The Plan to Build George Washington’s Mausoleum

 

Washington's Tomb

Washington’s Tomb, circa 1862

As Jamie L. Brummitt writes in her Junto post about the construction of George Washington’s mausoleum: “monuments matter.”  This was a project “entangled in debates about politics, finances, and the material nature of monuments.”  In the end, the plan to bring Washington’s remains to Washington D.C. never materialized.

Here is a taste:

On January 1, 1801, the House voted on the mausoleum bill and divided along party lines. Democratic-Republicans voted 34 to 3 against the bill and Federalists voted 45 to 3 for it. The bill passed. Congress determined to move forward with plans to construct a mausoleum for Washington’s remains. It set aside $200,000 for projected costs associated with a design by George Dance. These plans, however, evaporated within the year as Congress disagreed on the mausoleum’s final design. In the end, Congress did not erect the mausoleum and Washington’s corpse remained in the family tomb at Mount Vernon.

Historians usually interpret these debates as early expressions of party divisions. These debates also reveal different notions of the work of memorials and remains in the early republic. Both parties unanimously agreed that Washington’s remains should be deposited in the new capital city with a monument. Washington’s remains and a monument were essential to preserving his memory and perpetuating his virtues to the new nation. Congress, however, could not agree on the physical form a monument should take. The form of the monument mattered because different forms reflected degrees of sentiment and virtue associated with the remains.

The American public, however, did not require a congressionally approved stone monument. It was already producing monuments in other ways. Children, women, and men purchased, copied, painted, and embroidered likenesses of Washington and monuments for his remains. They displayed these images on their bodies and in their homes. They expected these monuments to preserve the memory and remains of Washington, and to transmit his virtues to them. Many Americans also made pilgrimages to Washington’s tomb to experience the virtues of his remains. Early visitors expressed disappointment on discovering that his remains lay in an ordinary family vault, not under a monument like the ones depicted in their treasured images.

Read the entire piece here.

The Unruly Origins of American Democracy

Election day

George Mason University historian Rosemarie Zagarri explains what democracy looked like in early America.  Here is a taste of her post at Mapping Early American Elections:

Early American elections subvert conventional notions that portray the development of early American democracy as an orderly or systematic affair. In contrast to the well-organized procedures governing voting procedures today, elections during the first few decades of the new nation’s existence were often haphazard affairs. Everything from the location of the polls to the qualifications of the electors to the number of days the polls would be open varied from state to state, and often, from election to election. Sometimes going to polls could be injurious to one’s health, since they were occasionally the scene of riots. Democracy, then, evolved less by design and more from a constant push-and-pull between those seeking to cast their ballots and those who made the rules about when, where, and how the ballots were to be cast.

Article I, Section 4 of the US Constitution gave state legislatures the power to determine “the Times, Places and Manner” of federal elections, along with the power they already possessed to determine rules for state elections. Suffrage requirement for the lower houses of their legislatures also determined requirements for the federal franchise. As a result, the variation in election rules and procedures makes the task of generalization very difficult—and made the process of running the newly established federal government even more challenging.

There was, for example, no uniformly established day on which to hold elections. In New England and New York, for example, elections tended to occur in the spring for legislative gatherings that would convene later in the year. In the Mid-Atlantic states and Upper South elections were often held in the late summer or the early fall. South Carolina and Georgia preferred late fall elections, although they were soon moved to October to accommodate Congress’s schedule.

Before the election, candidates tried to meet potential voters and get their name into circulation. At this time, however, they seldom made formal speeches or directly solicited votes. Instead, they might make their views known through letters to the local newspaper or rely on friends and allies to celebrate their patriotic virtues and sterling leadership qualities. At least until the second decade of the nineteenth century, “electioneering,” as it was called, was disdained. Candidates did, however, have other ways of persuading their potential constituents. Although officially prohibited, the custom of “treating,” especially prevalent in the South, meant that in the days prior to the election candidates might invite voters to picnics featuring generous servings of barbecue, washed down by copious amounts of liquor. Prior to the 1758 election for the Virginia House of Burgesses, George Washington reportedly served over 160 gallons of rum punch, wine, beer, and other spirits to potential voters. Perhaps not surprisingly, the young Washington triumphed over his opponent.

Read the rest here.

This Irresponsible Historical Thinking Has to Stop!

Read Jennifer Kerns‘s recent piece on politics and Charlottesville at The Washington Examiner.  Kerns is a GOP communications strategist who has worked for the California Republican Party and Fox News.

Here is a taste:

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, an awful lot of awful things have been said about Republicans and race relations.

However, the Left’s accusations of racism couldn’t be further from the truth that has played out in the halls of Congress over the last 150 years.

It is shocking that as talk of statues and historical racism is being bandied about, no one has mentioned the Democrats’ utterly shameful treatment of African Americans throughout history.

Over the last 100 years, Republicans have stood up for African Americans while Democrats not only stood on the sidelines, but in fact served as obstructionists to civil liberties.

Here are at least 12 examples in which Democrats voted against African Americans, and Republicans voted to free them:

Democrats voted against every piece of civil rights legislation in Congress from 1866 to 1966 – a whopping 100 years. That is a dismal record for today’s Democrats who would like you to believe that history has been on their side on this issue.

It hasn’t.

Democrats voted to keep Africans Americans in slavery, opposing the 13th Amendment which officially freed the slaves. Only four Democrats voted for it.

Republicans also passed the 14th Amendment which granted slaves U.S. citizenship; Democrats voted against it.

