Monthly Archives: July 2016

Is Political Correctness a Reality?

Although each new generation of American historians is compelled to explore new perspectives about our past, they should be careful before labeling prior interpretations as mythology. Even if earlier viewpoints are flawed it is does no good to replace one myth with another. Once a new myth becomes politically correct, alternate interpretations are not tolerated no matter how valid.

Typically, new myth defenders contend that their “recent scholarship” merely reveals truths that inconveniently undermine the cherished beliefs of those still clinging to traditional interpretations. “There is no such thing as political correctness,” they argue, “merely inconvenient truths to those with hidebound beliefs.” Older textbooks, therefore, must be abandoned. According to Wikipedia, one example is Robert Selph Henry’s The Story of Reconstruction, which may not be cited.

But is political correctness a reality?

Perhaps, one way to answer the question is to examine the writings of recent scholars about one politically correct historical personality who held currently politically incorrect opinions. Consider Mary Elizabeth Lease (1850-1933).

Lease

Lease’s Wikipedia article champions her progressive characteristics as an early opponent of big business, which she accused of making slaves out of common Americans. She campaigned vigorously for the Populist Party making over 160 speeches. When one male Populist leader tried to remove her from a board appointment, she accused him of opposing her because she advocated female suffrage. The Wikipedia offers only moderate criticism of Lease limited to her blunt speaking style, which was sometimes illogical. It concludes, however, by suggesting that the Populist Party collapsed partly because she left it.

Dr. Brooke Speer Orr, who received her PhD from George Washington University about a dozen years ago, wrote a 20-page article on Ms. Lease for Kansas History in the winter of 2006-2007, which is consistently flattering. Dr. Orr repeatedly connects Ms. Lease’s “moral superiority,” “moral authority,” and “moral virtue” to her female gender. Although Dr. Orr is undeniably a feminist and the Wikipedia articles tend to reflect the latest feminist scholarship, neither article reveals anything about Ms. Lease’s white supremacy, as disclosed in her own book, The Problem of Civilization Solved.

Her white supremacy is, however, disclosed by an historian of an earlier era. As explained by Pulitzer Prize winning Richard Hofstadter in his 1956 The Age of Reform:

She proposed a vast reshuffling of peoples in which the tropics in both hemispheres be taken over by white planters with Negroes and Orientals as “tillers of the soil.” [Quoting her] “Through all the vicissitudes of time the Caucasian has arisen to the moral and intellectual supremacy of the world, until now this favored race is fitted for the Stewardship of the Earth…This stewardship, far from being an imposition on the lesser breeds…would be an act of mercy; it would take the starved and miserable ryots and coolies of the world…and provide them with a means of life as well as rescue from paganism.”

The role of the United States in this world was to be the head of the federated American republics. Canada, Cuba, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Hawaii should be annexed. The Latin republics would be fertile fields for colonization by the surplus USA population and North Americans would import “vast swarms of [Asians] for the plantations.”

The suppression of Elizabeth Lease’s white supremacy is one example of how many modern historians sanitize the history of politically correct groups. It is doubtful that such historians would have failed to castigate her for her racism if she had been a white, Southern, male. Aside from rummaging though endless manuscripts of unfamiliar historical people, the truth can be best discovered by reading older textbooks written when the applicable events were in the more recent past. As Yale’s Carlos Eire puts it, “Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.”

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Booker Washington’s Bucket

Post Civil War racial adjustment was a problem Southern whites didn’t want to face and Northern whites refused to share.

When the war started 40% of the Confederacy’s population was black whereas it was only 1% in the free Northern states. Even a century later blacks represented only 2% of the population of Massachusetts, which was the birthplace of abolitionism. Unfortunately, Reconstruction era black voters in the South were manipulated to provide a reliable voting block in order to sustain the Republican Party’s control of the federal government. Once the block was no longer needed, the Party quickly dropped the constituency. Thereafter, Southern blacks were on their own. One of their earliest leaders, Booker T. Washington, rose to prominence about fifteen years later in the early 1890s.

Four years after the collapse of the last Carpetbag regimes, Alabama allocated $2,000 to form the Tuskegee Institute as a college for black teachers in 1881. Twenty-five year old Washington, who was a former slave, became the school’s principal. He had learned his trade at Virginia’s Hampton Institute, which loaned him enough money to buy 100 acres of land for Tuskegee. Seven years later the 540-acre school had over 400 students. In addition to their academics, students were trained in skills such as carpentry, cabinetmaking, printing, and shoemaking. Girls learned how to cook and sew while boys were taught farming and dairying.

Teachers and students provided a large part of the institute’s needs through their own labor. They produced and sold bricks, lumber, furniture, wagons, tools, and clothing. To those who felt that such labor was beneath their dignity Washington answered, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” He also worked in the fields alongside his critics.

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A year after the school was formed Washington travelled the North seeking donations. Although initially received coolly, potential benefactors gradually warmed-up, impressed by the school’s work to contribute to its own financial needs. At Madison, Wisconsin he gave an address to the annual convention of the National Education Association in 1884, which was scarcely three year’s after Tuskegee was organized. In 1893 a leading magazine profiled him, along with white teachers at Harvard and Yale, as a top American educator. He quickly became a respected African-American leader who spoke often to Southern blacks and mixed racial groups in the North. Continue reading

National Battlefield Park Bias

Before 1998 official information provided by the Civil War National Park Battlefields like Gettysburg were specific to the historical events on the battlefields and the military campaigns connected with them. The Park Service avoided statements about the causes of the war for two reasons. First, they were unnecessary to the study of the military events. Second, they were subject to conflicting interpretations, best left to visitors to decide for themselves. Everything changed in 1998 when the National Park Service chief historian, Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, decided to “correct the mistakes” of the Centennial Commemoration during the 1960s.

As this interview reveals, Dr. Pitcaithley knew almost nothing about the Civil War in 1998. He admitted that he had no interest “at all” as a child, never took a college course about it, did not even start “thinking about” it until 1990 and considered it a peripheral matter until his 1998 decision to push the Park Service to sanction an interpretation about the war’s causes. He was a self-proclaimed “Johnny come lately to the field [of Civil War study.]”

Due to his personal lack of knowledge, Dr. Pitcaithley turned to conveniently available sources for an understanding of Civil War causation that he would transform into “the voice of the federal government.” As an ex-officio member of the Gettysburg History Advisory Committee he met twice yearly with “Jim McPherson, Eric Foner, Gary Gallagher, Nina Silber and other luminaries.” Except perhaps for the unnamed “other luminaries” all generally dismiss any factors unconnected to slavery. They commonly equate the reasons for the secession of the first seven of the eleven Confederate states with the reasons for the war. They largely ignore Northern motivations to coerce the seceded states to remain in order to avoid the economic consequences of disunion on a pro-forma truncated federal Union.

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Dr. Pitcaithley started getting written complaints after implementing his changes. He was surprised when some letters revealed his deficient knowledge, which he kept secret until ready to reply. One example was a letter that explained the Corwin Amendment, endorsed by President Lincoln in his first inaugural address and passed by a two-thirds congressional majority. Although impossible to ratify after eleven Southern states seceded, the Amendment would have permanently denied the federal government the authority to interfere with slavery in states where it was legal. During the interview, Dr. Pitcaithley admitted he had never heard of it.

Once confronted with the Amendment’s historical reality, however, Dr. Pitcaithley hurriedly learned enough to write a dubious response consistent with his pre-existing opinion. He held steadfast to the opinion that slavery was the only cause of the war that the National Park Service should mention, the Corwin Amendment notwithstanding. In crafting responses to other letters Dr. Pitchaithley explained, “I had read Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and had many conversations with McPherson…I sort of offered the McPherson response” to all such complaints. McPherson’s viewpoints are implacably anti-Southern.

After the first parks changed the narrative, Pitcaithley voiced disapproval of the interpretation provided at Fort Sumter. Although it underscored the primacy of slavery to secession, it also provided quotes by Lincoln that revealed the 16th President’s own anti-black racism and his priority for coercion of the Southern states back into the Union over the emancipation of slaves. While the quotes were undeniable, he described them as annoying “interpretive spin” resulting from interference by Palmetto State historians. Pitcaithley evidently remains unaware that failure to mention the economic motives for Northern conquest is a form of “interpretive spin” by its omission.

The Park Service was wise to originally focus on the historical military events at the National Battlefield Parks. It should have declined to add editorials about the causes of the war, which are inevitably subject to “interpretive spin.” It is better to let visitors decide such matters for themselves instead of having the federal government—as Dr. Pitcaithley puts it—“telling them what to think.”

My Amazon Author Page

Speaking at Huntsville Civil War Roundtable

Provided below are the specifics of my forthcoming talk to the Tennessee Valley Civil War Roundtable

Topic: Trading with the Enemy
Date: Thursday, July 14, 2016
Time: 5:30 PM Dinner, 6:30 PM Presentation

Location: Elks Lodge
725 Franklin Street
Huntsville, Alabama 35801

Additional Information: Contact Kent Wright

Trading Cover

The Myth of American History

Guest Post

Today’s “Myth of American History” is written by Bo Traywick who is the author of Empire of the Owls and Virginia Iliad. As a guest contributor, Mr. Traywick’s opinions and claims must be taken as his own and not necessarily mine. — Phil Leigh

“History is the propaganda of the victorious” – Voltaire

Is the past that is reconstructed by historians a revival or a “new show”?

Paul A. Cohen asks this question in his History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. He answers that the history created by historians is fundamentally different from the history made by the people of the times. The professional historian’s objective is to understand the past and then explain it as “event”, whereas those who made the history explain it as “experience”. The historian tries to look at the past objectively, whereas the people who made the history tend to look at it subjectively, and in a fashion that is psychologically tolerable to themselves. If such subjectivity becomes validated by communal consensus, then myths can be created in place of intellectual truth. “Myth” is the third way of looking at history.

Can an objective historian be a purveyor of myth? However committed he may be to the objective truth, he remains a product of his own culture, and he is subjected in varying degrees to its cultural imperatives, its “world view”. How much cultural subjectivity goes into a historian’s selection of historical matter to be examined or theses to be argued? How much pressure are professional historians under to be admitted to a course of study, to hold tenure, to gain grants, and to stay in good professional and financial graces with the powers that dispense these things?

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It should come as no surprise to find that the most powerful nation in history has at its disposal the most powerful, extensive, subtle and effective means for disseminating its own version of history. From the history books used in government-accredited schools and colleges with their facts given or omitted, to television “docu-dramas”, Hollywood romantics, National Park Service presentations, and the politically correct sensationalism of the media, America has just as much incentive to tell its own story as “creatively” as anyone, and it has its own stable of government-accredited “Court Historians” with PhDs groomed to tell it – and, when necessary, to shout down, deride, or debunk with voluminous obfuscation anyone who disagrees with it.

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Phil Leigh’s Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

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The North’s war against the South’s secession is a glaring example. The story trumpeted from the heights is that the war was all about slavery, that the North fought to free the slaves and the South fought to keep them. End of story. Any questions?

Well, yes. Something doesn’t compute, here. If the North was waging a war against slavery, why didn’t she wage war on New York and Boston, the two largest African slave-trading ports in the world, and trading with Brazil and Cuba at the time of Lincoln’s election? Or on New England cotton mills and their profits from slave-picked cotton? Or on Northern iron foundries that forged the shackles and chains? Or on New England rum distilleries that made rum from slave-harvested sugar cane to use for barter on the African coast? Or on New England shipyards that built the slave ships? Or on the African slave-catchers, such as the Kingdom of Dahomey, the largest exporters of African slaves in the world for hundreds of years? And why did Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation say that slavery was alright as long as one was loyal to his government? 
Continue reading

Will Brooks Simpson Debate?

Arizona State University history professor Brooks Simpson has evidently had difficulty getting me out of his mind after my 4 May post on the 1866 Memphis Reconstruction Era Race Riot.

In less than two months he criticized it—mostly with ad hominem attacks—here, here, here, and here. I responded only once to him.

Among his assaults were innuendos to portray me as a racist and a claim that  my publishers have been “duped.” One of his post headlines identifies me as a “Confederate Heritage Apologist,” thereby implying that nobody can be proud of Confederate Heritage without being an apologist. I, however, respect the heritage of both my Northern and Southern ancestors, thankyouverymuch. Perhaps the professor might consider whether he should be labeled a “Grant Apologist” given the eighteenth President’s dismal White House record and Simpson’s persistent adulation.

Simpson disdains Confederate and Southern heritage. For example, he writes on 19 May, “I think the problem with Confederate heritage today is that it has less to do with the Confederacy…and much more to do with serving as a vehicle through which people express their political views and cultural values.”

In his 24 February post, however, Simpson uses Civil War history to broadcast a personal and current political viewpoint of his own. He cites a New York Times article quoting a poll proclaiming that 20% of Trump supporters think the Emancipation Proclamation was a bad idea. “Wow!” he exclaims.

One problem is that his source cites a poll that does not even mention the Emancipation Proclamation. If the professor had bothered to find the correct poll he would have discovered that 10% of Bernie Sanders supporters also opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. Would he say “Wow!” to that, too?

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Brooks Simpson is a paragon for an underlying fault among many academic historians identified by Harvard’s Gordon Wood that might explain why Simpson thinks publishers have been “duped” into issuing my books and articles:

… many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

In his response to my Memphis Reconstruction Era Race Riot article Simpson fails to address the concluding point, which is “a central question of the entire Reconstruction Era is whether [Republican advocacy] of black suffrage was chiefly driven by a political, or moral, motivation.” He fails to answer the question in two follow-up posts. Most amusing of all is his self-proclaimed verdict in that he “shredded” my analysis.

Outside of Simpson’s Reality Distortion Field, however, a debate contestant does not get to determine whether he “shredded” an opponent. Independent judges decide the winner. Since Professor Simpson cannot get me out of his head, I’ll give him a chance to restore peace of mind by challenging him to a face-to-face debate as follows:

Proposition: The post-Civil War Republican Party’s advocacy for black suffrage in the South was primarily motivated by a desire to obtain racial equality and not a wish to improve the Party’s political power.

Debating the Affirmative:      Dr. Brooks Simpson

Debating the Negative:            Philip Leigh

Location:                                         To be determined

Date:                                                  To be determined

Since Professor Simpson censors me from his blog perhaps somebody will alert him.

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My Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

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