David Blight talks with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes about Frederick Douglass

Blight

Listen or read here.

A taste:

DAVID BLIGHT:

Multiculturalism, we use it so loosely that we don’t even know what it means anymore. Well, Douglass knew what it meant. It meant the dream put into reality that people of every kind of creed, every kind of race background, ethnicity difference, even though they’re going to fight it out, they’re going to fight like hell over the sources, and meaning, and religion, and interpretation. They’re going to fight like hell, but it’s possible to create a democracy in which all of them can actually live. 

Also this:

CHRIS HAYES:

Let’s talk about your way into this man who, he’s one of these figures where… I think this is sort of the case a little bit with Hamilton and Chernow’s biography and then the musical, which is that, sure, it’s not like Alexander Hamilton is not famous. He’s famous. We know Hamilton’s a founding father, but the depth of complexity of the guy’s life, it’s like you read it. And you’re like, “Whoa, wow.” And Frederick Douglass is in a somewhat similar category in so far as like, yes, we know Fredrick Douglass. When we see his picture, we recognize him. But the sheer volume of his thought, his writing, his speaking, his political influence, his life experience. I had no idea the life this man lived.

DAVID BLIGHT:

Well, to go right back to your central point in your introduction. He did have a vision of a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious America in a more robust way than almost anybody of his own time. Long before an idea like multiculturalism was any form of consensus in this country. He was the prose poet, if you like, of American democracy in the 19th century. He was a creature of words. We can come back to that if you want of just how a former slave, a kid who grows up a slave spends 20 years as a slave, become such a genius with language. But he managed to find in language, written prose, autobiographical prose, political editorials, thousands of speeches, even one work of fiction. He found ways to penetrate and explain, describe and explain the experience of slavery as both physical and mental. The experiences of racism, they didn’t use that term in the 19th century. They called it racial prejudice, et cetera. And, and he found ways to explain what was happening to the American nation, the country itself, because of this issue of slavery and its aftermath, like nobody else.

Whether he belongs on a Mount Rushmore. I don’t know, on that issue, it’s worth talking about as we go through these monument wars, whether we’ve almost been too obsessed with people on monuments, and maybe we need to think more and more about memorialization, about ideas and concepts and events and processes, and so on. This obsession with heroes sometimes just gets us in trouble because everybody’s got flaws. That’s why George Washington is now in trouble, right, on the monuments.

Read more here.

David Barton’s says 19th century Christians who used the Bible to defend slavery were “the exception, not the rule”

Watch:

There are a lot of historical problems with this video, but the one of the most overt problems is Barton’s claim that most 19th-century Americans were abolitionists. Apparently Barton believes that those who used the Bible to defend slavery were the “exception to the rule.” The only way such a statement is true is if you believe that the South was not part of the United States during the era of slavery. I am sure Barton knows that the Southern Baptist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in America today, was born out of a reading of the Bible that justified slavery. Exception to the rule?

Barton also confuses slavery and racism. (The conversation takes place in the context of a condemnation of the Black Lives Matter movement). He claims that 75% of New England clergy signed a petition condemning slavery. I don’t know if this is true, but I don’t think it would surprise any historian that 75% of New England clergy would sign such a petition. This region was the center of anti-slavery activism in the 1850s.

But even in New England, segregation and racism was present, if not dominant. Systemic racism was deeply embedded in the region’s culture. I would encourage Barton to read Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England ,1780-1860. Here is a description of the book:

Melish explores the origins of racial thinking and practices to show how ill-prepared the region was to accept a population of free people of color in its midst. Because emancipation was gradual, whites transferred prejudices shaped by slavery to their relations with free people of color, and their attitudes were buttressed by abolitionist rhetoric which seemed to promise riddance of slaves as much as slavery. She tells how whites came to blame the impoverished condition of people of color on their innate inferiority, how racialization became an important component of New England ante-bellum nationalism, and how former slaves actively participated in this discourse by emphasizing their African identity.

