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Historians Tackle 14th Amendment Section 3 and Fail (3): Jill Lepore, David Blight, Drew Gilpin Faust, and John Fabian Witt

This blog addresses the third of the three historian briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the decision by the Colorado Supreme Court to disqualify Donald Trump from running for President of the United States under Amendment 14 Section 3.

JILL LEPORE

Before turning to the brief itself, Jill Lepore, one of the historians, wrote an article “What Happened When the U.S. Failed to Prosecute an Insurrectionist Ex-President (New Yorker, December 4, 2023, online). The subject is Jefferson Davis, the ex-President of the Confederate States of America. Almost the entire article is about the failed effort to try Davis either for treason or under Section 3.

Amidst that recapitulation she raises some questions about today.

Can Donald Trump get a fair trial? Is trying Trump the best thing for the nation? Is the possibility of an acquittal worth the risk?… But the failure to try him is an affront not only to democracy but to decency…

Several times she expresses her awareness that no what verdict is rendered about half the country would not accept it. In these small digressions scattered throughout the article she has touched upon the core truth of the effort to disqualify Trump – the country is too divided for the issue to be resolved legally. Ultimately one should note it is a political problem and fortunately, not yet, a military one.

AMICI CURIAE: LEPORE, BLIGHT, FAUST, WITT

The reason for the filing of the brief is due to its gravity and “the necessity of grounding any decision in a proper historical understanding of Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment” (Page 2). To do so requires “establishing the original intent, meaning, and public under understanding of the Disqualification Clause” (Page 2). Here they are using one of the jargon terms favored by the Trump judges on the Supreme Court.

They state the concern in the aftermath of the Civil War was:

That office-holders who had violated their oaths to the Constitution would reassume positions of authority, destabilize state and federal governments, and suppress freedom of speech. The Republican framers of the Amendment believed that anything short of the disqualification of insurrectionists risked surrendering the government to anti-Constitutionalists rebels (Page 2).

Considering the fact that an election-denier is the Speaker of House, this concern should be applied to a wide swath of people and not just to Donald Trump.

According to these historians, the framers “hoped not only to prevent a resurgence of secessionism but also to protect future generations against insurrectionism” (Page 3). Given the actions of Texas on its border with support of 25 governors and the state of Utah ratifying a nullification act, it would seem that banishing one and only one individual from the ballot seems like avoiding the issue. The intention was not that the amendment only would apply to Jefferson Davis and no one else. It was intended to apply to all Confederates including those who had run for the House and Senate.

Much of the remainder of the brief recounts the history leading up to the ratification leading up to the disqualification section. Sometimes they show that the circumstances involving the MAGAs and the Confederates are quite different without saying so. For example:

Northerners undertook to purge Confederate sympathizers from positions of authority both inside and outside of government and, in mass meetings called upon Congress to do the same (Page 6).

No such purge has occurred today. In fact, the exact opposite has occurred. Real Republicans who know the election was not stolen are the ones who have been purged from Congress or chosen to retire. The historians refer to Frederick Douglass who charged that many Confederate sympathizers remained within the federal government (Pages 6-7). In fact that is the exact situation now where the insurrectionists remain in Congress today and do so quite openly.

With this background in mind, the historians move on to the drafting and ratification of Section Three (Pages 15-26).

Lo and behold! Congress discovered continuing hostility in the southern states (Page 15). This realization strengthened the determination of the winning side to prevent representatives from the losing side being elected to office.

Sounds like MAGA.

In testimony before Congress J.W. Alvord of the Freedman’s Bureau was asked about the rebel feeling towards the government of the United States. His reply was:

There is evidently no regret for the rebellion, but rather a defence of it (Page 16).

Sounds like MAGA.

He was then asked about what the Confederates sought to achieve by their readmittance to Congress. He replied:

They seem to suppose that by re-admission they can get political power and obtain again the supremacy which they once had, with the exception of slavery.

Sounds like MAGA.

A tax examiner said:

No. I think they have a stronger aversion and dislike of the Union than when they seceded (Page 17).

Sounds like MAGA.

The initial ratification attempt failed. The Southern states as one might expect, opposed it. This action:

…reflected the emerging ideology of the Lost Cause, a tenet of which was the argument by ex-Confederates that they never had engaged in “rebellion,” should never be considered “rebels,” and had merely exercised legitimate rights of “sovereignty” with secession and war [it was legitimate political discourse] (Page 25).

Sounds like MAGA.

Matters came to a head in March 1867 when over a Presidential veto, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act. That Act stipulated that no state could be re-admitted without first ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment (Pages 25-26). In other words, it was the military power of the victorious Union which made the Disqualification section the law of the land.

In the final section, the historians turn to the persistence of Section Three. The story returns to Jefferson Davis and the inability to try him for treason. They call Davis a “cautionary tale” on the danger facing the nation if the leader of an insurrection could run for President (Page 30). They note by 1872, the number of petitioners requesting amnesty under Section 3 at between 15,000 to 16,000 people (Page 31). They also note that ex-Confederates would be elected governor and to other offices across the South (Page 32).

CONCLUSION

These historians have made a very strong case for the applicability of the 14th Amendment Section 3 … only not the one they think they made. They constantly refer to Jefferson Davis and his potential run for President. The implication is that the amendment was designed with someone like Donald Trump in mind.

But they acknowledge the widespread antipathy towards the Union by the defeated Confederates.

They acknowledge that it required the Military Reconstruction Act to implement disqualification in practice.

They acknowledge that thousands of people sought re-instatement from Congress.

