The other day my students brought in newspaper articles about the Civil War that were published in the New York Times between 1961 and 1965. They were allowed to search any topic and then had to write up a brief analysis of what they discovered. I asked them to staple the articles to their analysis so I could spend some time with their sources. In our discussion about Lincoln this interesting little article came up which reports on a Moscow radio broadcast that references the president. The article was published on February 14, 1961:
Tribute Paid to Lincoln in Moscow Broadcast
Abraham Lincoln, the Moscow radio said today, is a name “dear to the heart of the Soviet people.” A broadcast beamed at North America and heard here declared that the Soviet people “can sympathize with and understand Lincoln’s democratic views and his sincere and deep sympathy for the working people.” “Today, when the peoples of all countries see as the main task the struggle to preserve peace,” the broadcast went on, “we return to the words of Lincoln. Let us strive to do all that will achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” “We honor the great President and United States citizen because he represented the revolutionary and democratic traditions of the American people, traditions which found expression during difficult years of the struggle against fascism.”
What followed was a nice discussion about why our supposed ideological enemy, during the Cold War, would honor one of our presidents. One student suggested it was a clever piece of propaganda designed to undercut the American peoples’ self confidence. In other words, if the Soviet people revere one of our own than than Americans may doubt that there is such a wide gulf between the two nations. Another student argued that it was an attempt on the part of the Soviet Union to reach out in hopes of cooling tensions during the height of the Cold War. Finally, another student hesitantly made the point that perhaps the Soviets really do revere Lincoln. What followed was some very awkward silence, but I decided to ride it out in hopes that the conversation would continue. The problem, it turned out, was that some of the students had difficulty considering such a possibility. Even though they were born after the end of the Cold War they’ve been trained to remember this period by those who did experience it for different lengths of time. We talked a bit about the connection between the plight of the slaves and how the working class fits into communist ideology. I also reminded them that a large contingent of African Americans traveled and even settled in the Soviet Union as an alternative to the experience of living in a Jim Crow society. It seems safe to suggest that hey would have brought strong views of Lincoln with them, but I am going to have to go back and check out Glenda Gilmore’s recent study to see if she has anything to say.
One of the more interesting points of discussion that came up was why Americans have such difficulty acknowledging that other nations are interested in our Civil War. It’s true. We see nothing unusual about history courses devoted to the study of another country, but we rarely imagine students in other countries studying our own history. For those of you in the classroom who are interested in exploring this theme I highly recommend Dana Lindman and Kyle Ward’s History Lessons: How Textbooks From Around the World Portray U.S. History (The New Press, 2004). The book is broken down by events and each section includes short excerpts from various history textbooks from around the world. They make for some wonderful classroom discussions as students try to understand the reasons behind the various interpretations.
Some of you may remember this classic docudrama, The Lincoln Conspiracy, which poses the theory that President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was behind a plot to kill him at Ford’s Theater. His motive was his opposition to Lincoln’s adamant refusal to allow the North to punish the South for its actions. The “official” assassination goes awry when another would-be assassin, the second-rate actor John Wilkes Booth, learns of the plot and decides to beat the government to the punch, for reasons of his own. In the movie, it is Stanton’s assassin who is mistakenly captured and killed, rather than Booth. Click through for all 9-part episodes.
“In this comedy of political values Honest Abe’s home town puts a teacher on trial for asking ‘Was Lincoln Gay?’ Told in three acts – the audience decided the order – we see the events surrounding the ‘Trial of the Century’ through the eyes of the prosecution, the defense and the big city reporter.”
I had one of those moments today in my Civil War course where a student said something that helped me understand a document from a completely different perspective. We are in the middle of a week-long discussion of the coming of emancipation in the summer of 1862. We are following the ebb and flow of battle in Virginia and along the Mississippi and tracking the changes taking place throughout the United States surrounding the push toward emancipation. One of the more interesting documents we read this week was a Congressional address by Ohio Democratic Congressman Samuel S. Cox. On June 3, 1862 Cox delivered a blistering condemnation of emancipation and outlined a horrific picture of what would happen to the good people of Ohio in the event of a general emancipation. It was difficult to read, though it is crucial for my students to understand the strong racist views that white Northerners held at this time.
Today we read Lincoln’s famous response to Republican newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who urged Lincoln to move more quickly against slavery. We all know Lincoln’s response to Greeley in which he carefully explains how slavery relates to the overriding goal of preserving the Union. I asked my students to think about who Lincoln was addressing in this response and what he was trying to accomplish. A number of interesting points were raised in terms of Lincoln trying to find a middle ground by satisfying the Democrats focus on Union and a growing Republican interest in emancipation. We also discussed the extent to which Lincoln was trying to force those on the extremes to acknowledge that they may have to give up something in return for the preservation of the Union. At one point one of my students asked if Lincoln was trying to set the terms of what it means to be committed to the cause and the nation. In other words, that Lincoln may have been trying to define the language of patriotism and loyalty. With Cox in mind she suggested that Lincoln was forcing him to defend a position that may end up satisfying his own personal/local priorities even if that meant losing the war. I assume we could apply the same line of reasoning in reference to those on the opposite side who were so focused on ending slavery without considering the possibility that this may not bring about the preservation of the Union. To be completely honest, I never thought of this.
I always have to remember to control my facial response when a student says something that I find truly insightful. The last thing I want to do is stifle further discussion. With all of the talk about mischievous teachers steering their students in ways that reflect our own political values it’s nice to be able to point to an example where it’s the student who steers the teacher. As far as I am concerned, it’s not about us anyway.
My Civil War courses are in the middle of reading two essays about the 1850s and secession by James McPherson and Charles Dew. It is interesting that every year I end up having to spend the most time on two specific issues at the beginning of the semester. Even if my students claim not to have spent considerable time studying the Civil War they arrive in my class believing certain things.