What History is For

Oklahoma attempts to ban AP U.S. History

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

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

Where to start.

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

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

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Andrew Jackson facelift

Posted on February 23, 2015. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , |

We were transacting some business yesterday and happened to get an old $20 bill from an ATM. We were comparing the old and new and couldn’t help noticing how Andrew Jackson was airbrushed to look substantially younger and more handsome in the new bill:

IMG_1816

In the new bill, on top, his eyes have been made larger and the deep bags underneath his eyes have been removed. His jaw has also been widened and shortened, changing his face from its familiar long rectangle to more of a heart shape. Jackson looks positively appealing in the new bill. One has to wonder why this was done…

If only we had old $1, $5 and $10 bills to analyze. Maybe Washington, Lincoln, and  Hamilton have had similar makeovers. If anyone out there can send images, please do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima was NOT a fake!

Posted on February 5, 2015. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , |

In our third and last installment of reading famous American photographs, we cover Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the February 23, 1945 photo by Joe Rosenthal showing five U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, the highest point of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima:

WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising

Rarely does a photograph convey urgency and movement as fully as this. The effort of the man on the right to physically plant the flag pole into what looks like difficult, hard ground is clear. His head is turned down, looking at the ground, focused on his work. The next man to the left is also focused on training the pole into the ground. The man behind him pushes the pole upward, and the last man has just lost his grip on the pole as it raises. His arms still strain upward with the force of his effort. The wind is just about to unfurl the flag, signifying victory. Yet for all the movement, the men also seem made of marble—it looks very much like a sculpture. The perfect triangle composition that takes your eye from the flag down the pole to the man planting it, across to the men holding the pole, and back up to the flag is classic. There is nothing in the sky to distract from the lone symbol of the flag—no airplanes, no shells exploding.

The first question might be, why are there only four men? Unfortunately, one man is almost completely blocked from view behind the second man from the right because their bodies were lined up as they both worked to plant the flagpole. Here’s a helpful diagram:

624px-Raising_the_Flag_outline

This outline also gives us the men’s names. Franklin Sousey, Michael Strank, and Harlon Block would all be killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima: Stank and Block on March 1, within hours of each other, and Sousley on March 21, just days before the official end of the Battle on March 26, 1945.

The Battle of Iwo Jima was critical to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific. It was the first Japanese home island to be invaded by the U.S. in its “island-hopping” strategy of taking the small but strategic Pacific islands the Japanese relied on to refuel planes on their way to bigger targets. Often these islands were so small that they were uninhabited. But each island the U.S. landed on was defended to the death by the Japanese, who knew that a) they needed these islands as stopping points to faraway destinations and b) that the Americans were slowly but surely working their way to invading Japan itself. When U.S. forces invaded Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, they were met with even fiercer resistance than before.

The Americans wanted to capture Mount Suribachi as soon as possible so the Japanese could not use it as a lookout and a place from which to shell incoming U.S. forces. It was taken relatively quickly, on February 23, just four days into the battle. But the fighting was far from over, as the Japanese barricaded themselves into pillboxes dug into the hillsides and fired on U.S. forces for another unbelievably fatal month.

There were actually two different flag-raisings on Mount Suribachi. The first was ordered by Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson and sent Harold Schrier, Earnest Thomas, and Henry Hansen up the mountain with a 40-man combat patrol. Johnson is said to have given Schrier a flag and said “If you get to the top put it up.” Schrier did, and received a Navy Cross for volunteering for the mission. A photographer named Louis Lowry who joined the patrol took photos of this first flag-raising.

The sight of the flag so inspired the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, who was at Iwo Jima, to say “the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.” According to legend, he asked General Holland Smith if he could have it as a souvenir. This reportedly enraged Lt. Col. Johnson, who felt the flag belonged to his battalion. To keep it away from Forrestal, Johnson ordered another group up the mountain to replace it. This was not the only reason, of course; Johnson wouldn’t endanger his men in such a petty mission. They needed to put up a bigger flag that could be seen better by men on the landing beaches. And so the second, famous group went up about two hours after the first group. They had been laying telephone wire on Mount Suribachi during the first flag raising. Joe Rosenthal took his photo and history was made. But he almost missed it; while he was setting up for a good shot, the men began raising the flag, and Rosenthal had to grab his camera to get a shot before it was over. As Rosenthal took photos, Sgt. Bill Genaust shot newsreel footage of the event. (Genaust was killed on March 4.)

When Rosenthal sent his film to Guam to be developed, the AP photograph editor immediately spotted the shot and sent it to New York. The photo was printed in hundreds of newspapers in less than 24 hours. It spoke to the bravery of the U.S. armed forces, the pride of the U.S. victory at Iwo Jima, and the danger Americans were facing in the Pacific theater.

