George Washington and Robert Lee: Some Thoughts

George Washington and William Lee, whom he enslaved

Gentle Readers, here we go again. The President employs a lawyer, as most officeholders do, to see to his affairs. This president requires one more than most. He has chosen John Dowd. I know nothing about Dowd except for his most famous client and what this New York Times story reports. Many lawyers study history as undergraduates and the skills one picks up in law school have substantial overlap with those of historians. That doesn’t make lawyers into historians, but one would hope they help to some degree. Dowd got an email which purported to vindicate Trump’s late claims about the removal of Confederate statues and forwarded it among his circle of journalists, officials, and friends. The email claims

LEE IS NO DIFFERENT THAN WASHINGTON

Both owned slaves.

Both rebelled against the ruling government.

Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West point.

Both saved America.

Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders.

Neither man is any different than Napolean [sic], Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc.

You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there is literally no difference between the two men.

Where to start? I will pass over Lee’s and Washington’s military virtues as irrelevant. Good generalship accrues to causes infamous and praiseworthy just as easily and so says nothing about the overall worth of the people and causes involved.

Both men rebelled against the ruling government. I don’t feel a great urge to defend the American Revolution, which had at best mixed blessings for anyone who had the wrong skin color, but Washington and the rest fought for more than the simple, bloody-minded desire to preserve slavery against all hazards. Lee can claim no such thing. Nor should we endorse anyone who rebels against a ruling government, unless we endorse Lee, Washington, Lenin, Gandhi, and Hitler as essentially the same. People rebel for causes good and bad, against governments good and bad, with such regularity that smiling on the lot of them requires staggering ignorance or staggering recklessness.

The notion that Lee, who fought for four years to destroy the United States, somehow saved it barely deserves an answer. He fought against everything Washington fought for. He Lee won, the nation Washington helped build would have ended at the point of Lee’s bayonets. If fighting to destroy the United States in the name of slavery makes you a great American, only white supremacists could cheerfully claim the title and the rest of us owe it to ourselves and their victims to be the worst of Americans.

Robert E. Lee

Lee and Washington both owned people, fair enough. Neither treated those people they enslaved well, though both might flatter themselves by thinking so. Both zealously pursued runaways and ordered violent punishments for those who defied them. Both sundered families, though Washington eventually stopped. He also freed those who he enslaved of his own free will, albeit only in his last will and testament. Lee kept the slaves he had as part of his father-in-law’s estate until the last possible minute, and went to court to get that time extended. Washington, for all his numerous faults, kept more slaves at Mount Vernon than he could profitably use in order to preserve families. Lee spent his time as executor of the estate hiring slaves out in Richmond and elsewhere, so shattering family bonds, specifically to increase his profits. None of this makes Washington a good man, despite owning people. He far more than Lee ever did and did so for longer, but it surely counts as a difference.

In myth, Lee refused to bear arms against Virginia and so almost accidentally fell into the Confederacy. In reality, he chose to fight on behalf of slavery and expressed his support for the institution regardless of Virginia’s other political circumstances. Washington thought this about the Union:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Neither Virginia nor any other Southern state sought a constitutional amendment, or even ordinary legislation, to part from the United states. By Washington’s logic they had a duty to obey the government, whoever the president and whatever the policy toward slavery. The first president lived up to that principle through his public career. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, he complained about petty state jealousies and national impotence which left his army short of funds and supplies.

One might argue that Washington did not face the question as Lee did, poised between Virginia and Slavery on one side and the United States on the other. We can’t argue that he actually did, as no secession crisis took place in Washington’s lifetime. However, Washington Edmund Randolph that he had thought about the issue and came to a decision. Randolph later told Thomas Jefferson, who noted the fact in his papers:

the P. speaking with R. on the hypothesis of a separation of the Union into Northern and Southern said he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern

Washington might have chosen differently when the occasion came. Few of us demur from bold talk when not expected to deliver at once. But we have the evidence we have and what Washington said to Randolph matches the consistent tenor of his public life and other declared principles.

John Dowd might not know of the Randolph conversation. It took me more than the usual amount of effort to chase the quote down to a source, so I can’t fault him for that. But given the other howlers in his forward, facts clearly don’t enter into it. Like many of us, Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people he finds easy to relate to.

 

Thoughts on Charlottesville

Gentle Readers, you all know the news by now. Over the past weekend, a group of Nazis (and to whatever degree it makes sense to separate them anymore, Klansmen) carrying tiki torches marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. They chanted their usual slogans, “blood and soil,” “the Jews will not replace us,”  you can get the full list from any documentary. They came armed for war. The police now believe they had weapons cached around the city; the governor of the state believes they packed more heat than the local department did. They came, as fascist groups usually do, hoping for a fight. When the counter marchers, including remarkably brave students from the University of Virginia who faced an armed mob who literally believe their lives expendable, did not offer a fight, the fascists invented one.

One of those Nazis, James Fields, drove a car into the counter protesters, injured several, and murdered Heather Heyer. You know her story. Others may yet share her fate. I’m sure the thought of it makes many of them happy indeed. They win for showing up, win for seeing each other in numbers, and win again for the murder. We must remember them. I offer also this story I saw reported less in the media over these awful days:

Deandre Harris, works at a local high school. He has the hard, draining job of an instructional assistant in a special education program. If you know nothing else about special education, understand that the people who work in those classrooms with those kids are heroes. Harris marched; the Nazis found him. He explains what happened next:

“Me and about five of my friends were out protesting. We thought [the racists] left, but at one point they came back. Everyone was exchanging words with the group, but then the KKK and white supremacists just rushed us,” Harris told The Root in an interview.

