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Archive for March, 2012

Marbury v. Medicine

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

More than 200 years ago, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that was destined to change the landscape of American politics and send generations of befuddled first-year law students scurrying to their legal dictionaries. Everyone knows Marbury v. Madison as the case in which the court first asserted the power to declare acts of Congress and the president unconstitutional. What’s less well known is that the defendants in Marbury (Secretary of State James Madison and, by extension, President Thomas Jefferson) got off on a technicality. In its first great clash with the president, the court concluded that it had no jurisdiction—no power, in other words, to award relief to the plaintiff.

But all of this was by design. John Marshall, the brilliant but unassuming chief justice, always intended to use Marbury to hand his cousin [REALLY?] and arch-foe Jefferson a narrow legal victory while dealing him a long-lasting political blow. By lecturing Jefferson about his legal duties, Marshall put the president in his place. (Ours is “a government of laws, and not of men.”) And by laying the foundation for judicial review, Marshall carved out a prominent new place for the court. Most important, Marshall did all of this without ordering Madison or Jefferson to actually do anything. No wonder historian Robert McCloskey called Marbury “a masterwork of indirection.”

Apply this approach to “Obamacare”?

Radical Solutions to Economic Inequality

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

 According to a 1912 Presidential commission, the “Rich”—or top 2 percent—owned 60 percent of the nation’s wealth. By contrast, the “Poor”—or bottom 60 percent—owned just 5 percent of the wealth.

Today, after a century of ups and down, we’ve landed back at those extremes, give or take a few percentage points. But what’s striking about the commission’s report, read from a 21st-century perspective, is how limited our own debate about inequality seems by comparison. For the commission, inequality was a fundamental problem that threatened the entire fabric of American democracy. Today, by contrast, we’re busy debating whether a multimillionaire like Mitt Romney ought to pay a few more percentage points in federal taxes.

Awesome Book Review: “Patriotic Gore”

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

In this sesquicentennial David Blight revisits “one of the most important and confounding books ever written about the Civil War.”

This long form review offers some thoughtful nuggets. For instance:

“Wilson argued that the three great leaders of the modern “impulse to unification”— Lincoln, Bismarck, and Lenin—all became heroic but detested “dictators” for their respective causes. Each was “confident that he was acting out the purpose of a force infinitely greater than himself,” Wilson intoned. Bismarck believed in “God,” Lenin in “History,” and Lincoln in some kind of democratic combination of the two. All three, though, according to Wilson, were mere agents of the “power drive” that moved nations and history over and over into mass violence and conquest.”

When Gen. Grant Expelled the Jews

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

How a notorious anti-Semitic order changed the course of Jewish life in America—ultimately, for the better.

“And so,” Lincoln is said to have drawled when Kaskel displayed General Orders #11 before him, “the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”

“Yes,” Kaskel responded, “and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”

“And this protection,” Lincoln declared “they shall have at once.”

This conversation seems like the stuff of legends. But I’ll probably try to keep the legend alive.
Ulysses S. Grant’s surprising embrace of Jews during his presidency takes on new significance. Through his appointments and policies, Grant rejected calls for a “Christian nation,” and embraced Jews as insiders in America, part of “We the People.” During his administration, Jews achieved heightened status on the national scene. Judaism won recognition (at least from him) as a faith co-equal to Protestantism and Catholicism (”the [P]rotestant, the Catholic, and the Jew appointed days for universal prayer in my behalf,”


Ulysses S. Grant was as popular as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the late 19th century, but in the 20th his reputation fell under withering assault. Historians, many of them southerners critical of his benevolent policy toward black people, criticized both the way he waged war and the way he forged peace. They blamed him for the Civil War’s high death rate, for the failures of Reconstruction, for the corruption of his underlings, and for his personal failings. They derided him as a butcher and a drunkard. Historians ranked him close to the bottom among all American presidents.

In recent years, however, a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of Ulysses S. Grant has taken place. “Though much of the public and even some historians haven’t yet heard the news,” historian Sean Wilentz observed in the New York Times, “the vindication of Ulysses S. Grant is well under way. I expect that before too long Grant will be returned to the standing he deserves—not only as the military savior of the Union but as one of the great presidents of his era, and possibly one of the greatest in all American history.” A fresh look at Grant’s relationship with the Jewish community reinforces this view.

‘1861’: A Social History Of The Civil War

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

On Fresh Air, historian Adam Goodheart explains how national leaders and ordinary citizens responded to the chaos and uncertainty in the days and months before and after the struggle at Fort Sumter, an almost-bloodless two-day battle that became the start of the Civil War almost by mistake.

I really appreciate Goodheart’s analyses. For instance, he draws a parallel between slave owners who refused to give up their slaves to moderns who refuse to give up fossil fuels (abolitionists as modern day bike riders). He also unpacks the Sumter issue incisively. Really good interview performance too.

Niccolo Machiavelli – the Cunning Critic of Political Reason

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Customarily, the name ‘Machiavelli’ was a synonym for the devil. The myth of the corrupt immorality of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) has lasted for many centuries, the description ‘Machiavellian’ being used today for anyone who is seen slyly to manipulate a given situation to their own advantage by means of shrewd political insight. Machiavelli as an individual has been described as aloof, as standing to one side of life ‘with a sarcastic expression continually playing around his mouth and flashing from his eyes’. This reputation is based on Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, which was written in 1513-14.

However, is Machiavelli’s lasting reputation as the philosopher-king of political manipulation really justified? This article re-examines Machiavelli’s work and legacy and comes to some surprising conclusions. It also suggests a number of different ways to interpret Machiavelli’s political ideas.

Vincent Barnett reveals that there is more to Machiavelli than his notorious reputation. (History Today)

Popular Revolts in Normandy

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

The popular revolts of 1578-79 and 1586-89 in Normandy were triggered by an unruly military presence and the high level of royal fiscal exactions. Joan Davies shows how the revolts were exploited by the nobility in their struggle with Henri III, who met the threat thus posed with force. (History Today)

King Henry II

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

December 19th, 1154: a reddish haired, quick-tempered and hyper-active young man was crowned at Westminster Abbey as King Henry II. Although in December 1154, Henry was generally recognised as the legitimate claimant to the throne, most notably by the English Church, his accession was fraught with perils.

Nicholas Vincent celebrates the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty.

‘An Army of Lovers’ – The Sacred Band of Thebes

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Louis Crompton argues that male love and military prowess went hand in hand in classical Greece. (History Today)

Women and Politics in Democratic Athens

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Susan Cole looks at how, though formally excluded from the political process, Athena’s sisters nevertheless made their mark. (History Today)