Truth v. Myth
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 )
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.
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 )
In honor of the season, we’re re-posting our classic Truth v. Myth post on Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when people take a moment to wonder about the Pilgrims: why were they so cruel to the Indians? The Thanksgiving celebration is marred by this concern. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t be. First, Thanksgiving has only been a holiday since 1863. It’s fitting that President Lincoln instituted this holiday during the Civil War to unite the U.S. in thanks for its blessings even in the midst of that terrible war. Here’s how he put it:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
—Britain and France have refused, in the end, to support the Confederacy, the U.S. itself is still intact and strong, and the U.S. Army and Navy are driving back the enemy.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
—The U.S. economy has not fallen apart for lack of slave-produced cotton, as the South had always predicted it would. Industry and agriculture are stronger than ever and the U.S. continues to expand.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
—God has punished the U.S. with this war for the sin of slavery, but is showing encouraging signs of his support for the U.S. war effort.
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
—While thanking God for his mercies to the U.S. so far, Americans should also offer up prayers asking for his care for all those who have lost someone in the war, and asking for his help in ending the war as quickly as possible.
So the First Thanksgiving was in November 1863 and inaugurated for a good cause. The first thanksgiving in what would become the U.S. was held in November 1621 and was merely the first of many, many days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims and was not celebrated as an annual holiday at all. Let’s go back to the original article to learn the real story:
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 London 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, but 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).
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).
The hype around the Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving only began after 1863, when historians noted the tradition of impromptu thanksgivings in the 1600s and made an unwarranted and improper connection to the new holiday to make it seem less new and more traditionally American. Before then, their many days of thanksgiving and fasting were completely forgotten. The Pilgrims certainly weren’t the inspiration for the holiday we celebrate today—they were retroactively brought into that in the worst, most ironic way: after the Civil War, southerners resented Thanksgiving as a “Union” holiday celebrating U.S. victories in the war and so the focus was changed from fighting slavery to the Pilgrims. It’s bitterly ironic because now people use Thanksgiving as a time to criticize white treatment of Indians when they should be celebrating our nation’s commitment to winning a war to end slavery.
This year, feel free to enjoy this Thanksgiving and share the truth about the Pilgrims and where the holiday really comes from—the depths of a terrible war fought for the greatest of causes. Let Thanksgiving inspire you to stand up for the founding principles of this nation and re-commit to upholding them in your own daily life of good times and bad.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We watched the latest episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., last night, which featured Sting, Deepak Chopra, and Sally Field. It was going along dependably well when the awful specter of ignorance about the Puritans invaded the last segment on Sally Field’s family tree.
Gates revealed that Field is directly descended from William Bradford, the governor of Plimoth Colony and the man who led the Separatists across the Atlantic to America on the Mayflower in 1620. The narration (done by Gates) described Bradford as a Puritan who was imprisoned in 1607 for non-conformity. We shifted a little uncomfortably, since the Pilgrims led by Bradford were not Puritans (who wanted to reform the Church of England) but Separatists (who abandoned the Church of England as a lost cause), and there was a great deal of tension between the two groups in England and outright hostility in New England once the Puritans arrived in 1630. But in 1607 Bradford had not yet separated, so we accepted it.
Field was told that Bradford sailed with other “Puritans” on the Mayflower and still did not recognize Bradford’s name as that of the governor of the colony, the famous Pilgrim who wrote Of Plimoth Plantation, the history of the colony and a crucially important record of early settlement in New England. We held our breaths as Gates’ narration described the voyage over, hoping against hope that he would not repeat the tired error that the Pilgrims intended to settle in Virginia but were blown off course by storms to Massachusetts, but that hope was lost. The myth was repeated (what really happened was that the ship almost capsized crossing a soon-to-be notoriously dangerous stretch of water south of Long Island and turned back, leaving the settlers on what is now Cape Cod).
Even after Gates told Field that her ancestor Bradford was elected governor, she did not make any connection. She had clearly never heard of him and had no idea that he is a famous figure. All of this was disappointing, but the worst finally came here:
GATES VO: UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF SALLY’S ANCESTOR, AND THE WAMPANOAG, THEIR NATIVE AMERICAN NEIGHBORS, THE PILGRIMS FINALLY GAINED A FOOTHOLD IN THEIR NEW HOME.
