Tag Archives: Civil War

BASED (EVER SO LOOSELY) ON A “TRUE STORY”—MATTHEW MCCONAGHY AND THE “FREE STATE OF JONES”

This weekend I caught a showing of The Free State of Jones, a movie about a comparatively unknown chapter in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, starring Matthew McConaughey.  Since I’ve spent nearly three decades teaching and writing about this period of American history, I thought I should check it out.

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I should say up front that, as a historian, I have a love/hate relationship with historical movies.  On the one hand, I’m generally thankful for any cultural influence that directs our attention to the past.  If a fraction of the viewers who turn out to see Free State are inspired to dig deeper—maybe even to read a serious work of history about the period—then I suppose I should be thankful, and to a degree, I am.

On the other hand, however, the medium is generally bad at conveying complexity—and history is nothing if not complex—while the need to turn a profit reinforces the tendency to emphasize entertainment at the expense of accuracy.  I know I should be thankful when Hollywood encourages us to pay attention to the past, but I am always left wondering whether the movie in question does more harm than good.  In particular, I worry about the implicit lessons that historical movies teach us about what history is and what it means to think historically.

At bottom, I think there are two common audience reactions to movies that claim to be “based on a true story,” and neither one of them is good.  The first is to take the claim at face value and assume that, in watching the movie, we have just learned something reliable about the past.  I’m reminded of a story that Sam Wineburg tells in his wonderful book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Wineburg, an educational psychologist at Stanford who has spent most of his professional career studying how we think and learn about the past, tells a story of watching the movie Schindler’s List when it first debuted.  When the heart-wrenching film about the holocaust had ended and the subdued audience began to file silently out of the theater, Wineburg heard one viewer whisper to his wife, “I never understood what happened then until now, right now.  Now, I know.”

This scares me.  I worry that our entertainment-obsessed culture will only take the past seriously when it is packaged in two-hour-length segments of gripping entertainment.  And I worry even more that we will confuse these two-hour-length segments for the past itself.  History is not the past but an argument about the past, ideally grounded in logically compelling historical evidence.  Historians don’t discover the past “as it actually was” in the archives; we do our best painstakingly to recreate it, weaving interpretations that are always imperfect and always debatable.  Any movie “based on a true story” is similarly offering an interpretation, with the difference that there won’t be footnotes and a bibliography; we’ll be invited to accept the interpretation on faith.

So one common response is to take the claim of historical accuracy at face value and assume that we are learning something true; the other is to take the claim at face value and question whether accuracy even matters.  Read the “critical reviews” that have appeared over the past few days and you’ll find that this is the ubiquitous message.  Reviewers praise the movie for director Gary Ross’s “unusual respect for historical truth” and then move directly to the political implications of the movie’s message or the quality of its artistry.  Did the pacing lag?  Was the plot too sprawling?  Was McConaughey really wearing dental prosthetics?  “Of course,” I can hear you replying.  “That’s what movie critics do.”  But when a movie claims to be teaching us about the past, I fear that critics’ calculated indifference to historical accuracy reinforces one of the besetting historical sins of our culture: to evaluate history on the basis of its artistry or political usefulness, rather than its truthfulness.

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Oh well—end of sermonette—let’s talk about The Free State of Jones.  The movie focuses on an area in southeastern Mississippi that became famous for its resistance to Confederate authority.  The soil in this region of Mississippi was not well-suited to the production of cash crops, and most of the white families who settled Jones County were small farmers who concentrated on livestock growing and had little connection to slavery or the cotton economy.  When the state held a referendum on secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, the white male voters of the county originally opposed secession by a large majority, but when the state as a whole overwhelmingly endorsed disunion, they quickly fell into line.

The exigencies of war have a way of exposing the faults lines of communities at war, however, and pretty soon the support of Jones County’s yeomen for the Confederacy began to erode.  The imposition of conscription in the spring of 1862 had a lot to do with this, as did the subsequent passage by the Confederate Congress of a ten-percent “tax-in-kind” on all agricultural products.  Soon, the white yeomen of the region believed that they were caught up in a “rich man’s war” in which slaveless farmers would be forced into military service while their families were brought to the brink of starvation by a heartless government interested only in the welfare of large plantation owners.

