Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Lincoln Book Recommendation

Whenever I read a good book, I’d like to pass on a positive review. Last week, I commented on Lincoln, as his 200th birthday was upon us. I am presently reading Harold Holzer’s new Lincoln book (Holzer is a LIncoln scholar and a fine writer), Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861. It is fascinating.

What did Lincoln go through, what did he have to deal with, as he awaited his succession to the presidency? From November 1860 until his inauguration in March 1861, he was virtually powerless to make policy or to stop the secessions of Southern states. Holzer’s book takes you into Lincoln’s mind and details his activities during this crucial period in American history. What’s more, the writing makes you feel as if you are reading a novel. Even though I know the outcome, I find myself eager to know what is going to happen next.

So, even if you are not a Lincoln admirer (which is really a sad situation), I heartily recommend that you read this book. It will be difficult to find a tyrant in the newly elected president as he prepares to shoulder the burden of a nation coming apart at the seams.

Happy Birthday, Abe

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, a man who has been a source of great controversy among conservatives. They are divided: some respect him greatly, while others consider him a violator of the Constitution and a tyrant.

In my early years, I tended to lean in the latter direction. I was so devoted to states’ rights and so distressed over the growth of the federal government that I felt Lincoln was a large part of the problem. There’s a remedy for that point of view, though. It’s called research.

I held those views of Lincoln without any real knowledge of the man, his writings, or the circumstances under which he took office. I wanted to believe that slavery was not the real issue in the Civil War, but when I read the statements of Southern leaders, I had to conclude that states’ rights was only important to them in the context of maintaining the institution of slavery.

Ultimately, I had to alter my views on Lincoln. The more I read about him, and the more I examined his speeches and saw the spiritual growth in the man over the years, particularly after he became president, the more respect I gained for him. I have come to believe that he was one of the greatest of American presidents.

So, happy birthday, Abe. And I sincerely hope that the spiritual awakening you seemed to experience in your later years was genuine. I’d like to speak with you someday.

A First Amendment Guarantee

Besides the freedom of religion clauses of the First Amendment, there is another guarantee there that is threatened: freedom of speech. Now, we have, over the years, added some rather foggy ideas of what freedom of speech entails. It has been expanded to include coarse language that used to be avoided and artistic expressions that can only be legitimately described as obscene. That’s not what the Founders intended by the phrase “freedom of speech.”

For them, it was primarily freedom of political speech that needed protection. They wanted the guarantee that they had the liberty to critique government policies without fear of prosecution. Our new Congress, dominated by the Democrats and encouraged by their leadership, is toying with the notion of reviving something called the Fairness Doctrine.

This sounds innocuous enough. Who can be against fairness? In practice, though, it means that if anyone espouses strong conservative views on politics, the media have to provide a forum for the opposing view to be aired. Again, while this may sound “fair,” one needs to consider that the media is already overwhelmingly liberal and no similar requirement will be enacted for programs that already have a liberal perspective. The goal here is to diminish the conservative point of view. The target is clear: talk radio. This is the one part of the mass media (besides the Internet) that liberalism does not dominate. The Fairness Doctrine is an attempt to neutralize the conservative voice in that arena.

Thus, one of the most basic freedoms enunciated by the Founders in the Constitution is under fire. Can it happen? With a Democratic Congress and White House, it is now conceivable.

Great Power or Great Responsibility?

So many people want to be president. Perhaps it would do them some good to remember comments by America’s first three presidents.

When Washington was elected to the presidency, he wrote to Henry Knox:

My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution: so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties, without that competency of political skill, abilities and inclination which is necessary to manage the helm.

Washington understood the immense responsibility that would rest upon him.

When John Adams succeeded him eight years later, as he and Washington were leaving the scene of his inauguration, he later wrote:

Methought I heard him think, “Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!”

Adams had reason to be concerned. Imagine what it would be like having to be Washington’s successor, having to follow the man considered to be the Father of the Country. Regardless of Adams’s many accomplishments, he didn’t measure up to Washington in the eyes of the nation. Certain congressmen and senators, in a rather direct display of disrespect, even referred to him as “His Rotundity.”

Then there was Jefferson. He added the Louisiana Territory to the country, thus doubling its size. He sent out the Lewis and Clark expedition to see what he had bought. He was reelected easily. Yet, at the end of his second term, when he signed a bill stopping all shipping (in order to avoid a European war), he alienated all of the New England states, which made their living by that very shipping. The historian Paul Johnson comments that Jefferson left office a beaten man. Jefferson said:

Oh for the day when I shall be withdrawn from [office] ; when I shall have leisure to enjoy my family, my friends, my farm and books!

Too many individuals seek what they think will be greater power, only to come to the realization that the responsibilities can be overwhelming. I prefer to entrust power and authority to those who don’t want it so badly. Perhaps they will handle it more wisely.

We Don't Need Another "Deal"

History Repeats Itself Again?

History Repeats Itself Again?

When Time magazine decided to show a cover depicting Obama as FDR, I could only shake my head. And now Obama is trying his best to be the next FDR, talking about a massive plan for public works.

The little secret, which isn’t really much of a secret anymore (except to those who refuse to listen) is that FDR’s New Deal never brought America out of the Great Depression. By the end of the 1930s, the economy was just as depressed as when FDR took office. The unemployment rate was virtually the same.

When the public sector spends more money, there is less to go around for the private sector, thus slowing a recovery. Of course, it looks good to spend this money and provide short-term jobs, but it doesn’t really deal with the problem.

We need to return to the Reagan solution. Yes, I know some people say this is a different time, so different solutions are called for. Well, if that’s the case, why are we rehashing the 1930s? Reagan’s concepts are still viable today because they are principles that apply at all times: reduce taxes, cut government spending, allow the people to keep more of their own money, and let them develop their entrepreneurial ideas. It worked in the 1980s and it can work now.

When will we ever truly learn from history?

The Uninformed American Public

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has conducted a new study that probably should surprise no one who is really following the educational trends and the knowledge base of Americans. I’ll let ISI describe the results:

Are most people, including college graduates, civically illiterate? Do elected officials know even less than most citizens about civic topics such as history, government, and economics? The answer is yes on both counts according to a new study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).

More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33-question test on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score 49 percent, or an “F.” Elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent and only 0.8 percent (or 21) ofall surveyed earned an “A.”

Even more startling is the fact that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

If you are interested in seeing the rest of the results or in taking the test yourself, go to http://americancivicliteracy.org. ISI is also the organization that has recently published three of my articles. If you haven’t read them yet, go to my homepage (link at the top of this blog) where you can access them.

The Many Deaths of the Republican Party

Herbert Hoover & the Great Depression
Herbert Hoover & the Great Depression

The Republican Party has “died” many times. Yet it always seems to be resurrected.

We can start with Herbert Hoover, whose administration coincided with the Great Depression. Elected in 1928 at the height of economic prosperity, Hoover has ever since been associated with the worst economic disaster in American history. He did help make it happen; specifically, he helped prolong it with his government interventionist policies. But his successor, FDR, was the one who made sure it lasted an entire decade. Hoover gets all the blame; FDR is considered the “savior” of America. Life isn’t fair.

It took a while for the Republicans to return to the top. Not until 1952 did another Republican candidate win the presidency: Dwight Eisenhower. His two terms were marked by an economic upswing similar to the 1920s.

Barry Goldwater Suffered a Major Defeat in 1964

Barry Goldwater Suffered a Major Defeat in 1964

In the 1960s, after the assassination of JFK, then-president Lyndon Johnson took advantage of the sorrow over that tragedy to lead the country into an interventionist stage from which it has never fully recovered.

Due to the shock of the Kennedy assassination and the general mood of the country–ready to try full government intervention–the Republican nominee in 1964, Barry Goldwater, didn’t stand a chance. The electoral margin was so huge that many commentators again suggested that the Republican Party was nearly as extinct as the dinosaurs.

Vietnam, though, proved LBJ’s undoing, and in a year of unequalled civil strife in the 20th century, Nixon was able to gain the presidency in 1968. The Republicans returned from the grave once more.

Nixon\'s Undoing: Watergate

Nixon's Undoing: Watergate

 Nixon brought the soldiers home and won an astounding electoral victory for his reelection in 1972. He lost only Massachusetts and Washington, DC. But that campaign featured the Watergate breakin, which then dominated the news for the next two years, ending in Nixon’s resignation. That debacle did nearly bury the Republicans. They lost so many congressional seats in 1974 that their influence was virtually nonexistent. As the 1976 election approached, it seemed that President Ford (who rose to the presidency through appointment and then the Nixon resignation) had no chance at all. Surprisingly, he almost pulled it off, losing narrowly to Jimmy Carter.

The Carter years, though, were a disaster. I won’t recount all the problems at this point except to say that the economy was the worst since the Great Depression and the Iranian revolution had created the embassy hostage situation, which Carter seemed ill-prepared to handle.

Reagan: A New Beginning

Reagan: A New Beginning

That set the stage for Reagan’s victories–electoral, economic, and in the Cold War. The Republican Party was back again. And even though Clinton won two terms in the 1990s, it is probably (should be) a consensus that Reagan changed the terms of political debate with his policies. Although Clinton was president for eight years, for six of those years, Republicans controlled Congress and remained in control until 2006.

We are now at a place where some people are insisting, once more, that the Republican brand is out of date and nearly extinct. That has been the story for decades, but the story never seems to end there. Can a new generation of leaders actually do some leading? Will the Republicans regain their footing (beginning with a true and consistent message)? We will see. It would be foolish to count them out now.