Monday, June 27, 2011

Historian Simon Schama Makes Newsweek Debut Bashing Tea Partiers Over Respect for Founding Fathers


Columbia University professor Simon Schama made his Newsweek debut yesterday with a blog post that indirectly attacked Tea Party activists and conservatives for what Schama considers a historically illiterate ancestor worship of the Founding Fathers.

"The Constitution’s framers were flawed like today’s politicians, so it’s high time we stop embalming them in infallibility," snarked the subheading for Schama's June 26 post.

"True history is the enemy of reverence. [emphasis mine] We do the authors of American independence no favors by embalming them in infallibility, by treating the Constitution like a quasi-biblical revelation instead of the product of contention and cobbled-together compromise that it actually was," Schama argued, and, in the process gravely distorted the arguments of constitutional originalists.

Sorry, Dr. Schama, to originalists, it's not that the Framers of the Constitution were secular demigods who are entirely unassailable, it's that the Constitution provides for a legitimate process to amend the document and that the judicial branch is not it. Courts are bound to honor the Constitution and the will of the people by strictly adhering to its limits.

It is entirely possible to revere the Founding Fathers without descending into entirely uncritical hagiography, but Schama seems to think that an impossibility, at least for conservatives.

"Instead of knowledge, we have tricorn hats," Schama scoffed, echoing MSNBC's resident historian Chris Matthews by adding:

Staring at a copy of the Constitution in the National Archives and making promotional pilgrimages to revolutionary New England didn’t prevent Sarah Palin from butchering the truth of Paul Revere’s ride, turning it into some sort of NRA advisory to the British to keep their gosh-darned hands off American firearms.

Facts, as John Adams insisted when defending British redcoats after the Boston Massacre, "are stubborn things."

The British-born, Obama-boosting academic surely knows that the historical record is a stubborn thing, especially when it bolsters political views he finds objectionable. The British regulars were in fact coming for the Massachusetts colonists' weapons on the night of April 18, 1775.

Via the National Park Service (emphasis mine):

What was the reason for the British expedition to Concord?

On the evening of April 18, 1775, General Thomas Gage sent approximately 700 British soldiers out to Concord (about 18 miles distant) to seize and destroy military stores and equipment known to be stockpiled in the town. His orders to Lt. Col. Smith, the British officer who was to lead the expedition, were as follows:

Having received intelligence, that a quantity of Ammunition, Provision, Artillery, Tents and small arms, have been collected at Concord, for the Avowed Purpose of raising and supporting a Rebellion against His Majesty, you will march with the Corps of Grenadiers and Light Infantry, put under your command, with the utmost expedition and secrecy to Concord, where you will seize and destroy all Artillery, Ammunition, Provision, Tents, Small Arms, and all military stores whatever. But you will take care that the Soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants, or hurt private property.

Under great pressure from his superiors in England to bring Massachusetts back under control of the "lawful government," General Gage sent the troops to Concord in the hopes that by doing so, he could convince the colonists to back down, and thus avoid an armed rebellion.

General Gage also believed that seizing stockpiles of weapons was not only a military necessity, but also his prerogative as governor of the colony. The colonists actively disagreed.

Schama closed his post by suggesting that it is American conservatives worried about national decline who are actually furthering it:

As the electioneering rises to a din, those who dare to read history for its chastening wisdom will be fatuously accused of “declinism.” But it is those who reduce history’s hard and honest reckonings to exceptionalist chest-thumping who will be the true agents of degeneration. As one of Jefferson’s favorite books, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, so luminously argued, there is no surer sign of a country’s cultural and political decay than an obtuse blindness to its unmistakable beginnings.

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