A historian imagines how a history textbook would cover 2020

c7e71-textbooks

Historian James West Davidson is one of the authors of Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic, a popular college and high school history textbook. Over at The Atlantic, he imagines what a chapter on 2020 might look like in a future textbook.

Here is a taste:

When a large crowd of demonstrators gathered around the White House in Washington, the Secret Service ushered President Trump into an underground bunker. Worried about appearing weak, and determined to “dominate” the situation, Trump spoke several days later. “I am your president of law and order,” he declared. At the same time, police and D.C. National Guard units were ordered to clear peaceful protesters from an area facing the White House, so the president could walk to a church and be photographed holding a Bible. General James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, joined other military leaders in condemning the president for being divisive and using military force to disperse and control citizens.

In the two weeks that followed, the protests grew larger. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 2,000 cities and towns. Perhaps more astonishing, similar demonstrations spread around the world to France, Sweden, and Britain, as well as Germany, Kenya, and Australia. “I’ve never seen so many emotions expressed by so many people in my whole lifetime of protesting,” said one Australian. “I want to and need to be here,”commented a Denver marcher.

Both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests for racial justice hit home because they seemed urgent, matters of life and death. “I can’t breathe,” chanted marchers, echoing George Floyd’s cry of pain. COVID-19, too, denied life’s breath. Though 2020 may have been the breaking point for America’s public-health system and the country’s institutionalized racism, these twin crises had been building over decades, if not longer.

The threat of a viral pandemic had surfaced several times in the 21st century, as diseases that originated in animals found new opportunities to infect humans. An earlier deadly outbreak of a coronavirus occurred in 2003, in a disease known as SARS. None spread as widely as the virus that caused COVID-19 would later, but with each new strain, scientists warned that it was only a matter of time before a more serious pandemic struck. The Ebola virus of 2014 persuaded then-President Barack Obama to establish an Ebola task force and an emergency fund designed to prepare for future outbreaks. The Trump administration disbanded the global-health security team in 2018.

Read the entire piece here.

Thursday night court evangelical roundup

COurt evangelicals

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

They are still coming for Jesus:

Graham is responding to this tweet by Mike Huckabee:

I was listening to CNN when Lemon said that Jesus “wasn’t perfect.” I think this was more of a simple theological misunderstanding by Lemon, or perhaps he really doesn’t believe Jesus was perfect. We live in a religious diverse country after all. Don Lemon is free to believe that Jesus was not perfect. (By the way, do Jewish conservatives on Fox News believe Jesus was perfect?) In other words, I did not see this as an attempt to attack Christianity. Lemon was trying to show that our founding fathers were not perfect. He was even calling out liberals. Watch for yourself:

Apparently Robert Jeffress is not happy about this either. But this should not surprise us. He has long believed that we live in a Christian nation, not a pluralistic democracy.

According to Jeffress, anyone who does not believe Jesus was perfect is peddling “fake news.”

Court evangelical journalist David Brody of Christian Broadcasting Network agrees:

Again, the point here is not to argue whether or not Jesus was perfect. That is a theological discussion. 3 points:

  1. The court evangelicals do not care about the larger context of Lemon’s statement because the context does not suit their political agenda.
  2. It is fine to tweet that Lemon does not understand the beliefs of Christianity. I am criticizing how his views (or his mistake) were turned into culture war tweets.
  3. The court evangelicals do not believe in a pluralistic society. The idea that Jesus was imperfect may be a “lie” to all serious Christians, but this is not an exclusively Christian nation. Jews, Muslims, atheists, and people of all kinds of religions watch CNN. Non-Christians work at Fox News (I think). The belief that “Jesus was perfect” is an article of faith and it is perfectly fine in a democracy for people to disagree with this claim. As a Christian, I believe in the incarnation, but I am not offended that Don Lemon may not. These kinds of tweets just make Christians look foolish.

Gary Bauer is using his Facebook page to share an article on the American Revolution that appeared yesterday at The Federalist. Jane Hampton Cook’s essay is a historical and theological mess. It blurs African slavery, political slavery, and the biblical idea of liberty from sin. But at least she was able to take a shot at the 1619 Project! That’s all that really matters. Bauer writes:”>Rather than teaching our children a lie — that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery as the 1619 Project falsely claims — this is what our children should be learning in school.”

Hey Ralph, all you need to do is say “Happy Anniversary.” That’s it:

Eric Metaxas is trying to get his book If You Can Keep It in the hands of “every high school history teacher in the country. Before your school adopts Eric Metaxas’s book, please read this article and this series of posts.

Tonight David Barton will be making a case for why Washington D.C. should not be a state. I don’t have time to watch it, but I am guessing it has something to do with Christian nationalism.

Seven Mountain Dominion advocate Lance Wallnau is at it again. He also wants to destroy public education.

Is it really true that Democrats don’t care about law and order or the Constitution? Jenna Ellis of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center thinks so:

Christian historians and sin

Why Study HistoryA lot of people in the media today, especially those in the Trump camp, are talking about American greatness. Many evangelical Christians, who last time I checked believed in the existence of human sin, want to ignore their country’s past transgressions. Such an approach was on full display last Friday night when Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore. I wrote about this speech here and here.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in human sin informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.” Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”

Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.

I often tell my Christian students that it is very difficult to understand historical figures like Nero, Caligula, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot without a robust understanding of sin. But a belief in human depravity and the sinfulness of this world can have a much deeper effect on the way we approach the past that goes beyond its mere use as a tool for pointing out individual and systemic justice and oppression. A belief in the reality of sin should provide us with a healthy skepticism about movements in the past committed to utopian ends, unlimited progress, or idealistic solutions to the problems of this world. This, of course, does not mean that we should stop working toward these ends, but history certainly teaches us that we live in a broken world that will not be completely fixed on this side of eternity.

Similarly, a belief in depravity helps us to better explain the human condition–the restlessness, the search for meaning, and the prideful ambition that has defined much o the past, especially in the modern era. Augustine was quite correct when he opened his Confessions with the famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

In the same way that a belief in the imago Dei should shape the stories that we tell about the past, a belief in sin should influence the process by which we craft our narratives of the human experience. Let me draw on my own experience as an American historian to illustrate this point.

The study of American history has always served a civic function in the United States. Schoolchildren learn American history for the purpose of becoming informed and patriotic citizens. What has resulted from this approach to teaching history is a skewed view of the American experience that celebrates certain heroic figures to the neglect of others. Such an approach also focuses on American greatness as defined by the patriotic designers of some of the school textbooks published for Christian Right schools and homeschooling parents. In such a curriculum, American nationalism triumphs over the stories chronicling those moments when the United States failed or when it acted in ways that might be considered unjust.

Such an approach to American history is not only one-sided; it also fails to recognize the theological truth that all earthly kingdoms and nations are flawed when compared to the kingdom of God. While the stories we tell about the United States should certainly not neglect the moments that make us feel good about our country, we should also not be surprised when we encounter stories that may lead us to hang our heads in collective shame.

While such a whitewashing of American history is quite popular these days among those on the political or cultural Right, those who occupy a place on the political or cultural Left can also ignore the realities of human sin on the subjects or individuals that they find to be inspirational. Yet, as Marsden reminds us, it is “a sign of maturity” when “representatives of a group can write history that takes into account that members of that group are flawed human beings like everyone else. In the long run the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues.”

Monday night court evangelical roundup

TrumpJentezenprayer1

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Greg Laurie is still suggesting that the United States was “born out of a revival.” I addressed the many problems with this view here. In fact, religious attendance and membership was at an all-time low during the Revolution.

Johnnie Moore, who calls himself a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” loves Trump’s idea for a “National Garden of American Heroes.”

I wrote about this proposed garden here.

Moore also believes that “primary sources” exist in a vacuum. Most first-year history majors can debunk this approach to reading:

Ralph Reed, as always, is sticking to the playbook:

David Barton and his son Tim are on the Jim Bakker Show talking about monuments. For years, Barton ignored the parts of American history that did not fit with his Christian nationalism. Now he is talking about how we need to see the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of American history. At one point, David Barton compares himself and his son to the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha. He praises Tim for training young people to go to their campuses and convince their professors to reject “cultural Marxism” and “cancel culture.” I have now said this several times–the small number of people who are tearing down non-Confederate monuments are providing fodder for this kind of stuff.

