Tag Archives: U. S. History

PRESIDENT TRUMP AND THE CAUSE OF THE CIVIL WAR

Had Trump been President in 1860, Would He have Prevented the Civil War, or Caused It?

Although I’ve been doing my best to take a break from this blog (as much as I enjoy it) while on sabbatical at Wheaton, the headlines announcing that President Trump had speculated about the causes of the Civil War in a recent interview were too much to ignore.  If you missed it, here is what Trump had to say in an interview with the Washington Examiner released just this morning:

“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.  He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.  He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’  People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?  People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?”

The president’s liberal critics have been quick to jump on his remarks, extracting his rhetorical question about why the Civil War occurred as evidence that he is utterly clueless about it.  (You can read a sampling here.)  There have been countless condescending tweets suggesting that the president should read up on something called slavery and figure out what the rest of the world already knows.

I’m convinced that President Trump is largely clueless about U. S. history (ask Frederick Douglass, if you don’t believe me), but these particular jibes are unfair.  In context, what the president was really getting at was the question not of the causes of the Civil War but of its inevitability.  Might the war have been avoided?  Could more effective political leadership have addressed the national blight of slavery while avoiding the bloodiest war in the nation’s history?  This is a much harder question to answer, and one that academic experts on the conflict continue to debate to this day.  It’s not a stupid question.

Having defended President Trump on this point, I have to say that his observations about Andrew Jackson’s concern for “what was happening with regard to the Civil War” are just ridiculous.  As others have pointed out, Jackson died sixteen years before the war erupted.  Less patently absurd is the president’s speculation that, had Jackson served as president some years later, he might have successfully averted the war during his administration, at least.

“Counterfactual” History

This is what historians call a counterfactual hypothesis–speculation about the likely consequences of a set of historical circumstances that never existed.  By definition, a counterfactual hypothesis cannot be proved correct, so academic historians almost always avoid them, but they can be intriguing, and they sometimes can lead to fruitful insight.

Not in this case, however.

While southern politicians were convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 posed a direct threat to the preservation of slavery–and so responded by advocating disunion–slaveholders had nothing to fear from a Jackson presidency.  While Lincoln’s Republican Party denounced slavery as a moral wrong and called for its eventual demise, Jackson’s party took the position that it was no business of the federal government to interfere with slavery.  While Lincoln denounced slavery as a “moral, social, and political wrong,” the slaveholding Jackson was outspoken in his condemnation of northern abolitionists and, as president, even allowed southern postmasters to confiscate and destroy abolitionist literature.  In sum, it seems highly unlikely that the South would  have attempted to secede under Andrew Jackson’s watch, but not because of Jackson’s strong leadership or skill at negotiation.

But as long as we’re playing the counterfactual game, let’s not stop here.  President Trump has repeatedly compared himself with Andrew Jackson (whose portrait he had installed in the Oval Office), and his suggestion that Jackson could have avoided the Civil War is, in this sense, a backhanded self-compliment, i.e., “the president who most resembles me is the one who could have saved the nation’s from its bloodiest war.”  Is there any reason to think that the nation might have fared better in 1861 with Donald Trump, and not Abraham Lincoln, in the White House?

Lincoln Would have Seen Donald Trump as Part of the Problem

Although it is inconceivable to imagine the Civil War occurring had the institution of slavery not existed on American soil, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Civil War was inevitable or that, even if it was inevitable, that it had to break out at the time and in the manner that it did.  The Civil War, if it signified anything, was a blaring testimony to the failure of the American political system.  Historians believe that the system failed, in large part, because of a massive crisis of popular confidence in the nation’s political institutions.

One of the great ironies of the Civil War is that both the North and the South believed that they were under attack by the other.  As I stress to students when we wrestle with the coming of the Civil War, by the close of the 1850s common folk in both regions could ironically agree on two things: 1) the other region was committed to an agenda that would undermine their way of life, and 2) the political process was powerless to protect them from the threat.  The moral controversy over slavery had something to do with this, but so did politicians on both sides who regularly exaggerated the threat posed by the other region because of the partisan benefits that resulted when their constituents were afraid.

Nearly a quarter-century before the first cannon boomed at Fort Sumter, a young Abraham Lincoln had warned about precisely this kind of political danger.  In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln, then an Illinois state congressman, told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln went on to make three key points: First, the “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”  Second, free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests.  In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.”  And third, what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government?  Danger.

What is the solution?  Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job.  Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must constantly, consciously cultivate.  “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked?  We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.

