Acknowledging a Master Historian

9780195039146As a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Maryland I concentrated on philosophy of history.  While much of the literature in this sub-discipline continues to address questions first formulated at the height of the Logical Positivist Movement, I was much more focused on empirical questions that were more closely connected to actual working historians.  So, I wasn’t weighed down with the problem of objectivity or causation; rather, I was interested in how historical debates evolve and how various competing interpretations are evaluated within the historiography.  As I was thinking about a possible thesis topic my adviser suggested that I utilize a case study to help ground my thinking.  I received permission to take a graduate level history seminar and ended up registering for Prof. Ronald Hoffman’s seminar on the American Revolution.  The first evening was a real eye-opener as I stared at a syllabus that outlined about 1,000 pages a week.  The first week included all of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.  Compared to a philosophy seminar the amount of reading was overwhelming and I even thought about dropping out.  Somehow I managed to make my way through just about all of it only to show up for the second session having learned that few people actually read it.  It turns out that some graduate students simply go through a number of book reviews.  I certainly can understand and empathize with such a decision and I will admit that on occasion I did take the easy way out, but I am so glad that I didn’t that first week.  Wood’s book was a revelation to me.  The book is clearly the product of a creative and analytically sharp mind.  This was a Revolution that was completely new and full of questions and issues that I had never thought about before.  Most importantly, it made me want to understand much more about the Revolution and the Early Republic.

The seminar provided me with a thorough grasp of the various schools of thought beginning with the earliest histories of the Revolution through the Progressive, neo-Progressive, Whig, and neo-Whig interpretations.  I must have read at least twenty books, not to mention the many journal articles.  The seminar taught me how to think about the process of writing history and how interpretations evolve over time and why.  Since then I’ve retained my interest in this period of American history and, specifically, the work of Gordon Wood.  My hardbound copy of The Radicalism of the American Revolution is held together with a rubber band and his short survey of the Revolution is used in my own survey classes.  With that in mind, I must admit that today I snuck off campus to pick up Wood’s new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.  The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States, which makes Wood the ideal author.  Like the rest of the books in the series, this is a thick one numbering 700 pages, but I suspect that it is going to be a page turner like everything else he has written.

If I sound a bit over the top than you will have to excuse me.  Now seems like a good enough time to admit that most of my heroes are intellectuals.  I make no apologies for that.  I place a great deal of value on people who are not afraid to use their minds and who enrich my own life by forcing me to think harder about a host of issues. Gordon Wood has managed to do that consistently over the years and I suspect he is about to do so again.

For Richard Williams and Chris Wehner

All of this talk about nefarious academic historians has left my head spinning.  The commentary reminds me of the rhetoric from the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s.  Anyone and everyone is a target and no one who dares stand up in front of a classroom is safe.  Watch your tongue; keep your own views locked shut; and don’t let anyone see you reading the New York Times.  I want to send this post out to Chris Wehner who has done a fabulous job of exposing me for the radical that I am and to Richard Williams who, apparently, has never attended college, but has made it his life’s mission to expose the university as a bastion of anti-American ideologues.  Wonderful work gentlemen.

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One of my Facebook friends shared with me the following print by Jon McNaughton, titled, “One Nation Under God”.  Supposedly, the image is the result of a vision the artist had during the 2008 election.  Click here for the above image and run your cursor for descriptions of each individual.  I will leave it to you to interpret it, but I wanted to point out “The Professor”, who is positioned on the stairs just to Jesus’s left.  Notice that Satan himself is positioned close by.  The Professor holds a copy of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and if you run your cursor over him the following pop-up description appears:

He holds his “Origin of Species” book by Charles Darwin.  This represents the liberal lefts control of our educational system.  His smug expression describes the attitude of many of the educational elite.  There is no room for God in education.  There is contempt for any other viewpoints.  Humanism dominates the educational system of America and I believe that is wrong.  Notice that he is the only one sitting on the top step.  He tries to place himself on an equal footing with God, but he is still nothing next to the intelligence of the creator.

Yeah, I know plenty of people who fit this description.  In fact, I can’t wait to hang out with a bunch of them next month at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Louisville.  You gotta love it.

One final point.  Why is the Union soldier on the left crying?  Why isn’t he standing tall and proud as a symbol of the end of slavery?  I assume that is part of God’s plan for America.  Perhaps he could be positioned next to Frederick Douglass, who is barely visible in the back.

Ringgold Finds a Civil War General

This past weekend the city of Ringgold, Georgia unveiled a Civil War statue dedicated to General Patrick Cleburne.  The connection to Ringgold seems tenuous at best as he was there only once in his life and only for a few hours at that. Cleburne took charge of an effective rear guard action at Ringgold Gap against elements of Joe Hooker’s Corps in the wake of the Confederate defeat at Missionary Ridge outside of Chattanooga in November 1864.  Let’s face it, Cleburne has always been an appealing Confederate military figure.  A number of biographies have recently been published, including Craig Symonds’s The Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne & the Civil War (University of Kentucky Press, 1997).  In addition, a graphic novel was recently published.  Cleburne has also bee painted by a host of Civil War artists.  He’s got the cool sobriquet, “Stonewall” which conjures up images of Jackson and he’s also got the whole Irish immigrant thing in his favor.  Clearly, he was a charismatic and talented division commander.  Better yet, he died in a blaze of glory in a forlorn assault at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864.  But still, one could ask, why Cleburne?

No doubt, part of the appeal of Cleburne is his controversial, but widely misunderstood, proposal to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom.  At first glance, such a proposal singles out Cleburne as something of a progressive minded white Southerner who seems to be on the right side of history fighting for a government pledged to the maintenance of slavery and a society built on white supremacy.  The problem that most fail to understand about Cleburne and others who supported some version of the plan is that they were not, in any way, pushing for the abolition of slavery.  In fact, one way to understand Cleburne’s proposal is as a means of preserving the institution of slavery.  [Once again, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s treatment of this debate in Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2006).  The debate that raged throughout much of 1864 (and even earlier in the war) challenged some of the most basic assumptions of a slave holding society.  While Cleburne – and eventually Robert E. Lee himself – called for enlistment of slaves in exchange for freedom others believed that it was possible to compel slaves to fight for the Confederacy.  Cleburne and Lee understood, however, that slaves would make poor soldiers, but that observation no doubt was reinforced by their experience maintaining a cohesive fighting force.  They also had to deal with the growing evidence of large numbers of runaway slaves, some of whom were returning with the Union army by 1864.  How many white Southerners had difficulty coming to terms with the very idea that slaves desired to be free?  Didn’t part of the justification for slavery itself assume that slaves had achieved a kind of freedom through the paternalistic embrace of the master?

When I reflect on Cleburne’s proposal I can’t help but be impressed with the desperation of a division commander who clearly perceives the military challenges standing in the way of Confederate victory.  The recruitment of former slaves into the Union army reinforced the need for drastic action.  But that is how this plan must be undestood.  It was not a step toward emancipation, but as a means to achieve military victory.  That the Confederacy did not begin recruiting slaves into the army until it was too late suggests not only the controversial nature of the plan, but perhaps also how little Cleburne understood of his adopted “country”.