AND, INCREDIBLY, WE UNEARTHED THE LETTER DESCRIBING A NOW FAMILIAR EVENT THAT TOOK PLACE IN PLYMOUTH IN THE FALL OF 1621.
FIELD: Many of the Indians coming amongst us whom for three days we entertained and feasted. 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.
GATES: And you know what they were describing?
GATES: The very first Thanksgiving.
FIELD: Well there you go. I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. It’s always been a big deal.
GATES: Could you please turn the page? Look at that painting.
FIELD: Oh, yeah.
GATES: Now –
FIELD: Okay are you going to tell me one of those is…
GATES: Historians guess that is William Bradford sitting at the head of the table.
FIELD: He hasn’t changed a bit. (Laughs) You’re telling me he presided over the first Thanksgiving?
The errors in this exchange are glaring. First, the account of what we call the “first Thanksgiving” was not in a letter but in the journal of Edward Winslow, which he published in 1622 as Mourt’s Relation. Winslow wrote what became known as Mourt’s Relation (because it was published in London by a man named Mourt) with Bradford, who seems to have written many of the early entries. But the account of the thanksgiving is not in the first half of the book (it’s about 3/4 of the way through), and seems to be Winslow’s work. Second, it is hardly “incredible” that the researchers for the show “unearthed a copy of the letter” because Mourt’s Relation has been in print for centuries—every New England scholar and every college library has a copy. What is incredible is that they pan over a photo of a contemporary edition of Mourt’s Relation that has the chapter title “A letter sent from New England to a friend in these parts…”, which was the literary device used to frame the stories from Winslow’s journal. One expects a professional historian like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to know this—or at least have it fact-checked. Third, this was not the “first Thanksgiving” but the first thanksgiving the Pilgrims had in America. As we explain in our post Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving,
People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year—we have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came up often, 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. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way.
Fourth, and most unbelievably, Gates shows Field a 19th-century painting of the First Thanksgiving and treats it like a historical artifact by saying “Historians guess that is William Bradford sitting at the head of the table.” Of course it is, because it was painted by a 19th-century artist who put him there! As if the 90 Indians and roughly as many colonists all sat at one table “presided over” by Bradford. It is the well-known painting of one long table inexplicably placed in the middle of an empty field with 12-20 very white Pilgrims around it, bowing their heads as they hear grace, and a mother rocks an infant in a cradle (inexplicably brought out to the empty field) and holds her toddler by the hand. No Indians are present. This is the item presented by Gates as a historical artifact depicting the first day of thanksgiving celebrated by the Puritans in North America.
That’s a lot to get wrong. Sadly, shows like this only misinform the American people, if the comments one viewer left on the PBS website for the episode are representative:
I had some uncomfortable feelings hearing the excerpt from a letter written by Sally Field’s distant relative, William Bradford in 1621 describing the feast in such a feel-good manner. Yes, the Pilgrims were praising God because they were finally “so far from want,” but in a 1623 sermon delivered by Mather the Elder, they were thanking God for the gift of smallpox that wiped out the majority of Wampanoag Indians, “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth.” I know the purpose of this episode wasn’t to uncover the “truth” of Thanksgiving but I believe having this awareness will deepen our understanding of how much we of European descent have benefited at the expense of the indigenous New World inhabitants.
You can’t blame the viewer for having these views when this is the quality of information at hand. First, as we said, the account was not in a letter and was not written by Bradford in 1621. Second, and much worse, is that the “Mather the elder sermon” is a complete hoax. Richard Mather (the “elder”) was the patriarch of the family that gave us his son Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather. Richard Mather was a Puritan who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, not Plimoth, in 1635. He was not there in 1623. No one named Mather was in Plimoth in 1623. An intrepid independent scholar has a long account of the scam here. Long story short, the quote about young men and children is borrowed from Puritan “historian” Edward Johnson’s 1653 book The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New England, a subjective and lionizing history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Here’s the text from Johnson:
Their Disease being a sore Consumption sweeping away whole Families but chiefly yong Men and Children the very seeds of increase. …Howling and much lamentation was heard among the living who being possest with great fear oftimes left their dead unburied their manner being such that they remove their habitations at death of any. …by this means Christ whose great and glorious works the Earth throughout are altogether for the benefit of his Churches and chosen not only made room for his people to plant but also tamed the hard and cruel hearts of these barbarous Indians…
Interestingly, Johnson says he will not talk about the Pilgrims’ relationship with the Wampanoags “particularly being prevented by the honoured Mr Winslow who was an eye witness of the work.” Edward Winslow did not want the unreliable Johnson describing Plimoth because he knew Johnson would depict the Pilgrims there as Indian-haters when they weren’t.
