Trump launched his 2020 campaign tonight. Not much has changed since 2016.

Trump Tulsa

Earlier this evening, Donald Trump started his campaign with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The number of coronavirus cases in Oklahoma is rising. Most of those who did attend the rally were not wearing masks. With the exception of U.S. Senator James Lankford, none of the politicians Trump asked to stand and be recognized–Senators James Inhofe and Tom Cotton, Representatives Jim Jordan, Debbie Lesko, and Elise Stefanik, and Governor Kevin Stitt–were wearing masks. Six of Trump’s rally staff tested positive for coronavirus this week.

The millions of attendees that Trump promised this week did not show up. It looked like he had a decent crowd in Tulsa’s Bank of Oklahoma Center (BOK), but it was much, much smaller than what the Trump team estimated. As I watched on television (C-SPAN), I saw a lot of empty seats. Trump and Mike Pence had to cancel an outdoor speaking event today because no one came.

Trump chose to say nothing about the country’s race problems. He did not bring-up George Floyd, Juneteenth, the country”s racial unrest, or the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. His silence spoke volumes.

I live-tweeted and retweeted the rally

This is what we mean by Christian nationalism. Pence uses this verse all the time and applies it to the United States. I wrote about the way the Christian Right uses 2 Chronicles 7:14 here and here. Russell Moore has a nice piece on this here.

Much of the material in the link above comes from my discussion of “law and order” and Nixon in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

For those who can’t access the link in the above tweet, you can find it here. During the speech, Trump continued to extol his two Supreme Court justices, although he did not mention either of them by name. Readers will recall that we also looked at the Bostock case this week from the perspective of religious liberty and historical thinking.

I would love to know what was going through the mind of James Lankford during this rally. He does not seem like the kind of guy who likes these kinds of events. As we noted earlier this week, Lankford was behind Trump’s decision to move the Tulsa rally from June 19, 2020 (Juneteenth) to June 20, 2020.

Here is what Americans think about how Trump handled, and is handling, the coronavirus. His lies, mistruths, and partially true statements (at least before April 9, 2020) about the pandemic have been compiled here. The Associated Press reported that Trump “wasted” months before preparing the country for the virus. One could make a good case that Trump’s “America First” policy was to blame.

It is hard to pick the most disgusting thing Trump said tonight, but the above statement would be near the top. It reveals the inner-workings of Trump’s mind. Only a narcissist, who interprets everything through the lens of how it benefits his ambitions, would say publicly that there is a political downside to coronavirus testing.

The last five tweets cover the darkest moments of Trump’s speech

As noted above, Trump said nothing about race in America or Tulsa. Yet he spent a considerable portion of the speech talking about this:

John Gehring nails it. Court evangelicals, cover your ears:

Great observation from Kedron Bardwell:

Let’s remember that in 2016, Trump announced a list of  Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society judges. Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh were on that list. Trump’s promise of a new list, of course, is a direct appeal to the white evangelical base. Trump knows that evangelicals vote for a president based predominantly on his or her promises of conservative Supreme Court appointments. Gorsuch’s majority opinion in the Bostock case will not change anything here. Trump is hoping this strategy will pay off again in November.

Matt Lewis may be correct, but I am pretty sure Trump will give it his best shot.

If you can’t read the link in the above tweet click here.

Here Trump seems to be making a statement about the self-interested nature of humanity and his constituency’s inability to rise above such selfishness. He is essentially saying something like: “I dare you to place your morality and what is right over a strong economy.  You don’t have the guts.” It all reminds me of his “I can stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” line.

For more on John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, click here.

And the campaign has begun!

Episode 68: The History of the Presidential Cabinet

Podcast

The members of Donald Trump’s controversial cabinet are regular features of the 24-hour news cycle. He has fired members of his cabinet who challenge his thinking on a host of foreign and domestic issues. Just ask Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Jeff Sessions. But how did our first president, George Washington, imagine the role of the cabinet? In this episode, we think historically about this important part of the executive branch with historian Lindsay Chervinsky, author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL7730217358

Chervinsky

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Leahy

President without a partyChristopher Leahy is Professor of History at Keuka College. This interview is based on his new book, President Without a Party: The Life of John Tyler (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write President Without a Party?

CL: This book is a dramatic revision and expansion of my doctoral dissertation. To start, I wanted to focus my attention on a president most people knew nothing about, thinking that might help my publishing prospects. There had been no full-scale biography devoted solely to John Tyler since 1939, so I thought a fresh look at his life and career was warranted. As a political historian, I had always been interested in the dynamics of the two-party system, and by how that system both energized and constrained our presidents. That led me to the larger thematic question of what it meant to be a president who had been excommunicated by his party. I wanted to know how President Tyler’s banishment from the Whig ranks affected him personally, how it impacted his agenda, how exactly it affected his chances to win election in his own right, and what all of this had to say about the importance of political parties to presidential politics in the mid-nineteenth century.

I also became fascinated by how a former president of the United States, one whose father (whom he idolized) had played a small role in creating the Union out of the American Revolution, could have turned against the country he once led and formally ally himself with the government of the Confederacy.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of President Without a Party?

CL: John Tyler was portrayed by his contemporaries and by many historians as an ideologue whose rigid devotion to states’ rights and strict construction of the Constitution forestalled compromise and made him a failed president. While the view of him as an ideologue contains merit for his pre-presidential career, I argue that he largely favored a middle-of-the road, bipartisan approach to the nation’s problems once he became president, and that it was his status as a president without a party and rejection by both the Whigs and opposition Democrats that doomed his presidency.

