A Vast Experiment

Early America was a different world. There was a lot more going on back then than typically makes it into history textbooks and popular historical accounts. It was a world or rather set of worlds that was in a constant state of turmoil and conflict. Wars, rebellions, riots, and other fights for power were regular events.

The diversity both within, between, and at the edge of the imperial territories was immense. This diversity was racial, ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic. The vast tracts of land, populated to varying degrees, were controlled by various empires and tribes. Several different countries had colonies in the Mid-Atlantic region of New York, New Jersey, etc—a key region fought over in the seeking to control the Eastern seaboard. Of course, there was the French and Spanish settlers all over the place—in Canada, the Ohio Valley, Florida, New Orleans, Southwest, and West Coast. Even the Russians had colonized or otherwise claimed large areas of North America, from Alaska down to Northern California.

Many Native Americans had adopted some of the culture from or developed particular kinds of relationships with these other Europeans (and they influenced European culture in return). William Penn was able to have peaceful relationships with the tribes in the region because he was building off of the trust the French traders had developed. But Penn deserves much credit, as he was a tolerant guy. Even though he was English, he welcomed people from all over into his colony, which led Germans to be the majority in Pennsylvania. Places like South Carolina also had a non-British majority, which in this case was black majority that lasted until after the Civil War.

African-Americans, it could be easily argued, had more freedom before the American Revolution than immediately after it, more freedom before the Civil War than with the ending of Reconstruction. It wasn’t a continuous increase of benefit and opportunity for all involved—far from it. Race and gender identities were more fluid prior to the Revolution. There was a surprising amount of tolerance or simply gray area. It took the American Revolution to more clearly begin the process of demarcation of social roles and the racial hierarchy, which then was further solidified a century later during Jim Crow. In particular, the American Revolution had the sad result of effectively shutting down the growing abolition movement, until it was forced back to mainstream concern with the events that led to the Civil War. It turns out that African-Americans who fought for the British were the greatest defenders of liberty, as they had the most at stake.

Plus, in early America, there was less government control. Individuals and communities were to varying degrees left to their own devices. This was particular true in distant rural areas and even more true at and beyond the frontier. The colonies and later the states weren’t isolated from the other societies on the continent (imperial, native, and creole). Mixing was fairly typical and being multilingual was a necessity for many.

A significant number of Native American tribes retained independence for most of American history. Large scale federal oppression and genocide of natives didn’t begin until the major Indian Wars following the Civil War. The last free Native Americans weren’t fully suppressed, either killed or forced onto reservations, until the first half of the twentieth century. In the century or two before that, there was no certainty that the European immigrants and their descendants would rule most of the continent. If a few key battles had been won by the other side, history would have gone in entirely different directions. Native Americans and other independent societies didn’t give up freedom without a fight. It is easy to imagine Native Americans having combined forces to develop their own nation, and in fact that is precisely what some visionary leaders tried to do.

Even for white women and men, there was in many ways more freedom in early America. There was often a live-and-let-live attitude, as people were maybe more focused on basic issues of daily living and survival. Local issues and personal relationships were often more determinant on how people were treated, not large-scale societal norms and laws. There was also a growing movement, during the late colonial era, for rights of women, the poor, and the landless. This included a push toward universal suffrage or at least closer toward it. During the American Revolution, women in some places had won the right to vote, only to have it be taken away again after the oppressive patriarchs regained control.

Early America included immense diversity: racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, political, etc. This is on top of the diversity of gender, marriage, and family life. This was at a time when social norms hadn’t fully been set. Such things as the independent nuclear family was first established among Quakers. Also, premarital sex was typical, many marriages following after pregnancy, but some people simply lived in sin. Single parents and ‘bastards’ were common.

Enforcement of social order was relatively minimal and mostly remained a responsibility of neighbors and communities. There were no prisons and police forces until after the American Revolution. Also, the promotion of family values as part of religious morality and patriotic duty didn’t fully take root until this later era, when the ideal of making good citizens became more central. Prior to that, the focus was on communities and they often were loose associations. Many people lived far apart. Churches and established congregations were fairly rare. Most Americans didn’t attend church regularly and one’s religion was largely a personal and private issue, except in certain urban areas where people were highly concentrated, especially where the local ruling elite demanded and had the power to enforce religious conformity.

It’s not that there weren’t punishments for transgressions. But it just wasn’t systematic and fully institutionalized. People tended to take care of their own problems and so it depended on how a local population perceived behavior, dependent on personal and communal experience. People living near each other were often times close relations, such as kin and long time friends, and they were highly dependent on one another. These people were more forgiving and tolerant in certain ways, even as vigilante justice could lead them to be cruel at other times, especially toward perceived outsiders.

A more general point is that early America was a time of nearly constant change. The world often dramatically shifted from one generation to the next. Social order and social norms were in constant flux. Along with the autonomy of relatively isolated lives, this led to a certain kind of freedom in how people lived and organized their communities. This is what attracted so many religious and political dissenters and hence much radical politics leading to regular challenges to power and the status quo, including riots and rebellions, along with peaceful protests and petitions.

It was a highly unstable society, even ignoring the constant fighting with Native Americans and other imperial subjects. England, in trying to maintain its own stability, ended up initially sending most of its convicts to the American colonies. Around a fifth of all British immigrants during the 18th century were convicts. This included political prisoners, but also common criminals and simply the desperately poor.

For the first centuries of American society, there were regular waves of poor immigrants, political dissidents, religious dissenters, indentured servants, and slaves. These were the defeated people of the world and the dregs of society. That is the broad foundation that America was built upon. These people were survivors in a brutal world. In response, some became brutal in kind, but for others they saw opportunity and hope. Either way, they were forced to make the best of their situation.

It was a fertile time of new ideas and ideals. Diverse people were thrown together. They experienced ways of life and ways of thinking that they otherwise would have never known about. Without fully established authority and entrenched government, they had to figure things out on their own. It was a vast experiment, quite messy and not always ending well, but at other times leading to fascinating and unpredictable results.

Early America held great potential. The world we live in wasn’t inevitable. Forces collided and in the struggle a new social order began to take shape, but the contesting of power has been endless and ongoing. The consequences of that prior era still haven’t fully settled out, for good and ill.

* * *

For your edification and reading pleasure:

England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution 1640-1642
by David Cressy

The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661
by Carla Gardina Pestana

Fire under the Ashes: An Atlantic History of the English Revolution
by John Donoghue

The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
by Christopher Hill

The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660
by Alison Games

Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World 
by Alison Games

Diversity and Unity in Early North America
by Phillip Morgan

American Colonies: The Settling of North America, Vol. 1
by Alan Taylor

The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution
by Alan Taylor

The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America
by James Axtell

Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America
by James Axtell

Strangers Within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire
by Bernard Bailyn (Editor) and Philip D. Morgan (Editor)

The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction
by Bernard Bailyn

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675
by Bernard Bailyn

Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution
by Bernard Bailyn

Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
by Colin Woodard

The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America
by Kevin Phillips

Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans
by Malcolm Gaskill

Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776
by Jon Butler

Crossroads of Empire
by Ned C. Landsman

At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763
by Jane T. Merritt

The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815
by Richard White

Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years’ War in North America
by Warren R. Hofstra (Editor)

Frontier Cities: Encounters at the Crossroads of Empire
by Jay Gitlin (Editor), Barbara Berglund (Editor), and Adam Arenson (Editor)

The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent
by Kathleen DuVal

At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America
by Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall

Breaking The Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War In Virginia And Pennsylvania 1754-1765
by Matthew C. Ward

Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier
by James H. Merrell

William Penn and the Quaker Legacy
by John Moretta

Wild Yankees: The Struggle for Independence along Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Frontier
by Paul B. Moyer

Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815
by Kerby A. Miller (Editor), Arnold Schrier (Editor), Bruce D. Boling (Editor), and David N. Doyle (Editor)

The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764
by Patrick Griffin

The Planting of New Virginia: Settlement and Landscape in the Shenandoah Valley
by Warren R. Hofstra

The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia
by Michael A. McDonnell

The Virginia Germans
by Klaus Wust

The Story of the Palatines: An Episode in Colonial History
by Sanford H. Cobb

The Germans In Colonial Times
by Lucy Forney Bittinger

Early Eighteenth Century Palatine Emigration: A British Government Redemptioner Project to Manufacture Naval Stores
by Walter Allen Knittle

German Immigration to America: The First Wave
by Don Heinrich Tolzmann

Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic
by Steven M. Nolt

Palatines, Liberty, and Property: German Lutherans in Colonial British America
by A. G. Roeber

Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America
by Susanah Shaw Romney

The Worlds of the Seventeenth-Century Hudson Valley
by Jaap Jacobs (Editor) and L. H. Roper (Editor)

The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America
by Jaap Jacobs

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
by Russell Shorto

Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture
by Roger Panetta (Editor) and Russell Shorto (Foreword)

Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652-1664
by Janny Venema

Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661-1710
by Jr. Burke Thomas E.

Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York
by Donna Merwick

Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York
by Judith L. Van Buskirk

A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790
by Edward Countryman

Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution
by Ruma Chopra

The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City, 1763-1787
by Joseph S. Tiedeman (Editor) and Eugene R. Fingerhut (Editor)

Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1763-1776
by Joseph S. Tiedemann

The Other Loyalists: Ordinary People, Royalism, and the Revolution in the Middle Colonies, 1763-1787
by Joseph S. Tiedemann

Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War
by Thomas B. Allen

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution
by Kathleen DuVal

Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century
by April Lee Hatfield

Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America
by James D. Rice

The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia
by Wilcomb E. Washburn

Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina
by Marjoleine Kars

Farming Dissenters: The Regulator Movement in Piedmont North Carolina
by Carole Watterson Troxler

A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713
by Noeleen McIlvenna

The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina
by David S. Cecelski

These Daring Disturbers of the Public Peace: The Struggle for Property and Power in Early New Jersey
by Brendan McConville

Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean
by Matthew Mulcahy

On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World
by Paul M. Pressly

The Short Life of Free Georgia: Class and Slavery in the Colonial South
by Noeleen McIlvenna

The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America
by Richard R. Beeman

The Glorious Revolution in America
by David S. Lovejoy

1676: The End of American Independence
by Stephen Webb

Lord Churchill’s Coup: The Anglo-American Empire and the Glorious Revolution Reconsidered
by Stephen S. Webb

Marlborough’s America
by Stephen Saunders Webb

The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution
by Owen Stanwood

Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution
by Thomas P. Slaughter

When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation
by Francois Furstenberg

The Radicalism of the American Revolution
by Gordon S. Wood

Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation
by Alfred F. Young (Editor), Ray Raphael (Editor), and Gary Nash (Editor)

Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution
by Alfred F. Young

Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism
by Alfred F. Young

A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence
by Ray Raphael

The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord
by Ray Raphael

The Spirit of 74: How the American Revolution Began
by Ray Raphael and Marie Raphael

Taming Democracy: “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution
by Terry Bouton

American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People
by T. H. Breen

From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776
by Pauline Maier

The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams
by Pauline Maier

Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic
by Seth Cotlar

Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World
by Janet Polasky

Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War
by Les Standiford

The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America
by Gary B. Nash

Between Sovereignty and Anarchy: The Politics of Violence in the American Revolutionary Era
by Patrick Griffin (Editor), Robert G. Ingram (Editor), Peter S. Onuf (Editor), Brian Schoen (Editor)

The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution
by Benjamin L. Carp

Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and the Lower Sort during the American Revolution
by Steven J. Rosswurm

Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia
by Jessica Choppin Roney

The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding
by Eric Nelson

The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America
by Barbara Clark Smith

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America
by Chris Beneke (Editor) andChristopher S. Grenda (Editor)

The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past
by Margaret Bendroth

Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism
by Chris Beneke

Liberty of Conscience and the Growth of Religious Diversity in Early America, 1636-1786
by Carla Gardina Pestana

On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren
by Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman

Jesus Is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America
by Katherine Carté Engel

Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem
by Craig D. Atwood

Two Troubled Souls: An Eighteenth-Century Couple’s Spiritual Journey in the Atlantic World
by Aaron Spencer Fogleman

The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800
by Dee E. Andrews

Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution
by Joseph S. Moore

Loyal Protestants and Dangerous Papists: Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic, 1630-1690
by Antoinette Sutto

Puritans and Catholics in the Trans-Atlantic World 1600-1800
by Crawford Gribben (Editor) and R. Spurlock (Editor)

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
by Matthew Stewart

The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America
by Paul B. Moyer

Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend
by Herbert A. Wisbey Jr.

The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy
by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark

Gender and the English Revolution
by Ann Hughes

The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty
by Jean Zimmerman

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World
by Emily Clark

Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727-1834
by Emily Clark

Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia
by Karin Wulf

Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England
by Susan Juster

Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

First Generations: Women in Colonial America
by Carol Berkin

Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence
by Carol Berkin

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation
by Cokie Roberts

Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation
by Cokie Roberts

Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America
by Linda K. Kerber

Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World
by Mary Beth Norton

Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800
by Mary Beth Norton

Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society
by Mary Beth Norton

Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760-1820
by Susan E. Klepp

Women & Freedom in Early America
by Larry Eldridge

These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia
by Susan Branson

Dangerous to Know: Women, Crime, and Notoriety in the Early Republic
by Susan Branson

Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830
by Clare A. Lyons

Sexual Revolution in Early America
by Richard Godbeer

Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America
by Rachel Hope Cleves

Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina
by Kirsten Fischer

Rape and Sexual Power in Early America
by Sharon Block

The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South
by Catherine Clinton (Editor) and Michele Gillespie (Editor)

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
by Thavolia Glymph

The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South
by Catherine Clinton

Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South
by Martha Hodes

The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier
by Turk McCleskey

Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America
by Peter H. Wood

Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion
by Peter H. Wood

Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800
by Allan Kulikoff

Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry
by Philip D. Morgan

Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora
by Edda L. Fields-Black

Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas
by Judith A. Carney

Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina
by Daniel C. Littlefield

For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England
by Allegra di Bonaventura

Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia
by Eva Sheppard Wolf

Against the Odds: Free Blacks in the Slave Societies of the Americas
by Jane G. Landers

The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves
by Andrew Levy

Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation
by Rhys Isaac

Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730-1810
by James Sidbury

Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802
by Douglas R. Egerton

“Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676
by T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes

Black Society in Spanish Florida
by Jane Landers

Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization Louisiana
by Arnold R. Hirsch (Editor) and Joseph Logsdon (Editor)

Romanticism, Revolution, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868
by Caryn Cosse Bell

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan
by Jill Lepore

The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence
by Alan Gilbert

Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America
by Douglas R. Egerton

Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation
by Gerald Horne

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America
by Gerald Horne

Confronting Black Jacobins: The U.S., the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic
by Gerald Horne

Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions
by Jane G. Landers

The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution
by Sidney Kaplan

Race and Revolution
by Gary B. Nash

Eighteenth-Century Criminal Transportation
by Gwenda Morgan (Editor) and Peter Rushton (editor)

Emigrants in Chains. a Social History of the Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-Conformists
by Peter Wilson Coldham

Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America
by Anthony Vaver

Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775
by A. Roger Ekirch

White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America
by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh

To Serve Well and Faithfully : Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800
by Sharon V. Salinger

By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority
by Holly Brewer

Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America
by Ruth Wallis Herndon (Editor) and John E. Murray (Editor)

Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution
by David Waldstreicher

Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England
by Ruth Wallis Herndon

Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America
by Jen Manion

Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia
by Peter Thompson

In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts
by David W. Conroy

To Imagine and Understand

In reading lately, my main interest has been on the distant past of ancient civilizations. But circuitous curiosity has led me to other views about where we are heading into the future. The two, of course, are related—how we perceive the past determines what kind of future we can conceive. Putting that aside for the moment, let me focus on the latter.

One book that has held my attention the past few days is Hive Mind by Garett Jones. It’s part of the IQ zeitgeist or rather a response to it, an attempt to bring in a larger context. He discusses the Flynn effect, although interestingly he doesn’t mention the moral Flynn effect. That is an unfortunate omission, as it directly relates to the book’s topic.

Steven Pinker first explored the moral Flynn effect. I’d highly recommend reading Jones’ book along with Pinker’s, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It isn’t a matter of entirely agreeing with either author. What is important is that a necessary discussion is finally being had and these two represent innovative attempts at framing the issue for greater insight and understanding.

A major point that Pinker makes is about the increase of abstract thinking. An aspect of that is the rise in the ability to think in larger and more inclusive moral categories. And also the corollaries of perspective-taking and perspective-shifting, sympathy and empathy, theory of mind, etc. The following is one example of that below in terms of the novel, the kind of thing that some would label as “fluff.” Pinker writes (Kindle Locations 13125-13143):

It would be surprising if fictional experiences didn’t have similar effects to real ones, because people often blur the two in their memories. 65 And a few experiments do suggest that fiction can expand sympathy. One of Batson’s radio-show experiments included an interview with a heroin addict who the students had been told was either a real person or an actor. 66 The listeners who were asked to take his point of view became more sympathetic to heroin addicts in general, even when the speaker was fictitious (though the increase was greater when they thought he was real). And in the hands of a skilled narrator, a fictitious victim can elicit even more sympathy than a real one. In his book The Moral Laboratory, the literary scholar Jèmeljan Hakemulder reports experiments in which participants read similar facts about the plight of Algerian women through the eyes of the protagonist in Malike Mokkeddem’s novel The Displaced or from Jan Goodwin’s nonfiction exposé Price of Honor. 67 The participants who read the novel became more sympathetic to Algerian women than those who read the true-life account; they were less likely, for example, to blow off the women’s predicament as a part of their cultural and religious heritage. These experiments give us some reason to believe that the chronology of the Humanitarian Revolution, in which popular novels preceded historical reform, may not have been entirely coincidental: exercises in perspective-taking do help to expand people’s circle of sympathy.

The science of empathy has shown that sympathy can promote genuine altruism, and that it can be extended to new classes of people when a beholder takes the perspective of a member of that class, even a fictitious one. The research gives teeth to the speculation that humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering. And as such, the cognitive process of perspective-taking and the emotion of sympathy must figure in the explanation for many historical reductions in violence. They include institutionalized violence such as cruel punishments, slavery, and frivolous executions; the everyday abuse of vulnerable populations such as women, children, homosexuals, racial minorities, and animals; and the waging of wars, conquests, and ethnic cleansings with a callousness to their human costs.”

What we imagine matters. What matters even more is what we are capable of imagining. The society we are born into either helps to develop or stunt our imaginations, both individually and collectively.

There is a complicated relationship between imagination and reality. For us to know and understand a fact, for us to grasp the relevance of data, we must imaginatively enter into a world of possible meanings and implications. That is a core part even of the scientific method. A hypothesis has to be imagined before it can be articulated and tested, either to be proven or disproven.

However, sometimes a hypothesis is also a prediction, sometimes even a dire prediction. Still, the person presenting a prediction doesn’t necessarily want to be proven right—some hypotheses are best left untested.

