Slack Chat: Historical Fiction


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Chris Bouton: Welcome back to our weekly Slack Chat. For this week, we thought we’d do something a little lighter in subject matter by talking about our favorite works of historical fiction. To set some boundaries, I’d say that historical fiction can include literature, film, or other media that addresses a historical event, person, or time period.

I’ll kick things off with a favorite historical movie on mine; 12 Years a Slave.

Erin Bartram: I have still never seen this. I had to ILL it because my local public library didn’t have it, and it took months to get it, and when it finally arrived, it was finals season and I never watched it

Chris: It’s the best representation of American slavery that I’ve seen on film. It captures the horrors of enslavement and Michael Fassbender does a fantastic job portraying Edwin Epps’ casual and cruel dehumanization of his slaves.

He lurks about at night, invites his slaves to dance for him in the middle of the night in his house, and casually beats them. It’s a realistic depiction of the wonton cruelty and power of slaveholders.

Shocking that I started with a movie about slavery.

Erin: This what I’ve heard from historians, and it makes me more likely to watch it. I think people think historians are persnickety about depictions of the past because we get really hung up on whether people’s collars were right. But I think we’re bothered by the way things like slavery are portrayed because whitewashing and softening it is dangerous.

Chris: It’s especially powerful as a rebuttal to the Moonlight and Magnolias romanticism of the Old South.

I can’t stand to watch a single minute of Gone with the Wind.

Erin: For me, if it serves as a touchstone for my students that displaces Django Unchained, that would good.

The movies we’ve just cited show the range of what we can even call “historical fiction”

Chris: The violence against African-Americans in Django Unchained is the only realistic part of it.

The opening crawl of that movie had a factual error in it.

Erin: Cripes

It seems like all of QT’s movies are the same white male violent fantasy dressed up in new garb, increasingly “historical” garb

Chris: It placed the Civil War in the wrong year and then suggested that slaves escaping from bondage in Texas would flee to the North.

Erin: What?

Chris: They wouldn’t go North, they’d go west or towards Mexico.

Yeah, that took me out of the movie immediately.

Erin: I mean, this is why people are unwilling to give the Confederate writers the benefit of the doubt

Chris: We’ll see what happens with Confederate, especially since those guys aren’t finished with Games of Thrones yet.

And the immediate backlash the announcement caused.

I realize my complaints about Django may be pedantic, but they weren’t hard things to check.

And that’s what annoys me about it, how easy they were to fix.

Erin: I mean, such obvious errors at the start suggest that the people making the film see history as a thing to play with, not to understand

Chris: Right, and there was also a mention that the slaves in the coffle could testify against the white slavetraders in court. Which of course, they couldn’t.

Erin: I think this is what I’m often thinking about when I’m watching/reading historical fiction.

Is setting something in the past just a way to put it in a different world without doing the labor of world-building?

Is the story deeply informed by the historical conditions its supposedly drawing on?

Chris: That last question is especially important.

All of those Mel Gibson history movies fail at that. The Patriot, Braveheart, they’re just the same movie/themes of revenge and grotesque violence transported to different time periods.

Erin: I don’t have a particular love for historical fiction, but I like the genre that is historical sci-fi/fantasy, if that descriptor makes sense. Things set not in this world but in societies that resemble some parts of the human past.

Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians springs to mind

Or a children’s book like Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious

Chris: Yeah, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. That probably has something to do having to read so much history that reading historical fiction isn’t different enough from what I do normally.

Erin: Yep. I think what I consume more, tho still not much, is contemporary adaptations of older books

Even with books set in the moment in which they were written, contemporary adaptations are sort of doubly removed from the historical moment they discuss

I was just thinking of Austen novels and the O’Brien books there are a million of – the Master and Commander guy

  1. A) Do Austen adaptations pass the Bechdel test as much as movies set in our own period?
  2. B) Do historical settings allow some creators to produce all-male works for an audience that wants them and have it “justified?”

Chris: Regarding B), sci-fi settings allow authors to play with gender roles (for good and bad). I read a lot of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series when I was a teenager. I stopped reading it because it was clear that he had no intention of finishing the series and as I later realized he had deeply sexist views of women.

Erin: Oh yeah, I definitely read things like that. But then I read things like Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre which was awesome. I suppose a lot of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy I read when I was younger played with the same things historical fiction can.

I did finally watch the 2004? adaptation of Gaskell’s North & South this summer, which I loved.

I think it’s a good example of the difficulty of making things historically accurate and appealing.

Chris: Well the 80s version with Patrick Swayze is terrible.

Erin: No “love story” from the 19th century would read as a love story to 20th century audiences, the same way any real depiction of 19th century American slave society would be almost too much for audiences.

Oh no no! Not that one!

I mean the 19th century novel about industrial England

It’s so confusing

Chris: Oh, different thing. My bad

Erin: I have not seen the one with Swayze (and Jonathan Frakes?) but I have heard it’s wretched

Chris: North and South is really bad, but it is the reason that Jonathan Frakes grew a beard.

Erin: Every cloud has a silver lining

Chris: He played the sleazy brother of the Northern lead character. Frakes sold defective shells to the Union army.

Erin: I think the reason I liked North & South much better than a lot of period dramas I’ve seen is that a good chunk of it dealt with issues of labor and politics and poverty, and they had impacts on the story, they weren’t just there as backdrop. It is far more grim.

The main couple didn’t just have a series of misunderstandings over nothing, they had seriously different understandings of how the world worked, neither of which were without problems.

Chris: I think we agree that the best historical fiction uses the specific historical time period for something more than just background.

Something that engages with that historical person/moment however you want to put it to advance some sort of argument or story.

Erin: I think striking the right balance is very hard.

Chris: That’s why there’s so much bad historical fiction.

Erin: Even though I know the realities of the past, I remember watching the 2000 adaptation of The House of Mirth and just screaming “oh ffs just get a job!”

I mean, the imperative to have some sympathetic white character for white audiences to cling to is the thing that pulls me out of movies set in so many parts of the US/UK colonial past

Chris: Right, that the only way a modern audience can understand the past is through a present analogue.

Erin: That’s probably why Americans love movies about the Irish fighting off British colonial oppression

Chris: It also leads to so many terrible white savior narratives.

I’m looking at you Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai.

Spoiler alert: somehow the last samurai is Tom Cruise.

Erin: Ugh

Chris: In terms of historical fiction, I gravitate more towards movies and musicals, mostly because I’m interested in experiencing history through other media especially in a visual sense.

Erin: Me too

Even before Hamilton, lots of historians loved 1776, again despite its inaccuracies and problems in interpretation

Chris: I’m going to gush about Stephen Sondheim for a minute here.

Erin: Assassins?!

Chris: That’s second.

Pacific Overtures

Erin: I haven’t listened to that in ages

Chris: It’s a strange musical about the arrival of the Perry expedition and the opening of Japan. But it’s told from the Japanese perspective, using Japanese musical forms.

It almost never gets revived because it’s such an idiosyncratic piece. Though I saw that there was a month long revival on Broadway a few months ago.

Starring George Takei

There’s a song in Pacific Overtures that I love called “Someone in a Tree” and it’s about the drafting of the Treaty of Kanagawa.

There’s no historical record of what occurred in the treaty house and the song addresses how do you what happened if there’s no record of it.

The song takes the form of an old man recounting his memory of sitting in a tree overlooking the treaty house and he’s accompanied by a younger version of himself and later a soldier stationed under the treaty house. The old man and his younger self argue about their memories.

And it has this wonderful line that I love: “Without someone in a tree / Nothing happened here”

The idea that for an event to have happened, someone had to be there.

Erin: And that’s amazing – not just engaging with the past, but engaging with how we make/know the past

Chris: And if he weren’t there, then who’s to say what happened

Exactly, the song is about how we create the past

Erin: I think you take that and what he does in Assassins, and you see a creator who is engaging with the past and the nature of historical thinking in a way that historians really like

Chris: Yes, I love Assassins.

“Lincoln who got mixed reviews / Because of you John now gets only raves” is a brilliant line

Because it’s true!

Erin: It’s an examination of “historic” figures in the way historians use the term – interesting and impactful – rather than as a descriptor of great men

Chris: The Ballad of Booth is about how Booth tries to shape his own historical narrative and fails.

Erin: “Unworthy of Your Love” is one of my favorite ballads and it is so messed up

“The Gun Song” is about connectedness and complicity

I was fortunate enough to see the 2004 revival with Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Cerveris, that ran for a few months at Studio 54, and at the time, I didn’t love that they’d added in “Something Just Broke,” about the reaction to the Kennedy assassination

But in the past six months, the song has grown on me

Chris: I thought that song was about people in different time periods reacting to the various assassinations?

I’ve never seen Assassins staged.

Erin: It is right near the end, after the Narrator becomes Lee Harvey Oswald

Before the reprise of Everybody’s Got the Right

But again, it’s thinking about how individual experience becomes dominant narrative, and the importance of “Where were you when” in engaging with the recent past

Chris: For our parents it was the Kennedy assassination, for us it’s 9-11.

Erin: Yep – and 9/11 is the thing I use to show the “distance” between me and my students, despite us being in the same generation

Is our consensus that all historical fiction should be Sondheim?

Chris: I’m okay with that

Or at least employ the same critical analysis and thematic development

Erin: Assassins also features my favorite depiction of a president – Big Bill McKinley enjoys beef and stamp collecting!

Chris: McKinley is so generically American in that song

“In his spare time he enjoys collecting coins!”

Erin: oh yes, it was coins

Chris: McKinley in that song is espousing the version of the American dream that we all hope to aspire to

Erin: I would like to be able to afford to buy beef, it’s true

Chris: The Horatio Alger, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps narrative, that the show acknowledges isn’t real

Erin: The ways in which Assassins and Pacific Overtures ask the audience to question not only their ideas about the past but their ideas about history really make the musicals stand out from everything else we’ve talked about here. (edited)

I have done stuff with Assassins in my teaching before, and now I want to bring it back.

Chris: That’s probably why we like them so much. They’re also ingenious pieces of music.

He also worked with the same playwright for both those musicals, John Weidman.

Weidman also is a writer for Sesame Street.

Erin: That is excellent.

Chris: Weidman has a degree in history from Harvard as well.

So I guess to sum up, we really like Sondheim?

Erin: Seriously

If you’ve made it this far reading the chat and you haven’t gone and listened to this, stop right now and do it!

Chris: That’s the reward for reading this far.

Aspirations and Fears: The U.S. Military and Broader Social Values


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President Trump’s tweeted announcement this morning that he intends to ban transgender Americans from military service has, in the span of a few hours, again brought to the forefront the relationship between the U.S. military and broader cultural values.

The irony of the timing of today’s announcement, which historians were quick to note, is that it fell on the sixty-ninth anniversary of President Harry Truman’s executive order to desegregate the nation’s armed forces. Today’s events – and those of 1948 – are powerful reminders of the ability of the Commander-in-Chief to make the military more and less inclusive place — and to effect the rest of society along with it.

In a series of tweets, the historian Ronit Stahl quickly identified the issues at stake. Stahl, whose forthcoming book examines how the military grappled with religious pluralism during the twentieth century, emphasizes the role of the military in pushing the inclusion of marginalized groups. When people deemed as being on the margins of society are fully incorporated into the armed forces, other barriers weaken or collapse.

In my own research of World War I, I’ve found this to be true.

At the war’s outset, anti-Semitism ran rampant in American society. In the military, there was no provision for Jewish soldiers to have their religious practices recognized. Before the war, few Jews had served as chaplains for U.S. soldiers.

In 1917, however, American political, military, and religious leaders saw the armed forces as the ideal venue to enact a vision of a more religiously inclusive nation. One person who witnessed the effects of this policy firsthand was Lee Levinger. A recent graduate of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the young rabbi was one of the few Jewish chaplains to serve during the war.

During the 1920s, Levinger published a memoir of his wartime experiences, A Jewish Rabbi in France. The book recounted numerous ways in which the efforts to place Jewish Americans in positions of prominence helped to foster a more inclusive military. The rabbi told of time spent with Catholic and Protestant chaplains, in which they all respectfully discussed their various beliefs. He recalled ministering to Catholic and Protestant soldiers, including his oft-cited example of holding a Rosary for a dying Catholic serviceman.


By making inclusion the official military policy, individual soldiers encountered people from different faith traditions and became affirming of religious diversity. “The Jew from the East Side of New York who had never known any Christian except the corner policeman” now met “the Kentucky mountaineer, who had been reared with the idea that Jews had horns.” All involved “were bound to be broadened by the experience,” Levinger wrote.

Because of the military’s perceived position of exemplifying national values, small policies can have major effects in the broader culture. Of all the World War I chaplains, a mere half dozen of them were Jewish. But the small number of actual Jewish chaplains belied a much larger ideological campaign. Prominent military leaders, including General John Pershing, attended Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Worship services celebrating the dedication of new army facilities included a prayer offered by a rabbi.

Most significantly, these attitudes were carried back to the homefront. Domestic wartime descriptions of the United States idealized it as a country whose religious culture was defined not just by Protestantism and Catholicism, but by Judaism as well.

Historical circumstances like the religious inclusiveness of World War I speak to the promise and potential of the United States military. When political leaders strive to make the armed forces the embodiment of the nation’s aspirations, it can be a powerful institution for driving social change. Such was the case throughout the twentieth century on issues of religious, racial, and ethnic diversity.

Following this morning’s series of tweets, we are about to witness the opposite scenario. Just as the military has the power to push the U.S. to the full embodiment of its ideals, it has the ability to magnify our more intolerant and narrow-minded impulses.

That is the other lesson of World War I. After the conflict ended and the need of an inclusive military diminished, so too did the idealization of inclusiveness in the broader society. It took several more decades before the broader culture recaptured the spirit of pluralism displayed in 1917 and 1918.

Regrettably, President Trump might well have just put the same roadblock in the path of efforts to foster greater inclusion and affirmation of transgender Americans.

Why are people so upset about Confederate?


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Last week, HBO announced a new show called Confederate, from the showrunners of Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. This is how HBO described the show in their announcement:

CONFEDERATE chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

The response was…mixed, to say the very least. There are several different layers of problems with the concept and potential execution that made people angry. Rather than delve into any of them in particular, I just wanted to sketch out the different issues, and talk a bit about things that make some historians (not all) wary of the project.

First, there was concern about the two white men at the head of the project for a couple of reasons. Game of Thrones has featured some problematic racial imagery and a lot of sexual violence, and many have been disappointed with the response of the showrunners to complaints about both issues. This alone is enough to suggest to many that Confederate will be at the very least tone-deaf and more likely offensive and exploitative.

Others were wary because of the history of white filmmakers providing and white audiences expecting particular narratives about the Civil War that are dishonest, whitewashed, and factually incorrect. This led to some on-the-nose imaginings of what we’ll see in Confederate, since white Hollywood and white Middle America alike can’t abide or even conceptualize media without a dashing white hero and a love story.

Many also pointed out something along these lines already existed, produced by a black filmmaker: the mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. An independent film that is available to watch on Netflix, and which I highly recommend, C.S.A. never got the distribution and would never have gotten the funding or the splashy rollout that Confederate has already received. 

The history of awful Civil War movies and TV produced by white writers and filmmakers, the need for white male heroes and protagonists in all media, and the issues that Benioff and Weiss’ previous show has had with race and sexual violence were more than enough to create a huge backlash.

But there’s another set of problems operating in tandem with these issues, problems rooted in the way the showrunners seem to understand the past and just how “past” it is.

In an interview with Vulture in response to the backlash, the showrunners, were asked about how they came up with the idea for the show. [NB: The interview includes Malcolm and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, two black writers involved with the project who Benioff and Weiss describe as full partners. I’m only touching on their contributions a little in this analysis, not because I don’t think they’re important, but because I don’t actually think all four contributors are on the same page nearly as much as they say they are.]

Tell me more, though, about exactly how you came to do this idea. Did you do a whole bunch of research? Maybe go out one day and smoke peyote like Jim Morrison?

David Benioff: In a dorky way, I guess it goes back to — we’re both history nerds. I remember reading a history of the Civil War, I think it might have been the Shelby Foote one. And there’s a famous story, which I’m going to mash up, because my memory’s not what it used to be — but there’s a famous story of when Robert E. Lee was invading the North. Not the Gettysburg invasion, but an earlier one. And the set of orders got misplaced and were found by a Northern soldier. And it ended up ruining Lee’s invasion. A lot of people think if the orders hadn’t been lost, things might have been different: The Confederates might’ve sacked Washington, D.C., it’s possible the South could’ve won the war. So that notion of, what would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked D.C., if the South had won — that just always fascinated me. And history as a genre has always been interesting to me. That was really the initial thing. I wish I had a more specific trigger moment for you, but I don’t.

D.B. Weiss: Yeah, on top of what David said about history and how we’ve both been heavily invested in it since kids — it goes without saying slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. And history doesn’t disappear. That sin is still with us in many ways. Confederate, in all of our minds, will be an alternative-history show. It’s a science-fiction show. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama. It’s an ugly and a painful history, but we all think this is a reason to talk about it, not a reason to run from it. And this feels like a potentially valuable way to talk about it.

The question suggests that the idea of the show is so far out only an altered mind could have come up with it. The answers, taken together, reveal people interested in playing with the past but not interested in really understanding it. They know they’re supposed to say slavery was the original sin, it’s still with us, blah blah blah, but that awareness doesn’t seem to have informed them or humbled them in any way.

It’s notable that their most specific “what ifs” are around how different military choices might have changed the direction of the war, not about the political, cultural, economic, or intellectual choices that led up to and followed the war. Perhaps the show examines those choices too, but that doesn’t seem to be the direction they’re going in. The “what if” that created the conditions for the show is sort of an afterthought, rather than a way to think about why things might have actually happened differently.

Perhaps they’ve read more than Shelby Foote, whose three-volume history of the Civil War was published between 1958 and 1974. But I don’t think so. If they did, they’d know that historians argue chattel slavery was a “modern” institution, one that arose with and helped create the very ideas and material conditions of “modernity” itself.

[Benioff and Weiss use “present day” in the Vulture interview, while the HBO announcement talks about slavery as a “modern institution.” Perhaps I should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they had no control over how the show was framed for the announcement.]

Several times they push back against the accusation that this show will be wish-fulfillment or straight up pornography for the alt-right and those who carry the banner for the Lost Cause. Repeatedly, all of the people involved push back against the idea that this will be pornography, stating that it won’t be “whips and plantations.”

This reasoning concerns me because of what I see and hear in the classroom every time I teach anything about slavery. Most of my students – and most of the people I talk with outside of the classroom – first point to the physical abuse as what was “bad” about slavery, rather than that people were legally owned and treated as property, their humanity ignored when it was problematic and exploited when it could be made to benefit those who owned them.

Abuse and control in American slavery took a wide variety of forms, and the idea that removing the whip means there’ll be less on screen to titillate racists falls flat. Moreover, slavery was never simply a plantation institution; portraying “urban” slavery isn’t science fiction, but believing it is shows that lack of understanding of the very “modern” history of slavery in the United States.

Taken together, these two things really matter, because over the years, many of my students have suggested that slavery could have been “reformed” to avoid the Civil War.

I usually have them outline what that would look like. Sometimes, they lay out the terms, realize they’ve just described free wage labor, and feel embarrassed. Other times they lay out something that looks like “humanitarian” views of slavery from the 19th century, in which case I ask them if they’d accept those terms for their own enslavement. Of course they refuse, but many try to avoid confronting why they thought such a system would have been a fair price for black Americans to pay in order for white Americans to avoid a civil war.

Getting rid of whips and plantations won’t prevent the show from being wish-fulfillment for some people, since a sleek, “modern,” white supremacist slave system, one that operates without the need for whips because all people know their place and stay in it, is the actual thing they wish for. 

I imagine these criticisms would be framed by the showrunners as harshing their buzz. They might say: “At the end of the day, it’s just a TV show, and it’s science fiction at that.” Setting aside the awful fact that we’re living in a moment when white nationalism has a place in the White House (a wrinkle to this story I can’t even tackle right now), whether the showrunners like it or not, people get their ideas about the past, slavery, and race from TV shows and movies. It’s why I always have students who ask, in all seriousness, why every slave didn’t just do what was in Django Unchained

None of this is to say that a project like this can’t be done well, or that this specific project won’t be done well. But something framed as an alternative history needs to know the both the history it claims to diverge from and why there’s been a 150-year struggle to control that history. Neither the initial announcement nor the Vulture interview on the “backlash” convinces me the project is there yet.

White Trash


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This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the NY Times’ 6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win. The first installment is here

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash uses class and the history of poor whites to reveal the lie at the heart of the American dream. Isenberg seeks to tell a story that “we as a people have trouble embracing: the pervasiveness of a class hierarchy in the United States” (xxviii-xxix). The continual presence of the poor “reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward social mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable” (xxvii-xxviii). Something, she argues, is rotten in the United States.


Richard Hakluyt

American class hierarchies, Isenberg stresses, emerged from English ones. Proponents of colonial settlement, like Richard Hakluyt, viewed the Americas as “one giant workhouse” (21). England’s excess poor—too lazy to work for themselves—would migrate to the Americas where they would transform the themselves and the abundant natural resources around them into valuable products for England. Or they would die trying. These class concerns became a staple of early American political thought. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans believed that the frontier and westward expansion would deal with the problem of the poor. Appalachia, the Midwest, Kansas-Nebraska, California, and Oregon all served as opportunities for elites to rid themselves of their excess poor. Yet the problem never went away. There were always too many poor people and not enough land for America to become Jefferson’s ideal republic of small, independent farmers. By the late 19th century, with no more frontier to conquer, elites turned to eugenics and sterilization to solve their poor problem. Waste people, they believed, were morally degenerate, physically deformed and enfeebled, and incapable of elevating themselves from their own backwardness.

Throughout White Trash, Isenberg traces the historical origins of terms like “white trash”, “hillbilly”, and “cracker.” At various times, these epithets did not have wholly negative connotations. Davy Crockett embraced his “cracker” roots and played them to his advantage, using his fame to push for the rights of the landless poor. In modern times, pop cultural figures have embraced their white trash roots to demonstrate their own virtue. Sarah Palin bragged of her hunting ability and her role as a “momma grizzly.” The Robertsons of Duck Dynasty fame have parlayed their family business into a fleeting cultural phenomenon. J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, similarly expressed pride in his hillbilly roots while climbing the social ladder. Yet Isenberg points out that many of those who came from white trash roots, like Vance, have forsaken their fellow poor. As she explains, “The same self-made man who looked down on white trash others had conveniently chosen to forget that his own parents escaped from the tar-paper shack only with the help of the federal government. But now that he had been lifted to respectability, he would pull up the social ladder behind him” (277).


White Trash, however, is less successful when it tries to separate race and class. Isenberg contends that “Class had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race” (2). In recasting the Civil War along class terms, she ignores the racial views of poor white southerners in favor of elites. Well-to-do Northerners, she argues, viewed the Civil War as liberating both African-Americans and poor whites. Elite Southerners, meanwhile, attacked Northerners as race traitors for condemning their fellow whites to the permanent class of menial labor. In doing so, Isenberg minimizes the racism against African-Americans that existed across class lines in the South. In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, white Virginians (in circumstances replicated elsewhere in the colonies) engaged in a conscious decision to elevate white skin over black in order to protect their own elevated position. This racial union explains why poor southerners fought for the Confederacy, terrorized African-Americans during Reconstruction, and opposed Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet Isenberg largely ignores and underplays the importance of race in explaining the history of poor whites.

Isenberg’s White Trash serves as a powerful reminder of the role of class in American history. The American dream, she points out, is largely a myth, masking deeper and darker truths about the United States. We are not all equal, we are not all born with the same opportunities, and even our government institutions are infected by the power of elites. Political elites, she points out, mock the American dream: “Instead of a thoroughgoing democracy, Americans have settled for democratic stagecraft: high sounding rhetoric, magnified, and political leaders dressing down at barbecues or heading out to hunt game” (311). Yet by sidestepping the importance of race, Isenberg detracts from her own argument about the pervasiveness of class distinctions and inequality. As I wrote last week about Hillbilly Elegy, race, as history often reminds us, is inseparable from class.

Living in the Shadow of Seneca Falls


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by David Mislin

Today, July 19, marks the 169th anniversary of the start of the women’s rights meeting at Seneca Falls, New York. The two-day event, attended by approximately 300 people, produced the Declaration of Sentiments, which is best known for its advocacy of women’s suffrage.


I often teach the Declaration of Sentiments to college students, and I’m always struck – as they are – by the breadth of the statement and its accompanying resolutions. Some of its points are very broad and general in their terms, such as the opening proclamation that “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.”

Many other elements of it are quite specific. Men had denied women “the facilities for obtaining a thorough education,” had taken for themselves “all the profitable employments,” and had “created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women.”

Recently, I’ve had reason to consider these declarations through a different lens: the experience of young women living near Seneca Falls in the years after the meeting.

One of my current writing projects is a biography of the minister Washington Gladden, who grew up in Owego, New York, about seventy miles southeast of Seneca Falls. Because of its location on the Susquehanna River, Owego served as a regional transportation hub. Raw materials from the Finger Lakes region were carried by land to the town, where they were loaded onto the river and sent to the mid-Atlantic region. Owego was also a popular stopping point for travelers between New York and Buffalo. As such, the community provided fertile ground for discussion of popular ideas.


The Susquehanna River in Owego, New York (2016)

From the archival evidence I’ve found, ideas under discussion included the role of women in society.

Washington Gladden’s correspondence includes a series of letters from two young women, Nettie Brister and Hattie Hamilton, with whom he was friendly. The letters date from the latter half of the 1850s – eight to twelve years after the Seneca Falls meeting, at a time when both women were in their late teens and early twenties.

What’s striking is the degree to which both women – without mentioning the document –echoed the criticisms of the Declaration of Sentiments. Even more noteworthy, though, are the ways in which both Brister and Hamilton pushed against social conventions.

Hamilton and Brister were both well educated. They had attended Owego Academy, which was one of the better schools in the region. Yet, for both, the education amounted to little. Brister wrote to a male friend that while for him the end of adolescence meant “a future so bright” thanks to the possibilities of college and career, her situation was bleaker. The lack of vocational opportunities meant that she “must plod on in the same weary way for years, earning just enough to support myself till I am old.”

Nor were things better for Hattie Hamilton. She had trained in one of the few fields open to women – education – and worked as a schoolteacher. But Hamilton found the work increasingly unfulfilling. For a person who enjoyed reading and discussing literature and theology, teaching young children had become a “duty” without “any pleasure.”

The frustration about vocation expressed in the Declaration of Sentiments carries through the musings of these young women in the 1850s. The end of youth brought higher education and intellectual opportunity for men; for women, at best, it brought drudging, mind-numbing labor.

But Hamilton and Brister did not merely channel the critiques offered at Seneca Falls. In their own lives, they also pushed slightly against them, especially in the realm of morality. Hamilton freely pursued romantic interests, and was unabashed about telling men her feelings. She appeared unfazed and was perhaps even proud of the fact that men found her “coarse, vulgar, and unrefined.”

Brister pushed against moral expectations with her behavior. She and a male friend attended a concert in a nearby town, and he did not bring her home “till three o’clock in the morning.” When the landlady objected that it “did not look well to be out so late,” Brister expressed little patience for the older woman’s moralizing (as an alterative, she suggested to the landlady that she and the young man could have spent the night together in another town; the landlady was not amused).

Considered together, these letters offer a vivid portrait of how young women perceived their situation as they lived – geographically and chronologically – in the shadow of Seneca Falls. A decade after the meeting, they voiced their own experiences that matched the frustrations expressed by the meeting’s organizers.

Even more significantly, though, both women found subtle ways to push back against the Declaration of Sentiments had criticized. That is the most important point of all. When we think of the legacy of Seneca Falls, we tend to think in terms of the long arc of history: the meeting led to the suffrage movement, which in turn led to the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1920. But the meeting’s message clearly resonated more immediately in the lives of two young women a few years later and a few miles away.

The letters from Hamilton and Brister can be found on reel 1 of the microfilm collection of Washington Gladden’s papers, which is housed at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus.

White faces, New England faces


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In earlier posts, we’ve touched on several aspects the Civil War and how it’s been remembered and memorialized, but it is important to remember how pervasive and unshakeable that mythologizing is among those in “the North.”

A spectacular example of appeared in the Republican American, a paper out of Waterbury, CT, an old industrial city on the Naugatuck River. It’s one of the regional papers for people who grew up in Litchfield County like I did. Matt DeRienzo, a local publisher, photographed the piece for our benefit, as part of his response. Before you read John White’s “Slavery and liberal outrage,” make a list of all of the tropes of slavery apologism you can think of, and tick them off as you read.

DeRienzo’s response is excellent, but it barely scratches the surface, not because it’s not thorough, but because White’s piece is chock-a-block full of ahistorical and deeply offensive thinking. I don’t intend to critique it point by point, because I’d spend months on it, because other people have done it better, and because I’d probably quit in rage trying to tackle that horrific family story about how “nice” his ancestors were to the people whose bodies they exploited and whose labor they stole.

Frankly most of the points I’d make are already known, even by people like White. He just desperately doesn’t want them to be true, and has the social power to insist that his reality – one devoid of facts and historical interpretation – is the right one.

There is one passage I’d like to dig into, though. I’ll excerpt it here.

Now, I do not condone slavery; there is no justification for it whatsoever. But slavery was not the whole of Southern culture. The South deserves respect and appreciation for being much more than the Confederacy. For example, Southern music and cuisine were around long before the war. And Southern courtesy and hospitality are legendary. The Confederacy is long gone, but they’re still with us.

Put simply, White gives away the game with that last sentence. He very much wants “slavery” to be separable from “the South” and even further, from “the Confederacy,” and yet can’t successfully separate them in his own mind or writing because they’re inseparable.

He claims slavery is not the whole of Southern culture, but I challenge him to find an aspect of the Southern music and cuisine he claims to celebrate that wasn’t deeply shaped by slavery, if not wholly appropriated from the culture of enslaved people.

And claiming Southern courtesy and hospitality is culturally separate from the history of slavery? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?


It’s clear that the “culture” of the South isn’t just the parts where he imagines slavery didn’t exist, it’s a version of the South in which enslaved people, their labor, and their culture were plundered with impunity and erased, and his arguments attempt to perpetuate that plunder and erasure.

There’s a reason he wants to erase the realities of slavery. The heartwarming family story he tells reveals why. His family story is the story of the Lost Cause. Enslaved people were happy, loyal, and finally had the chance to find Jesus.[1] The war ruined all of that, but his family kindly offered the “opportunity” of participating in an exploitative labor system to the people they were no longer able to exploit fully, people who were mysteriously “uneducated” (and therefore incapable of self-governance).

Ultimately, despite his meager protestations, White doesn’t think slavery was bad for Africans and African-Americans. His perspective is fundamentally rooted in and shaped by what DeRienzo correctly identifies as white supremacy. There’s no getting around that.

One reason why White’s piece undoubtedly found a sympathetic audience in Connecticut is that, even as it tries to separate Southern culture from slavery, it plays on the idea that slavery was a discrete system that happened somewhere else and then ended. I have no doubt that view shaped the poor decision to run this piece.

There are lots of ways to respond to this willful refusal to confront the historical reality. I could point out that slavery existed in “the North,” though I’m sure he knows that. Maybe he doesn’t know that in the 1790 census, every town in Connecticut had at least one slave. Maybe he, unlike children in Connecticut schools today, never learned of Venture Smith. Maybe he doesn’t know that because of the gradual nature of emancipation in Connecticut, the 1850 census was the first one in which New Haven County, in which Waterbury sits, didn’t record the existence of any enslaved people. Given that the town’s website talks about the effects of King Phillips’ War without acknowledging what the war was about, I’m sure he has no idea that it resulted in the sale of defeated Native Americans into slavery by pious Christian New Englanders. 

And maybe, just maybe, he’s never heard “Molasses to Rum.”

More problematic, though, is the refusal to acknowledge the way that slavery was the economic system of the United States, whether you personally held someone in bondage or not. To say people in Connecticut didn’t participate in slavery is like saying in 2017 that you don’t participate in the minimum-wage economy. It’s the economy, stupid. It’s one of the reasons radical abolitionists found it so difficult to extract themselves from the slave economy; how do you “boycott” something that is part of everything you buy?

But it’s more than that. It’s not just about whether or not white Americans who didn’t enslave people bought goods produced by enslaved laborers. Slavery drove the American economy in the 19th century, it was the American economy, and its profits were central to the continued existence of the new republic. The United States was established on and survived through a system that depended on the forced, uncompensated productive and reproductive labor of enslaved black Africans and African-Americans.

Why does White think his family “could not afford to pay them to farm” after the war? It wasn’t just because they were “broke,” it was because the business model of plantation agriculture depended on not paying for the labor. White wants us to see his family’s story as white benevolence; we should read it for what it is: his family’s attempt, fully supported by Northern white Americans who were “tired” of thinking about newly-free African-Americans and who liked their cheap cotton clothing, to establish a system as close as possible to the one they were now barred from using by the Constitution.

White insists we can separate slavery from Southern culture, but we can’t even separate it from Northern culture. We can’t separate it from American culture, and his insistence that his readers should, as a way of forgiving and moving on, is as historically inaccurate as it is offensive and injurious.

There’s lots of good new research lately about slavery and American capitalism, if White would like to dive into it. Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History are two different takes.

[1] His absolute refusal to acknowledge the ways that Christianity was used to justify enslavement is one of the most perverse elements of this piece, and unsurprisingly misses the fact that there were Catholic and Muslim Africans among those enslaved by his beloved white saviors.

Hillbilly Elegy


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J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper Collins, 2016.

When I left for vacation, I brought three different books as part of an effort to better understand and contextualize the events of 2016 in a historical perspective. The first of those books was J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I had seen articles on internet about it. I’d seen people reading it on airplanes and Amazon’s algorithms continually recommended it. While hailed by the New York Times as one of the “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win”, Hillbilly Elegy was nothing of the sort. Instead of offering insight into the minds of poor, white, working-class voters, Vance’s book recapitulates conservative talking points about hard work, determination, and the availability of upward social mobility. Those who fail to rise, he argues, have only themselves to blame. Hillbilly Elegy is Horatio Alger in 21st century drag.

Vance begins Hillbilly Elegy with a simplistic understanding of the culture of Appalachia through the lenses of ethnicity and geography. He claims descent from the Scots-Irish and “poverty,” he laments, “is the family tradition” (3). This ethnic heritage has also made him and his family loyal to one another, devoted their country, but also distrustful of outsiders or those who look, act, or speak differently from them. Vance contends that geography played the other starring role in the development of “hillbilly culture.” Since the 1700s, the Scots-Irish “were deeply attracted to the Appalachian Mountains” (3-4). Vance borrows his definition of Greater Appalachia from Colin Woodard without acknowledging Woodard’s work. He then describes how thanks to “low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery” (4).


Yet in attempting to understand the culture of poor whites in Appalachia, Vance has decided that race has no role to play in their story. Instead he hopes that his readers will have an “appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism ” (8). Vance’s hand-waving away the racial attitudes of poor whites in Appalachia undermines what little analysis he offers. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, just over an hour north from Vance’s ancestral home in Jackson, Kentucky is an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The SPLC has identified at least 16 different organizations in Kentucky expressing some form of white nationalist, Neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, or KKK affiliation. His adopted state of Ohio has 6 KKK groups, 4 Neo-Nazi, 3 Racist Skinhead, and 3 white nationalist organizations. Race, as history often reminds us, is inseparable from class.

In the absence of any rigorous examination of the cultural, political, social, and racial attitudes of Appalachia, Vance instead offers a paean to hard-work, determination, and grit. These values, he believes, are the key to rescuing hillbillies from themselves. Yet his people, Vance laments, seem determined to remain poor and lazy forever. Take the worker in a tile factory who refused to show up for work on time even though he had a pregnant girlfriend. Or another man who hated getting up early, so he quit his job and then complained on Facebook about the “Obama economy.” When Vance worked as a cashier at a grocery store, he described his growing resentment at the hillbillies who gamed the welfare system. After telling these stories to his grandmother, Vance wrote that “We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust… a large minority was content to live off the dole” (139). Vance and his grandmother lamented the similarities between the working poor, like himself and his family, and the welfare queens “whom we thought gave our people a bad name” (140).


J.D. Vance 

In order to distinguish himself from these unworthy poor, Vance devoted to his efforts to overcoming his family’s hillbilly roots. His mother struggled with drug addiction and introduced a never-ending parade of mostly abusive father figures. His grandfather was a violent drunkard, while his grandmother was just plain violent. Vance’s experience working at the grocery store had awakened his class consciousness and a desire to escape from rural Ohio. He “hated the feeling that my boss counted my people as less trustworthy than those who took their groceries home in a Cadillac.” The experience also gave him his life’s purpose: “One day, I told myself, I’ll have my own damned tab” (139). Vance managed to graduate high school, enlist in the Marine Corps, attend Ohio State and Yale Law School, and work for venture capitalist and noted Trump supporter Peter Thiel.

Vance extrapolates from his own experiences that the American dream (another term he never defines) is alive and well. From his perspective, his fellow hillbillies, however, have succumbed to the failures endemic to their culture. Vance expresses some discomfort over having left Appalachia behind, but it mostly manifests itself in banal observations. Which one is the salad fork? There’s a difference between still and sparkling water? Why do poor children want so many useless toys at Christmas?

Vance’s belief in his own story limits his ability to identify and diagnose the historical forces that shaped him and his fellow hillbillies. Instead he wholeheartedly endorses a simplistic worldview. Those with merit rise to the top. Those who don’t only have themselves to blame. And if people in an entire region of the country are unable to advance, then culture is to blame. This argument conveniently absolves the government or other larger societal institutions of the blame or the responsibility for addressing these problems. It also casts aside any question about the concentration of wealth and power amongst a small ruling class. It’s argument that would make Peter Thiel proud.


The Lost History of the Minister’s Wife


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by David Mislin

Amid recent conversations about perceptions of women in the historical profession – best exemplified by #WomenAlsoKnowHistory – I’ve found myself reflecting on how I approach historical women in my own work.

My primary research field is the history of religious ideas in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Not surprisingly, most of my work, involves reading the works of dead white men, primarily the ministers and theologians who developed and articulated religious concepts.

As I’ve thought about how women fit into my scholarship (my work focuses primarily on American Protestantism, and there were few women clergy/theologians before the mid-twentieth century), I recently recalled one of my favorite archival finds: a diary of a young minister who was wondering about his wife’s birth control.

In the fall of 1931, Bernard Taylor, a young Presbyterian minister who had recently graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York, took his first job as a pastor in a small town in western Pennsylvania. By all accounts, Taylor liked the town—except for one thing. As he noted in his diary, “buying contraceptives” in a rural community was “a harrowing thing”  (at this stage, birth control consisted of fairly rudimentary devices that were sold at drug stores). The young clergyman worried that his wife would need to “have a baby right away just for fear of what they will say if we don’t have one and are found out practising birth control!” [1]

Although written from the perspective of a man, this candid glimpse into one of the most personal aspects of the life of a minister and his wife is illuminating for several reasons.

First, this diary entry is a reminder that issues important to women – reproductive rights, family planning, etc. – could be central in the clash of cultures that occurred when urbane, educated ministers led churches in small towns. As historians, we’ve long known such clashes existed. But we tend to assume they occurred over abstract, heady concepts such as the theory of evolution or the inerrant truth of scripture. Here, we see anxiety about a potential conflict of a far more personal sort: the freedom of a young minister and his wife to have access to birth control without the intrusive judgment of church members.

Second, this diary entry suggests an even more important conclusion: that the minister’s wife is a central figure in the history of American religion – and perhaps American history more broadly. As historians, we have tended to consider these women only when they have assumed a semi-official role, such as when they went abroad with their missionary husbands.

The more common experience of the wife of a minister who stayed in the U.S. has been less well documented. But it seems likely that there are extraordinarily rich stories waiting to be told. Often, these women had lived in urbane, cosmopolitan cities, and then moved with their husbands to more religiously and culturally conservative regions. In these new environments, they faced potential criticism for things far less dramatic than using birth control.

9781452827001-us-300The novelist Harold Frederic captured this phenomenon in his 1896 novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware, which portrays the demise of a bright, up-and-coming Methodist minister after he is placed in a church in a backwater community. In one early scene, Ware is chastised by ornery church trustees for the flowers that his wife wore in her hat to the Sunday service. The message was clear: for the minister to enjoy the support of lay leaders (and thus to have continued employment), his wife would follow their standards of propriety.

As the Taylors discovered with their birth control, such a scenario was not limited to fiction.

Unfortunately for historians, ministers themselves often did not make it easy for us to learn about their wives. In fact, the Taylor diary is something of an aberration in this regard. Many of the ministers that I’ve studied have seemingly gone to great lengths not to mention their wives.

Still, we would do well as a profession to make the effort to find the stories of these minister’s wives. Just as women also know history, women also experienced it – even in the seemingly male-dominated realm of institutional religious history.

[1] Taylor’s diaries are housed at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.

“Work is at the core of what it means to be a man”


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A recent piece in the New York Times proclaimed “Men Don’t Want To Be Nurses. Their Wives Agree.” Yahoo! Finance cribbed the story with the more provocative title “Wives are partly to blame for the fact that men won’t take ‘female’ jobs, professor says.”

The crux of the article:

Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has studied middle-aged white-collar professionals who have lost their jobs. He found that some men who might have been willing to consider lower-paid jobs in typically feminine fields encountered resistance from their wives, who urged them to keep looking.

“Marriages have more problems when the man is unemployed than the woman,” Professor Sharone said. “What does it mean for a man to take a low-paying job that’s typically associated with women? What kind of price will they pay with their friends, their lives, their wives, compared to unemployment?”

That may be, he said, because other sociologists have found that while work is important to both men’s and women’s identities, there remains a difference. “Work is at the core of what it means to be a man, in a way that work is not at the core of femininity,” he said.

While there are lots of ways to think about the arguments presented in this piece, I think there are three major layers of culture and history here that we should separate and consider.

First major point to get out of the way: what does it mean to say wives are “to blame” because they discourage their husbands from taking jobs that are culturally associated with women, and therefore weakness? What’s unspoken but clear here, at least as the article presents it, is that somehow it’s not really sexism because women are perpetuating it. Women can and do perpetuate patriarchy; that’s actually part of how and why it works. Women naming and shaming other women as promiscuous is a pretty clear example. That the women in this study also see woman-associated jobs as lesser is part of the problem, not the explanation.



Gabriel Nicolet’s Good Samaritan, not Highly Skilled Professional

The second thing we need to consider is how ideas about men and women’s appropriate roles and natural differences have shaped what has been considered a “pink collar” job in American history, and how those shifting associations have shaped our ideas of gender difference in turn. Anyone familiar with Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale knows of the late 18th and early 19th century “professionalization” – read: masculinization – of the job of helping women give birth.[1] But another “pink collar” job – teaching – can also be instructive. Its feminization in the 19th century, and the resulting backlash, show both how impermanent these ideas of “natural” roles can be and how “natural” characteristics can go from being good to bad as conditions change.

Teaching, especially the teaching of young children, was not always a female job. The expansion of compulsory public school education in the early 19th century brought with it the need for, as Catharine Beecher put it, an “army of teachers.” She argued that, as men would much rather prefer the exciting and lucrative world of business, women should take their place as teachers.

Men will be educators in the college, in the high school, in some of the most honourable and lucrative common schools, but the children, the little children of this nation must, to a wide extent, be taught by females, or remain untaught. The drudgery of education, as it is now too generally regarded, in this country, will be given to the female hand.

Men and women alike lauded the “natural” fitness of women for the teaching profession, natural because of their inherent drive to care and nurture, not because of any particular skill or education for which they would have to be compensated. Teaching young children was already reframed as drudgery to which men wouldn’t lower themselves.

By the end of the century, however, as women came to dominate the teaching profession and embrace it as a profession, not just a temporary vocation to be abandoned upon marriage, male educators pushed back, railing against white women teachers for their “feminizing” effects on young boys and arguing that their selfish refusal to give up teaching to act solely as wives and mothers would contribute to “race suicide.”

In this period, when men and women taught together in the same school, women were paid less. One argument that persisted into the 20th century was that women were paid less because they needed the money less, because they were working for “pin money,” not to support a family. [2]

This is, of course, complete bunk, but it brings us to the third important aspect of this piece, the assertion that “[w]ork is at the core of what it means to be a man, in a way that work is not at the core of femininity.” In many ways, this statement is the worst part of these articles.

The most generous reading of this is that the scholar is attempting to state a dominant American cultural belief that shaped the statements of the respondents, rather than some Truth about “what men and women want.”

Even allowing for that generous reading, we should nevertheless take issue with the statement. Much like the idea that wives are to blame for men failing to take pink collar jobs, this framing inverts the issue to obscure the actual problem. The association of work with men makes work associated with women “beneath” men, because it can’t be real work.

The idea that work is central to masculinity and not femininity makes the unpaid labor that women do invisible. It must not be “real” labor, or men would do it, and it would be paid and highly valued. If you think about labor as “something you’d have to pay someone else to do if you didn’t want to do it,” rather than “something you get wages for,” a lot of the way we talk about what’s work and what isn’t falls apart. Moreover, our contemporary divisions of tasks into men’s work, women’s work, and women’s duty, based on “natural” gender roles, also fall apart when put in a little bit of historical context.

This is just a brief dip into the complexities of gender and labor that bubble to the surface with an article like this. Want to read more about the history of gender and labor? Check out the labor tag over on Nursing Clio. I have also written a bit more about the problems of the American vision of “the worker” as a white man with a wrench over here.

[1] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 65-6, 254-8.

[2] Catherine Clinton, The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century, rev. ed. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1999), 126-9. See also Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), Chapter 1.

One Bible, Two Bibles, Red Bible, Blue Bible


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After a nice July 4th break, over which we all just watched 1776 on constant repeat, we’re back today with a piece from David Mislin.

The book of Proverbs, writes Yale Divinity School professor Joel S. Baden, “is probably the most Republican book of the entire Bible.”

The impetus for this declaration was Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio’s recent decision to regularly tweet passages from Proverbs. Baden argues that the “consistent view of the world” presented by Proverbs is very similar to the contemporary GOP mindset. “The righteous are rewarded, and the wicked are punished…everyone gets what is coming to them,” the Hebrew Bible scholar writes.

Baden suggests some other books that might be favored by Democrats: Ecclesiastes, any of the prophetic texts that demand social justice, and the sections of the Gospels that proclaim the goodness of the poor.

Some informal research of my own on Facebook and Twitter confirms this assessment. Progressives do indeed identify those books – along with the radical social arrangements of the early church presented in the Acts of the Apostles – as the “most Democratic” parts of the Bible.

We should obviously not read too much into one Politico article. But the suggestion that the Bible might be divided into “Republican books” and “Democratic books” indicates the potential of a troubling new battlefront in America’s Red-Blue divide.

Of course, arguments about the Bible are nothing new in the United States. At high points of anti-Catholic nativism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Protestants and Catholics argued over whose translation of the Bible should be used for the then-common scripture readings in public schools (Protestants nearly always won, a fact that contributed to the debates that led to the Poughkeepsie Plan I wrote about two weeks ago).


A version of the Bible 19th century American Protestants certainly wouldn’t approve of: the Challoner revision of Douay-Rheims.

For much of the past century, American Protestants have engaged in heated debates about the inerrancy of scripture. Whether or not believers accepted scripture to be without error in its intended message – or, going a step further, that its most obvious meaning should be taken literally – has guided the position that Protestants have taken on a range of topics in the Culture Wars, ranging from evolutionary theory to marriage equality.

Arguments about the Bible shaped other historical political debates as well, especially those related to issues of race and slavery. In the antebellum period, both proponents and opponents of slavery drew on scripture to defend their position and, more significantly, to attack the moral position of their opponents. [1] A century later, leaders in the Civil Rights movement drew heavily on the message of the prophetic books of the Bible (not surprisingly, these are the same books that contemporary liberals in my informal survey cited as their favorite scriptures). At the same time, at least a few opponents of Civil Rights attempted to find scriptural justification for segregation. [2]

But while Americans have long argued about the Bible and emphasized elements of it that seemed to justify their personal positions on political and cultural issues, they have rarely, if ever, attempted to split the books of the Bible along partisan lines.

We would be well advised not to do so now.

It is plain to any observer that American society is enormously polarized and has been for several decades. We have red states and blue states.  We have red sex and blue sex. We have red TV shows and blue TV shows.

We do not need Red and Blue Bibles.

Despite the decline in religious commitment in the U.S. in recent years, the Bible still holds enormous sway as a moral text over large segments of the population. Despite disagreements about its message and how it should be read, it nevertheless remains a common text read and respected by many Americans, liberals and conservatives alike.

Dividing the Bible into Red Books and Blue Books, with the implied message that each side can discard the parts it disagrees with, threatens to undermine the power of one of the remaining texts shared across the spectrum of U.S. politics.

[1] See chapter five of Kathryn Gin Lum, Damned Nation: Hell in America from Revolution to Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] See David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Catolina Press, 2004).