The scam aside, yes the Pilgrims saw smallpox as God’s work, but they didn’t really celebrate it. God constantly struck people down—including Pilgrims. Pilgrims died of infectious diseases, their babies, children, and young men died from disease and accident, often in ways that severely tested their parents’ faith in God. Why did God strike down the young? Why did God torment his most faithful followers by striking down their children? The answer was always that it was part of God’s mysterious plan that no one could understand and everyone had to accept as eventually bringing about a greater good. They often used 17th-century English and called God’s will “God’s pleasure”, but this does not mean that it made God happy to kill people, even Indians. It meant that God fulfilled his will (acted at his pleasure). Johnson says the Indians’ deaths were caused by God (Christ) to make the land safe for pure churches. This had to be done, no matter how horrible it might be or how much howling and lamentation it caused. Unlike Johnson, when the Pilgrims or even other Puritans described Indian deaths from smallpox, they usually did not exult about savages dying; they saw God’s mighty will revealed through the deaths and moved on, hoping their own deaths would not eventually be necessary to further God’s plan.
It would have been nearly impossible for anyone in the 17th century—Wampanoag, Englishman, Egyptian, Japanese—to think outside the clannish box of us v. them and feel pity for people so obviously struck down by God. Humans, like all animals, are clannish; our first and strongest identity is being part of one group as opposed to other groups. It has taken centuries since the Enlightenment for humans to at least pay lip-service to the idea that all men are created equal and all are deserving of equal justice, that, as the bumper sticker says, “God bless the whole world—no exceptions”. So if an English settler in 1623 saw God’s providential hand in Indian deaths, that does not reveal and confirm the Pilgrims to be terrible racists. It confirms them as 17th-century human beings along the same lines as Indians, Asians, Africans, and everyone else who celebrated their enemies’ deaths in battle, sacked cities killing women and children, enslaved rival groups, etc. It is taking us a long time to change our ways.
And so we leave Finding Your Roots with heavy hearts and grave concerns about Americans ever learning their real history. Who will kickstart-fund the HP’s own TV series??Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 5 so far )
Hello and welcome to part 2 of our short, indeed two-part series on the History Channel’s new series The World Wars. In the first part of our mini-series, we looked at the shortcomings of both “great man theory” history and misogyny. Here, we focus on a main theme of Episode 1 that we can’t quite live with: the radicalization theory.
We are told repeatedly that Hitler was radicalized by his experiences serving as a private in WWI. The same claim is made about Mussolini, but not as often, as he only makes two brief appearances. Both men, but especially Hitler, saw brutality, random violence, pointless and awful death, and other horrors of war, and then Hitler had to suffer through his country’s defeat and surrender (or, as he saw it, its sure victory and inexplicable surrender). All this changed him from an anonymous putz to a demonic fascist.
The problem with this is twofold: first, millions of soldiers had the same experience of the horrors of war but did not turn into monsters; and second, war horror is not a logical explanation for what Hitler became and did. Many men wrote about their horrible experiences in the war afterward. They all suffered in the same way Hitler did. Many of them questioned the social and political status quo, and gave up on religion. But they did not all become fascists overthrowing governments and using murder to establish power. So to repeatedly show Hitler taking in the horrors of war is not adequate as an explanation of his evil. There was something about Hitler’s mind and character that allowed him to drift into fascism, and while that something was present before the war, it really flowered after the war.
