What is historical contingency?

Why Study HistoryParts of this post are based on my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Yale historian Joanne Freeman writes about Hamilton: The Musical:

It has also gained new relevance over time, promoting an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive; Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. People were living in the moment, much like us today.

The lesson to be learned from this is vitally important. As much as we might like to, we can’t assume that all will be fine in the end. America’s long-standing faith in its exceptionalism is blinding people to the fact that our constitutional order is fragile, that democracy requires hard work, and that success isn’t a given.

But failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux. This may well be the most valuable lesson historians can offer in the current crisis: For better or worse, history doesn’t stop. And for that very reason, our actions and decisions now—today—matter in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. Even passivity, the willingness to let things fall where they may, might have dire implications.

In short, there’s no escape from the urgency of now. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to recognize the meaning of this moment, and to choose our actions wisely and well.

As Freeman points out, historians are always concerned with contingency–the free will of humans to shape their own destinies. People’s choices matter. It is the historian’s task to explain the way people are driven by a personal desire to break free from their circumstances and the social and cultural forces that hold them in place. History is thus told as a narrative of individual choices made by humans through time.

Contingency is thus at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces–fate, the order of the universe, God–that are outside the control of humans. While few professional historians today would suggest that chance, determinism, or God’s providence is a helpful way of interpreting past events, it is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end historians are in the business of explaining why people–as active human agents–have behaved in the past in the way that they did.

One prominent example of contingency is the way that historians of the American Civil War have interpreted the Battle of Antietam. After suffering several defeats at the hands of the Confederacy, the Army of the Potomac (the main Northern army under the leadership of General George McClellan), desperate for a military victory, was preparing to meet the Army of Northern Virginia (under the command of Robert E. Lee) in a major military campaign, which would eventually take place at Antietam Creek in Maryland.

About one week before the battle, while the Army of the Potomac was passing through Fredericksburg, Maryland, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Regiment found a copy of Lee’s battle plans. There were seven copies of “Special Orders, No . 191” produced by the Army of Northern Virginia, and one of them was now in enemy hands. Historian James McPherson has suggested that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one,” and “yet they happened.”

The Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 6,300 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. But the Union victory on September 17, 1862 , prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South and setting the war on a course that would eventually result in Northern victory. And it was all because someone stumbled across a piece of paper rolled around three cigars lying in a field.

There are several ways that we can interpret what happened in the week leading up to the Battle of Antietam. Perhaps it was mere chance. The late Wheaton College English professor Roger Lundin was not entirely satisfied with this answer. He prefered to see the theological dimensions of contingency. As a Christian drawing from the ideas of fifth-century theologian Augustine, Lundin questioned whether a coincidence like this is every possible:

The history of a nation and the fate of a race dependent upon a piece of paper wrapped around a few cigars in a field? That sounds as uncannily coincidental and disturbingly unpredictable as the claim that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be the son of God. It is, apparently, a law of life that so much depends upon contingent events and the free actions of agents, both human and divine.

Lundin wanted to remind us that, for Christians, contingency gets us only so far. Humans have free will, but it is ultimately exercised in the context of a sovereign God who orders the affairs of his creation. In the end, however, God’s providence in matters such as the Battle of Antietam is a subject worthy of exploration for Christians, but these kinds of theological matters are not part of the historian’s job description. And even for theologians (or Christian English professors), we must always remember that we see through a glass darkly.

Earlier today, Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University, had a helpful twitter thread on historical contingency:

Not “esoteric” at all professor Rothman! The question of contingency is absolutely essential for teaching the general public how to think historically.

Gettysburg Confederate monuments to get new panels to offer more historical context

Lee at Gettysburg

Here is Nolan Simmons at Penn Live:

Panels will soon be installed near each of 12 Confederate state monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park to offer visitors more context to understand when and under what circumstances they were erected.

The National Park Service expects the panels to be added by September. They will be located near the Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tenessee, Texas and Virginia state monuments.

This move is partially a response by the park service to the recent national conversations about what should be done with Confederate monuments across the country, said acting spokesman Jason Martz.

A fake social media post, advertising plans by Antifa to burn flags at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg on July 4, drew dozens of armed people to the battlefield with the intention of thwarting any such protest. The initial post was later revealed to be a hoax.

While that incident bolstered the conversation, the decision to install the contextual panels has been in the works since earlier in the summer, Martz said — since calls for racial equality spurred by the death of George Floyd came to encompass a discussion about monuments that glorify those who fought in support of slavery.

Scott Hancock, a professor of Africana Studies at Gettysburg College who lives near the battlefield, has argued that the monuments tell a one-sided story that ignores the flaws of those memorialized, and the historical context in which they were erected.

The panels are a sort of middle-ground solution for the park.

Read the entire piece here.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what Trump says there”: Trump may accept the GOP nomination at Gettysburg

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Civil War historians get ready.

Here is Lauren Gambino at The Guardian:

Donald Trump said on Monday that he is considering accepting the Republican presidential nomination later this month with a speech at the civil war battlefield of Gettysburg, one of the most hallowed spots in American history.

The move prompted almost instant condemnation from critics. Gettysburg is the site of the bloodiest battle of the US civil war and viewed historically as a turning point for the Union army against the Confederate army defending the slave-owning rebel south. There, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, a speech carved into the walls of his presidential memorial on the Washington Mall.

The prospect of Trump delivering his own speech on the battlefield, after repeatedly defending the use of Confederate symbols and monuments during a period of civil unrest linked to racial justice protests, was met with derision from his critics.

Trump speaking at Gettysburg?”  tweeted Bill Kristol, a Republican critic of Trump. “The good news: 1. The prospect is more ludicrous than sickening. 2. The presumptuousness of the choice of location will backfire. 3. The world will little note, nor long remember what Trump says there.”

Presidential candidates traditionally deliver their remarks on the final night of a weeks-long nominating convention, in front of a raucous crowd of thousands of the party faithful. Plans for this year’s party conventions have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing both candidates to reimagine these events without the usual pomp and circumstance.

Trump said he was mulling two options: Gettysburg and the White House.

Read the rest here.

When the United States held elections in the middle of a Civil War

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As historian Calvin Schermerhorn writes, the “1864 elections went on during the Civil War–even though Lincoln thought it would be a disaster for himself and the Republican Party.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

The outlook was not promising in 1864 for President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed, wounded or displaced in a civil war with no end in sight. Lincoln was unpopular. Radical Republicans in his own party doubted his commitment to Black civil rights and condemned his friendliness to ex-rebels.

Momentum was building to replace him on the ballot with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. A pamphlet went viral arguing that “Lincoln cannot be re-elected to the Presidency,” warning that “The people have lost all confidence in his ability to suppress the rebellion and restore the Union.” An embarrassed Chase offered Lincoln his resignation, which the president declined.

The fact remained that no president had won a second term since Andrew Jackson, 32 years and nine presidents earlier. And no country had held elections in the midst of civil war.

Read the rest here.

Court evangelical James Dobson invokes the Civil War in a letter to followers on the November elections

Dobson and Trump

Read the entire letter here.

Let’s break it down:

Dobson:

As I write this newsletter, voters across this nation are only a few short months away from the next general election. What an ominous time this is for our 244-year-old republic. Its future hangs in the balance. The choices we make on November 3rd will send this nation down one of two dramatically different paths. The wrong decision will be catastrophic. I agree with former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who said recently that the next election will be “the most important since 1860.” He also warned that if we appease or ignore the violence and anarchy occurring in the streets, it might be the end of civilization as we have known it. Those are sobering words coming from a man who has stood at the pinnacle of national power.

