To Harmonize Heaven With Earth: The Difficulty of Teaching Hawthorne in Our Time

Introduction: Distinguishing Hawthorne’s moral philosophy from his political criticism

Today, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter has become a staple of the high school curriculum. Hawthorne’s most retold and remembered fables are The Birthmark, The Artist of The Beautiful, and Rappucini’s Daughter. Through his stories, Hawthorne shows his great range as a writer. On one hand, his readers see him revivifying history and the past, and on the other, his stories can pass for science fiction looking into the future. However, It is little wonder that Hawthorne acquired such range as an author. Alexis De Tocqueville prophesied that democratic readership would implore the artist as writer flex a full range. Tocqueville writes,

(democratic people) like books that are procured without trouble, that are quickly read, that do not require learned research to be understood…they need lively and rapid emotions, sudden clarity, brilliant truths or errors that instantly pull them from themselves and introduce them suddenly, almost violently, into the midst of the subject”(Democracy in America, page 448).

My argument is that the tales less widely read are those which do not proffer sudden clarity and brilliant truths but nonetheless provide insight into the moral philosophy of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In order to answer the questions posed by Hawthorne regarding the polity in his most widely read works, one must consider the framework of individual morality sketched in Hawthorne’s stories in which the individual has departed from political society. Such stories illuminate the tension apparent within the American soul which regards salvation and civic duty as incommensurable; the demands of both pose the question regarding what a man should do in an age of democracy where the preservation of religious liberty is contradicted by religious intolerance or religious laxity. My aim in the following essays is to forsake Hawthorne’s tales which are more explicitly critical of Puritan society and scientific materialism, and resituate those tales most critical of the polity within the framework of his more intimate tales regarding the decisions to be made by the individual regarding the human heart. I seek further to prove that Hawthorne and Tocqueville, who write differently about America’s Puritan ancestry, understand the point of departure similarly. In writing about the Puritans they similarly critique democratic society urging that it adopt certain mores necessary for the preservation of freedom. Tocqueville and Hawthorne are complementary in that they are in agreement upon what is necessary to sustain liberty. Where Tocqueville provides advice regarding how society should embrace the individual, Hawthorne provides the mode in which the individual should properly embrace society; they come about their complementarity by considering that which is most harmful to democratic society, and what the collective and what the individual should do about it.

In considering Hawthorne’s two genres, readers may draw two criticisms that at first appear mutually exclusive. Hawthorne critiques his contemporaries as men who wish to impiously overcome their inherent frailty through science, and he concomitantly criticizes his ancestors as fanatics who harness political coercion to serve their faith. Hawthorne derails scientific materialism and transcendentalism while also dismissing his ancestors as worthy of emulation. It thus appears that he leaves his audience no stable foundation for flourishing and salvation, and nothing worthy of the commitment of man’s life. Hawthorne, however, sees in the transcendentalist, the materialist, and the Puritan, one similarity: they disregard man’s original sin and attempt to overcome it subverting God’s providence. Hawthorne attempts to moderate the influence of his contemporaries on the regime by drawing parallels between their shortcomings and that of his ancestors. He thereby details America’s own original sin as the ignorance of man’s nature as inherently flawed and limited. But in considering Hawthorne’s political philosophy through the context of his moral philosophy it becomes apparent that he urges that progress is possible only through the slow improvement of the conscience through charity and a bolstering of the human heart through community and the family. Hawthorne understands that such mores supplant the democratic desire for rapid and unchecked change with a dedication to fundamental principles that rear men of humility.

Section 1: Habits and Hearts

In 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville remarked, “Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants”; however, as Hawthorne’s career as an artist progressed, he would bare witness to the very thing that Tocqueville feared as a “shelter” for all future tyrants. Hawthorne saw the spirits of transcendentalism and scientific materialism as the direct enemy of (1) reliance on God’s will, (2) a proper understanding human nature and of liberty, and likewise (3) a respect for the human heart.

Near the middle of his career Hawthorne writes Rappaccini’s Daughter and its corrective The Artist of the Beautiful in direct response to this new tendency of the American mind to rely on scientism for progress. He later pens The Scarlet Letter detailing the project of an apparently pious people attempting to harness political coercion for the salvation of souls and the purification and subsequent transcendence of the township. All parties usurp the power ascribed to God in different ways, and all meddle with God’s creation attempting to harmonize the earthly with the heavenly.

It is often understood that Hawthorne writes The Scarlet Letter simply in rebuke of his ancestors, but that is not the whole of it. A careful reading of Hawthorne’s sketches and short stories reveals a much more complex critique present in the novel that has proved itself immortal. A more robust study of Hawthorne’s philosophy lays naked his purpose in writing The Scarlet Letter as a critique of his contemporaries and reveals his true purpose in realigning protestantism between the two extremes of the moral laxity of the present and the moral obstinance of the Puritans.

The themes that drive Hawthorne’s most widely read work can be seen in the Boston of Hawthorne’s own time. In viewing Roger Chillingworth, one sees the reckless abandon of moral limitations due to a mastery of the scientific, and one sees a striking parallel between the transcendentalist and the Puritan society who both wish to perfect man’s moral character in order to bring about heaven on earth. All parties, through their infirmity in judgment, cannot but violate the sanctity of the human heart in demanding such perfection, performing what Hawthorne takes to be the greatest sin of all.

The assumption of the proper bounds of freedom has long been the test of American politics. The question of how men may be taught to respect the rightful bounds of their freedom without the application of force by government is therefore of the utmost importance in a polity dedicated to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter he uses Puritan society to paint a backdrop that considers two forms of tyranny in Chillingworth and Puritan society, one of which Americans of his day still have to fear while the other appears to have been overcome. As a city in a free nation, the Boston of Hawthorne’s time does not institute what Aristotle would consider distributive law favoring any one religious sect. In 1780 the Congregational Church was disestablished and in 1833 state funding was suspended. Hawthorne chooses to write about a Puritan society that utilizes distributive justice and through such power neglects the punishment of the one man who uses his intellectual might to transform himself into a devil, committing the most grave of crimes by meddling with the sanctity of the human heart. Then, Hawthorne utilizes Roger Chillingworth to prove the twofold point that through harnessing the power of the mind man may transform himself into a devil and that the expansion of man’s own freedom through mastery of the scientific perhaps leads to the enslavement of the spirit. What is noteworthy is that Hawthorne critiques both ends of the spectrum: the scientific and the religious when vested with a power that is not in accord with the laws of nature restrain man’s ability to serve both the self and the collective. That said, transcendence properly understood is that which invests man with the power to know himself in terms of his nature: knowing his natural limits are therefore just as important as his ambition to overcome those limits.

