On Compromise and the Coming of the Civil War

The essence of all politics is the art of compromise. The success or failure of a nation-state’s policy goals lies in the ability of its political actors–some of which may have vastly different interests–to negotiate and sometimes compromise on preferred ideals in the interest of crafting intelligent policy that promotes the greater good. Compromise, of course, doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes. As the philosopher Avishai Margalit beautifully argues in On Compromise and Rotten Compromises:

We very rarely attain what is first on our list of priorities, either as individuals or as collectives. We are forced by circumstances to settle for much less than what we aspire to. We compromise. We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are. (5)

Superficially, it sounds silly to ask whether compromises are good or bad, much like asking whether bacteria are good or bad: we cannot live without bacteria, though sometimes we die because of bacteria. Yet that asymmetry makes the question about the goodness and the badness of bacteria, as well as those of compromise, worth asking. We have ten times as many bacteria in our bodies as we have cells, and many of those are vital for our existence. A small number of bacteria are pathologic and cause disease, and and with the proper treatment, we may get rid of them. Similarly, compromises are vital for social life, even though some compromises are pathogenic. We need antibiotics to resist pathogenic bacteria, and we need to actively resist rotten compromises that are lethal for the moral life of a body politic. (7)

This description captures one of the most fundamental quandaries of human existence: when should individuals and groups make compromises on ideals to accomplish an objective, and when is refusing to compromise the better option of the two? Studying history is a worthwhile endeavor for considering the ramifications of political compromise on the health of a nation-state and its people.

It was with this conception of compromise on my mind when I read historian Carole Emberton’s fine essay in the Washington Post and Caleb McDaniel’s in The Atlantic today on the breakdown of compromise efforts leading up to the Civil War. White northerners and southerners forged successful compromise efforts (at least in the minds of those seeking political union between the sections) on the issue of slavery from the beginning of the nation’s founding. As the country acquired new western territory through conquest and purchase in the years before the Civil War, debates continually sprang up about whether the institution of slavery would accompany the white American settlers moving westward. In hindsight, various compromise efforts like the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and others were really measures to appease the proslavery south, but they nonetheless allowed the Union to be maintained for nearly eighty years after its founding.

It’s worth asking students of the Civil War to consider how compromise over slavery was possible in 1850 but not in 1860. My answer would be that the Republican Party’s successful entrance into electoral politics changed the game. The Republicans explicitly organized as a party in 1854 on the principle that slavery should be banned in the western territories and left open for free labor (for some Republicans, this meant only free white labor). Although Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that Constitutionally speaking slavery could not be touched where it already existed in the south, his personal hatred of slavery was well-know and feared by proslavery fire-eaters who saw his election as a step towards federal governance dominated by northern anti-slavery convictions. In other words, an administration that was hostile to the south’s economic, political, and social interest in keeping African Americans enslaved.

President-elect Lincoln was willing to compromise to the extent that he offered support to the first proposed 13th Amendment guaranteeing the federal government’s protection of slavery in the states where it already existed, but he refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s westward expansion, drawing a line in the sand and arguing that he had been elected on the belief that the west should be for free labor. Compromising on this question would sacrifice the Republican Party’s core principle of existence. Likewise, many white Southern Democrats argued that talk of disunion could be mollified if the federal government passed legislation guaranteeing the right to bring their slave property west with them. They refused, however, to make any further compromises short of these new guarantees from the federal government. As Emberton argues, “it was slavery, and the refusal of Southern slaveholders to compromise on slavery, that launched the Civil War.”



Jeffery Lord’s “Progressive” Ku Klux Klan

The above video is infuriating, disappointing, troubling, and largely inaccurate.

