Our Historical Memory . . . Or Lack Thereof

It was 241 years ago today that the Continental Congress approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence. Although Thomas Jefferson drafted the document, there was a committee that was responsible for sending it to the floor of the Congress. Two of those committee members were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Jefferson later said that he didn’t write anything original, that he was merely putting into words the consensus of the era concerning rights that come from God and the necessity of forming a new government.

The preamble tells us that there is a Law of Nature (a phrase traced back historically to the book of Romans in the Bible) and that our Creator granted men certain rights that government cannot take away.

The final paragraph included an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world” for the rightness of their motives in making the move to independence and ends with these stirring words:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, & our sacred honour.

They meant it. Many suffered for this action. They knew they were now prime targets, seen as traitors to the Crown.

What remains of our historical memory?

Point out this ignorance to some of our educators and what response might you get?

I remember very well the day in class when I found out that some of my students couldn’t write cursive. I was stunned. The loss of that skill is another blow against historical knowledge:

The Fourth of July became a major celebration for the first time on its fiftieth anniversary in 1826. Since Jefferson and Adams were still alive, they were invited to the celebrations, but both begged off due to their health. The nation was then startled a few days later by the news that both had died on the Fourth of July, exactly fifty years after their historic participation in the framing of the Declaration.

Odd as it may seem to some, that news sparked unity in the nation, as if God held off their deaths for that specific day to highlight the significance of American independence.

Unity. What a nice concept.

Are we worse off now than ever? As a historian, I know there have been worse times in some ways—the Civil War, the Great Depression. We came through those, but what about today?

Our problem may be worse today with the rapid decline in our culture’s Biblical worldview. As you go about your celebrations today, pray for God’s mercy on our nation.

Yesterday Was Independence Day

Yesterday, July 2, was the 241st anniversary of America’s independence. July 2? Is this historian displaying some historical ignorance here? Not at all. The actual vote for independence in the Continental Congress took place on July 2, not July 4. The 4th is celebrated for the acceptance of the official document, the Declaration of Independence, which is the rationale for what they did on July 2.

Many people today don’t know this fact because we have decided, for some reason, to focus on the Declaration itself.

John Adams, who was there on July 2 to vote in favor of independence, wrote to his wife on July 3, telling her what he hoped for the future of the new nation:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival.

It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

Although he couldn’t see into the future with respect to which day we ended up celebrating, he was remarkably on target for what takes place on that day. He concluded his thoughts with these sobering words:

You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than all the means.

Again, he was correct. It was a costly decision to declare independence, but I agree with him that the end has been worth the toil, blood, and treasure expended.

These days, I’m not sure how many people, particularly in the younger generation, have any concept of what this movement toward liberty cost the Founders. I’m sure many have their facts confused.

Let’s strive to overcome the ignorance whenever we can. I’m grateful that the Lord gives me that opportunity every semester in the classroom.

Preserving Freedom: Lexington & Concord

Among the innumerable examples of bravery in American history, the events surrounding the first battle of the American Revolution are prominent. Massachusetts was under martial law; Boston was ruled by a British general. A shadow government of sorts had been set up by those who were opposed to how the Mother Country was tightening her screws of control.

The two leaders of the resistance, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, were in the small village of Lexington, planning their passage to Philadelphia to be part of the Continental Congress. On the night of 19 April 1775, British regulars were dispatched from Boston with two purposes: capture Adams and Hancock for trial (and execution) in Britain; remove all the colony’s store of guns and ammunition in Concord.

Neither objective was achieved.

paul-reveres-rideRiders went out from Boston to alert the countryside. The best-known one, of course, was Paul Revere. No, he didn’t shout “The British are coming!” That would have been a redundancy—they were all still British. His message was that the “regulars” were coming out, which was a fearful matter. These were highly disciplined troops.

What did the colonists have to stand against them? Only farmers and shopkeepers, the local militia that had recently taken the name of Minutemen, since they had to be ready at a minute’s notice should an attack come.

Stand Your GroundAdams and Hancock escaped from Lexington just in time. The 700 regulars arrived to face a small contingent of Minutemen on Lexington green. There was never an intent on either side to have a pitched battle. Seventy townsmen facing 700 regulars would have been folly. They were simply making a statement. When ordered to leave the field, they were in the process of doing so.

