Cartoon: John B. Gordon Takes Umbrage and Crisp Twenties, by Mark Wahlgren Summers

summers_ordeal[This article is crossposted at]

Here’s the latest in a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays, we feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context. These cartoons stimulate your brain, tickle your funny bone, and bring history to life in a whole new way. 

Today’s cartoon: duplicitous politicians fight (and feed) corruption. (Click image for full size.)

gambling gordon“Conservative John B. Gordon, in Rufus Bullock’s Railroad Aid Casino, Takes Umbrage and Crisp Twenties.” White conservatives raged against the stealing and financial waste in Republican programs to help build railroads across the South. They were right in some cases. In Georgia, Governor Rufus B. Bullock’s government was particularly lavish in promising subsidies to projected lines—though promises outran performance and some of the most controversial grants were scaled down or repudiated when Democrats came to power. What Democrats didn’t say was that the beneficiaries of that aid were nearly all businessmen in their own party. Some of their top politicians had cozy, even corrupt relationships with some of the foremost railroad corporations in the country. One of those was former Confederate general and future U. S. Senator John B. Gordon, whose services to California’s railroad barons were of the most intimate and dubious kind. But then, Georgia was no different than elsewhere. Former Confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest, head of the Ku Klux Klan, was deeply involved in railroad-building schemes dependent on bonds guaranteed by Republican authorities in Alabama, and among those protesting corruption loudest in South Carolina were conservatives of property and standing who shared in the take.

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

Excerpt: Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, by Randy D. McBee

mcbee_bornIn 1947, 4,000 motorcycle hobbyists converged on Hollister, California. As images of dissolute bikers graced the pages of newspapers and magazines, the three-day gathering sparked the growth of a new subculture while also touching off national alarm. In the years that followed, the stereotypical leather-clad biker emerged in the American consciousness as a menace to law-abiding motorists and small towns. Yet a few short decades later, the motorcyclist, once menacing, became mainstream. To understand this shift, Randy D. McBee narrates the evolution of motorcycle culture since World War II.

In the following excerpt from Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist (pp. 91-96), McBee talks about the birth of the Honda motorcycle, and how motorcycling transcended race, class, and gender.


“Vroom-vroom is now an established middle-class noise,” claimed a 1965 Esquire article about the Madison Avenue Motorcycle Club (MAMC). The author described the club as one “peopled by respectable professional men who prefer two wheels to four, and it is just one manifestation of a growing sophistication of the motorcycle.” The club was initially established in 1960, a year in which only 45,000 motorcycles were sold nationwide, by a group of “serious” bike-riding New York executives and professional men. Five years later, Americans were expected to purchase as many as 450,000 cycles by the year’s end. Most of these new owners were casual participants in the subculture, or what the author characterized as “fair-weather riders” and “not the hard-core devotees.” The picture accompanying the story showed a dozen men riding in a pack, some of them wearing sunglasses, a significant majority of them wearing helmets, and all of them in suit and tie. “Grey worsted suits in the saddle and an attaché case on the luggage carrier,” the author explained, “are not the rare sight today that they were a few years ago.”[1]

Stories such as this one about middle-class riders making motorcycling respectable were common in the early 1960s. Their arrival both coincided with and was the product of the introduction of the Japanese Honda into the American marketplace. Yet despite the enthusiasm that greeted the middle-class rider, ambivalence and frustration also surrounded him. These were serious riders, or so they claimed, yet their critics found it all too easy to dismiss them as “casual” motorcyclists. If anything, their struggle to overcome this claim made their impact on motorcycling more conspicuous than it might have been otherwise, and it brought the issue of class to the fore.

To be sure, there were plenty of middle-class and professional riders who did not wear a suit and tie. But just as many (if not more) did, and the image of the middle-class rider (and his Japanese-made bike) remained a conspicuous and influential issue in motorcycling in the decades to come. The trademark suit and tie was accompanied by Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, by Randy D. McBee’ »

  1. [1] Michael Sumner, “Varoom at the Top: The Madison Avenue Motorcycle Club,” Esquire, November 1965, 141.

Helen Zoe Veit: The Great War and Modern Food

veit_modernWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Helen Zoe Veit, author of Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. American eating changed dramatically in the early twentieth century. As food production became more industrialized, nutritionists, home economists, and so-called racial scientists were all pointing Americans toward a newly scientific approach to diet. Food faddists were rewriting the most basic rules surrounding eating, while reformers were working to reshape the diets of immigrants and the poor. And by the time of World War I, the country’s first international aid program was bringing moral advice about food conservation into kitchens around the country. In Modern Food, Moral Food, Veit argues that the twentieth-century food revolution was fueled by a powerful conviction that Americans had a moral obligation to use self-discipline and reason, rather than taste and tradition, in choosing what to eat.

In today’s post, Veit takes a look at how World War I affected American diets in enduring political and philosophical ways.


A hundred years ago, European armies were fighting a “Great War” against each other, one that would later be called World War I.

World War I means many things to many people. The first industrial war. The beginning of modernity. A rehearsal for World War II.

One thing World War I doesn’t bring to mind is food. But it should, because during World War I the rise of industrial food processing, nutrition science, and America’s first food aid program revolutionized American food on almost every level. World War I made food modern, and understanding how that happened is key to understanding food today.

Food was already changing when the war started. Today we romanticize great-grandmother’s supposedly local, sustainable food habits. But when modern foodies take up home canning or chicken keeping, they’re taking on work their own ancestors were usually thrilled to outsource when they could. Industrial food was coming into its own a hundred years ago, and Americans leapt at the chance to buy canned vegetables, boxed cereal, industrial meat, and newly invented processed cheese.

At the same time, the new science of nutrition was turning obscure terms like calories and vitamins into household names. Before calories were applied to food in the late nineteenth century, few realized that different foods contained different levels of energy. After all, it’s not intuitive that a piece of cheddar has more calories than a piece of carrot. By the 1910s calories were changing how Americans ate, especially because many wanted to maximize the food energy they bought per dollar. Vitamins were even more revolutionary. Just discovered around 1910, vitamins made it official that the kinds of food people ate mattered. While scientists in the past had dismissed fruits and vegetables as frivolous extras, new knowledge was transforming them into central players in the modern diet.

