“Evangelicals Fell For It”

Trump bioI will confess that I had never heard of conservative pundit Erick Erickson until he started speaking out against Trump. Yesterday The Weekly Standard published Erickson’s scathing review of David Brody’s and Scott Lamb’s The Faith of Donald Trump.  It is brutal.

Here is a taste:

President Trump relishes his reputation as a savvy dealmaker. “Deals are my art form,” he once tweeted. “Other people paint beautifully or write poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals.” He promised during the 2016 campaign that if elected, he would work with politicians and foreign leaders to make “smart deals for the country.” But since he took office there has been precious little evidence of Trump’s vaunted dealmaking prowess. Such successes as his administration has been able to claim have generally been accomplished without his direct involvement—and sometimes in spite of it.

There is, though, one obvious piece of evidence from the president’s political career that suggests his dealmaking reputation might be deserved after all: the relationship he has with evangelical political leaders. He has lavished them with attention and let them bask in his celebrity star-power, things that they, long feeling like outsiders in American culture and politics, have badly craved. In exchange, they have thrown him their support—unconditional support, by all appearances—and with it, the backing of a political constituency vital to his success at the polls.

In The Faith of Donald J. Trump, authors David Brody and Scott Lamb provide an in-depth look at the relationship between the president and American evangelicals. Brody and Lamb—respectively a newscaster with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and a vice president at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University—have written what they dub a “spiritual biography,” even though they come right out and say they have no intention of answering the question of whether Trump is a Christian. Instead, they hope to convey his faith through his actions.

In the process, though, Brody and Lamb inadvertently expose the corruption and moral vacuity of the political evangelical movement in the United States.

Trump only started paying attention to evangelicals once he began to consider running for president—some five or more years before the 2016 campaign. He made a show of cozying up to evangelical pastors who write books that usually don’t sell well outside their own congregations. He reached out to the prosperity-gospel heretic Paula White and flattered her. He asked questions of other religious leaders.

As his ambitions grew, Trump cannily cultivated relationships with evangelicals, and they convinced themselves that those relationships must be sincere since they began before he openly started campaigning for the presidency. Once he did start openly campaigning, the outreach only became more intensive. As Brody and Lamb report, Trump would seek out the preachers to sit next to at events. He would bring his mother’s Bible to meetings to show it off. Evangelicals fell for it. So deluded and distracted are they by the trappings of power, they do not even see what Brody and Lamb see. “He’s the P. T. Barnum of the 21st century,” an anonymous banker in the book says of Donald Trump. These evangelical leaders have yet to realize that they are the suckers.

Read the entire review here.

In case you haven’t heard, we take a different approach to Trump in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me JPEG

Historian Richard White on the Gilded Age

WHiteOver at Readers Almanac, the blog of the Library of America, Stanford historian Richard White answers a few questions about his recent book, The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

Library of America: In The Republic for Which It Stands, you take up the challenge of treating two periods of American history, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which are often written about in isolation from each other. One way you bridge the divide is by taking the Republican vision of a good society—a society of homes and “homogenous citizenship”—as an overarching theme, using it as a kind of yardstick against which to measure the age. Was the distance between governing ideology and life as it was actually lived unusually great in this period?

Richard White: Originally, the distance between ideology and life wasn’t great at all. At the end of the Civil War, the United States hadn’t yet become a nation of wage workers. Independent labor and prosperous homes seemed the inevitable outcome of a war to eliminate slavery. Large factories remained relatively rare and class divisions, although real, weren’t impenetrable. Americans believed that free labor would secure independent homes, and black homes, identical to white homes, would arise in the wake of the war. Springfield—Lincoln’s home town—embodied their hopes; the nation would become a collection of Springfields.

Similarly, a homogenous citizenry with a set of uniform rights guaranteed by the federal government in a remade republic was legislatively possible in 1865, but the ideal was never absolute. In practice Indians and Chinese would be totally, and white and black women partially, excluded.

By the 1870s the gulf between the ideal and the reality had widened considerably and would continue to widen for the rest of the century. Americans listed as the markers of this failure the decline of independent labor and the rise of a large and permanent class of wage workers. The inability of many wage workers to earn enough to support the gendered ideal of a home—men protecting and supporting families, women in charge of hearth and home and nurturing children as republican citizens—proved alarming. Particularly in cities, immigrant tenements became the antithesis of the home. Not only did the federal government fail to secure black people a full and equal citizenship, but in both urban areas and the South, reformers pushed restrictions on suffrage. A kind of cultural panic, often racialized, ensued in which black people, Indians, Chinese, tramps, single working women, and many immigrants were defined as threats to the white home.

