Thoughts on Trump’s Proposed “National Garden of American Heroes”

 

Trump Rushmore

At his July 3, 2020 speech at Mount Rushmore, Donald Trump said:

More here.

And here is the text of the executive order:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1.  Purpose.  America owes its present greatness to its past sacrifices.  Because the past is always at risk of being forgotten, monuments will always be needed to honor those who came before.  Since the time of our founding, Americans have raised monuments to our greatest citizens.  In 1784, the legislature of Virginia commissioned the earliest statue of George Washington, a “monument of affection and gratitude” to a man who “unit[ed] to the endowment[s] of the Hero the virtues of the Patriot” and gave to the world “an Immortal Example of true Glory.”  I Res. H. Del. (June 24, 1784).  In our public parks and plazas, we have erected statues of great Americans who, through acts of wisdom and daring, built and preserved for us a republic of ordered liberty.

These statues are silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal.  They preserve the memory of our American story and stir in us a spirit of responsibility for the chapters yet unwritten.  These works of art call forth gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow citizens who, despite their flaws, placed their virtues, their talents, and their lives in the service of our Nation.  These monuments express our noblest ideals:  respect for our ancestors, love of freedom, and striving for a more perfect union.  They are works of beauty, created as enduring tributes.  In preserving them, we show reverence for our past, we dignify our present, and we inspire those who are to come.  To build a monument is to ratify our shared national project.

To destroy a monument is to desecrate our common inheritance.  In recent weeks, in the midst of protests across America, many monuments have been vandalized or destroyed.  Some local governments have responded by taking their monuments down.  Among others, monuments to Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant, leaders of the abolitionist movement, the first all-volunteer African-American regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War, and American soldiers killed in the First and Second World Wars have been vandalized, destroyed, or removed.

These statues are not ours alone, to be discarded at the whim of those inflamed by fashionable political passions; they belong to generations that have come before us and to generations yet unborn.  My Administration will not abide an assault on our collective national memory.  In the face of such acts of destruction, it is our responsibility as Americans to stand strong against this violence, and to peacefully transmit our great national story to future generations through newly commissioned monuments to American heroes.

Sec. 2.  Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes.  (a)  There is hereby established the Interagency Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes (Task Force).  The Task Force shall be chaired by the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary), and shall include the following additional members:

(i)    the Administrator of General Services (Administrator);

(ii)   the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA);

(iii)  the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH);

(iv)   the Chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP); and

(v)    any officers or employees of any executive department or agency (agency) designated by the President or the Secretary.

(b)  The Department of the Interior shall provide funding and administrative support as may be necessary for the performance and functions of the Task Force.  The Secretary shall designate an official of the Department of the Interior to serve as the Executive Director of the Task Force, responsible for coordinating its day-to-day activities.

(c)  The Chairpersons of the NEA and NEH and the Chairman of the ACHP shall establish cross-department initiatives within the NEA, NEH, and ACHP, respectively, to advance the purposes of the Task Force and this order and to coordinate relevant agency operations with the Task Force.

Sec. 3.  National Garden of American Heroes.  (a)  It shall be the policy of the United States to establish a statuary park named the National Garden of American Heroes (National Garden).

(b)  Within 60 days of the date of this order, the Task Force shall submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy that proposes options for the creation of the National Garden, including potential locations for the site.  In identifying options, the Task Force shall:

(i)    strive to open the National Garden expeditiously;

(ii)   evaluate the feasibility of creating the National Garden through a variety of potential avenues, including existing agency authorities and appropriations; and

(iii)  consider the availability of authority to encourage and accept the donation or loan of statues by States, localities, civic organizations, businesses, religious organizations, and individuals, for display at the National Garden.

(c)  In addition to the requirements of subsection 3(b) of this order, the proposed options for the National Garden should adhere to the criteria described in subsections (c)(i) through (c)(vi) of this section.

(i)    The National Garden should be composed of statues, including statues of John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

(ii)   The National Garden should be opened for public access prior to the 250th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2026.

(iii)  Statues should depict historically significant Americans, as that term is defined in section 7 of this order, who have contributed positively to America throughout our history.  Examples include:  the Founding Fathers, those who fought for the abolition of slavery or participated in the underground railroad, heroes of the United States Armed Forces, recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor or Presidential Medal of Freedom, scientists and inventors, entrepreneurs, civil rights leaders, missionaries and religious leaders, pioneers and explorers, police officers and firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty, labor leaders, advocates for the poor and disadvantaged, opponents of national socialism or international socialism, former Presidents of the United States and other elected officials, judges and justices, astronauts, authors, intellectuals, artists, and teachers.  None will have lived perfect lives, but all will be worth honoring, remembering, and studying.

(iv)   All statues in the National Garden should be lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict, not abstract or modernist representations.

(v)    The National Garden should be located on a site of natural beauty that enables visitors to enjoy nature, walk among the statues, and be inspired to learn about great figures of America’s history.  The site should be proximate to at least one major population center, and the site should not cause significant disruption to the local community.

(vi)   As part of its civic education mission, the National Garden should also separately maintain a collection of statues for temporary display at appropriate sites around the United States that are accessible to the general public.

Sec. 4.  Commissioning of New Statues and Works of Art.  (a)  The Task Force shall examine the appropriations authority of the agencies represented on it in light of the purpose and policy of this order.  Based on its examination of relevant authorities, the Task Force shall make recommendations for the use of these agencies’ appropriations.

(b)  To the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law and the other provisions of this order, Task Force agencies that are authorized to provide for the commissioning of statues or monuments shall, in expending funds, give priority to projects involving the commissioning of publicly accessible statues of persons meeting the criteria described in section 3(b)(iii) of this order, with particular preference for statues of the Founding Fathers, former Presidents of the United States, leading abolitionists, and individuals involved in the discovery of America.

