What History is For

It’s time to… Ask the HP!

Posted on January 7, 2014. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: |

As we begin 2014, we’d like to ask you, the followers of the HP, to suggest topics for the new year.

What events, people, and ideas from American and U.S. history would you like to learn more about, explore, and discuss? Send us your suggestions and we’ll get going on them, and we will encourage all our readers to take part in discussion and debate.

If you don’t make your needs known, we’ll just go on exploring the Puritans…

Send your suggestions in comments to this post, which we’ll leave up for 2 weeks (January 14).

We look forward to hearing from you!

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“The little speeches of President Lincoln”: why the Harrisburg press hated the Gettysburg Address

Posted on November 18, 2013. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to the follow-up on our post on the retraction made by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA, of its 1863 editorial blasting the Gettysburg Address. In it we will look at the entire editorial of Tuesday, November 24, 1863 that the modern paper has retracted, and which is famous for its panning of the Gettysburg Address as “silly remarks”.

It’s odd that no one—including ourselves, when we first included the paper’s remarks in our post on the Address—took a look at the full editorial. It’s not just another example of people expecting Lincoln to speak longer than he did. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union had a much bigger chip on its shoulder. Let’s read through it:

“A Voice from the Dead

We have read the oration of Mr. Everett. We have read the little speeches of President Lincoln, as reported for and published in his party press, and we have read the remarks of the Hon. Secretary of State, Wm. H. Seward, all delivered on the occasion of dedicating the National Cemetery, a plot of ground set apart for the burial of the dead who fell at Gettysburg in the memorable strife which occurred there between the forces of the Federal Government and the troops of the Confederacy of seceded States.”

—…”published in his party press”? Immediately you see two red flags that tell you the paper is anti-Lincoln. (1) they did not send a reporter to the ceremony to hear the speeches live, most likely (2) to avoid seeming to be part of the “party press”. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union was in fact staunchly Democratic, opposed to Lincoln and his “unnecessary” war to end slavery.

“To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead.”

—Yes, the writers are Democrats. President Lincoln is a “jester” without sense, and the occasion of burying the dead at Gettysburg, or, really, the occasion of paying tribute to them, is a mockery. The whole dedication of the burying ground was just a PR stunt for Lincoln.

“We can readily conceive that the thousands who went there went as mourners, to view the burial place of their dead, to consecrate, so far as human agency could, the ground in which the slain heroes of the nation, standing in relationship to them of fathers, husbands, brothers, or connected by even remoter ties of marriage or consanguinity, were to be interred. To them the occasion was solemn; with them the motive was honest, earnest and honorable. But how was it with the chief actors in the pageant, who had no dead buried, or to be buried there; from none of whose loins had sprung a solitary hero, living or dead, of this war which was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims?

They stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief or elated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication.”

–It’s odd that the editorial here mimics the language of the Address so clearly in its first sentence up to “heroes of the nation”. Was it unconscious, or is it more mockery by the editorialists? Here they say the bereaved who gathered at Gettysburg because they lost loved ones were honorable, because their motive was honest, But the “chief actors in the pageant”—Lincoln and Everett—were hypocritical in their fake mourning because a) they had not lost anyone in the war, and b) the war itself is unjust, “begotten of their fanaticism and ruled by their whims”. Fanaticism over what, you might ask? They’re coming to that.

“We will not include in this category of heartless men the orator of the day; but evidently he was paralyzed by the knowledge that he was surrounded by unfeeling, mercenary men, ready to sacrifice their country and the liberties of their countrymen for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth. His oration was therefore cold, insipid, unworthy the occasion and the man.”

—This passage refers to Everett, former Senator from Massachusetts, who is basically good somehow (he was anti-slavery, which should not have appealed to Democrats at the time) but trapped in a lie—trying to dignify a war orchestrated by Lincoln and his party “for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth.”

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.

But the Secretary of State is a man of note. He it was who first fulminated the doctrine of the irrepressible conflict; and on the battle field and burial ground of Gettysburg he did not hesitate to re-open the bleeding wound, and proclaim anew the fearful doctrine that we are fighting all these bloody battles, which have drenched our land in gore, to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.”

