In the midst of the current presidential campaign, the word “fascist” has been tossed about quite a bit. It is the political “F-word,” most associated with World War II dictators, Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
Lately, the term has been used specifically with respect to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat asked in a New York Times Op-Ed “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?”
But what does this widely used word “fascist” mean?
Generally, fascism describes a military dictatorship built on racist and powerfully nationalistic foundations, generally with the broad support of the business class (distinguishing it from the collectivism of Communism).
Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), called Il Duce (which simply means “the leader”), was the son of a blacksmith, who came to power as prime minister in 1922. A preening bully of a man, he organized Italian World War I veterans into the anti-Communist and rabidly nationalistic “blackshirts,” a paramilitary group that used gang tactics to suppress strikes and attack leftist trade unions.
In 1925, Mussolini installed himself as head of a single-party state he called fascismo. The word came from fasces, a Latin word referring to a bundle of rods bound around an ax, which had been an ancient Roman symbol of authority and strength.
Mussolini blamed Italy’s problems on foreigners, and promised to make the trains run on time. (Contrary to popular belief, he did not.)
The rise to power of the three militaristic, totalitarian states that would form the wartime Axis—Germany, Japan, and Italy—as well as Fascist Spain under General Franco, can be laid to the aftershocks, both political and economic, of the First World War. It was rather easy, especially in the case of Germany and Italy, for demagogues to point to the smoldering ruins of their countries and the economic disaster of the worldwide Depression and blame their woes on foreigners.
In Germany, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) made scapegoats not only of the Communists and foreign powers who he claimed had stripped Germany of its land and military abilities at Versailles, but also of Jews, who he claimed were in control of the world’s finances.
The rest, as they say, is history.
(This text is adapted from Don’t Know Much About® History, “Who were the Fascists?” pages 361-365).
In the heat of the presidential campaign, the mudslinging has Americans once again complaining about negative politics. People say they yearn for the “good old days” when elections were more polite affairs. But the truth is that American presidential politics has been a nasty business from the first contested elections.
This audio essay, “The Myth of Americas Genteel Political History,” is a Commentary I wrote for for NPR’S “All Things Considered.” It is worth noting that it originally aired in October 2004.
As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
On March 3, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law a bill approved by Congress the day before “to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States.”
The 1807 act, which would go into effect on January 1, 1808, was a comprehensive attempt to shut down the foreign slavery trade. Congress gave all traders nine months to cease their operations in the United States.
The 1807 Act was born out of language written into the original Constitution, debated and drafted in the summer of 1787:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
-Article I, Section 9
Slaveholding delegates, unwilling to accept a Constitution that placed any limits on American slavery, saw this as a victory. It protected the foreign trade for another twenty years and provided no guarantee that the trade in enslaved people would end. And it prompted a vast increase in the importation of enslaved Africans:
During this period, labor hungry planters in the lower South imported tens of thousands of Africans; indeed, more slaves entered the United States between 1787 and 1807 than during any two decades in history.
–Peter Kolchin, American Slavery (Hill & Wang, 1993), p. 79
Of course, the end of the legal importation of enslaved people sounds like a good thing. Optimists at the Constitutional convention in 1787 and in Congress in 1807 saw the end of the foreign trade as a necessary first step to the ultimate end of slavery in America. They were woefully wrong.
The end of the legal foreign trade –illegal smuggling of enslaved Africans would continue– only created a large and more profitable internal market for the enslaved by forcing up the value of enslaved people, even as demand from cotton growers was increasing.
The 1807 act sought to end the trade, but did nothing to undermine the legitimacy holding men and women in bondage.
(Source: “The Abolition of the Slave Trade,” New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)
Large holders of enslaved people in essence became even more wealthy as breeders of enslaved people. In 1800, there were about one million enslaved people in America. By 1860, at the outbreak of the Civil War, there were nearly four million.
Expectations that ending the African slave trade would put slavery on the road to gradual extinction proved radically wide of the mark. During the half century after the legal end of slave importation, the slave population of the United States surpassed that of any other country in the New World….
–Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, p. 94
While a milestone of sorts in the abolition movement, the Slave Act of 1807 merely cemented the financial and political value of slavery for generations to come and did precious little to bring about its end.
Read more about the role of slavery in American history in my books:
The subject is also at the center of my forthcoming book In The Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives. (Holt Books for Young Readers; September 20, 2016 publication date)
There are no “tackling dummies” in the Ivy League, one might assume.
As the college and professional football world continue to address the growing concern over severe injuries, football coaches in the Ivy League are moving to eliminate full-contact hitting from practices, reports the New York Times.
The latest controversies over concussions and other injuries are nothing new. More than 100 years ago, college football – was faced with possible extinction as the game had grown so violent and corrupt. But a football-loving President helped save the sport.
