By Hillsdale College February 21, 2020
The Great American Story, Part II
HUGH HEWITT: Morning glory, America. Bonjour, hi, Canada. Greetings, to every one of my 400 affiliates listening. This is the second of a three-part Hillsdale Dialogue on the brand new book by Dr. Wilfred McClay, introduced in the first part of our series.
He is, of course, a professor now at Hillsdale College. He’s a Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Hillsdale College. He’s also the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Professor of History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He has served for eleven years as a member of the National Council on Humanities. His books include The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, The Student’s Guide to US History, and the brand-new Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, which has become a 25-part video series at Hillsdale College—excellent video course offerings, all of which are available at Hillsdale.edu.
Dr. McClay is joined this hour by Dr. Larry Arnn, of course, president of Hillsdale College, and by Kyle Murnen, who comes out from behind the curtain. He is the Director of Online Learning and for years has been our go-between with the often-irascible-and-difficult-to-find Dr. Arnn. Kyle has been long-suffering and long-serving up in the wilds of Michigan, and we are glad to have him here.
Gentlemen, we left off, last hour, when we were talking about the new nation—when Americans actually began to understand themselves as Americans. Can we go back there, Dr. Wilfred McClay? I’m sure it appears in lecture four. When does that American identity get formed? Because there isn’t a lot to do between the Puritans and the Virginians for a couple of decades, at least.
WILFRED MCCLAY: Well, one of the things that happens is the Great Awakening. In the early part of the eighteenth century, there is a religious revival that sweeps up and down the coast—the coastal British colonies and inland—you know, in frontier areas. And this is a profound, evangelical religious revival spearheaded by people like the British George Whitefield…to some extent Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan Neo-Calvinist theologian. He was also a very fine preacher. Everybody knows “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but he actually had a wider repertoire than that.
And these were people who excited a sense of, sort of, restoration of the fervency of the religious convictions that, certainly, the Puritans and others had brought with them. And, because it was an American experience, it was something that happened—it happened in Georgia, it happened in Philadelphia, it happened in New England. It reinforced, in a very indirect way—but a very palpable way—the sense that all of us were Americans, that we have in common this experience. We all had heard George Whitefield preach, we all had been under the sway of the same set of ideas in the same sense of, perhaps, falling away from our original calling. So I think that religious revival was very important in implanting the idea of American-ness.
HEWITT: Dr. Arnn, it took 150 years to form a revolutionary moment in 1776. The late, great Judith Shklar made us read, when I was an undergraduate, long ago—as did Harvey Mansfield—those pamphlets—the committees of correspondence—and you averred to them earlier. How important were these pamphlets in a—it wasn’t an illiterate society, but it is not one in which literacy is universal?
LARRY ARNN: Well, they—
MCCLAY: No, although it was very common. I’m sorry, were you directing it to Dr. Arnn?
ARNN: Go ahead. Go ahead, Wil.
MCCLAY: Literacy was very wide and common, so the pamphleteers had wide influence. Of course, we all know that Tom Paine and his influence with Common Sense, and so on. But yes, these earlier individuals and the committees of correspondence were a slow, tentative way that these independent colonies began to think of themselves as operating in terms of a common cause.
HEWITT: Dr. Arnn?
ARNN: Yeah, well, just remember how radical this is. I stated Churchill’s thesis, but there’s never been a time, and there can’t really be another one, where a civilization picks up and goes somewhere else. And they brought with them all the knowledge that was in that civilization, and they didn’t bring the aristocracy or the forms with them. They didn’t even know what they were going to see.
And this claim that America is the last, best hope, it’s plausible when you think about the dramatic nature of those facts. And that means that they had 150 years to get used to running their own lives, and that bound them, ultimately, to one another much more than it bound them to England with its traditional forms, and its king, and its aristocracy. And England, too, is going the way we’re going, but even today, they’re not just like us because they have that history, and we have ours, and we have lived together and figured out how to cope with that history.
And, when they became a people—first of all, what were they? They came over here to escape religious persecution, but to found communities of enforced religious conformity. And it took them a while to figure out that, although they didn’t know how big the continent was, it wasn’t big enough to do that, because, inside the towns, they’d get to fighting, and they’d go somewhere else. And they worked out, finally, that you’re going to have to let people worship as they please, which, in my understanding and theirs—ultimately theirs—is one of the commandments of Christianity.
