*Harper’s Magazine* publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”

Harpers

 

This letter will appear in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Signers include Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Gary Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Bond Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

Here is a taste:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the entire letter here.

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

Wilentz: “We can honor–and dishonor–American leaders of previous eras without turning history into a simplistic tale of good versus evil”

Andrew_Jackson_NO

Statue of Andrew Jackson, New Orleans

Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz addresses monuments to our complicated past.

Here is a taste of his piece at the The Wall Street Journal:

 

Given history’s complexities and contradictions, though, where should we draw the line?

In the starkest contradiction, Thomas Jefferson, the revolutionary who pronounced the American democratic ideal as the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal,’’ also bought, sold and exploited human beings his entire adult life. On one occasion, he wrote racist speculations about the inferiority of Africans at the same time that he denounced enslaving blacks as an indefensible offense to the Almighty. Should Jefferson’s image therefore be spray painted and trashed, as it was last week in Portland, Ore., as an embodiment of racist evil, little different from Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee? Or should the spirit of democratic equality that his image proclaims be taken seriously, as Martin Luther King did when he quoted the Declaration of Independence at length at the March on Washington in 1963?

Intentions as well as history help to clarify these matters of memory. There can be no doubt that statues of Davis, Lee, John C. Calhoun and others are tributes to slavery, secession and racial domination. They were built for precisely those reasons. They have no other possible meaning, apart from transparent euphemisms about states’ rights and federal tyranny.

But the same is not true of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its paeans to universal enlightenment, equality and religious freedom. It is not true of the Lincoln Memorial, a living monument that for decades has been a touchstone for the nation’s freedom struggles.

Ulysses S. Grant, for his part, was raised in an abolitionist family; when he received a slave from his slaveholding father-in-law, Grant immediately released him from bondage. Those who know little about Grant hold this against him. Instead, we should honor him for crushing the Confederacy and then, as president, breaking up the Ku Klux Klan, advancing the 15th Amendment and signing the Civil Rights Act of 1875—the first of its kind and the forerunner of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Andrew Jackson is heavily and accurately criticized for his Indian removal policies, although historians still dispute how much those policies arose from tragedy, intention or previous federal policies. But no monument to Jackson celebrates the Trail of Tears or the fact that he owned slaves. He is honored for two lasting accomplishments. As a general, he repelled a massive British invasion at New Orleans in 1815; and as president, he secured the Union by standing up to Calhoun and his militant proslavery supporters, the forerunners of the secessionist slavocracy, during the Nullification Crisis in 1832-33. Somewhere, Calhoun’s shade, embittered by the decision to remove his monument in Charleston, S.C., is smiling grimly at the attacks on his greatest antagonist.

Unless we can learn from history the difference between persons who preach and practice evil and those who at best imperfectly extricate themselves from evil yet achieve great good, we might as well cease building monuments to anyone or anything, and cease teaching history except as dogma. Unless we can outgrow the conception of history as a simplistic battle between darkness and light—unless we can seek understanding of what those in the past struggled with, as we hope posterity will afford to us—we will be the captives of arrogant self-delusions and false innocence.

Read the entire piece here.

What Can We Learn from the 1619 Project?

1619

Read all our posts on The New York Times 1619 Project here.

Historian James Brewer Stewart has some good thoughts.  Here is a taste of his piece at History News Network:

But here’s what’s most important. Those of us who value the 1619 Project can reclaim our “teachable moment” by excavating beneath the heated rhetoric. There we will discover that the journalists and the historians embrace conflicting but equally valuable historical truths regarding slavery’s power to shape our nations past and present. I will soon articulate why this is so and what we can learn as a result.

First, however, we must move beyond the conflict that erupted when Wilentz, joined by James M. McPherson, Gordon Wood, James Oakes, and Victoria Bynum, eminent scholars all, forgot that they also have an obligation to serve us as educators, not as censors. By so harshly attacking credibility of the 1619 Project in their letter to The New York Times, they squandered the “teachable moment” that the Project itself intended to create. Instead, these scholars appointed themselves gatekeepers charged with the heavy enforcement of their personal versions of high academic “standards.” 

Instead of constructively dissenting and inviting dialogue, they berated the 1619 journalists for pushing “politically correct” distortions grounded in Afro-centric bias. “The displacement of historical understanding by ideology” is how one of them phrased it. They demanded retractions, worked assiduously (and failed) to recruit scholars of color to their cause, and sent their complaints directly to the top three editors of the Times and its Publisher A.G Sulzberger. That looks a lot like bullying. Dialogue dies when one contending party publicly attempts to undercut the other with his/her bosses.

Read the entire piece here.

Stay tuned. In Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast we talk about the 1619 Project with historian Tom Mackaman of World Socialist Web Site. The episode drops February 16, 2020.

The 1619 Project: Debate Continues

1619

When we last left the debate on the 1619 Project, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz leveled more criticism of the project in a piece at The Atlantic.  

