James Madison vs. Donald Trump

How would you rate Trump in his presidency? I don’t watch the daily news, but I do hear about the significant events through the grapevine; the most recent “Shit Hole” remark is not entirely surprising and falls in line with Trump’s previous propensity to say unpresidential remarks. But what does it mean to be “presidential?” Since I am fully immersed in Plato right now, my brain is constantly scanning for the root definitions of words. According to Plato, to be “presidential” would require one to be a “statesman” – a position of power which disseminates the knowledge of the “good.” What is the knowledge of the “good?” In a sense, it is the correct understanding of human morality and virtues.

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The question, however, gets more complicated because Plato argues we can never entirely obtain knowledge of the “good;” we have to try our best to seek out knowledge throughout our lives through dialogue and personal revelation. So does Trump seem to be on a lifelong journey of wisdom? To follow Socrates example, we’ll leave that question unanswered. Another component of understanding true “statesmanship,”  is to understand past examples in history. How can people honestly know what a good President looks like if their only comparisons are those of living memory: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr, Ronald Reagan, etc. To further add to the conundrum, how many of these Presidents have been personally studied – what do you actually know about their intrinsic virtues and morals? In an attempt to get to the base of understanding “good” leadership, I am reading all the United State President’s biographies. My most recent is on James Madison – James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Next week I will post on James Monroe.

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James Madison was born on March 16th, 1751 to the Virginian planter class. He grew up accustomed to slavery and didn’t do much to further its abolition – less than George Washington and John Adams. Madison suffered from epilepsy at a time when epilepsy was thought to be a personal weakness, and he was a frail man in general – barely breaking the 5-foot barrier. Because of his health conditions, he took to erudition and became a prominent Virginian politician after attending modern-day Princeton. He was mentored by Thomas Jefferson and was close to leading figures of the Revolutionary War.

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Madison championed religious freedoms in the Virginian Constitution and cherished Enlightenment ideas. He was the father of the United States Constitution which was his political Magnum Opus. To push ratification of the Constitution, he partnered with opposite party member – Alexander Hamilton – to publish the famed The Federalist Papers.  Madison straddled party lines for the sake of his country and in the end, helped America form a stable central government while maintaining individual freedoms through the Bill of Rights. He would go on to serve in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as the 4th President of the United States.

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Madison was by far a not a perfect President and did not make satisfying decisions with respects to the War of 1812. His leadership skills were weak when it came to acts of force, and he had difficulties inspiring fellow cabinet members. By the end of his presidency, his successor James Monroe was practically running the government in his place. Madison’s gifts were behind the scenes, and he is most responsible for the United States withholding the Constitution we hold dear today. A Constitution which he designed to be changed according to ultimate liberties – the abolition of slavery to name one. Without Madison, the United States would never have had a Government which could defend itself from foreign attack while simultaneously preserving the rights of individual citizens.

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While in office, Madison had many opponents and is actually credited with forming the first political party with Jefferson. He was a scholar who believed in himself even though many people pushed him to the side because of his physical impediments. Was Madison “Presidential?” He is by far not the best President I have read about, but I do appreciate his quest for compromise and his pursuit of genuine liberty – a liberty that had to balance between the British Monarchy and French Jacobins. His virtues seem to be cooperation, determination, flexibility, and idealism. So how does Madison compare to Tump? I’m going to pull a Socrates again and let you ponder that question.

