J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

New Database of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Petitions

Yesterday saw the official debut of the Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions. This online database is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Archives and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Center for American Political Studies, and Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Two years in the making, the collection offers views of 3,500 documents filed with the Massachusetts General Court from the 1600s to the 1800s. I saw a Twitter message saying that some of those petitions appears to have never been opened before being digitized.

Boston 1775 reader Nicole Topich, who worked on the project, alerted me to a number of items from the database relating to people discussed on this blog. For example, I’ve been passing on news about the identification of a young African-American portrait artist named Prince Demah. His mother Daphne appears in several documents because she was part of the estate confiscated from the Loyalist merchant Henry Barnes.

The state told the men it appointed to administer that estate to pay her from its earnings. The second of those men, Simon Stow, ended up suing his predecessor with the state’s encouragement. In June 1789 Stow complained to the legislature that he was still paying Daphne and thought she could live more cheaply in the countryside, but she was refusing to leave Boston. The legislature excused Stow from that responsibility. Two years later, Daphne petitioned directly, describing herself as having been “born in Africa,” “purchased by Henry Barnes, Esqr.,” and too old to support herself. The legislature authorized Joseph Hosmer to pay for her expenses on the state account.

Similar issues arose in the case of Tony (Anthony) and Cuba (Coby) Vassall, who had been enslaved to different members of the Vassall family in Cambridge. (As a child, Cuba had worked at the Royall House in Medford.) In 1780 the couple petitioned the legislature to be granted land from the John Vassall estate so as to support themselves. Tony stated that since the war began:
he and his family have since that time occupied a small tenement, with three quarters of an Acre of land, part of Mr. John Vassall’s estate in Cambridge and has paid therefor a reasonable rent, and all the taxes that were assessed upon him. . . .

the earlier part & vigour of their lives is spent in the service of their several masters, and the misfortunes of war have deprived them of that care & protection which they might otherwise have expected from them—

the land Your Petitioners now improve is not sufficient to supply them with such vegetables as are necessary for their family use, and their title is so precarious that they can’t depend on a continued possession of the same—

they might however promise themselves a tolerable subsistence by their industry & attention, if this Honble Court would grant them a freehold in the Premises and add one quarter of an acre of adjoining land to that which they now improve.
The following February, the legislature responded by voting Anthony Vassall a £12 annual pension but no more land. After his death, in 1811 the widow “Cuby” requested that the pension continue; her plea eventually succeeded, but she died the next year. Their son Darby, who reportedly met Gen. George Washington when he arrived at the John Vassall house to use it as his headquarters, lived long enough to sign a petition against the Fugitive Slave Law in 1861.

The database also contains digitized documents that don’t appear to have a direct connection with slavery. For instance, there are several petitions from Samuel Adams the wire-worker in the 1850s asking for compensation from the state for losses he sustained in the Shays Rebellion over sixty years before. They show Adams gathering pages of signatures in support of his cause, just as the opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law would do.

Friday, February 27, 2015

“God Save the People!” Exhibit Opens in Boston

Today the Massachusetts Historical Society opens its “God Save the People!” exhibit about the political conflict in Boston that grew from 1765 to 1775 and exploded into war. Last night I attended a preview, and can happily recommend a visit for anyone interested in American history. The exhibit will be up through the “So Sudden an Alteration” conference and into September. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., and free.

In designing an exhibit worthy of the sestercentennial, the M.H.S. staff tackled a few challenges. One is the size of the exhibit space: three rooms (though one can also peek into the Treasures Room with its semi-permanent display of portraits of James Bowdoin, George Washington, young John and Abigail Adams, and old Lafayette). Any exhibit is a fraction of the available material, but, given the size of the M.H.S. holdings, this exhibit had to show a very small selection indeed.

Another challenge was that the society chose long ago to focus on documentary material. Most of its holdings are letters, diaries, and other writings. Multiple pages plucked from the John Rowe’s extensive (if suspiciously incomplete) diary and Harbottle Dorr’s newspaper collection provide continuity over the decade. But such writings are best read while sitting down at length instead of gazed at.

To enhance the exhibit’s visual dimension, the society has drawn on its fine collection of portraits—though those of course show only the very top of society. The engravings of Paul Revere and other cartoonists, usually shown both in original form and enlarged for easier examination, illustrate stages of the conflict. And we get to see some of the grab-bag of artifacts that the society has accumulated over the years, such as:
The family of those officers also loaned other items to illustrate the courtship of Capt. John Linzee of the Royal Navy and local miss Sukey Inman.

The tent poles of the exhibit are the most famous Boston events: the Stamp Act protests, the conflict over non-importation leading up to the Massacre and succeeding trials, the Tea Party, and Bunker Hill. Ironically, conflicts that were played out largely in documents, such as the argument over judicial salaries, are less visible.