How would a President Trump have acted during the run-up to the American Civil War?  We’ll never know, of course, but anyone who listened to his speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just two days ago heard a president who excels in doing precisely what Lincoln warned against: fueling popular contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN ON THE CHOICES BEFORE US

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

constitution

In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, a young Abraham Lincoln told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Lincoln grounded his argument on three main points:

1) The “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”

2) Free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests.  In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.”

3) Such a negative environment is fertile ground for tyranny.  Ambitious individuals will inevitably arise from time to time, individuals who will “thirst for distinction” and who will attain it, if possible, at whatever cost.  When such a figure arises, “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”  When these attributes are not in place, the people may actually embrace the future tyrant and become active agents in their own downfall.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

So how do we guard against such an outcome?  Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job.  Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must constantly, consciously cultivate.  “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked?  We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.

“Every lover of liberty” should swear to honor the law, Lincoln lectured his lyceum audience.  The people should purpose to make “reverence for the laws . . . the political religion of the nation.”  This didn’t mean blind submission to every government edict, but it did a mindset that patiently addresses injustice within the rule of law, working to alleviate ills without violating the Constitutional forms necessary for liberty to flourish over the long run.

In addition to inculcating such “reverence,” Lincoln called on his audience to promote rationality.  Popular passions may have played a role during the American Revolution, Lincoln admitted, when the patriots of 1776 labored to establish liberty.  But passion is actually an obstacle to ordering and sustaining liberty, Lincoln maintained.   Repeatedly, Lincoln directed his audience to passion as the “enemy” of those who would live by the rule of law.  He speaks of “mob law,” the “mobocratic spirit, “the growing disposition to substitute the cold and furious passions” in the place of “sober judgment.”

Passion “will in future be our enemy,” Lincoln concluded, precisely because, when combined with a loss of “attachment” to the government, it leaves the public ripe for exploitation by the ambitious demagogue who “thirsts for distinction” and will do all within his power to attain it, “whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”

So what would Lincoln think of the 2016 presidential campaign?  Who knows.  But you don’t have to go too far out on a limb to conclude that he’d think we’re in danger.  What did he say is the greatest bulwark of our political institutions?  The attachment of the people to the government.  What did he conclude is one of the foremost obstacles to liberty?  A people guided by passion rather than reason.   And what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government?  Danger.

Americans have no good choices when they go to the polls next Tuesday.  Through her own apparent dishonesty and dissembling, Secretary Clinton has done her fair share to engender popular disillusionment with the career politicians in Washington and thus weaken “the attachment of the people.”  But what Clinton has accomplished inadvertently, Donald Trump seeks to do intentionally, actively fueling contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.  Fear and resentment, however justified, do not make a sustainable basis for democracy, but they can propel a demagogue to political power.

US-VOTE-CLINTON-TRUMP

“VOTER ANGER” IN 1776

Angry voters are everywhere these days, apparently.  We’re fed up, put out, put off, irate, furious, and enraged.  Depending on who you ask, voter anger is an irrepressible force welling up from the rank and file of common Americans or a tempest cynically manufactured by calculating politicians, celebrity pundits, and Fox News.  Depending on your perspective, it is popular democracy at its finest or a populist threat to democracy itself.  This much seems clear, however: 2016 will be remembered as the “Year of the Angry Voter.”

So is voter outrage a constructive force or an irrational threat?  My guess is that how we each answer that question will stem more from our personal philosophies and understanding of human nature than from a purported objective assessment of the current political landscape.  I know that that is the case with me.  When I think about today’s angry climate, my mind turns automatically to the New Testament admonition to be “slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).  I think Scripture teaches that anger can be righteous, but in our fallenness it rarely is.  Is the anger that we feel a righteous wrath against injustice, an expression of our zeal for the Lord and our love for His creation?  Or does it stem from other recesses of the heart?  I can’t say dogmatically, but surely this is the most important question we need to ask about it.

As a historian, I find myself wondering if there’s a careful study that puts voter anger in historical context.  (There may well be; I welcome your recommendations if you know of any.)  It would be interesting to see how 2016 compares in the intensity of voter outrage, and also enlightening to see what concrete results have followed in other times and places marked by strong voter discontent.

