Thomas Jefferson’s New Digs

MonticelloYesterday my wife and I spent a couple of hours at Monticello’s new visitor center, which opened only a few weeks ago. Those of you who have visited Monticello in the past know that the old facility was too far removed from the actual home and the structure itself was in serious need of repair. The new complex sits right below Jefferson’s home and is accessible either by bus or a short walk.  The structure itself is spread out and the various attractions are easily accessible from a very pretty and spacious courtyard.  This makes for easy access to the movie theater, bookstore, restaurant, and exhibits.  The layout is apparently designed to control the flood of visitors that travel to Monticello each year and it does so effectively judging by the size of the crowd.

After purchasing our tickets [$20 for adults - up from $15] we headed on over to the movie theater.  The film “Thomas Jefferson’s World” has a running time of roughly 20 minutes and attempts to give the viewer the big picture of Jefferson’s life and his love for Monticello.  The producers took full advantage of the beauty of Monticello and the surrounding landscapes, but the overall thrust of the film is on the theme of freedom as understood in the Declaration of Independence and on his Bill for Establishing Freedom in the State of Virginia.  The movie gives a nod to slave life and a passing reference to Sally Hemmings, but the bigger problem is the absence of Jefferson, the man.  The final few moments are devoted to the legacy of Jefferson’s vision of freedom, which includes images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela, and, most recently, the inauguration of Barack Obama.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but one wonders whether the time could have been better spent exploring Jefferson’s life as opposed to a legacy that he, arguably, could not have interpreted or even approved.

MonticelloFrom there we headed over to the new exhibit rooms.  I’ve been looking forward to this for some time since I had a hand in the early development of the interactive exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson and the Boisterous Sea of Liberty.”  I had wonderful time sketching out ideas for an exhibit that would allow visitors to explore the complexity and implications of Jefferson’s ideas.  Such an exhibit is absolutely essential given our tendency to overlook the fact that the Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment who believed that the power of reason can be harnessed to improve society and government.  I worked with the staff at Monticello for close to a year and watched as our ideas took shape.  We consulted with historians and examined designs by a number of teams who worked to give us a visual image of the actual exhibit. If I could do it all over again I would major in public history and try to carve out a career in a museum or historic site of some kind.  Questions of how to present history to the general public fascinate me.

Upon walking into the exhibit room I immediately recognized the fruits of our labor.  It looked much like I imagined it when I last worked on the project.  It’s an incredibly attractive exhibit that utilizes various sized panels that cover different stages of Jefferson’s career as well as the major events that comprised his public career.  Smaller screens of different heights protrude from the background screens and allow the visitor to explore various aspects of Jefferson’s life.  Categories fall ["drip"] along a touch screen panel that the visitor can explore by touching.  So, for instance you can click on the Boston Tea Party for more information or a concept having to do with the struggle with Parliament.  The screen expands with images and additional text.  It’s incredibly user friendly, but I was a bit disappointed with the range of options available to the visitor.  Our original idea was to implement a web-style interface that would allow the visitor to click through to any number of screens.  For example, clicking on the concept of freedom might take you to John Locke or a panel on the Whig opposition in England, which in turn might take you to something else.  The exploration would be continuous.  Unfortunately, it looks like you are only given one click before having to choose another selection.  At the same time it is difficult to see how a visitor with little understanding of Jefferson and his world is able to piece together a coherent narrative from the screen options.  Yes, the screens along the wall do provide an overview of some of the most important events of Jefferson’s life, but it takes an inordinate amount of time and involves stepping back from the individual touch screens.  Overall, I think this exhibit has quite a bit going for it and I assume that aspects of it can be reprogrammed; perhaps they can tweak it as more visitors leave feedback.