As I was thinking about this, I came across something else from yet another book, a collection of essays edited by Richard Grusin, The Nonhuman Turn. It is from the essay in chapter 6: “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis; or, The Temporality of Networks” by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (Kindle Locations 3401-3419):

“To exhaust exhaustion we must also deal with— and emphasize— the precariousness of programs and their predictions. That is, if they are to help us save the future— to help us fight the exhaustion of planetary reserves, and so on— they can do so only if we use the gap between their future predictions and the future not to dismiss them, but rather to frame their predictions as calls for responsibility. That is, “trusting” a program does not mean letting it decide the future or even framing its future predictions as simply true, but instead acknowledging the impossibility of knowing its truth in advance while nonetheless responding to it. This is perhaps made most clear through the example of global climate models, which attempt to convince people that something they can’t yet experience, something simulated, is true. (This difficulty is amplified by the fact that we experience weather, not climate— like capital, climate, which is itself the product of modern computation, is hard to grasp.) Trusted models of global mean temperature by organizations such as Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) “chart” changes in mean temperature from 1970 to 2100.61 Although the older temperatures are based on historical data, and thus verifiable, the future temperatures are not. This suturing of the difference between past and future is not, however, the oddest thing about these models and their relation to the future, although it is certainly the basis from which they are most often attacked. The weirdest and most important thing about their temporality is their hopefully effective deferral of the future: these predictive models are produced so that if they are persuasive and thus convince us to cut back on our carbon emissions, then what they predict will not come about. Their predictions will not be true or verifiable. This relationship is necessary because by the time we know whether their predictions are true or not, it will be too late. (This is perhaps why the George W. Bush administration supported global climate change research: by investigating the problem, building better models, they bought more time for polluters.) I stress this temporality not because I’m a climate change denier— the fact that carbon monoxide raises temperature has been known for more than a century— but because, by engaging this temporality in terms of responsibility, we can best respond to critics who focus on the fallibility of algorithms and data, as if the gap between the future and future predictions was reason for dismissal rather than hope.

In imagining what we fear, it opens up to the potential of imagining the alternatives, specifically that of catastrophe prevented or dystopia avoided. The dire prediction can goad people into action and maybe inspire them toward another direction, hope rather than dismissal.

Take the example of the Club of Rome report, The Limits of Growth. It was published in 1972, a couple years after the first celebration of Earth Day. There were many responses to it, including dismissal while others took it seriously.

The doubters claimed it was disproven because it never came true.

First, it apparently is unclear how many of the doubters read the report, as the predictions extended far into the coming century. The Rational Wiki states that, “It is often quote mined to make it appear as if it predicted total societal collapse by the end of the 20th century. Limits to Growth, in fact, offered various scenarios and a 2008 study has shown that the core predictions in its business-as-usual, or “standard run,” scenario trends have held true.[5]” As Matthew R. Simmons wrote (Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All?):

“After reading The Limits to Growth, I was amazed. Nowhere in the book was there any mention about running out of anything by 2000. Instead, the book’s concern was entirely focused on what the world might look like 100 years later. There was not one sentence or even a single word written about an oil shortage, or limit to any specific resource, by the year 2000.

At the Guardian, Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander quoted the conclusion of The Limits to Growth:

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

And then they noted that, “So far, there’s little to indicate they got that wrong.” Considering the report was published in 1972, that next hundred years goes further into the future than I’m likely to personally experience, although the generations immediately following my own surely will.

Second, even if they actually had developed a model that showed under continuing existent trends there was one possible scenario of the world ending by 2000, the survival of civilization into the 21st century wouldn’t prove they were wrong. It could simply mean the the conditions changed and so the trends shifted. Anyway, it wasn’t as if they were making predictions as dire as imminent societal collapse. The report was pointing to various trends and mathematically modeled scenarios: If this, then what? Or if that, then what else? It was informed speculation, a rather modest act of imagination well within the bounds of rational argument and factual evidence.

The reason the Club of Rome report was on my mind is because my father mentioned it to me. He leans toward denialism or at least, as a mainstream conservative, a profoundly ideological mistrust and wariness. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the crazy ’60s and ’70s, both of my parents were caught up in the mood of the times. The culture wars had yet to define all of reality and they were going through a liberal phase of their young adulthoods.

The first Earth Day happened when my mother was 25 years old and my father was 27 years old. It was a year before they had their first child, my oldest brother. And that first child was a year before the Club of Rome report. My father told me that the report depressed him, considering the proposed population growth and resource shortages. They had two more kids after the first (in 1973 and 1975), and I was the last. They decided to stop at three, despite wanting a larger family. They thought it would have been irresponsible to have more children on a planet that quickly was becoming overpopulated and overburdened, and even three was pushing it from their perspective.

So, the Club of Rome report changed their behavior. I imagine it changed many people’s behaviors. It is interesting that my father now sees that report as having been proven wrong. Wasn’t it’s purpose to alter choices made and hence to alter the results caused and costs incurred? Apparently, that is precisely what it did.

The early dire predictions might have changed the behavior, directly and indirectly, of possibly hundreds of millions of people around the world. Not to mention changing the behaviors of many in positions of power and influence, both inside and outside of government. Those effected, such as through wide-scale environmental regulations, would include the most (if not all) of the planet’s population, not to mention the biosphere itself and every ecosystem within it.

All of the major environmental policies came after the Club of Rome report. Take one example, that of air pollution regulation. It was in the 1970s that the United States the Clean Air Act. That severely limited the lead allowed in gasoline. It has since been credited for the largest drop in violent crime, and it should be noted that decreasing lead toxicity is also directly correlated with increasing average IQ, a boost to the Flynn effect and hence the moral Flynn effect. This pattern has been seen in countries all across the world, following their own regulations—although lead in gasoline only began to be restricted in sub-Saharan Africa less than a decade ago, 2006. Still, it isn’t even just about lead toxicity, as all pollution taken in combination leads to many externalized costs on the human level (and that is with environmental regulations in place):

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.”

That probably doesn’t even include ecosystem destruction, natural resource depletion, climate change disasters, and other environmental effects (increase of floods, droughts, desertification, poisonous algae blooms, malaria, etc).

Imagine that the Club of Rome report had never been written and never convinced the major governments to have taken any regulatory actions—if: pollution and environmental destruction had grown far worse than it is now, climate change and severe weather patterns had worsened, violent crime rates had shot further up, and the Flynn effect for rising average IQ had stalled. And imagine that multiplied across the entire earth’s population, a population growing exponentially faster (maybe already having reached 15 billion, instead of a century from now).

Yet that isn’t what happened. The Club of Rome report had a large impact, both on personal behavior and public policy. As a complex network of causal links and contributing factors, the collective effect (cumulative and exponential) magnified down the line might have massively altered the course of development, societally and environmentally. This might have helped to prevent or forestall negative consequences and challenging events. If the global population had grown even faster and environmental regulations had not been enacted in the major industrial countries, no one knows what might have resulted.

This obvious success of environmentalist ‘alarmists’ goes right over the head of the critics, i.e., denialists. The most famous of the Club of Rome critics, Bjorn Lomborg, lambasted the report a few years ago:

“Even in the developed world, outdoor air pollution is still the biggest environmental killer (at least 250,000 dead each year), although environmental regulation has reduced the death toll dramatically over the past half century. Indoor air pollution in the developed world kills almost nobody. Whereas the Club of Rome imagined an idyllic past with no pollution and happy farmers and a future world choked by fumes and poisons from industrialization run amok, the reality is quite different. Over the last century, pollution has neither spiraled out of control nor gotten more deadly, and the risk of death from air pollution is predicted to continue to drop (see Figure 4).

“Who Cares?

“So the Limits to Growth project got its three main drivers spectacularly wrong and the other two modestly wrong. The world is not running out of resources, not running out of food, and not gagging on pollution, and the world’s population and industrial output are rising sustainably. So what? Why should anyone care now? Because the project’s analysis sunk deep into popular and elite consciousness and helps shape the way people think about a host of important policy issues today.”

Such willful ignorance is mind-boggling. It is a total lack of both comprehension and imagination. He can’t envision the possible futures of that moment in 1972. It is beyond him to consider what would have happened if we had continued on the path we were on with no decreases of pollution, resource depletion, population growth, etc. He treats the report as if it were a mere academic paper or, worse, a melodramatic fiction. It was always intended to influence people and yet Lomborg acts as if the world was predetermined to end up where we now are, as if our choices and policies are meaningless or inevitable, and as if moral concern and moral imagination have no power to inspire new possibilities.

Lomborg continues his skewering of those misguided ‘alarmists’:

“In the developed world, the push to eliminate pesticides has ignored their immense benefits. Going completely organic would increase the cost of agricultural production in the United States by more than $100 billion annually. Since organic farming is at least 16 percent less efficient, maintaining the same output would require devoting an additional 50 million acres to farmland — an area larger than the state of California. And since eating fruits and vegetables helps reduce cancer, and since organic farming would lead to higher prices and thus lower consumption, a shift to purely organic farming would cause tens of thousands of additional cancer deaths.

“Paying more than $100 billion, massively increasing the amount of the country’s farmland, and killing tens of thousands of people seems a poor return for avoiding the dozens of American deaths due to pesticides annually. Yet this is how the Limits to Growth project and similar efforts have taught the world to think, making people worry imprudently about marginal issues while ignoring sensible actions for addressing major ones.”

It doesn’t occur to him to consider the costs. Besides the environmental destruction to ecosystems and species, our over-reliance on chemicals is itself a contributing factor to the high cancer rates. Plus, the use of chemicals for farming has allowed less nutritious foods to be produced, as these new farming methods are destructive to the soil. On top of that, I wouldn’t dismiss the impact on species. Consider the honey bee with global populations decimated by pesticides. Our entire way of life is dependent on the honey bee. His entire argument falls apart at this point.

The old Chinese curse is to tell someone, May you live in interesting times. Presumably, that is a curse directed at younger and healthier people who will outlive the one uttering it. Maybe the times we live in are less ‘interesting’ than they otherwise would have been.

