Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

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Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

Manisha Sinha on monuments

Sinha

Manisha Sinha is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. Her book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition received the 2017 Frederick Douglass Prize. Some of you will remember our interview with Manisha in Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Over at National Public Radio, Sinha weighs-in on Confederate and other monuments.

A taste:

On Confederate monuments:

It always astonished me as a Civil War historian to see statues commemorating Confederate generals and politicians who had literally committed treason against this country in order to uphold human bondage.

On monuments to other historical figures:

I think it is important not to go from one extreme to the other. And while it is true that many of the Virginian Founding Fathers – Washington, Jefferson, Madison – all owned slaves, we put up their statues not to commemorate their slave holding but for different reasons. So these statues, I think, need to be contextualized historically. We shouldn’t shy from the fact that many of these men were slave owners, but we should also be able to judge each case individually. The Confederate statues have no redeeming qualities to them, but other statues certainly do.

I was really dismayed to see the statue of Grant, especially, come down because Grant was never comfortable with owning that one slave that was given to him by his father-in-law. He freed that slave. This was before he became president or even commanded the Union Army. And then he went on, in fact, to defeat the Confederacy, which was extremely important in the destruction of slavery. We should be able to discuss these historical figures and discuss what we admire about them and what we don’t admire so much.

Read the entire piece here.

Six Historians on Trump’s Acquittal

State of the Union

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Over at Time, Olivia Waxman asked Carol Anderson, Jeffrey Engel, Kevin Kruse, Barbara Perry, Manisha Sinha, and Brenda Wineapple to reflect historically on Trump’s acquittal.

Here is Sinha:

I think the person who was a real profile in courage [Wednesday] was Romney, whose speech will be remembered in history for its very careful constitutional reasoning on why he voted to convict. His vote made clear that this was not simply a partisan impeachment.

Historians are eventually going to remember this trial as a real blow, as a bad day for American democracy, when the Senate Republicans were just unable to put aside their partisan loyalty to the president, which is kind of ironic because the Republicans have called this a partisan impeachment. The only way a democracy works is when those who are opposed to each other in ideology or in policy goals agree to a set of ground rules on governance and procedures.

I wonder about the future of the Republican Party. It took the Democratic party a long time, a lot of realignments, especially during the New Deal, to recoup from being the party of slaveholders and white supremacy in the 19th century to being the party of civil rights during the civil rights movement. I wonder whether the Republican party is capable of reinventing itself. It’s certainly no longer the party of Lincoln. It’s the party of Trump.

Read the entire roundtable here.

 

*Black Perspectives* Will Host a Forum on Frederick Douglass

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This is going to be good.  The forum will include posts by Brandon Byrd, Kenneth Morris, Neil Roberts, Manisha Sinha, David Blight, Leigh Fought, Christopher Bonner, and Noelle Trent.

Here is what you can expect:

Black Perspectives, the award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), is hosting an online forum on Frederick Douglass on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Organized by Brandon R. Byrd (Vanderbilt University), the online forum uses the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth as an opportunity to highlight commemorative, critical reflections, and assessments of Douglass’s ideas and legacy. The forum will feature an interview with Kenneth B. Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass (and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington). It will also feature essays from Neil Roberts (Williams College); Manisha Sinha (University of Connecticut); David Blight (Yale University); Leigh Fought (Le Moyne College); Noelle Trent (National Civil Rights Museum); and Christopher Bonner (University of Maryland, College Park). The forum begins on Monday, November 26, 2018 and concludes on Friday, November 30, 2018.

During the week of the online forum, Black Perspectives will publish new blog posts every day at 5:30AM EST. Please follow Black Perspectives (@BlkPerspectives) and AAIHS (@AAIHS) on Twitter; like AAIHS on Facebook; or subscribe to our blog for updates. By subscribing to Black Perspectives, each new post will automatically be delivered to your inbox during the week of the forum.

Learn more here.

Court Evangelical Eric Metaxas Continues to Play Fast and Loose With American History

Eric Metaxas is one of the court evangelicals in attendance tonight at the White House.  Here he is with Mike Pence:

Metaxas at Party

Earlier tonight, Metaxas tweeted this:

Metaxas Tweet

I am thankful to several folks who sent this tweet to me.  Eric Metaxas blocked me from seeing his Twitter feed after I wrote a multi-part series criticizing his fast-and-loose (and mostly erroneous) use of American history in his book If You Can Keep It.  You can read that series, and Metaxas’s dismissal of it, here.

