“With Highest Hopes”: Lindy Boggs’ Legacy for America

For a historian of any period, the passing of public figures almost always gives one pause to reflect on the impact that a single life can have on the course of history. That equation changes a great deal when that history is also your own history.  And that is the case with the passing of Lindy Boggs, who was not only a major figure in American history, but also in my history.  One can tick off the offices she held–congresswoman, ambassador, etc.–and the contributions she made to the various communities of which she was part, from New Orleans to the nation.  But while I experienced that side of her, my memory is flooded by the sort of things that rarely make it into history books: late night talks, notes left for one another on staircases, gracious slips of advice when they were needed most, and the ready offering of the cure for almost everything–a hot toddy at just the right time of the evening.

But perhaps the most powerful legacy she has left, publicly and personally, was a never-flagging optimism that anything could be fixed or improved with just enough commitment, resolve, and, it must be said, good will. No one who really knew her ever mistook her almost ever-present politeness for weakness. Instead, it was maybe her greatest strength, an entire way of thinking about political engagement that has long been absent from the halls of Congress.  In the end, all politics is personal, and Lindy never forgot that what we share, as Americans, is stronger than our differences.  She firmly believed that our history and the principles behind it, enshrined particularly in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, gave political actors all the common ground they needed to make things better for the people.  But that isn’t always easy.  And it requires a clear understanding of our history to recognize its importance.  By losing her, we have a stinging reminder what our political culture has lost.

That’s why Lindy is one of the major reasons I became a historian of early America–her example, her optimism, her belief in me, dozens of hours of late night talks about the founders as if they were in the next room, and, of course, a hot toddy or two. Then there is something she wrote in a book she gave to me about the Bill of Rights: she dedicated it to me “With Highest Hopes,” which I think reflected her perspective on America as much as it did upon me personally.  That’s a legacy she has left for us all.

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“But a forty days tyranny”: A reflection on executive authority in 18th-century British constitutionalism

On 11 November 1766, Parliament listened to a speech by George III that dealt mainly with a severe grain shortage then gripping Britain, and the embargo that the ministry consequently imposed to keep wheat and wheat-flour in the country. Lords Chatham (William Pitt) and Camden (Charles Pratt) strenuously defended the embargo, in the face of widespread opposition in the Lords and Commons, as “the right and duty of the crown to suspend the execution of a law, for the safety of the people.” Camden stated “The crown is the sole executive power, and is therefore intrusted by the constitution to take upon itself whatever the safety of the state may require, during the recess of parliament, which is at most but a forty days tyranny.” Opposition leaders, such as Lords Mansfield (William Murray), Temple (Richard Grenville-Temple), and Lyttleton (George Lyttleton), made the counterpoint that the effect was to “…establish a dispensing power, and you cannot be sure of either liberty or law for forty minutes.”  They invoked the preamble of the 1689 bill of rights which “expressly mentions the evils resulting to the kingdom from the practice adopted by James II, of assuming a power to dispense with, and suspend, the execution of laws without the consent of parliament.”

Chatham’s support for an exercise of executive authority that ran counter to established Whig tenets seriously weakened his influence in parliament and the strength of his entire ministry. His arguments, along with those of Camden, are also interesting for the light they shed on the development of patriot constitutional thought in America, providing at least anecdotal evidence for Thomas Jefferson’s presumptions in his Summary View of the Rights of British America that the Crown possessed more constitutional authority than it could actually exercise.

[Source: John Adolphus’ The History of England, from the Accession of King George the Third, to the Conclusion of Peace in the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty-Three (1805), a fascinating multi-volume work that contains parliamentary speeches one cannot easily find elsewhere.]

“An accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature”: The Somerset Case in Williamsburg

If I was Counsel for Somerset the Negro, (says a Correspondent) I would take up the Matter higher than any of his Counsel have yet done.  I would urge, and I think I could prove, that he neither now is, nor ever was, the Property of his Master; that the original Vendor had no Right to sell, nor the original Purchaser to buy him; that all Mankind, as they are born, ought to live, equally free; and that the Slave Trade, whatever the mercantile World may urge to the contrary, is an infamous bartering of human Flesh and Blood, an accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature.

This strenuous opinion is remarkable not that it was printed at all–it first appeared in the London Public Advertiser of 16 May 1772–but that it was reprinted in the Virginia Gazette of Alexander Purdie and John Dixon just over two months later, on 23 July.  Regardless of the actual holding in the case of James Somerset, which held that slaves were servants under a 1679 statute and not chattel property, which did not actually make Somerset, or any other slave, legally free, the perception was quite different.  Somerset himself was said to have reported to a relative that he told the servants that “Lord Mansfield had given them [slaves in England] their freedom.”  The news spread across the Atlantic. In late 1774, one planter advertised that an enslaved man in Virginia had run away, probably to get to England, based on “the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case.” It certainly stands as a strong reminder of the power of perception to shape opinion and behavior, rather than the actual facts of the case, of the difference between rhetoric and reality, especially when it comes to our understanding of the personal and constitutional tensions involved in the struggle for independence.

“Their particular fortune to be called to the trial”: American loyalists make an appeal to the King

On this date in 1788, a year before French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in a bid for their constitutional rights, American loyalists from the War for Independence published an address to George III that perfectly articulated their own view of those rights–rights for which they, too, had pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honour.”  They had presented it to the King on July 2, including their thanks to him for recommending their claims to Parliament.  It’s a poignant reminder that the loyalists in the American Revolution, whom Bernard Bailyn once derided as “the losers,” were hardly the oversimplified “tory” menace created by patriot propagandists–and enshrined by generations of subsequent Whig historians. Those historians, and the patriots who preceded them, needed to create a narrative with antagonists who stood clearly against what only the American patriots could have been fighting for–the whiggish principles of individual rights and representative government.  Without them, the orthodox story of the American Revolution celebrated in 19th-century history books, modern school textbooks, and the tomes that continue to appear in the popular press, which provide a powerful impetus to the development and maintenance of American identity, just doesn’t work; the narrative collapses and the American Revolution becomes much more complex, and in need of a closer look, if the enemy was actually, as Edmund Randolph–the son of just such an oversimplified and maligned (in his time and ours) “tory”–put it: “spotless as to treason even in thought.”

As the loyalist writers–one of whom was Edmund’s brother-in-law, John Randolph Grymes–argued in their address of 1788, they had “devoted their fortunes, and hazarded their lives in defence of the just rights of the Crown, and the fundamental principles of the British Constitution,” which was “no more than their duty demanded of them.”  However, history had put their constitutional faith to the test in the War for Independence because the great Whig schism of 1776 made it “their particular fortune to be called to the trial.” But there was little question for them about the path to take, regardless of the hazards, as they believed that the British constitution held out “out to mankind the glorious principles of justice, equity, and benevolence, as the firmest basis of Empire.” They did not presume to claim more loyalty than other British subjects but, distinguished by their suffering, “they deem themselves entitled to the foremost rank among the most zealous supporters of the Constitution.” The loyalists stressed, despite their want, that at all times and on all occasions, they were equally ready, as they had been, “to devote their lives and properties to your Majesty’s service, and the preservation of the British Constitution.”

[Sources: Edmund Randolph’s History of Virginia, p. 219; 14 July 1788, Morning Chronicle or London Advertiser]

“So very contradictory to Humanity”: A Loyalist’s View of Slavery

Beverley, RobertIn July 1761, Robert Beverley arrived back in Virginia after 11 years at school in England, first at Beverley Grammar School, then to Wakefield, and finally to Trinity College, Cambridge.  A friend at the time described him as exhibiting “the best Sense, Abilities & many Excellent Qualities.”  Having left the Tidewater when he was 10 years old, he returned to an alien place. His father had died when he was away, leaving him the owner of Blandfield Plantation and its community of enslaved men and women, one of the largest in the colony.  Whatever the 10-year-old Robert might have felt about slavery when he left Virginia in 1750, the 21-year-old had very decided views on the subject.  #OTD in 1761, within days of his return, he expressed to a London merchant his “aversion to Slavery” as “‘something so very contradictory to Humanity.”  He went on to explain that “if ever I bid adieu to Virginia it will be from that cause alone.”

Robert Beverley did “bid adieu” to Virginia, in a way, as he remained staunchly loyal to the British world that his countrymen were bent on destroying.  He stated unequivocally that “I see so many Beauties and so great a display of political Wisdom in our Constitution that I cannot look upon any attempt to subvert it with Patience.” And so he retreated to Blandfield to wait out the American Revolution and never again engage in public affairs.

New Revolutionary War books by Nathaniel Philbrick and Joseph Ellis ignore modern historical research. – Slate Magazine

This is the sort of article that any historian–amateur, public, academic, a blend of all three–should read and consider, regardless of one’s area of interest. Much of my work happens to involve an attempt to connect the popular historical mindset and academic history of the American founding era, so it speaks directly to that effort. As one commentator has already pointed out, both popular authors (who now, apparently, include Ellis and Beeman, who both have done terrific academic work) and scholars are looking for their books to sell–it just so happens that the targeted consumers are quite different. But that misses Herschtal’s most valuable point, which is less about any particular interpretation of the American Revolution than it is about how we develop our views of it. If the recent Philadelphia conference revealed anything it was that many scholars aren’t even up on the foundational historiography, much less the most recent work. Add to that an attempt to keep track of what’s popping up in the popular press and a challenge turns into a gargantuan hurdle.

 

So the main issue is not whether one sort, popular or academic, is more relevant or less problematic than the other, but that we should acknowledge the yawning gap between them, and explore its causes, character, and consequences. In America, there are at least two versions of the American Revolution: that held by the public and that of the scholars who ostensibly work in the field. I see every day that the twain rarely meet or, rather, when they do, a confusing disconnection results. What this review strongly suggests is that historians of all sorts should spend more time trying to bridge the gap, rather than ignoring that it exists.

via New Revolutionary War books by Nathaniel Philbrick and Joseph Ellis ignore modern historical research. – Slate Magazine.

For Independence Day: Britain’s Intercepted Copy of the Declaration of Independence

For Independence Day: Britain's Intercepted Copy of the Declaration of Independence

Several years ago, as I was going through the “Intercepted Letters” file at the National Archives (UK) in Kew, I came across this striking document, one of a relative handful of existing copies of the very first printing of the Declaration of Independence. What made the find even more fascinating was the condition of the document: it could have come off Dunlap’s Philadelphia press yesterday. Put on a ship to England right away, it was snatched by British authorities and, perhaps after a perusal by Lord North or even the King, consigned to this file in August 1776, where it has remained ever since. It still interests me to think about what the moment of encountering it must have been like, and also to look again at this document, with the stamp in the upper left-hand corner proclaiming it the property of HM government–unlike the United States of America.