Historical Monuments

Sports, race, and culture are again making headlines and another statue has fallen.  Even though this is a sports story, the statue in question oddly is not an athlete, but Kate Smith, a legendary singer from the 1930s.  She has been connected to the Philadelphia Flyers since 1974, when she sang “God Bless America” before their Stanley Cup winning game.  Playing Smith’s version of the song became a tradition to the point that the team erected a statue of her outside their stadium.  Now, however, it has come to light that she may have been racist-based on some of the songs she recorded.  Here is my take, historically speaking. I know nothing about Smith, but I agree she was probably a racist.  How do I know? Because almost everyone in 1930 was.

As a historian, this has become a difficult subject. How do we handle past figures who may have been racist or, even worse, owned slaves?  I have concluded that basically every major figure in American history was racist.  Some were blatantly open about their beliefs. For others, you have to dig deeper into their personal lives.  I am convinced that, hopefully not recently, if you examine every conversation, every letter, and every aspect about their lives, you will find something either racist or sexist.  Why?  Because until now, it has always been socially acceptable.  Not right, but acceptable. 

If it were possible to know every conversation that our political leaders have ever had, I feel certain every president has said or done something racist or sexist, even those who did the most for civil rights.  Lincoln was an amazing man, but he was not an abolitionist.  He was against slavery but did not think blacks were equal to whites.  Truman signed anti-lynching laws, but his correspondence is laced with racist words.  JFK did finally get involved in the fight for civil rights but was brought in kicking and screaming.  He knew civil rights were not a popular subject for his Democratic base.  I do not have specific examples for LBJ, Carter, and Clinton, but all three grew up in the segregated South, where racism was a way of life, and I just can’t believe they never did or said anything racist.

Those are the ones who supported civil rights.  We have had twelve president who owned slaves, including some of our most respected.  For most of the history of the nineteenth century and even with some in the twentieth, the Democratic Party was the party openly of white supremacy.  Wilson is a good example of a progressive president who was openly racist.  I am not sure what the date should be, but I have no problem stating that almost every major white American personality was racist since at least before the 1960s, but probably even later than that. 

So what do we do?  Take down every statue of every American? Please understand I am not saying that it is fine.  Racism and sexism should never have been accepted, but they were.  A great example is Robert E. Lee.  Lee’s name and likeness are being removed across the nation.  I am not saying this is wrong, but I am saying we need to consider the difficulty of judging the past with modern ideals.  Lee has been accused of being a traitor and a racist.  Let’s tackle the traitor issue first.  Yes, with our current understanding, Lee was a traitor, but that is not so clear-cut in 1860.  To Lee, being a traitor meant fighting against Virginia.  Virginia was his home; it was Virginia that held his heart and loyalty.  It is easy to blame southerners for secession, yet when you look at American history, there are examples of Northerners embracing the concept.  During the War of 1812, New England delegates met at Hartford, Conn., to discuss breaking away from the country.  At the time, northerners were fed up with southern political advantages.  What changed by 1860 was that the north had taken over in terms of power.  The only difference between the states rights attitude between the north and south was the south was losing the political battle.  Was Lee wrong to fight against the Union? Yes.  But to him and the world that he lived in, fighting against Virginia would have been the real crime.

Slavery and Lee is more difficult.  There is no way to justify Lee’s owning of another human being.  What is difficult, however, is that as a man of God, his church taught that slavery was OK, his understanding of the bible taught that blacks were inferior; his family taught him that it was fine, and his political leaders and heroes all believed in the practice.  Even the Constitution of the United States accepted slavery.  I would love for Lee to have risen above it all and defended the defenseless, but are we not asking a lot of those in the past.

