Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving and the Civil War


Robert Moss discusses the abolitionist origins of our modern-day version of Thanksgiving:

For her part, Hale hoped a national Thanksgiving holiday would foster national unity and encourage compromise. But the same evangelical Protestant denominations who most strongly advocated for Thanksgiving were also among the most ardent abolitionists. As Diana Karter Appelbaum puts it in her book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, an American History, more and more Southerners were beginning to view Thanksgiving as a “Yankee abolitionist holiday.”

Virginia was the hotbed of anti-Thanksgiving sentiment. In 1853, Governor Joseph Johnson declined to declare a day of Thanksgiving for his state, citing Thomas Jefferson’s firm doctrine of separating church and state. Johnson’s successor, the slave-owning fire-brand Henry A. Wise, was even more intransigent. In 1856, he received the same annual letter from Sarah Josepha Hale that every other governor did, encouraging him to declare a general day of Thanksgiving. Wise not only declined to make the proclamation, but fired back a testy refusal.

“This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving,” he declared, “has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.” By “other causes,” of course, he meant abolitionism.

Anti-Thanksgiving sentiment wasn’t confined to Virginia. In 1855, William H. Holcomb, a homeopathic physician in Natchez, Mississippi, recorded in his diary, “This was Thanksgiving day…I am sorry that the Yankee custom has crept in among us. I object to it because it makes gratitude to God a matter of civil ordinance, and limits to a single day the exhibition of feelings which should be a portion of our daily life.”

Other commentators noted that the South already had a holiday of feasting and celebration late in the calendar year: Christmas. In New England, which inherited a legacy of Puritan dogma that considered Christmas a secular abomination, Christmas was not observed as a celebratory occasion until the 1870s. To Southern eyes, a day of feasting in late November was redundant and a loss of a day’s income for its workers and merchants.

On the eve of the Civil War, the adoption of Thanksgiving in the South remained inconsistent at best, and those who chose to observe the holiday treated it more as a religious occasion and a day of relaxation than a time of feasting and homecoming.

I suppose we shouldn’t overstate the case: as Moss notes, by 1858 (i.e., two years before the beginning of secession), “the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and North and South Carolina all followed Mrs. Hale’s recommendations and declared Thursday, November 25th to be a day of Thanksgiving.”

Please do read in full. (H/T: Erik Loomis at LGM.)

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. Safe travels, eat well, and enjoy all the in-state-rivalry college football games. See ya in December.

Image Credit: Photo by Ben Franske, November 2002, and used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 26, 2014

Assorted Links

1. Mohsin Hamid: why migration is a fundamental human right. (H/T: Azra Raza, 3 Quarks Daily.)

2. What Does It Take To Be Grateful? Thoughts from Br. David Steindl-Rast, O.B.

3. HUGE Surprise: “Charitable giving not keeping up with highest incomes.” See also this story: “As times got tough in the recent recession, the less well-off of America’s citizens became more generous when giving to charity. But at the same time, wealthy Americans cut the proportion of their incomes they donated, according to a new study that analyzed data from tax returns.”

4. Freddie deBoer does not like the five-paragraph essay. (For more on that topic, see this post from a while back.)

5. The Continuing Relevance of Immanuel Kant.

6. The Karl Marx credit card: “In the land once called East Germany, in a town once called Karl-Marx-Stadt, a bank called Sparkasse Chemnitz ran an online poll letting customers vote for images to place on their credit cards. And the hands-down winner was Karl Marx…”

The taglines (#marxcard) practically write themselves; NPR’s Planet Money has been collecting some of the better ones.

(H/T: Tyler Cowen.)

7. See also the hilarity that results from Smokey, the Tennessee Vols mascot, bundled up in a blanket during the Tennessee vs. Kentucky game. (The temperature in Knoxville during the game was in the 40s.)

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 26, 2014

On Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In The New Criterion, James Nuechterlein reviews a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (H/T: Morgan Meis, 3 Quarks Daily.) From the review:

The matter of the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is at once straightforward and immensely complicated. About the man there is no question. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s flaws — and Charles Marsh’s masterly and comprehensive new biography Strange Glory reveals that there were more than is commonly supposed — the witness of his breathtakingly courageous opposition to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich leaves criticism disarmed.1 In the one great challenge of his life, he was magnificent. He behaved the way that the rest of us, in our most hopeful moments, like to imagine we would.

