Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 4, 2009

A Fourth of July in Paine

Filed under: Founders — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:33 am

I am hoping the title of this post is only a pun. Here in America’s sixth freest state, the Fourth is something of a free-fire zone, and my boys and I are not immune to the charms of “blowing stuff up” (as Owen likes to put it). We almost always attend a public fireworks show in Weston, MO (my parents’ place of residence), where the big stuff is detonated literally on the other side of a high school football field from the place you sit. It’s all pretty awesome, until someone gets hurt, so wish us luck.

The Paine of the title refers to what appears to be the new, inadvertent Common-Place tradition of celebrating American Independence by bringing up perhaps the only true revolutionary among the front-line Founders, Thomas Paine. (One of the things I like about Paine is that he was far too dodgy a character to ever have the term “Founding Father” comfortably applied to him. Paternal he was not.) A little bit less than a year ago, I did a a post about unwelcome interventions in presidential elections that included a discussion and the text of Paine’s infamous open letter dissing George Washington. Now I see that the just-released July issue of Common-Place proper features a most welcome forum on Paine. In addition to an article by the great J.M. (Jason) Opal of McGill University, the forum includes two other articles from presenters at the conference on Paine that immediate past C-P editor Ed Gray and I attended in Milan last October: Matteo Battistini out of University of Bologna and Nathalie Caron, coeditor of one of France’s leading scholarly journals on American history and culture, the Revue française d’études américaines.The whole forum is well worth the time of any reader who wants something more substantive than Founder-worship and gunpowder for their Fourth of July delectation.

The Paine forum also seems like the opportune moment to foist upon the nets my own contribution to the Milan conference, entitled “Thomas Paine and the U.S. Election of 1796: In which it is discovered that George Washington was more popular than Jesus”. Some of this material will doubtless end up in the book I am writing on that first contested presidential election, but given space considerations and the high time-benefit ratio that would be involved in making a full journal article of this piece, I am going to present it here in only slightly revised form, just enough to fill a couple of gaps and make it flow better in written form. There are footnotes, but light by my standards, and just to take advantage of the digital medium, I have included a couple of primary sources in the .pdf. My hope is that readers in the comfort of their own web-surfing spots will get more out of it than I suspect the room full of Italian undergraduates did in Milan that day.

Readers should feel free to comment on my article or the Paine forum more generally in this post’s comment thread.
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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.

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January 11, 2009

Relying on DNA

Filed under: Congress,Government,Presidency — Benjamin Carp @ 4:06 pm

My last post referred to Lincoln, FDR, and JFK as “pretty good presidents,” but heck, Lincoln and FDR were great presidents, while JFK never even had the chance to finish out his first term.  I’ll let 20th-century historians debate JFK’s greatness, but I hope we can at least agree that there’s always been something a little fishy about the mythmaking surrounding “Camelot” and the Kennedys as an “American aristocracy.”

Ted Sorensen exemplified this during the panel at the New York Times.  When asked who New York Governor David Paterson should choose to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacated senate seat, Sorensen replied, “I always rely on DNA.”

Really?  How did that work out for the Hapsburgs?

Now this line also got a laugh.  And at the lordly New York Times, you rather worry that they were laughing with him rather than at him.  But does Sorensen choose his doctors and airline pilots this way?  Sorensen, of course, refers to Caroline Kennedy’s bid for Paterson to name her to the seat.  And at the end of the day, you can’t really blame him for his preference.

Still, it’s irritating.  I’m neither the first nor the smartest person to say this, but if Caroline Kennedy wants to demonstrate her fitness to hold a Democratic seat as junior senator for New York, she should run for the office in 2010.  In the meantime, Paterson should pick a placeholder.  It’s bad enough when Senate seats become dynastic, but you should at least burnish your résumé by showing you can face the electorate and win.

This is Common-place, so it seems fitting to give the floor to Common Sense (by Thomas Paine):

But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked; and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.

Furthermore, as someone at the panel pointed out, if you’re going to rely on DNA, then Andrew Cuomo would serve just as well, wouldn’t he?  Once again, Paine has the last word:

However, it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right, if there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility, nor disturb their devotion.

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July 10, 2008

Unwelcome Interventions

Filed under: 2008 elections,Early Republic,GOP,Historians,Past campaigns — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:40 pm

In honor of the detestable former Reaganaut and current McCain campaign co-chair Phil Gramm’s too-revealing remark about the country being only in a “mental recession” invented by a “nation of whiners,” I thought I would throw in some links to a couple of other disastrous presidential campaign interventions by political luminaries who had fallen a little out of touch. These are from the early American republic, of course, and come courtesy of Google Books:

  • 1796: Thomas Paine, A Letter to George Washington, in which Paine, writing from Paris and having just published The Age of Reason, managed to cement the Federalist linkage of the Democratic-Republicans with the sort of atheistic French wankery that few Americans of any politics much liked. Criticizing George Washington for his foreign policy was edgy enough without bringing Paine’s notorious religious views into the mix.
  • 1800: A Letter from Alexander Hamilton, in which the Federalists’ preeminent figure unloaded the full measure of his jealousy and arrogance on the head of a Federalist president (John Adams) battling for re-election, and helped put his two other worst enemies (Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr) in power.

Not that Phil Gramm deserves to be put on the same plane as Paine or Hamilton, except for being uncontrollable, associated with a former regime, and having a little too much to say. However, John McCain did not need any more public reminders of just how far GOP leaders’ real concerns are from those of suburban and rural voters whose lives are rapidly becoming unfeasible thanks to high gas prices and job losses. The media always needs reminders, however, so tell us more, Phil, tell us more.

Postscript on Google Books: On the one hand, as a lover of physically browseable libraries, I imagine I should not approve of Google Books. On the other hand, as a back pain sufferer and a resident of mid-Missouri, Google Books is life-changingly awesome. It especially tickles me that many of Google’s scanned volumes on the Early Republic come from the Harvard Libraries and thus were quite likely once lugged home in 25-pound bags — on the #77 bus — by yours truly. Don’t knock it until you have carried a pile of tomes such as Wharton’s State Trials of the United States Under the Administrations of Washington and Adams and Scharf and Westcott’s History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 (in 3 elephantine volumes) up several flights of stairs yourself.

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