A Few More Thoughts About American Exceptionalism

After reading Chris Wehner’s erratic response to my thoughts about American Exceptionalism as well as Richard Williams’s predictable response I thought I might follow up with a few words to clarify my position.  As usual, rather than try to explore what I’ve said about this subject Williams pulls out the same tired references to the “liberal elite” who supposedly hate America and all that is good.  [blah, blah, blah...Howard Zinn, blah, blah, Eric Foner, blah, blah]  What is truly astounding about Williams’s response is that this is the same guy who constantly rails against teachers/academics for imposing their view of the world on their students.  I stated very clearly that one of my overarching goals in the classroom is not to impose my views on my students one way or the other.  Here is what I stated:

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.

In other words, as difficult as it is I am trying my best to maintain a neutral stance when it comes to teaching history.  You would think that Williams would acknowledge this in his post.  Either way there is no winning with this guy.  I guess we see what we want to see.

[click to continue…]

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Deep Thoughts By H.W. Crocker III (1)

I thought I might start a little series of posts from The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War by H.W. Crocker III.   I would say that such passages are worth a good laugh, but then I step back and realize that these books sell incredibly well both here in the states and overseas. The Lost Cause lives.

Reconstruction: the bad

There had been no segregation in the antebellum South.  Plantation slaves lived in cabins within feet of their owner’s house.  City slaves lived in brick houses behind their owner’s house.  While whites in the North often lived far away from black people, Southern whites lived and worked (and their children played) side by side and thought nothing of it.  That changed after the war when the Radical Republicans sent armed regiments of black soldiers into the South as occupation troops and installed black politicians into local and state governments slots, while barring all former Confederates from holding office. (206-07)

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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.

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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

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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.

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