Trump’s new campaign ad in historical context

Have you seen Trump’s new campaign ad?

As Bruce Springsteen once said, “Fear’s a dangerous thing. It can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Fear has been a staple of American politics since the founding of the republic. In 1800, the Connecticut Courant, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery and robbery.

In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant American Party, commonly known as the “Know-Nothing Party,” was infamous for its American-flag banner emblazoned with the words “Native Americans: Beware of False Influence.”

nativist flag

In modern America, campaign ads keep us in a constant state of fear–and not always from right-wing sources either. I still get a shiver up my spine when I watch “Daisy Girl,” the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign advertisement. Watch:

And here is Richard Nixon in 1968, another “law and order” president:

Political fear is so dangerous because it usually stems from legitimate concerns shared by a significant portion of the voting population. For example, there are groups who want to defund the police. Television and social media make it easier for politicians to define our fears for us. They take these legitimate concerns, as political theorist Corey Robin puts it, and transforms them “into imminent threats.”

Jason Bivins, another scholar of fear, has noted that “moral panics” tend to “rely on presumptions more than facts; they dramatize and sensationalize so as to keep audiences in a state of continual alertness.” For example, Joe Biden does not want to defund the police. Nor do most Democrats. Yet Trump has managed to convince his followers that Biden and the Democratic Party are imminent threats to the country because of their supposed views on this issue.

Many of the people who will be scared by this new Trump ad are evangelical Christians. I wrote about their fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Thinking historically about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Rushmore 3

A lot of conservatives liked Trump’s speech on Friday night. I am told that The Wall Street Journal gave it a positive review.

I commented on the speech here, but I thought I would say a few more things about Trump’s use of history. My comments are in bold.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, thank you very much.  And Governor Noem, Secretary Bernhardt — very much appreciate it — members of Congress, distinguished guests, and a very special hello to South Dakota.  (Applause.)

As we begin this Fourth of July weekend, the First Lady and I wish each and every one of you a very, very Happy Independence Day.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Let us show our appreciation to the South Dakota Army and Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force for inspiring us with that magnificent display of American air power — (applause) –and of course, our gratitude, as always, to the legendary and very talented Blue Angels.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Let us also send our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and the doctors, nurses, and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.  They’re working hard.  (Applause.)  I want to thank them very, very much.

COMMENT: Over the weekend Trump claimed that 99% of the nation’s COVID-19 cases were “totally harmless.” This claim was even debunked on Fox News. What does this say about his real view of the “scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.”

We’re grateful as well to your state’s Congressional delegation: Senators John Thune — John, thank you very much — (applause) — Senator Mike Rounds — (applause) — thank you, Mike — and Dusty Johnson, Congressman.  Hi, Dusty.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  And all others with us tonight from Congress, thank you very much for coming.  We appreciate it.

There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived.

COMMENT: Mount Rushmore is a majestic place. I would like to see it one day. It was also built on Lakota land. Earlier in my career I had a student who did a summer internship at Mount Rushmore. As someone who wanted to tell the truth about the nation’s past, she would often mention the Lakota connection during her tours. Needless to say, she took a lot of criticism from visitors who did not want to be confronted with such history. But this must be part of any conversation about this monument. It is part of what it means to live in a democratic society.

Today, we pay tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.  (Applause.)  I am here as your President to proclaim before the country and before the world: This monument will never be desecrated — (applause) — these heroes will never be defaced, their legacy will never, ever be destroyed, their achievements will never be forgotten, and Mount Rushmore will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and to our freedom.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Anyone who teaches American history will always talk about the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They are not under threat. They will be taught based on what they did with their lives–what they said, how they behaved, and how they led. Trump will be judged the same way.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: This transcript comes from the White House. This is why the chants are included.

THE PRESIDENT:  We gather tonight to herald the most important day in the history of nations: July 4th, 1776.  At those words, every American heart should swell with pride.  Every American family should cheer with delight.  And every American patriot should be filled with joy, because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world, and it will soon be greater than ever before.  (Applause.)

Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.  No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America.  And no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump is right. July 4, 1776 is important and should be commemorated. Some of the ideals that drove the Revolution were the same ideals that led to the abolition of slavery.  On the other hand, these ideals were not consistently applied to all people. Morally, July 4, 1776 has a mixed legacy. Any history teacher who does not embrace this kind of complexity is not doing her or his job. Watch:

It was all made possible by the courage of 56 patriots who gathered in Philadelphia 244 years ago and signed the Declaration of Independence.  (Applause.) They enshrined a divine truth that changed the world forever when they said: “…all men are created equal.”

COMMENT: Again, what does “all men are created equal” mean in 1776 and in the larger context of the American story? This is a wonderful way of exploring American history with students. This is a conversation we are having in our history classrooms and one that needs to be taking place more regularly in American life.

These immortal words set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom.  Our Founders boldly declared that we are all endowed with the same divine rights — given [to] us by our Creator in Heaven.  And that which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away — ever.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Americans have always been good Whigs. We have always put faith in the kind of progress Trump describes here. (I am reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as one’s “ultimate concern”). But this “march of freedom” has not been “unstoppable” for all Americans.

And let’s talk about rights and God. Jefferson and many of the founders believed that our rights come from God. But they rarely connected this general statement with specific rights. This leads to questions that are more theological than historical. For example, does the right to bear arms come from God? Was Jefferson right when he said that rights–all rights–are “endowed by our Creator?” Again, let’s have this conversation–perhaps in our churches.

Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.

COMMENT: I have no idea what this means.

And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure.

COMMENT: Not really. Many of Trump’s political opponents also root their arguments in America’s founding ideals. American socialists often grounded their arguments in such ideals.

Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.

COMMENT: How widespread is this “merciless campaign?” Has Trump magnified it because he needs an issue to run-on in November? It sure seems like it. Who is “wiping out our history?” Has Trump ever visited a history classroom? The idea that our children are indoctrinated should be offensive to classroom teachers who train students to think critically about their textbooks and the world.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.  Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing.  They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive.  But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The fact that Trump does not talk about the tearing-down and defacing of Confederate monuments is revealing. He never mentions them during this speech. It leaves us to wonder if Trump believes that it is time for these monuments to go. But today, without a script in front of him, we saw the real Trump. He tweeted: “Has [NASCAR driver] Bubba Wallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest rating EVER!” This seems like a defense of the Confederate flag. This tweet is much more fitting with the Trump administration’s pronouncements on race than anything he said in this speech.

According to his evangelical Christian press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump is neutral on the Confederate flag.  Watch:

And as long as we are talking about Bubba Wallace, perhaps Trump should try to understand why an African American NASCAR driver, or any African American for that matter, might be alarmed when they see a rope tied into a noose. This tweet not only illustrates Trump’s utter failure to empathize with others, but it also shows that he knows nothing about the history of the nation he was elected to lead.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

COMMENT: And the crowd goes wild!

THE PRESIDENT:   One of their political weapons is “Cancel Culture” — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.  This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.  (Applause.)  This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty, must be stopped, and it will be stopped very quickly.  We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.  (Applause.)

In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.  It’s not going to happen to us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Is cancel culture a problem? Perhaps. But here Trump is just playing to the base for the purpose of stoking their fears.

Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.  In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.

COMMENT: Again, many of the protesters are drawing from American ideals. Some are not, but many are.

To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Not on my watch!  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  True.  That’s very true, actually.  (Laughter.)  That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Four more years!  Four more years!  Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT:  I am pleased to report that yesterday, federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C. — (applause) — and, in addition, hundreds more have been arrested.  (Applause.)

Under the executive order I signed last week — pertaining to the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act and other laws — people who damage or deface federal statues or monuments will get a minimum of 10 years in prison.  (Applause.)  And obviously, that includes our beautiful Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: What is often missing in this debate over the tearing-down of monuments is the fact that it is illegal. It is destruction of property. This was wrong during the American Revolution and it is wrong today. I understand the anger and the violence–it is an American tradition. But conversations about which monuments should stay and which ones should go need to take place with the help of historians and public officials.

Our people have a great memory.  They will never forget the destruction of statues and monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionists, and many others.

COMMENT: I hope they won’t forget this. It is the responsibility of historians to make sure that this does not happen. It is also our responsibility to contextualize this moment in our history.

The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats, in every case, is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.

Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains.  The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.

COMMENT: “Extreme indoctrination?” “Hate their own country?” Again, he needs to get a better sense of what is happening in public school history classrooms around the country. I doubt he will get such a perspective from his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a woman who has never attended a public school and endorses policies that undermine them.

This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore.  They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.  Today, we will set history and history’s record straight.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Trump could have made this point with an appeal to complexity. But he doesn’t understand complexity. Historical complexity does not win him votes.

Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known.  Tonight, I will tell you and, most importantly, the youth of our nation, the true stories of these great, great men.

COMMENT: Again, complexity.

From head to toe, George Washington represented the strength, grace, and dignity of the American people.  From a small volunteer force of citizen farmers, he created the Continental Army out of nothing and rallied them to stand against the most powerful military on Earth.

COMMENT: Generally true, although I’m not sure the Continental Army wins without France.

Through eight long years, through the brutal winter at Valley Forge, through setback after setback on the field of battle, he led those patriots to ultimate triumph.  When the Army had dwindled to a few thousand men at Christmas of 1776, when defeat seemed absolutely certain, he took what remained of his forces on a daring nighttime crossing of the Delaware River.

They marched through nine miles of frigid darkness, many without boots on their feet, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  In the morning, they seized victory at Trenton.  After forcing the surrender of the most powerful empire on the planet at Yorktown, General Washington did not claim power, but simply returned to Mount Vernon as a private citizen.

COMMENT: Perhaps Trump could learn from Washington’s humility.