Any history teacher who watches this video, and hears the Bartons attack the “dumb” and “stupid” ideas being taught in schools, should be offended. I wonder how many times either David or Tim Barton have set foot in a public school history classroom.

This video is a clear example of the Barton’s Christian nationalist mission. And they are well-funded.

The Bartons came back for a second day on the Jim Bakker Show and basically told viewers that if they don’t vote for Trump the United States will become socialist. The fear-mongering continues. In this interview, they double-down on the idea that anyone who does not vote for Trump is not “thinking biblically.” According to Tim Barton, only about 10% of self-professed Christians are actually “thinking biblically.” The rest “love Jesus” but are ignorant.

Eric Metaxas is still playing to the extremes in order to scare his listeners. Most people in the United States are not engaged in the tearing down of monuments. Most local governments are not trying to remove non-Confederate monuments or erase history.  He plays to these extremes because he wants Trump re-elected and he needs to keep his show on the air. This is what cultural warriors do.

Metaxas keeps pushing his seriously-flawed book If You Can Keep It. He says that the American history kids are getting in schools today is making them ignorant. As I said above in relation to David and Tim Barton, this is a sad attack on hard-working history teachers who are teaching students how to read primary sources, weigh evidence, detect bias, think contextually, appreciate complexity, and grasp how things change over time. When was the last time Metaxas talked with a K-12 history teacher or visited a history classroom?

The fear-mongering continues with Metaxas’s guest John Zmirak. Their discussion of the history of the French Revolution takes so many liberties with the facts that I am not sure where to begin with my critique. Perhaps a European historian can listen to this and comment. Zmirak then refers to political scientist Mark David Hall’s book defending a Christian founding. I haven’t read this book, but you can see a discussion of it here.

The Metaxas-Zmirak conversation moves to a full-blown rejection of systemic racism and a defense of Robert E. Lee monuments. The kind of hate that is now propagated on the Eric Metaxas Show–a show on “Christian” radio–looks nothing like the teachings of Jesus Christ. I don’t understand how Metaxas could have read so much Bonhoeffer and still engage in this garbage. I’ll stick with Charles Marsh on Bonhoeffer: here and here. I would also encourage you to read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and compare his words with what you hear on the Eric Metaxas Show.

In one of the more ironic lines of this episode, court evangelical Metaxas criticizes the Democratic Party for refusing to “stand against the madness.”

That’s all for today. Until next time.

Thoughts on Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Mount Rush

In case you missed it, Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota on the night of July 3, 2020.

Read the text here.

Watch the entire event here:

Thoughts:

1. Mary Hart

2. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem introduced Trump by appealing to America’s founding ideals. She said, “Let’s not destroy history.” This is in interesting exhortation from the governor of South Dakota. What is Noem doing to fund the teaching of history in South Dakota schools? In 2015, the state dumped early American history. I am not sure if things have changed since 2015, but back then I wrote this piece.

3. Noem said that her state prides itself “on the close-knit nature of our community.” She praised all the South Dakotans for showing-up and then said that the crowd included people “from across the nation.” The crowd was packed like sardines into what looked like a small space. I saw very few masks.

4. Noem and Trump did not mention anything about the tearing-down, removal, and defacing of Confederate monuments. The focus was entirely on the monuments to the “founding fathers.” Does anyone know how many non-Confederate monuments were defaced or torn down in the last month?

5. If we want to talk about American history, let’s remember that this entire event occurred on Lakota land. And yes, Trump talked about “manifest destiny” in his speech.

6. Historian Seth Cotlar tweeted this: “I can’t stress enough how angry and reactionary this speech is, on a day that celebrates the violent, statue-destroying revolution that birthed America.” Is Cotlar right? Let’s start here. You may also want to read this book.

7. Trump tried to make the case that Democrats and protesters are trying to “erase American history.” Meanwhile, millions of Americans were ignoring his speech because they were watching a movie about the American founding on Disney+.

8. At one point Trump said, “George Washington will never be removed, abolished, or forgotten.” I am sure the good folks at Mount Vernon are on it.

9. At another point of the speech, Trump threw thousands of history teachers under the bus when he said, “Our children are taught in school to hate their own country.” The only people who would believe this are Fox News viewers or people who have never set foot in a real history classroom.

