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.

Ferguson & the Rule of Law

Robert McCullochAt about 9:15 last night, I, along with countless other Americans, started listening to St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch provide the factual information that led the grand jury to refuse to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

McCulloch went to great pains to explain that decision. He also went into the kind of detail that prosecutors don’t normally go into publicly in an attempt to appeal to the reasonable portion of the citizenry that justice was served. In fact, after the press conference, all the testimony from the grand jury deliberations was released for the public to read. That’s called transparency.

He was both sympathetic to the family that lost its son and methodical in his rundown of the events of that day when Wilson shot Brown. The evidence, he said, showed Brown’s DNA inside Wilson’s car, on Wilson’s shirt and pants, and, most significantly, on the policeman’s gun. The evidence, therefore, backed up the story that Brown attacked Wilson while the officer was still inside his car.

McCulloch then thoroughly explained the various eyewitness accounts and how some of them didn’t comport with the facts. The majority of the eyewitnesses, though, were clear in their testimony that once Wilson got out of the car, Brown again came toward him menacingly. That’s when the fatal shots were fired. McCulloch also emphasized that those eyewitnesses were black, not white.

The grand jury, which was selected to represent the entire county, and included various minorities, three of whom were black, came to their decision after weeks of attention to the details. He praised the grand jury members for their willingness to extend their time on this jury by two extra months, just to ensure that the truth could come out.

Overall, I was impressed by McCulloch’s professionalism and desire for an honest outcome. He spoke both movingly and convincingly, even when answering questions from hostile members of the press in the courtroom. He was decorum personified. Yet one of those reporters had the nerve to shout at him as he left the room, “Are you going to sleep well tonight?”

Ferguson RiotsThat shout was the signal that this was going to be a long night. All that professionalism and appeal to reason went for naught, as the assembled crowd rose up in anger and began destroying their own city. Stores were looted, buildings burned (some businesses will not ever reopen again), and chaos ensued. The police are coming under fire today for their weak and inadequate response. Apparently, the desire not to be seen as oppressive overcame common sense. Appeasement of violent civil disobedience is a recipe for further violence.

The rioters were both local citizens and those from groups outside the city. They were a motley assemblage of Marxists, anarchists, and just plain old criminals who wanted to get something free for themselves. Reporters on the scene showed live shots of people breaking into stores and taking out everything they could carry; alcohol seemed to be high on their “shopping list.”

All of this in the name of justice? What justice was meted out to local businesses that were devastated? How did that help the community?

And what of Michael Brown himself? Was he a hero? A martyr for some cause?

Evidence shows that just prior to the shooting, he had robbed a convenience store, treated the store employee roughly, and then scuffled with Wilson. The toxicology report after his death revealed he had marijuana in his system. Is this really the poster child for innocence? For what cause is he a martyr—the right to steal?

Obama Ferguson StatementPresident Obama chose to come out and make a statement right after Mr. McCulloch finished his press conference. Perhaps the most ironic comment of the night was his opening line about how we are a nation that abides by the rule of law. After his executive order on immigration last week, it was nice to witness his “conversion.” Rule of law is a useful concept, depending on the circumstance.

I listened to his entire monologue. After a while, it rambled and seemed to lose a lot of coherence. I don’t think it inspired confidence in many. And while he was speaking about the need for peace, the split-screen showed the beginnings of a riot as a police car was in the process of being overturned.

Something else was missing from the president’s statement: any concern whatsoever for Darren Wilson, who has been exonerated of murder, who acted in self-defense, and whose life from now on will be forever changed. Will he have to live “underground,” in fear of retaliation? What occupation is now open to him? Will he be given a new identity? Facial reconstruction? The president never even mentioned him by name.

In my opinion, both the president and Eric Holder have done nothing but inflame this situation from the start. Their public empathy for Brown and his family only made things worse, implicating Wilson as the culprit before all the facts were obtained.

Racial Fire Dept

Al Sharpton is due to arrive in Ferguson today. I don’t use the “Rev.” in front of his name; it’s an oxymoron. Not only is he one of the primary racial agitators in America today, and has been for decades, but he also is considered a special outside adviser to President Obama. He goes to the White House often. That, in itself, is a disgrace to this administration.

Sharpton

They should be embarrassed by this connection, but embarrassment is a quality to which they seem immune.

The activities last night were a blot on America, but not for the reason the protesters believe. The rule of law was attacked once again and emotion took precedence over reason and the facts.

John AdamsI’m reminded of a famous quote from John Adams as he defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial. This was a highly unpopular thing for him to do, with possible repercussions to his career and life. Yet he did what was right, and he ended with this statement:

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.

Wishes, inclinations, and dictates of passion ruled the night. What awaits us in the aftermath? Continue to pray for God’s mercy on a nation that increasingly doesn’t deserve it, yet desperately needs it.

Presidents Without Knowledge

George Washington 21794

Reporter: President Washington, could you please comment on the rebellion brewing in this country over the excise tax? We hear rumors that you are going to be sending troops to deal with that, and that you yourself may be leading those troops? Is that true, sir?

Washington: Sir, as you should know, that is an ongoing investigation. It would not be proper for me to comment on that at this time. Please do not believe all the rumors you hear.

Thomas Jefferson 21803

Reporter: President Jefferson, is it true that you have been holding secret meetings with French representatives with regard to a vast tract of land called Louisiana? Why would you have any dealings with an egomaniac like Napoleon?

Jefferson: Surely you realize it would be a breach of diplomatic etiquette to comment on this. Besides, I personally have no knowledge of any such secret meetings.

Andrew Jackson 41832

Reporter: Is it true, President Jackson, that you are threatening to hang Sen. John C.  Calhoun over South Carolina’s attempt to nullify a tariff passed by Congress?

Jackson: I have made no public statement to that effect. If anyone ever said anything of that sort, I assure you I would be outraged and would go to the ends of the earth to bring that miscreant to justice. Now get out of my way. I have to go the general store. I’m short on rope.

Abraham Lincoln 81864

Reporter: It has been reported, President Lincoln, that Gen. Sherman, having taken Savannah, sent you a telegram offering the city as a Christmas present. Is that permissible, sir? Can a general give a president a city for a present? Wouldn’t that be highly improper?

Lincoln: I can assure you that I will put my top people on this immediately to investigate whether Gen. Sherman ever made such an outrageous offer. I can affirm, though, that I have no personal knowledge of any such telegram. If anyone in my administration is hiding it from me, they will be dealt with. Now, please excuse me; I have a war to win for the people.

Woodrow Wilson 21917

Reporter: President Wilson, now that we have entered this Great War, your administration has pushed for a sedition act that can be used to muzzle reporters. We’re told it may allow the government to imprison and fine anyone who dares to criticize the war effort. Is that true?

Wilson: Absolutely not. My administration respects the Constitution of the United States. An integral part of that Constitution is the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press. Reporters should always be free to pursue a story or express an opinion. Now, what did you say your name is? For whom do you work? Are you in any way involved as a conspirator against your government?

FDR 21945

Reporter: Now that you are back from the Yalta Conference, President Roosevelt, can you tell us what was decided behind those closed doors? What did you, Churchill, and Stalin agree to? Surely you must be aware that rumors are swirling about how much you gave away to the Soviet Union. Would you please comment?

Roosevelt: I can assure all Americans that I would never “give away the store,” so to speak. I can vouch for Stalin personally. He is a great friend of the United States. We want to support him sacrificially—give him everything he needs to help spread his brand of democracy. But why are you seeking information of a secret nature? Are you from Fox?

Bill Clinton-Esquire1998

Reporter: President Clinton, what’s this we hear about the Oval Office being used for rather unpresidential purposes?

Clinton: If that were the case, I would be very angry, even angrier than you or the American people. But as you know, this is an ongoing investigation so I cannot comment on it. Besides, it’s not as if the Oval Office is part of my administration. Yes, it’s in the house where I live, but I rarely go there, and when I do, you can be sure it’s for official business only. I’ve put my best person on the job of looking into this. Attorney General Janet Reno is absolutely trustworthy. I can attest she has followed my orders to a “T” in all those other investigations into the bogus scandals of which I have been accused.

Obamessiah2013

Reporter: With all these scandals swirling around your administration, how has this affected your ability to do your job, President Obama?

Obama: Scandals? What scandals? Job? What job? I have no knowledge of either. I have no knowledge of anything. I am clueless. Where are my golf clubs?

The Baneful Effects of a Third Party in Presidential Elections

Earlier this month, I spoke at the Winter Haven, Florida, 9-12 Project. Last night I was closer to home at the Lakeland 9-12 Project meeting. As with the Winter Haven group, these are sincere citizens who want to see substantive change, as opposed to a vague, dreamy “hope-and-change” mantra without meaning. They are committed to restoring the original intent of the Constitution and in helping educate the public on basic principles.

My topic was the effect of third parties on elections. Here are a few of my prime examples.

In 1844, the Liberty Party entered the presidential election as an alternative to the Democrats and Whigs. This party had one issue only—the abolition of slavery. James G. Birney, a man of principle and courage was its presidential candidate. He had put his life on the line many times for his beliefs. I admire him. But since this was a one-issue party, defeat was inevitable; you have to develop a broad agenda and distinct philosophy of government to attract more people to your side. However, this small party probably turned the election in a direction it wouldn’t have gone otherwise. The Democrats were the pro-slavery party, while the Whigs, though divided on the issue, at least had some reformers who wanted to take steps to eliminate slavery. If any progress were to be made for abolition of slavery, it would have been far better had the Whigs won. However, the Liberty Party, although it took only 2% of the popular vote, drained enough support from the Whigs that the Democrats carried New York, the state with the largest number of electoral votes. If the Whigs had won that state, their candidate, Henry Clay, would have been president. Instead, we got James Polk, who supported the slave system.

Then, in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt challenged sitting president William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination. Roosevelt was denied the nomination, and was so angered by it that he started his own third party known as the Progressives [with a nickname of Bull Moose]. Roosevelt effectively split the Republican vote in that election, putting Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the White House. Wilson, who was even more progressive than Roosevelt, championed the idea that the Constitution was a “living document,” and that original intent should be shelved. If Taft hadn’t been opposed by Roosevelt, he probably would have won reelection and Wilson never would have become president—he garnered only 42% of the popular vote.

Finally, in 1992, the entrance of Ross Perot into the race took away 19% of the vote that traditionally would have gone to the Republicans. The result? The presidency of Bill Clinton.

More often than not, third parties allow someone to win who normally wouldn’t. And the one who wins quite often is worse than the one from whom votes were drained. In an attempt to achieve the perfect, third parties usually end up providing us with a raw deal. As the cliché goes, the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

If I have one electoral fear right now, it’s that someone, whether it be Donald Trump or Ron Paul, will decide to run as a third-party candidate in 2012, thereby ensuring an Obama reelection. I hope history can come along and be a guide—don’t destroy our best chance of reversing what has occurred on Obama’s watch. Don’t allow disunity to give this man a second term. I’m not sure the country can survive another four years.

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 plan to expound on those concerns in tomorrow’s post. But for now, 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 the newspapers, particularly those who 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 magnificant 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 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.

Does Anyone Remember?

Today used to be George Washington’s birthday. Yes, I know it still is, but how many people are aware of it nowadays? Instead, we have Presidents Day, always celebrated on the Monday of the week and apparently dedicated to all presidents regardless of merit. Washington had merit; some of the others have had very little.

I mean, do I really have this urge to celebrate the presidencies of Millard Fillmore or Chester Alan Arthur? Am I supposed to rejoice in the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson, the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson? Should I extol the lack of Christian character in John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, to name only a few who demonstrated that lack?

There certainly are presidents I admire. Washington served his country without regard to personal desires. He led an army for eight years without pay; he came out of a comfortable life to lead a nation as its first president. Everything he did set a precedent, particularly his model for stepping down after two terms.

My appreciation for Abraham Lincoln grows with each new piece of research on him. Grover Cleveland was, as one biographer tagged him, “an honest president.” Calvin Coolidge understood constitutional limitations and decided not to run again for the office in 1928 because he didn’t want the position and the power to change his character for the worse. Ronald Reagan, in my view, was the most effective president [in the positive sense of actually doing something worthwhile] of the twentieth century.

I wouldn’t mind if we celebrated all of those presidents on their own birthdays. Of course we used to do that with Washington until the 1970s when Congress decided to create three-day weekends for a number of holidays. In the process, they excised a special recognition of our first president. I like three-day weekends as much as anyone, but the decision to relegate Washington to the dim recesses of our history was inexcusable. We do still see representations of him occasionally on Presidents Day when actors dress up like him to sell cars—but that’s about all.

Why do most people not miss it? Perhaps there’s a dismal reason educationally:

Am I kidding? I wish I were. Generally speaking, we don’t know our own history. My experience teaching American history at the university level confirms this sad diagnosis.

Anyway, for those who remember who George Washington was, have a happy Washington’s birthday.

Party of Which People?

I’ve always found it somewhat comical that the Democratic party refers to itself as the party of the people. Historically, it has been the Democrats who have pushed the idea that the government, not individuals, knows best.

It started with Woodrow Wilson. He was devoted to the idea that the Constitution was a “living” document that politicians and judges could alter at will. During WWI, Wilson took almost complete control of the American economy, even to the point of nationalizing the railroads. He had little patience with anyone who disagreed with him, surrounding himself with “yes men” who would always do what he said. 

FDR, in the 1930s, had the golden opportunity to put progressive policies into action during the Great Depression. On the surface, they were carried out for the “common man,” but in reality, they stifled economic recovery, thereby hurting everyone, including all the “little people.”

LBJ, after the assassination of JFK, had a Congress that would do almost anything he asked. Again, in the name of the people, he embarked upon what he termed the “Great Society.” Its greatest accomplishment was the creation of a permanent dependent class. Of course, for some, that is the goal: if people depend on the government for their subsistence, they will continue to vote the party in power that promises to keep the goodies flowing.

FDR and JFK were independently wealthy. They never worked a day in their lives. Wilson was part of the intellectual elite, having served as president of Princeton. LBJ practically ran the state of Texas. All politics was subservient to him. These are hardly men who are part of any proletarian revolution. They were the privileged.

Nothing has changed. Democratic senators like Jay Rockefeller and Herb Kohl are the wealthiest of the wealthy. The media always connects the Republicans with Wall Street, but in fact, Wall Streeters donate more to the Democrats than Republicans.

Party of the people?

The Tea Party movement gains strength, and the so-called party of the people doesn’t know what to do with the people. As they sit in their seats of power, looking down on the rabble, what do they think?

In the space of a little more than 200 years, perceptions have changed tremendously.

If they are the party of the people, someone should ask just which people they mean.