The best part of Episode 1, which is really well done, is the sequence after the war showing Hitler begging for work from the army and being sent to monitor a podunk political leftist group, mostly just to get him out of the army’s hair, and sitting there at the meetings, defensive and wary, until he begins to be drawn in, correcting the speakers’ arguments and becoming a leader. The response of the men at the meetings is very natural: here is a man who wants to stand up for Germany and assert its virtues and innocence of war guilt at a time when the whole world is making Germany a pariah among nations. Here is a man who has patriotism and confidence—two things that were very scarce in Germany after WWI—who makes us feel good about our own personal participation in the war and status as war veterans. He’s not suggesting holocaust at this point. He’s just asserting the right of Germans to be proud of being German. At that point, that was a radical but not morally repellent stance. It’s clear that Hitler progressed from this neutral status to his warped plans for a bigger and better Germany that involved the goals of patriotism driven to an illogical extreme of imperial conquest and genocide.
What shaped Hitler was not so much the war as its aftermath. If he had been selling fascism in the trenches he would have been rejected. But in the 1920s, there were men and women who were ready for radical ideas, and willing to be radicalized, as a sort of wild pendulum swing from overwhelming shame to unthinking pride, and all of it based on national identity turned into racial identity. Hitler was not interested in fascism in the trenches, and not even thinking about it when he first attended the political meetings. But he got the idea from the times after the war, and then his personal chemistry and mindset allowed him to take it to undreamed-of levels.
So we’re not buying the idea that The World Wars episode 1 so consistently urges on us, that it was war that made Hitler. It was peace: Hitler was radicalized by a peace he could not accept. If the war made Hitler, it should have made tens of thousands of Hitlers, all over the world, in England and France and the U.S., and perhaps Belgium in particular. Fascism should have swept the world and become the dominant form of government. There should never have been a WWII. Japan was on the Allied side in WWI, experienced no fighting on Japanese soil, suffered few causalities, and should therefore have been safe from fascism after the war. But that was not the case. The fascism that characterized the 1920s and 1930s was a force many decades in the making that was set free to grow in the despair and political chaos and opportunism of the postwar period.
We end our analysis of The World Wars here; we can’t hang on for two more episodes. But if you watch them, let us know. Send a comment and tell us what happened. We’re indebted to an HP reader for recommending we watch Episode 1. (The History Channel is not really on our radar, as it is rarely devoted to history.) We’d love to find out that the series improves, but we’ll leave it to you to let us know.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The History Channel has a new three-part series on called The World Wars. Its premise is that if you follow the individual lives of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, MacArthur, and Patton, you will get a complete understanding of WWI and WWII and all the tragedy they entail. The “great man” theory of history has been debunked for a few decades now; the idea that events affecting and relying on the participation of thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of people are entirely created, shaped, led, and even dictated by the desires and actions of one man, or maybe two men (opposing each other), has obvious logical flaws. Most modern historians have proved that to understand anything you have to research the lives of the average people who made it happen, whether they were carrying out the will of the leader or following their own interpretation of what the leader wanted; obeying God, family, or both; out for their own benefit; acting out of confusion or fear; conflicted, dedicated, etc. “Great men” are the products of their society, and it’s a two-way street of influence.
But The World Wars is about Great Men, and a viewing of Episode 1 shows us that that is likely because the History Channel itself is about Great Men. Watching the ads for other HC shows was telling. They are all about men: Mountain Men, American Restoration, Top Gear (about cars), The Hunt, Big Rig Bounty Hunters, American Pickers, Vikings, Ax Men, Counting Cars (about cars). In each show, a few rugged men have some sort of expertise—in cars, logging, hunting, survivalism, etc.—that they pursue in isolation, from the forest wilderness to the cab of a truck to a hot rod garage. We did not see a single woman in any ad for these HC shows. Women are not needed. When only men exist, all men are great. (We did, however, see women in the endless beer and liquor ads, tramped out in the usual beer-ad ways.)
It’s no accident, then, that there are no women in The World Wars, Episode 1. Not only are there no women with speaking parts, there are actually no women at all. The only time you sort of see a woman is in a bar where Churchill is shown talking with other men, and a literally shadowy figure of a woman is also at the bar, so blurred out that you can’t see her face. Women clearly do not exist in the world of the History Channel, where men do everything that matters and only men are affected by the events caused and led by men.
