Patriotism–love of country–can be a noble ideal that promotes informed, educated citizenship and respect for its governing institutions and the people who compose its society. But patriotism without criticism is lazy and toothless; a cheap way of demanding conformity to the status quo. Condescendingly demanding that people must either love this country unconditionally or “leave it” is deeply insulting to the many patriotic Americans both yesterday and today who have fought injustices throughout our country’s history and have argued through the language of protest that this country can and should do better. The late author James Baldwin correctly argued that “I love America more than any country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Democracies and Republics thrive on dissent. Fascist and authoritarian governments thrive on the suppression of dissent.
We Americans are a free people whose country was born of protest. The right to protest is a right codified in law and protected by those who put their lives on the line for us in military service for this country (and who, by the way, do not need to be apologized to before engaging in protest). We can debate all day about correct and incorrect protest methods, but peaceful protesters–whatever the cause–have just as much a right to pursue freedom and liberty for themselves as anyone else, even if their actions and messages are distasteful in our eyes. The National Anthem and our ritual of standing up for it should not be empty gestures done just to be polite or to adhere to forced standards of patriotism, but should be practiced by freedom-loving people who stand on their own free will because they believe in its words and the patriotic spirit they invoke.
In 1943 a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses students in West Virginia refused to salute the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance and were expelled from school. The case went to the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Chief Justice Robert Jackson stated that:
“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Many people have made an effort to remind each other on this September 11th that we as a country–and indeed the entire world–will “Never Forget” the horrors of that awful day in 2001. I appreciate these gestures, but it’s important to remember that students in grades K-12 today are young enough that they have nothing to actually remember. Your lived experiences and memories of 9/11 are a younger generation’s history; a history that they will learn through school textbooks, YouTube videos, and your memories.
How we choose to tell this history to ourselves and our posterity will be discussed, debated, and reinterpreted for many years to come, but it will have to involve more than personal reflections on “where I was when I heard about 9/11” or hashtag remembrances on social media. It will require more than symbolic flag waving and uncritical praise of our country’s legacy while shouting “‘Murcia!”. Indeed, the flag’s meaning is not derived from its material or design but from the ideals it symbolizes and embodies – ideals that have been contested, abused, and stained by the blood of those who died for its preservation.
This history will need to probe difficult questions about the causes, context, and consequences of 9/11, and it will have to challenge us to think about patriotism, the military, popular government, and a range of other issues that push us to ultimately consider what it means to be an American today.
We will need to have these discussions because they will play a crucial role in shaping how we want this country to look like going forward and, hopefully, help us leave our society in a better condition for our posterity. These discussions will hurt, and we will need to reckon with the pain they provoke. I am not completely sure whether we’ll be up for this important task. But I will hope for a better future because this country–like my own family–is something that I was born into, for better or worse. And just like my family, my country and I will have our disagreements and uncertainties at times. The U.S.A. is something I love, however, and something that will endure if we as a society give it the care it deserves.
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.
When you first walk into the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg, Germany, you immediately notice that you are standing underneath a watchtower with a clear panoptic view of the entire camp. Unlike other Nazi concentration camps that had either a square or rectangular shape, the barracks at Sachsenhausen compose a semi-circle with the main watchtower at its base. This design set the standard for Nazi concentration camps and–thanks to its close proximity to the German government in Berlin–the camp was soon touted by the National Socialists as a symbol of humane treatment towards political dissidents, homosexuals, criminals, “undesirables,” and, later, Jewish people. Politicians and dignitaries from other countries were often taken on tours of this camp by the Nazis before the outbreak of World War II. Prisoners were rounded up beforehand and forced to sign songs of loyalty to the Fuhrer for the gazing, sometimes admiring tourists to prove that things weren’t so bad. And this musical charade, which probably took place right at the watchtower you first walked through upon arriving at the camp, marked one of the first of many instances in which the victims of the Nazi Holocaust were forced to contribute their own part in the process of their very destruction.
Roughly 200,000 prisoners were housed at Sachsenhausen from 1936-1945, about 30,000 of which died from disease or murderous extermination. And you must reckon with this suffering on your own. There are no first- or third-person actors wearing period clothing and doing living history to “make history come alive” for you. There are no weapons demonstrations or candle-making tables or any other “hands-on” activities to speak of. There are no kitschy gift shops nearby for buying replica weapons, hats, t-shirts, magnets or other memorabilia. And there are definitely no evening “historic ghost tours” run by actors who make up their own scripts and tales of mystery for high-paying audiences.