Republicans also passed the 15th Amendment which gave slaves the right to vote. Not a single one of the 56 Democrats in Congress voted for it.

Shame on them.

Furthermore, Republicans passed all of the Civil Rights laws of the 1860s — including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Act of 1867 following the Civil War.

And it goes on

I thought we were done with this kind of stuff after CNN fired Jeffrey Lord.

As any of my liberal or conservative students will tell you, one of the key components of historical thinking is change over time.  In the case of Kern’s article, let’s remember that political parties change over time.  They are not frozen in time, as she suggests.  The Democratic Party of the 19th century is not the Democratic Party of the 21st century.  The Republican Party of the 19th century is not the Republican Party of the 21st century. Things changed in the 20th century, particularly as each of these parties addressed the questions of race in America.  A political realignment took place.

The facts of Kern’s piece seem generally fine, (although I have not checked them thoroughly).  If they are accurate, they might make for a nice Wikipedia entry. But when you are trying to make the past speak to the present, as Kern does here, there are a set of historical thinking skills–such as change over time–that must be considered. Kern is not writing history here.  She is using the past irresponsibly to make a political point.

I think I will use this piece in my Introduction to History course this semester at Messiah College.

Want to learn more about historical thinking?  Try this. You can read it along with my students this semester.

Or watch this for starters:

 

 

 

Mark Lilla Returns With a More Sustained Treatment of Identity Politics

LillaLast November, Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla released a bombshell in the form of a New York Times article entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  We spent some time here discussing it.  I found Lilla’s argument pretty compelling.

Lilla decided to capitalize on the popularity and controversy of his Times piece with a 143-page book titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  I have not read the book yet, but just came across a review from Yale historian Beverly Gage.

Here is a taste:

…he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together: How should the Democratic Party balance diversity with a common vision of citizenship? How and where should concerned Americans focus their energies — on social-movement activism, on “resistance,” on electoral politics? How should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict? How, for that matter, can Democrats start winning a few more local races? Lilla acts as if there are easy answers to these questions. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more mayors.” But isn’t it possible that we need both?

Lilla concedes that many Americans think of themselves at once as members of identity groups and as citizens of a national polity. “Both ideas can be — indeed, are — true.” He argues nonetheless that our particular crisis calls for prioritizing one over the other. “What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences.”

Unwittingly, however, “The Once and Future Liberal” provides a case study in just how challenging that may be. Despite his lofty calls for solidarity, Lilla can’t seem to get out of his own way — or even to take his own advice. He urges fellow liberals to focus on “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort,” then proceeds to insult his own audience. He denounces the modern university for churning out students “incurious about the world outside their heads,” yet fails, in the end, to get much outside of his own. He decries identity types for “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit” while offering up his own elaborate jeremiad. He reminds liberals that “nothing will turn voters off more surely than being hectored,” and then — on the very same page — scolds the “identity conscious” for treating political meetings as “therapy sessions.”

As it turns out, Lilla himself could have used more rather than less introspection, a healthy dose of examining his own contradictions and biases. He laments that “American liberals have a reputation, as the saying goes, of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If so, he has proved his bona fides as a member of the tribe. “The Once and Future Liberal” is a missed opportunity of the highest order, trolling disguised as erudition.

Ouch.

Read the entire review here.  I’ll reserve judgement until I get a chance to read the book. You can also listen to an interview with Lilla at “All Things Considered.”

Michael Kazin on the Fate of Presidents Who Didn’t Win a Majority of the Popular Vote

John_Quincy_Adams_-_copy_of_1843_Philip_Haas_Daguerreotype

John Quincy Adams

I have said it many times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home: historians cannot predict the future.

But they can provide much needed context.

That is what Michael Kazin of Georgetown University does in his recent Washington Post op-ed “No matter what he does, history says Trump will never be popular.”

Here is a taste:

…American history is clear: Presidents who’ve lost the popular vote don’t win popular support.

The four previous presidents who finished second in votes cast all struggled to convince Americans that they were doing a good job. Each battled the perception that his victory was undemocratic and illegitimate; each soon lost the confidence of his own partisans in Congress and led an administration that historians regard as a failure. Each faced an uphill struggle to keep his base happy and mobilized while also reaching out to the majority, which preferred policies his voters detested. Most, like Trump so far, did not even try to square that circle.

Only George W. Bush seemed to escape this fate, for a time. But his temporary success had more to do with the acclaim he received after the attacks of 9/11 than anything else he accomplished in office. And this crisis-induced honeymoon didn’t last: During most of his second term, Bush’s rating stalled far below the 48 percent of the vote he had won in 2000, when half a million more Americans preferred Al Gore.

The three other presidents who lost the popular vote all lived and governed in the 19th century. None managed to overcome his initial political deficit or to enact any of the major policies he desired. In the 1824 election, John Quincy Adams drew just 31 percent of the popular vote. The conditions of that contest have never been repeated: Adams was one of four candidates, all of whom nominally belonged to the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. Because no man won an electoral-vote majority, the decision fell to the House of Representatives. Adams triumphed, largely because he agreed to appoint Henry Clay, one of his erstwhile rivals, as secretary of state. Andrew Jackson, whose popular-vote count had easily topped that of Adams, screamed that his rivals had made a “corrupt bargain”; if citizens accepted it, he charged, “they may bid farewell to their freedom.”

Read the entire piece here.

