Truth v. Myth

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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The Salem witch trials are not part of the history of witchcraft

Posted on October 5, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

We admit to a bit of hyperbole in that title, but we’re just amplifying the message sent by Diane Purkiss in her August 2015 review of the new Penguin Book of Witches (edited by Katherine Howe).

Her review article is called “We need more types of witches”, and in it Purkiss points out and criticizes the overwhelming fixation historians and average Americans alike have with the Salem witch trials in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

The Penguin Book of Witches disappoints. A better title for this volume might be “The Penguin Book of Witches in the American Colonies”, or even “The Penguin Book of Massachusetts Witches”. As its editor Katherine Howe admits, the English materials she selects are chosen as “antecedent”–her word–to the Salem trials, which are the sole witchcraft trials covered in detail in this slender collection.

The effect is to reinforce the already disproportionate place of Salem in the popular imagination. The Salem trials were very late; they occurred in 1692, while the peak decade for executions in the Anglophone world was in the last decade of the reign of Elizabeth I. Historians estimate that 30,000 witches died in the witchcraft persecutions [in Europe], of whom just twenty died at Salem. …In truth, Salem was in many respects profoundly unusual.

So far so good. We do take issue with Purkiss’ description of the causes of the witch trials:

The monocultural hardline Calvinism of the colonies, the lack of older and once powerful cultures as an anxiety-provoking substrate, the absence of the usual special interest groups, and the vicious hierarchy of the Calvinist churches all militate against using Salem as a representative case of witch-hunting. Yet that is how it is used, both here and elsewhere.

There was no “vicious hierarchy” in Massachusetts churches, which were not Calvinist in the first place (they were Congregational/Independent); Purkiss references the “extreme Calvinism that had led to the establishment of the colonies in the first place”. We assume she means Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies. But the English reformers who went to New England were not “extreme Calvinists”; they had already worked out unique compromises with Calvinism before they ever left England, during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and his son Charles I. That was in 1630—by 1692, even the original Congregationalist platform had been pretty thoroughly undermined and partially demolished by the loss of Massachusetts’ political independence and the resulting influx of non-Congregational populations, as well as the growing Baptist movement in the 1670s, before the loss of the charter.

We go into this timeline in more depth in our article on Stacy Schiff’s new and wildly inaccurate piece of historical fiction The Witches of Salem. It’s a shame that even people making excellent points about the Salem trials don’t know the history well, but we do want to focus here on the many things Purkiss gets right. She points out the ridiculous fantasy that is The Crucible, and laments its hold on both the popular and scholarly imagination. And Purkiss points out that Matthew Hopkins, who took advantage of social turmoil and fear during the English Civil War to execute 300-500 women as witches in just two years, is never mentioned in the current Penguin anthology, and seems to be completely lost to history, while the people involved in the deaths of just 20 men and women in Salem continue to live in infamy.

If you’re interested in the history of human belief in witches, it’s best to study that entire history, not just one incident that has likely become famous simply because it was the only incident of witch-mania in all American/U.S. history. The anomaly always fascinates, but we can’t let it obscure the history.

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Kim Davis, the Supreme Court, and tyranny of the majority

Posted on September 15, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

If you read the HP regularly, you know that in 2008 we ran our first post on gay marriage and the tyranny of the majority. That’s when California legalized gay marriage, and when we heard someone on the radio complain about the role of the California State Supreme Court in making that happen. We explain in the post how the judiciary was specifically created to overturn majority laws/votes that oppress minorities, and therefore court rulings overturning laws against gay marriage are not, as is so often claimed, unconstitutional. Here’s the bulk of the post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over and over we reposted this article as new states approved or disallowed gay marriage. When on June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell et al. v. Hodges that gay marriage is constitutional—or, more pointedly, that denying it is unconstitutional—we happily reposted for the last time on that subject.

Being historians, however, we knew that the backlash would not be long in coming. The clamor for “religious rights” that has grown up suspiciously in synch with the campaign for equal marriage began to claim that upholding gay Americans’ rights was oppressing Christian Americans’ rights. This is based on a fundamental and perhaps willful misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which we post about here. The First Amendment protects freedom of worship, not belief: here’s the gist from our post:

Worship is generally defined as attending a religious service, but it can be extended to prayer, pilgrimage, wearing one’s hair a certain way, and dressing and eating a certain way.

What worship is not defined as is belief. This is the crucial misunderstanding so many Americans have. Worship is an outward manifestation of belief. But it is not belief itself. And that’s why the First Amendment says nothing about religious belief. Absolutely nothing at all. This is what makes separation of church and state possible: religious belief is not allowed to determine what services the state provides. This means people who have certain religious beliefs can’t be refused state services, and it means that people who have certain religious beliefs can’t refuse to provide state services to people their beliefs condemn.

That’s why all these “religious freedom” bills being passed are bogus. They enshrine beliefs as rights (this is nowhere in the Constitution) and then say the First Amendment protects those beliefs by allowing people to refuse to serve others because their religion says to. Beliefs are amorphous. They are not concrete activities like worship. Anyone can have any belief they want, and their right to express those beliefs is protected. But if that expression comes in the form of refusing state or federal government services, then they cross a line by saying the state or federal government must conform to their beliefs.

This is what’s happening when county clerks refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The clerks are saying their right to do so is protected, but it is not. If something is legal in this country, the government must provide it—end of story. If people feel they cannot do that, then they should resign their position (quit their job). You cannot refuse to uphold U.S. law on the basis of your religious beliefs. The First Amendment specifically says this by saying Congress shall establish no religion.

So when Kim Davis and her ilk say their religious rights are being trampled, they are wrong. There’s a right to freedom of worship in the U.S., but not to protection of religious belief.

Yet Davis and her fleet of lawyers and her opportunistic supporters are making the same complaint against the courts that were made throughout the marriage equality campaign: Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in an NPR report that “People are tired of the tyranny of judicial action that takes people’s freedoms away, takes their basic fundamental constitutional rights and puts them in jeopardy.”

Ah, the scourge of “judicial tyranny”. It ruins everything for people who want to oppress others. It seems we will have to keep running our post on the judiciary and its role in stopping tyranny of the majority for as long as people misrepresent and contort the Constitution to serve their goal of restricting liberties, establishing a state religion, and claiming that offering liberty and justice to all is contrary to their Christian beliefs.

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Stop saying “slaves”, “Union”, and “Compromise of 1850”—they’re all inaccurate

Posted on September 11, 2015. Filed under: Civil War, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

We were delighted to find this article on the History News Network: “There are words scholars should no longer use to describe slavery and the Civil War”, by Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. You need to go read it yourself, and not just because it affirms our decision here at the HP to refuse to use the word “slave” (see Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America). It’s important because we all know that terminology is the best weapon in any fight. Are people who oppose abortion anti-choice or pro-life? The first is negative, the second positive. Establishing the labels “right to life” and “pro-life” was the smartest thing anti-abortion advocates ever did, because those subjective labels skewed the public perception of what was being debated and what was at stake.

Labels created today go down in history and do the same thing: they shape how we think about past events. Let’s let Dr. Landis take over from here:

…We no longer call the Civil War “The War Between the States,” nor do we refer to women’s rights activists as “suffragettes,” nor do we call African-Americans “Negroes.” Language has changed before, and I propose that it should change again.

Legal historian Paul Finkelman (Albany Law) has made a compelling case against the label “compromise” to describe the legislative packages that avoided disunion in the antebellum era. …Instead of the “Compromise of 1850,” which implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery, the legislation should be called the “Appeasement of 1850.” Appeasement more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement. In 1849 and 1850, white Southerners in Congress made demands and issued threats concerning the spread and protection of slavery, and, as in 1820 and 1833, Northerners acquiesced: the slave states obtained almost everything they demanded, including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, DC, and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!

Likewise, scholar Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications. These far more accurate and appropriate terms serve his argument well, as he re-examines the role of unfree labor in the rise of the United States as an economic powerhouse and its place in the global economy. In order to tear down old myths, he eschews the old language.

