Barack Obama on the possibility of America

Barack Obama believes in America. Conservatives who think he is a socialist may not believe him. The champions of identity politics who have given-up on America will be angry with him. Christian nationalists will not like how he thinks about the “possibility of America.” Neo-Anabaptists will offer critiques of his nationalism.

The Atlantic just published an excerpt of Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land. I find myself in agreement with most of these words:

Beyond the struggle to put words on a page, what I didn’t fully anticipate was the way events would unfold during the more than three and a half years that have passed since that last flight on Air Force One. The country is in the grips of a global pandemic and an accompanying economic crisis, with more than 230,000 Americans dead, businesses shuttered, and millions of people out of work. Across the nation, people from all walks of life have poured into the streets to protest the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. Perhaps most troubling of all, our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis—a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted.

This contest is not new, of course. In many ways, it has defined the American experience. It’s embedded in founding documents that could simultaneously proclaim all men equal and yet count a slave as three-fifths of a man. It finds expression in our earliest court opinions, as when the chief justice of the United States bluntly explains to Native Americans that their tribe’s rights to convey property aren’t enforceable, because the court of the conqueror has no capacity to recognize the just claims of the conquered. It’s a contest that’s been fought on the fields of Gettysburg and Appomattox but also in the halls of Congress; on a bridge in Selma, Alabama; across the vineyards of California; and down the streets of New York—a contest fought by soldiers but more often by union organizers, suffragists, Pullman porters, student leaders, waves of immigrants, and LGBTQ activists, armed with nothing more than picket signs, pamphlets, or a pair of marching shoes. At the heart of this long-running battle is a simple question: Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody? Or are we instead committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged few?

I recognize that there are those who believe that it’s time to discard the myth—that an examination of America’s past and an even cursory glance at today’s headlines show that this nation’s ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start. And I confess that there have been times during the course of writing my book, as I’ve reflected on my presidency and all that’s happened since, when I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we’ve been promised.

I don’t know. What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America—not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. 

Read the entire excerpt here.

Here is your Thursday morning court evangelical update

More and more Republicans are implying that it is time to move on from this election and admit defeat. I wish more would step up and proclaim Biden president-elect so that the country can move forward, but most of them seem more concerned about party loyalty than what is good for the nation right now. Many are probably afraid that Trump will somehow exact some kind of revenge if they dare speak out against his claims of widespread voter fraud. Others are worried that if they criticize Trump it will hurt the Republican cause in the two Georgia Senate run-offs on January 5. If Trump voters don’t show-up for that run-off election, and the the Democratic candidates (Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock) win, the Democrats will gain control of the U.S. Senate.

Let’s check-in if anything has changed among the court evangelicals. Remember, I have used this term to describe the pro-Trump evangelical leaders who regularly visit the White House for photo-ops with the president and to supposedly advise him on policy matters. Based on this definition, I am not a Biden court evangelical. I have never been to the White House. Nor do I expect to be part of some kind of Biden faith-advisory council! 🙂 )

The folks at the Falkirk Center at Liberty University is still pushing voting fraud. Today they interviewed Rudy Guiliani:

Today in my Pennsylvania History class we continued our conversation about the Whiskey Rebellion. We talked about how George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Federalists believed that the followers of Jefferson and the members of the Democratic-Republican societies they established in the west were a threat to American ideals. But many of these societies were articulating their grievances against Hamilton’s excise tax on whiskey in very American ways. In other words, they were appealing to the principles of the American Revolution, particularly the resistance to the 1765 Stamp Act.

Washington condemned the whiskey rebels and their societies as threats to national unity, but despite all Washington’s well-rehearsed concerns about partisanship he was not above the fray. He wanted national unity on his terms. He failed to understand that in the 1790s there were two visions of American identity among the people and these visions were at odds with one other.

I thought of this again as I read a Falkirk Center tweet from Ryan Helfenbein. He wants to “proclaim Christ and defend America.” Whose America?

At one point in this video, David Barton, a self-proclaimed historian, suggests that Donald Trump’s tweets about election fraud should be taken seriously as a legitimate primary source. One of the first things we teach history students at Messiah University is how to evaluate sources. Barton is treating the Trump claim of election fraud in the same way he treats the American past. He collects stories about supposed fraud, adds them up without any larger context, and claims something happened. When he engages with the past he collects quotes from the founding fathers, adds them up without any larger context, and claims America is a Christian nation.

Eric Metaxas is encouraging people who are “losing hope that Trump can pull this off” to stay the course. He continues to speak with a sense of certainty that Trump will win this election. He also says that “Fox News has gone over to the dark side” and even implies that Fox is now working with George Soros. Then he tells his audience that he, Eric Metaxas, is now one of the only sources of honest news out there right now.

Metaxas says the Democrats are trying to steal the election and “there is nothing more disgusting” than this. Apparently at Metaxas’s prayer meeting on voter fraud the other night some guy blew a red, white, and blue shofar.

Robert Jeffress wants to make sure he is not misunderstood. He is still a court evangelical:

Gary Bauer is fighting the good fight as he sees it. He apparently has some disagreements with Twitter about Trump’s recent tweet.

Tony Perkins is still sowing seeds of doubt among his followers:

I am not sure Trump is doing much “leading” right now.

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.