This is standard Christian Right rhetoric. Dobson quotes Gingrich’s claim that this coming election is the most importance election since 1860. Gingrich has been using this line (or something similar) for a long time. He said the exact same thing about the 2016 election (go to the 1:55 mark of this video). And before that he said the exact same thing about the 2012 election. In 2008, he said the outcome of the election “will change the entire rest of our lives.” In 1994, he said that the midterm elections “were the most consequential nonpresidential election of the 20th century.” Every election is consequential. How long are we going to listen to Gingrich before we call this what it is: fear-mongering.

Dobson:

Mr. Gingrich referred to the significance of 1860 because that was the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president. I’m sure the Speaker would agree that the following election of 1864 was also critical to the future of the nation. Lincoln and his opponent, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, were in a hotly contested campaign for the White House that could have gone either way. The “war between the states,” as it was called, had been raging for three ghastly years, and the entire nation was staggered by reports from the bloody battlefield.

Lincoln was running for a second term, and he campaigned on the promise of finishing the war and preserving the Union. These were momentous times for the young nation. During the first week of January 1863, the President signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.

Democrats and their presidential candidate, Maj. Gen. McClellan, initially campaigned on a “peace platform,” pledging to end the war and send soldiers home. As the election approached, he talked more about negotiating to let the South establish a separate government whose cornerstone would be slavery. If McClellan had been elected, there would have been no foreseeable end to the inherent evil of buying and selling human beings and treating them like cattle. Thus, the Civil War was a struggle for the soul of America.

Dobson then mentions why he spent so much time on the Civil War in this newsletter:

Why have I recounted our Civil War history and the election of 1864 at this time in our history? It is for two reasons. The first is to consider some striking similarities between then and now. Our nation is divided like no time since the Civil War. Lawlessness and anarchy stalk the cities as angry mobs riot, burn, loot, rob, and kill innocent bystanders. Cultural monuments are being destroyed. Scores of people have been shot. Our courageous police officers are being brutally attacked by the same people they have vowed to protect. A man and his son stopped to ask for directions, and he was gunned down on the spot. A one-year-old baby was shot in the stomach while he sat in his stroller. The child died at the hospital.

What began as a justified and lawful protest in response to George Floyd’s senseless murder by a rogue police officer has morphed into violence for the sake of violence. Hatred flows in the streets, including vitriol directed at the President of the United States or anyone who dares to support him or his policies. Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religious liberty are being trampled. There is also widespread belief that violence and anarchy are being organized and funded by powerful forces that are maneuvering America toward a socialist dictatorship. There is always a kingmaker behind such lawlessness. Most disturbing is open talk of another civil war. It is troubling to even utter those words. The last time Americans faced off against each other, 600,000 soldiers died. May God forbid it from happening again.

Please don’t tell me that I am wrong about the role fear plays in the Christian Right view of politics.

What is happening in our country right now is disconcerting to many of us. But it pales in comparison with what the country faced during the lead-up to the Civil War and the war itself. There is no chance that an actual civil war will erupt in this country. Dobson is using the past to scare people. But this is what culture warriors do. These kinds of historical analogies are not helpful.

Instead of scaring people by referencing “600,000” lost lives, Dobson should spend more time critiquing the president for his handling of the coronavirus. If he really cares about families he will condemn Trump’s failure of leadership, his ambivalent rhetoric on masks, his treatment of Anthony Fauci, and his appeal to doctors who believe the virus comes from demon sperm. Nearly 155,000 Americans have died of this virus and the number is growing every day. Perhaps these are the deaths Dobson should be worrying about right now.

Dobson goes on:

During the revolution of the 1960s, I recall a ubiquitous bumper sticker that read, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” It was a catchy phrase that made sense to those who opposed the Vietnam War. But my reaction to it then and now is “What if they gave a war and only one side came?” That question keeps me awake at night. There are multiple millions of passive Americans out there today, many of them Christians, who are clueless about what is happening to their homeland. They are losing something precious and irreplaceable. Do they not understand that their children and those who are yet to be born will live in tyranny if we fail them on our watch? Countless young men and women have laid down their lives on battlefields around the world to protect liberty and our way of life. Now, what they purchased for us with their blood is slipping away. Disengaged people won’t lift a finger to preserve this great land. They won’t take even a few minutes to go to their polling places to vote. There are also thousands of pastors who won’t allow voting registration tables in the lobbies of their churches. Don’t they know or care that America is on the ropes? Hordes of angry anarchists are salivating over the next election, hoping to push America over a cliff. If they succeed, as Newt Gingrich said, Western civilization will never recover. Is there anyone left who believes some things are worth dying for? Aren’t there patriots out there such as Patrick Henry who said in defiance of British tyranny, “Give me liberty or give me death!”? That was the spirit during his day. The Declaration of Independence closed with these words endorsed by the signers, “We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” They knew they would be hanged if they lost the war. Why did they do it? Because they loved their country enough to die for it.

Dobson has been watching too much Fox News. The average American family is worried about their jobs, whether to send their kids to school, and keeping themselves and their families safe from COVID-19. They are less concerned about the “hordes of angry anarchists…salivating.” In one speech on July 22, 2020, Biden showed more empathy and concern for American families than Donald Trump has shown in his entire presidency thus far.

By the way, kudos to all those pastors who refuse to bring electoral politics into their churches.

Dobson invokes Patrick Henry. But where is his acknowledgement of men like John Lewis, a man whose entire life was defined by the phrase “give me liberty or give me death?” Lewis loved his country and was willing to die to defend its promise. Perhaps he should watch Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at Lewis’s funeral. (I doubt that will happen).

And now Dobson is calling us to vote for a man–Donald J. Trump– who knows nothing about true patriotism, Christian faith, or the promise of America.  Dobson’s president couldn’t pull himself away from his Twitter feed long enough to pay his respects to Lewis. This Christian Right culture warrior has a lot of nerve dropping this fundraising newsletter during a week that we remember a true American hero.

More Dobson:

How I pray for the emergence of silent, intimidated Americans who will come out of their hiding places to let their voices be heard on Election Day 2020. There must be tens of thousands of ministers in our midst who, like the Black Robed Regiment of the Revolutionary War, will strip off their clerical garb and fight valiantly for religious liberty. If these men and women of faith and conviction don’t come to the rescue of their country, it is doomed.

Dobson doesn’t realize that the violence in the streets propagated by 18th-century patriotic ministers–the so-called “Black Robed Regiment”–makes what is happening in Portland right now look like a county fair.

Dobson closes his letter with “seven critical issues”:

1. The Next Generation

There is a fierce battle being waged now in the nation’s classrooms for the hearts and souls of our children and grandchildren. Those of us who are passionately committed to the Judeo-Christian system of beliefs are losing our kids right before our eyes. They are being force-fed a radical curriculum that is godless, anti-American, and sexually perverse. Make no mistake, the left and secular culture are manipulating the minds of your sons and daughters every day of the year. I urge you to be extremely careful about those whom you set in power over your children. Protect them with your very lives.

