GOOD FRIDAY, 1865

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. Since that time more than 16,000 books have been written about Lincoln—one for every three and a half days since his death—and so I’m not going to try to dash out anything new about Lincoln’s role in the preservation of the Union or his proper place in American history more broadly, but I do want to share a thought about how Lincoln’s death was commemorated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination.

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Such conflation of the sacred and the secular continued in the days following, as the nation mourned and the slain president’s funeral procession made its way slowly from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. When the procession finally arrived at the grave site in early May, the assembled throng joined their voices in a hymn composed for the occasion:

This consecrated spot shall be
To Freedom ever dear
And Freedom’s son of every race
Shall weep and worship here.

What does it mean to “worship” at the tomb of a departed president?

“Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis),” J. A. Arthur, 1865

The Christ analogy was also popularized in a series of prints showing what was labeled as the “apotheosis” of Lincoln after his death. One definition of “apotheosis” is “ascension into heaven,” and these prints do regularly show Lincoln being received into the heavenly realm. But another synonym for “apotheosis” is “deification” or “elevation to divine status,” and this definition may apply as well. Significantly, Lincoln is regularly shown being met and embraced by George Washington, who may serve as the gatekeeper into heaven, but might also be effectively a proxy for God the Father. (In the image above, Washington seems to be bestowing on Lincoln a martyr’s crown.)  Indeed, banners during Lincoln’s funeral procession were seen to proclaim “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” Given the common symbolism of Washington as the Founder of the country and Lincoln as its martyred messiah, it’s not much of a stretch to see these images as symbolizing the ascension of the Son (Lincoln) into heaven where he will be seated on the right hand of the Father (Washington).

I admire Abraham Lincoln a great deal, almost as much as any public figure in our nation’s past. But however well intended these images may have been, they can only be described as “patriotic heresy.”

ANDREW JACKSON AND DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

I recently finished reading Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, by Michael Chevalier.  Don’t feel too bad if you haven’t read it (or even heard of it)–it’s current ranking on Amazon is #2,875,870.

Chevalier was a twenty-eight-year old Frenchman sent to the US by the French government in 1833, two years after the far more famous mission of his fellow countrymen Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont.   An engineer, Chevalier’s assignment was to study the American transportation and communications systems, which he did diligently and systematically over the next two years.  During his travels, he periodically sent back lengthy letters (thirty-two in all) that were published at the time in a French journal, and then compiled and released in book form after his return.  The first English translation appeared in 1839.

Chevalier paid greatest attention to railroads, steamboats, and canals, but he was interested in economic development generally (he discussed American banking at length) and also discussed U. S. politics extensively as it intersected with and influenced the nation’s economic life.  It was in that context that I came across the quote below with regard to Andrew Jackson.  I’ve previously written about some of the parallels between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump (a comparison that the latter actively invites), but the quote below was so striking that I had to pass it along.

Chevalier begins with a compliment of sorts: “General Jackson possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for conducting partisan warfare,” he observes.  The president is “bold, indefatigable, always alert, quick-sighted . . . harsh and terrible to his enemies.”  But then he elaborates:

For reasons of domestic policy . . . many enlightened men who had at first treated the idea of supporting him for the presidency with ridicule gave in to the plan, trusting that they should be able to exercise a salutary influence over him.  His fiery temper seemed in fact to be calmed by his elevation; the recollection of his oath of office which, at the moment it was made, was made in good faith, was yet fresh.  He conscientiously resolved . . . to be moderate, patient, and calm. . . . But this state of constraint was insupportable to him; it is too late to reform at the age of sixty years.

Sound familiar?

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

ANDREW JACKSON: ROLE MODEL?

A few more thoughts about Andrew Jackson:

If you were following his itinerary last week, you will know that President Trump visited the grave of the nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, on the way to a political rally in Nashville.  Mr. Trump counts himself “a fan” of Old Hickory, almost certainly not because of anything he has read about the Tennessean, but because adviser Stephen Bannon has convinced his boss that Jackson was an 1830s version of himself.  When Bannon lauds Mr. Trump as “Jacksonian,” he is expressing his wish/hope/vision/agenda that history will remember Trump as a “populist” leader who gave birth to an entirely new and permanent political party.