As some of you know, I have been reading David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. Blight notes how Douglass faced overt racism in New England following his escape from slavery. Here is just one small passage from Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom:

The distances between the young abolitionist’s private and public lives were thrown into stark contrast, which would only grow with time. Twice in September [of 1841] Douglass was insulted, accosted, or thrown off the Eastern Railroad, the second instance occurring at the Lynn depot. On September 8, Collins and Douglass had purchased train tickets in Newburyport to travel north to Dover, New Hampshire, to speak at the Strafford County Anti-Slavery Society. The two were sitting in one double seat as the gruff conductor ordered Douglass to immediately move forward to the Jim Crow car. For Douglass such constant practices of segregation were always about dignity, as much as the “mean, dirty, and uncomfortable” space of Jim Crow cars. Collins vehemently objected on behalf of his black companion….With the conductor’s “little fist flourished about my head,” Collins reported, he too was ordered to leave the car. “If you haul him out, it will be over my person, as I do not intend to leave this seat,” proclaimed Collins. The conductor brought in several of the railroad’s hired thugs to do the deed. With Collins loudly protesting this was “no less than lynch law,” five men dragged the strong Douglass over Collins’s unmoved body, “like so many bloodhounds,” and “thrust him into the ‘negro car.'” In the fracas, Douglass’s clothes were torn and Collins described himself as “considerably injured in the affray.” Not missing an opportunity to make a Garrisonian doctrinal point, Collins told of a second conductor who went into the Negro car to console Douglass with the intelligence the railroad’s policy was not so bad after all, since so many churches “have their ‘negro pews.'”

Please don’t get your American history from David Barton.

David Blight: An “educated and civil society” is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama”

Blight 2

Yale historian David Blight talks about the differences between history and the past on the “Live the Best Version of You” podcast. It is a nice introduction to how historians work and how the work historians do must contribute to our democratic life.

Listen:

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A few great lines:

  • Historians always work with their “umbilical cord” connected to the archives, but all research must be “rendered into a narrative.”
  • Good historical story-telling is always going to “convince” some people and “offend” others. This, Blight says, is the “beauty” and “fun” of history writing, but it is also contributes to the “perils” of history writing.
  • “It is the obligation of the trained historian to get close to truth as we can.”
  • In this world of subjectivity and opinion, “every now and then people seem to want a historian” to tell us “what really happened.”
  • “Some of the best history is written by people who have a good hunch.”
  • “History is what historians do,” but “memory is what the public possesses.” Everybody “has a sense of the past in their head” and it usually comes from family and roots.
  • “Stories take hold in the public mind that may or may not be directly connected to the history historians write, and hence memory can be therefore much more sacred than it is secular because people tend to say ‘I believe in this story.'”
  • “We have to find ways to reduce” the distance “between public memory and history….This is the historian’s duty.”
  • Blight calls for a “tolerant, educated, civil society” that is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama and human experience.”
  • Blight quotes William James: “The enemy of any one of my truths, is the rest of my truths.” We are obligated to challenge our own beliefs.

Listen to the entire interview here.

 

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

Whitefield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yale acquires new Frederick Douglass documents

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According to this piece at NPR, Yale University has acquired the seldom seen Frederick Douglass papers used by David Blight in his book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Here is a taste:

For years, researchers interested in the life of Frederick Douglass have traveled to a retired surgeon’s dining room table in Savannah, Ga., to pore over his private collection of newspaper clippings, manuscripts and letters. Dr. Walter O. Evans’ collection is the largest known on the abolitionist and politician who was formerly enslaved. It’s one that Evans has been working on for decades.

“It consists of a great deal of personal material from the Douglass family — letters that he wrote to his sons and to various other people,” Evans tells NPR.

Earlier this month, the Beinecke Library at Yale University announced it had acquired the collection — which includes Douglass’ 1852 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech with his own handwritten annotations.

Read the rest here.

