By Hillsdale College February 28, 2020
The Great American Story, Part III
HUGH HEWITT: Morning glory, America. Bonjour, hi, Canada. Greetings to all the 400 affiliates listening to The Hugh Hewitt Show, wherever you may be around the globe, or if you’re listening on the Universe or at the podcast. We’re over at HughforHillsdale.com. You know, we are in The Hillsdale Dialogue. Once a week we go high, and on Thanksgiving we spend three hours—or on New Year’s Day, we spend three hours with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and one of his colleagues.
Today we’re talking with two of his colleagues. Kyle Murnen is Director of Online Learning at Hillsdale College. He’s responsible for those wonderful video courses, including a brand-new one on Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Land of Hope is the new American history textbook by our other guest, Dr. Wilfred McClay. Dr. McClay is the Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Hillsdale College, as well as the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Professor in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.
This brand new book, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, is a long-overdue, much-needed antidote to Howard Zinn. And the 25 lectures that Kyle has produced along with Dr. McClay are absolutely essential for people who want to know where we are, how we got here.
And where we left off at the end of the second part of our three-part series on Land of Hope, Dr. McClay, was with the death of Lincoln and the second inauguration. Then comes Reconstruction, a little-known, poorly understood period of time. Just tell us what we ought to know about Reconstruction, Dr. McClay.
WILFRED MCCLAY: Well, it was really, I think, at best, you can say it was a partial job, that it was something where—and there are so many different opinions about what could have made it better, including—what probably would have been the best thing is, if Lincoln had not been assassinated, and Lincoln’s judicious hand would have guided the process of, not just re-integrating the South—the dissident South—into the nation, but of reforming Southern institutions in a way that would not have been either so punitive, as Reconstruction ended up being when Congress took over, or of casting the freedmen into the void with nothing but freedom, as a Frederick Douglass said.
So, a social revolution needed to occur. We didn’t really know how to go about it. And then, the war had become such a fierce matter, with all that bloodshed that you mentioned, and the desire for vengeance that overrode the sentiments of Lincoln’s wonderful second inaugural, that, in retrospect, it was hard to see how it could have been anything but a mess. And yet, good things came out of it—problematic good things. One of the things my Conservative friends have criticized me for is having nice things to say about the Fourteenth Amendment, which we have a lot of reasons to, as you teach in your course, no doubt, a lot of reasons to be concerned about the misuse of it. But we did come out with—
HEWITT: The river of the Fourteenth Amendment has gone—flooded over its banks many times.
MCCLAY: Right, right.
HEWITT: But, the original Fourteenth Amendment, as understood in some respects, applying post the extension of the franchise to women, has been appropriately and inappropriately used by the courts. But, during Reconstruction, the law was enforced at the edge of a bayonet. What happened when the bayonets were withdrawn after 1876?
MCCLAY: Well, the election of 1876, of course, was one of the most, if not the most, corrupt and soiled presidential elections in our history, which had an indecisive outcome. And, in the end, to cut through a whole lot of things, a political deal came out of it, that the Republicans were allowed to have the presidency but at the cost of calling off Reconstruction. So the matter was really dropped in medias res. In a lot of ways, the revolution that needed to occur in order to bring the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration into being made into a reality in the South was postponed. It was not negated, but it was postponed.
HEWITT: Dr. Arnn, the Confederacy retreated behind its wall because of the deal of 1876, infamous though it might be. They retreated, and they erected de jure and de facto segregation. And it would take us another near-century to get rid of at least de jure, and often de facto, segregation.
LARRY ARNN: Well, you know, that’s the story of American history, isn’t it? We started out with this standard, and the standard is thought by the Founders to be perfect—I think it so too. But, of course, human affairs are not perfect. And the standard demands that we do things that we are not able or ready to do. And integration, a colorblind society, is a struggle, and it always has been. And the struggle, I should say, was corrupted not by—the Fourteenth Amendment is a beautiful document. The courts didn’t treat it right in the early going, in part, to eliminate or reduce its effectiveness.
