Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

os guinness

Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Someone sent it to me recently.

I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.

Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way.  Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.

Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.

Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes.  In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Menthe Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.

The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolutionthe French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).

Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.

In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.

In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality.  But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”

We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Richards

Breakaway AmericasThomas Richards Jr. teaches history at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. This interview is based on his new book, Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Breakaway Americas?

TR: This book began with two seemingly disparate nineteenth-century histories: Texas and Canada. As a first-year graduate student, I was particularly intrigued by two works on Texas: Andrés Reséndez’s Changing National Identities at the Frontier and the late Andrew Cayton’s essay “Continental Politics: Liberalism, Nationalism, and the Appeal of Texas in the 1820s,” found in the edited volume Beyond the Founders. Both authors argued that the Anglo-Texans who migrated to late Mexican Texas and the Republic of Texas were not US expansionists or filibusters. Rather, they were genuinely attracted to various aspects of life in Texas, much of which they believed improved upon that of the United States.

At the same time, I started researching the 1838 “Patriot War” on the US-Canadian border, in which Americans invaded Canada in an effort to restart the failed Canadian Rebellions. As with Texas, this struggle has often been portrayed as American filibusters seeking to expand US territory. Yet, American Patriots rarely mentioned the United States, and, if they did, it was with disdain – just like many early Anglo-Texans. After all, the United States in the late 1830s was mired in economic depression, social unrest, and political dysfunction. To my surprise (and delight as a historian), American Patriots even routinely references the Republic of Texas to explain their goals, as they hoped to create a “northern Texas” that offered them land and prosperity, in contrast to a US seemingly on the decline.

After seeing such similar rhetoric in such disparate places, I widened my gaze: what did Americans in Oregon Territory think about the United States? Or those in Mexican California? What did the Mormons think as they moved to the Salt Lake Valley (then part of Mexico)? Or even “removed” Natives in US Indian Territory? If both Anglo-Texans and American Patriots forecasted a permanent US decline and better alternatives beyond US borders, what did these other groups think? Sure enough, they held similar notions of the future – although the ideals each group sought to realize were markedly different.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Breakaway Americas?

TR: Until the mid-1840s, a majority of Americans did not believe US expansion would occur in the near future, and therefore those who migrated beyond US borders sought to create their own “breakaway Americas” that improved upon the United States. Yet, while their prediction was quite logical, it turned out to be utterly wrong, as a series of unforeseen and unlikely contingencies drastically changed the trajectory of US politics, making what once appeared unlikely to become “manifest destiny.”

JF: Why do we need to read Breakaway Americas?

TR: For three reasons. First, from a historiographic standpoint, this book proves that explaining US expansion through the ideology of “manifest destiny” needs to be permanently abandoned. While historians have long demonstrated that this ideology masked the violence and racism of US conquest, most continue to assume that a majority of Americans – both within the United States and beyond its borders – predicted and supported US expansion. This was simply not the case.

Second, from an informational standpoint, this book brings together a wide range of people and groups rarely examined together (and sometimes hardly examined at all): Mormons, Removed Natives, Anglo-Californians, Anglo-Texans, Americans in Oregon Territory, and even the American Patriots who invaded Canada. All of these groups are fascinating, both for their shared prediction that US borders would forever stop at the Rocky Mountains, and for how much they differed among one another, all while embracing various aspects of American culture and society.

Third, from a presentist standpoint, this book places a great deal of weight on the concept of historical contingency, by which I mean that the past is just as much shaped by unlikely and unpredictable in-the-moment events as it is by larger structural forces. For those who lament our current political dysfunction and seemingly unbreakable cycle of hostile partisanship, the concept of contingency offers hope for the future. To be sure, it can also offer despair – no one knows how the next unpredictable event will play out (indeed, my book laments the violence of US expansion that resulted from the contingencies of the late 1830s and 1840s). Yet, at the very least, just as nothing was destined in the past, nothing about our present moment is “baked in.” Change can happen in unforeseeable ways.

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

TR: Ironically, my personal story directly contradicts the argument of my book: there is almost nothing contingent about my journey to becoming an American historian. Indeed, it may have been “baked in” as early as age three, when my father took me to Gettysburg for the first time. In kindergarten, I wrote a story about Ben Franklin. I majored in history as an undergraduate at Penn, and immediately started teaching it at a Philadelphia high school the following year. No one who knew me was surprised when I returned to graduate school at Temple to get my Ph.D. in history. While I have other historical obsessions beyond simply the early American republic–Byzantium, for example–I cannot read ancient Greek, so American history was the most logical obsession to pursue.

JF: What is your next project?

TR: I am writing a trade book that will tell the story of early American politics through the lens of the various “roads not taken” – or, more accurately, roads taken that eventually led to dead ends. For example, I’m writing a chapter on the rise and fall of female suffrage in early New Jersey, and another chapter on the Kentucky court fight of the mid-1820s, in which two courts claimed legitimacy and sparred over economic relief measures for the poor. Once again, I’m placing an importance on contingency: these moments that seemed so alien and anomalous in retrospect, could have, under only slightly different circumstances, turned into the norm.

JF: Thanks, Thomas!

White Supremacy, Capitalism, and a New Book on the History of St. Louis

Broken HeartIs capitalism racist? If you answer yes, you are one of the cool kids in the historical profession right now. Scholars working on the connections between capitalism and slavery have produced some interesting, helpful, provocative, and controversial work. Much of the debate over The New York Times‘s 1619 Project has focused on the strengths and weakness of this historiographical trend.

The relationship between capitalism and race also frames Nicolas Lemann‘s New Yorker review of Walter Johnson‘s new book, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.

Here is a taste:

Historically, Johnson doesn’t find many people to admire. Among whites, the main exceptions are a few Communists and radically inclined labor organizers. He takes a dim view, too, of mainstream black organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. Liberal politicians hardly attract his notice, except when, as in the case of Lincoln, their reputations require revising downward. But after laying out a relentlessly bleak history he ends, jarringly, on a hopeful note. During the unrest following Michael Brown’s death, he tells us, “the disinherited of St. Louis rose again to take control of their history.” Since then, a number of activists—Johnson provides thumbnail sketches of them—have launched efforts in poor black neighborhoods meant to reverse, or at least resist, the pernicious workings of racial capitalism. Today, Johnson writes, “I have never been to a more amazing, hopeful place in my life.” Underlying his stated optimism is an implicit conviction that it wouldn’t do much good to look for help from the larger society; the victims of oppression must find a way forward by themselves.

As a child in the Jim Crow South during the civil-rights era, growing up in a conservative white milieu, I often overheard bitter adult conversations about the hypocrisy of white liberals in the North. Were they really any better than Southern segregationists, to go by their lived behavior? Walter Johnson, coming from the left, offers a good deal of empirical support for opinions like that. His account discourages us from drawing much hope from past events like the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the major civil-rights victories of the sixties, or the election of Barack Obama as President; the regime of racial capitalism, in his vision, always manages to reconstitute itself. Broader reforms that aimed, at least, to smooth the roughest edges of capitalism—like the regulation of business excesses or the creation of Social Security and Medicaid—are, we gather, no match for white supremacy.

Democratic politics, especially in a country with a racial history like ours, is necessarily messy, impure, and capable of producing no more than partial victories, and, even then, only when pushed hard by political movements. But deflating and deriding the progress it has made in the past and the promise it might hold for the future invites the hazards of defeatism. It distracts from the kinds of economic, educational, and criminal-justice reforms that mainstream progressives hope to enact. These are the tools we have at hand. It would be a shame not to use them.

Read the entire review here.

Remembering Donald Dayton

dayton

Theologian and church historian Donald W. Dayton has died.

While I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School pursuing an M.A. in American church history, I read a lot of Dayton. As a young evangelical, I was passionate about exploring the roots of the movement that I embraced as a sixteen-year-old kid. I read Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage as well as his unpublished essays that circulated among evangelical scholars and graduate students.

One of those unpublished pieces was a paper Dayton read in January 1988 at the Wesleyan/Holiness Study Project First Fellows Seminar at Asbury Theological Seminary. It was titled, “An Analysis of the Self-Understanding of American Evangelicalism With a Critique of its Correlated Historiography.” The paper criticized what Dayton believed was a Reformed bias in evangelical historiography.

At the time I encountered Dayton’s work in the early 1990s, Reformed historians such as George Marsden and Mark Noll were at the height of their scholarly game. Their books and articles were shaping our understanding of American evangelicalism in profound ways. Dayton did not have the funding Marsden and Noll enjoyed. He did not publish his work in places that would have been respected by the larger academy. But he was relentless. He insisted that modern evangelicalism was a Protestant movement with roots in the Pietist, Wesleyan, and Holiness traditions. Evangelicals, he argued, were abolitionists, feminists, reformers, and defenders of social justice. While Marsden and Noll wrote about Jonathan Edwards, revolutionary-era Calvinists, Old and New School Presbyterians, common sense realism, Princeton theologians, and J. Gresham Machem, Dayton called attention to Jonathan Blanchard, Charles Finney, Theodore Weld, the Tappan brothers, Phoebe Palmer, and A.B. Simpson. Much of his work provided a historical foundation for the Evangelical Left.

To be fair, Marsden’s work on fundamentalism and evangelicalism did take into consideration the revivalist tradition. His books covered D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and the Keswick Movement. (I seem to remember hearing or reading a story somewhere about Dayton giving Marsden a bag of books on Holiness and Wesleyan church history as he was writing either Fundamentalism and American Culture or his history of Fuller Theological Seminary, Reforming Fundamentalism). But I always thought Dayton’s work did not get the attention it deserved. While Marsden and others privileged a Reformed interpretive lens, Dayton tried to imagine what the story might look like if told through a Pietist/Wesleyan/Holiness lens. Dayton believed that this lens offered a clearer vision of the subject at hand.

Much of this debate is covered in Doug Sweeney‘s 1991 Church History essay, “The Essential Evangelicalism Dialectic: The Historiography of the Early Neo-Evangelical Movement and the Observer-Participant Dilemma” (now republished in this book) and in a 1993 issue of the Christian Scholars Review. At the time of Sweeney’s essay (which drew heavily on his own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School M.A. thesis–Sweeney was a few years ahead of me at TEDS), I was corresponding with Dayton about my thesis on separatist fundamentalism. At the moment, I do not have access to that correspondence (no time to find a box of correspondence in the basement for a blog post), but I was able to dig up a July 14, 1991 handwritten letter on Northern Baptist Theological Seminary stationary:

John,

I just got your letter of June 23. I’m in the Orient most of the summer, but was back for a couple of days, before [I’m] off again ’til about Aug. 8. Hence this hurried, informal response.

You have permission to quote my paper. I’ve enclosed a copy plus a couple other articles along the same line. I plan to finish  in Aug. or Sept. a major statement in critique of George’s history of Fuller. I’ll try to remember to send you a copy.

I’ve mixed feelings about Doug Sweeney’s published essay. I liked the thesis better. I wonder if [Carl] McIntire is as “Reformed” as you indicate. Certain features (revivalism, premillennialism, no-smoking, drinking, etc.) would not be as classically Reformed, would they? 

I’ll be back August 8 or so–and would be glad to get together sometime.

Don Dayton

A few notes on this letter:

  • I asked Dayton for permission to quote from the aforementioned “An Analysis of the Self-Understanding of American Evangelicalism….”
  • Dayton’s response to George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism eventually appeared as “The Search for Historical Evangelicalism: George Marsden’s History of Fuller Seminary as a Case Study,” Christian Scholars Review, 23 (1993).
  • Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire played an important role in my M.A. thesis. Dayton was trying to get me to see him as a more complex theological figure.
  • Dayton never elaborated on why he liked Doug Sweeney’s Trinity M.A. thesis more than his Church History article.

Nine years later, we resumed our correspondence while I was a post-doc in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.  I wrote Dayton after a Monday afternoon colloquium devoted to a discussion of Alan Wolfe’s October 2000 Atlantic cover-story titled “Opening the Evangelical Mind.” I was interested in how the road to evangelical “openness” (to use Wolfe’s term) ran through Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper and the broader Reformed tradition. At the time of Wolfe’s piece, the discussion among evangelical academics (especially among historians) had shifted from the debate over the theological roots of fundamentalism/evangelicalism to the state of evangelical thinking and the implications of Mark Noll’s 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Noll, Marsden (his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship was part of the discussion), and others advocating for a renewal of the evangelical mind were building their case on the assertion that American evangelicalism–at least in its 19th and 20th-century manifestations– was a a largely anti-intellectual movement. American evangelicalism, Noll argued, had been so focused on personal piety, activism, evangelism, and acts of social justice that it ignored or downplayed Christian thinking. To me it seemed that in order for these Reformed evangelical historians to make a case for the revival of an evangelical mind, they needed to embrace Dayton’s historiography.

In an October 2000 e-mail, I asked Dayton if he thought the 19th-century Pietist/Wesleyan/Holiness tradition had become the bogeyman for what Wolfe described in The Atlantic as the “opening of the evangelical mind.” I wondered if the current Reformed push for a renewed intellectual life among evangelicals meant that Dayton had won the historiographical battle. In other words, evangelical thinking was necessary in 1994 because 19th-century evangelicalism was defined by the people, ideas, and actions that Dayton had always put at the center of his story. Evangelicalism was more about Finney, Palmer, and Weld than it was about Edwards (and his theological descendants), Warfield, and Machen and this is why renewed Christian thinking was now necessary.

Here is Dayton’s response to my e-mail, sent from his Drew University e-mail account:

I was intrigued by your note and wished I could have been present for your discussion. I tried to call last night and left a message on your voice mail. I may try again. I just saw the Wolfe article as I passed through the airport over the weekend and just read it late last night.

As you probably know, I resist the word evangelical not only because it usually carried the “reformed” connotations but because it fails to convey the historical and sociological reality of what seems to me is really going on.

For me it is noteworthy that we have had pentecostal seminaries only for a couple of decades and holiness seminaries only a generation before that (Asbury took off after WW II, followed by the Nazarenes, Anderson, Western Evangelical, etc.). Part of the issue is whether to see the evangelical seminaries in that line and revealing a similar dynamic of constituencies moving into the middle class (like Pentecostals) and needing a seminary. This is clearly true for Trinity (carried by the Evangelical Free Church–and holiness-like founder [Rev. Frederick] Fransen), and I would argue Gordon (rooted in the ministry of holiness Baptist A.J. Gordon, a major figure in the development of “faith healing”), and even for Fuller, as I argued in my dialogue with Marsden in Christian Scholars Review. If this is true, it seems odd to me to compare the emergence of these very young traditions of theology and intellectual activity with Reformed and Lutheran [which have] half a millennium of university theological tradition. I don’t even know how to dialogue with people like Wolfe who don’t seem to me to see what is going on.

Nor do I know how to enter a discussion with people like Mark Noll (his SCANDAL book). It seems very odd to me to stand in a college that was founded by the Wesleyan Church in the Holiness Movement (ala Jonathan Blanchard), to claim that it is the best available, and then blame the holiness movement for the fact that it is not better. [Noll was at Wheaton College at the time]. The holiness folk founded a majority of the Christian College Coalition schools–especially the better ones (Wheaton, Seattle Pacific, Azusa, Houghton, Gordon–both branches, etc.)  Mark [Noll], Rich Mouw and others were raised in baptistic fundamentalism, went to holiness schools and then grafted themselves into the Reformed tradition (Princeton Theological Seminary for Mark,  CRC & Kuyper for Rich) to do their intellectual work. I understand this; my own theological formation is essentially Barthian and I teach Calvin regularly. But I do object to reading these personal pilgrimages back into the history and confusing genealogy with teleology (Marsden on Fuller or the usual interpretations of the history of Wheaton, emphasizing Blanchard’s Presbyterianism and ignoring the fact that it is “Oberlin Perfectionism” that is at issue).

It is the failure to understand “evangelicalism” historically that leads to such strange claims as those of [Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary theologian] David Wells that there is an intellectual “decline” in “evangelicalism” since Edwards that has not been recovered. But here again we are comparing apples and oranges–Yale and Princeton with “new” schools founded in the 19th and 20th centuries that have NO historical or theological continuities except as products of the latter engraft themselves into the theological traditions of other cycles of theological tradition to enter the intellectual world to achieve a sort of intellectual respectability that involved the betrayal of both their class interests and their theological traditions in which they were reared and/or educated! 

Whatever one thinks about this letter, it was classic Donald Dayton. He was less concerned about defending the theological convictions of the Pietist-Wesleyan-Holiness tradition than he was about getting the history correct. He did not hesitate to call out other scholars for their supposed ambition. This latter claim was the reason why so many Christian academics saw Dayton as a real pain in the ass (and I say this as compliment). The debate continues.

Here is a reflection on Dayton’s life from his former Drew University student Christian Collins Winn:

On May 2, the theological world lost one of its most unique voices, the Wesleyan Methodist Church lost one of its most ardent sons, and hundreds of students and colleagues lost one of their fiercest friends.

Donald (“Don”) W. Dayton was by all accounts brilliant, a voracious reader and lover of books, and one of the foremost interpreters of American religious history. Very few scholars produce work that shapes their generation, even fewer break genuinely new ground that has the potential to shape generations to come. Dayton’s work rose to this level of significance. As a scholar, his contributions in both the historiography of evangelicalism and in the historiography and theological interpretation of the Holiness Movement and Pentecostalism have fundamentally altered our interpretation of American religious history.

Not without controversy—in keeping with the nature of any truly groundbreaking perspective—Dayton had a striking genius for reading against the grain of accepted scholarship, unlocking alternative construals and opening up new pathways for interpretation and appropriation often taken up by later scholars. Many of his early proposals were rejected by established scholars, only later to be embraced; others continue to wait for the academy to catch up. Don also made major contributions through his extensive ecumenical work, where he advocated for marginal voices and traditions to be taken seriously and given a seat at the table. Moreover, his influence can be discerned in the lives and ongoing scholarship of the hundreds of students whom he mentored with his hallmark generosity and loving patience.

Read the rest here.

Rest in peace, Don.

The Author’s Corner with Gregory Downs

the second american revolutionGregory Downs is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. This interview is based on his new book, The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Second American Revolution?

GD: A gnawing pit in my stomach and a sense of unfinished business and a golden opportunity. The gnawing pit was from a feeling that I hadn’t done what I genuinely intended to in my American Historical Review essay “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization.” I began that research with an interest in the interaction between domestic/national politics and international events, in the way that events in other nations shaped the discourse around what was possible or probable, and I wanted to use this to show U.S. politics as less bounded than our received terms convey, to explore the mutual construction of what gets classed as national and trans-national history, and to capture the ebb and flow of ideas through particular domestic political contexts. In the process of following the inflow of ideas about Mexican crises to U.S. politics in the 1850s-1870s, however, I never got to the truly interactive nature of those connections, and so in some ways reproduced a domestic framework, in which the United States was influenced by cultural ideas about other nations. This made me uncomfortable, as I knew there was a great deal to the Mexican side of the story that I hadn’t explored, and it also gave me a sense of unfinished business: how could I go further in exploring the mid-19th century as a broad crisis in republican theory, in which calculations of how (and whether) republics survived were shaped by ideas and political actors moving from one nation to another. There was much more to be said about the relationship between the United States mid-century crises and those in other countries.

The opportunity came in the Brose Lectures which gave me a format and an excuse to explore ideas that were historiographically important but might not fit easily into a book. And as I began reading and thinking more deeply, I became more impressed with the ways that the literature was already working to incorporate a multi-sided view of the U.S.-Mexican influence (especially in work by Erika Pani and Pat Kelly and others) and also with a thread I had worried over earlier but not followed: the centrality of Cuba. By following Cuban revolutionary exiles, I was able to find a way to follow circuits into and out of different countries’ domestic politics and to explore the connection between the revolutionary remaking of U.S. political structures and a global revolutionary wave that rose and then fell in the mid-19th century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Second American Revolution?

GD: The Civil War was not merely civil–meaning national–and not merely a war, but instead an international conflict of ideas as well as armies. Its implications transformed the U.S. Constitution and reshaped a world order, as political and economic systems grounded in slavery and empire clashed with the democratic process of republican forms of government.

JF: Why do we need to read The Second American Revolution?

GD: The book examines the breadth of U.S. politics at a moment when we need to recover our sense of the bold and of the possible. Much of the book is dedicated to exploring those international currents I mentioned, and those have important (I believe) historiographical ramifications for U.S. history and potentially some interest for historians of Cuba and the Caribbean and 19th century Spain.) But the book also turns inward to examine the norm-breaking boldness of U.S. Republicans in the 1860s as they created new states, forced constitutional amendments through, marginalized the Supreme Court, and in other ways significantly altered the political system. Then, I argue, they covered their tracks in order to make their achievements seem moderate, and we have helped them do so by scolding them for their moderation. But in fact no political candidate offers solutions anywhere near as bold as “moderate” 1860s Republicans; no one matches John Bingham in threatening to dissolve the Supreme Court entirely if it doesn’t recognize the role it must play. Instead we have fallen into calling for respect for norms that are—as in the 1840s and 1850s—no longer respected. When faced with those norm violations, we tend to call for the referees. But there are no referees, other than the electorate. And to the electorate we make claims about broader failings but can’t offer plausible solutions; we tell them the political system is broken but don’t fix it. I think we need to recover our boldness and abandon our sense of futility. Rethinking the constitutional transgressions of the Civil War is one way we can expand our own political thinking to make it at least approach the boldness of allegedly moderate 1860s Republicans, and thus discover ways out of problems like the contemporary Supreme Court, the Senate, and other sticky but intractable problems of U.S. politics.

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

GD: As a child I was raised between Kauai and my extended family’s home of central Kentucky and my extended family’s eventual new home in Middle Tennessee, and I was from a young age fascinated by the differences between those places, by the way that race and politics and memory worked so differently in Kauai than in Kentucky, and by the shadow that events (the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy or the Civil War) continued to gnaw upon the present. I worked as a journalist and as a high school teacher, so I didn’t always know that I would be an academic historian, but I always believed that the study of the past was venerable, difficult, and essential.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: I am working on completing my friend Tony Kaye’s manuscript on Nat Turner, a project he was working on when he died. After that I have many projects I am contemplating and am enjoying the time to reflect on what I most want to do and most feel challenged by.

JF: Thanks, Greg!

The 1619 Project: Debate Continues

1619

When we last left the debate on the 1619 Project, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz leveled more criticism of the project in a piece at The Atlantic.  

Social media historians (and some non-historians who are advancing informed and not-so-informed opinions) are going crazy.  While many ague based on historical evidence and best practices, there is clearly a political dimension to all of this.  The 1619 Project has led to some good conversations on race and slavery in the United States.  It has also exacerbated political divisions in the discipline over how to do history in the 21st century and how the study of the past informs competing visions of American identity.  And yes, as Annette Gordon-Reed tweets, personalities are involved.

There were two major salvos yesterday.

Alex Lichtenstein, the editor of the American Historical Review, considered by many to be the most important historical journal in the United States, weighed-in on the controversy.  Here is a taste:

…many scholars initially greeted 1619 with excitement and effusive praise. In part, I suspect that this was because the basic impulse behind the collection of eighteen articles and many additional short essays—by journalists, historians, sociologists, poets, legal scholars, English professors, artists, playwrights, and novelists—reflects how many, if not most, American historians already teach about that past in the undergraduate classroom….

So why the hostile, if somewhat belated, reaction? Here I admit to being perplexed—hence my initial hesitation to wade into the debate. The initial caveats came from an unlikely precinct, at least for a mainstream public intellectual knock-down, drag-out. In early September, the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) fired a broadside at the Times, denouncing the 1619 Project as “a politically motivated falsification of history” designed, in their view, to bolster the Democratic Party’s alignment with “identity politics” at the expense of any serious engagement with class inequality. This attack came not from the expected quarters of the right, which one imagines would find offensive and unpatriotic the denigration of the American promise as irredeemably racist, but from the Trotskyist left. As good Marxists, the adherents of the Fourth International denounced the project for its “idealism,” that is to say, its tendency to reduce historical causation to “a supra-historical emotional impulse.” By mischaracterizing anti-black racism as an irreducible element built into the “DNA” of the nation and its white citizens, the Trotskyists declared, the 1619 Project is ahistorical and “irrationalist.” This idealist fallacy requires that racism “must persist independently of any change in political or economic conditions,” naturally the very thing that any materialist historian would want to attend to. “The invocation of white racism,” they proclaim, “takes the place of any concrete examination of the economic, political and social history of the country.” Perhaps even worse, “the 1619 Project says nothing about the event that had the greatest impact on the social condition of African-Americans—the Russian Revolution of 1917.”4 (Well, OK, I was with them up to that point.) In some ways, the debate merely reprises one fought out nearly half a century ago: Which came first, racism or slavery? Who is right, Winthrop Jordan or Edmund Morgan?5

But that, it turns out, was merely the opening salvo. In October and November, the ICFI began to post a series of interviews with historians about the 1619 Project on its “World Socialist Web Site,” including (as of January 11) Victoria Bynum (October 30), James McPherson (November 14), James Oakes (November 18), Gordon Wood (November 28), Dolores Janiewski (December 23), and Richard Carwardine (December 31).6 As many critics hastened to note, all of these historians are white. In principle, of course, that should do nothing to invalidate their views. Nevertheless, it was a peculiar choice on the part of the Trotskyist left, since there are undoubtedly African American historians—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—sympathetic to their views. Barbara Fields comes immediately to mind, as she has often made similarly critical appraisals of idealist fallacies about the history of “race” and racism.7

If these scholars all concern themselves in one way or another with historical dilemmas of race and class, they hardly are cut from the same cloth. Bynum, best known for her attention to glimmers of anti-slavery sentiment among southern whites, some of which was driven by class grievances, doesn’t always take the Trotskyists’ bait. For example, she points out that “we cannot assume that individual [southern] Unionists were anti-slavery,” even if they “at the very least connected slavery to their own economic plight in the Civil War era.” Similarly, McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, acknowledges in his interview that initially most Union Army soldiers fought to “revenge an attack on the flag.” (As the Green-Wood memorial indicates, that’s how many chose to remember it as well.) Still, McPherson complains that the 1619 Project consists of “a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lack[s] context and perspective on the complexity of slavery.” Yet it is safe to say that he would not sign on to the Marxist version of the Civil War preferred by the ICFI—“the greatest expropriation of private property in world history, not equaled until the Russian Revolution in 1917.”8

McPherson insists in his interview that “opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.” Sure, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find a dozen historians who could say, with confidence, yes, but on balance, slavery and racism themselves have probably been just as, if not more, important. In his interview, Oakes, one of the most sophisticated historians of the rise of the nineteenth-century Republican Party and its complex place within an emergent anti-slavery coalition, offers a bracing critique of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, scholarship that underpins sociologist Matthew Desmond’s contribution to 1619. But other than gamely defending Lincoln against the charge of racism, Oakes doesn’t really direct much fire at the 1619 Project in particular. For his part, Wood (described by the Trotskyists as “the leading historian of the American Revolution”) seems affronted mostly by the failure of the 1619 Project to solicit his advice, and appears offended by the suggestion that the Revolutionary generation might have had some interest in protecting slavery. Yet, oddly enough, even he seems to endorse what has become one of the project’s most controversial assertions—that “[Lord] Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots.” Those are Wood’s words, and they are part of his wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of the place of anti-slavery and pro-slavery sentiment in the Revolutionary era and the Revolutionary Atlantic World more generally.

Taken as a whole, the interviews are of enormous interest, but more for what they have to say about these scholars’ own interpretations of key aspects of American history than as a full-on attack on the 1619 Project. Reading closely, one sees the interviewed historians trying to avoid saying what the Trotskyists would like them to say, offering a far more nuanced view of the past. This certainly entails dissent from some of the specific claims of 1619, but it hardly requires them to embrace fully the Trotskyist alternative, which I suspect at least several of them would be reluctant to do. Frankly, I wish the AHR had published these interviews, and I hope they get wide circulation. Not for the critique of the 1619 Project itself, but because collectively they insist on the significance of historical context, the careful weighing of evidence, the necessity of understanding change over time, and the potential dangers of reductionism. I would urge anyone to read them.

Read the entire piece here.  Lichtenstein respects the critics of the 1619 Project who were interviewed at World Socialist Web Site, but he was not overly impressed by the letter these critics wrote to The New York Times.

The second major response to Wilentz’s piece in The Atlantic comes from early American historian David Waldstreicher at the Boston Review.  Here is a summary of Waldstreicher’s piece:

Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen.

This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding(2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work “anachronistic” in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republicand has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a “premodern” society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence.

In ambitious works that explore the “unknown” revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution(2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804(2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition.

Read the entire piece here.

Whatever you think of Waldstreicher’s article, it is a wonderful overview of revolutionary-era historiography.  Graduate students take note.

Stay tuned.  We have more coming on this controversy.  In the meantime, read all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.  I also tried to explain the project to my local community here.

What Do You Wish You Had Learned in the First Semester of Your History Graduate Program?

Seminar Room

Recently, Baylor University history professor Andrea Turpin asked her Twitter followers a question about her upcoming graduate-level historiography class:

Twitterstorians responded in a big way.   Here are some helpful responses:

Hayden White on the Humanities

White Hayden

Hayden White (1928-2018)

Hayden White, the author of Metahistory and the champion of narrative history, died in 2018.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a transcript of a radio interview he did in 2008 with Stanford literature professor Robert Pogue Harrison.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Harrison: A few weeks ago, Stanley Fish posted an article on The New York Times titled “Will the Humanities Save Us?,” which got a lot of attention. Would you like to begin by telling us the gist of Fish’s argument and why you think it is so misguided?

White: Fish, who likes to be provocative, insisted that the humanities have no practical utility at all, that it is merely a matter of taste whether one wanted to either teach them or practice them. I don’t know how you could practice them exactly without teaching them. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a matter of utility versus pleasure, but a matter of practicality. The humanities are eminently practical and belong to the practical life, by which I mean the ethical life….

Harrison: On the question of love, do you think Socrates was the greatest teacher in the history of the world? Because love was not only the medium that he used as a teacher, but he thought it was one of the foundational ingredients of philosophy.

White: No, I think Jesus was the greatest teacher of all time.

Harrison: Because of his doctrine of love?

White: Well, his doctrine of love is a very complex one, is it not? “Love your parents, but follow me.” His whole notion, at least as Saint Paul explicates it, that the fulfillment of the law is to recognize that love is the dominant principle in the quest for both knowledge and life.

Harrison: I was thinking more just specifically in terms of the process of learning.

White: I tell my students, “Look, we’re here to discuss the meaning of life.” The meaning of life is that I’m alive for the time being. I’m in a world which is making contradictory demands upon me. What do I do?  

Read the entire interview here.

