American history

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.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

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.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

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

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

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”

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

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.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

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.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Sons of Liberty on “History” is terrible and stupid and partly accurate

Posted on February 12, 2015. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Everyone by now is talking about History.com’s Sons of Liberty and how blazingly inaccurate it is. Everything that can be falsified has been falsified, from the ages of the leading participants to their motives to their actions. The AV Club sums it up better than we can here.

We went to the History.com website to take a look and were intrigued, given the circumstances, to see a box called “Historians’ View” on the landing page. Once clicked, we came to a page that begins with this statement:

“SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please check out the links below.”

A slew of links out to other resources follow this, and most of them are accurate, which seems baffling at first—if you know the real story, why not tell it?

But that brief statement explains all. Should the “History” channel offer historical fiction rather than fact? No. Should it present historical fiction as a documentary for TV viewers, with this disclaimer buried below the episodes on the website? No. Should it promote 21st-century gun values by claiming that they are part of our hallowed revolutionary history? No.

The latter is most important, because the Revolution was all about our evolution from a tradition of mindless, horrible violence to a focused legal, philosophical, and military fight for liberty and justice. In our post The Boston Tea Party and a Tradition of Violence, we describe the terrible violence and destruction that Americans felt no qualms about using when they were upset, or for no real reason at all. Violent action was sanctioned in the American colonies in ways it never was in Britain. Mobs formed at the drop of a hat, and destroyed people’s homes and businesses—literally tearing them apart brick by brick—to settle personal grudges as well as political arguments. Tarring and feathering, which is somehow presented as a harmless prank today, involved holding people down naked and pouring boiling tar over their bare skin, then covering them with feathers. At the time, it was called “the American torture”. It cost many lives.

It was this kind of violence that the real Sons of Liberty’s leaders began to realize had to go if Americans wanted to claim they were calling for a just war against Britain. The Boston Tea Party was the striking departure from that tradition of violence. It was deliberately carried out without costing a single life—the men who called for the protest and led it in the harbor read the riot act to all participants: no one was to use any violence against any one. The protest had to be completely nonviolent for the same reason Martin Luther King wanted civil rights protests to be nonviolent: to show the injustice of the inevitable hostile reaction when compared with the high ideals of the protestors. And it was successful. The Tea Party was completely nonviolent, and that’s what aroused general public sympathy throughout the American colonies when the British cracked down so hard on Massachusetts in retaliation.

So making “Sons of Liberty” violent is indeed to “capture the spirit of the times”, as the disclaimer says, and if early episodes showed the unthinking violence our forefathers used early in the run-up to revolution, it would be completely accurate. But then it has to show the evolution away from violence in late 1773. It has to focus on the efforts of John Hancock, the Adams cousins, and others to swerve the growing energy for revolution away from mindless personal attacks to directed, politically powerful stands for liberty that could serve as building blocks for that liberty.

Instead, this series unsurprisingly focuses on imaginary affairs and other forms of make-believe that just confirm our judgment that the series’ producers and the “History” channel either a) did not know the real story or b) did not believe the facts were interesting enough to present, or both. It’s baffling how many shows about historical events believe those events were so incredibly boring they’re not worth making a show about, and fill in with guns and sex and made-up speeches and events instead. If you think the facts are boring, just write your fictional show and be done with it. Why call it Sons of Liberty when it’s not about them?

Perhaps one day, 100 years from now, someone will write a miniseries about the producers and management at the History Channel that shows them all as ex-cons who commit terrorist activities on the weekends. They could hardly complain, could they, from beyond the grave?

