Trumpism will be the new “lost cause”

Yesterday in my Pennsylvania History class we were talking about the role that monuments have played at the Gettysburg National Military Park. We are reading Jim Weeks’s excellent book Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine.

I gave a brief lecture on the connection between Confederate monuments at Gettysburg (and elsewhere) and the so-called “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. In her entry in the Encyclopedia of Virginia, University of Virginia Civil War historian Caroline Janney describes six central tenets of the “Lost Cause”:

The Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War typically includes the following six assertions:

1. Secession, not slavery, caused the Civil War.

2. African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.

3. The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union’s overwhelming advantages in men and resources.

4. Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.

5. The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates, perhaps of all Americans, was Robert E. Lee.

6. Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones.

She adds:

The Lost Cause is an interpretation of the American Civil War (1861–1865) that seeks to present the war, from the perspective of Confederates, in the best possible terms. Developed by white Southerners, many of them former Confederate generals, in a postwar climate of economic, racial, and social uncertainty, the Lost Cause created and romanticized the “Old South” and the Confederate war effort, often distorting history in the process. For this reason, many historians have labeled the Lost Cause a myth or a legend. It is certainly an important example of public memory, one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery. Providing a sense of relief to white Southerners who feared being dishonored by defeat, the Lost Cause was largely accepted in the years following the war by white Americans who found it to be a useful tool in reconciling North and South. The Lost Cause has lost much of its academic support but continues to be an important part of how the Civil War is commemorated in the South and remembered in American popular culture.

At the heart of the Lost Cause is the idea that the cause of the Confederacy during the Civil War was just.

As we live through the last days of the Trump presidency, I am wondering if we are going to see something similar to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Donald Trump won over 70 million votes in 2020. Only Joe Biden has won more votes in an American presidential election. Trump will leave office on January 20, 2021, but he will not go away. He will continue to claim that the Democrats engaged in fraud and thus stole the election. He will claim that he did “make America great again.” His ardent followers will turn him into a martyred hero. They will claim that the “Deep State” conspired against him.

To paraphrase Janney, Trump will provide a sense of relief to white Americans who felt dishonored by his defeat. He will promote his lost cause through rallies and perhaps a cable television station or streaming service. His presidential “library” will be a museum of Trumpism. He will continue to preach nativism, Christian nationalism, xenophobia, and “America First.” Many conservative evangelicals will continue to hail him as messenger of God, a new King Cyrus, an anointed one. Trump will use his Twitter feed to undermine Biden’s call for healing and unity. And in 2024 he may try to “redeem” the “corrupt” 2020 election by running for president again.

While not all 70 million Trump voters will embrace his lost cause, many of them will.

Trump and Trumpism is not going away.

And there will be monuments.

Making sense of Pennsylvania

In the days following the Election Day 2020 I spent some time in my Pennsylvania History class getting the students to connect the past and the present. Why is Pennsylvania a swing state? Why is it so diverse?

I tried to get my students excited about the fact that they were studying the history of the commonwealth at a time when the nation’s eyes were on Pennsylvania. “This is a story you can tell your kids,” I told them. (Only about half of the students rolled their eyes).

I thought of my class as I read Ed Simon’s piece on Pennsylvania at Belt Magazine. Here is a taste of “The Keystone State is Ringing“:

Every four years, Pennsylvanians face the trauma of being a “swing state” and, for those of us with progressive inclinations, the possibility of embarrassment. Throughout the rapidly-collapsing Trump regime, there has been a cringe that’s accompanied my Pennsylvania identity. When we could have prevented incipient fascism, in 2016, too many of our fellow voters pulled the lever in favor of authoritarianism. Which made the announcement last Saturday—that Pennsylvania had pushed its native son, President-Elect Joe Biden, over 270 electoral votes—so sublimely sweet. That it was my hometown of Pittsburgh makes it even more so. It feels like a kind of redemption.

It’s also a reflection of Pennsylvania’s complexity.  This area has always been hard to categorize, starting with the state’s designation as “Mid-Atlantic,” which feels nonsensical for a landlocked state. “Mid-Atlantic” itself has long meant simply the part of the Northeast that’s not New England (New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and perhaps the District of Columbia), though defining something by what it’s not is never satisfying. Pennsylvania is sometimes seen as Midwestern by those of a more coastal bent, and parts of it belong to Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Democratic political strategist James Carville infamously said that “Between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama.” The state is perhaps best understood as what was left over after every other region delineated its confines.

Geographic ambiguity is the least of the Pennsylvanian uncertainties. Pennsylvanian gulfs are vast. The area we frequently call the “T”—between the mainline of Philadelphia and the suburbs of Pittsburgh—can appear a wide-open zone of Trump signs and A.M. Christian radio, while the urban centers share more in common with any of the major metropolises in the northeast or industrial Midwest. If you look at a nighttime satellite image, you see the explosion of lights on the seaboard, with Philadelphia (the fifth largest city in the U.S., and the second largest on the east coast) but a node lodged between Baltimore and New York, and then infinite speckled darkness spreading westward till you hit the lights of Pittsburgh.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Richard Pointer

Richard Pointer is Professor Emeritus of History at Westmont College. This interview is based on his new book, Pacifist Prophet: Papunhank and the Quest for Peace in Early America (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Pacifist Prophet?

RP: As sometimes happens, this book, and more specifically Papunhank, found me rather than the other way around. I was doing some research on Pennsylvania-Native American relations in the 1750s and ‘60s and he kept popping up in a range of Quaker, Moravian and government source materials. I also began to notice his name briefly mentioned in a few recent secondary accounts. But it quickly became clear that no one had yet put together the various pieces of his life. Two considerations eventually persuaded me to attempt a biography: first and foremost, I discovered his to be an utterly fascinating and important story that should change some of what we think about Indigenous peoples in early America; and second, reconstructing his life offered a chance to put a small dent in the ongoing preoccupation of early American biography with white men.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pacifist Prophet?

RP: In a mid-eighteenth century world filled with political turmoil, racial hatred, and deadly violence, Papunhank, like most Native Americans, sought a secure homeland for his people. But unlike most Indigenous leaders and prophets, he rejected warfare and promoted a principled pacifism that kept hundreds of his followers alive and contributed to a longer and wider Indian peace tradition.

JF: Why do we need to read Pacifist Prophet?

RP: In reconstructing Papunhank’s remarkable story, Pacifist Prophet reveals a heretofore largely overlooked Indigenous peacemaking tradition and in the process, widens our vision of the possibilities and limits Native peoples encountered in pre-Revolutionary America. In other words, it recovers an essential piece of Native American heritage and American history. As we consider our own cultural moment, Papunhank’s leadership model of self-sacrificial, dignified, morally-grounded service may be worth a look, especially in a world so much in need of being reminded that as Papunhank himself put it “when God made Men he never intend[ed] they should kill or destroy one another.” Moreover, the typical impression in the popular mind continues to be that Indians everywhere and always (or at least until 1890) were warlike. Either by nature, cultural inclination, or political necessity, they had to be. But it turns out that most Native peoples across the long span of early American history avoided war whenever they could. Instead, they, more quietly, pursued peaceful ways to cope with the new realities facing them after the Europeans’ arrival. Few did more or tried harder along those lines than Papunhank. His life, though extraordinary in the choices he made, was far more typical of what most Natives experienced in early America than the handful of Indians from this era (think Pocahontas and Squanto) familiar to Americans today.

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

RP: When asked this question, I always point back to childhood family vacations to historic sites along the East Coast that left me equating history and fun. That seed was then nurtured by excellent junior high and high school American history teachers, enough so that I went to college certain that I wanted to major in history. There my love of the subject and especially early American history grew. Completing a major research project on seventeenth-century Connecticut during my senior year gave me a much better idea of what historians actually do and helped persuade me to pursue graduate school in history. So, too, did the example of my older brother, Steve, who by that point was working on a PhD in history. When the opportunity came along for me to study at Johns Hopkins University, I grabbed it, not quite knowing what I was in for or where I was headed but convinced that a life in academia teaching and writing American history would be a worthy calling.

JF: What is your next project?

RP: Well, I’ve just retired in the last few months from my faculty position at Westmont College so my main project at the moment is figuring out what retirement will look like. So far it is feeling very good, even in the midst of the pandemic. The latter, of course, is making research much more difficult. But I have begun preliminary work on the question, how did the Seven Years’ War shape or re-shape religion in America? Over the past couple of decades, early American historians have come to see that war as far more pivotal in “making America” than previously thought. I’m curious to see if that was true for religion as well. Historians of religion in mid-eighteenth century America have tended to be preoccupied with the First Great Awakening and then the American Revolution, typically skipping over the Seven Years’ War. Yet I suspect that long conflict did much to set the trajectory of religion in America toward disestablishment, anti-Catholicism, evangelical expansion, racial exclusivity, and apocalyptic hope. Perhaps someday we’ll even say that it was the war that “made American religion.”

JF: Thanks, Rick!

Pray “that the clergy of all denominations from one end of the continent to the other may intercede with the Lord of Hosts to dispose the minds of the people to obedience”

At first glance, one might think this quote came from one of Donald Trump’s court evangelicals.

Nope.

The quote in the title of this post comes from a member of Congress in 1792 who went by the pseudonym “a sanctified friend of aristocracy.” He was advocating for a national day of fasting, prayer, and humiliation to convince the whiskey farmers in Western Pennsylvania to obey the recently passed Whiskey Tax.

In my Pennsylvania History class this semester we are reading Thomas Slaughter’s book The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. Here is the full passage (pp.130-131):

It seemed clear that “the fate of the excise law will determine whether the powers of the government of the United States are held by an aristocratic junto or by the people.” Instead of responding to the flood of petitions against the excise that filled the halls of Congress, the members of that body “very improperly” handed them over to “an executive officer [i.e. Alexander Hamilton] who was the occasion of the injury, and was very interested in supporting it.” Now instead of repealing the law, a “sanctified friend of aristocracy” in the Congress advocated a national day of fasting, prayer, and humiliation “that the clergy of all denominations from one end of the continent to the other may intercede with the Lord of Hosts to dispose the minds of the people to obedience.” The arrogance of such a proposal infuriated opposition writers. Who were these aristocratic politicians to presume such a condescending attitude? Where was a recognition of republic principles, of the equality among men, for which the Revolution was fought? It now seemed that at least some who “passed under the name of federalists” embraced the Constitution only “because they looked on it as a promising essay towards a system of anti-republican orders and artificial palances.” These Federalists asserted their right to rule over the nation of farmers because they were “men of wealth and opulence, who could buy and sell the whole ragged race of whiskey drinkers twenty times over.” The question of th excise, friends of liberty warned, “is not longer between federalism and anti-federalism, but between republicanism and anti-republicanism.”

Of course Donald Trump used Christianity to suppress protests this summer in the same way that this Federalist congressman tried to use a day of fasting and prayer to keep the whiskey rebels in line. These rebels were men and women who invoked the spirit of the 1776 against what they believed to be an unfair tax levied upon them by eastern Federalists. To quote Slaughter, the opponents of the Whiskey Tax “resolved…that the law discouraged agriculture, fell most heavily on the newly settled areas, ‘especially upon the western parts of the United States,’ and was particularly discriminatory against citizens of the ‘laborious and poorer class,’ who were the consumers of cheap, domestically produced alcoholic beverages.”

I told my students that whenever the government starts talking about “law and order” or making Americans “obedient,” they will usually uncover some kind of religious or biblical argument.

I was reminded again of this passage in Slaughter when I saw this:

This is an all-star cast of court evangelicals. They will pray for a Trump victory on Sunday night. One of them might actually pray that “the Lord of Hosts… dispose the minds of the people to obedience” by convincing them to vote for Donald Trump.

Another time in American history when the people did not trust the experts

I was struck this morning by a passage from Thomas Slaughter’s The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution:

Hamilton…succeeded in getting the endorsement of the respected Philadelphia College of Physicians. These medical doctors and teachers enthusiastically supported his efforts to reform the “morals and manners” of whiskey consumers. The physicians offered their combined professional opinion that “a great proportion of the most obstinate, painful, and mortal disorders which affect the human body are produced by distilled spirits.” The doctors expressed no doubt that a plague or other pestilential disorder threatening thousands of persons would bring the most vigorous actions of government. They saw “no just cause why the more certain and extensive ravages of distilled spirits upon human life should not be guarded against with corresponding vigilance and exertions.”

Opponents of the excise in Congress were outraged at the physicians’ “interference.” They believed that these medical men had no business instructing Congress how to perform their duties, and no right telling the American people how to conduct their lives. Congressman Jackson of Georgia argued that this sort of advice, if heeded, could quickly get out of hand. Next thing they knew, House members would be told by the doctors to legislate against mushrooms; and “they might petition Congress to pass a law interdicting the use of ketchup because some ignorant persons had been poisoned by eating mushrooms.”

George Washington to his land agent: “All of this can be carried on by silent management and can be carried out by you under the guise of hunting game…”

We are reading this letter today in my Pennsylvania history class. It is a 1767 letter from George Washington to his personal land agent William Crawford. Here is a taste:

. . . I can never look upon the Proclamation [of 1763] in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. It must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when those Indians consent to our occupying those lands. Any person who neglects hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them will never regain it. If you will be at the trouble of seeking out the lands, I will take upon me the part of securing them, as soon as there is a possibility of doing it and will, moreover, be at all the cost and charges surveying and patenting the same . . . By this time it be easy for you to discover that my plan is to secure a good deal of land. You will consequently come in for a handsome quantity.

I would recommend it to you to keep this whole matter as a profound secret, or Trust it only with those in whom you can confide & who can assist you in bringing to bear by their discoveries of Land and this advice proceeds from several very good Reasons, and in the first place because I might be censured for the opinion I have given in respect to the Kings Proclamation & then if the Scheme I am not proposing to you was known it might  give alarm to others & by putting them upon a Plan of the same nature (before we could lay a proper foundation for success ourselves)…”

“All of this can be carried on by silent management and can be carried out by you under the guise of hunting game, which you may, I presume, effectually do, at the same time you are in pursuit of land. When this is fully discovered advise me of it, and if there appears a possibility of succeeding, I will have the land surveyed to keep others off and leave the rest to time and my own assiduity.”

Read the entire letter here.

This clip tells us several things about George Washington:

  1. Washington wanted land and plenty of it.
  2. Washington did not respect Indian sovereignty over the western territories.
  3. Washington did not want anyone to know about his plans to accumulate land in western Pennsylvania for two reasons. First, he did not want to be perceived as violating the Proclamation of 1763. It was going to be removed anyway, so why not violate it? Second, he did not want anyone else to violate the Proclamation. Why? Because if they broke the law and speculated in western territory (like he was doing) he would have competitors in his quest for land.
  4. Washington gave his land agent an alibi in case he got caught. It went something like this: “just say you were hunting.”

We deserved last night’s debate. We didn’t deserve last night’s debate.

Last night the nation got the debate it deserved.

Last night a nation suffering through coronavirus deserved better.

I think both of these things can be true at the same time.

The first 2020 presidential debate was a disaster. It was a perfect representation of the current state of our political culture. I think theologian Keith Plummer got it right when he tweeted:

Biden’s performance wasn’t great, but he hung in there. Historian Amy Bass nailed it:

Biden didn’t need to kill it last night. He is leading in all the polls. Trump did nothing to widen his base. The debate changed very little.

At one point in the debate Biden told Trump: “You’re the worst president America has ever had.” We will let future historians decide this, but right now it is hard to argue with Biden’s assessment. Here is presidential historian Jon Meacham:

As most of you know by now, Trump refused to condemn “white supremacy” and “racists”:

Here is Christian writer and editor Katelyn Beaty:

And then Trump empowered a neo-Fascist group by telling them to “stand back and stand by.” It is worth noting that the Proud Boys immediately made “Stand Back. Stand By” part of their new logo. Yes the President of the United States told a white supremacist militia group to “stand by.” This implies they he may need them at some point in the immediate future.

Actually, this whole Proud Boys thing sets me up nicely for my Pennsylvania history class today:

This may have been the first presidential debate in American history in which one candidate called another candidate a “racist.”

Trump did nothing to win women voters tonight. Here is historian Heather Cox Richardson:

A few odds and ends:

  1. Trump refused to say that he would concede the election if he loses.
  2. Trump interrupted Biden to attack his son Hunter at the precise moment Biden was talking about his dead son Beau.
  3. In the middle of a discussion on COVID-19, Trump attacked Biden’s intelligence. He also mocked Biden for attending “Delaware State” university. Actually, Biden attended the University of Delaware. Delaware State is a historical black university. One would think Trump would know this since he likes to brag how much he has done for HBCUs.
  4. I don’t want to see another debate. This was a waste of time. Let’s just vote in November and move on as a nation.

A few random tweets from the night:

Before the debate court evangelical Robert Jeffress was praying for unity:

I support national unity. I even support praying for national unity. One of the best speeches on national unity was Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:

Here’s Sean Hannity being Sean Hannity:

CNN commentators saw things differently:

Is this King George or Vladimir Putin?:

Even the Fox News moderator Chris Wallace was having problems making sense of Trump’s words:

I am hearing all kinds of stories about parents letting their kids watch this debacle. Here is Yahoo News writer Jon Ward:

Here is Amy Bass:

Hey, but at least Donald Trump did this:

34 more days.

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Pearl

conceived in crisisChristopher Pearl is Associate Professor of History at Lycoming College. This interview is based on his new book, Conceived in Crisis: The Revolutionary Creation of an American State (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At face value, that question seems simple, and people ask me that question a lot. But, at the same time, it is hard to answer succinctly. So, I apologize for this rather lengthy response.

If I had to sum it up, I think it started out of simple interest–I wanted to understand the causes and consequences of the American Revolution. I love the literature on the American Revolution, but always debated how the interpretations of the more imperial centered histories and domestic revolutionary histories worked together (a rather standard starting place, for sure). We have an extensive body of literature that interprets the causes of the American Revolution through an external lens, particularly through the dispute between the British Parliament and the colonial legislatures over constitutional issues, especially sovereignty. Then, we have another excellent vantage point looking at domestic problems rooted in the intersection of economics and politics. Adding to that, we have a vibrant history of the frontier and the racial, economic, and political motivations for dissent and revolution there, which often bridge the divide between imperial and domestic origins. And then we have investigations of the revolutionary war that see that period as dynamic for the foundation of the United States. I wanted to understand how all of those issues and periods intersected.

I think the other motivation for this book is my interest in governance–both how people in general experience power as structured in a particular government and how they understand what a government should do on the ground. We have a rich history about how early Americans thought about the limits of government, but, the other question, I think, is asking what early Americans thought about the place of government in their daily lives, or, quite simply, what government should and could do?

My book is an attempt to bring those questions together by looking at the structure of government, the practice of governing, and how people wrote and thought about both. I tried to do that in one colony turned state, Pennsylvania (sometimes on a very mundane level). For example, how do debates over the structure of the local courts or the regulation of fishing, hunting, lotteries, wagon wheels, oysters, bread, leather, the quality and price of consumer goods, or something as large and significant as land and property ownership (to name just a few) reveal essential aspects of early American visions of government and governance, and how did that understanding of government and governance shape the causes of the American Revolution and the states that were birthed in that moment? I try to address those questions directly in my book, showing how the dialogue about colonial and imperial governance shaped both the causes of the revolution and how the new states were formed and governed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At a basic level, Conceived in Crisis argues that the American Revolution was not just the product of the Imperial Crisis, brought on by the British Parliament’s attempt to impose a new idea of empire on the American colonies. To an equal or greater degree, it was a response to the inability of individual colonial governments to deliver basic services, which undermined their legitimacy. Factional bickering over policy, violent extralegal regulations, and the dreadful experiences of conducting an imperial war while governing a demographically growing and geographically expanding population all led colonists and imperial officials to consider reforming the colonial governments into more powerful and coercive entities. Using Pennsylvania as a case study, my book demonstrates how this history of ineffective colonial governance precipitated a process of state formation that was accelerated by the demands of the Revolutionary War.

JF: Why do we need to read Conceived in Crisis?

CP: I think my book is important for its investigation of how problems of governance at the localist of levels helps explain the causes of the American Revolution and how colonies became states. Moreover, I think my book is important because it makes us grapple with how revolutionaries understood the basic principles of governance during a foundational moment for the United States. As I look out at the political landscape, I am continually struck by how many Americans don’t quite understand or have a very narrow conception of how the founding generation understood government. We tend to focus on “the founders” and the limits of government rather than how that generation envisioned what governments do and why they do it. I think my book is essential in filling that gap.

Despite my confidence in what I just laid out, I want to emphasize that my book is an attempt. I think more needs to be done to understand the myriad of ways that governments and the governed worked out the basic contours of governance in the revolutionary era.

Happily, many of the issues I see as intimately intertwined with what I tried to do are being done or have been recently done. I think recent works by Brian Philips Murphy, Robert Parkinson, Alan Taylor, Jessica Roney, Cole Jones, Patrick Spero, Ryan A. Quintana, Whitney Martinko, and Max Edling, coupled with some anticipated books by Hannah Farber, Susan Gaunt Stearns, Michael Blaakman, and Matthew Spooner, for instance, are and will be really important. The collective history here, I think, tells a significant story about the revolutionary era in a way that should make us rethink standard narratives, and through that, the thrust of history in the United States. As scholars, we all have individual focuses, and sometimes we disagree, but taken together our work tells a rich history and I think we are in an excellent moment for a new understanding of the revolutionary era.

As I look out at the new and coming literature on the American Revolution, I am energized. It has made me appreciate something Thad Tate wrote about the field in 1977. For Tate, the bicentennial of American Independence influenced scholars, from a host of directions, who tried to come to grips with the American Revolution. Surveying the scholarly scene, Tate thought that “the results were so impressive as to appear to leave limited room for additional work in the immediate future.” Time, Tate concluded, was necessary to digest and make sense of it all. I think that we are in the early stages of something similar, and I am excited.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the sources material you worked with in the writing and researching of Conceived in Crisis.

CP: I wanted to understand the practice of governing in the revolutionary period, so I started by creating a database of petitions to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature from 1740 to 1775, trying to find common complaints and requests. Through that, I focused on public petitions, or, rather, petitions signed by multiple people asking for legislative action. Once there, it became readily apparent that there was a severe disconnect between how the government and the governed understood the basic elements of governance. Tracking the dialogue between “the people” and the government in other sources, such as court records, legislative minutes, statutes, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and private papers framed the book as it now exists. I think it all came together when I started to see the same requests over and again demanding reform of the judicial system and regulatory policies. Those were key reform issues throughout the eighteenth century. As Laura F. Edwards demonstrates in her book, The People and Their Peace, local legal institutions had a significant impact on the lives of all people in early America. The way they functioned shaped everyone’s economic existence and the security of their communities. In essence, courts and regulatory policies at the most local of levels, shaped by colonial, and, eventually, statewide laws, represented the totality of governance for most early Americans. When I found that those local grievances started to make their way into a wider public political dialogue in the 1760s and 1770s, essentially linking something disparate into something far more oppositional, and then the same ideas for change informed the state constitutions and subsequent legislation by the state governments during the revolutionary war, I knew I had an interesting thread to track down and write about.

JF: What is your next project?

CP: I am currently working on a book project that analyzes the development of American executives during the American Revolution by looking at the wartime tenures of the fledgling state governors, presidents, and plural executive councils of five states–Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Such a study seems both timely and necessary considering the prevalence of modern discussion concerning the proper reach and remit of executives (of all stripes) as well as recent trends in the scholarly literature reemphasizing the importance of the war years to the development of the United States. Through this project, I am trying to understand how the war years shaped how executives acted, but more importantly, how people on the ground perceived and debated executive powers. I want to tease out how early Americans, from all walks of life, envisioned and experienced executive power. I think this new project will show how executive action and the public dialogue that it instigated had a lasting impact on a particularly American variety of executive power during the early republic and beyond. Thankfully, I will be a research fellow at The David Center for the American Revolution and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies next year to help complete the project.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Harrisburg’s history of racial injustice

Harrisburg_capitol_building

Two of my colleagues in the Messiah University history department, Bernardo Michael and David Pettegrew, have an op-ed at PennLive today on their work on the African American communities of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Pettegrew is the director of the university’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative. He and my colleague Jim LaGrand edited the most recent issue of Pennsylvania History journal, a volume which focuses on the work of Digital Harrisburg and includes short essays by several of our students.

Here is a taste:

One of the long-lasting outcomes of the racial protest movements this summer should be a broader recognition among the American public about how unjust historical policies perpetuated by systemic racism ended up dividing our nation’s communities.

In the mid-state, we are gradually gaining a clearer historical picture of the processes that segregated our own region in the later 19th and 20th centuries. African Americans were placed under constant surveillance while being denied equal access to social services, education, employment, housing, worship, transportation and entertainment. There are many episodes in this history that are coming to light.

Consider the location of recent protests in Harrisburg around the State Capitol Park, which, historians have shown, occupies the site of the vanished neighborhood of the Old Eighth Ward, the heart of the city’s African American and immigrant communities from 1850-1913. The Old Eighth was vital to abolitionist work in the Commonwealth before the Civil War—here Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison met an angry crowd of revelers in 1847—and was significant in the fight for suffrage after the war.

Although the neighborhood was the heart of Black political organizations, societies, businesses, and churches, legislators felt it an eyesore to the new state capitol building dedicated in 1906 and campaigned successfully to replace it with green spaces and state buildings in the subsequent decade.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Alexander Ames

Ames-CoverAlexander Ames is Collections Engagement Manager at The Rosenbach, a historic house museum and special collections library affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book, The Word in the Wilderness: Popular Piety and the Manuscript Arts in Early Pennsylvania (Penn State University Press, 2020). Learn more about The Word in the Wilderness, and listen to Cloister Talk: The Pennsylvania German Material Texts Podcast, at https://www.wordinwilderness.com/.

JF: What led you to write The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: The Word in the Wilderness began with the first substantial research paper I wrote after matriculating in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum in 2012. Shortly after arriving at Winterthur, I became fascinated by the various German-language illuminated devotional manuscripts with Pennsylvania provenance that dotted the walls and lined the hallways of the museum. While I soon learned that the documents, commonly called “Fraktur” in Pennsylvania, were well-loved and much-studied as a form of early-American folk art, I never felt quite satisfied with common explanations as to why early German-speakers in Pennsylvania engaged in the manuscript arts. Why deploy Frakturschrift calligraphy as a spiritual enterprise? What texts did scribes write on the artworks, and why? How were the documents actually used by readers? These questions gnawed at me. So, quite naturally, the project grew from a term paper into a master’s thesis, and then into a doctoral dissertation, carrying me from the archives of rural Pennsylvania to Switzerland, Germany, New England, and many other stops along the way.

The project soon focused on two closely-aligned tasks: situating Pennsylvania German devotional manuscripts within broader eighteenth-century German Pietist religious culture, and contextualizing the documents within the general manuscript-making practices of the period. Since beginning my career in special collections libraries, I have made good use of the opportunity to mine Philadelphia-area collections for even more books and documents that shed light on the manuscripts’ meaning. I have reveled in the opportunity to employ the interdisciplinary fields of book history and material culture studies as theoretical foundations for this work—and highlight intriguing artifacts of early American religious history along the way.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: From approximately 1750 to 1850, the German-speaking residents of southeastern Pennsylvania wielded calligraphy and manuscript illumination as central tools for their Protestant faith practice. The fascinating, if at times seemingly inscrutable, visual and textual artifacts these people left behind allow us to trace the flowering of a rich Christian devotional world in early Pennsylvania, one in which individual believers exercised considerable agency over their spiritual and intellectual lives by means of reading and writing ritually ornamented holy texts.

JF: Why do we need to read The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: The Word in the Wilderness challenges all historians to consider that primary-source documents are not so much clear windows into past worlds as they are richly-textured canvases, on which historical actors inscribed the meaning they found in the world around them. This is an apt metaphor when studying Pennsylvania German illuminated devotional manuscripts, seeing as the documents were intentionally designed as visual artworks. But viewing all books, manuscripts, and other documents simultaneously as texts and material artifacts helps us rethink how the stories of the past come down to us in material form. I hope that my book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the religious, intellectual, and cultural history of early America, but it should also appeal to scholars who wish to explore the potency of material culture and book history as methods of historical analysis.

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

AA: I vividly remember the moment that I first visited a special collections library as a researcher. By the time I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, I had already decided on a career in libraries, but when visiting a local historical society to do some research for a speech I had been asked to give, I realized that I could pursue a career that simultaneously affirmed my passion for libraries and allowed me to immerse myself in my lifelong love of history. The “stuff” of history and the collecting work of cultural heritage institutions have always fascinated me, so I pursued graduate study in public history, material culture, museum studies, and American civilization.

Looking back at my childhood, it seems I was destined for a career in history, though it was far from a given at the time. I had a poster of Winston Churchill hanging above my bed at my family home, and it’s still there today, looming over piles of history books that haven’t accompanied my on my various moves and are probably in need of a good dusting. However, I feel very lucky to have landed on a way to forge a career in museums and libraries that allows me to indulge my passion for historical research.

JF: What is your next project?

AA: While writing The Word in the Wilderness, I did a fair amount of comparative research, unearthing religious and other manuscripts made in communities across the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Atlantic World. Some examples of these documents appear in the book, but I have become convinced that a much more expansive story remains to be told about penmanship, calligraphy, and manuscript culture in the early modern period and beyond. In my next project, I hope to use The Word in the Wilderness as a starting point for a broader comparative study of manuscript culture in the Atlantic World.

JF: Thanks, Alexander!

Do You Know About the Digital Harrisburg Project?

Digital Harrisburg Journal

Photo by Peter Powers

PA History Harrisburg

Photo by Peter Powers

The Digital Harrisburg Initiative continues to roll on at Messiah College. My colleagues are happy to announce the recent publication of an entire issue of Pennsylvania  History journal devoted to the project.  It contains essays by Messiah College faculty, students, and others who have been involved with the project over the years.

Digital Harrisburg

Photo by Peter Powers

David Pettegrew, the director of the project, provides additional updates at Digital Harrisburg blog:

It’s been some time since our last general update on the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, but that is not for lack of trying. Over the last year, in fact, our operation at Messiah College has grown, and our teams have been buzzing in activities, projects, digital tools, meetings, research, and public collaborations with community partners. It’s the abundance of work more than its scarcity that has been behind the silence on our end.

Each week at Messiah College, Dr. Jean Corey (director of the Center for Public Humanities), Katie Wingert McArdle (coordinator of Digital Harrisburg and the Center for Public Humanities fellows program), and I meet several times with different student groups who hail from humanities disciplines such as English, history, ethnic and area studies, and politics, as well as the occasional computer science student. Meanwhile, over at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Professor Albert Sarvis continues to work with a team of geospatial technology students on the mapping components of the initiative.

Student work

Students at work in the Messiah College digital and public humanities lab

So today, let me touch on a few of the highlights in our Digital Harrisburg initiative. In fact, I’ll just be scratching the surface here, since I won’t be saying everything, and each of the following anyway is a world unto itself. Some of these will warrant additional posts in the months ahead if or as we have time. At the very least, students in my digital history and digital humanities courses will follow up this week and next month with discussions of their own research.

Our major updates in the last year:

  • Commonwealth Monument Project: Over the last year, our faculty and students have partnered with an exciting grassroots initiative in Harrisburg and the Commonwealth to remember and celebrate the city’s historic African-American community and multi-ethnic neighborhood of the Old Eighth Ward. This is an incredible project that has support from major local organizations, including the Foundation for Enhancing CommunitiesMessiah College, and M&T Bank, as well as state government. We have supported various activities in the city, including a poster campaign in the state capitol buildings and Amtrak station, a search for the descendants of the Old Eighth Ward, biographies of 100 important voices in the African American community, and interviews and exhibits. Read about the various activities of the Commonwealth Monument Project here on the Digital Harrisburg website, the project website, the Facebook page, and significant media coverage.
Posters of the Look Up, Look Out campaign on display in Parmer Hall at Messiah College right before the regional division of the National History Day competition. A parallel set of posters are on display in the buildings of the State Capitol Complex and Harrisburg Amtrak station.
  • Funding: Although most of the funding for our work has continued to come from the generous support of Messiah College (for this website and the historical and humanities work) and Harrisburg University (in the case of our mapping initiatives), the Messiah College group was fortunate to receive a Council of Independent Colleges grant last spring to support our 2019-2020 work related to humanities research for the public good (along with 24 other schools). That grant program, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has expanded our capacity to support student research and contributed to hiring a part-time project coordinator. Our project coordinators last year (Andrew Hermeling) and this year (Katie Wingert McArdle) have significantly improved the quality of our work in both its digital and public components. Our grant activities for the Council of Independent Colleges have focused on supporting the Commonwealth Monument Project (noted above)

Read the rest here.

Retelling the Conestoga Massacre with Native Voices

Ghost River

I was in graduate school during the heyday of the so-called New Indian History.  Historians were rewriting native American history, and American history more broadly, from the perspectives of Indians, not Europeans.  I still assign James Merrell’s 1984 article  “The Indians’ New World: The Catawba Experience” in my U.S. History survey course.  It is hard to find a better piece to reorient how first-year college students think about the way European colonization changed Native American life in North America.  In my colonial America course, I have made good use of Dan Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country.

Last year when I reworked my Pennsylvania History course I decided to include a unit on the Conestoga Massacre and its aftermath.  I assigned Kevin Kenny’s excellent book Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment.  This book tells the story of the December 14, 1763 murder of six Conestoga Indians from the perspective of the Scots-Irish frontier-dwellers known as the Paxton Boys. But how did the Conestoga experience this massacre?  I am not sure we can answer this question, but a new graphic novel has tried to imagine what it must have been like.  The title is Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga. Here is a taste of an interview with author Lee Francis and artist Weshoyot Alvitre at the NPR website:

This project was supported by the Library Company, one of the oldest libraries in the country. We know who has historically had access to certain kinds of records and histories, so how did you approach collaborating with this institution?

Francis: Too often we’re brought in at the end of projects to greenlight things. Like, “Hey, I’ve got some Native characters and we just want to make sure everything’s OK.” And sometimes it’s not OK. Sometimes it is OK. But the not OK usually is like, “Hey, there’s some things we need to change, some things you need to work on. And that tends to ruffle some feathers. And at the end of the project, we can’t really make a lot of changes. So Will [Fenton] wanting to draw us in at the beginning of the project and have myself and Weshoyot and, you know, Native writers, Native illustrators, Native publisher all the way across the board, was something that was refreshing for me.

Alvitre: From the very first field trips we went on, the very first meeting we had with the Library Company, [Will] introduced us to the building and the archive material. Some of his employees up in the print archive documents center pulled a selection of all the original cartoons that we were referencing from Day 1. So we got to see these old, archival, historical political cartoons, and we could literally touch them in the papers. And just to lay that out for us in such a respectful way, and it’s not something that you get often.

Read the entire piece here.

Learn more about Ghost River (including an exhibit at the Library Company of Philadelphia) here.

The *Philadelphia Inquirer* Responds to the Financial Struggles of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

HSP

I spent a lot of time in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in the 1990s when I was writing my doctoral dissertation.  I have also lectured there a few times.  So needless to say I was saddened to learn that this venerable institution was having financial troubles.

Yesterday the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer called on the city to strengthen the HSP.

Here is a taste of the editorial:

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania realized $2.2 million last November by selling 1,102 commemorative medals from a collection bequeathed to it in 1897. The financial struggles of this nonprofit institution in Center City are worrisome but all too familiar. In 2018, the Philadelphia History Museum abruptly shut down. While it will be rebooted through a partnership with Drexel University, neither the Historical Society’s proposed affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania nor with Drexel has borne fruit.

HSP calls itself “Philadelphia’s Library of American History” with good reason: It is home to a printer’s proof of the Declaration of Independence, a first draft of the Constitution, a journal of the Underground Railroad, and millions of other handwritten, printed, and engraved materials.

Selling commemorative medals said by society officials to be of marginal scholarly and public interest was at best a stopgap measure. Last year, the Historical Society, founded in 1824, laid off one-third of the employees on a staff described as already bare-bones.

This suggests a broader, deeper, community-driven effort is needed to strengthen this institution. The society is part of an ecosystem of institutions, including the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, that support the city’s status as a global center for historical research. They are stewards of a legacy that belongs to us all.

Read the rest here.

An Afternoon at Fort Roberdeau with the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania

Roberdeau 4

What? You’ve never heard of Fort Roberdeau?  Here is some info from Wikipedia:

Fort Roberdeau, also known as The Lead Mine Fort, is a historic fort located in Tyrone Township outside Altoona, Pennsylvania. It was built in 1778, during the American Revolution and was occupied until 1780. Initial efforts were made in 1939-41 to reconstruct the fort by concerned local agencies with support from the National Youth Administration. The stockade was finally reconstructed as a Bicentennial project in 1975-76.

The original fort was built of horizontal logs with a bastion at each corner. The fort was originally erected by General Daniel Roberdeau to protect local lead mining activities from the Native Americans and Tories.[3] The fort is open to the public as a historic site, administered and owned by Blair County.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.[1]

The site consists of the reconstructed fort and its structures (officers’ quarters, storehouse, barracksblacksmith shop, lead miner’s cabin, powder magazine, and lead smelter), a restored barn (1859) which serves as visitor center, a restored farmhouse (ca. 1860), a sinkhole, a trail system, and a log house (2012) built in the style of an original frontier house. The site is open May 1 through October 31.

I was at the fort yesterday to speak to the members of the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania.  If you live in the central Pennsylvania area and are interested in learning more about the American Revolution, I encourage you to attend one of meetings of the round table.  This is a fast-growing and vibrant group of revolutionary-era history buffs.

On the request of Mark DeVecchis, the round table president, I spoke on Philip Vickers Fithian and the American Revolution.  Of course the talk was based on my 2008 book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  It was good to revisit the themes of the this book:

 

I want to thank Mark DeVecchis and Glenn Nelson, Director of Fort Roberdeau, for their hospitality during our visit.  We hope to return soon.

Here are some pics:

Roberdeau 1

Roberdeau 2

Ethan Walter was the youngest attendee of the event. It was a pleasure to inscribe his book with the words “Keep Studying History!”

Roberdeau 3

With Mark DeVechis (L), president of the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania and Glenn Nelson, director of Fort Roberdeau

The Author’s Corner with Carlton Larson

The Trials of AllegianceCarlton Larson is Professor of Law at University of California Davis School of Law. This interview is based on his new book, The Trials of Allegiance: Trials, Juries, and the American Revolution(Oxford University Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The book’s origins date to the spring of 1996, when I was trying to develop a topic for my college senior thesis. I became fascinated by the “forgotten founder” James Wilson, one of America’s most eminent lawyers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. I discovered that Wilson had defended men accused of treason against the state of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution, and this immediately sparked my interest – how did Americans come to prosecute other Americans for treason when the American Revolution was itself an act of treason against Great Britain? I thoroughly enjoyed writing the thesis, and I returned to the subject of treason several times as a law professor, now armed with a stronger understanding of law and the legal system. I began developing the material into a book in 2010. Now, twenty-three years after I began, the book is finally out.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The law of treason was central to the American Revolution, encompassing a host of issues from debates over the legitimacy of resistance activities to the treatment of Loyalists. Although a variety of institutions addressed potential disloyalty, ranging from the military to committees of safety, juries proved surprisingly lenient of accused traitors, reflecting a deep-seated belief that the death penalty was an inappropriate punishment for treason.

JF: Why do we need to read The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The book emphasizes several aspects of the American Revolution that have often been overlooked.

First, the American Revolution was a violent, bloody civil war that pitted neighbors against neighbors and fathers against sons. Everyone was potentially a traitor, either to Great Britain or to the United States. The leaders of the Revolution were deeply concerned that internal enemies, loyal to Great Britain, were lurking in the background, waiting for just the right moment to strike. Inevitably, the desire to take pre-emptive action against these perceived enemies clashed with traditional notions of Anglo-American liberty. This book shows how the founding generation addressed the competing goals of liberty and national security during a time of national crisis and significant internal division.

Second, colonial Americans began accusing other Americans of “treason against America” long before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Indeed, in trials before committees of safety in 1775 and early 1776, persons were convicted of this offense and sentenced to imprisonment. These trials demonstrated the functional establishment of American sovereignty and independence and the development of an American national identity well before the formal assertion of independence.

Third, one would not expect that persons accused of loyalty to Great Britain would fare particularly well before American juries during the Revolution. But grand juries repeatedly refused to indict persons accused of treason; trial juries refused to convict; and, in the few cases in which they convicted, trial jurors sought clemency for the defendant. In so doing, the jurors consistently treated treason differently than other capital crimes. Persons accused of treason were not incorrigible criminals, but friends and neighbors who had chosen the opposite side in a political dispute and thus were capable of reformation and assimilation back into the community. Eventually, even people who had fled to Great Britain were welcomed back; only Benedict Arnold, the arch-traitor, remained beyond possibility of redemption.

Finally, there has been very little written about how criminal juries actually operated in revolutionary America. This book provides a careful look at what were perhaps the most important jury trials of the Revolution, where ordinary men would sit in judgment of the allegiance of their peers. The book explores who served on juries, and how defense counsel shaped the jury through the creative employment of peremptory challenges on the lines of religion, age, wealth, ethnicity, and militia service.

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

CL: When I was six years old, my family spent a summer in Massachusetts and we visited many historic sites associated with the American Revolution. I have been fascinated by American history ever since. I majored in American history in college, and, although I do not have a Ph.D. in history, I have continued to write and teach about legal history as a professor at the UC Davis School of Law.

JF: What is your next project?

CL: My next project is a trade book with Ecco Press, tentatively titled Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law. This book carries the story of treason forward from where The Trials of Allegiance leaves off. Look for it in 2020!

JF: Thanks, Carlton!

The Author’s Corner With Thomas Balcerski

BalcserskiThomas J. Balcerski is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University.  This is interview is based on his new book Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Bosom Friends?

TB: Bosom Friends began as the first chapter of my dissertation at Cornell University. One of my central research questions since graduate school has been the role of bachelors, and more generally the unmarried, in U.S. politics before the Civil War. From bachelors, I came to the historical category of friendship, about which I wrote my first article, published in Pennsylvania History in 2013. In the dissertation, I looked at several examples of intimate male friendships in the antebellum period, but for the book, I decided to dig deeper into the relationship of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. Given that the focus had shifted from a range of actors to just two individuals, I decided to write the book as a dual biography.

Famously, James Buchanan is our only bachelor president (or more properly, the only president never to marry, since Grover Cleveland was elected a bachelor in 1884). Less well known to history is William Rufus King, who was elected vice president under Franklin Pierce in 1852. King is perhaps most widely remembered for being the only president or vice president ever inaugurated outside the United States, having done so on his deathbed in Matanzas, Cuba. The pair, Buchanan and King, served together in the U.S. Senate from 1834 to 1844, during which time they often lived together. From there, the bosom friends separated, but their correspondence increased, which reveals a portrait of two Democratic bachelor politicians striving to obtain power. While both men lived, they wanted nothing more than to unite the North and the South in a bachelor ticket; however, it did not come to pass.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bosom Friends?

TB: My book argues that an intimate male friendship shaped the political and personal lives of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. I reveal the many intricacies of their conjoined lives and, in the process, help to clear up much misinformation about the pair.

JF: Why do we need to read Bosom Friends?

TB: The relationship of James Buchanan and William Rufus King is interesting both in a historical and historiographic sense. I find it fascinating how interpretations, both among academics and the general public, have changed about the pair. There’s no getting around the fact that, today, most people assume that they were gay and, further still, that they shared a sexual relationship. My book takes a different approach, as I read the evidence more carefully within the historical context of intimacy in nineteenth century America. For this reason, readers can expect a reassessment of what they think they know about manhood, friendship, sexuality, and politics in the era before the Civil War.

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

TB: I credit an excellent high school teacher for my initial interest in American history. My class read Thomas Bailey’s American Pageant, and I was hooked. The narrative style, the memorable descriptions (John Adams as “frosty” lingers in my memory), and the idea that the past, somehow, actually mattered to the present made their impression upon me. I have always enjoyed the ebb and flow of the antebellum period—I like the contingency of events, the colorful characters who populated David Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and the sense that maybe, just maybe, the war could have been prevented. Beyond the graduate training that I received at SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, I realized that those initial passions for the causes of the Civil War are like a deep reservoir of historical research to which I come back to again and again.

JF: What is your next project?

TB: I am currently working on a history of the Democratic Party from its early origins in the Federalist era to its unraveling in the 1920s. Tentatively titled “The Party of No: When the Democrats Were Conservative,” I want to understand the longer history of an important question that I am often asked, a version of which: “When did the Democratic Party and the Republican Party switch their politics?” I think a study, part biographical of party leaders and part political history of the period, would help to explain the events that preceded this change.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Will Commemorate 1619

PA Slave Trade

The PHMC will commemorate 400 years of African-American history through a social media campaign.  Here is a taste of J.D. Prose’s article at The Beaver County (PA) Times:

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission announced a six-month long social media campaign to commemorate 400 years of black history in America.

In conjunction with the federal 400 Years of African-American History Commission and other cultural and historical organizations, the PHMC will, according to a statement, “share highlights from the hundreds of Pennsylvania Historical Markers dedicated to African Americans and their contributions to Pennsylvania’s rich and diverse heritage” through February, which is recognized as Black History Month.

Various commemorations and programs are occurring this month because it was in August 1619 that the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colonies at Point Comfort, Va.

Using its Facebook (“Pennsylvania Trails of History”), Twitter (@PHMC), Instagram (patrailsofhistory) and LinkedIn(“Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission”) accounts, the PHMC said it will feature stories of the black experience in Pennsylvania, including “both well-known and lesser-known people, places and themes.”

The PHMC said it will encourage followers to share the posts using #400yearsPA.

Read the rest here.

Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project

1619

We introduced readers to The New York Times 1619 Project in this post.  It now looks like there are some people who do not like the newspaper’s attempt to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.  Here are a few examples:

I am not surprised by any of this.  I knew there would be push-back when I read that The New York Times was framing the 1619 Project as an attempt to “frame the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and, placing the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

I wonder if any of the aforementioned tweeters have read the essays in the 1619 Project.  Most of them probably stopped after they read the words “frame” and “true founding.”

Historians, of course, have been bringing slavery to the center of the American story for a long time–more than half a century.  The 1619 Project reflects this scholarship and takes it to its logical conclusion.

Frankly, the 1619 project is excellent.  Americans need to wrestle with the legacy of slavery.  I hope teachers will use it in their classrooms.

Newt Gingrich is completely wrong when he says that “if you are an African American slavery is at the center of what YOU see as the American experience, but for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on.” Gingrich is an embarrassment.  (I am especially tough on him because he has a Ph.D in history).

So what were some of those “other things going on?”

Edmund Morgan, of course, showed us that American freedom has always been intricately linked to American slavery.  Pennsylvania farmers in the so-called “best poor man’s country in the world,” pursued their “American” dream by supplying grain to feed West Indian slaves in the British sugar colonies.  As historians Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and others have taught us, slavery fueled capitalism and American economic growth.  Even those living in the free-soil north benefited from the wealth generated by slave labor.  As Robert Parkinson argues in his recent book, the racial fears of American patriots had something to do with the way they understood the Revolution.  In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I trace the history of race and the legacy of slavery in shaping an evangelical approach to political life.  And we could go on.

But there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people, and many others.  We can’t forget, for example, that Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith, provided the impetus for the abolition of slavery.

History is messy and complex.  We should make every effort to remember our past.  And now is the time to remember the significance of 1619 and the central role that slavery and racism has played in the making of America.

Pennsylvania History: The Final Exam!

PA Hall

The 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall, a meeting place for abolitionists

For the past decade I have been teaching a course on Pennsylvania History at Messiah College. The class meets several requirements.  Some history majors take it for a 300-level American history elective.  Other history majors take it as part of their concentration in public history.  Non-history majors take the course to fulfill their general education pluralism requirement.

I have to make this course work for all of these students.  For the public history students, we do a lot of work on the relationship between “history,” “heritage,” and “memory.”  We also feature some training in oral history. Each student is required to do an oral history project in which they interview and interpret someone who can shed light on a particular moment in Pennsylvania history.  As a pluralism course, Pennsylvania History must address questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and social class in some meaningful way.

This year, I split the class into four units:

After several tries, I think I have finally found a pedagogical formula that works.   The students take their two-hour final exam on Friday.  Here are the questions they are preparing:

In preparation for the exam, please prepare an answer to one of the following questions:

QUESTION #1

In each of our four units this semester, we spend considerable time talking about the idea of race and race relations in Pennsylvania History. How do issues related to race play out in the following periods and places in state history:

  • Early 19th-century Philadelphia
  • The Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s and 1760s.
  • The way the Civil War has been interpreted at Gettysburg
  • The City Beautiful movement in Harrisburg
QUESTION #2
We often use the past to advance particular agendas in the present. Consider this
statement in the following contexts:
  • The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia (1876)
  • The Paxton Boys Riots
  • Gettysburg as a “sacred” site
  • The portrayal of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward by reformers affiliated with the City Beautiful movement.

Good luck! Or as I like to say to my Calvinist students: “May God providential give you the grade you deserve on this exam.”