Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Published in History

Foreign Affairs

Today's History Lesson

Looking for a cheap lunch at a favorite Vietnamese restaurant, got an education instead.


Categories > Foreign Affairs


Washington: Britain's Arch-Nemesis

Fox News reports from London:

George Washington has been named Britain's greatest ever foe, according to the UK's National Army Museum.

The American Revolutionary War hero and the country's first president was the winner of a vote held at the museum Saturday to identify the Britain's most outstanding military opponent, The (London) Daily Telegraph reported.

Washington triumphed over the likes of Michael Collins, Napoleon, Rommel and Ataturk for the (in)famous title of "greatest foe ever." One hopes that the title was born of respect on the part of the British. Of course, Collins, Napoleon and Rommel were ultimately unsuccessful and Ataturk enjoyed only limited successes. Washington alone won a victory for all ages, as it were, in American democracy. And his miraculous cannon fortification of Dorchester Heights during the ultimately successful siege of Boston remains an unsurpassed example of military leadership.

Perhaps the British merely wished to name the only man to defeat them in recent history as the greatest of men in recent history. If one must be defeated, let it be by the greatest of adversaries. Whatever their reasoning, the truth is the same: Washington was the greatest of men.
Categories > History


Guelzo on Titanic

Over at NRO, Allen Guelzo writes of the legacy of the Titanic, which sank along with over 2/3rds of its passengers 100 years ago this weekend. "The Titanic, name and thing," he quotes, "will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption." In the piece, Guelzo takes issue with some of the crimes committed by James Cameron in his epic portrayal of the disaster, and gives proper praise to the heroic captain of the Carpathia, Arthur Rostron, who did not flinch in rushing his ship through iceberg-infested waters to rescue whoever he could from the doomed ocean liner. "Presumption was what killed the Titanic. Presumption that technology relieves us from prudence, presumption that intelligent regulation will eliminate fear and pain, presumption that we have achieved exemption from the dangers that plagued earlier generations, presumption that nature can be driven out with a will-intentioned pitchfork...The sea hath spoken." Read the whole thing.

Additionally, this excellent graphic puts some perspective on the sinking of the Titanic, how deep James Cameron recently went in his submarine, and other interesting things about the mostly-unexplored depths of our oceans.
Categories > History


Why Did the Conspiracy Fail?

Over two thousand years ago, a group of aristocrats surrounded Gaius Julius Caesar at a meeting of the Roman Senate and stabbed him to death, having conspired to overthrow a dictator and reestablish a republic. Within a few years of their action, all of the conspirators were dead, and Caesars ruled the world for centuries. Caesar's staying power is visible even today. Among the otherwise-mindless topics "trending" on Twitter today, this morning was filled with trending topics including "Julius Caesar" and the "Ides of March", while a current trending topic is #ReasonsYouGetStabbed. I find this utterly remarkable given that I think you would be hard-pressed to find another person outside of Jesus Christ who has been dead for so long, or for even half as long, and is still so alive in the public imagine. It's a testament to how much the conspiracy of Brutus and Cassius failed in its mission to end Caesar. While there are a multitude of reasons that the Republicans were unable to overcome the Caesarians, these three mistakes from the offset really doomed their dreams:

1. The refusal to include Cicero in the conspiracy was a major mistake. Cicero's gift of oratory surpassed even Caesar's, and he was regarded as one of the most intelligent and patriotic men in Rome--the only other Roman other than Caesar to receive the honorific title Pater Patriae for his defeat of the Catiline Conspiracy. He was the voice of reason. However, Cicero was vain and ambitious, and a wishy-washy flake on top of it. If he were to join the conspiracy, he would want to be in charge of it--and he may have been too queazy to go along with its final mission. In Shakespeare's telling of the tale, Brutus also objects to Cicero's inclusion because he does not want the conspiracy to be led by reason; he wants it to be led by honor. The goodness of the conspiracy's goals should not have to be explained; it should be self-evident. However, by refusing to include Cicero, they lost out on his wise counsel and were also unable to employ him in the ensuing arguments with the Caesarians for the public mind.

2. The failure to kill Mark Antony, Caesar's trusted lieutenant, was a huge oversight. Cassius--and Cicero--said that the man ought to die alongside Caesar, for he was too dangerous to be kept alive. But, the conspirators--again, guided by honor and not reason--did not want to come across as butchers. Brutus would not allow it; if Caesar was dead, they thought that the drunken and vulgar Antony would be unable to do much. They greatly underestimated Antony's power, anger, and ambition, something I am sure that Brutus and Cassius realized as Antony's army wiped their own out.

3. Finally, allowing Antony not only to live but to speak was a huge blunder, and Shakespeare shows that well. There is no historical record of Antony's actual speech, but the effects of it are exactly what Shakespeare described. Antony, speaking at Caesar's funeral with the permission of victorious Brutus, turned the mob against the conspirators and ran them out of the city. He set the public interpretation of the assassination into stone, and his control of the story lasted for centuries. Even in Renaissance Italy, the conspirators were looked upon with hatred--Dante puts Cassius and Brutus on either side of Judas in the mouth of the Beast on the deepest level of Hell. Without Cicero's silver tongue to combat the passionate cries of Antony, who played up the mutual love between Caesar and his people, the conspirators were hopeless and were forced to give up the very thing they sought to keep: Rome.

Of course, there are other factors at play---Cicero's miscalculation of Octavian's skill and ambition, the formation of the Second Triumvirate, the too-far-gone degradation of Roman political society. Nonetheless, these three things doomed the conspiracy from the beginning. However noble their intentions, they failed. They did not murder Antony, and they could not give a proper defense of why they could murder Caesar and not Antony. The result is that two thousand years later, Caesar is still looked at with ambiguous awe while Brutus very much tends to be associated more with betrayal than with patriotism or liberty. High-minded, noble, patriotic Brutus was a good man in an impossible situation, and he could not (or would not) bring himself to do what was practical (and, perhaps, ignoble) in order to defeat Caesar's name, and for that he and his cohorts all met rather unpleasant ends. That's the tragedy of the Ides of March right there. 
Categories > History

Literature, Poetry, and Books

Shakespeare's Coriolanus

"He's a very dog to the commonalty." These are the words we hear about Caius Marcius before we even meet the man, and they ring true both within the context of the play and in the context of much of society's view of the play. Shakespeare's Coriolanus has been called the greatest of the Bard's tragedies, the tragic character surpassed perhaps only by Lear and Cleopatra. Despite most people recognizing something great about it, it is also among the least-loved of Shakespeare's plays. It is seldom read and almost never acted; you would likely be hard pressed to find it on someone's list of favorite plays. There are, perhaps, two great reasons for this. The first is that the play seems to be quite critical of democracy, and that rubs the people of liberal democracies the wrong way. The other is that it is just really hard to like the play's tragic hero, Coriolanus. He's a great man, but not lovable. It's hard to feel sorry for him, but you realize that there is something tragic in his eventual fall. It's complicated.

In his new film adaptation of this play, Ralph Fiennes captures this complication tremendously. With the support of well-tested screenwriter John Logan (whose other work includes Hugo and Gladiator) and a cast of excellent actors rounded out by Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox, Fiennes thrusts this story into modern-day dress. Shakespeare's words come out of television screens by men in suits and ties; his soldiers run around with automatic weapons and hand grenades; his rabble follows politicians around with their cell phones out to record the goings-on. It does this all seamlessly, and shows the timelessness of Shakespeare's understanding of human nature--you come to see that this could have happened in the modern-day Balkan-like setting where it is acted out.

It is a good story for us to try and understand, because Coriolanus presents a problem that societies based upon a certain type of equality must struggle with: what do we do with a man who is an embodiment of inequality, a greater man who we all know is great and who he himself knows is great? We were lucky in our Founding that Washington understood something else about ambition, equality, and nobility that most men do not, and that our great generals after him--Grant and Eisenhower chief among them--have followed in his example. The French with Bonaparte, the Mexicans with Santa Anna, and the South Americans with Bolivar were not so lucky. Though, those men were not quite as good and noble as Coriolanus was, so perhaps that is unfair to him. Perhaps the closest type of statesman we have met recently is Churchill, who, like Washington, managed to overcome these particular faults (or are they virtues in extremis?).

I highly recommend the film. Yes, lines had to be cut to make way for movie audiences and explosions--at the expense of some of the true humor of Menenius and exploring more of the relationship between Coriolanus and his wife--and I do have some qualms with the interpretation of part of the ending, but it is some of the best acting I have seen in film, and likely the high point of the acting careers of both Fiennes and Redgrave to-date (at least of what I've seen of their work). If you get a chance, see it.


Pope Pius XII's Continuing Redemption

While I'm on my papist roll, the Vatican has released a handful of documents, hailed by The Telegraph of London as redemptive, attesting to Pope Pius XII's aid to Jews during the Holocaust. For many years, liberals and militant secularists have arrogantly denounced Pius as "Hitler's Pope." The claims have always been spurious, as I noted previously upon observing that Jewish authorities almost unanimously praise Pius' conduct during the war.

Pius XII seems to me to be one of the most maligned figures of modern history. Whereas Allied powers did nothing to directly prevent the Holocaust (except, of course, by winning the war against Germany), Pius was consistently and unreservedly critical of NAZI Germany and is credited with saving nearly a million Jews by siphoning them through local parishes into foreign nations. Jewish and world leaders fully recognized Pius' "heroic virtue" until his name was defiled by a seemingly KGB-sponsored German play which portrayed the Pope as a devotee of Hitler. The German government and Jewish leaders condemned the historical revision, but the myth (welcome among those who always welcome such derisive slurs) endures today.

[See here for a nearly-exhaustive list of articles and texts on the topic.]

One of the documents, written by interred Jews in Italy, reads in part:

While in nearly all the countries of Europe we were persecuted, imprisoned and threatened with death because we belong to the Jewish people and profess the Jewish faith, Your Holiness not only sent notable and generous gifts to our camp through the apostolic nuncio... but also showed your fatherly interest in our physical and spiritual well-being," they wrote in German.

(You) intrepidly raised your universally venerated voice against our enemies - still so powerful at that time - to openly support our rights to human dignity.

When in 1942 we were under the threat of deportation to Poland, Your Holiness extended your fatherly hand to protect us and prevented the deportation of the Jews imprisoned in Italy, thereby saving us from almost certain death.

The full archive of over 2 million documents will be released within the next year or two.

Categories > Religion


Eurocentrism Rears Its Ugly Head

Were the first Americans originally from Spain? And where did those ur-Spaniards come from? I guess one bit of evidence is this artwork discovered on a dig; and then there's this. What is most distrubing about the scholarship in this field is its sheer conventionality--its lack of imagination.
Categories > History


Hayward's latest book

is The Politically Incorrect Guide of the Modern Presidents: From Wilson to Obama.  That it is good and true and well written and amusing goes without saying.  Buy a couple to give it to your friends, or better, to your political enemies.  I hope he makes a mint off this!
Categories > History


"Embarassment" of Debates (update)

The current Republican exchanges? Besides those, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, according to the popularizing Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. He responded to Newt Gingrich's call for Lincoln-Douglas debates against Obama. Holzer, however, reassures us that "Rather than inspiring memorable words, they proved for the most part an embarrassment." In fact, in his view, they show Lincoln's racial bigotry: 

"I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races," he declared in Charleston, Ill., to robust cheers, "nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people." It was not the future emancipator's finest hour.

This is mediocre historian shallowness, which ignores what Lincoln might do in the future--shown clearly by the Emancipation Proclamation, his allowing blacks to fight in the Union army, and his early policies for reintegrating the South. Lincoln had no reason to speak of such civil and political equality, when most blacks were slaves. This superficiality breeds ignorant Lincoln haters and other cyncial leftists who despise their country. Though Holzer describes well the excitement of the debates, he, like most historians, simply doesn't see the principles involved. Ultimately, he does not understand the subjects as they understood themselves.

Read Harry Jaffa, author of the best book on political science since The Federalist. Crisis of the House Divided is also available via google books.  Ashbrook has a pdf as well, but I can't find it. In the meantime here are some short essays by real Lincoln scholars.


Our friend Jack Pitney is skeptical of Newt's debating skills.


Categories > Presidency


An Old Berliner

"Oh, they've always liked the Americans. Especially the Berliners, ever since the young president gave that speech."
Sitting in a room aptly-named the Churchill Lounge, a cigar in one hand and glass of port in the other, I had the opportunity to spend some time probing the mind of an old man from Berlin. He was orphaned during the war, and told stories of the sirens sounding during bombing raids, and how all the kids in the orphanage would need to run for shelter. When asked if that was tough, he shrugged his shoulders. "It became no different than running inside from a rain storm."

He told tales of living in a city divided by that Iron Curtain. As a young man he was in want of cigarettes, and it was late and the stores in West Berlin were shut down, but he heard that a store on the other side was often open late. He had not been to East Berlin since the war, but he knew he had a grandmother on that side, so he thought nothing of it and drove over (the Wall was not yet up). After all, he was just a guy looking for some cigarettes in the town he grew up in. Within moments he was stopped and had guns pointed at him, angry guards shouting at him. The old man said that his younger self was absolutely terrified and tried telling them he was just looking for cigarettes. After being held for several hours, he was finally released and allowed back into the West--he said he never stepped foot into East Berlin again until the reunification of Germany decades later.

The old man said that Americans are still loved in that country, but most especially in that city. They remember our magnanimity in victory, and our help against the Soviet Empire through Kennedy and Reagan. This is all worthy of retelling for two reasons. The first is to remind us of some of the virtues for which the United States are respected and even loved around the world. The second is to remind us that our current peace is a new and fragile thing; the scars of Hitler and Stalin are still fresh. It has been only a few decades since bombs fell on one of Europe's great cities and men made it impossible to roam freely. How these men rose to power, and the costs and sacrifices it took to stop their wickedness, should not be forgotten.
Categories > History