I am probably one of the few people who walks the streets of Boston looking for glimpses of its Civil War past, both historical and commemorative. It’s a neglected past. Sure, you can find groups that stop at the monument to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, across from the state house, but you will be hard pressed to find much more even though the city and surrounding communities boast a rich Civil War commemorative landscape. Continue reading “Interpreting Boston’s Second American Revolution”
On Monday evening I attended a panel discussion at the Old North Church, sponsored by Revolution 250 to discuss the anniversary of events leading up to and including the American Revolution. Events have already marked the anniversaries of the Stamp Act Crisis and other events in the early years of colonial protest, but the big push will come in 2025-26 with the anniversaries of Lexington, Concord, etc. Boston will certainly be a popular destination for heritage tourists from the United States and beyond.
Panelists included William Fowler, Northeastern University; Martha McNamara, Wellesley College; Robert Allison, Suffolk University and Representative Byron Rushing. I didn’t have any expectations, beyond an interest in how the presenters were framing the anniversary. On this score I left just a bit disappointed. Continue reading “The 250th is Coming! The 250th is Coming!”
I moved to Boston in July 2011 and I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s a beautiful city and for a history buff it really does feel like I am a kid in a candy store. That said, I’ve lived two lives since arriving here and I am now wondering if it is time to give in and embrace this thing called the American Revolution. Over the past year I’ve halfheartedly explored a few potential Civil War research projects that are centered here in Boston. They include a regimental history of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and a Civil War biography of Governor John Andrew. Both are projects that would, no doubt, be interesting to explore and I have no doubt they would be embraced by both scholarly and popular audiences.
The problem is that beyond a few trips to the archives I can’t seem to maintain my excitement level. I walk to the archives or wander through the city and I am distracted by a very different history. Downtown Boston is defined by the sights/sites and sounds of the American Revolution. There is no escaping this and since I have always viewed history as a way to connect to my surroundings I want to know more. This includes not only the physical landscape, but the community of people who are involved in its interpretation and maintenance. Continue reading “Contemplating a Different Trail”
Word came earlier today that David Barton’s publisher has pulled his most recent book on Thomas Jefferson. Barton is best known as the evangelical Christian, who has built a career on uncovering or reclaiming the truth about America’s founding and Founding Fathers from the community of secular and liberal historians. Barton claims to be a historian. Over the past few years he has amassed a growing following who embrace his interpretation of the role of Christianity in the lives of individual Founders and in the establishment of this nation. Barton enjoys support from a wide range of public figures and is now the official court historian for Glenn Beck. So what happened?
First, it is important to note that Barton’s published works have been scrutinized from the beginning by professional historians, but to little avail. What made the difference in recent days is the growing resistance from fellow conservative Christian historians and scholars, who are actually trained in the field. It’s a growing list, but I would start here and for a critique of Barton’s book, Jefferson’s Lies, I recommend John Fea’s 4-part series.
On the one hand it is unfortunate that it took fellow conservative Christian historians to finally bring about the removal of this book from stores since their religious and political views have nothing to do with the strength of their arguments. Their arguments stand or fall based on how they read the relevant evidence cited by Barton as well as the strength of his interpretation. Barton is not being attacked because of his personal beliefs, but on his skill or lack thereof as a historian. Anyone who spends enough time reading these rejoinders will conclude that there are serious flaws with Barton’s work. In the end Barton claimed to be offering the general public a corrective to those evil secular/liberal historians without taking the essential step of engaging the relevant historiography. While Barton may not understand this his publisher certainly does.
So, what does this have to do with the Civil War? First, Barton and Beck recently tried their hand at doing some Civil War history and as you might imagine the results were pretty abysmal. More on point, however, it is important to keep in mind that we have plenty of David Barton-types in our own community. Check out any number of titles from Pelican Press, for example, and you will find the same flawed approach to doing history. Authors rail against what they see as a liberal/secular bias among professional Civil War historians and other writers, but when it comes to actually engaging their arguments they are silent. Either they are unfamiliar with their publications or they are simply incapable of engaging the arguments.
Let’s face it, the study of history has become so incredibly politicized that we’ve forgotten that the discipline involves the mastery of certain skills that can be learned in any number of places. Without getting into another tired discussion of who is and who is not a historian, we can at least say that one’s claim to the title stands or falls on the quality of the work produced. What we now can say with confidence is that Barton is no historian.
Today was a good day for the discipline of history.
Every year as I prepare my classes I rediscover my love for the history of the American Revolution. Like the Civil War, the Revolution enjoys a wide range of talented scholars and popular writers, who continue to crank out thought-provoking studies many of which I end up incorporating into my class lectures. This year was no different. Here is a list of the books that I’ve read over the past few months or hope to complete at some point soon. I know many of you have an interest in the period so I am curious as to what you’ve read recently or are looking forward to reading.
- Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (Yale University Press, 2010). I am just about finished with this book and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Carp does an outstanding job of placing the event within the context of the British Empire as a whole. He analyzes the local social and political scene in Boston as well as the choice of disguise and the consequences of the act.
- Julie Flavell, When London Was Capital of America (Yale University Press, 2010). I love books that force you to take a new perspective on familiar people and events. I recently heard that David McCullough’s next book will attempt something along the same lines.
- Woody Holton, Abigail Adams (Free Press, 2009). Holton goes furthest in exploring Abigail’s role as the caretaker of the family’s finances during John’s many absences. I know that Joseph Ellis recently published a book on John and Abigail, but the reviews have not been good.
- Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton University Press, 2010). You can read this in one or two days. It compliments Carp’s study nicely. As much as I found Lepore’s focus on the modern Tea Party movement to be interesting, I was much more surprised by earlier appropriations of the event.
- Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (Simon and Schuster, 2010). I’ve not had a chance to read this, but if it is as good as her study of the Declaration of Independence it’s going to be a real treat to read.
- Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Knopf, 2010) Taylor proves once again that there is an aesthetic quality to solid research that is beautifully written.