Mr. Jeffery Lord, a vocal Donald Trump supporter and pundit we’re supposed to take seriously because he’s on CNN, lectures Van Jones to “read your history” while making a rather sad argument about the historical legacy of the Ku Klux Klan, attributing all their wrongdoings to “progressive”Democrats. While it’s factually true that white supremacist elements within the Democratic party have historically had a troubling connection to the KKK, Lord’s interpretation of that fact stretches and breaks the boundaries of reality. Such terms like “leftist” and “progressive” would have been shocking to KKK members in 1870. This interpretation also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how history and political discourse work. Historical “facts” do not exist in a vacuum or constitute true historical knowledge. “Read your history” is not simply being ready for a trivia night. Historical thinking requires an interpretation of facts that places them within a proper context, taking account of how these bits of information fit within the broader picture of how a society functioned at the time. Facts gain their significance through the ways we interpret their meaning, and not all interpretations are equal (read historian Richard Evans’ discussion of the interplay between fact and interpretation here). To argue that the KKK is a violent, racist organization (fact) supported historically only by Democrats and “Progressives” (wild interpretation) is as silly as arguing that Steph Curry is a great three-point shooter (fact) but a terrible basketball player (wild interpretation). Why else would Lord assert that the KKK was a creation of leftist progressives unless he’s suggesting that the KKK has no association with the Republican party or conservatives more broadly? In that case, Mr. Lord may need to read some more history.

Anyone who actually bothers to explore the history of the KKK understands that there have been at least three different versions of the Klan in American history. The first version emerged in the 1860s and 1870s in opposition to enhanced civil rights for blacks, particularly the right to vote for black males through the 15th Amendment. The third version of the KKK emerged in the 1950s and 60s in response to racial desegregation, social change, and Civil Rights legislation. But the second version of the KKK that emerged in the 1910s and 1920s was slightly different. Their campaigns were anti-black but also included opposition to Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and strong support for prohibition. These appeals to the power of White Anglo Saxon Protestant society gained popularity throughout the entire country. The second KKK was particularly popular in the Midwest in places like Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The group gained such a stronghold in Indiana that, according to Leonard J. Moore and other scholars, election to public office in the state was impossible without the support of the KKK. And which party, you might ask, held a majority of the KKK-backed seats in the state legislature and supported a KKK-backed Governor in his successful 1924 election? The Republicans!

The point here is not to save the Democrats from their history. The point is that Lord’s argument is lazy and dishonest. The KKK has been a fabric of our culture for 150 years thanks to the support of white supremacists of all different political persuasions. Equally important, political coalitions and parties are not static entities that never change over time. That Donald Trump–the leading front-runner of what was once the party of Lincoln and Grant–cannot publicly condemn the support of KKK leader David Duke is a testament to the ever-changing nature of political platforms and party dynamics. But Trump can get away with his nonsense because partisans like Jeffery Lord will do the dirty work of manipulating the past to place their preferred candidate on the right side of history at any cost. I’m tired of partisans who dishonestly view the world with red- and blue-tinted glasses shaped by ideological dogmas rather than reasoned reflection and nuanced consideration of context and substance. Historians are often skeptical of the ways politicians abuse history to justify their own ends, but the same skepticism should be applied to the talking heads who spew nonsense on our radios and televisions 24 hours a day. Give me a break.


A Memo to Mike Huckabee: The Military Has Always Been a Social Experiment

Last night, for better or worse, I decided to watch the first GOP debate in its entirety. I watched it partly for its entertainment value but mostly from a sincere desire to try and understand the arguments and characteristics of the candidates who claim to be competent enough to run the United States as our next President.

In the course of the debate candidate Mike Huckabee was asked a question about the military’s recent decision to lift its ban on transgendered troops. He gave a laughable response:

The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things. It is not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America. I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines makes our country safer.

Cheers and clapping came from the party faithful in response to Huckabee’s comments, but this is simply bad history. The United States military has always been a social experiment whose actions have most certainly transformed our “culture.” Indeed, serving in the military and killing people and breaking things is itself a social experiment, right?

Take, for example, President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. A passage in the Proclamation proclaims that African Americans “will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” Blacks were already serving with the Navy prior to Lincoln’s Proclamation (and have served in every American war since the Revolution), but the message signaled an important transformation within the ranks; ten percent of the military’s fighting force would be composed of United States Colored Troops by the end of the Civil War.

Some scholars such as Lerone Bennett and Michelle Alexander downplay the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation by saying that it didn’t free any slaves (which is false) or that its only significance lies in its utility as a war measure, but the vitriolic responses from some border state Unionists and the Confederate government at the time reflect a belief that the Proclamation was a radical social experiment that threatened law and order. Border State politicians and slaveholders wondered what would happen to their slaves; Kentucky troops fighting for the Union allegedly threatened to lay down their arms if abolition became a war aim and blacks enlisted in the military; and many white Northern troops who may have publicly accepted the changes wrought by the war still held private doubts about the fighting capabilities of blacks.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis also understood the radicalism of the Emancipation Proclamation and responded with fear and disgust:

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow-men of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation ‘to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.’ Our own detestation of those who have attempted by the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by a profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses.

