What’s in a Name? “Slavery” vs. “Slaving” in Historical Interpretation

As a public historian working at a historic site with intimate connections to U.S. antebellum culture, I am tasked with discussing American slavery and interpreting the perspectives of the enslaved people who worked at the White Haven estate. I relish the opportunity to discuss a complex and difficult topic and believe it is my duty to keep slavery at the forefront of my interpretive presentations, even though I can clearly tell (eye-rolls, exasperated breaths, etc.) that some people don’t want to hear about slavery.

When discussing slavery, it’s important to use precise language that clearly conveys the fact that it was a form of submission, oppression, and control masquerading as a form of legitimate “property” in human flesh. For example, I never refer to slaves as “servants” in my interpretations. In the English colonies, Virginia law clearly distinguished between servitude and slavery by the mid-seventeenth century. Indentured servitude stipulated that both parties–the servant and his/her benefactor–voluntarily engaged in a labor agreement. Most indentured servants by that time agreed to sell their labor for a number years (but not a lifetime) for passage and housing in the New World. Even though indentured servants’ labor agreements were sometimes violated, extended, and abused in ways that made it look like slavery, the two were not mutually exclusive. Virginia laws after 1661 stipulated that slavery meant lifetime servitude based on race and ancestry, and that it could be hereditary depending on the mother’s prior status as either free or slave upon the child’s birth. What constituted a temporary (and mostly) voluntary agreement under indentured servitude eventually became lifetime involuntary enslavement passed down through heredity.

Another difficulty with conflating “slaves” as “servants” lies in the ways Confederate apologists downplayed slavery in the years after the Civil War, an effort still continued by certain interest groups today (who will remain unnamed). Examples abound of former masters who suggested after the war that their slaves were happy, contented servants who were well taken care of and uninterested in gaining their freedom. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, facing temporary imprisonment in Boston following the end of the Civil War in 1865, sadly remarked as he left his home that “leave-takings were hurried and confused. The servants all wept. My grief at leaving them and home was too burning, withering, scorching for tears. At the depot was an immense crowd, old friends, black and white, who came in great numbers and shook hands” (109). If one were to read this pitiful story without any other context, he or she would probably think Stephens was a beloved racial egalitarian and benevolent employer, not a slaveholder and author of the “Cornerstone Speech” of March 21, 1861, in which he argued that the Confederacy’s “corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Therefore, when I talk about slavery, I always make sure to explicitly use the words “slavery” and “enslavement” so that no one leaves thinking that the African Americans who worked at White Haven before the war were servants who voluntarily sold their labors to their owner, Frederick Dent.

Some history scholars, however, are now challenging the use of the term “slavery.” Joseph Miller, a history professor at the University of Virginia, finds the term “slavery” to be too passive:

In order better to understand slavery’s march across history and into our time, Miller challenges historians to radically revise some basic assumptions. We can best comprehend how human bondage actually worked and still works today, he argues, if we abandon the noun “slavery” and our attempts to describe “the institution of slavery.” These, Miller argues, are static characterizations that convey none of the dynamism of slavery’s durability, variability and evolution across the centuries… Instead, Miller insists, the best way to describe human bondage is by using the active voice. Employ the dynamic gerund “slaving,” he recommends, and dispense with the use of “slavery” with its connotations of static model building. The gerund, Miller argues, forces us to recognize that human bondage is above all a historical process carried forward by slavers in response to discrete and ever-changing historical contingencies.

I like the idea of bringing enslavement into the present and using active verbs and language to highlight the “historical process” of slavery. As a public historian, however, I question the practicality of incorporating the concept of “slaving” into my interpretations. I get ten minutes to spark my audience’s imagination and illuminate the complex intersection between Ulysses S. Grant, his wife Julia Dent’s family, and her family’s use of slave labor at their St. Louis home. Visitors of all ages are sometimes confused about the realities of slavery in the United States, challenging me to neatly define slavery without turning my entire interpretation into a history of the institution. It seems like this “slavery vs. slaving” debate needs to be played out first at the academic level before public historians introduce a concept like “slaving” to their audiences. Or maybe the National Park Service or a similar organization can find ways to collaborate with academic scholars to encourage a better understanding of the term.

What do you think? Should historians start using the term “slaving” instead of slavery?


Good History Classes Need Primary AND Secondary Sources

Photo Credit: Kathryn Scott Olser and the Denver Post

Photo Credit: Kathryn Scott Olser and the Denver Post

To teach the principles of historical thinking in a classroom without the aid of primary source documentation is the equivalent of teaching someone to play guitar without giving them an instrument to practice on. During the G.W. Bush “No Child Left Behind” Era (and no doubt before that) education leaders in the United States preached the gospel of standardized testing. Through the use of history textbooks, pre-written tests (usually in the form of multiple choice scantron forms without any written essay questions), and pre-written classroom activities, a generation of historically-informed youth would acquire a correct and appreciative view of the nation’s past, which in turn would promote good citizenship and a healthy obedience to democratic values. As a high schooler in the early 2000s I was frequently treated to long-winded lectures about supposedly “important” dates, dead people, and dust, a barrage of multiple-choice tests, and assigned readings in history textbooks that would place the worst insomniac into a deep sleep. Primary sources–the “musical instruments of history”–were nowhere to be found in my high school education. My own teaching experiences in 2011 and 2012 were equally frustrating once I realized how little control I had in the design of my unit plans.

