Liberty University’s Falkirk Center is promoting an embarrassingly bad Eric Metaxas speech on the American Revolution

I was going to include this in my MAGA evangelicals post this morning, but I decided to save it for a separate post.

The Falkirk Center at Liberty University just tweeted a video of an Eric Metaxas speech:

Almost everything Metaxas says in this clip is wrong. The defenders of Metaxas might say I am taking the clip out of context. I am not. This speech comes from Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It, a book that I have reviewed in six long blog posts back in 2016. I summarized that six part series in a Religion News Service article. You can read it here.

But today I offer an even more pointed critique, based on the claims he makes in the aforementioned clip. The Falkirk Center was right to pick this clip, because it really reveals the deep historical problems with Metaxas’s view of American history and, by extension, American identity.

Metaxas says crime went down in Philadelphia after Whitefield preached in the “1740, 1750s, and 1760s.” Indeed, Whitefield preached several times in Pennsylvania from 1739 to 1769. But his claim that crime dropped in the city is not supported by evidence. Jack Marrietta did meticulous work on crime rates in colonial Pennsylvania. Marrietta found 7 homicides in the colony in 1740. That number had almost quadrupled by the 1760s. The homicide rates also rose in the city of Philadelphia over this period. The number of violent assaults in the colony also rose. Whitefield’s preaching did nothing to stop crime in Philadelphia.

Metaxas also seems unaware of the fact that the Great Awakening badly divided the Christian community in colonial Pennsylvania. As I argued in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, many of the Awakening’s most ardent supporters apologized later for their divisive behavior during the height of the awakening. Gilbert Tennant, the evangelical itinerant and Whitefield wanna-be, is the best example of this.

Metaxas says, “everything bad decreased” after Whitefield came to town. This is not true in the least. For example, I am assuming that Metaxas thinks slavery and the slave trade was bad. (As he reminds us every day, he wrote a book about William Wilberforce). Both slavery and the slave trade increased steadily in Philadelphia during the years Whitefield visited despite the pleas of Quakers and some anti-slavery evangelicals to end the practice. (Whitefield, I might add, was not one of those anti-slavery evangelicals).

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition act, but slavery remained legal in Pennsylvania until 1847. I could also write several more paragraphs about how the abolitionist community was not welcome in Philadelphia during the early 19th century or the successful attempt to disenfranchise free blacks in the state in 1837-1838 even as the so-called Second Great Awakening was raging in the United States. (You tend to learn such things when you teach a regular course on Pennsylvania history).

Metaxas says that “domestic abuse,” “alcoholism,” and “gambling” decreased in Pennsylvania and the other colonies after Whitefield arrived. He has no evidence to support any of these claims, but it sure fires up the base and gives him evangelical street cred as a “historian.”

Metaxas says that “there is no America without the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He adds that this statement is true “historically” and “ideologically.”

Would the American Revolution have happened without Whitefield and the Great Awakening?

Yes.

While a few historians still cling to the notion that there are ideological connections between the Awakening and Revolution, I don’t know of any historian who would claim that the American Revolution was dependent upon the First Great Awakening. Metaxas, once again, is manipulating the complexity of the past to promote his own political agenda. I critiqued Metaxas more fully on this point here.

Much of the evangelical MAGA movement, promoted by the likes of David Barton, Eric Metaxas, and Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, is built on an irresponsible and unsustainable view of American history. There are few days that go by in which Eric Metaxas does not push this erroneous vision of the American founding.

What should we make of Trump’s 1776 Commission Report? Part 1

Yesterday, in his final days in the White House, Donald Trump released the results of his 1776 Commission. He describes the report as a “historic and scholarly step to restore understanding of the greatness of the American founding.”

The report is not “historic” or “scholarly.”

It is not “historic” because the document is meaningless. It will not be implemented in any way. Trump leaves office on Wednesday.

It is not “scholarly” because the team who created it does not include a single American historian.

But I imagine that there will be many on the right who will appeal to this document to advance a conservative political agenda. So let’s take a few blog posts to examine it, starting with the “Introduction.”

The 1776 Commission wants to promote an American history that is “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.” Were there moments in American history that were “unifying, inspiring, and ennobling?” Of course there were. But an “accurate” and “honest” look at the American past will also require an acknowledgement of where Americans have failed, and failed miserably, to live up to its founding ideals. For conservatives who believe in the limits of human potential and the flawed character of human beings, the authors of this document should understand that any history of the United States must contain the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Introduction references the “imperfect” nature of human beings, but it also seems to assume that Americans have overcome these imperfections. There is a Francis Fukuyama “end of history” feel to the Introduction.

The authors reference America as a shining “city on a hill.” (There is no section in the report on colonial America. This reference to John Winthrop’s words is all we get). I would encourage the authors to read Daniel Rodgers and Abram Van Engen on the original meaning of the phrase “city on a hill.” And by the way, the word “shining” was added to John Winthrop’s words by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

The 1776 Commission report says that the “facts of our founding are not partisan.” But while the founding fathers united around the need for American independence from England, they did not agree on how to apply the principles of their revolution to everyday life. In fact, the history of the American “founding,” if you define the period as the years between 1765 and 1789, was a very partisan and divisive affair. This fierce debate over the meaning of America continued into the 1790s and still continues today.

The statement that “the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice” is just not true.

The rhetoric improves as we get to the end of the Introduction when it says that the story of America is the “struggle” to create a free society. Yes. And the struggle is not over.

My next post will deal with section 2: “The Meaning of the Declaration.”

Trump announces members of his “President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.” There are no American historians.

