Ashbrook’s latest installment in the ‘American Controversies’ series of webinars took place on Saturday, 13 December 2014, on the topic of whether or not President Lincoln violated the Constitution through his use of executive authority before and during the Civil War. Professor Chris Burkett of Ashland University moderated the discussion between professors Eric Sands and Jonathan White, taking questions from many of the 105 people from across the country who viewed the live webinar.
Of particular interest was the idea that, in light of the Article II’s generally vague explanation of executive authority, the extent to which – if any – Lincoln violated the spirit of the Constitution versus what it actually says. You can view an archived copy here, along with the documents used during the discussion.
Last weekend ten teachers from around Colorado took part in a discussion about Reconstruction, led by Professor Scott Yenor of Boise State University. The three sessions and documents chosen for each helped participants focus on the justifications used by the South to account for secession fully understand the challenges that Lincoln and the country faced in trying to re-unite the country after the war.
Of particular interest during the discussion was the problem of self-government in the South: as a cornerstone of the American system, how could it be ensured if it meant that it would enable those states to undercut the goals of Reconstruction? Participants also unpacked and discussed in detail, through selected documents, the practical challenge of determining criteria for readmission to the Union for individuals and states, and the conciliatory tone struck by Lincoln’s original plans for Reconstruction.
Overall, we came away with a much greater appreciation for just how difficult was the challenge Lincoln faced in trying to win the war, and win it in a way that would enable him to rebuild the country – politically, economically, and socially.
To view a selection of readings discussed at this one-day seminar, please visit the links below -
Early Reconstruction and Union:
Reconstruction During the War:
Reconstruction at the End of the War:
Don’t forget to register for our next web discussion this Saturday, September 27th at 11:00 AM (EST), Ashbrook is pleased to welcome Prof. Ken Masugi (Johns Hopkins University Krieger School) and Prof. David Foster (Ashland University) to a conversation moderated by Prof. Chris Burkett (Ashland University) on the controversial question, “Did the Founders Misunderstand Democracy?”
Ashbrook’s Saturday Webinars for Social Studies Teachers will focus on American Controversies. Drawing from our list of 50 Core American Documents, and exploring related sources, Ashbrook’s American Controversies webinar series is designed to give teachers deep perspective on the central issues they are expected to teach.
Click here to register today!
There is no cost to participate. Each webinar is scheduled to last one hour and fifteen minutes.
On this day in 1889, Hull House opened in an immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s near-west side. This first “settlement house” in America was founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, who modeled it after Toynbee Hall, a similar experiment in East London founded four years earlier by Samuel and Henrietta Barnet. Settlement houses were what we might today call grassroots efforts to bring education, cultural opportunities, and social reform to the working poor. While those who volunteered their energies to Toynbee Hall were male university graduates, Hull House attracted educated women activists.
In 1892, Addams wrote an essay, “The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements,” explaining the motives that drew privileged young women to participate in this social experiment. In part, she explains it as an effort to recover an earlier idea of American democracy in which, she says, the poor and the prosperous did not live segregated lives. She suggests that in the massive immigration movement of the latter 19th century, those arriving in America had been separated from the culture of their homelands and yet not integrated into the culture of the new country.
The social organism has broken down through large districts of our great cities. Many of the people living there are very poor, the majority of them without leisure or energy for anything but the gain of subsistence. They move often from one wretched lodging to another. They live for the moment side by side, many of them without knowledge of each other, without fellowship, without local tradition or public spirit, without social organization of any kind. Practically nothing is done to remedy this. The people who might do it, who have the social tact and training, the large houses, and the traditions and custom of hospitality, live in other parts of the city. The clubhouses, libraries, galleries, and semi-public conveniences for social life are also blocks away.
Addams saw the need of these struggling immigrants answering the need of a privileged class of women who had been educated but given no meaningful employment:
I have seen young girls suffer and grow sensibly lowered in vitality in the first years after they leave school. In our attempt then to give a girl pleasure and freedom from care we succeed, for the most part, in making her pitifully miserable. She finds “life” so different from what she expected it to be. She is besotted with innocent little ambitions, and does not understand this apparent waste of herself, this elaborate preparation, if no work is provided for her. There is a heritage of noble obligation which young people accept and long to perpetuate. The desire for action, the wish to right wrong and alleviate suffering, haunts them daily. Society smiles at it indulgently instead of making it of value to itself.
