Washington D.C. goes too far with “clumsy report” on renaming monuments and other facilities

Jefferson Memorial, Washington D.C.

Read the report here. As far as I can tell, this committee did not include any American historians. Here is some context.

I agree entirely with The Washington Post editors:

D.C. MAYOR Muriel E. Bowser (D) may be right that President Trump and other Republicans deliberately misinterpreted a report from the District’s committee on renaming schools, buildings and other government facilities. No one ever recommended that the Washington Monument or other federal memorials be bulldozed. The District, though, played right into the hands of Mr. Trump and other critics with the clumsy rollout of a report that, while well intentioned, was overbroad in its recommendations and failed to distinguish between historical figures with no admirable characteristics and those who made significant contributions to society.

Amid the national reckoning about racism that followed the killing of George Floyd, Ms. Bowser appointed a committee to review the namesakes of schools, buildings and other government-owned facilities in Washington. District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (or DCFACES) spent two months looking at more than 1,300 government-owned assets — schools, recreation centers, public housing — to identify those with names that are “inconsistent with D.C. values and in some way encouraged the oppression of African Americans and other communities of color or contributed to our long history of systemic racism.” Using criteria that included participation in slavery, the committee concluded that about 150 individuals who have something named after them were “persons of concern” and recommended that dozens of sites — including 21 schools — be renamed.

Most of the controversy over the committee’s report centered on the initial inclusion of federal properties: It recommended that Ms. Bowser urge federal authorities to add plaques providing context about slave ownership or other oppression of people of color to the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and other famed locales in the capital. But more problematic was the use of bright lines to disqualify people seemingly with no regard for the whole of their lives. Benjamin Franklin, for example, seems to have been targeted because he once owned slaves; never mind that he signed the Declaration of Independence, was the first postmaster general and later renounced slavery and became a leading abolitionist.

Read the rest here.

A George Whitefield statue is coming down at the University of Pennsylvania

Whitefield

George Whitefield was arguably the most popular man in colonial America. His preaching was the catalyst for the colonial-wide evangelical revival that historians call the “First Great Awakening.”

Recently, the University of Pennsylvania decided to remove a Whitefield statue on campus because the evangelist promoted and defended slavery in eighteenth-century Georgia.

Here is a taste of Zoey Weisman’s piece at The Daily Pennsylvanian:

Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli wrote in the University-wide email that, after considering Whitefield’s support for and advancement of slavery in the American colonies, they have decided to take down the statue that stands in front of the Morris and Bodine sections of Ware College House.

“Honoring him with a statue on our campus is inconsistent with our University’s core values, which guide us in becoming an ever more welcoming community that celebrates inclusion and diversity,” the email read. 

Although the email vowed the statue would be removed from campus, it contained no mention of when it would be removed or whether it would be replaced with another figure.

The bronze statue of Whitefield was created by R. Tait Mckenzie in 1919. Whitefield, a prominent evangelical preacher in the mid-18th century who successfully campaigned for slavery’s legislation in the Georgia colony — where the practice had been previously outlawed — owned 50 enslaved persons himself. 

Penn’s announcement to remove the Whitefield statue comes shortly after other Ivy League institutions have made efforts to reconcile their ties with slavery and racism. Last Saturday, Princeton University announced that it will remove the name of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs and a residential college due to his record of supporting racist practices and segregation as president.

Whitefield’s connection to the University comes from his church meeting house located on 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia, the email read, which Penn founder Benjamin Franklin purchased for the Academy of Philadelphia that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. The email made no mention the lifelong friendship between Whitefield and Franklin, or Whitefield’s ownership of enslaved persons. 

Since the announcement, the University has removed a 2013 Penn Today article called ‘For the Record: George Whitefield’ that described Franklin’s relationship with Whitefield, but failed to mention any of the preacher’s ties to slavery. The article was still accessible earlier this week.

Read the rest here.

You can also read the official University of Pennsylvania statement. It makes an effort to separate Whitefield from the university’s founding in 1740: “Whitefield’s connection to Penn stems from a church meeting house he owned at 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia  which was purchased by Ben Franklin to house the Academy of Philadelphia, a predecessor to the University of Pennsylvania. Given that Whitefield prominently advocated for slavery, there is absolutely no justification for having a statue honoring him at Penn.” (I believe a Wyndham Hotel now sits on the spot where the Whitefield meeting house was located, or at least that is what I tell students and K-12 teachers when I give them tours of colonial Philadelphia).

The Penn statement makes it sound as if Franklin answered a classified ad for a vacant building that just happened to be owned by Whitefield. It ignores the fact that Whitefield and Franklin were close friends, worked together on projects of moral improvement, and even thought about establishing a colony in Ohio. (The history of the Whitefield statue published on the website of the University of Pennsylvania archives is more nuanced about the relationship between the two men).

I am not writing to defend Whitefield or to criticize Penn’s decision to remove the statue.  They can do whatever they want with it. Whitefield will continue to be an important and flawed figure in American history and Penn’s decision will not “erase” history. News of the removal, as historian Peter Choi points out, might also awaken contemporary evangelicals to the fact that one of their heroes helped to contribute to America’s history of systemic racism.

Indeed, Whitefield’s relationship to slavery was morally problematic. Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, a somewhat sympathetic biographer of Whitefield, refuses to give the “Grand Itinerant” as pass on slavery. Here is a taste of a piece he published in 2015 at The Christian Century:

Here is a man who was the most tireless gospel preacher of his era, and who seemed to care a great deal about orphans and African American converts. But he also became one of colonial America’s staunchest advocates for slavery’s expansion. Are we permitted to admire such a man, in spite of his glaring blind spots? (The question is hardly limited to Whitefield: we might ask the same about slaveowning historical figures from George Washington to Stonewall Jackson.)

I do admire Whitefield because of his passionate commitment to the gospel, but his relationship to slavery represents the greatest ethical problem in his career. It represents an enduring story of many Christians’ devotion to God but frequent inability (or unwillingness) to perceive and act against social injustice. Instead of condemning Whitefield as irredeemable, I would suggest that we let his faults—which we can see more clearly with 300 years of hindsight—caution us instead. Even the most sincere Christians risk being shaped more by fallen society than by the gospel. 

Read the rest here.

As Kidd notes, many important people in colonial and revolutionary America owned slaves. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come immediately to mind. It is also worth noting that the university’s decision to remove the Whitefield statue from campus seems to break with some prominent American historians who have weighed-in on our current monument debate.

For example, Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, has argued that Jefferson statues and monuments should remain in place because the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third United States president made major contributions to American life that went beyond his commitment to the institution of slavery.

