What Does History Teach Us About Our Current Coronavirus Moment?

BristowI have been trying to read more about pandemics in the United States so that I can share some good history with my readers here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  On Saturday night, I read Nancy Bristow‘s fascinating 2012 book American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.  (Thanks to Messiah College‘s Murray Library for making this book part of its e-book collection).

When thinking about the past, historians always look for continuity and change. How was the 1918 outbreak different from our current coronavirus pandemic? How was it similar? What might we learn from the 1918 outbreak as we think about our current moment? I had all of these questions in mind as I read Bristow’s book, but if I were honest, I was more in search of continuity than change. Frankly, there were so many parallels between 1918 and our present moment that I could not put the book down. I read it in one sitting!

So here are a few things I took away from American Pandemic:

First, I was struck by how local and municipal public health authorities took responsibility for controlling the influenza. This is happening today as well, but most of our attention seems to be focused on the national response. (Woodrow Wilson is only mentioned on three pages of Bristow’s book). This makes perfect sense. There was no television, internet, or national newspapers in 1918. Radio was limited. Bristow focuses on efforts in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Roanoke, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, and Washington D.C.

Second, local public health authorities urged their residents, with an appeal to their sense of patriotism, civic duty, and commitment to the public good, to stay away from public spaces. They told people to wash their hands regularly, keep their hands and objects out of their mouths, stop sharing drinking cups, and avoid public transportation if possible. Initially, most Americans submitted to these restrictions. But the longer the restrictions stayed in place, the more people lost patience. In other words, many people eventually came to resist government control over their lives.  (Keep an eye out for this today). Some people began to resent the public health “experts” behind these restrictions. The Progressive Era was coming to a close.

Third, decisions to close schools and churches were controversial and contested.

Fourth, and most interesting, Americans developed a severe case of amnesia in the wake of the epidemic. Bristow argues that individuals and families told stories about this tragic moment in American history, but the nation as a whole wanted to forget about what happened. The tragic results of the epidemic (over 675,000 dead) did not fit well with the kind of “optimistic” or “progressive” narrative Americans like to commemorate. This amnesia comes with consequences for our society. When the nation did tell stories of the epidemic, these stories tended to emphasize the positive: heroic health care workers, renewed faith in God, and other stories of “redemption.” Stories of suffering (both individual and familial, physical and emotional), death, trauma, “constitutional failures,” “ethical doubts,” and failures to serve the common good were often ignored. Bristow writes:

How a people   remember their past has real, lived consequences.  Perhaps most important is the forgetting such remembering imposes, the silencing of other narratives the preferred storylines demand. In the case of the pandemic, the simplified and singular memory of the complex events of the crisis forestalled deeper analysis of the meaning of those events. In the case of health care professionals, the positive and ultimately triumphant narrative of their experience in the pandemic quieted the more troubled voices among them.

She concludes:

There is no simple way to prepare for the pandemics of the future. As a recent volume on influenza and public health reminded its readers, “Each pandemic unfolds in a different way.” While we will turn to scientists to determine the best way to contain disease, and public health leaders to determine the best way to protect and educate the public, it will be left to others of us to remember and act on the human lessons of the 1918 pandemic. Should we face such an eventuality, let us prove better prepared to admit to a tale of sorrow and loss, to acknowledge the trauma such a tragedy leaves in its wake, and to provide the support and understanding sufferers would need in its wake.

Wise words.

Writing for the Public in “Perilous Times”

Trump Beleive me

Recently the editors of The Panorama, an online magazine published by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the Journal of the Early Republic, asked me to compose a short piece on public writing.  The piece was published today under the title “Sometimes Writing History for the Public Means Forgetting Everything You Learned About Writing in Graduate School.

A taste:

Public writing is not for the faint of heart. The comments sections of online platforms are some of the darkest places on the internet. The discourse occurring every day on Twitter may be one of the strongest arguments for the Christian doctrine of original sin. But if we are serious about challenging citizens to think more deeply about the links between past and present, it is a cross that we must bear with courage.

Read the entire piece here.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”


As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin


Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

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


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.

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


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.

When the Sioux and the U.S. Army Mix It Up in the Dakotas Bad Things Can Happen



Last night in my Introduction to History course at Messiah College we got into a discussion about the many ways historians might be helpful in public debates.  A student brought up the ongoing fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The Native Americans of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation are in a fierce battle with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the proposed route of the pipeline.  History has shown us that when the Sioux and the U.S. Army mix it up in the Dakotas bad things can happen.

Here is a taste of Bill McKibben’s piece on the controversy at The New Yorker:

This week, thousands of Native Americans, from more than a hundred tribes, have camped out on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which straddles the border between the Dakotas, along the Missouri River. What began as a slow trickle of people a month ago is now an increasingly angry flood. They’re there to protest plans for a proposed oil pipeline that they say would contaminate the reservation’s water; in fact, they’re calling themselves protectors, not protesters.

Their foe, most directly, is the federal government, in particular the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has approved a path for the pipeline across the Missouri under a “fast track” option called Permit 12. That’s one reason the Dakota Access Pipeline, as it’s known, hasn’t received the attention that, say, the Keystone XL Pipeline did, even though the pipe is about the same length. Originally, the pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri near Bismarck, but authorities worried that an oil spill there would have wrecked the state capital’s drinking water. So they moved the crossing to half a mile from the reservation, across land that was taken from the tribe in 1958, without their consent. The tribe says the government hasn’t done the required consultation with them—if it had, it would have learned that building the pipeline there would require digging up sacred spots and old burial grounds.

