Dolley Madison Did Not Institute The White House Easter Egg Roll

Mrs James Madison (Dolley Madison), by Bass Otis

J.L. Bell debunks the myth at Boston 1775.  A taste:

Even the White House Historical Association passes on that factoid, though fobbing it off on others: “Some historians note that First Lady Dolley Madison originally suggested the idea of a public egg roll…”

In fact, that’s all a myth. As the Dolley Madison Papers explain, there’s absolutely no evidence behind it. 

During the Founding Era,…religious observances such as Easter and Christmas were simply not part of the national calendar. Indeed, when James Madison was President of the United States, Easter was not yet a publicly celebrated holiday; it was observed neither at the president’s mansion—not yet officially known as the White House—nor by Congress. And a search of Dolley’s letters fails to produce a single mention of Easter or Easter eggs. That leaves two questions: when and where did the tradition begin, and what does Dolley Madison have to do with it?

Read the entire post here.

N.T. Wright on Christmas

WrightThis Advent season, on the recommendation of several The Way of Improvement Leads Home readers, I am reading Biblical scholar N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

I don’t know Wright’s body of work very well, but I am sure that somewhere he has written about the incarnation.  But in Surprise by Hopethe focus is on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even to the point of taking a few shots at the church for spending far too much time commemorating Christmas and not enough time celebrating Easter.

A taste:

Christmas itself has now far outstripped Easter in popular culture as the real celebratory center of the Christian year–a move that completely reverses the New Testament emphasis.  We sometimes try, in hymns, prayers, and sermons, to build a whole theology on Christmas, but it can’t in fact sustain such a thing.  We then keep Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday so thoroughly that we have hardly any energy left for Easter except for the first night and day.  Easter, however, should be the center.  Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left. (p.23).

And this:

…we should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts, anything that comes to mind.  This is our greatest festival.  Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else.  Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins.

I think Wright may have overstated his case here about “taking Christmas away” because it is only referenced in two chapters in two Gospels.  But I get his point.

The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude

GratitudeOur annual Thanksgiving tradition here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.   I wrote this Inside Higher Ed piece on gratitude in November 2008–JF


It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened — a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.

I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn’t want that for me, either.

I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contract and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.

It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?

Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.

Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.

I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job — summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.

Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.

The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.

This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.

As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

The *Great Pumpkin* and Donald Trump

Great Pumpkin

Donald Trump has changed the way Jon Malesic watches It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  He no longer sympathizes with Linus.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion Dispatches:

 

Linus believes according to the logic of Pascal’s Wager: put your faith in the thing that offers the biggest payoff, even if it’s less likely to be true. I can appreciate why someone would make that bet. The Great Pumpkin promises not just candy, but toys, maybe money. Linus’s adoring companion Sally seemed to me like the person whose faith is less sincere, but who nevertheless represents many believers as they actually are: tentative, conflicted, self-interested.

After a year in which I followed the obsessive investigations into the mind of the Trump voter, my sympathy turned sour. I now see self-defeating credulity in Linus and Sally. They seem like the white working-class and evangelical voters duped into thinking Trump was anything more than a resentful plutocrat. Linus’s belief is unwavering only because it’s blind to reality. “If you are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know,” he writes in a letter to the Great Pumpkin. He lives in a thick bubble of fantasy.

Linus values sincerity, because he believes the Great Pumpkin values it. He’s gratified as he looks around the pumpkin patch on Halloween night and says, “there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” Of course, sincerity and truth are quite different things, and Linus favors the wrong one. Trump lies constantly, but to his die-hard supporters, he tells it like it is. He doesn’t mince words; his bluntness absolves him of hypocrisy.

Read the entire piece here.

Martin Luther King’s Christian America

21712-mlk-in-birmingham-jailThis post draws heavily from a column I wrote for Patheos in March 2011 and my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like David Barton or Ted Cruz.

Rarely, if ever, do we see the name Martin Luther King, Jr. included on a list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today.

Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

King arrived in Birmingham in April 1963 and led demonstrations calling for an end to racist hiring practices and segregated public facilities. When King refused to end his protests, he was arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner. In solitary confinement, King wrote to the Birmingham clergy who were opposed to the civil rights protests in the city. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” published in pamphlet form and circulated widely, offered a vision of Christian nationalism that challenged the localism and parochialism of the Birmingham clergy and called into question their version of Christian America.

