Monthly Archives: August 2020

A little spurious history at the Republican National Convention

Last night, Lara Trump carried on a venerable American tradition: misquoting the sixteenth president.

“Abraham Lincoln once famously said, ‘America will never be destroyed from the outside,’” she told viewers.  “‘If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.’”

Well, no.  He didn’t say that—at least not in those words.  But he did express the same basic idea in 1838:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

More history flubs popped up in congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn’s remarks.  “James Madison was just twenty-five years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence,” Cawthorn said. Madison didn’t sign the declaration at twenty-five or any other age.

Cawthorn also noted that George Washington received his first commission at a young age, although I’m not sure accidentally starting a world war is something one should aspire to.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, American Revolution, History and Memory

Bernard Bailyn, 1922-2020

We’ve lost another eminent scholar of early America—indeed, he was a titan of the field.  Bernard Bailyn passed away on August 7 at the age of ninety-seven.

It would be hard to overstate Bailyn’s importance to the study of colonial and Revolutionary America.  His work was wide-ranging; he wrote about New England merchants, the Revolutionaries’ ideology, Loyalists, colonial migrations and demographics, and Atlantic connections.  A two-time Pulitzer winner, he was also a recipient of the Bancroft Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He was an innovator, both methodologically and conceptually.

Bailyn’s book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was one of the most transformative studies of the American founding ever written.  It’s one of those rare historical works that makes you feel as if you’ve seen its subjects’ world from the inside out; a work so profound in its implications, so persuasive and elegant in its presentation, and so saturated with source material that you can’t help but see the past differently once you’ve read it.

He trained some of the most acclaimed American historians of the twentieth century, including Pauline Maier, Gordon Wood, Mary Beth Norton, Jack Rakove, and Peter Wood, and he was himself a student of Perry Miller, the seminal scholar of Puritanism.  For that reason, his death almost feels like a sort of trans-generational rupture, as if we’ve lost a flesh-and-blood link between the field’s modern foundations and some of the finest practitioners still working today.  But his own body of scholarship and the ongoing contributions of his students (and their students) should ensure that we’ll continue to feel his influence for a long, long time.

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Historiography