As much as they focus on one individual, Jefferson Davis, they actually are making a case why all Confederates were disqualified. The current parallel is that all the MAGA who are election-deniers should be disqualified as well. But they can’t call for such a blanket consolidation because they know the war is not yet over and MAGAs could yet triumph. It is hard to see how this brief would persuade the Supreme Court to remove Donald trump from the ballot.

 

 

The Lost Cause: A David Blight Perspective

Yale historian David Blight has been in the news lately. Even he is surprised about the frequency of his cable news appearances. His increased visibility derives from two related by difference sources: The Lost Cause and Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In general terms, his expertise as an historian in the Reconstruction is what draws attention. But he muses at times about the need to be a lawyer, too. Either way, his “15 minutes in the sun” attests various adages about history not being dead and not in the past. There is a battle raging to control the past so those who call for the cutbacks or dissolution of history departments at the college and/graduate school level may wish to reconsider. For that matter the same applies to history in k-12 as well.

EUROPE IN 1989, AMERICA IN 2020, AND THE DEATH OF THE LOST CAUSE

This article from the New Yorker dated July 1, 2020, provides a snap shot into Blight’s thinking a little less than four years ago. The article begins with a vignette about his fallen Berlin Wall souvenir and the watching of Confederate monuments in the United States likewise being reduced to pieces. He calls those monuments “public vestiges of the Lost Cause tradition.” He raises the possibility that the summer of 2020 like autumn of 1989 “could mark the death of a specific vision on history.”

Blight advises caution: don’t celebrate too much. “The Lost Cause is one of the most deeply ingrained mythologies in American history.” He calls it a twisted version of history encouraging the revitalization of a vast system of oppression that can poison a civil society.

Some myths are benign as cultural markers. Others are rooted in lies so beguiling, so powerful as engines of resentment and political mobilization, that they can fill parade grounds in Nuremberg, or streets in Charlottesville, or rallies across the country.

The Lost Cause was bot about the preservation of slavery. The Confederacy was never truly defeated on the battlefields of glory. The Confederacy stood for civilization “in which both races thrived in their best ‘natural’ capacities.” Robert E. Lee was transformed into a godlike Christian leader and genius tactician who could only be defeated by overwhelming odds.

Blight goes to describe the ongoing development of the Lost Cause. There were:

The United Daughters of the Confederacy
The United Confederate Association
Ku Klux Klan
Jim Crow.

Monuments mushroomed across the Confederacy. Every town center and city square had one. The names of Confederate heroes adorned schools, streets, and parks. The Lost Cause had become a victory narrative where the South shall rise again.

Blight cites Jefferson Davis, the “ultimate sick soul.” Drawing on the 1279 memoir of Davis, Blight reports of some of the staples of the Lost Cause. Slavery was not the cause of the war. In fact slavery had been good for Africans where slavery already existed. Now they had been “’trained in the gentle arts of peace and order.’” They had “advanced from ‘unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers.’”

Blight chooses to end the article optimistically:

But if this is to be our 1989, we must make the most of it. The whole world may be watching.

One might add, we are a city on a hill and the eyes of the world are upon us as the last best hope of earth.

CONFEDERATE MEMORIAL DAY

 Confederate Memorial Day, as the name suggests, is a holiday dedicated Confederates. In an article entitled “Engaging Toxic Nostalgia on Confederate Memorial Day” (History News Network, May 7, 2023), a somewhat shell shocked, Richard Brown PhD, senior executive editor for Religion at Rowman & Littlefield, described his close encounter of the third kind with Confederate Memorial Day.

Up ahead on the steps were clusters of Confederate Army reenactors, some wielding period rifles band nearby was blowing Dixie, and an unfurled battle flag of the Confederate States of America, roughly forty by sixty feet, was draped on the steps of the gold-domed Capitol building. We stopped at the traffic light on Gervais Street, next to a group of Black protesters. When the light changed, I turned to my daughter. She had witnessed Southern iconography during her college years in Richmond, living near Monument Avenue with its oversized statues of Confederate heroes, now vanquished. But even she was shell-shocked.

As Brown reports, Confederate Memorial Day continues to be a legal holiday in the state of South Carolina. Observed on May 10, it marks the anniversary of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s death in 1863. With the passage of Act 80 in 1896, South Carolina recognized two legal holidays: May 10 for Stonewall Jackson, and January 19 for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. Every April, state offices in Mississippi and Alabama also shut down for their Confederate Memorial Days. Legislators and advocates in all three states trumpet “Heritage, Not Hate.”

For those of us who have a visceral objection to Confederate Memorial Day—who are appalled at not only commemorating but celebrating an economic and social system that oppressed a race for over two centuries—how should we engage a worldview that doesn’t see the harm of such celebrations, or that embraces the mythology of the Lost Cause?

“TRUMP’S ‘LOST CAUSE,’ A KIND OF GANGSTER CULT, WON’T GO AWAY” (LA Times, January 14, 2024)

Blight returned to the Lost Cause this year, this time in reference to Trump’s failed attempt to steal the election. In his description of the failed insurrection of January 6, Blight writes about the event:

For the next four to five hours, in the most recorded event in American history, the world watched as a new “lost cause” was born in violence and spectacular lies.

Blight writes that there have been three lost causes in modern history,

1. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy
2. Following their bloody defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the French exhibited an intergenerational cultural need to avenge the loss. [Blight did not mention the Dreyfus Trial decades later.]
3. “Then, following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the Nazis gained traction by blaming Jews and leftists, who were depicted as ‘poisons’ in the blood of the body politic [a term Trump has now brought back when speaking of vermin immigrants.]

In a letter to The Atlantic (March 2023), Peter V Huisking writes:

Germans didn’t avoid their own “Lost Cause” movement by accident. At the end of World War II, the Allies set policies to ensure that there would be no tolerance for anything memorializing German military traditions or the Nazi Party. …

This established an environment that required the defeated Germany to face responsibility for what happened. The defeated American South never faced such a reckoning, and we still live with consequences.  

Neither Confederates nor MAGAs have had to face such a reckoning.

Blight compares our “lost cause” today to a gangster cult. It is still early in the process. For example, eventually a parade of Republican witnesses will testify against him in criminal cases for his actions in instigating this failed insurrection attempt. But will the latest lost cause survive Trump?

Blight writes:

Lost causes can turn lies into common coin and forge deep and lasting myths. We are a long way from knowing how much staying power the Trumpian “lost cause” will have, regardless of whether he survives his criminal charges and the election campaign. What we do know is that we have already witnessed its formative years.

There is a lot riding on the presidential election this year. If Trump loses again despite voter suppression and against someone who was practically at death’s bed last time, the repercussions could be violent. On the other hand, Biden controls the military and police forces in the Capital, he knows Nikki Haley from Nancy Pelosi, the MAGA forces may be willing to talk the talk but not so much to walk the walk this time. They have seen what has happened to the people who participated in the failed attempt last time. They will see the unleashing of civil and criminal cases which have been delayed until after the election. They will have seen that the world has not come to an end in brutal carnage despite Trump’s wishful thinking.

And perhaps, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, they will be ready to get on with their lives especially if MAGA candidates don’t do so well again.  Instead of a ongoing lost cause, we should also think about post-trumphatic stress disorder and how to treat scammed people who want to return to Earth 1. On the other hand, Trump could win and the Stolen Election will be enshrined in American history.

America’s Third Civil War: Jeffrey Goldberg (Atlantic) and David Blight (Yale)

America's Third Civil War (The Atlantic)

Another year draws to a close. It is time to update the situation on America’s Third Civil War. We are at the three year anniversary of an issue of The Atlantic with the front cover “How to Stop a Civil War.” The Christmas New York Times Sunday magazine issue had an article by David Blight, Yale University with the title “The Irresponsible Conflict: Was the Civil War Inevitable? As America Struggles through another Era of Deep Division, the Old Question Takes on New Urgency.”

This is not my first blog on America’s Third Civil War. For example:

America’s Third Civil War: An Update December 13, 2020

America’s Third Civil War is unfolding in unexpected ways. Previously I had blogged that the 2020 Presidential election would be our Battle of Gettysburg (He Really Could Stand in the Middle of 5th Avenue, Shoot Somebody, and Not Lose Voters April 1/2020)

As it turns out, I was correct. Just a few weeks after that blog, the Confederate flag would wave in Capitol rotunda on January 6, 2021, the furthest advance of the Election Day campaign to overthrow the government. Since then the tide has subsided. There has been a steady stream of released transcripts. Indictments are looming in 2023 for the insurrection organizers (2023: The Year of Indictments December 22, 2022).

So let us look back on what The Atlantic was writing three years ago and what Blight wrote one week ago.

THE ATLANTIC

Jeffrey Goldberg tactfully opens his “Editor’s Note” with:

The 45th president of the United States of America is uniquely unfit for the office and poses a multifaceted threat to our country’s democratic institutions.

In my blog of December 13, 2020, I wrote about his comment that anticipates the words of Liz Chaney of the House Select committee:

I doubt that Goldberg anticipated a frontal assault on the democratic process including an attempted coup to steal the election with the support of the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives and 125 accomplices. To imagine an attempted coup by this particular President requires no stretch of the imagination.

Of course, I had no idea of what was about to occur. A mere 19 days later there would be such a coup attempt.

Goldberg: Out of our conversations, and others like it, emerged the idea for the special issue you are now reading, what we have called “How to Stop a Civil War.” … (W)e worry that the ties that bind us are fraying at alarming speed⸺we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are both dire and possibly irreversible.

My blog: If these words reflect Goldberg’s assessment of the situation in December 2019, then one can only imagine what he must think in December 2020. For now the coup to steal the election temporarily has been stopped by the Supreme Court. One should expect the final stand where the last ditch effort to overturn the election will be undertaken will be when the new House convenes to ratify the vote of the Electoral College. He still thinks he can overturn the election and has roughly 126 people who will help him. The fat lady still hasn’t sung yet.

Obviously this prediction about what would transpire on January 6, 2021, proved to be correct.

Goldberg also notes that the first issue of The Atlantic was 1857 (see below)

The next two articles in the issue were covered in the earlier blogs in 2020:

“WHEN TRUMP GOES” BY DAVID FRUM December 13, 2020

The Texas Secession: Legally Dividing America December 14, 2020

I never did complete my review of the entire issue so let me take a stab at doing so here so we can glimpse the thinking of a mere three years ago. Following these articles above, there was a section on “The Forces that Pull Us Apart.”

The first article in the section was “How America Ends: A Tectonic Demographic Shift Is Underway. Can the Country Hold Together?” by Yoni Appelbaum. He quotes Candidate Trump on Twitter in October, 2019, saying:

What is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE…

Applebaum notes Trump’s quoting a supporter’s dark prediction that impeachment

…will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.

Applebaum’s concern is the competing sides have crossed the line where each side dehumanizes the other. As to how this has happened he suggests:

…the biggest driver might be demographic change.”

To support this charge he cites a book published in 2002 by Tuy Teixeira and John Judis, The Emerging Democratic Majority, and an article published in The Atlantic in 2012, where Teixeira doubles down on that argument.

