Sunday, June 18, 2017

George Mason Memorial Needs to be Cleaned Up

I recently wrote a blog entry about my trip to Washington D.C. with several middle school students and how it reflected the old Roman virtue of pietas. However, I neglected to mention the most unpleasant experience of my time in our nation's capital, because I felt it merited a separate blog post altogether.

Our group arrived at the Jefferson Memorial on the evening of June 12. As my friends and colleagues (and readers of this blog) know, Thomas Jefferson is one of my great heroes. I was greatly excited to visit the memorial to the author of the Declaration of Independence, but I also planned to sneak away from the group for a few minutes to pay my respects at another memorial, just a stone's throw away. It is much smaller and almost entirely unknown, dedicated to another man who I count among my personal heroes: George Mason.

Mason is one of the most underappreciated figures in American history. When people hear his name, they think of an above average university in Virginia that has a good basketball team, but they know nothing whatsoever of the man. This is a shame, for every American owes Mason a debt of gratitude that is almost incalculable. The men at the times, including such luminaries as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were never in doubt of Mason's extraordinary contribution to the American Revolution. It's not too much to say that Mason built the philosophical pillars on which our experiment in self-government rests.

A bit of background. George Mason was born in northern Virginia in 1725. The nature of his education is somewhat obscure, but he clearly drank deeply the ideas of the Enlightenment and in later life proved to have one of the best read and most insightful minds in America. He lived the life of a wealthy rural gentleman in his beautiful home, Gunston Hall, from where he supervised his extensive land holdings. Like most men of his social position, he involved himself in local and colonial politics, being elected to several local offices and becoming a member of the House of Burgesses, Virginia's colonial legislature.

When the crisis with Britain broke over the colonies in 1765, with the passage of the Stamp Act, Mason stepped up and did his duty, soon becoming known as one of the key leaders of the opposition movement in Virginia. In 1774, Mason authored the Fairfax Resolves, laying out the constitutional argument of the colonies more clearly and concisely than anyone else had ever done before. He asserted that the colonists had the same rights in the colonies that Englishmen had in England and that Parliament had no authority to legislate for the colonies, that right being held only by the colonial legislatures themselves. He called for a complete boycott of British goods and for representatives of the thirteen colonies to assemble together to coordinate their resistance (which happened later that year, when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Mason also took the opportunity to condemn the continuation of the slave trade. The Fairfax Resolves were among the most influential writings produced in the few years just before the war and helped steel American resistance in Virginia as well as other colonies.

Upon the outbreak of the war, Mason served on the Virginia Committee of Safety, playing a major role in organizing the war effort in Virginia. But his greatest contribution was his drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. In this preamble to the new state constitution, Mason laid out the principles that have formed the American creed every since: the all citizens are created equal and have unalienable rights, that power rests with the people themselves, that hereditary power is illegitimate, that there must be freedom of expression, that there must be a separation of powers in the government, that there must be legal due process for all citizens, that the military must remain under civilian control, and that all citizens must possess religion freedom.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Its ideas infused Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence just weeks later. Its principles are found everywhere within the Constitution itself. And it served as a template for James Madison when he wrote the Bill of Rights in the years immediately after the ratification of the Constitution. It influenced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the fundamental document of the French Revolution, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations in 1948. Simply put, it is one of the most powerful and important assertions of human liberty ever created.

Mason always saw public service as a duty to be performed only reluctantly. In his heart, he always wanted to be home with his family at Gunston Hall. Despite the urging of his friends, he refused to leave Virginia to serve in the Continental Congress. He was never flamboyant and always preferred to work behind the scenes. When the war was over, he gratefully retired back to his estate, intending to live the remainder of his life surrounded by his children and grandchildren and contemplating his books.

Public service called Mason back, however, and he left Virginia for the only time in his life to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. During the months of heated debate, Mason was one of the most important voices in formulating the new government. In the end, however, he became one of only three delegates to refuse to sign the Constitution, arguing that it should include a bill of rights. His opposition carried over to the ratification debates, in which Mason was cited as one of the most influential of the Anti-Federalists. Although Mason and the other Anti-Federalists lost the ratification debate, in the end his achieved his goal. In 1791, Congress and the states ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, thus incorporating what has become known as the Bill of Rights into the Constitution. Without Mason, it would never have happened. That accomplished, Mason stated that he was quite content with the Constitution.

George Mason's gifts to America and the world are incalculable. The Fairfax Resolves and the Virginia Declaration of Rights were, in a very real sense, the parents that gave birth to the three major founding documents of the United States of America: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Had Mason not initially opposed the ratification of the Constitution, it's entirely possible that the Bill of Rights would never have been added. He also was a principled opponent of slavery and the slave trade, being the only man in the Constitutional Convention who stood up and gave an explicitly anti-slavery speech.

The United States of America has honored George Mason. A prestigious university bears his name. A bridge over the Potomac River is named after him. His home at Gunston Hall has been lovingly preserved. And, in 2002, the George Mason Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C., almost a stone's throw from the larger and grander memorial to his friend Thomas Jefferson. It is a quiet, reserved, and dignified memorial, exactly in keeping with Mason's own personality. Fittingly, it depicts Mason sitting calmly while reading a copy of Cicero, his hat and walking stick close by.

Unfortunately, when I entered the space of the George Mason Memorial, I was shocked and dismayed by its terrible condition.

The place clearly had not been maintained in any substantial way for a very long time. The fountain pool is empty of water. What is supposed to be a circular garden around the pool is nothing but empty dirt (I was told by our tour guide that there have been no flowers there for four years).

Weeds are beginning to grow up through the stones.

The etchings of quotes by or about Mason in the stone are virtually unreadable.

The statue itself is in decent shape (it's made of bronze, so it's hard to see how it could be otherwise), but a long line of muck has accumulated around the stone base.

A young couple who wandered in while I was there were similarly upset. "Don't they ever clean this place up?" the woman asked. It certainly didn't seem so. The pictures I have posted (taken by my good friend Jordan James) don't really do justice to the wretched condition the memorial is in.

This is a disgrace. The George Mason Memorial needs to be cleaned up and properly maintained. Anything less than that and we are dishonoring the memory of a man who gave so many gifts to the people of America. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit partner of the NPS which helps fund restoration and maintenance projects for the memorials and monuments on the Mall, has announced plans to refurbish the George Mason Memorial, but with so many other projects competing for funds, it seems likely that the site will continue to lie as dormant as a fallow field unless people stand up and speak out.

I encourage all readers of this blog entry to take the following steps:

1. Contact the Trust for the National Mall. Tell them to make the George Mason Memorial their top priority. Their contact information is as follows:

  • Phone Number: 202-407-9408
  • Email:
  • Mailing Address: Trust for the National Mall, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, Suite 370, Washington D.C. 20004
  • Facebook:
  • Twitter:

2. Contact the National Mall and Memorial Parks. This is the unit of the National Park Service that administers the George Mason Memorial. Express your concern over the condition at the George Mason Memorial and ask that urgent work be done to clean it up. Their contact information is as follows:

  • Phone Number: 202-426-6841
  • Email: Through their contact webpage at
  • Mailing Address: National Mall and Memorial Parks, 900 Ohio Drive SW, Washington D.C. 20024
  • Facebook:
  • Twitter:

3. Contact your representatives in the House and Senate. The monuments of the National Mall are the responsibility of the federal government. Members of the House and Senate are elected to serve as your representatives in Congress. Let them know that you are concerned with the condition of the George Mason Memorial and ask them to do something about it. After all, they are always on the lookout for easy, noncontroversial matters that their constituents contact them about.

  • To find your representative in the House, go here:
  • To contact your representatives in the Senate, go here:

4. Contact the White House. It couldn't hurt, after all.
  • White House Contact page:

5. Spread the word. Tell anyone you know who you think would care about this to follow steps 1-4 above. Feel free to forward this blog post to anyone and everyone.