Andrew Sullivan is “dreaming of a landslide”

“I know I’m tempting fate,” writes Sullivan, “but a landslide is what this country so desperately needs.” Here is a taste of the conservative writer’s recent post at his SubStack site:

I know it’s tempting fate to mention the idea, foolish to entertain it, mad to expect it, but the possibility of a landslide is now real. There are about ten points between the two candidates with three weeks to go, and the momentum is overwhelmingly with the challenger. Among the likeliest scenarios in 538’s poll of polls is now a Biden Electoral College victory of over 400. Texas is in play. The Harris-Pence debate changed nothing, but firmly established Harris’ credentials as a possible president.

And all this changes a huge amount. A Biden win would be a reprieve for the country; a Biden landslide would be an American miracle. 

Unlike anything else, it would cauterize the wound of Trump, preventing further infection. It would say to posterity: we made this hideous mistake, for understandable reasons, but after four years, we saw what we did and decisively changed course. It would turn the Trump era of nihilism, tribalism and cruelty into a cautionary tale of extremism, illiberalism and, above all, failure. It would suggest, especially if older whites come round some more, that the future need not be one of spiraling racial polarization, but of multiracial support for liberal democracy, its norms, and practices. What you learn from studying the decline and collapse of republics is that illiberal precedents become the new baseline if they are not instantly repudiated and punished. A landslide loss for Trump would mitigate, if not remove, the deep damage he has done. 

Think of the last two defeated one-term presidents. Jimmy Carter and especially George H W Bush don’t seem so terrible in retrospect, but Carter’s devastating loss to Reagan haunted the Democratic psyche for decades. Bush’s loss to Clinton, in turn, solidified the hard right’s control of the GOP from Gingrich through to Trump. These defeats can impress on the partisan psyche more deeply than Congressional reversals. And the simple story line — reality-defying showman gets hit by viral reality — now has the devastating symbol of the White House itself as a Covid19 hotspot worse than anywhere else in DC. It’s a crude morality tale that’s very hard to resist.

A landslide would also do something important for an incoming Biden administration: it would present a real opportunity to pursue a policy of national reconciliation around Covid19 recovery and economic stimulus. It would buttress Biden’s hopes for bipartisan support, even if of a limited kind, in a genuine emergency. 

Read the entire piece here.

David Blight talks with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes about Frederick Douglass

Blight

Listen or read here.

A taste:

DAVID BLIGHT:

Multiculturalism, we use it so loosely that we don’t even know what it means anymore. Well, Douglass knew what it meant. It meant the dream put into reality that people of every kind of creed, every kind of race background, ethnicity difference, even though they’re going to fight it out, they’re going to fight like hell over the sources, and meaning, and religion, and interpretation. They’re going to fight like hell, but it’s possible to create a democracy in which all of them can actually live. 

Also this:

CHRIS HAYES:

Let’s talk about your way into this man who, he’s one of these figures where… I think this is sort of the case a little bit with Hamilton and Chernow’s biography and then the musical, which is that, sure, it’s not like Alexander Hamilton is not famous. He’s famous. We know Hamilton’s a founding father, but the depth of complexity of the guy’s life, it’s like you read it. And you’re like, “Whoa, wow.” And Frederick Douglass is in a somewhat similar category in so far as like, yes, we know Fredrick Douglass. When we see his picture, we recognize him. But the sheer volume of his thought, his writing, his speaking, his political influence, his life experience. I had no idea the life this man lived.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, to go right back to your central point in your introduction. He did have a vision of a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious America in a more robust way than almost anybody of his own time. Long before an idea like multiculturalism was any form of consensus in this country. He was the prose poet, if you like, of American democracy in the 19th century. He was a creature of words. We can come back to that if you want of just how a former slave, a kid who grows up a slave spends 20 years as a slave, become such a genius with language. But he managed to find in language, written prose, autobiographical prose, political editorials, thousands of speeches, even one work of fiction. He found ways to penetrate and explain, describe and explain the experience of slavery as both physical and mental. The experiences of racism, they didn’t use that term in the 19th century. They called it racial prejudice, et cetera. And, and he found ways to explain what was happening to the American nation, the country itself, because of this issue of slavery and its aftermath, like nobody else.

Whether he belongs on a Mount Rushmore. I don’t know, on that issue, it’s worth talking about as we go through these monument wars, whether we’ve almost been too obsessed with people on monuments, and maybe we need to think more and more about memorialization, about ideas and concepts and events and processes, and so on. This obsession with heroes sometimes just gets us in trouble because everybody’s got flaws. That’s why George Washington is now in trouble, right, on the monuments.

Read more here.

Thinking historically about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Rushmore 3

A lot of conservatives liked Trump’s speech on Friday night. I am told that The Wall Street Journal gave it a positive review.

I commented on the speech here, but I thought I would say a few more things about Trump’s use of history. My comments are in bold.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you very much.  And Governor Noem, Secretary Bernhardt — very much appreciate it — members of Congress, distinguished guests, and a very special hello to South Dakota.  (Applause.)

As we begin this Fourth of July weekend, the First Lady and I wish each and every one of you a very, very Happy Independence Day.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Let us show our appreciation to the South Dakota Army and Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force for inspiring us with that magnificent display of American air power — (applause) –and of course, our gratitude, as always, to the legendary and very talented Blue Angels.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Let us also send our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and the doctors, nurses, and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.  They’re working hard.  (Applause.)  I want to thank them very, very much.

