“What Is a Reformed View of Politics?”

This is the title of the sermon by Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, on Reformation Sunday, October 28.[1] Below are photographs of Rev. Hart-Andersen and the Westminster Sanctuary.

 

 

 

As noted in other posts, every Westminster worship service is divided into the following three sections: Preparing for the Word, Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word. Here are some of the elements of the first two sections of this service.

Preparing for the Word

The service was opened by the stirring Prelude: “Marche en Rondeu” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and “Trumpet Tune in D Major” by David N. Johnson that were played by Douglas Carlsen (trumpet, Minnesota Orchestra), Jeffrey Gram, timpani; and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Rev. David Shinn, Associate Pastor, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Eternal God, we confess we keep you at a distance to pursue our own way. We forget your mercy is waiting for us as we close our hearts to you. Whisper the offer of your grace once more to us, and wash away all the things we have done and left undone. Make a new way for us to live in humility, showing love to others and to you. May we be forgiven as we confess our shortcomings, and renewed by your faithfulness, courageous in our pursuit of justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Listening for the Word

The Scripture Readings

Genesis 17: 1-8 (NRSV):

  • “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;  walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’”

Matthew 1: 1-6a, 17 (NRSV):

  • “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,the son of David, the son of Abraham.
  • Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
  • And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,
  • So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”

The Sermon[2]

“Scripture is concerned with history, and we should be, as well.  If we are not, as George Santayana famously observed, we ‘are condemned to repeat it.”

“That warning came to mind yesterday as we heard about the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism has spiked in America; the number of hateful incidents directed at Jews rose last year by 57%. Something is going wrong in our midst.”

“Political discourse hasn’t helped. When Neo-Nazis march and rally and are not clearly and resoundingly denounced by our leaders, that sends signals to those with hate in their hearts. If we forget the long history of bigotry and violence against Jews, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of injustice and violence against indigenous people in this land, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of the enslavement of African people in America and violence directed against them and their descendants, we will repeat it. If we forget the long history of mistreatment and violence against women and immigrants and people of differing sexual orientation and identity we will repeat it. “

“Our faith is rooted in history. Scripture goes out of its way to show the connections from one generation to another, to weave the threads of memory and experience, of joy and lament, through the long years of the human story. Scripture wants us not to forget.”

“When the Bible includes lists of the generations, as we heard in Matthew’s gospel, that precede us, it does so to remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of meaning. We are not alone. We are not the first to struggle with what it means to confront the baser impulses of the human heart, or to live in fractured community, or to seek out a God who can sometimes seem distant.”

“The gospel of Matthew opens with a recitation of the generations that stretch from Abraham through David. Fourteen generations. Then another fourteen up to the time of Babylonian exile. Then fourteen more to the birth of the Messiah.”

“Matthew doesn’t mention women in the genealogy, except when it’s necessary to bridge a gap from one generation to another. A man who cannot produce an heir with the correct lineage has to rely on an outsider woman. Then Matthew includes them, otherwise the entire biblical story would come to an abrupt end. It’s the patriarchy’s grudging way of acknowledging that women matter in the story.”

“What would it look like to extend the telling of the generations, from Jesus on…Paul, Lydia, Origen, Perpetua and Felicity, Monica, the desert mothers and fathers, St. Columba…up to the time of the Great Schism of Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.”

“Then Hildegard of Bingen, Peter Waldo, Julian of Norwich, Jan Hus, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila…and on to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Then Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, our Presbyterian ancestor, Beza, Knox. Four of them are enshrined in our windows, once again suggesting there were no women involved. There were. We should have four other windows with Marie Dentiere, Marguerite de Navarre, Argula von Grumbach, and Olympia Morata – ancestors from that era and leaders in the faith.”

“The generations continue with Bartolomé de las Casas, John Winthrop, John Wesley, Chief Joseph, Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Sitting Bull, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gene Robinson. Who would you put into that lineage?”

“We’re all linked by the flow of history, passing along the wisdom of the ages, the stories of pain and suffering, the moments of redemption. We’re not making up our faith as we go along. We’ve received it and are carrying it forward, to the generations that follow. We are stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.”

“It’s Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate the stream of Christian history in which we stand as Protestants. We open with John Calvin’s hymn and will close with Martin Luther’s. It’s also nine days before an election that has highlighted and heightened tensions among us. We’re anxious in America, and afraid. The divisive rancor is endless and exhausting. Our politics are tearing us apart.

