Episode 49: Why is America So Divided?

PodcastWhether you ask a young college student or a baby boomer, the only thing people seem to agree on these days is that we are more politically divided than ever. But is this true, and if so, how did we get this way? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling try to tackle this question. They are joined by Princeton historian and CNN commentator Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer), the co-author of the recent book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Lindsey Graham and the “Judgement of History”

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George Washington’s Annual Message to Congress, 1790

Lindsey Graham is furious with Nancy Pelosi’s decision to forbid Donald Trump from delivering the State of the Union Address in the chamber of the House of Representatives until he ends the government shutdown.

Interesting.

I wonder how Graham defines a “longstanding American tradition?” George Washington and John Adams delivered their annual message to Congress in person.  When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he did not deliver the message in person, preferring a written statement.  Every U.S. President followed Jefferson’s precedent until Woodrow Wilson revived the “in person” message to Congress in 1913..  (Actually, it was called the “Annual Message” until 1946).  Karen Tumilty explains it all in this piece at The Washington Post.

Moving from the historical to the political, I find it disturbing that Graham, a Senator from South Carolina and a Trump supporter, has saved the “judgement of history” line for this incident.

What Do Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Andrew Johnson Have in Common?

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Fillmore, Pierce, and Johnson were sitting presidents seeking reelection who failed to win the nomination of their political party.  And it almost happened in 1980 as Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party nomination.

Could it happen in the GOP in 2020?

Jon Ward of Yahoo News discusses Kennedy’s challenge to Carter in his piece “Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and a lesson from history for President Trump.”  Here is a taste:

The heightened anxiety of the time—from gas lines, to rising costs for basic goods, to unemployment—was reflected in the public’s desire for a stronger form of leadership in the White House. More than half of the country—55 percent—still thought Carter was honest in a June CBS News/New York Times poll. But 66 percent said they wanted someone “who would step on some toes and bend some rules to get things done.” Democrats in the poll overwhelmingly said they wanted Kennedy to be their nominee in 1980, with 52 percent for Kennedy to 23 percent for Carter, and 8 percent for California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Beyond economics, Americans were worried that their country was “in deep and serious trouble” because of “moral threats which cut right through the social fabric,” according to one survey by Democratic pollster Peter Hart in Wisconsin. Hart’s results showed widespread concern over “a lack of morality and religion and the breakdown of the family structure.” People said they were “afraid that people have become too selfish and greedy, that the people are apathetic and just don’t care.”

Hart’s survey in Wisconsin showed a desire for “a reemergence of the more traditional approach to life and a turning away from the more publicized free-wheeling attitudes of the 1960’s and 70’s.” This should have given the Carter White House some reassurance that Kennedy, whose life bore all the hallmarks of excess and privilege, might not be as formidable a foe as the polls showed. But when things are going badly and you’re getting blamed, it’s hard to think clearly, and the Carter White House was spooked.

The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker noted that many of those polled about Kennedy supported him despite holding less liberal views than he did on health care and government spending. “He is a glamorous figure with a great name,” Wicker wrote. “Those who are trying to draft him are looking for a winner.”

Carter remained publicly defiant about his political future, despite his tanking popularity. One day after the June numbers appeared, he hosted several dozen congressmen at the White House for a briefing on the Panama Canal treaty, which was struggling to gain support. The House members were seated at round tables, in groups of ten or so. Carter went from table to table. While he spoke to one group, he was asked by Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut how he felt about the 1980 election. Carter claims that Moffett asked him if he was even going to run for reelection, “which was kind of an insult to an incumbent president.”

“Of course I am,” Carter told Moffett.

Moffett persisted. “What about Ted Kennedy?” he asked.

“I’m going to whip his ass,” Carter said.

Representative William Brodhead, a Michigan Democrat, was taken aback.

“Excuse me, what did you say?” he said.

Moffett cut him off. “I don’t think the president wants to repeat what he said,” he told Brodhead.

Read the entire piece here.  And check out Ward’s new book Camelot’s End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight That Broke the Democratic Party

The Author’s Corner with Edward Rugemer

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Edward Rugemer is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: When I was in graduate school at Boston College, both Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint were published during the years before my oral exams. I read both and was inspired to take on a comparative project, though not, I was advised, for my dissertation. The idea for the comparison at the heart of this book came from my dissertation/ first book, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008). I realized in writing that book that the planter classes in Jamaica and South Carolina had this very similar relationship with abolitionists. They were the most radically pro-slavery in these different regions of the Anglo Atlantic, the U.S. South and the British Caribbean. When I considered this realization alongside the work of Richard Dunn and Peter Wood, that both Jamaica and South Carolina were “colonies” of Barbados (to use Wood’s phrase), I saw that these two slave societies had followed very similar historical arcs. They had common origins, developed into the wealthiest colonies of their respective regions, and though each went its separate way during the American Revolution, both followed a very similar pattern in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution and the emergence of radical abolitionism. Comparison requires both similarity and difference and the political histories of Jamaica and South Carolina have the necessary mix.

The central theme of the book — the relationship between slave resistance and broader political changes — also came from the first book, specifically in the first few chapters. I felt there was much more to say about the impact of slave resistance upon the political history of slave societies. Some of this work had been done by historians of the American Civil War era such as Jim Oakes and Steve Hahn, and historians of the nineteenth century Caribbean such as Mary Turner and Emilia Viotti da Costa, and more recently Gelien Matthews and Claudius Fergus. But no one had gone deeper into the colonial period and I thought it was important to do so.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: Very early in the history of Atlantic slave societies a political dialectic developed between Africans who forcefully resisted enslavement, and slaveholding colonists who sought to impose the rigid social control they saw as necessary for profitable colonial enterprise. This dialectic is evident in slave law, it developed and changed until the abolition of slavery, and it shaped the histories of Jamaica and South Carolina in fundamentally different ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World?

ER: First, it is a valuable account of, and explanation for, the political significance of slave resistance in Anglo-Atlantic slave societies from their origins to the 1830s. Secondly, the book makes clear the differences between the slave regimes of the Caribbean and the U.S. In this way it complements Richard Dunn’s important study, A Tale of Two Plantations

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

ER: I worked as a Jesuit volunteer teaching high school in Kingston, Jamaica, from 1994-1996 and my experience there led me to some deep reading in the history of slavery and eventually graduate school.

JF: What is your next project?

ER: I have two different projects that are in the early stages. I am thinking about writing a synthesis of slavery in the Western World. My most ambitious self wants to start with some of the theories on the origins of slavery, move into ancient Greece and Rome, the decline of slavery in Western Europe and its persistence in the Mediterranean, the expansion into the Atlantic. But I want to take this history up to modern slavery and human trafficking in our own time. I don’t think we have an historical narrative that integrates the racial slavery of the Atlantic World, which lasted for generations and has had such insidious afterlives, with the various forms of slavery that persist today. Many modern day abolitionists invoke the abolitionist movements of the past without careful attention to the distinctions between these manifestations of slavery across time and space. Historians need to do this. So I’d like to come up with a synthesis that brings this history together.

The second idea is a deeply archival project about a slaveholder we know very little about. His name is Charles Douglas and the Beinecke Library has about 30 years of his correspondence with his brother Patrick. I read it all during my first year at Yale, thinking I would use it for this book, but I only used one brief quote. Douglas moves from Ayr, Scotland to Jamaica when he was a teenager. He mostly worked as a bookkeeper at first (kind of an assistant overseer), but he does accrue some wealth and becomes a slaveholder. What’s curious about him is that when he buys land, he buys land that directly abuts Moore Town in the Blue Mountains, which is one of the Maroon Towns. He becomes the superintendent for the Moore Town Maroons, which is a position established by the 1739 treaties that ended the first Maroon War and recognized Maroon autonomy within the colony. Formally, he was the Maroons’ military commander, but in fact I don’t think it worked that way. Yet there were these superintendents, one for each of the towns, and they were well paid by the colonial state. But there is an archival challenge: I need to find his reports. I don’t know where they are and no one has ever referenced them. And if I can find them, it could be a really interesting book. I need to dig deeper and I love that challenge, but it will take some time.

JF: Thanks, Edward!

Jefferson: “Every man cannot have his way in all things”

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An 1801 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson will be auctioned next month.  Learn more about it at Emily Heil’s piece in The Washington Post.  A taste:

The letter is 218 years old, and yet it might be arriving right on time to deadlocked Washington: a missive from Thomas Jefferson heading to the auction block on Feb. 2 warns against digging in against opponents (sound familiar, anyone?).

The Potomack Company in Alexandria will gavel off the 1801 letter, written by the then-new President Thomas Jefferson to fellow Founding Father John Dickinson. In it, the commander in chief offers words that folks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue might find useful, as President Trump and congressional Democrats remain at an impasse that’s partially shuttered the federal government.

“My dear friend, if we do not learn to sacrifice small differences of opinion, we can never act together. Every man cannot have his way in all things,” Jefferson wrote, as he despaired about the political divisions of his own day. “If his own opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at others. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.”

Read the rest here.

Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL is back with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association going on this weekend in Chicago.  You can read all his posts here.  –JF

Could there be a better moment for a revival of the 1976 film “Network” on the Broadway stage, starring the man (Bryan Cranston) who played such television white everymen as Hal on Malcom in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad, than during the so-called “age of Trump,” what Ed Stetzer has dubbed “The Age of Outrage?”  As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rightly noted, “no predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’”  So, it’s interesting and perhaps no coincidence, that in their new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer pick up the story of the fracturing of an America that’s “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore” only two years before Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivered that famous movie line.

Today Kruse chaired, and Zelizer sat on, a panel that explored the topic of “Divided Loyalties in the United States: Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America” at AHA19.  Nicole Hemmer kicked things off with a simple premise: polarization might have a negative connotation for most people, but it hasn’t been bad for everyone.  Over the last several decades, for conservatives and the Republican party, polarization has worked.  Hemmer gave two reasons for this strategy’s success on the right – an increased reliance on the politics of “playing to the base” (something Reagan, Bush 41, and even, at first, Gingrich did not overtly do) and a powerfully ideological media platform (i.e. talk radio starting with Limbaugh and then the Bealeistic rage-machine that became FOX News).

Timothy Stewart-Winter pushed back against the narrative that the United States is more divided today than it ever was, and did so through the prism of LGBTQ rights.  He deconstructed two common Obama tropes: first, that the 43rd president accomplished nothing after November of 2010 and, second, that he failed to remake the America of blue states and red states into a United States in the image of his 2004 DNC speech. According to Stewart-Winter, “what Lyndon Baines Johnson was for Civil Rights, Barack Obama was for gay rights.”  The man who hadn’t even heard of the Stonewall Riots when he ran for the Senate included a reference to it in his second inaugural address, after declaring his support for marriage equality at the same point in his political career that both President Clinton and Bush 43 had tacked to the right on that same issue.  Said Stewart-Winter, “Obama modeled for many Americans, especially men, what it means to change your mind.”  As polling continues to indicate and Stewart-Winter effectively argued, the nation changed their minds with President Obama, and the Trump Administration’s recent attempts to limit the rights of transgender people seem unlikely to reverse that cultural shift.

According to Leah Wright Rigueur, “political polarization is racial polarization.”  She placed the origins of America’s current political climate a little earlier than Kruse and Zelizer did, in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the subsequent conservative ascendancy within the GOP.  She powerfully made the connection from Goldwater to Reagan when she stated, “If Goldwater rang the death knell for black Republicans, Ronald Reagan dug the grave and buried the bodies.”  Wright Rigueur also made an effective argument for the idea that despite the entrenchment of partisanship in recent years, many black voters (especially pre and post Obama) are often voters without a party.  Most can’t conceive of voting Republican but feel that the Democratic party ignores them or takes them for granted.  The black vote (or absence of it), just might have been the decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election.

Zelizer concluded by agreeing with Hemmer’s thesis that the political right has benefited immensely from polarization since the 1970s, but added that the left has been just as susceptible to using divide and conquer strategies and ideologically-driven media platforms.  The difference has been, according to him, that liberals just haven’t been very good at using either of those tactics successfully.  Like Stewart-Winter, Zelizer also countered the idea that there’s been an overall shift to the right among Americans.  The progress made in feminism and gay rights belie that narrative.  As Zelizer noted, however, “we have left many questions unanswered since the 1970s.”  The answers to those questions animated culture warriors like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly in their day and that mantle has been taken up by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham today.  When seen as a desperate, rear-guard action to save White Christian America, perhaps it makes sense why in the age of Trump, some people are still “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore.”

