WHEN CHRISTMAS WASN’T A HOLIDAY

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

The day was December 25, 1621, and the storied “Pilgrims” of Plimoth Plantation were headed out to work.

Sometime that fall—we don’t know exactly when—the fifty passengers of the Mayflower who had survived their first winter in New England had joined ninety or more Wampanoag Indians in a harvest celebration we remember as “the First Thanksgiving.”  We tend to lose interest in their story at that point, unfortunately, although we know much more about the aftermath of the First Thanksgiving than we do about the celebration itself.

One of the things we know is that the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued for at least another two years.  This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the Pilgrims’ voyage.  The “Merchant Adventurers,” as they were known, had sent another boatload of colonists for Plymouth that fall.  Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune.  The thirty-five new settlers on board, including family and friends from the Pilgrim congregation in Leiden, would nearly double the colony’s depleted ranks, and the Pilgrims were initially elated.

Their joy was tempered when they discovered that the London merchants had again insisted on adding numerous strangers to the passenger list, “many of them wild enough,” in Governor William Bradford’s words.  What was worse, they had arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as Bradford bitterly recalled.  Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation.  Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half.  In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.”

To compound their adversity, not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a message from the nearby Narragansett Indians threatening war.  Fearing for their safety, the depleted band began a frenzied construction of a log palisade around their tiny settlement.  (By the end of February they would complete a wall of logs eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long!)  We tend to close the book on the Pilgrims’ story with the small band feasting around the Thanksgiving table.  It was actually but the briefest of interludes to a year of almost unimaginable hardships, and as the year drew to a close, the Pilgrims not one but two imminent threats: hunger and the Narragansett, starvation and war.

But that is not why they were headed out to work on Christmas Day.

They were headed out to work because Christmas Day was no different from any other day, in their estimation.   The Pilgrims understood the concept of holidays literally.  The word holiday in modern parlance is simply the elision of the two-word phrase “holy day.”  As they read their Bibles, the Pilgrims concluded that God alone could command that a day be set apart as holy unto the Lord, and nowhere in the Scripture could they find any commandment to celebrate the birth of Christ.  As the Pilgrims’ pastor in Holland had remarked to them, nowhere in the Bible are we even told that December 25th was Jesus’ birthday.  At the time that the Pilgrims fled England for Holland, the Church of England recognized twenty-seven holy days annually (down from ninety-five at the time that Henry VIII broke with Rome).  The survival of so many holidays on the Anglican calendar was evidence, in the minds of English Puritans, of the degree to which the Church of England still suffered from “the gross darkness of popery.”  Holidays like Christmas (and even Easter) were “papist inventions” that primarily served as a pretext for pagan celebrations.

The “strangers” recently arrived on the Fortune didn’t see it that way, however.  In his famous history Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford concluded his review of the events of 1621 with a humorous story of what happened that Christmas:

On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used [i.e., as was customary].  But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day.  So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.  But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball [a game similar to cricket] and such like sports.  So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work.  If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.

A colleague of mine at the University of Washington once used the paragraph above as the text for his Christmas cards.  An Englishman and a historian of colonial America, he sent the cards primarily for laughs, to tweak his American friends.  There are also more substantive reasons to remember this story at Christmas time.  Bradford’s anecdote reminds us of history’s greatest value: the gift of allowing us to see our own moment in time from the vantage point of another.

Although we are historical creatures, none of us naturally thinks historically.  We come into the world taking for granted that the way things are now is the way that they have always been.  As we gradually come to discover otherwise, we then gravitate to a worse historical error, the assumption that the way things are now—though different from the past—is both inevitable and superior to what came before.  The result is that we are freed from thinking deeply about the values we hold.  Indeed, to the degree that we see them as inevitable or “natural,” we may not even be self-conscious about them at all.

Bradford’s anecdote reminds us that Christians—even in our part of the world—have not always thought of Christmas as we do.  When the English Puritans briefly controlled Parliament in the middle of the seventeenth century, they actually enacted a national law prohibiting observance of the day.  On this side of the water, Christian opposition to Christmas continued for much of the rest of the century in New England.  Next door to Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1659.  The ordinance below continued on the books of the Massachusetts government until 1681:

It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shilling as a fine to the county.

Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather and Increase Mather likewise denounced celebration of the holiday, noting that the holiday as celebrated in England made a mockery of Christian piety and was little more than an excuse for every form of carnal excess and indulgence.   Such sentiments were slow to fade, and Boston schools were open on Christmas Day for much of the nineteenth century.  Certainly, as late as the Civil War, the South was much more supportive of Christmas than was the North, where the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing on December 22nd was the more commonly observed December celebration.

Like most of you, I imagine, my family has developed over time an assortment of Christmas traditions that we remember fondly and look forward to unapologetically.  None of us need follow William Bradford’s example by prohibiting celebrations this Sunday.  But it wouldn’t hurt us to think about why we do what we do.  In its essence, that is the practice that Bradford was modeling for us.  We don’t have to arrive at his exact conclusions to take his reminder to heart.

In England and the United States, at least, most of the Christmas traditions we now think of as timeless emerged during the latter half of the 1800s.  Many of these are surely wonderful—I know I’m thankful for Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, and Christmas Eve candlelight services.  Some are not so positive.  The most obvious is the orgy of buying now so central to the holiday.  But even more pernicious—because less blatant—is the way that, even within our churches, we have narrowed the theological significance of the Incarnation to a sentimental story about a baby in a manger, emphasizing the love of God while severing the miracle of the Incarnation from the human need for Atonement and the divine promise of an already/not yet Kingdom.

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Merry Christmas one and all!

“FOR HATE IS STRONG AND MOCKS THE SONG”: A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL

I love Christmas carols and I would have a hard time choosing my favorite, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride. (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.) The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however. In 1861 Longfellow’s wife Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia. Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.” Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good- will to men!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.” But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in. Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

gettysburg-first-day-casualties-xl

A scene from the field at Gettysburg, five and a half months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells”

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned "The Christmas Bells."

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells.”

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism. Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long. Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.

Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.” The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course. In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking, a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue. We hear instead a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be ours this Christmas.

ADVENT REMINDERS FOR POLITICALLY-CONSCIOUS CHRISTIANS

I’m not really a politics junkie, but I found the extraordinary divisiveness of the recent presidential campaign mesmerizing (not to mention deeply disturbing).  For Christians, the danger of becoming so engrossed in an election like the one we just experienced is that it’s easy easy to lose perspective.  Unaware, we can gradually forget what we claim to believe about the sovereignty of God as we agonize over the triumph of this candidate or the failure of that one.  This is one reason I called your attention recently to Vince Bacote’s book The Political Disciple.  It is filled with reminders of Biblical truths that will keep us grounded if we cling to them.

Before I forget about it, I thought I would also call attention to another voice that I needed to hear in the aftermath of election day.  Michael Gerson is one of my favorite writers on public life.  A graduate of Wheaton and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, his op-ed column in the Washington Post is regularly engaging and insightful.  And for those who doubt that a “mainstream media” source like the Post could possibly feature a substantive Christian perspective, Gerson’s editorials consistently prove otherwise.

A case in point was his November 21 piece, “Pushing Back Against the Mortal Risk of Politics.”  With candid humility, Gerson reflects on the ways that, in our fallenness, we so regularly take on the attributes of those we criticize.  The “mortal risk of politics is becoming what you condemn,” he writes, and it’s a danger “not limited to one side of our political divide.”  Gerson goes on to confess,  “I have found myself angry at how [pro-Trump evangelicals] have endorsed the politics of anger; bitter about the bitter political spirit they have encouraged; feeling a bit hypocritical in my zeal to point out their hypocrisy.”

But then Gerson preaches the gospel to himself–and to us–by recalling that “an attitude of fuming, prickly anxiety” should be foreign to followers of Jesus for at least two reasons.  First. “Christian belief relativizes politics.”  He elaborates,

The pursuit of social justice and the maintenance of public order are vital work.  But these tasks are temporary, and, in an ultimate sense, secondary.  If Christianity is true, C. S. Lewis noted, then “the individual person will outlive the universe.”  All our anger and worry about politics should not blind us to the priority and value of the human beings placed in our lives, whatever their background or beliefs.

The practical implications of this truth are clear and convicting: “‘Those people’ are also ‘our people.’ . . . No change of president or shift in the composition of the Supreme Court can result in a repeal of the Golden Rule.”