Those prognostications about the demographic changes which would sweep Democrats into power have been the subject of recent blogs here:

Demographic Deluge, Democratic Nightmare: The Emerging Democratic Majority
October 28, 2022

What will White Racists Do if the Republican Party Becomes Diverse?
October 31, 2022

Are Democrats Capable of Crafting a New National Narrative?
November 1, 2022

Already in 2019, Applebaum recognized that all had not gone according to plan in the 2014 and 2016 elections. Yet still in 2019, he concluded that Teixeira was correct but premature. He concurred with that analysis and offered as an explanation the actions the Republicans were taking to minimize the vote.

Today [2019], a Republican Party that appeals primarily to white Christian voters is fighting a losing battle… The GOP‘s efforts to cling to power by coercion instead of persuasion…

 The remedy was for the GOP to reach out to these groups just as Democrats once decided there was more to be gained by not locking immigrants out of the party. Jews, Italians, and Irish had become white and everyone sought the American dream. Applebaum noted that even dissidents in American history from the suffragists at Seneca Falls to Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial of Harvey Milk at the San Francisco city hall all quoted the Declaration of Independence. Even the calls for change were expression of American founding ideals rather than as a rejection of them. One notes these words and sentiments were written before Woke became the dominant cultural idea of dissidents and toppling Jefferson became the rallying cry.

The next article was “Left Behind: The Real Roots” of the Urban/Rural Divide,” a conversation by editor Jeffrey Goldberg with Tara Westover. The conversation focused on the economic disparity between the poorest states – which voted for Trump in 2016 – and the richest states – which voted for Clinton in 2016. Democrats represent districts responsible for two-thirds of the national GDP. Westover observed a strong tone of condescension between the urban centers which have benefited economically from the technological change and the rural areas which have not.

Needlesstosay, the very tone, attitude, and vocabulary of the elitist Woke have become one of the great strengths of the Republican Party.

There are many more articles in that issue of The Atlantic, too many to review here.

During 2022, there were multiple articles continuing this theme of the Civil War. In general terms, they emphasize the reality of two houses in a single state struggling barely to remain together. Here are some prominent examples:

“The Abortion Battle May Be a Precursor to Even Larger Struggles by Fareed Zakaria (May 5, 2022, CNN and contributing editor to The Atlantic. He cites a study of America’s cultural values that maps them by counties. The result is one country that would fit comfortably with Northern European Protestant countries and the other closer to Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

“Battle Over Abortion Rights Threatens to Deepen America’s Divide” by Peter Baker (May 7, 2022, NYT, print). His opening lines are:

For years, the United States has been drifting further apart, less a single country than an uncomfortable marriage of vastly disparate cultural and political entities…

It is a world where the loudest voices dominate the conversation and in effect “Come let us reason together” is impossible.

“America May Be Broken beyond Repair,” by Michelle Goldberg (May 28, 2022, NYT print). She cites an odious commercial by Blake Masters, who later weakly lost the Arizona Senate race, as an example. She then refers to the book Divided We Fall by anti-Trumper David French on various scenarios in which the dissolution of the country might occur. (See my blog Will California or South Carolina Secede First? (September 25, 2020).

“America Is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good: The great “convergence” of the mid-20th century may have been an anomaly” by Ronald Brownstein (The Atlantic, June 24, 2022 newsletter). In this article, not only is the divided nation model acknowledged. This time the Red States (Confederates) will seek to impose their values through legislation and the Courts on the Union States.

DAVID W. BLIGHT

U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021: Jon Cherry/Getty Images. “Hancock at Gettysburg,” by Thure de Thulstrup: Alamy.

Blight’s article is more of an historical essay than a politic op-ed piece which makes sense since he is an historian (= person of history in Woke). Most of it is about 1857 and the Dred Scott case (and the year The Atlantic was founded).

In addition to the historical analysis, Blight does comment on the present situation.

Recently, it has become disturbing common to hear Americans wonder aloud whether we are headed for another breakup of some kind.

He cites polls showing huge percentages of the Democratic and Republican voters favoring some kind of “secession.” The Second Civil War historian then quotes a NYT Opinion contributor who concluded that “there appear(s) to be no major or effective movement to counter polarization.” Once again we can see the need for a new national narrative and for the need of historians to take the lead in crafting one.

Blight takes aim on both sides:

A strained insistence on conformity and correctness of thought, language and behavior by the left and the right also seems to have rendered respect, grace and honest communication across political lines a thing of the past.   

Blight is a college professor of history at Yale. He is in some ways on the frontlines of this dilemma. It would be interesting to know how he has dealt with these issues in his own classrooms … assuming that it contains students from both sides.

Blight concludes:

…it might be said that our country is already in the midst of a slow, low intensity civil conflict. Will it bring about something more violent and destructive?

Presumably he means than what happened on January 6, 2021. After all, back in the Second Civil War, battles were large-scale with dead and wounded in the tens of thousands at each major encounter.

Most of the remainder of the article is about the 1850s and the Dred Scott decision. Blight notes in passing that the Confederates acknowledged that Lincoln really had won and the election had not been stolen. One may add that back then, the Confederates then withdrew much like Kevin McCarthy withdrawing Freedom Caucus members from participating in the House Select Committee, a decision that backfired as he now realizes. We will never know what would have happened if the Confederates had decided to remain in Congress and participate in the 1864 Presidential elections. Strange as that scenario may sound according to Lincoln the secession was illegal and the Confederates always were part of the United States.

Blight ends his article somewhat optimistically. The midterm elections show that “at least small majorities in many regions prefers facts over bizarre conspiracy.” Whether that dynamic will remain true cannot be known until future elections are held. Otherwise he wonders if it is 1857 all over again. That year preluded the Second Civil War; will 2021 prelude the Third?

