What History is For

The American workplace in 1950: no yawning!

Posted on October 18, 2019. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , |

We were roaming around YouTube and found this educational filmstrip, as they used to call them, from 1950 called Office Etiquette. This Encyclopedia Britannica artifact begins as you’d expect: rows of white high-school girls typing away in typing class so they can be secretaries. But then a few real surprises are introduced. Seconds in, the camera pans out a little and you see two white boys on the other side of the room. Boys? Learning to type? Are they going to be secretaries? You’re so surprised to see the boys that at first you don’t notice what next becomes apparent: not only are the boys mixed in with the girls, but at least three black girls are mixed into the class. A filming location is never given, but the opening credits say that Office Etiquette is an “EBF Human Relations Film”; we were happily surprised to see sex- and race-integration in at least one U.S. high school in 1950.

That’s one of the reasons we always love watching these forgotten little films–they almost always reveal some challenge to your blanket presuppositions.

We follow our narrator, Joan Spencer, after graduation and into the job market. When she fills out her application, we see her write “None” under the “Experience” section. We instantly remembered the smarting embarrassment of this painful, first-time job applicant experience from our own past work lives. (We did notice, by stopping the film, that Joan writes “South High, Ridgeton” under “Education” – does any HP reader know where this was?)

Joan is hired, and quickly sizes up the office. We do, too. Was there anything worse than the early- and mid-century American office? Even at this small operation, there are 12 desks crammed into one open space, and everyone is just so exposed. The desks are pushed together to make long tables, so your desk isn’t even private. Each desk has a phone and a typewriter and nothing else. No personal items on your desk. No privacy. No way to do anything but work–no private phone calls, no drinking coffee, no eating, nothing at that desk. Everyone can see everything you do. And the noise; the racket of 12 people typing at once would have been deafening. Welcome to the real reason why the boss had an office with a door that closed. How would you be able to talk on the phone with all that cacophony of key-clacking?

On Joan’s first day, her supervisor meets her in the boss’ office and takes her to the place where she can leave her things. It’s hard to imagine going to work in an office and leaving your hat (of course) and coat and purse in an employee common area. Again, no access to any personal item at any time during the work day. It’s so dehumanizing. When Joan puts in extra time at home, after work, to learn all the forms the company uses, she sits at a desk or table with a lovely bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase. No such luck at work.

Joan is shown to her seat and is so nervous she can barely look at the woman who is working one foot away from her at “her” desk. But she reports that “the girls” took her to lunch that first day, and one can’t help but sigh for the days when office workers took an hour for lunch, offsite, rather than eating at their desks while they worked. Joan makes friends, and is quickly written into the list of the office bowling team members.

Joan’s first screw-up is one that, again, we can all relate to: she makes an error in her dictation, and when the unbelievably genial executive who dictated it shows her the error, Joan argues with him about it, saying she is right. She quickly learns to own her mistakes “instead of arguing about them or offering alibis. I learned to ask when I wasn’t sure, instead of making a wild guess.” This is indeed workplace wisdom.

So is the hilarious scene where one of the “girls” eats a candy at her desk in the most incredibly messy way, with great bravado.

But then we get into lessons from the past as a foreign country. The lesson “use office hours to do office work” is illustrated by an older man slyly lifting up the corner of an enormous ledger to read a newspaper hidden underneath. He reads the sports page for approximately 2.3 seconds, then puts the ledger back down. Again, we can’t emphasize enough that you are no longer a human being once you sit down to work, and every second that isn’t spent at lunch must be spent working. This is easier to enforce when everyone can see everything you’re doing at all times.

One young woman types a love letter, one makes a personal telephone call. At least both these people are truly wasting company time. But then a man is shown–brace yourself–stopping his writing for 1.4 seconds to yawn. He did not “manage his time so he could put in a full day’s work.” Stopping work to yawn is an unforgivable demonstration of slacking.

Joan has to bust on Jimmy later on, who reads something on her desk in a nosy way. “You know you shouldn’t do that, Jimmy,” she says, and he responds “Do whaaaaat?” in a very annoying way.

She works her way up the ladder to become the boss’ personal secretary, then head of HR. Again, it’s refreshing to see a young woman negotiate a business call while the boss is busy, and be promoted to top management. It’s sad that this is as uncommon in 2019 as it was in 1950. The film ends with Joan accepting the meager application of another young woman fresh out of typing class. We have the feeling that this new girl will also succeed, and the overall attitude of the film is uplifting. The office was physically oppressive, but in this filmstrip, it at least offers some equality.

 

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Recruiting for the Continental Army–the true story (sorry, Adam Ruins Everything!)

Posted on October 18, 2019. Filed under: American history, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

In part one of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode and its myth-creation promoted as myth-busting, we focused on the premise of the episode—that everyone in the Continental Army during the Revolution whether a drunk, or an immigrant, or a farmer, was there for mercenary reasons only; as Adam puts it, “to get paid.”

The episode quickly “proves” this by moving on to characterize George Washington as a criminal.

Narrator: But I thought these people had so much of that patriotic spirit.

Adam: They weren’t. George Washington himself said, “it grieves me to see so little of that patriotic spirit, which I was taught to believe was characteristic of this people.”

As we mentioned in part one, Adam Ruins Everything always posts its sources on-screen so you can check them. Here, the citation is “The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, U.S. Government Printing Office.” This is less complete than his sources usually are, including those posted later in this episode—no date of the “Writings” publication, no editor. Under Washington’s words, it says “George Washington, 1775.”