Second, “Christians are instructed not to be anxious.”  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, trusting by faith that God is good and that He is in control.  The atheist may see the universe as “indifferent to the lives and dreams of jumped-up primates crawling on an unremarkable blue ball,” but our faith assures us that “that blue ball was touched by God in a manner and form that Homo Sapiens might understand.  And the vast, cold universe is really a sheltering sky.”

Gerson ends with words of encouragement:

After a dismal and divisive campaign season, many of us need the timely reminders of the Advent season: That people matter more than all our political certainties.  That God is in control, despite our best efforts.  And that some conflicts can’t be won by force or votes–only by grace.

WHAT “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” CAN TEACH US ABOUT THINKING HISTORICALLY

It's a Wonderful Life IIDo Americans still watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas time? I used to think that everyone was familiar with it, at least, but now I’m not so sure. I met a woman in church the other day who is “old enough to know better”—that is how my dad used to categorize anyone his age or older—and she stunned me by confessing that she has never seen this holiday classic. In case you haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it. It’s a heartwarming, even inspiring story, but its real value is in how it teaches us to think historically. As effectively as any movie I’ve seen, it drives home the importance of historical context.

Historical context is critical to historical understanding for one basic reason: none of us lives in a vacuum. Humanly speaking, our lives are influenced (not determined, but profoundly influenced) by what has gone before us. Indeed, if there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.

Historians sometimes try to make this point by comparing history to an enormous, seamless tapestry. (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.) Although it’s possible to extract a single thread and examine it, it’s in contemplating the larger pattern that we can best understand the purpose and significance of the individual fibers. In sum, the particular makes little sense without reference to a larger whole. Similarly, when wrenched from its historical context, an isolated historical fact may intrigue or entertain us (good for crossword puzzles or Jeopardy), but it has nothing meaningful to teach us.

The bottom line is simple:

Know context, know meaning. No context, no meaning. 

But not everyone finds it easy to relate to a textile analogy. (Go figure.) This is where It’s a Wonderful Life comes in. Hollywood rarely aids the life of the mind–and in truth, the movie’s theology is really messed up–but when it comes to the importance of historical context this film gets it right.

It-s-A-Wonderful-Life-its-a-wonderful-life-32920425-1600-1202To begin with, the very structure of the movie teaches that context is indispensable to understanding. In case you don’t know the plot, the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1945, as countless prayers waft toward heaven on behalf of the protagonist, down-on-his-luck George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. In response, the senior angels Franklin and Joseph call for George’s guardian angel, an “angel second-class” named Clarence Odbody, played by the marvelously eyebrowed Henry Trevor.

Clarence appears immediately, and when Franklin and Joseph explain that someone on earth (George) is seriously contemplating suicide, Clarence offers to rush immediately to his aid, but his mentors stop him short with a sharp rebuke. “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him,” Joseph scolds, and for the next hour and a half they provide Clarence with historical context for the present crisis. All told, fully two-thirds of the movie consists of flashback, powerfully driving home the message that we can’t comprehend any moment in time without knowledge of what has preceded it.

Its a Wonderful Life VIIBut not everything that has gone before will be relevant. In briefing Clarence, Franklin and Joseph practice what one historian calls the principle of selective attention. Rather than overwhelm Clarence with a flood of facts, they choose the events and circumstances in the past that have been most influential in shaping the man George has become. In turn, this helps Clarence to comprehend what George’s current circumstances mean to him.

In reviewing George’s life, furthermore, the senior angels also remind us that our lives unfold within multiple contexts. Some of the circumstances that they review are intimate details quite specific to George, for example his rescue of his brother Harry or his longstanding yearning to see the world and build modern cities. Others grow out of George’s family context, for instance the centrality of the family savings and loan business or his father’s decades-long struggle with “old man Potter.”

Both categories involve the kind of personal pasts we preserve and pass on in conversation around the dinner table without realizing that we are functioning as historians. But George’s life was also touched by distant, much less personal developments that affected the entire nation or even the world–the kind of events that get into textbooks and which we instantly recognize as “historical.” So, in the flashback we see how George’s past intersected with events such as the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919, the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the Second World War.

