Archive for May, 2016

Who is—or will be—the most radical U.S. president?

Posted on May 31, 2016. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

…as we continue through this election year, we’re reposting from the last presidential election year: a list of U.S. presidents that could be considered radical in one way or another.

We first posted this in 2012 because of an angry complaint in the news that President Obama was “the most radical president in American history.” Today, in 2016, “radical” has morphed into a positive word for most voters: it means an outsider ready to tear up Washington and change the country, whether that’s Sanders or Trump. (Somehow a potential first woman president is no longer radical; the powers of sexism have made sure that Clinton is depicted as just another politician).

As we consider who may end up being our president next year, let’s review:

 

We heard someone involved in the campaign of a Republican primary candidate recently state that President Obama is “the most radical president in American history.” One is accustomed to hyperbole during an election season, but this was a particularly arresting case of myth-making. I assume this person meant “radical” as a negative, although radical change can be positive or negative. Whether well- or ill-intentioned, though, the claim that our current president is the most radical ever does not hold water. Even an extremely brief glance over presidential history brings to light many other candidates for that title:

George Washington: Radical in a good way. Encouraged a radically new form of government, one without a monarch, even when offered the post himself. Supported our new democratic system, represented it with honor and dignity to the world, and set crucially important precedents, including stepping down from office after his second four-year term. Tried to prevent political parties from forming—if he had been successful, we’d have a radically different political scene today.

Thomas Jefferson: Radical in mixed ways. It’s hard to picture Americans today admiring a president who supported a violent dictatorship and felt the U.S. should provide military support for it  (as Jefferson did in France during the Reign of Terror). Jefferson also overrode the Constitution to make the Louisiana Purchase (Congress, not the president, should likely have carried out any geographic expansion).

Andrew Jackson: Radical in a bad way. Sponsored intense corruption within his Administration by appointing cronies to high political office, legislated through the veto, broke the law by dueling, put his own sense of personal honor above the law, and, most importantly and unforgivably, demanded and carried out the removal of the Native Americans of the southeast, even after the Supreme Court found in favor of the Cherokees’ remaining on their land.

Abraham Lincoln: Radical in a good way. He ended slavery in the United States by writing the Emancipation Proclamation, and refused to negotiate an end to the war by agreeing to allow slavery to continue in a restored Union. Pushed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress. Planned to move an Amendment giving black men the right to vote through Congress as well. Went from racist to abolitionist in a few short years.

Woodrow Wilson: Radical in mixed ways. Promoted legislation to end child labor, pushed for the creation of the League of Nations and for U.S. membership. On the other hand, an entrenched racist who kept civil rights legislation at bay, helping to ensure that the 1910s extended the nadir of civil rights in this country by another decade.

Franklin Roosevelt: Radical in mixed ways. Tried to govern bascially without Congress, tried to tamper with the Supreme Court to make it his tool, pursued a series of economic policies that helped lengthen the Depression. On the other hand, he understood that the government had an obligation to protect vulnerable categories of citizen, such as the elderly, children, and the poor. Provided a reliable federal safety net to these people for the first time in U.S. history.

Lyndon Johnson: Radical in a good way. The series of civil rights acts passed not only during his Administration, but because of his untiring efforts, finally put the nation on the track Lincoln had envisioned for Reconstruction. Education reform, Medicare, urban renewal, conservation, space exploration, and a war on poverty, all pushed forward by Johnson. His failure to see through the advisors who pushed the war in Vietnam is the blot on his record.

Ronald Reagan: Radical in a bad way. Set in motion the anti-government movement amongst conservatives, made cutting taxes and running a federal deficit a battle-cry of the Republican party, was generally unmoved by opportunities to negotiate an end to the Cold War.

George W. Bush: Radical in a bad way. Pursued war with Iraq based on misinformation about Iraqi arms manufacture from advisors, trampled on civil rights in the  name of homeland security, and moved aggressively to stop taxation of the wealthy, immobilize the federal government, remove the federal safety net for vulnerable citizens, and pay for the war through deficit spending.

So there’s a short list of some radical presidents. We could use a few more who are radical in good ways.

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Bernie Sanders… or William Jennings Bryan?

Posted on May 19, 2016. Filed under: Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Who’s the outsider politician who simultaneously maintains a rebel stance against business-as-usual politics while being a party mainstay? The man who takes a stand against corporate money in politics while lambasting Republican cronyism? The man who won enthusiastic support for his presidential bid despite the long odds of his winning the Democratic nomination?

Yes, it is both Sanders and Bryan. The parallels are strong, and we were thinking about it today as yet another radio news program talked about whether it was right for Sanders to continue to campaign when he can’t win a majority of Democratic delegates. We talk about Bryan, the Nebraska Senator and early Populist, in our post on his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. Bryan ran for president three times, in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Here are some bullets that describe Bryan at the turn of the century that could easily be used to describe Sanders today:

—Bryan stood against big banking and big business, headquartered mostly on the East Cost, standing up for the right of small farmers and small business owners and workers to get a living wage and fair lending terms from banks

—Bryan came from a state with a small population that had no influence over national politics (Nebraska)

—He was anti-imperialist and ran twice for president on a platform to release all U.S. territories and dominions (he ended up supporting the Spanish-American War in 1898 because he incorrectly believed that if the U.S. beat Spain and kept the Philippines, those islands would then be given their independence by the U.S.)

