What the Civil War Can Teach us About Patriotism

A monument to Union soldiers from Iowa at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

A monument to Union soldiers from Iowa at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is here, and, in keeping with tradition, Americans will be observing the founding of their nation as only they can: by searing woolly mammoth flanks (on sale at Walmart) on their Realtree-decaled, 124 propane tanked, patio grill to commemorate the time Chuck Norris, a laser cannon-armed cyborg George Washington, and a velociraptor-mounted, open-carrying, tax-cutting Jesus teamed up to win American independence from the overbearing colonial clutches of the gay-communist-British-liberal-anti-freedom zombies.

The Fourth of July is the official holiday for American patriotism, and Americans are a very patriotic people. But in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s worth examining what we mean when we celebrate “patriotism.”

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47 Vallandighams: The GOP’s Iran Letter and the Shadow of Civil War Treason

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R-Confederacy) and his GOP collegues don't take kindly to Obama being president of 'Murica.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R-Confederacy) and his GOP colleagues don’t take kindly to Obama being president of ‘Murica.

What exactly is treason? Well that’s an easy one, innit? Treason is when a scheming, disloyal jerk betrays a sacred oath they took to their country, usually in the service of an enemy power or for shallow, partisan, political gains. It’s one of those concepts that everyone intuitively understands, but it gets really thorny when brought under the parsing nuance of the law.

Thus, when 47 members of the Republican-dominated Senate sent “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” (seriously, they used a generic salutation more akin to an editorial in a local newspaper) for the express purpose of undermining the Obama Administration’s ongoing diplomatic nuclear talks with Iran, they probably weren’t concerned about committing treason against the United States (besides, Obama’s from Kenya anyhoo, right?). And while their boneheaded attempt to score political points with their war-happy, right-wing base by giving said knuckle draggers yet another collective, foreign-conflict buzz may or may not constitute treason in a constitutional sense, there’s another conception of treason — the popular conception — that’s played a major role in U.S. history, and 47 GOP senators have skirted this line closer than Cubans in a missile crisis.  Continue Reading

Confederate Echoes: The Ugly History Behind Questioning Obama’s Patriotism

Former Republican Mayor of New York City thinks that there colored boy is only three-fifths "Murican.

Rudy Giuliani, the Former Republican Mayor of New York City, apparently thinks that thar colored boy don’t love ‘Murica.

Remember when everyone liked Rudolph Giuliani? The former “Mayor of the World” was, after all, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yeah, I remember that too. But Giuliani is also a right-wing dunce.

Case in point: he recently stirred the endlessly bubbling American political chamber pot when, at a private gathering of like-minded conservative Oompa Loompas held for Wisconsin Koch Brothers organ-grinder monkey Scott Walker, he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani babbled, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Translation: Obama’s black different; we’re not; Anti-Americanism follows. But questioning a political rival’s love of country is an old American political tactic, and it hasn’t gotten any less vile over time.  Continue Reading

The Military and the Search for Heroes in American Culture

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn't mean that American shouldn't question the government that sends them to war.

American soldiers deserve the utmost respect, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question the organizations that send them to war.

Do you support the troops? In some respects, that’s a trick question. After all, how could you not support the troops? With each passing day, thousands of men and women in the American military put their lives on the line in far-off places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and even in a series of little-known strategic training operations in Africa — all in the name of protecting American freedom. And while these brave individuals are enduring all sorts of physical and psychological dangers, the rest of us are, well, not. The current American military consists of voluntary forces, and let’s be honest: most of us don’t want to volunteer for a job that involves getting shot, blown up, or other similarly unpleasant experiences that involve significant bodily harm.

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Abe Lincoln Resurfaces, Still Helping with our Better Angels

An image taken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 that very well might show a previously un-noticied picture of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

A picture taken at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that very well might show a previously unnoticed image of President Abraham Lincoln. Picture by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Recently, news broke that a keen-eyed former Disney animator named Christopher Oakley had discovered a previously unknown image of President Abraham Lincoln in an old picture taken by photographer Alexander Gardner. Gardener took the photo on November 19, 1863, the day Lincoln delivered his “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps the most famous – and shortest – speech in the history of the United States. If this admittedly blurry and tiny image does indeed show Old Abe, and the evidence looks fairly convincing that it does, then it would be one of the very few images of the 16th president not taken in a posed, studio setting.

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Jeff Davis’ Big Cannon Balls and Music as American Motivator

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Over at the Slate Vault historical blog, Rebecca Onion has published an epic musical broadside ballad printed by Union partisans during the Civil War. The song and others like it mocked the foolish attempts of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to give the United States of America a proper smack-down, even as he used “big cannon balls” to “put in big licks.” Titled “Jeff Davis and His Uncle,” the song details a hapless Davis who “tried to whip his Uncle,” but failed miserably since “He hadn’t the courage for to Root Hog or Die.” Onion explains the “roots” of the ladder phrase as such:

The “Uncle” in the title of this ballad is “Uncle Sam,” a man who Davis “tried to whip, but found it wouldn’t pay.” “Root, hog, or die,” an expression that recurs in this song but that’s now largely forgotten (save, perhaps, by fans of June Carter Cash), derived from the farmer’s practice of turning pigs loose to forage for their own food. In the  19th century, Americans used the idiom to tell others to be self-reliant and strong or suffer the consequences.

This was just one of an endless series of popular song broadsides that circulated during the war. Partisans on both sides published wartime propaganda tunes of varying degrees of quality and classiness designed to stoke the passions of soldiers and civilians, politicians and officers alike. In a thoroughly informative new study of music during the Civil War, Christian McWhirter details the ways music served as a vehicle for patriotic expression, as a form of political protest, especially against the draft, and as a source of aural inspiration to get soldiers in the field to fight with more passion and vigor and civilians on the home front to sacrifice everything to the cause.

A somewhat less-violent modern-day equivalent of the use of music to inspire passion for your “side” is the ubiquitous presence of such overplayed anthems like Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Europe’s existential masterpiece with the synth line that will NEVER leave your head, “The Final Countdown,” and Metallica’s ode to nighttime beach-soil delivery, “Enter Sandman” at major American sporting events. Music at sporting events serves to rally the respective partisans of both teams to cheer more enthusiastically for their side and make repeat visits to beer stands for $8 cups of Miller Lite. Much in the way Civil War era music inspired Union and Confederate partisans to fight on, sports anthems help modern Americans rally behind something larger than themselves, even if the national stakes aren’t quite as high as they were in the 1860s.

But this doesn’t mean that songs aimed at political figures like presidents have ever vanished from the American popular landscape. During his two terms in office, President George W. Bush inspired songs of loathing and loving, like Bright Eyes’ trite, if heartfelt critique of Bushism, “When the President Talks to God” and Pro-Dubya anthems like Darryl Worley’s even triter Bush endorsement, “Have You Forgotten?”

President Barack Obama has also received his fair share of support and loathing through music. Hank Williams Jr., who in the not-so-distant past was a country artist worth your attention, released a scathing anti-Obama anthem called “Keep the Change” that is about as subtle as a kick in the groin, while Bruce Springsteen performed his folky dirge anthem “Forward” at several Obama 2012 campaign rallies.

Music has always been a fixture on the American popular landscape. It has served as entertainment, artistic and political expression, and as an excuse to root for a bunch of guys in helmets crashing into each-other on a Sunday afternoon. As the above anti-Jeff Davis broadside and various pro and anti Bush and Obama tunes demonstrate, as long as Americans have had opinions about stuff, there has also been music created to spread those opinions. Go Cleveland Indians.