Teaching the complexity of the past

Classroom

Providence (RI) Journal is running a short op-ed from historian Erik Chaput on the teaching of history in these difficult times in the history of our country. It’s worth a read.

A taste:

It is precisely because we are living in such a historical moment that students need to move beyond political soundbites to understand the past in all its vast complexities. It is the job of educators to help young students see all sides, to help them to understand the ironies of history and that historical research is often the best tool when difficult conversations arise. As historian Sean Wilentz rightly reminds us, in “the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth.”

We cannot use a rosy and skewed picture of the past to seek shelter from present tumults. Nor can we ignore the remarkable and heroic aspects of our history that should inspire today. It is the job of the teacher to create a space for open discussion and examination of evidence relating to all parts of the story. A good place to start this fall in the classroom would be the story of the legacy of slavery and freedom during the Revolutionary era. Teachers can bring the state’s history into the classroom by using the digitized back files of Rhode Island History, the journal produced by the Rhode Island Historical Society. In the end, “good history,” remarked the late historian John Hope Franklin, is the “foundation for a better present and future.”

Read the entire piece here.

Thinking historically about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Rushmore 3

A lot of conservatives liked Trump’s speech on Friday night. I am told that The Wall Street Journal gave it a positive review.

I commented on the speech here, but I thought I would say a few more things about Trump’s use of history. My comments are in bold.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you very much.  And Governor Noem, Secretary Bernhardt — very much appreciate it — members of Congress, distinguished guests, and a very special hello to South Dakota.  (Applause.)

As we begin this Fourth of July weekend, the First Lady and I wish each and every one of you a very, very Happy Independence Day.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Let us show our appreciation to the South Dakota Army and Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force for inspiring us with that magnificent display of American air power — (applause) –and of course, our gratitude, as always, to the legendary and very talented Blue Angels.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Let us also send our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and the doctors, nurses, and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.  They’re working hard.  (Applause.)  I want to thank them very, very much.

COMMENT: Over the weekend Trump claimed that 99% of the nation’s COVID-19 cases were “totally harmless.” This claim was even debunked on Fox News. What does this say about his real view of the “scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.”

We’re grateful as well to your state’s Congressional delegation: Senators John Thune — John, thank you very much — (applause) — Senator Mike Rounds — (applause) — thank you, Mike — and Dusty Johnson, Congressman.  Hi, Dusty.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  And all others with us tonight from Congress, thank you very much for coming.  We appreciate it.

There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.

COMMENT: Mount Rushmore is a majestic place. I would like to see it one day. It was also built on Lakota land. Earlier in my career I had a student who did a summer internship at Mount Rushmore. As someone who wanted to tell the truth about the nation’s past, she would often mention the Lakota connection during her tours. Needless to say, she took a lot of criticism from visitors who did not want to be confronted with such history. But this must be part of any conversation about this monument. It is part of what it means to live in a democratic society.

Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.  (Applause.)  I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated — (applause) — these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Anyone who teaches American history will always talk about the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They are not under threat. They will be taught based on what they did with their lives–what they said, how they behaved, and how they led. Trump will be judged the same way.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: This transcript comes from the White House. This is why the chants are included.

THE PRESIDENT:  We gather tonight to herald the most important day in the history of nations: July 4th, 1776.  At those words, every American heart should swell with pride.  Every American family should cheer with delight.  And every American patriot should be filled with joy, because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world, and it will soon be greater than ever before.  (Applause.)

Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.  No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America.  And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump is right. July 4, 1776 is important and should be commemorated. Some of the ideals that drove the Revolution were the same ideals that led to the abolition of slavery.  On the other hand, these ideals were not consistently applied to all people. Morally, July 4, 1776 has a mixed legacy. Any history teacher who does not embrace this kind of complexity is not doing her or his job. Watch:

It was all made possible by the courage of 56 patriots who gathered in Philadelphia 244 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence.  (Applause.) They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said: “…all men are created equal.”

COMMENT: Again, what does “all men are created equal” mean in 1776 and in the larger context of the American story? This is a wonderful way of exploring American history with students. This is a conversation we are having in our history classrooms and one that needs to be taking place more regularly in American life.

These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom.  Our Founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights — given [to] us by our Creator in Heaven.  And that which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away — ever.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Americans have always been good Whigs. We have always put faith in the kind of progress Trump describes here. (I am reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as one’s “ultimate concern”). But this “march of freedom” has not been “unstoppable” for all Americans.

And let’s talk about rights and God. Jefferson and many of the founders believed that our rights come from God. But they rarely connected this general statement with specific rights. This leads to questions that are more theological than historical. For example, does the right to bear arms come from God? Was Jefferson right when he said that rights–all rights–are “endowed by our Creator?” Again, let’s have this conversation–perhaps in our churches.

Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.

COMMENT: I have no idea what this means.

And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure.

COMMENT: Not really. Many of Trump’s political opponents also root their arguments in America’s founding ideals. American socialists often grounded their arguments in such ideals.

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.

COMMENT: How widespread is this “merciless campaign?” Has Trump magnified it because he needs an issue to run-on in November? It sure seems like it. Who is “wiping out our history?” Has Trump ever visited a history classroom? The idea that our children are indoctrinated should be offensive to classroom teachers who train students to think critically about their textbooks and the world.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.  Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing.  They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive.  But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The fact that Trump does not talk about the tearing-down and defacing of Confederate monuments is revealing. He never mentions them during this speech. It leaves us to wonder if Trump believes that it is time for these monuments to go. But today, without a script in front of him, we saw the real Trump. He tweeted: “Has [NASCAR driver] Bubba Wallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest rating EVER!” This seems like a defense of the Confederate flag. This tweet is much more fitting with the Trump administration’s pronouncements on race than anything he said in this speech.

According to his evangelical Christian press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump is neutral on the Confederate flag.  Watch:

And as long as we are talking about Bubba Wallace, perhaps Trump should try to understand why an African American NASCAR driver, or any African American for that matter, might be alarmed when they see a rope tied into a noose. This tweet not only illustrates Trump’s utter failure to empathize with others, but it also shows that he knows nothing about the history of the nation he was elected to lead.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: And the crowd goes wild!

THE PRESIDENT:   One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.  This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.  (Applause.)  This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.  We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.  (Applause.)

In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  It’s not going to happen to us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Is cancel culture a problem? Perhaps. But here Trump is just playing to the base for the purpose of stoking their fears.

Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.  In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.

COMMENT: Again, many of the protesters are drawing from American ideals. Some are not, but many are.

To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Not on my watch!  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  True.  That’s very true, actually.  (Laughter.)  That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  I am pleased to report that yesterday, federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C. — (applause) — and, in addition, hundreds more have been arrested.  (Applause.)

Under the executive order I signed last week — pertaining to the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act and other laws — people who damage or deface federal statues or monuments will get a minimum of 10 years in prison.  (Applause.)  And obviously, that includes our beautiful Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: What is often missing in this debate over the tearing-down of monuments is the fact that it is illegal. It is destruction of property. This was wrong during the American Revolution and it is wrong today. I understand the anger and the violence–it is an American tradition. But conversations about which monuments should stay and which ones should go need to take place with the help of historians and public officials.

Our people have a great memory.  They will never forget the destruction of statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionists, and many others.

COMMENT: I hope they won’t forget this. It is the responsibility of historians to make sure that this does not happen. It is also our responsibility to contextualize this moment in our history.

The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats, in every case, is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.

Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains.  The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.

COMMENT: “Extreme indoctrination?” “Hate their own country?” Again, he needs to get a better sense of what is happening in public school history classrooms around the country. I doubt he will get such a perspective from his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a woman who has never attended a public school and endorses policies that undermine them.

This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore.  They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.  Today, we will set history and history’s record straight.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump could have made this point with an appeal to complexity. But he doesn’t understand complexity. Historical complexity does not win him votes.

Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known.  Tonight, I will tell you and, most importantly, the youth of our nation, the true stories of these great, great men.

COMMENT: Again, complexity.

From head to toe, George Washington represented the strength, grace, and dignity of the American people.  From a small volunteer force of citizen farmers, he created the Continental Army out of nothing and rallied them to stand against the most powerful military on Earth.

COMMENT: Generally true, although I’m not sure the Continental Army wins without France.

Through eight long years, through the brutal winter at Valley Forge, through setback after setback on the field of battle, he led those patriots to ultimate triumph.  When the Army had dwindled to a few thousand men at Christmas of 1776, when defeat seemed absolutely certain, he took what remained of his forces on a daring nighttime crossing of the Delaware River.

They marched through nine miles of frigid darkness, many without boots on their feet, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  In the morning, they seized victory at Trenton.  After forcing the surrender of the most powerful empire on the planet at Yorktown, General Washington did not claim power, but simply returned to Mount Vernon as a private citizen.

COMMENT: Perhaps Trump could learn from Washington’s humility.

When called upon again, he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected our first President.  (Applause.)  When he stepped down after two terms, his former adversary King George called him “the greatest man of the age.”  He remains first in our hearts to this day.  For as long as Americans love this land, we will honor and cherish the father of our country, George Washington.  (Applause.)  He will never be removed, abolished, and most of all, he will never be forgotten.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The good folks at Mount Vernon interpret Washington in all his complexity.

Thomas Jefferson — the great Thomas Jefferson — was 33 years old when he traveled north to Pennsylvania and brilliantly authored one of the greatest treasures of human history, the Declaration of Independence.  He also drafted Virginia’s constitution, and conceived and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a model for our cherished First Amendment.

COMMENT: True.

After serving as the first Secretary of State, and then Vice President, he was elected to the Presidency.  He ordered American warriors to crush the Barbary pirates, he doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and he sent the famous explorers Lewis and Clark into the west on a daring expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

He was an architect, an inventor, a diplomat, a scholar, the founder of one of the world’s great universities, and an ardent defender of liberty.  Americans will forever admire the author of American freedom, Thomas Jefferson.  (Applause.)  And he, too, will never, ever be abandoned by us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: All true about Jefferson. He was also a slaveholder and probably raped his slave Sally Hemings.

Abraham Lincoln, the savior of our union, was a self-taught country lawyer who grew up in a log cabin on the American frontier.

The first Republican President, he rose to high office from obscurity, based on a force and clarity of his anti-slavery convictions.  Very, very strong convictions.

He signed the law that built the Transcontinental Railroad; he signed the Homestead Act, given to some incredible scholars — as simply defined, ordinary citizens free land to settle anywhere in the American West; and he led the country through the darkest hours of American history, giving every ounce of strength that he had to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from this Earth.  (Applause.)

He served as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during our bloodiest war, the struggle that saved our union and extinguished the evil of slavery.  Over 600,000 died in that war; more than 20,000 were killed or wounded in a single day at Antietam.  At Gettysburg, 157 years ago, the Union bravely withstood an assault of nearly 15,000 men and threw back Pickett’s charge.

Lincoln won the Civil War; he issued the Emancipation Proclamation; he led the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time — (applause) — and ultimately, his determination to preserve our nation and our union cost him his life.  For as long as we live, Americans will uphold and revere the immortal memory of President Abraham Lincoln.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Again, mostly accurate. Of course Lincoln was also a white supremacist, a war-mongerer, and a believer in government solutions to American problems.

Theodore Roosevelt exemplified the unbridled confidence of our national culture and identity.  He saw the towering grandeur of America’s mission in the world and he pursued it with overwhelming energy and zeal.

As a Lieutenant Colonel during the Spanish-American War, he led the famous Rough Riders to defeat the enemy at San Juan Hill.  He cleaned up corruption as Police Commissioner of New York City, then served as the Governor of New York, Vice President, and at 42 years old, became the youngest-ever President of the United States.  (Applause.)

He sent our great new naval fleet around the globe to announce America’s arrival as a world power.  He gave us many of our national parks, including the Grand Canyon; he oversaw the construction of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal; and he is the only person ever awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He was — (applause) — American freedom personified in full.  The American people will never relinquish the bold, beautiful, and untamed spirit of Theodore Roosevelt.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: True. Roosevelt was also an imperialist, nativist, and white supremacist.

No movement that seeks to dismantle these treasured American legacies can possibly have a love of America at its heart.  Can’t have it.  No person who remains quiet at the destruction of this resplendent heritage can possibly lead us to a better future.

COMMENT: Very few people want to “dismantle” the legacy of these men. But we can point out their flaws and still “love America.” There is a difference between “history” and “heritage.”

The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice.  But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society.  It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of repression, domination, and exclusion.

They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: This is rich coming from such a divisive president. Also, who is “us” here.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you!

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.

We will state the truth in full, without apology:  We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.

COMMENT: Is America exceptional? Yes. It is exceptional for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that right now it is the only country (with perhaps the exception of Brazil) that still does not have COVID-19 under control. Is it the most “just” nation “ever to exist on earth?” Maybe. But the bar is pretty low. Again, let’s have this conversation outside of the culture war framework.

We are proud of the fact — (applause) — that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and we understand — (applause) — that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world.

COMMENT: Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles? This is a contested idea. I wrote a book about it. Has the United States advanced peace and justice throughout the world? Yes and no. But these kinds of answers are not useful in a political rally.

We know that the American family is the bedrock of American life.  (Applause.)

COMMENT:  I agree. But it is hard to hear this from the guy who separated families at the border and put kids in cages.

We recognize the solemn right and moral duty of every nation to secure its borders.  (Applause.)  And we are building the wall.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Are we building the wall?

We remember that governments exist to protect the safety and happiness of their own people.  A nation must care for its own citizens first.  We must take care of America first.  It’s time.  (Applause.)

We believe in equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal treatment for citizens of every race, background, religion, and creed.  Every child, of every color — born and unborn — is made in the holy image of God.  (Applause.)

COMMENTS: This is true. But it is also code for “All Lives Matter.”All Lives Matter Cartoon 2

We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture.

We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.

We support the courageous men and women of law enforcement.  (Applause.)  We will never abolish our police or our great Second Amendment, which gives us the right to keep and bear arms.  (Applause.)

We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor our history, and respect our great American flag.  (Applause.)

We stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Actually, this last couple of statements contradict the earlier remarks about free speech, tolerance, and rights.

This is who we are.  This is what we believe.  And these are the values that will guide us as we strive to build an even better and greater future.

COMMENT: Again, who is “we”?

Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny.  In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other.  Their goal is not a better America, their goal is the end of America.

COMMENT: We have seen these references to American destiny before. When acted upon, the pursuit of American destiny has never gone well for people of color or the poor.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  In its place, they want power for themselves.  But just as patriots did in centuries past, the American people will stand in their way — and we will win, and win quickly and with great dignity.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: We will see if Trump’s people stand in the way of anything in November. I wonder what “winning” looks like here.

We will never let them rip America’s heroes from our monuments, or from our hearts.  By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.”  (Applause.)

They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years.  Our opponents would tear apart the very documents that Martin Luther King used to express his dream, and the ideas that were the foundation of the righteous movement for Civil Rights.  They would tear down the beliefs, culture, and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the Earth.

COMMENT: Trump is right. Many of the founding principles eventually contributed  to the end of slavery and did inform the Civil Rights movement, but I am not sure what Trump means by “tear apart documents.”

My fellow Americans, it is time to speak up loudly and strongly and powerfully and defend the integrity of our country.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  It is time for our politicians to summon the bravery and determination of our American ancestors.  It is time.  (Applause.)  It is time to plant our flag and protect the greatest of this nation, for citizens of every race, in every city, and every part of this glorious land.  For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes.  (Applause.)

Here tonight, before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago: that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people.  It will not happen.  (Applause).

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  We will proclaim the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and we will never surrender the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4th, 1776.

Upon this ground, we will stand firm and unwavering.  In the face of lies meant to divide us, demoralize us, and diminish us, we will show that the story of America unites us, inspires us, includes us all, and makes everyone free.

We must demand that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed “a promissory note” to every future generation.  Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals.  Those ideals are so important to us — the founding ideals.  He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Totally agree. Now let’s see Trump lead us in this direction. Until then, this is empty rhetoric. At this stage of his presidency these words have no meaning. Again, this speech must be considered in the context of the entire Trump administration. It is going to take more than a speech to win back public trust.

Above all, our children, from every community, must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth.

Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars.

COMMENT: Let’s remember (again) that “Manifest Destiny” was an attempt to drive native Americans from their land in the name of God and progress.

We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.  We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody.  (Applause.)  We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen — (applause) — Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton — General George Patton — the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali.  (Applause.)  And only America could have produced them all.  (Applause.)  No other place.

We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan.  We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream — it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet.  We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon — and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.

We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra — (applause) — the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150 — (applause) — and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.

COMMENT: I don’t see how people can praise such a speech. It is full of contradictions. First off, many of the people Trump mentions here would no doubt be outspoken critics of the Trump presidency. (Although we will never know for sure, of course). Second, these men and women all applied American ideals in different ways. After spending the entire speech articulating a very narrow view of the Revolution’s legacy, Trump makes an empty appeal to diversity here.

Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story.  You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it.  So today, under the authority vested in me as President of the United States — (applause) — I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past.  I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: My thoughts on this.

From this night and from this magnificent place, let us go forward united in our purpose and re-dedicated in our resolve.  We will raise the next generation of American patriots.  We will write the next thrilling chapter of the American adventure.  And we will teach our children to know that they live in a land of legends, that nothing can stop them, and that no one can hold them down.  (Applause.)  They will know that in America, you can do anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.  (Applause.)

Uplifted by the titans of Mount Rushmore, we will find unity that no one expected; we will make strides that no one thought possible.  This country will be everything that our citizens have hoped for, for so many years, and that our enemies fear — because we will never forget that American freedom exists for American greatness.  And that’s what we have:  American greatness.  (Applause.)

Centuries from now, our legacy will be the cities we built, the champions we forged, the good we did, and the monuments we created to inspire us all.

My fellow citizens: America’s destiny is in our sights.  America’s heroes are embedded in our hearts.  America’s future is in our hands.  And ladies and gentlemen: the best is yet to come.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  This has been a great honor for the First Lady and myself to be with you.  I love your state.  I love this country.  I’d like to wish everybody a very happy Fourth of July.  To all, God bless you, God bless your families, God bless our great military, and God bless America.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

 

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.

 

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

Out of the Zoo: The 5 C’s of Christianity

Why Study History

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the relationship between historical thinking and her understanding of the Christian faith. –JF

I was first introduced to the “five C’s of historical thinking” when I read Professor Fea’s book Why Study History? for an introductory history course last year. The five C’s—context, continuity and change, causality, contingency, and complexity—are tools historians use on a regular basis to gain a full and accurate understanding of the past. These skills continue to crop up in my history classes here at Messiah, whether I’m examining a primary source for Historical Methods or learning how to teach them in my future classrooms. Frankly, I’ve learned so much about the five C’s over the past several months that I could probably recite them in my sleep. Joking aside, over a year of working with these tools has shown me that the five C’s are not only vital for historical scholarship, but can give us a deeper understanding of the Christian faith.

