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“The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age” Stephen Decatur and the Defeat of the Barbary Pirates

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Anyone who has followed my writings on this site knows that I love Naval history, especially that of the United States Navy. It was one of those subjects that I began reading about in grade school. Since I grew up as a Navy brat it is unsurprising that even after a detour of seventeen and a half years in the Army that I ended up in the Navy.

In 1803 the still very young United States Navy was two years into its campaign against the Barbary Pirates who sailed from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco.  The Navy, which had been disestablished after the Revolution was reestablished by Congress to protect American merchant sailors who were constantly being accosted by British, French, and Barbary ships, on March 27th 1793.

For years the United States like other nations had paid tribute to the rulers of the Rulers of the Barbary states for free passage of its ships in the Mediterranean, as well as hefty ransoms to free the sailors that were enslaved following the capture of their ships.  By 1800 tens of millions of dollars had been paid and in that year the amount of tribute paid was 20% of the government’s total revenue.

In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli demanded the payment of $225,000 tribute from the new President of the United States President Thomas Jefferson. In years past Jefferson had advised against payment of tribute believing that such payment only encouraged the Barbary States to continue their actions as he had when the French demanded similar tribute in 1797.  The anti-naval partisans and even his Republican allies had blocked his recommendations even though Secretary of State John Jay and President John Adams agreed with him.

These partisans insisted that tribute be paid irregardless of the effect on European trade or the fate of American seamen because they believed that the Atlantic trade and involvement in the “Old World” detracted from the westward expansion by diverting money and energy away from the west.  When Jefferson refused to pay tribute, Karmanli declared war on the United States by cutting down the flag at the US Consulate in Tripoli.

Jefferson sent a Naval small force to defend protect American ships and sailors and asked Congress to authorize him to do more as he did not believe that he had the Constitutional power to do more without Congressional approval. Despite the fact that Tripoli had declared war on the United States, Congress did not issue a declaration of war, but instead authorized Jefferson to “employ such of the armed vessels of the United States as may be judged requisite… for protecting effectually the commerce and seamen thereof on the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and adjoining seas.”

Jefferson sent the best of the United States Navy to deal with the situation and US Navy ships soon began to take a toll on the pirate vessels.  The squadron was composed of ships and commanded by officers that would become legend in the history of the Navy. Commanded by Commodore Edward Preble and included the Brig USS Argus, the Frigates USS Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, EnterprisePhiladelphia, Schooner Enterprise and Brig Syren.  Numerous young officers who would distinguish themselves in the following years served aboard the ships of the squadron.

One of the young officers was the 24 year old Captain of the 12 Gun Schooner USS Enterprise Stephen Decatur the son of a Navy Captain who had entered the Naval service as a Midshipman in 1798 and who had risen rapidly through the ranks due to his abilities and leadership. He was among the few officers selected to remain in service following the end of the Quasi-War with France.  By the time that he took command of Enterprise Decatur had already served as the First Lieutenant of the Frigates USS Essex and USS New York.  After an altercation with British officer while wintering in Malta he was sent home to command the new Brig of War USS Argus. He was ordered to bring her to Europe where he handed over command to Lieutenant Isaac Hull who would achieve fame in the War of 1812 as Commanding Officer of the USS Constitution.  Decatur was given command of Enterprise on when he detached from the Argus.

On December 23rd 1803 while operating with the Constitution Decatur and the Enterprise captured the small Tripolitan ketch Mastico which was sailing under Turkish colors.  The small ship was taken to Syracuse where Commodore Edward Preble condemned her as a prize of war, renamed her Intrepid and placed Decatur in command.

Normally such a transfer would be considered a demotion for an officer of Decatur’s caliber; but events at Tripoli had forced Preble to make a bold strike at the heart of the enemy.  On October 31st 1803 the Frigate USS Philadelphia one of the most powerful ships in the squadron, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge was lured into shoal water and ran aground on an uncharted shoal and was captured.  Her crew was taken prisoner an imprisoned while the ship was floated off the reef by the Tripolitans. The ship was partially repaired and moored as a battery in the harbor. For the moment the powerful frigate was out of action until her foremast which had been cut down by Bainbridge in his unsuccessful  attempt to float the ship off the shoal could be replaced.