This Washington quote is taken wildly out of context, as we’ll see below. For now, let’s continue.

Adam: Without the support of the people, Washington and the Continental Congress were desperate for an army, so they resorted to shady recruitment practices to raise their ranks.

Washington: Let’s go trick some rubes into fighting against their will! [evil laugh]

Narrator: Come on: how shady could they possibly have been?

Adam: First, they offered money to bribe the potential recruits.

Washington to a man in tavern: Look, I know you don’t want to fight, but maybe my friend Mr. Washington can change your mind? [holds a dollar] …I’m bribing you.

Man: Bribe? Why didn’t you say so? Gimme a gun, I’ll shoot those red jackets.

Adam: But the Continental Army didn’t have enough money to actually pay the soldiers, so most received IOUs.

Washington: Here you are! You can cash it in at the end of the war… if we win. And if you don’t lose that [piece of paper]. Washington runs away …And if you survive!

So Washington himself went into bars to recruit drunks through bribes that could not be paid in cash… Unwilling to suspend our disbelief on this one, we did some research.

We quickly found the source cited: John Smith, Jr. Journal of the American Revolution, Feb. 2015. This is a reputable journal. The article is online at the site All Things Liberty,  it’s called “How the Revolutionary War was Paid For,” and it tells a different story. Smith gives six ways the U.S. tried to pay for all of the expenses of the war, including soldiers’ and officers’ pay: Congress and the states printing money, we got loans from Europe, and just as during WWI and WWII, wealthy Americans bought war bonds.

But the other ways to try to pay were debt certificates:

3 // The 13 States Issued Their Own Debt Certificates (14%): Most of these were like state-issued war bonds. Also called “bills of credit,” they were “interest bearing certificates” with the buyer putting up their land as collateral. The patriotic buyer would then (or so they were told) get their principal back plus interest – assuming America won the war! As support for the common defense, states would also issue these as “requisition certificates” to vendors or suppliers to pay for food and supplies if the Continental Army happened to be camped in their state.

4 // Congress Issued Its Own Debt Certificates (10%): These certificates were also called (in politically correct verbiage of its time) “involuntary credit extensions” because they paid no interest and their value, tied to the Continental dollar, dropped like lead daily. These were mostly given out by the Continental Army quartermaster corps to citizens when buying or confiscating materials. In the last two years of the war, the Continental Army soldiers were also paid in these, so you can see why there was much grumbling – and mutiny. Some discharged soldiers sold their certificates to investors for literally pennies on the dollar.

In fact, what we call IOUs or debt certificates were common in colonial America, and most often called “bills of credit,” as Smith points out. There was very little cash money in the colonial world. Americans exchanged/bartered goods and services in 9 out of 10 transactions. Bills of credit were IOUs—if you needed something that couldn’t be traded for, or you didn’t have enough to trade, you gave a bill of credit to the merchant, with an agreed-upon time when he would call in the payment.

So no American would have been outraged or confused by being given a bill of credit. The problem was that men enlisting as soldiers were leaving their families with fewer goods and services to trade, since their labor was missing to create goods and perform services. So they would have much preferred it if the Continental Congress could have given their families the bills of credit, to use to get food and other necessaries, or if they could have been paid in food and cloth, directly going to their families.

The problem was not the IOU, it was the fact that it was for cash, which already had a limited value in the colonial world. On top of that, the cash value was low—almost worthless—because the dollar was so unstable. Printing money to use in most transactions was unheard of. Each colony minted its own coins, and during the war printed its own money. Money printed in Maryland could not be used in Virginia. The federal government’s dollars were new to all the colonies, of course, and not trusted. So paying soldiers in cash, and a new kind of printed “dollar”, would have been a problem even in the best of times.

But the Continental Congress could hardly come up with cloth and food for all of its soldiers’ families—it would have to mandate that the new states provide these, but it did not have the power to do so. And none of the states could do it, in part because because both food and cloth would have to come in large part from the people who should have been receiving it—soldiers’ families—and in part because the state governments were notoriously opposed to spending one (not yet existent) dime on the war.

Smith continues:

…In July 1777, a Continental dollar had already dropped two-thirds of its value. …By 1780, Congress revalued its dollar as officially only one-third of its 1775 value. But the new and improved dollar still plummeted to the point where, by 1781, it took 167 dollars to equal the previous one dollar. So what did Congress do? They couldn’t tax, so they printed even more dollars to be able to buy an ever-shrinking amount of goods and services. Prices were skyrocketing with severe depreciation and hyperinflation happening everywhere. States were still demanding that taxes be paid. It was a crisis, which threatened the existence of the new republic.

By 1781 and in desperation, Congress put strong-willed financier and Congressman Robert Morris into the new office of Superintendent of Finance. Some of the first emergency actions Morris took were to devalue the dollar, and then he squeezed about $2 million in specie from the states. But in a very controversial move, he suspended pay to the Continental Army enlisted soldiers and officers. Instead, he decreed that the army be paid in debt certificates or land grants until the peace treaty was signed. In 1782, the new consolidated national debt was so enormous that Morris suggested Congress only pay the interest on the debt, saying (this may sound familiar in today’s world) “… leave posterity to pay the principle.”

