Why bother studying history?

When I was a kid I became interested in genealogy. Some of my most treasured belongings are these surveys my mom and I put together and sent to all of my grandparents asking them to list their parents, grandparents, childhood stories and other family history information. Some of my grandparents didn’t bother, thinking I really wouldn’t be interested in it. The irony is that the one grandparent who took the most time to fill it out with information and stories was also the one who issued this caution: Be careful of looking in the past. You might find a horse thief.

I think sometimes when people talk about studying history or learning about their ancestors they have this mindset where it’s all about bragging rights. They want to find out they were descended from a president or royalty or who knows what else. They have these rose colored glasses on and aren’t so interested in the stories of five generations who lived in poverty but worked hard or maybe the story about the great-great-grandfather who grew up in a poorhouse and was always bitter and mean from such a rough childhood. They don’t want to know about the grandmother whose husband forced her to drink turpentine to cause an abortion because he didn’t want another mouth to feed. These are stories of real life and, yes, a sample of the things I learned when I began to look at my own family’s history. Is it all warm and fuzzy? No, but I don’t regret knowing it. I don’t regret understanding what they went through that made them who they are and eventually led to me. I’m okay with them not being a president. I’m proud to come from stock that endured so much and managed to carry on.

Also when I was a kid I learned about history from my school textbooks and what movies and books I was introduced to. For the most part nobody in my family had an interest in history (though that developed after I became interested and was constantly rattling on about some historical fact or event I’d learned about). That early introduction to history was… flat. Lifeless.

We learned about Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving… but they kinda scanned over the parts about introducing diseases to the Native tribes and just how those tribes were steadily pushed out of their land.

We learned about the American Revolution… but not about the internal struggle of the founding fathers regarding whether or not to rebel. It was portrayed as this simple decision because of taxation without representation and they didn’t really explain the thoughts of the American Loyalists or what was going on in the British parliament.

We learned about the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We didn’t learn that the states still considered themselves separate and many states like Virginia even specifically stated in their ratification of the Constitution that they reserved the right to leave the union of states if they so desired in future.

We learned about slavery… We learned that the slaves were black men, women and children that had been brought over from Africa. We learned that it was the South that owned them and profited from the trade. We learned that the slave-owners were all rich white people and that the South was full of this huge, sprawling plantations with hundreds of slaves each. Of this paragraph, every single sentence is half-truths.

That’s what we have been taught though. A series of half-truths which give us an incomplete big picture and yet that big picture is what most of the nation judges each other by.

Everyone is being cheated of their heritage. Everyone is being cheated of understanding where they are from, why their family ended up where it was, what made their grandparents and great-grandparents the sort of people they were.

Start turning over rocks and looking at information you haven’t looked at before. You might find your own horse thief. You might find sadness and pain in that history. Then again, you might find something else too. You might find out that your ancestors were survivors, facing terrible odds and coming out of it the other side. You might find that they fought for something you hadn’t known they fought for, or that the reasons for it weren’t the reasons you’d thought they were. History isn’t pretty. Never has been, never will be. It is full of the very best and the very worst of people. It is full of atrocities. It is full of hate and pain and loss. It is also full of joy and triumph and kindness. Don’t deprive yourself of the one just because you’ll also find the other.

What sparked your interest in history? Were there topics you were uneasy with reading about or things you hoped not to find? What changed your mind? (Or has it?)

Freedom or Fear?

When the Europeans came to the New World they brought with them civilization. A funny word because essentially what it means is “our way of life is the right way and you will comply or we will force you because we are right and your differences cannot be tolerated.” The native American tribes had their own religious beliefs, some of which were not far from Christianity but different enough that it was a threat. So over years it was stamped out. Only Christianity could be tolerated among the natives because any other belief is a threat. Fear of their differences won out, even when it was among tribes they were allied with.

I remember when I was about nine years old reading a book called the Witch of Blackbird Pond. That book was one of my favorites and even as I grew older I’d still occasionally read it. It was set in the late 1600s in New England and there was a character named Hannah Tupper who was an elderly Quaker woman that lived on her own. She was suspected of being a “witch” essentially because she didn’t conform to the social norm of her community. Her greatest “sin” was in being a Quaker, a variation of Protestant faith that emphasized the relationship between a person and God rather than putting faith in a central church. To the Puritans of New England this was abhorrent, a threat to them and their faith. They had both been persecuted in Europe but when the shoe was on the other foot the Puritans had no problem persecuting the Quakers because they allowed their fear to rule them.

Around the late 1700s and early 1800s there was discussion about Islam. Many of the slaves brought into the country followed that faith and this required some careful thought on the part of those Christians already established here. Some founding fathers were opposed but many including George Washington actually either found merit in the Muslim teachings or at the very least supported their freedom to continuing practicing that faith. After all, had we not just fought a war for freedom, to create a country where we could have differences but still work together?

Into the 1800s, forgetting how we had worked together to gain independence, the divisions in the country once again began to fester. Tariffs unfairly targeting certain sections of the country, no matter that we had objected against unfair taxation practices from King George. It festered and it festered and when things came to a head with secession fear was once again used to control the populace. The Union, as Lincoln admitted, was terrified of losing the tax revenue from the South if they successfully seceded since they had been financially supporting the majority of the federal government as well as subsidies to many industries that didn’t wish to take a financial hit (the early days of our crony capitalism). The South was afraid of losing their autonomy as they lost more and more power within the government while their share of the taxes seemed to only get higher. For some there was a fear of abolition, though that was far from the only fear. In that war, terrorizing others became a favorite tool. Rarely did the Confederate armies attempt to cross into the Union but in the South civilians, both free and slave, were being targeted by the Union armies. All food was stolen, homes burned to the ground, women were raped, black men regardless of whether they were free or slave were forced into leaving and joining the Union army, graves of the newly dead were desecrated on the off chance that civilians might be attempting to hide supplies. Fear and destruction were the tools to obtain compliance.

Following the war came a period known as Reconstruction which is somewhat glossed over by the history classes. Immediately after abolition of slavery the southern legislatures had passed laws of their own volition, modeled after laws in the north, in order to make sure the newly freed would have no trouble with their rights to travel freely, etc. However, soon after more and more started migrating from the north to buy up land and take political power. There began to be laws and policies meant to divide the races, to keep everyone as separated as possible to keep the south weak and ensure the northerners maintained control. Fear was the order of the day. Whites, fear blacks. Blacks, fear whites. Worry about each other and don’t look over here at what we are doing. The racial tensions from that still rock us to this day.

Over the next few decades the world continued to turn and life went on. Technology was developing quickly and there was so much going on in the world. Wars happened, as they always do.

Fast forward to World War II and the Nazis were quickly gaining control in Europe. We knew Jews were being persecuted but that wasn’t on our doorstep and it was easier to say we didn’t want them here. After all, they had money. They could figure something out and it wasn’t our problem. Besides, we were just coming out of the Great Depression so we really didn’t have the resources to be helping foreigners… If millions died, well, we had to protect our own first. Why didn’t the Jews do more to stand up to the Nazis if it really was so terrible? And there could have been Nazi agents that snuck in with them had we accepted the refugees!

We helped our allies from a ‘safe’ distance but that sense of safety wasn’t to last. Pearl Harbor happened and our fears skyrocketed. We had so many Japanese immigrants already, what if they turned on us too? If they didn’t agree with what the Japanese had done to us, why weren’t they doing more to speak out against it? Keeping our borders safe and preserving our culture was the most important thing, so we rounded up all the Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps to make sure they couldn’t act against us. Though, if they wanted to serve in our military we would let the young men out and arm them with guns and planes to go into battle. The women, children and elderly though? They were scary. They needed to stay in the camps so we could feel safe.

Now, in 2015, we have forgotten the threat of the Native American faiths, the Quakers and other dissenting Protestant faiths, the Japanese… but some fears we still cling to. Why? Are we better people for allowing our fears to rule us?

Yes, we are told to fear the Syrian refugees. We are told we have enough economic troubles as it is, that these are Muslims who hate us, that they could do something else and don’t need to come here, that there could be agents of ISIS among them. If they truly oppose ISIS, why haven’t they done a better job of standing up to ISIS?

My question is, “Why are a people who claim to cherish freedom so quick to cling to fear?”

Why other movements should matter.

This is something I was pondering while working earlier. I can’t explain why some of these things pop into my head when they do but inevitably these ideas will start to form in the back of my mind and drive me nuts until I put them into writing.

I feel like there is a deep divide that we have allowed to be created. Perhaps not intentionally but it is there. We all know that for every Confederate history enthusiast there is also some idiot who knows nothing about the war but thinks the flag is cool and quite often it is that supposed connection to being … I’m not sure how I want to phrase this. White supremacist would be the best term, I suppose. I saw this a lot when I was living for a few years north of the Mason-Dixon line. There are exceptions, of course, people up north who actually do know about the history and people down south that really only care for the flag because they think of it as some sort of validation for their racist ideals. After living up there though it really made me start to question the flag owner when I saw one out somewhere. It became less of the “that’s cool” reaction and more of a “do they even know anything about that flag they are choosing to fly?”

I’m not sure if it was being a history enthusiast or knowing that I have ancestors that fought under the flag but I really began to get in a way judgmental when I saw someone sporting the Confederate battle flag. I would like to see the flag and think to myself, “Awesome. There’s someone else who understands the history of that.” Unfortunately, nine times out of ten the first thing that crosses my mind is, “Oh, great. Is this another idiot that is going to give the battle flag a bad name?” It’s such a frustrating feeling because I truly want people to be able to fly it proudly, I want more of the history of the war to be acknowledged, I want people of both sides to be able to discuss our opinions openly without resorting to insults or assumptions about one another.

At the same time, I get it. I understand why many of these people oppose us. I think it’s based on a lot of misinformation, based on a lot of idiots appropriating the Confederate battle flag to turn it into something tainted, but when I put myself in the shoes of some of these critics and force myself to think of it from the perspective of what information and knowledge they have on it, I understand why they have such a distaste for the flag.

We have a history as a country of attempting to assimilate everyone with differences into this one culturally acceptable group rather than accepting that differences in race and culture and various opinions are acceptable and not a threat to anyone. Sitting there wondering what I mean? Think of what the United States did with the Native Americans, sending their children to “Indian schools” where the US forced them to forget their culture and adopt the beliefs and habits that were deemed acceptable for them. Did it really threaten us for them to continue believing the religion of their forebears?

Remember the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — when discussing history. I’ve recently been viewing a lot of “Southern heritage” type pages on Facebook to see what bits and pieces they’ve been sharing and I’m seeing WAY too much hate from people. Outright vitriol aimed at those who don’t know any better or at those who are more interested in movements like Black Lives Matter. If the first response to those who don’t share our interest in the Confederacy is such anger, how then can we say things like “Heritage Not Hate”? If the truth is important and we want the truth about the war to be acknowledged by society, we can’t be giving people reasons to want to shut down and not listen to what we are saying. That isn’t going to win over anyone. It’s not going to give other people reason to respect our desire to openly honor our heritage with flags and license plates and whatever else.

I’ve heard it joked that a Southerner is someone who can tell someone else to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip. I’m not suggesting we tell anyone to go to hell but I am suggesting we all choose our words carefully and show others the respect we ourselves wish to be shown. There is no reason to lash out at people when we can speak with respect and facts to back us up.

The Pledge of Allegiance is not Patriotic.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy (1855), a Baptist minister. Not only was he a socialist, but he also felt that Christ himself was a socialist to the point that he did a series of sermons entitled “The Socialism of the Primitive Church,” specially a sermon named “Jesus the Socialist,” and was subsequently pressured to resign.[1] In “The Pledge of Allegiance, a Centennial History,” John Baer explains this in more detail:

“Francis Bellamy’s cousin, Edward Bellamy, was then famous as the author of the best-sellers ‘Looking Backward’ and ‘Equality’ and was leader of a socialist movement called ‘Nationalism.’ Both books advocated a socialist utopian state with political, social and economic equality for all, operated by the federal government. Francis Bellamy was a vice-president of the Christian Society of Socialists, an auxiliary of his cousin’s ‘Nationalism’ movement. In 1891, Bellamy was forced to resign from his Boston Pastorate because the conservative businessmen of the ‘Committee on Christian Work of the Baptist Social Union’ withheld additional funds for his work. The Committee complained of Bellamy’s increased socialist sermons and activities.”[2]

Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” was a book that “describes the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes, and men are drafted into the country’s ‘industrial army’ at the age of 21, serving in the jobs assigned them by the state.”[3]

Meanwhile, the former minister Francis Bellamy was hired by “Youth’s Companion”, a family magazine owned by fellow socialist Daniel Ford. He wrote the Pledge to accompany the magazine’s campaign to sell magazine subscriptions by rewarding schoolchildren with an American flag for every one hundred sales. Incidentally, schools rarely displayed the flag prior to this campaign. This was all done in partnership with the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair) to be done on the 400th anniversary of Columbus Day. As it happens, “[t]he entire Columbus Day celebration was calculated, as Theodore Roosevelt approvingly observed, to inculcate a ‘fervent loyalty to the flag,’ and Bellamy himself viewed his Pledge as an ‘inoculation’ that would protect immigrants and native-born but insufficiently patriotic Americans from the ‘virus’ of radicalism and subversion.”[4]

The original Pledge of Allegiance was published September 8, 1892 and read:

“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

It wasn’t until decades later that changes like “to the flag of the United States of America” (1923-24) and the addition of “Under God” (1954) took place. Fear of change has been at the heart of much of this history, though the Pledge was a change in and of itself. Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Students_pledging_allegiance_to_the_American_flag_with_the_Bellamy_saluteAllegiance when there were concerns about mass immigration, the word “Indivisible” was a reference to secession and the word “Allegiance” was inspired by the Oath of Allegiance that Lincoln required of the Confederacy, and the later addition of “Under God” was done in response to fears regarding communism. Also, originally the Pledge was performed with a military salute similar to that used by the Nazis, so in 1942 it was changed to the right hand over the heart in an attempt to break from that image. This was after the Parent and Teachers Association, the Boy and Girl Scots, the Red Cross, and the Federation of Women’s Clubs had all objected because of that similarity.

However, all of this aside, there is the question of whether the Founding Fathers would actually have supported such a pledge to begin with.  We are teaching the Pledge of Allegiance, which in essence is a loyalty oath, to children too young to comprehend the words they are saying. What use is an oath that is not understood by those speaking it but indoctrination? Early loyalty oaths in the United States said nothing of the flag or of nationalism, merely requiring that those taking the oath support the *principles* of the Constitution and protect this country against all enemies. This country is not the federal government, but rather the people, and to promise to protect against all enemies *includes* against the United States government when it is overstepping its Constitutional role. Even oaths of that nature were debated by the Founding Fathers who had varying opinions on taking a loyalty oath at all. Among some of the objections from that time was that of Constitutional Convention Delegate James Wilson who said that “a good government did not need them and a bad one could not or ought not to be supported” and Noah Webster who called them “instruments of slavery.”[5]

Maybe keep all this in mind the next time you see someone rant about the principles of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution while also citing the patriotism of things like the Pledge of Allegiance.


[1] Toulouse, Mark G. God in Public: Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate. P. 69

[2] http://truthinhistory.org/to-pledge-or-not-to-pledge.html

[3] http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/whats-conservative-about-pledge-allegiance

[4] http://reason.com/archives/2010/12/16/face-the-flag

[5] http://history.house.gov/Institution/Origins-Development/Oath-of-Office/