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29 June 2011

"small land holders are the most precious"

One text always leads to another. As I continue my efforts to comprehend the incomprehensible, to probe into the foundations of the hyper-conservatism of the present American political landscape, I set out to peruse a classic text: Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (1962). The text was originally published as Liberalismus (1927) and initially the English translation was titled The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth, but Mises sought to "reclaim" the term liberal from those he regarded as socialists, and so the present title. I'm reading the etext edition from the Online Library of Liberty.

After the amusing Introduction, the meat of the argument begins with a chapter titled "Property". There Mises offers:
The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production (for in regard to commodities ready for consumption, private ownership is a matter of course and is not disputed even by the socialists and communists). All the other demands of liberalism result from this fundamental demand.
Such a yoking of notions of freedom and liberty to notions of private property immediately brings to my recall Charles A Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). Simultaneously, I think of Thomas Jefferson and his celebration of the Yeoman farmer as the backbone of American self-government.

Consequently, I find myself reading a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison from Fontainebleau outside of Paris, France. Jefferson wrote a nine where he meant to write an eight, and so the letter appears in volume 8 rather than volume 4 of Paul Leicester Ford, The Works of Thomas Jefferson (1904-5). As with the works of Mises, the Online Library of Liberty has a digitized and searchable edition. Here is the complete letter, as published there.
Dear Sir,—

Seven o’clock, and retired to my fireside, I have determined to enter into conversation with you. This is a village of about 5000 inhabitants when the court is not here & 20,000 when they are, occupying a valley thro’ which runs a brook and on each side of it a ridge of small mountains most of which are naked rock. The King comes here, in the fall always, to hunt. His court attend him, as do also the foreign diplomatic corps. But as this is not indispensably required & my finances do not admit the expense of a continued residence here, I propose to come occasionally to attend the King’s levees, returning again to Paris, distant 40 miles. This being the first trip I set out yesterday morning to take a view of the place. For this purpose I shaped my course towards the highest of the mountains in sight, to the top of which was about a league. As soon as I had got clear of the town I fell in with a poor woman walking at the same rate with myself & going the same course. Wishing to know the condition of the laboring poor I entered into conversation with her, which I began by enquiries for the path which would lead me into the mountain: & thence proceeded to enquiries into her vocation, condition & circumstances. She told me she was a day labourer, at 8. sous or 4d sterling the day; that she had two children to maintain, & to pay a rent of 30 livres for her house, (which would consume the hire of 75 days) that often she could get no emploiment, and of course was without bread. As we had walked together near a mile & she had so far served me as a guide, I gave her, on parting, 24 sous. She burst into tears of a gratitude which I could perceive was unfeigned because she was unable to utter a word. She had probably never before received so great an aid. This little attendrissement, with the solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country & is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentrated in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downward. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics, not labouring. They employ also a great number of manufacturers, & tradesmen, & lastly the class of labouring husbandmen. But after all there comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are undisturbed only for the sake of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the encrease of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers & sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, & to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour & live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small land holders are the most precious part of a state.
Jefferson to Madison, 28 October 1785
My first question concerned the correspondence of Jefferson's views with those of Mises. Jefferson seeks the good of all. Mises asserts, "liberalism was the first political movement that aimed at promoting the welfare of all" (Liberalism, 22). Mises admits that liberalism and socialism share this goal, differing principally in their methods.

Both Mises and Jefferson emphasize the rights of property. But Jefferson's notion of the commons ("The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour & live on") is an idea that I have yet to encounter in my reading of Mises. Moreover, one gets the impression from Mises that Jefferson's scheme of progressive taxation might proceed from principles that he would call socialist, distinguishing them from liberal.

Reading this letter of Jefferson's creates doubts concerning some of Mises' historical claims with respect to eighteenth century classical liberalism, but it does offer evidence for some of his claims. Mises labors to see all economic theory as bipartite: liberalism vs. socialism. Jefferson draws from and engages with a somewhat more nuanced view.