This excerpt reveals how powerful language that has been handed down for hundreds of years can be. Landis also advocates dropping “the Union” because this upholds the Confederate claim that the United States ceased to exist during the Civil War.

There are many words and phrases that were carefully crafted to shape perception that we use unthinkingly today: reservation, the opening of the West, Japanese internment camps, inner city, Gilded Age, carpetbagger, housing projects, robber baron, etc. Some are euphemisms (reservation, opening), some have become joke terms that imply that the people or issue in question a) weren’t that bad and b) don’t matter anymore because they have forever disappeared from our society when they haven’t (Gilded Age, robber baron). Some are vicious insults created by racists frantic at the notion that someone might help black people (carpetbagger). Others originally meant “poor, dangerous black people” and now are utterly meaningless (inner city, housing project). And don’t get us started on the meaningless parasite that “community” has become.

If you read the HP, you know we’re all about truth defeating myth, so we welcome the movement to speak accurately and honestly and fearlessly about our history, and we urge you to make your own changes and take back your history and your present-day reality.

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Stacy Schiff and The Witches of Salem—skip it

Posted on September 8, 2015. Filed under: Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

As readers of the HP know, the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, were an anomaly; as we put it in the first post of our series on the Salem witch trials,

…the Salem event is actually an anomaly in the history of their colony. Here are some points that are often overlooked:

–There was only ever one “witch scare” in the Puritan colonies. For the roughly 60 years that Puritan theology and law dominated New England, only one time were dozens of people persecuted and some executed as witches.

–The scare did not spread. It stayed local to the Salem area, and did not create a prairie fire of persecution across New England.

–It generated almost no positive reaction in New England at the time. It was generally not celebrated as a victory of God over Satan, despite the strenuous efforts of Cotton Mather. It almost seems as if all New England wanted to forget about it as soon as possible.

–The scare itself was set in the midst of violent political upheaval in New England and especially Massachusetts, and cannot be separated from it.

–There is no one single cause we can pinpoint for the scare; just as there is never just one cause for any major event, there were multiple factors leading to murder in Salem.

The research into what really happened in Salem in 1692 and why has been prolific for the past 10 years, as scholars recruit modern science to try to answer some questions.

If you go to that series, you’ll see that we offer an interesting round-up of scholarly theories about why the outbreak of accusations happened and how/why they were allowed to get so out of hand.

Here, we address an article that appeared in the September 7, 2015 New Yorker magazine. We think it’s an article; the author, Stacy Schiff, is a novelist whose novel on the Salem witch trials is due out in October, but the item in question does not seem to be an excerpt from a novel. Instead, it is a queasy mix of fact and fiction whose purpose is very hard to discern. We will give it a shot.

The piece begins with a series of stark fallacies: that in 1692, “the population of New England would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, they had sailed to North America to worship ‘with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were’… On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization from scratch. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence.”

This is astounding; where to begin?

First, by 1692 the population of New England was not majority Puritan; by that time, Massachusetts was at the end of a long process of losing its independence. In 1684, its independent charter had been revoked by the Lords of Trade; the practical outcome of this was that Massachusetts would lose its popularly elected legislation and governor (they would be replaced by royal appointees answerable only to England). Before this could fully take place, James II created the Dominion of New England, which we describe in depth here; suffice it to say that this basically removed local government in each of the affected colonies, threw all land titles into question, and enforced religious toleration.

In 1689, this Dominion was overthrown by local American colonists once they heard that the Glorious Revolution had taken place and removed James II from the throne. Between 1689 and 1692 the colonists were caught in the middle of the new King William III’s wars with France, as northern New England experienced attacks from French Canada that destroyed settlements and sent refugees fleeing south. In 1694, a new royal charter arrived at last in Boston, and the colony had a royally appointed governor and a popularly elected legislature.

That’s a lot of change, and what it adds up to is that by 1692 when the witch trials happened, Massachusetts was light years from the days of its founding generation in the 1630s. Its religious hegemony had been broken, and even within the original Congregational church there were sharp theological debates and a general drift away from traditional Puritan religion. The bar for joining a Congregational church as a full member (taking common) was lowered substantially, and in some churches removed altogether. Non-traditional Congregationalists were a strong minority throughout the colony, and a majority in the capital of Boston. Aside from that, there were growing Baptist and unreformed Anglican populations. Old social rules against things like public drunkenness were abruptly discontinued under the rule of the royally appointed governor.

