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.

Whose Arlington House?

Here is another postcard of Arlington House, which is dated 1928.  Notice the similarities with the last image I posted, especially the children positioned in the center.  Postcards are wonderful little cultural artifacts that tell us quite a bit about how a historic site is interpreted/remembered and by whom.  The image of the front of the home cut off from the surrounding landscape of Arlington National Cemetery as well as the slave quarters in the rear of the building evokes a peaceful scene that would be easily recognizable to middle class white Americans.

Arlington House Postcard

Blogging Etiquette 101

Update #2: As a point of clarification, I have no issue whatsoever with the fact that Chris Wehner referred to me by my first name.  What I take issue with is that he did not provide a link to my post.  Unfortunately, he has still not provided a link, though one of his readers did include it in a comment.  This is the same individual who deleted my site from his blogroll after I moved mine to a page on the navigation menu.

Update: You can read Chris Wehner’s comment below and his response on his own blog here.  He says he never received my comment (it is possible), though according to my computer it is still cued up and awaiting moderation.  The comment below as well as the response are incredibly confusing.  I fail to see what it has to do with my comments about American Exceptionalism and the steps being taken by the Texas Board of Education to revise the curriculum.  Still no link to the post in question.

I welcome responses to my posts from other bloggers and, for the most part, I usually learn a great deal.  There is something strange, however, about Chris Wehner’s response to my recent post on American Exceptionalism.  Strangely, he refers to me by using my first name, but fails to provide a link to the post in question.  I left a comment on his post early this morning, but as of 7pm it has yet to be approved.  Worse yet, Wehner completely misses the point of my post.

To many educators teaching something that is positive about American history is considered to be intellectually dishonest. Today Kevin suggest that to teach our history in any way that is “positive” is to teach in a vacuum free of “critical thinking.” Whatever. His idea of “critical thinking” is hard to imagine, but I can guess. To teach the American Revolution intellectually and to challenge students students to “think critically” Kevin probably thinks that the emphasis would be on Women, Blacks, and Indians. Are they to be left out? Of course not, but the spirit and heart of the Revolution was unique and dare I say… um, “Exceptional.” No few women, blacks or  Indians participated (voting, taking part), true, but the fact that so many white males were at a time when Monarchies and Aristocracies dominated the globe, it was radical, revolutionary and “Exceptional.” I contend that Kevin and others simply cannot crawl out of that “Presentism: box they exist in.

I think this is a wonderful example of reading what you will into the text.  The point I made was a simple one.  I am not interested in presenting American history as divinely inspired/exceptional or as a cause of all that is wrong with the world.  In short, my job as a teacher is not to impose my own moral/intellectual view on my students.  I want my students to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.  To be honest, I have no idea how to respond to this since it has almost nothing to do with the point I was trying to make.  I can only imagine how Chris ended up with this specific interpretation.

Most importantly, it seems dishonest, not to mention cowardly, to respond to and criticize another blogger and not provide a link so as the reader can judge for herself.

Remembering Arlington House

I am just beginning the writing stage of my project on Southern Tourism and Arlington House for a book of essays that is being edited by Karen Cox.  The research is fascinating and I am learning quite a bit about the history of how both the home and the surrounding landscape have been interpreted.  I am interested specifically in the evolution and challenges associated with interpreting Lee’s decision to resign his commission in the United States Army within a broader “sacred” landscape that is dedicated to remembering those who gave their lives for this country.  The essay also touches on the challenges associated with Lee, slavery, and the Lost Cause.  Here is an interesting postcard of Arlington House that I came across, which dates to the 1960s.

Postcard of Arlington House

In Defense of Our Freedom?

Answers from left to right: No / Yes / Perhaps

A Black Confederate Bonanza

It looks like the local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy in Pulaski, Tennessee have struck a gold mine of black Confederates.  How many, you ask?  Well, would you believe that 18 were discovered in one cemetery.  This weekend they are planning a fundraising event in preparation for a marker dedication on November 8 at Maplewood Cemetery.  As for the research that determined the status of these men we must turn to the educational forums at Dixie Outfitters.  Scroll down for the letter by UDC Chapter President, Cathy Wood (though she claims not to be working on this project as a member of the UDC) for the following:

I found where there were 11 Black Confederate soldiers from Giles County that applied for a pension. I also found 5 that died before the pension was in place or just didn’t apply. Since then I have found 2 more that didn’t apply, making a total so far 18. I went to the archives and got the application for pension for the 11. Then I filled out the form for the markers and faxed them in. I faxed these late one afternoon and by 8:30 the next morning a lady from Nashville VA called and said that these men were NOT soldiers they were slaves. Well tell me how could they receive a pension? Now are you going to stand there and let someone shoot at you and not defend yourself or someome near you? I don’t think so. These men were defending their country and other soldiers. [my emphasis]

Don’t you just love Ms. Wood’s rhetorical questions?  Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that successful pension applications did not imply status as a soldier in the ranks.

Ms. Wood concludes her letter with the following: “In my opinion VA is discriminating against the Black Confederate soldier. I know that there are Black Union markers in Maplewood Cemetery here in Pulaski.”  The reason that Ms. Wood can know that there are black Union soldiers buried in the cemetery is because black Americans did serve as soldiers in the United States Army.

Stay tuned for updates.  Perhaps Earl Ijames will give the keynote address and the women will show up in traditional mourning dress.

Teaching History Without the Negative Stuff

As many of you know the state of Texas in the process of redefining its social studies/history standards.  [See here and here]  This will impact the rest of the nation since the textbooks that will be ordered to meet the agenda of this curriculum will likely be distributed throughout much of the rest of the country.  The ongoing debate about what to teach has little to do with understanding the past or training students to think critically about historical studies.  Rather, the debate is being driven by political hacks who know next to nothing about what it means to study the past.  Consider the following short video.

It’s hard to take seriously the notion that what should drive our study of the American past is the overarching assumption of its “exceptionalism” and “how unique it is”.  According to this Texas Board of Education member, the solution is to simply delete those aspects of our history that detract from this exceptional image.  It’s certainly one way of going about it, but than what are we to make of her call to get rid of the word “propaganda” from the curriculum/textbooks?  What else should we call this approach to history?

I don’t mind admitting that I am an enemy of the notion of ‘American Exceptionalism.’  It’s not simply that I fail to see how it applies to American history, but that it has nothing to do with my role as an instructor of history.  I’ve said before that I do not consider it my responsibility to influence students in how they judge the collective moral status of the United States through its history and current policies.  In addition to the concept of exceptionalism I also steer clear of any notion of America as “God’s Chosen People” or the notion of an inherent “Evil Imperial Empire” that is espoused by some on the extreme Left.  That said, I do deal with the historical roots of the idea of American Exceptionalism going back to the Puritans’ notion of a “City Upon a Hill” through Manifest Destiny as well as its later manifestation in the form of the “White Man’s Burden.”

Can someone please tell me what is gained by teaching American history this way?  How does it help our students to engage with the rest of the world on a level of cooperation and mutual respect?  All I see is a curriculum that promotes arrogance along with the biases of a cultural exclusivist.

Are You Sure You Are Waving the Right Flag?

29303976It seems strange to me that those marching and protesting in the name of limited government and states rights would choose a Confederate flag as one of their symbols.  We have Libertarian-leaning economists such as Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter Williams who celebrate the Confederacy and its leaders as the last bastion of limited federal power in the face of the Lincoln administration, which turned the nation toward “big government” with all of its inherent evils attached.  For these guys, it’s the beginning of the end.  [It’s also one of the best examples of stepping out of your field of study and looking silly.]  For most people who take part in political rallies such as the one this past weekend the flag represents the last stand of limited government, respect for individual and state rights and perhaps even a final gasp before the evils of modernity took hold.

Such overly simplistic distinctions may work well to reinforce our tendency to view the Civil War and much of the rest of our past as battle between good and evil.  On the other hand, it makes for some really bad history.  No one who understands the history of antebellum America could possibly make the mistake of drawing such sharp distinctions given the fact that it was the Southern states who were pushing for the power of the federal government during the 1850s to protect the institution of slavery through legislative acts such as the Fugitive Slave Act and court cases such as the famous Dred Scott decision. Northern states, on the other hand, insisted at times that states had the right to resist the Fugitive Slave Act by passing Personal Liberty Laws which effectively nullified the power of the federal government in their respective communities.

So, is the record of the Confederacy one of limited government and respect for individual rights?  The record includes:

  • Conscription (before the United States)
  • Tax-In-Kind
  • Tariff (higher than the 10 to 15 percent rate proposed by Hamilton in his Report on Manufacturers (1791)
  • Confederate National Investment in Railroads (amounting to 2.5 million in loans, $150,000 advanced, and 1.12 million appropriated)
  • Confederate Quartermasters leveled price controls on private mills and were later authorized to impress whatever supplies they needed.
  • Government ownership of key industries
  • Government regulation of commerce
  • Suspension of habeus corpus (According to historian, Mark Neely, 4,108 civilians were held by military authorities)

John Majewski describes this government as “Confederate war socialism”.