JF: Why do we need to read President Without a Party?

CL: I don’t think we can fully understand the long process that led to secession and civil war without understanding John Tyler. For one thing, his career-long defense of the South and slavery provides a case-study of why the planter class turned against the Union and led the South to secede in 1860-61. Moreover, his successful pursuit of the annexation of Texas as president re-ignited the sectional controversy over slavery’s expansion into the nation’s territories and served as a long fuse for the start of war in April 1861.

There is also an aspect to Tyler’s experience that speaks more broadly to the presidency itself. All of the nation’s chief executives have maintained that the press has harassed them and that they suffer unfair attacks at the hands of their opponents. John Tyler, however, likely wins the prize for partisan abuse—and his opponents could be found in both parties. My book demonstrates the lengths to which the Whigs and Democrats went to undermine his presidency.

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

CL: I became interested in American history, and specifically American presidents, as a child. I went to college, however, intent on becoming an attorney. When I was an undergraduate, I read the first volume of William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion. The book sparked my interest in antebellum politics, and it made me think that I’d like to research and write and become an historian. I was fortunate to take courses in college with professors who were riveting lecturers as well as demanding instructors. In speaking with them over the course of my college years, I got to understand the life of an academic historian and decided that I wanted to pursue that career.

JF: What is your next project?

CL: My wife, Sharon Williams Leahy, and I are collaborating on a biography of First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler. Sharon has published an academic journal article in New York History that overturns a key piece of the historiography on Julia Tyler and we have published book chapters for two anthologies that re-orient the historiography on her. So, we are off to a great start on our work!

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Author’s Corner with Michael E. Woods

Arguing until DoomsdayMichael E. Woods is currently Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. Starting in August 2020, he will be Associate Professor of History and Director/Editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This interview is based on his new book, Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: Initially, I envisioned Arguing until Doomsday as an article, not a book. The inspiration came from two sets of sources I encountered during the research for my first book (Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States [Cambridge, 2014]). The first surfaced in the archives: I spent some time exploring Stephen A. Douglas’s papers at the University of Chicago and was struck by the amount of supportive mail he received from Republicans, including staunchly antislavery Republicans, during the late 1850s. The second appeared in the Congressional Globe, a staple for anyone doing work on antebellum political history: the extended debate between Douglas and Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis in May 1860, which unfolded just as their Democratic Party was tearing itself apart over selecting a presidential candidate and writing a platform. Together, these sources suggested that we needed to rethink the relationship between antebellum sectionalism and the Democratic Party. Specialists are familiar with the Democratic split in 1860, but in some narratives it appears almost out of nowhere. Yet there were portents of the rupture—such as Douglas’s rather surprising fan mail in 1857 and 1858—that appeared well before 1860. I decided to use Davis and Douglas’s careers to tell the longer history of that intraparty conflict. And because I wanted to situate both men in the contexts of their home states, I realized that I would have to write a book-length study.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: The 1860 rupture of the Democratic Party was the product of long-term conflicts over balancing property rights and majoritarianism: Stephen Douglas’s primarily northern faction pressed for localized white men’s majority rule, while Jefferson Davis’s primarily southern faction demanded the federal defense of slaveholders’ property rights. In the context of rapid expansion and heightened pressure from pro- and antislavery activists, Democrats like Davis and Douglas could not permanently reconcile these competing agendas, and their efforts to control the party ultimately tore it apart.

JF: Why do we need to read Arguing until Doomsday?

MW: The book reexamines a vital topic—antebellum sectional strife and the origins of secession and the Civil War—from a fresh perspective, enlivened by a dual-biographical approach. Davis and Douglas are typically paired with Abraham Lincoln, but Arguing until Doomsday revisits them from the vantage point of a rivalry that played out within the Democratic Party but across sectional lines. This perspective helps us to understand how sectionalism and partisanship intertwined in sometimes surprising ways. Some southern Democrats, for instance, called for secession in the event that Lincoln or Douglas won the 1860 presidential election. Simultaneously, there were southern critics who denounced Davis as too soft on defending slavery, even as northern Democrats worried that Davis would destroy the party by forcing a proslavery platform on them. These dynamics become much easier to understand if we trace the long rivalry between Davis and Douglas, who began speaking for frankly sectional constituencies when they entered Congress in the mid-1840s.

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

MW: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by American history, but my inspiration to make a career of it came near the end of my undergraduate studies, when I took a seminar (on Chinese history, actually). History is all about conversations, whether carried out in person in the classroom or in print, from one scholar to another. I relished participating in both types of conversations in that seminar and I decided I wanted to continue with them, as a teacher and a scholar.

JF: What is your next project?

MW: I’m working on another biographical project that focuses on John H. Van Evrie, a shadowy figure who was one of the most extreme and outspoken racist propagandists of the mid-nineteenth century. Born in Canada, Van Evrie built a twenty-five year career in New York City as a writer, newspaper editor, and publisher who dedicated himself to promoting white supremacy—a phrase he actually introduced into popular usage. Van Evrie is neither sympathetic nor inspirational, but I think he can help us to trace precisely how ideas about race and slavery and freedom circulated at a time when information was moving more cheaply and swiftly than ever before. We usually think of the nineteenth-century communications revolution, made possible by innovations like the telegraph and the rotary printing press, as a good thing. But Van Evrie’s career exposes a sinister side of that revolution. New communications technologies are only as edifying as the messages they carry and the people who use them.