“They were beating me with poles. I have eight staples in my head, a broken wrist and a chipped tooth,” Harris said.

Harris had friends who saw him beneath their pile of limbs, poles, and hatred. They stepped in, so he lived to tell his story. This all took place in a building adjacent to the Charlottesville police department. Harris’ case might not fit technical definitions built on nineteenth and early twentieth century crimes, but white supremacists tried to murder him for political activism. Deandre Harris was lynched last weekend. This happened in the United States of America in 2017, decades after the civil rights movement and not one year after our first black president left office.

The horrors continued. Nazis marching openly in numbers should chill us all to the bone and conjure memories of absent grandparents and great-grandparents who fought what we have long called the Good War. We decided as a nation that we would have Nazis as our ultimate villain. The ultimate in American virtue these past eight years fit into a red glove colliding with Hitler’s face. Everything the Nazis were, we were not. The United States existed to destroy Nazism. We kill Nazis in video games. We watch them die in movies. We cheer their failures in comic books. We have no more efficient shorthand for evil.

That was then. The choice to focus on someone else’s sins relieves us of our own burdens. Doing that doesn’t make Americans uniquely evil; everyone would rather talk about the faults of others than their own. But we do have a unique and horrifying history that doesn’t go away for our ignoring it. Rather, by ignoring it we continue that history. According to fascism scholar Robert Paxton, the first Ku Klux Klan might count as the first proto-fascist movement in world history. As in developing proslavery theory to its fullest flower, Americans got ahead of the curve. A nation built on genocide and slavery had advantages in these things. A nation that pretends to a different founding has still more.

The potential for authoritarianism of every stripe exists in every culture. In the United States, it has found its fullest flower through white supremacy. That has been with us from the seventeenth century onward. We have declared victory over it many times and always it has returned. Here we go again.

You have doubtless heard the many denunciations. Politicians must say that this is not us and we have no room in America for it. We all know otherwise, but to we say these things in aspiration; the America we want does not permit such horrors. We are not, we know, better than this. We want to be. When our leaders give the ritual condemnations they remind us of our aspirations and, at least rhetorically, declare that they will not have the American state endorse such actions on their watch. The actual follow-through on such things rarely, with the notable exception of a brief period in the 1960s, inspires confidence but the statements have meaning all the same. They articulate a national creed which disassociates us from the perpetrators and does not work to encourage further acts of white supremacist terror.

If speaking the ritual phrases asks almost nothing of politicians, it at least does that. The occasion warrants at least a briefly lifted finger, sincere or otherwise. The perpetrators know that as well as anyone and watch these responses with care. They also note when attention dies down and the more sophisticated tools of white supremacy march on. That sends a message: We disagree with your methods but share your goals. I wish it said more, but neither the nation’s history nor its current events admit any other conclusion that I can see.

Then the loser of the 2016 election got to become president. Said white supremacist opted to fill our White House and head our Justice Department with more of his kind. They know Donald Trump as one of their own, more so than the usually extensive cast of friends that the white power movement has in Washington. Unlike the polished hands at double talk and dog whistles, the strategy the Republican party embarked upon in earnest in 1968 and hasn’t wavered from since, he says the quiet parts out loud. The immediate response of a man with no filter and a remarkable ability to remember the names of people who displease him for Twitter rants, involved blaming both sides. The Nazis and the Klan knew they had a big green light from Trump and a wave of violence spread immediately after his election. Via Twitter, he gave them a much bigger and more explicit one. The president, at least of the Electoral College, essentially told people he knew capable of murder that they should get right to it.

In the months since November, this has become a cliche. It remains true all the same: If you ever wondered what you would do during slavery or the rise of the Nazi party, you are doing it right now. I don’t know where this is going any more than you do; historians have no particular gift for seeing the future. But I do not believe and we cannot believe that this will all just work out. More likely that not, we will see more assaults and more victims, faster and faster. Maybe we can stop it, maybe not. I can’t tell you what will or will not work. I don’t expect the tactics of the past to necessarily work again. The Civil Rights Movement required a degree of acceptance and support from the federal government that anti-Trump and anti-racist groups obviously now lack. It also cut across partisan lines by undermining white Democratic hegemony in the South in a way that made it appealing to some members of both parties rather than a strictly partisan issue. That is likewise no longer true. If you don’t believe me, consider that states controlled by the Republican party have introduced bills to essentially legalize running over protesters in the street. Consider also this photograph of the majority leader of the United States Senate:

Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

This is the nation Americans live in, more than we have in a long time. It has taken decades of work to bring us to this point. The movement did not need a Trump to get this far, though he may have accelerated their timeline. It will survive him. It stands poised to radically transform the country. We may not survive it. Or it may not survive us.

Please call, fax or email your senators to save the Affordable Care Act

Gentle Readers, I don’t do this often. What I write below has nothing to do with history. I have some things I need to say. If you want to skip my reasoning and get right to it, contact information is at the bottom of this post.

Neither I nor any of my loved ones receive life-sustaining care through the Affordable Care Act; our lives are not on the line. But countless Americans do. If its protections go away, they face the choice of bankruptcy or death. Tens of thousands of lives are at stake every year. Millions more will be at risk, one accident or bad gene away from disaster. These people don’t have to die before their time. We have the money and we have the power to save them all: the aged grandparents, the newborns, the premature babies, the sick toddlers, the teenager hit by a car, all the people battling cancer, and all the people who battle mental illness and addition every agonizing day just to get to the next. They are all people just like you, with loved ones and people who love them, hopes, dreams, faults, and all the stuff that makes us human; maybe they are you.