The Relevance of the Enlightenment (#AHA19)

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John Locke

We are thrilled to have Megan Jones, a history teacher at The Pingry School in Martinsville, New Jersey, writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Here is her first dispatch.  –JF

I’ve been to a number of academic or educational conferences at this point, although not too many AHA conferences. The AHA was always something to be dreaded as a grad student, because attendance meant you were probably on the job market and had to contend with the “cattle call” of the job fair. I’m fortunate to be past that phase now, with a job as a history teacher at an independent secondary school. So now I feel more comfortable attending the AHA and truly taking advantage of the fact that one can hear about the state of a plethora of fields at this national conference. Also, as a high school teacher who currently only teaches surveys, I’m hoping that I can actually learn something about fields with which I have no/little knowledge. It’s with that spirit that I came to Chicago and chose the panels I did and will attend.

This afternoon, I attended a roundtable entitled “Continuing Relevance of the Enlightenment,” with Jennifer Pitts (Chicago), Holly Brewer (Maryland), Pamela Edwards (Yale), Jonathan Israel (Princeton), and James T. Kloppenberg (Harvard). Glad I did, because not only do I teach about the Enlightenment in some fashion in all of my American, European, or World history survey courses but I also have absolutely no knowledge about the historiography of the Enlightenment. The conversation that emerged from this roundtable was a good primer for me, who has not had the time to absorb the literature about the Enlightenment. One of the important through-lines that cropped up was the focus on religious beliefs and religious conflict as important context for the Enlightenment and for today.

Holly Brewer opened her remarks by stating that she is sympathetic to a number of criticisms that many currently have about the Enlightenment and its thinkers (namely about race and slavery), but that we should not “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” to use the same cliché she did. [Note: Jamelle Bouie wrote a very good piece about the “dark side” of the Enlightenment for Slate in June, which I recommended to my colleagues in the summer and which Jonathan Israel also mentioned today as a good example of such criticism.] Brewer encouraged “subtlety and not simplicity” when it comes to discussions about the Enlightenment, and that we need to recognize that the past is complex and imperfect (as is the present, obviously). She discussed her research on John Locke and his analysis of St. Paul’s letters, which garnered significant attention upon its publication. In Brewer’s talk, she pointed out that Locke’s analysis of St. Paul’s commentary on governmental authority in Romans 13 and slavery in Ephesians 6 illustrated many of the major debates of the Enlightenment period. She connected this focus on religious criticism in the Enlightenment to the modern day by mentioning that the White House hosts Bible study sessions, and that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 at one of these gatherings. Apparently, President Donald J. Trump sees himself in Isaiah 45, with its focus on God’s pledge to “subdue nations before him.” [this is my chosen quote, I don’t actually know what segment of Isaiah 45 Trump supposedly referenced]. Brewer’s comments implied that historians today need to focus more on the religious aspects of the Enlightenment critique of society, given the effect of religious conflict and religious belief on society today (both in the United States and at the global level). In her view, the role of religion in shaping the Enlightenment epoch has been forgotten, but that facet is in fact very relevant to this particular contemporary context.

I wish Prof. Brewer had a chance to talk more so I could hear her expand upon her comments regarding religious context, in part because I’d like to hear her discuss the place of other religious beliefs in today’s world versus that of the Enlightenment (in which writers critiqued Christianity, not other religions – that I know of). How does the struggle within Islam today affect our world differently than did the struggle within Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries? Where does Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism in general fit into this picture? Is the Enlightenment relevant to adherents of these faiths, if it is a product of a majority Christian culture? I think yes, obviously, because the Enlightenment focus on reason and empiricism can be applied to anything – although we must remember that the movement itself was a product of its time and place. A product of a largely Christian Europe torn apart. So, perhaps, a movement that was a product of a particular time and place cannot have direct relevance to another time and place with an vastly different constituency….maybe it is not the context that is really relevant, but in fact the habits of mind that the Enlightenment encouraged.

I’ll end with a comment that Prof. Israel made in response to an audience member’s question about periodization of the Enlightenment. He pointed out that it was first an era, and then a process. We are still engaged with the process of implementing the ideals of the Enlightenment, namely equality. I’m all for that. And now, I have a better understanding of the Enlightenment and what many of the heavyweights have to say about it.

Thanks, Megan!

Gender History at #AHA19

gender

Over at Perspectives on History, Colgate University historian Monica Mercadotakes stock” of gender history at this weekend’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  Here is a taste:

More than 30 years after Joan Scott first argued for gender as a legitimate and necessary category of analysis, many of us take for granted the notion that AHA annual meetings can offer spaces for more expansive scholarship. Returning to Scott’s work serves as a reminder that gender history was never interchangeable with an “add women and stir” approach to the field. “The core of the definition,” Scott argued, “rests on an integral connection between two propositions: gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relations of power.” At AHA19, it is these elements of Scott’s foundational proposition that are on the table in sessions that interrogate the very conditions of our profession, as a full inquiry into gender requires.

Over four days in Chicago, historians will find a diverse slate of discussions that center histories of women and gender. Just a brief scan of the AHA19 conference program reveals numerous panel sessions and affiliated societies addressing gender across time and space. Historians from around the globe will present new research on topics addressing gender and all of its complexities in wide ranging sites—from the British Civil Wars to recent Puerto Rican history, the black diaspora to the streets of Progressive-era cities. The Mexican Studies Committee of the Conference on Latin American History will be meeting to take stock of gender Friday evening; in its open forum, the AHA Committee on LGBTQ Status in the Profession will examine the relationship between history and gender studies. The program suggests that the state of our subfield is vibrant, reflecting the aspirations of the AHA’s Committee on Gender Equity, whose purview includes fostering “an inclusive scholarship that challenges and transforms the practice of history, both substantially and methodologically.”

Why are so many scholars taking stock of gender history and women in the historical profession now? This new year brings many important anniversaries in US politics and in our profession: the centennial of Congress passing the 19th Amendment, for example, and the 50th anniversaries of the founding of both the Coordinating Council for Women in History (or CCWH, organized in 1969 as the Coordinating Committee of Women Historians in the Profession) and the AHA Committee on Gender Equity (established in 1969 as the ad hocCommittee on the Status of Women). Friday’s session, “Foremothers: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” will be a chance for the CCWH to honor one of its founders, Berenice Carroll, before its anniversary celebrations the next day. On Saturday’s panel, “Creating Careers for Women: Gender and the Historical Profession after 1969,” Committee on Gender Equity chair Susan Kent will join university-based historians to reflect on a half-century of changes in academia, suggesting that the hiring of women changed the university workplace, and discussing why a university integrated by both gender and race matters to other kinds of commitments including publicly engaged scholarship, the transformation of curriculum, reimagining hiring norms, and the creation of new knowledge.

