Monday, July 16, 2018

Bedtime stories about Armageddon: The lessons of the Cold War about nuclear weapons

“I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture … 'And I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Julius Robert Oppenheimer, speaking of the “Trinity” explosion (1945), the first nuclear detonation

The Americans were the first to acquire (and later use) nuclear weapons

In July 1945, the world's first nuclear detonation went off in the American state of New Mexico. The explosion was in the desert near Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. (This area is now part of White Sands Missile Range.) This was near the end of World War II, and the Cold War had not yet begun at this time. But it would have massive importance in the coming struggle with Soviet Russia. In August 1945, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which would have an even greater effect on the coming conflict. The frightening effects of these two bombs would haunt the world throughout the Cold War, as a chilling warning of what would happen if they were on the receiving end of a nuclear attack. Indeed, the nuclear weapons first introduced in 1945 were the most important aspect of the global confrontation now known as the “Cold War.” It is the biggest reason why the two major superpowers – which were the United States and the Soviet Union – did not directly engage each other in open conflict on a battlefield, except on a few rare occasions (which I will not elaborate on here).

“Trinity” explosion - New Mexico, United States (16 July 1945)

Why is it called the “Cold War,” when there were so many “hot wars” within it?

The reason that we call it the “Cold War” is that most of the time, the conflict did not involve actual shooting; which would be more characteristic of a “hot war.” Instead, it was usually just a “cold war” with the threat of a nuclear holocaust – although there were some notable exceptions where actual shooting occurred. (Such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan; which were all part of the larger “Cold War.”) This post will not attempt to cover these “hot wars” within the Cold War, and it will not attempt anything like an overview of this massive worldwide conflict. Rather, it will focus on the most important aspect of it, which is nuclear weapons. (Although if you're interested in the other parts of the Cold War, I cover some of them elsewhere on this blog here, for anyone that is interested.) Despite the problems caused by nuclear weapons since their first introduction in 1945, it is well that the Americans (and the free world generally) got this technology before the Nazis or the communists did, sine the prospect of these regimes getting the bomb first would have been chilling indeed. (And the Nazis almost did get it before the Americans did.)

Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions, 6 and 9 August 1945

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Blackstone quoted in Federalist Papers: The influence of Blackstone's “Commentaries”

"The observations of the judicious Blackstone,1 in reference to the latter; are well worthy of recital: 'To bereave a man of life,' says he, 'or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism, as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole nation; but confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore A MORE DANGEROUS ENGINE of arbitrary government.' And as a remedy for this fatal evil he is everywhere peculiarly emphatical in his encomiums on the habeas-corpus act, which in one place he calls 'the BULWARK of the British Constitution.'2"

- Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers (Federalist No. 84)

Blackstone was on the other side of the Revolutionary War from our Founding Fathers ...

When the United States declared independence from Britain, it was not breaking with its British heritage to the degree that you might have expected then. The Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and the English Bill of Rights remained influential in the thirteen states, you see. Ironically, one of the prior philosophers that most influenced our Founding Fathers was on the other side of the Revolutionary War from them, and he remained loyal to the British side even until his death in 1780 (five years into the War of Independence which had not yet ended). He had once received the patronage of Prince George, I might add here, who later became "King George III" - the nemesis of the Revolution.

William Blackstone

... but his name still appears in the Federalist Papers no less than five times

The great philosopher was William Blackstone (of Blackstone's "Commentaries"), and he wrote his "Commentaries on the Laws of England" in 1765 - ten years before the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. (The four volumes of Blackstone's "Commentaries" were virtually required reading for students of the law in English-speaking countries. They thus had a powerful influence on these countries' legal traditions, and they were sometimes the only law books that lawyers on the frontier could read. In a young republic without a long-standing legal tradition of its own, they were the most influential description of the laws of the mother country.) Mr. Blackstone was a powerful influence on the Founding Fathers even despite his being on the other side of the war from them, I might note here, and his name actually appears in the Federalist Papers no less than five times. He continues to be quoted in Supreme Court decisions in America, and he influenced several generations on the American frontier (including a country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln). But it is his influence on the founding of our country - and specifically, on the writers of the Federalist Papers - that I will be discussing here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Second Amendment: Protecting the gun rights “of the people”

"A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

- Second Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified 1791)

Does the Second Amendment apply only to the "militia," or to the whole "people"?

