History

Old Statehouse

I lived in and around Boston for several years, and one tradition I rarely missed was the annual Independence Day concert on the Esplanade by the Boston Pops. The highlight was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannons, church bells, and fireworks. A spectacular 4th of July celebration is appropriate for one of the few American cities that relishes its history.

In general, the United States doesn’t seem to care a lot for its history. Don’t think for a moment those MAGA people really know or care about history; what they have in mind is a short-range look through a narrow lens at a mythical golden age that never existed. They could stand to do a bit of reading.

The Oxford History of the United States is a series that covers US history is great detail. The research is impressive and the writing is erudite yet accessible. The series as it stands so far:

  • Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789
  • Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815
  • Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
  • James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
  • Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896
  • David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945
  • James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974
  • James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore
  • George C. Herring, Years of Peril and Ambition: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1776-1921
  • George C. Herring, The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1893-2014

There are still a few gaps to fill in, most obviously the long period of time between 1492 and 1763. Oxford has been taking its time with this series, so we may have to wait a while yet.

These are all hefty books. Reading The Oxford History of the United States requires a serious time commitment. If you want something a bit less ambitious, but still of high quality, I recommend These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. Any single-volume history of the United States, even one with nearly 1,000 pages, must be selective about what is included and what is left out. Therefore, a focus is necessary. The focus Lepore has chosen for These Truths is the question of whether or not the US has lived up to the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Her answer is a qualified “sort of.” Although there is much to love and admire about the US, it has never truly believed that “all men are created equal” or that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Fair warning: Lepore does not hold back her opinions, dosing out extra helpings of opprobrium for southern pro-slavery Democrats, speech restricting liberals of the 21st century, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Even if you don’t agree with her on everything (I don’t), there is much to learn from this excellent book.

Happy reading, and Happy Independence Day!

Criticism and Patriotism

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Franciscan friar Richard Rohr recently wrote, “Prophets can deeply love their tradition and profoundly criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form. In fact, it is their love of its depths that forces them to criticize their own religion.” Their criticism was not always welcome. As Rohr explains, “Institutions prefer loyalists and ‘company men’ to prophets. We’re uncomfortable with people who point out our shadow or imperfections.”

We’re seeing this a lot today. There are local, national, and global problems which are being kicked down the road because no one likes to hear about them. Here in the United States we have problems with infrastructure, racism, immigration, homelessness, poverty, and both illegal and legal substance abuse, just to name a few. Compared to other developed nations, the US rates poorly when it comes to incarceration rates, income inequality, infant mortality, and gun violence. The Left and the Right disagree on how to deal with these problems, but almost everyone agrees on the reality of them.

Unfortunately, anyone bringing these problems up is likely to be met with cries of “Unpatriotic!” This is an unproductive response. Patriotism is not shrugging off things that need fixing, patriotism Is confronting them and trying to fix them. Patriotism is recognizing that your country could be better, and wanting to help make it so. (Note: This is NOT the same thing as wishing to return to a mythical past golden age.)

The prophets are still with us. They cry out, wanting to be heard. But when the government quickly labels any criticism “fake news,” and does all in its power to silence the press and discredit experts, it does a disservice to the nation and its citizens.

Tomorrow is Independence Day. The true patriots will not be the people and organizations trying to hide the nation’s ills under flags, and certainly not under Confederate flags. True patriots love their country enough to criticize it. Will we listen?