There was, of course, a parallel struggle for liberty in those years, by blacks both free and enslaved. The exhibit represents that history through the figure of Phillis Wheatley; it shows her portrait, one of the few surviving documents in her own handwriting, and her writing desk. Beside them is the Bucks of America medal, though I think that’s really a relic of the African-American community’s strive for acceptance in the early republic of the 1780s rather than of the Revolutionary War.

Among the exhibit’s strengths is being able to see some of the same figures at different times. Thus, one of the first items is shopkeeper Cyrus Baldwin’s 15 Aug 1765 letter to his brother Loammi describing “an effigy of the honorable stamp master of this province” hanging from a big tree in the South End. (That was weeks before that tree was designated Liberty Tree.) Among the later items is Cyrus Baldwin’s complaint about losing a chest of tea to Charlestown Patriots, as Chris Hurley narrated earlier this year. We see Samuel Quincy telling his legal colleague Robert Treat Paine that prosecuting Customs official Edward Manwaring for the Massacre will be “another Windmill adventure,” and later Quincy exchanging letters with his dying Patriot brother Josiah.

Perforce, the exhibit focuses on the top of society, the class involved in formal politics, the class most likely to save their papers. That stratum offers a variety of stories—even, in the portrait of Customs commissioner Charles Paxton, a silent bit of queer history.

The dimension of pre-Revolutionary Boston I think this exhibit can’t capture so easily is the everyday life of most Bostonians and how that intersected with the political developments. But there are glimpses—in, for example, Isaac Vibird’s newspaper protest that his wife had visited a proscribed importer’s shop just to pick up some locally made shoes. So when you go, take some extra minutes to read the newspaper pages and see what else was going on.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Peter Oliver Explains the “Black Regiment”

Peter Oliver was the last Chief Justice of Massachusetts under royal rule. His brother was Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, and their family was connected by marriage to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson.

Massachusetts Whigs saw the Hutchinson-Oliver faction as apologists for the London government, far too quick to excuse encroachments on the colony’s traditional freedoms in exchange for lucrative appointments. Later the Whigs accused those men as having actually encouraged the ministry in its policies through recommendations and lies.

For his part, after the siege of Boston Oliver went into exile in England and spent the war writing an account of the political conflict in Massachusetts that he titled “The Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion.” It was finally published in 1961, and I don’t think it’s been out of print since. It’s a delightfully nasty, sarcastic, gossipy, and ad hominem narration of the years from 1760 to 1775.

Oliver and Hutchinson dated the start of their troubles from James Otis, Jr.’s break with the royal patronage system, and they blamed him for fomenting the unrest against them. Among other things, Oliver accused Otis of politicizing much of the Massachusetts clergy, as he laid out in a section titled “The Black Regiment”:
It may now be amiss, now, to reconnoitre Mr. Otis’s Black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a Part in the Rebellion. The congregational perswasion of Religion might be properly termed the established Religion of the Massachusetts, as well as of some other of the New England Colonies; as the Laws were peculiarly adapted to secure ye Rights of this Sect; although all other Religions were tolerated, except the Romish.

This Sect inherited from the Ancestors an Aversion to Episcopacy; & I much question, had it not been for the Supremacy of the British Government over them, which they dared not openly deny, whether Episcopacy itself would have been tolerated; at least it would have been more discountenanced than it was & here I cannot but remark a great Mistake of the Governors of the Church of England, in proposing to the Colonies to have their consent to a Bishop residing among them for ye purpose of Ordination. It was the direct Step to a Refusal for all such Proposals from the Parent State, whether of a civil or a Religious Nature, were construed into Timidity by the Colonists & were sure of meeting with a Repulse.

The Clergy of this Province were, in general, a Set of very weak Men; & it could not be expected that they should be otherwise as many of them were just relieved, some from the Burthen of the Satchel; & others from hard Labor; & by a Transition from Occupations to mounting a Desk, from whence they could look the principal Part of the Congregations, they, by that acquired a supreme Self Importance; which was too apparent in their Manners. Some of them were Men of Sense, and would have done Honor to a Country which shone in Literature; but there were few of these; & among these, but very few who were not strongly tinctured with Republicanism.

The Town of Boston being a Metropolis, it was also the Metropolis of Sedition; and hence it was that their Clergy being dependent on the People for their daily Bread; by having frequent Intercourse with the People, imbibed their Principles. In this Town was an annual Convention of Clergy of the Province, the Day after the Election of his Majestys Charter Council; and at those Meetings were settled the religious Affairs of the Province; & as the Boston Clergy were esteemed the others an Order of Deities, so they were greatly influenced by them.

There was also another annual Meeting of the Clergy at Cambridge, on the Commencement for graduating the Scholars of Harvard College; at these two Conventions, if much Good was effectuated, so there was much Evil. And some of the Boston Clergy, as they were capable of the Latter, so they missed no Opportunities of accomplishing their Purposes.
Oliver proceeded to name some ministers who he thought had been particularly useful to Otis and his allies: “Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, Dr. Charles Chauncy & Dr. Samuel Cooper.”

The Olivers and Hutchinson weren’t members of those men’s meetings, but they were Congregationalists from families who came to Massachusetts in the early Puritan migration. They ended up finding disproportionate support from Massachusetts Anglicans whose families had arrived after the 1600s. However, the Congregationalist minister Mather Byles, Sr., was another Loyalist. In short, religion was a political dividing-line among the clergy, but not a neat one.

Oliver had some more to say about the “black Regiment,” which I’ll quote and analyze after catching up with events.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Roots of the “Black Robed Regiment” in 2010

Yesterday’s look at Oklahoma legislator and minister Dan Fisher showed how he’s active in the “Black Robed Regiment,” a movement among some Christian pastors to be more militantly involved in politics.

I’m sure the “Black Robe(d) Regiment” phenomenon is worthy of deeper study. The short version, as summarized at Media Matters and at Wikipedia, is that it arose from a conversation between author David Barton and broadcaster Glenn Beck (shown here) in 2010 and was quickly picked up by like-minded ministers eager to become more involved in political affairs.

Barton’s Wallbuilders site includes an page promoting the movement while the National Black Robe Regiment website includes an article by Barton it titles “The Original Black Robe Regiment.” This being the internet, there are other domains using the “Black Robe” trope and no way to tell if some are more “official” than others.

Barton has become notorious for distorting historical evidence to support his Christianist view of the American Revolution and early republic. Given the place of religion in eighteenth-century society, especially in New England, it should be hard to overstate its importance, but Barton has done so habitually. He’s also ventured into topics unrelated to Christianity but embedded in modern right-wing politics, such as gun ownership, and proved equally unreliable.

Barton’s article on the “Original Black Robe Regiment” appears to be typical of his approach. It proffers an impressive number of footnotes—101 in all. On closer examination, however, those citations don’t add up to so much.

Footnote 66, for example, is simply a repetition of footnote 1 when Barton returns to the phrase “black regiment.” But that set of sources doesn’t actually offer evidence for the essay’s first sentence:
The Black Robed Regiment was the name that the British placed on the courageous and patriotic American clergy during the Founding Era (a backhanded reference to the black robes they wore). [1]
In fact, Google Books can’t find the phrase “black robed regiment” from any source prior to this century. It appears that Barton made it up, inadvertently or on purpose, based on the actual period phrase “Black Regiment,” which I’ll discuss tomorrow.

My favorite footnote in the article is attached to this passage:
When Paul Revere set off on his famous ride, it was to the home of the Rev. [Jonas] Clark in Lexington that he rode. Patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams were lodging (as they often did) with the Rev. Clark. After learning of the approaching British forces, Hancock and Adams turned to Pastor Clark and inquired of him whether the people were ready to fight. Clark unhesitatingly replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!” [47]
The note:
[47] Franklin Cole, They Preached Liberty (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1941), p. 34. Only source we can locate is Cole’s.
I doubt that second sentence was meant to be left for us to see. It indicates that Barton and his research team had enough questions about whether “Pastor Clark” really said those words to look for a better source than a book published by a Christian evangelical press 166 years after the event. But they failed to find any other source to support Cole’s quotation, despite the many accounts and histories of the Lexington alarm—which should have made them skeptical about that book. Instead, Barton cited it in this essay seven more times.

In those hundred footnotes I count seven primary sources from the eighteenth century: Peter Oliver’s account of the Revolution from shortly after the war, two citations of 1770s Boston newspapers taken from a note in the 1961 edition of Oliver, letters of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, a 1789 newspaper report, and a collection of sermons.

Some other contemporaneous writing no doubt appears in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century books that provide the bulk of the citations and quotations, but those books also contain unsupported traditions and fables like the one quoted above. That’s why I think it’s important to go back to the earliest documents, consider them fully and skeptically, and not just quote what I like uncritically because I can’t find anything more solid.

It’s easy to find primary sources on eighteenth-century American religion. The problem is that those sources present a much more complex, multi-faceted, and unfamiliar picture of religious life and thought than the Black Robe(d) Regiment would apparently like.

COMING UP: What Peter Oliver really wrote.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

“Fisher is pushing for Christian-based governance”

The Oklahoma legislator who introduced the bill I quoted at such length yesterday is the Rev. Dan Fisher, pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in the city of Yukon.