Many who teach Hawthorne’s novel today fall into the pit of historicism, concluded that The Scarlet Letter is a firm critique of an overbearing religious society and Hester, in breaking down barriers is to be praised as the hero. They thus conclude that Hawthorne was dedicated to tearing down the maxims of the Puritans. However, this would be to dismiss both Hawthorne’s words regarding Hester as hero, as well as Hester’s regard for herself as hero. Hawthorne bookends his novel between a conclusion and an introduction that are of utmost importance when considering the “parable” that this story establishes. In his Custom House introduction he apologizes for any stern remarks he may place at the graves of his ancestors, and in his conclusion he renders Dimmesdale himself the parable. Dimmesdale is regarded as a parable to “express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man’s own righteousness” and that “in the view of infinite purity, we are all sinners alike”. What is most curious is that Hester, not Dimmesdale was intended to become the parable at the outset of the novel. Hester was meant to become “a walking sermon on sin”, and Dimmesdale supplants Hester to that end. But in order for Dimmesdale to become the parable that Salem needs he must defeat Chillingworth, not Puritan society itself. Puritan society can be redeemed through Dimmesdale, if only Dimmesdale acts properly. Hester exhausts her efforts attempting to upheave society itself, but Dimmesdale in finally committing himself to his own spiritual survival is able to usurp Hester’s place as protagonist. He thus renders the antagonist not society itself, but Roger Chillingworth.

Both Hawthorne and Tocqueville are particularly concerned with the heart. Hawthorne regards the sanctity or violation of the individual heart as definitive when considering one’s ability to preserve freedom, whereas Tocqueville considers the collective heart of the community as paramount to the preservation of liberty. In Democracy In America, Tocqueville defines mores as “habits of the heart”. He considers “this word (as) the whole moral and intellectual state of a people” (Democracy in America, Page 275). To Tocqueville, not only were mores habits of the heart, but also applied “to the different notions that men possess, to the various opinions that are current in their midst, and to the sum of ideas of which the habits of the mind are formed” (Democracy in America, Page 275). These habits of the heart, Tocqueville considered “one of the great general causes to which the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States can be attributed”. Tocqueville and Hawthorne both considered the heart the agent that would check the democratic mind from overturning all that was customary and overrunning all that stood as apparent barriers for the progress of equality. Both understood that the heart would need cultivation if democratic man were to submit himself to those things worthy of self-sacrifice. In The Scarlet Letter, true repentance for both Dimmesdale and Hester can only come about through sacrificing their pride. Dimmesdale must cease pretending he is doing all in his power to cleanse himself by repenting alone and holding onto his lie, and understand that only submitting himself wholly to the judgment of the city will he surrender his guilt. With Dimmesdale’s death, Hester must come to the realization that although she may resist and lash out against the society which alienates her for her sin, God’s justice is irresistible, ultimate, and forgiving.

Teachers who teach The Scarlet Letter as a tale only in rebuke of Puritan society miss the point. Although the injustices of Puritan society are definitive, the acceptance of that society is ultimate if we are to consider Hester’s end a happy one. In order for Hester to become heroine, she must accept the society that has rejected her, and work from within in order to become the prophetess who will moderate that society and overturn the unjust law that is the perceived antagonist of the story. Roger Chillingworth is a mere shadow of the law itself which agitates Hester Prynne. He violates the Reverend Dimmesdale’s heart just as civil society violates Hester’s. He acts as the parallel punishment for Dimmesdale, and Dimmesdale must accept and forgive him in order to pave the way for Hester’s ultimate acceptance and forgiveness of society.

What is most important though is that both heroes of the parable of sin and redemption accept the very thing that proliferates their suffering in order to ultimately purify their antagonists. Where Tocqueville understands that democracy in America is most stable because of the several associations that temper her citizens, he understands that what is to be most feared is the breaking of the ties that unite individuals in various groups that satisfy, guide, and moderate the American appetite to serve one’s self interest. Hawthorne refers to this connection of citizens with a similar interest when he writes of “the electric cord” that unites Pearl, Hester, and Dimmesdale. Both Hawthorne and Tocqueville understood that materialism and the scientific captivated the American mind and had the capacity to undermine these associations by making men believe that through science and knowledge they could transcend in order to become self-sufficient without relying upon others within society. However, Chillingworth’s once virtue, knowledge, is at least part of the reason he is able to undergo the transformation of man to devil. His knowledge, marred by his broken heart, allows him to do that which Dimmesdale could not. Because of the self-assurance his own intelligence provides he is convinced that he is capable of escaping all associative bonds and live with a false face to the multitude. Through his escape, his action goes unchecked by his fellow man. Because of his pain, his actions go unchecked by his conscience. At least part of the reason that civil associations are important for liberty is that they are a useful tool for checking passion.

Perhaps Hawthorne’s greatest lesson is that which is set in motion by Pearl. He unites Hester and Dimmesdale by the link that is Pearl who thus urges the Reverend to “be true”. What she means by this, is to tell Dimmesdale to live up to the compact that he signed by committing adultery with Hester Prynne. In order to do this he must be honest with himself and with society that he has partaken in a relationship that cuts against the principles of the very society of which he is considered preeminent. Hawthorne does not wish to dismiss the dedication of the Puritans to serving some good, but rather he wishes to relegate the work done by society to the realm of the several associations that comprise society itself. In free society praise and blame can only progress a people when it utilizes love and holds the heart and conscience to be sacred. Pearl is therefore able to urge Dimmesdale where the rest of the city cannot. Society, however homogenous, is a collective of several human passions and interested associations and thus cannot be counted on to urge praise and blame while respecting individual liberty. The problem with the transcendentalist authors of Hawthorne’s time mirrors the problem of Chillingworth, and embodies all of the vices of Aristocratic literature and materialist thought to which Tocqueville refers: it has the tendency to ignore the bounds of individual liberty and use its power as an excuse to assert its control where it ought not.

Transcendentalism became peculiar to America as romanticism grew stale, and its poetic expression has colored much of the way American literature is approached to this day. The expression of the idea of transcendence in this world is a peculiar expression and appeals to the American sense of self-reliance and individualism. Tocqueville understood that democratic people, and Americans particularly, conceived of man’s ability to better himself in a way much unprecedented. He writes

Although man resembles the animals in several points, one feature is peculiar to him alone: he perfects himself and they do not perfect themselves. The human species could not fail to discover this difference from the outset. The idea of perfectibility is therefore as old as the world; equality did not give birth to it, but it gives it a new character.