JF: Thanks, Michael!

The Author’s Corner with Zachery Fry

A Republic in the RanksZachery Fry is Assistant Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. This interview is based on his new book, A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: I’ve always been fascinated by the history of political debate. There’s a great deal of literature out there already on how intense the partisan divide was among the Union Army’s high command during the Civil War, and I grew up reading a lot of that. As I waded into the army’s story myself, though, what I found more and more intriguing was the heated political divide further down the chain of command at the level of captains, majors, and colonels. This was especially true in the Army of the Potomac, the army that hardly ever fought more than several days’ march from Washington. What made the Army of the Potomac such an intriguing topic was that its soldiers went from worshiping George B. McClellan as commander in 1862 to voting against him for president in 1864.

Most historians have examined this political debate in the army by prioritizing diaries and letters home to family as the best evidence. What I found engrossing, though, was the tremendous number of letters and opinion pieces from soldiers at the front to newspapers back home. It was clear to me that newspaper editors, many of whom were intensely partisan, were capitalizing on the army’s role as conscience of the nation to influence the political dialogue. And soldiers were willing and eager to lead the nation’s political debate because they were convinced the importance of the moment demanded it.

The result of all this research is, I hope, a much richer picture of Civil War soldier ideology than readers have previously had.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: The Civil War was a political awakening for thousands of young soldiers serving in the Union Army of the Potomac, and the men who guided that process were the junior officers who had received their commissions from home front politicians. The result of this awakening, much of it acrimonious and heavy-handed, was an army that led the national dialogue by shunning antiwar protesters and earnestly supporting Lincoln’s policies.

JF: Why do we need to read A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: It’s important to understand why soldiers fought in the Civil War. My book offers something genuinely new to that topic by examining how extensively Union soldiers, led by their officers, set the terms of debate in national politics. The angry words of Union officers and men against the “Copperhead” Democratic peace movement—truly a language of revenge and even extermination—are genuinely chilling to read. But it’s also fascinating to see how earnestly these soldiers supported Abraham Lincoln and the policies that won the Civil War. For the hard-luck Army of the Potomac, rallying behind the Republican message gave downtrodden men an inspiring sense of purpose to continue the fight.

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

ZF: What’s interesting to me as a military historian is how many scholars in our field can trace their professional interest back to childhood. I’m no different. I’ve wanted to write and teach history since I was in elementary school. I saw Civil War movies, read anything I could find on the conflict, and started touring battlefields at age seven. My parents were incredibly indulging, and I was able to meet some gifted historians as a youngster who inspired me to pursue a similar path. I also had some supportive high school teachers and, later, professors who expanded my interests well beyond those four years of “The War of the Rebellion.” Now I put that training to work everyday teaching military history to Army officers, and it’s the most rewarding career I could ever imagine.

JF: What is your next project?

ZF: I’m currently at work on a study of the 1864 presidential election between Lincoln and McClellan, almost certainly the most important election in our nation’s history. It’s been a while since readers have seen a new account of this event, so I’m excited to finish it.

JF: Thanks, Zachery!

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The Author’s Corner with Gregory Downs

the second american revolutionGregory Downs is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. This interview is based on his new book, The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Second American Revolution?

GD: A gnawing pit in my stomach and a sense of unfinished business and a golden opportunity. The gnawing pit was from a feeling that I hadn’t done what I genuinely intended to in my American Historical Review essay “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization.” I began that research with an interest in the interaction between domestic/national politics and international events, in the way that events in other nations shaped the discourse around what was possible or probable, and I wanted to use this to show U.S. politics as less bounded than our received terms convey, to explore the mutual construction of what gets classed as national and trans-national history, and to capture the ebb and flow of ideas through particular domestic political contexts. In the process of following the inflow of ideas about Mexican crises to U.S. politics in the 1850s-1870s, however, I never got to the truly interactive nature of those connections, and so in some ways reproduced a domestic framework, in which the United States was influenced by cultural ideas about other nations. This made me uncomfortable, as I knew there was a great deal to the Mexican side of the story that I hadn’t explored, and it also gave me a sense of unfinished business: how could I go further in exploring the mid-19th century as a broad crisis in republican theory, in which calculations of how (and whether) republics survived were shaped by ideas and political actors moving from one nation to another. There was much more to be said about the relationship between the United States mid-century crises and those in other countries.

The opportunity came in the Brose Lectures which gave me a format and an excuse to explore ideas that were historiographically important but might not fit easily into a book. And as I began reading and thinking more deeply, I became more impressed with the ways that the literature was already working to incorporate a multi-sided view of the U.S.-Mexican influence (especially in work by Erika Pani and Pat Kelly and others) and also with a thread I had worried over earlier but not followed: the centrality of Cuba. By following Cuban revolutionary exiles, I was able to find a way to follow circuits into and out of different countries’ domestic politics and to explore the connection between the revolutionary remaking of U.S. political structures and a global revolutionary wave that rose and then fell in the mid-19th century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Second American Revolution?