I have dedicated my life to studying the Civil War and dealing with these issues.  One of the best lines I have heard comes from the 1972 movie musical “1776.”  In it, John Adams tells Ben Franklin that they will never be forgiven for not outlawing slavery and Franklin’s response was, “What will posterity think we were, demigods? We’re men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous god would have allowed. First things first, John, Independence. America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”

One last issue about taking down monuments: where does it end?  I believe Dr. Martin Luther King is one of the greatest Americans and deserves all the remembrances we give him.  However, as a minister in the 1950s and 1960s his views of the gay community may not be on par with the accepted views today.  There is not much of Dr. King’s thoughts on this subject, but there is a 1958 column in Ebony Magazine where he gives advice to a young man having same-sex attraction.  King calmly tells him that his feeling are probably culturally acquired and that he should see a psychiatrist who can help fix him.  He tells him that recognizing it is the first step to fixing it.  Acceptable answer for 1958, but not for 2019.  We know little more about MLK’s views towards the LBGT community.  His wife would go on to champion LBGT rights, but his daughter led a march to his grave against legalized gay marriage.  What many believe is that if Dr. King was alive today he would support gay rights.  I agree.  But I also believe that if Lee was alive today he would denounce slavery.  The problem is neither is alive today.  They were products of their time, not ours.

If we take down every piece of history that offends, I question what that will lead to and where it will stop.  I do not believe we should take down monuments of MLK, but what if his answer to the young man offends.  When I hear of taking down monuments of Lee, Kate Smith, or any others, I think of the line from George Orwell’s 1984, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”  Orwell wrote this as a warning about the future, but it seems like the future is here. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

What is a Progressive?

It is currently looking like in mid-May that at least twenty Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency. With so many candidates, there seems to be a growing wedge in the party over the term “progressive.” In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Nancy Pelosi said her party needed to come back towards the center, whereas many of the newer members are moving too far left. Pelosi claimed the socialist wing of the party is small, but the interviewer countered that the progressive wing is actually getting larger. Pelosi’s response was that she is a progressive.  As the party of Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, being a progressive is a badge of honor for the Democrats, and if some is good, more must be better. With so much talk about progressives, it is worth taking a look at the Progressive movement and consider who they were and what they stood for. When we understand the original movement, it becomes clear that progressivism is often misunderstood and misused. 

In America’s first century, life could be hard on the poor, kind of an understatement, I know, but during this time it was not considered the government’s job to care. Government was much too busy in the Gilded Age passing tariffs and fighting about who started the Civil War to care about the poor. The initial real push for change did not come from the progressives, but actually the Populist movement. This radical fringe movement first suggested government should actually help those in need. It was this movement that first introduced many of the reforms that Progressives would later claim, like income tax, direct election of Senators, women’s suffrage, and prohibition. 

What hurt the Populists were some of their more radical ideas, such as government takeover of railroads and adding silver to the gold standard to increase the money supply. Ultimately, the Populists were too radical too quickly for the American public, however, they set the stage for things to come. It was the Progressives who, after the initial shock, asked for many of the same reforms but did so in a much more conservative, orderly, and controlled fashion.  They allowed Americans to ease into the drastic changes, while also not going as far as government takeover.

Today the historical faces of the Progressive moment are Teddy Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. With two Republicans and one Democrat, we see that Progressivism did not follow party lines but actually brought them closer together. The Progressive presidents became famous for “trust busting,” or going after monopolies. Wilson’s approach was to break up companies in order to restore competition between larger and smaller businesses, while TR wanted to expand the regulatory power of the Federal Government to control rather than destroy business. None of the Progressives wanted to end capitalism or business. All three men ran in the 1912 election (TR for the Bull Moose Party) and all three opposed the socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, and his platform. 

Some historians, most notably Joan Hoff Wilson, believe there was a fourth progressive president, Herbert Hoover. Even though a Republican, Hoover worked for Wilson during the Great War and inspired his beliefs in cooperation in the economy and volunteerism between labor and business. Hoover differed from fellow 1920s Republican presidents who believed “less government in business and more business in government.” Hoover, like his fellow progressives, did not want business in government. They wanted regulations but also did not want government completely controlling business. 

If Hoover was a Progressive, as Wilson suggests, that means that FDR was not. Hoover had serious reservations about the New Deal and did not consider FDR a progressive. The problems Hoover had with the New Deal were that, first, it did not actually fix the Depression. Second, Hoover did not believe mixing capitalism with some of FDR’s more socialist ideas worked. Giving handouts, or what Hoover called “the dole,” hurt traditional freedoms and independence of Americans. Lastly, he feared the individual was becoming a pawn of the state and the government becoming too powerful.

Based on this example, it is Pelosi’s moderate wing of the Democratic Party that seems more in line with the Progressives. The Ocasio-Cortez wing fits more into the Populist ideology or even more like Deb’s socialists. 

For historians who disagree with Dr. Wilson and who see FDR as a true Progressive, once again the Ocasio-Cortez wing does not match up with FDR’s progressivism. What I have always found the most interesting thing about the loudest critical voices of the New Deal were that they did not come from the right, but actually from further left. In FDR, America had a president who did more for welfare than any president ever had, but there were complaints that he should do more. 

The two loudest voices were Louisiana Governor-turned-Senator Huey Long and Catholic priest-turned-radio star Father Coughlin. Long wanted a tax code that destroyed concentration of wealth by capping income. Father Coughlin wanted a complete overhaul of our monetary system, including adding silver to our monetary system, and nationalism of railroads. Both seem more influenced by the Populists, even to the point of free silver, than they do to the Progressives. Both men believed the answer to all ills was more government control, way more that FDR did.

What we see is that Pelosi’s call to return to the center is more in line with historical progressivism and Ocasio-Cortez’s socialist’s wing is fighting against it. If anything, the far left in the Democratic Party is more in line with the Populists. The problem is we have changed meanings of words; we call Trump a populist when he has nothing in common with the Populist Party and Ocasio-Cortez a progressive even though she does not have ties with the historic Progressive movement. Words also matter in that labeling yourself a progressive is beneficial, so that anyone who opposes you becomes a non-progressive. Also, calling yourself a socialist will hurt electability. Pelosi understands that.    

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court

I am very excited about this post, it is the first guest writer for Historically Speaking and is an excellent addition to this site.

The recent Brett Kavanaugh appointment has led many to believe that it is just a matter of time before we see a reversal of rulings in cases. Many people look upon Supreme Court appointments as representative’s votes to the conservative or liberal agenda. But, historically speaking, things are never what they seem to be with the Supreme Court.

The court has a long history of doing things not expected; much like Lord Coke, as Chief Justice of the King’s Court, inserted an unparalleled act of judicial activism by asserting the King subject to common law in England in the 1600s.  Chief Justice John Marshall seized the opportunity to define the Supreme Court when, in Marbury v. Madison the court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.” Marshall looked back to the courage of Coke and relied upon the reasoning from Coke’s decision in “Dr. Bonham’s case” for the legal argument of interpretation by the courts in the Marbury case. Thus, we see how courts continually rely on previous decisions and logic to address current issues. A principle we will discuss later.

            The expectation is that with the appointment of a conservative judge there will be a wave of rulings to the contentment of the conservative movement in the country. While the court does have a history of tilting to the left or the right at certain times, it is unwise to put any real reliance into individual justices. Harry Blackmun, who famously wrote the Roe v. Wade decision, was appointed by Richard Nixon. Blackmun was a conservative and friend of conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger. Their conservative votes in the early years gave them the nickname, “the Minnesota twins.” But as his career advanced Blackmun became increasing liberal. By the end of his career he voted 90% of the time with the liberal end of the bench. Ever self-effacing, as a supreme court justice he used to drive his Volkswagen Beetle through fast food joints telling the workers, “I’m Harry. I work for the government.” Sadly, his change in voting patterns made him estranged from Burger.

            Even while maintaining a certain judicial philosophy, justices may vote on issues that depart from their usual positions. Sandra Day O’Connor was a conservative justice from Arizona who voted with conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist in nearly all her early votes. Later, she developed into a swing vote on the court, but still voted with the conservative side of the bench two-thirds of the time. O’Connor’s early voting pattern with her opinions criticized and limited Roe v. Wade; but by 1992, she wrote there was a 14th amendment due process right to abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. O’Connor maintained her conservative view through her judicial career, but consistently voted to uphold Roe v. Wade.  Even though considered, at one time, the most powerful woman in the world, she maintained retired active status and served as a judge on several federal circuits when there was a shortage, as well as, campaigning for judicial independence.

Even Antonin Scalia, the quintessential conservative, could be drawn to voting for liberal issues.  In Texas v. Johnson, Scalia joined the liberals in voting 5-4 to declare the Texas flag burning statute unconstitutional.  Scalia, effusively expressive with this command of the English language, loved great arguments and debates over Italian food with family and friends. He shared a passion for opera with Ruth Bader Ginsberg. He took Justice Kagan big game hunting.  Despite ferocious arguments over the law, he was able to maintain close relationships with his colleagues. It’s a lesson we could all learn.

            This lack of consistency often perplexes the media and public who look at justices in simplistic categories such as liberal and conservative. Each one of them is driven by certain touchpoints developed from their practice of law. Secondly, but equally important, they give deference to stare decisis, that is, looking at prior decisions of Anglo-American law that have developed for nearly a millennium for guidance. The Supreme Court looks at itself as an institution and one of the foundations of the republic. Unlike what you heard in 6th grade civics, the Supreme Court makes law just as the courts have in the English system we inherited. The common law, a term so well-known, is judge-made law. As such, each new member gives great deference to the logic and decisions provided by previous courts. Reversing themselves upon the whims of public opinions is simply not in their institutional DNA. Consider the pro-slavery 1857 Dred Scott decision denying African-Americans citizenship, it took a civil war and a constitutional amendment to change the decision. Interestingly the Supreme Court has never expressly overturned Dred Scott in subsequent decisions on the issue.

Today, we can see some change as conservative Chief Justice Roberts voting with the liberals.  These votes may be a hint showing the Chief Justice will guide the court in a direction allowing limitations of controversial cases like Roe v. Wade, but not overturning it much to the chagrin of partisans on each side of the abortion issue. Thus, we see a function of the court as protecting the constitutional boundaries, but leaving the profound, fundamental changes to the political arena. To overturn Roe v. Wade, the watershed Supreme Court decision of this generation, stare decisis and the great deference to the opinions cited in the decision must be overcome. It will likely take a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade.

George Burnett received his B.S. from Oklahoma State University in 1981 in Animal Science.  He then later graduated from the Oklahoma City University Law School in 1987.  Burnett worked as an Assistant District Attorney for Oklahoma, Blaine, Garvin, and McClain Counties for 25 years.  As a felony lawyer he tried thousands of cases, everything from shoplifting to Capital murder cases.  He completed his career as Assistant Attorney General for the State of Oklahoma. Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Religious Intolerance


Religious Intolerance
With the shooting of Muslims at prayer in New Zealand and reports of violence towards Christians in foreign lands, there has been a great deal of talk lately about religious tolerance. Depending on the source, religious toleration is either getting better or worse in this nation. Those same sources also claim that America either has freedom of religion, separation of church and state, or is a Christian nation. When looking at the history of religion in America, what becomes clear is that there never really has been too much tolerance and this tradition has continued in many ways to the present. What is most surprising today is where this lack of tolerance comes from.


Before we start any conversation on religion, we need to look at the different parts of the original Constitution that deal with religion or God. It will not take long because there are none. It is commonly believed that our Constitution maintains a separation of church and state, but in fact those words do not exist. After the Constitution was ratified, the First Amendment was added that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but that is all–no mention of religion, or God, or the separation thereof.


Next is the commonly held belief that the colonies were founded for religious freedom. This is partly true. Of the thirteen original colonies, five had religious context for their creation; the others mainly were profit-driven. The most famous example of religious freedom is Massachusetts, which was founded by Puritans escaping religious persecution in England. Yet, once established, these Puritans did not practice religious freedom for others. In fact the colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut were established by Puritan dissenters from Massachusetts evicted for different religious teachings. In other words, there was no religious toleration in the New England area.


After the Revolution, religious intolerance fell on anyone not Christian and, within Christianity, squarely on the Catholic Church. For the vast majority of American history, Catholics have been persecuted. In this democratic, protestant nation, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was seen as too authoritarian. There was always the question of Catholics ultimate loyalty–was it the nation or the Pope. Catholic immigrants from places like Ireland and southern Europe faced an added uphill battle once arriving in America because of their Catholic beliefs. The 1850s Know-Nothing Party even made anti-Catholicism one of its political planks. Later, in the 1920s there was a resurgence of the KKK in the North, as well as the south. This new nativists Klan put Catholics alongside blacks on its list of undesirables. The best example of this nation’s anti-Catholicism is in choices of presidents. The Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the U.S. by far, yet we have had more Quaker presidents (2) in the 20th Century than Catholic Presidents (1).


