Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Andrew Bacevich on David Brooks on making America great again

Intellectual humility and American democracy

Is Trump a populist?  And Trumpism is not economic populism.

If heaven has a gate, should Americans have a wallAmericans have a wall?

Was Hitler religious?

Some good reads for Black History Month

Kristin Du Mez is still searching for Christian America

Where is the Articles of Confederation in early histories of the American Revolution?

When should share your historical expertise for free?  When shouldn’t you do it?

Theologies of American exceptionalism

Trump’s refugee executive order in historical context

Are good teachers bad scholars?

Who do academics serve?  Who do they write for?

Ranking America’s presidents

The history of Black History Month


Book recommendations for the first half of the U.S. survey

James Fenimore Cooper and the New Testament

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.  Evangelical Fear and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump
  2.  Mark Cuban: Don’t Go to College to Study Business. Study the Humanities
  3.  Unpacking the Sweden Incident
  4.  Historian Heather Cox Richardson on Trump’s Muslim Ban: “It’s a Shock Event.”
  5.  Learning to Teach Students to Read With Charity, Humility, and Justice
  6.  The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.
  7.  Was George Washington a Christian?
  8.  Yet Another Reason Why Evangelicals Should Be Wary of David Barton’s Pseudo- History
  9.  Readers Respond to My Piece on Evangelicals, Fear, and Anti-Intellectualism
  10.  Andrew Sullivan Tries to Explain Stephen Miller

In Defense of Faculty Scholarship at Small Christian Colleges


In the last six months I have had conversations with at least four different professors at four different small Christian colleges in the United States.  These professors were all lamenting the fact that the administrations at their colleges had recently made decisions to cut funding for faculty scholarship.  One school had severely limited the number of sabbaticals offered each year.  Another school had cut internal grant money for faculty working on scholarly projects.  Two professors said that administrators told them that their primary job was teaching and if they wanted to do scholarship they were certainly welcome to pursue such a course, but it would need to be done on their own time.  According to another professor, an administrator told him/her that faculty scholarship is not a bad thing, but in an “age of prioritization” the funding for such scholarship needed to be cut because, in the long run, it doesn’t put students in the seats.

The emotions of these professors ranged from angry to sad.  They all had really interesting research projects, but they did not have the resources or support to pursue them.  One professor had to turn down an external grant because the administration could not afford to have him be away from the classroom for an entire academic year.

I am sympathetic to the idea that faculty books and articles do not attract prospective students. (Although I am sure that if a faculty member at a small Christian college won a Pulitzer Prize the PR department and the administration would not hesitate to bring attention to such an achievement!).

I also understand that many small schools need to make serious budget cuts in order to keep the doors open.  But to cut funds and opportunities for faculty scholarship at small, largely teaching, institutions is a short-sighted approach that ultimately hurts students.

In the past year or so I have had other kinds of conversations with other colleagues in my field.  They have told me stories of students at small colleges who have won entrance to graduate school or landed jobs precisely because faculty at their institutions had published books and articles that gave the school academic and intellectual credibility.

This is especially relevant for small Christian colleges.  Since many prestigious graduate programs–especially in the humanities–are overwhelmingly secular in orientation, many of the faculty in these graduate programs tend to be suspect of Christian college graduates.  This is unfortunate since many students at Christian colleges are more than capable of doing work at the best graduate schools in the country.  But it is also a reality.  Let’s face it, an absolutely outstanding student at a small Christian college with high test scores needs to have a great vita and letters of reference if they are going to compete for a spot in a graduate program with an above-average student who went to college at Harvard or Yale.

Having said that, it doesn’t take much to convince faculty at prestigious graduate schools that Christian college alums are legitimate.  When graduate committees at these schools are familiar with the scholarly work of faculty at these small Christian colleges it legitimizes the academic quality of such colleges and the students who graduate from them.  I can think of many Messiah College history students who were accepted and funded at top schools around the country because someone in the history department at those schools knew about the scholarly work of one our faculty members.

Just this week I was talking to a history professor at a small Christian college who landed one of his students at a high-powered and very competitive graduate program because one of the graduate faculty in that program had read one of his books and cited it in his own scholarly work.

Also this week I met a student who just got accepted to one of the best graduate programs in his field.  When I learned about this I approached the student to offer my congratulations.  (I should add that I did not write a letter for this student.  I have never taught this student.  I had no idea he was even applying to this particular program.  And to the best of my memory this was the first time I had ever actually spoken more than a few words to him). When we chatted he told me that he was very nervous during his campus interview.  He was was worried about how his Messiah College degree would be received at this elite institution.  But during the course of the interview the director of the graduate program told him that he was familiar with my work and followed me on Twitter.  I have no doubt that this student was accepted to this program on his own merits, but the fact that the director knew the academic reputation of Messiah College certainly helped him. I hope he left the conversation thankful that Messiah supports faculty scholarship. I know I did.

