Skipped History with Ben Tumin Skipped History with Ben Tumin blog brought to you by History News Network. Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Welcome to Skipped History! Hello, HNN! 

My name is Ben, I’m a historical satirist, and I make Skipped History, a comedic web series exploring overlooked events, people, and ideas in US history. It’s a pleasure to connect with fellow history nerds here!

Before the pandemic, I created humorous multimedia talks to educate and entertain audiences on historical events. I was touring a piece on the 1954 coup in Guatemala when Covid struck, so I pivoted to producing Skipped History. To my delight, the show has been well-received. Skipped was even profiled in the New York Times!

I publish new episodes via a newsletter (you can sign up here), and I’ll post some of them here, too. Season 3 begins this Thursday with an exploration of the ongoing legacy of the Attica Prison uprising in 1971. From there, we’ll cover how a very religious senator from Utah temporarily succeeded in “terminating” Native American tribes in the 1950s, the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance, Koch Brother-related shenanigans in Oklahoma (can’t stop, won’t stop making fun of them), and more.

I’m also a little obsessed with the Confederate-y history of US history textbooks and will publish some ongoing research here. For even more bits of Skipped History, follow us on Twitter and Instagram!

I’m excited to unearth the past together. Much more to come!

Cheers, Ben

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
The Attica Prison Uprising, 50 Years Ago Today Good morning, HNN!

I'm pleased to present the first episode of Season 3 of Skipped History, chronicling the Attica Prison uprising of 1971. It’s been 50 years since the stunning rebellion, and still the consequences are unfolding:

You can also watch the full episode on Instagram and a preview on Twitter.

Today’s story comes from Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson. Have you read it? I found it truly draw-dropping.

I hope you enjoy the video. Questions, comments, and suggestions for further reading are welcome!



Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
How NY Covered Up a Massacre—and Helped Spark Mass Incarceration Greetings, HNN!

I come bearing the second of two parts exploring the Attica Prison uprising and its legacy today. In Blood in the Water, Heather Ann Thompson recounts the connection between New York's coverup of brutality at Attica and the rise of mass incarceration. In our episode, we try to do her arguments and the sacrifices of Attica's prisoners justice:

You can also watch the full episode on Instagram here. And ICYMI, you can view Part I on the uprising here.

Today’s story comes from Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson.

See you in two weeks with our next episode!



Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
How the Book of Mormon Inspired the "Termination" of Native American Tribes Hello, HNN pals!

In anticipation of Indigenous People's Day, let’s go back to 1953, when a Mormon senator tried to help native peoples become “white and delightsome.” Even Richard Nixon knew it was a bad plan. Alas:

New this week, you can listen to an audio version of the episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts! If you listen on Apple and enjoy the new format, I’d love for you to rate and review the show! I’m tickled to be on the other side of this ask.

You can also watch the episode on Instagram here. 

This week’s story comes from The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer; Beneath These Red Cliffs by Ronald Holt; and an article in Utah Historical Quarterly by Carolyn Grattan-Aiello.

Next time on Skipped History…

We explore the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance, originally written in 1892. However, God only became part of the pledge in 1954. Not coincidentally, this timing coincided with corporate executives’ attempts to roll back the New Deal...

See you then!


Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
How Corporate Executives Quietly Shaped the Pledge of Allegiance Good morning, history pals!

Today, we explore how corporate executives thought God might be able to repair their image after the Great Depression. Although their efforts backfired, US students have pledged allegiance to “one nation under God” ever since:

You can also listen to this week’s episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and peep the episode on Instagram.

Today’s story comes from One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse. Holy moly, what a good book!

Next time on Skipped History...

We explore the Powell Memo, a confidential document written in 1971 that reshaped the role of corporations in politics and led to the rise of the lobbying industry as we know it today. You might already know about the memo. However, you might be less familiar with pharmacy-related jokes about Justice Lewis Powell.

Stay tuned :)



Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
The Genesis of US Corporations’ Political Dominance Good morning, HNN!

Have you ever wondered how elected officials became so beholden to money? Well, look no further than the Powell Memo, a confidential document from 1971 that inspired corporations to take over US politics.

You can also listen to the episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and watch it on Instagram.

Today’s story comes from We, the Corporations by Adam Winkler, and Dark Money by Jane Mayer. Have you read them? I find both positively stunning.

Next time, on the Season 3 finale of Skipped History...

We’ll examine the family foundation primarily responsible for undermining election integrity today. (I actually wrote about the foundation last week for paying subscribers to the Skipped History newsletter, which inspired me to make our finale on the same subject.)

See you then!


Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
The 1950s Dog Dads Responsible for Voter Fraud Claims Today Good morning, HNN!

In the past six months, over a dozen states have passed new restrictive voting laws that favor Republicans. If you follow the money, the original source of these efforts to undermine democracy becomes clear. Cat lovers, rejoice: it all dates back to a couple of pooch-lovers...

You can also listen to the episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and watch it on Instagram.

Today’s story comes from Dark Money by Jane Mayer, as well as a recent investigation of hers called “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie.”

Next season on Skipped History, beginning in March:

There’ll be Indigenous history, banking history, and the 1619 Project may make an appearance! We’ll try to get to the bottom of the question, “To what extent has the US ever really been a democracy?” while inevitably pivoting to explore the escapades of more poodles. Thanks so much for tuning in this season!

Cheers, Ben

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
Dr. Gillian Frank on the Decimation of Roe v. Wade Well, that was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Unprecedented, Precedent-Destroying Week at the Supreme Court. To help make sense of SCOTUS’ reversal of Roe v. Wade, I spoke to Dr. Gillian Frank, a historian of sexuality and religion. This is the first of a series of Skipped conversations on how Roe fell, and where we go from here.

Dr. Frank writes on the intertwined histories of religion, sexuality, and gender in the US, and is the co-host of Sexing History, a podcast about how the history of sexuality shapes our present. We chatted about the history of antiabortion laws, the public health crisis that's assuredly about to arise, and how the fight for abortion rights doesn't end now. 

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. If you'd like the audio of the full conversation (and/or more Skipped History in general), you can try out life as a paying subscriber here. I hope you learn as much as I did.

Ben: Dr. Frank, it’s a pleasure to chat with you, albeit under such disturbing circumstances.

GF: Thanks for having me.

Ben: To ground our conversation, could you talk about the rise of the first anti-abortion laws in the 19th century?

GF: Sure, though before we get to the restrictions, we need to note that abortion was widely practiced for most of American history up until the 1860s, 70s, and 80s. But then, a confluence of factors led to new restrictions on abortion. 

The first factor was the professionalization of physicians. With the founding of the American Medical Association (AMA) and the regulation of physicians, physicians tried to normalize and seize power over medical practices. Part of that meant stamping out what we would now call quacks or untrained unskilled physicians. But it also meant seizing power from skilled medical practitioners such as midwives, who offered competition and covered all the things an OB/GYN would cover, including abortion. 

Ben: Might I wager a guess that most of the members of the AMA, if not all, were white men?

GF: That would be correct, yes.

Ben: Well, as long as we are consistent.

GF: The second factor was the coincident rise of social purity movements. People like Anthony Comstock and others had huge concerns about what they called the “moral degradation” of American society. Comstock was a religious fundamentalist.

And he, like many white Protestants, feared that the arrival of Catholic Eastern Europeans meant good Protestant stock was declining. 

Ben: It's just a pure coincidence that his name is Comstock and he's worried about the population's “stock”?

GF: I had never thought of it that way, but yes, pure coincidence. And so Comstock, joined by others, went from town to town, city to city, state to state, to campaign for abortion restrictions. Their efforts succeeded. 

