Monday, December 24, 2012

The Puritans' War on Christmas

It is easy to suppose that the celebration of Christmas has always been a part of American life. Yet, this is not the case. Puritans regarded Christmas and its customary practices of exchanging gifts and warm greetings as downright Satanic. In 1651, the legislature of the Boston colony ruled, 

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.
From the records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony May 11, 1659 (source)

Puritans’ anti-Christmas sentiment extended to all religious holidays. The Puritans believed that “They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday.”  Still, they tended to single out Christmas for contempt, referring to it as “Foolstide.” Sixteenth century churchman Hugh Latimer declared, “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides (source).”

Puritans spent December 25th the way they spent any other day (excepting the Sabbath), by engaging in hard labor. If a person was not a Puritan, he or she was still expected to refrain from any activity that would suggest festiveness. Non-Puritans caught playing “stoole-ball” — an early precursor of baseball —were punished by Gov. William Bradford, who declared, “My conscience cannot let you play while everybody else is out working (source).” Christmas belonged to the Catholics, and Puritans would have none of it.

By the 1680’s, the Puritan influence in England had subsided and some colonists were bold enough to openly observe Christmas. Still, when Sir Edmund Andros, Royal Governor of Massachusetts, sponsored a Christmas Day service at the Boston Town House, he knew he was taking a terrible chance. Fearing a violent backlash the governor requested the protection of redcoats as he prayed and sang Christmas hymns (source). Despite his caution, Andros would eventually be captured by an angry mob and imprisoned. The Crown had to negotiate for his release. 

In the first decade of the 1800’s, the public celebration of Christmas was still a novelty: 

A few years earlier, several Boston Congregational churches had started to hold Christmas services and decorate their interiors with evergreen boughs. In Hartford, the first non-Episcopal Christmas service took place in 1823 with a sermon in the Congregational Brick Meetinghouse, the place of worship of most of the city's prominent families. The Connecticut Courant, the newspaper that served as the voice of Connecticut's elite, urged that business be suspended during the day (source).
Unitarians were among the early adopters of a Christmas celebration. Even though Unitarians regard Jesus Christ as a prophet rather than a divinity, they embraced the holiday in part – it is believed – to differentiate themselves from the joyless Puritans.As the 19th century wore on, Puritans suffered from dwindling congregations, and Catholic immigrants from Ireland poured into the country bringing with them their Popish inclination to enjoy Christmas.

As late as the 1860’s, rural counties still shunned Christmas while city dwellers had fully embraced the holiday. Authors such as Theodore Parker satirized the rural folks’ perseverance in Puritan values, and their revulsion and holy terror upon observing the urban practice of decorating homes and exchanging gifts. Country folk are, and ever have been, conservative with respect to social innovations.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On a Well-Regulated Militia

In the District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court decision, Justice Scalia engaged in some rather elaborate contortions to make the case that the phrase “well-regulated militia” can be completely ignored when interpreting the 2nd Amendment. This was a remarkable moment in the career of a self-professed "originalist." Rather than attend closely to the words of the Founders on the subject of militias, Justice Scalia was persuaded by a linguistic analysis contained in a “friend of the court” brief. If you want to see how the sophists managed to make the words “well-regulated militia” disappear you may go here (source). This analysis was provided by Frederick L. Whitmer and associates. Whitmer and his colleagues manage a political PAC which disburses money to other PACs, such as the Defend America PAC, which defends the interests of the National Rifle Association (source).

Justice Scalia is a gun enthusiast. We know this because of his publicized hunting trip with Dick Cheney, when he spent his leisure time passing sentence on ducks (source). At the time, he scoffed at the notion that chumming around with the then-Vice President could possibly be construed as affecting his impartiality. I digress. The point is that, by removing the mention of a militia from his reading of the 2nd Amendment, Scalia was able to concoct constitutional support for gun ownership as an individual right.

An Angry White Man

If we were to consult the Founders on the subject of militias, they were actually very clear in terms of their intentions. John Adams, Patrick Henry and others pointed specifically to the government of Switzerland, a confederation of 13 cantons or districts which had (and have to this day) some degree of autonomy in decision-making. Both of these Founders were impressed by the armed citizens of Switzerland, but they were also cognizant of the fact that the Swiss did not allow citizens to own guns unless they belonged to a cantonal militia. The Swiss model provided an empirical foundation for deploying states’ rights as a counterweight to federal power.

James Madison also spoke of militias. Like Thomas Jefferson, he believed that the federal government was capable of overstepping its bounds and becoming a threat to the liberty of the American people. Still, he thought it highly unlikely that “the people and the States should, for a sufficient period of time, elect an uninterrupted succession of men ready to betray both; that the traitors should, throughout this period, uniformly and systematically pursue some fixed plan for the extension of the military establishment; that the governments and the people of the States should silently and patiently behold the gathering storm, and continue to supply the materials, until it should be prepared to burst on their own heads.” However, if the public were to be so inattentive and complacent to ignore the increasing militarism of their country – what we might call today the “military-industrial complex” -- the state militias would provide a last line of defense against tyranny.

John Adams specifically ruled out the idea of an individual right of gun ownership. He wrote:

To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, counties or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1788
Please read that section again. Adams is stating that there is no individual right of gun ownership and, moreover, if such a right were to exist, it would spell the end of republican government. Adams is echoing Blackstone, who advocated that citizens “be restrained from nothing, but what would be pernicious either to ourselves or our fellow citizens.”

Again, in the time of the Founders and continuing to this day, the Swiss have coupled the right of gun ownership with the obligation to serve in the military. As it happens, the rate of gun ownership in Switzerland is nearly as high as it is in the U.S. However, the number of gun deaths in Switzerland is .77 per 100,000 people, whereas in the U.S. it is 2.97 per 100,000. Or, in other words, the U.S. has nearly 4 times the number of gun deaths (source).

The National Guard has the makings of a well-regulated militia. If anything, governors and legislatures are entitled to greater latitude in choosing whether to deploy the National Guard when the federal government decides that it is time for another military adventure abroad. Once upon a time, the National Guard functioned primarily to attend to national disasters and protect the homeland. But between 9/11 and the two Iraq Wars, the federal government has been calling upon the Guard with increasing regularity. It’s precisely the sort of gradual usurpation of power that the Founders feared, and precisely the sort of usurpation that James Madison believed patriotic Americans would never allow.

In fact, there is a historical precedent for this. During the War of 1812, the president sought to draft state militias to fight in the war. However, the great Whig Congressman Daniel Webster successfully argued that the federal government had no such authority, and many states declined to send their militias.

"Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained that you may take children from their parents and parents from their children and compel them to fight the battles of any war which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage in?" Webster asked. "An attempt to maintain this doctrine upon the provisions of the Constitution is an exercise of perverse ingenuity to extract slavery from the substance of a free government (source)."

For this reason, the 2nd Amendment (properly understood), with its implications about the role and the leadership of state militias, has risen in my estimation. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On the Second Amendment

Before recent events intervened, I was preparing to observe the anniversary of the British Declaration of Rights on December 16th. This document, drafted by John Locke, includes several provisions that would later appear in the American Bill of Rights. Among these are a prohibition against government quartering troops in private homes, freedom of speech, and the right of citizens to bear arms.

Thomas Jefferson believed that the 2nd Amendment right of citizens the right to bear arms was a means of protecting the people against tyranny. Yet, a state of tyranny exists. We know this because the right of habeas corpus has been suspended, citizens no longer enjoy equal protection under the law, and the two major political parties have effectively seized control of the voting apparatus. Therefore, gun ownership has not proven to be an effective safeguard against tyranny. 

The Newtown tragedy; May God help us
In the last few years, the most notable instance of a private citizen using firearms as a political instrument was the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. There has been a recent spate of unarmed black youths being shot by angry white men, and this may be read as political. Thus, as a practical matter, the use of arms in citizen politics has clearly been to the detriment of the public good. It is the instrument of would-be tyrants such as John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, men who refused to accept the will of the people, and killed democratically elected heads of state. 

Thanks in part to lobbying by the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers’ lobby, the 2nd Amendment has become a sacred cow in our society. Few politicians dare to propose placing any restrictions at all on this right. Now, to put this in perspective, consider that many sensible restrictions have been placed on the irresponsible use of speech. 

In 1919, the Supreme Court decided that freedom of speech could be abridged if the speech poses a clear and present danger. A trace memory of this historical moment lives on in the memorable phrase, “shouting fire in a crowded theatre.” It harms both the public good and individual expression if speech is allowed to cause physical injury. 

In 1925, the Brandenburg test was applied to speech. If speech openly encourages or incites violence, it is not protected. In the decision New York Times v. Sullivan, it was decided that libelous speech motivated by malice or a reckless disregard of truth is not protected by the First Amendment. In 1973, the court applied the Miller test. Speech is not protected if it appeals to prurient interests – that is, morbid, disgusting, or offensive to community standards of decency. According to the Lewis test of 1974, “fighting words” that are abusive, insulting, and likely to elicit an immediate violent response are not protected by the First Amendment.

Sometimes, the 1st and 2nd Amendments collide. In the 1966 case of Watts v. United States, an 18 year old named Robert Watts was arrested when he said, in connection with the draft, “If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sight is L.B.J.” The court decided that, since this was not a credible threat but merely a joke, Mr. Watts’ speech should not have been infringed upon. There are some odd permutations of this test. Consider that Giffords' opponent in her 2010 campaign was Jesse Kelly. He placed an ad in a local paper reading, “get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelley.” This was, evidently, constitutionally protected speech.

Today, a number of states have passed laws affirming the right of citizens to walk about the street openly displaying firearms, even if these displays might be regarded as threatening, apt to promote violence or offensive. And one could argue that, in confronting a gun-toting 2nd Amendment enthusiast, an unarmed individual may feel some inhibition against exercising his or her 1st Amendment right to accuse the man of being an Neanderthal who is bent on dragging our society back to the nasty, brutish and brief existence human beings experienced prior to civilization. 

According to a witness at that elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, “At first we heard a bunch of kids scream, and then it was just quiet and all you could hear was the shooting.” No more sounds of children talking to one another. No more voices of teachers in class. This was not what the Founders intended.

see also: this post

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On Takers and Makers

The Founders recognized that there would always be separate economic interests in society. The many who are poor would, because it is in their economic interest, desire a government that is responsive to the needs of the poor. The few who are wealthy, because it is in their economic interest, desire a government that does not tax them on their long-term capital gains. Thus, to be clear, the Founders saw moral equivalence between these economic interests. Both the wealthy and the poor are seeking their own advantage, when, ideally, they would put aside their separate interests and think about what is good for the country as a whole. 

From the Founders' perspective, there are no "takers" other than those whose fortunes depend on unproductive wealth. That is, the kind of wealth that neither stimulates nor results from the production of necessary things that improve the country and the welfare of its citizens. 

I mention this because of the lingering nausea created by Mr. Romney's speech about the 47% who churlishly feel entitled to food and a means of enjoying a basic subsistence. Since then, Rush Limbaugh derided Obama supporters as children seeking gifts from Santa Claus. John Sununu has sneered at the "dependent" segments of society. Stuart Stevens, after describing Obama's coalition of the poor and ethnic minorities, found pride in Mr. Romney's defeat, saying, "Yes, the Republican party has problems, but as we go forward, let's remember that any party that captures the majority of the middle class must be doing something right." 

But for all that, it is true that the democrats are just as guilty of "class warfare." Their winning coalition did, in fact, consist of Americans who are motivated by their separate economic interests. One could imagine a scenario in which, if they had no Republican opposition whatever to keep them in check, rank-and-file democrats would advocate for an expansion of the "welfare state," and in their fervor, perhaps they would indulge in a binge of taxing and spending. Now, I am not taking a position on the merits of the "welfare state." There are things that this country ought to be doing for its most disadvantaged members. Instead, I am suggesting that there is a desperate need for a party that is willing to advocate for the public interest.