The Historiat : RealClearHistory Blog

Debunking the Myth of Wyatt Earp

Brandon Christensen - March 18, 2019


Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848. When I was a teenager my grandparents took me and my sister to Arizona during spring break to catch Spring Training. We took breaks from baseball to see Nogales, a couple of museums, and Tombstone. It was awesome. To celebrate Earp’s 171st birthday, and to pay tribute to my grandparents (they’re both still alive!), I figured I’d set the record straight on Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight.

First things first: the gunfight at O.K. Corral did not actually take place at the O.K. Corral. The 30-second gunfight took place six lots away from the Corral’s back entrance. Crazy, right? Just think: the further back you go in time, the more shrouded events can become in legend and outright falsities.

The gunfight wasn’t exactly as black-and-white as Hollywood films would have you believe, either. While I happily acknowledge that the 1993 movie Tombstone is still the best Western of all-time, and that Doc Holliday was Val Kilmer’s best-ever performance (Kurt Douglas outdid himself in Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 film Hateful Eight, otherwise it would have been his greatest performance of all-time too), the Earps weren’t exactly upstanding citizens of Arizona Territory or the republic.

Wyatt Earp and his brothers - Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren - sold booze, dreams, land, and sex in America’s frontier, and they weren’t above using the law to their advantage to make a little extra profit. Wyatt himself was mostly just a gambler in his youth (that’s how he became friends with Doc Holliday), but he also had an arrest record that followed him from Iowa, where he grew up (he was born in Illinois), to Wichita, Kan. Earp was mostly picked up for frequenting whore houses, but he was also arrested for stealing horses and “vagrancy.”

In Mild Defense of Andrew Johnson

Brandon Christensen - March 11, 2019


Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, had a tough job. He wasn’t even elected to be President of the United States. His predecessor was assassinated after waging a four-year war on several rebellious states within the federation his state belonged to, and his state was among the rebellious! He was picked by that same predecessor to be Vice President because of his ties to the opposition party (see Roger Schleuter’s explanation for Abraham Lincoln’s decision to pick a Democrat as his 1864 running mate). To top it all off, the assassination of Johnson’s predecessor occurred just five days after the rebels surrendered and ended the war.

That’s a tough slate.

Andrew Johnson hailed from Tennessee, which, along with Virginia (and possibly Cherokee country), bore the brunt of the violence associated with the Civil War due to its geographic location along the border of the rebellious Confederacy and the old Union. Johnson was a sitting senator from the state when it declared its independence from Washington and joined the Confederacy, but unlike his fellow senators from the rebellious Southern states, Johnson refused to quit his position. (The other senators quit in order to join the newly formed Confederate States of America’s government.)

Johnson’s decision to not support the Confederacy was straightforward. Under the constitution, the slave-holding states had no right to leave the Union and the Union had no right to abolish slavery. The election of an abolition-friendly politician did not give slave-holding states the right to attack a fort, much less leave the republic and form their own. That’s about as constitutionalist as you can get. So why does Johnson get low marks from historians? Probably because historians lean to the left and the left in general does not much like the American constitution, but also because Johnson’s post-war policies were different than Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction, and decidedly so.

Texas' Secession From Mexico

Brandon Christensen - March 4, 2019


The secession of Texas from Mexico on March 2, 1836 has much in common with the secession of 13 colonies from the British Empire on July 4, 1776. For one thing, the victors of both wars styled their secessions as “revolutions” rather than separatist movements.

There are other similarities, too, starting with the fact that Texas was not the only state in Mexico to try and secede from Mexico City. The self-declared republics of Rio Grande, Zacatecas, and Yucután also asserted their independence from Mexico, though Texas was the only state to actually succeed in its rebellion. Unlike the 13 North American states attempting to secede from the British Empire, the Mexican provinces did not band together to form a united front against a common enemy.

Texas itself was the northern part of a larger state called Coahuila y Tejas. When Mexico originally seceded from Spain, Coahuila y Tejas joined the new republic as its poorest, most sparsely populated member state. In addition to economic and demographic problems, Coahuila y Tejas shared a border with the Comanche and Apache Indians, who in the 1820s were still powerful players in regional geopolitics. Life in Coahuila y Tejas was nasty, brutal, and short.

The new republic of Mexico was preoccupied elsewhere and gave Coahuila y Tejas a free hand when it came to governance, a policy that would come back to bite Mexico City in the rear. Mexico City also liberalized its immigration laws so that English-speaking settlers from the United States could establish themselves in Coahuila y Tejas. The settlers came mostly from slaveholding American states, and this clashed deeply with Mexican views on race and slavery. To make matters more complicated, the 1830s saw an increase in tensions between federalists and centralists in Mexico City, much in the same way that Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans clashed with John Adams’ Federalists (culminating in the Alien and Sedition Acts).

Iraq's Evolution From 'Ally' to Foe

Brandon Christensen - February 25, 2019


On Feb. 28, 1991 the first Gulf War was declared “over” and the victors packed up and went home. Iraq’s armed forces were crippled and Kuwait had been liberated from Baghdad’s grip. The American-led multi-national military force that repelled Iraq from Kuwait was hailed in almost all corners of the globe as a paragon of multilateral cooperation and a new world order.

George H.W. Bush, former head of the republic’s most prominent clandestine spy agency, mustered up enough international support to justify the invasion of the Gulf and the crippling of Iraq’s military. Thirty-five countries participated in Desert Storm, and Germany and Japan, neither of which sent any actual troops to region, wrote generous checks to the coalition for the war.

It seemed as though the world was finally on its way to cooperating on large-scale projects that involved enforcing agreed-upon rules, and that the capitalist United States of America was going to lead this new world order with a gentle guiding hand rather than socialist revolution.

Today, though, Iraq is still in the news cycle, which means terrible things happen there regularly. What happened?

10 Unheralded Presidents

Brandon Christensen - February 18, 2019


Yesterday was President’s Day, a day usually associated with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In the spirit of the holiday, I thought it’d be fun to highlight a short list of presidents who are unheralded and long forgotten. (Those who were assassinated or had an untimely death while serving as president are disqualified.) So, without further adieu:

5. Rutherford B. Hayes (presidential term: 1877-81). A Republican during an era of Republican domination of the presidency, Hayes lost the popular vote but won the office as a result of the electoral college. But just barely. Hayes was only allowed to enter office if he agreed to end Union occupation of the South, which he did. Hayes was not only responsible for ending Reconstruction, but also for reforming the civil service, which had been known for corruption since the Andrew Jackson era. Hayes had promised voters that he would run once and only once for president of the United States, and he kept that promise, stepping down in 1881 and retiring to his home in Ohio.

4. Chester A. Arthur (presidential term: 1881-85). Arthur didn’t quite succeed Hayes, but after James A. Garfield was assassinated six months into his presidency, Arthur took over and became one of the most respected presidents of the 19th century. Another Republican, Arthur continued to work on civil service reform and modernizing the Navy, as well as keeping an eye on the recently conquered South. A big, fat blotch on Arthur’s resume is his signing of the anti-immigrant Chinese Exclusion Act, but other than that Arthur was one of the finest presidents in the history of the republic. Like Hayes, Arthur stepped down after one term and retired to his New York City home.

3. Grover Cleveland (presidential terms: 1885-89 and 1893-97). That’s right, Cleveland was the guy who served two presidential terms that weren’t back-to-back. What’s even crazier than that is the fact that Cleveland was a Democrat, and the only one to hold the office of the presidency between 1869-1913. Throughout that time period, the presidency was dominated by Republicans and Cleveland’s honest persistence. Cleveland was such a good president that this short piece cannot hope to do him service, but I will throw this factoid out there for your next cocktail party: Grover Cleveland once did time as the Mayor of Buffalo (home of long-suffering Bills fans).

'Silent Cal' Embraced the Radio

Brandon Christensen - February 11, 2019


Calvin Coolidge is one of the most understudied Presidents in American history. He stepped in when President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly in San Francisco, and then ran for the presidency himself in 1924, winning after taking every non-Southern state except for Wisconsin (which was home to the upstart Progressive Party’s candidate, Robert LaFollette). President Coolidge was a conservative Republican from New England.

Silent Cal’s demeanor might also contribute to his lack of attention in American history textbooks. Nobody wants to write about a scandal-exempt presidency or a peace-time executive or a boom-and-bust-free economy. Historians, especially the left-wing historians who dominate the American academy today, would prefer to focus on big issues that paint their heroes and villains in a light that fits their worldview. Silent Cal does none of those things, yet he was an immensely popular president (and state governor, of Massachusetts from 1918-20). Coolidge’s conservatism has also been misunderstood or misrepresented in history textbooks. His opposition to much of the “progressive” legislation that landed on his desk (only to be promptly vetoed) had more to do with his conception of the American federal system than with small government ideology.

Indeed, as governor of Massachusetts Coolidge supported child labor legislation, worker representation on corporate boards, wage hikes, and government safety regulations, all policies that he vetoed as president. To Coolidge, this type of legislation was consistent with the nature of state and local governance, but not that of the federal government, which is, under the constitution, to be restricted to a few specific policies.

President Coolidge was not suspicious of technology or innovation, either. On Feb. 12, 1924, Coolidge gave the first radio speech in American history to be considered “political” in nature, a short speech announcing his intention to run a presidential election campaign. This followed a Dec. 6, 1923 speech given to Congress and foreshadowed a president who became quite at home with using the radio as a medium to communicate with the American people. On March 5, 1925, Coolidge’s second inauguration was the first in history to be broadcast over the radio.

Lessons From Bill Murray's 'Groundhog Day'

Brandon Christensen - February 4, 2019


So, Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring this year. Thanks to Bill Murray’s classic performance in the famous film, you know what I’m talking about. America has a lot of strange, offbeat traditions or holidays, which is to be expected in a commercial republic of 328.4 million people that bridges the world’s two largest oceans.

Immigration into the republic played, and continues to play, a role in the strange and offbeat traditions of America’s regions. The contributions that immigrants bring to the republic are immense, and include cultural as well as economic positives.

The strangeness of some, if not all, of our traditions is, counterintuitively perhaps, emblematic of the cultural power of American film to enrich not only American life, but life around the globe. Hollywood’s impact on global culture by itself is astounding, but when you think about the cultural production of life in developing economies like India (which now has Bollywood) and Nigeria (Nollywood), it’s hard not to be humbled by our place in the world. American films shape the views of billions of people around the world.

But why did American cinema ascende the globe? Why didn’t, to use one example, France’s filmmaking industry assume prominence? Or Soviet cinema? The most reasonable answer would be that cinema took off in popularity around the same time that the United States came out as the clear winner in World War II. Our commercial republic avoided much of the territorial and industrial devastation that the other victorious powers absorbed in the war. A more interesting answer would be that policies in competitor states like France or the Soviet Union regarding cultural production led to poor quality filmmaking. French sociologist Jacques Delacroix has a non-scholarly article on this latter argument here, if you’re interested.

MacArthur's Military Rule Over Japan

Brandon Christensen - January 28, 2019


On Jan. 26, 1880, Douglas MacArthur was born in the barracks at Little Rock, Ark. to an Army Captain and his wife. MacArthur is one of the finest men the republic has ever produced. Aside from being a general during World War II, in which he led American forces to overwhelming victory while minimizing losses, MacArthur was also a presidential candidate, a father, an educational reformer, and, perhaps most interestingly from a historical standpoint, a benevolent conqueror (which will be the subject of this short Historiat post).

After the United States and the rest of the Allies conquered Japan, General MacArthur was tasked with helping the Japanese implement a new political order based on individual rights, democracy, and the rule of law. This was no small task, given that Japan had an autocratic constitution called the Meiji Constitution. Under the Meiji Constitution, the emperor was the supreme leader of the Empire of Japan (at least in theory) and the parliament of Japan, called the Diet, was led by a prime minister. The Japanese had copied elements of both the Prussian and the British constitutional models after the Meiji Revolution of 1868.

There was also the issue of implementing a constitution from the top down for the purpose of self-governing from the bottom up. To tackle this problem, MacArthur appointed a team of American lawyers, economists, and translators to draft up a constitution. The bottom-up/top-down conundrum is probably MacArthur’s best defense for why he didn’t simply introduce a constitution that mimicked the American one. At the time of the drafting of the Japanese constitution, MacArthur’s political enemies (of which he had many) on both the left and the right bludgeoned him on the constitutional conundrum he faced in Japan.

MacArthur was also faced with the unpleasant prospect of a communist resurrection in Japan (China succumbed, and there was a fear that the same might happen in Japan), and he had to find a way to curb communist violence while protecting individual rights.

Lessons Learned From Annexation of Hawaii

Brandon Christensen - January 21, 2019


On Jan. 24, 1895, the Queen of Hawaii was forced to abdicate her throne, thus paving the way for American annexation of the islands (which culminated in statehood in 1959). The American annexation of Hawaii had three important ramifications:

1. It set up a clash with the Japanese that ended with World War II. At the time of the Hawaiian monarch’s abdication, the Japanese and Americans were competing for influence in Hawaii and the broader Pacific Islands region by subsidizing settler immigration to various isles. The Japanese had more people in Hawaii than the Americans, and were easily winning the culture war there, but the Americans had more money and Washington was more willing to flex its muscle in Hawaii on the settlers’ behalfs.

Above all else, Washington’s willingness to subsidize a parallel legal system in Hawaii was the deciding factor in the American triumph over both the Japanese and the Hawaiians. Sally Engle Merry, a legal anthropologist at NYU’s Law School, wrote an excellent, readable book explaining how the American legal system came to dominate political life in Hawaii and why most people didn’t care all that much (save for the Hawaiian aristocracy).

Nobody in 1895 could have predicted that Japan and the United States would fight a major, worldwide war against each other 50 years later, but the strategy that led to Queen Liliuokalani’s abdication and the eventual annexation of Hawaii by the United States played a role in the war that was fought between the two budding imperial powers for supremacy over the Pacific. That the Japanese chose to bomb Pearl Harbor first, rather than somewhere like the Philippines, was no coincidence.

Cassius Clay: The Greatest (20th-Century) American?

Brandon Christensen - January 15, 2019


On Jan. 17, 1942, Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Ken. Clay would go on to have an incredible career in the brutal sport of boxing, but his position as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century extends far beyond his 56-5 record in the ring.

Cassius Clay symbolizes the struggle of African-Americans in the United States, that much is obvious. But Cassius Clay - aka Muhammad Ali - also symbolizes the true triumph of the United States in the Cold War. The young republic did not defeat a foreign enemy so much as it, through the lens of Muhammad Ali’s life, defeated the racism that had characterized much of the world prior to the end of World War II.

Born into Kentucky’s Upper South society, Cassius Clay grew up in a segregated society that had two sets of laws, one for first-class citizens and one for second-class citizens. In that America, class citizenship was determined by skin color rather than by, say, religion or income or family land-holding status. At the age of 12, he took up boxing to help keep him out of trouble and 10 years later he was the world champion of his sport.
That was in 1964, a time of great racial strife in the United States.

It was also the heyday of the Cold War, a nearly 50-year struggle for power between the liberal-capitalist United States and the socialist Soviet Union. The struggle was real (as the kids say today). The United States and its allies were losing, too, at least in the realm of ideas. The Soviet Union was funding groups that would today be considered progressive -- anti-racist and anti-capitalist -- around the world. One of the sticks that Moscow used to beat the West with was racism in the United States, especially in the officially segregated South.