In the 1880s, state by state, legislators pass what are called Comstock Laws, banning information about abortion and contraception, as well as banning abortion except to save the life of the mother. By the late 19th century, we see the completion of a shift from abortion being widely practiced to abortion being tightly restricted and in the domain of licensed male physicians.

Ben: After the Comstock Laws spread, what options did women face when seeking an abortion?

GF: Of course, the demand never stopped. The question then is: who did women go to? Where did they get abortions? 

One answer is that, as we fast forward, to the 1920s and 1930s, most cities and towns had a reliable full-time abortion provider. Members of the medical establishment felt if our patient needs an abortion, we can at least send them to the known provider and have them do the procedure, and then we can tidy up the aftermath. 

At the same time, unskilled people knew there was a strong demand for abortion, and many women turned to a black market that emerged. Newspaper headlines would regularly describe how people would seek out a gas station attendant or a trusted friend or someone who knew someone who said they could supposedly do an abortion.

Skilled or not, all of these practitioners operated outside the law. As a result, expenses went up, safety went down, and there were fatalities.

Ben: Wow, okay.

GF: Now, post-1940s demand isn't ceasing. In fact, demand for abortion is growing as part of a post-war, sort of sexual loosening up.

Ben: The post-World War II orgy, if you will.

GF: I wouldn't phrase it that way, but I'm sure there were some. 

And around the same time, there's a strong push to establish the so-called “nuclear family.” As women are pushed out of full-time work into part-time or homemaking work, we see a tightening of abortion restrictions.

Not coincidentally, in the 40s, Catholic physicians conduct a survey of how their hospitals are treating abortions. What are the numbers of abortions that they're providing versus, say, hospitals like Johns Hopkins or others that are Protestant, secular, or just non-Catholic? 

And they find that there's a wide discrepancy, suggesting that non-Catholic hospitals are providing a lot of illegal abortions.

This leads to another round of regulation that spurs hospitals to self-regulate for fear of violating the law. Hospitals introduce hospital committees to review every abortion case that comes in. These committees basically became a way of driving down the abortion rates that were legal and accessible. 

And so, entering the 50s, we have what we might call a quiet sexual revolution going on and less access to safe abortions. What happens? Again, rising body counts. 

Ben: In other words, a public health crisis.

GF: Right. A public health crisis emerges. Lawyers are aware of it. Police are aware of it. The clergy is aware of it. 

Ben: How does this growing mass awareness coalesce into a pro-abortion movement? In your work, you describe a religious alliance that forms, almost like a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar and decide to support women’s rights.

GF: Yes, minus the priest at this point. 

The early abortion rights movement is largely coming from professionals. Physicians, lawyers, and clergy who believe that they should have the autonomy to make decisions with their patients.

As for the clergy, it’s mainly ministers from mainline Protestant denominations, as well as rabbis from reform and conservative denominations. They've already been on board with contraception for decades and see family planning as an ethical duty and sex for pleasure within marriage as natural, normal, and desired.

One of the big galvanizing factors was German measles, aka the rubella epidemic, which was causing a lot of fetal deformities. And there was a scare over thalidomide, a tranquilizer that also led to birth defects. So religious figures worried about the health of fetuses. (You can hear the ableist language of the decade.) 

Male lawyers, clergy, and physicians begin to see it as a moral outrage that when women they deemed worthy—i.e. women who were white, middle- and upper-class, and married—needed abortions, they had to either fly abroad or just couldn’t get them. 

Meanwhile, a growing women's liberation movement and second-wave liberal feminist movement are also seeing sexual matters as essential to recognizing the politics of oppression, and how to activate your own life to have full empowerment and social equality. Abortion becomes central to this conversation.

So, by the mid-60s, in California, New York, and other states, legislatures are considering abortion law reform. There's an emergent consensus about: what does it mean if hundreds of thousands of people a year are violating the law? 

And I haven't even gone down the full list of all the people who are concerned about abortion. But, long story short, by 1970, New York has legalized abortion with no residency requirements. Hawaii does the same around the same time. Kansas comes next. And then a whole other slew of states follow suit.

Ben: So, over generalizing, in a story that we’ll explore another time, this momentum leads to the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. 

Something that occurred to me while reading your work, and which has occurred to me throughout the conservative push to overturn Roe is: isn't it very clear that we're heading toward another public health crisis? Why wouldn't there be more momentum toward stopping this public health crisis?

GF: Your basic question is what happens next?

Ben: It is, yes, but I hate to be too explicit about that in front of a historian.

GF: Okay. Will this create a public health crisis? Inevitably. 

By denying medical access, by making abortion more expensive, by trying to criminalize it, by increasing the social stigma around it; by empowering states to demonize those who seek and provide abortions and those who share information about the procedure; all of these things will have repercussions, the least of which is that for women who want to terminate a pregnancy in states with very restrictive laws, it'll become more time consuming, more expensive, and more difficult. 

These demotivating factors will be able to snare some, but if the past is any indication, many other folks are going to attempt self-managed abortions. 

Now, the past is not the same as the present. We have new technologies, new ways of getting information. But will there be people left behind? Inevitably. What will be the mental health, economic, or public health consequences of folks compelled to have children they don't want? As many people are pointing out, this oppression will have negative, cascading effects on people's lives. And for folks who inevitably end up traveling great distances, taking lots of time, and spending more money on abortion? Well, all of these things wear on a person and make an ordinary medical procedure traumatic. 

I can't predict body count. I can't predict maternal mortality. But I’d emphasize that the difference between now and in the past was, pre-Roe, there was not a political party that uniformly made anti-abortion its platform. In the past, both Democrats and Republicans were split over abortion.

Ben: As in, until even a couple of decades ago, members were split within both parties.

GF: Yes, split within both parties. But the ways in which the Republican Party has become radically conservative, if not outright anti-democratic and authoritarian, make for a different situation today.

In the past, you would almost never offer criminal penalties to someone seeking an abortion. Republicans are floating those penalties now and trying to expand a much greater punitive regime. This is an anti-abortion regime on steroids as compared to the past.

Ben: Wow. I suppose the increasing radicalization of this regime suggests there's no silver lining at the moment.

GF: No, I won't say there’s a silver lining, but I will say that it's not hopeless; that for decades now there have been groups preparing for this day; that there are many activists on the ground already creating infrastructures, and they have been creating infrastructures. 

This story doesn't stop with the decimation of Roe v. Wade. It's not a simple end of abortion. Rather, it's a transformation of how it can be accessed. It’s part of an ongoing struggle to provide health and dignity to millions of Americans.

Ben:  Thank you for that reminder, and for your time today.

GF: Real pleasure to speak with you.

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
Abortion and Birth Control Have Always Been Linked It’s been three weeks since SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade. To learn how the Dobbs v. Jackson decision could affect birth control access (and about birth control history in general), I spoke to Dr. Kelly O'Donnell and Professor Lauren MacIvor Thompson, two experts on reproductive history. Turns out, birth control is wrapped up with abortion in a bit of a “turducken” (you’ll see).

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here, as well as a written bit of Skipped History about the surprising big money, anti-abortion alliance here. This is the second in a series of conversations on how Roe fell, and where we go from here.

Ben: You’re both quite knowledgeable about the birth control movement and birth control history. To ground our conversation, let's start back in time with early views of birth control.

LMT: I can take that one. The biggest thing to know about birth control in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in colonial America and in the United States is for a long, long time women managed their own reproductive health. Care was not in the hands of physicians and it was not in the hands of the law. By and large, women were using herbs from their gardens, things like tansy and pennyroyal that grow and did grow in American gardens for centuries. 

Ben: Skipped gardening history.