The Second Amendment says that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" (Source: Second Amendment). Supporters of the right to "bear arms" have long pointed to this portion of the amendment as evidence for legal gun rights possessed by individuals. But gun control advocates point with equal fervor to the prior clause of this amendment, which said that "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State ... " (Source: Second Amendment). They argue that this mention of the phrase "militia" somehow means that the gun rights apply only to the country's armed forces, and therefore cannot be legitimately possessed by the whole "people." If this argument is to be believed, then it would seem that there couldn't have been much of a distinction between the "militia" and the "people," or this latter clause about the "right of the people" would have been a non sequitur that didn't follow from the previous clause (which was presumably supposed to support it, if this amendment's context is any clue here). But there is now a greater distinction between the two than there was then, I should acknowledge here, because the term "militia" is currently understood in a very narrow sense that didn't apply at the time that this amendment was first written.

"Brown Bess" musket and bayonet, which was used in the American Revolution

What distinctions did the Founding Fathers make between the "militia" and the "people"?

Because of this, gun control advocates maintain that a constitutional right to "bear arms" applies only to a narrow portion of the country's population, and thus cannot be understood to apply broadly to the whole "people" (as people like me would hold). Thus, it would seem appropriate to correct the record here, and to show that the term "militia" was actually understood to mean something broader when this amendment was written. Gun control advocates may be partially correct in one respect, I should acknowledge here, when they say that not everyone was always included under the term "militia"; but this definition was nonetheless much broader than contemporary interpretations would usually admit today. In the context of the amendment itself, it is clear that it was never intended to be restricted to the "militia" anyway (as I will show later); but even if it was, the concept of a "militia" can be shown to be much broader than the mere armed forces of this country. It should thus be understood broadly today, if the original intent of the amendment is to be upheld.

American infantry in the Revolutionary War

Friday, June 15, 2018

A review of David Starkey's “Monarchy” (U. K.)

"In England, for a long time after the Norman Conquest, the authority of the monarch was almost unlimited. Inroads were gradually made upon the prerogative, in favor of liberty, first by the barons, and afterwards by the people, till the greatest part of its most formidable pretensions became extinct. But it was not till the revolution in 1688, which elevated the Prince of Orange to the throne of Great Britain, that English liberty was completely triumphant."

- Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers (Federalist No. 26)

Throughout the English-speaking world, people are fascinated by the British monarchy. Although the institution has very little power today, Americans still follow its every move, as though we had never fought a revolution against it. Despite all this interest, there has sometimes been a trend in recent years - amongst historians, at least - to try and focus on what happened to "ordinary people" in history, and focus less on the traditional subjects of "politics and the military." For example, Ken Burns once said that the history of the United States is usually told as "a series of presidential administrations punctuated by wars," and that all other aspects of American history - including those dealing with ordinary people - are given short shrift, or even lost entirely. There is truth in this claim, and there is value in focusing on the lives of ordinary people - and on other celebrities from other areas, besides the traditional focus on politics and the military. Why, then, do we focus so much on powerful political leaders? Why do we continue to be fascinated by the lives of kings and queens, when the "common man" is held up as the "greater ideal" for an enlightened democracy?

Queen Victoria

Why do we sometimes ignore the "ordinary people" of history?

I think part of it might be that the lives of ordinary people are usually not as well-documented as the lives of the rich and powerful, and a dig by archaeologists that unearths details of an ordinary person's life doesn't get as much fame and sexiness as those that unearth details of a major monarch's life. For example, most people would rather hear more about Julius Caesar and his generals, than about the ordinary men and women that made up the empire he ruled; and the same is true of American presidents and generals. But besides the fact that the lives of ordinary people are not as well-documented, there is another reason that historians focus so much on politics and the military (including monarchy), which is that the lives of ordinary people are affected quite extensively by what genius - or moron - is in power at the moment. For the history of most countries of the world, this necessarily entails a thorough examination of kings, queens, and royal families - on the monarchs and dynasties who are in charge at any given time. These kings are not just studied because historians are fans of royalty and juicy court gossip (although there is plenty of that), but because the history of entire countries depends on these things, and on the "royal soap operas" that are so often found at the center of power.

Queen Elizabeth the First

When King John signed the Magna Carta, it was like signing a surrender document …

“No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

The original Magna Carta from 1215, Section 39 – using the translation (from the Latin into English) that was offered by Yale Law School's “Avalon Project”

When King John of England signed the Magna Carta in 1215, it was tantamount to signing a surrender document, and just as humiliating for him. Before, the authority of the king had been almost (if not completely) absolute. Now, it was limited, and his nobles had the king's signature to prove it. Why did the king agree to sign this document in the first place? If he wanted to continue to have absolute power (and he did), why would he agree to such limits upon his power?