Puritan society, in envisioning itself a shining city upon a hill, embodies the sentiment of the indefinite perfectibility of man. The great critique drawn from Hawthorne’s famous novel is the critique of Puritan society and the severity of the punishment conferred on poor Hester. However, what many American’s miss is that the punishment of Hester Prynne as sinner is expressive of the American character itself. The peculiarity of Hester’s punishment is that it is done publicly in hope that she will become a “living sermon on sin”. Although Americans today do not prescribe distributive laws, much legislation is geared toward progressing the limitations on practical liberty that prove a bane to the people as they hope to pursue objects of their own happiness. The Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter is no different from the America of today when considering the end toward which it strives. The mastery of Hawthorne’s great work is not only that it encapsulates a period of American history that is defining of America and distant from the artist himself, but that he is able to use history to teach a perennial lesson to Americans. Unfortunately, much of that lesson perishes when the Puritan society of the novel is so far divorced from our own contemporary reality that it becomes a strawman that serves to bolster our appreciation for progress rather than a reminder that some things ought not be strived for by collective society no matter the power of the collective will. The greatest lesson that Hawthorne may teach us is an echo of Tocqueville. Tocqueville is sure to include that the severe punishments doled out by the Puritan settlers were democratically decided, and Hawthorne is sure to have the women of Puritan society urging a harsher punishment for Hester Prynne. What Hawthorne’s great novel calls into question is the tendency of democratic progress to defy the bounds of morality. This lesson that Hawthorne teaches calls into direct question the project of the naturalist to revivify the prospect of man’s transcendence. Where Tocqueville and Hawthorne both understand that habits of the heart have a way of conditioning the mind, the Transcendentalist wishes to unleash the mind for this project of bringing about heaven on earth. What is most striking about Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is its relevance as a teaching for the readers of his own time and the transcendentalist movement of which his often incorrectly considered a part.

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Thoughts on Charlottesville

The David was also a very controversial monument in its day. The greatest explanation is that it is a rebuke of the Medici family and an assertion of the strength of the people in the face of tyranny. Where David represented the everyman, the underdog, and the slayer of the giant, the rich and empowered Medici could be tied to Goliath who was overpowered by the man with hidden strength and intelligence. A statue of Hercules was later erected to sit beside David outside the Medici palace as a message that brute strength rightfully rules

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This all started because someone decided to cave and attempt to erase history. History is not for us to love or hate, but to learn from in order that we not repeat the mistakes of the past. So that we be better, wiser, and more prosperous than our fathers before us. Attempting to erase the past will only erase truth as well as our capacity to grapple with it and become wiser in order that we not repeat it.

America is founded upon certain principles. These principles are what Lincoln called the “sheet anchor of American Republicanism”. These principles, although we neglect to recognize it, are our “philosophical cause”, as Lincoln put it. In other words, they brought all other thoughts of America into being. In regimes past, you see, citizens were not free to dispute certain individual principles publicly or politically: it was illegal and punishable by death to go against the word of the representative body or the crown. America’s proclamation that individuals had certain inalienable rights, such as that of speech and demonstration, put an end to this understanding of rule. The Declaration of Independence thereby reversed the role of government and governed and made the ruling body subject to the words and orders of the people rather than vice versa. Because this “philosophical cause” gave weight and expression to all other ideas about American democracy and representative justice, Lincoln understood this philosophical cause as “entwining itself more closely about the HUMAN heart”. In other words, Liberty was something that we could all agree on. I argue that this should therefore be our spring board for civil discourse: it should be understood that this is what we all have in common.

What gave way to the Charlottesville “riots” is a demon that has been brooding in the heart of America and in Americans. It is a spirit much too maniacal to be considered “partisan”, as many have called it. I understand this demon as a depreciation of our capacity to grasp this common understanding of a “philosophical cause” which results in a neglect of an understanding of the common dignity of man. What follows from this understanding of the dignity of man is a certain sense of civility requisite for civil discourse and real self-government.We have lost this understanding, as we have lost what brings it into being. In order to understand our own dignity and the dignity of our fellow man, we have to understand, As Madison once told us, that all men are not angels, else there would be no need of civil government in the first place.

Our forgetting that men cannot become angels has brought us to Charlottesville, or at least the events that led to Charlottesville: the tearing down of General Lee’s statue. Why do we want to tear down monuments? Simply because we believe that we are better than those of the past merely by our existing in a time set apart from that of theirs. Because they can no longer defend themselves we tear them down in order to exalt ourselves. We do not do the due diligence of learning from them, and in turn learning of ourselves and educating our children in matters of right or wrong in order that they may rise to the level of wisdom and equality for good self-government, but rather we hide them from the truth because often the truth elicits some ugliness. We want to destroy all that is flawed in the world so our children do not witness it and we no longer have to bear it. We do this all the while neglecting to understand that we ourselves are flawed and the logical consequence of our destruction of the past and its monuments is a decimation of ourselves.

As for the technicalities of the Charlottesville tragedy, those who were protesting the tearing down of Lee’s statue had gotten a legal permit to exercise their first amendment rights from the local government. They had followed the proper regulations in order to exercise legal rights. We may dislike them, but their rally was lawful. Contrary to their position, the word went out for a counter-protest to occur which included groups from a different side of the political spectrum. What should have happened is that these two groups should have been kept miles apart. I do not understand why any local law enforcement agency would allow these two groups close proximity.

I do not wish to criticize either group, wrong as I think they each are. We have gotten into the habit of criticizing groups of people in this country, and that is very wrong. If we are to understand Liberty in order that we foster it we must begin to judge individuals with the dignity due to individuals. We must begin to understand that demonizing our opponents as if they are packs of wolves has gotten us nowhere, that both parties have suffered greatly from the onslaught lain at their doors by their opposition, and that justice and self-government, liberty and the safeguarding of individuals rights, is not a zero sum game. If one group loses, then we all lose. If you cut your neighbor down, then your conscience and sense of dignity suffers.

So how are we to understand one another? I am always apprehensive to write about contemporary politics. It is too ugly and complex, and therefore I refrain from passing judgment all too quickly. As Lincoln once said, “Better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”. I prefer beautiful things that lift people up to sad news that diminishes my respect for “this last best hope” for freedom.

So I turned to Moby Dick, as I always find myself doing.

“Men may seem detestable as joint stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such and grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence our divine equality!” 

