John H. Franklin Wins Kluge Prize

From the American Historical Association’s Website:

John Hope Franklin, emeritus professor of history at Duke University and past president of the AHA, has won the prestigious John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. He shares the honor with Yu Ying-shih, emeritus Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University, who will receives the other half of the $1 million prize.

This is the third time the Kluge prize has been awarded by the Library of Congress to recognize the achievements of scholars in the fields of history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics (all of which are fields that don’t receive Nobel prizes). Franklin and Yu will be presented their awards on December 5, 2006 at the Library of Congress.

John Hope Franklin is perhaps best known for his efforts to include the African-American experience into the study of American History. His publications include The Free Negro in North Carolina, From Slavery to Freedom, and The Emancipation Proclamation to name a few. In 2005 he published his autobiography Mirror to America. Besides his work in academia (which spans 70 years), Franklin was an active participant in the civil rights movement, has been an expert witness, and worked with President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Distinctions That Matter

This past week my AP classes focused on the Mexican-American War and the first half of the 1850’s.  Our discussions have centered on trying to better understand how the issue of slavery and the territories emerged as the most important question on the national stage.  It’s hard to draw a connection with an issue today which approaches the extent to which slavery had evolved to divide the nation.  After all, while Americans today debate stem cells, same-sex marriage and the war in Iraq none of these issues divides the nation along strict geographical lines.

Just about every year that I’ve taught the survey course in American history I’ve eventually had the discussion that tears down their neat distinction between the virtuous North and evil South.  I assume that these students were taught at some point in middle school or perhaps earlier to think along these lines.  No surprise given that history must be watered down at an early age owing to the student’s cognitive capacity.  By the time they get to their junior year in high school, however, it’s time to expand those boundaries. 

The specific challenge is in getting my students to a point where they can distinguish between race and slavery in reference to white Northerners.  Most of my students start off with the assumption that what it meant to be anti-slavery meant that you subscribed to the "radical" position of William L. Garrison.  We talk in great detail about the American Colonization Society’s plan to remove black Americans and why they believed this to be necessary.  As I understand it, the ACS did not believe that the races could co-exist and northerners specifically worried about the influx of former slaves into northern territory following the abolition of slavery.  I ask students to keep this in mind as they follow race relations into the twentieth century.

The Free-Soil Party and Republican Party argued against slavery and the spread of slavery into the western territories as a means to protect the future of free labor for white Americans.  Keep in mind that Know-Nothings (nativism) migrated into the new Republican Party.  Republicans maintained that part of the problem with slavery in the South was that it denied opportunity to poorer whites.  More importantly, keeping slavery out of the territories would benefit white Americans and the opportunity to engage in free labor.  Luckily, Eric Foner does a great job of highlighting this distinction:

The defining quality of northern society, Republicans declared, was the opportunity it offered each laborer to move up to  the status of landowning farmer of independent craftsmen, thus achieving the economic independence essential to freedom.  Slavery, by contrast, spawned a social order consisting of degraded slaves, poor whites with no hope of advancement, and idle aristocrats.  The struggle over the territories was a contest about which of two antagonistic labor systems would dominate the West and, by implication, the nation’s future.  If slavery were to spread into the West, northern free laborers would be barred, and their chances for social advancement severely diminished.  Slavery, Republicans insisted, must be kept out of the territories so that free labor could flourish. (p. 421, Give Me Liberty)

In saying all of this I am not denying that some Republicans did indeed focus on the issue of black civil rights as did Charles Sumner and others.  However, concentration on that group does not reflect the opinions of the general public. Without an appreciation of this important distinction between slavery and race it is impossible to understand wartime debates over emancipation, questions surrounding the federal government’s responsibilities during Reconstruction, and finally, it is difficult to appreciate the challenges related to black migration North and school integration in such cities as Boston following the Brown decision. 

Senator Jim Webb’s Confederacy

Seth Gitell of the New York Sun has an interesting analysis of Jim Webb’s non-fiction work on the "Old South" and Confederacy.  According to Gitell, while the Allen camp raised issues about Webb’s published work regarding women, they focused on the wrong issues.  They should have attempted to balance criticism of Allen’s identification with the Confederate battleflag and the Confederacy with Webb’s 2004 book, Born Fighting: How the Scotch-Irish Shaped America.  According to Gitell:

As a window on the mind of a rising politician in the Democratic Party, it is illuminating and perplexing. Mr. Webb refers to "bloodlines" and ethnic "DNA." Such talk is more in keeping with the Old World, where the character of an individual rested in the volkish notion of blood. He writes in broad ethnic stereotype, reminiscent of 19th-century readers that elucidated the nature of the Irish, the British, the French, and the Jew. He has words of praise for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. He rationalizes the position of the Confederate soldier and places the history of the Confederate flag in a heroic context. There’s no ideological litmus test in the Senate, of course, and senatorial campaign contests should not be reduced to the politically correct absurdities of the American college campus. None of the excerpts demands an immediate call to the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Even so, they represent thinking most liberals would have already denounced if uttered by a supporter of the Iraq war. Having said all that, it is notable that the usual suspects — most of them within the Democratic Party — are all so silent…

Here are a few excerpts from Webb’s Born Fighting:

That warrior ethic, which would carry the outnumbered and outgunned Confederacy a very long way, came from the long traditions of service that had begun so many centuries before in Scotland and the north of Britain. The Confederate battle flag itself was drawn from the St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland and the unbending spirit of the Southern soldier found its energies in the deeds of the past just as strongly as it looked up to the leaders of the present. These were the direct descendants of William Wallace’s loyal followers of five centuries before.

Scots-Irish "suffered 70 percent killed or wounded in the Civil War and were still standing proud in the ranks at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered — but in today’s politically correct environment this means that they were the ‘racist’ soldiers of the Nazi-like Confederacy.

Among others [Scots-Irish Confederate generals] included … the unparalleled Nathan Bedford Forrest, a semiliterate who proved to be a master of maneuver and improvisation, and who defeated every West Point general he faced."

Well, it looks like someone read their Grady McWhiney.  I have no idea what Webb is getting at with his reference to a "Nazi-like Confederacy."  Apart from a few people who exactly is comparing the Confederacy and the Nazis?  As long as Webb is not placed on a committee that is responsible for writing history we should be o.k.

Historians Write, But Does Anyone Listen?

Thanks to Brian Dirck over at A Lincoln Blog for providing a link to Ed Ayers’s thought-provoking review of Nicholas Lemann’s book, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.  Ayers raises a number of interesting questions about our popular perceptions of Reconstruction and the general publics failure to take into account the significant interpretive developments that have taken place since the end of World War II.  From the review:

Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War tells a story we keep trying to forget: White Southerners used every kind of violence at their command to destroy Reconstruction after the Civil War. Beguiled and benumbed by Gone With the Wind, many white Americans still imagine Reconstruction as a crime against the white South, marked by the sins of the carpetbaggers and the corruption of the Reconstruction governments. It is good to have this stubborn fable of Reconstruction refuted by a gifted and respected writer. It is good that it received a front-page New York Times review with a striking graphic of a Confederate battle flag in which the stars have been replaced by bullet holes. May it be widely read.

I disagree with Ayers that this is a story that we "keep trying to forget" since most Americans – and even those who consider themselves to be "Civil War buffs" have never known anything else.  Just the other day I came across a post from a fellow blogger who referenced the same overly simplistic view of Reconstruction even as he sets his sights on researching a crucial aspect of that period.  No one has done more to package the best of recent historical scholarship into books that have wide appeal.  But let’s face it Reconstruction is much too difficult for most white Americans to grasp.  I see this every year when I teach this subject.  Feelings of guilt are strong and for those more focused on the war itself, Reconstruction fails to provide anything approaching the glory of the battlefield.  So, what are we left with but talk of "scalawags" and "carpetbaggers" and a set of simplistic assumptions that assumes a unified white South and obedient former slaves.  The overarching problem for most casual observers of the period is that Reconstruction seems to challenge an overly optimistic view of American history that assumes continual progress.  Forget that this was a period where African Americans voted, were elected to office, and were able to pass legislation that often benefited poor southern whites for the first time.

Ayers also briefly comments on the failure of academic historians to compete with popular writers such as Lemann:

That is too bad, for the writing of history has never been richer, deeper, or more inventive than it is today, and historians have never been bolder in tackling new topics in new ways than they have been in the last two generations. The writing in many academic books is as good as the best nonfiction. These books have made a place for the people who have been left out of the best-selling histories, and they are the driving force behind the most innovative historical documentaries on television; they help shape the next generation of history, driving innovation and creativity; they are debated in fervent discussions on campuses across the country and around the world. But they remain part of a secret conversation and do not make a public mark as books.

Anyone familiar with recent titles authored by professional historians can sympathize with Ayers.  It is safe to assume that Ayers hoped to crack this barrier with his most recent book, In The Presence of Mine Enemies, though it is unclear to what extent he achieved this goal.  Academics have to take some responsibility for this failure and for the general public perceptions of the Ivory Tower.  In the end, however, Ayers’s observations have little to do with popular v. academic history, but with a general lack of interest in reading serious history that challenges some of our basic assumptions from this period.  It comes down to education and the teachers who man the trenches day in and day out. 

Genovese In The Classroom

Today my AP students read and discussed a short excerpt from Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaveholders Made. This is the second year that I’ve used this text in the classroom and it is a real challenge for high school students.  Since Eric Foner discusses paternalism in his textbook the selection from Genovese gives students a much richer insight into interpretations that take seriously the process by which both slaveholders and slaves responded to one another and in turn created their communities.  I give the students three questions to consider while they read: (1) How did slaves respond to the paternalism of their owners? (2) In what ways did slaves and slave-owners create a distinct community; what is Genovese’s evidence? (3) What preconceptions about slavery is Genovese challenging? 

I am still surprised by how the students respond to this text.  A few have no idea what he is getting at, but those students who spend the necessary time walk away with a radically different understanding of how slavery functioned in the antebellum South. 

Here ares some passages that the class is asked to focus on:

Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.

A paternalism accepted by both masters and slaves–but with radically different interpretations–afforded a fragile bridge across the intolerable contradictions inherent in a society based on racism, slavery, and class exploitation that had to depend on the willing reproduction and productivity of its victims. For the slaveholders paternalism represented an attempt to overcome the fundamental contradiction in slavery: the impossibility of the slaves’ ever becoming the things they were supposed to be.  Paternalism defined the involuntary labor of the slaves as a legitimate return to their masters for protection and direction. But, the masters’ need to see their slaves as acquiescent human beings constituted a moral victory for the slaves themselves.  Paternalism’s insistence upon mutual obligations–duties, responsibilities, and ultimately even rights–implicitly recognized the slaves’ humanity.

The humanity of the slave implied his action, and his action implied his will.  Hegel was therefore right in arguing that slavery constituted an outrage, for, in effect, it has always rested on the falsehood that one man could become an extension of another’s will. If one man could so transform himself, he could do it only by an act of that very will supposedly being surrendered, and he would remain so only while he himself chose to.  The clumsy attempt of the slaveholders to invoke a religious sanction did not extricate them from this contradiction. The Christian tradition, from the early debates over the implications of original sin through the attempts of Hobbes and others to secularize the problem, could not rationally defend the idea of permanent and total submission rooted in a temporarily precise surrender of will.  The idea of man’s surrender to God cannot be equated with the idea of man’s surrender to man, but even if it could, the problem would remain.

Overall the class went well.  We talked about the attempt to portray the slaves as agents in the way they acknowledged the paternalism of their owners and acted to use it to their advantage.  This is an important space that Genovese develops and I tried to get my students to see it by commenting on the broader historiographical depiction of slaves.  Some of them commented that they really enjoyed reading it and I suspect that this has much to do with his emphasis on a new question.  My students are "trained" to think of slavery as involving a power relation that is one-sided.  Slave-holders acted on their slaves.  Within this interpretation slaves are rendered invisible or were acted upon. 

I understand and agree with some of the criticisms of the book.  Yes, he does jump from the Lower South to the Upper South and the 18th to the 19th century all in one paragraph.  Yet, there is something aesthetic about Roll, Jordan, Roll.  Every time I go back to it I pull something new out of his interpretation.  The dynamic between the slave-holder and slave is such an interesting historical turn that continues to drive much of what is published.  I guess this is what goes into a real classic.