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.

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.

National Emergencies

President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency has caused a bit of a national emergency itself. The president has decided to make the Southern border wall his legacy and if the democratic congress will not give him the money needed, he plans to go around them with the use of a national emergency. A lot of information is flying around, and I am happy to see some of it is historical. Much of the focus is on past emergencies and if what Trump is doing is different. I have written several times on the issue of executive orders, and national emergencies are very similar. I believe most orders are against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution and separation of powers. However, the question is have we seen similar circumstances in the past. The answer is yes and no.


Recently we have all learned a great deal about national emergencies, and many have been surprised to learn they are in fact quite common. There have been 59 declared and, more surprising, 32 are still active. Republicans have focused on the twelve passed by President Obama. The Democrats have focused on the nature of Obama’s emergencies. None of which went against the wishes of Congress and were mostly sanctions against enemy nations, but they were still actions without congressional approval.

The most talked about national emergency is the failed attempt of President Truman to nationalize the striking steel industry during the Korean War. The President believed the strike would hurt the U.S. war effort, which constituted a national emergency. The Supreme Court disagreed.


During our current national crisis, the focus on Truman is obvious, but what about times when the president acted outside of Congress and the courts did not intervene. I will name two.


Most Americans saw a canal across Central America as essential to our naval success. When a French firm in Panama failed in its attempt to build the canal, President Theodore Roosevelt jumped at the chance to purchase the project and complete it. The only problem was that Columbia, who at the time controlled Panama, did not want to sell to the Americans. For the sake of space, I need to simplify this greatly, but basically Panama declared independence from Columbia at the same time the U.S.S. Nashville sailed to Columbia and the U.S. recognized Panama’s independence. To no one’s surprise, the new Panamanian government turned around and offered America the canal project.


The new problem for TR was that Congress had not approved any of this, including building the canal. Roosevelt saw the canal as a national emergency and knew that involving Congress would only slow things down, so he acted alone. Roosevelt said that if he acted properly, Congress would give many excellent speeches, but the project would be delayed fifty years, so instead TR said, “Fortunately the crisis came at a period when I could act unhampered. Accordingly I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”


A second example comes from the man considered American’s greatest president: Abraham Lincoln. In 1860, Lincoln ran his campaign on stopping the expansion of slavery, not outlawing slavery where it was. In his inaugural address, he claimed that not only did he have no desire to free the slaves, but he did not have the constitutional right to do so. Yet, two years later he had a change of heart. In 1862, Lincoln came to the conclusion that the best way to win the war was to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the rebellious states. Taking away the south’s work force would damage its war effort.


As popular as Lincoln is today, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was extremely unpopular. The Democrats in Congress were outraged at what they saw as tyranny. Lincoln was even attacked as a usurper of power, and that was from his own party. Even members of his cabinet saw his decision as unwise and tried to talk him out of it. Yet Lincoln went against his cabinet, the conservative members of his party, and the Congress and issued the Proclamation. Before the Courts could take up his decision, he pushed through the 13th Amendment, making the court’s decision on the Proclamation moot.


The examples of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Truman clearly show that Trump is not the first to make decisions based on what they saw as emergencies. You can claim that Lincoln and Truman acted during a time a war and thus their actions were emergencies, but not Roosevelt. So if the answer is Trump is not the first. The no is because everything changed after 1976 and the passage of the National Emergency Act.


Coming off the Vietnam War and the Nixon years, congress wanted to rein in the power of the president with the 1976 Act. With the Act, presidents need to justify the emergency to Congress and Congress can reverse an emergency with a joint resolution and an override of a veto if necessary. Congress is also supposed to review the emergency every six months, something that is rarely done.


So how does all this answer our question? Is Trump the first president to use emergency powers to act against the wishes of Congress? No. Is he the first to act when many do not see a perceived emergency? No. Is he the first to do so since the 1976Aact? Possibly. Yet this Act does not say he can’t, just that Congress can stop him if they have the numbers. I am not saying Trump is right to divert money to build the wall. The precedent does seem dangerous. So make your arguments for or against the wall, but make sure your argument is correct.


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.

Legitimacy of Political Parties

With the government shutdown now over, it is historically intriguing that one of the central players, President Donald Trump, with plenty of help from the Democrats, is helping to destroy the political reality that his hero, Andrew Jackson, helped create–legitimate political parties. 

The Founding Fathers all abhorred the idea of parties.  George Washington made parties the subject of his farewell address, as he left office.  Yet, as Washington preached against them, they were forming around him.  The way the president was chosen in the original Constitution demonstrates that the Founders hoped to avoid parties.  For the first four elections, the winner of the Electoral College became president while second place became Vice-President.  Under this system Trump would be president and Hillary Clinton would have been his vice-president. 

One reason the Founders detested parties is that parties are more concerned with the party’s welfare than the nation.  A great example of this is that our current parties were more interested in claiming a political “win” over a border wall than they are at compromising and helping government workers get back on the job.  Democrats are now claiming “victory,” and the media can report that Trump lost.  Turning this into a win or lose situation will not help either side when it comes to the next big issue.  

Another issue for the Founders was parties were not seen as legitimate.  In other words, the opposing party was not seen as acceptable and their policies would destroy the experiment called “America.”  Those calling themselves Republicans (while believing parties were wrong) believed the Federalists wanted to turn America into a monarchy, while the Federalists believed the Republicans wanted to start a “Reign of Terror” similar to France.

This is not like today’s rhetoric, such as, “If Trump wins, I am moving to Canada” and then no one actually leaves because they know America will survive until the next election.  We know that parties are legitimate.  They did not.  I have written about the 1800 election and why I think it’s the most important ever–this was the first election we see some legitimacy in the opposing party.

We really do not see full legitimacy until the Jacksonian Era.  During this time leaders, such as Jackson, argued that parties are not only legitimate, but positive.  The man who deserves the most credit for this change is the brains behind Jackson, his second VP and eventual presidential replacement, Martin Van Buren.  Van Buren began by building his own party, the Bucktails, in New York and eventually turned it into the Democratic Party.  The new party organization helped Jackson win two elections and solidify his strength.  The Democrats were so successful that the Whig Party was forced to follow suit if they ever hoped to win.

Van Buren believed parties benefitted Americans by having a side to choose on issues and the parties could contend against each other in an orderly manner.  He also saw parties as the glue that would hold the nation together.  As long as there were northern and southern Democrats and Whigs, he thought, America would not have a Civil War.  But none of this was possible unless everyone saw parties as legitimate.

Today we are losing the idea of legitimate discord.  Parties have always fought each other but, except on a few occasions, they have always been able to work out compromises.  Recently, it seems that Democrats attack any proposal from the Republicans for the sole reason that Republicans proposed it, and vice versa for Republicans against Democrats.  Past Democratic leaders made statements and speeches about border safety similar to our current president.   So why are Democrats now suddenly against it?

With the Democrats in control of the House both parties chose “the wall” to make a stand on.  Instead of truly working together to find a solution, they delegitimized the other party, and refused to budge an inch in order to claim victory.  Yesterday was the wall, who knows what it will be tomorrow.  Yet whatever it is, the parties will not care about the issues half as much as who will “win” the fight and hold the upper hand going into the next election.

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.

Historical Comparisons

Historical Comparisons

In a recent interview, basketball megastar LeBron James compared NFL owners to plantation slave owners.  He was not the first to do so.  In fact, it has become a common way to describe NFL owners.  In some ways, I understand the reasons to make historical comparisons.  This entire column is dedicated to doing just that.  Yet there are some comparisons that are, one, unfair and, two, dangerous.  The danger comes from making outrageous comparisons that strip away any common ground and have the potential to normalize past behavior. 

The comparisons I find most troubling lately are the NFL owners to plantation owners and political leaders we disagree with to Hitler and the Holocaust.  At first glance, the NFL comparison is easy–powerful rich white men with almost absolute authority over their predominantly black work force.  It is true that NFL owners hold a great deal of power over their players; owners can players them or trade them for any cause, but does that equate them to slave owners?

Slavery is one of this nation’s darkest experience.  Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forcefully taken from their homes and families to be shipped across an ocean and sold into bondage.  Once in America, slave owners used pure torture, both physical and psychological, to make those slaves and their descendants do their bidding.  Slaves had absolutely no control over any aspect of their lives, and most lived that way from the cradle to the grave.

Compare that to the NFL.  There may be issues between labor and management, but I find it difficult to see a strong comparison between an NFL player making millions of dollars to the life of a slave.  For one, slaves had absolutely no choice, whereas most NFL players have dreamed of playing in the league since their childhood.  Slavery was back-breaking labor, whereas football is a game.  Slavery was a life condition for the slave and their children, while professional football is a short time, and if money is managed properly, players can retire under forty.  Thousands of men across the nation are willing to sacrifice much for the chance to play in the NFL, even with the labor differences.  That is a far cry from slavery.  Yes, a player can be cut from the team, but there are few careers where an employed is not let go for lack of performance or for bad behavior.  Employees complaining about their boss is as old as America.  Why is the NFL seen differently? 

The other comparison I think we need to be careful of is constantly making comparisons to Hitler.  His is an easy name to throw around whenever we disagree with a political leader.  The most recent Hitler and Holocaust comparisons were with President Trump’s policy of separating children of illegal aliens on the border.  I am not going to argue this policy here.  It is safe to assume most disagree with it.  It is true that when illegal migrants were captured crossing the border they were separated by age and sex and put into holding facilities.  It is understandable that this may invoke comparisons of Jews being separated by sex when they reached concentration camps.  Yet that is where the comparisons end.  Immigrants were sent to camps where they were housed, fed, and given medical attention.

I am not saying separating a child from their parent is not a horrific situation, but during the Holocaust six million Jews were forcefully taken from their homes, distributed to different work or death camps, then tortured, starved, experimented on, and worked to death.  Those who did not die from the conditions were stripped naked, gassed in large chambers, then either mass buried or burned in Nazi ovens.  Hitler was a monster who tried to eradicate an entire race.  You may really hate President Trump, and he has done plenty to criticize, but he is no Hitler. 

There are plenty of good historical comparisons to make about our leaders.  I have done it several times in my stories, but if we continue to compare everyone to Hitler, the more we normalize what he did.  If Trump, Obama, and Bush are all like Hitler, and those comparisons have been made by their opposite side, then Hitler becomes just one in a list of unpopular leaders instead of what he truly was, evil. 

Also if Trump is Hitler, how do we ever work to find a middle ground?  If someone is as bad as Hitler, we are past compromise, for how can we find common ground with such a man.  I am not saying comparisons can never be made when looking at specific examples.  I remember comparisons being made with the Nazi practice of having papers to the Arizona law requiring the carrying of IDs.  Those practices are on par.  Comparing the separation of illegal immigrants to detention camps for the Japanese during WWII would make for a great future column.  I just find it difficult to compare what has happened on the border to what happened in the Holocaust.

History is an incredibly powerful weapon.  Churchill once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”  While this is true, it may also be true that normalizing history can have the same effect.  Are NFL owners as bad as slave owners?  No.  Is Trump as bad as Hitler?  Also no.  We need to keep looking to the past to find comparisons and ultimately answers.  I know I will.  But comparisons need to fair and not normalize past bad behavior. 

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.

Mayday Bombings

Mayday Bombings

Happy New Year! I thought I would start off this year by publishing a story I wrote last year. Right before I was going to publish it, a bigger story came up and I ended up putting it on the back shelf. The article deals with the bombs that were found in the mail, which received some attention and then was quickly overshadowed, but it is still an important story.

Mayday, mayday, mayday. Most of us know this as an international call for distress. Calling a national Mayday is an appropriate reaction to the discovery of bombs sent by mail to prominent Democrats back in October. These attacks were blamed on presidential rhetoric and the overall political divisiveness prevailing in the nation, especially before the midterm elections. While this was true, it is giving those who report that our nation is hopelessly divided more ammunition. We are in difficult times, but one of the key jobs of historians is to show that we have faced difficult times in the past, and on each occasion we have persevered. With the example of mail bombs, not only has America seen divisive times before, in fact we have seen almost this exact same thing happen.

Whereas today Mayday means distress, in the early twentieth century May Day, or May 1, was International Workers Day, or, to some, Communists or Anarchist Day. On May 1, 1919 about 20 bombs were sent by mail to prominent government leaders and business men, such as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes.

The years following the Great War were not unlike ours. Race relations were at a low, as soldiers returning home from war found that thousands of African Americans had moved up to northern cities during what is known as the Great Migration and replaced them at work. The next few summers found race riots erupting in northern cities, including the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. In the South, whites feared that returning black soldiers would expect equal treatment. Not only had black soldiers sacrificed for this nation, they were now trained killers. To make sure blacks knew their place, a rash of lynchings occurred across the South, including the murder of ten black veterans.

Labor relations were also at an all-time low after the War. During the Great War, workers showed their patriotism by not striking, but with the armistice their truce with management ended. Strikes broke out across the nation. Strikes were common in America, but things had changed during the war. One of the largest consequences of WWI was the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Where before a strike was just a strike, now every strike was seen as a possible communist revolution. In 1919, the Russians even called for a world revolution.

In the midst of these fears came the May Day attacks. The bombs were all sent in late April, trying to time their delivery on May 1. All the bombs were similarly wrapped in brown paper and the same size. Each bomb had a stick of dynamite and was rigged to explode when the side marked open was opened. Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson’s aide opened one of the first packages, but he opened it upside down so it did not detonate. Georgia Senator Thomas W. Hardwick was not so lucky when his maid and wife were injured from the blast. The police and post office were both notified and with national media coverage the other recipients knew not to open their packages.

In New York, sixteen of the packages were set aside by a clerk for insufficient postage. On the way home, the clerk read in his paper about the Georgia bomb and recognized the description of the packages that he set aside. He rushed back to his office and secured the bombs, probably saving many lives.

Over the next few months more bombs were sent, some deadly. One bomb detonated at the home of the Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, while he was away. Palmer struck back. With the General Intelligence Division, he raided twelve cities and arrested hundreds of suspected communists. Many were deported and many others illegally detained. The man Palmer used to gather information on suspects was a young lawyer in his office named J. Edgar Hoover. The worst of the attacks happened the next year in September when a horse-drawn wagon blew up in front of the Stock Exchange, killing thirty people. No one was ever tried for the bombs, but as the Roaring Twenties moved in, the Red Scare died away and everything returned to normal.

For two years Americans were on heightened alert as fear gripped the nation. As Americans we were greatly divided not only about racial and class issues, but over the way Palmer and the government handled the crisis. Palmer had presidential ambitions, but his tactics and civil liberty violations eventually came to light and damaged his chance at the White House.

The bombings of 1919 are not the only time we saw similar scares. There was the anthrax attacks of the 2000s. In each of these cases, we endured. What history teaches us is that even with the divide today, when the rhetoric from both sides is stirring violent protests and even potential bombings, we too can endure. I still hope that sanity will one day soon rule in America, as it eventually did in the 1920s, but in the meantime remember most Americans are just like you, just trying to live their lives and find some semblance of happiness.

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.blogor Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Historical Christmas

With the closing of my first year writing HistoricallySpeaking, I thought I would end it right with a historic Christmas story.  Being a Civil War historian, one of myfavorite Christmas songs is, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”.  That may sound strange, most do not associatethe two together.  However, “I heard theBells on Christmas Day” is a Civil War song. Most versions of the song do not include all of the verses, but if used,you can understand that it is a song about the pain and struggle during thewar.  In fact, it can really be a songabout any war.

In the years before the Civil War, the great poet HenryWadsworth Longfellow would have enjoyed Christmas like most in the Victorianera with his wife and six children enjoying their version of a Dicken’sholiday.  These early memories might haveeven been the inspiration in the song’s first verses:

                I heard the bellson Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

                  And wild andsweet

                  The wordsrepeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

                  Had rolledalong

                The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day

                  A voice, achime,

                  A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

However, for the Longfellows, like so many others during the war, theirlives would be shattered as the nation tore itself apart and caused the deathsof thousands.  For the Longfellow household,their suffering began when Longfellow’s wife, Fannie, caught her dress on fireand she was killed in 1861.  In trying toput out the flames, Longfellow himself was severely burned.

To make matters worse, right before Christmas in November 1863,Longfellow’s oldest son was wounded in the Battle of Mine Run.  The letters from the doctors told him that hemight be permanently paralyzed. Longfellow rushed down to Washington, D.C. to help nurse his firstbornback to health.  It is easy to understandthe next few lines:

                Then from eachblack, accursed mouth,

The cannon thundered in the South,

                  And with thesound

                  The carolsdrowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

 hearth-stonesof a continent,

                  And madeforlorn

                  The householdsborn

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

                 “For hate isstrong

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Yet the Spirit of Christmas was able to overcome such great suffering.  Since the Civil War there have been too manyChristmases with soldiers away from their families, and I am sure many familiestoday have had similar thoughts as Longfellow. I hope this year Christmas can bring you some joy and peace and likeLongfellow, be able to say:

                Then pealed thebells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!

                  The Wrong shallfail,

                  The Rightprevail,

 peace on earth,good-will to men!”

This has been an amazing year for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed writingthis column.  I hope it has not onlyentertained you, but made you take a moment to think about some of the currentissues.  From my family to yours, I wantto wish you all a merry Christmas.