American history

Classic Truth v. Myth: The first Thanksgiving

Posted on November 25, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , |

We’re still slogging our way through the unbelievably myth—no, it’s really worse: lie-packed Saints and Strangers series about the Pilgrims on National Geographic, so this week we present once again our TvM post on the first Thanksgiving. Enjoy, and have a good holiday weekend.


The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.

The truth about the first Thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.

Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling  for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.

So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they should join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.

And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year—we have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came randomly when the people felt they were needed as a response to current events, and the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).

So that one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.

The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table (provided by Abraham Lincoln, who made an annual Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863).

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What America’s Immigrants looked like as they arrived at Ellis Island

Posted on October 28, 2015. Filed under: American history, Immigration, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Yes, we’ve stolen that title from the wonderful Washington Post site showing photos taken by Augustus Sherman at Ellis from 1892-1925. Sherman was the chief registry clerk at the immigration station.

His photos are wonderful because most of them show people dressed in their very best clothing, usually traditional clothes. While immigrants at that time traveled in their regular clothes because they knew the trip in steerage was dirty, they brought their best clothes to put on once they arrived at Ellis Island so that they would seem like presentable people who were a) not poor and b) good citizen material. They dressed to impress, and they had plenty of time to change during the long waiting periods between landing at the dock and being processed.

Adults and children alike were decked out in elaborate clothes. Women must have been sewing for months to create these wonderful ensembles. As the site points out, seeing these people reminds us that America has long been a place where a multitude of cultures mix on the streets, in schools, at work and at play. While immigrants did not wear these magnificent dress pieces every day, they did leave Ellis and make their way in America with them on, and brought them out on special occasions, making America a bottomless reservoir of cultural identity and expression.

It would be great if someone would create a similar archive of 21st-century immigrants. Until then, here are some samples from the Post site:


A “Ruthenian” woman (today’s Belarus and Ukraine)


A Slovakian woman and her son


Men from Russia

Algerian-man An Algerian man


Children from Lapland


A Norwegian woman

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McGraw-Hill erases slavery

Posted on October 6, 2015. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

We don’t often vent about our personal experiences on the HP, but the uproar over McGraw-Hill Education’s hideous disregard for historical fact leads us now to do just that.

Note: we are not saying we worked on this MGHE publication, nor are we naming any specific publisher names.

The textbook company is facing outrage over its 9th-grade geography textbook, which in a section called “Patterns of Immigration” has this text: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” See one article on how this shame was brought to light by a student named Coby Burren here.

The truly outrageous thing about this is that we are not one bit surprised. This is the inevitable result of the denigration of education content by U.S. education publishers, large and small. Members of the HP have worked as content producers for many different publishers and we know from bitter, bitter experience that content comes absolutely, completely, unashamedly dead last in their priority list. Content accuracy is about as important to education publishers as yesterday’s lunch. It’s all about the delivery system: see our new software, our interactives, our hardware, our this and that way to access… awful, inaccurate, old, recycled content like the bit about African “workers”. (We attended an event last year where higher-ups from big publishers were chatting about what’s new and someone asked the head of a company we won’t name what was new in education content and he replied, We’re rolling out a laptop.)

Most major U.S. history textbooks proudly boast a scholarly “author” on their covers and a team of scholarly “consultants” on their first pages. But textbooks are written by freelance content writers who make around $18/hour. Many publishers subcontract out the many parts of their textbooks to different businesses called development houses, and dev houses subcontract out the work to freelancers. The editors at the dev house get a laundry list of objectives and standards to meet from the publisher. The editors then give the lists and a deadline to the freelancers.

99% of the focus and instruction to freelancers is on how to format the content to fit the shiny new delivery systems. Accuracy of content is not mentioned. Most editors do not know anything about U.S. history. They work on multiple projects and are not subject matter experts (SMEs); they specialize in publishing production: getting content to fit into the new boxes of online and digital delivery. The majority of freelancers are professional writers, not U.S. history SMEs. Freelancers who do know history, like HP members who have freelanced, raise issues with inaccurate text but are often shunted aside by editors who are already working 70 hours a week and weekends (this is no exaggeration) to make sure the delivery system is coming along and have no time or expertise to do QA on the content. it’s not really their fault that things like African “workers” slip through unnoticed.

If you really argue that something is wrong, it’s like hitting the stop button on a car assembly line. Everything has to grind to a halt and you will not be hired by that dev house again.

Now back to MGHE in specific. In its alleged “apology”, MGHE said this:

“We believe we can do better,” it continues. “To communicate these facts more clearly, we will update this caption to describe the arrival of African slaves in the U.S. as a forced migration and emphasize that their work was done as slave labor.”

We “believe” we can do better? Not “we will do better”, “we must do better”, “this is unacceptable”, “this is completely at odds with our dedication to educating Americans”?

And then the double-triple speak of “to communicate these facts more clearly”: what facts? The “fact” that Africans “emigrated” to the Americas to “work”? We will “update this caption”??