COMMENT: Over the weekend Trump claimed that 99% of the nation’s COVID-19 cases were “totally harmless.” This claim was even debunked on Fox News. What does this say about his real view of the “scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.”

We’re grateful as well to your state’s Congressional delegation: Senators John Thune — John, thank you very much — (applause) — Senator Mike Rounds — (applause) — thank you, Mike — and Dusty Johnson, Congressman.  Hi, Dusty.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  And all others with us tonight from Congress, thank you very much for coming.  We appreciate it.

There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.

COMMENT: Mount Rushmore is a majestic place. I would like to see it one day. It was also built on Lakota land. Earlier in my career I had a student who did a summer internship at Mount Rushmore. As someone who wanted to tell the truth about the nation’s past, she would often mention the Lakota connection during her tours. Needless to say, she took a lot of criticism from visitors who did not want to be confronted with such history. But this must be part of any conversation about this monument. It is part of what it means to live in a democratic society.

Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.  (Applause.)  I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated — (applause) — these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Anyone who teaches American history will always talk about the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They are not under threat. They will be taught based on what they did with their lives–what they said, how they behaved, and how they led. Trump will be judged the same way.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: This transcript comes from the White House. This is why the chants are included.

THE PRESIDENT:  We gather tonight to herald the most important day in the history of nations: July 4th, 1776.  At those words, every American heart should swell with pride.  Every American family should cheer with delight.  And every American patriot should be filled with joy, because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world, and it will soon be greater than ever before.  (Applause.)

Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.  No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America.  And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump is right. July 4, 1776 is important and should be commemorated. Some of the ideals that drove the Revolution were the same ideals that led to the abolition of slavery.  On the other hand, these ideals were not consistently applied to all people. Morally, July 4, 1776 has a mixed legacy. Any history teacher who does not embrace this kind of complexity is not doing her or his job. Watch:

It was all made possible by the courage of 56 patriots who gathered in Philadelphia 244 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence.  (Applause.) They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said: “…all men are created equal.”

COMMENT: Again, what does “all men are created equal” mean in 1776 and in the larger context of the American story? This is a wonderful way of exploring American history with students. This is a conversation we are having in our history classrooms and one that needs to be taking place more regularly in American life.

These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom.  Our Founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights — given [to] us by our Creator in Heaven.  And that which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away — ever.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Americans have always been good Whigs. We have always put faith in the kind of progress Trump describes here. (I am reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as one’s “ultimate concern”). But this “march of freedom” has not been “unstoppable” for all Americans.

And let’s talk about rights and God. Jefferson and many of the founders believed that our rights come from God. But they rarely connected this general statement with specific rights. This leads to questions that are more theological than historical. For example, does the right to bear arms come from God? Was Jefferson right when he said that rights–all rights–are “endowed by our Creator?” Again, let’s have this conversation–perhaps in our churches.

Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.

COMMENT: I have no idea what this means.

And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure.

COMMENT: Not really. Many of Trump’s political opponents also root their arguments in America’s founding ideals. American socialists often grounded their arguments in such ideals.

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.

COMMENT: How widespread is this “merciless campaign?” Has Trump magnified it because he needs an issue to run-on in November? It sure seems like it. Who is “wiping out our history?” Has Trump ever visited a history classroom? The idea that our children are indoctrinated should be offensive to classroom teachers who train students to think critically about their textbooks and the world.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.  Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing.  They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive.  But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The fact that Trump does not talk about the tearing-down and defacing of Confederate monuments is revealing. He never mentions them during this speech. It leaves us to wonder if Trump believes that it is time for these monuments to go. But today, without a script in front of him, we saw the real Trump. He tweeted: “Has [NASCAR driver] Bubba Wallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest rating EVER!” This seems like a defense of the Confederate flag. This tweet is much more fitting with the Trump administration’s pronouncements on race than anything he said in this speech.

According to his evangelical Christian press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump is neutral on the Confederate flag.  Watch:

And as long as we are talking about Bubba Wallace, perhaps Trump should try to understand why an African American NASCAR driver, or any African American for that matter, might be alarmed when they see a rope tied into a noose. This tweet not only illustrates Trump’s utter failure to empathize with others, but it also shows that he knows nothing about the history of the nation he was elected to lead.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: And the crowd goes wild!

THE PRESIDENT:   One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.  This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.  (Applause.)  This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.  We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.  (Applause.)

In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  It’s not going to happen to us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Is cancel culture a problem? Perhaps. But here Trump is just playing to the base for the purpose of stoking their fears.

Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.  In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.

COMMENT: Again, many of the protesters are drawing from American ideals. Some are not, but many are.

To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Not on my watch!  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  True.  That’s very true, actually.  (Laughter.)  That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  I am pleased to report that yesterday, federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C. — (applause) — and, in addition, hundreds more have been arrested.  (Applause.)

Under the executive order I signed last week — pertaining to the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act and other laws — people who damage or deface federal statues or monuments will get a minimum of 10 years in prison.  (Applause.)  And obviously, that includes our beautiful Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: What is often missing in this debate over the tearing-down of monuments is the fact that it is illegal. It is destruction of property. This was wrong during the American Revolution and it is wrong today. I understand the anger and the violence–it is an American tradition. But conversations about which monuments should stay and which ones should go need to take place with the help of historians and public officials.

Our people have a great memory.  They will never forget the destruction of statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionists, and many others.

COMMENT: I hope they won’t forget this. It is the responsibility of historians to make sure that this does not happen. It is also our responsibility to contextualize this moment in our history.