Although the economy grew immensely, the evidence we have indicates that individual well-being declined. Americans grew shorter, sicker, and the children of the poor—particularly the black and urban poor—died in shocking numbers. If the purpose of the economy was to buttress the Republic, it seemed to be failing while the two dangerous classes, the very rich and the poor, increased in numbers. The old ideal of a working life—the original American dream of a competency, the amount of money needed to support a family, provide a cushion for hard times and old age and to set children up in life, rather than great riches—seemed harder and harder to attain.

Read the rest here.

Are Pro-Life Christians Really Liberals?

Lewis abortionOver at Religion Dispatches, Eric C. Miller interviews Andrew R. Lewis, author of The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars.  According to Miller, “Lewis argues that anti-abortion activism has been instrumental in conditioning the Christian Right for participation in liberal discourse. Though launched in the stern language of moral condemnation, the Christian Right has followed its anti-abortion vanguard into a twenty-first century rhetoric based in the liberal language of rights.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Your book argues that anti-abortion activism has prompted the Christian Right to embrace liberal discourse. How so?

The primary argument is that the politics of abortion have taught conservative Christians about the value of public arguments grounded in the language of rights, as rights are one of the most accessible forms of American political discourse. This is particularly true as American culture has become more secular and less apt to embrace calls for public morality.

Going back to the early days of the pro-life movement in the 1960s, there was a strong liberal, human rights element to anti-abortion activists, seeking to defend the right-to-life of the unborn. Much of this came from Catholics. As evangelicals and the Christian Right joined the cause in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was often more rhetorical focus on the immorality of abortion than the rights of the unborn. This reflected the politics of the “Moral Majority.”

A rights-based stream within the pro-life movement persisted, however, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the right-to-life rhetoric triumphed for both the elite activists and the rank-and-file. Importantly, this right-to-life-based framework has allowed for opposition to abortion to compete with the liberal right-to-privacy based argument, serving as a quality public counter-argument. Even more, as conservative Christians have increasingly become a cultural minority in the past two decades, they have begun embracing rights-based rhetoric first learned and used in the pro-life movement in a whole host of other areas of public life, specifically free speech and religious liberty politics. 

Read the rest here.

 

The Magician Who Was the First Black Celebrity in America

hodgson_final_coverJohn Hodgson is the author of Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity.  Hodgson has published an excerpt of his book over at Salon.  Here is a taste:

He was very, very good at what he did. For many years he was the foremost ventriloquist in America, and the most celebrated magician as well. Indeed, he was the most famous American entertainer of any kind: there was no actor or vocalist or musician in the country who could even come close to Richard Potter’s renown. It wasn’t just secondhand fame, either, the kind that could be spread by stories from the daily newspapers of the large East Coast cities and republished as entertaining filler in the weeklies of remote little towns, rumors from a wonderful world that the provincial readers were unlikely ever to experience—George Frederick Cooke taking the stage in the role of Iago, the sea serpent again appearing off Cape Ann, the Pig of Knowledge doing arithmetic. While Richard Potter always made his home in New England, his tours took him across the length and breadth of the nation. Wherever you lived in America, even if you had not yourself attended at least one of his exhibitions, you probably knew people, perhaps even many people, who had. When he died, in 1835, he had become a national icon.

Fame comes in various flavors, of course. As a showman, Richard Potter could not expect to achieve the kind of recognition traditionally reserved for prominent politicians, military leaders, or eminent writers. Moreover, even the formal theater at this time still suffered some degree of disrepute across wide swaths of American culture; more populist forms of entertainment, like Potter’s, incurred that kind of cultural condescension and disapproval to an even greater degree. Many Americans disapproved of such amusements in and of themselves, associating them with dissipation, frivolity, and “juggling” (knavish trickery), and many others who openly enjoyed them nevertheless felt that their professors were not entirely respectable. But enjoy those entertainments people certainly did; and Richard Potter himself contributed enormously to the long, gradual process of making American showmanship respectable. . . .

Read the rest here.

Alan Wolfe on Patrick Deneen

LiberalismPatrick Deneen‘s book Why Liberalism Failed has been getting a lot of attention.  Check out public intellectual Alan Wolfe’s review at Commonweal: “Loving the Amish.”

A taste:

Patrick Deneen is a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who is an adherent to a form of conservatism at war with modernity in all its forms. Just to be clear what this means, Deneen’s conservatism has little in common with versions adopted by today’s Republican Party, including, or so I surmise, the Trumpian one. To Deneen, much of today’s conservatism—not only Paul Ryan’s crush on Ayn Rand, but also the “American greatness” yearnings of William Kristol and David Brooks—is one or another form of liberalism. Unfortunately Deneen never tells us what genuine conservatism means, although there are hints ranging from twelfth-century conceptions of natural right to the agrarian writings of the contemporary neo-Rousseauian Wendell Berry. It would have helped this reader if Deneen had talked more explicitly about the conservatism against which liberalism was a reaction. 

In spite of this conceptual neglect, I found myself surprised by the number of points on which Deneen and I agree. He claims, against both libertarians and welfare-state defenders, that the “classical liberalism” of free markets lies along the same path as the “modern” liberalism of active government involvement. That accords with my own position that Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes belong in the same political camp. We both consider John Stuart Mill a liberal par excellence. Deneen argues, again I believe quite correctly, that the liberal arts in most colleges and universities have run their course and that few contemporary students ever receive full exposure to the glories of the humanities. Liberalism, in his view, prioritizes culture over nature; I agree.  Liberalism’s goal is to free human beings from artificial constraints that prevent them from realizing their full potential; I also agree with that. 

In pursuing his argument, Deneen should have one advantage: unrestrained by any hint of academic caution, he writes in the style of an eighteenth-century pamphleteer, making dramatic claims and hoping that his eloquent prose will carry the case. Even with respect to this rhetorical approach, we are not that different. I also try to write in a style suitable not just to academics and I have been known to be a bit polemical. Reading Deneen, I found myself thoroughly engaged and I wish more books like this would come from the editorial offices of university presses.

The only major difference between us, alas a rather significant one, is that for Deneen liberalism is one of the great horrors of world history; its failure is so complete that it will soon (if it has not already) lose all its adherents while creating one disaster after another. I believe that liberalism, in spite of the rightwing nativism currently fashionable in one liberal democracy after another, still has a great deal to achieve before it runs its course, and that there is no existing alternative political philosophy that can rival its staying power.

Read the rest here.

Kate Bowler’s *Everything Happens for A Reason* is Here

Bowler

I have read an advanced copy of Kate Bowler‘s new book and I am happy to report that today is its official release date.  I not only recommend it to you, but I am happy to announce that Kate will soon be a guest on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Stay tuned.  I will obviously share more about the book during the podcast episode.  Here is a brief synopsis of Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved:

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved is about staring down hard times with people you love, and what to say when “it will all work out” won’t cut it. Read more about the book in Kate’s recent Times Magazine interview or her New York Times op-ed! Reviews have been incredibly positive, and we are so excited to share the message of hope in the darkness. 

By joining this Thunderclap, we hope not just to get Kate’s message out to more readers, but to connect everyone who has looked for the right thing to say in difficult times and come up short, to connect the moms and kids and lovers and faithful who have struggled to find reason and meaning, but know that life, itself, can be enough. Help us build a community that believes things aren’t perfect, we aren’t limitless, life is hard-but life, ultimately, is beautiful. 

A Spiritual Biography of Donald Trump?

Trump bioSome might say that this an oxymoron.

Whatever the case, David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Scott Lamb of The Washington Times have written The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography.  It is also worth noting that Eric Metaxas wrote the foreword.  I will leave it there.

If anyone is interested, I have also jumped into the fray on this subject.  Please consider pre-ordering my Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  It will be out in the late Spring with Eerdmans.  The good folks at Eerdmans tell me that pre-orders are important to advancing the message of the book.

Some of Wendell Berry’s Port William Novels Are Now Part of the Library of America

berry LOASpeaking of rural America

You can now read Wendell Berry’s Nathan CoulterAndy Catlett: Early TravelsA World LostA Place on Earth, and a bunch of short stories from Berry’s fictional town of Port William in one place!  Congrats to the Library of America for releasing this collection!

Here is an overview:

For more than fifty years, in eight novels and forty-two short stories, Wendell Berry (b. 1934) has created an indelible portrait of rural America through the lens of Port William, Kentucky, one of the most fully imagined places in American literature. The river town and its environs are home to generations of Coulters, Catletts, Feltners, and other families collectively known as the Membership, women and men whose stories evoke the earthbound pleasures and spiritual richness of what Berry has called the three-dimensional life, a time before industrial agriculture, pervasive technology, and unrestrained consumerism began to unravel the deep bonds of community that once sustained small-town America.

Taken together, these novels and stories form a masterwork of American prose: straightforward, spare, and lyrical. Now, in an edition prepared in consultation with the author, Library of America presents the complete Port William novels and stories for the first time in the order of their narrative chronology, revealing as never before the intricate dovetails and beguiling elegance of Berry’s larger construction. As one of his narrators puts it: “their stories are all added finally into one story . . . bound together in a many-stranded braid beyond the power of any awl to pick apart.”

This first volume, which spans from the Civil War to World War II, gathers the novels Nathan Coulter (1960, revised 1985), A Place on Earth (1967, revised 1983), A World Lost(1996), and Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006), along with twenty-three short stories, among them such favorites as “Watch With Me,” “Thicker than Liquor,” and “A Desirable Woman.” It also features a newly researched chronology of Berry’s life and career, a map of Port William and a Membership family tree, and helpful notes.

Jack Shoemaker, editor, is Editorial Director of Counterpoint Press, publishing the work of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, M.F.K. Fisher, Evan Connell, Robert Aitken, Anne Lamott, Jane Vandenburgh, and many others. He has worked with Berry for more than forty years.

 

What Can 1 Samuel Teach Christians About Politics?

MosheWhile I was writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (pre-order here), I did a lot of reading in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.  While my thinking about these chapters did not make the final cut, I found these Old Testament books to be helpful in my thinking about Christianity and politics.  1 Samuel was particularly helpful.

Very early in 1 Samuel the Israelites find themselves in a battle with the Philistines at Mizpah. It is not going well, they are afraid, and they turn to the prophet Samuel for help.  Samuel responds to their fear, makes an offering to God, and cries out to the Lord on behalf of Israel.  The Lord responds and Israel wins the battle. (1 Samuel 7:7-14).

Shortly after their victory, Israel asks Samuel for a King to “go out and fight our battles.”  Samuel brings their request to God who responds by saying “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:5-20).  Indeed, by requesting a King, the people of Israel have chosen to place their trust in a military leader rather than God.  In essence, the people of Israel are committing idolatry.  As biblical scholar Stephen B. Chapman interprets the request: “henceforth, until the Exile, the Israelites will be unable to confess resolutely that God alone is king over Israel—apart from any human victory or partners.  This sad loss of ultimate spiritual loyalty at the expense of a more pragmatic national politics is the profound point of 1 Samuel 8.”

In a fascinating interpretation of the politics of 1 Samuel titled The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, authors Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes describe the book as “one of the most penetrating accounts ever written of the internal workings of human politics.”  When God decides to give the Israelites a king in the person of Saul, He is making a compromise with His people.  He offers them a solution to their military problems, albeit an imperfect one.

But there is a price to pay for such a compromise, as God warns that there will be a day when “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:18).  For believers like the Israelites, Halbertal and Holmes write, “politics is…an overpowering human necessity that can never fully escape a potentially self-defeating betrayal at its very core.”  The Israelites believe that Saul will be more effective than God (or his prophet Samuel) in protecting them from their enemies.  They now have a ruler, who Halbertal and Holmes describe as a man who will “wield…authority in the service of power as an end in itself” and “convert such ends as love, loyalty, the sacred, and moral obligations into mere means for eliminating dangerous rivals and staving off the loss of power.”

Consider 1 Samuel 13, the passage in which Saul does not wait for Samuel to arrive at Gilgal to make a sacrifice and instead makes the sacrifice himself.  Once again Halbertal and Holmes use the text to offer insight into what happens when religion mixes with power: “What the author of Samuel conveys by this striking episode is how religion, even when sincerely believed, can be instrumentalized in power struggles and how political rivals can shed moral qualms about treating the sacred as just another weapon to be opportunistically deployed in a competitive struggle for prestige and power.”

Sometimes it is better to obey than to sacrifice.

I will try to work up more posts like this in the next couple of weeks.

*Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump* is Spotted at the American Society of Church History Meeting in D.C.

My colleague Devon Manzullo-Thomas took this picture and tweeted it.  Thanks Devon!  And thanks to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home for pre-ordering!  If you haven’t pre-ordered yet, you can do so here at 21% off.  The good folks at Eerdmans tell me that pre-orders are important for generating interest in the book and its message.

Indeed, Niebuhr IS mentioned in the book!

