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Sunday, 11 December 2011
Exploring the Sexuality of a Founding Father: Gay history in the classroom and how it may reshape how we think about our past
Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens statue in Lafayette Park in Philadelphia
Pennsylvania, named one of "The Queerest Historical Sites."
In July of 2011, California became the first state to require that public school textbooks include the accomplishments of gay, lesbian and transgender Americans. Known as SB48, the measure won final passage from the state legislature when it passed on a 49-25 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. According to LGBT Weekly, "The Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act amends the Education Code to finally include the contributions of LGBT people in social sciences instruction. The bill also prohibits the state Board of Education from adopting discriminatory instruction and discriminatory materials."
After signing the mandate into law Governor Jerry Brown released the following statement: "This bill revises existing laws that prohibit discrimination in education and ensures that the important contributions of Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life are included in our history books. It represents an important step forward for our state."
This historic step toward educational diversity came about as part of a liberal movement to broaden the content of history lessons taught in American classrooms. Throughout the nineties, historians and educators alike cited the need for more-inclusive lesson plans that would enable a broader demographic of students to relate to the material. This included the integration of noteworthy contributions from disabled Americans, as well as Hispanics and Pacific Islanders. Much like the civil-rights-based movement of the sixties, which incorporated more female and African American history in textbooks, this movement set out to remedy decades of neglect. One of the last groups to be addressed in American history textbooks is the gay community.
As the California ruling has opened the door for other U.S. states to revise their own curriculums to include the contributions of a broader sexual orientation, it also gives modern educators the opportunity to reexamine existing history in a different light. For over a century questions surrounding the sexuality of several American icons, including presidents James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, have been considered offensive and unmentionable. Today they could be the basis for a renewed interpretation. In fact, these studies could enable us to see things in a different perspective even though many of the questions raised have been quietly discussed for generations.
For fifteen years prior to his presidency, James Buchanan lived with his close friend and confidant, Alabama Senator William Rufus King, who later became vice president under Franklin Pierce. Their extremely close relationship ignited rumors around Washington D.C., prompting the ever-uncouth Andrew Jackson to refer to King as "Miss Nancy," while Aaron Brown spoke of the two gentlemen as "Buchanan and wife." The theory that one of America's most revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln was a homosexual is a more modern one. It is based on several circumstantial events and an explicit poem written by a teenage Lincoln that is open to interpretation. Gay activist C. A. Tripp has published multiple commentaries on the subject, stating that Lincoln's distant and difficult relationships with women stood in stark contrast to the warm relations that he shared with a number of men. Many Lincoln scholars vehemently refute this theory and the debate remains ongoing.
Perhaps no other American icon has had more speculation raised (and ignored) as to his sexual preference than Alexander Hamilton. This controversial Founding Father left behind an abundance of questions after dying a premature death following an ill-fated duel with political rival Aaron Burr. His is a story that begs for reexamination and it is one that may eventually necessitate revision for a whole new generation of Americans. Of course all historical analysis is subject to speculation, but what we have come to learn about the life and writings of Alexander Hamilton has revealed an interesting argument for his homosexuality.
As was quite common for men of his social stature, Hamilton was a complex man of many talents. Soldier, economist, political philosopher, constitutional lawyer, secretary of the Treasury, leader of the Federalist Party and founder of the U.S. Mint were just a few of the titles he held. Hamilton's climb toward political popularity was forged during his exquisite service during the American Revolutionary War. Initially acting as an artillery officer, he later became the senior aide-de-camp to General George Washington. Hamilton again served his commander-and-chief in 1794 during the "Whiskey Rebellion" tax-revolt, acting as the president's closest military confidant. Three years later, he was unanimously named as Washington's successor and commander of a new American army, mobilizing in preparation for a potential war with France. Fortunately, the need for such a force was negated thanks to the stubborn diplomacy of President John Adams.
It was while serving on Washington's staff that Hamilton met John Laurens, the man whose relationship with him has become the subject of much inquiry. Laurens was a successful soldier and statesman from South Carolina who gained approval by the Continental Congress in 1779 to recruit a regiment of 3,000 slaves by promising them freedom in return for fighting. Despite being married to Martha Manning, Laurens arrived in the colonies as a bachelor after leaving his wife behind in London. He joined the Continental Army and following the Battle of Brandywine, was made an aide-de-camp to General Washington with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He also served with the Baron von Steuben (another rumored homosexual), doing reconnaissance at the outset of the Battle of Monmouth.