Award-winning historian of abolitionism Manisha Sinha recently told NPR:

I think it is important not to go from one extreme to the other. And while it is true that many of the Virginian Founding Fathers – Washington, Jefferson, Madison – all owned slaves, we put up their statues not to commemorate their slave holding but for different reasons. So these statues, I think, need to be contextualized historically. We shouldn’t shy from the fact that many of these men were slave owners, but we should also be able to judge each case individually. The Confederate statues have no redeeming qualities to them, but other statues certainly do.

I don’t know what Gordon-Reed or Sinha would say about the Whitefield statue. (Sinha discusses Whitefield in her book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition). But it is fair to ask whether Whitefield, like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, also made contributions to American life that extend beyond his defense and promotion of slavery.

I am not in the camp of historians who believe that Whitefield had something to do with the American Revolution, but I do think there are many Americans–past and present–who would say that the evangelical message he preached had a spiritual and moral influence on their lives. Christians continue to read Whitefield’s sermons for their devotional value. The evangelical movement he helped to found, though not without its flaws, has been a source of meaning and purpose for many Americans. And the evangelical theology he championed, promoted, and popularized also influenced many future abolitionists.

As Jessica Parr has argued in her book Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivialism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, Whitefield’s legacy is a complicated one:

To slaves owners and slaves alike, Whitefield also represented the duality of Christianity in the lives of slaves. For those who opposed slavery, his preaching about equality in the eyes of God inspired antislavery sentiments. Black abolitionists invoked his preaching. White abolitionists invoked his early criticisms of slavery. And although many a southern planter doubted his sincerity, Whitefield was also a model of proslavery paternalistic slaves’ well-being (spiritually and otherwise) but who saw no contradiction between slave owning and his faith.

What if we thought about the University of Pennsylvania’s Whitefield monument in the same way American historians have been thinking about Confederate monuments? Most American historians today argue that Confederate monuments should be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a celebration of the Lost Cause. In 1931, African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote,

The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments,–the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to it to explain on its war monument, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter to read on a North Carolina Confederate monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”

Most of these monuments were erected between 1900 and 1920 for the purpose of advancing the cause of white supremacy. Read historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage here. Read the American Historical Association here.

They were also erected to celebrate Confederate military officers like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These men were traders to their country.

So why was the Whitefield statue was erected? It was unveiled on the Penn campus in June 1919. Here is how the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the event:

Fri, Jun 13, 1919 – Page 6 · The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com

A quick search at Newspapers.com reveals that the erection of the monument drew attention throughout the country and beyond. Reports of the event–some more extensive than others–appeared in newspapers in Victoria, BC; Corsicana, TX; Paducha, KY; Annapolis, MD; Harrisburg, PA; Pittston, PA; Wilmington, DE; Tampa Bay, FL; Lexington, NC; Pittsburgh, PA; Chanute, KS; Atlanta, GA; Winfield, KS; Casper, WY; Nashville, TN; Salisbury, NC;  Wausau, WI; Lawrence, KS; and Winston-Salem, NC. An article in the Harrisburg Telegraph discussed Whitefield’s visit to south central Pennsylvania and his relationship to John Harris, the founder of the city.

Rev. Wallace MacMullen’s speech on the occasion was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 16, 1919. It focused on Whitefield’s evangelical convictions, his relationship with John and Charles Wesley, his powerful preaching in the British transatlantic world, his printed sermons, his family life, and his commitment to education.

As might be expected at such an event, there was no mention of Whitefield’s flaws or his promotion of slavery in Georgia. Unlike the Confederate monuments, the Whitefield statue was not erected in 1919 to celebrate slavery, white supremacy, or racism. It was erected because Whitefield had a connection to the University of Pennsylvania, was a friend of Ben Franklin, had made significant contributions to the religious life of America, and was an advocate of learning.

Of course the Penn administration may view statues differently than historians such as Gordon-Reed or Sinha or Yale historian David Blight. Perhaps they believe that any statue of a slaveholder has no place on their campus. If that is the case, then the removal of Whitefield is consistent with the university’s beliefs.

I am thus assuming, based on the way they handled the Whitefield statue, that Amy Gutmann (President), Wendell Pritchett (Provost), and Craig Carnaroli (Executive Vice President) would also argue for the removal of statues commemorating Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, Patrick Henry, or John Hancock. They were all slaveholders and many of them were complicit in the preservation of slavery between 1776 and 1789. Of course the university would have no reason to have a statue to any of these figures on campus, but let’s remember that Quaker William Penn also owned slaves. This might get a little closer to home. (For the record, there is no statue of Penn on the University of Pennsylvania campus).

And let’s not forget that Ben Franklin was also a slavemaster. As David Waldstreicher writes in his book Runaway America:

Franklin’s antislavery credentials have been greatly exaggerated…His debt to slavery, and his early persistent engagement with controversies surrounding slaves, have been largely ignored. He profited from the domestic and international slave trade, complained about the ease with which slaves and servants ran off to the British army during the colonial wars of the 1740s and 1750s, and staunchly defended slaveholding rebels during the Revolution. He owned a series of slaves between about 1735 and 1781 and never systemically divested himself of them…He declined to bring the matter of slavery to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when asked to do so by the abolition society that he served as president. There are enough smoking guns, to be sure, to condemn Franklin as a hypocrite, Jefferson-style, if one wishes to do so.

While Franklin relied upon slaves and servants for his success, he also, later in life, became an abolitionist. If the Penn administration ever has to justify the three Franklin statues that currently stand on the campus, I am sure they will appeal to this anti-slavery work. They would probably argue that Poor Richard was a complex person. They might even say that his role in the preservation of American slavery should not be the only thing that defines him and his legacy. Whitefield, however, does not seem to get the benefit of such complex and nuanced thinking.

Thoughts on Trump’s Proposed “National Garden of American Heroes”

 

Trump Rushmore

At his July 3, 2020 speech at Mount Rushmore, Donald Trump said:

More here.

And here is the text of the executive order:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1.  Purpose.  America owes its present greatness to its past sacrifices.  Because the past is always at risk of being forgotten, monuments will always be needed to honor those who came before.  Since the time of our founding, Americans have raised monuments to our greatest citizens.  In 1784, the legislature of Virginia commissioned the earliest statue of George Washington, a “monument of affection and gratitude” to a man who “unit[ed] to the endowment[s] of the Hero the virtues of the Patriot” and gave to the world “an Immortal Example of true Glory.”  I Res. H. Del. (June 24, 1784).  In our public parks and plazas, we have erected statues of great Americans who, through acts of wisdom and daring, built and preserved for us a republic of ordered liberty.

