Archive for January, 2009

John Winthrop, villain?

Posted on January 23, 2009. Filed under: Puritans | Tags: , |

You can imagine our surprise to find this question in the list of prompts typed into search engines that led eventually to this blog.

It took us a moment to realize it must be about Anne Hutchinson; for those of you who are looking for evidence of Winthrop’s villainity, check out our Truth v. Myth series on Mrs. Hutchinson. Rest assured, you will find that Winthrop was no villain, Hutchinson no angel, and the Puritans more complex people than you might have imagined.

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Obama Inauguration Speech – history now!

Posted on January 21, 2009. Filed under: Politics | Tags: |

I know this blog is about American history, not present politics, but since this is history in the making in a way we are all unusually aware of, here’s perhaps the last Obama link: the full text of his inauguration speech. In fifty years, it will figure large in countless U.S. history dissertations.

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National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation

Posted on January 21, 2009. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , |

January 20, 2009 was called as a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation by President Obama. See the full, short, text of the proclamation at whitehouse.gov.

All citizens–which means all of us living here, no matter our legal status–are called “to serve one another and common purpose of remaking this Nation”.

All Historic Present readers should be on board!

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Optimism is the true moral courage: Shackleton and Obama

Posted on January 13, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

I just got around to reading Clarence Jones’ article on the upcoming Obama inauguration. In it, Jones, an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., makes a profound and wonderful statement:

“Dr. King had an abiding belief in the basic goodness, fairness and decency of America. He never abandoned his confidence that a majority of Americans would ultimately embrace the precepts of our Declaration of Independence: That all persons are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The power of King was that he didn’t say America needed to do something new, to become another people, to end racism. He didn’t say that racism was part of the fabric of America, the legacy of America, the nature of Americans. King said racism was un-American, that it contradicted our basic founding principles, and that racism turned us into another, lesser people. King had the founding principles and documents of the United States on his side, and he knew it. He called for a return to our true nature and our original commission. He denounced racism as having no part in the American experience, and not worthy of us as Americans.

So rather than angrily or cynically dismissing our founding principles as lies and shams, King demanded that we all live up to them. And he won, because he was right.

I’ve noted elsewhere that Barack Obama shares this quality of King’s; he believes in the founding principles of this nation as the best thing about us, and, when we live up to them, the only thing that gives us integrity in the larger world.

My title comes from Ernest Shackleton, the Irish explorer to Antarctica whose 1914-1917 expedition is the stuff of legend. His ship, the aptly named Endurance, was trapped in ice and eventually crushed. For 10 months, Shackleton and his crew waited for a thaw, and once the ship was gone, spent four months drifting in the open ice on an ice floe until they hit land at Elephant Island. Knowing they couldn’t survive there for long, Shackleton took a small crew in a modified whaleboat they had saved on the floe and rowed 800 miles across the Antarctic Ocean to land, then marched for three days and nights through the ice mountains of South Georgia Island to a whaling station. He briefly rested, then took a whaling ship back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his crew. There was not one life lost.

When an astonished reporter, much later, asked Shackleton whether he believed any of the men he had left at Elephant Island would survive for his return, expecting that Shackleton would admit that of course he had not, Shackleton replied of course he had. “Optimism is the true moral courage,” he said, meaning that if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you will fail, because you will not have the strength of mind or body to succeed.

Obama is an example of that optimism. Belief in our founding principles in the face of their distortion is true moral courage. Believing we can live up to our principles allows us to do so. From King to us, that is the message for all Americans.

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New Calvinists give Old Puritans a bad name

Posted on January 10, 2009. Filed under: American history, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

I see that a movement called “New Calvinism” is trying to sweep the nation, led most notably by someone named Mark Driscoll in Seattle. They claim to have rehabilitated the teachings of John Calvin, particularly the ideas that all humans are damned and unable to earn salvation, and that God has chosen just a few to be saved, no matter what they do, and most to be damned, no matter what they do.

Calvin did believe that every person’s fate–heaven or hell–was set before time began, in the mind of God, and that nothing you did could change that. His belief that you could not earn salvation by leading a good life was adopted by the English Puritans. “Justification,” or God’s grace/salvation, could not be bought by “sanctification”, or good works.

