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My New Book!
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Friday, December 9, 2022

December 9, 2022: Constitutional Contexts: The 1790 Naturalization Act

[On December 7th, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. So for the 235th anniversary of that historic moment, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Constitutional contexts, leading up to a special weekend post on present issues and debates!]

On why a more forgotten and profoundly frustrating Framing document has to be remembered alongside the Constitution.

In September 2020, I had the honor of delivering the (virtual, obvi) 2020 Constitution Day Lecture at Pennsylvania’s King’s College (one responded to by my friend, King’s College English Professor, and AmericanStudier Guest Poster Robin Field!). I chose as my topic a follow-up to but also extension of my 2019 book We The People: “Debating and Constituting ‘We the People’: The Constitution, the 1790 Naturalization Act, and the Idea of America.” The extension of the book was my argument, first really developed for and in that talk, that while the Constitution certainly contained both the inclusive and exclusionary ideas of America (of how we define that originating “We the People”) on which my book overall focuses, the 1790 Naturalization Act represented a much more overtly exclusionary step in that Framing period, an immediate post-Constitution creation (one passed in March 1790, just a year after the Constitution went into full effect in March 1789) of an exclusionary vision of American identity and community. Here I wants to think briefly about one way that Act built on the Constitution, and one way I’d argue it significantly shifted the national conversation toward exclusion.

As I’ve been arguing since both my third book and my first truly viral piece of online writing, the Constitution is importantly, entirely silent on the issue of immigration laws. But while it doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility of such laws nor grant the power to make them to Congress, the Constitution does grant Congress a related power: Article I Section 8, “Powers of Congress,” includes a clause granting Congress the power “To establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization.” On the one hand, I think this inclusion makes even more striking and significant the fact that the Constitution doesn’t grant any power to make immigration laws—clearly the document and its framers were well aware of immigrant communities in the new United States, but had no sense that there would or should be laws regulating their immigration and arrival. But on the other hand, this clause does make clear that whether and how those immigrants will become citizens is both an issue and a power that the federal government should maintain (as opposed to a state-by-state question, for example, which it very well could have been and in some ways has been at times in our history). While the Constitution itself is entirely ambiguous on what those naturalization rules and requirements should be, it does overtly allow for the possibility and creation of a law like the 1790 Naturalization Act.

But there’s still a world of difference between generally granting a power to Congress and that body using that power to make one of the most overtly discriminatory and exclusionary federal laws in American history (a sadly competitive list to be sure). And make no mistake, that’s what the 1790 Naturalization Act was, through the use in its opening sentence of one very specific and targeted phrase to describe those who could become U.S. citizens: “any Alien, being a free white person…” Citizenship isn’t the only way to be part of a national community, of course, and I’ve spent the better part of my career to date arguing for all the ways in which every American culture and community—perhaps especially those too often formally or legally excluded by laws such as this one—have always been and remain fully and centrally part of “We the People.” But there’s no way around the fact that this Framing era law, one of the first passed by the newly created U.S. Congress under the newly ratified U.S. Constitution, defined those who could join “We the People” through an incredibly narrow, racist, exclusionary lens. That’s not part of the Constitution itself, but it’s an inescapable context for remembering that founding document and its moment.

Special weekend post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Thursday, December 8, 2022

December 8, 2022: Constitutional Contexts: The Bill of Rights

[On December 7th, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. So for the 235th anniversary of that historic moment, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Constitutional contexts, leading up to a special weekend post on present issues and debates!]

On the history, significance, and limitations of the Constitution’s first evolution.

One of the most striking things about the Constitution that was finally, fully ratified on June 21, 1788—when New Hampshire became the necessary 9th state to ratify—is that it was already different from the document that was created on September 17, 1787. The Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates about which I wrote in Tuesday’s post spilled over into the ratification debates throughout state legislatures, and eventually necessitated the February 1788 deal that became known as the Massachusetts Compromise: that the group of Amendments drafted by George Mason and known as the Bill of Rights would be immediately added to the Constitution. (There were initially twelve proposed Amendments, but only ten of course made it into the final version.) It was only after that compromise that the legislatures of four states—Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire—ratified the Constitution, so in a very real sense the document would not exist (not as anything other than a statement of principles, at least) without the Bill of Rights.