ARNN: And then, that has led to all kinds of distort—I mean, the very great Clarence Thomas has pointed this out of late. We should go back and recover the clause that is actually supposed to cover Jim Crow privileges and immunities.
HEWITT: To have prevented Jim Crow.
ARNN: Yeah, that’s right.
HEWITT: To have prevented it, yeah.
ARNN: And so, Lincoln’s assassination—and Andrew Johnson was not a good president, and not sympathetic to the cause. You know, there’s a really great meeting in 1863, if I remember right, where Lincoln meets with a bunch of black leaders. Frederick Douglass was not among them, but he was in contact with the ones who were.
And he says, you know, You’re all free men, and he says, We’ve got to figure out what to do after this war is over. And everywhere you go, the man is upon you, and I don’t know why you’d want to stay with us. And there’s a country in Central America where we could set you up, and you could have your own country, but you’d have to want to go.
And they all, sort of, lower their heads, and then they go away, and they talk. And they come back two or three days later, and they say, We want to stay here.
ARNN: And so, we’re Americans, see. And Lincoln sends an order. If I remember right, it was Nathaniel Banks, it was the governor general of Louisiana, the first seceding state to fall. And he says, They need to propose some way to get back into the Union, of working themselves out of their old relation into their new relations. So that’s the sort of order that we’re going to have to work this out. And, before he can do much about that, Abraham Lincoln is shot.
And, you know, Grant, by the way, was a strong president to try to enforce the actual practice of political and civic equality in the South, but then, it took a long time. And, in my opinion, in the South, where I come from, that’s largely broken.
You know, my parents were in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and all my aunts and uncles—in Arkansas, we’re all cousins, so we have many of those—and I remember talk, as a boy, about all of that. I was what, twelve? And I remember everybody talking about that. And they were—yeah, that’s right, we’ve got to do that. So that story, which still goes on because, of course, there’s this identity group politics that dominates, or is a powerful force, in American politics, plays into that and presents the same problems on a new ground.
HEWITT: And so, when we come to the end of Reconstruction, I just want to skip ahead a little bit here, Dr. McClay, is it not amazing that America could recover from that war as quickly as it did?
MCCLAY: That’s one of the things, I think, we need to draw back and emphasize, is how extraordinary it is. And we still have some, maybe, a little—suture marks remaining, but basically, the degree to which we healed after this ferocious conflict is just amazing. And I think that fact ought to be honored, even if the manner of knitting the Nation together was not perfect.
HEWITT: Absolutely. We will do so after the break. Don’t go anywhere because it’s actually miraculous. The Republic of Suffering, which Drew Faust Gilpin, the former president of Harvard, has referred to as what the United States was left with at the end of 1865. But it recovered, and, boy, did it recover, and, boy, did it grow. And it became a world power. We’ll talk about that after the break. Go nowhere, America. It’s The Hugh Hewitt Show. The Hillsdale Dialogue continues. All things Hillsdale at Hillsdale.edu.
Welcome back, America. Part three of a three-part series of Hillsdale Dialogues with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. Kyle Murnen is the Director of Online Learning, and he is the technical genius behind, maybe, the best of the series—they’re all great—over at Hillsdale.edu.
This one, 25 lectures long, presented by Wilfred McClay, a Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Hillsdale College and the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Professor of History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. 25 lectures long—Kyle, I know you told this in hour number one. I want people who didn’t hear that—you didn’t set out to do 25 lectures, right?
KYLE MURNEN: No, we set out to do 15, but, as you can see with this radio program, we had a lot of great ground to cover. We wanted to cover it all, so we extended it.
HEWITT: I don’t even know how you got it done, but I am glad. Dr. McClay, when they said to you, Twelve has become 25—that’s kind of a routine Hillsdale thing, isn’t it?