Neibuhr

 

 

Quote of the Day

Rulers who wield their authority in the service of power as an end in itself regularly convert such ends as love, loyalty, the sacred, and moral obligations into mere means for eliminating dangerous rivals and staving off the loss of power, a loss they morbidly dread.

–Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes, The Beginnings of Politics: Power in the Biblical Blook of Samuel33.

The Author’s Corner with Patrick Griffin

515zcPMhSNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Patrick Griffin is Madden- Hennebry Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. This interview is based on his new book, The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth-Century (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Townshend Moment?

PG: I started the book with nothing more than a hunch.  I had always been fascinated by the parallels and connections between Ireland and America in the eighteenth century.  And two British brothers, Charles and George Townshend, at the very same moment held important positions that helped determine the fate of each place.  Could their stories, if brought together, tell us more about Ireland and America and about the empire the brothers were responsible for?  I began scratching the surface, and I discovered that their entangled story suggested a deeper set of questions.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Townshend Moment?

PG:  At certain junctures of time and through contingent events, men and women come to believe they are living during critical “moments.”  Empire and revolution are born through such ways of thinking.

JF: Why do we need to read The Townshend Moment?

PG: We need to read this story because it reminds how complex the past really is and how we, as actors, try to come up with simple ways to bring meaning to that complexity and act on that meaning in the present with an eye toward creating the future.  The book offers on one level a dual biography of two larger-that-life characters who determined the fortunes of empire, as well as a comparative history of Ireland and America in the eighteenth century.  It also explores, in a new way, the relationship between imperial reform and revolution at the beginning of the “Age of Atlantic Revolution.”  Finally, it suggests how powerful people believe that they can comprehend and shape the forces of history and global processes of change to try to bring order to a system.  Of course, they soon learn that people far away have other ideas.  They, too, come to believe they can craft their own destinies, but ones often at odds with what those in power propose.  This is a classic tale of hubris, a drama in fact.

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

PG:  I became an American historian by dumb luck, contingency, or Providence.  I don’t quite know which. I was destined to be a Political Scientist.  I started my graduate career doing Comparative Politics.  I soon learned that I had talents in other areas.  In a graduate program for history, I followed my passions, and they led me to the eighteenth-centiry Atlantic.  I have been there ever since, and I imagine I will be there for a long time still.

JF: What is your next project?

PG: I am, speaking of hubris, working on a study of the Age of Atlantic Revolution(s).  The parentheses matter here.  I am not sure if the period gave birth to a singular event or to a plurality of events.  We shall see.  I am calling it, for lack of a better term, a provocation.

JF: Thanks, Patrick!

The Author’s Corner with Adam Smith

41xrlTvJ9rL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Adam Smith is professor of history at the University College of London. This interview is based on his new book, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterised both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterized both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: Why do we need to read The Stormy Present?

AS: Because it might remind us that political change happens as much through accident as design, with people coming to support potentially radical transformation for reasons far removed from what we might imagine. It will remind us, also, that for its vaunted modernity and fascination with progress, the United States has always been in many respects a profoundly conservative society, preoccupied with a decisive founding moment and anxious about threats to the prevailing order. And finally because the book offers a new interpretation of the coming of the Civil War in which the mass of white northerners—the men and women who were not abolitionists or radicals or even necessarily Republicans, but whose reactions and judgements mattered so much—are placed centre-stage.

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

AS: When I was an undergraduate I was lucky to be taught by Eric Foner, who provided such a compelling account of the Civil War era that I was totally gripped. I don’t know if that was when I decided to become a historian of the United States, but it’s certainly when I began to imagine it as a possibility.

JF: What is your next project?

AS: A study of compromise as a practice and an idea in American politics. 

JF: Thanks, Adam!

How to Talk to People About the Causes of the Civil War

RebelsAaron Astor teaches history at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee.  He is the author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri, 1860-1872 (LSU Press, 2017).  Over at his Facebook page, Astor reflects on how he begins conversations with people about the causes of the Civil War.  It’s a great post (especially in light of this) and I appreciate Astor’s willingness to let me post it here.  (And thanks to John Craig Hammond for bringing it to my attention).  Enjoy! –JF

I speak and write regularly about the causes of the American Civil War, to both academic and popular audiences. Engaging with different people who hold different assumptions about the Civil War and its legacies today has forced me to develop a set of priming points that I use to begin the conversation. Here are some of the key ones. If you find them useful, feel free to share them.

1. People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today. This is especially true for matters of race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship. We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people.

2. People in the past did not know how their stories would end. They made choices they did based on what they valued, what they knew at the time, what they were able to do, and what they hoped or feared would happen. We should respect the drama of their uncertainty as we evaluate their actions.

3. Just as we cannot impose 21st century values back into the 19th century, we cannot and should not teleport our ancestors of the 19th century into our own time. Our ancestors certainly passed down cultural baggage to the following generations and thenceforward through the decades on to us. But that does not mean we should be defined today by plucking people out of the past and using them to make us good or bad people today.

4. If we wish to honor our ancestors, the best way to do so is to learn about them and their lives, their worlds, their hopes and fears, and in their own historical contexts. If we wish to draw inspiration from them, we should look at how they confronted or transcended their own times.

5. Getting to the causes of the Civil War now, we need to think about HOW 19th century white Americans argued about slavery and how those arguments came to dominate politics. That means looking beyond the purely moral arguments advanced by abolitionists, white and black, most of which were bitterly rejected across the North. Those arguments were certainly critical to advancing the anti-slavery cause, but we must be careful not to assume that those who opposed slavery in 1860 agreed with Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison that slavery should be immediately abolished.

6. There is what I like to call the “Northern myth” of the Civil War: that ordinary white Northerners opposed slavery because they believed in racial equality. (And as evidence, every Northern town has a station stop on the Underground Railroad supposedly run by some important white family). The reality is that this view was held by a tiny, though vocal and active minority. Far more important to antislavery as a political position was the view held by men like David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, who said, “I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, nor morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause of the rights of white freemen.” He, and the majority of white Northerners who came to oppose slavery and consequently voted for the Republican Party in 1860 did so because they thought slavery was bad for whites. Yes, they thought slavery was bad in the abstract too – Lincoln spoke of the right of a man to the “bread he has earned with the sweat of his brow.” But what animated white antislavery thought was the damage slavery did to white Northerners, not what it did to black Southerners (or black Northerners).

7. White Northerners developed an ideological opposition to slavery as a social and economic system that they felt encouraged laziness, inefficiency, aristocracy, haughty arrogance and entitlement. The presence of slavery meant that labor was to be viewed as a curse. Two direct consequences came from this: slaveholders would occupy the best lands in Kansas and crowd out good white Northern farmers who wanted free soil to labor upon freely. Thus the slavery extension question was critical. Another problem white Northerners identified was the tendency of slaveholders to violate the rights of free speech, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom to petition in the North. No matter how much ordinary white Northerners disliked abolitionists in their midst, they bitterly resented Southerners’ insistence that Northerners become slave catchers under the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Act, or abstain from peacefully agitating on matters of conscience. They felt that the “Slave Power Conspiracy” was violating the rights of free white Northerners.

8. Turning to what I call the great “Southern myth,” we need to think about what the majority of white Southerners who did not own slaves thought about slavery. While there were free soil-style objections (and occasional outright abolitionist) sentiments among white Southerners in the early 19th century, by the 1840s and 1850s very few white Southerners expressed anything like opposition to slavery as a whole. They might bitterly resent the planter class. But if they publicly rejected the slave system, on either moral (like John Fee of Kentucky) or economic (like Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina) grounds, they were hounded out as dangerous traitors. Non-slaveholding whites supported slavery because it shielded them from falling into the true bottom of the social order (Herrenvolk Democracy), buttressed the entire economic order (slaves as labor and as valuable chattel property), provided employment as overseers, and prevented the prospect of a Haiti-style violent insurrection. Slaveholders absolutely dominated the political system, both regionally and nationally in the 1850s, and non-slaveholders looked to them for assistance in bad harvests, or aspired to join them and become slaveholders. While not every white person objectively benefited from or defended slavery equally, the vast, vast majority of non-slaveholding white Southerners viewed the prospect of abolition with horror. Note here that even in East Tennessee, future Unionists like Andrew Johnson and William Parson Brownlow vigorously defended slavery right up through 1860.

