Ed Ayers on Trump’s White House history conference

Here is University of Richmond historian Ed Ayers at The Washington Post:

Despite the sustained offensive by those who would save America’s honor, the insidious enemy apparently endures, as dangerous today as ever, worthy of frontal attack by the president of the United States and a new 1776 Commission “to promote patriotic education,” to inject an antidote to the “ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”

These charges concern and puzzle me because they suggest I have been obtuse and perhaps even deluded. As it turns out, I have practiced history for most of the half-century in which these wars over history have been waged — and I have yet to meet anyone who works to destroy the United States. It makes me wonder whether I have been going to the wrong conferences and reading the wrong books, whether I have been left out of exclusive circles where plans are shared.

If this critique had merit, I should have been in the room when the plans were hatched. After all, I sought out the subjects often attacked as the nest of dangerous ideas. I have written books about crime and punishment in the South, about the rise of segregation and disfranchisement, about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Those topics deal with Black people, enslaved and free. They wrestle with lynching and chain gangs. They confront secession and the waging of war against the United States.

I haven’t hidden this work. Over the course of four decades, I have been fortunate to teach thousands of students, to work with museums of many sizes and missions, to help host television and radio shows and podcasts about American history, to work with the National Archives and the Library of Congress, to serve on commissions about African American history and Confederate monuments.

I have done that work because I care about my nation, my people. I do it because I love my native South, where I have chosen to live and to help raise our children. I do it because the United States has indeed been given a great opportunity, enjoyed by few nations in the history of the world, to create its history for itself. To live up to that opportunity, we owe it to ourselves to face the past honestly and fearlessly.

In all that work, I have yet to meet anyone who matches the description posted by the would-be defenders of our history. Instead, I meet people, from all kinds of backgrounds, who care about America, who are fiercely devoted to its institutions, rights and future. I meet people who long to share the freedom of our nation more broadly and more equitably, to explore injustice to lessen injustice.

Read the entire piece here.

When historians on the Left and the Right engage in “the pleasures of condemnation”

Yesterday I wrote about the White House’s conference on American history. Read that post here. Conservatives are cheering the event. Those on the Left–particularly academic historians–are trashing the event.

There are a lot of reasons to be critical about what happened at the White House last Thursday (again, read my post). But I often wonder if those on the academic left are engaging in the same kind of anti-intellectualism, rigid fundamentalism, and cancel culture as those on the right.

Meanwhile, there is a very large intellectual center in America made-up of people on the Left and the Right who are not willing to be pulled to the fringes. I think this large center–a place of open discourse and academic freedom–is articulated best in the recent letter published in Harpers magazine and signed by the likes of Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Jeet Heer, Matthew Karp, Randall Kennedy, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, Deirdre McCloskey, John McWhorter, Samuel Moyn, Olivia Nuzzi, Mark Oppenheimer, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salmon Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Cornel West, Sean Wilentz, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

These signers and other like-minded academics, intellectuals, and thinkers, are calling for the “free exchange of ideas,” which the letter describes as the “lifeblood of a liberal society.” Read the statement here.

Western Washington historian Johann Neem, the author of several books including What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, reflects the spirit of the Harpers letter in a recent twitter thread:


Another Monday in Trumpland

Trump press conference 2

Monday, August 31, 2022, in Trumpland began with news that House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican and Trump supporter, doctored a video to make it appear that Biden wants to defund the police. I am expecting Scalise’s GOP colleagues, including the court evangelicals, to mount a full-fledged assault on him for misleading the American people and promoting “fake news.” 🙂

Today Trump will be in Kenosha, Wisconsin despite the fact that governor Tony Evers has asked him not to come. Evers believes that a visit from Trump will only bring more division to a city experiencing racial unrest in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting and the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting incident that left two people dead.

Trump will not visit with the Blake family today. He claimed that the reason they will not meet is because the Blake family wanted to bring lawyers. Other reports suggest that Blake’s father has no interest in meeting with the president. And who is this “pastor” that Trump spoke with?

Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, refused to say that the president condemns the shooting of Jacob Blake or the the Rittenhouse shootings. How hard is it to condemn this? And if he won’t condemn these shootings, why is he going to Kenosha today? What message can he possibly deliver to the people of Kenosha that will bring any sense of healing? Oh, I almost forgot, we are talking about Trump. He doesn’t understand the idea of communal and social healing.

Joe Biden was in Pittsburgh yesterday and he also had a few things to say about the racial conflict in America:

Biden sounds like a “law and order” candidate here. But wait, I thought Biden was a radical socialist who supported violence and thuggery in the streets?  🙂 My favorite line from the speech: “Ask yourself, do I look like a radical socialist with a soft-spot for rioters? Really?”