As I do every fall, I’m currently teaching a survey of American History up through the Civil War, and it occurs to me that the case can be made that the United States was born in an outburst of indignation.  I say this because my class and I just got finished discussing Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, surely the most influential single work of political propaganda in our history.  Pay no attention to the pamphlet’s title. It was Paine’s anger—not his reasoned argument—that made Common Sense an overnight sensation.

paineThomas Pain (he added the “e” to his name later) only arrived in America in 1774, less than a year before the first blood was shed on Lexington Green to mark the onset of the American Revolutionary War.  Thirty-seven years old, his life to this point had been marked by failure.  The son of a corset-maker in the village of Thetford, England, he had followed in his father’s footsteps, being apprenticed to a stay-maker at age thirteen and spending the next twelve years of his life making whalebone ribbing for women’s corsets.  Dissatisfied with this life (wonder why?), at age twenty-five he left his skilled craft to become, at various times, a tax collector, a schoolteacher, and the proprietor of a tobacco shop.  By 1774, his business was bankrupt, he was separated from his wife, and his life was in shambles.  With a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he set sail for the colonies to start life anew as a writer for the Pennsylvania Magazine.

If prominent Founders John Witherspoon and Benjamin Rush are to be trusted, Paine’s first anonymous essays actually condemned the patriot cause.  Even if untrue—it’s hard to know for sure—it is undeniable that Paine was an extremely recent convert to the cause when Rush convinced him in late 1775 to use his considerable writing talents to craft a case for independence.  Paine responded with a medium length pamphlet (in my edition it’s about fifty pages long) that was rushed into print by January of 1776.  To put this in context, the battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred the previous April, followed three months later by the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Despite the reality of open war against British rule, popular opinion across the colonies was still divided, and although there were no opinion polls, it seems likely that a decided majority of Americans still hoped for a compromise in which the colonies would be granted greater autonomy over local affairs but remain part of the British Empire as loyal subjects of George III.

Sentiment had begun to change even as Paine sat down to write.  News arrived in the colonies that George III had rejected a petition from the Second Continental Congress pleading for reconciliation and had branded the colonists “rebels.”  News followed soon afterward that the King had hired German mercenaries and intended to use them to subdue American resistance militarily.  Then came reports from within the colonies that the governor of Virginia was actually inviting the slaves of disloyal masters to join the British Army and was offering them freedom in exchange for their aid in subduing their former owners.  Although even now few dared to call openly for independence, the moderate argument for reconciliation was becoming more and more difficult to sustain.

This was the setting when the first copies of Common Sense hit the streets at sixpence each.  Within three months 120,000 copies were in circulation, and the number of colonists who actually read the pamphlet (or heard it read) was far larger.  A rough estimate would be that by April 1776 one half of all the households in the colonies had a copy.  For a comparable sensation, imagine a book released today selling forty million copies by Christmas!

common-sense

Paine’s case for independence was scattered—an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of argument.  He told readers that government was at best a necessary evil, and he appealed to natural law, Scripture, history, and self-interest to convince his readers that further allegiance to Britain was preposterous.  The most coherent portions of his argument were hardly new; the parts of his argument that were new were hardly coherent.  He argued, for example, that there was not a single benefit to membership in the British Empire, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.  He borrowed selectively from Scripture to argue that ancient Israel had been a republic and that the Lord condemned all monarchy.  (When John Adams privately told Paine that his reasoning from the Old Testament was “ridiculous,” Paine only laughed and made clear that he held the entire Bible in contempt.)

No, it was not Paine’s reason that made Common Sense a sensation.  Two other factors were paramount.  The first was the work’s accessibility.  Most of the political literature of the period was written for a highly educated audience of elites, complete with historical references, literary allusions, and Latin quotations.  Paine’s work was short, full of short sentences and short words that sent no one to the dictionary.

The second factor was the author’s rage, which seems to have resonated powerfully with the mass of Americans.  For its day, the language of Common Sense was coarse and shocking.  Here are some examples:

* The judgment of those who venerated the British constitutional system rendered them unqualified to speak to the present debate in the same way that “a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife.”

* On hereditary monarchy: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

* On William the Conqueror and the origins of the British monarchy: “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”

* On George III: “a royal brute,” a “wretch” with “blood upon his soul” who wields “barbarous and hellish power” against his supposed children.

But Paine saved his greatest invective for the colonists who dared to disagree with him.  His ad hominem attacks began with the pamphlet’s title: the argument for independence was “common sense,” which meant that all who argued otherwise were either malevolent or stupid.  In Paine’s accounting, no one opposed independence for principled reasons.  They were either “interested men, who cannot be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; [or] prejudiced men, who will not see.”   Warming to his task, Paine told Americans that anyone who would favor reconciliation with Britain after blood had been shed had “the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.”  (Look up that last adjective.  It’s not a compliment.)

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass."

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass.”