ARNN: So, yeah, this experience is unique and, as I say, can’t really be repeated.
HEWITT: Kyle, if I can ask you a question, here—just a technical one. When you’re filming Dr. McClay’s 25-part series, I know you occasionally attempt to drop in images that illustrate. It’s harder when you’re talking about early 1600s all the way through 1776. It gets easier as you get to Matthew Brady and beyond. How difficult is the technical side of this 25-part series?
KYLE MURNEN: It certainly gets easier. We probably have about 1,000 images and video clips in the series, as a whole, and we have a lot of great ones from the early American history, and it certainly picks up as you continue in the course. So that’s one of the—
HEWITT: Wow, you’re not paying him enough, Dr. Arnn.
ARNN: Yeah, yeah, he says that, too.
HEWITT: So, I got to ask, Dr. McClay, when you saw it, have you watched it yet? I’m not one that likes to watch myself. Have you watched the course?
MCCLAY: Oh, I don’t either. After three days and having my wife watch it first, I watched the trailer. And it’s incredible. You know, look, I feel like the guy—the actor—who just showed up and read his lines, and then the director creates this magic.
HEWITT: Is it?
MCCLAY: I mean, you really are talking, this Kyle guy, this mild-mannered guy, he is the Wizard of Oz, except, when you look past the curtain, he’s much more handsome and debonair.
HEWITT: Oh, now, Dr. Arnn is very upset because we’ve given him two causes to demand a raise. Dr. Arnn, you’ve been in this business of video courses for a while now. The ambition keeps growing, and I believe it’s actually the best of times for serious content. Do you agree with me about that?
ARNN: Yeah, we’re both alarmed and gratified by the response to a lot of things we do, right now. And they all proceed from the principle that, if you get privileged to learn some things in the setting where you can really learn, there’s an obligation to share. And so, we think that, if somebody wants to learn with us, we’re going to try to find a way to help them do that. And, you know, we’re going to expand to lots of different audiences—homeschoolers, charter—we have these charter schools, and we’re going to have more. And we want to help their teachers learn, and we want people like Dr. McClay to be teachers to them. And so, yeah, America needs a Great Awakening, and so we want to help fuel it.
HEWITT: I’m thinking of my friend, Dr. Ken Williams, who is the chairman of the Orange County Board of Education, often assailed by the left and teachers unions. I can see boards of education going out and mandating that they use Land of Hope, regardless of what their teacher-union-controlled state boards of education say, and then be willing to fight for it, Dr. Arnn, because you’ve got to fight against this giant, massive conformity.
ARNN: Well, kudos to him. They have just approved a Hillsdale College-affiliated charter school for Orange County.
HEWITT: Oh—didn’t know that!
ARNN: Yeah, and Jeff Barke, a Hillsdale College parent, and Mark Bucher, who you and I’ve known for years, are movers in that thing, and we are movers in that thing. And you know, if human beings remain the same, and in essential respects—our argument is they do—then what they need to know and how they learn remains the same. And so, it’s actually been known for a long time how to run a school and make it successful. And we do that in two dozen places, now, roughly. And there’s going to be more.
HEWITT: And there would be, even—every public school board out there listening this morning, go get Land of Hope. Go to Amazon.com, or Barnes & Noble, or go watch the video of course at Hillsdale.edu. And then, agendize it and say, I think we ought to go back to teaching history in a way that will form citizens, and Land of Hope will do just that.
We come back, and we talk about slavery, next on The Hugh Hewitt Show.
Welcome back, America, it’s Hugh Hewitt, Dr. Larry Arnn is my guest, The Hillsdale Dialogue continues—originally taped in February of 2020, also our Thanksgiving show. He’s joined by Dr. Wilfred McClay of the University of Oklahoma and also Hillsdale College, and the Director of Online Learning at Hillsdale, Kyle Murnen. All things Hillsdale, including this new 25-part course on American history led by Dr. Wilfred McClay, are available at Hillsdale.edu.
