Talking Abolitionism at Arlington House
Given my current work on public history at Arlington House I thought I might share this upcoming event in connection with the Civil War Sesquicentennial. On October 10 the National Park Service will present a program on John Brown’s Raid that features Fergus Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, as the guest speaker. It seems fitting to hold an event that highlights Robert E. Lee’s connection with the Brown raid given his role in seizing control of the town and the federal armory and preventing a slave insurrection. All too often we think of Lee’s involvement in this event as extending no further beyond the strict military role he played. Of course, Arlington was a large plantation and while Lee was away much of the time he was responsible for carrying out the terms of George Washington Parke Custis’s will (1857) which included the terms for emancipating his slaves. [I highly recommend Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s treatment of Lee’s views on slavery as well as the controversy surrounding the emancipation of Custis’s slaves.]
I think it interesting to think of the ways in which such an event changes the ways in which the visitor understands the relationship between Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding landscape. Lee becomes much more than a colonel in the United States Army. We see Lee as a white Southerner who worried about the direct threat against the slaves under his control and the broader social and racial hierarchy that slavery supported. The threat against his property connects directly with the home itself, which is so often depicted as a peaceful place or as the ideal antebellum domestic space. [see here and here] Finally, such an event allows for the visitor to imagine a landscape that was once occupied and worked by slaves who constituted the largest population on the plantation. The Lee’s may never have returned to Arlington after the war, but it is important to keep in mind that many of its occupants did and this we can understand as constituting one of the long-term consequences of John Brown’s raid. The focus on abolitionism at Arlington House also opens up space in which to discuss the establishment of a Freedman’s Village for newly-freed slaves. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the challenges involved in interpreting Arlington House as a former plantation given the fact that the surrounding landscape has been turned into what many Americans deem to be sacred ground. It seems difficult given that both Lee and Arlington House have been so successfully disconnected from slavery. Events that stress this side of history are important if we hope to have a more complete understanding of the multiple and competing meanings that are inherent in this site.