American history

Check out the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States!

Posted on October 29, 2014. Filed under: American history, What History is For |

There is an amazing set of maps at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab that show the geographic progression of issues in American/U.S. history. For example, you can track the abolition of slavery from 1800-1865, or the growth of colleges and universities from 1775-1890.

These maps are invaluable for showing the concrete steps different movements, reforms, laws, and more had to take to become reality—steps that are all too often ignored in favor of descriptions like “abolition swept the north” or “the right to vote was granted to some American women before 1920.” If you want to know—to see—how ideas progressed, what we call “historical geography”, check out the Atlas.

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The Pledge of allegiance at 60

Posted on July 24, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

The Pledge of Allegiance is actually older than 60; it was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a minister and social reformer who was given the assignment by Daniel Sharp Ford, editor of the magazine Youth’s Companion, published in Boston. The year before, in 1891, the magazine had sponsored a campaign to sell American flags to public schools so each classroom could have one; in 1892, as part of the myriad celebrations and memorializations of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, Youth’s Companion wanted to provide a salute to those flags that could be used in the classroom.

As a minister, socialist, and reformer, Bellamy wanted the pledge to focus a new generation of Americans on social justice and economic equality of opportunity. He wrote this short text:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This pledge, quickly titled “The Pledge of Allegiance”, was immediately popular, and began to be used in schools across the country. In 1923, in fears that immigrants would think that “my flag” meant the flag of their country of origin, new text was added over Bellamy’s objections:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

You can see Bellamy’s point: if you say “the flag of the United States of America”, then adding “the republic for which it stands” is unnecessarily redundant. When you just said “the flag”, then you had to specify the American republic for which it stood. But that was the least of the changes to Bellamy’s pledge.

Before the text was changed, the manner of reciting it was revised. Originally, one was supposed to recite the pledge in this posture:

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This was called the “Bellamy Salute”. By the early 1930s, it was uncomfortably like the Nazi salute, and although it took awhile—1942 to be exact—the federal government finally issued the directive to place one’s right hand over one’s heart when saying the Pledge, rather than extend it in a by-now fascist gesture.

In 1954, the final change came, and that’s what we comment on today: 2014 is the 60th anniversary of the addition of “under God” to the Pledge. The Catholic organization Knights of Columbus led a petition to add these words to the Pledge during the Cold War, to differentiate the U.S. from godless Communist nations, and President Eisenhower signed the measure, saying “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

So now the pledge reads

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This is the version most Americans know today; it’s how we at the HP grew up reciting it. In fact, few know or would believe that “under God” wasn’t always in the Pledge. But it’s a sad anniversary, we think; adding “under God” as a “spiritual weapon” seems incongruous, and to insert religious faith into a statement of loyalty to the U.S. goes against the principles of its founding documents. The Pledge has often been mis-used since September 11th as a loyalty test: anyone who won’t recite it or has qualms with its use in public schools is a traitor. But the Founders strictly and explicitly forbid loyalty tests in the U.S. If you were born here or were naturalized as a citizen, you are a citizen, and you cannot be forced to “prove” your loyalty on pain of losing privileges, goods, or your life.

So we like to recite the first revised Pledge, which is about upholding the founding principles of this nation: We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all. Of course, we don’t force anyone else to do it our way—that would be un-American.

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Animation of U.S. territorial acquisitions 1750-present

Posted on July 10, 2014. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

We happened upon a very interesting animation of how the 13 colonies grew out of the imperial claims of France, Britain, and Spain, then later Russia; out of inter-colony conflicts; wars; and the general rush of white settlement at the expense of American Indian claims. The sagas of today’s Canada and Mexico are included too. Check it out here.

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The Declaration of Independence misread

Posted on July 3, 2014. Filed under: American history, The Founders, U.S. Constitution |

Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, has come to the conclusion that the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps in all American documentary history, is not what we think it is.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That’s the way we learn it. But Allen has convincing evidence that in the original document there was no period after “happiness”, which means that first line should read like this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

In their regular waves of anti-government passion, which recur throughout our history, Americans often claim that the federal government in Washington interferes with our “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, and even that the federal government—or the bare concept of having a federal government—is at odds with Americans being able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. But if the Declaration’s famous line has no period (as Allen seems to prove), then the only way Americans can pursue those rights given by God to all people is if they institute a government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

This is how we have always seen it at the HP: what makes America great is not, as is so often suggested, “our freedoms”. It is the fair, representative, democratic government that makes those freedoms possible, that makes preserving those freedoms its first priority and understands them as its reason for being. Without a fair and free government, we cannot long maintain any national, political, or individual freedoms we currently possess. In our posts “What are the freedoms we have as Americans?” parts 1 and 2, we put it this way:

“Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.”

