Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Trump’s Plans to Deter Migrants Could Mean New ‘Voluntary’ Family Separations”

Washington Post: “Saudi influence machine faces critical test after decades of investment”

Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Tries to Uphold Saudi Ties Despite Lawmakers’ Pressure”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “Ranking Pennsylvania’s top high school football teams regardless of classification”

BBC: “Saudis now admit journalist was murdered”

CNN: “Saudi operative dressed as Khashoggi, Turkish source says”

FOX: “CHAD PERGRAM: Anger at Trump not the real reason Dems could win the House”

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Francis Fukuyama

Who are the 81%?  John Hawthorne reflects on a new study

Khalil Gibran Muhammad reviews Sean Wilentz’s No Property Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding

Annette Gordon Reed on MLK

Ocean Grove, New Jersey:  Methodist paradise

Does the left need a MAGA narrative?

George Scialabba

An amusement park for sale

Did the founding fathers believe in originalism?

Identity politics

What happens when people stop writing letters and books become less central to society?

How to read and why

Can states rights save us?

U.S. borders are straight lines

On nuance

Kitsch at Salem

Alex Karp reviews Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States

Is civility possible?

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Trump Administration Eyes Defining Transgender Out of Existence”

Washington Post: “‘There’s been lies’: Trump strongly critical of Saudi account of journalist’s death”

Wall Street Journal: “Mnuchin Heads to Saudi Arabia to Solidify Anti-Iran Alliance”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “Casey, Barletta debate ends in emotional exchange over TV ad”

BBC: “Russia: US nuclear treaty plan ‘dangerous'”

CNN: “US will pull out of nuclear treaty”

FOX: “Democrat’s unsolicited messages prompt legal challenge amid race against Ted Cruz”

Episode 41: Populism

PodcastWith the election of Donald Trump, the term populism has returned to the political lexicon. However, while many people may use the term, fewer people truly understand its meaning and history. On today’s episode, we try to unpack the idea of populism in the American context. John Fea discusses the history of his favorite populist, William Jennings Bryan. They are joined by the foremost historian on the subject, Michael Kazin (@mkazin).

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group ( and Jennings College Consulting (

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Saudi Arabia Says Journalist Jamal Khashoggi Is Dead; 18 Are Arrested”

Washington Post: “Saudi Arabia says Khashoggi was killed in fight at consulate”

Wall Street Journal: “Fight at Consulate Led to Journalist’s Death, Saudis Say”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “The Mid-Penn’s top Week 9 high school football performances from Friday night”

BBC: “Turkey ‘to reveal all’ on Khashoggi death”

CNN: “Lawmakers are skeptical about Saudi explanation”

FOX: “Video shows angry protesters hurl expletives at Dem during campaign stop”


Congratulations Historian Thomas Kidd!


He is the inaugural holder of the James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History at Baylor University.  Well deserved, Tommy!

Here is a taste of the press release:

WACO, Texas (Oct. 18, 2018) – Award-winning author and historian Thomas S. Kidd, Ph.D., has been named the inaugural holder of The James Vardaman Endowed Professorship of History at Baylor University.

Kidd, who joined the Baylor faculty in 2002, is a Distinguished Professor of History in the College of Arts & Sciences and serves as associate director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, where he also co-directs the Program on Historical Studies of Religion.

The newly endowed professorship is named in honor of beloved Professor Emeritus of History and Master Teacher James W. Vardaman, Ph.D., who died in January 2018 during retirement from a 33-year teaching career at Baylor. The professorship was made possible by gifts from Vardaman’s former students and other members of the Baylor Family, including a lead gift from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation.

“We are grateful for the Baugh Foundation’s support,” said Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D. “Through their incredible generosity, they have provided sustaining, significant funding for our department of history through the establishment of The James Vardaman Endowed Professorship, and they have paid tribute to one of our most beloved educators and researchers. Dr. Vardaman’s legacy continues to inspire through the professorship that bears his name, as evidenced by the many former students and colleagues who contributed to the fund in his memory. We are grateful for the resources to retain Dr. Thomas Kidd in this distinguished position, furthering a legacy of excellence in teaching and leadership at Baylor.”