King John of England

The short answer for this is that he had no choice – he was forced to sign this document by angry men wielding a sword at him. But how did these noblemen manage to force him to do this at sword-point? How is it that King John lost his grip on absolute power at this time, with his descendants having very little chance of recovering it later on?

The Magna Carta

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

How did the Virginia Declaration of Rights influence the Bill of Rights?

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety … That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.”

George Mason actually refused to sign the Constitution of the United States …

George Mason was present at the Constitutional Convention, but he refused to sign the finished document. When the final draft was approved, he said that he “would sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” Why, you might be wondering? Because the original Constitution didn't have a Bill of Rights; and having authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights earlier on in his career, he knew the importance of a Bill of Rights in a country's constitution.

George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights

He wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in May 1776 (ratified June 1776)

Specifically, he had authored the “Virginia Declaration of Rights” in May 1776 – a document that was later approved in June 1776. It not only influenced the United States Declaration of Independence (passed in July 1776), but the United States Bill of Rights (which was passed in 1791). It drew upon influences from both American and British history, but it also made some original contributions of its own, as well as some improvements on previous ideas. It was also amended somewhat by Robert C. Nicholas and James Madison.

James Madison

It influenced our federal Bill of Rights in many ways, as I will show with some relevant quotes

The Virginia Declaration of Rights influenced 7 out of the 10 amendments in the United States Bill of Rights (which is 70% of them), and was thus a major influence on our Constitution. This post will show the most influential parts of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and the parts of the United States Constitution that they influenced as well.

United States Bill of Rights

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Petition of Right influenced the United States Bill of Rights

“The history of Great Britain is the one with which we are in general the best acquainted, and it gives us many useful lessons. We may profit by their experience without paying the price which it cost them.”

 John Jay, in the Federalist Papers (Federalist No. 5)

It sounds ironic to say it now, but a number of the Founding Fathers of the United States were actually against including a “Bill of Rights” within our Constitution. Some of them thought that it would be dangerous to do so, because they argued that any right not listed there would be construed “not to be protected” by the Constitution. They were partially wrong on this score, of course, and it would fall to other Founding Fathers to make sure that a “Bill of Rights” was later passed. But this early objection to the “Bill of Rights” may have been the reason that it eventually included a Ninth Amendment when it was passed, which said that “The enumeration [or “listing”] in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” (In other words, just because a right isn't listed in the Constitution, doesn't mean it's not a right.) This addressed the concern of those Founding Fathers who had objected to a bill of rights because of this.

Parliament of England

Some Founding Fathers were against having a “bill of rights” in the Constitution …

Nonetheless, when Alexander Hamilton listed examples of a “bill of rights” in one of the Federalist Papers, he was not endorsing them, but slamming them. He was holding them up as bad examples which should be avoided to avert danger from having a “comprehensive” list. Specifically, Hamilton said that “It has been several times truly remarked that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgements of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. Such was MAGNA CHARTA, obtained by the barons, sword in hand, from King John. Such were the subsequent confirmations of that charter by succeeding princes. Such was the PETITION OF RIGHT assented to by Charles I., in the beginning of his reign. Such, also, was the Declaration of Right presented by the Lords and Commons to the Prince of Orange in 1688, and afterwards thrown into the form of an act of parliament called the Bill of Rights. It is evident, therefore, that, according to their primitive signification, they have no application to constitutions professedly founded upon the power of the people, and executed by their immediate representatives and servants.” (Source: Federalist No. 84)

Alexander Hamilton

… while others were for it

Other Founding Fathers disagreed, and held them up as models of good laws that should be emulated to protect rights. Because of their well-deserved popularity, these laws had a great influence on the first ten amendments to the Constitution (the amendments that later became known as our “Bill of Rights”). They are thus deserving of our attention despite Hamilton's objections to them, and were positive influences on our Constitution once the “Bill of Rights” was passed. I plan to cover all of these documents in this series (plus a few others); but in this post, I shall focus exclusively on the “Petition of Right,” written by Sir Edward Coke. Two decades before King Charles the First was beheaded in the English Civil War, he was forced to sign this document. (And he wasn't too happy about signing it … )

Petition of Right, 1628

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