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?

 

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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!

The Richmond, Virginia Robert E. Lee Statue is Coming Down

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Here is the Associated Press:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to announce plans Thursday to remove one of the country’s most iconic monuments to the Confederacy, a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee along Richmond’s prominent Monument Avenue, a senior administration official told The Associated Press.

The move would be an extraordinary victory for civil rights activists, whose calls for the removal of that monument and others in this former capital of the Confederacy have been resisted for years.

“That is a symbol for so many people, black and otherwise, of a time gone by of hate and oppression and being made to feel less than,” said Del. Jay Jones, a black lawmaker from Norfolk. He said he was “overcome” by emotion when he learned the statue was to come down.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Gracjan Kraszewski

Catholic ConfederatesGracjan Kraszewski is Director of Intellectual Formation at St. Augustine’s Catholic Center at the University of Idaho.  He is also Instructor of Construction and Design at Washington State University. This interview is based on his new book, Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South (The Kent State University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Catholic Confederates?

GK: My personal story, geography, and a lifelong interest. In respective order, I am a Catholic and so I suppose a lot of people find it natural to write about something from their own daily, lived experience. Secondly, I attended grad school in the South, in Mississippi, and the Civil War is, still, omnipresent in this region, and the archives and sites close by facilitate undertaking such a project. Third, growing up in Pennsylvania I think I must have visited Gettysburg more than ten separate times as a boy, minimum. I was always fascinated by the Civil War. These things in tandem produced a perfect storm, and made my topic something of a no brainer. (Plus, super fun too!).

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Catholic Confederates?

GK: You do not have to wait until the 20th century, until JFK and the Second Vatican Council and ethnic identity-leveling suburban sprawl, to see evidence of Catholic assimilation into American life. During the Civil War, Southern Catholics ‘Confederatized’ (‘Americanization’ via the Confederacy) into their surrounding society with ease—supporting secession and the war as fervently as their more well known Protestant neighbors—and found this devotion returned, winning the approbation of Confederates elite and common alike, serving in key posts throughout the conflict, and remaining at the epicenter of events, a fact often buried in historiographical obscurity.

JF: Why do we need to read Catholic Confederates?

GK: Because not enough Civil War historians know about the role Catholics played in the Confederacy, not enough scholars of American Catholicism know enough about the South—let alone the Civil War South—and the general body of American Catholics (and Protestants as well) too readily accept that anything ‘Catholic’ and ‘American’ must revolve exclusively around issues, problems and people like ‘the North,’ immigration and demographics, Humanae Vitae, Boston, New York, Vatican II, Chicago, John Paul II, Pope Francis. Few would ever consider that Catholics might have been visible and important in the 19th century ‘Bible Belt;’ American Catholics just don’t know this part of their own history. This book remedies all three of these blind spots simultaneously.

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

GK: My father is a poet and a literature professor. And I love my father. So I think I always associated the academic life, the teaching and the writing, with what grown-ups do because my dad did that and I grew up with it. The American history specificity probably has a lot to do with those Gettysburg trips, but also that from a young age I was ‘good at history.’ Memorizing the dates, knowing who was who and who went were, that stuff kind of came natural to me. I was reading Civil War books as a ten year old and I never thought that was weird, like ‘why don’t I pick up some comics or something?’ I liked history then and have never stopped liking it.

JF: What is your next project?

GK: There’s two taking shape at the moment. I’m working on, nearly done with, a maximalist, absurdist-comedy novel that is set around the year 2100 (although it is not, in any way, science fiction; never, haha) that treats the American pursuit of happiness in a post-postmodern world. It’s centered around a progressive academy in the New Mexican desert— ESSNWNAU-AL: East Southwestern South Northeastern West North American University of the Arts and Logic—and is parts philosophical, theological, economic and atomic, i.e. scientists who build something much more powerful than the Tsar Bomba and so, what now? It’s pretty long already (more than 300,000 words) and has been appearing via short story excerpts in publications the past few years, most recently in the Canadian journal Riddle Fence this month. The second book stems from my work as Director of Intellectual Formation at the Univ. of Idaho’s St. Augustine Center. Each month I give a 30 min. lecture—on Catholicism and politics, Catholicism and sports, contrasting superheroes and saints, etc.—and we’re hoping to compile what will be essentially a collection of essays into a book sometime next year, maybe summer 2021?

JF: Thanks, Gracjan!

