Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Tag: not even past

The American cantus firmus

There is an abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents.

Source: The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear

In a beautiful piece in The New Yorker entitled “The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear,” Adam Gopnik advises us to differentiate between the coming changes that we think are wrong but are reversible, through activism and electoral politics, and the changes that violate our fundamental values, which he claims are irreversible. Gopnik describes this second kind of change as follows:

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

This paean to the enduring values of the republic feels necessary at this point – a life preserver when it seems like the word has gone topsy-turvy.

What do we do, then, with the fact that all of these things – intimidation and imprisonment of dissidents, conjured-up allegations, discrimination by religion and country of origin – are as much a part of our nation’s history as the values Gopnik says should stand against them? Does it mean that our republic is strong enough to endure periods where these tactics intensify, even if the victims of those tactics don’t endure, or that we’re likely to tolerate an intensification of these tactics to the point where we’ve gone too far to go back?

It seems that one way to resist these things that purportedly run counter to the ideals of the republic is to learn more about the conditions under which they have long been tolerated by large swaths of the American public. If we are to save what Gopnik calls “the beautiful music of American democracy,” we must reckon with the fact that much of the time, Americans have been more willing to tolerate dissonance than dissidents. These “best shared traditions” have rarely been shared equally, and there’s no time like the present to think about why that’s been (and continues to be) the case.

Sometimes in a piece of polyphony, the cantus firmus is stretched beyond recognition; you wouldn’t even be able to pick it out if the composition didn’t bear its name. The American cantus firmus has been remarkably pliable, and we’d be well advised to make a study of the ways it has been stretched, reshaped, and inverted if we want it to remain anything more than the title of the piece.

Enough to drive you crazy if you let it

One incessant refrain in the weeks since the election has been how Democrats – and Hillary Clinton in particular – failed to reach out to “working people” and secure their votes.1)This presumes that policy positions were the subject of media coverage in this election season, which they were not. This claim is dubious, but the narrative resonates because of specific, historic ideas we have about who is a worker. Even if we take “working people” to mean people who earn less money, Clinton won those who made less than $50,000 a year. Clearly “working people” is coded white, for white Americans, for politicians, and for the media. To understand white bodies as the laboring bodies that matter in America is unsurprising, given the continued refusal by many to recognize that our economic system was built on enslaved labor. Thankfully, some columnists and activists and many historians have tried to push back against the conflation of the white working class with the working class in general, though to little avail.2)This alone is reason enough for me to find these political and academic calls to drop “identity politics” ridiculous, and rather offensive to boot. There has been a lot of analysis of the way that racial views and nationalism shaped how people voted, even as the drumbeat of “it’s just economic anxiety!” continues. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though.

WPA poster, 1936, LoC,

There seems to be another angle that suggests itself, listening to the constant talk about how HRC couldn’t connect with working people. On paper, it seems strange. The Democratic platform was certainly pro-worker, and Clinton and her husband are far better examples than Trump of the social mobility through hard work and education at the center of the American Dream. And I don’t think we can explain it away by the fact that she became a member of the elite by working in an elite profession; both her husband and Obama did the same, but when Obama rolls up his sleeves and says “workin’ people,” lots of people buy it – or at least bought it when he campaigned, which is what counts for the purposes of this examination.

Still, Hillary Clinton talked about jobs a lot. But Hillary Clinton doesn’t look like what we imagine the American worker to look like, and she talks about American workers who don’t look like what we imagine either. I think this played a much bigger role than anyone is willing to recognize. There is a pair of ideas about women and work that dominate the narrative in America, that women’s domestic labor isn’t real work, and that women only started working outside the home “recently.” Clinton and the Democratic platform pushed back against both, but they’re incredibly hard to crack.

I know they’re hard to crack because women’s labor – productive and reproductive – is at the center of many of my classes, and my students are very resistant to recognizing it. The idea that women only recently began working for money outside the home is incorrect – and quite obviously incorrect if you think about it for more than 5 seconds – but that doesn’t seem to matter much. If you need examples of women’s paid, skilled labor stretching back centuries, scroll down to the bottom.* The important thing to be aware of, though, is how much and in what ways women’s paid labor – and therefore a woman who labored for pay – has been seen as “less than,” “unnecessary,” and degrading to men and their labor. Of course, this was often reframed as paid labor itself being degrading to women – so let’s let them be ladies, amirite?3)Let me be clear – I’m not saying women themselves don’t buy this argument. They do, and the ways that they do have been examined by lots of historians looking at how race, class, and gender operate together.