The No Child Left Behind (and President Obama’s “Race to the Top”) framework for teaching k-12 history is now being challenged by some historians and educators. The College Board recently drafted a new framework for teaching Advance Placement U.S. History courses that shifts the focus from rote memorization of factual information to the critical analysis and interpretation of primary source documentation. These proposed changes call for shifting the classroom experience towards teaching historical content and historical process. They also emphasize a broad view of history showing that our nation’s history is subject to multiple interpretations and perspectives.

If we adhere to the belief that history is a complex landscape composed of many viewpoints, however, the place of United States history within that landscape becomes more ambiguous than the NCLB framework would have us believe. The nationalist leanings of the American state–built largely on the foundations of a shared national history and the mythical stories we teach each other about that history–might be placed on infirm foundations. Beliefs in American exceptionalism could be replaced by a crisis of patriotism. The heroic can be challenged and criticized. Obedience to the social status quo transitions to questioning, dissent, and potential civil disobedience.

Unsurprisingly, there are critics who are concerned about teaching a complex form of American history that places our heroes, our “good wars,” and our heritage in limbo. Stanley Kurtz says the College Board’s revisions are “an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political ideological perspective.” The Texas State Board of Education accuses the College Board of encouraging a “disdain for American principles.” And a Jefferson County, Colorado, School Board Member named Julie Williams is proposing that a new nine-member committee be formed to inspect U.S. history textbooks in the Jefferson County School District because, according to her, “I don’t think we should encourage kids to be little rebels. We should encourage kids to be good citizens” (high school students in the district are now protesting these school board proposals. Who says kids don’t care about history?).

Is there a better way to teach history, expose students to its “truths,” and remove its politics from the classroom?

One idea that is gaining steam throughout the country calls for the complete removal of history textbooks from the history curriculum. Public schools in Nashville, Tennessee, are removing textbooks from the classroom in favor of websites, “interactive” videos, and primary source documentation, all of which are being implemented through $1.1 million in funds for the 2014-2015 academic year. Historian and educator Fritz Fischer argues (but with a dose of skepticism) that these changes are welcome because “not relying on traditional history books cuts down on the potential for ‘textbook wars’ where residents object to certain conclusions.” Stephanie Wager of the Iowa Department of Education concurs, arguing that “you don’t really need to have the traditional textbook.” If we simply remove these politicized textbooks from the classroom, we can focus on primary sources and let students make their own conclusions from the historical evidence presented to them.

I agreed with this perspective a year ago, but I don’t agree with getting rid of history textbooks (or at least a selection of secondary-source readings) now. Here’s why:

For one, the notion that students will automatically learn more and prefer the use of fancy digital tools and “interactive” materials rather than print books is based on the faulty logic that today’s students are “digital natives” who are more comfortable using digital technology than older people who did not grow up around this technology. I addressed those claims here.

Secondly, removing secondary sources from the classroom prevents students from learning about the interpretive nature of history and how our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new questions about the present prompt new questions about the past. Jim Grossman is right when he argues that revisionism is fundamental to historical inquiry, and we lose that critical component of the historian’s toolbox when we simply throw primary sources at students without showing them how historians interpret and sometimes disagree with the meaning of those documents. If primary sources are the “musical instrument” with which historians conduct their performances, secondary sources are the “technique” we employ to help us competently perform with our musical instruments.

Thirdly, primary source documents are laced with their own biases, speculative claims, faulty memories, and political agendas. If you don’t believe that, just imagine what sorts of primary sources historians of the early 2000s will have at their disposal one hundred years from now. The best contemporary historical scholarship provides us strategies for assessing the reliability of a primary source, and that scholarship should be an integral part of the classroom experience. Again, just giving students the “facts” without giving them a framework for critically thinking about those “facts” does little to advance their own understanding of history’s complexities.

History is political and always will be. The United States has plenty of accomplishments to be proud of, but an unquestioning self-congratulatory narrative of progress doesn’t tell the whole story of this nation’s history. And it’s boring! We need to teach both content and process in the history classroom. We need more primary sources in the classroom, but we also need more secondary sources that do a better job of providing students with a framework for interpreting those primary sources. And we need to show students how the very nature of American identity and citizenship has changed over time, which means taking a critical look at both the good AND bad in American history.


American History Doesn’t Start at Jamestown

ViralNova ListicleAs I went about my day this morning I came across a Facebook post from a friend that nearly made my eyes roll out of my head. The post linked to a 6th-grade quality “listicle” entitled “21 Things About America That Most Americans Don’t Realize.” I typically ignore these sorts of things, especially lists like this one that provide absolutely no evidence to back up their so-called historical facts. But a commenter on said friend’s post remarked about his pleasure in seeing number five, which is posted above, and I had to jump into the debate. I am no expert in 17th century history and I probably should have stayed out of the fray, but there’s a larger point about American history than needs to be made here.