Sure, there are museum exhibits at the camp (perhaps too many, actually) with text, videos, and artifacts, but this desire for fun, entertainment, and “engagement” that pervades so much discussion about public history in the United States is noticeably absent. Those desires, in fact, come off as distinctly inappropriate and out of place at a site like Sachsenhausen where reflection, reconciliation, and closure are integral to the entire experience.
And so it is that my own experience at Sachsenhausen has challenged me to think about the ways public historians commemorate difficult histories in the United States and how paradoxical these practices can be sometimes. On the one hand we are encouraged to create active learning experiences in which visitors engage in hands-on activities, contribute comments through talk back boards, dress up for historical reenactments, and participate in other related programs. But on the other hand we are told that public history has the potential to help individuals and societies heal from past wrongdoings while offering a framework for constructive dialogue about the future. One idea doesn’t necessarily mesh with the other. You don’t come to terms with the past or even begin to understand it by learning how to make candles at a Southern plantation or buying a kepi at a Civil War battlefield.
Make no mistake about it: I’m not interested in comparing the suffering of Holocaust victims with the victims of racism, slavery, Indian removal, or any other sort of oppression in the United States, nor do I think all public history sites in the U.S. should take a one-size-fits-all approach for interpreting the past. And I’m certainly not opposed to entertainment in the right context. The question is how to appropriately interpret difficult histories in a public history setting. I do find it interesting how a place like Gettysburg–where there were roughly 50,000 casualties in three days of fighting in 1863–sometimes creates programs and experiences that turn a event of brutal warfare and massive suffering into a place of entertainment and profit while the same sort of mechanisms at Sachsenhausen would be considered disrespectful by most visitors and professionals. Ghost tours have been taking place at Gettysburg for more than twenty years. Will we see the same sorts of activities at Holocaust sites someday?
I can think of two circumstances for possibly explaining these discrepancies at public history sites where difficult history is interpreted. One lies in the passage of time. Gettysburg happened more than 150 years ago and no one today has a living ancestor from that war. The fact that we don’t have a personal connection to the Civil War probably influences how we approach this history. Meanwhile, the victims of the Holocaust (although they are now rapidly disappearing from living memory) continue to play a role in the shaping of our collective memory about this tragic event. Perhaps our distance from World War II and the Holocaust is still too short and too fragile to interpret it in a way that runs the risk of offending its victims. The same concerns could apply to U.S. sites of suffering in recent memory like the 9/11 Memorial and the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
The other circumstance lies in economics. Towns like Gettysburg in the United States that have never completely recovered from the loss of manufacturing jobs in the late twentieth century have necessarily turned to history to provide jobs and profits for its local residents, so much so that local history becomes a form of glorified boosterism and “heritage” promotion. It seems to me, then, that we cannot divorce public history practices from the economic contexts in which such practices are put into play.
These thoughts are all very tentative at the moment and I don’t propose to make any claims about the rightness or wrongness of any one interpretive approach. I’d like to hear what readers have to say about the need for hands-on activities and “engagement” at public history sites where tough history is the focus of interpretation.
The meaning of citizenship in the United States has undergone significant changes throughout its history, and recent debates about who is and who isn’t a citizen and what rights citizens are entitled to demonstrate how citizenship remains contested today. Some of the most profound changes in U.S. citizenship took place in the years immediately before and after the American Civil War. For a long time my understanding of these changes was marked by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case and subsequent actions after the war by Congress through the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that overturned the Dred Scott decision.
Dred Scott was a St. Louis slave whose master, Dr. John Emerson, had taken him into free soil for four years while serving as a U.S. Army doctor. Upon returning to St. Louis in 1843 and attempting to buy his freedom without success, Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. The case had many twists, turns, and appeals on its way to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that Scott was not entitled to his freedom and that “colored men,” whether free or slave, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” People of color were not citizens of the United States and had no right to use the courts for legal recourse, according to Taney. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 departed from Taney’s premise by stating that all people born in the United States were entitled to be citizens “without regard to race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude” and that all citizens were entitled to equal protection of all laws. The text from the citizenship clause of the Civil Rights Act was later copied into the 14th Amendment before its passage in 1868.
A conservative Missourian who helped write the state’s pro-slavery Constitution in 1821 and served as a state legislator and U.S. Congressman during a lengthy career in politics, Bates unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1860. President-elect Abraham Lincoln appointed Bates as Attorney General shortly after that year’s election, however, giving Bates immense power to write legal opinions on American law and governance as the Civil War broke out in 1861. One such issue arose in 1862 when a ship run by David M. Selsey, a free African American who served as master of the Elizabeth & Margaret, was detained off a New Jersey coast for a routine inspection for contraband goods. U.S. law at the time stipulated that ship masters must be U.S. citizens, but whether or not Selsey was considered a U.S. citizen as a free person of color was open for legal debate. U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase requested that Bates write a legal opinion in response to the question, “are colored men Citizens of the United States?” Bates’s response provides us a unique opportunity to study how a leading legal thinker grappled with the ambiguities of the U.S. constitution on the question of citizenship prior to the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868.
Bates began his opinion by pointing out that there existed no clear definition of citizenship in the United States:
Who is a citizen? What constitutes a citizen of the United States? I have often been pained by the fruitless search in our law books and the records of our courts for a clear and satisfactory definition of the phrase citizen of the United States. I find no such definition, no authoritative establishment of the meaning of the phrase, neither by a course of judicial decision in our courts nor by the continued and consentaneous action of the different branches of our political government. For aught I see to the contrary, the subject is now as little understood in its details and elements, and the question as open to argument and to speculative criticism, as it was at the beginning of the government. Eighty years of practical enjoyment of citizenship, under the Constitution, have not sufficed to teach us either the exact meaning of the word or the constituent elements of the thing we prize so highly.
Further complicating these efforts in the eyes of Bates were legal experts at the time who focused on the characteristics of who was entitled to citizenship without sufficiently exploring what rights constituted U.S. citizenship. Bates believed the constitution defined citizenship simply as an individual who was a part of the body politic. As a member of the body politic, citizens were obligated to pledge allegiance to the state in return for the state’s protection of the citizen’s well-being. Allegiance and protection: nothing more, nothing less. Moreover, Bates argued that citizenship did not guarantee voting rights, which were determined on a state-by-state basis prior to the war. Children, women, poor whites, and criminals in states throughout the country did not posses voting rights but were still considered citizens by the U.S. government. “Once a citizen, always a citizen,” argued Bates, “unless changed by the volition and act of the individual. Neither infancy nor madness nor crime can take away from the subject the quality of a citizen.” And although voting rights were determined on the state level, Bates proclaimed that citizenship rights were national. Citizens in one state could not suddenly lose their citizenship while in another one.
Bates did have opinions about who was entitled to citizenship, however. Citing Ancient, British, and French law in a partial rebuttal of Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case, Bates asserted that “whatever may have been said in the opinions of judges and lawyers, and in State statues about negroes, mulattoes, and persons of color, the Constitution is wholly silent upon that subject. The Constitution does not make the citizens (it is, in fact, made by them). It only intends and recognizes such of them as are natural [born citizens].” In other words, people born in the United States–regardless of their status in life–were automatically citizens who had earned the right to state protection according to the Constitution.
Although Bates contradicted himself by refraining from defining whether or not slaves could be considered U.S. citizens, he again criticized Justice Taney for assuming that free people could be considered as having no citizenship simply because of their skin color. To wit:
It is strenuously insisted by some that ‘persons of color,’ though born in the country, are not capable of being citizens of the United States. As far as the Constitution is concerned, this is a naked assumption; for the Constitution contains not one word upon the subject. The exclusion, if it exists, must then rest upon some fundamental fact which, in the reason and nature of things, is so inconsistent with citizenship that the two cannot coexist in the same person. Is mere color such a fact? Let those who assert it prove that it is so. It has never been so understood nor put into practice in the nation from which we derive our language, laws, and institutions, and our very morals and modes of thought; and, as far as I know, there is not a single nation in Christendom which does not regard the new-found idea with incredulity, if not disgust. What can there be in the mere color of a man . . . to disqualify him for bearing true and faithful allegiance to his native country, and for demanding the protection of that country? And these two, allegiance and protection, constitute the sum of the duties and rights of a ‘natural born citizen of the United States.’
In concluding his opinion on citizenship, Bates dismissed all judicial authority of the Dred Scott case. Since the defendant in the case made an abatement plea (an objection to a plaintiff’s claims because of a procedural error, in this case the error being that Dred Scott was not a citizen and therefore unable to file suit in court), the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the case and Taney’s opinion had no legal standing. Therefore, although Bates hesitated to comment on whether slaves had citizenship rights, he believed he had the legal standing to comment on the citizenship status of David Selsey and, by extension, free blacks. Having assessed legal precedents from past Western governments and the Constitution itself, Bates believed Selsey deserved state protection: “I give it as my opinion that the free man of color…if born in the United States, is a citizen of the United States, and, if otherwise qualified, is competent, according to the acts of Congress, to be master of a vessel engaged in the coasting trade.” Free blacks were citizens of the United States according to Bates.
In our post-Civil War world birthright citizenship rights are often taken for granted and assumed to have existed since the Constitution’s creation in 1787. But the nature of citizenship was ill-defined by the Constitution before the Civil War, so much so that the nation’s Attorney General could not rely solely on his nation’s founding document and law books to guide his interpretation of citizenship. Edward Bates’s legal opinion provides important context and insight for understanding the evolving nature of debates about citizenship throughout American history.