President Trump pauses after laying a wreath at the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

History will show whether he was right.  But in the meantime, I can’t help worrying about other aspects of the Trump-Jackson analogy.  In his regular column in the Washington Post last Thursday, Wheaton alum Michael Gerson lamented that the president had chosen “a deeply disturbing hero.”  I agree.

I should say at the outset that I am not an expert on Jackson.  The only real archival research I have done that even touches on Jackson remotely was decades ago.  During the summer of my first year in graduate school (not long after fire was invented), Chalmette National Historical Park hired me to conduct research in Tennessee on the role of the Tennessee militia in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.  I spent much of that summer at the Tennessee State Archives and the Hermitage (Jackson’s middle Tennessee plantation), poring over military records and copying—by hand—the muster rolls of Tennesseans who served in the Louisiana campaign.  (FYI: It was no picnic.  Only a handful of Tennessee soldiers became battlefield casualties, but over 10 percent died of disease during the few brief months of their service.  I digress.)

Having confessed this limitation, I’ll say on the other hand that I have been teaching on both Jackson and Jacksonian democracy for thirty years, and on balance I have found Jackson to be more scary than admirable.  Over the weekend my view was reinforced as I read H. W. Brands’ biography Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (Anchor Books, 2005).  Brands is a distinguished historian at the University of Texas, author of twenty-five books, and twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  His take on Jackson is deeply researched, engagingly written, and largely sympathetic.  And yet Jackson’s character flaws leap off the page.

Without doubt, Brands reminds us that Jackson had admirable qualities.  He was unquestionably courageous, had an iron constitution, an indomitable will, and an almost mystical attachment to the nation.  Yet as Brands sketches him, Jackson was also a man of great passion and monumental self-confidence, and throughout his life he found it impossible to believe that anyone who disagreed with him could be motivated by honorable convictions.  Any opposition to his will was always evidence of corruption or cowardice or both.  For example, when his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, was defeated in the presidential election of 1840, Jackson concluded, without evidence, that “Corruption, bribery and fraud has been extended over the whole Union.”  Yes, Jackson was a stalwart champion of popular democracy, but he was also utterly convinced that the people, unless they were misled by dishonest demagogues, would always agree with him.  As Brands puts it, “Jackson never had trouble detecting the authority in the voice of the people when they agreed with him, but when they disagreed . . . he concluded that they had been deceived by the ‘machinations’ and conspiracy’ of the enemies of democracy.”

Just as troubling is Brands’ blunt conclusion that “Jackson rarely respected authority per se.”  Twice during the War of 1812 Jackson, then a general of Tennessee militia, directly disobeyed orders from the Secretary of War.  After the War of 1812 had been concluded, Jackson again ignored express instructions from the War Department and led troops into Florida—which was then part of the Spanish Empire—provoking an international incident with both Spain and England that might easily have led to war.  Jackson captured Pensacola, after first threatening the Spanish governor that if he resisted he would kill every last Spanish soldier.  “I am informed that you have orders to fire on my troops entering the city,” Jackson informed the governor in a note.  “I wish you to understand distinctly that if such orders are carried into effect, I will put to death every man found in arms.”  Back in Washington, Jackson’s superiors recognized his widespread popularity and political utility, and the administration of President James Madison tried to control Jackson’s insubordination without openly rebuking him.  For his part, Jackson claimed to care less about the opinion of the “intermeddling pimps and spies of the War Department.”

Andrew Jackson, in an 1824 portrait by artist Thomas Scully

There is much more that I could add that is troubling, for example:

* Jackson’s enduring admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte, not only when the Corsican was leader of Republican France, but even after he had made himself Emperor;

* the duels Jackson fought and the resulting bullets that he carried in his chest and shoulder for much of his adult life;

* his extensive speculation in real estate and penchant for making what would be, in today’s money, six-figure bets on his race horses;

* his advertisement offering a $50 reward for a runaway slave and promise of “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred” (a punishment that would have almost certainly ended in the fugitive’s death); and

* his advice to his nephew, then a cadet at West Point, that if a superior should ever attempt “either to strike or kick you, put him to instant death.”

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Mr. Trump could find a better role model.