While on campaign Laurens became close friends with his fellow aides, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton. His relationship with the latter would become one of question as to whether the two shared a homosexual, or at least a homosocial relationship, unbeknownst to their peers. Adding to the complexity of their bond is Hamilton's reputation as an adulterer. In 1791 he admitted participating in a scandalous affair with the wife of James Reynolds. In an effort to limit the political ramifications of his actions, Hamilton published a full confession of his affair, shocking both his family and supporters by not merely admitting his guilt, but also by inexplicably narrating the affair at an unexpected level of detail. The public's reaction damaged Hamilton's standing for the rest of his life. That event however took place years after the untimely death of John Laurens in 1782.
As one who specializes in human sexuality, historian Jonathan Katz contends that the primary source in support of the Hamilton-Laurens relationship can be found in a series of intimate letters that were written shortly after Laurens left Washington's staff to return to his home state of South Carolina. His goal was to persuade the state's legislature to recruit African Americans, who were flocking to fight the Continentals as British Loyalists. Despite having no military reason, both men maintained their working relationship through correspondence.
Hamilton's first letter to Laurens was penned in April of 1779 and appears to be filled with innuendo:
Cold in my professions - warm in my friendships - I wish, my Dear Laurens, it were in my power, by actions rather than words, to convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that ‘till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others. You should not have taken advantage of my sensibility, to steal into my affections without my consent. But as you have done it, and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on one condition; that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have so artfully instilled into me. . . .
And Now my Dear as we are upon the subject of wife, I empower and command you to get me one in Carolina. Such a wife as I want will, I know, be difficult to be found, but if you succeed, it will be the stronger proof of your zeal and dexterity. . . .
If you should not readily meet with a lady that you think answers my description you can only advertise in the public papers and doubtless you will hear of many . . . who will be glad to become candidates for such a prize as I am. To excite their emulation, it will be necessary for you to give an account of the lover - his size, make, quality of mind and body, achievements, expectations, fortune, &c. In drawing my picture, you will no doubt be civil to your friend; mind you do justice to the length of my nose and don't forget, that I [about five words here have been mutilated in the manuscript - some scholars theorize that Hamilton was referring to his ‘manhood'].
After reviewing what I have written, I am ready to ask myself what could have put it into my head to hazard this Jeu de follie. Do I want a wife? No - I have plagues enough without desiring to add to the number that greatest of all; and if I were silly enough to do it, I should take care how I employ a proxy. Did I mean to show my wit? If I did, I am sure I have missed my aim. Did I only intend to [frisk]? In this I have succeeded, but I have done more. I have gratified my feelings, by lengthening out the only kind of intercourse now in my power with my friend. Adieu
On September 11, 1779, Hamilton wrote a second letter in which he referred to himself as a jealous lover:
I acknowledge but one letter from you, since you left us, of the 14th of July which just arrived in time to appease a violent conflict between my friendship and my pride. I have written you five or six letters since you left Philadelphia and I should have written you more had you made proper return. But like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued. I had almost resolved to lavish no more of them upon you and to reject you as an inconstant and an ungrateful -. But you have now disarmed my resentment and by a single mark of attention made up the quarrel. You must at least allow me a large stock of good nature. . . .
Have you not heard that I am on the point of becoming a benedict? I confess my sins. I am guilty. Next fall completes my doom. I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good hearted girl who I am sure will never play the termagant; though not a genius she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes - is rather handsome and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy. And believe me, I am lover in earnest, though I do not speak of the perfections of my Mistress in the enthusiasm of Chivalry.
Is it true that you are confined to Pennsylvania? Cannot you pay us a visit? If you can, hasten to give us a pleasure which we shall relish with the sensibility of the sincerest friendship.
Adieu God bless you. . . .
The lads all sympathize with you and send you the assurances of their love.
One year later on September 16, 1780, Hamilton penned a third correspondence to Laurens that appears to put his affections for the recipient to be above those for his current female mistress:
That you can speak only of your private affairs shall be no excuse for your not writing frequently. Remember that you write to your friends, and that friends have the same interests, pains, pleasures, sympathies; and that all men love egotism.
In spite of Schylers black eyes, I have still a part for the public and another for you; so your impatience to have me married is misplaced; a strange cure by the way, as if after matrimony I was to be less devoted that I am now. Let me tell you, that I intend to restore the empire of Hymen and that Cupid is to be his prime Minister. I wish you were at liberty to transgress the bounds of Pennsylvania. I would invite you after the fall to Albany to be witness to the final consummation. My Mistress is a good girl, and already loves you because I have told her you are a clever fellow and my friend; but mind, she loves you a l'americaine not a la françoise.