The issue of women’s domestic labor being a valuable economic contribution is also a difficult one for people to wrap their heads around, given our contemporary understanding that work is a thing you do for wages. I often fall back on the line: “If you’d have to pay someone else to do it for you, it’s work.” It’s why it’s so hard for students to see the economic drawbacks in the shift to wage labor for women, particularly for black women in domestic service, whose skills in the domestic arts were simultaneously impugned and sought out. I always have to prompt students to think about what those wages have to pay for – childcare, in particular – and what is left to do when one gets home. Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for that other work that society frames as duty rather than labor!

Since women’s labor, in and out of the home, still remains excluded from political discussions, for the most part, it’s actually important that we stop and recognize this year’s campaign for who they talked about when they talked about workers.4)Lean In does not count. Let’s be real here. Instead of talking about nostalgia for the white, male, industrial laborer who dominates the narrative (if not ever the actual economy), Clinton talked a lot about people in service work, which dominates our economy, but is often excluded from the narrative. The policies she advocated – paid family leave, affordable childcare – would help men and women alike, in all sectors and fields.

Because women have continued to do most of the housework even as they’ve increasingly shouldered the burden of bringing home the bacon, these policies read as “women’s issues” rather than “economic issues.” These policies could only be read that way because we have yet to reckon with women’s labor, paid and unpaid. That they came from a candidate who was vilified for taking pride in her paid labor and scorned for rejecting the kind of domesticity demanded of her as First Lady seems sadly appropriate.5)Over the summer, in a column written in support of her, Nick Kristof still singled her out for wanting to make money, a characteristic he saw as “unseemly.” No, I can’t give you the citation because I’ve used up all my NYT articles for the month!

For all Clinton reminded us that women’s rights were human rights, it seems clear that we’ve yet to recognize that women’s rights are labor rights too. If we as a culture saw women’s work as economically valuable, equal to the labor done by the men on WPA posters, when a woman talked about affordable childcare policies, she could be seen and understood as a worker advocating for workers, not just a woman talking about “niche” issues. I don’t think it was Clinton’s money or her lack of work experience in heavy manufacturing that prevented her economic policies from “exciting the base.” I think it was that she didn’t “look like a worker,” and that she dared to promote policies that dignified women’s paid and unpaid labor.6)What about Elizabeth Warren, I hear you saying. First, I think if she ran for president on these policies, she’d face a similar backlash. She hasn’t made a name fighting for affordable childcare, though; she rails against banks, the enemy of the working man. I think that makes a big difference. Mary Lease was given a platform to criticize banks and railroads, after all, and she couldn’t even vote.

So many election post-mortems have told us that “working people” just saw Donald Trump as more authentic and in touch with the values of workers, and that the people who rejected Hillary would have voted for Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or some other mythical candidate who always looks pretty much the same, funnily enough. If we’re going to buy that argument, let’s at least be honest with ourselves about what we’re saying.


*In the earliest weeks of U.S. women’s history, we read about women who ran inns and pubs, women who were midwives (who were working to bring home the bacon even when their husbands ended up in debtors’ prison!), women working as paid servants, and women who were being held in bondage, valued for their productive and reproductive capabilities. We see women being paid a pittance to work in textile mills, watching one of their major economic contributions – cloth production – be industrialized and their work “deskilled” in the course of a generation, even as they are explicitly sought out by employers for their expertise. We see these same women taking to the streets for decent wages. We see women working as teachers and tutors, taking in laundry and boarders, and working in munitions factories in the Civil War. Sweatshop labor on the Lower East Side, prostitution, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Rosie the Riveter, flight attendants, pink collar workers, Norma Rae, 9 to 5, and the constant, hidden force of domestic labor. The litany is endless.


References   [ + ]

1. This presumes that policy positions were the subject of media coverage in this election season, which they were not.
2. This alone is reason enough for me to find these political and academic calls to drop “identity politics” ridiculous, and rather offensive to boot.
3. Let me be clear – I’m not saying women themselves don’t buy this argument. They do, and the ways that they do have been examined by lots of historians looking at how race, class, and gender operate together.
4. Lean In does not count. Let’s be real here.
5. Over the summer, in a column written in support of her, Nick Kristof still singled her out for wanting to make money, a characteristic he saw as “unseemly.” No, I can’t give you the citation because I’ve used up all my NYT articles for the month!
6. What about Elizabeth Warren, I hear you saying. First, I think if she ran for president on these policies, she’d face a similar backlash. She hasn’t made a name fighting for affordable childcare, though; she rails against banks, the enemy of the working man. I think that makes a big difference. Mary Lease was given a platform to criticize banks and railroads, after all, and she couldn’t even vote.

What’s the state of our nation?

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton (thanks, Corinne!), and it absolutely lived up to expectations. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve made my peace with the musical, despite some quibbles with the interpretation of the period it presents, and thought about how it might impact my scholarship and my teaching. I thought I was done processing Hamilton,  But then I saw it in the Age of Trump, and I hope you’ll indulge me in what is a rather naive and self-indulgent examination of the feelings it provoked.

To have (black) George Washington pointing at us all while singing “history has its eyes on you” was chilling in a way I did not expect. Lately, it’s felt like everyone in the U.S. is conscious of this, whether they think history will look on this as a moment of triumph or tragedy. I thought that I might see history with the election of the first female president, something I now doubt I’ll see in my lifetime, but since the election, the gravity of this historical moment has weighed on me in a way I couldn’t have imagined before November 8. When I can summon up black humor, I joke that I’ll change the subtitle of US II to “Laws and programs that are currently being repealed.”  But it doesn’t feel like a moment for humor, no matter how black.

Instead, we’ve all been doing what we can, and one of the things I can do is teach. The problem is…my teaching has seemed exceptionally flat, even futile, since the election, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on why. Certainly I think that much of my teaching serves to complicate narratives of progress and perpetual freedom that many of my students come in with. I think it’s important to show students just how hard fought certain freedoms have been, and how much resistance there has been (and continues to be) to rights that many of us take for granted.  I still think that’s an important part of teaching United States history and I will continue to do it.

Since the election, though, I have realized on a much deeper level how fragile and susceptible the “American experiment” was and is. We know this intellectually, and as an early Americanist, I suppose I’m really supposed to know it. I think I always knew it on an intellectual level in my teaching life as well, since I’ve often had students arguing that Japanese internment was a good thing, or that there must have been a way to reform slavery without ending it that would have made it “okay” for black Americans, or that it would be better for all women to stay home since they were the natural caregivers, or that we should reintroduce literacy tests.1)This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.

In response to this, I’ve tried to teach about historical contests over civil rights, and human rights, and the equality of individuals before the law. I’ve hoped that showing students how the “other” is a shifting category might give them pause, especially when they realize their immigrant ancestors were considered “other,” even as they are now considered “American.”

It doesn’t feel like enough right now. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like the right approach. Before the election, I argued that we needed history, not just civics, but in this moment, I don’t quite know how to go forward in the classroom. Despite a full awareness that much has been broken in our country’s past – often much more severely than at this moment – it feels like something just broke and I didn’t know how much I counted on it till it did.2)Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

This feeling of brokenness made me realize that in teaching all the ways the U.S. hasn’t lived up to its stated ideals, I may not ever have been clear enough  with my students – or myself – exactly what those ideals have meant to people, and what they’ve created when they worked.  But I don’t mean the ideal of individual liberty, something my students spend a lot of time thinking about. Instead, I’ve been thinking about whether my teaching really examines ideals like “the common good,” “the public interest,” “accountability,” and “public service.”

These are all concepts shaped by specific historical forces, and have often been deployed in ways that served to divide, rather than unite, but they are important concepts nonetheless, even if the specific terms aren’t in our founding documents. Some would argue they’ve never been true ideals, or not consistently held to, or have often been held up as ideals merely as cover for larger foreign policy goals, and I might agree somewhat. But I would argue they’ve been ideals, and that hewing to them even somewhat has been an important part of maintaining the norms that have sustained the experiment.

In talking to friends who’ve seen Hamilton, there’s always a discussion of the points at which everyone cried during the performance. I didn’t cry at Laurens’ death, but I did cry throughout “It’s Quiet Uptown,” along with the rest of the theater, because how can you not. I can’t even listen to that on the cast recording without crying. And I cried when Eliza told us about the orphanage. What caught me off guard, though, was my reaction to a line in a song that’s never really resonated with me before.

When Laurens walked downstage, with his pint held high, and sang “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away,” a completely unexpected sob caught in my throat. In that moment, instead of understanding that as a paean to individual liberty, I felt deeply how precarious freedom is without the norms of civil society – or even the most modest commitment to the common good – to support and sustain it.

References   [ + ]

1. This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.
2. Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

The cowardice of “no strong convictions”

Many of us in Connecticut were horrified – but not surprised – at video of a post-election gathering at which someone in Klan robes rode around a bonfire waving a Trump/Pence sign while onlookers laughed and cheered. Some, however, including the first selectman, downplayed the seriousness of this.

A town leader downplayed the vile bash. “I think it was just some young people who made a big mistake trying to get attention,” East Windsor First Selectman Bob Maynard said. “I suspect they have no strong convictions and no really racial overtones — I think they were just enjoying the moment. That’s what I suspect, but we’ll have to see what they have to say.”

Now, one reason he might do this is because to him, this sentiment isn’t that weird. And anyone from Connecticut who has an honest bone in their body would certainly agree this isn’t surprising. Many of my high school classmates proudly wore Confederate flag belt buckles; we knew school was out every day when one classmate drove out of the parking lot and blew his horn, which played “Dixie.” I had no understanding of what any of it meant, because like many rural white Americans, I knew almost no black people and my education largely failed to impress upon me anything meaningful about the painful racial history of the country, and of my own state. East Windsor police were quick to point out that this wasn’t part of a Klan rally, it wasn’t “planned,” but that shouldn’t make anyone feel better. It should instead remind us of how readily available these symbols and behaviors are. Should we feel more comfortable with the fact that someone just happened to have these robes at hand for an election celebration? Or that someone thought “Before I go out, let me get some bedsheets and whip out my Singer sewing machine.”

Town leaders claim this is someone with no strong convictions. I would reframe that analysis a little. They’re certainly a coward, but they have convictions, and we need to be honest about that. If we aren’t, we’re even worse cowards.

The other thing that seems particularly important in understanding this incident is the history of the Klan in America. Most Americans think of the Klan as an anti-black organization in the years following the Civil War. That was the first iteration, but it was not the only one. The rise of the second Klan in the 1920s was built on anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-feminist sentiment. That Klan found support in the industrial North, and it found political legitimacy. Many people in Connecticut now hold views or belong to groups who would have been seen by the Second Klan as un-American.


Klan march in Washington, D.C., 1926. Photo taken from the archives of the Library of Congress. 

If you are interested in learning more about this, a great place to start is with the writings of Kelly Baker. You can read an interview with her about her book Gospel According to the Klan here.

But I also offer you this, something that my students in US II read. This is Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, writing in the North American Review in 1926, in a piece called “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism.” Take some time and look at the language used here. We don’t have to see organized Klan rallies to know that the fear and anger that impelled the Klan are still an important part of social discourse today. (ETA: This great post by Graham Stinnett at the UConn archives about the Klan in CT in the 1980s.)

The Klan, therefore, has now come to speak for the great mass of Americans of the old pioneer stock.  We believe that it does fairly and faithfully represent them, and our proof lies in their support.  To understand the Klan, then, it is necessary to understand the character and present mind of the mass of old-stock Americans.  The mass, it must be remembered, as distinguished from the intellectually mongrelized “liberals.”

These are, in the first place, a blend of various peoples of the so-called Nordic race, the race which, with all its faults, has given the world almost the whole of modern civilization.  The Klan does not try to represent any people but these.

There is no need to recount the virtues of the American pioneers; but it is too often forgotten that in the pioneer period a selective process of intense of rigor went on.  From the first only hardy, adventurous and strong men and women dared the pioneer dangers; from among these all but the best died swiftly, so that the new Nordic blend which became the American race was bred up to a point probably the highest in history.  This remarkable race character, along with the new-won continent and the new-created  nation, made the inheritance of the old-stock Americans the richest ever given to a generation of men.

In spite of it, however, these Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed.  There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years.  There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing.  Presently we began to find that we were dealing with strange ideas; policies that always sounded well, but somehow always made us still more uncomfortable.

Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades.  One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding.  The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us.  Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.

Along with this went economic distress.  The assurance for the future of our children dwindled.  We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us.  Shortly they came to dominate our government.  The bloc system by which this was done is now familiar to all.  Every kind of inhabitant except  the Americans gathered in groups which operated as units in politics, under orders of corrupt, self-seeking and un-American leaders, who both by purchase and threat enforced their demands on politicians.  Thus it came about that the interests of Americans were always the last to be considered by either national or city governments, and that the native Americans were constantly discriminated against, in business, in legislation and in administrative government.

What seems most important here is not what a particular iteration of the Klan stood for, but the ways in which it has expressed the fear and hatred of dominant groups who feel threatened by social change. In that sense, it should not be surprising to anyone that someone might put on the white robes in this moment. If the Klan is, and has been, a way for “real Americans” to assert their dominance, this incident in East Windsor shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sadly, the weaksauce condemnation and shock of town leaders and people around Connecticut isn’t surprising either.



No one’s shocked at what happened in East Windsor. But lots of people don’t care because to care would mean self-examination. And the willingness of so many to avoid self-examination is something to be ashamed of.


The weight of history

This election has led to a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the state of the electorate, and I’ve seen a lot of people arguing that the voting population in the United States needs more civics education. In many ways, I agree; I don’t think most voters could explain the mechanisms of our government or the reasons those mechanisms purportedly exist, and it would be great if they could. It would be great if people had more knowledge about “how the government works,” or rather how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t think that’s the solution.

We’re in the middle of this national conversation about what kind of country we want to be. People are thinking a lot about what it means to live in a pluralistic country. They’re thinking about what their vote means to them and to others. They’re thinking about the role the government should play in the economy. They’re thinking about the appropriate balance of power between the federal government and the states. They’re thinking about the importance of civility in political discourse. They’re thinking about gender relations and sexual assault, or trying very hard not to. They’re thinking about whether our government should prioritize the will of the majority or the rights of the minority.

These can be theoretical questions, and we can talk about the general consensus drawn from the values in our founding documents, and we can talk about how we would answer them now. But we don’t have to talk about them just as abstract issues, because they aren’t. And we don’t have to only think about how we would answer them today

This election has also led to a lot of historians freaking out. We’re not freaking out because “history repeats itself” (it doesn’t) or “we should learn history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past” (ehhhh not really), we’re freaking out because we feel the weight of history in this election so acutely. The ability to feel the weight of history in everything you do is kind of exhausting, but weight exists because of gravity, and right now, the weight of history serves as a constant reminder of the gravity of the choices we and others make.1)I don’t think historians are the only ones who feel the weight, but I think we tend to have a broader and more detailed understanding of the past than most people.

So I don’t think it’s enough to know that we have the right to vote and we should use it. I think it’s important to also know that most of us wouldn’t have had the right to vote in the past. I think it’s important to know how hard those in power have worked to keep new groups from obtaining – and then exercising – the right to vote.  Without the history of Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act, Jim Crow, the 19th and 15th Amendments, Dred Scott, Jacksonian democracy, and dozens of other things, the importance of the right to vote is missing so much.

I don’t think it’s enough to know that the electoral college exists and that creates swing states. I think it’s important to know why the electoral college was created – and why states even exist. Without the history of colonies, of the Articles of Confederation, of the Constitutional convention, the 3/5ths clause, the direct election of senators, and the ongoing discussion about federal vs. state power – including a civil war – the importance of the electoral college can’t be fully understood.

I don’t think it’s enough to say that religious liberty is a central right in this country. I think it’s vital to know the earlier drafts of the religious freedom clause, and that non-Protestants were excluded from office holding, and that there was a political party dedicated to keeping Catholics out of power because they were seen as un-American, and that the Klan hanged Jews, and that we’ve only had one non-Protestant president, and that people wanted to burn Warren in effigy over Abington v. Schempp. Without that, it’s easy to glibly say we’re a nation founded on religious liberty; I’d prefer we were realistic about how poorly we’ve lived up to that ideal, or whether that ideal has ever really been the ideal.

It’s certainly not enough to say we’re a nation of immigrants. We are, but Franklin worried about the influence of the German population, and native-born Anglo-Americans worried about the influence of the Irish, and they harassed and killed and banned the Chinese. To say we’re a nation of immigrants and celebrate that without acknowledging Know-Nothingism, anti-colonial activists who raised the specter of Filipino immigrants, the Asiatic Barred Zone, the Johnson-Reed Act, the Klan’s hatred of Italian and Jewish immigrants, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, the bracero program…that is to pointedly ignore the fact that we may be a nation of immigrants but we’ve never really liked it.

And to say this is a landmark election because one of the candidates is a woman…well, you’d stand out, because the gravity of that fact has not been acknowledged or even comprehended. Certainly there’s been celebration of the suffragists, and some mention of Shirley Chisholm, but without an understanding of coverture, of women’s unpaid labor, of anti-suffrage, of the racist and classist divisions within the suffrage movement, of women’s exclusion from jury service, of the use of gendered language to take down male politicians…without all of that, it’s easier to brush off this moment as not that historic. And if you know the history of women in America, you understand that people brushing off women’s excitement in this moment is pretty much par for the course.

This semester, I’ve had a lot of great conversations with students, in and out of class, about how coming to understand how people like them in the past were treated has led to a greater understanding of their place in America today. A Catholic student realizing people like her weren’t always considered American. A black student realizing the contradictions within the idea of paternalistic slaveholding, and the way that myth shapes discussions today. A class full of women realizing the level of physical and emotional violence and exploitation that was visited on women in Early America, and coming to the sickening realization that the way rape was framed at the turn of the 19th century is not too different from the discourse they know.  Almost all of my students realizing that they would have been excluded from voting until 1972, even though they were paying taxes and going to war.

Civics education is good, and we should have more of it.2)Though we should also acknowledge that many who are citizens historically would have been excluded from citizenship, and that many never wanted to be citizens in the first place. It helps you understand how and why – theoretically – the government is set up as it is, and how it’s supposed to function today. History helps you understand how and why – historically – the government has been set up as it has, and how it was supposed to function. But it also tells us who it was supposed to function for, and who it was supposed to exclude, and how liberty and justice have never been for all, and how lots of people liked it that way.

I can admire the theoretical construction of our government, and think “the Founders” were really smart dudes, but I can’t escape the fact that when I go into the voting booth, I am doing something that they couldn’t have dreamed of, something that they would have seen as wrong – not “more perfect” at all. Others can enter the voting booth knowing that people like them have been killed for the right to vote. And many of us should enter the voting booth knowing that people like us have killed to prevent other groups from voting. That is what history provides – an understanding of the weight of the past we’ve been carrying with us, often unknowingly. Perhaps if more of us could feel the weight of history, in time, the burdens would be lighter for us all.

Tl;dr Support history education so Kevin Kruse’s fingers don’t fall off contextualizing everything for us on Twitter.


References   [ + ]

1. I don’t think historians are the only ones who feel the weight, but I think we tend to have a broader and more detailed understanding of the past than most people.
2. Though we should also acknowledge that many who are citizens historically would have been excluded from citizenship, and that many never wanted to be citizens in the first place.

The planks in our own eyes

This is a post that’s been percolating in my brain, and in my academic writing, for a long time. The latest uproar – and the terms of the uproar – over leaked Clinton campaign emails with comments about Catholics has made it clear it’s as good a time as any to put these thoughts out there.

The criticism of these comments, which you can read about extensively in other places, hinges on the idea that Catholics will be offended by the characterization of their religion as “the most socially acceptable conservative religion,” espousing “severely backwards gender relations.” As Patty Miller points out in her recent RD piecemany American Catholics think their religion has severely backwards gender relations.  Much of the outrage is coming from non-Catholic Republicans, undoubtedly aware that Catholics are breaking for Clinton, and more significantly, against Trump. To argue that all Catholics would be offended by these comments is to be deliberately obtuse about the state of American Catholicism. Many historians commenting casually on Twitter have been able to easily compare this “offensive” language to the views of American Catholics, and see the complicated nature of that faith in this moment.

When it comes to our scholarship, though, historians of U.S. history are generally really bad at this. Really, really bad. Frankly, a lot of the work in American history reflects assumptions about Catholicism that are not the product of nuanced historical analysis.

In so many ways, the historical literature tacitly replicates Anglo-American arguments about the nature of Catholicism. The idea that Catholics, without the freedom of individual conscience, were incapable of being full participants in American democracy was an important one in 19th century America. That idea often shapes what voices from the past historians think they need to listen to, since it goes without saying that Catholics had to do what the Pope said and therefore we don’t really need to listen to what American clergy and laity thought. If we do, those thoughts are seen as the products of “bad” Catholics rather than a legitimate diversity of thought within the Church, shaped by local contexts but also by differing interpretations of doctrine. In a sense, many scholars seem to think there was a lack of diversity in Catholic thought (or that that diversity wasn’t allowed) till Vatican II.

Now, the literature on American Catholics and the relative diversity of their views is rather complicated, of course. Anyone who’s read the introduction to D’Agostino’s Rome in America knows what I’m talking about! We want to be able to say “American Catholics” felt this. And there is a reason for this impulse.

The problem is that specialists know that this requires nuance. There’s not even a clear “Vatican” position on anything; read about the history of the writing of the Syllabus of Errors, for Pete’s sake! Specialists also know that this is inherently transnational history – scholars of Catholicism were doing that before it was cool – but in American history, we have a lot of trouble doing that in a nuanced way.

The problem is that Catholicism and its structure are tacitly held up as a foil to American Protestantism – particularly evangelicalism – without a lot of attention to how Catholics themselves spoke and acted and understood their faith, because it’s easy to say “well they weren’t allowed to contradict Church teachings, so if they were, it still doesn’t tell us about ‘Catholicism.'” This circular argument, rooted in the contrast between Catholicism and Protestantism, shapes a lot of scholarship. I’m working on a piece right now on Catholic publishing in 19th century America, and much of the literature on evangelical publishing and its distinctiveness holds up Catholics as an example of unitary thought and self-censorship. These claims are rarely cited, but of course they don’t need to be. Everyone just “knows” what Catholicism is and what it stands for. The structure of the Church, and the political use of that structure in American culture, allows historians to ignore the complexity of historical American Catholicism, often without realizing it. When American Catholics disagree with European Catholics, or with other American Catholics, the tacit belief that disagreement is wrong and not tolerated within the Church shapes how those disagreements are analyzed. Since everyone “knows” there really isn’t liberty of conscience in the Church, those who disagree are bad Catholics, and their disagreements are not treated with the same legitimacy as disagreements among Protestants.

Everyone knows what Catholicism is, and so no one is really pressured to think critically about it. It’s why everyone thought they had the “answer” to my dissertation right away, or questioned the premise. I studied American converts to Catholicism in the 1850s, and the reactions usually fell along a few lines.

  1. Why would any rational American become a Catholic?
  2. Oh, they probably were anxious and wanted a religion that would control them/tell them what to do.
  3. Oh, this was women? Yeah, they were probably attracted to the aesthetics and music, right? [Obviously the misogyny in this answer deserves its own analysis, but let me tell you, it was not uncommon.]

While Moxy argues that we should be attentive to the demographic nuances within Catholicism (go read her whole thread; it’s great!), I’m arguing that we should also seriously reconsider how we study Catholicism, and in particular, how some deeply-embedded and problematic ideas about Catholicism shape our scholarship, even scholarship that is not explicitly about Catholicism. Especially that scholarship. The inherited ideas I’ve discussed here serve to perpetuate this idea of American Catholics as somehow separate from American culture, which means their view on a subject can be cordoned off or even ignored. Moreover, it means that everything American Catholics did in the past gets attributed to their transnational faith culture, rather than their local/national culture, further perpetuating this sense of them as slightly exotic. When we exclude the largest denomination in the United States from our analysis on this basis, we’re not writing the best histories. It also means some really amazing scholarship that’s being done gets ignored because it’s about Catholicism and therefore not enough about America.

You might be saying “receipts!” I haven’t cited much because I didn’t want to look like I was setting up authors as strawmen, but I’ve posted a PDF of the introduction to my dissertation in which I lay some of this out in more detail, with footnotes, in the About section. That being said, a lot of this is drawn from experience – conversations in my department, at conferences, online – as well as published secondary lit and popular culture. I am more than happy to entertain disagreement on the subject, and I’d love to hear what other scholars – especially junior ones like me – think about this.

Who tells your story, or, how Hamilton is and isn’t changing my teaching

The experience of being a historian of Early America1)This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” because I wasn’t doing modern U.S., and the categorization stuck. during the moment of Hamilton has been a complex one for me, and it’s brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the surface.  Looking back over my summer, and the goals I had for my research and teaching, I realize that Hamilton emphasized and amplified some ideas about history that exist in popular culture and among academics. Now that I see the effects those ideas have had on me, I want to put them down explicitly, first in a post about teaching, and at some point, in a post about scholarship.

Hamilton – like every popular book about a president or a war or a “founder” – reinforces lots of ideas about hierarchies of knowledge in the study of history, even as it is subversive in other ways. In plainer language, so much popular history presents specific kinds of people and topics as the foundations of historical knowledge. The stuff you have to know, if you know anything at all. The stuff people expect you to know.

When you study Early America, and something like Hamilton happens, all of a sudden your friends (hi, Corinne!) and your students start asking you about political things in the late 18th century and you realize you don’t know the things they expect/want you to know.  You know outlines, contours, arguments, historiographical debates, and the bits and bobs you include in your survey classes. And some people respond to your lack of specific knowledge of Hamilton’s views on credit with thinly-veiled skepticism about your qualifications to teach history. And you start to think that you don’t teach enough political history, and that you don’t know enough about these people who are so important to the lay audiences you interact with.

If you look at my aspirational list of primary sources I want to be familiar with, you’ll notice Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is there. There’s a million things I haven’t done, and reading that is one of them. Nor have I read anything from The Federalist since college, though I at least own it (and a pocket Constitution, which I had before it was cool.)  Nor had I read a lot of Lincoln’s writings recently before I prepped my Civil War class last year.2)As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a requirement. That professor then turned me into secret Americanist. Even now, it feels dangerous to admit that publicly.  We have a hard time admitting that we haven’t read a classic piece of secondary lit (though maybe it would be cathartic if we all publicly admitted one), and to admit that we study Early America and haven’t really read much by “the founders” makes us feel ashamed. And it doesn’t make a difference to say, in response, “Yeah, but I’ve read a lot of Orestes Brownson…”

In teaching, the only thing I am ever challenged on by students who (as a result of my gender and age) don’t know if I’m really qualified to teach is my knowledge of political history.3)And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars When a student who was particular skeptical of my qualifications quizzed me on some really arcane stuff about the Tyler administration, I couldn’t really say “I don’t know about that and it’s not a priority for me to know about that right now.” But I was thinking it.

It shouldn’t be surprising that students expect me to know political history and don’t even know to care whether I know lots of other things about history. Whether we like it or not, our popular discourse of American history reinforces the idea that political history is the basic framework, and our teaching often reflects that. We don’t stop the survey at 1877 for no reason, but we also don’t stop it because that was the year of the Nez Perce flight to Canada or the year of the Great Railroad Strike.

My resistance to getting to know and love Hamilton stemmed partly from this knowledge. Honestly, I just thought “Great, another thing about a founder that emphasizes that the stories of these dudes are the most important things to know.” And then, as I got to know and love it, I started thinking that I was maybe not a good historian because I didn’t talk enough about politics in the US I survey. That maybe I was not a good historian…because I didn’t know enough about political history.

When I looked at my course, though, and I looked at my lessons and documents and what they cover, and I pondered what I would remove in order to insert a more detailed discussion of the Adams administration4)Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language, I realized three fundamental truths at the exact same time.

  1. I don’t know that lots more political history would help me make the argument I want to make in my US I survey. The argument I choose to make is an important one to me, and I don’t want to lose it.
  2.  I would only be able to devote more time to political history because it has been populated by men who had privilege and access to write like they were running out of time and, leaving aside the burning of those papers, have that writing preserved and made accessible. We get to know them as individuals in a way that we don’t with millions of other people, and that makes their voices and personalities louder. Something about that makes me uncomfortable, but I’ll leave that for my subsequent post on Hamiltoneffects on my research.
  3. I actually teach plenty of political history! You know what things I don’t teach enough about in the US I survey? The history of women and gender. Environmental history. Agricultural history. Labor history. The history of free black Americans. The history of immigration. The history of the Southwest. The history of the Midwest. The history of lots of native groups. The history of utopian communities. Latinx history. The history of Swedish colonialism. The history of French/British Canada. Sylvester Graham. The history of the Caribbean. Nicholas Biddle. The history of religions. The history of ideas. The history of sex. The history of medicine and diet. Whatever the heck happens in British North America in the first half of the 18th century (this is a joke but also maybe not?) Rarely does anyone complain that I’ve not taught enough about these things. I have even gotten complaints that I teach too much about religion and slavery, and if anything, I know I don’t teach those things in proportion to how important they were to the people we’re looking at in the past.

And so, I decided not to put any more in my class about that bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman. He’s in there, just as he’s always been. So is the general, the Pride of Mount Vernon (and that time when he led his men straight into a massacre), and Thomas (you simply must meet Thomas!), and America’s favorite fighting Frenchman. And we’ll still read Bacon’s Declaration and the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and the Declaration of Independence and a letter between Washington and Morris. And we’ll still talk about partisan fighting.

But Hamilton has changed my teaching, and will continue to do so, because it’s made it even clearer to me that teaching American history at the college level has to be meta. We have to talk with our students about the narratives of American history they know, even without knowing that they know them, talk about what work those narratives do, and talk about what work those narratives can prevent us from doing if we think they’re sufficient. I used to do this incidentally; now I’m going to do it consistently.

So, sure, we’re going to talk about why every other Founding Father’s story gets told, and whether that’s even true.

We’re going to talk about what happens when they try to tax that whisky, from the perspective of the people whose whisky was taxed.

We’re going to talk about who’s really doing the planting.

We’re going to talk about immigrants.

We’re going to talk about why Eliza has to put herself back in the narrative, and why we have to work so hard to put so many people back in the narrative.

And we’re going to put Sally back in the narrative.

And that will be enough.



References   [ + ]

1. This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” because I wasn’t doing modern U.S., and the categorization stuck.
2. As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a requirement. That professor then turned me into secret Americanist.
3. And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars
4. Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language

When did America stop being great? Another darn good question.

“We have been overlooked, with all these special-interest groups getting their way.”

Source: We asked Trump voters, “When did America stop being great?” Their answers were amazing.

A fascinating counterpoint to this earlier video produced by The Atlantic that I mentioned last week. I think these things matter to us as historians because, as John Fea and lots of other historians have pointed out, the election is being framed as a referendum on the current state of the nation as opposed to a forgotten/decaying/dying America of the past.

As historians, one thing we can do is interrogate claims people are making about the past, but the question has been raised: should we do this for current events, particularly for this election? I mentioned earlier that I was looking to have my students in the U.S. surveys this fall read public writing by historians and think about the role historians play in the public sphere; Stanley Fish’s recent condemnation of Historians Against Trump, and Ken Burns’ Historians On Trump videos seem to have made this assignment even more important. I think I will assign the Fish article as part of the larger assignment.

But I wanted to reshare a story from an earlier post about how much my students wanted context, and how history helped them think about a fundamental question in American history:

Last fall, in U.S. II, my students always wanted to talk about Trump, and I asked them to think about Tom Brokaw’s claim that Trump’s plan to bar Muslims was un-American. At first, they were firmly of the view that this was not about American values, that we didn’t exclude people. And then one student said “Wait, what about the Chinese?” And then another student said “What defines American values, then, what is on paper or what we do?”

We didn’t spend time answering that last question, because that wasn’t the point. The point was that something my students had viewed as black and white now seemed more complex. We should watch videos like the one above in historical context, with the help of historians, because they don’t just tell us about today, they also tell us about how we imagine the past that led to today.

And yes, that’ll probably make black and white arguments more complex and thorny. That’s what history does.

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