The other failings of the series’ focus on Great Men are aptly described elsewhere. Here we want to focus on some specifics, the little details that are red flags that the truth is not really being told.
1. There are generalizations made that would be hilarious if they weren’t so awful. For example, WWI is described the greatest tragedy of the century in many ways, and “it all started in the slums of Vienna.” We zoom in through a window to see a young Hitler doggedly painting a second-rate landscape. Yes: the claim is made that World War I all started with Hitler. If Hitler had not been born, WWI would not have happened. The mind rebels at this sort of wild idiocy, and we’re pretty sure that if anyone had bothered to proof/edit the screenplay they would have caught this ridiculous sentence and changed it. But no one did, and rhetoric, combined with a burning desire to deliver the Great Man theory, won the day.
2. Another gross generalization is that Pancho Villa’s attack on a U.S. train in 1916 left us “no choice but to declare war”. When is a nation ever left with “no choice” other than war? Worse, the U.S. never declared war on Mexico in 1916. The most rudimentary review of the facts shows that the U.S. began a limited campaign with one Army unit against Pancho Villa led by General John Pershing. It lasted nine months and failed to capture Villa. It was called off when the U.S. entered WWI in 1917.
3. But because the expedition is called a war, it has to have a war hero, and that is George S. Patton, who served under Pershing on the Villa expedition. He is The World Wars’ Aragorn. Patton is presented as a handsome, brave, super-hero type who never wears a helmet on the Western Front and likes to stare mystically into the distance. They show him strapping a machine gun to a jeep in order to chase Villa, and much is made of this incredible technical innovation. Newspaper headlines are shown talking about the “huge success” of Patton’s mechanized raid on Villa and his men, and the episode repeats this language of absolute victory—and then we see another headline that says “Three Mexicans killed”. So Patton’s huge victory killed three men, none of them Villa. That seems less inspiring.
But we are not allowed to criticize Patton. His interest in tanks is central, because in the end, he is just another Top Gear or Big Rig driver, a guy who loves pimping out big vehicles. Patton is given full credit for “transforming” tanks from their original clunky design, but he did no such thing. He visited the European factories that were revamping the tanks, and ordered some for the U.S. That’s it. But the show even has speakers come on to say Patton is entirely responsible for the update. This crosses the line to outright lying, and is more than a red flag.
—We have to interrupt our Patton analysis here to talk more about these speakers on the show. They are not fully identified. You see a name and a title: “John Smith, Historian”. The usual data in a lower-third identification is name, title, and affiliation: “John Smith, Professor of 20th century Military History, West Point Academy”. Speakers are brought in to documentaries to give them credibility. If we see that John Smith has a degree in military history, we believe what he says. But none of the speakers here are revealed to have specific knowledge of the fields they are discussing. We are historians here at the HP, but none of us are specialists in military history. Yet we could have appeared on this show as “The HP, Historian” and said anything we wanted. Some speakers are just identified as authors (“John X, Churchill Biographer”). There are also many politicians and American military officers who are given equal authority with the historians in accordance with the current belief that if you served in the military you are an expert on all military history.
4. Needless to say, there are no female speakers on the show. Women do not exist.
Back to Patton. He is constantly shown crouching on the back of one of “his” tanks in battle with no helmet—he’s too brave. This is reinforced in a scene that actually provoked outright laughter later on: the war is over, and he is training cadets on a firing range. He stands between two targets and tells the men to fire. The bullets fly past him on both sides, but he never flinches. This was inspiring when it was Elrond at the first battle of Barad-Dur. When it is Patton, it is beyond ridiculous. If someone out there can prove to us that Patton stood in the line of fire of raw cadets just learning to shoot at a target just because he was so awesome, please send us that proof.
5. General Douglas MacArthur is presented as a great hero. This was the man who on his own authority gave the order to fire on unarmed WWI veterans in 1932 in Washington, DC, who were peacefully protesting the government’s decision to refuse to pay them the bonus money they had been promised for their service in the war. MacArthur charged the men, women, and children with cavalry and infantry, and used teargas on them. He then set fire to the buildings they were living in, forcing those who had taken shelter there to flee into the attack. When President Hoover ordered MacArthur to stop the attack, he refused. Then when Americans were outraged, MacArthur claimed Hoover never told him to stop. This is the description of a war criminal. But in The World Wars, he is just another Great Man with a vision and guts and bravery and a commitment to his own vision that blots out everything and everyone else, like any hero.