David Blight gives Joe Biden some advice about monuments

Juneteenth_Memorial_Monument_-_George_Washington_Carver_Museum_-_Austin_Texas

David Blight has been a voice of reason on this whole monument debate. In a piecepublished yesterday at The New York Times, he offers Joe Biden some historical advice. He suggests that Biden should establish a task force devoted to “our roiling national confrontations over monuments, memorialization, and the learning and uses of history.” A taste:

The Biden campaign might take its cues from the Congressional Black Caucus. In recent weeks under the leadership of Representatives Karen Bass, Sheila Jackson Lee and Barbara Lee, among others, the caucus has proposed a commission on reparations for slavery and segregation, a separate commission on the “legacies of slavery,” a quest to remove all 13 Confederate monuments from the Capitol, and a robust bill on criminal justice reform and policing that includes an appeal for a federal anti-lynching act, an idea now 99 years old.

Mr. Biden and his campaign should support this effort, not by endorsing one specific measure after another, but by creating a serious task force or commission that would first comparatively study the issues of “repair,” monuments and memorialization, and promoting a richly pluralistic version of American history to the largest possible public. A wide array of cultural institutions have been doing so for many years.

Mr. Biden could name someone like Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian and the founding director of the National African-American Museum of History and Culture, to lead such a task force. Representative Bass would make a great co-chair, as would Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico. If Mr. Bunch considers the role a conflict at this point given his position, perhaps former President Barack Obama could take the initial role as chair. He possesses a demonstrated sense of history and would lend tremendous prestige.

Appoint to the commission museum professionals, historians, curators, art historians, writers, practicing artists, some members of Congress and perhaps some citizens who have long demonstrated informed interest in advancing a proud but diverse and contradictory American story for the ages. The chaotic process of the monument wars needs national leadership, not to tell local leaders and groups what to do, but to provide research, informed guidelines, best practices, new and imaginative ideas — a history — to the challenge of making a “new” national memorial landscape.

The task force should not merely provide lists of new “heroes,” nor any “gardens” of monuments. Perhaps we need to think of memorializing ideas, concepts, epic historical movements and events. Men on horseback had their day aesthetically. Let’s have the courage to imagine government as a source of creative engagement with our most difficult pasts, our most harrowing tragedies, our renewals and our enduring values. Let’s not look for purity in past or present, but let imaginations soar. Assemble people who have already been doing this for much of their lifetimes, however messy, conflicted or strained the task.

Read the entire piece here.

If a spiritual revival leads to more Christian Trumpism, is it really a spiritual revival? Or is it something else?

frederickdouglass01

There are many white evangelicals who believe that a spiritual revival will solve the problem of racism in the United States. When God transforms a human heart, the argument goes, the inclination to perform racist acts will subside. So we should pray for revival to “heal our land.”

As an evangelical Christian, I believe that God moves in the lives of his human creation and can change their hearts. But racism runs deep in American culture. It is systemic and structural.

The failure of white Americans to consistently and immediately apply Western ideals of liberty and freedom to African Americans is why we have systemic racism in this country. By the time the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments came around it was too late. White supremacy was baked in the American cake. (It was actually baked in the cake of Western Civilization well before 1776 because westerners failed to apply the universal values of the Enlightenment to the cause of racial difference). Neither did the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s end racism in America.

These reform efforts were important steps toward a new birth of freedom, but none of them were able to pull racism out by the roots. The roots were too deep.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this about court evangelical Robert Jeffress:

Jeffress thinks that racism will “evaporate overnight” if people just turned to God. Again, he fails to see that the sin of racism is structural–it is deeply embedded in our all of our institutions.  I recall the argument of  James Davison’s Hunter‘s book To Change the World”: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. In that book, Hunter argues that individual transformation is not the best way to change the world. True change does not happen through some kind of Protestant populism, but rather by the “work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life.” Such change takes generations and it can only “be described in retrospect.” Individual spiritual transformation can bring about good ends, but it does not change the “moral fabric” or “DNA of a civilization.” I think Hunter’s words are an important reminder that the eradication of systemic racism is going to take a long time and a lot of work.

Other evangelicals are also calling for religious revival as a means of healing the nation of its racial divisions (and other divisions).