But then trouble began. Rosenthal asked the men to pose for a group photo after the flag-raising. When he was asked a few days later if his photo was posed, he said yes—not knowing the questioner was referring to the already-famous flag-raising photo and not the group shot. Word spread that the photo was a fake. The popular New York radio program Time Views the News claimed that “Rosenthal climbed Suribachi after the flag had already been planted… Like most photographers he could not resist reposing his characters in historic fashion.” The Pulitzer Prize the photo had already won was threatened with revocation. When he realized the error, Rosenthal went to his grave defending the photo. Genaust’s newsreel film proved that Rosenthal’s shot was really from the flag-raising as it happened, and most people realized it was not fake, but for decades the conspiracy theory persisted in the shadows—growing up in the 1970s, one of us at the HP remembers hearing it was faked, and accepting this claim without much ado, as children do. Hopefully by now, that rumor is finally dead.

In honor of the other U.S. servicemen who risked their lives to plant the flag, we give you a photo of the first flag-raising on Mount Suribachi:

640px-First_Iwo_Jima_Flag_Raising

There’s not the same immediate energy as the more famous photo, but this image does capture the grim resolution of the men. As the flag is steadied in its plant, one man in the center sits down, seemingly exhausted, eyes on the horizon. One man stands looking in the same direction, perhaps at the U.S. forces continuing to land on the beaches below, for whom the flag is a signal that Japanese shells will no longer rain down on them from the peak. The mountain is captured, the flag is raised, but the battle is not over, and even as the photographer faces the men, the soldier closest to him keeps a lookout inland for Japanese fire. The moment is not as technicolor as the more famous photo, but the bravery and commitment are just as real.

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

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

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

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

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

MigrantMotherandDaughters1979

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

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Reading famous American photos: Migrant Mother, Flag-Raising at Iwo Jima, and The Soiling of Old Glory

Posted on January 22, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We all know certain iconic photos from American history—a Migrant Mother staring down starvation during the Great Depression:

Lange-MigrantMother02

U.S. Marines and Navy soldiers raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima during WWII:

WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising

and this photo of a black American seemingly about to be stabbed with an American flag during a civil rights protest:

flag stabbing

Each of these photos is misleading. In this short series, we’ll start with the last one. It was taken by Stanley Forman on April 5, 1976, in Boston, Massachusetts during a protest over court-ordered school desegregation—busing. It seems to show a white man about to stab a black man who is helplessly pinned and prevented from escaping by another white man. The attacker is Joseph Rakes, the black victim Ted Landsmark, the man pinning him back is Jim Kelly.

What they were really doing is this: Rakes, holding the flag, was swinging it at Landsmark in an attempt to threaten him, but was not running toward him to kill. You can see that Rakes’ feet are planted—he’s not moving. He was just at a point in his flag-swinging where the flag was horizontal. Rakes was against busing, but he was not trying to kill anyone.

The man holding Landsmark, Jim Kelly, was a Boston city councillor who was notoriously against desegregation of any kind—in schools, housing, anywhere. He was there to protest busing. Yet it is Kelly who is trying to get Landsmark out of the way of this man waving the flag because he was afraid Landsmark would be attacked. You can see that Kelly’s feet are moving. Ted Landsmark was a lawyer—you can see he is the only one wearing a suit—who had already been attacked by anti-busing rioters and had his nose broken. He seems to be resisting Kelly, perhaps thinking he is yet another white about to attack him.

Rakes later said that he first saw this photo on the bus as he rode to work the next day. It was on the cover of the newspaper someone else was reading.  “I saw the image and thought, ‘Who is that lunatic with the flag?’ Then I realized it was me.”

Even if Rakes wasn’t about to stab Landsmark with the flag, it’s a chilling image. Using the flag as a threat in any way is a cruel and sickening perversion of that national symbol. You don’t have to stab someone with it to soil Old Glory; just using it to protest democracy is soiling enough.

But taking the time to learn the truth about this image is more instructive than just being repulsed by what it seems to show. That Jim Kelly would protect a black man who was promoting busing tells an uplifting story about humanity and decency trumping racism, even if for a moment. And Rakes’ immediate reaction to the photo, in which he saw a “lunatic”, also cuts through the ideology of racism and reveals the basic indecency of any racial attack.

For each photo that we deconstruct here, we’ll offer one that is not so famous but should be. Here is the first:

Valerie Banks

On September 12, 1974, when the school year began in Boston with court-ordered busing despite the protests, white students at South Boston High School boycotted classes. Some refused to sit with black students. Others were afraid of the inevitable violence that would take place in and around the school. Black students also boycotted, for fear of being attacked. Only this young woman, Valerie Banks, bravely showed up to her geography class that day. This lone American, waiting with determination, patience, and courage for a better day, should be remembered.