Although they readily acknowledged Paine’s polemical skills, few of the men we now revere as “Founding Fathers” thought highly of the writer.  Rumors circulated from the beginning that his personal habits were dissolute and that he rarely wrote until his third tumbler of brandy.  His supporters got him a position as a clerk to the committee on foreign affairs but he was soon dismissed due to his “obnoxious” manners.  When he sailed for France in 1781, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter wrote from Philadelphia that “there never was a man less beloved in a place than Payne [sic] is in this, having at different times disputed with everybody.  The most rational thing he could have done would have been to have died the instant he had finished his Common Sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the World with so much credit.”

Paine further alienated his adopted country when he denounced Christianity in his 1794 work The Age of Reason.  Writing mostly from a French prison—Paine was variously in and out of favor in France during the French Revolution—Paine judged Christianity as “too absurd for belief.”  “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,” he opined, “there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity.”

washington-stuart-1797

Writing from France in 1796, Thomas Paine publicly denounced President George Washington for his “ingratitude” and “hypocrisy.”

And when President George Washington didn’t act aggressively enough to try to get him released from his French dungeon, Paine further offended Americans by writing a lengthy (64-page) public letter to Washington berating the Father of their Country for his “deceit,” “ingratitude,” “hypocrisy,” “meanness,” “vanity,” “perfidy,” and “pusillanimity,” among other character qualities.  Americans had won their independence through no thanks to General Washington, Paine informed the president, for you “slept away your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted,” and deserve “but little share in the glory of the final event.”  “And as to you, sir,” Paine concluded, “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?”

Having denounced both Jesus and George Washington, Paine was now heartily despised by most Americans, to the degree that they remembered him at all.  He eventually returned to the United States in the early 1800s—he had nowhere else to go—and eventually settled on a modest farm in New Rochelle, New York.  There he lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1809.  Most Americans now viewed him as a scoundrel and a self-promoter who turned on those who failed to support him.  The author of the most popular political tract ever written in American history was laid to rest with no fanfare, and little mourning.

RECONSIDERING “THE LIGHT AND THE GLORY”

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. The essay below is an extended review of the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.  The review remains the most widely-viewed piece I have ever posted to this blog.]

 

Hands down, the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written is The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  Many of you will already know of this work, but for those you who aren’t, here’s a bit of background:

First the authors: A graduate of Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary, the late Peter Marshall Jr. was a prominent Presbyterian minister and the founder of “Peter Marshall Ministries,” an organization created to remind Americans of their Christian heritage and “restore America to its Biblical foundations.”  Marshall’s co-author, David Manuel, was an editor at Doubleday Publishing Company before turning to full-time writing.

Next, their published works: In addition to numerous lesser writings, Marshall and Manuel authored three major works, The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet.  The first, published in 1977, offers an overview of American history from the voyages of Columbus through the establishment of independence from Britain and the creation of the Constitution.  The second and third, written over the course of the next two decades, sketch the history of the nation from the creation of the Constitution to the eve of the Civil War.

Although the authors went on to produce simplified versions of these works for younger readers, all three books in their original versions feature engaging, accessible prose suitable for juvenile readers on up.  This versatility has assured for them a wide readership among adults and a popular and enduring place in the curriculum of private Christian schools and home schools.  Their combined sales now supposedly approach one million copies and, if correct, this would make the authors far more widely read than any currently living academic Christian historian.

There is much that I admire in these works.  Professional historians could learn a thing or two from Marshall and Manuel.  They took the craft of writing seriously.  They understood that historical knowledge, to make a difference in the world, needs to end up between the ears of general readers.  (We academic historians too often think of history as a conversation among ourselves.)  Marshall and Manuel also appreciated that history is, above all, a story, and they intuitively understood the power of narrative to convey important truths.  This is something historians in the Academy used to realize but have long since forgotten.

Finally, I have no doubt that Marshall and Manuel had good intentions.  Although I have known neither personally, I can imagine that it took courage to take the stand that they did.  I suspect that they were on the receiving end of more than their share of criticism and condescension from the surrounding culture.  I have certainly never been as bold as they.

That said, I cannot recommend these books.  They are marred by numerous errors of fact and interpretation, far too many to catalog here.  These do not constitute their fatal flaw, however.  The fatal flaw in these works is the authors’ well-meant but misguided decision to ground their religious critique of the contemporary United States in an historical argument about the American past.

