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2008 Virginia Forum

The third annual Virginia Forum will be held on April 11-12 at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

The Virginia Forum brings together historians, teachers, writers,
archivists, museum curators, historic site interpreters, librarians,
and others engaged in the study and interpretation of Virginia history
to share their knowledge, research, and experiences. The first Virginia
Forum took place in April 2006 at Shenandoah University in Winchester,
and the second in April 2007 at the Library of Virginia. The Forum is
an annual event and will be hosted by different universities and
historical organizations around the state in future years.

Registration is now open and the schedule is also available.  Congratulations to Jeff McClurken for pulling it all together. 

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.