What History is For

The Republican National Convention, Cleveland 2016 (and Charleston 1860)

Posted on July 18, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

As we write this, our fifth entry in our series on the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, the Republican National Convention is just beginning in Cleveland. And so we turn to May 1860, and the Democratic National Convention that fell apart in Charleston, SC that month over sectionalism.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

The 2016 Republican convention has just begun, so we cannot compare it fully to the 1860 Democratic convention, but the anticipation that there will be some measure of delegate revolt against Donald Trump at the Republican convention this week, and perhaps a real fight to ensure his official nomination as many Republicans skip the convention, and some delegates lobby for the right to set aside the commitment they made during the primaries to vote for Trump, and others predict that a last-minute alternative candidate will be presented during the convention all lead us to think of the collapse of the 1860 Democratic convention.

It could be that none of the things we describe will happen this week, and the Trump nomination will be seamless. But let’s take a look at what can happen when a convention is torn apart by sectionalism.

In 1860, the Democratic party was perilously divided between proslaveryites and antislaveryites. The Whig party had already dissolved over the issue, as slavery divided its members and made compromise on that or any other issue impossible. Now the Democratic party faced the same threat: could it unite behind a candidate to run against the new Republican party? Stephen Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that destroyed the Compromise of 1850 by allowing people in any territory, regardless of geography, to vote on whether they would enter the Union as a free or a slave state, was the presumptive nominee going into Charleston.

But Southern proslaveryites were not satisfied with Douglas, because to get re-elected in free Illinois in 1858, Douglas had had to backtrack on the KNA that free Illinoisans hated by coming out against the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court stated that not only were black Americans not U.S. citizens, but they never could be, and slavery could never be abolished by the U.S. judicial or legislative systems.

At the Charleston convention, U.S. Rep. William Yancey of Alabama, a violent proslaveryite, led a protest of the Douglas candidacy by representatives of seven deep-South states who formed a caucus within the party that re-wrote the Democratic presidential platform to be aggressively pro-slavery. They knew Douglas could not accept the nomination on those terms.

The rest of the delegates went on with the nomination process, but they could not reach the necessary two-thirds majority for Douglas, in part because the party chairman Caleb Cushing insisted that the proslavery caucus that had withdrawn from the convention had to be counted. Without those delegates, Douglas could not get a two-thirds majority of all delegates. On May 3, the convention was dissolved, and rescheduled to try again in Baltimore, MD, six weeks later.

In the end, the Democratic party could not recover from the divide driven into it by slavery. 110 proslavery delegates walked out of Baltimore. The remaining moderates nominated Douglas, while the fire-eaters who left created their own “Southern Democratic” party and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. (Adding to the chaos was one more candidate: former Whigs created the Constitutional Union party and nominated John Bell; their only platform was to keep the Union together in the face of civil war over slavery.)

On May 4, the day after the Charleston convention folded, the New York Times featured a bitter editorial:

The Charleston Convention has abandoned the attempt to nominate a Democratic candidate for the presidency. …The contest between the two sections of the Union has at last penetrated the Democratic party and rendered it impossible for the two wings to agree upon a declaration of principles. When the majority adopted its platform the minority seceded. Thereupon the delegates who remained, and constituted the rightful Convention, resolved that a vote of two thirds, not of the actual body, but of the whole original number, should be essential to a nomination. In other words, the seceders were still to be counted, and to have all their original weight as members of the Convention! Upon what ground of reason or of common sense the majority, and especially the delegates from this State, thus put themselves bound hand and foot into the power of the seceding minority, it is not easy to conjecture. The result was to give the South the victory. They have controlled the Convention, and prevented the nomination of any candidate. Whether on reassembling at Baltimore they will harmonize their differences remains to be seen.

The disruption itself is a fact of very  marked importance, not only in the history of political parties but in of the country itself. It seems to sever the last link of nationality in the political affairs of the Union. When all other organizations have been gradually giving way, one after another, to the pressure of sectionalism, timid and conservative men have fallen back upon the national position of the Democratic Party, and felt that so long as this was maintained the Union would be secure. The first effect of this Charleston split will be to alarm this class by the dread of immediate dissolution.

Some of the Republican journals refer to this incident as only another proof of the “irrepressible conflict” between Freedom and Slavery—and as showing that the contest must go on until one or the other is extirpated. If we believed this to be the true view of the question, we too should despair of the Union. But we do not. We do not believe that the conflict is between Slavery and Freedom… we regard the struggle as one for political power—and Slavery as playing merely a secondary and subordinate part on either side. Unquestionably, thousands of Northern men seek the overthrow of Slavery, and thousands of Southern men seek its permanence and extension, as the aim of their political contests.But both would be disappointed. Neither class would reap the advantage which it anticipates from victory.

…The South believes sincerely that the North seeks power in order to crush Slavery. In our opinion it denounces Slavery mainly that it may acquire power.

The editorial goes on to say that power is unstoppably passing from South to North and the South needs to accept the new order since the North has no intention of abolishing slavery in the South (only in the territories). This power shift is only fair, the editorial claims, since the South has had all the power in Washington for too long, and now it’s the North’s turn. That’s the gist of the article—that the slavery issue is just a tool Northerners can use to restore an equitable balance of power in the nation.

This editorial is remarkable in many ways. Its description of Americans clinging to the hope of party unity in the face of mounting irreconcilable differences in society and politics rings true to us today, as we see desperate attempts to unify the Republican party behind a candidate who does not represent most Republican principles, and as we see Democrats desperately trying to unite the party behind Clinton after the excitement and revolutionary flavor of Sanders’ campaign. We must have party unity at all costs in our divided nation, or the last traditional political big tents will be gone, and with them the last vestiges of people with different opinions being able to find common ground and work together nationally.

The claim of the editorialist that slavery really has nothing to do with the battle between North and South is an intelligent insight that is almost correct. He is saying that people who want power will ride any bandwagon to get it, and that if slavery is the issue that you can use to gain power, people will use it even if they could not care less about slavery itself. Politicians can rise to power by taking a stand on slavery and making slavery the top issue—all while never doing anything to actually impact slavery by abolishing or expanding it. That’s what the writer means when he says stopping or extending slavery is merely “the aim of their political contests”, and that both sides would be disappointed if they won the battle, because if the battle ended there would be no way to ride to power anymore.

This is certainly true. We see politicians today taking strong stands on social issues simply because this will make them well-known and get them elected. The many instances of “family values”, “Christian values” candidates who have been found having affairs with women or with men, or being involved in corruption, or simply changing sides to join the family and Christian values vanguard when it became powerful enough to benefit them make this clear. If, for example, the right to abortion was suddenly no longer challenged, many politicians would no longer have a political identity and would have to find another divisive issue pronto on which to make their name.

But the editorialist is wrong in another sense. Slavery was really an issue and the breakup of the Democratic party was really caused by slavery and the breakup of the Union and the war that came were really about slavery. The editorialist will not admit that people actually cared about slavery because if he does, he must admit that war is coming, and he does not want to do that. The only way breaking up the 1860 convention could give the seceders power was if they knew that their constituents cared enough about slavery to support them walking out of the Charleston convention, and cared enough about slavery to split the party in an election year.

Those constituents cared about slavery as a political issue because they cared about it personally—as something within their society every day. They supported slavery, for a variety of reasons. Yes it’s true that the strong majority of Southerners did not enslave people. But that doesn’t mean they did not support slavery, as the basis of their economy, as a regional tradition, as a way to reserve political power to whites, etc. To say that slavery was just a word politicians used was wrong.

And the same is true today. Many people cling to the notion that America is not really divided, that politicians are just sowing division as a concept they can trade on. This was originally the case, when neo-conservatives began to sow that division in the late 1970s. By now, 40 years later, the division is real. It is flowering and bearing seed in every state as people who have been told for decades that the federal government is their enemy and that it should be overthrown take their chance to do so.

We can’t say what will happen this week in Cleveland. But we anticipate that the editorials written after it closes will bear close reading to see how much they echo the writer of 1860.

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Trump and Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech

Posted on July 5, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part four of our series on the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. Here we take a look at Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City (now Cooper Union) on February 28, 1860 and compare one part of it with the rhetoric coming from Trump supporters in 2016.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “war on Christianity”and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

In the Cooper Union address, Lincoln represented the new Republican Party, in only its second presidential election season. He was in 1860 still walking the fine line of saying that while the Republican Party was dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery into the west, it would not try to abolish slavery in the south. In most of his speeches on the campaign trail, Lincoln tried to do two things at once: force southerners to accept a Republican victory, if it came, by emphasizing that winning the popular vote would mean that most Americans wanted to stop the spread of slavery and therefore southerners could not claim that the election had been hijacked by a radical minority; and convince southerners that this antislavery majority did not mean that the south would have to get on board with the rest of the nation and abolish slavery.

This is the context for the statement we’re about to quote from the Cooper Union address, in which Lincoln addresses proslaveryites and debunks their claim that they have a Constitutional right to enslave other people and, therefore, an implied right to secede from the Union if slavery is abolished or even limited to the south. Here is the candidate:

…But you will break up the Union, rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound: but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours to take slaves into the Federal Territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such  right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

Sub out “slaves” and the right to enslave for the right of anyone and everyone to buy and openly carry guns anywhere in public, even schools, or the right of self-professed Christians to deny public services to people who they feel offend Christianity, or the right of anti-choice legislatures to deny women access to health care from providers that also perform abortions, and you have a Democratic speech right out of 2016.

Many people today who self-identify as conservative in our new sectionalism of conservative v. liberal consistently claim a constitutional right to deprive others of their personal liberties. Yet the Constitution, as Lincoln points out, is “literally silent about any such right”. The Second Amendment does not protect private gun ownership for private use; it protects the right of American citizens to own guns so they can fight in local militias sanctioned and controlled by local governments. The Constitution does not mention Christianity in any way, and the Founders officially denied any Christian basis for the United States. Abortion or the rights of fetuses are not in the Constitution.

Too often an American’s right to freedom of speech, which actually is in the Constitution, is construed to protect “rights” that are not in the Constitution. Ever since the Supreme Court decided that actions could be identified as speech, this has happened. If it’s constitutional to protest outside an abortion clinic, clinics must be unconstitutional. If religious freedom is protected in the Constitution, then all of my religious beliefs must also be constitutionally protected (nope—see Gay Marriage, Religious Freedom, and the First Amendment for a rundown of the difference between religious worship and religious belief).

But conservatives who believe that all their beliefs are enshrined in the Constitution are often deaf to these arguments. As Lincoln put it, they will destroy the Government, unless they be allowed to construe the Constitution as they please, on all points in dispute between them and liberals. They will rule or ruin in all events. The eagerness of Trump’s supporters to destroy the federal government that they see as denying them their constitutional rights is a harvest sown by neoconservative Republicans for over thirty years now. This anti-government, Constitution-bending activist section may likely dispute the outcome of the presidential election if Clinton wins. And so we find ourselves, like Lincoln, facing a possible contested election over chimerical Constitutional rights. Secession seems slightly less likely today than in 1860… but it seemed unlikely to most observers in 1860.

Next time: on with the 1860 campaigns

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Trump and the caning of Charles Sumner

Posted on June 23, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

In this our third post in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, we look at another event that preceded the 1860 presidential campaign but cast a long shadow over it: the caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.

As you know, Sumner was an abolitionist who gave a speech condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1856. In his speech, Sumner excoriated the authors of the Act, which potentially allowed slavery into the North; these were Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. In his devastation of Butler, Sumner said in part,

The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.

Brooks’ nephew, Preston Brooks, was a Representative to the House at the time. Declaring his uncle insulted, Brooks fulfilled the contemporary Southern ideal of chivalrous honor by waiting until Sumner was almost alone in the Senate chamber, then going up to him supported by two friends and stating “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine,” and then began beating Sumner, who was still sitting at his desk, on the head with a heavy gold-topped cane.

Sumner fell to the floor unconscious and covered in blood as Brooks continued to beat him, while Brooks’ friends, Virginia Congressman Henry Edmundson and South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, held back the few men present who tried to intervene. Keitt actually took out his revolver and threatened them. Finally, two Representatives were able to stop Brooks, and Sumner was carried out of the Senate.

Sumner’s recovery was long and difficult, and he was out of office for months. Brooks resigned when a motion to remove him was raised, then voted back into office by his constituents, and continued to serve until his sudden death in 1857.

Northern public opinion was beyond outraged: that someone could attack a U.S. Senator in the Senate and get away with it was beyond belief. Southern public opinion was jubilant: abolitionists who had been “suffered to run too long without collars [had been] lashed into submission”, according to the Richmond (VA) Enquirer.

Everyone expected that this event would break the camel’s back—if it did not start a literal war over slavery, it would start a legal war on slavery led by antislavery and, hopefully, formerly neutral Congressmen who would kill it through legislation. But that did not happen. In fact, very little happened as a result of the caning. Few Northern lawmakers wanted to be responsible for starting a war. But more importantly, even fewer had any faith left in the democratic system in the U.S. It had been taken over by the Slave Power, and compromise after compromise with slavery in Congress had made it impossible for Congress to kill it.

Here is what a New York Times editorial said about the caning on May 28, 1856, when hopes were high that such a completely out-of-bounds attack would lead to action:

…malignity always overreaches itself and neutralizes its bitterness by its own folly. The assault on Senator Sumner is a notable proof in point… If [Brooks] could have foreseen, as any but a maniac must have done, that for every blow inflicted upon the head of Mr. Sumner, the cause of Slavery must lose at the least ten thousand votes, he probably would have desisted from his foul and cowardly deed. …true to their instincts, and blinded by the madness that must lead to their utter defeat, [the South] has chosen to defend the outrageous scoundrelism of their self-appointed champion…

…Mr. Brooks may congratulate himself upon having done more to add to the [antislavery] Republican Party, and to give vigor and permanency to the Anti-Slavery sentiment of the North, than all the Free Soilers have done in Congress.

Flash forward to 2016 and Donald Trump, whose bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny have led him to make statements considered beyond the pale on a regular basis for over a year now. Each time he crosses a new line, editorials like the one above appear, predicting that now he has finally gone too far and will assuredly lose his following and the presumptive Republican presidential nomination. Democratic politicians have confidently predicted a drop in Trump’s poll numbers, with former supporters potentially moving to support Clinton instead.

Yet it has not happened. Just as Brooks went calmly on with the full support of his like-minded constituents, so goes Trump. Americans know that Congress is just as paralyzed and poisoned in 2016 as it was in 1857, often unable to address immigration, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, or the other issues that stand in for slavery today for the same reason Congress couldn’t act on slavery in the 1850s—one side would not let it. Proslaveryites (at that time almost all Democratic) had a stranglehold on Congress. That’s what people back then meant when they talked about the Slave Power. Just as the Republican majority today will not even allow a vote in the House on gun control, having imposed a gag rule on the subject, so the Democratic majority then would not allow a vote on slavery, having imposed a gag rule on that subject in 1834 (it was rescinded a decade later, but had a long-lasting effect). When Congress does address these important issues today, the conservative majority is almost assured that the vote will go their way, stripping more Americans of their civil rights.

As liberals look on with dismay and continue to await the moment when Trump actually says or does something that strips him of his popularity with conservatives, one can’t help thinking about Preston Brooks, and fearing the worst.

Next time—into the 1860 campaign

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Presidential campaigns, 1860 and 2016

Posted on June 9, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Here we launch a series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve often noted that the growth of a new kind of sectional tension in this country runs disturbingly parallel to sectional tension in the years before the Civil War; here we explore those parallels by going back to newspaper reports on the 1860 campaign and comparing what we find there to what we see happening now.

What is sectionalism? It’s a situation in which one part of a unified group begins to feel alienated, and to separate itself from that group, on the basis of geography or interests. Those interests usually become passions. In the two decades before the Civil War, sectionalism occurred as the South (geography) began to separate itself mentally and emotionally from the North because of the South’s commitment to slavery (interest), which the North did not share. Eventually, the North reciprocated by developing its own sectionalism, which rejected union with the South over slavery (see our post Northern sectionalism before the Civil War for more on that). Each geographic region defined itself in terms of slavery, embracing or rejecting it, and insisting that slavery was the one key issue of the day and for the nation. Eventually, sectionalism led to secession, and, as Lincoln said, the war came.

Today, sectionalism still has a slight geographic component, as southern state legislatures make a stand against liberty and justice for all (through state laws demonizing illegal immigrants, gay and transgender Americans, women seeking abortions, etc.) while most northern states do not. But geography has been trumped by interests: the real divide in the U.S. is ideological, between liberals and conservatives. Neo-conservatives, as they were called in the 1980s, found a stronghold in formerly Democratic southern states in the 1960s as the Democratic party under Johnson reached a pinnacle of civil liberty and social justice, particularly for racial minorities, that racist leaders of southern states and state politics could not accept. They moved to the Republican party, which, under Nixon, welcomed them as a bloc that supported the president’s and the party’s desire to stop civil rights legislation (on the basis that the federal government was overreaching and trying to “legislate morality”).

Conservatism had a boom under Reagan that moved it out of the south and into many white, middle-class homes around the country, as their inhabitants identified with Reagan’s image of the “real” America as white, self-supporting, and Christian, as opposed to everyone else, who was not white, on welfare (and abusing it), and non-Christian. Many white Americans also vibed to Reagan’s statement that the federal government was a curse and a burden (“government isn’t the solution to the problem; government is the problem”) and that it should be dialed way back to have minimal impact on people’s daily lives (i.e., no more social legislation). (See our post Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government for more on that.)

Many political leaders and people in the west seemed to embrace this new conservative message, as they saw themselves in a battle to the death with the federal government over access to and development of/mining on public lands, water, and protecting endangered animals.

Over the decades from the 80s to the 2010s, the new conservatism found strongholds in every part of the nation, wherever poor and middle-class white people felt disenfranchised and/or insulted by big business, immigrants, and/or liberals. To be fair, the movement is not entirely white; there are black and Latino conservatives. But the movement began with white people “taking back” their rights from newly-empowered minorities. For the past five years or so, the new dimension of sexuality has been added in, as conservatives generally identify as straight and feel their rights threatened and curtailed by the expansion of civil rights to gay and transgender people.

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either, although the south and west (particularly the Mountain zone) skew conservative while the northeast and Pacific Coast skew liberal. The midwest seems divided.

This new sectionalism has been an issue in every political campaign since 1980, but this year it is the be-all and end-all of the entire presidential election. And this is where the comparisons become striking:

—1860 was the year that sectionalism over slavery became the main issue of a presidential election. 2016 is the year that sectionalism between liberals and conservatives is the main issue.

—In 1860 the Democratic party fractured under the stress; the party split, nominating two different candidates: a Southern Democratic proslavery candidate, and a (northern) Democratic candidate who was on the fence but unlikely to abolish slavery. Today, the Democratic party vote may be badly divided between Sanders and Clinton.

—A new party emerged to take the place of the Whig party that had already been destroyed by sectionalism: in 1860 the Republican party was a party of radical social change dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery and “its eventual extinction”. Today, the Republican party is promoting radical social change by (presumably) nominating Trump as its candidate.

—In 1860, some people watching the campaigns were confident that the country would not split over it, while others tried hard to laugh off the idea, but no one denied that talk of civil war was in the air. In 2016, we laugh about people saying they’ll move to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win, and try hard to promote the idea that people whose candidate loses will put country ahead of cause and support the winner, but no one can deny that there are many voices saying they will do no such thing.

Next time we will get into the early coverage of the 1860 campaign and begin our comparisons, hoping as always to draw some useful plan of action from the exercise.

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Bernie Sanders… or William Jennings Bryan?

Posted on May 19, 2016. Filed under: Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Who’s the outsider politician who simultaneously maintains a rebel stance against business-as-usual politics while being a party mainstay? The man who takes a stand against corporate money in politics while lambasting Republican cronyism? The man who won enthusiastic support for his presidential bid despite the long odds of his winning the Democratic nomination?

Yes, it is both Sanders and Bryan. The parallels are strong, and we were thinking about it today as yet another radio news program talked about whether it was right for Sanders to continue to campaign when he can’t win a majority of Democratic delegates. We talk about Bryan, the Nebraska Senator and early Populist, in our post on his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. Bryan ran for president three times, in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Here are some bullets that describe Bryan at the turn of the century that could easily be used to describe Sanders today:

—Bryan stood against big banking and big business, headquartered mostly on the East Cost, standing up for the right of small farmers and small business owners and workers to get a living wage and fair lending terms from banks

—Bryan came from a state with a small population that had no influence over national politics (Nebraska)

—He was anti-imperialist and ran twice for president on a platform to release all U.S. territories and dominions (he ended up supporting the Spanish-American War in 1898 because he incorrectly believed that if the U.S. beat Spain and kept the Philippines, those islands would then be given their independence by the U.S.)

—He said “universal peace cannot come until justice is enthroned throughout the world”

—In his 1908 campaign, he stood against corporate domination, called for all political contributions made by men running corporations to be publicly revealed (on election day), and that anyone who did not cooperate should be jailed

—His slogan was “Shall the People Rule?” (and it was not a rhetorical question)

When people today call Sanders a Populist, they are using a term invented for, by, and of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s entrenched hatred and suspicion of wealthy people, people from the coast, and big business blinded him to the possibility that a) not all poor people were good people; b) many of the poor white farmers who loved him were merciless promoters of segregation, Jim Crow, and the terror and torture of black Americans; c) and that a nation needs all economic segments working together to grow and be just. Bryan’s willingness to be cartoonish in attacking injustice and corruption led many Americans who were not against his basic principles to back William McKinley in 1896 and again in 1900, because McKinley’s “don’t rock the boat” conservatism came to look practical and wise when placed side-by-side with Bryan’s 6-hour speeches raging against the machine.

In 1908, Bryan ran against outgoing president Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen successor William Taft, and Bryan raged about the undemocratic nature of one president “choosing” another. This was insider politics at its worst to Bryan, and he was baffled and outraged when the American people approved it with a resounding victory for Taft.

We’re not here to promote a particular candidate here at the HP, but we are here to suggest to those Sanders supporters that a little moderation can be a wise thing if you really want change and not just rage.

Just to be fair, let’s continue our time-traveling comparisons:

Taft himself was not well-qualified to be president, and he did not really want to be president—his dream was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (a dream he actually achieved in 1921). He made some hawkish foreign policy moves to satisfy the conservative wing of his Republican Party, while doing nothing to encourage its growing liberal wing, which he did not like but which was supported by his powerful mentor Theodore Roosevelt. The Republican Party continued to fracture under Taft until the election of 1912, when Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote, and Woodrow Wilson won the election.

…sound vaguely familiar, or plausible?

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Alexander Hamilton was not black

Posted on May 11, 2016. Filed under: Colonial America, What History is For | Tags: , , |

…it doesn’t seem likely. We’ve tackled this issue before (“Warren Harding and his ‘Negro’ Percentage”), in which an American politician who seems pretty darn white is the focus of claims that he really wasn’t.

This has a long history in the U.S. It was started by white racists as an effective way to smear someone; “accusing” someone of being part-black was foolproof because it was almost impossible for the person to disprove: no matter how they pointed to their ancestors, someone could claim there had been hushed-up sex outside marriage with a black man or woman.

