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Tuesday, October 31, 2023

October 31, 2023: Contested Elections: 1824

[75 years ago this week, Dewey didn’t defeat Truman—but the 1948 election was close and contested enough that one newspaper famously reported he did. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that election and a few other hotly contested ones (not including 2020, because it really wasn’t), leading up to a special Guest Post from an FSU alum and talented young journalist who would never get it so wrong!]

In yesterday’s post on the pivotal presidential election of 1800, I made the case for how that profoundly contested and controversial election very easily could have marked the end of the nascent American experiment—and how it fortunately and importantly did not. As I usually do when I start a post with references to another post of mine, I’ll end this first paragraph here and ask you to check out that post (if you didn’t read it yesterday, of course) and then come on back.

Welcome back! While that election of 1800 ended up reinforcing fundamental American ideas like the peaceful and orderly transfer of political power, it’s certainly fair to say that it also reveals just how fraught and fragile the electoral system was in that Early Republic period. A quarter-century later, another and even more contested and controversial election, the presidential election of 1824, drove home that point and then some. That excellent educational resource highlights the main elements to this scandalous election: due to a variety of factors, the election came down to a group of candidates from the same political party, the Democratic-Republicans; one of them, Andrew Jackson, received a plurality (but not a majority) of both the popular and electoral votes; but when the election was thus thrown to the House of Representatives (per the Constitution), another candidate, John Quincy Adams, was elected to the presidency, possibly due (in the “Corrupt Bargain” narrative advanced by Jackson and his supporters, at least) to Adams’ close relationship with Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Whatever precisely took place in the House, that narrative became a defining one over the next four years, contributing directly to Jackson’s successful presidential challenge in 1828.

It’s that final note that I would say offers a potential and problematic warning for politics and elections in our own contemporary moment. I want to say this as clearly as I possibly can: the election of 1824 was unquestionably controversial, and even if it was on the up-and-up relied on a highly unusual and quite strange Constitutional quirk to decide the victor; the election of 2020, on the other hand, was ultimately quite straightforward, with one candidate receiving a clear majority of both the popular and electoral votes. Yet in the three years since that election, the losing candidate—one who I would argue bears a striking resemblance to Andrew Jackson in some clear and disturbing ways (although there are those historians who disagree)—and his supporters have been just as consistent in advancing their own narrative of corruption and cheating and a fraudulent election and president that need challenging. Whatever did or didn’t happen in 1824, after all, it was the next four years’ worth of “Corrupt Bargain” narratives that really influenced the 1828 election—making clear just how fully we have to push back on our 2023 version of that narrative.

Next contested election tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Monday, October 30, 2023

October 30, 2023: Contested Elections: 1800

[75 years ago this week, Dewey didn’t defeat Truman—but the 1948 election was close and contested enough that one newspaper famously reported he did. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that election and a few other hotly contested ones (not including 2020, because it really wasn’t), leading up to a special Guest Post from an FSU alum and talented young journalist who would never get it so wrong!]

On the moment that definitely changed things in post-Revolutionary America—but also, inspiringly, didn’t.

It’d be an overstatement to say that the first decade of post-Constitution America was devoid of national or partisan divisions—this was the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts and their responses, after all; also of that little rebellion up in Pennsylvania—but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to see the first three presidential terms (Washington’s two and John Adams’s one) as among the most unified and non-controversial in our history. That’s true even though Adams’s Vice President was his chief rival in the 1796 election, Thomas Jefferson; Jefferson had gained the second-most electoral votes, which in the first constitutional model meant that he would serve as vice president (an idea that itself relfects a striking lack of expected controversy!). There were certainly two distinct parties as of that second administration (Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans), and they had distinct perspectives on evolving national issues to be sure; but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of significant partisan divisions between them in that period.

To say that things changed with the presidential election of 1800 would be to drastically understate the case. Once again Adams and Jefferson were the chief contenders, now linked by the past four years of joint service but at the same time more overtly rivals because of that prior election and its results; moreover, this time Jefferson’s running mate, Aaron Burr, was a far more prominent and popular candidate in his own right. And this combination of complex factors led to an outcome that was divisive and controversial on multiple levels: Jefferson’s ticket handily defeated that of his boss, greatly amplifying the partisan rancor between the men and parties; but at the same time Burr received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson, an unprecedented (then or since) tie between two Republicans that sent the election into the hands of the Federalist-controlled Congress. Although most Federalists opposed Jefferson (for obvious reasons), through a murky and secretive process (one likely influenced by Alexander Hamilton) Jefferson was ultimately chosen on the 36th ballot as the nation’s third president.

Four years later Burr shot Hamilton dead in the nation’s most famous duel, and it’s entirely fair to say that, in the aftermath of this heated and controversial election, the nation could have similarly descended into conflict. But instead, Burr and Hamilton’s eventual fates notwithstanding, the better angels of our collective nature rose to the occasion—Adams peacefully handed over the executive to Jefferson, all those who had supported Burr recognized the new administration, and the parties continued to move forward as political but not social or destructive rivals. If and when the partisan divisions seem too deep and too wide, and frankly too much for me to contemplate, I try to remember the election of 1800; not because it went smoothly or was perfect (far from it), nor because the leaders in that generation were any nobler or purer (ditto), but rather precisely because it went horribly and was deeply messed-up and the leaders were as selfish and human as they always are, and yet somehow—as untested and raw as we were—we came out on the other side. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a way to do the same.

Next contested election tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Saturday, October 28, 2023

October 28-29, 2023: October 2023 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

October 2: LGBT Histories: The Society for Human Rights: An LGBT History Month series kicks off with three contexts for America’s first gay rights organization.

October 3: LGBT Histories: Harvey Milk: The series continues with the complexities of any historical event, and the vital broader issues nonetheless.

October 4: LGBT Histories: 1950s Discriminations: Two horrific 50s decisions and whether we can find light in such dark moments, as the series remembers on.

October 5: LGBT Histories: Stonewall: The undeniable significance of violence for civil rights movements, and the need to remember beyond it.

October 6: LGBT Histories: 1970s Advances: The series concludes with three 1973 moments that helped advance the movement.

October 7-8: LGBT Rights in 2023: A special weekend follow-up on progress, regression, and a crucial fight here in 2023.

October 9: Vice President Studying: Aaron Burr’s Trial: For the 50th anniversary of Spiro Agnew’s resignation, a VP series kicks off with takeaways from the most controversial VP.

October 10: Vice President Studying: Andrew Johnson’s Nomination: The series continues with one good and one horrific thing about a crucial wartime VP choice.

October 11: Vice President Studying: Henry Wilson’s Book: How a Vice Presidential publication helps us rethink an entire administration, as the series rolls on.

October 12: Vice President Studying: John C. Calhoun and Spiro Agnew: A significant difference between the two VPs who resigned, and a linking thread.

October 13: Vice President Studying: Dick Cheney’s Power: The series concludes with a key explanation for a Vice President’s unprecedented power grabs.

October 14-15: Vice President Studying: Kamala Harris: Another special weekend follow-up, this one on a couple ways the current VP represents real and meaningful progress.

October 16: Basketball Stories: James Naismith: With the WNBA season concluding and a new NBA season upon us a basketball series tips off with contexts for the sport’s iconic inventor.

October 17: Basketball Stories: Chamberlain and Russell: The series continues with a clear distinction between two iconic greats, and why it’s not quite so clear.

October 18: Basketball Stories: Magic: Genuine low and high points for the legendary Laker, as the series dribbles on.

October 19: Basketball Stories: The Harlem Globetrotters: Couldn’t feature a basketball studying series without sharing my recent Saturday Evening Post column on the Globetrotters!

October 20: Basketball Stories: WNBA Stars: The WNBA too often plays second fiddle to the NBA, but as the five greats in this series concluding post illustrate, it’s always had plenty of star power as well.

October 23: New Scholarly Books: A Seat at the Table: A series on great recent publications kicks off with a vital new anthology co-edited by frequent Guest Poster Hettie Williams.

October 24: New Scholarly Books: Resistance from the Right: The series continues with an important recent book that helps us understand the longstanding and most dangerous threat to higher ed.

October 25: New Scholarly Books: A Connecticut Yankee Goes to Washington: A wonderful new bio that reminds us of the best of our Congressional leaders, as the series reads on.

October 26: New Scholarly Books: The Vice President’s Black Wife: Coming up with titles for public scholarly books ain’t easy, so when one gets it right, it’s really worth celebrating.

October 27: New Scholarly Books: Democracy Awakening: And the series and month concludes with the most successful scholarly book of the year from our most prominent public scholar.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, October 27, 2023

October 27, 2023: New Scholarly Books: Democracy Awakening

[It’s been a bit since I dedicated a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books—so this week I’m dedicating a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books. Please add more recommendations, new, old, and anywhere in between, in comments!]