Today, July 25, 2017, the United States Senate will vote on a Motion to Proceed on some kind of attack upon health care for all those people. I will be blunt: Whatever they vote on is a plan to murder all those people I just mentioned just as surely as if they were all lined up against a wall and shot. Those who survive anyway will suffer more, needlessly.

We don’t know what they plan to vote to proceed with because the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, hasn’t told us. He has cooked up a health care bill in secret, multiple times, bypassing every institutional norm of the Senate. There have been no hearings. More than once, it seems like he has hurried to get something forward before the Congressional Budget Office could examine it and inform the Congress of its likely consequences. If the Motion to Proceed passes, then the Senate will have no more than twenty hours’ debate over two, maybe three, days. Amendments will fly. None of the Senators have looked at the bill; none of them know what it does. Probably some of them don’t care to know. Once the paper begins flying, no one will know what the final bill is until the ultimate vote. McConnell himself might put in a final amendment that wipes out all the previous ones.

Here’s what we do know: Every previous version of this the GOP has come up with has been a devastating attack on vulnerable Americans. They’re not going to change tracks now. We also know that if they thought this bill was popular, they would be happy to run it through the normal committee hearings to understand how it would touch the lives of millions. They would invite Democrats in to ask questions and suggest modifications. Instead they skulk about like assassins. They know this bill is poison from the start. Every health care advocacy group that’s looked at it, even the health insurance industry themselves, think it’s a terrible idea and will cause tremendous harm. Even the charity that funded Mitch McConnell’s treatment for polio, the March of Dimes, thinks so. He refused to meet with them.

That’s bad enough; I have worse. The reason we don’t legislate like this normally is that we take governance seriously and expect accountability of our politicians. They should know what they’re doing, what the costs are, and who will bear them. The people should have a chance to be heard at every step of the way, even people we personally disagree with or loathe. Democracy cannot survive otherwise, whether we have elections or not. If Mitch McConnell and the Republican party get away with this one, then they will do this for everything they want to do that can’t stand the light of day. We may never get back the deliberative process that, for all its faults, remains a great safeguard of our liberties.

Already we teeter at the edge of a deeper crisis than the one we have faced at least since October, when the Republican leadership learned that Russia was working to win Donald Trump the presidency and insisted that President Obama say nothing or they would attack him for it. That was probably our first coup. The second has been ongoing, in slow motion, since January as the man who lost the election of 2016 by millions of votes works to transform our nation into a dictatorship. He has already fired one man investigating his Russian connections, a Republican stalwart no less. That was the third coup, arising from the second but a signal point in its own right. Now he lays the groundwork for firing the Republican stalwart appointed to continue the investigation. That could be our fourth coup. If he can get away with that, and past precedent suggests the Republicans in Congress are happy to ensure he does, what else can he do? Give him that power and give the Senate the power to draft laws in secret and pass them by virtual fiat, and American democracy may never recover.

Even if you don’t care about heath care and don’t mind Vladimir Putin -a man who regularly assassinates people who he dislikes- fixing our elections, you should care about that. Authoritarianism is present in every society, waiting to be unleashed. Once it is, no one is safe. Southern whites lynched their fellows for not being sound on slavery, a system they insisted upon for the safety of the white race. No one is truly safe in such a world except for a small number of people at the very top, who make us vulnerable so we must look to them for protection and so buy our silence. They will come for all of us, given the chance.

I don’t know if we can save this. I’m sorry; I really don’t. I don’t know if we ever get back to where we were as a nation just one year ago. Despair is a natural reaction in these times. But I know this: enough Republican senators are wavering or can’t agree on a repeal of the ACA, a replacement for it, or something else that all hope is not lost. If McConnell loses this one, then he might be forced to drop the effort and return to normal order for the Senate. He will still pass laws I abhor, but we may inch back from the precipice and in doing so save so many lives.

The only thing left to us is the First Amendment. We can petition our Senators with the convenience of modern technology. Reach out and touch them, especially if your senator is a Republican. If they are, tell them to oppose all the attempts to destroy or undermine the ACA. If they’re a Democrat, thank them for fighting to save it. Every Senator gets regular reports of what comes in over the phones, faxes, and emails. They use that data to get a sense for their constituents. Being a Senator is a job that most of them want to keep for a long time. If they think that voting one way will outrage the great majority of their voters, then they will not do it. We have the ability to save all those lives and maybe our democracy in the bargain. Do we have the decency? 

The United States has failed to meet the promises it makes to its citizens and the world on a daily basis for as long as it has existed, but Americans are not a singularly evil people. We can -we have- done better in the past. We can do it again. We are both the nation that instituted and sustained slavery and the nation that abolished it. We can choose the brighter path.

How to Contact Your Senator

The single easiest way to get in touch with your Senator is courtesy of ResistBot, basically an automated operator which will give you phone numbers or fax missives to them. You can access it through Facebook Messenger or your smartphone and it is totally free. If you have trouble talking to people on the phone, as I do, faxes are just like typing an email. The prompts will tell you everything you need to do. It takes minutes. If you call, leave a voice mail if you don’t get a person. If you have to, try more than once over. The Capitol switchboard can put you in touch with your senators: (202) 224-3121. The vote isn’t set until this afternoon, so we have some time. If the motion to proceed does pass, don’t let up. It’s not over until the Republicans give up their crusade or the bill is signed into law. Get in touch every day. If something changes, get in touch again. It’s all we can do. We owe it to all those people depending on us, including ourselves. Please.