I would argue that the true significance of the Bill of Rights lies not just in that necessary role, however, nor even in the important and often ground-breaking specific concepts and guarantees that it includes. To my mind, the Bill of Rights was and is so significant because it immediately and permanently established the Constitution as a living document. That is, while the body of the Constitution had laid out (in Article Five) the process by which the document could be amended, there was no guarantee that it would be so altered; and I believe that the longer it had existed in a static form, the more it might have seemed to be set and unchangeable as a result. But instead, before that document was even ratified, and more than a year before it and the government it created took effect as the law of the land (on March 4, 1789), it was amended. Those amendments were the result of a messy set of debates and compromises, but that too was precisely the point, on multiple levels: they remind us that the Constitution likewise was produced through a process; and they make clear that it was designed to allow for that process to continue, and through that process to change the document (and thus the laws and nation).

Of course, the messy process that created the Constitution was also frustratingly and prominently racist, and the Bill of Rights (perhaps unsurprisingly, drafted as it was by a slave-owner) in no way escaped that all-too central element. After all, virtually every individual and collective right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights was at the same time legally denied to enslaved African Americans, who could not assemble in protest nor (in most cases) practice their religion of choice (that is, while of course many enslaved African Americans converted to and practiced Christianity, they hardly ever had any individual choice in the matter), who certainly had no right to a trial by jury nor to resist the authorities, and who day in and day out were subject to the most cruel and unusual punishments. While the 3/5s clause is the Constitution’s most overt and shocking illustration of the fundamental place of slavery and racism in the nation’s founding, I would argue that the gap between the Bill of Rights and the individual and collective experiences of enslaved African Americans is the document’s most engrained discrimination. This evolution was so important that the Constitution might not exist at all without it, but for hundreds of thousands of Americans, it was one more set of illusory and false promises.

Last Constitutional context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

December 7, 2022: Constitutional Contexts: Delaware

[On December 7th, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. So for the 235th anniversary of that historic moment, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Constitutional contexts, leading up to a special weekend post on present issues and debates!]

On three relevant contexts for Delaware’s historic ratification.

1)      The 1776 Constitution of Delaware: Delaware wasn’t just “The First State” to ratify the U.S. Constitution; it was also the first to create its own state constitution after the Continental Congress requested that the newly independent states do so, with a Constitutional Convention convening in August 1776 and the resulting Constitution (hyperlinked above) proclaimed in September. That 1776 Constitution was of course specific and distinct, from those of other new states and from the national Constitution a decade later. But it certainly foreshadowed all those later documents (see for example the “no religious test” clause, very similar to the radical one featured in the U.S. Constitution’s Article VI), and indeed helped push both the states and the nation forward toward the idea of Constitutional governments on all those levels. Makes sense that Delaware would quickly convene a U.S. Constitution ratification convention eleven years later, doesn’t it?

2)      The Penman of the Revolution”: A significant participant in all those moments and steps was John Dickinson, the Delaware planter and politician (and, yes, slaveowner—a truly ubiquitous issue across the community of Founders/Framers) who became known by this nickname for his pre-Revolutionary writings challenging the British and urging his fellow Americans to move toward Revolution. Dickinson would remain active in, indeed central to, Delaware and national politics alike throughout the Revolutionary and Framing periods, eventually serving as one of the state’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention and becoming one of the main advocates (both in his home state and throughout the country) for ratifying that Constitution.

3)      The Ongoing Ratification Process: As the last hyperlinked piece in that prior paragraph illustrates, Dickinson continued to use his pen to argue for ratification, publishing a series of letters under the pseudonym Fabius that echoed and extended the arguments and perspectives of the Federalist Papers. But while Delaware’s ratification convention was incredibly smooth and harmonious—the convention began on December 3rd and its delegates voted 30-0 to ratify the U.S. Constitution just four days later—the national ratification process and debate was anything but. It took many stages and steps to get to full ratification, including the addition of the Bill of Rights about which I’ll blog in tomorrow’s post. But none of that means that Delaware’s early and enthusiastic ratification wasn’t an important ongoing influence, just as the state and its own Framers had been since those first Revolutionary moments.