GD: The Civil War was not merely civil–meaning national–and not merely a war, but instead an international conflict of ideas as well as armies. Its implications transformed the U.S. Constitution and reshaped a world order, as political and economic systems grounded in slavery and empire clashed with the democratic process of republican forms of government.

JF: Why do we need to read The Second American Revolution?

GD: The book examines the breadth of U.S. politics at a moment when we need to recover our sense of the bold and of the possible. Much of the book is dedicated to exploring those international currents I mentioned, and those have important (I believe) historiographical ramifications for U.S. history and potentially some interest for historians of Cuba and the Caribbean and 19th century Spain.) But the book also turns inward to examine the norm-breaking boldness of U.S. Republicans in the 1860s as they created new states, forced constitutional amendments through, marginalized the Supreme Court, and in other ways significantly altered the political system. Then, I argue, they covered their tracks in order to make their achievements seem moderate, and we have helped them do so by scolding them for their moderation. But in fact no political candidate offers solutions anywhere near as bold as “moderate” 1860s Republicans; no one matches John Bingham in threatening to dissolve the Supreme Court entirely if it doesn’t recognize the role it must play. Instead we have fallen into calling for respect for norms that are—as in the 1840s and 1850s—no longer respected. When faced with those norm violations, we tend to call for the referees. But there are no referees, other than the electorate. And to the electorate we make claims about broader failings but can’t offer plausible solutions; we tell them the political system is broken but don’t fix it. I think we need to recover our boldness and abandon our sense of futility. Rethinking the constitutional transgressions of the Civil War is one way we can expand our own political thinking to make it at least approach the boldness of allegedly moderate 1860s Republicans, and thus discover ways out of problems like the contemporary Supreme Court, the Senate, and other sticky but intractable problems of U.S. politics.

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

GD: As a child I was raised between Kauai and my extended family’s home of central Kentucky and my extended family’s eventual new home in Middle Tennessee, and I was from a young age fascinated by the differences between those places, by the way that race and politics and memory worked so differently in Kauai than in Kentucky, and by the shadow that events (the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy or the Civil War) continued to gnaw upon the present. I worked as a journalist and as a high school teacher, so I didn’t always know that I would be an academic historian, but I always believed that the study of the past was venerable, difficult, and essential.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: I am working on completing my friend Tony Kaye’s manuscript on Nat Turner, a project he was working on when he died. After that I have many projects I am contemplating and am enjoying the time to reflect on what I most want to do and most feel challenged by.

JF: Thanks, Greg!

Is America More Polarized Then Ever?

Civil War dead

Annie’s recent Out of the Zoo column raised this question.  Check it out here.

I think Annie must have inspired University of Virginia Civil War historian Gary Gallagher. 🙂

Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

It has become common to say that the United States in 2020 is more divided politically and culturally than at any other point in our national past.

As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.

Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox in April 1865, the nation literally broke apart.

More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage.

After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.

To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history.

Read the rest here.

Is Pete Buttigieg the New Jimmy Carter?

Buttigied

Over at The Washington Post, historian J. Brooks Flippen compares the two Democratic political outsiders.  Here is a taste of his piece “Is Pete Buttigieg Jimmy Carter 2.0“:

Like Carter, the former long-shot mayor has emerged as one of the front-runners by winning Iowa and performing well on Tuesday in New Hampshire, finishing a close second. Like the former president, Buttigieg grew up in a middle-class household — Carter’s father was a prominent landowner and Buttigieg’s father a professor. Both served in the Navy, Carter having attended the U.S. Naval Academy and Buttigieg having served with the Naval Reserve in Afghanistan. When they declared their presidential ambitions, both were derided as too inexperienced and thus garnered little media attention.

In response, both demonstrated remarkable self-assurance and confidence, proposing an ambitious agenda early. Both welcomed the civil rights debates that their respective candidacies engendered. Carter had promoted desegregation in his governorship and even in his Southern Baptist Church, while Buttigieg championed gay and lesbian rights, even touting his marriage to a man. In response to ensuing questions and attacks, both cited their faith. In fact, both men made their religions central to their candidacies, Carter famously declaring himself a “born-again Christian” while Buttigieg proclaimed that his faith demanded LBGQT equality.

As they launched their presidential campaigns, both men confronted an energized Democratic electorate, anxious to repudiate the scandal-tarred Republicans. Both faced large Democratic fields initially crowded with accomplished candidates — 17 in 1976 and in 28 in 2020. Neither field, however, had a clear front-runner.

Read the entire piece here.

When New York Mayors Run for President

John_Lindsay_NYWTS_2

Former New York mayor John Lindsay, October 1965 (Wikimedia)

What do DeWitt Clinton, John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani, Bill DeBlasio, and Michael Bloomberg have in common? They were all New York City mayors who ran for president.

Here is Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine:

So that brings us to 2020 and Bloomberg. Interestingly enough, he’s emulating Giuliani’s skip-the-early-states strategy, but he’s putting his vast wealth into ensuring that when the calendar does turn to Super Tuesday in March he will be extremely well-known and have a solid campaign in those states. And it’s looking like he is lucking into a landscape in which all of his surviving rivals will have weaknesses he can exploit. Whether it’s a one-on-one cage match with current front-runner Bernie Sanders, or a large field of wounded and underfunded candidates struggling from state to state, Bloomberg is positioned to do a lot better than Rudy did and perhaps as well as or even better than DeWitt Clinton. If he blows this opportunity, it could be a long time before another New York mayor ventures onto the presidential campaign trail.

