Ron Chernow Kills It at the White House Correspondents Dinner

As many of you know, the White House Correspondents Association chose historian Ronald Chernow to be the keynote speaker at this year’s annual dinner, a responsibility that normally falls to a comedian.

Whatever you think about Chernow or his work, the celebrity historian who wrote the book that inspired the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton” was excellent.

Watch:

Who says historians can’t be funny?

I lived tweeted the talk.  Here are some of my tweets:

When History Meets Politics in Minnesota

Fort Snelling

Minnesota state senator Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) has proposed cutting $4 million (18%) from the budget of the Minnesota Historical Society because the society wants to integrate native American history at historic Fort Snelling.

Here is a taste of a Pete Kotz’s piece at City Pages:

She doesn’t believe in history. Or at least the history of Minnesota that occurred before Europeans showed up, took everybody’s stuff, and sometimes slaughtered the previous residents.

So she’s proposed gutting state funding for the Minnesota Historical Society, hacking $4 million from its $11 million budget. The society, you see, has committed a grave offense.

It posted a banner at its Fort Snelling visitor center that included the word “Bdote.” As in: “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.” This was the Dakota name for the site on the bluffs above the Mighty Mississippi, which, as you may have guessed, was long in existence before the Euros showed up.

To some, it would seem only natural that historians present, well, history. Kiffmeyer objects. She initially refused to say exactly why she wanted to gut the society, as the Star Tribune’s Jennifer Brooks notes. She would only tell colleagues that it had become “highly controversial.” So she wants it to pay with mass layoffs, museum closures, and reduced educational fare for kids.

That left Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson) to articulate the GOP position: “The controversy revolves around whether or not the Historical Society is involved in revisionist history. I do not agree with what the Historical Society is engaged in doing. I believe it to be revisionist history.”

Read the entire piece here.

This is yet another example of how history gets politicized by legislators who have no idea what they are talking about.

Kent Whitworth, the Director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, responds to the proposed budget cuts in this podcast with Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz.  I love Kent’s passion and the spirit in which he is leading his staff through this crisis.

Episode 49: Why is America So Divided?

PodcastWhether you ask a young college student or a baby boomer, the only thing people seem to agree on these days is that we are more politically divided than ever. But is this true, and if so, how did we get this way? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling try to tackle this question. They are joined by Princeton historian and CNN commentator Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer), the co-author of the recent book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

The Author’s Corner with Edward Rugemer

slave law and the politics of resistance in the early atlantic world

Edward Rugemer is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: When I was in graduate school at Boston College, both Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint were published during the years before my oral exams. I read both and was inspired to take on a comparative project, though not, I was advised, for my dissertation. The idea for the comparison at the heart of this book came from my dissertation/ first book, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008). I realized in writing that book that the planter classes in Jamaica and South Carolina had this very similar relationship with abolitionists. They were the most radically pro-slavery in these different regions of the Anglo Atlantic, the U.S. South and the British Caribbean. When I considered this realization alongside the work of Richard Dunn and Peter Wood, that both Jamaica and South Carolina were “colonies” of Barbados (to use Wood’s phrase), I saw that these two slave societies had followed very similar historical arcs. They had common origins, developed into the wealthiest colonies of their respective regions, and though each went its separate way during the American Revolution, both followed a very similar pattern in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution and the emergence of radical abolitionism. Comparison requires both similarity and difference and the political histories of Jamaica and South Carolina have the necessary mix.

The central theme of the book — the relationship between slave resistance and broader political changes — also came from the first book, specifically in the first few chapters. I felt there was much more to say about the impact of slave resistance upon the political history of slave societies. Some of this work had been done by historians of the American Civil War era such as Jim Oakes and Steve Hahn, and historians of the nineteenth century Caribbean such as Mary Turner and Emilia Viotti da Costa, and more recently Gelien Matthews and Claudius Fergus. But no one had gone deeper into the colonial period and I thought it was important to do so.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: Very early in the history of Atlantic slave societies a political dialectic developed between Africans who forcefully resisted enslavement, and slaveholding colonists who sought to impose the rigid social control they saw as necessary for profitable colonial enterprise. This dialectic is evident in slave law, it developed and changed until the abolition of slavery, and it shaped the histories of Jamaica and South Carolina in fundamentally different ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: First, it is a valuable account of, and explanation for, the political significance of slave resistance in Anglo-Atlantic slave societies from their origins to the 1830s. Secondly, the book makes clear the differences between the slave regimes of the Caribbean and the U.S. In this way it complements Richard Dunn’s important study, A Tale of Two Plantations

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

ER: I worked as a Jesuit volunteer teaching high school in Kingston, Jamaica, from 1994-1996 and my experience there led me to some deep reading in the history of slavery and eventually graduate school.

JF: What is your next project?