After non-Christians and Catholics, 19th century Americans mostly turned their intolerance towards several of the Christian denominations started in the U.S. The century saw the creation of the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Those were just the new religious movements that stuck. The ones who saw the most opposition were the Latter Day Saints. The LDS were violently driven out of Ohio, Missouri, and finally Illinois. The worst violence occurred in Jackson County Missouri, where Mormons were dragged from their homes and beaten while their property was destroyed. Their leaders were jailed and tortured, while those left behind were beaten, raped, and eventually murdered. All because they believed differently. Finally, the Governor of Missouri passed an ordinance that all Mormons were to be driven from the state, forcefully, if necessary. The Mormons made an appeal to the President but were told he needed the vote of Missouri too much to help. Finally, in Illinois, the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, was arrested for disturbing the peace and, while the sheriff turned his back, a mob stormed the jail, killing him and his brother. Following the death of Smith, the only place the Latter Day Saints could find any peace was in Utah, a land no one else wanted.


Politically, the six major American-created Christian denominations have produced only two American Presidents, both from the Campbellite Churches of Christ movement. What is most interesting about religious intolerance today is that it is the last socially acceptable form of intolerance. A good contemporary example comes from one of my favorite shows, “The Simpsons”. Recently the show has decided to remove the popular character of Abu because he was seen as culturally insensitive. Yet there has never been outcries for removing the character of Ned Flanders (stupid Flanders), who can be seen as an insulting caricature of a crazy Christian. Hollywood is full of such examples. It is positive that you can no longer mock race, gender, nationality, or, in the case of religion, Jews or Muslims, yet we still do not criticize mocking all religions.


What is also interesting is that the same religions attacked in the 19th century are still attacked today. Even more curious is that the attacks come both from those who are against religion but also from within Christianity itself. I have been teaching students about early American intolerance against Catholics for years, yet for most of my life had felt it a thing of the past. That was until I moved to my current home. To my surprise, I have had Christian students make anti-Catholic statements, most frequently along the lines that Catholics are not Christians, which is interesting considering for several centuries Catholics were the only Christians. I even had a lady once tell me that she did not mind if her son joined a religious Boy Scout troop, as long as it was not Catholic.


Even more surprising is that some of the most intolerant are the ones who often call for tolerance. The Broadway community not only accepted intolerance. They gave it a Tony Award in 2011 when it awarded “The Book of Mormon” Best Musical. The show, which still draws large crowds, including many Christians, mocks belief in God in general, but specifically LDS believers. Granted, the Broadway community has always felt under attack from religious groups and may be justified for their acceptance of this play, yet it still seems wrong.


What we see is that religious intolerance has always been part of the American experience, and that is without even investigating the non-Christian religions. We also see that intolerance is not only of others outside your personal belief system, but from within as well. Yet what we can learn from history is that in so many areas we are doing better. There is no reason we cannot hope we can do better here as well.


Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Immigration

With the border wall becoming the Holy Grail for the Trump administration, there has been much debate about immigration in the United States. As before, I am not writing about modern immigration policy, but I want to comment on the often repeated phrase that America has always been open to immigrants and so what Trump is doing is un-American. Yes, America is a nation of immigrants, but that does not mean they were always welcomed. This piece is not meant to condone or condemn current immigration policy, only to clear up any misconceptions and give the historical truth.

In the nation’s first century, immigration was open and encouraged, not for any high multicultural ideals, but as human capital to increase American’s growing industrialization. But even then, not everyone was happy about the open immigration policy. Between the fall of the Whig Party and the creation of the Republicans in the 1840s and 1850s, one of the largest political parties in the nation was the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothing Party, which opposed immigration, especially from Catholics. The party received its name because it started as a secret society and, when asked about their organization, said, “I know nothing.” 

Congress got involved in restricting immigration in 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Chinese labor was replaced by Japanese and other Asian workers until 1917, when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, barring all Asians from entering the country. The Act also prevented Asians from obtaining citizenship. The 1917 Act officially banned the Japanese, but in 1907 President Teddy Roosevelt had already practically banned many Japanese with an executive order restricting any immigration from Hawaii. Yes, Obama and Trump were not the first to use executive orders for immigration. 

