The Trump Administration is Reading American History

Trump and FDR

It looks the Trump administration now thinks American history might be important.  Here is Gabby Orr at Politico:

When the avian flu first spread to pockets of Southeast Asia in 2005, President George W. Bush reassured Americans he would be prepared if the viral infection reached the United States.

“I have thought through the scenarios of what an avian flu outbreak could mean,” Bush informed the public at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden that October, noting his recent dive into a book on pandemics.

It was John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” a meticulous account of the Spanish flu, which claimed an estimated 675,000 American lives a century ago. Bush had read a copy while vacationing at his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Texas.

Now, as a new virus wreaks havoc on the United States — leaving hospitals overwhelmed, businesses shuttered and at least 10 million Americans suddenly unemployed in just two weeks — some Trump officials are replicating the former president’s approach. Desperate for insight into how to respond to a staggering death toll and deep recession, the White House machinery is digging through American history for answers, hoping that somewhere in 2½ centuries of war, economic volatility, resilience and patriotism they might find analogs to help rally the nation and protect their boss’ legacy.

Deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger finished a copy of Barry’s sobering narrative himself in early January, when the first cases of Covid-19 spread beyond mainland China.

A senior speechwriter for one Cabinet official read and then reread Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address — a powerful sermon on hope in the midst of the Great Depression, best known for Roosevelt’s declaration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Read the entire piece here.

The books and documents Trump’s staff are reading were written and curated by historians who spend time conducting research to reconstruct the past. These scholars need support. I wonder if Trump will connect his staff’s reading of American history during this crisis with funding for the humanities. I’m not holding my breath. Trump has been trying to cut such funding since he got into office.

American History Night With Ken Burns

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Thursday night, March 26, 2020.

Here is PBS press release:

PBS will make the Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History available to its stations beginning March 26. PBS is calling it “American History Night with Ken Burns.” The event happens on Thursdays. The documentarian’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and The War will follow The Roosevelts in the series.

PBS is looking to provide viewers more intriguing entertainment amid the coronavirus crisis. Earlier this month, it made the Burns documentary Baseballavailable for streaming on demand.

The American History Night programs will also be available for streaming on all station-branded PBS platforms.

“PBS and our member stations are committed to using our broad reach and local presence to help Americans find light and hope during these uncertain times,” said Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS. “Through his epic films, Ken Burns has shown us time and again how our country can accomplish great things in the face of tremendous adversity, and we look forward to sharing these extraordinary stories with our audiences in the coming months.”

Read the rest here.

Winners of the Bancroft Prize Announced

Ed LogueHere is the press release:

Columbia University Libraries is pleased to award the 2020 Bancroft Prizes in American History and Diplomacy to two acclaimed works: Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age by Lizabeth Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) and Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery by Joseph P. Reidy (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

In Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, historian Lizabeth Cohen provides a nuanced view of federally-funded urban redevelopment and of one of its major practitioners that goes beyond the simplicity of good and bad, heroes and villains. Cohen is Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History at Harvard University. Cohen also received a Bancroft Prize in 1991 for her first book, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge University Press, 1990).  

Through prodigious research and compelling argument, historian Joseph P. Reidy’s long-awaited Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery builds upon and departs from a raft of historiography to deepen our understanding of emancipation’s vagaries in the United States. Reidy is Associate Provost and Professor Emeritus of History at Howard University.Ilusions

The Trustees of Columbia University award the Bancroft Prizes annually. Winners are judged in terms of the scope, significance, depth of research, and richness of interpretation they present in the areas of American history and diplomacy. There were 200 books submitted for consideration for the 2020 prize.

The Bancroft Prizes, which are administered by Vice Provost and University Librarian Ann Thornton, also include an award of $10,000 for each winning selection.

About the Bancroft Foundation: The Edgar A. and Frederic Bancroft Foundation is an endowment created at Columbia University by the late Frederic Bancroft to further scholarly work in two ways: the income from the Foundation generously provides for steady development of library resources to support research in American history and diplomacy and provides for recognition of books of exceptional merit and distinction in these fields by annual awarding prizes to the authors.