ER: I have two different projects that are in the early stages. I am thinking about writing a synthesis of slavery in the Western World. My most ambitious self wants to start with some of the theories on the origins of slavery, move into ancient Greece and Rome, the decline of slavery in Western Europe and its persistence in the Mediterranean, the expansion into the Atlantic. But I want to take this history up to modern slavery and human trafficking in our own time. I don’t think we have an historical narrative that integrates the racial slavery of the Atlantic World, which lasted for generations and has had such insidious afterlives, with the various forms of slavery that persist today. Many modern day abolitionists invoke the abolitionist movements of the past without careful attention to the distinctions between these manifestations of slavery across time and space. Historians need to do this. So I’d like to come up with a synthesis that brings this history together.

The second idea is a deeply archival project about a slaveholder we know very little about. His name is Charles Douglas and the Beinecke Library has about 30 years of his correspondence with his brother Patrick. I read it all during my first year at Yale, thinking I would use it for this book, but I only used one brief quote. Douglas moves from Ayr, Scotland to Jamaica when he was a teenager. He mostly worked as a bookkeeper at first (kind of an assistant overseer), but he does accrue some wealth and becomes a slaveholder. What’s curious about him is that when he buys land, he buys land that directly abuts Moore Town in the Blue Mountains, which is one of the Maroon Towns. He becomes the superintendent for the Moore Town Maroons, which is a position established by the 1739 treaties that ended the first Maroon War and recognized Maroon autonomy within the colony. Formally, he was the Maroons’ military commander, but in fact I don’t think it worked that way. Yet there were these superintendents, one for each of the towns, and they were well paid by the colonial state. But there is an archival challenge: I need to find his reports. I don’t know where they are and no one has ever referenced them. And if I can find them, it could be a really interesting book. I need to dig deeper and I love that challenge, but it will take some time.

JF: Thanks, Edward!

The Role of Historians in “Unfaking the News” (#AHA19)

trump fake news

Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL reports on a very relevant panel held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

This afternoon’s AHA19 panel, “Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Age of Trump,” was a lively and much needed discussion on the role that historians can and should play in bringing their scholarship to the general public through mass media.  It was by far the most political session I’ve attended, but it’s hard to envision how that could have been avoided, considering the session’s namesake politician’s evident lack of historical understanding and (according to the Washington Post just two months ago) average of five false or misleading claims per day since becoming president.

The format was round-robin and each round of discussion was started with a question posed by session chair Kenneth Osgood.  This allowed for plenty of back and forth from the panelists and a good deal of follow-up questions and commentary from the audience.  What follows are two of the questions asked, with a summary of the responses from the historians on the panel.

1)  What’s an issue facing the country that cries out for meaningful historical understanding?

Nicole Hemmer – “The crisis of political journalism in the Age of Trump.”  According to Hemmer, the values of objective reporting have come under fire and the solution of some to just offer both sides has led to false equivalencies being created and unchallenged notions being promoted on the air and in print.

Jeremi Suri – “The bureaucracy (the ‘Deep State’).”  Despite its demonization, and view by some during the current government shutdown that it’s even unnecessary, Suri explained how bureaucracy is a good thing.  It makes our lives better and we need it.  At a conference with attendees from all over the country, his example of the air traffic controllers who are currently working without pay had easy resonance.

Julian Zelizer – “Partisanship and polarization … we need to understand just how deeply rooted this disfunction is or we’ll always be waking up like we’re Alice in Wonderland.”

Jeffrey Engel – “How much do we need to be educators, how much do we need to be citizens, and how do those responsibilities overlap?”  He continued, tongue in cheek, “When Trump sends that next tweet, we need to be able to step in and say, ‘well no, John Adams also tweeted that.’”  In some of the more sobering analysis from the panel, Engel admitted that over the past two years he has genuinely started to think that the Republic is in danger.  “What does the history we are talking about mean to us today?” he asked.  “These are unusual times.”

2)  Is Donald Trump just saying out loud what other presidents have thought in quiet?  Is the Trump Presidency unprecedented?

Hemmer – “The ‘just saying it out loud’ is important … that matters.”

Suri – “What makes Trump unprecedented is that despite the impossibility of the job, he doesn’t even try to do it.  He’s the first president to not be president.  He is running the Trump Organization from the White House.  He is using the office to help his family … He is running a mafia organization from the Oval Office … Every other president has tried to do the job; he is not doing the job.”

Zelizer – The unusual question we’re continuing to see played out is, “how far to the brink is the party of the president willing to go in support of their president?”

Engel – “Abraham Lincoln’s most recent thoughts didn’t immediately pop up on your phone.”  He continued, “If any other president had admitted to having an extramarital affair with a porn star, their world would have exploded.  It’s important to know just how far we have, and how far we have not, come in the last two years.”  Engel explained that never in the discussion of Stormy Daniels was anyone seriously questioning whether it happened.  The debate was always over whether it was illegal.  And for him, that’s a shocking development.  He also cautioned that historians have to be careful with how they use the word “unprecedented.”

Suri – “We need to move people away from the false use of history.”  For him, the word unprecedented means “beyond the pale for the context that we are in and the trajectory we’ve been on.”  He stressed that historians need to push back against the impulse to say that “everything is Hitler,” just as much as they need to push back against the narrative that “everything is normal.”

Osgood had opened the session with the observation that “these challenges were not invented by Donald Trump, but they have been exacerbated by him.”  Towards the end of the panel he added that for Trump, “Twitter is the source of his power.”  With that in mind, perhaps it’s a good thing that Kevin Kruse, Kevin Levin, the Tattooed Prof, and other so-called “twitterstorians” are practicing public history online and on the air.

Thanks, Matt!

#AHA19 Sessions and the News

People watch as a fire burns at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro

Are you looking for some historical context for topics in the news?  History News Network has listed some relevant sessions at this weekend’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Friday, January 4, 2019

Read the rest here.

Princeton’s Robert George on Intellectual and Ideological Diversity in the Academy

7b24a-princeton

While I was visiting a big state university a couple of weeks ago I had a robust, spirited, and civil conversation with the history faculty about how to teach controversial or morally problematic issues.  Many of the history professors in the room said that they use their classrooms to advocate for certain political causes (all on the left) or see no problem giving their personal opinion about a particular issue or idea that arises from the study of the past.

I pushed back. I wondered whether the history classroom was primarily the place where such moral criticism should happen.  Those familiar with my Why Study History?: A Historical Introduction know that I think there is a difference between moral philosophy (ethics) and history.  Though I obviously have my opinions, and many of them are informed by my understanding of the past, I rarely bring those opinions into the classroom.  For example, the only time I talk about Donald Trump in my classroom is when he gets something wrong about history or uses the past irresponsibly to justify this or that policy.   I do the same thing with any public figure who manipulates the past for political gain.

In other words, my blog and other social media feeds are not the best representations of what my classroom looks like.

Robert George of Princeton University is very conservative.  I have seen him defending moral conservatism in public talks, in writing, and on social media.  But if I read his recent interview with Matthew Stein at The College Fix, I don’t think these conservative political and moral convictions dominate his classroom.  George has some very interesting things to say about intellectual and ideological diversity in the classroom. Here is a taste:

The College Fix: In your Open Minds Conference panel, you mentioned that you don’t think professors should “use their classrooms as a soapbox for advocacy,” and that you and professors like Cornel West make your classrooms as intellectually stimulating and valuable as possible by honestly portraying both sides of an argument. This seems to hit on a big issue with the universities today, as many professors of the “progressive orthodoxy” you later mentioned seem to use their positions to influence their students into becoming activists of related social causes. How do you think society can address this issue, particularly given the system of tenure and the sheer magnitude of the problem?

Robert George: Like most of the problems in academia—and society more broadly—today, what is needed above all is courage. We need the courage to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable, and even when truth-speaking carries risks. Professors who seek to indoctrinate their students are betraying a sacred trust. They are supposed to be educators. If there is an antonym to “educating,” it’s “indoctrinating.” Professors (and other teachers) who engage in indoctrination need to be confronted. Certainly administrators need to do this. Fellow faculty members need to do it. And students themselves need to do it, too.

Is this risky, especially for students? You bet it is. But that’s where the virtue of courage comes in. All of us—including students—need to muster the courage to call out teachers who betray their sacred trust. In addition, professors who understand the importance of truly educating students, and who grasp the fundamental difference between education and indoctrination, need to set an excellent example for their colleagues—especially younger colleagues. Together, we can establish a milieu that powerfully discourages indoctrination.

CF: You also mentioned that you should create an atmosphere of “unsettling” each other in the classroom. Looking at the campus more generally, there are continually accounts of the opposite atmosphere in regards to discussing “unsettling ideas,” whether it be by an outside speaker being shut down or students on campus being afraid to express unpopular viewpoints. How can this negative general atmosphere on campus be improved to encourage students to act out the ideal intellectual atmosphere that you described?

RG: Again, courage is the key. Students must have the courage to express dissent—even if they are alone or in a small minority in the class in holding a particular view. And faculty members need to model courage for their students—and for their colleagues (especially younger colleagues). All of us must overcome the natural fear we feel in oppressive environments of the sort that too often exist today in college, high school, and even middle school classrooms. And when a dissenter does speak up in defiance of a campus dogma, all of us (and not only those who happen to share his or her dissenting opinion) need swiftly to provide that individual with support.

That is how we will establish an environment in which people are free—and feel and know they are free—to speak their minds, thus benefiting the entire community by contributing to robust, civil campus debates.

CF: Identity politics was one issue you touched on in the Q&A, which you said has a negative effect on both college campuses and society at large. Could you speak a little more on how identity politics and student groups organized around group identity has negatively affected the university? Are there any common issues of identity politics amongst the faculty? Has it had any effects on your or other professors’ ability to create the positive intellectual atmosphere you previously mentioned?

RG: Identity politics, and the dogmas of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “intersectionality,” harm learning environments by encouraging groupthink and stigmatizing dissent.

One especially regrettable consequence of the rise of identitarianism is the pressure placed on female and minority students to hold and express opinions that are in line with what women and members of minority groups are “supposed” to think. If you are female, you are “supposed” to hold a certain view on abortion and the status of unborn human life. If you are black, you are “supposed” to express a certain view on the desirability of affirmative action programs of certain sorts. If you are Latino, you are “supposed” to have a certain set of beliefs on immigration policy.

