Class Notes

In my WW II reading class this semester, we just finished reading Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides.  This book was popular a few years back, but I did not get to it then, but I loved Blood and Thunder by Sides and so took the opportunity to assign it now.  I highly recommend this book.  It tells the story of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and about the army rangers who led a daring raid to rescue them.  The book explains that in Japanese culture surrendering was a sign of weakness, so much in fact that their own men would rather fight till the death or even kill themselves rather than surrender.  This is evident in the kamikaze pilots.  Because of this belief the Japanese did not respect any soldiers who themselves surrendered.  For the thousands of Americans left behind in the Philippines, who surrendered this meant three years of torture and death at the hands of Japanese soldiers.  Rather than having their prisoners rescued, the Japanese killed all the prisoners at Palawan by putting them in bunkers then pouring in gas and lighting them on fire.  To try to avoid such a fate at Bataan, a ranger squad was sent ahead of the main American force to try to rescue the prisoners before they could be terminated. 

The story is one of pain and suffering for the American POWs that brought memories of accounts of the Holocaust in Europe.  The treatment of the men and the pure lack of humanity by the guards is described in this book, but so is heroism and sacrifice of the POWs, the rangers, and the Filipino people.

Class Notes

When Jefferson won the Election of 1800 (my favorite election) it was seen as a win for the common man. Jefferson’s rhetoric had always been about equality. One cultural aspect of the election is that the Minuet fell out of favor as a dance at parties. The Minuet was seen as an aristocratic dance that took hours to master, hours that common people did not have time for. With the new idea of equality, it was now believed the dance was for rank and privilege and died away. The dance me have fell out of vogue, but wanting status never really did, especially for Jefferson.

Class Notes

When the Civil War started, the greatest prize for either side was Kentucky.  Kentucky had declared itself neutral as the War began, but the state was too valuable to be left alone.  The Ohio river was a perfect border and the state had valuable food and man power.  Most importantly the Ohio, Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee all flowed in Kentucky.  These rivers were essential supply lines and troop transports.  Lincoln understood the importance of his native state when he said, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”  The South invaded the state on September 5, 1861, there after Kentucky voted to side with the Union.

Kentucky during this time is a fascinating story, there is a really great book on this subject that I know of.

Class Notes

Class Notes
The fact that Bernie Sanders won last night’s New Hampshire primary is no surprise to anyone. However, I think there are many surprised this morning to see that Pete Buttigieg only lost by one percentage point and even more shocked to see Amy Klobuchar came in third. Though these may not be expected, historically speaking there was no surprise. If we look at recent historic trends then we see that the last three Democratic presidents have been surprises. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter were all far from household names and were considered dark horses, when they joined the race. What we see is that known entities like Biden, Sanders, and Warren had as many detractors as supporters before the race even began. In other words, they bring a lot of baggage. Saying this I realize Sanders won last night, but I do not believe that will continue once out of N.H.

The other historic trend we see by looking at recent history is that moderates tend to win campaigns. The fringes of parties get a lot of coverage and passionate supporters, but when it comes to voting, moderates tend to win. The only moderate new-comers are Buttigieg and Klobuchar. I am not saying they are going to win the nomination, but if they do they will be following the historic trend.

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Class Notes

John Adams, who does not get the credit he deserves, I think falls victim to one of the problems of history.  If we were to make a list of best presidents, which has been done many times, the best presidents tend to line up with the most difficult times in our history.  In other words, someone like Lincoln, who I think was a great president, might be forgotten today if not for the Civil War.  Perhaps a president like Millard Filmore had potential to be our greatest president, but did not have an obstacle to overcome.

Adams falls into that category.  He is the most important president when it comes to independence, but when it came to the president he did not have a major obstacle.  What is most interesting is that it is because of Adams that there was not a major issue.  The members of his own party, led by Hamilton, actually wanted war with France.  It was Adams that kept us from war.  The problem is presidents are not remembered for what they didn’t do. 

Historical Impeachment

Watching the Senate hearings over the past weeks I am happy to see historical arguments being made by both sides. As I have said, the Constitution is purposely vague, and it is no different when it comes to impeachment. There are three sections in the Constitution that discuss impeachment, but even with those sections there are still many questions. As with most Constitutional issues, the rest has been filled in with laws, the courts, and especially precedent. Several times both sides have referenced both the Andrew Johnson and William Clinton impeachment trials. In this vein, I think it is worth examining the lesser known of the two, the Johnson case, to see what we can learn from history and if there are similarities between the two.

There is a great deal of detail to explain Johnson’s election as V.P. Suffice to say, the Republicans in 1864 were concerned about Lincoln’s chances in the upcoming election. That may sound crazy, but he was not yet the super popular president that he would become. Johnson was a pro-war Democrat and Lincoln hoped that by bringing him on the ticket he could attract other pro-war Democrats. What made Johnson an even more interesting choice was that he was a pro-slave, state’s rights Democrat from Tennessee. Johnson was brought in for votes only. Once in office, Lincoln did not use him and he by no means was meant to ever be president.

The issue with Johnson’s impeachment revolves around Reconstruction. Even before the end of the War, Lincoln was already discussing his plans for how to treat the South. He basically wanted to make it easy for the southern states to return, including keeping their existing governments. His biggest opposition to Reconstruction was the radical wing of his own party. The so-called Radical Republicans wanted to punish the South and make it difficult for their return. They wanted to remove all past leaders and guarantee certain rights for the new freedman population

The Radicals were originally excited about Johnson as president. He said and did all the right things. However, when Congress left for recess, he put in his own plans for Reconstruction that were just as lenient as Lincoln’s, maybe even more so. When Congress returned, they attempted to retake the power. They tried to pass laws to help the ex-slaves but were blocked by Johnson’s vetoes. The Radicals did have enough support to overturn Johnson’s veto on the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave freedmen citizenship, but they faced an uphill battle. It was at this point they began looking for reasons to impeach the president. They tried twice unsuccessfully before they found a reason that stuck.

In 1867 Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which basically said that the president could not fire any member of his own cabinet without congressional approval. This was done for two reasons. First, Congress was afraid that Johnson would start replacing Lincoln’s Republican Cabinet with a Democratic one. Secondly, they hoped this would trip up Johnson and give them a reason to impeach. The plan worked. Johnson, who had been fighting with his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton over keeping troops in the South, finally grew frustrated and fired him. Johnson did not think the Tenure of Office Act would hold up in court. He was right. But before the courts examined the case, the House acted first and charged Johnson with eleven counts of impeachment.

The eleven articles are incredibly repetitive. They all boil down to Johnson having broken his oath of office by firing Stanton and by hiring Lorenzo Thomas without consent of Congress. They basically said it in different ways, like he violated Stanton’s rights in one and conspired with Thomas against Stanton in another. In Article 10 Congress went as far as including that he criticized congress “with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues.”

The trial lasted for three months. The defense argued that Johnson had done nothing wrong. They claimed he was challenging an unconstitutional law and basically his act did not meet the demands of a High Crime. What seemed like a slam dunk win at first fell apart by the end. From the beginning of the trial, Johnson worked with moderate Republicans to save his position by promising not to interfere any more with Reconstruction. Also, the managers had a week case. It became apparent the entire reason for the law was to remove the President. His only real crime was disagreeing with Congress.

In the end, seven Republicans voted to acquit. For some congressmen they were more concerned with the man who would replace Johnson, whom they saw as even more difficult. For others, when it really came down to it, they did not want to remove the President based on a power struggle. It would create a dangerous precedent that they did not want and could hurt the balance of power. When they received their assurances from Johnson, the Republicans were more than happy to leave him in office until the next year when they could replace him through voting. One senator said after, “I cannot agree to destroy the harmonious working of the Constitution for the sake of getting rid of an Unacceptable President.”

What is interesting about today’s impeachment is many will see similarities with Johnson’s trial and many will not. Supporters of Trump will see two presidents who disagreed with a hostile Congress which simply wanted the president removed for political reasons. Others will disagree with any similarities. More like the Nixon scandal, they see a president who clearly overstepped his authority and then tried to cover it up. The problem is this split happens to be along party lines, which is very much like the Johnson impeachment. With Johnson, Republicans had to cross the party line to clear him, whereas with Trump they had to cross party lines to convict. But either way the vast majority of the Senate in all three presidential impeachments trials voted along party lines instead of voting their consciences. So, what we can learn from studying Johnson is that in the end what we see is that impeachments are political above everything else.

For my Texas readers, if any of you are interested I will be speaking at the Weatherford College Interdisciplinary Academic Conference on Feb 27 at 5 PM. The conference is free and open to the public. For more information, you can call 817-598-6326. If you attend, make sure you come by and say hello.

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 or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Class Notes

Another aspect of the Civil War that I think we over emphasize is the idea of brother versus brother.  We give this so much attention that I think many students believe that most families were divided, which is just not true.  In fact, there were actually few families that were divided.  I prefer the saying brother with brother. Companies and regiments were created geographically, so your town would create a unit made up of people from your town.  Your unit would have your brothers, fathers, uncles, sons, and best friends.  If one company got hit partially hard in a battle, it could be devastating to a family or town.  It was also a good reason not to turn and run, if you did you were running out on your family.  So yes, there were a few families, mostly along the border where they divided, but the majority of the War was fought with brothers standing side by side.