As COVID-19 cases reach record heights and our country faces unprecedented cyber-attacks, Donald Trump is making appointment to his 1776 Commission. Trump established the commission by executive order on November 2, 2020 and Joe Biden is likely to eliminate it after he is inaugurated on January 20, 2020.

The White House announced: “Today, President Donald J. Trump announced his intent to appoint the following individuals to be Members of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission for terms of two years”:

Here are Trump’s appointments. It is worth noting that there are no professional American historians on the committee.

Larry Arnn: He is the current president of conservative Hillsdale College. Arnn spoke at the September 2020 National Archive event in which Trump announced the 1776 Commission. This was an event that included noted conservative historians Wilfred McClay and Allen Guelzo. It was at this event that Arnn announced McClay was moving from the University of Oklahoma to Hillsdale.

Dr. Carol M. Swain: She is a retired Princeton and Vanderbilt political scientist. She is an open critic of the Black Lives Matter movement and once compared it to the Ku Klux Klan.

Brooke L. Rollins: She currently services as the acting director of United States Domestic Policy Council in the Trump administration and is a strong advocate of criminal justice reform.

Vincent M. Haley: A Trump policy adviser who worked as “Vice President” for “Special Projects” at Newt Gingrich Productions.

Victor Davis Hanson: Former Classics professor at California State University, Fresno. He is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative writer, and Trump advocate.

Phil Bryant: Former Republican governor of Mississippi.

Mike Gonzalez: Senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and critic of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project.

John Gibbs: Trump nominee for U.S. Office of Personnel Management. He is a conservative pundit who has spread the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was part of a satanic cult.

Scott McNealy: A Nevada businessman and Trump supporter who describes himself as a “raging capitalist” and libertarian.

Gay Hart Gaines: Republican activist, former president of the Palm Beach Republican Club, and a member of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Ned Ryun: The son of runner Jim Ryun, conservative activist, and self-proclaimed historian

Charles Kirk: Court evangelical, co-founder of the Liberty University Falkirk Center, and a pro-Trump social media hound. Does not have a college degree.

Peter N. Kirsanow: Ohio lawyer, conservative writer, and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Charles R. Kesler: Government professor at Claremont McKenna College and editor of Claremont Review of Books.

Dr. Thomas K. Lindsay: Fellow at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Jerry C. Davis: President of evangelical College of the Ozarks in Missouri, a college that requires all students to take courses in “patriotic education and fitness.”

Michael Farris: Virginia lawyer who founded the Home School Legal Defense Fund and Patrick Henry College in Purceville, VA.

Bob McEwen: Former member of the House of Representatives from Ohio and friend of Liberty University.

When 20th-century students memorized “Dixie” and “long lists of forgettable governors”

Over at The Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman reports on the treatment of the Confederacy in Southern history textbooks:

For much of the 20th century, southern classrooms treated Black history — when they touched the subject at all — as a sideshow to a white-dominated narrative.

Teachers taught students to sing Dixie and memorize long lists of forgettable governors. Civil War battles got described in detail. Textbooks celebrated the violent overthrow of democratically-elected, multiracial governments. Lynching went unmentioned. The evils of slavery got cursory acknowledgments — and quick dismissals. 

“It should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States,” a 1961 Alabama history textbook said, falsely

The same forces that took over public spaces to erect monuments to the Confederacy and its white supremacist tenets also kept a tight grip on the history taught to Southern pupils. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) spent decades shaping and reshaping textbooks to put a strong emphasis on Lost Cause views of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which glorified the white supremacist foundations of the Confederacy and was used to justify segregation and authoritarian Jim Crow governance. 

Read the rest here.

Georgia Representative Barry Loudermilk wants David Barton to direct Trump’s 1776 Commission

Some of you may recall Donald Trump’s November 2, 2020 executive order establishing the “1776 Commission.” We wrote about it here and here.

Here is a taste of the order:

The 1776 Commission shall:

(i)    produce a report for the President, within 1 year of the date of this order, which shall be publicly disseminated, regarding the core principles of the American founding and how these principles may be understood to further enjoyment of “the blessings of liberty” and to promote our striving “to form a more perfect Union.”  The Commission may solicit statements and contributions from intellectual and cultural figures in addition to the views of the Commission members;

(ii)   advise and offer recommendations to the President and the United States Semiquincentennial Commission regarding the Federal Government’s plans to celebrate the 250th anniversary of American Independence and coordinate with relevant external stakeholders on their plans;

(iii)  facilitate the development and implementation of a “Presidential 1776 Award” to recognize student knowledge of the American founding, including knowledge about the Founders, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitutional Convention, and the great soldiers and battles of the American Revolutionary War;

(iv)   advise executive departments and agencies (agencies) with regard to their efforts to ensure patriotic education — meaning the presentation of the history of the American founding and foundational principles, the examination of how the United States has grown closer to those principles throughout its history, and the explanation of why commitment to America’s aspirations is beneficial and justified — is provided to the public at national parks, battlefields, monuments, museums, installations, landmarks, cemeteries, and other places important to the American Revolution and the American founding, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law;

(v)    advise agencies on prioritizing the American founding in Federal grants and initiatives, including those described in section 4 of this order, and as appropriate and consistent with applicable law; and

(vi)   facilitate, advise upon, and promote other activities to support public knowledge and patriotic education on the American Revolution and the American founding, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law.

Since this commission was established by a Donald Trump executive order, I think it is a good bet that it will also be disbanded by a Joe Biden executive order. Nevertheless, Georgia Representative Barry Loudermilk thinks David Barton, the Christian Right activist who uses the past to promote his agenda, should lead this commission.

Here is Kyle Mantyla’s reporting at Right Wing Watch:

In November, President Donald Trump issued an executive order creating a “1776 Commission” for the purpose of “promoting patriotic education.” Alleging that liberals have hijacked the teaching of history by presenting “one-sided and divisive accounts [that] too often ignore or fail to properly honor and recollect the great legacy of the American national experience,” Trump’s commission aims to “provide America’s young people access to what is genuinely inspiring and unifying in our history, as well as to the lessons imparted by the American experience of overcoming great national challenges.”

This is exactly the sort of nonsense argument long made by prominent right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton of WallBuilders, whose entire enterprise is built on the false notion that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation. As such, it was no surprise to learn that Republican Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia is circulating a letter to his fellow members of Congress urging Trump to name Barton as the chairman of the 1776 Commission.

Loudermilk, a longtime acolyte of Barton and his warped presentation of American history, announced the effort while introducing Barton at Roopville Road Baptist Church in Georgia Sunday.

Read the entire piece here.

Watch:

If you’ve never heard of David Barton you can learn more by reading these posts.

Historian Jon Meacham helped write Biden’s acceptance speech and then commented on it on MSNBC

Back in April 2019 I asked, “Is Joe Biden the Jon Meacham candidate?” The Biden campaign’s appeal to the “Soul of America” came from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

Today The New York Times reports that Meacham has been writing speeches for Biden and worked on the victory speech the president-elect delivered on Saturday night in Wilmington.

The piece notes that MSNBC dumped Meacham as a paid contributor after the historian commented on the Biden speech without disclosing his role in its creation.

Here is a taste of Annie Karni and John Koblin’s piece:

Mr. Biden’s speech-writing process is run by Mike Donilon, the president-elect’s longtime adviser. But behind the scenes, Mr. Meacham has been playing a larger role than was previously known, both writing drafts of speeches and offering edits on many of Mr. Biden’s big addresses, including one he gave at Gettysburg last month and his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in August.

TJ Ducklo, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, downplayed Mr. Meacham’s role. “President-elect Joe Biden wrote the speech he delivered to the American people on Saturday night, which laid out his vision for uniting and healing the nation,” Mr. Ducklo said. “Given the significance of the speech, he consulted a number of important, and diverse, voices as part of his writing process, as he often does.”

A Biden official added that Mr. Meacham was involved in discussions about the themes in the victory speech.

Mr. Meacham, who has voted for presidents in both parties, played an unusual role during the campaign. He publicly endorsed Mr. Biden in an op-ed and received a prime speaking slot at the D.N.C. this year.

“To record history doesn’t mean you are removed from it,” Mr. Meacham said over the summer, noting he had been friends with Mr. Biden for a long time.

Mr. Meacham is currently not expected to join the administration. But his role helping to craft Mr. Biden’s biggest addresses has shades of the presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s relationship with President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Schlesinger worked for Mr. Kennedy’s campaign and as a member of his White House staff.

Mr. Meacham declined to comment on his role.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump establishes his “1776 Commission” on the day before the election

When Trump announced the 1776 Commission we all knew it was a campaign stunt. We should thus not be surprised that he issued an executive order today that established the aforesaid commission. Of course if Trump loses tonight, the 1776 Commission will be no more.

Read the executive order here. A few comments:

Trump writes: “The Commission will offer recommendations for the Federal Government to promote patriotic education at Federal sites – including National Parks and Monuments.” The National Park Service already promotes patriotic history. Its sites cover American history as it happened–warts and all. This is patriotic history.

Trump writes: “Unfortunately, some versions of American history offer a misconstrued and one-sided account of our founding in an effort to paint America as a systemically racist country.” Anyone who studies American history cannot ignore the fact that racism has permeated many, if not most, of our institutions.

Trump writes: “In fact, fewer than one in six eighth graders have proficient knowledge of United States history according to the Nation’s Report Card.” I have no problem with students learning American history, but the study of history is not primarily about civics. It is about developing historical thinking skills that will enable students to be more thoughtful citizens. I made that case in the context of Pennsylvania here.

The executive order announces: “The President has taken action to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a statuary park that will memorialize our American heroes for generations to come.” Monuments are not history. They tell us more about the people who erect them than they do the figures commemorated.

The executive order announces: The President took executive action to ensure that radicals who seek to destroy America’s heritage by tearing down our monuments are prosecuted to the fullest extent under the law.” Again, this suggests that history is all about monuments. It is not.

Read the entire order here.

Sam Wineburg on how anti-Blackness gets whitewashed in U.S. history textbooks

Yesterday Stanford’s Sam Wineburg, author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts and Why Study History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), dropped an amazing Twitter thread on race in American history textbooks. Here it is:

Listen to our interviews with Wineburg in episodes 52 and 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Editor of *The New York Times Magazines* addresses recent criticisms of the 1619 Project

You can find all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.

Here is Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine:

Most of the questions around our display language have centered on variations on a single phrase. In some cases, we referred to 1619 as the nation’s “birth year,” in others as our “birth date,” in others as “a foundational date,” in others as our “point of origin.” In one instance of digital display copy, we referred to 1619 as our “true founding.” It is this use of this last phrase, and its subsequent deletion, that was the subject of an article in the online magazine Quillette and then, more recently, that figured prominently in a column by my colleague Bret Stephens, a columnist on The Times’s Opinion page.

A few notes on this phrase, “true founding”: It was written by a digital editor and approved by me. (Hannah-Jones, as a staff writer at the magazine is not typically involved in matters of digital display language.) It does not appear in the print edition of The 1619 Project. This phrase was introduced when the project went online, in August 2019, appearing in an un-bylined 55-word passage that lived in a small box on the project’s main web page, as well as on the individual story pages, which read as follows: “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Given the space constraints, “true founding” was a way to summarize the “birth” metaphor that appeared here and there throughout the print edition — such as in a sentence in my editor’s note that read: “The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” It also carried some of the meaning of a sentence from Hannah-Jones’s essay in which she says that Black Americans, “as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’” (This summer, President Obama made a similar comparison in his eulogy for the civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, calling him a “founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”)

Nevertheless, in the months after the package went online, we began to wonder if we’d gotten it quite right. In the longer phrase from the editor’s note (“by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year”), the sense that this was a metaphor — a whole new perspective on American history that this collection of essays would give you — was explicit. The online language risked being read literally. And indeed, some readers pointed out that this word choice implied that the specific historical meaning of what took place during the founding period should be replaced by the specific historical meaning of what took place in 1619.

So in December, we edited this digital display text to more closely mirror what appeared in the print magazine. We did not see this as a significant alteration, let alone concession, in how we presented the project. Within the project’s essays, the argument about 1619’s being the nation’s symbolic point of origin remained.

Read the entire piece here.

Why did Allen Guelzo participate in “The White House Conference on American History?”

In a piece at History News Network, the prolific Civil War historian Allen Guelzo explains why he participated in this event.

Here is a taste:

Some friends have importuned me for an explanation of why I joined the panel that spoke at the National Archives as “The White House Conference on American History” on September 17th. Having been engaged in teaching the subject in various ways for forty years, I can say bluntly that I am not happy about its present condition. That I would say so at the behest of the White House set off an overabundance of anxiety in some quarters and over-congratulation in others, and mostly about the fact that the Vice-President and President spoke on the same subject later in the event. I am not sure what the cause of either the anxiety or the congratulation was, since my comments, of course, were not directed to the President or Vice President, or made in consultation with them. I have never even met the former, and the latter only once, at a reception. 

The issue for me was history education; and if I anticipated causing upset, it was more for making no secret of my conviction that the Enlightenment universalism of the Founding, the Declaration and the Constitution is a remarkable and exceptional moment in human history, or for my resistance to the worrisome versions of tribalism which I see bidding to replace it. I am not ashamed to say that I am a Lincolnian on this point, and subscribe myself fully to Lincoln’s opinion.

Guelzo adds:

I have no sympathy whatsoever with the pompous foolishness which argues that all Americans have been right, valiant, brave, noble, innocent, blue-eyed and pure. But the myths of the mindless patriots on the Right are not worse than the myths of the mindless cynics on the Left, and I do not need to explain that it is the Left that dominates in our profession. I suppose that this will invite the accusation that I am merely bourgeois. Very well. Susan B. Anthony was bourgeois, Frederick Douglass was bourgeois, and Lincoln was certainly the most bourgeois of all.

So, I will take the opportunity of any platform offered me short of outright tyrants, depraved fools and genocidal murderers to talk about American history — I have done that for Dinesh D’Souza and was roundly condemned for doing so; I did it for the World Socialist Web Site, and was roundly condemned for doing that, too. I think I can do both without being either a Trotskyist or a D’Souzaist. Lincoln once more: “I have no objection to ‘fuse’ with any body provided I can fuse on ground which I think is right.” I would be just as willing to do so as an officer of the American Historical Association, except of course, that I was told by the chair of the committee on nominations years ago that people who thought like me were not wanted. So much for diversity and inclusion.

Read the entire piece here. The remarks about the American Historical Association are revealing.

A short history of the 1619 Project

Over at The Washington Post, Sarah Ellison chronicles the ways The New York Times‘s 1619 Project has influenced American politics in 2020. Here is a taste:

Sean Wilentz remembers the Sunday morning in August when he walked down his driveway to pick up his Times. The Princeton historian was intrigued to see an issue of the magazine devoted to slavery; his most recent book, “No Property in Man,” explored the antislavery instincts of the nation’s founders. But then he started reading Hannah-Jones’s essay.

“I threw the thing across the room, I was so astounded,” he recalled recently, “because I ran across a paragraph on the American Revolution, and it was just factually wrong.”

Long before “1619” was vibrating on the lips of President Trump and leading GOP lawmakers, objections were brewing among serious liberal academics. Hannah-Jones’s 10,000-word essay opened with her father’s roots in a Mississippi sharecropping family before blossoming into a panoramic take on the nation’s history. In the passage that so enraged Wilentz, she asserted that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” at a time when “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.”

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Wilentz was impressed by some of the 1619 Project’s essays, but in November, he critiqued Hannah-Jones’s piece in a public speech. And he contacted other prominent academics, whose complaints about the project were chronicled by the World Socialist Web Site. Eventually, four agreed to join Wilentz in writing a letter to the Times, criticizing the project’s “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

It didn’t go over so well.

“We perceived it right away to be an attack on the project,” said Silverstein. He questioned why they didn’t just contact him or Hannah-Jones directly to offer thoughts on how to “strengthen this historical analysis” as he said other readers had.

Wilentz, in turn, was stunned by Silverstein’s response letter, which published alongside the scholars’ in December and was longer than their own — a major tell, in his view, that the Times knew it had gotten something very wrong even while it appeared to dismiss the complaint and avoided addressing many of its points. “Holy smokes,” he thought. “This is war!”

