Civil War Memory Readers Are Out There

As I was sitting in my favorite coffee house this morning I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a fellow patron was reading Civil War Memory.  I have to say that it was an awkward experience.   I know I have a few fans out there but, apart from my wife and a few students, I’ve never actually caught a glimpse of a genuine reader.  He turned out to be a fellow blogger whose site I read regularly. 

Is Sean Wilentz Playing History or Politics?

[Cross-Posted at Progressive Historians]

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has a thought-provoking Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in which he criticizes the Obama team for making comparisons between Obama’s lack of experience with both Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.  Wilentz is one of many notable historians who over the past few weeks have publicly declared their support for one of the presidential candidates – in his case the choice is Hillary Clinton. 

Few will disagree that it is very rare for a candidate with as little
experience in politics and government as Obama to capture the
imagination of so many influential Americans. One way for a candidate
like this to minimize his lack of experience is to pluck from the past
the names of great presidents who also, supposedly, lacked experience.
Early in the campaign, Obama’s backers likened him to the supposed
neophyte John F. Kennedy. More recently, some have pointed out (as did
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, among others) that Abraham
Lincoln served only one "undistinguished" term in the House before he
was elected president in 1860.

Wilentz notes that Kennedy had extensive experience owing to his three terms in the House and two in the Senate and the extensive committee work that comes along with 14 years in the legislature. In the case of Lincoln, Wilentz suggests that while it is true that he only served two years in Washington he had extensive experience on the state level and within both the Whig and Republican parties before winning the presidency in 1860.  There is no doubt that even a slightly broader perspective on the past beyond the narrow comparative claims made by the Obama team give us a more complicated picture of the public careers that led both Lincoln and Kennedy to the White House. 

That said, is the Obama team’s referencing of Kennedy and Lincoln (as well as the Reagan years) really to be characterized as "absurd"?  In fact, couldn’t one argue that Wilentz himself is necessarily engaged in the same "misuse of history" that he directs at the Obama team as a result of his public statement of support for Clinton?  Wilentz is treading on slippery ground here depending on how he wishes to be identified by his readers.   In my own case I find it close to impossible to identify Wilentz as a historian rather than as a Clinton partisan.  Wilentz’s criticisms must be understood as a reflection of his support for Clinton rather than as a commentary on how to properly interpret the past.  In other words, there is no fact of the matter in these comparative claims or to put it another way, Wilentz is far from carving the past at its joints.  For example, while Wilentz emphasizes Lincoln’s earliest years in the state legislature of Illinois, including his election as captain of the local militia (which Lincoln himself downplays) as relevant he says nothing as to why or how it should be considered.  It begs the question of what we even mean when we talk about relevant experience.  In the end it is much too easy to imagine Wilentz agreeing with the comparative claim if he happened to be an Obama supporter.

I’ve commented on the recent public declarations of support for the various presidential candidates by historians.  I don’t have a serious problem with such declarations; however, if you choose to enter the public debate please don’t ask me to interpret your words as those of a historian rather than as just another political hack. 

Historians cannot expect all politicians and their supporters to know
as much about American history as, say, John F. Kennedy, who won the
Pulitzer Prize for a work of history. But it is reasonable to expect
respect for the basic facts — and not contribute to cheapening the
historical currency.

What basic facts is Wilentz referring to?  The misuse and abuse of history is the bread and butter of politics.  If the Obama team wants to praise Reagan or compare their candidate’s history with Lincoln and Kennedy than so be it.  There is no fact of the matter here.  Wilentz would have us believe that his support for Clinton plays no role in the way he interprets the comparative claims made by the Obama camp.  I find that to be a "cheapening" of Wilentz’s "historical currency." 

Update: Caroline Kennedy apparently believes that Obama is enough "like my father" to issue an endorsement in the New York Times.  According to Wilentz, she is misinterpreting the past.

Click here for Brooks Simpson’s thoughtful response to this post.

Using Time-Lines in the Classroom

My survey courses are currently making their way through William Gienapp’s biography of Lincoln.  We’ve just started the Civil War and while I hope to finish with the book in two weeks I want to make sure that my students finish with as sophisticated an understanding of Lincoln, slavery, and emancipation as possible.  Let’s face it, the changing conditions both in the north and on the ground militarily that led Lincoln to begin the process of emancipation is difficult to grasp for high school students.  Lincoln’s own words on race, colonization, and slavery leave my students confused without a great deal of context. 

With this in mind I am going to try a little experiment next week which allows students to create their own time-lines online.  Students will be given 25 Lincoln quotes from between 1861-65 on a range of issues having to do with emancipation and slavery.  They will have to plot those quotes on the time-line along with relevant background information that will help to render the quote intelligible.  The program also allows you to upload videos and images which can be opened by clicking on a specific date on the time-line.  You can also link to other websites.  Here is a sample of a time-line on Lincoln. I anticipate that some of the students will go beyond the 25 quotes by expanding their time-line to include pre-war references by Lincoln.  Perhaps I should give these students extra-credit.  Once they complete their time-lines they will have to use it to write a short 2-3 page essay that  addresses the question of how and why Lincoln’s views on slavery and race evolved during the Civil War. 

I will share a few samples once the assignment is completed.

Where I Won’t Be on March 28-29

I will travel fairly long distances to take part in conferences on the Civil War.  The chance to interact with fellow historians who are as passionate about this period in American history is always an invigorating experience for me.  One of my readers passed on this link for a conference on the Gettysburg Campaign which is being sponsored by Liberty University.  It looks like a super line-up, including Steve Woodworth, Ethan Rafuse, Kent Masterson Brown, Eric Wittenberg, and Tom Desjardin.  I thoroughly enjoyed Woodworth’s book on the Army of the Tennessee as well as Rafuse’s biography of McClellan and Brown’s study of Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg.  I hope to get around to Eric’s and J.D.’s book at some point in the near future.  Lynchburg is only an hour from Charlottesville, but even if it was right around the corner from my home I would not attend.  Simply put, I wish to have no connection whatsoever with this so-called institution of higher learning which was founded by such an incredibly hate-filled lunatic  Of course, I am speaking of Jerry Falwell. 

While I disagree with much of what Christopher Hitchens thinks about politics and culture I thought he hit the nail on the head in this interview with Anderson Cooper following Falwell’s death. 

Falwell’s madness hit home after 9-11 when he suggested the following:

God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.

And, I know that
I’ll hear from them for this. But,
throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court
system,
throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The
abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not
be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we
make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists,
and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively
trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the
American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I
point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."

As someone who lost a cousin on 9-11 you can probably guess that I am pretty sensitive to such blatantly moronic statements.  I could list other claims made by this nut case over the course of his public career, but there would be little point in doing so.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend much time worrying about Falwell or the other charlatans out there who make their home on my channel 20.

As much as I would like to hear some of the speakers lined up for this conference I can find no justification for shelling out money that will be used to help perpetuate an extension of that man’s sick moral outlook. 

Religion in American History

Magv22n1cvrThe history of religion is one of those topics that tends to get short thrift in my survey courses.  This is not for a lack of primary sources which actually I use quite a bit of throughout the year.  My difficulty is in shaping those sources into coherent lesson plans.  I spend quite a bit of time discussing the connection between government and religion when focused on the Constitutional Convention and Bill of Rights.  I’ve found Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation to be quite helpful.  It does a good job of steering a middle course and students can easily read it.  Of course, religious themes enter at other times. 

The new issue of the OAH’s Magazine of History concentrates on the history of American Religion and it is clearly just what the doctor ordered.  I’ve said before that if you teach American history on the high school level you should have a subscription to this publication.  Each issue is structured around a specific theme and includes short summary articles written by very competent historians as well as lesson plans.  This issue is edited by Phillip Guerty and includes short essays on religious diversity in antebellum America, new religious movements, and religious pluralism and globalization.  The lesson plans are first rate and focus on the religious clause of the First Amendment as well as evangelicalism.  I am very excited about one lesson plan in particular which provides ways to integrate Islam and Muslims into the survey course.

I absolutely love that cover.

Acknowledging Martin L. King Through Others

Martin Luther King Day has become too fashionable.  At its worst it reinforces a skewed memory of the Civil Rights Movement as beginning with his organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and ending with his assassination in 1968.  It also obscures the complexity of organization on the grassroots level and the fissures that existed within the movement that followed generational, geographic, and gender lines.  King’s words are no doubt stirring and his actions are a model of civic dissent, but we run the risk of reducing the struggle for civil rights and its importance to the broader narrative of freedom down to a few choice lines and poor generalizations.
I want to take just a moment to acknowledge the likes of Vernon Johns, who preceded King as minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and helped to lay the foundation of racial pride and civic awareness that defined much of what took place in Montgomery both during and following the bus boycott.  From the short biographical sketch by Ralph Luker:

In October [1948], Vernon Johns was called as the pastor of the city’s prestigious Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. There, he renewed his credentials as the publishing pastor of a leading African-American congregation with an essay, “Civilized Interiors,” in Herman Dreer’s American Literature by Negro Authors in 1950. But Johns was never a man to curry favor with the authorities, white or black. He antagonized local white powers with sermons such as “Segregation After Death,”\ “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery,” and “When the Rapist is White” and by summoning black passengers to join him in a protest of racial discrimination by walking off a bus in Montgomery.

In 1951, Vernon Johns’ father-in-law, William Johnson Trent, became the first African-American appointed to the Salisbury, North Carolina,
school board and Vernon Johns’s sixteen-year-old niece, Barbara Johns, led African American students at Farmville, Virginia’s R. R. Moton High School in a boycott to protest conditions in Prince Edward County’s schools. A month later, attorneys for the NAACP filed suit to
desegregate the county schools. The case would be decided only by the United States Supreme Court in 1954. The contrast was noteworthy. The Trents were cautious, conservative insiders, who hoped to manipulate a system; the Johns were aggressive outsiders, who believed the system needed a thorough renovation. In the summer of 1951, Barbara Johns left Prince Edward County to live with her aunt and uncle and finish her senior year of high school in Montgomery, Alabama. By then, however, Vernon Johns was already antagonizing his own congregation’s bourgeois sensibilities with sermons such as “Mud Is Basic” and by hawking produce at church functions. In September 1952, Altona Johns moved her children from Montgomery to take a position at Virginia State College in Petersburg. In May 1953, after four and a half stormy years at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, its deacons accepted one of her husband’s several resignations.

This also an opportune moment to mention a new book by Glenda E. Gilmore, titled Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950.  I’ve already purchased it and hope to read it soon.  Check out Ray Arsenault’s review in the Washington Post and David Garrow’s review in the International Herald Tribune.

I tend to stay away from acknowledging Martin Luther King Day in class and in the last few years have stayed away from interrupting the flow of my survey classes to discuss Black History Month.  This is not to suggest that neither the holiday nor the continued acknowledgment of Carter G. Woodson’s vision of a black history day is not meaningful.  In fact, in many school districts it is absolutely essential, but in my classes African-American history is fully integrated into my curriculum.  I don’t even like calling it black or African-American history, rather it is American history and some of the most significant history at that.  This semester my students will be reading The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1992 by Harvard Sitkoff.  It’s a bit out of date, but it still provides a broad overview of race in the twentieth century and is incredibly thought provoking.
Finally, Oxford University Press is releasing its massive encyclopedia, The African American National Biography which is edited by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and contains 4,000 entries in 8 volumes. I was lucky enough to be able to contribute one entry on Robert A. Paul, who was born into slavery and later became a politician during the Readjuster years in Virginia.  Unfortunately, I had to work with limited source material, but I enjoyed it thoroughly and would write a full-length biography of this man if the material was available.  The publisher offered its contributors a 50% discount, which is very generous; unfortunately it still means that I would have to shell out close to $500 for a set.

At least two states are acknowledging the contributions of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in addition to King today.  I have no doubt that Jesus is going to spend the day with King.