Early American Historians on the Opinion Page

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Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

Yesterday I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to participate in a session at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic devoted to historical writing for popular venues.  The session was titled “Early America on the Opinion Page: Writing Historically-Minded Pieces for Contemporary Audiences.”  (Thanks to Caitlin Fitz of Northwestern University for organizing the event).

I was honored to sit on a roundtable with the following historians:

Jill Lepore (Harvard University and The New Yorker)

Yoni Appelbaum (Senior Editor at The Atlantic)

Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers University and National Book Award finalist)

Gautham Rao (American University)

Lepore, who chaired the session, asked each participant to send her the first few paragraphs of a recent op-ed piece.  She pasted these excerpts into a document and distributed it to the standing-room only crowd.   I chose a piece I wrote last year for The Atlantic. Each member of the roundtable took fifteen minutes to talk about the history behind the piece and offer insights into their own experiences with op-ed and other forms of public writing.

Many of the participants talked about the risks involved in writing for the public in a social media age.  Several of the panelists have received death threats for their public writing. I talked about the difficulty in bringing complexity and nuance to opinion pieces.  My favorite response came from Appelbaum, who encouraged the audience to find a community of friends and family who love and affirm their work in the midst of the inevitable criticism that comes when we write for the public. It was the first time I have ever heard the word “love” invoked in this way at a secular academic history conference.

Lepore and Rao had a really interesting exchange about book reviewing in popular venues.  Rao (a fellow Mets fan by the way!) lamented the fact that magazines and newspapers often choose non-academics or non-historians to review important history books.  Lepore disagreed.  She thought it was a very good idea that non-academics and non-historians reviewed these books because such reviewers are free from the politics of the academy and the historical profession.

Rao responded to the exchange on Twitter:

Lepore ended the session with some advice of her own:

1. “Drive Responsibly”:  Bring your best work and your deep commitment to civic responsibility to the public sphere.  If you don’t write well or make weak arguments you weaken all of our reputations as historians.

2. “Be brave, but don’t be shi..y”

3. “Delight your reader”

And then there was moment.

My Favorite Moment From the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society of the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)

Yesterday I was part of a panel of early American historians who write op-eds and other public pieces for public consumption.  The panel included Jill Lepore, Erica Dunbar, Yoni Appelbaum, and Grantham Rao. I will blog about this panel later today, but I thought I would share an exchange that occurred during the session:

Me (during my presentation):  “I am an evangelical Christian.”  (This was relevant because I was talking about an op-ed I wrote about Trump in The Atlantic).

Audience member during Q&A, speaking to the standing-only crowd: “I think it is worth noting here that we have a real live evangelical in our midst.”

Me:  “Yes–and after the session I will be outside in a cage so you can all examine me more fully.”  (Yes, I can get a bit snarky).

Audience: Awkward laughter.

Jill Lepore (addressing the aforementioned audience member): I’m gonna stop you right there. This is not a session about John or his faith, it is about writing op-eds for public audiences.

Thanks, Jill.

I also appreciate all of the evangelicals and people of other Christian faiths who came up to me after the session and offered words of encouragement for my work.

More later.

Did Jon Huntsman Write the Anonymous Op-Ed?

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It is certainly possible.  William Saleton makes the case at Slate:

Who wrote the anonymous op-ed against President Trump in Wednesday’s New York Times? All we know for certain is what the Times disclosed: that it’s a “senior official in the Trump administration.” But the most likely author, based on the op-ed’s content and style, is the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman is an obvious suspect for several reasons. The article’s themes are classic Huntsman: effusive about conservative policies, blunt about low character. In 2016, he made the same points for and against Trump. The topic that gets the most space and detail in the piece is Huntsman’s current area, Russia. (As Slate’s Fred Kaplan points out, Trump has been circumventing and undermining Huntsman.) The prose, as in Huntsman’s speeches and interviews, is flamboyantly erudite. The tone, like Huntsman’s, is pious. And the article’s stated motive—“Americans should know that there are adults in the room”—matches a letter that Huntsman wrote to the Salt Lake Tribune in July. In the letter, Huntsman, responding to a columnist who thought the ambassador should resign rather than keep working for Trump, explained that public servants such as himself were dutifully attending to the nation’s business.

Read the rest here.

Who Has Denied Writing the Anti-Trump Op-Ed in *The New York Times*?

Times Op-Ed

Mike Pence, James Mattis, Mike Pompeo, Jeff Sessions, Steve Mnuchin, Dan Coats, Ben Carson, Nikki Haley, Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos, and John Bolton have all denied it.

Of course this means nothing.  All of these cabinet members and senior officials are complicit with a presidential administration that lies to the American people multiple times a day.  Should we really believe them now?

How to Write and Publish an Op-Ed

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History Communicators has posted a piece on writing op-eds by Nicole Hemmer of the University of Virginia. It is worth your time.

Here is a taste:

So you want to write an op-ed. And you should! As a scholar, you have a vast expertise that extends well beyond the subject of the books and articles that you’ve written. Whether you’re pitching a piece to the new history section at the Washington Post or to any newspaper, magazine, or news website, here’s some general advice to help you navigate the unfamiliar terrain of op-ed writing.

The first thing is that the old op-ed genre is being transformed. For print publications, writers are still limited to somewhere between 700-900 words (generally; there are exceptions) but so many established places like the Washington Post, New York Times, the Atlantic, New Republic, and Politico have online spaces that allow for longer, more in-depth pieces.

There’s also more of an appetite for history writing than there used to be. When I was a fellow at the Miller Center in 2008, the person who taught me the art of op-ed writing cautioned against anything more than a dollop of history in any op-ed. Probably good advice for academics, who like to overexplain, but think about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” which was essentially an extended historiography essay, or Mason William’s brilliant piece for the Atlantic, “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble.” Loads of history in both.

All of which is to say that there’s more freedom and innovation in the genre of argument-driven, analytical writing than there used to be.

Still, the op-ed genre requires some things we don’t do as much in scholarly writing. First, brevity. If you can’t make your argument in around 800-900 words, you either need to recast the argument or rethink how you’re making it. Editors will often allow you more words if you’re publishing online, but it’s worth mastering the discipline of short-length writing.

Brevity also extends to sentence and paragraph length. That means fewer examples (pick one stellar one rather than three). It also means less hedging. You can certainly qualify statements, but don’t get too in the weeds. It helps to step back and think about it from the perspective of your audience: it’s less about what you know and more about what they need to know in order to follow your argument.

And speaking of arguments: they’re absolutely essential. Op-eds are a persuasive form of writing. Just because something’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s enough to hang an op-ed on. Sometimes you can write your way to an argument; I usually talk or text my way to them, to the annoyance of my friends. But once you have that — that one line that explains why conventional wisdom is wrong or why history is essential for understanding some contemporary development — then you’re good to go.

Structurally, that sentence will appear in what is called the “nut graf.” Most op-eds will have a short paragraph, occasionally two, that set up the piece, and then the nut graf: the paragraph that lays out your argument. Then the rest of the piece is about developing that argument — again, as briefly and as tightly as you can get away with.

Read the rest here.

My Latest Piece in the Harrisburg *Patriot News*

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Here is a taste of my “The Press Was Way More Political in Jefferson’s Day–But He Defended It Anyway.”

President Trump has made a habit of attacking the press as being a promoter of “fake news,” part of a “corrupt system,” and the propagator of “lies.” His administration has made enemies of certain outlets, even locking them out of briefings.

In a speech in Melbourne, Fla., he made an appeal to American history to defend his stance, saying presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln “fought with the media and called them out oftentimes on their lies. 

Trump even quoted a June 14, 1807, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell in which Jefferson wrote “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

The President was correct about Jefferson. The Founding Father had his problems with the press. But what he didn’t note was that despite his agitation with the press, he defended a much more biased press as a necessary part of free speech.

In 1803, during his first term as President, Jefferson wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean suggesting that the editors of a newspaper critical of his administration should be prosecuted for “pushing its licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit.”

This is but one of many examples of Jefferson’s harsh words against a negative press.

But Jefferson also knew the press served an important role.

Read the rest here.

The Pope is Catholic

This morning Fox News is running my piece “Pope Francis is Neither Liberal Nor Conservative, A Democract or a Republican.  He is a Catholic.” 

Those of you who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home closely have read many of the ideas in this piece in various posts and tweets throughout the past week.

Here is a taste:

It was all so surreal.
Thursday a Catholic Pope entered the chamber of the House of Representatives and gave a speech to a joint meeting of Congress urging those in attendance to apply Catholic social teaching to the affairs of the nation.
For most 18th and 19th century Americans the prospect of a person landing on the moon would have been more believable.
And not only did the pope speak, but he was flanked by a Vice-President and Speaker of the House who shared his faith. The presence of Joe Biden and John Boehner proves that the United States has come a long way in accepting Catholics.
The historical irony cannot be overlooked.  Think, for example, about the first Vice-President to occupy Biden’s chair in the House.  John Adams, the son of New England Puritans, was no fan of Catholics, especially Jesuits, the order of Pope Francis.  In 1814, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote, “If ever any Congregation of Men could merit, eternal Perdition on Earth and Hell…it is the company of Loyola.”
Read the rest here.

Jonathan Zimmerman on Historians and Their Publics

Jonathan Zimmerman

I just received my copy of the most recent The American Historian, a new American history magazine published by the Organization of American Historians.  There are a lot of great articles in this episode and I just might blog on a few of them in the immediate future.  But for now, I want to call your attention to Jonathan Zimmerman‘s article “Historians and Their Publics.”

Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and is best known for writing op-ed pieces that connect history to current events.  (His book Small Wonder: The Little Red School House in History and Memory is also really good).  I greatly admire Zimmerman’s attempts to bring history to public audiences.

In his The American Historian article Zimmerman makes some great points about why it is necessary and beneficial for historians to write for the public.  He argues that this kind of writing not only informs the public, but also has the potential of making us better historians.  Here are a few of Zimmerman’s ideas:

  • Graduate students need to learn to write for the public as a means of survival.  Academic jobs in history departments are drying up.
  • Everyone who writes an M.A. or Ph.D thesis should be required to produce “a piece of work about their projects for public audiences.”  Zimmerman suggests op-ed pieces, a blog posts, TED talks, and videos.
  • Writing for the public allows historians to “distill and clarify” the “central intellectual claims” of their scholarship.
  • Every graduate student of history should get training in how to teach.  Graduate students need to connect with a growing scholarship in the history of teaching and learning.
  • History teachers must be generalists.  As a result, they should feel comfortable writing op-eds and blog posts on topics that they have never researched.  As Zimmerman puts it: “I’m always amused (and, I’ll admit, a little appalled) when I hear a historian disparage colleagues for writing op-eds or blog posts on topics they have never researched on their own….In our classrooms, after all, we routinely teach about many matters far beyond our academic specialties.  Why should writing be any different.”
  • Founders of the historical profession such as Carl Becker and Charles and Mary Beard took it for granted that historians should be public intellectuals.
Great stuff. 

Saving Our Democratic Soul

I recently took a shot at addressing the so-called crisis in the humanities.  My op-ed is running in today’s Harrisburg Patriot-NewsHere it is:

Recently U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Budget Committee, raised questions about a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) program providing grants to university professors who want to develop courses based around such questions as “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is the good life and how do I live it?” 

He was also bothered that the NEH granted professors funds to study Islam. Sessions believes that taxpayer money should not be used to support subjects related to questions that are “indefinite” or that favor one religion over another.

The House of Representatives’ Budget Committee agrees with Sessions. 

In its fiscal 2014 budget resolution, the committee called for a complete elimination of funding for the NEH based on the belief that the federal government should not be in the business of supporting humanities-based research. In the end, the committee let the NEH live, but elected to slash its budget by 49 percent.

President Barack Obama seems to be on board with the backlash against the humanities. When it comes to education funding, President Obama continues to throw all his weight behind the so-called “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines.

All of this could prove to be quite tragic for the future of our country. We seem to have forgotten that in order for a democracy to thrive citizens need to learn how to live together with their differences. A democracy needs people who understand that their own pursuits of happiness must always operate in tension with their obligations to the larger community.  

Such a commitment to the common good requires citizens who are able to respect those with whom they might disagree on some of life’s most important issues.

As conservative Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon puts it: “A democratic republic needs an adequate supply of citizens who are skilled in the arts of deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, and reason-giving.” 

I think it is safe to say in light of the antics surrounding our recent government shutdown that we have failed miserably in sustaining the virtues we need to keep our democratic republic afloat.

Pundits and politicians are full of answers for how to get us back on track, while others seem to be content with the ongoing culture wars and see no problem with the virtual collapse of civil society in the United States. But I can’t help but think that Congress’s recent funding choices may have something to do with our current malaise.

Let’s take my own discipline of history. An encounter with the past on its own terms, in all its fullness, can teach us skills that are necessary for contributing to our life together. By ridding ourselves of our obsession with the present moment in which we live we learn how to empathize with people who are different.

We learn to step outside of ourselves and walk in someone else’s shoes, even if that person is long dead. History teaches us to understand before condemning, listen to the voices of the past through the documents left behind before judging them, and to understand people on their terms, not ours.

As Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis notes, history “dethrones” us “from our original position at the center of the universe.” The study of the past humbles us. As we begin to see our lives as part of a community made up of both the living and the dead, we may also start to see our neighbors (and our enemies) in a different light. 

We may even want to listen to their ideas, empathize with them, and try to make sense of why they see the world in the way they do. We may even want to have a conversation (or two) with them. And in the process we may even find that there is much we hold in common. We may even recognize some of our own flaws.

Granted, STEM disciplines are absolutely essential for our capitalist economy to function. But we must ask ourselves whether the kind of training necessary for a thriving economy is the same kind of training necessary for a thriving democracy.

The study of the humanities may not have a direct impact on our gross national product, but without subjects such as history we are in danger of losing our democratic soul. 

John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg. He is the author of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013).

The New Religious Test


One of the least-known but most revolutionary clauses in the Constitution appears in Article VI, where the framers stipulated that “no religious test shall ever be required” for federal government service. At the time of its drafting, the clause outraged some orthodox Protestants, who fumed that it would open the door for Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists to run the country.

They needn’t have worried. Nearly 200 years passed before the American electorate chose the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. And since then, we have reliably elected a Protestant every four years.

Last weekend, however, something happened that would have finally vindicated those fretful early Protestants – though it caused nary a tremor in American public life.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose founder was murdered while running for president in 1844), designated a Catholic, Rep. Paul Ryan (whom many early Americans would have referred to derogatorily as a “Papist”), as his running mate. And thus we have, for the first time in American history, a major-party presidential ticket that does not include a Protestant. The Republicans will nominate no theological descendant of Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham, or Jerry Falwell; just a Mormon and a Catholic.

Have we therefore reached the end of our nation’s long-standing unofficial religious test for its highest office? 

Yes, but only in part.

Since 2000, our major political parties have nominated presidential and vice presidential candidates from a historically broad range of traditions, including Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, and several different strands of Protestantism. Yet amid this array of Western monotheism persists a core requirement that presidential aspirants adhere to a publicly recognizable faith, go to church periodically, and talk comfortably about a discernibly Judeo-Christian God.

The pious marrow of this unofficial religious test manifested itself soon after the Constitution was framed. During the heated election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents’ made hay by claiming he would uproot Christian churches and force atheism on the devout. A half-century later, Abraham Lincoln ran up against the same test when he was forced to assure voters that he wasn’t the sort of person who “scoffed” at Christianity.

In 1952, eight years before the nation elevated a Catholic to the Oval Office, President-elect Dwight Eisenhower declared that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” For good measure, he added: “With us, of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.”

Romney has learned this lesson well. He was sparing in his religious references last weekend, calling his new running mate a “faithful Catholic” who “believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.” Keeping with the approach his campaign has taken toward his own faith, Romney took care not to dwell on the particulars of Ryan’s. Instead, he emphasized the shared political commitment – specifically against abortion, but also more vaguely against gay marriage – that his faith entails.

Nonetheless, if recent elections are any guide, Romney and Ryan must maintain a steady drumbeat of God-fearing, Jesus-soaked expression until November. This will come easily to both given their deep Christian faiths – in a way it didn’t to the more religiously unorthodox Jefferson and Lincoln, and in a way it wouldn’t to a Jew, Muslim, or atheist today.

So here’s an update of our unofficial religious requirements for the presidency: An unprecedented array of traditions, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, and, probably to a slightly lesser degree, Judaism, now qualify candidates for the office. But Eisenhower’s Judeo-Christian criterion clearly abides.

This is not the founders’ religious test for office, or even your parents’. But it’s a religious test all the same.


Chris Beneke is an associate professor of history at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., and the author of Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism. John Fea chairs the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.