The Author’s Corner with Kevin Gutzman

thomas-jeffersonKevin Gutzman is Professor and Chairman of the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University. This interview is based on his new book, Thomas Jefferson- Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Thomas Jefferson?

KG: The idea of writing a book about Thomas Jefferson’s radical statesmanship came to me as I was working on my most recent previous book, James Madison and the Making of America, a biography of Jefferson’s best friend and closest ally. Madison’s correspondence is devoted almost exclusively to politics of a somehow constitutionalist variety and various business and family matters. Jefferson, on the other hand, was—this is trite because true—a multifaceted genius, one whose influence on our world is in many of its manifestations unremarked. I also believed on the basis of prior work that some of Jefferson’s chief commitments and projects had been misunderstood. I wanted to explore that genius and to clarify the record.

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

KG: Thomas Jefferson remains the most significant statesman in American history. Additionally, much of Jefferson’s radical program has been misapprehended, so that even experts are apt to see in Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America a different Jefferson from the one they have known.

JF: Why do we need to read Thomas Jefferson?

KG: Experts need to read Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America for new insights concerning the radical end of the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson in particular. The general public needs to read it as a corrective to Federalist Chic à la Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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

KG: I became interested in American Revolutionary and constitutional history in summer 1987, when as part of my joint-degrees program in law and public affairs at the University of Texas I completed a summer internship on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. In between work days in the office of a member of the House of Representatives, I exploited the constitutional bicentennial by reading a couple of dozen books of constitutional history and public policy and seeing myriad local sights. The final decision to become a historian arose out of my experience of legal practice as a very dull matter indeed.

JF: What is your next project?

KG: My next project, The Virginia Dynasty: Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020 (forthcoming)), will be – believe it or not – the first such book ever published. I am well along in doing the research.

JF: Thanks, Kevin. 

Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of the Press

Today the POTUS tweeted:

I responded:

Freedom of the press is included in the same First Amendment that protects religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.

I think it is fair to say that no POTUS has liked the press.   But to declare the press the enemy undermines the First Amendment.

Let’s see what Thomas Jefferson thought about a free press:

…a hereditary chief strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions, and absolute interdiction of all useless expences, will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive. But the only security of all is in a free press. the force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. the agitation it produces must be submitted to. it is necessary to keep the waters pure. we are all, for example in agitation even in our peaceful country. for in peace as well as in war the mind must be kept in motion.  —Thomas Jefferson to Marquis de Lafayette, November 4, 1823

The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.  Thomas Jefferson to G.K. Van Hogendorp, October 13, 1785

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, January 25, 1786.

Jefferson said a lot more about the press. Some of it was critical and some of it might provide a usable past for Trump.  See some more of his quotes here.

Here’s the Continental Congress.

The last right we shall mention, regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.–Continental Congress, October 1774.

The Founders were a bit more nuanced about freedom of the press than these quotes suggest, but I do think these quotes represent the Founders’s general understanding of the subject.

No, Stephen Miller. That’s Not How it Works.

This post is pretty basic, but it needs to be said.  In this day and age there are a lot of “basic” things that need to be said about how our government works, how republics are maintained, and how a democratic society functions.

In case you missed, here is Trump adviser Stephen Miller suggesting on CBS’s Face the Nation that Donald Trump’s power to protect the country are “very substantial and will not be questioned.”

No Mr. Miller, that’s not how the United States government works.  We have a system of checks and balances in this country for the very purpose of “questioning” every decision that the President makes.

Here are some passages from James Madison’s Federalist #47:

The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

The reasons on which Montesquieu grounds his maxim are a further demonstration of his meaning. “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body” says he, “there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.” Again “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary controul, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor.” 

Here is Madison in Federalist #48:

In a government, where numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of a hereditary monarch, the executive department is very justly regarded as the source of danger, and watched with all the jealousy which a zeal for liberty ought to inspire.  (See my post “Political Jealousy is a Laudable Passion“).