Blacks have their own troubling role in slavery’s legacy. African elites in Western and Central Africa happily complied in helping advance the slave trade, which Henry Louis Gates explains in the New York Times. And there were some free blacks who owned slaves in America. Anthony Johnson is perhaps the most well-known black slaveholder. Born in Africa but sent to Virginia in 1821, Johnson worked as an indentured servant until 1635 or whereabouts. By the 1650s he was a well-to-do property owner with his own indentured servants. In 1653, one of those servants, John Casor, sued Johnson and argued that his term of service had expired. The courts found in 1655 that Johnson still “owned” Casor and that he be returned to Johnson immediately. This case was the first one in which a court found that a person who had not committed a crime could be legally held into lifelong servitude–enslavement–under British law. This is where claims emerge that Anthony Johnson was America’s first slaveholder.

The reality of the situation is much more complex, of course.

With regards to British law, the first legally enslaved African was John Punch, who was sentenced to lifetime servitude after attempting to run away to Maryland at some point in either late 1639 or early 1640, fifteen years before Johnson took ownership of Casor. Sociologist Rodney D. Coates of Miami University, in an analysis of the racialization of early American law cases, accurately concludes that “John Punch’s name should go down in history as being the first official slave in the English colonies” since he was the first one to be legally enslaved through English law (333). Anthony Johnson was not the first slaveholder in America and, by extension, the first slaveholder in America was not black. It’s also puzzling why so many biographies of Johnson (see here, here, and here) would omit such an important historical fact if it is actually true that he was the first American slaveholder.

This debate over who was the first slaveholder in America exposes the sorts of biases Americans have when it comes to understanding their own history.

All too often we Americans are taught in our White Anglo-Saxon Protestant history textbooks that the beginning of “American history” started with the Virginia Company’s “Mayflower Compact” at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 and later Pilgrim settlements in Plymouth, Massachusetts. History textbooks portray the growth of what eventually became the United States as a growth spreading from East to West, with America’s origins in the thirteen colonies followed by steady expansion westward. But settlement patterns in the present-day United States actually started in the opposite direction! According to sociologist and historian James Loewen, “people…discovered the Americas and settled it from west to east. People got to the Americas by boat from northeastern Asia or by walking across the Bering Strait during an ice age. Most Indians in the Americas can be traced by blood type, language similarity, and other evidence to a very small group of first arrivals…either way, afoot or by boat, evidence suggests that people entered Alaska first” (20). Moreover, following Columbus’s discovery of the “New World” in 1492, Spanish colonists settled in places like present-day New Mexico, Texas, and Florida before other Europeans settlers went to Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts. When they came to the New World, these Spanish colonists enslaved its indigenous populations and later began importing African slaves to the New World following Ferdinand and Isabella’s approval of African slavery in 1501. St. Augustine, Florida, was a hub for the Spanish slave trade. And it was all legal!

Clearly there were people living in the Americas thousands of years before any Europeans came over, although we often ignore that reality. For example, even though my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, is celebrating 2014 as the 250th anniversary of the city’s “founding,” there was an advanced society hundreds of years before 1764 right in our backyard that was larger than London at one point in time.  After 1492, there were non-British Europeans who colonized the Americas and traded slaves long before the British came over. To ultimately suggest that Anthony Johnson was the first legal slaveholder in what would eventually become the United States is utter poppycock, no matter what any viral internet garbage tries to tell you.


President Ulysses S. Grant and The Panic of 1873

Historical interpretations and popular memories of Ulysses S. Grant’s tenure as President of the United States (1869-1877) devote a considerable amount of time analyzing cases of corruption–whether real or imagined–within the Grant administration. History textbooks throughout the twentieth century told tales of Grant’s personal integrity but also his naivety when it came to trusting questionable subordinates. The White House’s biography of Grant-which curiously focuses more on Grant during the Civil War than his presidency–goes so far as to question Grant’s motives for accepting lavish gifts from Wall Street speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk, even though such transactions dated back to Andrew Jackson’s establishment of a complex political patronage system in the 1830s. This patronage system entailed gift-giving in exchange for political offices and favorable legislation, and was standard practice at the time.

There was indeed political corruption during Grant’s presidency, and few scholars would deny that fact. But by shaping Grant’s presidency almost solely around the corruption questions, introductory biographies and general histories of the era overlook other important facets of Grant’s presidency that provide insights into the complex challenges he faced during the post-Civil War era. One such challenge centered around the need to restore the country’s financial equilibrium following the American Civil War.

During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican majority in Congress sought ways to fund the government’s deployment of the U.S. military into the Confederacy. Congress passed the nation’s first income tax (3% of all incomes over $800) through the Revenue Act of 1861 at the beginning of the war, but another significant act was the decision to print paper money without specie (gold or silver) backing. According to economic historian David Blanke, roughly $356 million in paper “greenbacks” were printed throughout the duration of the Civil War to fund soldier salaries, military supplies, and the creation of what would eventually be the Transcontinental Railroad (which was completed after the war in 1869). These greenbacks soaked the market place and provided easy capital to investors, some of which greatly profited from the war. Since the greenbacks were not backed by specie, however, they were essentially IOU promissory notes whose value was largely based on the confidence of wealthy investment bankers.