DONALD TRUMP AND ANDREW JACKSON

[Since I am currently on leave, I am taking a temporary break from crafting new essays on faith and American history but re-posting past essays from time to time.  When I read that President Trump visited Andrew Jackson’s home before speaking at a rally last night in Nashville, I thought it made sense to re-post a piece I wrote last summer on our seventh president.  Although I am skeptical that Mr. Trump actually knows much about Jackson, he has described himself as “a fan” of our seventh president and has put a picture of him in the oval office.  I’ve taught on Jackson for nearly thirty years, and with all due respect to President Trump, I find little reason to admire his presidency.  You can read my summary assessment below.]

To the degree that history has remembered Andrew Jackson kindly, it has done so for two main reasons.  First, Jackson responded forcefully to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, when South Carolina attempted to nullify federal tariff legislation and threatened disunion if Jackson insisted on enforcing the objectionable laws.  Second, Jackson seemingly embodied a new democratic ethos that exalted the nobility of the “common man” and the moral authority of the majority.  As a rude frontiersman elevated to the nation’s highest office, Jackson became the face of Jacksonian Democracy and the “symbol for an age.”

In truth, Jackson received too much credit in both respects.  Jackson’s “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina”—a vigorous argument for federal supremacy and the perpetuity of the Union—was in fact ghost-written by Senator Edward Livingston of Louisiana.  What is more, Jackson’s approach to federal authority was far from consistent.  At the same time that he was threatening to hang “nullifiers” to the closest tree he could find, this champion of the Union was effectively inviting the state of Georgia to abrogate federal treaties with the Cherokee and encouraging them to defy the U. S. Supreme Court.  And when it comes to Jackson’s relation to the rise of American democracy, it is hard not to see that correlation as almost entirely coincidental.  Jackson’s political leadership was too personal, too impetuous, too erratic to credit him with a purposeful contribution to a more democratic public square.

Although the Whigs could be guilty of exaggerating Jackson’s political sins for partisan purposes, and they were not above duplicating them for partisan gain, their fundamental indictment of Jackson was pretty much on target.  Jackson too often functioned as a reckless, anti-intellectual populist.  His knowledge of, and respect for the Constitution was suspect.  And he had a knack for framing issues in a way that made the people feel aggrieved and willing to accord him more power so that he could protect them from the powerful.  Let me unpack this seemingly harsh assessment.

First, when I say that Jackson was reckless, I mean that he was motivated more by instinct, emotion, and personal feeling than by any systematic political philosophy or vision.  His temper was legendary, he chafed at restraint, and he always took disagreement personally.  He was involved in multiple duels.  He killed a man for insulting his wife.  He exceeded his authority as a military commander after the War of 1812, very nearly embroiling the United States in a war with Spain and prompting Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to recommend his removal.  Once in the White House, he very nearly brought his administration to a grinding halt because the wives of some of his cabinet members refused to socialize with the wife of his Secretary of War.

Jackson was also the first populist U. S. president.  A populist sees (or claims to see) the world as a struggle between the people—always clothed in robes of moral righteousness—and a powerful minority who would subvert the people’s welfare for their own selfish gain.  A populist politician routinely portrays himself as the hero of this drama, a noble champion charged with defending a helpless populace against the insidious forces that threaten them.

There was little in Jackson’s public life prior to 1824 to predict that he would become a populist.  Born in poverty, he parlayed influential connections and a knack for land speculation into a fortune that made him one of the largest land- and slave-owners in Tennessee.  During the War of 1812 he exploited a political appointment as general of the Tennessee state militia into a series of important military assignments, but he quickly built the reputation of a harsh disciplinarian not averse to putting deserters in front of a firing squad.

Then in 1824 the Tennessee General Assembly nominated Jackson as a candidate for president and support for his candidacy began to grow, particularly in what was then “the west.”  This growing support was not due to his political experience, of which he had very little, but rather a tribute to his military success in defeating Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and then the British army at the Battle of New Orleans.

Jackson took approximately 40 percent of both the popular and electoral vote in the four-man presidential election that followed, which is another way of saying that three-fifths of voters wanted someone else to be president.  It was then that Jackson discovered the moral authority of majority rule—or plurality rule, to be more precise—because when John Quincy Adams won the run-off in the House of Representatives, Jackson insisted that the system was rigged and that he had been robbed of the presidency.  In private letters, Jackson lashed out at Speaker of the House Henry Clay, a rival for the presidency who had actively worked against him in the run-off.  The Kentuckian Clay became the “Judas of the West,” a metaphor that could only hold if Jackson was analogous to Christ.