Read the entire piece here.

The Revival of Midwestern History

Midwest

Jon Lauck of the University of South Dakota is one of the growing number of scholars trying to bring back the history of Midwest.  Check out his books:

From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965

The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History

(edited with Gleaves Whitney and Joseph Hogan), Finding a New Midwestern History

Prairie republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889

Over at Perspectives on History, Kritika Agarwal reflects on this subfield.  Here is a taste:

“All of a sudden,” says Jon Lauck, professor of history at the University of South Dakota and past president of the Midwestern History Association (MHA), “people wanted to know why these swing counties around Milwaukee” and states like “Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa . . . went for Trump.” But for Lauck and other historians of the Midwest, the 2016 election was hardly surprising. The Midwest, a growing group of scholars says, is an enormously important region—historically, politically, socially, and culturally. And “if you understood that history,” says Edward Frantz (Univ. of Indianapolis), “you would not have been as shocked in early November 2016 as many of the people elsewhere were.”

The region, as the website of the MHA will tell you, “has suffered from decades of neglect and inattention,” both within and outside of academia. As the introduction of Finding a New Midwestern History(eds. Lauck, Joseph Hogan, and Gleaves Whitney, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2018) states, “In comparison to such regions as the South, the Far West, and New England, the Midwest and its culture—the history of its people and places; its literature, music, and art; the complexity and richness of its landscapes—has been neglected.” Yet Midwestern history isn’t entirely new.

The earliest historian to pay attention to the region was none other than Frederick Jackson Turner, who in the late 19th century published several essays on “the Middle West.” His work became foundational for a group of scholars whom Lauck dubs the Prairie Historians. Most of them were born in the region; as Lauck writes, they “developed a pattern of thought and a network of personalities, affiliations, and institutions that congealed into an early twentieth-century movement to advance the cause of studying the history of the prairie Midwest.” With an intense commitment to state and local history, the Prairie Historians focused on topics such as colonial settlement, the social and ethnic history of the Midwest, the development of American democracy and populism in the region, and agricultural and rural history.

Read the rest here.

Tweet Thread of the Day: The Historiography of American Conservatism

Buckley and Reagan

Last weekend Politico published historian Geoffrey Kabaservice‘s piece “Liberals Don’t Know Much About Conservative History.”

Kabaservice writes:

The end-of-century victories of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, however, forced historians to realize that conservatism could no longer be dismissed as a mere road bump on the inexorable progression toward a liberal future. The result, over the past two decades, has been a veritable tsunami of historical literature on conservatism. Virtually all of these works have been written by liberals. Nonetheless, historians of this new generation consider themselves to be unbiased and even sympathetic observers of conservatism. Many believe their collective efforts have produced a profound historical understanding of conservatism as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon, and thus contributed in some measure to bringing politically opposed citizens together.

Color me skeptical. I was a graduate student at the beginning of this new wave of conservative studies and I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with the historical profession’s purge of any scholars who could be described as Republicans or conservatives. Some of the new works on conservatism have been excellent, others awful. But nearly all reveal the pitfalls for liberals writing about a movement with which they have no personal experience. If you’re a historian who has not a single conservative colleague—and perhaps not even one conservative friend—chances are you’ll approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous.

The result is that two decades’ worth of scholarship hasn’t contributed as much as one might have hoped to our understanding of conservatism, especially in the age of Trump. This is particularly true of the works that have been most popular with the broader public. That’s a shame, because historians could provide deeper answers than they have so far to the questions many citizens now wrestle with: How did our political system become so divided and dysfunctional? To what extent is the conservative movement responsible for Trump’s rise? What have been the movement’s greatest successes as well as failures, and what relevance do they have to our understanding of ourselves as a nation and a people?

Thomas Sugrue, Director of American Studies at New York University responded to Kabaservice’s piece in a very informative Twitter thread.  Graduate students and advanced undergrads interested in American conservatism should read this thread.  Here it is:

 

The Author’s Corner with Paul Escott

53299415Paul Escott is Reynolds Professor of History at Wake Forest University. This interview is based on his new book, Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research (The University Press of Kentucky, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Rethinking the Civil War Era?

PE: I was invited to take on this project by the editors of the New Directions in Southern History series at the University Press of Kentucky. As part of the invitation we agreed that this book would have a slightly different format. Instead of writing in an entirely historiographical style, I have used a more personal tone and have thought of each chapter as an essay focused on both the extant scholarship and on questions or interpretive issues that interest or puzzle me.

Frankly, writing this book was not something I had ever imagined myself doing, and the challenge was more than a little intimidating. There are a great many very talented and energetic historians working in the field of the Civil War Era, and to master all the important and recent work is virtually impossible. I have read as widely as possible, within the practical constraints of producing a book within some reasonable period, and I have tried to comment on important new directions or possibilities for research. In the Preface I comment on the immense talent at work in this area and apologize that I could not cite all the deserving recent studies.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Rethinking the Civil War Era?

PE: This book identifies important questions, issues, and new directions of research in the Civil War Era. Its chapters cover the roots of war, the challenges to wartime societies North and South, the war’s consequences, and important work or questions in African American history, military history, environmental history, and digital research.

JF: Why do we need to read Rethinking the Civil War Era?

PE: The Press and I hope that this book will be useful both to established scholars and to younger historians who may want to survey opportunities in the field and target their own work. Books such as this one often serve a purpose in a rapidly developing field.

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

PE: I was in college during the Civil Rights Movement, and the stirring events of that era naturally stimulated one’s curiosity about the roots of our nation’s racial problems. As a result, I entered graduate school eager to learn more about southern history and the era of the Civil War. I was extremely fortunate to have outstanding professors and mentors at Duke University, namely Robert F. Durden and Raymond Gavins.

JF: What is your next project? 

PE: After many years of focusing on the South and the Confederacy, I more recently shifted my attention to the North. I now am working on a study of racism and racial attitudes in the North during the Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Paul!

Mary Beth Norton Was the First Historian to Use the Word “Gender” in *The William and Mary Quarterly*

wmq-cover1

The phrase “African American” was not used in the WMQ until 1999.

Check out Michael McDonnell‘s piece at Panorama on the William and Mary Quarterly‘s searchable index.  For those of you unfamiliar with the William and Mary Quarterly, it is the premier journal of early American history.