The above video shows a talk that journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates gave at Washington University in St. Louis on Wednesday, February 18. I had the distinct privilege of attending the talk (although finding my way through campus was a chore. I can’t believe I got my car through without running into a person, car, or other object). The talk covered a wide range of topics that included reparations, slavery, segregation, police brutality, democracy, white supremacy, and history. It was simultaneously incredible, inspiring, thought-provoking, and saddening. Those familiar with Coates’s work will not be surprised when I say that I really enjoyed the entire experience.
I could write an article-length piece sharing my thoughts on the talk, but for now I want to make but one brief point.
One of Coates’s central arguments, regardless of topic, is that Americans have yet to reckon with the wrongs of their history, and that they may very well never do so. As I listened to the talk I thought about an argument that Edward Baptist made in the introduction of his recent publication The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism that gels nicely with Coates’s. Too often, Baptist argues, we view slavery’s wrongs only in terms of citizenship and legal rights. We see things like voter disenfranchisement, the inability to testify in court and face one’s accuser, and exclusionary restrictions against freedom of worship, speech, and assembly as the primary wrongdoings of slavery. Thus we still run into people who attempt to argue that while slavery was unfortunate and wrong from a legal perspective, it had its social and economic “advantages” for both black and white people in the years before the Civil War. “America,” says Pat Buchanan, “has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people . . . were introduced to Christian salvation [what does Frederick Douglass have to say about religious slaveholders?], and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”
But Baptist points out (and Coates might agree) that if slavery was wrong simply because of its abridgment of citizenship rights, then shouldn’t the extension of those rights to African Americans be a sufficient resolution for correcting past wrongdoings? Does it suffice to elect a black president and say we now live in a “post-racial” society? Or might there be more work ahead for us to overcome our past?
Coates–both in writing and in this talk–comes out in favor of reparations to African Americans. What would these reparations look like in terms of finances, recipients, and regulations? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows. But what I do know is that both Coates and Baptist are right when they point out the sheer violence of our past. Slavery and Jim Crow did more than abridge citizenship rights: they plundered the fruits of black peoples’ labors through the use of democratic state violence and a legal system that allowed for the buying and selling of people during slavery and the threat of lynching and mob violence against blacks well into the 1950s. One group benefited from legalized violence against another and used the false logic of “race” (among other false logics) to justify the plunder. And the Civil Rights movement didn’t magically eradicate this history or make our country immune to any future wrongdoings after 1968.
This is our history, our burden, and our legacy. We all share a part in it. As I’ve stated time and again, history is there whether or not we acknowledge it. If we acknowledge the wrongs of the past, we put ourselves in a position to more precisely define them, critique them, understand them, and reckon with them. If we can’t talk honestly about the past, how can we say that we are talking honestly about the present?
I consider myself a scholar of nineteenth century U.S. history and spend most of my reading time on books and articles covering this period, but I always make sure to spend time reading about other time periods, countries, and forms of scholarly thought (philosophy, sociology, anthropology, etc.). Lately I’ve been reading more twentieth century history from authors like Tony Judt, Rebecca Skloot, and Ira Katznelson. I recently finished Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, which is probably the best book on the New Deal that I’ve ever read. Fear Itself reminds us of the importance of revisionism to historical inquiry. A popular narrative of the era promoted by past historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argues that President Franklin Roosevelt built a diverse political coalition–black and white, rich and poor, North and South–to advocate for pragmatic economic legislation to combat the Great Depression amid a history of lassiez-faire principles in governmental economic and social policy. Katznelson uses Fear Itself to question this narrative and explore the boundaries and shortcomings of the New Deal. Despite the well-intentioned goals of New Deal agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and the National Labor Relations Board, Katznelson concludes that the logic “states’ rights” and white supremacy ultimately limited the reach of the New Deal’s social and economic benefits to whites only.
One case in point lies in the effort to establish a federal anti-lynching law in 1935. To wit:
The [anti-lynching] bill went nowhere, despite the continued resurgence of lynching and the particularly ghastly October 1934 murder of Claude Neal, who had been accused of rape and murder. With a crowd of some four thousand, including many children, bearing witness, Neal was stabbed, burned, and castrated. He was forced to eat his own genitals before being dragged by an automobile to his death; then his body, mutilated and nude, was suspended from a tree in the courthouse square of Marianna, Florida. Photographs were sold for fifty cents. Neal’s toes and fingers were put on display.
With the Justice Department refusing to intervene during the next half year, despite the fact that Neal had been seized from a jail in Alabama and thus had been transported across state lines, [Senators] Wagner and Costigan moved to have the Senate take up the bill in April 1935. The president remained silent. In March, Eleanor Roosevelt explained to Walter White, “The President feels that lynching is a question of education in the states, rallying good citizens, and creating public opinion so that the localities themselves will wipe it out. However, if it were done by a Northerner, it will have an antagonistic effect.” Southern senators successfully killed the proposed law by preventing the legislation from coming to a vote. They did not, in the main, defend vigilante justice. Rather, they argued that Congress lacked authority to pass such a law; in assaulting states’ rights, it violated the Constitution. They also again claimed that their region could control lynching on its own, citing efforts where governors had intervened to stop such violence, and insisted that southern race relations, marked by bonds of affection, were superior to those of the North .
No federal anti-lynching legislation was ever passed during the 1930s or 1940s.
I grew up in a community friendly to the concept of states’ rights and was taught that state sovereignty was the best path towards upholding liberal democracy, political equality, and economic freedom. But this horrifying story exposes some of the shortcomings in states’ rights theory.
For one, “states’ rights” is not an end in itself; it is merely a means towards a larger political end-goal. Whenever someone invokes a states’ rights argument, we must always ask “to what end”? In the case of Claude Neal and thousands of blacks like him who were lynched during the height of racist thought in political and social practice during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the logic of states’ rights acted as an means towards the larger end-goal of maintaining white supremacy in the United States.
That said, I’ve come to believe that states’ rights is neither inherently good nor inherently evil precisely because the concept is a means for justifying so many different political positions, some of which might promote good policy and some of which could be hurtful to many people. The meaning of states’ rights changes with the context, and any political platform that aims to place the concept in black and white terms is bound to find intellectual loopholes throughout. And it’s unwise to assume that local power is inherently more fair and just than a federal power simply because of proximity or relationships with local residents. People oftentimes do bad things to others without regard for personal connections. More than 75% of all child abductions are carried out by perpetrators who are relatives or acquaintances with their victims. The so-called “black on black crime” phenomenon is not a racial issue so much as its an issue of violent neighborhoods. As Jamelle Bouie argues, “People don’t go across town to steal or kill—they commit crime against their neighbors. And in the United States, where most lives are still segregated by race, that means blacks victimize blacks, whites victimize whites, and so on.” And of course there is plenty of corruption on the state level and lower.
Governmental tyranny occurs at all levels of power, whether it be a neighborhood association, a city, county, or state government, or the federal government in Washington, D.C. Providing fair standards and procedures for holding political leaders accountable at all levels of government is absolutely necessary for a healthy democracy, and any resort to “states’ rights” must always require a further exploration into what, exactly, a person means by this term.
My last essay on the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri elicited positive feedback and, unsurprisingly, pushback and criticism. When I shared the essay on Twitter, a fellow North St. Louis county native by the name of Alan R. Knight (whom I’ve never met in person or previously interacted with online) tweeted me more than thirty times expressing his belief that I “should be more responsible” when discussing this topic. He provided a laundry list of grievances that never addressed the content of my essay, but instead conveyed a peculiar theory for explaining the economic and social issues currently plaguing North St. Louis county. According to Mr. Knight, much of these problems revolved around the teaching of slavery in history classrooms. In teaching slavery, north county educators are preaching “hatred,” “propaganda,” “victimization,” and “slander” to the area’s African American population in an attempt to teach them to hate the United States, rely on the state and federal government for welfare handouts, and give votes and power to the Democratic party (“democrat slavers,” according to Mr. Knight). He says we live in a fully equal society and that blacks are completely at fault for any “racist hatred” against them.
Most rational readers, I hope, can easily see the ridiculousness and silliness of these claims.
There are plenty of history teachers around the United States who teach this country’s history of slavery and choose not to associate with the Democratic party. Over nine-tenths of all entitlement benefits in the U.S. go to elderly, disabled, or working households – not working-age people who simply refuse to work. Mr. Knight’s blaming of “racist hatred” on the victims of racism rather than actual racists is nothing new within the so-called “race conversation” in America. As I’ve argued repeatedly, teachers are often seen as the sole influence in a child’s upbringing when in reality schools are merely one part of a larger community effort to raise a child. And the idea of a fully equal society becoming reality in social practice is most likely impossible because the precise definition of what constitutes “equality” constantly changes over time as new questions force society to reconsider the boundaries of individual freedom, fair play, and equal protection under the law. This is not to suggest that equality doesn’t exist in some capacity or that the United States has not experienced great advances in economic, social, and political equality during its history. Far from it. It’s safe to say I am probably more content living under the boundaries of equality in 2014 than if I were to live under the boundaries of equality from 1860. It just means there will never be a time when we’ll all shake hands, say “everything’s equal!,” and dispose of our laws, justice systems, and lawyers.
Mr. Knight, however, challenged me on a philosophical level to consider the role of slavery in the history curriculum. What is the importance of teaching slavery in a U.S. history class, regardless of grade level?
As countless historians, scholars, and citizens have argued, the worst aspects of U.S. history–slavery, Indian extermination and western expansion, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, imperialism, and mass incarceration–are not merely blips along the road to American democracy as we understand it today. They were fundamental building blocks in its growth, and you cannot honestly describe this nation’s history without addressing them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued earlier this year, “to celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.” Our nation’s capitol was literally built with slave labor, for crying out loud.
Teaching slavery is not a form of propaganda or victimization, nor should its existence in the U.S. history curriculum be a partisan talking point in which parties debate whether or not it should be in the curriculum in the first place. Slavery is a part of our history whether we like it or not. Teaching our students of its wrongs illuminates the vast gulf between democratic principles and democratic practices. It also exposes the difficulty of finding a balance between liberty and order in a republican democracy.
It’s also true that we should acknowledge the history of antislavery and the eventual emancipation of all slaves with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865. Many heroes in U.S. history have put their lives on the line to right serious wrongs and promote peace, justice, and freedom. These people deserve our recognition, historical memories, and other acts of public commemoration. But how do students come to understand the challenges these people faced if you don’t first expose them to the wrongs and inequalities of the society in which they lived? How do students develop a genuine appreciation for abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Weld, or the Grimke sisters without exposing them to the history of slavery or the fact that the abolitionist movement was very small and almost universally hated throughout the country during the antebellum era? To focus only on what we today consider “a good fight against inequality” without discussing those inequalities in depth is to put the cart before the horse in historical thinking and teaching. Talking only about “good history” is boring and uninspiring to students. It seems to me that if we want our students to feel like empowered citizens who can help make positive changes in our communities, we should expose them to this nation’s historical failures and the ongoing fight to make society more just, humane, and equitable. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
I didn’t respond to all of Mr. Knight’s grievances, but for those interested you will find part of our twitter conversation below.
.@alanrknight74 Sure, we have come a long way. But you are in fantasyland if you really think we live in a post-racial, fully equal society.
Public historians interpreting nineteenth century United States history are tasked with facilitating discussions with their audiences about a wide range of unique and challenging historical topics. Scholars in recent years have emphasized the importance of discussing slavery, race, gender, economic inequality, and politics at public history sites rather than focusing exclusively on great white men, fancy furniture pieces, or anecdotal legends with dubious historical evidence. While some leaders of historic homes, museums, and other cultural institutions are undoubtedly hesitant to have their interpreters take on these contentious (and inherently political) topics, I believe that interpreters must be ready and willing to discuss them not because the cultural demographics of the U.S. are changing, but because we have an obligation to our audiences to share inclusive narratives that are historically accurate.
One of the biggest challenges I face as an interpreter lies in convincing my audiences that the historical legacies of slavery and racism in the United States are not problems unique to the South. Indeed, slavery thrived in North America for nearly 250 years and racism persists in our society today precisely because the entire nation was and continues to be complicit in accepting these wrongs as standard social practices. Harvard University, for example, had slaveholding presidents who had no qualms about selling and trading slaves for profit during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. New England textile factories thrived during the antebellum era thanks to the labors of enslaved people in the South who picked the cotton they used to manufacture their products. And countless Northern politicians like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan defended slavery as a constitutionally sound practice and actively courted the votes of slaveholders throughout their careers.
Many Southern cultural institutions have actively worked towards the creation of more inclusive narratives that acknowledge the role of enslaved people in American society. Have Northern cultural institutions done the same? Some institutions like the New York Historical Society have created exhibits interpreting slavery in Northern states (some of the exhibit materials from the NYHS exhibit “Slavery in New York” can be viewed here), but I think there room for growth and improvement. Equally important, cultural institutions all over the country face the challenge of interpreting the ways Northern states gradually abolished slavery and embraced anti-slavery opinions while tolerating its practice in the South. We can better interpret how these evolving anti-slavery views shaped the vigorous debates over slavery’s role in American society leading up to the Civil War.
Many visitors come to historic sites thinking of pro-slavery and anti-slavery beliefs in black and white terms: Southerners were racists who supported slavery while Northerners thought slavery was wrong and wanted the institution abolished. Yet this dichotomy masks the complex and contradictory ways people throughout the country opposed slavery. At White Haven I often talk about Ulysses S. Grant’s parents Hannah and Jesse Root Grant, who held anti-slavery beliefs. The evidence for these claims stems mainly from Jesse, who once worked at a tannery with John Brown and who sometimes wrote letters to the editor and op-eds for newspapers in Ohio about his opposition to slavery. None of us at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site have seen these newspaper articles, however, nor have historians cited specific newspaper articles from Jesse in their footnotes, instead opting to cite other secondary works on Grant. Thus we are left in a serious interpretive quandary: on what grounds did the Grants’ base their anti-slavery opinions?
Anti-slavery opinions took on a wide range of justifications during the antebellum era. Some based their opposition on economic grounds, arguing that slavery degraded the value of labor by enslaving African Americans. The emerging Republican party in the 1850s argued that the abolishment of slavery would allow all laborers an opportunity to make a livable wage and someday become landowners themselves. Republicans acknowledged that slavery was legal where it already existed, but they sought to ban its extension to new Western territories.
Others based their opposition on their belief that slavery was incompatible with democratic principles. Mob violence was commonplace throughout the country during the antebellum era, and much of this violence was geared towards those who expressed opinions against slavery. When a mob in Alton, Illinois, killed the anti-slavery newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy in 1837, some people embraced the anti-slavery cause because they feared that slaveholders and their political allies would take further measures to stifle free expression, dissenting opinions, and the right to petition against slavery. These fears became reality when Congress passed a series of “gag rules” in the 1830s limiting the right to petition or express opinions against slavery to Congress. Similar resentments towards slaveholders emerged after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which included a fugitive slave law requiring officials in free states to return runaway slaves to their masters in the South. Many anti-slavery Northerners found this practice barbaric and resented slaveholder attempts to use the power of the federal government to dictate what Northerners should do about slavery.
Still others opposed slavery simply because they held racist views against black people. They may not have cared for slavery, but they also didn’t care about African Americans and took measures to prohibit their residence in free states. Thus states like Oregon, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana passed constitutional provisions banning black settlement within their boundaries. Free-Soil, Whig, and Republican politicians like David Wilmot supported these measures because they protected white labor from possible competition from free blacks, exposing the racist roots of free labor ideology in the 1840s and 1850s.
It is also important to point out that abolitionists were not necessarily the same people who considered themselves anti-slavery. Abolitionists generally believed that slavery was a moral wrong and demanded black equality through equal protection laws, the right to testify in court, and the right to vote. And as I wrote in a recent essay, some abolitionists chose to avoid active political participation in arguing against slavery. Those who held anti-slavery opinions, however, often avoided abolitionist moral arguments and opposed calls for black equality, instead embracing Wilmot’s desire to protect whites. Abraham Lincoln, for example, famously argued in 1858 that the two races were inherently unequal:
I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.
In the future, I believe the challenge of exposing audiences to these nuanced arguments within Northern anti-slavery thought will be tough but necessary for public historians studying the history of slavery and race in the United States.
Are there any places you’ve visited that discuss Northern slavery or anti-slavery opinion? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.
Historical interpretations and popular memories of Ulysses S. Grant’s tenure as President of the United States (1869-1877) devote a considerable amount of time analyzing cases of corruption–whether real or imagined–within the Grant administration. History textbooks throughout the twentieth century told tales of Grant’s personal integrity but also his naivety when it came to trusting questionable subordinates. The White House’s biography of Grant-which curiously focuses more on Grant during the Civil War than his presidency–goes so far as to question Grant’s motives for accepting lavish gifts from Wall Street speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk, even though such transactions dated back to Andrew Jackson’s establishment of a complex political patronage system in the 1830s. This patronage system entailed gift-giving in exchange for political offices and favorable legislation, and was standard practice at the time.
There was indeed political corruption during Grant’s presidency, and few scholars would deny that fact. But by shaping Grant’s presidency almost solely around the corruption questions, introductory biographies and general histories of the era overlook other important facets of Grant’s presidency that provide insights into the complex challenges he faced during the post-Civil War era. One such challenge centered around the need to restore the country’s financial equilibrium following the American Civil War.
During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican majority in Congress sought ways to fund the government’s deployment of the U.S. military into the Confederacy. Congress passed the nation’s first income tax (3% of all incomes over $800) through the Revenue Act of 1861 at the beginning of the war, but another significant act was the decision to print paper money without specie (gold or silver) backing. According to economic historian David Blanke, roughly $356 million in paper “greenbacks” were printed throughout the duration of the Civil War to fund soldier salaries, military supplies, and the creation of what would eventually be the Transcontinental Railroad (which was completed after the war in 1869). These greenbacks soaked the market place and provided easy capital to investors, some of which greatly profited from the war. Since the greenbacks were not backed by specie, however, they were essentially IOU promissory notes whose value was largely based on the confidence of wealthy investment bankers.
