History

Thaddeus Stevens: Film Portrayals

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 “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before his Creator.

Inscription on the Tombstone of Thaddeus Stevens

As regular readers of this blog know, I greatly enjoyed the film Lincoln and praised it for its overall historical accuracy.  Go here to read my review.  One of the many aspects of the film that I appreciated was Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens (R.Pa.), a radical Republican who rose from poverty to become the leader of the abolitionists in the House, and one of the most powerful men in the country from 1861 to his death in 1868.  There haven’t been many screen portrayals of Stevens, but they illustrate how perceptions of Stevens have shifted based upon perceptions of Reconstruction and civil rights for blacks.

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The above is an excellent video on the subject.

The 1915 film Birth of a Nation, has a barely concealed portrayal of Stevens under the name of Congressman Austin Stoneman, the white mentor of mulatto Silas Lynch, the villain of the film, who makes himself virtual dictator of South Carolina until he is toppled by heroic Klansmen.  The film was in line with the Lost Cause mythology that portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic crime that imposed governments made up of ignorant blacks and scheming Yankee carpetbaggers upon the South.  This was the predominant view of scholarly opinion at the time.  The film was attacked by both the NAACP and the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, as being untrue to history, a glorification of mob violence and racist.

By 1942 when the film Tennessee Johnson was made, we see a substantial shift in the portrayal of Stevens.  Played by veteran actor Lionel Barrymore, best know today for his portrayal of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stevens is portrayed as a fanatic out to punish the South and fearful that the too lenient, in his view, treatment of the South in Reconstruction will lead to a new Civil War.  This leads up to the climax of the film, the trial in the Senate of Johnson, with Stevens as the leader of the House delegation prosecuting Johnson, with Johnson staying in office by one vote.  The portrayal of Stevens is not one-dimensional.  Stevens is shown as basically a good, if curmudgeonly, man, consumed by fears of a new Civil War and wishing to help the newly emancipated slaves, albeit wrong in his desire to punish the South.  Like Birth of a Nation, Tennessee Johnson reflected the scholarly consensus of the day which still painted Reconstruction in a negative light, although not as negative as in  1915.  Additionally,  the issue of contemporary civil rights for blacks was beginning to emerge outside of the black community as an issue, and Stevens in the film is not attacked on his insistence for civil rights for blacks. Continue reading

History and Legend

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Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

History tells us that George Washington as a boy did not cut down a cherry tree and, while telling his father about it, assure him that he could not tell a lie.  Saint Francis of Assisi almost certainly did not convert a wolf from his thieving ways and teach him to beg humbly for his  food like a good Franciscan.  Robin Hood did not help King Richard the Lionheart regain his throne from his brother John Lackland.  We know almost nothing about King Arthur and what we think we know about him is certainly almost entirely legend. Continue reading

Bastille Day and the Transformative Power of History

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Something for the weekend.   The La Marseillaise scene from Casablanca.  Today is Bastille Day, the great national holiday in France, the equivalent our Independence Day.  In France it is known as La Fête Nationale, the National Celebration, or Le quatorze juillet, the fourteenth of July, rather like Independence Day is often known here as the fourth of July.  There the similarities end.  Although almost all Americans look back at the American Revolution with pride, many of us dedicated to the great truths embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution is looked upon much more ambiguously in France.

Bastille Day recalls an event July 14, 1789 in which the mob of Paris, joined by mutinous French troops, stormed the Bastille, a fortress-prison in Paris which had in the past held political prisoners.  The Bastille fell to the mob after a fight in which some ninety-eight attackers and one defender were killed.  After the fighting, in an ominous sign of what was to come in the French Revolution, the mob massacred the governor of the prison and seven of the defenders.  The Bastille held a grand total of seven inmates at the time of its fall, none of political significance.

So began the Revolution which promised Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in theory and delivered in practice, Tyranny, Wars and Death, with France embarked on a witches’ dance of folly which would end at Waterloo, after almost a quarter of a century of war which would leave Europe drenched in blood.  Edmund Burke at the beginning of this madness, in 1790, saw clearly where all this would lead:

Jefferson’s Jesus

In my previous post I may have given the impression that I was simply doing what I accused David Barton of doing, namely, cherrypicking quotes from Thomas Jefferson in order to paint him how I wished. So here are a few more selections from the Jefferson oeuvre that should put to rest any notions that Jefferson was in any way an orthodox Christian. Continue reading

The Crusades and Historical Ignorance

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The above video is a salute to Rick Santorum, former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, for understanding the essential nature of the Crusades as a defensive reaction to Islamic aggression.  In the video below we have a rather mindless reaction to the same quote from a talking head from the liberal group Young Turks, who, judging from his comments, gained his knowledge of the Crusades from the laughably ahistorical crusader bashing flick Kingdom of Heaven (2005).