I find this reprehensible. People need to think for themselves. And they need to do that, and need to know that they are entitled to do that, whether they are male or female, black, white, green, blue, or purple.

 

Read the entire interview here.  He also has some interesting things to say about Liberty University.

Episode 32: The Politics of Sex

uploads_2F1517801018608-g7jadvnppfm-49f71c59cada623d3fc8cd64f18ad36b_2FwoiHost John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling continue to explore the many facets of the Culture Wars. Today, they tackle the often taboo subject of sex and politics. John discusses how sex was politicized in colonial America. They are joined by R. Marie Griffith (@RMarieGriffith), author of Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics.

Mark Lilla Returns With a More Sustained Treatment of Identity Politics

LillaLast November, Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla released a bombshell in the form of a New York Times article entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  We spent some time here discussing it.  I found Lilla’s argument pretty compelling.

Lilla decided to capitalize on the popularity and controversy of his Times piece with a 143-page book titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  I have not read the book yet, but just came across a review from Yale historian Beverly Gage.

Here is a taste:

…he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together: How should the Democratic Party balance diversity with a common vision of citizenship? How and where should concerned Americans focus their energies — on social-movement activism, on “resistance,” on electoral politics? How should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict? How, for that matter, can Democrats start winning a few more local races? Lilla acts as if there are easy answers to these questions. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more mayors.” But isn’t it possible that we need both?

Lilla concedes that many Americans think of themselves at once as members of identity groups and as citizens of a national polity. “Both ideas can be — indeed, are — true.” He argues nonetheless that our particular crisis calls for prioritizing one over the other. “What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences.”

Unwittingly, however, “The Once and Future Liberal” provides a case study in just how challenging that may be. Despite his lofty calls for solidarity, Lilla can’t seem to get out of his own way — or even to take his own advice. He urges fellow liberals to focus on “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort,” then proceeds to insult his own audience. He denounces the modern university for churning out students “incurious about the world outside their heads,” yet fails, in the end, to get much outside of his own. He decries identity types for “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit” while offering up his own elaborate jeremiad. He reminds liberals that “nothing will turn voters off more surely than being hectored,” and then — on the very same page — scolds the “identity conscious” for treating political meetings as “therapy sessions.”

As it turns out, Lilla himself could have used more rather than less introspection, a healthy dose of examining his own contradictions and biases. He laments that “American liberals have a reputation, as the saying goes, of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If so, he has proved his bona fides as a member of the tribe. “The Once and Future Liberal” is a missed opportunity of the highest order, trolling disguised as erudition.

Ouch.

Read the entire review here.  I’ll reserve judgement until I get a chance to read the book. You can also listen to an interview with Lilla at “All Things Considered.”

What To Do If You Are Concerned About People “Erasing History”

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583One of the arguments against removing Confederate monuments (or any monument, for that matter) is that such an act is the equivalent of “erasing history.”  I don’t think this concern should be dismissed so easily just because a bunch of white supremacists came to Charlottesville to defend a monument of Robert E. Lee.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I was appalled at Donald Trump’s failure to make a moral differentiation between the white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend and the group that opposed them.  But I do think Trump asked a series of fair questions when he said “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.”

So where does it stop?  If you are asking this question, it doesn’t make you a racist, a white supremacist, a member of the alt-Right, or a neo-Nazi.  It is a legitimate historical question about how the past informs the present and how we should remember and commemorate what has happened in bygone eras.

I have done several posts on this issue that might help you to think this through.

  • Here is a post on Annette Gordon-Reed’s response to the very question Trump asked yesterday.
  • Here is a post on the 1776 removal of New York statue to George III.
  • Here is a post on W.E.B. DuBois on Confederate monuments.
  • Here is a post on Yale historian David Blight on this issue.
  • Here is a post on New Yorker writer and historian Jelani Cobb on this issue.

We can continue to debate what to do with Confederate monuments, but over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gerhz has a message for all of those folks who are suddenly concerned about “erasing history.”

Here is a taste:

But if you’re one of those people who’s up in arms about the dangers of #ErasingHistory, then let me suggest a few ways you might better expend your time and passion in service of the past than by taking up a Lost Cause:

• Encourage your ancient Rome- or WWII-loving teenager to consider majoring in history. “But everyone knows that’s a useless major,” they’ll reply. “No, it’s not,” you’ll calmly respond. And hand them empirical data. (Because that’s how teenagers make decisions.)

• Complain to your alma mater the next time they fail to replace a retiring history professor, or when you find out that most of their history teaching load is born by overworked, underpaid adjuncts.

• Ask your local principal or school district superintendent to explain the budgetary and curricular implications for social studies of that shiny new STEM program they (like all their competitors) keep promoting.

• Call your representative or senator to protest the next federal budget proposal that threatens to defund the public endowment that makes possible dozens of valuable projects in historical research and interpretation.

• Or if you prefer free market solutions… Buy a membership in your local attendance-challenged historical museum or site, and purchase history books by actual historians: like this Davidthis Davidthis David, or this David instead of this David.

Great post!  Read all of it here.

