What should we make of Trump’s 1776 Commission Report? Part 3

Read previous installments in this series here.

It is now difficult to find the 1776 Commission Report, but I managed to locate a copy in the Internet Archive.

The authors begin with the Articles of Confederation. The report teaches a “critical period” approach to the 1780s, arguing that “American statesmen and citizens alike concluded that the Articles were too weak to fulfill a government’s core functions.” What this view of the Constitution of the United States fails to mention is that the 1787 document was barely ratified in some states because so many “statesmen and citizens”–Patrick Henry, Luther Martin, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, James Monroe, Mercy Otis Warren, and George Clinton, to name a few–were relatively happy under the Articles of Confederation and worried that the Constitution took too much power away from the states. American historians talk about these debates and differences with their students when they teach the 1780s. They provide students with primary sources to evaluate both sides of an issue so that they can detect bias and understand ideas in larger contexts. They ask questions like: “Whose critical period?”

In fact, I think the entire 1776 Commission might be a valuable resource in the history classroom. I would use it alongside the 1619 Project or Howard Zinn’s People’s History to help students see how the past can be marshalled toward political ends.

Good history teachers understand the complexity of the past. For example, the 1776 Commission Report insists that there is a direct link between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It fails to mention that many ordinary men and women believed that the Constitution curbed their liberties and squashed some of the democratic practices of the states during the 1780s. Many believed that Madison’s “large republics” would weaken their political voice. The Electoral College filtered the voice of the people. As we saw in 2016, it is possible for a presidential candidate to win the votes of the people and still lose a presidential election. There were people in the eighteenth century who worried about this possibility.

So what were the links between the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? This question would make for a wonderful pedagogical exercise. Instead, this document offers only one side. In the end, it does the exact same thing the conservative authors of the document accuse those on the left of doing.

Finally, the 1776 Commission’s section on the Constitution says nothing about the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention. It says nothing about the three-fifths compromise. The paragraphs on the Bill of Rights focuses almost entirely on religious liberty and the right to bear arms.

Today Inside Higher Ed has a piece on the 1776 Commission and its connection to conservative Hillsdale College.

I also learned today that South Dakota pro-Trump governor Kristi Noem is asking for nearly $1 million to revamp the teaching of social studies in her state so that students learn “why the U.S. is the most special nation in the history of the world.” We will have to see if the 1776 Commission Report will play a role in Noem’s plans. Whatever happens, the history wars will continue.

Sam Wineburg: Why history can’t be about telling our children lies

Sam Wineburg is one of our favorite writers, authors and thinkers here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Listen to our conversations with him in episode 4 and episode 52 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Anyone who reads this blog knows my favorite Wineburg quote:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

This quote is even more relevant now than when Wineburg first published it nearly twenty years ago in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Last week Wineburg published a piece at the website of Phi Delta Kappa titled “The Silence of the Ellipses: Why History Can’t Be About Telling Our Children Lies.” He writes, “History textbooks often tell sanitized versions of the past when a more complete story will enable us to know who we are as a country–and become even better.” Here is a taste:

In September 2020, President Donald Trump stood in the great hall of the National Archives to denounce what he called a leftist assault on American history: “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms,” he said, and teach our children a kind of history that will make them “love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.”

Love built on a lie is false love. It achieves its mirage by making truth its victim. The goal of historical study is to cultivate neither love nor hate. Its goal must be to acquaint us with the dizzying spectrum of our humanity: lofty moments of nobility mixed in with ignominious descents into knavery. When history’s mirror intones a single phrase — that we’re the fairest of them all — it freezes us in childhood and stunts our growth. History that impels us to look at the past, unflinchingly and clear-eyed, does not diminish us or make us less patriotic. The opposite, in fact, is true: It makes us grow up. Understanding who we were allows us to understand who we are now. Only then can we commit to doing something about it.

That should be the goal of history education. Our children deserve nothing less.

Read the entire piece here.

When 20th-century students memorized “Dixie” and “long lists of forgettable governors”

Over at The Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman reports on the treatment of the Confederacy in Southern history textbooks:

For much of the 20th century, southern classrooms treated Black history — when they touched the subject at all — as a sideshow to a white-dominated narrative.

Teachers taught students to sing Dixie and memorize long lists of forgettable governors. Civil War battles got described in detail. Textbooks celebrated the violent overthrow of democratically-elected, multiracial governments. Lynching went unmentioned. The evils of slavery got cursory acknowledgments — and quick dismissals. 

“It should be noted that slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States,” a 1961 Alabama history textbook said, falsely

The same forces that took over public spaces to erect monuments to the Confederacy and its white supremacist tenets also kept a tight grip on the history taught to Southern pupils. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) spent decades shaping and reshaping textbooks to put a strong emphasis on Lost Cause views of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which glorified the white supremacist foundations of the Confederacy and was used to justify segregation and authoritarian Jim Crow governance. 

Read the rest here.

Ed Ayers on what COVID-19 has revealed about the state of digital history

According to the University of Richmond historian Ed Ayers, “the sudden transition to online schooling has shone a light on the state of digital history.” He adds: “What we’ve seen hasn’t been very encouraging. Can we do better?”

Here is a taste of his piece at Medium:

We are awash in sources, networks, processing power, devices, and tools that enable projects that were beyond imagining in the days of modems, AOL, and CD-ROMs. The commercialization of digital resources for genealogy has produced millions of census records and newspapers, many behind paywalls, that we have barely begun to explore. But that very convenience, ironically, has removed some of the tension between tradition and innovation that generates creativity. Students today can simply cut and paste ubiquitous images and texts into free presentation software; they can copy video and audio into their own slick productions. These methods use digital means to replicate traditional forms of history, bound by the same periods and people, framed by the same labels and questions.

The digital has been thoroughly domesticated and commercialized, its disruptive potential removed. It’s enough to drive some young people to older analog forms they find more intriguing and satisfying. As they seek out vinyl, write in journals, and explore chemical photography, they seem to understand, as scholar Stuart Dunn has explained, that “the digital is a prism through which we see and experience the human record past and present, not a window.”

Read the entire piece here.

The American Historical Association responds to Trump’s White House American History event

Here it is:

On September 17, the White House announced, “In commemoration of Constitution Day, President Trump will travel to the National Archives to participate in a discussion on the liberal indoctrination of America’s youth through the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, and other misleading, radical ideologies with a diverse group of professors, historians, and scholars. The President will deliver remarks on his Administration’s efforts to promote a more balanced, accurate, and patriotic curricula in America’s schools.”

This hastily assembled “White House Conference on American History” took place in the Rotunda of the National Archives, although the National Archives and Records Administration had no role in organizing the program. The organizers of the event neither informed nor consulted associations of professional historians. 

The American Historical Association addresses this “conference” and the president’s ill-informed observations about American history and history education reluctantly and with dismay. The event was clearly a campaign stunt, deploying the legitimating backdrop of the Rotunda, home of the nation’s founding documents, to draw distinctions between the two political parties on education policy, tie one party to civil disorder, and enable the president to explicitly attack his opponent. Like the president’s claim at Mount Rushmore two months ago that “our children are taught in school to hate their own country,” this political theater stokes culture wars that are meant to distract Americans from other, more pressing current issues. The AHA only reluctantly gives air to such distraction; we are not interested in inflating a brouhaha that is a mere sideshow to the many perils facing our nation at this moment. 

Past generations of historians participated in promoting a mythical view of the United States. Missing from this conventional narrative were essential themes that we now recognize as central to a complete understanding of our nation’s past. As scholars, we locate and evaluate evidence, which we use to craft stories about the past that are inclusive and able to withstand critical scrutiny. In the process, we engage in lively and at times heated conversations with each other about the meaning of evidence and ways to interpret it. As teachers, we encourage our students to question conventional wisdom as well as their own assumptions, but always with an emphasis on evidence. It is not appropriate for us to censor ourselves or our students when it comes to discussing past events and developments. To purge history of its unsavory elements and full complexity would be a disservice to history as a discipline and the nation, and in the process would render a rich, fascinating story dull and uninspiring.

The AHA deplores the use of history and history education at all grade levels and other contexts to divide the American people, rather than use our discipline to heal the divisions that are central to our heritage. Healing those divisions requires an understanding of history and an appreciation for the persistent struggles of Americans to hold the nation accountable for falling short of its lofty ideals. To learn from our history we must confront it, understand it in all its messy complexity, and take responsibility as much for our failures as our accomplishments.

Read the cosigning organizations here.

How textbooks taught white supremacy

Historian Donald Yacovone of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research is writing a book titled “Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History.” Here is a taste of Liz Mineo’s interview with Yacovone at The Harvard Gazette:

GAZETTE: How did you start examining history textbooks from the 19th and 20th centuries?