MonticelloThere are additional exhibit halls, the first focuses primarily on the architecture of Monticello, while the second explores various aspects of life at Monticello as well as Jefferson’s travels.  Between the movie and the exhibit hall it is clear that the staff intended to make life at Monticello and the house itself the main focus.  There is nothing wrong with this, given that the home itself is as much an attraction as the man who built it, but this minimizes the amount of attention that can be given to Jefferson’s life and accomplishments.  Visitors will be hard pressed to find anything about Jefferson’s two terms as President of the United States.  Overall, while the exhibits are accessible and engage the visitor I couldn’t help but feel as if Jefferson himself had been lost.  If I were to make one recommendation it is the need for a video/exhibit that explores Jefferson’s public career in more detail, especially his presidency.

It is important to keep in mind that the center must both prepare visitors for their tour of the house and provide an overview of the man himself.  In short, time is of the essence.  Given that the movie is 20 minutes it is easy to imagine a family of four emerging and ready to take the short bus ride to the top of the mountain.  Ultimately, visitors wanting a more detailed overview of Jefferson will have to purchase a book from the gift shop.  Criticisms aside this is a very attractive and well thought out visitor center that is long overdue.  I couldn’t be more pleased to have played a small role in this project.

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The Civil War on the Eve of the Civil Rights Movement

The following Civil War documentary was produced by Encyclopedia Britannica Films and hosted by Columbia University Professor, Henry Steele Commager in 1954.  There is a striking and, perhaps surprising, emancipationist theme in this documentary.  Click here for Part 2.

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A Few Thoughts About The AP Test

515ehdjjjqlNo surprise that the most popular search engine query this week has to do with the AP US History Test which is scheduled for Friday.  I’ve received a number of emails from students asking for tips on studying as well as from fellow teachers who are desperately trying to figure out what the DBQ will be.  I can’t tell you how depressing all of this is.  My students are visibly worried about the test and the more I focus on preparation the more anxious they become.  Part of me hopes they do well and the other part honestly has no care in the world.  It’s a strange position to be in, but one that reflects my deep antipathy for the AP curriculum.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been in a rat race to ensure that I finish the textbook before Friday.  I’ve had to run rough shod over aspects of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the end of the Cold War to do it and it has made me depressed as hell.  Oh and that last chapter on the post-9/11 period…well…make sure you peruse that chapter when you have some free time.  Even worse, is the acknowledgment that the last major assessment of their experience in my classroom will be a standardized test that I had no hand in crafting. There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture.  My two sections have been absent half the usual number since many of my students take more than one AP Test.  This means that I am unable to bring the course to a close since the class doesn’t meet again after Friday.  Yes, it will be nice to have two weeks with a reduced schedule, but this is no way to end what has been a very intense and challenging experience for many.

I’ve tried my best to introduce my students to the study of history as well as the complexity that is U.S. History.  At the same time I’ve tried to impress upon them the extent and myriad ways in which the past continues to shape our individual perceptions and belief structure as well as the obligations we have as citizens.  Unfortunately, they are not thinking about that; rather, they are sweating over a standardized test.

So, if you are student looking for tips for Friday, all I can say is do your best and remember that any assessment of the past year ought to be about more than Friday’s results.  And, if you are a teacher looking for clues about the DBQ try to remember why we teach this subject.

This is my least favorite week of the entire school year.

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From Confederate Heritage and History Month to a Celebration of Civil Rights

cwtoiletmonthpicture-3There has been quite a bit of coverage of Georgia’s recent resolution marking April as Confederate Heritage and History Month.  What has gone largely unnoticed, however, are the changes that have been made between the initial proposal and the final version.

Consider the opening of SB 27 :

To amend Chapter 4 of Title 1 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to holidays and observances, so as to create Confederate Heritage and History Month; to provide for legislative findings; to encourage observances and celebrations of Confederate Heritage and History Month; to provide for statutory construction; to provide for related matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.

Now consider SB 27 as passed:

To amend Chapter 4 of Title 1 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to holidays and observances, so as to create Confederate Heritage and History Month; to provide for legislative findings; to encourage observances and celebrations of Confederate Heritage and History Month; to provide for statutory construction; to amend Article 3 of Chapter 3 of Title 50, relating to other state symbols, so as to provide that the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum shall be an official state historical civil rights museum; to provide for related matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.

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Jeffry D. Wert’s Stuart

bc_0743278194The latest issue of Civil War Book Review includes my review of Jeffry D. Wert’s recent biography of J.E.B. Stuart.

Civil War enthusiasts have come to expect a certain quality of research and writing from Jeffry D. Wert. Since the publication of his first book in 1987, Wert has tackled a wide range of subjects including biographies of John S. Mosby, James Longstreet, George A. Custer, a comparative study of the Iron and Stonewall Brigades, and a history of the Army of the Potomac. His most recent offering is the first full biography of Major General J.E.B. Stuart in twenty years. Despite his prominent place in the Confederate pantheon right behind Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, readers may be surprised to learn that only three biographies have been written about Stuart. Major Henry B. McClellan’s 1885 book, The Life and Campaigns of Major-General J.E.B., is still worth reading for its exhaustive coverage of his military exploits. John W. Thomason Jr.’s 1930 biography, Jeb Stuart is beautifully written, though it is seriously outdated owing to the lack of primary sources. Emory Thomas’s Bold Dragoon (1986) can claim the title of the only serious scholarly study of Stuart, but that in and of itself may have kept it from being read by a more general audience.

Most students of the Civil War want their biographies to be long on battle and campaign coverage and short on interpretation as well as the subject’s pre- and post-war experiences. In the case of Stuart we have only the former to deal with. The vast majority of Wert’s study does indeed focus on the war years and he does so with a firm grasp of the relevant secondary literature as well as an impressive collection of archival material with which to catalog both his performance on the battlefield as well as relations with fellow officers. Wert provides an even-handed assessment of Stuart on the battlefield. While Wert finds Stuart’s “efforts wanting” on the battlefield at Sharpsburg he received high marks for his performance at Chancellorsville in the wake of Jackson’s fatal wounding. As for his exploits around the Army of the Potomac and various raids in the summer and fall of 1862 Wert writes that while they garnered some intelligence these risky expeditions wore out valuable Rebel horseflesh.

No doubt, many will look with interest to the chapters on the Gettysburg campaign and the question of Stuart’s culpability for his decision on June 25, 1863, to conduct a raid around the Army of the Potomac as it marched north in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. There are no drawn out descriptions of the meeting between Lee and Stuart at Gettysburg or any serious attempt to answer once and for all whether Stuart’s decision constituted a fatal mistake. According to Wert, “Stuart failed Lee and the army in the reckoning at Gettysburg” though he goes on to note that Lee was “not blameless” (302). Much of the assessment of Stuart’s performance is to be found in the many references to Richmond newspapers as well as the official reports by Lee and other high-ranking commanders. Finally, the decision to deal with this in a concise manner leaves Wert with sufficient space to highlight Stuart’s work in protecting Lee’s army as it retreated back to Virginia and over a swollen Potomac River – an aspect of the campaign that is often overlooked. For this reviewer the obsession with Stuart’s culpability in the Gettysburg campaign is primarily a function of its place in our popular imagination and our never-ending obsession with trying to pinpoint that one factor that held the outcome of the battle in the balance.

In contrast to his military exploits, Stuart’s life beyond the battlefield leaves the reader with more questions than answers. While Wert’s attention to archival sources is admirable they fail to shed any new light into Stuart’s life before the war, including his marriage to Flora Cooke. While Stuart is situated squarely within a generation that was reared on the sectional conflicts of the 1850s, Wert has little to say about his political and racial outlook even though he was involved in suppressing John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry Raid, which set the tone for Lincoln’s election in 1860 followed by the secession of states in the Deep South. More importantly, the author missed an opportunity to explore how the secession of Virginia permanently damaged relations between Stuart and his father-in-law, Philip St. George Cooke. Wert simply notes that Stuart “never forgave his father-in-law for forsaking Virginia” (44).

Such minor criticisms should in no way detract from Wert’s accomplishment. He has managed to strip the many layers of myth from his subject without losing the color that makes Stuart so attractive to students of the Civil War.

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