In Brief: History in the News

By Chuck Springston
In Brief: History in the News

    Here is a random sampling of recent news and commentary that has a connection to American history. The focus is on the founders, with forays into other periods.


    Proponents of strict construction of the Constitution, with little leeway for interpretation by the executive branch, aren’t going to find an ally in the actions of President George Washington, according to a piece posted on History News Network  by Harlow Giles Unger, author of  Mr. President: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office.” [2013, Da Capo Press].
    Washington, like other presidents, pledged “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” but to him that sometimes meant “ignoring the letter of the Constitution ‘to preserve, protect and defend’ the spirit of that document,” Unger writes. “He did so many times during his eight years at the nation’s helm—once  in the face of budget and debt crises similar to the one that confronted President Obama this fall.”
     Congress recessed in the fall of 1789 without authorizing any spending or appropriating any funds. Ignoring the constitutional provision regarding the House of Representative’s role in the budget process, Washington ordered Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to borrow money from New York banks.

     Thomas Jefferson was the first president of what eventually became the modern Democratic Party, but today many on the right claim him as one of their own because Jefferson said, “That government is best which governs least.” Actually, he didn’t say those words, even though he was concerned about a growing government, explains Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, in a article at AlterNet. When you examine Jefferson’s view of government, he comes out “not on the far right but on the far left.”

    The new movie, Twelve Years a Slave, based on the story of Solomon Northup, a free New Yorker who was abducted in 1841 and sold into slavery, ”vividly conveys the realities of life within the peculiar institution,” writes Harvard University professor  Annette Gordon-Reed in The New Yorker.
    The movie title comes from Northrop’s autobiography, and Gordon-Reed notes that slave narratives have been subject to “questions about the veracity of the stories.” But good historical research can provide evidence of a document’s reliability, she says, adding that “important aspects of Northup’s narrative have been confirmed.”  

     The Anglo-Irish Protestant general who captured and burned Washington during the War of 1812 is being honored with a spruced-up monument in, of all places, a heavily Catholic area of Northern Ireland, writes Steve Vogel in The Washington Post. After Robert Ross was killed in an unsuccessful attack on Baltimore (which inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner”), some folks in his hometown of  Rostrevor joined with Ross’ former officers to build a 100-foot granite monument.
     Over time Catholics with anti-British sentiments became the dominant population in the area, and upkeep of the monument suffered. During the religious strife that led to the rise of the Irish Republican Army, the letters IRA were spray-painted on the monument. But with the reconciliation that has followed a 1998 peace accord, community leaders decided to refurbish the monument, writes Vogel, who is author of "Through the Perilous Fight" [2013, Random House].
     A conference about Ross this month in Rostrevor included speakers from Europe, Canada and the United States. Everyone is friends now, more or less.


     Captain Phillips and Parkland offer slant on events

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