There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
Isaac Newton, by Sir James Thornhill, 1712
‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. The opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) has become a historical cliché. Yet contrary to its implications, the past has no independent existence, but is being continually updated by scholarly travelers: it is a constantly shifting territory, an endangered world plundered by souvenir-hungry historical tourists.
Since his death in 1727, Isaac Newton has been reborn in various incarnations that reflect the interests of their creators as much as the realities of his existence. His monument in Westminster Abbey records not only his contributions to physics, but also his commitment to biblical studies and the timetables of ancient chronology, while the posthumous statue in Trinity College Cambridge shows an enraptured Enlightenment gentleman wielding a prism like an orator’s baton. The tale of the falling apple began circulating only in the nineteenth century, and his alchemical interests were suppressed until the economist John Maynard Keynes unleashed a flurry of investigations after the Second World War.
Newton’s definitive biography remains Never at Rest (1980) by the American historian Richard Westfall, who subsequently undertook a prolonged psychoanalytical investigation of his authorial relationship with his subject. In an extraordinary article, Westfall outlined the conclusions he had drawn about himself. “Biography…cannot avoid being a personal statement,” he declared, confessing that he had painted “a portrait of my ideal self, of the self I would like to be.” As he continued soul-searching, he accused himself of resembling a puritanical Presbyterian elder determined to preserve unsullied Newton’s reputation as a scientific genius, and he admitted downplaying Newton’s thirty years of financial and political negotiations at the Mint.
I hold no such qualms. Immersed in modern concerns about global capitalism and international exploitation, in Life after Gravity (2021) I explore Newton’s activities during those last three decades that so discomfited Westfall. Many scientists regard his London years as an unfitting epilogue for the career of an intellectual giant, but economists see matters differently. More interested in falling stock markets than in falling apples, they are untrammelled by assumptions that the life scientific is the only one worth living. According to them, once Newton had tasted fame and the possibilities of wealth, he wanted more of both. And that entailed moving to the capital, where he earned a fortune, won friends and influenced people. I can only speculate about reasons – professional insecurity, the anguish of an impossible love affair, private worries about intellectual decline as he aged – but Newton engineered his move with great care. Determined to make a success of his new life, he broke definitively away from provincial Cambridge with its squabbling academics, and dedicated himself to his new metropolitan existence.
While he worked at the Mint, Newton continued to confirm and refine his theories of the natural world, but he was also a member of cosmopolitan society who contributed to Britain’s ambitions for global domination. He shared the aspirations of his wealthy colleagues to make London the world’s largest and richest city, the center of a thriving international economy. Like many of his contemporaries, he invested his own money in merchant shipping companies, hoping to augment his savings by sharing in the profits (although he sustained a substantial loss during the South Sea Bubble crash of 1720).
An uncomfortable historical truth is often glossed over: until 1772, it was legal to buy, own, and sell human beings in Great Britain. Newton knew that the country’s prosperity depended on the international trade in enslaved people, and he profited by investing in companies that carried it out. For fine-tuning his gravitational theories, he solicited observations of local tides from merchants stationed in trading posts. And when he was meticulously weighing gold at the Mint, he must have been aware that it had been dug up by Africans whose friends and relatives were being shipped westward across the Atlantic, where they were forced to cultivate sugar plantations, labor down silver mines, and look after affluent Europeans.
National involvement in commercial slavery was a collective culpability, and there is no point in replacing the familiar “Newton the Superhuman Genius” with the equally unrealistic “Newton the Incarnation of Evil.” By exploring activities and attitudes that are now deplored, I aim not to condemn Newton, but to provide a more realistic image of this man who was simultaneously unique and a product of his times.
