What History is For

Robert E. Lee was not a hero, white supremacists are not Americans

Posted on August 16, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

There is no need to be careful about this. Anyone who served in the armies of the Confederate States of America was a traitor to the United States; anyone who led those armies all the more so. They were part of an armed rebellion against the U.S., which is the definition of treason.

That in itself is enough. But the fact that Confederates were fighting to protect and advance slavery, to create a slave state, means their rebellion was not just political, against the political entity that was the United States, but ethical, moral, and philosophical. They specifically rebelled against the U.S. move to end slavery of black Americans, and just as American abolitionists and antislaveryites based their work to end slavery on moral principle enshrined in the Constitution—that “all men are created equal”–American proslaveryites based their work to continue and expand slavery on a rebellion against that American principle.

The Confederacy was explicitly founded to protect and promote slavery. Its leaders made absolutely no secret of that at the time (see Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion for all the evidence from primary sources that you need). As Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens said in his famous “Cornerstone speech“,

…the new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. …The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. …Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.

I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal. [our emphasis]

We quote Stephens at nauseating length to show that the Confederacy was explicitly dedicated to the anti-American principle that non-white people are biologically inferior to white people. The Confederates themselves expressed it this way, as a rejection of and rebellion against the Founders’ plan and hope that slavery would inevitably end the United States because it was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically”, and the United States would not tolerate this because the nation was founded on the principle of equality.

Why does this matter now, on August 16, 2017? Because Stephens still has followers in this country. The Confederacy still has supporters. There are still people living in this country who do not support our Constitution or our law, or any of our founding principles. They call themselves Americans, and most were born here, but they are not. Americans are dedicated to the founding principles of the United States of America, which include the premise that all men are created equal. Anyone who fights this is not American.

And the man currently holding the title of President of the United States is one of them. Donald Trump is no American. He is, clearly, a Confederate president, taking up the torch from Alexander Stephens. In his press conference after a white supremacist/KKK/Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA in which one woman was killed while protesting against the racist rally, Trump said that Americans protesting fascism were just as bad, and in some ways worse, than Nazis posing as Americans, and he took the fascist side:

What about the people of the alt-left, as they came charging at the alt-right, as you call them? [shouts] What about the fact that they came charging, they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day… wait a minute; I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day. …I will tell you, I watched this closely, more closely than any of you people, and you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. I think there’s blame on both sides and I don’t have any doubt about it and you don’t have any doubt either.

…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

Our quotes for all but the last paragraph were taken from video on Fox News’ website. So far as we saw the Fox News coverage did not include the last statement. Their commentator did describe these statements by Trump as part of a “brave and honest press conference, he pulled no punches… brutally honest, maybe too honest.”

Honest. We can’t help thinking of Stephens gloating that the premise that all people are created equal had finally been debunked as a fantasy, as fanaticism. If it’s “honest” to say that American protesting fascism are the criminals, and the fascists are the true Americans, innocent Americans, then we have entered a second civil war—or a second Confederate States of America, brought into being without a shot fired in official war.

For over 150 years, the citizens of the United States perpetrated a dangerous wrong by allowing statues of traitors who fought against the U.S. politically and morally, traitors who were dedicated to the lie that all people are not created equal, to stand. “Oh, it’s not about slavery,” people would say; “it’s just their culture.” We once heard someone say there are no statues to Nazi leaders in Germany. Why are there memorials to Confederate leaders in the United States? Now we see the result of 150 years of dedicated fighting after Appomattox by people who will never be real Americans, and a concentrated effort over the last 50 years, since the Civil Rights movement, to revive the Confederate States of America.

Needless to say, we can’t give in. While Trump has basically invited and urged Nazis to show up when the statue of Jackson is taken down, and has given new hope and excitement to Nazis in America, we Americans have to fight. It’s much harder to fight a guerrilla war than it was to go into actual battle during the Civil War. Right now the best path is to meet the Nazis wherever they go, and not remain a silent majority.

Every nation has a fraction of its population that urges fascism and hatred. Sometimes they manage to monopolize the microphone and take up more space in the media than their numbers justify. Now is such a time in the U.S. Now is the time to muscle these people back into the shadows if we can’t drive them out of the country. That’s the “brutally honest” truth.

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“Most slave families were headed by two parents”, and other lies

Posted on June 30, 2017. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part the last of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey wherein we finish by giving an example of the damage done by history textbooks that are inaccurate at best, harmful at worst.