Blight: Historians Should Petition Trump to Take an “Educational Sabbatical” So He Can Learn More U.S. History

usa-trump

History News Network has published a David Blight piece which original appeared at the website of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.  Of all the things Trump has done, Blight is most worried about his “essential ignorance” of American history.

Here is a taste of his piece, originally titled “Trump and History: Ignorance and Denial“:

Trump’s “learning” of American history must have stopped a long time ago. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. Perhaps his grasp of American history rather reflects his essential personality, which seems to be some combination of utter self-absorption, a lack of empathy, and a need to believe in or rely upon hyper individualism. President Trump does seem to possess an instinct for the feelings, fears, resentments, and base level aspirations of many Americans who are displeased at best with the country and the kind of society that has developed over the past decades, especially since the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. He further has an instinct for how and why so many white Americans were uncomfortable or downright furious that a black man could be elected President. The “birther” effort that he led stoked a kind of 21st century racism that appeals to a vast audience of suburban and rural America that takes its information and its values from Fox News and its many media allies. And we must give him credit for capturing the political sentiments of the displaced and the neglected in our globalized economy and in our identity-obsessed culture. They do need a voice. To pull that off as a celebrity billionaire may say more about the culture and social values we have all participated in forging more than it says about him. 

Trump has political instinct but little in the way of political knowledge of either institutions or history. Why does this matter? Well, if a President makes history, which he can and does on any given day, he should know some history.  He must be able to think in time, to think by analogy, precedent, and comparison.  He needs perspective in order to find wisdom.  Decisions ought never be made in a vacuum. A President certainly needs to think anew about old problems, but how can any holder of that office consider Middle East peace, or relations with a nuclear or non-nuclear Iran, or the immediate threat of the bizarre North Korean regime, or the social collapse of Venezuela, or the possible dismantling of the European Union, or the increasing rise of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist authoritarianism if he is adrift in history, believing only that great problems are solved by great strong men?  President Trump’s uses of the past – nonsensical throw away lines about the revelation that Lincoln was a Republican, or that Frederick Douglass had been “doing an amazing job,” and now that no one bothers to think about “why was there the Civil War” are not merely matters of temperament. They are dangerous examples of ignorance in high places. And we must not let this kind of presidential mis-use and denial of history become normalized or merely the object of humor.  Satire is our only tool sometimes, but good satire has always been a very serious weapon at the end of the day.  Jackson was too important in American history to be so loosely and ignorantly invoked by the President. For students of the Civil War era, we might even conclude, contra Trump, that had Jackson lived to the time of the Civil War, not only would he have not prevented the conflict, his fellow Tennessean, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious cavalry leader, might have been out of a job.

The historical profession might consider petitioning the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for an educational sabbatical.  If he must be President for three and a half more years, we need him to be able to make sense when he speaks of the past.  Sometimes CEOs or university presidents need a break from the daily grind.  The President’s staff could choose a few historians to go to the retreat and the American Historical Association could choose a few more.  A crash course in reading, or perhaps just in watching documentary films, about the history of American foreign policy as well as the history of slavery and race relations in particular could be the core of the curriculum.  Some biographies, a good history of women and gender, a genuine tutorial on the Civil Rights era, and even a serious digestion of good works on the Gilded Age and the New Deal legacies might be required.  And finally, a primer on Constitutional history would be essential too, and might make that second month necessary.  This alone could garner the United States again some confidence and respect around the world.   And, one further thing, no tweeting on educational leave.  There will be a test at the end of the term.

 

Read the entire piece here.

Chaplin vs. Cruz: Part 2

treatyofparis

As far as I can tell, this is the first thing I have read from Joyce Chaplin since Ted Cruz attacked her on Twitter.  As I have now said a couple of times, I hope she will write something to put this all to bed.  On the other hand, I would fully understand if Chaplin does not want to open herself up to more attacks.

Here is a taste of Joanna Walter’s Guardian piece:

Fighting broke out in Britain’s American colonies on 18 April 1775, at Concord, Massachusetts. On 4 July 1776, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. British forces did not surrender until 1781, after the battle of Yorktown, in Virginia.

In 1783, representatives of King George III met in Paris with Americans including founding fathers Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Representatives of France and Spain also signed the United States of America into formal, internationally-recognised existence.

Chaplin said: “The Declaration of Independence was necessary but not sufficient. The American patriots knew that they needed international assistance to win the war. Even before [4 July] 1776, they sent a diplomatic envoy to Paris – foreign aid and recognition were top priorities.”

She declined to comment on the tone of Cruz’s criticism and his more personal points, saying: “Personal attacks cannot alter the historical record.”

On the history, she added: “Before they recognised the US, the French referred to the Americans as “insurgents” … not citizens of a separate nation … the full spate of recognitions only came after the treaty. Those who recognised the US before were demonstrating antagonism to Great Britain.”

The 1783 Paris treaty formalised the boundaries of the US: north of Florida to the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi.

“The treaty … in terms of law created the US as one nation among others,” Chaplin said. “By relinquishing claims to the US, Britain also gave force of law to its territorial boundaries, which had not been clear before, from anyone’s perspective …There is scholarly consensus on this.”