Davis believed that the Proclamation would encourage black-on-white violence in the South in the name of “self-defense” and that emancipation would ultimately lead to their extermination by giving them freedom, guns (for the men), and a place outside their “sphere.” The military is not a social experiment!

On January 1, 1861, the St. Louis Courthouse (now the Old Courthouse) hosted its final slave auction. Exactly two years later Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation encouraged those same slaves–people that could have been bought and sold as property–to enlist in the military. That’s radical. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood that the Proclamation had implications that went beyond military service when he asserted that blacks who enlisted had “earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” While I would argue that African Americans earned citizenship for other reasons in addition to military service, it is undeniable that their military service during the war played a significant role in shaping the fourteenth amendment (which gave all native-born and naturalized residents the right of citizenship) and the fifteenth amendment (which gave all men regardless of color the right to vote). The Emancipation Proclamation was a clear case of what we could call a “social experiment” that involved the military.

The military was also used as a social experiment in the twentieth century. Before desegregation in public facilities and schools throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948 ordering the military to integrate. Just like the Emancipation Proclamation, Truman’s order aroused claims of “social experimentation” within and without the military. Lieutenant General Edward Almond, for example, believed integration would be demoralizing to white soldiers. He actively fought to deny justly-earned medals to black soldiers during the Korean War and continued to lament the perceived ills of integration well into the 1970s. And of course we cannot deny the evolving role of women in the military as nurses, factory workers, administrators, and eventually combat soldiers in our current military.

When we take a look at the social transformations that have taken place in the U.S. military throughout its history we can safely conclude that the opposite of Huckabee’s claim is true – that the military has always provided a means of social change with profound consequences for the social, political, and cultural fabric of American society. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a few years ago continued this trend by allowing people the chance to serve in the military while openly gay, and now transgender people can enlist. Until I see some sort of empirical evidence suggesting that a military with transgendered people in the service puts my country’s national security at risk (which I highly doubt), I will gladly applaud and encourage their service in our military.


Addendum: Upon further reflection I think it’s important to further clarify that I do not mean to suggest that the military as an institution leans to the left of the political spectrum or that it embodies liberal or “progressive” ideals any more than it embodies conservative ideals. Rather, I am trying to suggest that the military has historically been targeted by activists because various social groups (including the aforementioned ones here) have earned expanded citizenship and suffrage rights through military service.

Creating Sound Arguments: Personal Experiences vs. Structural Realities

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Do you remember that time about a year and a half ago when Duck Dynasty actor Phil Robertson made some questionable remarks about homosexuals and black people during an interview with GQ? A&E, Robertson’s employer, decided to put Duck Dynasty on hiatus; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal misinterpreted the meaning of the first amendment; some of your friends probably joined an “I Support Phil Robertson” Facebook group on the website and claimed in harried status updates that Christians in the U.S. were now being persecuted for their beliefs; and then A&E–caving into the criticism against their choice to suspend Duck Dynasty–came to their senses and lifted the suspension nine days later when they remembered that ratings have always dictated the ethics of television programming.

The whole episode was a waste of time and maybe even a ploy by GQ and A&E to manufacture a controversy and garner attention for themselves. But I learned an important lesson during this “crisis ” that’s stuck with me ever since. That lesson is that there are many logical shortfalls to making arguments about the world based on personal experiences and perceptions. This lesson simultaneously applies to the ways we talk about contemporary society and how we talk about history.

When asked about racism in his native Louisiana in the 1950s and 60s before the Civil Rights Movement, Robertson relied on personal experience to argue that life wasn’t so bad for African Americans back then:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

There are many ways to interpret these comments. A generous interpretation could suggest that Robertson really was telling the truth about his experiences and that life really wasn’t that bad for the black people in his community. A more cynical interpretation could argue that Robertson’s status as a beneficiary of a racist system of legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence against black people may have blinded him to the actual hardships of his neighbors, and that his suggestion about African Americans becoming discontented and “singing the blues” only after the rise of the welfare state is offensive. My thoughts lean towards the latter interpretation, but that’s beside the point.

