Challenges with Interpreting Northern Views Towards Slavery

Public historians interpreting nineteenth century United States history are tasked with facilitating discussions with their audiences about a wide range of unique and challenging historical topics. Scholars in recent years have emphasized the importance of discussing slavery, race, gender, economic inequality, and politics at public history sites rather than focusing exclusively on great white men, fancy furniture pieces, or anecdotal legends with dubious historical evidence. While some leaders of historic homes, museums, and other cultural institutions are undoubtedly hesitant to have their interpreters take on these contentious (and inherently political) topics, I believe that interpreters must be ready and willing to discuss them not because the cultural demographics of the U.S. are changing, but because we have an obligation to our audiences to share inclusive narratives that are historically accurate.

One of the biggest challenges I face as an interpreter lies in convincing my audiences that the historical legacies of slavery and racism in the United States are not problems unique to the South. Indeed, slavery thrived in the North America for nearly 250 years and racism persists in our society today precisely because the entire nation was and continues to be complicit in accepting these wrongs as standard social practices. Harvard University, for example, had slaveholding presidents who had no qualms about selling and trading slaves for profit during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. New England textile factories thrived during the antebellum era thanks to the labors of enslaved people in the South who picked the cotton they used to manufacture their products. And countless Northern politicians like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan defended slavery as a constitutionally sound practice and actively courted the votes of slaveholders throughout their careers.

Many Southern cultural institutions have actively worked towards the creation of more inclusive narratives that acknowledge the role of enslaved people in American society. Have Northern cultural institutions done the same? Some institutions like the New York Historical Society have created exhibits interpreting slavery in Northern states (some of the exhibit materials from the NYHS exhibit “Slavery in New York” can be viewed here), but I think there is a lot of room for growth and improvement. Equally important, cultural institutions all over the country face the challenge of interpreting the ways Northern states gradually abolished slavery and embraced anti-slavery opinions while tolerating its practice in the South. There is more room to interpret how these evolving anti-slavery views shaped the vigorous debates over slavery’s role in American society leading up to the Civil War.

Many visitors come to historic sites thinking of pro-slavery and anti-slavery beliefs in black and white terms: Southerners were racists who supported slavery while Northerners thought slavery was wrong and wanted the institution abolished. Yet this dichotomy masks the complex and contradictory ways people throughout the country opposed slavery. At White Haven I often talk about Ulysses S. Grant’s parents Hannah and Jesse Root Grant, who held anti-slavery beliefs. The evidence for these claims stems mainly from Jesse, who once worked at a tannery with John Brown and who sometimes wrote letters to the editor and op-eds for newspapers in Ohio about his opposition to slavery. None of us at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site have seen these newspaper articles, however, nor have historians cited specific newspaper articles from Jesse in their footnotes, instead opting to cite other secondary works on Grant instead. Thus we are left in a serious interpretive quandary: on what grounds did the Grants’ base their anti-slavery opinions?

Anti-slavery opinions took on a wide range of justifications during the antebellum era. Some based their opposition on economic grounds, arguing that slavery degraded the value of labor by enslaving African Americans. The emerging Republican party in the 1850s argued that the abolishment of slavery would allow all laborers an opportunity to make a livable wage and someday become landowners themselves. Republicans acknowledged that slavery was legal where it already existed, but they sought to ban its extension to new Western territories.

Some based their opposition on their belief that slavery was incompatible with democratic principles. Mob violence was commonplace throughout the country during the antebellum era, and much of this violence was geared towards those who expressed opinions against slavery. When a mob in Alton, Illinois, killed the anti-slavery newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy in 1837, some people embraced the anti-slavery cause because they feared that slaveholders and their political allies would take further measures to stifle free expression, dissenting opinions, and the right to petition against slavery. Some of these fears became reality when Congress passed a series of “gag rules” in the 1830s limiting the right to petition or express opinions against slavery to Congress. Similar resentments towards slaveholders emerged after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which included a fugitive slave law requiring officials in free states to return runaway slaves to their masters in the South. Many anti-slavery Northerners found this practice barbaric and resented slaveholder attempts to use the power of the federal government to dictate what Northerners should do about slavery.

Still others opposed slavery simply because they held racist views against black people. They may not have cared for slavery, but they also didn’t care about African Americans and took measures to prohibit their residence in free states. Thus states like Oregon, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana passed constitutional provisions banning black settlement within their boundaries. Free-Soil, Whig, and Republican politicians like David Wilmot supported these measures because they protected white labor from possible competition from free blacks, exposing the racist roots of free labor ideology in the 1840s and 1850s.