LMT: Yeah. They're using these herbs in teas, and women soak sponges in solutions and insert those. They use douching mechanisms after sex. So women are really managing their reproductive health from start to finish. And before the early 19th century, the vast majority of women's pregnancies and births would have been handled by midwives.

So this is really a woman's space and it's not until the early 19th century that we begin to see a transition to men in the field. The earliest laws that we have about abortion and birth control on the books and state legislatures really have more to do with the fact that there are unscrupulous business owners and manufacturers who are mailing out contraceptives and abortifacients, along with like headache, remedies or gout remedies, or you name it.

None of these remedies are regulated, and so legislatures start passing laws that try to prevent people from being poisoned. So they're not actually concerned about abortion. They're not concerned that women are regulating their fertility. 

KOD: Yeah, and it’s really in the mid-19th century when we see more of a focus on regulating the practice of medicine in addition to the safety concerns. We get Anthony Comstock coming along, whom I know you talked about in your last interview.

LMT: Right, states passed their own mini Comstock laws regulating contraception, pornography, abortion, sex education materials—anything that has to do with sex under the umbrella of “obscenity.” This is in the 1870s, 1880s, and those laws remained on the books until the late 20th century. In some cases they’re still on the books, they're just not enforced. Of course, now that Roe has been overturned, it’s anyone’s guess if they’ll be enforced again.

KOD: Getting back to birth control, this is why you can't really separate out contraception and abortion. Dating back to the 19th century, anything related to sexuality, and any kind of regulation of not having children, is wrapped up into one obscenity constellation.

Ben: An obscenity burrito.

KOD: Right, a turducken of reproductive options.

Ben: Interesting. So, physicians and moral crusaders like Comstock push abortion outside of the women's sphere. It becomes a regulated, male-dominated action...

KOD: Yes, by the end of the 19th century, going into the 20th century, all management of reproduction is going towards a male-controlled, medicalized model. And there were some benefits to that, right? For some women, hospital births were safer. Not getting infections and dying in childbirth was obviously an improvement (that is, for women who weren’t discriminated against in hospitals). 

So, undoubtedly, there are good things that happen. But alongside that comes—how do I say this in a way that's not super nefarious sounding—a sort of medical surveillance regime.

Ben: Totally not nefarious. 

LMT: Yeah. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, the immediate two decades before the Roe decision, that’s when we see the most cracking down by police forces and the legal system. Police forces become devoted to rooting out abortionists and also putting women on trial for seeking abortions. And so, for example, women ended up going to the hospital for some awful septic abortion, and the hospital committee and police officers would interview them on their hospital bed going, who did this to you? Why did you do this? And then the next thing you know, you're in court. 

And here’s a really important thing to remember that helps explain where we are today. There’s this popular idea that Roe enshrined women's rights, but it didn't.

Ben: In the sense that the decision didn't enshrine women's rights, but rather a right to privacy? How would you phrase that?

LMT: Well, if you read the text of the Roe decision and the way Justice Harry Blackmun words the key portions of the majority opinion, it's really about granting physicians rights and upholding physicians’ professional expertise. In fact, Blackmun says, the feminist movement has argued that “a woman's right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this, we do not agree.”

In other words, he’s explicitly saying, this isn't about feminism. It's not about women's rights. It’s about this practical medical matter that women need to take care of in consultation with their (male) physicians and their (male) physicians need to have full professional authority to make those decisions without fear of getting arrested.

KOD: Yeah, the quick story that people have about Roe is oh, right to privacy, now women can have abortions and it's legal.

But that really collapses a lot of the complexity of the history of abortion, which is very much more uneven than people realize. Dating back to the Comstock Laws, there’ve always been women who’ve had trouble accessing abortion—lower income, women of color in particular. 

So one point to take away as we're facing this absolute chaos post-Dobbs is that, in a lot of ways, there’s always been this chaotic patchwork of women with uneven access to abortion. It steadily improved over the years, but now we’re descending back into chaos—in a lot significantly worse ways due to the oversight and surveillance of people's bodies that are available today. 

Ben: This return to an earlier patchwork seems to suggest that maybe the shape of progress is less a straight line than... a rhombus, with lots of little unexpected and unwanted turns and pointy edges. Moving forward, how does the Dobbs decision affect birth control access?

KOD: Again, abortion and birth control have always been linked. Unsurprisingly, we’re already seeing increasing discomfort with birth control types like emergency contraceptives. Prescribers are also worried about things like IUDs because they can’t be sure if a court would view them as abortifacients and not contraceptives.

So I imagine we’ll see a lot of preemptive CYA (cover your ass) moves, just for fear that doctors are maybe getting a little too close to what some people in their brains think is abortion. 

LMT: Right, we’re also heading into an uncertain future regarding ectopic pregnancies, where the sperm meets the egg and implants accidentally in the fallopian tube, which is terrible and you bleed out if it's allowed to continue. Now, according to interpretations of some abortion laws, you may not remove that embryo even though it's implanted in a place where it’s going to kill the woman and itself. Legal experts warn that abortion laws can be interpreted to say that if you treat an ectopic pregnancy, that's the equivalent of an abortion. It is madness.

Ben: What would you say to people who want to reverse the madness?

LMT: I think we can learn from other countries. If you look at places like Argentina or Ireland, two very Catholic countries that have liberalized abortion laws, activists haven’t glommed onto that language of choice and citizenship.

Rather, they’ve attacked the pro-choice question from an empathy angle, pointing out that women will die. Their messaging is fundamentally different than how Americans are approaching this, and it’s been successful.

KOD: I agree, and generally, I think it’s important to remember that there are no simple answers. This history is complicated, and anyone who's trying to give you a black and white version of it, whether they're a Supreme Court justice or someone on Twitter, they’re wrong.

There's never really been a simple solution to granting (or removing) women’s reproductive autonomy. We would not be having this conversation if there were.

Ben: Okay, got it. Your reminders are nothing is simple and the past is chaos.

KOD: No! But maybe.

Ben: I will let you go from there. This was so fascinating. Disturbing but fascinating. Thank you both so much for your time.

LMT: Thank you.

KOD: Thanks for having us.

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
Dr. Karen L. Cox on Confederate Monuments With battles over Confederate monuments still brewing, I spoke to Dr. Karen L. Cox, a leading expert on the topic. Dr. Cox is the author of four books, including No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice.

Dr. Cox and I spoke about the enduring white supremacist purpose of Confederate monuments and why battles to remove them are nothing new. Surprisingly, Vanilla Ice also makes an appearance.

A condensed transcript is edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here

Ben: Dr. Cox, it’s a thrill to chat with you.

KLC: Well, I appreciate it. I'm happy to be with you.

Ben: Today I'd like to trace the history of Confederate monuments, and though perhaps a challenging subject to cover over 150 years, hopefully, it won't be a lost cause...

Speaking of which, let's start with the development of Lost Cause mythology. Who concocted it, and was it in any remote way truthful?

KLC: I can answer the last question first—no.

The Lost Cause is essentially a revisionist history of the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction.  It’s really an attempt to deal with Confederate defeat. White southerners thought when they entered the Civil War, they were going to kick Yankee butt and that it would be over very quickly. But, in fact, they were handily defeated, and it was hard for them to come to terms with that.

Edward Pollard, a journalist for the Richmond Examiner, helped them make sense of the South’s loss. In 1867, he published a book called The Lost Cause. It's well over 700 pages (and makes a fine doorstop). In the book, Pollard claims the South lost the war solely because Confederates were outnumbered. He also says the war had been fought over states’ rights, erasing the idea that slavery had ever been part of the war, let alone its central cause. He also praises Confederate generals and more or less paints the South as a superior civilization even though it’s been defeated. 

Ben: It's almost like if my soccer team lost, and afterward we were so upset about losing that somebody decided to write a 700-page book about why the other team scored more goals—when in reality, we were just really bad. 

KLC: Sure.

Ben: So Lost Cause mythology develops right after the Civil War. How does it become part of the US’ physical landscape?

KLC: Well, Confederate monuments appear on the landscape right away, mainly in cemeteries. That's where they stayed through the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

Then, when federal troops leave the region and, basically, former Confederates retake control of local governments, you begin to see monuments move outside of cemeteries as a backlash against the gains Black citizens made during Reconstruction.

Ben: In No Common Ground you also talk about the erection of monuments outside of courthouses. 

KLC: Right, so that’s the next phase: placing monuments on courthouse lawns. 

This new construction accompanies the rise of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization responsible for the vast majority of Confederate monuments that are built in the South. The Daughters formed in 1894, and they took off quickly as an organization. In this same time period that the UDC grows, from the 1890s through 1920, the vast majority of monuments were built.  

Most of them were adjacent to courthouses, a very purposeful way of signaling support for Jim Crow laws. It’s in that backdrop that monuments go up, both as physical, tangible manifestations of the Lost Cause and also as statements in front of courthouses about communities’ white supremacist priorities.

Ben:  Why does this construction slow down entering the 1920s?

KLC: Primarily because of World War I. Although organizations like the UDC continue to build monuments in the 30s, the pace slows from, I don’t know, maybe 400 a decade to 75 a decade. But yeah, obviously it continues. A new generation of “daughters” comes into the UDC, and they still build monuments, still seek out support for their projects from politicians. 

During the Civil Rights era, there was a slight uptick in monument building, in part because of the Civil War Centennial, a series of events from 1961 to 1965. At the same time that we saw the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) pass, the commemoration of the Civil War was occurring, at least in the South, and white southerners were still perpetuating the same sorts of myths about the Confederacy and building monuments in the spirit of the Lost Cause. 

Ben: Could you talk a bit about the longstanding, maybe more overlooked tradition of opposition to Confederate monuments?

KLC: From very early on, there has been a critique of the Lost Cause and monuments, with Frederick Douglass being probably the first and most obvious example. He predicted, “monuments to the Lost Cause will prove monuments of folly.” W. E. B. Du Bois later toured the South and said a better inscription on the Confederate monuments he saw would be, "sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.”

During the Jim Crow period, one place where I found many critiques was in the Chicago Defender, the nation's leading black newspaper. Columnists were very vocal about what they thought about these monuments; that they were erected to honor traitors to the US. One guy says something about the monuments teaching future generations of white children to hate “our race.”

So Black citizens always saw monuments as a problem in terms of race relations, and during the 60s you begin to see much more publicly visible protests against Confederate monuments. For example, during the Meredith March, or the March Against Fear, a major demonstration that included thousands of activists in 1966, marchers rallied in various cities in the Mississippi Delta. Usually, the place where they assembled was around a Confederate monument, because that would often be the center of town. And in a way, they were reclaiming these spaces in the name of democratic freedoms like voting.

In another of many examples, that same year, a civil rights and voting activist named Sammy Younge Jr. was murdered for trying to desegregate a whites-only bathroom in Tuskegee, Alabama. The man who killed him was acquitted, and in response, protestors defaced a nearby Confederate monument in the way that we’re more likely to associate with activism over the last few years. They painted “Black Power” across the monument.

Ben: Meanwhile, monument construction continues, right? Not at a rapid pace, but I know for example that the largest Confederate memorial was dedicated in the early 70s.

KLC: Yeah, that would be Stone Mountain in Georgia. It’s enormous. Spiro Agnew, vice president at the time, attended the dedication. You know Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore was the original sculptor of Stone Mountain.

Ben: Wow, I had no idea! Sounds like Gutzon should be on lists with Nickelback and Vanilla Ice for his artistic prowess. 

KLC: Ha! Maybe so.

Ben: Going back for a second, as more Black politicians were elected in the 70s and 80s, there was increasing resistance to monuments, is that right?

KLC: Yeah. So for most of the Civil Rights Movement, the symbol that most offended was the Confederate battle flag, which is often located on a flagpole adjacent to a Confederate monument. The first time I saw evidence of a suggestion to actually remove a monument was in Shreveport, Louisiana in the late 80s. You then begin to see this kind of push around the country with support from groups like the NAACP.

And yet, though Confederate monuments have long been on Black activists’ radars, monuments only really became part of the national discourse after the Charleston Church Massacre of 2015, when Dylan Roof murdered nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was obviously motivated by his interactions with neo-Confederate groups, and other kinds of white and racist groups, which lead to the Confederate battle flag coming off the grounds of the South Carolina Capital—and then to larger discussions about other Confederate symbols like monuments. Then, with the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the conversations reach a fever pitch.

In total, since Charleston, over a hundred monuments have been removed. Over seven hundred remain. The truth is that Confederate monuments have always represented white supremacy and systemic racism, both of which are still pervasive.

Ben: We started the conversation in the 1860s and are talking about similar dynamics today. Still, you write that “with the removal of monuments since 2015, the Lost Cause’s days may be numbered. And with that, perhaps there is common ground.”

Do you still feel that way?

KLC: My feeling is that, if we’re on the same page about history, if we’re learning the same history together, then maybe there is potential for us to come together and for the Lost Cause’s days to be numbered.

The thing is, for 150 years white people have been invested in rewriting history because they see it as a tool of power. Whenever there’s been racial progress, they’ve talked about how to influence what children are learning in schools.

This is why we still hear Edward Pollard’s lies today. For generations, proponents of the Lost Cause have feared that if children grow up and learn the truth, they're likely to reject the current power structures. They don't want that happening.

Ben: Well, I think that also speaks to the importance of the kind of history that you bring to light. Thank you for all of your work and for being here today. It’s been a pleasure.

KLC: Well, thank you. It's been good to talk this out.

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
Professor Kellie Carter Jackson with Lessons from Black Abolitionists As the US becomes ever more divided, I spoke to Kellie Carter Jackson, the Michael and Denise Kellen 68’ Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. Professor Carter Jackson studies slavery, abolitionism, and the Civil War, and is the author of the award-winning book, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. She’s also the cohost of  “Oprahdemics,” a podcast where she and fellow historian Leah Wright Rigueur break down Oprah’s most iconic episodes. I highly recommend it!

In our interview, Professor Carter Jackson and I talked about Black abolitionists’ shifting strategies before the Civil War and the lessons their resistance can teach us today. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the full conversation here.

Ben: It’s a pleasure to have you here, Professor Carter Jackson. 

KCJ: Thank you so much for having me. This is going to be fun. 

Ben: I hope so! To begin, I’d like to ask you about abolitionists’ tactic of “moral suasion.” What was it, and why didn’t it work?

KCJ: Very simply, moral suasion was the idea that you could morally persuade someone to give up their enslaved property and abolish slavery nonviolently. It was all about non-resistance, so not using force, guns, or violence to persuade someone, but more about saying, Hey, listen, slavery is wrong. Slavery is a sin that you need to repent. 

The main proponent of moral suasion was a white abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison. On very rare occasions, in response to moral suasion, an enslaver would have a legit come-to-Jesus moment. But for the most part, this tactic was ineffective. Slavery was so profitable and such a powerful institution that practically no one was willing to relinquish that kind of control, power, and wealth.

Black abolitionists were happy to have an ally in Garrison, but they didn’t think moral suasion would work. They basically said slavery starts with violence, slavery is sustained through violence, and slavery will only be overthrown through violence.

Ben: There's a quote in your book that’s indicative of Garrison’s views, where he says, “Among the friends of moral reform... the belief is prevailing more and more that our Saviour meant to inculcate the doctrine of never fighting in self-defense.”

KCJ: Yeah, that's crazy. That stance is such a luxury. If you've never been enslaved, if you've never had your family members torn away from you, then you could say something like that.

But self-defense is natural. Frederick Douglass says “self-defense is God-given.” And I think almost all people can agree that the right to protect yourself, to preserve your own life, your humanity, and that of your loved ones is completely fair.

Ben: So moving into the 1840s, what pushes Black abolitionists away from moral suasion and toward more violent forms of resistance?

KCJ: In 1843, abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet gave a famous speech saying, "Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour... You cannot be more oppressed than you have been... Rather die freemen than live to be slaves.”

So he basically gives the “give me liberty or give me death!” speech to enslaved and free Black people. And people were torn. This was one of the most divisive speeches of the 19th century, and abolitionists wondered if Garnet’s speech was too incendiary.

But soon you get the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which basically said: it doesn't matter if you ran away from slavery five days ago, five years ago, or fifty years ago. If your master finds you, he can retrieve you and take you back to the South.

This meant that Southerners go into the North to retrieve Black people. Even people who were born free but might not have had papers or a white person to vouch for them were at risk.

This inhumane legislation changed a lot of Black abolitionists’ minds. People like Frederick Douglass, for example, who had believed that moral suasion might be viable, started viewing violence as the only way to end slavery.

Ben: So how did this shift toward violence materialize in the 1850s, and what was women’s role in the resistance?

KCJ: I love talking about this moment because it's so empowering to see the kind of courage that men and especially Black women had.

I really zero in on Black women too, because oftentimes we think that fighting back or protecting one's household is men's work, but women were maybe even more entitled to the use of violence because of sexual assault, because of the theft of their children and their bodies.

In Force and Freedom, I talk about a story in Christiana, Pennsylvania called the Christiana Resistance. A couple, William and Eliza Parker were station masters on the Underground Railroad. They started a Black self-protection society and had a creed that’s like: we will not allow any fugitive slave to be returned even at the risk of our own lives.

And there's one particular incident in which four escaped slaves leave Maryland and get to the Parkers’ home in Pennsylvania. They’re only there for a few hours before Edward Gorsuch, the owner of these four men, arrives with slave catchers, knocks on the Parkers’ door, and demands his property back.

William Parker's like, “Over my dead body, it's not happening.” And his wife, Eliza, says, “Listen, babe, want me to sound the alarm? I will sound the alarm!” And she goes to the roof of the attic of their home and starts to blow this loud horn. The Black self-protection society comes by the dozens and about 80 men and women, both white and Black, some of them Quakers, armed with guns, pistols, pitchforks, and farm equipment, surround Edward Gorsuch.

And long story short, no one knows who fired the first shot, but Edward Gorsuch is fatally wounded. William Parker writes in his memoir that as he lay dying, the women “put it into him.” It is wild! And everyone managed to escape: Eliza, William, and the four escaped slaves—they all eventually made their way to Canada and lived out the rest of their days there.

Ben: I found it thought-provoking that Black abolitionists increasingly saw these absurd, violent, egregious laws that were passed or upheld in the 1850s as illegitimate and refused to follow them. They're pretty much like: that is not something we are going to comply with. (SCOTUS in 2022, take note.)

KCJ: Yeah. One of the things I ask in a lot of my research is: how should oppressed people respond to their oppression? What do you do when you don't have the ability to be able to vote? How do the powerless procure power?

And the simplest answer to that, I think, is violence. If you can't vote, use moral suasion, or soften people’s hearts with slave narratives or memoirs—other tools abolitionists used to try to get people to pay attention—well, violence is something that guarantees an audience. You cannot guarantee change, but people will have to respond. 

It's not a coincidence that we teach classes from the slave trade to the Civil War, from the Civil War to World War I, World War II to Vietnam, and Vietnam to 9/11. Every single major historical turning point in this country is hinged around some sort of violence.

And so, as much as we abhor violence, we have to be honest about the fact that it really is an engine that moves us in a different direction. That direction's not always positive or progressive, but it moves us places.

Ben: You quote Frederick Douglass when he looks back on the Civil War as saying, “The American public discovered and accepted more truth in our four years of civil war than they learned in forty years of peace.”

KCJ: Yeah, that's sad, right? But that's true! The Civil War did a lot in a very short amount of time. Now, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, but you got the end of slavery. People had been asking for the end of slavery, begging for it, pushing for it, and advocating for it for decades, and they got nowhere. And then you got war and you got death and you got change. It’s a sobering reality.

I think you could even say the same thing about the Civil Rights Movement. People look at the movement like it’s nonviolent, but I tell my students all the time, “No, the Civil Rights Movement is a response to violence.” It's a response to the death of Emmett Till, to the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and to four little girls killed in a church. 

The truth is that there’s no form of protest that white supremacy is going to approve of. Whether you throw a Molotov cocktail, torch a car, march, picket, boycott, take a knee—there's no form of protest that white supremacy is going to sanction. Like when Colin Kaepernick took a knee—a physical sign of subservience—we lost our minds! 

So the problem is not necessarily the rock that’s thrown. The problem is the reason the rock is thrown. 

Ben: So what do you see as the utility of violence today? Because, in the 1860s, the oppressive institution was clear: slavery. Today, white supremacy seems more diffuse and maybe harder to combat.

KCJ: Yeah, racism and white supremacy are kind of like Covid, right? You get a vaccine for one thing, or you overthrow one thing, and then it mutates into something else, and you're constantly trying to play catch up, figuring out how to stop it. 

In 1837, an abolitionist named Joshua Easton says, “Abolitionists may attack slaveholding, but there is a danger still that the spirit of slavery will survive, in the form of prejudice, after the system is overturned.”

And that is still the conundrum we face right now. We have effectively overthrown slavery, as well as Jim Crow and segregation (kind of), but the real issue is not necessarily these institutions: it's the ideology that fuels them.

So how do you change that? One thing, maybe, is electing younger people who believe in change. A lot of the abolitionists in power after the Civil War, like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, were really old. 

Ben: The Bernie Sanders of their time.

KCJ: Seriously! They didn’t have the ability to maintain that momentum, and that’s one reason Reconstruction was so short-lived. There was a lot of really great progressive change and then all of it got overturned in part because there weren’t enough people to uphold and push for the progress that needed to continue to happen.

Another point to recognize is that abolitionists were a very small percentage of the population. There were hundreds of them, and they were considered a radical fringe group. Still, how they were able to empower Black people is mindboggling to me. So, you don’t need a lot of people to make progressive change; you need the will to make it. You need the will to recognize that we live in a society that’s really harmful if you are poor or Black or Indigenous or an immigrant or a woman, and you shouldn’t need to see a horrid viral video of a policeman or new, vile legislation to reveal that harm and fight back against it.

I have every reason to hope we can get to that point. Now, does that mean change will come tomorrow? No. Does that mean I’m looking at the world with rose-colored glasses? No, but hope is sustained over time, from generation to generation, and you are dead in the water without it. 

Ben: Well put, and encouraging, although I should note that Professor Carter Jackson is literally wearing rose-tinted glasses.

KCJ: Ha! I’m not. Red lipstick, yes, but glasses, no.

Ben: Alright, well this was so illuminating and a blast. Thank you so much for being here. 

KCJ: Thank you so much for having me. It's my pleasure.

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
Professor Kevin M. Kruse on "Suburban Secession" Suburbs in swing states will play a pivotal role in deciding the upcoming midterm elections. To learn how the ‘burbs developed in Georgia, I spoke to Professor Kevin M. Kruse at Princeton. Professor Kruse is a specialist in modern American political, social, and urban/suburban history. He's the author and editor of several books, including White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.