(c)  To the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law, these agencies shall prioritize projects that will result in the installation of a statue as described in subsection (b) of this section in a community where a statue depicting a historically significant American was removed or destroyed in conjunction with the events described in section 1 of this order.

(d)  After consulting with the Task Force, the Administrator of General Services shall promptly revise and thereafter operate the General Service Administration’s (GSA’s) Art in Architecture (AIA) Policies and Procedures, GSA Acquisition Letter V-10-01, and Part 102-77 of title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, to prioritize the commission of works of art that portray historically significant Americans or events of American historical significance or illustrate the ideals upon which our Nation was founded.  Priority should be given to public-facing monuments to former Presidents of the United States and to individuals and events relating to the discovery of America, the founding of the United States, and the abolition of slavery.  Such works of art should be designed to be appreciated by the general public and by those who use and interact with Federal buildings.  Priority should be given to this policy above other policies contained in part 102-77 of title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, and revisions made pursuant to this subsection shall be made to supersede any regulatory provisions of AIA that may conflict with or otherwise impede advancing the purposes of this subsection.

(e)  When a statue or work of art commissioned pursuant to this section is meant to depict a historically significant American, the statue or work of art shall be a lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation.

Sec. 5.  Educational Programming.  The Chairperson of the NEH shall prioritize the allocation of funding to programs and projects that educate Americans about the founding documents and founding ideals of the United States, as appropriate and to the extent consistent with applicable law, including section 956 of title 20, United States Code.  The founding documents include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.  The founding ideals include equality under the law, respect for inalienable individual rights, and representative self-government.  Within 90 days of the conclusion of each Fiscal Year from 2021 through 2026, the Chairperson shall submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy that identifies funding allocated to programs and projects pursuant to this section.

Sec. 6.  Protection of National Garden and Statues Commissioned Pursuant to this Order.  The Attorney General shall apply section 3 of Executive Order 13933 of June 26, 2020 (Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence), with respect to violations of Federal law regarding the National Garden and all statues commissioned pursuant to this order.

Sec. 7.  Definition.  The term “historically significant American” means an individual who was, or became, an American citizen and was a public figure who made substantive contributions to America’s public life or otherwise had a substantive effect on America’s history.  The phrase also includes public figures such as Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra, and the Marquis de La Fayette, who lived prior to or during the American Revolution and were not American citizens, but who made substantive historical contributions to the discovery, development, or independence of the future United States.

Sec. 8.  General Provisions.  (a)  Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii)  the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b)  This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c)  This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Does Trump think he is building another Trump Tower?

I digress.

Just to reiterate, there will be statues of: John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Quick thoughts:

1. We should not get too worked-up about this order because there is a chance Trump will be voted out of office in November 2020. In other words, this national garden may never happen.

2. Let’s not get too caught-up in debating who should be “in” and who should be “out.” This is actually what Trump wants to happen. Historians should just ignore these plans. By giving too much attention to this we lend credibility to the proposal. (I know–I should be taking my own advice here!).  This is not a debate over state history and social studies standards.

3. How much will this national garden cost the American taxpayer? If Trump really cares about history he should fund its study in schools. His budgets should provide more money for already existing historic sites and teacher training.

4. Let’s say Trump wins in 2020 and this national garden becomes a reality. Would I visit it? Maybe. But I would not go there to teach my students about the lives of these so-called “heroes.” I rely on my classroom lectures and discussions, primary sources, legitimate public history sites, and good books and articles to do that. I would, however, consider taking students to this place to teach them about the Trump administration much in the same way that I take students to Confederate monuments at Gettysburg to teach them about the Lost Cause. This is what historians mean by contextualizing monuments. Like the Confederate monuments we are fighting over today, monuments often tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in history that they commemorate. Confederate monuments were erected in the early 20th century as symbols of white supremacy and Jim Crow. Some of the figures Trump wants to memorialize in his national garden seem like random choices, but others speak volumes about Trump’s America and his 2020 re-election bid.

For example, the founding fathers are revered by Trump’s white conservative base. Good history teachers visiting this garden might say something to their students about founders chic. They might note that on the very day of this executive order millions of Americans were watching a movie-version of a Broadway play about Alexander Hamilton. All of this explains why George Washington, John Adams,  Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were chosen. (I don’t know why Dolley Madison was chosen over Martha Washington and Abigail Adams). I am sure Abraham Lincoln was chosen as an honorary founding father.

The African American selections (there are no native Americans) are Martin Luther King Jr.,  Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Jackie Robinson. These are all safe choices, although a good history teacher might show this video in preparation for the class trip. There are reasons why W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, or Barack Obama were not chosen. (Future students will certainly wonder why the first Black president in American history was not selected). When viewed in the larger context of the Trump presidency, a legitimate argument could be made that these men and women were picked in an attempt to show Trump is not a racist.

Trump and his people are obsessed with military strength. We thus get Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Audie Murphy, George Patton, Ronald Reagan, and Douglas MacArthur.

And Trump needs his white evangelical base in November. He hopes a statue of Billy Graham, or at least the announcement of such a statue, might help deliver these votes.

Trump has an obsession with space and aviation. (Trump mentioned going to Mars during his Mount Rushmore speech). I would have my students read or watch his recent Cape Canaveral speech before we visited the national garden. We thus get Christa McAuliffe, Amelia Earhart, and the Wright brothers. Frankly, I am surprised he did not pick Charles Lindbergh, an early proponent of “America First.”

Was Henry Clay, the architect of the American System, chosen because of Trump’s infrastructure plans? Future history teachers will tell students that these plans never got off the ground, despite multiple “infrastructure weeks,” because Trump undermined them with tweets and other self-initiated scandals.

And, of course, any historian would have a lot to say about why Antonin Scalia made the cut instead of John Marshall, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hugo Black, or Oliver Wendell Holmes.

