Reclaiming Booker T. Washington

What occupies professors when they are on summer vacation? I imagine some may think we do nothing. Those would not be the professors I know; we stay busy.

For instance, I’ve been working diligently on a new upper-level history course for the fall semester: American history from 1877-1917. For me, though, that’s hardly “work”—it’s an enjoyable experience putting my thoughts together and giving them life through my PowerPoint presentations.

I’m the type of historian who concentrates quite a bit on the people of an era, less so on statistics, graphs, etc. My primary interest is character and how that affects the cause-and-effect flow of history.

I also have a tendency to provide alternative views on those people, views that don’t fit into the prevailing interpretations. Take Booker T. Washington as an example. One of the books I’m using in the course is Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery. It’s a heartfelt account of one man who overcame tremendous disadvantages and made a positive impact on many lives through the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute.

Today, Washington is often criticized as an “Uncle Tom.” First of all, that’s a slam on the fictional Uncle Tom as presented by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel. Tom was a Christ-like man to be admired.

Washington also should be admired for his tenacity, his desire to help ex-slaves, and his Christian character.

I like to include key quotes from significant historical figures. Washington is very quotable.

Here’s one that can be applied to him personally:

Washington’s selflessness shines in these two comments:

Washington knew, from personal experience, what it meant to be discriminated against, but he also received tremendous support from many in the white community throughout his life. He lived by this motto:

That’s the perspective we need in our cultural and political wars today. It came from Washington’s Christian faith.

Here’s a very short quote, but it says a lot:

It’s amazing how just three words can communicate a vital truth.

Booker T. Washington’s life is a testimony to character, and it should be an inspiration for the current generation.

I like teaching history; it has a lot to offer us if one approaches it with a right attitude, and not with the proverbial chip on the shoulder.

History should never be used to advance a preconceived agenda, but it can be used to remind us of the significance of individuals and the impact they can make. Booker T. Washington is one such individual.

America’s Best Presidents

There was no Presidents Day in my younger years. Instead, February stood out as the month we celebrated, separately, the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

I have no problem with a day that seeks to honor all those who have served as president, but there are some who certainly don’t deserve as much honor as others (I won’t name names) and the fusion of all presidents into one day has diminished the special occasions of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, so that, in my view, is another downside to the change.

As a historian who comes at politics and government from a Biblical and conservative perspective, some presidents rise above others in my admiration. Four, in particular, rise to the top for me. Let me identify them and explain why I esteem them above all the others.

George Washington

This is the man who was indispensable to the Founding of the nation. I don’t use the word “indispensable” lightly. Washington’s roles as head of the military during the American Revolution and as the first president were the glue that held us together. No one else during that era commanded the same respect as he did.

The Constitutional Convention was given greater legitimacy through his attendance as president of the convention, and the expectation that he would take on the responsibilities of the presidency calmed the country as it sought stability.

Washington’s character was his hallmark; he demanded integrity from himself as much as from others. He suffered through those long years of war, holding a ragtag army together when the Congress couldn’t figure out how to supply and pay the soldiers.

When, at the end of that war, Congress faced a potential mutiny of the officers, it was Washington who defused the mutiny with the force of his character. Respect for their commander who had shared their sufferings kept the nation from starting out with a military coup.

When the war ended, he resigned his commission and went home, confounding King George III, who couldn’t conceive of anyone voluntarily setting aside the kind of power and authority Washington had attained. He rebuked those of his followers who urged him to proclaim himself king of America.

He also stepped down from the presidency after two terms, even though the Constitution at that time didn’t require it, thus setting a precedent for all who followed after.

So, yes, I believe George Washington deserves special honor on this day.

Abraham Lincoln

There are still people today who grate at the name of Lincoln, believing he was a tyrant during the Civil War. Research into his character and actions overall, though, put the lie to that perception.

Lincoln was devoted to the Constitution and was a keen student of American history and government. All one has to do is read his Cooper Institute speech prior to his presidency to see how he amassed a ton of information on the views of the Founding Fathers as the basis for his political positions. And no one can escape his devotion to the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln was one of the greatest of presidential wordsmiths; he crafted his speeches carefully in the hope of showcasing the principles that lay at the foundation of the nation. His Gettysburg Address and his inaugurals, particularly the Second Inaugural, are testaments to the heart of the man, as he wove Biblical charity and forgiveness into the texts for all to remember.

The Civil War was the greatest crisis the nation has ever faced, and Lincoln had to deal with issues no president before or since has had to handle. If this was the ultimate on-the-job training, he came through magnificently.

The tragedy of his death is that he was only beginning to embark on the path of a peaceful, forgiving reconstruction of the country. Without him, that path became much rockier.

Through the loss of two sons to early deaths and the burdens of a great war, Lincoln was compelled to draw closer to God. I believe, in the end, he rediscovered his Christian faith. He richly deserves the honor so many have bestowed upon him.

Calvin Coolidge

Some will be surprised by the inclusion of Coolidge in my list of most honorable presidents. Liberal historians disparage the man they say did nothing in his presidency. They promote the idea that because he was a man of few words that he was insignificant. Well, wordy people are not always the significant ones; those who use caution in what they say may be far wiser.

Coolidge, as vice president, found himself thrust into the presidency by the death of Warren Harding in 1923. It was not an easy task to ascend to the office at that point because scandals in the Harding administration were just beginning to bubble to the surface.

Upon hearing of Harding’s death, the first thing Coolidge did was to take his wife’s hand and kneel with her by the bed to pray for guidance and the wisdom to take up the challenges set before him.

Coolidge, because of his basic integrity, made sure all investigations of those scandals proceeded accordingly. People who had been in the Harding administration went to prison. He offered no favors to them, no pardons.

The 1920s were a boom time economically for the country. Coolidge’s low-tax and reduced-regulation policies helped spur innovation and prosperity. He was in no way to blame for the later Great Depression. The prosperity of the 1920s was genuine.

He won election in his own right in 1924, and undoubtedly would have won again in 1928, but he voluntarily relinquished the power of the presidency in the same spirit as Washington. In his memoir, Coolidge explained why he chose to step down, and I find it one of the wisest statements ever made by a president:

It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.

Character meant more to Coolidge than power. For that reason alone, he deserves our respect and honor.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan as one of my top presidents should surprise no one. After all, I’ve written a book about him. He won the presidency at one of the lowest points in the history of that office. Post-Vietnam, posts-Watergate, post-Carter, the nation was in the doldrums. Reagan, with his sunny disposition, helped restore optimism. And his policies—tax cuts, deregulation, and the rebuilding of the military—inspired new confidence in the nation’s future.

Couple all of that with his solid defense of liberty and firm belief that communism was destined for the ash heap of history, and we witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and new hope for freedom.

Reagan’s Christian faith was real; I interviewed his former pastor and left that interview with confirmation of that fact. Reagan believed God had a purpose for America and that this country, despite some of its missteps over time, remained the beacon for freedom in the world.

Reagan’s humility stands out above all else in his character. He never took credit for the economic upsurge in the 1980s; he said it was the result of the hard work and faith of the people. When he received the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he wrote one final address to the American people. The last paragraph states,

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Even in that address, it wasn’t really about him—it was about America. His humility was his strength. Ronald Reagan deserves our gratitude and should be honored for what he brought to the Oval Office.

There are other presidents who served admirably, but, in my view, Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, and Reagan are the four best in American history. Let’s remember them today.

America’s Declaration for Taking Up Arms

After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which began the fighting in the American Revolution on 19 April 1775, the Continental Congress convened and had to deal with this new situation. One of the first actions was to appoint George Washington as commander-in-chief of the fledgling Continental Army that had surrounded the British troops in Boston.

Washington’s name was put forward not only because he had some experience in the French and Indian War, but also because he was a Virginian. The delegates at the Congress didn’t want this military conflict to appear to be solely a Massachusetts issue; they wanted all the colonies to band together. By choosing Washington, they made a conscious effort to create colony-wide unity.

Then the Congress went to work on a document that sought to explain why the situation had devolved into armed resistance. That document was called a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. While not as well known as the later Declaration of Independence, it was an elegantly written piece that clearly outlined the colonial position. Here are the main points spelled out in that document:

  • God never intended one part of humanity to hold unbounded power over another.
  • Parliament exceeded the bounds of the British constitution.
  • The colonies were founded by men who sought civil and religious liberty.
  • Parliament has taken arbitrary control of the colonists’ property and lives.
  • Peaceful reconciliation has not worked.
  • The colonists would rather die as free men than to live as slaves.
  • They had no desire for disunion.
  • They felt assured of God’s protection in this endeavor.

Along with this document, the Congress composed another one that was called the Olive Branch Petition, which was softer in language and appealed to the king to hear their pleas.

Both documents were sent to England but King George III paid no attention to them, issuing instead his official Proclamation of Rebellion on 23 August 1775. That proclamation stated that anyone in the colonies who was part of what he termed a “rebellion” was disloyal to the crown and out of his protection. Participants in this rebellion were to be put down by loyal subjects. When a king says that a subject is out of his protection, that, in effect, is a declaration of war against such subjects.

This proclamation, alongside what the colonists perceived to be a hostile attack upon peaceful citizens in Lexington and Concord, made it clear to many that the breach was now irreparable, but full recognition of that reality would not come until the middle of 1776.

Although I have been using the term “American Revolution” for this overall event, I really don’t think that is an appropriate designation. The colonists were simply trying to assert the rights and privileges they had had all along. They were defensive, not offensive. That’s why, as I hope many of my students will recall, I refer to this as the American War for Continued Self-Government, which, in my view, is a more accurate assessment.

Self-government, the right to make our own decisions without some overweening authority imposing everything, continues to be a concern in America today. We need to keep asserting the principle of self-government, particularly in a time when the federal government has taken on many of the attributes against which our forefathers fought.

Thoughts on Presidents’ Day

So, it’s Presidents’ Day. It didn’t used to exist. In my younger years, we had instead separate days to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln specifically, on their respective February birthdays. I’m not even all that sure what the current Presidents’ Day is supposed to focus on. People from my generation probably still consider it a commemoration of Washington and Lincoln, but what about the new generation? Is the intent to honor anyone and everyone who ever served as president? Frankly, I would have a hard time getting excited about praising the achievements of James Buchanan, as just one example.

I would prefer to go back to what we did previously. Most Americans have a sense that there is a world of difference in quality between Washington and Lincoln on one side and Buchanan and Franklin Pierce on the other. As a historian, my extensive reading in American history has provided me with a firmer basis than most on the merits of the various presidents. My esteem for Washington and Lincoln has only grown after reading and studying them more closely.

George WashingtonGeorge Washington was the indispensable man for our young nation. He held an army together when the attempt at independence suffered from one defeat after another. He modeled servant leadership by resigning his commission at the end of the war to return to private life. At one point, when pressed by some to become America’s king, he resoundingly rejected the offer. That’s not what we’ve been fighting for, he replied.

His steadiness as president got us through a tumultuous first decade under our new Constitution. Captaining the ship of state past the shoals of influence from the French Revolution and the fracturing of the political leaders into two parties, he was the one man all could look to for assurance and guidance. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the titular heads of the emerging parties, both pleaded with him to run for a second term. They knew his stature was sorely needed to keep the nation on track and avoid a disastrous split.

Washington’s Farewell Address was wise, particularly the inclusion of the significance of religious faith as the cornerstone of our society and government. Without that, he said, we would have no firm basis for morality. Education, he counseled, was not the answer; only religious belief would suffice. And for Washington and his generation, he wasn’t talking about some vague concept of God, but Christianity.

Abraham LincolnI’ve changed my views on Abraham Lincoln over the years. Whereas I once was ambivalent about him, with a hint of concern that he might have been at least a mini-tyrant, I have now shifted over to an ardent admirer of his heart, his logic, and his quest for a meaningful Christian faith. His path to faith was filled with cynicism, agnosticism, and fatalism. Yet, from what I surmise in all my reading, the struggle in his own soul over the loss of two of his children, over the institution of slavery, and over the future of the Union, reshaped his original skepticism. The nearly overwhelming burden of the Civil War drove him back to the God of his childhood. His speeches and personal letters both reveal a deep and growing confidence in the truth of the Christian faith.

He came along at a pivotal moment, much as Washington did. I tend to think that no one of his generation could have led with the same degree of humility and ultimate wisdom as he did. As the war neared its end, his mind and heart were fixed on the issue of reconciliation. He sought to heal the nation of its self-inflicted wounds. His assassination was one of the most tragic events in American history, yet it left us with the legacy of a man we ought to admire for his character and leadership.

Legends have grown up around both men. No, Washington never chopped down that cherry tree. There are a multitude of sayings attributed to Lincoln that he never really said. Of course, he himself warned us about that:

Lincoln Quotes on Internet

Yes, his wisdom continues to reach out to us.

Incidentally, another president born in February was Ronald Reagan. Regular readers of this blog already know what I think of him. I have a proposal: instead of this amorphous Presidents’ Day that is too vague to be meaningful, how about we have three separate commemorations for arguably the three best presidents in American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. All three days could be valuable for teaching the new generations what genuine character in government looks like.

Snyderian Truism #6

When I teach history, the emphasis is not on statistics, charts, or graphs, helpful as they all are. Instead, I concentrate on individuals and their impact on events. I believe history is a story, which includes themes, plots, and character development. As we begin to delve into the events of history in class, I reveal to my students another Snyderian Truism that I hope will make them see a significant distinction:

Personality and character are not the same: the first arrives with you at birth; the second is a matter of choice and requires work on your part.

I find that people often confuse the two. There is no moral aspect to one’s personality. It’s simply the type of person you are, as created by God. Some are more take-charge types, while others are laid back. We have introverts and extroverts. The distinctions could go on for quite some time. Yet all types are necessary; that’s the kind of diversity God seeks. They each have their unique strengths.

Noah WebsterCharacter is the moral side. We are all free moral agents made in the image of God, and we must take on His character in order for the world to operate the way He intended. Noah Webster, in his original dictionary, defines the generic “character,” apart from the human element, in this way:

A mark made by cutting, engraving, stamping, or pressing.

I say that’s the generic definition because it applies to the word in general. One makes a character on a sheet of paper, for instance, by pressing down with a pen. Anyone remember typewriters? When you press the key, the designated letter jumps up and stamps or engraves the mark on the paper. It makes an impression.

We can make the application to human character as well. How is our character formed? All the cutting, engraving, stamping, and pressing that occur in daily life—also known as trials, tribulations, challenges—shape our character. We emerge from these pressures as different people. God uses them to help conform us more to the image of Christ. Our hearts are changed along the way, and we take on a greater measure of the character God intended for us. It’s our hearts that are affected; we are transformed within, and then the transformation shows up on the outside so others can see it.

I find this exemplified in a statement the apostle Paul made to the Corinthian church. In 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, he remarks,

Your yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You know that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

When we see exemplary character exhibited in history, it serves to inspire us to emulate that character. The prophet Samuel, upon his retirement, asked the elders of Israel to tell him if he had done anything to harm them while he served in his high office. They responded,

“You have not cheated or oppressed us. . . . You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.” Samuel said to them, “The Lord is witness against you, and also His anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.” “He is witness,” they said.

Think about that. What a testimony. How many politicians can we say that about today? They exist, but we see the opposite so often that it invites cynicism. Another great example from the Old Testament is Daniel, who served in the government for most of his life. At one point, the other government officials were so jealous of his success that they sought to find a reason to get him kicked out. Here’s what happened:

Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators . . . by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. . . . The administrators . . . tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.

Again, what a solid testimony of God’s character through an individual.

George Washington1When George Washington stepped down as general of the army at the end of America’s war for independence, he sent out a letter to the states in which he prayed,

That He [God] would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.

That prayer is still urgently needed. The truth of Washington’s statement remains. Unless we take on the character of Christ, we will be most miserable as a people. It’s the Christians who have to take responsibility to show the way. We must fulfill our obligation to reveal the character of God, and it’s through our own character that He is to be revealed.

Booker T. Washington: Model Christian & American

Up from SlaveryDuring this Independence Week, I think it highly appropriate to mention I recently finished reading Booker T. Washington’ s fascinating autobiography Up From Slavery. As with the Coolidge biography I noted on Monday, I had given a thumbs-up to Washington’s personal reflections in an earlier blog. Now, having completed reading his thoughts on life and how God wants us to live it, I can enthusiastically endorse it unconditionally.

Washington was an impressive man. His devotion to the principle of self-government and his emphasis on character building permeate his philosophy of life. He rejoiced that he and his students at the Tuskegee Institute Booker T. Washington Quotehad to endure hard times. He noted repeatedly that it is in those hard times when we learn the greatest lessons. Rather than an easy road, he preferred to tackle problems, knowing the struggle itself would make him a better man.

His Christian faith also comes across clearly. Another historian has commented that Washington was not a devout Christian. One of the reasons I read his autobiography was to get some inkling of whether that assessment was accurate. In his own words, Washington declares,

While a great deal of stress is laid upon the industrial side of the work at Tuskegee, we do not neglect or overlook in any degree the religious and spiritual side. The school is strictly undenominational, but it is thoroughly Christian, and the spiritual training of the students is not neglected. Our preaching service, prayer-meetings, Sunday-school, Christian Endeavour Society, Young Men’s Christian Association, and various missionary organizations, testify to this.

He also had good words to say about his fellow Christians:

In my efforts to get money I have often been surprised at the patience and deep interest of the ministers, who are besieged on every hand and at all hours of the day for help. If no other consideration had convinced me of the value of the Christian life, the Christlike work which the Church of all denominations in America has done during the last thirty-five years for the elevation of the black man would have made me a Christian.

Then there’s the testimony of his attitude toward those who might be considered enemies:

Booker T. Washington Quote 2It is now long ago that I . . . resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. . . . I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.

He explained how he was led to conduct himself:

When I first came to Tuskegee, I determined that I would make it my home, that I would take as much pride in the right actions of the people of the town as any white man could do, and that I would, at the same time, deplore the wrong-doing of the people as much as any white man. I determined never to say anything in a public address in the North that I would not be willing to say in the South. I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him, and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done.

If you were to read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, I think you might come to the same conclusion I did: here is a model of a Christian man whose attitude and principles should be emphasized in our society once again. Booker T. Washington is one of the true heroes of American history.

 

Virginia’s Historic State House

VA CapitolOver the past week, I’ve been chronicling my visit back to Virginia, where I’ve spent most of my adult life, and the tour I led for students. One more post about that, then I’ll get back to some commentary on the latest developments causing agitation in the nation’s capital. For today, I’d like to focus on Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and the Capitol at its center.

I didn’t take this photo, obviously, and was kept from taking any on the outside by the torrential rain we endured while walking in Richmond last Friday, thanks to the tropical storm that blanketed the east coast. But the rain couldn’t dampen the historical significance of this place.

Capitol RotundaThis capitol building opened for business in 1788, only seven years after Virginia’s capital moved from Williamsburg to Richmond. In its rotunda is a one-of-a-kind sculpture of George Washington. In 1785, renowned French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon arrived in the new United States for the express purpose of fashioning a lifelike statue of Washington. Houdon spent two weeks at Mt. Vernon where he measured Washington meticulously and made a life mask of his face. He then searched for the best white marble he could find, without any streaks of gray, and completed the statue, which was installed in the rotunda in 1796. This is the only life-sized statue of Washington in existence made directly from those measurements and life mask. When you look at this masterpiece, you are seeing the genuine George Washington in a way that no portrait can convey.

Capitol-Jefferson RoomWe toured all the historic rooms on the main floor. One had a full wall painting of the storming of Redoubt #10 at Yorktown, the decisive assault that led to the victory there and the end of the American War for Continued Self-Government [a.k.a., the American Revolution for those who are unaware of my renaming fetish]. Then we entered the Jefferson room—pictured here—which is fitting, since Thomas Jefferson was the brains behind the Capitol’s architecture. What I didn’t realize until this tour is that the Virginia Capitol served as the site for the recent Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. I’ve seen the film but wasn’t aware this building was used for it. The guide said it took three months of filming; it also took a lot of work to cover up all modern additions—electric lights, newer portraits, etc., to give it the 1865 look and feel.

Capitol-Old House 1The old House of Delegates chamber is now used primarily for tours, but it has seen its lion’s share of historic moments. Nearly every Virginian associated with the first century of the state’s history has passed through this room. There are busts of Patrick Henry, John Marshall, George Wythe, and many others. At the center of the room, seen here on the left, is a large statue of Robert E. Lee, who refused Lincoln’s offer to command the Union armies and instead took control of Virginia’s state militia. The statue stands on the spot where he accepted that command. While I’m not a fan of the Confederate cause, one can still have respect for a man such as Lee, who was no advocate of slavery and acted as his conscience led him. I disagree with his decision, but cannot condemn the man himself.

Capitol-New House 2Our final stop was in the current House chamber, which was used in the Lincoln movie as the stand-in for the U.S. House chamber. It’s kind of amazing how they were able to hide all the modern aspects such as microphones and buttons on the desks, as well as the electronic voting screens on the front wall. This is a beautiful room also. I really need to see Lincoln again to try to identify all the scenes that took place in the Capitol. It would be a nice exercise for me in particular since my first degree was in radio, tv, and film production—a marriage, in a sense, of that degree with my history doctorate.

We also visited the Museum of the Confederacy and the Confederate White House. At the museum, we listened to a fascinating account of how people in the Civil War era handled death and mourning, and all the beliefs and rituals associated with the loss of loved ones. At the White House, I could picture in my mind not only the reality of Jefferson Davis living there, but also the day Lincoln was able to walk into that house and rejoice that the long war he had overseen was about to conclude.

I always enjoy my trips back to the Old Dominion; the history is palpable everywhere. My students on this trip are not history majors, but I hope this time together sparked a lifelong interest in our American heritage.