11 June 2011

John Adams and the Holy Ghost

This morning I was browsing at American Creation, a high quality history blog. I read and watched videos in an old post, "David Barton: Liar" (2009). It is identified as one of their most popular posts. In the videos Chris Rodda, author of Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History (2006), discusses some of her problems with Barton. She presented him with a copy of her book at one of his lectures. A few months later he mentioned the episode on his radio show, but fabricated a conversation that did not occur. She discusses his lie, plays a video of the conversation to support her version of the event, and then discusses his creative misreading of a letter that John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1809--part of his lecture that night. Barton owns the original letter and has posted a photo of the letter with a modernized transcription on the WallBuilders website.

In May this year, Barton appeared on The Daily Show where he was confronted regarding his reading of the letter. Warren Throckmorton's post lays out the context that Barton ignores (because it reveals how wrong he is concerning Adams' meaning. In the blog entry, "David Barton and John Adams--The Holy Ghost Letter, Throckmorton offers some choice links to others who have refuted some of Barton's claims.

After a quick run through several blog entries, I went to the Online Library of Liberty to search the ten volume The Works of John Adams at Online Library of Liberty. I sought the Holy Ghost in this voluminous work, finding a mere six entries. One seems in the spirit of what Rodda, Throckmorton, and others are saying regarding Adams' presentation of views that he held in contempt: a letter to F.A Vanderkemp, 13 July 1815. The key paragraph states:
My friend, again! the question before mankind is,—how shall I state it? It is, whether authority is from nature and reason, or from miraculous revelation; from the revelation from God, by the human understanding, or from the revelation to Moses and to Constantine, and the Council of Nice. Whether it resides in men or in offices. Whether offices, spiritual and temporal, are instituted by men, or whether they are self-created and instituted themselves. Whether they were or were not brought down from Heaven in a phial of holy oil, sent by the Holy Ghost, by an angel incarnated in a dove, to anoint the head of Clovis, a more cruel tyrant than Frederic or Napoleon. Are the original principles of authority in human nature, or in stars, garters, crosses, golden fleeces, crowns, sceptres, and thrones? These profound and important questions have been agitated and discussed, before that vast democratical congregation, mankind, for more than five hundred years. How many crusades, how many Hussite wars, how many powder plots, St. Bartholomew’s days, Irish massacres, Albigensian massacres, and battles of Marengo have intervened! Sub judice lis est. Will Zinzendorf, Swedenborg, Whitefield, or Wesley prevail? Or will St. Ignatius Loyola inquisitionize and jesuitize them all? Alas, poor human nature! Thou art responsible to thy Maker and to thyself for an impartial verdict and judgment.
Adams to Vanderkemp, Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/2127/193560/3102804 on 2011-06-11
Adams writes of holy oil direct from the Holy Ghost being used to anoint the heads of kings. But to say that he believes such stories strikes me as a stretch.

10 June 2011

Rethinking Sarah Palin and Paul Revere

The prescriptions for how to create a more effective high school history course that I discussed this morning in "The American Story" might serve as guideposts for the place of history in modern life. Consider the recent controversy regarding former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's creative misreading of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. The debate hinged upon whether her facts were garbled, grossly in error, or perhaps even strangely accurate (whether by accident or by design). Is factual inaccuracy the crux of the problem the Left and some of the Right have with her comments?

Central to Palin's view of America is her understanding of the heart of the American story. Her initial statement as it appeared on CNN ended with two key words: free and secure. The American revolution was a struggle against tyranny, a quest for freedom. She explained to Chris Wallace how Americans need to look to the past, to the victories of our founders, in order to navigate our way through the present and build a strong future. She sees in the American past, especially in the American revolution and the foundations of our government, a model for our future. America for Palin is an idea that needs restoration.
I'm publicizing Americana, and our foundation, and how important it is that we learn about our past and our challenges, and victories throughout American history, so that we can successfully proceed forward. Very heady days, rough waters ahead of us, Chris. We need to make sure that we have a strong grasp of our foundational victories so that we can move forward.
Palin to Chris Wallace, FOX News Sunday, at 14:13
There's not a clear sense in her comments that she is practicing "sourcing" as historians do, grounding her work in primary texts. On the other hand, visiting historic sites is another form of sourcing. Gazing at the U.S. Constitution under glass is not the same thing as reading The Federalist Papers or The Anti-Federalist Papers, but it's an activity few historians would discourage.