Over time, more and more of the white Confederate soldiers of Jones County fled the front lines and returned home.  These deserters would provide for their families as best as they could, and “lie out” in nearby woods and swamps whenever Confederate troops were rumored to be nearby.  Increasingly, they also interfered with Confederate tax agents sent to confiscate a portion of their crops and livestock.  Eventually, their resistance to Confederate authority became more organized, thanks in part to the leadership of farmer Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey).  When Confederate authorities sent troops into the region to regain control, Knight’s band participated in a series of bloody skirmishes.  Whether Knight and his “company” ever formally declared their independence from the Confederacy is highly debatable, but their disenchantment with the Confederacy and willingness to resist Confederate authority with force is undeniable.

So what is the historical value of The Free State of Jones?  I have taught a course on the American Civil War a couple of dozen times over the years, and one of the themes that I stress in each one is that we cannot begin to understand the Civil War accurately as long as we see it as a straightforward struggle between a unified South and a unified North.  Both regions experienced extensive internal dissent, and coming to grips with this transforms our understanding of the war’s contemporary and long-term significance.  The Free State of Jones explodes the myth of a solid Civil-War South, and I think that’s valuable.

A second theme that I always stress in Civil War courses is that, while northern victory resulted in the end of slavery, the question of what “freedom” would mean for former slaves was not remotely settled when Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, nor would it be settled for decades to come.  At least a third of The Free State of Jones involves the post-war Reconstruction era—a period Hollywood almost never acknowledges—and the movie effectively hammers home the reality that the official demise of slavery did little to weakens the ubiquitous racism that had been a bulwark of slavery for at least a century and a half.  This also, is valuable.

But the movie is also full of all kinds of historical inaccuracies and outright silliness.  Many of the movie’s errors are trivial:  the real Newton Knight was 24 years old in 1862 when the movie begins, about half as old as Matthew McConaughey.  A villainous Confederate colonel wears three stars on his collar, which was the insignia of a lieutenant general.  At a poignant moment in the movie, Knight’s followers lower a Confederate battle flag that is ubiquitous today but would not have flown over a Mississippi courthouse in 1864. (The flag was primarily employed by the Army of Northern Virginia during the war and did not become synonymous with the Confederacy until the 1920s.)  Not much here to get worked up about.

Other of the movie’s inaccuracies probably help to make the movie more entertaining. The best example here would be the battle scenes.  According to Victoria Bynum, the historian who is by far the leading expert on Jones County’s civil war, there were at least a dozen skirmishes between Knight’s followers and Confederate troops during the latter half of the Civil War, but they were invariably small affairs involving a few dozen individuals at most and never exacting more than a handful of casualties.  One of the first major “battles,” for example, just before Christmas 1863, resulted in Confederate casualties of one dead and two wounded.  I assume that in a culture utterly inured to violence, director Gary Ross thought that the less bloody reality would simply bore the audience.

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If the battles in Jones County were typically small skirmishes, they also mostly pitted white males against white males, with few exceptions.  The film, on the other hand, insists on portraying Knight’s band as a “racially and sexually integrated paramilitary utopia,” in the words of one trenchant review.  This is Hollywood fabrication.  Bynum stresses that both enslaved blacks and white women were important to the success of the Jones County resistance, but in ways that, while still heroic, were more prosaic.  Both slaves and the resisters’ wives supported Knight’s company in invaluable ways, but primarily by smuggling food to the deserters when they were lying out and by alerting them to the approach of Confederate soldiers.  Director Gary Ross has them in the thick of the fighting.

The most ridiculous scene in the movie comes when Knight has planned an ambush of Confederate soldiers monitoring the funeral of a recently-hanged deserter.  The funeral procession consists primarily of middle-aged farm wives who, when the signal is given, pull revolvers from their shawls and, quite literally, begin blowing the heads off of Rebel soldiers at point-blank range.  The later portrayal of a shoot-out at the county seat features rifle-toting wives in their bonnets charging Rebel troops, loading cannon, and otherwise striking fear into the heart of the Confederate army.  This is manufactured out of whole cloth.

THE FREE STATE OF JONESWhat bothers me most about the movie, however, is not the minor inaccuracies or even the inanities but the egregious way that Ross has made the entire story into a simplistic morality play.  Newton Knight is delivered to us as a noble Robin Hood with twenty-first century racial sensibilities who would probably be a Sanders supporter if he were alive today.  The real Newton Knight did father at least five children with a former slave who became his common-law wife, but the movie’s depiction of Knight’s racial views is almost entirely conjecture, and Ross has chosen to skip over well documented episodes in Knight’s life that would complicate his heroic persona.  (There is evidence that he murdered his brother-in-law in cold blood during the war, for example, as well as testimony suggesting that he urged his mixed-race children to “pass” as white rather than challenge southern mores unnecessarily.)  On the other hand, every Confederate character in the movie is either a non-entity (enlisted men with no lines) or smarmy villains devoid of decency.

History can be a wonderful framework for moral reflection, especially when we allow our engagement with the past to expose our own hearts.  The best histories of slavery and the Civil War force us to confront our own propensities for moral compromise and injustice.  We need to see white Confederates—even white defenders of slavery—as three-dimensional humans no more prone to sin and self-justification than we are.  We need to get to know them well enough and gain enough understanding of their circumstances to confess that we might have behaved in the very same way if set down in their shoes.  The Free State of Jones just encourages us to feel superior.

COMING SOON TO A CABLE CHANNEL NEAR YOU

Fame has eluded me until relatively late in life, but that is about to change, and I wanted my loyal readers to be the first to know.

There have been some near misses, times when I suspected that popular acclaim was going to elevate me to stardom, despite my shy and humble nature.  There was the time, at age five, that I appeared on the children’s show “Fun Time with Miss Marsha.”  A decade later I was front man for my church youth ensemble as we performed for a March of Dimes telethon.  My mom bragged about that for years.

But the closest call was actually after I began teaching, back in 1991 when a retired humanities professor from the University of Florida popularized the theory that Zachary Taylor, not Abraham Lincoln, had been the first American president to be assassinated.  Taylor had died in July 1850, sixteen months into his presidency.  The cause, according to most historians, was acute gastroenteritis brought on when Taylor gorged himself on raw cherries and iced milk during a Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital.  Not so, said Professor Clara Rising, who speculated that the twelfth president had in fact been poisoned by one of his political enemies.  Although she had no real evidence to support her suspicions, Rising convinced Taylor’s descendants to agree to an exhumation of their ancestor’s remains, and for a week or so that June the nation breathlessly awaited the results of the partial autopsy.

Within hours of the announcement of the impending autopsy, a TV journalist from a popular Seattle news magazine program was calling to say that he would like to interview me to get my take on the story.  He wanted me to speak about the implications of Taylor’s alleged assassination, how it changed the course of history, etc.  I cleaned up my office (no small feat), put on a tie, and in a lengthy interview I shared a plethora of erudite insights about Zachary Taylor, antebellum American politics, and the coming of the Civil War.  I could tell that the reporter was deeply moved, although he was too professional to let on.

And then the results of the autopsy were announced the next morning, and unfortunately (at least for my television career), there was no evidence of foul play.  I never talked to the reporter again.  All I got was a telephone message left while I was in class.  One of the secretaries in the History Department office had summarized the message on one of those pink “while you were out” slips that functioned as voice mail before there was voice mail.  “Taylor wasn’t poisoned, so no story,” said the memo.  “Thanks anyway.”  Such is the fickleness of fame.

IMG_0819Now, twenty-five years later, the siren song of celebrity calls for me again.  This was the scene last December in my U. S. History to 1865 class at Wheaton.  C-SPAN was there to film a class session for later broadcast on their wildly popular “American History TV” (which probably all of us watch religiously on C-SPAN-3 every Saturday night).  Although the lights, cameras, microphones, and miles of cable were hardly unobtrusive, my students were real troopers.  They stayed awake at all times, looked variously intrigued and enthusiastic, and interjected with thoughtful, penetrating comments at the proper moments. It was a bravura performance.

A little behind-the-curtain confession: we had actually practiced all of this in advance.  Although I chickened out at the last moment, I had even scripted an “impromptu” comment from one of the students who would interrupt me at the beginning of the class session with the following heart-felt observation:

Professor McKenzie,

Before we get started, may I share something?

As I was walking across the beautiful grounds of Wheaton College this morning, I was reminded of how greatly I have been blessed by the opportunity to be a history major here.  I can say without hesitation that it has been a transformative experience.  Indeed, words cannot express the depth of my gratitude to the Wheaton History Department.  You and your colleagues have changed my life forever.  If I were a parent of a high-school senior, I know that I would be encouraging him or her to apply to Wheaton College and become a history major.

In conclusion, if it will not embarrass you unduly, Professor McKenzie, I must say that your brilliant lectures, your unparalleled sense of humor, your remarkable wisdom, and your gracious, winsome spirit have been the pinnacle of my experience here at Wheaton College.

Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you.

I’m pretty sure he could have made it sound unrehearsed.  My students make comments like this all the time.

