Friday, March 28, 2008

An Early Sex Scandal -- another fun with the forefathers post

I hate the way that the forefathers are portrayed in our educational system as chalky statues, devoid of human emotions and passions outside of a desire for independence from Britain and a feel for liberty. They were all too human, and, being very powerful, often larger than life. With that in mind, I turn to one of my favorite forefather episodes, a young United States' first political sex scandal.

Immediately, you might (if not for the title of this post) think Washington – given all the “Father of the Country” jokes, or Benjamin Franklin, with his lascivious, but possibly unrequited reputation, or even Thomas Jefferson, who was often on the hunt, but the honor actually belongs to that busy policy wonk and usually dedicated family man, Alexander Hamilton, who face decorates our ten dollar bill.

Hamilton started life in a low place, being the child of an unwed mother, which, at the time was quite a big deal. When of age, he made up for his savaged pride by becoming every bit the ladies man, and making his way through the hearts of young women in the revolutionary age with the same flair as he led the charge at Yorktown. Hamilton was filled with love, often perhaps, inappropriate. Some of his letters to other men were so passionate that they were later destroyed by his family. Although expressions of affection between men were far more acceptable then than now, these letters were especially so. His letters to his sister-in-law were also highly suggestive, and, again, the family’s censorship prevents us from telling the difference between friendly flirtation or an actual affair.

However, he was soon enough stung by cupid’s arrow and became engaged and then married a young beauty, Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of an important general in the war, and a very wealthy man. They were married in 1780 and soon began their family, eventually having eight children in all.

After a successful career during the Revolutionary War as an aide to Washington, leading the last great infantry charge, and having tremendous influence in fomenting the constitutional convention and getting it ratified, Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury under Washington and was particularly influential in establishing the direction of our financial affairs. But, who cares about that stuff? Let’s talk sex.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, sometime in the Summer of 1791, he had a visit at home from a 23 year old woman by the name of Maria (probably pronounced Mariah) Reynolds who laid a tale upon him of being down on her luck. Her husband, she said, was not only cruel, but had left her for another woman. She needed money to return home. Actually, it turns out she came from quite a respectable New York family and was related by marriage to the Livingstons, one of America’s foremost families. It seems likely that Hamilton might have known some of them. In any event, she no doubt laid it down thick and Hamilton was quite easily taken in by young woman's tales of woe.

It is easy to see Hamilton, a bit of an egomaniac although a decent man for the most part, being flattered by her appeal to “his humanity” and perhaps affected by her New York origins. Perhaps it had more to do with other emotions. However, most of this stuff, we get from him, and perhaps he lied. Hard to say, and we will return to that possibility later.

He let her know that he found her situation “very interesting” but also that it was not the best time to talk. By this, he simply meant, his wife, the lovely Eliza, was home. So, he proposed to bring her some money that night at her place. And so he did.

It is hard to believe that he didn’t have a nefarious purpose in going to her house out of sight of his wife. But he puts it a different way. According to Hamilton, he went to her home and gave her money. She was pleased. Hamilton later told us: “Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable”.

It was not a one night stand. That summer, Eliza took the children to her father’s home near Albany, leaving the hardworking Secretary of State at home alone. He filled that loneliness with Maria Reynolds. However, it was not long before she told told him that she was back with her husband.

According to Maria, her husband had made money speculating in U.S. securities. This might have triggered an alarm in Hamilton’s mind, although he never said so. Buying and selling the securities was in Hamilton’s bailiwick as Secretary of the Treasury. It was also a very controversial issue whether the beneficiaries of the securities should be the veterans they were originally issued to or the speculators who bought them. It was one of the first national issues that Hamilton and Jefferson, Secretary of State, battled over.

Soon, in what must have been an awkward occasion, Hamilton met James Reynolds himself. It is also possible that Hamilton knew him or his family, although again it is far from clear. He was told by Maria that he was being presented to her husband as her beneficent savior. What Hamilton learned from the meeting should really have set alarm bells ringing. Reynolds was getting information from a person within Hamilton’s own department, a fraudulent character, William Duer, who would eventually end up in prison.

But Hamilton must also have been relieved when Reynolds seemed grateful for Hamilton aid to his wife. It appears he was actually grateful, but not for the reason Hamilton foolishly believed. Advising Hamilton that he was leaving on a trip, he asking if he could have a job upon his return with Hamilton’s department.

Hamilton was, of course, torn between loyalty to his wife and the fear of being caught with the manipulations of his lover. Later, writing about it, Hamilton said that whenever he began to drift away from her, Maria would either complain that her husband was abusing her or she would threaten to tell Hamilton’s wife. She claimed a desperate love for him and even threatened suicide.

It was all, apparently, a ruse, although Maria may have not been very much in control either. Someone who knew her wrote that she had severe mood swings, sometimes professing deep love for her husband and then complaining that he forced her to prostitute herself to famous people so that they could wheedle money out of them. She was of “innocent countenance” and able to assume an “endless variety of shapes”.

Hamilton had another problem. His own wife wanted to come home. He had to write her and suggest that she not come home, as if he were very concerned for her health. He used the fact that it was still yellow fever season, a deadly disease that both of them suffered from during their lives. Because people, even the forefathers, are complex and can hold contradictory thoughts in their head, let’s be generous and say he was concerned about that too. But, still, it is difficult to read him calling her his “angel” and the like in letters when he was having his fling with Maria. Whatever his feelings were, he was clearly duplicitous when she said she was coming home soon. He quickly wrote to her: “Let me know beforehand your determination that I may meet you at New York”. He certainly didn't need her catching him in the act.

No amount of justification by a marital transgressor ever sits well with the public, however human it might be. But, Hamilton, the highly successful lawyer, puppet master of Washington (in some people’s mind) and the winner of almost every challenge he had ever endeavored, figured he could do it. So, he tried (forgive the spelling – it’s him, not me):

“No man tender of the happiness of an excellent wife could, without extreem pain, look forward to the affliction which she might endure from the disclosure, especially a public disclosure, of the fact. Those best acquainted with the interior of my domestic life will best appreciate the force of such a consideration upon me. The truth was that … i dreaded extremely a disclosure – and was willing to make large sacrifices to avoid it”.

Oh, so it was all for Eliza. Who wouldn’t wish they were there to see him explain that to her later on. When she came home, things only got worse. He could no longer see Maria at their home, and had to go to her house, which helped lead to his downfall. Reynolds came back that Fall too and told Hamilton that he had been turned down for a job with the treasury department. Probably a good thing for Hamilton, as he would have had a tougher time extricating himself from this affair if Reynolds was working for him.

As winter came on, Maria told him that Reynolds had discovered their affair, now about six months old, and that he had written Hamilton and demanded a reply, on penalty of his telling Eliza. As for herself, she wished she had never been born. In all these matters, it is impossible to hazard a reasonable guess whether she was telling the truth, merely playing a role, or both.

Reynolds told Hamilton that he had followed one of Maria’s messengers to him. When he confronted her, she admitted everything to him (again, so he said -- they may have worked this all out amongst themselves). He played it for all it was worth, whining that the one he thought was his best friend was actually his worst enemy and had taken everything from him. To a man with Hamilton’s outsized sense of honor, that must have had a tremendous impact. Reynolds was good at what he did too.

Blackmail was all that was left for the plot to reach fruition. Hamilton gave Reynolds the thousand dollars he demanded. He had to borrow to get it and it was a tremendous sum of money in those days. Despite his success as a lawyer, Hamilton was never rich. Reynolds claimed that Maria did not love him anymore, so, he was taking their young daughter, Susan, and leaving. Unfortunately, this was not so. Once payment was completed, Reynolds actually wrote to Hamilton to suggest that he continue to regard Maria as a “friend” and “visit” her. What is it they say about paying blackmailers?

Of course, the cringing Hamilton did it, although he himself says he continued to do so only after Maria wrote him and implored him to continue the relationship. So, he did while also continued to make blackmail payments.

As obsessed as Hamilton became with Maria and as distressed as he must have been at the blackmail, he continued at his work like a maniac, battling it out with Jefferson in the press and fighting for political supremacy. While he continued to be victorious in the political field he also continued to sew the seeds of his eventual downfall with his affair.

Hamilton had many enemies, one a man named Jacob Clingman, who happened to be a cohort of Reynolds. Clingman became suspicious when he saw Hamilton leaving Reynolds home and another time come in to give Maria a note, supposedly at the direction of her husband. Men like Reynolds just didn’t give instructions to men like Hamilton, who, after all, was the president’s right hand. Clingman became more suspicious when Maria told him that Hamilton had paid her husband a lot of money, and when James claimed that Hamilton was giving him advice on speculating in government securities. His suspicion was confirmed when he went with Reynolds to Hamilton’s house and he collected $100 from him. Possibly, of course, Clingman was just in on it all from the beginning.

Hamilton seemed powerless to break the relationship off for over a year. Every time he tried to leave, he would get a note from Maria tying him in emotional knots. But, if things could get worse, they did. Eliza became pregnant again. Duer got arrested. Hamilton received threatening notes from Reynolds who forced him to give him more loans (Hamilton, an almost impossibly competent man actually took receipts for them, while at the same time, in a contradictory fashion, would disguise his handwriting). These lovely letters from Reynolds took turns with those of Maria who evinced her love for him.