But in the end, I would put money on this national garden of heroes going the way of Trump’s border wall and many of his other grandiose plans.  It won’t happen.

 

Thoughts on Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Mount Rush

In case you missed it, Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota on the night of July 3, 2020.

Read the text here.

Watch the entire event here:

Thoughts:

1. Mary Hart

2. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem introduced Trump by appealing to America’s founding ideals. She said, “Let’s not destroy history.” This is in interesting exhortation from the governor of South Dakota. What is Noem doing to fund the teaching of history in South Dakota schools? In 2015, the state dumped early American history. I am not sure if things have changed since 2015, but back then I wrote this piece.

3. Noem said that her state prides itself “on the close-knit nature of our community.” She praised all the South Dakotans for showing-up and then said that the crowd included people “from across the nation.” The crowd was packed like sardines into what looked like a small space. I saw very few masks.

4. Noem and Trump did not mention anything about the tearing-down, removal, and defacing of Confederate monuments. The focus was entirely on the monuments to the “founding fathers.” Does anyone know how many non-Confederate monuments were defaced or torn down in the last month?

5. If we want to talk about American history, let’s remember that this entire event occurred on Lakota land. And yes, Trump talked about “manifest destiny” in his speech.

6. Historian Seth Cotlar tweeted this: “I can’t stress enough how angry and reactionary this speech is, on a day that celebrates the violent, statue-destroying revolution that birthed America.” Is Cotlar right? Let’s start here. You may also want to read this book.

7. Trump tried to make the case that Democrats and protesters are trying to “erase American history.” Meanwhile, millions of Americans were ignoring his speech because they were watching a movie about the American founding on Disney+.

8. At one point Trump said, “George Washington will never be removed, abolished, or forgotten.” I am sure the good folks at Mount Vernon are on it.

9. At another point of the speech, Trump threw thousands of history teachers under the bus when he said, “Our children are taught in school to hate their own country.” The only people who would believe this are Fox News viewers or people who have never set foot in a real history classroom.

10. As I watched the speech, I could not help but wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought about Trump invoking his name. The same goes for Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, not to mention Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt.

11. It sounds like white supremacist Steven Miller wrote this speech. There is a reason why he is one of the few people who have been with the administration since the beginning.

Here is Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic:

It sounds like Trump was at it again earlier this evening:

When it comes to American history, Trump is the one who has “absolutely no clue.” He doesn’t even read the teleprompter in an inspiring way.  And then he has the nerve to attack history teachers.

Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

…the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them. His approach to history also reveals his narcissism. When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American history he is about to enter.” Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.” The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office. Our best presidents thought about their four or eight  years in power with historical continuity in mind. This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it. Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity. This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst. Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

 

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.

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

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

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

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

A taste:

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

COurt Evangelicals

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since yesterday’s update?

Franklin Graham is on the stump for Trump. This is from his Facebook page :

In the last presidential election in 2016, I reminded people across the country that the election was not about Donald Trump’s previous lifestyle or Hillary Clinton’s lost emails, but it was about the courts—Who do you trust to appoint conservative judges to the courts? Donald J. Trump won the election, and in the next few days he will be making his 200th judicial appointment. That’s more than any president in the last four decades during the same time frame. Thank you Mr. President! This will be a legacy that truly will keep on giving—in the lives of our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

And Twitter:

Al Mohler is questioning science and COVID-19 experts and promoting a Trumpian populism:

Charlie Kirk is running a “Students for Trump” convention in Arizona featuring Donald Trump.

A few observations:

  • In the opening prayer of this convention, the minister thanked God that “All Lives Matter.” The prayer was filled with Christian nationalism, law and order, and Trump talking points. The crowd cheered during the prayer at the appropriate points.
  • Ryan Fournier, the founder of Students for Trump, calls the event “the most aggressive political outreach movement in political presidential campaign history.” Wow!  That’s specific.
  • Florida Matt Gaetz spoke. So did Donald Trump Jr.
  • Trump said nothing new to the 2000 students who showed-up. It was just another campaign rally.

Eric Metaxas interviews one of his “mentors in terms of thinking of race in America,” conservative talk show host Larry Elder. Elder talks about his new documentary film “Uncle Tom.” Elder makes the common claim that the Democrats opposed the 13th Amendment (ending slavery), 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law for African.Americans), and 15th Amendment (African American right to vote). This is largely true, but he fails to consider that the Democratic Party of the 1860s and 1870s is not the Democratic Party of today. See Princeton historian Kevin Kruse’s debate (if you can all it that) with conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. This entire argument ignores a fundamental element of historical thinking: change over time. Metaxas totally endorses Elder’s approach, claiming that Americans “don’t know the facts.” Elder and Metaxas are peddling some really bad history here.

Elder claims that racism “is no longer a problem” in American life. This reminds me of a family member who recently told me that I was “living in the past” by suggesting that the history of racial discrimination in America might have something to do with race in America today.

In his second hour, Metaxas and his crew argue that the division in the country is the work of Satan, “the accuser.” Metaxas has the audacity to say that Satan “takes things that are true and twists them into a lie.” Wait, I thought Metaxas supported Trump! 🙂

Metaxas wants a view of history that celebrates all that is good in America. He extols all the Bible-believing Christians who were abolitionists. Yes, this is true. There were many good Christians who fought against slavery. But the present always shapes how we think about the past. As the country is trying to come to grips with racism–both individual acts of racism and the deeper problem of systemic racism–now is the time to take a deep, hard look at how we got here. That will mean taking a hard look at the dark moments of the white evangelical past. This is not the time to get defensive and engage in whataboutism. (Hey, what about Harriet Beecher Stowe!).

Metaxas then interviews Jenna Ellis of the Liberty University Falkirk Center.  In this interview, Metaxas says that “the only reason we abolished slavery is because of the Bible.” This is not entirely true, as I argued in Believe Me.  Slaveholding southerners actually used the Bible to justify slavery and accused northern abolitionists of not being biblical enough. As multiple historians have shown, the Bible was used to fortify racial discrimination to a much greater extent than the Bible was used to end slavery or advance racial justice in America. But Metaxas doesn’t care about that. He needs a usable past. Everything else can be conveniently ignored.

Speaking of the Falkirk Center at Liberty University:

And Lance Wallnau brings the fearmongering:

Until next time.

Friday night court evangelical roundup

Trump Beleive me

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since yesterday’s update?

They are not technically “court” evangelicals, but they are definitely Trump evangelicals. The Harris family is back and they are now a Trump worship band:

Some of you may remember them from 2012:

The Harris’s are an evangelical homeschool family from Tulsa.

Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr., seems to like the Harris family. She retweeted this today:

Glad to see Jentezen Franklin acknowledging Juneteenth:

Franklin Graham too:

Tony Perkins is beating the “law and order” drum:

He is also retweeting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:

Al Mohler has not abandoned the Christian Right playbook in the wake of Gorsuch’s opinion in the recent LCBTQ Civil Rights decision:

Jim Garlow is writing about “biblical principles of economics.” I assume he means the part of the Bible written by Adam Smith:

Charlie Kirk forgot to mention the coronavirus mask designed by his friend and partner, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. But I guess that’s not technically blackface:

Kirk know something about the past, but his historical thinking skills need a lot of work:

Here we go again:

Thomas Kidd, Mark David Hall, Brooke Allen, and Steve Green will participate in a Falkirk Center forum. At least David Barton is not involved.

Robert Jeffress is back on Fox Business. Channel. Apparently Chick-fil-A is taking some heat.

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.

Jeffress also defends the phrase “all lives matter.”

Until next time.

When it comes to Supreme Court decisions, context matters. But whose context?

Context

Earlier today, I published two posts on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ rights. The first post addressed the politics of the decision and what it means for white evangelical support for Donald Trump. The second post dealt with the religious liberty issues at stake. I encourage you to look at them to get up to speed. Here and here.

In this third post, I want to think historically about both the majority and dissenting opinions.

Over at Think, Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, explains the conservative judicial philosophy Justice Neil Gorsuch employed in coming to his decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia and the other consolidated cases. Title VII of the Act forbids “discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex , or national origin.” The debate, of course, is over the meaning of the word “sex.” Gorsuch interpreted “sex” to cover LGBTQ rights.

In another piece, Levinson describes Gorsuch’s textualism. She writes,

Typically, conservative judges and lawyers adhere to the idea that in determining the meaning of words in a law, you look only at those words. You do not look at the context in which the law was passed, or congressional intent. This is called textualism.

No historian would treat a text this way. Frankly, I am not entirely convinced that Levinson offers an accurate description of how most textualists interpret a text. As we will see below, it is certainly not how Justice Samuel Alito or Justice Brett Kavanaugh understand textualism.

But historical context can also be a tricky thing. Gorsuch appears to have ignored it. He writes in his majority opinion:

Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids

Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination of the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statue give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.

A couple of quick observations about these two paragraphs:

  1. Does the meaning of a word really exist outside of its historical context? Are we to assume that all words have universal meanings across time? A historian would answer both questions with an emphatic “no.” Historians do not subscribe to the kind of textualism that Gorsuch describes here.
  2. Is Gorsuch correct when he says that the “those who adopted the Civil Rights Act” could never have imagined it being applied to the gay community? This is an honest question. I am assuming Gorsuch is correct, but I am not up to speed on the scholarship here.

In their dissenting opinions, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh also appealed to the text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but they interpreted the meaning of the word “sex” in historical context.

Here is Alito:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on any of the five specified grounds: “race, color, religion, sex [and] national origin. Neither “sexual orientation” nor “gender identity” appears on that list.

Alito argues that unless the document specifically says “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” the Civil Rights Act could not have encompassed these things. He suggests that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” do not fall under the category of “sex.”

Alito challenges Gorsuch’s textualism with the ideas of the late Antonin Scalia:

The Court attempts to pass off its decision as the inevitable product of the textualist school of statutory interpretation championed by our late colleague Justice Scalia, but no one should be fooled. The Court’s opinion  is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated–the theory that courts should “update” old statues so that they better refelct the current values of society.”

Alito argues that we need to understand the meaning of the word “sex” in the context of the 1960s. He writes:

Determined searching has not found a single dictionary from that time that defined “sex” to mean sexual orientation, gender identity, or “transgender” status. In all those dictionaries, the primary definition of “sex” was essentially the same as that in the then-most recent edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (2d ed. 1953): “[o]ne of the two divisions of organisms formed on the distinction of male and female.”

Alito continues:

Thus when textualism is properly understood, it calls for an examination of the social context in which a statue was enacted because this may have an important bearing on what its words were understood to mean at the time of enactment. Textualists do not read statues as if they were messages picked up by a powerful radio telescope from a distant and utterly unknown civilization. Statutes consist of communications between members of a particular linguistic community, one that existed in a particular place and at a particular time, and these communications must therefore be interpreted as they were understood by that community at that time.

For this reason, it is imperative to consider how Americans in 1964 would have understood Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination because of sex. To get a picture of this, we may imagine this scene. Suppose that, while Title VII was under consideration in Congress, a group of average Americans decided to read the text of the bill with aim of writing or calling their representatives in Congress and conveying their approval or disapproval. What would these ordinary citizens have taken “discrimination because of sex” to mean? Would they have thought that this language prohibited discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity?

The answer could not be clearer. In 1964, ordinary Americans reading the text of Title VII would not have dreamed that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination between sexual orientation, much less gender identity. The ordinary meaning of discrimination because of “sex” was discrimination because of a person’s biological sex, not sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Alito is writing like a historian here. He wants to understand the 1964 Civil Rights Act in context. This is historical thinking 101. But while judges use historical thinking skills, they are not historians. They are tasked with applying the past to the present.

Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent is shorter, but it also draws on historical context. Here is a taste:

As to common parlance, few in 1964 (or today) would describe a firing because of sexual orientation as a firing because of sex. As commonly understood, sexual orientation discrimination is distinct from , and not a form of, sex discrimination.

He adds:

[The majority opinion rewrites history. Seneca Falls was not Stonewall. The women’s rights movement was not (and is not) the gay rights movement, although many people obviously support or participate in both. So to think that sexual orientation discrimination is just a form of sex discrimination is…a mistake of history and sociology.

Again, any historian would have to agree, to some extent, with Kavanaugh’s logic. We try to get our students to see that Seneca Falls and Stonewall were indeed different movements in the same way that the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution were fundamentally different “revolutions.” We resist the social scientist’s tendency to clump all “revolutions” or “reform movements” together. Each movement took place in a particular time and place amid a different set of circumstances.

At the same time, we also treat Seneca and Stonewall as part of a larger story of American reform. It is appropriate, at times, to talk about common themes–such as the appeal to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence–that drive this larger and broader story.

But, again, historians are not justices. We are not primarily in the business of telling people what to do with the information we provide and the skills we teach. Kavanaugh was a history major at Yale. During his years studying history, he no doubt learned about Seneca Falls and Stonewall. He also learned to think critically,  make an argument, understand historical context, and reflect on the many ways the past relates to the present. He is now using those skills, guided by a particular judiciary philosophy, to make Supreme Court decisions. His professors at Yale taught him these skills, but they could not tell him how to use them in service to the law. (Although I am imagining that some of them tried).

What strikes me about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision is the fact that it played out, at least in the opinions, as a debate over how to interpret Antonin Scalia’s judicial philosophy . This happened because Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the majority opinion to Gorsuch rather than to one of the Court’s liberal justices.

If Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion, I imagine it might have also appealed to historical context, but in a much broader way.  Levinson suggests what such an interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might look like in this case if one of the liberal justices had weighed-in:

Liberal judges and lawyers, however, generally believe that it is appropriate to look beyond the words of the law and at the history and context around the law. But there was no such thing as sexual orientation protections in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, so “sex” in the history and context of the law was not meant to apply to LGBT Americans.

As a matter of policy, LGBT rights should be situated clearly within the larger struggle for civil rights, and discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation  should be outlawed in every workplace in the nation.

Again, context is tricky and this case shows that much of the law rests on how much weight a given justice gives to this important “C” of historical thinking.

A Time for Empathy, A Time for History

Black Lives Matter 2

I published this piece at The Christian Century on July 12, 2016. It seems relevant today:

On Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

What does it look like to think historically about race, and how might such an exercise contribute to the process of racial reconciliation? Good history teachers know that the study of the past, in order to be a useful subject of inquiry in our democracy, must move beyond the memorization of facts. The study of history demands that students of all ages listen to voices from the past that are different than their own. How can one understand structural racism in America without understanding the long history of oppression and discrimination that black people have faced in this country?

To put it differently, the study of history, when taught well, leads to empathy. History teachers require their students to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms. As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”

It will take more than historical empathy to solve the racial problems facing our country. The pundits and politicians (or at least the ones who care about these issues) are right when they call for a national conversation on race. My pastor and other Christian leaders are right when they call the church to draw upon biblical teachings on reconciliation, neighborliness, and human dignity. But a more robust commitment to historical thinking—and the virtues that result from such an approach to understanding our lives together—will also help. Sadly, public school districts and public and private universities are making drastic cuts to the study of history and social studies at precisely the time when we need it the most.

After church my daughter and I stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. As we walked across the parking lot we noticed a pickup truck with a back windshield displaying stickers of a Confederate flag, a gun manufacturer, and a prominent Christian university.

We have a lot of work to do.

Ed Ayers on Teaching History

Ed+Ayers+color+compressed

This entire piece is worth reading. Here is American historian Ed Ayers:

History is hard to teach. It is not a bounded field of knowledge that can be conveyed in stages and steps. It does not operate by rules or predictable patterns. It cannot be segmented into separate elements without making it die. The keys to understanding the past are context, contingency, cause, change, and consequence — living in motion — but standardized textbooks and testing kill history to dissect it. That there are so many history teachers who find ways to inspire their students despite such obstacles testifies to the idealism, intelligence, and commitment of the people drawn to this work.

History is hard to teach, too, not because it is irrelevant but because it hits so close to things young people care and worry deeply about: their ethnic, gender, and national identities, the role of America in the world, inequality and injustice in the past and present, the sources of promise and despair in our society. History is dangerous to teach and so we have tried to tame it through narratives of progress and blandly balanced portrayals of our unbalanced past. Doing so, we drain history of the human drama that makes it worth studying in the first place.

History has its revenge. Dulled and anesthetized in school, history proliferates everywhere else. History asserts itself in popular film and streaming series, in video games and television parodies in which celebrities become drunk to reenact slurred versions of textbook history, in the most acclaimed Broadway show of recent decades and in the most heavily visited museum in Washington. Young people love history, just not history as it is forced upon them.

Read the entire piece at Medium.

Back in the Zoo: “Heil Whitmer?”

Heil Whitmer

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

A woman donning blue jeans, a puffy jacket and sunglasses stood proudly on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol last Wednesday. In gloved hands she held a poster painted with the phrase “HEIL WITMER” in red and black letters. A crimson swastika took a prominent place on the upper right-hand corner of the sign. Another poster, this time taped to the back of someone’s black pick-up truck, also bore Nazi imagery. This one had a photo-shopped image of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, toothbrush mustache and all, in a Hitler salute with a Nazi flag flying behind her shoulder. In bold white letters the bottom of the sign read, “AMERICAN FLAGS ARE NOT ESSENTIAL ITEMS.”

Frustrated with new stay-at-home restrictions, the individuals who crafted these signs were some of a few thousand Michiganders who traveled to Lansing last week for “Operation Gridlock.” In a lot of ways, I can empathize with their frustration. I like having the freedom to go where I please, when I please, for whatever reason I wish. I don’t like being stuck at home, unable to go to school or church or my favorite restaurant. There is nothing wrong with protesting (safely), voicing your opinions, and holding leaders accountable for their actions; in fact, I have been to a few protests myself in the past. There is nothing wrong with being frustrated, or wanting to go back to work. But equating Gretchen Whitmer and her stay-at-home order with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich takes things much too far. They are not the same.

I’m no expert on Nazi Germany, but I know enough from my “History of Modern Europe” class that our current suffering in no way compares to that of Jews living under the Third Reich. When Hitler ruled Germany, Jews lost their citizenship under the Nuremberg laws. They lived in ghettos and starved to death in the streets. Millions more were sent to Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, and several other concentration camps where they were immediately gassed or forced into hard labor. Under Hitler’s discretion, the Third Reich exterminated over six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of other individuals in an attempt to establish the Aryan race. Gretchen Whitmer is not Adolf Hitler. Some may not like her or agree with her, but to equate her to a fascist is inaccurate and callous. 

At the same time, though, I am well aware that President Trump has also been caricatured as a Nazi time after time. Before his inauguration back in 2017 and during his impeachment this past year, scores of signs, social media posts, and opinion pieces compared Trump to Adolf Hitler. And yet, since the election of President Trump in 2016, most Americans have not had to re-live the Holocaust. Some may not like him or agree with him, but to equate President Trump to a fascist is also inaccurate and callous.

As a student of history, I can’t help seeing the present through the lens of the past. We historians do not typically wear rose-colored glasses, but we do carry flashlights. We seek to illuminate, to expose, and to make known. As we step into the shoes of those who lived in the past, we try our noble best to shed light on the path we walk in the present. It is our job, and it is our duty. And I will complete it with honor in the years to come.

Historians Doubt Received Wisdom

1918FluVictimsStLouis

Influenza epidemic in United States. St. Louis, Missouri, Red Cross Motor Corps on duty, October 1918. (National Archives)

How should the 1918 influenza pandemic inform our response to COVID-19?

Here is a taste of Kevin Peraino’s piece at Politico:

So what is history for? Yes, it can reinforce one’s pet theories. But there’s another way to think about it: History is most useful when it is marshaled to overturn received wisdom, not reinforce it. The highest and best use of Spanish flu comparisons may be to poke holes in our own presumptions about what to do.

The deans of this school of thought were Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, two popular Harvard University professors who taught a beloved class on reasoning from history. Their classic 1986 book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, was designed as a guide for leaders who sought to incorporate history into their work. One of their central case studies shows how American policymakers have, in fact, gotten the lessons of the Spanish flu wrong before.

The key to using history well, Neustadt and May argue, is to doubt received wisdom. Each historical comparison should be taken apart and analyzed. The shrewdest policymakers refuse to take historical analogies at face value. So it should give us pause when a bureaucrat makes a slick passing reference to a complex historical inflection point.

Read the entire piece here.

From the Mailbag: Help a History Teacher Address Difficult Sources With Students

College-classroom

A high school teacher, who is very up-to-date on recent scholarship in history teaching and learning, writes:

I’m writing to ask if you have or know of any resources our department can use as we craft a statement and collect possible materials to use with students in introducing them to best practices re: handling charged or difficult language in primary sources and historical context.  I’ve had two classes this year pretty much reject use of the Jourdan Anderson letter (as you know, I”m sure, he was a formerly enslaved person, free in Ohio in 1865, who responded to a letter from his former master asking him to return and work for him) because Anderson used the term “Negroes.”  I’m not sure if you’ve come across anything that could help us do some introductory sessions with students, reviewed at the start of each year and perhaps periodically, to help them approach and best contextualize and understand such language in primary source documents.  

I’ve looked at Southern Poverty Law Center materials, particularly their doc on Teaching Difficult History (primarily about slavery, with an interesting intro by David Blight). What’s most relevant for this conversation is their emphasis on context and using more primary sources.  We’ve also looked at Facing History, Facing Ourselves, and one of the principles we’re giving greater emphasis is that history is supposed to make us uncomfortable.  Our students have conflated comfort and wellness and made wellness an absolute good.  The logical conclusion is that discomfort is bad, and that making someone uncomfortable is an offense.  But we need to know about the Holocaust, for example, and there’s something very, very wrong if learning about this doesn’t make one uncomfortable. I’ve also lifted some of your writing on the importance of developing historical empathy, from the blog, and see that as obviously connected with context, language, and respect for others (respect as causing us to listen and work to understand before judging).  In regards to discomfort, I found the comments re: Robert Orsi’s keynote especially provocative and helpful.  Still in process here and thanks for the helpful grist for the mill.

Any suggestions for this teacher?  I realize the comments are closed, but feel free to e-mail or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

Out of the Zoo: Conversation Starters

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reminds us that when we study history, strangers can become friends. –JF

I think airports are fascinating places. In airports, people from all walks of life come together for a brief moment–whether they’re sitting next to each other on a plane, waiting together for a TSA screening, or paying way too much for food at the same kiosk. Then after the plane lands, after they get through security,  after their breakfast is ready, travelers promptly part ways.

I spent a lot of time in the Detroit Metro airport a couple weeks ago en route back to Messiah after Christmas. My connecting flight took off several hours late, leaving me in Detroit for several hours before I boarded my next plane. During my extensive layover, I found ways to entertain myself–using up a Starbucks gift card, people watching, and walking to the other side of the terminal to get Chick Fil A. It wasn’t an ideal situation by any means, but I made the most of it.