The idea that the Founders did not want us to have a strong government is ludicrous. Their whole aim in breaking away from Great Britain was to create a new kind of government—the government was the point, the goal, the prize, the crowning achievement of the United States. They would create a government that was democratic and representative, strong but flexible, responsive yet authoritative enough to enforce its laws (which would be written by popularly elected representatives of the people). Without that kind of government, there could be no guarantees of life, liberty, or happiness. As Jack Rakove of Stanford puts it in the New York Times article on Allen’s quest to remove the inaccurate period from the Declaration puts it, “Are the parts [of the Declaration] about the importance of government part of one cumulative argument, or—as Americans have tended to read the document—subordinate to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

It takes energy to maintain a fair and free government. Energy on the part of citizens. We are so often lacking that kind of energy, particularly in the new millennium. George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address that the greatest threat to American life, liberty, happiness, and the government that provides them all comes from within America itself:

“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for [the government] is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”

Washington urges us to love our democracy and our democratic government, and to remember that it is a painfully new kind of government, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy to defend it. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

That’s why we are quick to believe there was no period after “happiness” in the original Declaration of Independence. The Founders knew that good, tireless government was the only safeguard of life, liberty, and happiness. As the Fourth of July approaches, we would do well to remind ourselves of that fact.

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The World Wars on the History Channel: A review (of both)

Posted on May 29, 2014. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

The History Channel has a new three-part series on called The World Wars. Its premise is that if you follow the individual lives of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, MacArthur, and Patton, you will get a complete understanding of WWI and WWII and all the tragedy they entail. The “great man” theory of history has been debunked for a few decades now; the idea that events affecting and relying on the participation of thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of people are entirely created, shaped, led, and even dictated by the desires and actions of one man, or maybe two men (opposing each other), has obvious logical flaws. Most modern historians have proved that to understand anything you have to research the lives of the average people who made it happen, whether they were carrying out the will of the leader or following their own interpretation of what the leader wanted; obeying God, family, or both; out for their own benefit; acting out of confusion or fear; conflicted, dedicated, etc. “Great men” are the products of their society, and it’s a two-way street of influence.

But The World Wars is about Great Men, and a viewing of Episode 1 shows us that that is likely because the History Channel itself is about Great Men. Watching the ads for other HC shows was telling. They are all about men: Mountain Men, American Restoration, Top Gear (about cars), The Hunt, Big Rig Bounty Hunters, American Pickers, Vikings, Ax Men, Counting Cars (about cars). In each show, a few rugged men have some sort of expertise—in cars, logging, hunting, survivalism, etc.—that they pursue in isolation, from the forest wilderness to the cab of a truck to a hot rod garage. We did not see a single woman in any ad for these HC shows. Women are not needed. When only men exist, all men are great. (We did, however, see women in the endless beer and liquor ads, tramped out in the usual beer-ad ways.)

It’s no accident, then, that there are no women in The World Wars, Episode 1. Not only are there no women with speaking parts, there are actually no women at all. The only time you sort of see a woman is in a bar where Churchill is shown talking with other men, and a literally shadowy figure of a woman is also at the bar, so blurred out that you can’t see her face. Women clearly do not exist in the world of the History Channel, where men do everything that matters and only men are affected by the events caused and led by men.

The other failings of the series’ focus on Great Men are aptly described elsewhere. Here we want to focus on some specifics, the little details that are red flags that the truth is not really being told.