Where the turning point came, it is very difficult to say. But, finally, Hamilton refused to pay Reynolds another large chunk, but gave him a smaller amount instead. But, it was to be the last time.

Sadly for Hamilton, matters would continue to spiral out of control. Reynolds and Clingman were arrested in fall, 2002 for defrauding the government. For Reynolds, it was following a family tradition. His father was jailed at the end of the Revolution for public fraud too. Not surprisingly, Reynolds thought Hamilton had done him in. After Hamilton refused to answer his letters, Reynolds let it out that he could take down a one of the department heads. Possibly to his credit, Hamilton saw to it that Reynolds not be released while such a threat went unexplained. Or, maybe, he had kind of a death wish, and wanted to clear the air about everything.

Clingman got out on bail the same day he was arrested, and asked his influential boss to intercede with Hamilton. In one of the multitude of times their lives intersected, Aaron Burr was asked to play honest broker and witnessed the conversation. Clingman’s boss suggested that it would be a good idea to have Clingman and Reynolds refund the money they made and give up their connection to the treasury department who was feeding them information.

Clingman had one of Hamilton’s notes to Reynolds and tried to use it, giving it to his boss for leverage. His boss, in turn, showed it to Jefferson protégé, and future president, James Monroe. Maria herself visited Pennsylvania’s governor and confided the affair to him. She visited Hamilton as well and showed him the notes she had kept. Despite his pleas, she retained at least some.

When Reynolds got out, the charges dismissed due to the governor’s intercession (and because he agreed to turn over information to the treasury department he had received), he also met with Hamilton. He claims that Hamilton, the poor sod, paced up and down and smacked his hand against his leg and head, no doubt saying to himself “You idiot”. It is not hard to believe.

Reynolds agreed to talk to Monroe the next day, but then fled or holed up somewhere. Since his case was over, it must be wondered why, and if Hamilton had given him reason not to cooperate with Monroe. Monroe determined to go to Washington with others who had become involved, but first they decided to give Hamilton a chance. At first, he told them that he would talk to them that night, most likely to give himself time to try and figure out what to do.

But, when they did meet with him, Hamilton ‘fessed up, admitting his affair. They actually told him not to go on, but, Hamilton, being more than a little obsessive, insisted on telling them the whole story. At the time, they were sympathetic to him and believed him. However, Monroe had some more meetings with Clingman, and took the notes in Clingman's possession to copy. He also foolishly let another friend of Jefferson have a copy. It was not long before the evidence was in the hands of Hamilton's great enemy.

Jefferson, still the Secretary of State, believed the notes were evidence of Hamilton's corruption. The two of them were engaged in an ongoing battle of anonymous letters in the press. Monroe, knowing full well it was Hamilton writing the anti-Jefferson articles, even mockingly suggested that the author of the letters come forward so that they could all witness someone of such “immaculate purity”. For Hamilton, being teased in this manner must have been torture.

In 1793, Maria divorced James, and then married Hamilton hater, Clingman. Her lawyer, future Hamilton killer, Aaron Burr, who turns up more often than any bad penny ever had a chance could. Still, throughout this whole episode, Burr, showed himself to be the most principled one in the whole power group. Ironically, Maria accused James of adultery in their divorce. Neither was really heard from again with respect to this matter. Some suggest that was Hamilton's doing.

So, everything turned out ok, right? No, but it is quiet for a few years. Not completely though. In 1793, Hamilton’s friend, Henry Lee, wrote to him in cloak and dagger fashion that he wished he could speak with him behind closed doors because of “whispers” he had heard.

In 1797, a pamphlet came out authored by Jefferson’s own personal hack writer, James Callendar (who would one day turn on his master). He publicly suggests that he would soon reveal Hamilton’s corruption and adultery. He has Clingman’s and Reynold’s proof in hand and soon published that too.

Although Callendar said that the information was published in retaliation for Hamilton’s party attacking Monroe, then in France it was probably just a shot across Hamilton’s bow by Jefferson. In one of his anonymously published letters, Hamilton had hinted about Jefferson’s affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings, which, in the interest of keeping this short, we will not go into today. Nevertheless, Jefferson could not have been pleased as rumors of his having sex with his slave was not something a presidential hopeful needed to have batted about. Indeed, his own henchman, Callendar, would use it against Jefferson later on.

Hamilton and even Eliza were furious with Monroe, believing he was responsible for releasing the evidence to Jefferson (who as always, stayed behind the scenes). Monroe told Burr, again an intermediary, that it was not him, but the person he entrusted a copy too, who had given Jefferson the evidence.

Hamilton had another card to play. Jefferson had once made a play for his neighbor’s wife (which he eventually admitted) and Hamilton let it be known that this was on the table. Thus, Callendar was reeled back in by Jefferson. These were our forefathers at their best.

But, then, Hamilton, believing that damage has been done to his reputation such that the public believed he was guilty of corruption in the discharge of his duties as Secretary of State, decided to admit to the lesser of the crimes and published his own pamphlet which admitted to the adultery, but denied the corruption, just as he had done with Monroe and others.

Probably because he could not contain himself and it expiated his guilt, Hamilton again went overboard and gave great detail about the affair. It is hard to believe that this did not have a devastating affect on Eliza, not to mention their growing family (she had yet another child), but we will probably never know.

I’m sure the public loved the scandal as much as they would now (think Eliot Spitzer). Abigail Adams, no Hamilton fan (he was beleaguering her husband, now president) wrote “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself”.

The Republicans, of course, were delighted, and wrote gleefully about it. My favorite is Madison’s letter to Jefferson:

“The publication under all its characters is a curious specimen of the ingenious folly of its author. Next to the error of publishing it at all, is that of forgetting that simplicity & candor are the only dress which prudence would put on innocence. Here we see every rhetorical artifice employed to excite the spirit of party to prop up his sinking reputation and whilst the most exaggerated complaints are uttered agst. the unfair & virulent persecution of himself, he deals out in every page the most malignant insinuations agst. others. The one agst. you is a masterpiece of folly, because its importance is in exact proportion to its venom.”

Callendar wrote to Jefferson: “If you have not seen it, no anticipation can equal the infamy of the piece. It is worth all that the fifty best pens of America could have said agt. him, and the most pitiful part of the whole is his notice of you.”

Although the next year Washington pretty much forced Adams, also a Hamilton hater, into making him Inspector General of the Army, it was almost certainly the end of Hamilton’s public political career, had he wanted to run for office. Despite many political figures repeating the myth that the constitution would have prevented Hamilton from being president as he was not born in the United States, the constitution makes exceptions for those who were citizens at that time. Of course, Burr made it an absolute certainty a few years later by killing him anyway.

Hamilton and Monroe nearly dueled over it. Eventually, with the ever present Burr interceding, the fight was averted. One would think the experience would have helped Hamilton to avoid the duel with Burr later on, but it didn’t.

One last reverberation happened many years later. Long after Hamilton’s death, Monroe, himself old, paid his respects to Hamilton’s widow, Eliza. She was unforgiving, making it clear that nothing less than a full apology for lying about and slandering her husband would ever do. This was tough stuff, as, even if he did not act in a completely principled fashion, nothing he had said was untrue. He did not give her her wish, and left abruptly, with both unsatisfied. Eliza lived pretty much for ever, died in 1854, a full half century after her husband.

As stated above, much of what we know came from Hamilton's little pamphlet. It has been suggested by more than one scholar that he lied throughout the whole episode; that he used his adultery to cover up taking part in corrupt activities, by furnishing Reynolds with names of veterans that would help him with his securities swindle. One author, Julian Boyd, agrees with Callendar that Hamilton himself forged the letters he published that were supposedly written by James and Maria. It is well known that Hamilton’s family bought up every copy of his pamphlet that they could.

For those of you who like sources, both the recent Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, and a slightly older, shorter but very interesting biography of the same name by William Sterne Randall have versions of this story, if a little one sided. A more scholarly and questioning approach, if less readable, was taken in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton edited by Harold Coffin Syrett which you can read online thanks to Google.

As usual, in the end we are left only with clues and can come to our own conclusions (or not). It might be unsettling to think that the heroic Hamilton would have done as Callendar and some modern scholars suggest. I, for one, hope not, but would not be surprised at anything any politician did, particularly to keep himself out of trouble.

Still, whatever the truth, the story helps us see these almost legendary figures for the flawed, if otherwise brilliant and heroic humans that they were. And that's the way I like it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The meaning of the right to bear arms

While I do not believe, as one of my friends insists, that the Supreme Court has become solely a political body, interpreting the constitution so as to fit the requirements of the majority political philosophy, as opposed to law, I do consent that it has to some extent become so, particularly when controversial cases come up.