In fact, the blade of a bulldozer cut through some of those burial grounds on Saturday—during a holiday weekend, days before a federal judge is supposed to rule on an emergency petition filed by the tribe which would slow the project down, and immediately after the tribe identified the burial grounds’ locations in a filing to the court. The company building the pipe—Energy Transfer Partners—has already constructed more than half the pipeline, which, when completed, would stretch from Stanley, North Dakota, near the Canadian border, to Patoka, in southern Illinois. It apparently wanted to create facts on the ground in North Dakota—wanted to do so badly enough, it seems, that it was willing to employ a private security force, which used dogs to confront the Native Americans who tried to prevent the desecration of old graves. Tribal officials said that the dogs bit six protesters, including a small child. (The company did not respond to requests for comment, but had previously stated that demonstrators “attacked” their workers and the guard dogs. It has stressed in the past that it has been “constructing this pipeline in accordance with applicable laws, and the local, state and federal permits and approvals we have received.”)

Pictures from that confrontation recall pictures from Birmingham circa 1963. But the historical parallels here run much deeper—they run to the original sins of this nation. The reservation, of course, is where the Native Americans were told to live when the vast lands they ranged were taken by others. The Great Sioux Reservation, formed in the eighteen-sixties, shrunk again and again—in 1980, a federal court said, of the whole sad story, “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” In the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, the Army Corps of Engineers—the same Army Corps now approving the pipeline—built five large dams along the Missouri, forcing Indian villages to relocate. More than two hundred thousand acres disappeared beneath the water.

Sioux history, and Native American history, is filled with one massacre and battle after another. Most of us have never heard of some of those encounters—the Whitestone, or Inyan Ska, massacre, for instance, not far from the present encampment, where at least three hundred Sioux lost their lives when Brigadier General Alfred Sully attacked men, women, and children feasting after a buffalo hunt. Some we do remember, albeit differently: one man in the camp last week said it was the most diverse gathering of Native Americans “since the Battle of Greasy Grass,” known to the white world as Little Bighorn. In other words, America’s shameful history with its native inhabitants is echoing across these riverbanks this late summer.

Read the rest here.

History can’t tell us what to do in a situation like this.  This is primarily a policy, or perhaps a moral, issue.  But history does offer some perspective.  The Native Americans are certainly invoking the past here.  I wonder if the Army Corps of Engineers has (or had) a historian on board.

Why Government Should Listen to Historians

A friend of mine (thanks Christopher) just sent me this 2014 article by Lucy Delap, the director of History & Policy at the Alliance for Useful Evidence, an organization that “provides a focal point for improving and extending the use of social research and evidence in the UK.”  Delap makes a very nice argument for why government should be listening to historians. 

Here is a taste:

…When horsemeat was found in British ‘beef’ products in 2013, did anyone in DEFRA think about looking at British consumption of horseflesh during World War Two?  When we wonder about the greed of bankers in today’s financial services, did financial regulators consider how the Victorians responded to their own crooked bankers?

 Lately, policy makers have been doing just that. Government, understandably, is often focused on the here and now, and the future and how it can be shaped. But it turns out that sometimes the most constructive policy making can be done by looking backwards. History isn’t just an armchair hobby or for the ivory tower, but a driving force for making better decisions in government. 

For more than a decade History & Policy has connected policy makers in Whitehall and Parliament to the latest historical expertise. Making these connections is not always easy. Some policy makers want easy fixes, and are disappointed when historians do not offer this. Others recognise that there are no simple ‘lessons from history’ – context is crucial, and events do not simply repeat themselves. However, the past has important perspectives to offer. We can see parallels and connections. History can unsettle our common-sense assumptions about how change happens, and trace the interactions of different time scales – the slow changes in family size, for example, considered alongside the faster changing political or economic environment. By drawing our attention to previous policy experiments or failures, history can make us think about how the present, and the future, might be different. 

It’s a cliché to declare that the past is a foreign country; but the distant past can seem very foreign indeed – how can Britain before industrialisation, modern government as we know it, and before extensive urbanisation, tell us anything relevant today? But even the quite distant past can link to our concerns today. Peter Borsay, for example, looked at the early eighteenth century and its panic over gin drinking to help understand the fears and harms associated with modern binge drinking. Lorie Charlesworth turned to the Elizabethan Poor Law and its establishment of rights to relief from poverty, to consider contemporary debates about welfare reform.

Thinking historically can be partly about knowing what happened in the past – but history is rarely just a collection of facts. The innovative thinking that history brings to policy making lies in its approach to evaluating evidence, perceiving change over time, and creating a narrative that can set events in a new light. Social science explanations can be jargon-heavy, or narrowly focused. It is one of the talents of history to take the broad overview…

Want a quick fix? History probably won’t deliver. But if you want to broaden your horizons and consider how things might be different, history provides rich resources. Historians can remind officials and politicians that things are not what they sometimes seem to be, that policy interventions can sometimes have unexpected results, and that good policy making must see the big – or longer term – picture.