I recently saw a post on social media asking why conservatives are so concerned with socialism when what they should be concerned about is dictatorship in their own party. Historically speaking, accusing presidents of dictatorship is nothing new. In fact, it’s as old as the nation itself. I am not going to write about if President Trump is a dictator or not, but I do want to show that it can be said that being accused of dictatorship actually puts him in good company.

During the Nineteenth Century, the cry of dictator was not as prominent. For most of the century, presidents were fairly limited in their political power. The ones who did exercise real presidential authority always faced the accusation of dictator. Anyone who reads my columns knows the election of 1800 is my favorite. It is one of the most hostile in history and I have spoken on it many times. Suffice to say the principle accusation made by Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans was that John Adams wanted to make himself into a king or dictator. Jefferson, who believed in small government, feared that the Federalists wanted to enlarge the power of the federal government and strip away the rights of the people. It did not help that under Adam’s administration Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which in essence made it a crime to criticize the government. It turns out that Adams did not intend to enshrine himself into royalty but instead performed the most important political act in American history. He walked away from the presidency when he lost and set a precedent for the peaceful transfer of power between parties.

A few decades later, President Andrew Jackson had the same accusations made against him. The Whigs were the party that formed to resist who they called “King Andrew I. A name taken from the British party that opposed the King, the name was not a coincidence. It is not hard to see why the Whigs referred to Jackson as a dictator. First, he vetoed more bills than all his predecessors combined. Earlier presidents did not see the veto as a political weapon, but rather as a protection against unconstitutionality. Jackson, however, wielded the veto like a sword to defeat his enemies in Congress. Later, when the Supreme Court went against Jackson’s ideas of Indian removal, Jackson responded with, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” If any president had potential to be a dictator, it was Jackson. Yet after his eight years, he walked away and the nation moved on.

Jump ahead a couple more decades to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Like many readers, Lincoln is my favorite president, yet his entire presidency was plagued with accusations of dictatorship. As much as I love Lincoln, there are good reasons for the claims. Probably his greatest power move was the suspension of habeas corpus, a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge to secure the arrestee’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for the person’s detention.

Basically, Lincoln imprisoned anyone who spoke out against him. Dozens of newspaper editors and political opponents were imprisoned during the war. Because of space restraints, I can mention just one. Lincoln had Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham arrested for declaring disloyal sentiments and opinions. Instead of imprisoning Vallandigham, Lincoln exiled him to live in the Confederacy. If any president had the potential to be a dictator, it was Lincoln. However, we will never know as he was assassinated by John Wilks Booth who claimed death to all tyrants.

In the Twentieth Century, one of the presidents who had the charge of dictator leveled at him was Woodrow Wilson. As a true progressive, he believed in a strong federal government and did everything in his power to strengthen and enlarge it. It was Wilson who pushed an Amendment to create an income tax to fund the federal government. Wilson also passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts. As under Adams, it became a criminal act to criticize the government, the president, or the war. It was Wilson who created the Committee on Public Information that turned into the nation’s first propaganda machine. If any president seemed prepared to become a dictator, it was Wilson. When he tried to push the League of Nations through Congress (even many Democrats opposed it), he spoke of running for a third term so he could force it through. We will never know if he would have followed through. He suffered a stroke making it difficult to even finish his second term.

Finally, there is the man who potentially was the greatest dictator but also one of the most beloved: Franklin D. Roosevelt. No one did more to expand the power of the federal government, or, more specifically, the Executive Branch. He wanted to reorganize the Executive Branch and take the regulatory agencies under his control. When the Supreme Court tried to check him, he attempted to increase the number of judges and fill the Court with his supporters. Finally, he told Americans that he was the only man who could possibly lead during the Great Depression and later WWII. He ran for and was elected to four terms. If any president seemed to set himself up as a dictator, it was FDR. We will never know, as he died in his fourth term.

I am not saying whether Trump is a dictator or not. You can decide. I am also not saying we should accept tyranny in any way, but calling him a dictator actually puts him into pretty good company. Not all the men on this list are people’s favorites, but there is no questioning they all make the list as some of the most important presidents in history. Historically speaking, maybe being called a dictator by your political enemies is a badge of honor. If nothing else, it’s a pretty impressive club to be in.

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.

Camp David Summit

One of the biggest recent news stories is Trump’s cancellation of a surprise summit with Taliban leaders and the Afghanistan president at Camp David. I am no longer surprised at the criticism towards the President, but I was shocked this time at the nature of the criticism. I assumed the disapproval would come from canceling a meeting that had potential to end the conflict, but instead he was chastised for agreeing to hold the meeting in the first place, especially at Camp David. Congresswomen Liz Cheney tweeted that no member of the Taliban should ever set foot at Camp David and she is a Republican. As always, I am not here to comment on the president’s foreign policy decisions, but historically speaking Camp David has always been used for meetings such as this, especially when dealing with Middle Eastern Issues.

After years of war and conflict between Israel and the Arab nations, Egypt and Syria both launched an attack against Israel in 1973 which became known as the Yom Kippur War. Caught by surprise, the Israelis were initially pushed back. Eventually they called up reinforcements and turned the tide back in their favor and won the war.
Not able to defeat Israel militarily, the Arab nations of OPEC went with plan B and used the war to justify driving up oil prices. They also refused to sell oil to the U.S. until Israel pulled out of new lands and recognized Palestinian rights. Henry Kissinger began flying to the Middle East to broker a peace but found it difficult to get the sides to meet. Israel did not want to give up land and Arabs nations did not want the Palestinians thinking they were forgotten.

To solve the crisis, President Jimmy Carter invited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a two-week secret meeting at Camp David. The three men worked towards a peace that saw the passage of the Camp David Accords, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula as well as from Gaza and the West Bank. Gaza and the West Bank were allowed to self-govern, setting up a possible separate Palestinian state and a recognition of Israel’s right to exist by Egypt. Though Sadat won a Nobel Peace Prize, the rest of the Arab nations, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Yasser Arafat, denounced the Accords. The peace plan was partly responsible for Sadat’s assassination.

Jump forward several years. After the first Gulf War, relations between Israel and the Palestinians were still non-existent. H.W. Bush tried to bring both sides together, but Israel refused to talk directly with Arafat and the PLO. Arafat was a Palestinian who grew up in both Israel and Egypt. He first made a name for himself smuggling in arms to the Palestinians to use against the Israelis. In 1958 Arafat founded Al Fatah, a militant freedom fighting organization to some, a terrorist organization to others. Al Fatah has been responsible for many terrorists strikes in Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon, though they saw themselves as revolutionaries defending their people. In 1964 Al Fatah took over control of the PLO, which is an umbrella organization for many different Palestinian liberation groups and Arafat became the chairman. It is understandable why Israelis refused to meet with the PLO who they saw as terrorists.

However, in 1993 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat secretly met in Oslo. They surprised everyone when they announced they had reached an agreement known as the Oslo Accords. Then in 2000 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Arafat, and President Bill Clinton met at Camp David to work out a further peace. Nothing came from the meeting, but it was seen as a minor success in that they were at least talking.

For us today it is difficult to compare Arafat to the Taliban leadership. By the time he died, he was celebrated by some, but for years he was seen as a leading terrorist. To Israel, and even some Jordanians and Lebanese, he was always seen as a terrorist. To America, the Taliban is a serious terrorist threat.

I am not saying whether or not Trump should have invited the Taliban to Camp David. Each can judge that. What I am saying is that historically Speaking bringing together different sides, even if those sides are responsible for violence, is not a new concept at Camp David. Presidents Carter and Clinton are celebrated for doing much the same thing as a way of creating peace in the Middle East. Today we are in such a rush to criticize that we don’t always think first. Maybe before our leaders go on the attack, they should study their history first.

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.

Electoral College

There has been a lot of talk lately about the Electoral College. If you read social media, you will see many opinions on why it should or should not continue to choose the American president. Those who want to retain the Electoral College tend to focus on the numbers and how several cities have larger populations than some states and if the College is removed, basically a handful of states will choose the next president. One post even claimed that the reason the Founding Fathers instituted the College was to protect the smaller states from the domination of the larger ones. Though I support the Electoral College and agree removing it will hurt smaller states and should remain intact, historically speaking, protecting the small states was not a reason for the Electoral College. Protecting the government was.