Can an Independent Counsel Be Truly Independent?

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J. Edgar Hoover

I hope so.  But, as Yale historian Beverly Gage argues, history reminds us that partisanship is difficult to overcome.

Here is a taste of her New York Times piece “Can Anyone Be Truly ‘Independent’ in Today’s Polarized Politics“:

In colonial America, “independence” meant something relatively simple: freedom from economic dependence, or the ownership of land and wealth. By the 18th century, though, the word had acquired a more explicit political meaning: Men needed to be “independent” in order to think clearly about the common good and thus to rule themselves. For the founders, this came with many limitations of race, gender and class. As a political vision, though, it communicated a higher purpose: Officeholders would have to reject the temptations of partisanship and personal interest lest, as George Washington warned in his farewell speech, “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” use the white-hot animosities of party politics to “usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

This ideal of the selfless federal servant was always partly a noble fiction; as “Hamilton” fans know, the founding era’s hostilities were vicious enough that a vice president killed a former Treasury secretary. The aspiration to meet that ideal nonetheless held sway well into the 1820s, creating what became known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” It was as debates over slavery and territorial expansion heated up that party warfare returned. The Civil War itself erupted in the aftermath of a partisan event: the election of the country’s first Republican president.

Two decades later, the assassination of President James Garfield brought a new round of national soul-searching. The deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau, said he committed the deed in order to unify the Republican Party and because he felt he had deserved a patronage appointment as a European ambassador. A couple years later, in 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, the nation’s first comprehensive Civil Service law, designed partly to calm the roiling political waters. Under these new rules, many federal jobs would be parceled out according to “merit” rather than party patronage, ensuring the independence and integrity of at least some of the people serving in government.

As the 20th century dawned, and Americans embraced the promise of apolitical government expertise, administrative agencies and bureaus proliferated — among them the tiny Bureau of Investigation. Founded in 1908, the bureau started out plagued by the very problems Civil Service law was designed to eliminate: incompetence, corruption and crony appointments. Then, in 1924, a bustling young director named J. Edgar Hoover set about whipping the bureau into shape. Hoover is often seen today as a tyrant and a violator of civil liberties, but when he came to office, he was considered a reformer and an enemy of “politics,” a man who could be relied upon to tell the truth when everyone else seemed to be lying for partisan ends.

He was no political naïf, however. Despite his fealty to the idea of nonpartisan professionalism, Hoover fought to keep his agents out of the Civil Service, sure that its rules and regulations would limit his autonomy as director. This sleight of hand gave Hoover’s F.B.I. its peculiar character, at once a respected investigative body and a personal fief. It also helped to insulate Hoover from the fate visited upon James Comey. As the Times journalist Tom Wicker noted two years before Hoover’s death in 1972, the F.B.I. director achieved “virtually unlimited power and independence.” No president, Republican or Democrat, ever dared to fire him.

This is one example of how bureaucratic independence can go awry. In the mid-1970s, alarmed by abuses of power during Hoover’s nearly 48-year directorship, Congress decided that future F.B.I. directors should be subject to a 10-year limit. The policy effectively split the difference between autonomy and accountability: The president still had the right to fire an F.B.I. director, but the law established a standard period of service longer than any president’s two terms. One of several things Trump’s showdown with Comey calls into question is whether this arrangement is still enough to ensure a reasonable level of F.B.I. independence — especially under a president disinclined to observe political norms.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Mark Lempke

My brothers keeper.jpgMark Lempke is a visiting instructor  at the University at Buffalo–Singapore. This interview is based on his new book, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: When I was an undergraduate at Houghton College- an evangelical school in New York’s Southern Tier- I wrote a research paper on the 1972 election for one of my history classes. I was just curious how anybody could lose forty-nine states—especially to Nixon! In the process, I discovered an intriguing tidbit: George McGovern’s father, a Wesleyan pastor, had been an early alum of Houghton. Back then, it felt like every evangelical I had encountered was a conservative Republican, so it seemed very strange to me that perhaps the most leftist figure ever nominated by a major party had ties to that tradition. Over many years, curiosity gave way to research, and I found that George McGovern’s life could serve as a useful narrative arc to study the fortunes of Christian social justice in American politics.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: Despite its reputation for secularism, left liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s was deeply indebted to a religious tradition rooted in the social gospel and ecumenical activism. George McGovern’s use of the prophetic tradition on the campaign trail acted as something of a conduit, channeling support from both mainline and evangelical Protestants concerned with social justice.

JF: Why do we need to read My Brother’s Keeper?

ML: My Brother’s Keeper tries to shed some light on the question of why a “Christian Left” has been so elusive. One of the big differences between the postwar “Christian Right” and the “Christian Left” is that the latter views its activism as essentially prophetic in nature. That means eschewing nationalism while supporting the vulnerable and marginalized, but it also means a willingness to strike it out on your own as well. You can’t very easily tell a prophet what to do or who to vote for! In electoral politics, there is no such thing as a “caucus of prophets;” it’s a bit like herding cats.

