But, Mr. Adams!
September 19, 2013 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Need to argue with your crazy uncle about what the Founders really intended? Or maybe you're wondering what an 18th Century AskMe might have looked like. The National Archives has launched Founders Online, a searchable collection of over 100,000 annotated and transcribed documents including letters, speeches, diaries and more from the collected papers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and family, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.
posted by HonoriaGlossop (23 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you'll excuse me, I'll be in my bunk.
posted by corb at 9:20 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow - thank you for posting this amazing resource, and damn your choice of title for putting ♫ BUST-A-BILITY! ♫ in my head for the rest of the day.
posted by tzikeh at 9:22 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Seems like The Federalist Papers would be your first stop, wouldn't it?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:24 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Today happens to be the anniversary of GW's farewell speech, in which he warned of foreign entanglements, permanent alliances, and a large military establishment.

Washington and his friends were pretty much all wealthy men, not revolutionaries like Che etc. (Thomas Paine would be the exception to this generalization.)

But I'll find out more after looking through this vast archive.
posted by kozad at 9:29 AM on September 19, 2013


This is great. Chocolate pickle, this will provide more context to the Federalist papers and also for The Debate on the Constitution.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:31 AM on September 19, 2013


Seems like The Federalist Papers would be your first stop, wouldn't it?

I can't find it on IMdB, who was the director?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:33 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seems like The Federalist Papers would be your first stop, wouldn't it?

Ah, but which version? (Google books preview of Jacob Ernest Cooke's introduction to The Federalist)

The Library of Congress a version of the Federalist Papers online, compiled for Project Gutenberg by scholars who drew on many available versions of the papers.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:34 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it was Six Frigates where Jefferson basically came off as Ye Olde Foxe Newse, but he does play the violin pretty well. By "play the violin", I mean "have sex with his wife." And Sally Hemmings, probably.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:36 AM on September 19, 2013


Since I have a self-imposed no-political-posts-on-Facebook rule, could someone please make a viral link to this with the text, "Yes, your assertion *does* need a cite...I'll be over here while you find one."
posted by j_curiouser at 9:40 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]




Turns out they don't say a damn thing about whether we should believe internet memes.
posted by goatdog at 10:02 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


See? America was established as a Liberal nation.

Abigail Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 27 April 1776:
I requested that our Legislators would consider our case and as all Men of Delicacy and Sentiment are averse to Excercising the power they possess, yet as there is a natural propensity in Humane Nature to domination, I thought the most generous plan was to put it out of the power of the Arbitary and tyranick to injure us with impunity by Establishing some Laws in our favour upon just and Liberal principals.
To George Washington from Major General Thomas Conway, 10 January 1778:
I have made you a candid answer upon that subject, and such an answer as must satisfy you and every man of a Liberal Disposition.
Lafayette to James Madison, 28 January 1829:
It is not the Case with the Wellington Administration whose Hostility to foreign liberty, and every where to the Right of Equality, Generally, and justly imputed to England, is By that Cabinet Carried as far as Circumstances Can allow it. Yet Such is the Slow But Universal Current towards Liberalism...
And here's one letter that demonstrates Jefferson proposed even more liberal policies than a raging proto-communist pamphleteer who believed that all property should be divided up equally among everyone to balance out inequality:

To Thomas Jefferson from Robert Coram, 5 March 1791:
You will perceive from the 76 page that I had not read your notes when I wrote it, as your plan is more liberal and extensive than the one I have proposed; but as the pamphlet bids fair to run a second edition, I will endeavour to make amends for the error I have committed by not having your book in my posse[ss]ion when I finished my pamphlet.
Contrast with a bumper sticker I recently saw one of our modern, self-appointed "patriots" sporting on his pickup: "Beware of Liberals Posing as Americans." I seriously blame Nixon for all of this mental illness.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:05 AM on September 19, 2013


Is that sarcasm? The 18th century version of "liberalism" is a far cry from the straw man set of values that supposedly define "liberalism" today.
posted by absalom at 10:45 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


In the 18th century liberalism meant allowing women to show three-quarters ankle and use a thinner bundleboard.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:46 AM on September 19, 2013


Here is a bunch of links to primary sources in American History that are freely available to anyone.
posted by mareli at 10:58 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is that sarcasm? The 18th century version of "liberalism" is a far cry from the straw man set of values that supposedly define "liberalism" today.

The think tanks and polisci academics have done a great job of revising the language to contribute to the general impression that today's reviled Liberalism is not the same thing as the Liberalism that inspired the revolution, but that's not intellectually honest, IMO.

The basis of modern Liberalism is still Enlightenment Era Liberalism. All this recent nonsense about how the meaning of the word has morphed into something different is just post hoc rationalization for historical bigotry. In fact, the word has always been used to mean a lot of different things in different contexts, but it was seldom viewed as a negative in this country until sometime around the 50s (unless of course you were talking about someone indulging to excess--e.g., say, drinking too liberally), when a handful of political paranoiacs terrified everybody with threats that the communists might make inroads by exploiting our historically Liberal national character.

The aspirational values embodied by the Liberalism of the founders--political and social equality for all as an ideal, social justice and law that applies to all fairly and equally--is exactly the same thing in its principle aims as modern Liberalism. True, the system of slavery and lack of gender equality gave lie to those ideals then, but Jefferson and others even at the time wrote extensively about how the institutions of slavery were inconsistent with the nation's core ideals.

Ideals are goals. Our ideals as a nation have always been Liberal. (Incidentally, Jefferson also supported the French Revolution, as it was partly inspired by ours.)

Either way, if George Washington or anyone from the time period could hear the way some people talk about Liberals and Liberalism now they would be appalled. Not that the "founders" intentions really matter anymore. But it's usually those people who most vociferously claim their intentions do still matter that are in denial about America's fundamentally Liberal origins.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:09 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Either way, if George Washington or anyone from the time period could hear the way some people talk about Liberals and Liberalism now they would be appalled.

They would similarly be appalled at the way some people talk about Democrats and Republicans. The fact that the meaning of the word has changed doesn't mean you can retroactively apply the modern meaning to the 18th Century and say "See, Jefferson called himself a liberal, therefore anyone who calls himself a liberal today is Jeffersonian."
posted by Etrigan at 11:26 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is no modern meaning. Explain how the modern sense differs from the old one? Can you name even one point of difference to demonstrate the claim that modern Liberalism isn't the same thing?

People always say it's different now, but they're always very hand-wavy when it comes to saying how or why.

Enlightenment Era Liberalism emphasized political, social and economic equality as ideals. The pamphleteer I quote who wrote fawningly to Jefferson about his education policy proposals also advocated divvying up all the land in the country and splitting it equally among every citizen. Those kinds of ideas--ideas we'd now undoubtedly characterize as radically Leftist--were commonplace and viewed as laudable in the revolutionary era and in America's early history. Some people don't want to admit that. But it's true. The pledge of allegiance was written by a Christian Socialist, and yet, wasn't rejected as Liberal propaganda but broadly accepted as one of the highest expressions of patriotism for many years in the US.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:59 AM on September 19, 2013


But I suppose "Socialism" doesn't mean what it meant in the 1800s either now, so there's always a lazy rebuttal on hand for people who still don't want to admit the obvious.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:00 PM on September 19, 2013


At any rate, this is a cool resource. And it'll certainly make some of these debates about what the American Revolutionaries thought they were trying to do at the time easier to resolve, regardless of how that original vision might have fallen short in the implementation.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:11 PM on September 19, 2013


There is no modern meaning.

So what you're saying is that "The aspirational values embodied by the Liberalism of the founders--political and social equality for all as an ideal, social justice and law that applies to all fairly and equally--is exactly the same thing in its principle aims as modern [no such word]."
posted by Etrigan at 12:25 PM on September 19, 2013


Here's my favorite thing outside the National Archives: in the Boston Public Library's American Revolutionary War Manuscript collection, we find two signers of the Declaration of Independence, George Wythe (VA) and William Ellery (RI), passing notes (in verse) back and forth during the Continental Congress.
posted by steef at 12:35 PM on September 19, 2013


So what you're saying is that "The aspirational values embodied by the Liberalism of the founders--political and social equality for all as an ideal, social justice and law that applies to all fairly and equally--is exactly the same thing in its principle aims as modern [no such word]."

No--I'm saying if the claim is that "Liberalism" no longer means what it meant at the founding, then what do you suppose it actually does mean now that's so different from what it meant then? People seldom specifically describe how they imagine the meaning of the term has supposedly changed or what it's supposed to mean now. They just vaguely claim "it's different now" to argue we weren't really founded as a Liberal nation (despite the reams and reams of historical documents that show otherwise).

But the politics that get lambasted as Liberalism by those on the right is still stuff focused on the same issues of socioeconomic equality and fairness that the Founder's would have recognized as Liberalism. People who claim the meaning has changed so much need to prove it's changed. We can't just assume it--because, like, that was a long time ago. Lots of words still mean exactly the same things now they did then. It hasn't really been that long ago. It's not like these documents are written in ancient Aramaic or something.

In use today, the word is just a meaningless epithet to the people who use it hatefully; they don't honestly give a rat's ass about understanding what the word means or the historical place of Liberalism in the US. So if the modern meaning of Liberalism is different as claimed, why doesn't anyone ever explain how so?

To me, Liberalism is still the right word, the only word for America's founding ideals.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:14 PM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


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