militia as “a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency.” In colonial times, the famed Minute Men of Massachusetts, who were roused to action by Paul Revere, were members of a Militia. And in modern times, the National Guard plays a similar goal.

At the time of the writing of the Constitution and its first ten Amendments, the citizens of the United States were living under a brief set of thirteen Articles of Confederation. Most of the powers of today’s federal government were exercised by the individual states, and there was no permanent federal Army or Navy.

Instead, according to Article VII of the Articles, “… land forces (would be) raised by any State for the common defense …” The States relied on Militias, akin to today’s National Guard units, to form such forces.

By and large, the citizen members of the Militias were responsible for arming themselves. At times when large numbers of men were needed, self-armed civilians with no prior Militia experience were expected to volunteer for military service. Thus, Militias were indeed necessary to the security of the United States, and the right of citizens to keep and bear Arms was indeed necessary for the functioning of Militias.

Today, though, the federal government of the United States relies on a permanent array of military forces (i.e. the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) to maintain the security of our free nation. Although a National Guard is available to be called in times of emergency, its members are not expected to arm themselves. Furthermore, self-armed civilians no longer join the National Guard at such times.

So is the Second Amendment still valid? Some contemporary commentators assert that the obsolescence of the preamble renders the entire Amendment obsolete. Others insist that the preamble is simply a dated introduction to a timeless personal right.

Nevertheless, individuals on both sides of the debate might agree that the Founding Fathers’ motivation for establishing the right to keep and bear Arms lies in its curious preamble. And if we can agree on the Fathers’ original motivation, we might then be able to agree on how to apply their perspective to our contemporary circumstances.

What Would Robert E. Lee Do?

As the deadly debate continues over the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Charlottesville, a question comes to mind. If Lee were alive today, what would he do?

The answer may surprise individuals on both sides of the issue. Based on his own writings and actions, he undoubtedly would have recommended the immediate removal of his statue.

After Lee’s surrender to Union General U.S. Grant to end the Civil War, he remained a distinguished public figure as the President of Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee University. He repeatedly stated that public statues of Confederate leaders would “keep open the sores of war …”

Lee’s opinion of slavery may also be surprising. Well before the start of the Civil War, he declared that “in this enlightened age … slavery as an institution … is a moral and political evil in any Country.”

And after the war, when many supporters of the defeated Confederacy supported the continuation of violent resistance, Lee urged reconciliation:

It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion.

So what should we make of Robert E. Lee? One might argue that he was a traitor to the United States who engaged in armed rebellion against his own nation, and whom Charlottesville never should have honored with a military statue in the first place.

And yet one can’t argue a simple fact of history. Based on his own words, Lee would have been the first person to pull his statue down.

The Name Game

Here is a sports trivia question for you! What is the oldest rivalry in the history of American football?

If you answered Harvard vs. Yale, an annual match that is now simply known as The Game, you are not correct. Two years before the Bulldogs played their first game against the Crimson in 1875, they faced the Princeton Tigers. And they’ve been squaring off ever since.

Furthermore, the two universities have never restricted their differences to the football field. Earlier this month, for instance, Yale announced that it would bow to the demands of protestors and change the name of Calhoun College. According to many of its alumni and students, John Calhoun, a Yale graduate who aggressively defended the practice of human slavery prior to the American Civil War, is now an embarrassment to modern sensibilities.

Shortly after Yale announced this decision, protestors at Princeton asked their own university to reconsider its decision to maintain the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson, a Princeton graduate who went on to serve as University President and then as the President of the United States, was an avowed racist who supported many policies that now strike us as discriminatory and bigoted.

Princeton’s response? It’s keeping the Wilson name. Its Director of Media Relations flatly stated that “Wilson’s legacy has been fully addressed by the trustees and will not be reopened.” He continued:

“Princeton’s trustees issued a report that candidly acknowledged Wilson’s views and actions with regard to race, but also recognized Wilson’s many and transformative positive contributions to the University, the nation and the world. Wilson’s legacy on our campus and beyond is very different from Calhoun’s legacy in this country and at Yale, and that led to different outcomes in applying similar principles …”

Is Princeton’s Director correct? On the one hand, it’s true that Wilson and Calhoun left very different legacies to the American nation. After all, one served as the 20th century President who led the United States into the First World War, while the other served as a Senator and Vice President during the 19th century.

Furthermore, while Wilson’s Fourteen Points For Peace are still considered an iconic work of diplomacy, Calhoun produced no policy or philosophy of similarly enduring value.

And yet the protestors aren’t denying or disparaging the lasting legacy of Woodrow Wilson. They simply believe that the naming rights of a distinguished Ivy League institution shouldn’t be granted to an unreconstituted racist. Apparently, Yale concurs with this belief.

What do you think? Do you support Yale or Princeton? Should the names of racists continue to be maintained on eminent institutions of knowledge, or should they be removed? Is it possible for an individual’s history of professional accomplishment to outweigh his attitudes of extreme racism?

Yale and Princeton have lined up on opposing sides of this political and moral football. And unlike the outcome of one of their gridiron games, the outcome of this particular face-off may impact the universities for generations.

The Presidential Century

The new Presidential ratings are here! After polling American historians, the political wonks at C-SPAN have ranked the 43 previous leaders of the United States from first to last.

And the results? Their Top Three selections, as expected, are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All of these leaders triumphed in massive wars that saved the American nation and forged its global role for generations into the future.

Other choices are interesting in a quirky sort of way. Two of the top four Presidents, for instance, are from a single family: the Roosevelt clan. Barack Obama is ranked 12th, placing well in front of the 18th ranked Andrew Jackson, whose positions are believed by many to have “epitomized racist 19th century presidential policies.” And George W. Bush is ranked 33rd, significantly behind the 28th ranked Richard Nixon, the only President in American history who resigned in disgrace.

The most ironic result of all may be that the worst two Presidential administrations in American history were bisected by the term of the best one. Andrew Johnson, who followed Abraham Lincoln and who was impeached after botching the post Civil War Reconstruction process, is ranked the second worst ever. And James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln and who watched passively as the nation slid into its Civil War, is at the bottom.

Are there any unexpected results? Well, yes, there is indeed a surprise. Seven of the top ten Presidents served in the 20th century. And to the chagrin of political partisans, these seven were almost perfectly dispersed across party lines, with four serving as Democrats and three as Republicans.

Furthermore, a stunning five of the top ten Presidents served in an uninterrupted string that began with the 1932 election and ended with the 1968 contest. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson led the United States in succession through this pivotal period of American history.

This is, without doubt, a major reason why the United States shaped the 1900s into a time that Henry Luce called The American Century. An unbroken 36 year streak of superb leadership led the nation in an era of unparalleled prosperity and strength.

The results of the C-SPAN poll testify to the crucial role that a successful (or unsuccessful) Presidency plays in the fate of the nation. It’s a key factor that has defined America’s past, and it will continue to serve as a driving force that determines its future.

Trump Speaks To Lincoln

Did you know that Donald Trump took the Presidential oath of office while grasping two bibles? In order to honor his family, he held his mother’s bible. And to signal his admiration for our sixteenth President, he simultaneously held Abraham Lincoln’s bible.

Considering this gesture, it may be instructive to compare Trump’s inaugural speech to Lincoln’s pair of inaugural addresses. And what better way to conclude this year’s surreal political campaign than by imagining a conversation between the two men on the morning of the Trump inauguration?

Except for a few brief transitional phrases, all of the following text has been copied verbatim from these three actual speeches. We may never enjoy a better chance to eavesdrop on a conversation between these two Presidents …

ABE: Good morning, Don.

DON: Hello, Abe. Would you mind if I take the oath of office on your bible today?

ABE: No, of course not. In fact, I’d be honored. Many different and greatly distinguished Presidents have in succession administered the executive branch of the Government. It’s your turn now, and if my bible can help you establish a peaceful solution of the national troubles and the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections, you’re welcome to it.

DON: Actually, Abe, I wouldn’t call our recent Presidents “greatly distinguished.” For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed.

The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. When I address the people today, I intend to tell them that “their victories have not been your victories, and their triumphs have not been your triumphs.” While they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

ABE: Really, Don? That sounds a little harsh to me. But sometimes a President must reassure the people that “the Government will not assail you.” I know that’s not easy when apprehension seems to exist among the people that their property and their peace and personal security are endangered. But there has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.

DON: No reasonable cause, Abe? I disagree. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities. Rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation. An education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge. And the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

ABE: Good lord, Don! Is life really that bad in the 21st century? Or is there any possibility that portions of these ills have no real existence?

DON: I don’t exaggerate, Abe. For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, and subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own, and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.

ABE: In that case, Don, you’ll need to unite the people to solve these problems. I hope you’re working hard to pull the entire world together.

Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them.

A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our world can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.

DON: Pull the world together, Abe? I don’t think so. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

ABE: You can’t declare war against the world forever, Don. Suppose you go to war. You can not fight always. And when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will yet touch the better angels of our nature.

DON: I’m no angel, Abe. And my government officials won’t govern like angels. We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American. After all, it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.

ABE: I governed the nation differently, Don. With malice toward none, with charity for all, to bind up our wounds, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. That was my vision for governing the United States of America.

DON: Not my administration, Abe. We will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And yes, we will make America great again.

That’s my vision, Abe. Thanks for the Bible.

Clinton Won

I bet you’re under the impression that Donald Trump just won the election for the Presidency of the United States, aren’t you?

Well, you are partially correct. He did indeed win the electoral vote, but Hillary Clinton appears to have won the popular vote. Although the state registrars of voters are still tabulating the final results, it appears that the number of Americans who cast votes for her will exceed those who voted for Mr. Trump by well over 200,000 citizens.

So how could she have lost the presidency? Well, the popular vote totals are tabulated by state and converted into electoral votes. And then, with only a couple of tiny exceptions, each state is awarded to a candidate on a winner-take-all basis. Popular vote winners can thus be electoral vote losers.

Still confused? Here’s a hypothetical example to help clarify the situation. Let’s assume that one candidate wins 49 of 50 states by just a few votes per state. But let’s assume that the other candidate wins a single state — perhaps the tiny state of Rhode Island — by 100,000 votes.

The first candidate would win the Presidency in a landslide by securing most or all of the electoral votes in every state but Rhode Island. But the second candidate would receive almost 100,000 more total votes.

This is actually the second time in five Presidential elections that the popular vote winner lost the electoral vote and the election. Al Gore won more individual votes than George Bush in 2000, but was unable to claim the presidency.

So why did the Founding Fathers of the United States saddle their nation with such a bizarre election method? Why didn’t they simply stipulate that the winner of the popular vote will always become President?

Ironically, they distrusted the will of the people to make responsible decisions. They were afraid that the people would get swept away by populist rhetoric and elect a dangerous demagogue. And so they inserted an undemocratic interim step into the election process in an attempt to minimize the possibility of a catastrophic popular choice.

In hindsight, it’s perfectly fair to criticize the mechanism of the electoral vote as a method that was crafted by America’s elite Founding Fathers to thwart the popular will. But imagine the astonishment of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson if they could learn that the most populist American presidential candidate in history owes his election to their elitist, undemocratic, non-populist mechanism.

Roger Williams’ Vote

Imagine that Roger Williams comes alive this week, and that he walks into an American voting booth. Whom would he vote for?

It’s a strange question, isn’t it? After all, most Americans have never heard of Roger Williams. And yet Williams is one of the greatest heroes in colonial American history.

In fact, among the fifty states of the United States, only one was founded by an individual who ventured through the wilderness as a solitary figure and then single-handedly established a home in the name of liberty and freedom. That state was Rhode Island, and that man was Roger Williams.

Williams was initially a clergyman in the town of Boston, a theocracy that was ruled by the same Church government that later presided over the infamous Salem witch trials. Like today’s rulers in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Boston’s religious authorities simultaneously maintained governmental authority, and rejected the concept of a Separation between Church and State.

So how did a clergyman end up in the wilderness? He was banished by his own Church, and thus by the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for repeatedly questioning religious doctrine. One of his major concerns involved the Church’s willingness to imprison residents for the crime of failing to attend full-day religious services every Sunday.

Williams didn’t question the practice of full-day weekly services per se. But he did ask whether it was wise for an authoritarian Church — or any authoritarian government entity, for that matter — to mandate Church attendance.

Of course, he did acknowledge that such mandates, when accompanied by threats of imprisonment, would prompt compliance with the behavioral expectations of religious leaders. And yet, he asked, would the punitive mandates encourage individuals to embrace the spiritual beliefs of the religion itself?

In retrospect, the argument represented a very early colonial version of contemporary debates over activities like abortion and gay marriage. Today, some leaders argue for legislation that explicitly legalizes such activities, while others argue to outlaw them.

Meanwhile, some libertarians oppose these activities in principle, but believe that the only sustainable way to win support for their position is through persuasive dialogue and not through authoritarian criminalization.

Roger Williams was such a libertarian. No, he wasn’t an advocate of gay marriage or pro-choice politics; he lived several centuries before such issues exploded in our political consciousness. But he firmly believed that it was inherently wrong for authoritarian governments to rule by declaring their opponents to be morally bad, and by criminalizing and punishing them.

So, if Williams were alive today, whom would he vote for? Naturally, that’s impossible to say with any certainty. After all, he may have been so amazed at the sight of a digital voting booth that he may have been unable to hit the right screen icons!

Nevertheless, it’s always interesting to ponder how our historical heroes may have responded to the challenges that we face today. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that Williams might have held very strong opinions about the candidates that are now running for the American presidency.

Animals And Monsters

Have you ever noticed how many American states and regions are associated in the popular imagination with animals? Southern Florida, for instance, has the dolphin. Maryland has the oriole. And Minnesota has the timber wolf.

Sports teams, quite naturally, have adopted the names of these animals. Thus, Miami’s football team is called the Dolphins. Baltimore’s baseball team is named the Orioles. And the professional basketball team in Minneapolis is called the Timber Wolves.

Does this mean that the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League is similarly named after a creature? One that is popularly associated with the Garden State?

Actually … yes. And yes. The hockey team is indeed named after a Satanic monster. And the entire state of New Jersey is, in fact, associated with it.

Here is the legend. Several decades prior to the American Revolution, a New Jersey resident named Mother Leeds was disgusted when she learned that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child. She cried “Let it be the devil!”

She gave birth to a normal human baby. However, the infant soon transformed into a “kangaroo-like creature with the face of a horse, the head of a dog, bat-like wings, horns and a tail.” It flew away into the New Jersey swamplands.

Sightings have continued for centuries, though it is unclear whether the terrified onlookers claimed to encounter the original monster or some of its off-spring. Nevertheless, the demonic creature became an icon of New Jersey, and it is now honored by its namesake hockey team.

Incidentally, colonial America was rife with horrifying stories of pregnant women producing demons and monsters. Consider Anne Hutchinson, for instance. She was banished and excommunicated from the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a heretic for possessing the temerity to question the male authorities who ruled the Church and the local government.

Shortly after her banishment, she delivered a miscarriage of more than two dozen masses of ill-formed cells. Governor Winthrop of the Bay Colony wrote: “She brought forth not one, but thirty monstrous births or thereabouts … as she had vented misshapen opinions, so she must bring forth deformed monsters.”

So what happened to Hutchinson? She found a haven in Rhode Island and was a pivotal figure in the settlement of Aquidneck Island, on which the city of Newport now stands. Then she emigrated to the Dutch colony of New Netherland and settled near what is now the Hutchinson River of Westchester and the Bronx in southern New York State.

Sadly, Indians slaughtered her and her family. New York State political leaders eventually memorialized her by naming the Hutchinson River and its adjacent Parkway after her.

Swamp devils and deformed monsters are pretty scary creatures, aren’t they? And yet they were mainstays of colonial America. Today, we might detect residual glimpses of the frightened mentalities that gave rise to these tales when individuals demonize people who seem mysterious or threatening.

But you are welcome to simply enjoy these legends as historical horror stories. After all, today is October 31st … and Happy Halloween to you!

Welcome, Englishmen

This is an essay about American history. It is not an essay about American presidential politics.

Or is it?

Unquestionably, though, it is a true story about the Pilgrims who sailed to the New World on the Mayflower, and who developed a tiny and struggling community within a hostile wilderness. Shortly after they landed, they began to confront the brutal realities of death, disease, starvation, frigid weather, and a hostile relationship with the surrounding Native American tribes.

One day, as several Pilgrims stood chatting on their village hill, they spotted an Indian warrior on the next hill. Immediately, they called their tiny community to arms and fell into a defensive position, braced for an attack.

So what did that Native American warrior do? He strode briskly down his hill. Then he crossed the small valley. Then he climbed the Pilgrim’s hill and walked right up to the little group of settlers, crouching behind their muskets.

They all paused for a moment and stared at each other. The Pilgrims were terrified that they had come face-to-face with a savage warrior, leading a catastrophic invasion. And then the Native American threw open his arms, smiled broadly, and clearly proclaimed:

Welcome, Englishmen!

The moment was captured in two different Pilgrim memoirs, and it changed the course of American history. The warrior, a man named Samoset, helped launch an era of friendly relations that extended through the First Thanksgiving and resulted in the birth of the American nation.

It was a beautiful moment, wasn’t it? Now imagine, if you will, that he hadn’t proclaimed Welcome, Englishmen. Imagine, instead, that he had gestured to the dark and threatening forest and snarled:

There you will find death, destruction and weakness. You will be helpless to die at the hands of savage killers. Your men, women and children will be viciously mowed down. And I alone can fix it for you. I am your voice.

Would the Pilgrims have listened to him? Perhaps briefly. After all, a message like that does tend to grab one’s attention, doesn’t it? But in the long run, it’s hard to believe that such a frightening message would have generated the goodwill that carried the Pilgrims through their catastrophic early years.

Ever since Samoset’s moment of first contact, Americans have learned that a bold, brash, outspoken, and aggressive attitude is a common trait of an effective leader. And yet, as the Indian warrior demonstrated to the Pilgrims, such audacity is only proven effective when paired with an attitude that exudes optimism, goodwill, cheerfulness, and generosity.

This was an essay about American history. It was not an essay about American presidential politics.

Or was it?