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Ignorance of the depth displayed in the video above is always to be lamented, and is not unusual, as noted by Dr. Thomas Madden, one of the foremost of the scholars of the Crusades, who, over the past 40 years, have revolutionized our knowledge and understanding of that epoch:

 

The crusades are quite possibly the most misunderstood event in European history. Ask a random American about them and you are likely to see a face wrinkle in disgust, or just the blank stare that is usually evoked by events older than six weeks. After all, weren’t the crusaders just a bunch of religious nuts carrying fire and sword to the land of the Prince of Peace? Weren’t they cynical imperialists seeking to carve out colonies for themselves in faraway lands with the blessings of the Catholic Church? A couch potato watching the BBC/A&E documentary on the crusades (hosted by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame no less) would learn in roughly four hours of frivolous tsk-tsk-ing that the peaceful Muslim world actually learned to be warlike from the barbaric western crusaders. No wonder, then, that Pope John Paul II was excoriated for his refusal to apologize for the crusades in 1999. No wonder that a year ago Wheaton College in Illinois dropped their Crusader mascot of 70 years. No wonder that hundreds of Americans and Europeans recently marched across Europe and the Middle East begging forgiveness for the crusades from any Muslim or Jew who would listen. No wonder.

Jonah Goldberg, in his just released book Tyranny of Cliches, demonstrates that he is aware of the current scholarship on the Crusades:

The great irony is that the zealot-reformers who want to return to a “pure” Islam have been irredeemably corrupted by Western ideas. Osama bin Laden had the idea that he was fighting the “new crusaders.” When George W. Bush once, inadvertently, used the word “crusade,” jihadists and liberal intellectuals alike erupted with rage. It was either a damning slip of the tongue whereby Bush accidentally admitted his real crusader agenda, or it was a sign of his stunning ignorance about the Crusades. Doesn’t he know what a sensitive issue the Crusades are? Doesn’t he know that the Crusades belong alongside the slaughter of the Indians, slavery, and disco in the long line of Western sins?

After all, it’s been in the papers for a while. In 1999, Muslim leaders demanded that Pope John Paul II apologize for the Crusades. “He has asked forgiveness from the Jews [for the Church’s passivity in the face of the Holocaust], so he should ask forgiveness from the Muslims,” Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, told the New York Times.3   Across the country sports teams have been dropping their crusader mas­cots because they’re offensive to . . . someone. Wheaton College changed their seventy-year-old team name from the Crusaders to the Thunder (no word from Thor worshippers yet as to whether they are off ended). Even Campus Crusade for Christ opted to change its name to Cru partly be­cause the word crusade has become too radioactive. “It’s become a flash word for a lot of people. It harkens back to other periods of time and has a negative connotation for lots of people across the world, especially in the Middle East,” Steve Sellers, the organization’s vice president told Christianity Today. “In the ’50s, crusade was the evangelistic term in the United States. Over time, different words take on different meanings to different groups.”4

I’ll say. Until fairly recently, historically speaking, Muslims used to brag about being the winners of the Crusades, not the victims of it. That is if they talked about them at all. “The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual re­sponse to the jihad—a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war,” writes Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of Islam in the English language (and perhaps any language).5 Historian Thomas Madden puts it more directly, “Now put this down in your notebook, because it will be on the test: The cru­sades were in every way a defensive war. They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world.”6 Continue reading

Who Survived The Titanic: A Story of Chivalry Not Class

There’s something about the magnitude and timing of the sinking of the Titanic that makes it almost irresistible for people to turn it into a sort of fable. The sinking of the “unsinkable” ship, the largest ship of its kind built up to that time, seems like a perfect example of hubris, and the fact that the wreck occurred just two years before the outbreak of the Great War (which perhaps more than any event defines the beginning of “Modern Times”) allows the Titanic to serve as a symbol of all that was bad and good about the world before the world before the War.

One of the things that most people are pretty sure they know about the sinking of the Titanic is that many of the first class passengers survived while those traveling third class were kept below decks and perished in far greater numbers. This fits well with the image of rigid class stratification in the pre-War years.

It is certainly true that a much greater percentage of third class passengers died in the sinking than first and second class passengers, however, the images popularized by James Cameron’s movie of third class passengers being locked below decks by the viciously classist crew appear to be fiction. The question of whether third class passengers were actively kept from the lifeboats was examined during Lord Mersey’s official investigation of the wreck and his conclusions were as follows: Continue reading

Of Social Darwinists, Robber Barons and Libraries

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Jonah Goldberg has a great column in which he takes apart the myth of the Social Darwinists.