MCCLAY: [LAUGHS] I guess so. I think what Kyle is trying to say, in his nice way, is I’m kind of a bloviater, or that they couldn’t stop me from just bloviating.
MURNEN: That’s true.
MCCLAY: So, instead of editing it back, they just added segments. I’m going to be very interested to see how they do this because, like I say, I’m the actor who showed up and read his lines, and then the magicians had transformed it. So it’ll be very interesting to see. It was hard to—
HEWITT: I’m going to have you Dr. Arnn embarrass you, Dr. McClay. What makes a great teacher?
ARNN: Well, let me just interject something about Kyle because we were making fun of him. Kyle fell into my clutches many years ago.
HEWITT: Poor man.
ARNN: When he was an undergraduate student—and, against his will, he’s almost finished with his Ph.D., and, against his will, he will finish it. And then, he will be a fully operational Death Star, and then a lot of people are going to know all about him because he’s going to be a great teacher.
And about Wilfred—about Bill—what makes a great teacher is love and comprehension. You have to have the mind to put things together, and you have to love to do that. And then, following on that, is a love of explaining it. And the very best teachers, in my opinion, are also the very best minds, and even complex things become simpler in their hands. They don’t become simple, but they become simpler. And that’s like what a painter does. He shows you the essence of a scene because he can see it, and then he shows it to you. And that’s what teachers do. And that’s what Bill does.
HEWITT: And so, you got to do that at length. And I’m curious, Dr. McClay, when you come to the period of time after Reconstruction has ended, up until the beginning of World War I, can you hold the audience’s interest? Because it is simply an era of expansion, discovery, and growth. I just—I can’t even summarize how vibrant the country was then.
MCCLAY: Yes, and it was all frightening, too, because so much was changing so fast—the structure of the economy, the immigration. You know, we look with a certain amount of sentimentality at—this is the time of the great immigration. But, in fact, people like Henry James were frightened by it. Henry James described coming back to New York, where four out of every five inhabitants was foreign-born, and saying, in effect, I don’t recognize this place anymore. So there’s a lot going on, and it’s hard to hold it all in your head.
And one of the things, by the way, that happens is that, for much of the rest of American history, the markers of time are presidential terms, the succession of presidencies. That really stops after 1865, I would say, even though, of course, Grant’s presidency, as Dr. Arnn pointed out, has some very notable aspects. But who can recount the American presidencies from Rutherford B. Hayes to McKinley? Very few people. Politics was not as important as business, as expansion, as the changing texture of social life. And, you know, we begin to have a real literature—national literature—that draws upon these realities.
HEWITT: And a national communications infrastructure. When we come back, we’ll talk about, though, the bump that it continues to erode, the Progressive Era. Because, when it gets going, and, when the authoritarian in the White House, the real one, Woodrow Wilson, takes up the cudgels of World War I, it gets out of hand. We’ll talk about that, the Great War and its aftermath and then get to the New Deal. All of that coming up. Don’t go anywhere, America. The Hillsdale Dialogue rolls along on The Hugh Hewitt Show.
Welcome back, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. A half-hour left in our three-hour conversation about the brand-new book by Dr. Wilfred McClay, Land of Hope. Actually, Dr. Arnn, I’m going to turn to you. What is it that brought us the tragedy of the Progressive Era? Where did it come from? I know there’s an entire online course at Hillsdale.edu that Kyle Murnen has put together about the Progressive Era, but what do you attribute its rise to?
ARNN: Well, its utopian hope and the ground that was laid for that hope in the success of America. It’s different in Britain. Britain finally adopted Socialism. They had an aristocratic background, they had a working class, not more than a middle class, and then they had those disastrous wars that beat them up, and that’s how Socialism advanced in Britain.