As they explain in the introduction to The Light and the Glory, when Marshall and Manuel began writing in the 1970s, they were looking for an explanation for the moral crisis that they believe gripped the nation.  Surveying the national landscape, they saw a once unified nation now bitterly divided over Vietnam, bitterly disillusioned by Watergate, and succumbing to a variety of moral ills such as mounting divorce and sexual permissiveness.  As Christians heartbroken over the trajectory of their country, they sought an explanation.  More specifically, as Christians interested in history (Marshall had been a history major at Yale), they sought an explanation in the past.

The Light and the Glory introduces that explanation.  Marshall and Manuel summarized their thesis in the form of a rhetorical question in the book’s opening pages: “Could it be that we Americans, as a people,” they asked, “were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?  Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”

The thrust of these two works is to answer that foundational question with a resounding “Yes!”  Condensing dramatically, their argument is that the U. S. had originated as a Christian nation, had had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”

Note that most, though not all, of their argument was historical.  Marshall and Manuel’s insistence that God had a special plan for the United States was not a historical conclusion at all.  It was a prophetic declaration, a fact that the authors should have been more forthcoming in acknowledging.  This important exception aside, their interpretation rests squarely on a series of historical claims having to do with the values of the country’s founders and the degree to which succeeding generations did or did not conform to them.

There were other possible approaches.  As a pastor, Marshall simply could have opened his Bible.  Employing scriptural principles as a plumb line, he could have instructed his congregation (and any other audience that would hear him) in the ways that current American values fell short of the scriptural standard, in effect calling them (and the nation) to repentance.  What he and Manuel did, however, was to intertwine that call to repentance with a historical narrative—not a narrative based on divinely revealed biblical history, but a narrative based on the authors’ interpretation of American history.

Why did they do that?  I don’t know what their motives were, but there are two reasons why I think well-meaning Christians in general so frequently do something similar.  First, it may seem to strengthen our argument to other Christians.  When we buttress a religious argument with an interpretation of American history, we simultaneously appeal to two aspects of American Christians’ identity, namely their Christian faith and their American heritage.  Whether they consciously intended this, this is what Marshall and Manuel were doing.  They were calling their audience back in not one, but two respects: back to Biblical principles, and back to the supposed ideals of the American founding.

Second, well-meaning Christians may also inject historical arguments in their efforts to reach non-Christian audiences in the public square.  For example, in evaluating the moral state of the nation in the 1970s, Marshall and Manuel might have observed that the United States was rejecting God’s standard and simply left it at that.  Their assertion might have pierced the hearts of some believers, but what weight, humanly speaking, would we expect it to have with the broader, unbelieving culture outside the church?

Eventually, Christians who want to have a political impact in the public square always have to confront a momentous question:  Do we ground our arguments solely in explicitly religious principles, or do we seek some sort of “common ground” on which to build arguments that non-Christians might be more open to?  I am not claiming that this is what motivated Marshall and Manuel, but this much is clear: appeals to the American past are one frequent way that American Christians try to influence the contemporary culture without making explicitly religious arguments.

So why was it such a bad idea for Marshall and Manuel to support a religious critique of contemporary America with a historical argument about America’s past?

I can think of three reasons.  First, their approach exacerbates an identity crisis that has long plagued American Christians, American evangelicals especially.  It is always dangerous to link our commitment to Christ too closely with one or more of our other group attachments.  And there is always a temptation to do so.  It is so easy to intertwine our faith with adherence to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example.

When the boundaries between these loyalties become blurred, we fall prey to what C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters called “Christianity And.”  By “Christianity And,” Lewis had in mind a state of confusion in which our ultimate identity in Christ becomes inseparable from other kinds of loyalties that can actually take preeminence in our hearts.  When it comes to thinking about the past, I think that “Christianity And” is most often a concern when we grapple with what it means to be both a Christian and an American.  The Marshall and Manuel approach merely feeds this temptation.

Second, there is a way in which the linking of religious argument with historical interpretation can unintentionally promote idolatry.  That’s a strong statement, I know, and I want to stress that this was never Marshall and Manuel’s conscious intent.  In fact, here I have Marshall and Manuel less in mind than more recent writers who regularly appeal to the founders in making arguments about contemporary public policy.  Living as we do in a pluralistic society suspicious of anything that looks like “theocracy,” I understand why it is so tempting to make such arguments.

Advocating that the nation return to the supposed principles of our founding seems like an acceptable way to promote Christian values in public life without making explicitly religious arguments.  The problem with this approach, however, is that it gives moral authority to the founders of our country, and that is simple idolatry.  The founders deserve our respect, unequivocally, but when “What would the Founders do?” becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” we are imputing moral authority where God has not granted it.  That is idolatry.  There’s no other word for it.