Here, for example, are court evangelicals Greg Laurie and Jack Graham:

If there is a spiritual revival, and it actually does do something to curb systemic racism in America, this would be a relatively new development in our history. I was reminded of this as I read David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a slave at a time when a great religious revival moved through America. Some historians call this revival the “Second Great Awakening.” This spiritual awakening made considerable headway among the Methodists of the Delmarva peninsula. (See William Williams’s The Garden of American Methodism and John Wigger’s Taking Heaven by Storm).

Here is Blight on Douglass’s view of his owner Thomas Auld:

In August 1833, Frederick attained a special insight into Auld’s character when his master Blightallowed him to attend a religious revival at Bay Side, some eight miles from St. Michaels. This classic country Methodist camp meeting left indelible images in Douglass’s fertile memory. People came from all over Talbot County; two steamboat loads of pilgrims also arrived from Baltimore. The gathering lasted a week, and slaves relieved of work for a few days could hardly resist the excitement of hundreds of campfires roasting meat, a veritable tent city with a preacher’s stand in the middle and a “pen” marked off for “mourners” to enter and make their confessions, embrace the Lord, and be saved. A recent convert himself to Christian faith, although now struggling to understand whether God intended any justice on earth, Frederick witnessed the spectacle of master Thomas’s wrenching emotional breakdown and confession in that pen. Blacks were not allowed in the pen, nor in front of the preacher’s performances, but Douglass tells us that he imposed his way close enough to hear Auld “groan,” and to see his reddened face, his disheveled hair, and a “stray tear halting on his cheek.” Here festered the dark heart of the moral bankruptcy of slaveholders that the future abolitionist would make his central subject.

Douglass converted this memory into angry condemnations of the religious hypocrisy of the entire Christian slaveholding universe, especially the little microcosm of Auld’s household, where the young slave now had to listen daily to loud praying and testifying by the white family, and to participate in hospitality extended to local preachers who were sometimes housed at Auld’s home, all the while enduring the good Methodist’s verbal and physical cruelty. For Douglass, the proof of any sincerity in Auld’s “tear-drop” manifested in his actions. In his deeds and his glances, wrote Douglass, it was as if the pathetic master had concluded, “I will teach you, young man, that, though I have parted with my sins  , I have not parted with my sense. I shall hold slaves, and go to heaven too.” Such a vow, imagined by Douglass from the memory of his owner’s cowardly eyes, might serve as an unspoken motto of the Christian capitalists who ruled the antebellum South.

In his 1855 memoir, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass says this about Thomas Auld:

It was not merely the agency of Master Thomas, in breaking up and destroying my Sabbath school, that shook my confidence in the power of southern religion to make men wiser or better; but I saw him all the cruelty and meanness, after his conversion, which he had exhibited before he made a profession or religion. His cruelty and meanness were especially displayed in his treatment of my unfortunate cousin, Henny, whose lameness made her a burden to him. I have no extraordinary person hard usage toward myself to complain of, against him, but I have seen him tie up the lame and maimed woman, and whip her in a manner most brutal, and shocking; and then, with blood-chilling blasphemy, he would quote the passage of scripture, “That servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

Douglass thought the Methodist revival taking place on Maryland’s Eastern Shore during the 1830s was morally bankrupt because it gave white people a spiritual justification to continue their cruelty.

If a spiritual revival leads to more Christian Trumpism is it really a spiritual revival? Or is it something else?

What did Frederick Douglass say at the 1876 unveiling of the Freedman’s Memorial?

Freedmen's Memorial

Learn more about this Washington D.C. monument here.

I would also encourage you to read David Blight’s Washington Post piece on why it should stay. If you want to dig even deeper, read the opening chapter of Blight’s book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Douglass delivered this speech on April 14, 1876. President U.S. Grant was in attendance. A large parade of African Americans proceeded the speech.

