Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Glenn Beck’s History Project: Grades and Comments

Now that summer is here and my grading for the spring semester is over, I'm realizing that there was one person I forgot to give comments to: the conservatives' Historian Laureate, Glenn Beck. In my last post, I wrote about David Brooks's attempts to reclaim the American Revolution, or at least its beginnings, from the Tea Party Right. But there's more going on here than just a battle between different elements of American Conservatism. That battle is a much larger attempt to make History serve a political agenda. Brooks's dispatch is a veritable voice crying out in the wilderness; he simply can't hold a candle to Beck. With a confusing mix of cherry-picked facts and contradictory ideas from legal theory (original intent), evangelism (judeo-christian foundations), and small-government rhetoric (anachronistic anti-federalism), as well as a patina of tweed and chalk dust, Glenn Beck wants to "take the country back." 

I think the historical profession is doing him (and history education) a disservice by letting him go so long without feedback, so here are my comments on Glenn Beck's history project: 

Final Project for History 100: History of the US to 1865. At the end of the semester, each student will give a class presentation on the revolutionary, constitutional, or early national period. In a 15-20 minute oral presentation, investigate and explain any one element of the fifty-year period of US History beginning with the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 and ending with the collapse of the first party system at the end of the War of 1812. 

Grade and Comments for Glenn Beck 
Grade: D

As a teacher, I applaud your enthusiasm and excitement about America's past. Good job, Glenn! But, like a lot of students at this stage of studying history (the beginning), you've chosen simplicity over complexity. Remember, Glenn, our job is to demonstrate the nuances of the past, not shove them all into a single idea. But don't worry, you've got lots of room for improvement! :) 

On the plus side, your report does have a strong thesis. Roughly translated it's this: the first fifty years of the United States (beginning at the start of the Revolution) was single event whose meaning is clear and simple. The founders, the declaration of independence, and the constitution (singular, a holy trinity, if you will, of Providential history) fought to establish Christian principles, a weak central government, and a free market society (which are apparently completely complementary). 

That said, Glenn, this thesis has some major problems. First, I think you tried to take on too much. Trying to boil down the entire fifty-year period into a single idea misses the main point: the events that began with the colonists' opposition to British revenue measures and ended with the collapse of the first party system of a new republic is better understood as a series of related but distinct historical periods, each with their own story. There's a reason why we spent more than just one day on these fifty years. Remember, in class we talked about "The Imperial Crisis": the politics after the Seven-Years War, then the road to independence, and then the Revolutionary War itself. Even that was only the first part of the story. We followed this by sorting out the aftermath of independence: multiple days on the successes and failures of the Articles of Confederation, the creation of the Constitution, and then the Ratification debates. And finally we put the constitution into practice by looking at the different administrations of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. These different periods are notable not for their coherence but for the many political and ideological struggles that ensued over the very things you claim are self evident: the role of religion in the new nation, the relationship between popular sovereignty, state governments, and national governments, and finally the nature of the American economy and the government's involvement in it. In short Glenn, what you claim to be settled facts were actually a series of hotly contested issues (whose meanings are still not settled today!). 

Next, you make it seem like the "Founding Fathers," the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution are one and the same. They aren't.

While the periods embodied in these terms might be marked by some continuity -- especially the ideology of republicanism shared by the patriots -- you left out a lot of the change in the first fifty years, and that seriously undermines your argument (remember, history is the study of change over time). The protests against the Sugar and Stamp Acts, the Townshend Duties, the Declaratory Act, and the Coercive Acts might have culminated in the Declaration of Independence and the relatively weak national government of the Articles of Confederation. However, you ignore what comes next: following the Revolution some Americans saw disorder in protests by western farmers and an inability of the national government to protect the interests of a minority. This perception created a hunger for a stronger central government and what we got was the constitution. The two moments and what they produced: the declaration and the constitution were very different. 

The same is true for the constitution as seen through your lens of "the original intent of the founders." In your quest to prove your limited government thesis, you ignore the conflict in the heart of the constitution: between its centralizing tendency and the protections promised by the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights). If you had used the Federalist Papers you would see this tension (not a singular essence) between two of "the founders" writing in defense of the new constitution. Alexander Hamilton argued that the government was going to be active and energetic while James Madison claimed it would be restrained and inactive. Which is the "original intent"?

Similarly, don't lump all "the founders" into a single unified group, Glenn. The three important issues that you claim the founders were unanimous on, were three of the most hotly contested ones. Limited government? During the Washington and Adams presidencies the federal government sent a force of 10,000 soldiers to crush a protest of high taxes and opposition politicians were jailed for calling the president bad names. Free market society? Washington's secretary of the treasury, Hamilton, argued for, and got, a national bank and high tariffs to encourage American manufacturing. And finally, there is the question of religion and government. Remember the first of history's 5 C's; Context, Glenn, is very important. The members of the founding generation were a relatively heterodox group when it came to religion: Diests, Anglicans, Evengelicals, Quakers, the odd Catholic thrown in for good measure. And their religious beliefs, like all beliefs, have a history. Their Christianity was not like your Christianity. In fact, your Christianity, Mormanism, literally didn't exist yet. Washington didn't pray to Jesus Christ, take communion, or show up to church on a regular basis because he wasn't a Christian as we understand it. More importantly, the distance between the beliefs of the most fervent evangelicals were ardently countered by those more skeptical, like Jefferson's Diest beliefs (and what are we to make of Jefferson's lines expressing an "intent" to draw a wall between Church and State? Again, which founder are we supposed to listen to?).

Glenn, I'm trying to point out that what you make simple and unified was actually complex and contradictory. Just shouting that the founders wanted a weak executive or a government divorced from the economy, or had a preference for "Judeo-Christian beliefs" doesn't allow us to understand why some wrote differently, and some, when in power, they acted in an opposite way. 

Even before Thomas Paine had published Common Sense undermining the divine right of Kings, British North Americans were fighting about how they should respond to what they deemed increasingly tyrannical English rule. But the fights didn't stop there. Those connected to the long story of the first years of the American Republic fought constantly about how to proceed and what it meant after the fact. The Revolutionary generations fought amongst and between themselves. And yes, there was more than one Revolutionary generation. The folks that got us to independence were not the same folks who got us to the constitutional convention and the first federal administrations. But even if we lump them all together -- the Founding Fathers -- what emerges, Glenn, is conflict, not concordance. We're clearly still engaged in these disagreements today. 

Maybe that’s the source of your problem, Glenn. You try to turn History into contemporary politics. That's a dangerous game for both the right and the left. More importantly, it's against the first rule of historical writing: be historically empathetic. Don't let your contemporary beliefs keep you from taking the past on its own terms.

But don't worry! These are comments to consider for revision, and remember, that's what history is, revision. The story is never complete, so keep trying! I hope to see you next term!


Mike Anderson said...

Wonderful stuff, Ryan. But are we naive in believing that Beck and his followers really do wish to understand the past, and not simply use history as a cudgel for political ends? Rational debate over historical facts seems inadequate to resolving this deeper issue.

Ryan J. Carey said...

Psst, keep it a secret, but I don't expect GB or the Glenn Beck Nation to pay much attention....