Category Archives: Current Affairs

A Bad Day for David Barton, But a Good Day for History

Word came earlier today that David Barton’s publisher has pulled his most recent book on Thomas Jefferson.  Barton is best known as the evangelical Christian, who has built a career on uncovering or reclaiming the truth about America’s founding and Founding Fathers from the community of secular and liberal historians.  Barton claims to be a historian.  Over the past few years he has amassed a growing following who embrace his interpretation of the role of Christianity in the lives of individual Founders and in the establishment of this nation.  Barton enjoys support from a wide range of public figures and is now the official court historian for Glenn Beck.  So what happened?

First, it is important to note that Barton’s published works have been scrutinized from the beginning by professional historians, but to little avail.  What made the difference in recent days is the growing resistance from fellow conservative Christian historians and scholars, who are actually trained in the field.  It’s a growing list, but I would start here and for a critique of Barton’s book, Jefferson’s Lies, I recommend John Fea’s 4-part series.

On the one hand it is unfortunate that it took fellow conservative Christian historians to finally bring about the removal of this book from stores since their religious and political views have nothing to do with the strength of their arguments.  Their arguments stand or fall based on how they read the relevant evidence cited by Barton as well as the strength of his interpretation.  Barton is not being attacked because of his personal beliefs, but on his skill or lack thereof as a historian.  Anyone who spends enough time reading these rejoinders will conclude that there are serious flaws with Barton’s work.  In the end Barton claimed to be offering the general public a corrective to those evil secular/liberal historians without taking the essential step of engaging the relevant historiography.  While Barton may not understand this his publisher certainly does.

So, what does this have to do with the Civil War?  First, Barton and Beck recently tried their hand at doing some Civil War history and as you might imagine the results were pretty abysmal.  More on point, however, it is important to keep in mind that we have plenty of David Barton-types in our own community.  Check out any number of titles from Pelican Press, for example, and you will find the same flawed approach to doing history.  Authors rail against what they see as a liberal/secular bias among professional Civil War historians and other writers, but when it comes to actually engaging their arguments they are silent.  Either they are unfamiliar with their publications or they are simply incapable of engaging the arguments.

Let’s face it, the study of history has become so incredibly politicized that we’ve forgotten that the discipline involves the mastery of certain skills that can be learned in any number of places.  Without getting into another tired discussion of who is and who is not a historian, we can at least say that one’s claim to the title stands or falls on the quality of the work produced.  What we now can say with confidence is that Barton is no historian.

Today was a good day for the discipline of history.

Trayvon Martin and Civil War Memory

Outrage over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last month in Sanford, Florida can now be seen in the form of graffiti on Civil War monuments in New Orleans.  It should come as no surprise.  Monuments to both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were spray painted with the names of Martin and two other local African American men, who recently died as a result of violent clashes with city police.  The spray painted names are themselves a form of memory, but the use of the Davis and Lee monuments add meaning that go far beyond confronting random graffiti on the side of a building.

Irregardless of whether the graffiti can be traced to the black community, the act itself serves to remind the surrounding community that this violence is perceived to be racial in nature.  The use of these particular monuments not only points to the history of racial tension in the community, but to the institutions themselves that were responsible for creating these public spaces and largely responsible for legally enforcing inequities within the public sector.  The damage to these structures reflects a sense of alienation from the community and a rejection of the community’s values as represented in these monuments.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the decision to deface these particular monuments reflects the extent to which memory of the Civil War has been eclipsed or shaped by our collective memory of the civil rights movement.  It is likely that the perpetrators of this act know very little about Davis and Lee, but they know enough to connect them to the history of race in the United States during the past 150 years.  That is clearly a recent development.  The appropriation of the meaning of these sites as stamped with a history of racial injustice is itself an attack on the values and preferred Civil War memory of previous generations.

It is unlikely that the monuments will be cleaned in time for the “Final Four” showdown this weekend.  That’s OK for at least one person:

Pastor Shawn Anglim of First Grace United Methodist Church has a different take on the graffiti that has focused on the controversy surrounding the meanings.“Right now, it’s a need for conversation. And whether done in proper way or not, maybe it’s OK it’s up for a week or so. And it gets some people talking a little bit,” Anglim said.

If only we knew how to talk about such things.

Should Virginians Give Lincoln His Day?

The news that the Virginia General Assembly is considering setting aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln has certainly triggered some emotional responses.  That is not surprising, but let’s not deceive ourselves in thinking that this is a question with an answer.  How we approach this question will be determined by a host of factors, but this has little to do with what matters.

Whether Lincoln deserves a day in Virginia will be determined by whether the sponsors of the bill can gain enough support in Richmond and ultimately among the general public.  This is not about political correctness , but about political persuasion.  In other words, whoever makes the best case within the marketplace of commemorative visions and can rally sufficient support will prevail.  In the context of the public sphere how we as a community commemorate and remember our past has always proceeded along these lines.   One of the comments on the previous post pointed out that the sponsor of the resolution is both a Democrat and African American.  I suggested that it is irrelevant given that Democrats and African Americans have just as much a right as anyone to propose such commemorative events.  Perhaps if the sponsor had chosen to honor an ex-Confederate general there would have been no need to bring up politics and race.  I don’t know.

What gives me comfort is that unlike the formative period of Civil War commemorations we now live at a time when these questions can be discussed and debated by both black and white Virginians.  After all, it is a shared history.

More Ron Paul Shenanigans

A couple weeks ago I linked to a video of Ron Paul lecturing a group about the Civil War and today I came across another segment from that same talk.  It’s more of the same nonsense.  I don’t know what is worse, not knowing any history or butchering it in the way that Paul does.  He doesn’t seem to know the first thing about Jefferson, the Hartford Convention, the relative importance of the tariff as a cause of the war and even the fact that both the United States and the Confederacy instituted a draft.

What I find more troubling, however, is that someone like this has any interest in leading this country.  I truly do not understand why someone who is this antagonistic about the role of the federal government would want to serve in its highest office.  The ease with which people throw around words like nullification and secession disgusts me.  In today’s climate it is used as little more than a scare tactic and reflects a defeatist attitude.

Rick Santorum on Nullification and the Civil War

No, I won’t be voting for Rick Santorum in any upcoming primary, but compared to some of his nutty friends on the right [and here] this seems to me to be a pretty reasonable response to what was probably a question about whether a state has the right to nullify or secede from the Union.

Santorum latches on to the popular Shelby Foote quote from Ken Burns’s PBS documentary about how Americans supposedly referred to the nation as “these” United States before the war as opposed to the postwar reference of “the” United States.  Yes, Americans were more likely to define their allegiance primarily through their states, but such an identification did not exclude strong feelings of nationalism and patriotism.  Just ask George Washington.  Americans north and south identified themselves simultaneously as members of multiple communities beginning with their families and extending outward.  These strong feelings were informed by an understanding of their history going back to the founding of the nation as well as a firm belief in American Exceptionalism.  The process that led to secession beginning in December 1860 was not inevitable nor did it extinguish those strong national bonds in many of those southerners who came to believe that the Union was no longer tenable.

I can’t imagine that this response won Santorum many new friends in New Hampshire last night.