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in the summer of 1787 to deliberate on a new plan of government to supplant the ineffective Articles of Confederation, the first point on which they agreed was that their deliberations remain strictly private. The matters they were to discuss were highly controversial. There would be little possibility of reaching an agreement–a mutually acceptable compromise–if delegates had to argue under the scrutinizing lens of public report and comment. They would not be able to listen to each other’s arguments, giving differing opinions due consideration, if they had to constantly justify every word they spoke and every vote they took to constituents at home.
So it is fortunate that in this atmosphere of strict secrecy James Madison set out from the beginning to keep a record of each day’s proceedings. Largely because of Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, we know today what issues the delegates discussed, what concerns they raised, and through what process they reached the joint agreement that became our Constitution. Madison respected the rule of secrecy during his life, not allowing the publication of his notes before his death. (For more on this and numerous other aspects of the Convention, See Professor Gordon Lloyd’s interactive website.)
This excerpt from Madison’s Notes, part of our collection on 50 Core Documents, includes summaries of major points made in the critical debate on representation in the legislative branch: whether the members of Congress would be elected directly by the people or rather elected as delegates to Congress by the state legislatures. It reveals interesting insights into the positions taken on this question by such key delegates to the convention as Elbridge Gerry (MA), Roger Sherman (CT), James Wilson (PA), George Mason (VA), and Madison (VA) himself. At the bottom of the excerpt from the Notes, you can find a drop-down list of documents related to this debate.
In an earlier blog (September 4, 2014) we noted that William Penn, while acceding to Pennsylvania colonists’ demand for power over changes to their governing charter, insisted that allowances for liberty of conscience never be removed from the charter. Penn’s commitment to religious toleration was central to his vision for the colony he founded, as can already be seen in an “Act for Freedom of Conscience” passed by the first Pennsylvania Assembly, shortly after the colony’s founding. This act stipulated that all monotheists would be allowed to worship in their own ways. It did not provide for full religious liberty, since it stipulated that office holders be Christian and limited the franchise to Christians. It also specified fines for profanity and other speech offensive to Christians, “to the end that looseness, irreligion, and atheism may not creep in under pretense of conscience in this province.”
That Penn saw religious toleration as a means of reinforcing theistic belief, rather than diluting it, can be seen in the opening of the act, which states his own intent in designing Pennsylvania’s government as to “make and establish such laws as shall best preserve true christian and civil liberty in opposition to all unchristian, licentious, and unjust practices, whereby God may have his due, Caesar his due, and the people their due, from tyranny and oppression on the one side and insolence and licentiousness on the other.”
In the revised design of government, the 1701 “Charter of Liberties,” the very first article reiterates the philosophical basis for religious toleration:
. . . No people can be truly happy, though under the greatest enjoyment of civil liberties, if abridged of the freedom of their consciences as to their religious profession and worship. And Almighty God being the only lord of conscience, father of light and spirits, and the author as well as object of all divine knowledge, faith, and worship, who only does enlighten the minds and persuade and convince the understandings of people, I do hereby grant and declare that no person or persons inhabiting in this province or territories, who shall confess and acknowledge one almighty God, the creator, upholder and ruler of the world; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the civil government, shall be in any case molested or prejudiced in his or their person or estate because of his or their conscientious persuasion or practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place, or ministry contrary to his or their mind, or to do or suffer any other act or thing contrary to their religious persuasion.