How the West Won the Gun

Peanut Butter and Jelly. Chips and Dip. Simon and Garfunkel. Summer and Ice Cream. Americans and Guns. All these things go together and are culturally inseparable. The world knows that America is the land of gun loving-second amendment wielding-wild west winning red-blooded citizens. Americans view their own successful history tangentially with the success of the gun: single shot muskets in the Revolutionary War; Colt pistols in the western frontier; Winchester repeating rifles in WWII. Even my favorite movie during the holidays, A Christmas Story, details Ralphie’s unstoppable obsession with the Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Guns are constantly in the news because they beckon polemic arguments. Just last week Donald Trump incorrectly stated that Hillary Clinton wanted to abolish the second amendment, and if that happened, the gun lovers would have to take matters into their own hands (source). I for one am not anti-guns. I believe people should have a right to own pistols and rifles designed for hunting. I do not believe that people should be able to buy assault rifles that can kill dozens of citizens in a matter of seconds. Guns to me are like pharmaceuticals-they have the ability to protect but some come with severe side affects. And like drugs, guns should be regulated to prevent excessive harm to the public-think Antibiotics vs. Heroin. Many of our conversations about guns today are myopic in their view related to their long history in America. Were Americans always so gun obsessed? Why does American culture and the gun fit together like peanut butter and jelly? I found the answers to these questions in The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture by Pamela Haag.

In 1756, a report found that the colonies’ “militia amounts to about 36,000 but not half that number are armed.” In 1776, the governor of Rhode Island wrote to George Washington that the colonists disposed of their arms due to feelings of security, that the colony was effectively “disarmed.” During the 18th and early 19th century, guns were made by gunsmiths. Gunsmiths would make one gun at a time per request and there was a high amount of skill required to complete the entire project. These early American guns were single-shot front loaders which were very heavy and not all that accurate. Since this type of gun was difficult to produce and limited in its capabilities, it was treated as a tool for people with specific needs-farmers, soldiers, Lewis and Clark expeditions, etc. The average Joe did not own a gun during this time. This would all change with Eli Whitney’s idea that he could make a gun with interchangeable parts.

Eli Whitney was one of the first gun manufacturers that made guns not with gunsmiths but with factory workers. Whitney was the forefather to Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester who would begin their businesses in the mid 1800’s. Colt and Winchester are household names today but their businesses had very slow starts in the US. Americans simply did not see the appeal in semiautomatic rifles or handguns and in 1850, Henry William Herbert, one of America’s first sport-hunting writers, predicted that rifles would be obsolete by the end of the century. The Civil War kept the businesses temporarily afloat but afterwards, to stay in business, gun manufacturers used their factories to produce “sewing machines, horse carts, cotton gins, bridges, plows, mowers…” The only market that truly kept Winchester and Colt alive was the foreign war market. During the 1800’s, in South America, Europe, Mexico, and Asia, there was a huge demand for arms. The “American” gun only stayed out of bankruptcy because foreign nationalism required semiautomatic rifles. Colt and Winchester had to solve a problem, they had a ton of guns but little demand in America. How could they make a market?

Winchester and Colt were geniuses in marketing and they used the wild west as their primary medium. Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Belle Star, Calamity Jane, and many others were incessantly written about in dime novels. These dime novels were written as truth but were only fictional stories where “virtue must triumph, vice and crime must not only be defeated, but must by painted in colors so strong and vivid that there is no mistake about it.” What was the quintessential weapon of all these western heroes? Not coincidentally…Colt and Winchester. In addition to the dime novels, Winchester was a prolific user of full color advertisements that showed harrowing scenes of men in action making “The Finishing Shot” with their repeating rifle. It doesn’t end there, Winchester sent 3,363,537 boys between the ages of 10 to 16 a written letter about their .22 caliber that could be used to earn Winchester “Sharpshooting Medals.” This form of marketing extended to all forms of print and media-including Winchester sponsored movies that flashed ads for their guns. Over 750 westerns were released between 1950 and 1960 with 8 of the top 10 prime-time television shows in 1959 being westerns. The gun had morphed from a tool of war to a sexy symbol of virtue over vice, freedom, and individualism. Like so many other products, the gun was marketed towards our emotions and Americans soon connected this 1900’s gun mystique with all guns throughout American history. The guns of the American Revolution, that were sparse and clunky, were now prolific and majestic tools of freedom-just like they were with the winning of the west. Fast forward to today, where gun manufacturers have no problem selling guns because it is as American as eating apple pie. The second amendment gave us the right to bear arms but Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester gave us the desire to bear arms.