On December 2, 1823, during his annual message to Congress, President James Monroe articulated a foreign policy stance for our nation that would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. He proclaimed a policy of non-interference in the affairs of foreign nations, except in cases when European powers interfered in the Western hemisphere. To communicate the US intention to continue a stance of neutrality in the wars of Europe, he stated:
Our policy in regard to Europe . . . is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.
However, he now warned that the US would not remain neutral when European governments attempted to overthrow newly independent states in the Americas:
It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected . . . . We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers [ie., European monarchies] to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. Continue reading
A sermon preached 115 years ago on Thanksgiving Day voiced a protest against a new era in American foreign policy that was launched by the Spanish American War of 1898. Pastor Henry Van Dyke of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City took the occasion of this annual day of prayer to question the US acquisition of the Philippines, which before the naval war had been a colony of Spain. While not criticizing the US decision to intervene in the Cuban revolt against Spanish rule, Van Dyke saw the US assumption of territory in the China Sea as an “abandonment of the American ideal of national growth for the European ideal of colonial conquest.” Van Dyke warned that in becoming an imperial power, the US would lose its commitment to republican principles. Read “The American Birthright and the Philippine Pottage.”
Abraham Lincoln called for national days of Thanksgiving more than once during the Civil War. On April 10, 1862, after the union victory at Shiloh and the fall of the Confederate fortress at Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River, Lincoln called for sabbath-day thanksgiving observances; and following the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he called for a national day of “Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer” to be observed on August 6, 1863. On both occasions he emphasized the hope that these partial victories gave: “that the Union of these States will be maintained, their constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored” while also calling for prayers of intercession for those who had suffered during the war and for prayers of repentance—a tacit acknowledgement that the conflict was in some sense due to a sin committed by the nation as a whole.
But when Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in November of that year, he did so in a way that recalled Washington’s similar proclamation in 1789. He issued the proclamation on October 3rd, as Washington had, and like Washington he chose the fourth Thursday of November for the celebration. And, like Washington, whose pointed to the “tranquillity, union, and plenty” the nation had enjoyed since the conclusion of the Revolution, Lincoln emphasized the blessings the nation had enjoyed in the midst of civil war: peace with foreign powers, maintenance of civil order away from the battlefield, and the continuance of farming and industry. As long and wearying as the war had proven to be, it had not undermined the fundamental character and purposes of Americans, and the nation seemed “permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.” As Washington had called for thanksgiving that an unprecedented attempt to establish republican government had actually succeeded, now Lincoln asked Americans to thank the divine power that seemed willing to allow the republic to continue, even while punishing it with a costly civil war.
We think of our national celebration of Thanksgiving as rooted in the harvest feast of seventeenth century Pilgrim settlers. But as an official government holiday, the celebration was inaugurated by George Washington, following a resolution of Congress, in 1789. Though he issued the proclamation on October 3, he set the date of the celebration for the fourth Thursday in November, a tradition we follow today.
Washington notes in the beginning of the Proclamation that “both Houses of Congress have by their Joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’” In fact, Congress was then an almost brand-new institution, having convened for the first time the previous March. The new Constitution had not become the working blueprint of our government until late in July 1788, by which time the necessary eleven of the original thirteen states had ratified that document. Hence in issuing the Proclamation, Washington was no doubt expressing a sense of relief and jubilation that the young nation’s extraordinary process of inventing a republican form of government had actually succeeded. The new government united regions with differing economic interests, led by statesmen with sharply different views of what a republic would require for its survival.
Professor Gordon Lloyd, who created our online exhibits on the creation of the Constitution and its Ratification, underlines the uniqueness of this achievement, which required Antifederalists to quell their very real concerns, well before a Bill of Rights was hammered out and agreed to:
“Historians tell us that the importance of the 1800 election is that it’s the first peaceful exchange of power from one party to another. Yes, that is extremely important. Here is another thing that’s important. What other country prior to the United States is informed that its government doesn’t work, sits for four months in convention, comes back for an entire year and debates and debates, and not a drop of blood was spilled?”
Something else to think about as we count our blessings next week.
Today, on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, it is difficult to conceive that the most often memorized political speech from our history was not immediately hailed as a masterful summary of American ideals. Yet, as Chris Pascarella blogged on November 15, a retraction published by the central Pennsylvania newspaper, The Patriot and Union, abashedly admits that their editors in 1863 called the oration “silly remarks.”
One of the fallen soldiers at the battle of Gettysburg (Photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan. Library of Congress)
A related feature story quotes Lincoln scholar Martin P. Johnson, who speculates that the silly remarks mentioned were those Lincoln made the night before, upon arrival in Gettysburg, in response to a serenade played below his hotel room. The editors may have deliberately conflated the two speeches, wanting to undermine Lincoln’s rhetorical achievement; they make clear in their commentary that what they most object to is Lincoln’s effort to express the high purpose of what they called a war fought “to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.” The Patriot and Union editors also held a grudge against Lincoln, having been arrested and charged with sedition the year before because of a handbill printed on their presses that the administration feared could spark a race riot. But they were not the only paper to criticize the speech; you can read here the editorial in a Democratic Chicago paper that denounces Lincoln for not honoring the Confederate dead equally with the Union soldiers slain in the battle. These contemporary reactions, so odd to the eyes of readers 150 years later, remind us that in his determination to push through emancipation, Lincoln fought against widespread criticism and fear of the new social order that freeing the slaves would bring about.
A question for etymologists out there: the Chicago Times editorial uses the word “Dawdleism” to describe Lincoln’s funeral oratory. Does anyone know what the word meant at the time? Since Lincoln certainly didn’t lag in stating his point, we wondered if this was a reference to the months that elapsed between the battle and the cemetery dedication? Or is “Dawdle” a character in 19th century literature who emphasized partisan goals when speaking on solemn occasions—as the editorial accuses Lincoln of doing? We can’t find the name in character lists for Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, or Sir Walter Scott. If you have a clue, let us know!
In 1863, the editors of the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot & Union newspaper published what became a notorious opinion of President Lincoln’s remarks of that November 19th, as he dedicated the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The editors Lincoln’s remarks “silly” and suggested “that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
Since that time, generations of American students have memorized Lincoln’s succinct and powerful words and the glimpse they provide of the nature and meaning of freedom and equality in America. As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, the paper’s modern editors have published a retraction of that editorial on November 14, 2013, calling their predecessors’ commentary “…a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring….”
You may read the full editorial at the Patriot & Union website.
Lincoln in November, 1863; photograph by Alexander Gardiner (Library of Congress)
One hundred fifty years ago this fall, advance planning for the reconstruction of the rebelling Southern states began. In the fall of 1863, after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Congressmen assumed the war would soon end. President Lincoln had regarded the secession of southern states from the union as logical contradiction of their original binding ratification of the Constitution and maintained that the Civil War was fought primarily to prevent the union’s dissolution. So it should perhaps not be surprising that Lincoln proposed a means of readmitting states when only a small minority of their constituents—10 %—voted to reestablish republican governments that acknowledged the authority of the Constitution. Those forming these governments must swear allegiance to the Union and also swear their acceptance of acts of Congress and Presidential proclamations regarding slavery—that is, the reentering states must accept emancipation. To his non-abolitionist critics, Lincoln had justified emancipation as a war measure; now he stated that to abandon the decision to free the slaves “would be not only to relinquish a lever of power, but would also be a cruel and an astounding breach of faith.” Continue reading
Today is Veteran’s Day, a day in which the nation commemorates and honors the efforts and sacrifices made by American servicemen and service women, past and present.
In 1954, Congress changed the name of the November 11th Armistice Day holiday to Veterans Day, rededicating the day to the memory of the service personnel of all wars of the United States. In a proclamation published in the Federal Register, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issues an official proclamation directing citizens and the federal government to observe the day and suggesting that, “…all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to to join hands in the common purpose.”
Read the President’s entire proclamation.
Daniel Webster (Library of Congress)
As a result of the War with Mexico, the United States acquired a large area of western land, and at once controversy arose over whether the states organized in these territories would enter the union as “freesoil” or slave-holding. Southern states were anxious to maintain the equivalence between free and slave states and territories that obtained after the admission of the Oregon Territory, in which slavery was prohibited. But California was applying for admission as a free state, and the New Mexico and Utah territories were yet to be organized. Southerners began to talk of a Northern intent to restrict slavery and eventually abolish it; some went so far as to threaten secession. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, as he had done in 1820, fashioned a compromise; he offered a number of resolutions designed to appease both sides while arranging for the admission of California as a state and setting terms for the organization of the other territories acquired from Mexico. While free states would now outnumber slave states, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed to stiffen existing requirements that slaves who had escaped to the north be returned to the south.
Joining Clay, another aged statesman who spoke out at this time to encourage compromise and denounce talk of secession was Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. His “Constitution and Union” speech covered wide ground. Continue reading
Our friends at the Bill of Rights Institute have introduced a new documentary resource written by teachers for use in K-12 classrooms. Documents of Freedom: History, Government, & Economics through Primary Sources is designed to be used as a supplement (or even as a substitute) for traditional government, civics, and economics textbooks. Each lesson unit highlights key primary sources and is indexed to the standards of many states, the Common Core, and the College Board. Best of all, it works equally well across all platforms: Windows, Mac, tablets, smartphones, and other devices.
Access to Documents of Freedom is free (registration is required).
When Abraham Lincoln was invited in the fall of 1863 to speak at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of a pivotal Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it was not to give the main speech. That oration was delivered by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts statesman, vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, and the most famous orator of his day. Everett spoke to the crowd of 15,000 without notes for over two hours, giving an example of the kind of ornate, learned, and transcendentalist rhetoric that was expected at such ceremonies.