After listening to Biden speak, Trump called a press conference to respond. He called Biden’s speech “strange” and then described a speech that sounded virtually nothing like the one Biden delivered:

Trump then decided to use his press conference riff on American history in schools. He claimed that our nation’s schools were engaging in “left-wing indoctrination.” Of course we have been hearing about this for a long time. But Trump offered some specifics. He said that students were learning that “America is a wicked nation plagued by racism.” Two quick thoughts on this. First, history teachers are not doing their jobs correctly if they are using morally-charged words such as “wicked” to describe the United States.  Second, history teachers are doing their jobs well if they are calling attention to the “racism” that has “plagued” our country.

Trump wants to restore “patriotic education” to our nation’s schools. This may not be a bad idea. A patriot–someone who loves their country–will acknowledge its successes and its flaws.

Trump defended his supporters shooting paint balls and pepper spray at protesters in Portland. He described them as engaged in a “peaceful protest.” In case you missed what happened:

He also refused to condemn the Rittenhouse shootings.

As has been the case since 2016, it is virtually impossible to distinguish the voice of the court evangelicals from the voice of Trump. If aliens landed on this planet and knew nothing about American politics or American religion, they would assume that there was no difference between the Christianity promoted by the court evangelicals and the rhetoric of Donald Trump:

Christian historians and sin

Why Study HistoryA lot of people in the media today, especially those in the Trump camp, are talking about American greatness. Many evangelical Christians, who last time I checked believed in the existence of human sin, want to ignore their country’s past transgressions. Such an approach was on full display last Friday night when Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore. I wrote about this speech here and here.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in human sin informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.” Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”

Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.

I often tell my Christian students that it is very difficult to understand historical figures like Nero, Caligula, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot without a robust understanding of sin. But a belief in human depravity and the sinfulness of this world can have a much deeper effect on the way we approach the past that goes beyond its mere use as a tool for pointing out individual and systemic justice and oppression. A belief in the reality of sin should provide us with a healthy skepticism about movements in the past committed to utopian ends, unlimited progress, or idealistic solutions to the problems of this world. This, of course, does not mean that we should stop working toward these ends, but history certainly teaches us that we live in a broken world that will not be completely fixed on this side of eternity.

Similarly, a belief in depravity helps us to better explain the human condition–the restlessness, the search for meaning, and the prideful ambition that has defined much o the past, especially in the modern era. Augustine was quite correct when he opened his Confessions with the famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

In the same way that a belief in the imago Dei should shape the stories that we tell about the past, a belief in sin should influence the process by which we craft our narratives of the human experience. Let me draw on my own experience as an American historian to illustrate this point.

The study of American history has always served a civic function in the United States. Schoolchildren learn American history for the purpose of becoming informed and patriotic citizens. What has resulted from this approach to teaching history is a skewed view of the American experience that celebrates certain heroic figures to the neglect of others. Such an approach also focuses on American greatness as defined by the patriotic designers of some of the school textbooks published for Christian Right schools and homeschooling parents. In such a curriculum, American nationalism triumphs over the stories chronicling those moments when the United States failed or when it acted in ways that might be considered unjust.

Such an approach to American history is not only one-sided; it also fails to recognize the theological truth that all earthly kingdoms and nations are flawed when compared to the kingdom of God. While the stories we tell about the United States should certainly not neglect the moments that make us feel good about our country, we should also not be surprised when we encounter stories that may lead us to hang our heads in collective shame.

While such a whitewashing of American history is quite popular these days among those on the political or cultural Right, those who occupy a place on the political or cultural Left can also ignore the realities of human sin on the subjects or individuals that they find to be inspirational. Yet, as Marsden reminds us, it is “a sign of maturity” when “representatives of a group can write history that takes into account that members of that group are flawed human beings like everyone else. In the long run the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues.”

Politically Motivated Violence Was Wrong During the Stamp Act and It Is Wrong Today. The Christian Right “Historians” Must Reckon With This

boston-stamp-act-riot-1765-granger

Everyone knows that the American Revolution was born through violent protest. Yes, the colonies fought a war that secured their liberty, but they also engaged in civilian violence in major British-American cities well before the outbreak of war.

Here is Peter Oliver, a Boston judge, describing the situation in Boston during the August 1765 Stamp Act riots. It comes from his 1781 book Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion:

The Mob, also, on the same Evening, broke into the Office of the Register of the Admiralty & did considerable Damage there; but were prevented from an utter Destruction of it. They also sought after the Custom House Officers; but they secreted themselves– these are some of the blessed Effects of smuggling. And so abandoned from all Virtue were the Minds of the People of Boston, that when the Kings Attorney examined many of them, on Oath, who were Spectators of the Scene & knew the Actors [participants], yet they exculpated them before a Grand Jury; & others, who were Men of Reputation, avoided giving any Evidence thro’ Fear of the like Fate. Such was the Reign of Anarchy in Boston, & such the very awkward Situation in which every Friend to Government stood. Mr. Otis & his mirmy-dons, the Smugglers & the black Regiment, had instilled into the Canaille that Mr. Hutchinson had promoted the Stamp Act; whereas, on the Contrary, he not only had drawn up the decent Memorial of the Massachusetts Assembly, but, previous to it, he had repeatedly wrote to his Friends in England to ward it off, by showing the Inexpedience of it & the Disadvantages that would accrue from it to the English Nation, but it was in vain to struggle against the Law of Otis, & the Gospel of his black Regiment. That worthy Man must be a Victim; Mr. Otis said so, & it was done.

Notice the destruction of property. Notice the corrupt politicians who protected the lawbreakers. Also notice that members of the Boston clergy–the “black Regiment”–fueled the mobs. (I am assuming that the “black regiment” mentioned in Oliver’s account was indeed a reference to the ministers). Today, the Christian Right activists who use the past to justify their present-day political policies have used the phrase “black-robed regiment” to describe Oliver’s “black regiment.” Pseudo-historian David Barton believes we need a revival of this so-called “black-robed regiment” in order to restore America to its Christian foundation. So if you want to support a group of evangelical ministers who endorsed the destruction of property, violence, and looting in the name of God and liberty, you can join here. (Also check-out J.L. Bell’s take on the “black-robed regiment.” He thinks Barton made it all up).

Here’s more from Oliver:

Such was the Frenzy of Anarchy that every Man was jealous [suspicious] of his Neighbor & seemed to wait for his Turn of Destruction; & such was the political Enthusiasm that the Minds of the most pious Men seemed to be wholly absorbed in the Temper of Riot. One Clergyman of Boston, in particular, who seemed to be devoted to an Abstraction from the World, and had gone through an Existence of near 70 Years, reputedly free from both original Sin & actual Transgression, yet by the perpetual buzzing of Incendiaries at his Ear, being inquired of, as an Oracle, what ought to be done by the People? He uttered his Decision with this laconic Answer: “Fight up to your Knees in Blood.” Never could the exclamation of Tantaene animis celestibus irae (“do the heavenly minds have such great anger”) be more just than on this Occasion. 

Once again, we see the Boston clergy endorsing the violence. More from Oliver:

The Secretary of the Province also, who was appointed a Stamp Master, was attacked, and his House much damaged. He was carried to the Tree of Liberty by the Mob & a Justice of the Peace provided to swear him; & there he was obliged, on pain of Death, to take an Oath to resign his Office. This Tree stood in the Town & was consecrated as an Idol for the Mob to worship; it was properly the Tree ordeal, where those whom the Rioters pitched upon as State delinquents, were carried to for Trial, or brought to as the Test of political Orthodoxy. It flourished until the British Troops possessed Boston, when it was desecrated by being cut down & carried to the Fire ordeal to warm the natural Body. It would have been lucky for the Soldiery had it continued to give a natural Warmth as long as it had communicated its political Heat; they then would not have suffered so much by the Severity of a cold Season.

Here is the Boston Gazette from 19 August, 1765:

Early on Wednesday Morning last, the Effigy of a Genltemen sustaining a very unpopular office, viz. that of St___p Master, was found hanging on a Tree in the most public Part of the Town, together with a Boot, wherein was concealed a young Imp of the D___l [Devil] represented as peeping out of the Top.–On the Breast of the Effigy was a Label, in Praise of Liberty, and denouncing Vengeance on the Subvertors of it–and underneath was the following Words, HE THAT TAKES THIS DOWN IS AN ENEMY TO HIS COUNTRY–The Owner of the Tree finding a Crowd of People to assemble, tho’ at 5 o’clock in the Morning, endeavoured to take it down; but being advis’d to the contrary by the Populace, lest it should occasion the demolition of his Windows, if nothing worse, desisted from the Attempt.