“ In the midst of the chaos in which we find ourselves, our faith, our Protestant, reformed faith, can help us navigate the politics of these times in which we live.”

“”Do Politics Belong in Church?’  the cover of a recent issue of a Christian journal asks. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who conspired against Hitler, has a response. ‘As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle,’ Bonhoeffer says, ‘Nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for their neighbor.’ (Sojourners, p. 19, Feb 2018)”

“If we want religion that doesn’t engage in politics – not partisan politics, but the kind of politics that involves ‘standing up for our neighbors’ on the receiving end of hatred and poverty, prejudice and violence – if that’s what we want to avoid, then we had better find another savior.”

“What’s a reformed, or Presbyterian, view of politics? The response to that question begins with the notion of covenant, which we learned from the Jews. Covenant refers to the bond between God and humanity. God promises never to abandon humankind; that bond becomes the model for all human relationships, including between two people, or in a family, or in the community, or in the relationship between rulers and people, between government and citizens. Politics, in the Presbyterian understanding, is based on God’s call to life in covenantal community.” (Emphasis added.)

“Covenant goes back through our biblical ancestry to Abram. When God establishes a covenant between them, Abram becomes Abraham. He’s given a new name; that’s what happens when someone comes into covenant with God. That’s what was happening in the Tree of Life Synagogue yesterday. When the shooting started they were in the midst of the naming ritual for a new baby, marking the start of that child’s covenantal life with God.”

“For Abraham the new name as he comes into covenant with God is also a sign that he will be the father of a long line of descendants – the very line that stretches through the Hebrew people to the Messiah, and then on through the early church, and to Roman Catholicism, and to the Reformation and into our time.”

“Covenant theology of the Presbyterians played a key role in the development of democracy in America. H. Richard Niebuhr writes that for Presbyterians,

  • ‘The world has this fundamental moral structure of a covenant society and that what is possible and required in the political realm is the affirmation and reaffirmation of humanity’s responsibility as a promise-maker, promise-keeper, a covenanter in universal community.’ (Quoted in “The Concept of Covenant in 16th and 17th Century Continental and British Reformed Theology” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, Donald K. McKim, ed. [Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1992], p. 95)

Three dimensions of covenant have particular relevance for American democracy today.” (Emphasis added.)

“First, covenant life is inclusive. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek,’ the Apostle Paul writes,

  • ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the covenant.’(Galatians 3:28-29)” (Emphasis added.)

“America was established with that covenant principle of inclusivity enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, when it states ‘that all men’ – all human beings we would say today – ‘are created equal (and) endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’ All are included because all have the same rights and are equal before the law.”

“Democracy depends on inclusivity. That principle is under assault today. Some appear to be created more equal than others. The growing gap between those with power and resources and those without such privilege runs counter to the biblical admonition to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Racism destroys the promise of community. Differing treatment by law enforcement and the criminal justice system betrays the assurance of equal rights. The true measure of the success of a society is not how well those at the top are doing, but how well the most vulnerable are faring.”

“Covenantal politics is inclusive.” (Emphasis added.)

Second, covenant life affirms the full humanity of every person. In the biblical account of creation the earthling is made in the image of God. That assertion means that every human being is of the same value and has something to contribute. That fundamental claim undergirds democracy – that all have equal access to participation in the political process and equal access to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”’ (Emphasis added.)

“When Sojourner Truth in 1851 stood up for her full humanity [and said[:

  • ‘And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’ Delivered 1851; Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio) “

“Democracy depends on seeing the worth of every person. That principle is under assault today. The rise of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims eats away at their full humanity. Immigrants and refugees are treated as unworthy and their full humanity is implicitly questioned. More than three million people who have served their sentences cannot vote because of a felony on their record and their full humanity is not restored to them. This week the government proposed new rules that would deny the full humanity, even the existence, of more than one million people who identify as transgender.”

Covenantal politics affirms the full humanity of every person.” (Emphasis added.)

“Finally, covenant life requires truth-telling. In John’s gospel Jesus says, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The Declaration of Independence speaks of ‘truths’ that are ‘self-evident.’ Democracy requires a shared understanding of the truth. Without it there is no trust and the democratic system cannot function without trust.”