Let’s remember that Dobson founded an organization called “Focus on the Family.” What does it say about the state of the white evangelical middle class family if its kids are incapable of navigating our current cultural waters from the perspective of Christian faith? Perhaps Dobson should be asking this question. If white evangelicals and their churches were doing their jobs in educating young people how to engage the spirit of the age, there would be nothing for them to fear in the public schools.

2. The Sanctity of Human Life

All life is sacred and is a gift from Almighty God. But as you know, America has the blood of innocents on its hands. Since 1973, more than 60 million babies have been murdered through abortion and countless lives have ended by euthanasia. This is the most tragic holocaust in the history of the world! Some states have even passed laws allowing wounded and suffering infants to lie alone on porcelain trays after somehow surviving unsuccessful abortions. They will die without the comfort of their mothers’ breasts. If that doesn’t touch your heart, you are without compassion. I hope you will not cast a single vote for any politician who supports such wickedness.

Neither Donald Trump or Joe Biden can stop abortion in America. Trump’s Supreme Court justices might one day overturn Roe v. Wade, but this will merely send the issue back to the states. Does anyone expect California, New York, and other so-called “Blue” states to make abortion illegal? If you care about abortion, why not vote for a candidate with a plan to address poverty and racial injustice? Such a focus will keep abortions in America on a steady downward trajectory. Dobson needs a new political playbook.

Abortion rates

3. Marriage and Family

The family is God’s original building block for society. Marriage continues to serve as the foundation for every dimension of human life. Everything of value rests on it, including procreation and the care and training of children. If that ground floor is weakened or undermined, the entire superstructure of civil society will come crashing down. But listen carefully: powerful and highly funded forces, including LGBTQ and other leftist entities, are determined to destroy the family as an institution. It is already on its knees, and its future is grim. Before you vote, find out what position the candidates have taken on this issue. Then vote accordingly.

This emphasis on the family comes from a man who said little or nothing when Trump separated families at the border, put children in cages, and threatened to deport DACA recipients. Parents shield their kids from this president because they don’t want to expose them to his lies, tweets, vulgarity, and general manner of treating people. Trump has brought pornography into the mainstream of our culture and has made a mockery of the civic virtues we try to teach our kids. Please, Dr. Dobson, consider that the man you support undermines everything you have spent your life defending. Your support of him is dripping with hypocrisy.

4. Religious Liberty

The first item listed in the Bill of Rights addresses the issue of religious liberty. All the other enumerated rights flow from that fundamental freedom. That is why it is alarming to recognize that this right to worship and honor God as we choose is under vicious attack today. The courts have done the greatest damage, but now an entire sub-culture is trying to bring down the Christian faith. Whether it has invaded your private world or not, it is at your front door. It was this primary concern that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War in 1776. We can’t compromise one jot or tittle within that fundamental right. Fight for it with every ounce of your strength and determination. Don’t let the government close the doors of your church or tell you when you can sing praises to the Lord Almighty. They have a devious agenda, and it is dangerous. Be ready to go to the mat in defense of what you believe. And let this passion influence how you cast your ballot in November. Here I stand. Will you join me?

This paragraph is wrong on so many levels. While real threats to religious liberty do exist, especially for faith-based schools, hospitals, and other institutions, this kind of rhetoric does little to help the country reach a genuine pluralism. (Here is a more thoughtful approach to the matter).

First, let’s be clear about the meaning of the American Revolution. An attack on Christian faith and religious liberty was not the primary concern that led to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.

Second, the rights of Christians to worship when such gatherings might lead to the illness and death of other people is not a very Christian approach to public life. Does Dobson really think that governors trying to protect the health of all of the people in their state are operating with some kind of “devious agenda” to extirpate Christianity from the land? This is absurd. One could even make an argument that the care these governors are taking to protect citizens from COVID-19 is actually more Christian in character than this selfish appeal to individual rights.

5. Capitalism v. Socialism

It is difficult to believe that for the first time in American history, our nation appears to be thinking about trading our democratic way of life for the tyranny of socialism. I can hardly catch my breath. Could we really consider abandoning the beloved system of government that was designed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people? Is it true that up to 40 percent of millennials and others are prepared to surrender their liberties in exchange for the absolute authority of the state? Democracy and capitalism have made ours the most powerful and successful nation in the history of the world. Are we really considering scuttling the system that has served us for 244 years in exchange for what some people call “free stuff?” I pray not! But that option awaits you in the polling booth.

Joe Biden is not a socialist. Joe Biden believes in democracy. (By the way, I am not sure Trump believes in democracy). I don’t know of anyone who is willing to “surrender their liberties in exchange for the absolute authority of the state.” Another scare tactic.

6. The Judicial System

Given recent rulings, we know that judicial overreach has almost ruined this great nation. Justices and judges are constitutionally charged to interpret the law, not make law. But again, and again, they have overstepped their authority and brought us atrocities such as abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, and the so-called “separation of church and state,” which doesn’t appear in the Constitution. Most recently, the Supreme Court handed down one of its most egregious rulings since Roe v. Wade. It is the case of Bostock v. Clayton County. This decision was not based on constitutional law but on the whims of six justices. It created a new legal definition of sex out of thin air. Lawyers tell us that this ruling will affect every dimension of culture and haunt the nation as long as it endures. Please don’t vote for politicians who will expand, rather than limit, the power of the judiciary.

When the Supreme Court rules in Dobson’s favor he loves it. When it does not rule in his favor, he says they have “overstepped their authority.” If the Supreme Court suddenly decided to make gay marriage illegal, overturn precedent in Roe v. Wade, or pass an Amendment declaring the United States to be a “Christian nation,” Dobson would cheer such judicial activism.

7. The Nation of Israel

Scripture tells that those who bless Israel will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Our prayer is that the next Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. will continue to promote and cultivate a vibrant bond of friendship with the nation of Israel, which is our only ally in the Middle East. Anti-Semitism and all forms of racial discrimination are inherently evil, and we condemn them categorically. We are a nation that is dedicated to “freedom and justice for all” (The U.S. Pledge of Allegiance).

Is Dobson willing to extend “freedom and justice for all” to all Americans? Does he give his highest loyalty to Israel or to fellow Christian believers–members of the worldwide body of Christ–in Palestine? It is possible for Christians to reject anti-Semitism and still find solidarity with fellow believers. Dobson’s binary thinking does not allow for such a position.

I have written about this here before, but as I read Dobson’s newsletter, and saw the big orange “DONATE” button on the top of the web page, I was reminded of what Moral Majority veterans Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson (no relation) wrote about the Christian Right fundraising formula in their 1999 book Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America:

First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general. Second, the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or to impose their morality on the rest of the country. Third, the letter assures the reader that something will be done…Fourth, to get this job done, please send money.”

The Author’s Corner with Lauren Thompson

book cover (1)Lauren Thompson is  Assistant Professor of History at McKendree University. This interview is based on her new book, Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Friendly Enemies?

LT: In the Summer of 2009, I was a Seasonal Park Ranger at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park. At the end of each day, I would make my rounds in the visitor centers before locking up. One evening, I was drawn to an exhibit in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, entitled “Friendly Enemies.” The exhibit, which has since been replaced when the visitor center received an upgrade, depicted Union and Confederate soldiers trading coffee and tobacco along the Rappahannock River during the Winter of 1863. I kept trying to wrap my head around such strange interactions. The daily tours I gave were all about the bloodshed and carnage. How were men able to brush off those horrors and fraternize with the enemy?