1. There are generalizations made that would be hilarious if they weren’t so awful. For example, WWI is described the greatest tragedy of the century in many ways, and “it all started in the slums of Vienna.” We zoom in through a window to see a young Hitler doggedly painting a second-rate landscape. Yes: the claim is made that World War I all started with Hitler. If Hitler had not been born, WWI would not have happened. The mind rebels at this sort of wild idiocy, and we’re pretty sure that if anyone had bothered to proof/edit the screenplay they would have caught this ridiculous sentence and changed it. But no one did, and rhetoric, combined with a burning desire to deliver the Great Man theory, won the day.

2. Another gross generalization is that Pancho Villa’s attack on a U.S. train in 1916 left us “no choice but to declare war”. When is a nation ever left with “no choice” other than war? Worse, the U.S. never declared war on Mexico in 1916.  The most rudimentary review of the facts shows that the U.S. began a limited campaign with one Army unit against Pancho Villa led by General John Pershing. It lasted nine months and failed to capture Villa. It was called off when the U.S. entered WWI in 1917.

3. But because the expedition is called a war, it has to have a war hero, and that is George S. Patton, who served under Pershing on the Villa expedition. He is The World Wars’ Aragorn. Patton is presented as a handsome, brave, super-hero type who never wears a helmet on the Western Front and likes to stare mystically into the distance. They show him strapping a machine gun to a jeep in order to chase Villa, and much is made of this incredible technical innovation. Newspaper headlines are shown talking about the “huge success” of Patton’s mechanized raid on Villa and his men, and the episode repeats this language of absolute victory—and then we see another headline that says “Three Mexicans killed”. So Patton’s huge victory killed three men, none of them Villa. That seems less inspiring.

But we are not allowed to criticize Patton. His interest in tanks is central, because in the end, he is just another Top Gear or Big Rig driver, a guy who loves pimping out big vehicles. Patton is given full credit for “transforming” tanks from their original clunky design, but he did no such thing. He visited the European factories that were revamping the tanks, and ordered some for the U.S. That’s it. But the show even has speakers come on to say Patton is entirely responsible for the update. This crosses the line to outright lying, and is more than a red flag.

—We have to interrupt our Patton analysis here to talk more about these speakers on the show. They are not fully identified. You see a name and a title: “John Smith, Historian”. The usual data in a lower-third identification is name, title, and affiliation: “John Smith, Professor of 20th century Military History, West Point Academy”.  Speakers are brought in to documentaries to give them credibility. If we see that John Smith has a degree in military history, we believe what he says. But none of the speakers here are revealed to have specific knowledge of the fields they are discussing. We are historians here at the HP, but none of us are specialists in military history. Yet we could have appeared on this show as “The HP, Historian” and said anything we wanted. Some speakers are just identified as authors (“John X, Churchill Biographer”). There are also many politicians and American military officers who are given equal authority with the historians in accordance with the current belief that if you served in the military you are an expert on all military history.

4. Needless to say, there are no female speakers on the show. Women do not exist.

Back to Patton. He is constantly shown crouching on the back of one of “his” tanks in battle with no helmet—he’s too brave. This is reinforced in a scene that actually provoked outright laughter later on: the war is over, and he is training cadets on a firing range. He stands between two targets and tells the men to fire. The bullets fly past him on both sides, but he never flinches. This was inspiring when it was Elrond at the first battle of Barad-Dur. When it is Patton, it is beyond ridiculous. If someone out there can prove to us that Patton stood in the line of fire of raw cadets just learning to shoot at a target just because he was so awesome, please send us that proof.

5. General Douglas MacArthur is presented as a great hero. This was the man who on his own authority gave the order to fire on unarmed WWI veterans in 1932 in Washington, DC, who were peacefully protesting the government’s decision to refuse to pay them the bonus money they had been promised for their service in the war. MacArthur charged the men, women, and children with cavalry and infantry, and used teargas on them. He then set fire to the buildings they were living in, forcing those who had taken shelter there to flee into the attack. When President Hoover ordered MacArthur to stop the attack, he refused. Then when Americans were outraged, MacArthur claimed Hoover never told him to stop. This is the description of a war criminal. But in The World Wars, he is just another Great Man with a vision and guts and bravery and a commitment to his own vision that blots out everything and everyone else, like any hero.

6. The episode makes it seem like Wilson declared war the day after receiving the Zimmerman telegram. There was actually a three-month gap between the two events.