Social media historians (and some non-historians who are advancing informed and not-so-informed opinions) are going crazy.  While many ague based on historical evidence and best practices, there is clearly a political dimension to all of this.  The 1619 Project has led to some good conversations on race and slavery in the United States.  It has also exacerbated political divisions in the discipline over how to do history in the 21st century and how the study of the past informs competing visions of American identity.  And yes, as Annette Gordon-Reed tweets, personalities are involved.

There were two major salvos yesterday.

Alex Lichtenstein, the editor of the American Historical Review, considered by many to be the most important historical journal in the United States, weighed-in on the controversy.  Here is a taste:

…many scholars initially greeted 1619 with excitement and effusive praise. In part, I suspect that this was because the basic impulse behind the collection of eighteen articles and many additional short essays—by journalists, historians, sociologists, poets, legal scholars, English professors, artists, playwrights, and novelists—reflects how many, if not most, American historians already teach about that past in the undergraduate classroom….

So why the hostile, if somewhat belated, reaction? Here I admit to being perplexed—hence my initial hesitation to wade into the debate. The initial caveats came from an unlikely precinct, at least for a mainstream public intellectual knock-down, drag-out. In early September, the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) fired a broadside at the Times, denouncing the 1619 Project as “a politically motivated falsification of history” designed, in their view, to bolster the Democratic Party’s alignment with “identity politics” at the expense of any serious engagement with class inequality. This attack came not from the expected quarters of the right, which one imagines would find offensive and unpatriotic the denigration of the American promise as irredeemably racist, but from the Trotskyist left. As good Marxists, the adherents of the Fourth International denounced the project for its “idealism,” that is to say, its tendency to reduce historical causation to “a supra-historical emotional impulse.” By mischaracterizing anti-black racism as an irreducible element built into the “DNA” of the nation and its white citizens, the Trotskyists declared, the 1619 Project is ahistorical and “irrationalist.” This idealist fallacy requires that racism “must persist independently of any change in political or economic conditions,” naturally the very thing that any materialist historian would want to attend to. “The invocation of white racism,” they proclaim, “takes the place of any concrete examination of the economic, political and social history of the country.” Perhaps even worse, “the 1619 Project says nothing about the event that had the greatest impact on the social condition of African-Americans—the Russian Revolution of 1917.”4 (Well, OK, I was with them up to that point.) In some ways, the debate merely reprises one fought out nearly half a century ago: Which came first, racism or slavery? Who is right, Winthrop Jordan or Edmund Morgan?5

But that, it turns out, was merely the opening salvo. In October and November, the ICFI began to post a series of interviews with historians about the 1619 Project on its “World Socialist Web Site,” including (as of January 11) Victoria Bynum (October 30), James McPherson (November 14), James Oakes (November 18), Gordon Wood (November 28), Dolores Janiewski (December 23), and Richard Carwardine (December 31).6 As many critics hastened to note, all of these historians are white. In principle, of course, that should do nothing to invalidate their views. Nevertheless, it was a peculiar choice on the part of the Trotskyist left, since there are undoubtedly African American historians—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—sympathetic to their views. Barbara Fields comes immediately to mind, as she has often made similarly critical appraisals of idealist fallacies about the history of “race” and racism.7

If these scholars all concern themselves in one way or another with historical dilemmas of race and class, they hardly are cut from the same cloth. Bynum, best known for her attention to glimmers of anti-slavery sentiment among southern whites, some of which was driven by class grievances, doesn’t always take the Trotskyists’ bait. For example, she points out that “we cannot assume that individual [southern] Unionists were anti-slavery,” even if they “at the very least connected slavery to their own economic plight in the Civil War era.” Similarly, McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, acknowledges in his interview that initially most Union Army soldiers fought to “revenge an attack on the flag.” (As the Green-Wood memorial indicates, that’s how many chose to remember it as well.) Still, McPherson complains that the 1619 Project consists of “a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lack[s] context and perspective on the complexity of slavery.” Yet it is safe to say that he would not sign on to the Marxist version of the Civil War preferred by the ICFI—“the greatest expropriation of private property in world history, not equaled until the Russian Revolution in 1917.”8

McPherson insists in his interview that “opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.” Sure, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find a dozen historians who could say, with confidence, yes, but on balance, slavery and racism themselves have probably been just as, if not more, important. In his interview, Oakes, one of the most sophisticated historians of the rise of the nineteenth-century Republican Party and its complex place within an emergent anti-slavery coalition, offers a bracing critique of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, scholarship that underpins sociologist Matthew Desmond’s contribution to 1619. But other than gamely defending Lincoln against the charge of racism, Oakes doesn’t really direct much fire at the 1619 Project in particular. For his part, Wood (described by the Trotskyists as “the leading historian of the American Revolution”) seems affronted mostly by the failure of the 1619 Project to solicit his advice, and appears offended by the suggestion that the Revolutionary generation might have had some interest in protecting slavery. Yet, oddly enough, even he seems to endorse what has become one of the project’s most controversial assertions—that “[Lord] Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots.” Those are Wood’s words, and they are part of his wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of the place of anti-slavery and pro-slavery sentiment in the Revolutionary era and the Revolutionary Atlantic World more generally.