So we see that it was not just enlisted men but also officers whose pay was suspended in 1781. Long before then, soldiers had told their families that it was up to them to keep them supplied, and those families did so. They traveled to winter camps to bring supplies, and often stayed with their men as camp-followers over the winter, when there was no farm work. Martha Washington was one of the women who banded together to do washing and cooking for the enlisted men in winter camp, including at Valley Forge.

To say, as this episode does, that Washington deliberately lied to/bribed men to enlist when he knew they would not be paid is ludicrous. On a completely practical level, Washington didn’t recruit anyone. He was head of the army. On the moral and truthful level, he had no way of knowing how those IOUs would fare. He didn’t know his own pay would be cut off when the dollar sank.

More importantly, to insist that men enlisted in the CA strictly for the money is not only ridiculous but provably untrue.

Men enlisting in the Continental Army early on did so for a few reasons—the same mix of reasons that still moves people to enlist in the armed forces. They wanted adventure. They wanted to defend their country (even if, to them, that was just their state). Their friends and relatives enlisted, and they wanted to be there with them. They didn’t want to be cowards. They thought it would end quickly.

When the war did not end quickly, and winter dragged on, most men left the CA when their one-year or six-month term of service was through. But even at the time, they were condemned for it. In December 1776, Thomas Paine called them out in The Crisis:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

Those summer soldiers and sunshine patriots did not sign up to get rich. They signed up for patriotism, glory, and adventure. Even mercenary soldiers at that time did not get rich in military service.

Patriotic men were recruited not by George Washington in a bar but created years before 1775, by men they respected and honored all their lives: ministers.  New Englanders had been primed with local patriotism for a century before 1775, and specifically primed to resist and, if necessary, to fight British attacks on their long-held liberties for about a decade before actual fighting broke out in 1775. In 1774, during the hardships brought on New England by the Intolerable Acts, the minister at Wethersfield, Connecticut added this to his sermon on Matthew 10:28:

I say Unto you, my friends, be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that, have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: fear him, which after he hath killed hath the power to cast into hell, yea I say unto you fear him.

…In this day of our public trouble when we are threatened with being deprived of those immunities and Liberties with which God & the Constitution have made us free. Let us not be so afraid of man that killeth the body & hath no more that he can do as to offend God by tamely giving up any part of that freedom with which he has blest & intrusted us as a talent improvable to the happiest purposes. But may we obey God rather than man & stand fast in the Liberty wherewith he has made us free. May we account no exertions, no Self-denials, no Sacrifice too great upon this occasion. And whilst we are taking the most probable & vigorous methods to preserve our freedom may we diligently seek after and cultivate that fear & trust in God… We shall see our desire upon our enemies & experience his Salvation.

In New England, patriotism as defined by the willingness to oppose any law or action from Britain that interfered with inherited political processes and liberties was alive and well long before 1775, and this—not “getting paid”—did inspire many men to enlist.
In “Why the Patriots Really Fought,” Justin Ewers includes another pastor in his analysis: “Life, for my Country and the Cause of Freedom,” wrote Nathaniel Niles, a pastor in Norwich, Conn., in 1775, “Is but a Trifle for a Worm to part with.”

Over 30,000 men enlisted in Washington’s army in the first year. That’s an enormous number that could never have been recruited in bars. They were there not for the money and clothes they were promised, but because they were patriotic. The problem is they were not professional soldiers.

When those men’s year or half-year of fighting was up, most went home, which seems at odds with their patriotism. But we have to remember that these were not professional soldiers, and more than that, there was no understanding of how long the war would go on—no one, on either side, would have guessed seven more years—and serving for one year was indeed a real sacrifice of time, labor, family safety, and, crucially, health. “Just one year” is easy for us to say. But one year in a colonial army was a lifetime.

A side note is that the men who enlisted in the first year were well aware that, in 1776, the fighting was all in New England, and mostly in Massachusetts, and their families were suffering. They could continue to fight at home by providing food and shelter when the British were doing their best to destroy both, and by defending their towns from British attacks.

This is when Washington wrote the words ARE quotes about grieving over a lack of patriotism, in a letter written during the winter of 1776/7, after his inexperienced army had for the most part fought bravely as it was pushed out of New York and into New Jersey.  As Ewers describes it,

During the long retreat, Washington learned a hard lesson about the staying power of patriotic soldier-farmers. “These men,” he wrote, “are not to be depended upon for more than a few days, as they soon get tired, grow impatient and ungovernable, and of course leave the Service.” From a high of 31,000 troops, by year’s end, Washington’s force had dwindled to fewer than 3,000. Many of the men had enlisted for six-month terms. When their contracts expired, they went home.

That winter, Washington pleaded with Congress for a real army, one that wouldn’t rely on farmers’ idealism to survive. “When men are irritated, & the Passions inflamed,” he had written to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, “they fly hastily, and chearfully to Arms, but after the first emotions are over to expect that they are influenced by any other principles than those of Interest, is to look for what never did, & I fear never will happen.”

Washington knew militiamen had their reasons for keeping their service short, of course. They had farms and businesses to run and families to feed. Still, when the states began to struggle to re-enlist enough soldiers to keep the war going, Washington was disappointed. “No Troops were ever better provided or higher paid, yet their Backwardness to inlist for another Year is amazing,” Washington wrote. “It grieves me to see so little of that patriotick Spirit, which I was taught to believe was Charackteristick of this people.”

