Review: The Crooked Path to Abolition

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, James Oakes. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021.

Summary: A historical account of how Abraham Lincoln, although not a traditional abolitionist, strongly supported and implemented the antislavery portions of the Constitution to pursue the end of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the traditional sense. He did not advocate immediate emancipation in the slave states. He did not advocate active resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, but only for due process rights. He did not rail in his rhetoric against the vile evils of slavery. But Abraham Lincoln hated slavery and believed there were resources within the Constitution properly leveraged that would lead to its eventual end. How could this be so when the Constitution protected slavery in the states? Only states could abolish slavery, not the Federal government. Both Constitution and legislation allowed slave owners or their proxes to capture and return runaway slaves even where slavery was not legal. And there was that language of slaves being three-fifths of a person.

Actually those who believe in an antislavery Constitution might start there. Slaves are written of as “persons,” undermining the contention of slaves as being property. Beyond this, those who developed the idea of an antislavery Constitution drew on both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble affirming the equality of persons. They focused on the due process rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to make it as hard as possible for slave owners to retrieve runaways, while not breaking the fugitive slave laws. They used the Federal power to regulate the territories to make these free rather than slave. The Constitution said Congress had no authority “to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” They antislavery people were committed to no more compromises that would admit new slave states into the country.

Lincoln believed that slavery would eventually wither away of its own. Some proposed that slaves brought into free territory could sue for their freedom. The dynamic economy of the north would outstrip the south, particularly because it could not expand its economy, fenced about by free territories becoming states. Eventually Southern states would abolish slavery on their own, which only they could do, Lincoln believed, since the Constitution did not give this power to the Federal government.

James Oakes traces the development of this antislavery doctrine, particularly within the Republican party. With enough votes in the growing North, Lincoln was elected. While he assured the South that slavery would be upheld, the implementation of other aspects of the antislavery doctrine triggered secession. Oakes shows how this offered new avenues to antislavery effort: ending slavery in the District of Columbia, ending the slave trade and blocking slave shipping to southern ports, and most significantly, voiding Fugitive Slave laws for slave owners in rebel states, since they no longer were under the laws of the Union. Slaves who fled into Union lines would be considered “contraband” and emancipated. While this was not so for border states who remained in the Union, the Army was directed not to assist in the retrieval of any fugitive slaves, since they did not have the legal powers to properly adjudicate such matters. The owners were on their own, further contributing to abolition.

Oakes doesn’t portray Lincoln as an antiracist. He favored colonization of Blacks, believing Blacks and Whites could not live together. But he hated slavery with a singular focus. One senses a Lincoln both shrewd and resolute in availing himself of all the resources available in the Constitution to move the needle toward abolition and emancipation, even maneuvering conquered states to constitute themselves as free and to join in ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment.

What I continue to wonder about is whether Lincoln realized his approach would send the South over the edge, precipitating the Civil War? Or did the South adequately take on board Lincoln’s resolve to preserve the Union once attacked? I wonder, given the case Oakes make, whether there is an argument to suggest that the South played into Lincoln’s hand, accelerating the demise of slavery that may otherwise have taken another fifty to one hundred years. Did Lincoln fully understand the cards he was holding and play them to full advantage?

I’ve often commented about the writing of slavery into our Constitution. I don’t think we can dodge that terrible compromise. But Oakes offers another perspective, showing the side of the Constitution that assumes freedom and equality the norm and slavery an exception. He also shows the lawyerly genius of Lincoln to recognize and exploit that side to its full extreme. The great sadness of all this was the lives it cost, including in the end, Lincoln’s own.

Review: Ages of American Capitalism

Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States, Jonathan Levy. New York: Random House, (Forthcoming, April 20,) 2021.

Summary: An economic history of the United States, dividing the history into ages of commerce, capital, control, and chaos.

I received an early e-galley of this book and by the time I worked through this massive tome, I thought it would be in print. Perhaps because of publishing delays, it won’t be out until April 20 of next year. If you want to read a history of the United States from an economic perspective, pre-order this book now.

Jonathan Levy covers the period from 1660 up until the present. He divides this history up into four ages. If you cannot remember all the economic developments, charts, booms and recessions, you need to remember just four words: commerce, capital, control, chaos.

The Age of Commerce spans the period of 1660 to 1860. The focus of this period, from the early colonies to the election of Lincoln focuses on trade, often the surplus of household economies exchanged for other needed commodities. One particular feature of American commerce was the “portable capital” of slavery, creating booms of sugar, tobacco, and cotton. One of the critical questions of this period was whether Hamilton’s centralized banking-fueled economy or Jefferson’s agrarian Empire of Liberty would prevail. Northern and Southern versions of commerce, the beginnings of an industrial society in the northeast and old northwest, and the slave economy of the south, laid the groundwork for the divisions leading up to the Civil War.

The Age of Capital spans the period from 1860 to 1932. The Civil War spelled the end of slave capital and led to a new period of industrial capital, first in the explosive growth of railroads, and then the illiquid capital of industrial production. All of this was made possible by the use of fossil fuels. One of the most fascinating chapters in this section, that illustrates the fusion of all these factors, is that on “Fordism.” The age was marked by cycles of boom and bust. A return to the gold standard in the 1920’s resulted first in a great boom, and then the greatest bust, the beginning of the Great Depression.

The inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt also opened The Age of Control. Levy delimits this as the years of 1932 until 1980, ending with the economic shocks of the late 1970’s. Levy uses the language of “control” because that was the focus of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. The critical thing was to deploy capital, employing breadwinners through infrastructure development programs, and providing income security through Social Security. Ultimately the war economy ended the depression as government funds were invested in war production. This was followed by the consumerism of the 1950’s, a fascinating chapter on the development of the post-war economy into which I was born. That began to unravel in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, particularly as OPEC controlled the price of oil at high levels, triggering the painful combination of high inflation and high unemployment we came to know as “stagflation.”

From 1980 to the present is Jonathan Levy’s The Age of Chaos. Things started with the “Volcker Shock,” a policy of high interest rates to bring down inflation (we bought our first house with the help of a determined realtor in this crazy period). Many of the promises of Reagan never materialized but the value of the dollar soared. Income growth shifted from labor to owners of property, whether real estate or stocks, an economy built less on production than speculation and an increasing disparity between laborers and those in the service economy, and investors. Home ownership was encouraged, with the granting of increasingly risky mortgages, bundled into investment instruments guaranteed by the big investment houses. In 2008 it all came crashing down, only to be put back together in the Obama administration with assets continuing to grow in value until the pandemic.

We are left wondering what will come next. While assets seem to grow, many see little growth in income. We face what may be an existential necessity to transition from the fossil-fueled economy. Levy believes we are at a place of reckoning. Will we keep repeating history, especially the recent history of Chaos? He proposes that this history is important to know as we determine our economic course in the future. I also think it critical in making sense of our past and how we’ve gotten to this place. Understanding the role of economics in historical events like the tensions leading to the civil war raises a question about the contemporary fault lines in our society. How do we make sense of our urban, suburban, and rural economies? Is this at all connected to our islands of blue in seas of red in so many parts of the country? I’m not persuaded that economics are the only factor but I also wonder if we cannot understand our history and contemporary social fabric without it. I’ve not seen anyone do quite what this book does, and the author has a good case for the importance of what he has done.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Unsettling Truths

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Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples.

Columbus discovered America, right? Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans “settled” America and drove out the “Indians” who threatened their settlements. That’s what I learned in history class. 

That’s not how the Native Peoples of Turtle Island (what they call North America) saw it. They were invaded and had the land of their ancestors taken from them, were displaced, often with genocidal marches, to inferior lands. Unfortunately, victors usually write the history.

The two authors of this work show the complicity of the church in the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the settlement of Native lands, and the subjugation of Native Peoples that resulted, as well as the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves. They trace this back to the transition the church underwent under Constantine, when church and state became Christendom, and Constantine’s “faith” was written into the narrative by Eusebius. The crusades led to classifying “infidels” as inferior human beings and the church baptized the early explorers efforts as “evangelistic,” and the early settlers appropriated Israel’s land covenant and Jesus’ “city on a hill” to articulate their justification for “settling” the Native lands.

The most disturbing part of this narrative is the genocidal effects of this settlement reducing a population of approximately six million to under 240,000 at one point. Some was disease. Some was warfare. Some was outright massacre, like Wounded Knee, and some, like the Trail of Tears or the Navajo and Apache removal to Bosque Redondo, when thousands died. Proportionally, the death rate of the latter was greater than the Holocaust.

Another “unsettling truth” was the equivocal character of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. There is a plaque at the base of the Lincoln Memorial that records these words of Lincoln:

“I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

An uprising of Dakota initially led to 2 of 40 being sentenced to death. Lincoln expanded the criteria for death sentences resulting in the execution of 39. Subsequently, Lincoln signed into law a bill nullifying treaties with the Dakota and Winnebago tribes in Minnesota and mandating their forced removal to the Dakota Territory. Bounties were set on those who who tried to escape the roundup.

The authors conclude with how we react to these unsettling truths, including the efforts of Christian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”. One of the most interesting ideas, but also one on which I’d like to see more research is what they termed Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). They contend that Native Peoples and African Americans are not the only ones traumatized by the Doctrine of Discovery. White America is also traumatized. The authors propose that this may explain the “triggering” effect of the election of Barack Obama as president. They also propose that healing can come only through lament, relational apologies to the Tribal People whose lands were taken and the children of slaves forcibly brought here, and with Tribal peoples, and acknowledgement of thanks to them as hosts in a land where we are guests. That’s only a beginning, but a necessary one.

The “unsettling truths” of this book don’t appear in traditional histories, and I’m sure there are those who will contest them, particularly because of the sweeping nature of this account, from the beginnings of Christendom to white trauma. While there is extensive documentation in the form of endnotes, the case of this book would be helped with a bibliography of further readings for each chapter. From other readings, I found much to warrant this cumulative case. Furthermore, the authors write both unsparingly, and yet with the hope that their narrative will contribute to the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The question is whether there will be leaders in local communities as well as national bodies willing to acknowledge the truth, make honest and sincere apologies to the peoples whose lands they occupy.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

I’d Settle for Modest

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In a number of presidential campaigns the slogan of making or keeping America great has been a centerpiece. This fits a version of American history I grew up with that taught me what a great country the United States is–our democratic institutions, our Bill of Rights, our immense resources, our diverse population, and our influence in the world. I do think there is good in a number of these things, whether it be the presumption of innocence in criminal trials, the “first freedoms” of our First Amendment, our use of military power in some instances, particularly against Hitler. I think of the opportunity afforded so many like Michael Bloomberg, who came from very modest means, to work hard and smart to build a business, earn a fortune, and serve as Mayor of New York.

I love my country. But as a Christian I love a God who loves the world (John 3:16), and so I need to see my country within the world God loves. To share God’s heart is to share his love, and to love the United States alone is too small to share the heart of God. I love a God who is holy, just and true, and this requires me to look at my country through these lenses as well.

When I look at things this way, it leads me to far greater modesty about my country. While not denying the goods, there is another kind of history about which I’ve learned since I was in school. Much of it isn’t pretty. Some examples, that could be vastly expanded:

  • We didn’t “discover” America. There were Native peoples who called this home before we knew “America” was even here.
  • There were blacks forcibly brought as slaves to the United States even before the Mayflower landed in 1620.
  • Well into the early nineteenth century slavery was legal in the north as well as the south, and even when northern states abolished slavery, the economics of north and south made slavery a continuing necessity upheld by fugitive slave laws.
  • The subjection of Native peoples, Blacks, and women was written into our founding documents. Section 2, Article 3 of our Constitution reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” In other words, Native peoples had no representation (or tax responsibilities, a mark of citizenship), slaves were considered three-fifths of a person (and considerably less in the eyes of many), and women are not even mentioned.
  • Women did not obtain the right to vote until 1920.
  • After the Civil War, blacks were free but subject to a reign of terror through lynching, denial of voting rights, and segregation, collectively known as Jim Crow. More recent policies of incarceration have been called the “New Jim Crow” because of their focus on black men.
  • Native peoples suffered a string of broken agreements, displacement from good lands, and obliteration of their population through disease, the “Trail of Tears,” and massacres like Wounded Knee.
  • Only in 2020, after over two hundred failed attempts, did Congress pass a law making lynching illegal on a national basis, fifty years after the horrible lynching of Emmitt Till.

I don’t want to get into arguments that call out the notable exceptions or arguments that discuss the injustices, tyranny, and genocide that have occurred in other countries. It is a sad fact of human societies that they (and we) are capable of unspeakable evil.

All I want to suggest is that a healthy dose of modesty might serve us well as a nation.

Modesty saves us from trying to maintain a pretense of greatness that many know just isn’t so. Pretending one is clothed in greatness when in fact one is naked is not great, it is indecent and foolish. Modesty says, “let’s address our lack of clothing.”

Modesty allows us to start listening to other stories of America that are not so great rather than closing our ears. That may allow us to learn how America might be good, if not great for those for whom it has been neither.

Modesty admits that we don’t have it all, that others who are different may enrich us. Modesty recognizes value in all and includes all.

Modesty is an antidote to the burden of greatness, particularly when the greatness of some requires subduing others. People don’t tend to cooperate with being subdued–they protest, engage in civil disorder, revolt, sometimes violently or go to war. All of this comes at great cost. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers makes the argument that every great power in history has ultimately collapsed under the burden of the cost of sustaining its greatness.