One of the oddest examples of this was when rumors were spread that the popular singer Dinah Shore was half-black, despite the fact that her Jewish parents, who emigrated from Russia, did not seem like likely candidates to have had sex outside marriage with a black American. Shore’s husky voice and her childhood in Tennessee were enough for racists to spread the rumor, which was supposed to devastate her and end her career.

Luckily, by the 1950s this kind of attempted character assassination did not work as well as it had earlier in the century. The civil rights movement in this country eventually made the people “accusing” someone of having “black blood” (whatever that is) look stupid and bigoted and backward, and the tactic died away because it was no longer harmful.

But then history took a turn, as it so often does. Having a mix of races in one’s ancestry moved from being a disaster to a neutral factor. And for some historians and activists, finding black ancestry in a public person’s identity became a way to reclaim history for Americans who weren’t white. That’s perfectly valid: figures in American history who had a mix of races but hid it out of fear of being attacked should be reclaimed.

It’s only when someone is chosen when it just seems very unlikely that they were anything but white that it’s problematic. Warren Harding is one. Alexander Hamilton is another. His own attempts to erase his history before he left St. Croix in the Caribbean and arrived in the New Jersey colony at age 17 have led some people to claim that he was covering up a black father when the real “shames” (at that time) in his life were: his mother’s bigamy; her living with and having two sons by a man she was not legally married to (James Hamilton); Alexander not being allowed to attend the same Church of England school as other colonial white boys because of this and having to go to a school run by a Jewish woman instead; his father abandoning the family when he found out about the bigamy; his mother’s early death and Alexander’s subsequent boot to the streets when her first husband seized all her property.

One can well imagine that an ambitious man like Hamilton did not want any of that known in his new colonial home, where he was trying to make it big.

The Caribbean in the 18th century was not a place where a white woman could easily engage in a sexual relation with a black man, nor a place where that would go unpunished. Just because his mother was a nonconformist when it came to legal marriage did not mean she would have a relationship with a black man at a time and in a place where that was not only illegal but punishable by torture and death.

Claims that Hamilton “looked black” are unsubstantiated. We don’t have a lot of drawings of him, but the ones we do have are fairly unequivocal. And all the rumors spread about Hamilton in the 13 colonies had to do with his sexual rapacity, not his race. Those who would naturally connect the two are, we hope, long gone.

So while it would be gratifying to claim a great American for black history, we’re still awaiting proof that Alexander Hamilton was black.

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“Hearing Harriet Smith”: a new take on WPA recordings of people born into slavery

Posted on March 25, 2016. Filed under: Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

Most American know about the FWP interviewers who, in the 1930s, went into southern states and recorded the stories of black Americans who had been born into slavery. The FWP (Federal Writers’ Project) wanted to capture their stories as living history. About 2,300 people were interviewed before the FWP project expired, but the project was continued by the Library of Congress and the Julius Rosenwald Foundation into the 1940s in an attempt to find every living witness to and survivor of slavery in the United States.

Most of us who encounter these interviews read them as transcripts, usually heavily edited from hour-long conversations to just those stories of slavery that really bring its horror most vividly to life. We don’t even notice how they are written in “black dialect” (we all remember reading Huckleberry Finn), and we don’t think too much about the lives of the interviewees as they were in the 1930s and 40s when they were recorded—we assume their lives are much better.

But there’s a great article that goes in-depth into the socio-political context of the interviews, the backgrounds of the white interviewers and the pressures on the black interviewees: Hearing Harriet Smith focuses on one interviewer, John Henry Faulk, and one interviewee, Harriet Smith, to go behind the scenes and shed some light on some troubling questions that linger over the interviews.

—How did the black interviewees perceive the process? Did they feel like they were expected to tell certain types of stories and omit others?

—Why did so many black subjects talk about how wonderful slavery had been?

—Who were the interviewers? What drove them to participate in this project?

—Why was “black dialect” used so insistently by interviewers writing the transcriptions? Why didn’t they ever use standard English? (One of the answers will surprise you.)

—What errors crept into the transcripts, which were supposed to be primary resource historical artifacts, and why?

—What stories were left out of the transcripts, and why?

The site has many links out to the actual recordings so you can listen for yourself. It’s worth it to hear Harriet Smith rather than read her.

 

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Make America great again–by supporting its federal government

Posted on March 2, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re re-running this post from a few years ago to counter the constant message of the Republican presidential campaigners and those of their supporters who get on TV and the radio saying that what makes America great is its people, not its government. Marco Rubio just made this statement a few days ago at a rally.

How the Founders would shudder to hear this. If the American people are great, it’s because of their government, which empowers and ennobles them, gives them national, political, and individual freedom, and relies on the people themselves to participate in the government, by voting and/or serving in public office.