The Tulsa World newspaper provided more background on how Fisher views the intersection of politics and religion:
As a member of the Black Robe Regiment, Fisher is pushing for Christian-based governance and challenging religious leaders to get political in the pulpit. The group also promotes Christian themes in education, including in history, civics and economics classes.

For years, Fisher has been giving public presentations in costume with his version of American history, which centers on the role ministers played in American independence. He wears an 18th century pastor’s black robe, then takes it off to finish the speech wearing an American Revolution military uniform. A musket and pistols are used as props.
That bit of business appears to be based on a legend of the Rev. Peter Muhlenberg first published in 1849—a literalization of how Muhlenberg left his pulpit to lead a Virginia regiment. After the war, he served in political and governmental offices.

The newspaper continues:
In a 35-minute presentation found online, Fisher uses quotes from preachers of the time to argue that America’s founding was based on Judeo-Christian principles.

On Fisher’s website — called “Bringing Back the Black Robed Regiment” — he argues that “without a resurgence of biblical patriotism in the pulpit, America cannot survive much longer.” . . .

In Fisher’s online presentation, he recommends “The Patriot Preachers of the American Revolution” by Frank Moore, published in 1862, and the 1860 book “The Pulpit of the American Revolution” by John Wingate Thornton.

“If you really want to read about the true history of America, you generally can’t read modern books,” he says on the video. “You have to go back many years.”
On that last point I agree, but Fisher stops nearly a century after the Revolution with books that focus on only one side of that conflict. Reading more widely and deeply reveals how ministers preached on both sides of the political and military divide.

Fisher’s website also includes a page titled “Black Robed Regiment Museum.” It’s full of weaponry. Among the few documents is a pamphlet from Boston labeled “Sermon by Thomas Powell October 16th, 1759,” though, as its title page clearly states, it was preached before Gov. Pownall by the Rev. Samuel Cooper. Why does that look like a metaphor for the overeager mix-up of politics and religion?

TOMORROW: The roots of the “Black Robe(d) Regiment.”

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Oklahoma Checklist of U.S. History Documents

Yesterday I described how the Oklahoma legislature was considering a bill to replace the Advanced Placement U.S. History framework with legal requirements more to its members’ liking (P.D.F. download). Here are the specifics of that proposal with my commentary.

The first clause states the state government will design a course “in lieu of the Advanced Placement United States History course and test offered by the College Board.” After the committee passed the bill, the story that Oklahoma was planning to ban the A.P. course in favor of its own curriculum became national news. The bill’s chief sponsor then insisted he was actually a supporter of the A.P. course (on his terms, presumably) and planned to revise the language to make that clear. So the bill might change significantly.

Right now the bill states:
The following foundational and historical documents shall form the base level of academic content for all United States History courses offered in schools in the state, including Honors and Advanced Placement courses, and all United States History courses shall include appropriate grade-level study of the documents.
Thus, the bill starts out addressing only an Advanced Placement test—i.e., only for high-school students studying at what’s supposed to be collegiate level. But it then expands to cover “all United States History courses” in Oklahoma and refers to different grade levels, suggesting that its approach to American history could even be mandated in elementary schools.
Teachers may structure, organize, deliver and teach each document in a manner and order to facilitate student learning. In addition teachers may include other foundational and historical documents, readings and curriculum materials in the course instruction.
The College Board framework is likewise clear that teachers can include topics and materials not explicitly mentioned in its pages and teach the stated themes in various ways. But that hasn’t stopped critics of the framework from insisting that the framework skips over any topic or person it doesn’t mention by name.

That framework doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive list of topics, but this bill does define its list as the “foundational and historical documents…for all United States History courses.” The legislators’ choices and omissions thus become more significant and worthy of analysis.
The foundational and historical documents are:

1. The actual content of the organic documents from the pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary, Federalist and post-Federalist eras of the United States;
The term “organic documents” seems to come from corporate law, referring to documents that set up an organization. The list that follows goes well beyond such charters, however.

The word “pre-Colonial” was probably inserted to allow the inclusion of such documents as the Ten Commandments and Magna Carta. It’s not clear what period “post-Federalist” covers, whether only the early republic or through today.
2. The major principles in the Federalist Papers;

3. The writings, speeches, documents and proclamations of the Founders and Presidents of the United States;

4. Founding documents of the United States that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism;
The sponsors’ conservative politics become clear in the second half of that clause.
5. Objects of historical significance that have formed and influenced the United States legal or governmental system and that exemplify the development of the rule of law including, but not limited to, the Magna Carta, a complete overview of the “Two Treatises of Government” written by John Locke, the Ten Commandments and the Justinian Code;
The word “objects” seems odd. Perhaps it’s there for people who’d object to the Ten Commandments being called a document instead of stone tablets directly from God. Which translation or interpretation of the Ten Commandments is left unstated.

