New & Noteworthy Archive

December 2017

When New York City Was a (Literal) Battlefield

November 2017

Madison's Lessons in Racism
  • If slavery was a neutral thing for most colonials and early Americans, the Founding Fathers are on record with a position. On the one end Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were against it; in the middle Thomas Jefferson, while believing that enslaved blacks should be free, also believed they were inferior — and never found a way to divorce himself and his way of life from his Monticello plantation and his little mountain of slavery.

     

    There is a more nuanced middle inhabited by James Madison — slave-owner, political philosopher and practical repositioner, three-fifths-er, and Father of the Constitution — who truly believed that Africans were equal to whites yet never found a way to let go of the peculiar institution enjoyed by the South. See Noah Feldman on James Madison’s Lessons in Racism (29-Oct-2017) for a look at Madison and his evolving political positions vs. his unchanging personal one.

July 2017

Revolution-Era Wine Discovered
  • A team performing restoration of the wine-cellar at Liberty Hall Museum recently uncovered wine dating back to 1796. During a six-month renovation, three crates and 42 large casks — demijohns — were discovered, including bottles labeled Robert Lenox of Philadelphia 1796. See ABC News (11-Jul-2017).

January 2017

George Washington, Distiller
  • There is a fascinating What if ... article by Michael Bechloss about George Washington and his distillery at Mount Vernon (The New York Times, 12-Feb-2016). Following his presidency in 1797, Washington found himself in need of money, despite an 8,000 acre plantation and labor by hundreds of enslaved African-Americans. His plantation manager suggested starting a distillery, which in 1799 produced nearly 11,000 gallons and achieved a profit of about $7,500 (about $142,000 today). What might have become one of the great businesses of the early republic — it was already the largest distillery in America — was cut short when Washington died in December 1799.

March 2015

A Christian Nation?
  • Despite the protection of free religious practice by the First Amendment (commonly known as the separation of church and state), many in the United States tend to think of their country as being Christian. Indeed a 2007 survey reports that 55 percent of respondents believe the U.S. is in fact a Christian nation — which would be a surprise to the Founders. A revealing article by Kevin M. Kruse (The New York Times, 14-Mar-2015) shows why this is so.

     

    After the Great Crash and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s, American business was assaulted by the public, labor unions, and F.D.R.’s New Deal. Business leaders pushed back with a campaign to regain their prestige. But nothing worked particularly well until they began an inspired public relations offensive that cast capitalism as the handmaiden of Christianity, writes Kruse. Accordingly, throughout the 1930s and ’40s, corporate leaders marketed a new ideology that combined elements of Christianity with an anti‑federal libertarianism. To see how they did it read A Christian Nation? Since When?

February 2015

George Washington, Slave Catcher
  • George Washington, Slave Catcher is the provocative title of an opinion piece by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (The New York Times, 16-Feb-2015). Although nothing new is revealed, it is a sharp reminder that Washington and his wife Martha were typical and not in any way unexceptional slave-owners. When Martha’s personal attendant, Ona Judge, ran away in 1796, Washington discreetly pursued her until his death in1799. Famously, Washington arranged to have his slaves freed upon his wife’s death, and, per Virginia law, he set up a fund to support them. But when Martha died in 1802 all of her human property went to her inheritors. She emancipated no one.

July 2014

A Stray Spot? or a Period?
  • Anyone who has been to the National Archives Museum knows that the Declaration of Independence, the U.S Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are nearly impossible to read due to their faded parchments. Now a scholar claims that the Declaration of Independence, which seems to have a period at the end of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in fact does not have one. It is just a stray spot.

     

    According to Danielle Allen (who recently published Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality) the logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights. Accepting, as almost everyone does, that there is a period significantly changes the meaning of the Declaration, she claims. For a summary of arguments on both sides, see The New York Times (2-Jul-2014).

April 2014

Revolutionary War Spies on AMC
  • Since movies about the American Revolution are infrequently made — the last significant one was John Adams (2008) on HBO — it is of special interest to see a new series about the War that is just now beginning. Based on the book Washington’s Spies (2007) by Alexander Rose, AMC’s Turn (premiering 6-Apr-2014) focuses on the spy ring that provided George Washington with crucial enemy intelligence. TV critic Alessandra Stanley calls it ambitious and beautifully filmed (The New York Times, 4-Apr-2014). Based on the first episode — of ten — it does look realistic and dramatically compelling. To be seen ...

January 2014

James Madison’s Blind Spot
  • There is a startling image of James Madison wearing Google Glass in the Sunday New York Times (19-Jan-2014). In an opinion piece titled Madison’s Privacy Blind Spot, the 1816 portrait of Madison by John Vanderlyn is updated to show him sporting the futuristic monocle. Jeffery Rosen, the current president of the National Constitution Center, states that Madison — the Father of the Constitution and champion of the Bill of Rights — was more concerned with abuses of legislative and executive power than of unregulated commercial power. Rosen scans Mandison’s views towards abuses of power and concludes that the Constitution may need to be amended to protect the people from both corporate and government surveillance.

December 2013

Bay Psalm Book Sets Record at Auction
  • The first book printed in English in North America just fetched over $14 million. Known as the Bay Psalm Book (The New York Times, 26-Nov-2013), it is, right now, also the most expensive book ever sold at auction. Printed in Massachussets and published in 1640, it is an original translation of the psalms from the Hebrew, used by Puritans in church and at home. One of only 11 known copies, it has historical significance not only because it is so rare, but also because its printing demonstrates acquisition of skill that was previously unknown in the colonies.

America had a common language, unlike the European nations, none of which was linguistically homogeneous. in 1789 the majority of Frenchmen did not speak French but were divided by a variety of provincial patois. Englishmen from Yorkshire were incomprehensible to those from Cornwall and vice versa. By contrast, Americans could understand one another from Maine to Georgia. It was very obvious why this should be so, said John Witherspoon, president of Princeton. Since Americans were much more unsettled, and move frequently from place to place, they are not as liable to local peculiarities, either in accent or phraseology.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)