Next Constitutional context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

December 6, 2022: Constitutional Contexts: Anti-Federalists

[On December 7th, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. So for the 235th anniversary of that historic moment, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Constitutional contexts, leading up to a special weekend post on present issues and debates!]

On three equally significant ways to frame the Constitution’s opposition.

1)      Revolutionary Radicals: It’s no coincidence that two of the most prominent Anti-Federalists (a label which, to be fair, was imposed by the Constitution’s advocates and generally rejected by the group themselves, but which I’ll use in this post as a shorthand for the Constitution’s critics) were also two of the Revolution’s most famous firebrands, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. The Revolution itself can be reductively but not inaccurately divided into more radical and more conservative camps, as exemplified by Samuel and his second cousin John Adams. Moreover, as illustrated by John’s critique of the Boston Massacre’s participants, the proto-federalists tended to be a bit more suspicious of populism, while radicals like Sam and the Sons of Liberty encouraged and amplified popular passions. Again, all those issues are more nuanced than these couple of sentences can allow, but they do help explain how men like Adams and Patrick Henry ended up in the Anti-Federalist camp.

2)      Advocates for Rights: Perhaps the single most important Anti-Federalist text was George Mason’s Objections to this Constitution of Government (1787). Mason’s objections were strong enough that he became one of three Constitutional Convention delegates not to sign the final document, but he ironically would eventually turn those objections into the impetus for drafting one of the Constitution’s most famous sections, the Bill of Rights (about which I’ll write more in Thursday’s post). An emphasis on individual rights had been part of the American Revolution since its origins, as illustrated by another document of Mason’s (and predecessor to the Bill of Rights), the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. Thanks to Mason and other Anti-Federalists, those emphases were carried forward into not just the debates over the Constitution, but also its final, ratified form. (It’s also important to note, as I’ll discuss Thursday as well, that Mason, like many of these advocates for rights, was a slave-owner.)

3)      Future Democratic-Republicans: Despite the expressed desire on the part of many of the founding generation (George Washington in particular) to avoid the creation of political parties, the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate was certainly also an origin point for the development of such parties in the U.S. Declaration author Thomas Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention, but he was definitely in the Anti-Federalist camp, and would continue developing that perspective during his conflicts with Alexander Hamilton throughout Washington’s terms as President. That arc culminated in Jefferson’s creation of the Democratic-Republican Party, in the contested and crucial presidential election of 1800, and in the origins of a two-party system that (with many evolutions of course) has endured to this day. All of which, like so much else, can and should be linked to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates.

Next Constitutional context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Monday, December 5, 2022

December 5, 2022: Constitutional Contexts: The Articles of Confederation

[On December 7th, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. So for the 235th anniversary of that historic moment, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Constitutional contexts, leading up to a special weekend post on present issues and debates!]

On what was drastically different in the new nation’s first unifying documents, and what wasn’t.

Until researching this post, I hadn’t really understood just how much the Articles of Confederation paralleled the American Revolution. I knew they went into effect in March 1781, while the Revolution was still very much ongoing, but it turns out that that timing was due solely to how long it took all 13 states to ratify the Articles (Maryland was the last state to do so, on March 1, nearly two years after Delaware had become the 12th to ratify); they were initially proposed in the immediate aftermath of the Declaration of Independence, in July 1776, and were after more than a year of heated debate approved by that Second Continental Congress and sent to the states for ratification in November 1777. Which is to say, the Articles weren’t a product of the Revolution (as I had always thought of them) so much as part of its impetus and origins, which now that I’ve reframed it that way does make sense—once the colonies had declared independence, it was vital that they immediately and consistently envision a political and civic arrangement through which they could exist in Perpetual Union (the usually elided part of their full title) without England, even (if not especially) while their war to establish and cement that independence was entirely ongoing.

Better understanding that Revolutionary context for the Articles can help explain some of the ways in which they differed from the Constitution that would eventually replace them. The most famous such difference is that under the Articles the central government (known first as the Continental Congress and then, after 1781, as the Congress of the Confederation) was quite weak, both on its own terms and in comparison to the individual states. I had always attributed that to the colonists’ hatred of the King and thus fears of a tyrannical government, and of course those were factors; but given the highly regional nature of the Revolution (with different battles/campaigns fought across the regions and states in somewhat disconnected and certainly discrete stages), it makes perfect sense that the Articles granted each state the power necessary to respond to those particular, evolving circumstances without needing to rely on or wait for a central authority. It’s harder to understand the choice to deny Congress any ability to levy taxes, leaving the central government entirely dependent on funding from the states; that limitation frequently left not just Congress but the Continental Army in the lurch. But on the other hand, that too can be seen as a wartime decision: fighting a war requires continued support and buy-in from civilians, and it’s fair to say that in a war which originated with opposition to onerous taxes, many colonists might have been unwilling to continue supporting a new government which immediately began imposing its own taxes.

Explicable or not, that element of the Articles continued to produce financial difficulties after the Revolution, and (along with the related histories of Shay’s Rebellion) contributed significantly to the move toward a new governing document. The ability to levy taxes was just one of many powers given to the far stronger federal government created by the Constitution (although not without extended debate, as I’ll discuss in tomorrow’s post). But despite those shifts, the Articles can be seen as a predecessor to the Constitution, and not just in symbolic ways (ie, how the Constitution’s Preamble echoes part of the Articles’ opening: “The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare”). In particular, the Articles created the new nation as a representative, democratic republic, with the state legislatures appointing representatives from each state to the Congress of the Confederation. Since the fundamental nature of the nation’s political system was just as uncertain as every other Revolutionary aspect, this was a vital choice, and one that was carried forward into and enhanced by the Constitution.

Next Constitutional context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

Saturday, December 3, 2022

December 3-4, 2022: November 2022 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

October 29-30: Tiffany Wayne’s Guest Post on the Jewel City: Suffrage at the San Francisco-Panama Pacific International Exposition: The month kicked off with another great Guest Post!

October 31: Symbolic Scares: The Wendigo: For my annual Halloween series I focused on the symbolism behind scary stories, starting with a cross-cultural supernatural legend.

November 1: Symbolic Scares: Sleepy Hollow: The series continues with an original American scary story that’s also an American origin story.

November 2: Symbolic Scares: Last House on the Left: A horror film that’s more disturbing in what it makes us cheer for than how it makes us scream, as the series scares on.

November 3: Symbolic Scares: The Lost Boys: A textbook definition of mindless pop entertainment, and what it can still symbolize.

November 4: Symbolic Scares: The Shinings: The series concludes with what we can make of the two opposed endings to the novel and film versions of the same scary story.

November 5-6: Anya Jabour’s Guest Post on Legionnaire’s Disease: My second great Guest Post of the week!

November 7: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: Guest Posts I: For AmericanStudier’s 12th anniversary…

November 8: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: Guest Posts II: I decided to focus on a favorite aspect…

November 9: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: Guest Posts III: Of the blog from across these dozen years, …

November 10: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: Guest Posts IV: The awesome Guest Posts I’ve been able to share!

November 11: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: Guest Posts V: So across these five posts, here were the 26 most recent Guest Posts!

November 12-13: 12 Years of AmericanStudying: My Reflections: Leading up to this special weekend post featuring my own reflections on the first 12 years!

November 14: Public Art: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: On the DC memorial’s 40th anniversary, a public art studying series kicks off with two levels to why that memorial is so important.

November 15: Public Art: The Shaw Memorial: The series continues with a historically, culturally, and symbolically crucial monument.

November 16: Public Art: Two Midwestern Statues: The inspiring messages and missing histories of two linked statues, as the series sculpts on.

November 17: Public Art: The Harriet Wilson Statue: How a wonderful recent statue corrects a wrong and makes the case for right (and writing).

November 18: Public Art: Murals: The series concludes with a couple links to collections of awesome public murals!

November 19-20: Lily Hart’s Guest Post on Voices of the River: My third great Guest Post of the month, which ties a record I hope to keep tying!

November 21: Thanks-givings: Bruce’s Soul: A Thanksgiving series kicks off with a new album we should all be thank-full for.

November 22: Thanks-givings: Purple Carrot: The series continues with the vegan food service that has meant a ton to me and my family.

November 23: Thanks-givings: Andor and Willow: Two Disney+ shows that make me nostalgically thank-full, as the series thanks on.

November 24: Thanks-givings: Fantasy Football: The unique reason I’m very thank-full for fantasy football!

November 25: Thanks-givings: Young Voters: The series concludes with the American community for whom all lovers of democracy should be eternally thank-full.

November 28: Video Game Studying: Grand Theft Auto: A series inspired by Pong’s 40th anniversary kicks off with three aspects of video games we can learn from the GTA series.

November 29: Video Game Studying: Pong: The series continues with two lesser-known and telling moments in Pong’s history on its 40th birthday.

November 30: Video Game Studying: Pac-Man: Three ways the arcade smash changed the game, as the series plays on.

December 1: Video Game Studying: Doom: Two striking and controversial collaborative sides to the first-person shooter.

December 2: Video Game Studying: App Games: The series concludes with a couple takeaways from a decade or so of app gaming.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, December 2, 2022

December 2, 2022: Video Game Studying: App Games

[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]

On a couple of takeaways from a couple decades or so of app gaming.

The lives of my two sons, now 16 and 15 years old, have correlated almost exactly with the rise and dominance of the smartphone, so it’s probably no surprise that it is through them that I have experienced the brave new video gaming world of app games. Indeed, I’ve listened to my boys excitedly go through phases focused on most of the games on the top ten lists of both the most downloaded and the most spent-upon app games of the last decade-plus (among other games they’ve loved that didn’t quite make those lists, such as their first app game addiction Spy Mouse); and for a solid year or so they got me similarly obsessed with one of the games that ranks high on both lists, Supercell’s smash hit Clash of Clans. While it would be easy to see app games as occupying a fundamentally different genre (and even perhaps a different medium) than other video games, I think that would also be largely if not entirely inaccurate: every gaming console or system has its differences, but every one still allows gamers to play video games; and most app games have direct parallels to other popular and more traditional video games (#1 download Candy Crush Saga to prior shape stacking games like Tetris, Clash of Clans to prior worldbuilding games like Civilization, and so on).

Thinking of app games as video games allows us to consider a couple of interesting 21st century gaming trends that they both reveal and have helped popularize. Perhaps the most obvious is seeing video games as a constant activity and part of the regular flow of our day-to-day lives, rather than a distinct or separate use of our time. That is, to game on a system or computer generally requires turning on that console and game, and thus making a conscious choice to enter into that space for some particular period of time; whereas an app game is present on the device on which we’re already spending so much time, and generally requires barely a second to open and play (and a similar second to stop playing or pause in order to do other things, on or off that device). Of course some past games have already been able to serve that purpose—I used to play at least one game of Minesweeper religiously before starting any writing work—but I would argue that those were one small subset or niche of the gaming world, rather than the central category that app games have become. Obviously it’s not just the games that have become utterly tied to our moment-to-moment lives; but this particular change in gaming both reflects those broader technological shifts and represents an interesting specific effect within the world of video gaming.

The other thing I want to highlight about app games is less of a definite trend and more of a question, and one tied to broader questions about smartphones, social media, the internet, 21st century society, and other such small issues. It’s possible to see app video gaming as one more way we’ve become more isolated from each other, linked more to what’s happening on these devices than to those around us (as, for example, we’d be if we were playing a video game with a group of friends, all staring at the same screen at least). But it’s equally possible to see app games (like video games overall, of course) as a way that we can and do connect to each other—my boys have shared every app gaming experience with each other, and as I mentioned also shared at least one extended one with me; and they similarly have connected to friends near and far in the same ways, both literally through online gaming and figuratively through discussing these shared worlds and experiences. The answer, of course, lies in a combination of these two poles, along with many other effects along the spectrum. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t or won’t ultimately be possible to assess app games as creating more isolation or more community, and those are worthwhile and important questions to ask of this new gaming form, as well as of the technologies to which they connect.

November Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?