When called upon again, he presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected our first President.  (Applause.)  When he stepped down after two terms, his former adversary King George called him “the greatest man of the age.”  He remains first in our hearts to this day.  For as long as Americans love this land, we will honor and cherish the father of our country, George Washington.  (Applause.)  He will never be removed, abolished, and most of all, he will never be forgotten.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: The good folks at Mount Vernon interpret Washington in all his complexity.

Thomas Jefferson — the great Thomas Jefferson — was 33 years old when he traveled north to Pennsylvania and brilliantly authored one of the greatest treasures of human history, the Declaration of Independence.  He also drafted Virginia’s constitution, and conceived and wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a model for our cherished First Amendment.

COMMENT: True.

After serving as the first Secretary of State, and then Vice President, he was elected to the Presidency.  He ordered American warriors to crush the Barbary pirates, he doubled the size of our nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and he sent the famous explorers Lewis and Clark into the west on a daring expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

He was an architect, an inventor, a diplomat, a scholar, the founder of one of the world’s great universities, and an ardent defender of liberty.  Americans will forever admire the author of American freedom, Thomas Jefferson.  (Applause.)  And he, too, will never, ever be abandoned by us.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: All true about Jefferson. He was also a slaveholder and probably raped his slave Sally Hemings.

Abraham Lincoln, the savior of our union, was a self-taught country lawyer who grew up in a log cabin on the American frontier.

The first Republican President, he rose to high office from obscurity, based on a force and clarity of his anti-slavery convictions.  Very, very strong convictions.

He signed the law that built the Transcontinental Railroad; he signed the Homestead Act, given to some incredible scholars — as simply defined, ordinary citizens free land to settle anywhere in the American West; and he led the country through the darkest hours of American history, giving every ounce of strength that he had to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from this Earth.  (Applause.)

He served as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces during our bloodiest war, the struggle that saved our union and extinguished the evil of slavery.  Over 600,000 died in that war; more than 20,000 were killed or wounded in a single day at Antietam.  At Gettysburg, 157 years ago, the Union bravely withstood an assault of nearly 15,000 men and threw back Pickett’s charge.

Lincoln won the Civil War; he issued the Emancipation Proclamation; he led the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery for all time — (applause) — and ultimately, his determination to preserve our nation and our union cost him his life.  For as long as we live, Americans will uphold and revere the immortal memory of President Abraham Lincoln.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Again, mostly accurate. Of course Lincoln was also a white supremacist, a war-mongerer, and a believer in government solutions to American problems.

Theodore Roosevelt exemplified the unbridled confidence of our national culture and identity.  He saw the towering grandeur of America’s mission in the world and he pursued it with overwhelming energy and zeal.

As a Lieutenant Colonel during the Spanish-American War, he led the famous Rough Riders to defeat the enemy at San Juan Hill.  He cleaned up corruption as Police Commissioner of New York City, then served as the Governor of New York, Vice President, and at 42 years old, became the youngest-ever President of the United States.  (Applause.)

He sent our great new naval fleet around the globe to announce America’s arrival as a world power.  He gave us many of our national parks, including the Grand Canyon; he oversaw the construction of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal; and he is the only person ever awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He was — (applause) — American freedom personified in full.  The American people will never relinquish the bold, beautiful, and untamed spirit of Theodore Roosevelt.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: True. Roosevelt was also an imperialist, nativist, and white supremacist.

No movement that seeks to dismantle these treasured American legacies can possibly have a love of America at its heart.  Can’t have it.  No person who remains quiet at the destruction of this resplendent heritage can possibly lead us to a better future.

COMMENT: Very few people want to “dismantle” the legacy of these men. But we can point out their flaws and still “love America.” There is a difference between “history” and “heritage.”

The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice.  But in truth, it would demolish both justice and society.  It would transform justice into an instrument of division and vengeance, and it would turn our free and inclusive society into a place of repression, domination, and exclusion.

They want to silence us, but we will not be silenced.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: This is rich coming from such a divisive president. Also, who is “us” here.

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you!

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.

We will state the truth in full, without apology:  We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.

COMMENT: Is America exceptional? Yes. It is exceptional for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that right now it is the only country (with perhaps the exception of Brazil) that still does not have COVID-19 under control. Is it the most “just” nation “ever to exist on earth?” Maybe. But the bar is pretty low. Again, let’s have this conversation outside of the culture war framework.

We are proud of the fact — (applause) — that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and we understand — (applause) — that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world.

COMMENT: Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles? This is a contested idea. I wrote a book about it. Has the United States advanced peace and justice throughout the world? Yes and no. But these kinds of answers are not useful in a political rally.

We know that the American family is the bedrock of American life.  (Applause.)

COMMENT:  I agree. But it is hard to hear this from the guy who separated families at the border and put kids in cages.

We recognize the solemn right and moral duty of every nation to secure its borders.  (Applause.)  And we are building the wall.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Are we building the wall?

We remember that governments exist to protect the safety and happiness of their own people.  A nation must care for its own citizens first.  We must take care of America first.  It’s time.  (Applause.)

We believe in equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal treatment for citizens of every race, background, religion, and creed.  Every child, of every color — born and unborn — is made in the holy image of God.  (Applause.)

COMMENTS: This is true. But it is also code for “All Lives Matter.”All Lives Matter Cartoon 2

We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture.

We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.

We support the courageous men and women of law enforcement.  (Applause.)  We will never abolish our police or our great Second Amendment, which gives us the right to keep and bear arms.  (Applause.)

We believe that our children should be taught to love their country, honor our history, and respect our great American flag.  (Applause.)

We stand tall, we stand proud, and we only kneel to Almighty God.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Actually, this last couple of statements contradict the earlier remarks about free speech, tolerance, and rights.

This is who we are.  This is what we believe.  And these are the values that will guide us as we strive to build an even better and greater future.

COMMENT: Again, who is “we”?

Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny.  In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other.  Their goal is not a better America, their goal is the end of America.

COMMENT: We have seen these references to American destiny before. When acted upon, the pursuit of American destiny has never gone well for people of color or the poor.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  In its place, they want power for themselves.  But just as patriots did in centuries past, the American people will stand in their way — and we will win, and win quickly and with great dignity.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: We will see if Trump’s people stand in the way of anything in November. I wonder what “winning” looks like here.

We will never let them rip America’s heroes from our monuments, or from our hearts.  By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.”  (Applause.)

They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years.  Our opponents would tear apart the very documents that Martin Luther King used to express his dream, and the ideas that were the foundation of the righteous movement for Civil Rights.  They would tear down the beliefs, culture, and identity that have made America the most vibrant and tolerant society in the history of the Earth.

COMMENT: Trump is right. Many of the founding principles eventually contributed  to the end of slavery and did inform the Civil Rights movement, but I am not sure what Trump means by “tear apart documents.”

My fellow Americans, it is time to speak up loudly and strongly and powerfully and defend the integrity of our country.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  It is time for our politicians to summon the bravery and determination of our American ancestors.  It is time.  (Applause.)  It is time to plant our flag and protect the greatest of this nation, for citizens of every race, in every city, and every part of this glorious land.  For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes.  (Applause.)

Here tonight, before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago: that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people.  It will not happen.  (Applause).

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  We will proclaim the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and we will never surrender the spirit and the courage and the cause of July 4th, 1776.

Upon this ground, we will stand firm and unwavering.  In the face of lies meant to divide us, demoralize us, and diminish us, we will show that the story of America unites us, inspires us, includes us all, and makes everyone free.

We must demand that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed “a promissory note” to every future generation.  Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals.  Those ideals are so important to us — the founding ideals.  He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: Totally agree. Now let’s see Trump lead us in this direction. Until then, this is empty rhetoric. At this stage of his presidency these words have no meaning. Again, this speech must be considered in the context of the entire Trump administration. It is going to take more than a speech to win back public trust.

Above all, our children, from every community, must be taught that to be American is to inherit the spirit of the most adventurous and confident people ever to walk the face of the Earth.

Americans are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars.

COMMENT: Let’s remember (again) that “Manifest Destiny” was an attempt to drive native Americans from their land in the name of God and progress.

We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.  We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody.  (Applause.)  We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen — (applause) — Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton — General George Patton — the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali.  (Applause.)  And only America could have produced them all.  (Applause.)  No other place.

We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan.  We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream — it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore.  (Applause.)

Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the Internet.  We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the Moon — and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.

We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra — (applause) — the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150 — (applause) — and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.

COMMENT: I don’t see how people can praise such a speech. It is full of contradictions. First off, many of the people Trump mentions here would no doubt be outspoken critics of the Trump presidency. (Although we will never know for sure, of course). Second, these men and women all applied American ideals in different ways. After spending the entire speech articulating a very narrow view of the Revolution’s legacy, Trump makes an empty appeal to diversity here.

Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story.  You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it.  So today, under the authority vested in me as President of the United States — (applause) — I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past.  I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.  (Applause.)

COMMENT: My thoughts on this.

From this night and from this magnificent place, let us go forward united in our purpose and re-dedicated in our resolve.  We will raise the next generation of American patriots.  We will write the next thrilling chapter of the American adventure.  And we will teach our children to know that they live in a land of legends, that nothing can stop them, and that no one can hold them down.  (Applause.)  They will know that in America, you can do anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.  (Applause.)

Uplifted by the titans of Mount Rushmore, we will find unity that no one expected; we will make strides that no one thought possible.  This country will be everything that our citizens have hoped for, for so many years, and that our enemies fear — because we will never forget that American freedom exists for American greatness.  And that’s what we have:  American greatness.  (Applause.)

Centuries from now, our legacy will be the cities we built, the champions we forged, the good we did, and the monuments we created to inspire us all.

My fellow citizens: America’s destiny is in our sights.  America’s heroes are embedded in our hearts.  America’s future is in our hands.  And ladies and gentlemen: the best is yet to come.  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  USA!  USA!  USA!