A fierce localism pervaded much of the South in the mid-20th century. For Southerners, nationalism conjured up memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period when Northern nationalists—Abraham Lincoln, the “Radical Republican” Congress, and the so-called “carpetbaggers—invaded the South in an attempt to force the region to bring its localism in line with a national vision informed by racial equality.

When he arrived in Birmingham, King was perceived as an outside agitator intent on disrupting the order of everyday life in the city. Many Birmingham clergy believed that segregation was a local issue and should thus be addressed at the local level.

King rejected this kind of parochialism. He fought for moral and religious ideas such as liberty and freedom that were universal in nature. Such universal truths, King believed, should always trump local beliefs, traditions, and customs. As he put it, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Justice was a universal concept that defined America. King reminded the Birmingham clergy that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had defended equality as a national creed, a creed to which he believed the local traditions of the Jim Crow South must conform. In his mind, all “communities and states” were interrelated. “Injustice anywhere,” he famously wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” He added: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This was King the nationalist at his rhetorical best.

King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God.

King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth.

He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was an “extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment.”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

Happy New Year from Samuel Mickle, 1798

woodbury

Woodbury Friends Meetinghouse

An excerpt from the diary of Samuel Mickle, a 52-year old Quaker farmer from Woodbury, New Jersey.

How human folly descends from 1 generation to another!  The infant’s rattle and adult’s guns and drums; as if glad time made such haste away and a new year arrived: witnessed by the noise this evening.  Some feasting and frolicking most of all the day.  Not so with me, but on the contrary (though unusual) not a single person under our roof, beside my own family, all the day and evening…

 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

We are taking a few days off here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but before we do I want to wish everyone a Happy Holidays and thank you for a great year.  It’s been a pleasure to continue delivering content at the “intersection of American history, religion, politics, and academic life.”

As many of you know, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is more than just a blog (or a book).  It is a multi-faceted effort to bring history and historical thinking to the public.  Here are some highlights from 2016:

  • In January we launched The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  After sixteen episodes and two seasons we have established what appears to be a relatively strong listener base.  Please, please, please consider partnering with us at our Patreon site. We need your help to keep the podcast going.
  • We wrote many pieces, both here and elsewhere, on the 2016 presidential election. We published dozens and dozens of posts on the election here at the blog and another fifteen at other venues, including Religion News Service, the Harrisburg Patriot-NewsChristianity Today, the Washington Post, USA Today, Sojourners, Fox News, and History News Network.
  • We offered extensive coverage, with our team of correspondents, of both the annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.  (Stay tuned for our coverage of the AHA in Denver early next month.  We can still use correspondents!)
  • We produced twenty-six “Virtual Office Hours” videos.  This year we focused on the question of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” and on my Fall 2016 course on the American Revolution.
  • We interviewed eighty-one authors this year as part of our “Author’s Corner” series.
  • We added two more features to our “So What Can You Do With a History Major?” series.
  • I hit the road eighteen times this year to promote our work, including a trip to Oxford University in January.  I also appeared on eighteen radio shows (and C-SPAN!) to talk about everything from the Bible in America, religion and politics, and the role of history in public life.
  • In July we spent a week in Princeton leading a seminar for history teachers on Colonial America.  This Gilder-Lehrman summer seminar is always one of the highlights of the year.
  • I was also pleased with the release of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  It appeared in April with Oxford University Press.

Some of you may notice that I often use the first-person plural pronoun “we” to refer to what happens here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  That is because I could not do all of this alone.  So let me end this post by saying thanks to everyone that made it all happen this year: Joy Fea, Caroline Fea, Allyson Fea, John Fea Jr., Joan Fea, Kim Phipps, Randy Basinger, Pete Powers, Christine Walter, Barb and Dwayne Dobschuetz, Abby Blakeney, Katy Kaslow, Nate McAlister, Abigail Koontz, Devon Hearn, Drew Dyrli Hermeling,  Mikaela Mummert, everyone who wrote for us this year as correspondents and guest posters, our podcast guests, and everyone who invited me to come and speak at their schools, colleges, universities, churches, museums, historical sites, and other organizations.

See you in 2017 (if not sooner!).

