Congratulations to a Former Teacher

HoltonThe University of Richmond’s Woody Holton has been nominated and is now a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.  The book, which was recently released is titled Unruly American and the Origins of the Constitution (Hill and Wang, 2007).  Here is the jacket description:

Woody Holton upends what we think we know of the Constitution’s origins by telling the history of the average Americans who challenged the framers of the Constitution and forced on them the revisions that produced the document we now venerate.  The framers who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were determined to reverse America’s post–Revolutionary War slide into democracy. They believed too many middling Americans exercised too much influence over state and national policies. That the framers were only partially successful in curtailing citizen rights is due to the reaction, sometimes violent, of unruly average Americans. 

If not to protect civil liberties and the freedom of the people, what motivated the framers? In Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, Holton provides the startling discovery that the primary purpose of the Constitution was, simply put, to make America more attractive to investment. And the linchpin to that endeavor was taking power away from the states and ultimately away from the people. In an eye-opening interpretation of the Constitution, Holton captures how the same class of Americans that produced Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts (and rebellions in damn near every other state) produced the Constitution we now revere.

Professor Holton served as an adviser for one of my independent research projects which examined the concept of friendship during the ratification debates and he was one of the committee members for my orals defense.  I am about half-way through the book and learning a great deal.  Luckily the book was released just as my U.S. History classes were preparing to study the Constitution so I decided to have one of my classes read the introduction to the book.  This provided a nice contrast with the textbook’s interpretation.  Professor Holton is a dynamite teacher and a great guy.  Good luck!


William Mahone, Nelson M. Blake, and the Journal of Negro History

Access to JSTOR through my school’s library has made life much easier.  I recently came across a wonderful review of Nelson M. Blake’s 1935 biography of William Mahone which appeared in the Journal of Negro History [Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1936)].  The reviewer was J.H. Johnston who taught Virginia State College (now University) in Petersburg which was the site of both Mahone’s postwar residence and the site of the battle of the Crater.  The content of Johnston’s review reflects a vibrant black countermemory of the war and Reconstruction; his main points are clearly decades ahead of the interpretive agenda of much of the historical community.  Blake’s William Mahone of Virginia, Soldier and Political Insurgent [Garrett & Massie Publishers, Richmond, 1935] is still the only biography available.  It is clearly dated in certain respects; unfortunately no one that I know is planning to write an updated account though it is desperately needed.  Most of Mahone’s personal papers are located at Duke University while smaller collections can be found at the Library of Virginia and the University of Virginia.

What I find so interesting about Johnston’s review is that he clearly understands what the publication of this biography means within the context of memory of Mahone.  He references the monument of Mahone that was placed on the Crater battlefield which makes no mention of his role as a Virginia statesman.  His suggestion that “The author [Blake] has thus dared to render long deserved service to Mahone’s memory” points to the extent to which white Southerners (particularly white Virginians) worked to erase Mahone from public memory of the war and Reconstruction.  After all Mahone was the “Hero of the Crater” who led the most successful bi-racial coalition which controlled Virginia’s government for four years and resulted in his election to the U.S. Senate where he aligned himself with the Republican Party.  Johnston understands all too well that this biography, which devotes only one chapter to his war years and eight to his postwar career, does not compliment the Lost Cause version of the war.

The Readjuster Party was overwhelmingly supported by the Negro voters of Virginia; and because of Mahone’s political association with Negroes this former Confederate officer was despised, and until now an effort has been made to consign him to oblivion. (p. 215)

Johnston seems pleased that Blake does not relegate blacks to the background, but acknowledges that made “intelligent use of their ballot.”  It should be remembered that the standard account of Reconstruction argued that black Americans were ill-equipped to exercise the vote and/or that corruption ran rampant because of their involvement in the Southern states.  Few correctives could be found at this point, though W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 had been recently published.

As much as Johnston praises Blake’s study he does acknowledge serious shortcomings which today would be inexcusable, but at the time understandable.  In particular, Johnston criticizes Blake’s handling of the Crater and a reference to USCTs as “half-drunken negroes.”  The reviewers frustration with Blake is perhaps a function of the fact that although Blake is able to praise blacks for voting for Mahone he is unable to take the next step which would involve a more sympathetic portrayal of African Americans more generally.  Much of the literature about the Crater was written without any interest in the black perspective and the specific reference to “half-drunken references” was one way white Southerners could make the point that unless blacks were drunk or forced to fight by evil yankees that they remained loyal.  Blake would have had to spend considerable time looking for the limited amount of archival material that is available which may have given him a different perspective.  Perhaps he did not know to even question this reference.  Along similar lines while Johnston praises Mahone for completing his railroad from Norfolk to Petersburg before the war and under very difficult conditions he fails to “mention the black workmen in the swamps that helped Mahone build his railroad.”  Finally, Johnston cites what he perceives to be a major weakness in Blake’s analysis of Mahone’s political success in his failure to reference those black politicians who worked in the Readjuster Party.

The biography of Mahone will be completed only when it makes it clear that these Negro men were the authors of the bills and the makers of the laws that brought these gifts to the Negro people of the state.  This book, then, while it is a deserved tribute to William Mahone and gives a far better picture of the Reconstruction in Virginia than one finds in other such works, must be supplemented with a treatment of the participation of the Negro in the Readjuster Movement. (p. 216)

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time going through the Journal of Negro History in JSTOR.  Given the broad assumptions that defined the nation’s understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and race a perusal through Carter Woodson’s journal serves as a reminder that black Americans took an interest in their history and worked hard to counter the overtly racist assumptions that were so prevalent at the time.  Not until the 1970s would there be studies of black politicians during the Readjuster Era along the lines envisioned by Johnston.


Two Important Slave Narratives Published

BlightDavid Blight’s latest book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped Freedom is now available.  From the jacket:

Slave narratives, some of the most powerful records of our past, are extremely rare, with only fifty-five post–Civil War narratives surviving. A mere handful are first-person accounts by slaves who ran away and freed themselves. Now two newly uncovered narratives, and the biographies of the men who wrote them, join that exclusive group with the publication of A Slave No More, a major new addition to the canon of American history. Handed down through family and friends, these narratives tell gripping stories of escape: Through a combination of intelligence, daring, and sheer luck, the men reached the protection of the occupying Union troops. David W. Blight magnifies the drama and significance by prefacing the narratives with each man’s life history. Using a wealth of genealogical information, Blight has reconstructed their childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as cooks and camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the north, where they reunited their families.

In the stories of Turnage and Washington, we find history at its most intimate, portals that offer a rich new answer to the question of how four million people moved from slavery to freedom. In A Slave No More, the untold stories of two ordinary men take their place at the heart of the American experience.


Still the “Champion of Enslaved Men and Women”

There is a new and extended trailer for the upcoming film Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story.  Check this new clip out if you didn’t think it possible for an even more absurd treatment of this very important historical figure.  This time historians James I. Robertson and Col. Keith Gibson offer commentary.  Robertson touches on the "trauma of [Jackson] being given away" at an early age which is no doubt true.  He concludes that "family became far more important than a normal person" and this shaped a more "tender-hearted person" which is "not shown in battle."  Again, I see nothing wrong with such a comment.  Unfortunately, this then serves as a lead-in to the absurd claim made by Richard Williams that Jackson "was the champion of enslaved men and women" and the "proclaimer of good news." 

First, someone please point out to me the places in Robertson’s book where Jackson is interpreted as some kind of champion of the very people he owned.  The editor of this trailer did a wonderful job of interpreting Jackson and slavery along traditionally paternalistic lines.  Jackson valued and yearned for family and this must be evidence that his ownership of slaves was benign.  Actually, not only was it benign, but we are being asked to celebrate Jackson’s ownership of slaves. 

I know some of you are wondering why I keep harping on this and related issues.  Well, let me just say that I am a teacher and I care about what is both taught in the classroom and distributed for viewing in the general public.  In the end this kind of film is dangerous.  It perpetuates the same stereotypes that one can find in movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind.  What makes this worse is that we are at a point where we know so much more about the "peculiar institution".  But even if we ignore the scholarship the idea that anyone will seriously consider the possibility of celebrating slave ownership is perverse in the extreme. 

Do we really have to ask Mr. Williams whether he would be willing under any circumstances to exchange places with one of Jackson’s slaves to make this point?  Of course, I have not seen this film nor do I have any interest in doing so.  I’ve seen enough! 

Update: One of my readers was kind enough to inform me that responses to this piece have been posted.  See here and here.  I applaud Williams for at least making an attempt to respond even though he does not address the point of this post which is the idea that we can characterize any slaveholder as a "champion" of the very people enslaved.  The other guy seems to be just a bit unstable.


I Also Don’t Get This

BenthamI am always surprised by the number of comments I get in response to certain posts.  I’ve written a number of lengthy posts which are hopefully thought provoking, but they typically don’t garner the same level of interest in terms of comments.  It’s the short goofy posts that tend to attract the most comments.  I guess that says it all in terms of the amount of time that people spend on individual blogs or about the length of the average attention span.  The last post on Little Sorrel attracted a number of comments that spanned the spectrum of humor and disgust.  I came across the story on one of my feeds and thought it funny that we have an urge to preserve the hide of Jackson’s Little Sorrell.  I find it curious – nothing more nothing less. 

Just in case some of you think I am simply using this as another opportunity to poke at our fascination with all things Confederate consider the case of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham.  From Wikipedia:

As requested in his will his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his "Auto-icon". Originally kept by his disciple Dr. Southwood Smith, it was acquired by University College London in 1850. The Auto-Icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-Icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where he was listed as "present but not voting". Tradition holds that if the council’s vote on any motion is tied, the auto-icon always breaks the tie by voting in favor of the motion.

The Auto-Icon has always had a wax head, as Bentham’s head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.  [Note: You can see Bentham’s head between his feet in the picture.  I also find this odd.]