Monday, January 2, 2012

Another Unsellable Article

What We Know That Isn’t So
The humorist Will Rogers reportedly once said, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gets us trouble.  It’s what we know that isn’t so.”  Because I am an historian, when I see people making historical mistakes, it is a bit irritating.  It bothers me when I see people operating from ignorance: that is to say, they do not realize that we have tried this strategy before, and there are usually lessons to be learned from it.  Sometimes the lesson is, “Don’t do this.  It does not work.”  Sometimes the lesson is, “If you pass a law like this, here is a likely side effect that you better figure out a way to handle.”  

The ignorance of a humble person, fortunately, can be fixed.  My experience is that people with no knowledge of history are usually willing to listen to those who have studied history in detail.  They may not agree with my proposals, but they are least willing to think about what happened the last time some society tried today’s “new” idea.

That works for a person who knows that they do not know everything.  What do you do with someone who imagines himself as a member of the intellectual elite because he work in the news media or politics?  Sometimes the mistakes are fundamentally minor, such as Joseph Biden’s 2008 interview with Katie Couric in which he talked about how President Franklin Roosevelt calmed the fears of the American people after the Wall Street crash by going on television.  (Wrong president, and if the president had gone on television in 1929, it would have been a very delayed broadcast—at least ten years, and to a very small audience!)  Still, if someone gets the basic facts wrong, it’s hard to have confidence that the conclusions that they draw from those facts will be right.  Similarly, President Obama’s reference to the “Austrian” language was, while trivial, still embarrassing, because it showed how poorly educated Obama is.

Other mistakes by our masters are a lot more serious, because they are not trivial points, and they are not simply ignorance, but knowledge “that isn’t so.”  Last year, Rep. Michelle Bachmann received quite a bit of criticism from media elites for her ignorance of history concerning slavery in America.  While she made some mistakes, she was actually considerably closer to correct than ABC correspondent George Stephanopolous and ABC journalists Amy Walter and Amy Bingham.

Similarly, when Christine O’Donnell asked her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, to identify where “separation of church and state” is in the Constitution, the audience at Widener Law School laughed at her.  Surprise, surprise!  It’s not in there—but an audience that presumably includes people who are law students and law professors appears to not realize that O’Donnell was right, and Coons was wrong.  If a bunch of people at the corner bar laughed at O’Donnell for being right, it would be unfortunate.  But the audience at a law school doesn’t know that Coons was wrong, and O’Donnell was right?  That’s scary.

One of the recurring delusions of progressives is that history is a series of steps forward in attitudes and ideas (especially if we put them in charge).  The Founders of the American Republic were trapped in their racism, sexism, and classism: because of this, there is no need to be beholden to the “dead hand of the past” when it comes to the Constitution.  Every decade represents, to the progressive, a chance to improve on the past, as we change our society into a freer, more tolerant, less rigidly bound system.

The reality is a bit different.  History is not a series of continually improving attitudes.  I often start out my freshman American history class by asking students a question: In what century was the first black man elected to a legislature in what is now the United States?  Most guess the twentieth century; the few who were paying attention to Reconstruction in their high school history class guess the nineteenth.  When I tell them that it was in the seventeenth century, in Maryland, they are startled.  When I tell them that free blacks voted in most Southern states into the eighteenth century—but were completely prohibited from doing so by 1850—they are startled.  The assumption of progress is so ingrained that few can conceive that it could be otherwise.

At least part of what drove the change in black voting was a changing attitude about the significance of race.  At least among the elites (for whom we have the most complete information about attitudes), the notion of black racial inferiority had not crystallized in 1790.  There was still something of an assumption that all being the children of Adam and Eve, how fundamentally different could we be?  Yet within a century, driven partly by evolutionary theory, and partly by the need to justify imperialism and slavery, white intellectuals had largely accepted the idea that blacks were genetically and racially an inferior breed of human beings.  The textbook at the heart of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925—the one that the ACLU was defending—is quite blunt about this.

Those who have not been given an elite education at least have the advantage that their egos do not prevent them from making learning a lifelong activity.  I fear that our elites have had their egos stroked so thoroughly attending Ivy League schools that they do not realize how much that they think they know, isn’t so. 
Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at College of Western Idaho, and works as a software engineer for the State of Idaho.


  1. I'm linking this in my blog. Thank you. - gfa

  2. To quibble about your recitation of the O'Donnell episode, the conversation moved fast, O'Donnell initially questioned whether separation of church and state was in the First Amendment without specifying whether she meant the principle or the words. Since the principle is well established in First Amendment jurisprudence, many in the audience began to laugh. As the laughter built, O'Donnell then repeated here question, clarifying that she meant to refer to the words "separation of church and state." By then, the laughter was already in full swing; I suspect few heard her belated clarification.

    It matters little, as her intended point was silly. That the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of "We the people" (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

  3. Mr. Indeap: your claim about separation of church and state as a bedrock principle simply fails on the substantial body of evidence of what the Framers did on a regular basis. See

    The notion of separation of church and state is a modern one, and has little to do with the Constitution. The proof of this is that Congress for many years passed laws that provided for government funding of religious establishments in the territories.

  4. THe link for "she was actually considerably closer to correct" is bad. I'm interested in reading what lies behind it. Can you fix it?

    And I think Indeap is right. I like your blog, but I think you are mistaken about this. I'm very happy to have a very strict separation clause, because I don't want certain religious groups (take a guess which one I mean) to get any government support.

  5. asdf: I'm not sure what the problem with the link is: it definitely goes to a posting where I discuss the problems with criticism of Bachmann's statements.

    You seem to be failing to distinguish between what you think would be good public policy ("strict separation") and what the Constitution requires. Until after the Civil War, when anti-Catholic feeling became increasingly dominant, it was considered perfectly legitimate for the national government to promote or encourage Christianity, as long as it gave no favoritism or legal advantage to any particular sect.

  6. The Constitution separated the federal government and religion from the get go as I described.

    To the extent that some would like confirmation--in those very words--of the founders' intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    Separation of government and religion plainly is not a modern idea. During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes.

  7. Sorry, the bad link is in fact a good link. My mistake.