Taken as a whole, the interviews are of enormous interest, but more for what they have to say about these scholars’ own interpretations of key aspects of American history than as a full-on attack on the 1619 Project. Reading closely, one sees the interviewed historians trying to avoid saying what the Trotskyists would like them to say, offering a far more nuanced view of the past. This certainly entails dissent from some of the specific claims of 1619, but it hardly requires them to embrace fully the Trotskyist alternative, which I suspect at least several of them would be reluctant to do. Frankly, I wish the AHR had published these interviews, and I hope they get wide circulation. Not for the critique of the 1619 Project itself, but because collectively they insist on the significance of historical context, the careful weighing of evidence, the necessity of understanding change over time, and the potential dangers of reductionism. I would urge anyone to read them.

Read the entire piece here.  Lichtenstein respects the critics of the 1619 Project who were interviewed at World Socialist Web Site, but he was not overly impressed by the letter these critics wrote to The New York Times.

The second major response to Wilentz’s piece in The Atlantic comes from early American historian David Waldstreicher at the Boston Review.  Here is a summary of Waldstreicher’s piece:

Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen.

This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding(2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work “anachronistic” in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republicand has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a “premodern” society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence.

In ambitious works that explore the “unknown” revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution(2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804(2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition.

Read the entire piece here.

Whatever you think of Waldstreicher’s article, it is a wonderful overview of revolutionary-era historiography.  Graduate students take note.

Stay tuned.  We have more coming on this controversy.  In the meantime, read all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.  I also tried to explain the project to my local community here.

Sean Wilentz’s Criticism of *The New York Times*’s 1619 Project

1619

Some of you will remember Sean Wilentz‘s letter to The New York Times criticizing the newspaper’s 1619 Project.  You can read it here.  The letter is signed by Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood.  With the exception of Wilentz, all of these American historians criticized the 1619 Project at the World Socialist Web Site.

After the publication of the letter, journalist Adam Serwer wrote a piece at The Atlantic titled, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project is Not About the Facts.” The subtitle reads: “A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine‘s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”

Today The Atlantic published a longer piece by Wilentz on the subject.  Here is a taste of piece “A Matter of Facts“:

The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.

To sustain its particular take on an immense subject while also informing a wide readership is a remarkably ambitious goal, imposing, among other responsibilities, a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Readers expect nothing less from The New York Times, the project’s sponsor, and they deserve nothing less from an effort as profound in its intentions as the 1619 Project. During the weeks and months after the 1619 Project first appeared, however, historians, publicly and privately, began expressing alarm over serious inaccuracies.

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.

No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.

Read the entire rest here.  Whatever one thinks about Wilentz’s argument, it is hard to say that he is not making a case based on historical facts or offering a critique of the 1619 Project that is within the bounds of historical inquiry.

The Fight Over the *New York Times* 1619 Project

1619

I have said all I want to say about the 1619 Project.  You can read my posts here.

Over at The Atlantic, David Serwer tells the story behind the opposition to the project coming from historians Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and James Oakes. These historians recently published a letter criticizing the project.  Here is a taste:

Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.

In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.

The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.

Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Sean Wilentz the “Intellectual Heir” of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.?

Wilentz

Timothy Shenk, in a review of two Sean Wilentz books, makes the case.  Here is a taste of his review at The Nation:

As the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton rolled forward in 1998, the White House called on the assistance of a longtime ally: the Ivy League. The administration summoned a team of experts to testify on the president’s behalf in front of the House Judiciary Committee that included a Yale law professor, a Harvard political scientist, and a Princeton historian. The historian, Sean Wilentz, was the youngest member of the group, but he was also the most zealous. After the witnesses were sworn in, Wilentz told the committee that if they supported impeachment without being absolutely certain that the president’s transgressions constituted high crimes and misdemeanors, “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness.”

Wilentz’s appearance garnered poor reviews—“gratuitously patronizing,” wrote The New York Times—but it whetted his appetite for partisan skirmishing. He had come to the Clinton team’s attention as the result of a campaign he’d led with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to gather signatures from prominent historians for a petition that charged the supporters of impeachment with endangering the US Constitution. Now it seemed that Schlesinger, the aging liberal giant, had found his successor—a public intellectual, rigorous scholar, and Democratic Party street fighter who would carry the battle for liberalism into the next generation.

