Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 15, 2011

The Flight from Downtown Manhattan

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Media,Military,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 3:40 pm

From the US Army's American Military History, volume 1


Noreen Malone of New York magazine had the interesting idea to interview Early American historians to see if George Washington’s flight from the southern tip of Manhattan in 1776 might hold any lessons for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was evicted from Zuccotti Park this morning.


September 19, 2009

The Balance of Power in North America, 1794

Filed under: American Indians,Early Republic,Military — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:22 pm

Not around here much lately, I know. The beginning of the school year, a lingering summer project, and really depressing public occurrences have all played their roles. Today, however, let me share something I found in an old newspaper — I look at those sometimes — that fits into a theme I have worked into Common-Place before:  the central and often-overlooked place of Indian affairs in the politics and policy of the Founding era.

The item comes from the New Year’s Day, 1794, issue of Greenleaf’s New York Journal, that city’s most important Democratic-Republican paper. It gives an account of the fighting strength of all the Native American peoples that the U.S. government knew anything about at the time. The tribal names do not quite match up with the ones in use today, and it would difficult to assess the accuracy of the numbers, but the proportions are fairly eye-popping. The unnamed officials thought they were facing more than 58,000 Indian warriors at a time when (according to a message from War Secretary Henry Knox), there were less than 4,000 troops in the whole U.S. army!  I guess it is no wonder a frontier military build-up (and Indian war) was the biggest project of Washington’s administration, besides the public finance system that paid for it.

Now playing: The Whigs – Give ‘Em All A Big Fat Lip


January 20, 2009

The Times that Try Men’s Souls

Filed under: Founders,Obama Administration — Benjamin Carp @ 12:00 pm

President Obama (wow.) just gave his inaugural address, with an unattributed quote:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Obama seemed (at least to the tv talking heads) to imply that these were George Washington’s words, but the quote is from the first of Thomas Paine’s papers entitled The American Crisis.  I also think some people may have jumped to the conclusion that this was the Valley Forge winter, but Obama is referring to December 1776, when Washington was about to lose much of his army to expiring enlistments, and the Battles of Trenton and Princeton had not yet taken place.  The particular paragraph from which this quote is drawn is actually quite a belligerent passage.

Well, it’s a new administration, and an exciting day.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when the pomp will be over and the country can get to work.


October 22, 2008

Myths of the Lost Atlantis: Jeffersonian Charges of Monarchism (Shankman)

Filed under: "Myths of the Lost Atlantis",Early Republic,Political culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:59 pm
This is a guest post, the third in our new series, running in honor of Philip Lampi and in conjunction with the Common-Place politics issue. See the introduction for an explanation. Click the logo below to see all of the posts.


by Andrew Shankman
Rutgers University, Camden Campus

Every recent presidential election cycle, about the time a campaign goes negative, newspapers run a story like the one in the Sunday New York Times, August 17, 2008 “Week in Review.”[1] These articles suggest that while we should deplore Swift-Boating and innuendoes about Barack Obama’s possible Al-Qaeda sympathies, modern political tactics are mild compared to those of the founding era. Such pieces will often mention the Matthew Lyon/Roger Griswold House floor brawl or the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings scandal before proceeding to the ultimate proof: Jeffersonian accusations that George Washington, John Adams, and the Federalists planned to reimpose monarchy.

The charge sounds absurd to modern ears, and no serious historian credits the claim that any Federalist literally planned to reintroduce a hereditary executive. Thus how could the supporters of Jefferson have been doing anything other than indulging in the 18th-century version of the attack ad when they claimed that John Adams wanted “the presidency [to] be made hereditary in the family of Lund Washington” (cousin of the childless President) and that his desire was part of Adams’s plot “to set up and establish hereditary government”? The scheme was not confined to Adams, insisted Jeffersonians, for his monarchism was symptomatic of the Federalists’ fundamental purpose. Virtually their every action since placing a military chieftain at the head of a republican government stood “in favor of the general cause of monarchy and of aristocracy; a cause in with these gentlemen in some degree partook, and too probably hope still more to partake.” The Federalists were, in short, power-mad aristocrats hostile to republican institutions and values. They abused the people’s rights and gathered together to plot the end of republican institutions with “the levee-room their place of rendezvous.” [2]

Such ripe language should at least leave us contemptuous of the unimaginative negative campaigning that assaults every swing state today. But the news articles precisely miss the point when they imply that nothing changes all that much over time and that modern negative campaigning, among other things, connects us with a venerable political past and with behavior that just might be the price we pay for free speech and democracy. Jeffersonian charges of monarchy, in fact, don’t reveal how connected recent campaigns are to the politics of the early national period. Rather, understanding and contextualizing the charge of monarchy shows just how far removed we are from the concerns of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.



June 4, 2008

A Trip of Two Game-Show Hosts

Filed under: Conservatives,GOP,Historic sites,Pasley Brothers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:41 pm

Back to history (mostly), and back to blogging a little more regularly as I try to stay in the writing habit. Unfortunately, most of my bloggable thoughts are still back on the GeoBee trip.

Game-show hosts turned out to be one of the surprise sub-themes of the trip. We knew about Alex Trebek of Jeopardy! hosting the finals of the National Geographic Bee, but we were not expecting Isaac to get that far, nor that the finals would actually be a sort of game show, with a giant two-tiered set, desks with lights on the front, and the whole nine yards. From the looks of the set, I was worried that there might be buzzers and wrong answer sound effects, too, but luckily National Geographic did not take things quite that far. Alex Trebek seemed exactly like what you see on Jeopardy!, and very good with the kids. I haven’t watched his show since sometime in the 90s, but as TV personalities go Alex seems like a credit to the culture. Canadian culture, perhaps, but a credit, a figure who honors knowledge and intelligence and a modest pride in one’s accomplishments rather than exhibitionism, ruthlessness, and stupidity like 90% of the rest of TV.