That is the thing about predictions. If enough people or simply the right people are paying attention, it can entirely alter the prediction. When making dire predictions, usually it is hoped that people will be motivated to take actions to prevent the prediction. So, the best dire prediction is the one that falsifies itself. But by its nature such a prevented prediction can never get credit for what it accomplished.

It is the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I guess we could call it a self-denying prophecy.

That is the power of the moral imagination. But imagination is always at play, even when its power is misunderstood and misapplied.

In responding to denialists, Rex Weyler wrote:

“New York Times economist Peter Passel attacked the Limits book by conjuring false claims that all the study’s simulations “invariably end in collapse” and that the book predicted depletion of critical resources by 1990. The book, however, made no such predictions, and on the contrary, offered sound suggestions to avoid collapse. These facts did not deter the denialists.

“There are no great limits to growth,” U.S. president Ronald Reagan declared in 1985, “when men and women are free to follow their dreams … because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder.

“This inspiring Reaganism serves as the official corporate rebuff to any talk of environmental limits. Lomborg claimed: “Smartness will outweigh the extra resource use.” Dreams. Imagination. Smartness. Humans, the theory went, are just too clever to be restricted by biophysical limits.”

Imagination, instead helping us to understand reality, can disconnect us from the world around us. It can even disconnect us from our own humanity. The ruling elite in particular can come to believe, through technology and brute power, that they have become as if gods. They don’t bow down to reality. They create their own reality:

“The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.””

This goes back to Garett’s view in Hive Mind. In the ruling elite worldview, it is all about a self-empowered meritocracy. They assume they are the best minds, men of vision and action. Indeed, the ruling elite on average are high IQ and well educated. But as Garett argues, individuals can only be as good as the society they are part of.

Imagination has the potential to not only connect us to larger realities, larger webs of causes and greater visions. Beyond that, it allows us to connect to the world around us and the earth upon which we all live. Imagination is an immense power—we should be careful how it is used and for what purpose.

We need to remind ourselves that our world is built upon millennia of societal progress and millions of years of evolution. In doing so, we need to reimagine our place, as members of both human and nonhuman communities. We aren’t the center of Creation, no matter how smart we think we are.

On Teaching Well

I noticed that one of my older posts was linked to at another blog, U.S. History Ideas for Teachers. The author is Lauren Schreiber Brown and her piece was both detailed and thoughtful. The link in question is the second in this paragraph (from The 7 Things All Good Lessons Have in Common):

And realistically, that’s what a lot of us do. We know what we did last year, and yesterday, and so what comes next is comparing the North and South. But we should–every year–ask ourselves why do students need to know about the similarities and differences between the North and South? What is the point? How does this understanding help us better comprehend both the onset of the Civil War as well as its outcome? Do any of these differences still exist? In what way(s) does studying this topic improve the quality of our students’ lives?

I wanted to respond. But my response was too long for the character count at that blog. Plus, even the shorter comment I left there was never approved or else disappeared into the internet purgatory. So, I’ll make it a post, as I think it’s a worthy topic.

* * * *

I’m not a teacher, but I found this post interesting. I like how much thought you are putting into this. Education is important and teaching is a tough job. I’m glad to know teachers like you are out there are considering these kinds of issues and questions.

I noticed you linked to my blog, the post comparing the North and South. I spent my own grade school education initially in the Midwest and later in the Deep South. I never liked history, I must admit. I can’t say I had bad teachers, but they never quite found a way to make history seem to matter in my experience. In particular, I didn’t learn anything about the differences between the North and South.

I don’t even remember what I was taught in any history class. None of it ever stuck. I didn’t even know I enjoyed learning about history until I was well into adulthood. In recent years, I’ve taken history more seriously and have become fascinated about it, and not just about American history either.

I’m constantly coming across new data. It amazes me all the things I didn’t learn in school. History, if taught well, should be one of the most engaging topics for students. Yet so many people similar to me were bored silly by history classes. Why is that?

Early America was an interesting place. But before I started studying on my own, I didn’t realize that was the case. Most Americans, for example, are unaware that several colonies had non-British majorities. I was reminded again of this diversity recently:

“…from every part of Europe.”

At that post, I share a passage from The World in 1776 by Marshall B. Davidson. The part that most stood out to me is where he points out that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” I never knew that.

That multicultural reality was a central point that Thomas Paine made in arguing for independence. He wrote that, “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

I realize that is just info. But a good teacher should be able to make it relevant by connecting the diversity of the past to the diversity of the present. It’s not as if America only became an immigrant country in the 20th century. We are living in a continuity of what came before. An effective teacher would bring history alive and get students excited through the teacher’s own engagement with the subject matter.

I know one thing that helped for me was doing genealogical research. That made it personally real. But that goes off into a different kind of learning experience.

Contrast that to how I was taught history when I was younger. I remember in one class that I took 20 pages of notes for a single test. The teacher wasn’t horrible and he did try to get us to think about what we were learning, but I remember just feeling swamped by endless factoids. I wasn’t able to assimilate the info and no one taught me how to do so. That is the biggest failure of school in my experience, the lack of teaching students how to learn which goes hand in hand with teaching the love of learning.

I was a fairly smart kid. I had a learning disability and that made it difficult, but I was able to learn when I felt engaged enough. Still, the way I was so often taught made me hate school. It felt like a pointless struggle. In a sink or swim education system, I usually found myself sinking.

I had to learn how to learn mostly on my own and mostly as an adult. And I doubt I’m alone in that experience. That is a problem for the education system, and it isn’t a problem that can easily be dealt with by individual teachers. I imagine teachers are too busy just trying to teach to the test that anything more involved than the basics is asking for the near impossible.

It makes me sad that teachers get blamed. Teachers don’t have the time and resources to be effective. To focus on one thing means to sacrifice everything else. I couldn’t imagine the amount of planning it takes to try to make it all work.

Your emphasis on a conclusion probably is important. More than trying to shove info into students’ heads, a teacher should help them to understand the significance, ideally both in terms of personal relevance and real world application. A conclusion should drive home some central point or issue. What is learned needs to be connected and framed for otherwise it will quickly be forgotten.

* * * *

I should point out that some of my favorite classes were also my most demanding.

I had an awesome art teacher. He was a professional artist and taught me some serious skills. But his teaching went way beyond that. He is the only teacher I ever had who taught me how to think on my own.

Of course, art is far different from history. Maybe more similar to history is a topic like English, which was one of my other favorite classes. I had an English teacher who was English and he focused on the classics. He didn’t shy away from teaching difficult works. I suppose it was in 11th grade when I took his class and one book we read was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a daunting piece of writing even for an adult. He simply taught me the love of engagement with a text, as it was clear how much he enjoyed what he taught.

It’s hard to know what is the difference that makes a difference. I’m sure there were students who were bored and disengaged even in those classes that I loved so much. Not everything is going to work well for all students. That is the greatest challenge, especially the more students there are in a single class. It’s easy for students to get lost in a teacher’s focus on the entire class.

In the end, I think the most important thing a teacher does is to model a particular attitude and sets of behaviors. Students won’t likely care about what a teacher doesn’t care about. On the other hand, a love of learning can be contagious, even for a subject matter a student normally dislikes. I ultimately think there is no such thing as boring material, even if some subjects are harder to teach than others.

* * * *

By the way, I thought I’d share with you some cool facts. Combined, they are an example of how cool facts can help make larger points and show greater connections.

William Penn died in 1718. That was the year Benjamin Franklin was indentured as a printer’s apprentice. Some years later as an older teenager, Franklin made his way to Philadelphia where he began to do his own printing. Pennsylvania was one of those colonies that had a non-British majority, as Penn had traveled in Germany and intentionally invited Germans among others to settle in his colony (it’s interesting to note that more Americans today have German ancestry than any other, especially in the Northern states). Franklin complained about all the Germans for fear they wouldn’t assimilate (sounds familiar?). But as a businessman he was quick to take advantage by printing the first German language newspaper there.

When Franklin was in London, he met Thomas Paine, both having in common their being autodidacts. It was also in London where Paine first saw major political and labor union organizing, along with regular food riots. I might note that it was in London that the Palatine Germans (in the early 1700s) first immigrated before many headed to the American colonies, although these aren’t the same Germans that mostly populated Pennsylvania. This particular influx of Germans did happen in Franklin’s childhood and so it was a major social issue at the time. Anyway, by way of Franklin, Paine made his way to the American colonies and he ended up in Philadelphia, which is the location of Germantown where among the Germans the abolition movement began, and also where Paine helped found the first American abolition society. It was in Philadelphia that Paine first experienced the diversity of the American colonies and so was inspired to see them as something more than a mere extension of England.

It is interesting that the British used so many Hessian soldiers. This was related to Great Britain having alliances with German states. King George III being the Elector of Hanover (ethnically German and the first in his line to speak English as his first language). In the American Revolution, there were Germans fighting on both sides. Many of the descendants of those Germans would also fight each other in the world wars, although then with Americans and the Britains as allies.

Thomas Paine died in 1809. That was the year Abraham Lincolon was born. Lincoln, of course, was famous for ending slavery (after Lincoln’s winning the presidency with the support of German-Americans, the Civil War was partly won because of the mass immigrations to the North, including the often idealistic and socially liberal German Forty-Eighters, refugees of a failed revolution). Less well known is that Lincoln was influenced by Paine’s writings and, like Paine, wrote a deist tract (the only copy of which was burned up by a friend who thought it threatened LIncoln’s political career).

About a half century later, Theodore Roosevelt would call Paine “that dirty little atheist.” That is interesting when one considers that Roosevelt, like Lincoln before him, helped to promote Paine’s progressive vision of America. Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would push that progressivism to yet another level. Although in a different party from Lincoln, FDR also was heavily inspired by Paine. As a side note, the Roosevelt family’s ancestry goes back to the Dutch settlers of the Dutch colony that would become New York, yet another part of early American diversity, and also the place where young Franklin first ran away to and where Paine would spend his last years.