Over the following decade, Wilentz cemented his place as Schlesinger’s intellectual heir. Like Schlesinger, he’d begun his career as a specialist in early American political history, then moved on to writing about the entire scope of the nation’s past. Outside academic circles, he was well known for his regular contributions to the Leon Wieseltier–run “back of the book” at The New Republic, where he opined on subjects ranging from the influence of postmodern theory (bad) to the popularity of David McCullough (also bad) in essays thrown down like lightning bolts from Mount Princeton. In 2005, he published The Rise of American Democracy, a 1,000-page opus on the emergence of popular government in the United States, from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil War. Three years later, he followed it up with The Age of Reagan, a survey of American political history from 1974 to 2008 that not so implicitly set the stage for a coming liberal era after Reagan’s. With the 2008 presidential election under way, rumors swirled that Wilentz was poised to follow Schlesinger’s example yet again, this time as the court historian for Hillary Clinton’s upcoming administration.

Read the rest here.

Gordon Wood Strikes Again!

Slavery debates

I love reading Gordon Wood book reviews.  I don’t always agree with him, but sometimes I do.  Whether I agree with him or not, I must admit that I sometimes take guilty pleasure in watching him whip academic historians into a frenzy with his long and provocative reviews that often challenge historiographical orthodoxy.

At the age of eighty-five he is still going strong, as evidenced from his recent review of books by Sean Wilentz and Andrew Delbanco at The New Republic.

I like Wood’s reviews so much because he always frames them in a larger historiographical conversations.  His reviews were invaluable to me in graduate school as I tried to make sense of hundreds of books I needed to read for my comprehensive exams.

In this latest review, Wood shows how Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding and Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War challenge what he calls a “Neo-Garrisonian” view of slavery and the coming of the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

In October 2017, President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, declared that “a lack of an ability to compromise” brought on the Civil War. This remark outraged a number of historians, who told The Washington Post they thought it “strange,” “highly provocative,” and “kind of depressing,” something that was out of touch with current historical research. Kelly’s interpretation carried echoes of a revisionist explanation of the causes of the Civil War that was popular in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Commonly known as the “blundering generation” interpretation, it held that the sectional conflict arose not from a fundamental disagreement over slavery but from the squabbling of politicians whose demagoguery and fanaticism eventually undermined the political system.

Few historians pay attention any more to the blundering generation interpretation. Not only did it play into the hands of Southern apologists, by implying that slavery was not the fundamental source of the conflict, but it also played down the substantial differences between the societies of the North and South that slavery had created. Most academic historians today no longer think of the abolitionists as fanatical agitators, stirring up hostility between the sections. Instead, they have become the heroes of their narratives. Indeed, many have come to accept the view of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that America’s entire political system was riddled with the evils of slavery, beginning with its founding document. The Constitution, Garrison declared, was “a covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell.”

In a like manner, many present-day historians have contended that the border between the slave South and the free North was not as sharp as we are apt to think. Not only were the North and South economically interdependent, but they shared in the exploitative nature of American capitalism. Despite the fact that the Southern slaveholding planters thought of themselves as anything but bourgeois capitalists, their slave system, scholars such as Sven Beckert and Edward E. Baptist now claim, was just as capitalistic as the industrial system of the North. Northerners as well as Southerners are now seen as thoroughly implicated in the terrible business of slavery, morally as well as economically. It was not just the South that was morally flawed; the North was just as racist, just as antagonistic to black people, as the South.

This is all part of a determined effort by current scholars to ensure that the North bear its share of blame for slavery and for race relations in the nation. They emphasize that Northern delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were equally involved with Southerners in the compromises that protected slavery in the Constitution and helped to make it “an agreement with hell.” Northerners agreed to the three-fifths representation of slaves in the Congress and the Electoral College. And, most lamentably, they accepted the clause in Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution that declared that persons held in service or labor in one state who escaped to another state had to be returned to those to whom such service or labor was due.

In all their subsequent compromises over slavery, white Americans, both Northerners and Southerners, displayed what Ta-Nehisi Coates today calls a “craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people.” The North tended to appease the South at every turn and effectively tolerated Southern dominance of the national government during the antebellum period. Present-day scholars suggest that the North bears nearly as much responsibility for the persistence of slavery as the South. That’s why no one should try to claim that North and South were two distinct societies. The whole nation was guilty.

This is the gist of prevailing neo-Garrisonian scholarship dealing with antebellum America. In different and subtle ways both Sean Wilentz’sNo Property in Manand Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War seek to challenge this scholarship—but not return to the revisionist interpretation of the mid-twentieth century. Both Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, and Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia, accept without question that slavery was at the heart of the sectional conflict. They offer no apology whatsoever for the Confederacy and its system of racial slavery. But both do aim to correct and refine what they believe are some of the crudities in the current interpretations, which have had the unintended effects of reviving a Southern view of the Constitution and of blurring in their own ways the differences between the societies of the North and the South.

Read the rest here.

Wilentz: Trump Has No Precedent

trump-speech

When it comes to Donald Trump, Sean Wilentz is no fan of historical analogies.

Wilentz pulls no punches in his contribution to a Democracy forum titled “What Compares to Trump.”  (In addition to Wilentz, the forum includes contributions from Brandon Byrd, Nancy Isenberg, David Nasaw, Allyson Hobbs).