Inside Higher Ed recently reported on a dispute over a sociology test given at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Lecturer Judy Morelock was challenged by student Kayla Renee Parker:

sociology question

This reasonable question seems to have been quickly escalated into bitterness by the instructor, as evidenced by her postings on Facebook: “After the semester is over and she is no longer my student, I will post her name, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn … after she graduates, all bets are off,” “I don’t forget malevolent attempts to harm me. #karmawillfindyou,” and “Ignore the facts, promote a misinformed viewpoint, trash me and I will fight you.”  Ms. Morelock says some of these comments were not about Ms. Parker.

Ms. Parker blames “outdated research that ‘whitewashes’ the realities of slavery to back up her argument”. We would add inaccurate, whitewashed American history textbooks to that list. Where might an instructor have learned that “most slave families were headed by two parents”? Where might an instructor find quotes to back that myth up? American history textbooks. This is not just an issue with American History: A Survey. Textbook publishers are at the mercy of state boards of education and state school committees that decide which textbooks to purchase for every school in the state. The biggest states call the shots here, as they are the biggest moneymakers for the publishers, of course, so whatever version is approved by those large states is generally the version that goes to all states that buy the textbook.

Some of the biggest states are Texas, Florida, and Virginia. For over a century these southern states have argued with objective descriptions of slavery and Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. Watered-down pap like we found in AH is the result. Unfortunate that it goes to those three states; worse that it goes to all states that buy the textbooks.

We see high school white-washing moving inevitably into intro-level college history survey courses. To state that “most slave families were headed by two parents” is preposterous. It erases the fact that enslaved black Americans were bred for sale like livestock, with healthy children sold away from their parents for a profit, and women who had recently given birth to healthy children sold immediately so they could be forced to have sex with “productive” enslaved men on other plantations while they were still young and fertile. Once Congress ended the slave trade in 1808, Africans could not be sold into slavery in the U.S. The enslaved population had to grow through reproduction alone. This was a death knell to enslaved black families. Enslaved families were broken up for profit, out of spite, and as a punishment. Marriages between enslaved people were not recognized by law in many states, and no enslaved person had any legal custody rights to their children. They, and their children, were legally defined as the property of the people who enslaved them.

It’s not “malevolent” to stand up to harmful lies about our nation’s history. Fight them wherever you find them, starting in high school.

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The myth of the North being “more racist” than the South

Posted on June 22, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 3 of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey which deals with with one last reading from AH.

It’s a bitter irony that under the subheading “Black Abolitionists”, American History promotes the sickening myth that free black Americans living in the free states of the north before the Civil War were subject to more racism and worse living conditions than black Americans enslaved in the south:

Abolitionism had a particular appeal to the free blacks of the North, who in 1850 numbered about 250,000, mostly concentrated in cities. They lived in conditions of poverty and oppression often worse than those of their slave counterparts in the South.

—…if free black Americans were worse off than enslaved black Americans, why would abolitionism appeal to them? This logical fallacy begins a section that only gets worse.

We are getting this message for the second time; you’ll recall in part 1 of this series AH pushed the idea that immigrant factory workers were worse-off than enslaved black Americans. Again, we shudder at the comfort AH has with referring to human beings as “slaves” rather than “enslaved people” or “enslaved Americans”. Calling people “slaves” changes them from people to things, which is why the word exists. It allows you to go on to say things like this:

An English traveler who had visited both sections of the country wrote in 1854 that he was “utterly at a loss to imagine the source of that prejudice which subsists against [African Americans] in the Northern states, a prejudice unknown in the South, where the relations between the Africans and the European [white American] are so much more intimate.”

—Let’s unpack. The English traveler is Marshall Hall, an abolitionist who visited the U.S. and Canada and wrote The Two-Fold Slavery of the United States with the hope of appealing to slaveholders in the U.S. to end slavery. Hall’s purpose was to use positive energy to end slavery: rather than attack slaveholders as the inhuman monsters they were, he hoped to reach out to them as good people who would, by nature of their goodness, come to see that enslaving people was wrong. As he put it to them, “I take the liberty of addressing [myself] to you, because from you, I believe, all good to the poor African people in the United States must originate. …from your kindness and generosity, and sense of justice, any peaceful, beneficent, and momentous change in their condition must flow.”

Hall’s tactic is not in itself a bad one; you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and people you attack are not likely to come around to your way of thinking. But in his efforts to portray slaveholders as basically good people, Hall goes much too far.

Notice his title is the “two-fold” slavery of the U.S. Hall was taken aback by the difficult condition free black Americans lived in in the north. He had expected to see terrors and suffering in the slave south, and happy bliss in the free north. What he saw instead, he says, was “a [virtual] slavery to which too little attention has hitherto been paid.” Free black Americans in the north, says Hall, have it worse than enslaved black Americans in the south.

We immediately suspect that Hall was the guest of slaveholders who made sure that the people they held as livestock put on their best face for the visitor. “Happy” enslaved servants were given new clothes and good food for the duration of Hall’s visit, and were instructed to do all in their power to give him a good impression of slavery—or else. This suspicion is reinforced by Hall’s observation that

…the African in the slavery of the United States is usually so well cared for, that he is for the most part, according to the expression of Henry Clay, “fat and sleek”, and his numbers increase in a higher ratio than those of the European [i.e., whites]; whilst the African said to be free is so crushed by state legislation and popular prejudice as to provide for himself and family through extreme difficulties, and is at once wretched individually and scarcely increases his numbers as a race…

Much, therefore, as has been said of Abolition, I can scarcely regard it, under existing circumstances, as a boon to the poor African in the United States.

Quoting Henry Clay, the “great compromiser” who did so much to expand slavery in the U.S., in an antislavery book is pretty dicey. Clay had a vested interest in telling Americans that enslaved people were “fat and happy”.  Hall notes that freedom in the north is but technical, and therefore abolition as it exists in the U.S. is worthless. It is slavery by another name.

He goes on to elaborate this point in his very short chapter on Slavery: Its Cruelties and Indignities—a meager three pages that begin on page 118 in a book of over 200 pages. As Hall notes, “This has usually been the first topic with anti-slavery writers.” But Hall has little time for the physical cruelty of slavery because his entire labor is to show that physical slavery is nothing compared with spiritual bondage. As he puts it, “The cruelties of slavery are, at the most, physical. I have told you of moral and intellectual inflictions; of hearts rent asunder and of minds crushed.”

Yes, we may grant him his case that mental and emotional torture are equally bad, and sometimes worse, than physical torture. But they are both torture. Hall’s subsequent descriptions of physical cruelty against enslaved people turn the stomach. Clearly Hall was shown “happy” enslaved people but also allowed to see the “necessary discipline” that was sometimes “required” to keep enslaved people down. We will only quote one ad from North Carolina for a runaway that Hall includes:

Run away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.

M. RICKS, July 18, 1838

“I tried to make the letter M” is a statement, an image, that is forever implanted in your mind once you read it. “Trying” to brand your initial with a hot iron onto a person’s face is a kind of barbarism that is hard to even take in. It is only possible if you don’t think of that person as a human being but as a piece of livestock that belongs to you. We realize the slaveholder likely failed to make the M because of the woman’s struggles and screams. Is this really better than “moral and intellectual inflictions”? Is this really incapable of “rending a heart asunder” and crushing a mind? Is being branded better than being denied a good job in the north? Hall seems to see people like Ricks as the exception that proves the rule that actual slavery is reliably better than the wage slavery faced by black Americans in the north.

And this is the man American History chooses to quote to American students today, in 2017, as a reliable, objective observer whose words are, apparently, proof that free black Americans would have been better off enslaved.

Somehow, we go on, back to AH:

This [quote from Hall] confirmed an earlier observation by Tocqueville that “the prejudice which repels the Negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated.”

—But the famous French traveller through the United States was not supporting the idea that abolition was a lie; de Tocqueville was observing that in a nation where race-based slavery is legal, any black person who gains freedom will present a problem. The free black person is a rebuke and a challenge to the slave law; the free black person, by living a human life, shows that slavery is not part of God’s benevolent plan but an artificial human invention designed to turn people into livestock. And a slave nation does not want to see that.

Northern blacks were often victimized by mob violence; they had virtually no access to education; they could vote in only  a few states; and they were barred from all but the most menial of occupations.

—All of the statements about black Americans made here were also true of American women of all colors. Women were virtually enslaved in this way, and that enslavement was encoded in laws that did not let women vote, inherit money or property, or claim custody of their children. Yet we don’t find AH saying women would have been better off enslaved. (We hope not; we didn’t read their chapter on women’s suffrage…)

…For all their problems, however, northern blacks were aware of, and fiercely proud of, their freedom. And they remained acutely sensitive to the plight of those members of their race who remained in bondage, aware that their own position in society would remain precarious as long as slavery existed.

—We’re not sure what the first sentence means: black Americans were “aware of” their freedom? All of the language fails here, perhaps because of its shameful duplicity. Black American were sensitive to the “plight” of “those members of their race” who remained in “bondage”? A more honest sentence might read “they remained acutely aware of the horrors suffered by other black Americans who were enslaved and held as livestock”. 

But the worst is at the end, where apparently free black Americans were only aware of enslaved black Americans as a threat to their own freedom. AH makes it sound like free black resented and feared enslaved blacks for making their own lives in the north harder.

We’ll end for now with a reiteration of the fact that living with institutional racism and oppression is not, in fact, worse than being bred for sale. And while there was institutional racism and oppression in the free states before the Civil War, it is impossible to say that people who voted to end black slavery were “just as racist” as people who refused to do so.

Next time: we conclude with an example of the damage textbooks like this do.

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Louisa, unenthusiastically enslaved

Posted on June 15, 2017. Filed under: Civil War, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part 2 of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey focuses on this photo:

Louisa

The photo is easily found online—we found it on the PBS site Africans in America. It is a photo of a black American named Louisa who was enslaved by the Hayward family in  Missouri. Here’s how PBS describes this photo:

Under the institution of slavery, African Americans and the white people who owned them lived in close proximity and developed relationships with each other. These were defined by the power imbalance between the people involved. They could be relationships of mutual compassion or mutual hatred, but they were an inherent part of daily life.

One of the most complex relationships was the one that existed between white children and their African American caretakers. White children were often in the unnatural position of standing to inherit the people who raised them, and enslaved nannies were in the similarly unnatural position of caring for the children who would grow up to be their masters. This picture, of slave nurse Louisa and her charge, H. E. Hayward, suggests the inherent tension of these relationships.

We’ve already quarreled in part one with the idea that “compassion” between enslaved people and the people claiming to own them as livestock could ever be genuine. Here we want to focus on the second paragraph, which to us is an accurate description of the image. The baby is happy. The young woman holding him looks sorrowful at best, wary and emotionally beaten down at worst. Her eyes, like the baby’s, are on the face of the Hayward parent or parents who wanted the photo. The baby smiles, while Louisa seems to feel all of the stress of being responsible for a white child. If anything happens to that child, Louisa will bear the blame and be punished accordingly. Her life and welfare hang on his. That baby is already her “master.” Any love she might feel for a baby in her care is marred by the fact that she is forced to care for him and not her own children, who may have been sold away from her, and by the fact that any love he might feel for her as his closest caregiver will be systematically and deliberately destroyed as he grows up, so that he will be able to sell her as livestock when that becomes necessary for his own personal enrichment. The photo is a haunting representation of the perversion of all natural human emotion that slavery depends upon, and that’s why it’s famous.

American History, however, has a different take:

NURSING THE MASTER’S CHILD Louisa, a slave on a Missouri plantation owned by the Hayward family in the 1850s, is photographed here holding the master’s infant son. Black women typically cared for white children on plantations, sometimes with great affection and sometimes—as this photograph may suggest—dutifully and without enthusiasm.

Again, AH‘s level of comfort with the terms “master” and “slave” is jarring. But then, perhaps that is what enables AH to criticize Louisa as unenthusiastic in her “duty”. That the editors of AH could look at this photo and approve a caption that belittles her fear and subjection by saying she has no “enthusiasm” for babysitting an adorable child is astounding. How they could critique her for just being “dutiful” instead of “enthusiastic” is completely inexplicable. It comes perilously close to the old “lazy negro” caricature wherein black Americans were depicted as lazy and sullen and unwilling to work hard.

We go on next time to AH’s thoughts on black abolitionists.

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What do you think was the worst thing about a slave auction?

Posted on May 31, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

That was the question on a 10th-grade American history homework handout we were shown this week, from a public school in the Northeast. Needless to say, it was from the Civil War section of the curriculum. It was followed by this puzzler: “How do you think slaves felt at a slave auction, and why?”

The mind boggles at these questions. A slave auction is the place where the purpose of slavery is fulfilled: to breed human beings for sale. Is there any facet of a slave auction that is not repellent? Can the horrors of a slave auction be hierarchized? What were students supposed to say to answer this question? It implies that there were some aspects of slave auctions that were less awful than others, which is simply untrue.

We asked what textbook the class was using, and were given a copy: American History: A Survey, with Alan Brinkley listed as main author on the cover (McGraw-Hill, 2003 edition). While the handout in question did not come from this textbook, its habit of qualifying slavery as only partly bad is shared and propounded by American History.

