The Press Was More Political In Jefferson’s Day Than It Is Today. Yet He Defended It.

pasleyEarlier today, while speaking to a crowd in Florida, Donald Trump referenced Thomas Jefferson in a rant condemning the press and the media.  Here is what he said:

I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases, they just don’t want to report the truth and they’ve been calling us wrong now for two years. They don’t get it. By they’re starting to get it. I can tell you that. They’ve become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln and many of our greatest presidents fought with the media and called them out often times on their lies. When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it. I will do whatever I can that. They don’t get away with it.

They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” “Truth itself,” he said, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” that was June 14, my birthday, 1807….

Trump is correct about Jefferson.  The founding father had his problems with the press. Here are some more Jefferson quotes to prove it:

“I deplore… the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them… These ordures are rapidly depraving the public taste and lessening its relish for sound food. As vehicles of information and a curb on our funtionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief… This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit.” –Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

“Our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811.  Read the letter and get the larger context here.

From 40. years experience of the wretched guesswork of the newspapers of what is not done in open day light, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, & almost never worth notice. a ray therefore now & then from the fountain of light is like sight restored to the blind. –Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1816. Read the letter and get the larger context here.

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. –Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. Read the letter and get some context here.

As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers. –Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. Read the entire letter and get some context here.

So as you can see Jefferson did have his moments with the press.

But Trump is only partially correct.  These quotes need to be considered in context with Jefferson’s other remarks about the press.  Here are a few more Jefferson quotes about the relationship between a free press and the success of the American Republic.  (These are from an earlier post on the subject):

…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.

When faced with this second set of quotes, Trump supporters will probably agree that a free press is important. It is hard to reject the First Amendment.

But Trump supporters would also respond by saying that today’s press is politically biased against the POTUS.  Today’s press “is liberal.”  It is a “problem.”  It is “corrupt.”  Trump supporters would say that Trump’s new “enemy” is not a free press per se, but a free press that he believes to be tainted by opposition politics.

If Trump and his followers want to make such an argument against the press, and use Jefferson to do it, I think it is important for them to realize that today’s mainstream press (CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the network news, etc…) is far closer to being objective than the press in Thomas Jefferson’s day.  The members of the press in the early American republic were openly political and they made no bones about it.

Read Jeffrey Pasley’s excellent The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.  Here is the jacket summary:

Although frequently attacked for their partisanship and undue political influence, the American media of today are objective and relatively ineffectual compared to their counterparts of two hundred years ago. From the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, newspapers were the republic’s central political institutions, working components of the party system rather than commentators on it.

The lesson:  The press was actually MORE political in Jefferson’s age than it is today. Jefferson was often frustrated by it.  Yet he still found it indispensable to the success of the republic and was willing on more than one occasion to dogmatically defend it.

U.S. History Students Tackle Donald Trump

trump-fist

Not literally, of course.  If that happened it may have looked something like this. 🙂

Over at History on the Bridge, the blog of the Messiah College History Department, my colleague Jim LaGrand writes about how he and his co-teacher Cathay Snyder handled Donald Trump’s election in his U.S. History Survey class.

Here is a taste:

On the one hand, we were wary of trying to do too much. This was current events, not history. Sure, journalism has been called “the first draft of history,” but this was quite a first draft to deal with, and on short notice. Then there was the potential for discord and disruption in a potentially tense, polarized environment.

But we quickly decided that it was worth addressing Trump’s election somehow in our class. We hadn’t shied away from intellectual and ideological differences to that point. We’d had our students debate for and against the New Deal of the 1930s. Later in the course, they debated whether either King or Malcolm X was the best guide forward for African Americans in the 1960s. So our students were accustomed to open, lively discussions.

We also decided to address the election because throughout the course we had emphasized the constructed nature of history. In some ways, this seemed a perfect case study for interested students to think hard (albeit in a speculative fashion) about how the dramatic events of the present might eventually be understood, framed, and interpreted. Already, we had given students our customary assignment for the last day of class–Write a paragraph on an event, theme, or trend in the very recent past that will likely appear in future editions of U.S. history textbooks, and explain how it will be viewed, interpreted, and framed.

We also hoped to continue the open, forth-right intellectual environment of the class even in looking at this remarkable, contentious event. Our approach was different than that pursued in some other classrooms across the country. We did not tell our students (either explicitly or implicitly): “Be scared.” “Be inspired.” “Be outraged.” “Be vindicated.” Instead, our message was: “Be curious.”

And so we added a third possible option for our students’ short paper due at the end of the semester. Some chose to write on one of the two initial prompts: the experiences of American Indian children at Carlisle Indian School or Japanese-American internment during World War II. But others responded to our new prompt: “Where did the Trump phenomenon come from? Choose one development in U.S. history since 1865 that seems to you particularly helpful in trying to make sense of the recent rise of Trump, and explain how you see the linkage.”

Read the rest, including links to the student papers, here.

February is a Big Month for the Messiah College History Department

9e36b-boyer

As many of you know, I serve as the chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  In that role, I am happy to announce that we have a lot going on in the department this month (and into the first week of March).

The History Department is playing a major role in the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium.  (All of the sessions of the Symposium are open to the public).  The theme of this year’s Symposium is “Slavery and Justice from Antiquity to the Present.”

On February 21st at 7:00pm in Boyer Hall 131 the entire History Department will sit on a panel titled “Of Human Bondage: Forms of Enslavement in Global History.”  Each member of the department will take five minutes to talk about how the subject of slavery is treated in their specific sub-field of history and there will be plenty of time for audience discussion.

On February 23 at 3:45pm in Boyer Hall 131 two of our History Department graduates who are now in graduate school will present some of their research.  Christina Thomas (’14) will give a talk titled “What Shall I Teach My Children Who Are Black?: The Biography of Geraldine Louise Wilson, 1931-1988.”  Hierald Osorto (’06) will present a talk titled “Recovering Memory: The Archive as a Site of Resistance.”

On February 24th at 12:30-1:40 one of our current history majors, Kaitlin Coleman, will be participating in a discussion of an exhibit “Stories of Resistance from Central Pennsylvania.”  The exhibit will be on display all week in Boyer Hall’s Howe Atrium.

I also hope to attend other historically-related sessions featuring scholars and students who are not connected to the History Department.  Here are a few:

Feb. 20: Dr. David Smith, Calvin College: “Charity, Humility, Justice: Learning to Read and Inviting Virtue.” (Boyer Hall 131, 4:45)

Feb. 20: Dr. Emerson Powery, Messiah College: “The Bible and the ‘Slave Narrative’.” (Hostetter Chapel, 7:00pm)

Feb. 21: Dr. Peter Powers, Messiah College: “Whose freedom? Whose Humanity?: Slavery, the Humanities, and the Liberating Arts.” (Boyer Hall 131, 3:45)

Feb. 23: Maria Thiaw, Central Penn College and Messiah College and Central Penn College Students: “Piecing Our History: A Quilted and Poetic History of African Americans in Dauphin Country.”

The Humanities Symposium ends on Friday, February 24, but the History Department-sponsored events keep rolling on!

On Monday, February 27 C-SPAN will be on campus to film a lecture in my Pennsylvania History course for its American History TV program “Lectures in History.”  (Sorry, this one is not open to the public)

Later in the day on the 27th the History Department will host Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson of Pepperdine University for a lecture titled “The Election of 1800 & the Birth of Partisan Presidential Politics.”  Admission is free and open to the public.  It will take place in Boyer Hall 336 at 4:00pm

Finally, on Saturday, March 4th, Messiah College will host the annual South-Central Pennsylvania regional National History Day competition.  Over 600 middle-school and high-school students will compete for spots in the Pennsylvania state National History Day competition with the hopes of making it all the way to the national finals.  We are still looking for judges for the event.  If you are interested in serving this way please shoot me an e-mail at jfea[at]messiah[dot]eduAn

And did I mention that on Monday, February 20 we are hosting a History Department Open House session for prospective students and their family?  I hope to see some of you in Frey Hall 156 from 11:30-12:20.

We are looking forward to a busy few weeks!  I hope to see many of you along the way!

Mark Cuban: Don’t Go to College to Study Business. Study the Humanities

cuban

From Business Insider:

Billionaire investor Mark Cuban offered a perhaps bleak prediction on the future of jobs in an interview Friday with Bloomberg’s Cory Johnson at the NBA All-Star Technology Summit in New Orleans.

Discussing the swiftly evolving nature of jobs due to automation, he noted that across a broad array of industries, robots will replace human workers.

Prompted by Johnson, he then made a bold proclamation about the types of skills and majors that will dominate in his version of the future labor market.

Here’s an excerpt of their conversation (emphasis ours):

Johnson: So essentially what you’re making the case for is education and job training for grown ups.

Cuban: No, no. I think that won’t matter. What are you going to go back and learn to do?

Johnson: What it takes, right? Whether it’s finance, whether it’s software programming.

