Every once in a while I tune into the Glenn Beck Show. In a media world where conversations/interviews are much too short, Beck at least tries to dig into specific topics during his hour-long show. I especially enjoy his Friday show, which in recent weeks has been devoted to historical topics. History for Beck is part of his broader political-cultural world view that sees fascism, communism, atheism and every other -ism at America’s doorstep. I am actually fascinated by his ability to weave a complex web that makes perfect sense if you accept just a few of his assumptions. In the end, Beck is doing exactly what Father Charles Coughlin would do if he had access to the same media. According to Beck America has been on this road since the Progressive Era. I don’t claim to understand his particular historical outlook, but as far as I can tell every American president in the twentieth century, including Eisenhower and Nixon have contributed to this dastardly turn. Well, whatever…enough with that.
This past Friday, Beck focused on the Progressive Period once again with particular attention on the racism of Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger and a reappraisal of the “Robber Barons.” Beck was joined by Burton Folsom Jr. and Larry Schweikart. Neither is a serious historian and Schweikart is a complete hack. You may remember a recent post of mine which critiqued a FOX interview with Schweikart, who made some ridiculous claims about the state of history textbooks. [See here, here, and here] At one point during the interview the subject of Abraham Lincoln came up along with the subject of slavery and the Confederacy:
BECK: If you want to learn the truth about history, sign up for Insider Extreme account at GlennBeck.com. Watch our special Friday features this week. Top liberal lies based on Larry Schweikart’s book “48 Liberal Lies.”
Back with us, Larry Schweikart and Burton Folsom, Jr. Before we go to Margaret Sanger, we were just having a conversation off-air because we were talking about this racist movie, “Birth of a Nation,” that was Woodrow Wilson, based on — I’m almost positive is based — what was the name of that book?
SCHWEIKART: “History of the United States.”
BECK: “History of the United States” by Woodrow Wilson. Just a racist Klan movie, that’s all it is.
And — so, we started talking about it and Reconstruction. And during the break, I asked, Abraham Lincoln — I know this is a really controversial idea — I think Abraham Lincoln was a good guy, but there’s a lot of people, especially down South, think Abraham Lincoln was a bad guy. Good guy/bad guy?
SCHWEIKART: I like Lincoln a lot. I realize that he goes overboard in terms of many executive powers in the Civil War. You can justify those by war-time needs. But —
BECK: He gives them back. It’s like — it’s like Washington. He could be a tyrant but he gives — he restores the rights. And that’s important.
SCHWEIKART: You know, what’s so amazing about Lincoln is, before he was elected president, he does a speech where he talks about respect for the law and he means the Constitution. And he said, we should teach this to every baby, every preacher in the pulpit ought to be preaching the Constitution. And you are talking earlier about these immigration pastors, do you think they’re preaching the Constitution from their pulpit?
BECK: No, no.
So, Burton, you don’t like him?
FOLSOM: No, I do. I think that he had a great reverence for the Constitution. He believed in natural rights. And as Larry was saying and you were saying, too, the problems that occurred in the war with the income tax, even a progressive income tax, the newspapers being denied civil liberties, even legislators being carted off and put in jail, even a congressman having his constitutional liberties violated. All of that was done away with after the war and the nation went back on a path of redeeming a lot of the war debt.
FOLSOM: We have paid off — in the 50 years after the Civil War, we paid off half of the Civil War debt.
BECK: So, I think you guys are going for real — I mean, those are really good examples. The one I always hear on Lincoln is, well, that he was — I mean, he was — he got rid of the state rights. But I actually went down to the Civil War museum in the South and asked to see a copy of the Constitution. And they rolled out the real copy and I read it.
And that’s not about the state rights. That is about the slavery. Because you’re joining the Confederacy, you don’t have a right to drop out of slavery or tell anybody that no slavery. You had to participate in slavery.
SCHWEIKART: There are three separate clauses in the Confederate Constitution dealing with slavery. And one of them says that even if, say, Alabama opts out of slavery, it still has to recognize the right of Mississippians or Floridians to bring slaves into Alabama.
SCHWEIKART: So, it’s very clear what the document was about.
BECK: And it wasn’t even — it wasn’t just allowing slavery. It was re-establishment of the slave trade.
I have to say that I found this interpretation of Lincoln and the place of slavery within the Confederate experiment to be quite surprising. I mean, where is the Lincoln the Tyrant theme that includes his abuse of the Constitution? And in opposition to this tyrant image, where is the Confederate commitment to states rights? Instead, we are presented with a much more moderate and, in my view, accurate view of Lincoln’s handling of civil rights during the war and a Confederate government that is committed to the preservation of slavery. [Note: Beck does miss the mark on the slave trade reference.]
Finally, I don’t spend much time thinking about the FOX News audience, but I hear they are a fairly conservative bunch. What do these folks make of these comments given the number of times that I’ve heard Lincoln’s name referenced on the channel as the best example of a president who abused his Constitutional powers? I honestly thought that was the party line at FOX. Very strange, indeed. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.
Just for the record: While The Clansman is certainly the primary source for Birth of a Nation, Wilson’s History of the United States is, if I recall correctly, quoted in an intertitle in the film. And of course there is the (likely apocryphal) story that Wilson praised the movie as being like “history written with lightning.”
Great to see conservatives rejecting the DiLorenzo version of Lincoln.
Glenn Beck transported back to 1860 is an interesting feat of imagination- my guess is that, if he lived in the North, he would have been a Copperhead journalist. If he lived in the South, he would have been the nemesis of Jefferson Davis’ attempt to run a centralized total war.
Given his passion of late for civil rights perhaps he would have been an abolitionist. 😀 In the South he would be clamoring against the intrusiveness of the central government for sure.
Two things strike me about this clip. First, by citing pre-Civil War Lincoln’s respect for the Constitution, they’re valorizing the pre-13th/14th amendments version of the Constitution, which doesn’t conflict at all with the ‘originalist’ views of his audience. Saying “the Constitution should be taught” suggests that he thinks the problems with the US today are the result of ignorance of the ‘real’ meaning of the Constitution.
Second, the bit about ‘going to the museum’ is a fantastic bit of showmanship which allows him to claim great originality for himself, to bypass the fact that generations of historians have been arguing the same thing, and to highlight his ‘go to the old sources’ approach — which, as an historian, I’m fine with, but doing so without a strong understanding of context is mostly an invitation to misunderstanding. That he got it mostly right this time is sheer accident.
Implicit in the criticism of Lincoln’s administration that we hear from the “Lincoln bin-Laden” crowd is the unspoken lie that the CSA was a tax-free, conscription-free zone of civil liberties. Even though Beck seems to belief that there is THE Civil War Museum somewhere in the South, and that perhaps one must go there to read a “the real copy” of the Constitution, I’m pleased and relieved that he told his viewers the war was about slavery. I wonder if he will have to climb down from that position.
Yes, historians have clearly shown over the past few years that this view of the CSA is simply wrong. In fact, one could make the argument that the Confederacy was even more intrusive and centralized than the Lincoln administration. I don’t know if I more relieved or surprised by Beck’s interpretation of Lincoln and slavery.
I don’t really think this is inconsistent with Beck’s larger project, which is basically to demonize progressives while simultaneously claiming — especially with respect to race — a superior moral vision of human equality. By depicting Lincoln (not, as you point out, inaccurately) as a lover of the Constitution and individualizing him as a great man of history, Beck never has to deal with Lincoln as the leader of a party that advocated for the exercise of federal power in ways that Beck, transported to 1860, would have deplored. We don’t even have to reflect on what Beck’s Mormon faith would have meant for his political leanings at the time of the Civil War; in nearly every meaningful respect, he’s the sort of “Apostle of Disunion” that Charles Dew describes in his fantastic little book. He would have hated Lincoln at the time, but what’s really on display here is the fungibility of Lincoln’s historical meaning….
You make an excellent point. Beck gives up quite a bit on Lincoln and the Constitution, which is what struck me as so odd given his rantings about the dangers surrounding a strong central government. Thanks for reminding me of his Mormon faith. That’s another interesting piece of the puzzle.
I’m sure most of your readers will already know this, but “Birth of a Nation” was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel “The Clansman.” And, Wilson’s book was titled “History of the American People.” I’m not a Wilson scholar, but he apparently saw Reconstruction the way it was widely viewed in the early twentieth century; a time when southern whites were oppressed and denied their political rights while the newly freed slaves and carpetbaggers corrupted government and levied exorbitant taxes. The Klan was merely a response to this intolerable situation. I wonder, though, if Beck has ever even seen the movie.
Beck and others are engaging in a silly form of reductionism. Wilson’s racial outlook has probably little to do with his Progressive agenda.
What was that nonsense about Birth of a Nation being based on a Woodrow Wilson book?
You can’t expect me to point out every mistake in an hour-long show. 😀
The answer lies in one of those mind-bending contortions found on the Radical Right that give most of us a headache, or vertigo, when we try to wrap our minds around the argument being made. Bruce Wilson points out in “Glenn Beck’s History ‘Expert’ Endorses Biblical Slavery” (http://bit.ly/aFkxy9) that David Barton, whose work you know well and who is also a professor at Glenn Beck University (yes, there really is such a thing!), is up to his pointy little ears in the Christian Reconstructionist dogma of R.J. Rushdoony. In that warped old theocrat’s view of the world, Southern slavery was wrong because it wasn’t *Biblical* slavery. The latter being still okay in the Christian Reconstructionist corner of reality. Mormon convert Beck is a disciple of the late Mormon fanatic Willard Cleon Skousen (1913-2006) and his crackpot conspiracy theory of history. Skousen first earned a bit of a national reputation for himself in the 1960s for his enthusiastic defenses of the John Birch Society. (Alexander Zaitchik did a profile of Skousen and his influence on Beck last year: http://bit.ly/9YDdNA) Screaming contradictions don’t seem to bother people from this grim corner of the political world at all.