Next time: Migrant Mother myth-busting

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Selma throws Lyndon Johnson under the bus of history

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

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

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

amelia_boynton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we shall overcome.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lynching in the 21st-century: or, black lives matter

Posted on December 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

One of the cornerstones of a history education is civics. If we don’t understand how our government is supposed to work, and why it is structured the way it is, we cannot participate properly in our own government, and we can’t hold the people in positions of political authority accountable for their actions. We can’t define what justice is. We have no recourse when confronted with a crime against our proper form of government but to run into the streets as mobs, in brief and ultimately futile demonstrations that accomplish no long-term reform. So here’s our civics lesson for 2014 and beyond.

In the United States, the police are bound by the same laws they enforce. They are not above the law. They don’t have a separate code of law from non-police officers. They are government employees (at the federal, state, or local level) bound to obey the law just like other government employees. A police officer has no special waiver to break the law in dangerous circumstances; the police can use their judgment to decide whether force is needed to prevent a criminal from killing someone, but they are bound to use only so much force as is necessary to defuse the danger and take the suspect into custody alive.

Clearly, we haven’t been seeing this in the U.S. over the past few years. At the same time, it’s not a new problem. The police generally uphold the values of the majority in any country. In the U.S., the police have traditionally been white men (and this still holds true today), and they have generally upheld racial and sexual discrimination. They’re not the only ones, of course; the same can be said of Congress and most state and local governments. When we look back at U.S. history, we see that government officials and the police have often worked together to thwart the principles of our nation’s founding, and to pervert our democratic government. But one would have thought that since 1970, say, and a full century of civil rights progress and seemingly increasing enlightenment about race, sex, and sexuality, this would not be happening so openly and baldly today, in 2014. A leader of the New York police department on the radio this morning promised in-depth training and education for officers, basically to help them not respond to every encounter with a black man with deadly force. This made us wonder why, at this late date, and after so many decades upon decades of civil rights activism and education in this country, this “training” begins only now.

You have to take the long view on any current problem. When we do that here, we see that the police assaults on black men are just part of a larger problem that is not fully encompassed even by race. The real problem being expressed in these incidents is the militarization of our police and our culture. Somehow, in the last 30 years, guns have been made the hallmark of American freedom. Everyone must have one everywhere, despite their criminal record or mental stability. One of the outcomes of this is the regular school shootings we endure each year. Another is attacks on the police. For years now, we’ve heard about police being called to a domestic dispute and being shot instantly, either as part of a general shootout or as the end result of a deliberate trap. Police have been shot by people they pull over for speeding. In many states, people can carry guns around everywhere, at all times; this makes any interaction with them by the police potentially fatal for the officer.

The logical reaction to this by the police has been to up the ante: when you expect to be shot, the only way to defend yourself is to make sure you shoot first. It’s not surprising that police officers have begun to expect that every encounter they have could be fatal. And it doesn’t seem likely that any “training and education” will prevent further deaths when Americans continue to carry guns at all times—the police will still believe that the only outcome of every encounter is gunfire, from both sides. Add race to this, in the form of a black suspect, and death is almost a given. Even when it is clear the black suspect does not have a gun, extreme force is used to subdue him before he somehow injures the officer. Eric Garner was not shot like Michael Brown, but he was immediately put into a choke hold—an extreme action.

Darren Wilson’s perception of Brown as looking like “a demon” was not only an admission of his fear of being killed by a suspect, it was a shocking admission of racism that was so very like descriptions of black men during and after slavery in this country that we were left aghast. Describing black men as big, hulking, animal-like, amoral, dumb, demonic, and savage was boilerplate for two centuries in this country. Black men had to be “demonized” to justify slavery and then post-slavery oppression and… lynching.

Lynching has to come to mind here. We seem to have entered a new age of lynching in this country. Lynching is characterized not just by a violent death (by hanging, mutilation, torture, burning, etc.), but by one or two men making a lightning-fast decision about someone’s guilt and immediately acting on that decision to kill them. Originally, lynching in the West was done by whites to whites. No one described lynching more decisively and unflinchingly than Ida B. Wells, so let’s let her describe it here (from Lynch Law in America, published in 1900):

Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. The “unwritten law” first found excuse with the rough, rugged, and determined men who left the civilized centers of eastern States to seek for quick returns in the gold-fields of the far West. Following in uncertain pursuit of continually eluding fortune, they dared the savagery of the Indians, the hardships of mountain travel, and the constant terror of border State outlaws. Naturally, they felt slight toleration for traitors in their own ranks. It was enough to fight the enemies from without; woe to the foe within! Far removed from and entirely without protection of the courts of civilized life, these fortune-seekers made laws to meet their varying emergencies. The thief who stole a horse, the bully who “jumped” a claim, was a common enemy. If caught he was promptly tried, and if found guilty was hanged to the tree under which the court convened.

The key here is the speed of the judgment. If someone was caught committing a crime, large or small, or even suspected of it, he was immediately found guilty and killed. It could be done in 10 minutes. There’s no trial (later there would be nauseating show trials with a pre-determined guilty verdict), no testimony beyond “He stole that from me”, no chance for the accused to protest or prove himself innocent. Lynching is about pre-determined guilt, but it’s also about leaping over the lengthy process of criminal justice and fair trials to the instant gratification of death to the criminal.

That’s what is shocking about every instance of police brutality or deadly force. Instead of doing all he can to bring a suspect into custody where he can be tried, the officer makes a split-second decision about how much danger he himself is in from the suspect, and acts on it immediately. Afterward, this decision is validated by a claim that the suspect was resisting arrest. This is a claim so old and so reeking of our nation’s long history of injustice to minorities of all kinds that it’s difficult to hear it spoken today. Police officers are trained to overcome suspects resisting arrest in many ways; deadly force is supposed to be a last resort. But in our militarized and violent culture, it is the first and only resort for too many police officers.

We had already thought about this as a new kind of lynching when we realized that the head of the NYC police union is named Patrick Lynch. Here is his commentary on the Garner death as reported by NBC News:

“We feel badly that there was a loss of life,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “But unfortunately Mr. Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest.”

—Don’t most suspects “make a choice” to resist arrest? Does anyone go quietly? We would wager that most suspects resist arrest, but only the large, black ones are put in choke holds. Does any police officer expect that no one he confronts will ever resist arrest? Aren’t the police trained in how to deal with someone resisting arrest without killing them?

He praised the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, as a good man, a mature policeman and an Eagle Scout who “went out and did a difficult job, a job where there’s no script, and sometimes with that there’s tragedy that comes.”

—But there is a script: it’s called police procedure. It’s police training. Is Lynch really saying that police officers have no idea what to do when someone resists arrest other than to use deadly force? The Eagle Scout reference we will pass by in disbelief.

“It’s also a tragedy for this police officer who has to live with that death,” Lynch said.

—It doesn’t seem like it should be a tragedy if, as Lynch maintains, no real harm was done. Someone resisting arrest got what they deserved. The warped idea that it is really the police officer, not Garner’s family, who suffers most is all too common in these statements.

He also praised New York police for their handling of protests on Wednesday night, when thousands who objected to the decision took to the streets. Lynch lashed out at Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said on Wednesday that the grand jury’s decision not to bring charges was “one that many in our city did not want.”

He suggested that the mayor was teaching children to fear police officers, and he said the lesson instead should be to comply with police officers, even if they feel an arrest is unjust.

—It is only possible to comply with police officers if their treatment of you as a suspect is constitutional and legal. If not, you are under no such obligation.

“You cannot resist arrest,” Lynch said. “Because resisting arrest leads to confrontation. Confrontation leads to tragedy.”

—Americans have the right to resist arrest. The police are obligated to take people who resist arrest into custody without killing them. Resisting arrest does lead to confrontation—but the idea that confrontation must lead to tragedy is so outrageous. Are we really to accept that if we resist arrest we will be killed? Shot, choked, tased, however it happens? Any act of defiance will be met with death? This sounds more like the totalitarian states the U.S. is constantly battling around the world than our own country.

We cannot allow our police force to become perverted. We cannot become a police state, where police officers have the right to kill if, in their own, split-second judgment, they are personally endangered. The first duty of a police officer cannot be to protect himself. We can’t have local city police suddenly driving around in armored vehicles, basically tanks, because they fear for their lives. We can’t accept this as the new normal. It takes bravery and a strong commitment to justice to be a good police officer. We need more people with those qualities to take on that job.

We also need to reform our society and put an end to our obsession with “protecting ourselves” with guns. For as long as a police officer has good reason to suspect that the people he encounters are armed, we will have nothing but escalating police violence.

And finally, we cannot opt out of our government system. We can’t eviscerate our government as unjust and wash our hands of it, deciding to riot or protest and then do nothing. We can’t change anything unless the people who are outraged by injustice do the long, hard work of changing the system. We can’t have people making the split-second decision that the police are corrupt, there’s nothing we can do about it, and we are thus free to hate and defy the police. That will not change anything. Everyone has to participate in our democracy to keep it working. Anger and outrage should fuel hard work, not self-righteous inactivity. It’s hard work to be free.

We’ve said many times here at the HP that every generation has to accept and commit to our nation’s founding principles of justice. Learn what those principles are, commit to them, and uphold them in your daily life to the greatest extent that you can, and never back down from them. It’s the only way to prevent lynching.

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Finding Your Roots—sort of

Posted on November 13, 2014. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

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?

FIELD: Thanksgiving.

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?

GATES: Right.

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??

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