When I began my teaching career in Montana in 1994 I found myself often feeling homesick. I had left all of my graduate school friends behind in New York, and my family remained in California. I did not know anyone in Montana yet, and I could already tell that my department was a colossal dumpster fire. I was lonely. Sometimes, at night, I drove my car up on to the Rimrocks that loomed above the city of Billings. There I could tune in to KNX News Radio, a powerful AM station from Los Angeles. It came in pretty clearly. I could hear about what the Dodgers were up to, the frequent traffic reports, and the weather back home. Connections, you know? We find them where we can.
Montana seemed like a foreign country to me. No metropolitan area (if you can call Billings “metropolitan”) is as far from another metropolitan area as Billings. I felt isolated. The music, the food, and the people I cared about–it all seemed very far away.
So I threw myself into my teaching. I had a heavy load, including one section each of the early and recent US History surveys every single semester. I had a lot to do. I felt more tired than I did when I was preparing for my comprehensive exams. What’s more, there was the surprise of teaching a methodology course my first semester. Underprepared, I asked the students to write about a historical event that they remembered with particular vividness. I wanted to talk about matters of memory, and how we measure the historical “significance” of this or that event.
There was one student sitting in the front row. A bit older than his peers. Shocking, white supremacist tattoos appeared on his arms. This was the 90s. Tattoos were still relatively rare. And I had never seen someone with swastikas on their arms before in real life, sitting right in front of me. This student would, by the end of the semester, write a paper about Jacob Thorkelson, a one-term Congressman from Montana who was elected in 1938. Thorkelson was a rabid anti-Semite, and avowedly pro-Nazi. This student clearly looked up to Thorkelson.
All that was to come. In his first essay, this student described hearing of the death of the “Freedom Fighters” in Waco while sitting in a federal penitentiary in Minnesota. It was an effective opening. I’ll give him that. I was hooked. I wanted to read more.
Waco, of course, was the site of the raid by federal authorities on the Branch Davidian compound commanded by a messianic and well-armed rapist and lunatic named David Koresh. Koresh and his followers set fire to the compound rather than surrender, and 76 of his followers died.
My student wrote this seven months before the Oklahoma City Bombing, and I was entirely unfamiliar with this sort heavily-armed, High Plains, Right-wing nuttiness. It was a fringe view even in Montana. But it did not take long to stumble across this frightened, angry, and racist rhetoric–on weak AM radio stations, especially, broadcast over the sparse landscape of Eastern Montana. I was surprised by the number of my students who believed some truly vile things. But it was the fringe.
Montana is beautiful. There are things about it that I miss. I would love to visit it again. I met some fascinating people. I never expected that the sort of conspiratorial insanity I heard on the High Plains of eastern Montana would move to the mainstream of the Republican Party under Donald Trump. And though this dim-witted tyrant and bully will soon lope off the national stage, I have no doubt that the sort of violent, racist, civic illiteracy that has fueled Trumpism is alive and well. Feed Trump a diet rich in fresh greens instead of Big Macs, and slap an Ivy League law degree on him and a larger vocabulary, and you get something looking and sounding a lot like Josh Hawley.
In the morning before the assault on the nation’s Capitol building, I taught my students about the Paxton Boys. It is a story that really pulls at me. A group of racist thugs, in defiance of authorities who had no interest in standing in their way, murdered peaceful Christian Indians. They killed small children with hatchets, and they mutilated the bodies afterwards. Later that day, while listening in on an AHA Panel featuring the great Tisa Wenger, I received a text from a friend telling me to drop what I was doing and turn on the TV. Another mob, this time determined to disfranchise millions of American peoples of color by throwing out their votes, while carrying symbols of white supremacy, stormed the Senate and house chambers. Two mobs, both racist and violent, both utterly and undeniably American.
We are not special. Our body politic is badly diseased. See how we are.
Four years ago on Election Day I took my daughters to Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery. Among the local luminaries buried there was Susan B. Anthony, the famous champion of women’s rights. The cemetery was kept open late. We went to visit Anthony’s grave on the day I cast my ballot for what I fully expected would be America’s first woman president.
We were not alone. The cemetery was packed. We never made it to Anthony’s grave. The lines were too long. But we did stand in a crowd filled with women young and women old, who shared our sense that something momentous was going to happen that night. The atmosphere was hopeful, at times festive. With a woman succeeding the first African-American president, maybe it was possible to see another ceiling shattered, a change for the good.
I watched the coverage that night. I sensed early on that Hillary Clinton was going to lose. I could see the tension in James Carville’s face relatively early in the evening as he watched the returns coming in from Florida. That is when it dawned on me that it was over, and that sixty-two million Americans had voted for a monster whose only qualification was a puffed up financial resume, an infinite capacity for dishonesty, and a lethal ability to combine corruption, vindictiveness, racism and incompetence.
Over the past four years I have cut people out of my life who continue to support this monster. For each of his crimes they have had an excuse or a denial. At times I am disappointed in myself for doing this, but I no longer believe these individuals can be reasoned with. Why continue to bash my head against a wall? They are toxic people, and for my own health I have cut these toxins out. So much of the past four years has been toxic. So much rot. So much sickness.
As I write these words I think of a song by my favorite band, X, called “See How We Are.” We are not well.
I was never among those who thought of the policies pursued by Trump and his supporters as “Un-American.” From his fear and hatred of immigrants, his racism, his predatory behavior toward women, his greed, his avarice, and his civic illiteracy, he strikes me as a perfect representative of what this country has become, and in a large measure always has been. I know there are people committed to what many consider this nation’s ideals, but at times it feels like they lose more rounds than they win. My only hope is that there are enough sane people in a handful of states who will defy efforts to disfranchise them and vote to save what’s left of this tattered republic. Sometimes I worry that this election already has been stolen, that the republic cannot be saved.