The condition of a monument in Washington D.C. may not rank with climate change or the national debt as an issue. But neither should such things be ignored. As I said in a recent blog post, I truly think the underlying problems facing our nation stem from our drifting away from our common ideals, which used to unite us as a nation despite our political differences. We have lost our sense of pietas. Cleaning up the George Mason Memorial might not seem a particularly important matter at the present moment, when our nation is facing such great challenges. Yet in its symbolic value, it is very important indeed. For the thoughts and writings of George Mason represent the best of the American creed and it is incumbent upon all of us to respect and honor him if we are to be true to the values upon which our great republic was founded.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Late last night, I returned from a four day trip to Washington D.C. that I took with one of my colleagues (my dear friend Jordan James, who was born to be a teacher) and fourteen truly amazing 8th grade students. It was a great honor to bring these budding citizens to visit our nation's capital. It was also an enormous amount of fun. Everything ran very smoothly and the fine folks who arranged our trip (School Tours of America) certainly knew their business.

It was a jam-packed trip. We visited Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot, as well as the Petersen House across the street, to stand in the room where Lincoln passed away. We went to the National Archives, to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We toured the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress. We went to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. We took two excursions out of town to see the battlefield at Gettysburg and the home of George Washington at Mount Vernon. We hiked around the Mall to see the memorials to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. And we paid our respects to those who have fought and died for the country at the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Pentagon Memorial, and, on our last day, Arlington National Cemetery.

People who are overly pessimistic and cynical regarding the rising generation would have found their preconceptions happily shattered by the behavior of our students. Without exception, they were polite, inquisitive, and filled with excitement about what they were seeing. They bombarded me and Ms. James, as well as our various tour guides, with insightful questions and seemed to drink in the learning all around them. They goofed off every now and then, but whenever the occasion called for it, they were deeply respectful and serious. It was truly an honor and a privilege to take these wonderful young men and young women on this trip. When we all said goodbye at the baggage claim of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, it was heartwarming to hear them tell their parents what a wonderful time they had. Since then, Ms. James and I have received warm messages of thanks from their parents. We are already planning to take more students next year.

It was a fun trip, but that wasn't the important thing. For me, this trip was about far more than having an enjoyable time and seeing interesting stuff. As I told the students, it really was all about PIETAS.

It's a trick of teachers as old as time itself to use a word the students won't know so that they will ask you what it means, thus giving the teacher a chance to expound a bit. Pietas is a Latin term for which there isn't an exact English translation. It's the root of our word "piety", which means strong religious belief, and devotion to religion certainly is part of pietas. But for the Romans, it meant far more than that. Pietas might be described as the duty everyone has to be faithful and respectful towards their own families and, more generally, towards the foundations of their society. It was because of pietas that the Romans took such things as religious rituals, readings of omens, and ceremonies of state so seriously.

Pietas is everywhere in the buildings and monuments of Washington D.C. The FDR Memorial is entirely flat to reflect Roosevelt's status as the first president with a physical disability. The MLK Memorial is located halfway between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials to symbolize Martin Luther King's synthesis of the ideas of the two presidents. The Rotunda of the Capitol Dome is covered with beautiful art depicting crucial moments in American history. The Freedom Wall in the World War II Memorial has a gold star for ever one hundred American lives lost in the global struggle against fascism; it contains just over four thousand stars. The statue of Rosa Parks donated by the state of Alabama to the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building pointedly depicts her seated rather than standing up. Although Ford's Theater remains an active center for stage productions today, the presidential box in which Lincoln was shot is never used and is as carefully preserved to its 1865 appearance as possible. All of this is pietas.

The simple existence of the battlefield at Gettysburg is a manifestation of American pietas. The land where the fate of the nation was decided in the summer of 1863 could, like the battlefields around Atlanta, been turned into residential areas, shopping centers, and golf courses. Instead, the nation made a collective decision to preserve the sacred ground as both a monument to the bravery of the men who fought there and to allow future generations to explore the battlefield in order to understand what happened there. The same applies to the preservation of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, and, for that matter, Jefferson's home at Monticello, Madison's home at Montpelier, and other homes of great individuals of American history.

Two moments on this trip really stand out to me in terms of what I am talking about. At Mount Vernon, four of our students participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at George Washington's tomb. First, one of the girls read out the pledge of allegiance. Then two boys carefully raised and carried the wreath into the tomb itself, setting it beside the sarcophagus. Finally, a girl read a prayer written by George Washington, beseeching God to protect the United States and calling upon all citizens to love and respect one another for the common good. The four students who did this behaved impeccably and all described the experience as extremely moving.

The second took place on the last day of our trip. We visited Arlington National Cemetery, walking for miles among the thousands upon thousands of gravestones marking the final resting places of the men and women who fought to keep America free. We saw the eternal flame marking the grave of President John F. Kennedy, the mast of the USS Maine, and the markers for the astronauts who died on the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. But what stayed with me more than anything was the site of the endless fields of grave markers, stretching away across the horizon, like the grain and corn fields of the Midwest. During our tour, we could occasionally hear three volley salutes being fired as part of funerals taking place while we were there.

But nothing at Arlington National Cemetery illustrated American pietas more than watching the Changing of the Guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns. I can't quite articulate what it is about the deceptively simple ceremony: an officer arrives, inspects the sentry arriving for duty, who then relieves the sentry who has been on duty beforehand. The perfection of their movements, the precision of their walking, the exactness of their uniform, were all orders of magnitude higher than they needed to be if the point was simply to keep people from vandalizing the tomb. Why? Because it's not just about guarding the tomb; it's about showing the highest level of respect for the men and women who died defending our country. The poignancy of the ceremony is a statement to those brave heroes: we thank you, we honor you, and we will never forget you.

My students were standing in the sun on an oppressively hot and humid day while we watched the ceremony, yet I heard not a word of complaint from any of them. Some of them described the ceremony as the most incredible thing they had ever seen. During the whole time we were in Arlington National Cemetery, as when we visited the memorials to leaders of the past or the fallen heroes of past wars, all of our students displayed the deepest respect. Ms. James and I were more proud of them than words can express.

Sadly, not everyone we encountered during our trip behaved in the same manner. Another student group was on the grounds of Arlington that day and acted atrociously, tapping away on their smart phones during the Changing of the Guard and competing to see who could successfully flip bottles up onto the marble benches of the Memorial Amphitheater. I recall a foul-mouthed twentysomething loudly telling a profanity-laced joke amidst the crowd at the Martin Luther King Memorial. Obviously, there were plenty of people who did not appreciate what these historical sites and memorials truly represent. I was inclined to be a bit more forgiving at the Smithsonian, which isn't hallowed ground, but even there I was dismayed at how many people preferred to be goofing off or playing with their ubiquitous smart phones rather than exploring the fascinating exhibits that surrounded them.

Clearly, not everybody senses the need to maintain a sense of pietas. I think of all the people who think that Veterans Day and Memorial Day are the same thing or the adult men who are unaware that they are supposed to remove their hats during the singing of the national anthem. I think of the businesses that neglect to take care of the American flags that fly over their establishments, until they are gradually reduced to faded rags. I think of those people who don't know the name of their own representatives in Congress or who shirk their civic duty by failing to show up at the polls on Election Day. I think of all the people who are reading celebrity gossip magazines when they could be reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and especially all the teenage boys who go home to play computer games for hours on end when they should be reading books.

The problems facing our country today have little to do with to do with how many people are conservatives or liberals. They have little to do with which party controls the House of Representatives, the Senate, or even the White House. I think that our problems stem from a lack of respect, or even understanding, of what the United States of America is supposed to be about. They stem from a lack of pietas.

It's easy to become disillusioned about the state of things in the United States today. I am probably more guilty of this than the average person. Yet when I look back on the last few days I have spent in our nation's capital with these fourteen amazing young men and young women, I find myself reinvigorated and renewed. To me, this experience underscores for me my responsibility as a teacher of American to nurture and mentor the leaders of tomorrow. These kids have pietas. And if they had it, others can have it, too.

America needs champions. It needs heroes. I hope that I have played at least a small part in encouraging some young people to step up and become the kind of citizens our country so desperately needs. And if I get the chance, I hope to do so again in the future.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What If Abraham Lincoln Had Not Been Assassinated?

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was one of the most shocking moments in American history. It has been seared into the collective consciousness of the country in the same way that unexpected news of the death of parent is seared into a mind of an individual. We can all see ourselves in Ford's Theater, as Our American Cousin is being acted out on the stage, the President enjoying the production in his box seat above and to the right. We can almost hear the shocking sound of the gunshot, sense the confusion of the crowd as John Wilkes Booth leaps from the stages and shouts something before running away, and then feel the terror as Mary Todd Lincoln's piercing scream echoes throughout the theater. In that awful moment, Abraham Lincoln became the Christ-figure of the American civil religion, the man who had to die to exorcise the sin of slavery from the country.

It also created one of the most intriguing alternate history questions of all: what if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated?

There is no need for any elaborate "point of divergence" in this scenario. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were accompanied to the play by Major Henry Rathbone and his wife. Historically, Rathbone did not hear Booth as the assassin entered the box. The first inkling he had that something was amiss was when Booth fired the fatal bullet into Lincoln's head. He attempted to grab Booth and apparently struggled with him for a few moments. Booth seriously wounded Rathbone with a knife and leapt from the box onto the stage. For the rest of his life, Rathbone was torn by guilt over his failure to prevent the assassination. He eventually succumbed to complete mental instability and murdered his wife in a fit of rage, spending his remaining years in an asylum for the criminally insane.

What if Rathbone had heard the door open behind him and seen the shadowy figure of Booth approaching the President from behind? One can imagine the major, who was an experienced soldier, reacting quickly and accosting Booth before he had a chance to fire his gun. The President, no weak man even at the age of 56, would have reacted as any man reacts when his wife is threatened and jumped up to help Rathbone restrain the assassin. In all likelihood, Booth would have been pinned to the ground and President Lincoln would have ended the evening wiping a bit of sweat from his forehead and making a wry joke about Booth overplaying the role he had recently performed in Julius Caesar.

So what would have been the ramifications of Lincoln surviving the assassination attempt? To answer that question, we need to look at what the situation was on April 14, 1865. By that date, the American Civil War was effectively over. Robert E. Lee's vaunted Army of Northern Virginia had been forced to surrender at Appomattox. Joseph Johnston and the remnants of the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina were about to follow suit and the few remaining Confederate forces, scattered across the South, were either about to give up or simply falling apart. Attention was rapidly shifting from winning the war to securing the peace.

The Republican Party was of two minds regarding how to manage Reconstruction. Radical Republicans, led by men such as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner (the latter will be a major character in my upcoming novel House of the Proud) were not interested in reconciliation. They believed that the South needed to be punished for secession, for bringing on the war, and for practicing slavery in the first place. They wanted to remold Southern society into something completely different from what had existed before. Lincoln disagreed, wanting Reconstruction to be as painless as possible and for normalcy to be restored as quickly as it could. His main goal was not revenge, but reconciliation between the North and South.

Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction had been articulated as early as 1863, after large portions of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana had come back under Union control. It was called the Ten Percent Plan. As soon as ten percent of a Southern state's voting population had sworn loyalty to the Union, those people could reform a loyal government and the state would be readmitted to the Union, provided that they accepted the abolition of slavery. Moreover, aside from a few high-level Confederate military officers and government officials, full pardons would be extended to those who had taken up arms against the Union. In Lincoln's vision, as the war was won, each rebellious state would come back into the Union as its territory fell under federal control. Once the Confederate armies disintegrated or were forced to surrender, it would a fairly straightforward matter for the states to be restored to the Union. The war would be won, slavery would be ended, and the Union would be restored.

The Radicals strongly disagreed with Lincoln's plan. Their view of Reconstruction was articulated most clearly in the Wade-Davis Bill, named for Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Davis of Maryland. The bill required a majority of a state's voting voting population to take an "ironclad oath" that they had never supported the Confederacy before the state could be readmitted to the Union. This was clearly not going to happen, since the vast majority of the South's white population had supported the Confederacy. It would require a generation to pass before a majority of a state's voters could take such an oath and during all that time the conquered South would have essentially been subject to the rule of the Congress in the same way that the territories in the West remained subject to Congress until they became states themselves. In 1864, Lincoln pocket vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill, preventing it from becoming law and infuriating the Radicals.

So there were two competing Republicans visions of Reconstruction, those of the Moderates led by Lincoln, whose views were summed up in the Ten Percent Plan, and those of the Radicals led by Sumner and Stevens, whose views were summed up by the Wade-Davis Bill. The views of the Democrats, largely marginalized by the events of the war, were scarcely considered. The defeated Southerners, needless to say, could only wait and see what their Northern conquerors were going to do.

Historically, Reconstruction was essentially a failure. Andrew Johnson, the uncouth drunk who became President upon Lincoln's death, pursued the lightest possible Reconstruction policy. Former Confederates very quickly were returned to positions of authority in the Southern states, passing legislation known as "black codes" to prevent the newly freed slaves from exercising any real freedom. President Johnson actively opposed granting blacks the right to vote, utterly enraging the Radical Republicans. Aside from the bare fact that slavery was abolished and blacks were no longer the legal property of white people, it was almost as if nothing had changed since before the war.

Johnson's policies were so wildly unpopular that the Radical Republicans soon realized that they had sufficient strength in Congress to override the President's vetoes of their legislation and that they could pass anything they wanted. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 outlawed such state practices at the black codes, undermining the legitimacy of Johnson's Reconstruction policies. Not long after that, Congress attempted to throw Johnston out of office via impeachment. Though they failed by a single vote in the Senate, Johnson was so humiliated that whatever political power he retained was swept away. He remained an inert nonentity until replaced in the White House by Ulysses Grant in 1869.

Radical Reconstruction now began. The South was subjected to martial law by the occupying Union Army, which protected blacks from revenge attacks and ensured their ability to vote. Republicans gained control of the Southern state government via the electoral coalition of freed slaves, scalawags, and carpetbaggers. Former Confederates were largely disenfranchised. The 14th and 15th Amendments, ensuring equal rights to all citizens and guaranteeing that the right to vote would not be denied on account of race, were pushed through the ratification process.

Many of these efforts, such as the protection of the freed slaves and the passage of the constitutional amendments, greatly benefited the nation. Yet in treating the ex-Confederates as the people of a conquered province, rather than as wayward friends the way Lincoln had desired, the Radical Republicans were throwing kindling onto a dangerous fire. A ferocious anger and bitterness was instilled in the hearts of the proud Southern people, ensuring that they would take revenge as soon as Reconstruction ended.

And that's what happened. Reconstruction wasn't going to last forever, as the Radical Republicans should have realized. After the 1876 election, President Rutherford B. Hayes made a deal to break the impasse of his questionable election that removed the army of occupation from the South. Like bowling pins, the Republican state governments in the South were knocked over and replaced with Democratic governments dominated by former Confederates. Voting rights for the blacks were ruthlessly stripped away through such means as literacy tests and poll taxes, 15th Amendment be damned, The age of Jim Crow had dawned, which would last for nearly a century, until the age of Martin Luther King.

In my opinion, for Reconstruction to have been a real success would have required the voting rights of both the ex-Confederates and the freed slaves to somehow be protected. In this way, whites and blacks in the South would have had to learn to live with one another a century before than the civil rights movement. The ex-Confederates would not have been able to sweep their black neighbors under the political rug, but neither would they have been embittered by having their own rights stripped away from them by the Radical Republicans. If anything like a fair and stable society, on the road to equality for all people, could have emerged from the fires of the Civil War, something like this would have had to happen.

What if Lincoln had not been shot that awful night in April of 1865? What if he had served a full second term, only leaving office after the 1868 election?

Lincoln was perhaps the greatest political genius America has ever produced. He had a sense of perspective and a vision that no one else in American history has come close to matching. If anyone could have somehow created a political framework in which the voting rights of both blacks and the ex-Confederates were protected, it was Lincoln. Only he could possibly have navigated the minefield of Radical Republicans, ex-Confederates, Democrats, freed slaves, and all the other interest groups.

If Lincoln had survived and remained committed to his Ten Percent Plan, subsequent American history would have been radically different and, I believe, much more pleasant for all concerned. We should not think that the South would have been transformed into some sort of post-racial utopia in such a scenario, but it is at least possible that a surviving Abraham Lincoln would have been able to forge a political solution that would avoid the racial darkness of the Jim Crow era and set America on a more proper course.

In the meantime, with the war over, Lincoln could have pursued the goals of expansion and modernization that were his dream. It's often forgotten that more took place during Lincoln's presidency than the Civil War. The Homestead Act was passed, opening vast tracts of western land for settlement, and promoting the building of railroads to link the eastern and western sections of the nation together. He brought the National Academy of Sciences and the Department of Agriculture into being. His vision of a united America, in which distinctions of North and South were entirely secondary, was as clear as a shining star.

In firing the deadly bullet, John Wilkes Booth did more than just manifest his own hatred and bigotry. Booth crippled the United States of America for decades, perhaps a century. For that reason, his memory should be damned forever.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

What If Germany Had Won the First World War?

We are currently in the midst of the centennial of the First World War, a historical event of truly stupendous importance. The war marks a sharp dividing line between what came before it and what came after it and we are still living with its consequences today. It is right and proper that we should be reflecting on its meaning one hundred years after it took place.

The general outline of the war is easy for any person who paid attention in history class to reconstruct in their mind. Through a stupid mishmash of political miscalculations in the summer of 1914, tied together by a sinister system of interlocking alliances, Europe was plunged into a nightmarish war thanks to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Britain, France, and Russia, along with several smaller nations. were pitted against Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

The fiercest fighting of the war took place on the Western Front in France and Belgium and the Eastern Front in Russia, where armies numbering in the millions slugged it out over four years. Fighting also flared in the Alps between Italy and Austria-Hungary, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in the colonies scattered across the globe. It was warfare on an industrial scale, unlike anything history had seen up to that point. Technology was bent towards the purposes of slaughtering as many human beings as possible, with such innovations as tanks, submarines, poison gas, aircraft, and the mass use of machine guns extending man's ability to kill his fellow man by leaps and bounds.

In the end, of course, Germany went down to defeat. Its disastrous decision to implement a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 brought the United States into the war on the Allied side. Even though Russia had collapsed into the chaos of revolution, Germany was running out of time, its war economy slowly being strangled by an impenetrable British naval blockade. A last gasp offensive in the spring of 1918 brought initial success and at times came close to rupturing the Allied lines. The Allied armies surged forward in the summer, overwhelming the German army and leading to the armistice of November 11, 1918.

The war was won, but the Allies lost the peace. The Treaty of Versallies imposed terms on the Germans that were too weak to permanently cripple it, but harsh enough to instill a ferocious desire for revenge. Combined with the Great Depression, it led directly to the rise of Nazism in Germany and plunged the world into another, more terrible world war just two decades after the first one had been concluded.

All of this begs the question: what if Germany had won the First World War?

There are any number of different scenarios that could have allowed Germany and her allies in the Central Powers to achieve victory over the Allies. Indeed, Germany had a much better chance of winning the First World War than it did the Second World War. Let me briefly sketch one general scenario and then flesh out what the ramifications of it might have been.

During 1916, the war seemed balanced on a knife's edge. Two battles on the Western Front, Verdun and the Somme, dominated the headlines of that terrible year. In the first, the Germans launched a massive offensive against the ancient French fortress city, not so much to capture it as to bleed the French army white in its efforts to protect it. In the second, the British hurled their army, the flower of their youth, against the Germans lines in what turned out to be a futile effort to break through them. Hundreds of thousands of French, British, and German soldiers died in these battles and the front lines did not move more than a few miles in either direction.

At Verdun, the Germans made the critical mistake of deviating from their original plan, which was merely to present a serious enough threat to the city so as to compel the French to commit the bulk of their army to defend it, thus luring it into a space where it could be devastated by superior German firepower. In the early stages of the battle, things seemed to be going according to the German plan. But, as happens all too often in war, the Germans lost sight of their true objective and lost their sense of perspective. The operation became an all-out effort to capture Verdun after all. The back-and-forth fighting that raged over the next few months therefore became just as costly to the Germans as it was to the French. Although the French suffered unspeakably heavy casualties, the Germans had also succeeded in bleeding themselves white.

On the Somme, the casualties of the British attackers were truly horrific. But the Germans, determined not to cede even an inch of ground, suffered almost as many casualties as the Allies in their ferocious counter attacks. In the end, although the Germans prevented the British from breaking through their lines, the battle can fairly be described as a stalemate rather than a German victory. Each side had basically torn the other to pieces and the fighting come to an end through mutual exhaustion.

Let us imagine that the Germans do better at both Verdun and the Somme than they did historically, which might easily have been the case. If they had never attempted a full-scale effort to capture Verdun and had they been more willing to cede useless kilometers of land along the Somme (territory they were to evacuate in 1917, anyway), they could have inflicted heavier losses on the Allies and sustained fewer losses themselves than they did historically. The front lines on the Western Front would have ended more or less in the same place when 1916 came to an end, but there would be a lot more dead French and British soldiers, and many fewer dead Germans. The offensive power of the Allies armies would have badly damaged.

Elsewhere on the fighting fronts, 1916 had gone rather well for the Central Powers. On the Eastern Front, they had turned back the Brusilov Offensive, albeit at heavy cost. The lines had held on the Italian Front and in the Balkans. The Turks had held their own against the British fairly well, though less so against the Russians on the Caucasus Front. In East Africa, German forces under the intrepid Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck continued their dogged resistance to the British. If the Germans had done better at Verdun and on the Somme, few intelligent observers would have denied that the Central Powers were winning the war at the end of 1916.

Historically, in early 1917, the Germans made the disastrous decision to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare against Great Britain. They that this would probably bring the United States into the war against them, but assumed that knocking the British out of the war would be worth the risk. In the end, the United States did declare war on Germany and Britain stubbornly refused to be knocked out of the war, dealing a double blow to the Central Powers and possibly ensuring their eventual defeat. In our alternate scenario, however, the Germans might not have felt the need to play the unrestricted submarine warfare card, as they would have felt they were on their way to winning the war anyway.

If the Germans never resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States would never have entered the war. This not only would have denied the vast manpower of America, but would have denied the British and French the financial credit that came from American loans. By 1917, the Allied nations were on the verge of bankruptcy and it was only American credit that saved them. Indeed, it can be fairly argued that the most important contribution the United States made to Allied victory was in the form of money rather than men. If the United States had not entered the war, the Allies would rapidly be running low on both.

Germany was not in any better shape in terms of manpower and money than the Allies were. But in 1917, three things happened that gave Germany a chance to win the war. First, in February of 1917, Russia collapsed into revolution and chaos. Although it would not officially withdraw from the war until the Bolshevik government signed the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the following year, Russia's capacity to continue the war was clearly at an end. Second, after yet another failed offensive, the French Army was rocked by a series of mutinies in the spring, with entire divisions refusing to follow orders. Third, the German Army perfected the "Hutier tactics" of infiltration and rapid advance, which allowed them to inflict sharp defeats on the Italians and Russians over the course of the year.

In our alternate timeline, then, 1918 would dawn with the United States not in the war as a belligerent, Russia having collapsed, the French army even more weakened than it was historically, and with Germany ready to use its new tactics in a great offensive on the Western Front. We can imagine, then, that a decisive offensive in the spring of 1918 would have broken the British and French armies, led to the fall of Paris, and forced the French government to surrender. If the French throw in the towel, the British would probably seek a peace agreement as well, although from a much better than their allies.

What would a peace agreement under these circumstances look like?

Judging by the terms the Germans suggested when they sent a peace feeler out in early 1916, we have every reason to believe that Germany would have been as harsh with the French as the Allies were to the Germans in actual history. Tiny Luxembourg and Belgium would have been reduced to the status of a German protectorates, if not annexed altogether. Chunks of northeastern France, particularly the Longwy and Briey regions, with their rich deposits of iron ore. In expanding their own base of industrial resources, their goal would be to cripple the French as much as strength themselves. The Germans might have demanded control over some of the Channel ports, to present a greater threat to England.

In Eastern Europe, German expansionist dreams would be realized on an even wider scale. We now from the historical record that the Germans intended to annex the Baltic regions of Russia directly into Germany. They might have been content to resurrect a German-dominated Polish state as a buffer between them and the Russians, or they might have simply annexed the Polish regions of the Russian Empire outright. Russia, with whatever unstable government succeeded the fallen Romanovs, would have been in no position to bargain for better terms. Ukraine would have been set up as a German-dominated puppet. In the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks would have made gains at Russian expense as well, with the poor Armenians likely the ones to pay the heaviest price.

In the Balkans, the Bulgarians could be expected to gain the Macedonian territories from Greece, which the Germans had promised them as a carrot for entering the war in the first place. They might have also gotten bits of Serbia and Romania as dessert. Nothing fundamental would have changed in the Balkans, despite the thousands of lost lives. The ancient hatreds would fester on, ready to explode again some ways down the road. Sadly, it's hard to imagine any realistic alternate history scenario in which the Balkans are not a powder keg ready to explode.

