The Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble

The genius that is Baylen Linnekin:

The proper situs of the Assembly Clause, research reveals, is in its birthplace: colonial America’s taverns. Colonial taverns served not just as establishments for drinking alcohol but as vital centers where colonists of reputations great and small gathered to read printed tracts, speak with one another on important issues of the day, debate the news, organize boycotts, draft treatises and demands, plot the expulsion of their British overlords, and establish a new nation.

In 1779, Samuel Smedley’s ship Defence wrecked on a shoal off New London. Smedley blamed the pilot, and was so worried about his reputation that he requested, and was granted, an immediate court of inquiry to clear him of wrong-doing. The court met, of course, at a tavern.

Baylen’s paper is free and easy to download. He also has a longer, so-crazy-it’s-brilliant thesis wherein he traces “how America’s experience with food and drink, British common-law protections of food rights, and — especially — British attacks on the food rights of the colonists after 1763 directly influenced the text of the Bill of Rights.” That paper’s unpublished — so far. I’m looking at you, American book publishers.

The First Amendment to the Constitution1 is “a cluster of distinct but related rights.”2 The
freedom of assembly protected therein3 is one right that Americans exercise every day.4 With
perhaps the exception of speech, assembly is the most widely and commonly practiced action
that is enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
This freedom is also one of our least understood and least considered rights. Sometimes
ignored and other times grouped with other freedoms, the right of those in America to come
together peaceably deserves to be studied, respected, and celebrated.
To better understand the freedom of assembly in America, one must explore and
understand its origins.5 Tracing the evolution of the freedom of assembly requires placing this
freedom “within the context of culture.”6 Exploring the origins of the freedom of assembly in the
context of culture requires tracing the right—as practiced—back to its fundamental situs, a term
that can be used to ground rights in their proper place or places.7
The proper situs of the Assembly Clause, research reveals, is in its birthplace: colonial
America’s taverns.

Lost States

Santa left a copy of Michael J. Trinklein’s Lost States under the tree this year, a book I’ve been wanting to crack for months. I recommend it if you too are fascinated by lost or forgotten geography — with the caveat that Lost States is more of a compilation of cartography paired with Wikipedia entries than a serious history book.

The full title and subhead of the book is Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It.

Here’s my true story: between 2005 and 2007, I shopped a book idea entitled The Lost States of America. My high-concept tagline was, “Everybody knows there are fifty states. But what about the ones that didn’t make it?”

I eventually abandoned the project, even though I wrote the first chapter (18,000 words!), due to lack of interest from agents or publishers and a growing realization that my energies were better spent elsewhere.

Along the way I accumulated a number of rejection letters, including my favorite from an agent who wrote a long reply about how he wanted to write a history of a lost-state endeavor near where he lived. He declined to represent my book, therefore, lest it interfere with his.

I chuckle just thinking about that letter. Of course, if he had wanted to write his book so badly, he would have done so already. But he hasn’t and he never will. I prize that rejection as the quintessential example of everything that’s wrong with big-name book publishing. Trinklein, an Emmy-nominated PBS producer, self-published the original version of Lost States. It seems publishers were just as deaf to him as they were to me.

My concept differed from Trinklein’s in that I planned to write a textual history book about ten different lost states (eight of which Trinklein includes). Trinklein opted for a more graphic presentation. Each of the 74 entries features a full-page chart crafted to resemble a map from the relevant time period — nicely done. A 300-word description faces it. And yet while Trinklein writes in a breezy style that is sometimes fun, sometimes flippant, his renditions are sometimes at history’ s expense.

Take Franklin, for instance. Trinklein cites Samuel Cole Williams’s History of the Lost State of Franklin as the source for his entry, a reference I also read while researching my 2004 Reason piece on Franklin. Trinklein disparages the whole idea of Franklin, even going so far as to assert that Benjamin Franklin, for whom the endeavor was named, was hostile to it. Not so; the Philadelphian was politely noncommittal. Trinklein also says that North Carolina troops crushed the Franklin movement militarily. Again, not true: Indian attacks in what is today western Tennessee caused North Carolina to walk away from the Franklin issue, eventually leading to the creation of the Volunteer State in its place. I caught several other errors throughout the book and the customer reviews over at Amazon list a bunch more.

Trinklein is also hindered by his lack of focus. The words “George W. Bush,” “Iraq,” and “quagmire” pop up a lot — even though the copyright on the book is 2010. He reminds me of my grad-school professors who, as late as the early 21st century, would spin themselves into a tizzy over Ronald Reagan and Grenada. A couple of entries (New Connecticut, Nickajack) go off on silly tangents, something a writer can’t afford when he’s jotting in eight-graf blurbs.

The scholarship of Trinklein’s hardbound gazetteer is very dodgy but it’s a good place to begin an inquiry. Enjoy the maps and follow the bibliography to more factual accounts of events.

Writing professionally, I believe, is like being a drunken lighthouse keeper: it’s lonely; and for every dozen vessels safely shepherded to their destination, you have a spectacular shipwreck on the rocks. Years ago, my reaction to Lost States would have been jealousy. Experience has taught me since that whatever enemies a writer may have, other authors aren’t among them. I may resurrect my old book idea, although with a focus on a single lost state and told through a biographical narrative, when I finish my current project. But more on that later.

Latest News From Beaufort Inlet

The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project has posted a summary of their 2010 fall field season:

A total of 122 objects were recovered from the wreck site during the field season. Sixty-five concretions of varying sizes have the potential for containing hundreds of individual artifacts. These concretions will be X-rayed at the conservation lab to help identify what may be contained within. Some artifacts readily apparent on gross external examination include: cannon balls, cask hoops, a pewter plate, and the largest object recovered this season — multiple segments of a deadeye strop with the wood deadeye intact, likely from the port side main mast chain plate.

Drawing of the QAR from the Project’s 1999 management plan.

Lost in Plain Sight

Recently I attended a biannual meeting of The Association for the Study of Connecticut History where I heard Marta Daniels speak about her co-discovery of the first tract of land owned by Venture Smith. Smith, if you’ve never heard of him, was an 18th-century African slave who, through sheer acumen and industry, died in 1805 a free and wealthy Connecticut landowner. His autobiography is the only existing testimony in which the narrator describes his childhood in Africa, his subsequent capture and servitude in America, and his life as a free man. He’s becoming something of a folk hero here in Connecticut, as he should be.

Daniels, an antiquarian, described how she and hydrographer Nancy Byrne pinpointed Smith’s original land in Stonington. The general area of the tract was known but previous researchers had made several critical errors in interpreting Smith’s deed, leading to the wrong piece of land being attributed to him. What stumped historians was that the deed clearly noted the parcel’s four corners were marked by rocks with certain initials carved into them — but no one could find the rocks. By returning to the original deed and using GIS, Daniels and Byrne were able to correctly identify the shape and location of the parcel. The women then plunged into the muggy, mosquito-choked forest to test their theory, and sure enough, located the markers. The revealed parcel further demonstrates Smith’s business sense. As a rocky hillside, the 26 acres were probably perceived as junk land by whites, but for Smith, who made his money lumbering and trading, they were a trove, thickly wooded and providing access to the Sound. He sold the land four years later at a profit.

Daniels gave a longer version of the same presentation on C-SPAN.

Getting Your 18th Century On

Living in coastal New England is to be surrounded every moment by the architectural and geographic echoes of the colonial era. This year, the family and I took it further by tripping back to the 18th century with several historical vacations. What follows are some tips if you’re planning your own getaway.

Colonial Williamsburg is the Jerusalem for pilgrims of Revolutionary history. The foundation prints weekly calendars, available in the hotel lobbies, chock full of events and presentations. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Public Audience with a Founding Father, which usually occurs at 10 AM Tuesday through Thursday behind the Governor’s Palace. The depth and context provided by the actors (portraying Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry) is amazing.

The website says reservations are required at all of the taverns, though we had no problem being seated at 11 AM at any of the three serving lunch. The food at all of them is fine, though I was partial to Shields Tavern. We found it impossible to get into Christiana Campbell’s without a reservation; you may want to book well ahead of time (like, several weeks ahead of time). I also strongly recommend the Blue Talon just beyond the colonial area. I had the curried goat special washed down with burnt-sugar ice cream and a glass of Calvados.

We stayed at the Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel just north of the historic area, and strolling under the bowers and past the frog pond on your way to 1775 is a pleasant way to begin the morning. There is a serious drawback: the only bar on the premises is a rinky-dink restaurant that’s closed more than it’s open, which nearly gave me a case of the DTs. If you too drink like a Founding Father, you may want stay closer to the taverns or Merchant’s Square.

What’s fantastic about Strawbery Banke is that it isn’t frozen in one period. Rather it shows the Portsmouth, New Hampshire neighborhood of Puddle Dock throughout its lifetime, from 17th-century settlement to 20th-century slum. The Shapley-Drisco House is a duplex with one side depicting a 1790s general store and the other a 1950s family home, complete with flickering television set and ash trays aplenty. Another building is furnished as a World War II-era grocery, ration lists posted on the wall. Kids should check out ye olde toys and games in the Jones House.

There’s only one restaurant on the premises plus a summertime ice cream shop, but being in the heart of Portsmouth means you don’t have to go far for great food. For breakfast, run — do not walk — to The Friendly Toast on Congress Street and order the pumpkin pancakes with Raisinets. For lunch I recommend RiRa Irish Pub in Market Square. History buffs may also want to visit the home of Declaration signatory William Whipple on Market Street.

And because our family just can’t get enough tricornes and sedition, we stopped at Old Sturbridge Village on our way home from Portsmouth. Whereas Colonial Williamsburg excels at recreating the climate of the Revolution, OSV complements it by exhibiting what folks did when they weren’t loitering in the colonial capitals debating taxes and insurrection. The working sawmill — slowly but persistently cutting a tree into planks with every turn of the water wheel — fascinates me. There’s also a cidery, a print shop, a shoe shop, and more.