The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats, in every case, is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.

Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains.  The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.

COMMENT: “Extreme indoctrination?” “Hate their own country?” Again, he needs to get a better sense of what is happening in public school history classrooms around the country. I doubt he will get such a perspective from his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a woman who has never attended a public school and endorses policies that undermine them.

This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore.  They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.  Today, we will set history and history’s record straight.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump could have made this point with an appeal to complexity. But he doesn’t understand complexity. Historical complexity does not win him votes.

Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known.  Tonight, I will tell you and, most importantly, the youth of our nation, the true stories of these great, great men.

COMMENT: Again, complexity.

From head to toe, George Washington represented the strength, grace, and dignity of the American people.  From a small volunteer force of citizen farmers, he created the Continental Army out of nothing and rallied them to stand against the most powerful military on Earth.

COMMENT: Generally true, although I’m not sure the Continental Army wins without France.

Through eight long years, through the brutal winter at Valley Forge, through setback after setback on the field of battle, he led those patriots to ultimate triumph.  When the Army had dwindled to a few thousand men at Christmas of 1776, when defeat seemed absolutely certain, he took what remained of his forces on a daring nighttime crossing of the Delaware River.

They marched through nine miles of frigid darkness, many without boots on their feet, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  In the morning, they seized victory at Trenton.  After forcing the surrender of the most powerful empire on the planet at Yorktown, General Washington did not claim power, but simply returned to Mount Vernon as a private citizen.

COMMENT: Perhaps Trump could learn from Washington’s humility.

When called upon again, he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected our first President.  (Applause.)  When he stepped down after two terms, his former adversary King George called him “the greatest man of the age.”  He remains first in our hearts to this day.  For as long as Americans love this land, we will honor and cherish the father of our country, George Washington.  (Applause.)  He will never be removed, abolished, and most of all, he will never be forgotten.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The good folks at Mount Vernon interpret Washington in all his complexity.

Thomas Jefferson — the great Thomas Jefferson — was 33 years old when he traveled north to Pennsylvania and brilliantly authored one of the greatest treasures of human history, the Declaration of Independence.  He also drafted Virginia’s constitution, and conceived and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a model for our cherished First Amendment.

COMMENT: True.

After serving as the first Secretary of State, and then Vice President, he was elected to the Presidency.  He ordered American warriors to crush the Barbary pirates, he doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and he sent the famous explorers Lewis and Clark into the west on a daring expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

He was an architect, an inventor, a diplomat, a scholar, the founder of one of the world’s great universities, and an ardent defender of liberty.  Americans will forever admire the author of American freedom, Thomas Jefferson.  (Applause.)  And he, too, will never, ever be abandoned by us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: All true about Jefferson. He was also a slaveholder and probably raped his slave Sally Hemings.

Abraham Lincoln, the savior of our union, was a self-taught country lawyer who grew up in a log cabin on the American frontier.

The first Republican President, he rose to high office from obscurity, based on a force and clarity of his anti-slavery convictions.  Very, very strong convictions.

He signed the law that built the Transcontinental Railroad; he signed the Homestead Act, given to some incredible scholars — as simply defined, ordinary citizens free land to settle anywhere in the American West; and he led the country through the darkest hours of American history, giving every ounce of strength that he had to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from this Earth.  (Applause.)

He served as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during our bloodiest war, the struggle that saved our union and extinguished the evil of slavery.  Over 600,000 died in that war; more than 20,000 were killed or wounded in a single day at Antietam.  At Gettysburg, 157 years ago, the Union bravely withstood an assault of nearly 15,000 men and threw back Pickett’s charge.

Lincoln won the Civil War; he issued the Emancipation Proclamation; he led the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time — (applause) — and ultimately, his determination to preserve our nation and our union cost him his life.  For as long as we live, Americans will uphold and revere the immortal memory of President Abraham Lincoln.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Again, mostly accurate. Of course Lincoln was also a white supremacist, a war-mongerer, and a believer in government solutions to American problems.

Theodore Roosevelt exemplified the unbridled confidence of our national culture and identity.  He saw the towering grandeur of America’s mission in the world and he pursued it with overwhelming energy and zeal.

As a Lieutenant Colonel during the Spanish-American War, he led the famous Rough Riders to defeat the enemy at San Juan Hill.  He cleaned up corruption as Police Commissioner of New York City, then served as the Governor of New York, Vice President, and at 42 years old, became the youngest-ever President of the United States.  (Applause.)

He sent our great new naval fleet around the globe to announce America’s arrival as a world power.  He gave us many of our national parks, including the Grand Canyon; he oversaw the construction of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal; and he is the only person ever awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He was — (applause) — American freedom personified in full.  The American people will never relinquish the bold, beautiful, and untamed spirit of Theodore Roosevelt.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: True. Roosevelt was also an imperialist, nativist, and white supremacist.

No movement that seeks to dismantle these treasured American legacies can possibly have a love of America at its heart.  Can’t have it.  No person who remains quiet at the destruction of this resplendent heritage can possibly lead us to a better future.

COMMENT: Very few people want to “dismantle” the legacy of these men. But we can point out their flaws and still “love America.” There is a difference between “history” and “heritage.”

The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice.  But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society.  It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of repression, domination, and exclusion.

They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: This is rich coming from such a divisive president. Also, who is “us” here.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you!

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.

