We the Teachers

Kennedy Establishes the Peace Corps

Kennedy_portrait_LoCOn March 1 in 1961, President Kennedy established the Peace Corps. The idea for a volunteer force of young people sent to work in developing nations around the world, teaching skills that would promote development, had been proposed several times in Congress during the 1950s but had never gained the traction to pass. Kennedy made the proposal a part of his fall 1960 election campaign, after getting an enthusiastic reception to the idea at an impromptu speech at the University of Michigan. Arriving on campus in the early hours of October 14, 1960, he found a large crowd of students waiting for him to speak, and asked:

“How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”

With letters from students pouring into his campaign, Kennedy developed the idea into a foreign policy proposal that would counter Soviet efforts to win the developing world for communism, in a speech at Cow Palace in San Francisco, November 2, 1960. When he referred to this plan in his inaugural address, he downplayed the security motive, pledging himself to a loftier goal:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more. . . . To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Promises Owed, Beyond Emancipation

Hiram_Rhodes_Revels_-_Brady-Handy-(restored)On this day–February 25–in 1870, the first African American ever elected to the office of Senator was sworn in. Hiram Rhodes Revels was elected by the Republican-dominated Mississippi legislature to fill out the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis. Revels had distinguished himself in a variety of leadership roles from Maryland to Mississippi, working as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a recruiter of black regiments in the Union Army, an army chaplain, and as an organizer of schools for freedmen. Upon his arrival in the Senate on February 23, 1870, a few Senators tried to block the acceptance of his credentials, arguing that he and other African Americans had gained citizenship only four years prior, with the passage of the 1866 Civil Rights Act. (The US Constitution stipulates in Article I, Section 3, clause 3 that “No person shall be a Senator who shall not have . . . been nine years a Citizen of the United States.”) The argument was specious, as Revels’ supporters pointed out; while residing years earlier in Ohio, Revels had exercised his citizen’s right to vote. After two days, Senator Charles Sumner made a forceful speech that brought the debate to an end.

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISMThe strange argument over Revels’ credentials calls to mind a powerful speech made shortly before the end of the Civil War by Frederick Douglass. Speaking to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on “What the Black Man Wants,” Douglass insisted on the granting of full civil rights for African Americans at the conclusion of the Civil War. Emancipation had been granted as a war measure, so as to add the strength of African American troops to the Union Army. But full citizenship rights, including suffrage, should follow. To not grant these would not only deny the equality of black men to other Americans; it would impugn the honor of a nation that would soon be working out a system to readmit the rebel states to the Union:

Do you mean to give your enemies the right to vote, and take it away from your friends? Is that wise policy? Is that honorable? Could American honor withstand such a blow? I do not believe you will do it. I think you will see to it that we have the right to vote. There is something too mean in looking upon the Negro, when you are in trouble, as a citizen, and when you are free from trouble, as an alien. When this nation was in trouble, in its early struggles, it looked upon the Negro as a citizen. In 1776 he was a citizen. At the time of the formation of the Constitution the Negro had the right to vote in eleven States out of the old thirteen. In your trouble you have made us citizens. In 1812 Gen. Jackson addressed us as citizens—“fellow-citizens.” He wanted us to fight. We were citizens then! And now, when you come to frame a conscription bill, the Negro is a citizen again. He has been a citizen just three times in the history of this government, and it has always been in time of trouble. In time of trouble we are citizens. Shall we be citizens in war, and aliens in peace? Would that be just?

FDR Explains the New Deal

FDR-300x200_radio-mikeTwo months after assuming office, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a radio address—one of his “fireside chats”–on measures he had so far taken to stabilize the nation’s economy. He recalled the national emergency he faced on entering office: “The country was dying by inches. It was dying because trade and commerce had declined to dangerously low levels; prices for basic commodities were such as to destroy the value of the assets of national institutions such as banks, savings banks, insurance companies, and others.” Under these circumstances, he asserted, strong actions had to be taken without long deliberation over economic principles: “We were faced by a condition and not a theory,” he said. Roosevelt named the measures taken to avert further foreclosures and bankruptcies and to put people back to work, saying that Congress had fully supported them, realizing “that the methods of normal times had to be replaced in the emergency by measures which were suited to the serious and pressing requirements of the moment. There was no actual surrender of power . . . . The only thing that has been happening has been to designate the President as the agency to carry out certain of the purposes of the Congress.” This fireside chat on the scope and purposes of the New Deal well illustrates Roosevelt’s skill in reassuring the many still suffering the effects of the Depression while quelling the objections of those who were more concerned about his assumption of new executive authority.

FDR Speaks to a Nation in Economic Depression at his First Inaugural

Last week we reprinted Professor John Moser‘s comment on Hoover’s letter to FDR of February , 1933, in which he asked the incoming president to make a pre-inaugural statement to reassure a worried public. Roosevelt ignored Hoover’s “cheeky” advice, waiting for his inaugural address to make a statement promising measures that would bring economic recovery.  FDR’s first inaugural speech is famous for his rebuke of the psychological paralysis gripping the nation: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But perhaps the more important announcement of the speech came in the president’s call for “broad executive powers to address the emergency,” the equivalent of powers normally granted to the presidency only during war. Again we reprint a document introduction by Professor John Moser, co-chair of the Master of American History and Government at Ashland University:

Continue reading

Hoover Offers FDR Advice on the Banking Crisis

Bank_Run_c1933_USAToday, we’re reprinting a document introduction written several years ago by John Moser, Professor of history and co-chair of the Master of Arts in History and Government at Ashland University. Moser comments on a letter Herbert Hoover wrote to Franklin Roosevelt three weeks before Roosevelt’s inauguration as president in March 1933:

In early 1933 Americans waited anxiously in the midst of economic crisis for a new president to begin his term of office.  In this light, Herbert Hoover’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt of February 18, 1933, makes for fascinating reading.  During the fall of 1932 the economy had shown signs of recovery, but by February overall unemployment stood at 25 percent and the nation’s banking system stood on the brink of collapse.  Hoover believed—not without reason—that uncertainty over Roosevelt’s intended policies was contributing to the general atmosphere of “fear and apprehension.”  He called on the incoming president to issue a public statement giving “prompt assurance that there will be no tampering or inflation of the currency” and “that the budget will be unquestioningly balanced even if further taxation is necessary.”

Roosevelt chose to ignore Hoover’s request, privately calling it “cheeky.”  No doubt he saw little reason to associate himself with the seemingly discredited economic policies of his predecessor.  But Roosevelt’s key economic policy adviser, Rexford G. Tugwell, admitted that same month that he and the president-elect “were wholly aware of the bank situation and that it would undoubtedly collapse in a few days, which would place the responsibility in the lap of President Hoover.”

– Professor John Moser

For Lincoln’s Birthday: An Early Statement of his Principles

Lincoln_Congressman-electTomorrow is Abraham Lincoln’s 205th birthday. It seems a good time to recall a speech in which Lincoln outlined his political principles while still a young man, before leading the nation through the great crisis of our civil war. While a legislator in the Illinois House, Lincoln spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”

Lincoln was speaking about 50 years after the ratification debate over the Constitution, and at the end of the speech he shows his consciousness that the last survivors of the revolutionary generation had all but departed. He took as his theme, then, the question of how Americans might maintain their dedication to those republican principles the Founders had articulated and enshrined in law. Asserting that the only serious threats to the nation would arise from within, he warned against allowing any disrespect for law to enter American life. He insisted that recently reported instances of mob violence in the nation gave cause for alarm; but he also spoke of a potential successor to such civil unrest, an ambitious leader who might seek his own glory through the destruction of democratic institutions. This portion of the speech has fascinated his biographers, some of whom argue that Lincoln spoke from an awareness of his own ambition and where, if he chose, it might lead.

Hoover Praises “Rugged Individualism”

472px-Herbert_Hoover_-_NARA_-_532049Speaking in New York near the close of the 1928 Presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover presented the choice between himself and his opponent, Democrat Al Smith, as one between “state socialism” and the protection of private enterprise. He reminded his listeners that during its involvement in World War I, the US government had directed energy toward the war effort by assuming unprecedented powers to regulate private industry. He made the case that the country’s recovery from the war effort was due in large part to the government’s relinquishing these powers at the war’s conclusion, contrasting this decision with that of some European powers, whose economies were still struggling.

