Archive for agosto 2014


The Civil War and the Southern Belle

In the beginning of the war, Southern women wanted their men to leave — in droves, and as quickly as possible. They were the Confederate Army’s most persuasive and effective recruitment officers, shaming anyone who shirked his duty to fight. A young English immigrant in Arkansas enlisted after being accosted at a recruitment meeting. “If every man did not hasten to battle, they vowed they would themselves rush out and meet the Yankee vandals,” he wrote of Southern women. “In a land where women are worshipped by men, such language made them war-mad.”

Newspapers printed gender-bending cartoons that drove the point home. In one, a musket-wielding woman dressed in trousers and a kepi looms over her cowering beau, insisting, “Either you or I, sir.” One Alabama schoolgirl spoke for many of her peers when she declared, “I would not marry a coward.” At balls and parties girls linked arms and sang, “I am Bound to be a Soldier’s Wife or Die an Old Maid.” One belle, upon hearing that her fiancé refused to enlist, sent her slave to deliver a package enclosing a note. The package contained a skirt and crinoline, and the note these terse words: “Wear these, or volunteer.” He volunteered.

A Winslow Homer drawing from 1865 showing a captain, who lost an arm, with his newly independent wife.

A Winslow Homer drawing from 1865 showing a captain, who lost an arm, with his newly independent wife.Credit Brooklyn Museum

In the sudden absence of husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus, white Southern women discovered a newfound freedom — one that simultaneously granted them more power in relationships and increased their likelihood of heartbreak. Gone were the traditions of antebellum courtships, where family connections and wealth were paramount and a closed circle of friends and neighbors scrutinized potential mates, a process that could last for years. The war’s disruptions forced elite Southern parents to loosen rules regarding chaperoning and coquetry, which one prominent lecturer called “an artful mixture of hypocrisy, fraud, treachery and falsehood” that risked tarnishing a girl’s reputation. The girls themselves relinquished the anticipation, instilled since birth, that they would one day assume their positions as wives, mothers and slave mistresses, that their lives would be steeped in every privilege and comfort. The war ultimately challenged not only long-held traditions of courtship and marriage, but the expectation that one might wed at all.

At least in cities where the Confederate Army established a base of operations, young women were overwhelmed by the number of prospective suitors. Thousands of men flocked to the Confederate capital of Richmond, prepared to work in one of the government departments or to train for duty in the Army. The Central Fair Grounds just west of the city were transformed into “Camp Lee,” where the new recruits set up tents and conducted military drills. “Between eight and ten thousand men went down Main St. this afternoon,” wrote a 16-year-old Richmond diarist. “It was very tantalizing to me to hear the drum and the cheering and to be able to see nothing but their bayonets and the tops of their heads. It is wicked in me to wish that I had gone out so that I might see them, and not to wish that I had gone to church, but I love the soldiers so much, that I forget almost everything else when I get to thinking about them.”

Troops marching through the capital blew kisses to the Richmond belles, who returned the attention with unprecedented abandon, waving handkerchiefs and tossing pocket Bibles and pincushions. In the antebellum years, new acquaintances required a formal letter of introduction, but the war allowed for association with complete strangers, men whose names they didn’t even know. The women took unchaperoned trips to Confederate campgrounds, going on horseback rides and picnics, allowing uniformed men to serenade them and plant lingering kisses on their hands — all activities once restricted to engaged couples. Even their style of banter changed, turning aggressive and overtly political, a rebellion against their old identities as genteel Southern ladies. “I confess myself a rebel, body and soul,” declared a Louisiana girl, adding, “Confess? I glory in it!” Union soldiers occupying Southern towns complained of “she-rebels” who spat at them and emptied the contents of chamber pots on their heads.

The relaxed wartime atmosphere led to increased physical intimacy, although in letters and diaries Southern women admitted only to flirting. Casual relationships, and even casual engagements — “slight, silly love affairs,” as one woman called them — flourished. Both women and men kept engagements secret, sometimes specifying that each was still free to see others. “Neither of us is to consider this engagement binding,” wrote a Georgia belle to her betrothed, a Confederate lieutenant. “If another is loved, no sense of honor will prevent our immediately letting the other know of it — so you are still at liberty to fall in love with whom you please, without considering me at all in the way.” One Georgia cavalryman predicted, “If we Stay heare much longer in about 9 months from now thare will be more little Gorgians [sic] a Squalling through this contry then you can Shake a Stick at.” Such liaisons could endanger elite women’s reputations and, in some cases, their lives. One Richmond woman, who became pregnant after an affair with a married Confederate officer, died as a result of complications from a self-induced abortion.