6. The episode makes it seem like Wilson declared war the day after receiving the Zimmerman telegram. There was actually a three-month gap between the two events.
7. This is small, but we began to wonder why all the newspaper headlines the episode uses are from minor papers: Ogden City, Utah; El Paso, Texas; small towns in North Dakota and Louisiana. It’s not like these are not valid papers, but it is more common to see the New York Times, the LA Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, etc. We wonder if they couldn’t get the rights somehow.
These are the red flags. These are the details and major themes that are simply historically inaccurate, and these are the signs that a show is more dedicated to its thesis than the truth, and willing to bend or ignore historical fact whenever necessary to protect and promote its thesis.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We notice, as historians, that certain popular stories about historical figures are repeated in textbooks and other learning material even though they are untrue. The most glaring example we can think of at the moment is not from American history, but it’s illustrative: almost any resource you read will say that when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, he renounced the Catholic Church and became a Protestant, and this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England.
We are exposed to this story frequently as scholars of the English Puritans. The truth is that Henry remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life, persecuted Protestants, and rejected the Reformation. What really happened was that Henry made himself the head of the Catholic Church in England (not the head of a new Protestant Church), putting himself in place of the Pope. The English monarch was now the head of the Catholic Church in England, and this is why it was so dangerous to be a Protestant during Henry’s reign—to reject Catholicism was not just a religious act but a political one. It was to reject the authority of the king, and as such Protestantism was treason, and punishable not just by excommunication but by death.
Protestants would labor in secret during Henry’s reign to sway the Church of England toward Reformation, and under Henry’s successor Edward VI, who actually was a Protestant, and a fanatical one, the C of E did become Protestant. But under his successor, Mary I, a fanatical Catholic, the C of E returned to the authority of the Pope, and Protestants were notoriously persecuted. Mary’s successor Elizabeth I maintained a middle ground, making the English Church the mix of Catholic and Protestant practice that it remains today, and after the brief experiment of Puritan rule under Cromwell, the Anglican Church was set to remain a Protestant sect with many lingering Catholic elements.
But all that is less clear-cut and dramatic than saying Henry VIII was mad at the Pope and so he became a Protestant. It’s also easy to blur things unintentionally, as the BBC website does when it says “His break with the papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the Reformation.” Yes, the break with Rome gave English Protestants hopes that the Catholic Church in England would be reformed, and paved the way for Henry’s son Edward to receive a humanist, Protestant education (carefully hidden from Henry), and for Elizabeth to one day enact a gentle shift to middle-ground Protestantism that would be challenged once more during the English Civil War but restored under Charles II and, after one last threat from James II, securely established… but that long string of events stretching from the 1534 to 1688 is not the story you get from the line “Henry began the Protestant Reformation.” Most resources sum up the long story as “Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church to get a divorce.”
So a general consensus is built by people who have not devoted time to studying the English Reformation that Henry was a Protestant. This view becomes so well-known that it is repeated in many venues, including history materials meant to teach students about English history. That’s the problem with an uninformed consensus—it creates stories so well-known that when you point out that a story is wrong, you are the one who seems crazy. As editors of history materials, we know that when we correct items like Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, or Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for being a woman, or the Pilgrims left Holland for America because their children were turning Dutch, we often get flack. Does it really matter? we are asked, by educators. Isn’t the general gist correct?
We insist that it does matter. It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass. Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today. Unfortunately, the double standard seems to say that accurately describing what landmark Supreme Court decisions made possible in the United States is less important than getting all the plot twists of Game of Thrones down right on a fan site.