Read the entire piece here.

How Bernie Sanders Has Transformed the Democratic Party

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in San Diego

William Jennings Bryan, George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, and Barry Goldwater all failed in their bids for the presidency.  But their ideas lived on and profoundly shaped the future of their parties.  According to historian Michael Kazin, Bernie Sanders is doing the same thing.

Here is a taste of his New York Times piece “Bernie Sanders Has Already Won“:

Since he began running for president five years ago, Senator Sanders and his supporters have nudged Democrats to take stands to the left of where the center of the party was when Barack Obama moved out of the White House. Every remaining candidate for president now endorses either Medicare for All or a robust public option, doubling the minimum wage, much higher taxes on the rich, legislation to facilitate union organizing and a transition to an economy based on sources of renewable energy. Even if the delegates in Milwaukee this summer choose a different nominee, they will surely endorse such policies and make them central to the drive to make Donald Trump a one-term president.

So whatever his electoral fate, the socialist from Vermont who is pushing 80 is likely to be remembered as a more transformative figure than many politicians who won an election but whom most Americans were quite glad to put behind them. Mr. Sanders wants to be the next Franklin Roosevelt — but if he can’t, better to be the next William Jennings Bryan or Jesse Jackson than the next William Howard Taft.

Read the entire piece here.

Out of the Zoo: The Divided States of America

Southern_Chivalry

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes what about how history helps put our “divided nation” into perspective. –JF

“The United States is more divided than ever.”

It seems like this trope becomes more popular every day. I see it in newspaper articles and read it in Facebook posts. I overhear it on radio broadcasts and in the hallways of my school. Distressed citizens paint dismal pictures of red and blue soldiers steadily marching in opposite directions, stretching the country thin between them. How long will this go on? How long until the once-United States shatters into a million pieces? Will our nation agree on anything ever again? These and many more questions seem to reverberate ever-louder in our ears. The events of the last few weeks–the impeachment trial and Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address–seem to provide dismal answers to such inquiries.

I won’t deny that the United States is divided. Our country is filled with people who don’t appear to have the word “compromise” in their vocabulary. Democrats and Republicans alike villainize their political opponents, all too often pointing out the speck in their enemy’s eye before first removing the log from their own. Venomous words seem to fly through the air like whizzing arrows hurtling towards a target. Yet despite all this, when people assert that the United States is more divided than it has ever been, I can’t help but chuckle.

As a student of history, I know that division in our country is nothing new. Before and during the Revolution, the colonies were split into loyalist and patriot factions. Soon after the war was over George Washington’s own cabinet diverged right before his eyes–feuds between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans resemble the political quarrels of today with striking similarity. 

As a student of history I also know that in terms of national division, things could be worse. They could be much worse. In the years leading up to the Civil War, slavery became such a divisive issue that physical violence often broke out on the Congress floor. For example, on May 22, 1856 South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with a cane, after Sumner scathingly criticized another South Carolina legislator for supporting slavery. In another instance, a fist fight between Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt turned into an all-out brawl with 30 participants. I need not remind most Americans that division over the issue of slavery contributed to the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives during the Civil War.

There’s a lot of things I love about history, but one thing I like most about studying the past is that it gives me scope for the present. It reminds me that things might not always be as bad as people say they are. Life is hard, and I’m not denying that fact. Every day we interact with people who go through hardships we’ll never completely understand. Our country is divided, and I’m not denying that either. But sometimes it’s comforting to know that the struggles we deal with now are not entirely new ones.

Six Historians on Trump’s Acquittal

State of the Union

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Over at Time, Olivia Waxman asked Carol Anderson, Jeffrey Engel, Kevin Kruse, Barbara Perry, Manisha Sinha, and Brenda Wineapple to reflect historically on Trump’s acquittal.

Here is Sinha:

I think the person who was a real profile in courage [Wednesday] was Romney, whose speech will be remembered in history for its very careful constitutional reasoning on why he voted to convict. His vote made clear that this was not simply a partisan impeachment.

Historians are eventually going to remember this trial as a real blow, as a bad day for American democracy, when the Senate Republicans were just unable to put aside their partisan loyalty to the president, which is kind of ironic because the Republicans have called this a partisan impeachment. The only way a democracy works is when those who are opposed to each other in ideology or in policy goals agree to a set of ground rules on governance and procedures.

I wonder about the future of the Republican Party. It took the Democratic party a long time, a lot of realignments, especially during the New Deal, to recoup from being the party of slaveholders and white supremacy in the 19th century to being the party of civil rights during the civil rights movement. I wonder whether the Republican party is capable of reinventing itself. It’s certainly no longer the party of Lincoln. It’s the party of Trump.

Read the entire roundtable here.

 

The Author’s Corner with L. Benjamin Rolsky

the rise and fall of the religious leftL. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University and a part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: During my PhD program at Drew University, I stumbled upon the work of the non-profit organization People for the American Way. I knew that the organization was founded by television icon Norman Lear, a figure I was interested in already as a possible dissertation subject, but I had little to no idea of its origins. I later found out that it was formed in direct opposition to the “electronic church” and the televangelists who occupied them. To Lear and others, including Martin Marty and Father Theodore Hesburg, such evangelistic methods violated the very tenants of the faith the television preachers supposedly stood for. I also happened to stumble upon some primary material from The Christian Century and Christianity Today that included Lear in surprisingly provocative ways. In many respects, Lear lead the charge into the public square, and many mainline and evangelical church leaders knew it.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: I argue that television icon Norman Lear’s career in American media represents the most important characteristics of the Religious Left in both negative and positive senses. Dominant cultural influence ultimately came at the expense of political and electoral successes as progressives continue to find their rhetorical footing in the age of alternative facts and fake news.