10. As I watched the speech, I could not help but wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought about Trump invoking his name. The same goes for Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, not to mention Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt.

11. It sounds like white supremacist Steven Miller wrote this speech. There is a reason why he is one of the few people who have been with the administration since the beginning.

Here is Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic:

It sounds like Trump was at it again earlier this evening:

When it comes to American history, Trump is the one who has “absolutely no clue.” He doesn’t even read the teleprompter in an inspiring way.  And then he has the nerve to attack history teachers.

Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

…the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them. His approach to history also reveals his narcissism. When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American history he is about to enter.” Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.” The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office. Our best presidents thought about their four or eight  years in power with historical continuity in mind. This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it. Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity. This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst. Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

 

Saturday night court evangelical roundup

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What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Samuel Rodriguez is upset about the prohibition on singing in California churches.

Jim Garlow agrees with Rodriguez:

Here is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer would probably respond to Rodriguez and Garlow.

Meanwhile, court evangelical journalist David Brody loved Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech:

Here is Brody again:

I don’t think you need to be a “far left latte sipper” to be troubled by what happened last night at Mount Rushmore. It was a “big celebration” during a pandemic with no masks or social distancing on a weekend in which the CDC warned people about gathering in large crowds. We already know that Don Trump Jr.’s wife tested positive for COVID-19. And don’t even get me started on Trump’s use of the American past to divide the country on Independence Day. I wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought about Trump’s speech. By the way, I am not “far left” and have probably had ten latte’s in my life. I prefer the $1.00 large McDonald’s coffee on my way to campus. 🙂

Charlie Kirk, an evangelical Christian, bids his followers to come and die:

Does anyone want to help Kirk, the co-director of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, reconcile the previous tweet (above) with the one below this paragraph? I am not sure he understands the meaning of “liberty requires responsibility.” As Christian moral philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, “It is the concern of the just man…to give others due rather than to obtain what is due him.” But what does Pieper, one of the great Christian intellectuals of the 20th century, know? He is not, after all, 26-year-old Trump wonder boy Charlie Kirk:

And then there is this:

Lance Wallnau is attacking another so-called “prophet” and, in the process, offers his own prophesy. He says the coronavirus, racial unrest, Christians “taking a knee,” and the tearing down of monuments are all judgments of God on America. If you have time, read the thousands of comments on the right of the video and then come back and let’s talk about my “fear” thesis.

Jenna Ellis, a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, is getting into the “America was founded as a Christian nation” business.

She also liked Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech:

I would like to hear how John Hagee uses the Bible to defend free speech, the right to assemble, the right to petition, the freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, etc.:

Like patriotic ministers have been doing since the time of the American Revolution, Hagee takes New Testament passages about liberty and freedom and applies them to political freedom:

Tony Perkins is engaging in the same type of scriptural manipulation:

Gary Bauer throws thousands and thousands of hard-working American history teachers under the bus by telling them that they don’t love their country:

Robert Jeffress is back on Fox News defending his Lord’s Day morning political rally with a non-social-distanced choir. His defense if whataboutism:

The day before, Jeffress made his weekly visit with Lou Dobbs. Pretty much the same stuff:

Focus on the Family is running an interview with Eric Metaxas about his book If You Can Keep It. I point you to my review of this seriously flawed book. If you want to take a deeper dive into this, here is a link to my longer review. I assume that this was taped a while ago (the book appeared in 2016).  As I listen to Metaxas’s radio show today, and compare it with this interview, it is striking how far Trump and the aftermath of the George Floyd killing  has pushed him even further into a Christian Right brand of Trumpism.

Franklin Graham is quoting the Declaration of Independence. Here is a question: Was Thomas Jefferson right? I think the Christian tradition certainly values life. It certain values spiritual liberty in Christ. But what about political liberty? What about the pursuit of happiness? Perhaps this is something to discuss with your friends and family over the holiday weekend.

Until next time.

Friday night court evangelical roundup

Court Evangelicals at Table

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Jentezen is worried about the radical left controlling churches:

Jack Graham is asking people to wear their military uniforms to church on Sunday. Why do white evangelicals always appeal to the Armed Forces, and only the Armed Forces, on July 4th?

I am really confused by both Paula White’s retweet and Samuel Rodriguez’s original tweet:

I am also confused by this tweet. What has history told us, Paula?

James Robison makes it sound like “profanity, pornography, and exploitation” are new things in America:

Robert Jeffress tweets the Great Commission:

I’ve always wondered why so many Christian Right preachers stop after Matthew 28:19. Don’t they realize that the Great Commission continues into verse 20: “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

If the Great Commission means we should be observing all Jesus commanded us, Christians should rejoice when persecuted (Mt.5:11-12), be agents of reconciliation (Mt. 5:23-25), tell the truth (Mt. 5:37), turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:38-42), love their enemies (Mt. 5:44-46), stop practicing their righteousness before men (Mt. 6:1), judge not (Mt. 7:1-3), not cast their pearls before pigs (Mt. 7:6), practice the Golden Rule (Mt. 7:12), follow the 81% narrow way (Mt. 7:13-14), beware of false prophets (Mt. 7:15-16), pray for laborers (Mt. 9:37-38), fear not (Mt. 10:28), defend their rights deny themselves (Lk 9:23-25), celebrate the poor (Luke 14:12-14), and welcome strangers (Mt. 25:35).

Jeffress is also mad about the California prohibition against singing in church. It looks like he got the news from the alt-Right, white nationalist website Breitbart:

Eric Metaxas is devoting his entire show today to re-running this.

Richard Land explains why we should still celebrate July 4th “amid this mayhem.” He uses his Christian Post editorial to attack critical race theory. Not a good look coming from the guy who said this.

Pastor Mark Burns thanks Trump for protecting Confederate monuments:

The Falkirk Center at Liberty University is using Edmund Burke to defend Confederate monuments and the white supremacy they represent.

I have many questions about this tweet, but here are two:

  1. Would the Falkirk Center feel the same way about George III, Parliament and British tyranny? Would they tear down monuments?
  2. Would the Falkirk Center like this “good, bad, and ugly” approach to American history to be applied to public school American history textbooks?

It looks like Trump will be “telling the truth” tonight in South Dakota. Here is what Falkirk Center spokesperson Jenna Ellis retweeted earlier today:

I am watching the crowd assembling at this event right now. No social distancing. No masks. The president’s job is to protect the people. This rally is immoral.

Until next time.

Gordon-Reed: “There are far more dangerous threats to history” than the removal of monuments

Annette Gordon-Reed

What should we do with Confederate monuments?

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed offers her thoughts at The Harvard Gazette:

Gordon-Reed on whether the removal of Confederate statues dishonors the memory of those who died fighting for the Confederacy:

I would say there are other places for that — on battlefields and cemeteries. The Confederates lost the war, the rebellion. The victors, the thousands of soldiers — black and white — in the armed forces of the United States, died to protect this country. I think it dishonors them to celebrate the men who killed them and tried to kill off the American nation. The United States was far from perfect, but the values of the Confederacy, open and unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of black people, to the extent they still exist, have produced tragedy and discord. There is no path to a peaceful and prosperous country without challenging and rejecting that as a basis for our society.

Gordon-Reed on whether the taking down of statues is an attempt to erase history:

History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. Who Frederick Douglass was. Who Abraham Lincoln was. There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.

Gordon-Reed on whether we should also be removing statues of Washington, Jefferson, and others who owned slaves:

I’ve said it before: There is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years. They are both excellent candidates for the kind of contextualization you alluded to. The Confederate statues were put up when they were put up [not just after the war but largely during periods of Civil Rights tension in the 20th century], to send a message about white supremacy, and to sentimentalize people who had actively fought to preserve the system of slavery. No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation. They put up monuments to T.J. because of the Declaration of Independence, which every group has used to make their place in American society. Or they go up because of T.J.’s views on separation of church and state and other values that we hold dear. I think on these two, Washington and Jefferson, in particular, you take the bitter with sweet. The main duty is not to hide the bitter parts.

Read the entire interview here.

Incoming Princeton University Students Will Explore American History, Nationalism, and Civic Ideals

LeporeI am waiting for the day when the Messiah College administration asks all incoming first-year students to read a history book and then publishes a press release to tell the community about it.