“In 1788, Presbyterians in New York and Philadelphia, fresh from helping write the U.S. Constitution, sat down and wrote a set of Principles of Church Order. Among them was this phrase: ‘Truth is in order to goodness,’ meaning truth-telling leads to good behavior.“

“They went on to say, ‘No opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level…We are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.’ (F-3.0104 in PCUSA Book of Order)”

“Democracy depends on telling the truth, especially by those in power. That principle is under assault today. Conspiracy theories displace reality, facts become whatever is convenient in the moment, and lies masquerade as truth. When the truth goes missing, people suffer, and trust soon dissipates – and to live in covenant with one another trust is needed.”

Covenantal politics requires truth-telling,” (Emphasis added.)

“We are at a pivotal moment in our nation. Our democracy is fraying. Fear abounds. Violence simmers all around us and occasionally breaks through the surface. Trust has been depleted. Rhetoric works against the values and principles on which our democracy depends.”

“But we are a people rooted in history. We remember other times when the nation was threatened from within. And we overcame. ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all,’ ‘President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address even as the Civil War continued to rage,

  • ‘Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…and…do all which may achieve…a just and lasting peace among ourselves.’”

“Those words express a politics of biblical covenant, where we are bound together and committed to the welfare of one another. If the nation could find its way back from the brink in that perilous and violent time, surely we can work our way out of the current predicament in which we find ourselves.”

“Democracy is a covenantal form of politics, and for it to be healthy requires participation. We need to do our part; we are responsible for one another. Voting is not merely a right; it’s the duty and responsibility of citizens in a democratic nation. Peaceful political engagement expresses and embodies and brings to life the promise of democracy.”

“Let us not forget that we are people of faith, rooted in history, in covenant with God and with one another, carrying on the hope of generations before us, even as we stand ready to hand that hope on to those who follow us.”

“In the end, we can trust that God’s grace and mercy, God’s justice, and God’s love will prevail, and we shall overcome.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

I usually ignore the biblical references to generations and descendents. They seem so boring and useless. This sermon, however, let me see that the previous generations of figures in the Bible plus my own ancestors remind me that I am not alone. As the sermon says, such references “remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are “tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of memory.”

We are “stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.” This is another passage of the sermon that made an impact on me. I had not thought of being a steward for the short time of my life of a belief that was passed on to me so that the belief may be carried forward in time after I am gone.

I also never had thought of being a member of a covenantal community in the U.S. involving everyone who is here right now. Yet I certainly have believed that life in the U.S. is or should be inclusive recognizing the full humanity of everyone.

This also means that democracy “ is a covenantal form of politics” requiring my participation.

Finally I am reminded that retrieving and studying the Scriptures and the sermon and then writing about them provide deeper and more enriching insights. I urge others to do the same.

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[1]  The bulletin for the service is online.

[2] Sermon, What Is a Reformed View of Politics? (Oct. 28, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[3] The opening hymn that sometimes is attributed to John Calvin was “”Greet Thee, Who My sure Redeemer Art.” https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/624

 

The closing hym, “Sing Praise to God Who reigns Above” is not attributed to Luther. https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/645

 

Proposed U.S. Reparations for Slavery 

Ross Douthat, a self-described conservative columnist for the New York Times, has offered an interesting proposal for U.S. reparations for slavery.[1]

He starts with the assertion that the Democratic Party is “more attuned to racial injustice” while the Republicans have “ridden a white backlash against ethnic patronage” and as a result the two parties have vastly different attitudes toward reparations for slavery and more broadly toward racial policy. Nevertheless, he believes that it is possible to have such a policy that accepts elements of Democratic and Republican attitudes towards race. “It can be simultaneously true,” he says, “that slavery and Jim Crow robbed black Americans on a scale that still requires redress, and that offering redress through a haphazard system of minority preferences in hiring, contracting and higher education creates a new set of reasonable white grievances.”

Douthat, therefore, proposes the following: “Abolish racial preferences in college admissions, phase out preferences in government hiring and contracting, eliminate the disparate-impact standard in the private sector, and allow state-sanctioned discrimination only on the basis of socioeconomic status, if at all. Then at the same time, create a reparations program — the Frederick Douglass Fund, let’s call it — that pays out exclusively, directly and one time only to the proven descendants of American slaves.”