Publicly, Jackson lamented that the authority of the people had been disregarded and the wishes of the Founding Fathers had been trampled.  Ignoring the inconvenient truth that the Framers of the Constitution had feared unfettered majority rule, as well as the fact that the Constitution does not require that there be any direct popular involvement in the election of the president, Jackson pronounced that his defeat was unconstitutional.  The Constitution’s authors, he insisted without a scrap of evidence, would have condemned the election of John Quincy Adams as a violation of the people’s rights.

Jackson3In 1824 Jackson’s campaign managers had primarily portrayed their candidate as “General Jackson,” the hero of New Orleans who deserved their vote because of his patriotism and self-sacrifice.  In 1828 the campaign shifted to a full-throttled populism, denouncing the supposed “Corrupt Bargain” that had stolen the presidency from the people’s choice and handed it to John Quincy Adams.

Demonstrating the anti-intellectualism that so often accompanies populism, the Jackson campaign argued fantastically that Adams’s education and extensive political experience disqualified him from the nation’s highest office.  While Jackson had barely a year of formal schooling and minimal political experience, Adams, after graduating from Harvard, had served as a congressman, senator, ambassador, Secretary of State, and now president.  According to his political lieutenants, Jackson was the more qualified.

John Quincy Adams

Without openly discussing the size of Jackson’s hands, they portrayed their candidate as a man’s man and Adams as an effeminate intellectual.  Who do you want as president, they asked voters: “Jackson who can fight, or Adams who can write?”  And Adams’ extensive political experience was no more an advantage than his education, for political experience undermined, rather than enhanced, a candidate’s ability to serve the public.  Jackson would drive home the point in his first annual message after claiming the presidency on his second try. “There are, perhaps, few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties,” Jackson opined.

The solution was what Jackson called “rotation in office,” or what Americans in more recent times have known as term limits.  To prevent their corruption, make sure that American office holders are always novices.  Nothing would be lost in terms of effectiveness, Jackson assured the nation, because “the duties of all public officers are . . . so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.”  Who needs experience?

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, PA

During the eight years that Jackson was in the White House, the episode that best exemplified Jackson’s populism was the so-called Bank War of 1832-1833.  In 1832 the supporters of the Second Bank of the United States—including the “Judas of the West” Henry Clay—had maneuvered a measure through Congress to extend the charter of the bank for another twenty years.  The descendant of an entity originally proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the bank had been chartered by Congress in 1816 in the hope that it would provide a circulating medium for the nation’s economy and bring greater stability and soundness to the country’s often turbulent financial sector.  The bank’s defenders were correct in saying that the bank was largely fulfilling these objectives.  The bank’s detractors were also surely right that this private agency wielded considerable power with minimal accountability.

Jackson, who knew almost nothing about how banks actually function, did know this: the bank’s strongest champions were among his most outspoken critics, and that made the effort to renew the charter a personal attack.  In the summer of 1832 he vetoed the measure on multiple grounds, two of which deserve special attention.  First, Jackson portrayed the struggle over the Bank in classic populist tones.  The proposal to extend the life of the Bank was nothing more than an effort of rich men to make themselves richer.  “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” Jackson lamented.  Fortunately, the victims of such injustice—“the humble members of society”—could look to him for protection.

To use current terminology, Jackson portrayed the Bank War as a scheme to use government to enrich the 1 percent at the expense of 99-percenters.  In actuality, among the chief opponents of the Bank of the United States were other bankers—financiers who resented the competition of the B.U.S. and expected their profits to rise if their rival could be eliminated.  There is little evidence that common folk were better off because of the demise of the Bank of the United States, and historians have long speculated that Jackson’s assault on the Bank may have contributed to a severe economic recession at the close of his second term.  That is debatable, but this much is not: when Jackson removed all federal deposits from the Bank of the United States, he divvied them up among state banks—Whigs called them “pet banks”—that were run by his political allies.

This contemporary cartoon depicts Jackson bringing down the pillars of power and privilege through his war against the bank. Near the center of the picture, fleeing Jackson’s righteous wrath, is the president of the Bank of the United States, sporting horns and cloven hooves.