As someone who has written for years about the Third Civil War, I am strangely optimistic that the worst is over.

The 2022 election was comparatively calm despite the heated rhetoric.

The Stop the Steal candidates lost the major state and federal elections. Instead of Arizona being a beachhead for the New World Order, the TV personality who lost the governor’s race continues to make a fool of herself and undermine the cause. Otherwise all the “Stop the Steal” candidates who lost accepted their defeat without any commotion.

The Freedom Caucus is about to make a fool of itself with an onslaught on investigations even as its leaders faced probable indictment for their role in the January 6 insurrection. Compared to the House Select Committee, the Freedom Caucus investigations will look like a circus in contrast to the professional performance we just witnessed.

The insurrection ring-leader himself is going to face a series of charges that will keep him busy for years to come. In addition he has now been exposed not only as a political loser but as a business failure who has been kept afloat due to Daddy, the Apprentice, and skilled accountants. These are not the attributes of a storm-the-Capitol leader in 2024 assuming he even gets the nomination.

None of the wannabee candidates have the personality and charisma to lead a charge on the Capitol in 2024 especially when it will be under Democratic control and they have learned from 2021.

I suspect that the desire for a Civil War is mostly confined to alternate reality websites and cable shows and does not accurately reflect the nation’s mood.

Finally there are the immigrants who should be considered. Lincoln reached out to them in the Gettysburg Address. He knew his audience were not all descendants of those who had fought in the American Revolution. By standing with the Union during America’s Second Civil War they stood with those who had fought in the first one. Now all those immigrants of recent years did not come here because they want to live in a country that is cracking up and convulsed by war. People want the government to work right for them. Few will heed the call for an insurrection in 2024 in the event anyone even makes one.

“Enslaved” versus “Slave”: Yale, Virginia, and New Jersey

Slide from the Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective Conference,” Oct. 28-30, 2021

What should you call a person who is owned by another person? Traditionally, the common noun for such a person has been “slave.” Lately that word has been called into question. Instead the common noun has been dropped and replaced by the adjective “enslaved” from the verb “to enslave” now placed before the word “person.”

This proposed name change recently has been mentioned by Yale and The New York Times.  During the “Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective Conference,” Oct. 28-30, 2021, Michael Lotstein, University Archivist, Manuscripts and Archives, spoke about it. Then on November 1, 2021, on the front page of The New York Times, the slave/enslaved words was one of the binary choices included in “On the Left, a New Scramble over the Right Words to Say.” One should note that the front page article immediately below this one was “Ugly Infighting and Virginia Election Fill Democrats with Dread.” The next day was the election. This combination of presentations and actions serves as a reminder that the debate over slave and enslaved isn’t simply an academic one but part of the culture wars with political consequences.

ENSLAVED

The New York Times article included the following:

The effort to substitute “enslaved people” for “slaves” has been long advocated by many Black academics to emphasize the violence that defined American slavery and the humanity of those subjected to it, said Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at Stanford.

As best I recall, Lotstein reported that the Dictionary of Archival Terminology was going to be updated accordingly. In other words, there is a process going on of mandating the use of this politically-corrected vocabulary.

Common nouns, of course, are not inherent to people’s identity as a human being. Calling Lotstein an “archivist” does not invalidate his humanity or conflate the person and the term. Calling someone a “professor” does not denigrate the person’s humanity. People well understand that calling someone a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker does not mean the common noun is inherent to their identity as a human being. From my own experience from the Exodus to Spartacus to slavery in America, it never once occurred to me that the use of the term “slave” restricted the humanity of an individual to that one and only trait thereby requiring an extraction to separate them.

In other words, what we have here is exactly what we have with voter integrity. People concoct a problem and then devise a solution which then is mandated/legislated. The so-called problem exists solely in the mind of the beholder. It is fairly easy to determine what the agenda is of those who support voter suppression in the name of voter integrity. Determining the motivations of the people who fabricated this problem and then concocted a solution requires more investigation.

“ENSLAVED” UNMASKED

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, and take it one step at a time. The word “slave” derives from the Slavic people. It arose because for centuries they were the people the civilized people of Europe enslaved.

So common was the slavery of Slavs that the people eventually gave their name to the condition. The people owned were called “slaves” after their ethnicity. This occurred prior to the invention of the concept of a white race. Slavs were the uncivilized people from beyond the pale so it was acceptable to enslave them. As a general rule, people do not enslave their own kind however they choose to define themselves.

Here we have an example of “Xerox,” the proper noun, becoming “xerox,” the verb meaning to photocopy. Similarly Google has come to mean “search.” Besides Slavs, Gypsies and Jews also have seen their name become ordinary words, in these cases, verbs. Generally, these usages are considered unacceptable today. However it is still seems to be permissible to use and abuse the Slavic name.

How to people become slaves? One common way is that they are taken captive in a war. Being in captivity then redefines the person from being “free” to being a “captive.” Is “captive” inherent to their identity as a human being? The word “captive” appears to fulfill the criteria for “slave” in being a word requiring politically-corrected updating. Has it happened?

Captives may also be considered to be “prisoners.” Here again, we appear to have a word requiring politically-corrected updating to extract the humanity from the condition forced upon the person. No more POWs. For that matter, no more cons, convicts, or ex-cons. Is “slave” really the one and only word in the English language where the separation of the humanity of the person and condition imposed on the person needs to be applied?

What about the person who seeks to avoid becoming a captive or a prisoner and then becoming a slave? A person who flees may become a “refugee.” This condition is forced upon the individual. To be consistent, should the person be a “refugeed person”?

