Police History: Constable vs. Paramilitary

Calls to abolish or massively reform America’s police sound new and radical. Yet history offers a very old model for those reforms: an alternative to our current military style of policing. In the world of the Founding Fathers, civilian constables enforced the law. They had done so for 150 years in the American colonies — and for longer in England. And they would continue well into the 19th Century.

police history: a constable or beadle
An English constable (technically, a beadle)

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This Week in History: the Ashmolean Museum

This week in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology opened in Oxford. It was the world’s first university museum and was named after Elias Ashmole, who in 1677 had given Oxford University what became the museum’s first collection. Construction also began in 1677. The current museum building was finished in 1845.

Ashmolean Museum

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Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

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This week in history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This week in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her anti-slavery novel, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Beecher Stowe was a teacher at Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut. She originally published her most famous work as a 40-week serial in “The National Era,” an abolitionist periodical. Publisher John Jewett saw potential and proposed that Stowe turn the serial story into a book. He had good reason. The story was so popular that, if the magazine ever published without a new chapter, it received multiple protest letters. So Beecher Stowe published. She sold 3,000 copies the first day, and UNCLE TOM’S CABINE soon sold out of its first print-run. The novel ultimately became the second best selling book in the United States for the entire of the 19th Century, just behind the Bible. Continue reading “This week in history: Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

This week in history: Louisiana Purchase

This week in 1804, the Louisiana Territory transferred from French to U.S. sovereignty, with the change marked by a ceremony in St. Louis. The territory had actually changed hands before, from France to Spain and then, as late as 1800, back to France. France’s First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte (later emperor), had planned to reestablish a French colony in North America, but he found himself short of resources, thanks to troubles at home and war with Britain (and ultimately just about everyone else). Hard up for cash, Napoleon had sold the Louisiana Territory to the U.S.’s President Thomas Jefferson. The two republican leaders’ original plan just involved the purchase of New Orleans. But in 1803, French Treasury Minister Francois Barbe-Marbois had offered the whole, vast Louisiana Territory to the American negotiators, James Monroe (later President) and Robert Livingston. They jumped at it. In fact, President Jefferson exceeded his authority by committing to the purchase without Congress’ consent, but he could not pass up the chance to double America’s possessions. Continue reading “This week in history: Louisiana Purchase”

This week in history: the Articles of Confederation

This week in 1781, the Articles of Confederation went into effect in the United States, following ratification by the 13 colonies – a.k.a. states. Work on the Articles had begun in 1776, around the time of the Declaration of Independence. Completion took a year and a half, until November 5 of 1777 – for two reasons: uncertainty about what to include, as well as several moves from city to city, to avoid advancing British troops. In the end, the final draft included state sovereignty, en bloc voting by state in a unicameral Congress, and terms that left western land claims unresolved – up to individual states. Continue reading “This week in history: the Articles of Confederation”

This week in history: William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison, America’s 9th President, was born this week in 1773. Harrison probably would not be pleased to learn his greatest legacy: establishing the system for presidential succession, by dying in office. The Constitution has surprisingly unclear terms about succession, so when Harrison died in 1841, no one knew if the Vice President would become President or just exercise some or all of the President’s powers. Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, brought order to confusion by claiming a constitutional mandate and taking the oath of office as President. Vice Presidents have seamlessly succeeded to the presidency ever since, whenever the chief dies in office. Continue reading “This week in history: William Henry Harrison”

This week in history: Groundhog Day

This past Sunday, the U.S. and Canada celebrated Groundhog Day (along with the Super Bowl). According to legend, if a groundhog sees its shadow on February 2nd, after emerging from its burrow, winter will continue for six more weeks. If the groundhog sees no shadow, spring will arrive early. So Groundhog Day involves a reversal of assumptions: clear weather on 2/ 2 means more winter, since clear skies lead to shadows, while cloudy weather means an early spring. Continue reading “This week in history: Groundhog Day”

The Chief Justice Can Call Witnesses

Marshall would never stand for impeachment without witnesses
Would John Marshall, our most influential Chief Justice (1755-1835), have stood for a trial without witnesses?

Under the Constitution, the Vice President presides over the Senate — except during presidential impeachment trials. The Vice President would inherit the President’s position if the trial led to conviction, so the Founders feared the VP’s bias. Who then? An obvious choice would be the President pro tempore of the Senate: the Senator who presides in the Vice President’s absence. Or the Senate could elect another Senator. But instead of those natural choices, the Founding Fathers reached out of Congress and chose the Chief Justice of the United States. Why? Continue reading “The Chief Justice Can Call Witnesses”