Then a shot rang out. Accounts differ as to the source of that shot. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a poem, later referred to it as “The Shot Heard Round the World.”

Eight Lexington men were killed. And the troops marched on to Concord.

minuteman-statueConcord was ready. All the stores of munitions were removed to safety before the troops arrived. Nervous Concord Minutemen stood by a bridge outside of town. When they saw smoke coming up from the town, they feared the troops were setting fire to their homes. That brought on a battle on the bridge.

Seeing that their goals were not achieved, the regular troops were ordered back to Boston, but now the entire countryside was up in arms—literally. That march back to Boston turned into a rout, as colonists, fighting in Indian manner, would shoot at them from behind hedges, trees, and fences, then run ahead to do the same again when the troops reached them in their new location.

Once the troops were back in Boston, 15,000 Massachusetts militia formed a ring around the city, to ensure they would not be attacked again.

Lexington and Concord signaled the opening of the war for independence.

john-adamsJohn Adams, writing to wife Abigail about what had occurred, penned some memorable words:

Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.

What of Adams’s words today? Have we done a good job of preserving what he and others of that Founding generation did to deliver freedom to us? Time will tell.

On Rigged Elections

This election is rigged. That’s been Donald Trump’s theme for a couple of weeks. Is that possible? Accusations of a rigged presidential election are rare, but there are a few examples.

john-quincy-adamsIn 1824, John Quincy Adams won the presidency after no one got the majority of the electoral votes and the decision was thrown into the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, Speaker of the House, was later chosen by Adams to be his secretary of state, considered at that time to be the stepping-stone to the presidency. Andrew Jackson, the loser even though he started with a plurality of the electoral tally, charged that it was a corrupt bargain. He lost the election, he said, because it was rigged against him.

What Jackson didn’t allow into his thoughts is that Clay, who undoubtedly used his influence as Speaker to put Adams in the presidency, felt that Jackson was unfit for the office and gave his support to Adams because he believed Adams was the better of the two men. That, of course, never stopped Jackson from thinking he was cheated out of the office and he held bitterness over it for the rest of his life.

rutherford-b-hayes-2The 1876 election was one of the most controversial in American history. Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but neither he nor Republican Rutherford Hayes had an electoral majority due to claims of voter fraud in some of the Southern states. This was after the Civil War and the rancor of Reconstruction.

A special commission had to be set up to determine the winner. It took until just a few days before the March inauguration to solidify Hayes’s victory. The only way Democrats accepted Hayes as the legitimate president was after he promised to serve only one term and bring Reconstruction policies to an end. Still, some Democrats refused to acknowledge Hayes as the legitimate president.

jfk-nixonThen there was 1960. Everyone knows John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon, right? Well, that’s not necessarily true. Most historians admit that voter fraud was so plentiful in Illinois and Texas that those two states should have gone to Nixon, thereby making him the next president.

Chicago has been a source of voter fraud continually; it’s amazing how many dead people vote there every time. Texas was Lyndon Johnson’s home state, and he made sure there were enough votes counted to gain the victory there, regardless of how many actually voted.

Nixon was aware of the fraud and many in his circle encouraged him to challenge the result. Tempting as that was, Nixon instead chose to step back from any challenge for the good of the nation. He felt it would be damaging to the country, especially at a time of Cold War tension with the Soviet Union, to disrupt the government in that way.

Most people don’t know about Nixon’s selfless decision; all they ever think about is Watergate.

So, yes, voter fraud might take place. In fact, I’m convinced it does on a regular basis. However, here’s the real question: could it be massive enough to make a difference this year, as Trump intimates?

First of all, it would only matter in a very close vote within a state. Consequently, you can dismiss any issue of damage to the Trump campaign in states that are going for Clinton by wide margins. California, New York, and Illinois are lost causes for Trump anyway. Even if we were to wipe out all of Chicago’s graveyard votes, he will still lose Illinois.

