Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 1, 2009

Department of Not Giving John Adams Too Much Credit

Filed under: Journalism history,Newspapers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:18 am

I followed a link from TPM to a Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin that did not turn out to be quite as awesome as promised. To me, everything one needs to know about the reasons that woman should be kept out of high office is conveyed by any given 10-minute film clip of her, including the convention speech that set off her initial media stardom. The particulars may be more Alaskan and trashier than your typical right-wing suburban beauty queen, but Sarah Barracuda’s basic approach seems pretty familiar if you come from the sort of background that breeds lots of Republicans. I do! But more Palin-tology was not my reason for writing tonight.

In a passing remark at the end of the piece, VF reporter Todd Purdum tosses off a bit of faux-erudition in the course of trashing the mental powers of Palin’s GOP fanbase. I bolded the key sentence:

Palin has disappointed many of those who once had the highest hopes for her. She has stumbled over innumerable details. But as she said to Andrew Halcro years ago, “Does any of this really matter?” Palin has shown herself to have remarkable gut instincts about raw politics, and she has seen openings where others did not. And she has the good fortune to have traction within a political party that is bereft of strong leadership, and whose rank and file often demands qualities other than knowledge, experience, and an understanding that facts are, as John Adams said, stubborn things. It is, at the moment, a party in which the loudest and most singular voices, not burdened by responsibility, wield disproportionate power.

John Adams did use that proverb, apparently, and perhaps David McCullough or the HBO series put it in his mouth, but he did not originate it. [See Ben's explanation in the comments.] The fact is, “facts are stubborn things” was one of the most common catch-phrases in the newspapers of the Early Republic. Readex/Newsbank’s “America’s Historical Newspapers” database reports 1,403 occurrences, and that is probably low. I feel as though I have seen about 1,000 instances of it personally in the course of my research. The phrase was often used as a headline or recurring motif in essays exposing official malfeasance or contradicting another writer’s position based on everyday experience and the “common understanding of mankind.” The quoted line comes from, you guessed it, “Facts are Stubborn Things,” Number VII of Boston politician and merchant Benjamin Austin, Jr.’s 1786 essay series condemning the legal profession, written over the pen name “Honestus” in the Boston Independent Chronicle and published in book form as Observations on the Pernicious Practice of the Law.  Austin’s book probably popularized the phrase among early American printers, quite a few of whom harbored the feeling that the facts were probably against the existence of lawyers.

For me, “facts are stubborn things” encapsulates a certain Enlightenment attitude that was especially common on the political left of that time (and possibly all times), assuming that incontrovertible empirical data could be found on any question and that such facts would irresistibly lead public opinion in an enlightened direction by dispelling the mystifications and superstitions of earlier, barbarous ages. What’s interesting to me is that the phrase seemed to resonate just as much on the right of the Early Republic, where it would be directed against the allegedly dangerous speculations and innovations of Jacobin-Jeffersonian “philosophy.”  Hence around 1803 you could find itinerant Democratic-Republican editor John B. Colvin singing the Jefferson administration’s praises with the stubborn facts and Connecticut Federalist satirist David Daggett campaigning against Jefferson’s local supporters under the same title.

According to Bartlett’s Quotations and other sources on Google Books, supplemented by my actually looking up the originals (or trying), the proverb’s earliest publications occurred in the late 1740s, separately and in rather opposite meanings. The “liberal” usage of the phrase as an appeal to reason and information began with Connecticut clergyman and agricultural reformer Jared Eliot‘s 1749 Continuation of the essay upon field-husbandry, as it is or may be ordered in New England. “Facts are stubborn Things, which will not bow nor break,” the Rev. Mr. Eliot writes, appropriately enough in a footnote:

Right around the same time, English poet and translator Tobias Smollett satirized the phrase by giving it as dialogue to a character called Dr. Sangrado, a benighted Spanish physician who decries new-fangled medical theories such as the idea that blood was necessary for life. (Possibly he was one of those global warming skeptics we hear about, as well.) In Smollett’s formulation, the stubborn “facts” were the ones that the ignorant and inflexible refused to give up despite counterevidence. Here comes a Google Books science experiment, presenting the actual passage that Bartlett and the others seem to be referencing:

Ah, the “dangerous allurements of chemistry”! So we come back to to the modern conservative political mind after all, which may be breaking a little bit but certainly won’t bow. And the very stones also may have a few things to cry aloud about Sarah if her political career goes any further.
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November 27, 2008

A John Adams Thanksgiving

Filed under: Christianity,Early Republic,Holidays,Political culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:23 am

While there is nothing terribly controversial about it today, Thanksgivings were once highly politicized holidays, reviled by critics as what we would now call violations of the separation of church and state and shamelessly used by their supporters as opportunities to make pious but partisan pronouncements. (The plural was used on purpose because kings and presidents declared days of prayer and Thanksgiving whenever they felt like it, and there could be far more than one a year, not at any set time.) As a holiday observance, I offer one of John Adams’s Thanksgiving proclamations, from the spring of 1798. The Quasi-War with France was raging, and the Federalists were in the midst of creating their national security program, which would soon include the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Adams’s proclamation is taken from the New York Commercial Advertiser, 29 March 1798, and it is followed by a response from the Philadelphia Aurora of the same date. Clicking the image should bring up a readable version. (The images appear after the jump.)

(more…)

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March 22, 2008

Blogging “John Adams,” Part 2: “Independence”

Filed under: Founders,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:23 pm

We finally started watching the HBO John Adams series last night. For reasons that were unclear, part 2 was available before part 1 on our cable system, but that was OK, I knew the story. It was quite watchable and not anti-educational.  However, HBO’s handling of the independence saga was really not much different from the old musical 1776, only without the songs.

Paul Giamatti was appropriately uncomfortable and flop sweat-drenched as Adams, Laura Linney did not sugar-coat Abigail as much as I expected, and relative unknown Stephen Dillane made one of the better on-screen Jeffersons I have seen, hanging back in the debates, lounging when he sat, fiercely intellectualizing every remark, and brightening up when complimented on one of his gadgets. At any rate, Dillane is an improvement over Nick Nolte and the White Shadow. The great Tom Wilkinson does perfectly well as Franklin, conveying the slipperiness and calculation beneath the raconteur. Unfortunately, writer Tom Hooper has loaded the script with predictable Franklin bromides that not even Wilkinson can say aloud in a natural, non-ridiculous way. You could see “we will all hang separately” coming several minutes ahead of time. David Morse’s prosthetic nose plays George Washington, and shows more animation than the actor.

Intermittently, the second episode effectively deploys HBO Films’ trademark gritty physical realism, best seen here in a grisly smallpox inoculation sequence where we are shown the Adams’s doctor drawing matter from a dying boy’s sores and cutting it into the skin of Abigail and the children. On the other hand, the episode as a whole does not approach the sense of full immersion in a past society provided by other HBO costumers like Deadwood and Rome. No one in John Adams seems to drink heavily or swear. No one seems to have servants or slaves, though modern-pious and sometimes unlikely verbal references to the slavery issue are plentiful. The streets of Philadelphia seem to have been evacuated so the Continental Congress could meet in peace, which was very much not the case.

Geography is a big problem for the series as it always is on TV. In the HBO universe, the Adamses seem to have lived somewhere around East Cambridge, rather than Braintree on the South Shore. They can go up on a hill behind the house and see the Battle of Bunker Hill. The road from Ft. Ticonderoga to Boston runs right by their front door! Very convenient. I am including a map so the less Boston-centric can see the problem. Braintree would be off the bottom of this map.

Like the David McCullough source material, this episode was atrocious when dealing with politics or political thought. Tom Paine and Common Sense are not even mentioned, nor is there any sense of the pressure the delegates were feeling from the political radicalism that was boiling over in the streets of Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, a source of great consternation to the real Adams. (Ordinary Americans appear only in occasional scenes of silent soldiers and disease victims, and in a nice polite crowd that hears the Declaration read at the end.) Here the speech Adams gives in reply to John Dickinson during the final independence debate comes out of nowhere and sounds more like Paine than Adams, proposing a national republic and extolling revolution in a way that would have had the most of the delegates fleeing back home or to the British if anyone one had actually said that kind of stuff on the floor of the Continental Congress. The real speech, while not recorded, seems to have been much more practical and nothing the delegates had not heard many times before.

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March 17, 2008

John Adams, HBO-style

Filed under: Founders,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:16 pm

Having done without it since The Sopranos and Deadwood ended, I forgot to turn HBO back on in time to catch the premier of the cable channel’s take on John Adams, based on David McCullough’s much-maligned-by-me biography. The McCullough version seemed potentially more suited to filming than to a serious print biography, so my mind is open. I plan to catch up with the series soon, but if any readers did see it, please share. The New York Times reviewer was not impressed, but it does sound like there was a realistic tarring-and-feathering scene that bids fair to become a staple of my survey class.

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February 29, 2008

Seems Like Old Times, I: Nationalizing the state militias

Filed under: "Seems Like Old Times",Founders,Military — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:45 pm

One of the features I have planned for this blog is a series of items highlighting issues from the Early Republic that have come back or never gone away.

One of those issues is the drive to concentrate as much control as possible over the nation’s armed forces in the federal government and its military leadership. A perennial sticking point in this drive has been what used to be called the state militias, known in modern times (speaking broadly) as the Reserves and the National Guard. As both military officers and civilian officials, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were famously dissatisfied with their dependence on poorly trained and equipped militia troops, questioning the citizen-soldiers’ ability to stand and fight against regular troops, and, just as importantly, doubting their reliability when called upon to apply force to their fellow citizens in times of domestic unrest.

During the French war scare of the late 1790s, the Federalist Congress authorized President John Adams to call out 80,000 militiamen and create a 10,000-man Provisional Army in case of a declaration of war or foreign invasion. Nothing was ever done with this authority except the appointment of a few officers. Instead, Adams, Hamilton, and other Federalists struggled to create (with different agendas) a sizable Additional Army that, along with volunteer units who paid for themselves, would be usable “at the President’s discretion” whether there was a war or invasion or not. [The clearest explanation I have ever found of these matters is: William J. Murphy Jr., "John Adams: The Politics of the Additional Army, 1798-1800," New England Quarterly 52 (1979): 234-249.]

Admittedly I found the story several weeks ago, but I find it interesting, more than two centuries later, when Reserve and National Guard units have been deployed overseas for years at a time, and on regular basis, that the Pentagon feels that it still does not have enough control of state troops and also wants a greater role in policing what I guess we now have to call the “homeland.”

Pentagon control over Reserves, Guard proposed


WASHINGTON — More than six years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the nation’s plans for meeting the threats to the homeland are so thin they could be written “on the back of an envelope,” the chairman of a national military commission said Thursday.While the country has detailed contingency options for military action overseas, the capacity for responding to a terrorist attack or natural disaster within the United States is dangerously low, retired Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, chairman of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, said Thursday.

“You couldn’t move a Girl Scout unit” with the amount of planning federal officials are doing for domestic contingencies, he said, likening it to a disorganized “sandlot game.”

“You cannot do that in dealing with weapons of mass destruction,” Punaro said.

Among the shortfalls are a lack of equipment for the National Guard, with Missouri and Illinois particularly hard hit in some categories, according to the commission’s report released Thursday.

The panel called for a drastic overhaul of the military structure that would put the National Guard and Reserves under the direct control of the Army and Air Force and essentially integrate the nation’s “citizen-soldiers” into the military structure. The plan would include integrated training, pay, promotions, medical care and retirement — and improved resources and equipment.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon would be put in charge of homeland security, which would be carried out by the Guard and Reserves.

Those changes are necessary both to meet homeland security shortfalls and to allow the over-extended military to focus on overseas missions, commissioners said. Many can be implemented by the Pentagon while some require legislation by Congress.

The Guard’s current status made sense during the Cold War when it was “designed as a reserve force to be dusted off once in a lifetime,” but no longer when reservists are being used as a wing of the military, Punaro said. The current problems are heightened by the personnel limitations of an all-volunteer military, he said.

The commission, which was authorized by Congress, found that the only other alternative for dealing with a stretched-thin military — increasing the size of the active-duty component — is prohibitively expensive.

Adding the 600,000 active-duty soldiers that would be required for current needs would cost more than a trillion dollars, Punaro said. Beyond that, the military couldn’t recruit enough people to meet that target, he said.

Not only are there enough reserve forces to take over homeland security, they are highly skilled and are already in the states and cities, he said.

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