—The first paragraph is the one everyone reads and quotes. But it is the second that really twists the knife. Did Everett somehow really say that the U.S. was fighting the war “to upset the Constitution”? Yes—because he said the U.S. was fighting to emancipate enslaved black Americans, which could only be done by enslaving white men “in the chains of despotism.” This was the standard proslavery argument: that freeing enslaved black Americans meant taking away white people’s right to rule. The Constitution did not uphold slavery in 1863; neither did it reject it. Slavery is the dark matter of the document, making sense of other statements about rights to property and voter representation. But the paper, like all proslavery Democrats, chose to say that ending slavery was unconstitutional.

“On that ground which should have been sacred from the pollution of politics, even the highest magnate in the land, next to the President himself, did not hesitate to proclaim the political policy and fixed purpose of the administration; a policy which if adhered to will require more ground than Gettysburg to hold our dead, and which must end in the ruin of the nation. The dead of Gettysburg will speak from their tombs; they will raise their voices against this great wickedness and implore our rulers to discard from their councils the folly which is destroying us, and return to the wise doctrines of the Fathers, to the pleadings of Christianity, to the compromises of the Constitution, which can alone save us. Let our rulers hearken to the dead, if they will not to the living – for from every tomb which covers a dead soldier, if they listen attentively they will hear a solemn sound invoking them to renounce partisanship for patriotism, and to save the country from the misery and desolation which, under their present policy, is inevitable.”

—The editorialists make good on their resolve not to even talk about Lincoln’s Address—they are still hammering on Everett. Astoundingly, the writers say that the dead of Gettysburg—including the Union dead—will cry out from their graves to stop the war and  continue slavery (“the compromises of the Constitution”). To put proslavery words in the  mouths of men who died to end slavery and force the Confederate states back into a free union is beyond contemptible. If anyone desecrated the memory of the dead, it was the editorial writers of the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, not Edward Everett. If anyone was pushing partisanship ahead of patriotism, it was the writers. And if anyone was causing undue misery and desolation, it was the writers of the editorial who defamed the Union dead and pushed for the return of slavery.

We see now why the present day Patriot-News of Harrisburg sticks to the tiny, isolated paragraph about Lincoln, and makes a clearly untrue (or uninformed) excuse for the editorial by saying its writers were “under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time”. No one was drunk, but they were certainly under the influence of partisanship. We still applaud the present-day paper for its retraction, but we wish it weren’t so partial, because that makes it a fillip, an interesting but unimportant “fascinating fact” that is quickly forgotten. If the paper had retracted its treasonous proslavery statements more lasting good would have been done. 

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Pennsylvania newspaper apologizes for blasting the Gettysburg Address

Posted on November 15, 2013. Filed under: Civil War, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

The devoted reader of the HP will remember our close-reading of the Gettysburg Address, which ended with this description of some of the reactions of members of the press to President Lincoln’s confusingly short speech:

“People in the audience were surprised. They had expected a longer speech—something more along the lines of the “translation” we’ve just provided, something more didactic that pounded points home over and over, and expressed its patriotism in more familiar, jingoistic language. Some felt insulted, and the press reviews were mixed: The Chicago Times said “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States.” The local Harrisburg Patriot and Union said “…we pass over the silly remarks of the President: for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

We had to laugh at these no-thanks responses, and we idly wondered if the authors of these critiques ever came to regret them, given how justly famous the Address became. Well, our question is answered by the news that the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA has retracted its criticism (made when the paper was called the Harrisburg Patriot and Union).

The November 14 statement says:

“Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.

“We write today in reconsideration of ‘The Gettysburg Address,’ delivered by then-President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the greatest conflict seen on American soil. Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words ‘silly remarks,’ deserving ‘a veil of oblivion,’ apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.

“In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance, then or now, could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day. By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media.

“The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record – but we must do as conscience demands:

“In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.” 

We at the HP think the imitation of the language of the Address, and the parallel brevity of the retraction, are a fitting tribute to the speech the paper once dismissed.

We also think this act is not just symbolic. The willingness, maturity of thought, and courage to reconsider one’s own history are often lacking in this world; worse, there are many who celebrate mistakes of judgment as independent thinking and “maverick” insight. And there are always those who will never admit error, and never apologize for distorting the truth and the historical record.

The men who wrote and edited the 1863 blast against Lincoln were not trying to distort the truth, but they were led by their prejudices to dismiss a powerful speech out of hand. They also had a view of the war that is entirely overlooked, and surprising to us today—more on that next post.

