Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen. -George Orwell

Monday, February 16, 2015


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George Washington's War Powers
A Review of Logan Beirne's Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency
In February 1825, a group of well-wishers descended upon John Adams' household to congratulate the elder statesman on his son's election to the presidency. The proud father is said to have wept, remarking, "No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it."
The American presidency is a harrowing test of character, judgment, and skill. Our Constitution endows the chief magistracy with nearly pharaonic powers. As Commander in Chief, the president leads the armed forces of the United States. As the nation's chief executive, he enforces and executes the laws. And as custodian of the foreign relations powers of the United States, he embodies the full sovereignty of the nation on the world stage.
But as Logan Beirne's groundbreaking Blood of Tyrants - just released in paperback - shows, the office of the presidency was not conjured from abstract principles. It was forged with a specific candidate in mind: General George Washington.
The Temple of Liberty
A Review of George Kateb's Lincoln's Political Thought

For the historian, then, the trivial can be significant, and serve as context that might lead to the truth. In Lincoln's case, the truth is that the 16th president understood himself as, and was in fact, the Constitution's savior - and not its destroyer, as George Kateb would have it in his new book Lincoln's Political Thought.
Kateb falls into his error in part because his book sorely lacks an examination of historical context. In some ways this is defensible - Kateb is a political philosopher, and he didn't intend the book to be a full dress biography. But Lincoln was a man of action, not a pure philosopher. To understand his political philosophy requires examining his political actions, something which Kateb does inadequately.
This is too bad, because the book's argument is in many ways interesting. Kateb believes Lincoln followed a "political religion of human equality." This religion caused him to fight the expansion of the southern slave power in the antebellum years, refuse to accept secession in 1860 and 1861, and ultimately emancipate the slaves in 1863 and 1865. The sacred texts of Lincoln's religion were the nation's founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Kateb believes Lincoln venerated the former over the latter, because the Declaration announced the principle that all men are created equal. The Constitution was merely the legal means of making this principle reality.
A reminder for readers: The actual name of the holiday is Washington's Birthday. Honor the memory of our first and greatest president by learning more about his famous Farewell Address, published in 1796.

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