I am sometimes amused when those on the left (usually the minority) rail against certain Supreme Court decisions by the court as being right wing politics, when some of those decisions were made by left wing majorities (the Kelo case, allowing states to take property from some private individuals to give to another private group, comes to mind) or by a mixed majority. However, sometimes they are absolutely right.

Last year, with the addition of Roberts and Alito (replacing O’Connor), the court undoubtedly swung right, particularly in criminal matters, but not as far as the critics claimed (feel free to check out my 7/4/07 post, How far right did the new Supreme Court swing?). After all, both new conservative justices replaced other conservatives, although O’Connor was a known occasional swing vote, particularly on abortion and affirmative action. However, I do not expect a change from the fact that in controversial cases, the court will line up like ideological ducks, with Anthony Kennedy being the Weeble in the middle, wobbling most often to the right, but occasionally to the left. He is the escape valve. When the right heats up too much (in his opinion, of course) he lets off the steam to the anger of conservatives and applause of liberals. Usually he is a steadfast conservative.

The left will be disappointed in Kennedy in the most politically controversial case this year, District of Columbia v. Heller, which was argued this week in the Supreme Court of the United States. It is the first time the court has touched upon the question of the second amendment (often just called the right to bear arms) since before WWII. In that case, U.S. v. Miller, the court determined that sawed off shotguns were not the type of weapon that would have been used for a military purpose (they were wrong – our troops used them in WWII), so it could be regulated; however it did not state what the second Amendment meant.

I’ll state right at the beginning, I do not have a rigidly strong opinion as to my conclusion (hey, it took me ten years to make up my mind about the death penalty), although I think I have a good grip on the arguments. This is actually consistent with my view of the constitution, which is different from that I’ve heard from really any commentators. I believe:

- From the beginning the constitution only worked in a larger sense, and never really worked well in many particulars, including the bill of rights.

- The amendment process either worked too well or too poorly, depending on your perspective, making changes rare, and, obviously, only when there was large agreement.

- Some parts of the constitution are simply not decipherable by us today, including, as one example, the second amendment. Other parts of the constitution are simply ignored

- Theories or phrases such as strict construction or original intent (favored by the
right) and fundamental rights or living constitution (favored by the left) are meaningless in terms of being the only valid way to interpret the constitution. They are adhered to by their proponents when it suits their purposes and disregarded when they do not (Bush v. Gore being a great example of both side cleaving to arguments which they traditionally opposed).

- Even if strict construction or original meaning were good strategies in the first place, the use of precedent a/k/a stare decisis, makes them unusable. Once the train goes off the track, you can’t just have it run back on.

The primary point of this post is not to tell you what the answer to the second amendment problem is for certain, but how difficult it is to come to a firm conclusion about it. Like most things that are contested on partisan grounds in this world, the certainty those who consider themselves enlightened should not to taken too seriously. I do know which way I would vote, though, and I will advocate a decision by the court (and would probably be outvoted).

The Heller case deals with laws prohibiting handgun ownership and use in the federal capital, among other regulations. Congress has, pursuant to the constitution, direct control over Washington, D.C. Therefore, this case will be determined slightly differently than one involving a state’s right to ban or control handgun usage, because there is no discussion as to whether any particular one of the bill of rights applies to the states (if you don't understand what this means, don't worry, keep reading). We will look at the sexiest issue, the one that everyone would really like to have determined, whether the second amendment prevents the state from restricting an individual’s right to own and use a handgun, and ignore most of the others.

Here’s the amendment itself:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

If I can summarize the arguments of both sides -- from the gun lobby point of view the amendment plainly protects a right for individuals to bear arms, and, conversely, from the anti-gun lobby point of view it plainly protects the right of states to arm their militias and nothing more:

In looking directly at the language of the amendment, which is always the best place to start, we come up with problems which are difficult to resolve:

- Why, unlike the other first 8 amendments in the bill of rights, does the 2nd amendment state a purpose, and how does it affect its meaning?

- Does the “people” mean individuals or the body of persons in the state as a whole?

- What does “right to bear arms” mean?

- Why would the founders place a state right among all the other individual rights in the bill of rights?

None of the answers are self-evident.

If we ask what Madison (who drafted the proposed bill of rights) or Hamilton, the other most important interpreter by convention, thought as to the meaning of the amendment, as is often done in these constitutional cases, we come up empty, at least if we are looking for a direct answer. There are comments in the Federalist Papers, which they wrote (with a little help from almost forgotten founder, John Jay)but I do not see them as particularly persuasive.

John Adams stated in his A Defence of the Constitutions of the Governments of the United States of America, he takes the position that guns should not be available to everyone, for it would put liberty of all at risk. So much for trusting “the people”. It is, of course, the opposite of the position taken by the gun lobby. He wrote his treatise, however, before the federal bill of rights existed. He was not part of the constitutional debate itself, however influential he might have been.

Possibly, the founders knew what the second amendment meant and didn’t think it would be necessary to state it. Or, just as possible, there was no necessity of it being brought up or challenged at that time and differences of opinion as to meaning, as happened with other areas of the constitution, did not come up for a long time.

If we look at history, we can find many hints, but hardly definitive ones.

Interpreting the constitution often involves looking back at British law which continued to bear sway in America during and after the revolution. A 12th century statute known as the Assize of Arms has been summoned from its deep slumber by the pro-gun forces. This statute generally required all men to bear arms so that they could aid in the defense of the country. Indeed, the common law crime of mayhem, that is maiming or disabling someone, was a common law crime because it made it impossible for the victim to do his duty to the country if needed.

This statute became part of English Common Law, which was certainly the basis of American law even after the Revolution, except where overruled by the constitution. The argument goes that since all citizens (white males being the only ones with rights) were considered to be in the militia and have a duty to bear arms, individuals certainly had the right to bear arms.

The English Bill of Rights (1689) gave a right to bear arms to some Englishmen (Protestants), which, given modern equal right laws, would be held to now apply to all people. The pro-gun briefs before the court rely heavily on the fact that in England individuals had a right to have a gun for self defense purposes.

Supporters of the proposition that there is an individual right to bear arms found in the second amendment rely heavily on this logic.

I have several problems with this approach. For one thing, England is not America, and the constitution was a reaction to English oppression. If we simply follow English common law, there would be no point to a constitution. Moreover, too much can be made of ancient law comparisons. For instance, my own review of the the Assize of Arms argument tells me that, in short –

1. The Assize of Arms was, by the time of our constitution, an antiquated and unusable document.

2. The weapon concerned therein was a lance and some protective devices (e.g., shield, padding), not firearms of any kind (they were not invented).

3. It specifically links the use of the arms to service to the king.

4. It makes the possession of the arms an absolute duty; no one has ever interpreted the 2d amendment so; in fact, it is clear at the time of the Revolution, arms were rare, which was one of our biggest problems in fighting the British.

5. It specifically limited the arms possessed by each man to what he would need to service the king. This would seem to rule out the idea that possession of arms was a right for any other reason.

6. It refused the arms to Jews and non-freemen, a rule which would indicate that it only applied to those who would be expected to support the king.

Although the gun lobby plays it down, there can be no doubt that, by its very language, the framers were thinking of the militia and the defense of the state when they wrote the amendment. Instead, the gun lobby argues that the words relating to the militia are a “preamble”. They argue that preambles are not part of the law and should be ignored. The anti-gun lobby argues that you do not ignore preambles, were this one, when they are necessary to interpret the statute, in this case, the constitution. I cannot accept the gun lobby’s theories. There is a preamble to the constitution, but there is no preamble to any of the bill of rights. To call it that, is merely rhetoric, and makes no sense.

However, just as pathetic an argument is one of the theories being put about by the anti-gun lobby that, since the constitution also provides that the militia may be used by congress to put down insurrection, this must refer only to a militia for the purpose of putting down slave insurrections. Their logic continues that since we no longer have slaves, there is no purpose to the militias and the amendment no longer has meaning. Obviously, this is nonsense. Insurrection was a general problem. there were two famous ones in the early days of our country (the Whiskey Rebellion and the Shays Rebellion). It cannot be reasonably limited to slave insurrections, however much that may have been a concern at the time. If that is the best that they have to rely upon, they will surely lose. But, they do have better arguments.

One of these arguments is, of course, why did the framers put in this phrase about the militias, if it has no meaning? No words in the constitution may be taken to be meaningless.

Another strong argument, in my humble opinion, raised by the anti-gun lobby is that the very first article in the constitution itself, i.e., made prior to the bill of rights, gave congress control over the state militias in everything except picking officers and training the troops according to the rules congress made. This did not go over well with the states which had a fear of the central government (one of the main concerns fought over at the constitutional convention) and standing armies. When the states ratified the constitution, a number did so while proposing bills of rights. One of the most well known debates on ratification occurred in Virginia. James Madison, who is usually given credit as the main drafter of the bill of rights, was part of that debate, and was fought by George Mason and Patrick Henry among othgers. The second amendment was successful in relaxing some of the anti-constitution crowd concerns by making certain that the federal government could not disarm them.