I wanted to see if I could understand, from the soldiers’ themselves, why they traded with their enemy. Initially, I had hoped I could find a soldier or two who could explain it to me. Little did I know, I found dozens of soldiers’ depictions of fraternization across the Rappahannock. While working on my doctorate, I could not help but wonder if fraternization happened elsewhere–at different campaigns and between men in different armies. I visited archives in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. Their accounts revealed that anytime soldiers opposed one another for extended periods of time, they fraternized. Their interactions went beyond the trade of coffee and tobacco, too. Many times, it was in the form of newspaper exchanges, and, most importantly, the negotiation of ceasefires to limit bloodshed. It was at this point I realized these interactions meant something much greater to these soldiers than I had originally thought. I set out to answer where, why, and how fraternization happened.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Friendly Enemies?

LT: When citizen soldiers experienced unthinkable hardships, they coped with warfare by carving out spaces of fraternity, reprieve, and survival. Fraternization highlights soldiers’ ability to shed sectional differences and identify with one another’s mutual circumstances.

JF: Why do we need to read Friendly Enemies?

LT: An in-depth analysis of fraternization demonstrates how Union and Confederate soldiers worked together to limit bloodshed amidst the bloodiest war in American History. It is incredible that enemies traded during the siege of Chattanooga on the slopes of Missionary Ridge and had “swimming parties” in the Chattahoochee after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Fraternization, thus, demonstrates a critical nuance in scholarship on the common soldier. We tend to classify soldiers into dichotomies i.e. volunteer v. conscript, courageous v. coward, steadfast v. deserter, etc. At first, I thought, perhaps the men who fraternized were just “bad” soldiers–men who did not want to be there and would do anything and everything to express their dissatisfaction. However, as I read about the men who fraternized, they were anything but cowards–-in fact, many of them received promotions and a handful were Medal of Honor awardees. The overwhelming majority of them were volunteer soldiers, who wrote openly about fraternization (and the benefits it provided) while simultaneously expressing their anger for cowards and shirkers. They also recorded their loyalty to their service and efforts to remain enlisted until the war’s end.

This study also helps us understand postwar race relations. While fraternizing, men did not discuss slavery, sectional strife, or, most importantly, over what terms they would end the war. Thus, common soldiers began a trend that we would see on a national scale after the guns fell silent in April 1865. Fraternization was the prototype for sectional reunion after the war–one that avoided debates over causation, honored soldiers’ shared sacrifice, and promoted white male supremacy.

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

LT: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. My mom loved history and took my brother and I to historical sites in the region–Gettysburg & Antietam–when were in grade school. It was from that point on that I wanted to learn everything about the Civil War. We’d read books, watch documentaries, and go to reenactments. Upon majoring in History in college, I realized there was so much more to learn about the Civil War Era and US History as a whole. It was at that time my advisor encouraged me to pursue my PhD–I wanted to keep learning history and most of all, I wanted to teach it. For any event in history, there are multiple perspectives. I like to uncover and tell the stories we rarely hear about.

JF: What is your next project?

LT: My next project is going to shift gears and jump from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era. I now live and teach in St. Louis, Missouri. I teach African-American History and have become involved in local social justice groups. And, I also really enjoy learning about Sports History. Sports and recreation can be a lens to investigate race, class, and gender. I am researching race relations and recreation in St. Louis, particularly in public parks, youth sports, and high school athletics during the Civil Rights Era.

JF: Thanks, Lauren!

Ed Ayers: The “past can’t be reduced to static variables and predictable outcomes”

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Here is the University of Richmond historian‘s piece at Medium:

History is best explained by supple narratives of sequence, change, and consequence. We call those narratives stories. All humans understand stories and explain themselves and their worlds in stories. Even children can handle ambiguity and change, mistake and result, growth, and triumph. We intuitively turn to stories in novels, films, and video games to explain history. We should do the same in our classrooms.

The story of the American Civil War, for example, can be told even to young students with three main characters and plot lines. First, the states of the Confederacy wanted to establish their own nation where the future of slavery could never be infringed upon or threatened. The second plot line is that of the United States, which went to war to defend its existence and eventually discovered that it could not do so without destroying slavery.

The third plot line is that of enslaved people, who did everything they could to escape and then destroy slavery from the first moments of the war until after formal battles had ended. Two-hundred thousand African American men played critical roles in preserving the United States, as well as in winning black freedom. Other enslaved people, of all backgrounds, risked their lives to free themselves.

Students presented with variables rather than solutions quickly see that the principles describing the physical world do not apply to the multivariate and chaotic world of history. While that might be alarming at first, it will engage and teach them in more profound ways. Trying, and even failing, to solve a problem is more satisfying than finding the correct answer in the back of the book — especially if that answer only appears to be correct.

Read the entire piece here.

When the Confederacy came (back) to Gettysburg

Some of  you may recall my post last week about a friend of friends who visited the Gettysburg National Military Park on July 4, 2020 and encountered overt racism. You can read it here.

We now have a video of what happened.

Watch:

The man debating these white supremacists at the Robert E. Lee monument is Scott Hancock, professor of history at Gettysburg College. Scott, as you can tell from the video, is a man with an incredible amount of patience and self-control. He is a Christian who attends my evangelical church.

Listen to our interview with Scott on Episode 70 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

On complexity and revisionism in the doing of history

Why Study HistoryFrom Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

On complexity:

Historians realize that the past is complex. Human behavior does not easily conform to our present-day social, cultural, political, religious, or economic categories. Take Thomas Jefferson for example. Jefferson is the most complex personality of all of the so-called founding fathers. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence–the document that declared that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom–one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was a champion of education and founder of one of our greatest public universities–the University of Virginia. As a politician, he defended the rights of the common man, and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties. As president, he doubled the size of the United States and made every effort to keep us out of war with Great Britain.

At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Though he made several efforts to try to bring this institution to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to uphold the kind of Virginia planter lifestyle–complete with all it consumer goods and luxury items–that he could not live without. He was in constant debt. And he may have been the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.

Another example of the complexity of the past is the ongoing debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I recently published a book titled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In the course of my promotion for the book–at speaking engagements and on radio shows across the country–I was often asked how I answered this question. I found that most people came to my talks or tuned into my radio interviews with their minds already made up about the question, looking to me to provide them with historical evidence to strengthen their answers. When I told them that the role of religion in the founding of America was a complicated question that cannot be answered through sound bites, many people left the lecture hall or turned off the radio disappointed, because such an answer did not help them promote their political or religious cause.

Yet the founding fathers’ views on religion were complex, and they do not easily conform to our twenty-first-century agendas. The founding fathers made sure to keep God and Christianity out of the United States Constitution but did not hesitate to place distinctly Christian tests for office in most of the local state constitutions that they wrote in the wake of the American Revolution. Some founders upheld personal beliefs that conformed to historic orthodox Christian teaching, while others–especially major founders such as Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin–did not. The founders opposed an established church and defended religious liberty while at the same time suggesting that Christianity was essential to the health of the republic.

The life of Jefferson and the debate over Christian America teach us that human experience is often too complex to categorize in easily identifiable boxes. The study of the past reminds us that when we put our confidence in people–whether they are in the past (such as the founding fathers) or the present–we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed by them. Sometimes great defenders of liberty held slaves, and political leaders who defended a moral republic rejected a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the inspiration of the Bible. Historians do their work amid the messiness of the past. Though they make efforts to simplify the mess, they are often left with irony, paradox, and mystery.