When I was a kid, my family made a point of eating at the nearby Publick House whenever we passed through, a tradition that continues with my own peeps. The Oliver Wight Tavern, located at the entrance to OSV, is very good as well. The massive gift and bookstore adjacent to the restaurant always sucks us in for at least half an hour.

As the Marquis de Lafayette might have said, Bon voyage et bon chance.

Good Riddance, Robert Byrd

Robert Carlyle Byrd was born in North Carolina in 1917. After his mother’s death the following year, he was adopted by his aunt and uncle and raised in West Virginia.

In 1942, at the age of 24, he joined the Ku Klux Klan, where, according to Byrd, his felicity for bureaucratic politics was discovered. But by the early ’50s, Byrd announced he was no longer a dues-paying member.

Frederick Lewis Allen on the 20th-century rebirth of the Klan:

At first, in the South, white supremacy was the Klan’s chief objective, but as time went on and the organization grew and spread, opposition to the Jew and above all the Catholic proved best talking points for Kleagles in most localities. (Only Yesterday (New York: Perennial Classics, 2000), 58)

Remember that back in the day, “Catholic” was shorthand for Italians, Irish, Hispanics, and Poles. In other words: immigrants. Further, the KKK, just like Hitler, conflated “Judaism” with “Communism.”

R.A. Patton, writing in Current History, reported a grim series of brutalities from Alabama: “A lad whipped with branches until his back was ribboned flesh; a Negress beaten and left helpless to contract pneumonia from exposure and die; a white girl, divorcee, beaten into unconsciousness in her own home; a naturalized foreigner flogged until his back was a pulp because he married an American woman; a Negro lashed until he sold his land to a white man for a fraction of its value.” (Ibid., 59)

Byrd and 18 other senators (17 of them Democrats) filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — a bill introduced by fellow Democrat John F. Kennedy, shepherded through the House and Senate by Democrats, and eventually signed into law by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. Byrd also voted against the Voting Rights Act the following year, though he did vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Byrd also voted against the nominations of Thurgood Marshall (appointed by Johnson) in 1967 and Clarence Thomas (appointed by George H. W. Bush) in 1991. These men are the only two African-Americans to ever sit on the Supreme Court. Byrd was age 49 at the time of the first vote; 74 at the time of the second.

So in most of these negative votes, Byrd voted against his fellow Democrats. He wasn’t toeing a partisan line, but instead was motivated by something else.

But he changed, say his supporters! Byrd wasn’t a racist! He apologized, disavowing his previous prejudices and actions.

In 1982, Byrd’s grandson died, which apparently provoked a crisis of conscience in the 64-year-old senator. Byrd, when asked in a C-SPAN interview what vote he would change if he could, replied that he would switch his vote on Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act. He explained:

I lost a grandson in 1982. Fine-looking young man. Six-feet five, three hundred pounds, seventeen years old. Loved the outdoors. I lost him. He died in a truck crash. I won’t go through all the deep valleys that I tread during the following two years. I was majority leader then, I believe, at that time, which did take my mind away from that great tragedy to some extent. Anyhow, it came to my mind at that time how I loved this grandson. And it also came to my mind that black people love their grandsons too. And I, the more I thought about it, I thought, Well now, suppose I were black and my grandson and I were out on the highways in the mid-hours, the wee hours of the morning or midnight, and I stopped at a place to get that little grandson a glass of water or to have it go to the restroom, and there’s a sign, Whites Only. Black people love their grandsons as much as I love mine, and that’s just not right. And so we, who like myself were born in a Southern environment, grew up with Southern people, knew their feelings about the Civil War and all these things, I thought, My goodness, we ought to get ahead of the curve really, not have the law force us to do it, we ought to take down those signs. Well, that is what made me come to the conclusion that if I had to do it over again, I’d vote against that. I’d vote against that law.

Byrd realized black people love their grandsons too. In 1982. At age 64.

He wanted “to get ahead of the curve” on civil rights. In 1982. The same year my angel was the centerfold and Rocky Balboa was pounding on Clubber Lang.

Today the lilies of the Internet and the MSM bloom with memorials and eulogies to Robert Byrd. He was the longest-serving senator ever! He wrote a four-volume history of the Senate! He voted against the Iraq war! Byrd was also a hillbilly racist elected to the House and later the Senate in the 1950s by capitalizing on bigotry and kept there, in part, by the same. Only decades later, when his views became untenable to his comfortable lifestyle, did he claim to abandon them. In his prime, Byrd would have loathed me, my family, and just about everybody I know based on our ethnicities and/or religions. And today I’m supposed to feel reverence or get dewy-eyed for this POS?

Passage from the C-SPAN interview is my transcription. Byrd’s response begins around the 18:00 mark of part 2.