George Mason was a constitutional delegate who is largely ignored (well, he was on the losing side at the convention, but has had great historical influence). He wrote proposals for a bill of rights in the Virginia ratification process, the inclusion upon which he was quite insistent. Number 17 on his list stated:

That the People have a Right to keep and to bear Arms; that a well regulated Militia, composed of the Body of the People, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe Defence of a free State; that Standing Armies in Time of Peace are dangerous to Liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided as far as the Circumstances and Protection of the Community will admit; and that in all Cases, the military should be under strict Subordination to, and governed by the Civil Power.

This language was an expansion of Virginia’s own bill or declaration of rights, also drafted by Mason at the time of the Revolution. It stated:

That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

The differences are quite important to my mind. Virginia’s own constitution says nothing about the people having a right to bear arms for self defense purposes. Mason’s proposal at the convention opens with a specific clause – that the people have a right to bear arms (leaving aside for now what “the people” and “right to bear arms” may have meant to them at the time). This was much firmer than the Virginia constitution’s language, which sounds almost philosophical and advisory.

But, when Madison’s bill of rights was proposed, composed from suggestions by the various states, the language of Mason’s proposal, upon which it was obviously based, was shifted, and its meaning further clouded by the house and senate committees. Now, it led off with what some say is the purpose and others, a limitation – “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,” and, after a mere comma instead of a semi-colon, it gives the directive – “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Madison had examples before him from other states which could have included the right to bear arms for individual self defense. He ignored them. The house and senate did not debate them. No one considered it at all.

Both pro and anti-gun proponents present plain language arguments. On the pro-gun side, they argue that the amendment plainly states that there is a right to bear arms stated in the bill of rights. They are clearly right that if the second amendment does not provide an individual right, it is the only one of the bill of rights not to do so, which seems unlikely.

However, too many times have I heard those on the right who argue for this premise also argue with respect to the first amendment provision on religion, that the entire amendment must be read together (that is, the prohibition of making laws respecting religion together with the prohibition against infringing religion) to allow them to willy nilly drop it here). How then can they reasonably argue that an amendment which is plainly talking about militias should be read as if it doesn’t? It is a strong argument which feeds right into the anti-gun lobby argument – if the framers wanted to prohibit denying a man his arms, they merely had to state it like they stated the other prohibitions – e.g., “Congress may make no law respecting an individual’s right to bear arms.” Why cloud it up with this militia talk if there was no need for it?

The words “right to bear arms” poses similar problems. According to noted scholar, Garry Wills (admittedly, one of my favorite historians), “bear arms” or just “arms” historically refers only to military duty, right back to Beowulf through Shakespeare and up through English history. The problem with this line of reason is that the other side claims that there are other examples of “bearing arms” or “arms” having a meaning that can be applied to individuals.

As has been shown by some commentators all of the mentions found in congress, now a search done with the aid of digital technology, it all, I say again, all, had to do with the right to bear arms in connection to the militia, and not at all self-defense. This is a very powerful argument. Research shows that this is true up through 1821, a full generation after the bill of rights.

A more recent study by history professor, Nathan Kozuskanich (Ohio State), using modern technology (all of the original documents, newspapers, congressional record digitalized with a key word search available) shows that overwhelmingly, but not universally, the founding generation used the word “bear arms” only in a military context. This is fairly devastating to the gun lobby’s argument. He also claims that the examples (1763-1791) which do not support that reading are merely ambiguous.

Kozuskanich also argues that Americans who owned guns at that early time were often subject to military regulations. This in itself is not so devastating an argument to me, although it is certainly a powerful legal argument. The founding fathers often passed laws that violated the constitution (the most famous of which were the alien and sedition acts). However, since both sides regularly rely on what the founding generation did, it should be hard to make that argument (not that this ever really stops anyone).

The gun lobby has its own long list of historical quotations which they claim show that “bear arms” includes people bearing arms for self defense or any other purpose they claim. They use dictionaries, English law, statements in the Federalist Papers and other commentators as well as quotes from the various states. They quote Madison’s own notes which state that first of all, the amendments relate to private rights.

Unfortunately, the examples on each side have been far too detailed on both sides to even pretend to do it justice here, and there is no point if I am not comprehensive. You can read the briefs and articles yourself, if you wish to get beyond policy arguments. All I can say, is that having read the the briefs of the two parties and the government, and several of the other briefs submitted by interested parties, listening to the argument before the Supreme Court, and without having any pre-existing agenda myself (really, I could care who wins), I found, to my surprise, that the historical arguments of the anti-gun groups were much more persuasive to me than those submitted by the gun lobby. If I were on the Supreme Court, I would likely side with the District of Columbia. The right was more likely meant to be collective and to preserve the state’s ability to arm their own militias.

Of course, another person (who actually reads all this stuff) might say, like many of the Supreme Court Justices, that the pro-gun lobby has the better of the argument. However, it will be of interest to me to see how the court deal with the overwhelming evidence of the meaning of the relevant terms to the congress that framed them, as opposed to the shotgun approach taken by the pro-gun lobby.

Another argument made by the anti-gun lobbies supports this, at least legally. Whether judges are “conservatives” or “liberals,” they have always been persuaded by the fact that we have always done something a certain way for 200 or so years, whatever the constitution may say. Frankly, the fact that we do something a certain way for a lot shorter period of time has been used by both sides to justify not changing it, even a matter of a few decades. And, certainly, there is no doubt that we have had regulations on guns, or banning of the individual right for individuals to "bear arms" for a long time. In D.C., for example, since 1801, soon after its founding, and well over two hundred years ago.

I recognize that this presents some paradoxes, the main one being, why would they place a state right in a list of individual rights? One answer might be that the framers weren’t thinking so rigidly as we are now. If one of the rights they wanted to add in was about the “the people” of the state instead of an individual, then that is what they did. Madison's private notes, after all, were private notes, and those who fiddled with and voted on the language may not have considered his opinion at all.

Despite this, however, it should be noted that a number of scholars on the left have recently gone along with the arguments of the right, perhaps even the most revered of them all, Lawrence Tribe, although he argues that the D.C. statutes are merely reasonable restrictions that do not impair the constitutional right he has come to believe in. This certainly makes the anti-gun’s arguments more difficult to support, as we have a world which is often more interested in who is supporting an idea, rather than what the basis of it is.

This has led some other anti-gun proponents to acknowledge that they very well might lose this issue and instead to complain that it will make the world more dangerous. This is, of course, the very un-constitutional policy arguments that most constitutional attorneys eventually engage in, particularly when they are losing. It is also difficult to support in face of the fact that there are some states in which every adult may have a gun and murders are not rampant. However, the argument is often made that not every state is alike, and it is the very urban states in which their will be a serious problem.

Most lay people on both sides who argue about these things also really only care about the policy arguments and could not be bothered with what James Madison or some English statute said eight centuries ago. The gun lobby simply believes that people need to defend themselves and others. They believe that they may need to go up into the hills to fight off the central government (well, I guess it could happen someday) and that the crime rate will go down. The anti-gun lobby believes that this is a boon to criminals, that the crime rate will sky rocket, and that a bunch of men with hand guns and rifles have no chance against the federal government anyway should that ever happen.

To most people, that is what the constitution means – whatever they would like it to mean. Frankly, that is what it means to most judges and lawyers too, however much they pretend otherwise. And, as you can see from the mess above when you try and pay attention the legal minutia, maybe that is all there is too it anyway.

The anti-gun group has good reason to think it will lose. Right now, the right controls the Supreme Court in about a 4 7/8 to 4 1/8 proportion. By using these weird fractions, instead of 5 to 4, I mean that the one judge, Anthony Kennedy, occasionally swings over to the left, and determines all majorities on the court (every single 5/4 decision last term). I see no reason to believe that he will swing left in this case. However, his questions at the oral argument would naturally lead one to believe that he has made up his mind in favor of the expansive interpretation in favor of a private right. My guess is, he will be asked by the chief justice to write the opinion for the majority.

I don’t believe that the world will change that much should the gun lobby win, as is likely. If the second amendment prohibits local legislatures from prohibiting gun control at large, it will not prevent them from heavily regulating them. Although there will be an issue as to what the standard will be before regulation can occur (don’t worry about this; it is legal mumbo jumbo) if the purpose of the law is to prevent crime or save lives, that will easily pass the test.

What will be regulated then if the second amendment is found to contain a constitutional right for individuals to own and carry guns? Well, don’t count on this being a constitutional right that kids possess. Or felons. Possibly, some safety training may be allowed to be required as well as gun locks, no concealed weapons in public, bans around schools and security, etc. Moreover, the courts will probably follow the old Miller decision in that the amendment only applies to arms used at the time of the bill of rights or their descendants. The right will not likely include shoulder fired explosives or other high tech weapons. Virtually everything that is on the table now except the ability to keep ordinary people from owning or possessing common firearms in some circumstances will probably need to be litigated and will be on the table.