Palin's gaffe drove me to Paul Revere's 1798 letter, as it did for some of her supporters. We found different things there: I found in Revere's words a clear narrative at odds with Palin's, but Conservatives4Palin found support for her claim that he warned the British.
Those quibbling with Governor Palin’s statements have their history incomplete. During Paul Revere’s ride he was stopped by British soldiers, which Revere recounts in a 1789 letter maintained by the Massachusetts Historical Society ,in his original language (emphasis mine):

I observed a Wood at a Small distance, & made for that. When I got there, out Started Six officers, on Horse back,and orderd me to dismount;-one of them, who appeared to have the command, examined me, where I came from,& what my Name Was? I told him. it was Revere, he asked if it was Paul? I told him yes He asked me if I was an express? I answered in the afirmative. He demanded what time I left Boston? I told him; and aded, that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the Country all the way up.
"Governor Palin Gives the Media a History Lesson on Paul Revere's Midnight Ride"
Despite the typos (1789 instead of 1798, for instance), their history is a credible example of sourcing. Several other historians have acknowledged that Palin got this fact more or less correct, even if by accident. Even more important, it seems to me, Conservatives for Palin emphasize the heart of the American story as Palin and most of her admirers understand it: "Governor Palin’s bus tour has been successful in allowing her to highlight the greatness of the history of America."

In his concession speech in the 2008 election, Senator John McCain emphasized the greatness of America. But his spin differed from that now advocated by Palin. He noted and congratulated Barack Obama as the first African American elected President, contrasting it with shameful episodes when a Black man having dinner in the White House created grief for the President who invited him--Republican Theodore Roosevelt (see "Booker T Washington's White House Dinner").

Whether or not Paul Revere rang bells, whether or not he warned the British are questions that keep us fixated on the factoids--those pieces of historical knowledge that drove my classmates as far from history as they could get. We should be debating and discussing Sarah Palin's vision, and even more the visions of those who have actually declared their candidacy for President. We should be discussing and debating the American story. Do we look to the past for heroes who guide us into the future? Do we emulate the leaders of earlier generations, or do we rise above their prejudices?

The American Story

George Chalich was a high school teacher who inundated the junior class with factoids. I loved the factoids he gave us, but hated the slow pace of presentation and the alienating absence of dialogue. We memorized, to the last comma, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution; lengthy definitions of socialism, communism, totalitarianism, republicanism, and democracy; salary schedules for the federal judiciary, members of Congress, and the President; and the eight characteristic behaviors of the "good citizen": I can recall the first two: 1) "a good citizen votes;" 2) "a good citizen votes intelligently." Chalich's stories evoked an alternative vision of good citizenship. Drawing on his Serbian heritage, his story of the beginnings of the First World War becomes a lesson in historiography: "Gavrilo Princip was a Serbian patriot, the newspapers never get it right." The so-called assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand was not a criminal act, but an assertion of the patriotism of a nation within.
Spring Wind Rising (1994), 185-186.

We sat in our straitjackets, took notes, and made efforts to memorize George Chalich's lists. Most of my classmates learned to hate history. Skill at memorization was not high among the talents of teenagers in the 1970s. Even those good at it rarely look back with fondness upon the experience. It should be clear that the pedagogy of memorization is far from an exemplary model for nurturing historical knowledge, let alone historical thinking in high school students. Nor does this failed pedagogy serve the adults who return to school in middle age.

