[Originally posted July 2, 2020; revised February 22, 2024]
Today is actually George Washington’s Birthday. Maybe you thought you celebrated last Monday (not President’s Day). Seeing as the holiday falls in February –Black History Month– it is a good time to bring these two crucial pieces of history together.
There is no question that Washington’s accomplishments were central to the foundation of the Republic. His command during the Revolution. His role at the Constitutional Convention, where he presided. His two terms as president, in which he established many presidential precedents and then stepped aside. For these achievements, I described him as one of America’s greatest presidents. He was, as one biographer described him, the “Indispensable Man.”
But like many of the Founders, the “Father of Our Country” enslaved people. Inheriting ten people from his father at age eleven, Washington held more than three hundred men, women, and children in bondage at the time of his death in 1799. While one man was freed in Washington’s will, the others had to wait for Martha Washington to die. And roughly half of those people remained enslaved, parceled out among the Custis family, as part of the estate of Martha’s first husband.
In other words, George Washington was an enslaver from childhood to grave. And we have the receipts.
He once raffled off whole families in lots, including small children separated from parents. He later purchased four children at an estate sale, sending two dark-skinned boys to do fieldwork while two “mulatto” boys became house servants. Frank Lee became Mount Vernon’s butler and his brother Billy Lee served as Washington’s valet, his “loyal manservant,” for some thirty years.
Washington’s own journal records that he purchased teeth pulled from the mouths of enslaved people, presumably to be fitted into his dentures. In exchange for a grocery list of rum, molasses, fruits, and sweetmeats, he once shipped off a man named Tom, a repeat runaway, and at least two other men to the cane fields of the West Indies.
And then there is the heroic Washington’s actions at Yorktown. After his signal victory over the British in 1781, General Washington wasted no time in recovering Esther, Lucy, Sambo Andersen, and fourteen others who had escaped Mount Vernon when offered the chance. They were among thousands of enslaved people who had fled to the British in hopes of emancipation. While Washington won America’s liberty, they lost theirs.
Did this inconsistency trouble Washington? The contradiction between his devotion to freedom while enslaving people did seem to prick his conscience. In 1786, he confided to fellow Founder Robert Morris, “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].”
But he did precious little to make it happen, either while presiding over the convention that cemented slavery in the Constitution, or as first president. After Philadelphia became the nation’s capital in 1790, President Washington shuttled enslaved servants in and out of the city to evade a Pennsylvania law that called for the emancipation of enslaved males residing in the state for more than six months. In 1793, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, making assistance to runaways a federal offense.
When Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s enslaved maid, learned she would be given away as a wedding gift, she escaped from the home of the president in 1796. He advertised a ten-dollar reward for her return and spent the next three years trying to track down and recover a woman who had risked all for freedom.
For more than two centuries, these contradictions were given little weight by Washington’s admirers. The little boy who couldn’t tell a lie was immortalized as “First in the hearts of his countrymen.” The enslavement of human beings, especially by one of America’s most admired presidents, remained the dirty secret long concealed by textbooks and popular culture.
But a stunning moment of correction has arrived. It begs the questions:
Will George Washington’s picture be removed from the currency?
Will protestors project the images of African-American heroes onto Washington’s stern visage carved on Mt. Rushmore, as Harriet Tubman’s face now adorns Robert E. Lee’s statue in Richmond?
What about the Washington Monument?
We are now in a teachable moment. What we do is limited only by our creativity and the courage to be honest. We won’t take a chisel to the Washington Monument or spray paint it with graffiti. But we should teach students and all Americans that Washington was a flawed man who committed a crime against humanity while also building the nation. This was the “gross injustice and cruelty” that Frederick Douglass famously called out in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Remaining silent on that injustice and cruelty is no longer an option. Because this is one of those “self-evident” truths. The United States was “conceived in liberty,” but born in shackles. We can no longer honor Washington’s indispensable achievements without recognizing his original sin.
What better occasion than Washington’s Birthday to do that.