THE PRESIDENT:  This has been a great honor for the First Lady and myself to be with you.  I love your state.  I love this country.  I’d like to wish everybody a very happy Fourth of July.  To all, God bless you, God bless your families, God bless our great military, and God bless America.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

 

On complexity and revisionism in the doing of history

Why Study HistoryFrom Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

On complexity:

Historians realize that the past is complex. Human behavior does not easily conform to our present-day social, cultural, political, religious, or economic categories. Take Thomas Jefferson for example. Jefferson is the most complex personality of all of the so-called founding fathers. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence–the document that declared that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom–one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was a champion of education and founder of one of our greatest public universities–the University of Virginia. As a politician, he defended the rights of the common man, and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties. As president, he doubled the size of the United States and made every effort to keep us out of war with Great Britain.

At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Though he made several efforts to try to bring this institution to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to uphold the kind of Virginia planter lifestyle–complete with all it consumer goods and luxury items–that he could not live without. He was in constant debt. And he may have been the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.

Another example of the complexity of the past is the ongoing debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I recently published a book titled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In the course of my promotion for the book–at speaking engagements and on radio shows across the country–I was often asked how I answered this question. I found that most people came to my talks or tuned into my radio interviews with their minds already made up about the question, looking to me to provide them with historical evidence to strengthen their answers. When I told them that the role of religion in the founding of America was a complicated question that cannot be answered through sound bites, many people left the lecture hall or turned off the radio disappointed, because such an answer did not help them promote their political or religious cause.

Yet the founding fathers’ views on religion were complex, and they do not easily conform to our twenty-first-century agendas. The founding fathers made sure to keep God and Christianity out of the United States Constitution but did not hesitate to place distinctly Christian tests for office in most of the local state constitutions that they wrote in the wake of the American Revolution. Some founders upheld personal beliefs that conformed to historic orthodox Christian teaching, while others–especially major founders such as Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin–did not. The founders opposed an established church and defended religious liberty while at the same time suggesting that Christianity was essential to the health of the republic.

The life of Jefferson and the debate over Christian America teach us that human experience is often too complex to categorize in easily identifiable boxes. The study of the past reminds us that when we put our confidence in people–whether they are in the past (such as the founding fathers) or the present–we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed by them. Sometimes great defenders of liberty held slaves, and political leaders who defended a moral republic rejected a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the inspiration of the Bible. Historians do their work amid the messiness of the past. Though they make efforts to simplify the mess, they are often left with irony, paradox, and mystery.

On revisionism:

Historians must come to grips with the fact that they will never be able to provide a complete or thorough account of what happened in the past.

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life. As [historian David] Lowenthal notes, “History usually depends on someone else’s eyes and voice: we see it through an interpreter who stands between past events and our apprehension of them.” While the past never changes, history changes all the time. Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident. Even if we can assume that drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who caused the accident. It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weight the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event. But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable witness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault. This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened. History has changed. This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present. But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” receives a high compliment. In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West). Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always take place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by the what historians called the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early twentieth-century historian who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake. The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.

In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion. They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century. These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.

In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves. Rather than viewing the Blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important moment in American history….

In the end, all historians are revisionists. The Christian historians R.G. Collingwood wrote that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historians, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves.” This may mean that a historian will challenge the cherished myths of a particular culture or uncover evidence that does not bode well for a patriotic view of one’s country. (At other times, of course, evidence could strengthen the public bonds of citizenship). As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretations of specific events change. This makes history an exciting and intellectually engaging discipline.

 

Thoughts on Trump’s Proposed “National Garden of American Heroes”

 

Trump Rushmore

At his July 3, 2020 speech at Mount Rushmore, Donald Trump said:

More here.

And here is the text of the executive order:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1.  Purpose.  America owes its present greatness to its past sacrifices.  Because the past is always at risk of being forgotten, monuments will always be needed to honor those who came before.  Since the time of our founding, Americans have raised monuments to our greatest citizens.  In 1784, the legislature of Virginia commissioned the earliest statue of George Washington, a “monument of affection and gratitude” to a man who “unit[ed] to the endowment[s] of the Hero the virtues of the Patriot” and gave to the world “an Immortal Example of true Glory.”  I Res. H. Del. (June 24, 1784).  In our public parks and plazas, we have erected statues of great Americans who, through acts of wisdom and daring, built and preserved for us a republic of ordered liberty.

These statues are silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal.  They preserve the memory of our American story and stir in us a spirit of responsibility for the chapters yet unwritten.  These works of art call forth gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow citizens who, despite their flaws, placed their virtues, their talents, and their lives in the service of our Nation.  These monuments express our noblest ideals:  respect for our ancestors, love of freedom, and striving for a more perfect union.  They are works of beauty, created as enduring tributes.  In preserving them, we show reverence for our past, we dignify our present, and we inspire those who are to come.  To build a monument is to ratify our shared national project.

To destroy a monument is to desecrate our common inheritance.  In recent weeks, in the midst of protests across America, many monuments have been vandalized or destroyed.  Some local governments have responded by taking their monuments down.  Among others, monuments to Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, Ulysses S. Grant, leaders of the abolitionist movement, the first all-volunteer African-American regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War, and American soldiers killed in the First and Second World Wars have been vandalized, destroyed, or removed.

These statues are not ours alone, to be discarded at the whim of those inflamed by fashionable political passions; they belong to generations that have come before us and to generations yet unborn.  My Administration will not abide an assault on our collective national memory.  In the face of such acts of destruction, it is our responsibility as Americans to stand strong against this violence, and to peacefully transmit our great national story to future generations through newly commissioned monuments to American heroes.

Sec. 2.  Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes.  (a)  There is hereby established the Interagency Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes (Task Force).  The Task Force shall be chaired by the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary), and shall include the following additional members:

(i)    the Administrator of General Services (Administrator);

(ii)   the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA);

(iii)  the Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH);

(iv)   the Chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP); and

(v)    any officers or employees of any executive department or agency (agency) designated by the President or the Secretary.

(b)  The Department of the Interior shall provide funding and administrative support as may be necessary for the performance and functions of the Task Force.  The Secretary shall designate an official of the Department of the Interior to serve as the Executive Director of the Task Force, responsible for coordinating its day-to-day activities.

(c)  The Chairpersons of the NEA and NEH and the Chairman of the ACHP shall establish cross-department initiatives within the NEA, NEH, and ACHP, respectively, to advance the purposes of the Task Force and this order and to coordinate relevant agency operations with the Task Force.

Sec. 3.  National Garden of American Heroes.  (a)  It shall be the policy of the United States to establish a statuary park named the National Garden of American Heroes (National Garden).

(b)  Within 60 days of the date of this order, the Task Force shall submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy that proposes options for the creation of the National Garden, including potential locations for the site.  In identifying options, the Task Force shall:

(i)    strive to open the National Garden expeditiously;

(ii)   evaluate the feasibility of creating the National Garden through a variety of potential avenues, including existing agency authorities and appropriations; and

(iii)  consider the availability of authority to encourage and accept the donation or loan of statues by States, localities, civic organizations, businesses, religious organizations, and individuals, for display at the National Garden.

(c)  In addition to the requirements of subsection 3(b) of this order, the proposed options for the National Garden should adhere to the criteria described in subsections (c)(i) through (c)(vi) of this section.

(i)    The National Garden should be composed of statues, including statues of John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

(ii)   The National Garden should be opened for public access prior to the 250th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2026.

(iii)  Statues should depict historically significant Americans, as that term is defined in section 7 of this order, who have contributed positively to America throughout our history.  Examples include:  the Founding Fathers, those who fought for the abolition of slavery or participated in the underground railroad, heroes of the United States Armed Forces, recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor or Presidential Medal of Freedom, scientists and inventors, entrepreneurs, civil rights leaders, missionaries and religious leaders, pioneers and explorers, police officers and firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty, labor leaders, advocates for the poor and disadvantaged, opponents of national socialism or international socialism, former Presidents of the United States and other elected officials, judges and justices, astronauts, authors, intellectuals, artists, and teachers.  None will have lived perfect lives, but all will be worth honoring, remembering, and studying.

(iv)   All statues in the National Garden should be lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict, not abstract or modernist representations.

(v)    The National Garden should be located on a site of natural beauty that enables visitors to enjoy nature, walk among the statues, and be inspired to learn about great figures of America’s history.  The site should be proximate to at least one major population center, and the site should not cause significant disruption to the local community.

(vi)   As part of its civic education mission, the National Garden should also separately maintain a collection of statues for temporary display at appropriate sites around the United States that are accessible to the general public.

Sec. 4.  Commissioning of New Statues and Works of Art.  (a)  The Task Force shall examine the appropriations authority of the agencies represented on it in light of the purpose and policy of this order.  Based on its examination of relevant authorities, the Task Force shall make recommendations for the use of these agencies’ appropriations.

(b)  To the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law and the other provisions of this order, Task Force agencies that are authorized to provide for the commissioning of statues or monuments shall, in expending funds, give priority to projects involving the commissioning of publicly accessible statues of persons meeting the criteria described in section 3(b)(iii) of this order, with particular preference for statues of the Founding Fathers, former Presidents of the United States, leading abolitionists, and individuals involved in the discovery of America.

(c)  To the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law, these agencies shall prioritize projects that will result in the installation of a statue as described in subsection (b) of this section in a community where a statue depicting a historically significant American was removed or destroyed in conjunction with the events described in section 1 of this order.