This proposed reparations program, he suggests, would provide “every single African-American [what happened to the proven descendants of American slaves limitation?] $10,000, perhaps in a specially-designed annuity, [that] would cost about $370 billion, modest relative to supply-side tax plans and single-payer schemes alike. The wealth of the median black household in the United States was $11,200 as of 2013; a $10,000 per-person annuity would more than double it.”

Although such a reparations program, he admits, “would hardly eliminate racial disadvantage, . . . [it would be] a meaningful response to an extraordinary injustice.”

Reactions

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the noted author, has published a lengthy case for reparations for slavery in The Atlantic Magazine, but as a prior post has pointed out, he does not propose a specific plan for such reparations. Instead, he merely calls for congressional authorization of a commission to study the reparations issue and to make recommendations.[2]

Douthat, on the other hand, does make a specific proposal for a $10,000 annuity for reparations to “proven descendants of American slaves.”

Such a proposal obviously is a starting point and raises many questions for more specifics. How does someone prove he or she is such a descendant? Would there be a statute of limitations bar on claims after a certain date? How would the program be financed? Would the annuity be limited to the lifetime of the original recipient? Or could it be inherited by the recipient’s descendants?

The annuity concept and Douthat’s discussion of median wealth of U.S. black households suggests that the $10,000 would not be accessible by the recipients, but instead would provide supplemental annual incomes. But in today’s low-interest rate environment, such as 1 APR available on savings accounts from some online banks,  only $100 of annual income would be produced. Thus, what would be the appropriate amount for such an annuity?

Moreover, any such reparations program, in this blogger’s opinion, would need to be accompanied by a national apology for slavery and a plea for forgiveness for this injustice along with, at a minimum, reforms of the criminal justice system, the voting system, racial gerrymandering of legislative districts and the public schools.

There also is work to be done by descendants of slave owners.

An excellent example of such an effort is Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University, which owned slaves and in 1838 sold 272 men, women and children slaves to plantations in the South with the sales proceeds being used to help the struggling University pay its bills.[3] In response to the recent revelation of this history, the University in the Fall of 2015 convened its Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to explore its historical involvement in slavery, to engage the community in dialogue and to prepare recommendations for future efforts.[4] In the Summer of 2016 this Group made the following recommendations:[5]

  • “The University should offer a formal apology for the ways it participated in and benefited from slavery, especially through the sale of enslaved people in the 1830’s.”
  • “The University should engage the descendants of the enslaved whose labor and value benefited the University,” including meeting with descendant communities, fostering genealogical research to help descendants explore their family histories, commissioning an oral history project with descendant communities, exploring the feasibility of admission and financial initiatives for the descendant community and holding public events to explore this history.
  • The University should end anonymity and neglect by erecting “a public memorial to the enslaved persons and families,” preserving the names of the enslaved people, guaranteeing the food upkeep of the Holy Road Cemetery, which is “the final resting place of many enslaved and free blacks of Georgetown.”
  • The University should create “an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies,” and “foster dialogue . . . to address contemporary issues related to the history of slavery.”
  • The University should “increase the diversity [of its students and] . . . ,expand opportunities . . . for the descendants of the Maryland Jesuit slaves.”

On September 1, 2016, Georgetown’s President, John J. DeGioia, releasing this report, announced that the University would “offer a Mass of Reconciliation in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Washington and the Society of Jesus in the U.S.;” engage the Georgetown community in a “Journey of Reconciliation; . . . engage descendants and members of our community in developing a shared understanding, determining priorities for our work going forward, and creating processes and structures to enable that work . . .; establish a living and evolving memorial to the enslaved people from whom Georgetown benefited; . . . [and] give descendants the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process.”[6]

As always I invite reasoned commentary on Douthat’s proposal, the Georgetown response to slavery and to the above reactions.

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[1] Douthat, A Different Bargain on Race, N.Y. Times (Mar. 4, 2017).

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory “Case for Reparations,” dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 18, 2015); Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 3, 2016).

[3] Swarns, 272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants? N.Y. Times (Apr. 16, 2016); Swarns, A Glimpse Into the Life of a Slave Sold to Save Georgetown, N.Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2017).

[4] Georgetown Univ, Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

[5] Georgetown Univ., Report of Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation (Summer 2016).

[6] DeGioia, Next Steps on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation at Georgetown (Sept. 1, 2016).