Next: “…this war  was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims”—the Harrisburg Patriot and Union hated far more than just the Gettysburg Address!

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Gay marriage in New Jersey–continuing to overturn tyranny of the majority

Posted on October 22, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re happy to announce appearance #8 of this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage is resolved by a state court in its favor. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as New Jersey Governor Christie drops his attempt to stop gay marriage and the first couples are wed in that state:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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Colorized History—black and white photos startlingly transformed

Posted on September 9, 2013. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: |

We’ve all seen badly touched-up black and white photos, we’re all used to seeing the past in black and white photos. Now we must all go to Colorized History and experience the beyond eerie impact of expertly, impeccably colorized photos from as early as the Civil War. It is just startling to see a Civil War general looking like he just had his picture taken for Facebook:

mott

This is General Gersham Mott, photographed originally by Mathew Brady, colorized by Mads Madsen.

Here is Theodore Roosevelt, looking like he will walk toward you any second:

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Seeing Lincoln in color is seeing him anew:

 

And somehow this sailor waiting with his family to sail off to duty in 1927 is equally immediate:

Not everyone is on board, of course; there are those who call the whole idea of colorizing a “charming lie”, and some just prefer the “classic” (I.e., what you are used to seeing) black and white. But it’s clear that once we had color film, black and white photographs that had been the ultimate in realism took on an “art” status that was consciously used to turn an ordinary image into something stylized. And so we began to see all black and white photos as stylized, classic, artistic—instead of just using the technology of their time to get a picture of someone. If people could have used color film in the 1800s they would have—we know that from all the daguerrotypes that people hand-colored in with paint to make them more realistic:

 Viewing history in black and white is a way of removing it from the realm of real life—it transforms real people into ideas. We like Colorized History because it is a forceful reminder that human beings who look like us made history.

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Henry VIII v. Wikipedia

Posted on June 12, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

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.”  Most resources sum up the long story as “Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church to get a divorce.”

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.

The power of the erroneous consensus is most evident on Wikipedia; many historians have told their stories of trying to correct common-knowledge errors on the site and being reprimanded or banned for their efforts because Wikipedia honors consensus over fact: if a thousand people say the Pilgrims were Puritans, that’s what Wikipedia will go with, even though it’s wrong. 1001 people have to say they were Separatists for them to allow their entry on the founders of Plimoth Plantation to be corrected. Ironically for our argument here, the Wikipedia entry for Henry VIII is completely accurate: “Besides his six marriages, Henry VIII is known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry’s struggles with Rome led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and his own establishment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Yet he remained a believer in core Catholic theological teachings, even after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.” Somehow the truth has been allowed to stand on the site, and we hope our article here won’t mess with that. But too often, resources beyond Wikipedia—would-be educational materials—follow its policy of accepting common knowledge and, what’s worse, resisting correction when its fallacy is pointed out to them, as the dictatorship of consensus makes its power felt.

It’s 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 book 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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Why the American Revolution is not a model for gun ownership today

Posted on May 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Colonial America, Historians, Politics, Revolutionary War, Second Amendment, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Often one hears Americans on the news saying that the Second Amendment is necessary to us today because we may need to take up arms against an oppressive government in the 21st century, just as we did in 1775, and that those who anticipate doing so in the near future share the motivations of Americans during the Revolutionary War. Our thoughts on the Amendment can be found here; in this post, we will spell out why our situation in this century is not at all like that on the eve of Revolution in the 18th century, although we have the feeling this should be obvious without our intervention.

—During the Revolution, we fought a foreign government and a foreign occupation.

This is the key item to note. Granted, we overstate a little, so let’s go through it and be clear. The American colonies generally had popularly elected legislatures and royally appointed governors, so laws in the colonies came from two very different sources: representatives of the American people, and representatives of the British crown. Our experience of law was mixed. Legislatures generally made life difficult for governors who betrayed the people’s interests, especially in the realm of taxation, and so the influence of royal governors, who technically reported to no one but the king, was limited. Until, that is, the 1760s, post-French and Indian War, when London began direct rule of its colonies in North America. Parliament passed Acts (Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Tea Act, Coercive Acts) which were to be enforced without any input from legislatures. Indeed, even the governors were bypassed eventually as British soldiers were sent to America to make sure Acts were enforced. Americans who disobeyed Acts were to be sent to London for trial. This is the key moment, in the 1760s, when long-standing doubts about how much the American colonies owed to Britain were crystallized for many into clear convictions that London and Parliament did not consider Americans to be British citizens and did not grant them the rights of citizens, and were thus, through these Acts, imposing a foreign government on the American colonies. By refusing to allow American representatives in Parliament, the British government was confirming this. By sending troops to maintain order, the British government was occupying lands it believed to be hostile possessions; Americans were alien combatants.

It’s very clear that we are not remotely in that position today. Any Americans who oppose the government and/or its actions (taxation, immigration, welfare) are opposing their own government, popularly elected by their fellow Americans and even, perhaps, by they themselves. We don’t need to resort to arms to oppose our government because soldiers from another country are not in our streets and homes enforcing foreign laws. We resort to the voting booth, the referendum, and the ratification process to change or oppose our government. U.S. citizens today have rights that their government enforces and upholds—and if it doesn’t, we work through the courts and the political bodies to make it do so.

—Americans during the Revolution did not fight on their own.

They fought in their locally organized militias, which joined the Continental Army led by George Washington. They fought in the army, not as a vigilante group. Individual citizens submitted themselves and their guns to a government-authorized national army. That’s hardly what people today are picturing when they say they need guns to fight the government if it becomes oppressive. In 1775, Americans were fighting a formal war against a formal army. They weren’t sitting in their homes waiting for someone to challenge them and get blown away.

—Americans during the Revolution were fighting to keep their government alive.

Americans who fought in the Revolution were hoping to see the new government, represented by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, firmly and officially established as the government of their nation. They were not fighting to get rid of government, as so many Second Amendment fans seem to want to do today. They knew that the nation needed a strong government (though not necessarily fully centralized) to survive, and their aim was to make sure that government was fair once it was established—that’s why the Constitution was ratified by popularly elected officials, and why even common people clamored for a Bill of Rights to be added to it. Americans in the 1770s were fighting for government, not against it. They did not believe that armed individuals were a proper substitute for state and federal government.

So we have three good distinctions to draw between ourselves and our ancestors, and hopefully we can put this ridiculous argument to rest. We no longer have to use guns to maintain our freedoms; we have to use our rights as citizens to vote and participate in government to maintain our freedoms.

But what if our government becomes perverted and undemocratic, people ask? What if our political system fails? Then we’ll have to use force to protect ourselves.

it seems clear that the only way this could happen is if the American people fail in their participatory duty as citizens, so we are back to our original argument, which is that as long as we do our duty, the government we elect can never fail to be what we want it to be. It’s only by withdrawing from participation in our democracy that we lose it, and by looking for reasons to rise up in arms that we threaten ourselves with that dire possibility.

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Paul Ryan, Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Stone

Posted on April 29, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We just finished our long series on the flaws in Oliver Stone’s new TV series “The Untold History of the United States”, and now we found an article on a speech by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan that calls for the same analysis. We are grateful to Politifact Wisconsin for the article and for providing the analysis, which we need only sum up here.

Here is Politifact’s report of what Ryan said the following in an April 11 speech to a group that works to elect anti-abortion women to political office:

“Our forebears knew to strive for perfection, not to expect it—because mankind is flawed. Progress takes time. It takes work. And it takes common sense… Take Lincoln. He hated slavery as much as anyone. But he defended a law that preserved it. He supported the Compromise of 1850, which prohibited slavery in California but allowed it in New Mexico. He even backed a law to return runaway slaves to their owners.” Lincoln agreed to compromises, Ryan asserted, “if they brought him closer to his goal–even in just a small way. We all know what happened. After years of turmoil, he helped pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery for good.”

Politifact Wisconsin actually asked eight experts on Lincoln to evaluate Ryan’s statement. What they found was that, like Stone’s series, Ryan’s statements are partially true, but twist facts just past the breaking point of accuracy. We’ll let Politifact do the talking here:

“While Ryan said Lincoln ‘supported’ the Compromise in 1850, Lincoln was actually semi-retired from politics at the time, having left Congress a year earlier (he wasn’t elected president until 1860). At the time of the compromise Lincoln did not express support for it, according to several experts, including Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White Jr., Michael Burlingame, a Lincoln scholar at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and Columbia University historian Eric Foner. As president, Lincoln did agree to a proposal that would have admitted New Mexico as a state, said Lincoln biographer James McPherson. So in that sense, he could be said to have supported the Compromise of 1850, in that New Mexico had opted to approve a slave code. On the other hand, McPherson said, no slaves were counted in New Mexico in the 1860 census, which indicates slavery had not taken hold there.

“Similarly, Lincoln as president held that the federal government needed to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act, mandating for the return of runaway slaves, given that it was the law of the land. But, McPherson noted, Lincoln wanted legislation to give alleged fugitive slaves a trial before they could be returned. ‘He did feel there was no choice but to defend the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act once it became law, and even said so in his first inaugural address—but here some context is needed, too,; said Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. ‘He refused to oppose so-called ‘personal liberty laws’ that were passed by northern states to justify disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act. So, in sum, Lincoln always opposed slavery,’ said James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. ‘But he also held, privately and out loud, that federal law must be obeyed.’”

Politifact sums up by saying “Ryan’s statement is partially accurate, but leaves out important details. That fits our definition for Half True.”

 Unfortunately, this is too often the case when public figures and average people decide to use history to support their positions: they pick up a few facts and string them together in the way that best suits their purposes, either deliberately or accidentally. In the case of the former, they know what they are leaving out or distorting. In the case of the latter, they do not. But either way the result is negative.

In this case, the idea that Representative Ryan would seek to inspire anti-abortion partisans to work with pro-life activists if necessary to achieve their goal of banning abortion  by claiming that Lincoln worked with pro-slaveryites to achieve an ultimate goal of abolition is beyond odd. It equates pro-life supporters with people who supported slavery. It makes the case that no group is too repugnant to secretly use to achieve your goals. It condones hypocrisy. It recommends lying to achieve your goals by pretending to work with people you plan to destroy. It drags Lincoln’s name through the mud by claiming he operated in these ways. And it implies that Ryan himself operates in these ways.

One has become very wary of anyone quoting a historical figure or event lately; it almost always ends badly once it’s under the microscope of factual analysis.
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Oliver Stone’s untold history of the United States (and the Soviet Union)

Posted on April 10, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part 3 of our series on Stone’s “Untold History of the United States”, currently running in 10 one-hour episodes on Showtime. So far in our review of Episode 1—World War II, we have not encountered a lot of U.S. history; it has mostly been a retelling of world events with a loving focus on Stalin and the Soviet Union as lone crusaders against Hitler. More, unfortunately, on that below.

But at about 19.00 Stone introduces Henry Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture, as our first unsung hero of U.S. history. Wallace directed the soil conservation program that helped reverse the Dust Bowl, and was an outspoken opponent of racism against black Americans and Jewish people worldwide. When FDR chose Wallace as his running mate in 1940, the Democratic party protested, leading the president to write a letter to the delegates at the Democratic National Convention saying he would not accept their nomination if they did not accept Wallace’s. Stone edits the letter, of course, to make a sound bite; there’s nothing wrong with that. But oddly, he changes the end of the letter fairly substantially. The actual text is:

“The party must go wholly one way or wholly the other. It cannot face in both directions at the same time. By declining the honor of the nomination for the presidency, I can restore that opportunity to the convention. I so do.”

Stone gives it as:

“The party cannot face in both directions at the same time. Therefore I decline the honor of the nomination for the presidency.”

The meaning is not changed, but this level of editing makes one wonder about the accuracy of all the other quotes given in the episode, and whether the goal of making a more dramatic soundbite led Stone and the editors to substantially change the content of other quotes.

Another basic law of documentary film-making is broken here, as Stone uses footage of Roosevelt delivering a radio address as a voiceover artist reads the letter text, seemingly saying to viewers that this is footage of Roosevelt actually reading from the letter. The lips don’t match the words well until the very end, where whatever Roosevelt was actually saying matches “the presidency” very closely. You don’t pretend to have footage of something you don’t have footage of.

FDR’s tough stance paid off, and Wallace was accepted as the vice-presidential nominee. So far in the episode, FDR is coming off pretty well, as someone who would have liked to aid the Spanish Republic, and forced his party into braving conservative pressure. The only real negative so far is the U.S.’s perversely small quota allowed for Jewish immigration from 1933-1945, for which FDR must take some blame.

At 27.40, Stone at last acknowledges Stalin’s paranoia by saying it would not allow him to believe that Germany would attack its new Soviet ally in 1941. But we veer back into Stalin-boosting at 29.28, when Stone says that after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was launched, “Stalin begged Britain for military material and to land immediately in Europe and engage Hitler on a second front. And for the west, it was now crucial to keep the Soviet Union in the war to absorb the main thrust of the Nazi war machine.” To say that the Allies wanted the Soviet Union in the war simply to let someone else be destroyed in their place is inaccurate, to put it mildly, and Stone himself contradicts this cynical view immediately before this clip, at 29.15, when he says the west feared that the Soviets would fall to the Nazis, and conclude a separate peace.  The prospect of the Nazis controlling the Soviet Union and its massive resources of farmland and oil was so dire that Churchill, an entrenched anti-communist, “pledged support for the Soviet Union.” So the real reason it was crucial to keep the Soviet Union in the war was not so it could be destroyed by the Nazis while the west looked on laughing, but to keep it in the war so that its crucial resources would not be used to fuel the Nazi war effort. If the Soviet Union fell, the odds of defeating the Nazis shrank considerably.

But Stone continues to present the west as anxious to support a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union, explaining the reluctance of U.S. military leaders to send war materiel to the USSR, and the reluctance of the British to divert that war materiel from their own war effort to the eastern front, this way: “There were still many in the west who frankly were glad to see the Soviet Union finally on her knees.” It’s true that many American leaders would have been glad to see the Soviet Union fall. It’s not true to say that that is the reason why they did not want to provide war supplies to Stalin. American leaders hesitated to get involved in a war the U.S. was not part of—in the summer of 1941 the U.S. was officially neutral, and getting involved in the war might invite an attack on the U.S. British leaders hesitated to redirect war supplies from Britain to the Soviet Union because Britain was still fighting for its life at that point. They did not know, as we do now, that Germany would not attempt another invasion of Great Britain. Britain was the only western European nations still fighting the Nazis, and it’s reasonable that its leaders would not want their only outside supply line from the U.S. sent to the eastern front. Stone has just said Churchill pledged to support the Soviet Union because he needed them in the war. So how can he then say Britain was “frankly” glad to see the Soviet Union fall?

The real issue in 1941 was one that would persist for three more years: the Allies wanted to open up a western front but were unable to get the foothold in Europe to do so, and needed considerable firepower in the west to create that opportunity. There was no conspiracy to let the Nazis destroy the Soviet Union. If the USSR fell, then the Nazis could return their full focus to the west, and then the odds of carrying out the D-Day invasion would have shrunk dramatically.

Stone then moves on to FDR’s secret meeting with Churchill in Newfoundland in August 1941, and notes that FDR was reluctant to help Churchill protect and extend its empire; the Atlantic Charter that came out of the meeting that set the Allied goals for a post-war world specifically ruled out  “territorial aggrandizement”  as a goal. Stone then has audio of FDR explaining the “Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear), and ends it by saying “These were big words, but the Atlantic Charter was a truly visionary document.” (34.03) The Four Freedoms, however, were not in the Atlantic Charter; they were introduced in a speech by FDR 7 months earlier, in January 1941. Yes, the principles of the Freedoms are upheld by the Atlantic Charter, but the articulation of the Freedoms is not in the Charter, and it’s sloppy history to say they were. And just another red flag about the accuracy of the series as a whole…

…as we see when we move on to the origins of the  Manhattan Project. Stone describes how it was turned over to the U.S. military and the oversight of Major General Leslie Groves. He says that Vice President Wallace “had a low opinion of Groves, believing him ‘a slightly pathological, anti-semitic Roosevelt-hater, and outright fascist.’” (42.54) Then Stone moves on to the team Groves created. Wallace may well have believed Groves was all those things, but the responsible historian cannot simply present Wallace’s opinion as the objective truth about Groves, as Stone does here. What if a history of the U.S. 50 years from now introduces President Obama by quoting a neo-conservative politician claiming that Obama was a Kenyan citizen posing illegally as a U.S. citizen, and then just moved on, letting that stand as the only description of the president, tacitly saying it is true? What if a history of the U.S. 50 years from now introduced President George W. Bush by quoting an activist claiming that Bush was in on the September 11th attacks and then moved on, letting it stand as true? If you present incendiary charges in what is supposed to be a documentary, you have to prove them. Stone does not.

On to another go-around at 44.22 about Stalin “pleading” for a second front, and here at least gives a few accurate reasons why this didn’t happen, from Eisenhower’s estimation that it would take much longer than the U.S. had thought to create the opportunity for a landing in western Europe to Churchill’s concerns about holding North Africa, in part hoping that the second front could be opened up in southern Europe from British North Africa.

We are almost done; next time will be the last time, but it will be an enormous dose of truth v. myth, so be ready.

Next time: “historians agree”

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Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States—Episode 1

Posted on April 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go in part 2 of our review of director Oliver Stone’s TV series “Untold History of the United States”, now airing on Showtime. We’re analyzing it for its historical accuracy and reliability. Why do this? Because Stone asks us to, in the intro to episode 1, “World War II”, in which he says rather than make another narrative movie, he thought the important topic of “real” U.S. history deserved something more—a documentary series informed by real historians. So we are taking him at his word and watching the show as historians, and as we made clear in our first post, finding it lacking. No one is more dedicated to Truth v. Myth  than the HP, so it’s not that we don’t like myth-busting, one of the promised activities of Stone’s series. It’s just that myth must be busted by truth, and not the other way around, and in Episode 1, at least, there’s a lot of myth posing as truth.

So we left off last time about 12 minutes into “World War II” and now we pick up at 12.35, where Stone, narrating, says that western non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War convinced Stalin by 1939 that “the western powers had no real interest in a collective action to slow the Nazi advance. For years, the Soviet dictator had implored the west to unite against Hitler and Mussolini, even joining the League of Nations in 1934. But Soviet pleas were repeatedly ignored. And then in 1937, full-scale war erupted in China as the powerful Japanese army captured city after city.”

Like a good dissertation advisor, let’s mark this up: First we are in 1939, with Stalin trying in vain to get the west to fight the Nazis. Coming where this claim does, after a wrap-up of the U.S.’s refusal to intervene in the Spanish Civil War and FDR’s statement that the refusal would come back to haunt the nation, one has to assume that Stone means Stalin was the only major leader who fought the Nazis in Spain and the only leader who was willing to keep fighting them afterward. Stone gets this, apparently, from the fact that the Soviet Union provided war materiel to the Republicans in Spain. But cursory study of the Soviet role in the SCW shows that Stalin intervened only in an attempt to convert the civil war into a communist revolution that would create a Soviet satellite nation in Spain. Stalin’s man in Spain, Alexander Orlov, had the socialist prime minister deposed and installed a communist who could be a puppet leader, and carried out arrests and execution of Republican leaders who did not sympathize with communism. In exchange for military support, Stalin demanded that the Republic pay in gold; about $500 million in gold left Spain for the Soviet Union during the war.

To say that Stalin was “fighting the Nazis” in Spain is disingenuous: he was in a fight to control Spain and had no interest in the stated goals of the Spanish Republicans. He supplied arms to the communist revolutionaries in Spain and directed most of his efforts to using those weapons to rid the revolution of its non-communist participants. Stemming the Nazi menace was fairly far from his mind. Stalin did hate European fascism, because it was not Communist, but his heart did not bleed for Hitler’s victims in Europe. Stalin was only ever concerned with his own security. Spain served his purposes only for as long as he thought he might control it, and begin to build his own empire in Europe.

Next, we have the statement that Stalin had been “imploring” the west “for years” to fight Hitler, and even had the USSR join the League of Nations to get his urgent message heard. First, Stalin never implored the west to fight Hitler, as we have seen. Second, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations after Germany and Japan withdrew their memberships; Stalin hoped to develop some tactical alliances with western nations alarmed by Hitler’s actions so that if Hitler supported a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union in the east, or Germany attacked in the west, the Soviet Union would be able to call on its new allies to come to its aid. Stalin also wanted to give temporary support to anti-fascist movements in Europe, again to protect his own territory from invasion. No one can argue with the necessity of protecting one’s country from invasion. But to say that the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations primarily as a gesture of goodwill to try to get fighting the Nazis on the agenda is plainly wrong.

