Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Meet Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
If there was ever an "American Dream" success story among our country's founders, it had to have been Alexander Hamilton (though the dream died far too young).  Brilliant, hard-working almost beyond belief, obnoxious to many, yet respected by nearly all, Hamilton has made his influence over the United States felt strongly even until today.  His list of accomplishments is far too lengthy for a blog entry, but in (very) brief:

Early Life

Born out of wedlock in near poverty in the West Indies and effectively orphaned at age 11, Hamilton was an avid reader and by age 15 had impressed people enough to sponsor his voyage to the mainland colonies.  Denied entrance into Princeton, he eventually  gained admission to King's College (now Columbia).  He began his political writing career there, issuing a series of rebuttals to a Loyalist known as "The Farmer".

Hamilton joined the Continental Army in 1775 and was most noted for being aide-de-camp to general Washington.  As valuable as that service was, and gaining the perpetual respect of Washington, he craved combat glory and succeeded in being assigned to command light infantry battalions which were instrumental in the Battle of Yorktown and the British surrender there. (Aside: my family and I visited there last Spring.  I strongly recommend it!)

Post War

Following the war, Hamilton was appointed to the Congress of the Confederation, where he quickly identified major flaws in the Articles of Confederation, especially in terms of funding for the fledgling government.  Following his resignation from the congress, Hamilton stayed very busy.  He self-studied his way into the Bar of New York and practiced law, helped rebuild King's College as Columbia University and founded the Bank of New York, still the country's oldest bank.


His most influential work was yet to come, though.  He pushed for a new constitutional convention, which convened in 1787.  His influence on the convention was limited, but his lasting contribution was as principal author (along with James Madison and John Jay) of The Federalist Papers - basically a "sales job" on the new Constitution, answering critics and explaining why this new document was far superior to the status quo.

Treasury Secretary and Beyond

As the new nation came into being, President Washington appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury (and is, along with Benjamin Franklin, one of only two non-presidents whose faces grace U.S. paper money).  Hamilton put the country on a path to financial stability, consolidated and paid off war debts, and helped found the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of the Coast Guard.


Hamilton served in and out of government for many years and was influential in the 1800 election of Thomas Jefferson as president, when 35 House of Representatives votes, trying to break the electoral tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, failed.  Hamilton threw his support to Jefferson, who finally won on the 36th ballot.  In 1804, Hamilton again helped defeat Burr, this time for Governor of New York, as Burr lost to Morgan Lewis.  Hamilton's critiques of Burr's character were too much for Burr, who challenged Hamilton to a duel. The duel resulted in Hamilton's death.

Why Hamilton Matters Today

Some of Hamilton's writings and ideas are still quite timely and thought-provoking today.  Of course, all his writing in The Federalist Papers is instructive and illuminating, giving us a look at the mindset of those who wrote the fantastic document known as our Constitution.  Most notably, given today's debates over taxes and tax policies, this, from the Federalist Number 21:

It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption, that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit; which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed, that is, an extension of the revenue. When applied to this object, the saying is as just as it is witty, that, “in political arithmetic, two and two do not always make four.” If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds. This forms a complete barrier against any material oppression of the citizens by taxes of this class, and is itself a natural limitation of the power of imposing them.

Hamilton seems to make a strong case for the proposal known these days as "The Fair Tax", a tax on consumption, rather than income, not only as a fair way of taxing, but as a natural limit on the size, scope and influence of the federal government.  Maybe he was really on to something...

Hip-Hop Hamilton

I was introduced to this video some time ago and it's an amazing musical biography of Alexander Hamilton, as performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda at the White House Poetry Jam (who knew there was such a thing?).  Click on the video link and snap along!

Monday, July 16, 2012

We the People?

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

No doubt, you all recognize the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.  It sets out what the Framers intended to accomplish by establishing this constitution for the fledgling United States.  The first three words, however, can be a little troubling, at least in trying to figure out what they really mean.

To borrow from the National Constitution Center's program, "Freedom Rising", I ask, "Who are we, and what makes us 'a people'?"  Are we "a people" because we're all the same?  Or at least from the same background or heritage or religion?  Well, we all know the answer to that.  We know that "We the People" initially, at least, didn't include all the people, but it was a start and it was something nobody on Earth had really tried before.  No hereditary nobility; no class distinctions based on history, but only on merit; no royalty or ruling class, but only representatives of the people to govern in a limited, constrained way, based on the will of the people and the rule of law, not by the whims of a monarch.  

Years ago, during my military career, there was (and indeed there still is) a big push for diversity in recruiting.  The catchphrase that was used in the campaign was "Our Diversity is Our Strength", or something to that effect (it's been a while).  At the time, I argued against using wording like that.  I maintained that it sounded too much like a quota system and that it was illogical to conclude that simply because we are "diverse", therefore, we are strong.  There is nothing magical about diversity, in and of itself, that makes us better or worse.  The difference is in how we use and cope with that diversity.  My thought is that we should recruit the best available people, period.  And since not all great ideas come from, and not all great workers are, middle-aged males of European descent (like me), diversity would be a happy byproduct of recruiting the best and brightest.

So, how do we, as Americans, diverse lot that we are, become "a people"?  Like members of the military, we come together for a common purpose and hold similar values.  We follow the rule of law, as spelled out in the Constitution.  We, simply put, all become Americans.  We put aside our differences, but try to learn from them.  We take the best ideas from all over and make them American.  America "recruits" people from all over the world, but it's a passive recruitment.  We offer a way of life, an ideal, a system of self-governance that is all too rare in the world, and our "recruits" are self-selecting.  We don't send missionaries or ambassadors around the globe, trying to collect converts.  They choose to come here.  The diversity of our country is not by design or by program, but by acts of free will.

Yes, we are diverse, and yes, we are strong.  But we are not strong, and we are not "a people", simply because of our diversity.  We are a strong people because we have learned to, in effect, overcome our diversity and work together toward a common goal and a common good.  Our common bond is our country and our Constitution, not our color or our creed.  That's our strength.  No quotas required.

Monday, July 9, 2012

It's All About Context

"Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government." - James Madison

Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott learning the
science and context of geology.
In the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon", Caltech Geologist Leon Silver is training Apollo 15 astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin how to observe and interpret geological information that they would encounter on the lunar surface.  He uses the example of "the story of the dead cat".  He tells the astronauts that there is a dead cat on the road.  All we know for sure is that it's a cat and it's dead.  So what happened to it?  The astronauts hypothesize and, based on evidence that is slowly revealed, put together the history of the cat and its demise.  When Dr. Silver asks what it the story ultimately all about, future Apollo 17 astronaut (and fellow geologist) Jack Schmitt says simply, "Context." 

Like the dead cat, we can look at the Constitution and say for sure that it's a piece of paper, it was written in the late 18th century and was signed by a bunch of old, dead (to us) white guys.  It's easy to read and know what's in the Constitution (I know everyone who is reading this has done so, right?).  It's even easier to to think you know.  How often have you heard someone say, "Well, it's my Constitutional right to..."?  And did you think, "Where is that in the Constitution?"  Often, of course, it isn't.

But let's assume you and your discussion partner have both actually read the Constitution.  And you both know what it says, to the letter.  Does that make agreement of its meaning inevitable?  Think of the Bible.  Anyone can read the Bible (in its various forms and editions, of course, but let's say for the sake of argument there is but one Bible).  Yet, does everyone who reads the Bible agree on what it means, even if they agree on what it says?  Well, tens of thousands of Christian denominations say the answer is clearly "no".  So why should the Constitution be any different?  And what is it that helps us understand the meaning after we learn the words?  Context.

What do I mean by context, and how does one get some?  Context means understanding the people and society and norms of the time and place in which the particular thing was written.  Our modern-day sensibilities and experiences are much different than a first-century Jew or 18th-century American colonist.  Biblical scholars spend a lot of time understanding what was was going on and how people lived when a particular piece of Scripture was written, or else a lot of what is in the Bible makes little sense to us.  For most of us, that kind of context is difficult to obtain on our own, not being real good in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and/or Aramaic.  Fortunately, it's easier to obtain as regards the Constitution.  For starters, reading "The Federalist Papers", by Madison, Hamilton and Jay, give us great insight into what exactly the Framers were thinking and how they were explaining it to the people.

In terms of gaining context for myself, I'm nearly done reading The Federalists  and just finished "The Fathers of the Constitution" by Max Farrand (available for a low, low price on Kindle). And next on my list is Richard Brookhiser's new biography of James Madison.  Book review to follow...  I also encourage anyone traveling anywhere near Philadelphia to take a pilgrimage to the National Constitution Center, one of my very favorite places in the world.  That helps provide the critical context for understanding our precious Constitution.

So, when you talk about what the Constitution means, versus simply what it says, be sure to include context in your argument.  It makes all the difference.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Meet Roger Sherman

Roger Sherman statue in Signers Hall,
National Constitution Center, Philadelphia
In anticipation of Independence Day, I am going to take it on faith that most people have at least a passing familiarity with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and a few others as being among those we call "The Founders".  But do you know who was there at every written step along the way?  Mr. Roger Sherman of Connecticut is the most prolific "signer" of them all.  He is the only man to have affixed his signature to all four of what are considered our founding documents: The Articles of Association (1774), The Declaration of Independence (1776), The Articles of Confederation (1777) and The Constitution (1787).

Roger Sherman was a self-educated shopkeeper and shoe-maker who studied extensively on his own eventually was appointed or elected at various times as clerk, mayor, surveyor, judge, U.S. Congressman and professor of religion.

Despite his lack of formal learning, Sherman won the respect of those more well-known and well-educated men for his excellent judgment and temperament, perhaps best summed up by Jefferson himself: "That is Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life."

In a more fun aside, the musical "1776" (music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards - ha-ha..."Sherman" - nice coincidence!) features a song called "But, Mr. Adams" in which it is fun to see how many words Sherman (Edwards) came up with during (Roger) Sherman's part of the song to rhyme with "Connecticut".  Check it out!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Madison and Me

After the last week's events - the Supreme Court ruling on the health care law (Obamacare), then the rant by Bill Press about how the national Anthem is "an abomination", followed by the amazing rendition of said anthem by Madison Rising, and today, a visit to the National Constitution Center,  - I was finally motivated to take the step I'd been considering for a long time - a blog about the Constitution.  Please join President James Madison ("Father of the Constitution", main mover for the Bill of Rights, author of "The Federalist Papers", and fourth president of the USA) on this journey into our nation's history.

I am not a Constitutional scholar and have had no formal classwork on the subject.  I am self-taught, mostly, on the Constitution, and my goal here is to encourage anyone reading this to do the same.  I spent 21 years in the military, swearing that:

...I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foriegn and domestic...

To that end, I might remind all of you that there are, indeed, enemies of the Constitution and to our Republic.  And I'm not talking about enemies with guns and bombs and tanks and ships.  I mean enemies with ideas and philosophies that are anathema to our founding principles and seek to subvert and circumvent our Constitutional form of government.  Those enemies are hard to see, harder to define and are very clever.  They are not to be underestimated.  

So, what is the best defense against these enemies?  Knowledge!  We all must know our history and our founding documents and principles.  That is the only way we can identify and shine the light of truth on those who would do our country harm from within.  

So, friends, your first assignment is to READ THE CONSTITUTION.  Don't rely on what someone else says is in there - see for yourself.  You can read the whole thing in maybe a half hour.  Do it for your own sake.

I plan to introduce topics from time to time, raising Constitutional questions and issues.  I invite you all to contribute and comment and debate.  But first, some ground rules:

1. No foul language.  This should be family-friendly and civil.  If you can't be civil. you can't sit at this table.
2. Be specific.  Make your arguments logical and precise and back them up with evidence.  Feel free to give voice to your feelings, too, but don't present feelings as facts.
3. Respect others' opinions and persons.  No personal attacks or name-calling.  By all means, pick apart someone's argument, but be respectful and again, be specific.