—He said “universal peace cannot come until justice is enthroned throughout the world”

—In his 1908 campaign, he stood against corporate domination, called for all political contributions made by men running corporations to be publicly revealed (on election day), and that anyone who did not cooperate should be jailed

—His slogan was “Shall the People Rule?” (and it was not a rhetorical question)

When people today call Sanders a Populist, they are using a term invented for, by, and of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s entrenched hatred and suspicion of wealthy people, people from the coast, and big business blinded him to the possibility that a) not all poor people were good people; b) many of the poor white farmers who loved him were merciless promoters of segregation, Jim Crow, and the terror and torture of black Americans; c) and that a nation needs all economic segments working together to grow and be just. Bryan’s willingness to be cartoonish in attacking injustice and corruption led many Americans who were not against his basic principles to back William McKinley in 1896 and again in 1900, because McKinley’s “don’t rock the boat” conservatism came to look practical and wise when placed side-by-side with Bryan’s 6-hour speeches raging against the machine.

In 1908, Bryan ran against outgoing president Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen successor William Taft, and Bryan raged about the undemocratic nature of one president “choosing” another. This was insider politics at its worst to Bryan, and he was baffled and outraged when the American people approved it with a resounding victory for Taft.

We’re not here to promote a particular candidate here at the HP, but we are here to suggest to those Sanders supporters that a little moderation can be a wise thing if you really want change and not just rage.

Just to be fair, let’s continue our time-traveling comparisons:

Taft himself was not well-qualified to be president, and he did not really want to be president—his dream was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (a dream he actually achieved in 1921). He made some hawkish foreign policy moves to satisfy the conservative wing of his Republican Party, while doing nothing to encourage its growing liberal wing, which he did not like but which was supported by his powerful mentor Theodore Roosevelt. The Republican Party continued to fracture under Taft until the election of 1912, when Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote, and Woodrow Wilson won the election.

…sound vaguely familiar, or plausible?

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Alexander Hamilton was not black

Posted on May 11, 2016. Filed under: Colonial America, What History is For | Tags: , , |

…it doesn’t seem likely. We’ve tackled this issue before (“Warren Harding and his ‘Negro’ Percentage”), in which an American politician who seems pretty darn white is the focus of claims that he really wasn’t.

This has a long history in the U.S. It was started by white racists as an effective way to smear someone; “accusing” someone of being part-black was foolproof because it was almost impossible for the person to disprove: no matter how they pointed to their ancestors, someone could claim there had been hushed-up sex outside marriage with a black man or woman.

One of the oddest examples of this was when rumors were spread that the popular singer Dinah Shore was half-black, despite the fact that her Jewish parents, who emigrated from Russia, did not seem like likely candidates to have had sex outside marriage with a black American. Shore’s husky voice and her childhood in Tennessee were enough for racists to spread the rumor, which was supposed to devastate her and end her career.

Luckily, by the 1950s this kind of attempted character assassination did not work as well as it had earlier in the century. The civil rights movement in this country eventually made the people “accusing” someone of having “black blood” (whatever that is) look stupid and bigoted and backward (because they were), and the tactic died away because it was no longer harmful.

But then history took a turn, as it so often does. Having a mix of races in one’s ancestry moved from being a disaster to a neutral factor to a positive. For some historians and activists, finding black ancestry in a public person’s identity became a way to reclaim history for Americans who weren’t white. That’s perfectly valid: figures in American history who had a mix of races but hid it out of fear of being attacked should be reclaimed.

It’s only when someone is chosen when it just seems very unlikely that they were anything but white that it’s problematic. Warren Harding is one. Alexander Hamilton is another. His own attempts to erase his history before he left St. Croix in the Caribbean and arrived in the New Jersey colony at age 17 have led some people to claim that he was covering up a black father when the real “shames” (at that time) in his life were: his mother’s bigamy; her living with and having two sons by a man she was not legally married to (James Hamilton); Alexander not being allowed to attend the same Church of England school as other colonial white boys because of this and having to go to a school run by a Jewish woman instead; his father abandoning the family when he found out about the bigamy; his mother’s early death and Alexander’s subsequent boot to the streets when her first husband seized all her property.

One can well imagine that an ambitious man like Hamilton did not want any of that known in his new colonial home, where he was trying to make it big.

The Caribbean in the 18th century was not a place where a white woman could easily engage in a sexual relation with a black man, nor a place where that would go unpunished. Just because his mother was a nonconformist when it came to legal marriage did not mean she would have a relationship with a black man at a time and in a place where that was not only illegal but punishable by torture and death.

Claims that Hamilton “looked black” are unsubstantiated. We don’t have a lot of drawings of him, but the ones we do have are fairly unequivocal. And all the rumors spread about Hamilton in the 13 colonies had to do with his sexual rapacity, not his race. Those who would naturally connect the two are, we hope, long gone.

So while it would be gratifying to claim a great American for black history, we’re still awaiting proof that Alexander Hamilton was black.

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