U.S. First Congress: Debates Slavery, 1790

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians no taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[1]

In addition, the First Congress in 1789 implicitly recognizing slavery when it enacted statues for an U.S. census and U.S. naturalization citizenship requirements. [2]

As the First Congress prepared to commence operations, emancipation advocates were seeking regulation of the slave trade or abolition of slavery while defenders of the “peculiar institution” contemplated secession if that happened. The latter’s House representation, of course, was bolstered by having their population increased by 60% (3/5th) of the number of their slaves.[3]

The emancipation advocates were led by Quakers who starting in early February 1790 “way-laid” and “assailed” Senators and Congressmen with pamphlets and diagrams of overcrowded slaves ships while urging support of anti-slavery petitions. One such petition asked Congress “with a sense of religious duty” to end “the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow men” and “the inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it.” Another petition that was signed by Benjamin Franklin called for use of “all justifiable measures to loosen the bonds of Slavery & promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom.”

Southern reaction to these petitions was “explosive.” They accused the Quakers of “intemperate and unwarrantable meddling,” of “an intolerant spirit of persecution” against the slave states, of disloyalty and cowardice during the Revolutionary War (because on religious principles they did not bear arms) and the promotion of “Insurrections & bloodshed & persecution.” A Georgia Congressman said religion “from Genesis to Revelations” had approved of slavery.

The three petitions were referred to a House select committee, which later reported that Congress had no power to emancipate slaves or interfere with the slave trade before 1808. On the other hand, the committee said, Congress had the power to put a tax on imported slaves and thereby motivate slave-owners and slave states to improve their treatment of slaves.

Thereafter the pro-slavery forces went on the attack. Their leader quoted Scripture, suggested that nothing could be done about it, that the new country needed exports to Africa and that slaves were incapable of mastering freedom. Some of the nation’s leaders personally opposed slavery—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison-even though they were slave owners, but remained quiet in Congress because they feared loss of Southern support for other measures or a breakup of the new country.

The result? The House concluded that all power to end slavery and tax imported slaves rested with the states. In short, it was an endorsement of the status quo and the protection of slavery.

Fergus Bordewich, the author of a leading book on the First Congress, concludes that the “most consequential failure of the First Congress was its evasion of the corrosive problem of slavery. . . . Even members who loathed slavery feared that the new government could not risk an open debate on the subject without splintering . . . . [Thus,] for the next seven decades this evasion encouraged southerners to bully any northern politicians who challenged slavery by threatening secession and war, as the number of enslaved Americans swelled from 323,000 in 1790 to almost 4 million in 1861, and the moral problem of slavery became ever more deeply enmeshed with the politics of states’ rights.”[4]

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[1] The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[2] U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and U.S. Citizenship Naturalization, 1790, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2017).

[3] Bordewich, the First Congress at 3,6, 75-77, 104, 112, 124-25, 149, 151-52, 172, 178, 183, 195-96, 198-220, 223-24, 230, 244-45, 249, 276, 279-80 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016). http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-First-Congress/Fergus-M-Bordewich/9781451691931

[4] Id. at 304.

U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and Citizenship Naturalization, 1790

Important tasks for the First Congress of the U.S. were establishing the requirements for the first census of the country and for becoming a citizen by naturalization. [1]

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[2]

Therefore, it should not be surprising that the very First Congress of the U.S. enacted a statute for the first U.S. census and a statute establishing requirements for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, both of which distinguished between “white” individuals and “slaves.” Nevertheless, it was still startling for me to discover these two statutes and the subsequent history of these aspects of U.S. law.

The First U.S. Census

On March 1, 1790, the First Congress enacted a statute that established the following categories for the first enumeration or census: “Free white males of sixteen years and upwards, including heads of families; Free white males under sixteen years; Free white females, including heads of families; All other free persons; and Slaves.” (Emphasis added.) It also called for identifying an individual’s occupation.[3]

These provisions were not controversial. There, however, was controversy, according to Fegus Bordewich, over whether the first census “was too ambitious, too detailed, and subdivided the population into [occupational] ‘classes too minute’” and was too invasive of privacy. (P. 196)

The First Naturalization Statute

On January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address, in which he said, “Various considerations also render it expedient that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of citizens should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization.”(P. 180) [4]

