Sunday, March 25, 2018

“Could You Pass a Civics Test?”

"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze

            The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines civics as “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works.” Civics was taught in both public and private schools for decades, but appears to have dropped off the radar screen in recent years. Sadly, the general public seems to be fairly deficient in knowledge of our government, how it works and our history. Jesse Watters on Fox News in a segment called “Watters’ World’ for years interviewed people on the street, asking very basic questions like “Which happened first- the American Revolution or the Civil War?” As hard as this may be to believe, some people got this one wrong. Thomas Jefferson maintained that being an educated citizen, well informed on the important topics of the day was critical in keeping our republic functioning. He would be stunned that many people today do not know even the most basic things which he and the other Founding Fathers helped put in place to form the country and governmental system we enjoy. Here are five “test” questions to determine if you could pass a civics test (answers at the end):

1)      What second war did America fight against England, after the American Revolution?

2)      Who were the first three Presidents of the United States?

3)      During what years was the American Civil War fought?

4)      Who was the longest serving U.S. President?

5)      What transaction, arranged under Thomas Jefferson, doubled the size of the United States?

            Understanding the important events in our history is just one part of being a well-informed citizen. Knowing how our government works is equally important. As Watters revealed on his television segment, many Americans don’t know the most basic things which helped to form the foundation for our republic. Some people do not know that the U.S. Constitution- not the Declaration of Independence- forms the framework for our democracy. If people don’t know what the basic founding documents stand for, how can they hope to successfully navigate the twists and turns of modern society, especially if they are confronted with a legal challenge of some sort?

            Some people today when they think of “Civics” feel they’re ranking their favorite type of Honda. With the multitude of electronic diversions- video games, cell phones, I-pads and the internet, it is no wonder that many young people (those under the age of 25) have chosen to spend more time watching or engaging with their favorite toy rather than learning about the system of government and its history which now allows them to enjoy those same pleasures. Many millions in North Korea would likely be thrilled to have access to those diversions, but are prevented from doing so by their government.

            It is ironic that some of the best informed people in America are newly formed citizens. A quick look at sample questions on the citizenship exam shows that those who aspire to become citizens must understand quite a bit about our government and our heritage. It’s a good bet that many of those people interviewed by Jesse Watters on the street would fail this same test. It is perhaps even more shocking that a sizable percentage of kids graduating from high schools across America would also get low marks on this exam. This is both sad and disturbing, because many of them take for granted what millions of people yearn for coming to this nation from around the world, to be part of this dream we call America.

ANSWERS: 1) The War of 1812, 2) George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, 3) 1861- 1865, 4) Franklin D. Roosevelt (elected to four terms, served just over three; a later Amendment to the Constitution allowed only two terms for all Presidents), 5) the Louisiana Purchase.

Monday, March 19, 2018

“Which City is Truly America’s Cradle of Liberty- Boston or Philadelphia?”

Historians are adept at picking critical events which change the course of nations. With each succeeding decade, they get the benefit of a longer perspective to judge which events can be deemed the most important in the heritage of a country. With respect to U.S. history, there has been a long-standing debate regarding which city- Boston or Philadelphia- warrants the title “cradle of liberty”. The discussion continues today and this author will attempt to address the issues and events worth considering in making an accurate judgment.

The Boston Massacre

As this is an historical discussion, a look at Webster’s dictionary (created in 1806) is in order. The definition for cradle is: “the earliest period of life; infancy.” Using this definition, one is tempted to label Boston as the true cradle of the American Revolution, as the first rumblings for independence and the initial battles occurred in or around that city. The Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770 was the first recognized bloodshed of the revolution, five colonists killed by gunfire from British soldiers stationed in front of the Old State House in Boston. This event sent shock waves through the colonies, furthered by extensive propaganda created by patriots like Paul Revere and others.

The Boston Tea Party
Yet the stirrings of discontent actually predated this notorious event by more than five years. In Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers, historian and Alexander Hamilton scholar Michael E. Newton mentions the Sugar Act of 1764 imposed by England upon her thirteen American colonies as the first event which raised tensions among the colonists. The colonial response was so overwhelming; the Sugar Act was quickly repealed. Many in New England were among the first to strongly oppose ‘taxation without representation’, exacerbated by the Stamp Act of 1765, which heightened the discord developing. Rhode Island quickly denounced the Stamp Act as unconstitutional. England imposed other Acts upon her colonies in subsequent years to help pay for the Seven Years War (French and Indian War) which had drained their Treasury. These Acts helped to fan the flames already burning as colonists resented having money taken out of their pockets without being granted a voice in Parliament. The Tea Act of 1773 brought tensions to a boil, resulting in open civil disobedience.

