Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Thirteen original states, more or less

In my entry of November 19, 2007, I discussed the misconception that Thomas Jefferson was one of the signers of the Constitution. Another misconception--less common, but occasionally rearing its head--concerns the number of states present when the country opened for business under the new Constitution.

I encountered this one last night at the end of The Fox Report on the Fox News Channel. Shepard Smith concluded the proceedings by pointing out that on that day in history, January 7, 1789, George Washington was elected the first President by the original thirteen states.

In fact, the General was NOT elected by thirteen states, because when the new Constitutional government began, the Union had only eleven states. North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution, so they didn't participate in the process (see David P. Currie, The Constitution in Congress: The Federalist Period 1789-1801, Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1997, pp. 97-98). The Tar Heel State and Little Rhody did not ratify the Constitution until 1790, well after George Washington had broken in the seat cushions on his desk chair. Rhode Island, in fact, did not even send delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

Now if my name was Keith Olbermann or if I received my paychecks from the New York Times, it would be customary at this point for me to blast Fox News for giving such misinformation, peppering the diatribe with comments such as how can you trust them when they won't let Ron Paul into their debate, and Lord, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are awful, etc., etc. But I don't fill Mr. Olbermann's shoes, so rather than just scolding Fox and leaving the matter there, I decided to go the extra mile and try to figure out how the staffers at The Fox Report made this historical error. After all, I can't expect them to have a copy of Professor David Currie's magisterial work at their fingertips, can I?

So I did what I reckoned a good intern at Fox would do: I entered a google search for the date January 7 in history. In short order, I was offered several sites to click; among those at the top of the list were The History Channel and wikipedia. Okay, who should know better? The History Channel, right? Click on their site, set the calendar for January 7, and listen to Russ Mitchell narrate:


Here's what he says: "(In 1789) ... each of the thirteen states elected an electoral college that would vote for President." Wrong, wrong, wrong.

And here's the funny part: wikipedia got it right:


Quote: "North Carolina and Rhode Island were ineligible to participate as they had not yet ratified the United States Constitution."

Well, at least wikipedia was correct when I checked it. By the time you read the entry someone may have gone in and edited it to say that Guam cast a dozen votes for Betsy Ross, or something like that.

I don't know about you, but given a choice between consulting The History Channel and wikipedia for information, I would have thought THC was a more reliable source. Perhaps the Fox News folks felt the same way. If so, they were let down--and it's troubling that THC--an outfit devoted to history--was, at least in this case, so inaccurate.

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