What History is For

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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…the Obama Farewell address is no more on the Trump whitehouse.gov site

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

Post 2 in our series close-reading the Obama farewell speech has started ominously.

We put in the URL for the speech that we referenced in our first post—whitehouse.gov/farewell—into our usual search engine. The first time, we got a page with a photo of President Trump and VP Pence (which we didn’t think to get a screenshot of) giving a thumbs up and asking us to Make America Great Again.

We typed the URL into the field at the top of the page, and got a page with only this message:

no-farewell

We searched for it on the whitehouse.gov site and got this:

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-2-25-53-pm

We tried the link from Google—same result.

We had thought maybe we should pause parsing Obama’s farewell to address the Trump inaugural address; now we’re not sure how to proceed. An attack so blatant on people searching for the Obama address, with the Trump/Pence screen that only comes up once, has shocked us for the moment. We won’t be silenced, so we’ll be back very quickly, but this deserves a stand-alone post.

Go try it yourselves. Then come back for our series.

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Trump and the Great American Experiment

Posted on November 10, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Today we’re re-running a post written at the very start of this blog, for reasons that will become evident as you read, on the second day of living in anticipation of a new presidency that is dedicated to perverting and destroying America’s founding principles.

From this point on, the HP is going to increase its focus on civics, our founding principles, and the fight for liberty and justice for all under the Constitution, because all Americans will need that information going forward into a Trump presidency that will not only allow that man to exercise his ill-judgment, but open the door to all Americans who have no faith in their nation’s founding principles. To destroy those principles is treason. The HP fights treason in all forms.

So, with a quote from the great Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper, we begin this new era:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

 

America is an experiment. From the time of its first white settlement, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Barack Obama is such an American, and his election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

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I just sued the school system… start with your history teacher

Posted on October 17, 2016. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , |

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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David Duke and the Klan and the NAAWP are deplorable

Posted on September 27, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s not that hard to just say it. While Mike Pence feels that it crosses some line of civility to say that people who work for the destruction of black and Jewish Americans through terror and legal oppression are deplorable, we know that it doesn’t. It’s not “name-calling” when you accurately describe a hate group as hateful, and it’s only wrong to call a hate group “deplorable” if their actions are objectively recognized as nothing to deplore. Even in the midst of the racist backlash going on in the U.S. today, few people are willing to say out loud, on TV at least, that they don’t deplore hate and terror.

The two most important exceptions to this, of course, are Trump and Pence. Trump persistently uses hate speech against Mexicans, women, liberals, and anyone else he feels at odds with. And for someone who won’t stoop to “name-calling”, Mike Pence’s decision to run with Trump, who thrives on name-calling, is hard to understand.

David Duke’s life-work of fighting for the rights of white people is certainly nothing new in this country. There have always been white racists in America, and they have always found supporters. That’s why Duke can pursue his hate activism so glibly, describing the Republican Party as a “big tent” that welcomes all—including members what he describes as the “nonviolent Klan.” And that’s why Trump is afraid to denounce Duke; it would rob him of some votes.

But it’s not just fear. Trump just doesn’t see anything wrong with Duke. He sees him as a successful politician who leads a fairly large coalition of voters, and who has ties to a political organization that may once have been kind of a problem but is now just a kind of hard-core Republican base, along Tea-Party lines. If you don’t like the Klan or the National Association for the Advancement of White People (Duke’s new org), you’re just a knee-jerk liberal who doesn’t understand that the members of these groups are just good working-class Americans trying to get a fair deal by fighting big politics and the liberal oligarchy.

It is an insult to Republicans and even to some Tea Party members to make them equivalent to the Klan and white supremacists. And it’s an insult to all Americans to pretend that hate is a particularly American virtue. The Klan and all white supremacy groups are based on hate and they do nothing but advance hate and terror and death. There is no way to look at our nation’s history and deny this, and there’s no way to look at these groups’ present actions and deny it. There’s no grey area, or room for argument, or polite listening to “both sides of the story”. There’s one story to tell and it’s that the Klan and all white supremacy groups are repellent. That’s not a “liberal” stance. That is the truth, unaffected by political party.

It’s clear that “liberal” is becoming a code word on the right for “non-white”—for people, white or not, who fight for the civil rights of non-whites. The neoconservatives who use “liberal” as a shorthand for everything wrong with this country don’t have to call liberals deplorable because that meaning is built into their usage of the word. In a reversal of the pattern of oppressed groups taking hate words and turning them into badges of pride (“queer”), neoconservatives are trying to take a positive word and turn it into a badge of shame.

As historians we take the long view of things. Sometimes that’s reassuring. Other times it’s not. In this case, it’s depressing to see that the playbook for terrorizing black  Americans, and anyone else who supports them, that was written in the early 1800s still alive and well and having new life breathed into it. The only ground for optimism is that the civil rights movement in this country is as old as the hate it fights. So we keep fighting. As Eyes on the Prize puts it, “The one thing we did right/was the day we started to fight.”

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Truth v.uninformed consensus: Wikipedia, Giuliani, et al.

Posted on September 9, 2016. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

We read about the latest edit-a-thon of Wikipedia, recently held by Dr. Elizabeth De Wolfe and carried out by students in her Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course at the University of New England. As Perspectives on History puts it,

A Wikipedia user survey reports that the average “Wikipedian” on the English-language version of the site is male, formally educated, and from a majority Christian, developed country in the Northern Hemisphere. This lack of diversity, according to a Wikipedia essay on systemic bias, reproduces imbalances on the site that extend (in the realm of history) to a lack of women’s history, the histories of people without access to the Internet (primarily “people in developing nations, the poor in industrialized nations, the disabled, and the elderly”), and the histories of minority demographic groups, which in the United States include African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.

Edit-a-thons are a popular model for highlighting these topical weak spots and encouraging broader participation in editing the site. Often hosted by libraries and museums around a particular theme, edit-a-thons provide participants with both the in-person training and the sources needed to create entries. But even the most successful edit-a-thons are no match for the second, more treacherous set of barriers that are built into the site and hinder its representation of history.

…Wikipedia is not designed to showcase expertise, and for good reason, explains Rosemont College associate professor Michelle Moravec: “The Wikipedians recognized early on that they were going to end up with academic wars if they allowed academics to edit entries that they themselves are the field expert in.” However, Wikipedia’s alternative to expertise—consensus—introduces its own biases. In theory, “if enough people weigh in you’ll eventually reach un-bias,” says Moravec. “But anyone with a brain would realize that’s nonsense. You’ll get the most persistent opinion winning.”

Founded in 2013, the Wiki Education foundation seeks to bridge these gaps between Wikipedia and academia by facilitating partnerships between them. The foundation provides online training and guidance for classroom projects designed to counteract some of Wikipedia’s weaknesses while working within the strictures of the site’s core policies. University of Texas at Austin associate professor Daina Berry worked with Wiki Education to develop a project for her Black Women in America undergraduate class. Berry says that she used the tension between Wikipedia’s standards and those of historical scholarship to teach her students about the false ideal of “neutral writing” and “the challenge of researching women and people marginalized from the historical record.”

The HP applauds these efforts to break the uninformed consensus that Wikipedia can fall prey to. And it leads us to return to a topic we covered a while back: getting history right.

We notice, as historians, that certain popular stories about historical figures are repeated in textbooks and other learning material even though they are untrue. The most glaring example we can think of at the moment is not from American history, but it’s illustrative: almost any resource you read will say that when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, he renounced the Catholic Church and became a Protestant, and this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England.

We are exposed to this story frequently as scholars of the English Puritans. The truth is that Henry remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life, persecuted Protestants, and rejected the Reformation. What really happened was that Henry made himself the head of the Catholic Church in England (not the head of a new Protestant Church), putting himself in place of the Pope. The English monarch was now the head of the Catholic Church in England, and this is why it was so dangerous to be a Protestant during Henry’s reign—to reject Catholicism was not just a religious act but a political one. It was to reject the authority of the king, and as such Protestantism was treason, and punishable not just by excommunication but by death.

Protestants would labor in secret during Henry’s reign to sway the Church of England toward Reformation, and under Henry’s successor Edward VI, who actually was a Protestant, and a fanatical one, the C of E did become Protestant. But under his successor, Mary I, a fanatical Catholic, the C of E returned to the authority of the Pope, and Protestants were notoriously persecuted. Mary’s successor Elizabeth I maintained a middle ground, making the English Church the mix of Catholic and Protestant practice that it remains today, and after the brief experiment of Puritan rule under Cromwell, the Anglican Church was set to remain a Protestant sect with many lingering Catholic elements.

But all that is less clear-cut and dramatic than saying Henry VIII was mad at the Pope and so he became a Protestant.

It’s also easy to blur things unintentionally, as the BBC website does when it says “His break with the papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the Reformation.” Yes, the break with Rome gave English Protestants hopes that the Catholic Church in England would be reformed, and paved the way for Henry’s son Edward to receive a humanist, Protestant education (carefully hidden from Henry), and for Elizabeth to one day enact a gentle shift to middle-ground Protestantism that would be challenged once more during the English Civil War but restored under Charles II and, after one last threat from James II, securely established.

…but that long string of events stretching  from the 1534 to 1688 is not the story you get from the line “Henry began the Protestant Reformation.”

So a general consensus is built by people who have not devoted time to studying the English Reformation that Henry was a Protestant. This view becomes so well-known that it is repeated in many venues, including history materials meant to teach students about English history.

That’s the problem with an uninformed consensus—it creates stories so well-known that when you point out that a story is wrong, you are the one who seems crazy. As editors of history materials, we know that when we correct items like Henry VIII broke with  the Catholic Church, or Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for being a woman, or the Pilgrims left Holland for America because their children were turning Dutch, we often get flack. Does it really matter? we are asked, by educators. Isn’t the general gist correct?

We insist that it does matter. It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass.

Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today. Unfortunately, the double standard seems to say that accurately describing what landmark Supreme Court decisions made possible in the United States is less important than getting all the plot twists of Game of Thrones down right on a fan site.

During today’s presidential election, the truth is taking an unusual beating from Donald Trump, who will seemingly say anything he likes whether it’s true or not. Few people seem equipped to call him on this. Chris Matthews stood up to Rudy Giuliani’s truth-bashing recently by refusing to let him skim over a question or start spouting lies made up on the spot. You can see that here. What Matthews did is what every good historian should be doing right now, as lies flood our media at an unusual rate and misrepresent our shared past.

It can be hard to know when you are not being told the truth; all we can recommend is that the next time someone on TV is telling you what the Second Amendment ensures, or what Lincoln thought about civil rights, or what the Boston Tea Party was about, take the time to find a reputable article by a scholarly author and read it. Then read a few more. You will most likely get to the truth, and find that you are actually willing to spend that much time studying the history of your country, your own history, because it’s interesting and because it explains the world you inherited and because the truth, as they say, has this uncanny ability to set you free.

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Civil War 1860–and 2016?

Posted on August 11, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s the last post in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, in which we leave the campaign and think ahead to its logical and inevitable conclusion—the election of a president.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

We don’t know who will win the 2016 presidential election, but it seems fair to say that the reporting of Election Day in 2016 will be much like the reporting from the New York Times on Election Day 1860:

…The return of Napoleon from Elba did not a greater excitement than the returns of the present election. All day yesterday the inquiry was in everybody’s mouth, “What’s the latest news?” Newspapers were in demand… Every bus that carried its dozens of citizens businessward in the morning was a reading-room, a political meeting-house and a pseudo stock board, all in one. Some read the papers, some fought the bloodless battle over again, bringing their batteries of profound argument to bear upon the proposition that “they knew Lincoln would be elected”… In the streets, in the restaurants, in offices and counting-houses such was the tenor of the talk, and the character of the occupations of all to whom a leisure moment came.

Change out “newspaper” for “Internet” or “TV” and it fits pretty well. Change out “Lincoln” for “Clinton” or “Trump” and again it seems likely. One hopes that the battles after the 2016 election results are in will be bloodless; as we know, the returns in 1860 heralded the shedding of more American blood than anyone could have imagined even on November 7, 1860, when it was obvious to most Americans that sectionalism, created and exacerbated by the enslavement of black Americans, had driven a wedge so deep into the country that nothing short of a war seemed powerful enough to dissolve the sectionalism and mend the breach.

Today, Trump denies that he was inciting people to murder when he said on August 9 that the “Second Amendment people” might find a way to stop Clinton from naming Supreme Court justices if she is elected president, but this was just the most egregious of many calls to violence and bloodshed that we’ve heard in this country over the past year of campaigning, all, so far as we have seen, coming from the conservative side of the liberal-conservative sectional divide that is currently rending our country in two.

It’s hard to imagine another Civil War being fought today over liberal-conservative sectional issues. But as we said back in 2008 in Union or Slavery?:

Think of it this way: what if right now, as you sit reading this, the United States was in danger of civil war. Some group of states had actually written up papers outlining how they would secede, and they had the power and the foreign backing to do it. Imagine that every week you read about how these states—let’s say 15 western states—were ready to actually sever their ties to the U.S., and leave the nation with 35 states and a big hole.

It’s impossible for us to really imagine this. We are faced daily with serious threats to our economic, intellectual, and political unity—there’s constant talk about red and blue states and how the coasts hate the  middle and vice-versa, etc.—but we cannot imagine this translates into a threat to our actual political unity. We can’t picture facing the possibility that civil war would break out over these issues and that the United States as we know it would cease to exist.

And all over one political and social issue. An important issue, to be sure, but not one that you thought could destroy the United States. Say it was illegal immigration. It’s been simmering for decades, but it’s begun to boil in the past 10 years, and people’s emotions are getting stronger about it. What do you think will happen in this situation?

Well, you expect it to keep dragging along as a divisive issue that will someday get enough minor legislation to die down, and be replaced by something else. Inertia or a solution, those are the options.

You never expect it to cause an actual civil war, with people in your state fighting people from another state. You don’t expect to see armies formed in the western U.S. states to fight the U.S. amed forces. You don’t expect to have your home destroyed by battle next year.

And that’s the way Americans viewed slavery in the antebellum years. It was a divisive issue, and was getting hotter after 1848, but civil war? Really?

The current election is causing great anxiety for many Americans on both sides of the sectional divide, but no doubt few are ready to believe that it could spark another Civil War. As we’ve seen in the Times‘ coverage of 1860, they were loathe to believe it, too; to the very end they kept reflecting the belief that somehow the proslaveryites would gradually back down and accept the fact that they no longer controlled political power in Washington. They were wrong. And those who believe today that one side or the other will back down from civil war may also be wrong. We devoutly hope they are not. But our trip back in time to the 1860 election has, sadly, inspired more fear than hope on that issue.

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What is conservative and what is radical? 1860 and 2016

Posted on August 4, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to post seven in  our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. Today we extrapolate a parallel between Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

Speaking of slavery, a New York Times editorial from October 1861 focuses on whether or not newly nominated Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln really intends to end slavery as southerners insist. Despite the fact that Lincoln represented a party founded in large part to stop the spread of slavery, and that Lincoln had, over the previous four years (since his debates with Stephen Douglas) been more and more clear that he found slavery morally wrong and dangerous to the political Union and American democracy, and that most Republican voters expected Lincoln to “teach the South a lesson” after having its way in Washington for four score and seven years, the author of the editorial is sure that Lincoln will do nothing to stop slavery:

After Mr. Lincoln shall be elected we think he will very promptly take steps to dispel the fogs that have been thrown around his political position – and that he will present himself to the country as a Conservative, devoted to the Union, considerate equally of every section and of every State, and resolved faithfully and with firmness to maintain the Constitution in all its parts. We have no doubt that he will proclaim himself opposed to the extension or increase of Slavery, and equally opposed to any interference of Congress, or of the North, with Slavery in the Southern States. He has repeatedly declared himself in favor of an efficient Fugitive Slave Law, and opposed to negro suffrage and the political equality of the negro race. We regard these as eminently conservative views, and if his Administration adheres to them with firmness and fidelity, we believe it will contribute largely to the restoration of the public peace, and fortify the Constitution and the Union still more thoroughly in the affection and confidence of the American people…

In this short paragraph we have a wealth of contradictions:

—The idea that Lincoln’s plans as a Republican president were unclear, shrouded in “fog” by outsiders, is an amazing example of wishful thinking. Very few people in the U.S. in the election year of 1860 felt unclear about what Lincoln would do regarding slavery. Northerners assumed he would stop it from spreading and eventually end it in the South; Southerners assumed he would immediately abolish it throughout the Union. This is because of Lincoln’s many statements about hating slavery and wishing to help it along to oblivion, and because of his party’s antislavery basis.

—The statement about a conservative being equally devoted to every section and state is also pretty astounding. The 1860 election was the first in which no presidential candidate represented the entire country. The Republicans were Northern, the Southern Democrats were Southern, the Democrats were primarily Southern, and the Constitutional Union party was created to attract loners who did not take a side—of whom there were vanishingly few. That was the whole point of the 1860 election: the country had irretrievably divided over slavery. There was no going back, and certainly not with a candidate like Lincoln who was antislavery. He did not represent the South.

—The characteristics of “eminently conservative views” given here are shocking, as they are three examples of radical race hatred against black Americans and, in the case of the FSL, a violation of the Constitution (state antislavery laws were overruled by federal law insisting that slavery must be acknowledged in those states while slave states were not forced to acknowledge abolition). This is what passes for normal in a country driven to extremes of sectionalism: maintaining the horrible, anti-democratic status quo is “conservative” while attempting to restore democracy is “radical”.

—How is it possible to confidently claim that if Lincoln does continue to maintain the proslavery status quo it will restore the Union and public peace, and fortify the Constitution? The Constitution is already violated, and it’s the status quo of appeasing slaveholders itself that has led the Union to the brink of rupture and destroyed the public peace.

If we look to the present 2016 presidential race, we see unsettling similarities between this article and how Trump is often described by his admirers. He may seem like a dangerous radical, but that’s just a “fog” of misinformation spread by his detractors, all of whom are themselves dangerously biased. Trump is devoted to the United States and its Constitution, and will treat all Americans with the same love and respect, no matter how much he targets certain populations for his hatred. His deeply racist, sexist, and anti-democratic views are actually “eminently conservative”, representative of the established status quo and traditional American values.

At the same time, the editorial writer’s willful blindness to the reality that the nation has changed and is on a very dangerous course toward civil war is seen today in writers and speakers and average Americans on both the Democratic and Republican sides. Pretending that the 2016 election is business as usual is as crazy as pretending that the 1860 election was. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that you live in dangerous times, and that the status quo is being fundamentally challenged. Presenting radical hate as common sense, threats of nuclear war as protecting national security, and an unstable character as “honest” is as much an attempt to say that nothing is changed when everything has changed as anything written in 1860.

Next time: the end of our journey

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Delegates forced to vote for Trump, not forced to vote for Douglas

Posted on July 28, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Entry six in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign focuses on a detail of the second 1860 Democratic convention in Baltimore that hews closely to a detail of the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

You’ll remember that in post five on the 2016 Republican national convention, we described how the 1860 Democratic national convention fell apart after proslavery fire-eaters walked out rather than support slavery moderate Stephen Douglas as their candidate. The Democrats decided to try again six weeks later in Baltimore. When we wrote post five, we noted that it was uncertain whether the 2016 Republican national convention would suffer the same division as moderate delegates tried to rescind their promised votes for Trump. The answer is yes and no.

In Baltimore in 1860, the Democrats had to decide whether to let the southern proslavery delegates who had walked out of the Charleston convention six weeks earlier to participate in the new convention. Eventually the committee charged with the decision said the party should re-admit all of the renegade delegates except those from Louisiana and Alabama. Those states would have to provide new delegates. They did so, and the new delegates joined the convention, but as they did almost all of the other southern delegates walked out again, and this time they took some northern and western delegates with them.

When Douglas was nominated by well over a 2/3 margin of the remaining delegates, the official Democratic party had its presidential candidate. But the delegates who walked out regrouped in another location in Baltimore and elected their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, in the name of their new party, the Southern Democratic party.

The Democrats were officially split, and this helped guarantee a win for the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in the presidential election.

In the New York Times‘ initial coverage of the reconvening of the Democratic convention, before the walkout, there is an interesting note:

The most significant step taken was the action upon a resolution offered …that all the delegates admitted to seats in the Convention should be deemed bound in honor to support its nominees. Nothing could be intrinsically more just than such a rule. Conventions become a mere farce when they cease to carry any obligation—and if one portion of their members are held bound by their action, while another portion is entirely free, they become insurgents of oppression. But the Southern Delegates refused utterly to assent to any such restriction of their liberty. They declared their determination to secede en masse in advance of any action, if such a rule should be adopted.

This is almost identical to what happened in Cleveland this year: the Republican convention began with some delegates attempting to force through a resolution to change the rules of the convention to allow them to rescind their promised votes for Trump. They were not successful, and basically the above argument was made against them that “Conventions become a mere farce when they cease to carry any obligation—and if one portion of their members are held bound by their action, while another portion is entirely free, they become insurgents of oppression.”

The present-day Republican delegates did not “utterly refuse to assent to this restriction of their liberty”, they did not walk out, and the convention did not split. But the eerie similarities between 1860 and 2016 continue in this moment from both conventions.

Next time: political spin, 1860 and 2016

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The Republican National Convention, Cleveland 2016 (and Charleston 1860)

Posted on July 18, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

As we write this, our fifth entry in our series on the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, the Republican National Convention is just beginning in Cleveland. And so we turn to May 1860, and the Democratic National Convention that fell apart in Charleston, SC that month over sectionalism.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

The 2016 Republican convention has just begun, so we cannot compare it fully to the 1860 Democratic convention, but the anticipation that there will be some measure of delegate revolt against Donald Trump at the Republican convention this week, and perhaps a real fight to ensure his official nomination as many Republicans skip the convention, and some delegates lobby for the right to set aside the commitment they made during the primaries to vote for Trump, and others predict that a last-minute alternative candidate will be presented during the convention all lead us to think of the collapse of the 1860 Democratic convention.

It could be that none of the things we describe will happen this week, and the Trump nomination will be seamless. But let’s take a look at what can happen when a convention is torn apart by sectionalism.

In 1860, the Democratic party was perilously divided between proslaveryites and antislaveryites. The Whig party had already dissolved over the issue, as slavery divided its members and made compromise on that or any other issue impossible. Now the Democratic party faced the same threat: could it unite behind a candidate to run against the new Republican party? Stephen Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that destroyed the Compromise of 1850 by allowing people in any territory, regardless of geography, to vote on whether they would enter the Union as a free or a slave state, was the presumptive nominee going into Charleston.

But Southern proslaveryites were not satisfied with Douglas, because to get re-elected in free Illinois in 1858, Douglas had had to backtrack on the KNA that free Illinoisans hated by coming out against the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court stated that not only were black Americans not U.S. citizens, but they never could be, and slavery could never be abolished by the U.S. judicial or legislative systems.

At the Charleston convention, U.S. Rep. William Yancey of Alabama, a violent proslaveryite, led a protest of the Douglas candidacy by representatives of seven deep-South states who formed a caucus within the party that re-wrote the Democratic presidential platform to be aggressively pro-slavery. They knew Douglas could not accept the nomination on those terms.

The rest of the delegates went on with the nomination process, but they could not reach the necessary two-thirds majority for Douglas, in part because the party chairman Caleb Cushing insisted that the proslavery caucus that had withdrawn from the convention had to be counted. Without those delegates, Douglas could not get a two-thirds majority of all delegates. On May 3, the convention was dissolved, and rescheduled to try again in Baltimore, MD, six weeks later.

In the end, the Democratic party could not recover from the divide driven into it by slavery. 110 proslavery delegates walked out of Baltimore. The remaining moderates nominated Douglas, while the fire-eaters who left created their own “Southern Democratic” party and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. (Adding to the chaos was one more candidate: former Whigs created the Constitutional Union party and nominated John Bell; their only platform was to keep the Union together in the face of civil war over slavery.)

On May 4, the day after the Charleston convention folded, the New York Times featured a bitter editorial:

The Charleston Convention has abandoned the attempt to nominate a Democratic candidate for the presidency. …The contest between the two sections of the Union has at last penetrated the Democratic party and rendered it impossible for the two wings to agree upon a declaration of principles. When the majority adopted its platform the minority seceded. Thereupon the delegates who remained, and constituted the rightful Convention, resolved that a vote of two thirds, not of the actual body, but of the whole original number, should be essential to a nomination. In other words, the seceders were still to be counted, and to have all their original weight as members of the Convention! Upon what ground of reason or of common sense the majority, and especially the delegates from this State, thus put themselves bound hand and foot into the power of the seceding minority, it is not easy to conjecture. The result was to give the South the victory. They have controlled the Convention, and prevented the nomination of any candidate. Whether on reassembling at Baltimore they will harmonize their differences remains to be seen.