Southern women in rural areas grappled with entirely different concerns: the dearth of suitable men — or any men at all. By the summer of 1863, in New Bern, N. C., only 20 of the 250 white people remaining in town were men. The war was on its way to claiming one in five white Southern men of military age (leaving behind more than 70,000 widows), a situation that prompted frantic letters to the editor. “Having made up my mind not to be an old maid,” an 18-year-old Virginian wrote to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, “and having only a moderate fortune and less beauty, I fear I shall find it rather difficult to accomplish my wishes” (nevertheless she hopefully listed her skills, which included making brandy peaches and “throw[ing] socks in a corner”).

Widowed women in their 30s faced stiff competition for available men in their age group, and suffered constant reminders of their grim odds. The editor of the Petersburg (Va.) Daily Register took pity on older eligible women during the social season of 1864, helpfully warning them against using rouge. “Bachelors are a shy game,” he pointed out, “and when convinced of one deception imagine many more.” As if strategizing over how to thwart younger rivals wasn’t taxing enough, the widows were also national laughingstocks — punch lines to the endless “old maid” jokes that became a staple of American humor. If you were alive during the Civil War, chances are you heard the one about the schoolboy who threw a stone at a dog; he missed the pooch, but hit seven old maids.

As time passed and casualties mounted, some women grew resigned to the idea of life without a husband, while others compromised on acceptable partners. “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow,” one South Carolina woman mused. “Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace … seemed charming.” One in 13 soldiers returned home missing limbs, and the press, pulpit and politicians reminded Southern women that it was their patriotic duty to marry disabled veterans. The “limping soldier,” argued the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, should be treated as aristocracy after the war: “To the young ladies I would say when choosing between an empty sleeve and the man who had remained at home and grown rich, always take the empty sleeve.” There was, of course, a third option that some women took: the unspeakable faux pas of marrying a Yankee. A Nashville girl wrote her brother in the Confederate Army that the local belles were “dropping off into the arms of the ruthless invader.” One, a girl who carried a stiletto and threatened to emulate Charlotte Corday should the enemy invade her city, had “gone the way of all flesh and married an officer with that detestable eagle on his shoulder.”

Toward the end of the war, many Southern women who were widowed or had never married sustained themselves with female friendships (or “Boston marriages,” as they came to be called in the North). They proudly proclaimed their independence, asserting that they preferred the freedom of single life to the entanglements of marriage — a risky “lottery,” in the words of a Louisiana diarist, that subjected women to the “despotism of one man.” While they certainly mourned the deaths of male suitors — as they did the deaths of male relatives — they no longer considered spinsterhood a tragedy. “Clara … thinks we’ll all be old maids yet,” wrote a South Carolinian, recording a friend’s predictions. She added, “I don’t doubt it, neither do I care very much.”

By 1865, all Southern women — the happily and regrettably single, the perpetually engaged, the wives and widows — had tired of the war. The Confederacy was shrinking, and the morale of its remaining men shrinking with it. The Northern press ran a widely reprinted cartoon called “sowing” and “reaping,” chiding Southern women for “hounding their men on to Rebellion” and then complaining about its effects. The Union blockade had sent the cost of goods and food skyrocketing. They were starving; they feared the terrors of Yankee occupation; they had exhausted both their patriotism and their patience. “Oh my dear husband how shall I live without you?” wrote one Mississippi woman. “When will this cruel war end?” It was time, at last, for the surviving husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus to lay down their arms and come home.

Karen Abbott’s forthcoming book, “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War,” will be published in September. Her website is http://www.karenabbott.net.

SOURCES: Catherine Clinton, “Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South”; Lisa Tendrich Frank, “Women in the American Civil War”; Giselle Roberts, “The Confederate Belle”; Anya Jabour, “Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South”; David Andrew Silkenat, “Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War era North Carolina” (dissertation); Lacy K. Ford, “A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction”; Mary Elizabeth Massey, “Women in the Civil War”; Richard F. Selcer, “Civil War America, 1850-1875”; A. Wilson Greene, “Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War”; William C. David and Russ A. Pritchard, “Fighting Men of the Civil War”; Stephen W. Berry, “All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South” and “Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges”; Amy Murrell Taylor, “The Divided Family in Civil War America”; J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns.”

Read Full Post »

Read Full Post »

The Two Legacies of Richard Nixon that Shaped the Modern Republican Party

HNN    August 17, 2014


The fortieth anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency last week passed without much attention to the question of the former president’s historical significance and his role in the history of the modern Republican party. Twenty years after his death, it is apparent that Nixon shaped the political world in which we now live, and the last fifty years of the twentieth century are properly seen as The Age of Nixon. In race relations and the fundamental beliefs of the modern Republican party, Nixon was a more consequential historical figure than Ronald Reagan.

