In “Reconstruction,” an essay published in 1866, Frederick Douglass argued that even as radical Republicans (former abolitionists and their supporters) gained control over America’s constitutional revolution, this might not matter “while there remains such an idea as the right of each state to control its own local affairs,” a notion “more deeply rooted in the minds of men … than perhaps any one other political idea.” What had to be done, Douglass said, was to “render the rights of the states compatible with the sacred rights of human nature.” As “Unexampled Courage,” Richard Gergel’s remarkable book about the early legal stages of the civil rights movement, makes clear, Douglass’s thrilling goal of natural rights and federal power combining to overwhelm states’ rights remained for nearly a century an unrealized dream. Perhaps it still is.
In the introduction to Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” published in 1855, his friend James McCune Smith wrote that if a stranger landed in the United States and sought out its most prominent men by using newspapers and telegraph messages, he would discover Douglass. Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass had escaped to the North to become a renowned abolitionist orator and writer. He was, Smith said, the sort of person people would ask, “‘Tell me your thought!’ And somehow or other, revolution seemed to follow in his wake.”
For a century and a half Ulysses S. Grant has been a baffling and inspiring presence in the American literary and historical imaginations. Born in 1822 and raised by a pious Methodist mother, as a young man he was quiet, given to depressions, and lacking much ambition. Only his love of horses seemed to animate him and give him a reason to excel in his education at West Point, which his scheming father desired for him more than he did. In his thirties, he was a complete failure, at times a drunkard, destined to die forgotten. He found his vocation and success on America’s killing fields; his meteoric trajectory in the Civil War makes him a remarkable case of a nobody who became almost everything.
The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding last Friday with a panel discussion on the life of Frederick Douglass, whose 200th birthday was also last week.
Two hundred years ago, one of the most important Americans was born close to the Tuckahoe River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Frederick Bailey didn’t know the exact date of his birth, so he chose Feb. 14. Twenty years later, when he escaped from slavery, he became Frederick Douglass. By the time of his death in 1895, he had become one of the greatest orators and writers of the century.
Impeaching an unfit president has consequences. But leaving one in office could be worse.
In recent months, I have grown obsessed with a seemingly simple question: Does the American political system have a remedy if we elect the wrong person to be president? There are clear answers if we elect a criminal, or if the president falls into a coma. But what if we just make a hiring mistake, as companies do all the time? What if we elect someone who proves himself or herself unfit for office — impulsive, conspiratorial, undisciplined, destructive, cruel?
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was the guest for the premiere of Laura Ingraham’s new show on Fox News Channel on Monday night. During the interview, he outlined a view of the history of the Civil War that historians described as “strange,” “highly provocative,” “dangerous” and “kind of depressing.”
Two months after President Trump stirred fierce debate with a defense of Confederate monuments, his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, has waded back into the fray of Civil War history.
The years leading up to 1861 saw polarised politics, paranoia and conspiracy theories. Sound familiar? David Blight reflects on America’s Disunion – then and now
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1781. The American revolution still raged, many of his own slaves had escaped, his beloved Virginia teetered on social and political chaos. Jefferson, who had crafted the Declaration of Independence for this fledgling nation at war with the world’s strongest empire, felt deeply worried about whether his new country could survive with slavery, much less the war against Britain. Slavery was a system, said Jefferson, “daily exercised in tyranny,” with slaveholders practicing “unremitting despotism”, and the slaves a “degrading submission”.
A day after the brawling and racist brutality and deaths in Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe asked, “How did we get to this place?” The more relevant question after Charlottesville—and other deadly episodes in Ferguson, Charleston, Dallas, St. Paul, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria—is where the United States is headed. How fragile is the Union, our republic, and a country that has long been considered the world’s most stable democracy?
Ever since Donald Trump became President I have believed his greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance - of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Andrew Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, or move history however he wishes well into the future.
Throughout modern history, the millions forced to flee as refugees and beg for asylum have felt Douglass’s agony, and thought his thoughts.
Frederick Douglass, author, orator, editor, and most important African American leader of the 19th century, was a dangerous illegal immigrant. Well, in 1838 he escaped a thoroughly legal system of enslavement to the tenuous condition of fugitive resident of a northern state that had outlawed slavery, but could only protect his “freedom” outside of the law.
A century and a half after the Civil War, the process of Reconstruction remains contested—and incomplete.
The Reconstruction era was both the cause and the product of revolutions, some of which have never ended, and likely never will. Lest this seem a despairing view of U.S. history, Americans need to remember that remaking, revival, and regeneration have almost always characterized the U.S., its society, and its political culture. But no set of problems has ever challenged the American political and moral imagination—even the Great Depression and the World Wars—quite like that of the end of the Civil War and the process of Reconstruction.
Is Donald Trump truly one of a kind—a sui generis sensation in U.S. politics? As Americans try to make sense of the businessman-turned-Republican presidential frontrunner and how he’s come to dominate the polls and the airwaves in the 2016 cycle, Politico Magazine decided to consult the archives: Is there a historical figure the Donald resembles—a model who can help explain his rise? We asked some of the smartest historians we know to name the closest antecedent to Trump from the annals of American history.
Let’s not get carried away here, friends told me yesterday. A flag is just a symbol. When they stop passing voter-ID laws or start passing gun laws, then I’ll be impressed.
This is a sound view, no doubt about that. But if you don’t think symbols matter, think about how tenaciously people fight to hold onto them. And more than that: In terms of our political culture, the pending removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds, and now Mississippi’s state flag—and, don’t forget, from WalMart’s shelves—represents a rare win for North over South since Reconstruction.
The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, pastor of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was murdered last week at a Bible study session in his own house of worship. What he died for is almost impossible to capture or clarify right now. But one cause he definitely died for in witheringly painful irony, was the reconciliation of the Civil War in the city where it began.
We don’t know much about Dylann Storm Roof, but one of the questions we will want answered is just how calculated his actions were on Wednesday, June 17th, when he entered the famous Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street, sat for an hour of Bible study, and then murdered nine members of the congregation.
In April 2011, the editors of Disunion, The New York Times’s series on the Civil War, convened a panel of historians to mark the 150th anniversary of the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter and the onset of the four-year conflict. Before a sold-out audience at the Times Center in New York City, the panelists – David Blight, Ken Burns, Adam Goodheart and Jamie Malanowski – discussed the origins of the conflict, the role of slavery and the immense challenges facing a still-new president.
This Memorial Day, as we head to the lake and the beach, grill and drink, shop and save, lay out in the sun or seek shady places, we must remain cognizant that the holiday didn’t begin as a day of celebration or commerce but one of solemnity and, indeed, memoriam.
David W. Blight, Yale University
Americans understand that Memorial Day, or "Decoration Day," as my parents called it, has something to do with honoring the nation's war dead. It is also a day devoted to picnics, road races, commencements, and double-headers. But where did it begin, who created it, and why?
"First things are always interesting, and this is one of our first things," declared Frederick Douglass on April 14, 1876, in Washington D. C., in the most extraordinary public address ever delivered by an African American to that date. Extraordinary for its argument and its audience.
In 1961-65, the centennial commemoration of the Civil War was a political and historical debacle. Fraught, to say the least, by cold-war nationalism, racism among its leadership as well as the general populace, an enduring hold of the Lost Cause on popular imagination, and a country violently divided by the civil-rights movement, the official Civil War centennial refused to face the challenge of causes and consequences. Instead, a reconciliationist, Blue-Gray celebration of soldiers' valor and re-emergent national greatness forged out of conflict dominated the scene.
On this 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, Americans mark the end of the Civil War. The questions at the heart of the war, though, still occupy the nation, which has never truly gotten over that conflict.
Who Should Decide How Students Learn About America’s Past?: Some politicians want to get rid of the AP U.S.-history curriculum because it paints a cynical picture of the country's backstory.
Why can’t we just get over the Civil War in America?
"A pencil drawing and a grainy photo in the Library of Congress are all that is left of the cemetery where 257 Union soldiers were buried after the Civil War on what had been a race course in Charleston, South Carolina.
One hundred fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves. Just how he got there might surprise you.
SUPPRESSING the black vote is a very old story in America, and it has never been just a Southern thing.
A Context for Terror: Choosing From the Many Lessons of Sept. 11
Patricia Cohen leads an online discussion with David Blight and other experts about the Sept. 11 Memorial Museum.