Which brings us to Austria-Hungary, which had done more to cause the war than any other nation. It had imagined the whole thing as a short, preventative war to puts the Serbs in their place. Instead, it had rapidly gotten out of control and consumed the entire world. Unfortunately, even after losing hundreds of thousands of men, the polyglot empire of the Hapsburgs would not find its problems solved. Indeed, it might have found them made worse. If the powers-that-be in Vienna insisted on incorporating territory from Serbia, or Russia, or Italy into its realm, than the ethnic tensions that had already been pulling the empire apart before 1914 would only be strengthened.

The Germans learned during the war that having Austria-Hungary as an ally was more a liability than anything else. It would not be surprising if, after the war, it nudged the Habsburg realm toward a more federated structure, perhaps even pushing for it to be dissolved altogether. The Austrian portions, being ethnically German, might succumb to the German Empire, while the Kingdom of Hungary might be set up as a satellite state and the other, smaller entities that made up the empire before 1914 could be set up on their own. None of them, needless to say, would wield enough power to threaten overall German mastery of Central and Eastern Europe. With Russia reduced to irrelevance, Germany would be the only big kid left on the block.

What of the colonies? Because Britain remained unconquered and, thanks to the Royal Navy, unconquerable, we can expect that no British colonies to be turned over to the Germans. At best, the Germans might get the colonies taken by the British during the war returned to them. The fact that Lettow-Vorbeck was still in the field fighting against the British in East Africa would lend additional credit to the German negotiating position. The South Africans would surely balk at giving German Southwest Africa (today's Namibia), so perhaps the Germans would be willing to let it go in exchange for leeway on other colonial matters.

The French and Belgians, unlike the British, would have been in no position to bargain, being entirely at Germany's mercy. Belgian Congo would surely have been annexed in its entirety by Germany, raising the disturbing question of whether the Germans might have been an even harsher ruler of that unhappy country than the Belgians had been (read King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild for the grisly details of Belgian colonial rule). North Africa was outside the German sphere of interest and was too closely intertwined with France itself to be considered as a colonial reward. Still, combined with the cession of French Cameroon and French Equatorial Africa, an enormous German colonial empire would have been created across the central portion of Africa. Germany might have even made a play for Portuguese territory, if that nation had been foolish enough to enter the war on the Allied side.

And the Pacific? German New Guinea and many scattered German islands had been captured by the Australians and New Zealanders. Would the Germans demand their Pacific Islands back? Would they accept the loss of them in exchange for peace. One can imagine a back-and-forth exchange. Perhaps Germany would demand of the French the installation of German garrisons in the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais, presenting an implicit invasion threat to Britain, and give them up only in exchange for the return of its Pacific colonies. (This might also apply to some African territory, come to think of it).

The German colony of Tsingtao on the Chinese coast and the islands north of the Equator would present a more interesting problem, They had been conquered by the Japanese, who had not been defeated by the Germans and against whom the Germans had few options when it came to power projection. The Japanese would not be inclined to return their conquests just because the British and French had been defeated on the European Continent. What could the Germans have done about it? Perhaps they would see it as a better option to cut their losses in that part of the world in exchange for friendly relations with Japan. Or perhaps the issue would fester and set the stage for a future conflict between the two nations.

Britain, defeated but unconquered, would have stood warily across the English Channel, watching as Germany expanded its empire in Africa and its credibility with the "White Dominions" and its subjects in its colonies greatly shaken. Historically, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand began to drift from their allegiance from the mother country, having seen tens of thousands of their young men slaughtered to little gain thanks to British incompetence at places like Gallipoli and the Somme. In this alternate timeline, that incompetence would have been manifested more strongly, since they would have actually lost the war. What applied to the Dominions would also have applied to Ireland, where prewar political strife would also have to be added to the mix. Would the political glue that held the British Empire together dissolve more quickly?

Perhaps, but there's another consideration. Germany, triumphant on the European Continent, would remain a terrifying danger. Germany and Britain had engaged in a naval arms race before the war (indeed, it was a major factor in raising tensions between the two nations). With victory in war having validated its quest to become a superpower, Germany would surely have wanted to build up its naval power even more. This would pose a mortal threat to Britain, especially if Germany gained control any of the Channel ports in its peace agreement with France. The British would need their empire to stand by it in face of the German threat. Whether they would do so is an open question.

And France? In this alternate scenario, France would find itself in the same situation in which Germany found itself historically. It would be under the domination of another nation, much of its territory stripped away, its pride and national confidence deeply wounded. It would seethe with fury towards its own ruling class and burn with a desire for vengeance. The Third Republic would not last long, but what would take its place? It's not inconceivable that we might see a form of extreme nationalism similar to fascism take root in France in response to its defeat.

Russia would likely not be any happier in this timeline than it was in actual history (which is saying something). By the end of 1916, it was pretty clear that Russia was about to self-cannibalize itself in bloody revolution. But would it have followed the same path that it did historically, with the Bolsheviks being the last men standing and the nightmare of the Soviet Union forming out of the wreckage? Perhaps not. After all, it was the Germans who released Vladimir Lenin into Russia in 1917. Had they been on the verge of victory, they might have felt little need to do so. It might end with a military strongman winning a multi-sided civil war. Indeed, such a person might have declared himself the new Czar, but it seems extremely unlikely to me that the Romanov dynasty would have survived.

The Ottoman Empire would survive, though prewar problems of corruption and inefficiency in its administration would continue to be a problem. Enver Pasha and his cohorts in the Committee of Union and Progress would be the winners, rather than the losers, and would likely remain in control of the government. Would they efforts to craft a viable nation-state have been successful in this alternate scenario? It's difficult to say, since the leaders of the CUP seemed more interested in their own glorification than anything else. Whether the Turks would remain in control of the Arab territories is an open question, made more important by the rapidly increasing importance of oil to the global economy.

This, then, would have been the world in 1919. Germany dominant on the European continent, its borders greatly expanded and many less powerful nations reduced to satellite states. France, defeated but likely burning with a desire for revenge. Russia in chaos. A wary and disillusioned Britain perched warily on the edge of Europe, worried about an eventual German invasion, wondering as to the commitment of its imperial subjects. Japan expanding its power in the Pacific and no doubt casting greedy eyes towards China. As with the actual First World War, this counterfactual war ending with a German victory would likely set the stage for another, perhaps even more horrific, war in the not-too-distant future.

The United States would remain strong and free on its side of the Atlantic, reminding the victorious Germans of the Monroe Doctrine and warning them away from any imperial adventures in Latin America. Might it be willing to enter into an alliance with Britain and its Dominions as a check on further German expansion? How might it have responded to Japanese aggression in the Pacific in this scenario? Would the lack of American participation in the war have had any sharp effect on American culture, besides the obvious fact that Ernest Hemingway's best works would remain unwritten?

Interesting questions. And, as with all cases of alternate history, it is both fun and frustrating that they can never be answered.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Washington's Forgotten Wisdom

The scripture of America's civil religion is broad and weighty. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are the three earliest and most foundational pieces. Over the course of our republic's history. additions have been made. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King. It's a rich tapestry, indeed. One of the most important pieces, I would argue, is the Farewell Address of President George Washington, which was released to the nation on September 19, 1796.

Of all the gifts that George Washington gave to the United States of America, perhaps his greatest was the spectacle of a head of state voluntarily walking away from power. He actually did it twice. The first time was in the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War, when full political power was there for him to take and he was pressed by many to seize his opportunity. He choose instead to resign his commission and go back to Mount Vernon. The second was at the end of his second presidential term. Being the first President of the United States, Washington knew that everything he did set a major precedent for future Presidents to follow. Rather than die in office, which would have established a tradition that Presidents should retain their office as long as possible, he choose to step down after two terms. This established a tradition that was followed until President Franklin Roosevelt sought a third term in 1940.

As he departed the stage of public life, however, Washington desired to leave the people a final testament and words of advice for the future. Using a draft originally prepared by James Madison when he had first contemplated stepping down in 1792, Washington asked Alexander Hamilton to help him create an appropriate message to the American people, The result was the Farewell Address.

I think it's healthy, if a little unsettling, to read through Washington's Farewell Address and see how well we have followed his sage advice on several key matters. Though he lacked the refined education and natural genius of men like Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, Washington perhaps stood above them all in his pure common sense and ability to get to the heart of a matter. On five fundamental issues, Washington told posterity what he thought should be done. Let's take a look at them, one by one.