Here is a taste of McDonnell’s piece: “Historiographical Revolutions in the Quarterly: From Research to Teaching“:

The origins of the index lay in the research that David Waldstreicher and I began doing for the article that would eventually become “Revolution in the Quarterly?: A Historiographical Analysis” in the special joint issue of the WMQ and JER entitled “Writing To and From the Revolution.”

As we began work, we soon discovered that there was no single “at a glance” listing of the articles that have been published in the journal. Sure, we could have browsed J-STOR’s holdings, but only issue by issue. The Omohundro Institute’s own listing of Quarterly articles also needs similar unpacking, and does not link to full-text versions. (https://oieahc.wm.edu/wmq/browse_past.cfm)

To weigh up and assess the place of the Revolution in the pages of the Quarterly, we wanted a more accessible and assessable list of titles. To expedite our research, we asked a research assistant to put a spreadsheet together of the articles. We have recently put this online at https://www.michaelamcdonnell.org/wmq, and are happy to share this work in the hope that it will help further historiographical research and teaching and access to the Quarterly essays.

In the first place, of course, readers can use the index to test or examine our research results. While we focus mostly on the content of articles about the American Revolution in the main essay, we discuss our methodology in an accompanying piece available via the OI Reader. The entire special issue, our original article, and our methodological appendix including the tables we drew up are freely available via the Reader. No subscription is necessary.

As we explain in the essay, we used the index to compile lists of essays on or about the Revolution, and as a helpful way to dive deeper in to the full-text versions to examine the content of articles, but also to check if an essay on the Great Awakening, for example, was also an article on the coming of the American Revolution.

Read the rest here.

A Short Survey of Reconstruction Historiography

Recon

Do you need a quick primer on the historiography of Reconstruction?  If so, check out Allen Guelzo‘s short piece at History News Network: “The History of Reconstruction’s Third Phase.”  Here is a taste:

Understanding Reconstruction as a bourgeois revolution – in fact, according to Barrington Moore, the last bourgeois revolution – creates an opportunity for a third re-visioning of Reconstruction, and without the Eurocentric necessity to make it conform to the New Reconstructionists’ Marxism or the Progressive racism that fueled the Dunningites. We are already beginning to see a galaxy of new questions about Reconstruction take shape, and to find in work like Mark Wahlgren Summers’s The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (2014) an understanding of what Reconstruction actually did accomplish, in Gregory P. Downs’s After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (2015) the chronic unwillingness of Americans to fund post-conflict regime changes, and through Forrest A. Nabors’s From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (2017) an appreciation of the hitherto-ignored role played by Northern Democrats in league with their quondam Southern allies in paralyzing Reconstruction efforts.

These new movements may not be enough to get us a Museum of Reconstruction, and I have to confess a certain shrinkage at the prospect of what a Reconstruction re-enactment might look like (that will depend on who writes the script). But why not a Society for Historians of Reconstruction? It is time to bring Reconstruction home to us all, not as a Southern event or even the shadow of a European one, but as a uniquely American one, on an American landscape.

Read the entire piece here.

What Should We Make Of Populism?

hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter

Over at Politico, Joshua Zeitz wonders if American historians were wrong when they said populism was a “good thing.”  A taste:

Imagine, if you will, that millions of hard-working Americans finally reached their boiling point. Roiled by an unsettling pattern of economic booms and busts; powerless before a haughty coastal elite that in recent decades had effectively arrogated the nation’s banks, means of production and distribution, and even its information highway; burdened by the toll that open borders and free trade imposed on their communities; incensed by rising economic inequality and the concentration of political power—what if these Americans registered their disgust by forging a new political movement with a distinctly backward-looking, even revanchist, outlook? What if they rose up as one and tried to make America great again?

Would you regard such a movement as worthy of support and nurture—as keeping with the democratic tradition of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson? Or would you mainly dread the ugly tone it would inevitably assume—its fear of the immigrant and the Jew, its frequent lapse into white supremacy, its slipshod grasp of political economy and its potentially destabilizing effect on longstanding institutions and norms?

To clarify: This scenario has nothing whatsoever to do with Donald Trump and the modern Republican Party. Rather, it is a question that consumed social and political historians for the better part of a century. They clashed sharply in assessing the essential character of the Populist movement of the late 1800s—a political and economic uprising that briefly drew under one tent a ragtag coalition of Southern and Western farmers (both black and white), urban workers, and utopian newspapermen and polemicists.

That debate pitted “progressive” historians of the early 20th century and their latter-day successors who viewed Populism as a fundamentally constructive political movement, against Richard Hofstadter, one of the most influential American historians then or since. Writing in 1955, Hofstadter theorized that the Populists were cranks—backward-looking losers who blamed their misfortune on a raft of conspiracy theories.

Read the rest here.  Zietz appears to side with Hofstadter.

A High School Student is Asking About Leopold von Ranke.

Stamp_Germany_1995_MiNr1826_Leopold_von_Ranke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the Museum of the History of American History

StilesA couple of weeks ago we published a post on Pulitzer Prize-winner T.J. Stiles‘s idea to have a museum devoted to American historiography.  We had fun with this idea on Twitter, as our post indicates.

Stiles has now floated this idea again in a recent article at History News Network titled “We Need a Museum that Tells Us How We Came to Believe What We Believe.”  Here is a taste:

It is time we built a Museum of the History of American History.

If Donald Trump’s comments on the Charlottesville march and murder did nothing else, they awoke much of America to the ongoing battle over the public memory of the Civil War. The resulting outrage shows that memory matters. Memory makes meaning. Memory makes politics.

And politics makes memory. So does the formal study and writing of history, of course, but the relationship between the discipline of history and memory—or broadly shared cultural assumptions—is complicated. Conventional wisdom shapes historians, who often reinforce it with their work; on the other hand, many challenge it by marshaling evidence and arguments that, on occasion, change the public mind and seep back into politics. I don’t mean, then, that we need a historiography museum, but one that traces the intertwining of the popular imagination and the professional study of history. It would go beyond the question, “What happened?” to ask “How did we come to believe that this is what happened?” The answer to the latter can be just as important as to the first.

Read the rest here.

 

What If We Had A Museum Devoted To American Historiography?

Last night historian T.J. Stiles tweeted:

I love this idea–a museum devoted to American historiography.  What would go in such a museum?  Here are some suggestions from the #amhistmuseum hasthag I created to “promote” it.

Follow along and add your own suggests: #amhistmuseum