Thanks, Matt!

Deconstructing the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”

ParanoidIn the age of Trump, many are saying that we are witnessing a resurgence of a phenomenon that historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style of American politics.” Over at The Baffler, UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted traces the history of the “paranoid style” and how it may or may not be employed in today’s political climate.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Hofstadter also highlighted another common trope in right-wing rhetoric that’s relevant to today’s politics: the curious sense of loss among Americans on the right. Their anger, he argued, stemmed from their sense of dispossession, even though many of them were relatively well off. They believed, he said, that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Many scholars today have commented on this sense of dispossession among Trump supporters. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild captured this sentiment in the title of her book on the worldview of rural white voters, Strangers in Their Own Land. The rural white people who Hochschild interviewed felt angry at “line-cutters”: immigrants and people of color who, they believed, had jumped the queue in front of patient, hard-working white Americans like them, and were rewarded with welfare checks and affirmative action jobs. Hofstadter might call this fear that someone will take your place in line—i.e., push you out of your rightful spot in the social order—just another form of status anxiety.

Finally, even back in the 1960s, Hofstadter remarked on the skepticism of science and contempt for expertise among Americans on the right. The paranoid spokesman, he said, was not open to new ideas, scientific studies, or scholarly arguments. “He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.” This phrase could have been written about the most passionate Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential race. The Oxford Dictionaries picked “post-truth” as their word of the year for 2016, or the word “chosen to reflect the passing year in language,” and defined it as circumstances in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Trump was not embarrassed that his sources or his facts might be wrong; “All I know is what’s on the internet,” he said at one point during the campaign.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Do Rural Whites Vote GOP?

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Daniel K. Williams of the University of West Georgia explains why rural white voters, once a stronghold of the Democratic Party, started voting Republican.  Here is a taste of his piece at History News Network:

If there was one demographic group that blunted the force of the “blue wave” in this month’s midterm elections, it was rural white voters. Even as Republicans lost control of the suburban areas that had been their strongholds in the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans extended their hold over rural America. The GOP is now on the verge of uniting nearly all rural white voters into a single party – which has never happened before. 

For most of the Republican Party’s history, the notion that the GOP would become the party of rural whites was unimaginable. Rural whites were the last voter group in the South to leave the Democratic Party; they did not begin consistently voting Republican until the 1990s, nearly a generation after suburban white southerners entered the GOP. But now rural whites in both North and South are the stronghold of the GOP and the key to the party’s future. 

Why have rural whites throughout the country started voting Republican? And why have Democrats been unable to win them back, despite making an effort to do so in 2018? 

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Ben Wynne

5afdd229cb854.jpgBen Wynne is professor of history at the University of North Georgia. This interview is based on his new book The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist (LSU Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: My doctoral dissertation dealt with politicians in the South who argued against the idea of secession during the years leading up to the American Civil War, and in the course of doing my research Henry Stuart Foote’s name kept popping up. The more I read about him, the more interested in his life and career I became, to the point where I thought his life story might make a good book. Not only was he involved in a number of important national events in his lifetime, but he was a bit of a maniac. All of his contemporaries seemed to have an opinion about him, and those opinions ranged from genius to buffoon. I was also intrigued by his relationship Jefferson Davis. Foote was Davis’s most outspoken political enemy, and the hatred that the two men had for each other was epic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: The book is a strait biography. It captures the highly unusual spirit of the subject as well as his unique contributions to American history and politics from the 1830s until his death in 1880.

JF: Why do we need to read The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist?

BW: Henry Stuart Foote’s life included many unusual twists and turns, making for an interesting read. In general, Foote was one of antebellum America’s true political mavericks with an eccentric and sometimes violent personality. He was a polarizing figure who was beloved by supporters but reviled by critics. During his career, he participated in innumerable physical altercations—including a fistfight with then-fellow U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis that provided the title for the book—and he carried bullet wounds from several duels. He once brandished a pistol during proceedings on the Senate floor, and on another occasion threatened a fellow solon with a knife. During his career he was also very well-travelled. He was in Texas during the early 1840s as the Texas annexation debate was in full swing, and he represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate during debates over the Compromise of 1850. In 1851, he defeated Jefferson Davis in an exceedingly bitter campaign for Mississippi governor. Later, he moved to California where he ran unsuccessfully for another senate seat, and then back to Tennessee, where he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. As a Confederate congressman, he remained a thorn in Davis’s side for the duration of the Civil War, publically lambasting the Confederate president again and again. A lifelong Democrat, Foote became a Republican after the war and ended up as superintendent of the U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

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

BW: Like others in the field, I have been fascinated with American history and culture all of my life. It seemed like a natural profession for me. I believe strongly in the cliché that you will not know where you are going if you do not know where you have been.

JF: What is your next project?

BW: I am currently researching for a book on the history of music in Macon, Georgia from the 1830s to the 1980s, that will include material on iconic American musical figures such as “Little Richard” Penniman, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

The Constitution as a “cudgel with which to attack their enemies”

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In The Atlantic‘s ongoing series on the state of American democracy, Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld argue that partisanship has “turned Americans against one another–and against the principles enshrined in our founding document.”  They call for a “constitutional patriotism.”  Here is a taste:

America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.

There are lessons here for both the left and the right. The right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. If millions of people believe that, because of their skin color or religion, they are not treated equally, how can they be expected to see the Constitution’s resounding principles as anything but hollow?

For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying that America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying that those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression. Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. They were also political visionaries who helped give birth to what would become the most inclusive form of governance in world history.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Mark Cheathem

CoD Book Cover.jpgMark Cheathem is Professor of History and project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University. This interview is based on his new book The Coming Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Coming Democracy?

MC: Originally, I started out writing a book about the 1840 election for undergraduate students. As I researched the Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign of 1840, however, I saw a need for a more general book on presidential campaigning in the Jacksonian period. The closest one we had was Michael J. Heale’s The Presidential Quest: Candidates and Images in American Political Culture, 1787-1852. Heale’s book is excellent, but it was published in 1982 and did not address the new scholarship on Early Republic cultural politics. Having research and written extensively on Jacksonian politics, I thought I could provide a book that provided an interpretive framework for understanding this fascinating period.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Coming Democracy?

MC: This book argues that forms of cultural politics (e.g., political cartoons, political songs, etc.) were essential to engaging voters in presidential campaigns during the Jacksonian period. Not only were these political expressions increasingly used to engage voters between 1824 and 1840, they also played a critical role in making them a permanent part of presidential campaigning.

JF: Why do we need to read The Coming Democracy?

MC: This book is immensely relevant to today’s political culture. As I argue in the conclusion, while some forms of Jacksonian-era cultural politics have changed, all of them continue to exist in some form. For example, political cartoons may not be as relevant in today’s world of disappearing newspapers, but the popular memes on social media essentially serve the same purpose: providing a visual shorthand of a politician or issue that requires some level of political literacy on the part of consumers.

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

MC: My undergraduate adviser, Monty Pope, knew that I wanted to teach history, and he convinced me to go to graduate school so I could teach at the college level. Monty’s course on Jacksonian Democracy and his encouragement to work at The Hermitage, Jackson’s home in Nashville, led me into the period I study.

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently at work on the Papers of Martin Van Buren project, which is making the eighth president’s papers accessible in both digital and print editions. I am also writing a book on the 1844 presidential election for the University Press of Kansas’ American Presidential Elections series.

JF: Thanks, Mark!

A Right-Wing Pundit Gets a History Lesson

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I know a lot of you have been following Kevin Kruse‘s twitter take-down of right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza.  Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, is challenging D’Souza’s claim that today’s Democratic Party is the party of racism because it had championed racism in the past.

Any undergraduate history major knows that political parties change over time.  On matters of race, the Democratic Party of the 1950s and early 1960s is not the Democratic Party of today.

