We the People Surrender to You the People – It Happened Today, February 27, 2017

Here’s one I do like. On February 27, 1782, the British House of Commons voted to throw in the towel in the American Revolutionary War.

I like it partly because my sympathies are very much with the revolutionaries seeking to uphold their ancient British liberties, not with the King and his ministers trying to suppress them. And I like it partly because I can think of few greater affirmations of those liberties that, in such a difficult and embarrassing situation, it was the representatives of the British people who took the king by his frilly collar and said “Stop!” Once again, Parliament checked an expensive, oppressive hare-brained executive branch scheme which was, in large measure, the point of the British constitution essentially from Magna Carta onward.

This vote was no formality. Far from it. The King remained an important player in the British system even when he was obviously messing up badly. And despite the highly unfavourable state of the military effort in what had recently been the 13 Colonies after the crushing British defeat at Yorktown by a combined American-French force, the February 27 1782 vote was close, 234 to 215. And that narrow 19-vote margin was very important.

It set in motion a highly favourable chain of events leading to quick reconciliation between the former belligerents. Including that the American peace commissioners, the exalted trio of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay, proceeded to make a separate peace with Britain despite pledges to France, which had swooped on her old foe, not to do so.

Within an amazingly short period, and despite the stupid War of 1812, Britain and the United States were tacit allies in maintaining world order, an arrangement that persisted from the 1824 Monroe Doctrine with some bumps and bruises right down to their formal alliance in 1917. And while it took statesmanship to bring it about and maintain it, the structural basis was their shared devotion to liberty under law and to popular sovereignty. With, of course, the usual qualifications about unjust exclusion of some groups from the blessings of liberty, most spectacularly in the United States black slaves and then ex-slaves.

In the Capitol Rotunda in Washington there is a gold replica of Magna Carta that we were kindly permitted to film in 2015, given by the British Parliament in 1976 in powerful acknowledgement that two centuries earlier the greatest devotees of traditional freedom and the rights of the people had been on the west side of the Atlantic. But they were still strongly represented in Britain including in Parliament on that important date.

Liberty is often under siege. But where the roots are deep, it has enormous strength and manages to flourish despite and sometimes even during storms. Including Parliament yanking George III back to his so-called senses on behalf of ordinary Britons on February 27, 1782.

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Rise, my Sun – It Happened Today, February 26, 2017

Christian painting of God creating the cosmos (Bible Moralisee, French, 13th century)

On this date back in 1616, February 26, the Catholic Church made its infamous effort to undo Joshua 10:12 and make the sun move in the sky. Or at least it ordered Galileo to shut up about the fact that it made far more sense to regard the Earth as in motion around a stationary sun. Confirming once again Robert Conquest’s 3rd Law of Politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.” Because to this day almost nothing seems to confirm the beliefs of anti-Catholics that the Church is repressive and obscurantist than this episode.

In my view the charge is not entirely fair. Even when it comes to science, the Catholic Church has very often taken very sensible views, in the spirit of Cesare Cardinal Baronio whose comment about the controversy was “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” But this episode with Galileo is the one that sticks in the popular mind.

And for what? After silencing Galileo the Church went on to ban all books advocating the Copernican system as “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture”. Galileo himself was unrepentant and despite formally accepting the 1616 decree went on to publish his devastating Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems which earned him a trial for heresy in 1633. And a conviction, and house arrest for the rest of his life.

The sun, you’ll notice, didn’t escape from the stationary position relative to our solar system to which Galileo had assigned it. (It is splitting hairs to argue today, as some do, that the Church was sort of right because the sun does move relative to other stars. The problem was declaring astronomy a branch of theology.)

A mere 122 years later, in 1758, the Church dropped the ban on heliocentric books without actually reversing the verdict against Galileo or allowing uncensored version of Copernicus’ key work De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium or Galileo’s Dialogue. Not until 1820 did the Church go “Ooops” for real and lift the ban on the two books, and a mere 15 years later a revised Index of Forbidden Books no longer listed them.

Eventually Pope John Paul II said it was a mistake to go after Galileo. But I am not sure the conviction for heresy was ever overturned. I mean, you don’t want to rush into things, right? Or rather, having rushed in, you don’t want to rush out just because the building is on fire or anything.

As I say, the Church has often done better on science than in this episode. But if you were in fact part of a cabal of its enemies secretly controlling its conduct, and desirous of discrediting it badly in a way that would last centuries, you’d do just about exactly what they did.

P.S. Conquest’s other two laws are “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best” and “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” The extent to which these also apply to the Roman Catholic Church is a matter for another day.

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Equality not Achieved at Last – It Happened Today, February 25, 2017

On February 25 of 1870 Hiram Revels became the first black member of the United States Congress as, of all things, a Republican Senator from Mississippi. It was a great achievement, and also a dead end.

Revels himself thoroughly deserved to be a Senator, in a positive sense. As an individual, he was not merely intelligent but wise, principled and reasonable, and an advocate of generosity in putting the Civil War behind Americans. And as a member of a long-oppressed race, he belonged in the Senate as part of a long-overdue extension of full citizenship to blacks including unfettered participation in the political community.

Nor is the problem that he was not democratically elected. Mississippi was at the time occupied by federal troops, who dictated election results dramatically at odds with the wishes of the locals. Or rather, the white locals. Mississippi was a die-hard white supremacist pro-Confederate state in a region where it was hard to stand out in that regard. And it is problematic to say that it is justified in dictating election results by force because the majority is wrong on an important issue, even a vital moral one. But whites were not a majority in Mississippi in those days.

In fact Mississippi was a majority black state from well before the Civil War into the 1930s. So the result of full, fair, free adult suffrage would have been the election of large numbers of blacks at every level, and the indignant rejection of segregation and race hate. That a bitter white minority would control Mississippi politics in the absence of armed outsiders was horribly unjust and federal troops were right to intervene even if the result was not precisely what would have happened in a genuinely free and fair election in which blacks were neither disenfranchised outright or terrorized into not voting.

So here’s the problem. Slavery had such a negative impact on the literacy, prosperity and social organization of blacks in Mississippi that in the absence of external force they were not going to prevail at the polls or anywhere else despite being a majority until the hearts of whites were changed. And the federal government, and voters in the American north, were not prepared to continue policing Mississippi elections until that happened. By 1877, following the corrupt bargain that secured Rutherford B. Hayes a single term as president by falsifying election results in three southern states, the North pulled out and left southern blacks at the mercy of their white neighbours.

Given this reality, the result of a punitive, in-your-face Reconstruction was further to entrench race hatred and make anything vaguely resembling an open mind on the subject seem treasonous to those who, once federal troops left, would be in charge for the foreseeable future. And that is what happened.

Revels himself warned against this approach, including a very pointed letter to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, after he had left the Senate to become the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College. In that letter he exaggerated the willingness of white Mississippians to let go of “the bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife”. But he did warn that punitive Reconstruction was calculated to keep it alive.

What, then, should have been done? No conceivable Reconstruction policy would have brought a quick end to bigotry in white hearts or key political institutions of Mississippi and its neighbours, not even a generous one. Under the actual circumstances, there was a long legal battle against seating Revels in the Senate based on all sorts of arguments including that the awful 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision meant he was not a citizen before ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and thus did not meet the nine-year-citizenship requirement.

Republicans answered with all sorts of arguments of their own, from the narrowly legal to hey we won the war. And by straight party vote, Revels was seated. It seems the right thing to do even knowing the sorry long-term outcome. And I greatly admire Revels himself for speaking so wisely about reconciliation. But he was seated at gunpoint and as soon as white voters in Mississippi and other southern states were left to their own devices, they were able to oust blacks from Congress and local legislatures using the same device and did so.

So what would you have done? Not to seat Hiram Revels and his various black colleagues in Southern legislatures in the 1870s would have been to be complicit in injustice. But to seat them, deepening white bitterness, and then leave, did neither southern blacks nor southern whites any good.

Clearly the only solution was to stay until hearts were changed. But that solution is deeply ahistorical. In fact between 1901 and 1929 there was not a single black in Congress. And I don’t just mean in the South. (They began to be reelected in the New Deal, and this time as Democrats from northern cities.)

There’s the core of the problem. Northerners may have disliked, even despised, slavery and then former slave-owners. But they did not love the slaves or ex-slaves. They did not put blacks into southern legislatures to help blacks but to hurt whites. And it ended up hurting everyone.

So if you’d been there in 1870, with modern attitudes, the only policy you could conceivably have supported without reservation would have been for northerners to insist on genuine protection of civil rights in the south. Not just for a season to annoy defeated Confederates but for as long as it took out of genuine commitment to equality for blacks and compassion for the closed minds of most white southerners. And there’s no way you could have found anything like sufficient support for this plan.

It is because of dilemmas like this one that I am convinced that, in our own day, we should take what we can get when it seems to constitute genuine progress toward a worthy goal. But we should never be afraid to speak up, charitably if we can manage it, in defence of radical goals when all so-called practical, prudent and moderate courses point clearly toward dishonourable disaster. As they surprisingly often do, and did in 1870 in the American South.

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