Let me shift back to Lincoln’s lifetime. Karl Marx, who was born in Germany and saw firsthand the social unrest that led to the revolutions of 1848, was forced to flee to England. From there, he later wrote a letter to Lincoln to show his support for the Union’s cause in fighting slave power. Marx probably felt an affinity because Lincoln, early on as president, openly argued that “Labor is the superior of capital.” Charles Dana was a socialist Republican who, before becoming Lincoln’s Undersecretary of War, was the managing editor of the New York Tribune where he published Marx’s writings. Lincoln regularly read that newspaper and Dana had introduced him Marx’s ideas on a labour theory of value.

Marx’s ideas would then be a major inspiration for the ideological conflict that erupted into the Cold War. There was always an ethnic element to this as well, whether the enemy was Germans or Russians, but Germans unlike Russians were always seen as a greater threat since that ancestry was so large in America. German-Americans were always mistrusted, from the colonial era to the world wars. Early twentieth century saw the cultural genocide and forced assimilation of German-Americans, which saw many being sent to internment camps. Until that time, German-Americans had continually maintained their own culture with newspapers written and even public schools taught in the German language. German-American culture was wiped from the collective memory and this heritage was lost for so many.

All of that then leads up to where we are now. The world wars sent even more Germans to the US. Waves of German immigrants have regularly occurred throughout American history. That is why there are today so many Americans of German ancestry, including many students who are not being taught this history about their own ancestors. Sadly, most Americans have forgotten or else never learned about both the early diversity of America and the early radicalism of the likes of Paine.

There ya go. From colonial era to revolution to civil war to the present. That is how one makes history interesting and it was accomplished in only about a page of text. But why this can never be taught is because it is neither politically correct nor ideologically neutral, even though it is all entirely true.

* * * *

I had some thoughts about the example of cool facts that I offered.

There are several reasons why it demonstrates effective communication of history. Besides offering cool facts, multiple connections are offered, a larger framing is made to give context, the development of issues and ideas is shown over time, and a conclusion is offered that explains the relevance. All of that is accomplished in a few paragraphs.

My brain works that way. I make connections and I look for the big picture. That is part of my “learning disability.” What doesn’t work for me is factoid rote learning. Then again, that is true for most people, even if more extremely true for my weirdly operating brain.

So, why don’t teachers teach this way? Because the education system isn’t set for it.

In those paragraphs, I covered material involving multiple countries, multiple centuries, multiple individuals, multiple conflicts, and multiple issues. That doesn’t conform to how students are tested and so the system disincentivizes teaching in a way that would be the most effective. No standardized test will ever have a question that covers such a large territory of knowledge, even though that is precisely what makes interesting history, how it all fits together.

Still, a great teacher would find a way to bring in that style of teaching, if only in those rare moments when time allows.

Not Funny At All

Here is a decent article: Funny How? by Ben Hunt. It’s not the type of thing I normally read, but it’s worth a quick perusal.

My dad regularly reads this guy because of his investment views and he thought I’d like it. Like my dad, the author of this piece is strongly pro-capitalist with the standard advocacy of deregulation and such. That is what makes the following statements so powerful:

“I’m pretty sure that I agree with absolutely none of Thomas Piketty’s policy prescriptions. And the impact of his bugbear – tax policy – on wealth inequality is laughably minor compared to the impact of a triple in the S&P 500 market cap or central bank purchases of trillions of dollars of bonds. But if you don’t recognize that Piketty has a point when he says that today’s wealth inequality is both outrageous and poisonous, you’re just not paying attention. Increased wealth inequality always leads to increased political polarization, within and between countries, within and between political entities. That was true in the 1870s, that was true in the 1930s, and it’s true today.”

I’ve been telling my dad that for years. And he is finally coming around to appreciating why this matters. He used to dismiss it. Many people did. Even this guy might have not given inequality the time of day in the pre-recession early 2000s or further back in the booming 1990s.

So, many of those who are normally disconnected from the reality on these issues are coming around. Fear of consequences is finally hitting home. They are realizing that this isn’t just effecting poor minorities and third world countries. They are realizing that the entire status quo is being threatened… and that the time of externalizing costs has ended.

* * * *

For those who wonder about the consequences of high inequality, I came across two other relevant articles:

This might be the most controversial theory for what’s behind the rise of ISIS
by Jim Tankersley

The new argument, which Piketty spelled out recently in the French newspaper Le Monde, is this: Inequality is a major driver of Middle Eastern terrorism, including the Islamic State attacks on Paris earlier this month — and Western nations have themselves largely to blame for that inequality.

Piketty writes that the Middle East’s political and social system has been made fragile by the high concentration of oil wealth into a few countries with relatively little population. If you look at the region between Egypt and Iran — which includes Syria — you find several oil monarchies controlling between 60 and 70 percent of wealth, while housing just a bit more than 10 percent of the 300 million people living in that area. (Piketty does not specify which countries he’s talking about, but judging from a study he co-authored last year on Middle East inequality, it appears he means Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia, Bahrain and Oman. By his numbers, they accounted for 16 percent of the region’s population in 2012 and almost 60 percent of its gross domestic product.)

This concentration of so much wealth in countries with so small a share of the population, he says, makes the region “the most unequal on the planet.”

Within those monarchies, he continues, a small slice of people controls most of the wealth, while a large — including women and refugees — are kept in a state of “semi-slavery.” Those economic conditions, he says, have become justifications for jihadists, along with the casualties of a series of wars in the region perpetuated by Western powers.

His list starts with the first Gulf War, which he says resulted in allied forces returning oil “to the emirs.” Though he does not spend much space connecting those ideas, the clear implication is that economic deprivation and the horrors of wars that benefited only a select few of the region’s residents have, mixed together, become what he calls a “powder keg” for terrorism across the region.

Inequality is Fundamental to U.S. Capitalism: Tweaking the Edges Will Accomplish Nothing
by Steven W. Thrasher

The economic hoarding by those at the top has been termed “income inequality”, but that’s neither a strong nor accurate enough phrasing. I have never heard poor people complain about “income inequality”; poor people complain about being screwed out of housing , or about working more hours for less pay or about having to choose between medicine and food. […]

Income inequality is better termed structural racism. White people earn more money with less education than black people and consistently have half the unemployment of black people. And, as new research has shown, “family wealth” predicts outcomes for 10 to 15 generations. Those with extreme wealth owe it to events going back “300 to 450” years ago, according to research published by the New Republic – an era when it wasn’t unusual for white Americans to benefit from an economy dependent upon widespread, unpaid black labor in the form of slavery.

Income inequality is better viewed as structural sexism. Women earn 78 cents on the dollar overall compared to white men, but black women only earn 64 cents and Latinas 56. Women are also routinely discriminated against economically for bearing children.

Income equality is better viewed as structural child abuse. In the United States, one in five children needs government help to eat. As Aisha Sultan recently wrotein the Education Writers Association, if a 30-child classroom looked like the nation at large, seven of the children would be living in poverty, six would be victims of abuse and one would be homeless. These kids aren’t just unequal; they are never offered the opportunity to achieve equality.

Income inequality is better viewed as economic genocide, which shortens the lives of the poor. As the New York Times bluntly put it last year, “where income is higher, life spans are longer”. For one of the most jarring examples of how this plays out, look no further than the Ferguson Report, which shows how just in St Louis County, the average life expectancy ranges from 91 in the whitest neighborhood to 56 in the poorest, blackest neighborhood.

Heated Argument on Climate Change

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison

I ended up getting in a heated argument with my dad. It wasn’t intentional. If anything, I was trying to avoid it. But I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The discussion began with violence in the media, but somehow made its way to the even more contentious issue of climate change. The latter issue really gets my blood boiling, partly because of how dismissive people like my dad can be. He is an older middle class white male American. He has never experienced most of the externalized costs from environmental problems and likely never will. He’ll probably be dead by the time the shit hits the fan (and he realizes this, as he has increasingly talked about his own mortality now that he is in his 70s).

Part of my dad’s attitude is that he has spent his entire life in positions of authority (army officer, factory manager, private consultant, professor, president of the local Kiwanis group, Church deacon, and on and on). He isn’t used to people challenging him, especially about intellectual topics. Even when he doesn’t know something, he knows how to sound intelligent, confident and generally authoritative. I’m sure I’m one of the few people in his older age who have been willing to challenge him and put his feet to the fire.

He complained that I was treating him with disrespect, and that is what bothers him. It seems to me that he’d rather be un-/misinformed and treated with respect than to risk dealing with uncomfortable truths. The problem is I refuse to respect his ignorance, willful or unintentional, nor to respect his disrespect toward me and toward experts who actually do know what they’re talking about. If he wants respect, then he has to earn it… like everyone else.

* * * *

I don’t know what better response I could have given. I just have my breaking point. No matter what I have ever said, I’ve never been able to get my dad to take any of it seriously. To him, it is some combination of an intellectual exercise and political rhetoric. What it isn’t to him is personally and viscerally real.

He doesn’t understand why it bothers so much we in the younger generations who will spend the rest of our lives dealing with the literal sins of our fathers (and mothers). We have real reasons to be worried about when the bill comes due for the generations of unpaid externalized costs. How can someone like my dad be so heartless toward the well being of his own children and grandchildren? This isn’t just about politics. Lives are at stake. The inevitable suffering isn’t a hypothetical.

I don’t know how to reach him in his state of fearful denial and passive inaction. I know it is overwhelming, as to be almost incomprehensible in its vastness and complexity. We are playing with things we don’t understand. To consider the consequences is no easy task. But that difficulty isn’t a valid excuse.