Wilentz, who is White, had not succeeded in getting any Black historians to sign on to his letter. But some shared his concerns. Leslie Harris, a history professor at Northwestern who has written extensively about colonial slavery, was contacted in 2019 by a Times fact-checker asking if preserving slavery was a cause of the Revolutionary War. “Immediately, I was like, no, no, that doesn’t sound right,” Harris recalled. She thought the issue was settled — until she was a guest on a radio show with Hannah-Jones and heard the journalist assert that the colonists launched the revolution to preserve slavery. Taken aback, she was unready to argue but retreated to her car nearly in tears: A fan of the 1619 Project’s mission, she knew the claim could be consequential. “Given how high-profile this was, if this was really wrong, it was —” she paused, punctuating each word. “Really. Going. To. Be. Wrong.”

Read the entire piece here. Read all our posts on the 1619 Project here.

The history of voting by mail

The practices goes back to the colonial era. Here is Olivia Waxman at Time:

In the U.S., showing up in person to cast one’s ballot on Election Day has always been the standard way of exercising that fundamental right. But over the centuries, voting by mail has become an attractive alternative for many—thanks in large part to the influence of wartime necessity.

Even the scattered examples of absentee voting (the terms are often used interchangeably) that can be traced to the colonial era tend to fit the pattern: In 17th-century Massachusetts, men could vote from home if their homes were “vulnerable to Indian attack,” according to historian Alex Keyssar’s book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, and the votes of some Continental Army soldiers were presented in writing “as if the men were present themselves” in Hollis, N.H., in 1775 during the American Revolution.

But it was during the Civil War that America first experimented with absentee voting on a large scale, as so many of the men who were eligible to vote were away from home fighting. During the 1864 presidential election—in which Republican incumbent President Abraham Lincoln defeated Democratic candidate George McClellan—Union soldiers voted in camps and field hospitals, under the supervision of clerks or state officials.

Read the rest here.

The American Historical Association responds to Trump’s White House American History event

Here it is:

On September 17, the White House announced, “In commemoration of Constitution Day, President Trump will travel to the National Archives to participate in a discussion on the liberal indoctrination of America’s youth through the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, and other misleading, radical ideologies with a diverse group of professors, historians, and scholars. The President will deliver remarks on his Administration’s efforts to promote a more balanced, accurate, and patriotic curricula in America’s schools.”

This hastily assembled “White House Conference on American History” took place in the Rotunda of the National Archives, although the National Archives and Records Administration had no role in organizing the program. The organizers of the event neither informed nor consulted associations of professional historians. 

The American Historical Association addresses this “conference” and the president’s ill-informed observations about American history and history education reluctantly and with dismay. The event was clearly a campaign stunt, deploying the legitimating backdrop of the Rotunda, home of the nation’s founding documents, to draw distinctions between the two political parties on education policy, tie one party to civil disorder, and enable the president to explicitly attack his opponent. Like the president’s claim at Mount Rushmore two months ago that “our children are taught in school to hate their own country,” this political theater stokes culture wars that are meant to distract Americans from other, more pressing current issues. The AHA only reluctantly gives air to such distraction; we are not interested in inflating a brouhaha that is a mere sideshow to the many perils facing our nation at this moment. 

Past generations of historians participated in promoting a mythical view of the United States. Missing from this conventional narrative were essential themes that we now recognize as central to a complete understanding of our nation’s past. As scholars, we locate and evaluate evidence, which we use to craft stories about the past that are inclusive and able to withstand critical scrutiny. In the process, we engage in lively and at times heated conversations with each other about the meaning of evidence and ways to interpret it. As teachers, we encourage our students to question conventional wisdom as well as their own assumptions, but always with an emphasis on evidence. It is not appropriate for us to censor ourselves or our students when it comes to discussing past events and developments. To purge history of its unsavory elements and full complexity would be a disservice to history as a discipline and the nation, and in the process would render a rich, fascinating story dull and uninspiring.

The AHA deplores the use of history and history education at all grade levels and other contexts to divide the American people, rather than use our discipline to heal the divisions that are central to our heritage. Healing those divisions requires an understanding of history and an appreciation for the persistent struggles of Americans to hold the nation accountable for falling short of its lofty ideals. To learn from our history we must confront it, understand it in all its messy complexity, and take responsibility as much for our failures as our accomplishments.

Read the cosigning organizations here.

“Fig leaves” for a “Trumpist-state dictated popular history”

Over at the anti-Trump conservative website, The Bulwark, historian Ronald Radosh reflects on the recent “White House Conference on American History.”

He calls the entire event “bizarre.”

Here is a taste:

I have nothing but disdain for the professors who use their courses to try and convert their students to Marxism or any other radical ideology. The late historian Eugene D. Genovese was a major historian. The books and articles he wrote while he was a Marxist hold up, as do those he wrote when he became a conservative Catholic. I knew him well enough to know that in both phases he did not indoctrinate students; he only taught history so that students could understand the past of the American South and its legacy of slavery.

Everything the panelists said at last week’s conference must be looked at in the context of the event itself. Historian L.D. Burnett, writing in Slate, is incorrect when she writes that the conference was “100 percent anti-intellectual.” Allen Guelzo, for example, did not offer a right-wing rant. But even his appearance—as with those of all the participants—served as a fig leaf, providing legitimization for the development of a Trumpist state-dictated popular history that would be used to teach a “patriotic” version of our nation’s past.

This is not the attitude of many of the radical professors who are historians I still know. They do not insist that their students agree with them. The activist and professor Cornel West team-teaches a course with Robert P. George at Princeton University. Robby has written about how West’s list of books and articles to read includes scores of conservative books with which he does not agree. Both men are completely supportive of free speech on campus.

The serious historians who participated last week, as well as the other panelists, were there to provide a cover for the politicized history that Trump favors. Nothing, however, compared to some of the remarks Ben Carson made. Since everyone knows he was a medical doctor of great accomplishment, but not a historian, nor even someone known to have given any thought to the subject of the conference, why was he even there? A clear reason is that he is an African American, and stood out in a panel composed of all white men and two women.

