Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 9
April 9, 2021
The 1918 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people across the world, including about 675,000 people in the United States. And yet, until recently, it has been elusive in our popular memory. America’s curious amnesia about the 1918 pandemic has come to mind lately as the United States appears to be shifting into a post-pandemic era of job growth and optimism.
A year ago today, I noted that we were approaching 17,000 deaths from Covid-19. Now our official death count is over 560,000. If anyone had told us a year ago that we would lose more than a half million of our family and friends to this pandemic, that number would have seemed unthinkable. And yet now, as more shots go into arms every day, attention to the extraordinary toll of the past year seems to be slipping.
Remembering the nation’s suffering under the pandemic matters because the contrast between the disastrous last year and our hope this spring is a snapshot of what is at stake in the fight over control of the nation’s government.
Ever since President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Republicans have argued that the best way to run the country has been to dismantle the federal government and turn the fundamental operations of the country over to private enterprise. They have argued that the government is inefficient and wasteful, while businesses can pivot rapidly and are far more efficient than their government counterparts.
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 7
April 7, 2021
Last night, commentator Kevin Williamson published a piece in National Review justifying voter suppression by suggesting that “the republic would be better served by having fewer—but better—voters.” Representatives, he says, “are people who act in other people’s interests,” which is different from doing what voters want.
This is the same argument elite slaveholder James Henry Hammond made before the Senate in 1858, when he defended the idea that Congress should recognize the spread of human enslavement into Kansas despite the fact that the people living in that territory wanted to abolish slavery. Our Constitution, Hammond said, did not dictate that people should “be annoyed with the cares of Government,” but rather directed that they should elect leaders who would take those cares upon themselves.
It is the same argument wealthy men made in the 1890s when they illustrated that laws calling for “better” voters meant that white registrars would hand-pick the nation’s voting population. In the South and the North both, legislators wrote new state constitutions to keep Black men, immigrants, and poor workers from the polls. Leading Americans argued that such men “corrupted” the vote by electing lawmakers who provided public infrastructure like schools and hospitals, paid for with the tax dollars of hardworking white men. To keep poor voters and men of color from the ballot, new state laws called for literacy tests, in which white registrars personally judged a man’s ability to read; poll taxes for which one had to keep the receipts; grandfather clauses, in which a man could vote if his grandfather had, and so on.
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 6
April 6, 2021
I spent much of today thinking about the Republican Party. Its roots lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854, when it became clear that elite southern slaveholders had taken control of the federal government and were using their power to spread their system of human enslavement across the continent.
At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security.
As a younger man, Lincoln had watched his town of New Salem die because the settlers in the town did not have the resources to dredge the Sangamon River to increase their river trade. Had the government simply been willing to invest in the economic development that was too much for the willing workers of New Salem, it could have brought prosperity to the men who, for lack of investment, failed and abandoned their town. The government, Lincoln thought, must develop the country’s infrastructure.
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 5
April 5, 2021 (Monday)
For people sick of news, there is nothing happening that cannot wait, so tonight’s letter is a good one to skip.
Otherwise, there are lots of developing stories today. Top of the list is the story of Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is implicated in what appears to be a significant sex scandal involving underage girls.
Running a close second is the story Shane Goldmacher at the New York Times broke this weekend: in the closing days of the 2020 election season, the Trump campaign scammed supporters out of more than $122 million by tricking them into “recurring” donations. The campaign had to refund those donations after the election, and it apparently did so by using money raised after the election by asking for funds to challenge the election results. In effect, supporters unknowingly made a no-interest loan to the campaign.
Today’s overarching story is connected to this one. It is the same as yesterday’s big story, and the day before that, reaching on backward until the 2020 election. Republican Party leaders continue to insist, without evidence, that former president Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that Democrats stole it from him through voter fraud. A new Reuters/Ipsos found that six in ten Republicans believe this Big Lie.
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | March 28
Since the Civil War, voter suppression in America has had a unique cast.
The Civil War brought two great innovations to the United States that would mix together to shape our politics from 1865 onward:
First, the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln created our first national system of taxation, including the income tax. For the first time in our history, having a say in society meant having a say in how other people’s money was spent.
Second, the Republicans gave Black Americans a say in society.
They added the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing human enslavement except as punishment for crime and, when white southerners refused to rebuild the southern states with their free Black neighbors, in March 1867 passed the Military Reconstruction Act. This landmark law permitted Black men in the South to vote for delegates to write new state constitutions. The new constitutions confirmed the right of Black men to vote.
Most former Confederates wanted no part of this new system. They tried to stop voters from ratifying the new constitutions by dressing up in white sheets as the ghosts of dead southern soldiers, terrorizing Black voters and the white men who were willing to rebuild the South on these new terms to keep them from the polls. They organized as the Ku Klux Klan, saying they were “an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism” intended “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States… [and] to aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws.” But by this they meant the Constitution before the war and the Thirteenth Amendment: candidates for admission to the Ku Klux Klan had to oppose “Negro equality both social and political” and favor “a white man’s government.”