Here is a taste:

For the first time in the history of our people, and in the history of the whole American people, we join in this high worship, and march conspicuously in the line of this time–honored custom. First things are always interesting, and this is one of our first things. It is the first time that, in this form and manner, we have sought to do honor to an American great man, however deserving and illustrious. I commend the fact to notice; let it be told in every part of the Republic; let men of all parties and opinions hear it; let those who despise us, not less than those who respect us, know that now and here, in the spirit of liberty, loyalty, and gratitude, let it be known everywhere, and by everybody who takes an interest in human progress and in the amelioration of the condition of mankind, that, in the presence and with the approval of the members of the American House of Representatives, reflecting the general sentiment of the country; that in the presence of that august body, the American Senate, representing the highest intelligence and the calmest judgment of the country; in the presence of the Supreme Court and Chief–Justice of the United States, to whose decisions we all patriotically bow; in the presence and under the steady eye of the honored and trusted Cabinet, we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood–bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of after–coming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.

Fellow–citizens, in what we have said and done today, and in what we may say and do hereafter, we disclaim everything like arrogance and assumption. We claim for ourselves no superior devotion to the character, history, and memory of the illustrious name whose monument we have here dedicated today. We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow–citizens, a pre–eminence in this worship at once full and supreme.

First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step–children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor. Instead of supplanting you at his altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their forms be symmetrical, beautiful, and perfect, let their bases be upon solid rocks, and their summits lean against the unchanging blue, overhanging sky, and let them endure forever! But while in the abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose…

When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer is ready, full, and complete. Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave–holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave–trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave–trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave–holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.

Read the entire speech here.

*Harper’s Magazine* publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”

Harpers

 

This letter will appear in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Signers include Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Gary Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Bond Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

Here is a taste:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the entire letter here.

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

trump-with-evangelical-leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Gary Bauer’s Facebook post:

Kudos to my good friend Vice President Mike Pence!

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

all lives matter cartoon

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time.

Historian David Blight Offers Some Context for Troubled Times

frederickdouglass01

Here is Blight at The Atlantic:

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

David Blight: “And the many need government”

FDR 2

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

Former Democratic Presidential Candidate Michael Bennet Reads Books

Michael Bennet during the New Hampshire Primary

I really enjoyed this New York Review of Books interview with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet. Susannah Jacob writes about Bennet: “Before he ran, he read history and journalism for “six or eight months” to moor himself by gaining a long view on the present threats to American democracy.  The authors he read included Frederick Douglass, Emma Lazarus, Jill Lepore, Nancy Isenberg, George Packer, Matthew Desmond Plutarch, Montesquieu, and David Blight.

Here is a taste of the interview:

You write about expanding the notion of our founders and adding people in our history and in contemporary life who expanded America’s progress—Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, José Martí, others. I would love for you to continue to explain and elaborate, but also clarify precisely what that means.

I think that the job of Americans since the founding—which we’ve never done perfectly, ever, including at the founding itself, obviously—has been to make this country more democratic, more fair, and more free. Small-d democratic, more fair, and more free. And to fight to force America to keep the promises that America made on the page, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it the night before he was killed in Memphis.

I still think that’s our job as American citizens. I believe every single one of us has the responsibility to be a founder. In our time what that means to me is, among other things, making sure that every single person that’s eligible to vote actually casts a vote in this country, and making sure that every kid in America who’s born poor has the chance to get out of that poverty, get a quality education, so they, too, can participate in the democracy.

How should we reckon with the original founders’ mistakes and, at the same time, take direction from them? How do you approach that?

I do that every single time I have a middle school class or a high school class come visit me. We talk about how the building they’re sitting in was built by enslaved human beings. Not this building, but the Capitol across the street.

And that leads to a discussion about Frederick Douglass, about the Civil War, about what was at stake, because I tell them the founders did two astonishing things in their generation: they led an armed insurrection against the colonial power that succeeded—we call that the Revolution—and they wrote a Constitution that was ratified by the people that would live under it.

They [also] did something horrific and reprehensible, which is that they perpetrated human slavery. It took other Americans to correct that terrible wrong, just as it took generations of Americans to fight so that women in this country would have the right to vote, so that my daughters could have the right to vote. I think of those people as founders, too, as consequential and as substantial as the people who wrote the Constitution.

How do the middle schoolers respond?

