Ask the Historian

1. Should Elena Kagan recuse herself in the upcoming arguments over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ?

She should step aside on this, though she is not constitutionally bound to do so.  The appearance of impartiality is important in  a case like this.  Scalia and Thomas should also step aside if these stories are true.  There is no doubt that cert was needed, after the Circuits split over the issue.

Remember the lessons of Abe Fortas and impartiality…

2. Did JFK want to destroy the CIA ? And did this lead to his murder?

Kennedy fired CIA chief Allen Dulles in September of 1961 for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  Previously, Kennedy  issued an executive order placing the CIA directly under the auspices of the Defense Department.  He had grown suspicious of the agency and how it seemed to be making policy.  Neither move was popular within the agency.

3.  Will the CIA ever open the Lee Harvey Oswald files?

The Freedom of Information Act -FOIA- passed in 1966, grants records requests via the State Department.  Despite what  you may have heard, the law does not grant access to classified information.  Documents are periodically reviewed and declassified, then made available for requests;  However, documents deemed vital to the National Security do not have to be declassified.  Oswald’s information falls into this latter category.

4.   What is your opinion regarding the constitutionality of the following three topics: The Federal Reserve, Sixteenth Amendment(IRS), and the C.I.A. ?  Furthermore, if constitutionally acceptable, are there any significant negative consequences as a result?

The IRS and graduated income tax are constitutional as part of amendment 16.  The Federal Reserve has deep roots in the First and Second National Banks of the United States.  The Constitution allows the Federal government to regulate commerce and coin money; therefore, such an agency can be created by an act of Congress, which the Federal Reserve Act did.  Libertarians are ruffled by the concept of the CIA, but we have come to accept the rationale of national security for agencies like the CIA.

Any changes to our present tax code will have to meet a constitutional test (progressives were sneaky that way.)  The Federal Reserve is a hybrid government/private sector venture and as a result does not face the same accountability as other parts of the government.  Congress could act to force the FED to open its books, but it is difficult to see the benefit.  Without a stabilizing force in the financial sector, our economy has suffered at various times in history: 1807 during the long embargo, 1837 after the Specie Circular debacle, 1873 following another economic panic…etc….So the FED has served a purpose since its enactment in 1913.    The current scrutiny surrounding the CIA involves its methods.  Democrats want to hold the agency to civilian legal standards.  The debate rages on….

5.  Who will replace Stephen Ambrose as the next great popular historian?

Some argue David McCullough did long ago, during Ambrose’s later  years.  McCullough is clearly the best-selling history writer out there.  Academic historians have been branching out during recent years.  Eric Foner, Gordon Wood, and Joe Ellis are prominent professors who have had bestsellers in the past decade.  An argument can also be made for Ken Burns being a popular historian….

6.  Is the Protect IP Act a good idea in current global market ?

A bit outside this blog’s alleged expertise, but here goes.  Businesses with websites seem to be in favor of the law, while businesses that are websites are against it.  The bill’s purpose is to protect American companies from oversees internet piracy.  Opponents worry that enforcement will abridge free speech rights here.  It’s hard to see merit in either argument as the bill seems hastily put together.  In fact, no government attempt at internet regulation has been successful.

7.  Should public employees be allowed to collectively bargain? 

Nearly all government employees are unionized and collectively bargain.  Large contracts with lucrative benefits, which are often paid for with budget deficits, are the greater issue at play in today’s debate.  In addition, government employees associated with public safety are typically held to negotiations without striking rights.  The precedent was set by Calvin Coolidge (while Governor of Mass.) during the Boston Police strike of 1919, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”   Which public workers fall within these parameters is a matter of interpretation.

8.  Should I forgive Christopher Hitchens for supporting the Iraq War?

Hitchens’ argument doesn’t need your or my support.  It stands on its own.  He was not shilling for some political movement, nor was he a pawn of the Bush administration.  Hitchens supported the war because it toppled an oppressive regime, period.  There was plenty of evidence, which he brilliantly cited, that Hussein’s Iraq was an immediate threat.  Hitchens was a traditional small ‘L’ liberal.  He believed people ought to be free.

9.  Where will WW3 begin and what countries will be involved?

It is difficult to see a conventional conflict erupting between two allied forces.  The United States does face difficult diplomatic courses with Russia and China.  Russia’s political system is currently in turmoil and China continues a rapid arms build up.  China’s armaments combined with North Korea’s instability make a future conflict in Asia  highly probable.

10.  Would Henry Clay have been a good President?

Clay appeared on four Presidential ballots.  He nearly won in 1844, but the a third-party candidate prevented him from winning New York, giving the election to Polk.  A life-long legislator, Clay had little executive experience (one term as Secretary of State.)  Historically, legislators have not made good Presidents.  Clay was opposed to the annexation of Texas and Manifest Destiny.  He would have faced difficulty combating the pro-expansionist factions within the government.

11.  What sports were popular before baseball and football?  Will they be replaced?

College football was popular long before professional football.  Baseball’s popularity dates back to before the Civil War.  It is difficult to see another sport rivaling the popularity of either game, one our past-time, the other our national game.  Both have become interwoven in our culture, especially our celebrations.  Sorry soccer fans….

12.  Was Andrew Johnson drunk at his inauguration?

Johnson did not have a formal inauguration.  He was sworn in on April 15, 1865 after Lincoln’s murder, by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.  The impromptu ceremony took place at the Kirkwood House Hotel in Washington DC.  Johnson did have three glasses of whisky prior to Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4.  Johnson was recovering from typhoid fever and a doctor gave him the liquor to steady his nerves.  The prescription failed as Johnson appeared drunk throughout the ceremony.

13.  Should Confederate soldiers be buried in national cemeteries?

Soldiers who swore allegiance to the Union following the Civil War are often allowed into national cemeteries.  Confederates killed in the Civil War are not allowed to be buried in hallowed Union ground.  These men were killed while rebelling against their country.

14.  Were Madison and Jefferson friends?

No question.  Madison and wife Dolly would spend weeks at Monticello visiting (there was even a special room for them.)  Jefferson was Madison’s mentor and chief political ally.  They agreed on most issues, but differed over some important interpretations of the Constitution.

15.  Can Ron Paul steal the nomination from frontrunner, Mitt Romney?

Not very likely at this point.  Paul does have an enthusiastic following, but securing delegates requires inroads to the Republican establishment.  Paul’s neo-isolationism frightens hawkish Republicans and will drive them to Romney.

16.  How is the election of 2012 shaping up?  Will Obama be reelected?

It appears the Republicans have already conceded this race.  Mitt Romney has failed to ignite his base and his wealth is bound to alienate him from the general electorate in November.  The bright stars of the party are sitting this election out; Jindal, Christie, Palin, Rubio, and Paul Ryan have all opted out of the 2012 race.  The economic numbers are gradually improving which is good news for the incumbent.

17.  Is the trade embargo against Cuba still worth our trouble?

Instituted by the Kennedy administration following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the trade embargo was supposed to pressure the Castro regime with economic hardship.  Cuba has struggled ever since, but many argue the embargo forced the Castro regime to more brutality to maintain its power.  It is difficult to see the usefulness in the post Cold War world.  Hard feelings between the governments exist til this day, but travel restrictions were lifted during the Clinton presidency.

18.  Does history repeat itself?

The worst type of answer, yes and no.  Historical events rarely repeat themselves in a manner we can clearly identify.  What does seem to recur are the mistakes that lead to history altering events.  Wars, elections, movements, laws, all differ depending on the time and participants; but historians are always quick to point out the common missteps that lead to the events.

19.  Did Pat Garrett kill Billy the Kid?

Simply put, yes.  Conspiracy theorists love to spin yarns about the Kid surviving and living a long life, but there were too many witnesses that night.  There are some legitimate questions about Garrett’s account of the shooting- some believe he may have killed the Kid while he slept.

20.  Will the next world crisis take place in Syria? 

The region is in chaos because Arab Spring has been a disaster for democracy.  For their many transgressions, Middle-East strongmen like Assad and Gaddafi were largely secular and kept radical Islamists under wraps.   Arab Spring has allowed Islamists to gain influence in Egypt and Libia and it appears Syria is next.  Today’s admission by Syrian officials that they possess chemical and biological weapons must bring the US into action.  The fall of the Assad regime would destabilize the region further.  Rogue states like Iran along with terror groups like Hezbollah must not be allowed to get the Syrian stockpiles.  If the US does not act, Israel most certainly will move to prevent the weapons from changing hands.

21.  Is the recent NY Times editorial on Thomas Jefferson fair?

Paul Finkelman is a notorious Jefferson hater- Wiencek’s new book is so biased that even Annette Gordon-Reed dismissed it in a review.  Finkelman argues that Wiencek doesn’t go far enough.  Check out my post on the character assassination of Jefferson, I expose Finkelman as a dangerous historical hack.

22.  Was Abraham Lincoln racist and/or  a white supremacist?

No and no.  His racial attitudes fit his times, and he was definitely moderate considering he came from the notoriously racist state of Illinois.  Those who view Lincoln as racist judge him by modern racial attitudes.  Lerone Bennett wrote a misguided book first proposing Lincoln as some sort of white supremacist.  His only evidence was off-color humor Lincoln allegedly used, and Lincoln’s early support for colonization; an opinion he clearly changed during the course of the war.

74 responses to “Ask the Historian

  1. jothevman

    Hi Mr sheafer

  2. P

    Here is a question for the Historian: When, if ever, will the CIA release its files on Oswald? Is there a mechanism in place that would compel the Agency to disclose the information after a pre-determined amount of time?

  3. Joe

    What is your input regarding the constitutionality of the following three topics? The Federal Reserve, Sixteenth Amendment(IRS), and the C.I.A. Furthermore, if constitutionally acceptable, are there any significant negative consequences as a result?

  4. David Batchelder

    So who is Stephen Ambrose’s successor as America’s “popular” historian?

  5. Michael

    Dear Historian,

    I have been listening in about this new bill that is in congress called Protect-IP. This bill, as I have come to understand it, would make it so that it will reduce the amount of piracy by blocking and/or suing the websites that has copyright infringement or links to sites with copyright infringement. It is backed by large corporations. If it passes other countries might follow America’s footsteps. It would could help the American economy because it pushes consumers to buy a product but it could hinder more then help. What are your thoughts on this topic?

  6. Big D

    Awesome page Mr.Historian. It is very interesting, and I can not wait to read more! I will definitely be a regular reader.

  7. Excellent post, very interesting. There is one person that you left off on popular historians though, I like David Barton. I have never read anything by Gordon Wood, nor know anyone else who has. Eric Foner I do really like and his work is most impressive!

    • Barton? Oh dear… hopefully my earlier post on Mr. Barton won’t dissuade you from following…I write about academic history, not fabricated.

      • My dear, the only thing that might stop me from following you would be a closed mind. History is forgotten and rewritten quite frequently. You know that as do I. I hear people saying things that they have been taught in schools and Universities, that I know are not the truth. But it is what people want others to believe. Do you truly believe that our children learn the truth? You may not agree with Mr. Barton and I respect your opinion on that, but it is just your opinion. You can tell me that the facts are the facts, but I will tell you that the truth is that “history is written by the winners.” If you base your judgement on faulty facts, your history is just as fabricated as you say his is. At the very least Mr. Barton does not rely totally on what was written by others, but tries to find the source and check that. My youngest son has a book about the wars that America took part in up until WWI, 90% of that was not taught in his history class. This book was written shortly after WWI. If this is not being taught, how much else is being left out, and why?

      • At the high school level, history is simply neglected, not really manipulated. College level history is social history, or bottom up history as it is called. Mostly it is history told through class struggle. I languished in it for years and understand its place.

        My problems with Mr. Barton are professional. He has made many an amateur mistake but rarely owns up to them. Lowly academics (like me) dislike the acclaim bestowed on him for marginal work. Linking our nation’s founding to christian fundamentalism is not exactly strong interdisciplinary work.
        But I welcome the debate and hope you keep reading.

        G

  8. Chuy

    If there was to be a 3rd world war which countries would be the ones to start it in ur opinion?

  9. Chuy

    If Henry Clay would have won any of the presidential elections he ran for how well do u think he would have done as president?

  10. Chuy

    Before football,baseball was americas favorite sport but which sport do you think can replace football?

  11. Chuy

    Where do u think Brad Meltzer ranks among history authors of today?

  12. Chuy

    I read somewhere that Andrew Johnson was drunk during his own presidential oath?

  13. Chuy

    do you think it’s right that the Confederate soldiers can’t be buried in national cemeteries?

  14. Chuy

    So if all a confederate soldier had to do was pledge his allegiance to the union to be forgiven for his treason, is that all Benedict Arnold had to do for forgiveness for betraying America

  15. Chuy

    did Jefferson and Madison get along?

  16. Joe

    When the end of the current republican primaries is reached, would a candidate such as Ron Paul have the ability to “steal” any last-minute delegates in order to defeat Romney? In layman’s terms, are the delegate’s votes set in stone after each individual primary takes place? Secondly, if Ron Paul was faced against president Obama In the 2012 election, is a victory by Paul possible, because of the potential that he may not lose votes to a third-party libertarian candidate, preventing Obama from winning with less then 50% of the votes?

  17. Chuy

    Who do you think has been the most influential artist of the 20th century?

  18. Ezekial

    Mr. Historian,
    What are your personal views, and political views on the upcoming election, and on these people; Nick Romney, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachman. As well as your predictions on what will happen to obama?

  19. Chuy

    will pancho Villa always be viewed as a villain to Americans?

  20. Chuy

    If president Polk was willing to go to war over Oregon with England why didn’t he also go for Canada?

  21. Chuy

    do you think what William tecumsa Sherman did to the south was reasonable or uncalled for

  22. Chuy

    do u think that the Cuban embargo is still necessary?

  23. Chuy

    do you believe that History repeats itself?

  24. Seamus

    So, I read this prompt that was for a national witting competition (or something like that) and I was rather interested on what your opinion on it may be, Mr. Historian: Is the U. S. Constitution still relevant?

  25. Chuy

    do you think that president bush handled the events of 911 the right way?

  26. Appreciated your post on Barton. Along with a colleague, I have an eBook which addresses many of Barton’s key fact problems point by point – Getting Jefferson Right. http://www.gettingjeffersonright.com.

  27. Chuy

    Since Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had different opinions on how to handle the civil rights issues of their day. what was their opinion of each other?

  28. Taylor

    Alright, so what’s the deal with this DREAM act? Does Obama really have the power to stop deportations of illegal immigrants like that? Is this really just a political move like Romney says?

    • The INS, or ICE as it is now abbreviated, is part of the Homeland Security Dept. and falls under the authority of the executive branch. The executive departments carry out the President’s policies. Only Congressional action can change this course.

  29. Chuy

    Do u think Garret killed Billy the Kid?

  30. Chuy

    What was the name of the captain who used morse code by blinking to tell America that he was being tortured during the Vietnam war:-)

  31. Hello good sir. I know you’ve got a slew of questions to answer, but I’d like your opinion on this list of the five worst history books: http://hnn.us/articles/what-least-credible-history-book-print

    • I agree with this list, and I would add Chris Matthews’ recent Kennedy book to it as well. Zinn’s book has been protected so long by the New Left, it is good to see someone finally take it to task. I have posts on my blog about Matthews, O’Reilly, Barton, and DiLorenzo.

      • Yes, some of those names were familiar to me. I felt good already knowing what was bunk, but that was only because I read your blog!

  32. Mr. Schaefer,

    I believe the next mass world catastrophe will take place in Damascus, Syria for both historical, and Biblical reasons. I would love to hear your opinion of the current situation in Syria, and whether or not there is any historical evidence and/or current information that could suggest a significant world event.

  33. What do you think of this list purportedly listing the worst American generals in history?

    http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/08/01/the_worst_general_in_american_history?wpisrc=obnetwork

    • sheafferhistorian

      Interesting list, but seems like a confusing rubric. For battlefield performance, I agree with McClellan, Gates, and Burnside. I would also add Lloyd Fredenhall to that list. MacArthur is difficult to judge in this way….overrated as a tactician, his strategic planning during the Pacific campaign was key.

  34. Bruner

    I have recently come across numerous arguments for the elimination of the electoral college. Is the electoral college out of date and a poor representation of the american people and their voice? or is it still effective and necessary?

    • Good question, There are two posts on this blog about the electoral process….”If it ain’t Broke” and “Constitution, Presidential Elections, Voters” both explain why the system works and is needed.

  35. What do you think of this recent New York TImes Op-Ed about Thomas Jefferson? I’d love your take on it: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/opinion/the-real-thomas-jefferson.html?src=ISMR_AP_LO_MST_FB

    • Paul Finkelman is a notorious Jefferson hater- Wiencek’s new book is so biased that even Annette Gordon-Reed dismissed it in a review. Finkelman argues that Wiencek doesn’t go far enough. Check out my post on the character assasination of Jefferson, I expose Finkelman as a dangerous historical hack.

  36. Is it just me, or does Jefferson get a disproportionate amount of flak compared to other founding fathers? If so, then why do you suppose that is?

    • He does, nothing is more intoxicating to second-rate scholars than slicing into him. Traditional scholarship linked Jefferson to the gospel of American liberty. His private nature frustrated many, but never spawned hatred. Current researchers have turned on him for the perceived secrecy surrounding him.

  37. Moses

    With so much hatred of Republicans, what are the chances we’ll see a strong Libertarian candidate in the 2016 election?

  38. Mr. Sheaffer,

    I vaguely (very, very vaguely) remember discussing Frederick Law Olmsted as part of the US Sanitary Commission. Other than his organizational skills, did he contribute much to the direction of the Civil War (I understand that sanitation was extremely important in itself)? Did his time with the soldiers contribute to his encompassing career as a landscape architect, or was it one of the few things that did not influence his career?

    • Olmsted followed McClellan’s army to the Peninsula and tended to the wounded there. His efforts with the Sanitary Commission earned him many honors, including induction into the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (one of only a few non-politician civilians in the group.) He also helped recruit soldiers throughout New York, including many colored troops. I would rank him in league with Clara Barton, GT Strong, and Dorthea Dix as great crusaders during the Civil War.

  39. I believe this merits your attention. Apparently, Killing Lincoln is now getting a NatGeo special….. http://killinglincoln.nationalgeographic.com/

  40. I hate to pester you with another request, but can you please at some point address the myth that Abe Lincoln was a racist and white supremacist? I see it everywhere on social media.

  41. Have you written a post about Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves? If not, what do you know about it? It seems to have gotten rave reviews by readers.

    • I haven’t read the book yet, but I do have a post about Annette Gordon-Reed’s reaction to it, which was negative. Interesting how the hatred of Jefferson is dividing his critics now.

  42. Jesus Vasquez

    Was Mt.Vernon taken by the British during the revolutionary war?

  43. RE: 2. Did JFK want to destroy the CIA ? And did this lead to his murder?

    “Kennedy fired CIA chief Allen Dulles in September of 1961 for his involvement in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Previously, Kennedy issued an executive order placing the CIA directly under the auspices of the Defense Department. He had grown suspicious of the agency and how it seemed to be making policy. Neither move was popular within the agency.”

    I think this is a very interesting question. It may date back to the Kennedy family’s rejection of Boston Brahmins or WASPs (white anglo-saxon protestants).

    Look a the film “The Good Shepherd” starring Matt Damon (I am hoping that the film is based on fact). When OSS was formed in the early 1940s, they recruited mostly Ivy League grads (WASPs). So when OSS later became CIA, it was a perceived WASP stronghold. Bill Buckley worked in OSS during the war; I would consider Buckley an Irish Catholic WASP, so to speak–he was a staunch conservative, the Kennedys were liberal.

    Kennedy becomes president, so he is distrustful of the WASP CIA. Kennedy blamed the Bay of Pigs disaster on CIA. Also, the CIA were heavily involved in Vietnam. Kennedy wanted to get out of Vietnam in 1964 (“Conversations with Kennedy” by Ben Bradlee); the CIA was making a lot of money running drugs in Vietnam (this is what I have heard). So the CIA wanted to get rid of Kennedy.

    • Kennedy was uncomfortable with the progress of the Vietnam war, and gave his tacit approval of the Diem ouster, but I don’t think he was the dove that Oliver Stone paints him as… Kennedy was a cold warrior. Remember in 1960, he ran to the right of Nixon, even accused him of being “soft” on communism. The well-worn speech at American University is nothing out of the ordinary for Presidents during the Cold War, though, misguided Kennedy revisionists portray the speech as some sort of watershed moment.

  44. Have you seen Drunk History on Comedy Central, what is your opinion of it, and why aren’t you on it?

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