These statues are silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal.  They preserve the memory of our American story and stir in us a spirit of responsibility for the chapters yet unwritten.  These works of art call forth gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow citizens who, despite their flaws, placed their virtues, their talents, and their lives in the service of our Nation.  These monuments express our noblest ideals:  respect for our ancestors, love of freedom, and striving for a more perfect union.  They are works of beauty, created as enduring tributes.  In preserving them, we show reverence for our past, we dignify our present, and we inspire those who are to come.  To build a monument is to ratify our shared national project.

To destroy a monument is to desecrate our common inheritance.  In recent weeks, in the midst of protests across America, many monuments have been vandalized or destroyed.  Some local governments have responded by taking their monuments down.  Among others, monuments to Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant, leaders of the abolitionist movement, the first all-volunteer African-American regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War, and American soldiers killed in the First and Second World Wars have been vandalized, destroyed, or removed.

These statues are not ours alone, to be discarded at the whim of those inflamed by fashionable political passions; they belong to generations that have come before us and to generations yet unborn.  My Administration will not abide an assault on our collective national memory.  In the face of such acts of destruction, it is our responsibility as Americans to stand strong against this violence, and to peacefully transmit our great national story to future generations through newly commissioned monuments to American heroes.

Sec. 2.  Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes.  (a)  There is hereby established the Interagency Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes (Task Force).  The Task Force shall be chaired by the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary), and shall include the following additional members:

(i)    the Administrator of General Services (Administrator);

(ii)   the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA);

(iii)  the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH);

(iv)   the Chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP); and

(v)    any officers or employees of any executive department or agency (agency) designated by the President or the Secretary.

(b)  The Department of the Interior shall provide funding and administrative support as may be necessary for the performance and functions of the Task Force.  The Secretary shall designate an official of the Department of the Interior to serve as the Executive Director of the Task Force, responsible for coordinating its day-to-day activities.

(c)  The Chairpersons of the NEA and NEH and the Chairman of the ACHP shall establish cross-department initiatives within the NEA, NEH, and ACHP, respectively, to advance the purposes of the Task Force and this order and to coordinate relevant agency operations with the Task Force.

Sec. 3.  National Garden of American Heroes.  (a)  It shall be the policy of the United States to establish a statuary park named the National Garden of American Heroes (National Garden).

(b)  Within 60 days of the date of this order, the Task Force shall submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy that proposes options for the creation of the National Garden, including potential locations for the site.  In identifying options, the Task Force shall:

(i)    strive to open the National Garden expeditiously;

(ii)   evaluate the feasibility of creating the National Garden through a variety of potential avenues, including existing agency authorities and appropriations; and

(iii)  consider the availability of authority to encourage and accept the donation or loan of statues by States, localities, civic organizations, businesses, religious organizations, and individuals, for display at the National Garden.

(c)  In addition to the requirements of subsection 3(b) of this order, the proposed options for the National Garden should adhere to the criteria described in subsections (c)(i) through (c)(vi) of this section.

(i)    The National Garden should be composed of statues, including statues of John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

(ii)   The National Garden should be opened for public access prior to the 250th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2026.

(iii)  Statues should depict historically significant Americans, as that term is defined in section 7 of this order, who have contributed positively to America throughout our history.  Examples include:  the Founding Fathers, those who fought for the abolition of slavery or participated in the underground railroad, heroes of the United States Armed Forces, recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor or Presidential Medal of Freedom, scientists and inventors, entrepreneurs, civil rights leaders, missionaries and religious leaders, pioneers and explorers, police officers and firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty, labor leaders, advocates for the poor and disadvantaged, opponents of national socialism or international socialism, former Presidents of the United States and other elected officials, judges and justices, astronauts, authors, intellectuals, artists, and teachers.  None will have lived perfect lives, but all will be worth honoring, remembering, and studying.

(iv)   All statues in the National Garden should be lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict, not abstract or modernist representations.

(v)    The National Garden should be located on a site of natural beauty that enables visitors to enjoy nature, walk among the statues, and be inspired to learn about great figures of America’s history.  The site should be proximate to at least one major population center, and the site should not cause significant disruption to the local community.

(vi)   As part of its civic education mission, the National Garden should also separately maintain a collection of statues for temporary display at appropriate sites around the United States that are accessible to the general public.

Sec. 4.  Commissioning of New Statues and Works of Art.  (a)  The Task Force shall examine the appropriations authority of the agencies represented on it in light of the purpose and policy of this order.  Based on its examination of relevant authorities, the Task Force shall make recommendations for the use of these agencies’ appropriations.

(b)  To the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law and the other provisions of this order, Task Force agencies that are authorized to provide for the commissioning of statues or monuments shall, in expending funds, give priority to projects involving the commissioning of publicly accessible statues of persons meeting the criteria described in section 3(b)(iii) of this order, with particular preference for statues of the Founding Fathers, former Presidents of the United States, leading abolitionists, and individuals involved in the discovery of America.

(c)  To the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law, these agencies shall prioritize projects that will result in the installation of a statue as described in subsection (b) of this section in a community where a statue depicting a historically significant American was removed or destroyed in conjunction with the events described in section 1 of this order.

(d)  After consulting with the Task Force, the Administrator of General Services shall promptly revise and thereafter operate the General Service Administration’s (GSA’s) Art in Architecture (AIA) Policies and Procedures, GSA Acquisition Letter V-10-01, and Part 102-77 of title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, to prioritize the commission of works of art that portray historically significant Americans or events of American historical significance or illustrate the ideals upon which our Nation was founded.  Priority should be given to public-facing monuments to former Presidents of the United States and to individuals and events relating to the discovery of America, the founding of the United States, and the abolition of slavery.  Such works of art should be designed to be appreciated by the general public and by those who use and interact with Federal buildings.  Priority should be given to this policy above other policies contained in part 102-77 of title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, and revisions made pursuant to this subsection shall be made to supersede any regulatory provisions of AIA that may conflict with or otherwise impede advancing the purposes of this subsection.

(e)  When a statue or work of art commissioned pursuant to this section is meant to depict a historically significant American, the statue or work of art shall be a lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation.

Sec. 5.  Educational Programming.  The Chairperson of the NEH shall prioritize the allocation of funding to programs and projects that educate Americans about the founding documents and founding ideals of the United States, as appropriate and to the extent consistent with applicable law, including section 956 of title 20, United States Code.  The founding documents include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.  The founding ideals include equality under the law, respect for inalienable individual rights, and representative self-government.  Within 90 days of the conclusion of each Fiscal Year from 2021 through 2026, the Chairperson shall submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy that identifies funding allocated to programs and projects pursuant to this section.