That clause originally included the mythical “Mecklenburg Declaration” as well, though why it was listed there instead of among the Revolutionary writings is a mystery.
6. United States Supreme Court decisions;

7. Acts of the United States Congress, including the published text of the Congressional Record;

8. United States treaties; and
And since that’s still not specific enough…
9. Other documents, writings, speeches, proclamations and recordings related to the history, heritage and foundation of the United States, including:
a. the Declaration of Independence,
b. the United States Constitution and its amendments,
c. the Mayflower Compact,
d. the Bill of Rights,
e. the Articles of Confederation,
f. the Virginia Plan,
g. the Northwest Ordinance,
h. the national motto,
Presumably the one adopted in 1956 and not the one chosen by the Continental Congress in 1782, shown in the seal above. Note how the chronology has broken down as the bill’s authors throw in anything they think is important.
i. the national anthem,
j. the sermon known as “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop,
k. the sermon known as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards,
l. the Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech made by Patrick Henry,
Nothing from the Stamp Act Congress, Dickinson’s Farmer Letters, or other documents from the long debate leading up to the Revolutionary War. The Congress’s crucial “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms” doesn’t make the cut. But with so much from the founding era included, I shouldn’t complain.
m. the letter known as “Remember the Ladies” by Abigail Adams,
n. the writing titled “Common Sense, Section III: Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs” by Thomas Paine,
o. the essay “Federalist No. 10” by James Madison,
That essay already falls under the “major principles in the Federalist Papers,” “The writings, speeches, documents and proclamations of the Founders and Presidents of the United States,” and “Founding documents of the United States that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of the representative form of limited government.” But I guess it’s much more important that any other Publius essay. And much more important than any writings against the new Constitution.
p. the Farewell Address made by George Washington,
Among the omitted documents from the early republic are Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Washington’s address to the Jewish community of Newport, and Jefferson’s “wall of separation” letter to the New England Baptists, all strong statements of religious tolerance and equality. Combined with the inclusion of the Ten Commandments and two Massachusetts sermons, that makes the law’s Christianist leanings obvious.

Also passed over in this period are the McCulloch v. Maryland decision, the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and any documents related to the Louisiana Purchase.
q. the Monroe Doctrine statement made by James Monroe,
Nothing from the very influential administration of Andrew Jackson, including the debates over tariffs and nullification. Nothing of the significant compromise laws of the ante-bellum period. And, most curiously for Oklahoma, no mention of the Indian Removal Act that created the Indian Territory.
r. the overview of the book titled “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville,
s. the document known as the “Declaration of Sentiments” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
t. the Independence Day speech made by Frederick Douglass at Rochester, New York,
u. the House Divided speech made by Abraham Lincoln,
No other Abolitionist literature is included, nor the Emancipation Proclamation. The Homestead Act is not mentioned.
v. the Gettysburg Address made by Abraham Lincoln,
w. the Second Inaugural address made by Abraham Lincoln,
Nothing from Reconstruction, its end, and the aftermath.
x. the surrender speech made by Chief Joseph,
y. the poem titled “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus,
Alongside this paean to immigration, students don’t have to read any of the exclusionary immigration laws. From the same period, Francis Bellamy’s original pledge of allegiance doesn’t make the cut.
z. the article titled “The Gospel of Wealth” by Andrew Carnegie,
Though not Franklin’s earlier “Way to Wealth.” Of course, no pro-labor, anti-capitalist, or reformist writing from the Gilded Age.
aa. the essay titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” by Frederick Jackson Turner,
This strikes me as the oddest inclusion—not an “organic document” or a political statement like the “manifest destiny” writings but a historical thesis now widely considered passé. No other long-lived historical thesis—not Tracy’s Great Awakening cycles, not the Beards’ economic interpretation of the Constitutional Convention—makes the cut.
bb. the Atlanta Compromise speech made by Booker T. Washington,
But nothing from W. E. B. DuBois.
cc. the Cross of Gold speech made by William Jennings Bryan,
A famous oration, but for a political campaign that went nowhere. Meanwhile, the list includes no temperance or prohibition literature despite that movement being successful enough to amend the Constitution.
dd. the Roosevelt Corollary made by Theodore Roosevelt,
ee. the New Nationalism speech made by Theodore Roosevelt,
ff. the Peace Without Victory speech made by Woodrow Wilson,
Needless to say, no Margaret Sanger.
gg. the First Inaugural address made by Franklin D. Roosevelt,
hh. portions of the book titled “The Grapes of Wrath” written by John Steinbeck,
ii. the Four Freedoms speech made by Franklin D. Roosevelt,
jj. the Day of Infamy speech made by Franklin D. Roosevelt,
kk. the article titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” by George Kennan,
ll. the address that became known as the Truman Doctrine made by Harry S. Truman,
mm. the Address on Little Rock, Arkansas made by Dwight Eisenhower,
nn. the Farewell Address made by Dwight Eisenhower,
oo. the Inaugural address made by John F. Kennedy,
pp. the Decision to Go to the Moon speech made by John F. Kennedy,
qq. the letter known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written by Martin Luther King, Jr.,
rr. the I Have a Dream speech made by Martin Luther King, Jr.,
ss. the Ballot or the Bullet speech made by Malcolm X,
tt. the Great Society speech made by Lyndon B. Johnson,
uu. the American Promise speech made by Lyndon B. Johnson,
Who would expect a right-wing Republican legislator to mandate the teaching of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” warning, Johnson’s “Great Society” push, or anything by Malcolm X? Clearly the bill’s author was trying to reflect some of the changes of the 1960s. On the other hand, there’s no second-wave feminist literature and nothing from the big constitutional crisis we call Watergate.
vv. the First Inaugural address made by Ronald Reagan,
ww. the 40th Anniversary of D-Day speech made by Ronald Reagan,
xx. the Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate speech made by Ronald Reagan, and
yy. the Address to the Nation speech made by George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.
Those last items tilt decidedly to the right, as critics immediately noticed, but let’s be honest—most history classes wouldn’t get that far in the school year.