Teachers who are passionate for history should infect students with their enthusiasm, not inoculate them against outbreaks of history mindedness. In a recent National History Center roundtable, the panelists agreed, "that instilling the love of history into students’ lives was the most important objective in a survey course." Salt Lake City, Utah teacher Fiona Halloran notes, "Students come to class hoping for pleasure but fearing pain." She suggests liberty in their writing assignments:
Offering students liberty means asking them to write essays about dissent, identity, and hunger. What do those things mean? Let them decide. As they struggle to match historical events and ideas to concepts like resistance, they will have to wrestle with the most difficult questions history has to offer. ... [Assessment liberty] invites students to tell you about the ideas they found most compelling and their work is therefore brighter, more forceful and more specific.
Halloran, "Historical Gardening"
San Francisco's Valerie Ziegler emphasizes teaching students the process of producing history, and also gives them room for decision. She draws from the Reading Like a Historian project of the Stanford History Education Group (a project led by Sam Wineburg whose Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts I have mentioned in "Reflective Thinking, Teaching and Learning" and other posts). She looks to students to create their own answers to historical questions.
Each lesson in this curriculum begins with a debatable historical question that requires students to formulate answers based on their reading of historical evidence. My students leave my class with confidence in their reading, writing and understanding of how the story of history is told. They develop skills they can use beyond high school.
Ziegler, "Crafting a Love for History"
Chalich's memorization scheme aimed at cultivating a sense of citizenship (voting, not assassinating heads of states). Today's emphasis upon teaching and learning (the lingo that replaced the term pedagogy) cultivates behaviors that are necessary to an engaged and effective citizenry. Several panelists emphasized historical thinking as central to successful democracy.
In the final analysis the effective U.S. history course fosters active citizenship. History education is the best way to reach for equity, social justice, and new hope. Sitting in our classrooms today are the century’s new leaders; within them the seeds of true equity, gentleness, compassion and service are sown.
David Mitchell, "Primary Sources: The Seeds for Student Growth"

By examining how previous generations of citizens grappled with the issues, students see that they too have a role in shaping the events of their time. They have a stake—more to gain—in looking at how we got to this point. The spirited debate over who should bear the cost of the national road two hundred years ago is the health care debate of today.
William E. White, "The Idea of America"
Andrew Johnson explains in "Let the Questions Guide You," his contribution to the roundtable, how his course is built around four central questions. Well-informed readers will recognize the sources of his questions in famous political speeches and poems.
Each quarter of the school year is framed with a guiding question. “Was this nation conceived in liberty?” compels a study of colonial times, the Revolution and the Constitution, and the Washington and Adams administrations. The question itself constitutes both a compelling essay question as well as a sorting tool for what content to include and what to leave out. Similarly, “Is our government of the people, by the people, and for the people?” compels a study of the abolition movement, the Civil War, and Progressivism.
Johnson, "Let the Questions Guide You"
Lendol Calder, whose "uncoverage" model clearly influences the other panelists, discusses an assignment he uses the first week of his college U.S. history survey.
In the first week of my course, students write a two-page history of the United States. I don’t allow them to look anything up, which makes students think I am testing their factual knowledge. In fact, I use the assignment to learn what students think the story of American history is. By “story” I mean the basic interpretive frame they use to make sense of the American past.
Calder, "But What is Our Story?"
Calder emphasizes that factual recall is not the forte of a well-trained historian so much as an inquiring mindset.
The mark of historical mindedness is not recalling that “this happened and then that happened.” Rather, it is a distinctive sort of questioning and a distinctive method of discovery supported by certain habits, skills, and dispositions.
Calder, "But What is Our Story?"
All of the panelists emphasize student engagement with primary sources. They each emphasize at least some of the processes Calder has called the cognitive habits of the historian: "questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, and recognizing limits to one's knowledge"(Calder, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," The Journal of American History (March 2006), 1364).