Read the entire piece here.

Radosh also references criticisms of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States by Michael Kazin, Sam Wineburg, and David Greenberg.

He also references Kazin’s criticism of Bill McClay’s book Land of Hope, a text featured at the White House event.

Ed Ayers on Trump’s White House history conference

Here is University of Richmond historian Ed Ayers at The Washington Post:

Despite the sustained offensive by those who would save America’s honor, the insidious enemy apparently endures, as dangerous today as ever, worthy of frontal attack by the president of the United States and a new 1776 Commission “to promote patriotic education,” to inject an antidote to the “ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”

These charges concern and puzzle me because they suggest I have been obtuse and perhaps even deluded. As it turns out, I have practiced history for most of the half-century in which these wars over history have been waged — and I have yet to meet anyone who works to destroy the United States. It makes me wonder whether I have been going to the wrong conferences and reading the wrong books, whether I have been left out of exclusive circles where plans are shared.

If this critique had merit, I should have been in the room when the plans were hatched. After all, I sought out the subjects often attacked as the nest of dangerous ideas. I have written books about crime and punishment in the South, about the rise of segregation and disfranchisement, about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Those topics deal with Black people, enslaved and free. They wrestle with lynching and chain gangs. They confront secession and the waging of war against the United States.

I haven’t hidden this work. Over the course of four decades, I have been fortunate to teach thousands of students, to work with museums of many sizes and missions, to help host television and radio shows and podcasts about American history, to work with the National Archives and the Library of Congress, to serve on commissions about African American history and Confederate monuments.

I have done that work because I care about my nation, my people. I do it because I love my native South, where I have chosen to live and to help raise our children. I do it because the United States has indeed been given a great opportunity, enjoyed by few nations in the history of the world, to create its history for itself. To live up to that opportunity, we owe it to ourselves to face the past honestly and fearlessly.

In all that work, I have yet to meet anyone who matches the description posted by the would-be defenders of our history. Instead, I meet people, from all kinds of backgrounds, who care about America, who are fiercely devoted to its institutions, rights and future. I meet people who long to share the freedom of our nation more broadly and more equitably, to explore injustice to lessen injustice.

Read the entire piece here.

Who’s afraid of critical race theory?

Donald Trump has turned Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a campaign issue in the hopes of winning white evangelicals and other conservatives who fear that an academic theory that they know little about is somehow threatening American democracy. Between his attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project, he just might win back a few 2016 voters who were contemplating pulling the lever for Biden or another candidate in November.

On Friday night, September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, released a memo demanding that the Executive Branch stop teaching CRT as part of required “training” sessions for federal employees.

Vought’s memo condemns seminars that expose employees to the idea that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or “benefit from racism.” All programs that include discussions of “white privilege” or the notion that the United States is an “inherently racist or evil country,” the memo states, must immediately “cease and desist.”

Trump may have learned about CRT from a segment on Fox News. On September 2, 2020, Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chris Rufo, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank best known for its advocacy of the “intelligent design” view of creation. After studying CRT for six months, Rufo concluded the theory has become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and is being “weaponized against the American people.” He described CRT as “a cult indoctrination” and demanded that Trump bring an end to it immediately. The president was apparently listening.

So what should we make of CRT? Like all academic theories, we ought to engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups based on the color of their skin.

In their helpful introduction to CRT, scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic identify five major themes of this theory.

First, CRT affirms that racism is an “ordinary” or “common” part of everyday life. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color, it is a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law.

Second, CRT affirms that since White people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it. Shock events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha might alert White people to racial injustice, but it is unlikely such tragedies will lead to a sustained anti-racism.

Third, CRT affirms that race is “socially constructed.” This means that the racial categories we use are not biologically determined but invented by human beings. There is nothing inherent about any race that should lead to its oppression. Racism is thus best explained by a close examination of American history to see how men and women in power “constructed” the idea of racial difference and promoted bigotry based on those differences.

Fourth, CRT affirms, to quote Delgado and Sefancic, that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” For example, I am a male, white, a product of the American working class, and a Christian. These different identities are often mutually dependent on one another and when taken together make me a whole person. CRT uses the technical term “intersectionality” to define the way these different identities overlap and intersect.

Fifth, CRT affirms that Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.” At the heart of CRT is storytelling. This is the primary way that people of color can explain the racism that they encounter daily. It also implies that people of color are more equipped to talk about the plight of the racially oppressed than White people.

Critical race theorists are often suspicious of liberalism, both the Left and Right variety. As a product of the Western intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, liberals champion universals—the things that we hold in common as human beings regardless of race. CRT celebrates what makes human beings unique and different. The appeal to the universal values of the Enlightenment, its adherents argue, always favors the White people who have defined and benefited from those values.

Much of CRT sounds a lot like some of the things I learned in college, seminary, and graduate school. Back then we studied these things under the rubric of “American history” and “Christianity.”

For example, I don’t remember reading anything about CRT while working toward my Ph.D in American history. But I did not need these high-falutin academic theorists to see how racism was embedded in the history of the republic. All I needed to do was study the documentary record with my eyes open. One cannot ignore the long history of White people oppressing Black people. White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not. To acknowledge white privilege is to be a good historian.

It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, freedom, and individual rights are still with us. Indeed, racism is “ordinary” and “common” in American life. It is not some kind of aberration practiced by a few “bad apples” who make occasional appearances in the narratives we teach about the past.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that defined Black men and women as slaves for the purpose of quelling disgruntled poor whites (former indentured servants) who had a propensity for social and political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of these marginalized White colonials.

Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other instances in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.

Trump’s decision to root-out CRT will inevitably win him points with his Fox-News-watching Christian conservative base, but is CRT something Christians should fear?

As an undergraduate and seminary student at evangelical institutions, I learned that Christians should not be surprised by injustice and evil in this world. Rather, we should expect it. The world is a fallen and broken place. My professors drilled this into my head through a reading and re-reading (occasionally in the original Hebrew language) of Genesis 3. Sin manifests itself in both individual lives and cultural systems.

Since Christians believe in human sin, we should have no problem embracing CRT’s affirmation of systemic racism. At the same time, we should always be ready to offer hope–rooted in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the promise of resurrection—as a means of healing a world that is broken. We may never overcome the damage of systemic racism on this side of eternity, but we cannot ignore our call to be agents of reconciliation.

Is it true that White people have no incentive to do anything about racial injustice because they benefit from it? American history certainly bears this out. The story of our nation is filled with White men and women who witnessed racism on a regular basis and did nothing to stop it. Some of them knew it was wrong but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Others simply did not care.

Christian critics of CRT celebrate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wilberforce, or William Lloyd Garrison, but these courageous activists were the exceptions to the rule in 19th-century America. The “heroic man” or “heroic woman” view of the history of moral reform does not account for the long record of White Christian complacency on racial injustice. In the end, any Christian who takes a deep dive into the American past will find heroes to emulate, but they will also find that most White people were complicit in sustaining a system of white supremacy.

What about the social construction of race? When Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) that Africans were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was degrading the human dignity of Black people, men and women created by God in His image. Racism entered the world when sinful human beings forged communities that privileged some and excluded others.

Christians can also agree, to an extent, with the idea of intersectionality. We all possess different social identities and there are times when we face injustice that stems from those identities—injustices that our legal system fails to address.

Our urge to downplay the identities that define us as human beings is understandable and, in many cases, good. A flourishing society will always be built upon the things we hold common as human beings. A thriving Church will always be built upon the knowledge that one day White Christians and Christians of color will share together in the new heavens and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation. A central message of the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles is summed-up best in Galatians 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all one in Christ.”

But God has also made us different. We are products of history. Our faith will always be understood and navigated through the circumstances that have shaped us and provided us with multiple identities in this world. While we all want to be one in Christ, and should always be about the work of reconciliation and unity as Jesus reminded us in John 17, we must also remember, as theologian Miroslav Volf writes, that God notes not only our “common humanity,” but also our “specific histories.”

Finally, CRT’s emphasis on storytelling is something Christians should value. The Christian tradition is full of men and women telling stories of suffering, sin, and redemption. When Black people tell their stories of encounters with racism it should provoke empathy in the hearts of White Christians. We understand the power of testimony.

Of course, stories can be manipulated for selfish or political ends. And personal experience does not always translate to expertise on a subject such as African American history or literature. But those who dwell on these matters miss an opportunity to cultivate a more just democracy through compassion and understanding. It is time to exercise some humility. This means we need to stop talking and start listening to the stories African Americans are telling us.

In the end, if critical race theorists can teach me something I don’t know about how I may have benefited from white oppression (even if I may not commit overt acts of racism) or how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to consider it?

As a Christian, I want to see the world through the eyes of my faith. I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of CRT and reject other parts. I know very few academics—Christian or secular—who adopt theories in toto.

There is much truth in CRT, and all truth is God’s truth. We have nothing to fear.

How textbooks taught white supremacy

Historian Donald Yacovone of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research is writing a book titled “Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History.” Here is a taste of Liz Mineo’s interview with Yacovone at The Harvard Gazette:

GAZETTE: How did you start examining history textbooks from the 19th and 20th centuries?

YACOVONE: I had begun a different book about the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the Civil Rights era. I had spent several months at the Houghton Library before it closed down. When I was nearly finished with one particularly large collection, I wanted to take a break and find out how abolitionism had been taught in school textbooks. I thought this was going to be a quick enterprise: I’d go over to Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education, take a look at a few textbooks, and keep going. Imagine my shock when I was confronted by a collection of about 3,000 textbooks. I started reviewing them, and I came across one 1832 book, “History of the United States” by Noah Webster, the gentleman who’s responsible for our dictionary. I was astonished by what I was reading so I just kept reading some more.

In Webster’s book there was next to nothing about the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it was a central American institution. There were no African Americans ever mentioned. When Webster wrote about Africans, it was extremely derogatory, which was shocking because those comments were in a textbook. What I realized from his book, and from the subsequent ones, was how they defined “American” as white and only as white. Anything that was less than an Anglo Saxon was not a true American. The further along I got in this process, the more intensely this sentiment came out, I realized that I was looking at, there’s no other word for it, white supremacy. I came across one textbook that declared on its first page, “This is the White Man’s History.” At that point, you had to be a dunce not to see what these books were teaching.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Fear and Frederick Jackson Turner: Night 4 of the GOP convention

Trump GOP convention 2

Well, it’s over. Last night Donald Trump, a president who lost the popular vote by 3 million and has never had his approval rating rise over 50%, used the White House–the “people’s house–for a political rally. Most of the sycophants in the crowd were not wearing masks and there was no social distancing.

Trump’s speech was filled with lies and misleading statements. His low energy reading of the teleprompter did not play to our hopes, it played to our fears. But this is now par for the course in the Trump administration. The president claimed that if Joe Biden gets elected, suicide, depression, drug and alcohol addiction and heart attacks would plague the country. (The only thing missing from this list is lower SAT scores). He suggested that if Joe Biden gets elected Black mobs will invade the white suburbs. Joe Biden will take your guns and abolish the police force. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

And most white evangelicals are on board. In fact, many of the court evangelicals were present at the speech.