Thereafter the members of the First Congress debated whether an oath of allegiance should suffice, whether there should be a residence requirement, whether there should be a national or a state-by-state requirement and whether foreign seamen could easily become citizens. The answer to these fears apparently was provided by Virginia’s Representative John Page, a large slave owner: “’It is nothing to us whether Jews, or Roman Catholics, settle amongst us; whether subjects of kings or citizens of free states wish to reside in the [U.S.], they will find it their interest to be good citizens; and neither their religious or political opinions can injure us, if we have good laws, well executed.’” (Pp. 196-97)

On March 26, 1790, the First Congress enacted a statute that limited naturalization to an “alien, being a “free white person.”(Emphasis added.) Although the statute did not define that term, it clearly excluded Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks and Asians from this method of obtaining U.S. citizenship. Other requirements were being a “resident” for one year of a state, possessing “good character,” and having taken “an oath or affirmation . . . to support the constitution of the [U.S.].” [5]

As discussed in another post, the “white” racial category (with subsequent additions of other racial categories) for naturalization remained in U.S. statutes until 1952 when Congress enacted the McCarran-Walter Act, 60 Stat. 163, 239 (1952), which states in section 311, “The right of a person to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of race or sex or because such person is married.” [6]

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[1] See generally The U.S. First Congress: Overview, 1789-1791, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 15, 2017); Fergus Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016)[the above text of this post cites to to specific pages of this book].

[2]  The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[3] An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, 1 Stat. 101 (1790), U.S. Constitution.  The “white” category has been used in every decennial census through 2010 while “slave” was used through 1840.

[4] President Washington, State of the Union Address,  (Jan. 8, 1790), presidency.ucsb.edu/was/?pid=29431 , http:www.

[5] An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” 1 Stat. 103 (1790),

[6] Long History of Racism in U.S. Laws Regarding United States Citizenship, dwkcommentaries.com (June 24, 2016).

U.S. First Congress: Overview, 1789-1791

The First Congress of the United States of America and thus the official commencement of the U.S. federal government under the U.S. Constitution began on March 4, 1789, and ended on March 4, 1791.[1]

This Congress’ First Session (March 4, 1789—September 29, 1989) and Second Session (January 4, 1790—August 12, 1790) took place at Federal Hall in New York City. The Third Session (December 6, 1790—March 3, 1791), at Congress Hall in Philadelphia. Below are drawings of those buildings:

Federal Hall
Federal Hall
Congress Hall
Congress Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the start of the First Congress there were 22 senators and 59 representatives. After ratifications of the U.S. Constitution by North Carolina on November 21, 1789, and by Rhode Island on May 29, 1790, there were 26 senators and 64 representatives.

There were no standing committees of this Congress. Instead the Senate and House of Representatives acted as committees of the whole to consider individual bills. Thus, there are no committee reports regarding bills like those that exist today. Moreover, there are no transcripts of debates such as exist today in the Congressional Record. The record of the 94 separate pieces of legislation produced by the First Congress, however, is available in 204 pages of 1 U.S. Statutes.

In addition, the 1st Federal Congress Project at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. serves as a research/education center for the First Congress and has collected, researched, edited and published the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, l789-l791 (DHFFC). Fergus Bordewich,the author of The First Congress, acknowledged his indebtedness to this Project, which has “brought together virtually every known piece of writing composed by or about the members of the First Congress . . . as well as the best official records of their debates.” [2]

As Mr. Bordewich puts it in The First Congress, “Beginning less than two years after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention and before all thirteen states had ratified that document, the First Congress was charged with creating a new government almost from scratch. No one, neither in Congress nor outside it, knew if it would or could succeed. How it did so is an epic story of political combat, vivid personalities, clashing idealisms, and extraordinary determination. It breathed life into the Constitution, established precedents that still guide the nation’s government, and set the stage for political battles that continue to be fought our across the political landscape of the twenty-first century.” (P. 1)

Subsequent posts will examine the First Congress’ adoption of the first congressional proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution; the statute creating the federal courts (the Judiciary Act of 1789); the statutes creating the requirements for the first census (An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, 1 Stat. 101 (1790)) and an individual’s becoming a U.S. citizen (the Naturalization Act of 1790); and debates regarding slavery.

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[1] Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster; New York, 2016); 1st United States Congress, Wikipedia; Federal Hall, Wikipedia; Toogood, U.S. Congress (1790-1800), Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia; 1 U.S. Stat. 23-225 (1845)  (the statutes of the First Congress).

