Hey Clyde Wilson, I Don’t Believe You!

I know that Professor Clyde Wilson is widely known for his involvement with a number of institutions associated with the neo-Confederate movement such as the League of the South, but this guy was trained as an undergraduate and graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina.  He wrote his dissertation at UNC and went on to write a couple of pretty respectable books, including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew.  Wilson is best known academically for his work on editing the John Calhoun Papers.  I guess what I am getting at is that behind what I can only describe as a commitment to expressing a conservative world view through these organizations there is a well-trained historian.

I have no problem with Wilson wanting to express his political views, but it is incredibly disturbing to see him sacrificing his integrity as a historian to do so?  Consider the following quiz that has been attributed to Wilson at the Confederate Digest site.  [Update: I didn't notice but the source is Lew Rockwell.]

  • What American President launched a massive invasion of another country that posed no threat, and without a declaration of war?
  • What President raised a huge army at his own will without the approval of Congress?
  • What President started a war of choice in violation of every principle of Christian just war teaching?
  • What President said that he had to violate the Constitution in order to save it?
  • What President declared the elected legislatures of thirteen States to be “combinations” of criminals that he had to suppress?
  • What President said he was indifferent to slavery but would use any force necessary to collect taxes?
  • What President sent combat troops from the battlefield to bombard and occupy New York City?
  • What President sent the Army to arrest in the middle of the night thousands of private citizens for expressing their opinions? And held them incommunicado in military prisons with total denial of due process of law? And had his soldiers destroy newspaper plants?
  • What President was the first ruler in the civilized world to make medicine a contraband of war?
  • What President signed for his cronies special licenses to purchase valuable cotton from an enemy country even though he had forbidden such trade and punished other people for the same practice?
  • What President refused medical care and food to his own soldiers held by the enemy country?
  • What President presided over the bombardment and house-by-house destruction of cities and towns that were undefended and not military targets?
  • What President’s forces deliberately targeted women and children and destroyed their housing, food supply, and private belongings?
  • What President’s occupying forces engaged in imprisonment, torture, and execution of civilians and seizing them as hostages?
  • Under what President did the Army have the largest number of criminals, mercenaries, and foreigners?
  • Who was the first American President to plot the assassination of an opposing head of state?
  • Who had the least affiliation with Christianity of any American President and blamed God for starting the war over which he presided?
  • What President voted for and praised a law which forbade black people from settling in his State?
  • What President said that all black people should be expelled from the United States because they could never be full-fledged citizens?
  • What President was the first to force citizens to accept as legal money pieces of paper unbacked by gold or silver?
  • Who was the first President to institute an income tax?
  • Who was the first President to pile up a national debt too vast to be paid off in a generation?
  • Who is considered almost universally as the greatest American President, indeed as the greatest American of all times and as a world hero of democracy?
  • What predecessor is President Obama most often compared to?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions is Abraham Lincoln.  Again, I have no problem with Wilson wanting to express his political views.  Honestly, I could care less about his broader world view.  What I don’t believe is that these questions accurately reflect his understanding of Lincoln and the broader issues related to the Civil War.  The questions are simply too childish and uninformed to be an honest reflection of Wilson’s understanding of the relevant history.  In short, I don’t believe you, Clyde Wilson.

59 comments… add one

  • Robert Moore May 17, 2010

    Childish questions need serious answers. Shall we begin a similar list showing the heavy-handedness of the fire-eaters and hard-line secessionists and the impact on the general Southern population?

  • Lane Kiffin May 17, 2010

    Now Kevin you know how simple minded those SCV boys are.. Dr. Wilson doesn’t want to over whelm their simple minds with more critical analysis of Abe and what he did as President during the War.

  • Andy Hall May 17, 2010

    Shorter Wilson: “Well, of course we know slavery was wrong, but ZOMG Lincoln!

    Kevin describes this as “childish and uninformed,” to which I’d only add, “tiresome.”

  • James F. Epperson May 17, 2010

    Alas, Kevin, I’ve read enough of Wilson’s columns on LewRockwell.com that I fear he really does think this way.

    • Kevin Levin May 17, 2010

      James,

      I’ve read some of those same columns. But here is the problem. Wilson was trained to properly frame questions about the past for serious study. Clearly, the questions contained in this post do not meet those standards, which is why I have to conclude that the list must be understood as reflective of his political viewpoint.

      • Robert Moore May 17, 2010

        Kevin,

        While a contemporary disdain for the current president may be at the root of the recent stuff, I think his position on Lincoln predates even the last presidential race.