Those dietary changes got a jolt of moral urgency when America entered the war in 1917. By then, trench warfare had devastated European agriculture and killed millions of farmers-turned-soldiers. In response to food shortages, the U.S. government created the Food Administration, a wartime agency headed by a young Herbert Hoover, tasked with funneling calorie-dense foods to allies and soldiers abroad. To export as much beef, pork, white flour, butter, and sugar as possible, administrators had to get Americans to eat less of them.

And this is where it gets interesting. Continue reading ‘Helen Zoe Veit: The Great War and Modern Food’ »

Cartoon: Wade Hampton’s Whiskers, by Mark Wahlgren Summers

summers_ordeal[This article is crossposted at]

We’re happy to share the latest in a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays, we feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context. These cartoons stimulate your brain, tickle your funny bone, and bring history to life in a whole new way. 

Today’s feature: How the Lost Cause lost its way with Wade Hampton. (Click image for full size.)

wade hampton's whiskers“The Lost Cause Isn’t All That Lost. It Just Went into Redeemer Wade Hampton’s Whiskers and Couldn’t Find the Way Out.” A gray coat covered a multitude of causes. While Democrats and conservatives who “redeemed” the South from Republican rule in particular and democracy in general insisted that theirs would be a New South accepting the results of the Civil War, the kind of leaders they chose did not show it. South as well as North, voters chose figures with impeccable military records. In South Carolina, whites claimed to have elected onetime Confederate cavalryman Wade Hampton as governor in 1876 and with their paramilitaries, had him inaugurated. Hampton would graduate into the Senate a few years later. Hampton’s esteem outside the state did not rest on his war record, nor his reputation as a planter from a distinguished line of Wade Hamptons dating to Revolutionary War times. Rather, he was honored as a symbol of how far that Lost Cause had been tamed into something that northerners could find acceptable: love for the American flag and lip-service, at least, to fair treatment for African Americans. In Hampton’s case, it was more than lip-service: it was a liberalism that got him into serious political trouble with the rank and file. His willingness to appoint blacks to low-level government positions and preserve the basics of the school system, though, did not extend to protecting black voters’ political rights. Majority rule in South Carolina would have meant Republican control, and that outcome Hampton and his white-line critics alike were determined to prevent by whatever means of persuasion they could muster—homicidal ones included.

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

Excerpt: Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, by Timothy Gloege

gloege_guaranteedAmerican evangelicalism has long walked hand in hand with modern consumer capitalism. Timothy Gloege shows us why, through an engaging story about God and big business at the Moody Bible Institute. Founded in Chicago by shoe-salesman-turned-revivalist Dwight Lyman Moody in 1889, the institute became a center of fundamentalism under the guidance of the innovative promoter and president of Quaker Oats, Henry Crowell. Gloege explores the framework for understanding humanity shared by these business and evangelical leaders, whose perspectives clearly differed from those underlying modern scientific theories. At the core of their “corporate evangelical” framework was a modern individualism understood primarily in terms of economic relations.

In the following excerpt from Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (pp. 117-122), Gloege shares how Henry Parsons Crowell, a shrewd Christian businessman, built the Quaker Oats company to achieve his two-fold purpose: economic success and God’s glory.


When Henry Parsons Crowell first entered the oatmeal business in 1882, few took him seriously. He knew nothing about the milling process, and his newly purchased mill in north-central Ohio was in laughable condition. Other millers considered Crowell a fool, and by the business logic of an antebellum economy, he was. But he could have cared less. Crowell was part of a phalanx of forward-looking businessmen that considered physical equipment secondary to a business’s intangible assets. It was a calculus that transformed the face of business over the next thirty years.

The oatmeal market suffered under the weight of too many competitors, with prices often falling below production costs. Crowell saw the solution in the mill’s overlooked Quaker trademark. And so, at a time when most consumers shoveled their oatmeal from open barrels, Crowell’s product appeared on shelves in sealed, two-pound boxes. Richly illustrated advertisements saturated local, then national, print media. Both package and ad featured the iconic Quaker, always smiling jovially and holding a scroll on which was written the single word “Pure.”

By 1891 Crowell had absorbed most of his competitors, but even his unparalleled success did not convince some of his more reluctant partners. By their older, more-traditional producer orientation, his promotional techniques were a half step away from outright chicanery. But as long as he sat atop the company’s rigid corporate structure, these opinions could not stop the sprawling nationwide operation from marching in tandem with his designs. In 1901 the permanency of his plan was marked by a newly organized corporation, the Quaker Oats Company. Crowell not only had dragged his own industry into the modern era, but he also was among the early pioneers that demonstrated these techniques could be applied to practically any consumer good. Through the trifecta of trademark, package, and promotion, a consumer society was born.

Crowell’s second major life project began before the ink was dry on Quaker Oats’s incorporation papers. And like his initial business investment, Crowell saw potential where others did not. Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, by Timothy Gloege’ »

Video: The Legacy and Lessons of Working-Class Feminism: Brooklyn’s NCNW

Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism, by Tamar W. CarrollTamar W. Carroll, author of Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism, helped produce a video featuring women from the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, chapter of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women in the 1970s. The NCNW is the subject of two chapters of Mobilizing New York.

Carroll writes about the video:

The National Congress of Neighborhood Women was founded by Jan Peterson in 1974–75 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to provide a voice for working class white women within the feminist and neighborhood movements. This video features black-and-white footage filmed by Christine Noschese in the mid to late 1970s of NCNW speak-outs and programs related to the group’s college program, which provided an opportunity for women to earn an associate’s degree in their neighborhood. Many of the multiracial group’s members were displaced homemakers and had not previously graduated high school.

For more information about the conversations in this video, see The Legacy and Lessons of Working Class Feminism: Brooklyn’s NCNW” on YouTube. (running time 16:35)

Tamar W. Carroll is assistant professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her book Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism is now available.

Excerpt: The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy, by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow

koloski-ostrow_archaeologogyThe Romans developed sophisticated methods for managing hygiene, including aqueducts for moving water from one place to another, sewers for removing used water from baths and runoff from walkways and roads, and public and private latrines. Through the archeological record, graffiti, sanitation-related paintings, and literature, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow explores this little-known world of bathrooms and sewers, offering unique insights into Roman sanitation, engineering, urban planning and development, hygiene, and public health.

