Browsing "Historians on History"
Jun 4, 2021 - Antebellum Realities, Democracy, Foreign Viewpoints, Historians on History, Uncategorized    Comments Off on Cultural Mediocrity and Majority Tyranny Sweeping the Globe

Cultural Mediocrity and Majority Tyranny Sweeping the Globe

Two young visitors from the Old World who briefly studied America, Alexis de Tocqueville of France and Russian Alexandr Lakier, were historians, jurisprudents, and both involved in public service careers. It is said that Alexis de Tocqueville was fascinated by the idea of political equality in America and wished to obtain first-hand knowledge of this. While Tocqueville, the philosopher, spoke with the upper classes, Lakier was a better reporter on the typical American. Tocqueville arrived in 1831, Lakier in 1857.

Cultural Mediocrity and Majority Tyranny Sweeping the Globe

“Tocqueville came with overpowering credentials. He was able to see everybody who was anybody – presidents, senators, judges, university presidents, scholars, men of letters. He managed, in the brief time he was here, to interview statesmen like Albert Gallatin, John Quincy Adams and Edward Livingston; jurists like Chancellor Kent and Joseph Story; scholars like Edward Everett, Francis Lieber and Jared Sparks; luminaries like Daniel Webster and William Ellerry Channing, and his thinking was profoundly influenced by what these distinguished men told him.

Lakier came on his own, and depended on fortuity for his interviews. He talked with the most miscellaneous people – shipboard acquaintances, workingmen, petty officials, farmers, fur traders, and newly arrived immigrants – a pretty good cross-section of American society.

There was a pervasive melancholy in much that Tocqueville wrote, a conviction that though democracy was indeed the wave of the future, that wave would drown out much that was precious – that democracy would expose every Old World society to the threat of cultural mediocrity, majority tyranny, and the ultimate subversion of liberty.

Lakier, who was by nature more sanguine and more buoyant, looked with confidence to the future – a future that would see the triumph of equality and a closer friendship between the United States and his own nation.

Lakier saw too, that the example of America could not be confined to the Western Hemisphere, but would sweep around the globe . . . “They will have an influence on Europe, but they will use neither arms nor sword nor fire, nor death and destruction. They will spread their influence by the strength of their inventions, their trade, and their industry. And this influence will be more durable than any conquest.”

(A Russian Looks at America: The Journey of Aleksandr Lakier Borisovich in 1857, University of Chicago Press, 1979, excerpts x-xiii)

Feb 26, 2021 - Historians on History, Historical Amnesia/Cleansing, Memorials to the Past, Propaganda, Southern Educators    Comments Off on The Study and Appreciation of Lost Causes

The Study and Appreciation of Lost Causes

Many lost causes of history are worthy of study to reveal what may have been omitted by court historians of the time or later, or somehow missed relegation to the Memory Hole. Author Richard Weaver cites Schopenhauer’s statement that “no one can be a philosopher who is not capable of looking upon the world as if it were a pageant” as having made a strong impression on him. His view was that this type of detachment, produced by suppressing the instinct to be arbitrary, “seems to me a requirement for understanding the human condition.”

The Study and Appreciation of Lost Causes

“I am now further convinced that there is something to be said in general for studying the history of a lost cause. Perhaps our education would be more humane in result if everyone were required to gain an intimate acquaintance with some coherent ideal that failed in the effort to maintain itself.

It needs not be a cause which was settled by war; there are causes in the social, political and ecclesiastical worlds which would serve very well.  But it is good for everyone to ally himself at one time with the defeated and to look at the “progress” of history through the eyes of those who were left behind.

I cannot think of a better way to counteract the stultifying “Whig” theory of history, with its bland assumption that every cause which has won has deserved to win, a kind of pragmatic debasement of the older providential theory.

The study and appreciation of a lost cause have some effect of turning history into philosophy. In sufficient number of cases to make us humble, we discover good points in the cause which time has erased, just as one often learns more from the slain hero of a tragedy than from some brassy Fortinbras who comes in at the end to announce the victory and proclaim the future disposition of affairs.

