He Lost It – It Happened Today, February 19, 2017

Should someone be excused a serious crime because they flipped out? I’m not referring here to a “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea, which I think virtually everyone concedes is sometimes legitimate. I mean the kind of mental imbalance that hits you suddenly and then recedes leaving you quite sane but also quite free.

I ask now because February 19 turns out to be the anniversary in 1859 of the first use of the “temporary insanity” plea in the United States. By a Congressman, no less, one Daniel Edgar Sickles, who had killed a son of the composer of “The Star Spangled Banner”. You see, Philip Barton Key II was having an affair with Sickles’ wife and Sickles, whose prior conduct was far from blameless (he married a girl half his age, then consorted openly with prostitutes while she was pregnant), got very annoyed and shot him.

It was a different era. The wealthy and privileged Sickles was apparently so popular that visitors streamed to see him in jail where, among other things, he was allowed to keep a gun. But his high-powered lawyers, including Edward M. Stanton who later served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War, convinced the public and the court that he was so angry at his wife’s infidelity that he was not responsible for what he did in his rage.

It may not have helped the prosecution that newspapers subsequently hailed Sickles for saving women from Key. But still, the case troubles me.

In theory I can see that you could take leave of your senses for various reasons including justified anger in ways that diminish or eliminate legal responsibility. But I’m not convinced I understand the difference between being so angry you shoot your wife’s lover and go to jail (or the gallows) and being so angry you shoot him and it’s OK. As a weird footnote, after making his wife’s cheating a huge public issue Sickles publicly forgave her, which evidently upset people a lot more than the original shooting.

Sickles went on to rise to Major General in the Civil War despite his notorious ambition, drinking and womanizing, eventually commanding III Corps, which he so mishandled at Gettysburg that the resulting action cost him his command (as well as his right leg) though not his commission. He spent years after the war arguing that his blunder had actually been a bold and well-advised strategic stroke and in 1897 he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for it, before ultimately dying in 1914 at age 94.

He was, it seems, a man of remarkably poor judgement in his personal and often public life. But the court ruled that his actual insanity was only temporary and absolved him of murder whereas it sounds to me as though in this case at least it was just a singularly spectacular and consequential display of lifelong lack of self-control.



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Oh yeah, that Vermont – It Happened Today, February 18, 2017

Vermont is not all that controversial. Is it? No. It’s just this rather pleasant New England state with the odd distinction of being among the most Democratic in the United States and the most heavily armed. But precisely because it does not arouse strong passions, it’s interesting to reflect on its admission to the Union on February 18 of 1791.

Interestingly, that decision was controversial, because Vermont was on land ceded by the French after the Seven Years’ War and at one point New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire all claimed some of it. By 1770 it was basically New York versus the local staid pious New England rowdies, especially Ethan Allan and his “Green Mountain Boys” who were frankly rather scary vigilantes against New York authority.

Until, of course, the British decided to suppress liberty in their colonies at which point everybody decided to forget their old quarrels and go get George III even though Ethan Allan continued to contest New York’s authority. So here’s the interesting thing.

In the general uprising against British authority, a group of Vermonters gathered in convention declared themselves a sovereign state in 1777. Then they named themselves Vermont, and adopted the first constitution in North America to ban adult slavery. (Eighty-one years later, in 1858, Vermont banned slavery altogether.)

For fourteen years people tried to avoid the awkward topic of whether there was or was not a “Vermont” even though it issued its own money, had a postal service and elected governors. And Congress could not act without New York’s consent under Article IV, Section 3 of the constitution. Finally New York threw in the towel and, after successful negotiations over where exactly the border lay and what compensation was due to New Yorkers whose land titles had been ignored in Vermont, Vermont became the 14th state and (duh) the first new one after the original 13.

What’s interesting here is that Vermont’s claim to statehood rested on two key points. First, the people who then lived there wanted it. And second, they had successfully acted as a state in fact. In short, people bowed to reality.

I’m not saying might makes right. The origins of many nations and subnational jurisdictions give serious pause on grounds of legitimacy, especially in a world that no longer recognises the “Doctrine of Discovery” of places that already had people in them, and is distinctly uneasy with the “Doctrine of Conquest”. But the simple fact is that as far back as you can find anything resembling reliable records, land is in possession of those who took it from others including the aboriginals who were in Vermont when Europeans showed up. And sometimes de facto is the best basis you can find for de jure, that is, you agree that Vermont should be accepted as existing essentially because it does exist.

We still hope for perfect justice. We cannot do less. But at times we admit that things are what they are and we must make the best of them.

I do not think a great many people, even in New York, go about today saying Vermont is a fraud and an imposition. But precisely because it does not arouse strong passions, it’s a good test case of our willingness to defy, or accept, what actually does exist in favour of what we wish existed or feel might perhaps have existed under other circumstances.


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Sic Transit again – It Happened Today, February 17, 2017

On this date in 364 AD, February 17, Jovian was found dead in his tent. And if your reaction was a rudely pointed “Who?”, well, you have a point. Actually he was a Roman Emperor and an illustration of the vanity of much worldly ambition.

He only reigned for eight months, following Julian the Apostate’s sudden death during his bungled campaign against the Persians. He was foisted on the empire by soldiers, possibly in a case of mistaken identity. And though he was found dead in suspicious circumstances, nobody much cared to investigate them.

On the plus side, he did restore Christianity after Julian’s rather pathetic efforts to restore worship of the Olympian deities. And he did proclaim freedom of conscience while, um, forbidding magical rites and imposing the death penalty for those who worshipped ye olde Gods like Jupiter. Oh, and he had the Library of Antioch burned down because Julian had filled it with pagan books. Which actually annoyed his Christian as well as non-Christian subjects.

He then continued Julian’s retreat from the far east and signed a humiliating treaty with the Sassinids surrendering five Roman provinces. After which he made a bee-line for Constantinople to bolster his political position somehow. Except it ended up a bee-line to the cemetery.

To rub it all in, his successor Valentinian I did such a good job that he was nicknamed “the Great”. Whereas Jovian was nicknamed “Who dat” or some such.

Another person who would have been better off staying on his farm. As would his nation.


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Tax and spend, never mend

In my latest National Post column I lament the latest New Brunswick budget continuing down the boringly disastrous path of deficits today for affordable free money the day after tomorrow… or after the next election… or never.


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Castro came and stayed – It Happened Today, February 16, 2017

In what seems truly a bygone era, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba on February 16 of 1959. Yes, 58 years ago. And a Castro is still in power in this ghastly real-life Autumn of the Patriarch.

I could say a lot of things about Fidel Castro without getting to anything nice. Like how revealing it is that he would have switched jobs repeatedly while still being the guy you got shot for disobeying. And how typical it is of a regime that for all its yapping about true democracy had no legitimacy that it became dynastic like North Korea. (Mind you his own daughter, from one of his many infidelities, fled the island prison in disguise in 1993 and his own sister opposed him from American exile.) But never mind him.

What I want to do on this dismal anniversary is insult all the leftists who placed such high hopes on him to begin with and then somehow insisted despite everything that he really was a good man and a liberator. Anybody can make a mistake. Even the New York Times in originally hailing him as “the Robin Hood of the Caribbean”. But to persist in one, to speak of democracy and human rights and peace in a sanctimonious tone while siding with this seedy brutal villain and denying repeatedly that he was a Communist, or in case he was denying that it mattered if he was one, surely indicates grave defects in judgement.

Especially as it is a habit of the left, from Stalin through Castro to Mugabe and beyond; as Jay Nordlinger memorably put it in National Review back in 1994, “Like an adolescent girl on holiday, the radical Left is always falling in love with some unsuitable foreigner…”

To do it and learn nothing is to double down on nasty folly. Why have so many done it, and not just on the radical left, including our own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

For that matter, why are there still Che T-shirts?



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Wish I’d said that – February 16, 2017

“Unless we can make daybreak and daily bread and the creative secrets of labour interesting in themselves, there will fall on all our civilisation a fatigue which is the one disease from which civilisations do not recover.”

G. K. Chesterton in The Listener Jan. 21 1934, quoted in Gilbert Magazine Vol. 10 #6 (April-May 2007)


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