President Grant sought a return to specie-backed money upon taking office in 1869 (he also later abolished the income tax in 1872). In his First Inaugural Address, Grant argued that the return to “sound money” was an essential step on the road towards national reconciliation:

A great debt has been contracted in securing to us and our posterity the Union. The payment of this, principal and interest, as well as the return to a specie basis as soon as it can be accomplished without material detriment to the debtor class or to the country at large, must be provided for. To protect the national honor, every dollar of Government indebtedness should be paid in gold, unless otherwise expressly stipulated in the contract. Let it be understood that no repudiator of one farthing of our public debt will be trusted in public place, and it will go far toward strengthening a credit which ought to be the best in the world, and will ultimately enable us to replace the debt with bonds bearing less interest than we now pay.

Although Grant requested that the government pay its debts in gold, both gold and silver were still legal specie at this time. The days of using silver, however, were numbered. The newly-unified country of Germany ended its use of silver as a form of specie in 1871, and the implications of this move reverberated in the United States. By no longer using silver as currency, Germany placed more silver on the open marketplace, driving down its value in countries that still accepted it as legal specie. Congress followed suit with the Coinage Act of 1873, which outlawed silver as a form of legal specie and put the United States on a path towards the gold standard. While President Grant and Congress believed the Coinage Act would provide future financial stability for the country, the combination of industrial overexpansion (especially railroads) and the decreasing amount of available capital for investors bred the recipe for a potential economic disaster. That disaster came in September 1873 when Wall Street financial institutions like the New York Warehouse & Security Co. and Jay Cooke & Co. “began to fall like dominoes,” according to Jean Edward Smith (575). Railroad companies shut their doors, investors went bankrupt, and laborers lost jobs. These events marked the beginning of the Panic of 1873.

Debates emerged regarding the best strategy for addressing what soon became a full-blown depression, the worst of its kind in the U.S. at that point. Congress eventually pushed through Senate Bill 617 in March 1874, which called for the infusion of $400 million Greenbacks into circulation and the addition of $100 million into the nation’s money supply. The bill went to President Grant for approval on April 14, 1874.

Grant deliberated on the measure and initially wrote a message to Congress supportive of S.B. 617. The more he thought about it, however, the more he came to view the bill as an inflationary threat to the nation’s long-term credit. Grant vetoed the bill on April 22. In his veto message, Grant feared that passage of the bill would lead to future efforts to print even more inflationary greenbacks. S.B. 617, according to Grant, “is a departure from the principles of finance, national interest, the nation’s obligations to creditors, Congressional promises, party pledges (on the part of both political parties), and of personal views and promises made by me in every annual message sent to Congress and in each inaugural address.” The nation would ride the course and stay on the gold standard.

What were the effects of the Panic of 1873 for Grant’s presidency and the country’s future?

Scholars have taken different perspectives towards Grant’s economic policies, and these questions remain open for debate today. The Panic led to a prolonged depression that lasted until 1879, but the nation’s taxes and national debt were reduced by $300 million and $435 million, respectively, during Grant’s tenure in office. Annual interest rates were reduced by $30 million and one-fifth of the nation’s debt was eliminated. The resumption of specie-based payments led to substantial economic growth and greatly increased business activity in Gilded Age America during the 1880s. Frank Scaturro deems Grant’s economic policy as one that “was singularly successful in the aftermath of the most serious fiscal problems the nation had ever faced” (49).

There were also negative consequences of these policies, however. Reconstruction policies aimed at enforcing the fifteenth amendment and protecting Southern blacks at the voting booth lost support from Northerners more concerned about their own financial difficulties than protecting black rights. Southern whites also expressed outrage when federal funding for infrastructure projects in the former Confederate states dried up. The expense of keeping the military in the South to enforce federal law was seen as excessive in the eyes of many Northerners, although it is important to point out that these same Northerners had no qualms about deploying the military to quell labor strikes in the North such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Blanke takes a more critical perspective than Scaturro towards Grant’s economic policies, arguing that “the long downturn further concentrated capital in the hands of fewer and fewer suppliers,” leading to a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. By 1890, 71 percent of the nation’s wealth was in the hands of 9 percent of its citizens, “an unhealthy and lopsided disparity of wealth distribution that has only been equaled, in this country, in the past 20 years.”

The challenges Ulysses S. Grant faced during his presidency alert us to the difficulties that emerge when economies take unexpected downturns. Should the government print and infuse more cash to alleviate unemployment and bankruptcy, or is it wiser to move towards “sound money” and the payment of past debts? Our own economic difficulties, spawned from the Great Recession of 2008, show that we still continue to debate these questions today.