It's a Wonderful Life VFinally, the movie points us toward a bedrock truth about the human condition that explains why context is always important to historical understanding. If Clarence is initially mystified as to why it should be important, by the movie’s end he understands fully and expresses the underlying principle with eloquent simplicity. After showing an incredulous George that the world would have been starkly different if he had never been born, Clarence muses, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. . . .”

Clarence’s insight into the unlimited interrelatedness of human experience–we could call it Odbody’s Axiom–is at the heart of all sound historical thinking.

NOT A BAD EXAMPLE A CENTURY AND A HALF LATER

I continue to make my way through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and just this week made it to the eighth and final volume in the series.  Volume Eight begins in September 1864, in the midst of the presidential campaign of that year.  Abraham Lincoln was seeking re-election to the presidency, but the human costs of the war had exceeded the darkest predictions, and that combined with divisions within his own party, widespread war weariness, and the passionate opposition of northern Democrats made his re-election far from certain.

At the end of August, the outlook for the Union was so grim that Lincoln himself had come to expect defeat.  Although William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September initiated a decisive shift in military momentum and boosted popular support for the Lincoln Administration, the presidential campaign was still one of the ugliest of the century.  Northern Democrats lampooned Lincoln as “Abe the Widow-maker” and held him personally responsible for the deaths of the Union slain.  With a crudity that almost defies description, they hailed him as King “Abraham Africanus the First” and accused him of being a “negro-lover” who advocated miscegenation and the rule of blacks over whites.  In their platform they denounced the war as a “failure” and called for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by negotiations with the South.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph about three months after his re-election to the presidency.

Here is how Lincoln responded publicly after news arrived of his re-election.  Presidents did not hold news conferences in those days, and Lincoln scheduled no public speeches of any kind in the weeks following his electoral victory.  But on November 10th, 1864, the day after Lincoln learned beyond doubt that he had been re-elected to a second term, a torchlight parade of supporters proceeded to the White where they “serenaded” the victor, prompting Lincoln to deliver a short speech from his balcony.  Here is a portion of what he had to say:

 . . . now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, re-unite in a common effort, to save our common country?  For my own part, I have striven, and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way.  So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.

While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result.

May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?

A remarkable example, don’t you think?  Lincoln told his private secretary afterward that his comments were “not very graceful,” but they revealed a largeness of heart and magnanimity of spirit in short supply a century and a half later.

 

HOW A CIVIL-WAR CARTOONIST TAUGHT US TO SEE SANTA

Does the name “Thomas Nast” ring a bell with you? Specialists in U.S. history know him well, but otherwise he’s not much remembered today. But even though we don’t recall him, his influence is all around us at this time of year. I think of Nast every time I pass a mall Santa or tune in to yet another Hallmark movie focused on the North Pole. The reason is simple: Thomas Nast is the artist who showed us what Santa Claus really looks like.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Born in Germany, Nast came to America as a child in the 1840s and quickly showed an aptitude for art. By his early twenties he was working as an illustrator and cartoonist for several prominent national publications, most notably Harper’s Weekly, the self-described “journal of civilization” which as early as 1860 had a circulation upwards of 200,000. Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and he quickly became widely known for his cartoons attacking municipal corruption–most notably his campaign against New York City machine boss William Tweed, who fell from power in 1871, in no small part due to Nast’s devastating campaign against him.

I know Nast best, however, for his cartoons pertaining to the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Here are a few of my favorites that I have long used in my classes dealing with that period of U.S. history:

nast-chicago-convention“Compromise with the South” appeared in the September 3, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  Less than a week before, northern Democrats had met in convention in Chicago and declared the war a failure.  The party platform called for an immediate ceasefire to be followed by negotiations with the Confederacy with the goal that “peace may be restored on the basis of the Federal Union,” a roundabout way of communicating the party’s willingness for the southern states to return to the Union with slavery intact.  In the center of the cartoon, Confederate president Jefferson Davis clasps hands with a maimed Union veteran to ashamed to raise his head.  Davis’s boot rests squarely on a Union grave marked by a headstone which reads, “In Memory of Union Heroes who have Fallen in a USELESS WAR,” while “Columbia,” meant to be seen as the female embodiment of America, weeps beside the grave.  A staunch Republican, Nast was ridiculing the Democratic platform as a betrayal of Union soldiers and an abandonment of southern blacks.

