Review: Black Hands, White House

Black Hands, White House, Renee K. Harrison. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of how enslaved peoples played a major role in the building of this country and the need to remember that work in our monuments and by other means.

A number of histories have detailed the slave experience in America. What is unique about this history is that it seeks to give an account of the contribution enslaved Blacks made to the building of this country and its economy. Not only that, it seeks to tell the story of people, often by name who made that contribution while enslaved. The author believes they need to be remembered for their important role. They are a part of America’s history and are worthy to be included.

The author begins with an overview of the economic impact enslaved Blacks made in the country especially through the production of tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar. She also lists six pages of companies and institutions that benefited from American slavery, or directly from slave labor. These include the government — slaves built many of Washington’s buildings and infrastructure. Insurance companies insured slaves for their owners, various banks accepted slaves as collateral or owned slaves, newspapers advertised slave sales, universities were funded by slave owners and some used slave labor in their construction, railroads rented slave labor, mines employed slaves–even churches and seminaries owned slaves and used slave labor.

Succeeding chapters chronicle the role slaves played in specific building projects. Mount Vernon’s buildings and tobacco and wheat crops depended on slaves. The author lists the names and values of slaves inherited by or subsequently hired by Washington and their trades, spouses, and enslaved children. At least 150 are buried in unmarked graves there.

Benjamin Banneker, a free black son of a slave was a self taught astronomer who was part of the survey team laying out boundaries, his role being to place the boundary markers for the new capital city. Slaves fired and laid many of the bricks and cut and hauled much of the stone for buildings in Washington. Slave markets often existed in the shadow of builds rising as shrines to democracy and freedom.

Both the White House and Capitol building were built with slave labor–and slaves re-built the White House after it was burned in the War of 1812. Of the first eighteen presidents, only two never owned slaves and publicly opposed slavery. Eight brought slaves they owned into the White House, four others owned slaves but did not have them at the White House. Four others, including Lincoln, did not own slaves but had ambiguous positions on slavery.

A similar story may be told of the Capitol. On page 175, the author lists 100 people who were “rented” for the construction of the Capitol building, a partial list. Philip Reid, a slave from Charleston, South Carolina, figured out how to cast Clark Mills Statue of Freedom in sections and install it atop the Capitol dome. His owner received most of the wages, apart from $41.25, for his work.

She goes on to describe slave involvement in the construction of the Supreme Court building, the Treasury building, the Smithsonian castle, Georgetown University, and the Library of Congress. At the core of the Library is the collection of Thomas Jefferson’s library. John Hemings fashioned the pine bookshelves and the portable book boxes in which the books were transported, Burwell Colbert painted the carriage that transported the books and Joseph Fossett fashioned the ironwork on the carriage.

Harrison believes it is past time to recognize in our nation’s monuments, particularly on the National Mall, the history of slavery, the vast machine of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the contribution that peoples forcibly removed from their own countries made in ours. She chronicles the inadequate attempt to do so with the Freedman’s Memorial, funded by former slaves but appropriated by white directors who chose the design, Abraham Lincoln towering over a kneeling slave who had been freed. Frederick Douglass, in a speech at its dedication, acknowledged the bravery associated with Emancipation but also the white self-interest.

The author describes the memorial as a pattern of absolution without accountability that has run from the end of the Civil War to the relatives of the Charleston Nine. A monument alone will not satisfy all the needs for accountability but a National Sanctuary Memorial to Enslaved Black Laborers would mark a beginning–a tribute to their labors that also helped build our country, a remembrance of the people whose names and work are often absent from the pages of our histories. It’s part of a larger conversation of acknowledgement of harm and accountability and appropriate restitution without which our national wounds associated with slavery and racism cannot be healed.

This is a compelling history that moves beyond the indignities done to Black bodies to the dignity of their work, already evident in many of our national landmarks. They nourished the economy of an infant nation. I thought the idea of a National Sanctuary Memorial to Enslaved Black Laborers was quite appropriate. I was surprised to find no way to help with the funding of such an effort or petition for such a monument. The University of Virginia was the only place (one mentioned in her list of institutions) where such a thing has been done. I could find no website to advocate for a national memorial. I hope the author will persist and find others to mobilize a national effort toward this end, one worthy of the many she has written of by name and the many nameless others.

____________________________

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

Review: The British Are Coming

The British Are Coming (The Revolution Trilogy [Volume 1]), Rick Atkinson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019.

Summary: A history of the first two years (1775-1777) of the American Revolution, discussing the causes, personalities, and key battles.

This is the first volume of Rick Atkinson’s proposed Revolution Trilogy. Based on my reading of this volume, I look forward to reading the next two. Atkinson skillfully manages to interweave accounts of the various British and American figures, and battles from Quebec to Charleston, South Carolina without confusing this reader or losing him in minutiae. Yet one has a sense of “being there” at Lexington, Quebec, Boston, Charleston, New York City, and Trenton and Princeton. We sense how insufferably certain of himself and earnest to flex his power George III is, and how subtle and skilled Franklin is in cultivating the support of a reluctant French court.

I discovered what a near run thing it was that Quebec almost became a fourteenth colony, save for Carleton’s determined defense and the critical shortages of manpower to win the decisive battle. I learned that Benedict Arnold, before his capture, was probably the most brilliant military leader in the colonists’ cause. The feat of his march into Canada alone established his ability to lead and overcome the impossible.

I almost found myself turning my nose as I read about conditions in American camps and that desertions and illness took more than the enemy. And I came to understand as never before how hard Washington had to work to just hold together a cohesive fighting force.

More significant was to see Washington’s evolution as a commander, particularly after his failure to grasp the topography of Long Island, and his misbegotten defensive attempts to hold New York. Victory, not in battle, but in establishing a superior position in Boston failed to teach the crucial lessons both of dispositions of his forces and the folly of trying to defend New York against a superior British force. Finally he realized that his most important task was to ensure the survival of his army while maintaining morale. His lightning strikes against Trenton and Princeton reflected a growing understanding of the need to fight as he could rather than as the British wanted him to, in which he could not succeed.

The other thing that became clear in the reading was that military superiority of the British was no match for the geography of the colonies. The end of this volume shows them controlling only two ports and a radius of geography in New York and New Jersey. The defeat in Charleston showed the British were not invincible when Americans fought from a position of strength, led by the flamboyant Charles Lee.

Atkinson combines lively narrative organized around the campaigns of 1775, 1776, and the first part of 1777 with well-drawn maps and helpful illustrations throughout the text. While the political efforts of the colonies are discussed as they enter in, this is first and foremost, a military history. Even Franklin’s efforts both in Canada (a failure) and France (a growing success) centered around military supplies. Along the way, we learn of many young men, both officers and rank and file who entertained hopes of a family and a bright future only to die either instantly, or in slow, painful death of wounds or illnesses in the camps. The story of every war was no less true in the inception of this country. The follies that refused to see a greater vision of birthing a new nation that might become a strong trading partner, would sadly become the story of colonialism over the next two centuries. And it would be the source of the “butcher’s bill” to be paid in blood over the next years of the war.

Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Summary: The story of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago juxtaposed with that of a psychopathic murderer, H. H. Holmes, pursuing his sinister seduction of young women within blocks of the fair.

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris captured the attention of the world, not the least for the engineering feat that dominated the vista of this world’s fair, the Eiffel Tower. Not to be done, the United States wanted its own fair and settled on a Columbian Exposition beginning in October 1892 and running through the warm months of 1893. A number of cities were in the running. In the end, Chicago won, and with less that two years to go, had to stage the fair. Two men, noted building architect, Daniel T. Burnham and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted led the effort to turn derelict parkland into a showplace surpassing the Exposition in Paris. Burnham was responsible for the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station, among other architectural wonders. Olmsted was the mind behind Central Park and numerous parks around the country.

Meanwhile, a truly demonic individual had taken up residence in Englewood, within blocks of Jackson Park, the eventual site of the fair. A medical school graduate from the University of Michigan who left unexplained trouble wherever he traveled found a pharmacy where he could assist, and when the husband died, buy the pharmacy from the wife, who was said to have moved to California but was never heard from again. This was the first of a number of disappearances, mostly of women who had been won by the courtly manners, placid blue eyes, and touches of H. H. Holmes, one of many aliases used by Herman Webster Muggett.

Like many of Erik Larson’s works, the story of the visionary genius of Burnham and Olmsted, and the evil genius of Holmes are told side-by-side. Burnham was the exposition’s director, and his first challenge was to assemble the architectural genius of the country to build the various exhibition halls of the fair, subduing personal rivalries and vanities to get them to design aesthetically beautiful but temporary structures. It was his decision to paint all of them white, creating the “White City” that contrasted with the black city of Chicago to the north, casting a vision for the future city. Olmsted, who thought of landscaping projects in terms of years, had to do this in months, much of it after construction equipment from around buildings was removed, creating walkways and the central lagoon pictured below.

By C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham – The Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Two further factors exacerbated the challenges they faced. One was an economic depression with bank failures and joblessness that threatened attendance. The other was difficult relations with Chicago’s labor unions. Then there was the continuing challenge to erect a comparable structure to Eiffel’s Tower. Various hare-brained schemes were proposed until an engineer by the name of Ferris from Pittsburgh proposed building a huge wheel from which cars would be suspended. As it went up, it looked as if one good wind could knock it over. One of the highlights of the story is the account of a tornadic storm that barely shook it.

While the fair didn’t exceed the Exposition Universelle in attendance, it came close, and might have if not for the Sabbatarians who kept the fair closed on Sunday. In addition to Ferris’s engineering feat, Edison’s incandescent bulbs lit the White City at night, powered by alternating current, a first on a large scale. The fair gave also gave us Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat.

Meanwhile Holmes worked his evil in Englewood, erecting his “castle,” a dreary hotel with ground floor businesses, and some very strange features, like an airtight room and a specially designed kiln. Many women disappeared during the exposition, drawn to the newness and freedom of Chicago and inspired by the White City. It is not known how many fell prey to Holmes seductions. Larson focuses in on the deaths of Minnie and Anna Williams, Emeline Cigrand, and his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel and three of his children. Even these may not have come to light were it not for the dogged investigation of a Detective Geyer.

I find fascinating the technique of Larson’s to tell an inspiring story of noble vision next to one of unspeakable evil. Each could well be told separately and have been. To tell these stories together is to remind us that the distance between nobility and evil is never great. Even the fair’s ending points to the hubris of forgetting this reality. During the closing speech, Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. spoke of expecting to live another fifty years. That night, at his home, a disappointed and crazed office seeker, Patrick Eugene Prendergast, assassinated him. Larson weaves these stories together in a way both historically accurate and alternately fascinating and disturbing.

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.

________________________________

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

unsettling truths

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.

________________________________

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

architecture art clouds landmark

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.

________________________________

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

halberstam

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

CAA58B79-155D-451F-6734F0C9AF79D4C2

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!