In addition to denouncing the bill to re-charter the Bank as an effort to make the rich richer, Jackson further justified his veto by condemning it as unconstitutional.  The problem here is that the Supreme Court had explicitly defended its constitutionality in the 1818 case McCullough v. Maryland.  The Court’s ruling was utterly irrelevant, Jackson announced in his veto message.  That is because “each public officer who takes an oath to support the Constitution swears that he will support it as he understands it, and not as it is understood by others. . . . The opinion of the judges has no more authority over Congress than the opinion of Congress has over the judges, and on that point the President is independent of both.”

Boiled down, to the degree that the Constitution placed any restrictions on his actions as president, Jackson alone would determine what they were.  The Constitution would mean what he said it meant.  With this comforting philosophy, Jackson would go on to veto more measures than his six predecessors combined.  Whatever else it meant, Jackson’s zeal for the public welfare meant an expansion of the power of the presidency.

This caricature of Andrew Jackson, by an unknown artist, likely appeared in the fall of 1833. Jackson stands on a shredded copy of the Constitution.

When the Treasury Department announced earlier this spring that it would be removing Jackson from the front of the twenty-dollar bill, I applauded, although I found much of the online exultation after the announcement off-putting.  Most of the voices raised in support of the decision emphasized Jackson’s support for two practices—slavery and Indian removal—supported or at least accepted by the vast majority of white Americans at the time.  While condemnation of these practices is the morally correct position for us to hold, it is also a morally cheap position, in that it demands absolutely nothing of us.  Who in 2016 would stand up to defend either practice?  What courage is required to denounce them?

What troubles me most about Jackson is not the ways in which he was a man of his time, but the ways in which he anticipated our day and age.  In his elevation to the presidency almost two hundred years ago, we see a foreshadowing of the emotional, frequently irrational politics of 2016.  And in Jackson, we see the combination of reckless, anti-intellectual, populist bravado that the current “presumptive nominee” of the Republican Party has so wonderfully perfected.  If Jackson’s presidency teaches us anything, however, it is that successful populist politicians don’t always bring more power to the people.  Sometimes they just amass more power for themselves.

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

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(First other essays comparing Jackson and Trump, check out here and here.)

“CUTTING DOWN JUNGLES AND IRRIGATING DESERTS”–C. S. LEWIS ON THE TEACHER’S TASK

[As I shared last time, I am on leave until the fall and taking a temporary break from crafting new essays on faith and American history.  In the meantime, I thought I would re-post essays that have either been comparatively popular or personally meaningful.  (Those two categories often don’t overlap, by the way.)  I thought I would start with this piece on one of the ways that C. S. Lewis has taught me about “the task of the modern educator.”  Academic historians are great at cutting down jungles, but we aren’t trained to irrigate deserts, and our students are the poorer for it.  I’ve spent a good part of the last two decades trying to figure out how to bring “the Fountain of living water” into the history classroom.  It’s an ongoing project, but here are my thoughts as of a few years ago.]

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century, and I have long appreciated many of his better known popular works. As a young adult, I read and re-read classics such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Then when our children came along and they were old enough, my wife recommended that I read The Chronicles of Narnia to them. Soon Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy—not to mention a host of centaurs, dwarves, giants and dufflepuds—were part of our regular bedtime routine. Count me a fan.

Although I never expected it when I first began to read Lewis, he has also helped me immensely in thinking about my calling as a historian and a teacher. I was reminded of this recently in re-reading Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book that I was informally discussing with a small group of Wheaton undergraduates. If you don’t know the book, I highly recommend it, particularly if you are at all interested in the role that education plays in both affecting and reflecting popular values. It’s a short book (most editions come in at under one hundred pages), but it’s also a difficult book, the kind that you have to read slowly, and more than once, to get the maximum benefit. But isn’t that true of most books that change us, rather than merely entertain us?

abolition of manSummarizing broadly, The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality. Above all, it is a powerful indictment of relativism. Although Lewis was writing about seventy years ago, his words are timely today. Indeed, his description of WWII-era England neatly captures the trends that define public education in the contemporary United States. With little sense of irony, we deny the existence of absolute moral values and then are appalled at the epidemic of drug abuse, violence, and sexual promiscuity that plagues our schools. As Lewis put it, “such is the tragi-comedy of our situation” that we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

The Abolition of Man is a jeremiad, an extended warning. Lewis’s primary concern is to call attention to the disastrous long-term consequences of an educational philosophy that denigrates moral truth. Necessarily, it is mostly critical. Yet embedded in Lewis’s negative assessment are glimpses of a very different approach to education, glimpses that offer positive ideals to strive toward. Let me share a favorite example of what I have in mind.

It comes in the midst of chapter one, provocatively entitled “Men Without Chests.” Lewis has just finished discussing a passage from a high-school literature textbook that undermines the idea of objective moral values. The unsuspecting students who read the book will think that they are only learning grammar. In reality, however, they are also learning philosophy, for the implicit message of the passage is that “all values are subjective and trivial.” Giving the authors of the textbook the benefit of the doubt, Lewis concedes that their intentions might be honorable. Even so, they are sadly misguided, for they have

misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.  The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.

I’ve found these two phrases—“cutting down jungles” and “irrigating deserts”—to be wonderfully useful metaphors. They have helped me to think more perceptively about the conventions of academic history, and they have enabled me to see more clearly how those conventions have influenced what I bring to the classroom. “Cutting down jungles,” as I understand that phrase, means helping students with passionate convictions to evaluate critically their world views, to examine what lies beneath the personal beliefs they profess. “Irrigating deserts,” conversely, involves nurturing in apathetic or cynical students the hope that there is meaning and purpose in human existence.

We academic historians are great at cutting down jungles. Read almost any reflection on the historian’s vocation by an academic historian and you will come across statements like the following: “Basically history is destructive.” “The practice of history is not comforting” but “profoundly subversive.” “Honest history” will be “unsettling” and “jarring.” It pushes people “to stand outside their comfortable . . . assumptions and to learn unpleasant lessons.” Our “proper role” as historians is to “challenge preconceptions and assumptions,” “critique and reform unreflective modes of civic discourse about the past,” criticize “American cultural and societal failures,” “challeng[e] received wisdom,” “explode national myths.” Yep, we love to wield our machetes.

But we’re a pretty sorry lot when it comes to irrigating deserts. Academic history is too often “all head and no heart,” in the words of distinguished historian Gordon Wood. Taking Lewis’s counsel seriously demands that we correct that imbalance. Historians need to recover a role that not only criticizes but encourages, that not only explodes myths, but also serves as the custodian of forgotten dreams for a better world. Yes, we must challenge the self-serving assumptions of the culture, but we must also boldly identify, in the words of David Harlan, “what is good” in our past, “what is worth insisting on and saving.” Figuring out how to do that is a challenge, but it is a goal worthy of our best efforts.

CHECKING IN

Yes, I’m still alive.

When New Year’s rolled around, I knew that I needed a break, but I never expected to go silent for more than two months.  Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to make sure I was OK.

I’m on sabbatical this semester at Wheaton, which means I am working as hard as ever but with a narrower focus.  As I have shared several times on this blog, my sense of vocation–my heart’s greatest desire–is to be in conversation with folks outside of the Academy about the intersection of the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.  Toward that end, I am finishing up a long-overdue manuscript for Intervarsity Press (“A Little Book for New Historians”) and laying the groundwork for at least two other book projects as well. I now spend almost all of my time in a tiny cubicle in the college library, writing a bit every day and devoting the rest of the time to reading, reading, and more reading.  As soon as the weather allows, I’ll relocate to a camp chair in a local forest preserve, but other than that my routine will stay the same.

But I’m not going to ignore you entirely.  I’ll try to share some of what I am reading with you occasionally, and I plan to re-post a selection of essays from previous years (maybe once a week or so).

I look forward to resuming the conversation.

Take care.

buswell-carrel

ABRAHAM LINCOLN ON NEW YEAR’S EVE

Lincoln in 1860

Actually, I have no idea how Abraham Lincoln observed New Year’s Eve, but I do have a strong suspicion about what passed through his mind as one year gave way to the next.

I spent this morning in a coffee shop with a book titled Herndon’s Informants.  The “Herndon” in the title refers to William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s long-time law partner in Springfield, Illinois.  In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon became convinced that the country was transforming the late president into a mythical figure bearing no resemblance to the man he had worked alongside for nearly two decades.  To prevent this crime against history, he set out to write a biography of his friend and partner that would set the record straight.  He spent much of the next two years tracking down individuals who had known Lincoln personally.  Herndon’s Informants embodies the fruit of that labor.  Compiled and edited by scholars almost a century and a half later, it is a collection of more than eight hundred pages of written and oral reminiscences from more than two hundred and fifty friends, relatives, neighbors, and associates who claimed to know Lincoln well.