On the one hand, when a scholarly book by a public historian reaches #1 on the New York Times bestseller list it clearly doesn’t need a blog mention from me (or anyone). But on the other hand, that is an achievement very, very much worth highlighting and celebrating everywhere—and as someone who has been talking with the wonderful Heather Cox Richardson about public and online scholarship since she was first creating the idea for the great We’re History site, I couldn’t be more excited that her latest book, Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America, has taken her voice and work to even one more level of well-deserved prominence. Clearly I don’t need to tell y’all to check out this book, but I do need to say that it’s one of those things that gives me hope for the future, as long as we can keep learning and talking about the past.

October Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other books or publications you’d recommend?

Thursday, October 26, 2023

October 26, 2023: New Scholarly Books: The Vice President’s Black Wife

[It’s been a bit since I dedicated a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books—so this week I’m dedicating a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books. Please add more recommendations, new, old, and anywhere in between, in comments!]

As someone who has struggled at times to come up with catchy book titles, and who has recently changed the title of his work in progress, I’m always impressed when a scholarly author can come up with a title that is both extremely catchy yet at the same time truly captures key subjects of the project (ie, isn’t just clickbait, understandable as that goal always would be). No recent publication manages that difficult balance better than Amrita Chakrabarti Myers’ The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn—that title sounds like a sleazy campaign attack ad, and indeed this figure was used in precisely those ways to destroy the career of Martin Van Buren’s VP Richard Mentor Johnson; but it’s also a genuine reflection of the nuanced layers of Chinn, Johnson, their marriage, and the many early 19th century historical and cultural issues to which Myers connects them in this fascinating book. Come for the title, stay for the whole thing!

Last book rec tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other books or publications you’d recommend?

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

October 25, 2023: New Scholarly Books: A Connecticut Yankee Goes to Washington

[It’s been a bit since I dedicated a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books—so this week I’m dedicating a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books. Please add more recommendations, new, old, and anywhere in between, in comments!]

The recent clusterfuck (pardon my French, but there really is no other word that works) around the Speaker of the House is just the latest of so many reminders that our current Congress has almost entirely ceased to function as a governing body, and certainly seems unable to address in any consistent or successful way the myriad crises facing the nation and world. In such a moment, it’s even more important that we remember the historical figures who have embodied the best of that governing body and have helped achieve significant progress on such important issues. A great new biography focuses on one such figure and achievement: Will McLean Greeley’s A Connecticut Yankee Goes to Washington: Senator George P. McLean Birdman of the Senate. Senator McLean advised five presidents and played a role in countless early 20th century histories, but it was his sponsorship of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, one of America’s first and most influential conservation laws, that Greeley rightly highlights as a truly exemplary legacy. I can’t imagine a more important moment to revisit and be inspired by such legacies, nor a book that can help us do so more powerfully than Greeley’s!

Next book rec tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other books or publications you’d recommend?

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

October 24, 2023: New Scholarly Books: Resistance from the Right

[It’s been a bit since I dedicated a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books—so this week I’m dedicating a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books. Please add more recommendations, new, old, and anywhere in between, in comments!]

One of the most frustrating misunderstandings in our current social and political conversations (a very competitive category, of course) has to do with where and from whom the threats to free speech in higher education are coming: many of our narratives suggest those threats come from the “intolerant left”; while I would argue that the far, far more widespread and influential such threats come from conservative critics. And that’s not a new phenomenon, as historian Lauren Lassabe Shepherd argues in her vital new book Resistance from the Right: Conservatives & the Campus Wars in Modern America. Shepherd connects mid-20th century debates and forces to our own moment and climate with nuance and complexity, while making an unassailable case for what’s really been happening in and to higher ed for more than half a century. If you read one book about higher education this Fall, make it Resistance from the Right!

Next book rec tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other books or publications you’d recommend?

Monday, October 23, 2023

October 23, 2023: New Scholarly Books: A Seat at the Table

[It’s been a bit since I dedicated a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books—so this week I’m dedicating a blog series to highlighting great new scholarly books. Please add more recommendations, new, old, and anywhere in between, in comments!]