The Author’s Corner with Zachery Fry

A Republic in the RanksZachery Fry is Assistant Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. This interview is based on his new book, A Republic in the Ranks: Loyalty and Dissent in the Army of the Potomac (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: I’ve always been fascinated by the history of political debate. There’s a great deal of literature out there already on how intense the partisan divide was among the Union Army’s high command during the Civil War, and I grew up reading a lot of that. As I waded into the army’s story myself, though, what I found more and more intriguing was the heated political divide further down the chain of command at the level of captains, majors, and colonels. This was especially true in the Army of the Potomac, the army that hardly ever fought more than several days’ march from Washington. What made the Army of the Potomac such an intriguing topic was that its soldiers went from worshiping George B. McClellan as commander in 1862 to voting against him for president in 1864.

Most historians have examined this political debate in the army by prioritizing diaries and letters home to family as the best evidence. What I found engrossing, though, was the tremendous number of letters and opinion pieces from soldiers at the front to newspapers back home. It was clear to me that newspaper editors, many of whom were intensely partisan, were capitalizing on the army’s role as conscience of the nation to influence the political dialogue. And soldiers were willing and eager to lead the nation’s political debate because they were convinced the importance of the moment demanded it.

The result of all this research is, I hope, a much richer picture of Civil War soldier ideology than readers have previously had.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: The Civil War was a political awakening for thousands of young soldiers serving in the Union Army of the Potomac, and the men who guided that process were the junior officers who had received their commissions from home front politicians. The result of this awakening, much of it acrimonious and heavy-handed, was an army that led the national dialogue by shunning antiwar protesters and earnestly supporting Lincoln’s policies.

JF: Why do we need to read A Republic in the Ranks?

ZF: It’s important to understand why soldiers fought in the Civil War. My book offers something genuinely new to that topic by examining how extensively Union soldiers, led by their officers, set the terms of debate in national politics. The angry words of Union officers and men against the “Copperhead” Democratic peace movement—truly a language of revenge and even extermination—are genuinely chilling to read. But it’s also fascinating to see how earnestly these soldiers supported Abraham Lincoln and the policies that won the Civil War. For the hard-luck Army of the Potomac, rallying behind the Republican message gave downtrodden men an inspiring sense of purpose to continue the fight.

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

ZF: What’s interesting to me as a military historian is how many scholars in our field can trace their professional interest back to childhood. I’m no different. I’ve wanted to write and teach history since I was in elementary school. I saw Civil War movies, read anything I could find on the conflict, and started touring battlefields at age seven. My parents were incredibly indulging, and I was able to meet some gifted historians as a youngster who inspired me to pursue a similar path. I also had some supportive high school teachers and, later, professors who expanded my interests well beyond those four years of “The War of the Rebellion.” Now I put that training to work everyday teaching military history to Army officers, and it’s the most rewarding career I could ever imagine.

JF: What is your next project?

ZF: I’m currently at work on a study of the 1864 presidential election between Lincoln and McClellan, almost certainly the most important election in our nation’s history. It’s been a while since readers have seen a new account of this event, so I’m excited to finish it.

JF: Thanks, Zachery!

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The Author’s Corner with Brian Luskey

men is cheapBrian Luskey is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. This interview is based on his new book, Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Men is Cheap?

BL: My book illuminates three interests of mine–the importance of middlemen in the nineteenth-century American economy, the cultural conversation about bad businessmen in this era, and the economic history of ordinary people in the Civil War–and constitutes my attempt to show that these themes intersect with each other.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Men is Cheap?

BL: Fought to uphold the ideal of “free labor,” the war for Union encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital, and Yankees often sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.

JF: Why do we need to read Men is Cheap?

BL: My book shows how the Civil War and the wage labor economy shaped each other. It is about labor brokers–failed businessmen, recruiters, officers, soldiers, and bounty men–who facilitated the movement of workers–Irish immigrants, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union soldiers and veterans–to work in the army and in northern households during the Civil War. The economic activities of these brokers and the cultural conflict about them reveal the nature and limits of free labor ideology as northern employers sought to benefit from the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital during the war.

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

BL: I’ve been interested in American History since a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield when I was eight years old. My parents bought me Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was a student at Davidson College when mentors such as Vivien Dietz, John Wertheimer, and Sally McMillen taught me not only how to be a good historian but also that being an academic historian was a career option. I fell in love with historical research and writing under their tutelage, and the rest is history.

JF: What is your next project?

BL: Honestly, I don’t know what my next book will be about, but I’m preparing to write an article about the relationships Abraham and Mary Lincoln forged with laboring people and the ways the Lincolns served as labor brokers in the Civil War Era.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

David Blight: “And the many need government”

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One of our finest American historians, Yale’s David Blight, reminds us that Americans have always relied on the government in times of crisis.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

In August 1861, several months after the secession of 11 southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared that “nations seldom listen to advice from individuals, however reasonable. They are taught less by theories than by facts and events.”

The United States is currently being educated by facts and events. And, as in other times of crisis—war, economic collapse, natural disasters—even those who do not like government are realizing that they need it. Government can protect them; it might save their life and livelihood. Irony will not die in the time of the coronavirus; even many of those who believe the federal government should not intervene in society except for national defense, and would happily privatize most elements of public life, are now straining to have government save society. With this issue, we have a long history.

The times that “try men’s souls,” in Thomas Paine’s phrase, are usually those that test our fundamental ideas and values, or challenge the nations and societies by which we organize ourselves. The coronavirus pandemic is challenging America’s political leaders at all levels, and advocates are pressing them to use their powers in ways that have little recent precedent. It also poses broader questions: What do the people of this republic owe their governments, and what do governments owe their people? For 230 years this has been one of the most significant and fiercely contested questions in our polity. We are now asking it during every waking hour.

It may seem quaint, but for answers, we could take time to read some history. Some events, usually unanticipated, cause seismic breaks in time. Two such prior crises, when leaders were challenged to preserve and reimagine the America they had inherited, offer particularly relevant lessons. In 1854, the year Abraham Lincoln burst out of political quietude to oppose the expansion of slavery, he said this: “The legitimate object of government is to do for the community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves—in their separate and individual capacities.” That Lincoln quote became a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, as he moved toward a bold and experimental use of government to save the American economy in the 1930s.

Read the entire piece here.

When Government Inaction or Delay Shaped the Course of Infectious Disease

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A Civil War field hospital in Virginia, 1862 (Library of Congress; Photo by James Gibson)

Over at The Atlantic, Jim Downs, professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction, writes about “the epidemics America got wrong.”  A taste:

By late March 1863, hundreds had died in Alexandria, Virginia. The mortality rate had almost doubled in just one night, and even quadrupled in other parts of the country. Three thousand people were dead in less than a month in North and South Carolina. The numbers in Louisiana, Georgia, and parts of Mississippi were equally as high. As a smallpox epidemic tore through the country, more than 49,000 people died from June 1865 to December 1867, the years an official count was kept.

Smallpox exploded at this time not because of a lack of protocols or knowledge—a vaccine even existed—but because political leaders simply didn’t care about the group that was getting sick. Government inaction or delay—due to racial discrimination, homophobia, stigma, and apathy—have shaped the course of many epidemics in our country. In the 1980s, for example, HIV spread as the government barely acknowledged its existence.

Now the United States is facing the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, the threat a disease poses has been magnified by the slow speed with which the government has reacted. And although this disease is not concentrated within any one community, it is poised to exacerbate existing inequalities. The lesson of past outbreaks of infectious diseases is that public officials must take them seriously, communicate honestly, and tend to the most vulnerable. If the United States has not always lived up to that standard, we now have the perfect opportunity to apply the lessons of our past mistakes.

Downs concludes:

History has shown us time and time again that epidemics worsen when the federal and state leaders with the power to implement preventive efforts fail to take it seriously. In the past few years, public-health and national-security officials have issued warnings that the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, but the government failed to act then. Now the coronavirus is in all 50 states. In the 1860s and in the 1980s, communities had to find a way to help themselves. Today the government has a chance to not make the same mistake again.

Read the entire piece here. And let’s keep learning from the past in these troubled times.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Domby

the false causeAdam H. Domby is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. This interview is based on his new book, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The False Cause?

AD: Honestly, I didn’t intend to write this book. Originally, I was just going to write a couple of articles before revising my dissertation for publication. I had found the Julian Carr speech that he gave at UNC while a graduate student. In the speech, Carr brags about whipping “a negro wench” during Reconstruction. I thought it was a neat source to use to discuss monuments and teach about Jim Crow. However, after a letter to the editor I wrote was published in 2011, activists mobilized my research, and really shifted public opinion about “Silent Sam.” In time, this made me realize that these speeches had an important power worthy of looking at more closely.