John

Our Modern Holiday of Thanksgiving is More About the Civil War Than Plymouth

g_burgI just ran across Honor Sachs‘s 2014 Huffington Post piece on Thanksgiving and the Civil War.  It reminded me that the holiday we celebrate tomorrow has less to do with Pilgrims and more to do with the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

But there is an alternative version of the Thanksgiving story, one that might provide better perspective on our currently divided nation. In 1863, in the bowels of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation to establish the first national day of Thanksgiving. He called on his “fellow-citizens in every part of the United States” to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving.” Lincoln’s proclamation made no mention of Pilgrims or Indians. He did not mention North or South nor did he speak of founding fathers or national origins. Rather, Lincoln called attention to our desperate need for collective healing. Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” that the nation faced. He called for a day in which we might sit down and work to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

Read the entire piece here.

A Secular Thanksgiving?

villageatheistsLeigh Eric Schmidt, the author of the recent Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation, turns to the pages of The Atlantic to remind us that the religious nature of Thanksgiving has long been a contested one.

Here is a taste of his piece “Thanksgiving, a Celebration of Inequality“:

To secularists, that holiday, sanctified by the story of the Pilgrims and by solemn invocations of divine blessing, was definitely worth fighting over. As one freethought editorial proclaimed in 1889, “We hope to live long enough to see a purely human thanksgiving day, with no hint of God in it, with no religious meaning ascribed to it.”

The debate over what tone presidents should set with their Thanksgiving proclamations was as old as the nation itself. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had famously split over the issuing of such civic religious pronouncements during their presidencies (Adams assented; Jefferson refused). But the conflict escalated during and after the Civil War, as the holiday was promoted as a national rite of reconciliation and patriotic concord. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in language replete with religious allusion, imagining the Union under the “the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God” and imploring “the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”

Freethinkers and secularists—a small but vocal and vigilant minority—watched with disappointment as American presidents thereafter made an annual routine of such exhortations, effectively fusing Thanksgiving with the politics of religious nationalism. “The American people,” President Grover Cleveland typically intoned in 1885, “have always abundant cause to be thankful to Almighty God, whose watchful care and guiding hand have been manifested in every stage of their national life.” He encouraged all citizens to assemble in their respective houses of worship for prayers and hymns in order to give thanks to the Lord for the nation’s innumerable bounties.

Liberal secularists could not stand to let this recurring presidential call for devotion go unchallenged. It fundamentally violated their sense of strict church-state separation—they believed that elected representatives, from presidents to governors to mayors, should not be in the business of enjoining religious observance upon Americans. They maintained that the government should not elevate believers over nonbelievers, whether by employing state-funded chaplains, granting tax exemptions to churches, inscribing “In God We Trust” on coinage, instating bans on buying liquor on Sundays, establishing religious tests for public office-holding, or by sanctifying fast and thanksgiving days. To these secularists, all the ways, big and small, in which the government signaled preference for a Protestant Christian nation over a secular republic had to be combatted.

Freethinkers, as the irreligious editors of the Boston Investigator explained, wanted instead “eternal separation” between church and state, a breaking of all the “politico-theological combinations” that they saw sullying American public life. They wanted, in short, the full secularization of the state. Hence Thanksgiving was, to them, nonnegotiable: “If ministers desire a religious festival, let them appoint it in their churches,” the Investigator further editorialized. The president had “no constitutional right” to set apart a sacred celebration and entwine good citizenship with ecclesial supplication.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude

gratitude
Our annual tradition here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.   I wrote this Inside Higher Ed piece on gratitude in November 2008–JF

It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened — a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.

I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn’t want that for me, either.

I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contract and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.

It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?

Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.

Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.

I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job — summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.

Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.

The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.

This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.

As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

Song of the Day

The Wall

Cigarettes and a bottle of beer, this poem that I wrote for you
This black stone and these hard tears are all I got left now of you
I remember you in your Marine uniform laughin’, laughin’ at your ship out party
I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry

Your high boots and striped T-shirt, Billy you looked so bad
You and your rock-n-roll band, you were best thing this shit town ever had
Now the men who put you here eat with their families in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness got no place here at all. Here at the wall

I’m sorry I missed you last year, I couldn’t find no one to drive me
If your eyes could cut through that black stone, tell me would they recognize me
For the living time it must be served, the day goes on
Cigarettes and a bottle of beer, skin on black stone

On the ground dog tags and wreaths of flowers, with ribbons red as the blood
Red as the blood you spilled in the Central Highlands mud
Limousines rush down Pennsylvania Avenue, rustling the leaves as they fall
And apology and forgiveness got no place here at all
Here at the wall

Wall

Why Can’t We Come to Grips With George Washington’s Humanity?

