The Author’s Corner with Michael Turner

Michael J. Turner is the Roy Carroll Distinguished Professor of British History at Appalachian State University, North Carolina. This interview is based on his new book, Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain?

MT: Several areas of interest came together and I thought it a project worth pursuing, given the time and opportunity. Going back many years, I wrote a research paper as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester, New York, which touched on British responses to the American Civil War. I found this a fascinating subject, but I did not develop it further at that time (1992). I started working on other things, though I remained interested in British-American interaction, especially during the nineteenth century, and eventually I began to publish in the field. A series of articles, and a book on the role of America in British radicalism (2014), led directly to Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain. So did a visit to Richmond, Virginia, in March 2013. I was walking in Capitol Square and I spotted a statue of Stonewall Jackson. On the base, it mentioned something about being a gift from “English gentlemen,” which made me curious. Nobody in the nearby museum seemed to know the story behind it, so when I got home I looked into it. I soon found that Beresford Hope, with whom I was already familiar as a Conservative MP and High Church activist in Victorian Britain, played a leading role in the commissioning, construction, and delivery of the Jackson statue. I decided to find out why. Meanwhile, in the background, over the past 25 years or so, a significant trend in the relevant historiography has been the internationalization of the Civil War. Scholars have been placing the war in a wider setting, investigating its impact around the world and asking how and why it affected foreign opinion about America. I wanted to contribute to these discussions. Building on a longstanding interest in British-American interaction, intrigued by the connection between Hope and the Jackson statue, and wishing to add to our understanding of the Civil War as more than just an American war, my focus was on British perspectives that might previously have been under-studied or under-estimated. We already know a lot about the chief determinants of British attitudes—like cotton, or slavery, or ideas about democracy, or imperial security—but what about other factors?

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain?

MT: There was considerable sympathy for the South in Britain and this arose not only from economic interest and political preferences, but also from a sense of social, ethnic, religious, and cultural affinity. Admiration for Southern “heroism,” personified in Stonewall Jackson, was of particular importance, and he was to have a lasting fame in Britain because of the values he was supposed to represent.

JF: Why do we need to read Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain?

MT: It is a wide-ranging book. From two points of entry—Beresford Hope’s leadership role in pro-Southern agitation, and Stonewall Jackson’s British reputation—the book opens up to explore the many reasons why people in Britain wished the Confederacy well and continued to sympathize with the South in the postwar decades. Stonewall Jackson, Beresford Hope, and the Meaning of the American Civil War in Britain combines and adds to two approaches: relating the Civil War to its international ramifications, and explaining British responses to the American crises of secession, war, and Reconstruction. The goal is to expand knowledge and understanding of these matters, not least by offering fresh insights gleaned from research into previously neglected sources and historical agents.

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

MT: It must have started as a child. I remember my favorite books being historical books, my favorite movies being historical movies, and so on, I think because history is all about real people—why they do things, their ideas and circumstances, what motivates them—and of course the patterns of the present all have their roots in the past. At school, history was the subject I enjoyed most and the one for which I worked hardest. There was one very influential teacher, who had read Modern History at Oxford, and I wanted to do the same. I went up to Oxford in 1984 and stayed for seven years! I had brilliant tutors for the BA, a superb supervisor for my doctorate, and access to wonderful libraries and other resources. Then I came to the States, for the first time, to do the postdoc at Rochester. I count myself truly blessed that it all worked out so well.

JF: What is your next project?

MT: I am currently engaged in a study of problems facing the Church of England in the Victorian age, seen from the perspective of High Church laity.

JF: Thanks, Michael!

There is nothing new about what happened to conservative evangelicals this week. But how will they respond?

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It was a rough week for conservative evangelicals in the United States. The president of the largest Christian university in the country resigned after a sex scandal. A popular evangelical radio host and author was caught on tape punching an anti-Trump protester. The vice-president of the United States gave a speech in which he replaced the words of the New Testament with references to American nationalism. The president of the United States, in an attempt to appeal to his evangelical base, gave a speech that celebrated Christian participation in Manifest Destiny.

None of this is new. Evangelical leaders have been part of sex-scandals before. Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and Bill Hybels come immediately to mind. Fundamentalist churches have a history of sexual abuse. In the early 1970s, Billy James Hargis was accused of having sex with male and female students at his American Christian College.

Evangelicals and their fundamentalist heirs have acted violently toward their enemies before. Texas fundamentalist J. Frank Norris was charged with murder when he shot and killed a lumber worker who came to his office to complain about something Norris wrote in his religious newspaper.

Ministers and politicians have been twisting scripture to serve political ends since the American Revolution. I wrote an entire chapter about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Finally, presidential candidates have often blown racist dog-whistles, sometime disguised as history, to rally their white supporters. Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon all come to mind.

How will conservative evangelicals, especially those who support Donald Trump, respond to all this? Rather than seeing what happened this week with Jerry Falwell Jr., Eric Metaxas, Mike Pence, and Trump as part of a long history of hypocrisy and moral failure,  I am afraid most conservative evangelicals will ignore these issues, fail to see the continuity between past and present, and reject any claim that these events reflect deeper, more systemic problems within evangelical Christianity.  Instead, they will continue to believe that another four years of Donald Trump, a president who has exacerbated and exposed the darkest parts of American evangelical history, will somehow bring revival to the church and restore America to a golden age that probably never existed in the first place.

Who are these members of SHEAR who “support the idea that white supremacists actually have a legitimate argument?” I don’t think we have met.

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Some of you who read this blog are familiar with the controversy going on in the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). You can get up to speed with these posts. We also interviewed Dan Feller in Episode 72 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

On July 24, 2020, SHEAR’s official website, The Panorama, published Johann Neem’s piece “And/Or: Reflections on SHEAR’s Plenary.”  Here is a taste of that post:

Instead of “and,” “or” was all over the plenary session on Jackson and the immediate Twitter response. The panel revolved around a paper offered by Daniel Feller, director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson, contesting both Trump’s claim to the Jacksonian legacy, as well as what Feller considers the “cartoon version” of Jackson offered by recent historians. When I first read Feller’s pre-circulated paper for the SHEAR plenary, I was intrigued. It felt important to assess Jackson, the founder of the Democratic party, the longtime inspiration for its egalitarian commitments, who has fallen from grace because of his racist ideas and actions, and is now Donald Trump’s favored president. It seemed like a good choice for a broad public discussion.

Unfortunately, Feller seemed to be in an “or” mode. And in response, Twitter exploded with “or.” “Or” is most useful to bring sharp distinctions into relief, to cut the past analytically in ways that make rendering judgment easier. I have often used “or” in my writings, especially when I want to draw attention to contrasts. “Or” is a powerful tool to divide or categorize, but it can hide complexity. Often, it lacks humility.

“And” was missing from the conversation. Maybe this reflects our current cultural mood. We desire certainty and want people to be on our team. Perhaps we seek perfection in our heroes and want our villains to be purely terrible. Perhaps the contradictions we find in people like Jackson reflect his failings. But maybe, just maybe, our unwillingness to understand the past in terms of “and” reflects a failing on our part too. As Emerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

I am not defending Jackson. If anything, I must confess, and it is a bit embarrassing, but I kind of like the Whigs. The Whig party was, in our terms, more progressive on issues of gender and race. And Whigs’ vision of freedom emphasized cultivating human capabilities through collective institutions, from the family to civil society to the state.

But the Whigs were never just this, or else the left would have turned to the Whigs for their inspiration. They didn’t. To those who became Democrats, Jackson and his supporters offered a vision of egalitarian democracy that Whigs supposedly lacked. That is why left-leaning historians of labor and education have tended to side with the Democracy. The Democrats were the party of the working class who resisted the expansion of capitalism, historians argued. And the Democrats challenged the nativism, anti-Catholicism, and social control efforts of Whig philanthropy, including the Whigs’ vision of common schooling. Andyet Democrats were also the party most committed to upholding white supremacy.

There is nothing wrong with Feller wanting to defend Jackson and his legacy. At his best, Feller asked us to think seriously about historical context and to look beyond rhetoric to the specifics of Jacksonian policy.  But it was also true, as critics pointed out, that Feller’s paper and remarks did not engage meaningfully with the specific arguments made in recent scholarship critical about Jackson. The panel would have been stronger if these perspectives had been represented by including, for example, an expert in indigenous history. But Feller urged us to remember the Jackson who, in the Bank War, challenged an economic and political system favoring the few over the many. We historians must contend honestly with that Jackson too.

It can be hard to find the space and patience for “and” during these fraught times. With all that is happening in our country and around the world, there are days when I want to stake a position and hold it against all challengers. I want to know who’s with me. Sometimes I mistake this for solidarity. But maybe it’s my Whig sensibilities that remind me how fragile institutions like SHEAR are, and how much they depend on our collective will to sustain them over time. I think that doing so requires all of us—myself included—to be more open to “and.” And not just for the people we study; we among the living also contain multitudes. Do I contradict myself? I can’t help it. I have contradictory impulses. I only know so much. My intellect is limited. I make mistakes. I may need your forgiveness.

As historians, we have the opportunity to help one another and our students, readers, and listeners make sense of “and.” Because I have been coming to SHEAR for years, I know many of you, and I know that when we sit down to talk, we understand “and.” We are not “and” users or “or” users. We’re both.

I was glad to see The Panorama publish Neem’s post. The piece asks us to remember the historian’s task and it calls for honest and fair debate among those trained in the discipline.

But after I read Dawn Peterson’s and Laurel Clark Shire’s recent piece at Panorama, I wonder if Neem’s commitment to “AND” is really possible. Peterson and Shire were two of the historians Feller criticized in his plenary paper. They write:

On July 17, 2020, the Society for the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) held a plenary session online in lieu of the cancelled annual conference. The speaker was University of Tennessee professor Daniel Feller, the editor of Andrew Jackson’s papers. The plenary, based on a pre-circulated essay, was a debacle. By giving an apologist for slavery and Indian removal a large platform, SHEAR highlighted ongoing weaknesses both within the society and in the historical profession writ large regarding the histories of African American and Indigenous people, and of race and white supremacy more broadly.

The claim that Dan Feller is an “apologist for slavery and Indian removal” seems to be little more than a smear on the character of a fellow historian. There was nothing in Feller’s paper, the Q&A session that followed, or in my long podcast interview with Feller to suggest that he is an “apologist for slavery and Indian removal.”

Peterson and Shire continue:

Feller’s defensiveness was evident from the start. During the session, he excoriated journalists and historians for misrepresenting Jackson as a “hardcore racist” and the originator of “Indian genocide.” He dismissed scholarly interrogations of Jackson’s policies as being part of a politically motivated campaign to decry Donald Trump, who claims Jackson as a personal hero and inspiration. The essay demonstrated a stubborn refusal to engage scholarship by Indigenous and African American historians or even by other scholars of their histories. Instead, he misrepresented and caricatured recent work on Jackson—most of it by women historians—as he excused and defended Andrew Jackson’s policies. During the Q&A session, he refused to address Jackson’s slaveholding (lack of time, he said) and, at the end of the plenary, he even spoke aloud, and then repeated, a racist slur. Feller’s arguments were directly contradicted by respondent David Waldstreicher, which we and many others appreciate. Yet the speaker’s essay and its delivery, combined with the senior, all-white panel of respondents, indicated that SHEAR had failed to ensure that this panel would represent its own policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As we are two of the people whose scholarship Feller mocked, the editor of ThePanorama asked us if we would like to respond, and we do so here.

I have said this before, but the argument Feller made in his paper was well within the bounds of historical debate. I wish Feller would have been more hospitable to the voices of other scholars. Much of what he said was tainted by his use of a racial slur. Moreover, this session may not have been the best choice of panels to put forth as the face of the organization. (Feller acknowledges all of this in my podcast interview). But there was nothing about the content of the paper that merits the attacks he is receiving.

Feller was familiar with Peterson’s and Shire’s work. He cited them in the paper. Perhaps he should have engaged with them more because their work is important. So is the work of the scholars they cite in the footnotes of The Panorama piece. Personally, I have learned a lot from their scholarship and I have tried to use my platform to amplify their voices and arguments. In August 2016, I interviewed Shire as part of this blog’s Author’s Corner series. Many of the scholars mentioned in the footnotes have also appeared as part of this series. Julie Reed, the author of Serving the Nation: Cherokee Sovereignty and Social Welfare, 1800-1907, and a former colleague of Feller at the University of Tennessee, was our guest on Episode 46 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. In the end, Feller read Peterson’s and Shire’s work and found it wanting on several points. His differences were based on his reading of the sources.

Shire and Peterson write:

Andrew Jackson was not only a racist, but was also a person who made his career, his money, and his reputation on his steadfast commitment to racial slavery and genocide. He held some 150 people in bondage, separated kin on the auction block, and profited from the trade in human beings. He sent U.S. troops into sovereign Indian nations and ordered them to execute the residents of entire villages. He also advocated for and directed the forced eviction of thousands of Indigenous people from their lands, a removal that was carried out with violence and had terrible immediate and long-term human costs. Many respected historians of that policy note that if Indian removal had happened in the twentieth century we would recognize it as an “ethnic cleansing.”Historians also recognize that the eviction of Native peoples cleared the way for the expansion of slavery in the early republic, an economic boon for the white families of Jacksonian America, and one that expanded and perpetuated Black servitude. All of these things are historical truths acknowledged long before Trump occupied the White House.

I think Dan Feller would agree with everything in this paragraph.

These truths are not under dispute, not even by longstanding defenders of Jackson. Instead, Jackson’s apologists diminish their significance in light of what they consider to be Jackson’s other “accomplishments” in U.S. political and economic history. When historians write of Jackson as a white supremacist, defenders question the integrity of that research, arguing that it either ungenerously judges this historical figure by “presentist” standards or finding ways to undermine decolonizing methodologies or the documentary record writ large.

I am not sure anyone is trying to diminish Jackson’s racism. Also, one can still teach in a way that calls attention to Jackson’s political and economic policies without necessary calling them “accomplishments.” Do any of us really teach Jackson solely in terms of his views on slavery and Indian removal? If we say something in class about Jackson’s populism, appeal to immigrant workers in the North, his role in the Nullification Crisis, his “Kitchen Cabinet,” or his efforts to crush the National Bank, do we automatically “diminish the significance” of Jackson’s white supremacy, slavery, and treatment of  Indians?

Nicholas Guyatt is a historian for whom I have much respect, but I just don’t understand this tweet he posted in response to my podcast interview:

 

Did Jackson’s slaveholding and Indian removal play a “crucial role in creating the cotton belt?” Of course. I don’t think anyone would argue with the distinguished Cambridge professor on this point. But his tweet makes me wonder if Guyatt (and other critics of this so-called “triad”) has ever taught the U.S. survey course. What would a middle school or high school teacher say about this tweet as they try to cover all the stuff about Jackson included in their state social studies standards? What about an AP U.S. History teacher who needs to prepare students for the AP exam? As someone who graded these exams for seven years, I can attest to the fact that students will need to know things about the bank crisis, nullification crisis, and Jackson’s appeal in the North. Apart from the fact that it reduces Jackson’s life to merely one category of analysis, Guyatt’s attack on the “old triad” is impractical. It is disconnected from the work of American history teachers in the trenches.

Shire and Peterson write:

When a scholar makes racist comments, or tries to normalize white supremacy in the past, or displays clear sexism (or ableism, or homophobia), treating these comments as legitimate opinions to be debated makes it seem as if they are reasonable and must be engaged with. When people choose to respectfully debate racism it preserves “white comfort” at the expense of people of color and other marginalized groups. For a historian to claim that Indian removal and slavery were “overstated distractions” or “details we don’t have time for” was alienating and hostile to scholars of Indigenous and African American descent. It appeared that, with one exception, the goal of the panel assembled by SHEAR was to keep things “civil” as the speaker tacitly acknowledged the harms done to people of color as unfortunate, necessary evils along the way to American democracy. As Indigenous studies scholars have repeatedly argued, this call to “civility” stages white supremacy as both normal and legitimate and makes any refusal to support it beyond the pale of legitimate engagement or “civilization.”

Rather than supporting “both sides” approaches we urge SHEAR to no longer amplify histories that justify racism and violence and instead prioritize and emphasize the work of scholars committed to equity, particularly that of scholars of color. Giving historians who seek to defend white supremacy platforms equal to (or, often times, even greater than) those who highlight the individual and collective resilience of those targeted by the colonial state supports the idea that white supremacists actually have a legitimate argument. If SHEAR, for example, was committed to exploring Donald Trump’s fascination with Jackson—as was the stated intention—then why not create a plenary session with scholars who could speak to that in the context of both men’s devastating policies toward Black and Indigenous communities and the political mobilizations that arose and strengthened as a result?

Again, this seems unfair. It implies that Feller said that Indian Removal and slavery were “overstated distractions” and “details we don’t have time for.” Feller never said any of this. Peterson and Shire ask SHEAR to reject a “both sides” approach that gives voice to the work of historians who “amplify histories that justify racism and violence.” Who are these members of SHEAR? Are there really members of this esteemed organization of early Americanists who “support the idea that white supremacists actually have a legitimate argument?” Is SHEAR going to build its case for moral purity on such a straw man?

One final word. I have received several responses to my podcast interview with Feller. Most of them have accused me of not criticizing Feller or going too easy on him. Guilty as charged!! Anyone who wants to see how scholars are criticizing Feller can read Twitter and the official statements from SHEAR. My goal in the podcast was to let Feller tell his side of the story. That, after all, is what historians do. We try to listen to multiple perspectives of a particular event and draw our own conclusions. I hope Shire and Peterson will listen to that interview.

Was Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy genocidal?

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Some of you have been following the Dan Feller controversy at SHEAR. Get up to speed with Episode 72 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. You can also read my posts on this controversy here.

After Feller delivered his paper “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump,” Feller was criticized for saying that the word “genocide” should not be used to describe Jackson’s policy of Indian removal. Over at The Panorama, the blog of The Journal of the Early Republic (SHEAR’s official academic journal), University of Oregon historian Jeffrey Ostler provides a thoughtful discussion of this issue.

Here is a taste of his piece “Was Indian Removal Genocidal?”:

In his paper, “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump,” the centerpiece of the much-discussed SHEAR2020 plenary session, Daniel Feller dismissed the perspective that Andrew Jackson’s “Indian removal policy was deliberately vicious and inhuman, if not overtly genocidal.” Several historians, commenting on Twitter, pushed back against Feller’s contention, claiming that Indian removal was indeed a genocidal policy. Interestingly, however, most recent scholarship on Indian removal, while supporting the view that the policy was vicious and inhuman, has not addressed the question of genocide. Historians have indicted the policy as “ethnic cleansing,” a serious allegation since ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity under current international law. They have also called for replacing “removal” with terms like “expulsion” and “deportation” on the theory that these terms more accurately convey the coerciveness of the policy. But specialists have not argued that the policy was genocidal. Was it?

Addressing this question requires considering the intent of Indian removal and its consequences. The stated intention of the policy was the opposite of genocide—to save Native people from an otherwise inevitable extinction. Speaking before Congress, President Jackson asserted that instead of “utter annihilation” should Indians remain in the East, removal “kindly offers . . . a new home.”2 To the extent that U.S. presidents are capable of inflicting catastrophic destruction while claiming to be benevolent, however, we should be cautious about accepting Jackson’s claims at face value. A more realistic assessment of the policy’s intentions requires an evaluation of its consequences and Jackson’s response to these consequences.

Read the rest here.

University of Tennessee announces new director of the Andrew Jackson Papers

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Here is the press release:

The University of Tennessee is pleased to welcome Dr. Michael E. Woods as Associate Professor of History and the new Director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson, effective August 1, 2020. Dr. Woods is the award-winning author of three books on 19th century U.S. politics and political culture. As Director, he will be working with an editorial team that is producing carefully edited volumes that are an essential tool for scholars in many historical fields. Dr. Woods replaces Dr. Dan Feller, who is retiring after serving as director of the award-winning project since 2003. 

A Statement from Dr. Michael E. Woods 

“I am honored and excited to serve as Director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson, and I am grateful to everyone at the University of Tennessee and the Papers for their warm welcome. The PAJ has always been a collective effort and I look forward to working with the project’s superb editorial team to produce published volumes of the highest caliber. I am especially eager to engage with a diverse range of scholars and audiences. The PAJ has much to offer to, and much to learn from, scholars in a variety of fields, including Native American history and Indigenous studies; African American history and the study of slavery, resistance, and abolition; political, legal, and constitutional history; and military history. To promote inclusion, collaboration, and innovation, I am commencing two initiatives. First, I am reconstituting a PAJ Advisory Board that will include a diverse group of scholars whose expertise reflects the vibrancy and breadth of current scholarship on the Early Republic and Antebellum eras. I look forward to working with Board members to create programming that highlights this emergent scholarship and fosters future research. Second, with the Advisory Board I will prepare a 2020-2021 Speaker Series that will showcase the work of scholars who have incorporated the PAJ’s resources into their reinterpretations of the past.” 

Episode 72: Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump, and the Upending of SHEAR

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In this episode we talk with Daniel Feller, the editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. We discuss his work as a documentary editor, the uses of Andrew Jackson in the age of Trump, and a controversial paper he recently delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for the Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR).

You can also listen at your favorite podcatcher, including Apple Podcasts.

What I wrote about Trump and Andrew Jackson in *Believe Me*

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I am not an Andrew Jackson scholar, but I have taught him for more than two decades. In the U.S. survey I usually frame my treatment of Jackson in terms of the tensions between what historian Harry Watson calls “Liberty and Power.” I discuss with my students how different groups in America understood the nullification crisis, Indian removal, and the debate over the National Bank. Some viewed Jackson as a defender of “liberty,” while others interpreted these events in terms of Jackson’s tyranny and unbridled use of presidential “power.”

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrote about Trump’s relationship with Jackson. Here is a taste:

Donald Trump did not find Andrew Jackson; Andrew Jackson found him. When historians and pundits began to compare Trump the populist with Jackson the populist, the candidate took notice. Moreover, Jackson is a favorite of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political adviser and campaign manager. [And Dan Feller has recently taught us that much of Bannon’s understanding of Jackson is filtered through conservative commentator Walter Russell Mead].  By the time Trump entered the White House in late January 2017, an 1835 Ralph E.W. Earle portrait of Andrew Jackson was hanging in the Oval Office. In March 2017, Trump visited Jackson’s home in Nashville and laid a wreath on his tomb to commemorate the seventh president’s 250th birthday. There was also, of course, Trump’s misinformed claim about Jackson and the Civil War:

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There is no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Historians were quick to jump on the president’s comments by pointing out that the overwhelming consensus is that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Andrew Jackson owned a hundred slaves and had always been a strong advocate for the spread of the institution into the West of this country. Jackson died in 1845; the Civil War began in 1861. And if Jackson had been around to do something about the tensions between North and South, he would have probably sympathized with the Confederacy,

Andrew Jackson was the president of the United States during what historians call the “Age of Democracy.” Universal manhood suffrage (the right for white men to vote regardless of how much property they owned), the rise of something akin to the modern political parties, and the influx of millions of new immigrants, changed American politics forever. Democracy in that era empowered white men. While nothing close to social equality emerged then, political participation did reach an all-time high. Jackson’s life story, which was characterized by a rise from poverty and hardship, made him the ideal man to lead the country in this new democratic age. His popularity among ordinary voters was unprecedented. By the time he entered office in 1829, Jackson had risen above the hardships of his past, had a national reputation as  an Indian fighter and slaveowner, and was well known as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, the last battle of the War of 1812. Jackson was a man of passion who often let his temper get the best of him. His lack of self-control prompted the elderly Thomas Jefferson to wonder whether Jackson’s emotional volatility might disqualify him from the presidency.

Jackson won 56 percent of the vote in the 1828 presidential election and, as a result, believed that he had a mandate to serve the people who cast ballots on his behalf. Jackson viewed himself as a savior of the ordinary farmers and workers who voted form him by the millions, and his commitment to these men shaped his policy decisions, especially when he dealt with the elites who controlled American financial institutions such as the National Bank. Jackson was a strong nationalist: during the nullification crisis, he turned against South Carolina, a state filled with fellow slaveholders, because he did not believe that a state had the right to reject any law (in the case of South Carolina it was a tariff law) over the sovereign will of the American people as represented in the Union. When the passion-filled Jackson asked Congress to pass a “force bill” enabling him to use the army to crush dissent in the Palmetto state, talk of civil war was in the air. In the end cooler heads prevailed and Congress reached a compromise to avoid secession and military conflict. Jackson’s show of force further solidified his support among the nation’s working people.

During his speech at Jackson’s tomb, Donald Trump described the former president as a “product of his times.” This was especially true when it came to race, slavery, and Jackson’s policy toward Native Americans. Much of Jackson’s Southern constituency relied on the president to defend slavery and white supremacy, and the president was more than happy to oblige. As we saw in chapter 3, many of these slaveholders lived in fear of insurrections. Poor whites who did not own slaves worried about what might happen to them if slaves were set free and forced to integrate into white society. For example, in 1835, during his second term as president, Jackson, in a blatant attempt to limit free speech, tries to stop the United States Post Office from delivering abolitionist literature into the South. “Democracy” was white.

When it came to Native Americans, Jackson believed that they were racially inferior and an impediment to the advancement of white settlement across the continent. He eventually developed what he described as a “just, humane, liberal policy toward the Indian” that would remove them from their lands to unoccupied territory west of the Mississippi. He believed that he was a great father to the Indians. He explained his decision to oust them from their ancestral lands by claiming that he was protecting them from a possible race war with white drunk on Manifest Destiny. Drunk or not, the white men who voted for him in 1828 and 1832 simply wanted Indians out of the way. Jackson, as a steward of the people who supported him in a democratic election, needed to act in response to their will. During the 1830s, Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Indians from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, escorted by the United States Army, embarked on what has been described as the “Trail of Tears.” Thousands of natives made the 800-mile trek to Jackson’s new “Indian Territory,” located in what is Oklahoma today.

It is fair to call Andrew Jackson a populist president. By the time he took office, he was a wealthy man, but he always presented himself as one of the people, a defender of the “humble members of society–the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.” Yes, as we have seen, Jackson’s nationalism, populism, and commitment to democracy was deeply charged with racial hatred and the defense of white supremacy. Is this the era of American history that Donald Trump has in mind when he says he wants to make America great again?

Thoughts on Daniel Feller’s plenary address at SHEAR 2020

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I finally got around to watching Daniel Feller‘s lecture on Andrew Jackson in the age of Trump at this year’s virtual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. You can watch it here and decide what you think about it. (You can also watch it here). Several of you have now asked me to comment.

Historians on Twitter are very upset about the session. There seem to be four related criticisms. First, many are angry because Feller failed to say more about Jackson’s racism, especially as related to Indian removal. One key issue was Feller’s refusal to describe the Indian removal as “genocide.” Second, some are angry that SHEAR did not invite younger scholars–especially those who study race and Native American history–to participate in the session. Such scholars, they argue, would have brought more complexity and diversity to this scholarly debate. Third, Feller took some shots at other historians. Fourth, Feller used a racial slur during the Q&A session.

You can read their takes at #SHEAR2020.

The participants were:

Daniel Feller, Director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee

David Waldstreicher, City University of New York

Jeanne Heidler, U.S. Air Force Academy

David Heidler, U.S. Air Force Academy

Harry Watson, University of North Carolina

Jessica Lepler, University of New Hampshire

Thoughts:

  • I loved the session. Feller made a forceful argument. I thought the session was a model of what good academic debate should look like. As someone who has been teaching Andrew Jackson at the survey and upper-division level for twenty years, and also wrote about Trump’s use of Jackson in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I learned a great deal from Feller’s paper. The commentators made me think in different ways about Jackson and his comparison to Donald Trump. I want to thank SHEAR for hosting it.
  • On Feller’s use of the racial slur that was formerly associated with Washington’s NFL team, I agree with Journal of the Early Republic editor Andrew Shankman’s take. Shankman writes: “We all encounter this language in our sources.  We all struggle with how to bring students and colleagues to this work without normalizing and prolonging categories and terms that have justified, and continue to justify, violence and contempt, and that seek to deny full and equal membership in a loving community.  In my view, knowing that many people feel pain when they hear words that force them to recall wrongs done to them and those they cherish, and to recall them not at a time of their own choosing, is reason never to use such words.” I will leave it there.
  • There are several historians who offered useful criticism of Feller on Twitter. This is good. For example, I learned a lot from Becky Goetz’s long twitter thread and I jotted down a few titles for future reading. This is historical twitter at its best. (Although I also felt that Goetz was asking Feller to do a lot in a short paper).
  • On the other hand,  if you want to see how the historical profession deals with legitimate scholars who have dissenting views, read the tweets at #SHEAR2020. It’s not pretty.
  • There are some historians who attack SHEAR for simply allowing Feller to speak. They are calling his lecture a “disaster” and a “debacle.” Let’s remember that Feller is no slouch. He has spent his entire life studying Andrew Jackson. But some seem to suggest that his views are so out of bounds that they do not belong in the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic. Others are “disappointed” in SHEAR. Disappointed? I wish there were more sessions like this. I thought it raised some great questions about historical method and how to balance the usefulness of the past with the notion that the past is a “foreign country.” (I actually wrote about this earlier today). I might use this in class.
  • Some historians on Twitter are saying that Feller does not give credit to younger scholars working on Jackson, race, and Indian removal. This is true. SHEAR should have brought some of these younger scholars into the conversation. This was a failure on their part. It is possible that Feller has read the scholarship of younger academics and simply does not find it compelling. There is nothing wrong with this. But let’s have some of these other scholars present to debate.
  • Many historians are questioning whether or not they will continue their membership in SHEAR because Feller was permitted to speak. If I were a member of SHEAR (I let my membership lapse years ago, but still occasionally attend the conference and write for the Panorama when asked) I would consider dropping my membership based on how Feller was treated by some SHEAR members on Twitter. (For the record, I have never met or corresponded with Feller). Of course we should feel free to disagree with Feller and express that on social media. I didn’t agree with some things he said either. But this cancel culture has to stop. Feller is no David Barton or Howard Zinn–writers who use the past for the sole purpose of promoting political agendas.
  • As I mentioned above, only about one-third of Feller’s presentation dealt with Indian removal. I know that race is an important topic right now, and it deserves the attention it is getting in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the ongoing discussion on monuments, but there are other categories of analysis. Feller made this point during the Q&A and I think he is correct. I appreciated Feller’s attempt to situate Jackson’s Indian removal policy within his entire presidency and point out that this moment was not the only thing that defined him. Also, this paper was about Trump’s use of Jackson. It was not a scholarly paper on Indian removal. The argument that more scholars of native American history should have been invited is fair, but it only goes so far since Feller’s paper was not devoted exclusively to Indian removal.
  • Feller’s criticism of Joyce Chaplin went too far when he suggested that she was incompetent. It also seemed to be a shot at “cosmopolitan” Cambridge from the Knoxville backcountry–a very Jacksonian move. On the other hand, if the editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson criticizes a historian who is not a Jackson scholar we should probably not dismiss such criticism out of hand.
  • Historian Doug Egerton, the president of SHEAR, responded to the criticism of the panel with this letter. I thought it was a fair letter.

 

Wilentz: “We can honor–and dishonor–American leaders of previous eras without turning history into a simplistic tale of good versus evil”

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Statue of Andrew Jackson, New Orleans

Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz addresses monuments to our complicated past.

Here is a taste of his piece at the The Wall Street Journal:

 

Given history’s complexities and contradictions, though, where should we draw the line?

In the starkest contradiction, Thomas Jefferson, the revolutionary who pronounced the American democratic ideal as the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal,’’ also bought, sold and exploited human beings his entire adult life. On one occasion, he wrote racist speculations about the inferiority of Africans at the same time that he denounced enslaving blacks as an indefensible offense to the Almighty. Should Jefferson’s image therefore be spray painted and trashed, as it was last week in Portland, Ore., as an embodiment of racist evil, little different from Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee? Or should the spirit of democratic equality that his image proclaims be taken seriously, as Martin Luther King did when he quoted the Declaration of Independence at length at the March on Washington in 1963?

Intentions as well as history help to clarify these matters of memory. There can be no doubt that statues of Davis, Lee, John C. Calhoun and others are tributes to slavery, secession and racial domination. They were built for precisely those reasons. They have no other possible meaning, apart from transparent euphemisms about states’ rights and federal tyranny.

But the same is not true of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its paeans to universal enlightenment, equality and religious freedom. It is not true of the Lincoln Memorial, a living monument that for decades has been a touchstone for the nation’s freedom struggles.

Ulysses S. Grant, for his part, was raised in an abolitionist family; when he received a slave from his slaveholding father-in-law, Grant immediately released him from bondage. Those who know little about Grant hold this against him. Instead, we should honor him for crushing the Confederacy and then, as president, breaking up the Ku Klux Klan, advancing the 15th Amendment and signing the Civil Rights Act of 1875—the first of its kind and the forerunner of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Andrew Jackson is heavily and accurately criticized for his Indian removal policies, although historians still dispute how much those policies arose from tragedy, intention or previous federal policies. But no monument to Jackson celebrates the Trail of Tears or the fact that he owned slaves. He is honored for two lasting accomplishments. As a general, he repelled a massive British invasion at New Orleans in 1815; and as president, he secured the Union by standing up to Calhoun and his militant proslavery supporters, the forerunners of the secessionist slavocracy, during the Nullification Crisis in 1832-33. Somewhere, Calhoun’s shade, embittered by the decision to remove his monument in Charleston, S.C., is smiling grimly at the attacks on his greatest antagonist.

Unless we can learn from history the difference between persons who preach and practice evil and those who at best imperfectly extricate themselves from evil yet achieve great good, we might as well cease building monuments to anyone or anything, and cease teaching history except as dogma. Unless we can outgrow the conception of history as a simplistic battle between darkness and light—unless we can seek understanding of what those in the past struggled with, as we hope posterity will afford to us—we will be the captives of arrogant self-delusions and false innocence.

Read the entire piece here.

How should we deal with monuments to flawed individuals?

Lee Monument

Eliot Cohen, the dean of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, offers his take on the removal of monuments. Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

A good place to begin is by asking whether the evil a man or woman did is the most important fact of his or her life. With regard to the Confederate generals, that is unquestionably the case. Robert E. Lee would have been a footnote in the history books had he not foresworn his allegiance to the Constitution and done his formidable best not only to rend the Union asunder, but to defend the system of chattel slavery. As Lincoln once wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” The sheer, murderous wickedness of the Confederate cause, long lost in mythologizing and willful ignorance, is unambiguous.

But of other radically flawed individuals, a different judgment should be made. John F. Kennedy was a sexual predator, as we now know. We should not, however, take his name off the Kennedy Center, and we should not fail to be moved by the clarion call of his inaugural address. Thomas Jefferson was not merely a slaveholder, but a particularly callous one. He was willing to inflict suffering, preying on vulnerable enslaved women and breaking up families. But he also gave America the Declaration of Independence and its principles, which transcend the deeply flawed mortal who wrote them down. We can similarly recognize and wrestle with the flaws—some of them considerable—of the likes of Roosevelt, Grant, and Churchill without losing sight of their accomplishments.

And there are difficult judgments to be made. What of Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans, a democrat rebelling against the rule of established, moneyed elites—but also the political leader principally responsible for the genocidal Trail of Tears?

There are two other principles here. One is that there is one kind of conversation when a person is about to be memorialized; quite another when the monument already exists and its obliteration is intended to remove painful memories of a past that was real. For that reason, there is a higher bar for the removal of Confederate statues than for putting new ones up—yet even so, that higher bar is easily met. But if it’s perfectly reasonable to say that we should not be naming something new after Woodrow Wilson, a bigot throughout his career, whether we should strip his name off a school and a research center that already exist is much less clear.

Read the entire piece here.

What does Jacksonian America have to do with Disney World?

American Adventure

Not much.

That is, until history professor David Head of the University of Central Florida in Orlando asked his students to design a Jackson-era vignette for Epcot Center’s American Adventure attraction.

Here is a taste of Head’s piece at The Panorama:

I ask students to create their own vignette that could be added to the American Adventure as representative of the Age of Jackson. (Here’s the full assignment sheet.) Students can choose anything. Something about Jackson himself, his policies, or legacy is fair game, but also anything else: the Second Great Awakening, reform movements, Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War. It’s wide open.

I break down how the vignettes work for students and require that they describe each element of their proposed new story. They must have a visual sequence with pictures and music; an animatronic scene with characters, dialogue, and action; and narrations to introduce and conclude each part. It’s important to note that I don’t require any actual art or music. Just description. The creative part of the assignment is fun, but it’s also challenging. How do you communicate complicated ideas in a visual way?

At the same time, I ask students to explain the significance of each element with an eye toward showing how each choice communicates something important to the audience. Here I want students to also reflect on the numerous constraints on how they might like to tell the story. For example, Disney attracts people from all over the world, many of whom have no background in American history, and some of whom have limited (or no) English. How do you get your message across to such a diverse audience?

Similarly, many children will be watching. How do you make sure the material is age-appropriate? Or, how do you address politically sensitive topics? Disruptions accompanied the debut of a Donald Trump addition to the Hall of Presidents. Disney wants everyone’s money, so attractions must have mass appeal.

However, I caution students that a dumbed-down approach isn’t the answer. There comes a point at which material is so simplified it’s no longer true. But where is that line? How do you preserve quality while accounting for all the other factors an attraction must meet? I created a vignette of my own to show students how it can be done.

Read the entire piece here.

Should the Government Promote Prayer During a Pandemic?: The Case of Andrew Jackson

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Over at The Washington Post, Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin reflects on how Andrew Jackson handled the the arrival of cholera on American shores.  Here is a taste:

At the time, it was a standard and orthodox belief that any disease was divine punishment. Cholera was supposedly “a rod in the hand of God,” smiting the atheist, the sinner and the non-Protestant immigrant. The suffering was a rebuke and a call to repent. Individuals and communities were, accordingly, told to fast and pray. City officials and state governors received petitions from churches and citizens’ groups to enact days for public prayer and fasting, and many places complied, including at least 11 states.

Despite attempts to convince Jackson to declare a national day of fasting and prayer, he refused. In a widely reprinted letter of June 12, 1832, he agreed with “the efficacy of prayer” but stated that for the United States to have a national day devoted in any way to religion was “transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president,” a violation of the constitutional protection of freedom of religious belief, including lack of belief.

This was unorthodox. Three previous presidents, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison had, by contrast, recommended fast days during earlier crises. Jackson was by no means an atheist. He was raised in a Presbyterian household and became a member of that denomination later in life. He also understood the dangers of contagious disease. His mother had died, in her early 40s, while nursing Revolutionary War soldiers, having caught “ship fever” from them, probably typhus.

But as a populist and anti-establishment politician, “Old Hickory” distrusted and opposed the college-educated clergy, who were established figures of authority in the 1830s. Jackson and his supporters in the Democratic Party caricatured them as the equivalent of the Catholic clergy ousted (temporarily) by the French revolutionaries: medieval, superstitious remnants who undermined modern democracy. To the Jacksonians, the clergy must, by definition, always be trying to unite church and state, against the clear admonition of the Constitution.

Jackson defied them, and because of that, encouraged growing public support for alternative solutions to epidemics. These included, for example, creating civic boards of health that, with doctors’ advice, would track contagion, disinfect public areas and declare and uphold quarantines. Not all these measures were appropriate against cholera, whose transmission was not yet well understood. But the shift toward secular and civic solutions to epidemics represented a trend that would eventually protect public health.

Here is Chaplin’s conclusion:

Whatever Jackson’s reasons for deriding college-educated clergymen, he endorsed the view that human governance of material forces is a secular business and requires action. President Trump may have made a point of hanging a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, but his recent actions make him more like Clay. He lacks personal piety but has called for prayer as a response to covid-19. Against the advice of public health experts, he stated a goal to “have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” as if a Christian holiday ought to mark time throughout the nation, before backing away in past few days. Old Hickory is on record as opposing pulling religion into the handling of a pandemic like this. It was an admirable example of how a national leader ought to address a public health crisis — way back in 1832.

Read the entire piece here.

Presidential Censure in Historical Context

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Democrats in the Senate believe that Trump should be removed from office.  They will vote along these lines tomorrow.  But they only have 47 votes.  This is well below the 67 votes needed to remove the president from office.  In all likelihood, the Senate will acquit Trump.

But several GOP Senators have noted that Donald Trump acted inappropriately when he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden.  Marco Rubio even suggested that when Trump withheld American aid to Ukraine until he got an investigation into his political opponent the president was committing an impeachable offense.

While some Senators will defend the president at all costs, it seems that others–Lamar Alexander, Rubio, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney–may want to send a message of rebuke to the president for his corrupt behavior. A censure might be an appropriate way to do this.

I don’t think Joe Manchin will get many Democrats to support a presidential censure.  Most Democrats want Trump out of office. Censure will look like a compromise.  But what if the Republicans pushed for censure?  If they really think that Trump committed unethical or impeachable offenses, perhaps they would want to remind the president that his call to Ukraine was not “perfect.” By calling for a censure of Trump, Manchin appears to be calling their bluff.

If the Senate did pass a censure resolution against Trump it would not be the first time this has happened in American history.  As historian Mark Cheathem reminds us, the Senate censured Andrew Jackson in 1834.  Here is a taste of his post at his blog Jacksonian America:

In 1834, the Senate passed a censure resolution against President Andrew Jackson. The decision to rebuke Jackson stemmed from his actions during the Bank War. Suspicious of the 2nd Bank of the U.S., Old Hickory had waged a battle against the financial institution since his first term. In 1832, he vetoed a congressional bill that would have granted the Bank a new contract four years earlier than expected. The following year, in an attempt to permanently weaken the Bank, Jackson ordered Secretary of the Treasury William J. Duane to remove the government’s deposits. When he refused, the president fired Duane. Jackson replaced him with Roger B. Taney, who implemented the removal policy. Bank president Nicholas Biddle responded by instigating a recession. “This worthy President thinks that because he has scalped Indians and imprisoned Judges, he is to have his way with the Bank,” Biddle said. “He is mistaken.”

Jackson’s opponents, led by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, also took action. When Jackson refused to give the Senate a document on the removal of government deposits that he had submitted to his cabinet, Clay introduced censure resolutions against both Jackson and Taney. “We are in the midst of a revolution, hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending toward a total change of the pure republican character of the government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man,” Clay said in a speech on the Senate floor. He compared Jackson to a tyrant and warned his fellow senators that if they did not stand up to him, then the nation would collapse. “We shall die—ignobly die! base, mean and abject slaves— the scorn and contempt of mankind—unpitied, unwept, unmourned!” he concluded dramatically. In a decidedly partisan vote, in March 1834, the Senate passed censure resolutions against both Jackson and Taney. Senators also rejected Taney’s recess appointment as Treasury secretary.

Read the entire piece here.

What to Expect at the “Evangelicals for Trump” Rally. (Or the People are Always Right).

God's megachurch

Trump will be at a Hispanic Pentecostal megachurch in Miami tomorrow afternoon for an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally.  There has not been a whole lot of details released about who will be present at the event or what Trump will say, but I think we can expect a lot of contractual language.  In other words, Trump will remind evangelicals about his Supreme Court nominations, his pro-life views on abortion, his defense of religious liberty, and his support for Israel and then he will ask evangelicals to vote for him in 2020.  I am expecting that there will be some digs at the Democratic candidates and Christianity Today magazine.

I will be on NBC News Now (live stream) with Alison Morris around 3:15pm tomorrow (January 3rd) to talk about the event.  Trump is scheduled to speak in Miami at 5:00pm.

Court evangelical Robert Jeffress will be in Miami for the event.  He talked about his appearance earlier today on the Todd Starnes Radio Show.  Jeffress makes no bones about the fact that the “Evangelicals for Trump” event is a response to Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office.

Starnes mentions “a couple of professors from Oklahoma Baptist University who have been bashing President Trump and his supporters.” (I am guessing that this is a reference Matt Arbo and Alan Noble).  Starnes also references Wayne Grudem’s response to Christianity Today and calls is “terrific.”  He also brings up Beth Moore’s criticism of Trump.  Here is Jeffress’s response: “[Sarcastic laugh] These people are losing such credibility and its very obvious one motivating reason as to why they are against Trump is that they were wrong about Trump and their pride won’t allow them to admit that.”  Jeffress goes on: “It’s those ivory tower elites that just don’t get it….”

I am continually amazed at how this has now turned into a class-based war on “elites.” The assumption is that what “the people” want is always morally correct.  There is some truth to this idea.  This is why many of our founding fathers feared the growth of democracy.  After all, in a democracy 51% becomes the highest moral good.

Let’s remember that the opponents of slavery were “out of touch” with the majority of people of the South in the 1850s.  Martin Luther King was also “out of touch” with the majority of people living in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.  And Andrew Jackson was “in touch” with the people (white males Democratic voters who wanted to settle on Indian lands) when he sent the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears.”

This morning I was reading Alexander Hamilton’s June 1787 speech at the Constitutional Convention as recorded by Robert Yates.  A taste:

The voice of the people has been said to  be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact.  The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.  Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government.  They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.  Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily  to pursue the public good?   Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.  Their turbulent  and uncontrouling disposition requires checks.

Sometimes I wonder if Hamilton may have been right.

The Author’s Corner With Matthew Clavin

ClavinMatthew Clavin is Professor of History at the University of Houston.  This interview is based on his new book The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: I am captivated by stories of extraordinary slave resistance that have for a variety of reasons been largely forgotten. Historians have known about Negro Fort for a long time, but I wanted to bring the story of its rise and fall to a wide audience. More than ever, it is vitally important for professional historians to communicate directly with the general public, especially regarding the long and complicated history of race and racism both in the United States and the world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The Battle of Negro Fort marked a significant moment in early American history. By destroying a fugitive slave community in a foreign territory for the first and only time in its history, the United States government accelerated its transformation into a white republic, which served both the interests and the ideology of an emerging Slave Power.

JF: Why do we need to read The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The demonization of people of color on the opposite side of the United States’ southern border is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, American citizens and officials have long referred to these people as murderers, savages, and the like to score political points and secure what they considered important public policy. Following the War of 1812, slavery’s proponents depicted Negro Fort as an existential threat to the southern frontier. Eventually, they were able to convince the federal government to launch an illegal invasion of Spanish Florida to kill or capture the fort’s black inhabitants. The Battle of Negro Fort illuminates how—and why—in the four decades since the Declaration of Independence, much of the American republic’s ambivalence over the institution of slavery had disappeared.

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

MC: Since I was little, I have always been fascinated with the history of race and racism. While writing my senior thesis in college on nonviolent direct action and the Civil Rights Movement, I first considered the idea of research and writing history professionally. It wasn’t long after turning in that paper that I decided that I had to become an historian. A lot of people told me that I could never be a historian. I am so glad I did not listen to them.  

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently writing a book that examines the intersection of slavery, anti-slavery, and nationalism in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. The goal is to show just how much love of the American nation justified and inspired revolutionary slave resistance.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

Meacham: Trump is Now Tied With Andrew Johnson as Most Racist President in U.S. History

Here is presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham on MSNBC:

I’m not sure how you measure this, but Trump would certainly be high on the list.  Johnson was pretty racist.  So was Andrew Jackson. (Meacham’s biography of Jackson won the Pulitzer).

Trump’s remarks were made at a time when racism in America is less overt and more subtle. His comments were also made at a time when we might expect our leaders to have learned lessons from America’s racist past.  Perhaps this all makes Trump’s remarks even more egregious than Johnson or Jackson.

Moral Capitalism

Bryan

Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin points us toward a better way:

What kind of economy do Democrats believe in? Joe Biden calls for “stronger labor laws and a tax code that rewards [the] middle class.” Bernie Sanders wants to raise taxes on the rich and guarantee every adult a job. Elizabeth Warren has a slew of plans that include giving employees seats on corporate boards and breaking up giant firms like Facebook and Amazon. Kamala Harris urges a big tax cut for ordinary families and “stricter penalties for companies that cheat their workers.”

Recent polls show that the public is increasingly supportive of proposals like these. Yet no one who hopes to become the nominee has yet come up with a larger vision that would animate such worthy ideas. And without an inspiring way to tie them together, they may come across to voters like items on a mediocre takeout menu: tasty enough but forgettable.

So let one loyal, if anxious, Democrat offer a solution: “moral capitalism,” a system that, in the words of Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, would be “judged not by how much it produces, but how broadly it empowers, backed by a government unafraid to set the conditions for fair and just markets.”

It is a goal that, by different names, national Democratic leaders have articulated since the party first emerged almost two centuries ago. They understood that most voters liked the general idea of a market economy in which they would have a fair chance to rise, but also resented an economy that failed to live up to the rosy promises of its defenders in business and government.

The tradition began in the 1830s when Andrew Jackson vetoed a renewed charter for the Second Bank of the United States, declaring, “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.” Grover Cleveland renewed the offensive in his attack on the protective tariff in the 1880s, as did William Jennings Bryan in his crusade against the “money power” at the end of the 19th century, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in his assault on “economic royalists” in the 1930s.

For all these Democratic leaders, moral capitalism was an aspiration for a system that would balance protection for the rights of Americans to accumulate property and start businesses with an abiding concern for the welfare of men and women of little or modest means who increasingly worked for somebody else.

Read the rest at The New York Times.

19th Century Conspiracy Theories

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According to historian Mark Cheathem, “rumors of secret alliance, bank deals, and double-crossings were rampant in early American elections.”  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Smithsonian.com:

From claims that NASA faked the moon landing to suspicions about the U.S. government’s complicity in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Americans love conspiracy theories. Conspiratorial rhetoric in presidential campaigns and its distracting impact on the body politic have been a fixture in American elections from the beginning, but conspiracies flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, when modern-day American political parties developed, and the expansion of white male suffrage increased the nation’s voting base. These new parties, which included the Democrats, the National Republicans, the Anti-Masons, and the Whigs, frequently used conspiracy accusations as a political tool to capture new voters—ultimately bringing about a recession and a collapse of public trust in the democratic process.

During the early decades of the American republic, the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican Parties engaged in conspiratorial rhetoric on a regular basis. Following the War of 1812, the Federalist Party faded from the political landscape, leaving the Republicans as the predominant national party. Their hold was so great that in 1816 and 1820, James Monroe, the Republican presidential candidate, ran virtually unopposed, but in 1824, the Republicans splintered into multiple and disparate factions. Five viable candidates ran in that election cycle, and John Quincy Adams won the presidency.

The controversy around Adams’s victory quickly fueled suspicions: Tennessean Andrew Jackson had won the most electoral and popular votes and the most regions and states, but because he did not win the majority of electoral votes, the U.S. House of Representatives was constitutionally required to choose the president in a runoff of the top three vote-getters. Jackson’s supporters believed that House Speaker Henry Clay, who had placed fourth in the regular election, helped Adams win the House election in return for being appointed secretary of state. The Jacksonians’ charges of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay ensured that the 1828 election would, in part, be fought over this conspiracy theory.

Read the rest here.

What Did Trump Mean by Capitalizing the Word “TRAIL” in a Tweet About Elizabeth Warren?: Some Historical Context

Donald Trump tweeted this today:

Thoughts:

  1.  Trump is definitely worried about Warren’s candidacy.
  2.  Why did Trump capitalize the word “trail?” As an American historian, one thing comes to mind when I see the word “trail” emphasized in a tweet about native Americans.  That is the “Trail of Tears.” Perhaps you are unfamiliar with this tragic event in our history.  Learn more here.
  3.  Andrew Jackson initiated the Trail of Tears.  He believed native Americans were racially inferior and an impediment to the advancement of white settlement across the continent.
  4.  Jackson called Indian removal a “just, humane, liberal policy towards the Indians.”  This reminds me of Trump’s statements about his “humane” border wall. He has said on numerous occasions that the wall will protect both American citizens and the immigrants.
  5.  Jackson understood the removal of these Indian groups in the context of democracy.  In the 1830s, of course, democracy was white.  The white men who voted Jackson into office wanted Indian land.  Jackson heard their voice and gave then what they wanted by forcibly moving native Americans to present-day Oklahoma.
  6. Andrew Jackson’s portrait hangs prominently in Trump’s Oval Office.
  7. Is Trump really smart enough to know that capitalizing the word “trail” would send such a message?  If he is, this is blatantly racist and yet another appeal to one of America’s darkest moments.  (I mention other such appeals in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).  If he does not know what this tweet implies, then it is just another example of the anti-intellectual clown we have in the Oval Office right now–a man who is completely unaware of the national story to which he has entered as president.

Can a Presidential Administration Run on Loyalty Alone?

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Over at The Washington Post column “Made by History, Cumberland University history professor Mark Cheathem reflects historically on the idea of “loyalty” in presidential administrations.  Here is a taste of his piece on Andrew Jackson’s presidency:

Chaos seems to dominate President Trump’s White House. From Omarosa Manigault Newman’s secret audio recordings to the anonymous New York Times op-ed, reports from White House officials highlight the dysfunction that has plagued the Trump administration in its first 20 months.

Nearly 200 years ago, Democratic President Andrew Jackson’s White House witnessed a similar situation: a president consumed by conspiratorial thinking, a Cabinet feeling the brunt of the president’s paranoia and accusations of an ambitious vice president waiting to step in for a president who failed to deliver on his promise of democratic populism.

The thread that links the chaos in both administrations is the emphasis on loyalty. Throughout his life, Jackson held positions that demanded loyalty — from the soldiers he led, the enslaved people he owned and the relatives and friends he mentored. Disloyal actions led Jackson to cast aside members of his inner circle. And the political consequences of these falling-outs were significant, helping to shape the two-party system and contributing to the regional strife that eventually produced the Civil War. Similar situations in the Trump orbit also could have serious long-term ramifications.

Read the rest here.

Also check out our recent Author’s Corner interview with Cheathem on his book The Coming Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson.