19th Century Conspiracy Theories

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

I Knew It! The British are Behind the Mueller Probe!

If Christian Right radio and television host Rick Wiles is correct, this song from the Broadway musical Hamilton explains everything:

That’s right. The British let the colonies go and they are still angry about it.  They are SO angry that they are secretly working to undermine Donald Trump.  (HT: Kyle Mantyla).

By the way, the 1960s “British invasion” is also part of this.

Here’s Wiles:

Alan Jacobs Talks to *The Atlantic* About Thinking, Conspiracy Theories, and the Nashville Statement (among other things)

ThinkIn case you haven’t seen it yet, here is a taste of Alan Jacobs’s recent interview with Emma Green of The Atlantic.  The topic is Jacobs’s new book How to Think:

Green: Some people look at our fractured media environment—where groups don’t even share facts to argue over—and see nefarious forces at work, like the Russians manipulating Facebook or consistent left-wing media bias.

You argue something different: that individual behavior makes it impossible to have a conversation across ideological divides. How do you reconcile your view with these kinds of structural analyses of the vast forces that pull America apart?

Jacobs: Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.

Green: So what’s the boundary? How do you decide which ideas, people, and ideologies should be considered morally unacceptable

Jacobs: I’m probably going to regret this later on, but I’ll give you an example from the Christian world. A group of conservative evangelicals recently posted this Nashville statement about sexuality and transgenderism, as they call it. That was like a line in the sand. The idea is that now it’s time for you to decide: Are you with us, or are you against us?

Almost at the same time, I read something by a young lesbian woman who had recently been married, who was essentially saying to her friends, “If you attend churches where gay and lesbian Christians are not completely welcomed and affirmed, you’re not really an ally. So you need to decide: Are you on our side, or not on our side?”

I’m looking at that and thinking, “So, where is the space where Christians who find this complicated or difficult can talk?”

When people are drawing lines, saying, “I have settled this issue, and I want to be with other people who have settled this issue,” I think there can be really, really bad consequences. That’s saying, “I’m not interested in having that conversation anymore.” Sometimes, being a grown-up is realizing that there are issues you’d rather not talk about that you’re going to have to talk about.\

Read the entire interview here.

A High School Student is Asking About Leopold von Ranke.

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Apparently a high school student is sending e-mails to historians asking them about 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke.  The student is interested in whether or not these historians believe in “objectivity” in the writing of history.  As some of you know, von Ranke had a lot to say about the subject.

Here is what I wrote about him Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

p.49: One of the most important critics of a usable past was the nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886).  He introduced the concept of “historicism,” or the idea that historians should seek to understand the past on its own terms.  Historicism has since become a mainstay of the historical profession.  As Ranke put it, “History has had assigned to it the task of judging the past, or instructing the present for the benefit of ages to come.  To such lofty functions this work does not aspire.  Its aim is to know how things happened.”  Ranke wanted historians to study the past for its own sake, not because it has a usable function for guiding our lives in the present.  He rejected the notion that the past is useful in that it teaches moral lessons, inspires those who study it, strengthens civic bonds, or provides individuals and communities with a better sense of identity.  Rather, for him, history is a science, and historians can teach the Enlightenment ideal of objectivity in their work.  The task of the historian is a conservative one–to seek after objective truth and to narrate “what happened” in the past.  No more and no less.

Several historians have wondered whether the girl asking about von Ranke is a conservative activist of some kind. Here is a taste of Nick Roll’s piece at Inside Higher Ed:

Professors and graduate students at at least six institutions received correspondence from the same email address. Some professors and historians even think the student might be a fictitious character made up as part of a right-wing trolling scheme, or part of an effort to catch “liberal professors” in an embarrassing trap. Even if the student in question — who did not respond to multiple requests for comment at the Gmail address used to contact the professors — is just an kid doing research, in an age of “fake news” and partisan tension, historians are treading carefully.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said that his organization had become aware of the emails over the holiday weekend, and was planning a review of the situation — and what to do when members are approached by unverified students and members of the public — when staff returned Tuesday.

“This is one more reminder of the caution with which everyone should approach email and social media,” he said in an email. “When I receive a query from someone claiming to be a student but without an institutional address, I ask the name of their school and teacher. If I do not receive a satisfactory response I end the conversation.”

It was on Facebook that Greenberg noticed his peers had received similar emails. In one instance, the student had even sent graduate students at Harvard a link (which, as of Monday evening, was available here) to a survey asking for more detailed responses.

“At first one of my [Facebook] friends who is also [University of Texas, Dallas] faculty and I were wondering if this email might have originally come from someone at UTD, since we both got the email, but then when I learned of all the other schools getting it, it seemed to me that someone elsewhere must be casting a wider net,” Lora Burnett, a teaching fellow in history, said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

What’s even more curious, Burnett pointed out on her blog, where she wrote about the incident, is that the University of Texas, Dallas, doesn’t have a formal history major, instead offering “historical studies.” So why would Burnett be of interest to a prospective history major, which the student claimed to be, Burnett thought. Unless, of course, the email is “fishing/trolling by a [right-wing] outlet looking to create a fake-scandal headline: ‘Liberal Professors Don’t Believe in Objective Truth About Past’ or some such nonsense.”

Forgive me if I am not yet ready to believe that this is a conspiracy theory.  If this is indeed a high school student working on a paper, the historical profession is going to look awfully silly. (Does this really merit an AHA investigation?).  This kind of stuff is the reason academic historians have such a hard time engaging the public effectively.  I hope we don’t have to explain all of this to the hard-working teacher who encouraged his or her student to e-mail professors for help.

Of course I could be wrong.  But when it comes to high school students and history teachers I always want to err on the side of caution.

Let’s for a moment give the conspiracy theorists the benefit of the doubt and say that this e-mailer is indeed a “right-wing” troll looking for a “fake-scandal headline.”  This wouldn’t be the first time academic historians have been accused of something sinister by the political Right.  If such a scandalous headline did appear, I would post the piece at my blog and use it as yet another opportunity to educate the public about what historians do and how they work.

Not Just Bare-Knuckled Politics?

Final Presidential Debate Between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Held In Las Vegas

In the past week I have had three very smart people who I respect (two have Ph.Ds) give credence to a story circulating among some conservative politicians in Washington.  The story goes something like this:  Hillary Clinton is very sick–perhaps deadly sick. If she is elected POTUS and cannot serve, Barack Obama will try to b bring stability to the nation, possibly declare  martial law, and remain in office for a third term.

What makes smart people believe these stories and what does it say about American democracy?  Over at The Washington Post Paul Waldman wonders if “something extraordinary” is happening.  Here is a taste of his article:

I know, my conservative friends will say that this kind of talk is just fear-mongering and exaggeration. But there is something deeply troubling happening right now, and it goes beyond the ordinary trading of blows in a campaign season. Consider these recent developments:

  • There appears to be a war going on inside the FBI, and from what we can tell, a group of rogue agents, mostly in New York, may be in such a fervor to destroy Hillary Clinton that they may be aggressively leaking damaging innuendo to the press against her in the waning days of the campaign. They succeeded in their apparent goal of making FBI director James Comey a tool of their campaign — and the basis for their investigation is an anti-Clinton book written under the auspices of an organization of which the CEO of the Trump campaign is co-founder and chairman. Pro-Trump FBI agents now seem to be coordinating with Trump surrogates to do maximal possible damage to Clinton.
  • Republicans continue to cheer the fact that the electronic systems of American political groups were illegally hacked, and then private communications were selectively released in order to do damage to one side in this election. The Republican nominee has explicitly asked a hostile foreign power to hack into his opponent’s electronic systems.
  • High-ranking Republican officeholders are now suggesting that they may impeach Clinton as soon as she takes office. These are not just backbench nutbars of the Louie Gohmert variety, but people with genuine power, including Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin,Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and veteran legislators like James Sensenbrenner and Peter King. The message is being echoed by top Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani.
  • There is a growing movement among Republicans in the Senate to simply refuse to approve any nominee appointed by a Democratic president to the Supreme Court, leaving open any and all vacancies until a Republican can be elected to fill them.
  • State and local Republican officials are engaged in widespread and systematic efforts to suppress the votes of African-Americans and other groups likely to vote disproportionately Democratic; in many cases officials have been ordered by courts to stop their suppression efforts and they have simply ignored the court orders.
  • Republican elected officials increasingly feel emboldened to openlysuggest violence against Clinton should she be elected.

It is important to understand that is not normal. This is not just bare-knuckle politics. Something extraordinary is happening.

Read the entire article here.