States Rights Attack!

Am I the only one who hears folks yelling about the Constitution and State’s Rights in the same breath, and feels their irony senses start to tingle?

Let me get the obvious out of the way:

  1. I’m not a Constitutional Scholar
  2. I didn’t play one on TV

While I’m at it, let me get the less obvious out of the way too:

  1. I’m not a historian
  2. I don’t think I’m smarter than the average bear
  3. I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn last night

I’m not even a history buff, though you might say I’m an intermittent, amateur historian. As such, I’ve been slogging through The Federalist Papers over the last year or so. I open up the copy on my Kindle when I’m having trouble sleeping.

Anyhoo, back to irony.

As I understand it, the US Constitution arose from the anarchy and ashes of the Articles of Confederation – a government (if you could really call it one) where the original states had ALL of the rights… and all of the power. My recollection from high school history was that in it’s earliest days our government was a chaotic mess, and the Constitution’s chief aim was to reign in the chaos by shifting some power away from the states, to the central government.

Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #1:

“Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments….”

Yep, I dove deep for that one, eh? All the way down to the first sentence of the third paragraph of the fist essay.

We could argue all day and into the next millennium about how much power the Constitution shifts to the central government, but I don’t think anyone can argue it does. Well, you could… but you’d be wrong.

So this is what’s going through my head when someone starts popping off about The Constitution! The Tenth Amendment! States Rights!

I wonder if they’re familiar with the history of the document they invoke, sometimes with a bit of angry spittle.


Rods and cones

Call it generational bias. Blame it on the way history is taught in school (with one exception, in my case). The world before 1960 seems black and white. I hear it in the stories older generations tell.

It’s not, of course. The world isn’t just filled with gray, it’s filled with all the colors of the spectrum.

I’ve been fooling around with a birthday gift the last few days: a film scanner I’ve been lusting over to scan my grandfather’s slides (as in photography). I never thought color film was available on the consumer market until much later, but hidden in the stuff scavenged from my grandmother’s things was a box of one hundred color slides… taken between 1942 and 1944.

Seeing baby pictures of my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandparents, and half a dozen aunts and uncles (with a few greats to go around) in color has been a thrill.

I know, I’m easily duped, but pictures are a powerful medium. Seeing so many old pictures in black, white, sepia, and the silvery highlights of the really old ones contributed to my bias… my feelings that modern society tended to be morally superior.

Considering where we are, isn’t that sad?

I’d never admit it to you, but I think it’s always been there, looking down my nose with contempt on “the good old days.”

These pictures reminded me we’ve been seeing more than black and white for a long time. The capacity for critical thought goes back beyond the 1960s.

Even our ancestors had rods and cones.

Mom & grandma - 3 Mom and Grandma Conner

My grandmother Conner holds my three week old mother in the Fall of 1942

*If you’re out there Christy, I don’t want to hear about photosensitive ganglion cells.


They came on a truck

A few months ago life presented us with a rare opportunity. My aunt was moving to a smaller place and couldn’t keep all of her furniture. We got a call, asking us if we wanted it – otherwise she would have to sell it or give it away. Normally Cheryl would answer a question like this with an unqualified and unequivocal: “No, we’ve already got too much stuff.”

It became my mission in life to change her mind.

It was my aunt’s furniture, but she wasn’t the original owner. Neither were the previous owners, nor the ones before them.

In the early to mid 1800s, the Kauffmans settled in Walker Township, PA. They built a house and made a home. They made more than one actually, but one in particular stands out. It was never more than a small family farm, but I always knew it as the Kauffman family farm – a focal point for my family’s history – in a country that doesn’t have much more (in terms of time). I’ve only been there a handful of times, the last more than twenty years ago, but I look back on them now as almost religious experiences. In its later years, as fewer people lived at the farm, some of the original belongings at the house scattered. Quite a bit ended up at my grandparent’s house, mixed in with some old Rice family furniture (my grandmother’s family).

My aunt got it all (or most anyway) when my grandmother moved into a nursing home. Now I was getting a turn. (To be fair, I didn’t have to do much convincing. Cheryl knew it meant a lot to me. I’m very lucky, in many ways.)

The furniture arrived Wednesday afternoon, after weeks of anticipation.

We’re still making room for it all, but it’s exciting – and a little scary. No one in my family lives in a house that could be mistaken for a museum. Furniture gets used, and I’m afraid of being the one to break something after over 150 years of service.

The rope bedNow we have an old rope bed, the same one I slept in when I visited my grandparents as a child. My great-great grandfather Rice (or someone in his immediate family) was probably sleeping in it around the time Florida became a state, before the Civil War. A dresser, dining room table, and (buffet like) cabinet came with it – among other things. Some of it was made by my great-great grandfather Kauffman.

I’m just as excited as ever to have it, but the little boy in me who lets anxiety get the better of him feels the weight of responsibility – the keeper of family history. I had a few small pieces already. When my grandfather died he left me some of the small tools used by the early Kauffmans of Walker Township, but it was different. Old tools can be safely and easily stored, not that anyone has much use for 150 year old planer.

The grain binYou’d think having children would make me used to responsibility. After all, it is just stuff, right? I’ve never cared much about my stuff – with a couple of exceptions, but these are not like a television or computer designed for obsolescence. A grain bin finished with milk paint, built by my great-great grandfather Kauffman, sits in my family room. It’s basically a tall brown box. I’ve had it less than a week and it already means more to me than my bike. A month ago I didn’t know what milk paint was. I get chills and a little choked up lying on the bed, thinking about my grandparents, the time I spent with them, and the family I never met who sat where I lie now. The forks in my family tree suddenly feel like a straight line.

Is it still just stuff?

I’m not quite into the idolatry realm, or even valuing objects more than people, but I suddenly feel like I have more to lose. I like having a home and I’d be upset if we lost it, but I don’t think it would have been an emotional loss – assuming the people in my life were ok. I can’t say that now.

The buffetI can’t decide whether it’s unhealthy to place this kind of value in things. Granted, this is different than a desire to accumulate things for their own sake. These things have come to be more than they were, by what they’ve come to represent: family, loved ones, shared history… and yet… none depend on the thing. If the bed goes up in flames I still have family, loved ones, and shared history.

I think I’m ok as long as I DON’T start to value them more than the people in my life. We’re allowed to let things make us happy, right?

Maybe emotional attachment to the things we have isn’t as bad as lust for the things we don’t, and I’m confusing the two. Are we (in general) a disposable society relative to other parts of the world? Do we make fewer emotional connections to things, with a perpetual eye for the greener grass? Maybe valuing some things, depending on what they are, makes us less superficial, not more.

Maybe, in my typical fashion, I’ve WAY over-thought this.