Sec. 6.  Protection of National Garden and Statues Commissioned Pursuant to this Order.  The Attorney General shall apply section 3 of Executive Order 13933 of June 26, 2020 (Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence), with respect to violations of Federal law regarding the National Garden and all statues commissioned pursuant to this order.

Sec. 7.  Definition.  The term “historically significant American” means an individual who was, or became, an American citizen and was a public figure who made substantive contributions to America’s public life or otherwise had a substantive effect on America’s history.  The phrase also includes public figures such as Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra, and the Marquis de La Fayette, who lived prior to or during the American Revolution and were not American citizens, but who made substantive historical contributions to the discovery, development, or independence of the future United States.

Sec. 8.  General Provisions.  (a)  Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii)  the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b)  This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c)  This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Does Trump think he is building another Trump Tower?

I digress.

Just to reiterate, there will be statues of: John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Quick thoughts:

1. We should not get too worked-up about this order because there is a chance Trump will be voted out of office in November 2020. In other words, this national garden may never happen.

2. Let’s not get too caught-up in debating who should be “in” and who should be “out.” This is actually what Trump wants to happen. Historians should just ignore these plans. By giving too much attention to this we lend credibility to the proposal. (I know–I should be taking my own advice here!).  This is not a debate over state history and social studies standards.

3. How much will this national garden cost the American taxpayer? If Trump really cares about history he should fund its study in schools. His budgets should provide more money for already existing historic sites and teacher training.

4. Let’s say Trump wins in 2020 and this national garden becomes a reality. Would I visit it? Maybe. But I would not go there to teach my students about the lives of these so-called “heroes.” I rely on my classroom lectures and discussions, primary sources, legitimate public history sites, and good books and articles to do that. I would, however, consider taking students to this place to teach them about the Trump administration much in the same way that I take students to Confederate monuments at Gettysburg to teach them about the Lost Cause. This is what historians mean by contextualizing monuments. Like the Confederate monuments we are fighting over today, monuments often tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in history that they commemorate. Confederate monuments were erected in the early 20th century as symbols of white supremacy and Jim Crow. Some of the figures Trump wants to memorialize in his national garden seem like random choices, but others speak volumes about Trump’s America and his 2020 re-election bid.

For example, the founding fathers are revered by Trump’s white conservative base. Good history teachers visiting this garden might say something to their students about founders chic. They might note that on the very day of this executive order millions of Americans were watching a movie-version of a Broadway play about Alexander Hamilton. All of this explains why George Washington, John Adams,  Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were chosen. (I don’t know why Dolley Madison was chosen over Martha Washington and Abigail Adams). I am sure Abraham Lincoln was chosen as an honorary founding father.

The African American selections (there are no native Americans) are Martin Luther King Jr.,  Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Jackie Robinson. These are all safe choices, although a good history teacher might show this video in preparation for the class trip. There are reasons why W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, or Barack Obama were not chosen. (Future students will certainly wonder why the first Black president in American history was not selected). When viewed in the larger context of the Trump presidency, a legitimate argument could be made that these men and women were picked in an attempt to show Trump is not a racist.

Trump and his people are obsessed with military strength. We thus get Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Audie Murphy, George Patton, Ronald Reagan, and Douglas MacArthur.

And Trump needs his white evangelical base in November. He hopes a statue of Billy Graham, or at least the announcement of such a statue, might help deliver these votes.

Trump has an obsession with space and aviation. (Trump mentioned going to Mars during his Mount Rushmore speech). I would have my students read or watch his recent Cape Canaveral speech before we visited the national garden. We thus get Christa McAuliffe, Amelia Earhart, and the Wright brothers. Frankly, I am surprised he did not pick Charles Lindbergh, an early proponent of “America First.”

Was Henry Clay, the architect of the American System, chosen because of Trump’s infrastructure plans? Future history teachers will tell students that these plans never got off the ground, despite multiple “infrastructure weeks,” because Trump undermined them with tweets and other self-initiated scandals.

And, of course, any historian would have a lot to say about why Antonin Scalia made the cut instead of John Marshall, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hugo Black, or Oliver Wendell Holmes.

But in the end, I would put money on this national garden of heroes going the way of Trump’s border wall and many of his other grandiose plans.  It won’t happen.

 

The Fake Mount Holly, New Jersey Witchcraft Trial

Mount Holly

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell writes about some 18th-century fake news. On October 22, 1730, Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette published a report of a witchcraft trial in southern New Jersey:

Saturday last at Mount-Holly, about 8 Miles from this Place, near 300 People were gathered together to see an Experiment or two tried on some Persons accused of Witchcraft. It seems the Accused had been charged with making their Neighbours Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner, and with causing Hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to the great Terror and Amazement of the King’s good and peaceable Subjects in this Province; and the Accusers being very positive that if the Accused were weighed in Scales against a Bible, the Bible would prove too heavy for them; or that, if they were bound and put into the River, they would swim;

the said Accused desirous to make their Innocence appear, voluntarily offered to undergo the said Trials, if 2 of the most violent of their Accusers would be tried with them. Accordingly the Time and Place was agreed on, and advertised about the Country; The Accusers were 1 Man and 1 Woman; and the Accused the same.

The Parties being met, and the People got together, a grand Consultation was held, before they proceeded to Trial; in which it was agreed to use the Scales first; and a Committee of Men were appointed to search the Men, and a Committee of Women to search the Women, to see if they had any Thing of Weight about them, particularly Pins. After the Scrutiny was over, a huge great Bible belonging to the Justice of the Place was provided, and a Lane through the Populace was made from the Justices House to the Scales, which were fixed on a Gallows erected for that Purpose opposite to the House, that the Justice’s Wife and the rest of the Ladies might see the Trial, without coming amongst the Mob; and after the Manner of Moorfields, a large Ring was also made.

Read the rest, along with Bell’s interpretation, here.

Benjamin Franklin on the “Church at Notre Dame”

gettyimages-89856554-612x612Franklin talks about his visit to the “church of Notre Dame” in this September 14, 1767 letter to Mary “Polly” Stevenson.