Adieu, be happy, and let friendship between us be more than a name.
The General & all the lads send you their love.
There are no other Hamilton-Laurens letters in known existence that are open to this kind of interpretation. Their relationship from here on was relatively short-lived. Two years later Laurens was killed during a skirmish, prompting a distraught and grieving Hamilton to state; "I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received of the loss of our dear and inestimable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at an end.... I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number."
Some historians have theorized that these letters clearly present a homosocial, possibly as the result of a suppressed homosexual relationship that existed between both men while they were serving in the Continental Army. There are no eyewitness accounts that support this theory, but the above letters do leave the possibility open to question. All three letters are seldom quoted separately and they are often the subject for great debate. In an essay titled The Hamilton-Laurens Relationship Bob Arneback argues that although these letters prove nothing; "In the extant letters, this is the last of Hamilton's homoerotic bravado with Laurens. But it is quite enough to allow us to label Hamilton as a man with a wide appetite for pleasures that comfortably included homosexuality."
Jonathan Katz's pioneering book Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., examines the relationship between Hamilton and Laurens through the understanding of same-sex love and sexual relationships as being historically contingent. He places the letters in the social context of their time without excusing their language as merely a convention or describing them in terms of brotherhood or idealized friendship. Katz then boldly theorizes that the sexual innuendo in these letters is "one of the semi-secret languages used by early American homosexuals to speak of those same-sex relations otherwise unnamable among Christians." Hamilton was an active orthodox and conventional Presbyterian-evangelical, adding yet another layer of complexity to this theory. Katz also claims that Hamilton may have had relations with Pierre L'Enfant, the French-born architect and civil engineer best known for designing the layout of the streets of Washington, D.C..
Despite these accusations there is distinct proof that Hamilton enjoyed the company and relations of women. In addition to his affair with Maria Reynolds, he later wed a woman named Elizabeth Schuyler and fathered eight children with her. She survived Hamilton for fifty years, until 1854. Eliza spent much of her life working to help widows and orphans. After Hamilton's death, she co-founded New York's first private orphanage, the New York Orphan Asylum Society. Most historians who do ascribe to the gay Hamilton theory tend to believe that Elizabeth was completely unaware of any homosexual tendencies of her husband.
Hamilton joined his friend John Laurens in the great beyond on July 12, 1804. Both a celebrated war hero and detested politician, he left behind a legacy that continues to divide critics to this very day. From his dissenting posture as an ardent Federalist to his disruptions as a member of John Adam's cabinet, Hamilton does not enjoy the same blanket-adoration as his contemporaries. Perhaps this is why questions surrounding his controversial lifestyle have gone unanswered. Ironically, as an underhanded, adulterous and potentially bi-sexual politician whose career was mired in suspicion, Hamilton appears to be more at home in today's political arena than that of his own time.
We may never know for sure if he had true homosexual affections for John Laurens or Pierre L'Enfant, but the ‘evidence' we do have is certainly open to speculation. It begs further examination or, at the least, an acknowledgement of possibility and therein lies the dilemma with this type of armchair historical analysis. It all comes down to opinion. To some, the words penned in those letters by Hamilton are simply those of a man who is dramatically stating his affections for a brother-in-arms. Others read it as a clear declaration of one man's love for another.
The Hamilton-Laurens bond has been forever captured in a sculpture that stands in Lafayette Park in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. According to The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites: "Lafayette Park also features statues of several prominent figures of the American Revolution, whom we now claim as gay. There is a statue of Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, who were inseparable in life and whose hands in the statue appear to be lightly touching. The two were colonels in the Continental Army and together served as interpreters for Baron von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero and lover of men..." One look at the curious posing of the monument certainly adds to the mystique surrounding the nature of their relationship.
Some organizations have implicitly accepted the premise of the Hamilton-Laurens relationship and used it as an example of gay historical icons in support of their cause. The Alexander Hamilton American Legion Post 448 in San Francisco is the only branch of the American Legion comprised primarily of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender individuals. Since 1985, members of Post 448 have marched in both the city's Gay Pride and Veterans Day parades and served as the Color Guard unit for the Gay Games. According to their website, "The members of Alexander Hamilton Post 448 are dedicated to the welfare of GLBT veterans and current service personnel and strongly advocate the repeal of the military's ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy."
Beyond the obvious inclusion factor, how does SB48 really affect the study of history?
With a more diverse interpretation in the classroom, students could invariably look to an Alexander Hamilton as an example of a rumored homosexual whose contributions to American history are worthy of our attention. Other historical figures whose sexual preferences have been questionable could follow. The impact on how history is viewed in American classrooms as a whole could be forever changed by the broadening of its focus, just as it was in the sixties.
At the same time, reexamining our past with unsuppressed "gaydar" could also have the reverse affect as it is the very perceptions from the gay community that could in turn, counter these claims. Dr. Jeffrey Wesolowski, a student of queer-history from Ann Arbor Michigan offers some insight into how the question over what is "straight versus gay" could invariably result in a misreading of one man's affections for another. He states:
"Is the modern approach to sexuality (i.e. what we consider a gay lifestyle) similar to the conception before let's say 1900? Many scholars of gay history might say no. For example, a man might be expected to, and even wish to marry a woman, despite the fact that he was sexually attracted to men. The concept of gay marriage would have made about as much sense to such a person in such an era as flying to the moon. This internal conflict makes things more complicated with written euphemisms and relationships as such. As an American culture, we have always been rather homosocial. Endearing writings from one man to another in the 18/19th centuries were not uncommon confounding the issue further. The challenge over determining who was straight and who was gay is a perplexing one. Certainly there were many queer people of historical note and perhaps now that gay history is merging with the mainstream these questions can be more open for discussion."
Only time will tell what kind of impact the FAIR Education Act will have in the classroom, or if any of the nation's historical figures such as Alexander Hamilton will be perceived in a different way. Will Grant, a teacher at The Atheanian School in San Francisco, summarized the impact of adding gay history into curriculum. During an interview for NPR he said, "People act as if gays and lesbians popped into the historical world in 1969, and when people find out that gays and lesbians have been a part of all cultures, going past recorded history, then that really shifts the way that people think about things."
And perhaps it's that simple. Whether examining American history through a straight or gay lens, a more honest and diversified way of thinking certainly benefits us all.
California Brings Gay History into the Classroom, Ana Tintocalis (National Public Radio, July 22, 2011)
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, ed. Rictor Norton (1998)
Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. , Jonathan Katz (Harper & Row, 1985)
John Laurens and the American Revolution, Gregory D. Massey (University of South Carolina Press, 2000)
The Federalist Papers, No. 85: Concluding Remarks, Alexander Hamilton (Independent Journal, 1788)
The Hamilton-Laurens Relationship, Bob Arnebeck, (http://bobarnebeck.com/hamlau.html)
The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton, Allan McLane Hamilton (London: Duckworth, 1910)
The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett, assoc. ed. Jacob E. Cooke (NYCU, 1961)
The Queerest Places, (http://queerestplaces.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/lafayette-park/)
The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. John C. Hamilton (New York, 1851)
Why Alexander Hamilton?, American Legion Post 448, (http://www.post448.org/why.htm)
How do other country's teach the Revolution?
Two recent Op-Eds posted here on ‘Blog, or Die.’ dealt with what I consider to be fraudulent practices of teaching the American Revolution. The first took elementary academia to task for propagating the watered down and candy-coated version of American history that we are taught as children. The second took proponents of American-Exceptionalism to task for disseminating the woefully naïve and inflated American propaganda that we have come to expect at Tea Party conventions.
Both are full of agenda-driven biases and do little to aid in the understanding of our country’s history. They also reveal an antiquated perspective and sense of insecurity. (But if re-telling the same stories and wearing a big foam finger that says “We’re #1” is what helps some folks sleep at night, who am I to judge?)
Today I thought it might be interesting to see how the ‘other side’ teaches the American Revolution. The following excerpts are taken from online surveys presented to students and graduates from Canada and the United Kingdom. Some folks may be surprised to know that the American Revolution isn’t really on the radar of other countries, even the ones who participated in it.
BRITIAN: “It’s called the American War of Independence, and it’s one of the events that are studied as part of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Jacobite Rebellion or the rise of the British Empire. It also crops up as part of the background to the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars. To the British it was just one of the things that happen when the main event - fighting the French and forming the United Kingdom - was going down. At the time the British Empire was beginning to form and priorities were elsewhere. The Brits were fighting the Spanish, the French, various Sultans and Maharajas in India and trying to hold on to the Caribbean spice/slave trade at the time. So there was a whole lot going on. You have to realize it’s not an integral part of British history. Yes it shaped the British Empire in that it leads to a shift towards India and Africa, but for Britain it was the loss of some colonies rather than something fundamental. British history covers over 2,000 years if you start with the Romans, even in recent times two world wars that wrecked Europe and ruined the Empire were far more integral.”
