Public intellectual William Lloyd Garrison on the so-called “Founding Fathers” and historic preservation

Old South Meeting House, Boston

On Wednesday, La Famille Historiann availed themselves of the Downeaster train service from Maine for a whirlwind day trip to Boston.  Because the train took us to North Station, we thought it made perfect sense to pick up the Freedom Trail in the North End and see where it might take us.  Well, friends, we walked it all from Copp’s Hill Burial Ground and the Old North Church, to Paul Revere’s house and the Union Oyster House for a little snack, and then on to Old South Meeting House, King’s Chapel Burial Ground, and all the rest on through Boston Common up to the State House and the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th.  We haven’t lived here since 1997, and a lot has changed over the past 15 years–most notably, the Old Corner Bookstore is (lamentably) a Chipotle.  But, whatever:  Boston is a thriving metropole, and it’s been remaking and rebuilding itself almost since 1630. 

Back in the mid-1990s, I was still a graduate student and so never went into any of the attractions on the Freedom Trail that charged admission.  This time we did it all, paying admissions left and right to make up for my previous cheapskatery and also to support the cause of public history in Boston.  Per the conversation going on in the previous post about who or what is a public intellectual, I was struck by comments about the movement to save Old South Meeting House by the 70 year old William Lloyd Garrison in an 1876 letter to his son Wendell Phillips Garrison, which is included in the Old South museum display.  No one can deny that Garrison is a prime example of the best kind of public intellectual in the American grain.  Wendell Garrison, then about age 35, was apparently an advocate for the preservation of the Old South Meeting House, which is commemorated by its museum now as a site of important civic debates and therefore of the liberty of speech guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.  (He was also the literary editor for The Nation for more than 40 years, nearly to the end of his life.)  Garrison the elder was unimpressed by all of the excitement of the centennial of American independence, and remained an old radical to the end.  (He also made me question my reflexive support for things like historic preservation!)  Here’s Garrison in a letter dated July 21, 1876:

My dear Wendell,

I was none the less gratified to receive your last letter because of its criticisms upon my article in the Independent, and particularly upon my views respecting the preservation of the Old South Church in Boston.  You know that I have always enjoined upon my children to do their own thinking, and never to hesitate in the fullest expressions of dissent from me whenever they should deem me to be in error; and therefore do I commend you in this matter.

Nevertheless, as to my “Centennial Reflections,” as this nation has been the guiltiest of all the nations on the earth since its independence of Great Britain, and as there is no end to the “gush” and “glorification” about its centennial career–the disposition to hide or overlook its criminality being well-nigh universal–I think they were specially called for, so as to rebuke all such blatant folly, and to induce sober reflection.  Too long have “our Revolutionary Fathers” been held up as the noblest of patriots and the truest friends of liberty.  They were too cowardly and too selfish to adhere to the principles they laid down, and, as time-servers and compromisers, they entailed upon their posterity as great a curse as could be inflicted upon any people; and I trust no child of mine will ever fail to recognize their exceeding blameworthiness, or consider a reference to it ill-timed when they are presented for the admiration of the world.

As for the preservation of the Old South Church, I certainly take no special interest in it– Continue reading

Lind on Hitchens and “public intellectuals” in America

Michael Lind wonders about all of the praise lavished on the late Christopher Hitchens:

But though he played one on TV, Hitchens was not an intellectual, if the word has any meaning anymore. Those known by the somewhat awkward term “public intellectuals” can be based in the professoriate, the nonprofit sector, or journalism. They can even be politicians, like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But genuine intellectuals, as distinct from mere commentators or TV talking heads, need to meet two tests.

First, intellectuals need to produce some substantial works of scholarship, literature or rigorous reporting, distinct from the public affairs commentary for which they may be best known to a broad public. If you do nothing but review other people’s work or write brief columns or blog posts, it is easy to appear to be much smarter and erudite than you really are.

Second, genuine intellectuals base their interventions in public debate on the basis of some coherent view of the world. A dedication to rigorous and systematic reasoning, wherever it may lead, is what distinguishes intellectuals from lobbyists or partisan spin doctors who change their views according to the demands of a special interest or a party. It also distinguishes them from mere “contrarians” — the term Hitchens used to describe himself — who attract publicity by taking controversial stands according to their whims.

Hitchens left behind no substantial scholarly or literary work, and if he had any core principles or values they are hard to discern. He denounced the Gulf War and backed the Iraq War; he supported Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz while continuing to insist that Henry Kissinger was a war criminal. Continue reading


(From White Christmas (1954), with Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye, and Bing Crosby.)

Actually, there’s no snow on the ground here in our New England holiday enclave, but that’s OK–in northern Colorado we’ve had snow on the ground since the week before Halloween, so it’s a nice respite.  Those of you who are traveling, travel safely. Those of you who are staying put, enjoy!

Z is for Zany

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter Z.  Before the era of big game hunting in Africa gave us Z for Zebra, a “zany” was frequently used to illustrate or exemplify the use of the letter Z in children’s alphabet primers.  This beautiful colored illustration is from The Child’s Colored Gift Book, with one hundred illustrations (London and New York:  George Routledge and Sons), by Edward and George Dalziel.  I found this image originally at Eek She Cried, but you can see the whole book with two different illustrated children’s alphabets, and more, at  Isn’t it just perfect (for American political history purposes) that it’s riding one exasperated-looking ass?  Continue reading

Excellence with money!

I received a couple of shiny, happy e-mails from Baa Ram U. President Tony Frank about this yesterday.  The details are even more demoralizing than I could have guessed:

FORT COLLINS — Green-and-gold balloons accented the interior of Colorado State’s on-campus football indoor practice facility. It is a building in many ways representing the greatest success of the past regime being used to usher in an ambitious future.

Signs declared Tuesday the beginning of “a bold new era for Ram football.”

A green era. The university threw out lots of it to land its new head coach, Jim McElwain, who is being asked to turn around a program that won just 16 times in the past four seasons. To get Alabama’s offensive coordinator, CSU offered the 49-year-old McElwain a five-year contract with a base salary of $1.35 million, and a $150,000 bonus if his team meets graduation standards.

It is by far the largest sum ever paid to a coach at CSU, and more than double the $700,000 total compensation package the university paid its previous coach, Steve Fairchild. (CU coach Jon Embree, hired a year ago, is making $741,000 a year.)

Athletic director Jack Graham, who was hired Dec. 8, and president Tony Frank insisted they would invest in the football program, and they put their money where their mouths were. Continue reading