The first C of historical thinking is context. I’m no religious scholar, but I do know that if you take scripture out of context, you can make it mean nearly anything you want it to mean. When someone pulls an individual verse from the Bible without considering the text around it or the historical situation from which it emerged, they can easily bend it out of shape. They impose their own views on scripture, rather than letting it take the form the author had originally intended. By considering the context of each verse, each passage, each book of the Bible, we learn to see the Word for what it really is, instead of what we want it to be. We see it as God’s overarching story, rather than a disjointed collection of anecdotes.

Continuity and change go hand-in-hand with context. Anyone who opens up the Bible can tell that the human race has changed in a lot of ways since the days of Moses or David, or even the days of the Apostle Paul. Even though as Christians we can have confidence that the message of the Gospel never changes, we cannot forget that the past is a foreign place where people do and see things differently. Yet in many ways, we are not far from our brothers and sisters who walked the earth two thousand or more years ago—we have the same sinful nature and the same fears, but many of us also have the same gift of hope in Jesus Christ.

Causality is the third of the five historical thinking skills. The scriptures remind us time and time again that our actions have consequences. Just as historians seek to discern causes, Christians have found that the never-ending cycle of sin causing death, and Jesus’s sacrifice causing redemption has defined and will define our human narrative until Christ’s second coming.

Professor Fea describes contingency as “the free will of humans to shape their own destinies.” (11) As a believer, I am convinced that the choice to follow Jesus is the most important, most influential decision someone could ever make in their life. It is certainly the one that has shaped my existence until this point, and will continue to do so for the rest of eternity.

The fifth C of historical thinking is complexity. Perhaps the coolest thing about the Christian faith is the complexity of the God we worship. I mean, how else would you describe an all-powerful being who decided to join his creation on earth by becoming a baby? How else could you possibly characterize the one who, through His own death, brought life everlasting for all of humankind? Just as historians struggle to untangle the complexities of the past, Christians must come to terms with the fact that they worship a complicated, awesome God who they will never completely understand.

24 Hours With Kansas History Educators

Kansas 3

This weekend (Sunday and Monday) I made my first visit to Wichita, Kansas.  The Kansas Council of History Education (KCHE) invited me to deliver the keynote address at their annual meeting.  It was held this year on the campus of Newman University.

My address was titled “History for a Democracy.”  I began the talk with three introductory premises:

  1. The current state of American democracy has once again proven that the nation’s founding fathers were right when they connected the strength of the American Republic with an education citizenry
  2. All K-12 teachers are public historians
  3. Our democracy needs public historians

I then spent some time discussing the debate over whether history educators should be teaching “knowledge” or “skills.” This is a debate that culture warriors, radio talk show hosts, politicians, and elected officials lose sleep over, but teachers know that the pundits and bureaucrats often understand very little about what happens in their history classrooms.  Good history teachers integrate facts and skills seamlessly in the history classroom through what we call “historical thinking.”

I concluded the talk with Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrew’s famous 5 “Cs” of historical thinking: change over time, context, causation, contingency, complexity.  I explored the ways these “Cs” are present, and not present, in our public discourse. We talked about:

  • A CNN discussion between Jeffrey Lord and Van Jones on the history of race and Democratic Party.
  • The way the SAT examines reading comprehension
  • Providential history
  • Whether there is really a right and wrong “side” of history
  • The story of the “Umbrella Man” as a way to think about causation
  • The 1619 Project

Thanks to Emily Williams and Nate McAlister of the KCHE for the invitation.  It was also good to see Dave McIntire and Diana Moss, alums of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Princeton Seminar” on colonial America.  And thanks to George Washington’s Mount Vernon for sponsoring the lecture.

Here are some pics:

Kansas 1

It was great to see Nathan McAlister, 2010 National History Teacher of the Year

Kansas 2

Great to catch-up with Diana Moss, a Princeton seminar alum who teaches history in Galena, Kansas

Kansas 4

Kansas 5

Emily Williams (KCHE President) and Don Gifford of the Kansas State Department of Education

Are Conservatives Unable to Deal with the Complexity of American History?

Why Study HistoryThe responses to the 1619 Project sure make it look that way.

Complexity, of course, is one of the 5 Cs of historical thinking.