At any rate, I have purposely refrained from telling you about the scheduled broadcast, for fear that C-SPAN would go bankrupt or that the producer would watch the tape and say “What was I thinking?!”  Neither has happened, however, and I can now report that our class session on “Emancipation and the Civil War” will air this Saturday night at 8:00 (eastern) on C-SPAN 3.  If your cable plan doesn’t include C-SPAN 3, you can watch the video after the fact from the “American History TV” website by clicking here.

PRELUDE TO CIVIL WAR: WILLIAM SEWARD’S “APRIL FOOLS’ MEMORANDUM”

As I was backing out of the driveway this morning, I was distressed to see a “For Sale” sign in the front yard of our very dear next-door neighbors. I backed down the street to where I could see the sign more clearly and discovered, to my relief, that it read as follows: “FOR SALE BY OWNER,” and then in much smaller, handwritten print, “One Day Only: April 1st, 2015.”

April Fools’ Day. I’ve hated this day all of my life.

At any rate, the prank got me to thinking about April Fools’ Days in American History, and my thoughts went to one of the most ominous April 1sts in our past. It was April 1st, 1861, and the United States was perched precariously on a precipice. (How’s that for alliteration?) Since the election of Abraham Lincoln as president the preceding November, seven southern states had issued resolutions purporting to sever their ties with the Union. A half dozen more were sorely tempted to follow suit, and would very likely do so if the Federal government took steps to restore the Union by force. As the country waited for the inauguration in March of its new Republican president, the seceding states took steps to constitute themselves the Confederate States of America and set to work confiscating all federal property—forts, arsenals, customs houses, and mints—within their borders. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4th, 1861, the Union was visibly collapsing and the authority and prestige of the U. S. government was at its nadir.

Lincoln in 1860

Lincoln in 1860

Lincoln and his cabinet—which included four of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination—were deeply divided as to how to respond to the crisis. In his inaugural address, the president had tried to show both moderation and resolve. On the one hand, he had gone out of his way to try to reassure his southern critics that they need not fear a Republican presidency. On the other, he had insisted that “secession is the very essence of anarchy” and declared that the Union is “perpetual.” Drawing a line in the sand, he had pledged (somewhat redundantly) to “hold occupy, and possess” all federal property within the rebellious states. Implicitly, this seemed to obligate the new president, at the very least, to do all within his power to maintain control of the federal forts in the lower South not yet in Confederate hands—most notably Fort Sumter in the mouth of Charleston harbor.

William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State

William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State

The ranking member of Lincoln’s cabinet—Secretary of State William Seward—led a faction within the administration that sought to avoid a showdown if possible. Seward had much more experience in national politics than Lincoln and had been the odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, before losing out to Lincoln on the 3rd ballot. It is quite possible that he had accepted the State Department post—historically the most prestigious and influential cabinet appointment—with the intention of serving as the de facto head of the administration, pulling the strings behind the scenes while the inexperienced Lincoln played the role of puppet and figurehead. Toward the end of March, Seward had met secretly with representatives of the Confederate government, assuring them that the government would not use force to uphold its authority and promising—without Lincoln’s knowledge or approval—that the Union troops assigned to Fort Sumter would soon evacuate the installation.

As March drew to a close, and as it became increasingly evident to Seward that Lincoln intended to uphold his inaugural pledge, the secretary drew up one of the most remarkable memoranda ever given to a sitting president by a high-ranking government official. Because Seward forwarded the memorandum—titled “Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration”—on April 1st, historians have commonly referred to the document as Seward’s “April Fools’ Memorandum.” In truth, the proposals it contains are so outlandish that it is tempting to conclude that the secretary was pranking the president, but he wasn’t. He was in dead earnest.

After criticizing Lincoln for having failed to define a clear policy, “either foreign or domestic,” Seward went on to repeat his recommendation that Sumter be evacuated. In Seward’s mind, this sort of concession to the South was the best way both to keep the upper South in the Union and avoid the tragedy of civil war.

Page 3 of Seward's April 1, 1861 memorandum to President Lincoln

Page 3 of Seward’s April 1, 1861 memorandum to President Lincoln

Then came the clincher. Under the heading “For Foreign Nations,” the Secretary of State recommended to the president that the administration “demand explanation from Spain and France, categorically, at once.” Spain had recently sent troops into Santo Domingo, while France was casting its eyes on Mexico, and Seward was proposing to challenge both on the grounds that they were in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. “If satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France,” Seward went on, the president should “convene Congress and declare war against them.” Although he didn’t spell out his rationale for the president, Seward clearly believed that the best way to unify the country was to provoke a war with one of the major powers of Europe.

