Oh Let Us Turn Our Thoughts Today to Martin Luther King

Today I taught Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was part of the “community” unit in Messiah College’s first-year CORE course: Created and Called for Community. I am by no means an expert on King or the Civil Rights movement, but I always enjoy teaching things outside of my area of expertise.

This time around I was struck by King’s nationalism. True national community, according to King, is rooted in “just laws. He defines a “just law” as a “man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” An “unjust law” is a “code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Just laws “uplift human personality” or respect the inherent dignity and worth of human beings. Unjust laws do not. Thus King’s vision for America is a Christian one. Equality, freedom, and liberty can only be sustained when a society’s laws measure up to the law’s of God.

But sometimes, King argues, Christians fail to promote just laws. This was certainly the case with churches of the 1960s American south. (See David Chappell’s great book, A Stone of Hope , on this issue). The fact that the church does not “come to the aid of justice” does not worry King because justice is also embedded in the values and ideals that have defined the nation throughout American history. As King puts it, “the goal of America is freedom.” And it always has been.

King believes that the only way to end segregation is to embrace these universal principles that define Christian and American views of justice. King takes on the local ministers in Birmingham who perceive him as an outside agitator. He makes no apologies for his visit to this heavily segregated city. He represents the ideals of the United States of America and Christianity against the localism of Birmingham–a localism defined by racism and segregation.

I left class today thinking, once again, about the relationship between place and cosmopolitanism. (For my thoughts on this idea in an eighteenth-century context click here). King’s “Letter” reminds me that a commitment to localism, regionalism, place, and tradition has sometimes resulted in the worst forms of injustice. This was certainly the case with the history of the American south.

The Republic in Print

About ten years ago, during my stint as a fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, I met Trish Loughran. Though we both spent the 1998-1999 academic year together in residence at Penn, I did not get to know her that well. (We did occasionally chat about our New Jersey roots). I was, however, very impressed with her research project–a study of print culture and nationalism in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War. I was thus pleased to see that her book, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870, appeared a couple of years ago with Columbia University Press. It is due out in paperback later this month.

Well, I have finally gotten around to reading it. In this forcefully argued book, Loughran concludes that print culture is overrated as a way of explaining the emergence of American nationalism. In doing so, she challenges scholars such as Michael Warner and Benedict Anderson who have argued that print culture was the key to the development of national identity. Instead, Loughran focuses on the weaknesses of the print/communication infrastructure in early 19th century America. Without this strong infrastructure, print culture could not play a prominent role in Americans’ understanding of their national identity until, ironically, just before the Civil War.

My favorite section of the book deals with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Loughran concludes that Paine’s influence on the American Revolution was not as strong as historians make it out to be. In fact, there is no way possible, she argues, that Common Sense sold as many copies (over 100,ooo) as Paine claimed that it did. The communication networks throughout the British colonies were far too weak and fragile for this to happen. (Loughran’s argument here has been challenged by Robert G. Parkinson in his review of the book in the recent Common-Place, but I would encourage you to read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, Loughran seems pretty convincing. I actually made a similar argument about print and the spread of the First Great Awakening here).

I wish Loughran would have explored religious print culture a bit more. Nathan Hatch, for example, has argued that religious print played a powerful role in what he calls The Democratization of American Christianity. What role did religious print play in the construction of American nationalism and, particularly, the sense of providential or Christian nationalism that permeated early 19th life. I also wonder how the appearance of Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, with its focus on the development of a communication infrastructure, may have influenced Loughran’s interpretation? I suspect it may have confirmed many of her conclusions.

Read this book.

"Print the Legend": History and Heritage

Gordon Wood ends his reflection on his 1997 review of Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence with a quote from the newspaper editor in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In chapter 13 of The Purpose of the Past Wood uses Maier’s book to reflect upon the relationship between history and heritage in American culture. Wood praises Maier for offering a critical history of the Declaration of Independence that seeks to correct many of the popular myths about the document. She is particularly interested in questioning the sense of reverence that ordinary Americans have for the document.

Maier tries to humanize the the Declaration. It was written by a committee, it was unoriginal, and it was one of many so-called “Declarations of Independence” (90 in all) that were written and published throughout the colonies. But most people don’t realize this. They prefer to view the Declaration as a symbol of a dead age–a document to visit and pay homage to rather than a document to discuss and debate as a part of the civic responsibility of every generation of Americans.

But Wood wonders whether Maier is too hard on those who tend to worship relics like the Declaration of Independence as part of a broader American civil religion. He argues that people may need these national shrines in order to “maintain their heritage and affirm their nationhood.” According to Wood, Maier has no patience for those who want to believe that Jefferson was the sole author or those who want to see the Declaration as an original and new statement of political philosophy or those who have misinterpreted it to be something it was never intended to be.

This, of course, leads us to the larger issue of the relationship between critical history and heritage or memory. Historians pride themselves on debunking popularly held myths, and Maier does this better than most. I find that my history courses have become increasingly focused on this myth-busting agenda. It works quite well in the classroom.

But Wood raises an interesting question when he asks whether people really want to hear the myth-busting conclusions of critical historians. Perhaps memory and heritage–whether it is completely accurate or not–is the primary way ordinary people “keep the past alive and meaningful.”

Some of my own work seems to confirm this, especially as it relates to the attempt by many evangelicals to defend the notion that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Most critical historians, myself included, find it difficult to side with the Christian America historians. But at the same time, scholarly attempts to debunk this myth have gone nowhere. Most ordinary Christians do not want to hear it. They prefer their own version of American history. They want an eighteenth-century America without the separation of church and state or a founding era dominated by evangelical statesmen. After reading Wood, I must admit that this “Christian America” version of American history has been effective in getting more and more people interested in the past. In this sense, maybe it has done some good.