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion traces the conservative backlash to The New York Times project back to the “history wars” of the 1990s.  Here is a taste of her piece, “A Brief History of the History Wars“:

The controversial history standards, along with the defeated and revised Enola Gay exhibit, provided a fine set of talking points for Republicans seeking election in 1995. Presidential candidate Bob Dole referenced the Enola Gay exhibit controversy in a speech to the American Legion in September 1995, calling the national history standards an effort “to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.” Newt Gingrich—a history Ph.D. who has long delighted in claiming the authority of “historian,” despite having left the academy in 1978 after being denied tenure—made hay of the exhibit and the standards in his own efforts to flip the House to the Republicans. “In a postelection interview,” Wallace writes, “Gingrich said that the new Republican leadership intended to improve the country’s moral climate, especially by ‘teaching the truth about American history.’ ” Later, Gingrich told the National Governors Association: “The Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they’re sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”

By 2019, these arguments have become standard conservative fare, and liberals continue to have a hard time countering them. The New York Times Magazine’s use of the term reframe to describe its intention in reconceptualizing the sweep of American history drew particular conservative ire. I think that’s because it sounds a little like “revisionist,” a favorite trigger word for history culture warriors. In 2003, when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice used it to slam those who criticized the foundations of the war in Iraq, then-president of the American Historical Association James McPherson observed: “Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand ‘revisionist history’ to be a consciously falsified interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.”

Read the rest here.

Onion is right about conservative’s resistance to words like “reframing” and “revisionism.”  Yesterday I argued the same thing about The 1619 Project.  I have also said a few things over the years about revisionist history.  This is from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

…the responsibility of the historian is to resurrect the past.  Yet, because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in by-gone eras is limited.  This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination.  Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of “what happened” at any given time….

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…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 assume that the 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 is to blame or who caused the accident.  It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weigh 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 eyewitness 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” received 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 misunderstands the way it is used by historians.  Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history.  Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind.  This type of reconstruction of the past always takes 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 what historians call the “Dunning School.”  William Dunning was an early twentieth-century 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 movement in American history.

*Why Study History*-Inspired Bulletin Boards

Why Study History

I love it!  High school and middle school history teachers are reading Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and finding bulletin board material.

Matt, a seventh-grade history teaching in Illinois, posts this (with additional inspiration from Stanford history education guru Sam Wineburg):

Historical Thinking

Here are some pics from Tom, a high school history teacher in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area:

Grayam

Grayam 2

Of course I am not the author of the “5cs of historical thinking.”  That honor belongs to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke.  But I do write about them extensively in Why Study History?

If you are using Why Study History? in your class this year, or have some bulletin board material you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!

How is David Garrow’s MLK Article Faring Today?

King preaching

We are starting to hear from historians and others on today’s David Garrow’s Standpoint piece on Martin Luther’s King’s moral indiscretions.  I linked to the article here and blogged about it last night.

Here is some news/commentary on Garrow’s piece that we found today.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covers Garrow’s piece, has an article about Garrow, and explains to readers why it is covering this story.  In the latter piece, the AJC mentions that Garrow approached the paper with his findings and wanted to work together on an investigative report. AJC declined because it did not have access to the King tapes.  (The tapes will be released in 2027).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes several historians.  Gillian Brockell’s piece notes that Garrow has been skeptical in the past about using FBI memos on historical research.  Garrow makes the case that the MLK memos are different. Yale’s Glenda Gilmore questions the veracity of the hand-written notes in the memos.  (This is relevant because the reference to King watching a rape is hand-written). Gilmore adds that FBI files often contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.”  Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins is also “deeply suspicious” about Garrow’s sources.  He said that Garrow’s decision to publish these documents is “archivally irresponsible.”

From this article at Insider we learn that the Guardian originally accepted the piece and then retracted it at the last minute.  It was also rejected by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Intercept.

I am sure there are historians working on op-eds and blog posts as I type this.  I will monitor this as best I can.

Of course I have no idea if any of the allegations in Garrow’s piece are true.  Historians will offer interpretations.  The way they respond to this story could have career-defining implications.  I think you will see a lot of caution and hedging over the next few days and weeks.  And, I might add, this is a good thing.  Historians should be the last people to rush to judgement (one way or another) on a story like this.

Journalists will now try to track down people who know something about what is written in these FBI memos.  They will shape the so-called “first draft” of this story.

Indeed, as Connolly and Gilmore note, we need to think about bias in these FBI sources.  This is important, especially in light of what we know about J. Edgar Hoover.  I read some of the documents embedded in Garrow’s piece and I also had suspicions about the hand-written marginal comments.  The memos Garrow found were documents that were obviously part of an ongoing editing process.  I am guessing that the final, more polished, reports are with the tapes.  Once historians see them they will be able to make more definitive statements about how the FBI interpreted the tapes.

We also know that context teaches us that King was not a saint when it came to these encounters with women who were not his wife.  Any historian will take this into consideration. King historians can comment on just how far of an intellectual leap is needed to get from what we already knew about King to the allegations in the FBI memos.

And what if we learn that Garrow is right about King?  This will be a reminder that all historical figures are complex and deeply flawed people.  Stay tuned.

This is also a great opportunity for teaching students and others about how to read the Internet responsibly.  (See Sam Wineburg’s new book and our interview with him here).  Different news outlets and opinion sites are already reporting this story in different ways.

Historian: When it Comes to Monuments, “Nuance” and “Complexity” Connects Us All

San Antonio Confederate Monument

What should happen to the Confederate monument in San Antonio’s Travis Park?

Carey Latimore is a scholar of African-American history who chairs the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Over at the website of the San Antonio Express-News, Latimore explains why it may not be a good idea to pull down every Confederate monument that crosses our paths.

Here is a taste:

I can understand the reasons to remove these monuments. However, if the past decade has demonstrated anything to us, it is that we should not be too quick to view small victories as symbolic of racial progress or transcending race, especially if these victories do not force us to address race both intraracially and interracially.

Moving forward will require us to directly confront the meaning of racial progress.

For many years, I tried to separate my identities linked to both masters and slaves, but now I realize that this was an impossibility. Such a sentiment is shared by many in this great nation. Whatever the manner in which diverse communities met, erasing any of them will not move us forward. Indeed, the lives of the masters and slaves are so connected that removing either of them from our collective memories erases the other.

Nonetheless, Confederate monuments should not be allowed to remain without clarifying the connections the organizations and people represented in these monuments had to slavery and racism. Such clarification needs to be more than a footnote, and it needs to be placed where the monuments stand.

The current conversation about Confederate memorials is a sign of our collective failure not only to accurately tell the stories that we memorialize but also a failure to celebrate diverse stories. If we are truly a multicultural nation, we should aim to do a better job pulling together the nuance and complexity that connects us all.

Perhaps then we can move forward together.

Read the entire piece here.

Thanks to Paul Thompson for bringing this piece to my attention.

 

Utah Senator Mike Lee’s Failed Attempt at American History

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Hamilton

Over at Politico, Utah Senator Mike Lee, the author of a new book on the Anti-Federalists titled Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government, warns against using history to “seek out confirmation for our pre-existing beliefs.”  He then goes right ahead and uses history to seek out confirmation for his pre-existing beliefs.

His article “How the ‘Hamilton Effect’ Distorts the Founders” calls us to remember the Anti-Federalists, those men who opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution.  Lee paints a picture of the United States Constitution as a “compromise” between Federalists and Anti-Federalists” and argues that Alexander Hamilton was not in favor of “big government.”

Here is a taste:

It’s understandable why progressives would imagine Hamilton as their partisan, Big Government comrade. But this understanding of Hamilton is based on a deeply distorted image of him.

Call it the “Hamilton Effect”: Twisting history to suit one’s ends, willfully ignoring and ultimately erasing it when it stands in your way.

If we knew our history—the true and complete stories of how our nation came to be—we’d know how to fight back against the progressive agenda. And we’d be a lot less likely to accept its overreach.

Our Constitution was the result of a brilliant compromise between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists—between those who championed a divided and limited but strong central government, and those who feared that almost any central government would expand its authority at the expense of individual liberty and state autonomy. During the debates surrounding the Constitution’s drafting and ratification, the doubts, skepticism, and outright fear of what it would bring ultimately made the document stronger and more just.

We are the beneficiaries of the Great Compromise between those two factions, but too many of us don’t fully understand or appreciate that fact. And that is because history, over time, tends to remember only one side of the argument, crowding out dissenting voices and obscuring the full story of the American experiment.

Most of us, for example, are never presented with the arguments raised by the Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution’s ratification based on concerns that it would vest too much power in the federal government and thereby imperil liberty. And just as disturbing, many of the Federalists have been mischaracterized as early advocates of big government. Some have tried to portray the founders as proto-progressives, even though the founders lived a full century before there was anything even resembling a “progressive.”

Read the entire piece here.

A few thoughts:

First, I agree with Lee when he says the Anti-Federalists do not get the attention they deserve.  This is largely because they lost the ratification debate.  It was close in some states, but they eventually lost and the Constitution was ratified. On this story I highly recommend Saul Cornell’s The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828.

Second, by calling the Constitution a “compromise” between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, Lee can conveniently affirm his present-day states-rights position and not appear to be challenging, like the actual Anti-Federalists did, the very existence of the Constitution.  This makes for a shrewd political move since Lee has strong connections to the Tea Party movement, a conservative political movement that prides itself on defending the Constitution. The very fact that Lee has to do this dance means that he is using the past for political purposes and does not really care about doing history.

Third, since Lee is a Mormon who supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 election, he might be interested in knowing that there were some Anti-Federalists who opposed the United States Constitution because it did not mention God. Here is what I said about these Anti-Federalists in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

While Anti-Federalist opposition was always more political than it was religious, many Anti-Federalists rejected the Constitution because it did not make any appeals to God. Even some statesmen who were prone who were prone to give their support to the Constitution on political grounds wondered why the framers had not made the slightest mention of God in drafting the document.  The writings of these constitutional skeptics present an interesting dilemma for those today who want to argue that the Constitution was a Christian document.  In the eighteenth century it was those who opposed the Constitution who made the strongest arguments in favor of the United States being a Christian nation.