But Bonhoeffer is known to history not simply as a victim of Nazi horror but as a theologian of note. His appeal is startlingly ecumenical: He finds adherents across the Christian spectrum from conservative evangelicals to Lutherans (of various stripes) to liberal Protestants to celebrants of the death of God. Bonhoeffer himself was sympathetic to Catholicism—Karl Barth worried about his “nostalgia for Rome”—and he even came to insist, in Marsh’s words, on “equivalence before God of the church and the synagogue, between the body of Christ and the chosen people of Israel.”

But from such extravagant pluralism, can there be any coherence? Marsh suggests possible answers, but does so in a restrained and non-dogmatic fashion that seems appropriate to the evidence. He makes no attempt to conceal the conflicting impulses in Bonhoeffer’s thought, and thus provides ample resources for readers to arrive at conclusions at odds with his own. Outstanding biographies—and this is one—commonly receive acclaim as “definitive,” but it is difficult to attach that label to analysis of a man whose thought resists precise and settled definition.

Some time ago, I read Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. I enjoyed the book, and I think that it makes for a good introduction to Bonhoeffer. (For some less favorable reviews of Metaxas’s biography, see here and here. See also this post.) I remember being especially surprised and impressed by the international dimensions of Bonhoeffer’s education and pastoral work (Barcelona, London, New York); his experiences abroad almost certainly gave him a more cosmopolitan (or, less blinkered) outlook than many of his peers and colleagues in the German clergy of the time.

Marsh’s new biography of Bonhoeffer is here. I may have to check it out. On the other hand, I see Bonhoeffer’s own posthumously published Ethics sitting on my bookshelf, still unread, and perhaps I should tackle that first.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 25, 2014

Napoleon =/= Hitler

Execution of the duke d Enghien

Jean-Paul Laurens, L’exécution du duc d’Enghien dans les fossés de Vincennes, 1873.

At on point on his show this past Sunday, Fareed Zakaria interviewed Andrew Roberts, who recently wrote a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. At one point during their conversation, Roberts touches on a point that I thought worth noting (emphasis added):

ZAKARIA: Of course, many, many people regard him as a monster …


ZAKARIA: And they regard him as an evil dictator, instituted a coup, murdered his opponents. What do you say to them?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, he murdered one opponent.

ZAKARIA: Duke Enghien.

ROBERTS: The Duke Enghien, yes. And you can actually name the people who he killed for political reasons on the fingers of one hand. So the idea that he was some kind of an Adolf Hitler who killed millions of people for political and racial reasons is completely absurd as far as I’m concerned. This isn’t hagiography. I don’t for a moment deny that he did do some totally ruthless things, including a massacre in Jaffa in Israel which was a war crime to all intents and purposes. So, I don’t deny that. What I do deny though is that he was anything like Adolf Hitler. He didn’t see things in racial terms. He was not an exterminationist or a genocidal maniac. And he also had a positive vision which is something people tend to forget.

From time to time, I will hear someone say words to the effect of “If Henry VIII [or Napoleon, or Bismarck] had possessed the same technology as Hitler, he would have been just as deadly.” Aside from being unprovable and unfalsifiable, such statements strike me as lazy and misguided thinking. Not all dictators are alike. Napoleon was no saint, but he also was no Hitler.

Today, Hitler serves as a stand-in for authoritarian evil. At one point in the 19th Century, Napoleon also served as a similar stand-in (especially for the British), although other stand-ins – especially Biblical ones, like Herod and particularly the Pharaoh of the Exodus – were more popular (emphasis added):

Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?

The Pharoah. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators. Orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote: “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever.” In the run-up to the Civil War, abolitionists regularly referred to slaveholders as modern-day Pharaohs. Even after VE Day, Pharaoh continued to pop up in the speeches of social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.

Generally speaking, hatred was more local and short-lived before World War II. Nineteenth-century polemicists occasionally used Napoleon Bonaparte as shorthand for an evil ruler — they sometimes referred to “the little tyrant” rather than name the diminutive conqueror — but those references were rare. There is little record of oratorical comparisons of political leaders to Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, or Ivan the Terrible. …

Another point worth remembering: as Alistair Horne writes (The Fall of Paris, p. 291): “To the denizens of the otherwise tranquil nineteenth century, any threat to the established order of things was instinctively regarded as a far more pernicious heresy than it would be to our world, its sensibilities long dulled by custom.”*

Incidentally, the killing of the Duke of Enghien is the principal subject of conversation at the dinner party that opens Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

* Horne writes this in the course of discussing why the Paris Commune of 1871 was so terrifying to so many people at the time.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 25, 2014

Articles, Noted

For your consideration:

1. Justin Cheng, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizily, Jure Leskovec, “How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior”: “Social media systems rely on user feedback and rating mechanisms for personalization, ranking, and content filtering. However, when users evaluate content contributed by fellow users (e.g., by liking a post or voting on a comment), these evaluations create complex social feedback effects. This paper investigates how ratings on a piece of content affect its author’s future behavior. By studying four large comment-based news communities, we find that negative feedback leads to significant behavioral changes that are detrimental to the community. Not only do authors of negatively-evaluated content contribute more, but also their future posts are of lower quality, and are perceived by the community as such. Moreover, these authors are more likely to subsequently evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these effects through the community.”

(H/T: Henry Farrell at the Monkey Cage, “Why Reddit sucks: some scientific evidence.” Prof. Farrell observes: “Trolls and poor quality posters get far more encouragement from negative attention than good posters get from positive attention. Furthermore, the article drops some suggestive hints about the origins of communities of trolls. Some people thrive on negative feedback and find it affirming. Over time, it’s plausible that such people both (a) infect others as described in the article’s findings, and (b) drive away nearly everyone else.”)

2. Jonathan Chapman, “The franchise, taxes, and public goods: the political economy of infrastructure investment in nineteenth century England”: “Many theories of democratization suggest that extending the right to vote will lead to increased government expenditure (e.g. Meltzer and Richard, 1981; Lizzeri and Persico, 2004; Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000). However, these models frequently assume that government can engage in transfer expenditure, which is often not true for local governments. This paper presents and tests a model in which government expenditure is limited to the provision of public goods. The model predicts that the poor and the rich desire lower public goods expenditure than the middle class: the rich because of the relatively high tax burden, and the poor because of a high marginal utility of consumption. Consequently extensions of the franchise to the poor can be associated with declines in government expenditure on public goods. This prediction is tested using a new dataset of local government financial accounts in England between 1867 and 1900, which captures government expenditure on key infrastructure projects that are not included in many studies of national democratic reform. The empirical analysis exploits plausibly exogenous variation in the extent of the franchise to identify the effects of extending voting rights to the poor. The results show strong support for the theoretical prediction: expenditure increased following relatively small extensions of the franchise, but fell following extensions of the franchise beyond around 50% of the adult male population.”

(H/T: Tyler Cowen, who muses thusly: “it is an interesting hypothesis that the current thinning out of the middle class will decrease the political support for infrastructure investment.”)

3. Tanisha M. Fazal, “Dead Wrong? Battle Deaths, Military Medicine, and Exaggerated Reports of War’s Demise,” International Security 39(1) (Summer 2014), pp. 95–125: “In this article, I show that major advances in military medicine have made battle deaths less likely and nonfatal battle casualties more likely over the past several centuries, particularly since 1946 – the same time period that Goldstein, Pinker, and others examine to support their conclusion that war is on the decline. Because these datasets identify wars based on a battle-death threshold that is constant over the entire time period they cover, any apparent decline in war means that war has become less fatal. This observation does not necessarily mean, however, that war has become less frequent.” (footnote omitted)

(H/T: Phil Arena.)

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 22, 2014

Book Reviews

1. Chris Blattman was not impressed with Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain: “The book was a gatling gun of names and dates. Completely bewildering. I put it down quickly. Any other suggestions? I like my history to have a coherent narrative.” (My review of The Battle for Spain is here; I had a more positive impression, although the large cast of characters can be confusing at times.)

2. Noah Smith reviews David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 21, 2014

Friday Art Blogging

1911 Marc Liegender Hund im Schnee anagoria

Franz Marc, Dog Lying in the Snow, 1911.

The artist died at the age of 36, killed by a shell fragment at the Battle of Verdun.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 14, 2014

Assorted Links

1. “There are already more speakers of Aramaic in metropolitan Detroit (around a hundred thousand) than in Baghdad…”

2. Johnny Appleseed and Booze on the American Frontier: “The apples that Chapman brought to the frontier were completely distinct from the apples available at any modern grocery store or farmers’ market, and they weren’t primarily used for eating—they were used to make America’s beverage-of-choice at the time, hard apple cider.” Also, apparently many of the trees that John Chapman planted were cut down by federal agents during Prohibition. (H/T: Ann Althouse.)

3. Scientists Uncover a 70,000-Year-Old Mammoth Skeleton in Idaho. (H/T: Will Truman.)

Posted by: Paul A. Forsyth | November 13, 2014

Philae Lands on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Very cool.

Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 6, 2014

Random Art Blogging

Robert Antoine Pinchon, Le Pont aux Anglais, soleil couchant, 1905, oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen

Robert Antoine Pinchon, Le Pont aux Anglais, soleil couchant, 1905.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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