Tag Archives: protest

Eric J. Hobsbawm, RIP

Eric J. Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

The New York Times notes the death of Eric Hobsbawm, Britain’s preeminent social and labor historian whose work on capitalism and the lower-class unrest in Europe of “pre-political” road agents, millenarians, levellers, and urban rioters in 18th and 19th century society helped shed new light on the Age of Revolution. He moved historical understanding of the period from solely examining the record through the lens of great men to a close examination of working men and women. An unrepentant Marxist, he only in recent years chose silence regarding his ideology after decades of supporting the Communist Party instead refuting his beliefs, a decision that made him enormously controversial even in left-wing intellectual circles. His politics always baffled me: How can someone remain in the CP when you die at 95, old enough to have witnessed firsthand the depredations of Stalin and the ruthlessness of the Soviets crushing Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan? His own comments on his choice to remain loyal to the party smack of the Red utopianism that has often seduced European and American intellectuals:

Why I stayed in the Communist Party is not a political question about communism, it’s a one-off biographical question. It wasn’t out of idealisation of the October Revolution. I’m not an idealiser. One should not delude oneself about the people or things one cares most about in one’s life. Communism is one of these things and I’ve done my best not to delude myself about it even though I was loyal to it and to its memory. The phenomenon of communism and the passion it aroused is specific to the twentieth century. It was a combination of the great hopes which were brought with progress and the belief in human improvement during the nineteenth century along with the discovery that the bourgeois society in which we live (however great and successful) did not work and at certain stages looked as though it was on the verge of collapse. And it did collapse and generated awful nightmares.

The wealth and peace after World War II (the longest period without warfare in the history of Europe since the pax romana) was never what it seemed to be — at least that’s what Hobsbawm indicated through most of his work. Furthermore, he was a dedicated anti-fascist who lived through the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, so I wonder what he did want society to achieve if the defeat of the Nazis wasn’t enough to verify the benefits of democratic capitalism.  No matter: Hobsbawm argued that Stalin was the real hero that created the West’s economic expansion, as an obituary in The Telegraph outlines along with other interesting quotes regarding his politicsNihil nisi bonum.  Great minds are often inconsistent minds, but his contribution to reshaping study of Revolutionary America included influencing historians who began to study how riotous behavior in Boston and New York motivated independence as much as ideology. Alas, when you get Marxists or their New Left fellow travelers in the room, someone always starts to talk about class in America — and that’s when I leave the room to find the Consensus Historians all agreeing to go out to the nearest pub. RIP.

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October 7, 2012 · 4:48 am

Matt Damon and Howard Zinn explore U.S. History: What Could Go Wrong?

On Sunday night at 8 p.m. EST, The History Channel will premier “The People Speak,” a two-hour special heavily based on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn, who could be called “America’s favorite radical left-wing college professor” because of the success of his book, also hosts and narrates the show. The History Channel Web site touts the special as a broadcast that “gives voice to those who spoke up for social change throughout U.S. history, forging a nation from the bottom up with their insistence on equality and justice.” Hollywood stars such as Matt Damon, Christina Kirk, Marisa Tomei, and James Brolin read the words of Americans well-known and obscure who “stood up for liberty.”

As both an American and historian, I am all for standing up for liberty, justice, and self-determination, ideas that President

Howard Zinn

Obama recently praised as advancing across the world. However, I am not sure that Howard Zinn’s view is one worth standing up for. Zinn’s book, though a best-seller that graces home libraries and Advanced Placement U.S. History required reading lists, is based on the idea that he (and he alone) presented a radical and critical view of American history scorned by the Establishment. That alone is astounding claim considering that anyone who currently teaches social studies in a public school probably has dozens of lessons plans that present U.S. history from the bottom up. The average student at a public university probably has a majority of professors who see U.S. history as a discipline that must be taught from the point-of-view of race, class, and gender studies.  Viewing American history from the “bottom up” is an inevitability as far as the current Establishment of the discipline is concerned.  In addition to what I will decide to call Zinn’s exaggeration,  the whole project was bankrolled by the insufferable Matt Damon. Damon as a presence and force behind the special doesn’t exactly strike me as the Mark of Quality considering his skills as a historical interpreter of World War I on display in “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

Beyond that, Zinn takes questionable stances that have usually been deemed “revisionist.” The U.S. Constitution? It was established only to protect the property of elites. Abraham Lincoln? He was an open racist who only broached emancipation because it would flood the Republican Party with abolitionist voters. World War II?  It was a quest by the United States to seize world economic domination, not a crusade against some of the most evil regimes in world history. (If you doubt my analysis, please consult respectively pp. 89-92 [which is really a rehash of the Beard thesis], pp. 187-190, and pp. 412-414 in the nearest handy copy of A People’s History.)  In addition, Professor Zinn has wandered in and out of the camp of the 9-11 “truthers” who insist that the September 11, 2001 attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a hoax, a U.S. conspiracy, or both.  Furthermore, Zinn never answers (or even addresses) a fundamental question: If his thesis of exploitation is correct, why do Americans continue to embrace democratic capitalism and show no sign of rejecting its benefits? One can, of course, debate the merits of his various intellectual and political positions – that is the nature of historical discourse at its most vigorous. As a skeptic of his positions, I would enjoy a show that had him present his arguments and then let various doubting historians and commentators argue with him. I would love Michael Kazin to be on that hypothetical panel because of the following comment alone:

Zinn’s conception of American elites is akin to the medieval church’s image of the Devil. For him, a governing class is motivated solely by its appetite for riches and power–and by its fear of losing them. Numerous historians may regard George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton as astute, if seriously flawed, men who erected a structure for the new nation that has endured for over two centuries. But Zinn curtly dismisses them as “leaders of the new aristocracy” and regards the nation-state itself as a cunning device to lull ordinary folks with “the fanfare of patriotism and unity.”

Obviously, Zinn is not my intellectual cup of tea. When it comes to single-volume histories of the United States that examine the nation thoroughly, critically, but also with an acknowledgement that “the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms,” I prefer work that is more balanced and less ideological.  When it comes to two-hour television specials based on New Left ideology and revisionism, I will pass. As for the core audience of The History Channel, I wonder if viewers who recently praised the cable channel for one of the best documentaries about World War II ever produced will stomach his radical positions. If ratings are low, I am sure Zinn will simply say it was the capitalist power elite victorious once again. Of course, the truth might be less conspiratorial: Viewers could simply recognize that Howard Zinn is wrong.

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The Dog Days of the Declaration: Just When Was It Signed?

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Most Americans consider July 4 the day when all the action took place that made the Declaration what it was: A statement of liberty and freedom, a proclamation of independent nationhood, and even a manifesto defining what American patriots had been fighting for during a war that had been waging for 16 bloody months. The Continental Congress voted, declared, and signed all in one earth-shattering climax of patriotic energy. Charming popular depictions of the history of the Declaration reinforce this misconception. As a high school student enthralled with the bicentennial celebration of the nation in 1976, I saw the musical 1776 repeatedly, awed by its closing scene of the Congress’ delegates signing the Declaration as a bell tolled once for each of the 13 states. It was dramatic, heady stuff for a sophomore who already knew that he was in love with this nation’s history.

            The truth is just as dramatic – but more complex. August is a significant month in the history of the Declaration for many reasons, including the fact it’s probably when the majority of the delegates actually signed the document. Contrary to the popular tradition established late in the 18th century and fostered to this day, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776. We have good records of the proceedings in the Continental Congress, including the Journals of the Continental Congress that were kept from 1774 to 1789. The entry for July 4, 1776, contains a copy of the Declaration in its adopted form and the words, “Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President.”  There is no list of additional signatures. A later entry (July 19) clearly states an order that the Declaration passed on July 4 be “fairly engrossed,” defined in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language as “written in large fair characters.” No doubt, this order created an official copy of Declaration – but again, there is no record of additional signers. However, the order also included a directive that the Declaration “when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.” On August 2, the journal notes “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.” Thus, the best documentary evidence indicates that on July 4 the only founder who signed the Declaration was John Hancock, whose iconic and bold five-inch-long signature

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

prompted the birth of the phrase synonymous with placing one’s name on something: “He put his John Hancock on it.” Eventually, 56 delegates signed. Eight did not, some because they actually opposed independence. A few might have even signed as late as September or October 1776 because they were absent on other business.

            Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all stated more than decade later that the Declaration had been signed on July 4. How could these titans of the American Revolution get such a basic fact wrong? Memories fade, and their idea of what “signing” meant could simply mean that when Hancock signed the Declaration as the president of Congress he was validating the document in the name of all the delegates.  It is clear that some delegates were not even present in Congress on July 4, a fact substantiated by multiple sources. One thing is certain: When the majority of delegates gathered to sign the Declaration in August, they had to be prepared to do more than fight the heat, flies, and thunderstorms of a Philadelphia summer. They now had to fight for their lives. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:

“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’ This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.”

These were men who had truly pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.” They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 233 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-century America had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer, Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document. Their signatures, and the country they created to the blessing of us all, are more than just ink on parchment.

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