When Luther Martin reported on the events of the Constitutional Convention to the Maryland state legislature, he could not help including some editorial comment about the way that the convention handled the question of religion.  According to Martin, “there were some members so unfashionable as to thin, that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some secuirty for the good conduct of our rulers.”  For Martin, the United States was a “Christian country” and the Constitution should “hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.”

One of the more scathing critiques of the godlessness of the Constitution came from William Petrikin, an Anti-Federalist from Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Writing under the pseudonym “Aristocrotis,” Petrikin attacked the framers of the Constitution as elitists who preferred a refined religilon of “nature” over a religion of “supernatural divine origin.”  In doing do, he sounded a lot like a twenty-first century working-class evangelical complaining about the so-called secular liberal elites who had no respect for the Constitution.  The difference, of course, was the Petrikin was attacking the U.S. Constitution and the men who framed it.  Using stinging sarcasm, he argued that the framers believed that the Christian religion was the religion “of the vulgar in this country” and its “precepts are…so rigid and severe, as to render it impossible for any gentleman of fashion or good breeding to comply with them in any sense, without a manifest violation of decorum, and an abandonment of every genteel amusement and fashionable accomplishment.”  Petrikin did not stop there.  He chided the members of the Constitutional Convention for denying a belief in God, the “immortality of the soul,” the “resurrection of the body,” a “day of judgement,” and a “future state of rewards and punishments.”

Anti-Federalists especially attacked Article VI because it placed no Christian qualifications on officeholders.  “Samuel,” an Anti-Federalist from Massachusetts, worried that the lack of a religious test for office would mean that “Pagan” or a “Mahometan” might serve the country in the “most important trusts.”  “A Watchman,” writing from western Massaschusetts, feared that the Constitution opened a door for the “Jews, Turks, and Heathen to enter into the publick office, and be seated at the head of the government of the United States.”  A “Friend of the Rights of the People” also feared the possibility that “a Papist, a Mohomatan, a Deist, yea an Atheist” might be elected to the “helm of Government.”  And a New York Anti-Federalist, writing under the name Curtopolis,” was particularly harsh on Article VI because he feared it would allow the following kinds of people to serve in the national government:

“1st Quakers, who will make the black saucy and at the same time deprive of us the means of defence–2dly, Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the trinity–3dly. Deists, abominable wretches–4thly, Negroes, the seed of Cain–5thly Beggars, who when set on horseback, will ride to the devil–6thly, Jews & c. & c.  It gives the command of the whole militia to the President–should he hereafter be a Jew, our posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem.

I am not sure if Senator Lee is willing to endorse this kind of Anti-Federalism. (His connections to Ted Cruz might be relevant here).  I guess I will need to read his forthcoming book.

Fourth, I agree with Lee when he says that Alexander Hamilton could never have imagined the kind of “big government” we have today.  I would take this idea even further.  The founding fathers could not have imagined most of what happens in the United States today–that includes political partisanship, rampant individualism, corporate capitalism, etc…  This is why we need to be careful when we appeal to them in order to promote this or that agenda.

Fifth, Hamilton believed in an active, centralized government modeled after Great Britain.  His view of government was fundamentally different from the one the country was experiencing under the Articles of Confederation.  Hamilton’s belief on this front deserves more than the mere caveat that it gets in Lee’s article.

Sixth, when we use the phrase “big government” today we usually associate it with progressive reforms such as those put forth by so-called “progressive” presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.  We also think about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson.  Some of us might associate “big government” with Ted Kennedy’s late twentieth-century vision for the nation.  Of course one can also trace activist government back to the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).  These Republicans used the full power of the federal government in a failed attempt to integrate the South in the wake of the Civil War. In the end, states rights triumphed over these “big government” humanitarian efforts and the racist South managed to uphold their way of life for another hundred or so years.

I hope Lee’s book, unlike this article, acknowledges that history is complicated and does not easily fit the molds of our political preferences.

Michael Roth on What the U.S. Would Look Like Without Liberal Education

Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan College (and a historian, I might add), is the author of the brand new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.  In his recent piece at Inside Higher Ed he tries to imagine a country where liberal learning did not matter.  There is some great stuff in this piece about the way the liberal arts teach us complexity, how CEOs of major corporations are looking for employees who understand the complex nature of the world, and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of liberal arts education. 
Here is a taste:
So, what would America look like if we abandoned this grand tradition of liberal education? Without an education that cultivates an ability to learn from the past while stimulating a resistance to authority, without an education that empowers students for lifelong learning and inquiry, we would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. In an effort at manic monetization without critical thinking, we would become adept at producing conformity rather than innovation.
The free inquiry and experimentation of a pragmatic liberal education open to ambiguity and complexity help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, seize opportunities and solve problems. Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to shape a complex world.