She called 4 July 1776 “a first step” on the road to national independence.

Asked if the US now owes it to the rest of the world to stick with the Paris climate deal, Chaplin said that accord was the culmination of centuries of quid pro quo.

“If we turn our backs on the rest of the world now,” she said, “when climate change requires all hands on deck, we are denying centuries of cooperation in a community of nations.”

As linked above, I wrote about this here.

A few more thoughts:

  1. The conservative backlash is very revealing.  Most of it comes from political pundits who, like Cruz, see this as another chance to pounce on so-called liberal Harvard professors.
  2. Cruz and the conservatives, as I wrote in my original post, are incapable of seeing the nuance on this issue because they cannot see Chaplin’s remarks as anything other than politically motivated.  (And yes, Chaplin opened herself up to this critique by making the connection between Paris 1783 and Paris 2017. This is a stretch. It is not as sensitive to change over time as it should be). This is why we need more historical thinking in our schools and in our society.
  3. In reality, the creation of the United States was a very complex process that included the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the years under the Articles of Confederation, the Treaty of Paris (international recognition WAS essential), and the Constitution.  When this complex history is subordinated to contemporary politics, any attempt to understand the past in all its fullness stalls.
  4.  Twitter is no place to deal with these complex issues.
  5. Anyone who wants to really explore these issues should begin here:  David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History; Eliga H. Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire; Larrie Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.  This is a start.  Feel free to add new works in the comments or via Facebook and Twitter.  Let’s turn this unfortunate incident into an opportunity for learning more about the American Revolution.
  6. Some of the conservative stuff written in defense of Cruz is simply hogwash. This was especially the case with Jay Cost’s piece at The Weekly Standard.  I like John Haas’s take on Cost at his Facebook page.  Here is a taste:

Jay Cost–who knows a thing or two about US history, btw–has weighed into the Twitter kerfuffle that’s erupted between Senator Ted Cruz (a Harvard grad) and Joyce Chaplin (a Harvard historian)…

They both have some of the truth here. If Cruz is insisting that the war was necessary to get Britain to the table, that’s obviously true–but it’s also nothing Chaplin denied. Cruz and his followers are assuming that if Chaplin didn’t mention it, she must be denying its importance. That’s silly. (If Cruz is going further, as many of his followers seem to be going, and is saying our “total victory” over GB allowed us to just dictate terms to them, well, no. There’s such a thing as “total war” I suppose (it’s meaning isn’t entirely clear, but people say it); there is “unconditional surrender”; but I don’t know what “total victory” is.

Chaplin is also correct that without international recognition, you’re not a nation yet. That’s why the Confederate States of America was so eager to gain recognition. Just ask the Basques about that.

As for Cost: This isn’t his finest hour. He makes six points:

1) The Treaty of Paris was bilateral, US and GB, not multilateral. Sure. But now every nation with relations with Great Britain knew the US was now no longer its colonial possession, and was free to treat us as sovereign without incurring the wrath of Great Britain. Point to Chaplin.

2) “The Treaty was a recognition of the facts on the ground, which were that, after their defeat at Yorktown, the British had no chance of reclaiming their American colonies.” A very weak point from Cost. Better to say Britain had no interest in reclaiming the colonies, not “no chance.” As with the US and Vietnam, if GB had really determined to fight that war all out, who knows what might have happened. They were nowhere close to “defeated.” They just lost interest.

3) He says there was no international community. Well, no UN, but sure, there was a community of nations that generally respected each others’ nationhood, accepted their delegations, made treaties with each other, etc.

4) “Insofar as the international community did exist, it was on the side of the United States.” Irrelevant.

5) Also irrelevant.

6) “Chaplin’s logic leads to ridiculous propositions. Did the ‘international community’ sanction the Glorious Revolution of 1688? Of course not. But, per Chaplin’s logic, Queen Elizabeth II is not the legitimate monarch of Great Britain . . .” This is just dumb. The international community did sanction 1688 by treating William & Mary as legitimate. But more important, it wasn’t really a “revolution,” much less a civil war; it was a major assertion of Parliamentarian authority and a change of monarch. Not at all comparable to our Revolution.

Cost calls Professor Chaplin “pathetic,” “ridiculous,” and “embarrassing.” He should probably apologize. But he won’t. It’s the #AgeOfTrump

DePaul University History Profs: “Trump’s assault on our national history must end.”

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In the wake of Donald Trump’s now infamous “Andrew Jackson and the Civil War” remarks, DePaul historians Thomas Foster and Margaret Storey have turned to the pages of their hometown Chicago Sun-Times to chide the POTUS for making a mess of American history.

Here is a taste:

One could dismiss this as simple (if shocking) illiteracy. But historical illiteracy is no joke, and we dismiss it at our peril. Indeed, such illiteracy has prompted some politicians to attack the study of history as valueless in a technologically-driven world.

Understanding history is vitally important, and not just because history explains our contemporary society. A key value of studying history is that it teaches us how to draw conclusions based on evidence. Understanding how to weigh evidence — thoroughly and scrupulously — is the only way to make reasoned decisions in any field. It’s also the only way to sift through the “fake news” that President Trump deals in, and that sullies our civic discourse and shackles us all from moving forward.

For all these reasons, History is power.

Our president recognizes this and wields his ignorance like a weapon, reveling in his ability to dominate the reasoned discourse of experts with his own, tortured resistance to their authority. He purposefully co-opts historical topics to serve his, and his supporters’, political ends. At the extreme, they include those who deny that slavery was at the core of the Civil War, and also deny other historical atrocities, including the Holocaust.

For those of us who confront our nation’s history as a professional duty, the sentiment that basic historical knowledge is vital for participation in our democracy is a given. But plenty of Americans agree that understanding our history is necessary for ensuring a successful future. Indeed, it is part of our citizenship test — a test that we doubt our president could pass.

Read the entire piece here.

Historians Weigh-In on Trump’s Civil War Comments

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I was going to write something about this, but my fellow historians have already said just about everything I would say.   Maybe I will try to post something later.

Here are links to some of the commentary:

This New York Times article quotes Julian Zelizer and Jon Meacham

The Boston.com piece quotes David Blight and Drew Gilpin Faust

The Washington Post reprints a passage from Joy Hakim’s A History of US

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune quotes Eric Foner

Check our Yoni Appelbaum’s piece at The Atlantic

David Graham’s piece at The Atlantic is also worth reading.

NPR turned to its own Jackson expert, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep

Yahoo News quotes Kevin Kruse, Eric Rauchway, Nicole Hemmer, and Meacham

Watch:

I Hate When Politicians Do This

Trump Jackson

The most dangerous POTUS of all time?  

At a rally yesterday in Salt Lake City, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez announced, among other things, that “we have the most dangerous president in American history.”

Stop it.

One of my pet peeves is when politicians make political statements and try to couch them with some type of moral authority by appealing to American history.  Obama used to do this all the time with his “right” and “wrong” side of history stuff.

Is Trump the most dangerous president in American history?  This is not a question that historians usually ask because it is virtually impossible to answer.  Even if the American republic comes to a crashing end in the next several months, future historians will debate whether or not it was really Trump’s fault.

I am sure many Native Americans in the 1830s thought Andrew Jackson was the most dangerous president in American history.  I am sure conservatives and libertarians during the New Deal thought FDR was the most dangerous president in American history.  I am sure free-soilers thought James K. Polk was the most dangerous president in American history.  Many evangelical Christians thought Bill Clinton was the most dangerous president in American history.  And we could go on…

OK.  My sermon is over.

 

Testing Historical References Made By Political Candidates

MikaelianThis is an amazing resource.  It comes from Allen Mikaelian, the former editor of Perspectives on History, who now blogs at Flat Hill.

One can spend a lot of time with his most recent post titled “924 Times Politifact Ruled on a Historical Statement, in One Chart (bonus charts included)”.

Allen explains what he has done:

Politifact is perhaps never better than when it dives deep into a historical statement made by a politician or partisan commentator, cuts through the chaff, gathers expert opinions, and delivers a satisfying final judgement ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire!” Some might accuse them of dismissing all the nuance and uncertainty of historical knowledge in favor of their clean and clear rating system, but when a politico claims that “The Taliban have been there for …  hundreds of thousands of years” or that the founding fathers were actively involved in cockfighting or that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican (again, and again), nuance isn’t really necessary.

I started collecting Politifact rulings of historical statements not just for the satisfaction of seeing abusers of history called out, but to explore how politicians and their supporters use history. My selection is an unscientific sample of Politifact’s unscientific sample, but exploring these statements through visualizations was highly entertaining and caused a few questions to jump out. Why are the discussions of taxes, budgets, and debt so prone to historic comparison and hyperbole? Why would historical arguments appear so frequently in discussions about education? How many times will Politifact have to refute the claim that the Civil War was “not about slavery?”

A word about the data before we cut to the charts. I selected statements that made direct reference to a historical event or person, that contained a historical comparison (for the first time ever, never in our nation’s history, etc), or for which Politifact consulted history or a historian to help settle the issue. In borderline cases, I asked myself if the statement was one that I felt required a historian to determine veracity. Although I believe that history can bring deeper understanding to any topic, you don’t necessarily need historians or historical research to check a fact like whether the climate has gotten warmer or whether a senator voted yea or nay on a particular bill two years ago. If you want to know why, history can almost always help, but Politifact doesn’t always have ask that question to make a ruling. More on this in the About the Data section below.

Oh, and I categorized these statements according to the point the speaker was trying to make. So if he was using Lincoln to make a point about abortion, I filed it under “family planning.” This will make some statements look oddly placed at first, unless you read the full Politifact ruling (which you can do by clicking on a circle).

Check it out here.  Make sure to read all the way to the bottom to see some of Allen’s tentative conclusions.

This information just might yield a few blog posts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned.

Debating Wilentz on Slavery and the Constitution: A Call for Civility

Not all reputable historians are bashing Sean Wilentz for his New York Times op-ed arguing that the slavery and race were not at the heart of the United States Constitution.  Matt Pinsker of Dickinson College has a slight different angle on this controversy.

Here is a taste of his post at the blog of his U.S. Constitution course at Dickinson:

Wilentz loves these kinds of fights, but I find them somewhat depressing.  His point, stripped of the polemics, is a powerful intellectual one.  The Framers of the Constitution steadfastly refused to include the principle of slavery –the concept of “property in man”– into the nation’s founding charter.  They didn’t just leave the word out; but fought hard over limiting the principle to a very local domain.  Freedom was always national. That matters.  However, even though it matters, it doesn’t negate the realities of color prejudice, the horrors of slavery, or even the unanticipated and dreadful consequences of specific 1787 concessions to the nation’s slaveholders.  Yet that nuance too easily gets lost in this kind of crossfire. Bernie Sanders wasn’t commenting on the Constitution directly at Liberty University, and much of the venom directed at Wilentz by other scholars conflates the realities of early American “racism” with more complicated questions about American constitutional jurisprudence.   That’s what’s so depressing.  They’re talking past each other. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to sort out such issues during abbreviated Q&A sessions, through op-ed pages, or by tweets, but there should be some sense of acknowledgement by participants that this issue is a seriously contested one.  There are no simple facts and no easy conclusions.  Scholars, activists and even scholar/activists need to find ways to defend their views with vigor (and plenty of verve) without also belittling their opposition.

Several things are worth noting about his post:

First, it is interesting that Pinsker distinguishes between “scholars” and “scholar activists.”  He seems to suggest (and Matt can tell me if I am wrong) that it is easy for historian-activists to be so interested in using the past for political purposes that they lose their scholarly detachment. (If Matt is not will to say this, I will!)  Earlier in the post he calls out those “scholar-activists” who have been less than civil in their criticism of Wilentz:

What happened next therefore should have been predictable, but it still caught me by surprise.  The comments section at the New York Times website exploded, the blogosphere lit up, and a number of leading scholar / activists “angry at America’s racist past” took to social media to berate Wilentz for his ignorance.  One of the tweets that hit me hardest was by noted slavery scholar Ed Baptist from Cornell.  He openly mocked Wilentz, one of the most distinguished figures in our field, calling his op-ed “pure comedy gold.”

In another tweet, Baptist dismissed Wilentz’s piece as “utterly unconvincing” and went so far as to accuse him in public of “hauling water for Hilary and Bill.” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media professor from University of Virginia, blasted Wilentz’s argument as “shallow” and “unbecoming a historian.” Kevin Gannon from Grand View University (who, admittedly, has one of the best historical twitter handles:  @thetattooedprof) found himself “baffled” by the Wilentz reading of the Constitution, and then produced a blog post which went even further, labeling the effort “infuriating” and “sad.”

Second, and related to the first point, is Pinsker’s suggestion that the “scholars-activists” and Wilentz are talking past each other.  I made a similar case in my post on the controversy: “Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders’s comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution while Sanders’s remark seemed to be much more general in nature.”

Finally, check out Pinsker’s Storify of the various tweets on this topic.  He makes some stinging critiques of a few other historians who have joined the fray.

The Use and Abuse of History on Both the Left and the Right

As readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have been making this point for a long time.  It will be one of the key features of my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I am thus glad to see John Halpin, in a guest post at Think Progress, has joined the cause.  Halpin chronicles how both the Left and the Right misuse the past in their attempts at winning political points in the present.  Here is a taste:

In an example of a more critical historical method on the left, Sean Wilentz and Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have been duking it out in The New York Review of Books over the latter’s book and ten-part Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States. Wilentz argues that Stone and Kuznick are purposefully “cherry-picking” history to make a case against the policies of United States from Truman and the Cold War to Bush and Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stone and Kuznick, in turn, claim that Wilentz is misusing history himself in order to justify the hawkish and imperialist views of politicians he supports like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,

It’s all a bit confusing and flush with details that require lots of fact checking but the debate raises important questions about the direction of U.S. foreign policy and the current stands of the Obama administration on Bush-era policies like torture and drones.
On the right, the uses and abuses of history have focused more on antiquarian and critical methods. The most obvious example of the antiquarian method is the Tea Party. Jill Lepore’s, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, (reviewed here by Gordon Wood) explains how the Tea Party turned the founding into a quasi-religious like moment that is “sacred” while documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments.”

Since the first election of Obama we’ve also seen a drumbeat of conservative academic and lay historians using the critical method to attack the legacy of FDR and progressivism, and by extension, the policies of Obama who is cut from the same ideological cloth.  Amity Shlaes’ attempted takedown of the New Deal and subsequent promotion of the wonders of Coolidge-nomics is one strand of this type of history. Glenn Beck and others have promoted another strand that argues the original Progressive movement — and its contemporary manifestation — is a subversion of the Constitution and an aberration from historical norms. 

Progressives tend to view these critical uses of history as over-the-line and “factually challenged” (as Newt Gingrich famously labeled Michele Bachmann during the presidential primaries), but it is certainly necessary and important for conservatives to put forth their version of the nation’s past for Americans to evaluate.