Each faction of a theoretical Christian Left had its own understanding of what it meant to speak prophetically against injustice. And the problem was made worse by the longstanding political, cultural, and theological disagreements between mainline and evangelical Protestants. I spend a chapter on McGovern’s visit to Wheaton College during the ’72 campaign as an act of evangelical outreach. One reason why the visit is unsuccessful is because McGovern insisted on speaking as a theological liberal. When he used words like “redeem,” he purely meant social redemption, not redemption of the soul. Even evangelicals at Wheaton who were sympathetic to McGovernism would have found that message difficult to swallow. So when the Evangelical Left took shape under Jim Wallis and Ron Sider soon after the campaign, they went to considerable lengths to distance themselves from the mainline. They often cast liberal theology as backsliding and heretical, even if they shared many of the political priorities of Clergy and Laity Concerned or the National Council of Churches. In a way, it was a form of identity politics, with evangelicals viewing themselves as a historically disadvantaged group that was just now learning to take pride in what made them distinctive.

As readers of TWOILH are probably aware, we’re had an outpouring of great scholarship on postwar social justice evangelicals recently, with David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway leading the way. Mainliners, too, have seen a revival of top-notch work—just look at Elesha Coffman, Kristin Du Mez, David Hollinger, Jill K. Gill, and many others. Each of these historians produced insightful scholarship that influenced my own, but I came to understand that the mainline and evangelical stories needed to be told in tandem. Their mutual distrust toward one another goes a long way toward explaining why Progressive Christians have struggled to be effective in the public square.

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

ML: Like most eventual historians, I was a pretty strange kid. When the Mini Page children’s newspaper published a special edition on the U.S. presidents when I was five, I took to memorizing the presidents and interesting facts about them. It was fun to learn, but it was just a cool parlor trick that my grandparents loved showing off to their friends. As I grew older, some great teachers helped me see the value of a more thorough understanding of the past. My social studies teachers in high school, Jeff Jennings and Danielle Hugo, pushed me hard to make connections and explain my reasoning. When I took a class at my local community college, the late Bill Barto mesmerized me with his compelling lecture style and strong focus on narrative. At Houghton, Cameron Airhart ran the First Year Honors Program, where two dozen or so undergrads spent a semester of their freshman year abroad learning the gamut of Western history using the city of London as a resource. When you have such sharp, incisive mentors in your life, it’s hard not to want to emulate them. Once I learned that history wasn’t just facts—it could be debated, observed, touched, or turned into a story—I knew it was the career I wanted to pursue.

JF: What is your next project?

ML: After all this time in McGovernLand, I think I would like to work outside of my immediate field for a short while. My next project will explore the questions that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame raises for public history. I think that one of the great challenges of our time is the seeming contest between populism vs. intellectual expertise. Every year, music industry insiders nominate and induct a set of rock and roll artists, usually from a diverse range of subgenres that include R&B, rap, alternative, and even disco. And just as surely, every year rank-and-file rock and roll fans are angered that their favorite bands have been snubbed, believing in their hearts that it is a travesty that Grand Funk Railroad or Styx isn’t in the Hall. There is a very public debate over who controls rock and roll which taps into the anti-elitism that seems so rampant today. While some common themes do emerge, this is certainly a very different project from George McGovern and the Christian Left!

JF: Thanks, Mark! 

Political Historians Discuss Trump’s First 100 Days

trump-speech

I love the way Yoni Appelbaum, the Washington Bureau Chief at The Atlantic, is bringing good American history to the magazine.  Today Princeton historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis historian Morton Keller put Trump’s first 100 days into some historical context.

Here is a taste:

Julian Zelizer: President Trump’s first 100 days in office are coming to a close. The grades will soon come out. Politicians, journalists, historians are all starting to evaluate how well or how poorly he has done. This does not go down in the “unprecedented” part of this presidency. Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt pushed through Congress a historic legislative agenda in the early part of his term, the 100-day mark has been a standard part of the political lexicon.

There are many reasons for why we keep using this measure. Once FDR set the bar, it became difficult not to make this comparison. For journalists the 100 day-mark is a nice, clean, and simple way to measure how things are going, while politicians look for ways to gauge the strength of the commander in chief. In our current culture of quick, instant satisfaction, we want presidents to deliver on promises right away—and we have little patience for waiting.

But the first 100 days in office don’t really tell us much. Some presidents who get off to a strong start, like Jimmy Carter, go on to struggle during the remainder of their terms. Others, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have tough early months, but then go on to serve two terms and end their term with strong approval ratings. Some of the biggest presidential achievements, like President Richard Nixon’s trip to China or President Obama’s health-care reform, come long after the 100 days are over.

It’s also not clear what we should measure. In the current era of strong presidents, executive orders and action should certainly be part of what we evaluate. So, too, should actions by Cabinet leaders, as we see in the current administration when rightward leaning agency secretaries are working hard to undercut the missions of their own programs.

Putting too much pressure on success in the first 100 days creates incentives for quick, and sometimes hasty, action. Great legislation can take time to produce. The legislative process requires what political scientist Nelson Polsby called periods of policy incubation when experts revise and strengthen ideas, where policy makers build support for a bill, and when elected officials can evaluate and when elected officials can evaluate what kind of legislation will work best. Doing everything up front and right away is often antithetical to success especially in a polarized age when “no” is usually the easiest answer to new ideas.

I am as guilty as anyone else for still using this concept but it is probably time to move on to other measures. Asking how presidents did in the first 100 days usually tells us little about what is to come and might even create the exact political incentives we need to avoid.

Read the rest here.