Jeet Heer calls attention to the Twitter debate at The New Republic:

D’Souza has made a specialty of highlighting the undeniable racism of the 1960s Democratic Party as a way to tar the current party. His arguments ignore the way the two political parties switch positions on Civil Rights in the 1960s, with the Democrats embracing Civil Rights and Republicans, under the guidance of national leaders like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, exploiting racist backlash.

Read Heer’s entire post, including some of the tweets between Kruse and D’Souza.

Finally, don’t forget to listen to our interview with Kevin Kruse at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  The interview focuses on Kruse’s use of Twitter to bring good history to the public.

Zimmerman: The GOP Should be Careful What They Wish for in Overturning *Roe v. Wade*

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University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman wonders if overturning Roe v. Wade will lead to a liberal resurgence that might change the face of American politics.  Here is a taste of his piece at The New Republic:

Now, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the bench has American conservatives chomping at the bit: with the swing vote removed and replaced with a nominee of President Trump’s choosing, perhaps the 1973 ruling can be overturned. Conservatives’ own history, however, suggests that they should be careful for what they wish for. Instead of an unambiguous and permanent conservative victory, they might face a liberal political resurgence unlike anything seen in decades. A victory in the courts could spawn backlash at the polls.

That, after all, is precisely what happened after 1973, with the roles reversed, when Roe galvanized a right-wing revolution. Sixteen states had liberalized their abortion laws in the years leading up to the decision, provoking sporadic conservative protests. But the issue didn’t become a truly national one until the Supreme Court intervened in 1973, declaring that the protections of the Constitution did not apply to the unborn.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Clark

ClarkJonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Paine?

JC: Chance, the most important agent in human affairs. I was invited to write a brief essay to accompany the recent Yale UP edition of Paine’s selected works. I thought this would be easy, since I had read, and taught, Paine for many years. But as a preparation, I decided to read through Paine’s entire printed output. As I read, I reluctantly concluded that I had not understood Paine at all … and that nobody else had. I finished the essay, but I wrote a book as well.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thomas Paine?

JC: Paine is one of those famous figures who have been heavily mythologized, turned into ‘usable’ versions of themselves to answer the needs of later movements. The book argues that the ‘historic’ Paine was, to use a metaphor, more the inheritor of an old house than the architect of a new one; a man of his age, not the inspired prophet of a future modernity; and that this argument, if justified, calls in question the construction of ‘modernity’ itself.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Paine?

JC: Reinterpreting Paine allows us better to understand a wide variety of causes and issues of which recent historiography treats him as a privileged interpreter, including the American and French Revolutions, the nature of the societies they launched, reforming and revolutionary movements, and the current hegemony of natural rights discourse.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

JC: I am not an American historian; I am an historian of Anglo-America, a shared transatlantic culture in the eighteenth century. I contend that there was little, and perhaps nothing, that was specifically American about the causes of the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: A history of the Enlightenment. It will show how this famous movement was devised as a series of genealogies, projected back onto the past to provide justification for a series of twentieth-century crusades.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan.

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

More American History Lessons for Kanye West

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Yesterday we posted a link to Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse’s history lesson for rapper Kanye West.  Today it is Jim Cullen‘s turn to provide a lesson.  Cullen teaches history at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York.  Here is a taste of Zach Schonfeld’s interview with Cullen at Newsweek:

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican?

Kanye West, American rapper and 40-year-old eighth grade history student, just found out. And boy, is he shaken.

West, who seems to be experiencing some sort of political and philosophical awakening in real time since praising President Trump and declaringthe 45th president “my brother” six days ago, tweeted out a text exchange on Monday with someone named “Steve.” In the texts, Steve notes that Lincoln “freed and protected the slaves and he was Republican. Republicans were the ones who’s [sic] helped black people.” (The tweet—which prompted an avalanche of people trying to explain grade-school history to a major rapper—has since been deleted, but you can find it archived here.)

This is fairly common Republican rhetoric: By proclaiming itself the party of Lincoln and the Abolitionist movement, the modern GOP easily obfuscates the ways in which its racial politics and political coalition drastically transformed throughout the 20th century. In other words: It’s a long, long road from Abraham Lincoln to Donald Trump. And West’s friend Steve seems to have confused the rapper by failing to give any historical context for political party realignment. (West subsequently tweeted out some texts from John Legend trying to explain some of this, but that tweet has also been deleted.)

We asked Jim Cullen, a high school history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York and the author of The American Dream, among other books, to explain the changes in the Republican and Democratic parties to West. (Please, can somebody text this link to Kanye?)

Kanye has just discovered that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. He tweeted an exchange saying that “Republicans were the ones [who] helped black people.” Do you think his tweet is misleading, given the two-party system as it exists today

Well, it’s factually correct. The Republican party was the party of Lincoln and it was the party of African Americans for at least a half century after the Civil War. That didn’t really begin to change until the 1930s and didn’t finish changing until the 1960s. To illustrate the point, the reverend Martin Luther King Sr. was a Republican, as most African Americans were.

Can you give a brief summary of how the GOP voting coalition has changed since the Civil War and Reconstruction era?

For about 70 years after the Civil War, African Americans were a key voting bloc for the GOP, both in the South, and increasingly in Northern cities, which could be very competitive in local, state and federal elections. This was especially true for middle-class and entrepreneurial African Americans. The first wedge in this coalition appeared during the New Deal, notably with the Executive Order 8802, signed by FDR to prohibit discrimination in the defense industry. Black flight to the Democrats intensified over the course of the 1960s, and was largely complete by the end of the century.

Read the entire interview here.

Has Politics Ever Been This Ugly in the United States?

Of course it has been.

I recently showed this video to my U.S. Survey course:

Over at NPR, writer Jon Meacham backs me up.  Here is a taste of his interview with Steve Inskeep:

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The election of President Trump got Jon Meacham thinking. Meacham is a journalist and historian. He’s written biographies of presidents. He wrote a book about faith. The 2016 election prompted him to combine those two subjects and more in a book called “The Soul Of America.” It’s an exploration of the history of a country whose soul, he says, includes Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan and much in between.

JON MEACHAM: The question I get asked all the time is, has it ever been this bad? And the answer is yes. In fact, it’s been worse. We are in a very, I believe, perilous moment because of the president of the United States. I will state that. But I also think it’s worth pointing out that Andrew Johnson announced that African-Americans were genetically incapable of self-government.

INSKEEP: This is the president after the Civil War.

MEACHAM: He was a bully. He was self-absorbed. He gave self-pitying speeches. Any of this sound familiar? You know, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said – history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. The story of American history is that we have, in fact, moved forward. And what we’ve done – and the reason I wanted to look back at these moments – is what have been the moments where presidents have either been really right and led us forcefully and proactively? And what about the moments where they’ve been really wrong? And how did we overcome that?

Read the rest here.

Kevin Kruse Breaks Twitter Again

thurmond-states-rights

Thurmond eventually joined the GOP

Princeton historian Kevin Kruse is sick and tired of Trump supporters claiming that the Democrats are the party of racism and white supremacy today because they were the party of racism and white supremacy 100+ years ago.  This twitter thread is a masterful lesson in change over time.

By the way, if you want to learn more about Kruse and the way he has used twitter to teach us how the past informs the present, listen to our interview with him in Episode 34 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Read the thread here.   A taste:

Since @kanyewest‘s tweets have apparently made this topic unavoidable, some thoughts on the history of the parties’ switch on civil rights.

First, it’s important to note that, yes, the Democrats were indeed the party of slavery and, in the early 20th century, the party of segregation, too.

(There are some pundits who claim this is some secret they’ve uncovered, but it’s long been front & center in any US history.)

Indeed, as @rauchway once noted, one could argue that *the* central story of twentieth-century American political history is basically the evolution of the Democratic Party from the party of Jim Crow to the party of civil rights.

At the start of the 20th century, the Democrats — dominated by white southern conservatives — were clearly the party of segregationists.

President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, instituted segregation in Washington and across the federal government. (See @EricSYellin‘s work.)

That said, both parties in this period had their share of racists in their ranks.

When the second KKK rose to power in the 1920s, it had a strong Democratic ties in some states; strong GOP ones elsewhere.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Smith

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

JF: What led you to write The Stormy Present?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Adam!

The Problem of the 1780s

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

Here is a taste of the interview:

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

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

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

Read the rest here.