Teachable Moments from the 2020 Pandemic

Spring break came as it always did this year, but there had been rumblings for a few months that a major interruption was headed our way. Indeed, while students relaxed with family, took long-awaited spring break trips, worked on class projects, or put in extra hours at their jobs, the COVID-19 crisis washed over the United States, and one university after another closed their doors and transitioned to “remote” teaching. On March 12, Marquette did the same.  Students were allowed to come to campus to get their belongings out of the residence halls, but by March 16, when classes were scheduled to start up again, the students were gone.  And by the end of the week, virtually all faculty, staff, and administrators were working from home. A week or two later, we learned that classes would be held remotely for the rest of the semester and for both summer sessions. Visitors to Marquette’s website are now greeted by the following somewhat forbidding image:

Screen Shot 2020-04-06 at 9.51.53 AM

This caused enormous upheaval in the lives of students and faculty alike, as they had to deal with fussy wi-fi systems, transmitting and receiving huge amounts of information, record and listen to lectures, and change almost every element of how we normally teach and learn.

And many faculty integrated the crisis into their classes. For instance, Lezlie Knox’s HIST 4210: The Black Death, although focused on the devastating 14th century bubonic plague, has always included student projects on epidemics and pandemics from other eras.  But the current crisis provided a chance to bring many of the moral, scientific, and other issues addressed in the class up to the 21st century.  For example, she asked her students to read and to participate in an online discussion about this Oxford University blog about climate change and COVID-19.

Dan Meissner’s HIST 1701: Understanding China Today turned quickly to the crisis as a way of coming to understand social and cultural differences between China, where the COVID-19 outbreak originated, and the US.  He uploaded readings, videos, and powerpoints contrasting the two countries’ responses.  The focal point of this course is the comparison of the Chinese and American models for social/political/economic development, and discussions revolving around the COVID19 crisis challenged students to consider the possibility that this virus outbreak, containment, and recovery will prove to be the turning point in global hegemony for China. Dan also posted emails he’d received from colleagues in China, and other information that, “way back in January” it would not have occurred to him to provide.

In discussion posts, Dan’s class also explored the figures released by the Chinese government about the number of reported COVID-19cases and deaths.  Dan posted a chilling PBS Frontline investigation that just aired Wednesday that highlights all of these issues.  (You can watch it here.)


The students in Jim Marten’s HIST 4101: Applied History were in the middle of a project about the “lost neighborhood” that flourished on what is now Marquette’s campus before the 1960s.  Yet that required students to have access to the university archives, but the closing of campus meant that the eleven students in Applied History would be locked out of the resources they needed to complete their class project. With many hunkering down in other cities and states, Jim decided that the class should chronicle and reflect on the ways that COVID-19 had and would continue to affect the MU community—the students and their families, of course, but also the towns and cities in which they lived.  This project is not a complete history of the pandemic’s effects on Marquette, of course—there will be additional months of disruption and discomfort—but it does provide a time capsule that preserves for future historians some of the experiences of members of our community as crisis approached and then washed over us.

The project addresses such questions as, “When do current events become ‘history?’” “When can we feel like we have the perspective and hindsight to be able to make sense of what is or has just happened to us?” “How do we know—or is there even a way of knowing—what sources of information will be important to the future?”

The project will include a timeline of international, national, and MU events and actions; a “Storymap” featuring images and descriptions of how the crisis affected students hometowns from around the United States; and an archive of reflections by students in the class as well as answers to questionnaires from scores of other MU students.

Although it is only a skeleton site for now, check back in a few weeks to find out more about how MU students experienced the crisis. The images below are samples of pictures taken around the East Side of Milwaukee reflecting the current state of the city:

David McDaniel’s CORE 1929: Methods of Inquiry course (part of the Marquette Core Curriculum, taught with two other faculty members) on “Modernity” swiftly turned to the crisis to explore meanings of “modern.” Dave referred his students to the website of the Center for Disease Control (CDC): https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html and asked them to research the modern world’s deadliest pandemic: the so-called Spanish Flu. Then he asked them to go to a website on the pandemic in America and to select one of the fifty cities listed. The articles helped students answer a series of questions related to “modernity” and the world’s response to the devastating crisis that killed perhaps 50 million people worldwide. Later, the class held a “virtual discussion”—students posted answers to a question asked by Dave on the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and its relationship to the notions of modernity and then followed up with responses to what other students wrote.

Kristen Foster took a similar approach in her HIST 1601: Difference and Democracy class.  This class is also part of the Marquette Core Curriculum and is designed to “engage students with other social systems and values.” Kristen asked her students to read the brief section on the flu pandemic from an open source, online textbook.

Her students were also directed to the University of Michigan histories of US cities and the pandemic, after which they were to choose a city and find (in databases available on Raynor Library’s webpage) a newspaper article or account from 1918 or 1919 that discussed some aspect of the influenza epidemic in that city.  Once they identified an appropriate article, they uploaded it to the course website, along with answers to questions like: “How did the city you read about deal with the contagion?”  “How effective was the city in dealing with the disease?  (Remember to place this in the historical context when you think about what was and wasn’t effective/possible in 1918-1919?)” “What did Americans know and not know at the time?” “What 3 or 4 things strike you most about what happened in 1918?” And “How might understanding the influenza pandemic help us confront COVID-19?” This was followed by an online discussion of their findings.

These are just a few examples of the ways that MU faculty have scrambled to offer a meaningful educational experience despite the challenges thrust upon our community by COVID-19.

FYI: A graduate public history class at UWM has also launched a pandemic project called “COVID-19 MKE,” while the Wisconsin Historical Society is collecting journals on the crisis kept by Wisconsin Residents; see “COVID-19 Journal Project.”

The ‘20s Roaring (Again)

Vote TotalBy Timothy G. McMahon

Tim McMahon ponders the results of this week’s election in Ireland, in the wake of Brexit and in the context of nationalist politics in Europe.

For what it’s worth, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the Republic of Ireland on the heels of the 2020 General Election. But I know what has happened. The ‘20s have happened, or they’ve started to at least.

On Saturday, nearly 63% of the electorate in the Republic cast their ballots, producing a nearly three-way tie in the popular vote, with Sinn Féin receiving 24.5% of the vote, Fianna Fáil 22.2%, and Fine Gael, 20.9%. It would be tempting—and it’s a temptation that has already enticed some wayward pundits in for instance, The Atlantic, to grab for the shiny bauble—to see the results of the election as an Irish version of the populist/nationalist wave that has hit countries across the globe, including The Philippines, India, Hungary, Poland, Austria, the United Kingdom, and the United States. After all, a nationalist party, Sinn Féin, has shocked the system, outperforming the two traditional power parties (Fianna Fáil and Fina Gael) and attaining the second highest total of seats in Dáil Éireann, the lower house of Ireland’s parliament. Sinn Féin’s 37 seats are a revelation, given that the party did not perform well in recent local or European parliamentary elections. Amazingly, Sinn Féin candidates won 37 of the 42 races they contested, suggesting that just ten more candidates performing at the same breakneck pace would have produced as many as 45 TDs in the coming Dáil, surely enough to guarantee a Sinn Féin-led coalition. What has happened, though, is itself unprecedented in the last century, a virtual three-way tie between a left-of-center upstart and the two disappointed center-right parties. How they determine to work in the days ahead will determine the shape of Irish politics at the crucial time the country will deal with the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

Still, there are signs within the material produced since the election to undercut the concerns that this was a populist/nationalist wave election and to leave us scratching our heads about what is to come. For example, although a few individuals who are known to be rather right of Attila have won seats as Independents, those organized (a word I’m applying loosely) in far-right parties, such as the Irish Freedom Party, failed even to secure the 2 percent of first-preference votes needed to receive state election funding. Moreover, Sinn Féin seemed to tap into the broadly felt sentiment among those frustrated with the neoliberal domestic program of the Fine Gael government, particularly those who believed that the Cabinet largely ignored (or failed adequately to meet) the burgeoning housing and homelessness problem or to address the numerous faults in the health and social services provided by the HSE. In this Fianna Fáil deserved its own share of the blame because party leader Micheál Martin agreed to support the governments of Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar in the name of stability. Exit polls indicated that voters held both parties to account, virtually ignoring the foreign policy achievements (significant though they have been) during the Brexit imbroglio and focusing on domestic issues at the polls. Younger voters especially went in this direction– that is, those who reached adulthood during or after the crash that Martin’s predecessors’ policies did so much to unleash and from which Varadkar’s party worked to claw out through policies that cemented rather than alleviated income and social inequities.

Photos from the Irish Times: Top left: Fianna Fail’s Micheál Martin. Top right: Mary Lou McDonald at the Royal Dublin Society vote counting centre on Sunday. Bottom: sitting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with two colleagues looking at vote count yesterday. 

The pure electoral math suggests we’re likely to see either a hung parliament, followed by a fairly quick election, OR a cobbled coalition that may be difficult to hold together. As I see it, three scenarios seem broadly possible. A “grand coalition” of the center-right may make sense if enough in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are determined to keep Sinn Féin from power (this go-round), but even that pairing would need help: these once-safe leading parties can only must 73 votes together, eight shy of the 50%+1 needed to govern. Were they able to negotiate such a deal, Mary Lou McDonald and her colleagues would have ample opportunity to challenge their policies from the Opposition bench. But, as the Irish Times reports, Sinn Féin’s McDonald is herself reportedly seeking coalition partners from among the numerous smaller parties of the left and the newly elected independents. Tempting though that prospect may be to some, it would also entail coordinating policy among six parties and a host of independents, never an easy situation for a lead coalition partner, much less one new to governing. A further possibility is that Fianna Fáil backbenchers may convince—or attempt to unseat—Martin in a bid to achieve agreement with Sinn Féin rather than remaining alongside their longtime rival Fine Gael. Such a link would undoubtedly be preceded by hard bargaining, including over holds claim to lead the government, the leader of the highest vote getting party or the leader of the party with one more seat in the Dáil.

Although much depends on the specific interactions among the three major parties, none of those scenarios produces a settled situation; instead, each offers only the beginning of a new era in Irish politics. That may sound grandiose—”a new era”—but think about that phrase “among the three major parties.” The reality is that the Irish state is not the two-party state it has been for most of the last century, and it is unlikely to return to that place in the foreseeable future. Mind, I’ve not even mentioned Northern Ireland or the reality that Sinn Féin is the only party with the potential to sit in government in both jurisdictions on the island yet that too is the new reality. In short, domestic issues in the Republic have transformed the dynamic of north-south and British-Irish relations in a way that few anticipated and that even fewer can anticipate.

What all of that suggests to me, however, is that Irish politics have merely entered the decade of the 1920s. From the Swiftian catalyst of the Patriot Movement in the 1720s, to the heyday of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association in the 1820s, to the partition and rocky establishment of two governments on the island in the 1920s, the third decade of the past three centuries have been the consequential ones that shaped the politics of Ireland for the coming generations. The Twenty-first century stands at that moment now. We are witnessing a reshuffling, but what it portends remains open to conjecture.

Timothy G. McMahon is associate professor of History at Marquette University, author of Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910 (2008), and co-editor of Ireland in an Imperial World: Citizenship, Opportunism, and Subversion (2017).

Affectionately Yours: Captain Brown’s First Christmas in the Army

By James Marten

Civil War-era newspapers and magazines liked to suggest that soldiers celebrated Christmas with gusto, as shown in this famous cover illustration from Harper’s Weekly. The men may be far from home, but certain traditions continued. Even Santa, as shown in this Thomas Nast illustration, found his way to army camps, lightening the burden of men separated from families. Ever since, Christmas separations have been staples of Santaholiday-themed pop culture, from the song ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas” to more recent heart-tugging videos of mother and fathers returning form long deployments just in time for the holidays and the recorded messages played during NFL and college football games from soldiers, sailors, and marines wishing their families Merry Christmas.

But Santa did not come to every Civil War-era camp, however, and the letters of Capt. Edwin Brown of the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry indicate how little time soldiers had for Christmas. Yet they also reveal fleeting thoughts of the happiness they attached to remembered Christmases.  The thirty-year-old had written often since leaving his young wife and three small children in Fond du Lac in the summer of 1861. The Sixth would later be famous as one of the best and most bloodied units in the Union army—the Iron Brigade—but by the time the first Christmas of the war rolled around the regiment had spent most of their time drilling.  They’d settled into winter quarters outside Washington, DC,  earlier in the month. Brown was captain of Company E, commanding roughly 100 men in the regiment of just over 1000, but he was also one of the best singers in the regiment, and a founding member of a musical society that entertained their comrades occasionally.

December 20 had been a busy day, and late that night Edwin settled down in front of a fire in the rough little cabin he shared with other officers \ to write a letter. It was filled with gossip about fellow soldiers who Ruth might have known and the sad news that one of his sergeant’s had recently died of a vague ailment.

Out of the blue, Brown mentions that “Next Wednesday is Christmas.”  He had no idea what he’d be doing, “unless it be to drill. ‘No peace for the wicked,’ you know.” He wistfully remarked that “I should like to sit with my little family around the paternal hearthstone with a good blazing fire in front, friends by my side, and the usual delicacies on the table.” The thought passes, and he begins to wind down the letter by apologizing Picture1for failing to get a promised photograph taken of him. His months in the army, he feared, had “altered [his] looks and I fear the change is not for the better.” As his fire went out and he reluctantly brought “this ‘talk’ to a close,” he asked Ruth to greet friends and family, “take good care of the ‘babies’ [and] tell them good things of their pa.”

Edwin’s brief mention of Christmas shows that some the traditions we appreciate about the holiday were well-established (but only just) by the mid-nineteenth century. But this short, rather grumpy passage also suggests that it was simply too painful for Edwin to reflect on his absence from his wife and little ones. The same was true few days later, when he found a few moments between writing year-end reports to write a hasty note. Like the other letter, it was mainly about practical matters—comings and goings in the regiment, the kinds of shirts and mittens that Ruth should send if she had time—but he responded briefly to her letter of a few days past, when she described her “appearance as ‘Santa Claus’” on Christmas. “You must have looked comical, and I hope you all enjoyed yourselves.” Edwin doesn’t say it, but he must have felt a twinge of heartbreak to know that his absence had forced Ruth to fill the role that he no doubt had played before the war. Of course, Ruth had to fill many other unfamiliar roles while Edwin was away, but for at least a few moments, and despite his surface amusement, this one probably hit hard. The brief glimpse of happier times cheered him only for a moment. “I did not enjoy myself much on Christmas,” he wrote pointedly.” The boys had no drill, but it was busy, without . . . sport.” War would bring much worse to Edwin and his “boys,” but in his first Christmas away from home he can be forgive for being a little self-pitying.