JF: Why do we need to read The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: I think scholars of religion and American religious historians would benefit from reading this text because it both periodizes and theorizes the Culture Wars. It does so by foregrounding media in its tale of televisual conflict played out in primetime. It also applies an interdisciplinary approach in order to examine liberal and conservative actors and social movements in relation to one another. In these ways, interpreters of the recent past would better understand how cultural warfare has characterized American public life since the 1960s.

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

LBR: I was drawn to history as a high school student in Cave Creek, Arizona. I was encouraged by my AP History teacher, L. Mark Sweeney, to think about pursuing American history on the college level. He was also the first one to use my name and work alongside “an ivy.” From there, I worked on American history and religious studies as a double major at Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College. I then went on to do coursework at the Claremont School of Theology as well as Yale Divinity School in American religious history, politics, and public life. My present work as a historian is very much in the vein of a “history of the present,” or at least the recent past, in my attempts to better understand how liberal and conservative politics have shaped the last half century of American religious life. 

JF: What is your next project?

LBR: My next project is going to explore the ways in which conservative political interests took advantage of the latest marketing and advertising consultants in the 1970s to remake both the GOP and the nation at large. They did so through a fundamental restructuring of American conservatism itself as William F. Buckely and Firing Line were replaced in the conservative mind by the likes of George Wallace, Strom Thurman, and ultimately Ronald Reagan.

JF: Thanks!

Last Night’s Reality Television Show (Also Known as the State of the Union)

State of the Union

What happened last night?  This was by far the most divisive, strange, sensational State of the Union Address I have ever witnessed. Think about it:

  • Donald Trump did not (refused?) to shake Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s hand.
  • Nancy Pelosi broke with tradition when she introduced Trump.  Instead of saying it is a “high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States,” she decided to say “Members of Congress, the president of the United States.”  Ouch.
  • Donald Trump, an impeached president, then proceeded to deliver a speech that made no effort to bring the country together.  It was a Trump rally speech constrained by the teleprompter.  It was filled with lies and half-truths.
  • Nancy Pelosi was visually upset through much of the speech and appeared to be doing everything in her power to control herself.
  • Mike Pence sat behind Trump and nodded approvingly in response to everything Trump said.
  • A 100-year old former Tuskegee airman was honored.
  • The conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, one of the most divisive men in America, was given a congressional medal of honor by the first lady of the United States, a former super model.  I wish Rush well as he struggles with lung cancer.  I also hope that his health issues will lead him to think deeply about how he has contributed to the lack of civil discourse in the country.
  • A sergeant first-class on his fourth deployment in the Middle East surprised his wife and children in the middle of the speech.  It was a nice moment, but it also fed into the reality-show flavor of the night.
  • Democratic members of the Congress stood up and shouted at the president about a drug bill.
  • When the speech was over, Nancy Pelosi ripped-up her copy of the speech before a nationally televised audience.

This was a very partisan night.  The Democrats did not always behave well, but the president sets the agenda and tone of the night.  He deserves the most blame.

But let’s not pretend what happened last night was even close to the kind of chaos seen on the floor of Congress in the decades prior to the Civil War.

 

In Search of Impeachment Artifacts

Impeach Nixon
The National Museum of American History wants them.  Here is Peggy McGlone at The Washington Post:

Years from now, when school groups visit the National Museum of American History, they might learn about the impeachment of a president through a fidget spinner. And they will have Jon Grinspan, the Smithsonian’s curator of political history, to thank.

Grinspan is a soft-spoken, academic version of Indiana Jones, on the hunt not for the Ark of the Covenant but for something perhaps more elusive: the exactly right objects to tell the story of the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump.

Grinspan was in the Senate gallery last week when he observed several politicians — who are banned from using cellphones during the trial — keeping their hands busy with the popular toys. Maybe the items will be used to illustrate the tedium of the marathon sessions and the challenge of keeping senators/jurors alert and focused on the proceedings.

Grinspan has yet to acquire a fidget spinner — or any object that tells the story of these events, only the third presidential impeachment trial in the nation’s history. But he and two colleagues will do their best to compile a group of items that will help the museum chronicle this highly charged moment in a nonpartisan way.

It’s not an easy task, although the danger is not of the Indiana Jones, giant-rolling-boulder variety.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey Zvengrowski

Jefferson DavisJeffrey Zvengrowski is Assistant Editor of the Papers of  George Washington and Assistant Research Professor at the University of Virginia. This interview is based on his new book, Jefferson Davis, Napoleonic France, and the Nature of Confederate Ideology, 1815-1870 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Jefferson Davis?

