Class Notes

If General George B. McClellan had any ability as a general, he could have won the Civil War with his first engagement.  His plan was brilliant.  Using ships, he got around the majority of the Southern army by moving over 100,000 men to the Virginia Peninsula.  From the Peninsula, it was a straight shot and barely over 70 miles to Richmond.  The only thing standing in his way was John B. Magruder and 10,000 men at Yorktown.  Instead of swatting the rebels aside, McClellan lost his nerve and instead laid siege to Yorktown that lasted a month.  McClellan should have been able to walk into Richmond, but his caution allowed the majority of the Southern Army to move down and protect Richmond at the Battle of Seven Pines.  The War would last another three years.

Off to Texas for a couple days. This will be the last Class notes for the week.

Class Notes

Most place the cause of the War of 1812 on the British seizure of ships and imprisonment of American sailors.  However, there is good reason to see the cause as coming from the American West.  The Major war hawk faction in Congress were actually westerners, like Kentuckian Henry Clay.  They were more concerned with the British still occupying forts in western lands and their influence over the Indians.  Many also hoped to capture Canada.  So, the capture of American sailors may be more visible, but it was issues in the West that more directly led to war.

Edmund Burke

I recently wrote an article for his column about a lesser known influence on the Founding Fathers, a man named James Harrington. I think, with the recent acquittal of President Trump and, more specifically, the vote of Senator Mitt Romney, it is worth examining another influence on the Founders. This time the man was a contemporary and a member of the British House of Commons. He was famous for many concepts, but I want to focus on his ideas of how a republic should work.

Edmund Burke was born in 1797 and was a leading statesman and political philosopher of the time. He supported the American colonies’ struggles with Britain, but did not support the Revolution. Probably Burke’s most famous quote is, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As inspiring as that is, I am more interested in two other quotes. First, “When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people. The second quote is, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” 

What Burke is arguing is that in a republic it is the duty of representatives to vote their conscience, not the will of their constituents. I know this goes against everything we think today about our democracy, but that is not the way the Founders envisioned representation. As I have said before, the function of the Constitution was to protect the people from the government and the government from the people. As much as they feared tyranny, they feared the masses even more. When it came to our representatives, the Founders believed in the idea of government by our “betters” and virtual representation.

 Unlike today where we tend to want representatives who are like us, who somehow know what we are experiencing and can relate to us, the Founders envisioned our representative to be our betters. If we were going to elect someone who was like us, we might as well have a direct democracy. Instead they created a republic where the masses would choose someone who was smarter and more informed than we are to make the important decisions. This was a practice taken from the British, where the masses could vote, but had to vote for a nobleman who had the time to understand the issues. The reason the Founders chose a republic over a democracy was not just out of practicality but because most people do not have the time or ability to comprehend and study every issue and vote.

The concept of virtual representation also came from the British. Think of it this way. Once you vote for your congressman or senator, they represent all Americans. Every decision they make affects everyone, not just people in the state or district where they live. In this way they represent everyone virtually. It was never meant that our representatives poll their constituents. Instead they were to vote their own conscience or intelligence. As Burke said, representatives owe us their judgment. That is why we elected them. If we decide we do not like their judgment, that is why our representatives are voted on every two or six years.   

With the acquittal of President Trump on his impeachment charges, I have actually found there is more talk of Senator Mitt Romney’s decision to vote for conviction then the acquittal itself. I assume it is because everyone already knows of the outcome of the senate trial before it even started, but the idea of a politician breaking ranks goes against the current norm. Not all, but most, of the praise for Romney is coming from the left while the vilification of the senator is coming from the right. This is not surprising. The left is praising a man who dared break ranks to stand up for what he thought was right. I have even seen the word hero being used. Of course, I doubt they would use those same words if one of their own broke ranks and voted their conscious supporting the President. Those people would be traitors. 

That is how the right is seeing Romney, a traitor who is only jealous because he lost his presidential bid. Many have argued that Romney is breaking his trust with his constituents in voting against Trump. One comment I read said that he owes nothing to his faith or his family, the reason Romney claimed he voted to convict. Rather, the only people he owes anything to are the ones who voted him into office. Though I understand the frustration of the right, party loyalty has replaced virtuous representatives, but historically speaking Romney has acted exactly how the Founders expected our representative to act. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Class Notes

For Class Notes today I just wanted to remind anyone who is interested I will be speaking at Weatherford College this Thursday. I am speaking on the Johnson impeachment but also on a panel about the 19th Amendment. For more information you can call 817-598-6326

Class Notes

One of the things I like the most about Lincoln was his humanity.  He knew the war was necessary to save the Union, but he greatly struggled with the large loss of life.  He was often depressed when thinking about the men.  Because he was emotional, he often stopped the execution of soldiers for desertion.  The General tried everything they could to make sure appeals never reached Lincoln, knowing he would stop them.  He often wrote letters to parents of fallen men.  Most of his job as president was receiving visitors at the White House who came with complaints or wanting positions.  He would often go outside and if he saw a soldier he would bring them to the front of the line.  He loved his soldiers and wished he could spare them, but he also knew this nation needed to last.

Class Notes

Possibly the most important court case for our day is Marbury V. Madison (1803).  When Adams left office he quickly appointed a bunch of new judges, so Jefferson would not be able to appoint any while he was president.  When Jefferson took over he refused to seat the new judges, one of the new judges, William Marbury sued for his appointment.  The Chief Justice, John Marshall was put in a difficult situation.  America was still new and he was not sure if he ordered Jefferson to make the appointments that he would.  If Jefferson refused it might be too much of a Constitutional crisis for the new nation to handle.  Instead he criticized Jefferson for being difficult, but said the Judiciary Act of 1789 was in fact unconstitutional.  By establishing judicial review, he made what was at the time the weakest of the three branches into the strongest, today. 

This case is important for two reasons, first judicial review.  Second, both Marshall and Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary and studied law under George Wythe.  Whereas they both attended W&M in the 1760s and 1770s, I graduated there only a few years later in 2000. 

Class Notes

General Braxton Bragg tends to have a poor reputation in Civil War circles, and in many ways, it is deserving.  However, his 1862 invasion of Kentucky was actually well conceived and executed.  After the Battle of Shiloh, the southern army was in shambles, especially with the loss of their commander.  They had retreated all the way to into Mississippi.  Bragg’s plan was to circle around the Union Army, pick up Kirby Smith’s men and get behind Union lines in Kentucky.  If he was successful, it would force the Union to leave Tennessee and follow him.  His plan worked.  He got as far as Frankfort, where he replaced the Union government with a Confederate one.  He had hoped the state would switch its allegiances and fight for the South.  Kentucky did not change sides, but he did manage to force the Union Army to follow him into the state.  The two sides met at Perryville, where the Union greatly outnumbered the South.  Bragg lost at Perryville and then again at Murfreesboro, both times to much larger forces, before the armies retired for the winter.  The plan ended in failure for Bragg, but it was a bold gamble and perhaps with more men he could have pulled off the upset win.