I wondered if the authors of this list had drawn on some preceding assemblage, the way a proposal from Jefferson County, Colorado, copied language from Texas and the current bill from Georgia took language from the Republican National Committee. However, I couldn’t find a source through an online search for several of the more idiosyncratic phrases. This language seems to be particular to this bill.

The proposal’s emphasis on “documents,” most of them primary sources, is striking. That mirrors how the A.P. test presents students with historical sources to analyze as practice for historical research. Much as I enjoy closely reading documents myself, I think it also reflects the thinking behind originalism, the idea that the nation’s earliest documents contain better answers than any later consensus or expertise.

In addition, the emphasis on studying famous orations bespeaks an old-fashioned outlook toward education. There are many other types of historical sources, after all. Starting in the mid-1900s, for example, we have audio and then video recordings of major addresses and other significant events—battles, civil rights marches, campaign debates, space missions, Bush’s classroom visit through the 2001 attack, and so on.

TOMORROW: The bill’s sponsor.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Ongoing Battle over Advanced Placement U.S. History

To continue this series of postings on controversial intersections of early American history and current American politics, here’s an update on the conservative attack on the new Advanced Placement U.S. History (“APUSH”) framework.

As I noted last fall, the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, voted to create a special committee to review U.S. History classes. This month, however, the board decided the existing curriculum review process could do the job just fine.

In other parts of the country, state legislatures have taken up the anti-A.P. cause. There’s a bill in the Georgia senate that’s closely modeled on the Republican National Committee’s resolution from August. Both claim the new framework
minimizes discussion of America’s Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history, and many other critical topics that have long been part of the APUSH course.
As I’ve documented, the new framework explicitly includes the founders and the Declaration, and it mentions religion more often than the previous course guidelines.

The Georgia bill drops the R.N.C.’s easily disproven claim that the framework “excludes discussion of the U.S. military.” It adds “the nature of the American free enterprise system, [and] the course and resolution of the Great Depression” to a list of topics that the framework supposedly misrepresents. (I doubt the bill’s sponsors would be happy with the evidence that the Great Depression was resolved with greater government involvement in the economy.)

The Oklahoma legislature has taken up a different sort of anti-framework bill. Politico noted:
Oklahoma is an unlikely site for the battle over AP U.S. History: Fewer than 3,500 of the 460,000 students who took the exam last year did so in the state — and only 40 percent of those students were deemed “qualified” for college credit after taking the test, compared with more than 50 percent of all those who took it.
Oklahoma accounts for 1.22% of the U.S. population but only for .7% of the students taking the A.P. exam. When a smaller group of students feels qualified to take the test, and those students perform worse than the national average, that suggests the teaching of U.S. history in Oklahoma may need improvement.

The Oklahoma bill differs from the R.N.C. and Georgia resolutions by spelling out what students should study in U.S. history classes. The original bill (P.D.F. download), as Talking Points Memo reported, included the mythical “Mecklenburg Declaration” among that material. The bill as it came out of committee (P.D.F. download) did not. And the Tulsa World is now reporting that the bill’s sponsor plans further rewrites because he feels it wasn’t clear enough.