JZ: Even before beginning history graduate studies at the University of Virginia, I was intrigued by aspects of the American Civil War and particularly the Confederacy that I do not think any group or “school” of historians have adequately explained. If nearly all Confederates fervently stood for states’ rights, agriculturalism, and pro-slavery Protestantism, then why did the Confederacy feature such an intrusively powerful central government dedicated to industrialization? Only a handful of slaves ever entered Confederate service as soldiers, to be sure, but why did the Confederacy eventually decide to enlist slaves and promise them manumission? Why did the Confederate cabinet feature a Catholic (Stephen Mallory) and a Jew (Judah P. Benjamin)? And why did many Confederates so intensely hate Confederate president Jefferson Davis as well as Confederates who supported him?

I began reading through Davis’s documentary record to answer such questions in graduate school, and I expected to find that he and likeminded Confederates shared the same beliefs as their Confederate disparagers but were much more pragmatic than the Confederacy’s ideological hardliners. To my surprise, though, the Davis primary sources indicated to me that he and his supporters subscribed to an ideology very different from that of their vitriolic Confederate critics. I wrote my dissertation, “They Stood Like the Old Guard of Napoleon: Jefferson Davis and the Pro-Bonaparte Democrats, 1815–1870” (2015), to explain the nature of that ideology; and to offer solutions for what I take to be outstanding problems in Civil War historiography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Jefferson Davis?

JZ: I argue in my book that Davis and likeminded Confederates hailed from a venerable faction in the Democratic Party that championed equality among whites and white supremacy while insisting that states’ rights did not preclude the federal government from vigorously exercising delegated powers to help all regions industrialize. Believing that French Bonapartists espoused similar “democratic” values and similarly loathed abolitionist Britain for championing inequality among whites together with racial equality, pro-Davis Confederates were willing to jettison slavery under continuing terms of white rule if doing so would help induce Napoleon III’s France to overtly support the Confederacy against pro-British elements in the Americas.

JF: Why do we need to read Jefferson Davis?

JZ: In addition to answering what are, in my view, unsettled historical questions about the Confederacy, I believe that my book offers a fairly original and therefore refreshing interpretation of the entire Civil War era; one which meshes quite well with world history too. It’s no coincidence that the most war-torn periods in nineteenth-century United States history (the War of 1812 and the Civil War) coincided with the rise and fall of the two Bonaparte emperors (Napoleon I and Napoleon III). We somehow appear to assume that the “War Hawks” who turned the U.S. into a de facto and nearly de jure ally of Napoleon I during the War of 1812 failed to sire any ideological heirs. The pro-Bonaparte faction, however, survived through the interregnum between Bonaparte emperors and returned to prominence under Secretary of War Davis shortly after Napoleon III rose to power in France. That faction’s final descent into irrelevance and subsequent dissolution, moreover, corresponded with the Second French Empire’s unexpected destruction in 1870, shortly before which Napoleon III had hosted Davis as an honored guest in Paris.

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

JZ: I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. In the course of obtaining my BA in history at the University of Calgary, I wavered between pursuing graduate studies in history or attending law school. I opted for graduate school in 2006 because I hoped to make a living doing something I enjoy (studying history), and I am immensely fortunate that I have been able to so. I believe that I explained my specific interest in American history when answering the first question.

JF: What is your next project?

JZ: I am the co-editor for the Papers of George Washington of volume 28 in the Revolutionary War Series, which will be published in 2020 and features transcriptions with annotated footnotes of George Washington’s correspondence from late August to late October 1780. Much of that correspondence pertains to Benedict Arnold’s defection to the British.

In years to come, I would like to write a history of what might be called the first Cold War of the United States, which struggled with the British Empire for dominance in the Americas over the nineteenth century. We seem to have forgotten the important ideological dimension of that struggle, during which the United States generally advocated white supremacy and equality among whites while the British Empire espoused racial equality – at least in the Americas – and inequality among whites. The diminishment of that struggle’s severity by the end of the nineteenth century, I think, coincided with the British Empire becoming more receptive to white supremacy even as the U.S. became more amenable to white inequality.

JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!

The Author’s Corner with Laura Lohman

Hail ColumbiaLaura Lohman is Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence and Professor of Music at Queens University of Charlotte. This interview is based on her new book, Hail Columbia!: American Music and Politics in the Early Nation (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Hail Columbia!?

LL: When I was a doctoral student I had come across some early sheet music for songs and a piano sonata commemorating naval battles and the capture of sailors from the Tripolitan War of the early 1800s. I was intrigued by how a songwriter or a composer sought to tell a story about a battle and war for audiences through music. I looked further into songs in this time period and was surprised to find hundreds of songs distributed in weekly and daily newspapers. These songs often had a political focus. They were full of sharp humor, effective propaganda, and a surprising vulgarity of expression. Music scholars hadn’t focused on these songs or on newspapers as a medium of circulating music. I thought this was an important phenomenon to share with other audiences. Because so many of these songs were written to melodies that we still sing or recognize today, like “Anacreon in Heaven” (the melody of our national anthem), “God Save the King,” and “Yankee Doodle,” it’s a topic that non-musicians can relate to as well.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Hail Columbia!?

LL: Music was an essential form of political expression from the nation’s founding. Americans used music to debate crucial political questions, laud and demonize their fellow citizens based on their political beliefs and actions, and construct powerful narratives about the nation’s history, values, and institutions.

JF: Why do we need to read Hail Columbia!?