Meanwhile, I also stumbled upon evidence of pension fraud at the NC State archives. At first I thought I would just write an article about the extent of pension fraud. As I dug deeper it became clear to me that all of the increasing number of fabrications I was finding were not just about remembering the past in a positive fashion but about controlling contemporary politics. And I came to realize the stories told during monument dedication speeches were tied to the acceptance of fraudulent pensioners as legitimate. These were not separate side projects. I had started considering making it a second book project when then the election of Donald Trump occurred and I thought, a book about lies and white supremacy might be timely. Indeed, it became increasingly clear as I wrote that Americans were struggling to understand how lies, often lies that were obvious to everyone–even those who accepted them–functioned to erode democracy today. The creation and evolution of of the Lost Cause in North Carolina provides numerous parallels in examining how democracy is harmed by lies and how lies function to support white supremacist ideologies. So I put aside my dissertation based book on divided communities during the Civil War and Reconstruction (which I will one day return to) and set out to write this one.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The False Cause?

AD: That is hard but here goes: The book argues that the Lost Cause narrative of the past was not only shaped by lies, but that these lies served to uphold white supremacy and to justify the establishment of Jim Crow. Additionally, the book shows how these lies still influence how the public, and even some historians, remember the Civil War today, and still serve to uphold white supremacist world views.

JF: Why do we need to read The False Cause?

AD: I think it depends on who you are but most people will find something in this book of use. We live in a time when lies are being used to erode democracy and empower white supremacists. North Carolina in the 1890s-1900s can teach us a lot about white supremacists. Additionally, the Lost Cause remains a robust mythology that many Americans still believe to be an accurate reflection of the past. These narratives continue to uphold racist ideologies today. The evolution and creation of these narratives of history need to be better understood. If you believe the Confederacy fought for states’s rights and slavery had nothing to do with it, then you need to read this to understand why you were taught a false narrative. For historians of the Civil War the book makes the argument that historical memory and the study of fraud can also teach us about events during the war as well as the memory of the conflict. Historians of memory may find my methodology of focusing on lies and fabrication innovative (I hope). Political historians will hopefully find the analysis of how historical memory was used in North Carolina politics new and exciting. Commentators on contemporary race relations may gain a better understanding of how ideologies of white supremacy depend on false narratives of the past. If you are interested in Confederate monuments and flags The False Cause explains how they are tied to white supremacy. I like to think the book has something for everyone. I think every professor of American historian needs to be able to discuss many of the aforementioned issues with their students. This book provides the tools needed to talk about why lies, white supremacy, and rewriting the past are so relevant today. 

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

AD: When I got to college, I was a math major. That lasted one semester. I’d always been interested in history but had not considered it as a career. Some early classes, which I thought at the time would be electives, made me realize I loved research. You can blame Aaron SachsBob MorrisseyJohn Demos, and David Blight for me ending up a historian. I highlight those four because early on they took the time to teach me about doing my own research and showed me I could enjoy writing. They also made me realize how important the past was to the present. We don’t always realize how important a good teacher is in shaping where we go in life. Still, even as I graduated college, I was convinced I was going to be a Park Ranger and would never return to school. Only after a stint in politics did I return to graduate school and start to consider myself “a historian.” 

JF: What is your next project?

AD: I have a variety of projects. I will return to the book based on my dissertation eventually. That examines how divided communities were fractured during the Civil War, and their legacies long after Appomattox. It has arguments about both the Civil War and the postwar period. But first I am finishing a bunch of smaller projects. I have two coauthored projects; one on a rabbi who was also a conman and one on how public historians can better incorporate the experience of prisoners of war into the interpretive framework at historic sites. I have a smaller article project about the College of Charleston’s ties to slavery in the works that I am researching currently. Finally, I have been working with a graduate student of mine to create a geographic database of over 5,000 Confederate pay rolls that detail the impressment of enslaved people during the Civil War. We hope to have that available for scholars to use by year’s end. I like to keep myself busy.

JF: Thanks, Adam!

 

Is America More Polarized Then Ever?

Civil War dead

Annie’s recent Out of the Zoo column raised this question.  Check it out here.

I think Annie must have inspired University of Virginia Civil War historian Gary Gallagher. 🙂

Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

It has become common to say that the United States in 2020 is more divided politically and culturally than at any other point in our national past.

As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.

Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox in April 1865, the nation literally broke apart.

More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage.

After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.

To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history.

Read the rest here.