23 February 2011

You Could Look It Up

Historical ignorance abounds. One writer accuses a US president of hypocrisy on the basis of a political slogan that actually was used against him by his opponents. Yikes! Another blames the deaths of native Americans on their failure to convert to Christianity, using as an example native Americans who actually had converted—and were slaughtered anyway. Oops. And another chastises a fellow writer for his ignorance of history while attributing things to James Madison and Patrick Henry that they never said. Awkward.

Yeah. A little research could save a lot of embarrassment. Take the writer (me, actually) who incorrectly attributed the slogan “Fifty-four forty or fight” to the election campaign of James K. Polk. Polk may well be an underrated president (I think so anyway), but I don’t have to like the guy, and the hypocrisy of running on a slogan he never intended to carry out fit well with my theme of the moment. For those whose history is a bit rusty, Polk's the guy who staved off a two-front war against Britain to the north and Mexico to the south by adroitly compromising with the one side while starting a just war with the other to gain for the nation much of the far west, including the future states of Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona. The original dark horse candidate, he included the “reoccupation” of Oregon country as a plank in his expansionist platform, but left it vague as to what, exactly, Oregon country consisted of. Britain generally felt the Columbia River should be the boundary; expansionists in the US supported a northern boundary at 54 degrees 40 minutes, while Polk, seemingly, thought extending the line along the 49th parallel out to the Pacific was a reasonable compromise. Not everybody was happy with this idea; hence the slogan “Fifty-four-forty or fight” floated in the mid-term elections by unhappy opponents. Somewhere along the line this slogan got attributed to Polk, and a misconception was born. Despite not-so-recent debunkings older textbooks and those of us who learned from them continue the mistake. I could have looked it up, I suppose—but I was on a roll, and why let research spoil a perfectly good chance to make an ass of myself?

It was one Bryan Fischer who recently wrote a column defending genocide, and in the course of arguing that native Americans were morally unfit to inhabit the land, claimed that they got what was coming to them by failing to follow George Washington’s advice to convert to Christianity. This is essentially the same “moral unfitness” argument employed by so many frontier types and apostles of Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century to justify extermination, with the Biblical example of Yahweh’s orders to destroy the Canaanites always lurking in the background. Hey, if God approves, it’s got to be okay, right? So following in that tradition Fischer blames the native Americans for their extermination by Euro-Americans, citing their refusal “to leave behind their superstition and occult practices for the light of Christianity and civilization” as justification for genocide. Speaking of the Lenape chiefs who petitioned Congress in 1782, Fischer claims “They rejected Washington’s direct counsel ... ‘You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.’” Extermination was the consequence. Now I’ve written about this episode elsewhere, but the thing is, Fischer has got it about as wrong as it is possible to get it. Washington was not advising them, but commending them; the Moravian Brethren had set up a mission amongst the Lenape and many had converted. And what happened to those Lenape steeped in the religion of Jesus Christ? Well, actually, they were the ones who got murdered by a gang of Revolutionary War era militia. You could look it up—but maybe that would get in the way of a good diatribe.

And back last June or so one Jonathan Fickley of Chatanooga—who may teach American History there, if it’s the same person as the guy mentioned herewrote very confidently about the faith of the Founders, decrying “people [who] speak about things that they know nothing about”. He rattled off a string of alleged quotations including a mangled Franklin and a Jefferson frankenquote including among them the fake Henry “religionists” quotation and this doozy allegedly from James Madison:
Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.
Now this anti-education sentence has been kicking around since at least 1844 (see here for details) and is usually attributed either to John Witherspoon or Jonathan Dickinson, both presidents of Princeton University. I hope for the credit of either that neither actually said it, or perhaps were in jest, but in any case it is not until very recently that anybody attributed it to Madison—apparently on the grounds that as Madison attended Princeton, anything its president said could be attributed to him as well. Or something. “Please read again Patrick Henry’s quote,” Fickley wrote with overweening pride. “My advice to you is do not challenge people to research history of the founding fathers about Christianity to prove some anti-Christian bogus nonsense. Their own words repudiate your argument.” Oh, man—Henry’s quote? You gotta be kidding. That thing shows its bogosity every which way from Sunday. You could have looked it up—but why waste a good chance to display your own ignorance while chastising somebody else for his?

Now being careless, or foolish, or ignorant may not be crimes as such, but with the resources of the internet at our fingertips, what does a little research actually cost? Even ten years ago fact-checking often involved trips to libraries or other record repositories, long-distance phone calls, inter-library loan requests, and the like. Sometimes it still does. But often a quick trip to a search engine is all it takes to dispel some misconception, or verify some detail. It is possible to look these things up. Maybe you can’t be right all the time—but you can avoid many a baseless accusation, or idiotic claim, or piece of foolish posturing. And frankly, can’t we all do with a bit less of these things? I like to think so, anyway.

1 comment:

Ed Darrell said...

Several of my friends who are professional historians argue that Polk was, without question, the most successful president. He got his entire legislative agenda through, never had a veto overturned (and vetoed little), got a war with Mexico and defeated Mexico, expanding the U.S. by about the same as the Louisiana Purchase, and did it all in one term. So he went home.

Much judgment rides on whether one thinks the war with Mexico was a noble undertaking.

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