LL: It shows how much early Americans used music to make sense of the contemporary political landscape and how they used music to persuade others of their partisan vision. It brings to light hundreds of additional songs that can be used when teaching about this historical period. At the same time, I’ve intentionally written it in a way that non-musicians can understand. Much of the power of this music stems from song lyrics and from intertextual relationships, as a songwriter often deliberately invoked older lyrics to make a political point when writing new lyrics. So even if you don’t consider yourself “musically trained,” you’ll be able to understand and benefit from the book.

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

LL: Honestly, it was when I was a graduate student focusing on music performance. I was spending four to eight hours alone in a practice room every day and at a certain point I realized I needed something intellectual to focus on instead. That was when I decided to focus on music history full-time and pursued doctoral study in this area. Fortunately, I had a strong grounding in research and writing about music history from my undergraduate education! I consider myself lucky to be able to continue this research today.

JF: What is your next project?

LL: This year I’m editing a book that will provide a practical introduction to working with relevant sources in music and dance from this time period for scholars in music and other disciplines, such as history and literary studies. It’s titled Researching Secular Music and Dance in the Early United States: Extending the Legacy of Kate Van Winkle Keller, and it will be published by Routledge. It offers an accessible introduction to essential research tools, approaches, and issues for those new to researching music and dance from the revolutionary era through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Keller was an exceptionally prolific and dedicated scholar who focused on this time period when many music scholars overlooked it. My hope is that this book spurs a new generation of scholars to delve into this fascinating period.

JF: Thanks, Laura!

The Author’s Corner with David Prior

between freedom and progressDavid Prior is Assistant Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. This interview is based on his new book, Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: I stumbled into the project through primary source research. When I started my graduate work, my advisor encouraged me to look at U.S. foreign relations during Reconstruction. In the process of doing that, I wrote an early seminar paper on American interest and involvement in an insurrection by Greek Orthodox Christians on the island of Crete against Ottoman imperial rule from 1866 to 1869. I was struck by how people in and from the United States, including former Confederates, not only discussed the insurrection, but argued over its meaning through competing sets of analogies to slaveholders, Apaches, Mormons, Poles, and Russians. Those analogies, and the underlying worldview they stemmed from, became what my book was about. I researched a number of seemingly disparate case studies that people at the time connected to each other and to Reconstruction, which is itself a term borrowed from Europe through analogy. I found myself attempting to fathom why these events, places, and individuals all called out for attention from people who, one would think, would have been narrowly focused on the South and its relation to the Union.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: In the broadest sense, the aim of the book is to take a new look at the cultural, intellectual, and political landscape inhabited by Reconstruction’s partisans—those who struggled over and with Reconstruction’s core issues. Between Freedom and Progress does this by recovering why and how they imagined themselves as actors in world history, and in particular how a belief that struggles for freedom and progress transcended the globe stood in creative tension with a closely related assumption that history was about and made by coherent, distinctive groups of people (nations, races, religions, tribes) with their own characters.

JF: Why do we need to read Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: To recover a sense of the otherness of the past, even while we continue to acknowledge the ways that racism and inequality link the United States and the world today back to the contested politics of the postbellum decade.

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

DP: I loved history, as well as economics, going back to high school and double majored in college. When I started thinking about graduate school, I decided I enjoyed history a touch more, although I’ll admit I’ve always missed being able to engage with both disciplines.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: Right now I am working on an edited volume entitled Reconstruction and Empire that looks at the various ways in which the legacies of the Civil War and abolition shaped the imperial moment of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

JF: Thanks, David!

Politicians Have Claimed to Be Victims of Lynching for a Long Time

joseph-mcccarthy-1954

Joseph McCarthy described Senate hearings to censure him as a “lynch  party.”

Earlier this week, Donald Trump compared the impeachment inquiry against him to a lynching.  Both Republicans and Democrats reminded Trump about the history of lynching in the United States.  Over at The Washington Post, Lawrence Glickman, the Stephaen and Evalyn Milman professor of American Studies at Cornell University, provides some additional context.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Notwithstanding the shocked reaction to the outrageous comparison, Trump’s comments were in keeping with a long-standing strand of conservative rhetoric that might best be dubbed “elite victimization.” This is a mode of speech typically used by wealthy, powerful white men in which they employ the language of enslavement and Jim Crow to describe their plight and claim to be victims of everything from government programs to social movements they dislike to investigations into wrongdoing.

This language marks a double appropriation. First, it is a reaction to the increasing power of claiming rights by minority populations. In the 20th century, African Americans and other oppressed groups forced the country to confront its violent, racist history and demanded full rights and citizenship. By casting themselves as victims, elites frame their individual sense of being wronged as a violation of their rights, even though those rights are well-secured. Second, it is to demand sympathy for a kind of physical and spiritual suffering akin to that experienced by racial minorities that elites claim to endure when they feel under attack.

But the language may also feel true to them. Given that wealthy white men do not face discrimination on the basis of race, the slightest feeling of vulnerability or threat might feel like oppression, however distinct it is from the lived experience of oppressed groups. In 1946, for example, J. Howard Pew, the conservative oil man, condemned what he called “continued unfair and discriminatory legislation granting special privileges for favored minorities at the expense of the general welfare.”

But this language perversely minimizes the plight of African Americans for much of American history and compares systemic wrongs with hideous consequences to legal actions or social movements that conservative white men happen to dislike.

Read the entire piece here.  Then head over to Episode 55 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast and listen to Glickman talk about his new book Free Enterprise: An American History.