        • Kevin Levin May 17, 2010

          Robert,

          I’m sure it does, but I am not really concerned about that. My point is that I don’t believe that the questions asked really reflect how the historian in Wilson views the past.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 17, 2010

        Kevin-That’s one of the most tragic and perplexing questions in modern history-how can people who are trained to know better and to do better (doctors, lawyers, and scholars) not only turn their backs on that but pervert that training & use it to not only serve bad ends but to give those bad ends the ersatz facade of respectability.

  • Jarret Ruminski May 17, 2010

    I suppose its of no use pointing out to Wilson that the answer to many of those questions could also be “Jefferson Davis.” He must know this, right?

    • Kevin Levin May 17, 2010

      Jarret,

      I was thinking the same thing and it gets back to my point, which is to say that Wilson surely knows what a properly framed historical question looks like. No one is seriously going to suggest that one day all of his training somehow vanished.

      • Robert Moore May 17, 2010

        Not necessarily vanished, but obscured or severely minimized by another sort of passion. Is the Dr. Wilson of UNC in there somewhere? Who knows. Does he have anything to gain by saying the stuff that he does? I can’t see it. So what’s the motivation. Clearly, it isn’t a desire for historical honesty.

        • Kevin Levin May 17, 2010

          Robert,

          Perhaps this is the language that he engages in when he is trying to communicate within the neo-Confederate community. [Note: I hate using that phrase, but it seems permissible here.] I don’t know. It does seem to be a stretch to suggest that his skills as a historian have been “obscured” or “severely minimized.”

      • Jonathan Dresner May 18, 2010

        Kevin,
        Admirable though your restraint may be, it seems to me that there are plenty of examples of people whose formal training seems to be only a credential when contemporary politics are at issue — VD Hanson, Newt Gingrich, Thomas Fleming, and Sean Wilentz come to mind more or less immediately as examples of formally trained historians whose political commentaries are clearly an abuse of the discipline they profess. And in those cases, as with the late Stephen Ambrose, it seems entirely appropriate to question the quality and utility of their historical work in light of their polemics.

        • Jonathan Dresner May 18, 2010

          I would note that Wilson himself seems to admit this. The attribution at the bottom of the Lew Rockwell page reads “Clyde Wilson was a professor of history but is recovering nicely, thank you.” I think you should take him at his word.

          • Kevin Levin May 18, 2010

            Jonathan,

            The problem is that I don’t take him at his word. In fact, that short parting comment suggests that I may, in fact, be correct.

    • Margaret D. Blough May 17, 2010

      Jarret-The answer could also be George Washington who, as president, led federalized troops into Pennsylvania in reaction to the unwillingness/inability of Pennsylvania authorities to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. The language about “combinations” (I don’t recall Lincoln using the adjective criminal) comes from the subsequent Militia Act of 1795 which states:

      >>Sec. 2 And be it further enacted, that whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, to call forth the militia of such state, or of any other state or states, as may be necessary to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed; and the use of militia shall so to be called forth may be continued, if necessary, until the expiration of thirty days of the then next session of Congress<<

  • eric May 17, 2010

    I echo the sentiment suggested by the title of your post. As a graduate student at the Univ. of South Carolina, I am well aware of Wilson’s neo-confederate affiliations and applications, but also of his significant contributions to the field of southern history. I cannot understand in what context Wilson would have authored such a tendentious post, other than perhaps a moment of fist-shaking rage at some contemporary political targets.

    Perhaps a better informed blog-reader could share an insider perspective from the Confederate Digest?

    • Kevin Levin May 17, 2010

      Eric,

      Nice to hear from someone in Wilson’s backyard. I’ll say again that there is no link on the blog post in question and I can’t speak for the site’s credibility.

  • Dan Wright May 17, 2010

    I was going to answer “George W. Bush” to a couple of the questions. Would that get me booted out of class?

    • Tom Thompson May 17, 2010

      Dan,
      I think the setup was to direct our minds toward “Bush the Dumber”, then the author could exclaim – “NO! The answer is really Lincoln!” and we are all then supposed to hang our heads and avert our eyes and wonder why we just didn’t see that answer coming.”

      Such tricks are not the tools of the historian. These are the tricks of the propagandist. They are such a clever lot.

      Tom

    • David Woodbury May 17, 2010

      Like Dan, I thought it was interesting that he began the quiz with a question about Bush 43.

  • Christopher Bates May 18, 2010

    I think the answer to what’s going on here is made clear in the tagline to Clyde’s latest article:

    “Clyde Wilson is a recovering professor. Now that he is no longer a professor of history he can at last be a real historian.”

    It would seem his entire career was a charade mounted so that he might continue to draw a paycheck. Now that he is retired, he is ending the charade. So, this article is the REAL Clyde Wilson, whereas the Pettigrew book is not.

    • Kevin Levin May 18, 2010

      Hi Christopher,

      I don’t buy that. Are you really suggesting that his academic publications are part of a charade just to draw a paycheck. Why would someone spend all that time in academia as part of a cover-up? Perhaps it looks better that he can play the I’ve Seen the Light role, but would you go that far as to hide your “REAL” self?

      • Christopher Bates May 18, 2010

        Everyone in academia compromises themselves to some extent–serving on committees they would rather not serve on, going to conferences they would rather not attend, being diplomatic when they would rather be confrontational, etc. It seems evident to me that old Clyde compromised more than most, as that was the only way he could keep a job given what appear to be his “true” views on history, historical practice, and politics. I mean, is it all that big a stretch to think that he might be a slightly less offensive, slightly more Confederate version of Kevin MacDonald?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_B._MacDonald

        Were Wilson’s academic works a complete charade? Perhaps not. But would I trust one of his books, knowing what I know now? Certainly not.

  • Bennet Young May 18, 2010

    Oh my, how you all sit in a circle and wring your hands. How terrible that someone who has your same indoctrination can have a different view. If he disagrees with you, he therefore must ne dishonest or no longer credible. The problem here is not Dr. Wilson. The problem is the uncomfortableness you get from know that the answer to all these questions, however framed, is Lincoln. But what should one expect from a neo-union website. In case you do not know,
    neo-unionists are ones that want a centralized socialist state but try to pass it on as traditional American.

    • Kevin Levin May 18, 2010

      Mr. Bennet,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I assure you I am actually paying Prof. Wilson a compliment since I don’t believe that such poorly framed question reflect his skills as a trained historian. As others have pointed out for many of these questions there is clearly more than one answer. The notion that somehow Lincoln is single-handedly responsible for a centralized state is pure nonsense. In fact, if anyone is to blame for that just look at the history of the Confederacy. In fact, I am sure that Wilson is aware of this as well. You may wish to read the following post: http://cwmemory.com/2009/09/16/are-you-sure-you-are-waving-the-right-flag/

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      • Marc Ferguson May 18, 2010

        Many of these questions also contain false assumptions and outright factual errors, and are therefore dishonest attempts to mislead. For example:

        “What President said that all black people should be expelled from the United States because they could never be full-fledged citizens?”

        The answer to this question cannot be “lincoln,” because he never said that blacks should be expelled from the U.S.

        • Kevin Levin May 18, 2010

          Marc,

          That’s right. If I remember correctly, Lincoln always believed that colonization would have to be voluntary.

        • Margaret D. Blough May 18, 2010

          Marc-I think it resembles the infamous modern practice called push polling. In any event, it presents as absolutes, issues that in fact were intensely controversial. Any of the questions asking about treatment of “another country” ignores the fact that the US government never recognized the rebel states as a separate country and they received no significant recognition as a nation-state in the international community. The question on collecting customs v. being indifferent to slavery has so many things wrong with it, especially treating it as a conflict that never existed. (1) Lincoln was never indifferent to slavery. He did accept that, in peacetime, the US Constitution tolerated its existence where slavery already existed & he did not believe in selective enforcement of the Constitution. (2) Customs duties were created & imposed by federal law. A president’s constitutional duty is to see that the laws be faithfully executed.

  • Christopher Bates May 18, 2010

    If we’re going to start picking on specific items on the list, then I think this one deserves scrutiny:

    “Who had the least affiliation with Christianity of any American President and blamed God for starting the war over which he presided?”

    First, it’s pretty difficult to quantify how “affiliated” anyone is with Christianity. And even if you presume to do so, it seems pretty clear that quite a few presidents were less religious than Lincoln. Thomas Jefferson leaps to mind.

    More obviously, to say that Lincoln “blamed” God is a pretty serious distortion. In fact, he characterized God as just, and the war as a proper punishment for the wicked ways of both South and North. The blame was not on God, it was on those who were complicit in the slave system.

    • TF Smith May 18, 2010

      Come on, he is a white man born in 1941 in South Carolina…is this really surprising? Dowdey and Freeman and Davidson were trained historians as well, IIRC…

      There’s a reason that the first white historian to write a book-length treatment of the USCTs was Cornish, and his dissertation wasn’t done until the 1950s; it was not published until the 1960s.

      Wilson is 69 years old, and a man of his time and place; are you really surprised?

      • Kevin Levin May 19, 2010

        TF,

        This has nothing to do with being “surprised.”

    • Margaret D. Blough May 19, 2010

      The belief that such things as war were God’s will and/or God’s punishment and that God decided who won were held by many if not most Americans at that time & a significant percentage still do believe that. Good point on Jefferson. I don’t think even at his most free-thinking, Lincoln ever produced a version of the New Testament to which all references to the divinity of Jesus was removed. Also, Professor Wilson seems to have forgotten that Article VI of the Constitution bars any religious test for public office.

  • Ralph Luker May 18, 2010

    I’ve known Clyde Wilson for about 40 years, since we were in graduate school together at Chapel Hill. We often disagreed then, as we do on many things now. He is, after all, a paleo-conservative. Yet, as Kevin says, Wilson’s done quite distinguished work as an historian, particularly in editing the Calhoun Papers. I have no doubt but that his differences of opinion with me are differences honestly held. I think that you can read this “quiz” as being intentionally provocative. But ask yourself if Clyde has, with any of these questions, misrepresented Lincoln’s position at the time he took it. I don’t think that he has.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2010

      Ralph,

      Thanks for chiming in on this one given your relationship with Wilson. I assumed that Wilson devised the quiz. If so, all I am suggesting is that he understands that they are poorly framed.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 19, 2010

        Mr. Luker-For me, the problem is that the very fact that Professor Wilson has done distinguished scholarly work as a historian makes that “quiz” far more inexcusable. I don’t expect anything more or better from Lew Rockwell or DiLorenzo. In the case of Professor Wilson, I could understand, though I would disagree, him arguing that the Confederacy had become a separate nation-state, but to present that as a fact, when it was never the position of the U.S. government and there is considerable scholarly opinion to the contrary is deliberately misleading. The one that is most clearly wrong is claiming that Lincoln ever favored forcible expulsion of freed slaves; he, like many, favored voluntary colonization elsewhere, but there are profound differences between that and forcible involuntary expulsion. If you have seen any evidence that Lincoln approved any attempt to assassinate Davis, please let me know. There are a lot of assumptions based on the Dahlgren raid, but assumptions are not evidence. To refer to Lincoln sending troops to NYC without mentioning that it was in response to the Draft Riots where local forces were overwhelmed and innocent, helpless blacks were being murdered is blatant misrepresentation. I believe that the questions go far beyond being provocative and do misrepresent Lincoln’s positions.

        • Marc Ferguson May 19, 2010

          There is also this: “What President said he was indifferent to slavery but would use any force necessary to collect taxes?” I challenge anyone to show a statement by Lincoln that he was “indifferent” to slavery.

    • Marc Ferguson May 19, 2010

      “But ask yourself if Clyde has, with any of these questions, misrepresented Lincoln’s position at the time he took it. I don’t think that he has.”

      Oh, I think he has, and I’ve already given one blatant example of this.

  • toby May 18, 2010

    There’s a bright side … at last, an exhaustive list of all the slanders, calumnies and half-truths that have been repeated about Lincoln. Were there any left out?

    • chris meekins May 19, 2010

      At least one – the old hack-saw of Lincoln’s illegitimate birth: whichever of the myriad claims as to who his father really was that you care to believe (Enloe, Calhoun, whoever).

      • Margaret D. Blough May 19, 2010

        I think a lot of the illegitimacy claims that their roots in people who had difficulty fathoming how people like Tom & Nancy Lincoln could have produced such a son.

  • Old Rebel May 22, 2010

    Anyone care to justify the accusation that Wilson’s little quiz is “simply too childish and uninformed”?

    • Kevin Levin May 22, 2010

      Have you not read the other comments?

      Why not just consider the following: “What President said that all black people should be expelled from the United States because they could never be full-fledged citizens?”

      This is an example of a poorly framed question. Yes, Lincoln advocated for colonization for those black Americans who were willing to go. To say that “all black people should be expelled” is vague. The point of the post was to say that Wilson knows better than this. I don’t mind that he doesn’t seem to like Lincoln. Honestly, I really don’t care either way. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a “childish and uninformed” quiz.

      • Old Rebel May 22, 2010

        Oh, please. It’s a quiz, a blog posting. The point is to draw attention to the gulf between the Lincoln myth and the Lincoln reality. The reality is that Lincoln was a warmonger and centralizer, and the questions illustrate that reality.

        • Kevin Levin May 22, 2010

          Mike,

          You said: “The reality is that Lincoln was a warmonger and centralizer, and the questions illustrate that reality.” Thanks. I think we know exactly what audience Wilson had in mind.

  • Clyde Wilson Aug 31, 2010

    Thanks Ralph for one of the few sensible comments in this ridiculous discussion. These people think a “trained historian” must be someone who agrees with them, and their methods of framing questions (which are loaded with their presentistic assumptions). This eliminates most of the great historians. I note, as always happens in these types of petty discussions, the emphasis is on personal accusations rather than substantive arguments.
    Old Rebel has it right: My quiz was simply to promote thought about the gap between the totally unhistorical Lincoln mythology and the reality of that Republican politician. You people lack a sense of humour and irony, which is a major requirement for studying history and human affairs. Some of the commentators seem to assume that I am some kind of Republican “conservative” stalwart clandestinely defending George W. Bush. Anyone who is familiar with my writings knows that I have criticised Bush far more aggressively than I ever have Lincoln.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 31, 2010

      Professor Wilson,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment here. With all due respect, I think you are not being completely honest with us. As I stated in the post, I have no interest in your political/social/cultural outlook, but I find curious that you would choose to be provocative on the Lew Rockwell website. My guess is that most of the readers of that website did not interpret this as an attempt at humor and irony. I have to assume that you know that. Sorry, but I wasn’t born yesterday.

      I do appreciate the comment.

      • pau Feb 20, 2014

        While I can’t claim to know most of the readers of the Lew Rockwell website, those that I do know did interpret this with a pretty big grain of salt. Sure, it is possible that some people may have been duped into thinking this was an accurate description of Lincoln. But the ones I know saw it as Wilson seems to have intended it.

        I do think he went too far. But regardless of what you think of Wilson or this blog post, the adage, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” is still true. There is a very wide gap between the Lincoln Mythology and the man himself.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2014

          There is a very wide gap between the Lincoln Mythology and the man himself.

          I am currently teaching a course on just this subject. Wilson was clearly playing to a crowd that likely sopped up every word of it. It was, after all, on the Lew Rockwell website.

    • Marc Ferguson Aug 31, 2010

      Professor Wilson,
      How does asking questions premised on outright falsehoods “promote thought about the gap between the totally unhistorical Lincoln mythology and the reality of that Republican politician”? It seems to me more likely to contribute to historical ignorance.

  • Johnny UnReconstructed Nov 24, 2012

    I won’t be as nice as Professor Wilson. I’m not your Gomer Pyle Southern caricature. I’m more a Nathan Bedford Forrest of History. So because Wilson doesn’t share your ‘court’ representation of history, he’s not a ‘real’ historian? How shallow and irrational. Professor Wilson is one of my heroes. And, I despise hero worship. But, I will defend him against your Progressive Smugness. Why not answer his charges against Lincoln instead of the personal attacks on his credentials as a historian? Why not debate issues as opposed to personal attacks upon his character? If he is so wrong, then make him look foolish. How dare the ‘court’ historian go against ‘Thus saith the Government/Court.’ You hide behind Intellectualism, but you are no better than Gomer Pyle reading a book and saying “sha-zam.” Ball is in your court (pun intended). Make Professor Wilson look foolish with historical facts and quit dishonoring his reputation as a valuable and qualified historian.

    As an endnote, you just reaffirm my belief that Progressive Intellectuals like some I have read on this blog are not really interested in diversity and free assent, but are just as determined to gain thought control over all minds just like the Old South planters they despise in their hearts. Hypocrites all of you.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 24, 2012

      Thanks for the comment. You said: I’m not your Gomer Pyle Southern caricature.

      Thanks for confirming that Mr. Unreconstructed.

      You apparently did not read the post carefully enough. I am highlighting the fact that Professor Wilson has done some very respectable work in the field of history. He was trained as a historian, which is why I don’t believe this drivel about Lincoln. Professor Wilson is better than this.

      • Paul Nov 24, 2012

        The trouble lies in the word “better” as an objective term. Those who like their history built on agreed-upon facts and documentation will be at odds with those who cherrypick their facts to suit their agenda. The rewriting of history that began on April 9, 1865, continues.

  • joe johson Aug 15, 2013

    facts and evidence means little to people in a grip of a powerful, comforting delusion- clyde wilson 8/20/09

  • Seth Delconte Dec 16, 2013

    Sooo… you’re not going to try to explain/clarify/refute even one of his claims? It doesn’t help us understand if you just say, “they’re too childish,” or, “I don’t believe those things.”

    • Kevin Levin Dec 16, 2013

      Nope. I have an extensive library of Civil War era books whose arguments I take very seriously. That’s not what we have here. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      • Seth Delconte Dec 16, 2013

        But you take his ‘sacrificing his integrity as a historian’ seriously. Why not quote from your extensive library so we can learn what you know?

        • Kevin Levin Dec 16, 2013

          Read the blog or peruse my published work.

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