Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 2, 2012

What People Don’t Get About Historical Context

In the past day or so, a post from the Volokh Conspiracy blog has been circulating around my Twitter feed in which David Post suggests—no, actually, he comes right out and says—that anyone who tries to bring Jefferson’s slaveholding into the picture as part of his history is unduly tarnishing his ideas about freedom and liberty. In part, Post relies on his research on Lincoln’s uses of Jeffersonian liberty. William Hogeland had perhaps the best rejoinder:

Absolutely right, and as I noted myself on Twitter, Post made a categorical error in missing the historical context. Making the claim that “all men are created equal” meant something rather different in 1776 than it did by 1860, and even then it does today. For that matter, the Declaration has rarely had a settled meaning. Another President inaugurated in 1861 also used the Declaration’s preamble as justification for his nation’s actions:

Our present political position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations. It illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established. The declared purpose of the compact of the Union from which we have withdrawn was to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity;” and when, in the judgment of the sovereign States composing this Confederacy, it has been perverted from the purposes for which it was ordained, and ceased to answer the ends for which it was established, a peaceful appeal to the ballot box declared that, so far as they are concerned, the Government created by that compact should cease to exist. In this they merely asserted the right which the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, defined to be “inalienable.” Of the time and occasion of its exercise they as sovereigns were the final judges, each for itself. The impartial and enlightened verdict of mankind will vindicate the rectitude of our conduct; and He who knows the hearts of men will judge of the sincerity with which we have labored to preserve the Government of our fathers in its spirit.

But what did Jefferson Davis know, really?

Want another example? Here’s one that David Armitage included in his appendix to The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Guess the author!

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow­citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

If you had Ho Chi Minh, you win a free subscription to Publick Occurrences 2.0!

All snark aside, it is indeed a mistake—far more so than pointing out, as Samuel Johnson did, the irony of slave owners proclaiming the vital importance of liberty—to extract the political ideas from the context.

It’s something I try to address in teaching the Declaration of Independence. When we discuss the preamble, I point out that few paid attention to the preamble (the portion that we now consider sacrosanct as part of our national mythos). That language was frankly not particularly controversial to a gentleman well educated in the ideas of the Enlightenment. What was controversial, and new, and distinct, was to take those ideas, attach them to a lengthy list of grievances, and then declare the severance of bonds with another country (the second and third sections of the Declaration). Have the ideas of the Declaration inspired millions? Indeed, and Armitage’s book is a good source both for the history and for the collection of primary sources he has amassed. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a discussion about the context in which the ideas developed; in fact I would argue quite the opposite. It’s imperative to understand ideas as products of their time. As Lynn Hunt has argued, human rights had to be invented, and claims to their self-evidence (previously not evident) were part of the process.

We’ll keep having this discussion, but it’s worth repeating one more time: historical context matters. A lot.


June 19, 2012

The Weakness of Being a Herd of Cats

Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.

They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.

What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.

I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.

What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.

When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.

Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.

We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.

There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.

What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:

We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.

We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.

If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.

I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.

But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:

Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.

Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?

It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.

If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.

The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.


November 17, 2011

Corner of Jefferson and Trotsky

Filed under: Founders,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:50 pm

Corner of Jefferson and Trotsky at Occupy Wall Street encampmentMy little Twitter debate with William Hogeland over who the modern Jeffersonians are inspired me to check up a little bit on just who had been invoking Jefferson recently. (I look forward to his promised +140 character comment continuing our discussion.) My interlocutor seems to have been set off by some recent misuse of TJ on the left side of the spectrum.

Googling “Jefferson and Occupy Wall Street” does indeed produce some evidence that the protesters and their allies might not be the closest Jefferson scholars out there.  But clearly they need him. Jefferson has always been the Left’s only possible source of Founder cred besides Tom Paine, whose sad lack of  monuments or coinage renders him much less eligible for the job radicals need done: proving the American-ness of their critique of capitalist institutions to a public that has long associated economic radicalism with foreign cultures and subversive enemies. Whoever picked Jefferson and Trostky as intersecting “street names”  in the recently destroyed OWS encampment was drawing on a somewhat grand tradition that stretches back further than World War II, when the New Masses did a Jefferson Bicentennial issue, or even the Popular Front period of the mid-1930s, when “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism” was a CPUSA slogan. Older and even more striking is the Socialist alliance of “Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus” that apparently guided Oklahoma farmers back before World War I. I need to read that book! Did I miss the part in the musical where Jud turned out be a Red?