It is also important to point out that abolitionists were not necessarily the same people who considered themselves anti-slavery. Abolitionists generally believed that slavery was a moral wrong and demanded black equality through equal protection laws, the right to testify in court, and the right to vote. And as I wrote in a recent essay, some abolitionists chose to avoid active political participation in arguing against slavery. Those who held anti-slavery opinions, however, often avoided abolitionist moral arguments and opposed calls for black equality, instead embracing Wilmot’s desire to protect whites. Abraham Lincoln, for example, famously argued in 1858 that the two races were inherently unequal:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

In the future, I believe the challenge of exposing audiences to these nuanced arguments within Northern anti-slavery thought will be tough but necessary for public historians studying the history of slavery and race in the United States.

Are there any places you’ve visited that discuss Northern slavery or anti-slavery opinion? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.


Sherman’s March to the Sea in History and Memory

Photo Credit: New York Times

Photo Credit: Kevin Liles, New York Times

Saturday, November 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the start of General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, a crucial military maneuver in which roughly 62,000 United States troops ravaged Georgia businesses, railroads, train depots, factories, warehouses, and probably some private property as well. The March was intense and harsh, but its objectives were largely achieved. Confederates failed to defend Atlanta and the surrounding region from Sherman’s aggressive troops, whose easy movements through Georgia (and later the Carolinas) demoralized Confederate supporters and casted grave doubts about the Confederacy’s future.

The Georgia Historical Society recently dedicated a new historical marker about the March to coincide with the 150th anniversary of this important event, and as Alan Blinder’s New York Times feature on the marker suggests, there are critics who believe the marker’s text is the work of academic historians who have downplayed the ferocity and terror of Sherman’s march. Author Stephen Davis says these academics are “bending over backward to give Sherman a whitewash that he does not deserve,” while a Sons of Confederate Veterans leader refers to Sherman as “Billy the Torch.”

Sherman’s March, perhaps more than any other Civil War battle or campaign, captivates the imaginations of Civil War scholars and enthusiasts. A proliferation of stories about Sherman’s troops engaging in arson, rape, and murder have overwhelmed popular memory of the conflict to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to determine historical fact from mythical memory. Books and films like Gone With the Wind have vilified Sherman’s troops, while stories of distant ancestors ruined by the March are commonplace. One time I met a person at a historic site who pulled me to the side and proceeded to tell me how her Georgia ancestors (who magically owned a plantation without slaves) were forced to run away from that plantation once they heard that Sherman encouraged runaway slaves to rape all white women within the area (which is untrue). Scholars nevertheless continue to debate the degree to which Sherman should be held responsible for Georgia’s destruction versus other Confederate generals like Wade Hampton and John Bell Hood, who did their own fair share of destruction throughout the state.

The March to the Sea raises some interesting questions about history and memory, and it’s not surprising to see such bitter debate today about this new historical marker. In the course of a recent Facebook conversation about the new marker, however, an acquaintance made the following remark:

It always amuses me that a war fought 150 years ago still “ruffles feathers”. 4 generations removed and they are still sore losers.

Can and should we “move on” from Sherman’s March to the Sea? Can we accept the Civil War as a resolved conflict that occurred 150 years ago? Should those who embrace the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War–which argues that secession was legal, that the war was about “states’ rights,” and that the United States only won the war through larger numbers and resources, not superior military skill and strategy–stop being sore losers? Are there problems with the text of this historical marker? I provided the following answer:

1. The Civil War is still relevant to contemporary political discussion and probably always will be because the fundamental questions that war provoked are still contested today. Those questions include but are not limited to: 

  • What is freedom?
  • Who is an American, and what rights come with American Citizenship?
  • Can states leave a county if they disagree with the results of a democratic election?
  • What is considered free labor and a fair wage?
  • To what extent should we compromise with those we disagree with versus sticking to our values and beliefs?

As long as these complex questions are contested, people will use the Civil War to justify their specific perspective. Robert Penn Warren famously remarked in 1961 that the Civil War was our “felt” history, and while I think that concept is vague, I’d say it might have something to do with the presence of the war’s memory in our contemporary discourse.

2. The old canard about “the victors get to write the history” is patently false, and we don’t have to look any farther than the Lost Cause for evidence. From the Appomattox surrender to today, Confederate apologists have cornered the history and literary markets through books, articles, monuments, public speeches, and history textbooks. Anyone can get online today and read the various state Declarations of Secession or Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s biography of the Confederacy if they so choose. I too grow tired of folks who want to keep fighting the Civil War, but for many Lost Causers that perspective reigns dominant in their imagination because it’s what they’ve been taught to believe all their lives. History and memory are not the same thing, and it can be tough for someone to take historical documents seriously when they grew up hearing Grandpa’s stories about Uncle Billy’s troops in Georgia. Grandpa’s stories are worthy of acknowledgement because they hold an interpretive power that shapes how his loved ones and friends understand history, but I think it’s important that his stories be scrutinized and compared to the available historical evidence we have about the March to the Sea.