What about immigrant? If the refugee then becomes an immigrant, does the humanity of the individual still require extraction from the term?

Come to think of it, what about students who are forced to attend school until age 16? Shouldn’t there be separate terms for people who are forced to be students and those who freely choose that status?

How many common nouns need to be updated if the English language is to be purified?

ATONEMENT   

During the Yale conference on slavery, three speakers mentioned the need to atone for Yale’s history of slavery.

Yale should acknowledge, engage, atone, and educate.

Yale should use its financial resources to repair and atone.

Yale should gather together as a community to talk about this Yale history presented at the conference history and bring it to the visible space to educate and atone.

For a Puritan-founded school, the call to atone for America’s original sin makes sense. It’s fine if Yale wants to atone for its sins but how will that play in Peoria? In New Haven? Or in Virginia?

In the concluding session, various participants and conference organizer David Blight talked about what is next for Yale. Yale has an opportunity to proceed on two levels. As a national and internationally-renowned university, Yale is poised to take a leadership role on the study of slavery in American history. That certainly would be consistent with Prof. Blight’s own position in the academic community as a scholar. On a second level, Yale is located in New Haven. As was brought out in many of the presentations, Yale’s history of slavery is part of New Haven’s (and Connecticut’s and New England’s history) as well.

By coincidence, during this Yale Seminar, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote “The Self-Isolation of the American Left.” He said:

Modern progressivism is in danger of becoming dominated by a relatively small group of people who went to the same colleges, live in the same neighborhoods, and have trouble seeing beyond their subculture’s point of view.

The Yale conference was online, but in general terms it met the description published by Brooks right in the middle of it as the presenters were Yale professors, Yale students, and Yale graduates.

One subculture is sometimes using its cultural power to try to make its views dominant, often through intimidation.  

This is exactly what is happening with the mandating of “enslave” as an archival category for a non-existent concocted problem.

Here then is the challenge for Yale. At some point, “slave/enslave” may join 1619 and critical race theory in the culture wars at the national level. Remember it only took one guest appearance on Tucker Carlson to ignite the critical race theory explosion. It is easy to imagine the same weaponization occurring with “enslave.” The message of the need of white people to atone for being white is not a winning one. The message that if you want to be a visible saint, an elect of God, you will use our morally superior vocabulary, is not a winning one. The message that you are backwards and racist if you do not use our morally superior vocabulary and repent is not a winning one.

As a teacher said at P.S. 295 in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn about diversity books, “Why can’t we read normal children’s books?” One may add, why can’t we speak “normal.” Perhaps there will be legislation requiring it. No one begrudges the right of people to want to think of themselves as morally superior. But creating an established church that forces its vocabulary and doctrine on others is doomed to failure. It did not work for the Puritans in the 1600s and will not work for the New Puritans in the 2100s.

Cancel Frederick Douglass: Where Do You Stand on Purifying American History?

A statue of Frederick Douglass has been ripped from its base in Rochester on the anniversary of one of his most famous speeches. (Credit: WHEC)

July is Frederick Douglass’s time of year. Around July 4 every year multiple history organizations have a reading of the Douglass speech of July 5, 1852, delivered in Rochester entitled “What to the slave is the fourth of July.” Even descendants may voice the words of their illustrious ancestor. This year, many of the recitations were online [I received many announcements] so there was ample opportunity to listen to a slew of speeches. Nonetheless, despite the venerated stature in which he is held, his statues must be judged by the same Woke standards that have led to the toppling of so many other statues so far this year. An examination of his record shows conclusively that he was not pure and deserves the fate of other former heroes.

AFRICAN SAVAGES

Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)

This comment by Douglass has been used before in these blogs (Happy 1619, Not July 4th, Birthday: All the History Fit to Print that the NYT Omitted). It contradicts one of the most sacred myths within the BLM and Woke movements: the belief that Middle Passage people were stolen from Africa. Douglass knew the real story and expressed it. None-the-less, there is no excuse for telling the unacceptable and uncomfortable truth. Douglass needs to be held accountable for this impurity. STRIKE ONE.

Now consider the word used to describe the African sellers of Africans to Europeans: “savages.” Is this the type of word that is acceptable under Woke standards? Far from it. There is a series on National Geographic called “Savage Kingdom.” It’s not about people.

Brave New World, a TV version premiered on the NBCUniversal on July 15, also has a “savage” component. One of the novel’s worlds is the “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico. The people and customs of the Savage Reservation are said to be modeled loosely on the traditions of Zuñi.

In a recent online “Conversation” offered by American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) (July 9), Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, anthropologist, historian and cultural consultant, voiced his displeasure over a plaque in Sante Fe. The objection was not to the any image or statue but to the word used to describe the Apaches. The word was “savage.” The participant said if there was one change he would like to make it is to that sign and that word.

In another recent online presentation, “Foundations for Teaching and Learning about Native Americans” by the National Museum of the American Indian (July 21), the word “savage” was featured as a derogatory term in primary sources and in textbooks. There can be no excuse for Douglass using that term even if the people referred to weren’t American. The word is unacceptable. STRIKE TWO.

Freedman’s Memorial

The Freedman’s Memorial in Washington has been a source of contention in the current quest to purify American history.  It depicts Abraham Lincoln standing above a kneeling freed black man. President Ulysses S. Grant, the cabinet and the Supreme Court were in attendance. This blog is not about the Memorial itself but about Douglass’s legitimation of it by speaking at the dedication. He delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of original statue on April 14, 1876, 11 years after the assassination of Lincoln. At that time, Douglass asked listeners to look through the eyes of enslaved people seeking freedom:

Despite the mist and haze that surrounded him; despite the tumult, the hurry, and confusion of the hour, we were able to take a comprehensive view of Abraham Lincoln, and to make reasonable allowance for the circumstances of his position. We saw him, measured him, and estimated him.

See how Douglass is making allowances for the impurity of Lincoln. See how he is asking us to judge the person in the context of times, to examine him in his entirety, to measure him not by one’s standards of today but to stand back and see the totality of the person. These admonitions are intolerable and inexcusable. Either you are pure or you are not. So what if Douglass had misgivings about the statue. So what if he wanted a second statue to be erected. He was there at the dedication and spoke then. There can be no context, no nuance, no looking at the life of a person in the world in which he lived. If you are not pure then you are toppled, cleansed, erased. No excuses. No exemptions.  Not for Jefferson. Not for Lincoln. Not for Douglass. STRIKE THREE. YOU ARE OUT.

WHOOPS. When I Initially thought of writing this blog, I intended to stop here. However, I became aware of a counteraction to the effort to cleanse Douglass from American history due to his impurity. I received this notice describing a contrary position:

Help Erect a Statue of Frederick Douglass to Commemorate his 1870 Visit

To celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment in August of 1870, Frederick Douglass spoke at Washington’s Headquarters and the AME Zion Church in Newburgh and led the crowd on a peaceful march through the city. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary, money is being raised to commission a statue commemorating Frederick Douglass’ famous visit. The committee is asking for members of the public to donate to the cause. Can you spare $15 in appreciation of the 15th Amendment?

This group in Orange County, NY, attests that despite the Douglass violations of Woke standards, he still is regarded as a heroic person. My Spidey sense tells me that the American public is not likely to impose Woke standards on Douglass either. He will be viewed as an individual human being and measured on that basis. I suspect that consensus extends to other Americans who helped create this country or acted to fulfill its vision. So I conclude that statues of Douglass will not be toppled.

WHOOPS AGAIN. Even as I was planning this conclusion the blog, a statue of Douglass in Rochester was toppled on July 5. The fact that it was a 7-foot plastic replica made to look like the bronze of the 25-foot original bronze statue located elsewhere in the city doesn’t change the action…it does make it easier to understand how the topplers could drag it 50 feet!  The people responsible for this extralegal act have not been identified nor have they identified themselves. Was it Woke people judging Douglass as impure who took the law into their own hands as is their wont? Or was it anti-Woke people engaged in payback. If you commit an extralegal act to topple my statue, then you have granted me a license to commit an extralegal act against your statue.  The Woke now have unleashed the right of all people to act against statues based on their own values.

It’s easy to see where this will end. The BLM paints its name on streets in prominent places. The anti-BLM cover up the painting. Back and forth it goes including in front of Trump Tower in Manhattan. Now everyone can claim a license to topple, a license to paint. Where will it end?  Which incident will be the American Sarajevo? Which one will be the new Fort Sumter? Which one will elevate the current culture war to the next level as America’s Third Civil War ratchets up? Just as no one knew that it would be George Floyd that provided the spark, no one knows which confrontation will turn fatal. [Note: this was written before the attempt to occupy Portland.]

WHOOPS AGAIN AGAIN. Even as I was still planning this blog, something else happened in this very fluid situation.  According to the article in my local paper “New Douglas Statue Erected,” a new statue was erected on July 18 replacing the one which had been toppled on July 5. According to the caption of the photograph it was a “reinstallment” of the toppled statue. It was one of the replicas held in storage making it easy to replace the toppled one. The reinstallation was a community action in the light of day and not a toppling in the dark of night. This open action probably provides a better sense of where the community in Rochester stands…with the statue!

Where does that leave us today? According to David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018), in an interview with the New-York Historical Society (June 25, 2020):

… Douglass was a patriot. In my book, I call him a radical patriot. He deeply believed in the first principles of the Declaration of Independence—equality, popular sovereignty, natural rights, and the right of revolution. He believed in the creeds and principles; it was the practices that he fought against. Douglass believed the preserved and re-invented U.S. that emerged out of the Civil War and emancipation had given the nation and all of its people the opportunity to create a multi-racial, multi-religious country. He saw America as an idea—a nation made up of all the peoples of the earth, living under equality before the law.

According to Blight in an earlier interview at the New-York Historian Society (January 11, 2020), Douglass saw America as a place with some kind destiny on some of kind trajectory in history designed by the divine. What’s next? American exceptionalism? America as a City on a Hill? Is there really a place in a Woke society for someone like that?

To Topple or Not to Topple Statues: The Battle between “Come Let Us Reason Together” versus “Abso-fricking-lutely!”

To Topple or Not to Topple, That Is the Question (Alex Waltner – Swedish Nomad)

To topple or not to topple, that is the question. Statues have become the latest battleground in America’s Third Civil War. At this point, it is impossible to determine which statue will be our Fort Sumter. It is reasonable to assume that just as one could not predict that it would the George Floyd murder as the straw the broke the camel’s back, one cannot know which attack on a statue will be the trigger for violence.

In the meantime, last month, Bret Stephens and Charles Blow, columnists for The New York Times, offered quite contrary views on the question of “to topple or not to topple.”

BRET STEPHENS

In his column “After the Statues Fall,” (June 27, 2020, print), Stephens posits four familiar words as a template for answering the topple question: A MORE PERFECT UNION.

Stephens suggests for any given individual, the question should be asked whether that person contributed to the effort to create a more perfect union in the United States. If the answer is “no,” and he includes all Confederate-related figures here, then the person fails the test. The statues should come down and the buildings and military installations should be renamed. Stephens mentions some other examples of non-Confederates who don’t deserve a public building and non-Confederates who do deserve honors on net because of what they contributed to making a more perfect union.

Then he turns the big two: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These two slaveholders who were instrumental to the creation of the United States. He doesn’t mention it, but the latter provided the words or ideals upon which we declared our independence and the former made it possible for that declaration not to be stillborn or a dorm-room manifesto. Eliminate them and there is no country. Stephens writes:

If their fault lay in being creatures of their time, their greatness was in the ability to look past it. An unbroken moral thread connects the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. An unbroken political thread connects the first president to the 16th to the 44th. It is impossible to imagine any union, much less the possibility of a more perfect one, without them.

Stephens contrasts thinking critically about the past for the sake of learning from it with behaving destructively toward the past with the aim of erasing it. He concludes in favor of debate on whether to topple or not to topple:

An intelligent society should be able to make intelligent distinctions, starting with the one between those who made our union more perfect and those who made it less.

By coincidence such an intelligent discussion was held a few days later. The American Historical Association (AHA) held an online presentation with David W. Blight and Annette Gordon-Reed entitled “Erasing History or Making History? Race, Racism, and the American Memorial Landscape” moderated by AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman, on Thursday, July 2. Whether or not they had read this column I don’t know. If not, then the discussion was even more fascinating. They expressed many of the same concepts that Stephens did. They used the term “criteria” instead for the judging of people on an individual basis with Confederates not passing muster. They even thought several hundred people listening to the online event would volunteer for a national commission.

There you see the problem. Stephens’s template for the evaluation of people works well in an academic setting. It is great for high school or college debates. It could work at some academic conferences. However, the evaluation process is bound to be subjective. There would be legitimate differences of opinions even if everyone agreed on the template. Obviously, it ignores the emotional component. Stephens proposes a solution for an intelligent society in a “come let us reason together” setting. That has nothing to do with where America is right now nor is there any political leader proposing a “come let us reason together” approach. This scenario is great on paper but is not possible in the real world as it exists now.

CHARLES BLOW

By coincidence, the next day, Charles Blow offered a significantly different perspective full of emotion. The title is:

Yes, Even George Washington: Slavery was a cruel institution that can’t be excused by its era (June 28, 2020, online).

In case there was any doubt, the opening line is:

On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.

The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved. The fact that their control was enforced by violence was barbaric.

Blow’s template is a very direct one: if you owned people you were “abhorrent and depraved.” Period. There is no other evaluation needed. No netting of the good the people-owner might have done elsewhere. If you own people, then case closed.

There is no room for doubt. No uncertainty. And no exception.

Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, “If we start, where will we stop?” It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself.

To that I say, “abso-fricking-lutely!”

Blow presents an all-or-nothing evaluation with removal as the one option.

I say that we need to reconsider public monuments in public spaces. No person’s honorifics can erase the horror he or she has inflicted on others.

Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.

Blow’s analysis is intensely emotional for him unlike the Stephens column. It also is easy to apply.

But Blow leaves many unanswered questions. If these people like George Washington are so horrific for what they did that they do not deserve public monuments in public spaces, what about the other ways in which such people are publicly honored. What about

The state of Washington

The city of Washington

The mountain of Washington

The university of Washington

The bridge of Washington

The parks of Washington

The dollar bill of Washington

The neighborhoods of Washington.

Dismantling the Washington Monument is challenge enough, but how do you get demolish half of Mount Rushmore?

And let’s not forget that without Washington there would be no United States of America?

Blow doesn’t address these issues. His end game remains undefined. He feels good about toppling the monuments and statues to George Washington but leaves all the other public expressions of him unmentioned.

In my blog Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name? June 18, 2020, a lifetime ago), I raised a similar issue with the Mayor of Albany’s decision to remove the statue of Philip Schuyler. What about all the other public Schuyler examples from a state-owned house, federal owned house, municipality named after him, county named after him, and his role in American history at Saratoga?  As a mayor, her jurisdiction is limited. I did note that one councilmen wanted the removed of all the people-owner names of streets and parks which in Albany means Washington Park. Blow had the option of going where the Mayor could not. As a columnist, he could have advocated for the full cleansing of Washington from the public arena. The logical extension of Blow’s argument means consign everything Washington to a museum, rename it, or demolish it.

WHAT DOES BLOW WANT?

Considered these toppling examples.

The toppling of the statue to Saddam Hussein signified the end of his rule.

The toppling of the statue of Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, signified the end of the Soviet Union.

The toppling of the statue of King George III signified the declaration of independence from British rule, a declaration after a long war which proved successful.

Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the toppling of the statue of George Washington, father of the country, signifies that the topplers are calling for the end of the United States, the end of a country based on the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that he won for us and he then held us together as a country.

Is that what Blow wants? While I don’t doubt that among the woke there are people desirous of exactly such an endgame. They reject not only the symbols of the founding of the country but the founding itself. Blow does not appear to one of them. His call to relocate statues from public spaces to museums (presumably private ones with no public funding), suggests he is not advocating for the overthrow of the United States. But his call for the removal not toppling of statues and monuments of people-owners is simply a feel-good baby step that ignores the larger issues. He has an obligation to explain to the American public what his end game is. He has an obligation to explain to We the People where he would draw the line and why on the issue of the public display of the name of Washington among others. He has an obligation to explain his end game because if he doesn’t, others will do it for him.

P.S. The damnatio memoriae (or “condemnation of the memory”) was tried in ancient Egypt on Queen Hatshepsut and King Akhnaton. Will we now have to erase the names of Pharaohs who had slave labor including Nubians and demolish their buildings or is that up to Egypt? What should we teach about these “abhorrent and depraved” people like Tut?