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.

What is a Progressive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Intolerance


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Immigration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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