IRELAND: “In my school in Northern Ireland it was mentioned in passing as precursor to the republic gaining independence. Although obviously many years apart 1776-1916 (1922). Apart from that and the famine/Irish emigration we learn very little about American history. My compulsory history at school consisted of, as far as I can remember; some monarchy, some holocaust stuff, some the women’s rights movement over here, the troubles in Ireland, and a bit on the American west, which we all agreed was a stupid choice of subject and resented for being pretty much totally disconnected from anything we wanted to learn about. I remember being pretty disdainful for most of what was on the syllabus actually now come to think of it.”
UNITED KINGDOM: “The problem for America is that as a “young” nation, it needs to nurture its own mythology to arrive at a sense of national identity. The winners almost always get to write the “definitive” version of events and the truth is often, if not always, ignored or suppressed. The American Revolution, as the birth pains of the new country, is a prime candidate for such mythology. A myth repeated for 200 years takes on the mantle of truth. They do portray the Americans as bad, but the Americans portray them as bad. Just like Germans portray the allies of WWI as bad and vice versa. Every war is portrayed differently in different countries.”
SCOTLAND: “In Scotland schools teach the wars with England and the highland clearances. Never learned much about English history until the point where we learn about the union. World War 1 and 2 are the other big topics. The American civil war, America in general and even England is not taught in History and if they did it would likely be a single lesson.”
CANADA: “We learn about it a little bit in Canada, but we focus on the British (Canadian) / French point of view. The War of 1812 is far more important to us. I’m curious why so many Americans think the War of 1812 was won by America. In Canada we are taught it was a tie. If you look at the Treaty of Ghent, all pre war borders would be reinstated, and no surrender by either side. The treaty was mainly struck because the reasons for the war no longer existed. The short of it was that Britain was at war with France (the Naploeonic War), and the U.S. was giving the French assistance. So the British put trade barriers on America. Soon America declared war, and the War of 1812 began. After the Napoleonic War ended Britain no longer needed to place trade sanctions on America. This is what led to the Treaty of Ghent.”
Tuesday, 6 December 2011
Counter-Response: Unalienable rights?
My last Op-Ed (below) spawned a counter-post over on the Old VA Blog. This rebuttal presents the concept of ‘unalienable rights,’ and argues that American Exceptionalism is valid because the Founding Fathers believed that our rights come from God, not Kings, nor governments, nor Congress nor the President, none of which have the moral authority to grant rights; they can only acknowledge them.
The phrase “that they [all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” from the Declaration of Independence was used as the basis for this theory. It is an assumption that has been debated by historians and philosophers alike for generations.
Ironically, I am in the process of finishing up a brilliant study of the Declaration by Pauline Maier titled American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. Among its revelations is the fact that the document was anything but visionary. According to Maier’s findings, ninety such declarations were already issued throughout the Thirteen Colonies from April to July 1776. Her book also does a wonderful job of reminding us that Declaration is a secular, man-made document - extraordinary in its own right - but not a religious dogma or scripture.
According to the counter-post I referenced above, the use of term ‘unalienable rights’ by the Founders was a deliberate choice that affirms American Exceptionalism: “It means that those rights are incapable of being surrendered or taken away - basic rights which the Founders believed [and correctly so] preexisted any government.” Remember, their argument is that God alone gave us our rights and the Founders used this as a primary point when declaring our separation from England.This is a fine interpretation. However, I take issue with the specific assertion that the Founding Fathers used the concept of divinized ‘rights’ as the basis for our nation’s independence. The exact phrase used was: “One item which often gets overlooked in what makes America exceptional is how the Founders viewed rights…specifically, that our rights come from God.”
The truth is that the reference to “their Creator” bestowing any rights on the nation’s citizenry was not even part of the original draft. In fact, it wasn’t even inserted into the Declaration of Independence until the very end. Unfortunately the original draft of the proclamation no longer exists, but a compilation has been reconstructed from various copies that do. Here is the evolution of the phrase in question:
Jefferson’s original states: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and unalienables, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness; . . .”
In the John Adams copy, written, sometime between June 11 and June 28, in his own (J. Adams) handwriting we have the following: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and unalienables, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness; . . .”
Before being submitted to Congress, the above section was changed to the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. . . .”
Note the underlined addition of the phrase “endowed by their Creator”. Though many other changes were made in the rest of the document, Congress accepted those lines for the finished Declaration.
So…the question remains, does this statement support American Exceptionalism? I say no. First off, this entire concept was anything but a uniquely “American ideal.” The 17th-century English, philosopher John Locke and the Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson both presented the theory of natural law and unalienable rights prior to the Founders. Second, and perhaps most telling of all, is the fact that the Founders themselves were not unanimous in support of this theory.