The last four years have been hard. This year has been especially hard. Trump was not the sole cause of all of this. Or he was both a cause and a symptom. And the underlying causes of Trumpism, those American toxins, will remain in the body politic, even if he is somehow prevented from stealing this election. Look at the Republicans already maneuvering to run for President in 2024: Tom Cotton, Matt Gaetz, Ted Cruz, that vicious empty suit from Missouri and Crenshaw from the district where I briefly lived in Texas–they are no better than him.
I am not hopeful for the future. I do not believe that this country is an exceptional place. We contend with problems that other countries have addressed more successfully. Sometimes I do not believe I will be able to forgive those who continue to support this violent monster.
Vice-President Biden has called for a return to decency. Watching him on TV, I am willing to believe in his basic decency and kindness, even if I wish he took different stands on some of the issues that matter to me. I voted for him last Saturday. But I know he is just a guy, the candidate of a political party whose moderate leadership has failed to effectively counter the President’s tyranny. They continue to appeal to norms that long ago were torn asunder.
Trump’s regime–and I hope it lasts only one term–will have been a historic presidency. It has demonstrated how bad things can become when a significant number of the American people forfeit their civic responsibility to be informed, critical, and compassionate citizens. These have been painful years, but for the love of God do not tell me you were surprised by any of this. It is not just Trump. Tens of millions of Americans share in the guilt for what has happened over the past four years and, like Frank Bruni, I will never be able to look at this country the same way again.
Long ago Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Richard Price expressing his faith in the people. He said that “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” Maybe the election of 2020 will serve this purpose. Don’t bet on it. That the United States was founded on principles of liberty, justice, and equality has always been the biggest lie in American history. And the past four years have shown that the forces of racism, fascism, illiberality, callousness and corporate greed are not going anywhere. We will live with the illness for a long, long time. I am not certain we will ever recover, whatever the outcome of the election.
I was a bit surprised that the administration managed to get their Columbus Day Proclamation done this year, given all the chaos in the White House. So many people seem to be out sick. But on the 9th of October, a couple of days in advance of the holiday, President Trump called upon Americans to join him and “commemorate the great Italian who opened a new chapter in world history and to appreciate his enduring significance to the Western Hemisphere.” Christopher Columbus is an American hero, he said.
The proclamation celebrates Columbus’s bravery, his fortitude, and his contribution to the history of the United States. His arrival in the “New World” “marked the beginning of a new era in human history,” and “Columbus represents one of the first of many immeasurable contributions of Italy to American history.” The President’s staff recycled a lot of language from their earlier Columbus Day proclamations, and for its first two paragraphs, the 2020 proclamation follows a well-worn path.
In what many hope will be his final Columbus Day Proclamation, however, the President seemed to acknowledge that many Americans, and especially many Native Americans, see Columbus as a symbol representing more than five hundred years of genocide and settler colonialism. “Sadly, in recent years, radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy.” If you read this blog, you know that these critics of Columbus are anything but, and that a broad scholarly consensus has formed around the enormous destruction wreaked by Columbus and his successors.
Nonetheless, the President continued.
These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history.
Therefore, the President said, we will squash the activists. We will punish you if you suggest that our history is something other than goodness and light. And Donald Trump emphasized that he is on the job. He will save the western heritage from the scholarly barbarians at the gates. He mentioned that earlier this year, for example, he signed Executive Orders punishing acts of vandalism against monuments on federal property, calling for the creation of a “National Garden of American Heroes,” and establishing the “1776 Commission,” which, he wrote, “will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor the founding.” What’s more, President Trump pointed out that in September he signed an Executive Order intended “to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage.” Much was at stake, the President said. “Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.”
Radical activists. Extremists. Revisionist History. The words are said sneeringly, and the President’s words are intended to delegitimize and cast as disloyal those who challenge the simple-minded patriotism of the radical right. History, after all, is being revised all the time. We historians ask questions about the past, we gather the evidence, we consider the work of those scholars who preceded us, and we offer our answers. The value of our work is determined by the soundness of our reasoning and the strength of our evidence. Historical interpretations are revised in scholarly publications, in books and articles and really good student term papers and, increasingly, in the street. Ignore the truth about your monumental heroes long enough, the radical right is learning, and someone may revise your cherished statue into a piece of rubbish.
There is nothing funny about the President’s proclamation. Those who point out that this nation was founded in violent processes of dispossession and enslavement are making claims abundantly supported by evidence. There is an enormous body of fantastic scholarly work now reaching the interested public bringing attention to the ubiquitous brutality of American slavery and the thoroughness of dispossession. Scholar after scholar highlights and points out the problem of systemic racism in American society not because they are disloyal, but because they want to make things better. It is the scoundrel’s way, and the tyrant’s, to ignore this scholarly work and the evidence upon which it is based, and instead to denounce the brave people who make these claims as traitors and extremists. Be brave, my friends, because you have to know that this president and his supporters won’t. That puts us all in danger.
During his visit to Arizona at the beginning of May, President Donald Trump took some time out to comment on his administration’s efforts to help the state’s large Native American population combat the Coronavirus pandemic and, as he put it, to bring attention to “the unprecedented actions my administration has taken to support our treasured Native American communities.” The President said that his administration has improved “the lives of Native American families and tribes more than any administration has done by far.”
That is quite a claim, and it’s not supported by the evidence.
Trump touted the eight billion dollars Congress appropriated to assist American Indian nations, which he claimed, “is the largest single investment in Indian Country in our history.” The President announced as well that the Navajo Nation will receive an additional $600 million in assistance. “That’s a lot,” he said. Trump then asked, according to the White House transcript of the meeting, “Should I renegotiate that? Can we renegotiate that? (Laughter).” “Only if you go up,” said Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer.
Lizer can be forgiven for not laughing. As of May 28th, the Navajo Nation had suffered more than 5000 active cases of COVID-19, and 167 deaths, and the third-highest per capita rate of infection in the Country.
“Since I took office,” Trump continued, “my administration has also worked to repatriate precious Native American artifacts, to protect children in the care of the Indian Health Service, and to make eagle remains more easily accessible for cultural and religious purposes, and to highlight the contributions of Native American veterans throughout the history of our nation.” None of the items on this list are unprecedented, and all are required by laws that predated Trump’s election in 2016.
