A Right-Wing Pundit Gets a History Lesson

Reagan and Thurmond

I know a lot of you have been following Kevin Kruse‘s twitter take-down of right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza.  Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, is challenging D’Souza’s claim that today’s Democratic Party is the party of racism because it had championed racism in the past.

Any undergraduate history major knows that political parties change over time.  On matters of race, the Democratic Party of the 1950s and early 1960s is not the Democratic Party of today.

Jeet Heer calls attention to the Twitter debate at The New Republic:

D’Souza has made a specialty of highlighting the undeniable racism of the 1960s Democratic Party as a way to tar the current party. His arguments ignore the way the two political parties switch positions on Civil Rights in the 1960s, with the Democrats embracing Civil Rights and Republicans, under the guidance of national leaders like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, exploiting racist backlash.

Read Heer’s entire post, including some of the tweets between Kruse and D’Souza.

Finally, don’t forget to listen to our interview with Kevin Kruse at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  The interview focuses on Kruse’s use of Twitter to bring good history to the public.

Zimmerman: The GOP Should be Careful What They Wish for in Overturning *Roe v. Wade*

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University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman wonders if overturning Roe v. Wade will lead to a liberal resurgence that might change the face of American politics.  Here is a taste of his piece at The New Republic:

Now, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the bench has American conservatives chomping at the bit: with the swing vote removed and replaced with a nominee of President Trump’s choosing, perhaps the 1973 ruling can be overturned. Conservatives’ own history, however, suggests that they should be careful for what they wish for. Instead of an unambiguous and permanent conservative victory, they might face a liberal political resurgence unlike anything seen in decades. A victory in the courts could spawn backlash at the polls.

That, after all, is precisely what happened after 1973, with the roles reversed, when Roe galvanized a right-wing revolution. Sixteen states had liberalized their abortion laws in the years leading up to the decision, provoking sporadic conservative protests. But the issue didn’t become a truly national one until the Supreme Court intervened in 1973, declaring that the protections of the Constitution did not apply to the unborn.

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

More American History Lessons for Kanye West

kanye-west

Yesterday we posted a link to Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse’s history lesson for rapper Kanye West.  Today it is Jim Cullen‘s turn to provide a lesson.  Cullen teaches history at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York.  Here is a taste of Zach Schonfeld’s interview with Cullen at Newsweek:

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican?

Kanye West, American rapper and 40-year-old eighth grade history student, just found out. And boy, is he shaken.

West, who seems to be experiencing some sort of political and philosophical awakening in real time since praising President Trump and declaringthe 45th president “my brother” six days ago, tweeted out a text exchange on Monday with someone named “Steve.” In the texts, Steve notes that Lincoln “freed and protected the slaves and he was Republican. Republicans were the ones who’s [sic] helped black people.” (The tweet—which prompted an avalanche of people trying to explain grade-school history to a major rapper—has since been deleted, but you can find it archived here.)

This is fairly common Republican rhetoric: By proclaiming itself the party of Lincoln and the Abolitionist movement, the modern GOP easily obfuscates the ways in which its racial politics and political coalition drastically transformed throughout the 20th century. In other words: It’s a long, long road from Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump. And West’s friend Steve seems to have confused the rapper by failing to give any historical context for political party realignment. (West subsequently tweeted out some texts from John Legend trying to explain some of this, but that tweet has also been deleted.)

We asked Jim Cullen, a high school history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York and the author of The American Dream, among other books, to explain the changes in the Republican and Democratic parties to West. (Please, can somebody text this link to Kanye?)

Kanye has just discovered that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. He tweeted an exchange saying that “Republicans were the ones [who] helped black people.” Do you think his tweet is misleading, given the two-party system as it exists today

Well, it’s factually correct. The Republican party was the party of Lincoln and it was the party of African Americans for at least a half century after the Civil War. That didn’t really begin to change until the 1930s and didn’t finish changing until the 1960s. To illustrate the point, the reverend Martin Luther King Sr. was a Republican, as most African Americans were.

Can you give a brief summary of how the GOP voting coalition has changed since the Civil War and Reconstruction era?

For about 70 years after the Civil War, African Americans were a key voting bloc for the GOP, both in the South, and increasingly in Northern cities, which could be very competitive in local, state and federal elections. This was especially true for middle-class and entrepreneurial African Americans. The first wedge in this coalition appeared during the New Deal, notably with the Executive Order 8802, signed by FDR to prohibit discrimination in the defense industry. Black flight to the Democrats intensified over the course of the 1960s, and was largely complete by the end of the century.

Read the entire interview here.

Has Politics Ever Been This Ugly in the United States?

Of course it has been.

I recently showed this video to my U.S. Survey course:

Over at NPR, writer Jon Meacham backs me up.  Here is a taste of his interview with Steve Inskeep:

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The election of President Trump got Jon Meacham thinking. Meacham is a journalist and historian. He’s written biographies of presidents. He wrote a book about faith. The 2016 election prompted him to combine those two subjects and more in a book called “The Soul Of America.” It’s an exploration of the history of a country whose soul, he says, includes Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan and much in between.

JON MEACHAM: The question I get asked all the time is, has it ever been this bad? And the answer is yes. In fact, it’s been worse. We are in a very, I believe, perilous moment because of the president of the United States. I will state that. But I also think it’s worth pointing out that Andrew Johnson announced that African-Americans were genetically incapable of self-government.

INSKEEP: This is the president after the Civil War.

MEACHAM: He was a bully. He was self-absorbed. He gave self-pitying speeches. Any of this sound familiar? You know, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said – history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The story of American history is that we have, in fact, moved forward. And what we’ve done – and the reason I wanted to look back at these moments – is what have been the moments where presidents have either been really right and led us forcefully and proactively? And what about the moments where they’ve been really wrong? And how did we overcome that?

Read the rest here.

Kevin Kruse Breaks Twitter Again

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Thurmond eventually joined the GOP

Princeton historian Kevin Kruse is sick and tired of Trump supporters claiming that the Democrats are the party of racism and white supremacy today because they were the party of racism and white supremacy 100+ years ago.  This twitter thread is a masterful lesson in change over time.

By the way, if you want to learn more about Kruse and the way he has used twitter to teach us how the past informs the present, listen to our interview with him in Episode 34 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Read the thread here.   A taste:

Since @kanyewest‘s tweets have apparently made this topic unavoidable, some thoughts on the history of the parties’ switch on civil rights.

First, it’s important to note that, yes, the Democrats were indeed the party of slavery and, in the early 20th century, the party of segregation, too.

(There are some pundits who claim this is some secret they’ve uncovered, but it’s long been front & center in any US history.)

Indeed, as @rauchway once noted, one could argue that *the* central story of twentieth-century American political history is basically the evolution of the Democratic Party from the party of Jim Crow to the party of civil rights.

At the start of the 20th century, the Democrats — dominated by white southern conservatives — were clearly the party of segregationists.

President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, instituted segregation in Washington and across the federal government. (See @EricSYellin‘s work.)

That said, both parties in this period had their share of racists in their ranks.

When the second KKK rose to power in the 1920s, it had a strong Democratic ties in some states; strong GOP ones elsewhere.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Smith

41xrlTvJ9rL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Adam Smith is professor of history at the University College of London. This interview is based on his new book, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterised both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterized both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: Why do we need to read The Stormy Present?

AS: Because it might remind us that political change happens as much through accident as design, with people coming to support potentially radical transformation for reasons far removed from what we might imagine. It will remind us, also, that for its vaunted modernity and fascination with progress, the United States has always been in many respects a profoundly conservative society, preoccupied with a decisive founding moment and anxious about threats to the prevailing order. And finally because the book offers a new interpretation of the coming of the Civil War in which the mass of white northerners—the men and women who were not abolitionists or radicals or even necessarily Republicans, but whose reactions and judgements mattered so much—are placed centre-stage.

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

AS: When I was an undergraduate I was lucky to be taught by Eric Foner, who provided such a compelling account of the Civil War era that I was totally gripped. I don’t know if that was when I decided to become a historian of the United States, but it’s certainly when I began to imagine it as a possibility.

JF: What is your next project?

AS: A study of compromise as a practice and an idea in American politics. 

JF: Thanks, Adam!

The Problem of the 1780s

ArticlesOver at The Nation, historian Richard Kreitner interviews Seattle University Law Professor George William Van Cleave about his new book We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution.   I hope to read Van Cleave’s book at some point since I don’t think I have ever read a book-length treatment of the Articles of Confederation.

Here is a taste of the interview:

RK: The overarching problem of the 1780s, as you write, was “stalemate government.” Why were things so blocked up?

GWVC: There are two basic reasons. First, the structure of the Confederation itself. The government designed by the Articles of Confederation made it easy for relatively small groups of people—especially individual states or sections of the country—to block any change. There was a requirement for every single state to agree to alter the powers of the Confederation. At least nine states needed to support any significant fiscal or military legislation. Any section could say, “We’re opposed to this, so it’s not gonna happen.” This happened repeatedly throughout the period I’m writing about.

The other significant reason is that from the beginning the Union had been a pretty loose alliance, so people felt relatively free about saying they just didn’t feel like going along with a particular policy. New York is a great example. New York City had one of the major ports in the United States, and the import taxes were very profitable for the state, which didn’t have to raise other kinds of taxes. But the rest of the states wanted to pass a federal import tax, which would have forced New York to give up its own. That was anathema for New York’s political leaders, who thought about how they could block such a tax every time they got out of bed. But, under the Articles of Confederation, there was no way for Congress to impose sanctions on New York for holding out, even if all the other states wanted to go forward. The result was stalemate.

Read the rest here.

 

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?

A4490-20

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

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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.