This is about more than updating a caption. There needs to be an entire overhaul of how education content is produced in this country. Maybe it’s impossible to envision a day when education content is written by subject matter experts who are decently paid and respected, and content is thoroughly vetted for accuracy, but, as MGHE so weakly says “we believe we can do better.”

So look forward to many, many, many more errors and outright crimes in textbooks for as long as the system honors bells and whistles for delivery and dishonors what is being delivered.

PS—We went to the McGraw-Hill Education website and looked under Press Releases for their official apology letter; not there. No mention of the incident anywhere, in fact. There was a press release from August that was being highlighted at the top of the page about how “old school” textbooks are out and digital learning is in.

Hardly big news in today’s world, but it is yet another sign that delivery systems are the focus and content is just the dumb, unimportant chatter that is delivered. MGHE’s self-description is telling:

McGraw-Hill Education is a learning science company that delivers personalized learning experiences that help students, parents, educators and professionals improve results.

MGHE delivers “experiences”, not content; it makes things happen on a screen, and that’s the most important thing. If what it makes happen is telling people that enslaved Africans were “workers”, so be it.

More people need to a) read the textbooks their children or others in their lives are reading and b) make a roar to end all roars when they find errors. Coby did!

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Pro-Confederate is anti-American

Posted on July 2, 2015. Filed under: American history, Civil War, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

No need to do much more than to point you to James Loewen’s frank article: Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy?

But we will go ahead and also point you to our own posts on this topic: Amazing Fact: The Civil War was fought over slavery, What made the north and south different before the Civil War?, and Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war.

The Confederate States of America were founded with the sole purpose of perpetuating black slavery. There is nothing heroic in that. The men who created the Confederacy did not care about states’ rights—they had repeatedly demanded that states’ rights be trampled by forcing northern states that had abolished slavery to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, by going into territories and voting that they enter the Union as slave states even though they were not residents of that territory, by terrorizing residents who wanted to vote anti-slavery, and by taking enslaved people into free states and forcing the free state residents to endure that slavery.

Soldiers of the Confederacy were not heroes. The old argument that most of them were poor and were not slaveholders is meaningless: they fought to protect their land and their governments, which meant protecting the slave system and the slave aristocracy that governed their land. If they won the war, those poor, non-slaveholding soldiers would have allowed slavery to keep going. They knew that. You can’t cherry-pick motives and focus on the heartwarming “they fought to keep their families safe” motive and ignore the chilling “the soldiers didn’t care if black Americans were enslaved as long as they kept their land” motive.

Secession was not allowed in the Constitution. There is no place in it that makes secession legal. So founding the Confederacy was the most anti-American action in our history.

It’s high time we became as tough on Confederacy worship as the Confederates were on America, democracy, and states’ rights.

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Wrapping up Reagan’s farewell speech

Posted on April 17, 2015. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , |

So what is the takeaway from our excruciatingly long and terribly close reading of Reagan’s 1989 farewell address?  It’s one that isn’t unique to Reagan, certainly; it’s a conclusion Americans have drawn almost for as long as there has been an America: mandating an ill-defined patriotism as the measure of our national good is un-American.

Many presidents have urged Americans to support “my country right or wrong”. Reagan was not the only one. Many presidents have urged Americans to define patriotism as never questioning or criticizing national policy. And many presidents have urged Americans to see every war the U.S. fights as just, and never to question our military actions overseas (and to see military service as the highest or only form of patriotism).

But those presidents were usually countered immediately and publicly by Americans who realized and pointed out that this is not the American Way. High-profile Americans were willing to demand real patriotism, which means putting our founding principles of liberty and justice for all first above all other goals and desires, and taking personal responsibility for the preservation and exercise of those principles

Since Reagan, however, there has been an increasing trend away from real patriotism. So much has changed, even since 1989. The Internet has created a wide avenue for shaming and attack that deters many people from even getting involved in debates because those “debates” are actually uninformed dogfights focused on personal attack. Cuts to education funding have dumped civics education onto the scrap heap, so that most Americans have no idea what our founding principles are, and have to rely on the warped interpretations they get from political campaigns run by people as uninformed as themselves. History education has been hit hard, too, so that many Americans do not know their own history and have few examples of real patriotism to summon up for inspiration. Terrorist acts, beginning with September 11th, have been made an excuse to hail military action and military service as the only real patriotism, which is an astounding turnaround from the national opinion when Reagan took office, when the long ordeal of the Vietnam War had made U.S. military action unpalatable for most adults.

Since Reagan economic growth has been prized above all else, and is so important that corporations have been given rights of personhood, corporate money openly controls elections from the state to the presidential level, the federal government failed to take any substantial or lasting legal action to prevent another financial collapse like the 2008 Recession because big business is so much more powerful than the federal government, and Congress is working hard to remove any taxation of estates valued at over $5 million. The shining corporation on a hill is king.

In his speech, while reflecting on the “trickle-down economics” that he introduced, Reagan said this about the critics who pointed out that it would begin a terrible wealth gap: “What they called “radical” was really “right.” What they called “dangerous” was just “desperately needed.”

