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Memoirs and mothers

In 1995, the author David Pelzer’s book, “A Child Called It,” was first published. In it, he claimed that his mother beat him, starved him, terrorized him, and banished him to the garage, where he slept on a cot. Gruesome beyond words, the book sold 1.6 million copies in five years.

I read it then and thought throughout, “No mother would do that.”

In 1996, Frank McCourt’s book, “Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir,” was first published. In it, he listed his impressions as a child growing up in poverty-stricken Limerick, Ireland, during the Depression and World War II.

His father, Malachy McCourt, was an alcoholic but a wonderful story-teller. When Frank was ten, his father abandoned the family to live in England. He never sent his wife and kids money.

Frank’s mother, Angela Shehan McCourt, was overwhelmed. She had given birth to six boys—Frank, Malachy, Jr., the twin boys, Oliver and Eugene, then Michael, and Alfie—plus a daughter, Margaret, who died when a few months old. The twins died when toddlers.

The four remaining boys struggled to find sufficient food when living in desperate conditions in Limerick, more a slum than a home. During the rainy season, water flooded the kitchen.

Frank calls his mother “Mam” and describes her as a woman incapable of knowing how hungry her boys felt every hour of every day. Instead of cooking meals, she preferred “to sit before the fire and chain-smoke her cigarettes while her children starved.”

On one occasion, Frank watched as his mother begged at the priest’s back door for scraps. Another time, Michael brought home a blind greyhound, and said, “The dog can have my supper tonight.” His brothers looked at him shocked and shouted, “What supper?”

A tragicomedy, “Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1997.

In 2005, Jeannette Walls’s book, “The Glass Castle: A Memoir,” appeared on bookshelves. In it, she describes her mother as a woman caught up in dreams of a fortune. Instead of cooking meals, she painted pictures, convinced that she would achieve fame as an artist.

When Jeannette and her siblings are grown up and doing well, she invites them to her home for Thanksgiving, plus their mother. Her brother looks at the turkey and dressing, and says, “You know, it’s really not that hard to put food on the table if that’s what you decide to do.”

By definition, a memoir is a narrative, written from the perspective of the author, about a part of their life. Some children remember events differently than do their siblings or parents.

David Pelzer’s brother Stephen said that David was placed into foster care, not because of their mother’s abuse, but because “David started a fire and was caught shoplifting.”

Frank and Malachi, Jr., joined forces and drafted a play that they entitled, “A Couple of Blaguards,” that appeared on a New York City stage. In it, they sing and recount their memories of their sordid life growing up in Limerick. It is funny, irreverent, “an unholy amount of charm.”

The two boys invite their mother to attend a performance. Part way through, she stands up in the audience and shouts at them, “It didn’t happen that way! It’s all a pack of lies.”

Malachy replies, “Well, you come up on the stage and tell us your side of the story.”

“I will not,” she says, “I wouldn’t be seen on the stage with the likes of ye.”

Frank McCourt wrote “Angela’s Ashes” and “A Couple of Blaguards” from “a child’s point of view. His impressions may not be accurate in some areas, but that is what he felt and thought.”

On Mother’s Day, we remember the truth that good mothers offer the best food to their kids. The Irish wit Oscar Wilde said, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”

Frank McCourt died July 19, 2009, at 78, and Malachy, Jr., died March 11, 2024, at 92.

Thoughts on College Bowl and University Challenge

The quiz show, “College Bowl,” was first broadcast on radio in 1953, 71 years ago. The show transitioned to television in 1959 and stayed there until 1970.

Its first host was Allen Ludden, the future husband of Betty White. He hosted the show until 1962 when he left to host “Password.” Robert Earle replaced him, and he remained until 1970.

The game show pitted four students from a college, such as Rutgers or Princeton, against a second team composed of four students from a second college, such as Colgate or John Hopkins.

The host, Ludden or Earle, would begin by reading a question until one of the eight players pressed a buzzer and gave an answer. If the player answered correctly, then the team earned 10 points. The host would then give that team 3 additional bonus questions, each worth 5 points.

The team’s members would then huddle and whisper among themselves for 15 seconds and arrive at an answer. The game was thus both an individual effort and a team effort.

In the 1960’s, I enjoyed watching “College Bowl” on Sunday afternoons and felt disappointed when it disappeared off the air waves. I liked it as well as “Jeopardy.”

Others have tried to revive “College Bowl” since 1970, but each attempt was short-lived.

Peyton Manning tried. Yes, that Peyton Manning! The Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion hosted “College Bowl” in 2021 and 2022.

Where the show’s format has enjoyed fabulous success is in the United Kingdom. There it is called “University Challenge.” It first ran from 1962 until 1987, and then started anew in 1994.

Its long-time host was Jeremy Paxman, a very British guy, formal and business-like. On July 17, 2023, Paxman stepped aside, allowing Amol Rajan, who was born in India, to host the show.

The game show appears on the BBC Two on Monday nights at 8:30 p.m.

Two weeks ago, on Monday night, April 8, a team from Imperial College in London won the finals, earning that college’s fifth championship, the most of any British college ever. Imperial won in 1996, 2001, 2020, 2022, and now in 2024.

Players on this year’s team included Justin Lee of Hong Kong and Canada; Adam Jones, of Hong Kong; Suraiya Haddad, of Manchester, England; and Sourajit Debnath, of India.

I watch the show on YouTube, and I think the questions are beyond difficult.

For example, question: “A little larger than Scotland, the northeast part of Australia’s northern territory has what name?” Answer: “Arnhem Land.”

Question: “Including the language sometimes known as Shanghainese, what two-letter term denotes the Sinitic language group spoken around the lower Yangtze?” Answer: “Wu.”

Question: “In cytogenics, what term describes the chromosomal complement of a cell which may be observed during the mitotic metaphase?” Answer: “Karyotype.”

Students are expected to know minutiae associated with all forms of knowledge.

In the “New York Times” April 7, 2024 edition, there appeared a feature article on Imperial College’s more flamboyant player, Brandon Blackwell, an African-American from New York City.

Blackwell applied to Imperial College in 2018, earned a spot on the college’s “University Challenge” team, and he—along with Richard Brooks, Caleb Rich, and Connor McMeel—won the finals in 2020, defeating Corpus Christi College by a lop-sided score of 275 to 105.

To train for the 2020 competition, Blackwell relied upon flash cards, some 30,000 of them. On each card he jotted a small isolated fact and then reviewed each of the 30,000 cards 8 times.

The Americans came up with the game show’s format, the British adopted it, but an American showed them how play it in a strategic style and win.

4th Amendment: Sections 4 and 5

Two weeks ago in these pages, I looked at the second and third sections of the 14th Amendment. Today I continue with its two final sections, the fourth and the fifth.

Section 4 clarifies which debts the U.S. Federal government will honor as valid.

The first sentence reads: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

In other words, the federal government will continue to pay interest and principal on those debts that it “incurred” through four years of Civil War to crush the rebel states, including Union veterans’ benefits, namely “pensions and bounties.” Those debts, “shall not be questioned.”

The second sentence reads: “But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave;

“But all such debts, obligations, and claims shall be held illegal and void.”

In other words, the U.S. Federal government or any state government shall not “assume or pay” any of the Confederacy’s debts incurred during the Civil War. Section 4 declares that the rebel states’ debts are forever “illegal and void.”

Also, this section states that the U.S. Federal government will no longer toy with the idea of reimbursing former slaveholders for the loss of their property because of emancipation.

Prior to the war, two ideas were often bandied about as a means to extricate the country from the grip of slavery: the first was to deport all slaves to a colony in west Africa, and the second was for the Federal government to pay slaveholders for their property and set the slaves free.

Lincoln talked often of colonization, but few black people wanted to migrate to Africa. As the bloody war progressed, Lincoln’s thoughts moved from colonization to emancipation.

Also, few people wanted the Federal government to borrow funds to pay slaveholders market value for their slaves. At an average fair market value of $750 per slave, total funds required to recompense all slaveholders would have approached $3 billion.

The U.S. census of 1860 counted a total population of 31,443,321, and of those 3,953,760 were slaves and an additional 488,070 free blacks. So, one in eight residents were slaves.

By Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, all slaveholders’ claims for reimbursement for loss of their property because of emancipation were pitched aside, and declared “illegal and void.”

Section 5 is a single sentence, the same that concludes the 13th and 15th Amendments: “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

Section 5 leaves the 14th Amendment open to further laws that Congress would deem necessary to ensure all its sections were enforced.

The House passed the 14th Amendment on May 10, 1866, by a vote of 128 to 37, the Senate passed it on June 8 by a vote of 33 to 11, and the House concurred on June 13.

On June 16, 1866, Secretary of State William Seward submitted the 14th Amendment to the governors of the states for ratification. At first, all former Confederate states rejected it.

A year passed. On June 15, 1867, Nebraska ratified it, becoming the 22nd state to do so, but 28 states were needed for it to become law, the required three-fourth’s.

Nine months passed. Then, on March 16, 1868, Iowa ratified it. That same month, on March 2, 1867, Congress passed a law that required each former Confederate state to ratify the 14th Amendment before “said State shall be declared entitled to representation in Congress.”

Seven Southern states changed their vote from rejection to ratification in April, June, and July of 1868: Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia.

On July 28, 1868, Secretary Seward certified the adoption of the 14th Amendment, twenty-five months after the House and Senate passed it, and it became law then and ever since.

Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.

4th Amendment: Sections 2 and 3

Last time in these pages I looked at Section 1 of the 14th Amendment. Today I continue.

The last phrase in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment declares that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” All races are equal under the law.

Section 2  begins: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers.” By these words the committee eliminated the 3/5’s rule.

Section 2 continues: “But when the right to vote at any election . . . is in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.”

What do these words mean? The authors of Section 2 created a mathematical equation and said that if a state refuses to allow most men of age to vote, then that state will suffer a reduction of its representatives to Congress and also within the Electoral College.

Eric Foner, a Reconstruction historian at Columbia University, says that “Section 2 has never been enforced.” No state has suffered a loss of representatives because of restrictive voting rules.

The states knew that without a federal bureaucracy—officials to count the numbers who were denied the right to vote—the Federal government would find Section 2 difficult to enforce.

Akhil Reed Amar, legal scholar at Yale University, points out that Section 2 does introduce into the Constitution the most important words, “the right to vote.” Citizens have a right to vote.

Section 3 says: “No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or Elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, who . . . shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same.”

The intent of Section 3, when drafted in 1866, was to push out of Congress ex-Confederates. Again, this Section proved difficult to enforce at first.

In recent days certain people have dusted off Section 3 and applied it to January 6, 2021.

Per the case “Donald J. Trump v. Norma Anderson” that appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court weeks ago, “A group of Colorado voters wanted Secretary of State Jena Griswold to exclude former President Trump from the Republican primary ballot in the State.”

“The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with that contention.”

On March 4, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, by pointing to Section 5, of the 14th Amendment, a single sentence that reads: “Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

The justices reasoned that it is Congress’s duty to determine who has participated in a rebellion, not the individual states. They wrote: “Congress’s Section 5 power is critical when it comes to Section 3.” “States have no power under the Constitution to enforce Section 3.”

The justices dug into the history behind Section 3 and pointed out:

“Indeed, during a debate on enforcement legislation less than a year after the 14th Amendment’s ratification, Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois noted that ‘notwithstanding [Section 3] . . . hundreds of men [were] holding office’ in violation of its terms.”

The justices said: “The enforcement mechanism that Trumbull championed was later enacted as part of the Enforcement Act of 1870.” Federal prosecutors then had the power to remove ex-Confederates from their respective offices within the Federal government.

Whereas Section 2 was never enforced, Section 3 was, but not until 1870.

Next time in these pages I will look at certain details within Sections 4 and 5.

Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.

14th Amendment, Section 1

In early 1866, the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction in the 39th Congress wrestled with the idea that they must write a 14th Amendment to address certain issues:

Who is a citizen? How does the country’s laws apply to former slaves and slave owners? Will former Confederate officials hold elected office now in the Union? Will former slaveholders receive any compensation for the loss of their property? Who will pay the Confederacy’s debts?

Most importantly, who will rule supreme: state governments or the federal government?

The Joint Committee members wanted an all-encompassing Amendment that addresses each issue because they understood that future Congresses or the courts may disavow the laws that they would write and pass now but an Amendment would make it more or less permanent.

The Joint Committee members argued, debated, negotiated, and compromised, until they submitted to the House and Senate a 14th Amendment that contained five sections.

Section 1 begins: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Historians have pointed to John Bingham, representative from Ohio and member of the Joint Committee, as primary author of Section 1.

They point out that Bingham’s words in Section 1 unraveled Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney’s words when he wrote the Dred Scott decision back in 1857, that black slaves are not citizens, that they never can become citizens, and that they are without any rights.

Taney based his decision on the Constitution, what some call a slave-holding document.

Remember the 3/5’s clause in the Constitution? Southern states received more representation in Congress and in the Electoral College because each slave was counted as 3/5’s of a person. This unfair advantage meant that the Southern states would control the Presidency until Lincoln.

Bingham declared, “All persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens.” That means both black and white, Jew and Gentile, male and female, oldest in the family or youngest. It makes no difference where a person’s parents were born, their religion, or their culture.