Third, when Marshall and Manuel linked their religious critique of contemporary America to an interpretation of American history, they effectively backed themselves into a corner that made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their historical interpretation of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretation of the American present.  I cannot emphasize this too strongly: This is a predicament no Christian historian should ever be in.  The truth of Christianity and the authority of Christian principles are not on trial when we debate American history.

THE YEAR IN REVIEW: WHAT YOU READ HERE IN 2015

As 2015 draws to a close, I’ve spent the morning alternately looking through my office window at the snowy campus and reviewing the WordPress statistics on what you read from this blog over the past year.  I thought I would share a bit of what I learned.  None of the posts below was exactly “popular,” but quite a few of you thought they were worth reading.

Light and the Glory I** For the second year in a row, the most widely read essay of the past twelve months was a piece that I wrote back in 2013 on The Light and the Glory, by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  Marshall and Manuel began their fabulously popular “God’s Plan for America” trilogy nearly four decades ago, and their Christian interpretation of U.S. history has shown remarkable staying power.  I respect both authors and sympathize with their motives, but their approach to America’s past is deeply flawed and, I fear, has done much harm.  If you know someone who has been influenced by their interpretation and might be open to being challenged, would you consider forwarding them the link to my essay “Thoughts on The Light and the Glory?

Lewis II** The second most read post in 2015 was also from a previous year, my essay on a marvelous metaphor from C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.  In that WWII-era classic, Lewis observed that “the pressing educational need of the moment” was not to “cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”  Lewis’s enduring popularity among Christians interested in the life of the mind surely accounts for the success of this post.  For my take on Lewis’s metaphor and how it has informed my sense of calling as a teacher, see “C. S. Lewis on ‘Cutting Down Jungles’ and ‘Irrigating Deserts.'”

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

But what about the posts I actually shared this year?  (There have been 106 of them.)  The most popular had to do with my take as a historian on current historical controversies.  The first was a series of two posts last February in response to a proposal by Oklahoma state legislator Daniel Fisher to withdraw state funding from Advanced Placement U. S. History courses and stipulate the U. S. History curriculum for all state classrooms.  Although I’m no fan of the A.P. empire, I thought the proposal was colossally misguided.  If you missed them and would be interested in my reasoning or would like to know how my Christian convictions guide my thoughts about the value of history, see:

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

Next in popularity came a series of posts sparked by the tragic murder of nine congregants at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17 combined with the subsequent dissemination of pictures of the gunman posing with a Confederate battle flag.  The resulting furor led to an emotional national conversation about the meaning of one of the most controversial symbols in our nation’s past.  I wrote six lengthy reflections on the debate, calling attention to the ways that both sides of the argument tended to remember the past selectively and simplistically.  If you’re interested, you can revisit them by clicking on the links below:

Thanks for reading this past year.  I hope we can talk more in 2016.

SHOULD ADVANCED PLACEMENT U. S. HISTORY BE BANNED?

The Advanced Placement United States History test is back in the news again. That’s never good. As a society, pretty much the only time that we pay attention to American history is when it is used as ammunition in contemporary political debates. This instance is no exception.

If you missed it, the breaking news two days ago out of the Sooner State was that a committee of the Oklahoma legislature had recommended a bill that would effectively eliminate the teaching of A.P. U. S. history across the state. Sponsored by Republican representative Dan Fisher, the proposed measure would eliminate funding for AP courses operating under curricular guidelines recently redesigned by the College Board. Beyond telling Oklahoma educators what they can’t teach, the bill also stipulates in considerable detail what they must teach.

The back story involves efforts by the College Board to redesign the guidelines for its popular Advanced Placement U.S. test, an exam that high school students can take for possible college credit. The U. S. history exam is the most popular that the College Board offers; in 2013 alone some 443,000 students took the test.  In a process that took nearly seven years to complete, the Board sought to restructure the exam to place less weight on rote memorization of names and dates and more emphasis on historical thinking skills. The redesign unfolded in multiple stages and involved input from both high school and college teachers at numerous steps along the way. They were implemented this past fall, and the first AP exam under the new guidelines will be administered this coming May. (Full Disclosure: I was one of 58 college teachers from across the country who participated in detailed focus-group discussions for the College Board in the fall of 2010. My feedback on the new design was mixed, but generally positive with regard to the overarching goal.)