YACOVONE: I had begun a different book about the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the Civil Rights era. I had spent several months at the Houghton Library before it closed down. When I was nearly finished with one particularly large collection, I wanted to take a break and find out how abolitionism had been taught in school textbooks. I thought this was going to be a quick enterprise: I’d go over to Gutman Library at the Graduate School of Education, take a look at a few textbooks, and keep going. Imagine my shock when I was confronted by a collection of about 3,000 textbooks. I started reviewing them, and I came across one 1832 book, “History of the United States” by Noah Webster, the gentleman who’s responsible for our dictionary. I was astonished by what I was reading so I just kept reading some more.

In Webster’s book there was next to nothing about the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it was a central American institution. There were no African Americans ever mentioned. When Webster wrote about Africans, it was extremely derogatory, which was shocking because those comments were in a textbook. What I realized from his book, and from the subsequent ones, was how they defined “American” as white and only as white. Anything that was less than an Anglo Saxon was not a true American. The further along I got in this process, the more intensely this sentiment came out, I realized that I was looking at, there’s no other word for it, white supremacy. I came across one textbook that declared on its first page, “This is the White Man’s History.” At that point, you had to be a dunce not to see what these books were teaching.

Read the rest of the interview here.

What do the Virginia history standards say about African Americans?

Jefefrson slave ad

Mel Leonor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on the Virginia African American History Education Commission recent report on the Virginia state history standards. It found some serious problems. For example, the standards suggest that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.

Here is a taste of Leonor’s piece, complete with a quote from American historian Ed Ayers:

The commission’s proposed technical changes to the state’s standards suggest that language related to the Civil War is “passive, evasive and circular.”

To illustrate, one section of the current standard reads: “Sectional tensions, originating with the formation of the nation, ultimately resulted in war between the Northern and Southern States.”

The commission’s draft recommendations instead propose: “Sectional tensions over slavery … ”

The draft proposal for the U.S. history curriculum suggests a broader look at lynching, the abolitionist movement, voting laws that disenfranchised African Americans, the Great Migration and African American pop culture.

“To think about the place of African Americans in American life is to make all Americans history more comprehensible, more honest and more accurate,” said Edward Ayers, a historian and former president of the University of Richmond, who led the commission’s work on technical changes. “It is to make that history more sobering, but also more inspiring.”

It’s unclear how state education officials will respond to the proposed technical changes.

Read the entire piece here.

GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

GOP Convention: Night 2

NBC News

NBC News graphic

I didn’t get to listen very carefully to many of the speeches on night 2 of the GOP convention. I was preparing for my return to the classroom today.  At least my nightmares were different last night. Instead of dreaming about what Trump is doing to the nation and the church, I dreamed of microphones, ZOOM, Canvas, student rotation, the Cloud, and sweating through my mask as I tried to lecture to 170 students in a 500-person recital hall with people staring down at me from the third floor balconies. (Yes, this will happen today).

So this post will just focus on the things that caught my attention enough to pull me away from creating Canvas modules.

Last night Cissie Graham, the daughter of court evangelical Franklin Graham and the granddaughter of Billy Graham, spoke at the Republican National Convention. Watch:

A few quick thoughts:

  1. I will take Cissie Graham and the rest of the court evangelicals more seriously when they start talking about religious liberty for all Americans.
  2.  As a fellow evangelical, I would hardly call prohibitions against indoor worship during a pandemic “religious persecution.”

Not all of Billy Graham’s grandchildren are in the Trump camp. Yesterday Jerushah Duford, who describes herself as “the proud granddaughter” of Billy Graham, published an op-ed in USA Today claiming that evangelical support for Donald Trump “spits” on the “legacy” of her grandfather. Read it here.

During the convention Trump pardoned Jon Ponder, an African-American man convicted of robbing a Nevada bank. Ponder now runs Hope for Prisoners, a Christian ministry the helps prisoners re-enter society after their period of incarceration. Ponder’s story brings positive attention to criminal justice reform. It is a story of God changing a man’s heart. I am glad Trump pardoned him.

What bothered me about the segment featuring Ponder was the way the Christian faith was manipulated for political purposes. At times during this segment I wondered if Ponder was there to talk about criminal justice reform or help Trump make his appeal to the evangelicals. Ponder’s faith plays an essential part in his story. This should be celebrated. But faith should never be politicized.

Watch the segment and let me know if any of this belongs at a political convention:

Later in the evening, Abby Johnson spoke about Planned Parenthood and abortion:

I was nodding my head as Johnson spoke until she used the words “Trump” and “two Supreme Court justices” in the same sentence. We can reduce abortions in America without getting into bed with this president, but it will require breaking from the 40-year-old Christian Right playbook.

Then came Georgetown Law School graduate Tiffany Trump. I wasn’t really listening to Tiffany until she said “God has blessed us with an unstoppable spirit, His spirit, the American spirit.” The worst part about this is that most evangelicals didn’t blink an eye when Trump’s daughter conflated the Holy Spirit and the American Dream.

I perked-up again when Tiffany started lamenting–yes lamenting–the fact that the promotion of “division and controversy breeds profit.”

There was a small kernel of truth in some of Tiffany Trump’s words last night. She called for open discourse and the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere. I am on board with this, but I think the real issue at stake here is where one draws the boundary line between open discourse and anti-intellectualism. I am thinking here about both the Left and the Right. The far Right is prone to making public arguments that are not based on truth, science, or evidence. The far Left does better with truth, science, and evidence, but its defenders draw the boundaries of acceptable discourse so narrowly that they often sound like intolerant fundamentalists. And both sides need to stop the ad hominem attacks.

I am not going to say much about the speeches by Eric Trump, Mike Pompeo, or Melania Trump. Pompeo, of course, spoke from Jerusalem to keep the evangelical base happy. Melania’s speech is getting good reviews. I guess it was OK, but I tuned-out when she described her husband as an honest man.

As noted above, there was a lot of faith talk last night. The Democrats were portrayed as godless threats to true religion. This suggests that the millions of American Christians, and especially African-American Christians, who vote Democrat are not real Christians.

This tweet sums-up how I felt last night:

Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part one)

Why Study HistoryThis post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Should historians cast judgment on the past? Is this part of their vocation?

Some believe that the past must be critiqued from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, critical theory, social justice, the Bible, identity politics, or some other moral system. This approach to history allows us to offer ethical judgments on characters from the past, the ideas they defended, and the movements they were involved with.

Indeed, the past provides us with moral lessons, making the historian–sometimes overtly, but most times subtly (but no less powerfully)–a critic by nature. Historian Philip Gleason has argued that historians have a threefold task: to explain what happened, to ask why it happened, and to ask if what happened was “good.” Those who embrace this vision of history find it imperative to add this moral dimension to their study of the past.

Let’s examine Gleason’s approach to history from the perspective of the American Revolution. We have plenty of evidence from the eighteenth century to conclude that the American Revolution happened. Over the course of about a decade (roughly between 1765-1776), the British-American colonies grew increasingly dissatisfied in their relationship with England, eventually leading to a colonial rebellion, a declaration of independence, and a war. When it was all over, the United States of America, a nation that existed independent of England, had been born. This information would fall comfortably under Gleason’s first point, namely, that the historian is responsible for explaining what happened.

But it is nearly impossible for a historian to tell us what happened without dabbling in some degree of interpretation.  The very arrangement of the so-called facts into a compelling story is itself an act of interpretation. Historians of the American Revolution will decide which facts to include in their narrative or how much emphasis should be placed on, for example, the resistance to the Stamp Act versus the resistance to the Townshend duties.  In the process, these historians are making a case for why the American Revolution happened when it did. They are beginning to apply the Five C’s of historical thinking (context, complexity, change over time, contingency,  causation) to their work.

Questions will arise. Was the American Revolution the product of economic resistance to British taxation by ordinary people in major port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston? Or did the American Revolution happen because educated men–the so-called founding fathers–offered radical political solutions to what they believed to be British tyranny. Or was it both? Something else?

The recitation of facts and the interpretation of those facts fall squarely within the realm  of the historian’s work. But Gleason wants to push the vocation of the historian even further. He wants us to ask whether or not the American Revolution was “good.” One way of getting at this question is to ask whether the colonial rebellion that formed the United States was justified. Does the founders’ willingness to keep slavery legal in their new nation make the Revolution immoral? What about the violence and bloodshed? Is war ever right? At this point, historians move from being chroniclers or interpreters of past events to moral arbiters. These questions can no longer be answered directly through archival research or the close examination of primary sources. Such questions can only be answered by an appeal to some kind of moral system. (Historian David Hackett Fischer uses the phrase “the fallacy of metaphysical questions” to describe an “attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means.”).

Historians have long been divided over how these kinds of moral questions relate to their work. It is important to remember that until the professionalization of the study of history in the late nineteenth century, historians had no qualms about imposing moral judgments on the past. History was written to tell the story of winners and losers in an epic struggle for power, to critique or praise the nation, or to reveal the hand of God at work in the world.

For example, the Roman historian Tacitus claimed that the “highest function” of studying the past was to “let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.” His goal was not merely to chronicle what happened in the past but to glorify the “worthy” and condemn those who were “evil.” The professionalization of history in the late nineteenth century made history into a science. Historians were not required to be detached observers, chroniclers, and interpreters of the past.

With the rise of the research university and the creation of academic disciplines, historians resisted the temptation to moralize about the events and people of the past. Based on a new division of scholarly labors, historians argued that it was their responsibility simply to tell and explain “what happened.” They would leave the moral pontificating to their colleagues in religion, theology, and ethics. Or as Fischer argues, the exercising of moral opinions in historical writing is “inconsistent with a serious and disciplined inquiry into what actually happened. It would make history a hand-maiden of moral philosophy.

As the twentieth century progressed, some of the world’s most prominent historians came out strongly in opposition to the idea that historians should make moral judgments. In 1954 Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the esteemed founder of the Annales School, referred to “that…satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgments.” E.H. Carr (1892-1982), the noted historian of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, proclaimed that historians who dabble in the “unhistorical” practice of making judgments “renounce” their vocation. Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Christian historiographer, believed that to make moral judgments in history is to engage in “the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflections.” Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998), one of the greatest American historians of the 20th century, described moral judgments in history as a “futile” exercise. He argued that the practice of praising America’s commitment to freedom or castigating its toleration of slavery ultimately offended his readers:

The assumption behind this expectation is that the reader has no mind of his own, no moral standards, no capacity to exercise judgment;…he depends upon the historian to do this for him. Are those mature enough to read serious histories really so obtuse that they cannot draw conclusions from facts that are submitted to them? Is there really a danger that students will yearn for slavery or rejoice in the inquisition or admire Philip II or Adolf Hitler if the historian does not bustle in and set them right?

Several recent historians have agreed with Block, Carr, Butterfield, and Commager. Richard J. Evans has suggested that historians who use terms such as “wicked” or “evil” in their narratives of the past “will only succeed in looking ridiculous.” He says that historians will always be forced to address morally charged issues from the past, but they should engage such issues in their writing and teaching with historical arguments as opposed to “moral or philosophical ones.” Evans uses the case of American slavery as an example. If historians want to show that  American slavery was a morally corrupt institution, they should not appeal to the Bible, religious teachings, the conscience, or some other type of moral system. Instead, they should demonstrate, using solid evidence from the past, that slaves suffered, starved, grew sick, and even died as a result of their oppression. He concludes that “overloading the historian’s text with expressions of moral outrage will add little to the argument.” Most readers and students of history already know that American slavery was a morally reprehensible institution, so why use a book or lesson about slavery to hammer home this point? Instead, historians are required to explain “the attitude the slaves and slave owners had toward it and why, and what were the larger historical forces behind its rise and fall.”

Another modern historian, Brad Gregory, has argued that the personal moral convictions of historians are “simply and literally irrelevant to understanding the people whom one studies.” When historians impose their own beliefs on people or events in the past, they limit their ability to fully understand them. Gregory calls on historians to “bracket” their convictions when interpreting the past. Such bracketing is neither “naive chimera” nor “impossible.” Gregory realizes that casting aside deeply held convictions will be difficult, and he even takes a shot at fellow historians by suggesting that many of them are “constitutionally incapable” of harnessing their moral opinions, but interpreters of the past should try it nonetheless. “Imperfect self-restraint is better then none.”

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2.

Sean Wilentz on Tom Cotton and slavery

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The Princeton University American historian Sean Wilentz has been a harsh critic of The New York Times 1619 Project. But that doesn’t mean he is going to give Arkansas senator Tom Cotton a pass for his recent comments about slavery and the founding fathers.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at The New York Review of Books:

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has introduced a bill in Congress that would punish school districts that use The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their curriculum by withholding federal funding. In so doing, he announced in a newspaper interview that America’s schoolchildren need to learn that the nation’s Founders said slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” His statement is as preposterous as it is false: presuming to clarify American history, Cotton has grievously distorted it.