Faculty do scholarly work for a number of reasons.  Some feel called to make contributions to knowledge.  Others may do it to pursue personal glory or prestige at their institutions or in their disciplines.  Still other do it as way of climbing the academic ladder, landing a better job, or securing higher speaking fees.  But we rarely frame faculty scholarship in terms of what it might do for our students. When it is framed this way, scholarship becomes less about the career or even professional development of the individual scholar-teacher and more about an act of service to the young men and women we encounter everyday in our classrooms.

Quote of the Day

revoltFrom Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996):

Both left-and right-wing ideologies, in any case, are now so rigid that new ideas make little impression on their adherents.  The faithful, having sealed themselves off from arguments and events that might call their own convictions into question, no longer attempt to engage their adversaries in debate.  Their reading consists for the most part of works written from a point of view identical with their own.  Instead of engaging unfamiliar arguments, they are content to classify them as either orthodox or heretical.  The exposure of ideological deviation, on both sides, absorbs energies that might better be invested in self-criticism, the waning capacity for which is the surest sign of a moribund intellectual tradition.

The Greatest Sports Call of All Time

In my opinion it does not get any better than Al Michaels and Ken Dryden on February 22, 1980. (It happened on George Washington’s birthday).  There was a time during my teenage years when I had Michaels’s call of the final minute of this game memorized.  I can still recite some of it.  One of the overlooked parts of this call was legendary Montreal Canadian goalie Ken Dryden, a Canadian, saying “unbelievable” as the game ended.  He was clearly shocked by what he had just witnessed. (Dryden is also know for saying “the U.S. team is relying a little too much on [goalie] Jim Craig, he’s making too many good saves” seconds before Michael’s interrupted to call what turned out to be the game-winning goal: “ERUZIONE, MIKE ERUZIONE!!!!“)

More Reader Response on Evangelicals, Fear and Anti-Intellectualism

Read the original piece here:

A reader from Tennessee (a history professor) writes:

As the essay notes, the 76% of evangelicals supporting the EO closely correlates to the 81% who voted for Trump. I won’t pretend to be a sociologist, but with most social movements that’s pretty close to speaking with “one voice.” Which raises these questions about these leaders: do they have followers? And are they themselves meaningfully evangelical by anything other than a narrow theological definition?

Do these evangelical leaders have followers?  Of course they do. And their following is very large.  But if I have learned anything from scholars who study popular religion in America, there is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between what a religious leader says on a given issue and the way followers appropriate the message.  If history is a guide, the most ardent follower of a popular religious leader does not necessary follow him/her on EVERYTHING.

Was George Washington a Christian?


This comes from the archives.  I wrote it back in 2011 when I was doing a weekly column at Patheos.  Here is a taste:

On Monday we will once again celebrate George Washington’s birthday. (He was actually born on February 22, 1732.) Over the course of the last year I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Washington for my book on Christianity and the founding of the American republic. In a chapter entitled “Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?” I explore his religious beliefs and wonder whether or not we can truly call him a Christian. Washington’s faith is not easy to pin down.

I am not the only one who has wondered whether or not Washington was a Christian. His contemporaries also wondered. Reverend Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and one of the leaders of the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening, felt confident that Washington was a Christian, but he was also aware that “doubt may and will exist” about the substance of his faith.

Today, Washington’s faith has become a minor battlefield in America’s ongoing culture wars. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister and the coauthor of the best-selling Left Behind novels, has called Washington “a devout believer in Jesus Christ” who, in good evangelical fashion, “had accepted Him as His Lord and Savior.” Peter Lillback, the current president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has written over 1,100 pages in an attempt to prove that Washington was “an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ . . .” In contrast, Joseph Ellis, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing about the American founders, has described Washington as a “lukewarm Episcopalian.” Writer Brooke Allen recently concluded that “there are very real doubts as to whether Washington was a Christian or even whether he was a believer at all.”

Who is right? Or, more importantly, what is at stake in deciding who is right? In recent years Washington’s faith has become heavily politicized. It is often used to promote a particular political platform in the present. The argument goes something like this: “If George Washington was a Christian, then America must be too” or “If Washington was not a Christian, then he must have desired the United States to be a secular nation.”

Most historians agree that Washington was quiet about his faith. Unlike John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin, he did not leave behind definitive statements about what he believed. Neither was he particularly curious about theology or other religious matters. His religious reading was confined largely to sermons purchased by his devout wife, Martha.