As Wood concludes: “We haven’t yet worked out the precise role of critical history in the culture.”

History vs. Cultural Criticism

Not everyone who studies “the past” can be called “a historian.” This is one of the major themes of Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past. In chapter thirteen (we are jumping around a bit), “History as Cultural Criticism,” Wood also implies that not all college and university history departments are made up of “historians.”

The chapter is a reprint of Wood’s 2000 New Republic review of John Patrick Diggins’s On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History. I have not read Diggins’s book, but Wood describes it as a defense of classical liberalism. Wood actually spends little time in the review talking about Diggins’s interpretation of Lincoln. He is instead fixated on Diggins as a defender of a Lockean liberal tradition of American identity, a tradition made popular in the 1950s by the Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America.

Diggins defends an America defined by a Lockean tradition driven by individualism, private property, and capitalism. On the one hand, he challenges the “republican” synthesis that was so predominant in American scholarship during the 1970s and 1980. On the other hand, he challenges the New Left historians’ commitment to multiculturalism. Gary Nash, Eric Foner, and Sean Wilentz all come under the attack of his pen. So do the 1996 National History Standards.

Wood sees Diggins as one of today’s strongest defenders of this liberal consensus. He defends patriotism and a single national identity rooted in these Lockean values. As Diggins writes (and Wood quotes): “In certain parts of the contemporary academic world, to oppose multiculturalism in support of national unity is tantamount to advocating oppression and domination.”

Wood is very hard on Diggins’s approach to the American past. “Diggins thinks of himself as an intellectual historian,” Wood writes, “but in fact he is not a historian at all.” (It is not surprising that Diggins was angered by the review!). He is part of a school of so-called historians (which include Hartz and the late Christopher Lasch) who are more “public intellectuals” than “historians.”

Wood writes:

In my opinion, not everyone who writes about the past is a historian. Sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists frequently work in the past without really thinking historically. Diggins is one of the many scholars who are deeply involved in the past without being devoted to an accurate reconstruction of it. Instead, Diggins is primarily interested in using history to criticize our present-day culture.

As I read Wood, I am torn. His rather strict view of what constitutes “a historian” has much merit to it. In fact, I think he is probably on the mark. Too many so-called “historians” are more interested in using the past to make their point in the present. Yet, many historians (myself included) got into this discipline because we believe that the past can and does speak to the present. Indeed, as Wood himself writes in the introduction to The Purpose of the Past: “I don’t want to suggest that this historical sense, this concern from the pastness of the past, implies a lack of interest in the future…If one believes in a different past, one has to believe in a different future. Without a belief in the future there will be no concern for the past, indeed, no history at all.”

So what place does cultural criticism play in legitimate historical thinking? When historians stop reconstructing the past and begin using it to try to change the world do they cease becoming historians? Can a history scholar and teacher do both?

The Cosmopolitan

One of the topics I explore in some detail in The Way of Improvement Leads Home is the eighteenth-century understanding of world citizenship. I try to suggest that cosmpolitanism was an Enlightenment value that led people to think beyond the bounds of nationhood, but at the same time the United States as a nation was founded by cosmopolitan men who embraced trans-national or “Enlightened” ideals. They understood the founding of this nation as a great cosmopolitan experiment–the application of transatlantic Enlightenment principles to a particular national polity.

Scholars who write about cosmopolitanism often contrast it with love of country or the affections ordinary people feel for the nation. For Fithian, writing in the 18th century, both the birth of the United States in 1776 and a sense of world of citizenship were not at odds. The birth of the nation was the culmination of the cosmopolitan principles he sought to embrace. The struggle for Fithian was not one between world citizenship and national affection, but between citizenship/national affection and a connection to place or locale. In the context of United States history it was this distinction–between cosmopolitan nationalism and locale/place that was the driving force behind everything from the Antifederalist movement of the 1790s to the Confederate States of America of the 1860s to the Populism of the 1890s.

Today, as these scholars teach us, the defenders of “the local” and the defenders of the nation (most of whom are conservative in their politics) have now united against the cosmopolitans (most of whom are liberal in their politics). With this in mind, I found George Will’s recent Sunday column in the Washington Post, “The Cosmopolitan”, to be insightful. The crux of the column is Will’s analysis of Barack Obama’s recent speech in Berlin where he affirmed to the Germans (and the world) that he is indeed a world citizen. Whatever one thinks of Will or his analysis of Obama’s speech, he does make one point that caught my attention:

And no more locutions such as “citizen of the world” and “global citizenship.” If they meant anything in Berlin, they meant that Obama wanted Berliners to know that he is proudly cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism is not, however, a political asset for American presidential candidates. Least of all is it an asset for Obama, one of whose urgent needs is to seem comfortable with America’s vibrant and very un-European patriotism, which is grounded in a sense of virtuous exceptionalism. Otherwise, “citizen of the world” and “global citizenship” are, strictly speaking, nonsense. Citizenship is defined by legal and loyalty attachments to a particular political entity with a distinctive regime and culture. Neither the world nor the globe is such an entity.

It seems that Will is correct here. World citizenship, as much as it is a cherished liberal value, is not the kind of value that wins presidential elections in the United States. Obama already has the votes of people who deem themselves cosmopolitans. In order to win, he needs votes from very uncosmopolitan people–the kind of Democrats who voted for Hillary in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio or the Independents who like NASCAR and whose primary loyalty is to the United States of America rather than to a Tom Paine or Ben Franklin view of world citizenship.