Check out interview with Joseph Reidy here.

The 1619 Project Backs-Off a Controversial Claim. World Socialist Website Responds

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Recently, The New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein issued a statement to clarify a passage in an essay from The 1619 Project. (See our post here). The passage under consideration, which came from project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay, argued that the British-American colonists fought the American Revolution to protect the institution of slavery. After consultation with early American historians, the Times slightly backed-off this claim. Here is Silverstein: “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”

Thomas Mackaman of King College (PA) and the World Socialist Web Site has been a strong critic of The 1619 Project.  Check out our interview with Mackaman in Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Here is a taste of his response to Silverstein’s statement:

Silverstein’s belated effort in damage control does not withdraw the 1619 Project’s assertion that 1776 was a “lie” and a “founding mythology.” The Times editor is attempting to palm off a minor change in wording as a sufficient correction of a historically untenable rendering of the American Revolution. Hannah-Jones’ passage now reads, with the changed phrase in italics:

“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere.”

This passage is still false. Protecting slavery could not have been a significant cause of the American Revolution, because, far from posing a threat to slavery, the British Empire controlled the slave trade and profited immensely from its commerce in people, as well as from its Caribbean plantations which remained loyal during the war for independence.

Yet in his article, Silverstein reiterates the initial error and compounds it with new layers of confusion. He writes, “We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery” [emphasis added].

There is no evidence for any of this. The chain of events that led “toward” independence had already emerged with the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, seven years before the Somerset ruling. “The British” did not seek to disrupt “American slavery” until Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of 1775—issued after the war of independence had begun—offered emancipation to slaves and indentured servants who took up arms against masters already in rebellion. The proclamation in fact explicitly preserved slavery among loyal British subjects, many of whom would live out their days under Dunmore in his final post as royal governor of the slave-rich Bahamas.

And this:

Silverstein’s latest foray only adds a new layer of dishonesty to the sordid 1619 Project affair. Were he serious about valuing criticism, as he claims, Silverstein might have written the following:

“We thank the historians who have brought to our attention the many errors in the 1619 Project. We are compelled to acknowledge and correct these errors. We have written to schools that have already received copies of material from the Project asking that they return them, and that they withhold them from students until the errors and distortions, and the processes that led to them, can be corrected. We profoundly apologize to the historians whose scholarship and professionalism we maligned. The Times’ will seek their assistance in preparing a revised edition of the 1619 Project. Finally, as painful as it is to do, we recommend to our readers that they study the essays and interviews criticizing the 1619 Project published in the World Socialist Web Site.”

Read the entire piece here.

Critiquing Howard Zinn

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We have written before about the problems with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Read all our Zinn posts here.

The latest critique of Zinn’s work comes from Kyle Williams, a historian at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.  Here is a taste of his piece at the progressive magazine In These Times:

All histories, of course, omit some facts and details and rabbit holes, but A People’s History focuses almost exclusively on victimization and tragedy. Zinn’s history, though brilliant with pathos and storytelling, ultimately presents an unusable past; it too often fails to consider the change that occurs through untidy and often disappointing compromises, human longing, unintended consequences and surprising moments of advantage.

Like historical change itself, the value of historical scholarship is often unexpected. As in much of the best scientific research, the historian resists the urge to make their writing overly practical or immediately applicable to the needs of the present in favor of following the slow and often frustrating path of the research process. This process frequently results in unexpected twists and new and sometimes inconvenient conclusions, providing fresh insights into change.

Zinn’s success had an unintended consequence itself: A People’s History quickly moved out of the typically small environs of a radical academic/activist and became an international sensation. Its essential message, that American history is a long story of powerful elites dominating common people, counter-balanced the cultural conservative embrace of American exceptionalism, which gained special prominence in the post-Reagan years. Zinn’s book became a lightning rod in the culture wars over public school curricula, and Republicans in states like Indiana and Arkansas have repeatedly tried to ban the book in schools.