We do know that Washington was a firm believer in what he called “Providence.” He used this term 270 times in his writings, usually employing it as a synonym for the Judeo-Christian God. This was an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God who created and ordered the universe, but whose purposes remained mysterious. Washington’s God was active in the lives of human beings. He could perform miracles, answer prayer, and intervene in history to carry out his will. Yet Washington never tried to predict what God was doing in history. Instead, he acted in history—often with great valor and determination—and let God’s purpose be done.

Washington was christened into the Anglican Church. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was known in Virginia plantation circles for her piety. George’s religious upbringing included regular reading of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. He attended Anglican (later Episcopal) churches most of his life and even served his Virginia parish in leadership roles.

Read the entire piece here.  Happy Birthday, George!

Readers Respond to My Piece on Evangelicals, Fear, and Anti-Intellectualism

Read the piece here.

A distinguished professor of religion at a church-related, non-evangelical liberal arts college writes:

Well done, John. Though I’d want to push on the anti-intellectualism a bit. We want to go beyond attention to verifiable evidence to also encourage clarity of analysis and sound interpretation.

This scholar and church-person is absolutely correct.

But as someone who spends a lot of time with evangelicals and evangelical students, I am finding it more and more necessary to go back to square one.  Last week I was a guest on a NYC-area radio program talking about this very thing.  I  told the host, a fellow academic, about my experience last Fall teaching students how to write Chicago-style footnotes. What was once a rather mundane part of my course took on a new sense of urgency.  Yes, analysis and interpretation is much needed, but it always begins with good evidence and the dogged pursuit of truth.

Evangelical Fear and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump


Here is a taste of my latest column at Religion News Service:

(RNS) Seventy-six percent of white American evangelicals supported President Trump’s recent executive order temporarily banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations as well as all refugees, according to Pew Research (59 percent of all Americans disapproved of the order).

The strong evangelical support for Trump’s action is telling in light of a recent letter sent to him and Vice President Mike Pence from 500 evangelical leaders who condemn the executive order.

The letter was signed by Tim Keller (author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church), Richard Mouw (former president of Fuller Theological Seminary), Max Lucado (author), Bill Hybels (founder of Willow Creek Community Church) and Shirley Hoogstra (president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities),  to name only a few of the prominent evangelicals who endorsed its message.

Read the rest here.

Learning to Teach Students to Read With Charity, Humility, and Justice

smithYesterday, the first day of the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium, I attended a great lecture from Calvin College professor David I. Smith titled “Charity, Humility, Justice: Learning to Read and Inviting Virtue.”  I don’t have time today to write-up a nicely crafted post, but I do want to share some random ideas I gleaned from the lecture.

Smith drew heavily from the work of Paul Griffiths and Alan Jacobs.

Griffiths, in his book Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion, distinguishes between two kinds of reading: “religious reading” and “consumer reading.”

When we read religiously we read repetitively.  The reading of a particular text is ongoing.  For example, we don’t read the Gospel of John once and then never return to it again for the rest of our lives.  When we read religiously there is an implicit assumption that the author of the text knows more than we do.  We cede authority to the text and expect it to make moral demands on our lives.  Finally, religious reading is done in community.  It implies that what people have said about the text, in the past and present, is important.

Consumer reading, on the other hand, is what we do when we read the Internet, or a restaurant menu, or (God forbid!) a blog post.  When we read as consumers we get what we want from the text and then we dispose of it.  Consumer reading is mastery-oriented.  We control the text.  Moreover, we expect to be the same person after reading the text than we were before we started to read it.  No one’s life is transformed from reading a restaurant menu.

Griffiths suggests that religious reading and consumer reading are both essential in our everyday lives.  But there are more “mechanisms” in our culture prompting us to read as consumers.  At this point in the lecture I could not tell whether Smith was speaking for himself or still summarizing Griffiths (I have not read Griffiths), but he suggested that education was one of the main reasons that consumer reading is so dominant.  Our system of education sees books as something we”check off.” (Again, few people read the Bible or another sacred text for the purpose of getting it off their bucket list).  Students do not see any need to revisit a text because, as they see it, they “read that one already, why do they need to read it again?”  This attitude implies that they are consuming the text–mastering its content for a brief period of time so that they can take a quiz or pass an exam.

Smith then turned to Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  Jacobs describes reading in terms of “lingering.”  Rarely do students “linger” on a text.  Smith used the example of a poem about the Holocaust.  He suggested that there might be something wrong about reading the poem ten minutes before class and gleaning just enough information about it to impress the professor in the class discussion.  Smith said that the students are not to blame for the reading habits they have developed.  If a professor assigns 5o pages of reading a night he or she is inviting students to skim.