 

Mapping Early American Elections

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Check out Mapping Early American Elections, a brand new digital history project from the good folks at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Here is a description:

Mapping Early American Elections will offer a window into the formative era of American politics by producing interactive maps and visualizations of Congressional and state legislative elections from 1787 to 1825. The project makes available the electoral returns and spatial data underlying those maps, along with topical essays on the political history of the period and tutorials to encourage users to use the datasets to create their own maps.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016 to offer enhanced access to the early American election returns in the New Nation Votes collection at Tufts University. The New Nation Votes dataset is the only comprehensive record of elections in existence for the early American republic. Scattered in newspapers, state archives, and local repositories around the country, the election returns have been painstakingly gathered over the past forty-five years by Philip J. Lampi of the American Antiquarian Society.

Rosemarie Zagarri provides more information here.

Lincoln Mullen explains that difference between Mapping Early American Elections and A New Nation Votes.

 

Two Princeton American Historians Discuss the Election of 2016

KruseCheck out Princeton historians Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse discuss the 2016 presidential at a Princeton alumni event from back in February 2017.  (Thanks to History News Network for bringing this video to my attention).

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Sean Wilentz: I take it our charge is to be historians. Whether you reacted to the events of Nov. 8 with elation or despair or something in between, I think it’s been difficult to get our heads around what happened. Our charge is to try and lend some historical perspective, to put our own loyalties aside for a moment. Thinking historically means trying to understand where this all fits in the recent past, and everything that led up to the recent past, to try and understand the larger historical dynamics that brought us to the place that we were on Nov. 8, and what that portends for the future. I think that’s what we’re here for.

Kevin Kruse: Look, I get asked to comment on the present, or, God forbid, to make predictions about the future, and I always have to remind people that as a historian my professional training is in hindsight. As historians we can look back on snap opinions made after other big elections and see just how wrong those were. After 1964, lots of accounts had said, “My God, this is it for conservatism. You’ll never see a conservative president in America again. Barry Goldwater has killed it. Liberalism is here to stay.” After 1980, “Well, the New Deal is dead. It’ll never come back. It’s going to be swept off the face of the Earth by the Reagan revolution. Social Security is on its last legs.” After Obama in 2008, “Well, we’re now in a post-racial America. Racism is gone. Congratulations, we did it.” 

So there’s this trend of overreacting to a presidential election, and we have to remember that a presidential election, for all of the very real ramifications it has on contemporary politics and policy, is but one data point in a much larger stream. And it’s a data point that I think we need to take in its proper context, because we had 123 million votes cast in this election. If you moved 50,000 of those in just three states, we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton today, and drawing a whole bunch of other wrong, big conclusions about what that meant. 

SW: Well, let’s look at the proper data point in order to start to understand this. Certainly something happened 50 years ago, and you mentioned the Johnson–Goldwater election. A rupture did occur, I think, in American political life about the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, and then Watergate. And I think, in some ways, anything we’re talking about is still a product of that rupture. 

Conservatism didn’t fade away at all. It was just clearing its throat, if you will. Certainly something happened, and it had to do with civil rights, and it had to do with foreign policy, and how the two collided. And it had to do, I think, with — and this is very pertinent to what happened in November — the legitimacy of the political parties and of the political system, between the credibility gap of the late ’60s that was laid at Johnson’s door, and then Watergate. And I think what we’re seeing today, in part, can be seen as the final denouement of the delegitimization that occurred back then. Wilentz

KK: That makes a lot of sense. If we think back to that period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you can see all sorts of … for lack of a better term, the establishment cracks up. First and foremost the political firmament, the kind of postwar consensus, for all of its flaws; people believed there was a certain center of gravity there, a certain trust in the political system that gets badly eroded first by Vietnam and then obliterated by Watergate. There had been a certain trust in the postwar economy, a sense that the industrial economy, in its kind of catering to a consumer culture, was constantly on the rise. That, too, peaks at about the same time for a different set of reasons: the rise of deindustrialization; the new competition from abroad, like West Germany and Japan; the shift of factories to places from China to Mexico. So the manufacturing economy starts to crumble, too. And then there are changes that I think we would regard as good: The crack of the old racial order and the old systems of segregation, the old systems of immigration restriction — those fall in ’64 and ’65, and set apace a brand new world, a world that is much more open but I think a lot more chaotic, too. And so the ground had shifted underneath people’s feet in a variety of ways, all at the same time. 

Read the entire transcript here.

 

Show Your Support for the Papers of Martin Van Buren

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A little over a year ago, Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee launched the Papers of Martin Van Buren.

Mark Cheathem, one of the directors of the project, informs us that the Tennessee legislature is considering funding this effort and you can help make it happen.

Cheathem explains it all in a post at his blog Jacksonian America:

As regular readers know, Cumberland University launched the Papers of Martin Van Buren project last February. We have spent the last 13 months working hard to organize the project and begin transcribing Series 1 documents.

In an effort to move the project forward, our state representative has introduced Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483), which seeks to provide $250,000 in non-recurring funding for the project. Among other things, these funds will allow us to hire full-time editors and pay students to work on the project.

If you are a Tennessee resident and you think this project is worth supporting with taxpayer money, you can help by calling or emailing your state representative and senator and expressing your support for Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483). You can easily find both state representatives and senators at this link.

If you are out of state, your voice likely will not count as much, but the project could still use your support. You can contact Rep. Mark Pody’s office (Rep.Mark.Pody@capitol.tn.gov or 615-741-7086) or Sen. Mae Beavers’ office (Sen.Mae.Beavers@capitol.tn.gov or 615-741-2421), and express your support for Amendment #59 to the Tennessee Higher Education funding bill (House Bill #0511; Senate Bill #0483).

