Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The State of History in the United States

history opinion piece book promotion
The New York Times

On May 11, 2019, the New York Times published Rick Atkinson's “Why We Still Care About America’s Founders.” 

Atkinson is the author of the forthcoming book, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. Promotional articles are often written to build momentum for a nonfiction book launch. Regrettably, this op-ed says more about the state of history as a discipline than it does about Atkinson’s book.

Normally, a book launch is a joyous occasion, especially when the tome is by a prominent historian who has won Pulitzer Prizes in history and journalism. But these are tough times for historians, especially historians of American history. Progressive activists have belittled white men and toxic masculinity as the scourge of humankind, and American history is just filled with dead, white men.  Some of them slaveholders, as well. Atkinson spent years writing a history book fraught with landmines that could offend the political correctness vigilantes. What’s a historian to do?


Before getting into the meat of his article, Atkinson pays homage to social warriors hunting for offense. Here are the first three paragraphs of his article. 
There’s a lot to dislike about the founding fathers and the war they and others fought for American independence.

The stirring assertion that “all men are created equal” did not, of course, apply to 500,000 black slaves — one in five of all souls occupying the 13 colonies when those words were written in 1776. Nor was it valid for Native Americans, women or indigents.

Those who remained loyal to the British crown, and even fence-straddlers skeptical of armed rebellion, were often subjected to dreadful treatment, including public shaming, torture, exile and execution. In a defensive war waged for liberty and to secure basic rights, the Americans invaded Canada in an effort to win by force of arms what could not be won by negotiation and blandishment — a 14th colony.

Although voting rights did not extend to women, slaves, or Native Americans, Atkinson failed to mention that voting rights were broader in the United States than in any other major power. In fact, voting rights for free males were greater in the colonies than in Great Britain itself. (In the late 18th Century, English voting rights were still doled out by nobility.)

The third paragraph is just gratuitous genuflecting. Loyalists who didn’t actively work for the British were seldom subjected to the atrocities listed, and the Canadian invasion is likewise skewed to appear more belligerent toward Canadians than the British. Military leaders certainly hoped to spark a simultaneous rebellion in Canada, but if that failed, they would be content to draw British forces to the north. American colonialists had no intention of conquring new territory while simultaneously fighting the strongest military force on earth.

Historians should not skew the past to make our ancestors look better, nor should they present the past in a way to advance the narratives of present-day social warriors. People and events should be judged in their time, not ours.

Another irritation with modern historians is the tendency to over-play the perspective of ordinary people. Letters and diaries can provide contemporaneous insight, and as a historical novelist, I greatly appreciate research into past lifestyles. It provides me the details to bring my characters to life. But ordinary people don’t bend history. Extraordinary people do. If we want to change our world, we need to study how it has been done in the past.

As Theodore White wrote, In Search of History, “Threading an idea into the slipstream of politics, then into government, then into history…is a craft which I have since come to consider the most important in the world.”

The Founding of this great nation was unique. Up until 1776, with a few brief exceptions, world history was about rulers and empires. The American experiment shook the world. Not only did we break away from the biggest and most powerful empire in history, we took the musings of the brightest thinkers of the Enlightenment and implemented them. Our Founding was simultaneously an armed rebellion against tyranny, and a revolution of ideas—ideas that changed the world.

And that is why we still care about America’s Founders.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Essay at Constituting America: Nebraska’s State Constitution

Constituting America has begun their 90-Day Essays for 2019. This year, they are centered on "Boundaries on Federal Government" and will cover our federalist form of government, including the state Constitutions. I'm writing the essay on the Nebraska Constitution, which was published today.

You can read it here,

Be sure to explore the other excellent essays. Also, you might want to check out your state's Constitution.

unicameral legislature

Monday, March 11, 2019

Constituting America's Annual Essay

Constituting America has begun their 90-Day Essays for 2019. This year, they are centered on "Boundaries on Federal Government" and will cover our federalist form of government, including the state Constitutions. I'll be writing the essay on the Nebraska Constitution.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Capitalism beats socialism ... every time

Socialism takes from people who produce to give goods and services to the "less fortunate." It is done under the premise of fairness. Everyone should benefit from the largess of the wonderful world that surrounds us all.

The prior paragraph may sound appealing, but there are three fatal errors embedded in the premise.

1. Fortune has little to do with income
2. Fairness is in the eyes of the beholder
3. The world is dangerous, not wonderful.