The president used only 272 words in his dedication of the cemetery grounds, with most American newspapers taking little notice of the now famous speech. But the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote Lincoln to say, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s spare, poetic, and biblical speech buried the old rhetorical style of Everett and set the standard for a new kind of speech, which is still the model for such solemn commemorative occasions. If all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn, as Ernest Hemingway suggested, all modern American speeches come out of the Address.
How Lincoln turned a perfunctory eulogy at a cemetery dedication into a concise and profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union is the focus of the EDSITEment lesson The Gettysburg Address: Defining the American Union. The lesson, part of a curriculum unit on the political thought of Lincoln, will deepen student understanding of the momentous themes of freedom, equality, and emancipation so central to any strong understanding of the Civil War experience. Continue reading
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a milestone in building support for the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act; but it also marks the 120th anniversary of an earlier demonstration for racial equality under the law. On October 15, 1883, the Supreme Court issued a single ruling on five cases involving civil rights protections that had been brought to it from a range of state courts. With one sweeping decision, the Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. This action alarmed African American citizens, and within a week black leaders had organized a “Civil Rights Mass-Meeting” at Lincoln Hall in Washington, DC. Frederick Douglass addressed the meeting on October 22, deploring and critiquing the decision.
The 1875 act had barred discrimination in public accommodations for black people, imposing fines and moderate prison terms on those who denied services. The law had not been consistently respected, and the five cases represented refusals of service in hotels, at theaters, and on a passenger train, in localities from the North to the South to the West. The court dispensed with the plaintiffs’ suits by ruling that the 13th and 14th amendments did not mandate equal accommodations for freed slaves; they did not require private citizens to treat African Americans on terms of “social equality.” They only prohibited the enactment of state laws that would deny minorities such rights as those to vote or hold property. In effect, the 1883 ruling gave a stamp of approval to segregationist practices that had become the norm in many parts of the country, but especially in the post-Reconstruction South. Continue reading
Abraham Lincoln in 1858
One hundred and fifty years ago, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But only five years prior, he was locked in an Illinois Senate race with Stephen Douglas, maintaining a position midway between those who would abolish slavery at once and those who would allow the “peculiar institution” to become a permanent feature of the expanding nation. While Douglas would allow the electorate in each newly forming western state to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery, Lincoln argued forcefully against allowing slavery into the new states.
Given the unique logical clarity Lincoln brought to his critique of slavery, students of history in our day often find Lincoln’s reluctance to embrace the abolitionist position confusing. Apparently certain of Lincoln’s contemporaries were also confused. In a short letter Lincoln wrote on October 18, 1858, he strove to clarify his position, by responding to an Illinois politician who had evidently asked Lincoln to explain whether his anti-slavery views implied support for “social and political equality between the black and white races.”
Lincoln penned a draft of the letter in a small notebook he carried about with him during the senate campaign, in which he affixed newspaper clippings reporting on his debates with Douglas, along with notes to himself to be reworked into speeches. It is interesting to compare the letter to J. N. Brown to other entries Lincoln made in his notebook during the fall of 1858, as well as to notes he wrote in 1854 and 1859. In these, Lincoln’s explanation of the principle of human equality admits none of the contradictions seen in the 1858 letter.
Read Lincoln’s notes on slavery:
Fragments on Slavery, April 1, 1854
Fragment: Notes for Speeches, October 1, 1858
Fragment: On Slavery, December 1, 1858
Fragment on Slavery, 1859
William Lloyd Garrison, an early spokesman for and eventual leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society
The American Anti-Slavery society was founded in Philadelphia 180 years ago, in December of 1833. The group agreed to a simple “constitution,” prefaced by a brief but eloquent “manifesto” that quoted both the Biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself and the central idea of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Arthur Tappan became the society’s first president, while William Lloyd Garrison, who had already founded his abolitionist weekly The Liberator, was asked to write a “Declaration of Sentiments” expressing the organization’s aims.
Although the American Anti-Slavery Society was the first national organization of its kind, similar state organizations had already formed. Most of the earliest of these were organized by the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The very first one, The Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, had formed in 1774 and helped to pass Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, the first anti-slavery legislation in the United States. Continue reading
For those working through a survey of American history and reaching the Jacksonian era, we reprint here a document introduction by Professor Dan Monroe (Millikin University), one of the Honored Visiting Faculty in the Master of Arts in American History and Government program at Ashland University. Monroe captures the personality of our seventh president and the impact he made on the expanding American republic. Jackson’s comments on the Bank raise issues still disputed in our politics.
An Early Dispute over Federal Involvement in American Finance: Andrew Jackson Vetoes Re-Chartering the Bank of the United States
Andrew Jackson despised debt, banks, and the paper notes that banks issued with all the passion and fury for which he was justifiably renowned and feared. He had nearly been financially ruined early in his career in land speculation ventures that were a tangled web of dubious deeds, bad paper notes, and shady partners. Continue reading