The other game-show host came as more of a surprise. Karen and the boys had never been out to Presidential Shrine #1, a.k.a. Mount Vernon, so we spent the afternoon there on the way out to Karen’s uncle’s house out in suburbs. I had not been to Washington’s pad in quite a while, and the place was much changed. The house was the same, but there is now a glitzy complex of ancillary museums (The Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center) that seem to be the result of a massive infusion of right-wing money, or at least money from rich people and corporations with quite conservative notions about patriotism and history.

In the new orientation center, visitors are ushered into a giant movie theater for a double-feature. First up, a cheery overview of the grounds featuring . . . Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak, in colonial costume! I must admit I did not see this coming. It is hard to imagine a less 18th-century or Washingtonian figure than Pat Sajak, especially when he takes off the tri-corner hat to reveal his trademark, blow-dried 1970s ‘do. Even some of the other tourists chuckled a bit at the incongruousness of starting off their visit to a national shrine with a few words from the the guy on Wheel of Fortune. Pat’s major qualification for the job would seem to be status as a token Hollywood conservative, as noted on this roster of “Patriotic Actors” from a conservative web site. Apparently Pat has contributed more than his hairdo and cheerful demeanor to the right-wing cause; on another conservative site, he enlightens us at some length on “The Disconnect Between Hollywood and America.”

Pat’s participation in conservative Hollywood-bashing is interesting considering that his Mount Vernon intro is followed by a very Hollywood-esque “action-adventure movie” on Washington called We Fight To Be Free. Written by token conservative screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (author of the celebratory George W. Bush docudrama DC 9/11: Time of Crisis), the film turns Washington’s life into a collection of near-cover versions of scenes from recent popular historical dramas.  I suspect many non-historian visitors must get a little confused by the way preparations for the Battle of Trenton (complete with Washington giving a Bush-ian patriotic speech) are intercut with scenes from Braddock’s Defeat that seem to exist so that a Last of the Mohicans-style battle scene could be included, complete with scalpings and dramatic rescues. It was George Washington, King of the Wild Frontier.


February 25, 2008

Belated President’s Day poetry break: Philip Freneau, Patron Saint of the Blogosphere

Filed under: Early Republic,Founders,Journalism history,Literature — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:20 pm

So, over this past weekend I was sweating over a long-overdue article [hi, Sean!] on Philip Freneau, the so-called “poet of the Revolution” who is probably better known these days, deservedly in my view, as the American republic’s first major journalistic gadfly. Freneau was a good deal more than that as well, since his National Gazette was closely associated with the emergence of the first opposition political party, the Republicans (or Democratic Republicans to distinguish it from the modern GOP), which was first publicly named and its principles first spelled out in his pages.

Freneau was also a bitter critic of the elective quasi-monarchy that the presidency almost immediately started to become, and one of his most frequent themes was the overpowering influence of “great names,” like George Washington, “over the human mind.” Freneau recognized that putting a face and name people liked and respected on a government, personifying it in a word, was a good way to distract even good republican citizens from the potentially unrepublican policies and values of that government. Once the officer and the office were thoroughly conflated, popular veneration of the great personage would make criticism of the government seem churlish and rather treasonous. Then you had monarchy — we might just call it something more general like autarchy — whether the chief magistrate was called “King” or not. Once a single man or family had been elevated over all the others, any hopes of a society based on republican political equality were destroyed. As Freneau or a like-minded contributor wrote over the pseudonym “Cornelia,”

No character or place ought to be sacred in a republican government as to be above criticism. Inviolability and infallibility are royal qualities, which slaves only can comprehend. . . . In a free government every man is a king, every women is a queen; each should preserve the individual sovereignty guaranteed by our constitution that “ALL MEN ARE BORN EQUALLY FREE.” To homage any one is to destroy the equality of our sovereignty, and is a degradation of freemen. [Philadelphia National Gazette, 21 Dec. 1792]

Based on this conviction, the over-veneration of leaders was a insult to the human dignity of all, and reason. Freneau made a habit of lampooning the “absurd panegyrics” that issued from orators, artists, and his fellow poets whenever some Great Man died or whenever some landmark of George Washington’s life was reached. “Birth-day odes” to Washington were especially vexatious.

Back to the point of this post. Wading through Freneau’s collected poetry — nothing says “weekend” like Freneau’s collected poetry — I ran across his, er, counter-programming to the choirs of angels that most other writers were unleashing in response to Washington’s death, “STANZAS Occasioned by certain absurd, extravagant, and even blasphemous panegyrics and encomiums on the character of the late Gen. Washington.” Now, Freneau was no Yeats, so I do not make any claims for this piece as Great Literature, but the message is a good one that our time needs even more than Freneau’s did: “Who stuff’d with gods the historian’s page,” the poet asks, “And raised beyond the human sphere/Some who, we know, were mortal here?” I particularly like Freneau’s emphasis on the blasphemy involved in supposed Christians deifying even a great mortal like Washington: “Ye patrons of the ranting strain,/What temples have been rent in twain?” As you can imagine, this snottiness did little to help Freneau’s fading popularity and ever-precarious finances.

At any rate, President’s Day (give or take a week) seemed like an appropriate time for a reminder that democracy needs some disrespect and inappropriateness towards our historical icons in addition to the celebrations. Come to think of it, that might make Freneau the patron saint of the blogosphere.

P.S. Thank you, readers, and editors, for letting me work out my mental blocks in public.


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