He sees no precedent:

The best historical analogies illuminate the past for the present, but the worst analogies domesticate the present to the past. And I cannot balk from stating, with great respect to my colleagues and friends in this symposium and to the editors of Democracy who thought it up, that historical analogies to the ascension of Donald J. Trump are among the very worst.

Understanding our current situation begins with the recognition that Trump and his incipient regime are utterly abnormal. Trump represents a sharp break in our national political history—something unlike anything America, in all of its turbulence, has seen before, his election the result of a fundamental collapse in our politics. Coming to terms with this requires, in part, finally admitting to ourselves that, although the constitutional trappings were respected, the events of 2016 resembled a foreign-abetted coup d’état more than they did an American presidential election. Coming to terms also requires paying close attention to the fact that Trump, by his own admission, learned his approach to leadership not in the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics, nor even in the wheeling-and-dealing of high-stakes New York real estate, but in the Roy Cohn school of political racketeering, including its links to organized crime—training that, apparently, has made Trump feel perfectly at home working with the syndicates of the post-Soviet Russian oligarchy.

Read the rest here.

Two Princeton American Historians Discuss the Election of 2016

KruseCheck out Princeton historians Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse discuss the 2016 presidential at a Princeton alumni event from back in February 2017.  (Thanks to History News Network for bringing this video to my attention).

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Sean Wilentz: I take it our charge is to be historians. Whether you reacted to the events of Nov. 8 with elation or despair or something in between, I think it’s been difficult to get our heads around what happened. Our charge is to try and lend some historical perspective, to put our own loyalties aside for a moment. Thinking historically means trying to understand where this all fits in the recent past, and everything that led up to the recent past, to try and understand the larger historical dynamics that brought us to the place that we were on Nov. 8, and what that portends for the future. I think that’s what we’re here for.

Kevin Kruse: Look, I get asked to comment on the present, or, God forbid, to make predictions about the future, and I always have to remind people that as a historian my professional training is in hindsight. As historians we can look back on snap opinions made after other big elections and see just how wrong those were. After 1964, lots of accounts had said, “My God, this is it for conservatism. You’ll never see a conservative president in America again. Barry Goldwater has killed it. Liberalism is here to stay.” After 1980, “Well, the New Deal is dead. It’ll never come back. It’s going to be swept off the face of the Earth by the Reagan revolution. Social Security is on its last legs.” After Obama in 2008, “Well, we’re now in a post-racial America. Racism is gone. Congratulations, we did it.” 

So there’s this trend of overreacting to a presidential election, and we have to remember that a presidential election, for all of the very real ramifications it has on contemporary politics and policy, is but one data point in a much larger stream. And it’s a data point that I think we need to take in its proper context, because we had 123 million votes cast in this election. If you moved 50,000 of those in just three states, we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton today, and drawing a whole bunch of other wrong, big conclusions about what that meant. 

SW: Well, let’s look at the proper data point in order to start to understand this. Certainly something happened 50 years ago, and you mentioned the Johnson–Goldwater election. A rupture did occur, I think, in American political life about the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, and then Watergate. And I think, in some ways, anything we’re talking about is still a product of that rupture. 

Conservatism didn’t fade away at all. It was just clearing its throat, if you will. Certainly something happened, and it had to do with civil rights, and it had to do with foreign policy, and how the two collided. And it had to do, I think, with — and this is very pertinent to what happened in November — the legitimacy of the political parties and of the political system, between the credibility gap of the late ’60s that was laid at Johnson’s door, and then Watergate. And I think what we’re seeing today, in part, can be seen as the final denouement of the delegitimization that occurred back then. Wilentz

KK: That makes a lot of sense. If we think back to that period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you can see all sorts of … for lack of a better term, the establishment cracks up. First and foremost the political firmament, the kind of postwar consensus, for all of its flaws; people believed there was a certain center of gravity there, a certain trust in the political system that gets badly eroded first by Vietnam and then obliterated by Watergate. There had been a certain trust in the postwar economy, a sense that the industrial economy, in its kind of catering to a consumer culture, was constantly on the rise. That, too, peaks at about the same time for a different set of reasons: the rise of deindustrialization; the new competition from abroad, like West Germany and Japan; the shift of factories to places from China to Mexico. So the manufacturing economy starts to crumble, too. And then there are changes that I think we would regard as good: The crack of the old racial order and the old systems of segregation, the old systems of immigration restriction — those fall in ’64 and ’65, and set apace a brand new world, a world that is much more open but I think a lot more chaotic, too. And so the ground had shifted underneath people’s feet in a variety of ways, all at the same time. 

Read the entire transcript here.

 

More on Slavery and the Constitution

Sean Wilentz’s op-ed on slavery and the Constitution has ignited a real firestorm in the historical community.  

See our posts here and here and here and here and here
And to think that it all started with comments made by Bernie Sanders at Liberty University.

Over at a great (relatively) new website called We’re History, Joshua Rothman, Patrick Rael, and Mary Sarah Bilder add their perspectives to this debate.