Sometimes it seems that we live in an America where radical and dangerous stances (anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-separation of church and state, anti-environmental health) are considered right and desperately needed to return America to a mythological perfect past where everyone was white, straight, either born here or a “good” (read white) immigrant, and Christian. That is a depressing legacy of Reagan.

But we must not give in to despair. The pendulum always swings, and it will swing back away from this radicalism because there will always be Americans who fight for our founding principles. Our job is to be those Americans.

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Reagan’s farewell address: a warning (and how!)

Posted on April 10, 2015. Filed under: American history, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on Reagan’s farewell address of January 1989. In this section, the final one, Reagan shares his final thoughts on our nation’s history and identity, and gives his parting presidential warning.

I’ve been asked if I have any regrets. Well, I do. The deficit is one. I’ve been talking a great deal about that lately, but tonight isn’t for arguments, and I’m going to hold my tongue. But an observation: I’ve had my share of victories in the Congress, but what few people noticed is that I never won anything you didn’t win for me. They never saw my troops, they never saw Reagan’s regiments, the American people. You won every battle with every call you made and letter you wrote demanding action. Well, action is still needed. If we’re to finish the job, Reagan’s regiments will have to become the Bush brigades. Soon he’ll be the chief, and he’ll need you every bit as much as I did.

—This is oddly phrased in the fifth sentence, but Reagan is thanking a new category of political activist, one that was indeed born during his presidency and has ballooned to gargantuan proportions today: “grassroots” attack activism. The elder statesmen here at the HP remember modest kitchen tables in the 1980s covered in urgent, nay hysterical letters from many different political groups, mostly Christian-affilitated, demanding that the housewife recipients immediately write letters of protest to Congress about pending legislation or just general wrong-headed and dangerous political and social trends. The price of inaction was the fiery destruction of the U.S. in a communist, atheist lake of fire. Such were the beginnings of “Reagan’s regiments”, brought fully to flower by the Tea Party activists, PACs, and paid political ads of today.

Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.

An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.

—The most glaring omission from this section is a definition of “what America is and what she represents”. Older Americans know what “it” means, they absorbed “it” through their pores in that better, more wholesome and true America that existed before the evil 1960s (“35 or so years of age” in 1989 translates to people born by 1954). It is in the mid-60s that good in America came to a screeching halt.

It is funny to note that earlier in this speech Reagan spoke of celebrating the anniversaries of his 39th birthday, and when he gave this speech in January 1989 he was almost 78, but now suddenly he is 35 or so. Clearly he does not want the values he is celebrating to come off as ancient and inapplicable to all but the elderly.

The only clue we have about what “it” is is war: “the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio”. Patriotism comes up after that sentence, and one feels that it is actually patriotism that is “what America is”—America is patriotism, America is love of America. Let’s go all the way with our syllogism: love of America is love of America. But no—at the very end “democratic values” are at last brought forward. But that throwaway mention at the very end of a stirring paragraph about war and patriotism, in which fighting in a war is the only way to honor your country and patriotism itself is a virtue, is not very convincing.

But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom-freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs production [protection].

—Ah, the 60s have done a number on Americans. Young parents and young people in the media think “an unambivalent appreciation of America” and “well-grounded patriotism” are passé. Where to begin?

First, what does “appreciation of America” even mean in that sentence? An “appreciation of America” seems different in kind from a respect for America’s First Amendment rights. You don’t appreciate rights, you exercise and uphold them. You protect them from attack. You may appreciate the Constitution for enshrining those rights, but again the word itself summons up an inescapable image of people being grateful for something they may or may not deserve to have. “I would appreciate it if you’d get that book for me”—you don’t have to, and that’s why I appreciate you doing it. “I expect to be allowed full exercise of my rights” is different from “I appreciate being able to exercise my rights.” The former establishes that no one has to earn rights; the latter insinuates that we are lucky to be granted rights and could lose them if we’re not grateful enough.

Next, what is “our spirit”? And what, more ominously, is “reinstitutionalizing” it? “Spirit” must be taught in schools and churches and the media so that Americans understand that their freedom is equal parts vital and fragile. Again, it seems like a spirit of appreciation/groveling: teach Americans to be grateful that they are granted the favor of having freedom and rights for some unknown reason or for no good reason. That’s not what our Constitution says: it says we have unalienable rights from God, natural rights that no human can grant or take away. To be human is to have these rights to liberty. Our government in the U.S. lives up to and honors that state of being, it doesn’t create it.

Last, since when is “freedom of enterprise” in the Constitution? Usually presidents and Americans talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Reagan’s triad is freedom of speech, religion, and “enterprise”, and they all work together: churches and corporations should have the freedom to “reinstitutionalize” their agendas by getting religion back into schools and allowing corporations to rewrite the law, and the federal government would be trampling freedom if it regulated business or separated church from state.

So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important—why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.

And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.

—American history has two poles: its European founders the Pilgrims, and WWII. Specifically, our bombing of Tokyo and our invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe are singled out—two times when the U.S. was on the attack. If we forget what we did (military attack) we won’t know who we are.

