Eric Foner Reviews Freehlings Road To Disunion

The latest issue of the New York Times Book Review includes a short review of William Freehling’s latest study by Eric Foner.  Foner basically summarizes Freehling’s argument, but unfortunately never really penetrates the surface of what is a sophisticated and well-argued book.  More to the point I thought that Foner nitpicked at some of Freehling’s references.  At one point he criticizes Freehling’s emphasis on the role of individual decisions as a salient factor in understanding the triumph of Lower South secessionists over their more conservative brothers in the Upper South:

There is no question that “Secessionists Triumphant” is peopled by a colorful cast of characters, from William L. Yancey, a hotheaded secessionist who tried to inspire Southerners with a sense of nationhood, to James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter who preyed on his female slaves. But Freehling’s fondness for individual stories puts undue emphasis on psychological explanations, with words like “frustration” and “rage” sprinkling the text. Moreover, the attempt to assume a popular literary style often seems forced. (Was the pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh really dealing in “sound bites”?)

It’s difficult to know why Foner is so troubled by psychological explanations given that Freehling’s book is the result of a great deal of time spent thinking about the motivations and emotional states of these important historical actors.  There are indeed a handful of such references, but I don’t find that they overly detract from the other points made which buttress his central claims.  Perhaps that is not what is bothering Foner:

I think it’s time to declare a moratorium on scholars’ denigrating other scholars for failing to achieve popularity. As Freehling’s own extensive footnotes demonstrate, those much-maligned specialized studies are the building blocks of historical knowledge. Nor is his dismissal of what he calls “multicultural social history” in favor of the study of politics persuasive. Surely, the task of the historian is to integrate the two.

If I remember correctly, Freehling makes a point in one of the early footnotes for professional historians to write for a general audience, which involves a change of style.  Again, I think Foner is nitpicking here.  Freehling does not suggest that the more specialized studies have no place, but that professional historians have resisted taking the opportunity to write books that are readable, but do not sacrifice scholarship, for a general audience.  Freehling does not want historians to write to achieve popularity, but to educate a wide audience.  Finally, I believe that Freehling is trying to resurrect a traditional style of political history that has tended in recent years to take a backseat to social history.  Perhaps in trying to emphasize the importance of individual decisions within the highest seats of government there is a danger of painting a picture that does give short thrift to the kinds of forces at work from the bottom-up that exercise influence.  In highlighting those political decisions, however, it may be worth the price.

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Order vs. Democracy

You never know how a planned class discussion will go or the direction it will take.  Today my survey courses explored some primary sources which lay out American foreign policy in the late 1940s.  I asked my students to think about the challenges that emerged by the end of WWII and how those challenges sent the United States down a very different path compared with its response to WWI.  I show clips from videos about the Red Scare and HUAC meetings along with images of hydrogen bombs and the classic "Duck and Cover."  In class today we read through Harry Truman’s 1947 address (Truman Doctrine/Containment) to Congress in which he asks for $400,000 400 million dollars to be used to help the nations of Turkey and Greece deal with civil war and the "threat" of communism.  It’s a fairly easy document for students to interpret and it beautifully sets up this country’s foreign policy for the next 50 years.  We talked about this along with the question of what responsibilities the United States was faced with in the aftermath of WWII.  In short, students had to think about what kind of world the United States was attempting to bring about through its actions? 

As we went through the document we came across the following line: "I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes."  One of my students was struck by the last few words and asked for an explanation.  I asked the class which word stood out and they suggested the word "order."  What is an orderly political process?  A few of the students suggested that it is a democratic system, but than another student suggested that it may not involve democracy.  What a wonderful teaching moment, and one that I did not want to slip away.  With the relationship between order and political systems in mind I asked the class to reflect on the war in Iraq as a case study.  We agreed that one of the goals of the Bush administration was to bring democracy to the country, but that at this point it was unlikely that such a lofty goal is still possible.  I then asked the class to think about what they would be willing to comprise for.  Would they settle for a nation that was without the kinds of political opportunities – the hallmarks of democracy – that we take for granted in exchange for "order" and stability.  Would this be satisfactory narrowly understood in terms of what is best for our foreign policy.  We can imagine a country that is stable without the kinds of violence that have grown all too common, but that maintains "friendly" relations with the United States.  One student asked whether both the Iraqi people and the United States would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power.  Is order along with authoritarian violence rather than a democracy sufficient from this perspective?  I tend not to answer these types of questions for fear that I may influence their thinking, but I was surprised by how many students agreed with this assessment.  I wanted the class to consider the possibility that American security may have to do with external conditions that go beyond concerns for freedom and democracy.  It’s not meant as an indictment, but as a comment on the history of America’s foreign relations. 

American foreign policy is incredibly complex following WWII.  It straddles both a concern for democracy and freedom on the one hand along with very practical decisions that highlight "order" and stability over human rights.  We didn’t come to any firm conclusions in connection with all of this, but it is nice to know that the class will be able to consider different moments of American interventionism during the Cold War within a wide context that considers a range of factors. 


A Sad Day

All of you have heard about the news coming out of Virginia Tech.  I learned about it during our lunch hour and had to watch a few of my colleagues scramble to touch base with spouses and children who attend school or work at the school.  Every year we send some of our best students to Virginia Tech and I know a couple of people who teach in the History Department.  My thoughts go out to the families of the victims and rest of the Virginia Tech community. 

This is truly a horrible day.


Correction, he actually said “That damn flag needs to come down.”

University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier on the Confederate flag


Karen Cox on the United Daughters of the Confederacy

Karen Cox, William Blair and others recently spoke at the “The Legacy of Stones River: Remembering the Civil War" which was held in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Cox is the author of the excellent book, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation
of Confederate Culture
(University of Florida Press, 2003).  The book offers the most comprehensive analysis of the social make-up of the organization over time and its agenda.  This article provides an overview of her talk and a preview of the book:

The United Daughters of the Confederacy was an outgrowth of the various
benevolent aid societies and ladies memorial groups that developed during and
after the war, Cox said.  Initially these groups had worked to aid the war
effort and to help the widows and children of Confederate soldiers who died in
The ladies memorial groups were centered on bereavement and to
returning the bodies of the war dead from far-flung battlefields. It wasn’t
until the South had been returned to home rule that the real vindication efforts
began.  Vindication was an important goal of the UDC, which was founded
just up the road in Nashville, Cox said.  The National Association of the
Daughters of the Confederacy was organized in Nashville on Sept.10, 1894, by
founders Caroline Meriwether Goodlett of Nashville and Anna Davenport Raines of
Georgia. At its second meeting in Atlanta, in 1895, the organization changed its
name to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  “The two founders …
their career was the Lost Cause,” Cox said. “From the beginning this would be a
very elite organization.”

The general goals of the group were:

To memorialize those who fought for and fell in battle for the Confederate

• To preserve the history of the “War Between States.”

• To
educate future generations about the Confederacy from a pro-Southern

• Social in nature. The group even had blackball provisions to
keep out women who weren’t from the top social strata.

We’ve only recently begun to look at the role that elite white Southern women took in shaping the contours of the Lost Cause and in turn shaping the way we think about the Civil War.  A closer look at these organizations also provides insight into the extent and limits of political action among Southern white women.  I am looking forward to the publication of Caroline Janney’s study of the Ladies Memorial Associations which were active in the years following the end of the war.