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.