The Author’s Corner with Lee Farrow

sewardfollyLee Farrow is Professor of History at Auburn University at Montgomery. This interview is based on her new book, Seward’s Folly: A New Look at the Alaska Purchase (University of Alaska Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Seward’s Folly?

LF: I took a cruise to Alaska a few years ago. I realized I knew very little about the purchase, so when we landed in Sitka, I went to the only bookstore in town and looked for something to read on it.  There was nothing. When I got back home, I did a little research and realized that the last book on this subject for adults was published in 1975. I decided this should be my next project, and I contacted the University of Alaska Press and they agreed it was time for a new book on the subject.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Seward’s Folly?

LF: The Alaska Purchase—denounced at the time as “Seward’s Folly” but now seen as a masterstroke—is well known as a key moment in American history, but few know the whole story. This book gives an overview of just what the Alaska Purchase was, how it came about, and its impact at the time, and discusses its implications for foreign policy and international diplomacy far beyond Russia and the United States at a moment when the global balance of power was in question.

JF: Why do we need to read Seward’s Folly?

LF: Russia, and the question of Russia-American relations, is back in the news and the subject of much concern and controversy. In addition, Alaska has been at the center of various debates in recent years, some involving global climate change and the environment, some involving questions of domestic energy reserves. There are also those in Russia who believe the Russian-American Treaty of 1867 was not really a sale, but a lease, and that Russia has a rightful claim to Alaska. While this argument is incorrect and not likely to be taken seriously in most corners, it is part of the story of the complex Russian-American relationship.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LF: I’m actually a Russian historian, but in recent years, I have become interested in the history of Russian-American relations. In 2014, I published a book called Alexis in America: A Russian Grand Duke’s Tour, 1871-72, that examined the visit of Russian Grand Duke Alexis, Tsar Alexander II’s son, to the United States. Among other things, Alexis visited Chicago after the Great Fire, hunted buffalo with Buffalo Bill and Custer, and was in New Orleans for the first daytime Mardi Gras celebration, and was treated as a celebrity wherever he went. I became interested in Russian history in high school in the early 1980’s when an older friend of mine went off to college and started studying the Russian language.

JF: What is your next project?

LF: I am currently working on the republication of several memoirs by American women who witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917. One of these, Louise Bryant, was the wife of John Reed and was played by Diane Keaton in the film, “Reds.”

JF: Thanks, Lee!

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Truth is often the product of “self-critical search and dialogue.”

Trump’s understanding of solidarity

Barack Obama’s vita

Was Trump’s victory a “Jacksonian Revolt?”

What do inaugural addresses tell us about American history? (From 2004)

Some really bad presidential inaugurations

Are innovation and tradition compatible?

Did Trump exploit Christian voters?  Some historical perspective

Trump’s truth

Ben Carp reviews Zachary McLeod Hutchins, ed., Community without Consent: New Perspectives on the Stamp Act.

Faith the Obama farewell

Historian Michael Kazin has a “decades-long addition to perverse right-wing media.”

The White House Historical Association

“How ironic that we so quickly become what we despise.”

The lives of ex-Presidents.


The novel that predicted Trump

The Bible and Inauguration Day

Trump Jeffress

Here’s a piece I wrote on Inauguration Day.  It ended up never seeing the light of day at a news outlet, so I am posting it here.  –JF

On Friday morning Donald Trump attended a pre-inaugural service at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C..  As part of the service he heard a sermon from Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  The minister was one of the first evangelical leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy for President.

Jeffress used the Old Testament story of Nehemiah to claim that God had placed Trump in the presidency for a “great eternal purpose.”  He urged Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence not to let their critics distract them from that purpose.|

In an interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on the evening before the service, Jeffress explained why he thought Nehemiah was appropriate for such an inaugural sermon.  Nehemiah, after all, was a builder.  God told him to build “a giant wall around Jerusalem to protect the citizens.” The megachurch pastor described Israel in Nehemiah’s day as a nation that “had been in bondage for years in Babylon” with an “infrastructure” in “shambles.”  No one could miss the analogy.

Jeffress’s attempt to connect the Bible to contemporary political issues facing the United States—in this case immigration, infrastructure development, and national security—is nothing new.  Politicians and preachers have been using the Bible to promote similar agendas since the American republic was born.

In his famous revolutionary-era pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine tried to convince the colonies to declare independence from George III by invoking the devastating spiritual and political consequences that the nation of Israel suffered after God gave them a King.

Abraham Lincoln quoted from the Sermon on the Mount to bring healing to the nation in a time of Civil War.  John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan turned to Matthew 5:14 (or at least the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop’s use of it) to extol America’s exceptional role in world affairs. Barack Obama loved to remind Americans, using Genesis 4:9, that “we are our brother’s keeper.”

Patriotic clergymen in American history have not hesitated to mistake New Testament references to the spiritual liberty that Christians enjoy through faith with the political freedoms that all Americans enjoy as citizens.

For over two-hundred years Christian preachers have used their pulpits to argue that God’s promises to Old Testament Israel apply to the United States of America. With this context in mind, it is worth noting that Jeffress’s sermon was just the beginning.

In his inauguration address Trump quoted from Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”  What was originally written as a call for the gathering of Israel to worship the Lord in Jerusalem was used by the new president as a call for Americans to put aside their differences and unite around the Trump presidency.

And it did not stop there.  In her closing invocation, evangelical pastor Paula White conflated Psalm 90:17 with the Pledge of Allegiance.  She prayed: “Let your favor be upon this one nation under God.”

There were few references to the Bible on Inauguration Day that did not use the sacred scriptures of Christianity to buttress either the United States of America or Trump’s particular vision for it.  The closest exception came when Rev. Samuel Rodriguez read Matthew 5—a passage, known as the “Beatitudes,” that reminds Christians to be poor in spirit, humble, meek, pure in heart, peacemakers, and suffer persecution for their beliefs.

If taken seriously, the message of the Beatitudes should serve as a stinging rebuke to the new President as he enters office.  Only time will tell if that is the case.

If Trump’s campaign and period of transition are any indication, I have my doubts

Lecturing in the Age of Trump

distringuishedFor the last few years I have been honored to serve as an Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lecturer.  You can learn more about the Distinguished Lectureship Program, and see a list of other lecturers, here.

In the wake of the recent inauguration, the OAH has expanded its Distinguished Lectureship Program to help Americans make sense of the Donald Trump presidency. Several historians have added Trump-specific lectures to their profiles.  I have as well.  In addition to my regular lectures I will now be offering two new lectures: “Historical Thinking in the Age of Trump” and “Understanding American Evangelicalism in the Age of Trump.”  I’m read to hit the road!

Again, if you are interested in booking a lecture through this program, details can be found here.

Trump’s Greatest Speech So Far


When you practice the same speech over and over again you get pretty good at delivering it.

Since Donald Trump announced on June 16, 2015 that he was running for President of the United States he has been giving the same stump speech around the country. Yesterday that speech became his inauguration address.  In terms of delivery, force, and its appeal to his base, it was the best speech I have ever heard Donald Trump deliver.

Barack Obama called us to hope.  Donald Trump basically said that there is no hope apart from his presidency. Trump made no reference to American ideals. There were few references to our better angels.  There were no references to taking care of each other or working for the common good.  Trump painted a picture of a nation defined by “carnage” and “decay.”  The only hope of rising above it all, he seemed to suggest, is to put one’s faith in the strongman. Trump represents the worst form of populism.  At times he sounded like the leader of a religious cult.  At other times he reminded me of the Twilight Zone character Major French riding around in an old jeep and carrying a machine gun as he tried to solidify his power in a post-apocalyptic America.

Trump won the election because he understood the plight of white working people. Indeed, these folks have been left behind.  Factories are closed. Jobs have gone overseas. Globalization is destroying local communities.  People want better trade deals. The national infrastructure is in a state of decay.  Trump has become their champion.

Others voted for Trump primarily because he promised to deliver the Supreme Court. These Americans worry about things like abortion and gay marriage and religious liberty. Their political decisions are often informed by nostalgia for the good old days–a time when the country was less diverse. Rather than drawing upon the resources of their faith to shape their political witness, they have turned to the political strongman for support in helping to reclaim America and make it “great” again.  Trump discerned their fears and won them over in massive numbers much in the same way, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has suggested, Syrians turn to Assad for protection.

Let’s face it–Trump proved to be a brilliant politician.  He heard the people and responded.  In the process he got into the gutter with the rest of the politicians and showed them he could play politics better than they could.  As Trump played fast and lose with the truth, demonized and dehumanized everyone who got in his way, and generally took the immoral nature of politics to its logical conclusion, the GOP and many evangelical Christians compromised their consciences for a big mess of political pottage.  I could hardly watch Trump speak at a luncheon for GOP leadership on Thursday without thinking about the compromises that each one of those politicians had to make in order to be there.

Some might say that I am being unfair to Trump.  After all, he did use his inaugural speech to appeal to national unity.  “When you open your heart to patriotism,” Trump said, “there is no room for prejudice.”  This is a nice turn of phrase, but what does it mean?  I have no idea.  I am guessing it is some kind of a call to unity since the phrase was written in the same paragraph as Trump’s reference to Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” (A verse calling Israel to unity in their worship of God in Jerusalem).

All of the lip service he paid to national unity in his speech rings hollow in the context of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and his divisive period of transition.  Future historians, as long as they are still around and remain concerned with reading documents in context , will interpret the speech this way.  Trump wants unity on his terms and on the terms of the minority of Americans who voted for him.  If we wants to be an effective president he will need to offer Americans a vision that everyone can embrace.  I doubt it will happen.

The Intellectual Life–Part 9

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.199: You must write throughout the whole of your intellectual life

p.201: I have said that the art of writing requires lone and early application and that this gradually becomes a mental habit and constitutes what is called style.

p.208: Strive to write in the form that is inevitable, given the precise thought or the exact feeling that you have to express.  Aim at being understood by all…

p.209: …all creative work requires detachment. Our obsessing personality must be put aside, the world must be forgotten.  When one is thinking of truth, can one allow one’s attention to be turned from it by self.

p.213: We must not allow ourselves to be influenced by fear of what people will say; we must beware of yielding to the pressure of a spirit of cowardly conformity which proclaims itself everybody’s friend in the hope that everybody will obligingly return the compliment.

p.214-15: Seated at your writing table and in the solitude in which God speaks to the heart, you should listen as a child listens and write as a child speaks.

p.219: Sometimes it is good to stop for a while, when  one does not see the right succession of ideals and is exposed to the grave danger of making artificial transitions.

p. 220: But you most normal stimulant is courage.  Courage is sustained, not only be prayer, but by calling up anew a vision of the goal….Keep you eyes on its completion and that vision will give you fresh courage.

p.220: You must not yield to the first sense of fatigue; you must push on; you must force the inner energy to reveal itself.

p.228: You who have a sacred call, make up your mind to be faithful.  There is a law within you, let it be obeyed.  You have said: “I will do this.”