I feel frustrated. My dad is able to be rational and talk rationally. But this problem ultimately can’t be touched upon with rationality alone. My dad uses rationality as a way to distance himself. Rationality as rationalization. He always has a reason to dismiss the data and those who point to it. The world is full of reasons, too many of them being superficial and self-serving. Oddly but all too typical, my dad uses reason to dismiss reason, which is to say he uses rhetoric as a defense against deeper thinking (and feeling). The climate science is ‘fishy’, he says—no further explanation required in his mind.

I’m not sure if or how I could act differently to (maybe) elicit a different response. It’s obvious that he gets defensive and is polarized. His facade of intellectuality is where he retreats to. So, that is where I meet him, but in reality his demand for respectful reasonableness is just a front he puts on. As long as we are moderate in our emotions and remain politically correct in our language, there is no danger of straying from the status quo and so no danger of becoming too uncomfortable.

The genuine truth and authentic heart of the matter is what is being avoided. Not just facts but what acknowledging those facts would mean. The suffering in the world is immeasurable, even as we can measure the expression of that suffering in concrete problems (rates of poverty, toxicity, mortality, etc). It’s too easy to feel helpless.

Basically, that is what I hear from my dad: What is the point? Let’s just focus on the positive (or at least avoid focusing on the negative) because, in the end, we’re probably doomed.

His worldview is typically Christian, in the mainstream sense. We are all Sinners with a fatal flaw built into our nature, Original Sin. My dad wouldn’t overtly talk in those terms, but that is the sense I get from him. These major problems are caused by human failure and any attempt to deal with them will just lead to ever more and greater failure. The best we can do is to hold our heads down and hope for the best. The suffering of so many people in the world is inevitable, and we who suffer the least should simply count our blessings, but beyond a few token actions of charity there is nothing we can do about the suffering of others, much less the larger systemic problems behind it all.

It is an attitude of defeat, of fatalism and cynicism.

* * * *

On my end, I want to communicate well. But I realize how often I fail at this aspiration. Irritation, exasperation, and outrage easily get the better of me. I’m even known for sometimes being an ornery asshole when you catch me in the right mood.

How could I communicate better? What wording or framing would be able to soften my dad’s defenses and allow real communication to happen?

One thought I had was putting it into the context of one of his own interests, World War II. As I’ve never been a climatologist, my father never fought in WWII. But similarly we both have an interest and have spent many years thinking about these topics, although not as serious scholarly study. It’s just two subjects we each have been focused on throughout our lives. So, what if the situation was turned around and my father was trying to argue something about WWII?

It’s as if I stated strong opinions about WWII bombers and tanks, after having read a few anti-war pieces in the New York Times. And then I dismissed his more informed opinion on the matter. When he pointed to scholarly data and professional opinion, I said that I wasn’t interested in researching it further. Instead, I said it smelled fishy and argued that the historians who supported his view were biased because they profit from getting grants to do research, selling books, and getting gigs on documentaries—not to mention promoting the military-industrial complex, as if their studying about war proves that they want more war to further their careers, whether or not such motivations are conscious.

If I did all of that, it would be highly disrespectful and, from his perspective, simply frustrating. He holds others to a higher standard than he holds to himself and those he agrees with. But he can’t see it that way. It is hard for him to imagine himself in the opposite position.

That goes for me as well. It’s hard for me to fully sympathize with my dad, to take on his worldview. I don’t want to merely be righteous. In the end, I know my dad means well and he actually is intellectually honest, even if he has a hard time coming to terms with this issue.

Still, none of that changes the issue at hand. Climate change is what it is, no matter what we think or feel about it.

* * * *

My dad showed me an article. It is a piece from the Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser: Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate. I wasn’t in the mood to look at it, as I’ve simply grown tired of the pointlessness of it all. And I told him so.

I realize he doesn’t like the term ‘denialist’. But there is good reason why some place that label upon those like Matt Ridley. He has repeatedly shown he isn’t interested in honest debate. His critics have refuted much of his evidence over the years. Yet he never acknowledges any of this science and goes on repeating the same refuted misinformation.

Ridley is denying strongly supported scientific evidence. What should someone like this be called? After a while, the more well informed begin to question the motives of this kind of political activist (actually a politician in this case and also a former chairman of a bailed out and nationalized bank) aligned with big money special interests:

Matt Ridley – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“Ridley is a forthright proponent of fracking. However he has been found to have breached the Parliamentary Code of Conduct by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards for failing to disclose in debates on the subject personal interests worth at least £50,000 in Weir Group, which has been described as, ‘the world’s largest provider of special equipment used in the process’ of fracking.”

He inherited his position at the bank from his father. And his investments in coal mining are from his family’s estates. To put it simply, he was born into wealth and power. And has since spent his life in the corporatist revolving door between big biz and big gov. On top of that, despite pretending to be an authority to be taken seriously, he has absolutely no expertise about climatology.

He represents so much of what is wrong with the world. And that just depresses me.

* * * *

The following are a mix of articles. Many of them are about Matt Ridley. But if you go further down, there are some about other issues: conservatism, libertarianism, national security, and survey data.

The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution

We know from documents and writings of the time that the founders didn’t agree on the Constitution before, during, and after it was written. They couldn’t even agree on whether it should be written, with many fighting against it on principle. The debates were harsh and sometimes violent, nearly tearing the country apart before it had been fully established.

Others only agreed to the Constitution if a Bill of Rights were to be added, while others resisted a Bill of Rights for the very reason they were seen as too specific. It should be noted that the Bill of Rights, the most detailed part of the Constitution, was only added later (ratified years after the Constitution) and was the most strongly contested part. Yet, it too has problems, as Leonard W. Levy explained (Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution, p. 340): “Even the seemingly specific injunctions and provisions of the Bill of Rights are vague, requiring much interpretation.”

The Articles of Confederation was much more specific in the described limits to power and rights to citizens. Many who sought the new Constitution did so in order to weaken this aspect.  Even so, the Articles had conflicting layers of meaning, just like the later Constitution. It was written by the Federalist John Dickinson whose thought was shaped by Quaker constitutionalism (as a living document, a specific people at a specific place and time making a specific covenant with God), but then the document was filtered through a revision of non-Quaker Anti-Federalist thought.

This kind of mixing and sometimes inconsistency was simply par for the course. Even in the Declaration of Independence was intentionally vague. It was an inspirational document of solidarity, not a clear explication of specific principles. Some interpret it as espousing natural law and natural rights, even though there is strong evidence that Thomas Jefferson didn’t support this view. Also, Dickinson’s Quaker influence was in opposition to natural law. But it is true that other founders did believe in it, and hence the need for unclear language that could be interpreted variously.

None of this should be surprising. The colonists didn’t just come from different colonies, some from the coastal cities and others from the frontier. Among those who weren’t colonial born, many came from a diversity of countries and from culturally distinct regions of the same countries. The colonial population, including the founders, included a diversity of ethnicity, religion, and political traditions (consider the mixed ideas of freedom and liberty). Without ambiguity and equivocation in the founding texts, it’s unlikely independence would have been won, a constitution agreed upon, and a functioning government instituted.

The Constitution was seen as a compromise, a temporary truce in the debate. The Founders decided to intentionally keep the wording at a surface level, for anything deeper would have led to irresolvable conflict. Many of them figured that either it would be revised later on or that maybe an entirely new constitution would take its place. Benajmin Franklin, for example, thought it would only last for a decade. Jefferson was a bit more extreme in that he thought not just new constitutions but new revolutions would be necessary.

* * * *

The Irony And Deceit Of Constitutional ‘Original Intent’ Arguments
By David K. Sutton (from The Left Call)

If there is one “original intent” we know of the Founding Fathers it is that they wrote the constitution intentionally vague. This is an important distinction to understand. What is or isn’t constitutional is decided by the judicial branch. This is because most legislative provisions simply are not mentioned in the constitution, therefore it is up to the judicial branch to interpret the words of the constitution, if these provisions face legal challenge.

E.J. Dionne reminds us of the preamble to the United States Constitution. It reads:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Dionne reminds us of the importance of those first few words, “We the People.” It is up to us to decide the path of this great country. It is no longer in the hands of the Founding Fathers. They crafted a framework that we can build on to move the country forward. This is why those who subscribe to an ideology of strict original intent have it wrong. The only intent we can ascertain is from the written text of a purposely vague document, the constitution. Beyond that it is up to “We the People” to make the country adapt and work better for all citizens as times change “in Order to form a more perfect Union.” There was no original intent when it comes to universal health care or climate change or any number of important issues that we now face. If we get bogged down in arguments over original intent we ironically lose sight of the real original intent.

Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution
By Leonard W. Levy
p. XI, Preface

“Tis funny about th’ constitution,” said Mr. Dooley, the philosophic Irish bartender created by Finley Peter Dunne. “It reads plain, but no wan can undherstant it without an interpreter.” The Supreme Court is the official and final interpreter of the Constitution, but from the beginning of its history, disputes have raged about how it should interpret the Constitution. In its very first constitutional decision the Court provoked a controversy on the question whether its judgment faithfully adhered to the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution. For several decades after the ratification of the Constitution the fading memories of those who had attended the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention supplied the main evidence of the Framers’ intent. Even when those memories were fresh, the Framers disagreed vehemently about what the Convention had meant or intended, as the controversy in 1791 over the chartering of the Bank of the United States showed. Not until the publication of Madison’s Notes in 1840 did a source become available for original intent analysis. […]

Original intent as constitutional theory is rarely if ever at issue in real cases decided by the Supreme Court. When the Court employs original intent, it refers to the understanding of the Framers respecting a particular provision of the Constitution that is imprecise. In real cases the meaning of the provisions involved in litigation is not clear. Indeed the Constitution tends to be least clear when most involved in litigation; that is especially true of rights as compared with matters of structure. Some of the most important clauses of the Constitution are vague, ambiguous, or, paradoxically, too specific in meaning. The most important evidence of original intent is the text of the Constitution itself, which must prevail whenever it surely embodies a broader principle than can be found in the minds or purposes of its Framers. For example, they had political and religious expression in mind when they framed the First Amendment, but its language contains no restriction. They probably did not mean to extend the rights protected by the Sixth Amendment to “all” criminal prosecutions, but the text says “all” and deserves obedience. They had black Americans uppermost in mind when they designed the Fourteenth Amendment, but its expansive expression applies to all, not only to all races but to people of all religions, creeds, and national or ethnic backgrounds, regardless of legitimacy, sex, or alienage.