In the 1950s, Nixon was sympathetic to African-American aspirations and was someone who impressed Martin Luther King with his understanding of the civil rights impulse. The 1960 election changed all that as black voters helped put John Kennedy in the White House. Convinced that the election had been stolen from him, Nixon said of African-American support of Democrats, “it’s a bought vote and it isn’t bought by civil rights.” From there, even though his administration enforced civil rights laws, it was a short step to the Southern Strategy that turned the states of the Confederacy from Democratic to Republican over the next three decades.  Nixon, through aides like Pat Buchanan, reinforced the Republican commitment to white voters that underpins so much of the Republican opposition to President Obama.

As Nixon told a friend after the 1960 election, “we won, but they stole it from us.”  Contrary to the portrait of patriotic self-denial and deference to the election of John F. Kennedy that Nixon later proffered, he and the Republicans were quite prepared to contest Kennedy’s success until they knew there was no case that would withstand scrutiny. Yet the lesson that Nixon took away from 1960 was not that politics was like war, in which victory justifies all.

In that insight lay the roots of Watergate. Presidents could not, in Nixon’s mind commit illegal acts. Faced with a Democratic Party whose tactics impaired its dubious legitimacy, the Republicans should stop at nothing to achieve and maintain power. Entering the White House in January 1969, Nixon saw himself surrounded by enemies bent on his political annihilation. It was only right in such a dangerous political environment to meet fire with fire, criminality with criminality, dirty tricks with similar tactics.

The Watergate generation saw in Nixon’s methods violations of the Constitution that led to his resignation. But in time the assumption grew among Republicans that Nixon had been right all along. Nixon might believe that Democrats had more fun than Republicans did, and for a time he toyed with the idea of a new political party. In that he emulated Dwight D. Eisenhower and Modern Republicanism. Yet in his heart of hearts Nixon believed that the Democrats were the Other in American politics, a criminal enterprise that abused the rules of partisan behavior for selfish ends. They did not deserve fair play, which was only for suckers in public life.

The lesson stuck. Watergate had not been a moment of constitutional truth. Impeachment was a tactic that Republicans could deploy, first against Bill Clinton, and now against President Obama. Nixon taught that only Republicans had a true commitment to American values and therefore the only viable and defensive claim on fundamental legitimacy in American life. In the universe of Richard Nixon, only the winning side had the luxury of moral values. Commitment to democratic practices was only a sham that the true political sophisticates adhered to only at their peril. His disciples abound. They restrict voting of minorities, they filibuster everything, they gerrymander with abandon, they deny medical care even though people die as a result.

Nixon famously invoked a sign he had seen while campaigning, “Bring us together,” it read. It made for good rhetoric, but in his career he was the architect of two policies that are still tearing the country apart. His belief that politics is actually war demands perpetual battle with unconditional surrender as the only sensible goal at hand, whereas his fealty to the southern strategy, which dictates the exclusion of fast-growing minorities, questions the very survivability of his own party. These are the dilemmas that the United States now contemplates as it ponders the legacy of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Lewis L. Gould, visiting distinguished professor at Monmouth College, is the author of «The Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party,» which the Oxford University Press will publish next month.

Read Full Post »

This Was One of the Little-Recognized Causes of the Civil War 

HNN  August 17, 2014

I remember reading many years ago W. E. B. Du Bois’s complaint that Americans knew far too little of the decisive role blacks played in winning their freedom.  He pointed specifically to a biography of Ulysses S. Grant in which the author, W. E. Woodward, wrote of African Americans as “the only people in the history of the world . . . that ever became free without any effort of their own. . . . They twanged banjos around the railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would soon come along and give each of them forty acres of land and a mule.”  I was in graduate school at the time and congratulated myself on knowing better – that blacks had served in the Union army.  But that was about all I knew of it. As the proud holder of a college degree in history, I thought that was just about all I needed to know.  There are none so ignorant as the educated ignorant.

Some historians still downplay the wider role of blacks in bringing on freedom, preferring to emphasize Abraham Lincoln’s role as the Great Emancipator.  Historian James McPherson, a leading defender of Lincoln’s Great Emancipator image, argues in Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (1996) that without Lincoln there would have been no war and, hence, no opportunity for freedom. With regard to emancipation, it was Lincoln’s determination that was “the essential condition, the one thing without which it would not have happened.” Without Lincoln, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation and no Thirteenth Amendment. Therefore, says McPherson, “Lincoln freed the slaves.”

Arguments such as those of McPherson and others have some validity as far as they go. To my knowledge, no reputable scholar denies that Lincoln and the Union military played a significant part in the emancipation process. But following their lines of reasoning more deeply, we cannot help but see the efforts of black folk at their core.