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

“Migrant Mother” and the real story of Dorothea Lange’s masterpiece

Posted on January 29, 2015. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Part 2 in our series on Reading Famous American photos brings us to one of the most famous photographs in world history: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother: Lange-MigrantMother02 It was taken in 1936. The Library of Congress has annotated it thus: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”. The woman stares into the distance, her brow lined with worry, trying to perceive a glimmer of hope in her desperate situation. Her two daughters hide their faces from the camera, but the mother does not even seem to see it. Her mind is working to find some way forward, some way to feed her children, including the baby almost hidden in her lap. Their clothes are worn and dirty. Never did the future for Americans facing the Depression seem so bleak; there is no guarantee that this family will come through intact. The photo is beautifully framed in a classic triangle: you look at the mother’s face, then travel down her arm to the baby, then back up to the girl on the right, and across to the girl on the left—and then back again to that expressive, strong, but desperate face. That Migrant Mother was Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant worker originally from Oklahoma. She married Cleo Owens and moved with him and their three children to California in the late 1920s, where he had relatives, and they worked in saw mills and farms in the Sacramento Valley. Owens died in 1931, leaving Florence pregnant and with five children to support at the height of the Depression. Florence met Jim Hill and had three more children with him, supporting her family by picking cotton, doing manual labor in hospitals, working as a cook—anything to bring in money. The family was on the road in March 1936, looking for work in the fields after finishing a hitch picking beets. Their car broke down on the highway, near a pea-pickers’ camp. That was bad news; worse was to come. There were around 3,000 migrant workers at the camp, all unemployed after a freezing rain had destroyed the crop. There would be no work for anyone. As Hill and two of the boys walked into town to get parts for the car, Florence waited in the camp with the younger children. At this point, Dorothea Lange appeared with her camera. Lange was a photographer working for the Farm Security Administration to document the human toll of the Depression. She took six photos of Florence and her three youngest children, and wrote these notes: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.” Later, Lange described her encounter with Florence:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

Lange sent her photos to the San Francisco News and to Washington, DC. When this photo ran in the newspaper, people were so moved and appalled by the conditions at the camp that the federal government sent 20,000 pounds of food to the camp. By the time it arrived just a few days later, Florence and her family had moved on to work at another farm. So much is history, and legend. Florence Owens Thompson (she remarried in 1945), however, told a different story. She claimed that Lange never spoke to her at all, and just started taking pictures. She also ridiculed the idea that they had sold their tires for food—how would they drive the car if they sold the tires? “I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying,” Thompson said, “I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.” Thompson also claimed that Lange had promised not to publish the photos. Florence was humiliated by her family’s poverty and didn’t want it broadcast around the nation. Luckily for her, the family’s name was never published, and the identity of the family and the Migrant Mother remained unknown until 1978, when a California reporter saw Florence in her mobile home and recognized her. The newspaper published his article that quoted Florence as saying “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” There was no way for Florence to know that, as a government employee, Lange gave up all rights to her work and never received any money from the photo herself. The photo became more and more famous as the single best illustration of the nightmare of the Depression. In 1998, it was put on a U.S. stamp—the first time that living people (the daughter on the left and the baby in Florence’s arms) were featured on a stamp. According to her children, Florence was humiliated all over again by the celebration of the photo, but when she became ill in August 1983, her children appealed to the public for help, and over $25,000 in donations for the Migrant Mother’s medical bills came in. For the first time, Florence felt like she was more than a symbol of failure and shame. Florence Owens Thompson died the next month. Her gravestone reads “Florence Leona Thompson, Migrant Mother—A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.” Migrant Mother is rightly famous, but for Florence’s sake, this photo should have its due, too:

MigrantMotherandDaughters1979

This is a re-enactment of the photo taken in 1979. Katherine and Ruby stand on either side of their mother, and Norma, the baby in Florence’s arms, kneels beside her mother. Florence managed to provide for her family and get them through the Depression, despite all odds. Katherine’s tribute to her mother is fitting: “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.” Next time: Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Selma throws Lyndon Johnson under the bus of history

Posted on January 14, 2015. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , |

The movie Selma is being acclaimed by all and sundry for its depiction of the events surrounding the 1965 March on Selma that went down in history as “Bloody Sunday” for the unimaginable violence leveled at men, women, and children marching for voters’ rights in Alabama by state police. The approximately 600 marchers were led that day, March 7, 1965, by many brave Americans, including John Lewis, the Rev. Hosea Williams, Bob Mants, and Albert Turner. They crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma before they were blocked by state troopers and white militia. When Rev. Williams tried to talk with an officer, he was ignored, and the troopers began trying to physically push the marchers back. Then the beatings began, and mounted troopers charged the marchers, trampling many of them.

What made this attack, which was otherwise par for the course in the south, so unusual is that it was televised. The three major news networks were there and they did not hesitate to broadcast the violence (although they were themselves threatened if they did so). A photo of marcher Amelia Boynton lying unconscious in front of the bridge after being beaten unconscious by a trooper like the one still standing over her with his club made Americans across the country sick.

amelia_boynton

In response, a second march was organized, and it was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. But black leaders were not the only ones taking action. President Lyndon Johnson was galvanized by the horrid spectacle and issued a statement “deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated…”

Johnson did more than make statements, however, and that’s where the movie Selma goes so wrong. As the NYT review puts it,

…its depiction of Johnson as a laggard on black voting rights who opposed the marches and even unleashed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an effort to stop Dr. King’s campaign. …

The movie’s depiction of Johnson’s attitude toward F.B.I. surveillance of Dr. King’s personal life, which began during the Kennedy administration, is particularly problematic, several historians said.

In an early scene, Johnson seems disgusted by J. Edgar Hoover’s suggestion that Dr. King — “a political and moral degenerate,” Hoover says — be taken down. But later the president, angered by Dr. King’s plans in Selma, asks to get Hoover on the phone. Soon after, Coretta Scott King is shown listening to a tape of anonymous threats, followed by the sounds of Dr. King moaning with a lover.

In fact, the tape, which Mrs. King listened to in January 1965, had been recorded and sent to the headquarters of Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, and had no direct connection to Selma or to Johnson, Mr. Garrow said.

“If the movie suggests L.B.J. had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J.,” he said.

It’s a shame that John Kennedy has such a hold on the national imagination that historians will not put the blame for the slanders against King where it belongs: in his administration. Robert Kennedy pushed hard for an investigation of MLK, and FBI director Hoover was all too eager to oblige. Johnson had nothing to do with the investigation, but he is demonized in the movie for it, where he is portrayed as a terrible enemy to King and someone devoted to fighting the civil rights movement.

In rebuttal, we refer our readers to our post series of posts called Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” Speech, in which we point out that

President Johnson was one of those Americans who watched the footage from Selma and was infuriated and repelled by what he saw. Johnson was a sincere proponent of civil rights, and he had staked a lifetime of political clout on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone expected him to back down after that, and not “push” the Southern Democrats for anything more on the race front. Instead, Johnson went on TV himself, and spoke to the nation, one week after the attack at Selma, and asked the American people to live up to their creed and ensure the voting rights of black Americans….

[In his address to the nation on March 15, 1965, Johnson said in part]  “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.”

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

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

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

…But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.”

—Here, listeners would have wondered if they had really just heard their uptight-looking, cantankerous white Southern president quote the famous rallying cry of the civil rights movement. And had he really just said that all Americans inherit the burden and shame of racism and injustice? Again, we see Johnson’s insistence that racism was not a “negro problem”, an issue that trouble-making radicals kept bringing up or making up, but part of the fabric of American life and the part that needed to be ripped out and replaced, not honored and enshrined as “tradition”.

…”As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.”

Johnson was not kidding around. He moved the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress at lightning speed and made his commitment to real racial equality in America very clear and very real.

Yet the director of Selma apparently chooses to ignore historical fact in this case. Her comments as presented in The Hollywood Review are these:

“I think everyone sees history through their own lens, and I don’t begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. This is what we see. And that should be valid. I’m not gonna argue history; I could, but I won’t.”

DuVernay continued, “I’m just gonna say that, you know, my voice, David’s voice, the voices of all of the artists that gathered to do this, of Paramount Pictures, which allowed us to amplify this story to the world, is really focused on issues of justice and dignity. And for this to be reduced — reduced is really what all of this is — to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices — black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths — to do something amazing.”

“If there is anything that we should be talking about in terms of legacy,” DuVernay added, “it is really the destruction of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act and the fact that that very act is no more in the way that it should be, protecting all voices to be able to heard and participate in the electoral process. That is at risk right now. There’s been violence done to that act. We chronicle its creation in our film. And so I would just invite people to keep their eyes on the prize and really focus on the beautiful positives of the film.”

It is so bitterly ironic that DuVernay says we should be focusing on the destruction of the very Voting Rights Act that Johnson worked so fast and so hard to pass. It’s Johnson’s legacy that is destroyed in that instance. [Read more about the Act and how the Supreme Court dismantled it in 2013 here.]

More important, DuVernay is completely wrong about history. It’s not a melange of competing opinions. We don’t each get our own individual “history” of what we want to believe. There is a real history of real events that can be objectively verified by artifacts. It is the opposite  of “valid” to say, Well, whatever I believe or “see” is the truth. What if I choose to “see” that the marchers started the violence? I “believe” they shot at the state troopers, who were forced to defend themselves. Where do we draw the line when history becomes mere story?

No “celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices” for racial justice in the 1960s is complete or accurate if it excludes Lyndon Johnson from those people. If her movie is about justice, then she should do Johnson justice. He wasn’t perfect, but he did more to end institutional racism in this country than any president before him since Lincoln, and no president has come close to matching his record since.

Its objectively false representation of Johnson does not make Selma worthless. But it strikes a blow for myth over truth, and that’s unacceptable. Why go to the trouble of making a historically accurate movie in all respects and then tell a complete lie about a major player? If DuVernay needed a villain, why not Hoover, or every single one of the whites who beat the marchers? It doesn’t make sense.

History matters in every detail. You can’t tell a true story with a lie.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Paul Revere’s time capsule opened to reveal… a pine tree

Posted on January 7, 2015. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Puritans, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

The Old State House in Boston has been undergoing renovations, and two time capsules have been found in it. The first, laid away in 1901, was found inside the head of the gold-plated lion atop the building and was opened in October 2014 to reveal letters and business cards from Massachusetts politicians, and multiple newspapers from that great age of newsprint. The contents of the second capsule, which was found under a foundation stone, were just revealed to the public.

This second capsule is by far the more exciting. It was placed under the State House on July 4, 1795 by Governor Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, among others, to commemorate the impressive 20th anniversary of American independence. A rundown of the capsule and all of its contents is here, but we want to focus on one particular item in it: a “1652” pine tree shilling.

1652-massachusetts-pine-tree-shilling-large-planchet

This humble coin was one of the first revolutionary acts to take place in English America, but merely one in a string of stands for independence made by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In colonial America—from its beginnings in 1607 right up to independence—actual money was scarce. There were no mints in North America to mint coins. (Paper money as we know it did not exist.) In most colonies, there was either no metal to coin, or, as in Virginia, metal was available but the colonists did not have the wherewithal to mine it. Colonists had to rely on coins coming from England, usually via the Caribbean, where trade was strongest. Items called “Spanish dollars” were used most often as currency. These were not real coins produced in a mint. They were round slugs of silver with no markings that were quickly cut in New Spain so they could be sent to Spain and melted down for different purposes, from silverware to coins. But since these “cobs”, as they were called, were made of silver, they were hijacked in the Americas to be used as currency. As with all coins through human history, they were clipped: someone would trim the edges of the coins to make them slightly smaller, save the trimmings, and melt them down to make more coins for themselves. This meant that the value of the Spanish dollar was unreliable—one might weigh 3 ounces while another weighed 5. On top of that, counterfeiters would reproduce Spanish dollars by mixing silver and alloy. No one could be sure if their Spanish dollars were really worth what they were supposed to be worth. In New England, it was far more reliable to use wampum, which American Indians manufactured to strict standards of quality. Wampum was the most valuable currency in colonial America for many decades in the 1600s.

But Europeans still valued silver, too, and all that suspect Spanish silver coming into North America was causing enormous economic problems, so the MBC came up with a solution. In 1652, the General Court (Massachusetts’ elected legislature) ordered that the colony would begin producing its own silver coins. Here is part of that order:

…all persons what
soever have liberty to bring in unto the mint house at Boston all 
bullion plate or Spanish Coin there to be melted & brought to the
 allay of sterling Silver by John Hull master of the said mint and his sworn officers, & by him to be Coined into 12d : 6d : & 3d pieces which 
shall be for form flat & square on the sides & stamped on the one
side with N E & on the other side wth the figure XIId VId & IIId—
according to the value of each piece, together with a privy mark—which shall be Appointed every three months by the Governor & known 
only to him & the sworn officers of the mint.

The denominations represented in Roman numerals in the order are threepeence, sixpence, and one shilling. The coins are known as “pine tree shillings”  because they had an image of a pine tree on one side. Trees were a major export from the MBC, as the huge trees of North America made perfect masts for ships. All coins read 1652, to mark the year of the mint’s founding, which is why they are referred to today as “1652” shillings even if they were minted in 1662, 1673, etc.

The people of Massachusetts were willing to bring in their shifty Spanish dollars and bullion that had no practical use value to be melted down into MBC coins at the new mint. Indeed, they brought in silver bars, candlesticks, jewelry, and other items that were of no use to them and had likely been brought over with the emigrants from England for fear they might be stolen or lost track of by their agents and/or relatives.

The Boston shilling, as the coins came to be known, was enormously and immediately popular, and began circulating throughout North America, much to the chagrin of the Massachusetts government. The whole point of minting its own coins had been to keep silver money in Massachusetts to steady the economy. But the coins were flowing out of the MBC to other colonies, which meant that Massachusetts wealth (its people’s silver) was accruing in and enriching Virginia, New Amsterdam, and New France.

Its mint caused political problems for the MBC as well. Minting coins was something only a royal government had the authority to do. Colonists in America had absolutely no authority to mint coins—only the king of England could grant that. In 1652, of course, England had no king: Charles I had been executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, and the country was being governed by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Lord Protector. Remember how the pine tree shillings had an image of a pine tree on them? This was in place of an image of a king, which had always been on English coins. The establishment of a Puritan government in England led the Puritans in Massachusetts to believe that they had a good chance of getting away with establishing their own mint, and for eight years, they did. But when Charles II came to the throne in the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy (after Cromwell’s death and his son’s short stint in office) the renegade mint eventually came under attack from London. Charles II had no love for the Puritans who had executed his father, and he lent a friendly ear to those in his government who hated the Massachusetts Bay Colony in particular as a hotbed of treason and independence. These royal agents visited Boston in 1665 to “review” its laws and statutes, and demanded that the General Court of the colony change 26 of them to fall in line with British law. One of the demands was to immediately stop production at the mint.

The MBC resisted, sending two “very large masts” to the royal navy as a gift in 1666 and another shipload of masts two years later. (Charles II’s government was of course very wrapped up in government at home after 11 years of the Protectorate and the religious upheaval the Restoration caused, so the efforts to bring Massachusetts to heel took a back seat to more pressing matters during this time.) More masts were delivered over the years and this sufficed to keep the mint running while colonial agents tried to win permanent and official royal approval, pleading the colony’s loyalty to the king. They argued that the coins only grew the colonial economy, which could only mean more goods and profits flooding into England at a time when the country’s finances were precarious. But that argument was used by the crown against the colonists: to recover from its depression, the English economy needed to control its coinage, and issue and enforce the use of one English currency throughout its dominions.

Boston kept its mint open despite the mounting problems it was facing. In 1675-6, the devastating civil war known as King Phillip’s War weakened the economy and destroyed political unity in New England. Bickering between New England colonies after the war, which included appeals to London for mediation, contributed to the crown’s decision to revoke Massachusetts’ charter in 1684. The colony was no longer politically independent. It had to accept a governor appointed by the king rather than voted by representatives of the people. The mint was closed. Massachusetts would continue to struggle for independence, and one of the ways it did so was to begin printing paper money in 1690. It was the first government known to have established a paper currency in the history of western civilization.

But that’s another story. We keep our eyes on the pine tree shilling. It’s clear why one was saved, and placed with great pomp and ceremony into the time capsule in 1795. The pine tree shilling represented an early strike for American independence. It represented the Puritan commitment to independent government, and the role of Massachusetts in opposing royal political interference and control. Pine tree shillings were prized by Americans who knew them. With the pine tree shilling found in the time capsule now on temporary display, more Americans can learn about them.

The plan is to return the capsule to the State House foundation with its original contents, and items from 2015. The pine tree shilling that is now seeing the light of day for the first time in 220 years will return to the darkness of history. But one day it will be unearthed again, and it seems that nothing we could add to that time capsule today will outweigh the importance of that small coin, and when it is unearthed again it will steal the show once more.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

« Previous Entries

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers