Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Introduction to Chambers-Reagan

Book Cover 1For those of you who have been thinking about buying my new book on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, yet haven’t quite made the commitment, let me provide you with an excerpt from my introduction:

Any author should ask himself certain questions before attempting to write a book. Some immediately come to mind when considering the topic of this book:
• Are there not enough books on Ronald Reagan? Why add another one to the ever-increasing supply?
• Why focus on Whittaker Chambers, a man virtually unknown to the majority of potential readers? How can anyone so marginal to most people’s knowledge be a subject of interest for them?
• A literary agent added another: because Reagan and Chambers never met or wrote to one another, how can there be enough here for a full book? Would it not be better to write an article and be done with it?
There are answers for all these questions.

First, the market will determine if there are enough books on Reagan. At the moment, that market exists. It also may be a market that extends into the future indefinitely. Have historians stopped writing about the American Revolution or the Civil War? Has the final word been spoken about either topic?

20141025_095359Historians have only begun examining the voluminous information concerning Reagan’s life, his beliefs, and the results of his presidency. Most of the material at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, still has not been opened to researchers. The supply of new Reagan books will not be ending anytime soon.

Second, just because someone is virtually unknown is not an excuse for not making him better known. Are books not supposed to increase one’s knowledge? Further, if that relatively unknown individual can be linked to a subject of more general interest, the public is benefited by understanding that linkage.

Chambers with Newspaper of Hiss VerdictChambers deserves more exposure. For many social and political conservatives in America, he is not unknown; he is considered to be a near-legendary figure who helped birth modern American conservatism. George H. Nash, arguably the foremost authority on the history of modern American conservatism, states with respect to Chambers and his accusations against Alger Hiss, “As much as any other event, the Hiss case forged the anti-communist element in resurgent conservatism.”

That leaves the third issue—Reagan and Chambers never met or corresponded, so how can a book be justified? Chambers provided major inspiration for many conservatives in his flight from the Communist Party and in his attempt to reveal its inner workings in America. His autobiography, Witness, seemed to resonate with a broad swath of conservatives, even budding ones such as Reagan.

Reagan’s appearance before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in 1947 to testify to the communist influence in Hollywood preceded by one year Chambers’s confrontation with Alger Hiss before the same committee. Witness gave Reagan the insight into communism that molded his thinking on the subject as he embarked upon his political career.

Reagan had portions of Witness committed to memory, so impressed was he by the power of Chambers’s writing. Portions of Witness kept showing up in Reagan’s speeches as president, and he posthumously awarded Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 for his contribution to American liberty.

Chambers and Reagan are bookends: Chambers inaugurated the battle against communism and Reagan, with help from allies such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, helped bring the Soviet chapter of that movement to a close. Chambers, though despising the word “conservative,” nevertheless helped initiate that movement; Reagan, it can be argued, was the fulfillment of that burgeoning movement, even though the movement continues beyond his administration.

That’s my rationale for the book. I’ll be providing more excerpts in future posts. Hope you find it intriguing enough to get a copy for yourself. Here’s the Amazon link.

Boston’s Tea Party: Standing on Principle?

My last American history post pointed to the integrity displayed by John Adams as he defended the soldiers indicted for the Boston Massacre in 1770. After that event, an uneasy peace prevailed for three years as the British Parliament ceased its efforts to antagonize its American colonies.

East India Tea CompanyThe tax on tea still existed, but colonists found other ways to get their tea. The East India Tea Company, closely connected to the government, was suffering, so, in 1773, the Parliament passed the Tea Act.

This act permitted the company’s ships to bypass Britain and bring its tea directly to the colonies. Skipping the middle man made the tea cheaper, but the colonists still opposed the landing of the tea because the hated tax remained. They actually saw it as a deceptive way to get around the issue that this tax had been placed on them without any representation.

Britain counted on the cheaper tea being the wedge that would destroy the protest. It read the temper of the colonies incorrectly. The principle of no taxation without representation was more important to the colonists, so they, at a number of port cities, refused to sell the tea.

In Boston, the civic leaders didn’t even want the tea unloaded on the docks. This proved a problem for the captain of those ships, as he needed to unload the tea and move on to his next shipment.

Massachusetts’s royal governor demanded the tea be unloaded. The city authorities said no. The poor captain had to go back and forth between the governor and the people, seeking a solution.

Finally, the governor declared that if he didn’t unload the tea, his ships would be confiscated. The captain returned to the people who were assembled at the Old South Meeting House church to tell them the bad news. Samuel Adams, in charge of that assembly, then announced that this meeting could do no more; everyone went home.

Boston Tea PartyLater, some returned. They were dressed as Indians. They boarded the ships and threw the tea overboard into the harbor. The captain was now free to go on to his next assignment.

Accounts of that Boston Tea Party all note that the episode was carried out with no riot; it was a solemn undertaking, a stand for principle. Dressing up as they did probably had to do with helping to disguise those involved. It also was a not-so-subtle sarcastic commentary on the rationale for the tax—protection from the natives.

This action, once it was known, received mixed reactions. Even George Washington wasn’t sure it was a wise move. Benjamin Franklin, over in Britain as a representative for some of the colonies, sought to address the issue of the destroyed private property by talking about compensation.

The British government, however, was in no mood for talking. Massachusetts was going to have to pay for this affront to the King and Parliament.

Was the Boston Tea Party a wise action? It brought the tension between the colonies and the Mother Country to a head. It was the destruction of private property. Yet it also was a stand on principle. The participants believed that if they gave in on this one point, they would be giving in on everything. Once you allow the camel’s nose into the tent—as an old saying goes—the whole camel will want to come in.

It’s a tough call for the historian who is concerned about propriety. Yet there is no debate that what the British did in response to the Boston Tea Party was the direct instigation of hostilities. I will cover that in my next American history post.

John Adams & Integrity: The Boston Massacre

Boston, on 5 March 1770, was the scene of an ugly incident. Having the King’s troops stationed in the city to ensure Bostonians followed Parliament’s edicts created a constant tension. The presence of those troops made citizens feel as if they were being treated like traitors to the Crown.

Some of those troops, poorly paid, were looking for part-time work, which only increased the tension, as they would take jobs away from the locals. Clashes between soldiers and citizens were becoming more common.

On this night, a single sentry was set upon by an angry crowd. That brought out more soldiers to face the crowd. Snowballs, sticks, and stones were thrown at the soldiers. In the confusion, some of the soldiers thought they heard their captain shouting to shoot; in fact, he was saying just the opposite.

Thinking they had heard the “fire” order, they shot into the crowd, resulting in five deaths.

All of Boston was in an uproar over this incident. Paul Revere quickly published what has become a famous engraving.

Boston Massacre

The problem with this depiction is that it made it seem like an orchestrated action by the soldiers. It only made the situation worse.

Those soldiers had to go on trial, but who among the Boston lawyers would take on their case? Who was willing to face the storm of criticism by defending them?

Two lawyers undertook the task: John Adams and Josiah Quincy. Adams took the lead and, although he was a patriot who objected to the Parliament’s actions, he knew the soldiers deserved a fair trial.

Adams worked hard for his clients. He successfully got the captain acquitted of all wrongdoing; only two of the soldiers were convicted, but not for willful murder. They were punished and sent back to England, but their lives were spared.

John AdamsJohn Adams knew that the truth had to come out, regardless of the position he took on political matters. One of his comments from these trials has come down to us today, used by many people in all kinds of situations, mainly because it is applicable across the board. Adams said,

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

What was exhibited here? Integrity. John Adams had that quality, and he proved that fairness could be achieved even in an emotional and tension-packed situation.

Later in life, Adams pointed to his defense of those soldiers as his most honorable act. I would have to agree. May we learn from his example.

A Constitutional Protest: The American Colonial Example

The American colonies used every legal means available to them to protest unconstitutional acts of Parliament. When the Townshend Acts were passed in 1767, taxing tea, lead, paper, and glass without any representation on their part in Parliament, Massachusetts took action.

Samuel AdamsUnder the leadership of Samuel Adams, the Massachusetts assembly wrote the Circular Letter, stating that the measures were clearly opposed to all British constitutional precedents. Not only were they being taxed without their consent, but troops had been sent to Boston to oversee compliance with the Townshend Acts. This, in itself, was tantamount to an act of war against the government’s own citizens since having a standing army living within the populace was decidedly contrary to all common practice.

This Circular Letter, which was sent not only to the other Massachusetts towns but also to other colonies, raised the ire of the royal governor (and King George when he heard of it). The governor demanded that the assembly revoke the Letter, in effect saying that they were wrong. After strenuous debate, they instead confirmed their earlier vote, standing strong on principle.

The Letter, when sent to the other colonies, led to a non-importation agreement among the colonies to put economic pressure on British merchants who depended on the colonial market to sell their goods. Even with no mechanism to enforce any boycott of British products, the merchants saw their sales drop by more than one-third.

That was enough to scare them. They clamored for their members of Parliament to repeal the acts. Parliament, under the gun, did so—except for the tax on tea, which was simply its way of saying that it still had the authority to tax regardless of colonial protests.

While that tax on tea would come back to haunt Parliament later (I’ll tackle the Boston Tea Party in a future post), colonial unity had won the day, all without the shedding of blood and all within the legal system that allowed petition and redress of grievances.

These were not rebellious subjects, but citizens of the empire using constitutional means to achieve their goals—a lesson even for those of us today who are disturbed by all the unconstitutional actions we see in our own government.

A Historian’s Perspective on Bad Times in American History

I don’t think there’s really any disagreement about how pessimistic the majority of Americans are about the future. Currently, all the polls reveal that pessimism.  As I survey the scene—the spiritual/moral, political, and cultural aspects [what does that leave?]—I have grave concerns as well. I’d like to offer a historian’s perspective.

Since I teach American history, I have a more in-depth knowledge of what has transpired previously. I can imagine myself transported back into earlier eras and think about how I might have felt about current events at those times. Bad moral climates, disunity, and devastating government policies have cropped up throughout our history.

If my life had spanned the late colonial and revolutionary era, for instance, I would probably have been quite distressed over the state of affairs. The colonies had declared independence, and it was a thrilling prospect, but the progress of the war was anything but thrilling.

George Washington was often near despair over the inability of the Congress to pay his troops or provide for their needs. Thousands deserted during events such as Valley Forge. There was talk of meekly bowing to the British because all hopes for the future now appeared to be delusional. Even after achieving independence, the new states didn’t seem to want to work together; the entire national governmental structure was on the verge of collapse.

If I had experienced the 1790s, I would have been shocked by the vitriol that spewed forth daily in some of the newspapers, particularly those that accused Washington of wanting to set himself up as king. The French Revolution, which took place at that time, was one of the bloodiest episodes in all of history, and many in America were hailing it as a magnificent development. I would begin to question the wisdom of the electorate and wonder if this fledgling country could survive its first decade after the Constitution.

Later, during the War of 1812, our military defenses were so disorganized that the British actually burned Washington, DC, including the president’s house and the Capitol. Their troops were ravaging the countryside, destroying everything in their path without any effective countermeasures. What a low point for a nation.

Then there’s the Civil War and the decade that led to it. Passions were so heated in Congress that representatives started bringing their weapons with them into the House and Senate for protection. Slavery, by this time, had become entrenched. The Founding Fathers had hoped to eliminate it, but now the South was proclaiming it to be a positive good from God.

The nation split; more than 620,000 died in the war that followed, the highest tally for any American war. Bitterness remained for years afterward [you can still see its remnants today].

The Progressive Movement, after the turn of the twentieth century, introduced more government involvement in people’s lives and decided that the Constitution was an outdated document that had to be reinterpreted. Woodrow Wilson, a racist and a eugenicist, took the presidency. The eugenics movement sought to limit who could have children; only the “best” should reproduce. This movement formed the cornerstone of Nazi policies in Germany later.

Wilson moved the country down the path that led to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s—the fulfillment of progressive dreams as the government took charge of getting the nation out of the Great Depression. FDR’s policies were so dismally foolish that the Depression continued until WWII. If I had lived during those decades, I would have mourned the loss of Biblical principles and constitutional limitations. The reigning ideology tossed out the concept of the rule of law. Now, anything could happen.

I did live during the 1960s and 1970s. It was not pleasant. First was LBJ’s Great Society, which could be described as the New Deal on steroids, followed by the rancor of the Vietnam War, then Nixon’s Watergate fiasco, and finally, the debilitated presidencies of Ford and Carter. The economy was in the tank, the worst since the Great Depression. Along the way, we also concluded that innocent children in the womb could be murdered.

I say all of this to make this point: there have always been bad times. Quite often, those who believe in Biblical morality and constitutionalism have come to the edge of despair. Yet we are still here. There is still hope to turn things around. We survived the disunity of the Revolution and the Civil War. We overcame the disgrace of the burning of the nation’s capital. Calvin Coolidge reversed Woodrow Wilson’s policies and Jimmy Carter brought forth Ronald Reagan.

Will the disaster that is the Obama administration become a footnote in our history that will bring forth another resurgence of sanity, or have we turned a corner and lost our way forever? That page in our history has yet to be written. We are the ones who will write it. If we take our responsibility seriously, hope remains.

John Dickinson & the Townshend Acts

The Stamp Act was repealed. The American colonists were deliriously happy that the controversy was ended. So what if the Parliament simultaneously passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that Parliament had the authority to do whatever it pleased? Most of the colonists seemed to believe it was just a face-saving measure and were willing to let Parliament blow off some steam and trust that everything was back to normal.

It wasn’t.

Charles TownshendCharles Townsend, the new treasury secretary for the Mother Country, came up with another series of revenue-producing measures that sailed through Parliament, and they were aimed directly at those American colonies.

The Townsend Acts were another round of taxes imposed on colonists who had no representation in Parliament. This time the taxes were laid on tea, lead, paper, and glass. To make them even more onerous, British troops were sent to Boston (which the British government considered the center of resistance) to help enforce the new acts. They didn’t want a repeat of the successful protest against the Stamp Act.

John DickinsonThe most significant pamphlet to appear as a response to the Townsend Acts was penned by John Dickinson, a Philadelphia lawyer and landowner (and a devout Christian). His arguments against the unconstitutional nature of the acts began as a series of letters to the newspaper. They were then collected into a volume entitled Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.

Dickinson delved into the right of representation before being taxed and how important it was to stand for principle: no matter how small the tax might be, if it were to be allowed, the people would have sacrificed the principle of representation before taxation.

He also argued that the colonies would have to set aside their disagreements and unite as a common front against such encroaches on British liberties. Further, he appealed strongly for a peaceful and dignified settlement of arguments between colonies and Crown, a hallmark of his Christian character that exhibited itself throughout this constitutional debate period.

Those letters come down to us today as an example of solid reasoning with respect for the rule of law. Interestingly, Dickinson was later disparaged by some patriots for his refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence, but once it was passed by the Continental Congress, he gave the movement for independence his full support.

Was the British government impressed with Dickinson’s tightly reasoned essays? Did Charles Townshend back off on those taxes after reading what Dickinson wrote? What was the fate of the Townshend Acts?

That will be the subject of a future post.

Lewis, Tolkien, WWI, & Hope

Hobbit, Wardrobe, Great WarA Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. What a great title. And what a great book. Joseph Loconte, professor of history at the King’s College in New York City, has crafted a masterpiece that weaves knowledge of the impact of WWI on a generation, and then offers an insightful analysis of how the war affected the thinking and writing of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

For me, as a professional historian, the book was a delight on two fronts.

First, WWI has not been a particular focus of my studies. Yes, I know the basics, but I’ve never delved into the kind of detail Loconte provides here. So this book has deepened my bond with the generation that endured that horror.

Second, even though I knew that Lewis and Tolkien had served in the Great War (as it was called at the time), and I am familiar with Lewis’s account in Surprised By Joy, Loconte’s description of what he experienced expands on the barebones treatment Lewis gives. As for Tolkien, this was my first encounter with what he suffered during the war.

Tolkien was a faithful Catholic at the time, and remained so for the rest of his life. Lewis was an atheist, sometimes bordering on agnosticism. They didn’t know each other while the war was going on, but when they met at Oxford for the first time in 1926, their shared experience, not only of literature, but of the war as well, created a deep friendship.

Lewis-TolkienLoconte shows how this Great War dashed the utopian hopes of Progress in the 1920s generation and replaced those hopes with cynicism. Then he concentrates on how Lewis and Tolkien bucked that trend in their writing. Once Lewis converted to the faith (helped along by key conversations with Tolkien), he became the most noted Christian apologist of his time.

Lewis’s works—from the Screwtape Letters to his science fiction novels to The Chronicles of Narnia—recognized evil for what it was, yet always offered the Christian remedy for that evil. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings painted a horrible portrait of evil, and the descriptions he offers of the terrible battles derived directly from his WWI experiences. Lewis drew on that same background for his works.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is eminently readable. I breezed through it in less than three days. As the cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down. My next goal is to figure out how to use it in one of my courses because it is that good.

This is not a book for Lewis and Tolkien admirers only. It is for anyone who seeks to understand the false hopes humanity tends to cling to, the awfulness of human evil, and the way in which Christians can communicate the truths of the Good News to any “lost generation.”

The current generation is just as lost as the one Lewis and Tolkien addressed; the solution to that lostness has not changed. God’s truth is still the message that must be trumpeted to a world that has exchanged the truth for a lie.