We will state the truth in full, without apology:  We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.

COMMENT: Is America exceptional? Yes. It is exceptional for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that right now it is the only country (with perhaps the exception of Brazil) that still does not have COVID-19 under control. Is it the most “just” nation “ever to exist on earth?” Maybe. But the bar is pretty low. Again, let’s have this conversation outside of the culture war framework.

We are proud of the fact — (applause) — that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and we understand — (applause) — that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world.

COMMENT: Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles? This is a contested idea. I wrote a book about it. Has the United States advanced peace and justice throughout the world? Yes and no. But these kinds of answers are not useful in a political rally.

We know that the American family is the bedrock of American life.  (Applause.)

COMMENT:  I agree. But it is hard to hear this from the guy who separated families at the border and put kids in cages.

We recognize the solemn right and moral duty of every nation to secure its borders.  (Applause.)  And we are building the wall.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Are we building the wall?

We remember that governments exist to protect the safety and happiness of their own people.  A nation must care for its own citizens first.  We must take care of America first.  It’s time.  (Applause.)

We believe in equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal treatment for citizens of every race, background, religion, and creed.  Every child, of every color — born and unborn — is made in the holy image of God.  (Applause.)

COMMENTS: This is true. But it is also code for “All Lives Matter.”All Lives Matter Cartoon 2

We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture.

We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.

We support the courageous men and women of law enforcement.  (Applause.)  We will never abolish our police or our great Second Amendment, which gives us the right to keep and bear arms.  (Applause.)

We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor our history, and respect our great American flag.  (Applause.)

We stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Actually, this last couple of statements contradict the earlier remarks about free speech, tolerance, and rights.

This is who we are.  This is what we believe.  And these are the values that will guide us as we strive to build an even better and greater future.

COMMENT: Again, who is “we”?

Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny.  In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other.  Their goal is not a better America, their goal is the end of America.

COMMENT: We have seen these references to American destiny before. When acted upon, the pursuit of American destiny has never gone well for people of color or the poor.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  In its place, they want power for themselves.  But just as patriots did in centuries past, the American people will stand in their way — and we will win, and win quickly and with great dignity.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: We will see if Trump’s people stand in the way of anything in November. I wonder what “winning” looks like here.

We will never let them rip America’s heroes from our monuments, or from our hearts.  By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.”  (Applause.)

They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years.  Our opponents would tear apart the very documents that Martin Luther King used to express his dream, and the ideas that were the foundation of the righteous movement for Civil Rights.  They would tear down the beliefs, culture, and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the Earth.

COMMENT: Trump is right. Many of the founding principles eventually contributed  to the end of slavery and did inform the Civil Rights movement, but I am not sure what Trump means by “tear apart documents.”

My fellow Americans, it is time to speak up loudly and strongly and powerfully and defend the integrity of our country.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  It is time for our politicians to summon the bravery and determination of our American ancestors.  It is time.  (Applause.)  It is time to plant our flag and protect the greatest of this nation, for citizens of every race, in every city, and every part of this glorious land.  For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes.  (Applause.)

Here tonight, before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago: that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people.  It will not happen.  (Applause).

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  We will proclaim the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and we will never surrender the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4th, 1776.

Upon this ground, we will stand firm and unwavering.  In the face of lies meant to divide us, demoralize us, and diminish us, we will show that the story of America unites us, inspires us, includes us all, and makes everyone free.

We must demand that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed “a promissory note” to every future generation.  Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals.  Those ideals are so important to us — the founding ideals.  He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Totally agree. Now let’s see Trump lead us in this direction. Until then, this is empty rhetoric. At this stage of his presidency these words have no meaning. Again, this speech must be considered in the context of the entire Trump administration. It is going to take more than a speech to win back public trust.

Above all, our children, from every community, must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth.

Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars.

COMMENT: Let’s remember (again) that “Manifest Destiny” was an attempt to drive native Americans from their land in the name of God and progress.

We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.  We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody.  (Applause.)  We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen — (applause) — Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton — General George Patton — the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali.  (Applause.)  And only America could have produced them all.  (Applause.)  No other place.

We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan.  We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream — it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet.  We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon — and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.

We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra — (applause) — the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150 — (applause) — and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.

COMMENT: I don’t see how people can praise such a speech. It is full of contradictions. First off, many of the people Trump mentions here would no doubt be outspoken critics of the Trump presidency. (Although we will never know for sure, of course). Second, these men and women all applied American ideals in different ways. After spending the entire speech articulating a very narrow view of the Revolution’s legacy, Trump makes an empty appeal to diversity here.

Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story.  You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it.  So today, under the authority vested in me as President of the United States — (applause) — I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past.  I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: My thoughts on this.

From this night and from this magnificent place, let us go forward united in our purpose and re-dedicated in our resolve.  We will raise the next generation of American patriots.  We will write the next thrilling chapter of the American adventure.  And we will teach our children to know that they live in a land of legends, that nothing can stop them, and that no one can hold them down.  (Applause.)  They will know that in America, you can do anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.  (Applause.)

Uplifted by the titans of Mount Rushmore, we will find unity that no one expected; we will make strides that no one thought possible.  This country will be everything that our citizens have hoped for, for so many years, and that our enemies fear — because we will never forget that American freedom exists for American greatness.  And that’s what we have:  American greatness.  (Applause.)

Centuries from now, our legacy will be the cities we built, the champions we forged, the good we did, and the monuments we created to inspire us all.