Look, no one is more on board with the idea that WWII was a just war than the HP. The U.S. had to be on the attack in that war, and its victory over imperial Japan and the Nazis was crucial to the existence of justice and liberty on our planet. But there is more to defending liberty than shooting bullets in a war. Americans can and must defend liberty every day at home, by respecting others’ rights and exercising their own. If we don’t do that, if we don’t uphold democracy here, then how and why should we go to war to preserve democracy elsewhere? If we allow money to corrupt our politics and religion to control our government, and if the only entities in this nation who have true liberty are corporations, then, and only then “we won’t know who we are.”

This is more than “civic ritual”. This is the “it”, this is what America is and what she stands for, and what it means to be an American. “Nailing” people is not. What is that dinner table conversation supposed to be? So far, it would be a list of battles and bombings and wars and would not include one word about how we preserve freedom at home.

And that’s about all I have to say tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

—John Winthrop a) did not consider himself as living in America, b) was not a Pilgrim, c) was not looking to establish freedom of religion as we know it, and d) did not call it a “shining” city on a hill. The “shining” part is pure Camelot nostalgia demanding that we believe that the earliest white settlers in America were heroes dedicated to freedom and democracy. Winthrop was a Puritan creating an outpost of the kingdom of England where reformed Anglicanism could be practiced and brought to a state of perfection. And when he said “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” he meant that all of the failures of his settlement would be visible to the world; it was about the pressure of doing well when everyone is watching.

But Winthrop was a “freedom man” [sic] who was heavily involved in the first codification of law written in what would become the United States, the 1641 Body of Liberties that promoted freedoms Reagan would have “nailed” him for in a minute. Like making it illegal to abandon the poor to poverty, and making it illegal to use legal tricks and jargon to win a court case, and making it illegal for business owners to cheat their customers.

Again with big business in Reagan’s corporation on a hill, “humming with commerce”. And his city is not quite open to “all” the pilgrims from lost places hurtling toward darkness, as the U.S. fought a prolonged battle against refugee immigration from Asia and Latin America during his administrations.

We’ve done our part. And as I walk off into the city streets, a final word to the men and women of the Reagan revolution, the men and women across America who for 8 years did the work that brought America back. My friends: We did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.

And so, goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

—Oh yes, they made a difference. The deregulation, corporate personhood, resentment of taxation, religious affiliations with politics, and indignant refusal to help the less fortunate through federal programs begun by Reagan’s men and women, the Reagan revolution, still goes strong today.

Enough–next time the wrap-up.

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Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government

Posted on April 2, 2015. Filed under: American history, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

As we move along through Reagan’s final speech from the Oval Office in January 1989 in our series on his farewell address, we come to his reinterpretation of the Constitution and the purpose of the American people.

When you’ve got to the point when you can celebrate the anniversaries of your 39th birthday, you can sit back sometimes, review your life, and see it flowing before you. For me there was a fork in the river, and it was right in the middle of my life. I never meant to go into politics. It wasn’t my intention when I was young. But I was raised to believe you had to pay your way for the blessings bestowed on you. I was happy with my career in the entertainment world, but I ultimately went into politics because I wanted to protect something precious.

—The bit of folksy humor that begins this paragraph quickly transitions into something far darker. Reagan is a happy entertainer who is forced by a great danger to change careers and enter politics. What danger? Well, it is set up by this seemingly innocuous description of himself: “I never meant to go into politics. It wasn’t my intention when I was young. I was raised to believe you had to pay your way for the blessings bestowed on you.”

What does this mean? It’s a bold non-sequitor: why would going into politics contradict a belief in “paying your way”? Why is an intention to go into politics the opposite of pulling your own weight? For Reagan, and for the American people who had listened to him and lived with his economic and political policies for eight years, however, the meaning is very clear. Politics is government, and government is bad. The president who introduced the concept of the evil “welfare mother” (or “welfare queen”), who decimated unions and worked hard to convince the nation that anyone on unemployment or welfare or Medicaid (but not Medicare) was a dishonest, un-American liar and cheater would of course see those people as not “paying their way”, as asking for blessings to be bestowed upon them from the government for no good reason. And the government who bestows those undeserved blessings is bad; it is a threat to democracy itself. So entering that government was a tough move for Reagan that he only took out of dire necessity.

Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We the People.” “We the People” tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us. “We the People” are the driver; the government is the car, and we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the People” tell the government what it is allowed to do. “We the People” are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do these past 8 years.

But back in the 1960’s, when I began, it seemed to me that we’d begun reversing the order of things — that through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our money, more of our options, and more of our freedom. I went into politics in part to put up my hand and say, “Stop.” I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for a citizen to do.

I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: “As government expands, liberty contracts.”

—First paragraph? Fine. The comment about all the other constitutions in the world is incorrect, but we can go with the general flow of this statement about our own form of government. (Although the original wording was “We the States”, which kind of ruins it for Reagan, because originally the framers wanted a political unit, the governments of the states, to dictate terms. “The People” is more folksy for Reagan but was actually a very hard sell at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where most framers were intent on building up the power of state governments.)