News and Notes: September 16, 2014

Here is a compilation of good reads and newsworthy events I’ve recently come across:

  • The Americanist Independent: Independent historian and fellow Grand Army of the Republic scholar Keith Harris started his own peer-reviewed journal of U.S. history a few months ago. He is currently offering one week of complimentary access to his journal, which you can find here. I signed up and am liking what I’ve seen so far.
  • References, Please: Tim Parks makes a compelling argument for reforming standard scholarly practices for referencing citations and footnotes. “In the age of the Internet, do we really need footnotes to reference quotations we have made in the text? For a book to be taken seriously, does it have to take us right to the yellowing page of some crumbling edition guarded in the depths of an austere library, if the material could equally well be found through a Google search? Has an element of fetishism perhaps crept into what was once a necessary academic practice?”
  • The Importance of Historical Thinking: Historian and education professor Sam Wineburg’s seminal essay “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” was liberated from its academic paywalls. If you’re looking to learn about or teach others about historical thinking, start with this essay. It’s here.
  • Don’t Throw the Bums Out: Historian Jon Grinspan argues in the New York Times that claiming that all politicians are bums “makes it harder to throw out the real bums.” Grinspan dives into Gilded Age political culture in this delightful essay.
  • A Nation of Readers: Brandeis University history Ph.D. candidate Yoni Appelbaum writes about the efforts of book publishers to distribute free literature to U.S. soldiers during World War II. Appelbaum finds that a stunning 122,951,031 books were given away during WWII.
  • Addressing Brazil’s Complicated History of Slavery: Brazil has a complex and troubling history of slavery. The slave trade from African to Brazil was ten times the size of the slave trade in the United States, and the institution was not abolished until 1888, twenty-three years after the U.S. abolished it. “For the last century Brazil has tried to forget its past, refusing to accept the legacy of the slave trade. It has sought to project the image of a country of mixed descent, where the colour of a person’s skin does not count, a land unfettered by racism where cordial relations reign between citizens of Indian, European and African descent.” Enter ‘United States’ where Brazil is located in that last sentence and you’ve got the views of many Americans towards the legacies of race and slavery today, unfortunately.
  • The Scourge of “Relatability”: The New Yorker writer Rebecca Meade suggests that judging “good” art, music, and theater by its “relatability” reflects our lack of willingness to patronize artistic endeavors that challenge us to ask new questions and think differently about the world: “to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” This essay isn’t really history related, but I found it thought-provoking.
  • The Academic Job Market for Historians is Terrible: Just look at the data.
  • Finding Ways to Defeat Art Apathy and Museum Misery: Daily Californian writer Sahil Chinoy visited eighteen different art galleries and museums around the world this past summer. He left the experience unimpressed with the way Art Museums interpret and present their collections to audiences and criticized exhibit label writers for writing bland, uninformative labels that did little to enhance the museum experience. “The problem is that museum captions are unequivocally boring, yet they’re the only lens through which most visitors see art. Historical context is fascinating for some pieces, but for many, information like the place where the artist was born simply does not matter.”


New Resources Page at Exploring the Past

One of the downsides of tweeting and blogging is the speed by which new information enters into your personal information feed. Nowadays there are so many new articles, blog posts, and online discussions created on a daily basis that it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of knowledge and information. I admit that I sometimes read articles and blog posts, share them with others, and forget about them afterwords. It’s hard to keep up with everything, but it’s also sometimes hard to remember what you learned in the past.

I’ve been blogging for almost two years now and have been very pleased with the connections I’ve made and the fruitful discussions I’ve had here at Exploring the Past. I don’t want some of those older posts and conversations to be forgotten about and sent to blogging heaven, so I’ve decided to create a “Resources” page where I can house some of my better essays in one central location for readers to access at their convenience. Simply click on the “Resources” tab above to access the page and read away.

There will be many new posts in the future whenever I have the time to write. As always, thank you for your readership.


Analyzing Mediocre, Good, and Great U.S. Grant Biographies

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The other day I came across a history blog run by a gentleman named Stephen Floyd. Mr. Floyd is using his blog to share his experiences on a “journey through the best presidential biographies,” which includes reading almost 100 biographies of U.S. presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama. Stephen is currently reading a few biographies of President Ulysses S. Grant, and I feel inspired to write an overview of what I consider to be the most notable “mediocre, good, and great” Grant biographies. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of biographies on Grant that one can choose from, and I’d argue that there really isn’t a “definitive” study of Grant out there at this time. Nevertheless, I am going to focus on ten noteworthy authors here.

I consider a “mediocre” Grant biography to be one that hardcore scholars should read in order to understand the evolving literature/historiography of Grant studies, but casual readers can probably avoid. “Good” biographies are worth picking up at your local library or cheaply on Amazon. I deem “great” biographies as essential to understanding the life of Ulysses S. Grant and highly recommend their purchase by those interested.

