In Appreciation of David Brion Davis

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David Brion Davis has passed away. I first encountered his books some ten years ago, well before I decided to become a historian. When I read Inhuman Bondage, I was mesmerized. It wasn’t just his command of facts or the clarity of his interpretations. It was the sense that he wrote with a nuance and understanding of humanity that was as much philosophical and theological as historical. I’m sure it was because of books like this that I began to contemplate the possibilities of history as a profession.

Read the first chapter of Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a discussion of the meaning of dehumanization and animalization in American slavery that ranges across history, psychology, and theology to draw a portrait not merely of a particular moment in time, but of the human condition we all share. Davis was interested in whether humans who were treated and spoken of as animals “were ever literally seen as ‘only animals.'” He joins Kwame Anthony Appiah in arguing that the answer is no, that indeed, the excesses of cruelty humans inflict on each other while calling them lice or cockroaches and the like suggests a recognition of their humanity. You don’t bother trying to humiliate a cockroach. Thus we have the invention of “animalized humans” as seen in the Americas, in Germany, in Rwanda. Davis writes,

Given the Nazi example, it is worth noting that the antipode of this animalizing can be seen in a universal tendency to project our potentiality for self-transcendence, freedom, and striving for perfection onto images of kings, dictators, demagogues, and cultural heroes of various kinds. This form of idolatry, which ancient Judaism fortunately singled out as the most dangerous sin facing humanity, can also appear in various kinds of narcissism and egocentrism, as when an individual imagines that he is godlike and free from all taint of finitude and corruption…

This is a history book? Yes! And it’s great.

In any event, the creation of “animalized humans” can produce a mental state in the victimizers and spectators that disconnects the neural sources of human identification, empathy, and compassion, the very basis for the Golden Rule and all human ethics. In extreme cases, this means the ability to engage in torture or extermination without a qualm. But the focus on extreme cases can obscure the fact, emphasized by David Livingstone Smith, that “we are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are potential objects of dehumanization.” No doubt many situations arise, especially in war, where people kill or inflict pain without misgivings and without any explicit animalization. But the victims must still be dehumanized in similar ways. And animalization, which also appears in such group differentiations as class, caste, and ethnicity, as well as race, clearly makes the process easier for large collective groups.

Davis was always interested in the universal human condition. But he gave no reprieve to the specific pathologies of America:

The psychological mechanism of animalization has been so deeply implanted in white culture, with respect to African Americans, that most white Americans have been unaware of their usually unconscious complicity as well as the significant benefits they have reaped from their ‘transcendent whiteness.’

I don’t want to derail an appreciation of a great historian, but I will note at this point that understanding Davis helps us to see more clearly how the current administration is not merely misguided or incompetent, but is in fact a profoundly evil enterprise playing with the worst of our human impulses.

Davis lived an extraordinary life. He was a World War Two veteran! He has written humbly about his awakening to racism through his own very uncomfortable experiences with black troops as a young soldier. His life bridged very different social and historiographical eras, from Jim Crow and a history of slavery encrusted in myth and racism, to a flourishing post-civil rights era historiography bursting with new insights and anti-racist perspectives. He did more than his share in bringing about this momentous change.

It is fitting that the great historian of abolition, Manisha Sinha, just published a long and respectful reappraisal of Davis’s career in the February issue of the American Historical Review. In the conclusion of that piece Sinha wrote, “nearly all historians of abolition must still begin with Davis’s initial attempt to delineate it.” Not a bad legacy.

The Collapse of White Evangelicalism: Was It Poisoned at the Root?

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The King’s Business lampoons Bolsheviks and Darwinists, 1925.

If you haven’t yet read Michael Gerson’s cover story on the decline and fall of evangelicalism in the latest edition of the Atlantic you should go read it. It is historically and theologically informed, and Gerson’s own evangelical background gives it a useful personal weight.

Gerson tells an evangelical declension story that is in broad strokes like the one I told my Temple students last year. Understanding the contemporary moral collapse of white evangelicalism, Gerson tells us, “requires understanding the values that once animated American evangelicalism. It is a movement that was damaged in the fall from a great height.” This is exactly right. I told my class that American evangelicalism is a movement haunted by the lost glories of its past. It is driven by the fears, resentments, and nostalgia that this extraordinary sense of loss creates.

Gerson describes a nineteenth century evangelicalism that is confident, post-millennial (we’re going to usher in the Kingdom and then Jesus will come back), pulsing with abolitionist fervor and dreams of social renewal. I described this for my class as well, but I paired it with the realities of a white supremacist and pro-slavery evangelicalism that Gerson conveniently ignores. His declension story is real, but it looks more simple and obvious if you exclude the South.

Most white evangelicals couldn’t tell you the history of their loss with any accuracy. But the story is in their theological and cultural bones. It’s in the memory of their community. They know the country was theirs, and it’s not anymore. In Gerson’s words:

In the mid-19th century, evangelicalism was the predominant religious tradition in Americaa faith assured of its social position, confident in its divine calling, welcoming of progress, and hopeful about the future. Fifty years later, it was losing intellectual and social ground on every front. Twenty-five years beyond that, it had become a national joke.

The horrors of the Civil War took a severe toll on the social optimism at the heart of postmillennialism. It was harder to believe in the existence of a religious golden age that included Antietam. At the same time, industrialization and urbanization loosened traditional social bonds and created an impression of moral chaos. The mass immigration of Catholics and Jews changed the face and spiritual self-conception of the country. (In 1850, Catholics made up about 5 percent of the population. By 1906, they represented 17 percent.) Evangelicals struggled to envision a diverse, and some believed degenerate, America as the chosen, godly republic of their imagination.

But it was a series of momentous intellectual developments that most effectively drove a wedge between evangelicalism and elite culture. Higher criticism of the Bible—a scholarly movement out of Germany that picked apart the human sources and development of ancient texts—called into question the roots, accuracy, and historicity of the book that constituted the ultimate source of evangelical authority. At the same time, the theory of evolution advanced a new account of human origin. Advocates of evolution, as well as those who denied it most vigorously, took the theory as an alternative to religious accounts—and in many cases to Christian belief itself.

Religious progressives sought common ground between the Christian faith and the new science and higher criticism. Many combined their faith with the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.

Religious conservatives, by contrast, rebelled against this strategy of accommodation in a series of firings and heresy trials designed to maintain control of seminaries. (Woodrow Wilson’s uncle James lost his job at Columbia Theological Seminary for accepting evolution as compatible with the Bible.) But these tactics generally backfired, and seminary after seminary, college after college, fell under the influence of modern scientific and cultural assumptions. To contest progressive ideas, the religiously orthodox published a series of books called The Fundamentals. Hence the term fundamentalism, conceived in a spirit of desperate reaction.

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

And so here we are. Today’s white evangelical mainstream has inherited the reactionary spirit of fundamentalism, while little of the earlier positive evangelical social ethic has survived.

Gerson is  insightful in his discussion of the battle lines fundamentalists chose to draw. He asks, what if fundamentalists had opposed social Darwinism instead of Darwinism? Another way of putting this is to ask, what if fundamentalists had actually held to the orthodoxy they claimed? What if they had opposed hatred and dehumanization? It’s a great thought experiment but it’s also a little bit like asking what would have happened if fundamentalists had been completely different sort of people from who they actually were. We quickly find ourselves moving back into the tangled maze of decades and centuries of causation and contingency.

But Gerson is surely right to see the battle over evolution as one of enduring importance. In generation after generation, it has contributed to an evangelical epistemology that is based not on expertise or evidence as much as identity. When people are taught that science cannot be trusted, it contributes to a broader disposition in which the key question to ask when you want to evaluate a claim is not what the claimant knows but what she believes. “Are you a Christian?” becomes at least as important as “What is your evidence?” However you feel about identity politics, an identity epistemology is considerably more radical and all-encompassing.

A question that has been lingering in my mind is whether the poisoned root of all this can be discerned in the 19th century moment of evangelical triumph. Gerson alludes to this briefly, but doesn’t draw out the implication I’m getting at. He writes,

In politics, evangelicals tended to identify New England, and then the whole country, with biblical Israel. Many a sermon described America as a place set apart for divine purposes.

Fundamentalists may have cut themselves off from much of their 19th century inheritance, but they kept a version of this conflation of the United States and the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the seed of the decline was present at the height of evangelical dominance. A movement that had not bound its identity to the nation’s would have nothing to fear when it lost the nation.

Without that basic error, it’s hard to believe Gerson would have an article to write. For one thing, Trump wouldn’t be president.

In the coming months I want to explore the deeper tensions American evangelicals have inherited from the Protestant Reformation. I’m almost entirely ignorant about this, but one of the core questions coming out of the reformation was whether the ideal society was coextensive with the church, or whether the church was a separate organism called to be apart from society. I want to know more about how 18th century struggles over religious disestablishment relate to popular 19th century conflations of kingdom and country. Though legal religious establishment had been abolished, was not evangelicalism a kind of establishment in practice?

Losing that authority was a trauma whose aftershocks we are feeling today. And yet, I wonder if this story is too simple and present-minded. A few years ago, Gerson would not have written this article. A few years ago, we might have looked to different parts of the evangelical past as the key to understanding its present. What stories will we be telling ourselves a few years from now?

Readings for Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth. Here’s a roundup of good stuff to read. First, what is Juneteenth and why is it important? Jemar Tisby explains:

Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is recognized on June 19th every year. In Texas, where it is a state holiday, slaves learned of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the initial announcement…

Juneteenth matters because in the United States freedom  has always come with an asterisk. While the founding documents of the nation declare “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” not all people were free and not all people enjoyed their unalienable rights. White supremacy asserted its power through the institution of race-based chattel slavery. The legacy of this heinous practice continues into the present. America has still not fully gripped the devastation slavery caused for both the enslaved and the free.

Celebrating Juneteenth gives citizens the opportunity to remember the ways freedom has always been circumscribed for people of color and it serves as motivation to press for continual emancipation from all forms of slavery.

One way to celebrate Juneteenth is to make sure it becomes a day that all Americans commemorate. Sign the Color of Change petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday.”

Celebrating Juneteenth can be one piece of a broader effort to bury the Lost Cause and reclaim a more accurate history and life-giving memory. Westenley Alcenat explains:

Leon Trotsky once noted that “what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.” And yet, that is precisely what took place; the accomplishments of Reconstruction were in fact rewritten and its memory overthrown by white nationalists. Academic historians derided abolitionists, praised the Confederacy, and adorned their books with admiration for Confederate generals and slaveholders. For generations thereafter, the country buried the achievements of the pioneering abolitionists who also helped usher the women’s movement. Meanwhile, the African-American chronicle of slavery to freedom and citizenship was seen by many as a misbegotten adventure.

In place of slavery and Reconstruction, the so-called “Lost Cause” took precedence throughout the former Confederacy. In fact, today Tennessee has more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and founder of the Klu Klux Klan, than to President Andrew Jackson, a native Tennessean…

To value African-American history is to validate a politics of knowledge and resistance. Black history, in particular, exposes the poverty of memory and the injustices of a past burdened by white identity politics — one that was predicated on epistemic violence. Like the architects of Confederate monuments, racist historians from the Dunning School used their pens as weapons for knowledge destruction. Hoping to redeem white supremacy, they deployed racial terrorism by omission. This violent erasure is a challenge for today’s historian: how to write the history of a paradox — American freedom as defined by slavery? How should historians reconcile the legacy of the American Revolution, which professed natural rights but overlooked women, and especially Black and Brown persons? For many decades before the Civil Rights Movement, many white academics as well as public historians refused to answer these questions.

But there were a number of countervailing Black voices that protested the silence. As historian Albert Raboteau explained, Black congregations “articulated a theology of history in which they lambasted American Christians for turning Christianity into a clan religion…[and] for worshipping Anglo-Saxonism.” That this criticism stems from the ranks of Black Christians is notable: no other people have been more abused by American history and yet insist more persistently on their rightful place in it…

At its core, the contribution of African-American history is to at once liberate and expand the national conscience, holding the nation to the litmus test of what it professes to value. The story of the strivings of Black souls ensures that America does not forget the nightmares that tormented Martin Luther King’s Dream. Indeed, this task is more urgent today as we are confronted by the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts of Native Americans for self-determination.”

Read the whole thing.

Many Americans still have no idea what Juneteenth is about. Ben Baxter takes a look at Alabama’s state calendar and sees a problem:

For many of us, we have lived through June 19 or Juneteenth year after year without any hint of its significance in American history.

At its essence, Juneteenth is a day set to commemorate the abolition of slavery. But that detail is not widely known despite Alabama being a former slave state.

If we want to know why we have maintained this oblivion, we should look no further than the State of Alabama’s official state holiday calendar.

A quick glance will show that Juneteenth is not listed as an official state holiday. That wouldn’t be so bad if three other holidays weren’t given top billing as paid off days for state employees in 2017–Robert E. Lee Day (January 16), Confederate Memorial Day (April 24), Jefferson Davis Day (June 5). See a predicament there?”

That’s grotesque. We don’t remember well without the aid of holidays, special events, and physical spaces. We need to change our calendars and our built environment. Ed Hooper reports on the challenges of preserving a special civil war fort in Nashville as redevelopment threatens the site:

This space contains the remnants of the largest inland stone fort built during the American Civil War. Mayor Barry’s administration has instead chosen to award a developer the right to build condominiums and office spaces on a 21-acre section of it – a move that’s stunned preservationists and park supporters. The Civil War fort is unlike any other. It was constructed by black hands, staffed with some of the nation’s first black soldiers, and evolved from a campsite into a historic African-American community in the city.

Following the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in 1862, Confederate forces retreated south evacuating Nashville to Union troops. Because of the access to railroads and rivers, Nashville quickly became the second most fortified city outside of Washington, DC. Then military governor Andrew Johnson ordered the city be fortified to defend against a Confederate counter-attack.

More than 2,700 free black tradesmen, newly-freed slaves, both men and women, were pressed into service to assist. The 12th U.S. Colored Troops Regiment that later organized in Nashville contained many of the laborers who built the fort. Union Engineer Capt. James Morton chose a rise southeast of Nashville for the largest structure. A “contraband” camp was established at the construction site to house laborers. The result four months later was a star-shaped limestone fort. The four-acre structure was named after Nashville Post Commander General James Negley. It didn’t come without cost. Historians estimate that between 600-800 died building it and were buried nearby.”

Let us remember. Happy Juneteenth!

A Foreign Policy of Slavery

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Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

For decades, historians portrayed American slavery as a backward institution destined to wither in the onrushing tide of modernity. In the 1970s, Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll conjured images of a lost feudal world of master and slave. In the 1930s, even Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction argued that slavery “would have disintegrated of its own weight” had the Civil War not intervened. Whatever it was, American slavery was not modern, progressive, or efficient.

Based on anecdotal conversation with those who are not historians, my guess is that this is still the popular consensus. But in recent years historians have challenged this view. In the work of Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist, and Sven Beckert, we see a system of slavery that is adaptable, modern, capitalistic, and forward-looking. This Vast Southern Empire bears the imprint of the new scholarship on American slavery, but it’s really a book about foreign policy.

It has often been pointed out that the South dominated the federal government until 1860. Usually, a slaveowner sat in the White House, and the South enjoyed disproportionate power in congress and the judiciary. But what exactly did white southerners do with that power? In Karp’s narrative, it’s not just that southern elites sought to maintain a stranglehold on the federal government in a sectional battle for supremacy between North and South. They had bigger ambitions. From the broader perspective of foreign relations, the entire American state was a vehicle for the promotion of slavery. Southern slaveholders were not narrow sectionalists, but nationalists who skilfully used the federal government to promote a foreign policy of slavery.

The same southerners who feared federal power at home counted on its vigorous application abroad to advance a “hemispheric defense of slavery.” It was no coincidence that southerners led the effort to modernize and enlarge the army and navy in the 1840s and 1850s. Southerners annexed Texas, spurred the invasion of Mexico, and engaged in diplomatic intrigues in Europe and South America to thwart British abolitionist aims. Their vehicle for these endeavors was, simply, the American state.

Karp convincingly shows that the filibuster invasions of Nicaraugua and Cuba in the 1840s and 1850s are the wrong place to look for the global ambitions of southern slaveholders. Why turn to private armies and hapless adventurers when the vast powers of the federal government lay at their disposal?

Karp shows that southern elites were not reflexive supporters of expansionist schemes. Theirs was a foreign policy that regarded sovereignty as less important than social organization. Cuba would make a nice addition to the American union, but a slave-based Cuba under Spanish rule was better than an American-ruled emancipated Cuba. Southern slaveholders regarded monarchist Brazil and Spanish Cuba as allies and parliamentary Britain as a dangerous foe. Differences in governance aside, Brazil, Cuba, and the United States shared a common interest in protecting racial slavery from the influence of British abolitionism after 1833.

In this light, the crisis of 1860 looks different. Karp writes that Lincoln’s election was a revolution not just in the domestic balance of power between North and South, but in global power relations. For over two decades, the United States had acted as the pro-slavery counterweight in the western hemisphere to abolitionist Britain. With Lincoln’s election, the world’s leading promoter of slavery had effectively–and suddenly–switched sides.

Southern elites’ headlong rush into self-destruction in the crisis of 1860-1861 has long been a cause of fascination and debate. What was the source of their hubris? Karp demonstrates that slaveholders’ confidence was not only based on the narrow calculation that British mills could not forgo southern cotton. More broadly, many southern elites looked around the globe and persuaded themselves that the world was trending in their direction.

The most respected scientists on both sides of the Atlantic seemed to have established beyond reasonable doubt the fact of white racial supremacy, and the influence of scientific racism was growing by the day. Economically and geopolitically, too, southern slaveholders had reasons for optimism. Britain had passed its emancipation bill in 1833, and then watched as the economic value of its Caribbean colonies promptly collapsed. Britain’s subsequent resort to various forms of coerced labor was seen among southern elites as a kind of vindication. Europe’s imperial powers might have been opposed to slavery, but they were self-consciously white supremacist empires using the labor of people of color and violently extending their rule over new territories. They were, in other words, groping toward the economic and scientific “truths” the slaveholding South had already discovered.

Good historical scholarship allows us to see the past in new ways and imagine what might have been. After reading This Vast Southern Empire, it is easier to see why southern slaveholders believed they were on the right side of history, and it is almost surprising that their bold and despicable plans failed.