The focus of Kidd’s research is 18th century North America, particularly the history of evangelicalism, and he teaches courses on colonial America, the American Revolution and American religious history.

He is a prolific author whose books include “American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths,” “Baptists in America: A History,” “George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father,” “Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots,” “God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution,” “American Christians and Islam” and “The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America.”

“Endowed professorships are critical to Baylor’s future in order to recruit outstanding new faculty, confer added distinction and support upon exceptional current faculty and to help Baylor to reach its goal of becoming a nationally ranked Christian research university,” said Lee C. Nordt, Ph.D., dean of the Baylor College of Arts & Sciences. “The Vardaman Professorship is a perfect example of honoring one of our former greats by conferring his name to a new endowed position assumed by a current faculty member of similar stature.”

Kidd won a 2006-07 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship that designated his research for “Great Awakenings” as a We the People project, a special recognition by the NEH for model projects that advance the study, teaching and understanding of American history and culture.

Kidd’s 2017 book, “Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father,” has received high marks for its analysis of Franklin’s beliefs, and was named one of the 2017 Top 10 Religion and Spirituality Books by Booklist Online. Two of his books, “God of Liberty” and “The Great Awakening,” earned an Award of Merit from Christianity Today.

In addition to his books, he writes for the Evangelical History blog at “The Gospel Coalition” and also regularly contributes to The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets.

“Since joining the Baylor history faculty, Thomas Kidd has become the most prolific historian we have ever had,” said Barry Hankins, Ph.D., chair and professor of history. “In addition to winning numerous awards and citations for his work, he is generally recognized as one of the foremost experts on the history of religion in America. He is also one of the few historians who bridges the all-too-wide divide between the academy and the rest of the culture.”

“Dr. Thomas Kidd is a visionary scholar who brings his research into the classroom,” said Kim Kellison, Ph.D., associate dean of humanities and social sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences and associate professor of history. “Countless graduate and undergraduate students have benefited from his teaching and mentorship.”

Kidd earned a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in history from Clemson University, and completed his Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame in 2001.

He received a Baylor University Outstanding Professor Award in 2010, and has received faculty awards from Baylor University Student Government and the Baylor Graduate Student Association. In 2007, Kidd was named a “Top Young Historian” by the History News Network.

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.  In Defense of Empathy
  2.  David Brody: Trump’s Court Journalist
  3.  Progressive Evangelicals Revive the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern
  4. Women Rising
  5. Quick Thoughts on Andrew Brunson’s Return
  6. Colin Kaepernick’s Christian Faith
  7. The American Revolution in Texas Schools
  8. Blame Gingrich
  9. “Court Evangelicals” and Daniel, Joseph, and Cyrus
  10. Some Good Stuff About Evangelicals

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “In Shift on Khashoggi Killing, Trump Edges Closer to Acknowledging Saudi Role”

Washington Post: “Trump’s GOP allies quietly fuel a Khashoggi smear campaign”

Wall Street Journal: “China Growth Slows; Finance Officials Try to Soothe Investors”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “Saving pets, slowing speeders, more: 16 bills Pa. legislators decided should become law”

BBC: “Police in Khashoggi case ‘search forest'”

CNN: “Why Trump doesn’t want to punish Saudi Arabia”

FOX: “House candidate Ocasio-Cortez refuses to endorse fellow socialist in 2020 presidential race”

The *Believe Me* Book Tour Comes to Northwest Arkansas


I spent the day on Wednesday at John Brown University (JBU) in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. (It was my first trip to the “Natural State”).  Trisha Posey, Director of the University Honors Program, and Daniel Bennett, Assistant Professor of Political Science, invited me to participate in the university’s 2nd Annual Reimagining Faith and Public Life event.

After a great dinner at the home of JBU president Chip Pollard, I was happy to share the stage for the main event with Jonathan Leeman, a Christian writer, theologian, pastor and editorial director of a Christian website called 9Marks.  Leeman is the author of How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics a Divided AgeTrisha moderated a fruitful discussion about how evangelicals can move beyond a Christian Right approach to politics.

Reimagining Faith and Public Life was actually the culminating event of a day full of teaching and conversation at JBU.  It began with breakfast (Rikki Skopp is an absolutely amazing baker!) and fellowship with JBU honors faculty.  I then had the privilege of teaching Trisha’s first-year honors seminar “Faithful Leadership in Times of Crisis.”  Trisha and her students are studying historical examples of Christian leaders who led during difficult times.  So far they have looked at Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the monks of the medieval period. Later in the semester they will study the lives of Oscar Romero, John Woolman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Galileo, Leymah Gbowee, and a few others.  I am not sure if Abraham Lincoln can be considered a “faithful leader,” but he was certainly a leader in a “time of crisis.”  I chose to focus on his Second Inaugural Address as a theological reflection on the Civil War.  Lincoln’s religious take on the war was quite different from the writing and rhetoric of the leading Protestant theologians of the day.

After class I spent some time with one of Trisha’s students who is writing a very interesting paper on Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of Billy Graham and mid-century American evangelicalism.  We chatted about the current state of the evangelical movement (is there such a thing?) and if there is anything that Niebuhr might be able to teach present-day evangelicals.


After lunch with JBU faculty, I headed to Dan Bennett’s American Government class where I led students in a discussion of Chapter 1 of Believe Me“The Evangelical Politics of Fear.”  Our discussion of “fear” led to a conversation about same-sex marriage and somehow ended with a focus on “nostalgia” and Christian nationalism.  Our discussion was all over the map, but the students seemed engaged.


Finally, I had a chance to meet with the members of two faculty-staff JBU book clubs who have been reading Believe Me.  As I fielded questions about the book I continued to learn more about the strengths and weakness of my argument.  At some point a book has to go to the publisher, appear in print, and be consumed by the public. But I find that I am always refining my thinking about a project through an engagement with readers.  It is flattering to have your ideas taken seriously and it is especially flattering when those ideas are taken seriously by such a vibrant and engaged group of academics, human resource professionals, advancement officers, and students.

I felt at home all day at JBU.  I hope to return some time soon.

Travel tip:  When flying to the airport in Fayetteville, Arkansas be careful not to board a plane for Fayetteville, North Carolina.  Yes, this almost happened.  FYI: Fayetteville, Arkansas airport appears on the display as “Northwest Arkansas” or “Bentonville.”

Stay tuned for the next stop on the Believe Me book tour: Sunday, October 28th at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel, Maryland.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Audio Contains Gruesome Details of Khashoggi Killing, Turkish Official Says”

Washington Post: “Amid global outrage over Khashoggi, Trump takes soft stance toward Saudis”

Wall Street Journal: “Trump Stresses Ties With Saudi Arabia as He Seeks Answers”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “‘It’s a disaster’: Senate leader laments end of sex abuse victims bill, open to talks”

BBC: “Missing writer’s last call for press freedom”

CNN: “Khashoggi crisis engulfs White House”

FOX: “State Department deliberately misled in Hillary email server, Benghazi lawsuits: ‘shocked’ fed judge”

In Defense of Empathy

Why Study History CoverIn a recent post at The Anxious Bench, Elesha Coffman of Baylor University asks, “Why was [Robert] Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at the C[onference on] F[aith and H[istory]?”

As the person who invited Orsi to deliver a plenary at the CFH, I am the one responsible for his appearance. Due to other CFH commitments, I only heard half of Orsi’s address on “disgust,” but what I heard was a real barn-burner.   You can get a sense of what he said in Coffman’s post.

I had originally asked Orsi to talk about his most recent book History and Presence.   I thought his reflections on “real presence” in the American Catholic experience would resonate with CFH members.  I was just as surprised as anyone by the talk, although I also realize that this often happens in academia.  Nevertheless, my role as program chair is to invite plenary speakers who will provoke conversation and discussion.  Mission accomplished!  🙂

Coffman writes:

For many of us who attended the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the heaviest moments in a consistently weighty gathering came during Bob Orsi’s concluding plenary, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” The address was rooted in his current research on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent at least 20 minutes recounting in excruciating detail the exploits of Father Paul Shanley, a predator whose superiors allowed him to abuse young people with impunity for decades. Not just allowed—empowered and paid by the church to run what one lawyer called a “pedophile paradise.” Why was Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at CFH? Why was he telling us this appalling narrative? And what were we supposed to do with it?

I can only speak of my own reaction. For me, this was a painful but necessary step in moving away from my own scholarly formation toward something that feels more true in our historical moment.

I was trained to see the historian’s foremost ethical task as the cultivation of empathy. For years, I talked about this virtue on the first day of class. We historians, I used to say, “resurrect the dead and let them speak.” We listen to voices from the past humbly. We refrain from pronouncing anachronistic sentences on our fellow human beings who could not know what was coming next, and who did not have the benefit of whatever enlightenment we have gleaned since their passing. My white, male, Southern doctoral adviser used to say, “If I had been born in the early 19th century, I would have been a racist slaveholder, too.” Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Read the rest here.

Actually, Coffman was not the only one who criticized the idea of “empathy” in Grand Rapids last week.  Margaret Bendroth, the conference’s first plenary speaker, also criticized the pursuit of empathy in historical inquiry.

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Of course some folks will now say something like, “Hey Fea, you just wrote a book criticizing Donald Trump!  How is that not preaching or moral criticism?”  It’s a fair question and it is one I have been wrestling with ever since I agreed to write Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I think Believe Me draws heavily upon my work as a historian, but I am not sure I would call it a work of history.  It is instead a work of social criticism targeted at my fellow white evangelicals.  This, I should add, is the primary reason I decided to publish it with Eerdmans, a Christian publisher with connections to the evangelical world.  Wherever I go on my book tour I talk about this.  There are times in Believe Me when I write as a historian and there are times when I do not.

I should also add that I do not bring my approach and tone in Believe Me to the history classroom.  My direct criticism of white evangelicalism and Donald Trump have no place there.  In the classroom we are in the business of understanding and empathy.  If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.

Of course I have been arguing for this for a long time and still stand by my central thesis in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In this polarized society we need more empathy for people with whom we disagree.  I still think history is the best way of cultivating this virtue.

Some Good Stuff About Evangelicals

Evangelicals serving

I recently published a piece at the magazine of the National Association of Evangelicals titled “Hope, Humility, and History: How Evangelicals Have Been an Influence for Good.”  Here is a taste:

Evangelicals have been taking some hard hits lately. Some are even abandoning the label because it has become too associated with a political agenda. As a historian who has written and thought deeply about the relationship between evangelical Christianity and American life, I am fully aware that for every positive contribution evangelicalism has made to American culture, we can point to another way in which evangelicalism, sadly, has been at the forefront of some of the nation’s darkest moments.

It is imperative that evangelicals study their past and come to terms with it. This requires us to lament the moments in which we have failed and celebrate the moments when the good news of the gospel has changed lives, set people on a course for eternity with God, and led them to act in ways that are good and just. Throughout history, evangelicals have contributed to society in positive ways when we have emphasized hope over fear and humility over the pursuit of power.

Read the rest here.

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Suspects in Case of Missing Journalist Had Ties to Saudi Crown Prince”

Washington Post: “Trump warns of a rush to judgment in disappearance of Khashoggi”

Wall Street Journal: “Trump Decries Rate Increases, Calls Fed ‘My Biggest Threat’”

Harrisburg-Patriot News: “Ohio State fan will donate a kidney to Penn State fan, and donned a Nittany Lion costume to tell him: Watch”

BBC: “Canada legalises sale and use of cannabis”

CNN: “Journalist’s disappearance exposes Trumpism’s moral apathy”

FOX: “MEDIA BUZZ: Easy mistakes could take their toll on Democrats on homestretch in tight races”

Introducting Pietist Schoolman Travel

Pietist Schoolman Travel

Do you want to take a trip to Europe with historian Chris Gehrz, aka the Pietist Schoolman?  Check out his new venture: “Pietist Schoolman Travel.”

Here is a taste of Chris’s latest post describing the new venture:

As announced here two weeks ago, I’m going to lead an eleven-day tour of England, Belgium, France, and Germany next June: “The World Wars in Western Europe.” There are still openings, but I’d suggest that you apply sooner than later: Bethel University will be mentioning the trip next month in its alumni e-newsletter.

For the most part, leading this trip just feels like an extension of what I already do as a teacher and scholar. In January I’ll lead a couple dozen students on a three-week World War I travel course, the fourth instance of that trip; and I write and speak about World War I and World War II fairly often.

But preparing to lead this trip — and thinking ahead to other trips I might lead in summers to come — has forced me to do something I never imagined doing: I’ve started my own business. Pietist Schoolman Travel, LLC will never have all that much overhead or all that many employees, but it does have a bank account, an IRS number, and a need to get its name before potential customers in a market place with no shortage of competitors.

I’ll try my best to make it worth your while. I’m in the process of walking through the June trip, each day sharing some photos from some of the sites we’ll be visiting. And I’ll keep posting other photos, reading excerpts, video clips, and links related to the world wars. And even if you’re not interested in the World Wars trip, following the page will make it easier for me to reach people with news about future trips. (I’ve already floated the idea of doing a summer 2020 trip to Germany around the themes of the Reformation and Pietism.)

So if you’d like to learn more about the trip — or if you can just help boost our public presence — please start following our PS Travel page at Facebook. I started small over the weekend, inviting a few family, friends, coworkers, and former students to click Like. But I’d certainly be happy to add blog readers to that number.

When and Why Did Catholics Embrace Religious Freedom?

Vatican II.jpg

Here is a taste of Dartmouth historian Udi Greenberg‘s piece at the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas:

It can therefore be surprising to remember how recent religious liberty’s popularity is. Few institutions reflect this better than the Catholic Church, which as recently as the early 1960s openly condemned religious freedom as heresy. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Catholic bishops and theologians claimed that the state was God’s “secular arm.” The governments of Catholic-majority countries therefore had the duty to privilege Catholic preaching, education, and rituals, even if they blatantly discriminated against minorities (where Catholic were minority, they could tolerate religious freedom as a temporary arrangement). As Pope Gregory XVI put it in his 1832 encyclical Mirari vos, state law had to restrict preaching by non-Catholics, for “is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available?” It was only in 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, that the Church formally abandoned this conviction. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, it formally proclaimed religious liberty as a universal right “greatly in accord with truth and justice.” This was one of the greatest intellectual transformations of modern religious thought.

Why did this change come about? Scholars have provided illuminating explanations over the last few years. Some have attributed it to the mid-century influence of the American constitutional tradition of state neutrality in religious affairs. Others claimed it was part of the Church’s confrontation with totalitarianism, especially Communism, which led Catholics to view the state as a menacing threat rather than ally and protector. My article in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas uncovers another crucial context that pushed Catholics in this new direction. Religious liberty, it shows, was also fueled by a dramatic change in Catholic thinking about Protestants, namely a shift from centuries of hostility to cooperation and even a warm embrace. Well into the modern era, many Catholic writers continued to condemn Luther and is heirs, blaming them for the erosion of tradition, nihilism, and anarchy. But during the mid-twentieth century, Catholics swiftly abandoned this animosity, and came to see Protestants as brothers in a mutual fight against “anti-Christian” forces, such as Communism, Islam, and liberalism. French Theologian Yves Congar argued in 1937 that the Church transcends its “visible borders” and includes all those who have been baptized, while German historian Joseph Lortz published in 1938 sympathetic historical tomes that depicted Martin Luther and the Reformation as well-meaning Christians. This process of forging inter-Christian peace—which became known as ecumenism—reached its pinnacle in the postwar era. In 1964, it received formal doctrinal approval when Vatican II promulgated a Decree on Ecumenism (1964), which declared Protestants as “brethren.”