When you have a government like that, you are free, even determined to offer free public education for all, to make sure everyone gets enough food, to sit on juries so your fellow Americans can get justice. Our representative democracy—still so very rare in the world, the first of its kind, and in the minority even in the 21st century—is what gives us our national character, our optimism, our passion for justice, our sense of fair play. We infuse our government with these good things.

When we decide the federal government is the root of all ills, that decision is usually led by  selfish people who don’t want to help their fellow Americans eat or get justice or live in decent housing; they are out for themselves and themselves alone. They call themselves libertarians or rugged individuals, and they claim that they are returning to original American values that made the country great.

These people are voted into office and there they pervert the federal and state governments into criminal systems that oppress the poor and non-white and female. It’s vicious circle: People who hate the government go into it to destroy and pervert it, and then the government actually becomes the root of all evils they said it was. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If America is no longer great, it’s because of these people saying they themselves will make it great again by destroying the government.

But we need to cling to our representative democracy, our principles of liberty and justice for all, taxation with representation that helps people get the things they need. We need to let it keep us generous and fair-minded. A woman on the radio this morning said she voted for Trump because “I just want a change. I want a change.”

Change in and of itself is not positive. You can’t just say I’m fed up and I will throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can’t say “change” when you mean “I want to get my own way all the time and not help anyone else.” You will get a change for the worse, and you might find that it’s a change you don’t end up liking.

Here’s the original post. We’re in it for the long haul to November and beyond.

 

We saw in the last post that Americans live in a unique situation: we enjoy all three types of basic freedom, national, political, and individual. Listing the nations that have offered all three freedoms to all of their citizens is a counting-on-one-hand proposition. Successfully providing and defending all three freedoms is what makes the United States great.

But it also presents some problems. Over the generations, Americans have veered between putting national freedom first and putting individual freedom first. We’re sometimes willing to give up individual freedom to be safe from attack, and sometimes unwilling to perform our duties of national and political freedom in the name of individual freedom. When the U.S. faces attack or threats to its safety, many Americans want to put laws in place curtailing individual freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly in order to at once weed out troublemakers and create a more homogenous society. Conversely, when the federal government tries to put sweeping legislation into effect, such as government-paid health care or social security or gun control, many Americans loudly protest the move as an infringement of their individual rights.

Individual rights also lead many Americans to neglect their political freedom to participate in government by holding office and/or voting. The feeling that participation in our democracy  is unnecessary, an extra rather than a basic tenet of American citizenship, is pervasive. Resentment of “big government” leads many people not to want to participate in government at all, as if they would be supporting an invasive federal government by voting or running for office, although the way to change the nature of government is to join it or vote in those you wish to have representing your views. The belief that our government is an impediment to individual freedom is sadly prevalent.

Holding all three freedoms in equal esteem is difficult. Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.

Going forward, we’re seeking to bring our three freedoms into balance and remember that each is equally valuable, and each demands our equal time and effort to maintain.

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We never used to claim America was a Christian nation

Posted on February 3, 2016. Filed under: The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , |

It’s short but sweet: in 1797 the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Barbary States (today’s Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, and what was called Tripolitania). These were autonomous provinces of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa that made a living harassing shipping in the Mediterranean. Barbary pirates were a scourge to Ottoman, European, and U.S. shipping, and the U.S. attempted to use diplomacy to protect its shipping (though the U.S. would eventually fight two wars with the Barbary States in 1801 and 1815 to put a stop to pirate attacks).

Article 11 of the treaty reads thus:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries

Let’s break that down: 1) the U.S. is not founded on Christian principles; 2) the U.S. would not sign a treaty with any state that had “entered into any war or act of hostility” against a Muslim nation; 3) religious difference can never be used as an excuse for war between the U.S. and the Barbary States.

We offer this not to the ongoing debate about accepting Muslim refugees from the wars in the Middle East, nor to say there is no difference between Islam as practiced in 1797 in North Africa and Islam as practiced today in nations the U.S. is in conflict with. We offer it as rebuttal, from the Senate itself, of the poisonous idea that the U.S. was founded to be a Christian nation with a religious mission. Read any founding text and you will fail to find that belief proffered in any way. The mission of the U.S. is to promote representative democracy, liberty and justice for all, and that’s it.

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Immigrants have always been scary-looking, but that’s never stopped us before

Posted on January 22, 2016. Filed under: American history, Immigration, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

A while back we showed some photos from the wonderful Washington Post feature “What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island”. It’s a collection of  photos taken by Augustus Sherman at Ellis from 1892-1925. Sherman was the chief registry clerk at the immigration station.

Here’s what we said at the time:

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

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

It would be great if someone would create a similar archive of 21st-century immigrants.