My fellow citizens: America’s destiny is in our sights.  America’s heroes are embedded in our hearts.  America’s future is in our hands.  And ladies and gentlemen: the best is yet to come.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  This has been a great honor for the First Lady and myself to be with you.  I love your state.  I love this country.  I’d like to wish everybody a very happy Fourth of July.  To all, God bless you, God bless your families, God bless our great military, and God bless America.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

 

Episode 63: The 1619 Project

Podcast

In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, an attempt to reframe American history by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” American historians have praised and criticized the project. In this episode we talk with Thomas Mackaman, a history professor at Kings University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and a writer for World Socialist Web Site. Mackaman has not only criticized The 1619 Project, but has interviewed other critics of the project, including several award-winning historians. Why are socialists so upset about this project? What is the backstory behind Mackaman’s interviews with Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Clayborne Carson, and other 1619 Project critics? Anyone interested in debates over how historians do history and connect the past to present political and social issues will learn something from this episode.

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL9483726242

America as Rome?

Roman Empire

I am asked this all time:  Is America going the direction of the Roman Republic (or even the Roman Empire)?  In an age of Trump it might seem like the answer is a definitive “yes.” But historians will be quick to tell remind us that “this too shall pass.”

As historian Tom Holland writes in the New York Review of Books, Americans have been comparing themselves to Rome for a long time.  As he puts it: “America is not Rome.  It just thinks it is.”  Here is a taste:

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been. At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion. In 1919, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, The New York Times warned that the Huns and the Vandals were massing again. “The Roman Empire and its civilization were destroyed by barbarian hordes coming from the East—and it is from the east that comes the wind.” Thirty years earlier, visiting the abandoned Roman city at Baalbek in Lebanon, Brooks Adams—the great-grandson of John Adams—had been inspired by the spectacle of shattered greatness to dread that his own country’s gilded age was bound to end in similar ruin. In the decades before the Civil War, opponents of slavery repeatedly cited the fall of Rome as a warning of what might happen to a slave-owning society. In the 1830s, opponents of Andrew Jackson cast him as a dictator and a demagogue whose tyranny would inevitably bring the infant republic to share in the fate of the ancient empire. Present anxieties that Trump’s presidency portends America’s decline and fall are the contemporary expression of a tradition quite as venerable as the United States itself. 

Just as Americans today look back wistfully to the Founding Fathers as patrons of an age of rugged independence and virtue, so did the Founding Fathers look back with an equal wistfulness to the early years of Rome. There, for any young republic victorious in a war against a great monarchy, a morality tale was to be found that could hardly help but serve as inspiration. The Romans, like the Americans, had originally been ruled by a king; then, resolved no longer to live in servitude, they had dared in a heroic and ultimately successful campaign to expel him. Repeatedly, whether by standing alone on a bridge against fearsome odds, or by plunging a hand into fire rather than submit to tyranny, or by riding a horse into a bottomless abyss in the certainty that such a sacrifice would secure the republic against ruin, Romans had demonstrated their commitment to liberty.

Read the entire piece here.

Brooks: Democrats “don’t even have the language to articulate what Trump represents and what needs to be done”

 

Debate Dems

I am sure my progressive friends hate David Brooks’s recent column, but I loved it.  Brooks thinks Marianne Williamson is on to something, but the column is about so much more.

Here is a taste:

This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.

Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.

He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.

We are all subtly corrupted while this guy is our leader. And throughout this campaign he will make himself and his values the center of conversation. Every day he will stage a little drama that is meant to redefine who we are, what values we lift up and who we hate.

And this:

The Democrats have not risen to the largeness of this moment. They don’t know how to speak on this level. They don’t even have the language to articulate what Trump represents and what needs to be done.

Part of the problem is that the two leading Democratic idea generators are both materialistic wonks. Elizabeth Warren is a social scientist from Harvard Law School who has a plan for everything — except the central subject of this election, which is cultural and moral. Bernie Sanders has been a dialectical materialist all his life and is incapable of adjusting his economics-dominated mind-set.

They are what Michael Dukakis would be if he emerged in an era when the party had swung left. This model has always had appeal to a certain sort of well-educated Democrat.

And this:

It is no accident that the Democratic candidate with the best grasp of this election is the one running a spiritual crusade, not an economic redistribution effort. Many of her ideas are wackadoodle, but Marianne Williamson is right about this: “This is part of the dark underbelly of American society: the racism, the bigotry and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight. If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is Joe Biden the Jon Meacham Candidate?

Here is the Biden announcement video:

Biden appeals to the “Soul of America.”  Historian Jon Meacham recently published “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”  (Biden and Meacham appeared together earlier this year).

Biden focused his campaign video on the Charlottesville race riots of August 2017.   In his Introduction, Meacham begins with the story of segregationist Strom Thurmond’s 1948 speech in Charlottesville and then moves to the racial violence in Charlottesville in 2017.  (Biden and Meacham also discuss this here at around the 56-minute mark).

If I were Alexander Burns annotating this speech at The New York Times I would note Biden’s debt to Meacham.

Meacham writes:

I have chosen to consider the American soul more than the American Creed because there is a significant difference between professing adherence to a set of beliefs and acting upon them.The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American.

He adds:

Philosophically speaking, the soul is the vital center, the core, the essence of life….Socrates believed the soul was nothing less than the animating force of reality….In terms of Western thought, then, the soul is generally accepted as a central and self-evident truth.  It is what makes us us….

Biden’s campaign video is inspirational. It will win him supporters.  But unlike Meacham, who distinguishes between the “American soul” and the “American Creed,” Biden confuses the two.  He begins with a reference to the “soul,” but spends most of the speech talking about America as an “idea.”

I am not sure I have a larger point here.  I am just wondering if “soul” and “idea” are incompatible when applied to a nation.   🙂

 

The Author’s Corner with Richard Hughes

myths america lives by

Richard Hughes serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University. This interview is based on the second edition of his book Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning (University of Illinois Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?

RH: At the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion that convened in Chicago in 2012, I was one of five scholars who responded to James Cone’s new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As part of my comments, I spoke of the five national myths that I identify in my earlier book, Myths America Lives By (Illinois, 2003), and how those myths shaped my understanding of both the nation and race when I was growing up in West Texas some sixty years ago. When I completed my remarks and took my seat at the panelists’ table, one of the panelists—the late Professor James Noel of San Francisco Theological Seminary—leaned over to me and whispered, “Professor, you left out the most important of all the American myths!” When I asked what I had omitted, he told me straight up, “The myth of white supremacy.” That simple comment launched me on quite a journey of reading, reflection, and introspection. In time I began to see Noel’s point, that even whites like me—whites who strongly resist racist ideology—can escape the power of the white supremacist myth only with extraordinary effort, if at all. That is because assumptions of white supremacy are like the very air we breathe: they surround us, envelope us, and shape us, but do so in ways we seldom discern.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?

RH: The book draws three conclusions—first, that the myth of white supremacy is the primal American myth that informs all the others; second, that one of the chief functions of the other myths is to protect and obscure the myth of white supremacy, to hide it from our awareness, and to assure us that we remain innocent after all; and third, that there is hope, but only if whites are willing to come to terms with this reality. An important sub-theme in this book is the role white churches in America have played in perpetuating the doctrine of white supremacy since the birth of the nation—and especially now

JF: Why do we need to read Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?

RH: As far as I know, no other book systematically explores the mythic structure of American identity and roots that mythic structure squarely in the myth of white supremacy.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RH: I was raised in a very narrow, sectarian Christian tradition that claimed to be the one true church. My deeply held, existential questions about those claims first led me into the history of American religion. In time I saw unmistakable parallels between the sectarian dimensions of my church and the sectarian dimensions of my nation, and the mythic structures that sustained both

JF: What is your next project?

RH: Sidney E. Mead was widely recognized as the dean of historians of American religion and was my teacher at the University of Iowa. Mead always claimed that the Enlightenment stood at the heart of the American experience. Much later, a group of evangelical historians placed American evangelicalism at the heart of the American experience. I want to do a project that compares the work of Mead and the work of the evangelical historians on the way those two traditions helped shape the American experience.

JF:  Thanks, Richard!

The Author’s Corner with Daniel Rodgers

9780691181592_0.pngDaniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?

DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.

I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?

DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.

JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?

DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.

At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

 

Historian H.W. Brands Paints a Scenario in Which the Battle Over Abortion Might Lead to Civil War

john Brown

H.W. Brands‘s piece at The Washington Post is worth pondering.  Here is a taste:

Suppose Roe is reversed, and the states are allowed to restrict abortion as they see fit. Red states reduce access to abortion, in some cases nearly eliminating it. Blue states maintain or even liberalize their existing laws. The red states proclaim themselves right-to-life, the blue states right-to-choose. Women seeking abortions travel or move to the blue states, leaving the red states redder still.

Having repealed Roe, opponents of abortion would be tempted to push for a further step: the restriction or outlawing of abortion nationwide. Just as Massachusetts abolitionists felt compelled to condemn slavery in Georgia, so anti-abortionists in Texas would feel conscience-bound to try to prevent abortions in California.

They might not succeed, but the effort alone would cause many Californians to ask themselves whether their liberties were safe any longer in a Union with such people. California’s economy would rank it fifth in the world if it were an independent country. Californians might conclude that they could stand on their own and vote to secede. Perhaps they would be joined by Washington and Oregon, adding Amazon, Microsoft and Nike to the economic heft of the Pacific republic.

What would happen then is anyone’s guess. Would the heartland fight to keep the left coast in the Union? Maybe not. It’s worth noting that when the South seceded in 1860-61, many Northerners, not all of them abolitionists, applauded its departure. Lincoln took the opposite view, but another president might have let the South go. In fact, another president did let the South go: James Buchanan stood by amid the first wave of secession.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Lepore: “Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass”

These TruthsEvan Goldstein of The Chronicle of Higher Education recently interviewed Jill Lepore about her new book, the academy, identity politics, and writing.

Here is a taste:

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

Q. The university has been convulsed by debates around identity politics. You point out that identity politics, by other names, has always played a role in American life.

A. It’s impossible to talk about without pissing off a whole bunch of people no matter what you say, which is a flag that something is terribly wrong about the framing of the conversation.

Making political claims that are based on identity is what white supremacy is. To the degree that we can find that in the early decades of the country, it’s the position taken by, say, John C. Calhoun or Stephen Douglas arguing against Abraham Lincoln. The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.

Q. You get asked about your productivity a lot. I gather it’s a question you don’t like.

A. I sometimes say to people — this is like a 1930s thing to say, you can picture Barbara Stanwyck saying it in a noir film — it’s like complimenting a girl on her personality. It’s not about “You do good work,” it’s about “You do a lot of work.”