Here is Madison in Federalist #51:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to controul the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controuls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to controul the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to controul itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary controul on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Here is George Washington in his 1796 Farewell Address:

The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes.

Here is Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold on us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.

For a nuanced explanation of all this I recommend Aaron Blake’s piece at The Washington Post.

Thomas Jefferson Remembers the Debate Surrounding His Statute of Religious Freedom

va-statuteHere is what Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1821 “Autobiography” about the passing of his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786). Note the part at the end about the rejection of a proposal to mention “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion” in order to accommodate Jews, Muslims, Hindus and “infidels.”

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan (Muslims), the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

The Greatest Cabinet of All Time?

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On two different occasions today Donald Trump said that he has the smartest cabinet (in terms of IQ) of “any cabinet ever assembled.”  Of course there is no way to prove this.  But “ever assembled” is a historical statement.  So let’s compare Trump’s nominees (none of them, I might add, have been confirmed yet) with two other presidential cabinets:

President George Washington had  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, and Henry Knox in his cabinet.

President Abraham Lincoln had the so called “Team of Rivals”: Salmon Chase, William Seward, Simon Cameron, and Edwin Stanton.

Of course we could name other cabinets as well, but I imagine that the names will be less familiar to our readers.

I’ll let you decide if Trump’s statement about his cabinet is correct.

To give Trump the benefit of the doubt, I think he made his comments about the cabinet in jest. Having said that, Trump’s statement that he has assembled one of the greatest cabinets in American history reminds me of what Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson said in a recent column: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”

Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address

ab855-thomas-jeffersonMarch 4, 1801.  Read it here.

A taste:

...when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists…

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people…

More Historical Context on the Electoral College

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The work of historians in helping ordinary Americans make sense of the electoral college has been stellar.  We have already called attention to pieces by Kevin Gannon and Robert Tracy McKenzie.  Today I want to recommend Andrew Shankman‘s Historical News Network essay, “What Were the Founders Thinking When They Created the Electoral College?

Andy reminds us that if the original framers of the Constitution (and the Electoral College) had their way Donald Trump would be President and Hillary Clinton would be Vice President.

Here is a taste:

Created by the Constitution, the original Electoral College worked like this: each state appointed electors equal to its number of senators (2) plus representatives, apportioned at a ratio of 1 for every 30,000 residents. Each elector cast two votes for president and at least one of those votes had to be for someone outside the elector’s state. If someone received the most votes and a majority, he became president. The second highest vote-getter became vice president. If no one received a majority, the decision went to the House of Representatives, which could choose the president from among the top five vote-getters, and had to make the highest vote-getter vice president if they chose not to make him president. To us these original procedures may sound insane, this year they would make majority vote-getter Donald Trump president and Hillary Clinton vice president.

So, what were the Founders thinking? The Founders were inspired by the classical republics of Greece and Rome and believed they had collapsed when they stopped seeking the public good as their citizens divided into parties to pursue their own interests. For the Founders the public good emerged from a coherent set of values, and understanding how to achieve it required a deep knowledge of the classics, of natural law, common law, and the law of nations, and of the new science of political economy that arose during the Enlightenment. Above all, one had to possess disinterested virtue–putting aside personal interests for the sake of the public good. The Founders thought that most citizens were not capable of fully comprehending the public good. For the United States to succeed, the small group of great and talented men who could would have to guide them. Believing in a unifying singular public good, the Founders saw no value in political parties. Parties existed to promote competing interests, which was contrary to the public good. Citizens either embraced the public good or they behaved selfishly and badly.

Only by starting with these assumptions did the Electoral College make sense. After George Washington’s presidency, the Founders assumed their Electoral College would routinely place the decision of who would be president with the House of Representatives. They reasoned that the small group capable of comprehending the public good was evenly distributed geographically. A reasonable number of them would stand for election. Each would be equally qualified virtuous gentlemen. Without political parties to inflame passions and mobilize voters into a few large groups, only rarely would a candidate gain majority support in the Electoral College. The Electoral College would helpfully sort out five from the larger group of the equally qualified, but usually would do little more than that.

Yet almost immediately after ratification of the Constitution, reality obliterated the Founders’ plan….

Read the rest here.

Episode 10: On Historical Reenacting

 

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Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are back and ready for season 2. In this episode, they tackle the issue of historical reenacting. Is it just another kind of historical thinking? Or is it something different? They are joined first by “Thomas Jefferson” who discusses the current state of his 1800 campaign for the presidency. He is followed by Steve Edenbo, a professional “actor-historian” who portrays Thomas Jefferson. Edenbo discusses the process of researching and embodying such a famous historical figure along with the state of his profession in a post-“Hamiltonian” world.

We are Getting Close to the Election of 1800

Back in the day POTUS elections were about competing ideas.  Right?

Not really.

Today Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump a racist.  Trump responded by calling Clinton a bigot.

We are getting close to the rhetoric of the campaign of 1800, although it is worth noting that little of the language in this video came directly from the mouth of the candidates–John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Quote of the Day

Madison and Jefferson“The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue to be for many years to come.  The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but at a more distant period.”  –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, March 15, 1789

Was John Adams a Christian?

a8345-adamsIn light of the recent Twitter debate between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby on the religion of Thomas Jefferson, I thought I would call your attention to a blog post from my friend Matthew Hunter.

I don’t know if Hunter was aware of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate when he wrote this, but his post about John Adams clearly comes down on the Haselby side.  Adams may have thought he was a Christian, but his rejection of the Christian doctrine of the trinity makes it difficult to label him as one.  Adams may have said he was a Christian, but he was not.

So how do we interpret Adams’s religion? Do we take Adams’s word for it?  Or do we interpret Adams’s faith in light of the history of Christian orthodoxy?  As I said several times in the midst of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate, the former is a a historical issue and the latter is a theological issue.  This does not mean that these two ways of understanding of the world cannot speak to one another.  In fact, some interdisciplinary thinkers like Hunter might argue that they should be speaking to one another.

In the end, Hunter is correct about at least one thing.  When we  point out that Adams’s beliefs were unorthodox we set the record straight for the Christian nationalists who want to use the second president’s supposed Christian beliefs to promote a political agenda in the present.  John Adams may have been a Christian, but I am guessing that David Barton would not want to have him on the elder board of his church.

Here is a taste of Hunter’s post:

This is a hard post to write, because suggesting any sort of gulf that favors the scholarly view is going to be tainted with a certain elitism that smacks of the sort of gulf represented above, where a semi-divine historical person presides over the terrestrial mess of mortals. There are things that they know that mere mortals cannot know. And you know that scholars are not semi-divine. Nevertheless, a gulf exists. I write this as someone whose academic training was a blend of history, social sciences and theology, so I am not strictly “a historian,” though the American founding does factor into my work.

The gulf I have in mind was brought back to the forefront of my mind when Susan Lim, a reputable Christian historian at Biola recently wrote an article about religion and the Founding Fathers for Christianity Today. Lim wrote,

“Washington’s successor, John Adams, was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian. As David McCullough recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Adams regularly boasted of his Puritan ancestry, sometimes bordered on legalism (he often refused to travel on the Sabbath), and occasionally cast stones against those he deemed less spiritual than himself. For example, Adams made it a point to highlight Jefferson’s nontraditional religious convictions when they both vied for the presidency.”

This surprised me, because I believed it was fairly well established that Adams was basically a U/unitarian (did not believe in the Trinity) unlike the Puritans, though he may have remained in Puritan Congregationalist churches. I wrote the following email to Susan (actually, I emailed “Dr. Lim” who graciously told me to call her Susan):

“I have no doubt that Adams was a man of faith and may have valued his Puritan heritage, but it seems to me that we have it pretty decisively in his own words that he was a Unitarian and (perhaps a bit more ambiguously) that he also had serious reservations about the incarnation. I appreciate the fact that there is some disagreement on this, but it mostly seems to come from American Filiopietists with political agendas.  I’m not sure how you say that he was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian.” I guess I can sort of spin this in a way, but I think it is liable to mislead many readers.”