On revisionism:

Historians must come to grips with the fact that they will never be able to provide a complete or thorough account of what happened in the past.

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life. As [historian David] Lowenthal notes, “History usually depends on someone else’s eyes and voice: we see it through an interpreter who stands between past events and our apprehension of them.” While the past never changes, history changes all the time. Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident. Even if we can assume that drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who caused the accident. It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weight the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event. But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable witness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault. This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened. History has changed. This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present. But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” receives a high compliment. In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West). Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always take place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by the what historians called the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early twentieth-century historian who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake. The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.

In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion. They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century. These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.

In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves. Rather than viewing the Blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important moment in American history….

In the end, all historians are revisionists. The Christian historians R.G. Collingwood wrote that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historians, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves.” This may mean that a historian will challenge the cherished myths of a particular culture or uncover evidence that does not bode well for a patriotic view of one’s country. (At other times, of course, evidence could strengthen the public bonds of citizenship). As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretations of specific events change. This makes history an exciting and intellectually engaging discipline.

 

What happened in Gettysburg this weekend?

 

Gettysburg Race 1

Jimmy, a friend of friends who works in a local ministry to drug and alcohol abusers, was in Gettysburg this weekend. Here, in his own words, is what happened:

Over the last 2.5 years, I have been in a group called “Be the Bridge.” The goal of the group was to have meaningful conversations about race, racism, systemic racism, the Church’s response to race, and racial reconciliation. My Dad and I (along with 2 other white guys) met with 4 Black guys each month to talk through these issues.

It was eye opening. It was challenging. I learned a lot about my own biases. I learned about the part I play in propping up systems that benefit white people. I learned about the systemic racism that plagues the U.S (throughout history and present day). I learned about what it takes to make important personal changes and become aware of my own cultural preferences. And, I learned about the strong theological basis for justice and racial reconciliation.

It left me with a strong desire to find tangible, everyday ways to fight for racial equality.

Yesterday, my Dad and I went down to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial to meet with the Black guys from our group. The goal was to talk about how important it is to tell the truth about many of the Confederate monuments and to keep a clear focus on the goals of the Confederacy (which was the preservation of slavery).

We held some signs at three different monuments: North Carolina, Robert E. Lee, and Mississippi. These are important statues.

The North Carolina statue was made by a staunch supporter of the KKK, Gutzon Borglum (he also did Mount Rushmore). He famously said of the KKK, “I would do anything to serve them…”

Robert E. Lee’s statue was chosen because of the “hero status” he embodies. But, Robert E. Lee was in charge of his wife’s 189 slaves, beat and whipped them, and said of slavery, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

Mississippi was also chosen because of their article of succession. If you haven’t read it, please read it here. The opening several lines are most key.

Scott (one of the members of our group and a history professor at a local College) led most of these discussions. Scott believes that the Confederate Monuments should remain at Gettysburg, but should tell the full story of the monuments and those represented. This is the reason we were in Gettysburg yesterday. This is important and worth reiterating: We were there to tell this critical part of history, so it wouldn’t be forgotten or swept under the rug.

While we all remained civil, we were met with much hostility. At the Robert E. Lee statue, we arrived and were met by more than a dozen men in full tactical gear, holding AR-15s (none were park rangers or police). Several others were open carrying. As they surrounded us, many shouted racial slurs at Scott. These people said some of the following, “Go back to Africa!”, “Why don’t you just go back on welfare?”, “F@&k you guys,” “Have you ever picked cotton?”, “You need to forget about slavery,” “you’re one of the dumbest people,” and, to me and my Dad specifically, “You kind of white people make me sick.” There were many more things said, as well as the “N” word.

At the end of our time, about 15 bikers pulled up to our group at the Mississippi statue and began circling our group (you can see this picture below). We decided it was safest to leave. These bikers followed us out of the battlefield, through Gettysburg, all the way until we got to a police barricade. While we were sitting at a red light, the bikers motioned to some guys (who had a confederate flag in the truck) and they came over to my car and told us to “Get the f&%k out of here” and motioned with their finger.

I share this experience because I think it’s important to talk about these issues. That racism is still alive and well in our country. That the story of America has a lot of good parts and some really terrible ones, but we must tell it fully. That the church must be at the center of racial reconciliation. And we must stand up for and with those who have been marginalized and oppressed. It’s a critical part of the gospel and following Jesus.

Gettysburg Race 3

Gettysburg battlefield, July 4, 2020 (photo by Jimmy)

Please don’t tell me that there is not a connection between Donald Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore on Friday night (or at the very least his general defense of monuments since the George Floyd protests) and what happened to Jimmy and his friends at Gettysburg this weekend. In fact, Jimmy said in a private exchange that much of the hostility came from self-professed “Christians” with Trump 2020 swag.

Gettysburg Race 2

Gettysburg battlefield, July 4, 2020 (photo by Jimmy)

 

 

Peter Carmichael, the Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies and Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, also visited the Gettysburg battlefield this weekend. If I understand things correctly, a member of his group carried a sign that read:”10,000 Black Slaves In Lee’s Army #BlackLivesMatter.”

Carmichael Poster

Carmichael and his group were confronted by what appears to be a white militia organization. Watch:

 

For what it’s worth, I agree with everything Scott Hancock says in this interview with CNN’s Michael Smerconish. It is worth your time:

Hancock, a professor of History and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College, is becoming an important voice right now.  Listen to our interview with him in Episode 70 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

What about all those Confederate statues in the U.S. Capitol?

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Here is a taste of William Hogeland‘s piece at Boston Review:

Eleven statues of Confederate officers, including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, stand in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. In response to House Democrats’ recent effort to fast-track their removal, Senator Mitch McConnell and other rearguard cultural defenders have said that to do so would erase history.

Many Americans are startled to learn that Confederate statues are in the Capitol at all. On Twitter, this surprise has often taken the form of a question: “Why in the hell are there Confederate statues in the Capital?” “Wait—there’s a statue of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens and nine other confederates in the US Capitol building?” “Good Lord, what are they doing there?”

Good questions. Amid the widespread defacings, topplings, and official removals of statuary representing not only enslavers but also racist leaders of many kinds, the presence there of Confederate monuments—not in former slave states but in the seat of the government that the Confederacy fought—seems bizarre indeed. People who remember, as I do, seeing the statues on childhood visits to the Capitol will be less surprised, but I suspect that even we have thought little about the National Statuary Hall Collection’s contents, or even its existence. A large, oddball batch of mostly old memorials, the collection is centered in the National Statuary Hall, beside the Rotunda, and scattered about in other rooms; many of its subjects are at best obscure. At first glance, the collection might seem, aside from the outrageous presence of the Confederacy, innocuous enough, if a bit antique.

But the stark reality is that the U.S. government’s peculiar relationship to the Civil War made those Confederate statues a defining feature of the whole National Statuary Hall Collection—a fulfillment, even, of what became its purpose. What Confederate figures are doing in the collection is worth knowing, because it bears on larger, even more unsettling political and cultural processes that have marked U.S. public discourse regarding race and racism in the past three centuries.

Read the rest here.

Descendants of Confederate generals weigh-in on the monument and military base debate

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Politico talked with the ancestors of Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Brown Gordon, Ambrose Powell Hill, John Bell Hood, Robert E. Lee, Leonidas Polk, George Pickett, and several others.

Here is a taste:

“I think white people should follow the lead of Black activists and people of color more broadly fighting for equality and rights, and support this struggle in any way we can,” said Mimi Kirk, the great-great-great granddaughter of General John Brown Gordon, who wants Georgia’s Fort Gordon renamed so it is not honoring a leading white supremacist.

For others, such a move would be an affront. “No. Absolutely not,” said Tim Hill, 53, when asked if the post in Virginia named for his direct ancestor, A.P. Hill, should be changed. “At the time, he fought for what he believed in. From what I’ve read, the fight for him wasn’t about slavery, it was just about, he referred to [it] as ‘Northern aggression.’”

Others say they are still struggling with how their ancestor’s legacy should be remembered. Hood’s cousin, Stephen M. “Sam” Hood, who has published two books about the general, maintains it is “instructive to look at the individuals who are honored, not the causes for which they served for a brief period of their lives or careers.”

But most of the descendants who have shared their views say it is past time to honor only Americans whom everyone can agree are deserving.

“We have a lot of people in American history that we should be valuing that we’re not and I think now is the time to reassess those things and have other people—Native Americans, women, and African Americans,” says Milbry Polk, 66, whose forebear Gen. Leonidas Polk is honored with Fort Polk in Louisiana. “So many people make up our fabric of America that we should be looking for role models there, not just people who were generals.”

Read the entire piece here.

The World Socialist Web Site Gathers Historians to Discuss the American Revolution and the Civil War

2f8fa-declarationofindependence

The historians participating include Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, Richard Cawardine, James Oakes, Gordon Wood, and Tom Mackaman. The conversation, moderated by Mackaman and World Socialist Web Site’s David North, will live-stream at 1:30pm EDT.

Here is the press release:

The American Revolution of 1775-1783 and the Civil War of 1861-1865 rank among the most momentous events in shaping the political, social and intellectual history of the modern world. The Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776, established the United States on the principle that “all men are created equal.” This first Revolution set into motion socio-economic and political processes that led to the Civil War—the Second American Revolution, which abolished slavery.

In the present, a time of social crisis and uncertainty, the first and second Revolutions are the subject of intense controversy. The World Socialist Web Site will be celebrating the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by hosting a discussion with five eminent historians, Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, Richard Carwardine, James Oakes and Gordon Wood. They will assess the Revolutions in the context of their times as well as their national and global consequences. Finally, the discussants will consider the possible implications of contemporary debates over the nature of the Revolutions for the future of the United States and the world.

This event will be streamed live throughout the world on July 4th at 1:30 pm EDT at wsws.org/live.

For those unfamiliar, all of the historians participating in this conversation have been critical of The New York Times 1619 Project. A good way to get some larger context is to listen to our interview with Mackaman in Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Gettysburg battlefield guides call for the protection of Confederate monuments

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The York (PA) Daily Record is running an op-ed from Les Fowler, president of the Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides.

Here is a taste of his piece:

We are grateful that the National Park Service has made strong statements in support of all monuments. One statement said this: “Across the country, the NPS maintains and interprets monuments, markers, and plaques that represent painful or controversial chapters in our nation’s history.  We are committed to telling the larger story behind these memorials.”

In discussing Confederate monuments, Gettysburg College professor Scott Hancock a few years ago wrote this: “It is time to consider how to make Gettysburg a space that teaches the values each side fought for.” Every guide agrees with him. We express our agreement not by words or by making banners; rather, licensed guides emulate Professor Hancock’s sentiments in the tours we provide of the battlefield every day.

Read the entire piece here.

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

trump-with-evangelical-leaders

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Rudy Giuliani shares a tweet from a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center. Notice how Giuliani uses Jenna Ellis’s tweet of Psalm 27 to make a political statement. When he says “we all matter” I think we all know the message he is sending in the midst of our post-George Floyd moment. In a follow-up tweet, Ellis gives Giuliani an “Amen.”

As the coronavirus cases spike, Ellis retweets an anti-masker attacking California senator Kamala Harris:

Liberty University’s Falkirk Center does not understand history. It’s tweet today seems like a defense of Confederate monuments. I am guessing Russell Kirk is taken out of context here. As I argued in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, history is always created from a dialogue the between past and the present. Sometimes the past is useful in the present. Sometimes the past is a “foreign country.” Ironically, the Falkirk Center and the rest of the Christian Right activists who talk about the past, have mastered the kind of cherry-picking Kirk may be warning against here.

What is the relationship between the following tweet and Jenna Ellis’s anti-mask retweet above? It seems that “rights” are a form of self-fulfillment, while concern for others is a form of self-denial. John MacArthur’s lesson might be useful for evangelicals as they think about masks and the spread of COVID-19.

Florida is seeing record numbers of coronavirus cases. Paula White is opening her church:

Wow: This is an amazing tweet from Trump’s #1 court evangelical:

Tony Perkins is hosting a video conference called “Arise and Stand.” You can watch it here.

Here is Gary Bauer’s Facebook post:

Kudos to my good friend Vice President Mike Pence!

Vice President Pence stood firm in the face of the media mob this Sunday, as well as the mob in the streets, by refusing to repeat the divisive slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” He was pressed to do so during an appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Of course Black Lives Matter, as do Asian lives, Hispanic lives and Caucasian lives. That’s the truth. And it’s also a central Christian principle that the color of our skin is the least unique thing about us. What makes us special is that we are made in the image of God, and the vice president strongly believes that. 

Read the rest here.

I’ve said this before, this pivot toward “all lives matter” is simply a way for those on the Christian Right to avoid tough conversations on race in America following the killing of George Floyd. When Pence refused to say “Black Lives Matter” on television he was sending a message to the Trump base.

all lives matter cartoon

It’s all about the Supreme Court justices for Ralph Reed.

Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran have a nice response to Reed’s way of political thinking:

When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resources families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marion icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

Read the entire piece here.

Ralph Reed, perhaps more than any other member of the Christian Right, is responsible for what Hauerwas and Tran call a “failure of political imagination” among evangelicals.

According to Robert Jeffress, the “eventual collapse of our country” is now certain:

And last but not least, David Barton is on the Eric Metaxas Show today. When activists indiscriminately topple and deface monuments, it just provides ammunition and fodder for Barton’s Christian Right view of the past.

Barton defends a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a white supremacist who helped found the KKK. He seems to think that such a statue is essential to his ability to teach history. This comment even makes Metaxas squirm: “I think we all would agree that lines can be drawn, we don’t have a statue to Adolph Hitler.” In this sense, Metaxas’s obsession with Godwin’s Law serves a useful purpose.

When Metaxas says that debate over monuments is “complicated,” he reminds me of something I wrote at the end of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:

In 2010 the political commentator Glenn Beck devoted an entire television program to a discussion of George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century evangelical revivalist and the precipitator of the event known as the First Great Awakening. Near the end of the show, Beck’s conversation with his guests–two early American religious historians–turned to the topic of slavery. Beck wondered how Whitefield could inspire anti-slavery advocates in England such as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” while at the same time owning slaves. Befuddled by this paradox, and clearly at a loss for words, Beck turned to the camera and said, “Sometimes history is a little complex.”

Barton peddles an unbelievably dumb theory about the origins of slavery and race in America. He says “out of Jamestown” came “slavery and intolerance and classism and racism.” But out of Plymouth came “liberty and freedom and constitutional government, bills of rights, etc.” His source is an uncritical use of an 1888 wall map showing these “two strands of history, one bad and one good.”