I have stated before in this column that the purpose of the Constitution was to address the two major fears of the Founding Fathers: too strong central government and too much democracy. I have used many quotes over the years, but with “Hamilton” playing in my city recently it seems appropriate to use his words to explain the need for the College; “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.”
If you examine the original Constitution, not the amended one today, you will notice that the “people” are only represented in the federal government by members of the House of Representatives. As for the other two elected positions, Senators were elected by state legislators and the President was elected by the Electoral College. The people had little say in the government, and this was not by accident. The Founders feared a demagogue, a man who had such popular support of the masses that he could turn into an emperor, just as Caesar had done.

To guarantee the masses had no say in choosing the president, they were not asked. There was no primary system to choose who the candidates were. Powerful men, like Hamilton and Jefferson, wrote letters to fellow party members pushing for their man. Then a small group of these men met in a caucus and choose who their party supported.
As for the election, the Constitution states that each state should choose electors. The number comes from the number of Congressmen and Senators a state has. It does not say how those electors are chosen. For the first several elections the electors were appointed by state legislators. Once chosen, the electors voted for a president by meeting with other electors from their state. Each wrote down two names, at least one not from their state. These ballots were sent to the Senate for counting. Whoever received the most votes became President and the candidate with the second highest votes became VP. This would become problematic with men from different parties serving together so it was remedied by the Twelfth Amendment, where the President and VP are elected separately.

As you can see, the people had no say in this process and they would not until the 1820s when more democratic ideas began to spread and some states started to choose their electors by a popular vote. When enough states went to this system, the result was Andrew Jackson, the demagogue the founders feared. The first political convention to pick the President, instead of a caucus, came in the 1830s with the Anti-Masonic Party who ran on stopping government corruption, or “draining the swamp” in modern terms. They saw caucuses as undemocratic and decided to let the people or states choose in an open convention. Shortly after, all parties followed suit, fearing they would look undemocratic to the newly empowered masses.

Today the system is similar, but much more democratic. Primaries choose the candidates long before the conventions. Electors are now chosen by the people in all states and the electors vote for the popular winner of the state. There are state laws requiring both these changes, but it is interesting that no federal law does. If a state chooses to, it can still use the old system

There is nothing about protecting smaller states from larger ones. The Founders could not have envisioned the population we have in our cities today or that the city populations would ever grow larger than the rural populations. That did not happen until after 1900. They did not know the U.S. would expand across the Contentment or have such things as low-population fly-over states.

There are many good reasons to keep the Electoral College, and those arguments should be made, but make sure you have your history correct if you are going to use the Founders in your reasoning.

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.

Mass Shootings

I can still remember the day in 1999 when two students entered Columbine High School and killed twelve fellow students and one teacher. I was an undergraduate student then and I remember spending the entire day watching the news in complete shock. This was the first of what we now call “mass shootings” that I can remember. This event horrified the nation and left us all with serious questions. Unfortunately, this event ushered in a period where today these seem common. 

As I was preparing to write this piece, I tried to remember the shootings that stood out. Being an alumni of Virginia Tech, I remember that shooting well. I still knew people there and it was hard seeing places on TV that brought me such joy, now being scenes of tragedy. I also remember Sandy Hook.  It just seemed worse than others being because these were little kids. Yet to my distress I realized most of the others have all blended together. I wish I had answers. I don’t. This is a complicated situation, with extremely strong passions on both sides. I don’t want to discuss the Second Amendment here. I wrote on the subject back in January and it is still online. What I want to do is take a minute and look at this from a historical perspective and share a few things I learned that surprised me.

The different lists I drew my information from, I am sure are, not perfect or complete, but they are close enough in number to make general assumptions. I also did not count shootings like Kent State or Waco that involved government or shootings between rival gangs or with police.