Burning the Philadelphia

The threat posed by such a powerful ship in the hands of the enemy was too great to ignore. Preble ordered Decatur to man the Intrepid with volunteers and make a plan to destroy the Philadelphia while the ship was at anchor and unable to put to sea.  Decatur took 80 men from the Enterprise and was joined by eight more volunteers  from USS Syren including Lieutenant Thomas McDonough who had recently served aboard Philadelphia and knew the ship well. The Intrepid was re-rigged with the

Under the cover of night of February 16th 1804 Decatur took the former Tripolitan ship into the harbor beneath the dim light of the new moon.  The ship was able to slip past the guns of the forts overlooking the harbor using an Arabic speaking Sicilian sailor to request permission to enter the harbor under the ruse that she was a merchant ship that had lost her anchors in a storm.

The request was granted the and Decatur sailed the Intrepid to bring her alongside the Philadelphia without Securing permission from the Tripitolan watch standers aboard Philadelphia to tie up alongside the frigate. When he drew alongside the massive ship Decatur ordered his crew to board the Frigate. After a brief skirmish with the small contingent of sailors aboard he took control, and after ensuring that the ship was unseaworthy, he and his sailors set the frigate ablaze. When he was sure that the fire could not be extinguished he ordered his men back aboard Intrepid and sailed out of the harbor under the fire of Tripolitan shore batteries and gunboats.

The mission complete Decatur sailed Intrepid back to Syracuse where he was greeted as a hero and became one of the Navy’s legends.  Pope Pius VII publicly proclaimed that “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast, than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of the most heroic sailors that ever lived and no stranger to daring, said that Decatur’s accomplishment was “the most bold and daring act of the Age.

Decatur leading American Sailors in hand to hand combat against Barbary Pirates at Tripoli 1804 his younger brother Lieutenant James Decatur was killed aboard another gunboat in the action

Decatur would return to command the Enterprise in 1804 and would prove himself again against the forces of Tripoli. He distinguished himself  in the years to come against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812 and later in the Second Barbary War.

In that final Barbary war, Decatur’s squadron decisively defeated the Algerian fleet capturing the Frigate Mashouda and killing the highly successful and chivalrous commander of the Algerian raiding squadron, Rais Hamidu.

Following the defeat of the Algerian fleet, the  Pashas of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli all made peace and reimbursed the Americans for the financial damage that they had done.  His victory ended the terror that the Barbary States had inflicted on Europeans for centuries and helped bring peace to the Mediterranean.  More than any one man Stephen Decatur was responsible for the end their reign of piracy and terror in the Mediterranean.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, Navy Ships, US Navy

Insane, Impaired, or Evil? Questions the Loyal Opposition Must Ask

Edward R. Murrow

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great American journalist and pioneering radio and television broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” His words are profound. He, along with William Shirer covered the rise of the Nazis and then lived through the height of the Red Scare and the McCarthy era inquisition. Of course he was right, the fact is that it does not matter which party controls the reigns of government or who the President is that principled opposition is not disloyal.

This is an important fact to remember even as the current President of the United States, his accomplices in the world of Fox News and Breitbart, and his fanatical supporters in what is called the Christian Right dare to say. The fact is that for our government to function as the founders intended it is absolutely necessary for the minority party, as well as other minorities be allowed to dissent. When that Constitutional right is abridged in any way it endangers our society and our way of life. In an age where opinions can be picked up cheap on the internet, television, or radio, and where things like courage, fortitude, and real faith are in short supply, we have to acknowledge as Murrow did “that we are living in an age of confusion – a lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria.”

We have a President who has spent the year after his election victory demonizing his opponents, be they members of the press, the Democratic Party, or even members of his own Republican Party for infractions that had they happened under any previous American President of any party would have never happened.

Some politicians, pundits, and medical professionals have suggested that the President is either insane or perhaps suffering from the early stages of dementia. Others disagree and believe that he is neither insane or suffering from dementia but that he is a master manipulator who knows exactly what he is doing. His list of actions that would have certainly damned the candidacy of any previous Presidential candidate, or the term of of office of any other President grows with every passing hour. Despite that whatever opposition there is seems to be ineffectual and shunted aside. In normal times the suggestion that the President might be suffering from a type of mental illness or a medical condition that impaired their cognitive ability would be a cause for bi-partisan concern, and to think that the President might be a manipulative prospective tyrant would as it did during Watergate turn his own party against him. Honestly, the thought of an either insane or cognitively impaired President trying to demonize his opposition or one that is bent on crushing them are both bad scenarios. I think that the latter is worse if his own party has surrendered its soul to their ideological goals so much that they are willing to go along with actions and statements that just over a year ago many of them said should disqualify someone from the presidency.