Finally, we jump backward in time from 1939 to 1937 to the Japanese invasion of China, which, presented in this way, is seen as an inevitable consequence of the west’s refusal to help Stalin fight Hitler. In reality, Hitler was not interested in really allying with Japan, a racially inferior nation in his view, and there was no cooperation between Germany and Japan before the invasion. So these are unrelated.

We recall at this point that the website for the series claims that we will discover unsung heroes of U.S. history and “explore the demonization of the Soviets”. This agenda is never actually stated in the episode. That is a red flag for the historian, who knows that you must always make your biases and agenda clear in anything you write or produce. When we practice Truth v. Myth here at the HP, it is clearly tagged as such and identified as such within the post. The second problem is that, while revisionist history is valuable, you have to do good history. You can’t take facts (the Soviet Union sending aid to the Republicans, the Soviet Union joining the League of Nations) and simply make up fictional narratives about why they happened. You have to stick to the real facts throughout, and suffer the times when they don’t support your thesis just as you celebrate the times that they do.

That’s a lot of ink to spill on 10 seconds of video. But those 10 seconds are so misleading, they have to be fully unpacked.

We move on, but only to another Stalin example: at 14.45, Stone says that after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia “Stalin recognized the truth: his country was facing its most deadly enemy alone. He needed to buy time, and fearing a German-Polish alliance to attack the USSR, he shocked the west when he signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.”

The Soviet Union had made an alliance with Czechoslovakia in 1935 as a by-product of its new alliance with France (which was a Czech ally itself). These alliances were the fruits of and the reason for the Soviets’ joining the League of Nations. When Hitler took the Sudetenland nothing happened. When he took the rest of Czechoslovakia, France signed the Munich Agreement, accepting the new status quo and abandoning the Czechs. Churchill looked to Stalin to stand by his alliance; Churchill saw early on both the threat Hitler posed and the necessity of involving the Soviet Union in a war against Hitler. Churchill pushed incessantly for a British alliance with the Soviet Union, but British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not interested in an alliance that he believed Hitler would find aggressive. When Stalin terminated its alliance with Czechoslovakia, Churchill was shaken, but continued to believe that the virulently anti-fascist Stalin would come around. When Stalin signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany in August 1939, just five months after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Churchill was stunned.

After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the USSR immediately dropped its alliance with that nation and then did absolutely nothing to stop Hitler. And when Stalin was approached by Joachim von Ribbentrop for an alliance with Germany, he accepted with alacrity, not because he feared a Polish-German alliance but for two reasons: first, he saw the Munich Agreement as evidence that France and Britain would not stop a German invasion of the Soviet Union, and second because Ribbentrop agreed to Stalin’s demand for half of Poland in return for an alliance. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was perfect for Stalin because it protected him, he thought, from a western invasion. Germany would not invade, and occupying eastern Poland and part of the Balkans would give the Soviets a buffer zone against any British-French invasion. The Soviet Union also agreed not to get involved in any European war—that is, when Germany launched World War II, the Soviets would not interfere or intervene to protect France, Britain, or any other nation from German invasion.

The idea that Stalin feared a German-Polish alliance strains credulity to the breaking point. Poland had its own non-aggression pacts with Germany and the Soviet Union, but these seemed so flimsy to the Poles that they gratefully accepted British and French guarantees of military protection at the end of March 1939 in case of an attack by Hitler or Stalin. Only the paranoid mind of Stalin could have conjured up the threat of a joint German-Polish invasion of the Soviet Union; for Stone to accept it is baffling.

Stone says that Stalin had proposed to join the Franco-British alliance to protect Poland, but “neither [France nor Britain] would accept Soviet troops on Polish soil as a way of blocking the Germans.” This is astounding. France and Britain knew, as most European nations knew, that Stalin had been angling for years to find a way to annex Poland. That’s why they did not accept Stalin’s offer to occupy Poland “to block the Germans”—they knew it had nothing to do with Germany and everything to do with annexing Poland. Once Soviet troops entered that nation, they would never leave.

We have only covered about 5 minutes of film here. That’s the danger of it. A full hour episode presents stretches of conventional history that lull you into confidence and then slips in 5 minutes here and there of complete malarkey that you might be fooled into accepting.

We hope to make better time in part 3, where we move on to the actual war and more Stalin-burnishing.

Next time: finally a bit of the U.S. in this secret U.S. history 

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