President Grant sought a return to specie-backed money upon taking office in 1869 (he also later abolished the income tax in 1872). In his First Inaugural Address, Grant argued that the return to “sound money” was an essential step on the road towards national reconciliation:
A great debt has been contracted in securing to us and our posterity the Union. The payment of this, principal and interest, as well as the return to a specie basis as soon as it can be accomplished without material detriment to the debtor class or to the country at large, must be provided for. To protect the national honor, every dollar of Government indebtedness should be paid in gold, unless otherwise expressly stipulated in the contract. Let it be understood that no repudiator of one farthing of our public debt will be trusted in public place, and it will go far toward strengthening a credit which ought to be the best in the world, and will ultimately enable us to replace the debt with bonds bearing less interest than we now pay.
Although Grant requested that the government pay its debts in gold, both gold and silver were still legal specie at this time. The days of using silver, however, were numbered. The newly-unified country of Germany ended its use of silver as a form of specie in 1871, and the implications of this move reverberated in the United States. By no longer using silver as currency, Germany placed more silver on the open marketplace, driving down its value in countries that still accepted it as legal specie. Congress followed suit with the Coinage Act of 1873, which outlawed silver as a form of legal specie and put the United States on a path towards the gold standard. While President Grant and Congress believed the Coinage Act would provide future financial stability for the country, the combination of industrial overexpansion (especially railroads) and the decreasing amount of available capital for investors bred the recipe for a potential economic disaster. That disaster came in September 1873 when Wall Street financial institutions like the New York Warehouse & Security Co. and Jay Cooke & Co. “began to fall like dominoes,” according to Jean Edward Smith (575). Railroad companies shut their doors, investors went bankrupt, and laborers lost jobs. These events marked the beginning of the Panic of 1873.
Debates emerged regarding the best strategy for addressing what soon became a full-blown depression, the worst of its kind in the U.S. at that point. Congress eventually pushed through Senate Bill 617 in March 1874, which called for the infusion of $400 million Greenbacks into circulation and the addition of $100 million into the nation’s money supply. The bill went to President Grant for approval on April 14, 1874.
Grant deliberated on the measure and initially wrote a message to Congress supportive of S.B. 617. The more he thought about it, however, the more he came to view the bill as an inflationary threat to the nation’s long-term credit. Grant vetoed the bill on April 22. In his veto message, Grant feared that passage of the bill would lead to future efforts to print even more inflationary greenbacks. S.B. 617, according to Grant, “is a departure from the principles of finance, national interest, the nation’s obligations to creditors, Congressional promises, party pledges (on the part of both political parties), and of personal views and promises made by me in every annual message sent to Congress and in each inaugural address.” The nation would ride the course and stay on the gold standard.
What were the effects of the Panic of 1873 for Grant’s presidency and the country’s future?
Scholars have taken different perspectives towards Grant’s economic policies, and these questions remain open for debate today. The Panic led to a prolonged depression that lasted until 1879, but the nation’s taxes and national debt were reduced by $300 million and $435 million, respectively, during Grant’s tenure in office. Annual interest rates were reduced by $30 million and one-fifth of the nation’s debt was eliminated. The resumption of specie-based payments led to substantial economic growth and greatly increased business activity in Gilded Age America during the 1880s. Frank Scaturro deems Grant’s economic policy as one that “was singularly successful in the aftermath of the most serious fiscal problems the nation had ever faced” (49).
There were also negative consequences of these policies, however. Reconstruction policies aimed at enforcing the fifteenth amendment and protecting Southern blacks at the voting booth lost support from Northerners more concerned about their own financial difficulties than protecting black rights. Southern whites also expressed outrage when federal funding for infrastructure projects in the former Confederate states dried up. The expense of keeping the military in the South to enforce federal law was seen as excessive in the eyes of many Northerners, although it is important to point out that these same Northerners had no qualms about deploying the military to quell labor strikes in the North such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Blanke takes a more critical perspective than Scaturro towards Grant’s economic policies, arguing that “the long downturn further concentrated capital in the hands of fewer and fewer suppliers,” leading to a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. By 1890, 71 percent of the nation’s wealth was in the hands of 9 percent of its citizens, “an unhealthy and lopsided disparity of wealth distribution that has only been equaled, in this country, in the past 20 years.”
The challenges Ulysses S. Grant faced during his presidency alert us to the difficulties that emerge when economies take unexpected downturns. Should the government print and infuse more cash to alleviate unemployment and bankruptcy, or is it wiser to move towards “sound money” and the payment of past debts? Our own economic difficulties, spawned from the Great Recession of 2008, show that we still continue to debate these questions today.