I’ve been working my way through this hefty volume for some time now, but two things especially struck me as I read this New Year’s Eve.  First, countless informants independently testified that, although Lincoln was fond of well-known poets such as Robert Burns and Lord Byron, his favorite poem was by the little-known Scottish poet William Knox (1789-1825).  The poem, “Mortality,” is a dreary litany of human hopelessness in fourteen ever-more gloomy verses.   Knox’s main goal seemed to have been to remind his readers of the certainty of death and the vanity of life.  Here is his first verse:

Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

Like the author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, Knox stressed repeatedly that death is no respecter of persons.  In Ecclesiastes chapter 2, the Preacher observes that although “wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness . . . the same event happens to them all.”  Hear Knox’s echo:

The saint, who enjoyed the communion of Heaven,
The sinner, who dared to remain unforgiven,
The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,
Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.

“Mortality” begins and ends with futility.  The world it describes is a closed universe with scarcely a hint of a divine Author.  Life is short and then you die.  Here is the poem’s last verse, which Lincoln, reportedly, viewed as particularly eloquent:

‘Tis the wink of an eye — ’tis the draught of a breath–
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud:–
Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Lincoln learned “Mortality” by heart and recited it often.  A storekeeper who knew Lincoln in the 1820s remembered him relating it.  So did a lawyer who traveled the circuit with Lincoln in the 1850s.  The latter recalled Lincoln saying that to him “it sounded as much like true poetry as any thing he had ever heard.”

In my reading this morning I also learned that, as a teenager, Lincoln had transcribed some ostensibly similar verses into his copybook.  Reproduced exactly, they read as follows: “Time What an emty vaper tis and days how swift they are swift as an indian arrow fly on like a shooting star.”

Here again we’re confronted with the brevity of life, albeit from a very different writer, and for a very different purpose.  If you don’t recognize these lines–as I did not–they come from the prolific English hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748).  Lincoln clearly wasn’t copying them directly from a hymnal–the misspellings testify to that–so it seems likely that he had heard the words sung and was doing his semi-literate best to preserve them from memory.  They come from Watts’s hymn, written before 1707, “The Shortness of Life and the Goodness of God.”  Here are all seven verses as recorded in an 1821 edition of the hymn-writer’s works:

Time! what an empty vapour ’tis!
And days how swift they are!
Swift as an Indian arrow flies,
Or like a shooting star.

The present moments just appear,
Then slide away in haste,
That we can never say, “They’re here,”
But only say, “They’re past.”

Our life is ever on the wing,
And death is ever nigh;
The moment when our lives begin
We all begin to die.

Yet, mighty God, our fleeting days
Thy lasting favours share,
Yet with the bounties of thy grace
Thou load’st the rolling year.

‘Tis sovereign mercy finds us food,
And we are cloth d with love;
While grace stands pointing out the road
That leads our souls above.

His goodness runs an endless round;
All glory to the Lord:
His mercy never knows a bound,
And be his Name ador’d!

Thus we begin the lasting song,
And when we close our eyes,
Let the next age thy praise prolong
Till time and nature dies.

Significantly, the young Lincoln did his best to record the first two verses but then he stopped, even though the full hymn continues for another five verses.  I found myself wondering why:  Did his memory fail him?  Did the unfamiliar labor of writing grow tiresome? Or did the poor youngster in Indiana find it hard to relate to the latter part of Watts’s hymn?

Although Watts’s hymn starts similarly to Knox’s poem, it eventually transitions to words of comfort and hope.  As the hymn’s title suggests, Watts would have us understand the shortness of life in light of the goodness of God.

Yes, Watts agrees, our days “slide away in haste” and “death is ever nigh.”  Yet that’s far from the whole story.  God showers our brief sojourns with the hallmarks of His favor: mercy, love, and grace.  And death–though inescapable–is not the end.  We “close our eyes” to awake in a new age with a song on our lips for eternity.

One of the most repetitive observations of Scripture is the simple truth that our lives are short.  We read that our days on earth are akin to a “breath” (Job 7:7), a “passing shadow” (Psalm 14:4), a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14).  I think it’s good to dwell on this truth as the year comes to a close, but as Isaac Watts reminds us, we mustn’t stop there.

May God bless you all in 2017.