First, we’d like to remind our readers that We don’t talk about black slavery in America:

I don’t like to use the word “slave”. To me, it validates the concept that people can be changed from people to slaves, things, property. Many people have been and still are enslaved around the world. But no human being is a slave.

Like most Americans, however, American History uses the word slave without qualm. The damage this does is quickly apparent. Let’s parse a few quotes from the book.

From a section on black codes:

These and dozens of other restrictions might seem to suggest that slaves lived under a uniformly harsh and dismal regime. Had the laws been rigidly enforced, that might have been the case. In fact, however, enforcement was spotty and uneven. Some slaves did acquire property, did learn to read and write, and assemble with other slaves, in spite of laws to the contrary. Although the major slave offenses generally fell under the jurisdiction of the courts (and thus of the Slave Codes), white owners handled most transgressions and inflicted widely varying punishments. In other words, despite the rigid provisions of the law, there was in reality considerable variety within the slave system. Some blacks lived in almost prison-like conditions, rigidly and harshly controlled by their masters. Many (probably most) others enjoyed some flexibility and (at least in comparison with the regimen prescribed by law) a striking degree of autonomy.

—Using the word “slave” here does exactly what racists in the 19th century wanted it to do: it dehumanizes. “Slaves” do this and that, “slaves” experience different treatment by “owners”, “slaves” enjoy flexibility. How can we still be referring to some human beings as “owners” of other human beings in 2017?? It is inexcusable. And we’re not sure what proofs the authors have that “probably most” enslaved Americans were able to escape the harshness of black codes.

A quick note: history textbooks from big K-12 publishers are produced by freelance writers, and edited by freelance editors. The historian’s name on the cover means little. Usually that historian has been brought in to write a new chapter, a new section or two, and to help come up with supplementary material. The main text is mostly static. Freelance writers are given existing copy and asked to revise it in some way (usually to shorten it). HP authors have worked as freelance writers and editors for history textbooks, so we could take a page out of American History and say that “many, probably most,” freelance writers working on textbooks have no idea whether the content they are given is accurate/factual or not. They are not asked to vet the copy for accuracy. If, as some HP writers have done, they point out errors to their editor, the editor is usually at a complete loss about what to do—there is no contingency plan for changing what the copy says, just for shortening or moving it around or putting it into bullet points or multiple choice questions. We had nothing to do with the writing of American History, and do not make any claims to know exactly how it was produced; we work under our own assumption that it followed this standard procedure. And so when we wonder what proofs are given that “most” enslaved Americans were not subject to the full force of the black codes, we feel sure that that question, if it was ever asked by a freelancer, was never answered.

Back to the text:

White farmers with few slaves generally supervised their workers directly and often worked closely alongside them. On such farms, black and whites developed a form of intimacy unknown on larger plantations. The paternal relationship between such masters and their slaves could, like relationships between fathers and children, be warm and affectionate. It could also be tyrannical and cruel. In either case, it was a relationship based on the relative powerlessness of the slaves and the nearly absolute authority of their masters. In general, African Americans themselves preferred to live on larger plantations, where they had more privacy and a chance to build a cultural and social world of their own.

—It is hard to believe one’s eyes: the 19th century idea of paternalism is being endorsed by a 21st-century textbook. The relationship between “masters” and “slaves” was like that between fathers and children? The idea that slavery could be a “positive good”, helping poor ignorant black people to learn how to live in society and follow Christian teaching, was relentlessly shopped by proslavery Americans in the 1800s. And here it is again in the 2000s, as students are told that “intimacy,” and “warm and affectionate” feelings could grow between people who were being bred for sale and those breeding them for sale.

Of course, we should back up to the first line, in which enslaved people are described as “workers.” Another textbook came under fire for doing this in 2015; people who are enslaved and by law treated as livestock are not “workers”. We’ll revisit this below.

Finally, to describe large plantations as having safe spaces for people suddenly referred to as “African Americans” to have private lives and create their own culture, without giving any kind of proof of this claim, is pretty alarming. Why is this the one place where “slaves” are suddenly “African Americans”? The suggestion is that on large plantations–which were large because the forced breeding was ramped up–were in part havens in which black Americans began to create African-American culture.

Even so, according to some scholars, the actual material conditions of slavery may, in fact, have been better than those of many northern factory workers and considerably better than those of both peasants and industrial workers in 19th-century Europe.