Sean Wilentz’s View on Slavery and the Constitution

We have now all read his New York Times op-ed piece and the subsequent criticisms of it.  Here is Sean Wilentz’s entire argument about slavery and the Constitution as he developed it in his Princeton Constitution Day Lecture:

Matt Pinsker of Dickinson College puts it in context.

https://cdnapisec.kaltura.com/p/1449362/sp/144936200/embedIframeJs/uiconf_id/14292322/partner_id/1449362?iframeembed=true&playerId=kaltura_player&entry_id=1_koi3103f&flashvarsakamaiHD.loadingPolicy=preInitialize&flashvarsakamaiHD.asyncInit=true&flashvarstwoPhaseManifest=true&flashvarsstreamerType=hdnetworkmanifest&flashvarsleadWithHTML5=true&flashvarssideBarContainer.plugin=true&flashvarssideBarContainer.position=left&flashvarssideBarContainer.clickToClose=true&flashvarschapters.plugin=true&flashvarschapters.layout=vertical&flashvarschapters.thumbnailRotator=false&flashvarsstreamSelector.plugin=true&flashvarsEmbedPlayer.SpinnerTarget=videoHolder&flashvarsdualScreen.plugin=true&&wid=1_tdxf8qsy

Debating Wilentz on Slavery and the Constitution: A Call for Civility

Not all reputable historians are bashing Sean Wilentz for his New York Times op-ed arguing that the slavery and race were not at the heart of the United States Constitution.  Matt Pinsker of Dickinson College has a slight different angle on this controversy.

Here is a taste of his post at the blog of his U.S. Constitution course at Dickinson:

Wilentz loves these kinds of fights, but I find them somewhat depressing.  His point, stripped of the polemics, is a powerful intellectual one.  The Framers of the Constitution steadfastly refused to include the principle of slavery –the concept of “property in man”– into the nation’s founding charter.  They didn’t just leave the word out; but fought hard over limiting the principle to a very local domain.  Freedom was always national. That matters.  However, even though it matters, it doesn’t negate the realities of color prejudice, the horrors of slavery, or even the unanticipated and dreadful consequences of specific 1787 concessions to the nation’s slaveholders.  Yet that nuance too easily gets lost in this kind of crossfire. Bernie Sanders wasn’t commenting on the Constitution directly at Liberty University, and much of the venom directed at Wilentz by other scholars conflates the realities of early American “racism” with more complicated questions about American constitutional jurisprudence.   That’s what’s so depressing.  They’re talking past each other. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to sort out such issues during abbreviated Q&A sessions, through op-ed pages, or by tweets, but there should be some sense of acknowledgement by participants that this issue is a seriously contested one.  There are no simple facts and no easy conclusions.  Scholars, activists and even scholar/activists need to find ways to defend their views with vigor (and plenty of verve) without also belittling their opposition.

Several things are worth noting about his post:

First, it is interesting that Pinsker distinguishes between “scholars” and “scholar activists.”  He seems to suggest (and Matt can tell me if I am wrong) that it is easy for historian-activists to be so interested in using the past for political purposes that they lose their scholarly detachment. (If Matt is not will to say this, I will!)  Earlier in the post he calls out those “scholar-activists” who have been less than civil in their criticism of Wilentz:

What happened next therefore should have been predictable, but it still caught me by surprise.  The comments section at the New York Times website exploded, the blogosphere lit up, and a number of leading scholar / activists “angry at America’s racist past” took to social media to berate Wilentz for his ignorance.  One of the tweets that hit me hardest was by noted slavery scholar Ed Baptist from Cornell.  He openly mocked Wilentz, one of the most distinguished figures in our field, calling his op-ed “pure comedy gold.”

In another tweet, Baptist dismissed Wilentz’s piece as “utterly unconvincing” and went so far as to accuse him in public of “hauling water for Hilary and Bill.” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media professor from University of Virginia, blasted Wilentz’s argument as “shallow” and “unbecoming a historian.” Kevin Gannon from Grand View University (who, admittedly, has one of the best historical twitter handles:  @thetattooedprof) found himself “baffled” by the Wilentz reading of the Constitution, and then produced a blog post which went even further, labeling the effort “infuriating” and “sad.”

Second, and related to the first point, is Pinsker’s suggestion that the “scholars-activists” and Wilentz are talking past each other.  I made a similar case in my post on the controversy: “Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders’s comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution while Sanders’s remark seemed to be much more general in nature.”

Finally, check out Pinsker’s Storify of the various tweets on this topic.  He makes some stinging critiques of a few other historians who have joined the fray.

Sean Wilentz is Still Getting Heat

The latest historian to challenge Wilentz’s recent New York Times op-ed piece on the U.S. Constitution and slavery is David Waldstreicherdistinguished professor of history at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and the author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification.