08 June 2011

Palin's Gaffe and Her Apologists

It’s so important for Americans to learn about our past so we can clearly see our way forward in challenging times; so, we’re bringing attention to our great nation’s foundation.
Sarah Palin, SarahPAC
The news has slowed concerning former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's gaffe, and some of what was there in the beginning seems gone.

The Boston Herald offered this passage in a much copied article:
But Cornell law professor William Jacobson, who asserted last week that Palin was correct, linking to Revere quotes on his conservative blog Legalinsurrection.com, said Palin’s critics are the ones in need of a history lesson. “It seems to be a historical fact that this happened,” he said. “A lot of the criticism is unfair and made by people who are themselves ignorant of history.”
"Experts Back Sarah Palin's Account"
It's a compelling quote. As Jacobson is a law professor at an elite university, I eagerly went to his blog seeking an able explanation and defense of this judgement: Palin's remarks are more accurate than those of her critics.

Searching for this quote, or even the word "ignorant" in Jacobson's blog bears no fruit. Perhaps the quoted lines are from an interview. Perhaps they originally appeared in the post obliquely referenced, but edits removed them.

Jacobson has several posts over the past few days:

"So Now All These People Will Apologize to Sarah Palin About Paul Revere, Right?" 3 June 2011

Noting that Palin's version "seemed odd," Jacobson found that Conservatives4Palin had quoted Paul Revere's 1898 letter and repeats their quote.

“I'm not a potted plant. I'm here as the blogger. That's my job.” 4 June 2011

He takes issue with a comment on his blog that accused him of "offering cover" to a politician who deserves scorn.

"Deranged Propagandist"
4 June 2011

Notes that Andrew Sullivan linked to his blog via the label "deranged propagandist".

"Anti-Palinites Go All In On Epistemic Closure," 6 June 2011

Renders accusations against Palin's critics for committing the errors they attempt to pin on her.
The debate also shifted, from she was wrong as to the fact of the warning to she was wrong as to Revere's intent. The goal posts constantly were moved. All in all, there was an intellectual shut down by those on the left and right who don't like Palin, an unwillingness to consider facts which contradicted their narrative.
"Suffolk Univ. History Prof. - Palin Right About Paul Revere," 6 June 2011

Links to the NPR interview with Robert Allison that I discuss in "Paul Revere's Bells".

"I Demand That Obama Recite The Longfellow Poem From Memory," 8 June 2011

Clever turn of the whole controversy against our current President.


Paul Revere's Ride


In his first post, Professor Jacobson searched David Hackett Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride (1994) for "Paul Revere bells and gunshots," finding this passage: "A townsman remembered that 'repeated gunshots, the beating of drums and the ringing of bells filled the air'" (150). Something along those lines was my second response (after finding Revere's letter) and I bought the eBook from Google. I started reading it from the beginning, but jumped forward to the passages relevant to Palin's version.

The text read fine on my notebook and desktop computers, but Google's iPad app utterly failed after purchasing the book. After nearly twenty-four hours of frustration, I deleted the app, then reinstalled it. Last night I was able to read Fischer's book as I fell asleep. His description of General Thomas Gage's frustration with colonials seems apropos. If Gage's view has any credibility as Fischer presents it, his observation of colonial contradictions establishes a stronger connection between today's Tea Partiers and the original Boston Tea Party.
General Gage reminded himself that most of these infuriating provincials were British too--blood of his blood, flesh of his own freeborn nation. They had been allowed more liberties than any people on the face of the globe, yet they complained that he was trying to enslave them. They were taxed more lightly than the subjects of any European state, but refused even the trivial sums that Parliament had levied upon them. They professed loyalty to their rightful Sovereign, but tarred and feathered his Royal officers, and burned His Majesty's ships to the water's edge.
Paul Revere's Ride, 31
That a tax revolt might be led by those who paid the least taxes seems as true of the eighteenth century Boston smugglers who organized the Tea Party as of those that lead today's group that claims their mantle.