(d)  After consulting with the Task Force, the Administrator of General Services shall promptly revise and thereafter operate the General Service Administration’s (GSA’s) Art in Architecture (AIA) Policies and Procedures, GSA Acquisition Letter V-10-01, and Part 102-77 of title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, to prioritize the commission of works of art that portray historically significant Americans or events of American historical significance or illustrate the ideals upon which our Nation was founded.  Priority should be given to public-facing monuments to former Presidents of the United States and to individuals and events relating to the discovery of America, the founding of the United States, and the abolition of slavery.  Such works of art should be designed to be appreciated by the general public and by those who use and interact with Federal buildings.  Priority should be given to this policy above other policies contained in part 102-77 of title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, and revisions made pursuant to this subsection shall be made to supersede any regulatory provisions of AIA that may conflict with or otherwise impede advancing the purposes of this subsection.

(e)  When a statue or work of art commissioned pursuant to this section is meant to depict a historically significant American, the statue or work of art shall be a lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation.

Sec. 5.  Educational Programming.  The Chairperson of the NEH shall prioritize the allocation of funding to programs and projects that educate Americans about the founding documents and founding ideals of the United States, as appropriate and to the extent consistent with applicable law, including section 956 of title 20, United States Code.  The founding documents include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.  The founding ideals include equality under the law, respect for inalienable individual rights, and representative self-government.  Within 90 days of the conclusion of each Fiscal Year from 2021 through 2026, the Chairperson shall submit a report to the President through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy that identifies funding allocated to programs and projects pursuant to this section.

Sec. 6.  Protection of National Garden and Statues Commissioned Pursuant to this Order.  The Attorney General shall apply section 3 of Executive Order 13933 of June 26, 2020 (Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence), with respect to violations of Federal law regarding the National Garden and all statues commissioned pursuant to this order.

Sec. 7.  Definition.  The term “historically significant American” means an individual who was, or became, an American citizen and was a public figure who made substantive contributions to America’s public life or otherwise had a substantive effect on America’s history.  The phrase also includes public figures such as Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra, and the Marquis de La Fayette, who lived prior to or during the American Revolution and were not American citizens, but who made substantive historical contributions to the discovery, development, or independence of the future United States.

Sec. 8.  General Provisions.  (a)  Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii)  the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b)  This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c)  This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Does Trump think he is building another Trump Tower?

I digress.

Just to reiterate, there will be statues of: John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, and Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Quick thoughts:

1. We should not get too worked-up about this order because there is a chance Trump will be voted out of office in November 2020. In other words, this national garden may never happen.

2. Let’s not get too caught-up in debating who should be “in” and who should be “out.” This is actually what Trump wants to happen. Historians should just ignore these plans. By giving too much attention to this we lend credibility to the proposal. (I know–I should be taking my own advice here!).  This is not a debate over state history and social studies standards.

3. How much will this national garden cost the American taxpayer? If Trump really cares about history he should fund its study in schools. His budgets should provide more money for already existing historic sites and teacher training.

4. Let’s say Trump wins in 2020 and this national garden becomes a reality. Would I visit it? Maybe. But I would not go there to teach my students about the lives of these so-called “heroes.” I rely on my classroom lectures and discussions, primary sources, legitimate public history sites, and good books and articles to do that. I would, however, consider taking students to this place to teach them about the Trump administration much in the same way that I take students to Confederate monuments at Gettysburg to teach them about the Lost Cause. This is what historians mean by contextualizing monuments. Like the Confederate monuments we are fighting over today, monuments often tell us more about the time when they were erected than the moment in history that they commemorate. Confederate monuments were erected in the early 20th century as symbols of white supremacy and Jim Crow. Some of the figures Trump wants to memorialize in his national garden seem like random choices, but others speak volumes about Trump’s America and his 2020 re-election bid.

For example, the founding fathers are revered by Trump’s white conservative base. Good history teachers visiting this garden might say something to their students about founders chic. They might note that on the very day of this executive order millions of Americans were watching a movie-version of a Broadway play about Alexander Hamilton. All of this explains why George Washington, John Adams,  Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were chosen. (I don’t know why Dolley Madison was chosen over Martha Washington and Abigail Adams). I am sure Abraham Lincoln was chosen as an honorary founding father.

The African American selections (there are no native Americans) are Martin Luther King Jr.,  Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Jackie Robinson. These are all safe choices, although a good history teacher might show this video in preparation for the class trip. There are reasons why W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, or Barack Obama were not chosen. (Future students will certainly wonder why the first Black president in American history was not selected). When viewed in the larger context of the Trump presidency, a legitimate argument could be made that these men and women were picked in an attempt to show Trump is not a racist.

Trump and his people are obsessed with military strength. We thus get Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Audie Murphy, George Patton, Ronald Reagan, and Douglas MacArthur.

And Trump needs his white evangelical base in November. He hopes a statue of Billy Graham, or at least the announcement of such a statue, might help deliver these votes.

Trump has an obsession with space and aviation. (Trump mentioned going to Mars during his Mount Rushmore speech). I would have my students read or watch his recent Cape Canaveral speech before we visited the national garden. We thus get Christa McAuliffe, Amelia Earhart, and the Wright brothers. Frankly, I am surprised he did not pick Charles Lindbergh, an early proponent of “America First.”

Was Henry Clay, the architect of the American System, chosen because of Trump’s infrastructure plans? Future history teachers will tell students that these plans never got off the ground, despite multiple “infrastructure weeks,” because Trump undermined them with tweets and other self-initiated scandals.

And, of course, any historian would have a lot to say about why Antonin Scalia made the cut instead of John Marshall, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, Hugo Black, or Oliver Wendell Holmes.

But in the end, I would put money on this national garden of heroes going the way of Trump’s border wall and many of his other grandiose plans.  It won’t happen.

 

Thoughts on Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech

Trump Mount Rush

In case you missed it, Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota on the night of July 3, 2020.

Read the text here.

Watch the entire event here:

Thoughts:

1. Mary Hart

2. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem introduced Trump by appealing to America’s founding ideals. She said, “Let’s not destroy history.” This is in interesting exhortation from the governor of South Dakota. What is Noem doing to fund the teaching of history in South Dakota schools? In 2015, the state dumped early American history. I am not sure if things have changed since 2015, but back then I wrote this piece.

3. Noem said that her state prides itself “on the close-knit nature of our community.” She praised all the South Dakotans for showing-up and then said that the crowd included people “from across the nation.” The crowd was packed like sardines into what looked like a small space. I saw very few masks.

4. Noem and Trump did not mention anything about the tearing-down, removal, and defacing of Confederate monuments. The focus was entirely on the monuments to the “founding fathers.” Does anyone know how many non-Confederate monuments were defaced or torn down in the last month?

5. If we want to talk about American history, let’s remember that this entire event occurred on Lakota land. And yes, Trump talked about “manifest destiny” in his speech.

6. Historian Seth Cotlar tweeted this: “I can’t stress enough how angry and reactionary this speech is, on a day that celebrates the violent, statue-destroying revolution that birthed America.” Is Cotlar right? Let’s start here. You may also want to read this book.

7. Trump tried to make the case that Democrats and protesters are trying to “erase American history.” Meanwhile, millions of Americans were ignoring his speech because they were watching a movie about the American founding on Disney+.

8. At one point Trump said, “George Washington will never be removed, abolished, or forgotten.” I am sure the good folks at Mount Vernon are on it.

9. At another point of the speech, Trump threw thousands of history teachers under the bus when he said, “Our children are taught in school to hate their own country.” The only people who would believe this are Fox News viewers or people who have never set foot in a real history classroom.

10. As I watched the speech, I could not help but wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought about Trump invoking his name. The same goes for Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, not to mention Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt.

11. It sounds like white supremacist Steven Miller wrote this speech. There is a reason why he is one of the few people who have been with the administration since the beginning.

Here is Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic:

It sounds like Trump was at it again earlier this evening:

When it comes to American history, Trump is the one who has “absolutely no clue.” He doesn’t even read the teleprompter in an inspiring way.  And then he has the nerve to attack history teachers.

Here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

…the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them. His approach to history also reveals his narcissism. When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American history he is about to enter.” Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.” The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office. Our best presidents thought about their four or eight  years in power with historical continuity in mind. This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it. Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity. This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst. Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

 

Saturday night court evangelical roundup

donald-trump-and-pastor-paula-white

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Samuel Rodriguez is upset about the prohibition on singing in California churches.

Jim Garlow agrees with Rodriguez:

Here is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer would probably respond to Rodriguez and Garlow.

Meanwhile, court evangelical journalist David Brody loved Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech:

Here is Brody again:

I don’t think you need to be a “far left latte sipper” to be troubled by what happened last night at Mount Rushmore. It was a “big celebration” during a pandemic with no masks or social distancing on a weekend in which the CDC warned people about gathering in large crowds. We already know that Don Trump Jr.’s wife tested positive for COVID-19. And don’t even get me started on Trump’s use of the American past to divide the country on Independence Day. I wonder what Frederick Douglass would have thought about Trump’s speech. By the way, I am not “far left” and have probably had ten latte’s in my life. I prefer the $1.00 large McDonald’s coffee on my way to campus. 🙂

Charlie Kirk, an evangelical Christian, bids his followers to come and die:

Does anyone want to help Kirk, the co-director of Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, reconcile the previous tweet (above) with the one below this paragraph? I am not sure he understands the meaning of “liberty requires responsibility.” As Christian moral philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, “It is the concern of the just man…to give others due rather than to obtain what is due him.” But what does Pieper, one of the great Christian intellectuals of the 20th century, know? He is not, after all, 26-year-old Trump wonder boy Charlie Kirk:

And then there is this:

Lance Wallnau is attacking another so-called “prophet” and, in the process, offers his own prophesy. He says the coronavirus, racial unrest, Christians “taking a knee,” and the tearing down of monuments are all judgments of God on America. If you have time, read the thousands of comments on the right of the video and then come back and let’s talk about my “fear” thesis.

Jenna Ellis, a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, is getting into the “America was founded as a Christian nation” business.

