Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Importance of Context: Self Interest and Good Behavior

Recently, a time capsule buried by Sam Adams and Paul Revere has been opened, containing a number of items, including coins and a silver plaque.

Such tangible messages from the past, however, are fairly meaningless, unless we understand the context. The question is not what do these items mean to us, but rather what did they mean to them.

One of the problems with historical documents and historical events is that people tend to view them from their current perspective, and so whatever changes in morality or outlook or social expectation that have occurred can be entirely obscured for the average person.

Take the ten commandments.  Most people today, religious or not, see them as the basis of modern morality. But why is there an admonition to honor your father and mother and nothing whatever telling you to nurture your children? Because in the times when this list of dos and don'ts was written, nurturing your children was something people did out of self-interest. They did not need to be told. The more children you had, the richer you were. During your prime, your children worked for you. In your old age, they supported you. In many of the Biblical stories, people were tested by being asked to harm their children. Taking care of your children was seen as selfish, and a mark of loyalty to a god was the willingness to sacrifice them. On the other hand, the duty of children to be supportive of their parents was something less natural, that had to be drummed into them. People were told not to strike their parents on fear of death, but they were told that sparing the rod would spoil the child.

All of this has been changed, because having children is no longer seen as profitable, and hence the interest in child welfare and state involvement in child-rearing has become the norm. Nobody is told to honor parents, but children are being encouraged in school to report it if they feel their parents discipline them too harshly. And this change of circumstances is misunderstood by both the right and the left, so that some campaign to protect unborn children from their own parents, while others campaign to protect children who are already born -- again, from their own parents. All these people purport to follow a morality that is based on the ten commandments, completely ignoring the context and the underlying values that are left unspoken in those rules.

The same kind of context blindness is at the root of historical misunderstandings of  the war powers as enumerated in the constitution, and by extension, the importance of privateering to the early American way of life.

From Article I, Section 8: The Congress shall have the power ...
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
 To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water; 
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy; 
To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces; to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;

Why did the framers of the constitution lump all these things together: defining and punishing piracy, granting letters of marque and reprisal, raising and supporting armies, but maintaining a single Navy?Why was it raising and supporting armies -- plural ', but maintaining a Navy -- singular and with a capital 'N'? Why was it indefinite Armies? Why was it the Militia? Why was a very formally capitalized Navy indefinite? Inquiring linguistic minds want to know.

In discourse, the little function words are telling. They are the words to look to in order to spell out the unspoken context. They let us in on what is assumed, what is common knowledge and what is new information.

The militia already existed. It was known. It could be raised or not raised, but it was a given. Armies come and armies go, but no standing army was to be tolerated, because that would be too much like the British they had just rebelled against. A Navy was something they planned to build, but not something they currently had.

  And what do piracy and letters of marque have to do with this? Why did they want a standing Navy, if they abhorred the idea of a standing army?

Why was there nothing in Article I, section 8 about preventing citizens from waging war on their own? What's so special about a Navy and not an Army? Why is piracy such a big deal? And why are letters of marque mentioned in the same breath? Why no provision for a Department of Homeland Security?

The context that might be missing for the average modern day  reader of the constitution is this: the framers were not afraid of  home-grown terrorists. They were home grown terrorists. They were not afraid of popular uprising. They were the uprising. There was nothing in the constitution telling people not to go around attacking each other, because that wasn't the issue. The thing the framers feared the most was that the government would get out of hand and attack the citizens. So they wanted nobody at home policing things except for the militia, which consisted of the people themselves.

They did want a Navy, but it was not so much to engage in all out foreign wars: it was to make sure that American vessels were not attacked at sea by foreign powers and out-and-out pirates. For this reason, they saw a small, standing Navy as a kind of police force to make sure that American commerce would remain unmolested, and as an added protection, in times of war, they wanted to grant letters of marque and reprisal to private ship owners so as to deputize them to attack foreign vessels. There was to be no heavy military spending, and the privateer was to finance his war operation at the expense of the enemy.

Now if we understand this, we understand the importance of privateering, and we see it as positive force, both in times of war and in peace time. We also understand that Jean Laffite, acting on behalf of the United States in War of 1812 was the ultimate hero of the American constitution. He was living the life that the founders envisioned.

But historians today writing about Jean Laffite do not know any of this about the context of the constitution, and so they see Jean Laffite as an opportunistic person acting for his own gain -- as if this were somehow unpatriotic!

Take this article by David Head:

Head writes:

"Laffite persisted, not out of patriotism but from his assessment of conditions in the Gulf. Aiding the Americans might win pardons for his men and the return of the valuables seized by the Navy. Plus, with the British out of the way, Laffite could return to his old business, in the old way."
Yes, Jean Laffite expected to be able to go back to his old business of being a privateer and an importer. That he could not is a shameful fact about the way the constitution was subverted in the wake of the War of 1812, as people began to forget the reasons for the specific provisions in Article I, Section 8. Just as the context of the ten commandments has been entirely forgotten, so it goes with the American constitution.

People used to take good care of their children, because it was in their own best interest. People were expected to defend their country for the very same reason. The idea that profit and duty have to clash is something new, something that ignores the historical context of how peoples and nations rise and fall.


  1. One thing I have learned over the years is it is okay for us to all have differing opinions, but what is scary is how the powers that be want us all bickering about these, while they are buddies and doing things that are in their own best interests behind close doors. It is better we all discuss things openly, even when we differ, rather than diverging into bickering camps like the Dems and Repubs want us to do. I think your books are opening a dialogue about this.

    1. Thanks, Julia. I do hope to open a dialogue with my books, and I agree that often the people in public office are all on the same side, even though they are wearing different colored shirts and pretending to be sworn adversaries.