Just a few quick responses to this tweet

1. There were some founding fathers who might be described as “evangelical.”  They included John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman and Samuel Adams.  But just because a given founder was an evangelical does not mean that he was indispensable to the American Revolution or that his evangelical faith informed the quest for independence from Great Britain.  I have written extensively about the myth of an evangelical founding in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  But perhaps Eric Metaxas is suggesting, as he did in If You Can Keep It, that there was a direct correlation between the First Great Awakening (an evangelical revival in the 1740s) and the American Revolution.  I critiqued that view here.  The bottom line is this:  The American Revolution would have happened with or without American evangelicals.

2. Evangelicals were very active in the abolitionist movement, but so were non-evangelicals.  The question of whether abolitionism would have happened without evangelicals is a debatable point.  For a nuanced picture–one that treats religion fairly–I suggest you read Manisha Sinha’s excellent book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.  We also interviewed her on Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

3.  The idea that the Civil Rights Movement would not have occurred without evangelicals is absurd.  While there were certainly black preachers involved who might be labeled “evangelical,” most of the clergy who led the movement were deeply shaped by the Black social gospel.  White evangelicals in the South defended segregation.  White evangelicals in the North did not have a uniform position on civil rights for African-Americans.  The white evangelicals associated with magazines like Christianity Today did little to advance the movement.  Some good stuff on this front comes David Chappel in A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chappel’s student, Michael Hammond, has also done some excellent work on this front.  Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics: A Short History also provides a nice introduction.

4. If you are a fan of the Reagan Revolution, I suppose you could make the argument that conservative evangelicals had a lot do with it.  The 1980s was the decade in which evangelicals made an unholy alliance with the Republican Party.  There are a lot of good books on this subject.  I would start with Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.  I also write about this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Don’t get me wrong–evangelicals have played an important role in the shaping of our nation.  I recently wrote about this in a piece at The Atlantic.  You can read it here.

Still More on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

Compromise

In addition to my analysis of Kelly’s remarks and Carole Emberton’s Washington Post op-ed, I also want to call your attention to Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on this controversy.  It is a nice overview of the various compromises that took place from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  She quotes David Blight, Manisha Sinha, and David Waldstreicher.

Read it here.

Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast Drops at Midnight

podcast-icon1Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast drops tonight at midnight. It is our abolitionism episode and our guest is University of Connecticut history professor Manisha SInha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.

We also chat about the end of another academic semester, the links between the “Slave’s Cause and the “Bible Cause,” and Historians Against Slavery.

As we come to the end of another season (we have one more short episode to release), we hope you will consider downloading episodes, telling your friends about the podcast, sharing what you like about the podcast on your social media feeds, and, especially, write a review at ITunes or wherever you listen to the podcast.

Thanks!

The New York-Virginia Connection in the History of American Politics

Kaine and Clinton

Manisha Sinha, who has moved on from the University of Massachusetts to become the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, has turned to the New York Daily News to remind us that the Hillary Clinton-Tim Kaine Democratic ticket is yet another chapter in a longstanding New York-Virginia political alliance.

Here is a taste:

The Democratic Party nomination of Hillary Clinton of New York for President and Tim Kaine of Virginia for vice president is historic — and not just because a woman for the first time in American history heads the ticket of a major party.

The political alliance Clinton-Kaine represents is as old as the American Republic itself: The Empire State and the Commonwealth of Virginia have played starring roles in American history since the country’s founding.

The first party system, Hamiltonian Federalists versus the Jeffersonian Republicans, involved towering figures from both states. The father of the nation, George Washington, and the influential fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, were staunch Federalists and Virginians.

The architect of the Federalist national bank and currency was Alexander Hamilton of New York. Washington took the oath of office in New York.

The “Revolution of 1800,” which brought Thomas Jefferson to the presidency, was masterminded by Jefferson and his Virginia ally James Madison. Along with Hamilton and John Jay of New York, Madison authored the Federalist Papers, which argued for a strong federal government and paved the way for the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson and Madison, followed by James Monroe, would cement the hold of the so-called Virginia Dynasty on the presidency, and won the political battle over Hamilton and the Federalists even while adopting many features of their program.

Read the rest here.

Also check out our interview with Sinha at The Author’s Corner.  We talked about her recent book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.