This raises the real problem with the AP’s analysis. It has the history exactly backwards. The topic was not popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is now. And it’s not suddenly “making its way” into modern politics. Liberals have been irresponsibly flinging the term Social Darwinism rightward for decades. Mario Cuomo, in his famous 1984 Democratic Convention keynote speech—which “electrified,” “galvanized,” and “inspired” Democrats, who went on to lose 49 states in the general election—declared that “President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism.” Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee that year, insisted that Reagan preferred “Social Darwinism” over “social decency.” Even Barack Obama’s April 3 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors was so much recycling. In 2005, then-senator Obama denounced the conservative idea of an “ownership society,” charging that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism—every man or woman for him or herself.”

Meanwhile, the myth that Social Darwinism was a popular term in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely created by the liberal historian Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought didn’t merely transform our understanding of the Gilded Age, it largely fabricated an alternative history of it.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  Richard Hofstadter was a professor of American history at Columbia University.  In his youth he was a Communist, breaking with the party in 1939 over the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  However, his hatred of capitalism remained, and his  Social Darwinism in American Thought was a mere polemic with an academic wrapper.  Hofstadter did almost no primary research in the documents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and relied on the research of other historians as support for the conclusions he wished to reach.  Almost throughout his entire academic career Hofstadter was a fairly reliable man of the Left, always ready to slam conservatives as provincial and paranoid.  His 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other Essays is fairly typical.  Ironically, by the time of his death in 1970 Hofstadter was no longer popular on the Left, due to his criticisms of the New Left, and especially the antics of student radicals on campus. Continue reading

Brits Vote for Washington as Greatest Enemy

No, not our government, the general. (Though they’d be forgiven for thinking so based on some things this administration has done.)

He’s one of our Founding Fathers, but according to the Brits, George Washington is public enemy #1.

Our nation’s first president, who led the 13 colonies in the Revolution against England’s tyrannical rule, was picked by a wide margin in a National Army Museum in London poll as the greatest foe ever faced by Britain.

Washington delivered one of “the most jarring defeat(s)” ever inflicted upon the British Empire at the time, said author and historian Stephen Brumwell, according to London’s Telegraph.

“He was a worthy opponent,” he said.

Washington was selected among five other finalists, who were picked during an online poll that received at least 8,000 votes. The four other potential British foils were Ireland’s Michael Collins, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, Germany’s Erwin Rommel, and Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

At least somebody still respects winners.

H/t: Stacy McCain.

Attack Ads 1796

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Students at Williams College this year are taking part in an experimental course on the history of American presidents from Washington and Lincoln by producing political attack ads.  Go here for a report on this novel way of learning about American history. Continue reading

Memoriae Positum

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He leads for aye the advance,

Hope’s forlorn-hopes that plant the desperate good

For nobler Earths and days of manlier mood;

James Russell Lowell

Memoriae Positum, memory laid down.  The Latin phrase is a good short hand description of  what History accomplishes.  In 1864 the poet James Russell Lowell wrote a poem entitled Memoriae Positum in tribute to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who died heroically at age 25  leading the unsuccessful assault of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black Union regiments, on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner at Charleston, South Carolina on July 18th, 1863.  The poem predicts that Shaw’s memory will live forever and feels sorrow only for those, unlike Shaw, who are unwilling or unable to risk all for their beliefs.  It is a poem completely out of step with the pre-dominant sentiments of our day which seem to value physical survival and enjoyment above everything else.  Here is the text of the poem: Continue reading

Why Most Academic Histories Today Are Rubbish

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As longtime readers of this blog know, I have a deep and abiding passion for history.  I lament the fact that most histories produced today by academic historians are usually politicized drek, often written in a jargon that makes them gibberish to the general reader.  Historian K C Johnson has a superb post lamenting this situation:

The study of U.S. history has transformed in the last two generations, with emphasis on staffing positions in race, class, or gender leading to dramatic declines in fields viewed as more “traditional,” such as U.S. political, constitutional, diplomatic, and military history. And even those latter areas have been “re-visioned,” in the word coined by an advocate of the transformation, Illinois history professor Mark Leff, to make their approach more accommodating to the dominant race/class/gender paradigm. In the new academy, political histories of state governments–of the type cited and used effectively by the Montana Supreme Court–were among the first to go. The Montana court had to turn to Fritz, an emeritus professor, because the University of Montana History Department no longer features a specialist in Montana history (nor, for that matter, does it have a professor whose research interests, like those of Fritz, deal with U.S. military history, a topic that has fallen out of fashion in the contemporary academy).

To take the nature of the U.S. history positions in one major department as an example of the new staffing patterns: the University of Michigan, once home to Dexter and then Bradford Perkins, was a pioneer in the study of U.S. diplomatic history. Now the department’s 29 professors whose research focuses on U.S. history after 1789 include only one whose scholarship has focused on U.S. foreign relations–Penny von Eschen, a perfect example of the “re-visioning” approach. (Her most recent book is Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.) In contrast to this 1-in-29 ratio, Michigan has hired ten Americanists (including von Eschen) whose research, according to their department profiles, focuses on issues of race; and eight Americanists whose research focuses on issues of gender. The department has more specialists in the history of Native Americans than U.S. foreign relations. Continue reading

Howard Zinn, Neo-Confederate

While I disagree with him on a host of political issues, I follow Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog at The Atlantic closely because of his consistently well written and fascinating posts on history and literature. Many of these are on the Civil War, which has in recent years become a topic of great interest to him.

There was a particularly interesting pair of these a couple weeks ago in which Coates and his commenters discussed (in the context of Ron Paul’s repeated statements that the Civil War was unnecessary) the fact that left wing icon Howard Zinn actually peddles the several of the neo-confederate tropes: that the Civil War was fought for Northern economic domination and had little to do with slavery, and that a the Civil War clearly wasn’t necessary in order to end slavery anyway. [First post on Ron Paul, Howard Zinn and the Civil War. Second, followup post.] The specific Howard Zinn text that they go after (because it’s conveniently online) is a lecture he gave called Three Holy Wars, in which he tries to make a case for why people should not see the Revolutionary War, American Civil War or American involvement in World War II as moral or just — something he argues is important because seeing any past wars as just allows people to justify other wars on analogy.

Zinn proceeds to run through most of the standard complaints against the “War of Northern Aggression”:
It was really, really bad:

Slavery. Slavery, nothing worse. Slavery. And at the end of the Civil War, there’s no slavery. You can’t deny that. So, yeah, you have to put that on one side of the ledger, the end of slavery. On the other side, you have to put the human cost of the Civil War in lives: 600,000. I don’t know how many people know or learn or remember how many lives were lost in the Civil War, which was the bloodiest, most brutal, ugliest war in our history, from the point of view of dead and wounded and mutilated and blinded and crippled. Six hundred thousand dead in a country of 830 million. Think about that in relation today’s population; it’s as if we fought a civil war today, and five or six million people died in this civil war. Well, you might say, well, maybe that’s worth it, to end slavery. Maybe. Well, OK, I won’t argue that. Maybe. But at least you know what the cost is.

The Civil War didn’t meaningfully free them anyway: Continue reading

Was the Declaration of Independence Legal?

American and British lawyers squared off recently in a discussion over whether the Declaration of Independence was legal. The BBC reports as follows:

On Tuesday night, while Republican candidates in Nevada were debating such American issues as nuclear waste disposal and the immigration status of Mitt Romney’s gardener, American and British lawyers in Philadelphia were taking on a far more fundamental topic.

Namely, just what did Thomas Jefferson think he was doing?

Some background: during the hot and sweltering summer of 1776, members of the second Continental Congress travelled to Philadelphia to discuss their frustration with royal rule.

By 4 July, America’s founding fathers approved a simple document penned by Jefferson that enumerated their grievances and announced themselves a sovereign nation.

Called the Declaration of Independence, it was a blow for freedom, a call to war, and the founding of a new empire.

It was also totally illegitimate and illegal.

At least, that was what lawyers from the UK argued during a debate at Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Hall.

(The rest of the article can be read here.)

It strikes me that this misses a crucial distinction: The Declaration was essentially an announcement that if certain demands were not met, the colonists would fight a war for their independence. Such things are not intended to be legal. No sane country is going to provide legal basis for its sub-regions to secede at will — and as the British lawyers point out further on in the article, the US certainly didn’t give it’s Southern half that right under Lincoln. Instead, the colonists were making a last ditch appeal and (more realistically) an appeal for public and international sympathy as they prepared to fight a war of independence. If the British had won, the signers would probably have been hung as traitors. Given that they won, they are considered to be founders of the republic.

Rather than trying to put forward some theory under which the document was legal within the context of the British Empire, it seems to me that the correct answer is that the Declaration was legal by right of conquest — an aged yet still apt concept. This also, of course, answers the question of the why the South was not allowed to secede: Because they lost the Civil War.

945th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

Today, October 14 Anno Domini 2011, the Battle of Hastings occurred between the Anglo-Saxon King Harold and Duke William of Normandy.

The following is an animated version of the Bayeux Tapestry [1].

King Harold had a depleted force of 5,000 foot soldiers from a decisive victory of the combined Viking forces of Tostig and Harald Hadrada in the north of England the previous month.  Whilst Duke William had a force of 15,000 infantry, cavalry, and archers.  Facing superior numbers King Harold took up a defensive position that nearly won the day if it wasn’t for Duke William’s resilient command of a deteriorating situation.

Continue reading

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