So by 1692, the old Puritan colony was long-gone. No one felt they were on a providential mission anymore, and people in Boston only became more and more connected with London, enjoying the commerce and fashions and relaxed, luxury-appreciative lifestyle brought over by army officers, rich merchants, and others.

Next, no Puritan even in the 1630s ever thought they were “building a civilization from scratch”; it was the exact opposite. They were building on continental reformed Protestant traditions from Geneva and Holland and elsewhere to bring the Reformation to its logical conclusion, to act it out in a way that was not possible in a non-homogenous population. The Puritan founders hewed to English law and custom—clung to it, really, as a lifeline to the old country in an alien world.

Next, the Puritan founders hardly “defined themselves by what offended them” in America. America was their golden, God-sent opportunity to create a religious and political settlement that was everything they ever wanted, the glorious culmination of continental Reformation. In America, Puritans defined themselves by what they wanted, and what they believed was completely, wonderfully achievable.

Finally, the old, corny stereotype of “gritty” Yankees is laughable, and the idea that there is a straight line from the Massachusetts Bay to American independence has long been thoroughly debunked.

If all these errors are in the second paragraph of a piece that goes on for nine pages, that doesn’t bode well for the innocent reader. We tried to read it but gave up, as the piece veered between topics and people and times as if they were all one, and treated all with that condescending disgust that is so familiar to anyone who studies the Puritans. Clearly Schiff, like most people, sees the Salem massacre as typical of, rather than anomalous to, Puritans. She glides over topics to preserve that point of view: for instance, she goes on about how Puritans absolutely believed in witches (which they did) but elides (or does not know) that accusations of witch craft were a) relatively few, b) thoroughly investigated, c) usually thrown out of court, and d) when they weren’t thrown out, sent back to towns for mediation rather than criminal sentencing. All the reader of Schiff gets is a picture of ignorant, awful people who had no compunction about killing people as witches, perhaps on a daily basis.

She completely misunderstands Increase Mather’s warning to children that they would be horribly punished for disobedience to parents, takes on the putative “voice of the [ignorant] people” by saying things like “By the end of July, it was clear that …the Devil intended to topple the church and subvert the country”, lingers over descriptions of deaths by hanging and one by pressing, and mentions Governor William Phips putting an end to the court without saying that the prod to this action was that his own wife, in Boston, was accused!

It all ends with a lyrical description of Cotton Mather having a home-made bomb thrown through his window… but without any explanation of how 98% of the public were against the trials, this is meaningless.

Rather than allow Schiff to get free advertising for her novel, the New Yorker should have made it clear that this is a hybrid fiction-article piece meant to generate readership before anyone seeking real information on the witch hysteria made the mistake of reading it.

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Vanity Fair, John Winthrop and “a city upon a hill”

Posted on August 18, 2015. Filed under: Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

Aimlessly leafing through the August issue of Vanity Fair, not even we at the HP could have been expecting to see John Winthrop’s name come up, but such is the power of myth.

In an article on the nature of the political debate over the middle class in America, the author (Michael Kinsley) referred to a speech the then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, gave in 1984 in which he lambasted then-President Reagan for ignoring the poor by talking about “two cities”, one rich, one poor. The author said this:

Cuomo’s ‘two cities’ imagery was a poke at Reagan, turning of of his favorite lines against him. In almost every speech he gave, it seemed, Reagan would refer to America as “a shining city upon a hill”, meaning an example for the rest of the world. Reagan got that from the Puritan preacher John Winthrop (though probably not directly). What Winthrop had in mind was a moral example, the but metaphor works on many levels.

Kinsley clearly did not get his information about John Winthrop directly from any historical source, as Winthrop was not a “preacher” at all, but a political leader who was elected many times to be the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony between its founding in 1630 and his death in 1649. It’s a little tricky, perhaps; the line “a city upon a hill” comes from a sermon Winthrop wrote while the Puritans were still on their sea voyage to the New World. The final section of that sermon is the section we set apart and study as the “City upon a Hill” speech.