Newton was a metropolitan performer, a global actor who played various parts. Since theatricality was a favourite Enlightenment metaphor, I chose to experiment by structuring my narrative around a dramatic conversation piece by William Hogarth: The Indian Emperor. Or the Conquest of Mexico (1732). It is seeped in Newtonian references. For example, centrally placed on the mantelpiece, Newton’s marble bust gazes out across an elegant drawing room, while the royal governess bids her daughter to pick up a fan that has dropped to the floor through the power of gravity. On a small makeshift stage, four aristocratic children arranged in a geometric square perform a revived Restoration play about imperial conquest and the search for gold. Traveling round the picture – the room, the audience, the stage – as if I were a fly on its walls, I describe how Newton interacted with ambitious wheelers and dealers jostling for power not only in Britain, but around the entire world.
Newton may have been exceptional, but he can no longer be seen as William Wordsworth’s Romantic genius soaring in strange seas of thought alone, an abstract mind divorced from the mundane concerns that affect every human being. Ensconced in a powerful position, he took decisions and implemented policies that contributed to fostering the exploitation and disparity lying at the heart of modern democracy. As a privileged British academic, I benefit from being enmeshed within a global economic system that promotes inequality, and whose growth has been linked with the rise of science and the rise of empire since the mid-seventeenth century.
Exploring Hartley’s foreign country of the past can help to reveal how we have reached the present, but for me the main point of doing that is to improve the future. The current state of the world is not pre-ordained. Instead, multiple individual choices have shaped the direction humanity has collectively taken, and millions of others will affect what lies ahead. Ensuring a better future requires that everybody – you, me – take personal action. In writing this book, I have tried to analyse some of the ways in which our predecessors went wrong: we must avoid repeating their mistakes.
One of the daunting aspects of teaching world history is the realization of how much has to be left out. Constraints of the survey course and even limits to the size of our often-huge textbooks inevitably compel a host of omissions or short-changes. While limitations apply most obviously to coverage, they also affect conceptual or analytical goals: we simply can’t do as much as we would like.
The following comment, framed within the burden of constraints, seeks to encourage debate about how those of us teaching world history are prioritizing our goals, particularly amid the growing complications of the world around us and as we seek to attract greater undergraduate interest in historical study. Debate is the operative term, for while I urge a new discussion of priorities, and risk raising a few hackles in the process, the effort must be framed in terms of a balance amid a number of desirable outcomes.
Here’s the starter: I have always believed that the primary goal of world history teaching was to help students place the world around them today in context of the past, to explore how current patterns have emerged from earlier developments by emphasizing the basics of historical analysis: change and continuity. Here, it seems to me, is the core argument for urging world history over other survey topics: we live in a complex world, not just a Western world or an American world or even a Chinese civ. world, and we need to work with students on historicizing this complexity, even seeking to promote a capacity to continue to evaluate the global present long after the course has ended. Arguably – though this merits testing – explicit linkage between survey history and current global concerns may also propel greater student interest, adding a further twist to the longstanding goal, particularly in light of the fact that the survey course is our principal encounter with non-majors.
Primacy does not mean exclusivity. We can also hope that world history surveys, like other surveys, promote abilities in critical thinking and/or interpretation of sources and/or capacity to develop arguments; and I grant that world history (unlike other surveys) assures exposure to regional diversity, an asset in itself. But, again, we can’t do everything, which is why we arguably need consistent attention to whether our effort to contextualize the global present is actually reaching the student audience or whether we have diluted the linkage with other concerns.
And this is where, in recent years, I have felt the need for some reassessment, because while my undergraduate students have continued to display the usual (varied) range of mastery of the major world history periods and regions, I have become less sure of their grasp of how current patterns have emerged from the past and how the connections provide greater contemporary understanding.
To be sure, an initial criterion, and an important one, continues to be met: my survey has always had a substantial 20th-21st century unit at the end of the course (though in what for me has always been a one-semester offering, “substantial” may be taken with a grain of salt). I have always believed that it was vital for survey instructors to avoid getting so sidetracked by earlier developments or other disruptions that merely reaching World War II seemed a major achievement. After all, the decades before, say, 2015 are often the hardest for students to grasp, between their own experience and conventional textbook coverage – yet are also the most vital in bridging between present and past.