Washington Advised America to Avoid Political Parties
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographic discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
It is clear that we have utterly failed to heed President Washington's warnings when it comes to political parties. Indeed, it can be seen in retrospect that this warning came too late, for already in Washington's first term the followers of Thomas Jefferson and the followers of Alexander Hamilton were arraying themselves into political parties (the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists, respectively). Aside from the short interregnum known as the Era of Good Feelings in the time of President James Monroe, America has been divided into a two-party system pretty much ever since. First the division was between Democrats and Whigs, then between Democrats and Republicans, a split which persists to this day.

The spirit of party is, indeed, a cancer at the heart of our society. There have been times when partisan bitterness has been set aside in pursuit of larger national goals, such as battling the forces of global fascism during the Second World War or, less firmly, during the struggle against Communism in the time of the Cold War. On some particular issues, too, Democrats and Republicans have been known to work together, such as ensuring funding for the Apollo Program. Generally, though, the spirit of partisan rancor makes sure that our office-holders seem more focused on thwarting the opposing party than working together for the good of the country.

An childish example of this could be seen in the chatter regarding the decision of the International Olympic Committee as to where to hold the 2016 Summer Olympics. Of the four finalists, Chicago was the only American city. It seems obvious to me that all Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, should have rallied around Chicago's bid in the hopes that an American city would have the honor of hosting the Olympics. But because Chicago is the home of then-President Barack Obama, many Republicans derided the city's Olympic bid and openly gloated when it failed.

We live in an age when the members of the two parties stridently and proudly refuse to compromise with one another, which has been a major factor into getting us into our current troubles. There is no doing away with political parties, which are firmly established as part of our constellation of political institutions and which have many advantages that Washington seems not to have considered. But there is no denying that we should listen more carefully to Washington's warnings on this subject and remember the need to place the common good ahead of party advantage.

Washington Advised America to Avoid Becoming Entangling in Foreign Affairs
[N]othing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. . . The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.
That we have failed to follow Washington's advice in this area of policy is the most obvious thing in the world. The United States is so entangled in the affairs of foreign nations in the early 21st Century that it would be impossible for us to extricate ourselves from them even if we wanted to. We have treaties of mutual defense with the other 27 member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with Japan, with South Korea, with the Philippines, and with Australia, legally binding us to come to their defense if they are attacked. We have de facto mutual defense agreements with Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, New Zealand, and other nations as well. The world is lined with legal tripwires, any one of which could commit the United States to war.

Washington did express a willingness for the country to enter into "temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." I expect he would have had no problem with allying with Britain, Russia, and France against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan and he might have agreed that NATO was necessary during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union. But the modern network of interlocking permanent alliances with literally dozens of other countries would have shocked and dismayed him. Far from remaining aloof from foreign affairs, the country he helped establish now intervenes so intently around the world that our hands are tied into almost everything that happens on the surface of the planet.

The world is far different in 2017 than it was in 1796. Perhaps Washington would see the circumstances in which our nation now finds itself and conclude that our modern system of alliances is now necessary. Personally, I felt that NATO's purpose essentially ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, though it may now be needed again in view of the resurgence of Russian territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe. In any case, we would do well to consider whether our present alliances are truly in the best interests of our nation. The territorial integrity of our nation cannot be compromised by any conceivable combination of enemies. Why, therefore, do we remain so deeply involved in the affairs of other countries?

Washington Advised America to Avoid a Overbearing National Debt
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate.
Of all the warnings Washington gave us, this one is perhaps the most egregiously ignored. As I type this blog entry, the national debt of the United States is approaching $20 trillion. This is not even counting the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security, which add up to more than $40 trillion. This is a truly unspeakable amount of money. Meanwhile, we are not even close to balancing our budget, much less beginning to pay this debt off in any meaningful time frame. We are doing exactly what Washington warned us against, "throwing upon prosperity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."

Every year, hundreds of billions of dollars goes to simply servicing the interest on the debt already accumulated by the federal government, every penny of which is money that might otherwise be spent on other things. And since the debt continues to increase year after year, the percentage of the annual budget that goes to interest payments steadily increases. Eventually it will swallow up everything else.

It is sickening and shameful. When I look into the eyes of my two beautiful daughters, it pains me to think that their generation will bear the burden for the excesses of mine. Washington would be disgusted with us, just as we should be disgusted with ourselves.

Washington Advised America to Maintain a Sense of Public Morality
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
A quick glance through the popular culture of our time can tell you that there is little sense of morality left alive in the American spirit. Those who assert that the average American is simply not as polite or decent as he used to be are, frankly, quite right. Our once robust religious institutions have withered away like plants without water. We live in an age of consumerism, when indulging in materialism is seen as normal and the idea of stoic self-denial has long been forgotten. Those we now hold in highest esteem are not the heroes who sacrifice to help others or the scientists who unlock the mysteries of the natural world. Instead, we celebrate entertainment celebrities who treat other human beings like dirt and indulge in every form of materialistic perversity. The man currently living in the White House is, sadly, the ultimate culmination of this aspect of social decay.

Washington's favorable words on religion, incidentally, should not be taken to suggest that the wall of separation between church and state should be torn down. He was talking about society in general and not government in particular. Despite his obviously ironclad belief in God and constant reminders to himself and others that "Providence" governs human affairs, Washington does not seem to have been a devout believer. One can pour through his papers and not find a single reference to Jesus Christ.

But I do believe that Washington would look upon modern America and fairly ask, "Where is your moral center?"

Washington intended his Farewell Address not only for the people alive when he left office. He intended for the millions of Americans yet unborn in his time. He intended it for us. I'm glad you're reading my blog, but since you're already on the Internet anyway, why not read the Farewell Address in its entirety right now?

Do it.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

After Trump

If one visits the fabled city of Venice, the Doge's Palace is perhaps the first stop on the tour. It is a marvel of architectural beauty and enormous historical significance. The Republic of Venice was one of the most successful states in the history of the Western world, a small city that turned itself into an economic powerhouse and a military giant that dominated the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. It was from the Doge's Palace that the elected leader of the republic governed in immense majesty the sprawling thalassocracy that was the Venetian Empire.

Within the Doge's Palace is an immense chamber called the Sala del Maggior Consilgio, the Hall of the Great Council. It was here that the nobles who ruled the city gathered together to discuss matters of state. The artwork that lines the walls is just as impressive today as it was centuries ago. Among the paintings are dozens of portraits of the men who held the office of Doge over the lifespan of the Republic.

One frame stands out from the rest, however, that of Marino Faliero, who was Doge for just seven months in late 1354 and early 1355. In his frame, there is no portrait at all, only a covering of black paint depicted as dark cloth. You see, while serving as Doge, Faliero had tried to overthrow the Venetian government and set himself up as sole ruler of the city. His attempted coup had been thwarted and Faliero had paid for his unspeakable crime with his life. Not wishing to honor him with a portrait, yet unwilling to let the memory of his treason be forgotten, the Venetians symbolically covered his face with a death shroud.

One day, I expect, our attitude towards President Donald Trump will be much the same.

I don't know how the Trump years will come to an end. Perhaps he will last long enough for the enraged and energized American people to kick him out of office in 2020. Perhaps he will resign in disgrace, or simply after becoming bored with the whole thing. I personally consider it more likely than not that he will be impeached and tossed in prison for gross corruption. One way or another, however, the Trump years will eventually come to an end.

I am an optimist, but I am also a realist. On the day on which I type this blog entry, it seems more likely than not that the administration of Donald Trump is going to be a disastrous train wreck the magnitude of which will defy any attempt at description. It is quite clear to all but the self-deluded that he has no real interest in working on behalf of the American people and is interested only in making a huge amount of money for himself, his family, and his friends. His Cabinet picks consist of billionaires uninterested in public service or ignorant clowns with no idea what they're doing. Beyond that, Trump is clearly under the influence, if not the complete control, of a foreign government hostile to the United States. What damage he will do between now and the day he leaves office is, of course, yet to be seen. When it is all over, however, I fully expect that we will no longer be debating whether James Buchanan or Warren Harding was the worst president in American history, as that question will have been answered in the most decisive manner.