The point is that Washington did not grieve over the lack of patriotism of men at the start of the war, as ARE says. He wasn’t complaining that men would not enlist to fight. He was made aware a year later, during winter camp in NJ, that the men who “flew hastily, and cheerfully to Arms” because of their “emotions”—i.e., patriotism—were not willing to actually, permanently sacrifice their families and their livelihoods for their country. Their patriotism was too shallow. It was easy to promise to fight in 1774; in 1776, after tough fighting, it was easy to say “I kept my promise to fight; now I’m going home.” Few men were like Washington—willing to stay and fight as long as it took to win or die trying.

And note this important item: Washington’s assessment of a lack of true patriotism, that is willing to sacrifice all, came after a year of fighting, in 1776—not at the start of the war, when the army was first formed, as ARE argues.

As the first recruits left, the make-up of the army changed. As Ewers says,

…after the first year of fighting, the nascent Continental Army was forced to leave its now mythic origins behind. The high-minded middle-class farmers went home, and a new army was formed, made up mostly of poor, propertyless laborers, unmarried men in their early 20s who took up arms not to defend some abstract ideal but because they were offered money and land. The militias would supplement this core of increasingly professional soldiers throughout the war, but the Army would never again look the way it did on the road to Boston. By 1778, the average Continental soldier was 21 years old; half the men in the Army were not even of English descent. “The folks who made the long-term commitment,” says James Kirby Martin, a professor of history at the University of Houston and coauthor of A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763 – 1789, “were the folks who didn’t have another alternative.”

If ARE wanted to jab at the Continental Army for being full of “rubes” and drunks and mercenaries, he should have focused on the later army, not the first recruits.

To sum up:

  1. ARE mis-uses the Smith article, which never a) accused Washington of criminality, and b) points out that many attempts were made to pay the soldiers, but the weakness of the Continental Congress, which was forbidden to raise taxes, made that impossible.
  2. ARE mis-uses and perhaps misunderstands the Washington quote.
  3. The first recruits were indeed starry-eyed patriots who had been prepping for this war for many years in New England.
  4. The show does not understand the financial world of colonial America, nor
  5. the real reason why soldiers did not get paid as they should have been after the war.

We’ve gone on at length here so we’ll stop, but if 45 seconds of video from ART can provoke this much correction, we fear for our next posts. But we’ll keep on, because we want ART to know that myth-busting is important.

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The American workplace in 1950: no yawning!

Posted on October 17, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

We were roaming around YouTube and found this educational filmstrip, as they used to call them, from 1950 called Office Etiquette. This Encyclopedia Britannica artifact begins as you’d expect: rows of white high-school girls typing away in typing class so they can be secretaries. But then a few real surprises are introduced. Seconds in, the camera pans out a little and you see two white boys on the other side of the room. Boys? Learning to type? Are they going to be secretaries? You’re so surprised to see the boys that at first you don’t notice what next becomes apparent: not only are the boys mixed in with the girls, but at least three black girls are mixed into the class. A filming location is never given, but the opening credits say that Office Etiquette is an “EBF Human Relations Film”; we were happily surprised to see sex- and race-integration in at least one U.S. high school in 1950.

That’s one of the reasons we always love watching these forgotten little films–they almost always reveal some challenge to your blanket presuppositions.

We follow our narrator, Joan Spencer, after graduation and into the job market. When she fills out her application, we see her write “None” under the “Experience” section. We instantly remembered the smarting embarrassment of this painful, first-time job applicant experience from our own past work lives. (We did notice, by stopping the film, that Joan writes “South High, Ridgeton” under “Education” – does any HP reader know where this was?)

Joan is hired, and quickly sizes up the office. We do, too. Was there anything worse than the early- and mid-century American office? Even at this small operation, there are 12 desks crammed into one open space, and everyone is just so exposed. The desks are pushed together to make long tables, so your desk isn’t even private. Each desk has a phone and a typewriter and nothing else. No personal items on your desk. No privacy. No way to do anything but work–no private phone calls, no drinking coffee, no eating, nothing at that desk. Everyone can see everything you do. And the noise; the racket of 12 people typing at once would have been deafening. Welcome to the real reason why the boss had an office with a door that closed. How would you be able to talk on the phone with all that cacophony of key-clacking?

On Joan’s first day, her supervisor meets her in the boss’ office and takes her to the place where she can leave her things. It’s hard to imagine going to work in an office and leaving your hat (of course) and coat and purse in an employee common area. Again, no access to any personal item at any time during the work day. It’s so dehumanizing. When Joan puts in extra time at home, after work, to learn all the forms the company uses, she sits at a desk or table with a lovely bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase. No such luck at work.

Joan is shown to her seat and is so nervous she can barely look at the woman who is working one foot away from her at “her” desk. But she reports that “the girls” took her to lunch that first day, and one can’t help but sigh for the days when office workers took an hour for lunch, offsite, rather than eating at their desks while they worked. Joan makes friends, and is quickly written into the list of the office bowling team members.

Joan’s first screw-up is one that, again, we can all relate to: she makes an error in her dictation, and when the unbelievably genial executive who dictated it shows her the error, Joan argues with him about it, saying she is right. She quickly learns to own her mistakes “instead of arguing about them or offering alibis. I learned to ask when I wasn’t sure, instead of making a wild guess.” This is indeed workplace wisdom.

So is the hilarious scene where one of the “girls” eats a candy at her desk in the most incredibly messy way, with great bravado.