The only real possibility of voter fraud affecting this election would have to focus on Texas or Florida, yet both of those states are controlled by a Republican majority who will guarantee that Trump won’t be trumped by Democrat tricks.

Let’s be real. Voter fraud, while always a concern, is not going to be any kind of determining factor this year. The determining factor is Donald Trump, pure and simple. Well, he’s simple, at least.

Donald Trump Addresses GOP Lincoln Day Event In MichiganHave you noticed that every time Trump loses, he has a scapegoat? Recall the Iowa caucuses. Why did he lose there, in his mind? Ted Cruz cheated. “Lyin’ Ted” cost him Iowa. That was his story and he was sticking to it. He pretty much used the same mantra wherever he lost.

Why? Because Trump believes he is a winner. Remember that he told Republicans he was going to win so much that they were going to get tired of winning. If he loses, it can’t be his fault; it has to be some kind of “rigged” election.

Much has been made of Trump’s comment in the last debate that he will wait and see if he will accept the results of this election. Some feel he is destroying the American electoral system by saying that. I don’t go there. I know there can be fraud, and I use 1960 as a prime example.

However, what really bothers me is what it reveals about Trump’s character. His ego is so huge and vast that he cannot even imagine losing due to his own uneven temperament, lack of knowledge of the issues, and moral turpitude.

He’s also preparing the context for his loss. You see, he didn’t really lose; the election was stolen by “Crooked Hillary.” By the way, she is Crooked Hillary, but he’s “Delusional Donald.”

He will never accept the hard truth that he is his own worst enemy. Rumors abound that once he loses, his next venture will be a media network to promote his views (whatever they may be next year).

Lose he will, and probably “bigly.” And it won’t be because of voter fraud. It will be because he is the worst candidate the Republicans have ever chosen as a standard-bearer.

Boston’s Tea Party: Standing on Principle?

My last American history post pointed to the integrity displayed by John Adams as he defended the soldiers indicted for the Boston Massacre in 1770. After that event, an uneasy peace prevailed for three years as the British Parliament ceased its efforts to antagonize its American colonies.

East India Tea CompanyThe tax on tea still existed, but colonists found other ways to get their tea. The East India Tea Company, closely connected to the government, was suffering, so, in 1773, the Parliament passed the Tea Act.

This act permitted the company’s ships to bypass Britain and bring its tea directly to the colonies. Skipping the middle man made the tea cheaper, but the colonists still opposed the landing of the tea because the hated tax remained. They actually saw it as a deceptive way to get around the issue that this tax had been placed on them without any representation.

Britain counted on the cheaper tea being the wedge that would destroy the protest. It read the temper of the colonies incorrectly. The principle of no taxation without representation was more important to the colonists, so they, at a number of port cities, refused to sell the tea.

In Boston, the civic leaders didn’t even want the tea unloaded on the docks. This proved a problem for the captain of those ships, as he needed to unload the tea and move on to his next shipment.

Massachusetts’s royal governor demanded the tea be unloaded. The city authorities said no. The poor captain had to go back and forth between the governor and the people, seeking a solution.

Finally, the governor declared that if he didn’t unload the tea, his ships would be confiscated. The captain returned to the people who were assembled at the Old South Meeting House church to tell them the bad news. Samuel Adams, in charge of that assembly, then announced that this meeting could do no more; everyone went home.

Boston Tea PartyLater, some returned. They were dressed as Indians. They boarded the ships and threw the tea overboard into the harbor. The captain was now free to go on to his next assignment.

Accounts of that Boston Tea Party all note that the episode was carried out with no riot; it was a solemn undertaking, a stand for principle. Dressing up as they did probably had to do with helping to disguise those involved. It also was a not-so-subtle sarcastic commentary on the rationale for the tax—protection from the natives.

This action, once it was known, received mixed reactions. Even George Washington wasn’t sure it was a wise move. Benjamin Franklin, over in Britain as a representative for some of the colonies, sought to address the issue of the destroyed private property by talking about compensation.

The British government, however, was in no mood for talking. Massachusetts was going to have to pay for this affront to the King and Parliament.