A few paragraphs ago I pointed to history as a tool for teaching our children so that they may “rise to the level of equality requisite for self-government”. Although a peculiar phrase, I used it intentionally. I used it with my students just as my mentor Peter Schramm used it with myself and my fellow Ashbrooks. Melville and Peter could agree on this, I like to think: we are all born with a certain sense of dignity, being human and naturally free. We have great capacity and all the gifts that “radiate without end from God”; however, it is so very easy to slip up, to lose our privilege of practicing those rights which our forefathers have secured for us. I use the phrase “rising to the level of equality” because it is so easy to lose the privileges that come with the dignity that we are born with. Rising to equality means becoming strong and wise enough to make prudent choices that bolster our ability to practice freedom rather than making the choices that detract from the proper use of our freedom. Abuses of power and imprudent governance makes freedom falter just as we make the choice to limit our freedom when we commit injustices such as murder or theft. Although we like to believe that our natural dignity entitles us to certain privileges and freedoms, history teaches us otherwise. Millions of people before us have made mistakes in governing themselves and have lost the prosperity that their forebearers had worked so diligently to pass down. Although we like to believe freedom is promised, human history speaks to us of a perpetual endeavor not only to reach freedom, but to keep it. Benjamin Franklin famously declared that the founders had given us “A Republic, if you can keep it”. What Franklin, a student of history and a world traveller, understood was that it was much more difficult to keep the rights that our founding secured for us than it was to sign a document declaring that those rights were just.

But notice what Melville proscribes for the keeping of dignity. He claims that it is proprietous for good men to throw their “costliest robes” over the valor ruined. Although it is our impulse to rebuke the unjust, to point fingers and prove to the world that we are right when others are in the wrong, where has this gotten us? I hope and pray that we understand that it takes a community of robe throwers for men to rise to the level of equality and wisdom necessary to promote justice and the good. I pray that one day we will be wise enough to understand the blessings of union and the future felicity that compromise and selflessness have in store for those who can endure the pain of refraining from telling the entire world that they are right and the other side is wrong. I can promise you, that the world will not listen however loud you may proclaim.

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This statue of Lincoln was found vandalized on August 16th, in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. Let us not fight fire with fire. 

“You Can’t Die if You Don’t Give Up”

So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this way the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it. 


He was nineteen days shy of his sixty second birthday: prematurely old, multidiseased, mentally bewildered, delusional, slurred of speech, in exile from Cuba, from the Stream, unable to compose so much as one true sentence a day, or so he’d wept on a sofa in his living room. Is it any wonder the most imitated writer of the twentieth century rose sometime after seven o’clock that morning, moved past the master bedroom where his wife was sleeping, padded down the carpeted stairs, crossed the length of the living room to the kitchen, retrieved the key to the locked storeroom where the weapons were, went down to the basement, took shells from his ammo box, closed and relocked the door, came back upstairs, walked ten steps to the front-entry foyer, opened the foyer door, stepped inside, placed the butt of the gun on the linoleum tile, tore open the breech, slammed in the cartridges, snapped it shut, bent over, rested his forehead against the blue steel, and blew away his entire cranial vault with the double-barreled, 12-gauge Boss shotgun with which he once shot pigeons?

There are plenty of things for which you can criticize Ernest Hemingway. You can call him a coward for taking his own life, and you can point to Zelda Fitzgerald’s account of his making a pass at her in an alleyway one drunken night. Many have pointed out that his code-hero is simply an affirmation and vindication of his own machismo character, and many have argued that there is nothing creative about his work: that it is merely a retelling of events that indeed happened in Paris and in Pamplona. However, all this would be to miss the most important point of Hemingway’s contribution to American literature, and this would be to dismiss the aim of good writing.

Hemingway’s most widely read work, and perhaps his most tired, is The Old Man and the Sea. Of that work, Papa once said “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse.” Despite the criticism of his simplicity, Ernest Hemingway’s stories still endure because they touch what is all too human: failure in endeavor, and failure in self-redemption. Hemingway was able to produce work that was honest to his own life and his own vice, and this resonates with readers who are too weak to be honest with themselves about their own failures and their inability to white-wash those failures. Hemingway’s stories are the simplest of stories because they are the truest of stories, and they touch what is truest about ourselves; this is what most readers of Hemingway are too weak to confront, that his stories mimic the human fallen-ness that is too evident to all of us.

No story shows Hemingway’s confrontation and confession more so than The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Snows is the story of a man named Harry on safari in Africa with his rich wife. Harry is a writer who believes that he has become impotent as he has lived off of his wife’s wealth. Because he has become weakened by the life of luxury provided by his wife, when he becomes afflicted with gangrene in a cut on his leg he begins to distance himself from his beloved even blaming her for his demise as a writer and his belief that he “would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well”.

The story is a reflection on the life of a writer and his suffering; of his inability to express those truths that “Maybe you could never write… and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting”. What is striking is that Harry has given up: he believes that he is going to die and there is no fighting it. Meanwhile, his wife holds out hope for his survival, telling him “You can’t die if you don’t give up”. Harry responds “Where did you read that? You’re such a bloody fool”. He treats of his death as an imminently practical matter, whereas his wife looks to the metaphysical. While she asks “What have we done to have that happen to us?”, Harry responds “I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it”.

There are threads that run through this story and provide its depth. On one hand you confront the difficulties of marriage. Hemingway provides a power struggle between his code-hero husband and wife. There is the bickering about Harry’s purported “giving up” and the way in which his readiness for death will affect his wife. On a much deeper level, we see Harry bickering with himself through flashbacks, internally confronting his own insecurity and fears of death while providing false strength in regard to his impending death.

But what we receive through the depths of this text is some knowledge that what is most important is out of both Harry and his wife’s control. Although Harry believes that he is already dead, he has hope that is above and beyond him despite his recognition of that hope toward which he may grasp. Harry reflects, “He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones”. You see, just as Hemingway believed that his life has ended as he no longer had the ability to write the things that he once wrote, Harry believes that his life has ended because he has given up the opportunity to write by marrying his wife. What he doesn’t realize is that what he subconsciously confronts in his reflections throughout the story: that his life contains the properties of a life well lived, if he could just make good of these properties. Most readers rebuke Harry for beating up his wife, which is understandable, but my reading is that Harry’s verbal abuse of his wife stems from his inability to see good in himself. He verbally attacks her in order to confirm his control over his own life, despite his understanding all the while that he has lost control. What must be understood by Harry and Hemingway alike is that salvation is not to be found in fame and writing; that one cannot redeem himself through the product of efforts on this Earth, and that honor is something above and beyond the individual endeavor or accomplishment. Hemingway struggled with this his entire life, and Harry never approached it.

The story has a double edged ending. Harry lies in his cot after dinner with his wife as he drifts to sleep. He has a dream that he has been rescued. Harry ascends and sees the square top of Kilimanjaro, and “he knew that there was where he was going”. This recalls the opening description of Kilimanjaro as “the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai, the House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude”. However, Harry’s dream is interrupted as his wife wakes to the laughing of a Hyena and witnesses her husband dead in the night. Undoubtedly, Harry’s reflection points that he is assured that he is that leopard climbing toward the House of God. Nevertheless, the reality is not so. Helen wakes and is still haunted by her husband’s death and the cackling of the hyena that accompanies that death. The great question that the reader is left with is the same one that we all confront: does the man who acts viciously in times of despair reach the House of God, and is his vice pardoned in death?

Harry’s true failure is being like that leopard of whom no one knows what he is seeking. He reflects, “You kept from thinking and it was marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it”. Because Harry hides all that is internal for fear of being perceived weak, he neglects the opportunity to lead a life of honest. If Ernest Hemingway’s birthday warrants one lesson, it must be that we ought not worship false idols and sirens singing the psalms of temporal fulfillment. This is a lesson that we as Americans are in such deep need of, and it is fitting and proper that Papa provides this insight for all of us in which we often take for granted that which is most important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congressman Arrington: You’re right, George Washington did Set the Standard for Term Limits. But Here’s What you Forgot to Consider.

Congressmen Jodey Arrington and Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, were the first Members of Congress to jointly introduce bipartisan term limits legislation in the 115th Congress. The legislation would limit members of the U.S. House of Representatives to serving six two-year terms and members of the U.S. Senate to serving two six-year terms. In his piece in Tribtalk, a publication of the Texas Tribune, Arrington, Representative of Texas’ 19th district, investigates the topic of possible congressional term limits. He does so by paralleling congressional terms and the personal arguments set forth in George Washington’s “Farewell Address” for his refusal to run for reelection. He argues that Washington was a “selfless leader”, and we could use more of his kind in the nation’s capital today. He argues that Washington “understood that he needed to set a precedent that even presidents were — first and foremost — American citizens, no greater than anyone else”, and therefore to reaffirm that Congressmen are mere citizens, we should limit their propensity to hold political office for an unreasonable duration. Arrington attempts to accomplish two feats with his proposed bill: he wishes to stick up for democracy as a human good, and he touches on the issue that seems to plague America’s social state today, the large gap between the rich and the poor that makes America seem very undemocratic. The author’s thesis is that “Setting limits on the time politicians can serve in a particular office will not solve all the problems with Washington’s broken culture. However, I believe it will help achieve a much-needed, positive dynamic: more courage to solve the big problems for our country rather than congressional leaders planning their careers and protecting their longevity”. He provides shocking evidence that there is not much turnover in Congress, and eludes to the result of a more aristocratic ruling class wherein the representatives of the people are not checked by the interest of the people. 

However, Arrington confuses two things in his argument for his proposed bill. First, he ignores the natural differences between the executive office and Congress, and therefore does not do justice to Washington’s argument for precedent. And Second, he ignores what many of the other founders understood regarding term-limits and the political laxity that they may proliferate. The office of the President and the duty of a Congressman are very different. Even the differences between houses are very different. In order to Understand this difference all one needs to do is refer to Madison’s notes at the Federal Convention. But these differences between houses still exist today: the Senate is fewer in number and Senators serve longer terms. This is because senators are to play a counterbalancing role to the House. As for a more recent example, in Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, he reveals that he did not take the floor of the Senate until his second year in office because he was learning the ropes. He also reveals that this is decorum: most senators act accordingly. They do not introduce new legislation their first year because they still have much to learn including the wants of their constituents, and how best to further those wants. The goal of the Senator, as Madison points out in Federalist 10, is to serve as an “auxiliary filtration” for “factious passion”. He does so by checking his people and checking others in the nation’s capital in the complementary branch of congress. In other words, the Senator must understand both the government and the people at first. Then, he must understand what is reasonable and good for both in order to urge legislation that leads to a certain harmony between the people of the state and the people of the Union. The Senator is supposed to play a moderating and balancing act, and this takes artfulness and therefore time to master.

What Arrington ignores about Washington is that he did not mean to urge legislation limiting the term of a president, but rather that he was introducing a precedent that would moderate the people from appointing a Caesar. A precedent is different from a law because a law affords the government the authority to punish a transgressor whereas a precedent urges the people to honor a tradition. Washington had the political clout to urge an amendment limiting the terms of presidential office, but he did not do so. The reason was that Washington, like many of the founders, understood that mores and habits rather than laws were necessary for democracy and self-government. Although Arrington wishes to change the situation of congressional reelection, he is remiss in that he ignores what is at the root of reelection woes: low voter turnout and the tendency of the American people to let their political duty slip by the wayside. The bill that Arrington urges would reinforce bad political habits that the founders would scoff at: the habit of the government to rely upon laws alone for good government, and the habit of the people to clamor for laws because they wish to ignore the important and grueling work that is civic duty. Furthermore, Washington did not seek a third election because he did not want to become Caesar, but also very simply because he did not want to become president for a third term. He wanted to return to his family and his farm: he even writes to his wife Martha telling her so as early as 1775. Doubtless, Washington also understood that this was a time of fragility for American self-government and prudence would dictate that he not run again. He had no desire of making a law establishing a term limit that followed his conduct; however, he hoped that future presidents would be prudent enough to follow his political example on their own behest.