—…we’d say “some (not most) scholars” on this one. Here enslavement is presented once again as just another kind of hard “work.” But it’s also yet another argument proslavery Americans made in the 1800s, before and after the Civil War, to promote and protect slavery. Yes, factory workers lived in abysmal poverty, and their bosses had total control over them at work. But they weren’t bred for sale, their families weren’t broken up and sold to different people who considered themselves their “owners”, and you could quit factory work if you wanted to. You could work your way up the ladder to be a boss. You got paid. You could vote. You could get married if you wanted to, to whoever you wanted to. You could move away. You were a citizen of this country, with the rights of a citizen. This is, to put it mildly, better than slavery.

Most free blacks [in the south], however, lived in abject poverty, under conditions worse than those of blacks in the north. Law or custom closed many occupations to them, forbade them to assemble without white supervision, and placed numerous other restraints on them. They were only quasi-free, and yet they had all the burdens of freedom: the necessity to support themselves, to find housing, to pay taxes. Yet great as were the hardships of freedom, blacks usually preferred them to slavery.”

—The “burdens of freedom” is an expression, a concept, that we have not encountered before. Again, echoes of the old proslavery arguments are heard: slaveholders give slaves food, shelter, clothes, religion; they care for them when they’re sick; they support them when they’re too old to work. Why, slaves had it pretty good! If it weren’t so breathtakingly awful to say blacks usually preferred freedom to slavery, we would laugh. Yes, black Americans usually preferred freedom to slavery. Like people usually prefer not being tortured to being tortured.

This last line is the most sickening, perhaps, of the echoes of proslavery arguments: that the enslaved liked slavery. That they knew they were not intelligent enough, not civilized enough, to be free, and they were grateful for their white masters’ help and care. The recently revived myth that “many” enslaved black men fought willingly for the Confederacy is a sign of the undying appeal of this idea to a small number of Americans (see more on this myth here).

Next time: more, if you can bear it, from American History: A Survey

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Positive change v. negative: closing Obama’s Farewell address

Posted on May 1, 2017. Filed under: American history, Puritans, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

On we go at last with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite our temptation to address the president’s poignant question “why was there a Civil War?”, since Yoni Appelbaum over at the The Atlantic does a fine job addressing that for us.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, since the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

We left off with President Obama’s comments on attacks on the Enlightenment order that is the foundation of the American way, with him saying there had not been a successful attack by foreign terrorists in the United States in the last eight years.

And although Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists, including Bin Laden.

The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed. And no one who threatens America will ever be safe.

And all who serve or have served — it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your commander-in-chief. And we all owe you a deep debt of gratitude.

But, protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear. So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.

And that’s why for the past eight years I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.

—This section starts out as the usual tough-on-crime/terrorism/”threats” section that is in most 21st-century farewell addresses, but then morphs into an attempt by the president to say that military action is not the only patriotic action, and that military action without constitutional underpinnings is as dangerous as any crime/terrorism/threats. But this section falls strangely flat. The quick half-sentence “we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are” is vague and could be used to support more militarization. It’s not clearly stating that military action alone has no moral value; it is judged good or evil by the cause it supports. And the Obama administration did not leave a great legacy when it comes to prisoners at Guantanamo, stopping surveillance of the public, and protecting privacy.

That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans who are just as patriotic as we are.

That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights to expand democracy and human rights and women’s rights and LGBT rights.

No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.

Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.

Which brings me to my final point — our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.

—Here things pick up as the president says that fighting for human rights is “part of defending America.” That’s true. So long as Americans are willing to recognize extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism within the U.S., and not always just in other nations, and to fight it as hard here at home as they do abroad, we are on solid ground. The scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law will shrink if the U.S. only enforces rule of law outside its own borders. That’s what it means to say that no one can defeat America but ourselves—if we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight against injustice in other nations, our credibility is dissolved along with our democracy.

All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.

When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote.

When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.

But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.

Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

—We heartily second all of the statements made here! When people lose faith in our political system, they stop participating, and begin to elect people they hope will either destroy that system as impossibly corrupt, or reform it through strong-man tactics—bypassing Congress via executive orders and/or pushing oppressive and unconstitutional laws through Congress. But we, the people, have to bring meaning to our government or it will cease to exist. That is the substance of Obama’s next section:

In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken… to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.”

Read Washington’s great address here.

And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.

America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. So coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others.

When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.