For a lot of people writing is an agony; it’s a part of what we do as scholars that they least enjoy. For me writing is a complete and total joy, and if I’m not writing I’m miserable. I have always written a lot. For years, before I wrote for The New Yorker, I wrote an op-ed every day as practice and shoved it in a drawer. It’s not about being published, it’s about the desire to constantly be writing. It’s such a strongly felt need that if it was something socially maladaptive it would be considered a vice.

Read the entire interview here.

The Problem of “Reconciling Irreconcilable Values”

FugitiveAndrew Delbanco‘s new book is titled The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War.  While I was on the road last week I listened to Delbanco’s interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio.  I recommend it.

Over at The Atlantic, Delbanco explains what the 19th-century debate over slavery can teach us about our own contentious political moment.  Here is a taste:

With the united states starkly divided and with many Americans asking what kind of nation we are, it seems a good moment to look back to November 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when Abraham Lincoln tried to answer the same question. Consecrating a Civil War battlefield where thousands of young men and boys had died four months before, he spoke of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For most Americans since, and for much of the world, those words have at­tained the status of scripture. We draw our sense of collective identity from them. They were, however, not strictly true, and Lincoln knew it.

Five years earlier, he had been more candid. Speaking in Chicago in the summer of 1858, Lincoln noted that when the republic was founded, “we had slavery among us,” and that “we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted” slavery to persist in those parts of the nation where it was already entrenched. “We could not secure the good we did secure,” he said, “if we grasped for more.” The United States, in other words, could not have been created if the eradication of human bondage had been a condition of its creation. Had Lincoln said at Gettysburg that the nation was con­ceived not in liberty but in compromise, the phrase would have been less memorable but more accurate.

The hard truth is that the United States was founded in an act of accommodation between two fundamentally different societies. As one Southern-born antislavery activist wrote, it was a “sad satire to call [the] States ‘United,’” because in one-half of the country slavery was basic to its way of life, while in the other it was fading or already gone. The Founding Fathers tried to stitch these two nations together with no idea how long the stitching would hold.

Read the rest here.

Why Americans are Divided Over the Migrant Caravans

Migrant-caravan-travels-towards-U.S

Jeanne Petit, a professor of history at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, offers some historical perspective as the United States awaits the central America migrant caravan.  Here is a taste of her Washington Post piece “Refugees or threat?: How we see migrants reveals our competing visions for America“:

News about the caravan of Honduran and Guatemalan migrants fleeing gang violence and poverty to seek refugee status in the United States has been splashed across television screens for more than a week.

President Trump and members of his administration declared, with no evidence, that Middle Eastern terrorists are embedded in the crowds, hoping to infiltrate the United States. Their fearmongering is challenged by images of individual migrants, usually with children, that emphasize the humanitarian crisis the caravan represents.

These dueling interpretations — threatening vs. vulnerable — reflect a far deeper debate, one that dates back to the country’s founding, about whether Americans should be bound together by a national identity built around shared civic ideals or through common ancestral, religious or racial background. They also reflect longtime debates about whether we ought to focus on border security or whether, by keeping refugees out, the United States is failing to fulfill its promise to be a haven for the oppressed.

Our current moment has parallels with the immigration-restriction debates of the first decades of the 20th century. The United States received a record number of immigrants, mostly coming to work in the growing industries. Unlike earlier immigrant streams from more Protestant nations of northern and western Europe, the vast majority of these immigrants came from southern and eastern Europe. Many Americans welcomed them and saw their immigration as a sign of American vitality, but others worried that the fundamental character of the nation was under threat.

Read the rest here.

Identity Politics and the GOP Midterm Strategy

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

Adam Serwer of The Atlantic argues that “Trumpism is ‘identity politics’ for white people.”  Here is a taste of his piece:

But the entire closing argument of the Republican Party in the 2018 midterm elections is a naked appeal to identity politics—a politics based in appeals to the loathing of, or membership in, a particular group. The GOP’s plan to slash the welfare state in order to make room for more high-income tax cuts is unpopular among the public at large. In order to preserve their congressional majority, Republicans have taken to misleading voters by insisting that they oppose cuts or changes to popular social insurance programs, while stoking fears about Latino immigrants, Muslim terrorists, and black criminality. In truth, without that deception, identity politics is all the Trump-era Republican Party has.

Trying to scare white people is an effective political strategy, but it is also an effective ratings and traffic strategy. Trump’s ability to manipulate the media through provocation and controversy has been effective precisely because covering those provocations and controversies provides news outlets with the ears and eyeballs they crave. Trump considers the media “the enemy of the people” only when it successfully undermines his falsehoods; at all other times, it is a force multiplier, obeying his attempts to shift topics of conversation from substantive policy matters to racial scaremongering. The tenets of objectivity by which American journalists largely abide hold that reporters may not pass judgment on the morality of certain political tactics, only on their effectiveness. It’s a principle that unintentionally rewards immorality by turning questions of right and wrong into debates over whether a particular tactic will help win an election.

Read the rest here.

So I wonder:  Is it possible that we will ever see a politics driven by the things that hold us together rather than the things that divide us? I don’t just see this kind of divisiveness in national politics, but I see it as well in many of our communities, professional associations, and churches.

True leaders, it seems, find way to bring us together amid our differences.