And when he's gone, Americans should give Donald Trump the same treatment the Venetians gave to Marino Faliero. It is an insult and an outrage that the office held by such men as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln will be tainted by the presence of such an odious and sickening human being as Donald Trump, so the institution of the American presidency will need to be cleansed like a house that has suffered a flea infestation. The navy should never commission a rowboat, let alone a major warship, named the USS Trump. If Disney puts together an animatronic version of Trump in the Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom, it should remove it and throw it away. 8th grade history teachers should cross out his picture on the poster of the Presidents that they put up on their walls. The National Park Service shouldn't bother preserving a Donald Trump Birthplace. Indeed, I'd favor following the lead of the Austrian government and demolishing the place were it not for the fact that it's a hospital. Perhaps we could instead demolish the Trump Tower, which, architecturally speaking, is a gauche and ignoble piece of crap anyway.

I'm quite certain that Americans are going to want to forget that Donald Trump even existed by the time he leaves the White House. While I see the point of this, I disagree, and for an important reason. What has happened is the fault of the entire American people and we need to learn from this grave mistake in order to take the necessary steps to make sure that nothing remotely like it ever happens again.

The first thing that must happen is comprehensive election reform. I've written about that on this blog a good deal. To my mind, the three most urgently needed reforms are the abolition of gerrymandering, the implementation of ranked choice voting, and the doing away with the Electoral College. Beyond that, it is crucial that voting be made as simple and easy as possible for all citizens, so that even the suspicion of voter suppression never taint elections again. I believe that Election Day should be a national holiday. In short, we need to ensure that our democracy is vibrant, that light is shone on the voting process in order to banish the cynicism that has understandably set it.

The second thing that must happen is we, as citizens, must hold our media accountable for the role it played in this fiasco. Slaves to their ratings, the media devoted vastly more attention to Donald Trump than it did to all the other candidates in the Republican primary combined. Those people who tried to have serious discussions about public policy were ignored in favor of the histrionics of a reality television star. The result was a surge in the popularity of a man who should properly have been dismissed as a clown trying to get attention. Absent any sense of civic virtue of journalistic integrity, the media largely created the monster of Donald Trump. In the future, the American people must hold the media to account.

Education will be key to the recovery from the Trump years. For far too long, we have allowed our education system, once the envy of the world, to degenerate into little more than a glorified job training program. Serious instruction in civics, which prepares students to become active and informed citizens able to participate in self-government, has all but vanished. The decline of civics in education is, I believe, one of the key contributing factors to the mess our nation now finds itself in. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik, fearing a massive gap in the scientific expertise with the Russians, the federal government passed the National Defense Education Act to provide emergency funding for science education. In the aftermath of Trump, something along the same lines will be necessary in terms of civics.

But if we're really honest with ourselves, what has happened is not just the fault of a flawed electoral system or a biased media or our troubled education system. It's the shared fault of the entire American people and each of us as individuals. Whatever else he is, Donald Trump is a manifestation of much of modern American society, such as its dismissal of decency and virtue, its gaudiness and its disdain of intellectualism, its celebration of wealth before honor and its willingness to tolerate bigotry and perversity. There is a dark emptiness where a strong and vibrant national soul once existed. All of us contributed to this either through our own actions or through not speaking out against it.

If anything good is to come out of the disaster that will be the Trump years, it will be that American society will be so shaken and perhaps even wrecked that we can start afresh once it's over. It will be like building a new house on the same lot after your original home had burned down. If we can refashion our election system, or media, our schools, and ourselves, we can perhaps come through the tunnel to the light again as a better nation. Trump can be relegated to the same historical oblivion inhabited by the likes of Marino Faliero and the rest of us - liberals and conservatives, men and women, people of all races, religious, sexual orientations, or whatever else - can get on with forming a more perfect union out of this great republic.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Where Are the Modern "Founding Fathers"?

2017 opens on a disordered and disillusioned time in America. There is a pervasive feeling that things have gone terribly wrong and that the great experiment launched by our Founding Fathers two hundred and forty years ago is now running in the wrong direction, or perhaps several different wrong directions. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is surely the biggest factor in this, but it is only one of many. The chaos and debasement that characterized the 2016 election was more a symptom than a cause of our current troubles. Citizens of this once great republic seem to feel that we are tottering on the brink of a fatal precipice, as our political and legal institutions break down, the gap between the rich and the poor widens, the imagination of our cultural institutions seems to have become exhausted, and our once immense optimism and confidence in ourselves seems to be fading.

In the midst of this confusion, we look around for leaders to help guide our country back onto the right path. Yet they are nowhere to be found. Why not?

During the American Revolution, the estimated population of the thirteen colonies was around two million, four hundred thousand people. Today, the United States of America has a population of around three hundred and twenty five million people. Do the math, and one finds that the population of America during the Revolution was a mere 0.7% of the current American population.

And what came out of this 0.7%? George Washington did. Thomas Jefferson did. So did John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams. So did dozens of "Founding Fathers" whose names are sadly unknown to the general public - men like Roger Sherman, George Mason, John Jay, Robert Morris, and Benjamin Rush - whose contributions were enormous. It also produced a generation of citizen-soldiers, commanded by brilliant leaders like Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox.

And what did this 0.7% accomplish? With an army that was outnumbered, poorly supplied, and untrained, they took on and defeated the greatest empire the world had ever seen. They formulated a revolutionary form of political thought, taking the Enlightenment concepts of natural law and individual liberty and molding them into a cohesive framework of government that would transform the world and bring down the corrupt old order. And they created a Constitution that still stands as the greatest and most durable achievement in government in all of history.

These were not perfect men. They had their flaws and failures, the two greatest being their inability to come to grips with the institution of black slavery and find an equitable way to relate to the Native Americans. Yet when taken in their totality, the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers are nothing less than astonishing. No other group of people in one nation at one historical moment has come close to achieving what these men achieved.

For every American that was alive in 1775, there are about one hundred and thirty-five Americans alive today. One would naturally think, therefore, that there would be one hundred and thirty-five times as many men the caliber of the Founding Fathers today as there were in 1775. Moreover, only white males were allowed the opportunity to participate in politics during the Age of the American Revolution. Having become a more inclusive society, in which everyone is given a chance to play a political role no matter their gender or ethnicity, one would naturally expect that a much greater proportion of American genius would have been unleashed in our own day and age.

Bottom line: there should be tens of thousands of Americans active on the political scene today with the same brilliance, courage, and integrity as the Founding Fathers. Yet we look around and we do not find them.

Instead, we find a President-Elect whose background is in hotels, casinos, beauty pageants, and reality television, and who is best known for making bigoted statements about women and minorities. The person he defeated is a former First Lady, best known for a history of secrecy and scandals. We have a Congress filled with mediocrities more concerned with raising corporate money and enjoying the taxpayer-funded perks of office than with serving the needs of their constituents, much less the country at large, We have fifty state legislatures filled with men and women who are basically just mini-congressmen. As for the courts, the judges now elected or appointed to preside over them are just tools of their respective political parties rather than guardians of the Constitution. And even among the small and decreasing number of men and women in politics who actually have integrity and want to serve the people, there are none with the caliber of the men who lived during the Revolution.

Where are the Founding Fathers of our own time?

I teach middle school, which gives me a front row seat to the development of the coming American generation. Generally speaking, the students with whom I work are highly intelligent, kindhearted, and eager to learn how they can contribute to the future of this country. But they are being let down by a school system that has all but eradicated civics education from the classroom. When I was in middle school, I remember spending a long time in 8th grade Social Studies covering the details of the Constitution, but nowadays we are forced to rush through it in just a few days. At the end of the unit, we have scarcely covered the basics and not had a chance to get into the details. Most of them can identify the three branches of government and they've been given a vague idea of what each branch does, but insufficient time has been allocated for teachers to teach them such things as the length of a Senator's term, whether Congress or the President has the power to declare war, or why the federal government has the right to issue money but the states do not. There is simply no time to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how the government works.

In other words, the education system is making sure that the next generation will come of age largely ignorant of how the political process works, how the government is structured, and what the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are.