My problem is that I am a historian and that I have studied totalitarian states and the history of how they became such. What I am seeing going on now frightens me. We are moving closer to a totalitarian system of government than I could have ever thought could have happened in this country. I believed that our system of checks and balances coupled with a free press would keep anyone from overthrowing our system of government and establishing a totalitarian state, but we seem to be moving rapidly in that direction.

Historian Timothy Snyder noted in an interview with Sean Illing: “We think that because we’re America, everything will work itself out. This is exactly what the founders refused to believe. They thought human nature is such that you have to constrain it by institutions. They preferred rule of law and checks and balances.”

The rule of law, the Constitutional system of checks and balances, and the underlying premise of the Declaration of Independence cannot be sacrificed for political expediency. The question one has to begin to ask in light of all of the President’s actions and words is: is the President insane, is he impaired, or is he evil and intent on establishing himself as a tyrant? None of those options are good, but if the President’s supporters were principled as was the Republican Party in 1973-74 during Watergate then such actions can be stopped. However, if they are not, and if the leaders of the President’s Party knows or suspects that he is insane, impaired, or evil and acting against the Constitution, but take no action in order to get their agenda passed then they are no better that the non-Nazi German conservatives of 1932-1935 who abandoned all principle because Hitler gave them some of what they wanted.

I’m going to stop for now, but remember the questions about the President posed by many other than me that must be answered: is he insane, is he impaired, or is he evil?

Honestly I don’t know. I can speculate, but the questions have to be asked by people in elected or appointed offices established by the Constitution, as well,as the press, and the citizenry if we are to retain our republican system of government. Dissent is not disloyalty. Asking such questions is not treason. Our founders wrestled with this. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

Murrow noted: “No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, News and current events, Political Commentary

Our Liberty Depends on Freedom of the Press

Franklin-Press

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Benjamin Franklin wrote: Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” This is true in any nation, but especially so in a democracy like ours. Our founders understood the vital importance of a free press to the health of the nation, and they understood that people had to be educated so that they might be able to discern truth from lies. Thomas Jefferson underscored this fact when he wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

There is a terrible threat to the freedom of the press today. One comes from the government. Well before he took office President Trump began to openly threaten the freedom of the press. Since he took office he has increased his attacks on the press as a whole and against individual journalists. Likewise his surrogates do the same and twist the very meaning of the Constitution in order to justify their attacks on it.

The fact is that such actions are the key to dictatorship. It is evident that the attacks are meant to discredit the press and to make the people suspicious of the one non-governmental source of information that our founders insisted as being absolutely vital to our freedom as Americans. Jefferson said so when he wrote: Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

But the other threat to the freedom of the press comes from a populace that is unable to understand the basic workings of our form of government and who will not accept or tolerate opinions different from their own. Such is grist in the hands of leaders who despise the constitutional liberties granted to all Americans, not just their interest groups or supporters, as well the very proposition that our nation was founded upon; the proposition in the Declaration that “all men are created equal…”

But despots of all types despise a free press, and fear it. Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked that “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” This is why tyrants fear the press. A Southern critic of slavery, Hinton Helper wrote “Slavery tolerates no freedom of the press, no freedom of speech, no freedom of opinion.”

In our history there have been times when free speech and a free press were banned. One of the most notable times was during the debates about slavery during the 1830s and 1840s as the abolitionist movement began to be more vocal. They attempted to silence dissent in Congress, and beginning in 1836 the House of Representatives, led by Southern members of Congress passed a “gag rule” for its members. The “Gag Rule” “banned all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers related in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery.”

Likewise they attempted to quash any opposition to slavery in the press at the federal and state level. In response to the proliferation of abolitionist literature in the South which was being sent through the mail, Senator John C. Calhoun proposed that Congress pass a law to prosecute “any postmaster who would “knowingly receive or put into the mail any pamphlet, newspaper, handbill, or any printed, written, or pictorial representation touching the subject of slavery.” Calhoun was not alone as other members of Congress as well as state legislatures worked to restrict the import of what they considered subversive and dangerous literature.