Still, a Puritan had to live a good life and perform good works, in order to: 1) show God’s goodness to the world; 2) help themselves to be open to and focused on God’s grace if/when they might receive it; and 3) because they loved God and wanted to do good.

The “New Calvinists” article I read begins by saying these present-day Americans believe in election of the few and damnation of the many, but then I didn’t see any proofs of it. They mostly preach the same old thing I heard growing up in the 70s in a Protestant church: women must submit to men, everything is in God’s hands and we can’t understand it and shouldn’t try, and you must fear hell at every moment. They fail to live up to the standards of my old church by stating that living a good life is not necessary.

They’re not truly Calvinists, of course; no one can recapture a historical moment. Calvin and his followers were born because of their socio-political moment; even the English Puritans who adopted Calvinism changed it. Living religion always changes. It’s clear that their leader in Seattle is no Calvinist, since he believes God talks directly to him, telling him who to marry and what career to enter into.

The difference between New and real Calvinists is that the first Calvinists were not trying to recapture something. They were revolutionaries, exacting the same kind of harsh punishments on dissenters within their group that any political revolutionary group does. They were thinking for themselves and coming up with a new religion in response to both the old Catholic church and the new Lutheran one. The Seattle “Calvinists” are making up a casserole of hodge-podge beliefs from all corners in order to shock with a new-yet-old doctrine.

The Puritans weren’t trying to shock anyone with their faith, and they were extremely thoughtful about their religion. It was a very intellectual religion, relying on soul-searching, Bible reading, prayer, and a rationally laid out progress toward reaching a point where Grace, if it was coming to you, could be known to you. They didn’t have “star” preachers who trampled the rights of their congregations; the congregation was a democratic body that asserted its control over its pastor and teachers, and there was a love and respect between the leadership and the congregation that is missing in today’s version.

This isn’t a blog about religion, but you know that when someone brings up the Puritans in today’s news, I have to be there. I fear they are sullied by the connection to “New Calvinism,” which sullies our understanding of an important founding group in America.

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Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted on January 2, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War | Tags: , , , |

It was with trepidation that I tuned in to my local NPR station today to hear the show On Point’s discussion of the EP, passed January 1, 1863. The host Tom Ashbrook opened the show with the usual uninformed spiel about whether the EP and Lincoln himself were good or bad, praiseworthy or contemptible.

But Ashbrook was saved from himself by his guests, particularly Edna Greene Medford of Howard University, and the hour was spent truly and accurately assessing and appreciating the EP and the man behind it. Dr. Medford gave listeners a valuable analysis of the EP and Lincoln’s goals in writing it, as well as the political and legal considerations that hampered him from achieving all he would have wanted (he would have to do so with the 13th Amendment).

My only small quarrel with Dr. Medford was that she said the EP only freed enslaved people in the Confederacy because it was about property, and only in the Confederacy were people held as property. This is not the real heart of the matter. As I point out in my series on the EP, Lincoln could not free enslaved people in the North because there weren’t any, and he could not free enslaved people in the border states because that would have caused them to join the Confederacy, and because slavery was not illegal in the U.S. He could only free people enslaved in the Confederacy.

Each state in the North had made slavery illegal, so there were state laws in place to stop slavery, but there was no federal law prohibiting slavery in the nation. So if Lincoln freed enslaved people in the border states, still technically part of the U.S., he would not have any force of law to back that up with; it would have been a wartime-only action that would have been quickly overturned once the war ended and slavery was still legal in the U.S.

So Lincoln realized he had to first outlaw slavery in the Confederacy, just to prove once and for all that if the Confederacy was defeated it would not be allowed to keep slavery when it returned to the U.S., then he had to get a Constitutional Amendment passed banning slavery in all of the U.S. Only this way would the abolition of slavery be permanent and safe from legal challenges that it was just a wartime measure.

The On Point guests seemed to say that the EP was just a wartime measure meant to hurt the Confederacy’s ability to make war, but it was so much more than that. All Americans are right to celebrate the EP, on its anniversary and every day.

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