Questions Matter

EllisI had one of those special moments today in my first period class where a student’s question forced me to completely change gears.  We are reading sections of Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and focusing specifically on a chapter called "The Silence" which covers the 1790 debate in the House of Representatives over slavery and the slave trade.  Even before we started one of my students asked why the book is called Founding Brothers instead of Founding Fathers.  I absolutely love these moments.  It was a wonderful question so I spent the next 20 minutes going around the class asking for their opinions on the matter.  I was pleasantly surprised as most of the students had something to say.  They tended to focus on the intention of the author to bridge the great divide that exists between the generations that followed and the awed reverence that we are taught to extend to these men.  One of Ellis’s goals in the book is to describe these men as every inch a part of this world; they lived during extraordinary times, but they were men with the same weaknesses and agendas that drive leaders regardless of time and place.  Students thought that describing them as brothers rather than fathers helped to make this point.  This doesn’t mean that we should not respect their accomplishments; in fact it is this acknowledgment that helps place their accomplishments in sharper relief.  Students pointed out that the idea of a father implies or demands respect and/or admiration.  I should have known to begin this book with that very question, but it is nice to know that I can count on my students every once in a while to point out what I miss. 

One of the things I’ve noticed this year in going textless is that more of my students are engaged in what they are reading.  This can be seen clearly in the sophistication of their questions and the one discussed above is just one example. 


North Carolina’s Civil War Sesquicentennial

Looks like Virginia has got some company.  The North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial is the official website for the state of North Carolina.  It includes a list of events and proposed projects.  Themes to be addressed include the following:

Emancipation, Secession and constitutional theory, and other topics.

Home front issues, Confederate soldiers, United States Colored Troops, Women’s issues, Unionists, and other topics.

The "Lost Cause" mythology, Confederate Memorials, Northern concepts of the war, African Americans’ struggle to keep their history alive during the "Lost Cause" era, Negro History Week, and other topics.

Very impressive


South Carolina’s Sesquicentennial

Here is an interesting article about South Carolina’s plans to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The article features Rodger Stroup, director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, who seems to be in charge of eliciting ideas from the community.  If South Carolina can get beyond the silliness of how to refer to the war than there is a very good chance that something substantial will result. 



Richard Williams offers a thoughtful response to my post of a few days ago in which I describe his reference to "Stonewall" Jackson as a "champion of enslaved men and women" as dangerous.  Williams response is based on a short book review that historian Peter Carmichael did on Elizabeth-Fox Genovese’s classic Within the Plantation Household (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) in the most recent issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.   Williams quotes Carmichael as evidence of his contention that the relationships forged between Jackson and his slaves qualifies as friendship. Here is the quote: No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .”  He goes on to point out that Fox-Genovese also explores the complex chains of affection between slaveowners and their slaves.  Williams is absolutely correct on this point and I know this all too well because I read this book as a graduate student; not only did I read it, but I’ve read plenty of other articles and books by both Fox-Genovese and her husband Eugene Genovese.  I could be wrong since it has been some time, but I don’t remember seeing this book cited by Williams or any other recent analytical study of slavery in the bibliography of his Jackson book. 

By placing himself in the same camp as Fox-Genovese and Carmichael, Williams believes that by extension I must also believe that they too are dangerous.  Not at all.  In fact I agree with the assertion that slavery created a wide range of mutually affective relations or mutual closeness during the antebellum period.  To do so would be to ignore some of the most interesting literature to come out of this field over the past few decades.  One of the most important points that Eugene Genoves makes in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that slaves cultivated chains of affection because they understood that slaveowners could not help but acknowledge their humanity.  From this perspective such relationships can be understood as manipulated by the slaves themselves to help make a horrific situation bearable.  At one point William suggests that it is not unreasonable to equate mutual affection with friendship.  Perhaps, but I believe it to be very difficult in the context of the slave-master relationship because it seems to me that the concept of friendship implies freedom of choice and by definition that is absent.  This is a point that Aristotle makes in his Nicomachean Ethics with the other being that friendships are built over time around mutual interests.  That said, to a certain extent this is beside the point because my problem is with Williams’s claim that Jackson ought to be understood as a "champion of enslaved men and women." 

On this point I feel safe in assuming that Carmichael would disagree with Williams here.  In addition, I’ve never read anywhere in Fox-Genovese’s scholarship which implies anything along these lines.  Let me state again for the record that I am well aware of the scholarship that has outlined the ways in which the lives of slaves and slaveowners intersected and often resulted in close personal ties.  It would be surprising to me if it didn’t given the social dynamics involved.  I am exploring just such a relationship as I edit the letters of Captain John C. Winshmith of South Carolina.  The problem I have, and the reason I find the assertion of "champion" to be dangerous, if not perverse, is it involves what appears to be a celebration.


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!