Here we go:


William McFeely – Grant (1981): University of Georgia history professor William McFeely won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1981 biography of Grant. The study was meticulously researched and his bibliography is a good resource for seeking solid primary and secondary resources for researching Grant. The study was groundbreaking for its time, but in my opinion this book is uneven and many of its interpretations are questionable. For example, during McFeely’s analysis of Grant’s time in St. Louis in the 1850s he cites a letter written from Grant in which he mentions a negro “boy” who labored at the White Haven estate and was either Frederick Dent’s (Grant’s Father-in-law) slave or a laborer hired by Grant. McFeely uses this scant evidence to argue that this “boy” was actually William Jones, Grant’s slave from 1858 (an unknown date in the late 1850s) until 1859. It very well might have been Jones, but Jones was in his thirties by the time of his enslavement by Grant. The point is that we don’t know who this “boy” was – McFeely is simply speculating and passing these speculations as “history” to his readers. Later, in his analysis of Grant’s presidency, McFeely argues that Grant didn’t really care about blacks during his presidency, even though Grant passionately advocated for passage of the 15th Amendment granting black males the right to vote. President Grant also fought for the protection of Southern blacks from political terrorism by groups like the Ku Klux Klan long after his Northern Republican contemporaries in Congress lost interest in military reconstruction and the protection of black rights. Finally, McFeely too often dabbles in psychobabble that simply lacks any credible primary source documentation. Bob Pollock addresses one instance of McFeely’s psychobabble here.

Edward H. Bonkemper III – Ulysses S. Grant: A Victor, Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War (2004)Edward Bonkemper attempts to save General Grant’s reputation as a drunken and reckless butcher during the American Civil War. Bonkemper’s efforts are commendable and there is not a lot to disagree with in this book. The problem, however, is that Bonkemper’s analysis is unoriginal, stale, and bordering on hagiography. J.F.C. Fuller’s study of Grant’s generalship–which will make an appearance later in this essay–thoroughly debunked the “Grant’s a butcher” claim in the 1930s, and several other scholars including Bruce Catton and T. Harry Williams also refuted those claims later in the 1900s. Not much original research to see here.

Geoffrey Perret – Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (1997): Like Bonkemper, Geoffrey Perret aims for a sympathetic portrayal of Grant that illuminates both his generalship and presidency in a positive light. Perret’s writing is clear and his narrative is easy to follow, but the book is plagued with mistakes throughout. Far too many to enumerate here. His interpretation of Ulysses and Julia’s courtship and early marriage is also off, in my opinion, by suggesting that their relationship was more tenuous than it really was. Despite extended leaves of absence during Grant’s military service throughout the 1840s and 50s, one would be hard pressed to find a more loving relationship than the one between Ulysses and Julia. Perret seems to miss the dynamics of this relationship in his interpretation.


Joan Waugh – U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (2009): Joan Waugh’s study of Grant is partly a biography of Grant’s life and partly a memory study that analyzes Grant’s last years, his 1885 death and funeral, and the ways people chose to commemorate and remember his life in the years after his death. When it comes to studying Grant’s funeral and death commemoration, this book is tops. Waugh writes in a clear and engaging manner, but I felt there was too much time spent on the biography part (which was pedestrian at times) and not enough on the memory study (which is what makes this book unique). I also thought an opportunity was missed by not analyzing the ways Grant’s memory in the twentieth century shaped much of our contemporary understanding of him. That book remains to be written.

J.F.C. Fuller - Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1937): Although British General J.F.C. Fuller’s comparative study of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee is dated, this publication is a real treat to read, especially for someone like me who does not specialize in military history. In a time when scholars like Douglas Southall Freeman were extolling the virtues of Lee’s generalship and labeling Grant’s generalship–especially his 1864 Overland Campaign–as a reckless destruction of human lives, Fuller was one of the first scholars to question this conventional wisdom of Grant and Lee. Most importantly, Fuller demonstrates through statistical analysis that it was actually Lee who was more reckless with the lives of his troops than Grant (Lee’s casualty rate was roughly 18%; Grant, about 10%). Fuller convincingly argues in favor Grant’s generalship during the American Civil War. If you’re able to get a 1937 edition of this book, do so. The pull-out maps are easy to interpret and nicely compliment Fuller’s written analysis of Grant and Lee’s generalship.

Jean Edward Smith – Grant (2002): Marshall University history professor Jean Edward Smith writes a detailed and comprehensive biography of Grant that tops out at more than 700 pages. If you’re looking for a book that addresses every facet of Grant’s life, this book might be for you. Smith’s greatest contribution, in my opinion, is his analysis of Grant’s presidency, which receives a good amount of attention in the book. What keeps me from putting this book into the “great” category, however, is that there are too many mistakes and sloppy citations throughout. Dmitri Rotov of Civil War Bookshelf goes even further by suggesting that Smith may have plagiarized at least one passage from historian Bruce Catton and that he incorrectly attributed a painting of Mexico to Grant during his service in the Mexican-American war. See Rotov’s evidence here and here.


Josiah Bunting III – Ulysses S. Grant (2004): For those looking for a punchy, concise analysis of Grant’s life, I highly recommend checking out Josiah Bunting’s brief biography, which clocks in around 200 pages. Bunting does a nice job of interpreting Grant’s presidency (although I would like to have seen more about Grant’s reconstruction policies), and the book is full of eloquent passages that provide a nice historical context for explaining the world in which Grant operated. I enjoyed this book very much.