In the following excerpt from The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems (pp. 38-39), Koloski-Ostrow explains how the study and excavation of ancient latrines can be key to understanding ancient cultures.


Theoretical Frameworks for the Study of Toilets and Sewers

Roman toilets, sewers, and drains are important archaeological features that embody ideas relevant to Roman society about cleanliness, physical health, concepts of beauty, and even notions of privacy. If toilets are excavated properly, they can provide valuable data even about the diet and socioeconomic status of users, divisions between households where they are found, construction methods, and maintenance. While the understanding that outhouse archaeology is significant has made major strides in nineteenth-century American historical circles,[1] this perception has been slow to affect the archaeology of the Roman world. Part of the problem, of course, is that many Roman toilets and latrines were excavated more than a hundred years ago, as the science of archaeology was developing. As a result, no one was taking much care to stratify dung piles, to sort garbage from house toilets, or to remove privy deposits. Those early excavations sought the greatest art treasures, which were unlikely to be found in toilets.

Two theoretical frameworks have influenced my work on toilets and sewers. The first, termed “formation processes,”[2] argues that every archaeological feature, including a Roman toilet, correlates to human behaviors and activities that determine its construction, use, and ultimate abandonment. Construction, use, and abandonment are the three main processes captured by stratification within privy chambers. In other words, we can consider these processes as actual constructs of human behavior. While I am not here reporting on excavations that I myself have completed on particular toilets, I am able to refer to these human behaviors (construction, use, and abandonment) as they pertain to my effort to contextualize various toilets within one structure or within a city environment.

Closely connected to the theory of “formation processes” is the “social theory of architectural design,” which aims to uncover the human decisions and actions leading to the creation of an archaeological feature.[3] Toilets can thus be characterized as a necessary component of organizing and planning a habitation or a public area, just as sewers are necessary components of urban design. One of the first things to consider about toilets Continue reading ‘Excerpt: The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy, by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow’ »

  1. [1] See Wheeler, K. “View from the Outhouse: What We Can Learn from the Excavation of Privies.” Historical Archaeology 34, no. 1 (2000): 1–2; Heirbaut, E., and K. Wheeler. “Multi-Disciplinary Research Questions and Methods, Taphonomy.” In Jansen, Koloski-Ostrow, and Moormann, Roman Toilets, 7–14.
  2. [2] Schiffer, M.B. Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. Albuquerque, 1987; cf. Wheeler, “View from the Outhouse,” 5–7.
  3. [3] McGuire, R., and M.B. Schiffer. “A Theory of Architectural Design.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 2 (1983): 227–303.

J. Matthew Gallman on Heroes and Hypocrites: War Talk 150 Years Ago and Today

Over on our CivilWar150 site, J. Matthew Gallman, author of Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, discusses how the public scrutiny of those who profit from war versus those who fight in it has a longstanding history in America. He writes:

Today stories periodically surface of public figures who have been claiming—and even wearing—military decorations that they had not earned. Nearly ten years ago George W. Bush signed the “Stolen Valor Act of 2005” to punish such fraud. When that legislation was ruled unconstitutional, Congress passed a recrafted “Stolen Valor Act of 2013,” signed by Barack Obama. Clearly, profiting from falsified bravery was not something to be taken lightly.

During the election of 2004, one candidate’s military service in Vietnam came under such harsh scrutiny (I am no expert, but it seemed unfair and inaccurate to me), that the term “swiftboating” was born. He lost. The other candidate’s military service in the Texas National Guard received some scrutiny as well, although much of that seemed to concern whether he served properly as opposed to where he served. Meanwhile, pundits and antiwar critics coined the term “chickenhawk” to describe folks whose new enthusiasm for wars appeared unseemly in contrast to how they behaved when they were of military age.

The public conversation that emerged in the Union states during the Civil War meshes well with these contemporary discussions. The greatest scorn was reserved for the dishonest charlatans who sought to profit from a war where they had not shared in the risks. A few months after the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run, New York’s Vanity Fair published a public letter directed to a certain “young gentleman in Broadway” who had taken to walking up and down the city’s streets in a fake uniform, accepting admiring glances from men and women alike. “Don’t you think it is about time you took off that uniform?” the letter demanded. Although serving honorably in the Texas National Guard might generally have been seen as appropriate service during an unpopular war, Civil War cartoonists loved mocking men who served in the “Home Guard” while dining at fancy restaurants and staying clear of harm’s way.

Cartoonists for New York-based Vanity Fair enjoyed ridiculing the local elites who paraded around in uniforms but spent much for their time dining at the city's fashionable Delmonico's restaurant. This series of six drawings plays on the idea that these faux soldiers are engaged in defending "Fort Delmonico," down to the "Grand Charge" at the end of the evening. Vanity Fair, November 23, 1861, 232. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

Cartoonists for New York-based Vanity Fair enjoyed ridiculing the local elites who paraded around in uniforms but spent much for their time dining at the city’s fashionable Delmonico’s restaurant. This series of six drawings plays on the idea that these faux soldiers are engaged in defending “Fort Delmonico,” down to the “Grand Charge” at the end of the evening. Vanity Fair, November 23, 1861, 232. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

Read the full post, “On Heroes and Hypocrites: War Talk 150 Years Ago and Today,” at

Excerpt: The Lives of Chang and Eng, by Joseph Andrew Orser

orser_livesConnected at the chest by a band of flesh, Chang and Eng Bunker toured the United States and the world from the 1820s to the 1870s, placing themselves and their extraordinary bodies on exhibit as “freaks of nature” and “Oriental curiosities.” More famously known as the Siamese twins, they eventually settled in rural North Carolina, married two white sisters, became slave owners, and fathered twenty-one children between them. Though the brothers constantly professed their normality, they occupied a strange space in nineteenth-century America. They spoke English, attended church, became American citizens, and backed the Confederacy during the Civil War. Yet in life and death, the brothers were seen by most Americans as “monstrosities,” an affront they were unable to escape.

Joseph Andrew Orser chronicles the twins’ history, their sometimes raucous journey through antebellum America, their domestic lives in North Carolina, and what their fame revealed about the changing racial and cultural landscape of the United States. More than a biography of the twins, the result is a study of nineteenth-century American culture and society through the prism of Chang and Eng that reveals how Americans projected onto the twins their own hopes and fears.

In the following excerpt from The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth-Century America (pp. 147-151), Orser shares some of the stories and images in which Americans viewed Chang and Eng as analogous to the union or division of the United States.


The Siamese twins had long been used ironically as symbols of American nationalism. The earliest pamphlet about the twins published in the United States in the early 1830s featured a title page image of a flying eagle carrying a banner that read “E Pluribus Unum,” and beneath that was the phrase, “United We Stand.” This appeared opposite a frontispiece that pictured the twins as dark-skinned boys wearing queues and loose Oriental garments. The 1836 pamphlet published under the twins’ direction similarly featured a bald eagle clutching the national shield, beneath which were the words “Union and Liberty, one and inseparable, now and forever.” Analyzing the Siamese twins and American identity, scholar Allison Pingree argued that these exhibition booklets, which juxtaposed the parlance of the day describing conjoinedness—“united brothers” or “united twins”—with the symbolism of the American eagle holding an “E Pluribus Unum” banner in its beak, were playing to political concerns of the period. Even as nationalists appropriated the bond to symbolize union, proponents of states’ rights could claim that “connecting the states too closely was ‘monstrous’ and excessive.”[1]

This symbolism of the 1830s carried even more resonance in 1860. By this time, with the twins famously slaveholders and family men, representations of the twins and union were framed around the theme of a house divided, brother against brother, and the absurdity and tragedy of the moment. The political imagery began in July when the Louisville Journal took aim at discord in the Democratic Party. “It is said that Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins, differ in politics,” the widely reprinted “news” item reported. “Both are veteran democrats, but Chang is now for Breckinridge, and Eng for Douglas.”[2] The idea that the twins, longtime Whigs, supported either Democratic candidate—Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, who many southerners believed would not protect slavery, or Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, who was staunchly proslavery—apparently proved too much for a Surry County neighbor. The twins “are not now and never have been Democrats [and] they say they never expect to be Democrats,” the neighbor wrote to the Fayetteville Observer, which had published the report from Louisville. Instead, the anonymous neighbor wrote, they both supported John Bell of Tennessee, a pro-Union slaveholder who was running under the Constitutional Union Party, a coalition of former Southern Whigs and Know-Nothings that performed well in northwestern North Carolina but did not carry Surry County.[3] True or not, the significance of these assertions is the symbolism each carries: In the first report, the brothers were at odds, spelling doom for party and country, whereas in the second, Chang and Eng saw eye to eye and backed a candidate who similarly promised union.

Stories that used the twins to illustrate the sectional divide continued to pit brother against brother. A New York Tribune report claimed Continue reading ‘Excerpt: The Lives of Chang and Eng, by Joseph Andrew Orser’ »

  1. [1] Pingree, “America’s ‘United Siamese Brothers,'” 94–95; Hale, An Historical Account of the Siamese Twin Brothers; [Hale], A Few Particulars concerning Chang-Eng.
  2. [2] The item was reprinted in such diverse locations as Lowell (MA) Daily Citizen and News, July 30, 1860; Daily Cleveland Herald, August 4, 1860; Fayetteville (NC) Observer, August 6, 1860; Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, August 8, 1860; and Charleston (SC) Courier, August 11, 1860.
  3. [3] “The Siamese Twins,” Fayetteville (NC) Observer, August 16, 1860.

Cartoon: 1874 Arkansas Politics, by Mark Wahlgren Summers

summers_ordeal[This article is crossposted from]

Here’s the latest in a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays, we feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context. These cartoons stimulate your brain, tickle your funny bone, and bring history to life in a whole new way. 

Today’s feature: the messy politics of Reconstruction-era Arkansas. (Click image for full size.)

1980 MWS, Arkansas politics is to politics like

“1874 Arkansas Politics Is to Politics What Jackson Pollock Is to Portrait Painting.” Arkansas politics had always had the rest of the country bafflingly confused. By 1874, it made no sense to anyone outside the state. The regular Republican faction, known as the Minstrels, had run a wartime Unionist, Elisha Baxter for governor; Democrats had adopted a dissident radical Republican, Joseph Brooks, as their candidate. In November, the voters did not make the result; the vote-counters did. Backed by the legislature and the courts, Minstrels declared Baxter elected. Little did they realize that he would sell them out (but then, little did Baxter realize that eventually the Democrats would sell him out, too!). When Baxter’s apostasy became clear, Minstrel leaders had the state supreme court declare Brooks the winner after all. With a militia at his back, Brooks—now backed by most Republicans—overthrew Baxter—now backed by most Democrats. The brief civil war that followed, the Brooks-Baxter War, ended in the president throwing his weight on Baxter’s side, dooming Reconstruction in Arkansas. By the time the president had unscrambled who was on whose side and decided that Brooks may have been elected after all, it was too late to do anything about it.

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

Southern Cultures Journal App Now Available

Introducing the Southern Cultures App! More content. More ways to read, watch, listen, subscribe!

Southern Cultures is now multimedia! Download the app for your tablet, and in addition to all the great content available in the print journal, you can also enjoy embedded audio, video, and links to additional resources. For a limited time, when you download the app you’ll get the Summer 2015 issue FREE! Available from the AppStore and Google Play.

The trusty print edition is still available, too. You can learn more about subscribing to Southern Cultures at the UNC Press website.

Ellen Griffith Spears: End Toxic Discrimination

spears_baptizedWe welcome a guest post from Ellen Griffith Spears, author of Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town. In the mid-1990s, residents of Anniston, Alabama, began a legal fight against the agrochemical company Monsanto over the dumping of PCBs in the city’s historically African American and white working-class west side. Simultaneously, Anniston environmentalists sought to safely eliminate chemical weaponry that had been secretly stockpiled near the city during the Cold War. In this probing work, Spears offers a compelling narrative of Anniston’s battles for environmental justice, exposing how systemic racial and class inequalities reinforced during the Jim Crow era played out in these intense contemporary social movements.