The 1917 Act was the most restrictive act to date. On top of preventing Asian immigrants, it also created literacy requirements as a way of excluding those from less educated areas of Eastern and Southern Europe. Lastly, it gave a list of those deemed undesirable, including criminals, diseased, and anarchists. It may seem natural to restrict categories like criminals, but surprisingly we had not been doing it before. The change by 1917 was that the nation no longer needed as many immigrants. Technological advances were more important than human capital. Henry Ford and the assembly line made it so we did not need as many workers. 

By 1924, the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act brought even more restrictive measures. Johnson-Reed established numerical limits on immigration based on race and nationality. It then ranked the immigrants based on desirability. The quota system was based on national and ethnic origins of those already in America and deemed that immigrants from those areas would better integrate into American culture. So countries like Great Britain received a quota of 65,721 and Germany 25,957 based on the census, while most nations received only 100 possible immigrants. However, while the 1924 Act allowed nations like China and Japan 100 each, Asians were not allowed citizenship so were denied entrance. 

With new immigration restrictions, the idea of illegal aliens was born, which gave rise to new deportation laws. Many critics felt that deportation laws were immoral, especially when it separated families. As I have said in previous columns, I am not condoning separating families, only that this is an argument that goes as far back as the 1920s.It did not start with the Trump presidency. 

Interestingly, not all nations fell under quota restrictions, including, most notably, Mexico and the Philippines. The 1924 Act did give quotas to countries in North America, meaning Mexicans were exempt. Many Mexicans already lived in the U.S. and under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, conquered Mexicans were given citizenship. Also under the 1924 Act, Mexicans were excluded from immigration based on race because they were officially considered white at the time. However, the real reason for Mexican immigration was that American farmers needed laborers.

As for Filipinos, they were colonial subjects and so were also exempt from immigration restrictions. Americans justified colonizing the Philippines as a part of Manifest Destiny. We thought we could give them a better life if they copied us, but changed our tune when they immigrated to the U.S. and demanded better wages and danced with our women.

Mexican labor proved much more acceptable, with the idea that most would return home after growing seasons. It was not until the depression, when jobs became scarce, that problems arose between whites and Mexicans. With growing resentment, whites created labor contracts with Mexicans, called bracero programs, as well as Jim Crow type restrictions. 

Immigration arguments are as old as America. The John Adams’ administration saw restrictions in citizenship. When we needed the labor, we have always been open to immigration, but shut it down when it was seen as taking jobs from Americans. The arguments we are hearing now are not new, but immigrants are being used in our current political climate as political pawns. As always the answer is studying the past to see what has worked or not and then to make arguments about immigration, but being sure to make them accurately. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Replacing a Sitting President

With the next presidential election only a short nineteen months away (ugh!), we are already seeing a crowded field of Democrats lining up to challenge, whom they see as a very beatable, Donald Trump. Yet, to my surprise, Republicans are not seeing the same blood in the water and pouncing on an opportunity to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination. As I have said before, I do not believe Trump ever intended to win the presidency, and I have questioned if he would run for reelection. My opinion is that the main reason for Trump’s re-election bid is because of the almost unprecedented criticism from the media and his prideful desire to prove them wrong. My assumption has been that, even if Trump did run for reelection, someone within the GOP would challenge him for the spot.

Challenging a sitting president is difficult, so difficult that only five men have ever succeeded in doing so and only one in the twentieth century. In some ways, I am surprised we do not ask for challengers each election. Giving the party the chance to reaffirm their candidate seems the more democratic option. If the party is happy, they can keep their candidate; but if there is a division in the party, then they can have a voice. The problem is the president tends to control the party and going into an election divided can hurt results. So why have five been able to challenge a sitting president? We will look quickly at the first four, but you will see what they all have in common. It is the fifth who will shed light on our next election. 

The first was in 1844, when John Tyler was not considered for a second term for the Whig Party. The problem for Tyler was that he was not really a Whig. When war hero William Henry Harrison was nominated for the presidency in 1840 instead of Henry Clay, the Clay faction was allowed to choose the VP. They chose Tyler, partly because he was a southerner and partly because as an ex-Democrat he would round out the ticket and bring in fence-sitters. The problem was Harrison died a month into his office and when Tyler took over he proved to be more a Democrat than a Whig. The party corrected their mistake in 1844.

In the next election, 1848, the Whigs ran the biggest hero from the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor, and won. The party continued their run of bad luck when Taylor died in office and Millard Fillmore took over. Fillmore did not do anything particularly wrong, but in 1852, the party decided to follow their winning strategy as before and ran another Mexican War hero: Winfield Scott.

 When the Whig Party died in the 1850s, most of the northern Whigs joined the Republican Party and brought their bad luck with them. In 1864, Lincoln ran for a second term and the party chose Andrew Johnson for his VP. This is a similar story, as Johnson was an ex-Democrat who was put on the ticket to balance it out and try to get votes. As everyone knows, Lincoln was assassinated in his second term and Johnson, who was never supposed to reach the highest office, ascended to the position. Johnson proved to still be a Democrat and fought with the Republican Party over reconstruction issues. Republicans followed suit in the next election and ran the war hero, Ulysses Grant. The Whigs/Republicans proved they were nothing if not predictable. 

Finally, in 1880, the Republicans ran, you guessed it, war hero James Garfield. His VP was Chester Arthur from New York, who was chosen to get the Empire State’s vote. When Garfield became the second assassinated president, Arthur moved into his position. Arthur had always been a Republican but fought with the party over the patronage system, rewarding supporters with government jobs, and was replaced in the 1884 election with someone more willing to play ball. 

From the first four examples, we learn that being a Whig/Republican president is dangerous and that if you replace a fallen president your chance of re-nomination is slim. The fifth example is similar in that the candidate replaced an assassinated president, but is different in that he was a Democrat and had already won an election outright. 

In 1960, the Democrats ran John F. Kennedy and, to balance the ticket and keep the south happy, put Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson on the ticket. With the death of JFK, Johnson took over as Commander-in-Chief. As opposed to the earlier examples, in 1964 Johnson won his party’s nomination and the presidency. In 1968, Johnson was poised to run one more time. The 22nd Amendment stipulates that no one can serve as president more than ten years. JFK died in November of 1963 and so LBJ would not have served over the limit if he had won in 1968. 

Term limits were not LBJ’s issue. That was the Vietnam War. Much of the nation had turned against the war by 1968 and Johnson was being accused of escalating the war and lying about it to the American people. Young people especially had turned on the war and Johnson. When another Democrat decided to challenge the president for the nomination and denounced the war, the students threw their support behind Eugene McCarthy.

With the unpopularity of Johnson, many hoped that Bobby Kennedy would join the race and take on the president. Kennedy had announced that he would not run if LBJ was in the race. The last thing a party wants is a division in the party going into the national election. We have seen Republicans challenge the president today. Several joined the Democrats lately against Trump’s decision to fund the border wall with a national emergency. Other Republicans and social media have accused those who opposed Trump as traitors.  Kennedy was hoping to avoid the same situation.

However, when McCarthy almost beat Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, Kennedy realized the President was prime for a defeat and entered the race. With Kennedy now in the running, Johnson saw the writing on the wall and pulled his nomination. With Johnson out, his VP, Hubert Humphrey, joined the race and ran on a pro-Vietnam platform. He eventually won the Democratic nomination only to lose to Richard Nixon in the general election.

We cannot know what would have happened if Kennedy had not been assassinated, but what we do see is that it is possible to challenge a sitting president. In the end, the LBJ wing of the party still won the nomination. In our current case, it seems like asking the Republican Party to reaffirm their candidate would not be a bad idea. If the party still wants President Trump, it would only make his national campaign stronger. If the party goes in a different direction, it could bring back those disillusioned with the president. The problem with going in a different direction is losing those who are passionate about Trump. However, in a democracy, it seems opening up nominations even with a sitting president is not a bad idea and should be embraced. Yet it is understandable that the Republicans do not want to kick out their current candidate. In the five times in history when that happened, that party lost every time.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.  Follow Historically Speaking at http://www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Black face

One area I struggle with writing about is race. It is such a divisive subject and I fear I might give offense.  One of the issues I sometimes face is that I try to find some positives in current race relations when comparing them to the past, but even this can cause conflict. However, with recent events in Virginia, I thought I should say a few words from a historical viewpoint.

One reason I try to see positives in race relations is that I do believe we have made some. As I teach about slavery and the Civil Rights era, I am amazed at the treatment of black Americans in the not so distant past. Yet I also see the great changes brought on by the movement. I think it is important to see the positive changes because if we only look at the negative, it becomes difficult to have hope in the future. If we never see progress in the past, how can we hope to make change in the future? 

Yet as I try to take a positive approach, I am constantly reminded of our shortfalls. The most recent example is a picture of a man in blackface standing next to someone dressed as a Klansman on the governor of Virginia’s yearbook page. The Governor is now claiming he was neither of the people. I am not going to debate here if he should keep his job. Make those decisions yourself. What I am shocked about is that a yearbook from a medical school allowed such a picture in 1980. 

In class, when discussing the Civil Rights movement, I try to emphasize to my students that it was not that long ago. My parents were children when Emmett Till was murdered and eighteen when Dr. King was shot. I am only one generation away from black children legally not being allowed to go to the same school or park as white children. Yet, when I try being positive, I can also say that the situation has improved in my life time. Look at the progress when it comes to segregation. Then I realize that 1980 was my life time.

There have also been several episodes of racism from Oklahoma students in the past few months. While I do believe racism must have no place in our culture, part of me wants to believe it is out of ignorance. Young people today are much further removed from the Jim Crow era and they may not understand the meaning and significance of blackface and lynching. I remember as a young student not understanding why it was wrong to refer to a fellow black student as boy. That was just something we said—“those are my boys” when referring to friends. I said it about my white friends. Why not my black ones? It was not until later that I understood the historical significance of the use of “boy” and recognized why it was wrong. The problem is that even as a young child I understood the significance of the “N word,” and there is no way that the use of that word in recent videos can be because of ignorance.

I do worry that the use of the “N word” is becoming common again. One of the complicated reasons is that white youths have embraced black music artists, which can be seen as positive. In many rap songs, the use of the word is frequent. In both my current university and my past one, I have asked that music be turned off in the gym because of the use of the “N word” in a song. It’s a word I find offensive. On every occasion it was white students playing the music, not black students. I do not want to take on who can use the word and who can’t. I just think the average student hears the word much more now than when I was in school because of entertainment, and whether they realize it or not, subconsciously it is in their heads. 

I recently re-read one of Dr. King’s speeches entitled “The Ethical Demands for Integration” from 1963, which I think sheds some insight into my internal struggle. In the speech Dr. King explains the difference between integration and desegregation. Even though many use these two interchangeably, he argues they are very different and that desegregation is not enough. Desegregation removes the legal ability to deny blacks equality. Today it is illegal to refuse service to anyone based on their color. Dr. King calls integration “a positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes into the total range of human activities.” Desegregation, he said, was enforceable, while integration is not.

Desegregation and integration seem to be the difference between the positive and negative. We have made great progress in desegregation but are still lacking in integration. I still believe there are positives in integration. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., with my family, my children included the MLK monument on their lists of must–sees. To them Dr. King is not just a hero for African Americans, but should be seen in the right way, as an American hero that we can all celebrate together. I’m not sure there will ever be an end to racism; as long as there are separate races, there will be judgement from some. That does not mean that as a nation we cannot continue to work towards integration. One way to accomplish this is through education. Education can at least remove the ignorance that leads to the problem.

As we work towards better integration, maybe we can sometimes stop and see the positive even though we have a way to go. We need to continue to reject the negative and the hate. At times, though, recognize that the negative often comes from ignorance and use it as a teaching moment. My youngest son’s elementary teacher spoke to his class about the KKK. He and his classmates have seen the picture of blackface and the Klansman, and I am assuming that was a reason for the lesson. From what my son has told me, I applaud his teacher for helping to stomp out hatred and racism. As with everything, understanding the history matters and knowing the history might help us fix the future. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.   Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.