Understandably, the Left has rallied around A People’s History and the book continues to be regarded among some in the activist community as a requisite, if somewhat dated, statement of America’s disordered past.

The rhetorical battles of the culture war rarely lend themselves to careful reflection, and there are good reasons to put A People’s History away. Moreover, much of the scholarship Zinn relied on has itself been revised. Many of the insights and stories that Zinn collected have made their way into contemporary textbooks that are widely available and serve as good alternatives to the right-wing textbooks that Texas curriculum committees continue to insist upon. His perspective is palpable as a member of a leftist movement that was in quick retreat on the verge of the Reagan Revolution and the decline of New Deal liberalism.

Read the entire piece here.

Leslie Harris Weighs-In on the 1619 Project

1619

Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, fact-checked The New York Times 1619 Project.  Here is what she said in a recent piece at Politico:

On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.

Hannah-Jones and I were on Georgia Public Radio to discuss the path-breaking New York Times 1619 Project, a major feature about the impact of slavery on American history, which she had spearheaded. The Times had just published the special 1619 edition of its magazine, which took its name from the year 20 Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia—a group believed to be the first enslaved Africans to arrive in British North America.

Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used.

Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Both sets of inaccuracies worried me, but the Revolutionary War statement made me especially anxious. Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.

Read the rest of her nuanced perspective here.

Click here for our collection of posts on the 1619 Project.

Will Future Students Read Mitt Romney’s Speech Against Trump’s Acquittal?

Eliot Cohen, Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, thinks Romney’s speech will be read for a long time.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic, “In the Long Run, Romney Wins“:

Political speeches derive their power and durability from authenticity, from the way in which phrases and sentences seem to emanate directly from a personality and its vision. That is why Lincoln’s speeches will never lose their force: They captured the dignity, simplicity, and courage of the man who made them. Romney is no Lincoln, but he wrote the speech, and the voice is his.

Yet more is at work here than the powerful words. The speech contained all the elements of drama: the man of quiet faith, whose presidential campaign underplayed his charitable works; the handsome politician, whose political career involved both high office and the failure to achieve it; the public figure, who briefly became a hero to opponents who had shamefully vilified him seven years earlier; the successful businessman, who returned repeatedly to public affairs; the patriarch of a large and loving family, whose own niece repeatedly yielded her conscience to the man he rightly condemned. Comparing Romney with the grifter president and his venal clan yields an instructive contrast.

The Romney story plays to something very deep in the American self-conception, to myth—not in the sense of fairy tale or falsehood, but of something Americans want to believe about who they are and who, because of what they want to believe, they can become. Americans embrace the story of the lone man or woman of conscience who does the right thing, knowing that the risks are high. They remember Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in 1955, but forget the three other passengers who prudently moved. They relish the staple theme of Western stories and films—John Wayne in Stagecoach saying, “Well, there’s some things a man just can’t run away from.” They honor John Adams for defending British soldiers accused of shooting down his fellow Americans, in an era when tar and feathers could be the consequence of that act. In an altogether different vein, they laud Henry David Thoreau for choosing civil disobedience and marching to the beat of his own drum, resolved to remain indifferent to what his fellow Yankees thought of him.

Read the entire piece here.

How Politics Shapes American History Textbooks

McGraw Hill

In a nice piece of investigating reporting and research (which she writes about in this companion piece), New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein compared middle school and high school textbooks read by students in California and Texas.  These books, published in 2016 or later, had the same publishers and credit the same authors.  Yet they sometimes tell the story of United States history in different ways.

Here is a taste:

The books The Times analyzed were published in 2016 or later and have been widely adopted for eighth and 11th graders, though publishers declined to share sales figures. Each text has editions for Texas and California, among other states, customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.

“At the end of the day, it’s a political process,” said Jesús F. de la Teja, an emeritus professor of history at Texas State University who has worked for the state of Texas and for publishers in reviewing standards and textbooks.

The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.

Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.

A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.

Read the entire piece here.  The graphics are amazing. You need to read it for yourself to really appreciate the work that went into it.

A few comments:

  • In the passage of the article I excerpted above, the Texas request to include the clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence and the reference to the First Great Awakening influence on the Revolution has David Barton and Wallbuilders written all over it.  Barton, and other conservatives who embrace his view of Christian nationalist history, have sat on the Texas Board of Education-appointed committee that approves textbooks and social studies standards.  I have been following this off and on since 2009. I even wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle addressing Barton’s involvement.  For the record, there was only one member of the clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence.  It was John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian minister who also served as president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton.  And the influence of the Great Awakening on the nation’s founders is a problematic claim.  Yet we see evangelicals like radio host Eric Metaxas and pastor Greg Laurie--evangelicals who probably get their history from Barton– making such statements all the time.   But I digress.
  • This article reminds us that educational publishing is a business.  If Texas or California politicians and government officials want their history framed in a certain way, the textbook companies are happy to do it.
  • It is good to see Goldstein note that U.S. history textbooks, of both the California and Texas variety, have come a long way.  Many of them do a nice job of covering slavery, women’s rights, and immigration.  For example, students no longer read about slaves who prefer slavery to freedom because of kind masters.
  • Of course a textbook is only one tool at the disposal of a middle school or high school history teacher.  A good teacher might even try to show bias in their textbooks, perhaps through an exercise such as Opening Up the Textbook.  Goldstein’s article might be a nice starting point to get students to see that their textbook (or any piece of published material, whether it be hard copy or on the Internet) has a bias.
  • A bit of snark to the end this post.  Goldstein’s article assumes students actually read the textbook.

 

Avett Brothers Bassist Bob Crawford Talks History

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Check out Ashley Layne‘s Substream Magazine interview with Bob Crawford, bass player for the Avett Brothers.  Then go to Episode 53 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast and listen to our interview with Crawford.

Here is a taste of Layne’s interview:

So the band definitely has southern roots and deep ties to an historically conservative state, was there hesitation at all to include songs like “Bang Bang” and “We Americans” on the album? Were you scared of being too pointed and divisive?

Well, no. There was a conversation about “Bang Bang” with Scott and Seth. You know what’s great about it is, it’s a conversation starter. So, I think that needs to be pointed out. I think it also needs to be pointed out that the song is written from a personal viewpoint of a real-world situation. So, I think that is important to recognize, as well. This is a song that was good for us as a group, mainly Scott and Seth, because it allowed them to engage in a difficult conversation.

I look at “Bang Bang” and “We Americans” differently. I fell in love with American History in 2004, and I began just reading. I started with the David McCullough books. I had a curiosity about American history that I still have to this day. I have a history podcast called The Road to Now; it’s something I am very serious about. I am getting my masters in history, so when I heard “We Americans” that Seth wrote, I knew Seth was reading Henry Adams so I was like, ’Oh, this is the natural result of Seth reading Henry Adams.’ Henry Adams has the greatest prose of any historian on the face of the planet. To read his historical text is to read literature it’s so beautifully written. Seth also writes beautiful prose and he’s a wordsmith, so, yeah, of course (Seth) nailed the content.

When you read history there were narratives that were, until the past 50 years, not told, but were real narratives. “We Americans” checks out. I often said to Seth, I hope you have a bibliography for this song because historians are gonna want to see it.

I put “We Americans” in the bucket with “This Land is Your Land.” And I think what’s great about “We Americans” is it goes from the idea of patriotism to paying tribute and respect. So the saying I always have is: the good, the bad, the ugly of American History. Being an American, you need to be able to recognize and somehow deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly of American history. I think what “We Americans” does, it recognizes that we need to have a certain love of our country and patriotism, but the song ends with recognizing love of God as being greater than love of country and love of one another as being greater. That’s what it means to me. I think it’s a great song. And, I think it’s a lot different than “Bang Bang” in terms of what’s controversial about it. I don’t think the subject matter of “We Americans” is controversial at all, I don’t think it should be.