Jonathan D. Sarna – When General Grant Expelled the Jews (2012): Brandeis University history professor Jonathan Sarna’s book on Grant is more of an analysis of a particular moment in Grant’s life than a comprehensive biography of his entire life, but I still consider it a biography because the book also covers his childhood in Ohio and his presidency. In December 1862, Grant issued General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews “as a class” from his military lines in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. This draconian order was roundly criticized at the time and rescinded by President Lincoln not long after receiving complaints from leaders in the American Jewish community. General Orders No. 11 would remain a blot on Grant’s character for the rest of his life, but Sarna’s surprisingly forgiving interpretation shows readers how Grant made efforts after the war–especially during his presidency–to apologize and make amends for what he readily acknowledged as a horribly racist mistake. This book is a fun read that demonstrates Grant’s personal capacity for growth throughout his life.

Frank Scaturro – President Grant Reconsidered (1999): Prior to 1999, the vast majority of Grant biographies either ignored Grant’s presidency or portrayed his presidency in a negative light. William B. Hesseltine’s Ulysses S. Grant, Politician (1937), for example, was one of the most comprehensive and widely cited studies of Grant’s presidency through McFeely’s 1981 publication. Hesseltine was extremely critical and dismissive of Grant, even going so far as to say at one point that “Ulysses S. Grant was a loser. Even dogs didn’t like him.” New York politician and former National Park Service volunteer Frank Scaturro destroys these arguments and engages in what I consider to be the finest analysis of Grant’s presidency. Common assumptions about Grant’s acceptance of corruption and his retreat from Reconstruction are demolished here, and later scholars like Bunting and Smith readily acknowledge the influence of Scaturro’s study on their own interpretations of Grant’s presidency. I highly recommend this book. The only downside is that the book is rare and now out of print. As of this writing, the cheapest copy I could find online was about $125 (I managed to get a copy for $13 a couple years ago). Good luck finding it for an affordable price.

Anything written by Brooks D. Simpson: Arizona State University history professor Brooks Simpson is undoubtedly the most prominent Grant scholar of the past twenty years, and his scholarship greatly influences my own work interpreting Grant with the National Park Service. His 1991 publication Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 sheds new light on Grant’s political acumen and convincingly argues that Grant’s success on the battlefield must also be attributed to his ability to work with the powers in Washington, D.C. Simpson also spends a considerable amount of time on the crucial period from 1865-1868 when Grant acted as General of the Armies (and temporarily as Secretary of War) during Andrew Johnson’s presidency, a period other scholars often ignore or give short shrift to. His chapter on Grant’s reconstruction policies in The Reconstruction Presidents (1998) illuminates Grant’s uphill battle to find a balance between liberty and order in the postwar South. Finally, his biography of Grant’s life up to Appomattox in Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (2000) provides a detailed, nuanced analysis of Grant’s early life and his generalship during the American Civil War.

Are there any other Grant related books you enjoy reading? Share them in the comments below!


*Addendum: It’s been pointed out to me twice in the comments section that I omitted the Lloyd Lewis/Bruce Catton trilogy of Grant biographies. I should not have left them off this list. Lewis started the trilogy in 1950 with Captain Sam Grant but suffered a fatal heart attack before finishing the series. Bruce Catton finished the trilogy with Grant Moves South: 1861-1863 (1960) and Grant Takes Command: 1863-1865 (1968). I’d put the trilogy in the “good” section, but only because the research is a bit dated. Both authors, but especially Catton, were marvelous writers and it’s well worth the ten or twelve dollars to purchase the entire trilogy.

Inclusive Narratives and Changing Demographics in the United States

Over the past couple of weeks I have been participating in an online seminar (a “webinar”) called “Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces” that is being co-hosted by the National Park Service and the Museum Studies program at George Washington University. Yesterday’s webinar focused on “Relevance, Diversity, and Inclusion” within the National Park Service. I shared some thoughts and participated in a good dialogue with several other scholars on Twitter, and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of the event so far. I would like to make a brief note, however, on the use of the term “changing demographics” and what, exactly, it means when we talk about changing demographics in the United States.

One of the primary questions we discussed yesterday was the following:

Is the shift toward more inclusive narratives more than a reflection of–or a response to–the changing demographics of America?

This question is based on a faulty premise by suggesting that the notion of “changing demographics” is a relatively new one in American society.

Even though the presenters at the webinar took pains to argue that their use of the “changing demographics” term referred to broad social changes in the U.S.–an aging Baby Boom Generation leaving the workplace for retirement, an increasing number of women in positions of power, and recent debates about the role sexuality in American society–it was obvious to me that “changing demographics” was mostly associated with the changing racial/ethnic demographics of the country brought on by immigration. As Joel Kotkin remarks in Smithsonian Magazine, “Immigration will continue to be a major force in U.S. life . . . the United States of 2050 will look different from that of today: whites will no longer be in the majority. The U.S. minority population, currently 30 percent, is expected to exceed 50 percent before 2050. No other advanced, populous country will see such diversity.”

When it comes to race and ethnicity, yes, the United States is certainly becoming more diverse. But the United States has always been diverse, no matter what context you place on the term “changing demographics.” This nation’s demographics have been in a constant state of fluid change since at least 1776 and probably before then. Men, women, young and old people, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ, immigrants, slaves, Europeans, Indians, Africans, Asians, and Hispanics have always lived in the United States and been a part of its history. The shift towards more inclusive narratives in interpretive history should not take place because of today’s “changing demographics” but because much of the interpretive history told in this country has never accounted for the demographic changes that have always been a part of the American experience.

Moreover, the shift towards more inclusive narratives needs to happen because the need for accurate history is equally if not more important than any notion of “changing demographics.” Inclusiveness and accuracy go hand-in-hand. When Park Rangers at Gettysburg told visitors in the 1960s that the American Civil War was about “states’ rights,” they undoubtedly alienated any African Americans that may have visited the park. But ultimately they interpreted history that was simply inaccurate. When we leave out the role of minorities, women, and other unacknowledged groups from American history, we are telling inaccurate history. Richard Sandell argues in Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference that audiences to museums and other cultural institutions view these places as sources of knowledge and information akin to newspapers, television, or libraries. People come to public history sites seeking knowledge and information that addresses the questions they consider important. Public history sites are resource centers where people go to make sense of their world. We are obligated to do our absolute best to provide them accurate history, and we do a disgrace to the historical record when we don’t strive for inclusive narratives that highlight the experiences of ALL Americans.

In sum, I believe that the shift towards inclusive narratives is both reflective of and a reaction to the history of changing demographics in the United States that cultural institutions have only recently acknowledged. In creating inclusive and accurate narratives, we must also strive to tell stories–plural–that provide light into the American experience rather than focusing on a futile effort to tell one grand narrative that purports to speak for all of us.


Forgiving and Forgetting in Historical Memory

In the final chapter of his 2002 publication The Ethics of Memory, philosopher Avishai Margalit muses on the relationship between forgiving and forgetting in human memory. When a person, group, or state commits a wrongdoing against another person, group, or state, should efforts be made to “blot out” the wrongdoing in the same way that one erases text on a computer, or is it best to “cover up” the wrongdoing in a manner more similar to crossing out words on paper with a pencil? In other words, is it best to forgive AND forget the wrongdoing in question, or is it more appropriate to forgive without necessarily forgetting?

Margalit makes an important distinction between the act of forgiving and the act of forgetting. Forgiving is voluntary, while forgetting is involuntary. He argues that “the distinction between voluntary and involuntary applies to mental acts . . . I can voluntarily think of a white elephant, but I cannot follow the instruction not to think of a white elephant. Forgetting cannot be voluntary. Just as I cannot voluntarily avoid thinking of a white elephant. I cannot decide to forget something just like that. And so if forgiving involves forgetting, it would seem that one could not decide to forgive” (201). In sum, forgiving requires a deliberate and conscious mental effort to be achieved, and it does not necessarily entail forgetting.

Margalit suggests that the “cover up” method of forgiving–but not forgetting–past wrongdoings is the more ethical model for successful forgiveness. Forgiveness means disregarding past wrongdoings and overcoming the initial emotions that emerge from these actions–anger, resentment, and revenge–in the interest of seeking peace, solace, and understanding. “All we can ask,” argues Margalit, “is that the one who was wronged should not take the offense into consideration as a reason for future behavior toward the offender. Forgiveness is the decision that the injury is not ‘admissible evidence,’ that it is no longer a reason for action” (202). Seen in this light, forgetting is unnecessary for overcoming resentment because any effort to voluntarily “forget” a past wrongdoing often leads to unintentional remembering. Overcoming resentment of past wrongdoings requires a large amount of time and effort, often years, decades, or lifetimes in the making. But forgiveness, once achieved, is an accomplishment; not because it bestows mercy on the ones who committed the wrongdoing, but because it provides peace to ourselves.

How might the “cover up” method help us better come to terms with the past?

In my opinion, forgiving but NOT forgetting the past is more humane and honest than forgiving AND forgetting the past. For one, it is actually impossible to completely forget about the past because, as I argue in an earlier post, history doesn’t go away just because a person, group, or state chooses not to acknowledge it. A country like Brazil that attempts to forget its slave-trading past undertakes an impossible mission in collective forgetfulness, made all the more difficult because the wounds of slavery remain close to the hearts of slavery’s descendants today. We cannot undo the past or pretend that bad things didn’t happen “way back when,” and we certainly cannot begin to understand or reconcile the past if our end goal is to “move on” from it, as if historical inquiry has an obtainable endpoint that permits us the opportunity to wash our hands of human history.

While it is true that historical memory initiatives like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that seek to address past injustices may breed more hostility than reconciliation (or, as Sarah Kendzior suggests, “those who [remember the past] are doomed to repeat it”), I would suggest that such a desire for revenge may originate from a collective desire to forget rather than any sincere to forgive. To have the truth or what is understood to be the truth shoved into the throats of a society whose primary objective is to forget tears open old wounds that may not have been fully closed in the first place.

Coming to terms with the past requires a society’s overcoming of its collective anger, resentment, and revenge against past wrongdoings. In working to overcome past wrongdoings and the initial emotional resentments spawned from these wrongdoings, we must seek to forgive–but not forget–the past. To echo Margalit, a society is ethically obligated to forgive its past not so much because the past deserves it but because contemporary society owes to itself an obligation to care for its own social well-being. Indeed, the past’s significance lies in our concerns about the present. By forgiving past societies for their actions, we position ourselves for social healing in the present.



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