Per the 14th Amendment, all are citizens if born here or are naturalized here, Mr. Trump.

Section 1 continues: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

The words, “No state shall make or enforce any law . . . ,” is a radical change to the first words in the first Amendment in the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law . . . ”

James Madison of Virginia, who wrote the Bill of Rights, feared a too powerful Congress, but the Civil War demonstrated that it was the states that can cause immense damage to the Union.

The words, “No state shall make or enforce any law,” indicates that the Federal government now stands supreme. Bingham pitched aside the Southern states’ ongoing cry for “States Rights.”

What are “the privileges or immunities of citizens?” Bingham believed they were the rights listed within the first 10 Amendments, the Bill of Rights.

Section 1 continues: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Please note here, Mr. Trump, that Bingham wrote “any person.” He did not write “citizen.” Any person, citizen or foreigner, is entitled to life, liberty, property, and the due process of law.

Akhil Reed Amar, legal scholar at Yale University, pointed out in his book, The Bill of Rights, that Bingham found this idea of extending rights to non-citizens in Exodus 22, in the fourth Commandment. “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” All shall rest on that day.

That includes sons, daughters, manservants, oxen, and “the stranger that is within thy gates.”

Bingham asked, “Are we not committing the terrible enormity of distinguishing here in the laws in respect to life, liberty, and property between the citizen and stranger within your gates?”

Next time in these pages I will continue to unpack ideas out of the 14th Amendment.

Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.

Black History Month: Reconstruction, 1865-1866

Black History Month: Reconstruction, 1865-1866

In December of 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suggested a plan to reinstate the seceded states back into the Union, his “Ten Percent Plan.”

He would permit each Confederate state to form a new state government after ten percent of the voters in a state took loyalty oaths to the Union and recognized the former slaves’ freedom.

Following Lincoln’s assassination on April 9, 1865, his successor, former Vice-President Andrew Johnson, decided to run with Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1866, the Southern states held special state conventions. At them, they repealed secession, repudiated all Confederate debts, ratified the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery, and held elections, all in accord with the Ten Percent Plan.

Those elected to various offices in these new state governments included: four former Confederate generals, five colonels, members of the Confederate government’s cabinet, plus Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s former Vice-President, who was indicted for treason.

President Johnson felt embarrassed that a series of former Confederates were back in power.

The one constant in these new state governments was their utter contempt for the former slaves, whom they considered “unfit, “inferior,” and “incapable of self-government.”

The new state governments passed a series of Black Codes, designed to keep the former slave poor, stuck at the bottom of the social ladder, with no opportunity for advancement.

Vagrancy laws within the Black Codes forced blacks into contracted labor on a plantation’s fields. Also, the Black Codes denied the former slaves equal protection under the law.

The former slaves convened at their own conventions, called Colored Conventions. At them, delegates discussed “labor, health care, temperance, emigration, voting rights, trial by jury, and education.” Anyone can read the convention’s minutes at the “Colored Conventions Project.”

On December 4, 1865, when the Thirty-Ninth Congress first convened in Washington D.C., Northern Republicans were dismayed to see former Confederates try to walk into the Capitol and assume a seat. They slammed the door in their faces, and Congress’s clerk refused to seat them.

They were called names: “impudent claimants,” “unrepentant,” and “former enemies.”

Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican in the House,” said, “Dead states cannot restore their existence. Congress must create states and declare when they are entitled to be represented.”

Both Presidential and Confederate Reconstruction had ended, but now Congressional Reconstruction was set to begin. A “spirit of revenge” motived these Radical Republicans to act.

On Dec. 13, 1865, Congress formed a Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, composed of nine Representatives and six Senators to investigate and determine under what terms the seceded states might regain their status as a state, plus congressional representation.

The committee interviewed “144 witnesses, including 77 Northerners living in the South, 8 Blacks, and 57 Southerners,” and produced “more than 700 pages of testimony, a dreary recital of inhumanity,” of how whites mistreated the former slaves throughout the Southern states.

The committee first recommended further support for the Freedmen’s Bureau, intended to provide relief, food, and schools for the blacks. It also recommended a civil rights bill.

On April 9, 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, by a two-thirds vote over President Johnson’s veto. It declared that “all persons born in the United States were citizens,” “without distinction of race or color or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.”

This Act was unique, the first United States federal law to define what persons are citizens.

Black History Month ends this week.

Reconstruction is a messy history. Some consider it a low point in American history. Others, including Eric Foner, historian at Columbia University, label it our nation’s “Second Founding.”

More next time on Reconstruction in these pages, thoughts on the 14th Amendment.