Relying on personal anecdotes to explain a society’s political, economic, and social foundations generally results in poor arguments that don’t advance the conversation because they are used at the expense of compelling evidence about a society’s systematic and structural regulations, policies, and philosophies. Robertson’s perceptions of racism or lack thereof in his own community tell us something about Phil Robertson’s view of reality in 1950s America, but they don’t necessarily reflect the structural workings of 1950s American governance. Across the United States blacks in impoverished communities at this time were offered fewer opportunities in the labor market, education, housing, and quality health care. It is not difficult to find this information or accept these realities, regardless of what Phil Robertson says or whether or not he is accurately describing an objective reality of his upbringing.

I make these points because it’s so easy to rely on personal experience as the final arbiter of truth without acknowledging the limited and flawed nature of our perceptions. Here in St. Louis, for example, I had no idea that various municipal governments were using aggressive policing and exorbitant ticket fees from petty misdemeanors to fund their operations on the backs of impoverished people until Radley Balko reported on it for the Washington Post in September. A Robertson-esque response to the Balko report might argue that “the police in my community treat everyone with respect. Nobody is discriminated against by the police on account of race, ethnicity, or class. People just need to follow the law and they’ll be just fine.”

That argument might very well be true for some people, myself included! Every police officer I’ve met in my area of St. Louis has treated me with kindness and respect. I have no doubt that those hard-working people are doing everything they can to keep my community safe. But just because I haven’t been witness to the corruption of these municipal governments does not mean that they don’t exist or that no one else has suffered. My experiences and those of others here in the area only make sense once they are fit together within a larger social, political, and economic context that explains how structures shape our society.

And just like Phil Robertson, we are always relying on personal experience to explain the past. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of arguments from ancestors (typo!) descendants of Confederate soldiers who claim that their ancestors did not fight for the Confederacy on account of their support for slavery but instead fought for things like honor, defense of home, allegiance to the South, etc. For that reason, they argue, the Confederate flag is not just a flag of white supremacy. Again, that might very well be true for some. I readily accept that the Confederate flag has many layers of meaning, but the personal experiences of your ancestors tell us more about the experience of soldiering during the Civil War than anything about the political disagreements that precipitated the war. Soldiers and politicians often have very different motivations for participating in wars, and the vast majority of Civil War soldiers on both sides had no political role in the debates over secession in 1861. Therefore any discussion of a Confederate soldier’s desire to fight on behalf of “defending his family” (and not for slavery) is inadequate until you also take a look at the bigger picture and acknowledge what the politicians were willing to go to war over in the first place. It wasn’t states’ rights.

Are personal experiences unimportant or useless? Of course not. I would argue, however, that they are inadequate determinants for explaining how the world works. Our experiences don’t happen in isolated bubbles. We must account for that.



It’s a weird time to be living in St. Louis. It’s weird to see North St. Louis county, a place where members of both sides of my family have lived and worked since the 1930s and where I lived for eight years (Florissant), prominently displayed on national and international news outlets. It’s weird to read what seems like a lifetime of online punditry and thinkpiece material about your hometown from people who have spent little if any time there. And it’s definitely weird to see protests taking place in New York City, Boston, Oakland, and a number of other prominent U.S. cities in response to an event that occurred at a place within an easy driving distance of your house.

Since August I have wrestled with whether or not I should share my thoughts and perspective on Ferguson online. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t because I might offend someone or my words might be misinterpreted. And who the hell cares what I think anyway? At the same time, however, I feel like the topic is unavoidable and that I cannot write about other topics in good conscience without addressing it. No matter what any reader may think about my perspective, I owe it to myself to outline my thoughts and try to come to a better personal understanding through writing.

As with most political topics of discussion within society today, “mainstream” news media, social media, political pundits, and online writers have created false dichotomies framing the events in Ferguson in black and white terms (literally). Any sort of middle ground perspective–or at least a perspective that allows for nuanced thinking about protesters, police officers, and the United States criminal justice system–has been lost. It was probably never there in the first place. Countless online and face-to-face interactions with friends and family in St. Louis follow predictable lines: are you “for or against the protesters?” Do you support law enforcement and law and order? Who’s “side” do you support? Too often I feel like I must choose between a vision of society that either embraces a strong police state or a state of total anarchy. Like the nationalist who argues “my country: right or wrong,” I feel like I must either embrace “my police: right or wrong” or “my protest: right or wrong.”