3. I take a bit of an exception with the line “they also liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path” in the marker, which I think could potentially mask as much as it enlightens. Yes, Sherman and his troops played a vital role in the demise of slavery through the Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the March through the Carolinas, but it was a role that Sherman and many of his men were reluctant to embrace or deal with in the first place. Sherman was an outright racist who didn’t care about slavery one way or the other, and we can’t forget about General Jefferson C. Davis (not to be mistaken with Confederate President Jefferson Davis) and his rather deplorable actions at Ebenezer Creek, which left a large group of freed African Americans at the mercy of Confederate General Joe Wheeler and facing possible re-enslavement. Nor does the marker acknowledge the slaves’ agency in emancipating themselves. While I don’t think the marker addresses these tensions, I’m honestly not sure how they would do so in the first place.


Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and Public Commemoration in Sports

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry- USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry- USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago the highly-touted St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras died in a tragic auto accident at the age of 22. Having been a lifelong Cardinals fan who happened to be at the playoff game in which Taveras hit his last home run, the news of his death shocked and saddened me. Following his death ideas starting coming to me for an essay about public commemorations in sports and the ways fans establish imagined communities of belonging through a shared love of their favorite sports teams. The good folks at Sport in American History generously read a draft of this essay, provided some thoughtful suggestions to make it better, and posted it to their website today. You can read it here. I put my heart into this essay and I hope regular readers of Exploring the Past enjoy it.

I’d also like to give a special thank you to Andrew McGregor, a history Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University and founder of Sport in American History. Andrew is an emerging sports historian and all around great scholar who helped me immensely during the writing process.


Thinking About Oreintation Films at Public History Sites

The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I had an interesting and unusual interaction with a visitor to my place of employment (Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site) the other day.

One of the main features in our park is a brief 16-minute film in the site’s Visitor Center theater. We typically run the film on request throughout the day for visitors seeking a basic background on U.S. Grant. The film does a fine job of illuminating Grant’s life experiences, but at the end of the day it’s the most “optional” aspect of the site experience. If you’re running short on time, you can probably skip it and still get a lot out of your experience via the historic house tour and museum.

We temporarily shut down the film for a few hours to accommodate a special program that took place in the theater this weekend. During that time a visitor walked in and immediately asked about watching the film. After telling her that we temporarily shut down the film she became visibly distraught, commenting that “I brought relatives from Denver to visit the site today! Had I known the film would be shut down we wouldn’t have come.”

How do you respond to this visitor in an appropriate manner?

I responded by saying that the historic White Haven estate (pictured above) is the reason the National Park Service is here at this site. There’s only one White Haven where you can learn about and walk in the same house that Ulysses Grant, Julia Dent Grant, Frederick Dent (Julia’s father), and Fredrick’s enslaved people lived and worked. You can watch literally hundreds of films about Grant on TV and online, but there’s only one place where you can take a ranger-led tour and connect important stories about our nation’s history to a tangible artifact like White Haven. The Park Service preserves and interprets history, nature, and culture throughout the United States, and it wouldn’t be around if they only showed films about history. While we regretted that the film was temporarily shut down, we hoped they would stay for a tour and watch the film once we got it going again after the conclusion of this special program.

There was a happy end to the story and the group thankfully took my response to heart. They stayed for a tour, spent time in the museum, and were able to watch the film later in the day. At the end of their visit they left a very kind message about our resources in our guestbook.

I don’t have any grand insights about this interaction, but it reminded me of the importance many visitors place on film as a way of understanding history.  For historians like myself who invest a lot of stock in scholarly monographs and journal articles it is easy to forget that most people do not learn about history through those mediums. Feature-length historical dramas, reenactments, and documentaries–regardless of how “accurate” historians deem them to be–captivate wide, diverse audiences who often take them to be “what actually happened” in the past. Millions of people have seen “12 Years a Slave,” “Lincoln,” and/or “Django Unchained” on film over the past few years. By contrast, we will probably interact with about 40,000 visitors at ULSG this year, and maybe a few hundred or 1,000 people will read Ed Baptist’s new book about slavery in the next twelve months. As much as we want a large audience that reads innovate scholarship about the topics we care about, we must acknowledge the myriad ways people come to understand their past beyond books.

Within the context of public history (and more specifically the National Park Service), film plays an important role in helping visitors orient themselves to a site and its mission. Many visitors of all ages come to ULSG without any knowledge of Ulysses S. Grant or the Civil War, while others come with preconceived notions that were shaped by classroom experiences forty, fifty, and sixty years ago. They expect to see an orientation film that provides important information about a site and the history it interprets, and they consider these films an important part of their public history experiences.


P.S.: For those interested, Teresa Bergman’s Exhibiting Patriotism: Creating and Contesting Interpretations of American Historic Sites has some pretty good content about orientation films at public history sites and how they shape the historic narratives told at these places.

Why Teacher Evaluations Can’t Be Measured Largely Through Standardized Tests

This isn't going to work.

This isn’t going to work.