Why would Winthrop write a sermon if he wasn’t a minister? Because the Puritans held four things very dear: reading the Bible, attending sermons, engaging in conference, and lay prophesying.

Each of these, in that order, was key to opening up one’s soul and consciousness enough to become aware of one’s own salvation (if it existed—but that’s another long story we cover here). The first two are clear; the third, conference, was just  talking with other people who were seeking religious light about what you read in the Bible and what you heard in sermons. The Puritans were extremely social, and their religion was founded on the idea that you must put your heads together—no one person could ever get as far in understanding God’s will as a group could. The Puritans needed and relied on each other for support during the difficult and, in England, the dangerous process of following their religion.

That’s exactly what Winthrop is talking about in the City on a Hill section of his sermon. Go read it here. It is an exhortation to the people to support and love and help each other, to put others first and self last.

So that is what conference meant to the people Winthrop was leading to America, and he was giving a sermon to them as part of conference. One of the striking innovations of the Puritan reform of Anglicanism was that every church got to hire its own minister. In most churches, there is a governing body—bishops, archbishops, pope, whoever it may be—that assigns a minister or priest to a church. The people have no say. But the Puritans said each congregation was independent—no overall, hierarchical governing body could tell it what to do. (That’s why in America they came to call themselves Congregationalists.) If a congregation could not agree on a minister, they went without one until they found one they could agree on. And if there was a shortage of good, reformed ministers, a congregation waited without one until one became available.

In the meantime, the deacons of the congregation preached and did everything the minister would except give communion. That was one of only two sacraments recognized by Puritans, and it had to be done by a minister. Having lay people lead the church was called lay prophesying. It could and did happen even after a minister was found, as members of the congregation were encouraged to share their light during and after church services.

The people crossing the Atlantic had not chosen a minister yet. So they asked their most important lay leader, John Winthrop, to preach them a sermon in the meantime. And he did such a masterful job that it has come down to us through the centuries. Once the people landed in Fall 1630, Winthrop and other lay leaders chose John Wilson to be the teacher of First Church in Boston. (Every Puritan church that could afford to pay them had both a teacher and a minister. Roughly, the minister was the administrative leader of the church who represented the church in meetings with other ministers and with the government; he also visited members of the congregation and gave them spiritual advice. The teacher was the scholar who wrote and preached sermons and published them, as well as other theological works.) Wilson served the church on his own until John Cotton was called as minister in 1632.

So that’s why Winthrop preached a sermon even though he wasn’t a minister. He was engaging in conference with other believers and lay prophesying. To go back to our Vanity Fair article, Winthrop was indeed talking about setting a good example in Massachusetts, but not in the pompous way implied in the article (“a moral example”). He wanted the people to treat each other well so that they would receive God’s blessing, and once they had done this, others would see the blessings that God gave to those who serve him and do the same. But most of all, when Winthrop said “we will be as a city upon a hill” he meant that any failures would be painfully visible to all—he might as well have said “we shall be as a city within a fishbowl”. All previous English colonies in North America had failed (Roanoke) or were failing (Plimoth [too small], Jamestown [small and wretched and chaotic]). The Massachusetts Bay Colony was being watched by all, particularly Spain and France, to see if it too would fail.

The stakes were high all around, then, when Winthrop gave his sermon; it became justly famous for urging people to find their best natures in a situation when people often did their worst. The least we can do is understand who Winthrop was and what he wanted for this new world.

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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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Gay marriage, religious freedom, and the First Amendment

Posted on July 1, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Recent events force us to stop in the middle of our series on what’s in the Bill of Rights to circle back to our post on the First Amendment-–the celebrity amendment. The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality has led to a firestorm of protest from people who say our First Amendment right to religious freedom is being tramped. They are wrong.

Let’s revisit the text of the amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The “free exercise” of religion means freedom to worship. That’s it. Our First Amendment religious right is to worship as we see fit. Since Congress will not “establish” a religion—i.e., make it the official state religion—everyone is free to worship as they wish.