On the one hand, some critics of the Ferguson Police Department and the U.S. criminal justice system have clearly gone too far in generalizing all police officers as bloodthirsty pigs. Some protesters have compared the Ferguson PD to ISIS, which is simply ridiculous. The St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe recently released a song called “War Cry” that seems to contradict the message of peace other protesters have attempted to convey to society and, in a way, dehumanizes Missouri political and law enforcement leaders in the process of demanding their own acknowledgement of black humanity. In the song description Poe argues that the Ferguson PD is an “uncontrollable force of wild cowboys,” and in an article for Time magazine he asserts that in the initial aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting “the police launched a preemptive and massively militarized offensive” against the protesters. While I agree with Poe that the initial police response in August was heavy-handed, it is disingenuous to criticize the police’s reaction without acknowledging the looting and property damage that precipitated most of those police actions.

I also agree with Jamelle Bouie that riots are not necessarily incomprehensible acts of violence, that we should work to understand the driving motivations behind rioting beyond simple moral condemnation, and that white supremacy reigned in the U.S. during the nineteenth and early twentieth century due in large part to white riots. And I can understand the perspective of a young Ferguson resident like Victor Mooring who considers the recent looting and arson along West Florissant street “a small price to pay for treating Brown’s life as worthless.” But the acknowledgement of a nation’s white supremacist history or a “means justify the ends” logic to violence will do little to comfort the numerous business owners and employees of all colors who are now out of work and a community whose local infrastructure and resources are literally crumbling. And if we were to embrace a “means justify the ends” logic towards arson and looting in Ferguson, then what stops a status quo advocate of the criminal justice system from embracing a “means justify the ends” logic towards the killing of perceived black criminals as a small price to pay for social order and state hegemony? We must also condemn state violence if we want to condemn riots.

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French recently lamented on Twitter that TV media failed to properly distinguish between the goals and intentions of peaceful protesters, looters, and arsonists. I share these sentiments, but unfortunately many people hostile to the protests have made these terms synonymous in their imaginations. Whereas some critics have generalized all police officers as racist, corrupt pigs, other critics have unfairly generalized all protesters as violent, police-hating rabble-rousers without any credible justification for protesting in Ferguson. A perspective that completely dismisses the complaints of most peaceful protesters is equally harmful, if not more harmful, to understanding where we are right now. To simply wish that “all of this would just go away” is a fool’s dream. To wish that everything would go back to “normal” is to conveniently forget that “normal” is the cause of events in Ferguson in the first place. St. Louis has a troubling history of slavery, racist government actions in criminal justice, housing, and redlining policies, and de facto segregation readily embraced by many white St. Louisians in practice if not by law. This troubling history is embedded within the very core of St. Louis society whether or not St. Louisans choose to acknowledge it.

The Missouri criminal justice system needs reforming, although the extent of that reform remains an open question. Municipal police departments in St. Louis County have profited off the backs of its most impoverished residents, as Radley Balko detailed in-depth for the Washington Post in September. The criminal justice system in Ferguson punishes its residents to such a point that last year each household possessed three warrants on average; 25,000 warrants in a city of 21,000 people. The Ferguson PD remains under federal investigation for several allegations that include excessive force against suspects, unwarranted traffic citations issued in a quest for money, and disproportionate traffic stops in black neighborhoods. And St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullouch’s operating procedures during the grand jury’s indictment hearing for Officer Darren Wilson were far from legally sound, engendering a wide range of criticisms from writers, legal experts, and the National Bar Association. Finally, Princeton University professor and sociologist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us that “Racist policing isn’t happening in a vacuum — it has to be seen, at least in part, as the flip side of the economic gutting of those communities. The local, state, and federal governments have slowly eroded black neighborhoods by shuttering public schools and public housing, closing public clinics and hospitals, and slashing funding for social programs.”

Once we acknowledge that those protesting in Ferguson and around the United States are doing so for myriad reasons–racist policing, police militarization, an unfair criminal justice system, economic inequality, racism within government and society, and many other reasons–we can acknowledge that peaceful protesters have many legitimate reasons for protesting, even if we were to give Darren Wilson’s explanation for his interactions with and killing of Michael Brown the complete benefit of the doubt.

For all of its bitter political, social, and economic divisiveness, the St. Louis region finds itself, as Sarah Kendzior argues, united only in fear. A geography of fear, a fear of what’s happening, and a fear of what might soon come. Governor Jay Nixon recently argued that Michael Brown’s death prompted these bitter divisions, but he is wrong. They have been here for a long, long time, and to think that we are somehow living in an unprecedented time in our city’s history is to downplay just how long these sorts of questions and disagreements have lingered under the surface.

By pure coincidence I am currently reading the late Tony Judt’s 2008 publication Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. Although the book largely revolves around European twentieth century history, Judt’s impassioned pleas for the importance of historical thinking are relevant for all space and time. Through a stronger historical consciousness we can escape the politics of fear and use our critical faculties to better understand how the complex questions we face as a society are perennial in nature.

Of all our contemporary illusions, the most dangerous is the one that underpins and accounts for all the others. And that is the idea that we live in a time without precedent: that what is happening to us is new and irreversible and that the past has nothing to teach us . . . except when it comes to ransacking it for serviceable precedents.

Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of circumstances and routines of one’s daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach. Few democracies can resist the temptation to turn this sentiment of fear to political advantage . . . we should not be surprised to see the revival of pressure groups, political parties, and political programs based upon fear: fear of foreigners, fear of change, fear of open frontiers and open communications; fear of the free exchange of unwelcome opinions (19-20).

Much of the substance within the perspectives I’ve shared above stems from the politics of fear. Fear of the Other, fear of the future, fear that listening to others and acknowledging the legitimacy of their arguments means taking away our personal dignity and compromising our values. It remains to be seen if Ferguson can help lead St. Louis beyond the politics of fear.


Is the United States a Deeply Divided Country?

One of Colin Woodard’s main ideas in American Nations is that the United States is a deeply divided country. “Americans,” argues Woodard, “have been deeply divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth,” and that division continues today as “its citizenry is deeply divided along regional lines, with some in the ‘Tea Party’ movement adopting the rhetoric of the eighteenth-century Yankee minutemen, only with the British Parliament replaced by the federal Congress, and George III by their duly elected president.”

Woodard’s concerns are echoed on a daily basis by the media: Americans are deeply divided on foreign policy. Americans are deeply divided about the causes of poverty. Americans are deeply divided about same-sex marriage. And on and on. We’ve also allegedly become a nation suffering from confirmation bias: we listen to media outlets and pundits who confirm our preconceived beliefs, values, and ideas, and we don’t challenge ourselves to consider other perspectives and ways of looking at the world. Some people go to their Fox News silo, others go to the MSNBC silo. Some scholars have also lamented the state of America’s deep divide. For example, John Fea, in his fine publication on the importance of studying history, asserts that historical literacy may offer a possible avenue for healing the “wounds” caused by deep political divisions in society today.

To be sure, political divisions do exist in the United States, and Woodard is absolutely correct that political conflict has always been a staple of American history. Part one of American Nations is an entertaining and engaging read because Woodard deftly shows how colonial settlers from different parts of Europe did in fact have a wide range of ideas about governance, religion, and culture. The founding fathers of the United States were not a politically unified group of men who had a clear vision for the future of this new country, and all too often essays purporting to explain “what the founders believed” can go too far in painting a rosy picture of the past with some sort of “lesson of American history” that more accurately reflects a political agenda rather than a serious dialogue with history.

Nevertheless, I believe the term “deeply divided country” has become a loaded term devoid of meaning in contemporary political discourse. What do we mean when we say we are a “deeply divided country”? More specifically, what does it mean to be divided “deeply”? When we say we’re divided, shouldn’t we look back at past divisions to compare our current problems with past circumstances? It is easy to forget that newspapers in the nineteenth century made no bones about “objectivity” and often acted as mouthpieces for their preferred political parties. Here in Indianapolis there were two major newspapers during the Civil War–the Indianapolis Journal (Republican) and the Indiana State Sentinel (Democrat)–that provided radically different interpretations of events during the war. Additionally, when it came close to an upcoming election, these papers would provide a list of candidates to look for when voting. I have no doubt that Indianapolis readers at that time went to their respective “media silos” to hear what they wanted to hear and confirm their own views of the world, just like people today. The major difference, of course, was that the “deeply divided country” of the antebellum era engaged in a war in which upwards of 750,000 Americans died, something that our supposedly “deeply divided country” today hasn’t had to endure.