Thomas Jefferson, the very author of the Declaration, added that additional verbiage only at the insistence of his fellow committee members. His friend James Madison, author of the U.S. Constitution, believed that there were social rights, arising neither from natural law nor from positive law (which are the basis of natural and legal rights respectively) but from the social contract from which a government derives its authority.
In other words Madison believed that society endows these rights upon themselves in order to maintain a civilized and prosperous culture. This power comes for The People, by The People. That’s not at all a divine intervention which was the entire basis for the pro-AE crowd’s counterpoint. So although I agree with the premise that the Declaration of Independence is an exceptional document, I do not believe that its language alone affirms American Exceptionalism.
We often forget the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, where the Founders gathered in Philadelphia to argue and debate about what rights and responsibilities should be included in the constitution. After three years of heavy argument, negotiation, compromise and salesmanship, the 13 states voted on the constitution, and the rights and responsibilities within it became law. This reinforces the idea that the concept of rights (regardless of origin) was an extremely complex and controversial subject, even to the men who established them.
Thursday, 1 December 2011
Op-Ed: The Sin of American Exceptionalism
I’ve posted my rejection of American Exceptionalism here before. According to one definition, “American Exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States was born under the influence of a higher-power and is qualitatively more worthy than other countries.” Although it does not necessarily imply global-superiority, many conservative writers and bloggers have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the United States is like the biblical ‘shining city on a hill,’ favored by God, and exempt from the historical forces that have affected other countries. In other words, it is the belief that the U.S. is inherently better than the rest of the world. I do not accept this premise. This is not to say that I do not appreciate the freedoms and liberties that the United States has to offer, nor do I deny the blessings that we have. It simply means that I do not subscribe to what I consider to be a dangerously conceited form of political propaganda.
First let me state that I have no problem with my fellow citizens expressing their national pride or patriotism. Everyone roots for the home team. This is a perfectly natural behavior in most countries. What I do take issue with is those who consider themselves to be good Christians and students of history continuing to propagate the idea that our country is naturally superior when compared to the rest of the world. Not only is this incredibly ignorant from an intellectual standpoint, it is also contrary to biblical teachings. As both a progressive historian and active Presbyterian, I find the whole concept quite offensive.
According to Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer, professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, “The United States has enjoyed remarkable success, and Americans tend to portray their rise to world power as a direct result of the political foresight of the Founding Fathers, the virtues of the U.S. Constitution, the priority placed on individual liberty, and the creativity and hard work of the American people. In this narrative, the United States enjoys an exceptional global position today because it is, well, exceptional. But America’s past success is historically due as much to good luck as to any uniquely American virtues. This account of America’s rise does not deny that the United States did many things right, but it also acknowledges that America’s present position owes as much to good fortune as to any special genius or manifest destiny.”
He adds, “Another problem with American Exceptionalism is the belief that God is uniquely on our side. Confidence is a valuable commodity for any country. But when a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke.”
In order to present my own case as to the historically inaccurate and blasphemous practice of preaching American Exceptionalism, I offer the following counter arguments:
Perhaps the biggest keystone in the foundation of American Exceptionalism is the belief that we always are, and have always been, the good guys…spreading prosperity everywhere we go. Other countries only worry about themselves, while we Americans remain busy keeping the rest of the world from destroying itself. It is the blind-faith that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation, one that loves peace, nurtures liberty, respects human rights, and embraces the rule of law that is so dangerous. We all like to think that our nation behaves much better than others do, and that we are certainly morally-superior to the other super-powers. The idea that the United States is uniquely honorable may be comforting to some Americans; but it is simply not true. Here are some sobering statistics quoted from Walt’s The Myth of American Exceptionalism:
“The United States has been one of the most expansionist powers in modern history. It began as 13 small colonies clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, but eventually expanded across North America. Along the way, it eliminated most of the native population and confined the survivors to impoverished reservations. By the mid-19th century, it had pushed Britain out of the Pacific Northwest and consolidated its hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. The United States has fought numerous wars since then -- starting several of them -- and its wartime conduct has hardly been a model of restraint.”
- The 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos.
- The U.S. and its allies did not hesitate to dispatch some 305,000 German and 330,000 Japanese civilians through aerial bombing during World War II.
- The U.S. dropped more than 6 million tons of bombs during the Indochina war and is directly responsible for the deaths of many of the roughly 1 million civilians.
- The U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua killed some 30,000 Nicaraguans.
- U.S. military action has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of 250,000 Muslims over the past three decades including the more than 100,000 people who died following the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
- Politically the United States routinely uses the defense of human rights and international law to justify war, but it has refused to sign most human rights treaties and is not a party to the International Criminal Court.
These numbers represent non-combatant casualties. Our military has done an exceptional job of protecting our shores and defending our freedom, but the civilian attritions committed during America’s quest for diplomacy clearly explain why the rest of the world has thought of us as being anything but exceptional or restrained.
Another assertion of American Exceptionalism is the belief that God is somehow on OUR side. That principle is often coupled with the notion that God blessed America above and beyond the other countries of the world. We are, according to that belief, spiritually superior and therefore more precious in the eyes of the Lord. This takes the concept of conceitedness to a whole new level. Glenn Beck, a huge purveyor of American Exceptionalism once said that, “Not a single time have we gotten a right from Congress or from the President. We get them from God.” This is the exact kind of pseudo-religious-political conjecture that is dangerous as it gives a false sense of exclusive-endorsement from above.
I only had to look in the first chapter of my bible to challenge this one: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” - Genesis 22:18 (note the use of the word ‘all’). In an article titled Messianic Nation: A Christian Theological Critique of American Exceptionalism William T. Cavanaugh, Associate Professor of Theology, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota writes, “The two types of American exceptionalism would appear to be at odds: the one appeals to a nation under the Christian God, the other to the freedom to have one God, none, or many. I am going to argue, however, that both of them-theologically speaking-end up in the same place, and it is not a good place from the point of view of Christian theology. My basic argument is that when a direct, unmediated relationship is posited between America and a transcendent reality-either God or freedom-there is a danger that the state will be divinized.”
In other words those who preach American Exceptionalism have essentially declared the nation like a false prophet. The result is the belief that God himself is responsible and continues to be responsible for us. Therefore we must be righteous in all that we do. There are even those who equate the Founding Fathers with the 12 Apostles and believe that God himself guided their hand when writing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
That mindset leads to the total disregard for rational thought and ultimately results in the uber-Christian-utopian-belief system that is reminiscent of this:
*If the two images used to illustrate this post aren't blatant examples of historical inaccuracy and blasphemy (both literally and figuratively), I don’t know what is.
The bottom line is that there is nothing exceptional about American Exceptionalism. Every empire from every era has thought the same of themselves. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians (all exceptional peoples) believed that they alone were uniquely blessed and destined to dominate the world. They were incredibly prosperous realms who declared themselves to be without equals militarily, politically, and spiritually. They preached their own form of inward-exceptionalism, which later led to their demise. Obviously, we don’t want to end up like them.
Now in 2011, we are seeing that our educational, economic, political, and capitalist systems are prone to failure, our own government is working against us, and the traditional belief that OUR way is the ONLY way is no longer working. Those who adamantly preach American Exceptionalism would tell you that the only solution is to revert back to what the Founders intended as if the world hasn't changed since 1776.
Another option is to remember that it's 235 years later, admit our weaknesses, and fix them. This may require radical change. Afterall, the Founders themselves never expected us to stop progressing. American Exceptionalism stands in the way of progress and does nothing but provide us with a false sense of security and a complete misunderstanding of where we came from and where we need to go.
The answer to this dilemma is incredibly complicated, but we can start by exercising a little reason and humility. We must accept the fact that the United States is part of a much bigger world. It would also do us well to see ourselves in more of a global-perspective and keep our egos in check. Those that continue to preach this historically inaccurate concept of American Exceptionalism are committing a form of intellectual fraud. Worse off, they are abusing religion to promote their politics.
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 11:01 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2011 8:22 AM EST
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Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Independence and Contradiction: Our Founding Slaveholders
The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. en:Watercolor by unidentified artist.
Original painting in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, en:Williamsburg, Virginia.
A new exhibit titled “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” will be running at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum from January 27, 2012 - October 14, 2012. This exhibition explores slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s plantation and is a collaborative effort between the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and the African American History and Culture Museum here in DC. The paradox of course is that Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. The exhibition provides a glimpse into the lives of 6 slave families living at Monticello and reveals how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime.
