Saturday, February 6, 2010

#201 Two Presidents ... First SOTU II

When Barack Obama stepped to the lectern last week and addressed his "State of the Union" to the "... Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and FELLOW AMERICANS"--the President could be confident that he was speaking directly to the latter audience. Though not in the House Chamber, THE PEOPLE were actually PRESENT, moment to moment, via the electronic media, to hear the speech--no intermediary required. Not so for George Washington's "fellow Americans" on Jan. 8, 1790. Understandably, they were left out of his opening greetings, but in a quaint and curious way: "Fellow Citizens OF the Senate and House of Representatives," he began. He was , after all, under no Constitutional obligation to "from time to time give ... information" to anybody else. It was enough that the other citizens' REPRESENTATIVES were in attendance, even so be it that for everyone else the speech became immediately and necessarily second-hand news. To get the Word out to the people was left willy-nilly to the PRESS.

Pictured above is an example, "hot off the presses," two weeks after the fact. At least city-dwelling citizens, like those of Worcester, were able to get "late" news-reports in the early days of the Republick. But notice the masthead: Maffachufsetts SPY (love it)--as if undercover reporters, tabloid-wise, had to ferret out government goings-on, like any other juicy bit of news. It's no wonder that Freedom of the Press is in the very first Article of the Bill of Rights. For the people it was the only information game in town. This is ferociously understood and defiantly reflected in the SPY's epigraph: "The Liberty of the Prefs is effential to the Security of Freedom." (Enlarged view here.) To pound the point home, the motto is successively redacted in (count 'em) THREE "republican" languages: FRENCH, because the Revolution had happened only last July for these guys; GREEK (untransliterated--betraying the educational level, real or pretended, of the rag's readership), in deference to those pioneering Athenians; and LATIN, in remembrance of the glory-days of the Roman Republic, to whose historical example the American experiment was most indebted.

Not that our First President wasn't a man of the people. On the contrary--and speaking of the LIBERTIES afforded the people under this grand experiment, validated by the Constitution and the soon-to-be-passed Bill of Rights--Washington was concerned in his SOTU that the people be well-informed about the workings of their government. This leads me to the content of his speech--which proportionally, believe it or not, is most devoted to EDUCATION. What a precedent-setter, indeed, was this man! He was truly our first "Education President"--which almost without exception every one of his successors have tried or claimed to be. More fully about this below. (Full text w/o the funny 18C spelling here.)

Not surprisingly, the speech verily runneth over with optimism about the "peace and plenty" with which the new nation is blessed. No Afghanistan or Great Recession to get around. One small problem though, by implication only--here the President takes his Constitutional charge literally, first-off in the second sentence--that the State of the Union wasn't. Not quite yet, anyway, but soon to get there. My adopted state, North Carolina, had finally "acceded" to the new Constitution, Washington notes with satisfaction, it being the 12th and next-to-last state to do so. Why so late? Well, I'm proud of 'em--the NC delegates had held out for a sacred promise that a Bill of Rights was an absolute shoo-in to be amended to the Constitution. And it was, the next year. (Interesting sidebar: Rhode Island, the 13th and yet to come, was SO "independent"--it was the first to "declare" in 1776--that it took the threat of exorbitant taxation on its profitable exports--get this: as a "foreign" country--for it to become the very last to officially join the Union in 1792!)

Otherwise, things are going well, says the President, thanks in no small part to the good works that Congress accomplished in its last session. (Washington could wield a butter-knife as well as he could a sword.) But as long as Congress is kind of here, anyway, "among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention," he would like a little more money for the what's left of the standing army--some "tribes" could be threatening the frontiers, if pacification efforts fail. Additionally, our foreign ambassadors could be better paid, and some funds should be invested in agricultural technology--a subject close to George's Mt. Vernon heart. Oh, and weights and measures might well be standardized.

It's a relatively short speech so far, almost perfunctory--in a "from time to time" sort of way--but he saves the best and most for last: EDUCATION--
Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of SCIENCE and LITERATURE. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.
My hero. In the next long passage, which I'll quote, he explains--in the unfortunately dense, Ciceronion rhetoric of his time--WHY grass-roots learning is so important for this new experiment in Democracy to work:

To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways--by convincing those intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the ENLIGHTENED confidence of the PEOPLE, and by TEACHING THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES to KNOW and to VALUE their own RIGHTS; to discern and provide against INVASION of them; to distinguish between OPPRESSION and the necessary exercise of LAWFUL AUTHORITY; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of LIBERTY from that of LICENTIOUSNESS--cherishing the first, avoiding the last--and uniting a speedy but temperate VIGILANCE against ENCROACHMENTS, with an inviolable RESPECT to the LAWS.

Science and Literature can do this, by George. Put over-simply, only a knowledgeable and enlightened public will understand the inviolable ends, as well as the lawful limits, of Liberty. And so will fare well the Fate of the Union. Therefore, he concludes,
Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording AIDS to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a NATIONAL UNIVERSITY, or by any other expedients will be well worthy of a place in the deliberations of the legislature.
Way back in Washington's first State of the Union was thus the kernel-idea behind government-sponsored higher education--coming to fruition later in tax-free institutions, land-grant universities, G.I. Bills, Pell Grants, etc. What a guy. (more)

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