Politically Incorrect Guide to American History

part 1. I’ve largely refrained from overly quoting this book, which is awesome. In typical Sarah fashion, I found the first parts – Plymouth through Civil War – to be most interesting. Then it got kind of boring for a while. Then the modern part is more interesting again.

Anyway, I wanted to share a quote from the beginning part of the book, which is wonderful.

The Framers of the Constitution were well aware of the tendency for power to concentrate and expand. Jefferson spoke of the calamity that would result if all power were to be concentrated in the federal government. Checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, a prominent feature of the Constitution, offer little guarantee of limited government, since these three branches could unite against the states and the people. That is precisely what Jefferson warned William Branch Giles about in 1825: ‘It is bt too evident, that the three ruling branches of [the national] government are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of all powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic’

Since the states were the constituent parts of the Union and had enjoyed an independent existence long before the COnsitution was established, early American statesmen wanted the states to have some protection against the Federal government. The federal government could not be permitted to have the exclusive authority to interpret te Constitution. It would consistently and down rulings in favor of itself, and over time, consolidate power.

Um, yeah! It goes on to discuss the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.

And, OK, this one, which is HL Mencken on the Gettysburg Address:

The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history…the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination – that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.


The story behind how we got the “all persons born… in the United States…are citizens” is interesting, too, and something I didn’t know. The Radical Republicans wanted to avoid having their Civil Rights Act of 1866 challenged legally (which it totally could have been) so they tried for this Constitutional amendment. Apparently, some controversy exists over the “original intent” and it’s too bad that the writers couldn’t have been a bit more forthcoming with what they actually meant. It’s the opinion of many historians that the amendment was meant to be modest in scope, “intended simply to empower the federal government to ensure that the states did not interfere with the basic rights of the freedmen.”

Many Southerners, as well as many Northerners, feared that this amendment would tend “over time to undermine America’s federal system.” (In other words, lead to more and more centralization and tending to take more and more power from the states.) Orville Browning, Johnson’s Secretary of the Interior, said “One of the greatest perils which threatens us now is the tendency to centralization, the absorption of the rights of the States, and the concentration of all power in the General Government. When that shall be accomplished, if ever, the days of the Republic are numbered.”



One response to “Politically Incorrect Guide to American History

  1. Pingback: Politically Incorrect Guide To American History « the View From Here « Swedish Christmas

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