Lincoln’s effort to preserve the Union was, of course, a reaction to the South’s secession, a movement engineered by slaveholders who feared not only Lincoln but, more immediately, their own slaves. Controlling slaves had been increasingly difficult for years. It could only be more difficult, perhaps impossible, with slaves believing that Lincoln’s election meant their freedom. How could they believe otherwise? Though Lincoln was no threat to slavery where it existed, and said so often during the 1860 presidential campaign, fire-eating secessionists railed against him as a radical abolitionist with a secret agenda to foment slave rebellion. Such overheated rhetoric was intended to stir up support for secession among southern whites, but southern blacks heard the message too. Rebellion and rumors of rebellion pervaded the South that year and drove slaveholder fears to a fever pitch. Most significantly, underlying their fear was the certain knowledge that slaves wanted freedom. It was that fear, born of generations of slave resistance, that led to secession, war, and slavery’s downfall.

Slaveholders’ doubts about their ability to maintain slavery indefinitely had a long history. The need to justify slavery had for decades occupied their brightest minds. The need to keep southern whites, three-quarters of whom owned no slaves, supporting slavery made fomenting fear of blacks a political priority.  Most threatening to slaveholders were the slaves themselves. Blacks had never submitted to slavery willingly or completely. They did little more than they had to do and took liberties where they could. They resisted in so many ways that the slaveholders’ need to exercise control was constant and consuming.  Had blacks been content to remain enslaved, slaveholders would have had no cause for alarm. Nor would abolitionist arguments have inspired such panic among them. As it was, slaveholder fears of threats to slavery, as much from within as from without, led them to insist on guarantees for slavery’s future and the means to control that future. And that fear led them to secede when those guarantees and their means of control seemed at risk. As Professor John Ashworth reminds us inSlavery, Capitalism and Politics in the Antebellum Republic (1995), there was a direct causal link between the slaves’ desire for freedom and slaveholder politics. “Behind every event in the history of the sectional controversy,” Ashworth points out, “lurked the consequences of black resistance to slavery.”

That resistance was not confined to the South. Escaping slaves saw to that. By the tens of thousands they headed north, undermining northern efforts to keep the slave’s war south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In so doing, as Professor Scott Hancock stresses in “Crossing Freedom’s Fault Line” (Civil War History, 2013), black folk “maintained an unrelenting pressure on the sectional fault lines of identity, law, and space.” That pressure produced large cracks in those fault lines and increasingly drew northerners into the conflict. Time and again, northern failures to keep blacks and slavery locked in the South put them at odds with slaveholders’ expansionist demands. Hancock concludes, and rightly so, that “not simply slavery, but slaves – black people! – caused the Civil War.”

It was, then, at the heart of it all, the unrelenting resistance to slavery among slaves themselves that was the essential condition, the one thing without which the sectional crisis, secession, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment would not have happened.

Of course, it did not happen overnight. For more than two centuries before the Civil War, millions of African Americans lived in bondage all their lives. But it was a resisted bondage, an ongoing struggle, that would eventually reach its consummation. The internal pressures against slavery – rebellion, resistance, escape – were always there and became ever greater as slavery spread. Slaveholders clamped down with more slave codes, more slave patrols, and increasingly brutal control. But the more they tried to tighten their grip on slaves, the more slaves slipped through their fingers. By the late 1850s there were an estimated fifty thousand escapees annually, temporary and permanent. Such resistance fueled a desperation reflected in slaveholder politics and the secession crisis. The resulting war was neither an isolated event nor an end point in itself.  It was part of a massive black resistance movement that had been going on for generations, finally becoming so intense that the country as a whole could hardly help being drawn into it.

Even so, in an effort to avoid war, Congress passed, and Lincoln supported, a constitutional amendment, the Corwin Amendment, that would have guaranteed slavery in the slave states forever.  In the war’s early months, both Congress and Lincoln insisted that the conflict was a white man’s war in which blacks could have no part. But black folk knew the war was theirs and quickly took ownership of it.  Black resistance largely brought on the war, then pressed Lincoln in the direction he eventually went.  By escaping in the tens of thousands and making freedom a fact, blacks forced Lincoln to recognize that fact with the Emancipation Proclamation. They made the document their own, and made it much more that it was.  In the upper South, where the Proclamation did not apply, blacks claimed freedom anyway.  In the lower South, they made freedom real by aiding escaping slaves, serving the Union army as guides and spies, assisting Confederate deserters and armed deserter gangs, giving aid to escaping Union prisoners, resisting abuse, and engaging in open rebellion.  They established freedom for themselves by traveling at will, threatening escape to secure wages, and even claiming land and property when they could.  Still, most Americans today seem to assume that Lincoln, almost single-handedly and of his own volition, “freed the slaves.”  Certainly most students coming into my freshman U.S. history course assume that to be the case, which is in large part what prompted me to write my book, I Freed Myself.

In the war’s aftermath, although whites willfully ignored the wartime role of blacks, memories of self-emancipation efforts remained clear in the minds of black folk.  One day a candidate for local office in Illinois asked Duncan Winslow, a former slave and Union veteran, for his vote in an upcoming election. As if to seal the deal, the candidate told Winslow, “Don’t forget. We freed you people.” In response, Winslow raised his wounded arm and said, “See this? Looks to me like I freed myself.”  Blacks would go on freeing themselves for generations to come.