(As this article went to press, Cotton supported his argument by citing me along with several other liberal historians who have criticized the 1619 Project; with my colleagues, I have fundamental publicized objections to the project, but these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.)

None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a “necessary evil.” Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of New York, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would “never concur in upholding domestic slavery,” that “nefarious institution” based on “the most cruel bondages”—“the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.

Read the rest here.

Teaching the complexity of the past

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Providence (RI) Journal is running a short op-ed from historian Erik Chaput on the teaching of history in these difficult times in the history of our country. It’s worth a read.

A taste:

It is precisely because we are living in such a historical moment that students need to move beyond political soundbites to understand the past in all its vast complexities. It is the job of educators to help young students see all sides, to help them to understand the ironies of history and that historical research is often the best tool when difficult conversations arise. As historian Sean Wilentz rightly reminds us, 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.”

We cannot use a rosy and skewed picture of the past to seek shelter from present tumults. Nor can we ignore the remarkable and heroic aspects of our history that should inspire today. It is the job of the teacher to create a space for open discussion and examination of evidence relating to all parts of the story. A good place to start this fall in the classroom would be the story of the legacy of slavery and freedom during the Revolutionary era. Teachers can bring the state’s history into the classroom by using the digitized back files of Rhode Island History, the journal produced by the Rhode Island Historical Society. In the end, “good history,” remarked the late historian John Hope Franklin, is the “foundation for a better present and future.”

Read the entire piece here.

“What historians lose when the census questionnaire is short”

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As Rachel Basinger notes at Perspectives Daily, historians use the federal census to make sense of the past. I don’t use the census in my own research, but I have asked students to write neighborhood histories of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania based on early 20th census records. The census is a great way of exposing students to primary source research.

This year’s census, which is being advertised as “ten questions in ten minutes,” is, according to Basinger, “losing the stories of countless Americans, particularly those who have been historically marginalized and who do not leave many other records of their lives.”

Here is more from Basinger’s piece:

Since the census has gone digital, it is easier and quicker for many people with internet access to answer more questions. The 2020 census was a lost opportunity to tell the stories of how COVID-19 impacted specific Americans, but the 2030 census doesn’t have to be. The census is an important tool for historical research, and it’s time to give historians plenty of information to tell meaningful stories about every American.

Read the entire piece here.

Ed Ayers: The “past can’t be reduced to static variables and predictable outcomes”

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Here is the University of Richmond historian‘s piece at Medium:

History is best explained by supple narratives of sequence, change, and consequence. We call those narratives stories. All humans understand stories and explain themselves and their worlds in stories. Even children can handle ambiguity and change, mistake and result, growth, and triumph. We intuitively turn to stories in novels, films, and video games to explain history. We should do the same in our classrooms.

The story of the American Civil War, for example, can be told even to young students with three main characters and plot lines. First, the states of the Confederacy wanted to establish their own nation where the future of slavery could never be infringed upon or threatened. The second plot line is that of the United States, which went to war to defend its existence and eventually discovered that it could not do so without destroying slavery.

The third plot line is that of enslaved people, who did everything they could to escape and then destroy slavery from the first moments of the war until after formal battles had ended. Two-hundred thousand African American men played critical roles in preserving the United States, as well as in winning black freedom. Other enslaved people, of all backgrounds, risked their lives to free themselves.

Students presented with variables rather than solutions quickly see that the principles describing the physical world do not apply to the multivariate and chaotic world of history. While that might be alarming at first, it will engage and teach them in more profound ways. Trying, and even failing, to solve a problem is more satisfying than finding the correct answer in the back of the book — especially if that answer only appears to be correct.

Read the entire piece here.

How the Pietist Schoolman is preparing for his history classes this fall

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I will be teaching my U.S. survey in this room 

Like Chris Gehrz, I am starting to stress about the Fall semester.

I am teaching the U.S. Survey course to 180 students in a 790 seat recital hall. (We will have ten smaller weekly seminars in other socially distanced classrooms). I am also teaching my Pennsylvania History course to 25 students. I have not started thinking about anything yet, although I do have a meeting to “attend” next week to learn more about the university guidelines.

So how is the Pietist Schoolman doing it? He offers five basic principles that are guiding his preparation:

  1. “Start with Face-to-Face, then think about how to make it available online.
  2. “Lean into my skill as a lecturer”
  3. “Move most ‘active’ learning online”
  4. “Emphasize research”
  5. “Overcommunicate”

See how Chris unpacks these points here.