Projects such as the Van Buren Papers usually cannot survive solely on university funding, so federal or state money is crucial to helping them exist. For a new project such as ours, it’s imperative that we receive some kind of external funding. Your support would be very beneficial, and I would be grateful if you would take a few minutes out of your day to make a phone call or send an email.

The Author’s Corner with Joanna Cohen

luxurious-citizenJoanna Cohen is a lecturer in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. This interview is based on her new book, Luxurious Citizens: The Politics of Consumption in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Luxurious Citizens?

JC: I found my way into this book in three stages! The first step was reading Godey’s Ladies Book in my first year of graduate school. I was fascinated by the elaborate fashion plates and the juxtaposition of those images with numerous stories that praised the virtues of American women’s thrift and economy. These contradictions got me interested in the ways in which consumption habits were framed in overlapping ways in American cultural life, as signifiers of cultural sophistication and national virtue, not to mention the gender norms they promoted. The second step was two graduate courses I took: one on Gender, Nationalism and Citizenship, the other on the History of Consumer Culture in America. Both piqued my interest in different ways. When it came to citizenship I became increasingly dissatisfied with the idea that citizenship was simply a legal relationship. I wanted to explore the ways in which citizens imagined their relationship to the nation-state, especially when it came to obligations. Turning to consumer culture, I read avidly about the politics of consumption in the eighteenth century and picked up the story again in the twentieth century, but found little that explained how one connected to the other. Finally, after only a month in the archives at the American Philosophical Society, I found the phrase “Luxurious Citizens” in a speech given by “Pig Iron Kelley” in front of the Franklin Institute. That phrase summed up my conviction that the histories of citizenship and consumption were intertwined in crucial ways. I set out to trace those connections, wanting to understand the ways in which consumer capitalism shaped the meaning of citizenship in nineteenth-century America.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Luxurious Citizens?

JC: At the close of the Revolution, the newly-formed government expected citizens to serve their nation through self-sacrifice, by limiting their consumption of imported luxuries. But time and again, through war and peace, ordinary Americans demonstrated that they would not accept such limitations on their desires. Instead, they transformed themselves into citizen-consumers, claiming that the freedom to consume could be of service to the nation. In 1861, at the outbreak of war, the Union government not only acknowledged the power of the citizen-consumer, they harnessed that power to the service of the war effort. Using a tariff to harvest much-needed revenue from their citizens’ desires, the Union confirmed that the citizen-consumer was an important member of the body-politic – whose freedom to indulge themselves could save the republic or send it to its destruction.

JF: Why do we need to read Luxurious Citizens?

JC: For readers interested in nineteenth century capitalism, the origins of consumer culture in America, the gendered meanings of citizenship and the political economy that shaped the road to the Civil War, Luxurious Citizens has much to offer. But the book is also timely reflection on the far-reaching consequences of the apotheosis of the citizen-consumer. The idea that a citizen can serve the state through their consumption has a flip side: it also suggests that citizens’ consumer choices can be blamed when the state encounters economic failure.

In 2008, when the United States faced the great crash, the first round of blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of ordinary citizens who had overspent and over extended their credit. Such a story hid the deep-rooted structural failures of the US economy. Luxurious Citizens reveals the ways in which these narratives of individual accountability took root in the United States, often cloaked in the language of civic rights and personal freedoms. It is an exploration of the ways in which Americans imagine the way in which their economy works, and how the state can use and even exploit those understandings. So, at a moment when neo-liberalism as an ideology stands on the brink of collapse, Luxurious Citizens will hopefully remind people that they can re-imagine the nation’s political economy and redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state.

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

JC: Well officially I decided I wanted to become an American historian when I was doing my final year Honors thesis at Cambridge. I looked at the work of four great female authors and wrote a paper on the way in which those writers constructed (and deconstructed) what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century America. But unofficially, I have to confess, it goes back to reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Women as a girl. Those stories still fascinate me. I recently re-read them when I got all my childhood books down from the attic for my daughter, and I still find the narratives of survival, ambition, compromise and resilience utterly compelling.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: Right now, I am working on a project that focuses on the ways in which Americans experienced loss in the nineteenth century. I explore how new capitalist, bureaucratic and commercial technologies shaped people’s emotional understanding of losing their homes, possessions and environments.

I am also working on a collaborative project with Zara Anishanslin, that explores how people “came to terms” with the ends of conflicts in the Atlantic World. Privileging visual and material culture as a source, this project asks how people made their peace with violence and war through the things and images they had in their lives.

JF: Thanks, Joanna!

Another Word on the 2016 Election Plenary Sessions at the AHA in Denver

Last night I was following the tweets from first plenary session of the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver.  The session was titled “The First Hundred Days: Priorities for a New US President.”  It featured some very fine historians of American politics, U.S. foreign relations, and global economics.  Thanks to all who tweeted.

I know that the AHA can only squeeze so many panelists on the stage in a session like this, but as I read the tweets I (along with others) could not help but react:

Let’s be fair to the American Historical Association.  I am sure that this panel was planned well in advance of the November election.  Sean Wilentz, one of the panelists, even joked about it:

Another member of the panel, Margaret O’Mara, tweeted:

On the other hand, one could argue that questions of rural life, religion, populism, conservatism, and yes, gender and immigration, were prevalent in this presidential campaign from the beginning.

And that leads us to my thoughts on Saturday night’s plenary on the election.  This one, as I understand it, was added much later.  I look forward to reading the twitter coverage.