Modesty saves us from the extremes of ideologues, and the over-emphasis on national power. Modesty recognizes the value of local structures, both governmental and non-governmental including families, religious bodies, businesses, social organizations, and educational institutions. I get scared of both conservative and liberal ideologues who are inviting me into a sacred quest which I believe is reserved for my faith alone. I far prefer those who are modest about what they are doing, who admit that it is “just politics” and hope they will pursue this in the best sense of seeking what is just for the polis or city as a whole.

One may wonder about the inclusion of “Lady Liberty” as the image of this blog. To me it is an image that is at once modest and great. Lady Liberty is clothed modestly. She raises not a sword but a light. The rays of her crown are seven, symbolizing the invitation and welcome to America from the seven seas. The tablet she holds in her left are is inscribed “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776), associating it with the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence affirming that all [men] are equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. The statue inspired many of our fathers going off to war and welcomed them home. Likewise, many with virtually nothing to their name on arrival as immigrants found hope in the statue’s welcome. Modesty can be great. Might this be the time when our country aspires to the greatness of modesty about itself?

Review: City on a Hill

City on a Hill

City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismAbram C. Van Engen. New Haven: Yale University Press, Forthcoming, February 25, 2020.

Summary: A history of Governor John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, and how the phrase “city on a hill” from the sermon became the metaphor for American exceptionalism.

On April 8, 1630, the Arbella stood off Massachusetts Bay, part of a fleet of Puritan-filled ships organized as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with John Winthrop elected as their first governor. Governor Winthrop preached a sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity” that called upon the company to embrace the virtue of charity in the community they would found, a mutual care for each other. He concluded with this peroration describing the consequence of such charity:

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

As significant as the sermon would later become, it appears it was more or less forgotten in the concerns of settlement. It’s survival in handwritten manuscript form is a story in itself. In fact, it was forgotten for two hundred years, and only came into political parlance in the 1960’s when the “city on the hill” portion was first quoted by John F. Kennedy. In succeeding years it would turn up in the speeches of nearly every American president. Until President Trump.

Abram C. Van Engen traces the fascinating story of this sermon from its beginnings to the present in his new work, City on a Hill. He considers its initial import as a call to loving community among the Puritans. He follows the history of the manuscript, how it existed in obscurity among papers from the colony’s early years. He profiles archivists like Jeremy Belknap at Harvard and Ebenezer Hazard in New York, who passionately, tirelessly, and often at personal cost collected and contributed these materials at some of the earliest examples of the preservation of historical materials in Harvard and at the New York Historical Society. It was in New York that the sermon was stored, but not noticed for many years.

Van Engen considers the decision to center this historical archival work around the Puritans, rather than earlier arrivals to North America–the Pilgrims, the Dutch in New York, the Jamestown settlers, the French, the Spanish, and the Native peoples. The account was a New England account, a religious account focused on God’s providence. It shaped first the New England consciousness, and then a wider American consciousness, even while the sermon, apart from brief notice in the 1830’s continued to be ignored. He explores why it remained obscure as a lengthy sermon as opposed to a concise statement like the Mayflower Compact.

He then introduces the scholars that brought this Puritan heritage to national notice from Weber to Perry Miller to his successor Sacvan Bercovitch. An striking part of this account are his chapters on Perry Miller, who was concerned about the materialism that arose from Puritan values, and held up “A Model of Christian Charity” as the epitome of the spiritual values that even atheist Miller wanted to see embraced, incorporating it into anthologies used in teaching American history. I hope some day Van Engen follows up with a full-length study of Miller, a brilliant and tragic figure.

Miller’s work was the likely source of Kennedy’s use. Van Engen then follows its usage through successive presidents, culminating in Ronald Reagen who more than anyone appropriated the image for the country’s exceptionalist destiny, no where more movingly than his Farewell Address on January 11, 1989:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the shining “city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important, because he was an early Pilgrim – an early “Freedom Man.” He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat, and, like the other pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

As Van Engen concludes this book, he notes President Trump’s lack of use of this language and contends that it represents a significant shift from rhetoric focused around American ideals to American interests. He argues that our current president focuses not on what makes us exceptional but on what we have in common with all nations–that we put our interests first. The vision of exceptionalism is one of being first. Van Engen wonders whether this shift in rhetoric is a longer term shift or one confined to this administration, acknowledging the flaws in each approach.

This is an important work in so many ways, from tracing the sermon’s origins and after history, to the ways the sermon has been misappropriated, ignoring the body of Winthrop’s appeal, to exploring the ways a focus on Puritan origins has blinded us to other aspects of the American story–the Native peoples, African slaves, settlement in other parts of the country, and the ways the religious focus of the message has been transformed into a founding document of America’s civil religion.

Within this narrative, Van Engen also highlights both the significant contribution and blind spots of archivists and curators in American historiography. Van Engen shows how our histories are shaped by what is collected. In the process, Van Engen also faces us with crucial questions of the substance of the rhetoric we use to describe our sense of national purpose and character at a time where we may be witnessing a sea change in that sense.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: War in a Time of Peace

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War in a Time of PeaceDavid Halberstam. Touchstone: New York, 2002.

Summary: A history of the post-Cold War conflicts of the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, with extensive coverage of the Balkan conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

David Halberstam wrote one of the first major accounts of how the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest, studying the various persons involved in U.S. decision-making. There, Halberstam offered at once a meticulous and riveting account of the succession of events and decisions that both led into the war, and led to the concealing of the full implications of those decisions from the American public.

Halberstam accomplished a similar feat in this work, nominated for a Pulitzer in 2002. He takes us through the succession of events from fall of Communist rule, the brilliantly executed Gulf War, a triumph of American technology, and the simmering “teacup” wars in Somalia and the Balkans, the human rights implications of which could not be ignored by one administration tired of war, and another administration preferring to focus on domestic issues.

Halberstam gives us an account thick with all the personalities — the presidents, the policy makers, the military leaders. We meet Larry Eagleburger, on the ground as Yugoslavia breaks up into its ethnic components, watching the rise of Milosevic and warning of the trouble to come with an administration fighting to meet an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge from Bill Clinton. There is a new administration, not particularly interested in foreign policy with a competent bureaucrat but not visionary Warren Christopher, the aloof Tony Lake, Richard Holbrooke, facing the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime.

The abject failure of leadership in Somalia leaves the Clinton administration all the more reticent to assert itself in the Balkans, hoping for European leadership instead. Meanwhile the situation degenerates into genocide in Bosnia. We see a military conflicted with the memories of Vietnam, and the accomplishments of its forces in the Gulf War, and its rapidly improving aerial technology. Around them are hawks like Al Gore and Madeleine Albright, deeply disturbed by the human rights violations, while others from Christopher to Clinton struggle to define an American interests, and Colin Powell from another Vietnam. Eventually, the use of American airpower brought Milosevic to Dayton and Holbrooke’s shining hour negotiating the Dayton Peace accords.

Halberstam’s account does not paint a favorable picture of Clinton. He identifies a key concern of the military–a president who will remain loyal to them and give them what they need to do what he has asked of them as commander-in-chief. Perhaps nowhere is this so evident as the case of General Wes Clark, who brilliantly led the subsequent conflict against Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo, working with European allies, and cajoling a cautious president into sufficient use of their air and ground forces to give a growing Kosovar resistance a chance. For his successes, he was shunted aside by Defense Secretary Cohen, who never liked him.

The book also raises questions, particularly in its closing epilogue, written after 9/11, of the changes in American society from a resilient and resolute one of the post Depression years to an indulgent society, glutted on entertainment, accustomed to wars without casualties that are over in a matter of weeks. Little did Halberstam envision at the time the conflicts going on two decades in both Afghanistan and Iraq for which the conflicts of the Nineties were just rehearsals. What Halberstam understood is the growing consensus in political circles that these wars are fine as long as the American people could continue to live on an untroubled peacetime footing, apart from the occasionally troubling news of another soldier from one’s local community lost in a distant part of the world in a conflict no one really understood. He also recognizes the short-sightedness of planners who did not see the threat from terrorist in their obsession with great, or even regional power conflicts.

Writing close to the events gave Halberstam access to all the key players. Clinton was one of the few he did not personally interview. Yet closeness to the events did not obscure for Halberstam the big issues. No administration has the luxury to ignore foreign policy–it will seek you out. Political pragmatism without overarching principle will lead to betrayal of loyalties and America’s best interests.

Like every decade, the decisions of the Nineties shaped those that followed. Halberstam gives us a rich and readable account of this important period when some of today’s leaders were coming of age.

Books For Independence Day

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Benjamin Franklin from a painting by David Martin (1835)

“A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.” Benjamin Franklin

Today is Independence Day in the United States, the birthday of our country. What was born on that day was not only a nation but an idea eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence in these opening words:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In these words are an assertion of the equality and human rights inherent in being a human being created by God. Government does not confer these but rather exist to secure these pre-existing rights, and properly derives its power to govern from these rights-bearers. Finally, there is the opening of an argument for the revolt the Founders led.

Along with a military revolution was an intellectual revolution led by some of the most brilliant political thinkers of the day. Franklin was wise enough to recognize that a thoughtful and well-informed citizenry was crucial in every generation if what was gained and established in our nation’s birth not be lost to anarchy or tyranny.

Might it not be appropriate amid our celebrations to resolve to enhance our understanding of the history, ideas, and challenges that have shaped the American experiment? One could conceive many lists to do this. One work not appearing in the list below that may be essential as any would be The Debates on the ConstitutionThis is not a single work but a series of letters and articles capturing the arguments about the shape our constitution would take.

Here are ten others, most of which have been reviewed at Bob on Books:

  1. The Glorious CauseRobert Middlekauf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Perhaps the definitive account of the Revolutionary War, part of the Oxford History of the United States.
  2. John AdamsDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. There are many full-length biographies of the founders. Adams is lesser known than some, but worthy of attention for his intellect, his courage, his efforts on both sides of the Atlantic for American freedom, and the incredible correspondence between him and his equally brilliant Abigail.
  3. The Return of George WashingtonEdward J. Larson. New York: Morrow, 2014. This narrative not only offers one more reason why Washington was the indispensable man, but also shows the difficulties of governance under the Articles of Confederation that led to the U.S. Constitution, and recounts the debates that gave us that Constitution. Review
  4. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates the Defined AmericaAllen C. Guelzo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. These debates in 1858 when these two were running for Senate (Lincoln lost) define the discussion around slavery. Guelzo helps us understand the extraordinary phenomenon of these hours long open air debates, the substance of each debate, and their significance in the lead up to the Civil War.
  5. America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. The thesis of this book is: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” The author raises the question of whether we will face that history, understand the deeply engrained character of racism in our society, and begin a walk toward freedom from racism’s burden. Review
  6. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011. The story of the black migration to the north and west following the failure of Reconstruction, and how it changed the lives of families who made that migration and the cities to which they moved. Review
  7. The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. A wonderful collection of addresses by the author, mostly at college commencements, articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best. Review
  8. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018. Just recently published, it narrates the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul. Meacham gives examples of leaders of both parties who led with hope, even when challenged by a politics of fear. Review
  9. The Global Public SquareOs Guiness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Guinness argues for the critical importance of the human right of the freedom of conscience that undergirds our freedom of speech. Most societies through most of history have ruled by power and violence. The first amendment protections of our country are exceptional and worth not only protecting but extending to other countries, reflecting the equality of all human beings. Review
  10. Confident PluralismJohn D. Inazu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.  Recognizing the deep fissures in American society and the necessity of maintaining some kind of civil union in the face of the scary alternatives, this book explores the constitutional commitments and civic practices that make that possible. Review

There are hundreds of others, of course, that might be included. I suggest these because they help us understand ourselves at our best and less than our best. They help us understand the ideals that have shaped us, and the compromises we have made with those ideals. They explore what hope there may be for an America that is plural in character–a people of many nations and beliefs–yet dedicated to the idea of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

So, amid the fireworks and picnics and family gatherings, I hope you will find a moment to reflect on the ideas as a nation that make us what we are, and perhaps to grow in your understanding of our rights, leaving no room for the ignorance that is the seedbed of tyranny. Perhaps a book from this list might help!

Review: The Soul of America

the soul of america

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018.

Summary: A review of American presidential leadership and the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul.

Jon Meacham thinks that even more crucial than an affirmation of the American creed is the fight for the American soul. Meacham characterizes this fight as a struggle between fear and hope, and surveys the forces in American history that appeal to each and the crucial role of presidential leadership. He summarizes his thesis as follows: “Our greatest leaders have pointed toward the future–not at this group or that sect.” Among others, he quotes Harry S. Truman as one who upheld this ideal:

“You can’t divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”

Meacham’s book is a survey of this struggle throughout our history. We begin with George Washington’s expansive vision: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” He was followed by John Adams who passed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Act, leading in turn to Jefferson’s presidency. He explores our “peculiar institution” of slavery that eventuated in the Civil War, Lincoln’s movement to an emancipation vision and a generous peace, and the cruel reaction of the rise of Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynchings during the failed Reconstruction.

His chapter on Teddy Roosevelt focuses on the mixed record of this president whose progressive agenda fought for the poor and who was the first to welcome a black, Booker Washington, to the White House and invoked high ideals, yet also made racist remarks and yield to the forces of the Lost Cause. Nevertheless, he worked with Jane Addams on poor relief and the rights of women. He epitomizes the struggle between fear and hope in his person and yet articulated a vision of one America:

“There can be no divided allegiance….We have room for but one flag, the American flag; for one language, the English language [an idea some would contest today]; for but one soul loyalty and that is loyalty to the American people.”

The post World War I era brought new struggles even as America prospered. Women’s suffrage finally became the law of the land, yet fear over the rise of communism and a resurgent Klan aroused the fears of Americans against enemies without and within. Prosperity gave way to Depression. Politics contrasted between the demagoguery of Huey Long, and the expansive vision of Franklin Roosevelt who declared that we had nothing “to fear but fear itself.”