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher (R.-Yukon)

Ever since the College Board released its new guidelines last year, there have been ripples of dissatisfaction across the country, typically in conservative states like Texas, Georgia, and Colorado. Last summer the Republican National Committee joined the chorus of criticism, condemning the new guidelines in its gathering in Chicago in August. But none of the opponents of the measure have gone as far as Oklahoma’s Fisher. The new guidelines emphasize “what is bad about America,” the Baptist preacher said in a committee hearing, according to CNN. It “trades an emphasis on America’s founding principles of constitutional government in favor of robust analyses of gender and racial oppression and class ethnicity and the lives of marginalized people, where the emphasis on instruction is of America as a nation of oppressors.”

Fisher in the costume of a Revolutionary War Preacher

Fisher in the costume of a Revolutionary War Preacher

To counter the damage that this anti-American approach would inflict, Fisher proposed a two-pronged solution. First, effectively ban A.P. courses in Oklahoma until the College Board revokes its new guidelines. Second, require that all U. S. history courses taught in the state give proper attention to historical documents “that contributed to the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.” The nine-page bill that Fisher introduced last month goes on to list in considerable detail the specific documents that every U. S. history course in Oklahoma would have to teach at an age-appropriate level.

Setting aside for the moment the wisdom of legally imposing such a list, what would you include in your own list of essential documents from American History? Fisher begins with several broad but ambiguous categories of documents that every U. S. history course in the state “shall include as part of the primary instruction.” These include “organic documents from the pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary, Federalist, and post-Federalist eras”—we can only guess what he has in mind here—as well as “the writings, speeches, documents, and proclamations of the Founders and Presidents of the United States” (which ones? all of them?), United States Supreme Court decisions, acts of the United States Congress, and U. S. treaties. Whew! I’m not a legal expert, but surely such sweeping specifications are worse than useless.

Fisher then follows with a list of fifty-one other individual documents that would become required reading in the state’s history courses. These include such foundational documents as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the “Constitution and its amendments,” and the Bill of Rights (which Fisher apparently doesn’t recognize as a subset of the Constitution’s amendments).

Among white male voices (a category top-heavy with American presidents), there are single documents by John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederick Jackson Turner, Andrew Carnegie, William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, John Steinbeck, George F. Kennan, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush. There are two documents each from Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Three past presidents merit three selections each: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

Finally, Fisher’s list includes nine required documents that reflect the perspectives of women or people of color: one each from Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, Emma Lazarus, Booker T. Washington, and Malcom X, as well as two documents from Martin Luther King Jr.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s Dead White Males: 42, Women and People of Color: 9.

Actually, I am being somewhat facetious as I write this. I cringe when such debates boil down to counting the number of references to various gender and racial categories. The question is never purely one of arithmetic. And yet when critics of Fisher’s measure suggest that he represents a view of American history uninterested in acknowledging the diversity that has always characterized our past, let’s be honest: Fisher has given them more than enough to go on.

This week Fisher’s bill was approved in the state’s education committee, with all eleven Republican members present voting in support and all four Democrats voting against. Whether it has any chance of passing when and if it comes to a vote by the entire (lopsidedly-Republican) legislature is anybody’s guess. Its passage in committee has brought down a storm of criticism in the media, and if yesterday’s report in the Tulsa World is correct, Fisher appears to be backtracking in part, stressing that he is “very supportive of the AP program” and promising to “fix the bill” to eliminate ambiguous wording. In sum, this may blow over quickly.

But before our short attention spans drive us to other topics, here are my two cents on the matter, for what they’re worth. I have four quick observations, so I guess this means they’re worth a half a penny apiece:

First: The new guidelines aren’t perfect, in my opinion, but neither are they awful. I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole AP project, and I simply don’t believe that most high-school AP courses are equivalent in sophistication and rigor to the supposedly corresponding courses I have taught for the past quarter century at the University of Washington and Wheaton College, so I resist labeling what goes on there as “college-level” work. Having said that, last fall I sat down and took a sample test made available by the College Board, and I walked away more impressed than I thought I might be. I’m still not keen about granting college credit for such courses, but if my son or daughter were enrolled in a public high school right now, I can imagine that they would benefit from such a course. I would add that, as a political conservative myself, I discerned very little of the anti-American bias that Fisher and his Oklahoma legislative colleagues believe is rampant.

Second:  I think there’s a fair amount of self-righteous posturing among both the defenders and critics of the bill. I know almost nothing about Reverend Fisher, and I am willing to believe that his motives are entirely honorable. Yet I think his public pronouncements, if quoted accurately, have been less than balanced. The claim that the new guidelines teach students “only what is bad about America” is simply unsupportable. The wording of the resolutions of the Republican National Committee is no better. In so many words, the RNC condemned the College Board for falsifying the past and portrayed the conflict as a struggle between those who peddled a “biased and inaccurate view” of U. S. History and those committed to teaching the “true history” of the country “without a political bias.”

With almost perfect symmetry, critics of Fisher’s bill have attacked the character of its proponents. In an editorial for CNN.com, columnist John Sutter condemned the Oklahoma education committee for advocating a whitewashed version of the nation’s past that “flies arrogantly in the face of history.” Fisher’s bill is a “partisan” distraction that diverts the state’s attention from its many real problems, Sutter writes, for example its stubborn prohibition of gay marriage.

Last summer, the executive secretary of the American Historical Association—the country’s premier organization of academic historians—accosted critics of the AP curriculum with the same sort of ad hominem argument. Criticism was driven in part by “ill-informed assumptions” and “political partisanship,” James Grossman maintained. But it was also fueled by an element in American society not all that interested in truth, individuals who were “unhappy . . . that a once comforting” but inaccurate story “has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, and provocative.”

Boiled down, both sides trumpet their own zeal for truth, both congratulate themselves for their integrity, and both insist that the other side has a monopoly on partisan motivations.  Hmm.

Third:  Related to the second observation, note how both sides accuse the other of “revisionism.” For example, in its resolutions from last summer, the Republican National Committee condemned the new A.P. guidelines for promoting a “radically revisionist view of American history.” In like manner, columnist Sutter condemns Fisher and his legislative allies for wanting to rewrite history instead of learn from it. He sums up their proposal as a “heap of revisionist, partisan nonsense.”

This is just the most recent illustration of the utter uselessness of “revisionist” as a meaningful label. Technically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term is supposed to describe “a person who questions or revises a previously accepted version of historical phenomena or events.” Today, for all practical purposes, Americans apply it to “any one who remembers the past differently than I do.” “Revisionists” lurk everywhere. Evangelicals see them in the secular Academy. President George W. Bush found them among Democratic critics of the Iraq War. “Tea Party” supporters smell revisionism among moderate Republicans. Atheists berate Christian revisionists. Liberal bloggers hang the tag on Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. NBC Sports applies the label to New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. (Seriously.)  In popular parlance, the term is useless.

It is also mean-spirited. According to popular usage, revisionists not only disagree with us about the past; they intentionally distort the past to promote personal agendas such as political advancement or the downfall of western civilization. In sum, as we wield it today the expression is typically a character attack. Had it existed in the Old West, a hush would have fallen in the saloon whenever a black-hearted villain uttered it across the poker table. (“Ya better smile when you say that, pardner.”)

Finally:  The whole idea of trying to prescribe by law the subject matter of U. S. history classrooms is appallingly misguided. To begin with, the measure would establish a frightful precedent. As I remind my students, whenever we are trying to decide about the wisdom of a proposed law, it is always best to imagine ourselves as part of the political minority.  Before granting a new power to any level of government, in other words, it is always a good idea to imagine how we would feel to have that power wielded against us.  If we should find such an outcome insufferable, then we have no business supporting the law.  Otherwise, we are effectively saying that we are willing to impose a power on others that we would be unwilling to submit to ourselves.  In the case of the proposed legislation, Fisher is establishing a precedent by which a future legislature might lawfully mandate a history curriculum that would promote the very view of the American past he is trying to combat.

Beyond this, it is foolish to think that mandating the teaching of a particular document guarantees the promotion of a particular reading of American history or the affirmation of a particular political or social value.  Interpretation is always an integral part of the teaching of history.  Historical facts never speak for themselves.  Historical documents rarely admit of only one possible interpretation.  To give but one example, the Declaration of Independence can be taught as a bright and shining pronouncement of an egalitarian ideal or as the hypocritical rhetoric of a Virginia planter who railed against tyranny while owning 150 slaves.

Simply put, Representative Fisher’s list cannot ensure the teaching of the interpretation of American History that he believes is correct.  That can only be done by firing all of the state’s educators who disagree with his interpretation.  Until he’s willing to destroy academic freedom in the name of American exceptionalism, his goal is beyond reach.

In truth, I suspect that most of the individuals on both sides of this debate want the same thing.  Most, I am convinced, believe that history education can play a vital role in strengthening and sustaining our democracy.  Where they disagree is how best to promote that end.  What skills, knowledge, values, and beliefs are essential to a flourishing free society?  The history classroom is actually a wonderful venue for wrestling with those questions.  Just don’t let the politicians determine the answers.