On Nancy MacLean’s sloppy use of historical documents

Jacobin Magazine recently put out a new podcast to promote Democracy in Chains by Duke historian Nancy MacLean. While the bulk of the episode simply repeats the conspiratorial claims found in MacLean’s book, it takes an interesting turn around the 27 minute mark when the host asks her to respond to her critics. While the host attempts to limit the focus to two of MacLean’s left-leaning critics, Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, MacLean quickly turns her ire to other unnamed critics of the book.

Just past the 30 minute mark she takes up a topic that I have explored at length on this blog and in an accompanying research article – James Buchanan’s use of the phrase “letting the chips fall where they may” in reference to the 1959 school voucher debate in Virginia. A key chapter of MacLean’s book rests her use of this passage to accuse Buchanan of ethical negligence. She claims that “letting the chips fall where they may” illustrates Buchanan’s lack of concern about African-American students, who were shut out of the public school system by segregationist policies in an attempt to undermine Brown v. Board.

As I documented previously on this blog, MacLean grossly misrepresents the content of this letter for the purpose of strengthening her unfounded contention of political collaboration between Buchanan and the segregationists. The phrase “letting the chips fall where they may” does not refer to African-American students, or any students for that matter. Rather, the full text of the letter (available here) reveals it is made in reference to the badly degraded state of the ongoing legislative debates in Richmond over the school desegregation crisis of 1959. Buchanan and his co-author Warren Nutter were, in effect, throwing up their arms in frustration at politicians – hence “letting the chips fall where they may.”

Returning to the Jacobin podcast, MacLean attempts to offer a rebuttal to my post about this letter. Offering a new line of argument, she then claims that she found the letter in the papers of a segregationist legislator. I quote:

“I think it’s also worth pointing out, because I think their case was so silly and based on such poor reading, that the legislator – and he sent it to multiple legislators – but the person whose papers I found the report in was the sponsor of five separate laws against the NAACP – to take away the NAACP’s first amendment rights.

So when Buchanan writes to to a legislator who’s known in the news for spearheading that fight against the NAACP and says he’s “letting the chips fall where they may,” you know, my critics may still want to exculpate him but I think anybody who looks at the context and the evidence will see that I am right and that their effort is a rather pathetic quest to also deflect public attention from the crucial part of my book, which is how these ideas have been weaponized by the Koch donor network”

She continues her digression from there by accusing me of misrepresenting the details of her book to “create smog” about her book’s arguments. Setting aside the ethical questions about MacLean’s own egregiously unscholarly behavior in addressing her critics, we may actually resolve the question about the “letting the chips fall” letter by turning to the sources themselves.

Quite simply, MacLean has her facts wrong and is now likely conflating the contents of two separate letters in an attempt to refute my original criticism of her misuse of evidence. I’ll break it down to show you how, using the documents in question.

First, a little historical background. In January 1959 two court rulings struck down a series of pro-segregation “Massive Resistance” laws in Virginia that were adopted to circumvent Brown by forcing the closure of public schools that were under integration orders. In the wake of the rulings, Gov. Lindsay Almond convened a 40 member special committee to revise the commonwealth’s now-unconstitutional public education statutes. The committee is commonly referred to as the Perrow Commission, after its chairman State Sen. Mosby Perrow. The Perrow Commission eventually enacted a race-neutral voucher system as part of a much larger legislative package. Although most members of the Perrow Commission were segregationists in principle, its deliberations also represented a crucial historical shift in Virginia politics. Led by Perrow, the political moderates gained a majority on the commmitee and backed away from the previous hardline segregationist stance of Sen. Harry Flood Byrd’s “Massive Resistance” movement. The new course they charted nudged the state toward gradual implementation of Brown, and – crucially – removed several of the “Massive Resistance” laws that the Byrd machine enacted over the previous three years.

When Nutter and Buchanan drafted their school voucher paper in February 1959, they did so with the intention of circulating it to the Perrow Commission. Perrow had already indicated he was considering a voucher-like tuition grant system drafted by Leon Dure. The economists intentionally did not wade into the segregation issue, but instead confined their remarks to a narrow examination of the economics of school vouchers.

Now let’s look at the documents in question.

The legislator MacLean refers to in the podcast is almost certainly either State Sen. Charles Fenwick or Del. Harrison Mann, both segregationists from Arlington County who co-sponsored the anti-NAACP laws she mentions. MacLean claims the “let the chips fall where they may” letter was attached to Nutter and Buchanan’s article on school vouchers and, furthermore, that they sent this letter to Fenwick and/or Mann. This is simply not true.

Fenwick and Mann were members of the Perrow Commission, and therefore received a copy of Nutter and Buchanan’s article dated February 13, 1959. A copy of the cover letter may be read here on the University of Virginia’s library website. Note that the letter to Fenwick says nothing about “letting the chips fall where they may.” Rather, it makes a very different claim as may be seen in the passage below:

Furthermore, this letter was not specifically targeted to Fenwick or Mann as MacLean implies. Rather, it was a generic form letter attached to the Nutter-Buchanan paper. The economists used the same cover letter to circulate their report to the entire Perrow Commission.

For example, I found a copy of it using identical text in the papers of Del. Robert Whitehead, another Perrow Commission member (and skeptic of the voucher idea). Whitehead’s records are housed at UVA as well, but they apparently went unnoticed by MacLean.

MacLean is therefore in error on two counts: first, she misidentifies the contents of the Nutter-Buchanan letter from February 13. Second, she erroneously insinuates segregationist motives in sending it specifically to Fenwick and Mann, when in fact Fenwick and Mann only received it because they were members of the Perrow Commission.

But there’s also a third error in MacLean’s handling of the documents in question, and that is the actual source of the “let the chips fall where they may” line. As my previous blog post on this passage noted, it comes from a different cover letter to the Nutter-Buchanan article that is dated April 1, 1959. Nutter and Buchanan attached this letter when they released their paper to the public. The copy I transcribed at my post, and that MacLean obtained the passage from in her book, is actually in the papers of Leon Dure, the aforementioned voucher activist who advised State Sen. Perrow on the resulting tuition grant program.

So MacLean is not only misrepresenting the economists’ form letter communications with Fenwick and Mann to import segregationist motives to their stance, thereby poisoning the well against Buchanan. She’s also confusing the contents of two completely different letters written almost two months apart from each other. In doing so, MacLean has once again unintentionally illustrated her own deep confusions about the primary source materials she claims to have engaged in her book.