NOW IN PAPERBACK
GREAT SHORT BOOKS:
A YEAR OF READING — BRIEFLY
“An exciting guide to all that the world of fiction has to offer in 58 short novels — from ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ to the contemporary fiction of Colson Whitehead and Leïla Slimani — that, ‘like a first date,’ offer pleasure and excitement without commitment.” New York Times Book Review
Booklist “Editors’ Choice Adult Books 2022″
“…The most exceptional of the best books of 2022 reviewed in Booklist…”
“Delightfully accessible, Great Short Books: A Year of Reading–Briefly presents 58 fact-filled reviews of short books, a smorgasbord of titles sure to entice readers.” –Cheryl McKeon, Shelf Awareness
“I consider Davis’ ‘Great Short Books’ a gift to readers, a true treasure trove of literary recommendations.” —Sue Gilmore, SFGate
“Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.” —Bookpage Full Review
“An entertaining journey with a fun, knowledgeable guide…. “ Kirkus Reviews
“A must-purchase for public and school libraries.” ALA Booklist
FIRST TRADE REVIEWS FROM KIRKUS, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, BOOKLIST
“Davis feels that novels of 200 pages or less often don’t get the recognition they deserve, and this delightful book is the remedy…A must-purchase for public and school libraries.” *Starred Booklist review
“An entertaining journey with a fun, knowledgeable guide…. His love of books and reading shines through. From 1759 (Candide) to 2019 (The Nickel Boys), he’s got you covered.” –Kirkus Reviews
Full KIRKUS review here
“Davis’s conversational tone makes him a great guide to these literary aperitifs. This is sure to leave book lovers with something new to add to their lists.” FULL PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW here
During the lock-down, I swapped doom-scrolling for the insight and inspiration that come from reading great fiction. Inspired by Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” and its brief tales told during a pandemic, I read 58 great short novels –not as an escape but an antidote.
“A short novel is like a great first date. It can be extremely pleasant, even exciting, and memorable. Ideally, you leave wanting more. It can lead to greater possibilities. But there is no long-term commitment.”
–From “Notes of a Common Reader,” the Introduction to Great Short Books
Read “The Antidote to Everything,” an excerpt from the Introduction published on Lit Hub
The result is a compendium that goes from “Candide” to Colson Whitehead, and Edith Wharton to Leïla Slimani. And yes, Maus and many other Banned Books and Writers.
Advance Praise for Great Short Books: A Year of Reading—Briefly
“GREAT SHORT BOOKS is a fascinating, thoughtful, and inspiring guide to a marvelous form of literature: the short novel. You can dip into this book anywhere you like, but I found myself reading it cover-to-cover, delighting in discovering new works while also revisiting many of my favorites. GREAT SHORT BOOKS is itself a great book—for those who are over-scheduled but want to expand their reading and for those who will simply delight in spending time with a passionate fellow reader who on every page reminds us why we need and love to read.”
–Will Schwalbe, New York Times bestselling author of THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB
“This is the book that you didn’t know you really needed. I began digging into this book as soon as I got it, and it was such a delight to read beautiful prose, just a sip at a time, with Kenneth Davis’ notes to give me context and help me more fully appreciate the stories. Keep this book near your bed or on your coffee table. It will be read and loved.”
–Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of WE NEED TO TALK and SPEAKING OF RACE
From hard-boiled fiction to magical realism, the 18th century to the present day, Great Short Books spans genres, cultures, countries, and time to present a diverse selection of acclaimed and canonical novels—plus a few bestsellers. Like browsing in your favorite bookstore, this eclectic compendium is a fun and practical book for any passionate reader hoping to broaden their collection— or anyone who is looking for an entertaining, effortless reentry into reading.
And Indie booksellers weigh in:
“Need something grand, something classic, uh…. something short to read, but don’t know where to start? Check out Kenneth Davis’s guide to Great Short Books and you’ll soon find just the right tale to delight your literary palate. For each suggestion, Davis gives us first lines, a plot summary, an author’s bio, a reason for reading it, and, finally, what you should read next from the author’s canon. Pick up a copy… you’ll be glad you did. You’re welcome!”—Linda Bond, Auntie’s Bookstore (Spokane, WA)
“Kenneth Davis has presented the perfect solution for too many books, not enough time—a collection of exceptional short books perfect for reading in a society seemingly without any free time. Many of the books may be familiar by name, some are obscure, some even forgotten, but all belong in the canon of superb literature. He teases with a brief synopsis and explains why each book deserves attention. An absolutely intriguing bonus is a short biographical sketch of each author, many of whom had fascinating but traumatic lives. It is the perfect book to provide comfort literature for busy readers.”—Bill Cusumano, Square Books (Oxford, Miss.)
More early reviews from readers at NetGalley.com
“GREAT SHORT BOOKS is a wonderful, breezy but deep look at the outstanding short books of the last 150 years. Kenneth C. Davis is a genius at summarizing each book and making the reader want to read said book post haste. This is a book I didn’t know the world needed but the world did.” –Tom O., reviewer
“…an incredibly valuable tool for book clubs and readers everywhere! Some authors/titles are well-known and others will be new discoveries….HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for any book group looking to find new titles or any reader who wants to know what to read next.” –Ann H. reviewer
“I found over a dozen new authors or titles I want to now read that were included in his main list, and the Further Reading at the end of each chapter and at the end of the volume itself.
As others have suggested, this is a great tool for Book Clubs!
Not Lit Crit, it is mostly focused on necessary, just-the-facts-mam information on one person’s reading of short books over a year. Well worth a read, and great for browsing!” –Stephen B., Librarian
“What better way to introduce new readers to more than 50 ‘short’ books. This handy book is full of non-spoiler descriptions and cultural context that situate these stories within our world.” –Kelsey W., librarian
S0urce: Great Short Books via NetGalley
I can’t wait to start talking about this book with readers everywhere.
Teachers, Librarians, Book Clubs and Other Learning Communities:
(Earlier post updated 2/13/2024)
We are past Abraham Lincoln’s actual birthday–February 12– and we are heading towards a three-day holiday.
So What Day Is it After All?
Okay. We all do it. It is printed on calendars and posted in bank windows. We mistakenly call the third Monday in February Presidents Day, in part because of all those commercials in which George Washington swings his legendary ax and “Rail-splitter” Abe Lincoln hoists his ax to chop down prices on everything from mattresses and linens to SUVs.
But, this February holiday is officially still George Washington’s Birthday.
But Washington’s Birthday has become widely known as Presidents Day (or President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day). The popular usage and confusion resulted from the merging of what had been two widely celebrated Presidential birthdays in February —Lincoln’s on February 12th, which was never a federal holiday– and Washington’s on February 22, which was.
Created under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which gave us three-day weekend Monday holidays, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is technically still Washington’s Birthday. But here’s the rub: the holiday can never land on Washington’s true birthday because the latest date it can fall is February 21, as it did in 2011.
But we cannot discuss Washington, Lincoln, the presidency, or much of United States history without discussing the role that slavery played in the foundation and establishment of the republic.
READ MY ARTICLE in Social Education: “The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles”
George Washington’s role as an enslaver is fully explored in my book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
There is a wealth of information about the First President at his home Mount Vernon.
And read More About the creation of the Presidency, Washington, his life and administration in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. Washington’s role in the American Revolution is highlighted Chapter One of THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR.
As we move toward Black History Month, and teaching an accurate version of American History is under assault, the nation must honestly confront the role that enslavement played in the nation’s founding and development. In the Shadow of Liberty tells that story.
Did you know that many of America’s Founding Fathers—who fought for liberty and justice for all—were slave owners?
Through the powerful stories of five enslaved people who were “owned” by four of our greatest presidents, this book helps set the record straight about the role slavery played in the founding of America. These dramatic narratives explore our country’s great tragedy—that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.
(12.05.2023 revision of a post first published 12.11.2o13. But it never gets old.)
Fortunately, the so-called “War on Christmas” seems to have disappeared this year.
Proclaiming a secular assault on the religious significance of the holiday has been a seasonal tradition, just like the Macy’s Parade with Santa Claus. Claiming that “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” was a betrayal of Christian America a staple of conservative talk show hosts for years and part of America’s political culture wars.
The basic premise: Christmas is under attack by Grinchy atheists and secular humanists who want to remove any vestige of Christianity from the public space. Any criticism of public displays devoted to religious symbols –mangers, crosses, stars — was seen by these folks as part of a wider attack on “Christian values” in America. Mass market retailers who substituted “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” were part of the conspiracy to “ruin Christmas.”
But in fact, most religious displays are not banned in America. Courts simply direct that one religion cannot be favored over another under the Constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Christmas displays are generally permitted as long as menorahs, Kwanzaa displays, and other seasonal symbols are also allowed.