She also liked Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech:

I would like to hear how John Hagee uses the Bible to defend free speech, the right to assemble, the right to petition, the freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, etc.:

Like patriotic ministers have been doing since the time of the American Revolution, Hagee takes New Testament passages about liberty and freedom and applies them to political freedom:

Tony Perkins is engaging in the same type of scriptural manipulation:

Gary Bauer throws thousands and thousands of hard-working American history teachers under the bus by telling them that they don’t love their country:

Robert Jeffress is back on Fox News defending his Lord’s Day morning political rally with a non-social-distanced choir. His defense if whataboutism:

The day before, Jeffress made his weekly visit with Lou Dobbs. Pretty much the same stuff:

Focus on the Family is running an interview with Eric Metaxas about his book If You Can Keep It. I point you to my review of this seriously flawed book. If you want to take a deeper dive into this, here is a link to my longer review. I assume that this was taped a while ago (the book appeared in 2016).  As I listen to Metaxas’s radio show today, and compare it with this interview, it is striking how far Trump and the aftermath of the George Floyd killing  has pushed him even further into a Christian Right brand of Trumpism.

Franklin Graham is quoting the Declaration of Independence. Here is a question: Was Thomas Jefferson right? I think the Christian tradition certainly values life. It certain values spiritual liberty in Christ. But what about political liberty? What about the pursuit of happiness? Perhaps this is something to discuss with your friends and family over the holiday weekend.

Until next time.

What did Jefferson believe when he wrote “all men are created equal”?

The Rotunda with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.

The Rotunda with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.

Over at Stanford News, Melissa De Witte interviews historian Jack Rakove.

Here is a taste:

You argue that in the decades after the Declaration of Independence, Americans began understanding the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that “all men are created equal” in a different way than the framers intended. How did the founding fathers view equality? And how did these diverging interpretations emerge?

When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” in the preamble to the Declaration, he was not talking about individual equality. What he really meant was that the American colonists, as a people, had the same rights of self-government as other peoples, and hence could declare independence, create new governments and assume their “separate and equal station” among other nations. But after the Revolution succeeded, Americans began reading that famous phrase another way. It now became a statement of individual equality that everyone and every member of a deprived group could claim for himself or herself. With each passing generation, our notion of who that statement covers has expanded. It is that promise of equality that has always defined our constitutional creed.

Thomas Jefferson drafted a passage in the Declaration, later struck out by Congress, that blamed the British monarchy for imposing slavery on unwilling American colonists, describing it as “the cruel war against human nature.” Why was this passage removed?

At different moments, the Virginia colonists had tried to limit the extent of the slave trade, but the British crown had blocked those efforts. But Virginians also knew that their slave system was reproducing itself naturally. They could eliminate the slave trade without eliminating slavery. That was not true in the West Indies or Brazil.

The deeper reason for the deletion of this passage was that the members of the Continental Congress were morally embarrassed about the colonies’ willing involvement in the system of chattel slavery. To make any claim of this nature would open them to charges of rank hypocrisy that were best left unstated.

Read the entire interview here.

Monday night court evangelical roundup

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What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Mike Pence’s nephew hosted a court evangelical conversation with Paula White, Johnnie Moore and Samuel Rodriguez. This is an event sponsored by the Trump campaign. Watch:

At the 5:30 mark, Moore starts out with a lie. Joe Biden does not want to prosecute people for going to church. Moore is outraged that St. John’s Church in Washington D.C. was burned during the protests earlier this month. Please spare us the sermon, Johnnie. If this was any other moment, Moore, who likes to fashion himself a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” would be attacking the rector of the church and its congregation for its liberal Protestant theology and commitment to social justice. (By the way, Bonhoeffer adhered to both liberal Protestantism and social justice. Moore’s Bonhoeffer comes directly out of the pages of Eric Metaxas’s popular, but debunked biography).

If you watch this video, you will see nothing but fear-mongering.

At one point in the conversation, Paula White says that Trump is fighting for the First Amendment and the Second Amendment. Since when was the right to bear arms a Christian concern? White claims that the Democratic Party platform says that it is a “party of the Godless.” Just to be clear, there is no such language in the platform. She also goes into what I call the “they are coming for our Bibles” mode. Here’s White: “We can basically kiss our churches goodbye, our houses of worship…we very well could be home churches at that.” As I wrote in Believe Me, this kind of fear-mongering reminds me of the Federalists during the election season of 1800 who thought Thomas Jefferson, if elected, would send his henchman into New York and New England to close churches and confiscate Bibles. (It didn’t happen. In fact, Jefferson was a champion of religious liberty). White believes that we are in a spiritual war for the soul of America. She mentions a conversation with Ben Carson in which the HUD Secretary told her that the forces of Satan are working to undermine Trump.

Moore defends Trump’s record on global religious freedom. Indeed, Trump seems to have made religious persecution abroad a priority. Only time will tell how successful this campaign has been or will be. But notice that Moore says nothing about the president’s approval of Muslim concentration camps in China. Why? Because Moore is not here to tell the whole truth about Trump as it relates to religious freedom. He is here to help Trump get re-elected. Or maybe talking about the religious persecution of Muslims in China won’t help Trump with white evangelical voters, many of whom still believe Obama was a Muslim. Most of Trump’s evangelical followers only talk about religious liberty when it relates to their own causes. Moore knows this.

Moore then attacks Democratic governors for trying to close churches during COVID-19. He has a lot of nerve. It was Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo (and GOP Ohio governor Mike DeWine, among others) who showed leadership during the coronavirus while Trump was tweeting “liberate Michigan.”

Samuel Rodriguez basically says that if you vote for Trump, you are voting against the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

OK, that was hard to stomach. Let’s move on.

Moore is also tweeting. He is upset about today’s Supreme Court decision on abortion, especially Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to join the liberal justices in blocking a Louisiana abortion law restricting abortion rights:

What does Moore mean when he says that this is the “Scalia-moment” of the 2020 campaign? Here is a passage from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Already hitting his stride with his base, [GOP presidential candidate Ted] Cruz gained a new talking point in mid-February, with Super Tuesday only a couple of weeks away. When conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly on a quail hunting trip in Texas, and it became clear that the Republican-controlled Senate would not provide a hearing for Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s appointee to replace Scalia, the presidential election of 2016 became a referendum on the future of the high court. Scalia was a champion of the social values that conservative evangelicals hold dear, and it was now clear that the newly elected president of the United States would appoint his successor.

Cruz seized the day. Two days after Scalia died and five days before the 2016 South Carolina primary, Cruz released a political ad in the hopes of capitalizing on evangelical fears about the justice’s replacement. With a picture of the Supreme Court building as a backdrop, the narrator said, “Life, marriage, religious liberty, the Second Amendment. We’re just one Supreme Court justice away from losing them all.” In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, Cruz said that a vote for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump could lead American citizens to lose some of their rights. “We are one justice away from the Second Amendment being written out of the constitution altogether,” he said. “And if you vote for Donald Trump in this next election, you are voting for undermining our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.” Cruz pushed this appeal to evangelical fear even harder at a Republican Women’s Club meeting in Greenville, South Carolina. He told these Republican voters that the United States was “one justice away” from the “the Supreme Court mandating  unlimited abortion on demand,” and for good measure he added that it was only a matter of time before the federal government started using chisels to “remove the crosses and the Stars of David from the tombstones of our fallen soldiers.”

I wonder if the modern-day Dietrich Bonhoeffer has learned the right lesson from 2016? Some might say that the recent Bostock decision, and today’s Louisiana abortion decision, should teach evangelicals to stop relying on the Supreme Court to “reclaim” America, especially when such an approach to “Christian” politics requires them to get into bed with a president like Trump. But, alas, Moore would never even consider such a lesson because it does not conform to the Christian Right’s political playbook.

Meanwhile, Paula White is supernaturally praying for her Twitter followers:

I’m just curious. Is there  a way to “pray” for a non-“supernatural provision?” Sorry, I had to ask.

Jentezen is also upset about the SCOTUS decision:

Tony Perkins too:

I agree with the idea that every life is valuable, including unborn babies. But putting faith in SCOTUS and POTUS is not the answer.

Robert Jeffress is still basking in the idolatrous glow of yesterday’s Lord’s Day political rally at his church. Here is his retweet of Mike Pence:

A spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center retweets Princeton University scholar Robert George. As you read this retweet, please remember that The Falkirk Center supports Donald Trump and Trump is a pathological liar:

She is also upset with John Roberts:

And this:

Sadly,  in light of what we have seen thus far from the Trump presidency as it relates to race and Confederate monuments, this “idiot activist” seems to be asking a reasonable question.

Charlie Kirk is also mad at John Roberts:

It looks like the court evangelicals are very upset about an abortion case in the Supreme Court, but they have said nothing about Trump’s racist tweet over the weekend. I guess this falls under the “I don’t like some of his tweets, but…” category.

John Zmirak, who is an editor at court evangelical James Robison’s website The Stream, is back on the Eric Metaxas Show. He is comparing Black Lives Matter to Jim Jones and Jonestown. The entire conversation, ironically, is about people blindly putting their trust in a strongman. Metaxas wastes no time in connecting Jonestown to today’s Democratic Party. A Christian Right bromance may be forming between these two guys.  Metaxas tells Zmirak: “we are so glad you are on the program today, thank the Lord.”

They also condemn Black Lives Matter. Zmirak calls BLM a “slogan, a “trademark,” and a “brilliant piece of marketing” that is “raising money off of white guilt.” Sounds a lot like another slogan, trademark and brilliant piece of marketing. This one is raising money off of white supremacy.

In another part of their conversation, Metaxas and Zmirak say that Black Lives Matter is wrong from a Christian point of view because all men and women are created in the image of God. In other words, anyone who wants to say that only Black lives matter is actually racist (reverse racism, as they say) because in God’s eyes “all lives matter.” I’ve heard this argument before. Here is a quick response:

Indeed, Christians believe that we are all created in the image of God. As the civil rights movement taught us, Christian faith offers plenty of theological resources to combat racism. Moreover, the Black Lives Matter movement is very diverse. Author Jemar Tisby makes some important points in this regard in Episode 48 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podast.