I increasingly question, however, whether simply reaching the 21st century provides sufficient connectivity to establish the past-present linkage that really makes the survey a source of genuine perspective on contemporary issues, or a preparation for active use of world history insights in the students’ futures. We may well need to create explicit opportunities for linkage discussions throughout the course, and not just at the end – at least this is what I hope to accomplish in significantly redoing my own course (without, I must add, converting into a contemporary problems exercise: the focus on history remains central). Yet this kind of approach complicates the priorities of many current world history surveys. Hence the desirability of further discussion of the needs involved, and the potential tensions in trying to meet those needs.
For asking students to apply what we looked at in week 2, on the classical civilizations, to our discussions of contemporary regional factors in week 13 may be an over-demanding stretch unless we prepare the analysis directly in discussing the classical period. It is arguably not enough to evoke the importance (and complexity) of continuity (or heritage) in principle, and assume that students will be able to link up on their own. The challenge is twofold: first, simply retaining active memory over the multi-week span (as opposed to retaining the capacity to recall a canned definition of Confucianism or Hinduism for examination purposes); and second, knowing enough about the contemporary world to anticipate some connections early in the course.
For many students don’t know a lot about what is going on in the world today. Of course there are marvelous exceptions, among the globally motivated (some of whom, however, frequently place out of the college survey). For many able students, finding out about the surge of Hindu nationalism, or the historical evocation in the Belt and Road Initiative, or the striking recent trends in global poverty and aging, or the fascinating regional differences in response to the pandemic is a first, which is why leaving the issue of connectivity to the end of the course often falters because of the unfamiliarity of the issues involved.
This is not a declension lament: I continue to be impressed with the ability and interest of many good students. I do think it is possible that contemporary students are slightly less prepared than their predecessors in the global arena, mainly because of the decline in social studies plus modern languages and the measurable shift of the principal news media away from international coverage since the end of the Cold War. And I am impressed at the widespread belief in generational uniqueness, particularly around the impact of social media and the often unexamined idea of the generation itself, though the issues are hardly unprecedented. But the main point is not really new: connecting global past to global present is a hard job, and this in turn is the primary reason that further attention is warranted.
The tools are familiar enough, centering on the balance between change and continuity that undergird major current trends and patterns and link them to developments at least as far back as the classical period or even the advent of agriculture. The execution centers on a combination of time and explicit attention that allows students to begin to work on the relevant connections throughout the course, so that the challenges of the final, contemporary unit are at least somewhat familiar.
But this is where linkage needs bump up against two other, and recently more widely touted, world history goals. For creating a bit more space for more consistent linkage discussions, around change and continuity, means at least some reconsideration of coverage aspirations and, possibly, the amount of time available for analysis of sources.
We know from the recent agonies over the chronological redefinition of the Advanced Placement world history course that coverage revisions can be truly painful: it is demonstrably easier for historians to add than to subtract. Many world historians have a commendable desire to include as many regional experiences as possible, particularly those developing outside the West, and the current interest in racial and ethnic identities adds further fuel. An interest in pushing far back in time also runs deep. Again, however, we can’t do everything. There is no formula for the tradeoffs involved, but it may be desirable to experiment again with recombinations that can meet a goal of regional adequacy and chronological depth –certainly including a starting point well before 1500 – in order more fully to address the historical contextualization of the present.
A passion for work with sources runs deep as well, and may well have increased in recent years; and there is certainly no justification for pulling back entirely. Indeed, juxtaposition of sources may be an excellent way to support discussions of change and continuity, while contributing to the student skill set as well. Here too, however, there may be some need to cull a bit: too much attention to sources, though worthy in itself, may distract from the larger analytical goals, where, among other things, dealing with some relevant and challenging secondary interpretations may be more useful, while contributing to students skills as well. There are limits to the kinds of developments, particularly over time, that source work can easily explore.
The issue, again, is priorities. World history surveys must help introduce students to a wider past, but in my view it should be a past that actively sheds light on the present – and that takes work, and requires consistent attention as the course unfolds. If this is agreed – and again this is worth debate – then we also need discussion about what kinds of contemporary patterns particularly merit attention and about how ensuing analysis of change and continuity can best be promoted. The result will not change the survey beyond recognition, but it may help students understand why we are urging attention to the subject in the first place and how it can be an ongoing resource in sorting out the complexities of the world around us.
Detail of “Aidez Espagne,” Joan Miró, 1937
As we enter the final stretch of the campaign to elect Madrid’s powerful regional government, here is one last journalistic appeal to democrats and progressives outside Spain.
Paraphrasing the message in Joan Miró’s famous ‘Aidez l’Espagne’ poster—a striking image of a peasant, fist raised, exhibited in the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris International Exhibition in 1937—the appeal is now “Aidez Madrid.”
In Paris in 1937 the Spanish Republic requested the support and intervention of Europe in its defense of democracy against Franco’s military coup, the summary executions of tens of thousands of democrats, and Hitler’s Stuka dive bombers, which had obliterated the Basque town of Guernica. The appeals were in vain and Western democracies abandoned the republic to its fate.
With no desire to overdramatize, those of us who witness directly the rise of the extreme right in Madrid feel compelled to make the historical comparison. We appeal to democrats and antifascists in the rest of the world to intervene once again. Intervene by expressing your dismay at conservative Partido Popular candidate Isabel Díaz Ayuso’s decision to open her arms to the extreme right party Vox, a 21st century version of Franco’s falangism.
Ayuso has not only adopted most of Vox’s incendiary language but has made clear that she is prepared to form a coalition government with the extreme right racist group after the May 4 elections. Ayuso has crossed every red line in her bid to win over Vox voters—necessary to avoid the election of a progressive government. She explained an outbreak of COVID in the densely populated working class districts in the south of the city as the result of “our immigrants’ way of life.” Her electoral slogan is “Freedom versus Communism.” In one TV interview she remarked. “If they call you a fascist, you are on the right side of history.”
Vox poster, Madrid. “MENA” refers to unaccompanied minor foreign migrants (Menor Extranjero No Acompañado) who are claimed to each receive 4,700 Euros worth of social service assistance monthly.
Despite these views, Ayuso commands the support of 40% of Madrid’s electorate, according to the latest opinion polls, 80% of whom say they have no issue with her plan to form a coalition government with the extremist Vox. To get a taste of how Vox directs its vitriol against the most vulnerable, take a look at their election posters, plastered in Madrid’s metro stations, which criminalize unaccompanied minors—most from North Africa—who participate in social integration programs.
For this reason Aidez Madrid is now a moral imperative. Democrats within and without Spain must protest at the inclusion of Vox in a Madrid government and use their influence to try to persuade Madrid voters to turn their backs on the far right. There is much at stake. A PP Vox in Spain’s capital would set a highly dangerous precedent for the rest of the world.
It is crucial that Ayuso be made aware that, just as her quasi denialist policy of allowing bars and restaurants in the city center to fill with locals and tourists, she is playing with fire with her policy of modus vivendi with Vox. She must be warned. Yet no one in Europa or the US seems even aware of what is happening here..
There is little knowledge outside Spain of just how much power accrues to government of the capital in Spain’s decentralized state. While socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez governs the Spanish state along with coalition partners Unidos Podemos, regional governments like Madrid’s are responsible for health , education, transportation, and most social services. If this were a Spanish general election, public opinion in Europe would surely have rallied against a possible extreme right government. But the Madrid election appears to have slipped under the international radar.
This is not just a matter of principle. More than ever, Spain depends on the rest of Europe for its economic survival. Madrid has requested more than 21 billion euros from the European support program for post-pandemic economic recovery. Wouldn’t it be problematic for Europe’s democratic credibility if parts of this generous budget ended up under the control of a Vox minister in the Madrid regional government who chose, for example, to channel European funds into programs that excluded immigrants? How would Brussels feel if a Madrid government managing European funds for the green recovery included climate change deniers such as those in the Vox leadership?
It is an issue of added concern because Ayuso has promised to cut income tax in the Madrid region, making the European funds more important to her plans. This unfair tax competition not only discriminates against other cities in Spain, but also other European cities outside of Spain.
Perhaps the first Aidez Madrid’s appeal should be European and American tourists attracted to Ayuso’s free for all policies during the pandemic, despite continuing concerns about covid and a slow roll-out of the vaccine program.
Some may choose to leave the bars and restaurants and visit the Reina Sofía museum, where they can admire Picasso’s Guernica—an extraordinary depiction of fascist violence painted in the first six months of 1937 and exhibited in the Paris Pavilion. Discriminating visitors can discover in the Reina Sofia’s moving collection of modernist Spanish art a room dedicated to the avant-garde Spanish pavilion in Paris designed by Luis Lacasa and the Bauhaus-influenced Josep Lluís Sert. On view are sculptures by Alexander Calder, Julio González (who died in a concentration camp), and Albert Sánchez, whose surrealist totem can be seen in the square in front of the museum entrance. Visitors might choose to watch Buñuel’s Las Hurdes, screened inside the pavilion, and now projected repeatedly at the Reina Sofía now. The pavilion containing these seminal works of modern art was the brainchild of Spain’s then socialist president, Francisco Largo Caballero.
For that reason, we should all be concerned not only at the presence of Vox in the regional government but also by their influence on city authorities, too. Madrid Mayor Jose Luis Martinez Almeida, a close ally of Ayuso in the PP, has just announced, at the request of his coalition partner in the Madrid council Vox, that all place names in Madrid dedicated to Largo Caballero and fellow socialist Indalecio Prieto, should be withdrawn from the streets of the capital as part of a campaign to “rid the city of Communist symbols.”
The fight over the Equal Rights Amendment is often framed as a classic fight between liberals and conservatives with liberals supporting the amendment to ensure gender equality and conservatives opposing the amendment to preserve traditional gender roles. But the history of the ERA before the state ratification battles of the 1970s shows that the fight over complete constitutional sexual equality did not always fall along strict political boundaries. As the dynamics of the early ERA conflict suggest, support for and opposition to the ERA are not positions that are fundamentally tied to either conservatism or liberalism. The ERA was first introduced into Congress in 1923, and Congress held several hearings on the amendment from the 1920s through the 1960s. Early ERA supporters as well as amendment opponents included liberals and conservatives alike. At its roots, the ERA conflict reflects a battle over the nature of American citizenship and not a typical political fight between liberals and conservatives.
The resurrection of the anti-ERA campaign effort in the mid-to-late 1940s is a prime example of how the original ERA conflict transcended typical political disputes of the early twentieth century. The social upheaval of World War II created a surge in support for the ERA, which alarmed several notable ERA critics, such as Mary Anderson, former head of the Women’s Bureau, Dorothy McAllister, former Director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party, Frieda Miller, the new head of the Women’s Bureau, Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, and Lewis Hines, a leading member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In a September 1944 meeting, the distressed ERA opponents decided to create the National Committee to Defeat the Un-Equal Rights Amendment (NCDURA). This organization hoped to break the growing energy behind the ERA by centralizing the opposition forces and launching a coordinated counterattack on the amendment.
While founders of the NCDURA were predominantly prominent liberal ERA opponents, the organization actively worked with conservative amendment critics to squash the growing support for the ERA. When word reached the NCDURA’s leaders in April 1945 that the full House Judiciary Committee intended to report the ERA favorably, the organization reached out to “the all-powerful” conservative Representative Clarence J. Brown (R-OH), as one NCDURA official had put it, to help stall the amendment in the House. Once the full House Judiciary Committee reported the ERA favorably in July 1945, the leadership of the NCDURA used its budding connections with Representative Brown and the House Rules Committee to delay action on the amendment.
The NCDURA worked with conservatives once again when the ERA made progress in the Senate in the period following World War II. After the full Senate Judiciary Committee reported the ERA favorably in January 1946, the NCDURA began to coordinate efforts with conservative Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. Senator Taft opposed the ERA because, he claimed, it would nullify various sex-based state laws that he believed protected women as mothers and potential mothers. In preparation for the July 1946 Senate floor debate on the ERA, the NCDURA worked with Senator Taft to make sure that every senator received a copy of the “Freund Statement”, an extensive essay by eminent legal scholar and longtime ERA opponent Paul Freund that outlined various arguments against the amendment. Before the debate, the NCDURA and its allies in the Senate also introduced into the Congressional Record an article denouncing the ERA written by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The NCDURA’s work paid off. When the Senate voted on the ERA in July 1946, the amendment failed to receive the two-thirds majority of votes required for passage of a constitutional amendment.
In the final weeks of December 1946 and the early days of January 1947, it became clear to the NCDURA’s leaders that ERA supporters were not going to give up easily on their amendment. As a result, the NCDURA’s officials decided to continue to build relationships with prominent Republicans while creating a positive program that would provide an alternative measure for improving women’s status. In the months that followed, NCDURA leader Dorothy McAllister enlisted the help of influential Republican Party member Marion Martin, the founder of the National Federation of Women’s Republican Clubs, to encourage other important Republicans to oppose the amendment.
The NCDURA also began to work on a joint resolution that aimed to eliminate any possible harmful discrimination against women while reaffirming what ERA opponents believed to be equitable sex-based legal distinctions. The bill included two main objectives: declare a general national policy regarding sex discrimination and establish a presidential commission on the status of women. For the policy statement, the bill called for the elimination of distinctions on the basis of sex except for those that were “reasonably based on differences in physical structure, biological, or social function.” According to the bill’s backers, acceptable sex-based legal distinctions included maternity benefits for women only and placing the duty of combat service on men exclusively. The bill’s supporters also noted that the policy statement would only require immediate action by federal agencies; it would not necessitate immediate, compulsory action from the states. The purpose of the bill’s proposed presidential commission was to investigate sex-specific laws and make recommendations at the appropriate federal, state, and local levels.
In February 1947, the NCDURA had gained strong support for its bill from two influential conservative congressmembers: Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and Representative James Wadsworth of New York. While Senator Taft had started to help the anti-ERA effort in the mid-to-late 1940s, Representative Wadsworth had been a committed ERA opponent since the 1920s. Wadsworth supported the NCDURA’s bill because he believed that it would allow for the “orderly repeal” of unjust laws while preserving women’s right to special protection. Senator Taft and Representative Wadsworth introduced the Women’s Status Bill into Congress on February 17, 1947. To bolster support for the bill, the NCDURA changed its name to the National Committee on the Status of Women (NCSW) in the spring months of 1947.
The Women’s Status Bill, which was commonly referred to as the Taft-Wadsworth Bill in the late 1940s, obtained a decent level of support from both Democrats and Republicans. Most importantly for ERA opponents, the bill successfully helped to subdue the pro-ERA impulse that had taken root during World War II because the bill provided an alternative measure for improving women’s status that promised a degree of equality while preserving the rationale for sex-specific legal treatment. The NCSW had versions of the Women’s Status Bill introduced into Congress every year until 1954. While the measure failed to pass Congress, it did provide the blueprint for what would become President John Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which was created in 1961.
Opposition to the ERA is not the only position that has appealed to both conservatives and liberals. The pro-ERA momentum that accelerated during World War II had helped the ERA gain an array of backers from across the political spectrum. That momentum slowed because of the ERA opposition work in the post-war years. Still, it is important to recognize the ways in which support for and opposition to the ERA have the potential to attract conservatives and liberals alike. By giving greater attention to how the struggle over the ERA has defied conventional categories of political ideology, we can gain a greater appreciation for the complexities embedded in the fight over the ERA and a better understanding for why the amendment has yet to be ratified. ERA opponents succeeded in stopping the amendment in the post-World War II era because they embraced an alternative approach for improving women’s status. That approach appealed to many conservatives and liberals because it allowed for a limited equality that upheld what they believed to be women’s natural right to special protection.