Politico reported that sponsor had “solicited testimony from Larry Krieger,” the author/publisher of test prep books who was one of the early critics of the new framework. As I wrote back here, Krieger’s business gives him an economic incentive to keep the test as it was, or at least to obtain samples of the test (as the R.N.C. included in its demands). Actually shutting down the exam, on the other hand, would be against his interests.

Both state bills are explicit in demanding that history classes teach about American specialness. The Georgia bill refers to “the uniqueness of America’s place in the world.” The Oklahoma bill mandates study of “American exceptionalism.” But of course champions of that notion don’t just want to hear that the U.S. of A. is distinct from other countries—it must also be a Good Thing and/or The Best.

As Andrew Hartman wrote about the framework controversy at The American Historian, “One prominent front in the culture wars has been the struggle over whether the purpose of American history is to make Americans proud of the nation’s glorious past or to encourage citizens to reflect on its complexities and even its moral failings.”

Critics of the A.P. framework say it “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” (That’s a line from the R.N.C. copied into the Georgia bill.) Their opponents say those critics are the ones skewing history because they want to minimize negative aspects of the past and emphasize positive ones. And of course the perception of how much negativity or positivity is too much is subjective, tinged by one’s politics. Based on how the framework’s critics continue to misrepresent the framework, however, I’m not convinced by their claims of being more accurate.

TOMORROW: The Oklahoma reading list.

[The picture above shows the Oklahoma state house, from this N.P.R. story on an oil and gas bill from last year.]

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Gordon Wood’s Lawn

It’s been two years since my posting on “The Search for a Usable Gordon Wood”, and the man maintains the ability to provoke lots of younger historians with his writing.

This week Wood published a review in The Weekly Standard of Bernard Bailyn’s latest collection of essays, Sometimes an Art. Bailyn was Wood’s dissertation director at Harvard back in 1964. At ages 92 and 81, Bailyn and Wood are the most prominent champions of the “consensus” or “ideological” approach to the history of the American Revolution.

After praising the new book, Wood laments at length that historians today don’t pay more respect to Bailyn’s recent work and are off working on other topics and questions. Some of his complaints seem contradictory, as when Wood notes favorably that Bailyn “founded, and for many years directed, the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, which helped to shape a new field of history,” yet sniffs that as a result of studying the Atlantic world “the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct.”

Wood complains that “many historians have become obsessed with inequality,” though the only evidence he feels worth noting for that is an observation that Bailyn quotes from Isaiah Berlin, visiting America in the late 1940s. It’s surprising to see someone who’s devoted so much attention to the intellectual life of the Revolutionary generation suggest that taking political action on the basis that “all men are created equal” isn’t a core part of the American tradition. And surely a trend that extends back longer than Wood’s entire academic career deserves more respect.

At the Junto blog, William R. Black tracked down two critical remarks on Bailyn’s work that Wood quotes disapprovingly (but, given the standards of the Standard, doesn’t cite by name). They date from 1986 and 1988, or over a quarter-century ago. They’re farther from our time than they were from the publication of Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). The authors of those phrases, Michael Zuckerman and James Henretta, have joined Bailyn and Wood in emeritus status. And yet they supposedly stand for “many historians” today.

Jonathan Wilson found a third quotation from the New York Times Book Review of Bailyn’s last book, The Barbarous Years, two years ago. That reviewer wasn’t an academic historian but the science journalist Charles C. Mann. And that review was generally positive. But again, it supposedly stands for most of the blinkered profession today.

In a series of Twitter postings, Wilson also analyzed Wood’s notion of the “nation” that he wishes historians would study, concluding that he’s actually focused on the “state,” powerful institutions and the people in control of them. In Wood’s description, the “dispossessed” are by definition “fragmentary” to that national story.

Likewise, at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Erik Loomis sums up Wood’s essay as based on the idea that “the ‘whole of the nation’s past’ does not include race or gender; rather such subjects are the enemy of telling that whole.” While criticizing unnamed scholars for focusing too narrowly, Wood sets large parts of American society outside the field of study.

Other Twitter responses collected here show young history professors and graduate students objecting to how Wood characterizes their approach. Contrary to what he writes, they said, they do teach and study the whole of the nation. They do seek to build national narratives. (Zuckerman and Henretta called for the same things in the 1980s.) And many current history teachers continue to use books from the “consensus” school (Wood’s own titles more than Bailyn’s, from what I saw) as an important part of their work—but only part.

Wood’s scolding that younger historians should be “less keen to use history to solve our present problems” and “are not really interested in the past as the past at all” makes a sharp contrast with how he forgave present-day political and legal uses of a flattened version of the past in a 2011 review of Jill Lepore’s book about the Tea Party movement. The Edge of the American West looked at Wood’s own writing from the 1970s and 1980s, finding plenty of concerns about contemporary issues, and suggests, “Perhaps Wood the younger would have to get off Wood the elder’s lawn.”