The power of the erroneous consensus is most evident on Wikipedia; many historians have told their stories of trying to correct common-knowledge errors on the site and being reprimanded or banned for their efforts because Wikipedia honors consensus over fact: if a thousand people say the Pilgrims were Puritans, that’s what Wikipedia will go with, even though it’s wrong. 1001 people have to say they were Separatists for them to allow their entry on the founders of Plimoth Plantation to be corrected. Ironically for our argument here, the Wikipedia entry for Henry VIII is completely accurate: “Besides his six marriages, Henry VIII is known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry’s struggles with Rome led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and his own establishment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Yet he remained a believer in core Catholic theological teachings, even after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.” Somehow the truth has been allowed to stand on the site, and we hope our article here won’t mess with that. But too often, resources beyond Wikipedia—would-be educational materials—follow its policy of accepting common knowledge and, what’s worse, resisting correction when its fallacy is pointed out to them, as the dictatorship of consensus makes its power felt.
It’s hard to know when you are not being told the truth; all we can recommend is that the next time someone on TV is telling you what the Second Amendment ensures, or what Lincoln thought about civil rights, or what the Boston Tea Party was about, take the time to find a reputable book by a scholarly author and read it. Then read a few more. You will most likely get to the truth, and find that you are actually willing to spend that much time studying the history of your country, your own history, because it’s interesting and because it explains the world you inherited and because the truth, as they say, has this uncanny ability to set you free.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Often one hears Americans on the news saying that the Second Amendment is necessary to us today because we may need to take up arms against an oppressive government in the 21st century, just as we did in 1775, and that those who anticipate doing so in the near future share the motivations of Americans during the Revolutionary War. Our thoughts on the Amendment can be found here; in this post, we will spell out why our situation in this century is not at all like that on the eve of Revolution in the 18th century, although we have the feeling this should be obvious without our intervention.
—During the Revolution, we fought a foreign government and a foreign occupation.
This is the key item to note. Granted, we overstate a little, so let’s go through it and be clear. The American colonies generally had popularly elected legislatures and royally appointed governors, so laws in the colonies came from two very different sources: representatives of the American people, and representatives of the British crown. Our experience of law was mixed. Legislatures generally made life difficult for governors who betrayed the people’s interests, especially in the realm of taxation, and so the influence of royal governors, who technically reported to no one but the king, was limited. Until, that is, the 1760s, post-French and Indian War, when London began direct rule of its colonies in North America. Parliament passed Acts (Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Tea Act, Coercive Acts) which were to be enforced without any input from legislatures. Indeed, even the governors were bypassed eventually as British soldiers were sent to America to make sure Acts were enforced. Americans who disobeyed Acts were to be sent to London for trial. This is the key moment, in the 1760s, when long-standing doubts about how much the American colonies owed to Britain were crystallized for many into clear convictions that London and Parliament did not consider Americans to be British citizens and did not grant them the rights of citizens, and were thus, through these Acts, imposing a foreign government on the American colonies. By refusing to allow American representatives in Parliament, the British government was confirming this. By sending troops to maintain order, the British government was occupying lands it believed to be hostile possessions; Americans were alien combatants.
It’s very clear that we are not remotely in that position today. Any Americans who oppose the government and/or its actions (taxation, immigration, welfare) are opposing their own government, popularly elected by their fellow Americans and even, perhaps, by they themselves. We don’t need to resort to arms to oppose our government because soldiers from another country are not in our streets and homes enforcing foreign laws. We resort to the voting booth, the referendum, and the ratification process to change or oppose our government. U.S. citizens today have rights that their government enforces and upholds—and if it doesn’t, we work through the courts and the political bodies to make it do so.
—Americans during the Revolution did not fight on their own.
They fought in their locally organized militias, which joined the Continental Army led by George Washington. They fought in the army, not as a vigilante group. Individual citizens submitted themselves and their guns to a government-authorized national army. That’s hardly what people today are picturing when they say they need guns to fight the government if it becomes oppressive. In 1775, Americans were fighting a formal war against a formal army. They weren’t sitting in their homes waiting for someone to challenge them and get blown away.
—Americans during the Revolution were fighting to keep their government alive.
Americans who fought in the Revolution were hoping to see the new government, represented by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, firmly and officially established as the government of their nation. They were not fighting to get rid of government, as so many Second Amendment fans seem to want to do today. They knew that the nation needed a strong government (though not necessarily fully centralized) to survive, and their aim was to make sure that government was fair once it was established—that’s why the Constitution was ratified by popularly elected officials, and why even common people clamored for a Bill of Rights to be added to it. Americans in the 1770s were fighting for government, not against it. They did not believe that armed individuals were a proper substitute for state and federal government.