The Civilities we every where receive give us the strongest Impressions of the French Politeness. It seems to be a Point settled here universally that Strangers are to be treated with Respect, and one has just the same Deference shewn one here by being a Stranger as in England by being a Lady. The Custom House Officers at Port St. Denis, as we enter’d Paris, were about to seize 2 Doz. of excellent Bourdeaux Wine given us at Boulogne, and which we brought with us; but as soon as they found we were Strangers, it was immediately remitted on that Account. At the Church of Notre Dame, when we went to see a magnificent Illumination with Figures &c. for the deceas’d Dauphiness, we found an immense Croud who were kept out by Guards; but the Officer being told that we were Strangers from England, he immediately admitted us, accompanied and show’d us every thing. Why don’t we practise this Urbanity to Frenchmen? Why should they be allow’d to out-do us in any thing?

The Author’s Corner with Brian Regal

51HcjrS6VnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Brian Regal is associate professor of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at Kean University. This interview is based on his new book co-authored with Frank Esposito, The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Secret History of the Jersey Devil?

BR: Following Hurricane Sandy we lost power for over a week. When it came back on, I had a lot of TV watching to catch up on. One of the first things I saw was a show on monsters that was doing a segment on the Jersey Devil. It recycled all the old unsubstantiated clichés and nonsense about witches and bat wings. I began looking into the literature on the subject and realized it too was all crap. No one had ever bothered to do a scholarly investigation into the myth or its origins. It made me mad how lazy and slipshod so much of cryptozoological writing was (anger is one of the underappreciated catalysts to historical writing). I told all this to my Kean University colleague, and former teacher, Dr. Frank J. Esposito, a scholar of New Jersey and Native American history. We immediately decided we should write something together on the legend. That is how this book was born. We wanted to do something that had rarely been done before: approach a monster legend from a historical rather than a sociological or folklorist or biological angle. We went and found a large number of primary sources that had never been tapped or never used for what we used them for. I wanted to write something that might one day be thought of as a compelling narrative and that was sympathetic to the lead character, and maybe even a little poetic with a nice turn of phrase or two (I understand someone else will make that determination).

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Secret History of the Jersey Devil?

BR: The story of the Jersey Devil is not one of a monster born of a witch mother. It’s the story of religious strife, bare-knuckled political in-fighting, and cultural scapegoating.

JF: Why do we need to read The Secret History of the Jersey Devil?

BR: No one really needs this: it’s not insulin. It would, however, be of interest to anyone interested in some of the little discussed cultural events that had a major, but unappreciated impact upon American history. If you are interested in where political monsters come from, the treatment of outspoken women, religious intolerance, and the origins of what we today call ‘Fake News’ than you should read it. The story centers on the life of Daniel Leeds, a man largely forgotten today, but who, had he lived a generation later, we might have called a Founding Father. A man who tried to bring the Scientific Revolution to North America; who became the first author in New Jersey and one of the first censored authors in America; and who helped invent the political attack literature that has become a part of modern society. We also placed the origins of the legend within western monster lore and how other such myths contributed to it.

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

BR: When I was a kid I wanted to be Jonny Quest. He travelled the world having adventures, he was smart, and he wore a cool, black t-shirt. I wanted to be Jonny, but as an historian. My guidance counselor, however, told me “kids like you don’t go to college” (My father was a construction worker and my mother was a waitress). So, I joined the army after high school. I volunteered for service in the armored cavalry and travelled the world on Uncle Sam’s dime. I kept reading and dreaming and later was fortunate enough to encounter people who helped me get into college and who supported my plans, and I began to think I might just be able to be an historian and a writer after all. I was especially fascinated by the history of science and the relationship between professional scholars and amateur investigators, particularly in the realm of the paranormal and monster studies, and realized there had not been that much done on this topic. I hope that if I ever do meet Jonny, he’ll understand.

JF: What is your next project?

BR: I am currently working on a history of amateur archaeology examining the various legends and myths about who ‘really’ discovered America. I am looking at stories about a Welsh Prince, Vikings, Chinese explorers, African adventurers, and others, and how these stories are largely the result of political and cultural wants and needs rather than any actual archaeological or historical realities, and that are tied to their historical times. It is tentatively titled Waiting for Columbus.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

Printers, Information, and the American Revolution

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Early in my career I was very interested in the communication of information in early America.  One of the first pieces I ever published was an essay on the way letters were used to spread the First Great Awakening in New England.  One of my favorite reads in graduate school was Richard D. Brown’s Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America.  I remember how thrilled I was when Brown agreed to chair a panel I put together for one of the early Omohundro Institute conferences in Worcester. I continued to explore the spread of information into the New Jersey countryside in my Stony Brook doctoral dissertation and some of this research found its way into my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

So needless to say, I have been taking a walk down memory lane reading the recent series at Age of Revolutions blog on information networks.

The latest installment is Joe Adelman’s piece on printers.  Here is a taste of ” ‘Meer Mechanics’ No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age”:

The men and women who physically produced the texts lauded as key to the American Revolution rarely get their due. Their absence from the story of print and the American Revolution is not by accident, nor is it because scholars have a nefarious agenda to ignore the role of printers. On the contrary, it’s exactly how most, if not all, American colonial printers portrayed themselves and their careers. In so doing, they drew on a long tradition exemplified by Benjamin Franklin’s “Apology for Printers,” published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1731. Franklin declared that he and the Gazette were merely conveyances for the opinions of others, and that his only editorial judgment was to stay within the legal bounds of libel, opened a space for him to publish political essays and news items without claiming responsibility for them. In Franklin’s case, that decision was intentional. That characterization, it turns out, obscures the work printers were doing in their shops and along postal routes. 

Prior to the past ten years, most scholars dismissed printers as manual laborers — men and women who set type and pulled the press, but did not intervene to shape the content of the texts they brought to life. The scholarship of Robert Darnton, however, invites us to think carefully about the full range of people who contributed to printed works: authors and readers, to be sure, but also the intermediaries who brought printed materials to light, including printers, publishers, wholesalers, post riders, and others.  Though his archival research focused on the ancien régime and revolutionary France, Darnton’s methodological interventions have encouraged scholars working on other regions (including British colonial North America, for example) to consider how the processes of production, circulation, and consumption have shaped not only texts but also historical events. Scholars in the past decade have paid more attention to printers and their activities, most notably with the publication of work by Robert Parkinson, Russ Castronovo, and others.  But more broadly it remains a truism that printers were not active participants in the intellectual production of news and arguments about the Revolution.

Read the rest here.

Ben Franklin’s Faith

FranklinIf you are following our #ChristianAmerica? tweetstorm this weekend @johnfea1 ( a tweet every 30 minutes!), you know that we have not said much yet about Ben Franklin. Stay tuned. We will have a lot to say about him tomorrow.

In the meantime, check out Thomas Kidd‘s recent piece at The Washington Post: “How Benjamin Franklin, a deist, became the founding father of a unique kind of American faith.”