In today’s post, Spears comments on the recent Supreme Court decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project.


One Supreme Court decision announced this June received limited notice, in part because it came out the same week as momentous decisions on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, and following the horrific tragedy at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. But the Court’s decision in a fair housing dispute, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs et al. v. Inclusive Communities Project, merits serious attention as LGBTQ activists and their allies move on to tackle employment and housing discrimination and as the momentum from the campaign to remove the Confederate flag from public places turns toward a broader agenda. The ruling could be especially significant for activists working to end the disproportionate placement of polluting factories and hazardous waste facilities in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

The Inclusive Communities case concerned whether housing for low-income persons in Dallas should be built in the city or in the suburbs. A 5-4 majority of the Court acknowledged that segregated housing persists and reaffirmed the use of disparate-impact analyses—statistical findings that institutional policies have the effect of discriminating whether or not the agency or party in question intended to do so—as a way to tackle bias in housing.

By contrast, proving discriminatory intent or motive can be difficult. Continue reading ‘Ellen Griffith Spears: End Toxic Discrimination’ »

Cartoon: The Grannies, by Mark Wahlgren Summers


[This article is crossposted from]

We present the latest in a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays, we feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context.  

In today’s cartoon: the controversy over the spoils system during the Reconstruction period. (Click image for full size.)

1980 MWS, The Grannies

“The Grannies.” By the 1870s, the spoils system had become a national scandal. Among those crying out the loudest were the so-called Liberals, most of them Republicans with growing doubts about Reconstruction and a hardening certainty that a government of greed and grab was not only inefficient and immoral, but a threat to the Republic. Horace White of the Chicago Tribune, Edwin Godkin of the Nation, George William Curtis of Harper’s Weekly and Missouri senator Carl Schurz were among the leading critics of politics as usual, personified by such figures as Senators John “Black Jack” Logan of Illinois and Roscoe Conkling of New York, as well as Congressman Benjamin F. “Spoons” Butler of Massachusetts. That all of them were hearty supporters of Reconstruction only made them more offensive to Liberals. If civil service reformers saw them as the epitome of self-interest in government, the bosses saw their antagonists as dilletantes, the “unco’ guid,” as Conkling would sneer, and, in their daintiness about political methods, un-American and unmanly. “When Doctor Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel,” Conkling snarled, “he was unconscious of the then undeveloped capabilities and uses of the word ‘Reform.’…They forget, that parties are not built up by deportment or by ladies’ magazines or gush!”

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

Ted Ownby on Subduing Satan, 25 Years Later

ownbyIt is a significant anniversary for Ted Ownby’s book, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920, which turned twenty-five this year. In the following post, which can be found in its entirety on the Center for the Study of Southern Culture blog, Ownby recalls the experience of giving birth to his book twenty-five years ago:

What inspired the book the most, and what I remember loving most about the process, was the research—weeks and months in papers in archives in university and public archives all over the South. Diary after diary, personal letters, memoirs, sermons and church discipline records, lots of newspapers, and scattered organizational records. County fair programs. The cockfighting publication Grit and Steel. Publications of temperance and other reform organizations. Toward the end of the project I taught myself to look up state laws.

The sources were my friends, and I took pleasure in going into archives and looking at papers without a great deal of preparation. The mentalités scholarship allowed me to think about what it might have meant when diaries said virtually the same things except on Sundays, or when diarists listed the numbers of ducks they killed, or when they wrote at length about circus visits, or when young women wrote, night after night, “Did my work today,” and meant they sewed, darned, or knitted. Sources were often surprising. I had never heard of ring and lance tournaments before they appeared in some letters. An otherwise frustrating trip to Savannah yielded the diary of a teenager who worried about the ramifications of making fudge on Sunday. I certainly recall finding a letter at the Southern Historical Collection in which a young man bragged about having sex with a young woman in a buggy after Sunday night services. And sources taught me things I then needed to analyze, like the self-conscious modernity of county fair organizers or the decline in church disciplinary proceedings or the practice of town women staying away from town squares when rural men invaded on court days and Saturdays.

The sources helped organize the material by time, place, and gender. I spent hours just exploring and taking notes, and when I sat down to write, the sources, with some help from gender studies scholarship, told me to look for where men and women were located when they acted in particular ways. Twenty-five years later, the book’s organization still appeals to me, with chapters on The Field, The Town: Main Street, The Town: Professional Entertainment, The Plantation, The Farm, The Home, The Church, The Revival Meeting, and then two chapters on reform. Each chapter tried to detail the groups that experienced life in certain spaces, who was there, who wasn’t, and what went on there.

Another thing I still like about the book is that its primary tension pitted two things most scholars do not find very attractive. The spaces divided people with aggressive, competitive, self-consciously manly forms of recreation and spaces where people believed in the harmony of evangelical home life. So, the tension was not between people scholars tend to appreciate and those who they don’t—it was between two tendencies or cultural forms we as scholars tend to find troubling, even offensive. It is a book without clear heroes, and it tries to think along with people we could easily see only as villains or victims. I admire scholars who have a subject—great reformers or great musicians, for example—that they love, but I approached my topic with grumbling mixed emotions.

The book is not at its best at studying causation or change over time. If it has strengths, maybe they lay in the effort to fit together the cultural forces in southern life. I was influenced by anthropologist Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process, which studied cultural life as a set of transitions between opposing cultural forces. Sometimes people went from structured order to unstructured moments of uncertainty with ease; other times the process revealed or created problems. So, one thesis of my book is that the forces in southern cultural life existed in an awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes combustible balance, and that balance became more difficult to continue in the early twentieth century. Prohibition laws passed in the early 1900s marked a turning point. I started the project expecting that a growing secularism would emerge as the main story. Instead, I found that as certain forms of behavior became harder for evangelicals to avoid noticing or suffering from their effects, many of them turned more toward organized, legal responses.

Read Ownby’s full post, “Subduing Satan Turns 25,” on the Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s blog.

Ted Ownby is director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He is author of Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 and American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830-1998 and co-editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture Volume 13: Gender.

Kim Tolley: What If There Had Never Been a Confederate Battle Flag?

Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845, by Kim TolleyWe welcome a guest post from Kim Tolley, author of Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845 (October 2015). Susan Nye Hutchison (1790-1867) was one of many teachers to venture south across the Mason-Dixon Line in the Second Great Awakening. From 1815 to 1841, she kept journals about her career, family life, and encounters with slavery. Drawing on these journals and hundreds of other documents, Kim Tolley uses Hutchison’s life to explore the significance of education in transforming American society in the early national period. Tolley examines the roles of ambitious, educated women like Hutchison who became teachers for economic, spiritual, and professional reasons.

In today’s post, as public debates over the Confederate battle flag intensify in the wake of the white supremacist killing of church leaders and parishoners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, Tolley highlights the little-known history of antislavery sentiment in early 19th-century southern Protestant churches.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” With these words, North Carolina activist Bree Newsome bravely scaled the flagpole on South Carolina’s capitol grounds and brought down the Confederate battle flag. Her act of civil disobedience focused attention on the flag’s meaning in modern American society.

But what if there had never been a Confederate Battle Flag? What if the Southern states had abolished slavery before mid-century? What if the Civil War had never begun? Impossible, it seems. Yet for many men and women just after the American Revolution, the complete abolition of slavery seemed plausible.

During recent debates over the flag, the history of the South sometimes appears as a straightforward tale of unrelenting proslavery leading up to the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. But there’s another aspect of southern history that is sometimes overlooked—the antislavery of the early antebellum era. Southern antislavery may have been a minority perspective in the early national period, but it had deep roots in the region.

In response to the antislavery stance of the major Protestant churches and the ideas embedded in the Declaration of Independence, slave liberations in the South reached unprecedented levels just after the Revolution. Virginians freed about 15,000 slaves from 1782 to 1808, and those liberations accounted for nearly 60 percent of the free black population growth in the state during that period.

When a young white Presbyterian convert named Susan Nye traveled south from rural New York to teach in North Carolina in 1815, she regularly went into the streets of Raleigh to pray with slaves and free black men and women without sparking any criticism from white residents in the town. After moving to Georgia in 1823 and marrying, she opened her kitchen to an independent congregation of slaves and free blacks. This small church conducted its own services free of oversight by whites until 1831, when the local authorities banned such meetings.

As an educator, Susan Nye Hutchison kept antislavery sentiment alive in classroom lessons on moral philosophy. Continue reading ‘Kim Tolley: What If There Had Never Been a Confederate Battle Flag?’ »

Cartoon: Sumner Gives the Lord Another Chance, by Mark Wahlgren Summers


[This article is crossposted from]

Today’s post is the latest in a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays, we feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context.  

In today’s cartoon, Summers skewers Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. (Click image for full size.)

1980 MWS, Sumner gives the Lord another chance“Sumner chides the Lord for His many errors, but promises to give Him another chance.” Dealing with Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts must have made many of his colleagues appreciate why so many martyrs were burned at the stake. Sumner was righteous, eloquent, learned, and on the great questions of human equality he was conscience itself. But how exasperating it was for more practical senators to be lectured on where and how they were wrong by this dogged, pompous, thin-skinned, humorless man—and by “one of them d—d literary fellows,” as a Michigan politician grumbled! Grant was asked whether he had ever heard Sumner converse. “No,” the president answered, “but I have heard him lecture.” At another point, it is said, someone told him that Sumner did not believe in the Bible. Not surprising, Grant responded: “he didn’t write it.” In a tawdry age, Sumner’s integrity and courage made him stand out. They also helped make him an outcast. When he fought the president’s scheme to annex Santo Domingo, Grant used his influence to depose Sumner as head of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

Excerpt: The Life of William Apess, Pequot, by Philip F. Gura

gura_lifeThe Pequot Indian intellectual, author, and itinerant preacher William Apess (1798–1839) was one the most important voices of the nineteenth century. Philip F. Gura offers the first book-length chronicle of Apess’s fascinating and consequential life. Following Apess from his early life through the development of his political radicalism to his tragic early death and enduring legacy, this much-needed biography showcases the accomplishments of an extraordinary Native American.

In the following excerpt from The Life of William Apess, Pequot (pp. 68-71), Gura examines a pamphlet written by Apess addressing race, rights, and privilege in America in the 1830s. Apess called one essay a “looking-glass” in hopes that white people would be able to view themselves as they were perceived by individuals of color. 


A “Looking-Glass for the White Man”

One result of Apess’s circulation among Boston’s abolitionists was the publication in the early spring of 1833 of his Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe, a pamphlet to which he appended a brief essay, “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” intended for the self-reflection that its title indicates.[1] The five Natives about whom Apess offered personal religious narratives were his wife, Mary; Hannah Caleb; his aunt on his father’s side, Sally George; Anne Wampy; and himself. In his own account, Apess reprised the story he had related at greater length in A Son of the Forest; his wife’s narrative is in her own voice. The other three narratives are “as-told-to” accounts; Apess had interviewed the women and redacted their words.

Emphasizing these individuals’ spiritual progress, the pamphlet as a whole—but especially the “Looking-Glass”—displayed a radicalization of Apess’s rhetoric that owed much to his exposure to Boston’s African American and abolitionist circles. In the account of his own conversion, Apess related some of the chief episodes that he had discussed in more detail in A Son of the Forest, reemphasizing how the Methodists’ message of Christian brotherhood had moved him. “I felt convinced,” he said of listening to the preaching of one “Brother Hill,” “that Christ had died for all mankind; that age, sect, color, country, or situation made no difference” (127). Not only had his own heart changed, he recalled, but everything around him had too. Apess had a compelling desire to press any human near him “to his bosom,” he wrote, for his love now embraced the entire human family (129). He also voiced the complaint that he had deemphasized in the second edition of A Son of the Forest: after about four years, he had joined the Protestant Methodists rather than remain among the Episcopal Methodists because it had become clear that the latter’s “government was not republican” (133).[2] This was his polite way of saying that the Episcopal Methodists no longer shared his views of the dignity of each individual and, thus, of mankind’s final unity.

Mary Apess’s experience took the form of more mystical devotion. She did not appreciate Methodism’s egalitarian emphasis as much as the spiritual peace it brought her: at camp meetings she thought that she had arrived in “the suburbs of glory,” so much did God’s love sweep her away (142). Hannah Caleb, on the other hand, remembered bitterly the racial prejudice that she had experienced before she found her faith. Her husband’s death while fighting with the French army in Canada and then that of all of their children, who had succumbed to one illness or another, had brought her to the brink of despair.

At first, religion offered Hannah no solace because, although the Christians she knew “openly professed to love one another . . . and every people of all nations whom God hath made,” they would “backbite each other, and quarrel with one another, and would not so much as eat and drink together.” Worse still, the “poor Indians, the poor Indians, the people to whom [she] was wedded by the common ties of nature, were set at naught by those noble professors of grace, merely because [they] were Indians” (145). After experiencing a striking conversion in which “the heavens seemed to descend, and with them an innumerable company of angels,” she joined a Free-Will Baptist Church and found the love and respect she sought. Hannah Caleb, Apess added, found her Christian work in teaching young Native children to read and spreading the Gospel to any who would listen (147–48).

Apess’s next example of true piety was his Aunt Sally George of Groton, Connecticut, another who found solace in the Baptist faith. This remarkable woman “was counted almost a preacher” as well as a healer, and when she died at the age of forty-five, all who knew her remembered how remarkably “useful” she had been to all with whom she came into contact (150). Finally, there was Anne Wampy, a Pequot who was “not able to speak plain English” and for a long while had derided and rejected anything said to her about salvation. With the help of other Native women who had become Christians (including “Sister Apess”), at the age of seventy through the love of Jesus, Anne Wampy was able to rid herself of her hatred for “everybody.” Like the other exemplary Christians in this pamphlet, Anne Wampy found self-worth, as well as connection to others, through sincere Christian devotion (151–52).

These accounts were prefatory to what in the Puritan era would have been termed the “application” of Apess’s texts, specifically, how they served as “looking-glasses” or mirrors for white people to see themselves as they were. Look at the “reservations” in the New England states, Apess commanded, home to “the most mean, abject, miserable race of beings in the world,” places of “prodigality and prostitution” where rum corroded the inhabitants’ moral fiber, and sexual exploitation often was the result. “Agents” or overseers appointed by the state offered no help and often participated in the Natives’ exploitation, neglecting to educate them as the law required and helping themselves to wood and other cash crops on tribal lands. And why? It was because of racial prejudice, whites’ unwillingness to acknowledge the simple humanity of the Indians. “I would ask,” Apess wrote, “if there cannot be as good feelings and principles under a red skin as there can be under a white” (155–56).

His recent experience in Boston had confirmed Apess in this realization: there reigned in the breasts of many whites, including their leaders, “a most unrighteous, unbecoming, and impure black principle,” the use of skin color “as a pretext to keep us from our unalienable rights.” And yet herein lay a “black inconsistency,” Continue reading ‘Excerpt: The Life of William Apess, Pequot, by Philip F. Gura’ »

  1. [1] He dropped the “Looking-Glass” from the second edition he issued in 1837, substituting a briefer “Indian’s Thought.”
  2. [2] This suggests that he may have composed the “Looking-Glass” before 1831.

Cartoon: Not Everyone Loves a Parade, by Mark Wahlgren Summers


[This article is crossposted from]

We’re excited to share the latest in a series of political cartoons from historian and illustrator Mark Wahlgren Summers, author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction.

On Thursdays, we feature a new cartoon—hand drawn by Summers—that offers a creative, satirical spin on Reconstruction history. Each cartoon is accompanied by brief commentary from the author/illustrator to help put things into context.  

In today’s cartoon, Summers highlights Reconstruction-era government spending in Louisiana. (Click image for full size.)

cartoon: Not everyone loves a parade

“Not Everyone Loves a Parade.” Louisiana’s first Republican governor, the flamboyant Henry Clay Warmoth was unable to rein in a free-spending legislature, one of the most corrupt anywhere south of New York. Not all the spending was stealing; money to aid railroad construction and special privileges given to northern corporations that might link New Orleans with Mobile, Texas, and the North could have freed the Pelican State from the cash-crop economy, in which freedpeople’s opportunities were limited—if it had worked. It didn’t, at least not soon enough. Warmoth’s successor, Republican governor William Pitt Kellogg, came into office with a nearly bankrupt treasury and the onerous job of cutting back on the programs on which Republicans’ Gospel of Prosperity depended. He also got the blame for an economy turned sour. Even without those conditions, Kellogg would have faced serious trouble from the white-line resurgence that was out to overthrow a biracial political system. As it was, his government was doomed virtually from the start.

Mark Wahlgren Summers is professor of history at the University of Kentucky. He is author of The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction, A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction, and many other books.

History Matters: Historians Respond to the Charleston Shooting [Updated]

Some of the most important work historians do is about the present. We’ve witnessed that over the past few days as the country reels from the news of a racially motivated attack on black church members at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. As UNC Press authors have been writing articles, tweeting, and speaking to broadcast and print media, they have helped shape and inform public dialogue in the crucial first days of dealing with this cataclysmic event.

One thing is clear: history matters.

From the Confederacy to apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, from Denmark Vesey to Clementa Pinckney, there is no way to tell the story of what happened on June 17, 2015, without talking about deeper histories of race, religion, and violence.

We share here some of those deeper histories, in the words of historians whose expertise ranges across centuries and across boundaries geopolitical, racial, and cultural. We hope the histories linked here will invite and inform further conversations you might have with others as you wrestle with the present and set a path for the future.


Podcast: On Second Thought – Georgia Public Broadcasting

“Targeting Black Churches” segment on the history of racial violence
Amy Kate Bailey (co-author of Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence)

“400 years of racist violence by white Americans is not so easy to forgive,”

“Whatever Santorum might believe, the family members’ statements will not deliver white Americans to some misty land where they no longer have to hear about the impact of nearly 400 years of racist violence. For as the Rev. William Barber told the congregation at Manhattan’s Riverside Church on Sunday, only ‘the perpetrator has been caught. The killer remains at large.’ Roof explosively acted out a disdain for black life that is all too pervasive in American society.”
Edward E. Baptist (author of Creating an Old South: Middle Florida’s Plantation Frontier before the Civil War and The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism) [added 6/24/2015]

“Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?”

“This time, I hope that reporters and newscasters will ask the questions that get to the root of acts of racially motivated violence in America. Where did this man, who killed parishioners in their church during Bible study, learn to hate black people so much?”
Anthea Butler (author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World)

“The decision to forgive is rooted in faith. The decision to forget is rooted in racism.”

“History and scripture are just the foundations for the stunning words of forgiveness from the families of those murdered at Emmanuel AME, expressions apparently driven by sincerity and the Christian witness of the surviving family members. However, forgiveness deployed in the context of American race relations become part of the ritual of what I call racial forgiveness.”
Anthea Butler [added 6/24/2015]

“Racial Violence, History, and the Debate over the Confederate Flag,”

“I am well aware of the ‘heritage’ argument against removal of the Confederate flag, particularly the insistence by many that the flag commemorates the brave soldiers who fought for the Southern Cause, and that it has nothing to do with slavery. . . As long as the argument about secession (and the flag) is framed as an ideological dispute among white men, the above statement will ring true to many. It’s when we include the ‘others’ of society—most pointedly, but not exclusively, people of color—that the argument breaks down. For what was the ‘Southern Way of Life’ based on, if not slavery?”
Victoria Bynum (author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies) [added 6/22/2015]

“Why South Carolina Must Remove the Confederate Battle Flag from Capitol Grounds,”

“The South Carolina State House is the people’s house. It doesn’t belong to the CEO of Volvo or any other business considering locating a factory in South Carolina. It belongs to all of South Carolina’s citizens, not just the ones who are clinging to a relic of white supremacy.”
Karen L. Cox (author of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture)

Continue reading ‘History Matters: Historians Respond to the Charleston Shooting [Updated]’ »

Patryk Babiracki: Showcasing Hard Power, Russia Reveals Her Longstanding Soft Spot

babiracki_sovietWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Patryk Babiracki, author of Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957. Concentrating on the formative years of the Cold War from 1943 to 1957, Babiracki reveals little-known Soviet efforts to build a postwar East European empire through culture. Babiracki argues that the Soviets involved in foreign cultural outreach tried to use “soft power” in order to galvanize broad support for the postwar order in the emerging Soviet bloc. Babiracki shows that the Stalinist system ultimately undermined Soviet efforts to secure popular legitimacy abroad through persuasive propaganda. He also highlights the limitations and contradictions of Soviet international cultural outreach, which help explain why the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe crumbled so easily after less than a half-century of existence.

In a previous post, Babiracki draws a comparison between Ukraine’s present and Poland’s past. In today’s post, he argues that Russia’s aggressive tactics against the West may indicate the country’s weaknesses.


In recent months, Vladimir Putin has been playing hardball with the world. Yet Russia’s bullying and bravado can be seen as signs of a longstanding weakness.

The Kremlin is flexing its muscle throughout its Western “near abroad,” most aggressively in Ukraine. Russian troops intimidated the population of the Crimean Peninsula before the Russian Parliament officially annexed it. The Russian government has been actively backing separatist insurgents in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. The Russian military has been crossing air space and territorial waters of its neighbors, including Estonia, Sweden, Finland and Poland—thereby creating new and dangerous patterns of international interactions. Such behavior strikes some as a symptom of Russia’s growing self-confidence, a perception that feeds into the popular view that Russia and the West are on the verge of a “new Cold War.”

Yet the historical analogy also underscores Russia’s present weaknesses. Fighting the Cold War in its East European backyard, the Kremlin lost a series of key cultural battles. While keeping a seemingly tight grip on its East European vassal states, Moscow failed to win over the majority of East Europeans to their cause through culture and ideas. They failed to generate what Joseph Nye Jr. has termed “soft power,” or power of attraction—a power which reduces tensions, minimizes the cost of imperial rule, and which helps to achieve long-term imperial stability.

Soviet soft power in Eastern Europe in the decade after World War II failed for many reasons. Some had to do with the intrinsic inefficiency and impotence of Soviet institutions, which hampered effective Soviet propaganda abroad. But more broadly, it failed because there was relatively little attractive about the Soviet system in the first place. The Bolsheviks aimed to create a rational, egalitarian and bountiful state; some successes in this regard notwithstanding, they ended up ruling largely through terror and deceit, spilling oceans of blood and depriving millions of material and spiritual fulfillment.

The Red Army liberated much of Eastern Europe from German occupation, but countless crimes committed by Soviet soldiers undermined Soviet soft power beginning with the last months of World War II. By 1948, East European communists, under close watch of Soviet authorities, transformed their countries into Soviet-style totalitarian party-states. With the consolidation of the Soviet sphere of influence, East Europeans had to sever all contacts with the West; although connections across the “Iron Curtain” were rekindled in 1956, the partial opening of the valve only stimulated more hunger for freedoms, foods, and fashions that East Europeans now could smell and see, or even experience briefly—but which their own governments denied them. The notoriously empty shop shelves in Eastern Europe spoke louder than any artistic statement about the alleged superiority of socialism. And, unable to compete with the West through culture—especially through promoting a distinctively Soviet, appealing way of life—the Kremlin repeatedly had to quell East European rebellions with Soviet Army tanks.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine today are part of the same story of Russia using force where it failed to persuade.

Vladimir Putin’s assault on the post-Cold War order has been accompanied by an aggressive upsurge of Russian propaganda abroad meant to justify the aggression. Kremlin-controlled media outlets such as “Russia Today” promote a distorted version of reality in numerous languages in order to sway international public opinion in favor of the Russian government and against the West. Russian government-paid “trolls” churn out pro-Kremlin comments in foreign internet forums. Certainly, Russia freed itself from many structural, financial, and ideological constraints of the Soviet system in managing its soft power resources. But its propaganda continues to be ineffective: Russia’s anti-liberal sloganeering appeals largely to populist left- and right-wing anti-EU parties, whose leaders share the goal of breaking Europe’s liberal consensus. Continue reading ‘Patryk Babiracki: Showcasing Hard Power, Russia Reveals Her Longstanding Soft Spot’ »