Archive for May, 2008

Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?

Posted on May 12, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

Most Americans know the terms Puritans and Pilgrims. Most don’t know that these are two different groups.

Puritans were English Protestants in the late 16th century who wanted their church, the Anglican church, to follow the Calvinist model more closely and give up the remnants of Catholicism still present in Anglicanism.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Puritans consistently pushed their agenda in Parliament and in their local towns. Puritans would often remove themselves from their assigned parish church to go hear sermons from a Puritan minister in another town’s church. This was illegal at the time. In an effort to stop the wild pendulum swings in her kingdom from extreme protestantism to Catholic resurgence and back again, Elizabeth refused to legitimize the Puritan agenda. She did not prosecute them severely, but she did not rescind the laws making their activities illegal.

Their sense of being persecuted for their faith gave the Puritans a lot of energy. They developed a complete system for defining and realizing salvation that I can’t go into in a short post here. But they also split.

Puritans began as a group within the Anglican church that wanted to purify it of lingering Catholic influences. But some Puritans lost faith in the Anglican church. Deciding it could never be purified, they abandoned it, separating themselves from it. These became known as Separatists. The majority of Puritans, who remained within the Anglican church, were known as nonseparating Puritans. The two groups grew increasingly hostile as the 17th century wore on.

It was the Separatists who took the Mayflower for America. Forced to leave England because it was treason to leave the Anglican church, small groups of Separatists left for Holland and other Protestant European countries. The group that we know as the Pilgrims went to Leiden in Holland. Americans often learn that they decided not to stay there because their children were becoming Dutch, but this is not true. They left because Holland’s truce with Catholic Spain was near its end, and the Protestant Separatists would have been wiped out if Spain had taken control once again of Holland.

So the Separatists received permission from the English government to go to America. Why? They were funded by financiers in London, and the crown figured that if the colonists made a go of it, the crown would seize the colony and enjoy the profits. The religion of the colonists was secondary to the financial potential they represented.

Not all the people on board the Mayflower were Separatists. Stories of the horrors suffered by colonists at Jamestown, in Virginia, were well-circulated in England. The feeling in England was that the Jamestown colonists had gone to America grossly unprepared. The Separatists vowed not to repeat those colonists’ mistakes. They recruited tradespeople from London whose talents would be essential to building a new society—carpenters, blacksmiths, etc.

Those recruits were not Puritans or Separatists. They were Anglicans. But mostly, they were people who didn’t really think about religion too much, who just wanted a chance to go to America. The Separatists, then, were in the minority as the Mayflower set sail. Fights between the two groups broke out almost immediately. The Separatists got on the others’ nerves with their religion, which permeated all aspects of their lives, and the Anglicans got on the Separatists’ nerves with their deliberate sacrilege and mockery of religion. When they landed in America, the Separatists had a hard time keeping control of the colony from the majority.

Now, the nonseparating Puritans in England came under real persecution starting in 1630, with the election of Archbishop Laud, who dedicated himself to wiping Puritanism out and bringing the Anglican church as far back toward Catholicism as he could. Tens of thousands of Puritans would emigrate to Massachusetts in the 1630s.  But they didn’t go to Plymouth. They weren’t about to miss their chance to found an untrammeled, unchallenged, all-powerful Puritan state by moving in with a bunch of crazy Separatists and, worse yet, blasphemous, Catholic-tinged Anglicans.

The Puritans instead founded Boston, north of Plymouth. And as the Puritan colony centered there—the Massachusetts Bay Colony—grew, it quickly outstripped Plymouth. Bay colonists ruthlessly confiscated land, including lands owned by Plymouth. By the 1640s, Plymouth was reduced to a backwater, and its Separatist quality was fairly diluted, even as the Puritanism of the Bay Colony grew and strengthened.

So that’s the story of the Pilgrims and the Puritans in a two-minute nutshell. Here are some fantastic books to read on the subject:

Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, by the great Edmund S. Morgan

The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700, by Stephen Foster

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Native Americans: they were people!

Posted on May 9, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America | Tags: , , , |

I can’t remember where I was reading someone complaining that Native Americans are presented in K-12 American history textbooks as a kind of flora or fauna, interesting wildlife that briefly served as a backdrop for early English settlers before disappearing.

You know the drill: you learn about the “tribes” that lived in eastern North America, what foods they ate, what they made their houses out of, how they hunted and traveled, and what clothing and jewelry they wore. You learn about their animal gods, and how they respected and worshipped nature. Maybe you read one “tribe’s” creation story, telling how the world was made, that involves the animal gods.

Just imagine if this was how the English settlers who came to North America were described.

“They wore clothing of cotton and leather that they made on machines called looms in their homes. Their homes were made of wooden posts and plaster, and sometimes had two stories. They ate wheat bread that they made in brick ovens, and drank mild ale made from native apples. They lived in family units of a father, mother, and children. Many families lived together in villages. They worshipped a God who had once taken human form, celebrating his existence by eating crackers and drinking wine during their weekly worship service. They rode on horses or went on foot when traveling.”

Of course, this is not how the English are described. We learn about their political system and arguments, the international wars they were involved in, religious differences and religious wars, their changing economy, the different policies and goals of their monarchs, and their reasons and objectives for settling the New World.

In short, we see the flux and dynamism of their culture, in relation to other cultures. Unlike the Native Americans, who are presented as being exactly the same in 1620 as they were 15,000 years ago. And, except for quaint and sort-of interesting differences in clothing and housing, Americans in the northeast are presented as exactly the same as Americans in the southeast. Native Americans are represented as uniform, unchanging, static, and simple.

So the easy way to improve the representation of Native Americans in American history textbooks would be to depict them just as the English are depicted. Talk about the different groups in the northeast, for example; their ever-changing relationships to each other, their wars, and their alliances. Compare the Narragansett-Pequot-Mohegan triangle to the constantly shifting alliances and wars between England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. Talk about American religious practices, but only in the context of how those practices impacted relations with neighboring groups, political choices, and worldview.

Explain that Native Americans developed a particular type of warfare based on their goals, resources, and religion–just like the English did. Say that on the eve of English settlement in the American northeast, 16th-century American political alliances and religious policy had been devastated by a smallpox pandemic brought unwittingly by European fishermen, who had been interacting with Americans for over 100 years before English settlers came. Explain that their knowledge of Europeans shaped the American reaction to the first settlers.

Show how the Europeans had behaved in a way the Americans recognized: constantly shifting alliances. Sometimes the fishermen landed and just wanted to peacefully trade, even intermarry. But sometimes they landed and took prisoners and made war. This the Americans were used to; they understood that type of politics. They were not in awe of the Europeans, but simply incorporated them into their existing worldview, and treated them accordingly.

Do all this, and then when you get Pilgrims arriving in 1620, you have an America that makes sense. You have real people–the Americans–interacting with real people–the English. You can make more sense of the difficulties each side eventually faced in accommodating each other. You get Americans.

That would be a good textbook. There must be someone out there in a position to write it.

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A Duty to your country

Posted on May 8, 2008. Filed under: U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

I was listening to retired Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez on the radio yesterday, talking about his new book in which he details the Bush administration’s “catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan” in Iraq. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“Some senior military leaders did not challenge civilian decision makers at the appropriate times, and the courageous few who did take a stand were subsequently forced out of the service.  …I observed intrusive civilian command of the military, rather than the civilian control embodied in the Constitution. I saw the cynical use of war for political gains by elected officials and acquiescent military leaders. …I also understood that, while on active duty, the Uniform Code of Military Justice precluded me from speaking out against my superiors while in uniform. If I valued my oath—and I did—I had to comply. Since leaving the service, however, I have been encouraged by both civilians and retired four-­star military officers to write about my life, my career, and what really happened on the ground in Iraq. I believe now is the right time.”

It has become commonplace now to have military officers come out with “Iraq was a disaster” books as soon as they retire. Each time, they excuse their failure to live up to their duty of serving their country by saying they had to live up to their duty of remaining loyal to the military chain of command.

Sanchez himself, in this excerpt which I assume he chose or approved of, says at once that he saw the Constitution of the United States being violated, but that the oath he swore never to contradict a military superior was more important than upholding the Constitution.

As I said, Sanchez is hardly alone in this. Over and over, we ask military leaders–generals–why they didn’t do something to protect U.S. soldiers and innocent civilians, why they didn’t tell the American public what was really happening in Iraq, and why they are only speaking out once they have no power to do anything. And always the answer is that they swore a sacred oath not to tell the truth if it rocked the boat of military command.

It is clear that there is a confusion about what U.S. soldiers are sworn to do. They are sworn to uphold and defend the principles, common good, and safety of the United States. If the commands they are given do anything to degrade or endanger the U.S., they have a sworn duty not to obey those commands.

Any soldier can say “I had to follow orders”. That was the defense offered by many fascists after World War II. Americans tore that defense to shreds at the time. If you are in the U.S. military, and you receive an order contrary to the Constitution of the United States, you don’t follow the order. Your ultimate duty is to your country, not your unit, your general, or even the military as a whole.

Someone as high up as Sanchez, and all the other generals, certainly faced less danger of being silenced without recourse to the press. It’s a pretty lame passing of the buck to say, “I was in charge, but I still had to follow orders.”

My ancestors have fought in every American war, starting with the Pequot War in 1637. (This does not mean I think they were all good wars.)  I have relatives in the service right now. So I’m not anti-military. Rightly used, our military is a great force for good.  But I am pro-Constitution. It’s time that U.S. generals speak out against violations of our Constitution and against reckless endangerment of our soldiers while they are still able to do something about it. That’s “the right time” to tell what you know. That’s the real oath they take.

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De Tocqueville on Red and Blue States

Posted on May 6, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , |

I was listening once again to Bill Cook’s fantastic lectures on De Tocqueville last night and he was on the section where De Tocqueville talks about political parties.

De Tocqueville describes two types of political party: great parties and small parties. Great parties, he says, overturn society, replacing one system of thought with another. Small parties agitate within society. So whereas great parties tear society apart and create a new society, small parties only degrade the existing society.

Great parties focus on ideas, the big picture, and the general effects of those ideas in practice. Small parties are petty, focused on individuals, immediate consequences, the here and now, and, above all, victory. Victory is more important than convictions, and when winning is job one, the small party will compromise its own values to win. The small party doesn’t really have a philosophy or faith in a set of values. It will adopt whatever policies allow for victory, and will scare voters by predicting that individuals from rival parties will cause immediate negative consequences for them.

When De Tocqueville was writing, in the 1830s and 1840s, there were no Republicans and Democrats as we know them; the two-party system was not yet in place in the U.S. But his description of great and small parties rings true today.

The party that says if Michael Dukakis is elected president, then Willie Horton will come to your house and kill you, is a small party. The party that wants you to focus on a gas tax holiday over the summer of 2008 while accomplishing nothing toward our long-term fuel problems, is a small party. The party that agitates against gay marriage while ignoring or generating the economic problems families face is a small party. The party that gives lip service to military personnel and their families while refusing to pay those personnel properly or support their families in any way if the on-duty family member dies in service, is a small party. The party that builds a wall to keep out immigrants while refusing to penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants, and while refusing to stop using the services of illegal immigrants itself, is a small party.

As we vote this year for a president, and as we vote in other years for Congress members, governors, state legislators, and the many referenda that come up in our individual states, we should remember De Tocqueville’s definitions of parties, and make sure we cast our vote for the party that overturns some long-held ways of doing things in order to create more common good, rather than the party that merely asks us to hate someone else in our country.

The party that tells you that your good can only come about if someone else is punished is the small party, and does not deserve your vote. The party that tells you that the U.S. must continue to do what it has been doing because to change course is to lose, that change is humiliation, does not deserve your vote.

Keeping De Tocqueville in mind whenever you go to the polls will remind you that this nation was founded on big ideas and overturning society for the good, and that no harm can come of Americans thinking big.

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The original truth v. myth

Posted on May 4, 2008. Filed under: American history, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , |

There’s a great opinion piece in the Times today about the state of the nation. You can read it for yourselves; the takeaway is that the president we need today is the president who can tell us that we’re not doing very well, that we are not living up to our founding principles, and that our current way of life is unsustainable.

Of course, that’s the president we always need.

We need that person to not only tell us how we are failing, but to offer a viable, principled plan for improvement that s/he will push through a reluctant Congress and withstand withering criticism for supporting.

I’ve carped in other posts about politicians’ inability or unwillingness to brook any criticism from “the people” (usually a few people pretending to speak for all people). Politicians should be leaders, taking on the tough job of forcing Americans to do the right thing. But they seem more and more to be followers, hoping the people will tell them what to do.

And there’s the even-worse-case scenario, in which major politicians, like the president, trample our founding principles to further their own personal goals.

The truth about America is that we are great when we live up to our founding principles of representative democracy focused on promoting and protecting natural rights. When we don’t do that, we are awful, because we were founded with a very idealistic mission, and so we fall from a great height when we let that down.

The myth about America is that whatever we do, we are living up to those principles, that it just naturally happens and that we are good no matter what we do because we are America. Representative democracy goes against human nature. Every generation, we have to re-learn the principles of justice and democracy we are founded on, and re-dedicate ourselves to fulfilling them. These principles can’t really be inherited. They have always to be adopted, over and over.

Our job as Americans right now is to do what our politicans won’t: demand that we adhere to our founding principles. We have to take the lead.

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Lincoln rebuttal: who black people hate

Posted on May 3, 2008. Filed under: Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics | Tags: , , , |

I noticed on my blog stats page that someone had clicked into my series of posts on Lincoln and slavery from a site called “Stuff Black People Hate”, which is either the precursor or follower of the site “Stuff White People Love.” I clicked the link to the site and there, posted on March 27, 2008, was an article about how vile Lincoln was and why black Americans hate him.