Here is a taste:

Franklin adhered to a religion that we might call doctrineless, moralized Christianity. This kind of faith suggests that what we believe about God is not as important as living a life of love and significance. Franklin grew up in a devout Puritan family in colonial Boston, but by his teen years the bookish boy began to doubt key aspects of his parents’ Calvinist faith. Abandoning Christianity altogether, however, was not a realistic option for someone as immersed as Franklin in the Bible’s precepts and the habits of faith.

Although Franklin did at times toy with some radical anti-Christian beliefs, he settled on the conviction that Christianity was useful because of the way it fostered virtue. Franklin wearied of how colonial Americans incessantly fought about theological minutiae. But he still believed that Christianity represented a preeminent resource for benevolence and charity, qualities he considered essential to any worthwhile religion.

Read the rest here.

Kidd has just published a religious biography of Franklin.  Some of you may recall his recent visit to The Author’s Corner to discuss it.

Liberty Counsel and Conservatives on the Texas School Board Continue to Base Public Policy on False Historical Claims

Christian NAtionFact-checker extraordinaire Warren Throckmorton calls our attention to yet another example of politicians and cultural warriors using fake history to justify public policy proposals that have the potential of affecting millions of people. In this case, the perpetrators are the Liberty Counsel (Mat Staver) and the conservatives on the Texas School Board (defenders of prayer in schools).

This is an easy one.

I am sorry Mat Staver, but you are wrong.  Members of the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 did not hold a prayer meeting that lasted “several hours.”  Benjamin Franklin called for prayer, but his call was rejected.

Here is what actually happened on Thursday, June 28, 1787:

Franklin’s proposal:

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.–Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move–that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service–

And the response:

Mr. Hamilton & several others expressed their apprehensions that however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of the convention, it might at this late day, 1. bring on it some disagreeable animadversions. & 2. lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissentions within the convention, had suggested this measure. It was answered by Docr. F. Mr. Sherman & others, that the past omission of a duty could not justify a further omission–that the rejection of such a proposition would expose the Convention to more unpleasant animadversions than the adoption of it: and that the alarm out of doors that might be excited for the state of things within. would at least be as likely to do good as ill.

Mr. Williamson, observed that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds.

Mr. Randolph proposed in order to give a favorable aspect to ye. measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence,–& thenceforward prayers be used in ye Convention every morning. Dr. Frankn. 2ded. this motion After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter by adjourng. the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion.

Again–no multi-hour prayer meeting took place.  The motion was tabled. I discuss this incident on p.152 of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

This is Racism

Here is Chris Cuomo’s interview this morning with Iowa congressman Steve King:

Here is a transcript of the last minute or so:

CUOMO: There are a lot of people teaching hatred in their families who are white, Irish, Italian, who are Muslim. A lot of people preach hate. There’s hate in a lot of different groups. I get you have Muslim extremism that there’s a concern in this country about it. But I asked you something else. These people are either all equal or they are not in your view. A Muslim American, an Italian American, German American like you and your blood, your roots. They are either all equal or they are not in your mind. What is the answer? 

KING: I’d say they’re all created in the image of God and they’re equal in his eyes. If they’re citizens of the United States they’re equal in the eyes of the law. Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will. That’s just a statistical fact. 

CUOMO: It’s not as a function of race. It’s a function of opportunity and education. You’re not more likely as a Muslim American to contribute to American society. It’s about your education and your opportunity, not what your blood is. 

KING: Chris? 

CUOMO: Yes. 

KING: It’s the culture, not the blood. If you can go anywhere in the world and adopt these babies and put them into households that were already assimilated in America, those babies will grow up as American as any other baby with as much patriotism and love of country as any other baby. 

It’s not about race. It’s never been about race. In fact the struggles across this planet, we describe them as race, they’re not race. They’re culture based. It’s a clash of culture, not the race. Sometimes that race is used as an identifier. 

This idea that some cultures and races are inferior to others and are thus incapable of making meaningful contributions to American society has a long history in the United States.

Here is Ben Franklin in 1751 writing about the influx of Germans in Pennsylvania:

Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties…In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.

Here is King again. This time he is promoting something similar to the racial hierarchies that motivated the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act:

I noticed that King did not include Southern Europeans in his definition of “Western Civilization.”  Yup.  My ancestors have been there.

Italians

1888

Why doesn’t King just take his remarks to their logical conclusion by naming those groups that will be less “productive” members of American society.

Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?

Gadsden

This flag was designed in 1775 by Christopher Gadsden, South Carolina planter and delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress.  The rattlesnake, as best as I can tell, was used as a symbol for the British colonies as early as 1754 when Benjamin Franklin published his famous cartoon “Join or Die.”

Join or Die.php

The Gadsden flag is an iconic symbol of the American Revolution.  As a historian of 18th-century America I have had one hanging in my home office for years. (Although it is now partially covered by books and Springsteen memorabilia).

Dont Tread

A couple of additional facts about the flag are necessary.  First, Gadsden was a South Carolina slave holder.  Second, this flag has recently been used by libertarian and Tea Party groups to protest what they see as government overreach into the lives of ordinary Americans.

And now there are some claiming that because Gadsden was a slave holder the flag is racist and thus offensive.  According to this Washington Post article by Eugene Volokh, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has receive a complaint from a person who felt that “the Agency subjected him to discrimination on the basis of race (African American) and in reprisal for prior EEOC activity when, starting in the fall of 2013, a coworker repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase ‘Don’t Tread on Me.'”

Read the entire complaint in Volokh’s piece.

I think it is time for some historical perspective here.

Enter J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste of his post, “Investigating the Meaning of the Gadsden Flag“:

…some people commenting on those stories assume that a federal authority has ruled that the Gadsden Flag and associated “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan are racist because of their roots in the slave society of Revolutionary America. That shows they didn’t read the ruling or Volokh’s column.

The anonymous employee who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did make that claim:

Complainant stated that he found the cap to be racially offensive to African Americans because the flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a “slave trader & owner of slaves.”

The historic claims are correct. In 1774 more than ninety men, women, and children were enslaved on Gadsden’s two rice plantations. He paid Customs duties on the cargo of at least two slave ships, in 1755 and 1762.

Furthermore, Gadsden’s South Carolina was a society built on slavery. At the time of the Revolution, historians estimate that more than half of its human population was enslaved. Because the British military freed and evacuated so many people, that fraction went down by the 1790 census, but South Carolina still had a larger percentage of its population in bondage than any other state. By the early 1800s through the Civil War, the state’s population was once again mostly enslaved.

However, the E.E.O.C. rejected the claim that the Gadsden Flag is offensive because of its historical origin:

After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military.

In doing so, the E.E.O.C. also confirmed that “the modern Tea Party political movement” expresses “various non-racial sentiments” through the flag, which looks like a tacit rejection of the complaint’s suggestion that the Tea Party is an expression of “white resentment against blacks.”

The potential problem with the Gadsden flag, the E.E.O.C. ruling said, lies not in its past but in the way it’s being used today:

However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts. For example, in June 2014, assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas, Nevada shooting spree.

One hopes that fans of the Gadsden Flag loudly decried how those terrorists used it.

Read the entire post here.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 1

MetaxasOver the last decade Eric Metaxas, a writer, biographer, Yale graduate, and cultural commentator, has become a popular spokesperson for conservative evangelicalism.

Metaxas is best known for his wildly popular, but deeply flawed, biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The book not only sold a lot of copies, but launched a speaking tour in which Metaxas was able to showcase his entertaining style of public lecturing. He now hosts a daily radio show–the perfect outlet for his blend of comedy and conservative political commentary.

The blurbs on his current book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, are glowing.  Robert George, the Princeton law professor who is arguably the most important conservative intellectual working today, calls Metaxas “one of our nation’s most brilliant and morally serious public intellectuals.”  Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager says that every American should read If You Can Keep It and should then “reread it aloud to their children and grandchildren.”  Gregory Thornbury, the president of The King’s College, an evangelical college in New York City, writes that Metaxas has done “a great service to this country.”  This is high praise from some important people.  When I read these blurbs I concluded that this must be a book that should be taken seriously.  So I asked Viking Books for a review copy and I read it.

Metaxas is an evangelical rock star.  On the day Viking sent me a review copy of If You Can Keep it was ranked #4 on Amazon.com.  The book’s launch was filmed for C-SPAN. During the Q&A following Metaxas’s talk, one woman in the audience urged him to run for President of the United States. Recently a history teacher told me about a parent who was urging him to adopt Metaxas’s book in his Advanced Placement United States history class. If You Can Keep It is getting a lot of attention.

The title of the book comes from a popular story associated with Ben Franklin and his role at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.  Reportedly, when Franklin walked out of the Constitution Convention he was met by Elizabeth Powel, a women of prominence in colonial Philadelphia.  She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged..  Franklin responded, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

Over the years Franklin’s words have been a mantra for those concerned about the fate of the American republic.  His statement suggests that a republic is something that must be “kept.” Government by the people can be fragile.  Unless the people are diligent in preserving the republic it will ultimately fail.  Franklin was aware of this.  So were all the other founders.  As students of the past the founders knew that republics had not fared very well in the history of Western civilization.

But how should the American republic be preserved? Metaxas’s book offers some answers. He argues, as many have done in the past, that the republic is in trouble.  But it can be revived again if people follow his formula, which he claims to have drawn from the lessons of American history.

According to Metaxas, in order for the republic to survive Americans must defend religious freedom, cultivate virtue informed by the teachings of the Bible and Christianity, do a better job of venerating the founding fathers and other American “heroes,” demand that their leaders have moral character, reclaim America as a “city on a hill” and an exceptional nation inspired by God with a moral and Christian mandate to spread love to other nations around the world, and learn to love their country again by celebrating the stories and other cultural manifestations of American patriotism.

Metaxas’s concern for his country is admirable.  If You Can Keep It raises important questions.  What kind of republic did the founders want to create?  What role does history play in the preservation of the American republic today?  How should we understand patriotism in a world that includes a growing number of critics who are disillusioned with some of the directions our country has taken?

Again, these are all good questions.  Unfortunately, Metaxas does a very poor job of using American history to answer them.  This book is filled with historical errors of both fact and interpretation.  It also has serious theological problems, particularly in the way it conflates American history and the kingdom of God.  Frankly, this book is an intellectual mess.  Metaxas’s entire argument about the current state of the American republic is based on an incredibly weak and faulty historical and theological foundation.  It is an example of how not to use the past to make an argument in the present and serves as yet another example of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “scandal of the evangelical mind.”

Over the course of the next several days I will offer my thoughts on this book here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned for additional posts.

 

Ben Franklin: Revolutionary or London Intellectual?

a647a-benjamin-franklinThe answer is both.

Over at the website of Smithsonian Magazine, George Goodwin, the author of the brand new book Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of an American Founder, argues that Franklin was an intellectual in the British Atlantic world before he became an American revolutionary.

Here is a taste:

…It was only then, at the age of nearly 70, that he discarded his loyalty to the British state and became a fierce advocate of American independence.

Yet even as an American patriot, Franklin once again returned to Philadelphia with British enlightenment values that influenced his fellow Founding Fathers. Having arrived in London with two slaves, Franklin now supported calls for abolition. Though he did not convince Thomas Jefferson on that matter, he did on others. Jefferson’s choice of portraits for his entrance hall at Monticello is instructive. In the most prominent position are three of Franklin’s own British influences: Bacon, Newton and Locke. There is also a fourth. It is of Benjamin Franklin.

As for Franklin himself, he never quite gave up his Atlanticist dream, even after independence was secured. But now it was to be on a different basis. In 1784, he half-jokingly, if in strictest confidence, wrote to his long-time British friend William Strahan with this suggestion: “You still have one resource left and not a bad one since it may re-unite the Empire … if you have not Sense and Virtue enough left to govern yourselves, even dissolve your present old crazy Constitution, and send Members to Congress.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Faith of Bernie Sanders

In case you missed it, last night Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Bernie Sanders about his religious faith.  Here is Bernie’s answer:

Here is what I tweeted last night in response to Cooper’s question and Sanders’s answer:

Click here to see Bernie’s faith on display after someone passed out at one of his rallies:

Over at The New Republic, writer Elizabeth Bruenig described Sanders’s religious beliefs as “moralistic therapeutic deism, a phrase coined by sociologist Christian Smith to describe the religious sensibilities of American teenagers.  Here is a taste of her post:

Moralistic therapeutic deism is a fairly new sociological term used to describe the spiritual sensibilities of people who believe that there’s a god, sort of, and that the point of this nebulous supernatural force is to encourage people to better themselves morally and get along with others. Sometimes there are vaguely karmic leanings, like the idea that good people have good afterlives, but it’s more of a category of spiritual notions than any well-defined set of commitments or beliefs. 

It’s a more common persuasion than one might expect, and it seems to fit Bernie’s spiritual feelings pretty well.