E Pluribus Unum for White Supremacists

Americans teach our children to admire the country as a place where people of diverse origins can come together. By diverse, we have usually meant the right parts of Europe and believing in the right religion. Just how large a circle that draws varies over time. My surname ends in a vowel, which a few decades back put me into the wrong group. My grandfather grew up in an ethnic ghetto, which they had even in small towns. The Polish people lived on this side of the river, while everyone else lived on the other. They spoke Polish at home and learned English elsewhere. In school two generations later, we always knew the teachers not from the area by how they stumbled over our surnames. By then, everyone else could get at least close to however we chose to render the weird piles of consonants that made sense to our grandparents but we added to the difficulty with inconsistently modifying the pronunciations to fit English spelling conventions. Many Americans have similar stories. Make the number of generations removed from immigration into a variable and you can take in most of us. We become Americans, Americans become us, and the national myth rolls along.

We make exceptions, of course. Native Americans and African-Americans can live in the country for centuries longer than any of our ancestors and remain outsiders, at best contingently human. Part of becoming American, for the rest of us, usually means we join in afflicting them with special zeal. At some point, the unstated logic goes, one has to get on board with the national creed. Irish Americans learned it in the nineteenth century, understanding free black Americans in the North as an existential threat to their jobs. In those days, immigrants worried that the native-born would steal their work. But we muddle through, injustice by injustice, atrocity by atrocity, smiling and linking arms as we go about the national project of making North America a white person’s paradise. To do otherwise would mark us as foreign, like those adults who refuse, in their perfidy, to make the trifling effort to pick up English as a second language. E pluribus unum or else.

For decades now, Americans have understood Nazis as the antithesis of all things American. We have made them into our ultimate symbol of evil. Anything we dislike, we consider something the Nazis did or would have done. Any leader we loathe, we compare with Hitler. We may use other comparisons too, but when only the big guns will do we go with the Third Reich. Some malevolent fools might try it, but no real American could go Nazi. We have no place for such vile individuals.

E pluribus unum, America has worked its magic again.

Charlottesville, Virginia, has a statue of Robert E. Lee. For some time now, many have thought it past time to get rid of the thing because honoring a traitor who fought a nation built on white supremacy and slavery in order to make a new nation still more thoroughly built upon them should not continue. The proposed removal drew protests and, quelle suprise, the Nazis showed up. They came bearing torches, in the hallowed tradition of their German and American heroes. It seems they took a pass on wearing their sheets or brown shirts, but other than that they marched straight out of central casting. They had things to say too, which showed that they had done their homework:

The protesters chanted, “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.”

Richard Spencer, the Trump-heiling unwitting star of this reenactment of Captain America’s first appearance, couldn’t stay away from the fun. All his friends turned out., after all.

Back in the day, American white supremacists thought little of Nazis. The United States had its own ways to hate and for the most part didn’t need tips from foreigners who copied off our paper when it came to racial laws. No one likes a cheater. So we should put this one down on our calendars. Americans who hate like the Klan and the Confederacy come together with Americans who hate like the Nazis, all basking in their magnificent whiteness. When the Klan, our homegrown fascist movement, rode around with torches everyone knew the purpose. Men in sheets didn’t scare anyone much past the age of ten, but men in sheets who would murder you for the color of your skin made an impression. Here too the protesters did their homework.

Other Americans condemned them, as we do. The men who want to serve as Virginia’s next governor joined in, even from the more eagerly white supremacist of the two parties. Spencer and the others probably expected as much. They understand Donald Trump as one of their own even if he makes feeble gestures otherwise now and then to maintain plausible deniability. One candidate, Democrat Tom Perriello asked them to get their hate out of his hometown. Spencer answered back on that they won and he lost. Perriello responded:

I’ll not argue otherwise, though the Richard Spencers of the world have won often enough since 1865. They know their history well enough to know that. I bet Perriello does too, but it doesn’t do for a candidate to admit such things. They also both know that most of the Virginia governor hopefuls condemned Spencer, but one did not. Corey Stewart, former head of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign, seeks the Republican nomination and has made the Lee statue a large part of his campaign. He wants it to stay. Yesterday, he managed to tweet out a Mother’s Day message but not to comment on Spencer or the protest. I have no doubt Spencer and company will cherish the memory of that fact. The rest of us must simply live with the fact that a man who expects to run for statewide office in the America of 2017 doesn’t see a need to distance himself from a Nazi torch mob. Some of us will probably die from it too.

In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Gentle Readers, some of you might enjoy my prose but I suspect you keep reading for the history. That history comes from a mix of original research on my part and the work of others, who guide me to documents and further work through their footnotes. A typical post begins with my reading what a historian has said about something, checking those footnotes, and then reading the sources if I can access them. In the course of that, I also come on things by chance. If you read the acknowledgements of any history book, you’ll find long lists of colleagues, archivists, and others thanked. Still more fill the citations. Every work of history owes much to unnumbered collaborators from librarians to mentors to students, friends, and family.

And they cost money. I do my research through an internet connection, but I can do that because of you. For decades the United States has used tax dollars to fund historical research in much the same way, albeit rather less generously, as it does science. Those countless historians digging through the archives often do so with government grants. If you look through the citations of any history book, except perhaps the most narrow and technical works, you will find numerous references to widely-scattered archives. Even if one has the good fortune to live near an important archive, others always remain that require travel expenses. That’s gas for your car, your airfare, hotel costs, and historians have long accustomed themselves to eating while they do all of this. Grants and other federal funds make meeting those expenses far easier, especially for the vast majority of historians who lack the considerable wealth of the few academic superstars who regularly hit the bestseller lists.