9. Turning now to the Civil War itself, the immediate turn to war in April 1861 had to do with preserving the Union. Remember that seven Deep South states (SC, MS, AL, LA, FL, GA and TX) seceded after Lincoln’s election. Eight other slave states rejected secession at that time. Only after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s troop call-up did four Upper South states (VA, NC, AR and TN) join the Confederacy. Four remaining border slave states (MO, KY, MD and DE) remained in the Union. Preserving the Union militarily helped convinced the second tier states to secede. But as Lincoln pointed out in his First Inaugural, to fail to keep the Union intact at that point would have meant the death of the experiment of self-government (something European autocrats celebrated) and the likely disintegration of what remained of the Union. Lincoln termed secession a kind of breach of contract, wherein both sides never agreed together to allow for secession. National self-preservation is always the first task of any government. One can argue against these claims today and may did so back then. But the logic of the war-for-Union argument was compelling and obvious. Just as the American colonies did not expect to be allowed to break from Great Britain peacefully, neither did the secessionists believe the Union would really let the Southern states go peacefully. The secessionists figured a war would come. They just thought they would win that war.

10. Secessionists were clear about why they seceded upon Lincoln’s election. They felt the Republican Party would not defend slavery in the territories, would not crack down future John Browns, would create an anti-slavery party within the less-enslaved parts of the South, and would turn foreign policy toward anti-slavery. Slavery was stronger than ever in 1860. Secession was an act of overconfidence. And secession, as the multiple ordinances and declarations of causes showed, was designed explicitly to protect slavery and white supremacy.

11. Finally, individuals who joined the Confederate (or Union) army had multiple reasons for doing so. But if we are talking about the causes of the Civil War, we must look to the causes of secession and the reason the antislavery Republican Party emerged victorious in the 1860 election.

The Problem of the 1780s

ArticlesOver at The Nation, historian Richard Kreitner interviews Seattle University Law Professor George William Van Cleave about his new book We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution.   I hope to read Van Cleave’s book at some point since I don’t think I have ever read a book-length treatment of the Articles of Confederation.

Here is a taste of the interview:

RK: The overarching problem of the 1780s, as you write, was “stalemate government.” Why were things so blocked up?

GWVC: There are two basic reasons. First, the structure of the Confederation itself. The government designed by the Articles of Confederation made it easy for relatively small groups of people—especially individual states or sections of the country—to block any change. There was a requirement for every single state to agree to alter the powers of the Confederation. At least nine states needed to support any significant fiscal or military legislation. Any section could say, “We’re opposed to this, so it’s not gonna happen.” This happened repeatedly throughout the period I’m writing about.

The other significant reason is that from the beginning the Union had been a pretty loose alliance, so people felt relatively free about saying they just didn’t feel like going along with a particular policy. New York is a great example. New York City had one of the major ports in the United States, and the import taxes were very profitable for the state, which didn’t have to raise other kinds of taxes. But the rest of the states wanted to pass a federal import tax, which would have forced New York to give up its own. That was anathema for New York’s political leaders, who thought about how they could block such a tax every time they got out of bed. But, under the Articles of Confederation, there was no way for Congress to impose sanctions on New York for holding out, even if all the other states wanted to go forward. The result was stalemate.

Read the rest here.

 

The Author’s Corner with John Hayes

51eS3fj0YsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_John Hayes is associate professor of History at Augusta University. This interview is based on his new book, Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: The original idea was to see if, as a Southern historian, I could find real-world evidence for the imaginative landscape of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction—if I could demonstrate that O’Connor, with her literary insight, had evoked something real but perhaps opaque to historians. As I moved into the project, I realized that the type of Christianity embodied in her middle-class characters was well analyzed in the historiography; it was the Christianity of her poor characters (her primary characters) that had little presence in the scholarship beyond a few hints and fragments. The book is my attempt to excavate this distinct Christianity of the poor and to interpret it in its context.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: In the circumscribed world of the New South, poor whites and poor blacks exchanged songs, stories, lore, visual displays, and other cultural forms with each other, crafting a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the underside of regional capitalism. Their folk Christianity was a fragile but real space of interracial exchange and a fervent attempt to grasp the sacred in earthy, this-worldly ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: 

* It’s the first historical monograph on folk Christianity in the American South.

* In the face of a culture that continues the well-established tradition of denigrating and dismissing the poor, it shows the inner complexity, cultural creativity, and rich interiority of the poor of a certain time and place.

* It complicates what we think we know about religious life in the American South, especially by debunking the abiding trope of religious homogeneity on either side of the color line.

* In the face of scholarship that insists that Jim Crow was the culture of the New South, it argues for the fragile but real presence of interracial religious exchange among the poor.

* Where else, in the pages of a single volume, can you read about haunting songs of personified Death, anti-Mammon odes to the Titanic, and praying spots deep in the woods; about cows kneeling in reverence on Old Christmas night, graves decorated with bedsteads and grandfather clocks, and initiates emerging from imminent death to the sights and sounds of bright green trees and birds chirping away?