As Merrill Peterson’s The Jefferson Image in the American Mind showed, Jefferson truly did and does have the ability to be projected as an avatar of almost any cause. Here are a few guises in which he appears to Occupy people on the Internet:

  • Gold-Hoarding Libertarian Jefferson (Ron Swanson Jefferson?): The Deist Review offers a fake Jefferson quote against banking, to the effect that banks and corporations would “deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.” Snopes suggests this fake dates back to a congressional committee report from 1937, so we are lucky it did not end up on the Jefferson Memorial. The quote pops up all over the OWS sites. This makes one realize that only cultural attitudes and styles sometimes separate the far left and far right.
  • The Jefferson Tree: an Occupy Wall Street affiliate that comes off like a left-wing Tea Party site, naming itself after Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote but also making some kind of strange anarchist use of Jefferson’s remarks against parties, the kind that all the Founders made. That would make John Adams an anarchist, too. Yea?
  • The Awesome Jefferson, or “Tommy”:  @Occupy US History (see below)

Other examples gratefully accepted.

As a side note,  If Occupy is the Tea Party of the Left, then I wish it could develop the kind of gravitational pull on the political world that the Tea Party has, pulling things back left in other words. Are the Democrats smart enough to work with that? The crackdown while Obama is off planting new military bases in Asia would seem to say not.


November 15, 2011

Tweet Occurrences

Filed under: Common-Place — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:48 pm

Officially I still don’t quite approve of Twitter, but when I posted here for the first time in let’s not  say how long, comments came in almost immediately via that channel. So, Twitter is trending here at Common-Place. I am experimenting with various widgets and plug-ins to get such tweet comments into this space for the many of you out there, especially historians of a certain age, with no plans to tweet in the near future. You should be able to see the initial results in the box at the right of the main page. I have been having a little tweet-debate with William Hogeland over whether liberals should see anything in Thomas Jefferson, following up on the post last week. Seems like there should be some way to post a link with both sides of the back-and-forth, but my twitucation is still pretty thin. “Follow us,” I suppose is one way.


November 10, 2011

No Countryman for Old Founders

Filed under: Founders,Historians — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:22 am

Please tell me I did not read a great historian whose work I love dropping aggressive ignoramus Rick Perry on Thomas Jefferson’s head. Excessive exposure to hair-care products or animal waste seems like a better explanation of the ideological origins of this guy.

Watch The Excruciating Agony As Rick Perry Gets Confused, Forgets His Own Plan Mid-Sentence

Here is what Edward Countryman has to say in an interview with History News Network:

In the larger context of American political history, what is most noteworthy to you about Governor Perry’s candidacy?

One way to see the whole current impasse is as a rerun of the city and country opposition that runs right back to the respective visions of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson for America’s future.  Hamilton’s vision turned on the presumption that the power established by the Constitution was there to use and presumed an active government, and it continued through Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Lyndon Johnson and, now, Barack Obama.  Jefferson regarded that power as something to fear . . . . It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan had Jefferson prominently on display in his Oval Office.

And yet, Jefferson did not promote dumb-ass generalized fear of government activities he can’t even name.  His unfortunate fling with the idea of state “nullification,” the Kentucky Resolution of 1798, was aimed at blocking a flagrantly unconstitutional federal effort to suppress an opposition party — not a bad shot to pick. 1798 was a time when some fear of government was not unjustified, just like the fears many of us had when George W. Bush was in power and John Yoo was writing his memos developing a “unitary executive” that could do whatever it wanted to anybody anywhere in the world.

My plea to all historians who feel the easy Alexander-Hamilton-as-Modern-Liberal meme coming on: check Mike Wallace’s “Business-Class Hero” first, a brilliant early take-down of the ongoing Hamilton revival.  It is an artifact of the financialization of our whole political culture that liberals can so easily conflate the use of government power to protect and enrich investors and banks with the sort of  public regulations and government-led social improvements they value. Hamilton never dealt with any of the latter, and his idea of social improvement was kind that trickled down from the wealthy in the wake of economic development, maybe. Perhaps Reagan had the wrong guy on display. Vindicating or fearing of government in general is not the only dimension in these long-term debates in American politics. Another one — it makes me so sad that historians cannot seem to remember — is the question of whether or not to deed over the government to moneyed interests. No one with any feeling for Occupy Wall Street should be celebrating Hamilton, who would have cleaned those parks out with mounted troops long ago.

Really there is no need to ancestor-worship any Founder, or demonize them either. At some point, academic Jefferson-bashing just becomes a snarky form of reverse culture warfare. It seems obvious to me that different aspects of both modern liberalism and conservatism can be traced back to both Hamilton and Jefferson, and other aspects to neither. What modern liberals actually support is deploying government power (Hamilton) in the name of democracy (Jefferson). The social aspects of democracy that tend to concern us most now were of little concern to any of the Founders, so nothing to see there in any case.


March 19, 2010

One Good Thing about the Texas History Standards . . .

Filed under: Conservatives,Education,Founders — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:14 am

Jefferson gets to be a left-wing hero again! It’s been awhile, but Ho Chi Minh and I always knew he had a comeback in him. Actually, the whole cause of right-wing historical revisionism may suffer some blowback from this ill-advised shot at Mr. Jefferson. They have gone a Founder there. There are lots of relatively conservative Americans out there who still revere the Founders. They hear a few stories like this and they may just conclude that guys like Dental Commissar McElroy are a little too sketchy to be allowed to control their children’s lives.


July 9, 2009

Take that, Buffon!

Filed under: Foreign policy,science — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:36 pm
A post-worthy email from the other corner of the basement, from someone who has obviously spent too much time around me and Mr. Jefferson.
When I saw this photo on TPM, I couldn’t help but think of TJ’s defense of the vigor and diversity of American fauna as compared to its European counterparts:

There are others in the stream that are equally amusing…
Now playing: The Walkmen – The Blue Route
via FoxyTunes

June 26, 2009

Charlottesville, Illustrated

Filed under: American History,Ben Carp's Posts,Founders,Media — Benjamin Carp @ 9:11 am

Perhaps this is a bit Founderesque, but Common-place readers are always in search of new ways of conveying history, and so you may appreciate this op-art essay in the New York Times online by Maria Kalman called “Time Wastes Too Fast.”  Using documents, photographs, archaeology, primary sources, and her own illustrations (many based on contemporary portraits), Kalman spins a travelogue, history and biography, and a life lesson from a trip to Monticello.  Perhaps the essay will inspire you to redeem more of your summertime, or perhaps it will send you spinning into an envious funk.  Or maybe you’ll just be inspired to go for a walk.


February 27, 2009

Rocking the Revolution: A Rebels Rising Playlist

Filed under: Music,Playlists,Popular culture,Revolution,Urban history — Benjamin Carp @ 7:27 am

In honor of Oxford University Press publishing the paperback edition of Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, I thought we might strike up a playlist.  The annotations make it a long entry, so if you’re in the mood for some Friday fun, please follow me below the fold.  In the meantime, pick up a copy and add it to your syllabus today.

I should start by saying that there isn’t much musical, historical, or thematic rhyme or reason to this list (which I first created in 2007 when the hardcover edition was published): I just wanted a CD-length playlist inspired by the book, drawn from songs I already owned (although I did hunt down a couple more).  Under my self-imposed rule, the songs had to have “rebels,” “rising”, “city,” “cities,” or the name of one of the book’s five cities (Boston, New York City, Newport, Charleston, and Philadelphia) in the title.  I also included songs that corresponded with the introduction and epilogue.  Where songs are named for a specific city, they are in chapter order; the three “rebels” songs precede the three “rising” songs.  Here’s the book’s table of contents if you’d like to follow along.



January 17, 2009

So that’s why they call it agribusiness!

Filed under: Government — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:21 am

“USDA employee accused of running prostitution ring” — a statistician no less. As Jefferson said,  “Corruption of morals in the mass counters of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no our age nor and nation has furnished an example.”

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