The Diversion it occasioned among a Multitude of Spectators, who continually assembled the whole Day, is surprising; not a Peasant was suffered to pass down to the Market, let him have what he would for Sale, ’till he had stop’d and got his Articles stamp’d by the Effigy. Toward’s dark some Thousands repaired to the said Place of Rendezvous, and having been taken down the Pageantry [the effigy], the proceeded with it along the Main Street to the Town-House, thro’ which they carried it ,and continued their Rout thro’ Kilby-Street to Oliver’s Dock, where there was a new Brick Building just finished; and they, imagining it to be designed for a Stamp-Office, instantly set about demolishing it, which they thoroughly effected in about half an Hour.

This passage shows a peaceful protest that quickly becomes violent and destructive.

Here’s more from the same Boston Gazette article:

In the mean Time the High-Sheriff, &c. &c., being apprehensive that the Person of the then Stamp-Master, and his Family, might be in Danger from the Tumult, went and advised them to evacuate the House, which they had scarcely done, making their Retreat across the Gardens, &c. before the Multitude approach’d Fort-Hill, continuous thereto, in order to burn the Effigy, together with the Timber and other Woodwork of the House they had demolish’d. After setting Fire to the Combustibles, they proceeded to break open the Stables, Coach-Houses, &c. and were actually increasing the Bonfire with a Coach, Booby Hutch, Chaise, &c. but were dissuaded going so far by a Number of Spectators present, tho’ they burnt the Coach Doors, Cushions, &c. But it seems, not having yet completed their Purpose, they set about pulling down a Range of Fence upwards of 15 Feet high which enclos’d the bottom of the Garden, into which having enter’d, they stripped the Trees of the Fruit, despoiled some of them by breaking off the Limbs, demolished the Summer House, broke the Windows in the Rear Part of the House, enter’d the same, went down the Cellars, and help’d themselves to the Liquor which they found there in the Silver Plate that the House afforded, none of which however was missing the next Day, altho’ scatter’d over various Parts of the House.  They then destroyed Part of the Furniture, among which was a Looking Glass said to be the largest in North-America, with two others, &c.

Here is a taste of an August 30, 1765 letter from Thomas Hutchinson to Richard Jackson. Hutchinson was the Lieutenant Governor of the colony of Massachusetts:

In the evening whilst I was at supper & my children round me somebody ran in & said the mob were coming. I directed my children to fly to a secure place & shut up my house as I had done before intending not to quit it but my eldest daughter repented her leaving me & hastened back & protested she would not quit the house unless I did. I could not stand against this and withdrew with her to a neighboring house where I had been but a few minutes before the hellish crew fell upon my house with the rage of devils & in a moment with axes split down the door & entered. My son being in the great entry heard them cry damn him he is upstairs we’ll have him. Some ran immediately as high as the top of the house to be employed there. Messages soon came from one after another to the house where I was to inform me the mob were coming in pursuit of me and I was obliged to retire through yards & gardens to a house more remote where I remained until 4 o’clock by which time one of the best finished houses in the province had nothing remaining but the bare walls & floors. Not contented with tearing off the wainscot & hangings & splitting the doors to pieces they beat down the cupola or lanthern and they began to take the slate & boards from the roof & were prevented only by the approaching daylight from a total demolition of the building. The garden fence was laid flat & all my trees  & c. broke down to the ground. Such ruins were never seen in America. Besides my plate & family pictures, household furniture of every kind, my own childrens’ and servants’ apparel they carried off about L900 sterling in money & emptied the house of everything whatsoever except a part of the kitchen furniture not leaving a single book or paper in it & have scattered or destroyed all the manuscripts & other papers I had been collecting for 30 years together besides a great number of public papers in my custody.

Final thoughts:

  1. When many Americans today remember white colonials engaging in acts of looting and destruction, they call such behavior “patriotic.” When African-Americans do the same thing today, white people say it is a violation of law and order. (Of course any such historical analogy must also be examined in the context of the rest of American history and the ongoing debates over “liberty” and “order” beginning with the debates about American identity that played-out in the 1790s).
  2. As I wrote in the title of this post, the violence was wrong then and it was wrong now. (There was a time when one might get charged with treason for making such a statement).
  3. If Peter Oliver is correct, evangelical ministers encouraged the violence. (If Oliver is not correct, then today’s entire “Black-Robed Regiment” movement falls apart, or at the very least needs to come-up with another name, due to a lack of historical evidence). Today, when evangelical ministers condemn the violence in American cities and extol Trump’s law and order approach, they are also condemning an important part of their own religious history and the history of the American Revolution.
  4. Learn more in my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

The 1619 Project: A “patriotism not of hagiography but of struggle”

1619

Over at Boston Review, Princeton graduate student David Walsh wonders why the conservative view of “patriotism” is so “fragile.”  He comes up with three reasons for this:

  1. The conservative propensity for “viewing freedom and equality as incompatible.”
  2. Conservatives are invested in the “explicitly racist power arrangements that the 1619 Protect criticizes.
  3. Conservatives “revere history as a source of  incontestable authority, as opposed to a storehouse of fallible human experience.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with James Davis

maryland, my maryland

James Davis is Professor of Musicology and Chair of the Music History Area at the School of Music at the State University of New York at Fredonia. This interview is based on his new book, Maryland, My Maryland: Music and Patriotism during the American Civil War (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

JF: What caused you to write Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Curiosity, at first. For years I had wondered how a song dedicated to a state that never joined the Confederacy could be considered – then and now – a Confederate anthem. Once I began digging deeper, I realized that “Maryland, My Maryland” was in many ways the ideal case study of the life cycle of a war song. As I pulled together the story, I also came to realize how changing concepts of patriotism were entwined with the song’s use and reception. By this point I thought I had a book-length study on my hands, and, to my good fortune, the University of Nebraska Press agreed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Maryland, My Maryland demonstrates how popular music simultaneously reflects and shapes events both large and small; that an anthem is an indispensable tool for gauging the depth and definition of patriotism; and that musical taste often triumphs over social class, politics, religion, and other social elements

JF: Why do we need to read Maryland, My Maryland?

JD: Maryland, My Maryland serves as reminder that there is a human factor behind everything we study about the Civil War. Aesthetics, or music taste and popularity, may seem tangential to great battles or ground-breaking legislation, but these are the issues that speak to the emotional foundation upon which everything else resides. By singing a song a person can express something that is impossible to convey in any other way. If we truly hope to understand what that person was experiencing, we should do our best to know that song and to understand what that performance meant.

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

JD: I moved into American history about 3 years after graduate school. My dissertation dealt with the intersection of philosophy and music theory – a very esoteric subject. After publishing a few articles, I realized that I had little desire to pursue this line. I spent about 2 years doing a great deal of reading and thinking, and finally decided to dive into work that combined three of my passions – musicology, American history, and military studies. A friend of mine mentioned having seen a collection of letters from a Civil War band leader in an archive, so I ordered a microfilm, began reading, and I was hooked.

JF: What is your next project?

JD: I have a few small Civil War projects underway, such as veterans and late-century music criticism, humor and music, and musical nostalgia. There is also a book possibility that would examine the notion of “proximity” (geographic, temporal, emotional) and musical meaning during the war. However, having spent over 20 years on the Civil War, I am anxious to expand my horizons. I hope to investigate similar topics (musical nationalism and patriotism, military music) in the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. I am also fascinated by bandsmen stationed in western forts from 1870-1900.

JF: Thanks, James!

James Grossman: History for Patriotism

Jim Grossman

In this month’s Perspectives on History, AHA Executive Director James Grossman describes why he thinks history education in the United States should be “patriotic.”  I love his answer.  Here is a taste:


Whether history education should be “patriotic”…begins with reflection on the purpose of history education itself. The AHA has participated in conversations at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels that have generally moved in similar directions: the role of historical thinking and historical knowledge in preparing students for citizenship, career, and self-understanding. What can be more patriotic than building communities of informed, employed, active citizens confident in their ability to make decisions and interact effectively with others?…

Though hardly the only discipline where such learning takes place, history is an ideal venue for the education of citizens. Our students learn about the relationship between structure, culture, and agency in the shaping and direction of change. They learn that imputations of inevitability need always be tempered by consideration of the contingency of human actions, even those with unintended consequences. They learn that history doesn’t just “happen.”

All fine and good, say the proponents of a different kind of patriotic preparation, one that celebrates the institutions within which all of this human agency takes place and the heroic figures whose agency stands at the center of the evolution of those institutions.

But to celebrate change, we must appreciate its necessity: Neither democratic institutions nor individual great men and women emerged fully formed. They evolved. And one cannot comprehend that evolution without understanding its context. If students don’t study the hierarchical nature of New England towns and the worldviews of Virginia slaveholders, they can’t understand the ideological origins of the American Revolution. If they don’t learn about the actual dynamics of chattel slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, then Lincoln’s warning in his Second Inaugural that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” reads as mere rhetoric.

I will continue to disagree with thoughtful colleagues who consider celebration and exceptionalism the cornerstones of a patriotic history education. But that disagreement is not over whether history education ought to be patriotic; it is about what constitutes patriotism in a nation founded on dissent and notable (even if not quite exceptional) for its deep and vibrant traditions of activism and debate from every corner of the country and the political spectrum.

Read the entire piece here.