In other words, the “War on Christmas” is pretty much a phony war. But where did this all start?
The first laws against Christmas celebrations and festivities in America came during the 1600s –from the same wonderful folks who brought you the Salem Witch Trials — the Puritans. (By the way, H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as the fear that “somewhere someone may be happy.”)
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
–From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659
The Founding Fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not a festive bunch. To them, Christmas was a debauched, wasteful festival that threatened their core religious beliefs. They understood that most of the trappings of Christmas –like holly and mistletoe– were vestiges of ancient pagan rituals. More importantly, they thought Christmas — the mass of Christ– was too “popish,” by which they meant Roman Catholic. These are the people who banned Catholic priests from Boston under penalty of death.
This sensibility actually began over the way in which Christmas was celebrated in England. Oliver Cromwell, a strict Puritan who took over England in 1645, believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of the sort of seasonal moral decay that Protestant writer Philip Stubbes described in the 1500s:
‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’
In 1643, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations.
“The Puritans sought to turn Christmas into a fast day, with an act of Parliament in 1643 declaring that it should be observed ‘with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.’ Two years later, the Directory of Public Worship was unequivocal that feasts such as Christmas had no warrant in scripture.”
–Bruce Gordon, “The Grinch That Didn’t Steal Christmas”
Attending mass was forbidden. Under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the Puritan mission to remove all merrymaking during the Christmas period. To Puritans, the celebration of the Lord’s birth should be day of fasting and prayer.
In England, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. In Massachusetts, the ban remained in place until 1687.
So if the conservative broadcasters and religious folk really want a traditional, American Christian Christmas, the solution is simple — don’t have any fun.
Read my article on religion in America, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance” (Smithsonian)
And read more about the Puritans in Don’t Know Much About® History and America’s Hidden History. The history behind Christmas is also told in Don’t Know Much About® The Bible.
“I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding states, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the states where it exists.”
–Inaugural Address, March 4, 1837
(Post of 12/5/2016; reposted 12/5/2023)
Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States, was born on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York, making him the first American president born a U.S. citizen. Van Buren was also known as “Old Kinderhook, or “OK,” the origin of that American expression.
Van Buren was also the first New Yorker elected President. He was a crafty political power broker who mastered the art of “machine politics” and helped bring New York into Andrew Jackson’s column in 1828. He became Jackson’s Secretary of State and later his vice president. He won the presidential election of 1836. But his presidency was tainted by the Panic of 1837, a deep economic depression that lasted seven years. He was defeated in 1840 by William Henry Harrison of the Whig Party.
•Van Buren was the first president not of English descent. Growing up in a Dutch-speaking household, he was also the only president who spoke English as a second language.
•As a young attorney, he became the protege of Aaron Burr. Due to a passing resemblance and their political and professional connections, it was rumored that he was Burr’s son, gossip thoroughly dismissed by historians.
•Elected Governor of New York in November 1828, Van Buren took the office on January 1, 1829 but resigned on March 12, 1829 to become secretary of state, making him the shortest tenured governor in New York history.
•During Van Buren’s administration, the removal of native Americans from the Southeast accelerated including the removal of the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears.”
•The Congressional “gag rule” was passed during his presidency; the rule forbid any discussion of petitions relating to slavery, including banning slavery in Washington, D.C, as mentioned in Van Buren’s inaugural address above.
•Failing to win the Democratic nomination in 1844, Van Buren became the first president to run on a third party ticket when he joined the Free Soil Party as its candidate in 1848.
And read more about Van Buren and his administration in Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents
On the holiday calendar, when we leave Veterans Day behind, we round towards Thanksgiving — perhaps America’s most beloved, widely shared, and mythologized celebration.
But this reminds me of the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving proclamation came 160 years ago in 1863. It came in the midst of the Civil War in the same month Lincoln offered the Gettysburg Address. It must have felt like there was little to celebrate– or to be grateful for.
Like the Macy’s parade, this is my Thanksgiving tradition. I post two articles about the holiday with some “Hidden History” that appeared on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.
So here’s something to read–either before or after the feast.
The first, from 2008, is called “A French Connection” and tells the story of the real first Pilgrims in America. They were French. In Florida. Fifty years before the Mayflower sailed. It did not end with a happy meal. In fact, it ended in a religious massacre.
TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
The complete story can be found in America’s Hidden History.
The second is “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (2014) and tells the story of the Union League providing Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops.
Of all the bedtime-story versions of American history we teach, the tidy Thanksgiving pageant may be the one stuffed with the heaviest serving of myth. This iconic tale is the main course in our nation’s foundation legend, complete with cardboard cutouts of bow-carrying Native American cherubs and pint-size Pilgrims in black hats with buckles. And legend it largely is.
In fact, what had been a New England seasonal holiday became more of a “national” celebration only during the Civil War, with Lincoln’s proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.
Enjoy them both.
“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
This is a revised version of a post originally written for Veterans Day in 2011. The meaning still applies. In 2023, November 11 falls on a Saturday and the holiday is observed on Friday November 10.
On Veterans Day, a reminder of what the day once meant and what it should still mean.
That was the moment at which World War I –then called THE GREAT WAR– largely came to end in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
One of the most tragically senseless and destructive periods in all history came to a close in Western Europe with the Armistice –or end of hostilities between Germany and the Allied nations — that began at that moment. Some 20 million people had died in the fighting that raged for more than four years since August 1914. The formal end of the war came with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
Today, it is important to recognize the role of that treaty and the war in the rise of some of the most murderous dictators in history. That history is told in my new book, Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy.
Besides the war casualties, an estimated 100 million people died during the war of the Spanish flu, a worldwide pandemic that was completely linked to the war and had an impact on its outcome. That is the subject of my recent book, More Deadly Than War:The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.
The date of November 11th became a national holiday of remembrance in many of the victorious allied nations –a day to commemorate the loss of so many lives in the war. And in the United States, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. A few years later, in 1926, Congress passed a resolution calling on the President to observe each November 11th as a day of remembrance:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and
Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
Of course, the hopes that “the war to end all wars” would bring peace were short-lived. By 1939, Europe was again at war and what was once called “the Great War” would become World War I. With the end of World War II, there was a movement in America to rename Armistice Day and create a holiday that recognized the veterans of all of America’s conflicts. President Eisenhower signed that law in 1954. (In 1971, Veterans Day began to be marked as a Monday holiday on the third Monday in November, but in 1978, the holiday was returned to the traditional November 11th date).
Today, Veterans Day honors the duty, sacrifice and service of America’s millions of veterans of all wars, unlike Memorial Day, which specifically honors those who died fighting in America’s wars. In 2022, according to the Census Bureau, there were 16.2 million veterans in the United States. (Source: US Census Bureau)
We should remember and celebrate all those men and women. But lost in that worthy goal is the forgotten meaning of this day in history –the meaning which Congress gave to Armistice Day in 1926:
to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations …
inviting the people of the United States to observe the day … with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.
The Library of Congress offers an extensive Veterans History Project.
Read more about World War I and all of America’s conflicts in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.
I discuss the role of Americans in battle in more than 240 years of American history in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette Books and Random House Audio).
MORE DEADLY THAN WAR: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War was published in May 2018. Strongman was published in 2020.
(Originally posted in 2022; updated September 25, 2023)
“The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack.”
American Library Association “Freedom to Read” Statement, first issued on June 25, 1953.
More than two years into a sharp rise in book challenges across the United States, restrictions are increasingly targeting public libraries, where they could affect not only the children’s section but also the books available to everyone in a community. New York Times, September 21, 2023
Banned Books Week 2023 is marked from October 1-7.
This post offers a brief overview of book banning in America.
Robin Hood was a Commie.
That, at least, is what an Indiana state textbook commissioner thought back in 1953. This official called for schools to ban books mentioning Robin Hood for the simple reason that Robin and his Merry Men robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Their antics reeked suspiciously of godless Socialism.
It is easy to laugh off this overlooked history as an amusing bit of trivia. Except the Hoosier state assault on Robin Hood was part of a larger nationwide effort to ban books and suppress intellectual freedom. It was led by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the anti-Communist “witch hunts.” It targeted books, writers, and libraries both at home and around the world. And it holds pointed lessons about safeguarding democracy from the forces threatening it today.
After the 1947 blacklisting of the “Hollywood Ten” screenwriters by the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC), Senator McCarthy emerged as the face and unrelenting voice of a crusade against Communist influences in America. In 1950, McCarthy claimed to possess an extensive list of Communists who worked in the State Department. Launching his war on alleged Communist infiltrators as chairman of a Senate committee on government operations, McCarthy was abetted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. To be labeled a Communist was an accusation from which there was no escape. Claims of innocence or invoking the Fifth Amendment were tantamount to confession.
Set against the Korean War begun in 1950, and with the convictions of Alger Hiss that year for perjury over espionage and the Rosenbergs in 1951 for atomic spying, America’s fear of Communism spread like wildfire. Gaining an army of rabid followers, McCarthy’s crusade to root out subversives widened to focus intently on libraries, which were pressured to purge their collections of works by Marx. By 1952, the New York Times described a pervasive wave of educational book censorship in America. Around the country, self-appointed local committees— “volunteer educational dictators” in the words of one librarian—were coercing librarians to remove books considered “un-American,” the Times found.
This anti-Communist juggernaut was not only steam-rolling domestic libraries. McCarthy sent it on a road trip. In April 1953, McCarthy’s underlings, attorney Roy Cohn and associate David Schine, were dispatched to Europe. Part of their mission was to scrutinize U.S. Information Service libraries, created to provide war-ravaged countries with American books. McCarthy claimed that these collections held thousands of works by Communists. Targeting suspect authors, just as Hollywood had been purged of “Red” screenwriters, Cohn and Schine succeeded in intimidating foreign service officials. No fires were set, but titles by Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and Howard Fast, among others, were pulled from the shelves.
Inaugurated in January 1953, President Eisenhower was hesitant to challenge McCarthy. But he discreetly fired back. He told a Dartmouth commencement audience in June of that year:
“Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency.”
–President Eisenhower, “Remarks at the Dartmouth College Commencement”
Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s defense of reading was less than full-throated. Ultimately, his State Dept. folded to McCarthy’s men.
“Only reckless men, under these conditions, could choose to take steps offensive to McCarthy since the President and the Secretary [of State John Foster Dulles] have rarely backed up their subordinates whom McCarthy has singled out for attack.”
But America’s librarians were not about to be silenced. Despite the stale caricature of an old lady in a bun shushing the patrons, many librarians spoke out, daringly, given the nation’s fearful mood and threats to their jobs. Responding to this mounting pressure, the American Library Association (ALA), in concert with the American Association of Publishers, issued on June 25, 1953 a “Freedom to Read” statement –since revised several times—that begins, “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack.”
Unfortunately, the ALA was right then—and now. Ike’s “book burners” are back—or perhaps it is more accurate to say they never left. Across America, a concerted effort to purge school and public libraries of “offensive” literature has found new vigor and a louder voice. There is a long history of attempts to rid libraries of books considered objectionable—it is the reason the ALA launched its annual Banned Books Week forty years ago to highlight local challenges to books. But these perennial community-level attempts to challenge books deemed “subversive” or “indecent” have reached a new level of intensity.
Currently, in America’s riven political ecosystem, the hyper-charged urge to purge has been fused with anger over vaccinations and mask mandates and the assault on teaching any American history that doesn’t fit a suitably patriotic mold. In such states as Florida, Texas, and Virginia, the backlash has grown intense and been wrapped in the pretense of giving parents “control” over their children’s education. The bullseye has moved from Robin Hood, The Communist Manifesto, and The Catcher in the Rye to a new set of targets. Many of the books now under fire deal with race, slavery, gender issues, and of course, sexuality.
Raising the fever pitch are books exploring gay relationships and gender identity. In November 2021, a Virginia school board member was quoted in press reports as saying, “I think we should throw those books in a fire.”In February, a Tennessee pastor went further, leading a book burning that saw Harry Potter and Twilight consigned to the flames—both among the usual suspects in recent book bans and challenges.
We’ve seen these flames before. In fiction, they raged in Ray Bradbury’s dystopic Fahrenheit 451 in which “firemen” burn outlawed books. Bradbury’s 1953 novel was written in large part as a reaction to the ongoing purges under McCarthy and his followers.
But these flames have also roared more frighteningly in fact. Book burnings are actually older than books, dating to ancient times in Greece and China. After Gutenberg’s printing revolution, the Vatican created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a catalog of banned books, some of which were burned, sometimes along with their authors—like Giordano Bruno in 1600.
Most notoriously in pre-World War II Germany, some 25,000 “un-German” books were consigned to Nazi bonfires in May 1933. Targeted by Hitler’s loyal disciples were works by German Jews and Marx, Freud, and Einstein. Books by German novelists Thomas Mann and Eric Maria Remarque—author of the World War I classic All Quiet on the Western Front— went into the flames along with such American writers as Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Helen Keller.
Can it happen here? It has.
Nearly a century before the Nazi book burnings, a concerted effort to flood the slaveholding states with abolitionist literature was met with fire. In the summer of 1835, an angry mob raided a Charleston, South Carolina post office and consigned thousands of abolitionist pamphlets to a bonfire. The book burning was topped off with an effigy of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison being set ablaze. Garrison was lucky. Tragically, abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy was not. Two years later, a mob intent on burning anti-slavery literature in Alton, Illinois murdered Lovejoy as he tried to defend his presses. A century later, in 1939, California growers burned Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath.
Scrubbing the nation’s public square of “offensive” materials and torching books—despite the protections in the Bill of Rights—are as American as apple pie, lynch mobs, burning crosses, and now, tiki torches.
But there’s something new in the equation. The latest wave of book suppression is not simply about “subversion” or “dirty words.” Scratch the surface of recent book bans and it is clear that the assault on free expression cannot be separated from the larger Orwellian effort to sanitize American history, delegitimize literature by gay writers and people of color, and undermine democracy.
This revitalized onslaught carries the distinct whiff of white, Christian nationalism. This is the racial, cultural, and political ideology that once reared its head as nineteenth-century Nativism, the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and the America Firsters of the 1930s.
Claiming that the United States is a “Christian nation,” this strand of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic American DNA is older than the nation itself. Time has not diminished its power. Now adding “globalists” to their enemies list, white Christian nationalism has been tied to the Charlottesville rioters who chanted “You will not replace us” and the January 6 insurrection by experts who study the movement.
America has no monopoly on this historically powerful faction. A form of white Christian nationalism, with its claims of racial superiority, certainly fed Hitler’s rise in Germany.
And that is why this revived wave of book suppression is a piece of a much larger development. The reason that Maus, a Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel-memoir about the Holocaust, was ostensibly pulled from schools in Tennessee was for some of its language and a discreet cartoon illustration of the author’s mother—an Auschwitz survivor—naked in the bathtub where she had committed suicide. But its critics apparently sought a kinder, gentler discussion of the Holocaust, although any attempts to soften that history tiptoe dangerously toward denialism. This is how history goes down 1984’s “Memory Hole.”
It is more than a little ironic that this onslaught of suppression comes as many on the Right decry the so-called “cancel culture” of the Left. Claiming their right to free speech is under attack, modern-day “book burners” crush that freedom under their boot heels as they attempt to distort or erase history and silence unwelcome voices. When such voices and ideas are deemed a threat and suppressed by the government, religious authorities, or a political party, we teeter on the thin ice of authoritarianism. The ice cracks when a fictional character is attacked—whether it is Homer Simpson, Huckleberry Finn, or Robin Hood. All three have come under fire over the years.
Banning books, legislating against “divisive concepts” in history class, and purging diversity all come straight from the playbook of the Strongman. He knows the power of the pen. Books make us think. Literature cultivates the free mind. Writers are truth-tellers. In 1917, Soviet leader Lenin ordered a “Decree on Press” threatening closure of publications critical of the Bolsheviks. Authoritarians know the danger posed by truth. And they are more than willing to use sword and flame to cut it down.
The question is what can we do about it?
“The antidote to authoritarianism is not some form of American authoritarianism,” Cooper Union librarian David K. Berninghausen told the Times in 1952. “The antidote is free inquiry.”
When Robin Hood was threatened by a textbook commissioner in 1953, some Indiana State University students fought back. Five of them gathered chicken feathers, dyed them green, and spread them across campus. Their protest caught on at other colleges, including UCLA, where two hundred students dressed up as Sherwood Forest’s Merry Men for a Green Feather drop. A clever, well-aimed protest, the Green Feather movement broke no windows or legs. Robin Hood was spared.
But those more innocent days are gone. In the internet age, the lines are more sharply drawn, sides set in stone, and the stakes much higher.
That is why dumping some green feathers or wearing an “I READ BANNED BOOKS” t-shirt will not be enough for this moment. If we care, we must take to heart Ike’s advice and “read every book.” We must firmly resolve to read. But buying and reading Maus or Toni Morrison’s Beloved are only the first steps.
We have to make sure that others can read these books. We must be audacious in support of free libraries and vigorously support all teachers who want to encourage students to read, debate, and think for themselves. And we must vigilantly push back on politicians and schoolboards purging libraries of uncomfortable truths. A few loud voices dominating a schoolboard or town hall meeting do not a majority make. To allow a noisy minority to dictate what we read and teach is skating on that thin ice of totalitarian loyalty oaths typical of a Mussolini or Stalin.
On this final note, history is clear. When you have succeeded in marking a writer as “degenerate” or “immoral”—as the Nazis did—you have moved towards dehumanizing them. It is a few short perilous steps from censorship to suppression to a conflagration far worse. In Berlin, on the spot where Nazis threw books into a bonfire, there is a plaque citing German playwright Heinrich Heine’s 1820 words, which read in part: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”
The road to Hell is lit by burning books.
UPDATE: “A Fast-Growing Network of Conservative Groups Is Fueling a Surge in Book Bans” (New York Times, December 12, 2022)
“This legal action could profoundly limit the availability of books in the Commonwealth of Virginia. No book has been banned for obscenity in the United States in more than 50 years. Prohibiting the sale of books is a form of censorship that cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment.”
I am also linking to this article from American Libraries, a publication of the American Library Association; “Same Fight, New Tactics,” which offers tips for meeting challenges to books in libraries.
Here are some key organizations leading the fight against book bans and other forms of censorship:
American Library Association (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF)
© Copyright 2022, 2023 Kenneth C. Davis All rights reserved
To most Americans, the first Monday in September means a three-day weekend and the last hurrah of summer, a final outing at the shore before school begins, a family picnic. The federal Labor Day was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland during his second term in 1894.
With the enormous stresses placed on working people with the Covid pandemic and the changes in our working habits, lives have been altered with no end in sight. Work –labor– in America has been transformed.
“Americans worked less last year on average, but that was because mass layoffs in the spring meant fewer people were working at all. Among those who kept their jobs, there was little change in the amount of time spent working in a given day — about seven and a half hours in 2020, the same as in 2019.”
And as Nobel Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in August 2021:
“And workers are, it seems, willing to pay a price to avoid going back to the way things were. This may, by the way, be especially true for older workers, some of whom seem to have dropped out of the labor force.”
But as workers have begun on a grassroots level to organize unions at such places REI, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Amazon warehouses, and a LA topless bar, and Hollywood writers have gone on strike, Labor suddenly has muscle. And for the first time in many years, Labor has a friend in the White House.
“The administration’s show of support comes as unprecedented worker organizing — from strike authorizations to work stoppages — hit multiple industries this year, including, transportation, entertainment, hospitality and healthcare.
Workers calling for higher wages, better working conditions and job security, especially since the end of the pandemic, have been increasingly willing to walk out on the job as employers face a greater need for workers.
The Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations Labor Action Tracker logged 424 work stoppages — which includes 417 strikes and seven lockouts — involving approximately 224,000 workers in 2022.”
–Source ABC News, August 28, 2023
As we rethink work and life, it is a most fitting moment to consider how we labor and the history of Labor Day. The holiday was born at the end of the nineteenth century, in a time when work was no picnic. As America was moving from farms to factories in the Industrial Age, there was a long, violent, often-deadly struggle for fundamental workers’ rights, a struggle that in many ways was America’s “other civil war.” (From “The Blood and Sweat Behind Labor Day”)
The first American Labor Day is dated to a parade organized by unions in New York City on September 5, 1882, as a celebration of “the strength and spirit of the American worker.” They wanted among, other things, an end to child labor.
In 1861, Lincoln told Congress:
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation.
Today, in postindustrial America, Abraham Lincoln’s words ring empty. Labor is far from “superior to capital.” Working people and unions have borne the brunt of the great changes in the globalized economy.
But the facts are clear: In the current “gig economy,” the loss of union jobs and the recent failures of labor to organize workers is one key reason for the decline of America’s middle class.
Read the full history of Labor Day in this essay: “The Blood and Sweat Behind Labor Day” (2011)