But then we get into lessons from the past as a foreign country. The lesson “use office hours to do office work” is illustrated by an older man slyly lifting up the corner of an enormous ledger to read a newspaper hidden underneath. He reads the sports page for approximately 2.3 seconds, then puts the ledger back down. Again, we can’t emphasize enough that you are no longer a human being once you sit down to work, and every second that isn’t spent at lunch must be spent working. This is easier to enforce when everyone can see everything you’re doing at all times.

One young woman types a love letter, one makes a personal telephone call. At least both these people are truly wasting company time. But then a man is shown–brace yourself–stopping his writing for 1.4 seconds to yawn. He did not “manage his time so he could put in a full day’s work.” Stopping work to yawn is an unforgivable demonstration of slacking.

Joan has to bust on Jimmy later on, who reads something on her desk in a nosy way. “You know you shouldn’t do that, Jimmy,” she says, and he responds “Do whaaaaat?” in a very annoying way.

She works her way up the ladder to become the boss’ personal secretary, then head of HR. Again, it’s refreshing to see a young woman negotiate a business call while the boss is busy, and be promoted to top management. It’s sad that this is as uncommon in 2019 as it was in 1950. The film ends with Joan accepting the meager application of another young woman fresh out of typing class. We have the feeling that this new girl will also succeed, and the overall attitude of the film is uplifting. The office was physically oppressive, but in this filmstrip, it at least offers some equality.

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A city upon a hill–new information, new take

Posted on October 9, 2019. Filed under: American history, Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

As those familiar with the HP know, explaining what the section of puritan leader John Winthrop’s lay sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” commonly referred to in modern times as “the City on a Hill speech” is all about is our national pastime. It’s right at the top of our site as one of our few static pages, and it’s consistently #1 or #2 in the list of posts visited on our site.

We’re not the only ones, however, rocking the COH scholarship. Historian Daniel Rodgers has a commanding new exploration of Winthrop’s work, the great majority of which focuses not on the actual 17th-century document that COH is part of, but on the loss and later, 20th-century rediscovery of COH.

It was those early 20th-century Americans who discovered, then chose to use, the COH phrase to undergird the purposes of their own times. The phrase languished in obscurity until the 1930s, when the puritan scholar Perry Miller brought it into the light. He was the first, 300 years after COH was written, to present it as the core of the puritan mission and mind, to make it the thing you had to know about the puritans, and therefore about America itself. He irretrievably linked the two for the first time.

Once flushed back out into the open, the COH was used by politicians in the 1950s to justify and locate a new definition of American exceptionalism. In the 60s and 70s it was used to justify a conservative Christian purpose in our founding. In the 1980s, it was famously misused by Ronald Reagan to justify unquestioning praise of America as always in fulfillment of its mandate of moral history. Thus, a puritan document was used to define the 20th-century American mission, so that America could have a straight-line of history in which our 20th-century identity was created in, and proceeded from, the 17th entury. One unbroken line of history and identity that began with the puritans—a strong, clear, purposeful teleology for a strong new international superpower.

This is what allowed Americans during the Cold War to say that “the most important thing the puritans brought with them to New England was the dream of being a model of freedom to the world.” And then when we learn in school that the puritans didn’t do that, we actually interpret it as the puritans failing to do this. We accuse them of reneging on a goal they never set for themselves, let alone for us. It was a goal we set for ourselves in 1787 that we now locate in the 1600s.

But enough from us: here’s a short review of Rodgers’ great book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon. Read it, then get the book and enjoy.

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Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Posted on September 21, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

There’s been justified uproar over Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stating back in August on NPR that the poem on the Statue of Liberty that reads “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” really means, or should mean, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

NPR invited Kunal Parker, an immigration historian and professor at the University of Miami School of Law, to address this re-interpretation, and in general he does a good job.  But he fails to put the “public charge” sentence of the 1882 immigration Act Cuccinelli was misusing into its full context, as we did back when we posted about the original Cuccinelli interview:

The 1882 “Act to regulate immigration” had three parts. First, it said that 50 cents would be collected from every immigrant who arrived in a U.S. port and the money would be used to create a fund “to be called the immigrant fund, and shall be used to defray the expense of regulating immigration under this act, and for the care of immigrants arriving in the U.S. for the relief of such as are in distress…” Contrast that with what’s happening on our southern border today, or in any city or town where immigrants are living under the threat of roundup and deportation.

Next, it said that any passengers found to be a “convict, lunatic, idiot, or other person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge, they shall report the same… and such persons shall not be permitted to land.” Nowhere in this is a person’s ability to make a living without ever relying on charity—since government welfare did not exist at the time—mentioned. This is addressing debilitating mental illness.

Finally, the Act says that “…from time to time [issue] instructions [best] calculated to protected the U.S. and immigrants into the U.S. from fraud and loss…” –perhaps the fraud and loss of being refused citizenship after taking advantage of social services legally offered.

Unfortunately, few Americans know their own history well enough to recognize these types of misrepresentations. They fall prey to them, and come to doubt our mandate in an especially destructive way: they become cynical. Liberty and justice for all is only quoted to shame the U.S. as representing a mission that we have never lived up to, that we have always deliberately violated. U.S. history is presented as an unrelieved series of crimes and deliberate injustice.

We should also have gone back to the poem on the Statue of Liberty, as it is a powerful context for all immigration to the U.S., but particularly since the Statue was dedicated in October 1886.