Smith then turned to a fascinating discussion about the place of “speed” in the classroom.  Studies show that teachers often measure the intelligence of a student based on how quickly they are able to answer a question in class.  The student who answers quickly and talks fast must be intelligent.  Speed is thus rewarded in the classroom.  Smith pointed at the irony of it all: “do we really believe that the student who speaks with the least forethought is the most intelligent?”  He even suggested that when it comes to the end of the semester, and a teacher is deciding whether to give a student an A- or a B+, the teacher might remember the speed in which the student raised his or her hand in class and factor that into the grade choice.

In other words, we do not reward “lingering.”  This kind of lingering, however, becomes a symbol of charity to the text.  It requires attentiveness. It means we listen to a text and do not read it to provide a platform for our own views.  Charity requires believing the best about the author for as long as you can.   Humility requires that we enter a text with the purpose of trying to learn from it. Most of our courses are structured in such a way that is NOT conducive to the cultivation of these virtues.

Smith spent the rest of the lecture discussing how he incorporates these ideas in a German literature class that he teaches at Calvin.  He left me with a lot to think about it.  Much of what he said intersected with some of the ideas I put forth in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, but Smith pushed me to take this kind of reading more seriously in my classes.  Finally, Smith’s examples were mostly about reading fiction.  How is this kind religious or charitable reading done when students are reading the William Penn’s 1692 Frame of Government or the Federalist Papers?

Great lecture.  It was an excellent way to kick-off the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium.

Christians and “America First”

america-firstLast week I did a post titled “Can a Christian Embrace ‘America First’?”  The post called attention to Fordham theologian Charles Camosy’s argument that “Trumpism” is a heresy because it places the nation over the gospel.

Today, over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gerhz of Bethel University historicizes Camosy’s claim.  In his post “The Christian History of ‘America First’,” Gehrz reminds us that the original “America First” campaign had a lot of Christian support.

Here is a small taste:

But while I continue to believe that “America First” as our president seems to mean it is inconsistent with Christian belief and witness, it’s also worth noting that the pre-World War II isolationist movement that pioneered that phrase actually had considerable support from a wide range of Christians.

There were actually two such groups. The first, more explicitly Christian America First (founded 1939) was a right-wing women’s movement affiliated with Gerald L. K. Smith, a firebrand preacher who entered politics via his association with Huey Long and published the conservative magazine, The Cross and the Flag. In a 1994 article for the journal Diplomatic History, Laura McEnaney argued that the self-styled “Christian mothers” of that America First fused religion, patriotism, and isolationism into “a defense of the nuclear family structure and the conventional gender roles that made this movement’s vision of social and sexual purity possible and sustainable.”

More famous is the America First Committee (AFC), an ideologically diverse group founded in September 1940 by law student R. Douglas Stuart. (You can learn more about AFC from Philip, who posted about it last month at The American Conservative.) A member of the anti-war Yale Christian Association, Stuart’s father and grandfather were both executives at Quaker Oats, a company that plays a key role in Tim Gloege’s history of “corporate evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

Unpacking the Sweden Incident


Here is what Trump said on Saturday at his Melbourne, Florida rally:

Here’s the bottom line. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this. Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible. You look at what’s happening in Brussels.

Trump seemed to suggest that something had happened in Sweden the night before the Melbourne rally. It sounds like Trump was suggesting that a terrorist attack occurred in Sweden on Friday night.

Most of the world was baffled by Trump’s remarks, including former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt:

The so-called “Sweden Incident” now rivals the “Bowling Green Massacre” as another piece of fake news.  It received so much attention that Trump was forced to respond:

Here is the story that Trump references in this tweet:

I have no idea how much of this Fox News story is accurate.  Frankly, it seems a bit sensational.  The fires blazing and the black-hooded refugees instill fear in ordinary Americans.  Both Tucker Carlson and the filmmaker are anything but objective in the course of the interview.  It seems obvious that Fox is running this story for political purposes.  They want to show what can happen in the United States if more refugees were welcomed into the country.  Carlson and the filmmaker seem absolutely baffled by the idea that the people of Sweden care about humanitarianism.

So here is what happened.  On Friday night Trump saw this story.  On Saturday night he got confused.  He confused the running of the story on Friday night with some kind of terrorist attack that he believed happened in Sweden on Friday night.

This would be an honest mistake for most people, but Donald Trump is not “most people.” Donald Trump is the President of the United States.