Here is a taste of Waldstreicher’s piece at The Atlantic:

The three-fifths clause, which states that three-fifths of “all other persons” (i.e. slaves) will be counted for both taxation and representation, was a major boon to the slave states. This is well known; it’s astounding to see Wilentz try to pooh-pooh it. No, it wasn’t counting five-fifths, but counting 60 percent of slaves added enormously to slave-state power in the formative years of the republic. By 1800, northern critics called this phenomenon “the slave power” and called for its repeal. With the aid of the second article of the Constitution, which numbered presidential electors by adding the number of representatives in the House to the number of senators, the three-fifths clause enabled the elections of plantation masters Jefferson in 1800 and Polk in 1844.

Just as importantly, the tax liability for three-fifths of the slaves turned out to mean nothing. Sure the federal government could pass a head tax, but it almost never did. It hardly could when the taxes had to emerge from the House, where the South was 60 percent overrepresented. So the South gained political power, without having to surrender much of anything in exchange.

Read the entire article.

Peter Sagal Responds to Sean Wilentz on Slavery and the Constitution

We did a post on this earlier today.  

It seems that more and more smart people are weighing in against Sean Wilentz.  Here is a letter to the editor published in today’s New York Times by Peter Sagal, host of the PBS show Constitution USA:

Prof. Sean Wilentz’s essay arguing that the Constitution was not built on slavery (“Lincoln and Douglass Had It Right,” Op-Ed, Sept. 16) is profoundly mistaken.

That the Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia wanted more than they got doesn’t matter, especially not to the millions of slaves whose misery continued. What matters is the text of the Constitution as ratified, which clearly and obviously sanctions slavery, in the three-fifths clause and the fugitive slave clause.

The three-fifths clause was not, as Professor Wilentz argues, one of the “consolation prizes” for the slave states. By allowing Southern states to count their slaves at all for purposes of representation, while denying those slaves all other civil or human rights, the Constitution granted slave holders magnified political power, while creating an incentive to acquire more slaves.

Professor Wilentz ignores (as many do) one of the most sinister aspects of the three-fifths clause. Electoral votes are granted to states based on the number of representatives in the House. Thus, the South had disproportionate power in presidential elections as well.

Race-based slavery was this nation’s original sin. We were born with it in our charter. As Lincoln suggested, that sin could not be expurgated “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Was the United States "Created on Racist Principles?"

In his recent visit to Liberty University, Bernie Sanders said that the United States “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

On Tuesday night in my online Gilder-Lehrman graduate course on colonial North America, I told my students that Sanders was correct. We spent the class studying colonial Virginia and discussed how the colony became a slave society near the end of the seventeenth century.  At the end of the lecture I took a cue from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and reminded my students about the ways the wealth generated by slavery in this tobacco colony enabled Virginia planters such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others to be in a position to articulate some of America’s greatest statements about liberty and freedom.  Irony indeed.

Then today I read Sean Wilentz’s New York Times op-ed “Constitutionally, Slavery Is No National Institution.”  (It appears to stem from his recent Constitution Day Lecture at Princeton). Here is a taste:

…the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.

Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders were crushed.

Read the entire piece to see how Wilentz supports his argument.  It is a rather odd piece. First, Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders’s comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution when Sanders’s remark seemed to be much more general in nature.  I think the Vermont senator meant to say, along with Morgan and others, that the roots of the United States are intricately bound with slavery and what today we call “racism.”  

Second, even if we do limit Sanders’s comment about racism and the American founding to the United States Constitution, it very hard to say that racism and slavery were not a part of the creation of this founding document.

Several scholars and historians have already replied to Wilentz.  Here are four:

Lawrence Goldstone at The New Republic

H. Robert Baker at Tropics of Meta

Julia Azari at Vox

Kevin Gannon at The Junto

Riffing on a Few Tweets From the "Historians and Their Publics" Plenary Session

Salon D was packed out yesterday afternoon for the plenary session of the Organization of American Historians: “Historians and Their Publics.”  OAH president Alan Kraut moderated a session that included  Spencer Crew, Sean Wilentz, Jill Lepore, and Shola Lynch.  Rather than write a report of the panel, I thought I would use a few of my tweets to frame some thoughts.  Here goes:


TWEET: “Live tweeting plenary session ‘Historians and Their Publics.’ Kristof op-ed framing the discussion so far.”
As might be expected, Kristof’s New York Times op-ed “Professors, We Need You” was on everyone’s mind. Kraut used the piece to frame the conversation. I am on record saying that Kristof’s piece is on the mark, but I would really like to know what Lepore thought about it. (She is mentioned in the piece as someone who is connecting with public audiences). At one point during the session she said that scholars have retreated into the ivory tower, suggesting that she might believe that Kristof has identified a problem.

TWEET: “Lepore sees her writing as extension of her teaching. Developing students in skills of historcial thinking.”
Wilentz also affirmed this. I am not sure how often Lepore and Wilentz teach, but those scholars in the proverbial “trenches” who teach 4-4 loads (or more) are our most important public historians. K-12 teachers as well.

