Abe and Me

08I‘ve never quite understood the vehement anger expressed by some for Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I get the libertarian concern that Lincoln’s policies reflect a fundamental shift in the size and scope of the federal government. Funny that they rarely express the same concern for Jefferson Davis who went just as far in suspending civil liberties as well as increasing the size of the federal government in Richmond. More prevalent, however is the view that has been shaped by generations of white Southerners who see Lincoln as the man who unleashed the likes of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on an innocent southern populace that only wanted to be left alone to govern themselves and preserve their “way of life.” The agendas of both constituencies – one economic and the other emotional/scar-ridden – end up with an interpretation of Lincoln that resonates very little with me as a historian and as a citizen.

One of the first books I read when I first discovered the Civil War back in the mid-1990s was David Donald’s Lincoln. Lincoln had never appeared on my radar screen before, but he has occupied a central place in my reading on the war and nineteenth-century America ever since. I’ve devoured well over 100 books on Lincoln and even with everything I’ve read I can still read more. No other historical figure comes close to challenging my appetite for Lincoln studies. There were a number of things that stood out in those first few books that caught my attention. I was fascinated with his early life, his apparent ambition and concern for his own future, which revealed itself early on, and most importantly, his struggle with depression. At the time I was struggling with it myself along with a lack of direction in my life. I don’t remember learning anything about Lincoln’s personal life in high school, but this aspect of his personal profile struck a chord with me and perhaps even provided me with a little strength. In short, I felt I had a connection with the man.

That said, my interest in Lincoln has never come close to hero worship. The realm of history has never provided me with a forum for developing those kinds of connections. [The only person in my life who deserves that kind of respect and admiration is my own father.] Rather, I’ve embraced the study of history as an intellectual exercise, one that involves bringing to bear my limited analytical abilities and love for a good story. I am not trying to protect or defend a preferred interpretation of any one aspect of the past nor do I see it as a stage where good battles evil. Those who do “take sides” inevitably simplify and cherry pick their narrative to suit their own personal agenda. There is very little that I believe about the Civil War compared to when I first started reading about it fifteen years ago. I hope that fifteen years from now my understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War have progressed to a similar point. There is nothing sacred in my understanding of the past; it’s all open to reinterpretation and it is something that I actively pursue.

That being said, it would be dishonest to suggest that my view of Lincoln is entirely objective – whatever that might mean. In the end, I approve of the outcome of the war, including Lincoln’s decision as commander-in-chief to begin the process of emancipation, which eventually led to the end of slavery. That said, I am under no illusions regarding Lincoln’s racial outlook, though I am struck by the difficulty of so many in distinguishing between his moral view and the specific policies he supported as president during a civil war.

More importantly, however, my outlook on Lincoln and the war stems from my pride as a citizen of this country. The union that Lincoln helped preserve is the nation that I live in and call home. I must assume that this is what undergirds most people’s understanding of Lincoln at some level. With this in mind, it seems strange to ask why Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee’s recent bicentennial failed to attract the same level of enthusiasm around the country. Even in the South you will find plenty of programs to honor the memory of Lincoln throughout the remainder of this year. If we accept the assumption that the South is one of the more patriotic regions of this country than it should come as no surprise that Lincoln’s life and legacy would be honored this year. The bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln seem fitting as a celebration of the history of this great nation, even if I tend to look on more as an observer rather than as a participant when it comes to its more emotional and hagiographic moments.

For me, Abraham Lincoln will always be a subject open to further study and contemplation as well as the president who helped bring an end to slavery and worked to secure the future of this nation – warts and all. And yes, I find myself falling deeply in love with the man.

CFP: Historical Tourism in the American South

n36619244_35369672_232My friend and fellow historian, Karen Cox, has issued a call for papers for a proposed collection of essays on tourism in the American South.  Karen already has a number of historians involved in this project, including yours truly.  I am going to contribute an essay on Arlington House and the evolution of the NPS’s discussion of slavery on the grounds.  Over the past few years I’ve collected some information on this subject so it will be nice to be able to finally do something with it.  Karen is already in contact with a publisher and has been given an advanced contract so it is likely that the collection will see the light of day.  What follows is the CFP as well as Karen’s contact info. if you are interested.  [oh…and I stole the image from K’s Facebook page.]

This is an invitation to submit proposals for essays to join others in a book (now under advance contract) that explores historical tourism in the American South.  Historic sites, for the purposes of this volume, are those places that have been restored and/or adapted for the purpose of preserving some aspect of southern history and interpreting that history to the public. This volume will be divided into four sections each exploring a different aspect of tourism to sites of southern history and memory and proposals should fit into one of the following categories:

People and Places:  will examine individual southerners and the historic sites preserved to tell their story.

War and Remembrance: will examine Revolutionary, Civil War, Spanish-American sites in the region.

Race and Slavery: will examine historic sites that interpret slavery or civil rights.

Landscape and Memory:  will examine tourist sites that are concerned with the physical environment.  Suggestions include cemeteries, Rock City, the Virginia’s Natural Bridge or the Florida Everglades.

Final essays will be 20-25 pages in length and will be accompanied by illustrations.

For consideration, please send a brief CV and a 1-page abstract by April 1, 2009 describing your topic to: Karen L. Cox, Editor, Department of History, UNC Charlotte, kcox@uncc.edu

A Moment of Insight or Confusion?

1877_6thregimentI’ve always struggled to understand what I’ve assumed to be a radical transformation that took place within the Republican Party between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  As the story goes various pressures within the Republican Party caused them to abandon their Reconstruction agenda along with black civil rights, which allowed white “Redeemers” to reestablish white supremacy.  The emphasis on abandonment implies fundamental change with a moral twist; it doesn’t help that much of what I know about the Gilded Age and industrial revolution comes from the textbooks that I use in my AP classes. Most textbooks divide chapters between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which works to reinforce a sharp distinction between the Republican Party of Reconstruction and beyond.

I had one of those rare insights last week when it finally dawned on me that it is my preoccupation and interest in race and emancipation that has clouded my ability to more fully understand the history of the Republican Party beginning in 1855 and through the rest of the nineteenth century.  We tend to forget that the Republican Party was organized primarily around an economic agenda following the demise of the Whig Party and in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The Party initially took shape around the Great Lakes, which pushed hard for internal improvements and a federal government that would encourage and protect the development of industry.   Most Republicans had little interest in racial issues and insisted on preventing slavery from moving into the western territories so as to encourage white Americans to settle and free labor to thrive.  I recently finished reading Marc Egnal’s fine study of the economic origins of the Civil War.  He spends a great deal of time on the formation and evolution of the Republican Party’s platform through the war and into the early 1880s.  The book has helped me to place the focus back on the core pieces of the Party’s economic philosophy and the way in which their position on slavery reinforced it.

My aha moment occured when I realized that in the same year that federal troops were ordered back to their barracks in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana as part of the Compromise of 1877, they were ordered by Repubican President Rutherford B. Hayes into the North.  This was in response to what one politican called “the overwhelming labor question” which could be seen in the country’s first national walkout–the Great Railroad Strike.  In the aftermath of 1877, the federal government constructed armories in major cities to ensure that troops would be on hand in the event of further labor difficulties.  In 1892 the governor of Idaho declared martial law and sent militia units and federal troops into the mining region of Coeur d’Alene to break a strike, and in 1894 federal troops were sent to Chicago to help suppress the Pullman Strike led by the American Railway Union, whose 150,000 members included both skilled and unskilled railroad laborers.    Rather than see the abandonment of the South as a betrayal of Republican values it now seems more accurate to suggest that their movement of federal troops north reflected a continued commitment to the protection of the new engines of economic expansion: Carnegie Steel, Standard Oil, and the railroads.  By 1880 foreign workers and unions constituted more of a threat to the future of capitalism than unreconstructed white Southerners.  In short, the Republican Party was carrying out the policies that had defined it from the beginning.

Please Accept Our Statue

0_61_statue_320The Sons of Confederate Veterans is still trying to find a home for their statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber.  The statue, which cost $100,000, was originally planned for the grounds at Tredegar in Richmond next to the statue of Lincoln and his son Tad.  The American Civil War Museum accepted the statue, but made no promises as to whether it would be displayed and how.  Apparently, the SCV doesn’t know the first thing about how museums operate.  Now they are offering the statue to the state of Mississippi.  Good luck boys, but in this political climate my guess is that you don’t have a chance.  My offer still stands to use it in my classroom as an interpretive piece to help my students better understand the continued influence of the Lost Cause.  What do you say? We will take very good care of it.

Between the statue, their big ass Confederate flags flying over Southern highways, and their endorsement of a NASCAR driver, the SCV has demonstrated their commitment to wasting money and their inability to take Southern heritage seriously.

“Looking for Lincoln”

abraham-lincoln-statueI am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website.  I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content.  The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use.  My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful.  I was very impressed with the documentary.  Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man.  Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life.  From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.

A few moments stand out.  I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation.  I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation.  As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery.  His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln.  I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.

Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper.  Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship.  I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge.  Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.

Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention.  At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln.  They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc.  It’s all so boring and uninformative.  Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog.  Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate.  It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering.  Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery.  After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.”  I couldn’t agree more.

All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience.  The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.