Two months before the presidential election in 1864, the reelection of President Lincoln still seemed uncertain. What soldiers and commanders sensed in the field —the inevitable defeat of the South—was not so evident to civilians, and Lincoln’s advisors feared that the Democratic Party platform, which called for peace negotiations, might sway war-weary voters. Fighting in 1864 had already cost over 100,000 Union casualties, and in July Lincoln had had to impose a draft to reinforce the Union army. Also, many Northern voters were ambivalent about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
On the other end of the spectrum, Radical Republicans, who feared Lincoln would allow Southern states to reenter the Union without insuring that they respected the rights of former slaves, had not hidden their dissatisfaction with Lincoln as their candidate. They had met in late May to form a splinter party, nominating John C. Fremont to run against him. In June they had passed the Wade-Davis bill, which attempted to dictate sterner terms for reconstruction, in effect publicly rebuking the President. Lincoln had pocket-vetoed the bill, issuing a mildly worded explanation for this action (see our earlier blog post for July 19).
Still, by early September, the had suffered severe defeats: the surrender of Fort Morgan on August 23rd closed the Confederate port of Mobile Bay, and Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2. Lincoln strove to impress the importance of these victories on the civilian public by calling on September 3 for a national day of thanksgiving and prayer. By September 12 Lincoln was trying to formulate a public explanation of his policy on peace negotiations, taking the occasion of a request for a letter to be read to a “union mass meeting” to be held in New York. A New York politician, Oscar Shermerhorn, had telegrammed Lincoln twice, asking the President to send the meeting an encouraging message. Lincoln began drafting such a letter, but decided not to send it. His draft reveals principled calculations about the importance of his reelection. McClellan claimed to be committed to preserving the Union, but if he won on his party’s platform, the peace he would negotiate would likely come at the cost of consenting to the permanent secession of the Southern states. Lincoln argues that his current policy of continuing the war, and doing so with the help of emancipated former slaves, is the only policy that can save the Union:
Any substantial departure from it insures the success of the rebellion. An armistice — a cessation of hostilities — is the end of the struggle, and the insurgents would be in peaceable possession of all that has been struggled for. Any different policy in regard to the colored man, deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, sea-men, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it. Nor is it possible for any Administration to retain the service of these people with the express or implied understanding that upon the first convenient occasion, they are to be re-inslaved. It can not be; and it ought not to be.
Lincoln’s decision to put the letter aside and instead send a polite explanation that he lacked time to reply suggests his political concerns lest he too explicitly explain his policy.
When William Penn was given a large tract of land in North America from the English crown, he decided to found a settlement based in his Quaker principles of freedom of conscience and the equality of men. His original design for the government of Pennsylvania, the 1682 “Pennsylvania Frame of Government,” is remarkable for its time in its granting of religious toleration to all monotheists and its allowance that Christians of any sect be officeholders. His plan also made careful rules for the administration of justice and provided for an elected assembly that would vote on taxes to be levied. Although Penn retained a veto power for himself and successive governors, he had opened the way for colonists to undertake a degree of self-rule.
Thus encouraged, Pennsylvanians began to press for adjustments to Penn’s plan that, they argued, better suited their circumstances. In October 1701 Penn agreed to grant a revised “Charter of Privileges . . . to the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania and Territories.” This document served as a constitution for the colony until the time of the Revolution. It specified particular rules for the election of Assembly members and for its meeting times. It allowed for the local election of nominees for coroner and sheriff, with the Governor choosing among the offered candidates, and it restricted the Governor’s power to grant licenses, intervene in the justice system, or seize property. It stipulated that any changes to the charter must be approved by “the Governor for the time being and six parts of seven of the Assembly met.” But Penn insisted on making the allowance for “liberty of conscience” irrevocable even by this super majority.
The Frame of Government is part of the story of the growth of liberty in the American colonies. As the occasion for disputes between Pennsylvania colonists and their British governing authority, it is also part of the story of the growing independence of the colonies.
Provisions for religious toleration began to enter the laws of the American colonies as early as mid-17th century. The first law granting a degree of religious freedom was passed by the Maryland General Assembly of Freemen in April 1649. It was supported by the proprietor of the colony, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, a Catholic who wanted to protect Catholic settlers in the colony from persecution. Religious toleration was already practiced in the colony, since the Calverts had encouraged Protestants as well as Catholics to settle there. Yet passage of the “Toleration Act” now seemed urgent given events in England, where Parliament had recently executed Charles I and instituted Puritan rule. The specific provision for toleration was preceded by a long list of penalties for blasphemy, perhaps, as some historians have suggested, to blunt the novelty of the key passage:
And whereas the inforceing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those commonwealthes where it hath been practised, And for the more quiett and peaceable governemt of this Province, and the better to pserve mutuall Love and amity amongst the Inhabitants thereof. (5) Be it Therefore also by the Lo: Proprietary with the advise and consent of this Assembly Ordeyned & enacted (except as in this psent Act is before Declared and sett forth) that noe person or psons whatsoever within this Province, or the Islands, Ports, Harbors, Creekes, or havens thereunto belonging professing to beleive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled, Molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof within this Province or the Islands thereunto belonging nor any way compelled to the beleife or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent, soe as they be not unfaithfull to the Lord Proprietary, or molest or conspire against the civill Governemt established or to bee established in this Province vnder him or his heires.
In 1630, before or during the trans-Atlantic voyage made by a group of Puritans who were chartered under the Massachusetts Bay Company to plant a new colony in New England, the Governor they had elected—John Winthrop—wrote and delivered to them a lengthy sermon on Christian charity. His aim was to prepare them for the life they would soon share in their outpost in the wilderness, which would demand of them mutually supportive labor.
Winthrop’s careful and logical discourse can be read as an exposition of Biblical texts on civic virtue. He emphasizes both justice and mercy in social behavior, finding logical grounds to extend charity toward one’s neighbors. It is hard to locate in his speech an endorsement of the individualist quest for wealth that is said to have grown out of Puritan theology. Instead, Winthrop emphasizes the covenant with God that binds the Puritan community together and that justifies their joint agreement on a form of government:
We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren. Neither must we think that the Lord will bear with such failings at our hands as he does from those among whom we have lived.…When God gives a special commission he looks to have it strictly observed in every article…
Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into Covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord has given us leave to draw our own articles.
Today is the 385th anniversary of the Cambridge Agreement signed by the shareholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company.
The first English attempts to plant colonies in the New World were managed by landed gentry such as Sir Walter Raleigh, who was given an undefined grant of land in America by the Queen Elizabeth I, in effect a license to send adventurers there to claim and settle what they could, returning to the crown a portion of any gains reaped through mining or other enterprises. Raleigh’s attempts between 1584 and 1587 failed, in part because, like others of his courtier class, he lacked the funds to sustain it. Beginning in 1606, the English crown began granting the right to form colonies in the New World to joint-stock companies—groups of private investors, many of them merchants, who were willing to undertake the expense and risk of these enterprises. The colony of Virginia and a series of others were planted by this means.
Those who underwrote the founding of Massachusetts made an arrangement for the government of the colony that earlier joint-stock companies had not. A group of Puritans within the Massachusetts Bay Company pledged to travel to and settle in the new colony if given the charter to carry with them. By buying out the other shareholders, those who were actually going to live in the colony insured that they retained control of the colony‘s management. This was an unintended first step toward self-government in America; the royal charter they were given, which became colonial Massachusetts’ constitution, stipulated that the colony be governed by “one Governor, one Deputy Governor, and eighteene Assistants of the same Company, to be from tyme to tyme constituted, elected and chosen out of the Freemen of the saide Company . . . .” On August 26, 1629, the group of Puritans undertaking the voyage met in Cambridge to sign a legally binding agreement.
The First World War began one hundred years ago this month. In the first four days of August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia, France and Belgium, prompting Great Britain to declare war on Germany late on August 4. A few hours earlier, the US had declared its neutrality in the conflict.
President Woodrow Wilson explained his reasons for remaining neutral in a message to Congress on August 19:
The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war. It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict. Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle. It will be easy to excite passion and difficult to allay it. Those responsible for exciting it will assume a heavy responsibility, responsibility for no less a thing than that the people of the United States, whose love of their country and whose loyalty to its Government should unite them as Americans all, bound in honor and affection to think first of her and her interests, may be divided in camps of hostile opinion, hot against each other, involved in the war itself in impulse and opinion if not in action.
