Bastardizing History

By Gabriel Levesque

History is too often called upon to support presentist ideological and political themes. Politicians and radio personalities use historical figures to suggest their ideas are correct and in accordance with some great historical figure. Polarizing images and comparisons with Lincoln, for example, dominated Obama’s campaign and the first year of his presidency. Obama’s political adversaries countered by comparing his policies with Soviet Russia and Joseph Stalin. This is a practice that is unfair and all too common. Historical figures are products of their particular era and of their own particular circumstances and life trajectory. Conjecture only bastardizes the historical process and creates falsities that damage the pursuit of truth.

A recent example of historical bastardization came in the way of January’s Supreme Court decision that blocked the ban on the corporate funding of political candidates. Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian logic were cited as precedents to support the court’s 5-4 decision. The First Amendment was granted to companies as a whole, thus allowing free speech in the form of monetary support. This is a shady deal that extends the probability that large corporations will continue to dominate U.S. policy making for some time. However, a detailed look at the morality of this decision is beyond the scope of this limited narrative. What is pertinent, however, is the fact that “Jeffersonian logic was upheld.” First of all, what is Jeffersonian logic? Jefferson has had his personality and thoughts twisted in every direction to meet almost every political scenario’s needs. From pro-slavery laws, to pro-abortion rulings and now to First Amendment monetary rights for large companies – Jefferson has been the raison d’étre. This is unfair on so many grounds. I will address two.

For starters, Jefferson has been dead for two centuries. Projecting what he might say now, or what he might have said about recent events is pure conjecture. Every event is a product of recent dealings and experiences. Jefferson would have little understanding of what corporate campaign spending is and what it means to the masses of America (in an aside note, Jefferson was initially against the formation of political parties as he saw them as dangerous). Jefferson was a product of the mid eighteenth century; his values, thinking, and reasoning are not our own. We live in a much different time. We live in an era of globality and complex integration where each person is interconnected in ways which are not always clear. Uranium miners in Uganda indirectly affect the relationship between Iran and the United States; local banks in Ireland fuel Portuguese shipping ventures. Jefferson lived in a pre-industrial agrarian society. The needs of the United States in early nineteenth century were very different from our twenty-first century needs.

Finally, the decisions we make should be about the benefit of the people who are living today. Using the dead as reasoning for current laws is a poor way to govern the masses. Precedents are only helpful when they aid the generation who stands today. History is important for understanding the human experience and trajectory. History can allow the current generation to examine relationships of the past and understand our moment in time. Applying past reasoning as justification for current situations and solutions is dangerous. Each situation is unique – every solution must be unique. Jefferson already served his sentence; let him rest.

Gabe is currently a graduate student at the University of Maine and can be contacted at Gabriel.Levesque@umit.maine.edu.

Madison, Jefferson, Rights, and Defintions

By Michael Hawkins

James Madison espoused a separation of church and state in much the same manner as Thomas Jefferson. The following is from Congressional minutes recorded in August of 1789.

“Mr. Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.”

And we can go one step further into Madison’s mind with more recordings from the same session.

“Mr. Madison thought, if the word national was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen. He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform. He thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.”

It’s hard to see how a reasonable person could misinterpret this. Madison obviously rejected the notion that religious beliefs should be codified into law, thus establishing them as the moral directives of other individuals. That is, religious beliefs should not be made law because that essentially makes government an enforcer of religion – and that is far from its role. Good government does not dictate morality.

Moving beyond Madison, a discussion of the concept of rights needs to happen. What is a right? A succinct definition is hard to formulate, but I think a good idea can be created. Something which does not infringe upon another’s rights should be a right. This alone isn’t much of a definition because it assumes the existence of rights, the very thing we want to define. But within a certain context it does give a good approximation of what a right should be; we already have established rights (free speech, religious beliefs, protest, etc), so assuming we agree on those, we can ask ourselves, does X infringe upon these? If the answer is “no”, then there’s a good chance that X is a right.

I think it is eminently appropriate to also include safety and security as one defining piece of rights. Does X cause bodily harm to me or others? Does it cause undue financial hardships? Does it put someone at risk of life or health? If the answer is “no”, we again have another good indicator that X is a right.

I hope it hasn’t escaped anyone that the previous two paragraphs are speaking of natural rights. These are rights which extend to all peoples, not merely Americans or Europeans or Russians or any one particular group. They are effectually based upon the idea that rights are to be based upon humanity and the human condition.

So why are rights so important? I think it should be obvious. If a society goes about imposing restrictions upon minorities or the meek, then the statement that some people are not equal to others is being made. This seems like nothing less than a manifested superiority complex.

Yet restrictions go beyond this statement of superiority. They implicitly say any group can be superior to another. The reasoning behind the superiority isn’t important (whether from religious doctrine or philosophical notions). What matters is that (usually unknowingly) there are people who do not accept the idea that rights are universal. They can’t. They believe that the very concept of rights can be ignored if it runs counter to some other line of thought. Does Religion X say public prayer is immoral? If so and if Religion X’s followers are a majority, they can stampede the rights of those who wish to publicly pray. This can only be because the teachings of Religion X are being claimed to be superior to the rights of others. And this can only be a true claim if rights are not universal and if we agree that morality trumps individual rights.

I, for one, disagree.