I hope what they take away from it is a sense that this wasn’t all just here. Two hundred and thirty years ago, none of this stuff was here, and there’s no reason to expect that it will still be here two hundred and thirty years [from now], unless we do our job.

How did your reading come up in conversations with people you met while campaigning?

George Packer’s Unwinding(2013), which is on that table somewhere, and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016) both speak exactly to the underlying contemporary issues that we’re facing in our economy, an economy that for fifty years has not worked well for most Americans. When I’m on the campaign trail I hear people say, “We’re working really hard [and] can’t afford housing,” [or] healthcare, some combination of housing, healthcare, education, early childhood education. I think about the families in my school district who say, “We are killing ourselves, no matter what we do, we can’t get our kids out of poverty.”

Desmond does a very, very good job of close-quarter reporting back to America on the effects of federal housing policy, how it has made working peoples’ lives more difficult in many cases, not easier. And I think in Packer’s reporting, what you see is the strains on a democracy when you’ve got an economy that works well for the people at the very top but not for everybody else.

What about the history? Were there times when you were learning from exposure to people on the campaign trail, where you saw the parallels between observations made in the history to people you were meeting or what they were describing?

There’s really nothing new under the sun. I think we have a tendency to over-assess the novelty of new conditions that arise, and we also have an under-appreciation for the effect we can have as individuals on history. Including elected officials, but I wouldn’t say just elected officials.

Read the entire interview here.

More Historians Weigh-In on the Trump Acquittal

Trump USA Today

Politico has gathered historians Michael Kimmage, Claire Potter, Mary Frances Berry, David Blight, Allan Lichtman, Brooks Simpson, and Jeremi Suri.

Here is Blight:

The impeachment and acquittal of Trump in 2020 left the country’s political culture in spiraling decline. For the portion of the country’s politically engaged population that was not securely within the Fox News universe, the Trump acquittal demonstrated the sheer cravenness of the Republican Party. Republicans continued to be seen in the 2020s as the party of white people, of a white nationalist, of a xenophobic vision of America that flew in the face of reality: an increasingly multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious nation. The Democratic Party also frayed into divisions between left and right. Democrats managed to defeat Trump in 2020, decisively in the popular vote but only narrowly in the Electoral College—vulnerable to charges even then that it was an archaic institution.

After his defeat in 2020, Trump cut a lucrative deal with Fox News and appeared on the channel three nights per week in prime time, stoking a racist, nationalist vision of the country, while the country divided and fragmented into increasingly identity-based groups.

The United States also continued to decline as a world power, losing influence in international organizations and in global economics. American institutions and corporations went into decline, and the country lost its place in the world as a model republic. Trumpism had become the watchword for American decline.

By the end of the 2020s, more voters than ever identified as independent. Attempts to establish third parties surged. In 2027, a movement for a new constitutional convention succeeded. The resulting constitutional amendments to eliminate the Electoral College and to reorganize the U.S. Senate into a more democratic institution just barely failed to pass in three quarters of state legislatures for approval.

Read the entire piece here.

David Blight: The GOP is No Longer the Party of Lincoln

Lincoln GOP

David Blight teaches history at Yale University and is the prize-winning biographer of Frederick Douglass.  In a recent op-ed at The New York Times he argues that today’s Republican Party would be unrecognizable to Abraham Lincoln, the party’s first president.  Here is a taste of his scathing piece:

In 2012, I took part in the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, an annual trip to Alabama led by Representative John Lewis. On a Sunday afternoon I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma next to Kevin McCarthy, now the Republican House minority leader, his wife and children at his side.

At the time, Representative McCarthy seemed to embrace the nature and purpose of this excursion to the sites of some of the transformative events of the civil rights struggle. I saw him smiling, even singing along with the ever-present freedom songs that animated that amazing experience.

Today, that memory makes me wonder: What does Mr. McCarthy — or any Republican, for that matter — tell his children about his place in a party that continues to sink deeper into the grips of Donald Trump and his personal brand of racial divisiveness?