7. This is small, but we began to wonder why all the newspaper headlines the episode uses are from minor papers: Ogden City, Utah; El Paso, Texas; small towns in North Dakota and Louisiana. It’s not like these are not valid papers, but it is more common to see the New York Times, the LA Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, etc. We wonder if they couldn’t get the rights somehow.

These are the red flags. These are the details and major themes that are simply historically inaccurate, and these are the signs that a show is more dedicated to its thesis than the truth, and willing to bend or ignore historical fact whenever necessary to protect and promote its thesis.

Next time, we will discuss an important problem with the main thrust of Episode 1.

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“Americans supported slavery” and other inflexible/flexible history themes

Posted on May 22, 2014. Filed under: American history, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

We notice an interesting habit in people’s analyses of the past: in the past, everything is absolute; while in the present, everything is conditional.

In the U.S. today, there are many fraught issues that divide and subdivide the nation. There is no one opinion on Social Security, climate change, the war in Iraq, NSA surveillance, how to intervene in Ukraine, birth control, affirmative action, prison reform, or every other issue facing Americans. We know that there is no single national opinion on these issues. When we hear our own politicians, or foreign observers, describe America as united in their opinion on one of these issues (the BBC World News saying recently that “the majority of Americans dismiss climate change” comes to mind), we immediately reject it, and feel the frustration and irritation of having our complexity misrepresented.

Yet we do not extend this courtesy to the past. When we talk about history, suddenly “the United States” and “Americans” are all one thing:

—Americans supported black slavery before the Civil War.

—Americans believed they had a right to Native Americans’ lands.

—Americans considered Native Americans to be savages.

—Americans were isolationists who did not want to enter WWII.

—Americans hated Prohibition and did not obey it.

—Americans have always been a God-fearing people.

—Americans did not think women should be educated.

—Americans accepted child labor in factories.

—Americans were caught up in the Red Scare of the 1950s.

—Americans believed in their Manifest Destiny to settle the West.

You’ve read these statements in textbooks, magazine and journal articles, and heard them on countless historical programs and documentaries. You, like the rest of us, probably wrote them yourself in early school papers. These blanket statements are not only laughably incorrect, they are damaging. They are uniformly negative, and reinforce the stereotype that America claims to stand for liberty and justice for all, but in reality, America is a hypocritical sham. Each of these statement can be easily taken apart and discounted by the most cursory historical investigation. Each of the issues they address were just as conflicted and complex as any of the ones we face today. In reality, Americans had a wide variety of opinions on the issues above, and debated them with the same vehemence we debate with now. Most of them were never fully resolved.

Even the positive lies of uniformity are harmful: “Americans were always self-reliant”, “Americans believed in the value of hard work”, “Americans were always innovative”, “Americans did not trust big government”—each bit of boosterism was crafted, even at the time, to promote a certain worldview, a certain political stance. We can hardly read them now without thinking of their current purposes, which are generally to reject federal social spending, remove federal programs in schools and the workplace, get rid of taxation, and discourage alliances with other nations for any liberal purpose (such as fighting climate change). We independent, hard-working Americans don’t want… fill in the campaign-season blank.

Let’s go forward cutting the past as much slack as we cut the present. Let’s drop the inflexible history and allow it to be as flexible as the present. If we don’t buck the trend of the uniform past, imagine how we will find ourselves misrepresented 100 years from now, to our chagrin—“Americans in 2014 happily accepted NSA surveillance because they valued the convenience of technology more than their right to privacy.”

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The Periodic Table of the New Deal

Posted on May 13, 2014. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum has assembled a periodic table of the people and organizations that made the New Deal, 1933-8. From the RFC to the RA, FDR to Thomas Corcoran, every program and every person working on the New Deal are represented. The programs are chronological, the people are alphabetical. On the back of the chart are brief explanations of each. This is a fantastic tool, doing exactly what a graphic organizer should—making the scope of a project immediately clear, while harnessing its near-chaotic size and mess of acronyms into a smooth and instantly comprehensible order that can be taken in at a glance.

Check it out at the FDR Library website! And if you go here, you can hover your mouse over each block and get the information. We tip our hat to the people who came up with this great idea.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Lincoln (on Real Time)

Posted on May 7, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , |

The HP was delighted to hear basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skillfully counter Bill Maher’s leading negative question about President Lincoln on Maher’s show Real Time last week.

The two were having a discussion about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had just been heavily censured by the NBA commissioner for his racist screed on the phone a week or two earlier. They ventured into many different issues of racism in America society and history,  including the question of, as Maher put it, whether to cut the Founders slack for their slaveholding because they were “of their era”—i.e., they grew up with slavery and didn’t know any better. Kareem said no, no slack is allowable, because there was never a time when people did not know that racially based slavery was a tool for destroying the enslaved race (our paraphrasing). Kareem mentioned Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist views, and Bill Maher proffered Ben Franklin as well, but then fell into the usual trap about Lincoln: that he was an unrepentant racist and proslavery president with an unjust reputation for ending black slavery in the U.S.:

Maher: But you know Lincoln had some harsh words about the black people…

Kareem: Yes he did, but you have to say that Lincoln evolved. In 1858 he had some harsh things to say, [but] by the time the middle of the war had come around he realized what needed to be done, so you have to give him his credit for evolving quickly and understanding what really was at stake.

Kareem must be reading the HP! For this is the point we make in the first post of our series on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism. Everyone is of their time in that they imbibe certain attitudes, beliefs, and social/political systems as children, but when they grow up, they inevitably re-evaluate those attitudes, beliefs, and systems. Most people decide to uphold them, for various reasons (tradition, the desire to avoid trouble, real support, no new ideas to offer). But some, like Lincoln, decide to reject them. They decide to be better than their society, and to forge a new attitude, belief, or system to bring more justice to the world.

We appreciate Kareem’s easy yet firm rebuff of the anti-Lincoln myth, and hope it does a lot of Americans and others a lot of good.

(P.S.: The tags for this post group together what are surely the strangest bedfellows in the world: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Maher, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Sterling”.)

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What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Johnson’s We shall overcome speech

Posted on April 3, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV to the nation on March 15, 1965. In this post, we will begin our close reading of this pivotal declaration that America was founded on the promise of civil rights for all—if not immediately, then inexorably, as time passed, and we grew wiser and more powerful in our commitment to natural rights, human freedom, and an American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Let’s get right into it, as Johnson did that evening:

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.

I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.”

—Somehow the phrase “Members of the Congress” leaps out at us as more than a description of the House and Senate. We are all, as Americans, members of a congress that was and to a large extent still is unique in the world. We are a congress of nations and peoples joined together in a perpetual union as Americans. This is reiterated by Johnson’s description of us as being from “all religions and all colors, from every section”. To this Congress of Americans, Johnson speaks “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy”; the two are inseparable, one can’t live without the other. This is a message that some Americans have always and are still trying to shut down, but Johnson is putting it in the spotlight.

“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.”

Connecting—equating—the white policemen in Selma with the British regulars at Lexington and Concord and with the Confederate leadership at Appomattox was daring. Johnson is very clear here: the white police of Selma fought and killed Americans trying to exercise their rights and freedoms as Americans. There is no other way to define it. They were not protecting Southern society, or Southern womanhood, or keeping down violent blacks, or maintaining law and order, or upholding the law of the land, or any of the other justifications racial violence was so constantly wrapped in by its perpetrators.

“There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government—the Government of the greatest Nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.”

—The U.S. federal government has heard the cries of its people, and is about to come to their aid. Again, the idea of an American Congress made up not of a few hundred elected officials but of all American citizens, a “convocation of this great Government” is powerfully presented. Our great Government can be summoned into action by any of its people—not just whites. And that is because its mission is to take action to ensure justice, for all. When Johnson says that the mission of the U.S. federal government is the mission of the nation itself, the founding principle and demand placed on that government and on all Americans, he, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is making a powerful argument: it is not an attack on the U.S. to criticize it for failures to provide justice for all. It is a course correction. Equal rights for all races is not some foreign idea that a few people are trying to force into American government and society, it is the original basis for that government and society. The Founders intended that rights be extended to all, over time if not immediately. The history of America is one of extending rights: the right of black men to vote, then of women to vote, then of all people over 18 regardless of race, sex, or origin; the right of interracial couples to marry, then of gay couples to marry; the right of black children to attend schools with white children, and then of mentally challenged children to attend mainstream schools, and eventually of all children to attend public schools without being hampered—the list goes on. In the U.S., we extend rights, through trial and error and argument and sometimes ferocious antagonism, to more and more people. Because that is what this nation was founded to do. That is its mission.

So to demand equal civil rights for black Americans is not some disruptive, un-American demand that the nation abandon its identity and heritage and tradition. It is the usual, necessary texture of America itself. It is what Americans do, and only those who fight to restrict rights are un-American.

“In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For with a country as with a person, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

—It is Johnson speaking the words, Johnson who believed in them; Johnson who would dedicate himself to the civil rights movement, and Johnson who was willing to “betray” his southern identity by standing up for black Americans, but we must take a moment to express our thanks and gratitude to the man who wrote these magnificent words that gave Johnson a platform to stand on: presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin (husband of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; she also worked for President Johnson). Here, through Goodwin’s words, Johnson is saying that Cold War America may think its biggest problem or threat is Communism, especially in the growing war in Vietnam, but in reality, that threat is external. It does not “lay bare the secret heart of America itself”. Fighting Communism is just a way to stand up for stated American values of freedom. Fighting for civil rights, however, runs the risk of exposing our internal conflicts, our failures to live up to our ideals, our values of freedom, our inability to fully guarantee freedom at home even as we try to export it to the rest of the world. Fighting for civil rights takes the case off the watch so everyone can see the mechanisms inside that can become stuck or loose or rusty.

Civil rights is not about external threats, from Communism or an economic downturn, but about our internal health as a nation: are we who we are supposed to be? Because in the long-term, that internal health dictates our success and our national future. The greatest threat to our national security during the Cold War does not come from outside but from within. If we do not fight for civil rights, then we have no democracy to oppose Communism with. Fail to provide civil rights, and “we will have failed as a people and as a nation”, no matter what happens in Vietnam. We could, in fact, “gain the whole world” for democracy, winning the Cold War and stamping out Communism, and be in more danger than we were before, because we lost our own American soul by denying our own people their freedom. For a Cold War American president to say that fighting Communism was not the  most important thing Americans could do was astounding.

And then the magnificent, unequivocal statement: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” For centuries, black Americans had been treated as aliens by people and by our laws; they were not full citizens, not “real” Americans, and in demanding equal rights, black Americans were traitors who wanted to destroy the good society white Americans had built, one which gave black people a “place” in service to the superior race. Here Johnson, through the words of Goodwin, demolishes this lie. Blacks were not wrong to ask for equality, the problem is not some regional issue the rest of us don’t have to worry or care about, Northerners who journey South to join the fight are not traitorous instigators of a new civil war. There was murder in Selma a week earlier because Americans had yet to fully live up to their national mandate of freedom. Americans had failed, and Americans would find a solution—now.

“This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal”—“government by consent of the governed”—“give me liberty or give me death.” Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.”

—Just as the white police of Selma are comparable to British regulars during the Revolution, so the black Americans they attacked and killed are comparable with every white American who ever fought and died in the name of his country. Black Americans are guardians of American liberty—this is an astoundingly bold and honest statement of fact that no previous president had made since Lincoln. Even Truman and Eisenhower, the only presidents we could say made a real effort to end segregation, and men who were personally repulsed by racism, did not go this far. Black Americans had been treated as people we should pity and do favors for, out of the kindness of our hearts. Now they were the Minutemen who rode out to risk all to protect the rest of us who stayed home. They were the men in the statues erected in memory of heroes who gave their lives for liberty. Black Americans held the torch that white Americans had tried to blow out, and, failing that, had tried to hide away.

“Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being. To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.”

—Again, we are getting a radical revision of America, in which black Americans are the heroes whose memories we dare not dishonor, and the un-American way is to discriminate, the true Americans are black, and they are leading the way for the rest of us to follow.

Lyndon Johnson was not an attractive man. He was, in 1965, still seen by many Americans as a pale substitute for the man he replaced in office. His voice was a little grating, and he did not modulate his rather hectoring tone or his Texas accent. (And this at a time when wealthy Americans still faked a semi-English accent as a sign of their sophistication–watch any movie from the 1940s or 50s.) He couldn’t stand in front of the nation and assume its good will. He couldn’t assume they would be won over by his charm or his popularity. He could, on the other hand, assume that his Southern allies in Congress and in state governments would be infuriated by this speech and feel personally betrayed and attacked by an erstwhile comrade. Whatever popularity Johnson did have was in the South, and that was potentially evaporating by the sentence as he spoke on March 15.

