The Devil can scripture for his own purpose.
–Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Throughout history, the Bible has been used to justify many arguments. Often those biblical citations are mistaken, taken out of context, based on a mistranslation –or simply misused. These myths and misconceptions about what is in the Bible led me to write Don’t Know Much About® the Bible.
In American history, the Bible was cited to both justify slavery and call for its abolition. For centuries, slavers pointed to a passage in the book of Genesis to justify the cruel, murderous enslavement of millions of Africans. It is a part of the story of Noah that is not usually told in Sunday school.
After building the ark, loading the animals two by two, and weathering the Flood, Noah and his family reach dry land. Noah begins to plant and grows some grapes to make wine:
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
–Genesis 9:20-27 King James Version
The passage is a bit garbled. But the “curse of Ham” was used to justify the enslavement of people of African ancestry, who were believed to be descendants of Ham, through his son Canaan. This theory was widely held during the eighteenth to twentieth centuries to justify both slavery and the racist notion of the inferiority of Blacks, and added to the many biblical references used by Christians to justify enslavement.
Gradually, other Christians argued that to enslave another human was a basic contradiction of Jesus’s teachings, including the Christian version of the “Golden Rule”:
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
–Matthew 7: 12 (King James Version)
There are many other instances of the Bible and religion being used as a weapon throughout American history, including the anti-Catholic “Bible Riots” in Philadelphia in 1844, which I wrote about in A Nation Rising.
Read more about the traditions of religious intolerance in my Smithsonian article “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance.”
•This is an election year. So our third session (June 3) will be about how we elect a president. Come to mention it, why do we even have one?
This session will be a conversation— not a lecture. There won’t be any quick quizzes, tests, or papers to turn in. All you need to bring is your curiosity and your questions.
If you are a student from the middle or high school grades, I hope to see you there. Teachers and parents are welcome to join in as well as we talk about what we should learn from the past.
Space is limited. But we want you to be there. History matters. Now more than ever. When you have questions, ask!
If you missed the first two check them out:
•In our first get-together, we talked about the worst pandemic in modern history— the Spanish flu — and what it had to do with the First World War. And we’ll also look at what lessons we can take from the Spanish flu pandemic today.
•In our second talk, we discussed the history of slavery in the United States and the stories of five people who were enslaved by four U.S. presidents.
MEMORIAL DAY -MONDAY MAY 25, 2020
(Revise of 2015 post)
It is a well-established fact that Americans like to argue. And we do. Mays or Mantle. A Caddy or a Lincoln. And, of course, abolition, abortion, and guns. And now lockdowns.
There is no debate that Memorial Day 2020 will be unlike any other. Many traditional public celebrations and family gatherings will be severely curtailed.
But a debate over Memorial Day –and more specifically where and how it began? America’s most solemn holiday should be free of rancor. But it never has been.
The heated arguments over removing the Confederate flag and monuments to heroes and soldiers of the Confederacy in New Orleans and St. Louis provide examples and reminders of the birth of Memorial Day.
Waterloo, New York claimed that the holiday originated there with a parade and decoration of the graves of fallen soldiers in 1866. But according to the Veterans Administration, at least 25 places stake a claim to the birth of Memorial Day. Among the pack are Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which says it was first in 1864.( “Many Claim to Be Memorial Day Birthplace” )
And Charleston, South Carolina, according to historian David Blight, points to a parade of emancipated children in May 1865 who decorated the graves of fallen Union soldiers whose remains were moved from a racetrack to a proper cemetery.
Born out of the Civil War’s catastrophic death toll as “Decoration Day,” Memorial Day is a day for honoring our nation’s war dead. A veteran of the Mexican War and the Civil War, John A. Logan, a Congressman and leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, established the first somber commemoration on May 30, 1868, in Arlington Cemetery, the sacred space wrested from property once belonging to Robert E. Lee’s family.( When Memorial Day was No Picnic by James M. McPherson.) The Grand Army of the Republic was a powerful fraternal organization formed of Civil War Union veterans and Logan issued “General Order N.11” calling for a day to decorate the graves of the fallen Union soldiers with flowers.
What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.
From its inception, Decoration Day (later Memorial Day) was linked to “Yankee” losses in the cause of emancipation. Calling for the first formal Decoration Day, Union General John Logan wrote, “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains…”
In other words, Logan’s first Decoration Day was divisive— a partisan affair, organized by northerners.