—It’s this kind of optimism that is so desperately essential to democracy. If, over 275 years later we still have to work to improve our democracy, we can see that as a clear sign that it’s hopelessly flawed and we should give up, or we can see it as a clear sign that our democracy has been greatly improved over those 275 years, and can just keep getting better and better. You have to choose the latter—choose optimism—to keep democracy alive.

Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.

If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.

If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.

Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir in goodness, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this one and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.

—This is a call to energy and real life that more Americans need to answer.

Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in a Charleston church. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch. I’ve seen Wounded Warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again.

I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees or work for peace and, above all, to look out for each other. So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined.

And I hope your faith has too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004 and 2008, 2012.

—This list of the good and bad moments ends with an emphasis on the good, and subtly reminds us of the historic step that was electing our first black president.

The rest of the speech is shout-out to the First Lady, the Obama daughters, vice-president Joe Biden, the White House staff, and the vast network of volunteers who worked on his campaigns. And then this:

And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.

—These are defiantly positive statements to make as Donald Trump prepared to take office. Obama wants to counter the idea that there will no longer be a place in the country for those who did not support Trump, and encourage them to continue to push for the positive change that is the work of improving our democracy by extending and strengthening it, even as proponents of the negative change that is the work of narrowing and destroying our democracy look forward to having the upper hand.

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:

Yes, we can.

Yes, we did.

Yes, we can.

Thank you. God bless you. And may God continue to bless the United States of America. Thank you.

Next time: thoughts on how to live Obama’s optimism.

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George Washington didn’t show his tax returns

Posted on March 6, 2017. Filed under: Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

…yes, this statement was made on national television last week, in an interview that Bill Maher conducted with Trump supporter and virtual spokesman Jeffrey Lord, who answered Maher’s demand that the current president show his tax returns “as all presidents have done in my lifetime” in this way:

I totally disagree with this. I don’t think he should ever show his tax returns. We’ve had presidents in the United States from George Washington all the way through to Lyndon Johnson who never released a single tax return.

There was scattered laughter in Maher’s audience as people realized the enormity of Lord’s seeming ignorance. Income tax was not instituted in U.S. law until 1913. While an income tax was levied during the Civil War to help the U.S. pay for the war (the Revenue Act of 1862), that was an emergency measure that did not last beyond the war. The 1894 Tariff Act imposed an income tax, but Congress was still debating its constitutionality, and it was not until 1913 that the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, legalizing and instituting a national income tax.

But Lord isn’t ignorant. No, he doesn’t know about the Revenue Act of 1862 or the 1894 Tariff Act, but few Americans do, or need to. Most Americans do, however, know that the U.S. income tax does not stretch back to Washington. There are no cherished stories of Washington traveling to New York City or the new capital, Washington, DC to turn in his 1040-EZ. For Lord to bring up Washington is more than ignorant, and worse than ignorant: it’s dangerous.

Lord is dangerous because he believes the American people are stupid. He’s dangerous because he wants to drape the flag over a breach of trust with the American people. He invokes George Washington to shut people up. We’re not sure whether Lord knows there hasn’t always been income tax in the U.S., but we get the feeling he does, and said what he said to sound a) knowledgeable and b) patriotic. People who peddle you patriotism to cover lies or crimes are un-American, and the opposite of patriotic.

Is the current president hiding criminal activity by refusing to share his tax returns? We have no idea. We will not say that he is, because we don’t know, and that’s not something one should assume. But we do agree with critics that his refusal invites speculation on criminal activity—the worst-case scenario for why he won’t share them.

Those who would defend Lord’s Washington line will say that only pedantic nitpickers would focus on his “little mistake” in the timeline instead of his grand point about individual freedom. They are wrong. Because Lord used Washington in a deliberate attempt to propagandize Trump’s refusal to share his returns as patriotic. That’s the grand point.

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Obama’s farewell address: economics and liberty

Posted on February 6, 2017. Filed under: The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go with post three in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. President Obama had just spoken about the “call to citizenship” that must reinvigorate each generation of Americans to inspire them to live up to our founding principles.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

—He begins with a theme dear to our HP hearts, that America is exceptional not because it’s “great” or because the American people are naturally superior to all others, but because of our founding principles. When we live up to those, America is the greatest nation. When we don’t, when we avoid or reject the hard, contentious, and bloody work of democracy, of ensuring liberty and justice for all, when we stop our forward motion, America is not great. Worse than that, it is a perverted parody of what it is supposed to be. Every generation must recommit the nation to the work of real democracy.