Now for the second paragraph. What can those “rules and regulations” in the 1960s that were so threatening to our democracy be? Yes, it was the Great Society legislation of the Johnson presidency, including civil rights legislation. Reagan was closer to those 1787 delegates who wanted to speak in the name of the state governments than he was to “the People” in that he was not a fan of the federal government telling states what to do. He was not a fan of affirmative action or the Equal Rights Amendment or any of the social legislation passed by Congress under Johnson to guarantee equal protection under the law because that legislation was federal. Reagan found unlikely bedfellows in the South on this topic. Reagan believed that the federal government—and the state governments, too—should not pass any social legislation to help groups that faced entrenched racial, sexual, or ethnic discrimination. Those people needed to get with the American way and help themselves—to pay their own way, like white people did. Like he did.

The dangerous social legislation quickly morphs into dangerous taxation, because many of the social programs Johnson started (like Head Start) were federally funded. Taking money from some Americans to help other Americans was “taking more of our money, more of our options, more of our freedom.” Who “our” or “we” is is unspoken, but it’s clearly referring to hardworking white America.

Reagan is not kidding when he says “I stopped a lot of what needed stopping.” Taxes were cut (and then raised, but only to pay for defense spending), welfare was crucified in an intense attack campaign, Medicaid spending, education spending were all cut in an attempt to give hardworking white America back its money. Then Reagan says “man is not free unless government is limited… as government expands, liberty contracts.”

This is an echo of his First Inaugural speech in 1981, in which he said:

The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.

We hear much of special interest groups. Our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we are sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truckdrivers. They are, in short, “We the people,” this breed called Americans.

The “economic ills” are social programs to help the poor and discriminated against, and “they will go away” because we must do “whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom”. Like our ancestors, we will fight tyranny; the tyranny of democracy, apparently. The “elite” government that created social programs that take money from good hardworking white people and give them to “special interest groups” will be destroyed, and balance and democracy will be restored when the neglected, oppressed white American is safe from having to help those insidious special interest groups. By 1989, Reagan was satisfied that our democracy was safe from helping people.

It’s ironic that later in this speech Reagan will reference John Winthrop’s City on a Hill address. He clearly did not read the part where Winthrop said

…we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberallity, we must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own—rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with…

—“We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities”: in other words, people who have money must give some of it to those who don’t. That’s the democratic ideal our nation would be founded on 157 years later. Reagan claims that the “breed” he is describing has no ethnic or racial divisions, but his eight years of demonizing black and Latino Americans as “welfare queens” and criminals proved that to be untrue.

Nothing is less free than pure communism—and yet we have, the past few years, forged a satisfying new closeness with the Soviet Union. I’ve been asked if this isn’t a gamble, and my answer is no because we’re basing our actions not on words but deeds. The detente of this 1970’s was based not on actions but promises. They’d promise to treat their own people and the people of the world better. But the gulag was still the gulag, and the state was still expansionist, and they still waged proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Well, this time, so far, it’s different. President Gorbachev has brought about some internal democratic reforms and begun the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has also freed prisoners whose names I’ve given him every time we’ve met.

—We segue with Reagan to the outside world again, and to the Soviet Union, the epitome of the unfree state that America will become if we don’t stop giving money to the poor. We will pass over the fact that the U.S. was also fighting proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to say that this first mention of Gorbachev is very interesting in hindsight, as this speech was given in January 1989; by that time, Moscow had already begun to lose control of some of its republics, and in just a few months the Soviet people would vote for delegates to the new Congress of the People’s Deputies. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The Revolutions of 1989 that would dissolve the Eastern bloc were just months away. Gorbachev would allow all of this to happen, and would facilitate the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a democratic Russia.

Yet to hear Reagan tell it, it is Reagan alone who is pushing democracy, lecturing Gorbachev on what freedom is, and giving him the names of political prisoners to release. “President Gorbachev has brought about some internal democratic reforms” is the understatement of the century.

But life has a way of reminding you of big things through small incidents. Once, during the heady days of the Moscow summit, Nancy and I decided to break off from the entourage one afternoon to visit the shops on Arbat Street — that’s a little street just off Moscow’s main shopping area. Even though our visit was a surprise, every Russian there immediately recognized us and called out our names and reached for our hands. We were just about swept away by the warmth. You could almost feel the possibilities in all that joy. But within seconds, a KGB detail pushed their way toward us and began pushing and shoving the people in the crowd. It was an interesting moment. It reminded me that while the man on the street in the Soviet Union yearns for peace, the government is Communist. And those who run it are Communists, and that means we and they view such issues as freedom and human rights very differently.

We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him well. And we’ll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all boils down to is this: I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.