Cuban: No finance. That’s the easiest thing — you just take the data have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.

Cuban’s forecast of the skills needed to succeed in the future echoes that of computer science and higher education experts who believe people with “soft skills,” like adaptability and communication, will have the advantage in an automated workforce.

Cuban highlighted English, philosophy, and foreign language majors as just some of the majors that will do well in the future job market.

Watch the entire interview here.

Cuban is reinforcing a narrative I and many other have been pushing for a long time.  We need the humanities more than ever in a constantly changing workplace. (Not to mention their contribution to our democracy).  Colleges and universities with traditional liberal arts programs that do not invest in their humanities-based missions are doing so at their own peril.

Having said that, I am becoming more and more convinced that not every 4-year college or university, even those who give lip-service to the liberal arts and the humanities, will be unable to commit to this kind mission and still keep the doors open.  Colleges in financial difficulties, or those who rely entirely on tuition dollars, or those with small endowments, cannot afford to take the long view in this way.  Instead, they must throw their money into professional programs just to stay alive.

Cuban takes the long view.  Liberal arts and the humanities are the future.  It think college administrators understand this, but there is nothing they can do about it.  Mission is sacrificed to market.  Give the students want they want, not what they, and all of us, need.

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.

Andrew Sullivan Tries to Explain Stephen Miller

miller

You may recall Stephen Miller from last Sunday morning when he appeared on all the news shows.  He is apparently one of Trump’s closest advisers.  We wrote about this here.

Over at New York Magazine writer Andrew Sullivan tries to explain this guy:

I feel like I know Stephen Miller, the youthful Montgomery Burns who lectured the lügenpresse last Sunday morning in his charm-free Stakhanovite baritone. I feel like I know him because I used to be a little like him. He’s a classic type: a rather dour right-of-center kid whose conservatism was radicalized by lefties in the educational system. No, I’m not blaming liberals for Miller’s grim fanaticism. I am noting merely that right-of-center students are often mocked, isolated, and anathematized on campus, and their response is often, sadly, a doubling down on whatever it is that progressives hate. Before too long, they start adopting brattish and obnoxious positions — just to tick off their SJW peers and teachers. After a while, you’re not so much arguing for conservatism as against leftism, and eventually the issues fade and only the hate remains.

Read it the rest here.  Sullivan’s take makes sense.

Historians and History Teachers in the Age of Trump

hisotry-class

Last week I got a nice note from a former student. Let’s call him Patrick.

Patrick is a recent college graduate and a relatively new history teacher. He wrote to tell me that his middle-school principal recently praised him for his good work in the classroom.  In the course of their conversation the principal said, “history is important, particularly now.”

Patrick’s principal is right. Good history is always important, but it is especially needed in times of great social and political change.  We are living in a day and age when historians and history teachers must serve as a “check” on presidential power.

Donald Trump gave history teachers a gift when he released his executive order banning immigration from 7 predominantly Muslim nations. When the 9th Circuit Court refused to overturn a federal judge’s decision to stop this ban, classroom lessons on the separation of powers came took on new significance. The Executive Branch went too far and the Judicial Branch, at least for the moment, put a stop to it.  Chalk it up as a victory for the Constitution.  The facts of the textbook met the realities of current events.  This is every history teacher’s dream.

The separation of powers is not the only way to keep the President of the United States in check.  A free press holds the government accountable to the people. Freedom of speech and the right to assemble, as we have seen in American cities every weekend since Trump took office, is a means of getting the President’s attention and exercising dissent.

It is time that those of us who are called to teach and write about the American past must use our First Amendment rights to be part of the dissent.

Sometimes our public work as historians is as simple as correcting the historical record when it is being abused by those in power.

For example, earlier this month Kellyanne Conway, a senior official in the Trump White House, introduced us to something called the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

I imagine that there were people who saw and heard Conway’s conversation with television host Chris Matthews and believed her claim that two Iraqi refugees in 2011 led a “massacre” of Americans in the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  By claiming that such an event happened (it did not) and giving her fake story a historically-sounding name like the “Bowling Green Massacre,” Conway was trying to instill fear in ordinary Americans.  It was a blatant attempt to fabricate history in order to justify her boss’s immigration ban.  History teaches us that tyrants often manipulate the past to buttress their power.

Historians quickly debunked Conway’s fake history, but the damage had already been done.  The day after the Conway’s interview with Matthews I was speaking to a Trump voter who referenced the “Bowling Green Massacre” as a Muslim terrorist attack that could have been avoided if Trump’s ban had been in place in 2011.  A poll by Public Polling Policy found that over half of Trump supporters still believe that the President’s executive order is justified by the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

Historians might also show that Americans have been banning immigrants based on country of origin or religious faith for a long time.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 excluded people from coming to the United States on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. The Johnson-Reed Act, which banned most immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, remained in place until 1965.

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals.  Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now.  History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions.  They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

History teachers challenge students to enter imaginatively into the thoughts and motivations of the people they encounter in the past.  They teach students to listen before judging and to empathize before criticizing.  They want students to consider the public statements of our leaders in context, and to call them out when they play fast and loose with the past for the purpose of political gain.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution about the role that historians and history teachers play in the checking of presidential power.  But we need them now–perhaps more than ever.

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1.  Historian Heather Cox Richardson on Trump’s Muslim Ban: “It’s a Shock Event”
  2.  Political Diversity at Christian Colleges
  3.  No, Stephen Miller.  That’s Not How It Works
  4.  History as Love
  5.  A David Barton Disciple is Running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania
  6.  Is Betsy DeVos the New Ruby Bridges?
  7.  The Mixed Blessings of Civil Religion
  8.  Video of the Day
  9.  Quote of the Day
  10.  It Was Only a Matter of Time

George Washington Book Prize Finalists Chosen

alito

I got to meet Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito at the 2012 George Washington Book Prize Gala at Mount Vernon.  My Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction was one of three finalists that year.

And here they are:

Chestertown, MD—In celebration of George Washington’s 285th birthday, seven books published in 2016 by the country’s most prominent historians have been named finalists for the George Washington Prize. The annual award recognizes the past year’s best-written works on the nation’s founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of early American history.

Created in 2005 by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Washington College, the $50,000 George Washington Prize is one of the nation’s largest and most notable literary awards, and this year’s finalists include past Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners.

The finalists’ books combine depth of scholarship and broad expanse of inquiry with vivid prose that exposes the complexities of our founding narrative. Through compelling storytelling, the authors introduce readers to citizen soldiers and statesmen, artists and frontiersmen, heroes and traitors, loyalists and rebels—the ordinary, the ambitious, and the exceptional men and women who, in the chaos and contradictions of revolution, imagined a different world order and gave shape to a new nation.

Written to engage a wide public audience, the books provide a “go-to” reading list for anyone interested in learning more about George Washington, his contemporaries, and the drama of the revolutionary founding of the United States of America.

The 2017 George Washington Prize finalists are:

● T.H. Breen, George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (Simon and Schuster)

● Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (Liveright Publishing)

● Jane Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (W.W. Norton)

● Michael J. Klarman, The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution(Oxford University Press)

● Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone, Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (University of Oklahoma Press)

● Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Viking) 

● Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton)

A distinguished jury comprised of notable historians David Preston, Kathleen DuVal, and Nick Bunker, selected the finalists from a field of nearly 60 books. The winner of the 2017 prize will be announced, and all finalists recognized, at a black-tie gala on Thursday, May 25 at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. More information about the George Washington Prize is available at washcoll.edu/gwbookprize.

Donald Trump is “Making Journalism Great Again”

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It’s times like this that I wish I had followed my childhood love of journalism. I am doing my best to bring historically-informed analysis here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I also have a day job that includes, in addition to teaching (which I see as my primary vocation), a lot of paperwork, meetings, and, occasionally breaking bad news to colleagues.

Over at The Atlantic, Peter Beinart reports on the way traditional American “institutions”–the press, the judiciary, and the people–have been resisting and restraining the Trump administration.  His thoughts on the press and journalism caught my attention:

But no president faced with a dissatisfied bureaucracy and a vigorous press has been able to keep the internal workings of government secret. And Trump is facing the most energized American press corps in decades. America’s prestige newspapers have seen dramatic increases in circulation over the last year. The Post alone recently announced that it was hiring sixty new journalists.  Trump, in Jack Shafer’s words, “is making journalism great again,” and great journalism is, to some degree, restraining his power.

I am hoping that Trump might do the same for history and the humanities.

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.

The Civil War Centennial in Jackson, Mississippi

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory found this on You Tube.  Here is what he writes:

Check out this short video of a Civil War centennial parade in Jackson, Mississippi in March 1961. There is no shortage of Confederate flags. It certainly is a wonderful example of how these events rallied white communities at the height of the civil rights movement.

There does appear to be two black individuals in the parade, one pushing a wheelbarrow at the 54 second mark, but I am not sure what to make of it.