David Williams is a professor of history at Valdosta State University and the author of the, “I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Read Full Post »

Read Full Post »

Long Echoes of War and Speech

Woodrow Wilson, World War I and American Idealism

The New York Times    August 13, 2014
President Woodrow Wilson announced to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, that a new age had begun. Credit Associated Press

President Woodrow Wilson announced to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, that a new age had begun. Credit Associated Press

Woodrow Wilson is almost never quoted by name when modern presidents speak, but he remains audible all the same, particularly in the echoes that still reverberate a hundred years after the Great War.

In late May, President Obama spoke at West Point, where he defined America’s place in the world much as Wilson might have — propping up the international order, defending human rights, and walking eternally down the path of virtue. George W. Bush, so different in so many ways, also radiated Wilsonian idealism, even as he claimed to be an un-Wilsonian realist. His second Inaugural Address, drawn straight from the Wilson playbook, declared “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That remains a work in progress.

Wilson did not speak this way when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. At first, he barely mentioned the diplomatic catastrophe unleashed by the assassinations at Sarajevo. On July 27, the day before Austria declared war on Serbia, he gave a press conference, and said meekly, “The United States has never attempted to interfere in European affairs.” Wilson’s silence coincided with a personal crisis of his own. His wife Ellen lay dying that summer, and when one of his daughters asked him about the growing chance of war, he said simply, “I can think of nothing — nothing, when my dear one is suffering.” She expired on Aug. 6, as the war began.

But his silence also reflected astonishment that war was breaking out, against all expectations, in an era that had at least as many clichés about globalization as our own. And it stemmed from an old presidential tradition, soon to be shattered, of avoiding grandiose statements about human betterment. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, specifically urged Americans to steer clear of foreign conflicts. The Monroe Doctrine proposed noninterference by Americans in Europe, as well as the opposite. Theodore Roosevelt advocated for silence as well — his famous adage to speak softly and carry a big stick — even if he did not always achieve it.

Wilson showed no signs of breaking from this tradition, at first. After Sarajevo, he gave a Fourth of July address that never even mentioned the killings a week earlier. Americans seemed to approve. In 1916, “He Kept Us Out of War” was a popular slogan that helped Wilson to eke out victory over his Republican rival, Charles Evans Hughes.

But Wilson’s silence would eventually give way to a different voice, the one that we remember him for. In the spring of 1917, after three horrific years, the world had changed greatly, and so had he. As he brought the United States to the precipice of war, he began to speak in a way that has defined the American presidency ever since. It was not merely that the United States would enter a European theater for the first time, in huge numbers. Wilson also asked that Americans fight to make the world “safe for democracy.” In a sense, he asked the United States to become the world’s judge as well as its sheriff, with an evangelical optimism that has brought both inspiration and exasperation to the 96 percent of the world that is not American.

Earlier presidents had expressed some of these aspirations: Thomas Jefferson proclaimed America the “world’s best hope” in his first inaugural, and Lincoln had often expressed himself likewise, in a language of aspiration. But these remarks expressed only a forlorn wish. They never formed a policy aim, and they fell far short of calling for intervention in Europe, where violations of human rights were as easy to find as the next hillside.

By 1917, Wilson was ready to take that step. He was hardly a natural interventionist. But the war was increasingly affecting American noncombatants, and insulting human rights on an epic scale, with mounting civilian casualties, chemical weapons, and the targeting of neutral vessels.

Accordingly, in the spring of 1917, Wilson began to deliver a stream of public statements that broke his earlier silence, and defined war not so much as a military exercise as an attempt to set the world right. Suddenly, a new language of human rights was being delivered by a president, from something like a pulpit, backed for the first time with the full might of American power.

On Feb. 26, he asked Congress to declare “armed neutrality,” a precursor to war, to defend the world’s “fundamental human rights.” His second inaugural, on March 5, promised to fight for “the principles of a liberated mankind.” In his war message of April 2, Wilson announced that a new age had begun, in which Americans would make the world safe, not only for democracy, but a broad catalog of rights that included freedom of the seas, the independence of small nations, and the right of all nations to unite, to “make the world itself at last free.”

That was a tall order. But since then, we have never stopped marching toward a goal that remains a bit otherworldly. Wilson was an effective messenger in 1917, drawing on his Presbyterianism, his grasp of American history, and his childhood memory of growing up in a region that had recently been occupied by an invading army (inconveniently, that of the United States). In this sense, Wilson’s language of self-determination might be understood as a final legacy of the Civil War.