The poem is called “The New Colossus”. Its author is Emma Lazarus, born in New York City in 1849. Her Jewish family had come from Portugal to the U.S. at the time of the Revolution, and in her poetry Lazarus focused on the challenges of being a Jewish-American. She was born into wealth, and was publishing her work in her teens. When she was 17, her father had her original poems and translations of European poets published. Through the 1860s and 70s Lazarus read fiction and poetry by and about Jewish Europeans, and when Russia began another series of genocidal pogroms against its Jewish citizens, Lazarus did not just read about it. She became intimately involved in the lives of Russian Jewish refugees who landed in New York. Lazarus worked at Ward’s Island assisting refugees who were detained by Castle Garden immigration officials. In 1882, she published Songs of a Semite: The Dance to Death and Other Poems.

A year later, she was asked to write a sonnet that would be auctioned off to raise money to build the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was arriving in pieces from France. Lazarus agreed after some deliberation, realizing it was a perfect opportunity to connect the plight of refugees, who looked so disreputable and unwanted to Americans who sat securely outside their troubles, with the purpose and mission of America itself–the United States existed in order to welcome in all who sought freedom.

The poem was auctioned, and it was published in two New York City newspapers. Then it disappeared from public memory, perhaps in part because Lazarus herself died just three years later, one year after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated. She was just 38.

In 1901, Lazarus’ friend Georgina Schulyer found “The New Colossus” included in a book of poetry in a New York bookshop and led a campaign to make the poem what Lazarus had intended it to be–the writing on the door to America. Two years later, the poem was written on a plaque on the inner wall of the pedestal it helped to fund.

Americans today probably don’t know the title of this poem, but they know the last of its stirring words by heart:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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I just sued the school system–or not!

Posted on September 4, 2019. Filed under: Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

In honor of the start of the school year, we’re rerunning our post on the Prince Ea video “I just sued the school system!!!”

 

We’ve been hearing that argument about public schools in the U.S. being modeled on factories more and more lately. You’ve likely heard it; it’s summed up in the Prince Ea video “I just sued the school system!!!”  The idea is that grade schools were meant to run like factories, brutalizing students by making them sit in rows and raise their hands to talk and move when a bell rang, all so they would be good factory workers. And we, sadly, continue to run them this way today.

Where to start. First, factory workers in the early 20th century did not need to know how to read or write or do arithmetic, so why would future factory workers go to school at all?

Next, children worked in factories at ages as young as four years old, so there was no going to school first, working in a factory on graduation. (See our post Why was there child labor in America?)

Last, factories and child labor within them were established long before the 20th-century version of public school education was created.

So let’s look at U.S. public schools at the turn of the 20th century. These are the sort of images we find of them:

school-1school-2school-3

These schools developed in our early 20th century cities. It’s not how schools in America have always been (the cherished one-room country schoolhouse was the norm). When immigration to the U.S. increased exponentially in the 1910s, we suddenly had millions of children in cities, and most of them had parents who wanted at least some of them to go to school. Sending all of one’s children to school, not just the eldest son or smartest boy, was possible for the first time in America because school was free. If the parents were both working and didn’t need their children to work, too, all of the children could actually go to school.

So because we were—and still are—the only nation on Earth to promise a free public school education to all, we built big schools with lots of big classrooms and put lots of desks in them. How else could a teacher manage a class of 30-40 students? And since classes had to be big to educate everyone, there had to be rules like raising your hand to talk and sitting still and moving only when the bell rang or it would be chaos. It wasn’t to mimic factories. It was the only way at the time to educate everyone. Some big-city tenement blocks in the 1920s had 500+ kids living on them—just one block! The hundreds of neighborhood schools that were built to educate them all had to operate a little like machines just to get all their students through.

To try to shame present-day American schools for still following this pattern, to a certain extent, is ridiculous. First, most grade schools have abandoned sitting in rows at desks all day to allow students to work in small groups, have “rug time”, and other ways of moving around during the day. To a lesser extent, many junior high and high schools do this as well. It’s been a long time since most American students sat down in the morning, got up at lunch, sat down after it, then got up to go home. (In fact, students today are the ones who don’t get recess—a once-standard part of the American school day.)

And another reason it’s unfair to shame the U.S. is that one reason we still have rows of desks is that we are still one of the few nations trying to educate all. To compare us, as is always done, with Finland or Singapore is crazy. Those are small, racially and ethnically homogenous states with no vast income inequalities. It’s easy to teach students who all start at the same place and have the same background and language. And in most of the world, education stops for most children after grade school; in those nations where it continues, by the time students reach the equivalent of U.S. high school, they are divided into students who are going on to college and those who aren’t, and they are educated separately and pretty unequally. The test scores that Finland and Singapore present to the world are just from their college-bound students.

But that’s not how we are. We still try to educate everyone, no matter the differences in race, income, language, ethnicity, and learning ability. We fail. But we still try. It’s still our goal. So any solution we come up with has to work for our situation, which is unique in the world.

Can we change our public schools to make them better? Are there better ideas out there than rows of desks? Yes. But to Prince Ea and all the others, we say reform all you want, but don’t tell people that American schools were developed by evil heartless people to indoctrinate and crush children when it was completely the other way around.

(That said, we liked Prince Ea’s video debunking the concept of race, which is indeed completely made up and not real.)

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Immigration and a public charge to use our history honestly

Posted on August 20, 2019. Filed under: American history, Immigration, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

All too often, we hear people misusing our history to validate and institutionalize injustice. We recently heard White House administrator Ken Cuccinelli on the radio point to the 1882 Immigration and Naturalization Act to support the current proposal to disallow citizenship to immigrants who receive government support services. It’s part of the “public charge” clause, he said; U.S. immigration law prohibited anyone who would be a charity case from entering the U.S. “That’s how we’ve always done it in America, because in America we believe in industry and rugged individualism and hard work.”

Those are ringing words that most Americans do like to hear. But there are two problems with this that are always present when people try to make our history support injustice: first, there have indeed been many times in which the U.S. did the wrong thing, and violated its mandate. Those failures should be called out as such, as deviations from our norm, not offered as proof that our norm of justice for all is somehow carried out by committing injustice.

Second, and almost inevitably, they are wrong. The 1882 “Act to regulate immigration” had three parts. First, it said that 50 cents would be collected from every immigrant who arrived in a U.S. port and the money would be used to create a fund “to be called the immigrant fund, and shall be used to defray the expense of regulating immigration under this act, and for the care of immigrants arriving in the U.S. for the relief of such as are in distress…” Contrast that with what’s happening on our southern border today, or in any city or town where immigrants are living under the threat of roundup and deportation.

Next, it said that any passengers found to be a “convict, lunatic, idiot, or other person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge, they shall report the same… and such persons shall not be permitted to land.” Nowhere in this is a person’s ability to make a living without ever relying on charity—since government welfare did not exist at the time—mentioned. This is addressing debilitating mental illness.

Finally, the Act says that “…from time to time [issue] instructions [best] calculated to protected the U.S. and immigrants into the U.S. from fraud and loss…” –perhaps the fraud and loss of being refused citizenship after taking advantage of social services legally offered.

Unfortunately, few Americans know their own history well enough to recognize these types of misrepresentations. They fall prey to them, and come to doubt our mandate in an especially destructive way: they become cynical. Liberty and justice for all is only quoted to shame the U.S. as representing a mission that we have never lived up to, that we have always deliberately violated. U.S. history is presented as an unrelieved series of crimes and deliberate injustice.

Letting our history be torn apart in this way is very dangerous to our politics. If we sense today that something is wrong, we have to be able to defend and support that feeling with our own history. We have to be able to say “This is not what America is all about” and know that others will agree. We have to understand that our current pushback against injustice is backed up by generations of Americans who came before us, who pushed back against slavery and sexism and voting restrictions and school segregation and imperialism and religious intolerance. The study of American history is in part a return to the source of that feeling, that need we have to be a just nation, and to understand and validate it, whether by calling out failures or celebrating successes.

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Were there black Confederate soldiers?

Posted on August 12, 2019. Filed under: Civil War, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

It’s a new claim made by those who seek to diminish the evil of slavery: that “many” enslaved black men fought for the Confederacy in battle during the Civil War.

The truth, as ably presented by tireless truth-teller Kevin Levin, is crucially different from the myth. Yes, enslaved black men supported the Confederate army—because they were forced to, because they were enslaved. They did all the support work of cooking, cleaning, burying the dead, and caring for horses. They did everything but fight alongside white Confederates.

See the whole, engrossing and maddening story here, at The diaries left behind by Confederate soldiers reveal the true role of enslaved labor at Gettysburg.

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What did the federalist debates do?

Posted on July 23, 2019. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Here we conclude our re-running of our colossal series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution by wrapping up its impact on the U.S., in its own time, and over the centuries since 1787.

 

We haven’t hit all the topics of debate in this series; for example, we haven’t looked at the worthy Anti-Federalists criticisms of the Supreme Court (they balked at the idea of having an unelected, lifetime-term body that could overturn the laws of Congress as it pleased; as usual, the Federalists replied that any body in service of the just Constitution would never become tyrannical). We have also left out the demand for a Bill of Rights, which was general on both sides, Federalist and Anti-Federalist (more on that in a later series).But we have gotten a sense of the categories of debate in general: the Anti-Federalists wanted to keep government as small and, crucially, as local as possible to avoid its corruption; and the Federalists wanted to give the federal government elastic powers to meet unforeseen dilemmas in the future, as well as to control the all-too-real and familiar dilemmas the young nation was already facing.

But in a larger sense, the Federalist debates were important not for their content, but for their happening at all. After popularly elected delegates met to create a new body of national laws, the entire nation was invited to participate in the debate over their ratification as our Constitution. Every aspect of the proposed Constitution was dissected and put under the microscope, and dissenters were free to publish their dissent, their criticisms and fears, in the free press. 85 Federalist Papers were published between October 1787 and August 1788. This is a far cry from the usual press treatment of big issues today, which usually feature a flurry of intense coverage for a week or so, then a near-complete dropping off of interest. For nearly a year the nation weighed the pros and cons of the proposed Constitution and the government it would create in a public forum where no holds were barred. Then the states elected delegates to participate in ratification conventions, and in most states people thronged outside the building where the conventions met, waiting to hear what they had chosen—to accept the new Constitution or not. Over 10 months, the required 9 states voted to ratify, which the caveat that a Bill of Rights be written and added to the Constitution as the first order of business of the  new government.

This democratic process must have inspired some Americans to believe in the Federalist promise that republican virtue could be relied on  even in a large population. No one had been censored, no one arrested or imprisoned, no one lost their property or their livelihood as a result of the position they took on the Constitution. Americans must also have been inspired by the near-blinding modernity of the ideas in the Constitution, and the futuristic nation they at once created and imagined.

We have seen over the centuries since 1788 that the Anti-Federalists got a lot right; their questions about state power to counter federal power, the danger of giving any government body unlimited power to act in the name of national security, and the tendency of power to corrupt have been proven pertinent many times over. Yet we see that the Federalists’ main precept was correct: any government, even a small, local, state government, can become corrupt if people lose faith in the principles of democracy. Keeping things local is no guaranty against corruption. And we can’t rely on one segment of the population—the small farmer or, to add today’s like category, the blue-collar worker—to provide all the republican virtue. Everyone has to be raised up in the tradition and discipline of democracy. Every citizen has to be committed to upholding the Constitution. And the most committed citizens should serve in our government—not the richest or celebrity citizens. If we believe in the principles the Constitution offers, we will send people to Washington who also believe in them, and will actively uphold them in the face of temptation to corruption.

And so we leave the U.S. in 1788, with its newly ratified Constitution, and centuries ahead of it to work out the million problems old and new, expected and completely unanticipated, that would challenge the strength of that document and the commitment of those citizens. We should take with us as we go a bit of their republican virtue to solve the problems we face in our own time.

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Eisenhower’s D-Day failure message

Posted on June 17, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We just celebrated another anniversary of D-Day, and rightly so. We also honor the role of General Dwight Eisenhower in leading the successful invasion.

But the way people use that term, “leader”, is often not quite right. They mean to say that Eisenhower played the key role in inspiring the men, and that his example was so inspiring they were bound to succeed. Or that Eisenhower had the courage to grab a brief and tenuous window of good weather when others hesitated or had doubts.

Let’s define what made Eisenhower a hero, and a leader. Eisenhower was not solely responsible for the success of Operation Overlord. Planning had been going on for a full year before he was given command of the invasion force. Thousands of Allied officers drilled and trained hundreds of thousands of soldiers for months before June 6, 1944. Weather forecasters were tasked with predicting when the notoriously stormy English Channel might be quiet enough to launch the myriad small boats carrying the soldiers. As commander of all Allied forces in Europe, Eisenhower was kept apprised of this preparation, but of course he did not personally carry it out, or even lead it in the sense of having those thousands of people report directly to him. The hundreds of thousands of people who carried out the D-Day invasion include heroic practitioners of leadership that we will never know about. They will never be famous. Their contributions have sunk to the seabed of history.

Instead, it is Eisenhower who was the visible “Leader” who gave the order to launch the assault, and the Great, Victorious Leader who announced the success of the operation. As commander, he could do so.

And, like any single person in a position of high authority, if the risky invasion had failed, Eisenhower could have passed the blame to any dozen of the high-ranking men just below him in the chain of command. He could have blamed the weather forecasters, the ship pilots, the equipment, the choice of landing site, etc.

Instead, Eisenhower, using every reserve of courage in the face of an operation that stood a very good chance of failure, wrote a remarkable message to be delivered in that event.

failure-message

It reads:

Our landings in the

Cherbourg – Havre area

have failed to gain a

satisfactory foot hold and

^I have withdrawn the troops have been 

withdrawn. This particular

operation My decision to

attack at this time and place

was based upon the best

information available and

The troops, the air and the

Navy did all that [crossed out]

Bravery and devotion to duty

could do. If any blame

or fault attaches to the attempt

it is mine alone.

When people transcribe this message, they usually leave out the words Eisenhower crossed out. But those are the most important words in the message. They remove passive-voice constructions that would have let Eisenhower quietly shift the blame for failure onto anyone that the world wanted to blame. Instead of writing that the landings has failed “and the troops have been withdrawn”, he writes “I have withdrawn the troops.” He reiterates his agency and his responsibility, changing “this particular action” to “My decision to attack”. It’s his action that has failed, his decision that was wrong, his responsibility to tell the world that he has left it in terrible peril.

Eisenhower deliberately states that the troops, pilots, and sailors did their utmost. “If any blame or fault attached to the attempt it is mine alone.” That’s how he ends the message. That’s the last thing he wants people around the world to remember.

Never were edits to a handwritten message so moving, or so revealing of a person’s character. Eisenhower understood that being a commander did not mean being above the fray, above the chaos of battle, but owning it. He allowed others to make decisions, to train, to analyze, to recommend. He knew he needed their expertise. But he also knew that, in the end, he had been made commander of Allied forces in Europe for the sole purpose of leading the D-Day invasion, and that “leading” meant inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to lay down their lives. Veterans of the invasion talk about how they were told they could only trust in God or luck to survive once they landed; no one was under any delusions that an overwhelming number of the men attacking would not die, most of them instantly.

The only way for Eisenhower to accept that kind of responsibility, and to honor that kind of bravery and sacrifice, was to give the forces all the credit if they were victorious, and himself all the blame if they were not. It was the least he could do, though of course the consequences of owning that failure would have been tremendous for him.

As we move on through the 21st century, let’s remember the lesson Eisenhower teaches us here, that leadership is about helping to make it possible for others to make change in the world, and that often the only way to do that is to understand yourself as successful only if they are, and not to blame others for letting you down. Eisenhower led the D-Day invasion because he took responsibility for actions he did not entirely control, for the efforts of hundreds of thousands of other people, in order to inspire those actions and efforts and to earn them. He was with the invasion force in every way.

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