Monthly Archives: August 2014

John Winthrop’s Vision of a Commonwealth Based in Charity

429px-John_Winthrop_lithograph_004In 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.


A Step Toward Self-Government: The Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Today is the 385th anniversary of the Cambridge Agreement signed by the shareholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company.


A depiction of the three lead ships in the Winthrop fleet, painted around 1880 by William Halsall.

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. 


Woodrow Wilson Asks Americans to Remain Neutral on War in Europe

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.


French heavy cavalry march to war in August 1914.

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.

Two Male Assists to the Women’s Suffrage Movement

PamphletFrontPageProgressivePartyPlatform1912On 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.

640px-President_Woodrow_Wilson_portrait_December_2_1912Although 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.

The Supreme Court Ruling that Led to Nixon’s Resignation

Richard_M._Nixon,_ca._1935_-_1982_-_NARA_-_530679Forty 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.


The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 50 Years Later

On the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to a vast escalation of the US involvement in Vietnam, we reprint the following post:Gulf_of_Tonkin_location_wikiCommons

During the Kennedy administration, the US became minimally involved in a civil war in Vietnam, sending military advisors to assist the South Vietnamese in countering efforts, supported by North Vietnam, to unify Vietnam under a communist government.

Unlike the event that triggered large-scale military involvement in Korea—the invasion of the south from the northern part of a divided country—the episode that triggered a gradually escalating US military involvement in Viet Nam could be described as an isolated attack. North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the US Destroyer Maddox, on August 2, 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam.  Attacks reported to have taken place on the Maddox and another Destroyer, the Turner Joy, on August 4 appear not to have taken place, although this was not known for certain at the time.

President Johnson announced the attacks in a television address to the American people on the night of August 4. The next day he sent Congress a request for “a resolution expressing the unity and determination of the United States in supporting freedom and in protecting peace in Southeast Asia.”

Congress passed a resolution on August 10, now known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, stating that the United States was prepared to use “all necessary steps, including the use of armed force,” as the President determined, to defend states in southeast Asia asking for assistance.

In the light of more recent history of US military intervention overseas, the last paragraph of Johnson’s message asking for the resolution makes interesting reading:

The events of this week would in any event have made the passage of a congressional resolution essential. But there is an additional reason for doing so at a time when we are entering on 3 months of political campaigning. Hostile nations must understand that in such a period the United States will continue to protect its national interests, and that in these matters there is no division among us. is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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