[2] I have not done any original research regarding the First Congress other than examining the constitutional amendments it proposed and some of the statutes it enacted. Instead for the purpose of this and subsequent posts I have relied on Mr. Bordewich’s book, but I confess that it would be fascinating to examine the records at the 1st Federal Congress Project.

 

Early U.S. Desire To Own or Control Cuba Driven by U.S. Slaveholders

A new book documents that before the Civil War, “Southern politicians and pro-slavery ambitions shaped the foreign policy of the United States in order to protect slavery at home and advance its interests abroad.” The book is “This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy” by Matthew Karp, Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University.[1]

According to the book’s review in the Wall Street Journal, in this era, “Cuba was a particular obsession for pro-slavery policy makers. The island’s wealth was fabulous—in the 1850s, it produced fully a quarter of the world’s sugar—and slavery was firmly established there. American diplomats tried for years to purchase the island outright and forestall any attempt at emancipation by Cuba’s Spanish rulers. ‘We regard an attempt . . . to blast with the plague of emancipation that garden of the West, as a crime against civilization,’ wrote the Charleston Mercury, a frequent mouthpiece for pro-slavery opinion.”

Indeed, says Karp, few southern leaders “believed that the United States could digest a meal so unpalatable as a free black Cuba.”

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[1] Harvard Univ. Press, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Sept. 2016); Bordewich, Dixie’s Foreign Policy, W.S.J. (Dec. 12, 2016).

Honoring Victims of Racial Lynchings and Injustice 

On August 16 the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery Alabama announced plans for two projects honoring victims of U.S. racial lynchings and injustice.[1]

One is the Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor the over 4,000 black victims of lynchings that will sit on six acres, the highest spot in Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy. The memorial will be a large, four-sided gallery of 801 six-foot columns hanging in the air as if from trees like a lynching. Each column will represent a U.S. county where a lynching took place and be etched with the name(s) of the person(s) lynched. Here is a rendering of the memorial and a map showing the locations of the lynchings.

national-lynching-memorial-2

map-of-73-years-of-lynching-1423543271115-master495

An adjacent field will have duplicates of those columns, which will be offered as a challenge to be moved to the home counties of the lynchings; those that remain will be silent rebukes to the places that refuse to acknowledge their history of lynching.

The other project is a museum, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” which is scheduled to open completely next April in EJI’s 11,000-square-foot headquarters in Montgomery. Tracing the country’s racial history from slavery to the era of mass incarceration, it will contain high-tech exhibits, artifacts, recordings, and films, as well as a comprehensive database and information on lynching and racial segregation. Its virtual reality stations will enable people to understand what it was like to be in the cargo hold of a slave trafficking ship, to endure angry taunts during a lunch counter sit-in and to sit in a contemporary overcrowded prison. Below are photographs of one part of the museum and of jars of dirt from sites of lynchings.

 

from-enslavement-to-mass-incarceration

 

jars of dirt

As reported by Montgomery’s newspaper, the founder and Executive Director of EJI, Bryan Stevenson, said, “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

StevesnsonStevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer. (To the right is a photograph of Stevenson and the cover of his highly acclaimed book, Just Mercy.) His work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system has won him numerous awards including the ABA Wisdom Award for Public Service, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award Prize, the Olaf Palme International Prize, the ACLU National Medal Of Liberty, the National Public Interest Lawyer of the Year Award, the Gruber Prize for International Justice and the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, has been awarded 16 honorary doctorate degrees, and is a Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.[2]

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[1] EJI, EJI Announces Plans To Build Museum and National Lynching Memorial (Aug. 16, 2016); Robertson, Memorial in Alabama Will Honor Victims of Lynchings, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2016); Troyan, National memorial to lynching victims to be built in Montgomery, Montgomery Advertiser (Aug. 16, 2016); Edgemon, Nation’s first memorial to lynching victims set for Montgomery, al.com (Aug. 16, 2016); Toobin, Justice Delayed, New Yorker (Aug. 22, 2016).

[2] There is a lot about Stevenson in the previously cited New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin and in two previous blog posts: Bryan Stevenson’s Amazing Advocacy for Justice, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 19, 2016); Evaluating Bryan Stevenson Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard University Speech, dwkcommentaries.com (May 4, 2016).