This is a short segment—five minutes. And I’m going to turn to you, Dr. Arnn, because we’ve spent hours and hours talking about slavery on The Hillsdale Dialogue, and on the Cooper Union speech, and on all of this, but if I can force you just to do a four minute force march through how did this scourge come, how did we get rid of it, when was it recognized.
ARNN: Well, it came here through the colonial era, that 150 years. And, just as a lot of things changed in the opinions of the colonists over that time, the opinions about slavery changed and sharpened. And so, just think what a remarkable thing the American Revolution is because they could have just said, you know, We’re English, and the king is a predator upon our customs of old. And they didn’t say that; they proclaimed that all men are created equal, according to a universal law above any human law, the laws of nature and nature’s God.
Well, we developed a new view about that, or many of us did—develop a new view about that, over the subsequent—roughly—one generation, let’s say from 1787 and the Northwest Ordinance until 1820—the Missouri Compromise. It was necessary then—you couldn’t just simply forbid slavery in new territory anymore, but you could, in 1787, on the motion of Thomas Jefferson.
So that shift was a shift away from an opinion that, if a thing can talk, it’s a human. And that’s the classic understanding of what human is—if it starts talking, in the end you’re going to have let it vote. And so, that’s the story and the crisis in America. And slavery was here and abetted, and Wilfred has written a book about this, and the book is brilliant on these points.
I’ll add one more point, that I think that there was an evil in the Founding generation. There was a consensus that slavery is a wrong, but there wasn’t an understanding, there wasn’t a thought, or there was no experience to indicate that these people of different race and color were going to live as equal citizens among everybody else.
HEWITT: Now, my opinion is not solicited nor needed, but I’m going to give it anyway. I think the great villain of American history is John C. Calhoun because, as Dr. Arnn has educated me—I want to know if Dr. McClay agrees—Jefferson and every slaveholder understood at the time of the Revolution that slavery was wrong. Lincoln brought that out in detail in the Cooper Union speech. It was Calhoun who messed up the potential, peaceful resolution of the peculiar institution that was deeply immoral and wrong from the beginning. Do you agree with my theories?
MCCLAY: Well, I wouldn’t target him, specifically—exclusively—but he makes a good target. And the interesting thing about Calhoun is that he didn’t really start out that way. He started out as a sort of classic Whig politician, a Nationalist—very much a Nationalist, not a Sectionalist, but he, like all politicians, gravitated to the sources of his support. And, I think, slavery just became an institution that was so enriching to a very small number of people in a very localized part of the country. It just became too much of a cornucopia, economically speaking, for those individuals for them to even imagine giving it—
HEWITT: Dr. McClay, though, you mentioned—
MCCLAY: So they started defending it as a positive good, which you don’t see at the time of the Founding. That is the real—
HEWITT: You mentioned the Great Awakening. These are all deeply religious people. I’ve always thought they felt compelled by the Bible to justify what they thought was—obviously, they have material interests, but they’re religious people with a conscience, and they know that it’s wrong. Calhoun gave them the door by which they might understand it as not obviously wrong.
MCCLAY: Well, and you had people like James Henley Thornwell and the other southern Presbyterian theologians, brilliant men—Eugene Genovese says they were much smarter than the northern theologians—Who began to draw, increasingly, on the examples of slavery and even the New Testament’s sort of indifference to the institution—seemingly—the existence of the institution, as a justification for it. So you have Lincoln in the great second inaugural making this point. Both sides read the same Bible, both sides worship the same God, and yet there was something, I think, ultimately, disingenuous about it.
HEWITT: Oh, you bet. Hillsdale Dialogue continues after the break. Stay tuned.
Welcome back, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. Part two of three parts on the brand-new book by Dr. Wilfred McClay, Land of Hope, the key, new American history textbook—a 25-part video series at Hillsdale College, as well—Hillsdale.edu. We are spending three hours on it. We hope that you will go and watch the video course, get the book, spread it far and wide.
We come, now, to Washington, the unique figure in American history. There are two great figures in American history: Washington and Lincoln, who are just so unique. The first one is Washington. Dr. McClay, it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling this off. It’s such a unique combination of someone who will, on a horseback, lead from the front into the hail of bullets, and, at the same time, retire to Mount Vernon after eight years. It’s just impossible to imagine.
MCCLAY: It’s extraordinary. I mean, if you’re inclined to see the existence of the United States of America as a miracle, as divinely sanctioned, George Washington is the place to look. How on earth did we—what did we do to deserve him? He’s such a surpassingly great man. And, of course, as everyone knows, even at the Constitutional Convention, the way that the presidency, this newly empowered presidency, which a lot of people were afraid of—the only way it became conceivable to them, acceptable to them, was the idea that George Washington was going to be that person.
And of course, he was the great unifier. And, when he was gone—when he left office, I mean—already, the country was starting to fall apart along partisan lines. And Washington, during his lifetime, always managed to command the respect of everyone. And he is just a noble figure in the deepest sense of the term.
HEWITT: And, Dr. Arnn, not just Washington—what Dr. McClay just said—a time of giants. You’ve got not just Washington, but Madison, who writes his inaugural address, Congress’s response, and then ghosts Washington’s response to Congress. You’ve got Hamilton, who goes into, what the musical calls, the room where it happens, with Jefferson emerges with the Great Compromise that saves the union. It’s actually an extraordinary collection of talent. I don’t know if it has a predicate.
ARNN: Yeah, if you want to see the power, one place where you can see it, if you read something that Jefferson wrote in 1774, if I remember the day right, A Summary View of the Rights of British North America. It’s a very complex document, and he always regarded it as kind of a failure. But read the last paragraph, because he was the man who could give voice. It goes roughly like this—the last paragraph he says, “Let those flatter, Sire, who fear. It is not an American art.”
HEWITT: Ha, ha.
ARNN: That’s, sort of, football war talk.
HEWITT: Yeah, it is.
ARNN: “Your minister is our servant,” he says. So, yeah, he’s a talent. And then Madison, writing the Constitution, who is often the corrector of Thomas Jefferson, who said and did various silly things in his life. And Hamilton, you know, who had the qualities of George Washington and some others—not quite the character—nobody did—but courage. George Washington could be incredibly restrained and incredibly aggressive, and so could Hamilton. And Hamilton was eloquent and tireless.
So the partnership among those people and John Adams—that produced the American Revolution. And, as Wilfred just said, it really didn’t last after the death of Washington. They all fell to fighting and founded the party system. And they worked that out, but they had to, in a way—that’s very good—I hadn’t thought of it before, but I think Wilfred suggested it—They had to figure out a way to run the country without George Washington. It wasn’t easy.
HEWITT: We are working on an exhibit, now, at the Nixon Library called The Presidents Club and on the friendship that evolved at the end of their lives between Adams and Jefferson, but, Dr. McClay, they were anything but friends until they were old men exchanging letters.
MCCLAY: Yes, and I haven’t read Gordon Wood’s new book on the subject, but that friendship is a sort of inexhaustibly interesting phenomenon—and how, over time, enemies can become friends, can draw away from the heat of their particular battles to a love of country, and the love of one another that’s mediated by love of country. And, you know, it gets back to the theme that we began with, back in the previous hour, about how to lack—let me put it positively—to have a shared narrative, have a shared story of what America is—that’s the first step to overcoming the divisions between us, and it’s an essential step. If we don’t agree in some way about the story, about who we are, then we’re not going to be able to do great things together, or even minimal things together. And, in a time of national crisis, we’re sunk if we don’t do better than we’re doing now in telling the story.
HEWITT: Well, that first national crisis comes along with the first secession crisis, and onto the stage strides Andrew Jackson, who, if Donald Trump has any predicate, and he really doesn’t, it’s Andrew Jackson as a great disruptor. And the national crisis is that people are threatening to leave the constitutional deal. Where does Jackson come from, Dr. McClay? And what is his response to this crisis?
MCCLAY: Well, you know, he’s from very hardscrabble origins. He’s, really, the first example of what, in a, I think, more noble way—elegant way—Lincoln exemplified this ability of people from even the most unpropitious circumstances to rise to the highest office in the land. He mainly did it through his military exploits, although people do forget that he actually was an elected official, too, before he became president, unlike Trump, who really had none of that and no military record, either. But Jackson was a patriot, and he was a southerner. He was a slaveholder, but he was also a patriot, and he did not, in the end, cotton, if I may put it that way—cotton to the secessionists’ talk. And so, he very firmly put the kibosh on it.
HEWITT: I believe, he threatened, did he not, Doctor Arnn, to march down into South Carolina and put them to the sword?
ARNN: Well, he was reasonably belligerent.
MCCLAY: I like that modifier, reasonably.
ARNN: He’d kill you.
HEWITT: He would, he did.
ARNN: He did kill people. And so, you know, he and John C. Calhoun—there’s a great story, there. I’m glad that Wilfred said the things he did about Calhoun’s excellences, which were many; and his tragedy, and the tragedy for the nation, was that he adopted these scientific principles of material, historical progress.
ARNN: So, a new idea, right, that the Declaration of Independence it is wrong. So that’s his tragedy, but, boy, you know, with Jackson—he and Jackson—they did things together, and they, sort of, bound up the country and wanted to regard it as one country, and they’re nationalists, both of them. And they fell to fighting, of course, and the Nullification Crisis was the reason. And there’s that famous toast, Wilfred will remember to words better than I. Jackson proposes a toast: “The Union, one and inseparable”—something like that—“now and forever”—and Calhoun toasts back, “The Union, next to our liberties most dear.”
MCCLAY: Yes, exactly.
ARNN: And the liberty he was referring to was the liberty to hang onto their slaves.
HEWITT: And so, the shadow falls. I believe it’s in lecture eight, you call “The Culture of Democracy and the Shadow,” Dr. McClay. Did anyone not know it had to come to blows, and not just blows, but 600,000 dead and a million wounded?
MCCLAY: Oh, yeah. I mean, I don’t think it’s a foreordained conclusion. And I try to convey this in the book. If they don’t fall for this notion of historical inevitability, I mean—although, at the same time, I say that, if there’s anything that made the war inevitable, you could argue it was the Mexican War because it opened this whole issue of expansion, and expansion leading to reopening the question of slavery in the territories, which is where Lincoln drew the line.
And, you know, if that land—that vast expansive land—had not become available, and thus unsettled the Missouri Compromise, which ended up being completely blown up by the Supreme Court, among others, but—we wouldn’t have had that problem.
HEWITT: It’s interesting. I’ve got to pause here, because Dr. Arnn and I have spent so much time—again, if Napoleon hadn’t sold us the Purchase, that might be the case, but, even if he hadn’t—and we’re into the what ifs, Dr. Arnn—after you read Lincoln enough, you realize someone was going to come along and say, That institution cannot endure.
ARNN: Well, that’s right. And, you know, this particular story is written in the history of our college, the Founding history. And Lincoln was looking for a way to get rid of slavery without breaking the Constitution or having a war. And they found that way, and that was partly invented by people here at Hillsdale College, and that was they forbid slavery in the federal territories, where the federal government had, they claimed—I think rightly—the power to do, but they would leave it alone in the states, and it would be then, and Lincoln said, in the course of ultimate extinction.
And so, that’s the moment of decision, because they were getting the power to implement that policy. They were going to outvote the South on that. And then, the South was presented with a choice: Are they going to go along with that and resign themselves that this institution must ultimately pass away, or are they going to fight? And, alas, they chose to fight. And, in many of the states where they chose to fight, that was a narrow decision.
HEWITT: But it was the decision. When we come back, we’ll talk about not only the war, which is dealt with in Land of Hope completely, but also the aftermath, the Reconstruction. Don’t go anywhere, America, The Hillsdale Dialogue will roll along.
Welcome back, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. It is The Hillsdale Dialogue, and the conclusion of part two of a three-part series with Dr. Wilfred McClay; Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College; and Kyle Murnen, the Director of Online Learning at Hillsdale. All things Hillsdale are collected at Hillsdale.edu, including a new, 25-part course on Dr. McClay’s brand-new book, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, a great American textbook.
I’m so glad we brought up the Mexican-American War because, Dr. McClay, it gets very little notice. It doesn’t really figure much in people’s understanding of how we got where we are, but without it there’d be no California, no Texas, no New Mexico, would there?
MCCLAY: Absolutely. And, by the way, since we’ve been talking about Lincoln, I want to say—a lot of people don’t know this, but Mexicans regard Lincoln as a great hero, and partly because of his opposition to the Mexican War. A very interesting, little known—there are statues of Lincoln all over Mexico.
HEWITT: I did not know that.
MCCLAY: Yeah, isn’t that interesting?
HEWITT: Why did he oppose the Mexican War, Dr. Arnn? You’re the Lincoln scholar.
ARNN: Well, he opposed it because he thought it was an aggressive war, and he opposed it because he saw the complications it would make if we got a bunch more territory before we figured out what we’re going to do about the slavery thing.
And the context is, you know, Stephen Douglas is gravitating his way toward the idea that we should expand the whole hemisphere—Manifest Destiny. And he had this kind of federal idea that slavery would be just decided by the local community. And that was, in Lincoln’s eyes, the most dangerous doctrine. It actually appealed to Republicans a lot, because it was kind of cool. Let each place decide for itself. And he couldn’t sustain that in debate with Lincoln, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but it was a very formidable challenge.
HEWITT: Dr. McClay, I want to cover, very quickly, when Lincoln—my friend, Robert O’Brien, the National Security Advisor, sent me a note. He had stopped at the Lincoln Memorial on a walk, and he read the second inaugural. I’m going to skip over all of the Civil War. I’m going to skip over 600,000 dead, and the Eastern theater, the Western theater, Lincoln and his General, all that, I’m sure it’s in Land of Hope. But that second inaugural, do you think it is the greatest bit of rhetoric, or do you rank the Gettysburg Address ahead of it?
MCCLAY: Oh, I don’t know. That’s a tough decision. I think I would rate the second inaugural higher because it incorporates, in a way that Lincoln came to later in his life, but it incorporates the Judeo-Christian, biblical understanding that is very much a part of the American heritage, as much as our doctrines of natural rights, and so on. And he envisions, sort of, astounding things to do for a country still at war. But it’s conciliatory—it’s looking ahead to the knitting back together of the nation, which Lincoln never lost sight of—that that was the ultimate, that was the end game, to knit the thing back together.
HEWITT: Well, we’ll talk Reconstruction next week, but I’ve got to ask Dr. Arnn, if one of them had been lost to history, which one would you have preferred been kept?
ARNN: Yeah, I agree with Wilfred. You know, first of all, it’s a beautiful religious/political poem, and it gives us a guide to a lot of our contemporary disputes. Because of this materialistic view of history, you know, there’s a war on everything in the past—everything that’s not pure by today’s standards—which means nothing will remain, and Lincoln’s—it ends with, “charity for all, with malice toward none, let us bind up the nation’s wounds.”
And so, his attitude—sublimely expressed—remember, the whole beauty of the thing is it is a judgment on us all. We all did this thing. We’re a nation. It’s a beautiful statement of natural justice. “If every drop of blood drawn by the lash must now be repaid by another drawn by the sword, still it will be said that the ways of God are righteous, altogether.”
HEWITT: Isn’t that amazing?
ARNN: Yeah. How can you not like that?
MCCLAY: No, it’s just that it’s breathtaking, and years and years of reading it have not taken any of the luster off of it, for me.
HEWITT: Do you include the entire text of important documents, Doctor? We’ve got 30 seconds to the break. Or how do you approach that when an editor?
MCCLAY: I’m so glad you asked about that because I do point—I don’t include entire texts, but I do point frequently in the text towards these primary sources, which, I think, for using the book for teaching, is a help. I want to mention, very quickly, that we’re about to come out with a teacher’s guide to Land of Hope, which teachers have been clamoring for. And I think it’s going to be a huge help, and it will include some primary documents and questions to use in the classroom, including things like the Northwest Ordinance, things that aren’t often taught.
HEWITT: Absolutely necessary. Hour number three will be coming. Do not depart from us—or go, right away, to Hillsdale.edu and begin watching all 25. We’re only up to less than eleven, but I hope we’ve baited the hook. Don’t go anywhere, America. The Hillsdale Dialogue is wonderful. Thank you, Adam. Thank you, Ben. Thank you, Generalissimo.