I guess we should have anticipated such a move on this sesquicentennial of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. It’s an indication that Brown’s reputation has taken a significant turn since the end of the 1960s and that even Virginia may have a different outlook (at least northern Virginia) on this crucial moment on the eve of the the Civil War. While I don’t know much about David Reynolds, I am surprised to find his name attached to this project. As many of you know, Reynolds teaches at CUNY and is the author of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, which is one of the best of the recent crop of Brown biographies. Reynolds has not issued a formal statement, but you can read his thoughts in the following news article.
Let’s remember that many Americans we honor had as many or more flaws in their character and behavior: Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, Columbus has been understandably accused of genocide, and Lincoln shared the racial prejudice of his time and long wanted to deport blacks once they were freed.
I have no interest in signing this petition, but it is available here. Interestingly, the Online poll has supporters of a pardon far ahead. I’ve never had an interest in demonizing or celebrating John Brown. That said, I’ve always found those studies that emphasized some kind of psychological imbalance to be completely off the mark. It’s nice to see historians such as Reynolds finally work to place Brown’s plan in its proper context by analyzing the extent to which his plan and actions were influenced by slave rebellions in the Caribbean and elsewhere. That we’ve spent so much time arguing that he was “crazy” tells us much more about the difficulty subsequent generations have had coming to terms with Brown.
I recently came across a microfilm reel that included a reprint of a Senate debate from 1907 on just this question. The pamphlet was put together by Edmund S. Meaning of the University of Washington for the purposes of clarifying the official name of the war. Meaning had heard Senator Benjamin Tillman present a speech in which he described the war as “The War Between the States” as the official name adopted by the federal government. Meaning contacted Tillman and asked for documents related to the Senate debate and discovered that in fact the name adopted was “Civil War.” Here is an excerpt from that Senate debate for your consideration. The debate took place on January 11, 1907 and can be found in the Congressional Record of that date, pages 929 to 933. Continue reading
A few years ago I was approached about getting involved in the founding of a new Civil War museum in Spotsylvania County. I was appreciative of the offer, but declined owing to some of the unanswered questions that still lingered. Well, Executive Director Terry Thomann managed to open his museum and even had plans to expand into a 3-story building. The musuem had an attractive website with a number of exhibits scheduled, but this past weekend Thomann decided to close up shop and move to Fredericksburg. Thomann is moving to Fredericksburg not to educate, but to entertain by opening a gift shop: “We have a great book section, lots of interesting historical toys and books for children and many historical gifts that both locals and tourists will love.” Does downtown Fredericksburg really need another gift shop?
Thomann plans on opening a museum in the downtown area, but it is almost impossible to see how he can compete with the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center which is a must see if you are in the area. Before Thomann can do anything it looks like there remains some outstanding lease issues with Spotsylvania County. Continue reading
Perhaps 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. Continue reading