Day By Day

Thursday, September 17, 2009

This Day In History

Today used to be called "Constitution Day" [for reasons to be discussed below], now it is "Citizenship Day". I, however, plan to celebrate "National Apple Dumpling Day".

On this day in 642 A.D., according to Christian sources, Muslim armies sacked Alexandria in Egypt. During the devastation that ensued the Library of Alexandria was burned and its vast repository of knowledge was lost for all time.

The Royal Library had been founded by the Ptolemys [Macedonian rulers of Egypt -- Cleopatra's family] and became the largest and most famous repository of texts in the ancient world. There is no contemporary evidence to support Plutarch's allegation that Julius Caesar burned the library during his conquest of Egypt [and Cleo]. Plutarch's charge seems to have been politically motivated and there is ample evidence that the Library was a going concern long after Caesar passed from the scene. The current government of Egypt officially claims that the Library was destroyed by a Christian mob instigated by the Roman Emperor Theodosius during the late Fourth Century AD. and absolves Muslim invaders of all responsibility, but Christian historians claim that the Library survived until Muslim armies, led by Amr ibn al 'Aas, sacked the city. These conflicting accounts are a powerful illustration of the way history is used for propaganda purposes and they highlight the difficulty of sorting through evidence to find what really happened. In the case of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria we really don't know and modern historians, flailing around for some rational explanation, have decided that there were several libraries and several incidents of destruction. But then the evidence to support that contention is problematic, too.

And on this day in 1717 the first Synod of the Presbyterian Church in America met in Philadelphia.

And on this date in 1778, at Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania, a formal alliance between the Lenape Nation and the "United States of America In Congress Assembled" was signed. This "Treaty With the Delawares" was the first formal treaty between the "United States" and any Indian nation. The treaty recognized the sovereignty of the Lenape nation and confirmed its territorial integrity but, as was so often the case, these provisions were breached soon after the treaty was signed.

And on this date in 1787 the Philadelphia Convention adopted the final draft of a plan of government to be submitted to be submitted to the various American States for consideration. The Convention had originally met in May, 1787 for the purpose of amending the Articles Of Confederation that defined the rules under which and the specific areas in which the American States had agreed to cooperate. A small, but committed group of "nationalists" among the delegates took charge of the proceedings and steered the delegates toward a sweeping redefinition of the relations among the States and the creation of a central governing authority. The result was a document we call the Constitution of the United States. It was a compromise document that left many of the most important issues facing the delegates unresolved and most of them dissatisfied, but as Benjamin Franklin noted it was probably the best they could do under the circumstances.

Two years of debate ensued before the Constitution was finally agreed to by nine States and went into effect therein. The ratification debate exposed the many weaknesses of the document, refined understanding of the basic concepts it embodied, and mandated extensive changes to be made in the future. Much has been made in recent years about the "Founders" and their intentions, but the reality of the situation was far more complex and ambiguous than most people appreciate.

And on this date in 1796 George Washington issued his "Farewell Address". This was not a formal speech, rather it was in the form of a letter to the "People of America". The original text had been written by Washington and James Madison back in 1792 when Washington was considering retirement, but he was convinced to stick it out in the Presidency for four more years and so it was filed away. Then near the end of Washington's second term of office it was retrieved, edited by Alexander Hamilton, and issued in the form of a press release on September 17th. Two days later it first appeared in the press. In his "address" Washington was primarily concerned with the many threats, both internal and external, faced by the American republic. He urged the public to support the Union of States and the Constitution, to reject secession, and to reject amendments to the Constitution that would weaken the authority of the Federal Government. It was only by standing together and speaking with one voice, he argued, that the United States could withstand pressures from and gain concessions from the great powers that threatened the existence of the republic.

Washington warned against the formation of political parties, against sectional loyalties, against tax revolts, and against any other passion that would produce internal conflict and undermine the unity of the nation. He praised the concept of divided authority and separation of powers as a way to keep any faction from becoming dominant. He argued that religion was the essential basis for public and private morality required for good governance. He warned against the accumulation of public debt. He advocated free trade with all nations, but warned against any "entangling alliances" that might provide an excuse for other nations to interfere in America's affairs.

Taken together the sentiments expressed in the "Farewell Address" add up to a determinedly pessimistic view of the American experiment in self-government. Washington saw dangers everywhere and feared that the nation could not long survive. It was a document specific to a unique historical set of circumstances. It was not an expression of timeless principles to be applied in all times and situations.

In a way Washington was right to be pessimistic. The republican experiment initiated in 1787 ultimately failed, but not until the 1860s when the United States dissolved into civil war. Today also marks the anniversary of the bloodiest single day of that conflict when 26,293 young men died in the cornfield, the bloody lane, Burnside's bridge, and other sites on the battlefield of Antietam. In the wake of this terrible war the republican vision of "the founders" was drastically revised by the "reconstruction amendments" [nos. 13, 14, 15] to the Constitution that vastly increased the powers of the central government.

And finally, on this day in 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Let us not forget that the Soviet Union was just as complicit in the aggressions that led to the outbreak of World War Two as was Nazi Germany.