So we have three good distinctions to draw between ourselves and our ancestors, and hopefully we can put this ridiculous argument to rest. We no longer have to use guns to maintain our freedoms; we have to use our rights as citizens to vote and participate in government to maintain our freedoms.
But what if our government becomes perverted and undemocratic, people ask? What if our political system fails? Then we’ll have to use force to protect ourselves.
it seems clear that the only way this could happen is if the American people fail in their participatory duty as citizens, so we are back to our original argument, which is that as long as we do our duty, the government we elect can never fail to be what we want it to be. It’s only by withdrawing from participation in our democracy that we lose it, and by looking for reasons to rise up in arms that we threaten ourselves with that dire possibility.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
We just finished our long series on the flaws in Oliver Stone’s new TV series “The Untold History of the United States”, and now we found an article on a speech by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan that calls for the same analysis. We are grateful to Politifact Wisconsin for the article and for providing the analysis, which we need only sum up here.
Here is Politifact’s report of what Ryan said the following in an April 11 speech to a group that works to elect anti-abortion women to political office:
“Our forebears knew to strive for perfection, not to expect it—because mankind is flawed. Progress takes time. It takes work. And it takes common sense… Take Lincoln. He hated slavery as much as anyone. But he defended a law that preserved it. He supported the Compromise of 1850, which prohibited slavery in California but allowed it in New Mexico. He even backed a law to return runaway slaves to their owners.” Lincoln agreed to compromises, Ryan asserted, “if they brought him closer to his goal–even in just a small way. We all know what happened. After years of turmoil, he helped pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery for good.”
Politifact Wisconsin actually asked eight experts on Lincoln to evaluate Ryan’s statement. What they found was that, like Stone’s series, Ryan’s statements are partially true, but twist facts just past the breaking point of accuracy. We’ll let Politifact do the talking here:
“While Ryan said Lincoln ‘supported’ the Compromise in 1850, Lincoln was actually semi-retired from politics at the time, having left Congress a year earlier (he wasn’t elected president until 1860). At the time of the compromise Lincoln did not express support for it, according to several experts, including Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White Jr., Michael Burlingame, a Lincoln scholar at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and Columbia University historian Eric Foner. As president, Lincoln did agree to a proposal that would have admitted New Mexico as a state, said Lincoln biographer James McPherson. So in that sense, he could be said to have supported the Compromise of 1850, in that New Mexico had opted to approve a slave code. On the other hand, McPherson said, no slaves were counted in New Mexico in the 1860 census, which indicates slavery had not taken hold there.
“Similarly, Lincoln as president held that the federal government needed to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act, mandating for the return of runaway slaves, given that it was the law of the land. But, McPherson noted, Lincoln wanted legislation to give alleged fugitive slaves a trial before they could be returned. ‘He did feel there was no choice but to defend the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act once it became law, and even said so in his first inaugural address—but here some context is needed, too,; said Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. ‘He refused to oppose so-called ‘personal liberty laws’ that were passed by northern states to justify disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act. So, in sum, Lincoln always opposed slavery,’ said James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. ‘But he also held, privately and out loud, that federal law must be obeyed.'”
Politifact sums up by saying “Ryan’s statement is partially accurate, but leaves out important details. That fits our definition for Half True.”
Unfortunately, this is too often the case when public figures and average people decide to use history to support their positions: they pick up a few facts and string them together in the way that best suits their purposes, either deliberately or accidentally. In the case of the former, they know what they are leaving out or distorting. In the case of the latter, they do not. But either way the result is negative.
In this case, the idea that Representative Ryan would seek to inspire anti-abortion partisans to work with pro-life activists if necessary to achieve their goal of banning abortion by claiming that Lincoln worked with pro-slaveryites to achieve an ultimate goal of abolition is beyond odd. It equates pro-life supporters with people who supported slavery. It makes the case that no group is too repugnant to secretly use to achieve your goals. It condones hypocrisy. It recommends lying to achieve your goals by pretending to work with people you plan to destroy. It drags Lincoln’s name through the mud by claiming he operated in these ways. And it implies that Ryan himself operates in these ways.
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