The Author’s Corner with Lisa Lindsay

atlantic-bondsLisa Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This interview is based on her new book, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Atlantic Bonds?

LL: In a biography of a women’s rights advocate in mid-20th century Nigeria, I read that her grandfather had come to Africa from South Carolina in the 1850s and stayed there for the rest of his life.  I was intrigued, because it seemed that this man, James Churchwill Vaughan, embodied connections between the American South and West Africa that we don’t often think about: the “return” migration of African Americans, the effect of the diaspora on Africa, and the similar but also contrasting histories of slavery and white supremacy in the antebellum south and colonial Africa.  So I began to try to find out about this fellow Vaughan.  Once I learned that he had emigrated to Liberia and then Nigeria, been captured in wars feeding the slave trade, led a revolt against white missionaries, and founded a prosperous family of activists who stayed in touch with their relatives in the United States, I was hooked.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Atlantic Bonds?

LL: James Churchwill (Church) Vaughan’s life story forms one thread in a larger fabric of interconnections during a transformative period in Atlantic history: when slavery was abolished in the United States and colonialism began in West Africa, and when black people in both places confronted challenges to their security and autonomy.  Following Vaughan’s journeys from South Carolina to Liberia to several parts of Yorubaland (Nigeria) enables a view of linkages across the nineteenth century Atlantic world as well as a comparison of related and similar phenomena in various settings.

JF: Why do we need to read Atlantic Bonds?

LL: The book brings together the histories of the United States, Africa, and the African diaspora–whose practitioners do not often engage substantially with each other’s scholarship–and of slavery and colonialism, which are generally studied separately.  This wide, comparative view yields two sets of revelations often missed by specialists who focus exclusively on one place.  First, it reminds us that American slavery was part of a connected, Atlantic world of bonded labor, one where slavery and freedom were not stark opposites but rather framed a continuum of dependency relations.  Second, the book probes the relationship between diasporic Africans and the politics of African colonialism, showing how consciousness of the diaspora informed opportunities and strategies in Africa.

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

LL: Actually, I’m an Africanist historian.  My first monograph was on colonial Nigeria.  But I have always been interested in the interplay between the local and the global in African history, and in comparative history.  As a graduate student at the University of Michigan I had the good fortune to work with Rebecca Scott, Tom Holt, and my adviser Fred Cooper, who were collaborating on a project about postemancipation societies.  So from early on I was intrigued by cross-regional comparisons, particularly as they relate to slavery and its aftermath.  At UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m in a department with a distinguished faculty in US, and particularly Southern, history.  And so when I became interested in the story of Church Vaughan, it gave me the chance to bring together the expertise I had already developed on Nigeria with new challenges and rewards in studying American history.

JF: What is your next project?

LL: I keep moving back in time and to larger geographic frames.  The next project will center on the history of women in the Atlantic slave trade, tracing such topics as the enslavement of women, women in the middle passage, and women in the antislavery movement over roughly the 16th to the 19th centuries.

JF: Thanks, Lisa!

The Mixed Blessings of Civil Religion

civil-religion

The editors of The Christian Century see the positive and negative affects of American civil religion. Their recent editorial was prompted by the lack of civil religiosity in Donald Trump’s inaugural address last month.

Here is a taste:

Theologians have long been wary or dismissive of civil religion, noting that it often functions as a rival religion to authentic faith—it’s a brand of Christian heresy. Civil religion borrows Christian themes but celebrates the stories and martyrs of the nation rather than the church and treats the nation rather than the church as the vehicle of God’s purposes. As such, especially in times of war, American civil religion has been an invitation to hubris and self-righteousness; it can cloak mundane self-interest in religious garb.

Yet because civil religion claims a transcendent purpose for the nation, it has also offered a basis for judging the nation’s failures and spurring it to reform. Because the nation has claimed high ideals for itself, it has invited a moral critique. It was in that tradition that Martin Luther King Jr. blended biblical ethics with democratic principles to condemn racial segregation as a betrayal of the nation’s creed of equality for all. It is in that tradition that protesters took to the streets in recent weeks to insist that the United States fulfill its promise to be a beacon of freedom to refugees from all lands and religions.

Christians have no ultimate stake in the survival of American civil religion. Its demise under Trump could conceivably encourage the church to claim and assert its distinct identity apart from the rhetoric of American politics. Yet insofar as the demise of American civil religion spells the contraction of moral imagination and the loss of a horizon of moral judgment and aspiration, it is hardly a development that Christians can cheer. The collapse of a Chris­tian heresy can lead to things that are far worse.

Read the entire piece here.