Was the Boston Tea Party a wise action? It brought the tension between the colonies and the Mother Country to a head. It was the destruction of private property. Yet it also was a stand on principle. The participants believed that if they gave in on this one point, they would be giving in on everything. Once you allow the camel’s nose into the tent—as an old saying goes—the whole camel will want to come in.

It’s a tough call for the historian who is concerned about propriety. Yet there is no debate that what the British did in response to the Boston Tea Party was the direct instigation of hostilities. I will cover that in my next American history post.

John Adams & Integrity: The Boston Massacre

Boston, on 5 March 1770, was the scene of an ugly incident. Having the King’s troops stationed in the city to ensure Bostonians followed Parliament’s edicts created a constant tension. The presence of those troops made citizens feel as if they were being treated like traitors to the Crown.

Some of those troops, poorly paid, were looking for part-time work, which only increased the tension, as they would take jobs away from the locals. Clashes between soldiers and citizens were becoming more common.

On this night, a single sentry was set upon by an angry crowd. That brought out more soldiers to face the crowd. Snowballs, sticks, and stones were thrown at the soldiers. In the confusion, some of the soldiers thought they heard their captain shouting to shoot; in fact, he was saying just the opposite.

Thinking they had heard the “fire” order, they shot into the crowd, resulting in five deaths.

All of Boston was in an uproar over this incident. Paul Revere quickly published what has become a famous engraving.

Boston Massacre

The problem with this depiction is that it made it seem like an orchestrated action by the soldiers. It only made the situation worse.

Those soldiers had to go on trial, but who among the Boston lawyers would take on their case? Who was willing to face the storm of criticism by defending them?

Two lawyers undertook the task: John Adams and Josiah Quincy. Adams took the lead and, although he was a patriot who objected to the Parliament’s actions, he knew the soldiers deserved a fair trial.

Adams worked hard for his clients. He successfully got the captain acquitted of all wrongdoing; only two of the soldiers were convicted, but not for willful murder. They were punished and sent back to England, but their lives were spared.

John AdamsJohn Adams knew that the truth had to come out, regardless of the position he took on political matters. One of his comments from these trials has come down to us today, used by many people in all kinds of situations, mainly because it is applicable across the board. Adams said,

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

What was exhibited here? Integrity. John Adams had that quality, and he proved that fairness could be achieved even in an emotional and tension-packed situation.

Later in life, Adams pointed to his defense of those soldiers as his most honorable act. I would have to agree. May we learn from his example.

A Constitutional Protest: The American Colonial Example

The American colonies used every legal means available to them to protest unconstitutional acts of Parliament. When the Townshend Acts were passed in 1767, taxing tea, lead, paper, and glass without any representation on their part in Parliament, Massachusetts took action.

Samuel AdamsUnder the leadership of Samuel Adams, the Massachusetts assembly wrote the Circular Letter, stating that the measures were clearly opposed to all British constitutional precedents. Not only were they being taxed without their consent, but troops had been sent to Boston to oversee compliance with the Townshend Acts. This, in itself, was tantamount to an act of war against the government’s own citizens since having a standing army living within the populace was decidedly contrary to all common practice.

This Circular Letter, which was sent not only to the other Massachusetts towns but also to other colonies, raised the ire of the royal governor (and King George when he heard of it). The governor demanded that the assembly revoke the Letter, in effect saying that they were wrong. After strenuous debate, they instead confirmed their earlier vote, standing strong on principle.

The Letter, when sent to the other colonies, led to a non-importation agreement among the colonies to put economic pressure on British merchants who depended on the colonial market to sell their goods. Even with no mechanism to enforce any boycott of British products, the merchants saw their sales drop by more than one-third.

That was enough to scare them. They clamored for their members of Parliament to repeal the acts. Parliament, under the gun, did so—except for the tax on tea, which was simply its way of saying that it still had the authority to tax regardless of colonial protests.

While that tax on tea would come back to haunt Parliament later (I’ll tackle the Boston Tea Party in a future post), colonial unity had won the day, all without the shedding of blood and all within the legal system that allowed petition and redress of grievances.

These were not rebellious subjects, but citizens of the empire using constitutional means to achieve their goals—a lesson even for those of us today who are disturbed by all the unconstitutional actions we see in our own government.