The language of 1917 proved durable. Without doubt, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s messages during World War II were improved by his articulation of the core freedoms Americans were fighting for. The better speeches of the Cold War — John F. Kennedy’s in particular — conveyed a vivid sense of what American values meant to the world. Yet a tone of high moral dudgeon could also weaken a presidential speech, when it proved ineffective, or untethered to economic reality, or borderline delusional — Lyndon Johnson’s insistence that democracy was coming soon to Vietnam, or George W. Bush’s similar predictions for Iraq.

It has become fashionable to criticize Wilson for naïveté as well as self-righteousness. Evangelical statements require some suspension of disbelief, but ultimately, as he learned the hard way, soaring aspirations have a way of crashing back to earth. American forces did join the battle in 1917, and they tipped the balance, giving thrust to Wilson’s promises. But democracy, that catch-all term, proved difficult when he returned home from his European peacemaking efforts in 1919 and tried to enlist a skeptical Congress behind his vision of an improved world order.

At the same time, the words linger, expressive of something elusive that presidents still seek to articulate. As it turned out, a prophecy he made in his Fourth of July speech in 1914 was self-fulfilling: “The most patriotic man, ladies and gentlemen, is sometimes the man who goes in the direction that he thinks right even when he sees half the world against him.” A century later, that is often what American foreign policy feels like, as we reel from one undemocratic place to another, hoping to limit the carnage. To aspire to the best in Wilson’s oratory, while guarding against the worst, feels like a reliable course for a nation still finding its way in a world that has yet to be made safe for anything.

Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University. He recently edited “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy.”

Read Full Post »

Why Pardoning Nixon Wasn’t Good for America

HNN  August 8, 2014

This excerpt was adapted from the foreword to Smoking Gun, The Nation on Watergate, 1952 – 2010 (eBookNation, August 4, 2014), written by former US Representative Elizabeth Holtzman. The former Congresswoman served on the House Judiciary Committee and voted to impeach Nixon; you can download the new e-book, a unique real-time history from the pages of The Nation magazine on the rise and fall of Richard Nixon — and the consequences for American democracy — to read instantly on your tablet, e-reader, smartphone or computer. It is also available as a paperback (coming October 2014).


If Watergate is a story of accountability, President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon is a story of presidential immunity. Here The Nation was especially spot-on, comprehending the sinister significance of the pardon right from the start.

Issued before any prosecution of Nixon had commenced, and without any acknowledgment of guilt on Nixon’s part, Ford’s pardon created a dual system of justice—one for ordinary Americans and another for the President. (Ford’s excuse that Nixon had “suffered enough” could have been applied, of course, to any person whose criminal activities had been exposed.) Unlike its persistence in tackling Watergate, Congress backed away from any serious investigation of the pardon. We will thus probably never know whether Nixon and his lieutenant Ford made a secret deal over the pardon—-in which Nixon would resign promptly and Ford would pardon him, not only shielding the President from prosecution, but limiting the Republican Party’s electoral losses at the polls in November.

Sadly, Watergate did not deter other Presidents from abusing their power. From Ronald Reagan and the Iran/Contra scandal to the present, Presidents have used the mantra of national security to ignore the Constitution. Worse, Ford’s pardon has grown into a principle of impunity for Presidents. It is not simply that Presidents are now viewed as safe from prosecution; they cannot even be investigated. No investigation has examined the presidential deceptions that drove us into the Iraq War, or the presidential authorizations of warrantless wiretapping in violation of law, or the possible criminal liability of former President George W. Bush and other top administration officials for violating laws on torture. Neither Congress nor the courts have taken the Watergate example to heart and stood firmly against presidential crimes or serious misconduct. Instead of remembering that Nixon cynically invoked “national security” to conceal ordinary crimes having nothing to do with the country’s welfare, they cower at the term, allowing Presidents to broaden their powers enormously.

Lack of government accountability runs directly contrary to the Constitution. The framers understood the threat that a strong executive would pose to our democracy; they knew because they had themselves overthrown a king and were careful students of history. To preserve our democracy, we need to rediscover the meaning of presidential accountability. One good way to start is to understand what went right—and wrong—in Watergate. For that effort, this volume of The Nation’s coverage of the subject is a useful resource.

Read Full Post »

Did Mexico Reshape the American Civil Rights Movement? –

HNN  August 10, 2014


It was a moment that schoolteacher Primitivo Alvarez never forgot. In the state of Tlaxcala, 50 miles and a massive volcano to the east of Mexico City, American philosopher John Dewey cautioned his hosts from the Mexican federal government not to copy the institutional models that others had constructed. It was 1926, and Dewey was surveying the work of his Mexican students in Mexico’s rural provinces and delivering a series of lectures in Mexico City that would shortly be published by the New Republic“Dewey wanted the rural schoolteachers of Mexico to remember the urgency and necessity of avoiding imitation, even if the model originated in the advanced countries, because each nation organizes its own system of education in accordance with its unique history, tradition, racial past, and economic and social institutions,” wrote Alvarez. Everyone knew which models were not to be copied. During the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, Catholicism and social Darwinism had been allowed to harden into an ideology of hierarchy that younger intellectuals were now replacing. Dewey was a perfect fit for the new institutions of postrevolutionary Mexico, Alvarez and others believed. New ideas and new models, porous to change and experimentation, would destroy the make-believe world of poverty and violence that Mexico’s Porfirian leaders had created.