The term “less fortunate” makes it sound like success depends on luck. Except, what happens to “luck” under a socialist system. Under socialism, scarcity is the order of the day. Even commodities like toilet paper are in short supply. If “luck” brought all these goods to market under capitalism, why doesn’t “luck” deliver the goods under socialism?

If a person produces something through brawn, wits, or practiced skill, that person believes that fairness dictates that they should be able to keep what they produce. It doesn’t matter whether that “fortunate” person is a plumber, entrepreneur, or NFL player. Socialism sees fairness differently. People with more must give their “fair share” of what they produce to others. The recipient probably thinks it’s fair, but producers feels abused.

Advanced societies live in a wonderful world, but its wonders are due to capitalism. Our hardscrabble world offers no “largess” free for the taking. Before Adam Smith, the hoi polloi found food scarce, work backbreaking, bug-ridden shelters unpleasant, support systems nil, and life short. That was the world before capitalism. In fact, that’s the world today in the underdeveloped world. Life is harsh without capitalists to scrape the burrs off.

Those who can’t demand more than minimum wage want to believe that their problems result not from sloth, but from ill fortune, theft, or a rigged system. Socialism appeals to the indebted, the lazy, and the unskilled. For a period, socialism works, but socialism soon converts the productive into the skillfully lazy. Everyone is equal, but equally without. Except for the commissars and their friends and family. They live well. You see, socialism is really about trading places. The politically powerful trade places with the people who used to build stuff, create nifty things, or get it to market. The operative phrase in that sentence is used to. They no longer own the product of their sweat or wits, so they live off their already accumulated wealth, move, or cozy up to the state. Thus, no toilet paper.

Whenever capitalism and socialism are pitted against each other, capitalism always wins. Wherever and whenever free markets are allowed to reign, people are better off. All the people. Inequality grows, but inequality grows under socialism as well. The difference is that the socialist ruling class disguise their lifestyle while under capitalism, the rich revel in it. Why does capitalism work so much better than romanticized socialism? I can explain in one word.


That’s why capitalism wins. Always. Rewards for hard work. Rewards for being clever. Rewards for endless training in a sport or performing art. Rewards for taking risks. Rewards for developing skills needed by society. Even rewards for showing up on time.

Socialism? Not so much. Under socialism the only rewards are for exercising raw political power or being connected to raw political power.

That’s why socialism sucks. Big time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Franklin's Hidden Role at the Constitutional Convention

Ran across this article at Franklin on Freedom.

Emotions ran high at the Constitutional Convention and the delegate who sooth tempers was usually Ben Franklin. He often did this with a humorous quip, but once filibustered a nonsensical proposition until tempers eventually abated.

Franklin did more. He also teamed with Washington for behind the scene negotiations to keep the convention from collapsing. Reading Madison's notes, it appears arguments often escalated from about mid-week to reach a crescendo on Fridays. Many sessions were recess for the weekend with acrimony high, but on Monday, with little discussion, a compromise or procedural change would resolve or delay the issue. Obviously something had been negotiated outside the chamber. Most likely, the deal would have been struck under the mulberry tree in Franklin's yard.

Benjamin Franklin was one of our greatest Founders and this article is a fun read about an interesting historical character.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Tempest at Dawn Review

I normally don't post Amazon reviews to my blog, but this one highlighted one of my favorite aspects of the book. In researching Tempest at Dawn, I read multiple books about lifestyles in the 1780s. I wanted to not only reflect what happened in the Constitutional Convention, but how the delegates lived. Separate state currencies were only one element of daily life that I wove into the political story.

Being a tremendous fan of early American history, this book immediately appealed to me. After reading it, I found there were several things I still hadn't realized about early America. The biggest was that every state had their own currency (which I'm sure restricted travel further than the fact that it could conceivably take days to travel from Connecticut to New York by wagon, depending on where in Connecticut you lived) and that there was an exchange rate between states that was figured out by...? All states still took British currency, which I suppose makes sense but I figured states frowned on dealing with British currency after the war.
At any rate, even though this is a fictional story of a real event, it held my attention and it wouldn't surprise me that all of the back room deals in the story actually happened. That was politics then as it is now.
It was also sad that with the country's imminent demise, there were politicians who still refused to give up their perceived power. Again, fictional story aside, I highly recommend this book if you like reading about early American history. Great job!

You can read the 216+ reviews (4.4) for Tempest at Dawn here.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Here’s an idea on how to fix Congress!

My grandson graduated from middle-school, so I’ve been in New York City for the last week. My visits are always fun because my three New York grandchildren will have it no other way. Sometimes we get time to do something other than attend school events, sport games, and dance recitals. Yesterday, I met an old friend from Arizona for lunch. Michael E. Newton wrote Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years and other nonfiction history books. Hamilton, of course, played a major role in Tempest at Dawn, so despite my emphasis on fiction, we developed a friendship based on a shared love of history.

After discussing book marketing, writing projects, and American history anecdotes, Michael shared a modern-day political idea that has shown some recent popularity. A congressperson today represents an average of 710,000 people. When we adopted the Constitution, each member represented no more than thirty thousand people. Michael suggested that we return to an upper limit of thirty thousand constituents. I laughed. That would make the United States Congress as large as the Star Wars Imperial Senate. I told Michael I didn’t want to pay taxes for a building large enough to hold so many representatives. He asked why they needed to be in a single building? In fact, why did they need to be in Washington D.C at all?

The intent of this movement is to make the House of Representatives once again answerable to the people.  If congresspersons remained in their districts and participated electronically with Congress as a whole, then they would be surrounded by their constituents rather than lobbyists and the House leadership. Further, if a congressperson only represented thirty thousand citizens, individuals would have more personal contact with their representative and greater influence over legislation. If we could pull this off, we would decrease the power of lobbyists and the establishment by geographically decentralizing the House, while increasing the power of the people by making their representative a neighbor. 

An additional benefit is that staff salaries and office expenses would siphon money out of the richest zip codes in America and disperse it to the hinterlands, from where it came in the first place. I count that as win/win.

Are there negatives? Of course. The senate would undoubtedly be further captured by lobbyists, the media, and party apparatchiki. They’ll probably even become haughtier, if that’s possible. But wait, there’s more. We could send senators out to state environs, as well. Maybe we require them to work in the state capital, maybe even the capitol itself. The Framers wanted the Senate to protect the states, and this might move us closer to the Framers’ vision. Although senators would remain popularly elected, proximity to local politicians would provide the states with additional influence over their prima donnas.

The whole idea is a pipe dream, but an intriguing pipe dream nonetheless. Maybe we could bribe them to go along by doubling their salary. It would be a bargain at twice the price.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Today's Essay at Constituting America

Today, I again had the privilege of participating in Constituting America's 8th annual 90-Day Study. This year, their study looks at the Founders’ vision and purpose for a legislature that belongs to, is comprised of, and serves the American people. 

You can read or listen on SoundCloud here, and all of this years essays can be found here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

In 1862, a sixty-five day downpour pummeled the western United States. California suffered the brunt of the storm. Almost a third of the state was under water, roads were impassible, telegraph lines down, rivers overflowed, hundreds of people died, and hundreds of thousands of animals drowned. Sacramento remained under water for six months, forcing the state government to move to San Francisco.
Geological evidence shows that a flood of this magnitude hits California every one to two hundred years.
What if it happens again?

I took a break from Steve and his friends to write a disaster story. This one's a corker. I didn't know I could imagine such mayhem.

For Steve Dancy fans, I have started Coronado, A Steve Dancy Tale and it should be available before the end of the year.

Back to Deluge. Greg Evarts and Patricia Baldwin are back from The Shut Mouth Society. The stories are unrelated, so Deluge is not a sequel. The novels just shares the same cast and locale. The characters have changed, of course. Greg is now chief of police in Santa Barbara. Patricia is still a history professor, but has transferred from UCLA to UCSB. When the sky falls on California, our two heroes must once again save the day. There's rain, inept and ept politicians, murading street gangs, cage fighters, spies, and collapsed dams that send mountains of rolling water toward everything we hold dear.

Deluge will be available in print and Kindle formats on June 4th. Happy reading.

Can a 150-year-old conspiracy be unraveled before it’s too late?

Monday, May 14, 2018

Essay at Constituting America

james D. Best
Today's Essay

Today, I had the privilege of participating in Constituting America's 8th annual 90-Day Study. This year, their study looks at the Founders’ vision and purpose for a legislature that belongs to, is comprised of, and serves the American people. 

You can read my essay here, and all of the essays here.