J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

New in the Massachusetts Historical Review

The 2009 issue of the Massachusetts Historical Review, published by the Massachusetts Historical Society (but not yet listed on the website), contains three hefty articles related to the Revolution and its local heritage. We can tell they uphold the highest standards of scholarship because all three titles include quotation marks.

First, J. Patrick Mullins examines the political fight between the Boston’s most outspoken minister of the early 1760s and the new royal governor in “‘A Kind of War, Tho’ Hitherto an Un-Bloody One’: Jonathan Mayhew, Francis Bernard and the Indian Affair.” Compared to the huge political battles that would follow, those disputes seem as petty and hard to understand as a public argument over, oh, the President telling schoolchildren to study hard. But already we can see the sides forming.

Next, Neil Longley York (he of the Johnny Tremain study) offers “Rival Truths, Political Accommodations, and the Boston ‘Massacre’.” Legal trials are usually seen as attempts to settle the truth, York says, but in 1770 each of the two political camps interpreted the trials that followed the Massacre in its own way, cementing differences instead of erasing them.

Finally, Stephen Kantrowitz has contributed “A Place for ‘Colored Patriots’: Crispus Attucks among the Abolitionists, 1842-1863.” How did the movement to end slavery and provide civil rights take inspiration from and use the memory of the one Massacre victim people can still name today?

There are other articles as well, plus reviews of such books as Abolitionists Remember, by Julie Roy Jeffrey. She’s speaking at the “Abolitionism in Black & White” symposium, where I am right now. The Review is available at the Massachusetts Historical Society and finer local libraries.

ADDENDUM: And now there’s a cover image, and a link for purchases!


rlee said...

I just finished a book by William
Martin entitled BACK BAY.I found it good reading because of the early descriptions of Revolutionary Boston.

In the story the theme was a silver tea set made by Paul Revere and given to Washington that disappeared in 1812.Any truth to that scenario?

J. L. Bell said...

I think the tea set in Back Bay was created by William Martin, not Paul Revere. But Martin does research at the Massachusetts Historical Society to make his fictional ideas plausible.

DWPittelli said...

The public argument is not reasonably interpreted as being over "the President telling schoolchildren to study hard." The original lesson plan which was released before the President's speech proposed that teachers ask children to "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president" -- i.e., it was reasonably interpreted as seeking the aid of teachers in indoctrinating children to forward the President's broader (political) goals.

J. L. Bell said...

News reports make clear that people objected to their children even hearing the President’s voice, not just to the lesson plan, which was quickly revised and not part of most schools’ programs. The content of the President’s message was also clear early on. So I think my quick description is valid.

During that tempest, historians quickly found examples of other Presidents addressing schoolchildren in the same way. Ronald Reagan had told students about the value of tax cuts. George H. W. Bush had made such an address as he was entering his reelection campaign.

It thus became clear that this controversy wasn’t about the message, but about the messenger.

DWPittelli said...

The fact that people continued to be suspicious about Obama's motives and plans can hardly be laid to antipathy to "the messenger" given that the suspicions and protests indeed all followed the rather Orwellian federally funded lesson plan.

Your counterexamples are no evidence to the contrary, unless you can show that the previous presidents' speeches were preceded by similarly Orwellian lesson plans.

Further, one counterexample proves exactly the opposite of what you claim they all do, given that when GHW Bush made a similarly innocuous speech, Democratic party leaders expressed outrage, and two House committees demanded explanations from the Department of Education (see Washington Post, Oct 3, 1991).

J. L. Bell said...

I doubt you’ll convince many people that you’re offering a reasonable interpretation and not an overreaction when you use the word “Orwellian” to refer to President Obama’s speech about studying hard and a vague lesson plan about how kids could help with what the President had spoken about.

George H. W. Bush’s 1991 speech offers a chance to understand the importance of historical context. The date of the Washington Post article confirms my statement that Bush “made such an address as he was entering his reelection campaign.” In contrast, Obama was nearly as far ahead of an election as a President can be. The two can’t be equated in that regard.

Finally, I once again point out that news articles like the one I linked to show some Americans objecting passionately to letting their children hear President Obama’s speech even after the topic was clear, the lesson plan removed, and the precedents noted in the press.