Nast1“This is a White Man’s Government” appeared in the September 5, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The title was inspired by the motto of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election pitting Governor Horatio Seymour of New York against the Republican nominee Ulysses Grant. Determined to portray the Republican Party as radical in its advocacy of civil rights for former slaves, Democratic campaign ribbons proclaimed “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”

Nast was insinuating that Democratic rule would be built on an unholy triumvirate of objectionable elements. Numerically the largest consisted of ignorant northern Democratic voters, most of them semi-civilized, uneducated recent immigrants who had opposed the war. (Nast’s portrayal of Irish individuals in his cartoons is almost always grossly demeaning. The Irishman on the left, wielding a club labeled “The Vote,” has all the features of a monkey.)

Second in number would be southern white Democrats, almost all of whom had been disloyal to the Union during the late war. (The figure in the middle is supposed to be former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The third and smallest element is here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party. Belmont stands for Fifth Avenue types who had gotten rich during the war and who were willing to buy up the votes of the urban rabble to promote their nefarious schemes. (Notice that Belmont is clutching a wallet stuffed with cash for that purpose.)

Underneath the three lies a prostrate black Union veteran, dressed in uniform, clutching the U. S. flag, and reaching out for the ballot box. Nast was arguing for black civil rights by reminding readers that thousands of southern blacks had risked their lives in support of the Union, in stark contrast to the pillars of the Democratic Party.

Harper's Weekly,  October 24, 1874

Harper’s Weekly,
October 24, 1874

Much the same message comes through in this untitled Nast cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1874. The phrases at the top of the cartoon are all pointed references to the Democratic Party. “The Union as It Was” was a popular slogan of the 1864 Democratic presidential campaign of George McClellan. “This is a White Man’s Government,” as we have already seen, became the primary Democratic rallying cry of the Seymour campaign four years later. “The Lost Cause,” just above the skull and crossbones, refers to diehard former Confederates’ conviction that their cause had been just.

The two white figures that frame the cartoon (labeled “White League” and “K.K.K.”) stand for two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat. These contrast starkly with the central focus of the cartoon, two grieving African-American parents weeping over their slain child.

A spelling book lies on the ground near spatters of blood, and in the background are scenes of a lynching and a burning school house. In describing the scene as “worse than slavery,” Nast was telling readers that a Democratic victory would mean the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of four million former slaves to virtual re-enslavement.

But Nast wasn’t always so sympathetic in his portrayal of African Americans. To be sure, the artist shared the predominant Republican position that the former slaves would be exploited and even brutalized if left to the mercies of the southern white Democratic majority. But as time passed Nast became increasingly disillusioned by political corruption in the Grant Administration and increasingly disenchanted with Republican efforts to install black officeholders in the white majority South.

The drawing below, entitled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State,” appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly the same year as the previous Nast cartoon (March 14, 1874). It purports to illustrate an alleged episode in South Carolina, the one former Confederate state where, if only for a brief period, African Americans constituted a majority in the state legislature. However much southern blacks might deserve federal protection from white terrorism, Nast seems to be saying, they are far from ready to participate fully in their own government.

Nast3

But Nast didn’t only produce cartoons about politics. His association with Harper’s Weekly lasted from the early 1860s through the mid-1880s, and during those two-plus decades he also contributed thirty or so drawings of Santa Claus. It was only after their favorite cartoonist had brought him to life that Americans agreed on what Santa looked like.

Of course Clement Clark Moore had described “the right jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Readers had learned from Moore about Santa’s twinkling eyes and merry dimples, his soot-tarnished clothes, and–how to put this delicately?–his less than rock-hard abs. And yet it was the cartoonist Nast who translated Moore’s poetic lines into the visual image we take for granted today.

"Santa Claus in Camp" (detail), from the cover of Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863

“Santa Claus in Camp” (detail), from the cover of Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863

But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like. His initial attempt came in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War. In “Santa Claus in Camp,” Nast sketched Santa as a large man decked out in red, white, and blue and delivering presents, not to sleepy children, but to Union soldiers. (I call this version “Yankee Doodle Santa.”) In an early post-war rendering (the 1866 cartoon “Santa Claus and His Works”), Nast portrayed Santa more in keeping with the description in Moore’s poem. This Santa is clothed in a dark suit and is literally the size of an elf, so short that he had to stand on a chair in order to reach the stockings hanging from the mantle.