Conversely, if two centuries of constitutional government have resulted in wider understanding than the text itself suggests, that is, if the meaning of the text has become expanded beyond its literal phrasing, the text takes second place. Thus, although the Framers did not include “words” as well as “persons, houses, papers, and effects” in the Fourth Amendment and although eavesdropping was commonplace in the eighteenth century, words seized by wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping come within the amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Similarly, the right against compulsory self-incrimination protected by the Fifth Amendment seems, literally, to apply only in “criminal cases,” but the text applies with equal force to nonjudicial proceedings such as grand jury and legislative investigations, to administrative proceedings, and even to civil cases in which questions are posed that might, if truthfully answered, raise a threat of criminal jeopardy. Notwithstanding some advocates of a jurisprudence of original intent, the Constitution cannot be interpreted literally, if only because it is murky at important points. Were it not, the real cases would not keep arising.

p. XIV, Preface

The process of seeking original intent is elusive, if not illusive, because the fundamental text may be ambiguous and vague, or overarches a particular situation. […]

“Original intent” is not a well-chosen term but it is commonly used and widely understood to mean what the Constitutional Convention understood or believed about the Constitution. Intention, intention, and intendment may be distinguished but I do not find the distinctions fruitful in a discourse meant for nonlawyers. Intent may refer to motive, to purpose, even to reasons, but I think that the commonplace usage of intent, in the context of the debate about the “original intent” of the Framers, refers to what they meant. Nevertheless, “intent” is unsatisfactory because it implies a single or uniform frame of mind, or purpose, or understanding on the part of the Framers of the Constitution and even of the ratifiers of the Constitution. “Original intentions” would have been a far better term.

p. 20-21

But the sense of the nation was not easily discovered or discoverable, not even as to major allocations of power, let alone as to the meanings of particular clauses. So Madison argued in The Federalist #37. He believed that to allocate authority between the federal and state governments and between the three branches of the federal government created problems that perplexed even statesmen, jurists, and philosophers. The Constitution necessarily contained ambiguities. It reminded him of laws that had been framed with the greatest technical skill and passed in fullest deliberation, yet remained “more or less equivocal, until their meaning be . . . ascertained by a series of particular discussions and adjudications.” Words stated ideas imperfectly, giving them an “unavoidable inaccuracy” that increased with the complexity and novelty of a task such as strengthening the Union. Madison offered various reasons for “vague and incorrect definition,” any one of which resulted in obscurity of meaning. The Convention, he concluded, “must have experienced the full effect of them all.” 81

How then was the meaning of the Constitution to be fathomed? Madison believed that experience fixed meaning in doubtful cases but that meaning was not fixed forever. He would have preferred a static Constitution, and he resisted, even deplored, certain changes in meaning. He probably had in mind the Hamiltonian financial system, the Sedition Act, and overbroad judicial opinions such as those in McCulloch v. Maryland and Cohens v. Virginia when he said that deviations from the “fair construction of the instrument have always given me a pain,” and he wished that innovations based on overbroad constructions would cease; but he knew that change was inevitable. 82 He would have preferred to believe that the Constitution speaks for itself according to the usual and established rules of interpretation, for which intention cannot be substituted. And he advocated that whenever possible the language of the Constitution should be construed according to the people’s understanding as evidenced by “contemporaneous expositions.” 83

But he understood that just as words changed in meaning, so did the Constitution. “It could not but happen, and was foreseen at the birth of the Constitution,” he declared, “that difficulties and differences of opinion might occasionally rise in expounding terms and phrases necessarily used in such a charter,” especially as to the powers in the federal system. Practice would settle some doubtful matters, and the meaning of the Constitution, to the extent that it depended upon judicial interpretations, would emerge from decisions over a period of time. 84 Madison conceded that experience had caused him to change strong opinions on some matters. For example, he once thought that the Constitution prohibited Congress from chartering a bank, but he had been compelled to change his mind, because the sovereign will had expressed itself by acquiescence in a course of exposition that altered the original meaning of the Constitution. Popular understanding simply had overruled his previous views of the matter. When an authoritative, uniform, and sustained course of decision or practice received “public sanction,” Madison believed that the Constitution evolved in meaning, and the old must give way to the new. 85 When the words that composed a text altered in their meaning, “it is evident that the shape and attributes of the Government must partake of the change to which the words and phrases of all living languages are constantly subject. . . . [O] ur Constitution is already undergoing interpretations unknown to its founders. . . .” 86 Similarly, he observed: “Some of the terms of the Federal Constitution have already undergone perceptible deviations from their original import.” 87 Those were not facts that he applauded; rather, he personally disapproved but understood and acquiesced.

p. 208-210

What import did the free press clause possess at the time of its adoption? Its meaning was surely not self-evident. The controversy in the states over the ratification of the Constitution without a bill of rights had revealed little about the substance and scope of a free press, and the debates by the First Congress, which framed the free press clause, illumined even less. Congress debated the clauses on religion, but on the remainder of the First Amendment it considered only whether the right of peaceable assembly vested the people with the power to instruct their representatives on how to vote. In the course of that discussion, Madison made the only recorded statement on the subject of speech or press. If by peaceable assembly, he said, “We mean nothing more than this, that the people have a right to express and communicate their sentiments and wishes, we have provided for it already. The right of freedom of speech is secured; the liberty of the press is expressly declared to be beyond the reach of this Government. . . .” 62 Any interpretation of the meaning and compass of the free press drawn from this vague statement would strain credulity.

The state legislatures that ratified the First Amendment offer no enlightenment either. Without the records of their legislative debates, we do not know what the state legislatures understood the free press clause to mean. Other contemporary materials do not help either. Most people undoubtedly cared about protecting freedom of the press, but no one seems to have cared enough to clarify what he meant by the subject upon which he lavished praise. If definition were unnecessary because of the existence of a tacit and widespread understanding of “liberty of the press,” only the received or traditional understanding could have been possible. To assume the existence of a generally accepted latitudinarian understanding that veered substantially from the common law definition is warrantless, given the absence of evidence. Any novel definition expanding the scope of free expression or repudiating, even altering, the concept of seditious libel would have been the subject of public debate or comment. Not even the Anti-Federalists offered the argument that the clause on speech and press was unsatisfactory because it was insufficiently protective against prosecutions for criminal defamation of the government. Not even they urged that truth could be no libel.

Even if we assume that the Framers really intended to impose upon the national government “an absolute, unqualified prohibition” 63— there shall be no law abridging freedom of the press— we should recognize that the Framers cared less about giving unqualified immunity to all discourse than they cared for states’ rights and the federal principle. […]


The big question persists, however: Even had Congress passed, and the states ratified, an amendment imposing upon the states the same prohibition laid by the First Amendment upon the national government, what did the Framers understand by freedom of speech and freedom of press? No one can say for certain what the Framers had in mind because there is not enough evidence to justify cocksure conclusions, even though all the evidence points in one direction. Whether the Framers themselves knew what they had in mind is uncertain. At the time of the drafting and ratification of the First Amendment, few among them clearly understood what they meant by the free press clause, and we cannot know that those few represented a consensus.

pp. 318-319

The Court missed the fact that the vague clause on “capitation and other direct taxes” was a concession to the South, not, as the Court generalized, a bulwark of “inequality” imposed “to prevent an attack upon accumulated property by mere force of numbers.” 135 Moreover, the Court drew the wrong conclusion after quoting Madison’s Notes: “Mr. King asked what was the precise meaning of direct taxation. No one answered.” The right conclusion is that the Framers were unsure or did not know. 136 In his argument as counsel for the government in the Carriage Tax Case of 1795,137 Hamilton had asked what the distinction was between direct and indirect taxes, and he began his response by stating, “It is a matter of regret that terms so uncertain and vague, on so important a point, are to be found in the Constitution. We shall seek in vain for any antecedent settled legal maxim to the respective terms. There is none.” 138 In the Income Tax Cases, the Court imposed its own views of history in order to deliver an opinion that seemed to have the paternity of original intent; in effect the Court sought to rely on the wisdom of the Framers to get around encumbering precedents.

pp. 331-335

The text is what counts, but the notion that it must be construed according to original intent is itself a prejudice. It is, moreover, a notion that lacks original intent. That is, no evidence, not a shred, exists to show that the Framers meant, wanted, or expected future generations to construe the Constitution as they, the Framers, had. Nor is there any evidence to show that they expected the future to be bound by the past. Rather, they expected the future to interpret the Constitution as best it could, just as the development of the common law was left open. The text of the Constitution declares it to be the supreme law of the land together with treaties and laws made in pursuance of the Constitution. By binding state courts to follow the supreme law and by extending the judicial power of the United States to that law, the Constitution obligates courts to expound its meaning. In that regard the intention of the Convention clearly appears in the Constitution itself. As Hamilton wrote in The Federalist #22, the “true import” of treaties and laws that constitute the supreme law of the land must “be ascertained by judicial determination.” 21 Madison, who blew hot and cold on judicial review and defended the right of the President and Congress to decide constitutional questions for themselves, acknowledged that “in the ordinary course of government, . . . the exposition of the laws and Constitution devolves upon the judicial.” 22

Unlike John Locke, an inept constitution-maker who believed that written statements of the fundamental law must, like the laws of the universe, be immutable to be eternal, the Framers of the Constitution recognized the need for plasticity and the inevitability of change. Locke once wrote a constitution for the Carolinas expressly providing that “every part thereof, shall be and remains the sacred and unalterable form and rule of government, for Carolina forever.” As insurance he prohibited “all manner of comments and expositions.” 23

For the most part the Convention designed the Constitution with the utmost diligence and attention to detail. Almost always the Constitution is explicit. The Convention chose words with craft and craftsmanship, on the whole. That is the reason that constitutional law does not involve the bulk of the Constitution. It does not have to be litigated because it is clear and understandable. Consequently, one who carefully reads the Constitution finds startling the occasional vagueness and ambiguities, such as the provision requiring no “capitation, and other direct tax” unless apportioned among the states on the basis of population. Although we believe that the Framers regarded as direct taxes only taxes imposed on people per capita and on land, 24 they did not say so. Because the Constitution is overwhelmingly a model of precision and pithiness, an open-ended phrase like “other direct tax” must have been deliberate.

That phrase appears in the midst of a list of prohibitions. The Constitution clearly describes the three branches of the national government but seems to waffle when describing some prohibitions, some powers, and some rights. As to them we find ambiguities and vagueness. During the ratification controversy, Anti-Federalists lambasted the Constitution because of its lack of clarity in crucial respects. They feared that uncertainty in meaning would sap states’ rights and civil rights. The “necessary and proper” clause was their particular bête noire. Even Edmund Randolph, who had introduced the Virginia Plan at the Convention (Congress “ought to be impowered to . . . legislate in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent, or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted” by state acts25), stated during the ratification controversy that he objected to the necessary and proper clause because “the clause is ambiguous.” 26 In The Federalist #37, Madison sought to answer the ambiguity charge leveled at many clauses when he wrote:

All new laws, though penned with the greatest technical skill and passed on the fullest and most mature deliberation, are considered as more or less obscure and equivocal, until their meaning be liquidated and ascertained by a series of particular discussions and adjudications. Besides the obscurity arising from the complexity of objects and the imperfection of the human faculties, the medium through which the conceptions of men are conveyed to each other adds a fresh embarrassment. The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them. But no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas. Hence it must happen that however accurately objects may be discriminated in themselves, and however accurately the discrimination may be considered, the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered. And this unavoidable inaccuracy must be greater or less, according to the complexity and novelty of the objects defined. When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.

Here, then, are three sources of vague and incorrect definitions: indistinctness of the object, imperfection of the organ of conception, inadequateness of the vehicle of ideas. Any one of these must produce a certain degree of obscurity. The convention, in delineating the boundary between the federal and State jurisdictions, must have experienced the full effect of them all.

To the difficulties already mentioned may be added the interfering pretentions of the larger and smaller States. . . . The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. 27

Another signer of the Constitution, Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, confronted the issue of ambiguity as a member of the Congress that debated Jay’s Treaty. Baldwin declared:

He would begin it by the assertion, that those few words in the Constitution on this subject, were not those apt, precise, definite expressions, which irresistibly brought upon them the meaning which he had been above considering. He said it was not to disparage the instrument, to say that it had not definitely, and with precision, absolutely settled everything on which it had spoken. He had sufficient evidence to satisfy his own mind that it was not supposed by the makers of it at the time, but that some subjects were left a little ambiguous and uncertain. It was a great thing to get so many difficult subjects definitely settled at once. If they could all be agreed in, it would compact the Government. The few that were left a little unsettled might, without any great risk, be settled by practice or by amendments in the progress of the Government. He believed this subject of the rival powers of legislation and Treaty was one of them; the subject of the Militia was another, and some question respecting the Judiciary another. When he reflected on the immense difficulties and dangers of that trying occasion— the old Government prostrated, and a chance whether a new one could be agreed on— the recollection recalled to him nothing but the most joyful sensations that so many things had been so well settled, and that experience had shown there was very little difficulty or danger in settling the rest. 28

Although the Framers were masters of the art of the possible, sometimes their compromises led to cloudy language; sometimes they could not compromise and deliberately left the phrasing of a proposition open-ended to avoid still greater offense by spelling out something better left only partially said.

Ambiguity and vagueness crop up in the nonstructural sections of the Constitution. Ambiguous words permit different understandings, while vague words do not allow for much understanding.

Representative Words: Po litics, Literature, and the American Language, 1776-1865
By Thomas Gustafson
pp. 294-7

Indeed, in the early republic much of the passion and most of the power struggles over such questions as the national bank, the tariff, and slavery were channeled into the forum of constitutional debate, and the words of the text were constructed and reconstructed by the various parties to support diverse and contradictory points of view. And in American there is no consensus about the sovereign center that was to end the infinity of interpretation, because the Constitution, in effect, had divided the center between several branches of government and the states while theoretically locating it in that inherently diversity entity the vox populi. But while there was no consensus about the meaning of the words of the Constitution, there was a fundamental agreement until the crisis over slavery in the mid nineteenth century that the Constitution was the grammar that provided the rules for framing the articulation and resolution of differences between sources of authority and modes of representation in the American republic. Like language itself, the Constitution has the capacity to reconcile stability and liberty, order and change. It is a langue—a fundamental system of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary—that structures the process by which the vox populi articulates new paroles: new amendments, new political representatives. The Constitution’s ability to sustain a tension between stability and liberty, mediating conflicts between the party of memory and the party of hope, was tested to the breaking point in antebellum America as the country began to fight a war of words over attempts to settle and reconstruct its language.

Retraction and Coda

I have argued so far that the language of the Constitution is ambiguous, that the framers designed it in part to be ambiguous, that the Antifederalists distrusted that amibuity, and that Madison defended its ambiguity. But if we heed Walter Benn Michael’s argument in “Against Formalism: Chicken and Rocks,” then I must retract part of my argument and maintain that the language of the Constitution is no different from the language of any text: it is not inherently ambiguous, not is it inherently clear. Though we ascribe properties such as ambiguity and clarity to texts, these properties, Michaels asserts, do not belong to the text but are “functions . . . of the contexts in which texts are read.” An explicit text is, simply, a text whose meaning is not under dispute; and an ambiguous text is, conversely, a text whose meaning is contested. Read from a single perspective at a certain moment, the phrases “We the People” and “freedom of speech” may appear as perfectly unambiguous as, say, the phrase “a pound of flesh” in Act I of the Merchant of Venice.  But with a change of fortune or in a new context or viewed from more than one angle of vision, meanings proliferate, and ambiguity must be confronted: an ambiguity that reflects our attention back to our eyes (or the ideology) of the beholders. E. L. Doctorow switches our focus in this very way when he explains in a meditation on the Constitution as a text:

All told, it is as if the enigmatic constitutional text cannot be seen through, but, shimmering in ambiguity, dazzles back at each generation in its own times and struggles it is as if the ambiguity is not in the text but in us as we struggle in our natures—our consciences with our appetites, our sense of justice with our animal fears and self-interests—just as the Founding Fathers struggled so with their Constitution, providing us with a mirror of ourselves to go on shining, shining back at us through the ages, as the circumstances of our lives change, our costumes change, our general store is transformed into a mile-long twenty-four-hour shopping mall, our trundle carts transmogrify into rockets in space, our country paves over, and our young republic becomes a plated armory of ideological warfare: a mirror for us to see who we are and who we would like to be, the sponsors of private armies of thugs and rapists and murderers, or the last best hope of mankind.

The Constitution, in this reading, is a vessel for our passions and prejudices—and for our principles. The text, and its interpretations, however, have been more than a mirror representing our values. They have been sources of enlightenment, a lamp projecting values, shaping people to the order (and abuses) of the word and, more important perhaps, determining how we resolve—or seek to resolve—our clashes of values.

If rhetoric as Yeats claims, arises from our quarrel with others, and poetry from our quarrel with ourselves, then the Declaration tends to be rhetoric, and the Constitution to poetry More than the Declaration, the Constitution is the ground of American Renaissance literature. The conflicts between union and liberty, freedom and slavery, the tyranny of the majority and the rights of the individual, the protection of regional identity (states’ rights) and the quest for national identity (consolidation) and between property rights and human rights; these moral and political conflicts, inscribed in the texts of the Constitution, take form first as the stuff of textual battles in the constitutional crises of the nineteenth century and then, inscribed in the plots, as the stuff of American Renaissance literature. even the confrontation with slavery—the confrontation that demanded that American writers listen less to the courtly muses of Europe and more to the principles of the Declaration—was first and foremost (and finally) a constitutional crisis: a question of resolving the ambiguity of “We the People of the United States” and of deciding whether or how to privilege one constitution value, one legal precedent, over and against another. The silences of the Constitution, the gaps in its articulation, its contradictions had to be overcome, and they came to be bridged not just by the voice of the law or the voice of political representative. […] Even Whitman, for all his rebellion against poetic form, for all his personal disgust with slavery, for all his outspokenness, demanded obedience to the Constitution of 1789 and its sanction of slavery. But the Word of God, the book of nature, and the Declaration became, at first and then more and more in the North, alternative grammars of thought: a higher langue for generating transcendental paroles and emancipation proclamations.

The Constitution, if we consider it to be a grammar, possesses the capacity—or we have made it possess the capacity in its history—to incorporate in its workings more than one language. It can, that is construct or generate sentences from more words than its own dictionary of terms contained in the four corners of the text. “Is the Constitution,” Laurence Tribe asks, “. . . at war with its own premises?” “Perhaps,” he responds, “it speaks in the words of Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.'” The Constitution can speak in as many tongues as Whitman sought to represent; it can listen to as many voices as Whitman heard (and more); it can be for new readers, as Whitman’s children, a “chant democratic” that helps form, in the spirit of our bard, our most Orphic visionary, “a great aggregate Nation.”