One venue in which this new view of Protestants played out was in the translation of the Bible.  I write about this extensively in Chapter 22 of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

The American Revolution in Texas Schools


The Texas State Board of Education has “streamlined” the state’s social studies standards in a way that limits what students will learn about the American Revolution.  Michael Oberg, Distinguished Professor of History at SUNY-Geneseo, describes the changes:

One of my favorite undergraduate professors, John Walzer, taught the course I took on the American Revolution a long time ago at Cal State Long Beach. One of his students once made a movie reenacting the Boston Tea Party. The local marina stood in for Boston Harbor, somebody’s fishing boat for The Dartmouth, and cardboard boxes for chests of tea. After the “Sons of Liberty” committed their act of defiance, the cameras followed them home. When they attempted to wash off their “Mohawk” disguises, no matter how hard they scrubbed, they would not come off.They were revolutionaries now, and there was no turning back.

I have always loved that story. It gets at the dramatic urgency of the colonists’ protest movement, and depicts that moment when defiant opponents of parliamentary taxation realized that their relationship to Great Britain as subject and citizen was broken beyond repair. The story of this film helps students see the excitement of the Revolution, but also its danger. It is a powerful and important thing for students to experience.

So I worry that if states like Texas have their way, we will lose the drama and the excitement of the Age of Revolution. In a set of revised learning standards, the Texas State Board of Education reduces the revolution to little more than a constitutional dispute with Great Britain, of value only because it produces the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a new nation at its end. Nothing is at stake. Little will be lost. The revolution seems inevitable, and no more disorderly than a game of Canasta.

And here is another taste of Oberg’s piece at “Age of Revolutions”:

Given its history of social studies education and its highly politicized methods for revising curricula, it is easy to beat up on Texas. But here’s the thing. Too many of my students think of the Revolution primarily as a creature of the “Founding Fathers.” They associate it, barely, with the Revolutionary War, and know little of the protest movements that preceded it. They know little of the consequences of the Revolution, save for the fact that the United States emerged as a new nation at its end.

Texas offers its schoolchildren a highly truncated presentation of the Revolution, and that is both disappointing and a cause for concern. The state’s approach robs students of the opportunity to explore the contingencies, the rending compromises, and the internal conflict that characterized these years. It deprives students of the human drama, as ordinary Americans—Anglo-Americans divided by class and region, immigrants from Europe from a host of religious traditions, Africans and Native Americans in all their diversity—found themselves forced to choose sides. Revolutions never tolerate neutrality, and the American Revolution was no different. Our students are seldom asked to consider that the gains brought about by the Revolution often came at the expense of others. 

Read the entire piece here.

Blame Gingrich


According to McKay Coppins, Newt Gingrich “turned partisan politics into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump’s rise.”  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic, “The Man Who Broke Politics”:

There’s something about Newt Gingrich that seems to capture the spirit of America circa 2018. With his immense head and white mop of hair; his cold, boyish grin; and his high, raspy voice, he has the air of a late-empire Roman senator—a walking bundle of appetites and excesses and hubris and wit. In conversation, he toggles unnervingly between grandiose pronouncements about “Western civilization” and partisan cheap shots that seem tailored for cable news. It’s a combination of self-righteousness and smallness, of pomposity and pettiness, that personifies the decadence of this era.

In the clamorous story of Donald Trump’s Washington, it would be easy to mistake Gingrich for a minor character. A loyal Trump ally in 2016, Gingrich forwent a high-powered post in the administration and has instead spent the years since the election cashing in on his access—churning out books (three Trump hagiographies, one spy thriller), working the speaking circuit (where he commands as much as $75,000 per talk for his insights on the president), and popping up on Fox News as a paid contributor. He spends much of his time in Rome, where his wife, Callista, serves as Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican and where, he likes to boast, “We have yet to find a bad restaurant.”

But few figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump’s rise. During his two decades in Congress, he pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism—that poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction. Gingrich’s career can perhaps be best understood as a grand exercise in devolution—an effort to strip American politics of the civilizing traits it had developed over time and return it to its most primal essence.

Read the entire piece here.

Coppins is probably right about Gingrich, but let’s be careful making too many grandiose claims about Newt as the originator of political bloodsport. As I read Coppins’s piece I was reminded of Yale historian Joanne Freeman’s new book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War.