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Archive for February, 2009

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In troubling times, it is common to step back and reflect upon core values.  For Americans, the current economic crisis encourages people to re-evaluate priorities and hopefully think about the precious history of the democratic republic which they live in.  To know our history is to know men like Thomas Jefferson.

While both US political parties today will try to claim Jefferson as their own, it is quite unlikely that he would have associated with either group.  Jefferson was a staunch believer in republicanism and the rights of states, with a limited federal government that served the interests of the people.  He had a deep distrust for banks and other governmental institutions.  Upon the founding of the Bank of the United States, he stated:  “I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”  While he deemed a federal government necessary, it should never infringe upon the rights of individuals.

It is strangely ironic, then, to consider that the man who championed individual rights in early America was also a slaveholder.  During his lifetime, he quite often made the case for the immorality of slavery.  Yet he failed to act, partly due to the fact that he was renowned for running deeply into debt.  Slavery for him was a financial necessity.  Similarly to Abraham Lincoln, he also saw the black people as an inferior race.  He wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. [But] the two races…cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”  That same man who wrote of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness could not bring himself to grant those rights to the African American.

It is important that we understand this aspect of Jefferson’s character, so that we might fully understand the hero of American republicanism.  Like Lincoln, he lived in a slaveholding society, where the South was increasingly dependent upon slaves for its economy.  The job of abolishing slavery, in his view, should be pushed on to future generations who would hopefully become less and less tied to the practice.  It is this view, coupled with his statements on American banking above, that I wish to place my focus.

The United States currently is in the midst of a deepening recession.  The Democratic majority in Congress, coupled with a Democratic president, see the solution to this crisis in the form of deficit spending, in the hope that this will “stimulate” economic growth.  In Jefferson’s words, “spending money to be paid by posterity”.  Recently, a stimulus bill was passed that the majority of Congress didn’t even take the time to read.  Had they read it, they would have been greeted with a bill filled with special interest projects, one of which consisted of a railroad being built in Senator Harry Reid’s home state of Nevada.  Another amount went towards the creation of “green” golf carts.  Prohibitions on funding towards stadiums, community parks, museums, and other buildings was also dropped, allowing states to spend money on whatever suits the fancy of the local officials, according to US News and World Report.  This hardly sounds like responsible government, and certainly not the limited government of Jefferson.

Certainly, these serious economic times call for action.  But what kind of action?  Is the government really taking the time, regardless of how “serious” it is, to evaluate all of the options on the table?  Or has the recession simply given the ruling power in Washington the opportunity to push their own agenda, without regard for the needs and concerns of the American people?  There is fault on both sides of the political spectrum, to be sure.  But it is up to the majority in power, the Democrats, to include Republicans in the debate and discuss options.  President Obama has stated on many occasions that he would indeed listen to the other party’s concerns and address them, but the passing of the stimulus bill illustrated a president who was unwavering in pushing a bill through that was molded by solely Democratic hands.  Republicans were told to stop playing political games and “get on board” with the bill.  Yet Republicans truly did have genuine concerns about the bill.  For some reason, concerns about the bill were seen as concerns with the Democratic party.

It is unclear how long the American people will allow politicians in Congress to play these games.  Surely, not for much longer.

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Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

There is probably no figure in American history that is as revered or misunderstood as Abraham Lincoln.  Over 14,000 books have been written about him, all trying to get at who he was, the man behind the myth.

I’m currently reading two of those books.  The first is Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a book that is already considered a Lincoln classic despite being out only a few years.  Perhaps the reason that it has attained such a high status among Lincolnians is the fact that Mrs. Goodwin takes an unorthodox approach to studying the man.  As the title suggests, she looks at not only Lincoln but also at his “team of rivals”, the men who ran against him in the 1860 presidential election and ultimately made up his cabinet.  These men originally were antagonistic towards him, but as they began to know him they soon realized his strengths as a leader.  William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s biggest rival in the election, became his closest friend as he served in the cabinet as Secretary of State.

The other book, which I haven’t begun yet, is A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White Jr.  This biography was released in January, and has already received high praise from historians and the media.  It is a more traditional look at Lincoln, but has the advantage of coming after the massive amount of work that has preceded it.  Mr. White looks at Lincoln’s entire life, but especially focuses on his morality as well as his writing and speaking skills.

I don’t particularly wish to discuss the books, though, as much as I want to discuss the man.  I recently viewed a special on Lincoln entitled Looking For Lincoln.  The host of the show, Henry Louis Gates Jr., essentially goes on a trip around the country to get at the “true” Lincoln, basically the man behind the myth.  He talks with famous Lincoln historians as well as former presidents.  He even attends a conference of the Sons of Confederacy, a radical group that labels Lincoln a “war criminal” and insists that he be tried posthumously at Nuremburg.  Mr. Gates claims that he grew up with the idea of Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator”, an image that is presented in almost every elementary school classroom.  Even within my own classroom education as a boy growing up in southern Illinois, Lincoln was described as almost a godlike man who freed the slaves and saved the Union.  That was the beginning and end of the story.

But for historians in the 21st century, this is hardly a satisfactory explanation of the man.  As Mr. Gates interviews historians in this particular show, he comes to the realization that Lincoln had his flaws too.  It is clear, based on evidence we have today, that Lincoln was indeed a racist.  He did not think that blacks should be granted equal status as whites, and while he abhorred and condemned slavery on numerous occasions, he could not fathom blacks and whites ever coexisting in America.  He even suggested that, upon blacks being freed from slavery, that they should be shipped off to Liberia to populate their own country.  This is a shock to people who idolize Lincoln, but it really shouldn’t be.  Lincoln was a product of his circumstances.  Living in 19th century rural America, it would have been highly unusual for him to see African Americans as equals.  There were precious few white men who would have taken such a radical stand.

This certainly does not excuse him by any means.  But to end the story there, with the claim that he was a racist, does Lincoln a great disservice.  History shows us that he changed.  Upon giving a speech at the White House a few months before his assassination, Lincoln pushes for equal voting rights as well as other rights for blacks.  At this very speech, John Wilkes Booth is in the crowd and makes a vow then and there to kill the president.  Lincoln ultimately gives his life for the African American.

So, here we are at the big question.  Historians strive to create a complete view of any individual or topic that is studied, which includes flaws as well as strengths.  For years, and even to this day, America’s strengths are praised in classrooms while our weaknesses and faults of the past are ignored.  But now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.  The weaknesses are brought to light, but at the expense of losing the strengths.  If we are to create a fully 3 dimensional picture of a person, country, event, what have you, why is it necessary, upon creating the 3d portrait, to tear it down and smash it into the dust?  If we use Lincoln as an example, we see that it was DESPITE his faults that he accomplished some great things.  Does that not make the strengths stand out even more?

We should never judge the past based upon present day standards.  To approach Lincoln or any historical issue with the moral/political/social contexts of the present day will only result in false conclusions and distorted information.  There is a particular context to any subject that we must be mindful of, whether it’s race relations in the 19th century or politics in the 21st.

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A Formal Welcome.

Welcome to JHistorian’s Historical Musings!  For those of you who may not know me, my name is Johnathan Hayward, and I’m a recent graduate of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA.  At Westmont, I majored in history while developing a keen interest in theatre.  I’ve done a bit of acting, as well as directing a few small pieces.  For my culminating research project in history, I examined the formation of political parties in early America, specifically looking at the Jay Treaty’s role in creating two distinct political groups within American society.  The research paper was around 25 pages, and probably the most important thing which that experience taught me was just how little I know about history.

There are a few reasons for why I’m starting this blog.  I suppose that’s probably a good thing.  First of all, I want to have a place to put my thoughts down relating to history and current events.  But hopefully it doesn’t end there.  Ideally, I would love to get feedback from you, the reader, about historical topics and what makes history exciting for you.  Thinking about my own future, I have been wanting to somehow merge my interests of theatre and history, and find a fascinating medium through which to present history to the average person.   Lately, I have wondered if this might take the form of documentary.  It is possible, but documentary work is still a relatively unknown field to me, so I would need to find out more about it.

Without saying more and risking boredom on your part, I will end with that.  Hopefully, the following entries will be somewhat self-explanatory.  I hope you enjoy it, and most of all I hope that you’re able to develop a profound interest and respect for history.  The idea of this blog is still morphing within my own mind, so it is quite likely that the format may change a bit.  But the core question is the same….Why does history matter, and what makes it exciting?

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