When looking over the lists, the big question is why? There are many different reasons for mass shootings, depending on who you ask. History cannot give any definite answers, but it can shed some light. I started looking at the 1940s to find the number of mass shootings. I figured that decade could give a constant. The constant in this case is the type of weapon used. Starting after World War II, the type of firearm available to citizens is basically the same type available today. Since the war, semi-automatic rifles are readily available. Semi-automatic means one round is fired every time the trigger is pulled and so can be fired as fast as a finger can squeeze. Rifles like this include the AR 15.  With gun arguments we get caught up comparing flintlock muskets to modern weapons, but if we start with the 1940s we are comparing apples to apples. 

What we find, and again these numbers are estimates, is that in the 1940s there was one mass shooting. The same for the 1950s. The numbers do not really rise in the 1960s or 1970s with only three in the 1960s and five in the 1970s. The big increase comes in the 1980s when the number of mass shootings rose to twenty-one. The numbers then rise slightly over the next two decades with twenty-nine in the 1990s and thirty-five in the 2000s. The next big jump is a bit startling with 111 mass shootings and counting in the 2010s. So, the questions must be: what happened in the 1980s and the 2010s for such an increase in shootings.

The first go-to for both parties is politics, each blaming the other for all the troubles. Republicans took over the White House and held it during the 1980s, but Democrats regained it in 1992 and held for the rest of the decade when shootings were just as bad. Democrats took back the highest office in 2008 and were in charge for six years in the 2010s before Trump took over. It would be easy to blame one of the parties if it had dominated over the past forty years, but the years are pretty evenly split.

Other areas of historical significance for this story are the 24-hour news networks and the internet. Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980.  Based on their success, the ‘90s saw the launch of two more very popular networks, Fox News and MSNBC, both starting in 1996. In the need of news organizations to fill a 24-hour loop, these shootings have been sensationalized and the shooters themselves have become famous, or infamous, or to the shooters it is the same. I won’t use the names of the Columbine shooters, but I still know their names.  Everyone who was old enough to remember that day probably does. 

This brings up the first interesting fact. Columbine was not the first school shooting the way I remember it. There were at least nine school shootings in the 1990s before Columbine, nine. Why then do we remember Columbine so vividly? Because, in a twisted way, they became celebrities. A recent Washington Post story reported a large percent of copycat school shooters were obsessed with Columbine. The news told everyone who they were and the Internet pushed their stories and other troubled students wanted to be famous also. Most notably, the Sandy Hook shooter, who, by the way was not the first to target an elementary school. I also learned that California had three elementary school shootings between 1979 and 1989 and South Carolina had one in 1988, yet they received little national attention.

The history of the Internet plays a part also. Though the Internet has been around for some time, it really did not come into public use until 1991 with search engines like Excite and Yahoo coming in 1993 and 1994. The Internet has given shooters the justification they need. When writing this article, I consulted a psychology professor at my University about this subject. He stressed that many of the shooters are not mentally ill. I assumed mental illness was a common factor in all shootings, with the premise that sane people don’t shoot up a crowd. His answer changed my thinking. He explained that soldiers are not mentally ill when they kill during war. They believe what they are doing is correct, they are defending their nation. The same is true with mass shooters.  Many believe what they are doing is correct. Especially the shooters who kill groups they disagree with. It is the Internet that allows them to find common thinking and where they can find praise for their actions. 

I still to try to understand so many things, but I can take away two points. The media can be more responsible and not dive into every aspect of the shooters so their names do not become known. I would also like to see a change in our politicians. As seen, shootings occur during both parties’ presidencies. Instead of spending all their time blaming the other party, they should try working together for change, but in our highly charged political atmosphere, I doubt that will ever happen.   

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.

Abortion, Marijuana, and Slavery

                One of the topics I try to avoid in class is abortion. There is a good reason for this avoidance; it is one of the subjects that inspires such passion that it is nearly impossible for any real civil discourse.  Historically, abortion has been a key issue of every election since Roe V. Wade. However, it seems, at least to me, in the last couple elections, the abortion question has lost some significance. But, as we move closer to the 2020 election, it is looking as if the abortion issue may once again become a heavyweight question. I am not going to weigh in on the rights and wrongs of the issue, but I think it is worth giving some historical significance.

                My first historical observance with abortion is the political shift that occurs. One of the areas we can generalize about regarding the differences between Republicans and Democrats is the role of government. Today, Republicans tend to believe in smaller government, while Democrats believe in larger. This was not always the case, but that is a story for a different time. Yet, when it comes to abortion, the two parties switch positions. Democrats tend to want more regulation, more involvement in people’s lives. But when it comes to abortion, they suddenly back off and say it is completely up to the individual. Democrats tend to try to protect those who need the most help, but then change on this one issue. Republicans follow suit. They tend to push for more personal liberties, a more hands-off approach, yet push for more government regulation with abortion. Where Republicans are portrayed as the more uncaring party when it comes to issues such as separation of children at the border, they take a stronger stance on protecting the unborn. When it comes to debating abortion, they both attack each other on their inconsistencies. 

A similar circumstance happens when it comes to legalizing marijuana. Democrats argue it’s a state rights’ issue, while Republicans counter that it is a federal law. And while speaking of marijuana, it seems to me as if these two issues are connected. Marijuana is still against federal law, yet state after state have passed laws allowing for its use. Similarly, abortion is legal in the U.S. according to federal law, but after the marijuana laws began to pass with no reprisal from the federal government, states started to follow suit with abortion laws. Today several states have passed laws limiting the right to abort. 

The reason for the switch in position is because morality is involved. In my classes there are two times I discuss abortion. The first is when we discuss Roe v. Wade. The other is when we discuss compromises over slavery. I understand how odd that sounds. There is little the two have in common, yet when it comes to debating slavery and abortion, they are quite similar. 

For the first century of American history, our leaders were able to compromise on slavery. When I say compromise, I really mean agree to avoid discussing it. Slavery was always a difficult question, so they agreed to find ways to punt the problems to the next generation. The big compromises such as the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the 1850 Compromise, and the 1854 Kansas Nebraska Compromise were all attempts to remove slavery from the national discussion. All three of these compromises were efforts to answer, once and for all, which states or territories would be slave and which free. Our political leaders understood that slavery was too difficult a conversation for Congress. The closer we got to the Civil War, the more difficult the conversations became. 

As the anti-slavery movement grew into the abolitionist cause, more Americans began to see slavery as a moral argument. Once slavery was seen as a sin and slave-holders as sinners, it became impossible to have civil discourse. This is when I bring in abortion as an object lesson. I tell my students it’s like today’s abortion debate. If you are morally against abortion, there is no compromise. There can’t be. If you are pro-choice and see abortion as a fundamental right for women, you too cannot compromise. It’s not like tariffs. Most of us can give a little here or there with tariffs, infrastructure laws, or foreign policy, but once something is seen as a moral argument, compromise is over. 

I am not the first to see this connection. In fact, modern pro-life advocates have taken up the word abolitionist to explain their cause. They have borrowed many words, slogans, and images from the 19th century abolition movement to explain and promote their agenda.

I am not sure what this comparison means for modern Americans. Nineteenth-century Americans never figured it out. They were never able to find the magic solution and come to an agreement. It took a war and 700,000 lives to find the answer to slavery. I do not think abortion will lead to war, but history has shown that we may never find common ground to the abortion question. Pro-choice and pro-life will never find a compromise and, like the abolitionists and slaver holders, will continue to see themselves as holding the moral high ground even if the courts side against them. 

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.

Consequences of a Failed Coup

If President Trump pulls off a win in 2020, there is going to be a great deal of soul searching, not to mention wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many will ask how, how could someone so disliked win another term?  I am not saying he is going to win. I have no idea. But, if he does, I am suggesting that history can give us a clue as to the event that helped him win. 

I recently wrote an article looking at the ideological ancestry of Progressives and one of the men I mentioned was Huey Long. As important as Long was in the 1930s, he is a character largely forgotten to time. Even with the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men and the subsequent two movies of the same name (1949 and 2006) being loosely based on Long, he is lost to history.  Yet for some time, Long was the loudest voice of protest against President Roosevelt, and one of the most influential men in America.  His “Share Our Wealth” program hoped to do more to eliminate poverty than anything the New Deal considered.  Yet, before Long could become the champion of the people, first he had to endure government attacks and impeachment attempts. 

Long grew up poor in rural Louisiana but had well-educated parents for that time and place.  He was described as having a photographic memory and excelled in school, but not so much getting along with others, including teachers.  After being expelled, he later took some classes from Oklahoma Baptist University, as well as the University of Oklahoma. He did not finish either, but he did end up attending Tulane Law School for one year before passing the bar.  

Long worked as a lawyer for a few years, as he worked his way up through Louisiana state politics, until he ran for governor in 1928.  He was able to beat a powerful political machine by consolidating the rural poor vote with the minorities and Catholic votes.  He ran a Bernie-Sanders-small-donation type of campaign that he called “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown.”  He promised public works projects, free textbooks, and higher taxes on the wealthy.  Once in office, he lived up to his promises; he was the New Deal before there was such a thing. 

As Governor, Long ran Louisiana like a dictator.  He pushed all his opponents out of offices and replaced them with loyalists.  He took on big business, especially Standard Oil, and was able to impose his will over the legislature.  Because he had a demagogue-like hold over the people of his state, he also used shady finances and physical force to build his power. 

When Long tried to raise the tax rate on oil companies, they fought back.  Supported by the oil companies, the conservatives tried to impeach him for everything from blasphemy and corruption to attempted murder.   One opposition leader supposedly said that you can impeach for anything. Impeachment is political.  These may be the truest words ever said.  Long felt as if he was not being fairly treated in the press, who were connected and backed by big government.  He did not have Twitter, but in the 1920s, he did the next best thing.  To get his own message across to the public, he started his own paper and mounted speakers to a car to deliver his thoughts.  Most importantly, he utilized a new technology, 1920s social media, the radio.  A medium his future opponent, FDR, would also use to perfection.

In the end, the people rallied to Long’s side and he pulled in enough senators to pledge not to vote for any charges.  Long walked away stronger than before; he became the “Kingfish” and ruled his state with an iron fist.  He said something along the lines that he used to ask please of the government, but now he used dynamite.  Having survived impeachment, he gained complete control over Louisiana, and then turned his sights to the national stage.

As a democratic senator, Long championed the democratic candidate, FDR, in the 1932 election.  Long took credit for FDR’s wins in several states and felt he earned an unofficial advisor position to the new president.  Roosevelt saw things differently, saying, “He really is one of the two most dangerous men in the country.”  When Long began to speak for the administration and proposed his plan to limit income, FDR distanced himself from the Kingfish.  There is too much to write about here, but the two men quickly came to odds, leading Long to use his significant public influence to attack the New Deal.  The administration counterattack was in the form of the Treasury Department launching an investigation into Long’s tax returns (some things never go out of style), as well as a special senate investigation into election fraud in Louisiana.  Finally, with a possible weakening of the Kingfish, his Louisiana enemies saw the chance to take back the state and attempted to oust the Long-controlled state government. 

When Long was finally brought to a hearing, the evidence against him was flimsy and unimportant.  It looked as if prosecutors were working out personal grudges.  It did not take long for the hearings to fall apart and the people to lose interest.  In the end, those who had attacked Long suffered greater than Long ever did.  Once again Long emerged stronger than before.  If was after the government attacks that Long proposed the “Share Our Wealth” program to redistribute wealth. He also began to prepare to take on FDR in the next election.  Before he could challenge the President, however, he was shot down by an assassin.  I am not saying that he could have defeated FDR, but his power and popularity had grown even more since being attacked by the Government and he was emerging victorious.  

I don’t know what the final outcome of the Mueller report will be and I am not here to weigh in on Trump’s impeachment chances.  But historically speaking, if after two years of investigating Trump and nothing comes from it and if Democrats continue to investigate, it starts to look like an abuse of power from the Democrats. As with Long, the constant attacks only strengthen his base and even draw in others.  If after the 2020 election, Trump is still in power and the left is scrambling again to figure out why, their answer may likely be the very investigation they started. 

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.

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.