Of course Jefferson is not alone in this regard. Four of the first five presidents (three of them, ‘officially’ recognized Founding Fathers) of the United States were lifelong slaveholders. In an age inspired by the Declaration of Independence, slavery was incredibly pervasive as 28% of the American population was enslaved in 1790. There was a time, not so long ago, when the issue of slavery was glossed over when presenting the lives and legacies of the nation’s Founders. Today, it is recognized as a vital part of what made up their complicated and contradictory lives and many historical sites, to include Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are working diligently to include the enslaved African experience in their interpretations. Here is a brief overview:
Estate: Mount Vernon
Est. Slaves: 216 +/-
“I hope every necessary care and attention was afforded him. I expect little from (Overseer) McKoy, or indeed from most of his class, for they seem to consider a Negro much in the same light as they do the brute beasts on the farms, and often treat them as inhumanely.” – G. Washington, 1794
When George Washington took over the Mount Vernon estate at age 22 there were approximately 18 documented slaves on the premises. After his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis he gained control of 200 more slaves which technically belonged to the estate of his wife’s first husband. By 1786 Washington claimed 216 slaves. While he was serving as president in Philadelphia a Pennsylvania law was passed freeing slaves whose owners had been citizens of the state for six months. Washington promptly sent his two most valuable slaves home, telling them it was for his wife’s convenience. In 1796 Oney (or Ona) Judge ran away to New Hampshire. She was one of the Washington family’s most valued slaves and Martha’s personal servant. The then President Washington asked the Treasury Secretary and a customs agent for help in getting her back, supposedly by force if necessary, but she never returned. When he left the presidency Washington is said to have left some house slaves behind in Philadelphia, knowing that under state law they would be quietly freed by having spent a certain amount of time in Pennsylvania. Following his death in 1799 his will called for his manservant William Lee to be freed immediately, and given a pension. All other Washington-owned slaves were to be freed when his widow died. Martha however chose to free them two years later. According to Abigail Adams this was because she feared her life might be in danger, since her death meant freedom for the slaves. Neither Washington nor his wife could legally free the dower slaves which still belonged to the Custis estate.
Est. Slaves: 141 +/-
“I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” – T. Jefferson, 1787
Thomas Jefferson inherited many slaves who lived and worked on Mulberry Row at his mountaintop estate at Monticello. His wife had brought a dowry of more than 100 slaves, and Jefferson went on to purchase many more throughout his life. At some points he was one of the largest slave-owners in Virginia. In 1790 Jefferson gave his newly married daughter and her husband 1,000 acres of land and 25 slaves. In 1798 he claimed 141 slaves, many of them elderly. Two years later he only owned 93. One of Jefferson’s slaves was a young house girl named Sally Hemings, allegedly the half-sister of his deceased wife. During his presidency a rumor appeared in print that she was his mistress. Jefferson vehemently denied this story, which was also passed on as Hemings family tradition. The youngest of Heming’s six children (and the only one whose paternity can be traced through DNA) definitely descended from the Jefferson line, presumably either through him, his brother Randolph, or one of Randolph’s sons. All were in the vicinity of Sally during each period of conception. Jefferson eventually freed one of Heming’s children and allowed another to run away unpursued. Both of them were light enough to successfully pass for whites. He also freed five slaves in his will, all members of the Hemings family. Surprisingly, Sally was not among them. Due to the immense debt that he had accumulated, over 130 slaves were sold when Jefferson’s estate was auctioned off. His daughter Martha freed Sally Hemings a few years later.
Est. Slaves: 66 +/-
“But we must deny the fact that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true case is, that they partake of both these qualities; being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects, as property.” – J. Madison, 1788
As another Virginia planter – turned politician James Madison grew up in a slave-owning family and owned slaves all his life. From 1723 to 1844, during the Madison family’s ownership, hundreds of African and African-American slaves called the family estate at Montpelier home. Five, six, and possibly seven generations of African Americans were born into slavery at Montpelier. The Madisons were not the only residents of Montpelier, but they were the masters of the land and its enslaved people. Enslaved individuals also served in many domestic capacities, such as cooks, gardeners, butlers, and maids. In 1769, when Madison Jr., went away to the College of New Jersey in Princeton, he took a “personal servant” with him, a slave named Sawney. Sawney remained with the Madisons through his life, and in the 1820s is mentioned in letters and a journal as waiting on “Mother Madison.” In the prime of his life, Sawney worked as overseer of a Montpelier quarter (larger plantations were often subdivided into two or more “quarters,” each with its own overseer and labor force), called “Sawney’s tract” or “Sawney’s.” Later in life, Sawney often sold Nelly and Dolley Madison produce, eggs, and chickens from his own small plot of land. In 1833 Madison sold several of his farms but not his slaves. A year later he sold 16 slaves to a relative - with their permission. Madison did not free his slaves in his will.
NOTE: Other slaveholding presidents include: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant.
Rob Lopresti,”Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?”
James Madison’s Montpelier, The Enslaved Community
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation @ monticello.org
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 8:01 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2011 9:29 AM EST
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