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

JH: I had an a-ha moment a few years after college: I realized that history was a way to take the abstract philosophical/theological questions that obsessed me and pursue them in concrete, tangible form—to explore the “big questions” not in open potentiality but in flesh-and-blood actuality. That was the initial impulse, but as I’ve worked as a historian I’ve also come to see another impulse that was there at the outset, but subconsciously: history is crucial for understanding identity. Nothing falls from the sky; everything has a story behind it. I’ve driven to seek the stories behind our society so that I can make sense of it. To know the past is to get a handle on the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: It’s very much in the coalescing stage, but I want to look at religion in “moments of possibility” before and after the circumscribed world of Hard, Hard Religion: in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. In both moments, sacralized social structures were being destabilized, and new religious conceptions had to emerge—though what exactly they would look like was very much an open question. That’s a very different context from my book, where poor people carve out meaning within stable, confining social structures.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Richard Carwardine

61d4we2M85L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Richard Carwardine is Professor Emeritus at Oxford University. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Sense of Humor (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Lincoln’s Sense of Humor?

RC: It began when I asked myself: why did Abraham Lincoln hold the satirist David Ross Locke, creator of a fictional Copperhead bigot – Petroleum V. Nasby – in so high esteem that he told the author, “For the genius to write these things I would gladly give up my office.” I addressed this question, and Lincoln’s humor more generally, in a conference talk that prompted an invitation to write a book on the subject – an idea I welcomed, given the paucity of work taking Lincoln’s humor seriously.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Sense of Humor?

RC: Since his death, Lincoln’s stories and jokes have become detached from the context that gave them their political and cultural bite, in the process losing their immediate ironic and satiric purpose. The book aims to locate Lincoln’s rich sense of humor in time and place, arguing that how and why he deployed it should be taken seriously: as a source of personal well-being, as a risky but largely profitable means of securing political advantage, and in some respects as an expression of ethical principle.

JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Sense of Humor?

RC: Lincoln’s humor was not peripheral: it was a reflexive outgrowth of his personality and expressed his essential humanity. It co-existed with self-absorbed contemplation and melancholy. He told an Iowa Congressman that his recourse to humor was an indispensable relief from his “hours of depression.” Using a bow and arrow as a boy, he said, he had learnt that “one must let up on the bow if the arrow is to have force.” He added, “You flaxen men with broad faces are born with cheer, and don’t know a cloud from a star. I am of another temperament.”

Throughout his life he worked to develop the humorist’s craft and hone the art of story-telling. The book explores the versatility, range of expressions, and multiple sources of his humor: western tall tales, morality stories, bawdy jokes, linguistic tricks, absurdities, political satire, and sharp wit. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than satirical work that lampooned hypocrisy and ethical double standards.

It would be wrong to think of Lincoln’s jocularity and story-telling as a frivolous appendix to his politics. He used humor as a political tool throughout his life; he was the first president consistently to make story-telling and laughter tools of office. No occupant of the White House has since exceeded his talent in this respect. He used stories to secure political or personal advantage, sometimes by frontal assault on opponents, but more commonly by exposition through parable, refusal through wit, and diversion through hilarity. The book analyses popular reactions to Lincoln’s jocularity and the waves of criticism it elicited during his presidency. It was a risky business, retailing jokes while the nation was engaged in an existential struggle costing some three-quarters of a million lives. At the same time, however, his reputation for wit and story-telling colored his image as a man of the people, a president who remained accessible to, and in touch with, the plain folk amongst whom he had moved throughout his life.

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

RC: The USA fascinated many of those growing up, as I did, in the Welsh mining valleys, where there was a strong sense of transatlantic connection, through emigration and politics. One of my ancestors was the president of the United Mine Workers of America and chief founder of the CIO, John L. Lewis. As an undergraduate student at Oxford University in the 1960s, I felt the particular tug of American history. Don E. Fehrenbacher was the visiting Harmsworth Professor at the time, and he lectured on ‘Slavery and Secession’, the celebrated course designed by Allan Nevins that ran for over twenty successive years in Oxford. That introduced me to some of the great works of American history, including Fehrenbacher’s Prelude to Greatness, Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution, and David Potter’s Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis. I was hooked. I secured an Oxford graduate scholarship in American History, one that took me to Berkeley for the year 1969-70. There I not only studied American history but lived through its making.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: A study of American religious nationalism from the founding of the Republic to Reconstruction.

JF: Thanks, Richard!