Apotheosis

Joseph Adelman, a history professor at Framingham State University, wonders why George Washington is bulletproof.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

Even Washington’s career as one of the most significant slave owners in the early United States has barely made a dent in his popular persona, as compared for example with his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson. The subject of slavery is raised only infrequently with regard to Washington, which many commentators on Hamilton in particular have noted, and which was also true of Sons of Liberty. When slavery does enter the narrative, it more often indicts the practice itself rather than the character of Washington. Last month, for example, Scholastic pulled a children’s book about Washington’s enslaved cook baking a birthday cake for the president amid protests. The objection to the book focused not on any portrait of Washington, but rather on how the book may have misunderstood the emotional state of Hercules, the enslaved man who worked as the president’s cook.

Americans have developed a deep and rich mythology about the creation of the United States. In recent years, that mythology has permitted a view of the Founders more in touch with their flawed humanity. Yet Washington continues to be an enigma when he should otherwise be coming to life. That the conundrum is more than two centuries old offers little consolation, and instead points to the difficulty of humanizing the one Founder who has zealously resisted it both in his lifetime and since. For better or worse, for the moment, most Americans agree with TV, film, and stage producers that they’re OK with that.

Read the entire piece here.

Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796

george-washington1

It is worth reading today.

Many Christian conservatives like to quote this part of the address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Washington believed that religion was essential to the health of a virtuous republic.  This is true.  As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, nearly all of the founding fathers believed this.

But perhaps the real lesson for our day comes from this passage:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

A History of Christmas Cards


I heard Ellen Brown talking about the history of holiday cards the other day on The Takeaway and thought it would make for a nice Christmas Eve post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

Here is a taste of Brown’s piece at JSTOR Daily:

Cultures have enjoyed sharing written New Year’s greetings for centuries. The English-speaking ritual of sending holiday cards, however, dates back only to the middle of the 19th. Some sources say it originated with Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, Scotland, who, in the 1840s, produced cards showing a jolly face with the caption “A Gude Year to Ye.” 

Credit more commonly goes to Sir Henry Cole, who would later become the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He commissioned an artist to create 1,000 engraved holiday cards in 1843. Cole’s greeting featured a prosperous-looking family toasting the holidays, flanked on both sides by images of kindly souls engaging in acts of charity. A caption along the bottom read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

With advances in printing technology and mail service, the practice of sending commercially produced Christmas cards caught on. By the 1880s, it was an integral part of the holiday season for many American families as well. In “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship,” Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo explains that the practice thrived amid postbellum industrialization and the demise of the family farm. As relatives spread out geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.

As the Christmas card habit took hold, manufacturers rushed to meet demand. Best known was German emigrant Louis Prang, who produced attractive and reasonably priced chromolithographed cards for the mass market. He is often referred to as the father of the American Christmas card.

Read the entire piece here.  You can listen to the interview below.  Allen comes in around the 24:00 mark.


https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/takeaway/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F560765%2F

Happy Thanksgiving: "The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude"