Susan responded: “No doubt, the term “Puritan” is a messy one.  I shy away from it in my research.  I used it here because I assume that the majority of the readers aren’t academics, and the term “Congregational” won’t resonate with as many readers.  Puritanism has come to mean so many things to so many people; and as I’m sure you know, many of the social constructs of Puritanism were made in the 19th C (largely through fiction) to comment on Victorian society (by using Puritans as actors).  Or, as Mencken wrote, that Puritanism is thought of as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.  Of course we know that this obviously doesn’t do the Puritans justice.  What I meant was that John Adams hailed from a Puritan/Congregational family, and remained committed to his Congregational church.  Yes, that church (along with many other  Congregationalist churches) moved towards Unitarianism by the mid-18th C, but I didn’t want to go into the development of Congregationalism (or Puritanism, if you will) here.”

Note that if this is true, Adams was in the advance guard of a group of Puritan Congregationalists who rejected the the doctrine of the Trinity that had defined Christian Orthodoxy for around 1400 years. At the time, many/most U/unitarians did consider themselves Christians and their services of worship would have resembled Trinitarian Puritans’ services a great deal. Susan Lim is a knowledgeable scholar. She also possesses the virtue of inclusion in her approach to John Adams and Christianity (something many contemporary Christians could learn from). I don’t believe she was trying to fool anyone. However, I still think this way of writing about things plays into the hands of those who have a political agenda and are also much sloppier in their characterizations of the faith of the founders. 

Read the rest here.

Jefferson, Christianity, and Twitter: A Roundup

It all began on a Memorial Day weekend Saturday morning.  I was sipping coffee and flipping channels when I saw two familiar faces:  Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf. They were on stage at the Free Library of Philadelphia talking about Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs.  CSPAN was covering it.

I composed this tweet:

Shortly thereafter Sam Haselby, the author of the excellent The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, jumped into the conversation.  So did Annette Gordon-Reed (yes the CSPAN event was pre-recorded).  So did several others.

After an hour or so, I had to move on to other projects:

Then came the highlight of my day.  A Pulitzer-Prize winning historian told me to “be responsible” as I painted and caulked.

After I left, the conversation about whether or not it was appropriate to call Jefferson a “Christian” continued.  And continued. And continued until it was just Gordon-Reed and Haselby.

Michael Hattem storified the entire thing here.

Since then, there have been several blog posts addressing this fascinating debate.  Here they are:

John Fea, “Peter Onuf Kicks the ‘Christian America’ Hornets Nest.”

John Fea, “Do Historians Privilege Change Over Time Over Continuity?

Roy Rogers, “The Sacred and the Secular in Early National Virginia”

Jonathan Den Hartog, “Jefferson and Christianity”

Ben Park, “Religion and the Founding: Part I of Probably Many”

Nick Satin, “Thomas Jefferson, Peter Onuf, and the ‘Christian Nation'”

Enjoy!

Peter Onuf Kicks the “Christian America” Hornet’s Nest

Most BLessedOn April 21, 2016, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf appeared at the Free Library of Philadelphia to talk about their new book , Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.  It is a great book.  One of the best books on Jefferson I have ever read.  (If you want to learn more check out our interview with Gordon-Reed and Onuf at The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast–Episode 8).

During the conversation in Philadelphia, the authors spend some time talking about Jefferson’s religion.  You can watch the video here. The discussion of religion begins at about the 29:00 minute mark. (C-SPAN does not allow me to embed the video on the blog).