Yet Johnson forged ahead, and we will too, continuing our close reading in the next post.

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Federalists and Anti-Federalists: which one really wanted a Union?

Posted on February 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on the Federalist debates that gave us our Constitution. Last time, we looked at the Federalists’ conception of national security and how it demanded a strong centralized government with unlimited power of taxation. Here, we look at the Anti-Federalist reaction to this vision, and how it led, oddly, to accusations on both sides that the other side did not really want a United States.

The Federalists had the obvious position: the Anti-Federalists’ insistence on sovereign states wielding state militia to defend themselves was, the Federalists insisted, a clear sign that the Anti-Federalists did not really want a union. They weren’t really committed to joining together with other states to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. What the Anti-Federalists really wanted, said the Federalists, was for each state to eventually go its own way and exist as an independent republic.

The Anti-Federalists’ accusation of disunion was more subtle: in their insistence on a national security state, the Federalists themselves undermined the idea of a union by taking away citizens’ rights in the name of defense. The Federalists would tax indiscriminately, and likely impose other burdens impossible to even think of at the present time, and take away all the freedoms and all the political participation of citizens that define a republic. The Federalists would create an oligarchy in all but name.

In their argument, the Anti-Federalists were touching on an issue that actually worried the Federalists, too: republics in history had always been very small. They had to be small, reasoning went, because everyone had to be able to participate, and if you had a huge population that would be impossible (what building could hold them all in a Congress?) and if you had a large geographic footprint that would also be impossible (you would be forced to impose a random central point where the government would exist that would necessarily be far away from most of the people). The United States already had the huge footprint—just the 13 states together were much larger than any previous republic, or any previous kingdom, for that matter—and the population was bound to grow to match it. Even the individual states, as Federalist Alexander Hamilton pointed out, were already each much larger than any previous republic. Only Rhode Island was close to the small size necessary for republican government. Every other state in the Union would have to be broken up into smaller states to be true republics.

This endless splintering would spell the end of trying to create a Union. The component pieces would be so small they would feel no need to give up their government to someone else, and would only create treaties with neighboring states, for trade or for mutual protection. And if there were 39 states in the geographic area that had been occupied by just 13 states, what would happen as the U.S. expanded across the continent? You would end up with hundreds, even thousands of states, and no federal government could hold all their delegates.

While this argument made the Anti-Federalists doubt whether Union could or should be attempted, it galvanized the Federalists to argue for something that has become familiar to us today, but was new then: American exceptionalism. The United States was not like a republic of the distant past, they said. The U.S. is not ancient Greece. The U.S. is a modern republic, and it can make its own rules—it can update the definition of republic, or even redefine it. Look at those past republics, Hamilton and Madison said: they all failed. They didn’t even last very long. So why are we supposed to follow their rules? America is all about new ideas, new ways of doing things. Look at our Declaration of Independence, they said; it is the first of its kind. We are creating a new government from scratch to meet new conditions and new possibilities, in a new world of modern Enlightenment ideas. Why should we be bound by Iron Age thinking?

The Federalists acknowledged that there would be trial and error in this approach, but they made the case that the rewards were worth the risk. Let’s bind a huge landmass into a republic, they said, and find a way to represent all the people and give them an active political role nationally and locally. Let’s expand to fill this North American continent and still remain a republic. Let’s become a republic of millions. Let’s redefine what it means to be a republic, and make a new government for a new time and place.

This was an exciting argument for many Americans, but it smacked of recklessness to others. It also failed to satisfy the questions about national security—what was so new and exceptional about a government with unlimited power to tax its subjects? Isn’t that the definition of a monarchy, or a dictatorship? And what are our guarantees that a central government with that kind of power won’t unilaterally change the Constitution that gives the citizens their rights? In the end, are we re-defining republicanism, or abandoning it?

Next time, we’ll see how prescient the Anti-Federalists were about that.

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