We talked about the role of transportation in cementing “the secession” of suburbs from Atlanta, and how this transformation, which occurred all over the country, changed conservative politics. Carnivorous fish also made an appearance in our conversation.

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers to Skipped History can access audio of the full conversation here.

Ben: Professor Kruse, thank you so much for joining us.

KMK: My pleasure.

Ben: Today I’d like to focus a bit on transportation, the growth of the suburbs, and their centrality to US elections, particularly in the Atlanta area. I suppose a good place to begin is by talking about traffic. For the uninitiated, is traffic bad in Atlanta? 

KMK: Traffic is legendarily bad in Atlanta. It’s funny, my sister was up visiting a week ago and when I lived in Atlanta doing research for White Flight, she lived just over the city limit line in Gwinnett County. We were wondering why we didn't see each other more. And then we were like, Oh, right, the traffic.

It would be an hour, two-hour trip sometimes to get just from the city to the suburbs, and there are people who do that for their daily commute.

Ben: A convenient excuse for not visiting your loved ones. Can we go back in time to explore how the traffic got so bad, and what traffic has to do with the ‘burbs?

KMK: Yeah. So the City of Atlanta has often thought of itself as incredibly progressive. Mayor Bill Hartsfield, in office from 1942–1962, called Atlanta “the city too busy to hate.” But the story’s a little more complicated than that.

As the Civil Rights Movement broke down the walls of segregation and discrimination, Atlanta’s population exploded. It hit a population of one million with much hullabaloo. Suddenly, the city had to think about new systems of transportation to make that metropolis work, like the interstate highways. It also had to consider public transportation, which hadn’t really been a thing in the South, especially not in Atlanta. 

When the city was first considering where new interstate highways would go in the early 1960s, the mayor was quite explicit in wanting the highways to go between the white and Black communities. Legally, you couldn't formally segregate the races. You couldn't say this neighborhood is zoned white. This neighborhood is zoned Black. But you could certainly lay a major infrastructure project down between historically segregated neighborhoods to keep them separated, and that’s what Atlanta did.

Ben: Right, in White Flight, you say the federal government shouldered much of the financial burden of the highways, but local planners got to decide where they went. And the explanation they often gave was something like, Erm, the highways just happen to run through predominantly Black neighborhoods.

KMK: Yeah, and it's no surprise, right? When we think about the highways built in the 50s and 60s, they weren’t laid down on a blank canvas. They went through 100- or 200-year-old cities. And if you were going to lay down a major road, you’d have to wipe out certain neighborhoods.

So the calculus for any mayor had to be, which neighborhood do we sacrifice? Well, they naturally picked the neighborhoods they regarded as slums. Which neighborhoods did they regard as slums? Usually poor minority neighborhoods. This logic appeared across the country, to the point that if you want to know where the poor Black neighborhoods were in any major city in say, 1940 or 1950—and I'm talking, Kansas City, Cleveland, wherever—go look at where the highways are today. Because they almost always ran through those neighborhoods, displacing people of color in the process.

Ben: So the highways were constructed, and they ran through these so-called “blighted” neighborhoods. Who used the new roads and how did drivers feel about public transportation?

KMK: As cities built highways to bring those people in and out of the city for work, a question arose: what do you do for the people who don't have a car? And this is where the story of MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) comes in because obviously, one way to relieve congestion on highways is to get people to take trains.

I live in New Jersey. You're in New York. Between us, New Jersey Transit does a lot of the heavy lifting. The New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway are still pretty packed, but they'd be a lot more packed without those trains bringing in commuters.

Ben: Don't forget about the Dinky.

KMK: The Dinky, yes. For those who don't know, the Dinky is the vital train that links Princeton to Princeton Junction. It’s a local institution. [Editor’s note: the Dinky is the shortest commuter rail line in the country.]

But commuter trains can bring anyone in, right? Not just the people who can afford a car. And there was real fear on the part of white suburbanites that trains would bring “certain people” away from the center city out into their suburbs. So from the onset, they opposed MARTA, even if it led to the kind of traffic we see today.

Ben: In White Flight, you quote Emmett Burton, a politician in Cobb County just outside of Atlanta, as saying he's so committed to preventing MARTA's growth that he promised to “stock the Chattahoochee [a local river] with piranha” if that were necessary to keep MARTA and Black Atlantians away.

KMK: Mm-hmm.

Ben: Just to be clear, was the train supposed to go through the water and the piranha would stop the train? How was that supposed to work?

KMK: I don't think he thought it through. I think the metaphor was that the river was a moat, right? They'd do anything to keep “those people” away. At the time, Cobb County was 96% white. Gwinnett County to the northeast was 95% white. A sliver of Fulton County between them was 99% white. 

And there was a feeling in these counties that the civil rights struggle had overtaken the city. They wanted out, and the last thing they wanted was for minorities to follow them across the river.

Ben: How did the predominantly white counties/suburbs begin to play into conservative political strategy in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s?

KMK: Well, what I argue in the book is that white flight was not just a physical phenomenon. It was also a political transformation. In the process of uprooting their lives, many white people changed their basic political assumptions and embraced a new sort of politics.

Think about the relationship new suburbanites had to, say, public places. When they lived in Atlanta, white residents had lots of public places that were available to them: public parks, public pools, public golf courses, and on and on. Most white Atlantians thought of them as their spaces, as spaces that were paid for by their taxes.

As those spaces opened up during the Civil Rights Movement, white citizens didn't see them as shared spaces. They saw them as lost spaces. This was a zero-sum game, and they perceived every gain by African Americans as a loss for white people, so they resolved to stop using these spaces. And if you don't want to use public spaces, if you opt for private spaces instead—well, that’s where we see the origins of a tax revolt.

In fact, although we associate a conservative move toward privatization with Reagan and the 80s and beyond, it actually began to take hold in the 50s and 60s. There was a trend toward private golf courses, private swimming pools, and private schools. White citizens sought private spaces as alternatives to integrated shared spaces.

This is what I call the politics of suburban secession, or what political economist Robert Reich dubbed the “secession of the successful.” In essence, it’s really just leave-me-alone politics. From the 50s onward, suburban conservatives didn’t want the government involved in their lives, which was a change from the attitude they held when living in cities before.

Ben: As you point out in your book, suburbs have diversified over the past few decades. And yet in 2019, Gwinnett County, one of the counties outside of Atlanta, still voted against MARTA's expansion. How do you reconcile changing demographics with continued resistance to public services? 

KMK: My hunch is that, as we’ve reviewed, suburbs were literally built around a certain set of assumptions. The physical environment of a suburb favors having a car. Again, in my sister's neighborhood in Gwinnett, there weren't sidewalks on the side of the street because who would walk there? It’s assumed that you have to have a car to get anywhere.

Ben: Or maybe a Razor Scooter.

KMK: Well, yeah, or maybe a skateboard. But the built environment means that even if you come in and you don't have these racial attitudes about people in the cities, your assumption is I've got a car. Everyone's got a car. Why do we need public transportation? 

So a place can get locked into a certain set of policy choices even as its population changes.

Ben: Heading into the 2022 midterms, many publications report that the suburbs are the most crucial voting bloc in swing states like Georgia. Should we be troubled that communities that formed around segregationist instincts hold so much influence today?

KMK: Well, in some ways, sure. There are undoubtedly holdouts in swing state suburbs who still live outside of cities for racially motivated reasons.

But in other ways, this is just a demographic reality now. 1968 was the first election when there were more people in the suburbs than there were in cities or rural areas. By 1992, there were more people in the suburbs than anywhere else in the country combined.

So, increasingly, we’re a suburban nation, but not all suburbs are the same. The idea of having a Mad Men world where the suburbs are all uniformly white and upper/middle-class conservative was certainly the original model, but even back then, there were working-class and prominent Black suburbs. (Scholars like Becky Nicolaides and Andy Wiese have written great books on both.) And those kinds of suburbs have become more and more common today.

So I don't think there’s reason to fear that suburbs are all one kind, and our politics are therefore all one kind. We've seen the suburbs bounce back and forth between blue and red in recent elections. I think the simple fact that they're so hotly contested shows how much of suburbia and the US as a whole is contested now, too. So things are up in the air at the moment, and it'll take a future historian to decide where we landed.

Ben: Here’s hoping the landing isn’t too rough. Thanks so much for being here, Professor Kruse.

KMK: My pleasure.

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
Professor Adam Winkler on Limitless Political Spending To understand how political spending spiraled out of control—projections estimate $9.7 billion spent on ads alone during the 2022 election cycle—I spoke to Professor Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law. His book We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights was a finalist for the National Book Award.

We chatted about changes to election processes in the 1880s and 1890s, and how a political operative named Mark Hanna introduced corporate spending into politics. Professor Winkler connects Hanna’s innovations to the political campaigns we know and don’t love today.

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the full conversation here.

Ben: It’s a pleasure to have you with us, Professor Winkler.

AW: Thanks for having me on.

Ben: Absolutely. In We, the Corporations, you trace the growth of corporate spending in politics, but how did candidates finance elections before corporations came into play?

AW: Well, back in the 1800s, campaigns were generally funded by the wealth of the personal candidate or the personal candidate’s family, or sometimes by very wealthy individuals in the community who supported a particular candidate.

But election funding was much less important then than it is today because you didn't have these mass market campaigns where you had to spend a lot of money to get people to support a candidate. Often in fact elections were really determined by patronage and by local machine politics.

Ben: An example of a political machine being something like Tammany Hall, is that right?

AW: Tammany Hall is a good example. And when a machine like Tammany Hall wanted to get its candidates elected it would often distribute ballots out to members of local communities for that particular candidate.

At the time, the government didn’t issue ballots. Voters would appear at the polls with their own ballot that they would then cast. 

Ben: Does that mean you could bedazzle your own ballot?

AW: Sort of. You came and you took a piece of paper with the name of your candidate and you put it in a box. Political machines printed out their own ballots for their own candidates and distributed them among people who lived nearby. Those voters were expected to go to the ballot booth and cast the ballot that had been given to them by the machine.

Ben: So the machine in some ways is literally just a printing machine. Assuming that the federal government begins issuing ballots, when does that change take place?

AW: The government started printing its own ballots around the 1880s. Prior to then, we didn't have a secret ballot. You would just go into a room and drop your vote into a large box.

But in the 1880s, we saw a real reform of how elections were managed, and one of the developments was the rise of secret voting. So you could vote in private behind a booth and you had a government-printed ballot that had all of the candidates on it. You could always write in your vote for another candidate, but instead of relying on self-printed ballots, the government decided to rely on government-printed ballots, for ease of counting and for administration.

Ben: Am I right in assuming that the government official who devised the secret ballot was always picked last for his kickball team in PE?

AW: No, I think it's more likely that the government official who devised this reform was modeling the electoral reforms of the laws of Australia. This was known as the Australian ballot and the goal was to clean up the electoral process, prevent corruption, and make elections more meaningful as a reflection of the popular will.

Ben: Interesting. Moving forward to the 1890s, is there someone in particular who takes advantage of the new reforms?

AW: No one understood the implications of the transformation in the political process more than Marcus Alonzo Hanna, kind of the Karl Rove of his day. He was the political mastermind behind a twice-successful Republican presidential candidate: in Hanna's case, William McKinley, who won the White House in 1896 and was reelected in 1900. 

Hanna was raised in Cleveland, where he was a high school classmate of John D. Rockefeller, and Hanna had enjoyed a successful career in the coal and steel industries, but his true passion was politics. In 1895, he handed off his company to his brother and turned his full attention to electing William McKinley, a fellow Ohioan, to the presidency.

Hanna used his businessman's instinct for innovation and marketing to revolutionize how election campaigns raised and spent money, and for the first time brought significant amounts of corporate cash into the electoral process. 

Ben: Hanna’s nickname becomes Dollar Mark, is that right?

AW: That's right.

Ben: How did Dollar Mark change the way that campaigns were run at the time?

AW: Hanna was the chairman of the Republican National Committee in the 1896 presidential election, and he understood that he needed to raise more money than any previous presidential campaign in history.

The Democrats had nominated a firey populist named William Jennings Bryan, who was an outspoken opponent of corporate power and who drew a lot of broad support from farmers and the working class. Early in the campaign, Bryan had a lot of momentum. To counter him, Hanna decided to undertake an exhaustive and systematic publicity campaign to educate voters.

Among Hanna's innovations was to centralize control of the presidential campaign. Traditionally, state-based party committees managed local campaigns, even for national candidates like the president, but Hanna centralized all of the state committees under his authority. He also created the first nationwide advertising campaign to market a presidential candidate and produced over a hundred million pieces of campaign literature printed in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and even Hebrew to appeal to immigrants. 

He also promoted William McKinley through the creation of things like buttons, posters, billboards, cartoons, and leaflets that were manufactured by the carload. Hanna hired thousands of people to go out and distribute these buttons, post these posters, and promote McKinley in every competitive district.

It was the kind of campaign that today we take for granted but had really never before occurred in American history.

Ben: I suppose there were a few side effects to this campaign, though? 

AW: Right, so Hanna's new methods of electioneering required far more money than the campaigns of old. Hanna found a lot of that money in corporate America. Hanna was someone who perhaps more than most appreciated the role of money in politics. He once famously quipped “there are two things that are important in politics. The first is money. And I can't remember what the second one is.”

Ben: The obvious answer is lawn signs.

AW: Yeah, exactly. But you need money to make the lawn signs.

To raise the money for McKinley's campaign, Hanna thought the corporate giants of the era were the perfect contributors. 

Business leaders at the time were very fearful of the potential economic consequences of William Jennings Bryan being elected to the presidency. So Hanna went to those business leaders and said, it's time for you to put your money behind a business-friendly candidate like William McKinley. He went to banks and said, you should give one-quarter of 1% of your capital. He went to large industrial corporations and recommended that they give five- and six-figure amounts. Standard Oil, the economic giant run by Hanna's schoolmate, John D. Rockefeller, was asked to give $250,000 (at the time an enormous amount) to the McKinley campaign.

Hanna really systematized the fundraising for political campaigns the way no political operative had ever done, and the overall fundraising haul that Hanna generated for McKinley was estimated to be $7 million, more than ten times the amount that was spent by William Jennings Bryan. It was the most ever spent for a presidential candidate. 

Ben: Wow. To better understand the magnitude of that figure, could you please convert it into Bitcoin for our audience?

AW: Ha! The way to conceptualize how big it was is this: although election campaigns tend to cost more every single season, Hanna's haul in 1896 was so huge that no presidential campaign would equal it for nearly half a century. This was really an unprecedented effort to raise and spend money on an election campaign.

But no one really knew about it! There were no disclosure laws back in the 1890s. So today Americans worry about dark money, about money that comes from unidentified donors, but virtually all of the money in the 1896 election was dark money and we didn't get the first federal laws requiring campaigns to disclose funders until 1910.

To learn more about how the first campaign finance laws came to be, check out the episode of Skipped History on the Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905.

Ben: Ha! I appreciate the plug. On a concluding note, how should we consider Mark Hanna’s reforms when viewing today’s election cycles?

AW: Well, if we want to know why our election campaigns are so out of control, we have to go back to Mark Hanna and the 1896 campaign. We're still living in the world that Mark Hanna built where the wealthiest of Americans and big businesses are expected to support campaigns, and where campaigns use advertising techniques that business corporations were developing around the turn of the century to market political candidates. So many of the ills of our political system can be traced back to Marcus Alonso Hanna.

Ben: An important, discouraging, and illuminating connection to make. Thank you so much for being here and for this captivating history lesson. 

AW: Thanks so much for having me.

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0
Professor David J. Silverman on the Thanksgiving Myth Ahead of turkey season, I spoke to Professor David J. Silverman about the marketing campaign that created Thanksgiving—and the white supremacist motivations that popularized the holiday. Professor Silverman is a historian of Native, colonial, and American racial history at George Washington University. He’s the author of This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the conversation here.

Ben: Professor Silverman, thank you so much for being here. 

DS: Thanks for having me. 

Ben: Of course! Let’s begin by discussing when Thanksgiving became a holiday. The famed “first Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621, but it took a lot longer for the country to commemorate the meal, is that right?

DS: Yes, as you allude, I think there's a widespread misconception that Thanksgiving was celebrated by colonists and then their white descendants in an unbroken chain from that 1621 event onward. That’s simply not true—Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863.

Ben: Why did it take 240 years for that to happen?

DS: Well, to be clear, people in old England had been celebrating “Thanksgivings” since time immemorial. Like people all around the world, when droughts ended or when a good harvest came in, or when there was a military victory, the English would hold a Thanksgiving.

Accordingly, in colonial New England, colonists celebrated Thanksgivings whenever their local governments pronounced them. For many years you might have a Thanksgiving in the spring or the summer, but in New England the time became standardized in late fall / early winter when people closed their account books for the year and settled their debts (as good a reason as any to celebrate).

This was a decidedly northeastern or “Yankee” tradition. Thanksgiving only became a national holiday in 1863 amid the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had the idea planted in his head that perhaps announcing a national holiday centered on the idea of offering thanks for what's good in our lives would be a unifying act.

So, he pronounced Thanksgiving and the tradition stuck from that point on. Notably, it was only also around the same time that the country began to associate the holiday with a shared feast between the English colonists of Plymouth and the surrounding Wampanoag Indians in 1621.

Ben: Right, it wasn’t exactly like the meal was famous for 240 years and then became the centerpiece of a holiday. Rather, that “first” Thanksgiving meal was kind of lost to history until a footnote in the 1840s?

DS: Yeah. I'm a historian, and I read a lot of footnotes, but believe me when I tell you, there are not a lot of famous footnotes out there. This is one of them.

In 1841, a minister named Alexander Young published one of the few primary source accounts of the Plymouth Colony. He included a four-line description of a feast hosted by the English and attended by the Wampanoags in 1621. To that description, he added a footnote stating “this was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.” 

No one had ever made that connection to 1621 before. But Young’s account was widely read by some of the leading lights of the era: Emerson, Thoreau, and the like. And those high-profile figures propagated the idea in the footnote until it became taken for granted among the broader public.

Ben: So the broader conception of Thanksgiving derives from Young’s footnote. Why did he include the note? Like, was he trying to start a cookbook empire and wanted people to purchase his harvest festival recipes?

DS: Young was part of a decades-long movement that tried to rescue the obscure, marginal, and unimportant Plymouth Colony from the dustbin of history. In reality, Plymouth Colony was never an important place. 

Ben: Sorry to all readers and listeners from Plymouth.

DS: Eventually, Plymouth was annexed by the far larger Massachusetts colony and fell into the great stream of Massachusetts' history.

In the late 18th century, Plymouth town effectively started a booster campaign to drum up tourism. They started trumpeting this obscure band of religious separatists, whom they called the “pilgrims,” as the founders of colonial America. They held up the Mayflower Compact, the group’s agreement to abide by democratic rule, as some sort of template for the American constitution (it was not).

Gradually, their campaign started to generate notice, particularly again among the New England literati who had an outsized influence in American letters and politics. And I suspect that Young’s footnote was an extension of that movement.

Ben: Put another way, Thanksgiving started off as a very good marketing campaign by people in Plymouth.

DS: Yeah, that’s effectively correct. 

Ben: It sounds like a town in the middle of Idaho erecting a giant potato statue and using that as a way to draw in tourists off the highway—but a lot more effective.

DS: In that analogy, Plymouth Rock is the potato. The historical record makes no mention of the rock—it’s only added to the Thanksgiving myth later on. 

Ben: Okay, so the Plymouth Rock legend is made up, too. Broadly speaking, how did this kind of strange mythology become so embedded in the American psyche?

DS: After the Civil War, there were a host of social and political anxieties that the story of a shared peaceful meal between Native people and white colonists served to calm. 

The first source of anxiety was immigration. In the 19th century, Catholic and later Jewish immigrants gave mainstream Protestant Americans agita. Conveniently, the growing Thanksgiving myth established Protestants as the colonial founding fathers; laudable figures who believed in democracy and religious freedom (despite the fact that, let's be clear, 17th-century Puritans had no interest in freedom of religion).

The second source of anxiety was racial upheaval. On one hand, African Americans had been set free by the Union victory in the Civil War, and the newly free Black population made many white people anxious. The Thanksgiving story was a way of asserting white racial authority throughout the land.

At the same time, wars against Native peoples on the Great Plains and in the West were winding to a close. The brutality of those wars—fair-minded historians now characterize them as genocide—deeply embarrassed much of the US public, particularly in the East. So, obscuring the viciousness of expansion into Indian Country was palatable to the white American public, and a myth contending Native people had dined with their colonizers and peacefully ceded their country did just that.

Ben: In reality, the participants of the 1621 meal merited the occasion little significance, is that right?

DS: That's right. There was a meal shared by the Wampanoags and the colonists of Plymouth. The two sides had a military alliance, but the meal was not all that critical in forming their relationship. Neither side ever mentioned it again. 

And the English relationship with Indigenous peoples degenerated into utter bloodshed in 1675.

Ben: This is King Philip’s War. 

DS: Yes, one of the most horrific wars in colonial American history. The history of Euro-American / Native American relations from the 16th century to the close of the 19th century is a tale of one bloody conflict after another.

So, celebrating a shared meal misses the point—deliberately. The only truth of the holiday is that there was a meal shared by the English and the Wampanoag. Everything else about the story is pure myth. 

Ben: That leads to my last question, which I have to ask: what foods were at the Thanksgiving meal in 1621, and which ones are made up?

DS: Okay, there was almost certainly turkey. The primary account only says “fowl,” which also includes ducks and geese, but we have earlier accounts from that fall suggesting Plymouth colonists had bagged an awful lot of turkeys. So turkey was served that day.

That's about the only contemporary item that appeared at the meal in 1621. They didn’t have any livestock, so there was no butter. No cream. Probably no milk. And there was no sugar, so there goes half of our side dishes and dessert, right?

Instead, there would've been a heavy emphasis on fish (which I'm all in favor of). Clams, oysters, lobsters, eels, maybe striped bass. The Wampanoags contributed venison. And then mainly wild fruits and vegetables, whatever the English were growing in their garden. Maybe peas and some salad greens. 

Let's be clear too, there was no dining table or chairs or silverware. The actual meal bears very little resemblance to modern Thanksgiving. 

Ben: What I’m hearing is that if we really want to celebrate a mythical meal that helped reestablish a white supremacist hierarchy after the Civil War, we should order sushi and eat on the floor.

DS: Sounds about right. 

Ben: Well, thanks again for being here, Professor Silverman. This was really illuminating.

DS: My great pleasure.

Wed, 30 Nov 2022 23:59:51 +0000 0