Spirit of ’31

There is something momentous about a large and diverse population aligning along a universal plane of thought.

That’s what still happens every Fourth of July in America.

It was visible in Facebook feeds from sea to shining sea, which featured quotes, photos and videos honoring our national birthday. Posts were as varied as people themselves, and all highlighted what so proudly we hail. Some posted snapshots of their families adorned in red, white and blue. Some filmed fireworks. Some shared famous speeches or essays.

Every expression centered around the same theme, whether comic or romantic or dramatic. The love of liberty evokes the full spectrum of spillover emotions; the tear erupting from joy and hope is no less damp than that born of sympathy for struggle and sacrifice.

All were encompassed in achieving our Revolution; all are enshrined in our remembrances.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries after Thomas Jefferson’s declaration was adopted, Independence Day still harmonizes us to the common chorus of patriotism on parade.

John Adams predicted as much, with uncanny accuracy. He foresaw a national anniversary festival “with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”

The only smudge on his crystal ball obscured the date; Adams thought it would be July 2, when Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t technically adopted until July 4.

One notable and unexpected observer of a Fourth of July celebration in 1831 was a young French fellow who would, seven years later, publish a book chronicling his stay in America and his observations on our democracy.

The pen of Alexis de Tocqueville was not idle during his visit, and in addition to abundant notes Tocqueville also wrote numerous letters to his family in France. Those personal messages, contemporary to his daily activities as a visitor, are easier reading than his scholarly masterpiece work detailed with analytical scrupulousness and annotation.

The voyage across the Atlantic took 35 days, and a month at sea in those days and conditions is essentially incomprehensible for us today.

Tocqueville kept up his spirits, however, and shared stories of the adventure. Writing to his mother, he described his fellow passengers: “We didn’t really mingle until the sixth day, when everyone crept out of his hole. … I should like to acquaint you with the inhabitants of our little world, who, not counting a cow and a donkey, number exactly 181 by my reckoning, 30 housed in the cabin section, 13 in steerage, 120 in the bow, and 18 crew.”

When Tocqueville arrived in New York, he immediately began sharing his revelations regarding American propensities about work ethic, hospitality and food consumption.

He noted that the typical day began early with a couple hours of work before breakfast at 8.

“[W]e were quite surprised at first to see women appearing at the breakfast table with faces carefully made up for the day,” he wrote on May 14 to his mother. “We are told that this is customary in all private houses. Paying visits to a lady at 9 in the morning is not thought improper. …

“[W]e are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets,” he added. “Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack.”

In another letter the next day he reported the “incredible contempt” Americans had for distance on this sprawling continent.

Navigation on “immense” rivers and canals in America made travel consistently possible at “4 leagues an hour [12 knots],” he wrote. “Thus, people do not say that one is 100 leagues away from one’s destination, but 25 hours.”

In June, while visiting Sing Sing (Tocqueville’s official purpose in visiting America was to study prisons), he wrote to his father that “this population is one of the happiest in the world.” He credited American contentment to a universal spirit of industry that left no time for “troubling the State.”

“The more I see of this land, the more convinced I am of this truth,” he said, “that there are virtually no political institutions radically good or bad in themselves and that everything depends on the physical conditions and social state of the people to whom they are applied.”

On July 4, 1831, Tocqueville was visiting Albany for administrative meetings, and encountered the state capital’s celebration of the 55th anniversary of American independence.

The parade and ceremony culminated in a large church, where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in its simple language (he characterized the reading as “in no way a theatrical performance”). But the effect he beheld awed and astonished him.

“It was as though an electric current moved through the hearts of everyone there,” he wrote in a letter.

“In this turning of an entire nation toward the memories of its birth, in this union of the present generation with [a previous] one … with which, for a moment, it shared all these generous feelings, there was something profoundly felt and truly great.”

Goosebumps in July continue to be a uniquely American tradition. May it always be so.


Back to college

Test your knowledge with these two quick questions: (1) Where is the Electoral College located, and (2) What is its sports mascot?

It’s not surprising that Google searches for “Electoral College” spike every four years, coinciding with presidential elections. Surveys reveal on average a third of Americans are clueless about the subject.

One study a few years back surveyed elected officials at various levels of government. When presented with multiple-choice answers to define the Electoral College, 43 percent of the public servants missed the correct answer as the “constitutionally mandated assembly that elects the president.” One in five of that mistaken bunch chose the answer that it was “established to supervise the first presidential debates.”

In a classic example of rampant fear of the unknown, most people, when asked, favor abolishing the Electoral College. That feat would require a constitutional amendment, and the last time a proposal escaped congressional committee was nearly 50 years ago. But given the often contentious nature of presidential elections, it’s a popular cause.

In fact, reforming or eliminating the Electoral College has been the objective of more than 700 proposed constitutional amendments, more than any other subject.

Regarding my trick questions, there is no physical location, and although the right mascot might help foster a better understanding, the Electoral College fields no sports teams.

Even people who understand the fundamental functionality of the Electoral College may not be familiar with the history that produced it. During the summer of 1787, the framers discussed several methods of selecting the president. Suggestions ranged from congressional selection, to election by state governors, to electors chosen by state legislatures, to a special group of members of Congress.

Unable to resolve it in convention session, the matter was referred to a committee which ultimately arrived, through compromise, at the Electoral College system (though the word “college” wouldn’t appear until decades later).

Each state was allocated electors equal in number to its congressional membership. The minimum electors for any state is three, since that’s the smallest representation possible in Congress. The 23rd Amendment allowed the District of Columbia the same number of electors as the least populous state.

While the Constitution is specific about the quantity and qualifications of electors, it defers to the state legislatures on their actual selection. In Arkansas and most other states, electors are chosen at the state political party conventions.

The original intent for electors seems to be that, once selected, they would cast their ballot independently. In practice, however, it never worked out that way, and today it’s rare to have an elector “go rogue” and vote contrary to the party’s nominee. It’s only happened a handful of times in history, and it’s never been a material factor in an election.

In 48 states, electors are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. In Nebraska and Maine, electors vote on a district basis, which means a split of electors among candidates is possible. That can ruffle feathers in some particularly partisan circles, because it’s the dynamic that will probably make all of us in Arkansas Donald Trump voters next Tuesday.

Technically, each of us will cast our ballot for a slate of electors, who are pledged to vote for their party’s candidate. But when the ballots are counted, if Trump carries the popular vote in Arkansas—as polls strongly suggest he will—he’ll get all six of our state’s electoral votes.

The indirect nature of our presidential election serves a couple of good purposes.

First, from a federalism standpoint it evens out population-weighted biases of larger states. The population of Arkansas is about 0.9 percent of the country, but our electoral count boosts that figure up to about 1.1 percent.

But secondly, and more importantly, the indirect elector system aids in creating both a more resounding mandate for winning candidates and a quicker return to normalcy for the electorate. A contested popular-vote squeaker across all 50 states could stymie resolution for weeks. An electoral “landslide” quiets agitants on both sides.

This American phenomenon was observed and remarked favorably upon 175 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville. It was inconceivable for Europeans to imagine changing a monarch every four years without calamitous results or conquest, he noted.

In America “the election of the president is a cause of agitation, but not of ruin,” he wrote.

“For a long while before the appointed time is at hand, the election becomes … the all-engrossing topic of discussion,” de Tocqueville wrote. “… [A]ll the artificial passions which the imagination can create in the bosom of a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light.”

Sounds familiar. And prophetic.

He goes on about the citizens being “divided into hostile camps” and the election being “the daily theme of the public papers, the subject of private conversation”—the “sole interest of the present.”

But then “as soon as the choice is determined, this ardor is dispelled,” he observed. “… [T]he current of the State, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level.”

This year, particularly, we all look forward to a “calmer season” returning, as de Tocqueville put it. And you can partly thank the Electoral College for that.

Revisionism’s biggest risk

This week in April commemorates two monumental—literally, since both look down from Rushmore—American statesmen.

Wednesday marked the day Thomas Jefferson’s light first graced the world, and yesterday was the solemn reminder of the date when Abraham Lincoln’s was tragically and prematurely extinguished. Both had lives that shaped the nation and the world. Both lived in defining times, and both left a legacy of words in letters, speeches and declarations that are foundational to our democratic republic.

Jefferson visualized the dream of self-government in the U.S., and eloquently put forth its ideals, principles and requirements. Lincoln personified and epitomized it, and gave his life for the cause of preserving it intact.

Only one could ever know of the other (Honest Abe was 17 when Jefferson died in 1826) and Lincoln never underestimated the Sage of Monticello’s brilliance.

In an April 1859 letter to Massachusetts Republicans, he characterized Jefferson as “the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times …

“The principles of Jefferson,” Lincoln wrote, “are the definitions and axioms of free society.”

Jefferson, even though he authored the document proclaiming American freedom through self-government, lived much of his life as a colonial subject. Lincoln was born an American citizen and knew firsthand the truest meaning of liberty, as experienced on the western frontier in Kentucky and Indiana.

Both recognized America’s enduring uniqueness—Jefferson first in theory and Lincoln later in full reality.

Indeed, in Lincoln’s most famous speech, he characterized the U.S. as such when he said “… that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Nearly 90 years after the United States declared independence, no nation had achieved self-government at a level to match America’s. Even now, another century-and-a-half since the Gettysburg Address, no other country has replicated the genius of our founders in like degree.

Yet there are those today who seek to tarnish our heritage by revising historical people and events using today’s context as a measuring stick.

Our founders were racists, revisionists say. Name a country that wasn’t racist in 1760, reason says. It was a time of world hierarchies based on and defined by racial distinctions.

Ditto for most of the civilized world in 1870. Our 15th Amendment led many other nations by decades on writing color-blind suffrage into a national charter. Legislative racial restrictions remained in place in many European colonies until the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The founding fathers were also chauvinists, revisionists say. All nations were sexist at the time, reason reminds. It would be more than 100 years after our own Constitution that New Zealand would become the first self-governing colony to give all women the right to vote in—but not stand for—parliamentary elections.

The United States granted women full equal suffrage ahead of Sweden, Italy, Great Britain, Spain, France and Belgium. We were 51 years ahead of Switzerland on the issue. Government-sponsored sexism still persists in many countries today.

It’s bad enough that revisionists want to apply 21st century standards to 18th century leaders and situations, but revisionism’s greatest peril is that it maligns the very thing that is the differentiator for our republic: the American citizens’ character.

Countless other countries have copied our constitution’s language and structure, only to fail at replicating our republican success. In a document that begins with “We the people” the critical factor is, in fact, the people.

Americans fresh from revolution and constitutional ratification embraced freedom with a core understanding that liberty was the opposite of reliance on government and its inherently oppressive nature. Self-government and self-sufficiency were symbiotic and proved catalytic for national prosperity.

Obviously there are people, events and instances in our history that warrant shame, condemnation and repudiation. That is true of all nations. What is not true of all others is the record of remarkable, world-changing self-government as devised and practiced in the United States.

Jefferson said it best: “Before the establishment of the American states, nothing was known to history but the man of the old world, crowded within limits either small or overcharged, and steeped in the vices which that situation generates,” he wrote to John Adams in 1813.

“A government adapted to such men would be one thing; but a very different one that for the man of these states … Every one [here], by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order.”

Revisionists don’t realize that in their smear campaign to rewrite history, their soily edits often blot out the very character necessities self-government requires.

If attitude is everything, as heard in adages from psychologists, educators and parents, sour revisionism curdles the character not only of its historical targets–but also of today’s generations challenged with meeting the obligations of self-government.

Self-government is hard enough for the well-educated and well-equipped; it may be impossible for the mis-educated and mis-equipped.