Apparently, Barton has never studied New England’s Native American history or the intolerance the Puritans showed to the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. But wait, it gets better. Barton says that “both of those groups were Christian, but Jamestown was not biblical. They [just] professed Christianity. That’s much of what we see in America today. 72% of the nation professes Christianity, only six percent have a biblical world view.” Slavery started in Jamestown, Barton argues, because the settlers didn’t “know the Bible.” This is interesting, since during the early 19th-century Virginians used the Bible to justify slavery. I guess they were more biblically literate by that time. 🙂

Barton seems to suggest that New England did not have slaves. Wrong again. Even Jonathan Edwards, one of Barton’s heroes, a man who Barton would probably say had a “Christian world view,” owned slaves. Granted, New England did not have a slave-based economy, but slavery was not illegal prior to the American Revolution. If you want to learn more, see Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. and Joanne Pope Melishs’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860

Barton goes on to say that today “we look at past generations through today’s filter and today’s lens and you really can’t do that.” This is rich coming from a guy who has built his entire career around cherry-picking from the founding fathers and then applying such cherry-picked passages to contemporary Christian Right politics. (See my comments about the Falkirk Center’s tweet about Russell Kirk).

He then uses this argument to reject systemic and institutional racism. Here is Barton:

So all the notion that America is institutionally racist–you gotta see what the atmosphere was like in that day–we were leading the world in the right direction that day. Now we can look back where we are today and say we weren’t perfect…but we’re not the racist nation everyone is trying to make us out to be. When you know history, you see that all clearly.

Barton speaks as if the Civil War–a war over slavery in which 700,000 people died–never happened. Is this “leading the world in the right direction?” Heck, he sounds as if slavery never existed in the United States. He dismisses four hundred years of slavery and racism by saying, “yeah, we weren’t perfect.” Barton is not a historian. He only cares about the parts of the past that advance his political agenda. Read this recent post to see the depths of racism in the evangelical church or grab a copy of Believe Me.

And finally, Metaxas praises Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a great moment of national unity. He says that Lincoln showed “graciousness” toward his enemy. He said that because of this graciousness, Lincoln and Grant allowed the Confederate monuments to stand. Barton says that Lincoln’s “zealous” Christian faith is why he tried to reconcile with the South after the war. He says that Lincoln took seriously Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 about “reconciliation.”

There are so many problems with this part of the interview that it is hard to know where to start.

  1. Lincoln did want to the bring the Union back together and he tried to use his Second Inaugural Address to do it. But let’s remember that this address was delivered after victory in the war was all but secured. The Union won. Whatever reunion needed to take place, Lincoln believed, must happen on his terms. The idea that he would allow Confederates to continue to celebrate their slave-holding “heritage” with the erection of monuments does not make sense.
  2. Metaxas seems to think that these Confederate monuments were erected during the days of Lincoln. Most of them were built in the early 20th-century as a way of defending the Confederate’s “Lost Cause”–a commitment to white supremacy. Lincoln had nothing to do with them.
  3. Lincoln was not a Christian. Nearly all Lincoln scholarship is clear about this.
  4. 2 Corinthians 5 has nothing to do with the Civil War or nationalism.
  5. But most disturbing is the fact that Barton and Metaxas seem to be endorsing a white romanticized idea of reunion and reconciliation that left out African Americans. The best book on this subject continues to be David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Until next time.

Learn more about the original Juneteenth proclamation

Juneteenth proclamation

Today the National Archives revealed the original Juneteenth proclamation, also known as General Order No. 3.  Check out NPR’s coverage of this story:

“Based on what’s going on now in this country, there was a need to talk about Juneteenth, the freeing of enslaved people in 1865,” says Michael Davis, a public affairs specialist at the Archives. “I was curious to know if we had the actual document of General Order No. 3 in our holdings.”

So Davis reached out Trevor Plante, who directs the Archives’ textual records division. Plante found that the order was issued by the district of Texas, which helped him locate that command’s order book — used as the official record of orders issued.

Plante found that book yesterday in the stacks of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and located the now-famous order within — handwritten by the major general’s aide, F.W. Emery, and still in good condition. It bears the number three because it was just the third order that Granger had issued since taking over the Texas command.

In 1865, the book was in Galveston, then the Union Army’s headquarters for the district of Texas. Later on, Plante says, it would have been sent to the War Department in Washington, D.C., and then on to the National Archives, where it has been since probably the 1940s, available for researchers to request and peruse.

With the document’s fresh resurgence, it will now be digitized and added to the Archives’ catalog, as well as highlighted on the National Archives and Records Administration’s African American history page. The Archives’ museum and buildings are currently closed to the public and its in-person services suspended, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in the future, there may be keen interest in viewing the physical version of Order No. 3.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is a transcript:

General Orders

No. 3.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

          By order of Major General Granger

                    F.W. Emery

                    Major A.A. Genl.

Oklahoma Senator James Lankford was behind Trump’s decision to move the Tulsa rally date

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Tulsa’s Bank of Oklahoma Center will host Trump’s June 20, 2020 campaign rally

Trump claims he did not know that June 19th, 1865 was an important day in African-American history. I guess he forgot that he released a statement on Juneteenth last year.

Juneteenth celebrates the date when Union Major General Gordon Granger and 2000 Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War.  In accordance with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (which became official on January 1, 1863), Granger also and announced that “all slaves are free.”

When asked about Trump’s decision to schedule a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the place that just celebrated the 99th-anniversary of a 1921 race massacre, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, a Republican, said: “I would certainly say that the more diverse our staffs, the more we avoid these public issues that come about. So I don’t have a good answer for that because I’m not on his staff and don’t know what his plan is,”

Scott is right. But even if Trump didn’t have any people of color on his staff, one might think he would have some educated white people who knew something about American history.

After much public outcry, Trump decided to push the rally to June 20. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford was one of the people who convinced Trump to change the date.

Here is the Associated Press:

“There’s special sensitivities there in Tulsa, but Juneteenth is a very significant day, so my encouragement to the president was to be able to pick a day around it,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Sunday. Lankford said he was among several people who had spoken with Trump.

Lankford said he had called Trump on an unrelated matter and that Trump broached the issue. He said Trump told him he was thinking about rescheduling and asked Lankford’s opinion.

“I suggested, ‘Yes, I think that would be a great idea. It would be very, very respectful to the community,’” Lankford said. He said Trump immediately said he didn’t want to do anything that would show disrespect to the black community.

“He didn’t see it as disrespectful to be able to do it on Juneteenth,” Lankford said. “Other people interpreted it differently and so he moved the rally date.”

Read the entire piece here.

Lankford is a Trump supporter and lines-up with Christian Right values, but has, on a few rare occasions, criticized the president:

  • He criticized Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Church.
  • He has criticized Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
  • I participated with him in a National Association of Evangelicals briefing in Washington D.C.
  • He made a subtle criticism of Trump’s handling of the Charlottesville race riots.

It is also worth nothing that the BOK Center in Tulsa has not held an event since the coronavirus lockdown and all events following Trump’s June 20 rally, including concerts by The Black Crowes, Justin Bieber, Poison, and Toby Mac, have been cancelled or postponed.

How the White House Responded to the Call to Change the Names of Military Bases

Fort Bragg

We covered this here. The U.S. Army is willing to discuss renaming Fort Bragg, one of ten bases named after Confederate military leaders.