—For Reagan, the KGB still run the Soviet Union and “while the man on the street years for peace, the government is Communist”, and will never allow freedom and human rights. One gets the feeling that Reagan would be genuinely astounded by what happened in the Soviet government just a few months after this speech. Yes, Gorbachev was very “different from previous Soviet leaders”. The folksily boxing and poker metaphors at the end would all be made obsolete by the open and unimpeded dismantling of the Soviet government led by Gorbachev.

Next time: Closing thoughts on what it means to be an American in the looming 1990s

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Reagan’s Farewell Address, 1989

Posted on March 19, 2015. Filed under: American history, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , |

We feel the need of a close read here at the HP, and circumstance has led us to choose Ronald Reagan’s last speech from the Oval Office in January 1989. It’s an interesting way-back machine for us in 2015, in that the 1980s are not that long in the past, yet the constant references to Reagan by conservatives and others, especially during election years, make it see as if that administration was at once recent enough for these people to remember and have opinions about, but also part of a long-ago past we are light years away from now. Yet it’s clear that we are living every day with the impact of Reagan-era economic policy. The deregulation of industry, tax cutting ideology (if not always practice), anti-government (“government is the problem”) and pro-military stances are all certainly the mantra of most conservatives today, to the point where one might be forgiven for believing this is a long-standing mantra, deeply part of the American soul and history, when really it was thrust into being not quite 30 years ago.

Well, let’s get to the speech:

My fellow Americans:

This is the 34th time I’ll speak to you from the Oval Office and the last. We’ve been together 8 years now, and soon it’ll be time for me to go. But before I do, I wanted to share some thoughts, some of which I’ve been saving for a long time.

It’s been the honor of my life to be your President. So many of you have written the past few weeks to say thanks, but I could say as much to you. Nancy and I are grateful for the opportunity you gave us to serve.

One of the things about the Presidency is that you’re always somewhat apart. You spend a lot of time going by too fast in a car someone else is driving, and seeing the people through tinted glass—the parents holding up a child, and the wave you saw too late and couldn’t return. And so many times I wanted to stop and reach out from behind the glass, and connect. Well, maybe I can do a little of that tonight.

People ask how I feel about leaving. And the fact is, “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The sweet part is California and the ranch and freedom. The sorrow—the goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place.

—It’s rare that a presidential speech so clearly betrays its writer. It’s very hard to believe that Reagan would ever have found these words, simple and straightforward and yet eloquent—nay poignant—on his own. The writer (whom we assume to be Ken Khachigian, but correct us if we’re wrong) found precisely the words Reagan would want to say, to express his folksy, aw-shucks—yet poetic—persona. It’s almost as if Reagan is parroting his own Reaganness.

You know, down the hall and up the stairs from this office is the part of the White House where the President and his family live. There are a few favorite windows I have up there that I like to stand and look out of early in the morning. The view is over the grounds here to the Washington Monument, and then the Mall and the Jefferson Memorial. But on mornings when the humidity is low, you can see past the Jefferson to the river, the Potomac, and the Virginia shore. Someone said that’s the view Lincoln had when he saw the smoke rising from the Battle of Bull Run. I see more prosaic things: the grass on the banks, the morning traffic as people make their way to work, now and then a sailboat on the river.

—This is an astounding paragraph. It’s short and has no complex terms, but it manages to a) personalize the president, whom we can picture looking out the window in the morning; b) compare Reagan to Lincoln by saying both men share great and terrible burdens of leadership; c) favor Reagan over Lincoln, because Reagan can look out over a prosperous nation made so by his own policies, whereas Lincoln presided over the disaster of Bull Run. How things have improved since then! —and all thanks to Reagan.

I’ve been thinking a bit at that window. I’ve been reflecting on what the past 8 years have meant and mean. And the image that comes to mind like a refrain is a nautical one—a small story about a big ship, and a refugee, and a sailor. It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”

A small moment with a big meaning, a moment the sailor, who wrote it in a letter, couldn’t get out of his mind. And, when I saw it, neither could I. Because that’s what it was to be an American in the 1980’s. We stood, again, for freedom. I know we always have, but in the past few years the world again—and in a way, we ourselves—rediscovered it.

It’s been quite a journey this decade, and we held together through some stormy seas. And at the end, together, we are reaching our destination.

—The sentence “It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people” is unwittingly laughable. “Way” back seven years ago is odd, and then for the president to refer to Vietnamese refugees not just as “boat people” (a colloquialism acceptable in private speech but not from the Oval Office), but as “the boat people” is unsettling. It’s too much along the lines of “the Jews”, “the feminists”, “the gays”—a little dehumanizing. And, just for the record, the real height of renewed refugeeism from Vietnam began in 1986, just two years before his January 1989 speech.

Next, the folksiness merges indistinguishably into a corny type of patriotism: of course the American sailor was “hard at work”, and “young, smart, and fiercely observant.” And then suddenly we are all that sailor; we are all beacons of freedom, emblems of liberty, people who stand for something. Now, we at the HP agree that this is what Americans are when we live up to our founding principles. But Reagan makes it clear that his presidency, not those principles, is responsible for this American identity, or really more for the recognition of that leadership role by non-Americans. “In the past few years”—i.e., during his two terms—America has re-established its good standing in the world and Americans have come to believe in their own virtue and purpose again, after… well, after what? What has been preventing us from feeling this way?

The fact is, from Grenada to the Washington and Moscow summits, from the recession of ’81 to ’82, to the expansion that began in late ’82 and continues to this day, we’ve made a difference. The way I see it, there were two great triumphs, two things that I’m proudest of. One is the economic recovery, in which the people of America created—and filled—19 million new jobs. The other is the recovery of our morale. America is respected again in the world and looked to for leadership.

—Okay, the two things that have been keeping us from having pride and a sense of purpose in the world were a bad economy and a loss of morale. The bad economy started in 1981, the year Reagan took office, but the implication of recovery beginning early in his first term is that Reagan inherited the bad economy and quickly fixed it (“we’ve made a difference”). It is startling that he completely elides the Crash of 1987, in which we endured one of the largest and most devastating stock market falls in our history which resulted in $1 trillion in total loss of wealth amongst Americans. It simply did not happen, because “the expansion that began in late ’82 continues to this day”.

Something that happened to me a few years ago reflects some of this. It was back in 1981, and I was attending my first big economic summit, which was held that year in Canada. The meeting place rotates among the member countries. The opening meeting was a formal dinner for the heads of government of the seven industrialized nations. Now, I sat there like the new kid in school and listened, and it was all Francois this and Helmut that. They dropped titles and spoke to one another on a first-name basis. Well, at one point I sort of leaned in and said, “My name’s Ron.” Well, in that same year, we began the actions we felt would ignite an economic comeback—cut taxes and regulation, started to cut spending. And soon the recovery began.

Two years later, another economic summit with pretty much the same cast. At the big opening meeting we all got together, and all of a sudden, just for a moment, I saw that everyone was just sitting there looking at me. And then one of them broke the silence. “Tell us about the American miracle,” he said.

—One’s jaw is left on the floor after this anecdote. Let’s go through it: the president of the United States, a founding nation of the G7, was completely unrecognized at the 1981 G7 meeting in Ottawa. No one spoke to the president of the United States. He had to sit quietly like “the new kid in school” and had no role to play in the summit. Somehow, Reagan (and his speechwriter) believe that we will believe this.

Then Reagan segues to some good old-fashioned American chauvinism: not only are the big bullies at the summit foreigners, but they are French, with wimpy names like Francois, and German, with aggressive yet laughable names like Helmut. The leaders referred to are of course Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. “They dropped titles”—classic foreigners. Snobby representatives of the nobility, and totally contrasted with Reagan, who represented the class-free, all-equal U.S. Somehow, it’s also upsetting that two world leaders who meet often would call each other by their first names; the implication is that Reagan, the president of the U.S., does not know the attendees at the G7 and therefore can’t join in their conversation. But finally, Reagan gets bold and just like the U.S. in the 20th century, asserts himself with the Europeans and becomes their leader. He gives his simple, wholesome, free-of-monarchical-taint, good American name—Ron—and forces his way into the group. His economic plan sparked the massive U.S. recovery and when the world leaders met again, “everyone was just sitting there looking at me”. The Cinderella transformation is complete! Now all those snobby foreigners want to hear about “the American Miracle.”

This is so clearly a bit of fantasy that one wonders, quite seriously, whether Reagan really believed it himself. It’s possible that that is how he perceived it by January 1989, because it fits into his personal mythos so well.

We’ll break here, and come back next time with Reagan’s description of his economic miracle.

Next time: “what they called radical was really right”

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Crash Course on the Puritans: so close, John Green!

Posted on March 9, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We decided to watch the Crash Course “When is Thanksgiving? Colonizing America, Crash Course U.S. History #2” because this CC series is so popular with young Americans. It started out so well! Nice explanation of the unequal labor system that developed in Virginia and clear explanations for it. Plus he differentiated between Pilgrims and Puritans, which you know we appreciate.

But he hit the seemingly inevitable rocks of myth as soon as he really got into the Pilgrim/Puritan section, beginning of course with a weird and incorrect reason for the Pilgrims leaving the Netherlands. He said the Dutch were “too corrupt” for the Pilgrims. At least this was a new one we hadn’t ever heard before (the usual reason being that the English didn’t want their children becoming Dutch). The real reason was that the Netherlands was about to resume fighting its religious war with Catholic Spain, and the English did not want to get in the middle of that (especially if Spain won and immediately persecuted all Protestants). The English were also barely tolerated by the Dutch, because Pilgrim religious practice was very radical.

Green also says the Pilgrims were trying to go to Virginia and got blown off course to Massachusetts, which is not true.

He then ridicules the Pilgrims for not bringing enough food and for bringing no farm animals. If you have ever seen the Mayflower replica at Plymouth, you’ll know that there was simply no room in that small ship for farm animals. Later, when animals were brought over, they frequently died on the way over from the terrible conditions—just like the people. And the Pilgrims did bring food, but much of it was spoiled by seawater leaking into the casks. No one leaves for “the wilderness” without bringing food. They just didn’t have the best of containers.

On to the Puritans, and a decent explanation of Congregationalism marred by the following misapplication of the City on a Hill section of the John Winthrop sermon “A Model of Christian Charity”, in which Green conflates the 19th-century Americans’ interpretation of the sermon as saying that America and later the U.S. were “exceptional” and a model for other nations to adopt. See our post clarifying what Winthrop really meant.

So far, it’s not too bad. But then we take an unfortunate left turn into pure myth. (Green says these courses are written by his high school history teacher; what gives?) He says that in Puritan society a small “church elite” held power and that there were separate rights for freemen, women, children, and servants. The church elite idea comes from the fact that one had to be a church member to vote or hold political office in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the myth that so few people were members that they formed an elite, and the myth on top of myth that that was the original intent.

You did have to be a church member to become a freeman, but the number of men who became freemen was not fractional. Research is ongoing because the original myth of a tiny fraction of freemen in the colony that was first put about by Thomas Lechford, a disaffected colonist who went back to England in the 1640s, has only recently been addressed by historians, who are finding that Lechford’s complaint that only 1 in 5 colonists was a church member is grossly exaggerated. The real problem is that, like Americans today, many Puritan men did not want to become freemen because they did not want the obligations and duties of a freeman (voting, participating in government) so they went to church all their lives but never became members. (Many did, however, vote illegally and participate in their town governments despite the requirement.)

HP readers know that we go over the rights developed and recorded by the MBC in 1641 in our series on the Body of Liberties, and we address the rights of minority populations in that series. Women, children, and servants were subject to many of the same laws as freeman and other male inhabitants, but also had some special protections to offset their traditionally unequal status in society.

Then Green goes deep into the realm of fantasy to say that Roger Williams was banished for saying everyone should be able to practice whatever religion they wanted. This is like saying Frederick Douglass thought slavery was good for black Americans. It’s beyond untrue. Williams, as we explain in our series devoted to him, was banished for saying the king of England who gave the Puritans their charter in America was an antichrist. This was treason, and could have gotten the whole colony scotched. No one was less interested in religious freedom than RW at the time of his banishment. It was much, much later in what is now Rhode Island that he began to entertain religious tolerance (but not for Catholics or Quakers).

And not for Anne Hutchinson, either, who was not banished for “being a woman preaching unorthodox ideas” but for inciting a civil war in the colony by claiming that God spoke directly to her and told her who was saved and who was not, and that everyone running the colony was not. She was not “banished to New York”; she originally went to Providence but after she began inciting the same civil war there, Roger Williams kicked her out and she went to what is now New York.

So ends Green’s crash course. The underlying problem is not lazy scholarship but something he references at the very end: Americans “like to see ourselves as pioneers of religious freedom”. That is true. It is true because ever since the U.S. was founded, we have striven to offer true religious freedom, and that is a wonderful thing that set us apart from most nations. But the U.S. was founded in 1775—not 1607. It took a long time and a lot of populations mixing in the 13 colonies, and the advent of the Enlightenment in Europe, to get Americans to the point where they could entertain that idea. Religious freedom was not part of the political landscape in the 17th century. The Puritans did not leave England to establish freedom of religion. They left England so they could practice their own religion freely, which is very different. They were committed to protecting their religion and, hopefully, extending it to other lands. Why on earth, then, would they allow competing (and to their minds wrong) religions in their colonies?

Our job is to separate the modern American ideal of religious freedom from the early modern ideals of our 17th-century founders. We can’t blame them for failing to do something we thought of 150 years after they died. And we can’t teach our nation’s history as a series of failures to live up to 21st-century law, mores, and myths. Alas John Green—you need the shock pen after all.

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Oklahoma attempts to ban AP U.S. History

Posted on February 26, 2015. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Over the past 20 years or so, conservative politicians have added criticizing the way U.S. history is taught to their laundry list of complaints about the liberal takeover of America. You know the criticisms by now, most likely, as they have probably been voiced in your own state: students are taught that American exceptionalism is a lie; that American history is a long, unbroken string of racist crimes and hate; that big government is good; and that the Civil War was fought over slavery (for our take on the last one, see What made the north and south different before the Civil War and Amazing Fact! the Civil War was fought over slavery). In Oklahoma, a state House committee has bowed to state Republican complaints that the new AP exam is “unpatriotic and negative” and approved a bill to remove AP funding and create a new U.S. history exam to replace it. “[State Rep. Dan] Fisher said Monday that the AP U.S. History course emphasizes “what is bad about America” and complained that the framework eliminated the concept of “American exceptionalism,”according to the Tulsa World.”

Where to start.

First, let’s laugh at the complaint about American Exceptionalism. We all take it to mean that because of its founding principles, America has a special mission of democracy and justice to carry out in the world, and that mission, which we have always carried out successfully, has ennobled our nation. But that’s not what the term “American Exceptionalism” really means. it was coined by that tireless chronicler of American ways and means, Alexis de Tocqueville, who said:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe,… have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects.

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