When I finally got on the plane, I took an aisle seat next to another college-aged traveler named Matt, who was on his way back to Philadelphia for culinary school. Normally I’m a pretty quiet passenger, exchanging a few lines of small talk with my seat-neighbors and then leaving them alone, but this time proved an exception. Perhaps to the dismay of the rest of the cabin, Matt and I chatted through the entire flight. I learned that Matt has traveled to China, took two gap years to work before starting college, and even saw the movie Cats with some of his friends over break. We talked about the shows we watch, the music we listen to, and the places we’ve been. After picking up our giant suitcases from the baggage claim, Matt showed me how to catch the train to 30th Street Station, and got me there just in time to board the 4:45 Amtrak into Harrisburg.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Matt again. Maybe our paths will cross on a flight back to the Midwest in the future–I sure hope so–but regardless I’ll always be grateful we met. I can’t help but smile when I think about how we got on the plane as strangers and parted as friends. All we had to do was start a conversation.

I love to meet new people. I think that’s partly why I love history so much. As historians, we are in the very business of meeting new people–people we’ve never seen or contacted or even heard of before. Sometimes the strangers we meet are no longer living.  Sometimes, after reading their stories, we find out they’re a lot like us; and other times we discover that they see the world a whole lot differently than we do. Regardless, it is our job to see historical actors for who they are–to seek out their likes and dislikes, their passions and their fears. Then as we work, as we write, and as we research, people who were once strangers become familiar. We just need to start a conversation.

Out of the Zoo: Time Travel

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

Especially among my history major friends, time travel is a popular subject of conversation. Many of us raised on books like The Magic Treehouse, movies like Back to the Future or shows like Doctor Who, we can easily entertain ourselves by talking about what it might’ve been like to live in another time. While I have yet to meet a real-life Marty McFly who can actually travel back in time, my friends and I still have fun imagining what our lives might have have looked like if we lived 10, 100, or 1000 years ago.

This past Thursday Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will visited Messiah’s campus. After attending a dinner President Kim Phipps held in his honor that afternoon, I made my way down to the High Center where Mr. Will gave his lecture. After “depressing” us with dismal statistics about the nation’s growing debt, the faltering social security system, and the staggering price of modern medicine, George Will sought to end his lecture on a high note. In an attempt to lift our spirits, Will brought his own inquiry about time travel to the table. 

Will asked his South-Central Pennsylvania audience this question: If you could be as rich as John D. Rockefeller (the world’s first billionaire) was in 1916, but had to live in 1916, would you take the money or would you stay put on 21st century soil? He took a quick poll of his audience before launching into his argument.

Sure, Will said, if you had a billion dollars in 1916, you would be the richest man (or woman) in the world. Yet, even if you were the richest woman in the world in 1916, you still wouldn’t be able to vote in most states. Sure, you could live in a mansion and buy the most expensive watch on the market, but as Will emphasized, 1916’s most expensive watch wouldn’t keep time nearly as well as the cheap timepiece you can purchase from Walmart nowadays. If you filled the shoes of the world’s first billionaire you would surely be able to afford the best doctors 1916 had to offer, but there was still a one in 10 chance you would suffer from a perpetual toothache.

Progress. That’s what rested at the center of Will’s point. While the United States may have its flaws–flaws which Mr. Will was not ashamed to point out–advances in science, technology, and industry over the past century have greatly improved the American way of life. Essentially, Will argued Thursday that despite the problems our nation faces in the present, our lives are much better now than they would have been a hundred years ago. 

I agreed with Will’s argument in some respects. I can not deny that our nation has made steady, if not exponential progress in the areas of medicine and technology since 1916. And, as a white female, I know full well that the life I live now is much more comfortable than the one I would have lived a century ago. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. It is our natural tendency to view the chronology of time as a journey from destitution to prosperity. When we look back on the past we like to see progress, and sometimes even go out of our way to find it and to blow it out of proportion. Full of prideful optimism, we like to point out the inefficiencies of the past rather than focusing on our flaws in the present. As historians, though, we need to keep our eyes on the past, the present, and the future. That’s when real progress is made.

Sam Wineburg Demonstrates Historical Thinking

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Sam Wineburg, the world’s leading scholar on K-12 historical thinking, turns to his Twitter feed to show us how it is done.  Teachers take note:

Do you want to learn more about Wineburg’s work?  Check out his appearance on Episode 52 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

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

Why Study History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Zoo: Wins and Losses

IMG_20191020_185428_01Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about what it means to “win” as a historian. –JF

Messiah College had its homecoming last week. Various decorations made their yearly appearance on campus, sprucing up Messiah’s grounds for visitors. Banners reading “Messiah College Homecoming,” numerous flyers, and bouquets of blue and white balloons were strategically placed around the college to announce homecoming festivities. My school, normally relatively quiet on weekends, buzzed with alumni and their families who bounced between class reunions, open houses, and athletic events. 

Homecoming weekend also brought Messiah’s annual powderpuff tournament. This year, my team of sophomores (affectionately named “Green Machine” for our green shirts) had bi-weekly practices leading up to our yearly match. Our coaches wrote out numerous plays for us to learn, patiently explained them, and even let us come up with a creative name for each after they introduced it to us. They assigned positions, ran drills, and even sent us photos of our plays to study over fall break.

When game day came around, we were confident. Our coaches had done everything they could to prepare us for our row with the class of 2021. However, after a hard-fought bout with the juniors we pulled up short, losing 12-20. The whole team was pretty disappointed, and to be completely honest I was too. I’m not usually a competitive person, but I’ll admit that losing a game we had worked so hard for struck a painful chord. We were humbled, to say the least. However, the fun we had, the new things we learned, and the friendships we forged throughout the process afforded us a different sense of victory.