Regardless of how any individual Missouri voter feels about the results of the 2014 midterm election, all voters in the Show-Me State have much to celebrate with their collective rejection of Constitutional Amendment 3, a poorly written special interest-funded initiative that would have hurt the state’s schools, teachers, and students. The initiative was largely funded by Rex Sinquefield, a St. Louis philanthropist who has never taught a k-12 class and who put $1.2 million of his own money into a lobbying group called “Teach Great” to promote the measure. Despite these efforts the amendment was rejected by a 3-to-1 margin and not a single county had a majority of its population vote in support of it. In rejecting this amendment, Missouri voters took a principled stand against the elimination of teacher tenure and the implementation of additional standardized testing to measure teacher performance in the state’s public schools. In the essay that follows I will outline why such a program would have never worked in the first place had voters approved this atrocious legislation.


The full text of the proposed amendment can be read at the Missouri Secretary of State’s office here. Key sections of the text include Section 3e, which eliminates teacher tenure by requiring all schools to enter into contracts with teachers for only three years at most, and Section 3f, which stipulates that all schools enter into a “standards based performance evaluation” that “shall be based upon quantifiable student performance data as measured by objective criteria.”

The desire to eliminate teacher tenure largely stems from popular misunderstandings of what tenure entails. Many people think tenure means a lifetime appointment without threat of termination, which in turn will ostensibly breed laziness and incompetence in the classroom. In reality a tenured Missouri teacher can be terminated at any time for one of six clearly listed violations, including incompetence, insubordination, immoral conduct, and felony conviction. All tenure does is ensure that a teacher who works for five years at the same district no longer has to rely on a year-to-year contract to ensure their employment status with that district. Moreover, if a tenured teacher is terminated from their contract, they are entitled to a hearing before the district’s school board, whereas non-tenured teachers can be dismissed without cause or a hearing. That’s it.

A standards based performance evaluation relying heavily on quantifiable student performance data is fraught with all sorts of evaluative difficulties and uncertainties. To demonstrate this point we can think about how such a system would work for medical doctors. There are many types of doctors out there, but let us specifically consider Dr. Gregory House, my favorite TV doctor.

Dr. House and his team are diagnosticians who care for patients with a range of medical issues. Some are minor, others are life-threatening. To ensure that Dr. House and his team are providing good medical care to their patients, we might say that a “standards based performance evaluation using quantitative data” about patient responses to their medical diagnoses would be most appropriate for assessing these doctors’ performances. This data may give us insights into how long people stayed at the hospital, what sorts of ailments they suffered from, how many people died under the doctors care, etc. On the face of it these suggestions seem like fair, objective measures for analyzing Dr. House’s team, just as a standards based evaluation looks fair to teachers.

Few people, however, would fail to acknowledge that the patients under Dr. House’s care have specific socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds that do not easily fall under a quantitative measure of assessment. How a person takes care of his or her self–diet, exercise, sleep habits–influences their body’s ability to respond to a doctor’s treatment (in addition to genetics, which we are still learning about). Economic inequalities may prevent someone from getting appropriate medical treatment during the early stages of their ailment. Some people simply have a negative perception of doctors and/or medicine and opt out of treatment until it’s too late. All of these factors play a role in the doctor-patient-medicine relationship, and the effectiveness of Dr. House’s diagnostics team cannot be simplified into quantifiable numbers and Excel spreadsheets about the number of people who died under their care. Is it really fair to base Dr. House’s pay on whether or not he can save the life of a person who smoked two packs a day, didn’t have ready access to good healthcare throughout their life, and only sought medical help when it was too late to do anything about an inoperable form of cancer?

Just like Dr. House’s patients, k-12 students come from specific socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds. Those backgrounds can do much to shape how they will perform in a classroom long before a teacher can do anything to help them out. Poor parenting, broken homes, abusive families, a parental disinterest in education, poor nutrition, crumbling neighborhoods, and a lack of social services or extracurricular activities for kids all act as potential barriers to success in the classroom. Indeed, a teacher’s influence in shaping his or her students’ education is probably overstated in most cases because it takes a community to raise a child and overcome these problems. Grades, standardized tests, and quantifiable data don’t account for these contingencies. A group of students who get ‘C’s on their standardized tests may have received those grades after a teacher spent long hours helping them overcome years of perpetual ‘D’s and ‘F’s. Yet Mr. Sinquefield’s pet legislation would base that teacher’s future salary, retention, promotion, demotion, or dismissal on the fact that her students got ‘C’s. Is that really fair?

When devising an evaluation it is absolutely essential to first develop your research questions before determining the sorts of tools and methods you plan to implement in the evaluation. There is room for both qualitative and quantitative methods in teacher evaluations, but school administrators must first ask themselves what, exactly, they want to learn about their teachers and students. Public school districts throughout Missouri undoubtedly face different economic, cultural, and political challenges within their local communities, and the process of evaluating teachers should be largely shaped by individual districts, their school boards, and local residents who are must attuned to these circumstances. Limited assistance from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can be helpful as well. And we must always fight to ensure that children from impoverished and/or abusive backgrounds are getting they help they need outside the classroom so that they can succeed in the classroom. Amendment 3 doesn’t address these issues, and Missouri voters threw it in the trash where it rightfully belongs.


William Lloyd Garrison and the Principle of Non-Voting

William Lloyd Garrison. Photo Credit: "Declaring America,"

William Lloyd Garrison. Photo Credit: “Declaring America,”

With the passing of November 4, 2014, has come another cycle of debate, discussion, and voting in the United States. Every two years U.S. citizens participate in this ritual by voting for local, county, state, and national leaders to serve and protect their interests. In the months before these elections we are constantly told by politicians, celebrities, and even religious leaders that we must make our voices heard by voting. When we leave the polls we get “I Voted” stickers that act as self-assuring indications to ourselves and others that we’ve participated in the democratic process and have successfully completed our civic duty.

But is voting alone really enough to fill that civic duty? To what extent should we be held responsible for the consequences of our votes? Must all democratic governmental changes take place within the system, or are there acceptable strategies for enacting change through outside activism? Might there be ethical or moral issues with voting in a representative democracy? These questions were hotly debated in the United States during the nineteenth century, a time when American representative democracy was still in its infancy and most countries were still run by monarchies and aristocrats. Caleb McDaniel’s recent publication The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform illuminates these debates as they took place within the abolitionist movement from 1831-1865.

Antebellum abolitionists are well-known in history for their strong opposition to slavery, their desire to see the institution abolished immediately, and their wish to provide suffrage rights and political equality for African Americans. As McDaniel points out, however, abolitionists also read about and debated a wide range of issues intimately associated with slavery, including free speech, democracy, nationalism, and religion. Within these debates emerged different perspectives about the merits of voting and whether or not it would help in the fight to end slavery in the United States. Garrisonian abolitionists, named after their leader William Lloyd Garrison, took a decided stand against voting or running for political office in the years before the Civil War, arguing that political agitation outside the system would be most effective in convincing Americans to call for the end of slavery.

Garrison, a devoutly religious abolitionist and editor of the Boston-based newspaper The Liberator, provided a nuanced, thought-provoking stance towards the principle of non-voting.

All governments, according to Garrisonians, were coercive entities who used violence to achieve and maintain their legitimacy. The United States received special condemnation from Garrisonians because its government readily implemented legalized state violence to keep millions of blacks in slavery while proclaiming itself as the freest nation on earth. As Garrison argued in 1845, “[The United States] was conceived in sin, and brought forth in iniquity; and its career has been marked by unparalleled hypocrisy, by high-handed tyranny, by a bold defiance of the omniscience and omnipotence of God. Freedom indignantly disowns it, and calls for its extinction; for within its borders are three millions of Slaves, whose blood constitutes its cement, whose flesh forms a large and flourishing branch of its commerce.” Garrisonians viewed all acts of violence as sinful, therefore voting constituted a sinful act that violated the will of God. Voting was also sinful because it privileged allegiances to political parties, governments, and nations over God’s earthly and sovereign kingdom.

Garrisonians instead called on “public agitation” to effect change in American society, arguing that suffrage took a back seat to the important work of influencing public sentiments about slavery. Garrisonian agitations took on many forms, including public speeches and debates, newspaper editorials, books, and abolitionist literature sent to Southern slaveholders through the mails (although President Andrew Jackson’s Postmaster General Amos Kendall allowed postal officers in the South to withhold this mail from its intended recipients, a clearly illegal maneuver aimed at protecting the sensibilities of slaveholders). At heart in these efforts was the belief that agitation was essential to influencing public sentiment and promoting the free expression of dissenting opinions. Garrisonians believed that agitation alone (without actively participating in the democratic process through voting) could convince voters to select anti-slavery candidates for office. In sum, influencing voters’ political perspectives was more important to Garrisonians than teaching them the virtues of voting in the first place. Garrison brought this point home when he remarked in 1839 that “I still expect to see abolition at the ballot-box, renovating the political action of the country . . . not by attempting to prove that it is the duty of every abolitionist to be a voter, but that it is the duty of every voter to be an abolitionist.”

By the 1840s, however, “political abolitionists” began arguing that voting was necessary to overtake the so-called “Slave Power.” According to McDaniel, political abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and James Birney “believed slaveholders had to be bested in the arena of politics because the government was what gave them so much protection and power” (160). Agitation alone was not enough to effect change, according to these abolitionists, and it was necessary to form political parties to beat proslavery politicians at their own game. Parties like the Liberty Party and the Free-Soil Party formed in the 1840s with the explicit goal of ending slavery, but their success at the polls was minimal and without the support of Garrisonian abolitionists who still believed their freedom to agitate would be compromised by active political participation.

While I personally disagree with the principle of non-voting, I think Garrisonians are right in asserting the importance of influencing public sentiment outside the systems that maintain a representative democracy. Dissent and activism are essential to a healthy republic that values free discussion; free elections can’t take place without those prerequisites. Voting alone doesn’t necessarily fulfill our civic duty because we must also agitate for those prerequisites. In a sense voting is only one tool within a larger responsibility to promote universal freedom and equality at all times.


News and Notes: November 2, 2014

The weather and clocks are changing, but the blogging continues here at Exploring the Past. Here are a few good reads and some personal notes.

Good Reads

  • Flawed commemoration in Britain: The Tower of London is currently surrounded by red ceramic poppies in commemoration of British soldiers who died during World War I. Jonathan Jones writes a scathing and largely accurate (in my opinion) criticism of this commemoration, arguing that such a commemoration needs to highlight the horrors of war and the ways WWI was tragic to all of Europe, not just Britain.
  • The History Manifesto: Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have recently published a new book, The History Manifesto. Guldi and Armitage argue that “the spectre of the short term” clouds our society and government policy. “Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years” (1), according to Guldi and Armitage. This method of thinking also dominates the historical enterprise, where historians are told to specialize in historic eras or events that range between four and forty years, privileging the small picture instead of the big one. They argue that historians should aim to think more about the long term and the ways history changes over hundreds of years. Moreover, Guldi and Armitage argue that historians should involve themselves in public policy. The History Manifesto is open access and freely available for PDF download here.
  • Do Professors need to use digital technology in the classroom?: Professor and columnist Rebecca Schuman says ‘no.’
  • The Specter of Gettysburg: Kevin Lavery, a student at Gettysburg College, writes a sharp criticism of so-called “historic” ghost tours in and around the Gettysburg battlefield, with some pushback from readers in the comment section. A very thought-provoking read.
  • Slavery in America – Back in the headlines: People think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but they don’t.”

Personal Notes

  • Two of the chapters from my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, are currently under review for possible publication in scholarly journals. One of these chapters was revised into an article during the spring semester and submitted for review back in August. The blind peer-reviewers just got back to me a few days ago with mostly positive comments but also a few revisions to make the article better. The other chapter was revised throughout the summer and was submitted a couple weeks ago, so I’m still waiting for feedback on that one. I’ll have more info on these articles soon. Stay tuned.
  • I have an essay on Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and public commemoration in sports that is slated for publication on Sport in American History on November 10. This is my first essay for SAH and I’m really excited for readers to check it out.


A Parting Gift From General Grant

Frederick Tracy Dent (1820-1892). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Frederick Tracy Dent (1820-1892). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Yesterday my friend and colleague Bob Pollock and I took a trip to Southern Illinois University Carbondale to conduct research on the papers of Frederick Tracy Dent, the brother-in-law of General and President Ulysses S. Grant. Bob is currently researching the Dent family and has been writing extensively about this research on his blog Yesterday…and Today. We didn’t really find any documents within the collection to help answer our questions about the Dent family, but we nonetheless found some really interesting material, including letters from Grant, William T. Sherman, James Longstreet, and Frederick T. Dent himself. Bob discussed some of our findings here.

Frederick T. Dent was born on December 17, 1820, in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up at the White Haven estate that is now the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. He attended the West Point Military Academy and was a graduate of the class of 1843. During his time at West Point Dent befriended and was roommates with Ulysses S. Grant, a fellow 1843 graduate. When Grant was sent with the 4th U.S. Infantry to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis following graduation, Fred invited him to meet the rest of his family at White Haven. Ulysses met Fred’s sister Julia at White Haven in the Spring of 1844, and it was here where Ulysses and Julia fell in love and began a four-year courtship. Their wedding took place in downtown St. Louis in August 1848 and the marriage lasted thirty-seven years.

Fred had a stellar forty-year career in the U.S. military. He served in the Western frontier and the Mexican-American War during the antebellum years. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 he stayed with the United States military and started the war out west. Following Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant-General in March 1864, Dent was appointed an aide-de-camp on Grant’s staff. Following the war he was promoted to Brigadier General of the U.S. Army in 1866, and he served as a “military secretary” for Grant during most of his Presidency (1869-1873). If you wanted to meet with President Grant, you had to go through Fred first (this fact became evident yesterday as we sifted through numerous letters from people seeking Fred’s assistance in securing an interview with Grant). Fred retired from the U.S. military in 1883 and later moved to Denver, Colorado, where he died in 1892.

In the course of our research we stumbled upon a touching letter written by Frederick Dent Grant to Frederick T. Dent in March 1886. Fred Grant was Ulysses and Julia Grant’s oldest child and Fred Dent’s namesake. Ulysses had died on July 23, 1885, exactly eight months prior to this letter, and Fred Grant had an important message for his uncle:

New York
March 23d 1886

Dear Uncle Fred,

Just before my beloved father died he gave some instructions about what he would like done. Among these wishes was one about you. He said he wanted to send you a little present in memory of old and happy days. That he had grown very fond of you, and that if Mother could spare it he would like her to send you $500[,] which I now enclose to you with her love.

Mother says if you and Aunt Helen can come she would like you to pay her a visit. All join in love for you and yours[.]


Your Nephew
Fred Grant

Ulysses S. Grant never forgot the assistance, kindness, and companionship his brother-in-law provided him throughout a more than forty-year friendship. Through this relationship we can see the generous character of both men.


Thinking Out Loud About the History Ph.D. and the Future of Higher Ed

History PhD Reporting Employment 2012

Regular readers of Exploring the Past know that I occasionally muse on the state of higher education in the United States and what the academy might hold for someone like me in the future. I wish I had the ability to look into a crystal ball and envision this future, but I instead find myself in a paradox when it comes to whether or not I should pursue my history Ph.D. On the one hand, I’ve worked extremely hard to position myself for a full-time, permanent status placement with the National Park Service, an agency whose mission and values I care deeply about. Now that I’ve earned that position (for which I’m extremely grateful), it seems that getting “experience in the field” and not pursuing a Ph.D. at present makes the most sense for my career development, and I’ve been told as much by some of my teachers. On the other hand, I received a lot of support from other teachers during graduate school who encouraged me to strongly consider the Ph.D. path and pursue it as soon as possible. By pursuing the Ph.D. now, I could also position myself for potential employment within higher education in addition to possibly furthering my public history career.

I love teaching history in both formal and informal learning settings, and I hope to do more of both in my career. But it can be mentally overwhelming thinking about the unknown contingencies that will shape where I go and what I do through the course of my career. It’s important not to discount any avenue of opportunity at this point, and I’ve been doing my best to get a feel for what I might expect if I were to pursue my Ph.D. Unfortunately, the research I’ve done so far indicates that my prospects don’t look good if I pursue this path.

Overeducated, Unemployed: There are too many Ph.D. candidates in all fields of study. Hope College English professor William Pannapacker suggests that this glut of Ph.Ds (especially in the humanities) stems from schools’ reliance on cheap teaching labor. “It’s my view that higher education in the humanities exists mainly to provide cheap, inexperienced teachers for undergraduates so that shrinking percentage of tenured faculty members can meet an ever-escalating demand for specialized research.” These schools, according to Pannapacker, don’t really care about the employment status of their students once they graduate.

Because there is a glut of Ph.Ds on the academic job market, schools set the terms of employment to their favor. Amid severe funding cuts for public colleges and universities and rising costs for non-academic ventures (more on that in a moment) since the 2008 Great Recession, a race to the bottom has ensued within academia. More than 50 percent of all faculty in today’s schools are part-time. Some faculty voluntarily choose to be part-time because they either have full-time employment outside academia, are retired from the workplace and choose to teach occasionally, or simply prefer this sort of schedule. But the vast majority of these faculty members do not work outside the academy and are placed in a position where they frantically run around from school to school looking for classes to teach. Adjunct faculty members have no job security, no health benefits, and make an average of $2,700 per course (which means that a person teaching four classes per semester would be making $21,600 annually, before taxes). There are professors on food stamps.

Efforts to find new Ph.Ds employment opportunities outside the academy (“alt-ac”) are still in their infancy, but the transferability of academic skills and training to alternative careers remains an open question. The Boston Globe recently published an essay about a “quiet crisis” in the science community, where recent Ph.Ds have been increasingly forced to work in low-paying postdoctoral apprenticeships thanks to cuts in higher education employment and federal funding. (And, while I’m at it, I should point out that STEM graduates of any level are struggling to find employment, contrary to popular belief that the U.S. lacks a sufficient number of young, competent science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals).

And then there are those who simply can’t find employment. The graph above, taken from a recent study by the American Historical Association, found that less than 50 percent of new history Ph.Ds reported finding “definite employment” following the completion of their degree and about 40 percent saying that they were still “seeking employment.” (Here’s a collection of data studies from the AHA on history programs, employment, and students).

What is the cost of pursuing a Ph.D?: Many–if not most–Ph.D. students live on a monthly or yearly stipend that ostensibly covers the cost of living. Schools pay their students to work as Teaching Assistants, researchers, or a range of other jobs for roughly twenty hours a week. These stipends end up totaling around $10,000-$12,000 per year, which is low enough that some students have been forced to take public assistance to help pay the bills while in school. A select few are lucky enough to get their tuition fully covered in addition to their yearly stipend, but most students are forced to take out loans to cover their rising tuition costs and usage fees while in school. The average debt burden for graduate students today is $60,000. Moreover, this debt doesn’t account for the years of lost income that accompany any full-time investment in the pursuit of a Ph.D., which can take between five and ten years to complete. University of Iowa Sally Mason recently attributed at least half of this student debt to so-called “‘lifestyle debts’ caused by students buying things like iPhones, iPads, and laptops” (see link above), reflective of her clear ignorance of these serious problems.

Where does the money go?: The sad thing about this rising debt is that so much of the increasing tuition rates in U.S. schools are reflective of the rising costs of things completely detached from the academic classroom. Contrary to popular assumptions and beliefs, colleges and universities are not increasing tuition rates because of rising faculty costs. That money is actually going towards the building of fancy campus centers, sports stadiums, dorms, and 9,000 Square Feet President’s Residences. And we can’t forget the huge growth of higher education administrators who take an increasing amount of the budgetary pie in academia. From 1987 to 2012 the number of administrators in colleges and universities more than doubled, with 517,636 administrators and professional employees added to the payrolls during that period.

I’m not one for big freak-outs and alarmist rhetoric, but the above information definitely sobers my perspective whenever I start thinking about furthering my education, and I have a bad feeling that things will either stay the same or get worse in the future.


Should Historians Influence Present-Day Politics?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Gordon Wood’s ideas on the differences between history and political theory. In his book The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History, Wood briefly reflects on his conception of these differences. One passage in the book is particularly noteworthy and worth quoting in full:

Political theorists, especially those influenced by the ideas of Leo Strauss, tend to believe that the history of political thought can be studied as a search for enduring answers to perennial questions that can enhance contemporary political thought. Historians, on the other hand, tend to hold that ideas are the products of particular circumstances and particular moments in time and that using them for present purposes is a distortion of their original historical meaning. It doesn’t follow from this distinction that past ideas cannot be legitimately used in the very different circumstances of the present; of course, they can be used and are used all the time. Jefferson’s idea of equality, for example, has been used time and again throughout our history, by Lincoln as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Historians contend that such usages violate the original historical meaning of the ideas and cannot be regarded as historically accurate, but they don’t deny the rationality and legitimacy of such violations.

Such distinctions and violations are indeed necessary for contemporary discussions of political thought and are no great sin, as long as the theorists are aware that they are not being historically accurate. It’s the theorists’ claim that their present-day use of past ideas is true to the original way they were used in the past that historians quarrel with. Ideas, of course, do not remain rooted in the particular circumstances of time and place. Ideas can, and often do, become political philosophy, do transcend the particular intentions of the creators, and become part of the public culture, become something larger and grander than their sources. Political theory, studying these transcendent ideas, is a quite legitimate endeavor; it is, however, not history (162-163).

Wood expresses his concern that historians run the risk of thinking “unhistorically” by manipulating past ideas to fit our understanding of political conditions in the present. He worries that holding people from the past responsible for a future they could never envision or conceive in their own time leads to a poor understanding of past ideas within their own historical context – “the original way they were used in the past.” Thus, when politicians like Lincoln and MLK use the past to justify their political philosophies in the present (a common, rational practice then and now), they are distorting and violating the values of historical thinking, according to Wood. Historians analyze change over time and help us understand how our contemporary world came into being, but to use past ideas as a framework for establishing political theories in the present is not history. As Wood comments later in the book, “I suppose the most flagrant examples of present-mindedness in history writing come from trying to inject politics into history books . . . Historians who want to influence politics with their history writing have missed the point of the craft; they ought to run for office” (308).

These are sharp, intelligent reflections on the historian’s craft, but I think the extent to which politics plays a role in historical thinking is more of an open question than Wood would like to acknowledge. For one, it’s hard to imagine a history book free of politics because the past and present hold a reciprocal relationship with each other that makes it nearly impossible for us to get our politics out of the past. It is often assumed that the past shapes how we view the present, but less often do we acknowledge that the present shapes our conception of the past. It’s probably true that a place like Ferguson, Missouri, has been shaped by a past legacy of racist government policy and white supremacy, but it’s also true that the political ramifications of a 2014 police shooting of a black teenager by a white cop in Ferguson (regardless of the case’s final outcome) shape our conceptions of what, exactly, that legacy of racist government policy and white supremacy means for our history.

Public historians must also face these sorts of questions because so much of what they do is inherently political. The National Council on Public History defines public history as a set of practices aimed at “describ[ing] the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.  In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world [i.e. present-day] issues.” And a recent essay on the NCPH’s blog, History@Work, praised the efforts of a federal district court judge to provide a historical context for explaining her opposition to a 2011 Texas Voter ID law, arguing that this case was an example of putting history to work in the world. These sorts of present-day uses of the past seem to contradict Wood’s distinction between history and political theory.

What is a historian of racism, Jim Crow, and the police state supposed to do with a political hotcake like Ferguson? If that historian embraces Wood’s avoidance of politics in history writing, he or she may choose to focus solely on the political ideas surrounding these topics from around 1830-1890 or a period of that sort, focusing on how these ideas materialized within the context of that period without mentioning or connecting them to present-day politics. But a critic of this approach might argue that limiting a discussion of these topics to the nineteenth century is in itself a political act that also leaves out a crucial piece of the historical narrative. Critics might also invoke the arguments of other historians like Howard Zinn, who asserted in 1970 that “we can separate ourselves in theory as historians and citizens. But that is a one-way separation which has no return: when the world blows up, we cannot claim exemption as historians.”

Food for thought.



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