I am concerned about two things here:

First, the POTUS is getting his knowledge of what is happening around the world from watching television news.  Trump is the most important and powerful person in the world. One would think that he would have a better source of information than Fox News.  Doesn’t he read his briefings?  Wouldn’t he have known if a terrorist attack occurred in Sweden before he saw it on Fox News?  (Again, just to be clear, there was no terrorist attack

Second, the POTUS is once again using false information to scare people.  Fox News is doing the same thing.  Knowledge is an antidote to fear.  Trump’s presidency thrives on people who do not think critically about their world.  This is how strongmen stay in power. The light of knowledge that exposes the lies, fake news, and false information also exposes the strongman.  The veil is pulled back on the Wizard of Oz and all that is left is a little insecure man.

Introducing Josh Lowrie

lowrie-photoIn case you missed it, Season 3 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is underway.

Episode 17: “The Way of Improvement Leads to Mount Vernon” dropped this morning.

Episode 17 is the first episode we cut with our new studio producer Josh Lowrie.  Josh is replacing our regular studio producer Mikaela Mummert while she is studying radio in Nashville this semester.

Josh is from East Stroudsburg Pennsylvania. He is a junior Broadcasting and Media Production major at Messiah College. Josh works part time during the school year (full time in the summer) as a part of Messiah’s tech crew and is spending this semester as an intern in the Conference Services Office where he is expanding his technical knowledge and learning about event planning and management. Last semester Josh studied in Nashville at the Contemporary Music Center (the same program in which Mikaela is currently enrolled).

In his free time, Josh likes to spend time with his fiancée, listen to music, and watch TV and movies. When he graduate colleges he wants to find work as a monitor engineer in the touring concert industry.

Welcome aboard, Josh!  Drop him a note in the comments section or via one of my social media feeds and welcome him to the The Way of Improvement Leads Home team!

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Evangelicals, Trump, and the politics of charisma

David Frum: How to Build an Autocracy

Michael Novak, RIP

The invention of segregation

John Turner reviews Robert Orsi, History and Presence

Remembering Executive Order 9066

Moral wood and William Penn

Place and race

Robert Darnton on fake news

Are you watching The Young Pope?

Does Trump’s narcissism cloud his moral concern?

Remembering the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act

Robert Levine talks Frederick Douglass


Keeping change and continuity in tension in the American history classroom

The William Henry Harrison Museum

Jackson Lears reviews Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire

Books for President’s Day

Homespun and resistance

The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.

pasleyEarlier today, while speaking to a crowd in Florida, Donald Trump referenced Thomas Jefferson in a rant condemning the press and the media.  Here is what he said:

I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don’t want to report the truth and they’ve been calling us wrong now for two years. They don’t get it. By they’re starting to get it. I can tell you that. They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out often times on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that. They don’t get away with it.

They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” “Truth itself,” he said, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” that was June 14, my birthday, 1807….

Trump is correct about Jefferson.  The founding father had his problems with the press. Here are some more Jefferson quotes to prove it:

“I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

“Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811.  Read the letter and get the larger context here.

From 40. years experience of the wretched guesswork of the newspapers of what is not done in open day light, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, & almost never worth notice. a ray therefore now & then from the fountain of light is like sight restored to the blind. –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1816. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. –Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. Read the letter and get some context here.

As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers. –Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. Read the entire letter and get some context here.

So as you can see Jefferson did have his moments with the press.

But Trump is only partially correct.  These quotes need to be considered in context with Jefferson’s other remarks about the press.  Here are a few more Jefferson quotes about the relationship between a free press and the success of the American Republic.  (These are from an earlier post on the subject):

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

When faced with this second set of quotes, Trump supporters will probably agree that a free press is important. It is hard to reject the First Amendment.

But Trump supporters would also respond by saying that today’s press is politically biased against the POTUS.  Today’s press “is liberal.”  It is a “problem.”  It is “corrupt.”  Trump supporters would say that Trump’s new “enemy” is not a free press per se, but a free press that he believes to be tainted by opposition politics.

If Trump and his followers want to make such an argument against the press, and use Jefferson to do it, I think it is important for them to realize that today’s mainstream press (CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the network news, etc…) is far closer to being objective than the press in Thomas Jefferson’s day.  The members of the press in the early American republic were openly political and they made no bones about it.

Read Jeffrey Pasley’s excellent The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.  Here is the jacket summary:

Although frequently attacked for their partisanship and undue political influence, the American media of today are objective and relatively ineffectual compared to their counterparts of two hundred years ago. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, newspapers were the republic’s central political institutions, working components of the party system rather than commentators on it.

The lesson:  The press was actually MORE political in Jefferson’s age than it is today. Jefferson was often frustrated by it.  Yet he still found it indispensable to the success of the republic and was willing on more than one occasion to dogmatically defend it.