Why Are We Forgetting To Order the Pedestals?

LincolnClassPerhaps I’ve spent too much time studying how Americans have used public spaces to commemorate and remember their past, but I don’t get overly emotional around statues and other such sites.  My first thought is almost always about the people – including the profile of the individual/group – who chose to shape a particular landscape with some kind of commemorative marker and the values that they hoped to impart to the public.  In addition to the intentions of those who established the site there is the history of how the space is interpreted and consumed by subsequent generations.  In all honesty, I rarely think about the object being commemorated.  In short, for me public spaces of historic remembrance are almost always about the living.  In most cases the objects themselves have little to do with shaping public behavior, especially if they sit atop pedestals.  You can have a barbecue, play chess, or engage in polite conversation without ever considering the namesake of the location.  [click to continue…]

Acquisitions 11/23/09

Abigail Adams CoverI try to keep this running list of new titles confined to this blog’s subject matter.  Professor Holton was one of my professors while in graduate school at the University of Richmond.  I worked with him on an independent study and got a chance to read a section of his Adams biography in manuscript form.  Since then I’ve eagerly awaited its final publication. My relationship with Abigail Adams is very complex.  I’ve always found her history to be intriguing; however, since the HBO series I’ve had a major crush on Laura Linney, though I can’t tell how much of it is directed at Linney as opposed to Adams.  Luckily, I have a very understanding wife who is helping me to work through all of this.  If you thought you knew everything there is to know about Abigail Adams you will want to read this book.

Woody Holton, Abigail Adams (Free Press, 2009).

Michael Perman, Pursuit of Unity: A Political History of the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., The National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (University of California Press, 2009).

William L. Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Hey! Richard Dreyfuss! Leave Them Kids Alone!

doc4b0537e4016b2999985969I know, I know, I know…you don’t want to hear any more about Richard Dreyfuss.  [see here and here]  Well, this will probably be it.

There seems to be a generational divide regarding Dreyfuss’s speeches.  While Dreyfuss himself has admitted that he has had difficulty reaching out to high school kids an older generation seems to be lapping up his doomsday scenarios about the future of this nation and the supposed incompetence of our youth.  But isn’t that the way it always is?: “Every generation thinks it;s the end of the world.” [Wilco]  Dreyfuss received a standing ovation earlier this week in Gettysburg after speaking at the annual commemoration of Lincoln’s address.  Geez, what a surprise given the profile of his audience.  I would love to know how many in the audience attended these same exercises when they were in high school?  More to the point, Dreyfuss’s perception of our youth clearly reflects no interaction with the very people that he claims to be so concerned about:

Tell Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to help us create games that make us more thoughtful and able to think things through instead of wasting the computer power that sent us to the moon and back on the blood-splatter of gangster video games.

And there you have it.  [click to continue…]

Education Rather Than Removal

I‘ve never been a fan of tearing down our Civil War monuments because I tend to think that such a move only works to make us feel better.  Although the removal of monuments reflects the very same political, economic, and social conditions that led to their being initially placed in prominent spots it almost always fails to address a controversial past that has helped to divide a community.  One alternative is to add some kind of marker to the historic site that educates the visitor as to why a statue was placed in a particular spot and that offers a more complete interpretation of the event/individual being commemorated.  This is what the citizens of Frederick, Maryland have done with a prominent statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney that was dedicated in 1931.  Now visitors can read a small plaque that outlines the infamous ruling in the Dred Scott v. Sanford as well as its long-term consequences.  Not only does it educate, but it gives voice to both Dred and Harriet Scott as well as a community whose past has all too often been ignored.


$250,000 for a Reenactment?

86073acacd549034_landingI attended a couple of meetings early on of the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial committee.  During one meeting “Bud” Robertson explained why the committee would not fund reenactments.  He expressed concern that they might prove embarrassing as did the first major reenactment at Manassas in 1961 at the beginning of the Civil War Centennial.  Robertson and others wanted to ensure that this time around the state would not engage in celebration, but would promote events that commemorate and educate.  This was reinforced by William J. Howell, who serves as Speaker of the House of Delegates and as chairman of the commission.

It was reported a few days ago that the Manassas City Council is planning a 9-day celebration that will include a reenactment in 2011.  The event is being organized by the Virginia Civil War Events Inc., which is asking for $100,000 from the city.  Not only have they received the funds, the council is also requesting upwards of $250,000 from Richmond.  [click to continue…]

The United States is Not a Miracle

10052~god-bless-america-posters1231428544One of the points that Richard Dreyfuss hammered home the other day was the idea that “America is a miracle.”  He never got around to explaining what he meant, but I suspect that most people in the room agreed.  For most Americans I assume that some version of this claim is taken as a given.  I have little patience with such references, not because I “hate my country” but because I have no way of making sense of it as both a teacher and as a working historian.  By definition a miracle constitutes an an interruption of the laws of nature that can only be explained by divine intervention. It may also be understood along secular lines as a statistically unlikely event or a unique/special or rare occasion such as birth or even a natural disaster.

The secular definition doesn’t trouble me much since it is a matter of playing loose with certain concepts.  We know what someone means when they describe the birth of a child or the size of a shark as a miracle of nature.  The issue is not one of a lack of explanation.  What does trouble me is the idea that the United States is the result of some kind of divine intervention.  I think here something has to give between the goal of teaching students civics/history and understanding this nation as a miracle.  At its root the assumption that divine intervention/God has something to do with the birth of this nation precludes any attempt to explain or understand it.  It essentially rips the period in question from the broader history of Europe and the rest of the world.  Of course, In class we trace the origins of this nation into the 16th century as well as the ideas that formed the bedrock of our founding documents.  I expect my students to be able to explain why Europeans settled in the western hemisphere and how ideas evolved throughout this period.  For a teacher to push an interpretation that explains the founding of this nation apart from this broader narrative is tantamount to simple storytelling rather than engaging in serious historical explanation. [click to continue…]

Shelby Foote on American Exceptionalism

foo0-001The following commentary by Shelby Foote comes at the tail end of Ken Burns’s The Civil War

“We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.  But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times.  And our generals were the greatest generals of all time.  It’s very American to do that.”