Read the entire interview here.

Michael Kazin Reviews Wilfred McClay’s *Land of Hope*

McClayOne of my favorite historians recently reviewed a book by one of my other favorite historians.  Here is Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin‘s review of University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay‘s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.  (At this point, I can only call your attention to this review. Since I have not read McClay’s book,  I cannot comment on the fairness of Kazin’s review).

Wilfred McClay, a rare conservative historian whose prior work is respected across the political trenches, thinks he can explain what made America wonderful without echoing the nonsense Newt and his ilk hawk to the faithful. In a new survey of the nation’s past, McClay, who sports a hefty title as the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, seeks to impart an uplifting message while still telling the story straight. His book bears the title Land of Hope, with a subtitle that appears pitched to acolytes of Trump: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Serious scholars on the right rarely write such sweeping national narratives, and McClay’s conservative publisher has made quite a production out of this one. It’s printed on expensive glossy stock, the images are numerous and mostly in color, and a handsome brochure with a lengthy author Q&A is included in every review copy.

McClay has clearly written the book with its enormously popular competitor on the left in mind. In the promotional interview, he asserts that Howard Zinn’s famous book is “simplistic melodrama” that appeals to “many Americans who have felt disillusioned by our natural flaws.” He’s not wrong about that. A People’s History does reduce the past to a conflict between a tiny elite animated by nothing but power and greed and a vast majority who always seem to get shafted; he never asks why so many Americans were taken in by what he called “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” Still, Zinn at least made a powerful argument in arresting prose: he condemned the enduring exploitation of the 99 percent by the 1 percent and provided readers with a surfeit of quotes from such eloquent voices as Eugene Debs, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Adrienne Rich who resisted the powerful, albeit with more courage than success.

But McClay has entirely failed to create an appealing alternative to his radical rival. He sheds praise on the nation and its people without explaining why and how they accomplished the deeds he finds so worthy of tribute. Unwilling to parrot the conspiracy-mongering of hacks like D’Souza but still determined to present a past brimming with “hope,” he ends up with a history that is dutiful rather than inspiring.

Read the entire review here.  Later in the review Kazin compares McClay’s one-volume U.S. history with Jill Lepore’s similar effort, These Truths.

Michael Gerson: Conservative reaction to the “1619 Project” is “disappointing”

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If you want to get conservatives riled-up these days, just mention the “1619 Project.”  Last week I published an op-ed about the The New York Times  project designed to commemorate 400 years of slavery in America and all hell broke loose.  You can read my piece in the Harrisburg Patriot-News here. (Read some of the 155 comments).

Since the appearance of this piece I have received multiple negative voicemail messages on my office phone.  It took one guy three messages to tell me that I was wrong.  His rant was cut off by the “beep” and then he continued mid-sentence in the next message.  Another caller insisted that I call him back and defend myself against his criticisms. Apparently the piece was republished in a Grand Rapids, Michigan newspaper.  How do I know this?  Because somebody approached me at my daughter’s volleyball game  (she goes to college in Grand Rapids) and wanted to politely debate me.  My posts on the 1619 Project here at the blog drew some intense push-back from commentators.  Some of the comments were so ugly I refused to post them.  Eventually I just decided to close down the comments section.

Not all conservatives are opposed to the way the 1619 project frames American history.  One of them is Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.  Here is a taste of his recent piece:

I am thinking instead of conservative writers who argue that the 1619 Project is a prime example of leftist ideological overreach — that its (mainly African American) authors see the country entirely through the prism of its sins and intend to “delegitimize” the American experiment. In making this case, some conservatives have offered excuses — or at least mitigations — for the moral failures of the Founders on matters of race. The institution of slavery, we are assured, was historically ubiquitous. The global slave trade, we are reminded, involved not just Americans but Arabs and black Africans. Other countries, we are told, took more slaves than America, treated them worse and liberated them later.

The attempt here is to defend the honor of the American experiment by denying the uniqueness of its hypocrisy on slavery. In one way or another, all these arguments ask us to consider the inadequacies of the Founders within the context of their times.

But to deny the uniqueness of American guilt on slavery is also to deny the uniqueness of its aspirations. Americans are required to have ambiguous feelings about many of the country’s Founders precisely because of the moral ideals the Founders engraved in American life. The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.

This leads to an unavoidably complex form of patriotism. We properly venerate not the Founders, but the standards they raised and often failed to meet. This is their primary achievement: They put into place an ideological structure that harshly judged their own practice and drove American democracy to achievements beyond the limits of their vision.

Read the entire piece here.

The 1619 Project: A “patriotism not of hagiography but of struggle”

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Over at Boston Review, Princeton graduate student David Walsh wonders why the conservative view of “patriotism” is so “fragile.”  He comes up with three reasons for this:

  1. The conservative propensity for “viewing freedom and equality as incompatible.”
  2. Conservatives are invested in the “explicitly racist power arrangements that the 1619 Protect criticizes.
  3. Conservatives “revere history as a source of  incontestable authority, as opposed to a storehouse of fallible human experience.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Attack on the 1619 Project is an Attack on Mainstream Historical Scholarship and Teaching

I am guessing, and it is only a guess, that most critics of the 1619 Project have not read much serious American history, particularly the history of American slavery and race.  Here is Jeet Heer of The Nation:

Damon Linker’s piece at The Week, for example, has given a lot of ammunition to the kind of people who have been responding to Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear.  Linker, like many conservatives, gets caught-up with the phrase “reframe American history.”  He praises some articles in the 1619 Project, but trashes others.  When was the last time he taught an American history course?  Everyone is an expert.

We can debate what the narrative of American history should look like, or whether or not The New York Times proposal is more political than it is historical, but I would say that we cannot understand colonial America, the American Revolution, or much of early American history without making slavery central to the story.  There is just too much good historical scholarship out there to see this any other way.  Yet we have conservatives like Rod Dreher (another pundit who I am guessing hasn’t taught U.S. history in a while) so upset that he has canceled his 30-year subscription to The New York Times.

I have been teaching the first half of the United States survey for over two decades.  We talk about white colonial settlement, slavery, native Americans, political history, religion, presidential elections, democracy, industrialization, southern culture, the Western ideas that drove the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, and the coming of the Civil War.  How does one teach these things without slavery? Slavery is everywhere in this course. It constantly rears its ugly head.  There is no way to tell the story without it.  It is central. I don’t advertise my course as a U.S. survey focused on “race” or “slavery” and I don’t put such language in my syllabus.  But these topics just come to the surface naturally and start to shape the narrative.

What the New York Times is proposing in the 1619 Project is not really that radical.  There is actually no “reframing” here. The Times is not as revisionist as it thinks it is.  Just look at any high school or college textbook.  Slavery and race have been central to the study of American history for several decades.

Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project

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We introduced readers to The New York Times 1619 Project in this post.  It now looks like there are some people who do not like the newspaper’s attempt to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.  Here are a few examples:

I am not surprised by any of this.  I knew there would be push-back when I read that The New York Times was framing the 1619 Project as an attempt to “frame the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and, placing the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

I wonder if any of the aforementioned tweeters have read the essays in the 1619 Project.  Most of them probably stopped after they read the words “frame” and “true founding.”

Historians, of course, have been bringing slavery to the center of the American story for a long time–more than half a century.  The 1619 Project reflects this scholarship and takes it to its logical conclusion.

Frankly, the 1619 project is excellent.  Americans need to wrestle with the legacy of slavery.  I hope teachers will use it in their classrooms.

Newt Gingrich is completely wrong when he says that “if you are an African American slavery is at the center of what YOU see as the American experience, but for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on.” Gingrich is an embarrassment.  (I am especially tough on him because he has a Ph.D in history).