I am sure Metaxas and Zmirak are correct about some of the abuses of the Black Lives Matter movement. But notice what is going on here. Metaxas and Zmirak are really only interested in attacking the Black Lives Matter movement. Since the killing of George Floyd, Metaxas has not offered any sustained empathy or acknowledgement of the pain and suffering faced by African-Americans, either now or in our nation’s history. Yes, he had some black guests on the program, but they were invited on the show for the purpose of undermining Black Lives Matter and rejecting systemic racism. At this moment, when white evangelicals have a wonderful opportunity to think more deeply about the problems of race in America, Metaxas has chosen to divert attention away from these issues by going after the extreme fringes of a generally anti-racist movement.

In his second hour, Metaxas hosts a writer named Nick Adams, the author of a book titled Trump and Churchill: Defenders of Western Civilization. He runs an organization called The Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness. Adams makes it sound like Trump has some kind of agenda to save Western Civilization. This strikes me as very far-fetched since I don’t think Trump even knows what Western Civilization is. Metaxas, of course, loves his guest’s ideas, going as far to say, in reference to World War II (Churchill) and COVID-19 (Trump) that both men carried their respective nations through their “darkest hours.”

Until next time.

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

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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”

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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.

How should we deal with monuments to flawed individuals?

Lee Monument

Eliot Cohen, the dean of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, offers his take on the removal of monuments. Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic:

A good place to begin is by asking whether the evil a man or woman did is the most important fact of his or her life. With regard to the Confederate generals, that is unquestionably the case. Robert E. Lee would have been a footnote in the history books had he not foresworn his allegiance to the Constitution and done his formidable best not only to rend the Union asunder, but to defend the system of chattel slavery. As Lincoln once wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” The sheer, murderous wickedness of the Confederate cause, long lost in mythologizing and willful ignorance, is unambiguous.

But of other radically flawed individuals, a different judgment should be made. John F. Kennedy was a sexual predator, as we now know. We should not, however, take his name off the Kennedy Center, and we should not fail to be moved by the clarion call of his inaugural address. Thomas Jefferson was not merely a slaveholder, but a particularly callous one. He was willing to inflict suffering, preying on vulnerable enslaved women and breaking up families. But he also gave America the Declaration of Independence and its principles, which transcend the deeply flawed mortal who wrote them down. We can similarly recognize and wrestle with the flaws—some of them considerable—of the likes of Roosevelt, Grant, and Churchill without losing sight of their accomplishments.

And there are difficult judgments to be made. What of Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans, a democrat rebelling against the rule of established, moneyed elites—but also the political leader principally responsible for the genocidal Trail of Tears?

There are two other principles here. One is that there is one kind of conversation when a person is about to be memorialized; quite another when the monument already exists and its obliteration is intended to remove painful memories of a past that was real. For that reason, there is a higher bar for the removal of Confederate statues than for putting new ones up—yet even so, that higher bar is easily met. But if it’s perfectly reasonable to say that we should not be naming something new after Woodrow Wilson, a bigot throughout his career, whether we should strip his name off a school and a research center that already exist is much less clear.

Read the entire piece here.

Gordon-Reed: “There are far more dangerous threats to history” than the removal of monuments

Annette Gordon-Reed

What should we do with Confederate monuments?

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed offers her thoughts at The Harvard Gazette:

Gordon-Reed on whether the removal of Confederate statues dishonors the memory of those who died fighting for the Confederacy:

I would say there are other places for that — on battlefields and cemeteries. The Confederates lost the war, the rebellion. The victors, the thousands of soldiers — black and white — in the armed forces of the United States, died to protect this country. I think it dishonors them to celebrate the men who killed them and tried to kill off the American nation. The United States was far from perfect, but the values of the Confederacy, open and unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of black people, to the extent they still exist, have produced tragedy and discord. There is no path to a peaceful and prosperous country without challenging and rejecting that as a basis for our society.

Gordon-Reed on whether the taking down of statues is an attempt to erase history:

History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. Who Frederick Douglass was. Who Abraham Lincoln was. There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.

Gordon-Reed on whether we should also be removing statues of Washington, Jefferson, and others who owned slaves:

I’ve said it before: There is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years. They are both excellent candidates for the kind of contextualization you alluded to. The Confederate statues were put up when they were put up [not just after the war but largely during periods of Civil Rights tension in the 20th century], to send a message about white supremacy, and to sentimentalize people who had actively fought to preserve the system of slavery. No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation. They put up monuments to T.J. because of the Declaration of Independence, which every group has used to make their place in American society. Or they go up because of T.J.’s views on separation of church and state and other values that we hold dear. I think on these two, Washington and Jefferson, in particular, you take the bitter with sweet. The main duty is not to hide the bitter parts.

Read the entire interview here.

The History Behind the Insurrection Act of 1807

Burr Insurrection

Donald Trump said yesterday that he would use this act to take military action in U.S. cities for the purpose of quelling violence.  Here is the text of the act:

An Act authorizing the employment of the land and naval forces of the United States, in cases of insurrections

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in all cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws, either of the United States, or of any individual state or territory, where it is lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the United States, as shall be judged necessary, having first observed all the pre-requisites of the law in that respect.

APPROVED, March 3, 1807.

The act has been used several times in U.S. history, most recently by George H.W. Bush during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

The act was born out of president Thomas Jefferson’s concern that Aaron Burr was plotting an insurrection against the United States government. After his term as Vice-President had come to an end in early 1805, Burr headed to Ohio and started recruited frontier settlers with the goal of capturing New Orleans and the Spanish territory west of the Mississippi River for the purpose of creating a separate western country.

But the notorious General James Wilkinson, the governor of Louisiana Territory and a co-conspirator with Burr, eventually turned on the former Vice-President. In October 21, 1806 and October 26, 1806 letters, Wilkinson informed the president about the conspiracy. Somewhere around this time, Jefferson must have talked with or wrote to Secretary of State James Madison about the legality of using federal troops to stop Burr. On 30 October, 1806, Madison wrote to Jefferson to tell him that “it does not appear that regular Troops can be employed, under any legal provision agst. insurrections–but only agst. expeditions having foreign Countries for the object.”

On November 27, two days after he received Wilkinson’s October 21, 1806 letter, Jefferson issued a proclamation calling for Burr and the conspirators to turn themselves in. Since he did not believe he had the constitutional authority to use federal troops to stop Burr, he had to settle for a strongly-worded message.

Here is Jefferson’s  December 2, 1806 message to Congress:

Having recieved information that in another part of the US. a great number of private individuals, were combining together, arming & organising themselves contrary to law to carry on a military expedition against the territories of Spain I thought it necessary by proclamation, as well as by special orders, to take measures for preventing & suppressing this enterprize, for siezing the vessels, arms & other means provided for it, & for arresting & bringing to justice it’s authors & abettors. these measures are now in operation. it was due to the good faith which ought ever to be the rule of action in public as well as in private transactions, it was due to good order & regular govmt. that while the public force was acting strictly on the defensive, and merely to cover our citizens from aggression, the criminal attempts of private individuals to decide for their country the question of Peace or War, & by commencg active & unauthorised hostilities, should be promptly & effectually suppressed.

Jefferson’s opponents, the Federalists, mocked the proclamation and the message to Congress. Here is James Lewis, author of The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis:

The proclamation and the annual message quickly came under attack. After reading the proclamation, even some Republicans quietly suggested that “the People ought not to have been alarmed or more [energetic] measures taken.” Federalists openly denounced “proclamation-warfare” as an inadequate response to the western crisis. Rather than sending copies of the proclamation west with one express rider, the editor of New York’s People’s Friend argued, Jefferson “had better sent them by one thousand expresses,” with orders to deliver them from the mouths of their muskets.” Federalist concern that Jefferson would fail to take energetic action in time shaped a savage parody of a Republican defense of the annual message. Appearing in a number of Federalist newspapers in early January 1807, “A Speck of War: or, The Good Sense of the People of the Western Country” rooted Jefferson’s policies in his belief “THAT THE GREAT SECRET OF GOVERNMENT IS TO LET EVERYTHING TAKE ITS OWN COURSE.” The likely outcome the satirist suggested, was that Burr would seize New Orleans, fortify it, and make it the capital of a new western empire that would soon “be as strong as ourselves.”

Federalists reserved their greatest contempt for Jefferson’s suggestion that he could not arrest the organizers of a military enterprise against the United States….”It is a self evident truth,” a writer in the New-England Evening Post remarked, “that every nation is under a moral obligation to provide for its self preservation, and as a consequence, that it has a right to make use of all proper means necessary to that end.” Even without a specific law, Federalists insisted, the government had “the power & of course the means [for] preventing any insurrection or enterprize on the public peace or safety. In fact, Jefferson and most Republicans believed otherwise, rejecting the common-law view that the United States’s mere existence as a country sufficed to make some acts illegal. They argued, instead, that the Constitution granted only limited and specific powers to the federal government. It defined treason, for example, but did not make either conspiring to commit treason or preparing to commit treason a crime.

In the end, the Jefferson got his act of Congress, but it was really too late to use it in the Burr conspiracy.

On December 19, 1806, Jefferson enclosed a copy of a bill on insurrections in a letter to John Dawson. It read:

A Bill authorising the emploiment of the land or Naval forces of the US. in cases of insurrection.

Be it enacted &c.    that in all cases of insurrection & of obstruction to the laws of the US. or of any individual state or territory, where it is lawful for the Presidt. of the US. to call forth militia to suppress such insurrection, or to cause the laws to be duly executed, it shall also be lawful for him to employ for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval forces of the US as shall be judged necessary, under the same restrictions & conditions as are by law provided & required on the emploiment of militia in the same case.

On January 22, 1807, Jefferson again updated Congress on attempts to capture Burr.

The insurrection bill became law on March 3, 1807, eleven days after Burr was arrested in Alabama on February 19.

Read more about the Burr Conspiracy here.

What Do We Mean By “Rights” and “Justice”?

Rights

For the last few months, I have been thinking about rights. Protesters at state capitals do not want governors taking away their right to open their businesses during the pandemic. White evangelicals support Donald Trump because he is defending their right to worship and other forms of religious liberty. I recently watched the FX documentary AKA Jane Roe, which brought to light once again the claim that women have the “right” to their own bodies.

And now we are in the midst of racial conflict and social unrest in America. The Trump administration claims that they respect the rights of people to protest peacefully. Black Americans are in the streets demanding their rights as citizens and human beings after decades of white indifference to their concerns.

What are these rights? And how do they relate to justice?

Last night I read a 1973 essay by German moral philosopher Joseph Pieper. I have found his ideas useful in this day and age. Here is a taste of “The Rights of Others” (published in The Weight of Belief: Essays on Faith in the Modern Age:

First of all, when the ancients–naturally I do not mean this term in the sense of “the thinkers of the past,” but rather in the sense of “the great thinkers,” above all those who bore witness in our own tradition–speak about justice, they never think in terms of the man with rights, but rather in terms of the man with obligations. It is the concern of the just man, they say, to give others due rather than to obtain what is due to him. Thus to be cheated out of what is due oneself is an altogether different matter than to withhold, curtail, or take away from someone else what is due to him. In the dialogues of Plato Socrates repeats over and over: To be sure, this statement has been made many times, but it will not do any harm to say it once again: “He who commits an injustice is worse off than he who suffers injustice.”

To repeat my point once again, the ancient doctrine of justice is not primarily an exposition of the rights owed to people, which they can with all propriety demand. Instead it is the exposition and the validation of the obligation to respect rights. On the other hand, the primary focus of the later doctrine, with which we are more familiar–the doctrine of human rights–is not the man with obligations but the man with rights. Naturally this modern theory also involves the idea of obligation and of the person with obligations, just as, conversely, the ancient theory of justice clearly took into account the man with rights. Yet an unmistakable and characteristic shift in emphasis has taken place in modern times, and difficult though it may be to interpret this shift, it is important that we notice that it is there.

Some takeaways from the larger essay:

  1. When the great philosophers of the West–the men who inspired our founding fathers–spoke of rights, they were always referring, to quote Pieper, “exclusively to the ‘rights of the other person.'”
  2. There has always been a delicate balance in Western Civilization between “rights” and “obligations.” But for most of the history of the West, the idea of “obligations” was paramount.
  3. Thomas Jefferson was right when he said in the Declaration of Independence that our rights come from the Creator. Most Americans do not need to be convinced of this. But it is much more difficult to convince people, as Pieper notes, “that there are grounds for their obligations, and to reveal the inalienable nature of what is due others” (interesting use of the word “inalienable” here–isn’t it?).  Pieper adds: “Ultimately, man possesses inalienable rights because behind man there stands an authority who transcends all human debate, because, to state the matter more clearly, God created man as a person. This, and nothing else, is in the end the only valid ground for the unconditional nature of man’s obligation to exercise justice.”
  4. In the context of our current moment of racial strife, Pieper’s words are relevant: “…the claim implicit in the principle of justice [is that we] must confirm the other person in his otherness and procure for him that which is due….”
  5. Pieper’s ideas seem very compatible with the teachings of Jesus and the Christian faith. (He writes out of the Catholic tradition).

Episode 68: The History of the Presidential Cabinet

Podcast

The members of Donald Trump’s controversial cabinet are regular features of the 24-hour news cycle. He has fired members of his cabinet who challenge his thinking on a host of foreign and domestic issues. Just ask Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Jeff Sessions. But how did our first president, George Washington, imagine the role of the cabinet? In this episode, we think historically about this important part of the executive branch with historian Lindsay Chervinsky, author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL7730217358

Chervinsky

Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

os guinness

Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Someone sent it to me recently.

I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.

Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way.  Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.

Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.

Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes.  In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Menthe Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.

The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolutionthe French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).

Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.

In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.

In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality.  But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”

We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.

Trump’s National Prayer Declaration in Historical Context

adams-proclomation

Here is Trump’s proclamation:

In our times of greatest need, Americans have always turned to prayer to help guide us through trials and periods of uncertainty.  As we continue to face the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are unable to gather in their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.  But in this time we must not cease asking God for added wisdom, comfort, and strength, and we must especially pray for those who have suffered harm or who have lost loved ones.  I ask you to join me in a day of prayer for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.

As your President, I ask you to pray for the health and well-being of your fellow Americans and to remember that no problem is too big for God to handle.  We should all take to heart the holy words found in 1 Peter 5:7:  “Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.”  Let us pray that all those affected by the virus will feel the presence of our Lord’s protection and love during this time.  With God’s help, we will overcome this threat.

On Friday, I declared a national emergency and took other bold actions to help deploy the full power of the Federal Government to assist with efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.  I now encourage all Americans to pray for those on the front lines of the response, especially our Nation’s outstanding medical professionals and public health officials who are working tirelessly to protect all of us from the coronavirus and treat patients who are infected; all of our courageous first responders, National Guard, and dedicated individuals who are working to ensure the health and safety of our communities; and our Federal, State, and local leaders.  We are confident that He will provide them with the wisdom they need to make difficult decisions and take decisive actions to protect Americans all across the country.  As we come to our Father in prayer, we remember the words found in Psalm 91:  “He is my refuge and my fortress:  my God; in him will I trust.”

As we unite in prayer, we are reminded that there is no burden too heavy for God to lift or for this country to bear with His help.  Luke 1:37 promises that “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” and those words are just as true today as they have ever been.  As one Nation under God, we are greater than the hardships we face, and through prayer and acts of compassion and love, we will rise to this challenge and emerge stronger and more united than ever before.  May God bless each of you, and may God bless the United States of America.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim March 15, 2020, as a National Day of Prayer for All Americans Affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic and for our National Response Efforts.  I urge Americans of all faiths and religious traditions and backgrounds to offer prayers for all those affected, including people who have suffered harm or lost loved ones.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fourteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fourth.

DONALD J. TRUMP

The founding fathers, of course, were divided over these kinds of proclamations.

On March 23, 1798, prior to the United States’s so-called “Quasi War” with France, president John Adams declared a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” for May 9, 1798. Here is a taste:

And as the United States of America are, at present, placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation, by the unfriendly Disposition, Conduct, and Demands of a foreign power, evinced by repeated refusals to receive our Messengers of Reconciliation and Peace, by Depradations on our Commerce, and the Infliction of Injuries on very many of our Fellow Citizens, while engaged in their lawful business on the Seas.–Under these considerations it has appeared to me that the Duty of imploring the Mercy and Benediction of Heaven on our Country demands, at this time, a special attention from its Inhabitants.

Here is what I wrote about this proclamation in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

Many perceived Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer to be little more than a political tool to win support for his own political party, the New England-concentrated Federalists.  The Federalists believed that government had the responsibility of enforcing public morality rooted in the Christian faith….Adams’s call for a day of fasting and prayer was endorsed by the Presbyterian Church, a denomination that was suspected by many to have secret ambitions of creating a national religious establishment.  The fast declaration was thus criticized by his Republican political enemies, including Thomas Jefferson, his eventual opponent in the next presidential election.  According to Adams, American religious denominations and sects, especially those who guarded their religious liberties closely and tended to vote Republican, cried out, “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, anybody, whether they be philosophers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian president.” Adams was not a Presbyterian, but his firm belief that the president should promote religion and morality did not sit well with those Christians and others who feared that such government involvement in religious matters was the first step toward tyranny and the erosion of religious freedom.  Adams would later write that his decision to call for a religious fast day may have cost him a victory in the 1800 presidential election. 

While there is certainly a tradition of these proclamations in our country’s history, there is also a tradition of presidents using these proclamations to advance a political agenda. With this in mind, Trump is both calling the nation to turn to God in this difficult moment and strengthening his evangelical base as the November elections approach.

In 1808, in light of the British impressment of American ships and the passing of the Embargo Act of 1807, New York City Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller asked president Thomas Jefferson to issue a day of fasting, humiliation, prayer. Here is a taste of his letter:

Several of my Clerical brethren, and other friends of Religion, in this city, deeply affected with the present aspect of our public affairs, have lately expressed an earnest wish that we might be called upon, as a nation, to observe a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer. Various means have been suggested for the attainment of this object. Among others, it has been proposed that the Clergy of our City, as a body, should make an application, more or less formal, to the President of the United States, requesting him, by Proclamation, to recommend such a public observance. I am not certain that such an application is determined on, even in the mind of an individual; but it has been proposed, and may possibly be made.—

The object of this letter is frankly to ask, whether such an application to you would be agreeable or otherwise. I am sensible that a question may arise, both with regard to the constitutional power of the President to act in a case of this kind, and the occasions on which it is expedient to exercise such a power, supposing it to be possessed. But on neither of these points does it become me to offer any observation. It is possible that your views of the subject might forbid you to take such a step as that which is proposed, under any circumstances: and it is also possible that an application from a body of respectable Clergymen might be considered as, in some degree, removing your objections, if any exist; at least such of them as arise from an aversion to all interference, on the part of a civil Magistrate, with the religious concerns of the community.—

Miller knew that Jefferson was no fan of these proclamations. Here is part of Jefferson’s response to Miller’s letter:

I have duly recieved your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorised to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the constitution from intermedling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. this results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the US. certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. it must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority.   but it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. that is that I should indirectly assume to the US. an authority over religious exercises which the constitution has directly precluded them from. it must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it: not indeed of fine & imprisonment but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. and does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, its discipline or its doctrines: nor of the religious societies that the General government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. fasting & prayer are religious exercises. the enjoining them an act of discipline, every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises & the objects proper for them according to their own particular tenets. and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. but I have ever believed that the example of State executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. be this as it may every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

As you can see, Jefferson did not believe that the United States government had the authority to issue such days of prayer. Notice that Jefferson did not agree with Adams’s previous proclamations and thus refused to follow Adams’s precedent.

What about James Madison? On June 30, 1812, as the United States entered a war with England in 1812, president Madison received a letter from Jacob Jones Janeway, the minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and clerk at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which had met in Philadelphia the previous month.  Janeway wrote:

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, during their sessions in May last, recommended to all the churches under their care, to observe the last Thursday in July next as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. The Synod of the Associate Reformed Church, which was sitting in this City at the same time, concurred in the measure: and the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church, which lately met at Albany, adopted it, and have recommended the observance of that day by their churches. And I have been informed that, at the request of the last body presented, through the Legislature of the State of New York, to the Governor, he has consented to recommend the observance of the same day to all religious denominations in that state. A petition is now preparing to be sent to the Governor of this State, requesting him to recommend a concurrence in the religious exercises of that day to the people throughout this state.

From the preceding statement, it will be seen, that a large portion of the citizens of these United States, will be engaged in the observance of the day already mentioned: and I take the liberty of suggesting, that it will be an accommodation to them, as well as secure a more general concurrence in the devotions of the day, if your Excellency should think it proper to select that as the day to be recommended to the people of the United States of America, as a day of humiliation and prayer to Almighty God. What has been written must be the apology for this intrusion, by Your Excellency’s humble & obedient servant.

Madison did not heed Janeway’s call for a July day of prayer, but he eventually did issue such a presidential proclamation for August:

Whereas the Congress of the United States, by a joint Resolution of the two Houses, have signified a request, that a day may be recommended, to be observed by the People of the United States, with religious solemnity, as a day of public Humiliation and Prayer:1 and whereas such a recommendation will enable the several religious denominations and societies so disposed, to offer, at one and the same time, their common vows and adorations to Almighty God, on the solemn occasion produced by the war, in which he has been pleased to permit the injustice of a foreign power to involve these United States; I do therefore recommend the third Thursday in August next, as a convenient day, to be so set apart, for the devout purposes of rendering to the Sovereign of the Universe, and the Benefactor of mankind, the public homage due to his holy attributes; of acknowleging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness, and His assistance in the great duties of repentance & amendment; and, especially, of offering fervent supplications, that in the present season of calamity and war, he would take the American People under His peculiar care and protection; that He would guide their public councils, animate their patriotism, and bestow His blessing on their arms; that He would inspire all nations with a love of justice & of concord, and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them; and, finally, that turning the hearts of our enemies from the violence and injustice which sway their councils against us, He would hasten a restoration of the blesings of Peace. Given at Washington the ninth day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twelve.

As historian John Ragosta argues in his book Religious Freedom: Jeffersonian’s Legacy, America’s Creed, Madison was always uncomfortable with these kinds of declarations. Ragosta writes,

[Like Jefferson], Madison…also struggled with proclamations.  During his administration, Congress asked for prayer proclamations at a time when the country faced the crisis of the War of 1812, a political crisis of confidence was almost overwhelming Madison, and dissolution of the union seemed a real possibility.  Even then, Madison was uneasy with the exercise. In 1813, he acquiesced to one declaration noting that Congress “signified a request” for a day of prayer, but he still moved cautiously, issuing “this my Proclamation, recommending to all, who shall be piously disposed…guided only by their free choice.” Later he explained: “I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unit in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms.”  Still, after the crisis passed, Madison regretted having issued even these qualified proclamations, viewing them as exceeding constitutional bounds. Government religious proclamations “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.”  In addition to the problem of endorsement, Madison was concerned with the use (abuse) of religion to support political institutions (again, “priestcraft”).

If you’ve read this far, I hope this post give you some historical context for Trump’s proclamation today.  These proclamations have always been contested, political, and religious.

Slavery and the Nation’s Capital

Early Washington D.C.

Over at website of The White House Historical Association, public historian Lina Mann explains why slavery flourished in Washington D.C. 

Here is a taste:

For the first seventy-two years of its existence, the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., harbored one of America’s most difficult historical truths and greatest contradictions: slavery. The city’s placement along the Potomac River, in between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, ensured that slavery was ingrained into every aspect of life, including the buildings, institutions, and social fabric of Washington, D.C. Enslaved workers contributed to public building projects, were bought and sold within the boundaries of the city, and served many of the men who founded the nation. Slavery was alive and well in the President’s Neighborhood.

In June 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sat down to dinner with Virginia Congressman James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. By the end of the evening, these men had agreed upon a new location for the United States capital. Prior to this dinner, a debate on its location divided members of the fledgling government. Hamilton and his supporters believed the capital should be in New York City, while others preferred Philadelphia or a location along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Southerners like Jefferson and Madison favored a location along the Potomac River, fearing that a northern capital would diminish southern power, undermine slavery, and encourage corruption among bankers, merchants, and creditors. That night, according to Jefferson’s recollections, the three agreed to place the capital along the Potomac in exchange for the federal assumption of states’ war debts from the American Revolution.

On July 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, moving the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years’ time and then permanently to the “river Potomack.”

By placing the seat of government firmly in the South, this legislation allowed slavery to flourish in the new capital. After President George Washington signed the Residence Act into law, he took an active role overseeing the construction of the Federal City. Working with French-born engineer Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant, he selected a building site near his Mount Vernon estate at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

To establish this new Federal City, Maryland ceded about seventy square miles, while Virginia contributed around twenty.

President Washington also appointed three commissioners in January 1791 to manage city construction: Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll.

All three men owned slaves.

Read the rest here.

How to Think About Anti-Federalists

sam-adams-head-shot

Sam Adams: Anti-Federalist

Today is Constitution Day.  Over at American Studier blog, Ben Railton turns his attention to the opponents of the Constitution–the Anti-Federalists.  Railton offers three helpful suggestions for framing the Anti-Federalist opposition.  They are:

  1. Revolutionary Radicals (Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry)
  2. Advocates for Rights (George Mason)
  3. Future Democratic-Republicans  (Unless I am reading him wrong, Railton suggests that Jefferson was at the Constitutional Convention.  He was not).

See how Railton unpacks these categories here.

Tony Bennett, Evangelicalism, and University of Virginia Basketball

Bennett

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, was no evangelical.  But he was a champion of religious liberty and had a lot of support among Virginia evangelicals when he ran for president in 1800. So it is unclear what he would have thought about an evangelical running his school’s national championship basketball program.

UVA coach Tony Bennett has been outspoken about his evangelical faith.  His faith has been covered by the Billy Graham Evangelistic AssociationThe Daily Progress,  the Baptist Press, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Heavy.  (The Washington Post discussed how he handled racism during 2017 white nationalist invasion of Charlottesville, but says nothing about his Christian faith).

Following his team’s national championship victory on Monday night, Bennett told Jim Nantz that he had played a Christian song titled “Hills and Valleys” to get his team ready for the game.  This song must have had special meaning for Bennett.  Last March, Bennett’s UVA program was definitely in the “valley” after it became the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed (UMBC). (It should be no surprise that Bennett received a text from former NFL coach and motivational speaker Tony Dungy after the loss to UMBC).

The lyrics of “Hills and Valleys” focus on God’s faithfulness during the joy and pain of life:

I’ve walked among the shadows
You wiped my tears away
And I’ve felt the pain of heartbreak
And I’ve seen the brighter days
And I’ve prayed prayers to heaven from my lowestplace
And I have held the blessings
God, you give and take away

No matter what I have, Your grace is enough
No matter where I am, I’m standing in Your love

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

I’ve watched my dreams get broken

In you I hope again!
No matter what I know
Know I’m safe inside Your hand

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

Father, you give and take away
Every joy and every pain
Through it all you will remain
Over it all!

Father, you give and take away
Every joy and every pain
Through it all you will remain
Over it all!

On the mountains, I will bow my life
To the one who set me there (to the one who set me there)
In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there
When I’m standing on the mountain aft, didn’t get there on my own
When I’m walking through the valley end, no I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!
You’re God of the hills and valleys!
Hills and Valleys!
God of the hills and valleys
And I am not alone!

Frankly, it’s refreshing to see Bennett invoke a song that celebrates God’s faithfulness in the wins AND the losses.

The role that Bennett’s faith plays in his coaching is covered well in Jonathan Adams’s piece at Heavy. Here is a taste:

Virginia coach Tony Bennett is outspoken about his Christian faith and how it shapes his work with players. During the 2019 NCAA tournament, Bennett noted his faith helps him through stressful situations in games.

“You certainly feel things – things bother you, but where does peace and perspective come from? And I always tell our guys: It’s got to be something that is unconditional,” Bennett said, per Christian Headlines. “And I know I have that in the love of my family – unconditional acceptance and love. That’s huge. And I know I have that in my faith in Christ. That’s, for me, where I draw my strength from – my peace, my steadiness in the midst of things.”

Bennett committed to being a Christian while he was attending a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp when he was 14, per Decision magazine. The Virginia coach emphasizes five pillars to his players, and the tenets have become a staple of the Virginia program. Bennett drew upon Biblical principals to create the five pillars: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Former Virginia player Joe Harris spoke with Decision magazine about the impact these pillars have had on his life beyond basketball.

“You can apply those pillars to the rest of your life, not just basketball,” Harris noted to Decision. “I always tell people that being at Virginia with coach Bennett helped me in a huge developmental standpoint as a basketball player, but that I developed even more as a person.”

Something tells me Jefferson would still be happy with the UVA win.