Monthly Archives: June 2014

Lincoln Defines the American Understanding of Equality

Abraham-Lincoln-profile_1850sOn June 26 in 1857, Abraham Lincoln spoke to an audience in Springfield, Illinois to refute a speech given there two weeks earlier by Stephen Douglas. The speech could be seen as a rehearsal for those he would make the following summer as he debated Douglas while campaigning for the Illinois Senate seat. But it already makes a powerful argument against Douglas’ strategy for handling the sectional divide over slavery.

Denying that slavery was inconsistent with fundamental American principles, Douglas championed “popular sovereignty” as a solution to the confrontation between pro- and anti-slave forces that arose each time a western territory made application for statehood. In his recent speech, he had reaffirmed his confidence in this plan despite the violence that had raged in Kansas prior to the referendum there that was supposed to decide whether that state would be slave or free. He also endorsed the Supreme Court decision, made in March 1857, on the case of Dred Scott, a slave who had been transported by his master into a free state and who contended that he had become free during his residence there. Judge Taney had authored the decision which ruled against Scott, and in it he addressed the attitudes of the Founders regarding slavery, given their principle, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal. ”

According to Lincoln, Taney’s claim, to which Douglas agreed, was that the famous statement on human equality had been only a rhetorical tactic. Douglas had in fact said in his speech that they were speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain.”  Lincoln identified an obvious problem for pro-slave forces with such an argument: it would mean that many white immigrants to the US were not covered by the declaration of human equality. More important, he emphasized the destructive thrust of an argument that denied human equality as the basis for our system of Constitutional government. What Americans would be celebrating a week hence, on the Fourth of July, was a revolution born of a conviction that the Founders fully embraced: All men are created equal. Although Americans had not been prepared to fully realize the principle in their civic life at the Founding, it was true and implied a fully attainable goal, because its import and application were very specific. The Founders

. . . did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal–equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that “all men are created equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, (and) thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.

 

I

Hamilton Explains the Compromises of the Constitution

hamiltonNew York was the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution. Its ratifying convention met between June 17 and July 26, 1788, at roughly the same time that Virginia and New Hampshire were holding conventions. When these three conventions began, the approval of at least one more state was needed to make the Constitution the law of the entire country. In his detailed discussion of the nationwide ratification debate, Gordon Lloyd notes that “New York, in many ways, was at the center of the ratification controversy.”  It was there that the most vigorous newspaper debates took place, and it was Alexander Hamilton of New York who originated the idea of writing The Federalist to explain and defend the provisions of the new constitution. Although Hamilton had left the Constitutional Convention early due to frustration over objections to a strong central government, once a final document was approved, he threw his support behind it. His advocacy was critical to New York’s decision to ratify. One of the most notable speeches made in the course of the nationwide ratification debate was made by Hamilton on the second day of argument in the New York Convention, June 20. Answering criticisms made by John Lansing and Melancthon Smith, Hamilton insisted on the inadequacy of the existing Articles of Confederation. He then went on to explain how the document written in the Philadelphia convention was the product of necessary and reasonable compromises between large and small states and between Northern, commercial states and Southern states whose economy was based on slave-labor agriculture. As he explained to his fellow delegates,

The natural situation of this country seems to divide its interests into different classes. There are navigating and non-navigating States. The Northern are properly the navigating States; the Southern appear to possess neither the means nor the spirit of navigation. This difference in situation naturally produces a dissimilarity of interests and views respecting foreign commerce. It was the interest of the Northern States, that there should be no restraints on their navigation, and that they should have full power, by a majority in Congress, to make commercial regulations in favor of their own, and in restraint of the navigation of foreigners. The Southern States wished to impose a restraint on the Northern, by requiring that two thirds in Congress should be requisite to pass an act in regulation of commerce. They were apprehensive that the restraints of a navigation law would discourage foreigners; and, by obliging them to employ the shipping of the Northern States, would probably enhance their freight. This being the case, they insisted strenuously on having this provision ingrafted in the Constitution; and the Northern States were as anxious in opposing it. On the other hand, the small States, seeing themselves embraced by the Confederation upon equal terms, wished to retain the advantages which they already possessed. The large States, on the contrary, thought it improper that Rhode Island and Delaware should enjoy an equal suffrage with themselves. From these sources a delicate and difficult contest arose. It became necessary, therefore, to compromise, or the convention must have dissolved without effecting any thing.

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/ratification/stagefive/

McGovern Criticizes the Carter Doctrine

800px-George_McGovern,_c_1972South Dakota Senator George McGovern, although spectacularly unsuccessful as a Democratic candidate for President in 1972, offered articulate critiques of American foreign policy even after his attempt at national leadership failed. An article McGovern wrote for The Atlantic Monthly in June 1980 shows his willingness to pick apart what he sees as the simplistic thinking of a president from his own party, Jimmy Carter.

By 1980, Carter’s earlier call for a foreign policy based in support of human rights rather than in regard for American interests had been thwarted by a variety of intransigent geopolitical conflicts, notably the rise of a religious nationalism in Iran that contested the rule of the American-backed Shah. After the Shah was deposed, Carter’s decision to admit him to the US for medical treatment provoked a violent reaction in Tehran, where the American embassy was seized and over 60 Americans taken hostage. When the Soviet Union seized this moment to invade Afghanistan, Carter reacted in the manner of earlier presidents presiding during the Cold War, issuing a new doctrine declaring American determination to protect its interests in the middle east: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”  McGovern criticized Carter for returning to a policy governed by Cold War calculations. He spelled out a number of concerns—“local, regional, and internal to the Soviet Union”—to which, he said, the Carter administration was now “indifferent, caught up as it was in the excitement of unveiling its new doctrine”:

It was almost as if, when the Soviets moved into Afghanistan, we were relieved to find ourselves freed from the complexities of Third World nationalism and the Islamic revival and back on the comfortably familiar turf of a bipolar Cold War world. Once they heard the call of the Carter Doctrine, the Iranians would naturally forget about the shah, the Arabs would forget their differences with Israel, our allies in Western Europe and Japan would gratefully follow our lead, and all would join with us in a grand alliance against Soviet aggression. Now the unwelcome “lesson of Vietnam”–as Daniel Yergin put it, “that ‘fundamental designs’ may be illusory and that global implications may be secondary to local issues”–could also be cast aside. Americans could be patriots again, without bothering to make the troublesome distinction between patriotism and jingoism.

FDR’s D-Day Prayer

At a crucial moment in theFDR-300x200_radio-mike struggle to defeat Nazi Germany, Franklin Roosevelt dispensed with more conventional wartime rhetorical forms and resorted to a public prayer. “My fellow Americans,” he began, “Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far. And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer.”

Roosevelt’s prayer movingly evokes the urgency and uncertainty of the moment we remember as D-Day. Of course, his prayer expressed all the themes that he would have put into a rousing wartime speech, but it couched them in a form that implicitly acknowledged the contingent hopes of men amid a large historical struggle. It bespoke a kind of humility in the face of enormous odds, and the insufficiency of mere human effort to achieve success in a struggle against worldly powers threatening decent human life. It prepared Americans to endure the long struggle ahead, as Allied forces would fight to take and hold each square foot of Nazi-occupied Europe. Asking the Creator to guide American soldiers, he said:

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Reagan Commemorates D-Day at Pointe du Hoc

President_Reagan_giving_speech_on_the_40th_Anniversary_of_D-Day_at_Pointe_du_Hoc,_Normandy,_France,_1984This year marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day—June 6, 1944—when Allied forces landed on the shores of Normandy and began fighting to retake northern continental Europe from Nazi occupation. Today only a few veterans of that battle remain; but on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, many traveled back to Normand to commemorate this costly but remarkably successful operation, the largest seaborne invasion in history. Before a group of Army Ranger veterans gathered at Pointe du Hoc, the site where they had struggled through a hail of German gunfire to mount the cliffs and destroy a coastal gun battery, President Reagan delivered a moving speech. He praised the courage of the Rangers and of other Allies—British, French, Polish and Canadian—who assured the success of the invasion.

What is most notable about Reagan’s 1984 speech, however, was the public reminder he issued, that “not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost 40 years after the war.”

In contrast to his predecessor Jimmy Carter, who blamed an “inordinate fear of communism” for American failure to consistently promote human rights and to work toward nuclear disarmament, Reagan implicitly announced that the restoration of independence to Soviet-occupied nations would have to precede arms reduction:

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.

But we try always to be prepared for peace; prepared to deter aggression; prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms; and, yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more that a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)

info@TeachingAmericanHistory.org