Readers of this blog are already familiar with the awesome Dr. Hettie Williams, who has contributed not one, not two, but three excellent Guest Posts (tying her for the all-time lead!). Which makes me even more excited than I already would have been to highlight her phenomenal new collection A Seat at the Table: Black Women Public Intellectuals in US History and Culture, co-edited with Melissa Ziobro and published by the University Press of Mississippi (and featuring a number of chapters by Hettie herself, among many other awesome contributors including another AmericanStudies Guest Poster Tanya Roth). That a number of the chapters also intersect with my own recent and ongoing work on African American critical patriotism is just the icing on the cake, and puts A Seat at the Table in conversation with other exemplary recent works like the 1619 Project. For all those and many other reasons, this is my must-have Fall 2023 scholarly publication!

Next book rec tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other books or publications you’d recommend?

Friday, October 20, 2023

October 20, 2023: Basketball Stories: WNBA Stars

[With a new NBA season upon us, a series AmericanStudying some of basketball’s many interesting figures, stories, and debates. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, debates, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

Before Colin Kaepernick began his protests in the summer of 2016, WNBA stars were already doing so; but as is too often the case, we don’t recognize these female athletes as fully as we do their male counterparts. So I wanted to make sure to end this NBA and bball series by highlighting and briefly AmericanStudying a handful of the many phenomenal WNBA stars, past and present, on and off the court:

1)      Sheryl Swoopes: Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Rebecca Lobo were the first three players signed to the WNBA when it launched in 1996, and honestly any one of them could occupy this spot on my list. But Swoopes was the first signed, and I’m highlighting her in particular for that reason and because of this sentence from her Wikipedia page: “She returned only six weeks after giving birth to her son to play the last third of the WNBA inaugural season and led the Comets in the 1997 WNBA Championship.” If that doesn’t sum up the badassery of WNBA stars and female athletes everywhere, I don’t know what could.

2)      Cynthia Cooper-Dyke: While Swoopes was a big part of that inaugural Houston Comets championship team, Cooper-Dyke was the unquestionable centerpiece of their dynasty (the Comets won the first four WNBA championships), winning two regular-season MVPs and all four Finals MVPs in the process. What makes that resume even more impressive, however, is that Cooper-Dyke had finished her college career at USC a full decade earlier, after the 1985-86 season. She spent the next decade playing on European teams, and then signed with the Comets at the age of 34, making her stunning subsequent dominance of the league that much more striking still.

3)      Dawn Staley: Not gonna lie, this is something of a homer pick: I grew up watching Dawn Staley work her point-guard magic at the University of Virginia, and have been a huge fan ever since. She went on to make great contributions to both the US National Team and the WNBA, but it’s really as a coach that Staley has distinguished herself from other WNBA stars: literally, as Staley began coaching the Temple University women’s bball team while she was still in the WNBA; and then through her subsequent successes, with Temple, with her current coaching job at the University of South Carolina, and with the US National Team. She’s the first person to win the Naismith Award as both a player and a coach, which just about says it all.

4)      Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery: I’m grouping these last two stars together because of the similar reason why I’m highlighting them: each left a promising WNBA career over the last few years in order to pursue social justice work and activism. Moore did so in 2019, putting her career with the Minnesota Lynx on hiatus to work for criminal justice reform, as illustrated by her successful efforts for the release of her partner Jonathan Irons from prison. Montgomery did so in 2020, retiring from the WNBA in order to take part in that year’s protests and activisms for racial justice and equity. These two inspiring stars have extended the legacy of those 2016 protests and remind us that WNBA athletes have long contributed to well more than the world of sports stardom.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share (in comments or by email)?

Thursday, October 19, 2023

October 19, 2023: Basketball Stories: The Harlem Globetrotters

[With a new NBA season upon us, a series AmericanStudying some of basketball’s many interesting figures, stories, and debates. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, debates, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

I couldn’t share a BasketballStudying series and not include my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column from his past March on the Harlem Globetrotters, a legendary team that featured one of my week’s subjects (Wilt Chamberlain) but also and especially connect to so much of 20th century American history. Check out that column if you would, and share any responses, here or by email, for the weekend post!

Last bball story tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

October 18, 2023: Basketball Stories: Magic

[With a new NBA season upon us, a series AmericanStudying some of basketball’s many interesting figures, stories, and debates. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, debates, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

On genuine low and high points for the legendary Lakers star, and what they both exemplify.

I’ve written before, in this post as well as in the chapter on AIDS epidemic histories and literature in my fourth book, that Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement of his HIV-positive status marked a pivotal turning point in public conversations about the disease. I certainly believe that’s the case (and am of course not alone in arguing the point), but at the same time it’d be important not to let a desire to consider the historical big picture lead us to skip too quickly past what the moment meant for Johnson and his family. Even if we leave aside the moment’s personal (such as Johnson’s subsequent confessions of serial infidelity) and professional (his immediate, although not permanent, departure from the NBA) ramifications for Johnson, his wife Cookie, and their young family, in 1991 HIV and AIDS were still (and understandably, given the statistics) perceived as death sentences. While Johnson has been able to battle the disease quite successfully (it seems) for the three decades since his announcement, that subsequent history shouldn’t cloud our perspective on what his diagnosis and situation meant, for him and everyone around him, in 1991. It was as painful and frightening a moment as any faced by an American athlete or celebrity in the era.

While Johnson’s battle against that HIV diagnosis has continued for these 30 subsequent years, his moves forward from that moment and toward another career high point began much more rapidly than that. In 1994, less than three years after his announcement, Johnson and his Johnson Development Corporation announced their plan for Magic Johnson Theatres, a line of movie theaters that would open in and provide entertainment options, as well as jobs and revitalization, for urban communities. The first such theater, the Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15, opened in South Central Los Angeles in 1995; a second, the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9, opened in New York in 2000, and more followed in Cleveland, Atlanta, and other cities. While Johnson’s achievements will always be defined first by his basketball stardom and successes, it’s fair to say that on the court he was one of a number of great players, present and past (if a unique one to be sure)—whereas his theaters represent a more distinctive and singular vision and achievement, within their communities and in American business overall. Although many of the theaters have changed ownership in the decades since, they established a new model for both locations and styles of movie theaters (and other urban developments)—and in any case, as with Johnson’s HIV announcement, subsequent events shouldn’t elide what this moment in Johnson’s life and career meant at the time.

So for Johnson, these two moments and stories reflect contrasting yet nearly concurrent low and high points, a particularly striking spectrum in a life that’s been consistently mercurial. If we take a step back and examine them in relationship to the African American community, however, I would argue that they together represent a period of extreme social and cultural shifts on both destructive and productive levels. Johnson’s theaters offer one illustration among many—alongside films like Boyz in the Hood (1991), New Jack City (1991), and Menace 2 Society (1993) and the explosion in popularity of gangsta rap, among other examples—of how African American urban communities were becoming central to American popular culture in the 1990s. Yet at the same time, such communities were facing significant new threats, from the war on drugs and the rise of mass incarceration to, yes, the AIDS epidemic; while the disease was largely associated with gay communities at the time of Johnson’s announcement, by the end of the 90s it would be just as fully linked to impoverished, and often African American, inner city communities. While Johnson’s personal battle with HIV certainly differs from that communal epidemic, the presence in his life and career of both that battle and an economic and cultural transformation of urban spaces reflects a similar spectrum of danger and possibility for the African American community in this same period.

Next bball story tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

October 17, 2023: Basketball Stories: Chamberlain and Russell

[With a new NBA season upon us, a series AmericanStudying some of basketball’s many interesting figures, stories, and debates. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, debates, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

On a clear distinction between two iconic greats—and why it’s not quite so clear as that.

Between 1956 (when Bill Russell was drafted by the Boston Celtics; Wilt Chamberlain was officially drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors three years later) and 1973 (when Chamberlain finished his last season with the Los Angeles Lakers; Russell had ended his playing career with the Celtics four years earlier), the National Basketball Association might as well have been renamed the Russell-Chamberlain Association. Russell and the Celtics won 11 NBA titles in those 18 years (1957, 1959-66, and 1968-69), while Chamberlain and his teams won 2 (with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 and the Lakers in 1972). The discrepancy between those two championship totals, and the fact that Russell’s teams often beat Chamberlain’s in the playoffs en route to their titles (the Celtics were 7-1 in playoff series against Chamberlain teams), has led many NBA fans and basketball pundits to opine that Russell clearly got the best of this truly unique rivalry. But while such debates are fun for fans and historians alike, the truth is that these are two of the all-time great NBA players, and there must be room in any account of the sport for acknowledging and engaging with both men’s achievements and successes.

Those on-court achievements are the most important part of Russell and Chamberlain’s careers and legacies—but if we turn our attention to their lives and personalities off the court, it would be difficult to imagine a more contrasting pair. Russell was (and has largely remained in the decades since his retirement) notoriously prickly and private, not only with the media but with fans and the public more generally, as illustrated (if in a particularly divisive way) by his description of Boston as a “flea market of racism” and his initial desire to have his jersey retired in an empty Boston Garden. Chamberlain was (and largely remained until his 1999 death) famously gregarious and social, as exemplified (if in a particularly controversial way) by his claim (in his 1991 autobiography A View from Above) that he had slept with roughly 20,000 women in his life. Those differences might help explain why Chamberlain only coached for a year (with the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association), while Russell not only coached the Celtics for the final four years of his playing career (becoming one of the first African American coaches in professional sports in the process), but went on to coach two other teams in the next two decades (the Seattle Supersonics in the mid-1970s and the Sacramento Kings in the late 1980s).

Yet I would argue that those seemingly divergent details and lives also reveal a similar influence and factor for both men. In the interview at that last hyperlink, Russell argues that his time as the Celtics’ player-coach had nothing to do with race or racial progress; yet as his comments on Boston and its fans reflect, Russell has consistently become—whatever his own overall goals—a lightning rod of racial attitudes and debates in both the city and the sport. For his side, Chamberlain denounced the Black Panthers and openly supported Richard Nixon in both 1968 and 1972, separating himself very distinctly from African American social movements of the era; yet from his college days at the University of Kansas on through every subsequent stage of his career and life, Chamberlain both experienced direct instances of racism and was defined as a stereotypical black man (never more so than in the aftermath of his sexual claims). Neither of these two titans of the sport can or should be reduced to his race, but neither is it possible to separate them from that aspect of their identity, even when each has in some ways expressed a desire for such separation. Indeed, Russell and Chamberlain’s careers marked a significant step in the NBA’s continued evolution toward being the most centrally African American sports league and community in America—one more reason to remember their iconic presences and legacies.

Next bball story tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

Monday, October 16, 2023

October 16, 2023: Basketball Stories: James Naismith

[With a new NBA season upon us, a series AmericanStudying some of basketball’s many interesting figures, stories, and debates. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, debates, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

Three interesting contexts for the sport’s inventor and its subsequent popularization.

1)      Canadian Origins: Naismith himself was Canadian: born in Ontario to Scottish immigrant parents, he attended (and starred in multiple sports) at Montreal’s McGill University, where he subsequently became the first director of athletics before leaving to become a physical education teacher at the Springfield (MA) YMCA International Training School (later Springfield College). That biography itself illustrates the interconnected identities of Canada and the U.S., in an era when the border was unpatrolled and movement between the two nations was particularly easy and frequent. But Naismith’s first ideas for “Basket Ball” likewise reflect a Canadian influence: the game of “duck on the rock,” which the young Naismith had played in the fields of Ontario and which taught him the value of arcing or lobbing rather than straight throws and directly inspired key aspects of basketball. Thanks, Canada!

2)      Fun at the Y-M-C-A: It was while teaching PE at that Springfield YMCA that Naismith invented basketball; he was tasked by the school’s PE director, the pioneering recreation advocate Dr. Luther Gulick, with coming up with a game that would keep the school’s rowdy young men active during the New England winters (and one that would both be fair and not too physically rough), and in December 1891 Naismith debuted “Basket Ball.” That origin thus reflects two core elements of the YMCA: its Christian emphasis on fairness and its attempt to harness the energies of young men. And it was through the YMCA that the sport truly began to spread: even when Naismith moved to the University of Kansas in 1898 and founded that institution’s men’s basketball program, many of their games were against regional YMCA teams (as most colleges did not yet offer basketball). We often focus on collegiate and professional athletics to trace the history of sports in America, but basketball’s early history reminds us of the equally vital role of community and recreational athletics in that story.

3)      A Coaching Tree: Although Naismith frequently argued that “you don’t coach basketball; you just play it,” he nonetheless originated a chain of coaches that includes some of the sport’s most legendary figures: he instructed his successor at Kansas, Forrest “Phog” Allen, who came to be known as “the Father of Basketball Coaching”; and during his long career at Kansas Allen coached both Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, who went on to become two of the 20th century’s most influential coaches (at Kentucky and North Carolina, respectively). That multi-generational story illustrates how influential individual figures and relationships can be in affecting and changing the course of history. But it also reminds us of how young America is, and how quickly our contemporary figures and stories (like that of Michael Jordan, who was coached and in his own words profoundly influenced by Smith) can be connected back to originating moments and histories. A great lesson to take away from Naismith and the origins of basketball.

Next bball story tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

Saturday, October 14, 2023

October 14-15, 2023: Vice President Studying: Kamala Harris

[50 years ago this week, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. That striking political moment was not only part of the deepening Watergate scandal, but one of the few times when an American Vice President has made major news. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Agnew and other noteworthy Veeps, leading up to this weekend post on our current VP!]

On a couple ways that the current Vice President represents real and meaningful progress.

First, one of those openings where I ask you to read another piece of mine in lieu of a full paragraph here: in this case, an August 2020 Saturday Evening Post Considering History column inspired by Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate. Check it out and then come on back if you would!

Welcome back! In the Conclusion of my book Redefining American Identity (2011) I made the case that Barack Obama might well be “the first American President” due to his multi-racial and cross-cultural heritage, a heritage that (my argument in that book went) is foundational to all of American history and identity. While that is of course a symbolic and somewhat overstated (on purpose) point, I’d stand by it, and would say much the same about the layers to Kamala Harris’s heritage and identity that I discussed in that 2020 column. Obviously she is not defined by what happened to and with her paternal ancestors, even less so than Obama is defined by his parents, so these are not really points about the figures themselves, so much as about the American (and global) histories that are part of the figures’ heritages, and how important it is to finally have leaders who overtly connect to those histories in ways we have not previously seen. Having such a leader in the Vice Presidency isn’t entirely new (seriously, check out that story about a prior VP we should all better remember), but it’s a significant and inspiring step nonetheless.

It’s not the only such step that Harris represents, of course, and even a cross-cultural America superfan like yours truly has to admit that there’s another layer to her representative status which is even more significant. Back in 2015, I made the case in another column, this one for Talking Points Memo, that Walter Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro for his 1984 running mate was one of the most impressive and inspiring political moments in our history. Unfortunately (for so, so many reasons), Mondale and Ferraro did not win that election, and so we had to wait nearly four decades more for our first woman Vice President. (And are, even more frustratingly, still waiting for our first woman President, but that’s another story for another post.) To anyone who might call that kind of step purely symbolic, I would respond (among other counter-arguments) that the Vice Presidency has long been a symbolic position, whatever else it might have included or meant, and it’s about damned time we have an occupant who symbolizes half of the country.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Vice Presidents you’d highlight?

Friday, October 13, 2023

October 13, 2023: Vice President Studying: Dick Cheney’s Power

[50 years ago this week, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. That striking political moment was not only part of the deepening Watergate scandal, but one of the few times when an American Vice President has made major news. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Agnew and other noteworthy Veeps, leading up a weekend post on our current VP!]

On a key explanation for a Vice President’s unprecedented power grabs.

By an interesting coincidence, just before I began drafting this post, the prominent public historian Kevin M. Kruse Tweeted (in response to a controversy about Mike Pence), “For two and a half centuries, the vice presidency has been widely regarded as a fairly useless office—even by the ones who’ve held it themselves.” I’m not a vice presidential nor presidential historian (and neither is Kruse), so I’d always defer to those who have studied these figures, roles, and histories, with Lindsay Chervinsky’s The Cabinet (2020) a good starting point I’d say. But to my mind Kruse’s point is an accurate one—that the Vice Presidency, originally created in the Constitution/Framing as a bizarre first-loser situation when it came to presidential elections, has over the centuries morphed into a largely symbolic role, generally more relevant for elections (and what VP nominees can bring to the ticket) than for anything that the Vice President themselves will do while in office (other than those who have had to assume the presidency unexpectedly, of course, which as Tuesday’s post on Andrew Johnson reflects can be all too significant indeed).

There’s one recent and very notable exception to that trend, however: Richard “Dick” Cheney, who in his 8 years as George W. Bush’s Vice President wielded significantly more power than any other VP (and by many accounts, including one from Bush’s own father and one presented in the recent dramatic film Vice (2019), more than the President himself). To go with the general theme of the week’s posts, Cheney was also the subject of a particularly bizarre Vice Presidential scandal, when he shot a man in the face during a February 2006 quail hunting trip and then pretty much blamed the man (who seemed all too eager to take that blame) for the incident. But while that event is impressively symbolic of narratives of Cheney as a malevolent figure who consistently escaped any culpability for his actions (narratives with which I would entirely agree, to be clear), it’s important not to let it distract us from the far more significant story about Cheney: the way he grabbed far more power than any VP before or since, turning that largely symbolic office into a despotic one with destructive and tragic results (never more clearly than with the Iraq War).

That power grab was absolutely unprecedented (if not, as our most recent awful Oval Office resident might say, unpresidented), but it didn’t come out of nowhere, and I would argue that a key origin point for Cheney’s embrace of unconstitutional powers links him closely to one of yesterday’s subjects, the Nixon administration. There’s a famous photograph, included in this article, of a very young Cheney shaking hands with President Nixon in the Oval Office alongside Donald Rumsfeld (another powerful Bush administration figure and Iraq War instigator, natch). Nixon might not have been willing to grant his own VP much power, but he was most definitely a believer in the Imperial Presidency, and indeed as that hyperlinked article argues a hugely influential step along the way toward presidential administrations with secretive and dangerous levels of power. It was only a matter of time before the Imperial Presidency spawned (pun very much intended) an equally and dangerously Imperial Vice President like Dick Cheney.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Vice Presidents you’d highlight?

Thursday, October 12, 2023

October 12, 2023: Vice President Studying: John C. Calhoun and Spiro Agnew

[50 years ago this week, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. That striking political moment was not only part of the deepening Watergate scandal, but one of the few times when an American Vice President has made major news. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Agnew and other noteworthy Veeps, leading up a weekend post on our current VP!]

On a significant difference between the two VPs who resigned, and a linking thread.

When Agnew tendered his resignation, he became (and remains to this day) just the second Vice President ever to resign the office. The first, President Andrew Jackson’s first Vice President John C. Calhoun (who had also served as President John Quincy Adams’ Vice President, making Calhoun the second of two figures to date to serve as VP for two different Presidents), resigned in a significantly less consequential way: Jackson had already won a second term in the 1832 election with a new Vice Presidential nominee, Martin Van Buren; and so Calhoun was a lame-duck Vice President (not a phrase we often use, but an accurate one in this case) when he resigned the office in late 1832. He did so in order to replace outgoing South Carolina Senator Robert Y. Hayne, who had resigned that position to become the state’s Governor; in the resulting special election Calhoun was unanimously elected by the South Carolina legislature (as was the plan to which all these parties had apparently agreed) to fill Hayne’s Senate seat.

While Calhoun’s resignation itself was thus largely symbolic (and strategic vis-รก-vis these other positions), the reasoning behind it was nonetheless quite significant, and represents a key distinction between Calhoun and Spiro Agnew. To put it simply: Agnew resigned in large part because he was too closely associated with his President and a key scandal engulfing the administration (although the public explanation for the resignation was a series of smaller differences between the two men, as well as Agnew’s own prior bad behavior); while Calhoun resigned because of a scandal of his own making that divided him from his President. That scandal was the South Carolina nullification debate that I wrote about in this early post and that was a hugely important step on the multi-decade move toward secession (for which Calhoun became a direct inspiration) and Civil War. With all due respect to Monday’s subject and a close contender for this title, Aaron Burr, I’m pretty sure a Vice President was never more overtly at odds with their President than Calhoun was with Jackson over nullification, and certainly Agnew and Nixon were never anywhere close to so antagonistic.

Despite those significant differences in their administration relationships and resignations, however, there’s at least one way in which I would link Calhoun and Agnew (and through which both men foreshadowed certain key elements of the contemporary American Right). Calhoun’s racist support for the system of slavery (which he called “a good—a positive good”) led him to advance a mythic patriotic, blatantly white supremacist vision of American identity and history, one that as I argue in Of Thee I Sing the Confederacy would later take up as a central founding narrative. In his critique of journalists who opposed the Vietnam War as “nattering nabobs of negativity” (among many other attacks, as that article traces), Agnew became one of the 20th century’s most overt proponents of a mythic patriotic narrative, one in which critics of an administration and its policies became nothing less than enemies of the state. A white supremacist vision of the nation and a narrative that critiques of America are treasonous are not identical positions, but what they are, as I’ve argued in many places for the last few years, are two essential elements of mythic patriotism—a divisive and destructive form that was embodied by both John C. Calhoun and Spiro Agnew.

Last VeepStudying tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Vice Presidents you’d highlight?