As he looked back on his monumental study of the New Deal, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. celebrated the ideas of John Dewey’s pragmatism for the influence they had wrought on FDR’s politics in the aftermath of the Great Depression. “A thoroughgoing philosophy of experience, framed in the light of science and technology, could produce an organized social intelligence,” wrote Schlesinger, Jr. in The Age of Roosevelt. “And the organized social intelligence, Dewey believed, could direct the processes of social change into a rational and beatific future.” Schlesinger, Jr. was not alone in underscoring the importance of Dewey’s pragmatism in the creation of the modern liberal order. Henry May argued that pragmatism had helped usher in the bundle of ideas that separated the twentieth century from the nineteenth, a rupture that he referred to as “the end of American innocence.” Alfred Kazin had included pragmatism and social science as part of the revolution that had produced modernist literature, meanwhile. And one could see Dewey’s relationship to modern education in Lawrence Cremin’s classic studies from the 1950s and 60s.

What is surprising given Dewey’s formidable role in American culture and later historiographical return in the work of contemporary scholars like Robert Westbrook and Richard Bernstein has been the absence of attention to Dewey’s influence in Mexico at the same time that the New Deal was being formulated in the U.S. During the period of rich policy experimentation between 1920 and 1940 that followed the devastating Mexican Revolution, John Dewey’s Mexican students hitched pragmatism to state policy in Mexico in the effort to destroy the institutions of the Porfirian political order and rebuild the postrevolutionary nation anew. In newly-established public schools, they used pragmatism to integrate Mexico’s ethnic groups into a single community of citizens. In scientific institutes centered in Mexico City, they used the scientific ethos to experiment with applied psychology, anthropology, and sociology. In rural states to the west and south of Mexico City, they attempted to balance the relationship between theory and practice that Dewey believed was central to social philosophy. Just as in Henry May’s portrait of pragmatism, Dewey’s ideas in Mexico helped separate the social determinisms of 19th-century Mexico from the modernist ethics that Mexico’s revolutionaries created after 1920.

The efforts in Mexico to achieve the progressive society that Dewey once referred to as the “great community” were filled with institutional difficulty and philosophical peril. The greatest of the Mexican pragmatists, Columbia University-trained Moisés Sáenz, once chastised a group of Americans for their complacent understanding of a complex society whose civil war had just finished killing one million of its own people. “Our emotions occlude our vision; we become confused by the complexity of experience; our accomplishments contradict each other at every turn; they seem to put the most obvious and the most profound into war with one another,” he told his audience. A decade later, Sáenz created a vibrant metaphor for the attempt to blend theory with practice that John Dewey’s pragmatism had made central to modern social critique. “We are walking on the edge of a knife,” he wrote. “We must choose between excessive empiricism and excessive speculation.” Precarious government financing, ongoing local rebellions, and threats to the national territory always made pragmatist attempts at reform a difficult enterprise fraught with the possibilities of failure and slow incremental advance at most.

Yet for Americans who were trying to understand how state power could be used to alleviate economic conflict and to create new relationships among culturally distinct communities, Mexico’s postrevolutionary experiments represented a rich set of policy models that they imported into the United States as they sought to transform public government and public schools in the American West. In rural Tlaxcala in the 1930s, for example, teacher training academies provided these Americans with new ideas about how government could work with local communities to create new schools. Science institutes established by the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City by 1930 provided them examples of the role of social scientists in government bureaucracy. And in Morelos, laboratory schools showed them how daily work patterns could be integrated into language-instruction models.

The anthropologists, psychologists, and educational philosophers who studied Mexico’s pragmatist experiments in the 1930s carried Mexico’s lessons into the 1940s desegregation movement in Texas, California, and Arizona as they sought to refashion America’s racial hierarchy. For Ralph L. Beals, Montana Hastings, George I. Sanchez, and Edwin Embree, Mexico’s policy work represented a bridge between state-led reform efforts abroad and political change at home. Daniel T. Rodgers has argued in Atlantic Crossings that progressive policy work in Europe and the United States was never free from misunderstanding and misreading. Yet such mistranslations did not prevent Americans from learning social policy from government models abroad, he argued. In a similar fashion, Mexico’s social reform experiments became discrete policy antecedents for these American racial liberals that have not been accounted for by scholars of pragmatism, the federal state, and US-Mexico relations. Government reform and civil rights in the American West were not uniquely domestic phenomena, the career of Mexican pragmatism shows us, but offshoots of policy reform and nationalism in Mexico in the two decades that followed the Mexican Revolution. School desegregationist George I. Sanchez agreed. “Nothing has affected my thinking and my feelings more than Mexico’s experience – redemption by armed Revolution, then Peace by Revolution,” he wrote in 1966 as he looked back on his career. “This latter revolution still goes on, and I associate myself with it vicariously – from afar, and from close-up examination there as often as I can.”