At the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Eran Zelnik took a contrarian stand toward Wood’s claim to be standing up to “presentism”: ”We all have agendas. The question is how forthcoming are we about them. . . . If Wood…had he told us that above all else he wants American history to uphold the current balance of power in the US by creating awe inspiring origin narratives—we would have had a much more interesting discussion.“

On Twitter, Nick Sacco noted that Wood didn’t provide any evidence for his complaints about the bulk of American historiography: no books, papers, authors, or passages that he felt exemplified his sweeping thesis. Sacco found the result unconvincing.

But the Weekly Standard audience doesn’t need convincing evidence, Benjamin Carp suggested on Facebook. Wood’s review simply echoes the American right’s regular complaint about academia ever since it lost control of that sector of society: that professors are too progressive, out of touch, closed-minded, and so on. The governor of Wisconsin (a political activist in college before dropping out) was recently detected trying to remove “the search for truth” from the state university’s mandate while adding the goal “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” If Wood is really interested in “disinterested scholarship, disinterested history-writing” as his review says, there’s a bigger threat than young historians studying liberty in practice as well as liberty in ideology.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Arizona Citizenship Test

Last month the Arizona legislature voted to require high-school students in the state to pass a civics test before graduating—its questions taken from the citizenship test given to immigrants hoping to become citizens.

As Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reported:
Immigrants are given 100 questions to learn and then, during an interview with a U.S. official, must answer 10 of them without knowing in advance which ones they will be. They must get six right to pass.

The Arizona law calls for students to take a test with all 100 questions in the citizenship question pool—and get at least 60 of them correct.
It strikes me that there are some questionable aspects to this approach.

The Immigration Service encourages people to memorize the questions and the acceptable answers without necessarily studying the concepts behind them. Indeed, the agency even says applicants should focus on the official answers and not think more deeply: “Although USCIS is aware that there may be additional correct answers to the 100 civics questions, applicants are encouraged to respond to the civics questions using the answers provided below.”

Thus, the question “What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?” must be answered “checks and balances” or “separation of powers”—which are actually two separate and somewhat contradictory concepts. An immigrant or student can’t answer with “the Second Amendment” or “regular elections” or “the notion of what is ‘too powerful’ evolves along with society, and we’re clearly comfortable with a more powerful executive branch than the men at the Constitutional Convention imagined.”

Another aspect of the test that struck me is that, because it’s based on a national citizenship test, it has no content specific to being a citizen of Arizona. In that state judges are initially appointed and then stand for reelection, unlike in the federal system. Arizona has citizen referendums, unlike the national government. But the civics test won’t cover those details.

Likewise, the historical section of the test has little about Arizona. It‘s mentioned only as a state that borders Mexico, not a part of the U.S. of A. that Spanish explorers first visited in 1539, decades before English colonists reached the continent. The acceptable answers list the Mexican-American War among the country’s nineteenth-century wars, but not how that’s the way the country obtained most of Arizona. The questions mention the Louisiana Purchase but not the Gadsden Purchase. And of course Arizona contains territories of the Navajo and Hopi nations with their own governments and ideas of civic structure.

Ironically, the same legislature that’s deferring to the federal Immigration Service on defining civics for its high-school graduates has been demanding more power for the state on national immigration laws.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

4th Conference on the American Revolution, 20-22 Mar.

On 20-22 March, America’s History, L.L.C., will host its fourth annual Conference on the American Revolution in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Scheduled speakers include:
  • Edward G. Lengel, Head of Faculty: “Enigmatic Warrior: Light-Horse Harry Lee [shown here] at the Battle of Eutaw Springs
  • Rick Atkinson: “Bringing Back the Dead: History, Memory, and Writing About War”
  • John “Jack” Buchanan: “‘A Great and Good Man’: Nathanael Greene and the Road to Charleston
  • Don N. Hagist: “The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs”
  • James Kirby Martin: “The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King: George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy
  • Holly Mayer: “Command and Control of Congress’s Own: Hazen’s 2nd Canadian Regiment”
  • Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy: “Hot Weather and Heavy Casualties: The Revolutionary War in the Caribbean
  • Julia Anne Osman: “From Greatest Enemies to Greatest Allies: France and America in the War for Independence”
There are two panel discussions planned:
  • What are the most overrated and underrated battles or campaigns of the Revolutionary War?
  • Who is the most underrated or overlooked individual (on either side) who had an impact on the American Revolution?
The conference package, including lunch and refreshments, costs $225. The conference has arranged for a block of rooms at the Colonial Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel and discounted tickets to the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area. For more information, call America’s History at 703-785-4373 or check its website. Featured sponsors include Westholme Publishing Company and Tim Sampson’s Battlemaps.us.