Worship is generally defined as attending a religious service, but it can be extended to prayer, pilgrimage, wearing one’s hair a certain way, and dressing and eating a certain way.

What worship is not defined as is belief. This is the crucial misunderstanding so many Americans have. Worship is an outward manifestation of belief. But it is not belief itself. And that’s why the First Amendment says nothing about religious belief. Absolutely nothing at all. This is what makes separation of church and state possible: religious belief is not allowed to determine what services the state provides. This means people who have certain religious beliefs can’t be refused state services, and it means that people who have certain religious beliefs can’t refuse to provide state services to people their beliefs condemn.

That’s why all these “religious freedom” bills being passed are bogus. They enshrine beliefs as rights (this is nowhere in the Constitution) and then say the First Amendment protects those beliefs by allowing people to refuse to serve others because their religion says to. Beliefs are amorphous. They are not concrete activities like worship. Anyone can have any belief they want, and their right to express those beliefs is protected. But if that expression comes in the form of refusing state or federal government services, then they cross a line by saying the state or federal government must conform to their beliefs.

This is what’s happening when county clerks refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The clerks are saying their right to do so is protected, but it is not. If something is legal in this country, the government must provide it—end of story. If people feel they cannot do that, then they should resign their position (quit their job). You cannot refuse to uphold U.S. law on the basis of your religious beliefs. The First Amendment specifically says this by saying Congress shall establish no religion.

On NPR this morning, Tammy Fitzgerald, Executive Director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, said this:

Religious freedom is what our country was founded upon. That is why the Pilgrims came to America, because they were being persecuted in Europe for their religious beliefs.

Of course she is wrong on both counts. The Pilgrims, as faithful and patient HR readers know, came to America because they wanted the freedom to practice their own religion. This is not the same as freedom of religion. They did not allow any other religion than their own in Plimoth. The Puritans, which is who Ms. Fitzgerald probably was thinking of, did not allow freedom of religion either. Those two groups wanted to establish states where their religion was the sole state religion, and they did not tolerate any other religions. The same was the case in Virginia (strictly Anglican).

The Declaration of Independence does not mention religion one time. The Constitution did not mention it until the First Amendment was added. So it’s hard to say that our country was “founded” on religious freedom.

And, as we know, when the Founders wrote the First Amendment, they protected freedom of worship only, which, as we’ve made clear, is not the same thing as saying “your religious views are allowed to overturn federal law and you can do whatever you want if it’s part of your religion.”

Insisting that states pass laws protecting the right to do whatever people want so long as they say it’s part of their religion is a way to establish a state religion: it makes public access to government services dependent on the religious beliefs of government employees. That is NOT in the First Amendment, and Americans who know this must dedicate themselves to teaching those who don’t.

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Reagan’s Farewell Address, 1989: or, Common Sense

Posted on March 25, 2015. Filed under: Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our close reading of President Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address of January 11, 1989. Here we pick up from where we left off in part 1 with Reagan explaining the “American miracle” that won him the respect, at last, of all those aristocrats at the G7 meeting in Ottawa.

Well, back in 1980, when I was running for President, it was all so different. Some pundits said our programs would result in catastrophe. Our views on foreign affairs would cause war. Our plans for the economy would cause inflation to soar and bring about economic collapse. I even remember one highly respected economist saying, back in 1982, that “The engines of economic growth have shut down here, and they’re likely to stay that way for years to come.” Well, he and the other opinion leaders were wrong. The fact is, what they called “radical” was really “right.” What they called “dangerous” was just “desperately needed.”

—That “highly respected economist” was Lester Thurow, and his complaint was with Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” theory which said that if you cut income taxes and suspend all federal regulation of business, you will get business owners with plenty of cash on hand to expand by any means necessary and voila, you will have more jobs and more output and a booming economy. This enticing idea won many people over to Reagan in 1980 and 81. He advertised it during a 1981 speech with this graph:


With “their bill” the average family’s taxes would skyrocket between 1982 and 1986, while with “our bill” they would drop then flatline. What proof do we have today that unregulated business and banking combined with massive tax cuts for business and banking and the rich did not work? Notice at the top of Reagan’s chart: the average family income is $20,000. Three things come to mind: even in 1980, average family income was much higher than this, at about $48,000; next, no family today could live on $20K a year; and last, it is precisely the poorest families that are paying the highest taxes today. “Our bill” has achieved what “their bill” could only dream of.

