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I had never heard of Kevin M. Kruse, of Princeton, until this semester. There’s nothing particularly shocking about that — he’s a historian and I am not. I think his name bounced around the edges of my awareness, but this semester I was on a panel discussing religion in the Founding Era, and one of the panelists was using Kruse’s book One Nation Under God as the primary source for his argument. Today, I saw this exchange on twitter:
Actually, that's called a plurality. 1860 vote totals:
Furthermore, Lincoln's entire electoral strategy was built around winning the electoral college, not the popular vote.
— Phil Magness (@PhilWMagness) May 14, 2019
Magness is an economic historian at American Institute for Economic Research, for context.
I had never heard of Kruse. But after these two exchanges, I do not like him. And I need to write a thing a day, so now’s a good time to explain why. His analytic technique is equivocation.
Kruse doesn’t lie — the facts that he states are true. The problem is that the facts he states have meanings in the times they happen that are different from the meanings they have today. You might be aware that “awful” used to mean something that inspired awe, for example. If you are reading historical documents and you read something described as “awful,” that doesn’t mean it was bad. Usually quite the opposite. This leads to some humor when reading about the “awful power of God,” in the writings of church fathers.
In the exchange with Magness and Woolery, Kruse is engaging in equivocation of a modern phrase: “win the popular vote.” To say someone “won the popular vote” potentially has two meanings. Among political scientists (who frankly ought to know better), it frequently is a short hand way of saying “won the two party vote.” This is the sense in which honest political scientists (who, I repeat, ought to know better) mean “Clinton won the popular vote.” And the most honest of the bunch basically don’t say “win the popular vote,” they just say “won the two-party vote.” The colloquial meaning of the word, though, is “got a majority of the popular vote.” Clinton did not win the popular vote, receiving only 48.2 percent.
Kruse is bashing Woolery, who is clearly using the colloquial meaning of the word, by conflating the two meanings. People who aren’t paying close enough attention just accept the authoritative statement. Those who inquire more deeply are smacked around by the jargon. It’s a rank appeal to authority to cover up sloppy thinking, driven entirely by the desire to prove a point.
In the exchange from the panel, the equivocation was over the phrase “Christian Nation,” in the Treaty of Tripoli — a treaty between the US and the Barbary States in advance of the Barbary Pirates War. Article 11 of the treaty states that the US is not a Christian Nation. However, as Thomas Essell points out, that isn’t all it says. The treaty states that the US isn’t a Christian Nation, isn’t at war with any Muslim nations, and has no laws requiring it to fight Muslim nations. Therefore, the Christian religion of the US and the Muslim religion of the Barbary States is not a reason for war. In the context of 18th-century diplomacy, the treaty is saying the US is not part of the Holy League, or otherwise a sectarian state that is going to fight religious wars with Muslims over the religious differences. It is entirely unresponsive to the modern claim “the US was founded as a Christian Nation,” which means something closer to “the people who founded the United States were drawing very heavily from the Christian religion to do so.”
There were other instances in the book, discussed at the panel, as well, but this was the main one I remember.
This is poor history, and as it appears to be the level of scholarship that Kruse traffics in, I feel no particular need to read him further.