During the discussion, Gordon-Reed and Onuf claim that Thomas Jefferson believed he was a Christian.  You can see how they unpack this on the video, but I want to go on record and say that their claim is correct. (I also noted this in my post this morning on historical thinking).  Jefferson did believe that he was a Christian. As Onuf notes, his view of Christianity was grounded solely in the moral teachings of Jesus.  He did not believe in miracles, the deity of Christ, the resurrection (perhaps the ultimate miracle), the inspiration of the Bible, etc. Jefferson believed he could reject these beliefs and doctrines and still call himself a Christian.

Onuf even suggests (and he realizes he is being controversial and provocative here) that Jefferson wanted to forge a Christian nation.  For many who read this blog, or have read my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: Historical Introduction, this claim will set off red flags.  Yet, I think Onuf’s point is a logical extension of his view of Jefferson’s religion.  Jefferson did believe that the American republic would be stronger, more virtuous, if everyone followed the teachings of Jesus. He wanted America to be a Christian nation as he understood the true meaning of Christianity.  As I say in my book, the answer to the “Christian nation” question really depends on how the terms are defined.

I think there is a lesson in historical thinking here.  Gordon-Reed and Onuf do not seem to be claiming that Jefferson was right or wrong about whether he was a Christian or whether America should be a Christian nation, although I must admit that Onuf seems to come very close to doing this when he talks about his own Unitarian faith.

A few more reflections:

  1.  Onuf suggests that Jefferson’s belief in a creator and an intelligent universe was an act of worship and a “leap of faith.”  That’s true.  But one does not have to be a Christian (at least how I define the term) to worship God and believe in an intelligent creator.  By Onuf’s standard, Abraham Lincoln was a Christian as well.  (Although I am guessing Onuf would have no problem calling him one, contra Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg Prize-winning biography).  But I wonder, can one argue historically that Christian America bookChristians have always believed in certain non-negotiable doctrines and that the rejection of those doctrines means that you are not a Christian?
  2. And this leads to another observation.  It seems Onuf thinks the term “Christian” is important.  What is at stake if Jefferson is not a Christian?  (Or if a Unitarian is not a Christian?)  Why is this important?  (I guess I could ask myself the same question).
  3. For me the most fascinating part of this discussion is that both Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf seem to believe that the personal religious faith of the historian–Methodism in Gordon-Reed’s case and Unitarian in Onuf’s case–might have some influence or provide some insight into how the historian works.  Now it’s my turn to be provocative: Perhaps we should sign them up to write essays for the second edition of Confessing History.

Again, there are more questions here than definitive answers, but this whole discussion has really peaked my interest.

 

Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?”

ChangeOverTimeBack in January 2007 historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke wrote a piece in Perspectives on History titled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”  In this essay Andrews and Burke synthesized the concepts that historians use to make sense of the world into five “C’s”.  They are change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.

Over the years I have managed to get a lot of mileage out of this piece.  I discussed the 5’c of historical thinking in the introduction to my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction in 2011 (which will appear in a revised edition in 2016) and I elaborate even further on these ideas in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past in 2014.

If I were to add another “C” to the historical thinking toolbox it would be continuity. Andrews and Burke mention continuity as part of their discussion of “change over time.” They write:

The idea of change over time is perhaps the easiest of the C’s to grasp. Students readily acknowledge that we employ and struggle with technologies unavailable to our forebears, that we live by different laws, and that we enjoy different cultural pursuits. Moreover, students also note that some aspects of life remain the same across time. Many Europeans celebrate many of the same holidays that they did three or four hundred years ago, for instance, often using the same rituals and words to mark a day’s significance. Continuity thus comprises an integral part of the idea of change over time.

Whether we think about continuity as part of change over time, or describe it as a 6th “C,” I think most historians agree that is should be an important part of their thinking as they try to make sense of the past for their audiences.

This leads me to the question in the title of my post.  Do historians tend to privilege change over time over continuity?  I ask this because I have been part of a few social media conversations over the past week in which these issues have been raised.

The first conversation took place in a social media exchange over Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-seller The Culture of Narcissism.  I spent some of my Memorial Day weekend re-reading Lasch with Donald Trump in mind.  As I read I kept asking myself what parts of Lasch’s analysis were unique to the late 1970s context in which he wrote and what parts of his analysis of narcissism were still relevant today, almost forty years later.

In the end, without going into details (you can find my tweets at #narcissism or @johnfea1), I found a great deal of similarity between the “culture of narcissism” of the 1970s and today’s “culture of narcissism.”  Yes, narcissism today has been greatly enhanced by the internet and social media, but many of the ideas Lasch put forth are still relevant.  In other words, I saw continuity between the past and the present.

A couple of historians, however, wanted to dismiss my argument about continuity.  They argued that Lasch is dated, overrated, and no longer useful.  Someone even questioned why I was reading him, as if his work, written in 1979, could say nothing to our contemporary culture.  When I said in this post that “things have not changed much,” one scholar, invoking change over time, called the phrase “baloney.” It seems here that my critics privilege change over time over continuity.

The second conversation took place over Twitter. (Always difficult to tackle these kinds of complex issues on Twitter, so what I say below should be taken with a small grain of salt).  I was discussing Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs with some scholars of Jefferson and some American religious historians.  In the process we got into a debate over the meaning of Christianity.  (Again, this is probably not the kind of debate that should take place over Twitter!).

Several folks in the debate appealed to change over time.  In other words, Christianity is always changing and redefining itself.  Jefferson, with his rejection of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection, still believed he was a Christian.  He was expanding the definition of Christianity, a belief that changes and has changed over time.

As I said in the debate, I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson thought he was a Christian. This is a historical statement that I would agree with.  See my chapter on Jefferson’s religion in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  It is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”

But I also think Jefferson was wrong to think he was a Christian.  Yes, I am more than willing to admit that this is a theological statement, not a historical one.  By suggesting that Jefferson was not a Christian some might say (although no one did in this debate) that I am inappropriately bringing my own beliefs about what is a Christian to bear on this conversation.  In other words, the fact that I am an orthodox Christian has crept into my work as a historian.  Maybe.  But if this is the case, I also wonder if the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.

To put it differently, and perhaps more historically, this debate also seems to have something to do with the tension between change over time and continuity in historical writing.  A historian who emphasizes change over time might argue that Jefferson is simply expanding the definition of what it means to be a Christian.  Thus to question Jefferson’s definition of Christianity could be a form of discrimination.

A historian who emphasizes continuity, however, might argue that there are certain beliefs that all Christians have embraced through time–non-negotiable or common-denominator beliefs such as the resurrection or the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the teachings of the Nicene Creed–that have always defined what it means to be a “Christian” and continue to define what it means to be a “Christian.”  Those who want to embrace an ever-changing definition of Christianity over time, without any continuity, are at risk of stripping the label “Christian” of any real meaning.  (I am sure some might be pleased with such a development).

So back to my original question:  I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Just some thoughts here.  Still working on all of this, particularly as it relates to the relationship between history and theology.  But I do think its an issue worth thinking more about.

Are You Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

A few days ago I was having dinner with a local history teacher who had just listened to Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Some of you may recall that this was our interview on K-12 education and historical thinking with Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. We have been getting a lot of response to this episode from history teachers. For example, yesterday I received this tweet from a history teacher.

During our dinner conversation, my teacher friend said how much he appreciated historical podcasts.  As is the case with most teachers, he was very busy and did not have much time during the school year to stay connected to things going on in the field. Podcasts were his lifeline to the discipline since he could listen to them on his daily commute to school.

Others get their dose of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast on their morning run or their daily workout at the gym or health club.  I know of one fan of the podcast who listens while he is washing dishes!

If you have yet to listen to the podcast perhaps Episode 8 might entice you to download, subscribe, or write a review at ITunes.  Our guests are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon Reed, and University of Virginia history professor and Jefferson scholar Peter Onuf.  They are the authors of the just-released Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.

During the course of the episode I also share some thoughts about the complexity of the past and the uses of Jefferson’s legacy by Christian Right activist David Barton.

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