07 June 2011

Paul Revere's Bells

…he who warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and, um, makin’ sure as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we’re gonna be secure and we were gonna be free. And we we’re gonna be armed.
Sarah Palin
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's comment about Paul Revere warning the British and ringing bells went viral over the past weekend. Many heap scorn upon her for ignorance, but others have sought to spin her remarks in a way that presents them as free of essential error. Most Americans in 1775 considered themselves British, or at least British subjects (Paul Revere was the son of a French Huguenot father and an English mother).

Palin's defiance when her history was challenged by FOX's Chris Wallace, feeble though his challenge was, has been reposted as often as her original remarks. Typical of the scorn for Palin's version and the subsequent efforts of her fans to alter Wikipedia is Business Insider:
Paul Revere was "warning the British" that night, Palin says, refusing to admit that she just worded her riff badly. ... [Palin's fans] tried to add citations to support the idea that Revere "rang bells" on his ride. (He didn't).
"Sarah Palin Fans Trying To Rewrite Wikipedia History Of Paul Revere's Ride To Match Her Crazy Version," http://www.businessinsider.com/sarah-palin-fans-try-to-rewrite-wikipedia-history-of-paul-reveres-ride-2011-6
On the other hand, National Public Radio, served up a story that supports her views. Melissa Block interviewed historian Robert Allison, chair of history at Suffolk University in Boston.
Prof. ALLISON: Well, he's not firing warning shots. He is telling people so that they can ring bells to alert others. What he's doing is going from house to house, knocking on doors of members of the Committees of Safety saying the regulars are out. That is, he knew that General Gage was sending troops out to Lexington and Concord, really Concord, to seize the weapons being stockpiled there, but also perhaps to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, leaders of the Continental Congress, who were staying in the town of Lexington.
...
BLOCK: So you think basically, on the whole, Sarah Palin got her history right.
Prof. ALLISON: Well, yeah, she did. And remember, she is a politician. She's not an historian. And God help us when historians start acting like politicians, and I suppose when politicians start writing history.
How Accurate Were Palin's Paul Revere Comments? http://m.npr.org/news/U.S./137011636
For the most part, Allison's comments are consistent with David Hackett Fischer's account in Paul Revere's Ride (1994), probably the best single reference for events in the life of Paul Revere.
[O]nce in the town of Medford, [Revere] went quickly about the task of awakening that community with remarkable economy of effort. He rode directly to the house of Captain Isaac Hall, commander of Medford's minutemen, who instantly triggered the town's alarm system. A townsman remembered that "repeated gunshots, the beating of drums and the ringing of bells filled the air."
Paul Revere's Ride, 140.
There were bells ringing alongside Revere's route, as well as the routes of the other riders. These bells were set off as a consequence of the actions of the riders. Even so, although Revere himself had been a church-bell ringer in his youth and a maker of bells in his profession, he was not ringing the bells himself. He proceeded by stealth. Fischer's narrative offers many a dramatic moment, such as when Revere quietly moved across the mouth of the Charles River and directly under the guns of the warship HMS Somerset (116).

Palin is not crazy to remember bells, but Allison's, "on the whole, Sarah Palin got her history right" seems rather too generous. She botched the story, even though she got some things half-right. If nothing else, the alarm system, the stockpile of cannon and gunpowder, and the ringing of bells all serve to refute Palin's notion that some sort of individual right to bear firearms (as distinct from a "well-regulated militia") was at issue in Paul Revere's midnight ride. The best that can be stated in Palin's defense might be to rate her comments as "barely true," as did PolitiFact. Of the fifty rulings on Palin's statements by this fact-checking resource, twenty-three have scored better than "barely true".

[Addendum 15 August 2011: PolitiFact has changed "barely true" to "mostly false," a better description of what is has meant for a long time. They state at the bottom of the linked page: "Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False."]