Critics of a free press often point to times where the press has failed its duty and there are times that it has. There have been partisans who have used the press to inflame opinion rather than to inform. That being said, people need to be able to discern truth from error, they need to understand their form of government and its checks and balances. The press has the responsibility of reporting and educating. The press can bear legitimate criticism when it is wrong or acts in bad faith, but the answer is not to suppress the opinions of any government critic, especially the press whose duty it is to keep the government and its leaders honest. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote: Freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society.”

But even with the flaws of the press our founders understood it to be absolutely vital to the American experiment and to humanity. James Madison wrote: To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”

Likewise, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics…derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.”

To silence the press, to restrict its access, to ban negative reporting about the government, or to attempt to delegitimize and demonize press opponents destroys a necessary pillar of a free government. Once a free press is silenced that which remains serves only as a propaganda organ for the government, incapable of telling the truth. This is why it is so important; a free press is not about the freedoms of journalists to speak, but of a people to be informed. During the height of the controversy of the publication of the Pentagon Papers which exposed the years of lies the government had been telling about the American involvement in Vietnam which the government tried to suppress, the late executive editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee told Dick Cavett that freedom of the press was “not the right, exclusively, of a few people who have chosen journalism as a career. That isn’t what the hell it’s about… “It’s about your right to read, your right to be informed.”

Freedom of the press must be guarded and cherished, and it is under some of the most malicious attacks today that it has ever experienced in our nation. It is something that must be defended despite its shortfalls and the various biases of different news organizations, and it is up to citizens to know their form of government and to be smart enough to recognize when news is, to use the current word, fake.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, News and current events, Political Commentary

We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In a few days we as Americans will be celebrating the 241st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As the day approaches I’ll be writing more reflections on what it means even as I intersperse some articles on the Battle of Gettysburg, a victory that helped ensure that the Union would survive and that helped to pave the way for the understanding that the Declaration must be understood in its universal sense. In a day like ours where many localities, states, and even the Federal government appear to be working to limit those rights, often based on the religious beliefs of a powerful, well-funded and militant minority of conservative Christians, this all the more important.

For me it is the truth both of a concept of Liberty which must continuously be advanced or expanded, and the still imperfect embodiment of that concept in the land that it was born. The authors of the declaration wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”  Eighty-seven years later while dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg noted that the new nation was “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

Lincoln understood from the reality of war, and the statements of European leaders that the whole concept of a country being founded on a proposition like this, not race, not class, not religion, not station in life, was bound to be opposed, and was incredibly fragile. He confronted a rebellion which based itself on the belief that African Americans were less than equal, in fact subhuman and deserving of being enslaved by a superior race. Likewise, there were those in Europe who cheered the rebellion and believed that it proved that such experiments were doomed to failure, a belief that is still widely held, but more often by American elites than others.

But like it or not, the proposition that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights; a concept so imperfectly practiced by the very men who drafted it and those who followed them, still is right. That proposition was universalized as a political philosophy by Abraham Lincoln, is the basis of all hope for humanity. Tyrants, despots, dictators, terrorists, religious zealots of every sect filled with messianic visions, as well as madmen all desire to trample this proposition. Some desire to believe that those rights can simply be maintained by the power of a Constitution, but unless the people who swear to uphold that Constitution are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal that very Constitution can be perverted and used to enslave people, as it was by the men who drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Laws, and the Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cases ruled that African Americans were less than equal as human beings, and therefore not entitled to the same rights and liberties as were white people. It is the same constitution and laws that were used to deny citizenship and rights to Chinese immigrants until 1942, that were used by the government to interment native born Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the Second World War, which drove Native Americans off their ancestral homelands, massacred them by the tens of millions, and placed them on reservations without any rights of American citizens until 1924; and which denied suffrage to women until 1919, and denied basic civil rights to LGBTQ people until recently; rights that in many states are still denied by state legislatures. But without equality, freedom is an illusion.

Judge Learned Hand, perhaps the best qualified man ever to not serve on the Supreme Court wrote,

“Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of Liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of Liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of othe men and women; the spirit of Liberty is that which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” 

That is why the proposition in the Declaration which was universalized by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address is still of the utmost importance. It is why it must be fought for, especially when politicians like Donald Trump and others threaten its very existence, and whose followers see it as only as Liberty for themselves and their interests. That proposition is under duress today, there are millions of followers of Trump and the demagogues who would deny Liberty to others based on race, religion, ethnicity, economic status, gender, or by them being LGBTQ. But, Liberty is a perilous thing, but once that proposition of Liberty dies in our hearts, there is nothing that can save it, no constitution, no law, no court; and those who place their trust in it the demagogues will find that they will eventually lose their Liberty as well.

In 1858 Lincoln spoke in Chicago, and in that speech he linked the common connection of all Americans share, even recent immigrants, through the Declaration. It was an era of intense anti-immigrant passions, the American Party, which sprang from the Know Nothing movement which founded upon extreme hatred of immigrants, and Roman Catholics, and violence against them, had run former President Millard Fillmore for election as at their candidate in 1856 following the collapse of the Whig Party.

In opposition to this party and movement  Lincoln proclaimed that immigrants, “cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel a part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find those old men say that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,… That is the father of all moral principle to them, and they have a right to claim it as if they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote the Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and Liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” 

Lincoln was absolutely correct, it is that love of freedom, liberty, and equality that echoes in the Declaration, and it is still a revolutionary idea. We hold these truths to be self evident…

As a historian I cannot get away from this. Whether it is in my study of European history, particularly the Weimar Republic and the Nazi takeover, or the American Civil War, especially the times I visit the Soldier’s Cemetery at Gettysburg and talk about the Gettysburg Address with my students. The breadth of my experience, having visited Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, having watched the unadulterated adulation of crowds of Germans chanting Sieg Heil!,  having grown up in this country at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and having walked so many battlegrounds where American men have died fighting such tyranny makes me all too sensitive to why this proposition is so important.

That is why the quest for the fulfillment of that proposition is something that cannot be given up, it is in the words of Lincoln, “it is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought for have thus far so nobly advanced. That it is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead should not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” 

For me it is this proposition, the proposition mocked by the elites of Europe, the proposition that any republic founded on such a proposition was doomed to fail, this proposition that says “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” is what Independence Day is about. That is why in my remaining service to this country I will rededicate myself to seeing that “new birth of freedom” is fulfilled for every American.

That may seem a pipe dream to some people, and even impossible to others; but it is what far too many of the men and women who served before me gave the last full measure of devotion to duty to bring to fulfillment. Learned Hand was right, if Liberty dies in our hearts, no law, no constitution, no court, can save us.

Have a great Independence Day and please remember it is not about the day off, the picnics, or displays of military might, it is about that proposition; the one that is so easy to forget, the proposition that all men are created equal.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, Gettysburg, History, laws and legislation, News and current events, Political Commentary

The “Saving Principles” of the Declaration of Independence

img_2708

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in Springfield, Illinois on June 26th 1857, nearly 160 years ago. They are part of a continuum in the development of his philosophy of liberty and how he understood the words of the Declaration of Independence, and how he believed that the authors 0f that document understood the words that set the United States apart from all other nations. The words “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” were revolutionary for their time and the Jefferson understood them in that manner.

“They [the signers of the Declaration of Independence] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right; so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”

Though at the time they words of the Declaration only applied to white men, the words and writings of many of the founders were uncomfortable with the actual condition of black slaves as well as Native Americans. The had enough integrity to understand that what they wrote was a proposition that had universal implications which were not yet realized and would take time to happen. Those who mocked the document, the proposition, the founders, and the new nation understood that as well. It was a watershed moment for all of Europe was still under the control of Kings and despots. Thomas Jefferson understood how these words threatened despotic rule around the world and in 1821 he wrote to John Adams:

“The flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.”

But this was something that the people of the United States would have to wrestle with for decades before the most glaring aspect of inequality, that of slavery was overthrown. Frederick Douglass understood the importance of the Declaration even as white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line crafted compromises that left blacks in slavery and gave unfettered access for slave owners to go to Free States to recover their human property. In 1852 he wrote:

“I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

It is that ring bolt and it must be understood in its universal application and people in the United States and in countries which have embraces some portions of the concept and fight for it, otherwise it could be lost. Harry Truman noted this danger in 1952 when he said:

“We find it hard to believe that liberty could ever be lost in this country. But it can be lost, and it will be, if the time ever comes when these documents are regarded not as the supreme expression of our profound belief, but merely as curiosities in glass cases.”

Today the rights, protections, civil liberties, and opportunity to advance themselves of Americans are being rolled back in a manner that a few decades ago most of us would have found unimaginable. They are under threat many ways, too many to mention today and they must be continually fought for or we will lose them.

As Independence Day draws near I will continue to write about this subject even as I write about the Battle of Gettysburg. It matters too much.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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“Once you start down the dark path…” Longing for Honesty from the President

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thomas Jefferson once noted “Honesty is the first chapter of the book wisdom.” It is a lesson that the President, his spokespeople, and his flacks should learn. However after observing them on the campaign trail for nearly two years, and in the nearly five months since the election I doubt if the President  or his advisors have the capacity for this. With every day there is a new revelation of untruthfulness. On Monday FBI Director James Comey basically said that the President and his spokespeople were lying about their connections to Russia, and their allegations that the Obama administration had been spying on them. To way the President respond on Twitter and to be shot down in real time was discouraging for anyone that esteems the office of the Presidency.

The web of untruths concocted by the President and his advisors is stunning. I did not think that it was possible and I really hoped that once they had won the election that a modicum of sanity would take root and grow as the President and his administration dealt with the reality of the office. But that is not happening and it seems to me that they keep adding to the fire and with every new statement, with every new botched riposte to damning allegations, with every new  tweet and twitter storm, it looks like they are covering things that might be worse than any of us had imagined just a few months ago. Sadly for the nation and for the esteem of the office of the Presidency, the untruths, the shifting of blame, the deflections, and misdirection are destroying any credibility that President Trump might have had. Abraham Lincoln said that “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.”

That confidence that citizens give a new President is rapidly evaporating as the web of deceit grows on a daily basis. I wish that the President and his advisors could just admit the times when they were wrong, admit the times when the facts are not on their side rather than making up alternative facts, alternative truths, and alternative history. I long for the day when they will heed the words of Sophocles in Antigone, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” 

All of us can learn from our mistakes, even the mistake of being factually inaccurate once in a while. But when one continues to be untrue, when one compounds a lie with another lie, and another and another, it no longer is a simple mistake, it becomes the web from which escape is impossible.

For a leader, especially the President, this behavior is not only destructive to them as people, but to the esteem of the office that they hold, and detrimental to the people that they serve.

I long for honesty from this administration. I wanted this President to be successful and to be all of our President. I would hope that maybe something will happen to make him change his course and speak truth, admit error, and apologize for those that he has used his power to demean, destroy, and harm. But I fear that the President’s journey down the dark path of life has gone so far that it has consumed anything that might have been human in him. As Yoda said, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” 

So have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Slavery and National Expansion: the Compromise of 1850 or “The Privilege of Belonging to the Superior Race…” Part 2

slave-sale

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today the second of a three installment bit of my work dealing with American Slavery in the ante-bellum period. These next articles deal with the subject of what happens when laws are made that further restrict the liberty of already despised, or enslaved people. In this case the subject is the Compromise of 1850 and its associated laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

This is an uncomfortable period of history for Americans with either a sense of conscience, or those who believe the racist myths surrounding the “Noble South” and “The Lost Cause.”  I hope that you find them interesting, especially in light of current events in the United States.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Economic Effects of the Compromise of 1850

The interregional slave trade guaranteed slave owners of a source of slaves even if they were cut off from the international trade and it was an immense part of not just the Southern economy but the American economy. Slave owners “hitched their future to slavery; a single cash crop and fresh land,” [1] and refused to take an interest in manufacturing or diversifying their agricultural production outside of King Cotton. Slave prices tripled between 1800 and 1860 making human property one of the most lucrative markets for investment. The price of a “prime male field hand in New Orleans began at around $500 in 1800 and rose as high as $1,800 by the time of the Civil War.” [2] The result was that slave owners and those who benefited from the interregional slave trade had a vested interest in not only seeing slavery preserved, but expanded.

This resulted in two significant trends in the South, first was that slave owners grew significantly richer as the value of the slave population increased. Using even a conservative number of $750 dollars as the value of a single slave in 1860 the amount of value in this human property was significantly more than almost any other investment in the nation.  It was enormous. Steven Deyle notes that:

“It was roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital invested in manufacturing in the North and in the South combined, three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks. It was about equal to about seven times the value of all currency in circulation in the country three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop, and forty-eight times the expenditures of the federal government that year. ….”by 1860, in fact in the slaveowning states alone, slave property had surpassed the assessed value of real estate.” [3]

The rise in slave values and the increasing wealth of slave owners had a depreciating effect on poor southern whites by ensuring that there was no middle class, which “blocked any hope of social advancement for the mass of poor whites, for it was all but impossible for a non-slaveholder to rise in the southern aristocracy.” [4] The impoverishment of southern whites created some worry for those astute enough to take an interest in such matters. “In 1850, about 40 percent of the South’s white farmers owned real estate at all. There was thus, worried the Southern Cultivator in 1856, “a large number at the South who have no legal right or interest in the soil [and] no homes of their own.” The editor of a South Carolina newspaper that year framed the matter in less sympathetic terms: “There is in this State,” he wrote, “as impoverished and ignorant as white population as can be found in any other in the Union.” [5]

Some Southerners recognized the growing issue that the south was falling behind the north in terms of real economic advancement and that slavery was the culprit. Hinton Helper, a non-slave owning North Carolinian who had made his fortune in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and returned home to become disillusioned with what he saw wrote a book that had a major impact in the North among Republican politicians, but which was either banned or restricted in much of the South. That book “The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857) was “a book on the debilitating impact of slavery on the South in general and on southern whites in particular.” [6] Helper’s attack on the slavery system was as devastating as that of any abolitionist, and since he was a southerner the effects of his words helped further anti-slavery sentiment in the North and would be used by the Republican party in an abridged form as a campaign tool that they printed and distributed during the build up to the election n of 1860. Helper wrote that:

“Slavery lies at the root of all the shame, poverty, tyranny and imbecility of the South.” Echoing the free-soil argument Helper maintained that slavery degraded all labor to the level of bond labor. Planters looked down their noses at nonslaveholders and refused to tax themselves to provide a decent school system. “Slavery is hostile to general education…Its very life, is in the ignorance and stolidity of the masses.”  [7]

Many southern leaders saw Helper’s book as a danger and worried that should Helper and others like him speak freely long enough “that they will have an Abolition party in the South, of Southern men.” When that happened, “the contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South between the people of the South.” [8] That was something that the landed gentry of the slave owning oligarchy could never tolerate for if the non-slave holding whites rejected slavery, the institution would die. Thus, Helper, who was no fan of black people and held many violently racist attitudes, was denounced “as a traitor, a renegade, an apostate, a “dishonest, degraded and disgraced man.” [9]

Men like Helper were an anomaly in the South, other leaders were much more like Jefferson Davis who urged the creation of a “Southern “system,” internal improvements, building factories, even reforming education to eliminate all textbooks at odds with his notion of the blessings of slavery.” [10]

In the years the before the war, the North embraced the Industrial Revolution leading to advances which gave it a marked economic advantage over the South in which through  its “commitment to the use of slave labor inhibited economic diversification and industrialization and strengthened the tyranny of King Cotton.” [11] The population of the North also expanded at a clip that far outpaced the South as European immigrants swelled the population.

The divide was not helped by the various compromises worked out between northern and southern legislators. After the Missouri Compromise Thomas Jefferson wrote these words of warning:

“but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” [12]

The trigger for the increase in tensions that eventually ignited the powder keg was the war with Mexico in which the United States annexed nearly half of Mexico. The new territories were viewed by those who advocated the expansion of slavery as fresh and fertile ground for its spread. Ulysses S Grant, who served in the war, noted the effects of the war with Mexico in his memoirs:

“In taking military possession of Texas after annexation, the army of occupation, under General [Zachary] Taylor, was directed to occupy the disputed territory.  The army did not stop at the Nueces and offer to negotiate for a settlement of the boundary question, but went beyond, apparently in order to force Mexico to initiate war….To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means.  The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war.” [13]

To be continued…

Notes 

[1] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.10

[2] Ibid. Deyle The Domestic Slave Trade p.53 Deyle’s numbers come from the 1860 census.

[3] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.54

[4] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.48

[5] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.37

[6] Ibid. Goldfield  America Aflame  p.177

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.199

[8] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.235

[9] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.397

[10] Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour Harper Collins Publishers New York 1991 p.258

[11] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.42

[12] Jefferson, Thomas Letter to John Holmes dated April 22nd 1824 retrieved from www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/159.html  24 March 2014

[13] Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant New York 1885 pp.243-245

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