The political scientist Morris P. Fiorina offers what I believe to be a much needed corrective to this “deeply divided country” narrative. In Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized Nation Fiornia argues that most Americans are not politically radical or firmly in the camp of Republicans or Democrats. While acknowledging that divisions do exist in the U.S., Fiorina convincingly demonstrates that pollsters seeking to find an opinion on a hot-button topic like abortion often poll “political elites” and “activists” who are firmly entrenched in their own views and respective political parties. It is the parties themselves that have become more polarized, not necessarily the voters. In reality, roughly 10-15% of the population is strongly Republican, 10-15% is Democrat, and the rest probably falls under a “centrist” camp not strongly committed to either side. Is that reflective of a “deeply divided country,” or does it more accurately reflect just a “divided country” that will always need room for debate, discussion, and disagreement in order to preserve and enhance a democratic form of government? Perhaps it is time to start using the term “deeply divided country” with more care and precision than we’ve been using it in recent years.

With this essay I will end my review my Colin Woodard’s American Nations. As I’ve worked my way through the book, I’ve attempted to point out good arguments, criticize incorrect ones, and raise questions about the nature of the historian’s craft. In my opinion, I believe Woodard would have been much more successful in his arguments had he not taken his analysis all the way up to 2010. Part one of American Nations convinced me that there existed prior to the American Revolution a wide range of “nations” composed of people with a common culture, shared historical experiences, and distinct artifacts and symbols. As the narrative progresses closer to 2010, however, the arguments become less convincing, and it is an undeniable fact that a range of technologies–telephones, trains, radios, televisions, computers, the internet–have connected citizens of the United States in ways that would have been unimaginable in 1591 (although we certainly still have plenty of cultural differences). It’s also important to point out that while this book relies heavily on data obtained from political scientists, today’s political campaigning in the U.S. does not reflect a country composed of eleven(ish) nations. Political candidates don’t conceive of campaign strategies for recruiting interest in the “Midlands” or “New France” or “New Netherlands.” Politicians of course realize that differences exist in the country, but much of those differences still fall on a perceived “North-South-East-West” political axis.

Perhaps using this 288 page narrative to analyze the eleven nations from 1591-1787 rather than 400+ years of history would have been more convincing for me, but then again, the NPR interviews, press attention, and my own awareness of the book may not have existed had that sort of book been published. Nevertheless, anyone who tries to write 400+ years of history in less than 300 pages has a huge challenge on their hands, one I would not feel comfortable tackling.

Rather than making an explicit recommendation one way or the other on purchasing American Nations, I would encourage readers to consider the arguments I’ve proposed here (just click on the “Eleven Nations of North America” category to the right to see my other essays) and make their own conclusions as to whether American Nations is worth purchasing. While I had disagreements with some of Woodard’s arguments, I found the book thought-provoking, entertaining, and a great challenge for my critical thinking skills. That in itself made the book a worthwhile read for me.


Reflections on the Future of Civil War History, Part 3: The End of “Political Correctness”

Other posts on the conference: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5

One of the panels that I was unable to attend at the conference related to the training of seasonal interpreters and historians in the National Park Service. However, I heard quite a bit about it on Twitter and through my friend Bob Pollock at Yesterday…and Today, who did in fact attend this panel. The following thoughts are exclusively my own.

Apparently there was a bit of contention during the panel regarding the question of “opinions” and whether or not National Park Service staff should share their own personal views with visitors to their sites. One of the panelists mentioned that he never shares his opinions to visitors at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. The gentleman stated, in sum (and again, correct me if I’m wrong) that if a visitor asks him whether or not John Brown was right, he avoids answering the question and instead asks the visitor what he or she thinks. This is done in order to maintain “objectivity,” “neutrality,” “fairness,” and “avoid politics,” supposedly.

I believe this is wrong on several fronts. First, it assumes that objectivity is something that can be achieved, which is false. We are our biases through and through, and our participation in the world of 2013-a world much different than the one in 1863–biases our observances of the world of 1863. As Howell and Prevenier remind us on page 109 of their magisterial work on historical methods, the most vocal proponents of “objectivity” are oftentimes the most biased of all. Leopold Von Ranke, one of the first “modern” historians of the 19th Century, strove to recreate the past “as it actually occurred.” However, “appearing only to recount the events concerning the powerful men on whom [the Rankean historians] narratives almost inevitably focused, they in fact implicitly endorsed even the most outrageous of their characters’ actions–murder, pillage, deception. Ranke himself also regularly betrayed his own biases in his prose, displaying his anticlercism with every paragraph he wrote about the history of Christianity,” which was a reflection of his views on religion in the 19th Century.