Last week a reporter asked Mr. McCarthy if the president was a racist, following his derogatory comments about four Democratic congresswomen. Mr. McCarthy not only vehemently denied the charge, he also insisted that the furor over the president’s remarks was not a problem for Republicans, because it was the “Party of Lincoln.”

Read the rest here.

What Do Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, David Blight, and 25 Cent Wings Have in Common?

BlightThis:

Former President Barack Obama was meeting with Steven Spielberg on Monday night, sources exclusively told Page Six, months after Obama’s production company with wife, Michelle, unveiled a slate of films with Netflix.

Obama and the Oscar-winner were at upscale seafood eatery Marea, spies said.

“Spielberg walked through the front and no one noticed,” said the source, while Obama arrived through a side entrance.

“They were with a group — with lots of Secret Service,” said the source. “But it was still pretty low-key with no disruptions to other diners.”

The Obamas have seven planned Netflix projects via their Higher Ground Productions, including an adaptation of David W. Blight’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” as well as a series called “Bloom,” set in the fashion world of New York after WWII.

In 2015, it was reported that Spielberg — whom Obama awarded a Medal of Freedom the same year — was helping the ex-pol create a “narrative” for post-presidential life….

On Monday, the director’s wife, Kate Capshaw, was spotted having 25-cent wings with Bruce Springsteen and wife, Patti Scialfa, at Henry at Life Hotel.

Read the whole story at Page Six

 

Dinesh D’Souza Thinks He Knows Something About How African-American History is Taught

David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., will drop a bombshell tomorrow (Thursday) when Standpoint magazine will publish an article, based on memos that discuss FBI tapes, that paints the Civil Rights icon in a very unflattering light.  Here is what Garrow claims:

  • FBI documents from the 1960s allege Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs with 40 women and stood by as a friend raped a woman, a new report said.
  • An article by the King biographer David Garrow set to be released on Thursday in Standpoint magazine will detail the FBI memos, London’s The Times reported.
  • Garrow said the memos say King engaged in orgies, solicited prostitutes, and “looked on and laughed” as a pastor he knew raped a woman.
  • The memos were part of a huge US National Archives data dump in early 2019.
  • The FBI secretly recorded King in a years long effort to discredit him. The tapes themselves remain under seal in the US National Archives. And Garrow’s article was rejected by more prominent news outlets. So the story carries many unanswered questions about the accuracy of the FBI material.
  • The King Center, which chronicles King’s life, has not yet commented on the allegations.

Learn more here.  Let’s see how this unfolds tomorrow as Civil Rights historians respond to Garrow’s article.

In the meantime, Laura Ingraham and the Fox News crowd are all over this story.  I am guessing they could not find a legitimate historian of King or the Civil Rights movement to comment on Garrow’s article so, as Fox News is prone to do, they turned to conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. Watch:

D’Souza seems to be basking in all of this.  By the way, who are all of these progressive historians who “hate” and “do not want to teach” Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, and Harriett Tubman?  I don’t consider myself a “progressive historian,” but I certainly consider myself a critic of D’Souza. I have been teaching Douglass every semester for two decades.  David Blight of Yale just won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Douglass.  Douglass’s Narrative remains a fixture on history syllabi across the country.  I am sure scholars of Wells and Tubman can weigh-in as well.

And D’Souza continues to think the Republican Party has not changed on issues related to the plight of African Americans and race since the Civil War. I wrote about this here, but I will defer to Princeton’s Kevin Kruse.

David Blight on Reinhold Niebuhr, Theology, and a Bunch of Other Things

Blight 2

Over at Zocalo Public Square, Gregory Rodriguez talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Blight about history, memory, Reinhold Niebuhr and history as theology.  Here is a taste:

You quote Reinhold Niebuhr early on [in Race and Reunion], “The processes of historical justice are not exact enough to warrant the simple confidence of the moral character of history.” What do you understand that to mean?

Well Niebuhr was trying to tell us to have humility. He comes from that deep Protestant tradition of humility. He’s trying to tell us to be careful about our certitudes, but he’s also arguing, never lose sight of the essential tragic character of history. We’re all part of it. We’re all capable of good and evil, and especially evil.

Niebuhr, the theologian philosopher, helps one understand that history is, one, never over—that history’s a very messy, complicated thing, and at its core is our human potential for tragedy. That if we ever lose sight of that—especially I think Niebuhr was arguing this as an American, to Americans. Because by and large—here’s one of your deep American myths—we don’t like the word even. We tend to use it in superficial ways. We tend not to want to view our own past as essentially tragic. I mean, we’re willing to view Russian history, if we know it, as tragic. We’re willing to view modern German history as tragic. What about our past?

Americans are always demanding—this is what Niebuhr’s trying to point out—Americans are always trying to imagine our past as always somehow progress. We are the people of progress. California is about renewal, it’s about always starting over, it’s about progress, and it has been of course. Our task as historians, our task as teachers, is to help people understand that history is always a combination of these things.

Of course there’s progress, but as soon as you think you’ve won something, as soon as you think you’ve turned that great corner of history, or as Obama used to love to quote King saying, who was really quoting Theodore Parker from the 19th century, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Every time I heard Obama say that I would think to myself, “No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t. Come on, and you know that.” Of course, a president has to say that, at least a thoughtful president does. Lo and behold what happens? We get a Donald Trump elected, and people are still in shock, wondering how we could go from such progress to this.

Do you consideRace and Reunion a theological work? To the extent that you are tinkering with major American theologies, and you’ve said there are three visions of this war, this war that, in Garry Wills’ words, “revolutionized the revolution.” There was the emancipationist, there was white supremacy, and there was reconciliation, but are you sifting through the theologies to create a new one?

Not consciously, necessarily. I am deeply aware that American history has theological roots. All you’ve got to do is study the Puritans for one week. All you’ve got to do is look at the American founding. The American Revolution is layered with theological rhetoric, even in the hands of people like a Jefferson or a Madison, who were not very deeply religious. They saw themselves in teleological time. They saw themselves creating something that was partly of divine inspiration.

I’m not trying to create a new theology. I am trying to help, I hope, the reader understand that narratives of the American past are never without this—like it or not—never without this theological underlay of a nation with some kind of special destiny and design. Look at our rhetoric through time. Look at presidential rhetoric through time. Look at Reinhold Niebuhr, who comes from the more tragic Protestant tradition, or more realist tradition. Nevertheless, Americans have never been able to crawl out of this idea that we are somehow living our history in some kind of religious or theological time.

However, our greatest events probably are caught up in a kind of a theological history. We just can’t seem to help it. Look at the rhetoric of World War II.

Read the rest the entire interview here.

 

David Brion Davis, RIP

 

David Brion Davis, the Yale historian of slavery and race in America, has died. I never met him, but his books were a ubiquitous presence on my graduate-school reading lists.

Here is historian and Davis colleague David Blight‘s reflection:

David Brion Davis has passed after a long illness.  The historical profession, the GLC, and countless friends have lost a giant of a figure.  The GLC team and network of hundreds of scholars, teachers, and readers send our condolences to Toni Davis and their two sons, Adam and Noah.  David still read books on a Kindle until a few months before his death.  In his room in Guilford, CT he was especially proud of pointing to the photograph on the wall of himself and Barack and Michelle Obama, taken at the White House on the night he received the National Humanities Medal from the President.  David’s trilogy on the problem of slavery in western culture remains a monument to Professor Davis’s extraordinary and singular quest to understand the ideas surrounding slavery and its abolition across the Atlantic world over more than two centuries.  His many other works and his essays in the New York Review of Books made a mark on American and international history like few other historians anywhere in the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  David was the founding and emeritus director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.  He was an intellectual in pursuit of truth and wisdom.  In his presence one always learned something. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past.  He devoted his life and career to understanding the place of the inhumane but profoundly important and persistent practices of slavery and racism in the world.  He was a philosopher at heart, a lyrical writer, and defined why we do history.  We stand on his shoulders.  At the GLC we carry on his legacy every day.  We loved him.  His portrait hangs on the wall at the GLC amidst a large portion of his book collection, still containing his post-its, book marks and thousands of annotations.  We will always have him nearby.