Fergus M. Bordewich

Archive for the ‘The Imperfect Union’ Category

Political Rhetoric Over SCOTUS Nominee Is Historically Unhinged
Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Republican rhetoric over the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court to replace Antonin Scalia is not only transparently partisan, it’s historically baseless.
 
In rejecting President Obama’s efforts to name a candidate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly said, “Let the American people decide.” Meanwhile, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas bizarrely declared, “You gotta go back to Jim Madison, when the Founding Fathers sat around. It used to be 67, and now it’s down to 60,” to defeat a presumed filibuster.
 
The Republican Party has long proclaimed its devotion to founding principles and celebrated “originalism” as the only authentic way to interpret the Constitution. However, McConnell’s and Roberts’ assertions epitomize exactly the kind of historical “revisionism” that Republicans usually decry, not to mention a travesty of both the Founders’ intent and the Constitution’s explicit meaning.
 
The Constitution stipulates that the president, not “the people,” name new justices, and that the Senate approves them. The Founders never intended Supreme Court appointments to be a political popularity contest. Nor, Sen. Roberts should know, did James Madison advocate that a filibuster be applied to Supreme Court nominees, or any other nominees, for that matter. Filibusters did not even exist in Madison’s day.
 
The members of the First Congress who essentially created our national government, were not “originalists.” None of them thought the Constitution was untouchable and unalterable. If its text was so sacred, as Congressman Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts put it, what was the point of permitting amendments at all? Rather, the Founders saw the Constitution as a flexible instrument that could be adapted to future needs as the country grew. As Madison, who saw the new government as a bold experiment, put it, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.”
 
A Supreme Court and a federal judiciary system were called for by the Constitution. But they were actually created by the First Federal Congress, which met from 1789 to 1791, first in New York and then in Philadelphia. Although debate over the powers of the federal judiciary was sometimes intense, members of the First Congress never contemplated the kind of political trench warfare that often surrounds Supreme Court appointments today. Indeed, they hoped and expected that the court would rise above politics.
 
The members of the First Congress certainly never imagined that politicians would use the court as a pawn in an ideologically-driven attempt to deny a president’s constitutionally prescribed right to nominate his choice for the court. Much of the debate in the First Congress concerning the federal judiciary, as well as other issues, emphasized the need to strengthen the power of the new presidency, not weaken it.
 
Significantly, the sharpest debate over the creation of the federal judiciary focused essentially on what we now call states’ rights. Southerners in particular worried that a strong judiciary might someday tamper with slavery. Senator Pierce Butler of South Carolina, for one, charged that the judiciary bill would be able to “destroy, to cut up at the root the state judiciaries, to annihilate their whose system of jurisprudence and finally swallow up every distinguishing mark of a distinct government.” But the bill passed overwhelmingly.
 
The Supreme Court’s beginnings were modest. Its first meeting took place on February 2, 1790, in New York City. Symbolically, the moment was pregnant with promise for the republic—this birth of a new national institution whose future power, admittedly, still existed only in the mind’s eye of a few farsighted Americans. Bewigged and swathed in their robes of office, Chief Justice John Jay and his three associate justices sat before a throng of spectators and waited for something to happen, but nothing did. They had no cases to consider. After a week of inactivity, they adjourned and went home.
 
It would take time for the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal court system to grow into the third great pillar of American government. Its full impact would not be felt for generations to come. But combined with the rights that were being codified in the first amendments to the Constitution, it would one day become a great and dynamic engine that would carry justice into every community and transform American society to its roots.
 
Madison and his Federalist allies believed that a strong executive was imperative, and they feared the consequences if the Senate someday attempted to encroach on presidential power. They knew that one of the most crucial aspects of that strength was the power of appointment. During earlier debate over the establishment of the executive departments, Madison had argued that once Congress created an office and the president filled it, “the legislative power ceases.” Of course, the Senate has the right to reject a nominee. But Madison believed that a president dependent on the Senate to control his appointments would soon be left helpless. Unfortunately, this seems to be precisely what today’s Senate Republicans intend.
 

“We Have Found One Another again as Brothers”
Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Remembering Gettysburg in 1913 and 1938

 

LIKE NO OTHER battlefield of the Civil War, Gettysburg has lent itself to an iconic, almost mythologized, presentation of the war. It has served in this way for at least a century. In 1913, on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, it was the site of a huge national celebration of reconciliation which drew 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans from around the
country. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle, the final “grand reunion” drew more than one thousand aged survivors from both North and South.

What exactly happened at these events, beyond the obvious socializing? What was “celebrated”? What “remembered”? What were the larger national (even international) meanings of the “reunions”? These are not simple
questions.

Both events were well recorded by the press, on film, and in 1938 on radio, and featured important addresses by the sitting presidents of the day, Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. They offer
parallel windows into the changing ways in which the Civil War has been remembered and misremembered, the uses to which that history was put at different times, and into America’s conception of itself on the cusps of both World War I and World War II. (more…)

A Call for the Bold Pragmatism of 1850
Monday, August 13th, 2012

AS WASHINGTON steams in the summer heat, and the nation prepares for the November elections, Congress is no closer to overcoming the legislative paralysis that has hobbled its deliberations all year. Although the recent Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s health care law has temporarily heartened Democrats, it is likely to fuel a new and perhaps even more virulent round of ideological posturing during the upcoming congressional campaign.

For a roadmap through the legislative combat zone that almost surely lies in store, today’s senators and congressmen might look for inspiration to the supremely pragmatic lawmakers who piloted Congress through the longest, and arguably the bitterest, debate in American history to pull the nation back from the brink of war and craft the Compromise of 1850.

Congress had already struggled unsuccessfully for two years to decide whether to extend slavery into or ban it from the vast new territories the United States had conquered in the Mexican War. The crisis came to a head in 1849 when Gold Rush settlers in California petitioned for admission as a free state, upsetting the precarious balance of fifteen free states and fifteen slave states in the U.S. Senate. Threats of southern secession were rampant. Congress was so badly deadlocked that many Americans expected civil war to break out within weeks. “We are on the very eve of bloodshed in the capital,” warned the New York Herald. “There is no telling when its crimson streaks may deluge the halls of Congress.”
The ten-month-long debate that extended until September of 1850 was not a pretty spectacle. Before it was over, mortal threats would be made, punches thrown, and guns drawn on the floor of Congress. (more…)

My new Civil War e-book
Friday, June 8th, 2012

MY NEW E-BOOK, The Looming Conflict, has finally arrived!  It will be available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other electronic outlets at a price of $2.99. For a writer like me who is a product of the age of print and paper, the very notion of a book that exists mainly in the ether of the internet was unsettling. But with a lot of good advice and a great deal of tinkering by my electronic publishing guru Neil Levin of Everpub and my brilliant web designer John Schmitz, “The Looming Conflict” has become a reality.

The six articles included in “The Looming Conflict” appeared at different times in Smithsonian Magazine. They all combine, to differing degrees, a narration of historical events with first-hand reporting, and commentary by noted historians, among them Harold Holzer, David Reynolds, Orville Vernon Burton, John Stauffer, and others. Three of the pieces focus on events that led up to the Civil War: the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, the long rivalry between pro-southern President James Buchanan and radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. Two more are war pieces, on the attack on Fort Sumter and the events that led up to it, and on the heroic but ill-fated attack of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment against Fort Wagner, in Charleston harbor, in 1863. (Though a Union defeat, the battle was the heroic debut of African-American troops, and served as the climax of the 1988 film “Glory.”) The final article centers on the creation of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati. Although the Underground Railroad of course preceded the war, I saw the story of the museum’s creation as a way to look not only at the underground’s remarkable history but also at the way in which we may deal with the legacy of slavery and abolitionism today. (more…)

The Imperfect Union: A new blog
Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Dear Readers, Friends:

Many of you may already know that my latest book, America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union, was released on April 17th. With several other new publications in the offing, it seemed like the right moment to inaugurate this long-promised blog as a channel to communicate to you about my work, American history, and (occasionally) myself.

I’ll be delivering news about my current and upcoming writing projects, talking about history—mostly between the nation’s founding and post-Civil War Reconstruction—and ways in which the past continues to interpenetrate and shape the present.

When it seems apt, I’ll tie history to present-day events. I won’t shy away from controversy. But I promise not to rant, nor will I denigrate or insult anyone, present or past.

You’ll be hearing soon about my next work of history, American Dawn, a history of the First Congress, of 1789-1791, which I’ll be working on for the next couple of years, and which will be published by Simon & Schuster. The First Congress has often been overlooked in treatments of the Early Republic, but its importance was immense. It literally invented the United States government from the paper blueprint of the Constitution. What happened there, when it met in New York City still recovering from the ravages of the Revolutionary War, is a dramatic political tale in which we see the Founding Fathers as hard-headed but immensely creative politicians who took the fragile idea of nationhood and made it real. Their success was by no means a forgone conclusion. (more…)