There is much we don’t know about nineteenth-century families—in and out of the army—but we do get glimpses of those relationships in the letters that have survived between Civil War soldiers and their wives.  Christmas 1861 might not have been a happy one for Edwin Brown, but in his gloomy reports about the Civil War’s first Christmas, we capture nuggets of the yuletide past.


Edwin Brown to Ruth Brown, December 20 and December 31, 1861, Edwin Brown Letters, Kenosha Civil War Museum.

Lance J. Herdegen and William J. K. Beaudot, In the Bloody Railroad Cut at Gettysburg: The 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade and its Famous Charge (1990, 2015).

Image sources: 

Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863 

 CAPTAIN EDWIN BROWN, Lawyer, Patriot, Soldier,

James Marten is chair of the history department and author, most recently, of America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2015).  His current project is Becoming the Sixth Wisconsin: A Civil War Regiment in War and Peace.

Michael Wert on His New Book on Samurai

Michael Wert recently posted a piece to the Asian Books Blog about his latest book, Samurai: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).  

It begins, “Samurai are everywhere. From company names to soldier training programs, and of course gaming, manga, and anime. Not that I’m one to bemoan this situation, students take Japanese history courses not because they’re interested in business, as they Unknowndid during the 1980s, China-related courses have picked up that audience, but for the immense influence Japanese popular culture has on the West. Manga is now a genre section in Barnes & Noble, and young people know better than to pronounce it like the Italian word mangia as many in my parent’s generation did. . . . ”

For the complete post click here.

Michael Wert is Associate Professor of History and the author of Meiji Restoration Losers: Memory and Tokugawa Supporters in Modern Japan.

“And now for something completely different:” Democracy and the Middle Ages

By Lezlie Knox

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme  “Democracy in Troubled Times.”  That is the focus of the 2018–2019 Marquette Forum, which will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world.” For more on the Forum click here.

Medievalists love the1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It not only spoofs Arthurian legends but also sends up medieval history itself.  Consider the famous scene Monty Pythonwhere Arthur, King of the Britons, spies a castle in the distance and wonders whether he might persuade its lord to join the Knights of the Roundtable.  He notices peasants collecting turf and calls out to ask who lives in the castle.  Their conversation does not follow the king’s expectations about the hierarchal nature of medieval political systems. You can read the scene below or watch it here.

ARTHUR: Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?

WOMAN: No one lives there.

ARTHUR: Then who is your lord?

WOMAN: We don’t have a lord.


DENNIS: I told you. We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.


DENNIS: But all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.

ARTHUR: Yes, I see.

DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,–

ARTHUR: Be quiet!

DENNIS: –but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more–

ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN: Order, eh — who does he think he is?

ARTHUR: I am your king!

WOMAN: Well, I didn’t vote for you.

ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings.

WOMAN: Well, ‘ow did you become king then?

ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!

DENNIS: Listen — strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

ARTHUR: Be quiet!

DENNIS: Well you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

ARTHUR: Shut up!

DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin’ I was an emperor just because some moistened bink had lobbed a scimitar at me they’d put me away!

ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up!

DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.

ARTHUR: Shut up!

DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! — HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!

ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!

DENNIS: Oh, what a give away. Did you here that, did you here that, eh?…. That’s what I’m on about — did you see him repressing me, you saw it didn’t you?

Like much of the Pythons’ comedy, the humor here is broad and absurd, as well as meme-able as the “campaign sticker” just below suggests. But one reason the jokes in this scene work so well as comedy is their apparent anachronism.  Somehow Dennis—who Strangewomenlooks years beyond his age and is laboring to cut “filth” from the heath—has read enough Marxist theory to critique an oppressive political system limiting the peasants’ voices.  Rather than respecting the authority of divine kingship, he boasts to Arthur about their (fairly complicated) democratic collective. As viewers, we are meant to laugh at the patent incongruity of a medieval worker challenging the political system.  And yet, that is exactly what happened in fourteenth-century Europe.

In fact, given the numerous examples across Europe it is difficult to generalize about the causes, participants, and impact of these popular revolts.  Samuel Cohn’s collection of translated sources, Popular Protest in Late Medieval Europe, runs to 345 pages and documents commoners protesting increased taxes, workers striking for higher wages, as well as popular uprisings against ineffectual governments.   These rebellions increased in number and intensity from the mid-1350s onward in the wake of the Black Death.  Regressive labor policies and increased fiscality reduced economic power for those who had survived plague and briefly prospered.  Violence was a characteristic of some revolts but its function was not random and irrational.  Often, it functioned as a way of retaking recent gains and seeking increased political representation.  While individual protests need to be understood in their own temporal and geographical contexts, one of the most famous examples of an urban uprising helps demonstrate how popular political concerns were present in medieval Europe.

In the summer of 1378, the Ciompi seized control of the government of Florence and held power until 1382.  (Ciompis hould be pronounced more or less as “chōm-pee,” with an accent on the first syllable.)  The length of their rebellion deserves attention, especially in contrast to the other popular revolts commonly featured in Western Civ. textbooks.  The Jacquerie of 1357 terrorized the French countryside for only about two weeks and achieved little beyond increasing political instability, while the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 lasted only six days and it would take another generation before serfdom would be abolished.  The Ciompi Revolt also deserves notice as the most democratic of the medieval revolts as they passed laws which effectively extended citizenship to the entire male population of the city.

The Ciompi were wool carders which meant they prepared raw wool to be spun into cloth.  It was hard and stinky work.   Moreover, like other unskilled workers whom the medieval sources identify as the populo minuto (little people), the Ciompi lacked their own guild (arte).  Guilds were on the one hand artisan or trade associations, but they also were political organizations.  Fourteenth-century Florence was effectively a patrician oligarchy in which membership in one of the seven major guilds (maggiori), or in some cases the fourteen minor ones (minori), was necessary to hold government office.  The poet Dante Alighieri, for example, joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries even though he lacked any medical training just so that he could hold government office.  Thus lack of political representation was one frustration, but the populo minutoalso had economic grievances.  The so-called War of the Eight Saints (1375-1378), a conflict between the Avignon papacy and a coalition of Italian city-states led by Florence, had contributed to increased food prices and public debt due to war expenditures, at the same time that wages had stagnated.  Some elites (the Parte Guelfa) opposed this war and had plotted to overthrow the government. Meanwhile, the minor guilds also sought unsuccessfully to increase their own access to political offices.  In this state of political unrest the Ciompi presented a petition to the government on July 18 seeking to form their own guild, gain access to government offices, and increase wages by fifty percent.  Their political action was accompanied by large demonstrations, riots, and in some cases arson and looting before the Ciompi seized control of the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florence’s government (below in a 1584 engraving from Wikimedia).


Working in coalition with the minor guilds, the Ciompi established a commission to reform the government.  They increased the size of government and opened offices to all guilds—the maggiori, minori, and the newly established guild of the populo minuto.  They suspended debt payments and targeted the urban elites with new taxes. Elections would be by lot and on a bimonthly basis to expand political suffrage. Samuel Cohn notes that these reforms would have resulted in political representation for nearly all adult men in Florence, in contrast to the previous oligarchic system in which around only twenty percent had access to governmental office.  Yet internal dissension and continuing economic depression contributed to the restoration of oligarchic control in 1382, as did traditional elite suspicion of the lower classes.  An anonymous Florentine expressed great satisfaction in his diary (ricordanze) in how the Ciompi, whom he judged presumptuous, finally lost power and social order was restored:

Today, on the morning of [December 24], all those owning wool suddenly shut their shops and went armed in the New Market and asked who was in power.  They wanted to have all the purses in all the quarters torn up and new selections made, comprised of good men who would govern the city of Florence in peace, love, and harmony.  Thus, on that day, the coffers were opened and all agreed to tear up all the names in all the purses for all the quarters of the city.  And together they all returned that evening in harmony. Florence was at peace.  The deal was done; for now on, all those artisans who had previously been underlings would again be underlings, subject to the councils of their guilds and to the guildsmen’s will (Cohn, 237-238).

Such elite condemnations provide a negative view of the Ciompi that is typical of surviving evidence from other medieval revolts. That is, the perspective of those who were rebelled against is more likely to have survived.  However, the Florentine reformers left records of their attempted reforms and laws passed that allow historians to challenge earlier assumptions that medieval popular rebellions tended to be opportunistic and without organized leadership or intentional goals.  Indeed, recent research emphasizes the broader socio-economic context of those involved in the revolt as Florentines across political factions participated in a constitutional struggle.  Scholars do debate just how radical the Ciompi revolt was.  Some historians have seen it as essentially conservative in nature.  They argue that the reformers sought to join and reform Florentine government.  Others influenced by Marxist theory, though, argue that the Ciompi were motivated by class struggles against early capitalism and desire to achieve a social revolution.  Regardless of which side you take, it is clear that Ciompi were one reflection of popular interest in political representation—what we call democracy.


Works cited and further reading:

Gene Brucker, Renaissance Florence(updated edition) (University of California Press, 1983).

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr. The Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200–1425 (Harvard University Press, 2006).

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr, trans.  Popular Protest in Late Medieval Europe (Manchester University Press, 2004).

Patrick Lantschner, “Revolts and the Political Order of Cities in the Late Middle Ages,” Past and Present225 (2014): 3-46.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail screen play http://www.montypython.net/scripts/HG-peascene.php.

Lezlie Knox is associate professor of history.  She is author of Creating Clare of Assisi: Female Franciscan Identities in Later Medieval Italy (Brill, 2008) and co-editor of Visions of Sainthood in Medieval Rome: The Lives of Margherita Colonna by Giovanni Colonna and Stefania (Notre Dame, 2017).



Second Thoughts: Athens and Mytilene in 428 BC

Democracy in Troubled Times

By Jenn Finn

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme “Democracy in Troubled Times.”  That is the focus of the 2018–2019 Marquette Forum, which will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world.” For more on the Forum click here.

The ambassadors stood in front of the Athenian assembly, anxiously awaiting the Assembly’s decision. They hailed from Mytilene, the capital city of Lesbos (the home of the Greek lyric poet Sappho), an island in the North Aegean Sea. Lesbos had been settled in the late Bronze Age and was one of many Greek colonies of Ionia who had fallen under the sway of the Persian Empire—until, that is, the improbable defeat of the Persian forces during the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5thcentury BC (made famous by the movie 300). Since then, however, the unified front that had led the Greeks to victory over the Persians had splintered, and the thalassocracy that emerged under the democratic city-state of Athens—largely as a result of those wars—had steadily monopolized power in the ancient Mediterranean. Under Athenian leadership, the Greeks had formed a League to protect themselves against future Persian invasions. Each city-state in the Greek purview would contribute money or ships to the treasury, which, for the sake of neutrality, was to be kept on the remote island of Delos. Those who were “free allies” of the League could contribute ships; this circumstance was preferable, as the Athenians would later move the Delian League treasury into their own city and spend the monetary contributions as they saw fit. Many Greek city-states now found themselves rather more forced than voluntary contributors to what had quickly emerged as an Athenian Empire. This blatant abuse of power left League members wondering what had happened to their united Greece, and how Athens—whose calling card vouchsafed the freedoms of a democratic structure—had suddenly become an oppressive regime.

mapIt was 428 BC when the Mytilenean envoys approached Athens. In the ca. 50 years that had passed since the conclusion of the Greco-Persian Wars, Sparta, who defined herself as everything that Athens was not—a dual monarchy famous for her prowess in infantry warfare, with no patience for debate in the Assembly and the robust cultural life Athens held so dear—had recognized the threat of Athenian power. Skirmishes between the allies of both sides had led to the signing of the Thirty Year’s Peace in 446/445 BC. But the next 15 years saw various passive-aggressive violations of the terms on behalf of both Athens and Sparta. The Spartans, who had formed their own Peloponnesian League in answer to the new Athenian Empire, called a meeting of their allies to Sparta in 432 BC. Corinth, a Spartan ally who had recently come into direct conflict with Athens, expressed the inevitability of war with the Athenians, proclaiming them a “tyrant city” who had “enslaved” the rest of the Greeks (Thuc. 1.124.3). The same rhetoric that had been used by the Greek historian Herodotus to describe the Greco-Persian conflict as a battle between a free Greece and a tyrannical Persia was now being applied by the heroes of Thermopylae and Plataea to the heroes of Marathon and Salamis. It would presage a civil war of the bitterest kind.

The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC. Since the start of the conflict, the fiercely democratic Athenians—who so valued the institution of their Assembly, open to all adult male citizens as a venue for the open debate of the most pressing issues in Athenian society—had allowed themselves to be convinced by an influential general by the name of Pericles to gather the Athenian population behind the walls of the city. The Spartans spent about two years destroying the Attic countryside while the Athenians watched helplessly. In 429 BC, they lost almost one-third of their population to a plague that ravaged the city and killed Pericles himself. The treasury started to wane. (Photo: A Bustpericles of Pericles [“Pericles, son of Xanthippos, the Athenian”]. Copy of Ktesilas – Jastrow (2006), https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1307218.)

Lesbos, sensing Athenian weakness and ready to try for a rebellion from the exaction of Athenian tribute, had entered an alliance with Sparta. The Athenians entered a state of panic. They introduced an emergency property tax and sent out an expeditionary force to place Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, under siege. The Mytileneans smuggled in a Spartan by the name of Salaethus to receive a Spartan fleet. But the fleet never arrived. Desperation caused him to arm the people of the city for a sortie against the Athenians; this action, however, backfired, as much of the population was democratic-leaning and insisted on surrender to the Athenians. The Mytileneans agreed to the surrender, provided that they be allowed to stand before the democratic Athenian assembly to plead their case (Thuc. 3.27-28).

Salaethus and the prisoners taken during the revolt were brought in front of the Athenian assembly. It was at once decreed that the Spartan should be put to death. But that was not all: the Assembly immediately decided (as Thucydides 3.36.2 says, “in the heat of the moment”) that not just the Mytilenean prisoners at Athens, but indeed its whole male population, should be put to death. The women and the children would become slaves. The voice of the people had spoken, and an Athenian warship was sent to Mytilene to carry out the sentence.

But reflection was swift, and overnight the Athenians regretted their decision. Sensing the repentance rampant in much of the Athenian population, the Mytilenean ambassadors at Athens requested that the question once again be put to a vote of the democratic Assembly. Since the introduction of the democracy by Cleisthenes in 508/7 BC, the Assembly at Athens had met at the Pnyx, within view of the famous Acropolis at Athens. The area could easily accommodate the quorum of 6,000 necessary to hold an Assembly meeting. On this occasion, an emergency meeting of the Assembly—whose word was supreme and inviolable—was called, and, as was typical in Assembly meetings, several prominent citizens led the debate. Cleon, who Thucydides (3.36.6) calls “the most violent man in Athens,” argued that the Athenians should stand by their previous decision of slaughter and enslavement. His opponent, Diodotus, levelled arguments against the harsh punishment of the Mytileneans, calling simply for a trial of those who were directly involved in the revolt.

The ambassadors awaited the vote. Thucydides gives a stunningly laconic account of the outcome:

“The two opinions that had been expressed were the ones that were most antithetical to each other; and the Athenians, although their opinions had changed, nevertheless came into a struggle with one another, in which the show of hands was almost equal.” (Thuc. 3.49.1)

speaker's platformPhoto: View from the speaker’s platform on the Pnyx, with the Athenian Acropolis in the background

Diodotus, however, narrowly won the day. The Athenian Assembly had changed its mind. Another warship was sent out to Mytilene to intercept the one that had been sent with the death order the day before. The rowers went without sleep and took their food while they rowed. They barely arrived in time to prevent the massacre and enslavement of the entire Mytilenean population.

Such mistakes would plague the Athenian democratic structure as the war with Sparta dragged on for the next 25 years. In 406 BC, towards the end of the war, they won a striking naval victory against the Spartans at Arginusae, east of the island of Lesbos. The Athenian generals, who had neglected to retrieve their survivors from sunk or disabled ships because of a nasty storm in the area, were put on trial at Athens for sacrilege. In one fell swoop, the Assembly voted to execute the guilty generals, and decimated their best military strategists. There were few left who could successfully prosecute the war, and Athens fell to a pro-Spartan oligarchy in 404 BC.

There had been men in the city of Athens who had warned of the drawbacks of a radical democracy. Most famous among them was Socrates, who warned against the dangers of allowing everyone to speak and vote in the Assembly: not all of Athens’ citizens are qualified to make such important decisions. In his Republic, Plato forwards the following argument:

But when the cobbler or any other man whom nature designed to be a trader, having his heart lifted up by wealth or strength or the number of his followers, or any like advantage, attempted to force his way into the class of warriors, or a warrior into that of legislators and guardians, for which he is unfitted, and either to take the implements or the duties of the other; or when one man is trader, legislator, and warrior all in one, then I think you will agree with me in saying that this interchange and this meddling of one with another is the ruin of the State. (Plato Rep. 4.434a; see the translation posted at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.5.iv.html)

Many have supposed that the Assembly sought a scapegoat for the outcome of the war, and in 399 BC, Socrates—accused of corrupting the youth and refusing to believe in state gods—became the martyr for the mistakes of the Athenian democratic structure. Athens was to lose its independence to the Macedonian empire under the reign of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, not but 60 years later.

We are left to ponder some unpleasant questions: can a democracy survive the demands of imperialism? Is the “fairest” kind of democracy necessarily the best kind? Can we unequivocally correlate democracy with freedom? Can democracies be held responsible for their mistakes? While the Mytilenean ambassadors were able to take a sigh of relief on that day in 428 BC, democracy—for better or for worse—had most certainly made an impression.

Jenn Finn is an assistant professor of history at Marquette. She is the author of Much Ado about Marduk: Questioning Discourses of Royalty in First Millennium Mesopotamian Literature(De Gruyter, 2018) and was awarded a Way-Klingler Young Scholar Fellowship for 2018-2019.

Further reading:

Anthony Everitt, The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization. New York: Random House, 2016.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Robert Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.

Democracy in Troubled Times: The Importance of Seneca Falls (1848)

By A. Kristen Foster

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme  “Democracy in Troubled Times.”  That is the focus of the 2018–2019 Marquette Forum, which will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world.” For more on the Forum click here.

Discussing the meaning of the 1848 women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, the historian Gerda Lerner set the women’s rights gathering against a parallel movement unfolding in Europe–“the specter of communism.”  While communism, according to Lerner, ultimately “fell of its own weight in almost all its major centers,” the quiet beginning at Seneca Falls opened a path for “a transformation of consciousness and a movement of empowerment on behalf of half of the human race.”  She argued that this movement without “revolutions, usurpation of power or wars,” has no equal in human history. (Gerda Lerner, Dissent45 [Fall, 1998]: 35-41.)  How did this transformation start?  How did American women begin in 1848 to see themselves as participants in a democratic society worthy of social, economic, and political equality?

In 1840, twenty-five year old Elizabeth Cady Stanton left the United States with her new husband Henry Brewster Stanton, an antislavery reformer, for the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.  There she met the Quaker activist Lucretia Mott who had co-founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 with her friend Mary Ann M’Clintock. Much to their dismay, convention organizers relegated all female attendees to a separate section of the hall where they were told they could not address the male delegates. Three years earlier, on a speaking tour against slavery, Sarah and Angelina Grimke had also been told through a newspaper opinion piece that they should not speak to “promiscuous” audiences (women and men together), because women should not lecture men–certainly not in public settings.  This editorial affront inspired both sisters to start writing on women’s rights.  After Sarah published a series of opinions entitled “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes,” record numbers arrived in Boston to hear the two speak. These early female activists made public connections between the inequalities of enslaved people and their own experiences.

WRCThese women had come of age in a northeastern culture that urged women to aspire to a separate domestic sphere far from the corruptions of the Jacksonian world. Domesticity was a tidy goal designed for mostly middle and upper-class white women, but it set a standard that both haunted and shaped the lives of American women for generations thereafter.

Their father’s revolutionary generation had built a republic in which wives and daughters would be dependent upon propertied men.  In this system, female citizenship remained incomplete; women could not vote, and they were not required to take up arms in defense of the country. Where men were expected to put the country’s best interest first and their own second, women owed their allegiance first to their husbands and then to the state.  There was no mention of self for women.

When women married, their husbands not only gained control of their wives’ properties, but also of their bodies; and, because husbands could legally use physical force to coerce their wives, political theorists thought it best that American women remain disenfranchised.  In this world, female susceptibility to coercion made them unreliable in the exercise of independent judgment.  As republican theory went, women could not be trusted to put the best interests of the country first.   Daughters and female descendants of the American Revolution would remain as children before the law.   But as these well-to-do daughters studied in the nation’s first female academies and agitated for the abolition of slavery, they found both a collective voice and the experience necessary to use it.

While Mott and Cady Stanton agreed in London in 1840 that they would organize a women’s rights convention when they returned to the United States, it took eight years to find the right moment.  But in early July, 1848, Quaker activist Jane Hunt hosted a tea in honor of Lucretia Mott.  Mott’s sister Martha Coffin Wright and Mary Ann M’Clintock attended along with Cady Stanton. Mott and her sister had just come from the Genesee Yearly Meeting of radical Hicksite Quakers. These women were part of a group of dissenting Friends who had just agreed that there would be no hierarchy, no rules about political activities, no restriction on admission in their Meeting.  They also agreed to support the complete equality of race and sex.

By all accounts, Jane Hunt’s tea started as a friendly get together, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton expressed frustration with her dependent status and exhaustion from raising three boys mostly on her own. She found an outlet that day for her social and personal frustrations, and she dared her friends to take action. Cady Stanton showcased her many abilities as a speaker that afternoon, and there in Jane Hunt’s home, these five women designed the public call for a women’s rights convention to be held ten days forward at the Wesleyan Chapel in nearby Seneca Falls, New York.

Call for the Seneca Falls convention in the Seneca County Courier,July 14, 1848

A week later (three days before the convention), Cady Stanton brought her working document to M’Clintock’s home.  Together, they revised Cady Stanton’s draft and readied themselves for the convention.  On July 19th, more than 200 women and about 40 men (including Frederick Douglass) came to the meeting in the Wesleyan Chapel at Seneca Falls.

Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments powerfully employed the words of Thomas Jefferson’s own Declaration of Independence to showcase the country’s hypocrisy and make clear the institutionalized inequality of women. Cady Stanton’s Declaration was a rhetorical triumph:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.

This opening passage was followed by a list of usurpations not by the King against his colonies, but by men against women.  Cady Stanton laid inequality bare:

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.

He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners.

Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.

He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.

He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master—the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.

He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes of divorce; in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given; as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women—the law, in all cases, going upon the false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.

After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.

He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.

He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction, which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.

He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education—all colleges being closed against her.

He allows her in Church as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.

He has created a false public sentiment, by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.

He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.

He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

And they closed with a claim to citizenship:

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation,—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.

With this rhetorical flourish, the women at Seneca Falls laid claim to full U.S. citizenship not as republican mothers and protected dependents but as individuals before the law–as participants in a democracy–and thus began the long women’s rights movement.

Kristen Foster is Associate Professor of early United States history in the department here at Marquette.  Her research and teaching focus on themes developed during the American Revolution and played out in its aftermath.

For Further Reading:

The full text of the Declaration of Sentiments can be found at https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/declaration-of-sentiments.htm.

Anthony, Susan B., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Marilda J. Gage, eds.,  History of            Woman Suffrage.  6 Volumes, 1848-1020.  Available online: at Project Gutenberg, Google Booksand Internet Archive.

 Ginzberg, Lori.  Untidy Origins: A Story of Women’s Rights in Antebellum New York.       Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005.

Lerner, Gerda.  “The Meaning of Seneca Falls.”  Dissent, V. 45, 4 (Fall, 1998): 35-41.

McMillan, Sally.  Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement.             Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Tetrault, Lisa.  The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014.

Wellman, Judith.  The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First           Women’s Rights Convention.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.




The Other September 11

By Laura E. Matthew

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme  “Democracy in Troubled Times.”  That is the focus of the 2018–2019 Marquette Forum, which will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world.” For more on the Forum click here.

 The country was politically polarized with no clear majority, and passions were high. For months right-wing paramilitaries and conservative sectors had grown bolder, showing their strength in street marches and rallies.

Encouraged by recent congressional electoral victories, the left organized massive counterdemonstrations. Radical, often younger leftists doubled down on their socialist vision.

Foreign governments funded covert disinformation campaigns spread by one-sided media outlets. Church leaders and some politicians called for negotiation. But as one congressman grimly put it only a week before democracy failed, “Everyone knows what is going to happen.”

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean Air Force bombed La Moneda, Chile’s equivalent of the U.S. White House. The military took over the government and suspended all democratic institutions “until further notice.” You can see it here: https://youtu.be/mR8xNnHQq-M?t=4898

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 10.27.48 AMMany Chileans supported the coup. Some expected the military to call new elections and step aside. Instead, they got the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. How did this happen?

Chileans were proud of their democracy. The military was politically neutral and subordinate to the president. A multiparty, constitutional system allowed for cross-party alliances, a system of checks and balances, and the peaceful transfer of power. Political debates were fractious but focused on elections, whose results were accepted.

In the 1960s, the centrist Christian Democrat government passed laws to modernize the agricultural sector and address Chile’s severe inequality. In 1970, Socialist president Salvador Allende pushed this agenda further and declared a revolution by constitutional, democratic means, without weapons or violence: the “Chilean path to socialism.”

Cuba’s Fidel Castro supplied Allende with personal bodyguards and provided military training to radical leftist parties against Allende’s wishes, while U.S. President Richard Nixon promised to “make the Chilean economy scream” through economic sanctions, funding for internal strikes by business sectors, and disinformation campaigns.

The United States fanned the flames of already existing divisions within Chilean society. The right viewed Allende’s socialism as a Marxist cancer to be excised at all costs. Centrists shared some of Allende’s policy goals but rejected his revolutionary rhetoric. Supporters of Allende defended both his agenda and his pacific, democratic approach. The far left called for arms to protect Chile from fascism.

By August 1973, the steady drum of sensational headlines from left and right warned of imminent violence. In polls, most Chileans blamed all sides for the political crisis. The economy — crippled by food shortages, stalled industrial production, and an inflation rate over 300% — was their main concern. (Under Pinochet inflation would rise even higher, but that’s another story).

On August 22, after talks with the president broke down, centrist Christian Democrats joined the right in a vote of no confidence in the government. Media reports reached a fevered pitch. As the congressman said, “Everyone knows what is going to happen.”

The coup leaders dismantled Chile’s political institutions. This especially shocked the Christian Democrats, who as centrists expected to lead a new government that was never convoked. Conservative political parties were also rebuffed by Pinochet, but their newspapers and radio — now censored — became primary messengers of the dictatorship’s propaganda.

Around forty percent of the population had supported or worked for the Allende administration. They were now considered enemies of the nation, as were members of the armed forces who refused to cooperate with the coup. Within weeks, tens of thousands were rounded up by police and military forces, tortured and beaten, sent to labor and detention camps, and/or killed. Many others lost their jobs.

The hunt for suspected leftists would continue throughout the dictatorship, justifying its 17-year existence and threatening any opposition. Eventually, in 1988 public pressure forced a referendum and a return to democracy. But after such violence, healing the wounds to the body politic and rebuilding a society capable of working together has not been easy.

What lessons does Chile 1973 teach? It depends on your point of view, but here are some of mine:

*Even a strong democracy’s institutions can crumble remarkably quickly. If divisions are deep and polarization is whipped up by political, media, monied, and foreign self-interests, democracy can devour itself.

*At its best, democracy encourages us to listen to and respect one another even in the face of significant disagreement or a painful past. At minimum, the principles of federalism, checks and balances, protection of the minority, civil rights and liberties, due process, and the vote protect all people from tyranny regardless of their views or background.

*But when a cause is deemed so righteous, certain members of society so dangerous, or the state of the country so chaotic that it justifies overriding these political safeguards, democracy is in danger. And when righteous warriors have the backing of significant sectors of the military and police, democracy can be destroyed in a single day.

Suggested readings:

Steve J. Stern. Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1988. Duke University Press, 2006.

Peter Kornbluh, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. The New Press, 2003.

Laura Matthew is associate professor of Latin American history at Marquette. You can see more about her work at https://lauraematthew.wordpress.com/.

Democracy in Trouble Times – Standing Rock, #NoDAPL, & Mni Wiconi

By Bryan Rindfleisch

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme  “Democracy in Troubled Times.”  That is the focus of the 2018–2019 Marquette Forum, which will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world.” For more on the Forum click here.

In 1978, hundreds of Native American activists and allies undertook the “Longest Walk” from San Francisco to D.C., to raise awareness about Indigenous issues and to protest state and federal efforts to terminate the “trust” relationship between tribes and the United States. The urgency of such an action stemmed from a threat toward treaty rights, which endangered tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and specific rights guaranteed in treaties, such as the access to fresh water and fish. It was during one of the earliest stops in Gallup, New Mexico, that John Redhouse (Diné/Navajo) – a spokesmen for the National Indian Youth Council – explained the immediacy of the Longest Walk:

the Earth and the People are one. We all come from a common Mother Earth. We are of Her; We are from Her. And the land and the People are one. And to destroy the land is to destroy the People. We have a very special and unique physical and spiritual relationship with the land, with the Earth. It is the basis for our survival, our existence as a people…so we’re protecting our physical and spiritual basis for our existence, for our survival as a people, that’s what’s at stake, that’s what’s at danger, for once again we have what the white man wants, once again we’re in the way…[of] this country.

Fast forward nearly forty years later to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas, and Redhouse’s words seem even more prophetic, and altogether embody the beauty, the flaws, and the contested contours of our democracy today.


In December 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers – on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners – conducted an environmental survey of lands on and around Standing Rock, including Lake Oahe, in preparation for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The nearly $3.8 billion, 1,200-mile pipeline would connect the Bakken oil fields, an epicenter for the fracking of oil in the United States, to existing pipelines in Illinois. While originally intended to pass through Bismarck, N.D., local whites protested the building of the pipeline and forced Energy Transfer Partners to look elsewhere. Standing Rock and Lake Oahe were selected, despite objections by the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, and American Council on Historical Preservation. In its “Environmental Impact Statement,” the Interior stated “the routing of a 12- to 30-inch crude oil pipeline in close proximity to and upstream of the Reservation is of serious concern for the Department…[which] holds more than 800,000 acres of land in trust for the Tribe that could be impacted by a leak or spill,” not to mention Lake Oahe’s waters Picture2fed into the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. As for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Osage and Iowa Nations affected by the pipeline: “We have not been consulted in an appropriate manner about…[our] traditional cultural properties, sites, or landscapes vital to our identity and spiritual well-being.” What was at stake for Native Peoples was access to clean water, threats to ancestral grounds and other sacred sites, and the violation of their sovereignty and treaty rights, despite a Supreme Court ruling (Winters v. U.S., 1908) that affirmed “Native nations retain waters rights on their territories.”

This disregard of Native Peoples prompted LaDonna Brave Bull Allard and others to establish the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock in April 2016. As Allard argued: “If we allow an oil company to dig through and destroy our histories, our ancestors, our hearts and souls as a people, is that not genocide?” Calling themselves “Water Protectors” in defense of Mni Wiconi (“Water is Life”), these individuals placed themselves directly in the path of DAPL to impede construction. What no one anticipated, though, was the flood of people who descended upon Standing Rock, as thousands of Native Peoples (from 300 different nations) and their allies from around the United States joined the Water Protectors, leading to the establishment of the Oceti Sakowin and Red Warrior camps. (For photographs of what life looked in the Sacred Stone, Oceti Sakowin, and Red Warrior Camps, click here and here. These Water Protectors included Natives and non-Natives, veterans and clergy, politicians and celebrities, men and women, young and old. As author and activist, Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux) further observed, it was Native youth like Andreanne Catt and Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer “who were leading the movement,” such as the “ReZpectOurWater” petition campaign that garnered more than 160,000 supporters nationwide and was delivered in person in D.C. after a 2,000 mile trek – a 21st-century Longest Walk – from North Dakota. And as Catt articulated: “we never used the word ‘protest’ because it wasn’t an ‘us and them’ thing. We called it ‘protecting’ because that’s what we were doing – defending the land, people, and water using non-violent direct action.” Media attention in the U.S. and beyond proved so electric that President Obama ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to “explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.” As journalist Mark Trahant (Shoshone-Bannock) concluded: “Standing Rock captured our imagination…[it] showed the world how to defeat powerful forces.” This was American democracy in action.

However, as early as September 2016, Energy Transfer Partners was determined to not let – in the words of its CEO, Kelcy Warren – “violent mobs” derail the construction of DAPL, and hired a private security firm, TigerSwan, to ensure the pipeline’s completion. From records recently released by public inquests, it was found that TigerSwan viewed the Water Protectors as an “ideologically driven insurgency…[that] generally followed the jihadist insurgency model,” and it deployed “military-style counterterrorism measures” at Standing Rock. Between October 2016 and January 2017, Water Protectorsfaced riot police armed with military equipment, attack dogs, armored personnel carriers using sound cannons and water cannons (in freezing temps), and other excessive measures to root out an “insurgency.” (For photographs of the violence, click here.  In one case, Sophia Wilansky had part of her arm blown off by a concussion grenade, which prompted a class-action lawsuit over “excessive force.” The violence proved so severe, and so well-covered by social media, that a thousand ex-military trekked to Standing Rock to serve as “human shields” for the Water Protectors, part of a movement known as “Veterans Stand.” (For further information about “Veterans Stand” at Standing Rock, click here. However, such violence coincided with the election of President Donald Trump, who issued an executive order in January 2017 that restarted the pipeline, which then finished in April. And in the wake of Standing Rock, lawmakers in thirty different states introduced fifty-six legislative bills to restrict protests like Standing Rock, which “expanded the definition of criminal trespass and raised the penalty for a riot conviction.”


What, then, does Standing Rock tell us about our American democracy? It would be easy to conclude that our democracy is broken, twisted by corporate greed, environmental racism, and interest politics that marginalizes the actual people. There is truth in that. But Standing Rock has also become a symbol of our democracy, the power of common people to shape the world around them. As Trahant reflects, “Standing Rock is a reminder that people standing together can do amazing things when facing injustice.” For Lewis Grassrope (Lower Brule Sioux), “Standing Rock reached across the world, and everyone saw the power of what took place here.” More personally, Sherman Alexander (Cheyenne River Sioux) stated how Standing Rock “gave me purpose…How often is this opportunity going to come along again where I can say I did something good with my life?” With all that optimism in mind, though, we must also pay heed to Elizabeth Ellis (Peoria), who reminds us “not [to] forget Standing Rock…for the sake of our democracy, we must continue to stand with and beyond Standing Rock.”

Bryan C. Rindfleisch researches and teaches Early (Colonial) American, Native American, and Atlantic World history. His first book – George Galphin’s Intimate Empire: The Creek Indians, Family, and Colonialism in Early America (Univ. of Alabama Press forthcoming 2019)– focused on the intersection of colonial, Native, imperial, and Atlantic histories, peoples, and places in the eighteenth-century South. He has also published articles in Early American Studies, Ethnohistory, Native South, Journal of Early American History, The American Historian, History Compass, and XVIII: New Perspectives on the Eighteenth-Century.

Further Reading:

NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective, “#StandingRockSyllabus.” 2016. https://nycstandswithstandingrock.wordpress.com/standingrocksyllabus/

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, “Standing Rock is Everywhere: One Year Later.” The Guardian, February 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2018/feb/22/standing-rock-is-everywhere-one-year-later

Rebecca Bengal, “Return to Standing Rock.” Vogue, April 2018. https://www.vogue.com/projects/13542941/return-to-standing-rock/

Elizabeth Ellis, “Why We Must Not Forget Standing Rock.” Rewire, May 2017. https://rewire.news/article/2017/05/08/not-forget-standing-rock/

Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon, eds. Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. New York: Penguin Random House, 2019.

Zoë Jackson, “‘For the Future’: Doing Indigenous History After Standing Rock.” Perspectives on History, March 2018. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2018/for-the-future-doing-indigenous-history-after-standing-rock

Never Forget: Two Lessons of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

By J. Patrick Mullins, Ph.D.

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme “Democracy in Troubled Times.”That is the focus of the 2018-2019 Marquette Forum, which will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world.” For more on the Forum click here.

On October 27, 2018, a man shouting “All Jews must die” entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during Shabbat services and opened fire on the worshippers. The gunman killed eleven persons and wounded six (including four police officers who answered the call of duty) before he was shot and taken into custody. He allegedly explained to police, “I just want to kill Jews.” The Tree of Life Massacre is the largest mass murder of Jews (targeted for being Jews) in American history. That data point should give us pause.

The study of history is not a luxury, not a game, not a contemplative end-in-itself. Historians strive to identify the causes and consequences of human events so the public might benefit from the lessons of the past in making their own decisions, as private individuals and self-governing citizens. Democracy cannot survive without the wisdom afforded by history.

As a professional responsibility and a public service, we historians can interpret and explain current events in their historic contexts, bringing to light long-range causes not necessarily evident to media commentators and policy makers. But what contexts apply here? What lessons might the synagogue attack teach us?

For me, the mass shooting in Pittsburgh is not wholly of civic or professional concern. It took place in my old neighborhood, among my old friends.

Originally formed by an Orthodox congregation over a century ago, the Tree of Life Synagogue is one of the oldest in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The first Jewish immigrants from Europe made Squirrel Hill their home in the 1840s, and the neighborhood became predominantly Jewish in the 1930s. Holocaust survivors settled there in the 1950s and Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

When my wife and stepdaughter emigrated from Israel, we chose Squirrel Hill for our new home. There we could socialize with other Hebrew speaking families, shop at the kosher grocery, and celebrate Rosh Ha’Shanah, Passover, and Purim with neighbors. We had a family membership in the neighborhood’s Jewish Community Center (JCC), where my stepdaughter went to kindergarten for a time and swam in the pool after elementary school classes, and my wife and I enjoyed the gym.

The Squirrel Hill JCC is welcoming to secular Jews as well as Gentiles. Being open and welcoming to outsiders has its risks. About 20 years ago, JCCs nationwide enhanced their security in the wake of small-scale attacks on their facilities motivated by anti-Semitism. For a visit to the gym, I would run a membership card with a picture ID through a card reader that would admit me to a small room made of bulletproof glass. A staff member kept constant vigil at the entrance, observing every person who entered that airlock and making visual confirmation of identity before unlocking the second door.

Many American Jews have internalized the need for such vigilance against anti-Semitism and security against political violence. This habitual guardedness is partly a product of Holocaust memory. The great moral imperatives of Holocaust memory—“Never Forget” and “Never Again”—leap to many minds as the historic lesson which most readily and obviously applies to the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre.

It is disturbing to see the same kind of genocidal mindset responsible for the Holocaust unleashed again—by one man, in our own time, in our family’s old neighborhood—to such bloody effect. This incident is all the more disturbing viscerally for those Jews with a personal connection to anti-Semitic violence. Many of my wife’s relatives went into Nazi concentration camps, and most did not come out. Her grandmother survived Bergen-Belsen.

In the spirit of “Never Forget” and “Never Again,” historians should work—as scholars, teachers, and curators—to help the public understand this mass killing in the context of a long history of anti-Semitic persecution. We should keep the Tree of Life atrocity alive in the American mind, holding it up to our fellow citizens as a tragic example of what can happen when racial and religious hatreds go unchecked or even inflamed by our media, intellectuals, and elected leaders.

But there is another historic context in which we can try to understand the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre. It has a second lesson to teach.

The killing of eight men and three women in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was the largest scale killing of Jews as Jews in United States history. The horror of this fact must not be diminished. But its historic contextualization requires acknowledgment that Jews have not been subjected in the U.S. to the kind of large-scale bloodshed experienced historically by African Americans (for example, in the Colfax Massacre) or indigenous Americans (as at Wounded Knee).

Moreover, the killing of Jews for being Jews has occurred on an unimaginably greater scale elsewhere in the Western world. In many nations of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America, Jews have been murdered by the hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions—by mobs, inquisitions, state-encouraged pogroms, and state-directed, industrial-scale extermination. Nazis are hardly alone in this grisly legacy.

Picture1The International Memorial at Dachau concentration camp in Germany, dedicated in 1967 in commemoration of the Holocaust.

A heritage of persecution and genocide is central to the history and identity of modern Jews, but that is not all there is to being Jewish in America today. Jews have indeed experienced violence, prejudice, discrimination, and other adversities in America. But they have also prospered here, economically, culturally, and spiritually, enjoying greater security of life and liberty of thought in the United States than almost any other nation in the Western world.

This is not by accident.

At a time when non-Anglican Protestants—let alone Catholics or Jews—were banned from the vote and public office in Britain, the legal equality of all religions was a founding principle of the U.S. government.

On August 18, 1790, in a letter to the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington noted that the new U.S. Constitution recognized that “[a]ll possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” He wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. . . . May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

The American Republic’s constitutional protections for religious minorities—including naturalization of non-Christian immigrants and the prohibition of church establishments, religious tests for national office, and acts of Congress abridging the free exercise of religion—are as central the Jewish American experience as persecution and the Holocaust.

The full logical implications of the equal rights principle were not rendered explicit for women, African Americans, or indigenous Americans in the U.S. Constitution as they were for religious minorities. And too often America’s founding principles have been honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is specifically when the U.S. government and its citizens forget America’s original commitment to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” that the rights of minorities, immigrants, and individual dissenters are most urgently in peril.

The two lessons of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre are therefore tragically interconnected. We historians must teach the evils that humans have done to one another and exhort the public to remember the horrors and crimes of the past, lest we be doomed to repeat them. But we must also help our students and readers never to forget the human capacity for goodness and the positive achievements of the past, lest they slip away.

Historians have an important role to play in civic life by affirming and renewing within our local communities and our national culture the values which have made possible peaceful coexistence among humans, despite our differences and disagreements, such as the moral right of each individual to think, judge, choose, and live by the light of her or his own reason and conscience. Only when such principles are secure—not just under law but in the hearts and minds of the American people—can we all sit in safety under our own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make us afraid.


  1. Patrick Mullins, Ph.D., is assistant professor of history and Public History Director at Marquette University. His first book—Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution—was published in 2017. He is working on a new book about the role of public memory in the cultural origins of the American Revolution.


Further Reading:

Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Jones, Martha S. Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Miller, Nicholas P. The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pencak, William. Jews and Gentiles in Early America, 1654-1800. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

Wenger, Beth. The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

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