Today, Princeton University announced that all incoming students will read Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation.  Here is the press release:

The Pre-read is a Princeton tradition that introduces first-year students to the intellectual life of the University by offering opportunities to engage with a book that students, faculty and staff read.

Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker and host of the podcast “The Last Archive.”

“This America” was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2019. The book investigates the ideas and principles that animate the American nation in particular and free nations in general. It is a follow-up to Lepore’s 2018 international bestseller, “These Truths: A History of the United States.”

In a foreword to the Pre-read edition of “This America,” Eisgruber wrote that one reason he chose the book was because “It addresses big questions, including one of the most important ethical issues of our time: How can Americans, and the people of other nations, see themselves as united in a shared quest for the common good despite differences and disagreements that might pull them apart?”

In a video message to the Class of 2024, Eisgruber noted that it is an especially important book to discuss in the midst of a presidential election year in the United States, and as the public health crisis of COVID-19 requires us to work together across the globe “as peoples and as humanity.”

“This America” is “a terrific Pre-read for another reason,” Eisgruber said, in that “it explores what it means to be a scholar and hence what it means to be a college student (especially at Princeton, where we expect all of our students to do research). Lepore, quoting W.E.B. DuBois, argues that the best history ‘tells the truth’ about ‘the hideous mistakes, the frightful wrongs, and the great and beautiful things that nations do,’ and also ‘foster[s] a spirit of citizenship and environmental stewardship and a set of civic ideals, and a love of one another.’”

Reflecting on the current crisis, Lepore added: “What it means to belong to a place always matters, but a global catastrophe calls upon each of us to think harder about the consequences of belonging to a nation, in a suffering world.” 

A prize-winning professor, Lepore teaches courses on American history, evidence, historical methods and humanistic inquiry. She is the author of more than a dozen books, including “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,” which won the Bancroft Prize in 1999, and “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” which won the 2015 American History Book Prize. Her next book, due to be published this year, is titled “IF THEN: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.” She is the author of numerous articles and book reviews, with recent topics spanning the census, the coronavirus and loneliness.

This summer, the incoming class will receive a copy of “This America” in time to prepare for discussions in the fall. “This America” also will be distributed to incoming first-year graduate students and faculty, and will be available to staff and other community members by request.

Discussions with students about the Pre-read book are among the highlights of the academic year for him, Eisgruber said, noting: “A book like ‘This America’ invites conversation. It demands active engagement and thoughtful argument, rather than uncritical veneration.”

Richard Gilder, RIP

Gilder

Here is a tribute from the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History:

The Gilder Lehrman Institute is proud to publish this short biography of our Co-Founder Richard Gilder, written by Charles Sahm, a journalist and member of our President’s Council. Originally it was intended to present Dick’s extraordinary life story in a form that would reach the thousands of teachers and students who benefit from the resources and programs he has made possible through Gilder Lehrman and other institutions. Dick lived long enough to read the final draft, but his death on May 12, 2020, prevented him seeing it published or witnessing the response from readers.

What I hope readers will take away is a sense of Dick Gilder’s vision, boldness, and generosity; his love of ideas and of America’s ideals; his honesty and courage in facing history as it was; his belief in the potential of our country to continue to pursue its ideals and fulfill its promise. The Gilder Lehrman Institute began in 1994 when Dick was inspired by a lecture on transatlantic slavery by Professor David Brion Davis of Yale to sponsor a summer seminar for teachers on the subject. 

Joining with his longtime friend and partner Lewis Lehrman, the two launched a venture that would grow over the next 25 years to become the leading not-for-profit devoted to K–12 history education in the country. When I became president at the end of 1996, the Institute had three employees and two programs. Today it has the 72,000-item Gilder Lehrman Collection of American documents, a network of 26,000 Affiliate Schools across all 50 states, a website serving more than two million unique visitors annually, and programming that reaches tens of thousands of teachers and through them, more than three million students every year.

Dick was not just a generous financial supporter, he was the driving force behind it all. He was passionate about our mission. In the late 1990s, he would leave his office every Wednesday to teach a course on American history at a public high school in Queens. He took a keen interest in our book prizes, our History Teacher of the Year Award, our exhibitions, our teacher seminars, our partnership with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton—every one of our events and programs, our Affiliate Schools, and K–12 students.

Read the rest here.

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

1619

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.