Donald Trump, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, refuses to consider the change:

“Winning, Victory, and Freedom?” These bases are named after men who fought against their country and lost.

Trump’s use of the word “heritage” here is revealing. When people use the word “heritage” they are often talking more about the present than the past. The purpose of “heritage,” writes historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” It is a way of approaching the past that is fundamentally different than the discipline of history. History explores and explains the past in all its fullness and complexity. Heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective or national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotions.

This, of course, is why so many people in the South love to talk about their “heritage.” Confederate heritage operates through a series of rituals–the celebration of Confederate heroes, the waving of the Confederate flag, and glorification of white supremacy.

The renaming of these bases does not take anything away from the soldiers who fought our World Wars. Like the Bible photo-op at St. John’s Church, this is just another Trump appeal to his white base in an election year. And he has played this monument card before. Let’s remember when Trump tried to defend Confederate monuments in the wake of the Charlottesville race riots.

And then Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tries to explain:

McEnany reads Trump’s tweet and says “we spent some time working on that.” So this was not an off-the-cuff tweet from Trump, it was a premeditated statement. Trump, McEnany, and the rest of the staff worked hard to compose it.

At the 10:30 mark, McEnany says:

He [Trump] does stand against the renaming of our forts, these great American fortresses where literally some of these men and women who lost their lives–the went out to Europe and Afghanistan and Iraq, and all across this world to win world wars on behalf of freedom. A lot of times, the very last place they saw was one of these forts. And to suggest that these forts were somehow inherently racist and their names need to be changed is a complete disrespect to the men and women who the last bit of American land they saw before they want over seas and lost their lives were these forts.

This is crazy. No one is saying to get rid of these forts. It is nonsensical to connect this kind of name change with “the very last place” a soldier saw before they went off to war. We can begin by mentioning that many of these soldiers sent to fight in the wars McEnany lists above were African Americans. I am sure many of their families are thrilled about the proposed name changes.

She picks it up again at the 23:30 mark and spins it into an attack on Joe Biden.

What would the late Ravi Zacharias think about this sophistry? What would the man most associated with the cross hanging from McEnany’s neck think about this?

I have noticed a new kind of public figure has emerged during the age of Trump, but I am sure some of my historian friends will tell me that this kind of person has been around for a long time. These are men and women who sound articulate, but are not really making any sense.

Historian David Blight Offers Some Context for Troubled Times

frederickdouglass01

Here is Blight at The Atlantic:

At the heart of the protests over the recent police killings that have swept the nation is Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s depraved rhetoric, his vile racism, his willful ignorance, his vicious contempt for the free press, his extraordinary mishandling of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, and his preening with a Bible while trying to militarize Washington, D.C., are the template on which incidents such as those in Minneapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; Brunswick, Georgia; and New York City’s Central Park have exploded into public consciousness. Authoritarians thrive on chaos and on sowing distrust in institutions, and Trump has done both. We need some historical grounding.

If America is coming apart, the 1850s provide poignant lessons. That decade was the only time in our history when the nation dissolved, militarized, and ultimately went to war over competing visions of the future. It offers a stark warning about what can happen when political and legal institutions lose their hold on public trust and collapse.

In that decade, slavery was tearing America apart, socially and politically. As part of the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily and uneasily settled the question of slavery’s expansion, the Fugitive Slave Act became law. It mandated that any escaped slave who managed to reach the northern free states had to be returned to his or her rightful owner, adjudicated by special magistrates who were paid twice as much for returning a black bondsman to the South as for releasing him. The law struck fear into thousands of fugitives already living in northern states—and it radicalized the American abolition movement. It also led to numerous fugitive-slave rescues, some by violence against the state and police authority. The heroic runaway slave, still property under American law, became more than ever an object of sympathy and protection. The fugitive-slave issue broadened the antislavery movement into open resistance and a politicized crusade. Abolitionists had to act outside and against the law if they truly intended to defeat slavery. Many abolitionists who had previously preferred the strategy of moral suasion—nonviolent advocacy to change of hearts and minds—began to see that the governmental power at the heart of slavery had to be attacked. And some increasingly began to act with physical force and violence.

The great orator Frederick Douglass is a case in point. By the early 1850s, after nearly a decade of practicing primarily as a moral suasionist, the former slave came to embrace action through political parties and even the threat of violence. He called the Fugitive Slave Act the “hydra … begotten in the spirit of compromise” and “legalized piracy,” and he lost his moral ambivalence about violent resistance to slave-catchers and to slaveholders themselves. By his count, he participated in helping at least 100 fugitives escape through western New York State and into Canada over the course of the decade. And his rhetorical rage burst forth with stunning furor.

“I do believe that two or three dead slaveholders will make this law a dead letter,” Douglass declared in a speech in Syracuse in 1851. Although he found himself increasingly desperate for direct action against slavery over the course of the 1850s, and though he morally and financially supported John Brown’s exploits that led to the raid on Harpers Ferry (while himself refusing to join what he deemed a suicide mission), Douglass nearly always preferred radical reform to revolutionary violence. At the same time, he struggled to believe that African Americans could achieve a future in the United States via faith in natural rights alone. His tilting between rhetorical and real violence, between political antislavery and radical organizations operating outside of government, provides a rich, if sobering, cautionary tale about the tortured relationship between protest and change.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Aaron Sheehan-Dean

reckoning with rebellionAaron Sheehan-Dean is Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies at Louisiana State University. This interview is based on his new book, Reckoning with Rebellion: War and Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (University Press of Florida).

JF: Why did you decide to write Reckoning with Rebellion?

ASD: During the research for my previous book (The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War), I realized how many participants in the Civil War referenced foreign conflicts. Following that thread, I recognized that thecivil  three (nearly) contemporary conflicts at the heart Reckoning–the Indian Rebellion, the Polish Insurrection, and the Taiping Rebellion–were touchstones for Americans and others around the world.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Reckoning with Rebellion?

ASD: Putting the US Civil War in the context of other civil and national conflicts in the mid-nineteenth century helps us see three commonalities: people who used irregular warfare rarely achieved success; the likelihood of foreign support or intervention hinged, in large measure, on how people interpreted the language of rebellion and revolution; and the winners in these conflicts (the US, and the British, Russian, and the Qing Empires) shared a high degree of centralization, a willingness to use violence to maintain their sovereignty, and the importance of clothing their actions in the language of liberalism.

JF: Why do we need to read Reckoning with Rebellion?

ASD: We have not appreciated the degree to which participants in the Civil War thought about their conflict by comparing it to similar ones around the world. Doing so helps us better understand the nature of the global transmission of ideas and practices in the mid-nineteenth century.

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

ASD: I decided to become a historian while working on Capitol Hill for a U.S. senator in the 1990s. I realized that I could have more impact in a classroom than I did from my perch on the Hill. Doing research on policy issues, I had come to appreciate how important historical context was to making any intelligent decision about legislation.

JF: What is your next project?

ASD: Reckoning sets the Civil War in a spatial framework; my next project puts it in a new chronological one. I’m working on a comparison of the English Civil War(s) of the 17th century and the US Civil War of the 19th. The former shaped American thinking about rebellion and war into the 1860s, and participants in the US conflict used the English conflict as a reference point–comments about Cromwell and Parliament abound.

JF: Thanks, Aaron!