As the years, passed, however, Nast’s Santa grew in stature and exchanged his brown suit for a red one. The 1880 sketch below is probably Nast’s best known Santa and is still reproduced even to this day.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper's Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper’s Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

MORE ON THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

constitution

So let’s talk some more about the Electoral College.

This is one of those rare, heady moments in the life of a U. S. historian when a decent number of Americans seem interested in the American past–in this case, the question of what the heck the Framers of the Constitution were thinking when they devised such an complicated mechanism for electing our president.

In a post week before last, I shared my opinion that “the Electoral College has no place in modern democracy.”  In making that claim, I was thinking primarily with regard to the Framers’ underlying world view.  My point was not that the Electoral College could not serve some salutary purpose in twenty-first-century America–it is possible that it has had some positive, if unintended, consequences.  Rather, my hope was to underscore that our method of electing our highest officer originated in a set of assumptions about human nature, the natural order of society, and the role of government that a large majority of Americans would now heartily reject.

As a rule, the Framers were skeptical of human nature and suspicious of democracy, which is a major reason why precious few of them supported a direct popular election of the president when the matter came up at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  This is also why the Framers tended to think of all national office-holders–including members of the Electoral College–as “free agents” who should make decisions for the good of the people without necessarily being restrained in all cases by the will of the people.

James Madison put it this way in Federalist no. 63:

As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.  In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?

So, no, it would not be unconstitutional if any or all of the 538 members of the Electoral College decided to cast their ballots on December 19th for someone other than the candidate who received the most popular votes in their home states.  It would, however, be illegal for them to do so in the thirty states that currently mandate by law that electors cast their ballots for the candidate who won the state race.  (The penalties for violating such laws are minimal–typically a fine of $1,000 or less–and it should be noted further that the Constitutionality of such laws has never been tested.)  More than illegal, though, if the outcome of the election was altered thanks to “rogue” electors voting their conscience, tens of millions of Americans would view the process as fundamentally illegitimate.  It would be absolutely constitutional, arguably exactly what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they created the Electoral College, but illegitimate nonetheless.  That was my point.

Since I last wrote on this topic nearly two weeks ago, countless commentators have weighed in the Electoral College.  Some have called for its abolition–although as I noted last time, that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  Others have lamented the occasional instances of the Electoral College electing candidates who lost the popular vote but suggest that the danger of abolishing the Electoral College outweighs the potential benefits.  One of the weaker arguments I have seen to this effect came from William M. Daley, former Secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton and White House Chief-of-Staff under Barack Obama (see here).   (A considerably stronger argument along these lines that came out within a week of the election was by attorney James Hulme and historian Allen Guelzo.  I don’t agree with their reasoning in several respects, but still find their argument worth considering.)

Just this week there have also been pieces highlighting creative efforts to use the Electoral College itself to change the election’s outcome.  In a piece in Tuesday’s Washington Post (“The Electoral College Should be Unfaithful“), columnist Kathleen Parker applauded efforts of the so-called “Hamilton Electors” to persuade Republican electors to join with Democratic electors in support of a Republican moderate.  More creatively, in an editorial on Monday, Michael F. Cannon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has floated the idea of Hillary Clinton “releasing” her 232 electors and encouraging them to support a moderate Republican such as Mitt Romney or John Kasich, in which case if as few as 38 Republican electors would join them, the Electoral College might still deny Donald Trump the presidency in lieu of a more qualified, less divisive Republican alternative.  Cannon knows that this is a long-shot, not least of which is that Donald Trump would call his supporters to the barricades, there would be legal challenges beyond imagining, and any moderate Republican willing to accept the presidency by such a process would deemed an imposter by millions of voters.

Only yesterday, John Kasich made clear that he would refuse to play such a role on the grounds that the “election is over.”  He’s almost certainly right.  But think about what he has said.  “The election is over.”  The Framers of the Constitution would have said that the election hasn’t been held yet.  It’s scheduled for December 19th.