In addition to Washington’s disagreement with Arrington’s proposed legislation, various other framers disagrees with him. James Wilson and James Iredell, two early members of The Supreme Court, disagreed with term limits when the Anti-federalists would urge them. But what is most pressing is Alexander Hamilton’s argument in Federalist 72 regarding term limits. Although he is writing about presidential term limits, much of his argument applies unilaterally for representatives of the people. He writes that limiting terms would destroy the incentives for good conduct in office. He writes, “One ill effect of the exclusion would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior”. In other words, the public official would not only refuse to act well, but he might attempt to act poorly in spite of that government that he is supposed to serve. It is no wonder that rumors of Obama giving large sums of US aid to countries in the middle east like Syria and Iran surfaced directly before the presidential election: the people could not trust that he would do good because he had no reason to. If a congressman was not eligible for reelection what incentive would urge him to serve the public good? Hamilton writes, “Even the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds” would discourage a president from attempting to accomplish great public goods if he knew that power would change hands before he could conclude his endeavor. This is because he may become jealous of the fame that his predecessor would claim by concluding his project. Additionally, Hamilton argues that the potential of great men would be lost. If they could not aim so highly in public office, He argued, the would become “discontented ghosts”: they would not attempt to accomplish great things for their country because they would begin to believe that they could not due to arbitrary term limits.
In addition to the arguments of the Framers, the Heritage Foundation conducted a study in 2009 to track state-based term limits. They found that there was little change in the efficiency of state governments who instituted term limits for state representatives. The amount of spending did not decrease, nor did the approval ratings of the representatives: everything remained virtually the same. The fact of the matter is that we have more to lose if ambition cannot be exercised in a controlled fashion, over a large period of time, and to our benefit, by our representatives. Hamilton even argues that the way in which we will get Caesars in the presidential office is if great men are withheld from running for another term and the people love them enough to follow them. Their spite for the government that does not serve the interests of the people by putting good men at the helm may be transferred to the people who love them. Although Arrington is right to point to Congress and its operation as a large problem with our nation’s governance, Congressional term limits do not unlock the full potential of citizens hoping to become representatives of the people by providing proper incentives for Congressmen. Additionally, term limits do not provide helpful incentives for checking the ambition of those in office, especially in their later terms. Nor do term limits enlarge civic engagement or foster a thriving political culture. And finally, he gets Washington and the rest of the Founders wrong in his understanding of term limits. Congressman Arrington: If you are interested in arguing for term limits, then your best bet is to rely upon the words of the Anti-Federalists, not of Washington. 

 

Because you made it all the way to the end: Here’s my favorite painting of George Washington! It is by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and entitled “The American Cincinnatus”

Image result for george washington cincinnatus

Green Jobs, Peace and Justice, and The Two Angels that Kissed at the DNC

“We are doing everything we can to bring the same expertise that we brought to taking down the coal industry and coal-fired power in this country to taking on gas in the same way … to ensure that we’re moving to a 100% clean energy future.”

I heard upon the second day of the Democratic National Convention two angels happened to kiss upon the stage: their names Green and Jobs. I too believe that carbon emissions pose a huge threat to our health; however, I am also of the belief that creating government jobs does nothing to decrease our effect on the environment.

My belief is that in order to arrest the damage done by green house gasses we would have to shut down thousands of plants, outlaw millions of careers, and put in peril hundreds of thousands of families. We would have to dump billions of taxpayer dollars into government research that yielded little result in order to ameliorate the multitude of practical and social problems that cutting back on carbon emissions had created, but the Clinton Campaign cannot say that.

Whenever you have the opportunity to both reach justice and ensure tranquility, you have hit the political lottery. The reason being that citizens float through life never seeing one occurring alongside the other. The truth is, people see problems. The American people are not inept, and they are not yet entirely alienated from reality. The people want solutions, but they can’t handle the truth, and they won’t pay the cost for those solutions. If the people were told that in order to cut Carbon Emissions they would have to leave families broken and destitute and taxes across the board would have to be raised in order to form another bureaucracy, they certainly wouldn’t be as keen on environmental reform. However, when you ask a man if he is in favor of a clean energy future, he is a fool if he says no.

Upon observing democracy in ancient Athens, Thucydides noted that there were three political motivators for all citizens alike: fear, honor, and profit. In posing the solution of creating green jobs, the Clinton campaign was able to touch all three aspects of political motivation. Fear because carbon emissions are scary, and the world ending is bad. Honor because human beings are truly drawn toward being part of the solution to a problem that plagues the masses. And profit because providing a solution that bolsters the prosperity of the polis is win-win.

But this is all politics, and this is a shell of real rhetoric. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric he claims, “Rhetoric is useful because things which are true and things which are just are by nature stronger than their contraries. So if the decisions are not made as they ought to be, the audience must fail because of themselves; and this deserves reproach. Again it is not easy for a man to persuade some people even if he uses the most accurate science, for scientific arguments are for the sake of instruction”. For all Aristotle says throughout his poetics, he constantly recognizes this essential fact: that the true does surface, and men being rational and knowledge loving by their very nature will seek and find truth. In other words, Aristotle believed that pandering was unnatural and therefore was not true rhetoric. Rhetoric, although dealing with persuasion, is bound to the true and the just because the rhetor was bound to his audience, and his audience is always rational and more inclined to the beautiful than the ugly.

Aristotle also lays naked the purpose for his teaching rhetoric. He states, “The current authors who compiled works on rhetoric have contributed but a small part of this art; for only persuasive techniques are subjects of the art of rhetoric, while all other matters are merely accessories. But these writers say nothing about enthymemes (truncated logic), which are indeed the framework of persuasion; instead they busy themselves with matters most of which lie outside the subject”. All men who had been teaching rhetoric until his time had not been truly studying rhetoric. Because they simply wanted to learn how to defend themselves with words and attack others in courts of law, they fell short according to Aristotle. Because they were looking only at that which was accessory to true persuasion, they would not have anything to say about the true or the good, but only about given cases in which they had prefabricated strategies to get around the minds of men. In other words, they taught to avoid truth rather than pursue it. Aristotle understood that this was not the study of the art of rhetoric because the art of rhetoric taught men to reason in any given case, not simply to present an argument.

In an era of teleprompters and soundbites, it may be useful for our elected officials to understand the purpose of speech. For rhetoric, as reason, is not simply about besting one’s opponent in argument. Neither is the essence of rhetoric about providing answers or getting elected. The purpose of rhetoric is to reason towards the true in any given scenario. Isn’t this something we would like to see our executive cultivate the capacity to perform?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Horrible History of Progress and Abortion

Abortion has never been about equality.

On Monday The Supreme Court struck down a Texas law requiring abortion clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers and mandating that physicians performing abortions maintain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles as an “undue burden” to a woman attempting to terminate her pregnancy. The opinion of the court delivered by Justice Breyer ruled that the state violated “a woman’s right to decide to have an abortion and consequently a provision of law is constitutionally invalid if the ‘purpose or effect’ of the provision ‘is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion'”. The opinion delivered by Breyer also states, “We conclude that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes. Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access, and each violates the Federal Constitution.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was heralded for putting to death the myth that outlawing abortion limits its danger, and later remarked that the decision of Roe v. Wade aimed to limit “undesirables… populations that we don’t want to have too many of”. How did such a caring and amiable woman arrive at such rhetoric? Can both statements be considered consistent with the preservation of liberty and the bolstering of choice? One major crux of abortion is that we do not understand its history, and this is why we do not understand Ginsberg’s quote regarding the purpose of Roe v. Wade. Abortion legislation was not fashioned to liberate women, nor from the outset was it considered a choice that they had the right to make.