But what if Lincoln was not prepared to take the lead on such a drastic policy? The Secretary of State concluded his memorandum with the following presumption:

Whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it. For this purpose, it must be somebody’s business to pursue and direct it incessantly. Either the President must do it himself and be all the while active in it, or devolve it on some member of his Cabinet. Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide. It is not in my especial province but I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.

Lincoln replied in writing to Seward the same day, although it is not clear whether his brief note was ever actually delivered. What is clear is that Lincoln ignored Seward’s proposal of provoking a European war. He also effectively declined the Secretary of State’s polite offer to take over the management of his administration. If something “must be done,” the president wrote in his reply, I must do it.”

“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!

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!

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.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING IN AMERICAN MEMORY–PART TWO

This weekend and next I am sharing a series of posts on how  Americans have remembered the First Thanksgiving over the last four centuries.  Yesterday I began a quick sketch of how American memory of the First Thanksgiving has changed over time. And it definitely has changed, and changed dramatically.  Today let’s pick up the thread and focus on the period up through the Civil War.

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In every class that I teach here at Wheaton College, one of the first principles that I try to drive home to my students is the fundamental distinction between history and the past. The past is everything that has been said and thought and done until now. God knows the past perfectly and exhaustively. We don’t. Indeed, a great deal of the past has been lost to us. What we call history is best defined as that portion of the past that we remember, thanks to insights from historical documents, material artifacts, and oral tradition.

I mention this now because, for most of the first 220 years after the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest celebration, almost no Americans remembered it. There had never been but a handful of American copies of Mourt’s Relation, the 1622 pamphlet that contained the sole description of the event, and memory of the celebration gradually faded. As late as 1840, the “First Thanksgiving” was not a part of American memory. By that time Thanksgiving had come to be a much loved holiday in New England, but New Englanders didn’t think of the holiday as perpetuating a tradition begun by the Pilgrims in 1621. Celebrating Thanksgiving was just what New England folk did every autumn. As far as anyone knew, it was what they had always done.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe's famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

It is no coincidence that Jennie Brownscombe’s famous painting of the First Thanksgiving dates from the 20th century, not earlier.

This began to change around 1841, when Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s 115-word account of the 1621 feast was discovered and reprinted in a history book titled Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. The result was that Americans gradually became more and more aware of the Pilgrims’ celebration. Notice I said aware, not impressed. Generations would pass before Americans widely embraced the story of the Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving as an important chapter in the early history of America. So why was this?

I can think of three reasons. For starters, Winslow’s account showed that the Wampanoag Indians had played a prominent role in the Pilgrims’ celebration. Winslow had devoted only one sentence to the Wampanoag, but that lone sentence made two disturbing facts undeniable: the majority of those present at the “First Thanksgiving” had been Indians, not Pilgrims, and the two groups had interacted peacefully.

The revelation was jarring, especially outside of the Northeast. In 1841, Thanksgiving was still almost exclusively a northern holiday, flourishing particularly in New England and in areas farther west to which New Englanders had migrated in large numbers. In New England—where few Native Americans remained in 1841—it was possible for Yankees to romanticize the “noble savage” and to imagine a carefully circumscribed role for Indians in their beloved regional holiday. Elsewhere this was far from easy.

In 1841 the southeastern United states was only three years removed from the infamous “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of the Cherokee Indians from Georgia to Oklahoma that had resulted in more than four thousand Cherokee deaths. West of the Mississippi, violence would continue to punctuate Indian-white relations for another two generations, on scattered battlefields with evocative names like Sand Creek, Little Big Horn, and Wounded Knee. Correspondingly, until long after the Civil War, most artistic representations of Thanksgiving that included Native Americans portrayed them as openly hostile, and it is no coincidence that the now familiar image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a common table dates from the early twentieth century. By that time America’s Indian wars were comfortably past, and it would begin to be broadly possible in the public mind to reinterpret the place of Native Americans at the Thanksgiving table. But that would come later. In 1841 the national policy toward Native Americans was not assimilation but removal, and in that respect the First Thanksgiving fit awkwardly in the national story.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

This 1877 painting by Charles Howard Johnson portrays Native Americas as hostile to the Pilgrims. It was the late-19th century before the Pilgrims and Indians began to be portrayed as friends.