But in 1989, Reagan could boldly state that “what they called ‘radical’ was really ‘right’. What they called ‘dangerous’ was just ‘desperately needed.'” Luckily, presidents give their farewell speeches long before the effects of their economic programs have fully played out.

And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.

Common sense told us that when you put a big tax on something, the people will produce less of it. So, we cut the people’s tax rates, and the people produced more than ever before. The economy bloomed like a plant that had been cut back and could now grow quicker and stronger. Our economic program brought about the longest peacetime expansion in our history: real family income up, the poverty rate down, entrepreneurship booming, and an explosion in research and new technology. We’re exporting more than ever because American industry became more competitive and at the same time, we summoned the national will to knock down protectionist walls abroad instead of erecting them at home.

—Reagan is correct in saying that his economic program was not new; Harding and Coolidge both slashed the taxes paid by the wealthy. Harding cut them from 73% to 25% in just two years. Both  men also slashed federal regulation of business and banking. And the 1920s ended in the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression. Reaganomics, as the plan came to be known, was indeed a “rediscovery” of a certain human value—the desire for wealth—over the founding principles of this nation.

Where to start with the second paragraph; “the people” didn’t really have their tax rates cut—that was mostly for the wealthy, and even Reagan actually had to raise taxes in 1982 and 1984 to offset spiraling defense spending. That long “peacetime expansion” was fueled by an enormous increase in Cold War military spending. Family incomes were up but did not keep par with inflation, and we “summoned the national will to knock down protectionist walls abroad” mostly through exploitive (and unregulated) business practices.

Common sense also told us that to preserve the peace, we’d have to become strong again after years of weakness and confusion. So, we rebuilt our defenses, and this New Year we toasted the new peacefulness around the globe. Not only have the superpowers actually begun to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons—and hope for even more progress is bright—but the regional conflicts that rack the globe are also beginning to cease. The Persian Gulf is no longer a war zone. The Soviets are leaving Afghanistan. The Vietnamese are preparing to pull out of Cambodia, and an American-mediated accord will soon send 50,000 Cuban troops home from Angola.

The lesson of all this was, of course, that because we’re a great nation, our challenges seem complex. It will always be this way. But as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours. And something else we learned: Once you begin a great movement, there’s no telling where it will end. We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.

Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and turning away from the ideologies of the past. For them, the great rediscovery of the 1980’s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government is the practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is also the profoundly productive.

—There is nothing more wryly ironic than celebrating a “new peacefulness around the globe” that you brought about by arming yourself to the hilt. It is absolutely true that under Reagan the U.S. did have its first nuclear arms reductions treaties with the Soviet union. No argument there. But that’s why under Reagan we a) boosted our conventional weapons and armed presence around the world and b) started looking toward unconventional nuclear weapons (like the Strategic Defense Initiative dubbed “Star Wars”) that weren’t covered by the SALT agreements.

What the “great movement” is that we began, or what “believing in ourselves” means to Reagan we don’t know. When Americans really believe in themselves, they believe in their founding principles, and realize that bringing peace to the world can and should be achieved by setting an example for real democracy and supporting democracy wherever it is found. To Reagan, in this speech believing in ourselves sounds a lot like believing we have the right to take our status as a military superpower to the next level.

If his statements about countries around the world embracing democracy and capitalism and rejecting “the ideologies of the past” (read socialism and communism) were true, then under Reagan the U.S. would not have been fighting dozens of covert wars against communists and socialists in Asian and Latin American nations throughout his two terms. Many Americans in the 1980s protested U.S. coups and civil wars in foreign nations as the opposite of “the moral way of government” and the opposite of democracy and profound good.

Next time: American history a la Reagan

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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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