Monday, December 19, 2011

The US Now a Net Exporter of Oil! Well, Not Quite....

Friends! It's been a long time since I've posted, mainly because I've been working on a book (on the origins of thinking about energy as a strategic, national security issue -- more on that at another time), but I've decided to try and reboot the blog. My hope is to give it a lighter feel, thus allowing more frequent posts.

So let's jump right in.

My department chair just brought my attention to a news story on, titled "In role reversal, US on track to be an oil exporter". In it, the author (helpfully identified as " staff") leads with a jaw-dropping premise:

The contentious debate in Congress over the Keystone XL pipeline obscures one significant detail many Americans don't realize: In the first three quarters of 2011, we exported more oil than we imported. This means it's highly likely that this year will be the first time in more than six decades that the United States will be a net exporter of petroleum products, according to a report in USA Today Monday.

Wow! Not only is this development unexpected, but it has immediate implications for public policy! Only, at least as presented by, it's completely untrue.

The most glaring error is right at the beginning: "In the first three quarters of 2011, we exported more oil than we imported." No, we didn't. This statement confuses the generic term, "oil," with the phrase used in the next sentence: "petroleum products." The difference? Well, here it helps to go to's source.

The authors helpfully link to the USA Today piece (which they essentially rewrote without understanding what they were writing about). This more fully sourced article makes a clearer statement of what actually has happened this year. Start with the first paragraph:

Looking at your heating bills or gas prices, you may find it surprising that the United States is enjoying a mini oil boom. It's producing more crude oil and, for the first time in decades, has become a net exporter of petroleum products such as jet fuel, heating oil and gasoline.

This is better than msnbc -- it's not "oil" that the U.S. has recently been exporting more than importing, but a specific list of "petroleum products." USA Today notes that petroleum products include such commodities as jet fuel, heating oil, and gasoline. The list is actually much longer, including diesel fuel and petroleum coke and asphalt and all the various things refined out of the crude petroleum that comes out of the ground. For now, bracket the first part of the USA Today claim -- that the U.S. is "producing more crude oil."

So in terms of imports and exports, how does the volume of "petroleum products" compare to that of crude petroleum? That is, what happens to our picture of American imports and exports if we add in crude, along with products? To get an idea of the scale, it helps to turn to the authoritative source, the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration. Below is a graph from the EIA's November 2011 Monthly Energy Review, found here.

The graph above is just for imports, but it makes clear that American demand for "oil"--meaning crude petroleum--has far outpaced an increased demand in petroleum products. Which is to say, learning that the U.S. has exported more petroleum products than it imported doesn't tell us that much about the overall American energy picture. All that crude oil that is still imported just gets refined domestically into the petroleum products (gasoline, etc) that are in such high demand. This graph makes the same point:

American exports of petroleum products have been going up, and imports of both petroleum products and crude oil going down, but still, overall imports of all petroleum and its derivatives still make up about half of all the petroleum consumed in the United States:

So, was misleading in its article. We are not reversing a trend--American dependence on foreign oil--that was a century in the making in the space of a year.

But what about domestic production? It is indeed going up--but compared to last year. In the long term, or "secularly" as we historians say, since the 1970s American domestic oil production has been declining. Occasionally it tics upward, but the overall trend has been downward. Recently, domestic production hit an inflection point and it appears to be going up:

The problem is that top line in the above graph; domestic production may be growing, but domestic consumption is still about twice the amount, thus continuing to require high levels of imports.

Kudos to for noting that the greatest share of American oil imports are not from the Middle East, but Canada, but shame, shame! for suggesting that somehow the United States was some kind of net oil exporter.

Now, back to the original premise of the article, how this all relates to the Keystone XL pipeline is not at all clear to me. Does increased domestic petroleum products exports make the pipeline more or less important? And more or less important for whom? Is the uptick in domestic production a short-term phenomenon, related perhaps to the global economic downturn, or the beginning of a long-term change in America's energy picture? The USA Today article gets into these question a bit more, noting that increased American petroleum product exports are due, in part, to the importation of Canadian tar sands for domestic refining and reexport. So the pipeline would presumably increase the flow of this raw material, thus making more of it available to export. Of course, while the USA Today piece notes the environmental objections to tar sands and the pipeline (they are particularly dirty fuels that produce disproportionate quantities of greenhouse gases), it doesn't note how interest in tar sands are also dependent on global oil prices. Were global prices to drop, tar sands production would look a lot less attractive a proposition.

But the real story here is how we understand the U.S. relationship to the rest of the world. USA Today uncritically lets Citigroup executive and energy economist Edward Morse claim that these trends mean "We're moving toward energy independence." Really? The United States has never been energy independent (and I mean NEVER EVER EVER -- the U.S. imported coal during various fuel shortages since the 18th century), and for anyone in the energy world, the term "energy independence" has very little meaning. We operate in a globally integrated oil market that shows little signs of breaking down into some kind of mercantilist hoarding. Nor would some kind of domestic self-sufficiency even be a good thing; back in the early 20th century, many American policy makers sought to encourage American companies to produce in foreign fields precisely as a way to preserve domestic production for a longer period of time. Moreover, distributed production makes it easier for all countries to adjust to inevitable supply disruptions.

So, if nothing else, always go to the data when you can get it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Other Oil Spill

On June 8th, Representative John Culberson of Texas released an open letter to President Obama, criticizing the administration’s six month moratorium on deep water oil drilling put in place after the April 20th sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. “I am concerned that the decision to impose the moratorium is based more on emotion than fact,” Culberson wrote. “The Deepwater Horizon incident was a terrible human tragedy with devastating environmental consequences, but it must be viewed in the proper historical context as a statistical anomaly. The government’s own records show that since 1985, more than 7 billion barrels of oil have been produced in federal offshore waters with less than 0.001 percent spilled – a 99.999% record for clean operations. That 25-year record of safety should not be ignored in the haste to respond to public discord.”

Culberson represents Texas’s Seventh Congressional District, which includes much of Houston and its western suburbs—the corporate epicenter for the American oil and gas industry. He is understandably concerned about the economic impact of the drilling moratorium. And there’s no doubt that shutting down deep water offshore drilling will have an economic impact. According to the Houston Business Journal, the moratorium has placed 33 rigs in mothballs and risks $1.8 billion dollars over six months, a figure the paper calls “in the conservative neighborhood.”

While small spills—a few barrels or so—in oil production are common, large ones are not. This rarity of spills of Deepwater Horizon magnitude was a central point made Tuesday by oil company executives while testifying before Congress. Exxon Mobil Chairman Rex Tillerson called the spill an “unprecedented accident,” and claimed that “this incident represents a dramatic departure from the industry norm in deepwater drilling.” Or, as John Watson, CEO of Chevron observed, “It’s important to keep in mind that, as tragic and significant as this incident is, it occurred in an industry with a strong record for safety and environmental protection.”

But as tragic and devastating as this spill has been—to the Gulf environment, to livelihoods, to American culture—there’s been little talk about the less visible and entirely routine ways that our use of oil pollutes the world’s waters. Culberson’s focus on pollution from oil production alone takes an overly narrow view of the environmental impacts of our fossil fuel economy and misses the real story.

It’s impossible to know with 100% accuracy how much oil winds up in the world’s oceans, but in 2002, the National Research Council released “Oil in the Sea III,” an update of earlier studies and still the most comprehensive estimate of oil entering marine ecosystems. The results are surprising, and worth bearing in mind in the wake of the current ongoing disaster.

For starters, the total amount of oil believed to enter the world’s oceans is huge—some 9.5 million barrels a year.* For perspective, that’s just a bit more than the total volume of gasoline consumed in the U.S. in a single day, all dumped into the sea. (I’m using the NRC’s “best estimates,” but they actually give a range—and at the high end, they suppose it’s possible that as much as 60 million barrels of oil a year are deposited into global waters. Again, for perspective, that volume is roughly equivalent to a week’s worth of U.S. gasoline consumption.)

Worldwide, a mere 4% of marine oil pollution a year—or 366,000 barrels—comes from productions spills. This number includes spills from both oil rigs themselves and the miles of pipelines that connect them to shore. (This year’s numbers will surely be higher on account of Deepwater Horizon.)

But a much greater contribution comes not from people, but nature itself. About 4.4 million of these barrels—fully 45% of the total—comes from natural seepage. Cracks and fissures under water or near shores have always oozed petroleum, though usually very slowly and in geographically disparate places. These natural spills often have no adverse impact on the environment, and sometimes even help cultivate ecosystems that thrive on digesting petroleum. Natural seepages are not a new phenomenon either—on land, they are the very phenomena that introduced humans—from ancient Persians to Native Americans—to the substance of petroleum in the first place.

The remaining 51% gets more complicated. This volume, plus the 4% from offshore production and pipeline transportation noted above, or 55% of the total volume dumped, is almost entirely due to human activities. This amount of human contributions the NRC estimates to be roughly 5.225 million barrels.

Put that in perspective. On Tuesday, a team of American scientists increased the estimate of how much oil the BP Gulf spill is pumping into the water. It’s now believed to be somewhere between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day. With that estimate, since April 20th, this means the disaster has spilled somewhere between 2 and 3.5 million barrels—or between about a third and two-thirds of all the other average yearly human contributions to polluting our oceans with petroleum.

Said another way: every year, we collectively pour more oil than has probably yet leaked from the BP well into the world’s oceans.

Where does the rest of this yearly waste come from? About 32% is related to oil tankers and cargo vessels. Massive tankers often carry water as ballast in the same tanks that hold oil; emptying them out inevitably discharges oily residues. Most ships also dump large quantities of oil wastes from their engines. And of course, leaks and other accidents can release enormous quantities of oil. (Yet in the U.S., where the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster—spilling 270,000 barrels—has become the iconic oil tanker spill, since 1967, it actually comes in as only the 35th worst in the world. Bigger ones have just taken place far at sea or far from our continent.) But shipping discharges continue, year after year. This is price we now pay for global trade networks that support the importation of cheap oil and manufactured goods from overseas—in short, our modern consumer economy.

But big companies are not solely responsible for oil discharges from vessels. In the U.S. alone, over 40,000 barrels of oil—perhaps a day’s worth of the BP Gulf spill—is dumped into the sea from recreational vehicles like motor boats and jet skis.

Still more oil pours in to the sea from land. The NRC estimates that 11% of the total oil found in global waters—more than a million barrels—comes from runoff. This is all that waste produced by factories, refineries, waste treatment plants, and even those oily patches left by leaky car engines that appear on roads when it rains. It all eventually flows out to sea. And in the U.S., the contribution of industrial and consumer consumption accounts for about a third of the global total.

(It’s worth noting, though, that the contribution from runoff is actually the calculation with the most uncertainty in the whole estimate. I cite above the 11% or “more than a million barrels” as the NRC’s best estimate. The range—much larger than for other estimates, is actually huge. On the low end, they set the figure at 50,000 barrels. But on the high end, it’s a whopping 36 ½ million barrels—alone between 10 and 18 times the size of the BP Gulf spill.)

The balance of oil dumped into the sea comes from a variety of sources: residues from burning wood or fossil fuels, the dumping of fuel by aircraft, and even biological wastes from certain species like planktons. Added up, the impact may be huge.

When Representative Culberson focuses narrowly on oil spilled in offshore production, we are mislead about the broader context of all the other oil that winds up in the oceans. While it’s easy to wag a finger at oil companies (especially when they do appear to have chronic disregards for environmental protection and worker safety), we bear a collective responsibility for yearly deposits of more oil than the Deepwater Horizon leak has yet released.

There is no easy solution, yet recognizing how our daily choices matter is an essential first step. Oil tankers will continue to spill oil as long as there’s a demand for the stuff, and automobiles will leak oil as long as we’re driving with internal combustion engines. A shift away from these technological systems will take decades, and then, only with the creativity of private industry and a strong push from government (and not just this one).

But there are many actions we can take today. Think about the distances your food has traveled (with the help of oil), and consider shopping for locally grown products. If you can, bike to work, or use public transportation. In the winter, don’t overheat your home, and if you are able to, insulate it better. Pressure local factories to use cleaner manufacturing processes, and encourage politicians to put a price on dumping private wastes in public waters.

If we don’t make changes, or if we respond too narrowly to the disaster in the Gulf, we’ll miss dealing with the larger oil spill the modern world produces every year.

*NOTE: throughout this post, I converted the units used in the NRC report from tonnes (= metric tons) to barrels, a more familiar unit to most people. Since tonnes is a measure of mass and barrels of volume, I chose the common conversion factor of 7.33 barrels/tonne, which reflects a reasonable average of oil densities.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What’s Wrong with the Texas History Standards (It’s Not What You Think), Part I

On May 21, the Texas State Board of Education voted to adopt a new set of Social Studies standards for Texas public schools. The standards review process has been controversial for months, with critics accusing the board of politicizing the past and advancing a far right version of historical events. (The review has attracted national attention at least in part because of claims, perhaps too strong, that due to the size of the Texas textbook market, publishers will tailor their books for what Texas wants and just sell that version to the rest of the country.)

Much of the criticism directed at the State Board of Education is well deserved. But I want to suggest that the real problem with Texas’ standards transcends the particular examples most often cited in the press: the inclusion or exclusion of this or that historical figure, the blatant partisanship in crafting standard language and examples, and the injection of contemporary political battles into the past.

But first, the standard critiques.

In the buffoonish category, in January, the board expunged references to the classic children’s book author Bill Martin, Jr. (author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See? and a host of similar books) for Third Graders because they confused him with a DePaul University Philosopher, also named Bill Martin, who wrote a book on Marxism. (I’ve never seen reported that the actual children’s author Bill Martin also wrote Adam, Adam, What Do You See, a biblical story in the mode of the original and including references to Old and New Testament figures To his credit, board member Don McLeroy admitted the error (he called it “embarrassing”) and admitted the lack of research behind the decision. The full board later restored the original Bill Martin.

In the distorted category, there’s no issue more striking than the faith of the founders and the historical place of religion in American history—a particular focus of the conservative bloc on the board. One new standard passed in May asks students to “[e]xamine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and compare and contrast this to the phrase ‘separation of church and state’.”. The intent here is to suggest that the First Amendment does not in fact, guarantee the separation of church and state. I call this a distorted provision because it misrepresents how historians understand change over time: not whether later actions or ideas hold water to some original pronouncement, but how broad ideas have been contested. That’s the essence of history. (I started writing about the faith of the founders in my first post here.)

Some board actions can only be described as attempting to use history very selectively to impart a politically partisan message. In March, for instance, the board adopted an amendment on teaching the Civil Rights movement offered by Don McLeroy that included a clause instructing students to “describe the role of individuals and groups that sought to maintain the status quo, such as governors George Wallace, Orval Faubus, and Lester Maddox, and including the Congressional bloc of southern Democrats.” This specificity was hardly random; Wallace, Faubus, and Maddox were all Democratic governors (of Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia, respectively). The intent here is clear: to associate Democratic (big-D) officials with opposition to black Civil Rights.

Additionally, the board replaced all instances of the phrase “democratic society” with “constitutional republic.” As David Barton, one of the board’s outside reviewers, explained in his critique of the existing standards: “Because America is correctly identified as a republic and not as a democracy, the derivative of this is that ‘republican’ rather than ‘democratic’ is the proper adjective – that is, we have “republican” values or “republican” process rather than ‘democratic’ values or process.” This change is either one of deliberate political partisanship (Barton is a former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party) or an example of blatant ignorance of American history—which has been shaped in no small part by arguments over the nature of democracy itself (for white men with property? all white men? men? men and women both? through popular elections or intermediaries like state legislatures appointing Senators or the electoral college electing presidents? for citizens of a state or of the country as a whole?) It’s no accident that the local organizations that sprung up in support of Thomas Jefferson at the turn of the 19th century were known as Democratic-Republican societies or that the first truly national party to emerge in the 19th century around Andrew Jackson was Democratic—both Jefferson and Jackson appealed to a mass of Americans to see themselves as the proper heirs of the revolution and the nation. The fight over the meaning of American democracy can only be expunged by doing violence to an understanding of the past.

Nevertheless, some of the criticism directed at the board has been misplaced or exaggerated.

Among the most common examples cited in the press, two stand out the most. The first is the new standard requiring that students studying late 20th century history learn about such influential conservative groups as the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association, and legislative programs like Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, according to ABC’s Nightline, “with no liberal counterbalance.”

But history does not require conservative and liberal balance. It requires an honest explanation of change over time. That means representing every historical actor and view required to understand historical change. It does not require an “on the one hand, on the other hand” presentation. Not to say that there haven’t been important liberal organizations in the late 20th century, but the big political story of this period was the rise of modern conservatism, and this subject has been the focus of a number of important recent works, among them histories of free market right, the rise of anti-regulation sentiment among the blue collar ranks of truck drivers, the emergence of modern political divisiveness, the emergence of the modern right and its political dominance, and biographies of the influential author Ann Rand. Students should learn about the rise of the modern right—provided it isn’t a one-sided view.

Another example concerns new provisions that students read the inaugural address of Confederate President Jefferson Davis alongside that of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s address is almost entirely about slavery, with the emphatic declaration at the opening that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” On the other hand, Davis’ address makes no mention of slavery whatsoever, speaking only vaguely about the violation of southern rights and the principles of consent of the governed. Is this a poor assignment?

This is touchy subject. In some sense, primary documents (which I often assign in my own classes) are inherently tricky—students are necessarily reading these documents out of context. Historical texts do not speak for themselves—they are produced at precise moments with specific references that are gradually forgotten over time and can only be restored to some approximation of their meaning by careful historical research and insightful teaching. That contextualization is certainly possible in this assignment. In the context of Confederate foreign relations, for example, Jeff Davis claimed in his address that for the Confederacy, as “[a]n agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of commodities required in every manufacturing country, our true policy is peace, and the freest trade which our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest and that of all those to whom we would sell, and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of these commodities”—of course, that’s “the fewest practicable restrictions” on trade, not the enslaved people responsible for much of southern agriculture. Studying Jeff Davis ought not to be off limits to historical study—and in fact, the young W.E.B. DuBois produced just the kind of historical contextualization of Davis that is appropriate for the classroom, offering “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization”—a simultaneously noble and vile civilization—as his student commencement address at Harvard in 1890.

The list of partisan changes as well as overblown ones could easily be continued—check out the Texas Freedom Network’s blog for the most detailed coverage I have located, as well as the Texas Education Agency’s own site for many of the draft documents and reviews along the way.

But there is something broader that’s wrong with Texas’ new standards. For more, stay tuned.

Friday, May 14, 2010

How Big is a Big Bad Oil Spill?

Let's start with something we can all agree on: the oil spill in the Gulf is bad.

But how big is bad? How does this spill compare with spills in the past? And what happens if, and when, it surpasses the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez? It turns out, in the media's preoccupation with measuring this spill against the Exxon Valdez, reporters may have distorted the actual history (and frequency) of catastrophic oil spills.

To begin, we need to know how volumes of oil are measured. Unfortunately, this volume is measured in a variety of ways, and the media shows no consistency in the units they report.

First, there's a gallon. We know gallons because we fill our gas tanks in gallons. We also buy milk in gallons. A gallon of oil fits in here:

Oil is also measured in barrels. Oil was actually shipped in barrels in the 19th and early 20th centuries:

(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress's American Memory digital archive.)

In reality, the actual size of oil barrels varied. In the 19th century, crude oil was poured into whatever was available, regardless of the size. Eventually, though, the standard American barrel of oil came to contain 42 gallons.

Finally, especially in international contexts, oil quantities are often reported as tonnes, or metric tons. This is actually a measure of mass: 1 tonne = 1,000 kilograms. It's just one more way to add to the confusion. How many tonnes are in a barrel varies depending on what's in the oil and where it's produced: some oils are thick and heavy, others light -- you can find many conversions for specific countries and years here. The global average is about 7.3 barrels per tonne; you can find a calculator here.

Confusingly, in coverage of the Gulf spill, reporters have been using both barrels and gallons, even while reporting for the same news organizations.

What does this mean for the Gulf spill? Initially, BP reported the leaks amounted to about 1,000 barrels per day -- that's 42,000 gallons. By April 28, government estimates pushed that figure up to roughly 5,000 barrels per day -- or, 210,000 gallons.

And to make matters worse, today, NPR reported revised estimates that put the spill at between 56,000 and 84,000 barrels (that's 2,352,000 to 3,528,000 gallons). This criticism was similarly voiced in the New York Times, which went on to note how bad things might still get:

BP later acknowledged to Congress that the worst case, if the leak accelerated, would be 60,000 barrels a day, a flow rate that would dump a plume the size of the Exxon Valdez spill into the gulf every four days. BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, has estimated that the reservoir tapped by the out-of-control well holds at least 50 million barrels of oil.

For most of us, these big numbers start to lose their meaning. And here's where history comes in. The Times' reference to the Exxon Valdez is representative of many news organizations, which seek to put the size of this leak into perspective. We can't easily imagine how much oil is contained in thousands of barrels (or gallons), but we all remember the 1989 disaster of Exxon Valdez, which ultimately dumped about 270,000 barrels (11,340,000 gallons) of crude oil into the sea. The images out of Valdez have become iconic, with some 270,000 birds killed.

But was Exxon Valdez the worst oil spill in history?

Not by a long shot. Since 1967, it ranks as only the 35th worst spill. The actual worst was in 1979, when the Atlantic Empress sank off Tobago in the West Indies, spilling some 2,104,000 BARRELS into the water: that's over seven and a half Exxon Valdezes. The ABT Summer, 700 nautical miles off the coast of Angola was a close second in 1991, spilling 1,906,000 BARRELS. The list, as you can see goes on:

(Graph courtesy of the International Tankers Owners Pollution Federation's 2009 Oil Tanker Spill Information Pack -- the red is the relative size of the Exxon Valdez.)

Most Americans have never heard of The Atlantic Empress, ABT Summer, Castillo de Bellver, Amoco Cadiz, or any of the other largest spills. That's probably because they took place far from the United States, either in deep water or somewhere without much US press coverage:

The Exxon Valdez was a tragedy, but in the United States, it has so grossly overshadowed much larger and more catastrophic spills. The Exxon Valdez has become so widely known because it was so close to shore, affecting so many Americans, and producing such disturbing images of oil coated wildlife. But much more oil has spilled into the world's oceans with less outrage but no less an ecological consequence.

This won't come as much comfort, of course. The Gulf catastrophe is a leak, not a spill, and it will keep pouring oil into the water until it's plugged. The real problem is that so many spills have gone unnoticed for so long -- and until now, we've actually had a pretty good decade.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ambrose Files, Redux

Few historians have fallen farther in stature so quickly than Stephen Ambrose. The acclaimed author of Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, a lucid three volume biography of Richard Nixon, and many of other works had been caught in 2002 plagiarizing passages in at least seven of his most popular books. (You can find an account of the controversy at the History News Network here.)

I first encountered Ambrose by reading Undaunted Courage, his vivid account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, while camped for a summer along the Milk River in Montana, near the explorers' original route. (In this book, it turned out Ambrose paraphrased only very loosely the prose of historian Dumas Malone.)

Tales of the episode ricocheted through the media. Quickly, though, the specific charge of plagiarism appeared to take a back seat to other, more ambiguous charges. Wendy Kaminer observed that Ambrose's success depended precisely on a kind of literary conformity in a commodified culture that gave readers the heroes they craved. And as Ron Robin notes in his history of recent episodes of academic misconduct, many historians appeared to see Ambrose's plagiarism as a product of his deeper sin of blurring the lines of scholarship and mass entertainment.

Now there are new charges.

Three weeks ago, Richard Rayner reported in the New Yorker that Ambrose's looseness with his sources reached far earlier into his career, and beyond the appropriation of others' prose and into the domain of apparent fabrications.

Ambrose's career and original fame had been built on his masterful and scholarly studies of Dwight Eisenhower. Yet as revealed by Rayner, not only was Ambrose’s oft told story of how he came to be Eisenhower’s first biographer false (he was not solicited by the former President as he claimed), but his statements that he interviewed Eisenhower for “hundreds and hundreds of hours” on a range of momentous subjects turned out to be fictions as well. Historians at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, while preparing a program on Ambrose’s works, had discovered that the retired Eisenhower's meticulously kept schedule book reveals that Ambrose met Eisenhower only three times, for a grand total of five hours.

Needless to say, these revelations only raise more questions. What kind of "deep-down resentment" could have driven such an accomplished figure to such literary crimes? wonders Garrison Keillor.

This is a fair question, but a letter published in this week's New Yorker raises what I think are more important ones, ones less about Ambrose and more about us, his readers (note: a subscription may be required).

Pete Wilson, the former California Senator and Governor, defends Ambrose against charges neither the author nor Eisenhower can speak to:

We may never know with absolute certainty the details of their interactions, for the period in question was more than forty years ago, and neither of these fine American is with us today. What we know is that Ambrose and President Eisenhower clearly had an important relationship, which included a number of meetings, substantive conversations, and a long correspondence.

Well, the evidence certainly suggests that Ambrose had an important relationship with Eisenhower; what's doubtful is whether the opposite was true.

But it's Wilson's conclusion that cuts to the heart of the issue:

And what truly matters is that Ambrose made the history of our country compelling. He illuminated the extraordinary war service and the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. He shone a bright light on the Second World War generation and gave these citizen-soldiers the opportunity to tell their stories. Ambrose’s legacy is his exceptional body of work, which will continue to engage, educate, and inspire.

Engage and inspire, most definitely. But educate is more complex. When Ambrose cites interviews that plainly didn't happen, what can we be sure we've learned? Wilson notes that he never met Eisenhower; he, like most of us, only knows him through the biographical and historical work of other scholars. If that work cannot be trusted, what have we learned? Is the purpose of historical writing -- even popular historical writing -- to elicit pride and shape a national identity? Or, to paraphrase a teacher of mine, is it to remember the things that society would prefer to forget? Can it do both?

Ambrose was never reticent about the purpose of his writing -- it was to tell a good story that brought his readers into the past. What's unclear now is how much of that past took place only in Ambrose's imagination.

For a fascinating account of the original Ambrose plagiarism controversy, along with other recent episodes of scholarly misconduct, see Ron Robin, Scandals & Scoundrels: Seven Cases that Shook the Academy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

For the origins of modern academic citation practices, see Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge: Harvard, 1997).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Founding Fundamentalists?

Once again, Sarah Palin has said something outrageous. This time, it's an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on May 6, the National Day of Prayer and the subject, predictably, is the constitutionality of this 1952 statute. To strengthen their positions (both clearly in support), Palin and O'Reilly turn to history:

What are we to make of these claims?

First, Sarah Palin:

I have said all along that America is based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. And you know nobody has to believe me, though. You can just go to our Founding Fathers’ early documents and see how they crafted a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that allows that Judeo-Christian belief to be the foundation of our laws, and our Constitution of course, essentially acknowledging that our unalienable rights don’t come from man, they come from God. So this document is set up to protect us from a government that would ever infringe upon our right to have freedom of religion and to be able to express our faith freely.”

Next, O'Reilly:

All I have to do is walk into the Supreme Court Chamber and you’ll see the Ten Commandments. So we know that you’re absolutely correct: the Founding Fathers did base not only the Declaration of Independence but the constitutional protections on what they thought was right and wrong, and what they thought was right and wrong came from the Ten Commandments, which is Judeo-Christian philosophy. That is beyond a reasonable doubt.

But is it? As we'll see, far from it. Finally, Palin again:

I think again that it is an attempt to revisit and rewrite history. I think we should just kinda keep this clean, keep it simple, go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear, that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. It’s pretty simple.

Well, not really.

The historical problems these statements raise are manifold, but let me focus on just one set.

Are Judeo-Christian beliefs "the foundation of our laws, and our Constitution of course?" Did the Founders, as Palin said "create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments?" And did the Founders, as O'Reilly claimed, base the Declaration of Independence on "what they thought was right and wrong ... from the Ten Commandments?"

Let's leave aside for the moment what "Judeo-Christian beliefs" mean, as this term had no meaning in the 18th century, or even the 19th. The English colonies in America were certainly founded by Christians and the Founders were indeed brought up in a Christian environment of one kind or another, so were the laws they established based on Christian ideas?

Not really. The Founders believed in God, though many of them ultimately rejected, in whole or in part, the practices of Christianity in its myriad manifestations. The religious world of mid-18th century was in flux; on the one hand, it witnessed an evangelical revival beginning in the 1730s and 1740s -- the so-called Great Awakening. On the other hand, the force of Enlightenment rationality forced many religious denominations to question their traditional beliefs and practices, and even the meaning of God itself.

The God of the most influential founders was the God of Deism. Deism had its roots in the 17th century, but never became denomination of its own, never had a formal structure, and never possessed a coherent tradition. It was a way of seeing the world that incorporated Enlightenment ideas of human rationality and rejected what were seen as corruptions of true belief, like a formal Church and its hierarchy, faith in divine intervention in the world, the divinity of Jesus, and the divine authorship of the Bible. Deists instead tried to deduce the original beliefs of Christianity. Americans arrived at Deism from a range of Christian backgrounds -- be it Congregationalist (like Ben Franklin and John Adams) or Anglican (like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe).

Deism itself embraced a range of ideas. Tom Paine and Ethan Allen explicitly rejected the Christian church. Ben Franklin saw the value of church in cultivating morality and encouraged others to go, though he rarely went himself. John Adams was a Unitarian, a member of this liberal branch of Congregationalism that thought Christianity had long ago erred in believing in a holy trinity (though it kept a special, higher-than-man status for Jesus) and rejected the strictures of Calvinism. Adams himself attended Church regularly and believed in some Biblical miracles and an afterlife. Thomas Jefferson publicly remained affiliated with the Episcopal church his entire life, and even enjoyed attending it, but despite his public self-censorship, his unorthodox views became widely known: he believed in the ethical teachings of Jesus but not in the miracles, to the point that he edited a version of the New Testament -- with a razor -- that removed the prophetic and miraculous events and left, as he titled it, The Life and Morals of Jesus.

As for George Washington, the evidence of his religiosity is far more complex -- on the one hand, he attended church when living near one (Anglican or Episcopal); on the other, close friends, relatives, and pastors recalled he did not take communion; his writings uniformly use Deistic terms for the supreme being; and accounts of his orthodoxy only emerge in hagiographic biographies written after his death (most notably, Mason Locke Weems's The Life of George Washington, originally published in 1800 -- this is an 1833 reprint).

Contrary to the claims of Sarah Palin, the God of the Deists was far from the active, intervening God of the Bible. As the historian of American religion David L. Holmes notes in his gem of book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers,

In place of this Hebrew God, Deists postulated a distant deity to whom they referred with terms such as "the First Cause," "the Creator of the Universe," "the Divine Artist," "the Divine Author of All Good," "The Grand Architect," "the God of Nature," "Nature's God," "Divine Providence," and (in a phrase used by Franklin, "the Author and Owner of our System."

Which brings us to the Declaration of Independence. As Holmes notes, the document uses the terms "Nature's God," "Creator," "Supreme Judge," and "divine Providence." But these terms need to be understood in their Deistic context: the God of which they refer is precisely not the God of the Bible (or the Ten Commandments) but a more abstract notion, the source of the universe itself, or, as many Americans learn in high school, God as divine clockmaker.

Remember too, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson, the Deist. What could he have meant by the ringing phrase,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them (emphasis added)

Here we turn to I. Bernard Cohen's brilliant investigation of the role of science in the founders' political ideas. In Science and the Founding Fathers, Cohen investigates this phrase and finds variations on it like "Nature's God" and "Nature and Nature's Laws" common expressions of the Enlightenment, where it appears, for example, in the Poetry of Alexander Pope in reference to Isaac Newton:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night.
God said, Let Newton be, and all was light!

Nature's God and Nature's Laws were largely synonymous, reflecting the divine origins and structure of the universe and allowing that structure to become known to humans through reason. Interestingly, Cohen tracked down a popular and apocryphal story, often reprinted in the colonial press, of "Polly Baker," on trial for fornication, who defended her actions with a a reference to the "great Command of Nature, and of Nature's God" to "Encrease and Multiply." In the account, she's not only acquitted, but her judge becomes smitten and they soon marry. It was only revealed much later that the story was a complete fabrication by the bored and mischievous printer Ben Franklin. Cohen speculates that Jefferson likely knew the story and perhaps unconsciously turned the "great Command of Nature, and of Nature's God" into "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," making Franklin the unwitting contributing author to this passage.

Ok, so how about the Constitution? Well, the Constitution doesn't mention God at all, and in fact, in its very first and most famous line, the document declares that the authority of the Constitution derives not from the deity but from "We the People of the United States."

But maybe things were left out of the text of the Constitution that were widely assumed to be true. Let's look at the Federalist Papers. These were the essays published (anonymously) in 1787 and 1788 by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay to develop public support for ratifying the Constitution. They mention God only twice, one (in number 18) in a historical reference to ancient Greece; the other (in number 43), when Madison appealed "to the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed." (Madison was writing here about the legal justification for dissolving the Confederation of 13 states and replacing it with the government outlined by the Constitution when, according to Article VII, only 3/4s of the states were required to ratify the deal.) This usage of "the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God" is clearly a reference to Jefferson's Declaration.

I could go on. The key point is that the religious lives of the founders was quite complex. The founders held a range of views on God, but in no way does the notion of "the God of the Bible" seem appropriate -- this was precisely the God that Deists rejected.

But in a sense, the religious views of the founders is besides the point. Even if they had been evangelical revivalists (they weren't) would that have made the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution documents based on a biblical morality? Hardly. The fundamental problem with O'Reilly and Palin's assumptions is that it wrenches the Declaration and Constitution from their historical contexts. The sad thing is that while for so much of history, our documentation is lacking, for the crafting of these documents we have ample evidence.

When a committee of five, chaired by Jefferson and including Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman, was assigned by the Second Continental Congress the task of crafting a Declaration of Independence, they didn't do so in a vacuum. They had specific, political purposes in mind: domestically, to articulate the reasons for the revolution and shore up a common, American identity (which prior to this, didn't exist) and diplomatically, to reach out to other European powers like France and Spain in a desperate bid for needed support. Politics and messaging, not biblical morality, was at the heart of the Declaration.

But quickly, a word on the phrase "Judeo-Christian." A quick scan of google book search suggests that the term was not in circulation in the 18th century. By the late 19th century, it appears largely in reference to the early Christians, who were, of course, Jews. The phrase begins to assume its modern connotation -- a common moral and cultural heritage of contemporary faiths -- in the 1930s and only really takes off during and after World War II, a period of tectonic shifts in the nature of American pluralism. In fact, we only begin to see the phrase "Judeo-Christian beliefs" in the 1940s.

I'd argue that it's no accident that "Judeo-Christian" is so frequently paired with the Ten Commandments (as Sarah Palin does in the clip above) -- together they suggest a common bond of religious expression that transcends sectarian and doctrinal divisions. All Christians and Jews -- together comprising over 80% of religious expression in the United States -- believe in the Ten Commandments, right?

For more on the religious views of the founding generation and religious life in colonial and early national America, see:

David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Kerry S. Walters, The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992).

On the Declaration of Independence, see

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2007).

Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997).