1619 Project is Commentary

Primary author of the 1619 project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, recently admitted what established scholars knew all along- the project is not history, but solely commentary.

This is why the Pulitzer prize awarded to the project was for commentary, not history. The New York Times was forced to amend the more egregious falsehoods presented by the authors as facts. The Editors still refused to relent on the validity of the essays. They instead utilized a social media campaign to discredit the scholars who criticized the project. A sad state academic circles are in when luminaries like Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz, and James McPherson are labeled racists.

Secondary social studies educators around the country continue to be offered this project as curriculum. Efforts in the US Congress to prevent this are misguided. The 1619 project is far too politicized on its own grounds. The real choice for educators is between editorials based on dubious interpretations, or well established and peer reviewed historical scholarship.

Racial Politics Disguised as History

A panel of distinguished historians called for reasonable debate and corrections to be made to the controversial “1619 Projectproduced by the New York Times Magazine:

We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.

These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.

The Editor’s response was to defend the ideological intentions of the project’s founder:

“The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a chance to respond directly to some of their objections.

Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.

The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).

Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times.

In short, the “1619 Project” has presented a dubious interpretation of a complex and vital part of our history, and refuses to accept criticism as anything but racial politics.

Electoral Protections

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The Electoral College was designed by…. Madison and Hamilton to help guarantee that Federal cooperation was protected in the election of the President.  Fearing that plurality would bring nationalized power to the executive branch, Madison argued that the mixed authority of Federalism was the best protector of republican virtue:

The executive power will be derived from a very compound source. The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters. The votes allotted to them are in a compound ratio, which considers them partly as distinct and coequal societies, partly as unequal members of the same society. The eventual election, again, is to be made by that branch of the legislature which consists of the national representatives; but in this particular act they are to be thrown into the form of individual delegations, from so many distinct and coequal bodies politic.  From this aspect of the government it appears to be of a mixed character, presenting at least as many federal as national features.     Madison, Federalist 39

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Americans enjoy the privilege of voting… yet millions choose not to vote, and many who do take it as seriously as their daily chores.  Uninformed voters squander this important freedom, while single issue voters often trivialize the gravity of elections.  The responsibility of voting was best described by Theodore Roosevelt:

“A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the  character of the user.”

On Force- Jefferson

“We exist, and are quoted, as standing proofs that a government, so modeled as to rest continually on the will of the whole society, is a practicable government. Were we to break to pieces, it would damp the hopes and the efforts of the good, and give triumph to those of the bad through the whole enslaved world.

As members, therefore, of the universal society of mankind, and standing in high and responsible relation with them, it is our sacred duty to suppress passion among ourselves, and not to blast the confidence we have inspired of proof that a government of reason is better than one of force.”

Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, October 20, 1820

Book Review- Chernow’s Grant

Chernow, Ron, Grant, Penguin Press; 1st edition (October 10, 2017)

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     A hefty, yet easily digestible biography  continues the author’s attempts at re-imagining supposedly misunderstood figures.  The actual result is consensus history masquerading as newly discovered insight. 

 

The success of his biography of Alexander Hamilton… and the subsequent musical it inspired, brought about unprecedented anticipation for his latest work.  Chernow has tapped into the millennial generation’s need for easily digestible, episodic history.  His style is to illustrate personal relationships, conflicts, and controversies and explain how the collective memory has misunderstood the stories.  This is best illustrated as he discusses Grant’s well documented drinking problem- never really that drunk, always alert, and kept in line by his dutiful wife, Julia.  Chernow’s gift is his effortless storytelling blended with an authoritative tone.  Trouble is, this analysis is not revelatory, and has been well covered in the work of previous historians.

 

Chernow combs through and pieces together observations from previous Grant scholarship… and artfully weaves it into his own narrative.  His assertion that Grant’s reputation as a poor general is undeserved  was well covered in Bruce Catton’s three volume study from 1960.  Brooks D. Simpson’s 1991 evaluation of the Grant presidency put to rest the many accusations of incompetence and corruption and established Grant’s indispensable role in Reconstruction; points that Chernow meticulously recounts in the final one third of his 1,074 page study.

 

Reviewers have already deemed this biography as “definitive”… despite the fact that Chernow breaks little, if any new ground.  Chernow wants you to believe that Grant has been widely misunderstood and underappreciated.  The casual history reader, unfamiliar with previous Grant scholarship, is best served by Chernow’s efforts.` The popularity of his previous work all but guarantees his place on the bestseller list.

Memorials to War Dead

Virginia’s Governor, his past indiscretions aside, celebrated the triumph of his party in the State legislative election by promising more iconoclasm in the Old Dominion.

      There are over 660 Confederate monuments across the United States.  A scholarly study conducted in 1982 found that nearly half of these are specifically memorializing Confederate war dead.  Another third are generic pronouncements of sacrifices made during the Civil War.  The smallest grouping denotes a celebration of “lost cause” ideology.

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The recent passing of the eminent Bud Robertson, chosen by John Kennedy to chair the Civil War Centennial Committee, has been largely ignored by academics(no doubt due to resentment.)  In one of his last speeches, Robertson derided current efforts to destroy all the progress made by his Centennial commission …. unity, and remembrance.

Today, Civil War history is being molded into something divided, derisive, and vengeful.  Bud may not have been at his best, but he could identify the problem:

“Elements hell-bent on tearing apart unity that generations of Americans have painfully constructed.”

Confederate Monument Dilemma

Practically Historical Offers the Following Solutions

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  • The Confederate flag should never be flown over government buildings or property
  • The Confederate flag should not be banned
  • Monuments to Confederate leaders, political or military, should not be kept on government or public property
  • Monuments dedicated to unnamed soldiers who fought for the Confederacy should be allowed on public property
  • Communities have every right to determine which people are publicly memorialized
  • The destruction seen recently is unacceptable
  • The actions of the KKK and ne0-Nazi groups in Charlottesville are unacceptable
  • Confederate monuments in cemeteries should be left alone
  • Confederate monuments on battlefields should be left alone 
  • Comparing Confederate leaders to our Founders is unacceptable
  • Destroying or defacing monuments to our Founders is unacceptable 
  • Studying Confederate history is necessary
  • Confederate Civil War reenactors should not be ostracized
  • Slavery caused the Civil War
  • Not all Confederate soldiers fought for slavery
  • Not all Union soldiers fought to free slaves 
  • We need to keep reading, writing, and learning…..

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Slippery Slope is Real- Jefferson

In 2017, when Donald Trump predicted the removal of Confederate monuments would lead to attacks on George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, he was roundly ridiculed in the media. This blog is not particularly enamored with the 45th President, but look where we are today. Everyone from rioters in the streets to US Senators are calling for monuments to our Founders to be removed.

It was never just about Confederate monuments. We can all agree that memorials to the Confederacy have no place on public grounds. Rather, this was always about a radical revision of American history. The demand that all historical figures be measured by our modern sensibilities. Those who do not meet the current politically correct standard must be removed.

Questioning the “woke” mob will only expose you to social media harassment and ridicule. Rather than debate, there is pandering to these newly designated cultural assessors. A descendant of Thomas Jefferson called for his memorial to be removed in the New York Times(he called himself a direct descendant, but Jefferson has none, but I digress.)

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many contradictions, and like everyone, he had flaws. But he is absolutely essential in telling the American story. He gave us our creed; crafted words that changed not only our history, but the history of the world. He was the first to admit that the sentiments were not his alone, but he was able to mold the many liberal ideals of the enlightenment into a statement that could transcend mere politics. The foolishly convenient calls for his removal from our national story, even by members of his extended family, are grounded in a fallacy. The erroneous belief that we possess all the answers, that our interpretations are just and final. History does not belong to the self-righteous few. Jefferson belongs to us all.

The Sykes Monument

A New Memorial Well Deserved

George Sykes is one of two Union Corps commanders without… an equestrian memorial at the Gettysburg National Military Park.  Dan Sickles declined one in his honor, claiming “the whole damned battlefield is my monument.  The exclusion of Sykes is misunderstood and often erroneously remembered by historians and students of the battle.

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John Sedgwick missed over a third of the battle… and Henry Slocum’s inaction on July 1 bordered on insubordination- yet both these Generals have mounted statues on the battlefield.  These monuments were constructed by their states in conjunction with the Gettysburg Memorial Association between 1867-96.  The US War Department took no part in the construction of monuments at Gettysburg.  So why was Sykes overlooked?

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Many assume Sykes was not memorialized because of poor performance… in and after the Battle of Gettysburg.  His nicknames of “Slow Trot” and “Tardy George”  have become historical cans tied to his record trail.  Neither assumption is holds water- the truth is more complicated:

  • Sykes’ promotion to Corps command on June 28, 1863 upset some of his fellow officers- especially those who ranked him.  Sykes was given the V Corps at the direction of Meade.
  • Sykes did not have a good rapport with volunteer troops, who in many cases, led the later efforts to erect monuments- Sykes spent most of the War commanding Regular Army troops.
  • He did not have a long career following the war, dying at a dusty Texas outpost in 1880. 
  • Following the War, Delaware was in no position to contribute funds to a monument depicting someone who permanently left the state as a teenager. 
  • Reynolds and Sedgwick were popular leaders with volunteer troops; while Howard and Slocum had long public careers following the War.**

 

**Thanks to Scott Hartwig for the pointers.

July 3, 1863

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Rising to the occasion is a concept so misunderstood… it borders on the cliché.  When used in the wrong context it cheapens actual heroic achievement.  Too often, historic deeds are overlooked because well-worn studies have rendered them routine because of historic scope.  In the pivotal battle of the war, at its decisive moment, actions speak louder than the words of any biographer…. as Confederate soldiers stormed over the stonewall at the “Angle”- decisive action was needed, and General Alexander Webb provided it.

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Alexander Webb received the Medal of Honor for his actions on July 3, 1863.  Webb’s brigade occupied the crucial position at the “copse of trees” which was the focal point of Lee’s attack.  Webb marched defiantly up and down his line during the fierce bombardment that preceded Pickett’s charge.  The confederates under Armistead  charged into Webb’s position and the two brigades were locked in deadly combat.  Seizing the colors of the 72nd Pennsylvania, Webb led a charge into the confederates  at the famous “angle” in the stone wall.   The two generals nearly came to personal blows as Webb’s counter attack brought them to within feet of each other.  Armistead fell mortally wounded while a ball passed through Webb’s upper thigh, but he remained on the field.  Webb describes the action in his report of the battle.  General George Gordon Meade nominated Webb for the Medal of Honor which he received in 1891.

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