Keep in mind also the growing sectional rivalry of the period. Winslow’s account of the 1621 celebration was republished just as tensions between North and South were beginning to mount. Unfortunately, fans of Thanksgiving had traditionally emphasized its regional ties. New England magazines and newspapers boasted that the holiday was “strictly one of New England origin.” The custom was “precious to every New-England man,” and without its recurrence “a Yankee could scarce comprehend that the year had passed.” More to the point, white southerners also associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes. Even as it gradually expanded southward, there was a lingering tendency among southerners to think of Thanksgiving as a holiday invented by Pharisaical Yankees to take the place of Christmas, which Puritans had traditionally spurned.

New Englanders did little to make the holiday easier to swallow. From our twenty-first-century perspective, one of the striking things about Thanksgiving in antebellum America is how politicized it could be. For southern whites, it didn’t help that northern governors often endorsed the abolition of slavery in their annual proclamations, or that antislavery organizations sometimes took up collections at thanksgiving services, or that New England abolitionists wrote poetry linking the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (In 1859, Brown and a small band of followers occupied the federal arsenal in that place as the first step in an ill-defined plot to foment a slave uprising. Yankee educator Franklin Sanborn, a secret supporter of Brown’s scheme, penned a tribute to the antislavery zealot, noting that “the Pilgrim Fathers’ earnest creed . . . inspired this hero’s noblest deed.”)

As the crisis of the Union came to a head, the Richmond Daily Dispatch surely spoke for many southerners in mocking New England’s favorite holiday. When a New York newspaper reported that the newly elected Abraham Lincoln had celebrated the holiday “like the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind,” the editor of the Dispatch erupted. Thanksgiving was unknown outside “a few Yankee Doodle States,” he insisted with some exaggeration, “but it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

A final reason for the Pilgrims’ limited usefulness to mid-nineteenth century Americans, I believe, is that they had come to celebrate Thanksgiving in a way that the Pilgrims would not have recognized, much less approved. This had not been intentional. Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions had developed while the country knew nothing about the First Thanksgiving. And then, after two centuries, in the span of less than two decades the veil was pulled back. The first step had been the republication of Mourt’s Relation, but much more was involved. A decade later came the release of three volumes of writings and sermons from the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson. Five years after that came the dramatic publication of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford’s long-lost history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Collectively, these sources revealed that the Pilgrims had roundly criticized the Church of England for its numerous annual holidays. All three underscored the Pilgrims’ conviction that Days of Thanksgiving should be proclaimed irregularly and should center on public worship. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims’ popularity, mid-nineteenth-century Americans had precisely reversed these criteria. By the eve of the Civil War, the “traditional American Thanksgiving” was a regularly scheduled celebration centered inside the home.

If the Pilgrims’ story was to become an important part of Thanksgiving, there was much that would have to change.  We’ll talk about those changes next weekend.

PRAGER UNIVERSITY: RAY BRADBURY’S NIGHTMARE

One of my  favorite sayings comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  Reflecting on his 1831 visit to the United States, the Frenchman observed, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”   Tocqueville’s adage doesn’t always holds true, but it often does, which is why I regularly share it with my students.  Across the generations, Tocqueville reminds us to be wary of our fondness for simplistic answers to complicated questions.

Tocqueville’s words came to me repeatedly over the weekend, as Colonel Ty Seidule’s five-minute explanation of the causes of the Civil War went viral, attracting more than four million views in a matter of days.  (It’s now topped six million.)  In my last post I explained how Colonel Seidule effectively replaced one myth about the Civil War with another one, and there’s no good reason to cover that ground a second time.  But I do want to share a thought abut the venue in which it first appeared: the absurdly misnamed “Prager University.”

“Prager University” is the brainchild of conservative radio personality Dennis Prager.  It is not an accredited educational institution, and no one connected to it claims otherwise.  It offers “free courses for free minds”–professionally produced five-minute videos on a range of topics in economics, political science, philosophy, history, and religion.  I have nothing personal against Dennis Prager, and as a political conservative myself, I suspect that we could probably find several things to agree about.  But I’m offended by anti-intellectualism parading as a commitment to knowledge and wisdom, and that’s what I see in this online travesty.

I hesitate in sharing these strong words, because I’m aware that a number of serious scholars and public intellectuals have lent their names to Prager’s undertaking.  Perhaps they thought they were doing the public a service.  Perhaps they hoped to stimulate informed discussion and raise the level of public debate about important questions.  If so, then they were well intentioned but misguided.

When a ruler of Egypt supposedly asked the Greek mathematician Euclid whether there was an easier way to learn mathematics, Euclid is said to have replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”  He meant that there were no short cuts.  No Cliff’s Notes. It would take time, concentrated effort, and perseverance.  As 19th-century philosopher Charles Peirce put it, “really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention.”

“Wrong!” says Dennis Prager.  When you visit “Prager University” online, you’re immediately reassured that “there are no fees, no tuition, books, homework assignments, or grueling midterms here – just clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers.”  Who could turn that down?  It’s not just that the student at P.U. can receive “life-changing insights” without forking over a pile of cash.  He can also get them without wasting valuable time reading, studying, or thinking deeply.

There are “no long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures” at P.U., the web site proclaims.  “All our courses are five minutes long,” the spiel continues. “That’s right, five minutes.”  And how is such brevity possible, you ask?  It’s possible because “our faculty get right to the point.”  You’ll find “no fluff” at P.U.  And if five minutes still strains your attention span?  Not to worry.  Each life-changing insight “is supported by cutting edge, visually-compelling, entertaining images and animation.”  Since you’re likely to get tired of looking at world-renowned intellectuals, in other words (and let’s face it–most of them aren’t that photogenic), P. U. will regularly interject cartoon figures to help you concentrate.

P.U.'s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes

P.U.’s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes.

“Just as a shot of espresso boosts your energy,” P.U. promises,

“a shot of Prager University boosts your brain. Because not only will you have more knowledge, you will have more clarity. You’ll get one other thing, a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”

In sum, “Prager University clarifies big ideas.  Five minutes at a time.”

If this were only a parody.

I’m sorry, Dennis, but I’ve got to go with Euclid on this one.  Like the path to geometry, there is no royal road to wisdom, much less a five-minute video, no matter how compelling its animation.  P.U. doesn’t clarify big ideas.  It trivializes them.  Rather than teach its students how to think, it tells them what to think.

The idea of a five-minute video isn’t inescapably awful.  If each video were paired with another that offered a competing answer to the same question, together they might stimulate rather than indoctrinate.  If the “world renowned thinkers” were encouraged to treat competing interpretations seriously, or invited to suggest books or articles that develop the topic further, these videos could (best-case scenario here) be a springboard to further investigation and reflection.

But that would suggest that some questions are complicated and don’t admit of simple answers, and that flies in the face of P.U.’s whole philosophy.  Want to know whether the U. S. should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan?  P.U. will cut the fluff and give you the “clear and unambiguous” judgment of history in five minutes.  Interested in the truth about Vietnam?  Five minutes should be plenty.  Want the straight scoop about the Constitution? the Ten Commandments? capitalism? feminism? racism?  global warming? abortion?  Five minutes a pop or your money back.

In addition to Alexis de Tocqueville, I’ve also kept coming back to Ray Bradbury these past few days.  In his marvelous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradford eerily anticipated the denigration of the life of the mind that Prager University embodies.  Writing in 1953, Bradbury described a twenty-first century world in which the primary task of firemen was not to put out fires but to burn books.  Intellectual had become a swear word.  Entertainment was life’s primary pursuit.  Happiness was life’s ultimate goal.  Complicated ideas got in the way.

Early in the novel, Bradbury speaks through a Fire Department captain to pinpoint the genesis of the gradual denigration of learning.  It began with the rise of mass culture, Captain Beatty relates to fireman Guy Montag, who has become curious about books.  As late as the Civil War, Beatty says, “books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.”  But then the population began to grow rapidly, and with it came the birth of mass culture.  “Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

Gradually everything became “boiled down,” Beatty explains.

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.  . . . Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.  Do you see?  Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

Ray Bradbury died shortly after Dennis Prager founded his “university,” and I won’t presume to say what he would have thought of it.  I don’t mind telling you what I think, however.  Following Captain Beatty, I’d say there’s more nursery than university in P.U.

WHY I’M GLAD SALLY JENKINS WASN’T PRESIDENT IN 1865

Here, at last, is a final set of thoughts sparked by the recent controversy over public displays of the Confederate battle flag. (I say “recent,” even though it’s been almost three weeks since the flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol, and three weeks in the blogosphere is just a hair shy of an eternity.) I’ve already written at length on the controversy (see here, here, here, here, and here), not because it was “trending” (a social media euphemism for “trendy” and “transient”), but because I think it provides a marvelous example of the way that we’re all tempted to remember the past in simplistic and self-justifying ways, ways that rob history of its power to speak truth into our lives.

The recent war of words about the battle flag quickly became a debate about the larger meaning of the American Civil War. For a century and a half Americans have resisted remembering that struggle honestly, and the online debate mostly perpetuated that cultural amnesia. Defenders of the flag resurrected the southern myth that the war had little to do with slavery; opponents trumpeted the northern myth that it had everything to do with the institution, that the war was first and foremost a moral crusade to rid the nation of human bondage. Neither view is true. Both prevent us from effectively confronting our complicated past with regard to slavery and race.

While it’s important to realize that both the southern and northern views are incorrect, it’s not enough simply to say that both sides have invented comforting myths. We still need something to hang our hats on, historically speaking—a story or narrative of the war that’s true to its complexity and fair to both sides. Thankfully, I think we’ve always had such a narrative, more or less hiding in plain sight. It comes from Abraham Lincoln, who bequeathed it to posterity in one of his last public addresses before his assassination.

I was first reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865 while reading Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins’s diatribes about the Confederacy. After comparing the Confederate battle flag to a swastika and charging the Confederacy with a “crime against humanity,” Jenkins opined that “Jeff Davis and Bobby Lee should have spent the rest of their natural lives in work camps, breaking rocks with shovels.” By March 1865 Lincoln was wearily familiar with such sentiments, and in his second inaugural he pointedly rebuked them. Despite an unimaginable death toll and incalculable human suffering, the president exhorted his northern listeners to proceed “with malice toward none, with charity to all.”

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

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

These are the words we’re most likely to remember from Lincoln’s address, if we remember any part of it, but they can’t be understood when wrenched from the larger context of Lincoln’s brief speech. In isolation, we may be tempted to read them simply as an exhortation to northerners to forgive their enemies or to leave retribution to the Lord, who said “vengeance is Mine.” Both are Christian sentiments and both are good counsel, but neither really captures Lincoln’s point. Lincoln knew the Bible well—he quoted it twice in the address—but he had also practiced law for thirty years and his cast of mind was relentlessly logical. Lincoln’s call for charity is best understood when we read it as the culmination of a logical argument about the cause and nature of the war. It was a war, Lincoln told his uncomfortable audience, in which neither side could claim the moral high ground. Because both sides were morally culpable, it would be hypocritical for the North to impose a draconian peace as if only the South were to blame.

I recommend that you look for the address online and take the time to read it in full. It’s only 700 words long (and over 500 of those words contain only one syllable!) so you can review the whole thing in five-six minutes. The heart of the address comes in the third and longest of its four paragraphs. In it Lincoln made three crucial assertions.

First, the cause of the war was slavery, period. Lincoln reminded his audience that, when the war broke out,

“one-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union.”

Note that the president felt no need to prove his assertion. “All knew” that it was true, so why belabor the point? Even white Southerners agreed at the time, although their memory would play tricks on them later. So much for the southern myth.

But note the key qualifier “somehow.” In insisting that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” Lincoln was not proclaiming that the conflict had ever been a clear-cut moral contest over slavery. In fact, he explicitly dispelled that simplistic notion. “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained,” Lincoln went on to observe. More important,

“Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Lincoln’s wording here may be a little hard to follow. Two tips will be helpful. First, bear in mind that, even though he referred to both sides in the conflict, his immediate audience was exclusively northern, and it was the North that he was consciously addressing. Second, remember that he had already identified the cause of the war as slavery earlier in the paragraph. With these in mind Lincoln’s point becomes clear: he was bluntly reminding northerners that they didn’t go to war in 1861 to end slavery. The conflict’s most “fundamental and astounding” consequence—the end of an institution that had been entrenched in American life for two hundred and fifty years—was something few northerners had in mind when they rushed to enlist after Fort Sumter. So much for the northern myth.

With the final defeat of the Confederacy all but certain, most of Lincoln’s audience on this cold March day was surely expecting the president to congratulate the North on its impending victory. But instead of a celebration he gave them a sermon. In the rest of the paragraph, Lincoln dismissed the facile, pervasive assumption that God wore Union blue. Although both sides had prayed to God for His assistance, the prayer “of neither has been answered fully,” he observed. This was because “the Almighty has his own purposes.” Not only did Lincoln discourage the North from taking credit for the end of slavery, he went so far as to suggest the possibility that the blood-bath of the past four years had been a form of divine judgment on both regions. It was possible, Lincoln told his supporters, that God had given “both North and South this terrible war” as divine retribution for the offense of slavery, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Was Lincoln’s speculation correct? I don’t know, nor do I think we can know for certain. But this much I do know: In one eloquent paragraph, Lincoln offered a complicated narrative of national responsibility for slavery that was mostly absent from the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag. Now, as in 1865, it’s a story that many of us would rather not hear.