Author Neal Gabler once said that “true religion…begins in doubt and continues in spiritual exploration. Debased religion begins in fear and terminates in certainty.” The great poet of the Jersey shore put it this way: “Fear’s a dangerous thing. It can turn your heart black you can trust. It’ll take a God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Last night’s theme was “America: Land of Greatness.” But I don’t think court evangelical Franklin Graham got the message. Here is his opening prayer:

Graham talked about a nation in “trouble,” a nation “divided,” and a nation experiencing “injustice.” It was a good prayer. He turned to God, not Trump, for hope.

All week we have been hearing a lot about Trump as a man of empathy and compassion. He loves Black people. He loves women. He loves immigrants. Last night Trump claimed (again) that he has done more for the Black community than any president in American history (which is not true). But he failed to say anything about the plight of African Americans in this country. He ignored the family of Jacob Blake. It’s as if the real problems in America–death from coronavirus, racial unrest, and a struggling economy–do not exist in Trumpland.

I really don’t have much to say about last night that I haven’t written about many times before. Trump is a serial liar. Read NPR’s fact check here.

But near the end of the speech, Trump started riffing on the American past.

Our country wasn’t built by cancel culture, speech codes, and soul-crushing conformity. We are NOT a nation of timid spirits. We are a nation of fierce, proud, and independent American Patriots.

We are a nation of pilgrims, pioneers, adventurers, explorers and trailblazers who refused to be tied down, held back, or reined in. Americans have steel in their spines, grit in their souls, and fire in their hearts. There is no one like us on earth.

I want every child in America to know that you are part of the most exciting and incredible adventure in human history. No matter where your family comes from, no matter your background, in America, ANYONE CAN RISE. With hard work, devotion, and drive, you can reach any goal and achieve every ambition.

Our American Ancestors sailed across the perilous ocean to build a new life on a new continent. They braved the freezing winters, crossed the raging rivers, scaled the rocky peaks, trekked the dangerous forests, and worked from dawn till dusk. These pioneers didn’t have money, they didn’t have fame– but they had each other. They loved their families, they loved their country, and they loved their God!

When opportunity beckoned, they picked up their Bibles, packed up their belongings, climbed into covered wagons, and set out West for the next adventure. Ranchers and miners, cowboys and sheriffs, farmers and settlers — they pressed on past the Mississippi to stake a claim in the Wild Frontier.

Legends were born — Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill.

Americans built their beautiful homesteads on the Open Range. Soon they had churches and communities, then towns, and with time, great centers of industry and commerce. That is who they were. Americans build the future, we don’t tear down the past!

We are the nation that won a revolution, toppled tyranny and fascism, and delivered millions into freedom. We laid down the railroads, built the great ships, raised up the skyscrapers, revolutionized industry, and sparked a new age of scientific discovery. We set the trends in art and music, radio and film, sport and literature — and we did it all with style, confidence and flair. Because THAT is who we are.

Whenever our way of life was threatened, our heroes answered the call.

From Yorktown to Gettysburg, from Normandy to Iwo Jima, American Patriots raced into cannon blasts, bullets and bayonets to rescue American Liberty.

But America didn’t stop there. We looked into the sky and kept pressing onward. We built a 6 million pound rocket, and launched it thousands of miles into space. We did it so that two brave patriots could stand tall and salute our wondrous American flag planted on the face of the Moon.

For America, nothing is impossible.

I need to figure out some way to use this speech in an American history class. There was nothing in the speech about westward-moving southerners trying to find new land to spread their slave culture. There was nothing in the speech about the death of Indians or the forced surrender of  native land. There was nothing in the speech about the limits of American self-interest.

Trump said that the settlement of the West resulted in the creation of “churches and communities.” This was followed, in Trump’s view of history, by “industry and commerce.” Then came railroads, ships, skyscrapers, and victory in World War II. And finally the moon landing. I am surprised he did not use a quote or two from Rudyard Kipling.

What we heard last night was an eighteenth-century “stages of civilization” view of history, a progressive and Whig history focused on the inevitable triumph of liberty and freedom for all white Americans, and a Frederick Jackson Turner-esque story of rugged individualism. I am going to bet that the speech was written by Stephen Miller, Trump’s nativist alt-Right staff member who has spent his short career in politics celebrating the superiority and conquest of the white race.

November 3 is coming soon.

Teaching the complexity of the past

Classroom

Providence (RI) Journal is running a short op-ed from historian Erik Chaput on the teaching of history in these difficult times in the history of our country. It’s worth a read.

A taste:

It is precisely because we are living in such a historical moment that students need to move beyond political soundbites to understand the past in all its vast complexities. It is the job of educators to help young students see all sides, to help them to understand the ironies of history and that historical research is often the best tool when difficult conversations arise. As historian Sean Wilentz rightly reminds us, in “the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth.”

We cannot use a rosy and skewed picture of the past to seek shelter from present tumults. Nor can we ignore the remarkable and heroic aspects of our history that should inspire today. It is the job of the teacher to create a space for open discussion and examination of evidence relating to all parts of the story. A good place to start this fall in the classroom would be the story of the legacy of slavery and freedom during the Revolutionary era. Teachers can bring the state’s history into the classroom by using the digitized back files of Rhode Island History, the journal produced by the Rhode Island Historical Society. In the end, “good history,” remarked the late historian John Hope Franklin, is the “foundation for a better present and future.”

Read the entire piece here.