More than a century ago, before there was a true professional league, cash payments were made to “amateur” college athletes. Coaches gave orders to take out rivals on the field. In the sport’s primitive era, body blows, concussions, spinal injuries and even blood poisoning — the result of on-field savagery that included late hits, punching, kneeing, eye-gouging and vicious blows to the windpipe — often proved fatal. In 1905, these abuses and catastrophic injuries were so widespread, and public disapproval of them so deep, the game faced extinction. Football was saved, in part, by the intervention of the American president.
President Theodore Roosevelt, a fan of the sport –he was too small to play at Harvard– wanted to make sure that the game survived. Using his “bully pulpit,” Theodore Roosevelt stepped in. I wrote the story of how he did it in this New York Times Op-Ed, “Schools of Hard Knocks.”
Some other presidential football tidbits: Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to play for Army but could not and became a cheerleader. Gerald Ford was a highly touted offensive lineman at Michigan who turned down pro offers.
President Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865)
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Source and complete text: The Avalon Project-Yale University
On Feb. 29, 1968, President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission) warned that racism was causing America to move “toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” (New York Times account.)
Responding to a series of violent outbursts in predominantly black urban neighborhoods, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders on July 28, 1967.
Later known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, the Commission issued a stark warning in 1968:
“Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”
The Committee Report went on to identify a set of “deeply held grievances” that it believed had led to the violence.
Although almost all cities had some sort of formal grievance mechanism for handling citizen complaints, this typically was regarded by Negroes as ineffective and was generally ignored.
Although specific grievances varied from city to city, at least 12 deeply held grievances can be identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity:
First Level of Intensity
1. Police practices
2. Unemployment and underemployment
3. Inadequate housing
Second Level of Intensity
4. Inadequate education
5. Poor recreation facilities and programs
6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms.
Third Level of Intensity
7. Disrespectful white attitudes
8. Discriminatory administration of justice
9. Inadequacy of federal programs
10. Inadequacy of municipal services
11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
12. Inadequate welfare programs
Source: “Our Nation is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”: Excerpts from the Kerner Report; American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY)
and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (George Mason University).
Issued nearly half a century ago, the list of grievances reads as if it could have been written last week.
Read more about the unrest of the Civil Rights era in Don’t Know Much About® History. The crucial role of race in the American military is also treated in The Hidden History of America at War. (May 5)
UPDATED On February 24, 1803 Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the unanimous opinion in Marbury v Madison.
Dust off your Civics books.
As the fight over Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court absorbs the country, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to block any appointments by President Obama during his last year in office, it might help to look at history.
The simple fact is that the most consequential Supreme Court appointment in American history was made by a true “lame duck” President.
In its original sense, “lame duck” meant a president or other elected official whose successor had already been chosen.
In 1801, after it was certain that president John Adams would not return for a second term, Adams nominated his Secretary of State, John Marshall, to the post to replace ailing Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth.
At the time of this nomination, President Adams was a true “lame duck” president, soon to be replaced by Thomas Jefferson, following a drawn-out vote in the House of Representatives. It was clear that Jefferson’s party would control both the White House and the Senate. But Adams named Marshall, a staunch Federalist of his own party, who was confirmed despite only six-weeks of legal training.
One of Marshall’s first and most significant decisions came in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison which established the power of federal courts to void acts of Congress in conflict with the Constitution.
It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. . . . Thus the particular phraseology of the constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the constitution is void. . . .
From Chief Justice Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison
John Marshall went on to become the longest-serving and most influential chief justice in the history of the Supreme Court, hearing more than 1,000 cases and writing 519 decisions.
There have been more election year nominations, as discussed in this New York Times Op-Ed, “In Election Years, a History of Conforming Court Nominees.”
As John Adams himself said during the Boston Massacre Trial (1770)
“Facts are stubborn things.”
I am thrilled to introduce the Advance Reader’s Edition of my forthcoming book:
IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY — The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
Set for release on September 20, 2016, the book will be published by Holt Books for Young Readers. The book offers narrative accounts of five enslaved people who were the legal property of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson.
Books for Young Readers
Henry Holt and Company
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
To request an author for an interview, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to receive a catalog or a review copy of a book, please fax the request on your letterhead to 646-307-5247.
President George Washington, “Letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island” (1790)
Happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The complete text and story of Washington’s letter to the Touro Synagogue can be found at the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732.
Coming in paperback in May 2016
The Hidden History of America At War: Untold Tales From Yorktown To Fallujah
THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah is a unique, myth-shattering, and insightful look at war—why we fight, who fights our wars and what we need to know but perhaps never learned about the growth and development of America’s military forces.Read more about the book and critical praise here