American Historical Association Adds a Plenary Session on the 2016 Election

aha-17

If you are in Denver this weekend for the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association you might be interested in attending a new plenary session recently added to the schedule.

On January 7, 2016 at 8:30pm historians David Bell (Princeton), David Greenberg (Rutgers), Leah Wright-Rigueur (Harvard), Vicki Ruiz (Irvine) and Tyler Stovall (Santa Cruz) will serve on a panel titled “Election 2016: How Did We Get Here and What Does It Mean?”  The session will take place in Centennial Ballroom D of the Hyatt Regency.

Bell is a historian of modern France, so I imagine that he will be discussing the response to the election in Europe.

Greenberg is a U.S. presidential historian.

Wright-Rigueur is a historian of political history and African American history.

Ruiz‘s work focuses on 20th century United States history with a specialization in Chicana and Latina history.

Stovall, like Bell, is a historian of modern France.

I am sure all of these historians will have wise and insightful things to say about the election.  It does strike me, however, that there is no one on the panel who specializes in religion and American politics.  I think it is hard to understand Trump without understanding the religious convictions of his supporters.

What Readings Would You Put on a 2016 Election Syllabus?

cowieProcess: A Blog for American History , a blog run by the Organization of American Historians, asked historians to tweet some book recommendations to help people understand the 2016 election.

What a great exercise!

Here are some of the books recommended by American historians:

Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Landon Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left

W.E.B. Du Bous, Black Reconstruction in America

Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracutre

Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education

Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism

Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

 

Read the entire list here.

Setting the Record Straight on Trump’s Victory

On Sunday, Fox News aired Chris Wallace’s interview with Donald Trump.  Watch it here:

There is a lot we could say about this video, but I will just focus on some of the claims he makes about his victory on November 8, 2016.

Trump said:

[We had a] “massive landslide in the electoral college.”

[My win was one of the] “greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country.”

“We had one of the greatest victories of all time.”

Did Trump have a “massive landslide in the electoral college?”  Not really.  Actually, Trump’s electoral college victory (306-232 at the moment) ranks 46 out of 58 in terms of victory margin.

Was Trump’s win one of the “greatest” of all time?  Not really.  Only five American presidents won the electoral college but lost the popular vote.  This means that more Americans who voted in the November 2016 election chose another candidate over Donald Trump.

Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I am not trying to argue that Trump does not deserve to be POTUS.  If the Electoral College chooses him on December 19 he will be president. That is how the Constitution works.

What I am arguing is that Trump’s victory, if history is our guide, was not a “landslide” or a “great” victory.  If Trump believes that he won in a landslide he is deceiving himself. If this is his mindset as he starts to govern it will be virtually impossible for him to bring the nation together as he has proposed.  There are too many people out there who don’t like the guy or his policies.  And frankly, his “thank-you tour,” which seems like little more than an effort to pour salt in the wounds of his political opponents–is not helping.

Another Kind of “Identity Politics”

Last night I posted a piece on identity politics and the teaching of history. The post engaged with Columbia University history professor Mark Lilla’s critique of identity liberalism.  It is not my intention here to revisit what I wrote except to say that Lilla was employing a fairly common understanding of the phrase “identity liberalism,” namely the propensity to celebrate our differences (race, class, gender, sexual identity) in a way that makes them more important than our common identity as Americans.

In his critique of Lilla’s piece at The Junto blog, history professor Jonathan Wilson reminds us that “identity politics” goes well beyond the usual liberal categories of race, class, gender, and secular orientation.  Wilson writes:

Lilla’s argument overlooks the fact that Americanness itself is a particular constructed identity—and therefore, that any politics of the national common good is an identity politics. Lilla writes:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. [Emphasis added.]

However appropriate that recommendation may be strategically or as a matter of proportion, it is still a recipe for a form of identity politics. It requires asserting that Americans share a common interest simply by virtue of that group membership. It implies members of the nation owe a loyalty to each other that they may not owe to other groups—and which may override other important forms of human affinity and fulfillment.

I am guessing that Lilla would probably agree with Wilson here, although he would probably say that he was using “identity liberalism” in a very particular way in this piece–a way that most people who read it understood.

In response to Wilson’s post (in the comments section of The Junto), blogger and American historian Ann Little wrote:

I’d say the first identity politics party in American history was the Republican/Democratic Republican party. We can at the very latest say that by the time of Andy Jackson and when they began calling themselves Democrats it was clearly a party organized around white supremacy, with proslavery and imperial expansion at its center. So, DUH! Identity politics is just what we used to call politics before all those troublesome women and nonwhite people had the audacity to assume they had a claim to citizenship rights too.

While Lilla used the phrase “identity liberalism” in a very specific way, both Wilson and Little won’t let us forget that politics was one of the original forms of American “identity politics.”  I agree.

In February 2016 I wrote an op-ed piece published at Fox News about why the founding fathers–George Washington especially–did not like political parties.  The context for the piece was the Senate’s refusal to follow the Constitution and vote on Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Is it fair to say that Washington saw political parties as a form of identity politics?  Yes.

After I quoted from Washington’s 1796 farewell address, here is part of what I wrote:

Washington worried that political factions—such as today’s Republican and Democratic parties—weakened American’s commitment to the common good.  Political partisanship, he believed, promoted the worst forms of selfishness.  It undermined the “we” in “We the People.”

I thought about all of this again as I watched CNN’s Michael Smerconish grill RNC communication’s director Sean Spicer about Donald Trump’s response to the CIA announcement that Russian hackers tried to influence the 2016 election. Watch it here:

At the 2:45 mark  in the video Smerconish wonders why Americans of all parties are not upset with the fact that Putin and Russia has influenced a presidential election.  If Smerconish is correct, and I tend to think that he is, then “identity politics” (or, as Little puts it, just good old fashioned political partisanship) has now gotten in the way of the national security interests of all Americans, regardless of political party.

Yes, the Cold War is over.  The Soviet Union has been gone for over 25 years.  But if Putin represents some kind of revival of the Russian threat (as Mitt Romney correctly implied during his 2012 presidential run) then it looks are response to this threat will not follow the Cold War model of unified resistance. Whatever collective outrage we have had in the past about Russians trying to influence American life seems to have now been subordinated to party politics.

And it’s not just the end of the Cold War that has caused this decline of national unity in the last two or three decades.  I think it’s time re-read (and perhaps blog about) Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture.

Finally, I have been wondering what Putin thinks of all of this.  Perhaps something along the lines of the final scene in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” As the martians look down and watch the once good people of Maple Street destroy themselves,  one of them says (at 27:45 the mark in the video below): “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.  All we need to do is just sit back and watch…We’ll just sit back and watch and let them destroy themselves.”

The Author’s Corner with Gergely Baics

feedinggothamGergely Baics is Assistant Professor of History and Urban Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. This interview is based on his new book, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Feeding Gotham?

GB: Working on a research paper as a graduate student, I came across a vernacular sketch of African American dancing contests at Catharine Market in 1820 in Shane White’s wonderful article, “The Death of James Johnson.” The drawing captivated me for its intimate depiction of the vibrant and cosmopolitan public spaces of Early New York City. Catharine Market—its economy, social organization, and everyday life—became the subject of that paper. Over time, I realized that that small sketch of Catharine Market opened up a much larger subject: the vast and complex landscape of food provisioning in America’s first metropolis.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham brings the critical question of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban life and living standards. It argues that the antebellum deregulation of food markets created a new structural inequality, similar to health and housing conditions, that defined and shaped the development of the American city.

JF: Why do we need to read Feeding Gotham?

GB: Feeding Gotham examines the vital problem of food access in a city experiencing unprecedented growth, with its population rising from thirty thousand to nearly a million. It presents a comprehensive account based in political economy and the social and geographic history of the complex interplay of urban governance, market forces, and the built environment in provisioning New Yorkers. The book’s narrative traces how access to food, once a public good, became a private matter left to free and unregulated markets. In situating the deregulation of food markets within a broader matrix of public and private goods, it underlines the highly contested and open-ended outcomes of antebellum political economy debates. Moving beyond the debates, the bulk of the book studies the stakes involved. Most critical, Feeding Gotham brings the subject of food access to the center of our understanding of nineteenth-century urban living standards, a conversation thus far dominated by concerns over housing and sanitary provisions. The book documents how unequal access to food, much like shelter and sanitation, became a structural condition of inequality, part of the modern city’s increasingly stratified built and social environment. Importantly, the analysis extends to the understudied subject of food quality. It documents that the city’s surrender of all regulatory oversight of its food supplies contributed to deteriorating quality, which disadvantaged especially the rising rank of working-class immigrant populations. Central to the book’s approach is the systematic application of geographic information system (GIS) analysis. Feeding Gotham is the first book that maps the food system of a major nineteenth-century city, and one of few that deploys GIS systematically to study a specific problem in urban history. GIS mapping—from data creation to interpretation—provides a theoretical framework, methodological approach, and empirical base for the book’s main arguments. The extensive cartographic material was carefully created and designed to present a systematic and layered spatial analysis of food access in the nineteenth-century American city.

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

GB: First, I became an urban historian, and second an Americanist. I cannot recall when my fascination with cities began—probably, growing up in Budapest has a lot to do with it. It was during my undergraduate years that I discovered that I could become an urban historian, and this felt like an obvious intellectual path for me. My attraction to America also began with cities. I watched films like The French Connection or Serpico as a kid, and I was thrilled by the images of gritty New York City. Over the years, I found myself again and again seeking to study in the U.S., and becoming intellectually fascinated by the extraordinary complexity of this country. American cities, their history of immigration, booms and declines, deep inequalities, layered geographies, perplexed and fascinated me. Focusing on transnational urban economic and social history for my Ph.D., I found my topic in the food system of nineteenth-century New York City. What began as a project in urban history, over the years also became a project in U.S. economic and social history. Today, I consider myself both an urbanist and Americanist. I am most fortunate to have a joint-appointment in History and Urban Studies.

JF: What is your next project?

GB: I am currently at work on a new monograph, tentatively titled, The Transitional City: Economic and Social Geography of New York in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. My ambition is to study empirically (with the systematic application of GIS mapping) and then to theorize the spatial processes that propelled the transition from what historians describe as the walking city of the early nineteenth century to the segregated metropolis of the late nineteenth century. In addition, with a coauthor we have been writing a series of articles linking back to this larger work, and making use of advanced GIS methods, focusing on land use, the street grid, and the experiential geography of nineteenth-century Manhattan. Finally, with two colleagues we are developing a new project on the spatial history of late nineteenth to early twentieth-century Copenhagen, making use of new crowdsourced GIS data. In all of these projects, besides the specific urban historical questions at stake, I am also interested in advancing methods of spatial history.

JF: Thanks, Gergely! Sounds like some great stuff.