The disruption itself is a fact of very  marked importance, not only in the history of political parties but in of the country itself. It seems to sever the last link of nationality in the political affairs of the Union. When all other organizations have been gradually giving way, one after another, to the pressure of sectionalism, timid and conservative men have fallen back upon the national position of the Democratic Party, and felt that so long as this was maintained the Union would be secure. The first effect of this Charleston split will be to alarm this class by the dread of immediate dissolution.

Some of the Republican journals refer to this incident as only another proof of the “irrepressible conflict” between Freedom and Slavery—and as showing that the contest must go on until one or the other is extirpated. If we believed this to be the true view of the question, we too should despair of the Union. But we do not. We do not believe that the conflict is between Slavery and Freedom… we regard the struggle as one for political power—and Slavery as playing merely a secondary and subordinate part on either side. Unquestionably, thousands of Northern men seek the overthrow of Slavery, and thousands of Southern men seek its permanence and extension, as the aim of their political contests.But both would be disappointed. Neither class would reap the advantage which it anticipates from victory.

…The South believes sincerely that the North seeks power in order to crush Slavery. In our opinion it denounces Slavery mainly that it may acquire power.

The editorial goes on to say that power is unstoppably passing from South to North and the South needs to accept the new order since the North has no intention of abolishing slavery in the South (only in the territories). This power shift is only fair, the editorial claims, since the South has had all the power in Washington for too long, and now it’s the North’s turn. That’s the gist of the article—that the slavery issue is just a tool Northerners can use to restore an equitable balance of power in the nation.

This editorial is remarkable in many ways. Its description of Americans clinging to the hope of party unity in the face of mounting irreconcilable differences in society and politics rings true to us today, as we see desperate attempts to unify the Republican party behind a candidate who does not represent most Republican principles, and as we see Democrats desperately trying to unite the party behind Clinton after the excitement and revolutionary flavor of Sanders’ campaign. We must have party unity at all costs in our divided nation, or the last traditional political big tents will be gone, and with them the last vestiges of people with different opinions being able to find common ground and work together nationally.

The claim of the editorialist that slavery really has nothing to do with the battle between North and South is an intelligent insight that is almost correct. He is saying that people who want power will ride any bandwagon to get it, and that if slavery is the issue that you can use to gain power, people will use it even if they could not care less about slavery itself. Politicians can rise to power by taking a stand on slavery and making slavery the top issue—all while never doing anything to actually impact slavery by abolishing or expanding it. That’s what the writer means when he says stopping or extending slavery is merely “the aim of their political contests”, and that both sides would be disappointed if they won the battle, because if the battle ended there would be no way to ride to power anymore.

This is certainly true. We see politicians today taking strong stands on social issues simply because this will make them well-known and get them elected. The many instances of “family values”, “Christian values” candidates who have been found having affairs with women or with men, or being involved in corruption, or simply changing sides to join the family and Christian values vanguard when it became powerful enough to benefit them make this clear. If, for example, the right to abortion was suddenly no longer challenged, many politicians would no longer have a political identity and would have to find another divisive issue pronto on which to make their name.

But the editorialist is wrong in another sense. Slavery was really an issue and the breakup of the Democratic party was really caused by slavery and the breakup of the Union and the war that came were really about slavery. The editorialist will not admit that people actually cared about slavery because if he does, he must admit that war is coming, and he does not want to do that. The only way breaking up the 1860 convention could give the seceders power was if they knew that their constituents cared enough about slavery to support them walking out of the Charleston convention, and cared enough about slavery to split the party in an election year.

Those constituents cared about slavery as a political issue because they cared about it personally—as something within their society every day. They supported slavery, for a variety of reasons. Yes it’s true that the strong majority of Southerners did not enslave people. But that doesn’t mean they did not support slavery, as the basis of their economy, as a regional tradition, as a way to reserve political power to whites, etc. To say that slavery was just a word politicians used was wrong.

And the same is true today. Many people cling to the notion that America is not really divided, that politicians are just sowing division as a concept they can trade on. This was originally the case, when neo-conservatives began to sow that division in the late 1970s. By now, 40 years later, the division is real. It is flowering and bearing seed in every state as people who have been told for decades that the federal government is their enemy and that it should be overthrown take their chance to do so.

We can’t say what will happen this week in Cleveland. But we anticipate that the editorials written after it closes will bear close reading to see how much they echo the writer of 1860.

Next time: a tie between the 2016 Republican convention and the second 1860 Democratic convention

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