And then we showed some of the photos. At the time, we were just enjoying the window onto the past they provided. But with all the (usual) scaremongering talk about immigrants that was generated by the Syrian refugees, we suddenly thought of them in a new way.

Look at this woman from “Ruthenia” (today’s Belarus and Ukraine):

Ruthenian-woman

Would this woman pass the very, very difficult screening process we have in place for refugees and be allowed into the U.S. today? It doesn’t seem likely. Headscarf, ethnic clothing… looks like a terrorist.

In fact, all the women wore headscarves:

Slovak-woman-and-child

 

 

Three-Dutch-women

If headscarves are a red flag, these Slovakian and Dutch women would be held up for quite a while if they were screened today.

And what about these women?

They wear headscarves and have strange looks in their eyes; the one on the left seems pretty angry. Both of them were likely deeply committed to a religion that most native-born white Americans rejected as foreign and dangerous to the U.S. government and American Way. Yes, they were Italian Catholics who whisked into this country without anyone checking to see if they were terrorists. This at a time when the U.S. government was actually suspicious of Catholics as agents of the Pope. Yes, the Immigration Act of 1924 would limit the number of southeast European Catholics (and Jews) who could enter the country, but they were never banned altogether.

This Algerian man would likely not get into the U.S. today dressed like this. Yet he successfully entered the country a century ago, and likely lived a quiet life. His descendants are probably living quietly in the U.S. today.

Algerian-man

What about this guy?

A-German-stowaway

No way, right? But this German man successfully entered the country, likely with no more screening than the usual six-second physical at Ellis Island.

This Russian soldier seems fairly menacing:

Cossack-man-from-the-steppes-of-Russia

Are those bullets of some kind on his jacket? That seems like a knife in his belt. Whatever he’s holding—club, sword—is also pretty violent-looking. This man came to America loaded for bear. But he got in, and you know that he got his picture taken because of his “colorful outfit”.

We just weren’t scared of people like this a century ago because we assumed that anyone who came to America would see that it was the greatest society on Earth and toe the line. We believed that our society was strong enough to take in disparate peoples and turn them into Americans. We believed our society was appealing enough to win over our immigrants and make them real Americans who would live and die for their new country.

When did we lose that faith in ourselves? When did we decide that every single immigrant, man, woman or child, was a threat powerful enough to bring down our whole system and way of life? Why did we decide it? There have been acts of terrorism in this country before 2001, and they were usually (and usually wrongly) blamed on immigrants (think Haymarket). And we’ve passed stupid laws banning certain “undesirable” immigrants: the Chinese, the Japanese, southeastern Europeans (read Jews and Catholics). But the panicky idea that all immigration is a threat, that no one should be allowed into the country unless they’re white people from Europe, that every immigrant and even every refugee must go through the most rigorous, nay impossible screening process imaginable, is recent.

Here’s a rundown of what war refugees must do if they want to enter the U.S. today, courtesy of John Oliver:

Look, it is difficult to vet people coming out of a war zone, but it’s not like we’re letting just anyone in. We are the United States of America, not Arizona State. Because just for the record here, let me just walk you through what our screening process actually is.

If you’re a refugee, first, you apply through the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, which collects documents and performs interviews. Incidentally, less than one percent of refugees worldwide end up being recommended for resettlement.

But if you’re one of them, you may then be referred to the State Department to begin the vetting process. At this point, more information is collected, you’ll be put through security screenings by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. And if you’re a Syrian refugee, you’ll get an additional layer of screening called the “Syria enhanced review,” which may include a further check by a special part of Homeland Security, the USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security Directorates.

And don’t relax yet, because we’ve barely even started. Then, you finally get an interview with USCIS officers, and you’ll also be fingerprinted so your prints can be run through the biometric databases of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense.

And if you make it through all that, you’ll then have health screenings which, let’s face it, may not go too well for you, because you may have given yourself a stroke getting through this process so far. But if everything comes back clear, you’ll be enrolled in cultural orientation classes, all while your information continues to be checked recurrently against terrorist databases to make sure that no new information comes in that wasn’t caught before.

All of that has to happen before you get near a plane.

This process typically takes 18 to 24 months once you’ve been referred by the U.N. to the United States.

This is the most rigorous vetting anyone has to face before entering this country. No terrorist in their right mind would choose this path when the visa process requires far less efforts. But nevertheless, the House still voted on Thursday to add a few more steps.

It doesn’t seem likely that anyone in the photos above would have entered the U.S. under those conditions. And that would have been a terrible injustice. Not every immigrant is an angel. That German guy probably got into a lot of fights. But we can’t be scared of immigration. We can’t put ourselves in a lock box and say “no more immigrants”. We have to believe, as we once did, that America makes Americans, that Americans can be made, not born, and that that is a source of our greatest triumphs as a nation.

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