I've also become extremely concerned that we are letting down our students in failing in instill critical thinking skills. We teach them to find primary and secondary sources of information, but we don't really give them much guidance in understanding why some sources may be valid and others may not be. Students need to understand that a Wikipedia article or a documentary they saw on YouTube are not necessarily accurate and that a story featured on Fox News or MSNBC is not as reliable as an article in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. From the perspective of middle school, the "fake news" epidemic is very real. They are astonishingly astute in their use of technology, but they are not being given the mental framework to filter out propaganda while accessing information. 2016 proved the critical need for our society as a whole to develop the tools to separate fact from fiction in the information with which we are bombarded. This is supposed to be the job of our education system and we are currently not close to succeeding.

I also think that our school system needs to do a much better job of identifying those students who are particularly gifted and display an interest in civics and government. These students should be provided with additional support and special classes to foster their skills and interest. Even as we speak, there are potential Thomas Jeffersons and George Washingtons sitting in our eighth grade classrooms. We need to find them.

It's more than just the school system, though. On Mondays, I typically ask my students what they did over the weekend. Almost invariably, especially among the boys, the answer is that they stayed at home and played video games. No camping trips with the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, no inter-mural soccer games, no reading of books, no gardening or cooking with the parents. Nothing seems to be going on in the lives of these young people that might help instill civic virtue, much less a sense of obligation to their country.

It's a cliche, as well as perfectly obvious, to say that today's students are tomorrow's leaders. But if we are to bring forth a new generation of American leaders who possess even a sliver of the ability and integrity of the Founding Fathers, we need to radically rethink both the way teachers educate them and the way parents raise them.

Because the path we are currently on goes nowhere.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Unsavory Side of Alexander Hamilton

Founding Fathers have fluctuating reputations. For a long time, Jefferson stood supreme in the people's estimation, but the 1990s saw the beginning of a decline that has yet to be reversed. Similar trends apply to Washington, if to a lesser degree. Franklin is sometimes seen as a brilliant scientist and statesman, and sometimes as a somewhat lecherous and creepy old man, if always good with a quip. Madison has long been ignored but seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance, perhaps in response to perceived challenges to the Bill of Rights. In the first decade of the 21st Century, the long-dismissed John Adams finally got his due with a series of brilliant biographies, including the bestseller by David McCullough, and a wonderful miniseries biopic by HBO.

However, there is no doubt that the current decade belongs to Alexander Hamilton. Ron Chernow's outstanding biography of the first Secretary of the Treasury topped the bestseller lists. Now, in a rare convergence of popular culture and history, the wildly successful hip-hop Broadway phenomena Hamilton, created by the incomparable impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda, has taken the country by storm, becoming one of the most popular stage musicals in history and winning every award in sight. Even my New Yorker cousin Angie, who professes to disdain Broadway, has gone to see it twice. A ill-timed proposal to replace Hamilton's face on the $10 bill was squashed as easily as a pea under a sledgehammer. If I randomly stopped a person on the street and asked them to name a Founding Father other than George Washington, I would guess the most common answer right now would be Alexander Hamilton.

I don't mind this in and of itself, for there is no doubt that Alexander Hamilton deserves to be remembered. From the lowest of lowly origins, he rose to the top through sheer brilliance and determination. He played a crucial role in the formation of the United States of America and certainly deserves to rank with the top-tier of the Founding Fathers alongside Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Adams. His role as George Washington's primary staff officer in the Continental Army is, if anything, underappreciated; it's not too much to say that he played as key a role in the Revolutionary War as George Marshall played in the Second World War. If Hamilton's contribution at the Constitutional Convention itself was minimal, it probably never would have been convened and the Constitution might not have been ratified but for his efforts. As the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton created America's financial system effectively out of thin air, setting the stage for the economic future of the republic. On the stage of American history, Alexander Hamilton is rightfully regarding as a giant.

And yet, I have never warmed to the man. I can't. While I acknowledge his genius and ability, and respect his contributions, there are simply too many unsavory aspects to Hamilton for me to fully embrace him as a hero of this country. In the midst of all the adulation currently falling onto Hamilton's shoulders, I think it's worth taking a step back and consider the less attractive aspects to the man.

Alexander Hamilton was an elitist. The way he saw it, society was divided into the "rich and well born" on one side and everybody else on the other side, and it was the former who should govern the latter. Democracy and egalitarianism were foreign to Hamilton's thinking and he clearly held the idea of popular sovereignty, one of the foundations of American political thought, in contempt. The faith that Jefferson and Madison placed in the ordinary American people was, to Hamilton, nothing but unrealistic utopianism. This point of view was shared by many of the Founding Fathers, of course, but few were as fervent in their disdain of democracy as was Hamilton. He, for one, should have known better, given his personal background as a poor, illegitimate immigrant from a Caribbean backwater.

The proposals that Hamilton made at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were little short of terrifying. In a speech lasting several hours on June 18, in which he stated that a monarchical executive would be preferable but, as he knew no one would agree, he favored a President who served for life and also believed that members of the Senate should serve for life as well. He stated the following day that the individual states should simply be abolished and all power vested in the federal government. This disdain of the idea of federalism, another of the central tenants of American political thought, is rarely mentioned by those who want to hold Hamilton up as an American hero. Had Hamilton's proposals become part of the Constitution, much that makes America good and unique would have been lost.

Hamilton appears to have been a man of sterling integrity in financial matters and never used his position as Secretary of the Treasury for his own personal advantage. That didn't stop him, however, from allowing his friends and supporters to game the system he was constructing in order to make money at the expense of others. While the creditworthiness of the United States was being restored by Hamilton's measures, small numbers of well-connected people got rich by tricking veterans and war widows into selling the governments bonds they had purchased during the war for a fraction of their value. Hamilton knew that this was going on. He could have spoken out against it. But he didn't.

The most troubling aspects of Alexander Hamilton's political career took place during the so-called Quasi-War with France during the Adams administration, when Hamilton had retired from government service to resume his law practice in New York City. Although the undeclared war was entirely a naval conflict and there was never a serious threat of a French invasion, the so-called "High Federalists" pushed the Adams administration into creating a powerful standing army, in stark contrast to republican principles that abhorred such military establishments. They also passed a series of tax measures to fund this unnecessary force. Why did they do this? Because Hamilton told them to. Even out of government, he was giving marching orders to the High Federalists, including the members of the President's Cabinet. Perhaps at no other time in American history did someone exercise so much political power from behind the scenes. It all has a dark and sinister whiff about it.

Not only did Hamilton did the Federalists to create a large standing army and then appoint the aging and retired George Washington to command it, but he got himself appointed Inspector General. Since Washington was too old to act as anything other but a symbolic leader, Hamilton was essentially given command of the entire army. He envisioned leading this army on a campaign of conquest against Spanish colonies in North America should outright war break out with France, using the justification that Spain was the ally of France. In other words, Hamilton wanted to use the financial and manpower resources of the United States for his own personal quest for glory. He wanted to make himself into an American Bonaparte.

Even more frightening was Hamilton's proposal (stated in a letter to Theodore Sedgwick on February 2, 1799) that the army march into Virginia, where Jefferson and Madison were coordinating opposition to Federalist policies, and "put Virginia to the test of resistance." As far as I know, Alexander Hamilton is the only man among America's Founding Fathers who suggested using military force to crack down on domestic political opposition. Had Hamilton's plan been implemented, America would have been transformed from a republic into a military dictatorship. The dreams expressed by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would have vanished.

When Jefferson won the presidential election of 1800, Hamilton proposed to New York Governor John Jay a legislative measure of questionable constitutionality which would have taken the electoral votes of New York away from Jefferson. This was despite the fact that Jefferson had clearly won the popular vote in New York. John Jay, to his credit and despite the fact that he was a staunch Federalist, refused to have anything to do with Hamilton's scheme. This being said, it is to Hamilton's credit that he eventually threw his support behind Jefferson in the great standoff between Jefferson and Aaron Burr when the Electoral College ended in a tie, thereby ensuring that Jefferson rather than Burr would become President.

As I said at the start of this blog entry, Hamilton was an extraordinary man who made a number of key contributions to the United States of America. But while we rightly remember him and honor him for the good that he did, we cannot lose sight of his highly flawed nature. He was an elitist who opposed democracy, popular sovereignty, and federalism. And he was not above using military force and extra-constitutional measures to defeat his political opponents.

None of the Founding Fathers were saints. We have rightly taken many of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson above all, to task for failing to address the question of slavery. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton needs to be taken to task for his authoritarianism and elitism, which very nearly derailed the American experiment before it had barely had a chance to begin.