Our annual tradition here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  
I wrote this Inside Higher Ed piece on gratitude in November 2008
It was a typical 1970s weekday evening. The sky was growing dark and I, an elementary school student, was sitting at the kitchen table of a modest North Jersey cape cod putting the finishing touches on the day’s homework. The back door opened — a telltale sign that my father was home from work. As he did every day, Dad stopped in the laundry room to take off his muddied work boots. As usual, he was tired. He could have been covered with any number of substances, from dirt to paint to dried spackle. His hands were rough and gnarled. I kissed him hello, he went to the bathroom to “wash up,” and my family sat down to eat dinner.
I always knew how hard my father worked each day in his job as a general contractor. When I got older I spent summers working with him. I learned the virtues of this kind of working class life, but I also experienced the drudgery that came with laying concrete footings or loading a dumpster with refuse. I worked enough with my father to know that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life. Though he never told me so, I am sure that Dad probably didn’t want that for me, either.
I eventually became only the second person in my extended family to receive a college degree. I went on to earn a Ph.D. (a “post-hole digger” to my relatives) in history and settled into an academic life. As I enter my post-tenure years, I am grateful for what I learned from my upbringing and for the academic vocation I now pursue. My gratitude inevitably stems from my life story. The lives that my parents and brothers (one is a general contract and the other is a plumber) lead are daily reminders of my roots.
It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?
Gratitude is a virtue that is hard to find in the modern academy, even at Thanksgiving time. In my field of American history, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to set the record straight, usually in op-ed pieces, about what really happened in autumn 1621. (I know because I have done it myself!). Granted, as public intellectuals we do have a responsibility to debunk the popular myths that often pass for history, but I wonder why we can’t also use the holiday, as contrived and invented and nostalgic and misunderstood as it is, to stop and be grateful for the academic lives we get to lead.
Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to do this. We get a Thursday off from work to take a few moments to reflect on our lives. And since so many academics despise the shopping orgy known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to not only reject consumer self-gratification, but practice a virtue that requires us to forget ourselves.
I am not sure why we are such an unthankful bunch. When we stop and think about it we enjoy a very good life. I can reference the usual perks of the job — summer vacation, the freedom to make one’s own schedule, a relatively small amount of teaching (even those with the dreaded 4-4 load are in the classroom less than the normal high school teacher). Though we complain about students, we often fail to remember that our teaching, when we do it well, makes a contribution to society that usually extends far beyond the dozens of people who have read our recent monograph. And speaking of scholarship, academics get paid to spend a good portion of their time devoted to the world of ideas. No gnarled hands here.
Inside Higher Ed recently reported that seventy-eight percent of all American professors express “overall job satisfaction.” Yet we remain cranky. As Immanuel Kant put it, “ingratitude is the essence of vileness.” I cannot tell you how many times I have wandered into a colleague’s office to whine about all the work my college expects of me.
Most college and university professors live in a constant state of discontentment, looking for the fast track to a better job and making excuses as to why they have not landed one yet. Academia can be a cutthroat and shallow place to spend one’s life. We are too often judged by what is written on our conference name badges. We say things about people behind their backs that we would never say to their faces. We become masters of self-promotion. To exhibit gratefulness in this kind of a world is countercultural.
The practice of gratitude may not change our professional guilds, but it will certainly relieve us of our narcissism long enough to realize that all of us are dependent people. Our scholarship rests upon the work of those scholars that we hope to expand upon or dismantle. Our careers are made by the generosity of article and book referees, grant reviewers, search committees, and tenure committees. We can all name teachers and mentors who took the time to encourage us, offer advice, and write us letters. Gratitude may even do wonders for our mental health. Studies have shown that grateful people are usually less stressed, anxious, and depressed.
This Thanksgiving take some time to express gratitude. In a recent study the Harvard University sociologist Neil Gross concluded that more college and university professors believe in God than most academics ever realized. If this is true, then for some of us gratitude might come in the form of a prayer. For others it may be a handwritten note of appreciation to a senior scholar whom we normally contact only when we need a letter of recommendation. Or, as the semester closes, it might be a kind word to a student whose academic performance and earnest pursuit of the subject at hand has enriched our classroom or our intellectual life. Or perhaps a word of thanks to the secretary or assistant who makes our academic life a whole lot easier.
As the German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”

Is Columbus Day a Racist or Anti-Racist Holiday?

It’s a day or two late, but I highly recommend reading Jay Case’s post on Columbus Day at his excellent blog The Circuit Reader.  


Case, who teaches American history at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, shows how Columbus Day was created by Italian-American immigrants in order to celebrate their heritage in the midst of racist attacks against them.   

As some of you know, my father’s side of the family is Italian-American and I grew up in an area of northern New Jersey where there were a lot of Italian immigrants, including my own grandparents. Columbus Day was not only a day off from school or a celebration of Italian heritage, but it also had the kind of anti-racist flavor to it that Case writes about.  As I listened to the stories of my Italian-American elders, and reconsidered those stories later in life, it became clear to me that Italians were not white. (And now as I read a lot of good scholarly literature on the Italian-American experience and “whiteness” my thoughts along these lines are confirmed). 

A few years ago when I interviewed my now-deceased Italian grandfather who emigrated to the United States through Ellis Island in 1913, he told horrific stories about how he was treated by German-Americans and Irish-Americans while employed as a chauffeur and later as a truck driver for several breweries in Newark, NY.  He faced a lot of racial discrimination.