Those people were upset about their children seeing and hearing Barack Obama as President. That was a shame, and it’s a further shame to have to point out that obvious fact twice.

DWPittelli said...

I would have no problem with my kids seeing the President, either. But there is no more evidence for the left-wing narrative (parents object to their kids hearing a liberal President, or a black President) than for the right-wing narrative (parents became alarmed by the reports of the lesson plan -- we can argue about whether those reports were overblown -- and did not trust that the speech to come would actually be nonpolitical).

I also don't see how the occurrence of a speech in 1991 over a year before reelection is itself more damning or political than a lesson plan which advocated helping the President in his (immediate) political goals, at least when the President is using government funding (not political contributions) to make this speech and this lesson plan.

It's not Obama's money. It's not the Democrats' money. It's Department of Education federal funding. And using government money to further a political goal is improper; for example, Congressmen go so far as to walk out of their government offices and use a politically-funded office when they want to make fundraising phone calls -- or at least they did when I was interning. The fact that people in the DOE (or the NEA) ignored these standards of behavior is troubling despite the fact that they got angry pushback and backed down from their initial plans.

J. L. Bell said...

It doesn’t matter whether you’d let your own hypothetical children hear the President. What matters is the incontrovertible fact that many people did not. There was “a public argument over…the President telling schoolchildren to study hard,” as I wrote. When we look back at this year from a reasonable distance, the fervor of those objections will seem petty and hard to understand.

Once again, I provided a link to one of many news stories quoting parents who wanted to prevent their children from hearing President Barack Obama even after the topic of his address was clear and the suggested lesson plan had been removed. Those people were objecting to something deeper than the message. Yes, they didn’t trust him; that simply shows how personal the suspicions were.

Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy dug up the text of President George H. W. Bush’s speech to students in 1991, and found it “uncannily similar” to Obama’s. Bush told his audience, “Write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals”—a clear precedent for the discarded lesson plan you deemed “Orwellian.”

Bush spoke in the same month in which he told a press conference that he was definitely running for a second term. By that October, there were nine declared Democratic candidates. Again, historical context is useful in showing that Bush made a speech at the start of a presidential campaign.

Furthermore, news reports from 1991 show that objections to Bush’s speech were never as widespread or as livid as those to Obama’s. Democratic leaders called Bush‘s presentation “political advertising”; they didn’t suggest that he was trying to indoctrinate children into an “Orwellian” personality cult.

If people like yourself were truly objecting to President Obama’s speech and lesson plan on principle, then you’d make similar objections to President Bush’s speech and request for letters. Instead, you’re calling only one administration “Orwellian.” You wrote a long paragraph about how “It's not Obama's money” and never wrote, “It wasn’t Bush’s money, either.”

So I’m afraid your claim that this controversy wasn’t about Obama himself just doesn’t hold up. Your comments themselves are treating Obama differently from how they discuss another President who did nearly the same thing in a more obviously political context.

DWPittelli said...

1) Don't assume you know what I was up to in 1991. I was going around posting flyers accusing Bush of meeting with the Iranians in 1980 to keep them from releasing the hostages to Jimmy Carter. But enough about my youthful indiscretions. As I did not hear then about Bush's speech to schoolchildren, I took no position on the subject, but my inaction thus is also somewhat less relevant than you think it to be.

2) Indeed, the protests now are more widespread. The internet has made viral protest possible in a way it was not in 1991 when we had to post flyers to get attention. It also remains true that the "protests" then reached much higher, with congressional committees threatening to use their power.

3) The Volokh link shows that the two speeches are similar. It did not address the offending lesson plan.

4) Even if I were to concede that the anti-Obama feeling is unfair in some broad sense, it is as likely to be based on ideology as on the "personal" animus you assume.

5) But I won't so concede. The text of Obama's actual speech wasn't released until the day before the speech, so I don't see how you can show animus or unfairness on the part of the parents because, after learning of the original offending lesson plan, they failed to all study the speech on the one evening they had available to do so, and then failed to go into school the next day to abase themselves for their earlier opposition.

6) As you can see, I did not "use the word “Orwellian” to refer to President Obama’s speech." I did use the term "rather Orwellian" to refer to President Obama's original lesson plan.

J. L. Bell said...

I made no assumptions or criticisms about what you were doing in 1991; for all I can tell, you might not have been rational yet. Rather, I pointed out your inconsistent statements this month.

One administration told students, “Write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals.” The other suggested students might “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.”

What are the differences between those statements?
1) One was in a President’s speech to schoolchildren, and the other in an optional lesson plan that was discarded with apologies days before a President’s speech to schoolchildren.
2) One you called “Orwellian,” and reasonable grounds for keeping students from hearing the President speak. The other was part of a President’s speech you called “innocuous.”
3) One prompted you to write, “It's not Obama's money. It's not the Democrats' money.” The other prompted no equivalent objections, even after I pointed out that inconsistency.

For accuracy’s sake, I must point out that some members of Congress objected to President Obama’s speech just as other Congresspeople did to President Bush’s. But the grounds for the objections were different in the two years, given the proximity of presidential elections. Furthermore, both in Congress and out, this year we see much more vituperation, distrust, and paranoid rhetoric (e.g., “Orwellian”).

And all about an administration that’s consensus-seeking in its politics and centrist-liberal in its policies. Which appears to me as more evidence that not all those objections or fervor are purely about ideology.

DWPittelli said...

Why should I consistently condemn both speeches? It appears that there was nothing worth condemning in either speech. (Which didn't keep Democratic congressional leaders from condemning after the fact in 1991.)

What's at question is whether people were being irrational (or "petty and hard to understand") when, upon learning that the lesson plan called for students to work to further Obama's goals, they protested that this looked like an improper political use of schoolchildren. Perhaps the speech was always going to be so bland, but no one had any way of knowing it, and their fears otherwise seem other than petty or hard to understand given this President's very ambitious and hyper-partisan immediate goals (such as nationalizing health insurance).

J. L. Bell said...

So George H. W. Bush told schoolchildren, “Write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals,” and you see “nothing worth condemning.”

But someone in Barack Obama’s Education Department composed an optional lesson plan that suggested children could “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president,” and you saw that as reasonable grounds for the label “Orwellian,” for a bitter national outcry, and for some parents to keep their children from hearing the President at all.

And you see no shifting standard here, with more suspicion and fear directed at President Obama? Well, thank you for making your attitudes so clear.

Thank you also for disclosing your political outlook and understanding. Obama is a consensus-seeking, centrist-liberal politician, yet you label him “hyper-partisan.“ He’s supporting a tepid insurance industry reform, yet you call that “nationalizing health care.“ I prefer political discussions that are more firmly grounded in facts.

DWPittelli said...

1) Why do you keep asking me to condemn Bush's speech as you assert I did Obama's? I did nothing of the kind, as neither speech had anything worth condemning! That is because the goals for which the speeches sought help were the essentially nonpartisan ones of improving school performance. Where we disagree is on whether people were out of line before the speech, in questioning the lesson plan as they did, which was released with ambiguous language, and well before the text of the speech. (The snafu of a lesson plan probably reflected merely incompetent PR, at a lower level than I would blame Obama for.)

2) The House health care plan passed with only one Republican vote, hence "hyper-partisan" -- and at any rate, not reflecting any sort of consensus. The bill was also not popular, explaining why Pelosi gave 39 Congressmen "outs" lest it kill their reelection chances. Not many bills are so unpopular with independents or swing voters as to lead to such fears a full year before elections.

3) The bill is indeed ambitious, is characterized as such (or "sweeping", etc.) by backers as well as opponents, and several Democratic leaders (including Barney Frank and then-Senator Obama) have admitted on videotape that the public option will lead to single-payer.

J. L. Bell said...

I didn’t ask you to condemn anything. I pointed out how you called a statement by someone in President Obama’s administration as “Orwellian” and a very similar statement by President George H. W. Bush as “innocuous.”

Obviously that inconsistency doesn’t bother you. But it shows that your claim to be reacting to the two administrations fairly and rationally is weak.

There is consistency between your 1991 accusations that Bush met with the Iranian hostage-keepers and your 2009 accusations that Obama has the “hyper-partisan immediate goal“ of “nationalizing health insurance.” Both show a level of irrational paranoia unencumbered by facts.

It’s clear that you want to complain about the health insurance reform bill now being debated. This is not the forum for that.