As for me, I live in a state where I could buy a gun if I wanted to anyway. Will I? Let me put it this way. Recently, I bought a hunting knife to take with me on hikes. Seemed like a good idea in case I had emergency whittling to do. I flipped it up in the air absent mindedly while typing and nearly performed a surgical operation on myself that makes me now prefer to sit with my legs closed. Don’t think I’ll be taking advantage of any individual right to bear arms soon. Don't want to blow anything off.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama, Obama, banana fana fo fama

If you have no idea what this title means, it is a child's game we played with people's names when I was young. It just means that I am thinking about Obama today, as I was earlier this week. It is hard not to if you watch the news.

I note that up to recently, I have not had much to say about Obama in this blog. Like many, I was not sure what to make of him. I thought that Clinton would probably just beat him in the primaries, but that he would make the more formidable general election candidate. Obviously, though, he has been winning of late. A few days ago I said (paraphrasing) that the uproar over his former pastor's statements was the beginning of the end for him; that the major media outlets were missing this story, but that it would begin showing up in polls and would also be relevant in Pennsylvania,the next big state to hold a primary. I also said that I do not believe for a second that there is anything wrong with having friends or family that have extreme positions. It certainly does not mean you adopt them yourself.

His speech, made today in Philadelphia, deserves commentary. I watched the whole thing. I urge you to do so too, most likely on C-Span. You will not be bored even if you don't regularly watch the news and have no idea what Jeremiah Wright said.

Let me start with the positive. Before I could even think about posting, commentators were saying things like -- it was the best speech since I Have a Dream. One pundit, partial to hyperbole, also intimated since Lincoln. Presumably, he meant the Gettysburg Address.

There is no doubt, it was a great speech; it probably was the best since King's, although nowhere near as poetic. It spoke directly to his problem of decrying the statements of his mentor without completely "rejecting" him. It addressed the growing racist quality of the Democratic party race. He was measured, and articulate (sorry, political correct mavens) and asked us to try to understand the people we disagreed with, and to try to judge them according to their fears, while at the same time rejecting extreme remarks. It was overwhelmingly positive while dealing with the most delicate of political issues.

One of the reasons it was a great speech was that he treated it like a speech we might see in a movie, or that is reminiscent of the great speech makers -- he didn't start by chatting up the crowd, making obeisances to local politicians, and then saying how is wife was the greatest thing in the world. He started with a topic, developed his points and then came round at the end to the beginning (a more perfect union). It was, in a word, classic. And it deserves much of the praise it will get.

Now for the negative, or at least, less positive. We tend to exaggerate how great speeches are today if they are only good, or if they are made in dramatic circumstances. Bush's speech before congress made soon after 9/11 was called Churchillian, even though it was written by others, and had only a few good lines which were written specifically to sound like Churchill.

If you get a chance, pick up a book of Churchill's speeches (or, come to think of it, read my 5/9/07 post dedicated to him). Find King's I Have a Dream speech online (or, forgive the self-promotion -- no one is paying me for this -- read part of it in My Devotional - 1/22/08). The poetry and power of these speeches came in a different era, where speakers would not be embarrassed to emote in a flowery and melodramatic manner. The same could be said for the Gettysburg Address, which almost certainly wasn't delivered as well as it could have, had King or Churchill read it, but writing, not oration, was Lincoln's strong point.

Obama's speech was great for now, when almost no one really even tries to make great speeches anymore. It cannot compare to many of Churchill's, King's or Lincoln's best (he made a few brilliant speeches but many boring ones too).

As good as the speech was (much, much better than any Bush speech), for modern times at least, it may not do the trick. While listening, I wondered how many people would get a chance to listen to it. Most will get sound bites and hear praise from the networks and cable and criticism from talk radio (at least talk radio anyone listens too). My thought the other day was that the Wright flap would cause an even greater racial divide in the Democratic Party.

As much as Obama tried to put a salve on the wounds his former pastor caused (by old speeches, it should be said), his speech may just draw attention to the fact that blacks and whites still have different ways of looking at the world and America. A great speech may not always have a great effect, particularly if everyone is not pulling in the same direction. In this case, it might have an opposite effect. I'm not sure which way it will go, but the polls (taken at large, not individually) and the results in Pennsylvania will let us know. Maybe like many brouhahas in our attention deficit days, it will last a news cycle or so, until some politician pulls a Spitzer or some young girl gets kidnapped. And then I will be wrong.

Speaking about race openly and with good intentions does not always make things better, particularly in the short run. Purely as an anecdote, I remember making myself very scarce instead of attending an office meeting at which an "expert" was called in to discuss diversity. I did this because rather than "heal wounds" in an already incredibly diverse and peaceful office, I expected fireworks, and my sensitive nature would not handle it well (plus, I just hate going to stupid meetings). My call was good. It was, by all reports, horrible, and caused hurt feelings and racial tension in the office for a few weeks.

Obama invited us to talk about race, and to try and understand why some people say nasty things. He believes we, as a people, can handle it. I'm sure we can -- in the long run. But, I'm not sure we can do this in the middle of a presidential race when so many people are looking to be divisive. And certainly, not everyone will sign onto his perspective that we are, and must be, slowly moving towards a more perfect union.

As for me, the speech did have an effect, although I was not so swept away by the pretty words to become an Obama supporter. I have been unabashedly pro-McCain in this blog, because I feel he is the most moderate of the three possibilities, while recognizing that the squeeze the right puts on him may cause him to be more extreme in campaigning than I like. However, Obama touched the part of me which hates the Rush Limbaugh/Keith Olbermann style of politics where the adversary is always the enemy, and must be destroyed like Carthage, and their land salted. Although moderation is not in itself a virtue, in my book at least, mindless devotion to party politics is far, far worse.

However, I was impressed enough with Obama that I will make more of an effort to listen to what he has to say, and not dismiss him as quickly as I have before. I have severe doubts about his foreign policy (ironically, I note that his derided statement that we should attack Al Qaeda in Pakistan if the government may have just been proven to be official government policy). Depending on what challenges we face, it may not matter. The economy and race relations might, if fact, be more important in the next 8 years than Al Qaeda and terrorism. Crystal balls never work. Communism dried up so fast, you blinked you missed it. That's not a prediction, but a hope.

While recognizing that Obama seems genuinely dedicated to a politics that is barren of extremism, his "new" politics, he certainly has not done anything until now to keep his supporters from ratcheting up the racism. I haven't found the Clintons to have played the race card. I am sometimes astonished when they are accused of it, as when Ferraro made her comments and was labeled a racist. It is not enough that he says, I don't think it is so. He has to say to his supporters, stop. You are causing more racial divide, not less. However, like McCain, he must recognize that he has a base, and they will not want to be slapped down by him. Being a politician must be horrible.

Clinton deserves a brief mention here too. I have repeatedly stated her that she should be reminded over and over not to raise her voice -- it turns people off. My advice to her here is to leave this controversy alone. That means that neither she nor her people should say anything about it -- anything, other to say that it is not an issue to them. Every time she tries to remind people of an Obama weakness publicly, she is booed, or makes people angry. If Jeremiah Wright's words are to have an effect on their campaigns, then it will, but not because she lights it up with a laser pointer. Shut up and talk about your experience (such as it is).

As the campaign heats up I find that I am devoting more and more space here to politics, although frankly, I enjoy much more writing articles on Father Abraham, famous people named Moses, Santa Clause (you have to go back a while). Sometimes, I blog twice a week when I do this, and hope to do so a third time this week to include a political issue with an historical base that is also quite controversial, and may be coming to a head. While I research another few days, I am finding that my preliminary conclusions are surprising even me. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Political campaigns in the age of Super Political Correctness

There have been so many personal attacks in this long campaign season that it is hard to keep count. My usual opinion is that those who are offended, shouldn't be, and that virtually everything is stretched to the limits of its possible meaning.

All the front runners are at fault. The worst of it has been the absurd claims of racism. Last week we went to new heights with targeting the 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, because she said that Obama was lucky to be black at this time, and that's why he was doing so well. I don't remember her exact words, but she also said that if she was named Gerard instead of Geraldine in '84 she would not have the VP candidate. I saw a clip on her on another show and she was choked up that people were calling her racist. It was neither fair, nor sensical.

She repeatedly has said that she was not talking about his qualifications, just the circumstances. There was more she could have said, but since she is in the public eye, she can't. I'll do it for her. I would be upset if people think that I'm racist too, but here it is.

Obama is a phenomena. When people say he is the most talented politician of his generation, they have good reason. Even people in the other party (except for the far right) like him. I've compared him to a combination of Dean Martin and Martin Luther King, Jr. Cool, passionate and charismatic all at the same time.

The truth is, were he not half black and half white, he probably would not be anywhere nearly as popular. By his manner, his dress, his diction and political mission (get rid of the old divisive politics) AND his half white looks and skin color, he is not threatening to many whites he otherwise might have been. This would be, in public, completely unacceptable to say. Many people, black and white, would determine that such a statement was racist. The media is very ready to find almost anything racist that doesn't just say, Obama is the most talented politician of his generation. And, of course, he is.

Here's a further example of these claims of racism. Tonight I watched as Chris Matthews supported a Harvard professor on his program who was arguing that the famous 3:00 a.m. ad was racist. What? The argument goes (although it is just absurd) that it was not an ad about foreign policy; it was about crime. The 3 a.m. phone call was to report a crime and what if it was a black president who answered. Again, let me say, what? Somebody was reporting a crime to the White House? And expected the president to answer? Yet this is considered the likely interpretation by a number of people.