Make no mistake, Trump’s presidency has been mostly bad for Native Americans. His racist name-calling directed at Elizabeth Warren reinforced damaging stereotypes about Native American identity. Within days of taking office, he authorized completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline and ignored the protestors at Standing Rock, and rolled back protections on sacred sites like the Bears Ears National Monument. His fetish for Andrew Jackson has bothered those who know anything at all about that president’s record concerning Native America, and Trump’s budgets have imposed cuts on the Indian Health Service at a time when additional funding was badly needed. In fact, the $800 billion in funding has been tied up in court as tribes have clashed with the nation on who should receive the payments. He has ignored the problem of police violence towards Native Americans. The President has been more talk than action, and those actions are usually bad.
With one exception.
In November of 2019, the President signed an Executive Order establishing a task force “on Missing and Murdered American Indian and Alaska Natives,” charged with consulting tribal governments “on the scope and nature of the issues” related to missing and murdered women and girls, developing “model protocols and procedures to apply to new and unsolved cases of missing or murdered persons in American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” as well as the “establishment of a multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional team” including representatives from tribal law enforcement agencies and the federal Departments of Justice and Interior.
Dubbed “Operation Lady Justice,” the task force held consultation/listening sessions in January and February of this year but had to shelve the rest of its schedule, which was to have run through the end of July, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This is a serious problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control found that 49 percent of Native American women have experienced sexual violence. The Department of Justice reported that 34.1 percent of Native American women will be raped during their lifetime, more than for any other ethnic or racial grouping. As President Trump indicated when he signed the Executive order, “the statistics are sobering and heartbreaking.” He said that “more than 5,000 Native American women and girls were reported missing,” and though the majority return home or are found, “too many are still missing and their whereabouts are unknown—and they usually don’t find them.”
It was this task force about which he spoke during his visit to Arizona. He issued a proclamation making May 5th “Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day.”
Many of these missing women have been caught in a web of human trafficking, the exact breadth of the problem unknown. It is a problem of great magnitude but hazy borders. In this sense, the President’s effort to bring additional attention to this issue is welcome. More resources are needed. Nearly half of tribal law enforcement agencies who responded to a Government Accountability Office called for the information reported that they believe human trafficking is occurring on tribal lands within their jurisdictions. The President can educate Americans about the problem of missing and murdered women and girls.
These are crimes on the margins. Native communities are poor. They are isolated. The Supreme Court has made the prosecution of non-Indians by tribal law enforcement officers difficult where it is not impossible. Native American history is a story of tragedy, violence, crime, theft, and plunder. It is, at other times, a story of blundering goodwill. Even those who want to do right often do damage. But the harm is not inevitable, and nations, like individuals, have choices. In this one instance, the President and his handlers have made the right one. The Task Force is still on schedule to report to the President sometime after the election. Let’s hope, whatever the outcome in November, that this important first step is not one wasted.
It might be worth noting that on the same weekend that witnessed the anniversaries of the the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building–both terribly violent events involving anti-government, gun-crazy extremists–the President of the United States encouraged armed protests against state governors who have asked their citizens to stay home in order to “flatten the curve” and halt the spread of the Coronavirus. These governors recognize that various “social distancing” measures have saved many thousands of lives.
The President’s call to “liberate” the states nonetheless brought out hundreds of heavily-armed protestors, social distancing be damned, to state capitol buildings. Some of them believe that the economic costs of the shutdown are greater than that of the many thousands of lives that will be lost through a premature re-opening of businesses and public spaces. Others say that they are in good health and will be able to survive the infection should they contract it. Others rehearse crazy conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus as some sort of subversive attack on the President. These protestors–frightened, infantile racists who cling to guns and a deviant version of Christianity that makes a fetish of violence, represent much that is wrong with this country. They neither read nor reason, and they believe that the solutions to problems can only be achieved through the threat of violence. That they engaged in this paramilitary cosplay on the eve of the anniversary of the Columbine Massacre and Hitler’s birthday tells you all you need to know about the President and his most hysterical followers.
I am going to go see Hamilton this weekend, and I have been
invited to share my impressions of the award-winning musical on a local
NPR-affiliate the week following. I will
be teaching the American Revolution next semester, and as some of my
posts over the past several months make clear, I have been thinking about
the stories we should tell quite a bit.
I have also been thinking a lot
about the American constitutional system that emerged from that Revolution,
what the Founders intended, and what they might think about our current
mess. I have never thought much of “Framer’s
Intent” as a style of constitutional argument that carries much weight, but
still, we are historians, and comparisons for us come easily.
We have a president elected by a
minority of the voters whose administration shows levels of mendacity, greed,
and spite that stand in stark contrast to that of his predecessor. The president’s supporters work to restrict
the right to vote of poor people and peoples of color out of fear that these
constituencies will vote against him.
Some of his sycophants, led by the besotted Jerry Falwell, Jr., have
suggested that the president unconstitutionally extend his term. Indeed,
the Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi expressed
her belief that the President will not voluntarily leave office if he loses
the election. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General
of the United States and the Secretary
of the Treasury defy subpoenas from the House of Representatives, that
chamber of the legislature that most directly represents the American people.
GENERATION believed that republican forms of government were inherently fragile
because they relied upon the wisdom and the civic-mindedness of “the people.” The revolutionary generation, as historians
like Bernard Bailyn, H. Trevor Colbourn, and Gordon Wood showed long ago, had
no reason to expect that a republic could last forever and, indeed, all the
examples they could point to had descended into tyranny and corruption. Perhaps our time is running out, I sometimes
think. Perhaps we have had a good run that
now is ending. I legitimately worry that
the American constitutional system will not survive my children’s generation in
any meaningful or recognizable form. The
system is broken, as so many politicians have pointed out. It is broken because cynical, cowardly, and
corrupt Republicans, aided by timorous Democrats, smashed it to pieces.
The Revolutionary generation
believed that the purpose of government was to secure the Commonwealth, the good of the whole. In order to pursue the good of the whole,
citizens must exercise and practice virtue. A virtuous citizen, in the parlance of the
time, was one who could set aside his or her narrow self-interest and willingly
make sacrifices for the good of the whole.
Corruption, in this sense, was the exact opposite of virtue. In order to
practice virtue, citizens required independence.
They could not be subject to the will of another. That is part of the reason
why women (subject to the authority of their fathers and husbands), tenants
(subject to their landlord’s authority) and wage-earners (subject to their
employers) could not vote in elections.
In addition to independence, citizens had to remain active. They had to practice citizenship. They had to
inform themselves, remain vigilant, because liberty was a fragile thing. A supine and ill-informed citizenry made
fit-tools for tyrants.
While agreeing broadly that these
concepts were important, the revolutionary generation could disagree intensely
over what these terms meant. But few questioned the importance of these values.
Commonwealth, Virtue, Independence, and
Citizenship: by these standards we
are not doing very well.
The Trump Administration has
revealed itself as a smash-and-grab operation operated by liars and
grifters. The Republican Party has
become a haven for hacks and fools, an unholy alliance of the super-rich and
the ill-informed. The President who proudly
proclaimed his love for the “poorly-educated” on the campaign trail treats
government as little more than an opportunity to generate wealth for his family
and bile against those he views as enemies. He lies ferociously. He casts his legitimate
critics as “enemies
of the people.” He calls names. He
vilifies. For him there is no common
good. He is incurious and unlettered, a
brute and a tyrant. He knows nothing of the Revolution or the Constitution.
Of course, there are Republicans who
believe that we are part of something larger than a political party. There are patriotic Republicans who disagree
intensely with Trump’s policies and behavior. But none of the Republicans
holding office have had the courage to oppose him in any meaningful manner.
Instead, they furrow their brows, hold their noses, and dive headfirst into the
cesspool, the smell of the crap no longer bothering them once they are in.
Tens of millions of people continue
to support the President, seemingly unaware of his administration’s utter
contempt for the Constitution. Some of them embrace the President’s politics of
spite. They find room under his big, hateful tent to express their own fears,
and a racism nourished by the fevered rants of the megalomaniac who stumbled
into the White House. Perhaps his fervent supporters know so little about the
Constitution, and their civic illiteracy is so great, that they do not
understand the dangers this president and his party portend. The citizen who does not know what the
Constitution says is poorly-equipped to know when its provisions are stripped
AS A STUDENT OF
THE REVOLUTION, I fear for the future.
The founding generation knew that republics did not last for log and
that corruption, selfishness, and ignorance posed fundamental threats. Many of their most momentous debates centered
on questions of how to avoid these threats. As he watched the government
struggle during the Confederation period, Alexander Hamilton expressed his
distrust of the people. They could not
govern responsibly. “All men of respectability
who have been witnesses of the despotism and iniquity of the legislature, are
convinced that the principal people in the community must for their own
defense, unite to overset the party I have alluded to.” High stakes were
involved, he felt. “The safety of all
those who have something to lose,” he wrote, “calls upon them to take care that
the power of the government is intrusted to proper hands.” He called for a much more powerful central
government than was established by the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. When he
became George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, he argued for policies of
broad political significance.
Admittedly, it has been a long time
since I read in any depth in Hamilton’s work.
I am not as up-to-date on the literature of the 1780s and 1790s as I
want to be. Still, it seems to me that Hamilton’s
experience during the war had convinced him of the necessity for a vigorous
government. He did not believe that He
did not believe that one could rely on “Virtue” as the basis for a framework of
government. He believed, in fact, that mankind was in general so selfish and
ambitious that virtue alone could never provide the basis for a system of
government. A government based on virtue
assumed that people would think of the common good. Hamilton
thought all of that was nonsense.
Government should appeal, he argued, to
the well-born, the wealthy, and the able if it were to succeed. He considered these people a sort of natural
aristocracy. Hamilton admired Great
Britain and especially its commercial power.
He wanted the same for America. He thought that this could be obtained most
easily by pursuing two general policies:
First, Hamilton wanted to use the power of the federal government to
encourage manufacturing and commerce in order to make the United States
economically strong and independent for Europe.
He did not believe the United States could remain politically
independent of Europe if it remained economically dependent. It must move beyond a colonial economy.
Second, he wanted to link the rich and the wealthy to the government. These were the secure part of the body politic,
he believed, the stable people most capable of taking the long-term view of the
issues. These were the stable
to achieve this? Hamilton laid out his
program in his Report on the Public Credit, a white paper arguing that the
government could take steps to strengthen the nation’s finances. His program consisted of two things: Funding
and assumption, and the creation of a National Bank. Hamilton asserted that the
government needed two things in order to prosper: revenue and Credit. It needed capital, money, but it also needed
the faith of merchants and other governments that it would repay its
debts. Without that faith, the
government would lack the ability to borrow money, which sometimes governments
have occasion to do.
All told, the Confederation had
accumulated a debt of $52 million dollars.
Hamilton said that this debt should be paid in full, or funded.
Also, the several states had accumulated debts of $25 million. He believed that the federal government
should assume responsibility for
these debts and pay them in full. How would
this work? For funding, Hamilton
asserted that all those holding certificates of the confederation debt, these
bonds, would be paid the full face value for those notes. The money for funding
this debt would come from the issuance of new notes.
Holders of the
debt would be paid in full, unless they preferred to receive the newly issued
notes. These notes would serve as a form
of currency, so long as confidence existed that the government would continue
to survive. For the assumption of state
debts, the same principal applied. The United States would pay to the holders
of state paper the face value or, if they chose, to deliver to them new bonds.
was Hamilton after?
He claimed that the failure of certain
states to honor their obligations undermined American credit in overseas
markets. He saw the assumption of state debts as a means for the federal government
to secure the gratitude and loyalty of state creditors by honoring their claims
before the states could manage to pay them.
These creditors would look to the new national government, rather than
the state governments, securing the allegiance of an important class of
Hamilton also wanted to establish a
national bank. Banks, he argued, could
create capital. A national banking institution was an unprecedented idea. Hamilton
recognized that a large financial institution could act as the fiscal agent of
the United States
This bank would be
a joint public-private venture. 4/5 of
the stock of the national bank would be held by private investors. The bank, he argued, was a public
institution, thus the stock ought to be available to the public.
were many critics of the Bank. There
was, many of these critics contended, nothing in the Constitution that
authorized the United States government to establish a national banking
institution. The Bank took the notion of
implied powers too far.
Congress deadlocked over Hamilton’s financial program. Many southern states, especially Virginia, were unhappy about assumption, because they had already paid their debts and did not relish the prospect of possibly being taxed to assist heavily indebted states like Massachusetts.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson met with Hamilton. They reportedly worked out a compromise over dinner. They agreed to support his financial program if, after ten years, Hamilton agreed to support the notion of establishing the permanent seat of the national capitol in the south. .Funding and assumption passed the Congress, the Bank of the United States was granted a 20-year charter, and the national capital was built in the District of Columbia.
INJECTED A POWERFUL STRAIN OF CYNICISM into the American political system. His distrust in the capacity of ordinary
people to rule responsibly is powerful and he stated it frequently. I have not read a lot on Hamilton recently,
but the thing that strikes me as I reflect on this period we have entered is
that he did expect those chosen to lead in the republic’s extended sphere to be
wise, and men of character and integrity. It seems like we the people have
chosen poorly lately, and part of that is our fault. And if the President is reelected, whether by
fair means or foul, I am not sure the system can be saved. Soon, we
are told, 50% of the American people will live in 8 states. Half the
population will have 16 senators, and half will have sixty-four. Show me a political leader with vision calling
for reform of these deep structural problems, and I will show you a woman or a
man marginalized in our political life, denounced as a dreamer, a demagogue, or
MY DAUGHTER IS
FINISHING HER first year of college. At her high school graduation ceremony
eleven months ago, the Superintendent opened his remarks to the graduates with
an apology. I am sorry, he said, on
behalf of my generation, for leaving your generation with so many problems to
solve. We failed you. But looking out at
that auditorium filled with kids, he expressed some optimism, too. Your generation is better than ours is so
many ways. Save us, he said. You can do
I found this profoundly moving. We need to help these young people. We need
to encourage them to be braver than us. These
young people, after all, now live in a world that you and I have helped to
create for them where too many people confuse their feelings and their fears
for facts, where being smart and engaged and critical and willing to ask
questions can make one an object of scorn.
They live in a world as well where complexity is so often dismissed,
where big and difficult answers to the big questions are avoided, that asking
these sorts of questions can take a certain amount of courage. Rational, reasoned, and just public policy is
difficult if not impossible without an informed, engaged, and rationally-thinking
public willing to ask tough questions, to engage.
Here is what a student of mine wrote
a couple of years ago for her Humanities final.
The assignment I gave asked students to write about human nature,
justice, and the problem of evil, as they contemplated an article by Roger
Rosenblatt I have mentioned many times on this blog, and works by Sophocles,
Plato, Thucydides, Augustine, More, the Bible, and Shakespeare. “The question remains,” this very talented
student wrote, “how do we account for all of the hatred, violence, and
injustice that we witness? What words do we use to describe it? How can we
possibly rationalize it and make sense of it? Where do we find its opposite in
the world, and how do we eagerly point at that, so as to say, ‘See, this is
also us. This is also me.’
“In a world and a human history overwhelmed
by hatred, violence, and injustice, what counters it, I argue, is love,
compassion, faith, and the courage to rise above it.”
agree with the superintendent. This rising generation is already better than us
in important ways—its open-mindedness, its tolerance, its acceptance of
difference. I really believe that. As educators we must encourage courage. We
have a lot of influence. Or at least we
have the potential to be highly influential:
a cruel or an uncaring word from us, for example, even when cast off
thoughtlessly or uncritically, or because we are stressed out or too busy, can
do so much damage, while a simple kind word, a single note of encouragement,
can do something that these students might remember for the rest of their lives,
something that can help them write a beautiful life story.
So let’s do better. Let’s encourage fearlessness, even where we
have failed to demonstrate it ourselves.
Each and every day, I have the opportunity, if I choose to truly be
present, to truly listen, to be awed by their achievements, humbled by the
obstacles they have overcome to get to this college, inspired by their creative
thinking, pushed by their challenging questions, and amazed by the alacrity
with which so many of them seek out injustice, attempt to correct oppression,
and in thousands of small ways show the vital courage to make the world—our
world—a better place. Our future is in
It has been a busy couple of weeks for our Bronze Creon. But in the midst of taking a dump on the first sentence of the 14th Amendment, stirring up the Anti-Semites, White Supremacists, Nationalists, and Assorted Yahoo Dingbats, and campaigning for Republican candidates in several states, the President managed to sign a proclamation honoring Native American Heritage Month. Presidents routinely issue these proclamations on or around Halloween.
Last year I compared President Trump’s first proclamation to those of his predecessors. I found it wanting in several respects. This year’s proclamation is little better, with more meaningless fluff largely directed towards bringing economic development to Indian Country.
Trump begins by reminding us that “during National Native American Heritage Month, we celebrate the legacy of the first people to call this land home.” “America’s Native Americans,” the proclamation continues, “have fortified our country with their traditions and values, making tremendous contributions to every aspect of our national life.” “America’s Native Americans”–what a strange possessive noun with which to begin that sentence. Though the President has done little and accomplished little, and spent far more time bashing Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” than working on serious issues in Indian Country, he asserts that his administration remains “committed to preserving and protecting Native American cultures, languages, and history, while ensuring prosperity and opportunity for all Native Americans.”
The President’s proclamation is a celebration of Native American assimilation. Native peoples are valuable, it seems, only for what they contribute to the public life of the United States.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are both important components of the American mosaic. Native Americans are business owners creating good jobs for American workers, teachers educating our children, first responders assisting neighbors in need, and leaders serving their communities. This month, we especially recognize the immeasurable contribution of American Indians and Alaska Natives who serve in the Armed Forces at five times the national average. We also acknowledge the many American Indians and Alaska Natives who are members of Federal, State, local, and tribal law enforcement and who sacrifice their safety for the security of all.
But native peoples, of course, belong to native nations as well. The President asserts that his administration “is committed to the sovereignty of Indian nations” but that seems to go no further than “ensuring economic opportunity from Window Rock in Arizona to the Badger-Two Medicine region in Montana.” At the end of September, a federal court rejected the Obama Administration’s attempt to cancel mineral leases in this scenic region just outside of Glacier National Park, one full of culturally significant sites. “By engaging with tribal leaders as representatives of sovereign nations,” the President proclaimed, “my Administration is working to find effective solutions to pernicious challenges, such as generational poverty. Our partnership is furthering economic development and advancing needed reforms.” Unfortunately, this does not seem to extend much beyond drilling on Native American lands.
The President’s staff managed to include reference to some of the many challenges facing Indian Country, and touted its signing of legislation earlier this year recognizing six Virginia tribes. The President closes with a claim that has been repeatedly belied by his administration’s actions:
Our Nation is proud of and grateful for its Native American heritage and traditions, including a history of innovation and entrepreneurship. The essential contributions of Native Americans continue to strengthen our American family and brighten our future together. This month, I encourage all Americans to learn more about American Indian and Alaska Native cultures as we celebrate and honor the many Native peoples who have given so much to our great Nation.
Two years into this disastrous administration, there is little reason to take seriously any of this president’s claims to want to help or support native nations. President Trump’s Proclamation shows that his staff is willing to go through the motions, and that for him talk is so very cheap.
The other day we began to read of explosive devices arriving at the homes and offices of prominent Democratic politicians. The unknown bomber targeted two former presidents, a former Vice-President, a former Secretary of State, a former Attorney-General and a number of Democratic members of Congress. It was the largest attempted assassination of American political leaders in many decades.
The President and his supporters, meanwhile, denounce their critics as a “mob,” view any press coverage that does not fawn over their leader as “fake news,” and characterize any criticism or questioning as “hostile.” Meanwhile, they practice a politics of marginalization: they stir up their almost entirely white base against the LGBTQ community, refugees, and the victims of sexual assault. They construct and nourish the false-equivalency that the actions of “Antifa”—yelling at public officials, hounding them out of restaurants, and in one instance tossing the Senate Majority Leader’s lunch—are somehow equal to the much greater violence of the Proud Boys, or the White Supremacists (“Fine People,” our President said) who murdered a woman in Charlottesville, or those who call for the imprisonment of their opponents, the silencing of dissent, restrictions on a free press, or violence. They lock frightened refugee children in cages apart from their parents. They do all that they can to suppress the votes of people of color in North Dakota and Georgia.
Many of the President’s supporters loudly and proudly describe themselves as Christians. His support among self-described Evangelicals remains high and unwavering. I keep coming back to that. Too many people are choosing fear over compassion, a fear that rests at the black heart of the American republic.
Nearly every semester at Geneseo, I teach the early portion of the college’s Western Humanities course, a “Great Books” course of the sort that many Conservatives used to appreciate, back when conservatives appreciated books and the universities where they were taught. At one time, we required students to take both halves of the course, which together carried them from the Ancient Greeks to the very recent past. Declining resources and changing academic fashion have combined to make that approach no longer sustainable, but we still do require that all students complete at least one of the two courses.
In my section, we spend about four weeks, one-quarter of the course, working our way through the Bible. The students read Genesis and a chunk of Exodus. They read from the two books of Samuel and from Isaiah. From the New Testament the students read the Gospel of Matthew, portions of the other Gospels, and Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I am not a religious person, in the sense of belonging formally to any organization, but I am a reader and a thinker who wrestles with the questions these texts raise.
“WWJD.” I have seen that on those little rubber wristbands that people sometimes where. “What Would Jesus Do?” I look at our current politics, and our current leader, and see as the greatest threat to our republic not just apathy, not just ignorance about the theory and practice of American constitutionalism, but a stunning lack of empathy and compassion.
We live a politics based on hatred and resentment and fear. No false equivalency narrative here. I‘ve asked my students to write essays based upon their reading of the Bible. I asked them to think about any political or social issue that they feel is important, that has raised questions that we struggle still to answer. What does the Bible say about that problem?
The students will write about the environment. They will discuss empty consumerism, acquisitiveness, excessive ambition. But most of all, they write of the Bible’s call to believers to practice compassion at a level that is so radical as it is viewed as completely impractical today. But that imperative to show kindness to the stranger, to love not just your neighbor but your enemy, to seek out injustice and correct oppression, to free ourselves from our attachment to our material wealth and to love all, unconditionally—this has always been difficult, and it has always been impractical.
In March of 2017 I went to hear Gregory Boyle speak at a nearby college. He is the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. I’ve admired him for a long time, and it was an honor to shake his hand. Father Boyle spoke of a world of compassion. It was frightening, he said, to enter that world: a world where we stand with those who are demonized, in hopes that the demonizing is brought to an end; with those who suffer, so they will not suffer alone; with those who are despised and excluded, so that they know that they are welcome. It was, he said, a world with no “us” and no “them.” Only “us.”
So, again, “WWJD”? What would our politics look like were we to practice the compassion the Bible asks believers to show to everyone, regardless of who and what they are? I sense that we would not demonize those in the “caravans,” refugees from homelands where they do not feel safe, and dreamers yearning to breathe free and provide for their families. We would not warn of this approaching army, and attempt to convince our based that they are an invading army, a horde that our armed forces must stop. We would listen to and honor the victims, and not reward the perpetrators of violence against women. And children. Our leader would not try to exclude and divide and nourish the worst demons in our nature. He would not wink at violence, endorse through action and inaction white supremacy and anti-Semitism, and he would stop preying upon the poor.
He is banking, I expect, on the possibility that we who are not in that growing circle of the despised will not show empathy or compassion. That we will be too busy, to wedded to the small computers we carry with us everywhere we go, from bathroom to bedroom and beyond. That we will not care, and that we will become convinced that we will lose if someone from the circle of the despised is elevated. Or that fearing retribution or criticism, we will stay silent. Judging by the events of yesterday, and the stuff I saw appearing on the Internet Machine, many of the President’s supporters do not believe that an extremist sent bombs to a few prominent Democrats, or that this is anything other than a Democratic plot, somehow, to make the President look bad. Perhaps they are not aware of how bad all of this looks already.
So we must speak up. We historians, who know the past, and have seen these sorts of alarming practices before, should engage ourselves in countering this violence, these lies, and the lack of empathy and compassion. We who take these stands will receive criticism. Some will receive threats. So we should think of that text that so many of Donald Trump’s supporters hold sacred. In so many ways, across so many pages, it urges us to compassion, and to “be not afraid.”
Elizabeth Warren has released a report indicating that, yes, contrary to the claims of Donald Trump, she does indeed possess Native American DNA. I have followed this story on my Twitter Machine, and her supporters are crowing: Elizabeth Warren is Winning, they say.
Not so fast.
DNA does not mean that Warren is Native American, at least in a completely meaningful way. Nor does her possessing older markers of Indian identity, like a certain “blood-quantum.” Warren may be anywhere from 1/32nd to 1/512th Native American. But she has membership in no native nation. Senator Warren claims Native American identity, but it is worth noting that no Native Americans seem to claim her.
Look. My family emigrated to the United States from all over Northern Europe. According to the family stories I have been told, I am one-quarter Swedish, one-quarter Irish, one-quarter German, one-eighth French, and one-eighth English. I have a Swedish last name, but I have never been to Sweden. I do not speak the language. I do not have any particular storehouse of knowledge about how Swedish people live, how they organize their lives, what they value and what they fear. I know nothing about Swedish culture. It would be absurd for me to make any claims of membership in the Swedish body politic. My descent means nothing.
Students studying Native American history have to wrestle with these issues. In the part of the country where I teach, Mary Jemison, ‘The White Woman of the Genesee,” is an important figure. Captured by Native American raiders in the middle of the eighteenth century, she ended up spending the rest of her life in Western New York among the Senecas who adopted her. To the Senecas, Mary Jemison’s “race” or “blood” or “DNA” mattered little. She became Seneca. She gave birth to Seneca children. Many Senecas today trace their descent to Mary Jemison. Native nations set their own standards for membership.
Elizabeth Warren’s gambit–to try to counter the President’s mud-slinging with evidence, however problematic that evidence in the first place–was probably doomed to fail anyways. Trump’s supporters do not live in a fact- or evidence-based cosmos. But this effort on her part is nonetheless deeply unfortunate. In a month with all sorts of bad news for Native Americans, Senator Warren in an effort to validate her claim to Native American identity, has resorted to disturbing notions of belonging that have a long and unfortunate history.
Non-Indians carry around in their heads a large number of ideas about who Indians are and what they ought to be. Many of these images and ideas, I have pointed out, are deeply harmful. And that non-Indians carry such powerful conceptions of what Indians are and what they should be poses a significant challenge for the residents of Native American communities. These attitudes, perceptions, fantasies and beliefs, in other words, matter.
Beyond the poverty and isolation that continues to grip all too many Indian communities, these sets of ideas serve as a constraint upon native people who wish to challenge time-worn notions of Indian-ness. Two examples: The Skull Valley Goshtes of Utah, for instance, many years ago saw an opportunity for economic development in the leasing of parcels of their remote and arid reservation for the storage of nuclear waste. They found themselves confronted not only with charges that their program could harm the environment and the people who lived downwind in Salt Lake City, a not unreasonable argument, but also that housing radioactive waste was inconsistent with Indian traditions. These non-Indian critics, clinging to the time-worn notion that all Indians must have a close and spiritual connection to Mother Earth, could not imagine that the Goshutes might try to better their people’s economic conditions through one of the only options for development they had available. In the extreme northwest corner of the state of Washington, Makah whalers, determined to revive an ancient tribal custom, two decades ago found themselves denounced by well-intended environmentalists for their plan to kill a grey whale. The Makah would pursue the whale in boats of their own manufacture, paddled by their own people. They would strike the whale with a traditionally constructed harpoon. But the Makah would finish the whale off with a high-powered rifle. Their non-Indian critics, grasping at straws in their attempt to prevent the hunt, argued that no tribal tradition involved firing a .50 caliber slug into the brain of a grey whale. The traditional Makah never would have engaged in so violent a practice.
Ada Deer, who headed the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the presidency of Bill Clinton, noted in the early 1980s that non-Indians in her native Wisconsin still “are surprised to see that Indians don’t live in tepees, that they have cars, TV’s, houses.” The agency Deer headed itself has played an enormous role historically in defining what it takes to be an Indian. The BIA always has privileged certain types of native leaders. To qualify for the variety of services offered by the B.I.A., for instance, Indians must demonstrate that they possess a certain “blood-quantum,” or percentage of Indian “blood.” Indian-ness, using this logic, is genetic. It is racial, passed on to children from their mothers and fathers. Approximately two-thirds of all federally recognized Indian tribes themselves accept the flawed logic of blood and blood-quantum to determine tribal membership.
Indian tribes indeed must have some means for regulating entrance into their communities, however problematic the endeavor. Indians find themselves today confronted by a dazzling array of non-Indians who, for a variety of reasons, want to be Indian. New-agers who have fetishized what they believe to be “Native American spiritual traditions” have in places identified with Indian tribes, or even claimed to have been Indian in past lives. Others have tried to prove that they were Indian “because they thought that securing an Indian-ancestry would bring them some form of material advantage: free health care, per capita payments generated by oil leases or bingo hall profits, or other hoped-for windfalls.” The Mohegans and Pequots of southeastern Connecticut, both of whom operate immensely lucrative casinos, have found themselves flooded with applications from non-Indians hoping to reap the substantial economic benefits of tribal membership. Growing numbers of “wannabees” have asserted an Indian identity in order to reap the benefits of Indian gaming.
Take, for instance, the notorious story of Sachem Golden Eagle of the Western Mohegan Nation of Indians in New York. Golden Eagle, known to the Bureau of Indian Affairs as Ronald A. Roberts, pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in the summer of 2004. A failed actor, one-time country and western singer, itinerant preacher, hustler and slate dealer, Roberts claimed Indian descent, formed a “tribe,” and in 1997 attempted to open a bingo hall in a depressed town in the northern reaches of the Catskills. Two years later, he filed suit in order to collect millions of dollars in back rent on nearly a million acres of public land that he claimed the state had taken illegally from his people. Roberts wanted in to the Indian casino business, and has steadfastly argued that he descends from Indians. Still, the documents he produced to establish his Indian ancestry included a false genealogy, an altered copy of a state census, and his grandfather’s death certificate, on which Roberts crossed out the word “White” and wrote “Indian” with a ball-point pen.
Other “Wannabes,” it seems, may claim Native American identity in order to grant themselves authority to speak on issues they consider important, or because they feel it will help them gain admission to a prestigious law school.
So tribes must maintain boundaries to ward off opportunists and charlatans, those who would seek to use Indian identity to benefit themselves. This is, of course, a challenging proposition for Indians. As native peoples intermarry with non-natives, their blood presumably becomes thinned. Blood-quantum as a measure of Indian identity dooms native peoples to eventual extinction. Indeed, blood is so tragically flawed a marker of Indian identity, that it excludes many people with legitimate claims to Indian-ness. The writer W. S. Penn, a self-described urban-mixed-blood, complained of
letting the dealers in blood-quantum (a.k.a. the Feds or their corporate or collegiate fronts) certify them as authentically bloody enough to be called Indian, a certification which makes one neither more nor less Indian and trivializes the issues as well as makes Indians into limited-edition prints that can be bought and sold for a sum that increases the more the feds can limit the number in a finitely regressive process of defining Indians down to a sum of zero.
Blood, as a racialized signifier of Indian-ness, excluded the millions of urban mix-bloods who, Penn notes, “have grown up influenced by a mixture of Native traditions as a result of their participation in urban Indian centers such as those in Los Angeles or Chicago, where Hopi children learned Apache ways, or Nez Perce children learned Osage dances.”
When Indians adopt non-Indian notions of race to determine who is Indian and who is not, a large number of people will be left out. And when non-natives adopt non-Indian notions of determining who is and who is not Native American, lots of people with neither claim nor tie, with no knowledge of the culture of a community and no ties to kith and kin, will find a which they may utilize to sneak in.
When it comes to native peoples, the President has become the Ignoramus-in-Chief, a bigot who issues statement after statement intended to rub salt in the wounds left by a long and traumatic history. First, there was his reversal of the Obama Administration’s tepid opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Then there is his continuous and mocking derision of Elizabeth Warren, one of his likely opponents in 2020, who he insists on calling “Pocahontas.” And now, his proclamation honoring Columbus Day, without a single reference to the costs paid by the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples in the “Columbian Encounter.”
In 1492, the President claimed, “Columbus and his mighty three-ship fleet…first spotted the Americas. His historic achievement ushered in the age of discovery that expanded our knowledge of the world.” The “daring journey” of Columbus, the President continued,
marked the beginning of centuries of transatlantic exploration that transformed the Western Hemisphere. On Columbus Day, we commemorate the achievements of this skilled Italian explorer and recognize his courage, will power, and ambition — all values we cherish as Americans.
Columbus’s spirit of determination and adventure has provided inspiration to generations of Americans. On Columbus Day, we honor his remarkable accomplishments as a navigator, and celebrate his voyage into the unknown expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. His expedition formed the initial bond between Europe and the Americas, and changed the world forever. Today, in that spirit, we continue to seek new horizons for greater opportunity and further discovery on land, in sea, and in space.
Although Spain sponsored his voyage, Columbus was, in fact, a proud citizen of the Italian City of Genoa. As we celebrate the tremendous strides our Nation has made since his arrival, we acknowledge the important contributions of Italian Americans to our country’s culture, business, and civic life. We are also thankful for our relationship with Italy, a great ally that shares our strong, unwavering commitment to peace and prosperity.
That peace and prosperity, historians might point out, came at the expense of a lot of people who were not from Italy, and not from Europe. Not a single mention of the native peoples, whose loss was the Europeans’ gain. Not a single mention of disease, die-off, depopulation. While Trump avoided the open denigration of native peoples that occurred in the racist Columbus Day celebrations written by Matt Walsh and Rochester radio’s own Bob Lonsberry, his silence is deafening. This is propaganda of a vile sort, and we historians need to call him on it.
Look, I have posted on this blog in the past my feelings about Indigenous Peoples Day, which you can read here and here. And if you have studied Native American history you know that the President’s proclamation is pure and unadulterated bullshit. His intent, I suspect, is to be deliberately provocative, to stir up angry and aggrieved whites by “owning the Libs” and pounding on peoples of color. The forces of Political Correctness, he believes, want to rename the holiday “Indigenous Peoples’ Day They will destroy your heroes, pull down your monuments, make you feel like you are less than a person of color.” But I am on your side, our Bronze Creon says. It is all part of Trump’s playbook, and we have seen it a hundred times before. There is an ugliness here, reflective of the abiding cruelty that stands as the foundation of today’s Republican Party, a foundation built on white victimhood. Trump, a product of these politics rather than their creator, plays this dangerous game well. Trump’s proclamation, an ignorant and unfortunate revision of history that ignores the sufferings the Columbian Encounter initiated, is meant to stir us up and meant to cause pain. Millions of people died. Millions more survived as they confronted what a historian long ago called the “Three Horsemen of the Indians’ Apocalypse”: Disease, violence, and dispossession. Trump understands this very well. He simply does not care.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History