A little less than halfway through this speech, Hoover introduced his famous characterization of the American economic system as based on “rugged individualism”: Continue reading

Coolidge Expresses Confidence in a Free Press

444px-John_Calvin_Coolidge,_Bain_bw_photo_portraitCalvin Coolidge’s address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in January 1925, shortly following his re-election to the presidency, offers a clear example of his confidence that democracy and laissez-faire capitalism are compatible. He focuses on one node of our economic and political systems that some have seen as problematic: maintaining a free and independent press  when journalism is conducted as a for-profit enterprise—or, as Coolidge puts it, “the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise.”

While this speech is the source of Coolidge’s oft-quoted maxim: “the chief business of the American people is business,” it also expresses another idea in which Coolidge places his ultimate confidence:  “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. . . . No newspaper can be a success which fails to appeal to that element of our national life.”

Coolidge himself cultivated good relations with the press, holding 520 press conferences during his five and a half years in office.

FDR’s “Forgotten Man”

FDR-300x200_radio-mikeFranklin D. Roosevelt was born on this day in 1882. Among Roosevelt’s many innovations in American politics was his use of the radio address. In fact, Roosevelt began using this medium to significant effect before his election as president and his well-known series of “Fireside Chats.” For example, this campaign speech made on April 7, 1932, helped prepare the public to accept his eventual program as president, when he proposed federal programs to guarantee the economic security of Americans.

Roosevelt here announces what would become his major theme: championing the low-wage worker, so many of whom had been put out of work by the Great Depression. FDR’s “forgotten man” is the worker “at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Ironically, the phrase “forgotten man” had first been used to title a lecture by Yale economics professor William Graham Sumner, to refer to those, primarily in the middle class, who fund government social welfare programs they did not devise.

After World War I, Harding Urges Return to Normalcy

460px-Warren_G_Harding-Harris_&_Ewing-cropWarren G. Harding was not yet the Republican candidate for the 1920 election when he first made his “Return to Normalcy” speech. But he was being promoted by key Ohio Republican Party insider Harry Daugherty, and after the Republican convention deadlocked, he emerged as a compromise candidate, winning the nomination. The speech nevertheless represents the major elements of his campaign, which emphasized a retreat from engagement in international affairs and renewed focus on building the domestic economy through the capitalist energy of the American people. Harding’s rhetoric avoids specifics but hints that he intends to roll back the progressive agenda of his predecessors. It also suggests his rejection of the new League of Nations which his predecessor Woodrow Wilson had championed, helped to design and urged the US to join. The Senate had voted against approving the treaty forming the League in March 1920, and although some in Congress, including some Republicans, wanted to reverse this decision, Harding saw his election as a mandate to stay out of the League.

The excerpt in our library of the “Return to Normalcy” speech is brief enough for classroom use, especially as a study in political rhetoric. Probably the most famous portion is this:

“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”


The Ideas Behind the Progressive Party Platform of 1912

Croly_PromiseAmerLifeToday is the 145th birthday of Herbert Croly, whose book, The Promise of American Life, was a major influence on American progressives in the early 20th century, including Theodore Roosevelt, who derived from Croly his idea of a “new nationalism.” Published in 1909, this book tried to devise a way of infusing Hamilton’s vision for a strong and effective central government with Jefferson’s vision for democratic rule. Croly proposed a synthesis that downplayed individualism and elevated a communalism that, he hoped, would promote the welfare of all citizens. This would require, he thought, the nationalization of large corporations and the strengthening of labor unions. It would require a strong central government headed by a strong leader.

One sees these ideas in the Progressive Party Platform of 1912, which invokes the name of Jefferson in its opening paragraphs. Whether Jefferson would have seen the platform as consistent with his own understanding of democracy remains a subject of debate.

The Joining of the Rails: The Transcontinental Railroad

Transcontinental Railroad

The new edition of Gilder Lehrman’s History Now online historical journal is now available.  This issue focuses on a particular interest of mine, the transcontinental railroad.  It features a series of essays from historians exploring the railroad’s impact on American history, particularly on the economy and business, the social impact it has on western settlement, and the changing relationship between government and business that develops in the Age of Enterprise.

Want to learn more about railroads and western settlement? Join us this summer for a new graduate course entitled The West and AmericaThis new course will explore how the west shaped American history from the 19th century through the present. Held at our Ashland, Ohio campus from Sunday, June 29 through Friday July 4th, the course will be taught by Professor David Wrobel of the University of Oklahoma and veteran MAHG professor Gregory Schneider of Emporia State University.  A lifelong rail fan, Professor Schneider is the author of the recently published Rock Island Requiem: The Collapse of a Might Fine Line, which chronicles the rise and fall of the legendary Rock Island Railroad.

Two speeches in Osawatomie, in 1910 and 2011

TheoRoosevelt_waving_hatTheodore Roosevelt announced his progressive vision for America in a speech made in Osawatomie, Kansas, on August 31, 1910. In the year and a half since leaving the presidency, he had begun to part with the more moderate reformist policies of his successor, President Taft. Now he advocated a “New Nationalism” that would put “the national need before sectional or personal advantage” and that would look to “the executive power as the steward of the public welfare.” Criticizing “the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will,” he called for greater government supervision of interstate business, tariff reforms devised by a commission of experts, a graduated income tax on the wealthy accompanied by a graduated inheritance tax on large fortunes, and labor laws to protect workers.

A century later, when President Obama in December of 2011 traveled to Osawatomie to make a major economic policy speech, he meant to evoke the memory of Theodore Roosevelt’s call for a national progressive agenda. It could be an interesting classroom exercise to compare the two speeches. Obama’s is available at the White House website; Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech is included in our collection of 50 Core American Documents and can also be found here with Professor Christopher Burkett’s introduction.

Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nonviolent Resistance

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” So wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963 as he served a ten-day jail term for violating a court injunction against any “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” in Birmingham. He came to Alabama’s largest city to lead an Easter weekend protest and boycott of downtown stores as a way of forcing white city leaders to negotiate a settlement of black citizens’ grievances. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a public statement by eight white clergymen appealing to the local black population to use the courts and not the streets to secure civil rights. The clergymen counseled “law and order and common sense,” not demonstrations that “incite to hatred and violence,” as the most prudent means to promote justice. This criticism of King was elaborated the following year by a fellow Baptist minister, Joseph H. Jackson (president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953–1982), who delivered a speech counseling blacks to reject “direct confrontation” and “stick to law and order.”

By examining King’s famous essay in defense of nonviolent protest, along with two significant criticisms of his direct action campaign, this EDSITEment lesson plan will help students assess various alternatives for securing civil rights for black Americans in a self-governing society.

Happy Birthday, Benjamin Franklin

Portrait of Franklin painted in 1762 by Mason Chamberlain, showing Franklin checking his self-invented "lightning bells" as lightening illuminates the street outside the window of his study.

Portrait of Franklin painted in 1762 by Mason Chamberlain, showing Franklin checking his self-invented “lightning bells” as lightening illuminates the scene outside the window.

Tomorrow is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin. Although an omnipresent player in the Founding generation, the only one to sign all three documents that confirmed us as a nation—Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, and the Constitution—Franklin was not as influential in shaping the design of our government as men such as Madison, Hamilton, or Jefferson. His biographer Edmund Morgan points out that in the service of his country, Franklin sometimes undertook— and brilliantly performed—assignments he himself questioned, such as procuring French financial assistance for the Revolution.  “We cannot really know who Franklin was from the role he played in history,” Morgan writes; but in Franklin’s elegant, often witty prose, “we can recapture . . . someone whose life showed, as few ever have, how much it can mean to be a human being.”

Franklin made his name as a journalist and author, and one can read his own clever compendium of the best of the adages he authored under the pseudonym “Poor Richard” in a piece written shortly before he retired from the printing business, “The Way to Wealth.”

His habit of putting common human behavior to the test of reason and producing a surprising result is well displayed in “Old Mistresses Apologue,” written in the form of advice to a young man seeking the extramarital entertainment of women (Franklin urges the young man to exclusively court older women).

His assessment of the opportunities his newly independent nation offered to its citizens, and the good to which the nation ought to aspire, can be seen in an essay he wrote while Ambassador to Paris: “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America.” Here he articulates an American idea of respectability, based in useful employment, that contrasts with the European idea.

As Peter Schramm puts it, for Franklin, “life and citizenship and virtue were partly obligations, but mostly just fun.  He took pleasure in the world, in freedom, in creating wealth, in shaping the character if his people.  His life was proof that free men could be both prosperous and virtuous.”



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