Such divisions amongst us would be fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of the proper performance of our duty as the one great nation at peace, the one people holding itself ready to play a part of impartial mediation and speak the counsels of peace and accommodation, not as a partisan, but as a friend.
I venture, therefore, my fellow countrymen, to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides. The United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men’s souls. We must be impartial in thought as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.
American neutrality would not last. Beginning in early 1915, Germany used submarines to blockade shipping to Britain and declared that even ships from neutral countries would be targeted. By 1917, attacks on Atlantic shipping had stepped up, threatening American vessels. The US severed diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, 1917 and declared war on Germany two months later, on April 6.
On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, effectively granting women the vote. The original Constitution had given the individual states the power to set the qualifications for suffrage. This power was limited by the Fifteenth Amendment, which stipulated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Women’s rights activists, especially Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who drafted a Constitutional amendment granting women suffrage, had seen it as a logical corollary to suffrage for freed slaves, but had failed to get sufficient Congressional support.
Beginning in 1910, a succession of western states began to grant women full suffrage. This movement accelerated with the rise of the Progressive Party in 1912. The Progressive Party Platform pledged to push for women’s suffrage:
The Progressive party, believing that no people can justly claim to be a true democracy which denies political rights on account of sex, pledges itself to the task of securing equal suffrage to men and women alike.
Although the newly formed third party and its candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, lost the presidential election in 1912, the Democrat who took office—Woodrow Wilson—was persuaded by 1918 to back the cause. Many people credit Carrie Chapman Catt, then head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with winning key political support when her organization publicly backed US entrance into World War I. NAWSA’s move reassured many who had feared women’s political attitudes would change the nation’s politics. Wilson responded with a tribute to women’s support of the war effort in his 1918 State of the Union message:
And what shall we say of the women,—of their instant intelligence,
quickening every task that they touched; their capacity for organization
and cooperation, which gave their action discipline and enhanced the
effectiveness of everything they attempted; their aptitude at tasks to
which they had never before set their hands; their utter self—sacrifice
alike in what they did and in what they gave? Their contribution to the
great result is beyond appraisal. They have added a new lustre to the
annals of American womanhood.
The least tribute we can pay them is to make them the equals of men in
political rights as they have proved themselves their equals in every field
of practical work they have entered, whether for themselves or for their
Wanting to settle the suffrage issue before it could become a point of contention in the elections of 1920, Wilson pushed Congress to act. In 1919 the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses had been achieved, making it possible to submit the amendment to the states for ratification. The three-quarters majority of ratifying states was achieved when Tennessee voted to approve the amendment on August 18, 1920.
Forty years ago, on August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon became the only chief executive in our history to resign mid-term. He did so two weeks after a Supreme Court ruling that his secret tapes of Oval Office discussions be handed over to a Justice Department-appointed special prosecutor who was investigating White House involvement in a 1972 burglary of Democratic presidential campaign headquarters. Within days of this ruling, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon. A week later, the newly released audio tapes showed Nixon to have been deeply involved in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Anticipating that the full House would approve the articles of impeachment, triggering a Senate trial, Nixon decided to step down.
In its decision in United States V. Nixon, the Supreme Court first cited Marbury v. Madison, reaffirming “that it is the province and the duty of this Court ‘to say what the law is’ with respect to the claim of privilege presented in this case.” Then it examined Nixon’s claim of executive privilege. While granting that the public interest requires that the President be able to discuss matters of state in secrecy with his advisors, the Court refused to privilege private speech of the Chief Executive that could show his involvement in criminal activity:
The President’s need for complete candor and objectivity from advisers calls for great deference from the court. However, when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises. Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the argument . . . .
In designing the structure of our Government and dividing and allocating the sovereign power among three co-equal branches, the [Framers] sought to provide a comprehensive system, but the separate powers were not intended to operate with absolute independence. To read the Art. II powers of the President as providing an absolute privilege as against a subpoena essential to enforcement of criminal statutes on no more than a generalized claim of the public interest in confidentiality of nonmilitary and nondiplomatic discussions would upset the constitutional balance of “a workable government” and gravely impair the role of the courts under Art. III.