If you have ever read a history book published in the United States in the last fifty years, you have almost certainly read a work that received support from our government many times over. In addition to the historians themselves, the United States funds many of the archives used. It has funded work I do here, by way of the digitization projects which have made so many documents available to me. I lack the funds and ability to travel to Kansas or Missouri where I might find bound volumes or loose issues of those nineteenth century papers. I journey to them through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you have a local museum, university, college, historical site, or library, then your community probably has had funding from them too. The NEH has a search function you can use to find what it has done for your town.

We have a public library here with an impressive local history room, which received $6,000 in 2009. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t have any interesting slavery-related materials, but I have had occasion to use it all the same. Last fall, my father saw a news report about the anniversary of a plane crash. He vaguely recalled the event but not any details, so one Tuesday we hopped in the car and got over to the public library, which hosts the collection. I thought we would probably have to go through the microfilm and we found the proper reel, but we no sooner did that than a librarian came over. She told us that they kept clippings from the local newspaper for aircraft disasters. In less than five minutes, we sat down in a pleasant little room with one of the gray archival boxes you see in the documentaries. We came away with almost everything we needed to know. My father wanted to know about a monument that the families had built on public land. The librarian knew a few local people who studied that kind of thing and put me on the phone with one, who gave us directions. That NEH grant paid for our afternoon’s research and facilitated a thoroughly pleasant afternoon together.

The loser of the 2016 presidential election got to be president anyway. This past week he submitted a budget which does not merely cut the NEH, but actually eliminates it on the grounds, presumably, that the NEH has never killed a sufficient number of people as to impress him with its hard power bona fides. I consider it eminently worth keeping, and vastly increasing, simply for the good work it does. You can’t put a dollar value on the greater understanding of ourselves that the humanities provide. But if one insists, then the NEH consumes such a tiny part of the four trillion dollar budget that eliminating it wouldn’t pay for a brand new aircraft carrier or some other war-winning gadget for a war we have yet to embark upon. If one feels an overriding need to slash spending for its own sake, then the president might well look at his own travel budget. His weekend jaunts to his vacation home in Florida have already cost us millions, rather more than almost every historian will ever see.

The cuts to the arts and humanities will not kill anyone, which is more than I can say for most of the cuts that Trump prefers, but they do strike to the heart of this blog’s mission. I hope you will join me in condemning them and making your opposition known.

Some help for @GOP

Lincoln 1860Gentle Readers, a conventional post will come today but I wanted to put out this item separate from it. As you know, Abraham Lincoln hailed from the Republican Party. The Republicans today haven’t forgotten. I have it from Kevin Levin that for his birthday, the GOP’s official twitter offered up a fake Lincoln quote. This speaks volumes for their understanding of history, though I suppose we must give them credit for not attributing something from Alexander Stephens or Jefferson Davis to him instead. But I write this to help, not mock.

To replace the false Lincoln quote, I offer to the Republican Party this genuine article:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes”When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

 

Elizabeth Warren and the Gag Rule #shepersisted

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Gentle Readers, Kansas must wait a day. This past Tuesday night, as part of protesting against the appointment of Jeff Sessions to the post of Attorney General of the United States, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read into the record a letter that Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in opposition to his nomination for the federal bench back in the 1980s. It details how Sessions, as United State Attorney, used his power to go after black Alabamans trying to vote. King operated under the theory that a white supremacist ought not have a judge’s lifetime tenure to use fighting against black Americans who dared think they could vote. The protest worked then and Sessions did not get black robes to wear over his white set. Such things happened in 1986; they do not in 2017.

Instead, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Majority Leader, rose up and accused Warren of violating the Senate’s rules. He moved for her censure on the grounds that she had insulted a fellow Senator, which the Republicans then agreed to. As a result, Warren had to stop reading the letter and remain silent for the remainder of the debate on Sessions’ nomination. Now Jeff Sessions, who had the votes regardless, heads up the executive department charged with stopping people like Jeff Sessions.

I didn’t come here to write about Sessions; I’ve done that. Silencing elected representatives in the course of their deliberations has a history in the United States. We can find the most obvious precedent for Warren’s case in the Gag Rule of 1836-44. Practice going all the way back to the First Congress dictated that antislavery citizens could petition Congress, but any petition they sent would receive no action other than tabling or referral to a committee to die in obscurity. After coming to Washington and voting to do just the same as always with two antislavery petitions, South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond rose in the House of Representatives to condemn the petitions as an insult to the South which demanded a firmer response than effective silence. Instead, the House ought to not receive the petitions at all.

The drama that ensued rarely left the confines of the United States Congress, but that made it no less significant. Here, as in previous clashes, slavery rose up as an issue that could reconfigure national politics. No white man in the South could afford to appear less proslavery than anyone else and expect to prosper in politics. That same quest to always prove one’s soundness on slavery required concessions from a North which would understand each one as demanding that they yield not far away, but in their own homes, to slavery’s despotism.

John C. Calhoun, always ready to involve himself in anything proslavery, took up the same charge in the Senate. There he argued, as quoted in William Freehling’s Road to Disunion, Volume One, that the petitions represented

a war of religious and political fanaticism, … waged not against our lives, but our character. The object is to humble and debase us in our own estimation, and that of the world.”

According to the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Warren’s reading of Scott King’s letter imputed

to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Calhoun maintained, as Freehling puts it, that

Free debate must leave us debased in our own estimations.

The Senator from South Carolina averred that the Senate must receive petitions, but only when they prayed for action that the body had a constitutional power to undertake. Since the Congress had no power to touch on slavery whatsoever, it must reject all antislavery petitions. To do otherwise would trespass against the property rights of the white South.

James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond

In all this, both Calhoun and Hammond insisted that the South’s censorship of the mail must now extend to the halls of Congress itself. The tolerance that the white North possessed for dirty hands and debased republicanism far away did not extend so near as all that. But outrage also went only so far. The House and Senate both passed gag rules that gave the Hammonds and Calhouns of those bodies nearly everything they wanted. James Buchanan, the man infamous for letting the Union fall apart, then sat in the Senate with Calhoun. The chamber adopted his almost absolute capitulation: the Senate would receive the petitions -sorry, Calhoun- but then would reject them at once rather than merely leave them on the table, from which someone might take them up, or refer them to a committee which may then take action on them.

The gag would last almost a decade, during which time it gave John Quincy Adams his finest hour. Now occupying a seat in the House, he proceeded to both name the rule by demanding to know if his opponents would have him “gagged” and explore every clever option he could think of for breaking it, including presenting a petition from people alleging themselves slaves -the objections rose up at once- who he then said had decided they liked slavery. When not embarrassing his overeager foes that way, he would offer up petition after petition and ask if they fell under the rule or not. Each time occasioned a slavery debate, just the thing the gag meant to stop forever. Stricter rules failed to silence the former president, who would finally introduce the resolution to end the gag in 1844. By then, the Northern Democrats that had accepted the gag before joined in opposing it.

Mitch McConnell did gag Warren Tuesday night. That he did it to silence her criticism of a man contemptuous of the rights of black Americans speaks volumes. So does his use of a rule against insulting senators reveal a further disturbing connection between his work and the nineteenth century. I need not explain the salience of the twentieth century connections. Instead, I will close with the epitaph that the Majority Leader wrote on Warren’s speech and which, gendered pronoun aside, fits John Quincy Adams just as well:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

In Remembrance of the Holocaust

Gentle Readers, we have had quite a weekend. Various organizations have a habit of declaring this day and that a day to celebrate, remember, or mourn some historical event. Wealthy, powerful organizations usually have people on staff who will check and see what occasions warrant the usual statements or when they ought to refrain from certain things. The White House, the center of the wealthiest and most powerful organization on the planet, for now, has the staff to keep track better than most. Holocaust Remembrance Day came on Friday and the Trump White House put out two statements in honor of the occasion.

The first addressed the occasion directly, albeit in an unusual way. In three paragraphs, the man who appointed an antisemite his chief adviser somehow neglected to mention any particular victims of the Holocaust. Once, people we used to consider the epitome of evil worked to physically erase the Jewish people from the Earth. Now their admirers would do the same to their memory. In this, they follow the example of their international counterparts. If they must acknowledge the Holocaust, then it would not do to give the impression that they objected to the choice of victims.

The White House pleads that other people died in the Holocaust. In an effort to be inclusive, they chose language which could apply to LGBT people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Roma, Sinti, and Slavs. Related programs murdered the disabled. Had the White House given the full list, no one would have objected. Had they just listed the Jews, as the Nazi’s principal victims, they would have followed the precedent of past statements. Any public statement to come out of a modern White House goes through many hands, checked and rechecked. We cannot fairly call this an accident or oversight; the Trump Administration made a choice.

The second statement in memory of the Holocaust came in the form of an executive order. Therein Trump forbade the entry of refugees from Syria indefinitely. Driven from their homes by a civil war between a brutal dictator and brutal religious fanatics, the latter of whom earned a Made in the USA sticker by rising out of our war for pleasure against Iraq, they will find no safety here. The poor, huddled masses yearning to be free can instead find freedom from the mortal coil in the tender ministrations of ISIS. Previous to this, those masses largely consisted of homeless children, the elderly, and the seriously ill. None fits my profile for a terrorist, but I confess myself unlearned in such things.

We have feared refugees before, particularly when they adhere to a less familiar religion. Trump’s other restrictions on entry from a list of Muslim-majority countries exempt religious minorities, so non-Muslims. All of the restrictions, over the objection of the Department of Homeland Security’s lawyers, apply even to legal residents of the United States. Steve Bannon, the antisemite aforementioned, overruled DHS. His victims must endure extreme vetting, as if they had not already gone through the torturous, expensive process of acquiring their green cards. We designed said process to generate refusal for all but the most determined and well-lawyered, incidentally. Even those who hazarded their lives to aid us in our misbegotten wars in the Middle East for the promise of admission to our occasionally fair land must submit. This vetting, it seems, includes yielding up their phones, social network accounts, and asking their opinion of Donald Trump.

I digress; you come here for history and I have written entirely of current events. In 1939, the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg for Cuba, with the idea that its nine hundred plus passengers would wait there while others arranged their entry to the United States. It didn’t work that way; the City on the Hill declared the Statue of Liberty closed and eventually the ship returned to Europe. We had strict quotas on immigration, you understand; we could not break our rules. (The quota system stood until 1965.) Some nations took on a few of the Jewish refugees aboard, but about half died in the Holocaust.

If you grew up in the United States at any time in the past sixty years, you probably know this story: A Jewish family hides from the Nazis in a secret room. One of them, a young girl, keeps a diary. Someone betrays them and the Nazis come. The father survives and one of the people who helped hide the family gives her the papers she found in their hiding place, the diary included. Its author died in Bergen-Belsen. We didn’t know the rest of the story when I sat in the eighth grade and read the book, but it came out a few years ago: Otto Frank sought entry to the US for his family. We refused them just as we refused the passengers on the St. Louis.

I don’t know what to say to that. Thousands of Americans have made their discontent known by flooding the airports. The ACLU got a court order suspending enforcement of the executive order for holders of green cards, but now I see reports that the customs officials don’t see court orders as something requiring their compliance. People ordered released remain in custody as of this writing at more than one airport. That looks less like obstinate bad apples and more like planned resistance. It may be that eight days into his administration, Donald Trump has already decided the courts have no power over him.

In the previous eight days, Trump ordered the silencing of all executive branch communications with the public. He has essentially removed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, military professionals, from the National Security Council and replaced them with Steve Bannon, publisher of this sort of thing. Now this. When movements like these happen in other countries, we call it a coup. Tomorrow we may wake up and find out that Trump caved and this crisis has passed. Or we might not. The last, and only, president who fell did so because a hostile Congress proceeded against him. Trump has no such adversary.

2017 by way of 1965

Gentle Readers, I’ve thought quite a bit about whether or not to continue with Modern Mondays. In the past I’ve sometimes had trouble finding an adequately modern event with historical resonance to write about and struggled to write about those I do find in new ways, failing often. The horror that stars in our news for at least the next four years suggests no shortage of incidents to come, which forms part of the problem. I come here to write history, if history I consider relevant to our present circumstances. For all that I wear my politics on my sleeve, I did not set out to write a political blog. I don’t know how often I will keep this up, but here we are.

A white supremacist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will soon lead the Cabinet department responsible for, and founded for the express purpose of, defending the civil rights of African-Americans. People don’t have to take an example from the names their parents chose; this Jefferson could have done better. The brief era when people took the Justice Department’s mission seriously will come to a close just as it has before. We may all be long dead before such a time comes again, if it ever does.

History has no arc and it will not bend toward justice. People bend history. We made this world as we made all the others, with the choices that fill our days. We could unmake it too, if enough of us move in the right direction. That happens, sometimes. When the world tilts our way we call it justice. When it doesn’t, we have to explain it. We can tell ourselves that we just lost that one on a fluke, that something outside the system intervened, or the ill-starred moment just came and no one could do anything.

Everyone has stories. Jeff Sessions will tell you he stood up for civil rights. He will not tell you that he did so by prosecuting people who tried to register black voters. He will tell you that he doesn’t believe in racism, in segregation, that he opposes white supremacy in all its forms. He will not remind you that the Republican Senate found him too racist to give a job on the federal bench to back in in the Eighties. The Republican Senate of the two thousand tens will confirm him and congratulate themselves for all the work he will do ensuring black Americans find it harder and harder to vote. The other side bends history too; they win at least half the time.

Sessions will become Attorney General. We can’t stop it, but we don’t have to go quietly along. Sessions presently represents Alabama in the United States Senate, and by Alabama I must say that I mean the white Alabama of 2016, by way of 1965. White Alabamans knew what they wanted back then: black Americans should not vote, should not protest, should not do anything that made them look like citizens of the United States. They should instead remain, if not chattel, then as close to it as one could feasibly manage. Some whites disagreed with the racial order, even if it did put them on top, but they had a century to alter it and had not found the will or numbers to bend that arc of history.

When American citizens, allegedly as equal and good as your or I, marched to protest Alabama denying their right to vote, the Sheriff of Dallas County called out every white man in his jurisdiction and deputized them. One does this to answer an invading army or a revolution, which came that day in the form of nonviolent protesters walking down a public road. The police told them to stop and go home. They paused, prayed, and the police descended on them with teargas. Some, mounted, rode into the crowd with billy clubs.

We were beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody, some of us unconscious. Some of us had concussions. Some of us almost died on that bridge. But the Congress responded, President Lyndon Johnson responded, and the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and it was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

I don’t know how Jefferson Sessions, nineteen that year, spent that day; I suspect he spent it at university. John Lewis, twenty-five, stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, leading the protesters. Those are his words above. They fractured his skull. He remained with the protest and delivered a speech before seeking treatment. Since 1997, when Sessions claimed his Senate seat, both men have served in the United States Congress. No one needed to tell John Lewis where his old enemy had risen up again. This past week he testified against Sessions’ nomination:

I advise against reading the Youtube comments, Gentle Readers.

I hold to the school that we ought not make people into heroes, as we must revise and edit them past any hope of honesty to turn a person into perfection. For the same reasons, we should not name anyone the conscience of a nation. Everyone has faults, blind spots, contains contradictions. But if we conceive of the United States as a nation of justice and freedom, I don’t know many people living today who have done better at holding the country to those ideals and living them out, broken bones, bruised flesh, and all. If being a good American means the things we so often say it means, we must count Lewis one of the best.

Our questionably-coiffed president-elect, the man who got millions less votes in the election of 2016, must have had his TV on just then. He informed the world via Twitter

You understand the thought process, Gentle Readers. He saw a black man on his television. That must mean poverty and crime, because he has worked hard all his life to ensure just that. For Lewis to represent a large section of Atlanta, which seems to do well enough, would mean that Trump and all the others that update their wardrobe in the bedclothes aisle had failed. It would confront them with black Americans as capable, not merely of good leadership but of anything at all. They could not endure such a tragedy and so will go to heroic lengths to prevent it, like losing an election by more than two million votes and calling it a landslide. Or naming Jefferson Sessions Attorney General.