Here, it was, you know—we can fix everything, and we can keep on like we are at the same time. And Woodrow Wilson and then, later, especially, the great master of all this, Franklin Roosevelt—they articulated their hopes and their claims in the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Wilson was an enemy of the Constitution in his academic works, not in his speeches. And so, they adapted themselves to America, and this is my opinion, by the way, and I’m just saying a huge bunch of stuff about a big story, and Bill may have a different idea about it. But my idea—my thought, is that we think we can do anything, and we almost can, but if you go over the next step to we can do anything, then all of a sudden we think we’re God.
HEWITT: And Dr. McClay, John Dewey and the founders of the Johns Hopkins, the whole gang that lead to Wilson—they really did believe they had history on their side.
MCCLAY: Yeah, they believed history could be a science. They believed that expert knowledge could substitute for the messiness of democratic institutions by creating what we now call the administrative state. It’s a direct result of that way of thinking about governance. And, by the way, since we talked about self-rule, it’s a negation of the concept of self-rule. The answer to the question, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” is me, the expert, not your lying eyes, as a citizen who has a right to make his own judgments about what’s going on and what is best for you and for your society. So it’s fundamentally anti-democratic, even though it speaks in democratic accents. It’s a negation of the principles of self-rule.
HEWITT: Now, when we were talking for the first time, we’re in the middle of the first month of the coronavirus. I hope it’s the last month. I hope it’s not the influenza of 1918, come again, but we don’t know. When this replays in Thanksgivings future, we’ll know what happened with the Wuhan coronavirus and whether it was contained and cured and not but a road bump, or if it was a 1918 disaster. But we don’t know now. We do know that Wilson didn’t do anything about it. The great authoritarian in the White House, the great Progressive, wouldn’t even mention it because he’d gone to war, and he had to beat the Kaiser, and he didn’t want the home front to be, in any way, unsettled. That grabbing of power by the executive was never relinquished, Dr. McClay. The executive continued to grow the federal government.
MCCLAY: It’s not a coincidence. It’s not a coincidence that Woodrow Wilson was the first person to conceive of and execute a strategy to propagandize the American people—and to propagandize them, maybe you could argue, for a good cause, that is, to support a war in which the American presence was necessary to resolve it in a good way—the First World War—but that didn’t involve national interests in a way that was compelling to a great many Americans.
But then, it carried over into a kind of demonization of the Germans and all sorts of falsehoods, including the deportation of people who opposed the war—or imprisonment. And it’s not a coincidence that the man who is, sort of, one of the great Liberal icons, Woodrow Wilson, a great Progressive icon, is the one from whom this first originates.
HEWITT: And the authoritarian in the White House. And Larry Arnn, whenever people attack Trump, or any center-right Conservative, as having authoritarian inclinations, I just laugh. They have no idea the way that Wilson acted.
ARNN: Yeah, and, you know, I made mention of Franklin Roosevelt. Franklin Roosevelt was a much more skillful man at rule than Wilson was. Wilson was a bludgeon. And you know, Wilson goes over to the—you should read Winston Churchill on Woodrow Wilson at the Conference of Versailles that signed the treaty that ended First World War, and he just was wrong about everything. And he imposed his will, and he kept saying he was going to appeal over the heads of the Old World leaders. And all of those leaders had just been through elections at the end of the war, and he had not. And then he got back, and he couldn’t get his peace through. In the end, he was transformative in the way the executive was thought about and in the power that he seized, but he was a failure in the way he used it.
HEWITT: Now, let’s talk about the man who comes next because we’re running low on time. There is a lot of time between 1918 and 1929, Dr. McClay, and the United States enjoys it, but the reckoning comes due, the bill comes due, the war comes, FDR. How do you deal with FDR? Because he’s a sainted figure, and he certainly is a significant figure, and he’s not without his great virtues, and he’s not without his great flaws. How do you deal with it in Land of Hope?
MCCLAY: Well, I just try to deal with both of those things. I mean, I think my attitude is, to the degree possible, the same attitude that Ronald Reagan had towards Roosevelt, which was that it would be a mistake, I think, to simply try to negate his effects, because he was a great leader—he was an inspirational leader. And I’m somebody who gives a lot of weight, remember—Land of Hope—I give a lot of weight to inspiration to the spiritual qualities of great statesmanship.
But, you know, as a policy person—and I bring out, I have a quotation from Raymond Moley, who was one of his closest early advisors. Roosevelt—he didn’t have any ideas, he didn’t read a book, he was not an intellectual. And it’s certainly true that there’s an incoherent quality to the New Deal, and maybe we should be thankful for that because, if Tugwell or some of the others who were much more hard-left had prevailed more than they did, we would have had a much, much harder time bringing the New Deal under control to the extent that we have.
MCCLAY: It’s a very mixed bag, and I try to present it that way.
HEWITT: It was not scientific, it was not thoroughly carried out. It has been thoroughly carried out in recent years. But then comes the war, and what you call “The Finest Hour,” in lecture 19 of the Hillsdale lecture series about your book. How do you sum that up for the audience? I mean, the finest hour is a British phrase, right? But we have one, too.
MCCLAY: It actually is, it is a Churchillian phrase from one of the greatest speeches ever given, at a moment of supreme peril. So yeah, I wanted to—for those who could hear the echo of it, I wanted to echo that. I didn’t want to segment off the American triumph, the American role in this great triumph, from the Anglo-American relationship. So that was actually deliberate, on my part.
HEWITT: Oh, interesting. Larry, what do you think about that?
ARNN: Yeah, well, of course, Winston Churchill was a very great man. And I believe they had a long argument with Conrad Black about whether Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill—who was greater? And I am astonished that he holds the view that it was Roosevelt. He’s a very serious man, himself. No, you know, Churchill—the partnership that we had there—historians mostly write about the strains. It was the most effective thing ever, and it won that war.
And then, in our dealings with the Soviet Union, they became a great power and aggressive and an incredible menace that lasted a lot longer than Hitler. And, shortly after Roosevelt, Harry Truman turned our policy around on a dime, and we joined with them and other allies, and we resisted them.
And the national effort involved in that—I mean, one of the great things about it—I like Wilfred’s title—one of the great things about it is the way our army fought, because we fought like free people. And that meant we were adaptable, and we were quick, and in the early battles we fought terribly. But pretty soon we were very formidable, and the Germans found us so. And that was a great national effort that was effective and cured the world of a menace.
HEWITT: So, after the war—I’m advancing us very quickly—America wins, America demobilizes like it always does, Dr. McClay. And what happens in America?
MCCLAY: Well, you have a lot of economic problems that bedevil the Truman administration. By the way, can I say a word about Truman? Because I think Truman is an unjustly neglected figure in conventional accounts. This is a man who came from a very provincial background, you know. He really came up through a political machine in his native state. He had only a high school education, and yet he was a reader of history, of Tacitus and other greats. He wasn’t a reader of the equivalent of David McCullough in his day; he read Tacitus and really used history in the way he thought about things.
So this man, who everyone underestimated, helped to create the post-war order that now is under stress, but that lasted and kept the peace of the world for a long time.
HEWITT: And he was a common man. What a great, great point on which to end that segment. We’ll be right back, America. Don’t go anywhere. The Hillsdale Dialogue continues, part three of three parts on Land of Hope.
Welcome back, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. The final segment of three Hillsdale Dialogue series on the brand-new video series Land of Hope, put together by Dr. Wilfred McClay, who’s the Distinguished Lecturer at Hillsdale College; and Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College; and Kyle Murnen, the Director of Online Learning there, who has been praised more, probably, in the last three segments of the Hillsdale Dialogue than he’s used to and ought not to get used to. But it’s a great, great, significant accomplishment. I want everyone to, please, go and watch these lectures.
But I want to conclude with where we are because, Dr. McClay, you study American history. You’ve written Land of Hope. Dr. Arnn, you study American history—you teach people. Kyle, you watch them do it. Where are we, right now, in this unfolding story? Where do you think we are, Dr. McClay?
MCCLAY: Well, the way I end the book, and it’s partly because I’m really wary of getting too close to the present—so people who want to get a blow-by-blow account of the Trump administration, Obama administration, the Clinton impeachment—whatever—are going to be a little disappointed. I do touch on all these things, but very briefly.
What I tried, in the last chapter, to do is to set the table in terms of thinking—a bigger picture, that is, the post-Cold War America. To fight and persevere and win the Cold War, really, we didn’t entirely demobilize. We never did in the way we had before. We took on the burden of world leadership in a way that we had always sought not to do, in the past.
And now, in the wake of the Cold War—I mean, the Cold War didn’t end yesterday, but I think we’re still struggling with what our role in the world should be, whether we need the kinds of national security institutions that we have, whether we need to have the extent of a standing army that we have, which is something that the Founders would have abhorred. And there’s much that we have been constrained to do—some of it, I think, necessary, some of it not, some of it a result of the Progressivism that you were talking about.
We’re at a moment, now, where I think we’re, in a very clumsy, awkward way, which is the way democracies do things. We’re rethinking all this. So that’s what I try to leave the reader with is the sense that there are a lot of questions about how we go forward that are open to us. Do we go back to John Quincy Adams’s famous admonition that America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy? And how far down that road can we go—can we responsibly go? So that’s part of where I think we are.
I want to make a point, just to really bring us up to the very moment, or at least to the 31st of the last month—Brexit. There’s a way in which the crisis of the European Union—and, to some extent, the election of Donald Trump too—but to concentrate on Brexit, this is a revolt against the reign of expertise. And it is a vote in favor of self-rule. If we think of that polarity, that bump that you described a little while ago, in the Progressive Era, if we think of that polarity as being one of the defining factors of the world we’re in now, I think that self-rule is reasserting itself.
To what end? We don’t know yet. And a lot of people are afraid of this. They think Nationalism—is the term they prefer to use—is a bad thing. Well, I can sort of agree with that in some ways, but I also think patriotism. This takes us back to the very beginning of our discussion, that patriotism is a necessary thing. It’s necessary for the health of a society, it’s necessary for the health of the individual person. We need that. We need that sense of loving connection to our land and to our fellow men, our fellow citizens.
So that’s where I try to leave it, and with a whole discussion in the very last chapter of what American citizenship is about.
HEWITT: What a great object. I go back to our first segment, where civics is about forming people, and that is an objective, Dr. Arnn, I know you have been about in your long tenure at Hillsdale College. And, on a very serious note, it’s the highest goal of a good college.
ARNN: Yeah. Free inquiry requires free government, and our college has always been attached to that. And where we are today—I agree with everything Dr. McClay said—where we are today is—we’re in a great national debate—it’s been going on for a long time, but it’s intense now—maybe coming to a head about what we are and how we’re to be governed. And the alternatives are mutually exclusive, and we’re fighting our way through that.
And one of the things I notice, for example, is that the government is much more intense, now—except it’s pulling back in this current administration—on saying what is to be taught, and precisely what is to be taught in the classroom. And it’s not lessons about our past, in the spirit or in the meaning of Land of Hope, by Bill McClay. It’s a new understanding that all in the past is soiled and we’ve got to repair all that.
And so, nothing better indicates the nature of the battle than that. And so, Bill, I should say has done an extraordinary service. And I guess his whole life got him ready to do this, and darned if he didn’t deliver it.
HEWITT: And deliver it, and Kyle Murnen has helped deliver it in a different form. Land of Hope, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble. The 25-part lecture series available at Hillsdale.edu. Thank you, Dr. McClay. Thank you, Dr. Arnn. Thank you, Kyle Murnen. Thanks, all of you for listening, Adam and Ben and Generalissimo. It’s The Hugh Hewitt Show.