 The Boston Tea Party occurred on December 15, 1773 as a protest against the recently imposed Tea Act. Although the terms of the Act actually made tea more affordable for the colonists, they resented the imposition of ANY tax, fee or surcharge without having a say in its passage. In addition, many colonial merchants who dealt with tea resented the monopoly given to the East India Company by England. The Boston Tea Party marked a new level of colonial resistance to British authority. That her subjects would openly resist England’s governmental authority was shocking to King George III and many of his supporters in Parliament. The fact that this event occurred in Boston lends additional weight to that city’s claim to being the cradle of liberty in the early days leading up to the American Revolution.

The Battle of Lexington
Just 16 months after the Boston Tea Party angry colonists clashed with British soldiers at the Battles of Lexington and Concord outside Boston on April 19th, 1775. The preparations for this conflict were proclaimed loudly by Boston patriot Paul Revere, a strong opponent of overweening British authority. This was the first armed conflict involving a standing British army and colonial militia; most historians regard these battles as the initiation of the American Revolution. John Adams of Massachusetts looked back 43 years later in 1818 and said that the revolution began in the minds and hearts of the American people. Like Bostonians and others around Massachusetts, he was among the earliest to call for a change in the relationship that existed between England and her American colonies.

The First Continental Congress in Philadelphia
While the aforementioned events constitute a strong argument that Boston was the cradle of the revolution, some scholars maintain that Philadelphia can reasonably claim that title. The First (1774) and Second Continental Congress (1775) met in Philadelphia. These governing bodies were the forerunners of the United States Congress that we know today. The Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. Eleven years later delegates met in that same city to revise the ineffective Articles of Confederation, the document that loosely held together the union. Their efforts resulted in the U.S. Constitution, recognized by historians as the foundation for our democratic republic. The Constitution can also be considered the conception of our republic, as it was the first document that bonded together the loosely aligned colonies into a cohesive framework we know today.

The Declaration of Independence
The arguments for both of these cities are worthwhile for consideration, but perhaps we should instead focus on the various perspectives regarding the word “cradle”. Clearly the first rumblings for independence came from Boston and vicinity, but the “infancy” of our republic has its roots in Philadelphia with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Regardless of which city you favor, one can sense the presence of those patriots and the importance of their efforts as you walk near the Old State House in Boston and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. After 243 years, scholars, historians and regular citizens may be tempted to rate this contest as a tie- giving equal ranking to both Boston and Philadelphia as the cradle of the revolution. It is this historian’s view that an equal ranking does justice to both cities, recognizing the importance each site played in creating the nation we know today, the rights we enjoy and the freedoms we dearly protect.

The United States Constitution
Independence Hall in Philadelphia

Monday, March 12, 2018

Why is James Buchanan Considered One of Our Worst Presidents?

James Buchanan was the 15th President of the United States. He was born near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania and lived much of his life in nearby Lancaster. He was the only Chief Executive from the Keystone State and the only one who remained a lifelong bachelor. Despite his local roots, many people in the Brandywine Valley outside Philadelphia don’t know much about him. Coming into office just before Abraham Lincoln, one might understand why his place in American history has been diminished versus that of his successor, who is regularly ranked by historians among our greatest Presidents. Understanding Buchanan’s life and times will help people to better comprehend his part in the sweep of American history and the most cataclysmic event which helped shape it: the Civil War.

James Buchanan

Buchanan came into this world on April 23, 1791; he would be the last U.S. President born in the 18th century. He graduated with honors from Dickinson College in 1809, the year his Presidential successor was born, later training as an attorney in Lancaster. Buchanan was admitted to the bar in 1812. The conflict with England that year was something he initially opposed, but when British troops attacked Washington, D.C., he enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia, positioned in Henry Shippen’s Company, 1st Brigade and marched to defend the capital. Buchanan was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Federalist and served from 1814- 1816. Later when the Federalist Party collapsed, he aligned himself with supporters of Andrew Jackson, becoming a Democrat. He was subsequently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served for a decade, from 1821- 1831. Like many others who aspired to the highest office in the land, he prepared himself over the years in various positions, becoming Minister to Russia under Jackson from 1832- 1833, a Senator from 1834- 1845, U.S. Secretary of State under President James Polk from 1845- 1849 and later Minister to England under President Franklin Pierce.

Unlike most other Presidents, his lasting impact on our nation came from one of his previous jobs. As Secretary of State under Polk, he helped negotiate the Oregon Treaty and the one which ended the Mexican-American War, the results of which added an enormous amount of territory and natural resources to the United States. These two actions doubled the size of the nation and helped propel America through the Industrial Revolution to become a powerhouse among world economies. Discoveries of vast new deposits of iron ore, chromite, copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver helped to drive westward expansion, the development of new technologies and industries and led the nation to the top tier of global players. Interestingly, like Polk, Buchanan is one of the few U.S. Presidents who kept a promise to run for only one term.