Of course, tonight the shoe is on the other foot. For quite a while quotes from Obama's pastor, friend and mentor, Jeremiah Wright, have been surfacing, mostly on talk radio. They are overtly racist. Today a slew more came out in the media and there is a feeding frenzy. The statements are not only racist, they are anti-America (such as "Go to Hell, white man" and "God damn, America").

I'm very much against this whole guilt by association thing. Frankly, when someone society doesn't like gives money to a candidate, the candidate should be able to say, "Well, he (or she) is a moron (or detestable) but I'm keeping the money. I hope he gives me more." What possible difference does it make that the money came from the wallet of an evil or criminal person? When someone is friends with another person who may have said or obnoxious or racist things (if they were, in the real world, racist), then the candidate might disagree, but still maintain a friendship with the person. I personally know people who are racist. I might even argue with them (and on one occasion, at least, yelled about it). I haven't stop being friends over it. Although I wouldn't go as far as saying that everyone is prejudiced to some degree, as conventional wisdom has it, virtually everyone seems to be. But we are all not going to stop being friends, are we?

All that being said, I believe that this very well may be Obama's undoing. I remember all too well the divisiveness of the OJ trial. Polls showed that black people overwhelming believed in his innocence, and white people in his guilt. Obviously, reason was out the window, whatever you think happened. The same thing may well happen here. Black people will understand the frustration and bitterness out of which Wright spoke and feel that Obama need only reject the particular statements made, without rejecting the pastor completely (as Hillary insisted with respect to Obama and Farrakhan). Obama has now clearly said that he will not completely reject Wright outright, who is, at least, tenuously associated with his campaign. I understand him doing that as a person. I respect it. Politically, it will disasterous.

Without batting an eye, Hillary and, eventually, McCain, will use this to devastating advantage. Probably the media will do it for them. If not, their supporters will. It will drive a wedge between many blacks and whites. The party has not been doing well with this, and will not in the future.

It has been quite clear for a while that if Obama is not the candidate, there will be bitterness and divide based on racism charges. The Democrats know they need the black vote to win the general election, just as the Republicans count on the evangelist vote.

I personally do not believe that Obama shares Wright's views any more than I share the views of people who are among my best friends on the left and the right. This is a lousy way for him to lose. Although I would not have likely voted for him, I believe he means what he says -- that he wanted a less divisive politics. Unfortunately for him, neither his opponents, nor his own supporters, will sit still for that.

I have no problem with waffling when I am not convinced on a subject. But I feel strongly that today marks the beginning of the end for Obama. It will first show itself in the polls, and then in Pennsylvania. The mainstream media is not yet aware of it.

Obama will then have the choice that Hillary had up till now, with many calling for her to give up for the good of the party. He can throw in the towel, taking many young people of all colors and many black votes with him. Or, like Hillary, he can fight it out and hope the tide turns. We will see if he is as ambitious as she is.

p.s. On a totally different note, tonight was the last episode of Tucker on MSNBC. I could not tolerate Mr. Carlson when he ruined Crossfire and never imagined I would like his show. Without qualification, I think he has the most unbiased, fairest, most reasonable show of any of the evening pundits on MSNBC, CNN or FOX. He is opinionated (conservative/libertarian), but kind, and lets his guest say whatever they like. Only once did I hear him say something unkind and unreasonable (suggesting that someone he disagreed with had mental problems) but he backed away from it in the next segment (maybe because the producer made him). His decency and fairness were probably his undoing. With Chris Matthews making bizarre charges in front of him, and Keith Olbermann doing his extreme partisan dance behind him, his show must have looked tame, perhaps boring to some. I hope I am not the only one who emailed him to tell him of my appreciation.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Holy Moses

I realized at some point that there were a lot of famous or at least accomplished people I could think of named Moses. Maybe this should be particularly interesting – it’s just a coincidence. Earlier this week I learned about one such Moses I had never heard of before. It started me thinking, and the next thing you know, I had a blog post in mind. Stay with this. These people are more interesting than this silly premise might lead you to believe. At least you will want to see who is on the list. We’ll start with the big guy.


The namesake for all those future Moses’s, Moishe’s, Mousa's, Musa’s, etc. Of course, we have no idea if he ever existed, although I, for one, seriously doubt it. Moses doesn’t appear until the second book of the Bible, Exodus, and then dies in the fifth book, Deuteronomy, but somehow is considered the author of the first five books. OK. I love myth, but couldn’t they make it even just a little bit internally logical?

Supposedly, Moses’ mom put him in a basket and floated him down the river so that his life would be spared from the babycide (I made that up, but I like it) being committed by the evil pharaoh. Of course, this story is strongly reminiscent of the legendary beginnings of Sargon, an almost prehistoric, but real king who preceded any possible Moses by a millennium or more, just as the story of the Sumerian flood story found in Gilgamesh long preceded the Bible’s version. The two birth stories are too close to be coincidental. Both had secret births, were floated down the river in a basket made of rushes or reeds, both were plucked out of the river and went on to Kingship or leadership. The Bible tells us that Moses’ name means “drawn from the water”. Sargon was pulled to safety by a god called “The drawer of waters”. Hmmm. Of course, Sargon then got to have sex with the goddess of love for a few years, but he told his own story. So . . . .

After a life of toil, Moses did not get to enter the promised land and God took him before his eyes lost their luster and his vital force was gone. Why? Well because he didn’t like the way Moses brought water from a rock to sate his thirsty people. Nice guy, this God, by conventional standards, right? Don’t think I’m going through the whole Moses rap. You all know the stories and this isn’t Wikipedia. But, one thing I did learned about Moses recently I’m betting you don’t know either is that he also plays a role in a relatively new religion known as Chrislam founded in Nigeria almost 30 years ago by a fella named Tela Tella. Chrislam is exactly what you think it is. Sort of like the Yogalates of religion. Good luck with that one, Tella. It is definitely going to take off soon.

Robert Moses

I grew up on Long Island, where everyone learns that Robert Moses built the parkways and Jones Beach. I guess he did. He built (well, not him, but he planned it all) a whole mess of stuff and lived for 92 years. Recently, some authors have concentrated on the hundred thousand or so of poor people who had to relocate because of his chosen route for the Cross-Bronx Expressway through their homes rather than a less populated but wealthier area. Not to go one for ever, but he was responsible for the parkways throughout New York, with Long Island given priority, and lots of bridges including the Triborough, The Throgs Neck, The Whitestone, the Verrazano and . . . you know what? He always bored me, which is why I never read The Power Broker. You read it. I’m moving on to a more contemporary Moses.

Moses Malone

I am no longer sure who the dominant centers in basketball are. Maybe Tim Duncan and Yao Ming. I am told that Shaquille O'Neal is on his way out. But, this next Moses, aka Big Mo, although no Shaq physically, was a massive individual himself, and a dominant figure in pro basketball for over two decades. His longevity is, in itself, extraordinary, but he was also a great player. Let’s take a look at the longevity list of some of the other greats:

Michael Jordan – 16 years
Wilt Chamberlain – 14
Oscar Robertson – 14
Jerry West – 14
Bill Russell – 14
Larry Bird – 14
Magic Johnson – 13

Big Mo, who started in the American Basketball Association (ABA), played for 21 years as a pro. Only Robert Parish, 21 years, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, 20 years played about as long. Since Malone played his first two seasons in the ABA, Parish has the NBA record (he also played about 300 more games than Malone, which is a lot). Malone’s best years were in the early 80s when he teamed with Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and other stars to make one of the best teams in basketball history on the Philadelphia 76ers.

He scored over 27,000 career points (5th all time), had over 16,000 rebounds (again, 5th all time, but by far the most offensive rebounds since they started counting), was MVP 3 times, made the Hall of Fame (a given), and the celebrated, if controversial list of the 50 greatest NBA players ever. Not too shabby. All in all, a pretty good Moses.

Robert Moses

Didn’t we do him already? No, different Robert Moses. This one it is unlikely you ever heard of unless you read up on the civil rights movement. A standout student, Moses left Harvard for a while to go south to be a Civil Rights leader in the early 60s. Like many of those leaders and participants, he was ridiculously brave, repeatedly risked his health and life, while being very dedicated to the non-violent aspects of the movement. It is intriguing though, that, unlike many of the other leaders, he long resisted every attempt by the media to make a hero out of him. He would not cooperate with a number of attempts to make him famous or do interviews for a long time. He didn’t exactly escape notice, as there are a few biographies about him and a number of books on the movement which speak of his important role.

However, he fled the United States during the Vietnam War and spent many years teaching in Africa. Make of that what you will. He finally sought more attention for his civil rights work when he wanted to publicize the Algebra Project that he founded, and wrote a book called Radical Equations, comparing the civil rights movement with his math project. A lifetime teacher, he believed it was critical to help blacks in algebra, which he believes is a “gatekeeper” course. He’s my favorite unknown Moses.

Edwin Moses

This Moses is a little bit of a miracle himself. A track star in the 1990s, he dominated his event, the 400 meter hurdles as few athletes have ever dominated their sport. The 400 meter hurdles is an unusual track event. It requires great speed, near that of a sprinter, phenomenal stamina like a middle distance runner, and the ability to stay focused enough to hurdle over 3 foot high barriers (intermediate hurdles) by running between hurdles with perfect strides.

Here’s what is different about this Moses from other great athletes. For ten years he completely dominated the event and NEVER lost. He won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games and again in 1984. He would have certainly won in 1980 too, when the U.S. boycotted the Soviet games. How do I know? Because between 1977 (after he was already Olympic champ and world record holder) until 1987, he won 122 straight races, something that is looked upon in track and field like DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak in baseball. Nobody does that.

Most of the greatest champs occasionally lose, although there are a handful of others with similar records (Marciano comes to mind, although he fought in 9 years a lot less than Moses raced). Moses was not able to keep his streak going forever and came in 3rd in the 1988 Olympics at age 33 (as if that would be bad for anybody but him), when most track athletes are long, long retired. He first broke the world record in ’76 (and broke it again the same day) and then held it for 16 years. Yet, he still has the 2nd fastest time ever. Kevin Young, who broke Moses’ record, really only had two great years.

Moses Ezikiel

This is the Moses I learned about earlier this week while I was visiting the Stonewall Jackson house in Lexington, Virginia. He was a sergeant in the Civil War for the Virginia Military Institute, which he graduated from after the war. He later studied art in Europe where he became the first non-Italian to win the Prize of Rome. After the Civil War he made a statue of “liberty” for a group in Philadelphia. Until 1917, he made many famous statues and busts, including of Washington, Jefferson, Homer, the gods Pan and Neptune, Jesus and even Napoleon and Robert E. Lee. A pretty accomplished Moses. But, since I merely skimmed a book about him, that is all I have to say about him.

Grandma Moses

Her name wasn’t really Moses. It was Anna Mary Robertson, but I’m listing her anyway. She took up art, at first embroidery, after her husband passed away when she was 67 years old. Arthritis required her to pick a new craft. Her first painting exhibition happened when at age 78 years old (1938). She was Norman Rockwell before Norman Rockwell. By the next year, she was internationally famous. Her longevity coupled with her late start is what makes her so memorable.

Think about it. She was born just before the Civil War. She started painting and became famous at the beginning of the Second World War. She died during the Vietnam War in 1961. Or, looking at it another way, she was born before the Civil War and died when I was 2 ½ years old. Holy Moses.

George Moses Horton

I’ve never been a poetry guy, but this Moses interested me for another reason. Born a slave at the end of the 18th century, he began creating poetry as a kid. At some point, he was allowed to go down to the local college where the students would pay him to recite for them. He wasn’t the first slave to publish poetry, but he was the first in 50 years or so, and the first ever in the South. His 1829 book, The Hope of Liberty, was published in North Carolina, a place where, at the time, there was great fear of slave literacy, not to mention any actual hope of liberty. Here’s an excerpt from one sample of his work, The Slave’s Complaint, which I plucked off of a poetry website (the name of which, I’m afraid I can’t place now):

Am I sadly cast aside,
On misfortune's rugged tide?
Will the world my pains deride

Must I dwell in Slavery's night,
And all pleasure take its flight,
Far beyond my feeble sight,

Worst of all, must Hope grow dim,
And withhold her cheering beam?
Rather let me sleep and dream

Something still my heart surveys,
Groping through this dreary maze;
Is it Hope?--then burn and blaze

I admit, Ogden Nash (“If called by a panther, don’t anther”) is more my cup of tea, but not bad for someone with every single disadvantage you can imagine, and then some. This Moses sort of makes us seem like underachievers. He went north after the Civil War, but freedom may have taken his edge off, and he wrote no more.

Moses Fleetwood Walker

It was when I learned about this Moses a few years ago that I realized how many famous Moses’ there were. He was another pre-Civil War baby, born in 1856. He (and his brother, who wasn't named Moses, and played less) was actually the first black ball player in the major leagues. I know you are thinking about Jackie Robinson, but this Moses was an old man by the time Jackie Robinson was born. He was the first black baseball player in the major leagues in 1884 when his team joined the American Association, then a major league. His team folded after that year, and no one else wanted him or his brother. Although he continued playing on other teams in lesser leagues until the 1890s, there were no more black players in the major leagues until Robinson. Just for the sake of history, there was another ball player named Bud Fowler who actually played before Moses, although not in a major league.

Moses was also interesting for several reasons. He started playing baseball at Oberlin College, a rare integrated school where he studied Greek and Latin among other things. He also went to law school at the University of Michigan, although I am not certain whether he graduated or not.

Not surprisingly, his life and career were a constant struggle against racism. In 1891, he stabbed a white man to death in Syracuse, New York, who was part of a group harassing him. He was acquitted on self-defense grounds to huge cheers due to his local popularity.

In the early 1900s, he started a movement to have blacks leave America to colonize in Africa. As with everyone else who tried this, not so much luck. You can read his story in a fairly recent biography, Fleet Walker's Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball's First Black Major Leaguer, by David Zang.

Phoebe Moses

You have actually heard of this Moses before, but you know her as Annie Oakley. Why do I know her real name? Well, I was only in one school play in my life and it was Annie Oakley. I made sure I got the role of the store proprietor because he was the only character who didn’t have to sing. Anyway, she was kind of interesting and I read up on here when I probably should have been studying something in school.

The play, as far as I remember it, was fairly accurate. At least, she learned to shoot as a child to help feed her family, defeated a champion, Frank Butler(“Everything you can do, I can do better”), in a shooting contest and eventually married him. They toured with Buffalo Bill’s show for many years. She toured in Europe where she famously shot a cigarette out of a German nobleman’s mouth. Supposedly, she had an amazing eye and could shoot holes in coins and corks out of bottles from 30 paces. She eventually moved with Frank back to her childhood hometown, and died there of poisoning from handling lead bullets her whole life. Frank immediately stopped eating and died within a few weeks.

Honorable runner up: baseball player, Moises Alou of the Alou dynasty. If anyone out there has better Moseses than I do, just let me know. I'll add 'em to the list.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spitzer nonsense

Oh, boy, here we go again.

Let it be said here, that the media will once again miss the important point to a sex scandal like this. Here are what should be the real headlines and leads.

Politicians like sex

In a stunning admission it has become apparent that against all odds, a politician has a sex drive. The nation is stunned.

Consensual sex is still a crime

Although this company has come quite a distance in the last generation in terms of eradicating consensual sex crimes, some consensual acts are still crimes, including prostitution.

U.S. government wastes money investigating sex

In a major scandal, it has been learned that while a war rages on and people and the economy crumbles, our Justice Department has spent time and assets investigating sex.

Scandals like this make me a little crazy. I can't believe that prostitution is still illegal. I don't care if they want to regulate it so that we can protect the women from sexual slavery, disease and abuse, but why in the world should a non-sexual massage be permitted to be exchanged for money, but a sexual one cannot. The only answer is that we are all still so hung up on sex.

It also amazes me that we still get stirred up when a politician has sex. I loved the French P.M. Sarkozy coming out and saying, yes, I'm having sex with someone. Leave me alone. Why in the world is this still news. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Harry Reid and Barack Obama all have sex fantasies, whether they act on them or not. And, as we learn over and over again, they do have them, and would act on them if they could get away with it.

More than that, what kind of money are we spending investigating sex. What have we done if we convict Spitzer of a crime for going to a prostitute? Have we made the world safer, or just poured money down the drain. People hate it when the government spends money on things that they don't approve of. Put this in my column. I hate it when the government spends money on sex.

If the story was only about hypocrisy, fine. I never like Spitzer. He reminded me of Giuliani, an overzealous prosecutor who will go overboard to put someone down. Predator is the best word for it. Learning that he has prosecuted prostitution rings makes me sad. But I am sorry that anyone does.

I was really irritated today when Spitzer spoke. But what irritated me is that he said that what he did was against any sense of right or wrong. Not necessarily mine (except for the cheating on his spouse part). I have never been to a prostitute, but I know people who have. And sorry, some of them are very good people who instead of spending money on a women for the possibility of sex, and even misleading the women in doing so, they instead spent money on a consensual act, where everyone knew where they stood.

Everyone knows that cheating on your spouse is wrong. But, it has ceased to be a reason that someone can't get elected president. Like with going to prostitutes, there are people who cheat for no good reason who are really good people. It is a human weakness, and although still technically a crime in most places, no one gets prosecuted. We ignore it.

I wonder how many journalists who report on this story have been to prostitutes. I wonder how many of them have cheated on their spouses. How many are involved in sex, even with their wives, which is defined as sodomy?

The real hypocrisy here is in the reporting of the story.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Things we'd rather not know about Lincoln

My sister asked me in an email earlier this week if I had read about the Lincoln letters that were recently made available online. I took a look and noted that there were some letters which the University of Rochester was sharing with the public on the web. Some of the letters had originally been in the possession of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, a New York resident who came within a hair of being assassinated on the same day as Lincoln, the next two presidents, Johnson and Grant, and also Lincoln’s cabinet. They are not newly discovered, just new on the web.

The information that seems to have excited the most attention among the press, though, is correspondence showing Lincoln’s interest in a plan to compensate slaveholders for loss of their slaves. I presume that those who write about this believe people would read it and say to themselves, “Oh, my God. Why would Lincoln suggest something like that?” The truth is, this is not even remotely new, or, for that matter, news. In fact, compensated emancipation had not only been discussed in America long before Lincoln was around, but was in his time already the basis of successful emancipation plans in other countries, including in nearby South America.

Many people are still shocked to learn that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, held views that most of us today (I hope) would consider really racist, if not outright crazy. Don’t be alarmed. Although some of what you read may be surprising, Lincoln was, in my humble opinion, the great man we were told he was in grade school, but he was a man of his time, and that meant he was a white supremacist. It was the rare anti-slavery man who thought of blacks, free or not, as equals, particularly when it came to legal rights, and he was no different. In his own day, Lincoln would never have been elected postmaster (the first office he held) had he expressed beliefs more in line with those that we would require any politician to have now.

The written record shows Lincoln’s commentary on slavery was extremely limited until he was in his mid-forties, although I note that he was long in favor of emancipation in the nation’s capital (while at the same time decrying abolitionists). Although he was probably always anti-slavery (no proof I know that he ever not), and certainly was by the time he became a public servant, the record shows him that he was all too subject to the racism of the time.

Lincoln’s 1958 debates with longtime Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas are still read and compared favorably to the silly debates we conduct these days in presidential campaigns where the candidates merely try to recite talking points, sling out memorized one liners and pray they avoid major goofs.

Listen to Lincoln (who lost the ’58 Senate election to Douglas but beat him in the presidential election of 1860) during the first of the debates:

“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary”.

To be fair to Lincoln, and many writers who mention these positions are not, he immediately after said that they were entitled to all the rights stated in the Declaration of Independence - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By this he meant (and said) blacks had the right to benefit from their own labor. That is, not be slaves. Of course, the problem was, to Lincoln, and just about everyone else, that did not translate into many legal rights.

Although Lincoln lived in the North, where slavery itself was illegal, the law there severely impinged upon the rights of free blacks. Thus, Lincoln was not wrong about the state of the law when he complained that Douglas’ assertion that he was for “perfect social and political equality with the negro” was “but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse”. I’ve always liked that horse chestnut/chestnut horse witticism, but was reluctant to use it knowing the point Lincoln was making.

Lincoln made his point crystal clear in the fourth debate, that he was not “in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people”. Frankly, to suggest anything different would have been likely to incite a riot, even in the “free” North. In fact, only New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine permitted blacks to vote at all and those states held but a tiny percentage of Northern blacks. Blacks actually could not be jurors anywhere in the States, until 1860, and then just in Massachusetts. A federal law guaranteeing them the right to do so had to wait until 1875.

As for interracial marriage, prohibitions against it in the states was forbidden by our Supreme Court only in 1970. That’s not a typo. NINETEEN seventy, not eighteen seventy.

The idea of intermarriage so upset people that Lincoln had to fight off "Judge" Douglas' assertions that he was in favor of it. Again, in the fourth debate Lincoln said:

"I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone:

I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seem to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negros."

One could find a great deal of hypocrisy in Lincoln’s words as he rested his anti-slavery argument on words in the Declaration of Independence, which included “all men are created equal”. Clearly, he did not believe that included equal rights. In fact, over and over again Lincoln referred to blacks and other non-whites as inferior to his own racial group.

Much of the conflict concerning slavery prior to the Civil War did not concern slavery in the states, which Lincoln insisted he would not touch, but in the territories which were not yet states. It is well known that Lincoln labored hard to keep slavery out of the territories, but it is less well known that he said he wished to preserve all of the territories for white men.

Indeed, not unlike KKK members in the near future, Lincoln eventually foresaw a pure white America. Blacks should be free, but in another country. In fact, they should be relocated to South America or Africa. Lincoln even made this argument to a group of blacks during his presidency. Congress itself had appropriated quite a bit of money to resettle slaves when they finally freed them in the capital while the war still raged. The plan went nowhere, but that was the sentiment at the time.

Despite his personal dislike of slavery and his belief that the forefather’s had put it in a course of ultimate extinction, Lincoln certainly did not push very hard to end it where it existed, at least until the very end of his life with the fate of the union settled. The people of the South, from which he received no electoral votes, were certain that he meant to do just that upon his inauguration, even although he had said everything he could think of to convince them otherwise, while maintaining his anti-slavery principles.

Slaves, were, he repeated over and over, private property, and the constitution protected the right to own and keep them. Not only that, he promised the South any kind of legislation they wanted for the return of runaways. He went as far as saying that freeing the slaves might be the end of “liberty” in America. Don’t think I’m cherry picking words. No one was clearer or more emphatic about what he thought than Lincoln.

Again, although personally finding slavery an abomination, he repeatedly stated that he held abolitionists in the lowest regard. In his eulogy to his idol, Henry Clay, the future Great Emancipator lambasted those abolitionists he believed would “shiver into fragments the Union of these States; tear to tatters its now venerated constitution, and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather than slavery should continue a single hour”. He was probably right in some cases, even though many abolitionists who wanted “immediate” emancipation, meant “immediately begun” but at a gradual pace. Still, it is not surprising that William Lloyd Garrison, the most famous of abolitionists, held forth that Lincoln was not a true anti-slavery proponent.

Garrison was right, unless you count Lincoln's abstract preferences. Like Gandhi decades later attempted to motivate England to leave India on its own, Lincoln wanted the South to recognize their error and free the slaves. He not only repeatedly promised the South that he had no intention of ending slavery before the war, he continued to say so during the war, even going so far as having published a famous reply to the pre-eminent newspaper editor of the time, indicating that if it meant keeping the Union together, he would not free a single slave.

It looked at one point like that could happen (even though slavery had ended throughout the rest of the Americas already, from the remainders of the British Empire to the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and most likely would have eventually ended here at some time). In fact, the original 13th amendment that was passed just before Lincoln took office was actually ratified by two states, Maryland and Ohio, before it died out. In effect, it would have made it law that the constitution could NEVER be amended so as to forbid slavery where it existed.

He meant what he said too. When General Fremont and General Hunter separately issued orders emancipating slaves within their military district, Lincoln overruled them (ironically, by the end of the war, even the South was offering freedom to slaves who would fight the North). He believed felt that it was such a serious (and unconstitutional) action, it could only come from him,and that it had to be justified as a military necessity. Yet, he hesitated until the North scored enough victories such that it would not be sneered at as a desperate move. When he did make the Emancipation Proclamation, it was ridiculed by anti-slavery men for not freeing any slaves, as it pertained only to those slaves still within rebel control. Areas in the South which were under Union control were specifically excepted from Lincoln’s proclamation as far South as Louisiana. This limited move was as far as Lincoln believed he could lawfully take it.

OK, enough. Readers of this blog are familiar with the Jefferson bashing that goes on here from time to time. My thoughts about Lincoln are quite different and it pains me a little to read these words from him. But the racist views held by him were widely held to be true by whites at the time even in the North. For the same reason, I do not blame Jefferson and other forefathers for their racism, but do hold them accountable for their slave holding, for which they did know better (and said so). Lincoln’s dilemma was that he was a Union and Constitution man first, and an anti-slavery man only second. Although I (and many others) may, in the comfort of hindsight, wish the reverse had been true, none of us would have accomplished what he did – the saving of the Union and, to some extent through him, freedom of the slaves. His political wisdom and vision were unique. A harsher view could be fairly taken of his racism, but I leave that to others.

Lincoln, as far as history lets us see, was likely the perfect man to save the Union. I just do not cover that well represented position here either, as most Lincoln books and websiteswould cover it. He is almost always ranked as one of the two greatest president with Washington. Of course, if you don’t believe the Union should have been saved, and I think there is fair argument to be made on the question of the right of secession (that’s for another day), then he might be said to be the worst of presidents. As some would hold, this makes him a barbaric tyrant.

Eventually, when push came to shove, he actively pressed for the passage of the thirteenth amendment that was passed, which is why he gets some credit. He lived just long enough to see it pass through Congress. It was 8 months or so later when it was finally ratified and he was long dead. However, it must be remembered that, although he signed the proposed amendment (there was no reason to do so, but he apparently wanted to show his support and lend his authority) and worked for its passage, Congress, not he, was its progenitor.

I have imagined what Lincoln would say now, if we could somehow address us, humbly asking us to forgive his 19th century racial sentiments and defending his foresight in trying to save the Union first, and thereby preserving the possibility of future liberty for everyone, just as he argued the forefathers intended. I think he would have liked the opportunity to do that. Alas, he cannot. So, we should let Lincoln be Lincoln, marking his blemishes alongside his successes and glories.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .