Historical Fundamentalism

Today I decided to kill a few minutes by browsing a bit at my local bookstore.  To my surprise I noticed a new book by Jill Lepore, who happens to be one of my favorite historians.  Her latest book is titled, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History.  Of course, I bought it and I am glad I did.  It’s a quick read and Lepore does a wonderful job of illustrating the various ways in which the Tea Party Movement is using (and often abusing) the past for their own present purposes.  Early on she introduces what she describes as historical fundamentalism:

Historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past-“the founding”-is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts-“the founding documents”-are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible. (p. 16)

Along the way I’ve learned that the term ‘Founding Fathers’ wasn’t coined until 1916 by Warren G. Harding in his address to the Republican National Convention.  And I was surprised to learn that in 1798 John Adams signed an “Act for the relief of sick and disabled Seamen”.  Both state and federal officials were, as a result of the legislation, permitted to tax shipmasters in order to construct hospitals and provide medical care for merchant and naval seamen.

Acknowledging a Master Historian

9780195039146As a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Maryland I concentrated on philosophy of history.  While much of the literature in this sub-discipline continues to address questions first formulated at the height of the Logical Positivist Movement, I was much more focused on empirical questions that were more closely connected to actual working historians.  So, I wasn’t weighed down with the problem of objectivity or causation; rather, I was interested in how historical debates evolve and how various competing interpretations are evaluated within the historiography.  As I was thinking about a possible thesis topic my adviser suggested that I utilize a case study to help ground my thinking.  I received permission to take a graduate level history seminar and ended up registering for Prof. Ronald Hoffman’s seminar on the American Revolution.  The first evening was a real eye-opener as I stared at a syllabus that outlined about 1,000 pages a week.  The first week included all of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.  Compared to a philosophy seminar the amount of reading was overwhelming and I even thought about dropping out.  Somehow I managed to make my way through just about all of it only to show up for the second session having learned that few people actually read it.  It turns out that some graduate students simply go through a number of book reviews.  I certainly can understand and empathize with such a decision and I will admit that on occasion I did take the easy way out, but I am so glad that I didn’t that first week.  Wood’s book was a revelation to me.  The book is clearly the product of a creative and analytically sharp mind.  This was a Revolution that was completely new and full of questions and issues that I had never thought about before.  Most importantly, it made me want to understand much more about the Revolution and the Early Republic.

The seminar provided me with a thorough grasp of the various schools of thought beginning with the earliest histories of the Revolution through the Progressive, neo-Progressive, Whig, and neo-Whig interpretations.  I must have read at least twenty books, not to mention the many journal articles.  The seminar taught me how to think about the process of writing history and how interpretations evolve over time and why.  Since then I’ve retained my interest in this period of American history and, specifically, the work of Gordon Wood.  My hardbound copy of The Radicalism of the American Revolution is held together with a rubber band and his short survey of the Revolution is used in my own survey classes.  With that in mind, I must admit that today I snuck off campus to pick up Wood’s new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.  The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States, which makes Wood the ideal author.  Like the rest of the books in the series, this is a thick one numbering 700 pages, but I suspect that it is going to be a page turner like everything else he has written.

If I sound a bit over the top than you will have to excuse me.  Now seems like a good enough time to admit that most of my heroes are intellectuals.  I make no apologies for that.  I place a great deal of value on people who are not afraid to use their minds and who enrich my own life by forcing me to think harder about a host of issues. Gordon Wood has managed to do that consistently over the years and I suspect he is about to do so again.

Thomas Jefferson’s New Digs

MonticelloYesterday my wife and I spent a couple of hours at Monticello’s new visitor center, which opened only a few weeks ago. Those of you who have visited Monticello in the past know that the old facility was too far removed from the actual home and the structure itself was in serious need of repair. The new complex sits right below Jefferson’s home and is accessible either by bus or a short walk.  The structure itself is spread out and the various attractions are easily accessible from a very pretty and spacious courtyard.  This makes for easy access to the movie theater, bookstore, restaurant, and exhibits.  The layout is apparently designed to control the flood of visitors that travel to Monticello each year and it does so effectively judging by the size of the crowd.

After purchasing our tickets [$20 for adults – up from $15] we headed on over to the movie theater.  The film “Thomas Jefferson’s World” has a running time of roughly 20 minutes and attempts to give the viewer the big picture of Jefferson’s life and his love for Monticello.  The producers took full advantage of the beauty of Monticello and the surrounding landscapes, but the overall thrust of the film is on the theme of freedom as understood in the Declaration of Independence and on his Bill for Establishing Freedom in the State of Virginia.  The movie gives a nod to slave life and a passing reference to Sally Hemmings, but the bigger problem is the absence of Jefferson, the man.  The final few moments are devoted to the legacy of Jefferson’s vision of freedom, which includes images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela, and, most recently, the inauguration of Barack Obama.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but one wonders whether the time could have been better spent exploring Jefferson’s life as opposed to a legacy that he, arguably, could not have interpreted or even approved.

MonticelloFrom there we headed over to the new exhibit rooms.  I’ve been looking forward to this for some time since I had a hand in the early development of the interactive exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson and the Boisterous Sea of Liberty.”  I had wonderful time sketching out ideas for an exhibit that would allow visitors to explore the complexity and implications of Jefferson’s ideas.  Such an exhibit is absolutely essential given our tendency to overlook the fact that the Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment who believed that the power of reason can be harnessed to improve society and government.  I worked with the staff at Monticello for close to a year and watched as our ideas took shape.  We consulted with historians and examined designs by a number of teams who worked to give us a visual image of the actual exhibit. If I could do it all over again I would major in public history and try to carve out a career in a museum or historic site of some kind.  Questions of how to present history to the general public fascinate me.

Upon walking into the exhibit room I immediately recognized the fruits of our labor.  It looked much like I imagined it when I last worked on the project.  It’s an incredibly attractive exhibit that utilizes various sized panels that cover different stages of Jefferson’s career as well as the major events that comprised his public career.  Smaller screens of different heights protrude from the background screens and allow the visitor to explore various aspects of Jefferson’s life.  Categories fall [“drip”] along a touch screen panel that the visitor can explore by touching.  So, for instance you can click on the Boston Tea Party for more information or a concept having to do with the struggle with Parliament.  The screen expands with images and additional text.  It’s incredibly user friendly, but I was a bit disappointed with the range of options available to the visitor.  Our original idea was to implement a web-style interface that would allow the visitor to click through to any number of screens.  For example, clicking on the concept of freedom might take you to John Locke or a panel on the Whig opposition in England, which in turn might take you to something else.  The exploration would be continuous.  Unfortunately, it looks like you are only given one click before having to choose another selection.  At the same time it is difficult to see how a visitor with little understanding of Jefferson and his world is able to piece together a coherent narrative from the screen options.  Yes, the screens along the wall do provide an overview of some of the most important events of Jefferson’s life, but it takes an inordinate amount of time and involves stepping back from the individual touch screens.  Overall, I think this exhibit has quite a bit going for it and I assume that aspects of it can be reprogrammed; perhaps they can tweak it as more visitors leave feedback.

MonticelloThere are additional exhibit halls, the first focuses primarily on the architecture of Monticello, while the second explores various aspects of life at Monticello as well as Jefferson’s travels.  Between the movie and the exhibit hall it is clear that the staff intended to make life at Monticello and the house itself the main focus.  There is nothing wrong with this, given that the home itself is as much an attraction as the man who built it, but this minimizes the amount of attention that can be given to Jefferson’s life and accomplishments.  Visitors will be hard pressed to find anything about Jefferson’s two terms as President of the United States.  Overall, while the exhibits are accessible and engage the visitor I couldn’t help but feel as if Jefferson himself had been lost.  If I were to make one recommendation it is the need for a video/exhibit that explores Jefferson’s public career in more detail, especially his presidency.

It is important to keep in mind that the center must both prepare visitors for their tour of the house and provide an overview of the man himself.  In short, time is of the essence.  Given that the movie is 20 minutes it is easy to imagine a family of four emerging and ready to take the short bus ride to the top of the mountain.  Ultimately, visitors wanting a more detailed overview of Jefferson will have to purchase a book from the gift shop.  Criticisms aside this is a very attractive and well thought out visitor center that is long overdue.  I couldn’t be more pleased to have played a small role in this project.