Buchanan's Cabinet
Buchanan’s time in the White House (1857- 1861) did not distinguish him as one of America’s gifted statesmen. Beset by serious problems related to the spread of slavery as he took office, including the horrific slaughter of people in Kansas, he knew the issue would be a critical one impacting his Administration. Yet the experienced lawyer- trained in making insightful arguments- could not come up with a coherent position on slavery to satisfy his critics or even himself. Personally opposed to slavery, he reportedly purchased slaves in the South and later released them to freedom. Yet within days of his taking office, the Supreme Court released their decision in the Dred Scott case, which held that slaves had no rights and that slavery was rooted in the Constitution and could not be legislated out of existence. Buchanan not only supported this decision, scholars feel there is some evidence that he actually helped Chief Justice Roger Tawney to craft it, which would later be overturned and regarded by historians as the worst ever produced by the U.S. judicial system. The Dred Scott decision infuriated abolitionists and millions of Northerners personally opposed to slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act- which mandated that escaped slaves be returned to their owners and compelled people to assist in their capture- was also a highly controversial law which Buchanan supported. So why did a talented attorney with wide ranging political experience not do something to help end the scourge of slavery which was tearing the nation apart under his Presidency? The answer may lie in the highly turbulent times in which he lived.

Dred Scott
To people living in the 21st century, the merits of slavery are not even worth considering. It is now viewed as a horrible stain on our country and the human psyche. That people could treat other human beings as mere chattel is anathema to nearly everyone in modern society. Yet slavery was accepted by the Founding Fathers as an unpleasant reality. If they had insisted on abolishing it when crafting the U.S. Constitution, that document may never have been ratified and our nation may never have come into existence. Numerous laws were passed- from the Missouri Compromise in 1820 to the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act to help tamp down the flames ignited by slavery which were surging across America. Yet they grew higher and burned more fiercely with each succeeding year. Southern plantation owners considered slavery a critical tool that allowed their businesses to thrive- and felt any laws that curtailed slavery were a direct threat to their economic well-being. Extreme views existed on both sides, leading politicians to fumble for temporary relief from the crisis. Our government moves forward slowly, by incremental changes which generally are intended to help improve the rights of citizens. Sometimes laws are enacted and decisions are made which not only harm people, they cause enormous tension and conflict which undermine the very stability of that system, making the situation worse. Such was the state of American society in the late 1850s when Buchanan took office.

Buchanan could and should have been much more adept at handling the problem of slavery. Instead he appeared to side most often with slave owners, as noted in his Third Annual Message to Congress in 1859: “I cordially congratulate… the final settlement by the Supreme Court of the United States of the question of slavery in the Territories… The right has been established of every citizen to take his property of any kind, including slaves, into the common Territories…” This message was delivered after the events at Harper’s Ferry shocked the nation, when John Brown attempted to take over the Federal arsenal and start a war against slave owners. Some insights on this dilemma might come from considering Buchanan’s ‘home turf.’ His home in Lancaster County was not far from the Mason-Dixon Line, close to Maryland, where the practice was widely accepted. In his final State of the Union Address in December 1860, Buchanan seemed to not only side with slave owners, he exacerbated the problem by explicitly stating that the issue was not slavery itself, but those who opposed slavery by voicing their opinions. He felt that opponents of slavery made the problem worse, yet he offered no solutions. “The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects.” Just over two weeks later, South Carolina seceded from the Union; several other states followed suit and formed the Confederacy in February 1861. On April 12th of that year, rebels fired upon the Federal installation at Fort Sumter, starting the most disastrous war in American history.

Buchanan is today ranked among the worst Presidents in U.S. history. In several polls of historians, including ones conducted by the Wall Street Journal in 2000 and 2005, he is ranked near the bottom of the group. Why? Because he did almost nothing to resolve the enormous problem of slavery plaguing the nation under his tenure in office. He also did not make a cohesive argument against secession, saying that the government was powerless to prevent it. Even though he attempted to relieve the U.S. soldiers at Fort Sumter surrounded by rebel forces with a ship bringing supplies, he let the vessel sail unarmed into Confederate territory, where it was fired upon and forced to turn back. The skilled attorney with wide ranging experience in world affairs could not make a strong rationale for its curtailment, took no steps to ameliorate the situation and did nothing to prevent the fracturing of the Union as he was about to leave office. All Presidents are considered not only the political, but the ‘moral’ leaders of our country. When they fail to take a firm stance to correct troubling situations, the problems generally get worse. Such was the case with Buchanan, the gifted statesman who could not- or at least would not- take effective action against the scourge which nearly destroyed America.

Wheatland - Buchanan's Home
Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is called Wheatland. It is only a 40-minute drive northwest from Kennett Square. You can go there today and take a tour of the lovely Federal style red brick house which holds numerous period furnishings from the mid-late 19th century. His birthplace is memorialized with a monument at James Buchanan State Park in Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, south of Harrisburg. Buchanan died on June 1, 1868 at the age of 77 in his home, telling a friend the day before that he felt history would vindicate him and judge his decisions to be the right ones for the country. That hasn’t happened, but fittingly, just over a month after his passing, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, granting equal rights and protection under the law to all- including former slaves. Perhaps someday historians and citizens alike will come to better understand this highly tumultuous period in American history, what might have been done to resolve its many problems and how that critical time shaped the world we know today.