Mexico’s policy influence over the United States reverses the way that scholars understand the US-Mexico relationship. We typically think of the United States as a hegemonic nation whose power shapes the nations of Latin America along a north to south trajectory. But the example of Mexico during the 1930s and 40s shows us that Mexican government policy influenced American politics as much as American power influenced the history of Mexico. Thus, while Americans tend to think of Mexico as a country of “chaos” – a word that has been perennially repeated in accounts of Mexican history from 1920 to the present day – Mexican policy change has been important to the United States in ways that Americans have not imagined. Pragmatism in Mexico helped to reshape the moral character of American nationalism and democracy, and at the level of institutional practice rather than in theory alone, during a moment of heavy social change in American history. That John Dewey’s influence was part of that process only underscores the centrality of his ideas to social change abroad as much as in the United States.

Ruben Flores is an intellectual and cultural historian from El Paso, Texas who studied at Princeton and Berkeley before coming to the University of Kansas. Flores is the Undergraduate Director for the Department of American Studies and Associate Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Read Full Post »

Liberals Need to Take Back the Idea of American Exceptionalism

HNN  August 10, 2014

Related Link  American Exceptionalism Watch (Ben Alpers)

The Wisconsin Public Radio/National Public Radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge regularly asks writers if they have a “Dangerous Idea” that they would like to talk about (unscripted). My Dangerous Idea was American exceptionalism.

I did not speak on the dangers of the right-wing rendition of American exceptionalism, but rather on the original idea of American exceptionalism, which is dangerous because it demands progressive action and struggle to realize. I spoke for several minutes. The producers then edited it down to three minutes. You can listen to my argument here. The following text is a slightly edited version of what I had to say:

American exceptionalism sounds like a very conservative idea, right?

But you know what? For more than 200 years, American exceptionalism was a radical idea. It was an idea of liberals and progressives. It was an idea that didn’t say “we are superior” – that we have all the answers. No, it was an idea about what America could be, should be and, if we act on it, would be.

Think back to the words of someone like Thomas Paine – “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” – and to his call for the creation of an unprecedented democratic republic. Think about the Founders and the writing of the U.S. Constitution. We hear about the Constitution’s conservatism. And yet those first words, “We the People.” Those are radical words. Those kinds of words provided American life with democratic imperative. They embedded a democratic impulse in American life.

You know, there’s a democratic spirit inside almost all Americans. The democratic idea of American exceptionalism insisted that We the People can govern – that we don’t need kings and aristocrats – that we can govern ourselves. And that we can govern ourselves not only politically, but also that we can govern ourselves economically and culturally.

And then think about the generations of Americans empowered by that argument, that vision, that promise: the Freethinkers, the Abolitionists, the women’s rights advocates, the labor unionists, the civil rights campaigners. Those folks believed in American exceptionalism and they used that belief – which they knew they shared with their fellow citizens – to challenge their fellow citizens to make America freer, more equal and more democratic.

That idea of American exceptionalism didn’t see American progress as natural or inevitable, but it was compelling. That idea of American exceptionalism empowered generations to make America better – to recognize that we were a grand experiment in democracy, and the only way you can carry out an experiment is to test its limits.

Now, something obviously went wrong. Today, when you hear the argument about American exceptionalism, it’s almost always a conservative argument – you know, it’s not about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but about life, liberty and the pursuit of property – that is, protect property, limit government. It’s not about democracy; it’s about individualism.

But even sadder than that – because we’ve always heard conservatives argue that kind of thing – is that, at best, we are told we have to defend what exists, not advance what exists.

But of course, the saddest thing is that liberals and progressives seem embarrassed by the idea of American exceptionalism, because they have somehow allowed themselves [we have somehow allowed ourselves] to believe that an argument for American exceptionalism is an argument for American superiority, an argument that claims “we have all the answers.’’

We need to remember that American exceptionalism [as Thomas Paine, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Eugene Debs, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King saw it] is a challenge to enhance freedom, equality and democracy. Indeed, the danger is that if we forget that dangerous idea, we will cease to be Americans.

So, we progressives should redeem it.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the new book “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye. This article was first published on Our Future.

Read Full Post »

Hiroshima: What People Think Now

HNN  August 8, 2010

Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the A-Bomb Dome. The atomic bomb which destroyed Hiroshima detonated almost precisely above the building. Credit: Wikipedia

Related Links


Commentary: Historians

Commentary: Media


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

A %d blogueros les gusta esto: