Civil War, History, Trump

The Price of Historical Ignorance…

      “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican. Does anyone know? Lot of people don’t know that.”
       President Donald J. Trump riffing on Abraham Lincoln. 
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I just finished reading a remarkable new book that has nothing and everything to do with the historically ignorant fellow who now occupies the Oval Office. The book – The Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy by Matthew Karp – details, in a manner I have never fully appreciated, the political stranglehold southerners held over American foreign and military policy prior to the Civil War.

Karp, a historian at Princeton, has produced a truly fine book that not only manages to make interesting what might seem to be a dry subject in American history – pre-Civil War foreign policy – but he also illuminates why slaveholding southerners fought so hard to shape the country’s international posture. Spoiler alert: It was all about preserving slavery and its perceived economic benefits not only in the United States but also in much of the western hemisphere. Cuba and Brazil, for example, were slave nations and southerners reckoned that the U.S. could best preserve its “peculiar institution” by encouraging its survival, indeed expansion, in the hemisphere.

Southerners and others favorable to slavery dominated the American government and particularly our foreign and military policy, until 1860. Karp makes the observation that, “the antebellum president least sympathetic to slavery,” Zachery Taylor, “owned 300 slaves.” Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was therefore seen as a profound threat to the “peculiar institution” and by the time Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861 the path to disunion was well worn by the secession of seven southern states.

Zachery Taylor, the president prior to the Civil War most hostile to slavery, and he owned 300 slaves.

“The national triumph of the Republican Party, a political organization that existed almost entirely in the non-slaveholding North, had no precedent in the history of the United States,” Karp writes. “Never in eighty years of American existence had the country been governed by a chief executive who openly opposed black servitude.”

Donald J. Trump doesn’t operate at this level of historic detail or nuance and never will. His amazing comments a while back seeming to express surprise that Lincoln was a Republican should have had every GOP precinct worker in American scratching their heads in disbelief. And his remarkably incoherent recent ramblings about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War present in striking relief just the level of the man’s lack of awareness, or even more seriously, his lack of interest.

Why Was There a Civil War? 

Trump’s ignorance of history, and I’m talking just basic eighth grade level stuff here, was fully on display recently when he told journalist Selena Zito, “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War?”

The guy who likely couldn’t pass the civic and history test immigrants take to qualify for citizenship then opined that his new hero Andrew Jackson, dead 16 years before the Civil War began, was “really angry” about the whole business.

CIVIL WAR: APPOMATTOX, 1865.
The Surrender of General Lee to General Grant, 9 April 1865. Oil on canvas by Louis Guillaume, 1867.

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” the president said. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said “There’s no reason for this.’”

Actually there was a reason – a very good one – for the Civil War: slavery.

It should probably be no great surprise that a president who wants to end federal support for libraries – the arts, humanities and public broadcasting, too – has a more tenuous grasp on American history than anyone who has ever occupied the office.

Trump’s historical – and historic – ignorance is no small, laughing matter, but rather deeply dangerous, potentially catastrophically so.  For as the esteemed Columbia University historian Eric Foner has said, “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a ‘usable past’: 
a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”

Trump’s Drunk History…

Writing in the New Republic Jeet Heer compared Trump’s historical ignorance to the “inebriated ramblings found on Comedy Central’s Drunk History.” We have come to expect a basic level of intelligence from the chief magistrate about the nation’s history, but Trump could no more pass a basic history quiz – an AP history course would leave him muttering – than he can speak in complete sentences. It is profoundly obvious that this vacuum of basic knowledge impacts policy and priorities, sometimes dangerously so.

Iconic photo of French Marshall Petain, the leader of defeated France – Vichy – meeting Hitler in 1941

Trump recently displayed his ignorance about China and Korea. He clearly doesn’t understand the complicated history of Russia and Ukraine or that his statement that Canada has treated the U.S. badly is total bunk. Trump’s open cheerleading for the far right National Front in France betrays a stunning lack of understanding of modern French history. If Trump knew anything about Vichy it must be that they bottle good water.

The president’s claim that it will be easy to bridge the Israeli-Palestine divide is the boast of someone who has never heard of the Balfour Declaration or has only a fragmentary understanding of the history of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Trump’s essential arrogance is on display in all these areas and a dozen more and his grasp of how history relates to current issues is driven by the worst possible combination of ignorance and hubris.

One more example: Journalist Dave Owen is out with a new book on the Colorado River, the over appropriated liquid lifeline of the American Southwest. As part of his reporting on the challenges which confront the Colorado, Owen talked at some length to candidate Trump. Owen’s assessment of Trump’s knowledge of the issues is both brutal and a quite typical of nearly everyone who has studied the guy.

The Colorado River basin in the American Southwest

“He knows as little about water as he does about anything else,” Owen said of the president. “He said you could solve your problems out there with a big pipeline to bring the water in, or you could do that thing when you take the salt out of the ocean – desalination.

“He definitely thinks there’s an easy solution, and he’ll discover that it’s really complicated. Water is a lot bigger than he is, and it will defeat him. The relationships, the legal structures, the international agreements – it’s all beyond anything that he could possibly comprehend.”

Any westerner with even a passing understanding of water, its uses and the complicated and contentious history of the resource knows that the president’s policy prescription – a big pipeline – is not just ridiculously naïve, but completely unrealistic.

A growing group of American historians have joined the “resistance” to such fundamental ignorance. Penn State historian Amy Greenberg recently told The New Republic, “I haven’t critiqued a sitting president before. I’m a historian.” But Trump’s broad misunderstandings and extraordinary lack of knowledge have her “speaking out in favor of elected officials knowing basic, elementary level U.S. history.”

“If we had an undergrad who wrote what Trump said in an essay,” Greenburg said of the president’s Civil War and Jackson comments, “that student would not pass that exam. That student would fail.”

A particularly pernicious aspect of Trump’s fumbling around with Civil War history is that it helps embolden the still very active “revisionist” view of what America’s great tragedy – the Civil War – and its enduring historical stain – human bondage – meant in the 19th Century and how those battles continue to play out.

Lee Circle – as in Confederate General Robert E. Lee – in New Orleans.

As historian Manisha Sinha noted recently in the New York Daily News, If nothing else, President Trump and the Republicans are making Civil War revisionism great again. A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina GOP state Rep. Larry Pittman argued that Abraham Lincoln was ‘the same sort (of) tyrant’ as Adolf Hitler, and was ‘personally responsible’ for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in an ‘unnecessary and unconstitutional’ war.”

The revisionist arguments go all the way back to the post-Civil War memoirs of various players in the great national conflict and was cemented on the silver screen with the epic 1939 film Gone With the Wind, a classic film that is also a classic case of spinning the war and its aftermath into a glorious narrative of chivalry, state’s rights and an elegant way of life.

Look no further than the current turmoil in New Orleans where Mayor Mitch Landrieu has led the charge to remove various Confederate monuments that the mayor says don’t illuminate southern history, but rather distort it. Demonstrators waving Confederate flags have disrupted the removal and contractors doing the work have received death threats. The entire episode, as the New York Times notes, “demonstrates the Confederacy’s enduring power to divide Americans more than 150 years after the cause was lost.”

Having a historically ignorant president stoking the already hot embers of “why was there was a Civil War” is simply piling on the racial and other divisions Trump has ridden all the way to the White House. He may be ignorant of his country’s history, but the ignorance serves his own, but not the nation’s, political interest. A president who cannot differentiate between Chinese and Korean interests in the matter of nuclear weapons or who views Middle East peace as a simple deal to be hashed out on the golf course only serves the interest of confusion and chaos, a dangerous mixture in a hair trigger world.

Harold Evans, a distinguished British historian and journalist, has the perfect way of describing what Trump (and others) do when they distort or refuse to understand history. “Dishonest leaders,” Evans wrote recently, “have learned nothing and forgotten everything.”

The United States in 2017 – this is where we are. Hug a historian, or at least read one. You will be doing what our president can’t and won’t do.

Higher Education, History, Wilson

Air Brushing Woodrow Wilson…

I begin from the premise that activism on college campuses is a good thing. Any society should want engaged, involved, opinionated, activist young people.Princeton-University-logo

It is also a premise of mine supported by much research, that many Americans have at best, a cursory knowledge of our history – our complex, often contradictory history. A lack of historical perspective (and knowledge) leads in many unfortunate direction and, I submit, contributes to the often “fact free” debates about politics and public policy that increasingly dominate news coverage and political debates.

American Historical Amnesia…

We have, for example, a continuing and often uninformed debate about “American exceptionalism,” the notion that the United States above all other nations is favored and that the U.S. always acts out of the best, most unselfish motives. It’s a myth, but no Republican candidate for high office would dare point out, just to cite one example, that some of our continuing trouble with Iran dates to the CIA-sponsored over throw in the 1950’s of the democratically elected government of that country.

We continue to debate whether the great defining event in the nation’s history was brought about by the founder’s inability to deal with the inhumanity of human bondage. The Civil War never ends and neither do the arguments about the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy.

Surf the Internet and you’ll find crazy theories about the attacks on the World Trade Center and whether Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon. Follow the political campaigns and listen to people who aspire to the nation’s highest office talking absolute nonsense about things that are absolutely knowable. Historical illiteracy is a dangerous condition in a democracy.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President

So, to connect the dots: it seems fine to me that Princeton students debate the legacy of the man who made their school a world-class university, served as governor of New Jersey and two terms as president of the United States. That Woodrow Wilson was also a racist, and even by the low standards of his day a virulent one, is also part of his legacy.

Wilson: Not Either/Or…But Both…

But the Princeton debate about Wilson really requires that we struggle with the nuances of his legacy, as well as the contradictions of the national story. The effort to really understand American history requires that we frequently hold two – or more – conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time. Wilson’s legacy is that he was both an unreconstructed racist and an enormously important president.

As the accomplished University of Chicago legal scholar Geoffrey Stone argues, “It would, of course, have been great if Woodrow Wilson, like some others of his generation, had directly challenged the morality of racial segregation. It would have been great if he had not believed in the principle of white supremacy. But, like all of us, he was a man of his own time, and he should be judged accordingly.”Wilson - Fed_Reserve

The substantial Wilson legacy, also part of the effort to judge the man and his times, includes creating the Federal Reserve System, the income tax, wage and hour laws, the Federal Trade Commission and appointing the first Jew – the great Justice Louis Brandeis – to the Supreme Court. Wilson’s arguably naïve and idealistic notions about international relations in the wake of World War I nonetheless created a theory of America’s role in the world that persists to this day. For good or bad, and I’d argue for good, there would be no United Nations today had there not been Wilson’s vision for a League of Nations.

Thus, as Geoff Stone says, “when all is said and done, Wilson should be judged by Princeton, as he has been judged by historians, not only by the moral standards of today, but by his achievements and his values in the setting of his own time.”

History is full of things we might conveniently forget, but does that really help the Princeton student’s quest for true equality?

All Had Feet of Clay…

You need not embrace Wilson’s racism to appreciate the importance of his presidency whether at Princeton or in Washington, D.C. You can repudiate Jefferson’s slave ownership, while marveling at the language of his Declaration of Independence. Lincoln saved the Union and trampled on civil liberties, just as Wilson presided over some of the worst abuses of civil liberties in modern history.

Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the most important in the 20th Century, helped create modern America, including the establishment of lasting institutions like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Social Security. Roosevelt led the Allies to victory in World War II, but he also interned thousands of American citizens merely because they were of Japanese-American descent and refused to buck public opinion to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Europe’s horrors. Roosevelt never appeared to have a second thought about such decisions, which must be included in a significant part of his legacy.

Lloyd George, Orlando, Clemenceau and Wilson in Paris in 1919
Lloyd George, Orlando, Clemenceau and Wilson in Paris in 1919

Teddy Roosevelt was an occasionally reckless warmonger who was also the greatest conservationist to ever sit in the White House.

American history, like all history, is fascinating because the people and events are complicated and contradictory. It forces us to look at the conflicting realities of our ideal by placing the great and the terrible side-by-side. Woodrow Wilson fascinates and bedevils us not because he was perfect, but because he was far from perfect and still matters. Rather than erase his legacy we should learn from it. Understanding the lessons of a racist president of a hundred years ago really should help us grapple with the reality of the racism that still pervades America in 2015.

You don’t need to be steeped in American history to know that the country with all of its flaws and marvelous accomplishments remains a work in progress. Scrubbing out the flaws of a Wilson, a Jefferson or a Lincoln, all of whom were part of the progress and examples of some of the greatest flaws, doesn’t illuminate, but rather obscures.

Better to debate Wilson than forget him or worse yet air brush him from the far larger American story.