Palin's misunderstanding of the minutemen correlates well with her distorted views of eighteenth century New England notions of liberty. Early in Fischer's text, he offers a provocative chiasmus that emphasizes a massive difference in the notions of liberty propagated by today's Tea Partiers and those responsible for the original Boston Tea Party, among whom Revere was one of the leaders.
[Paul Revere] believed deeply in New England's inherited tradition of ordered freedom, which gave heavy weight to collective rights and individual responsibilities--more so than is given by our modern calculus of individual rights and collective responsibilities.
Paul Revere's Ride, 16
The eighteenth century is foreign to modern Americans. Only a deep study of history mired in primary sources will develop the sort of sensibility and understanding needed to translate eighteenth century ideologies into twenty-first century folksy soundbites. There is little in Sarah Palin's background to suggest that she has done this sort of extensive reading, nor that she has any inclination to do so.




Palin quote from Elaine Magliaro, "The Bells are Ringing: Sarah Palin and the Revised Story of Paul Revere's Ride," Jonathan Turley blog (4 June 2011) http://jonathanturley.org/2011/06/04/the-bells-are-ringing-sarah-palin-and-the-revised-story-of-paul-revere's-ride/. Other transcripts of her spoken comments differ slightly. I posted the video of Palin's remarks in yesterday's "Paul Revere's Ride".

06 June 2011

Paul Revere's Ride

Paul Revere's letter to Jeremy Belknap (1798) offers his own account of an event that has been much memorialized, mythologized, and misunderstood in the centuries since. The complete letter is available from the Massachusetts Historical Society.
In Medford, I awaked the Captain of the Minute men; & after that, I alarmed almost every House, till I got to Lexington. I found Mrs. Messrs. Hancock & Adams at the Rev. Mr. Clark's; I told them my errand, and inquired for Mr. Daws; they said he had not been there; I related the story of the two officers, & supposed that He must have been stopped, as he ought to have been there before me. After I had been there about half an Hour, Mr. Daws came; after we refreshid our selves, we and set off for Concord, to secure the Stores, &c. there.
Paul Revere to Jeremy Belknap

Sarah Palin's account differs from Revere's, from accounts by leading historians (David Hackett Fischer's account is cited most often), from Wikipedia before her followers attempted to rectify the omission, and even differs substantially from the account in the not always reliable right-wing history in A Patriot's History of the United States (2004) by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. Although a few details that she places near the center of her narrative can be found at the edges of the narrative in A Patriot's History.
[General Thomas Gage] issued orders to arrest the political firebrands and rhetoricians Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were reported in the Lexington area, and to secure the cannons from the colonists. Gage therefore sought to kill two birds with one stone when, on the night of April 18, 1775, he sent 1,000 soldiers from Boston to march up the road via Lexington to Concord. If he could surprise the colonials and could capture Adams, Hancock, and the supplies quietly, the situation might be defused. But the patriots learned of British intentions and signaled the British route with lanterns from the Old North Church, whereupon two riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes left Boston by different routes to rouse the minutemen. Calling, "To Arms! To Arms!" Revere and Dawes's daring mission successfully alerted the patriots at Lexington, at no small cost to Revere, who fell from his horse after warning Hancock and Adams and was captured at one point, but then escaped.
A Patriot's History, 72-73.
Palin's account garbles these events with half-truths and egregious error, much as Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's placement of Lexington and Concord in New Hampshire brought scorn upon her and raised doubts whether any of the Tea Party leaders know enough American history to pass a high school exam.