In 1871, Frederick Douglass gave a Memorial Day speech in Arlington that focused on this division:
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.
But the question remains: what inspired Logan to call for this rite of decorating soldier’s graves with fresh flowers?
The simple answer is—his wife.
While visiting Petersburg, Virginia – which fell to General Grant in 1865 after a deadly, year-long siege – Mary Logan learned about the city’s women who had formed a Ladies’ Memorial Association. Their aim was to show admiration “…for those who died defending homes and loved ones.”
Choosing June 9th, the anniversary of “The Battle of the Old Men and the Young Boys” in 1864, a teacher had taken her students to the city’s cemetery to decorate the graves of the fallen. General Logan’s wife wrote to him about the practice. Soon after, he ordered a day of remembrance.
The teacher and her students, it is worth noting, had placed flowers and flags on both Union and Confederate graves.
As America wages its partisan wars at full pitch, this may be a lesson for us all.
More resources at the New York Times Topics archive of Memorial Day articles
The story of “The Battle of the Old Men and the Young Boys” is told in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR (Now in paperback)
(Revised post originally published on February 29, 2016)
Once again, it is necessary to repost this piece about the Kerner Commission, formed fifty-three years ago to address violence in American cities.
On July 27, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. He was responding to a series of violent outbursts in predominantly black urban neighborhoods in such cities as Detroit and Newark.
On July 29, 1967, President Johnson made remarks about the reasons for the commission:
The civil peace has been shattered in a number of cities. The American people are deeply disturbed. They are baffled and dismayed by the wholesale looting and violence that has occurred both in small towns and in great metropolitan centers.
No society can tolerate massive violence, any more than a body can tolerate massive disease. And we in America shall not tolerate it.
But just saying that does not solve the problem. We need to know the answers, I think, to three basic questions about these riots:
–Why did it happen?
–What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
Source:Lyndon B. Johnson: “Remarks Upon Signing Order Establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.,” July 29, 1967. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
On Feb. 29, 1968, President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, later known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, issued a stark warning:
“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 half a century ago, the list of grievances reads as if it could have been written today.
The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over but people are already asking what a post-pandemic world will look like. Will there be more telemedicine? Less time in the office? More remote learning?
The short answer is nobody really knows. But history can help. The sweeping changes that followed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 offer some lessons.
Following the pandemic of 1918-1919, which took 675,000 American lives, most people just wanted to feel “normal.” Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding made “Return to Normalcy” the centerpiece of his 1920 campaign and won the White House in a popular landslide.
People also adopted a collective amnesia. The Spanish flu pandemic overlapped with the First World War and there was widespread sickness, death, and destruction. But while the First World War profoundly influenced art and literature, the Spanish flu pandemic left few marks in culture or popular memory.
There was no “pandemic literature.” Few novels, plays, movies, or paintings depicted the flu. A notable exception is Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a story written by Katherine Anne Porter, a survivor of the flu. No full-scale history of the flu was written until years later.
No surprise, the pandemic was followed by a desire to relax, have fun — even go a little wild– especially after after Prohibition was ushered in starting on January 17, 1920.
The 1920s brought loosening styles of clothing (Flappers!), music (Jazz!), dancing (the Charleston!), and the boom of Hollywood into one of the nation’s biggest businesses. It was the “Roaring Twenties.” After years of war and disease, people wanted to forget their troubles.
The status of women changed— they largely benefited. They had stepped in as nurses, factory workers, and teachers, helping the sick on the home front as others went to war. Women won the right to vote in federal elections in 1920 and voted in all 48 states that year.
And there was a dark side. During the pandemic, Germans were blamed for poisoning the water and causing the pandemic. Crowded tenements were hotspots and immigrants often got blamed for the outbreak. America retreated into isolationism and the anti-immigration laws passed after the pandemic were draconian. The fear of foreigners also emerged in the nation’s firest “Red Scare,” in which a young J. Edgar Hoover began his quest to find socialists, Bolsheviks and communists. And the hatred of immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and African Americans led to a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and with it a wave of lynchings.
Of course, the excitement of the “Roaring Twenties” would be short lived and come crashing down –literally– with Wall Street’s “Great Crash” in October 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
I discuss some of these changes in my book More Deadly Than War and the era of the “Roaring Twenties” in Don’t Know Much About® History.
Dorothea Lange was born on May 26, 1895, in Hoboken,NJ. (2015 post; updated 5/26/2020)
Best known for her photographs of Depression-era America, she also recorded the the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Lange’s commitment to social justice and her faith in the power of photography remained constant throughout her life. In 1942, with the United States recently entered into World War II, the government’s War Relocation Authority assigned her to document the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, a policy she strongly opposed. She made critical images, which the government suppressed for the duration of the war.
–Dorothea Lange biographical entry from Museum of Modern Art
Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, there was a wave of fear and hysteria aimed at Japanese and people of Japanese descent living in America, including American citizens, mostly on the West Coast. In February 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which declared certain areas to be “exclusion zones” from which the military could remove anyone for security reasons. It provided the legal groundwork for the eventual relocation of approximately 120,000 people to a variety of detention centers around the country, the largest forced relocation in American history. Nearly two-thirds of them were American citizens. (Smaller numbers of Americans of German and Italian descent were also detained.)
The attitude of many Americans at the time was expressed in a Los Angeles Times editorial of the period:
“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched… So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…” (Source: Impounded, p. 53)
The exclusion order was rescinded in 1945 and internees were allowed to leave, although many had lost their homes, businesses and property during their confinement. However, the last camp did not close until 1946.
In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the internment and, in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided for a reparation of $20,000 to surviving detainees.
One of those detainees was Albert Kurihara who told the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981:
“I hope this country will never forget what happened, and do what it can to make sure that future generations will never forget.” (from Impounded, Norton)
Photographer Dorothea Lange also photographed the internment camps and her censored images were published in 2006 in the book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment (WW Norton, 2006).
The National Parks Service offers a Teaching With Historic Places lesson plan based on the camps some of which are now part of the National Parks System including Minidoka in Idaho and the Manzanar camp in California.
The Library of Congress offers an extensive collection of Lange photographs.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= (This video was originally posted May 2012. It was produced, edited and directed by Colin Davis.)
Memorial Day brings thoughts of duty, honor, courage, sacrifice and loss. The holiday, the most somber date on the American national calendar, was born in the ashes of the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” when General John S. Logan –a-veteran of the Mexican and Civil Wars, a prominent Illinois politician and leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union fraternal organization –called for May 30, 1868 as the day on which the graves of fallen Union soldiers would be decorated with fresh flowers in his “General Orders No. 11.”
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds.”
Pointedly, Logan’s order was seen as a day to honor those who died in the cause of ending slavery and opposing the “rebellion.”
Every year at this time, I spend a lot of time talking about the roots and traditions of Memorial Day.
It’s not about the barbecue or the Mattress Sales. Obscured by the holiday atmosphere around Memorial Day is the fact that it is the most solemn day on the national calendar. This video tells a bit about the history behind the holiday.
One of the most famous symbols of the loss on Memorial Day is the Poppy, inspired by this World War I poem by John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Have a memorable Memorial Day!
The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs offers more resources on the history and traditions of Memorial Day.
(Images in video: Courtesy of the Library of Congress and Flanders Cemetery image Courtesy of the American Battle Monuments Commission)
We have reached our Dr. Stockman moment.
In Ibsen’s classic drama, An Enemy of the People, Dr. Thomas Stockman has discovered that the waters in his town’s famed spa are poisoning the guests. He pleads with his brother, the Mayor, to close the lucrative attraction. But Mayor Peter Stockman refuses to shut down and repair the toxic baths.
“Have you taken the trouble to consider what your proposed alterations would cost?” the Mayor asks his brother. “And do you suppose anyone would come near the place after it had got about that the water was dangerous?”
And there it is. Ibsen brings us to that place where economic health trumps public health.
Sound familiar? It should. Because we face a similar conflict today. A president and his administration are pushing to “reopen” the economy despite express warnings from medical experts about the perils of premature action.
We have been down this road before. This is not the first time that the common good and the bottom line have faced off. In the midst of one pandemic, we need only look to the history of the 1918 pandemic, a story told in my book More Deadly Than War.
What was later called the Spanish flu emerged in March 1918, blossoming into an epidemic on army bases where young Americans were training for Europe’s trenches. After slacking in summertime, the outbreak returned in a second wave, even more swift and lethal, hitting American ports like Boston in September 1918. Striking down soldiers and sailors by the thousands, it jumped from the military to the civilian population. Seeing “bodies stacked like cordwood,” army doctors wondered if they were witnessing a new plague. The Spanish flu was carried to other ports and military bases, including those near Philadelphia.
But to Philadelphia’s civil authorities, it was “just the flu.” And Philadelphia was planning a parade – a grandiose show of patriotism and pride to promote the sale of Liberty Loans. These war bonds were marketed through an intense nationwide propaganda campaign that made buying these bonds an act of allegiance. Woe to those “slackers” who didn’t “do their part.”
As Philadelphia planned its spectacle, the city’s director of public health knew better. A gynecologist, and an appointee loyal to Philadelphia’s notoriously corrupt political machine, Dr. Wilmer Krusen was warned to cancel the parade. But Dr. Krusen allowed the show to go on. He assured the public that recent military deaths were from “old-fashioned influenza or grip.” His words were a harbinger of the president’s in January. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
It wasn’t. As the parade got underway on September 28, 1918, some 200,000 people jammed Philadelphia’s main street, packed eight deep on the sidewalks. Within seventy-two hours of that parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s hospitals was filled.
On October 3, most public spaces –schools, churches, theaters, and pool halls –were officially closed. The delayed lockdown to “flatten the curve” was too little, too late for many in the City of Brotherly Love. Within weeks, more than 12,000 people died in Philadelphia before the epidemic crested there.
Dr. Krusen was aware of the risks posed when he allowed the parade to step off. But he was answering to political and economic concerns, much like the Mayor in Ibsen’s play, and so many economists and administration officials echoing the president’s call to reopen the economy.
History is replete with Dr. Krusen’s counterparts—those scientists and other people who dared challenge authority. Take Giordano Bruno for example. Born in 1548, Bruno became a priest and a learned mathematician. But he was also a free thinker and, in 1584, published his concept that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of Creation.
Bruno was arrested and tried for this and other heresies during the Inquisition. Refusing to recant, the rebellious priest was sentenced as an impenitent heretic on papal orders. In February 1600, he was taken to the Campo de’ Fiori, an open market in Rome, his tongue in a gag, and burned alive.
Today, there is a statue honoring Giordano Bruno in the Campo de’ Fiori. There are no statues of Dr. Krusen. In modern parlance, Bruno was an “Upstander,” Dr. Krusen a “Collaborator.”
Giordano Bruno would not serve a master who demanded that he deny the science that contradicted faith. He served the truth. Dr. Stockman refused to serve a master who placed profits over life and was ultimately branded “an enemy of the people.” Dr. Krusen chose instead to answer to his political masters.
This is the essential question now facing both American leadership and every individual. If we are to survive the current coronavirus, we need to carefully choose and serve a worthy master.
TEACHERS: If you would like a virtual visit to discuss this topic or any of my work, please get in touch with me. Here’s the link: Contact page.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 was the most deadly outbreak of disease in modern times. It was completely connected to the last year of World War I. And it has some important lessons today as the world confronts another deadly pandemic. This short video looks at the history of one pandemic while we live through another.
In October 2020, my new book, STRONGMAN: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy, will be published (Preorder from Holt Books) (An audiobook edition will be released by Penguin Random House)
In it, I recount the story of the rise to power of five of the most deadly dictators of the 20th century — Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein.
In addition to telling how these men took unlimited power, brought one-party rule to their nations, and were responsible for the deaths of millions of people, the book offers a brief history of Democracy and discusses the present threat to democratic institutions around the world. In a time when Democracy is under assault across the globe, it is more important than ever to understand how a Strongman takes power and how quickly democracy can vanish –even as millions cheer its death.
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR STRONGMAN
“I found myself engrossed in it from beginning to end. I could not help admiring Davis’s ability to explain complex ideas in readable prose that never once discounted the intelligence of your young readers. It is very much a book for our time.”
—Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education & History, Stanford University, author of Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).
“Strongman is a book that is both deeply researched and deeply felt, both an alarming warning and a galvanizing call to action, both daunting and necessary to read and discuss.”
—Cynthia Levinson, author of Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today
“A wake-up call to democracies like ours: we are not immune to despots . . . Strongman demonstrates that democracy is not permanent, unless it is collectively upheld. This book shakes that immortality narrative.”
—Jessica Ellison, President of the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies; Teacher Education Specialist, Minnesota Historical Society
Rarely does a history book take such an unflinching look at our common future, where the very presence of democracy is less than certain; even rarer is a history book in which the author’s moral convictions incite young readers to civic engagement; rarest of all, a history book as urgent, as impassioned, and as timely as Kenneth C. Davis’ Strongman.
—Eugene Yelchin, author of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose.
Watch for more news about STRONGMAN here in the coming months.