TWEET: “Lepore: So many historians think that to do public history is to somehow to engage in politics. More to this than just punditry”
This led to an interesting conversation. Lepore tried to separate what she does in The New Yorker and elsewhere from political punditry (although a lot of her public writing has an obvious political edge). Wilentz saw no need to do so. As someone who writes the occasional op-ed or politically-charged blog post, I often struggle with this issue. Do I have to take off my “historian” hat and put on my “pundit” hat whenever I write an op-ed piece? Wilentz admitted that there was a fundamental difference between writing scholarly essays/books and writing opinion pieces, but he did not think the difference was very great. He argued for what might be called a “historically informed punditry.” (This is not unlike what the History News Service has been trying to do).

TWEET: “Wilentz describes old magazines like the New Republic as “gladiatorial.” Extolls these kinds of mags as way to reach the public.”
Wilentz likes to write for the magazines read by America’s educated class. So does Lepore. She extolled the essay as the best way to reach public audiences. While both of these excellent public scholars reach a much larger audience than most historians (and should be commended for doing so), their understanding of “the public” is very narrow. It struck me that no one in the room acknowledged the assumptions about social class (and I am talking here about “class” as more of a cultural phenomenon than an economic one) that pervaded much of what Lepore and Wilentz had to say. For example, most Americans do not read The New Republic or The New Yorker. The overwhelming majority of the American public might ask “Who is Jill Lepore?” or “Who is Sean Wilentz?” How does one reach people like my Dad–a man without a post-secondary education who gets most of his history from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh? What about the millions of evangelical Christians who get their history from David Barton? Reaching these Americans requires a very different approach to what it means to be a “public intellectual.” Spencer Crew (museum educator) and Shola Lynch (documentary film maker) seemed to have a much more expansive view of “the public.”

TWEET: “Lepore talks about her tea party book. Says she felt a ‘chill’ from the historical profession. She was told it was a waste of time.”
I really liked The Whites of Their Eyes and gave it a lot of attention here at the blog.  I think it is unfortunate that so many historians blasted the book.  It was a great attempt to address the way history is being used (and abused) in the public.  Did Lepore waste her time writing about the Tea Party’s use and abuse of history?  Absolutely not.  The criticism she received by some members of the historical profession reveal an unwillingness to engage with cultural or political movements that are perceived to be anti-intellectual or not worthy of their time.  This is unfortunate.

My critique of The Whites of Their Eyes is different than the criticism offered by others in the historical profession.  Lepore’s book is a good start, but it did very little to help the Tea Party develop a more nuanced interpretation of American history.  I am not sure that many rank and file Tea Partiers read the book (but I could be wrong).  Few of them would listen to a Harvard history professor anyway.  So who did read The Whites of Their Eyes?  I am guessing that the readers of the book were people who already agree with Lepore about the Tea Party’s misuse of history.  It is likely that these readers might use the book for further ammunition in attacking the anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party. 

In other words, Lepore was using her Princeton University Press book to preach to the choir.  Did it really change hearts and minds?  If not, what might it take to do so?  These are the questions we should be asking. Rather than using our “superior” intellectual to savage those who may not see the power of a well-crafted historical argument, we should be thinking about the most effective ways of teaching those outside of our classrooms how to make such an argument.  In the process we might succeed in winning some of them over.

Wilentz: Today’s Tea Partiers are the "Anti-Jacksonians"

John C. Calhoun:  Gotta love the hair

Over at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz rejects the idea that the Tea Party somehow represents the democratic spirit first championed by Andrew Jackson.  He writes:

Where does the Tea Party fit in this conflicted American political tradition? Several commentators have linked modern right-wing populism, including, most recently, the Tea Party right, with the political traditions of Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830s. It is as if Cruz were the incarnation of Old Hickory and the assault on Obamacare akin to Jackson’s assault on the Second Bank of the United States.
“The tea party is Jacksonian America,” William Galston of the Brookings Institution recently observed in The Wall Street Journal, “aroused, angry and above all fearful, in full revolt against a new elite—backed by the new American demography—that threatens its interests and scorns its values.” Galston based his argument on an essay written by Walter Russell Mead inThe National Interest more than a decade ago, which drew a straight line from the Jacksonians—imbued with what Mead described as a folkish anti-intellectualism and an anti-elitist mistrust of big government—to the Silent Majority of disillusioned New Deal Democrats who turned to Richard Nixon and later to Ronald Reagan to save them from civil rights reformers and arrogant, secular Eastern intellectuals.
Instead, Wilentz sees a different historical trajectory.  This one connects the Tea Party to the anti-Jackson, states rights, nullification-driven politics of John C. Calhoun.  He writes:
A strong nullifying political current connects the Calhounites to the secessionists of the 1860s, then to the anti-Reconstruction Southern Democrats, then to the Dixiecrats of the late 1940s, then to the post-civil rights white Southerners who have made the “Solid South” solidly Republican—and now to the Tea Party insurgents.
Read the entire piece here.