A Slow Day or Debating American Exceptionalism

It’s a dismal and rainy day here in central Virginia and one that begs for a late afternoon nap.  But before I do so I took a quick tour of the blogosphere and came across a wonderful dialog over at Richard Williams’s site.  Richard goes after another one of those dangerous leftist academics who refuses to acknowledge America’s exceptional place on the world stage.  The post is the standard nonsensical and meaningless complaint, but it’s the comments section that is truly entertaining.  A reader by the name of Vince engages Richard with a number of very reasonable questions that he fails to satisfactorily address.  Enjoy:

Vince: I might have missed it somewhere, but could you give me a precise definition of “American Exceptionalism”? I’m having a hard time of sorting it out in my mind.  Yes, the United States is different from the rest of the world in many ways. And yes we’ve tackled the problems of society better than everyone else in many ways and worse than others in some ways. What exactly are people arguing about?

Williams: Hello Vince. Loosely defined . . . the notion that the United States holds a special and unique place in world history in regards to freedom, liberty, wealth, power, moral principles, the rule of law, and opportunity.  Each of those points could be broken down into greater detail, but I believe that is a basic definition. It is primarily those on the left who are “arguing” or, more accurately, opposing or denying AE.

Vince: Thanks, Richard. Could you explain what “holds a special and unique place in world history” means, or what its practical implications are? Is this a policy question? Or a historical question?  Reading the linked article, I was unclear how a lot of those paragraphs connected to one another. Historian A looks at WWII and sees US positives. Historian B looks at imperial wars and sees US negatives. Historian C looks at what makes the US unique and finds European roots. (A question to the author of the HNN article:) Is the idea that the US has done some things well and some things poorly too complicated for a history textbook?

Williams: Vince – is this a rhetorical question? That the US “holds a special and unique place in world history” is a given in my world.  Practical implications? Patriotism, gratefulness, responsibility, stewardship all come to mind.  Policy question? Policy should project the practical. Obviously something not being done now.  A historical question? No, a historical fact.  “Is the idea that the US has done some things well and some things poorly too complicated for a history textbook?”  It shouldn’t be. We live in an imperfect world. Only Progressives seem to believe in utopia.

Vince: I’m not sure I understand then your problems with the historians mentioned in the article. Let’s take Eric Foner. He asserts “some strains” of how Americans perceive themselves (i.e., some versions of American Exceptionalism) have directly led to serious policy mistakes in “interventions abroad.” (I assume Vietnam, post-invasion Iraq, etc.) This seems like a pretty basic historical critique supported by research.   Then, he suggests an American self-perception doused with American Exceptionalism could be detrimental to Americans who live in a more globalized world. That seems pretty obvious to me, too. Think of all the companies that took way too long to wake up to the reality of international competition. (I’m currently sitting in a grad student office in a business school of a prestigious university with the student composition: four from China, three from Turkey, one from Brazil, one from India, one from Iran, and two Americans.)  So, how do you connect what Foner is saying with self-loathing?

Williams: I’m not sure I understand your problems with AE and the need to defend Foner’s known leftist bias.  Most of the “globalization” to which you refer is only possible due to AE and the free market that unchained the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans.  I’m assuming a certain level of knowledge with those reading here. I’m confident you have that knowledge. No one would argue that AE can’t and hasn’t been taken to extremes in some cases. For the sake of this discussion, there is no need to point out the obvious. The article is discussing the issue in broad terms. Its not a thesis. I believe the tone of Foner’s comments are as much to provide cover for his more radical opinions than anything else. His opposition to AE is much deeper than he’s letting on in this quote.

Vince: I guess the point I’m getting to is that this question of American Exceptionalism from the Fox News article seems to be framed in such a way to complete[ly] avoid any meaningful debate but allow people to say whatever they want. It’d be like asking whether Technology is good or bad…you’d get nowhere.  I myself very much prefer precisely defined historical or policy questions whose possible answers can be compared to one another and tested using primary sources and data. Asserting something based on the tone of comments of on an online article seems a little unconvincing to me. For example, it would help me to see something more substantive/specific in Foner’s writings…perhaps something in the introduction to one of his books? (I actually don’t know anything about Eric Foner other than that he wrote a supposedly good book on Reconstruction which I haven’t read.) Seeing a discussion played out that way would better help me figure out what’s really going on.

Williams: Vince – one of Foner’s earlier books (and I believe that is the one) is actually quite good. But if you delve more into his more recent writings and comments, his leftist bias becomes clearer.  “In the course of the past twenty years, American history has been remade. Inspired initially by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – which shattered the ‘consensus’ vision that had dominated historical writing – and influenced by new methods borrowed from other disciplines, American historians redefined the very nature of historical study.” – Eric Foner

From Civil War to Civil Rights

The following announcement appeared yesterday on H-NET.  Here is a link to the pdf: http://www.nps.gov/ulsg/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=202422 This is a great opportunity for students and teachers to integrate the study of Civil War memory into their history classes as well as careful consideration of their own responsibilities as Americans to continue the work of those who came before.

A NATIONAL DIGITAL HISTORY PROJECT FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

The coming year, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of president-elect Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural train trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC and the presidency of a nation on the eve of civil war.  Inspired by that anniversary, the National Park Service invites high schools classes to join in a national digital project on the broader theme of inaugurations – new beginnings.

The National Park Service invites students to create short digital narratives on one of three themes:

  • My area in 1861 – using maps, photos, illustrations, census data, telling incidents from local newspapers, and (if available) national parks materials – students will create a portrait of where they live as it was just before Lincoln set off to Washington.
  • A civil rights hero from my area one hundred years later, in 1961, — by seeking out and interviewing a veteran of the struggle for equal rights, or finding existing oral histories, and/or maps, photos, illustrations, census data, and local news stories and national parks materials, students will tell the story of someone in their area who brought about change in the 1960s.
  • The road ahead – students will define the changes they intend to inaugurate in their adult lives.

Narratives will be gathered from schools throughout the nation and placed on a special National Park Service website. Participating students, their communities, and a broad national parks audience of all ages will then be able to use the site as window into key moments in our national life, as they were experienced locally, and as a virtual memorial for the momentous journey upon which President Lincoln embarked 150 years ago.

This project was developed by Dr. Marc Aronson in cooperation with Charles Forcey of Historicus, Inc. In the fall of 2010, the project team will provide a kit on the three themes, primary source samples and suggests, as well as links to Common Core Standards. Materials will be submitted through online forms; technical and editorial support will be available all along the way. A suite of digital resources taken from the National Park Service and Library of Congress sources will be available for all participating schools.

Making Room For a Richer History

From Governor Robert McDonnell’s recent announcement:

This proclamation will encapsulate all of our history. It will remember all Virginians-free and enslaved; Union and Confederate. It will be written for all Virginians.

While we cannot fully put to paper the definitive collective memory of this period, we are going to at least ensure that all voices are heard in the attempt.

One of the things that I strive to do in my classroom is to give my students a sense of the complexity of the past.  I want them to struggle with competing voices from the past as well as our continuing struggle as historians to make sense of it all.  One of the aspects of Gov. McDonnell’s recent speech that I truly appreciate is that it aligns his office, and the influence that accompanies it, with this worthy goal.  Over the next few years we need to figure out how to challenge the boundaries of our own personal narratives of the past.  If we claim to be serious students of the Civil War as well as educators then we need to find ways to bring these stories to the public and help to forge a richer collective past.

Here are two examples that I came across today in my reading.  The first is an 1856 editorial written by University of North Carolina Professor, Benjamin Hendrick:

Opposition to slavery extension is neither a Northern nor a Southern sectional ism.  It originated with the great Southern statesmen of the Revolution.  Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, Randolph were all opposed to slavery in the abstract, and were all opposed to admitting it into new territory.  One of the early acts of the patriots of the Revolution was to pass the ordinance of ’87′ by which slavery was excluded from all the territories we then possessed.  This was going farther than the Republicans of the present day claim.  Many of these great men were slaveholders; but they did not let self interest blind them to the evils of the system.

Hendrick reminds us that while the antebellum South was committed to maintaining a slave society there were voices that continued to reflect antislavery sentiment.

Today in the Boston Globe there is an excellent article on the history of slavery in New England:

As the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in 2011, with commemorations that reinforce the North/South divide, researchers are offering uncomfortable answers to that question, unearthing more and more of the hidden stories of New England slavery — its brutality, its staying power, and its silent presence in the very places that have become synonymous with freedom. With the markers of slavery forgotten even as they lurk beneath our feet — from graveyards to historic homes, from Lexington and Concord to the halls of Harvard University — historians say it is time to radically rewrite America’s slavery story to include its buried history in New England.

As a teacher, historian, and proud citizen of Virginia I consider the governor’s words to be our marching orders to ensure that the Sesquicentennial gets as close to the “definitive collective memory of this period” as possible.  Thank you, governor.

Brag Bowling Responds to Governor McDonnell

It didn’t take long for Brag Bowling, the commander of the Virginia division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, to respond to Gov. Robert McDonnell’s announcement that he would discontinue the practice of designating April as Confederate History Month. Instead, the governor has decided to create a new designation that he calls, Civil War in Virginia Month.  Unfortunately, Bowling’s response does little more than render his organization even more irrelevant on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial:

“Our organization is terribly disappointed by this action,” Bowling told TPMmuckraker. “He succumbed to his critics, people who don’t support him anyway. And the vast majority of citizens of Virginia support Confederate History Month.”  He said he had spoken with the governor’s office and told them the same thing. He said “Civil War In Virginia Month” is a poor substitute.

“Nobody’s ever been able to reason with me and tell me why we’re honoring Yankees in Virginia,” Bowling said. “The only northerners in Virginia were the ones that came to Virginia and killed thousands of Virginia citizens when they invaded.” He also defended against the charges of racism.  “There was nothing racist about Confederate History Month. It was honoring Confederate soldiers who fought and died for their state,” he said, adding that the Sons will continue celebrating the month privately.

The problem with the criticism that the governor succumbed to his critics is that while it may apply to his initial retraction it doesn’t explain Friday’s announcement.  And the charge that the governor is honoring “Yankees in Virginia”  suggests that Bowling doesn’t understand an important aspect of Virginia Unionism.  Bowling also fails to deal with the substance of McDonnell’s announcement.  As I stated the other day, it was an incredibly thoughtful speech.  The governor has decided that Virginia should make room for multiple narratives of its Civil War experience.  The truth is that the change will not prevent the SCV or anyone from remembering the service and sacrifice of their Confederate ancestors.  What the governor has put forward is a proclamation that acknowledges the rich Civil War history of this state and which has placed him in line with the work of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission – a committee funded by Virginia taxpayers.

What I don’t understand is why the SCV doesn’t endorse McDonnell’s decision.  What harm could come of it?