Trump and Carson: Failing American History Again?

UPDATE: Kevin Levin takes a nine iron to thump Trump.

It is a commonplace observation that a sound knowledge of history can be of use to a person who wants to be president of the United States. Many people also claim that a flawed understanding can do much harm.

And then there’s Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who seem intent on showing that ignorance of history is no barrier to popularity among a certain group of voters.

News comes this week that Mr. Trump is an active Civil War preservationist, although the land he preserved (by turning it into a golf course) happens to have had next to nothing to to with the war other than it oversees the Potomac River. However, Trump has proclaimed that  one can see “The River of Blood” from where he has placed a plaque celebrating his devotion to remembering America’s past (between the 14th and 15th hole).

river of blood
Courtesy New York Times.

Let’s just say that it’s a good thing he has not explored the possibilities of building a casino in the Gettysburg area (as others have). That would result in a different sort of tasteless tower dominating the skyline.

As for Ben Carson, following a lull in his litany of errors, he decided to come back strong on the Sunday news programs by declaring that Thomas Jefferson crafted the Constitution.

James Madison must be fuming. He always has to play second fiddle to the man from Monticello (although Madison did not write the Constitution, either).

It’s not the first time Carson has been charged with having erred on matters pertaining to American history, although it is reasonable to respond that in this case the word “craft” is not quite the same as “compose,” and that it refers to Jefferson’s interpretation of the document — or, according to this commentary, Jefferson’s correspondence with Madison on the document. That’s a more difficult case to make, as Jefferson’s assessment came largely after the document was composed. You can see some of the correspondence during the deliberations here: note that it includes only one letter from Jefferson to Madison during the convention.

I would tell you which Confederate heritage blogger has already come out in favor of Trump, but I’d rather have you guess. She must have forgotten that he’s a Yankee.


News From Stone Mountain

It now looks as if the plan to erect a bell tower atop Stone Mountain to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been shelved. Given the opposition offered by several groups who honor King to the idea, that does not come as a surprise.

What remains of the original proposal, however, is also sure to spark some controversy. Plans remain to tell the story of African Americans who saw military service during the American Civil War. And, as you might expect, to some people that means the story of black Confederates.

Here we go again. I can’t wait for those historians who proclaim that any discussion of this issue is regrettable because responsible scholars dismiss it out of hand discover that not everyone agrees (and that their strategy of ignoring the controversy has backfired yet again). After all, advocates of the black Confederate tale are sure to cite Harvard professor John Stauffer in support of their position … and perhaps Skip Gates and Jim Downs will jump on this bandwagon as well once more.

Let’s see whether scholars abdicate their responsibility to educate the public responsibly once more because they simply dismiss what some people say out of hand … until they see the result at Stone Mountain. Then we’ll see who’s “freaking out.” And we’ll also see who falls silent.

The Grant Memorial Restoration


You see it frequently, although you don’t always know it, and sometimes you don’t recognize it. It’s the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington, DC. Located just west of the Capitol, at the eastern edge of the Mall, the general today looks out across a reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Often one sees the monument in the foreground of a shot of the west face of the Capitol building.

Continue reading

November 11, 1918

Last June, I traveled to Europe, where for nearly three weeks I visited sites in Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. Among the places I visited was the place where the armistice of 1918 was signed at Compiégne, France. It’s a little bit off the beaten path, but a historical site is a historical site, and so we made our way over one morning.


A rather large monument marking the triumph of France over Germany and the restoration of Alsace and Lorraine to France marks the entrance to the park.

Continue reading

The Continuing What-Ifs of Reconstruction

Note: Not too long ago I finished a manuscript that will appear in next March’s Journal of the Civil War Era. It addresses particular counterfactual queries concerning the course of Reconstruction and the policy pursued by Republicans. I have long been interested in Reconstruction policy, especially at the national level, as my 1998 book, The Reconstruction Presidents, suggests, although those readers who peruse the pages of The Political Education of Henry Adams (1996) will find it also addresses Reconstruction from the perspective of one of its critics. Thus what follows is in response to recent discussions, but it also reflects a far longer interest that has its most recent expression in the above-mentioned manuscript.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Reconstruction history to me is the degree to which some historians speculate about the what-ifs of Reconstruction in their eagerness to believe that what happened was not largely preordained if not inevitable. Then again, historians also don’t like to consider that something’s inevitable: whether a certain outcome to a historical process was inevitable sits along the same spectrum as speculating about what-ifs, for it’s useless to ponder “what if …” if something was inevitable. Moreover, the what-ifs we choose to explore reveal a lot about what we would “like” to have happened, and all too often one’s tale grounded in considerations of the counterfactual conforms closely to one’s personal fantasy about what ought to have happened.

Continue reading