So what were some of those “other things going on?”

Edmund Morgan, of course, showed us that American freedom has always been intricately linked to American slavery.  Pennsylvania farmers in the so-called “best poor man’s country in the world,” pursued their “American” dream by supplying grain to feed West Indian slaves in the British sugar colonies.  As historians Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and others have taught us, slavery fueled capitalism and American economic growth.  Even those living in the free-soil north benefited from the wealth generated by slave labor.  As Robert Parkinson argues in his recent book, the racial fears of American patriots had something to do with the way they understood the Revolution.  In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I trace the history of race and the legacy of slavery in shaping an evangelical approach to political life.  And we could go on.

But there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people, and many others.  We can’t forget, for example, that Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith, provided the impetus for the abolition of slavery.

History is messy and complex.  We should make every effort to remember our past.  And now is the time to remember the significance of 1619 and the central role that slavery and racism has played in the making of America.

A Gun Studies Syllabus

Gun Show

The history website Bunk recently directed me to Caroline Light and Lindsay Livingston‘s “Gun Studies” syllabus at Public Books.

Here is a taste:

WEEK 1

“To Keep and Bear”: An Introduction to Gun Culture in the United States

This week’s readings seek to demystify and question what is meant by “gun culture” and to introduce some popular databases by which gun ownership and gun violence have been tracked and studied in the contemporary US.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

WEEK 2

“A Well-Regulated Militia”: Legal Foundations of “Gun Rights”

The week’s readings address the nation’s unique legal foundations, particularly the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, in which a right to “have and bear arms” was articulated, while exploring some of the transitions and exclusionary frames through which “Second Amendment Rights” have taken shape over time.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

WEEK 3

“To Secure These Freedoms”: Colonization, Slave Patrols, and Early Police Forces

How has firearm ownership and use been protected—or not—via the Second Amendment? Which populations have been excluded from the right to have and bear arms, and in the interest of which power structures?

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

Read the entire syllabus here.

Naval War College Professor Describes Trump’s 4th of July Speech as a “Strange, Somewhat Soviet…Spectacle”

Trump on mall

This morning the New York Daily News published one of the best pieces I have seen so far on Trump’s “Salute to America” speech.  It comes from Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, a former Republican Senate aide, and the author of The Death of Expertise.

Here is a taste:

Let’s get an obvious point about President Trump’s Independence Day speech out of the way right at the top. It was a bad speech.

It wasn’t bad in the way most of Donald Trump’s speeches are bad, in that it was not overtly objectionable. It was relatively free of the populist claptrap and barely disguised racism that characterizes so many of the president’s rally addresses. In some ways, it was even anodyne, and certainly not even in the same league as his hideous “American carnage” inaugural address.

Instead, it was just a poorly written speech: a long, cliché-plagued, rambling trip through American history that tried to name-check battles and famous people as applause lines. Imagine “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if Billy Joel had been born in 1776 and his producers told him to take as much time as he needed to finish the song.

On that level, the “Salute to America” was a flop. Perhaps this was unavoidable, since it was never meant to salute America, but rather to provide the military display Trump has wanted for two years. Like any enforced celebration, it was flat and labored. There were no memorable phrases, no vivid images and no bold proposals — unless you count a promise to NASA stalwart Gene Kranz to plant a U.S. flag on Mars one day. It would have been a challenging speech to deliver even for a better speaker, and Trump, who hates reading from prepared remarks, plodded through it with a strangely detached presence and a certain amount of mushy enunciation, including a weird blip where he referred to the glorious military capture of some airports in colonial America.

And this:

Mining the glories of past military battles while flanked by defense chiefs is the kind of thing Soviet leaders used to do while droning from their reviewing stand in Moscow. It wasn’t patriotic or stirring; it was cringe-inducing. This is probably one of many reasons that former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Chief of Staff John Kelly — both retired generals — reportedly squashed this idea whenever it came up.

Read the entire piece here.