Post World War II found America with an expanding middle class thanks to the GI Bill, and a renewed paranoia about communism, incarnated in McCarthyism. Later when Lyndon B. Johnson succeeds assassinated President Kennedy, he uses all his political skill to pass Kennedy’s civil rights agenda, losing the South to the Democrats, but ending desegregation, establishing many civil rights protections, and giving blacks the vote.

He concludes this work with a ringing plea for Americans to enter the arena, to resist tribalism, to respect facts and use reason, to find a critical balance between the extremes of our politics, and to keep our history in mind. It is clear that he has our current political administration in his sights in tracing this struggle between the rival visions of hope and fear that many have used to try to capture the American soul. His argument falls on the side of hope, as he cites examples over and over of how leaders have appealed to our “better angels” to overcome hate, and that this hope should animate us even in a time of fear.

What is somewhat troubling to me in this book is that the book uses, even quotes rhetoric I’ve heard since my childhood–in fact the quotes are one of the highlights of this book–they are so good. And yet, there is a humanistic optimism here that I think does not adequately reckon with the darker angels of our nature as a country. It is evident in the underlying struggle with racism and white supremacy that runs through the book. I don’t think Meacham reckons with how strongly and unrepentantly embraced this is in many sectors of white society, even the parts that try to deny we are racist; that try to pretend we are colorblind. I think Meacham is right to contrast fear and hope, but I would suggest he neither adequately assesses the roots of fear, nor explores the faith and convictions that animate hope amid desperate circumstances. The closest he gets is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s encounter with an inner voice when his home was bombed and his family threatened. The voice said,

” ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ I heard Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

We live in an age of sentiments rather than convictions. Meacham reminds us of people motivated by compelling ideas and moral principles. If hope is nothing more than a preferable feeling to fear, it won’t take us very far. But if a hope grounded in deep conviction takes the measure of the deep roots of fear and hate, and “stands up,” there is yet a chance that the soul of America might be turned. I hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The American Spirit

The American Spirit

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Summary: A collection of addresses given by the author articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best.

David McCullough has been one of those authors whose books I always make a point to pick up whenever a new one comes out. I was tempted to make an exception with this one, not usually being drawn to read transcripts of speeches. When I found it at a good discount, I took the plunge and I am glad I did.

The thread that links these speeches, given between 1989 and 2016 is what truly makes America great. McCullough would contend that it is the people and the democratic ideas and ideals and the working out of these, that have defined our greatness.  He assembled this collection during the contentious presidential race of 2016, and it is striking that he bookends the collection with speeches discussing the history of congress, and the Capitol building where it does its work. He highlights the distinguished figures who inhabited those halls from John Quincy Adams, former president and ardent anti-slavery advocate to Margaret Chase Smith, who in her first term stood up to Joseph McCarthy, and landmark legislation including the Morrill Land Grant Act establishing public tertiary education in the growing post-Civil War nation. McCullough highlights the collaboration across the political aisle that marked great legislative accomplishments, a challenge to both of our political parties.

A number of the speeches are college commencement addresses. A common theme here was McCullough’s affirmation of the aspirations of his listeners, and his encouragements that they become life long readers, including readers of our nation’s history. To Boston College grads in a speech titled “The Love of Learning” he writes:

“Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature that you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history of science and medicine and ideas.

Read for pleasure to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first rate murder mystery. But take seriously–read closely–books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again (pp. 147-148).”

Couldn’t have said it better!

In every address, it is plain that McCullough has taken some time to look into the history of the place where he is speaking. Given my Ohio roots, I found it fascinating to read his speech at Ohio University and his sketch of the life of Manasseh Cutler, who was instrumental in the founding of Ohio University in 1804. Cutler was a minister, doctor, and lawyer wrapped up in one. Most significantly, perhaps, he was instrumental in lobbying Congress in the creation of the Northwest Ordinance, creating the Ohio company to sell the land and setting aside significant tracts to create universities, including Ohio University. In the end, the ordinance declared:

Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and means of education shall be forever encouraged.”

A number of the addresses reflect the high estimation in which McCullough holds John Adams. He recounts two sentences of a letter Adams wrote on his first night in the White House, that are now inscribed in the mantelpiece of the State Dining Room:

“I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

While McCullough refrains from overt criticism either of Congress or the White House, his narrative of the people and ideas that have “made America great” stands as an implicit challenge both to our leaders and to us as citizens, first to understand the ideas and ideals that have distinguished us at our best, and then to live up to them rather than depart from them.

This pithy collection of speeches, accompanied by a number of striking photo of people and places serves well to whet the appetite to read more into our history, both to learn from and be inspired by it.

Review: American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism and Civil ReligionJohn D. Wilsey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: Explores the history of American exceptionalism, distinguishing two kinds of exceptionalism and considers them under five theological themes.

Most discussions of American exceptionalism that I’ve seen either embrace this idea more or less uncritically, arguing that America is God’s “city on a hill,” or they utterly reject the idea as a form of egregious cultural imperialism and a Christian heresy. John D. Wilsey offers us a history of this idea, and suggests a more nuanced view that allows a place for a certain kind of American exceptionalism while rejecting other forms of it.

Specifically, Wilsey proposes that there are two kinds of American exceptionalism. In an interview with the publisher, he differentiated these as follows:

“As a civil religious concept, exceptionalism has historically been articulated in one of two ways: One form of exceptionalism is imperialistic, exclusivist and justified in theological terms. Another is informed by the liberal ideals of natural rights, individual freedom, and human dignity and equality. I call the former closed exceptionalism and the latter open exceptionalism. Open exceptionalism forms the basis for faithful and biblical citizenship.” (IVP Academic Press Kit)

In the first two chapters, Wilsey traces the history of American exceptionalism, beginning in the first chapter with our national origins and then in the second with our national expansion, including the challenge of slavery. We learn that the ideas came from our English antecedents and that the term was probably coined first by de Tocqueville. He considers what would be closed expressions of exceptionalism in the expansion of slavery and the idea of “manifest destiny” in contrasts with Lincoln’s emancipating vision of extending American ideals of equality and justice under the providence of God to all peoples, black and white.

The next five chapters consider five theological themes of “closed” exceptionalism:

  1. Chosen nation: That America has been divinely chosen or elected by God in a special way as a kind of new Israel (excluding Native peoples and Blacks) even though the scriptures speak of the kingdom of God as comprised of the inclusion of peoples of many nations with none preferred.
  2. Divine Commission: That America has been uniquely commissioned to “save the world.” Wilsey looks in detail at the tenure of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and America’s role in saving the world from communism.
  3. Innocence: The articulation of America as a pure and upright nation. The chapter focuses on the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. This innocence ignores past and present injustices or takes an “America right or wrong approach.”
  4. Sacred Land: A Chosen Nation occupies a Promised Land. Wilsey surveys the history of this idea from the Puritans through America’s landscape artists, and the struggle between those who would conserve the nation’s resources and beauty and those believing it was given for dominion.
  5. Glory: The author examines this idea through the lens of the three most popular homeschooling history texts used over the last twenty years. All three emphasize Christian origins, downplay slavery, and portray America as divinely privileged vis à vis other nations. They argue contemporary America is in serious decline from these origins.

Wilsey would see these ideas as an appropriation of theological ideas into an idolatrous civil religion, often endorsed by wide segments of the American church.

Unlike some, he makes the case for an alternative, open form of exceptionalism that may serve as the basis of Christian civic engagement and he addresses this in his final chapter. He argues that America’s liberal ideals at their best are indeed worth cultivating, preserving, and commending: liberty, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance. Open exceptionalism seeks these for all of our own people and believes they are worthy ideals for the world, cultural riches to be added to the riches of other nations. He commends two unusual models of engagement: Justin Martyr and W.E.B. DuBois.

What I appreciate in this treatment is the articulation of a form of patriotism that is appropriate to a person whose first loyalties are to the kingdom of God, as well as a clear repudiation as idolatry of closed forms of exceptionalism. It is not a claim to chosenness as a nation or hypocritical innocence that ignores the times we have failed to live up to our own ideals.Rather, open exceptionalism is a love of country that that faces and addresses injustices and seeks to preserve and freely include others in the cultural goods of liberty, justice, and democracy we have enjoyed. It lovingly cares for and carefully stewards our land, not as some special sacred ground, but as part of God’s global creation for us and our children’s children.

I do wrestle however with the embrace in any form of the term “exceptionalism,” other than to acknowledge the history of this idea in our national history. It is one thing to recognize some of the particular gifts that have been part of the American experience, and to want to include others in the goods we have enjoyed. But the very term “exceptional” may quickly morph into forms of national superiority that smack of arrogance and hubris, or may still be culturally imperialistic, even if not idolatrous or ill-intentioned. I’m not certain what to replace the term with except for some form of “generous care” for the institutions, the values, and even the place, that have defined us at our best. I think of the generous care that rebuilt much of Europe and Japan after World War II under the Marshall Plan that allowed for the establishing or re-establishing of democratic institutions. Rather than “exceptional” or “great,” I long for an America that is just and generous, both at home and abroad. That would be good enough.