Needless to say, my blog feed this morning has listed quite a few references to historians and journalists skewering Palin's account. Ed Brayton asserts, "she babbles like an unprepared freshman in history class." Larry Cebula develops this theme with a clip from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and also draws attention to revisions of Wikipedia by Palin apologists. He notes, "she tries to fake her way through with the unprepared student's classic recipe of one-half facts that are wrong and one-half trumpeting what the student believes are the key themes of the course." John Fea repeats Andrew Sullivan's harsh psychoanalysis of Palin, "[o]ne of the most pernicious and dangerous features of Palin is her clinical refusal to understand reality, to accept error, to acknowledge when the facts she has cited are not actually facts, but delusions." Sullivan also comments upon Wikipedia vandalism. The Washington Post employs the Wikipedia entry war as its lead to observe the differences between Michelle Bachmann admitting her error and turning into a joke about liberal Massachusetts and Sarah Palin's claim, "I didn't mess up." Kurt Weldon's brief entry offers a memorable line: "Ignorance is not merely bliss--it's mandatory."


Paul Revere and the Second Amendment

Palin's effort to connect Revere to what would become an issue of gun control and interpretations of the Second Amendment does adhere to a theme in some histories.
He who warned, uh, the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms.
Sarah Palin
Schweikart and Allen note:
[T]he people of Massachusetts established a revolutionary government and raised an army of soldiers known as minutemen (able to fight on a minutes notice).
A Patriot's History, 72
Revere stated clearly that warning the minutemen of British troop movements was his first task.

Schweikart and Allen also position themselves in a debate regarding the extent of firearm and large weapon possession in revolutionary Massachusetts.
[G]uns were so prevalent that citizens did not need to list them specifically. On the eve of the Revolution, Massachusetts citizens were well armed, and not only with small weapons but, collectively, with artillery.
A Patriot's History, 72.
It is clear, even from this pro-gun account from a pair of far-right historians, that Massachusetts established a "well-regulated militia" to serve at the behest of the revolutionary colonial government. Moreover, I rarely hear conservative advocates of the Second Amendment pushing for my right to have an M1A1 Abrams tank in the driveway and surely that is much closer in spirit to the possession of cannon in 1775. Palin seems to want to push this issue a bit farther than Schweikart and Allen, although theirs may be the text that she is misremembering.


Palin's Apologetics

Former Governor Sarah Palin did get something right in a strange twist of fate. In an interview with Chris Wallace on FOX, Palin said:
Reporters don't seem to be understanding it. Even your own Shep Smith there on FOX News, he announced the other day that I was on some publicity tour. I wanted to say, Shep, take it one step futher, what am I publicizing on this tour? I'm publicizing Americana, and our foundation, and how important it is that we learn about our past and our challenges, and victories throughout American history, so that we can successfully proceed forward. Very heady days, rough waters ahead of us, Chris. We need to make sure that we have a strong grasp of our foundational victories so that we can move forward.
Palin to Chris Wallace, FOX News Sunday, at 14:13
She certainly publicizes the need to learn history every time she speaks about the past, for inevitably she makes the news by getting facts mixed up. She then stays in the headlines by insisting that she did not get things wrong. The more she offers her distorted understanding, the more clearly she publicizes the need to learn history. In the long-run that strategy will backfire, but the short-run is her forte.


Palin's English


Finally, we should not overlook this comic piece by Craig Medred in the Alaska Dispatch: "Sarah Palin's Problem is Her English, Not Her History." Palin speaks the rare dialect Northeast Wasillian.
National Rifle Association member that she is, Palin certainly knew Revere wasn't firing off "warning shots.” There were no warning shots in the days of the single-shot, hard-to-reload musket. Nobody wasted shots, let alone ammunition, on warnings. They shot to try to hit something. Palin just slipped up there with her messaging, which is easy to understand because her problem has never been her history so much as her grammar and vocabulary.
...
This is nothing new. Palin has always spoken some form of Wasillian, or even maybe Northeast Wasillian, an extremely rare dialect.
Medred
On a blog that picked up this piece, a commentator noted that Northeast Wasillian is Palin's third language, after "Ida-the-ho-ian and Wasillian."



Editing note: In the original post I incorrectly attributed to John Fea words of Andrew Sullivan that he quoted on his fine history blog. I have corrected the error. Andrew Sullivan is not in my blog feed, while The Way of Improvement Leads Home is one that I read regularly.

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