Here is Case:

Columbus, of course, was also Italian. Immigration from Italy increased noticeably from the 1880s to the 1920s and this, too, provoked a backlash from many native-born Americans. Italians were perceived as dirty, prone to crime, (Mafia stereotypes abounded), and a people who did not mix well with surrounding communities. These characteristics would undermine democracy, it was thought, so a bunch of Harvard grads formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to try to keep these “criminals” and other undesirable immigrants out. If Donald Trump had been around then, he would have been a founding member.
And then there was anti-Italian racism. Yes, Italians were actually thought to come from a separate race. In the scientific thinking of the day, there were three separate races under the rubric of the white race: Teutonic (which included Anglo-Saxons), Alpine and Mediterranean. Take a big guess who the genetically superior and the genetically inferior groups were in this scheme.
The founder of the Immigration Restriction League put it this way: Americans must decide whether they wanted their country “to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic” (meaning Jewish) “races historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”
This form of racism had consequences. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League campaigned for immigration restrictions based on race. They succeeded. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put quotas on immigration from different countries, with the biggest limitations placed on nations with “Latin” and “Slavic” races. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe faced greater restrictions than immigrants from the more favored “Teutonic” races of Scandinavia, Germany, and Great Britain. In the late 1930s, those immigrant restrictions, the racially-based thinking behind them, and the economic anxieties of the Depression led Americans to refuse to accept any sizable number of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria, despite Hitler’s willingness to ship them out of his nation. Ouch.  Racially-based immigrant restrictions lasted until 1965.
So Italian-Americans had anti-racist reasons to campaign for Columbus Day.  So did Irish, German, Italian, and Polish Catholics.  After all, if Anglo-Saxons could celebrate an Italian Catholic like Christopher Columbus as a hero for the American nation, wouldn’t they be more likely to accept Italian-Americans on an equal plane? Wouldn’t this prove that one could be fully Catholic, fully Italian-American and fully American at the same time?
In 1892, on the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, an Italian-American named Carlo Barsotti pushed for national recognition of Columbus. Building on existing affection for Columbus in the nation, Italian-Americans held massive rallies every year on October 12 (the date Columbus hit land in the Caribbean).  They had deeply personal reasons to convince fellow Americans to recognize Columbus as a true American and a hero.  By World War I, New Jersey, New York, California, and Colorado (all states with significant Italian-American populations) had made Columbus Day a state holiday. By 1921, thirty states had followed.  FDR proclaimed it a national holiday in 1937.
Oddly, despite the growing embrace of Columbus Day, Congress still passed racially-based restrictions on Italian and Eastern European immigration. Most Americans see what they want to see in their historical figures, and many Americans wanted to see a bold adventurer who discovered new lands, not an Italian Catholic who represented the immigrant dimensions of American society.
Nevertheless, the creation of Columbus Day was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.
Of course later in the twentieth century Native American groups protested the holiday because it commemorated a man who exploited and killed Indians.  Here is Case again:
Fast forward to the 1990s. While I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, the Native American student organization on campus organized a protest against Columbus. They were particularly disturbed by a series of massive paintings depicting the life of Columbus that lined the hallway of the Administration Building (the one with the “Golden Dome,” which we alumni hold with such affection.) The Administration Building, with its paintings of Columbus, had been built in 1879, just when anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiment was beginning to rise again. For the Native American students in the 1990s, however, Columbus symbolized European destruction of their people.
The anti-Columbus cause, then, was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.
I’ll let you savor that irony for a moment.
OK, that’s enough of that.
Because I think the Native Americans have a point. Italian-Americans faced discrimination and prejudice, but not nearly on the scale or with as profoundly difficult consequences as Native Americans have faced. (I trust you are knowledgeable enough on this point that I don’t have to list or describe the historical injustices that Native Americans have endured).
I’m perfectly fine with changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.  We Americans already celebrate progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions every time we upgrade our iPhones.  Furthermore, Italian-Americans today are thriving in America. They enjoy full acceptance, and do not face any structural racism that confounds their daily lives. The same cannot be said of Native Americans.
Read the entire post here, including Case’s final theological point.  
As an Italian-American, I would hate to abandon a festival that celebrates the success and achievements of Italians in the United States.  I thought about this a few years ago as I was walking with my family through the Columbus Day weekend street festival in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. It was a wonderful opportunity to tell my daughters, who have not been raised in the kind of Italian-American culture I was (we live in central Pennsylvania for goodness sake!), about the various foods and traditions of Italian-American life.  As we walked past the merchandise stands and food vendors I was able to relay some of the stories my grandparents told me about growing-up Italian in the United States.
On the other hand, perhaps Case is correct.  Maybe it is time that Italian-Americans come up with another historical figure that they can use to celebrate their rich heritage in the United States.