I think it is fair, and not too problematic, to say that Ben Franklin’s religious beliefs were something akin to moralistic therapeutic deism.  Sanders comes pretty close to this as well. Deists, however, at least believe in a creator God.  I am not sure Sanders does.

As I have written here before, we may see another Election of 1800 

The Founding Fathers and Muslims

Juan Cole, the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan, reminds us that the founding fathers had Islam in mind when they talked about religious freedom.

Here is a taste of his piece at HNN:

…Ben Franklin, the founding father of many important institutions in Philadelphia, a key diplomat and a framer of the US Constitution, wrote in his Autobiography concerning a non-denominational place of public preaching he helped found “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Here is the whole quote:
‘And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air, subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was no sooner propos’d, and persons appointed to receive contributions, but sufficient sums were soon receiv’d to procure the ground and erect the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy broad, about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could have been expected. Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service. ‘
Not only did Ben Franklin not want to ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he wanted to invite them!
Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1777 Draft of a Bill for Religious Freedom:
‘ that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right . . . ‘ 
As I observed on another occasion, it was Jefferson’s more bigoted opponents in the Virginia legislature who brought up the specter of Muslims and atheists being elected to it in the world Jefferson was trying to create. He was undeterred by such considerations, which should tell us something.
British social philosopher John Locke was extremely influential on the Founding Generation, and on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. John Locke had already advocated civil rights for non-Christians, including Muslims, in his Letter on Toleration:
‘ Thus if solemn assemblies, observations of festivals, public worship be permitted to any one sort of professors [believers], all these things ought to be permitted to the Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others, with the same liberty. Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing. ‘ 
Here is Jefferson again: “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”
– Thomas Jefferson, note in Destutt de Tracy, “Political Economy,” 1816.
Or: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82
Read the rest here.  I made a similar argument in this lecture.  (I come on at about the 20:00 minute mark).

Quote of the Day

From Ben Franklin’s Autobiography:


In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

San Bernardino Wrap-Up

What a great couple of days.  I always enjoy working with teachers, but the group from San Bernardino has been awesome. Leslie Smith and Gil Diaz have a wonderful group of teachers to work with on the county’s Teaching American History Grant.  I even met one teacher whose nephew attends Messiah College and another one whose daughter is considering Messiah. Small world.

I spent the morning lecturing on the Enlightenment in America.  I did my best to humanize the Enlightenment by introducing the stories of Benjamin Franklin and Philip Vickers Fithian and their “way of improvement.”  I then discussed the ways in which the Enlightenment influenced colonial religion, politics, science, and education.  We had about 30 minutes left for Q&A and I answered questions related to everything from church and state to John Locke to how the Enlightenment penetrated New England Puritanism.  Following the session I signed close to 100 copies of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and got to talk to a lot of dedicated teachers such as Susan, Claudia, Carlos, Don, and Barb, to name only a few.

I wish the San Bernardino group well as they take their journey through American history and I hope that their paths might cross again someday soon.  Thanks again to Leslie Smith and her staff (thanks for the ride to the hotel, Trina) for their hospitality.

The Revival of the Rattlesnake

This weekend the Messiah College History Department will be holding its annual welcome picnic.  (We will be at Lower Allen Park upper pavilion from 11:00-2:00pm on Saturday if anyone wants to stop by.  If we are not under the pavilion look for us in the field playing cricket).  In honor of the occasion, I will probably break out my “Join or Die” t-shirt.  This shirt was designed by the leadership of the 2004-2005 Messiah College History Club.  I am not sure if the “Join or Die” image of the colonial rattlesnake managed to attract new members to the club, but I thought it was clever.  (Some of my more pacifist colleagues were not particularly amused).

This year as I put on my t-shirt I will recall the very informative posts at Boston 1775 on the history of that rebellious rattlesnake.  Yesterday, J.L. Bell discussed how the image was first used to support Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 plan, first proposed publicly at the Albany Congress, to unite the colonies against the threat of the French and the Indians.

Today, Bell shows how the 1754 rattlesnake image was appropriated by American patriots during the Revolution.

A Companion to Benjamin Franklin

The folks at Wiley-Blackwell have just informed me that their A Companion to Benjamin Franklin, edited by the ever-prolific David Waldstreicher, is now available.  The Companion provides a comprehensive survey of the life, work and legacy of Franklin and includes contributions by several leading Franklin scholars. It also includes an article on Franklin’s religion by a not so prominent Franklin scholar.  (Needless to say, I am flattered to be included in this esteemed group!). 

I encourage you to invest in a copy for your personal library or, if you can’t afford it, get your school, college/university, or public library to buy a copy.  Waldstreicher’s volume now reigns supreme as the definitive reference book on Poor Richard.

Here is the table of contents:

Introduction: David Waldstreicher.
 
Part I: Biography.
1 The Boston Years, 1706-23: Nian-Sheng Huang.

2 The Philadelphia Years, 1723-57: George W. Boudreau.

3 The Making of a Patriot, 1757-75: Sheila L. Skemp.

4 Franklin Furioso, 1775-90: Jonathan R. Dull.
 
Part II: Franklin and Eighteenth Century America
 5. Franklin and Colonial Society: Konstantin Dierks.

6. Franklin and Pennsylvania Politics: Alan Tully.

7. Franklin and Religion: John Fea.

8. Franklin and the Coming of the American Revolution: Benjamin L. Carp.

9. Franklin and Native Americans: Timothy J. Shannon .

10. “The Complexion of my Country”: Benjamin Franklin and the Problem of Racial Diversity: Nicholas Guyatt.

11. Benjamin Franklin, Capitalism, and Slavery: David Waldstreicher.

12. Benjamin Franklin and Women: Susan E. Klepp
 
Part III: Franklin the Writer and Thinker.
 13. “The Manners and Situation of a Rising People”: Reading Franklin’s Autobiography: Ormond Seavey.

14. Poor Richard’s Almanac: William Pencak.

15. Franklin and Journalism: David Paul Nord.

16. Benjamin Franklin, the Science of Flow, and the Legacy of the Enlightenment: Laura Rigal.

17. Benjamin Franklin, Associations and Civil Society: Albrecht Koschnik.

18. Empire and Nation: Eliga Gould.

19. Franklin’s Pictorial Representations of British America: Lester C. Olson.
 
Part IV: Franklin and the Categories of Inquiry
 20. American Literature and American Studies: Edward Cahill.

21. Benjamin Franklin’s Material Cultures: Megan Walsh.

22. Franklin and Political Theory: Jerry Weinberger.

23. Benjamin Franklin and International Relations: Leonard Sadosky.

24. Memory and Popular Culture: Andrew Schocket.
Bibliography.