It would be perverse to say this is so about every historical defeat, but there is enough analogy to make it a sober consideration. Not only Oxford, therefore, but every university ought to be to some extent “the home of lost causes and impossible loyalties.” It ought to preserve the memory of these with a certain discriminating measure of honor, trying to keep alive what was good in them and opposing the pragmatic verdict of the world.”

(In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, Ted J. Smith, III, editor, Liberty Fund 2000, excerpt pp. 38-40)

 

Nov 21, 2020 - Conservatism and Liberalism, Foreign Viewpoints, Historians on History, Prescient Warnings    Comments Off on The Pursuit of Truth

The Pursuit of Truth

“By enlarged intellectual culture, especially in philosophic studies, men come at last to pursue truth for its own sake, to esteem it a duty to emancipate themselves from party spirit, prejudices and passion, and through love of truth to cultivate a judicial spirit in controversy. They aspire to the intellect not of a sectarian but of a philosopher, to the intellect not of a partisan but of a statesman.”  Lecky

(William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838-1903) was “an Irish historian, essayist and political theorist with Whig proclivities” and author of “History of England During the Eighteenth Century.”)

A Constitution All Sail and No Anchor

Lord Macaulay on American Institutions

“On May 23, 1857, he stated: “You are surprised to learn that I have not a high opinion of Mr. Jefferson, and I am surprised at your surprise. I am certain that I never . . . uttered word indicating an opinion that the supreme authority in a state ought to be to be entrusted to a majority of citizens told by the head, in other words the poorest and most ignorant of society.

I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization, or both . . . I have not the smallest doubt that if we had a purely democratic government [in England] . . . Either the poor would plunder rich, and civilization would perish; or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government, and liberty would perish . . .

Your fate I believe to be certain, though it is deferred by a physical cause.  As long as you have a boundless extent of fertile and unoccupied land, your laboring population will be far more at ease than the laboring population of the Old World, and, while that is the case, the Jefferson politics may continue without causing any fatal calamity.

But the time will come when New England will be as thickly populated as old England . . . then your institutions will be fairly brought to the test . . . I seriously apprehend that you will, in some such season of adversity as I have described, do things that will prevent prosperity from returning . . . There will be, I fear, spoliation. The spoliation will cause distress. The distress will produce fresh spoliation. There is nothing to stop you. Your Constitution is all sail and no anchor.

Your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by the barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman Empire was in the fifth . . . your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your own institutions. Thinking thus, of course, I cannot reckon Jefferson among the benefactors of mankind . . .”

On October 9, 1858, Macaulay continued: “I am perfectly aware of the immense progress which your country has made, and is making in population and wealth. But I see no reason for attributing these things to the policy of Jefferson. The progress which you are now making is only a continuation of the progress which you have been making ever since the middle of the seventeenth century . . . enjoyed by your forefathers, who were loyal subjects of the kings of England . . . I do not admit that the prosperity which your country enjoys arises from those parts of your polity which may be called, Jeffersonian.” [The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, Sir George Trevelyan, Vol. II, New York, 1875, pp. 407-412]

(The Correspondence Between Henry Stephens Randall and Hugh Blair Grigsby, 1856-1861, Frank J. Klingberg and Frank W. Klingberg, editors, Volume 43, University of California Press, 1952, excerpts pp. 185-186)

Conservative Southern Democrats of 1917

Washington’s warning regarding foreign entanglements, as well as John Quincy Adam’s belief that America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, were forgotten by Woodrow Wilson’s reign. In the latter’s time there were those in Congress who saw that Britain was a preferred creditor of American business interests and thus had to be bailed out with American lives and fortune.

The question must be asked: Had Britain been left on its own to seek an armistice with Germany, and Kaiser Wilhelm remaining on the throne, would a German nationalist rising out of American intervention and German defeat have occurred?

Conservative Southern Democrats of 1917

“[In] the period of neutrality of the First World War more Southerners opposed intervention and Wilson’s foreign policies than they did intervention and [FDR’s] foreign policies in the period of neutrality of the Second World War.

In an editorial of March 11, 1917, the Greensboro Daily News said the rich and the heads of corporate industry wanted war, not the great, silent masses. It was persuaded by its readers’ letters, it said, “that the masses of people of this section have little desire to take a hand in Europe’s slaughter and confusion.”

Several Southerners in Congress, such as Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, majority leader in the House of Representatives, and Senator James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, opposed Wilson’s foreign policy and upheld traditional isolationist views. Vardaman belonged to that “little band of willful men” who in February 1917 successfully filibustered against Wilson’s Armed Neutrality bill and was one of the six senators who voted against war with Germany.

In his opposition speech of April 8, 1917, to Wilson’s request for war, Kitchin insisted that the President’s foreign policy had been pro-British from the outbreak of hostilities. “We are to make their quarrel, right or wrong, our quarrel,” Kitchin said. “We are to fight out, with all the resources in men, money and credit of the Government and its people a difference between the belligerents of Europe to which we were and are utter strangers.” This was a view many isolationists, North and South, could accept.

Kitchin and the South resented, among other things, Britain’s blockade because of its adverse effect on cotton and tobacco growers . . . [as] in the first two years of the war, the South suffered more from the blockade than any other section. The possibility that the Southerners in Congress might join with the German-American and Irish-American elements to force a retaliatory arms embargo against the British for suppression of the cotton trade with Central Europe appeared in 1915 as a grave threat to Anglo-American relations.

“The cotton producers of North Carolina and the entire South are aroused over the action of Great Britain in declaring cotton contraband,” Claude Kitchin announced, according the Greensboro Daily News of August 27, 1915, “and they want the Administration to be as emphatic in dealing with England on this score as it has been dealing with Germany over others.”

Throughout the South there was a widespread campaign for retaliation against the British government.

The British, to pacify the South, finally made a secret agreement with the American government to buy enough cotton to stabilize the price at ten cents a pound. British buying . . . soon drove up cotton prices and the crisis passed.”

(The South and Isolationism, Alexander Deconde; The South and the Sectional Image, The Sectional Theme Since Reconstruction, Dewey W. Grantham, editor, Harper & Row, 1967, excerpts pp. 120-121)

May 2, 2019 - Enemies of the Republic, Historians on History, Historical Accuracy, Newspapers, Propaganda    Comments Off on Journalists Versus Plodders

Journalists Versus Plodders

The eminent historian J.G. Randall writes of journalists masquerading as historians who easily reveal themselves, such as when “one of the best magazines of the country palmed off some forged Lincoln and Ann Rutledge letters whose fraudulent character could have been detected by a beginner in historical method.” Newspaper writers and their insatiable need for sensationalism and “breaking news stories” to sell papers or corner viewers takes precedence over facts and evidence. The piece below was written in 1939 when fake history in newspapers and magazines was not unknown.

Journalists Versus Plodders

“It has been said that in the journalism of our day the reporting function is better performed than the interpretive function. In other words, given the limitations of news gathering in a world of censorship and propaganda, news writers of today are less unsatisfactory than columnists and editorialists.

The historian may easily be tempted to turn commentator or, if you please, columnist. Editorializing or column writing is easy. It usually takes less effort than research. It offers a cue for easy writing. It satisfies a literary impulse. It finds a demand in the minds of many readers. It is popular to spread one’s story on a broad canvas, to deal with generalization or prediction, to deliver over-the-counter a consignment of impressive pronouncements and omniscient finalities.

Such writers get reputations as thinkers; research men are too likely to appear as plodders. Research is tied down; it is the editorialist who soars and sparkles.

Along with this there is another tendency – the inclination to speak slightingly of that individual who is pityingly referred to as the “professional historian.” At times this term seems almost to connote something suspicious or discreditable, as if amateur standing in the historical field constitutes in itself a kind of superiority.

One does not consider amateur standing desirable in chemistry, nor does one often hear the term “professional chemists.” Similarly it might be enough to speak of historians and let it go at that. The competent historian does not need to pay much heed to it, merely making sure that he justify himself at that point where his essential function lies, i.e., in historical investigation, in the discovering and testing of evidence, and the formulating of conclusions that tie up with reliable and adequate proof.”

(The Civil War Restudied, J.G. Randall, Journal of Southern History, University of Louisiana Press, November 1940, Volume VI, Number 4, excerpts pg. 440)

Opinions on State Rights

It is written that what the French took from American Revolution was their theory of revolution, not their theory of government. When French officers were leaving for home, they were cautioned by Samuel Cooper of Boston to “not let your hopes be inflamed by our triumph on this virgin soil. You will carry our sentiments with you, but if you try to plant them in a country that has been corrupt for centuries, you will encounter obstacles more formidable than ours. Our liberty has been won with blood; you will have to shed it in torrents before liberty can take root in the old world.”

Opinions on State Rights

“The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved [to the States], and the State governments by the powers they have ceded. It is the one immortal tribute of America to political science, for State rights are at the same time the consummation and the guard of democracy.

So much so an American officer wrote, a few months before [First Manassas]:

“The people in the South are evidently unanimous in the opinion that slavery in endangered by the current of events, and it is useless to attempt to alter that opinion. As our government is founded on the will of the people, when that will is fixed our government is powerless.”

Those are the words of Sherman, the man who, by his march through Georgia, cut the Confederacy in two. Lincoln himself wrote, at the same time:

“I declare that the maintenance inviolate of the rights of States, and the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend.”

Such was the force with which State rights held the minds of abolitionists on the eve of the war that bore them down.”

(Lectures on the French Revolution, John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, Liberty Fund, 2000, excerpts pp. 31-32)

Lincoln’s Momentous Decision

The Republican party platform of 1860 was skillfully drawn to win support from East and West conservatives and radicals. It advanced a protective tariff for Northern industries, internal improvement subsidies, and the right of each State to control its own domestic institutions.

The Republicans were not anti-slavery, but opposed to its extension into the territories which they wanted preserved for their immigrant supporters.

What are referred to as “free States” of that period were actually “formerly free States,” as all the original States all inherited the British colonial slave-labor system. It follows that the Southern States of 1860 were all free States with a different labor system than the North.

It is important to point out that Lincoln carried no Southern States, and won election by plurality with only 39% of the vote. His party’s purely sectional character was what George Washington warned of in his farewell address.

Lincoln’s Momentous Decision

“Following the news of Lincoln’s election, South Carolina seceded from the Union in December of 1860. Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the poor white who would succeed Lincoln as President, denounced this act. “Whoever fires on our flag and attacks our forts I pronounce a traitor and he should meet a traitor’s doom.”

Davis retaliated by calling Johnson a “degenerate son of the South unworthy to sit in the Senate.” The die was cast: Davis argued before the Senate the Constitution right of secession.

Lincoln took the news of South Carolina’s secession calmly, but sent word to [Secretary of State William] Seward not to agree to the Crittenden Compromise, which would have preserved the Union without resort to war.

Commenting on Lincoln’s attitude, William E. Dodd wrote in his “Jefferson Davis”: “The popularity of the greatest war President has made students of the subject overlook his responsibility for this momentous decision.”

(The Iron Will of Jefferson Davis, Cass Canfield, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978, excerpts pp. 42-43)

The Same Principles as the Revolution

Author John Vinson (below) asserts that “The motive for secession was not defending slavery, but defense against an aggressor trampling on States’ rights and local rule – the same principles for which the American Revolution was fought. The South fought not to keep slavery, but for the right to deal with the institution in its own way and time.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote in July 1775 that “In defense of our persons and properties under actual violation, we took up arms. When that violence shall be removed, when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, hostilities shall cease on our part also.”

Some eighty-seven years later, Jefferson Davis no doubt pondered Jefferson’s letter to John Randolph in August 1775: “I hope the returning wisdom of Great Britain will, ere long, put an end to this unnatural contest.”

Same Principles as the Revolution

“One more point to be made on freedom is to refute, briefly, the charge of professional South-haters that the Old South did not stand for freedom, but slavery. They allege that it was the cause for which the Confederacy went to war.

A few reflections on the past show this to be nonsense. Slavery came about during British rule. Southern colonists admittedly purchased slaves, but shipping and selling them were British and Yankee shippers.

New England grew rich from slave commerce. Africans who enslaved and sold their fellow Africans supplied cargoes for slave shippers. Following the American Revolution, sentiment against slavery grew in the South. Jefferson spoke out against it. By 1830, a majority of anti-slavery societies were in the South. Shortly thereafter, Virginia came within a few votes of abolishing slavery.

