Today in class we finish up reading a selection from historian Edmund Morgan on the evolution of slavery in Virginia. Friday’s discussion on why early in the seventeenth century many blacks enjoyed the same freedoms as other Virginians went well as did our discussion of the challenges of managing a growing and increasingly discontented population of indentured servants. Today we need to wrap it up by following the landed gentry in their gradual realization that black slavery could not only meet their labor demands, but also assuage class tensions between landless whites and the landed gentry.
Morgan concludes with the following:
It was slavery, I suggest more than any other single factor, that had made the difference, slavery that enabled Virginia to nourish representative government in a plantation society, slavery that transformed the Virginia of Governor Berkeley to the Virginia of Jefferson, slavery that made the Virginians dare to speak a political language that magnified the rights of freemen, and slavery, therefore, that brought Virginians into the same commonwealth political tradition with New Englanders. The very institution that was to divide North and South after the Revolution may have made possible their union in a republican government.
Thus began the American paradox of slavery and freedom, intertwined and interdependent, the rights of Englishmen supported on the wrongs of Africans. The American Revolution only made the contradictions more glaring, as the slaveholding colonists proclaimed to a candid world the rights not simply of Englishmen but of all men. To explain the origin of the contradictions, if the explanation I have suggested is valid, does not eliminate them or make them less ugly. But may enable us to understand a little better the strength of the ties that bound freedom to slavery, even in so noble a mind as Jefferson’s. And it may perhaps make us wonder about the ties that bind more devious tyrannies to our own freedoms and give us still today our own American paradox.
I am well aware that Morgan’s thesis has been challenged, but my goal in discussing this with my high school students is to introduce them to the process of historical reasoning and to move them beyond the traditional textbook as much as possible.
[Hat-tip to Bjorn Skaptason]
Here is an interesting story to start off the week. Apparently, a group in Chicago wants to build an alternative school that includes a Civil War museum on the grounds of Camp Douglas. If approved, the school would be housed in a former funeral home that was once owned by Ernest Griffin. Before he died Griffin discovered that the funeral home was located on the grounds of the former prison and recruitment center and that one of his ancestors had served in the USCTs.
He set out to learn all he could about the Civil War, becoming an expert and amassing a grand memorabilia collection along the way before his death in 1995. “It’s a fairly large collection, mostly genealogy,” according to Kelly McGrath, spokeswoman for the Newberry Library. Heirs Dawn Griffin O’Neal and husband Jim O’Neal donated Griffin’s collection to the museum this summer. It’s yet to be catalogued. Griffin had gained infamy by flying a Confederate flag on his property — alongside flags of the United States, Africa and a P.O.W. flag. In 1990, at a ceremony attended by Daley and then-Ald. Bobby Rush, the funeral director installed a Heritage Memorial Wall in his parking lot to honor those who died in the camp. All that is donated. A property marker remains, however, noting this is the “site of enlistment of Private Charles H. Griffin, Jan. 5, 1864, Co. B. 29th Reg., T. U.S. Col, D Infantry USCT.” Griffin’s grandfather served in Company B of the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, the first African-American Union Army division in the state of Virginia.
Organizers hope to utilize these assets to establish a program in cultural preservation. I am not quite sure what to make of this. Ignoring the local political issues and just thinking of the possibilities leaves me with a number of questions and very few answers. How does a program in cultural preservation help this particular group of students? Who staffs it? Anyway, it does sound interesting and I will make sure to keep you posted.
Last Wednesday I spent a good 45 minutes Skyping with Modupe Labode’s public history class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The class is focused specifically on the Civil War and public history and includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Students were required to read the first chapter of my Crater book, but we managed to address a number of topics. Beyond the book itself we talked about the challenges of interpreting race and slavery at historic sites as well as the role of social media/blogs in shaping historical knowledge and memory. The students were incredibly sharp and their questions reflected a close reading of the various books and articles required for the course. It was time well spent.
This week I will be working with Professor Greg Pfitzer’s students at Skidmore College. The class is the Civil War in American Memory and students are reading David Blight’s article “Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in the North and South” in Ailce Fahs and Joan Waugh eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture along with a recent post I wrote about commemoration activities in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Students are required to respond on the post and I am going to make every effort to respond to every comment. Please feel free to share your thoughts through the week as well. As we did a couple of years ago, once the assignment is concluded we will debrief with a Skype conversation.
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I am calling for a year-long moratorium on Civil War publishing from my favorite historians. There is just too much to read. Give us a chance to catch up.
William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 (Knopf, 2012).
Guy R. Hasegawa, Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012).
Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine (M.E. Sharpe, 2012).
Joe Mozingo, The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, A Search for Family (Free Press, 2012).
Jonathan Sarna,When General Grant Expelled the Jews(Schoken, 2012).
John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (Harvard University Press, 2012).
John F. Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 2012).
I’ve grown tired of the bitter debate over what our students know or don’t know about American history. Yes, we want them to know when the Civil War took place, be able to identify key historical terms, people and places. All too often these discussions function under the assumption that our parents and grandparents somehow knew more than our students today. I have no idea where this assumption comes from, but I’ve not seen much evidence to support it; in fact, I would put my money on this generation knowing much more about a wider array of subjects than any previous generation.
We can cram them full of facts in our history classes like a sponge or we can emphasize that the content of our course is only as meaningful and significant as the questions posed beforehand. Today in class I was reminded of just how important it is to teach our students how to ask questions. This week we started looking at the introduction and evolution of slavery in British North America. By the end of the less students will write their first thesis-driven essay on why slavery thrived particularly in the Southern colonies. To that end we are looking at a wide selection of primary and secondary sources, including a short selection from Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. […oh and have I said how much I love being back in the classroom?]
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