In 1912 a fellow Progressive named Scott Nearing published a little book entitled The Super Race, in which he outlined his understanding of the relationship between progress and politics. Rexford Tugwell, member of FDR’s Brains Trust, and close friend to the president, later summed up his understanding of Progressivism as that espoused by Nearing in his book. In the first chapter Nearing laments that as a boy he “fully believed that the great achievements of the world were in the past”. However, his lamentation is reconciled as he comes to the realization “that the future may erect the perfected structure of a higher civilization”. His statement not only identified the aim of Progressive politics of the past, but would prove the purpose of Progressive policy for years to come.

Nearing states, “The past worked with things: the future, rising higher in the scale of civilization, must work with men- with the plastic, living clay of humanity”. To Nearing human beings were considered clay and the state would become the God that gave them shape. Liberty was seen as an impediment to reaching what the early Progressives understood as the “ethical ideal”; the true reason for which government was instituted among men. The initial goal of Progressivism was to mold a nobler man, and this could only be accomplished through the establishment of a nobler society to rear that man; however, in order to create a nobler society it was necessary to diminish the influence of lowest common denominator. The terms “unfit” and “moral” or “intellectual imbecile” were adopted to identify those citizens who acted as impediments to the ideal. Through government grants reformatories began to surface in order to rule such persons while facilitating their care and ridding the fit of the burden. In 1912 Dr. Henry Richard Seager, professor of political economy at Columbia and proponent of the minimum wage states, “One part of the program with reference to those who are defective from birth is to prevent that monstrous crime against future generations involved in permitting them to become the fathers and mothers of children who must suffer under the same handicap. If we are to maintain a race that is to be made up of capable, efficient, and independent individuals and family groups we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization of the congenially defective. Michigan has just passed an act requiring sterilization of congenial idiots”. Not only was Michigan establishing these laws, but other states as well. It is little known that America adopted sterilization and eugenic policies prior to Germany. The factors of identification as “congenial idiot”, “defective”, and “unfit”, were income, unemployment, intemperance (alcoholism), and even those conceiving children out of wedlock. Abortion was not initially intended to liberate the destitute from their missteps, but rather to confine their toxic effect on the State at large. Nearing would propose what he understood as yet a more effective alternative than isolation and sterilization: eugenics.

In his book, Nearing identifies “The science of Eugenics treats of those forces which, through the biologic processes of heredity, may be relied upon to provide the inherited qualities of the Super Race. The science of Social Adjustment treats of those forces which, through the modification of social institutions, may be relied upon to provide a congenial environment for the Super Race”. The science of Eugenics, or “the treating of biologic forces” was one piece to the puzzle of establishing a greater society, the other piece was institutional modification of individual behavior. One part of Eugenics dealt with the sterilization of unfit individuals who were relegated from society and resided in reformatories, another part dealt with the ridding those who had already conceived burdensome unborn children that they were unfit to properly rear. Nearing later defines the fields of eugenics. He states, “There are two fields in which eugenics may be applied- the first, Negative, the second, Positive. Through the establishment of Negative Eugenics the unfit will be restrained from mating and perpetuating their unfitness in the future. Through Positive Eugenics the fit may be induced to mate, and by combining their fitness in their offspring, to raise up each new generation out of the flower of the old”. The goal of Progressivism was never to perpetuate equality, nor was it to provide diversity. The goal of Progressive policy was to establish a prominent class and create laws for the advancement of that class. Progressive policy was from the very beginning discriminatory, but it discriminated not as it now does. From the outset Progressivism aimed at eliminating the least capable rather than raising them up.

The Progressive movement began in the late 1800’s as many Americans interested in the study of Political Science began to study in Germany. America had few doctoral programs, and at the time traveling to Germany to study was a liberating and lucrative experience. Thus commenced the German University Connection that would foster a pipeline of both thought and institutional arrangement. Among the men who traveled to Germany to seek their higher education were Woodrow Wilson, Rexford Tugwell, Richard T. Ely, John Dewey, and many who would later constitute Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Brains Trust”. Among those educated in Germany were the founders of the Socialist Party of America. Among the Institutions established by these minds are institutions that continue to govern higher education today, namely The American Political Science Association, The American Economic Association, the American Association for Sociology, and many more. Those who constituted the German University Connection also began to establish new universities as well as occupy existing ones. One such University that was thus established is Johns Hopkins University. One that was thus constituted was the University of Wisconsin. Robert La Follette, governor of Wisconsin during FDR’s presidency, would proclaim that “Wisconsin is doing for America what Germany is doing for the World”. This was of course during the passing of policy which would later establish the foundation of Nazi Germany.

Needless to say, not only did these students of German thought bring German methods, but also a German philosophy. This school of thought was referred to by its students as The German Historical School. The reason being their belief in the historical development and enlightenment of the individual. Thus, they believed that each society or collective group of men occupied a certain stage of enlightenment, and it was the duty of the state to foster that enlightenment and arrive at a higher plane of development. All government policy and action, therefore, would be aimed at unleashing the collective will of the people towards their highest possible “moral, spiritual, and intellectual development” (Richard T. Ely’s words). Charles Merriam, professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, catalogs the shift of the American understanding of rights in 1920 in his book Recent Tendencies. He writes, “The origin of the state is regarded, not as the result of a deliberate agreement among men (social compact), but as the result of historical development, instinctive rather than conscious; and rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law… It is the state that makes liberty possible, determines what its limits shall be, guarentees and protects it… (men) obtain liberty only through the organization of political institutions. The state does not take away from civil liberty, but is the creator of liberty”. This is why such men referred to themselves as progressives: they were for human progress. In their belief, man had arisen from the dirt, and he had nothing that was natural and inalienable to his person. But if man possessed no right that cannot be severed from his person, and “the state is the creator of liberty”, what becomes of self-government? Further, if man holds no inherent right to his own life, is there anything barring the disposing of, not only an unborn life, but a living one, for the sake of progress?

Merriam provides the answer, “It is denied that any limit can be set to governmental activity, and the contention is made that ‘each function must rest on its own utilitarian basis’… The new position is a mean between socialism and extreme individualism”. The state, as the avowed creator of liberty, is limitless in regards to what it can and cannot do in order to expand or restrict that liberty. When Merriam claims that the functions of civil government rest on a utilitarian basis, he means that the governed may have to suffer for the sake of the advancement of the regime, and there are no barriers to the suffering of the governed. Without the recognition of the natural rights of individuals, and therefore no recognition of the limits on the actions of government, a people cannot have true equality under the law. Individuals would be evaluated and treated based on their inherent ability to affect the regime in a positive or negative way. But how would progressives ultimately go on to achieve the great project of liberation through advancement and enlightenment?

Merriam goes on to state, “Liberty, moreover, is not a right equally enjoyed by all. It is dependent upon the degree of civilization reached by the given people, and increases as this advances. The idea that liberty is a natural right is abandoned, and the inseparable connection between political liberty and political capacity are strongly emphasized. After an examination of the principle of nationality, and the characteristic qualities of various nations or races, the conclusion is drawn that the Teutonic nations are particularly endowed with political capacity”. When the principle that individuals possess an inalienable right to life is abandoned, a regime must recourse to evaluating individuals on a purely discriminatory basis. When any human right to life is marginalized, all human rights are at the disposal of the ruling few. Merriam later states, “In the days of the (American) Revolution, it was thought that the end of the political society is to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens, and beyond this nothing more. The duty of the state was summed up in the protection of individual rights, in harmony with the individualist character of the philosophy of that day. In the theory of Lieber (German Political Scientist who arrived in America in 1827), this idea was broadened out, and as he phrased it, the duty of the state is to do for man: first, what he cannot do alone; second, what he ought not do alone; and third, what he will not do alone”. This understanding of the American regime was adopted by Wilson as he asserted that the state exists for “mutual aid and self-development”, and later affirmed by FDR in his urge for the adoption of a second bill of rights in 1944. It is questionable today whether rights as they are broadened out can still be held self evident and sacred. This is where we now find ourselves and whither we are tending.

Is it prudent to expand our sacred rights to encompass the right to “undue burden”? In Federalist 62, James Madison writes, “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood”. Perhaps as our rights expand, as do the laws necessary to provide those expansive rights, the observance and appreciation for that which constitutes us a free people may diminish. Perhaps as we strengthen our reliance on a power external to ourselves to eliminate our several burdens we eliminate our future prospects for liberty and therefore genuine prosperity. Perhaps as we deliver our fates to the hands of our rulers our lives and our livelihoods becomes something to be molded, for better or for worse.

 

 

 

What started the party of democracy, and what the party of democracy started.

The election of 1800 was a hallmark not only in the history of America, but in the history of humanity. It proves fashionable, even today, to mark the popular election as “the revolution of 1800”; however, in some sense it in fact proved the antithesis of revolution. For the first time in human history a man (Thomas Jefferson) of an opposing party ousted the party in power sans forceful exertion or retaliation. What would ensue is history. One long time ago Winston Churchill claimed that “history is written by the victors”, and fittingly we Americans seem to have at least tacitly dismissed the essential lesson in self-government taught on the occasion by the loser, John Adams.

Often times we Americans learn greater lessons in civic virtue from what a statesman refrains from doing rather than what he does. Like Washington and Cincinnatus before him, Adams set a precedent regarding popular government that molds our several opinions regarding election. But what would occur with popular government therefrom is a question best left to the Democratic party.

We are all familiar with Jefferson’s great Louisiana purchase, and we Americans reap the benefit of Jefferson’s expediency without grappling with the Constitutional questions that arose for the sake of our prosperity. This would be telling of the story of the Democratic party, and Abraham Lincoln would later see this as a grave danger. It is difficult to fault Jefferson given our continued promise of Manifest Destiny produced through his statesmanship; however, it is evident that Jefferson and the Democratic party did depart from the seminal virtue espoused by the likes of Adams and Washington, for better or for worse. Although the pen of those old American words that Lincoln would later claim, “clears the path for allgives hope to alland by consequence, enterprise, and industry, to all”, Jefferson was an avid lover of democracy, and favored unleashing it rather than restraining it. Rather than bowing to a power outside of himself to restrict and dictate his action as executive, Jefferson saw the public good and he saw the clear path to its fulfillment. This would be the mantra that dictated the Democratic party: unrestrained action for the purpose of propelling the public welfare.

In 1829, the favorite son of the Democratic party was elected executive: Andrew Jackson. My personal favorite when it comes to the fables of Jackson is his caning of two assassins who entered the white house at a very ripe old age late in his presidency. The brutality delivered by Jackson was so severe that the guards recoursed to pulling Jackson off of the final assassin after his cohort had fled. If this fable is but myth, it at least encompasses the character of Jackson: he was a stern and severe man when pushed, politically or otherwise. What best elucidates this character is the action that ensued during the last year of Jackson’s first term as executive: the executive veto of the national bank, despite the fact that it had been judicially approved. The question arose: does the executive have the right not to observe, or even overrule, Constitutional guidelines professed by the supreme court? King Andrew, as he was and is often called, escaped the scene unscathed. He escaped public approbation, which seems all too common of the Democrats of our day. For Lincoln, this occurrence would color his understanding of judicial finality, and he would later recur to the episode in his debate with Stephen Douglas regarding the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. Lincoln’s conclusion also applies to the lesson taught by John Adams in his defeat: to what extent should a man accept defeat? should he lie down if he is defeated when he is in the right?

Lincoln’s career and conduct traces this question of observance of law and regard for authority. Alexis de Tocqueville once remarked that “Americans have a restive regard of authority”. This proves as true today as when he penned it in the 1830’s. Lincoln would fashion his life as an answer to the question of rebellion in more ways than just one. Quite early in his career Lincoln urged a “firm adherence to the law”, but then he later broke the precedent set by the 1850 compromise, and arguably acted unconstitutionally by suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus. To Lincoln, the touchstone for this age old question, the very question we face today, had to do with the document penned by Jefferson in ’76. Lincoln claimed, “There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart”. That something for Lincoln were the principles declared in the first paragraph of the Declaration, and ensconced by the silver frame that protected it, the Constitution. Any law ulterior to the purposes of liberty, justice, and equality (at least to eat the bread earned from the sweat of one’s brow), were destructive to the Manifest Destiny that both Jefferson and Jackson, and all good Democrats wish to advance. To Lincoln all such laws, despite the opportunity of gaining the power necessary to bolster the welfare of the state and affirm the sentiments of the executive, would prove stumbling blocks to sustained prosperity. Without a firm adherence to those things that unite us all, those things entwining closely to all of our human hearts and pulling them together, there can be no true diversity, no true equality, and subsequently, no true prosperity. Unless we as a people urge the recognition of an objective basis for morality, there can be no true democracy: that basis must be the principles which set us apart from all regimes in the history of the world prior to 1800. When the day comes that the cords entwining my heart to those of my fellow citizens’ are severed, I, like Lincoln, may have to chop a limb from the Constitution to save its life. But for the time being, I will remain a law abiding citizen. I will pledge as do all of our elected officials to uphold the Constitution and the principles that prop her up because I have hope that we still hold those truths self-evident.