In 1833, the British Empire peacefully ended slavery. Certainly this could have happened in America. But it was not to be. Self-righteous fanatics in the North, the abolitionists, called the South wicked and demanded immediate emancipation, regardless of the consequences. As time went on some even encouraged slave revolt and a massacre of Southern whites.

Stunned and put on the defensive, the South dug in its heels, and the movement toward peaceful abolition stopped. No less a Unionist than Daniel Webster conceded that the South might have ended slavery had it not been for the abolitionists fanatic crusade.

In 1859, abolitionist John Brown was tried, convicted, and hanged after trying unsuccessfully to incite a slave revolt in Virginia. He had the backing of powerful Northern interests and a significant body of Northern opinion hailed him as a hero. The next year Abraham Lincoln, a president identified with the abolitionists, came to power in Washington.

At this point, many Southerners questioned allegiance to a Union that seemed indifferent to their rights and even safety. Initially the Upper South States of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas refused to leave the Union.

The Lincoln government could have conciliated these States and perhaps defused the Southern independence movement. Instead, it provoked the Confederacy to fire on Fort Sumter, and then called for 75,000 volunteers to invade the South. Rather than participate in the invasion of their sister States, the Upper South withdrew.”

(Southerner, Take Your Stand, John Vinson, Shotwell Publishing, 2016, excerpts pp. 10-11)

Tolerating the Past

Historian Charles P. Roland wrote in the forward to Francis Butler Simkins “The Everlasting South” that “probably the great majority of historians today disagree with Professor Simkins’ logic, but probably the great majority of the common folk, wittingly or unwittingly, agree with the gist of it.” As a historian, Simkins was aware that by the late 1950s and early 1960s, major publishing houses in the US were forcing authors to modify their manuscripts to suit liberal values. Speaking honestly about American history was unwanted.

In a letter to a Northerner offended by his writing, he wrote: “You may not understand that I am attempting to give what actually the ordinary Southerner thinks [and] our press – liberal and reactionary – and our politicians will not give publicly to what is actually happening; they want to be overly tactful so as to attract Northern industry . . .” His students reverently referred to Dr. Simkins as “Doc”– and he warned them that they might be making a mistake in following his example.

Tolerating the Past

“What distinguished Doc from so many of his contemporaries was that he refused to truckle to current historical fads, indeed, to use his phrase, he believed that historians ought to “tolerate the South’s past.”

Simkin’s was unashamed of being a Southerner; he was proud of his origins and ancestry. This alone, he knew, was reason enough for most Yankees and Yankeefied Southerners to object to his views.

“I do not attempt to emphasize here the contributions of the South to the history of the United States,” Doc explained in his Southern history textbook. “I propose instead to stress those political and social traits that make the region between the Potomac and Rio Grande a cultural province conscious of its identity.” To him the changes that occurred over time in the South were not nearly as significant as the presence of cultural continuity in the region.

“The militant nationalism of the Southern people supplemented rather than diminished their provincialism; devotion to State and region went along with devotion to the United States,” Doc observed. “Gloating pride in growing cities and imported industries went along with retention of growing habits. The interest of the youth of the region in rifles, dogs and wildlife, like that of the Virginia gentlemen of the eighteenth century, was often greater than their interest in classroom studies.”

Doc often provoked conventional historians by saying or writing things that they did not want to hear. Invited to become a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, he willingly admitted to the administrators that he was something probably no Canadian university had ever had on its faculty – the grandson of a Confederate field officer. Doc even delighted in revealing the full name and regiment of his ancestor – Lieutenant-Colonel John Calhoun Simkins of the 3rd South Carolina Artillery.

In the Southern Historical Association presidential address, “Tolerating the South’s Past,” he denounced the tendency of modern historians to judge the South and its people by today rather than those of the past.

“Chroniclers of Southern history,” he charged, “often do not grasp the most elementary concept of sound historiography: the ability to appraise the past by standards other than those of the present. They accept a fanatical nationalism which leaves little room for static contentment, and a faith in the American dream of human equality which leaves little room for one person to get ahead of another except in making money.”

(The Legacy of Francis Butler Simkins, Grady McWhiney, Southern Partisan, 2nd Quarter 1995, excerpts pg. 23-24)

Pages:12345678»