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

—If you hold up each of these accomplishments against the litmus test of “does it promote liberty and justice for all?”, then the Obama Administration scores very high. Job creation can be good or bad; restricting immigration to “protect jobs for Americans”, or lowering taxes on the wealthy by calling them “job-creators” and promoting the so-far mythical promise of “trickle-down economics” are bad. But in the case of the Obama Administration, job creation was mostly good.

In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. No, no, no, no, no. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected President to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.

—Again, this was a speech in front of a large, live crowd, so when Obama began this section, people who did not support Trump booed. That’s why Obama says “no”. We have been alarmed at the HP by the constant hauling out of the old trope that “nothing represents our democracy better than our peaceful transfer of power”. That peaceful transfer is important, but only when we are not handing the presidency to a would-be tyrant whose stated purpose is to destroy the federal government. Then it is right to protest that hand-off of power, and to not go quietly into the brave new world.

Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.

Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

—Obama salvages things somewhat by saying even under Trump, we are all still obliged by our founding principles to “make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we face”, and by reminding us that none of our human potential means anything without our democracy—and our decency, which we may define, once again, as “liberty and justice for all.”

And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.

There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids and create good jobs and protect our homeland.

In other words, it will determine our future. To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.

(APPLAUSE)

—Before the president transitions into a list of economic wins, we pause to linger over this section, which speaks for itself. All we would add is that our Founders worked long hours to create a system of government that could not only withstand troubled times, but was built to power through troubled times and create a bulwark against trouble. Our system of government is not weak and outdated and harmful and unable to keep us free. Just the opposite. It’s only when we undermine its workings that we expose ourselves to danger.

And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again.

(APPLAUSE)

The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.

Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said, and I mean it, anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.

(APPLAUSE)

Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit. But to make people’s lives better.

(APPLAUSE)

But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

—In other words, when you have liberty and justice for all, the economy improves. As he goes on to elaborate:

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.

The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.

And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.

(APPLAUSE)

To give workers the power…

(APPLAUSE)

… to unionize for better wages.

(CHEERS)

To update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now.

(APPLAUSE)

And make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and the individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.

(CHEERS)

(APPLAUSE)

We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.

—Complacency is indeed the enemy of a representative democracy in a world with very few representative democracies.

Next time: tough talk on race

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Watergate and Trump and deja-vu: The Saturday Night Massacre Redux

Posted on January 31, 2017. Filed under: Politics, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We’re rerunning this post from our series on the 1972-5 Watergate crisis because of the Trump Administration’s sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. President Trump firing an attorney general who stood up to his unconstitutional requests is all too reminiscent of a horrible 24 hours in our nation’s history, when President Nixon tried to fire his attorney general for refusing to help Nixon break the law. Two attorneys general would resign in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre.

Members of our federal government rose up to save the Constitution and the United States in 1973. They fought for our system of government, which explicitly says the president is not above the law. They knew that we, the people, do have “an alternative” if a president breaks the law—we impeach that president. They knew that Nixon’s actions posed “a grave and profound crisis.” How will the members of our federal government act in 2017?

 

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

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President Obama’s Farewell Speech continues, despite the best efforts of the Trump Administration

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

So now we continue with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, for as long as it is allowed to post it.

We left off in part 1 with President Obama talking about his time as a grassroots political organizer in Chicago:

Now this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.

—Those last two sentences are so critically important: we must participate in our democracy in order to uphold it. It doesn’t matter what kind of change you want. You have to act for it, and support others who take action.

That action should be informed by nothing other than our founding principles:

of due process before the law…

of equality of opportunity…

of no discrimination based on race, creed, or sex…

…of liberty and justice for all. Any change, any movement, any one that does not support these things is un-American. So erasing gay people and non-white people is not supporting our democracy. It is un-American.

It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

What a radical idea, the great gift that our Founders gave to us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, and toil, and imagination — and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

—These founding principles are indeed a gift and an imperative. We have to work to maintain them—they are not self-perxetuating. We will have them for as long as we want them. When Americans top wanting everyone in this country to be treated as equal, our democracy will end.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.

It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan — and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.

—All of those examples in the second paragraph are concrete manifestations of “liberty and justice for all.” All of the people mentioned are true Americans.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

—It would seem the president had been reading our blog! Especially our About page.

When we face people saying they want to make America great again, we must ask them what they mean by that. Whose lives will be made better? What should be changed? What exactly isn’t great? How can we solve problems by expanding civil rights rather than curtailing them?

We’ll leave off here for now. Next time, the ridiculous red herring of “the peaceful transfer of power.”

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