It’s good to know that my series on Lincoln was timely.

The post quotes one of Lincoln’s 1858 Senate race speeches, in which he talks about how he will never let inferior Negroes mix with whites. Then, it quotes an 1865 speech in which Lincoln says he wishes that only those black Americans who served in the Union army could have the vote.

Both quotes are used to prove Lincoln’s racism in the most dishonest way. First, yes indeed, Lincoln was flailing during that Senate race, battling with his own racism. He wanted the grand ideal of equality for all, but was totally unequipped mentally to bring it about.

You could use that quote to lambast Lincoln’s racism–IF that was the end of the story. But, unlike most people then and now, Lincoln’s attitude toward race changed pretty radically over a pretty short period of time. Five years after that 1858 speech, he had fought hard to get Congress to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in war zones permanently and setting the legal stage for abolition. Seven years after that 1858 speech, he convinced the Congress and the people to abolish slavery in the U.S., driving the Thirteenth Amendment through a skeptical Congress and nation.

In 1865, his musings on allowing only intelligent or veteran black Americans to vote can be viewed as racist–unless you know something about American history. At that point, no black Americans could vote. The Fifteenth Amendment would not come into existence until 1870. So Lincoln is saying that even though black Americans are not yet allowed to vote, those who served their country in war should be allowed to.

Having pushed through the EP and the Thirteenth Amendment in just two years, Lincoln was likely waiting to include the right to vote for black Americans until his Reconstruction plan began.

So once again I’m gravely unconvinced by the same old misinformed and tired arguments against Lincoln. Yes, he began as a racist. But he didn’t end that way. To insist on slandering him is only to insist on spreading the myth that American freedom and principles mean nothing. They only mean nothing when we ignore them.

If black—and white—Americans want to hate someone, how about Bing Crosby? I saw “Holiday Inn” on TV the other night. In it, Crosby runs an inn open only on holidays. For Lincoln’s birthday, the inn was set up like a plantation, with all the whites in black face, including Bing, who sang a song in “negro dialect” while his blonde girlfriend, with her hair sticking straight up in her role as “pickaninny”, rolled her eyes and also sang about “ol fadder Abraham” (after complaining, while her blackface was put on, that she had thought she was going to get to look pretty).  This was in 1942.  It was perhaps the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen on television, or anywhere else. Sometimes the 20th century looks worse than the 19th.

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Lincoln: Hero, not villain; truth, not myth

Posted on May 1, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Here we are at the last post of my Truth v. Myth series on Lincoln and slavery.

 

With the Emancipation Proclamation, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery in the United States. By which I mean to say, slavery was finally abolished, someone finally acted to end it, and Lincoln finally lived up to his principles. “Finally” seems harsh to apply to someone whose actions and convictions changed so radically in just four years (1858 to 1862). “[Viewed] from the abolition ground, [Lincoln was] tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent… Measuring him by the sentiment of his country… he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” said Frederick Douglass. Abolishing slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation “is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century,” Lincoln said. [Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 250, 186]

 

So how can it be that Lincoln is called a proslavery racist so often today? Lincoln was, of course, slowly but surely tarnished by education in this country after the Civil War, when he slipped from hero to villain as southern Confederate sympathizers rewrote his motives and actions to make him a fool. Texas and Florida are two of the largest textbook markets in America, and their textbook committees made sure the “right” information was published in their American history books throughout the 20th century.

 

And as the dream of true equality seemed to slide farther and farther away from black Americans during Jim Crow, Lincoln’s deeds and promises did seem hollow. By the 1960s, when the horrors of violence inflicted on black civil rights protesters and leaders had been witnessed by the entire nation, a few key black scholars and leaders rejected all white efforts on behalf of race equality as empty, including Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. Lerone Bennett’s work, naming Lincoln as “a reactionary white supremacist” was particularly damaging.

 

But this kind of treatment of Lincoln was just an early symptom of Americans losing faith in America. “The withdrawal from Lincoln by African-Americans has moved in step with the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress,” Allen Guelzo says, and I think he is right. [Ibid. 248] I also agree with him when he says that “It would be special pleading to claim that Lincoln was in the end the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had. But it would also be the cheapest and most ignorant of skepticism to deny that he was the most significant.” [Ibid. 11]

 

Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.

 

Truth:  It was, and deliberately so.

 

Damage done when we believe in a myth: Guelzo has it cold: when we believe the absolute worst of myths, we see—and are part of—“the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress”. There is meaning in the Civil War when it comes to racial progress, and if there was hope that was realized in 1863—in the middle of a nightmare war, after 203 years of entrenched slavery—then there is hope today.

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