Friday, June 2, 2017

When Historians Attack: Harvard's Dr. Joyce Chaplin

One in an occasional series. Right-wing "pseudo-historians" such as the uncredentialed David Barton are easy pickins for the academic left, but when one of their own hijacks history for their own partisan politics, such guardians of historical accuracy are more easily cowed, if not fooled themselves.

From Jay Cost--not on CNN, of course, or the NY Times where our liberal friends might actually see it, but in the conservative The Weekly Standard:

Twitter has a remarkable power to make well-credentialed people look like fools. Case in point: Joyce Chaplin, who is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University.

In response to President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, Chaplin tweeted

Senator Ted Cruz would have none of this, and responded,

Chaplin, apparently forgetting that discretion is the better part of valor, responded

Chaplin is not just wrong, but embarrassingly wrong. A 17-year-old high school student should know better.

- First, the Treaty of 1783 was not a multinational accord. It was a bilateral agreement between the United States and Great Britain.

- Second, the Treaty was a recognition of the facts on the ground, which were that, after their defeat at Yorktown, the British had no chance of reclaiming their American colonies.

- Third, there was no "international community" in 1783, at least not in any sense that corresponds to what Chaplin suggests. While the Declaration of Independence is solicitous of world opinion, no extra-national entity existed to make such determinations.

- Fourth, insofar as the international community did exist, it was on the side of the United States. France, Spain, and the Netherlands were all lined up against Great Britain in the Revolution.

- Fifth, the Declaration of Independence explicitly lays out the moral logic of the Revolution, relying heavily on early liberal political philosophy, which set out the guidelines for legitimate revolution. It then was at pains to explain why those conditions were met.

- Sixth, Chaplin's logic leads to ridiculous propositions. Did the "international community" sanction the Glorious Revolution of 1688? Of course not. But, per Chaplin's logic, Queen Elizabeth II is not the legitimate monarch of Great Britain, but instead it should be Franz, Duke of Bavaria, who is currently the senior member of the House of Stuart.
Read the whole thing. Crossposted at


Lex Lata said...
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Lex Lata said...

Twitter: Eliding the intricacies and nuances of history and the law of nations, 140 characters at a time.

A few thoughts.

1. International recognition is merely one factor in one version of international law's conception of statehood, and does not bear the weight Chaplin's loose and simplistic rhetoric places on it. Suggesting that recognition "create[s]" sovereign states--whether now or in the 18th century--is roughly as accurate as crediting a building code inspector with constructing the house.

2. Having said that, I would expand on Cost's fourth point about the international community. France, Sweden, and the Netherlands, at least, were not merely lined up with the Americans against the British Crown. They signed formal treaties with the United States before the Treaty of Paris was concluded in 1783. It's almost as though Chaplin is arguing that the United States needed some sort of permission from London specifically before declaring and exercising sovereignty.

3. The U.S. Code's list of Organic Laws includes the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Northwest Ordinance, and Constitution. Nothing about the Treaty of Paris.

JMS said...

Maybe we can align the historical with the contemporary a la Franklin:

"All I would endeavor to shew is, That an indiscreet Zeal for spreading Opinion, hurts the Cause of the Zealot." (New-England Courant, Oct. 8, 1722)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not sure of the relevance of that to the current crisis, or if at 16, the glib young Franklin is actually making a coherent argument here.

In the context Franklin wrote it--religion--but taking the quote itself sans its historical context, I wonder if Franklin's studied vagueness was as influential as George Whitefield's zeal.

Whitefield was no small potatoes.

George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father

by Thomas S. Kidd

Mark David Hall said...

A few years ago I wrote a book chapter on how the USSC has used the Declaration of Independence. One of the things I learned was that Justices have been crystal clear that America became a sovereign nation on July 4, 1776. Great Britain, however, claims that we did not become independent until the Treaty of Paris. I'm with the Supremes on this one.

Tom Van Dyke said...

posted simultaneously