I have not studied Lewis’ career in Congress, but I don’t doubt he’s had his share of frustrations and disappointments. The latest probably began late on election night. But he’s gotten results too. The broken bones of he and his fellow protesters, coming to them through the television in fuzzy black and white, drove a profoundly white supremacist nation to briefly decide it could be something better. The Voting Rights Act, now teetering on the edge of oblivion, came out of it. That could not stand. Millions of white Americans would not tolerate any such thing and embarked on a decades-long campaign to restore Jim Crow and take it fully national. White supremacy won the White House, despite losing the vote, back in November just as it has previous Novembers when Richard Nixon promised “law and order” (break skulls) and Ronald Reagan declared for state’s rights (the right to murder civil rights activists without federal interference). We have come this way before. We shall again. Departures stand out because we see them so seldom.

Every time a storm hits Washington, you don’t have to go far to find photographs of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns. They come with injunctions to respect the steadfast commitment of these men and women to their duty. That, we believe, says something about us and the kind of nation we have. Maybe it does; I am no connoisseur of martial virtues. Fifty-seven years on, it seems we still stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge too. Now, just as then, both sides have a large cheering section as the teargas flies and bones break. That says more.

Jim Crow Comes to Michigan

Gentle Readers, the triumphant story of the Civil Rights Movement ends in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow died there, stabbed through the heart by Lyndon Johnson’s pen. Black Americans henceforth had protection against state governments that acted more as their jailers than their servants. Their laws did not say, in so many words, that no black person could cast a vote but the men who wrote them made sure it worked out that way. To grant the vote to subhumans would degrade actual people who, our most ancient creed holds, come exclusively in white skin. The Supreme Court has gotten at the law, cutting away many of its substantial protections. We must now believe that some states with a history of racial discrimination -a trait all fifty share- do not require special attention. As a result those same states have rushed to erect numerous obstructions to casting a vote, closing more than eight hundred polling places and writing laws against the phantom of voter impersonation fraud which they design to ensure black Americans don’t vote. The laws will not catch every black voter, of course, but they can swing close elections. Furthermore, their mere presence serves as a deterrent.

My state has had voter ID on the books since the Nineties. I disagreed with it then, on the grounds that the fraud it’s claimed to protect happens so rarely that these measures clearly constitute a solution looking for a problem. Even if someone went around to multiple polling places to cast votes under assumed names, complete with the correct addresses remembered on the spot and the person they posed as didn’t show up before or later and cast suspicion on the ballot by doing so, microscopic vote margins happen so rarely and unpredictably even in local races that they amount to statistical noise. An individual could cast no more than a handful of fake votes. As soon as you get enough people to really make a difference, things look more like territorial Kansas. Everybody who knows anything about elections already knows this.

But Michigan requires you to have identification so every time I go with my driver’s license in hand. I present it to one of my father’s old coworkers, a man who used to live less than a block from me. We know each other by sight. He passes it to his wife, who knows me just as well. They scan the license and compare my address and name with their records to discover, quelle surprise, I am who they thought I am. Then they mark my name off and hand me a ballot. The license adds no great security to the rest, but it does cost money and one has to go out and get a new one every now and then. If I lost my license or it was damaged and I could not get a new one before election day, I would have to swear an affidavit that I had the right to vote in my precinct and then proceed. More than eighteen thousand of my fellow Michigan residents did that this month. While not ideal, and clearly intended to deprive people of less means of their chance to vote, they state government hasn’t gotten all it paid for from this system. Black Michiganders still vote.

The Republicans who control the state government have had quite enough of that. The Party of Lincoln, founded in this state, has decided to throw in with Jefferson Davis and George Wallace. They insist that if you don’t have your ID, even if you have the right name and address and the risk of someone impersonating a voter is astronomically rare and unlikely to ever matter without being obvious to the dullest observer, you should have to cast a provisional ballot. They will cast it in the trash, only to rescue it if you provide your ID within ten days. In other words, if you have the misfortune of lacking an ID on election day you have less than two weeks to get fortunate enough, find out where and how you can prove your bona fides, and then get your vote counted long after the outcome has been announced.

Maybe people will do that, but the Michigan GOP hopes they will not. They have dug this law out of a drawer somewhere, in the lame duck session immediately after the election just as they did when they voted to eviscerate the right to unionize in our state. Now they rush to get it passed before opposition can mount. I suspect that, while their gerrymandering will keep them in control of the legislature, they worry about the governor’s race in 2018. Their incumbent poisoned thousands of black people, after all. Those people have families and friends who will vote, probably not for whoever they run for the top spot in the state.

This should remind us that Jim Crow disenfranchised black Americans by the millions because of their race, but also because of how they would vote. The Democratic party that erected the whole edifice knew full well that the freedpeople and their descendants would remember what party freed them and stood up for their rights. In much of the postwar South, if black men could vote then they would decide elections. In still more areas, they would have numbers enough to force white politicians to court their support or see it go to an opponent. We must remember segregation as a racial injustice, but we should not forget that racism doesn’t come down to pseudoscientific theories about superiority. Rather we invented white supremacy to justify an existing political and economic order against challenges to it. In suppressing the vote so they can keep winning elections, Republicans in Michigan and across the country have not departed from our most deadly creed; they have renewed it.