David Frum on the Peaceful Transition of Power


Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum is tired of all of this talk about the “peaceful transition of power.”  Here is a taste of his piece today at The Atlantic.  This is going to get some folks upset, but what he says is worth considering:

Americans so insistently celebrate the peaceful transfer of power precisely because they nervously recognize the susceptibility of their polity to violence. The presidential election of 1860 triggered one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history. The presidential election of 1876 very nearly reignited that war. Since 1900, two presidents have been murdered; six more—Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan—were either wounded by a would-be assassin or else escaped by inches…

…The message will be stated and restated this day: For the 58th time, the system has worked, and power has smoothly transferred from one heir of George Washington to another. The truth is not so happy. With full advance notice, and despite the failure to gain a plurality of the nation’s vote, the United States will soon inaugurate someone who owes his office in some large part to a hostile foreign intelligence operation. Who is, above and beyond that, a person whose character that leaves him unqualified to hold the presidency, and threatens the country with an impending sequence of financial and espionage scandals—a constitutional crisis on two legs.

The real message of today is that the system has failed. The challenge of the morrow is to know what to do to save the remainder.

Read the entire piece here.

Robert Jeffress’s Sermon at Pre-Inaugural Prayer Service

He preached on the Old Testament story of Nehemiah.  Very interesting.  As you know, Nehemiah built a wall.

Last night Jeffress talked to Bill O’Reilly about the sermon he gave this morning at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Jeffress and O’Reilly call Nehemiah a “regular guy” who God chose to “built a giant wall around Jerusalem to protect the citizens.” But Jeffress took it even further.  He tells O’Reilly that in Nehemiah’s day “the country had been in bondage for years in Babylon, the infrastructure was in shambles, and then God said to Nehemiah that the first step to rebuilding the nation is to secure the nation with a border to keep the enemies out.”  He also compares Nehemiah’s critics to the mainstream media.

This is the kind of thing that happens when Biblical interpretation is subordinated to politics.  There is nothing unusual about what Jeffress has done here. Clergymen have used the Bible since the beginning of the republic to promote politics in this way.  In fact, I was lecturing about this the other day in a series I am teaching at my church on religion and the founding.

Of course I also discussed this practice in my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a link to a CNN piece on Jeffress’s sermon.

ADDENDUM:  Sarah Pulliam Bailey has an article on it here.

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1. Report: National Endowment for the Humanities Will Be on the Chopping Block During the Trump Administration
  2. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
  3. Saturday Night Live Tackles Susan B. Anthony
  4. Bringing the “Hamilton” Soundtrack to the History Syllabus
  5. Martin Luther King’s Christian America
  6. Andrew Jackson’s First Inaugural Address
  7. “The Essence of Narcissism”
  8. Should Colleges Be Producing Citizens
  9. George W. Bush to Barack Obama, January 20, 2009
  10. Abe, Are Your Back There?  Please Tell Me You Are Still There


Eight Years Ago Last Night

Here is what Donald Trump said tonight at a pre-inauguration dinner with his supporters:

In case you don’t want to watch this, let me summarize some of the main themes.

  • He claims he has the greatest cabinet in American history.
  • He claims that “the other side” (Democrats) is “going absolutely crazy” because he won the election.  We will see what he says later today in his inauguration address, but this statement is quite different from the one written by Thomas Jefferson in 1800.  After a particularly contentious election victory over his Federalist opponent John Adams, Jefferson famously said “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
  • He says that he interviewed ten “politically-correct” people for Secretary of Agriculture before he chose Sonny Perdue.  He claims he chose Perdue because he was an actual farmer, while all the other candidates did not have “any experience with farms or agriculture.”  How ironic, considering Ben Carson, his nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a retired heart surgeon who has no experience with housing and urban development.  Betsy DeVos, his pick for Secretary of Education, has no experience with public school education. Rex Tillerson, his pick for Secretary of State, has no diplomatic or political experience. Why didn’t Trump reject these candidates based on a  lack of experience?
  • He mocks donors to his campaign who “got really generous after the election was won.”
  • He boasts about how he defied all the odds and proved the cable news stations wrong.
  • He attacks the press outlets who did not treat him “fairly.”
  • And on and on and on with more self-indulgent rhetoric.

Now some might say that we must consider the context.  Fair enough.  This is a speech to his supporters.  But I am sure Trump is aware of the fact that he was speaking, via television, to a national audience.  I am astounded by such divisive rhetoric on the eve of the inauguration.  It is the night before he is going to be sworn into office as the 45th POTUS and he still can’t move beyond the election.

By the way, on the eve of the inauguration eight years ago this was happening:

That’s right.  Obama, on the evening before he became the 44th POTUS, visited a dinner honoring McCain.

Song of the Day


Lights out tonight,
Trouble in the heartland,
Got a head on collision,
Smashin’ in my guts, man,
I’m caught in a cross fire,
That I don’t understand,
But there’s one thing I know for sure, girl,
I don’t give a damn
For the same old played out scenes,
Baby, I don’t give a damn
For just the in-betweens,
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul,
I want control right now,
You better listen to me, baby

Talk about a dream,
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night,
With a fear so real,
You spend your life waiting,
For a moment that just don’t come,
Well, don’t waste your time waiting,

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday,
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay,
We’ll keep pushin’ ’til it’s understood,
And these badlands start treating us good.

Workin’ in the fields
’til you get your back burned,
Workin’ ‘neath the wheels
’til you get your facts learned,
Baby, I got my facts
Learned real good right now,
You better get it straight, darlin’
Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied,
’til he rules everything,
I wanna go out tonight,
I wanna find out what I got

Well, I believe in the love that you gave me,
I believe in the faith that can save me,
I believe in the hope and I pray,
That someday it may raise me
Above these badlands

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday,
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay,
We’ll keep pushin’ ’til it’s understood,
And these badlands start treating us good.

For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside,
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these…

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday,
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay,
We’ll keep movin’ ’til it’s understood,
And these badlands start treating us good.

The Greatest Cabinet of All Time?


On two different occasions today Donald Trump said that he has the smartest cabinet (in terms of IQ) of “any cabinet ever assembled.”  Of course there is no way to prove this.  But “ever assembled” is a historical statement.  So let’s compare Trump’s nominees (none of them, I might add, have been confirmed yet) with two other presidential cabinets:

President George Washington had  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, and Henry Knox in his cabinet.

President Abraham Lincoln had the so called “Team of Rivals”: Salmon Chase, William Seward, Simon Cameron, and Edwin Stanton.

Of course we could name other cabinets as well, but I imagine that the names will be less familiar to our readers.

I’ll let you decide if Trump’s statement about his cabinet is correct.

To give Trump the benefit of the doubt, I think he made his comments about the cabinet in jest. Having said that, Trump’s statement that he has assembled one of the greatest cabinets in American history reminds me of what Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson said in a recent column: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”

The Intellectual Life–Part 8

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.145: Now reading is the universal means of learning, and it is the proximate or remote preparation for every kind of production. We never think entirely alone: we think in company, in a vast collaboration; we work with the workers of the past and of the present.

p.151: …have no superstitious respect for novelty; love the eternal books that express eternal truths.

p.158: The communion of saints is the support of the mystical life; the banquet of the sages, perpetuated by our assiduous cult, is the invigoration of our intellectual life.

p.158: Contact with writers of genius procures us the immediate advantage of lifting us to a higher plane; by their superiority alone they confer a benefit on us even before teaching us anything.

p.160: The society of intelligent minds is always an exclusive society; reading gives us easier entrance to it.  We cast on the inspired page an imploring glance that is not in vain; we are helped, paths are opened up to us; we are reassured, initiated; the work of God in rare minds is put to our account as well as to theirs; we grow through them; we are enriched through them.

p.164: An essential condition for profiting by our reading, whether of ordinary books or those of writers of genius, is to tend always to reconcile our authors instead of setting one against another.

p.166: There is a great revelation in discovering the hidden links that exist between ideas and systems the most dissimilar.

p.170: To develop wisdom was the first object of our education; it is still that of the education that we essay to provide for ourselves.  Without wisdom, what we take in would be worthless, it would be as useless as was the first when it was on the library shelf.