One Step Back

In response to my recent post which asked whether slaveholders were "trapped" by slavery an anonymous reader offered an emotional, but important observation about the way Americans view themselves in relationship to the rest of the world.  I assume that this reader was not born in the United States:

Lee was not bad. NO, having slaves and coming up with the idea that the
bible sanctions that is WRONG and BAD, especially in 1865. Maybe Lee
did not know that all slavery mentioned in the bible was based mostly
on the ancient idea of servitude which so MODERNLY allowed slaves to
earn their freedom over time. We are way into the Industrial Revolution
in Europe in the 1860s, 76 years past the French Revolution, Bismarck
is about to install social laws that provide health care for the public
and free education in Germany and he is preparingn to restrict child
labor. WHERE WERE LEE AND DAVIS AND EVERYBODY ELSE IN AMERICA? How can
Americans see themselves so isolated.
I am willing to give
Jefferson a small break, but we are past the Enlightement and way into
the Romantic notion of individualism and individual rights? Beethoven
died in 1827 mourning the fact that not ALL PEOPLE can yet elect their
government in Europe. MAYBE just MAYBE Lee might have even heard of
Marx (1818-1883) and Engels. How can anybody argue that they were just
thinking it is right and were therefore good men nonetheless.
Is that
what happens today: we don’t listen to what the world thinks because we
are right and are good men?

Yeah, of course compared to child
labor in Great Britain slave holders look swell even in 1865, but for
some brain activity’s sake how can somebody argue that there is still
any justification for slavery in 1865????   

This writer reminds us that every so often it is useful and necessary to pull our heads out of the sand.  When Americans do talk about slavery we tend to think about its eventual abolition internally.  Some suggest that if the Civil War had not occurred slavery would have died a natural death, and the evangelicals somehow manage to justify slaveholding by arguing that the individuals in question believed that God would have ended it on her schedule.  In other words, who were the slaveholders to question?  There is a kind of bunker mentality in all of this and I suspect that it has much to do with an inability or unwillingness to place American history within a comparative context. 

As a teacher I plead guilty to contributing to this mindset.  My survey courses do not really touch on world affairs until the United States enters the world stage.  Most textbooks are rather narrow in this respect.  One of the questions often asked by students is whether Europeans followed the Civil War.  They want to know what others thought of events in the states and in this regard there is a great deal to tell.  [This gives me an opportunity to recommend a fabulous collection of letters written by German-Americans to relatives back in Europe during the Civil War.  Walter D. Kamphoeffner and Wolfgang Helbick, Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)].  What we don’t hear nearly enough about is whether Americans followed events elsewhere.  Think about what this broader perspective does to our self-congratulatory or apologist dialog  about emancipation and the "march of freedom" throughout our history.  The United States is nowhere close to the top of the list of nations that abolished slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  I am of course ignoring gradual abolition in the North for the sake of argument here.  Here is a partial list: Sweden and Finland (1335), Portugal (1761), England and Wales (1772), Haiti, (1791), Upper Canada (1793), France and its colonies (1794-1802), Chile (1823), Argentina (1813), Mexico (1829), British Empire (1833), Denmark (1848), Peru (1851), Romania (1858), Netherlands (1863), and finally the United States of America (1865). 

I guess the evangelical has to conclude that those involved in the abolition of slavery elsewhere did not listen closely enough to God.  My point for now is that while Americans want to know that others cared about what was happening here we are not that interested in knowing to what extent the favor was returned.  It’s easier to see Americans as isolated rather than part of a broader story of freedom where the United States was not always in the lead – and in the case of abolition not even close.  One final thought: I don’t think the reader is criticizing Lee per se, rather the reader  is struck by the lengths we will go to to preserve an image of certain historical figures which involves excusing a certain belief or action. 

Thanks reader.

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A Reason To Be Thankful

Looks like there are no plans from director Ron Maxwell to bring Jeff Shaara’s The Last Full Measure to the big screen.  From Shaara’s website:

REGARDING “THE LAST FULL MEASURE”:

Many of you have written, asking if the film version of this book is being produced, to complete the Civil War trilogy. Unfortunately, because of the poor box office results for “Gods and Generals”, Ted Turner has dropped all plans to finance a film version of “Last Full Measure”. Someone else may yet step forward, but so far, no one in Hollywood has shown interest. Despite the many rumors to the contrary, I’m sorry to say that no film is now in the works.

Is anyone really surprised that no one has stepped forward to fund these ridiculous scripts?  I would like to think that the failure of Gods and Generals is a reflection of the sophistication of the average moviegoer.

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Carl Schurz’s South

Today is the last day before the winter break and I definitely need it.  We start up again on January 8, which should give me enough time to get a few things done.   I have to write a short talk for the roundtable discussion at the AHA as well as complete the Crater manuscript.  In addition, I am preparing a chapter from the manuscript for possible inclusion in a very popular edited collection on Civil War campaigns.  The most important thing on my list is to spend time with my wife and family. 

Schurz Yesterday my AP classes examined Carl Schurz’s report on Savannah, Georgia that was originally written for Andrew Johnson and eventually published in the Boston Advertiser.  Schurz served in the Union army and was connected with the radical wing of the Republican Party.  In the months following the end of the war Schurz was asked by Johnson to report on conditions in the South.  While it can be argued that Schurz was predisposed to see the worst in the South, Johnson was also not ready to acknowledge conditions that would challenge his lenient stance on Reconstruction. 

Before reading the document the class talks about Schurz’s personal background, including immigration to America and his political stance both during and following the war.  The document is ideal for the classroom as it is clearly written and raises some of the important questions that the Federal government wrestled with as they debated how best to protect and advance civil rights for the newly freed slaves.  The most interesting section of the document is a short reference to the "veil question":

It is remarkable upon what trifling material this female wrath is feeding and growing fat.  In a certain district in South Carolina, the ladies were some time ago, and perhaps are now, dreadfully exercised about the veil question.  You  may ask me what the veil question is.  Formerly, under the old order of things, Negro women were not permitted to wear veils.  Now, under the new order of things, a great many are wearing veils.  This is an outrage which cannot be submitted to; the white ladies of the neighborhood agree in being indignant beyond measure.  Some of them declare whenever they meet a colored woman wearing a veil they will tear the veil from her face.  Others, mindful of the consequences which such an act of violence might draw after it, under this same new order of things, declare their resolve never to wear veils themselves as long as colored women wear veils.  This is the veil question, and this is the way it stands at present. [my emphasis]

This is an excellent example of gender intersecting with race.  As the class was reading through this section one of my male students asked if wearing a veil was a "sign of wealth and beauty."  I smiled and urged him to read on.  It was nice to see one of my male student pick up on this so quickly.  What did the Thirteenth Amendment mean to slaves and how did they express "this new order of things" during the postwar years?  Schurz also references a July 4 parade in the streets of Savannah that was organized by the city’s black population.  What I like about the veil issue is that it is subtle and yet so very important to the women who were able to express themselves through clothing.  This is something that my students take for granted.    Next time you teach Reconstruction give Carl Schurz a shot.

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Were Southern Slaveholders “Trapped”?

It’s always interesting to watch the way the comments evolve in response to specific posts.  In a recent post I made the mistake of mentioning Robert E. Lee, which led to a lengthy discussion in the comments section about his relationship to slavery.  I was struck by a comment from one reader who characterized men like Lee and other Southerners as "trapped" by slavery.  Here is his comment:

We will agree to disagree. It was a complicated relationship. Evil, for certain. But one in which whites felt they were trapped; trapped by their own ancestors’ doing, of course, but nonetheless trapped. Northerners had already built their industrial economy on the capital earned via the slave trade and did not have the same economic interest in slavery by the mid 19th century. It was convenient for them to condemn Southerners since they could do so from the security of an economy built upon the backs of slaves sold to Southerners. I maintain that Lee, like Jefferson and many other Virginians, hated the institution and would have preferred it "go away." Accusing Lee of doing what was "fashionable" reveals, I believe, a lack of understanding of the man’s true character. If reputation and "fashion" were his concerns, he would have chosen to ride to victory at Lincoln’s offer rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. Lee was first, a man of principle, not fashion.

I worry about this characterization of slaveholders.  If they were "trapped" or unable to acknowledge an alternative then what are we to make of Southern ambassadors discussed by Charles Dew in Apostles of Disunion or Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech"?  These are people who have thought carefully about what it would mean if a system of white racial hierarchy were to cease to exist.  In that speech he acknowledges that Jefferson and the rest of the boys believed "that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically." [I discussed this speech with my survey classes today.]  My point is that to characterize Stephens and others as trapped is to ignore the fact that they were indeed aware of alternatives, but for the obvious reasons believed them to be reflective of Northern "fanaticism." 

There is a tension between the scholarship of Gordon Wood who is fond of pointing out that to criticize the Founders for not following through and abolishing slavery is to accuse them of failing to arrive at a conclusion that they could not identify.  I think Wood has a point here; we don’t want to engage in presentism, rather we want to identify as much as possible with the limits of their intellectual world.  The problem is that there is a growing body of literature that highlights the extent to which white Southerners did voluntarily emancipate their slaves following the Revolution.  The best book on this subject is Melvin Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790’s Through the Civil War.  The book won a number of awards, including the Bancroft Prize.  From the review in The Washington Post:

Now comes Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox, whose dissonances are likely to shake the usual orthodoxies. In colonial Virginia and across the upper South, slavery always had eminent critics, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other great Virginians. Among their intellectual heirs was young Richard Randolph of Prince Edward County, a member of one of the state’s distinguished families who had enjoyed a Northern education at Columbia and Princeton. When he died in 1796, Randolph instructed his executors in a will that Ely calls "a ringing abolitionist manifesto" to free his slaves and settle them on family lands. Some two decades passed before his testamentary wishes were executed, but executed they were, in the face of some difficulty, by his faithful widow, Judith. Former slave families were installed on Randolph properties along the Appomattox River in a settlement called Israel Hill, a promised land. The community endured well into the 20th century until oral memory faded — it was studied late in the 19th century by a young W. E. B. DuBois — and many of its members achieved substantial economic independence. They became boatmen, hauling goods between Farmville and Petersburg, tobacco workers in early packing factories, farmers, woodworkers and other craftsmen.

Along with Ely’s book I also recommend Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves.  I am not suggesting that we use Randolph and Carter as our standard by which to judge the actions of all slaveholders, but we need to understand that slaveholders believed in their "peculiar institution" and were willing to fight a war to protect it. 

The idea that slaveholders were trapped perhaps makes it easier to distance their actions – especially in the case of Lee, Jackson, and the rest of the Confederate pantheon – from slavery.  Referencing Northerners drives home the image of slaveholders as trapped.  Of course Northern involvement in slavery is essential to understanding its continued hold on the South and the nation, but that seems to me to have little to do with how white Southerners identified and worked to protect their slave-holding society.   

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The Role Of The History Documentary In The Classroom

One of the readers of this blog recently asked about the role of documentaries in the classroom – specifically PBS’s video Reconstruction.  I wanted to say a few things about how I use history videos in the classroom, but first here is the reader’s question and comment:

Why are you averse to showing entire videos? Does it make you feel lazy as a teacher? Do you feel the students zone out after a short amount of time with the lights out?

I think one needs to be versatile and use videos to supplement the lesson rather than become it, but with a documentary as great as PBS’s Reconstruction, I’d be inclined to show the whole thing. There’s enough time in two semesters to get away with that, I think.

My high school history teacher, Coach Blackburn, relied heavily on videos. I remember the first day of class he said something like "there’s really no difference between me telling you the stuff and the video telling you the stuff."

I want to start by saying that I rarely use history videos in my class for the simple reason that most of them stink.  They are geared towards pure entertainment and contain very little content that is worth thinking critically about.  There are a few exceptions and one of them, as stated above, is PBS’s Reconstruction.  Second, in response to Coach Blackburn, if the teacher is superfluous in teaching the history lesson than it seems to me the class itself is unnecessary because a student can always watch the video at home. 

If I use a video I will typically show no more than 15 minutes; the main reason being that most of my students can only focus for about that long.  Videos do not create active learners; in fact there are plenty of studies that point to the ineffectiveness of this type of approach.  I try to break up my classes into segments.  The first 15 minutes are typically spent giving background to a specific event which is followed by some kind of document analysis and discussion.  If I use a segment of a video it is in connection with a specific lesson plan.  For instance, a few weeks ago I used part of Burns’s Civil War documentary on Lee’s decision to secede along with the statistics from a recent study on West Point graduates from the South who decided to stay with the Union.  The purpose here was to compare a popular version of the story with an analytical study. 

I think it is also important to realize that what we as teachers see as interesting and engaging may fall flat with students.  If a video is going to be used it is absolutely necessary to prepare students with some kind of guide – perhaps a series of questions.  The other issue is preparation.  What will the students have read to prepare them for this video?  This is a fairly sophisticated interpretation of Reconstruction from what I remember. 

As a final thought I repeat my earlier point in the day which is that since there is such an incredible amount of interesting primary source material that can be used in connection with Reconstruction it almost seems criminal to show an entire video.  Be creative, take chances, and rely on the students to think through the tough issues.   I am constantly surprised by the level of sophistication that is possible on the high school level.  Don’t waste opportunities to teach and engage your students.

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