So what qualifies as a “win” for history students? Some might think that to be a successful historian you need to make some groundbreaking discovery or tie up all your research into a perfect conclusion. As a history student myself, however, I’m learning that this kind of victory is virtually impossible, even for the best scholars. Just like football, the study of history is defined by struggle. It’s characterized by setbacks and unexpected challenges that have to be met in stride. Sometimes we’re faced with complex or conflicting sources that we don’t understand. Or other times archives crumble (like the one in Cologne in 2009), burying thousands of documents in rubble. Still more frequently our own convictions and biases block us from our end goal of portraying the past honestly and objectively. No matter how much time we devote to a project, there will always be loose ends, lost sources, and unexplored paths that we never get to travel.

Challenges, struggles, and losses never fail to humble us, whether we’re playing football or doing historical research. No matter how hard we work at practice, there will always be something we could have done differently in the game. No matter how much effort we put into our research, there will always be something we don’t quite understand fully. If history students aren’t reminded of this truth—that although the study of history is rewarding, it comes with its own unique set of challenges—they will spend their days agonizing over a goal that is impossible to attain. 

So, as cliche as it may sound, perhaps we need to re-define what victory means in the realm of history. It shouldn’t mean scoring the most points in a trivia game, being able to find the most sources, or even conducting the most comprehensive study of the past. Instead, real victory is attained when we show up, put in the effort, and wrestle with the struggles that come our way. We win when we can pursue our passions in spite of challenges, and all the while humbly accept the fact that there are some things we will never know.

24 Hours With Kansas History Educators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some pics:

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

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

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

On Rudy Giuliani and the Salem Witch Trials

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In case you missed it, here is yet another example of a politician’s sloppy use of history.

 

Or watch this.  (Now I am really curious to know what “two books” on the Salem Witch Trials that Trump’s personal attorney read).

Marisa Iati of The Washington Post does a nice job of addressing the many problems with Giuliani’s comment. She draws heavily from the excellent work of historian Emerson Baker.  A taste:

Although those suspected of practicing black magic have been persecuted at least since biblical times, hysteria around witchcraft in the United States peaked in the late 17th century. Young girls who started screaming and flying into “fits” would prompt local men to complain to a judge that someone was harming the girls through witchcraft. A dubious legal process would follow.

“Under the English tradition of justice, you are innocent until proven guilty,” said Emerson W. Baker, a history professor at Salem State University who has studied the witch trials. “However, in 1692, that clearly did not happen.”

Giuliani was correct that accusers at the Salem trials had to attach their names to their testimony. His claim that people accused of witchcraft were confronted by the witnesses in their cases, however, was largely false.

Many of the people who accused others of witchcraft never appeared at trial, Baker said. Instead, the supposedly afflicted girls would give depositions that were then presented in court. In these cases, there was no opportunity to cross-examine the accusers.

To start a witchcraft investigation, a person would complain about someone to a local judge. The judge would compel the sheriff’s office to arrest the accused so they could appear before a panel of judges, who would determine whether there was enough evidence to detain them before trial.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course Giuliani breaks almost every rule of good historical thinking here.  The comparison between 17th-century New England and impeachment process in the U.S. Constitution is absurd.  The legal culture of Puritan New England and the legal culture of the early American republic were completely different.  If you are going to invoke the Salem Witch Trials, then let’s talk about spectral evidence and execution of Quakers in Boston Common.  Or let’s just talk about how things ended up for the supposed witches in 1692.

Out of the Zoo: Hindsight is 20/20

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reminds us that history “finds character in its unpredictability.” –JF

Though three years have passed since I sat inside my 11th grade world history classroom, I can still picture it vividly. Our tables were arranged in a horseshoe shape which opened up to face our teacher’s desk, a large whiteboard, and a projector screen that extended from the ceiling. Another table in the front of the room displayed a few miscellaneous figurines including one mangled statue of Santa Claus donning Michigan State gear. 

Our A.P. World History instructor, Mr. Minehart, used a variety of tactics to foster our understanding of course content–many of which involved food. After learning about Hinduism and Buddhism at the beginning of the year we took a trip to a local Hindu temple, stopping at a buffet for Indian cuisine before heading back to the high school. Months later we held a Cold War cocktail party, mingling with other students posing as world leaders while sipping on glasses of punch and eating snacks.

There’s another day of class in particular that I can picture clearly–November 8, 2016. It was the day of the long-awaited Presidential election between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, and the whole country seemed to be holding its breath. When election day finally came around, Mr. Minehart, out of his own curiosity, asked if any of us thought Donald Trump would win the presidency. In a class of nearly 30 students, only two raised their hands. Needless to say, most of us were in for a surprise.

History, though so often defined by a search for patterns, finds character in its unpredictability. The ugliness of the 2016 election was nothing new–American politicians have spewed insults at each other in the press since the founding era. Yet President Trump being elected was something very few of us (at least very few of us high school students) could predict. 

If I’ve learned anything from studying history, it’s been that things never happen the same way twice. It proves true that we humans have been known to make the same mistakes time and time again, but every year, every day, every hour even something else happens that no one saw coming. I doubt Jackie Robinson knew when he was nine years old that he would be chosen to break baseball’s rigid color barrier; likewise I’m confident Barack Obama had no idea as a child he would be the United States’ first African American president. Surely British colonists in the early 18th century would not have been able to predict that in 100 years they would be calling themselves Americans.

When we study historical figures, we must always keep in mind the fact that our past is their present. Sure, we can look back and see the way events unfolded, make claims about causes and point out warning signs, but we must remember that we see their lives from an entirely different perspective.  Just because we, as historians, can look back and learn about how people’s lives turn out doesn’t mean they were afforded any such privilege. For in truth none of us can be sure about what the next year, the next month, or even the next day will bring. We can take some educated guesses, but in reality we don’t know with any kind of certainty what the future has in store. Yet in 100 years historians will look back on our lives and see many things we couldn’t see at the time. We must remember that when we study the past, though we may have a widened scope, we must never forget about the uncertainty that defines the present.