So much for that.

Second, there is a tension underlying how much authority NPS staff should exert on their audiences. The concept of “shared authority” has dominated the public history discourse for a while now, and I support it to a certain extent, but at what point is it appropriate for a Park Ranger to share their opinions and expertise about a topic? We must remember that many people go to National Parks to not only experience the sights and sounds of the park, but to learn about history from a trusted authority, the National Park Ranger. At some point the Park Ranger has to help guide the discussion along and share their thoughts on a given topic, in my opinion. At the end of the day we’re not discussion moderators, we’re historians. That doesn’t mean we dominate or eliminate the discussion, but it means we guide it towards our own specific ends, which is in itself political.

Which gets me to my third point. There is simply no way to avoid politics. By choosing not to make an opinion on something, I am making a political decision. I am choosing to maintain the status quo and implicitly support the interests of certain power bases that are typically the source for calls to objectivity. Once again, let’s go back to the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965). The dominant interpretation of the war during that time centered on reunion and honor. Both sides were right, former enemies became brothers. In order to avoid “controversy” and “politics” while maintaining “objectivity,” any discussion of slavery or the causes or consequences of the war were avoided. However, rather than objectively recreating events as they occured, these interpretations were instead subverted by powerful forces who sought to promote American Nationalism, an escalating war in Vietnam, and the maintenance of racial segregation in the South. Furthermore, former Superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park John Latschar acknowledged at the conference that site interpretations at the battlefield for a long time advocated the “lost cause” interpretation of the war, which argues that the Confederacy and ONLY the Confederacy was right. That’s not objective.

It’s not so much that I take issue with this person’s refusal to answer a question about John Brown. Rather, I take issue with the idea that an avoidance of all personal opinions somehow keeps a person’s hands clean from the muddy terrain of politics or that it somehow eschews controversy. Well, as the centennial shows us, even when you work really hard to be “objective,” controversy still calls.

All of this should also indicate that I do not believe in the idea of “political correctness.” The term is used by those only interested in stifling discussion and not addressing complex social topics with evidence and forthright honesty. Once again, during the centennial it was not “politically correct” to talk about slavery. Less frequently was it mentioned during that time that discussions about both the Union and Confederacy being right was also a form of “political correctness.” Likewise, we often heard in the 1990s (and today still) that people who use terms like “African-American,” “Asian-American,” or “Caucasian,” were engaging in “political correctness” or that politicians who use those terms were pandering to a certain demographic.  Less frequently mentioned is that terms like “Wetback,” “Jap,” “Hun,” “Guido,” and “Redneck” are also terms of “political correctness” that have been used by politicians to pander to certain demographics.

The future of Civil War History, in my opinion, will require an acute awareness amongst public historians that their interpretations are going to be political no matter what. We have a limited time in which to educate our audiences about the past. We will necessarily have to pick and choose what we decide to talk about. If I’m creating an educational program for a school and I have to choose between teaching the students how to churn butter or teaching them about slavery, I must be cognizant of the fact that I am making a political decision if I choose to teach the kids how to churn butter, especially if I’m looking to do so in order to avoid “controversy.” Likewise, if I choose to teach them about slavery, I’ve made a political decision as well. I think we all need to do a better job of being aware of this reality. All National Parks and their staff are “political” and they all deal with “controversy” related to their interpretations. I think the best way to avoid “controversy” is to demonstrate a level of transparency with audiences by stating your interpretive goals upfront and being frank about your mission as a site. If you don’t want to answer a question about John Brown, that’s fine, but make sure to explain why without making some sort of vague platitude about being “objective.”

Is there a point in which NPS staff should avoid expressing their opinion? Absolutely. But if I’m working at a Civil War related site and I am asked to share my professional opinion on a Civil War related topic (i.e. was John Brown right?), I think it should be acceptable to share my professional opinion because I’ve been trained to interpret the past. There might be other non Civil War opinions that I might be able to share as well. It just depends.

By the way, I think John Brown’s course of action (violence) was wrong, even if his goals were well-intentioned.