Brooks Simpson on President U.S. Grant and His Alleged “Corruption”

Who says Twitter is only good for selfies, LOLcats, and tweeting about coffee?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a columnist for The Atlantic, took to Twitter the other day to ask his followers a question about the extent to which President Ulysses S. Grant was “corrupt” compared to his contemporaries. He specifically requested the help of Brooks Simpson, Arizona State University history professor and noted Grant scholar. Simpson fired off a series of tweets in response that conveyed a nuanced, thought-provoking interpretation that I find extremely helpful for my own purposes. I get more questions from visitors at my job about Grant’s presidency than about his generalship during the Civil War, and these corruption questions pop up frequently. Simpson’s response will definitely be a part of my arsenal next time I’m asked about Grant’s alleged corruption.

Here’s what Simpson had to say:

There you go.


The New Deal, Anti-Lynching Legislation, and the Concept of States’ Rights

03bKatznelson.jpgI consider myself a scholar of nineteenth century U.S. history and spend most of my reading time on books and articles covering this period, but I always make sure to spend time reading about other time periods, countries, and forms of scholarly thought (philosophy, sociology, anthropology, etc.). Lately I’ve been reading more twentieth century history from authors like Tony Judt, Rebecca Skloot, and Ira Katznelson. I recently finished Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, which is probably the best book on the New Deal that I’ve ever read. Fear Itself reminds us of the importance of revisionism to historical inquiry. A popular narrative of the era promoted by past historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argues that President Franklin Roosevelt built a diverse political coalition–black and white, rich and poor, North and South–to advocate for pragmatic economic legislation to combat the Great Depression amid a history of lassiez-faire principles in governmental economic and social policy. Katznelson uses Fear Itself to question this narrative and explore the boundaries and shortcomings of the New Deal. Despite the well-intentioned goals of New Deal agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and the National Labor Relations Board, Katznelson concludes that the logic “states’ rights” and white supremacy ultimately limited the reach of the New Deal’s social and economic benefits to whites only.

One case in point lies in the effort to establish a federal anti-lynching law in 1935. To wit:

The [anti-lynching] bill went nowhere, despite the continued resurgence of lynching and the particularly ghastly October 1934 murder of Claude Neal, who had been accused of rape and murder. With a crowd of some four thousand, including many children, bearing witness, Neal was stabbed, burned, and castrated. He was forced to eat his own genitals before being dragged by an automobile to his death; then his body, mutilated and nude, was suspended from a tree in the courthouse square of Marianna, Florida. Photographs were sold for fifty cents. Neal’s toes and fingers were put on display.

With the Justice Department refusing to intervene during the next half year, despite the fact that Neal had been seized from a jail in Alabama and thus had been transported across state lines, [Senators] Wagner and Costigan moved to have the Senate take up the bill in April 1935. The president remained silent. In March, Eleanor Roosevelt explained to Walter White, “The President feels that lynching is a question of education in the states, rallying good citizens, and creating public opinion so that the localities themselves will wipe it out. However, if it were done by a Northerner, it will have an antagonistic effect.” Southern senators successfully killed the proposed law by preventing the legislation from coming to a vote. They did not, in the main, defend vigilante justice. Rather, they argued that Congress lacked authority to pass such a law; in assaulting states’ rights, it violated the Constitution. They also again claimed that their region could control lynching on its own, citing efforts where governors had intervened to stop such violence, and insisted that southern race relations, marked by bonds of affection, were superior to those of the North [167].

No federal anti-lynching legislation was ever passed during the 1930s or 1940s.

I grew up in a community friendly to the concept of states’ rights and was taught that state sovereignty was the best path towards upholding liberal democracy, political equality, and economic freedom. But this horrifying story exposes some of the shortcomings in states’ rights theory.

For one, “states’ rights” is not an end in itself; it is merely a means towards a larger political end-goal. Whenever someone invokes a states’ rights argument, we must always ask “to what end”? In the case of Claude Neal and thousands of blacks like him who were lynched during the height of racist thought in political and social practice during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the logic of states’ rights acted as an means towards the larger end-goal of maintaining white supremacy in the United States.

That said, I’ve come to believe that states’ rights is neither inherently good nor inherently evil precisely because the concept is a means for justifying so many different political positions, some of which might promote good policy and some of which could be hurtful to many people. The meaning of states’ rights changes with the context, and any political platform that aims to place the concept in black and white terms is bound to find intellectual loopholes throughout. And it’s unwise to assume that local power is inherently more fair and just than a federal power simply because of proximity or relationships with local residents. People oftentimes do bad things to others without regard for personal connections. More than 75% of all child abductions are carried out by perpetrators who are relatives or acquaintances with their victims. The so-called “black on black crime” phenomenon is not a racial issue so much as its an issue of violent neighborhoods. As Jamelle Bouie argues, “People don’t go across town to steal or kill—they commit crime against their neighbors. And in the United States, where most lives are still segregated by race, that means blacks victimize blacks, whites victimize whites, and so on.” And of course there is plenty of corruption on the state level and lower.

Governmental tyranny occurs at all levels of power, whether it be a neighborhood association, a city, county, or state government, or the federal government in Washington, D.C. Providing fair standards and procedures for holding political leaders accountable at all levels of government is absolutely necessary for a healthy democracy, and any resort to “states’ rights” must always require a further exploration into what, exactly, a person means by this term.


Kindling the Fires of Patriotism: The Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, 1866-1949

Master's Thesis Cover

The folks at IUPUI ScholarWorks have finally digitized my master’s thesis on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic, which was completed back in May of this year. The IUPUI University Library runs ScholarWorks and strongly advocates open access policies that allow free public access to scholarship created by IUPUI graduate students. I heartily endorse these policies because I find the idea of dedicating two years of your life to a project that merely leads to a hardback copy of your thesis on the history department’s dusty bookshelf to be absurd.

If you’d like to view and/or download a PDF copy of the thesis, you may do so free of charge by clicking on the link here.


Promises and Perils of Online Archives

The popular biographer Walter Issacson recently penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he muses on “what could be lost as Einstein’s papers go online.” The essay was sparked by the recent digital publication of the first thirteen volumes of Einstein’s papers by a consortium of institutions that includes Princeton, Caltech, and Hebrew University. Issacson uses this development to explore the nature of online archives more broadly, weighing the potential benefits and consequences of opening primary source documents to what he describes as “the wisdom of the crowd.” There is a tension underlying these thoughts, and as the essay title suggests, Issacson seems fairly preoccupied with what could be lost as the archives go online:

My initial joy about the project was tempered, however, by a pinch of sadness. I realized that most future Einstein researchers would no longer have to make the journey to the cozy house on the edge of the Caltech campus where the scholars of the Einstein Papers Project were eager to embrace their rare visitors and ply them with guidance, insights and tea. They wouldn’t likely spend delightful days there—as I did for my biography of Einstein—with the science historian Diana Kormos-Buchwald and her colleagues as they debated such issues as how to explain what Einstein meant when he referred to quanta as “spatial” or his fellow Jews as Stammesgenossen (tribal comrades).

The next generation of scholars will also lose the tingling inspiration of seeing original documents. I remember how much closer I felt to Benjamin Franklin —suddenly, he seemed like a real person—when, at his archives in Yale’s Sterling Library, I first touched a letter that he had written, marveling that this piece of paper had actually once been in his hands. I even made a pilgrimage to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which Einstein helped to found and where most of his original documents reside, so that I could draw inspiration. What sublime experiences will researchers miss if they simply view the documents online? What will be lost if the archives, with their passionate staffs, morph into unvisited repositories?

Issacson, however, does express some excitement about the power of computing to help us ask new questions about these documents:

My brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures. While I was doing research years ago for my biography of Franklin, the Packard Humanities Institute in Los Altos, Calif., was at work on a digital collection of his papers. After a lot of begging, I wheedled a beta version of the CD-ROMs. They let me search all of Franklin’s papers for specific concepts . . . with the new digital version of Einstein, I have been looking at the 237 times he talked about Palestine—and imagining what a smart researcher could do by tracing the evolution of the 6,720 times he used the phrase “light quanta.”

With online archives, research can be crowdsourced. Students from Bangalore to Baton Rouge can drill down into Einstein’s papers and ferret out gems and connections that professional researchers may have missed. That will reinforce a basic truth about the digital age: By empowering everyone to get information unfiltered, it diminishes the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Scholars and experts will still play an important role in historical analysis, but their interpretations will be challenged and supplemented by the wisdom of crowds.

I share Issacson’s enthusiasm for the experience of traveling to and conducting research at archival institutions. I’ve conducted research at many different institutions, but I will always fondly remember my own experiences at the Indiana State Library when I lived in Indianapolis. Although I didn’t know it when I first moved to Indy, it turned out that my house was within walking distance to ISL. There were many Saturdays filled with early morning research, lovely lunchtime walks around downtown, and more research in the afternoon. The detective work of research is fun in and of itself, but the adventure of traveling to a new place and soaking in the character of the surrounding area makes the archival experience sublime.

All of this said, however, I don’t find myself as pessimistic as Issacson about this experiential loss with the move to online archives. Doing research online is, of course, also an experience. Digging into archival resources like Google Books, HathiTrust, The Internet Archive, and Chronicling America requires the same sort of detective work and interpretive skills that one uses at a brick-and-mortar institution. And it’s hard to describe the jubilation you feel upon discovering a crucial primary source that you would have never found or had access to at your local archival institution. Likewise, while the tactile experience of holding a real document in your hands is very, very special, the best web designers and archivists can make digital primary sources equally (if not more) accessible to researchers by providing clear scans, zoom in/out functionality, and text transcriptions that make these documents more approachable and understandable (especially for students in a k-12 setting who may be unable to visit an archive in person).

It’s also important to keep Issacson’s thoughts on digitization in context. All of the digital primary source collections he mentions are from noteworthy great white men in U.S. history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Einstein. Historians and archivists pick and choose what history gets digitized, and it remains an open question as to what should be digitized for online publication and whether or not this effort to publish documents related to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Males over ones connected to women and minorities merely duplicates the same dominant practices in the history book publishing industry since the nineteenth century. There are literally billions of primary source documents that could be digitized, but the lack of time, cost, and labor to digitize will prevent a sizable number of documents from going online in the foreseeable future. For every Smithsonian undertaking a “digitization strategic plan” there are probably hundreds of archival institutions that lack the ability to digitize anything in their collections. In sum, researchers understand that producing good scholarship means still going to the archives and digging through the actual sources – it can’t all be done online.

The real loss with online archives, as I see it, is the loss of interaction with all of the talented and helpful archivists who help researchers accomplish their goals. I suspect that most researchers don’t have tea with their archivists or bump into world-renowned historians of science at the archives like Issacson does, but almost all can recall an instance in which an archivist pointed them towards collection material they were unaware of, helped transcribe a document that seemed unreadable, or took the time to go into the back corner of a dark room to find requested documents. I can recall many such moments, and my own research over the years wouldn’t have been completed without the help of archivists. They are important people, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ll still need their services and expertise well into the future, whether online or offline.


Avoiding Buzzwords and Jargon Phrases in Writing

Clearly defined terms and active language are fundamental to good writing. If readers don’t understand the vocabulary you employ in your narrative, the potential for frustration and misunderstanding on their part raises exponentially. The point is obvious, but surprisingly hard to put into practice (much academic writing proves the point). We converse with our friends and loved ones on a day-to-day basis assuming they will understand our vocabularies the same way we do, and it’s easy to assume when writing that our reading audiences will readily understand our arguments and “be on our level,” so to speak.

As a historian I must always be cognizant of terms and phrases that could potentially distort my arguments: what does it mean for a person, place, or thing to be either “modern” or “traditional”? What is “culture”? What is “identity”? What does it mean to “learn”? Do my readers understand these terms the way I do? Likewise, I must also strive to use a clear, active tone that places actions in the subject of my sentences. As this guide from the University of North Carolina suggests, an active sentence asks “why did the chicken cross the road?,” whereas a passive sentence might ask, “why was the road crossed by the chicken?” I am as guilty as anyone of using imprecise terms and passive language in my writing, and I constantly strive to do better with each blog post, essay, and article I write.

Buzzwords and passive, jargon-laden phrases should be avoided in writing. All writers, regardless of topic, rely on words and phrases with specific meanings to convey their ideas, but many words necessarily change over time. “Liberal” and “conservative” political philosophies, for example, represented a set of ideas in 1775 that meant something different in 1850, 1900, and 1990. Anyone writing on these eras must use precise definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” to clarify their arguments. I believe buzzwords and jargon phrases can do much to distort good writing. A word becomes a buzzword when its use becomes so ubiquitous and wide-ranging as to become completely devoid of any clear meaning. A phrase becomes jargon when its use is restricted to a small, exclusive group of people while confusing readers on the outside. Both are bad!

Below you will find a list of ten buzzwords and jargon phrases that I avoid in my own writing, although I’ve been guilty of using some of these terms in the past without fully thinking about their meaning.

1. General Public/Average Person: Whenever I hear the term “general public” I envision unthinking humans whose brains are empty vessels waiting to be filled by all-knowing scholars and expert practitioners. What is “general” about this public? What is “average,” and who is an “average person”? How does our definition of “average” highlight our own biases and prejudices? In the quest to write for a general public or an average person, who might be left out of the conversation? Wouldn’t it be better to write for a “non-academic” audience or simply “the public”? Countless writing guides suggest that writers “simplify” or “dumb-down” their writing for the general public/average person, but I think it’s far better to write clearly for the sake of acknowledging the intelligence of your readers, who–regardless of intelligence level or education background–don’t need to be inundated with deliberately obstructionist language.

2. “The Ways in Which”: 99.9% of the time this jargon phrase is completely unnecessary and easily replaced with either “how” or “the ways.”

“Harry Smith’s study of the Civil War era examines the ways in which Civil War veterans fought for generous government pension benefits in the 1880s.”
“Harry Smith’s study of the Civil War era examines how Civil War veterans fought for generous government pension benefits in the 1880s.”

3. Foment: When you foment, you “instigate or stir up (an undesirable or violent sentiment or course of action).” This word could be an appropriate verb for describing many historical actions, but for some reason I have only seen it within the context of slave rebellions. Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner “fomented” rebellion against white slaveholders, but the thirteen colonies never fomented rebellion against the colonies, laborers never fomented rebellions against their employers during the Gilded Age, and Civil Rights activists were never seen as fomenting civil unrest in the 1960s. Why is it that only slaves are charged with fomenting anything? Far better, it seems, to use words like “instigate,” “encourage,” “incite,” “provoke,” and “urge.”

4. Discourse: One of the worst examples of academic jargon in existence. Most folks participate in “conversation,” “discussion,” or “debate.” Academics participate in “discourse.” The former terms represent action verbs, whereas “discourse” represents a boring, passive noun. Changing a verb to a noun is never good.

5. Jettison: Most folks “throw,” “drop,” or “remove” things. Academics “jettison” things. Another jargon term worth avoiding.

6. Engagement/Civic Engagement: Countless education programs, centers, and non-profit organizations win financial grants and private donations because they state in their mission statements that they promote “engagement” or “civic engagement.” But what do these terms mean, especially the latter? As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, these terms represent a million different things to millions of people, but I suspect no one really knows what it means to participate in engagement or civic engagement.

7. Impact: Much writing—regardless of topic—attempts to explain correlations and causations between people, places, and things. In describing these relationships, writers discuss “impact.” But again, what does it mean for something to have an “impact”? Even more problematic, “impact” as a verb refers to hitting something or a collision, which is not the same as describing the effect of one thing upon another. As this brief essay points out as an example, “Impact means collision . . . Laws don’t impact people. Laws affect people.”

8. “Lifelong Learning”: Lord, what in the world does this phrase mean? What is the University of Missouri-St. Louis trying do with this “Lifelong Learning” program? Isn’t the goal of any self-respecting education institution to help sharpen their students’ critical faculties and develop a lifelong passion for learning and discovery? Have you ever heard of an education program whose mission statement says, “Yada-Yada University: committed to promoting a 23-year passion for learning!”?

9. Disruption/Disruptive Innovation: There is a lot talk these days about “disruptive innovation” as a form of radical change in business and education. But the term is a buzzword, used so often and in so many contexts as to render it completely meaningless. As Matthew Yglesias argues, the term is now “a lame catchphrase.”

10. Postmodern: The ultimate academic buzzword, used to describe any cultural, social, philosophical, economic, literary, or political thought since World War II. Wikipedia can only say that postmodernism is “a departure from modernism” (whatever ‘modernism’ means!). Here’s what Dick Hebdige had to say about “postmodern” in his book Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things:

When it becomes possible for a people to describe as ‘postmodern’ the décor of a room, the design of a building, the diegesis of a film, the construction of a record, or a ‘scratch’ video, a television commercial, or an arts documentary, or the ‘intertextual’ relations between them, the layout of a page in a fashion magazine or critical journal, an anti-teleological tendency within epistemology, the attack on the ‘metaphysics of presence’, a general attenuation of feeling, the collective chagrin and morbid projections of a post-War generation of baby boomers confronting disillusioned middle-age . . . a fascination for images, codes and styles, a process of cultural, political or existential fragmentation and/or crisis, the ‘de-centring’ of the subject, an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ . . . the collapse of cultural hierarchies, the dread engendered by the threat of nuclear self-destruction, the decline of the university . . . then it’s clear we are in the presence of a buzzword.

Have any buzzwords or jargon phrases to add? Feel free to leave a comment below!


My First Journal Article

GAR veterans from Garland Post 423, Waveland, Indiana. Photo courtesy of 40th Indiana:

GAR veterans from Garland Post 423, Waveland, Indiana. Photo courtesy of 40th Indiana:

I am pleased to announce the official publication of my first scholarly journal article. The article–which is entitled “One Nation, One Flag, One Language: The Grand Army of the Republic and the Patriotic Instruction Movement in Indiana”–is included in the December 2014 issue (Volume 1, issue 6) of The Americanist Independent, an online academic journal and multimedia website run by California-based independent historian Keith Harris. Keith is an expert in Civil War history, memory, and veteran culture whose first book was recently published by Louisiana State University Press, so it’s quite an honor to have him publish my own scholarship on the Hoosier Civil War veterans who composed the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana.

One great thing about The Americanist Independent is that the journal is open access, which means that you can download my article and tons of other great scholarship for FREE. Simply follow this link to register as a user of The Americanist Independent website and boom! It’s all yours.

This journal article is an outgrowth of the third chapter of my Master’s thesis on the Indiana GAR. I spent a considerable amount of time during the research process going through the official records of the Indiana GAR’s annual meetings, which include a wide variety of speeches from state leadership outlining goals, objectives, and political statements for the rest of the organization’s membership. Starting with the meetings during the mid-1880s and 1890s, I noticed that Indiana GAR leaders spent an increasing amount of time complaining about the types of textbooks Hoosier schoolchildren used in their history classrooms and their allegedly “poor” understanding of Civil War history. The organization established an official leader of “Patriotic Instruction” in 1907 who traveled the state giving presentations about the Civil War and encouraging patriotic sentiments in young schoolchildren. The Indiana GAR eventually promoted three interrelated goals for encouraging patriotism in Indiana public schools: the implementation of history textbooks with a “correct” interpretation of Civil War history, the raising of American flags and hosting of lavish patriotic ceremonies, and a comprehensive “military instruction” program that included firearms training and military drill for all boys.

Be sure to download my article to learn more.


Teaching Slavery and Other Democratic Shortcomings in the History Classroom

My last essay on the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri elicited positive feedback and, unsurprisingly, pushback and criticism. When I shared the essay on Twitter, a fellow North St. Louis county native by the name of Alan R. Knight (whom I’ve never met in person or previously interacted with online) tweeted me more than thirty times expressing his belief that I “should be more responsible” when discussing this topic. He provided a laundry list of grievances that never addressed the content of my essay, but instead conveyed a peculiar theory for explaining the economic and social issues currently plaguing North St. Louis county. According to Mr. Knight, much of these problems revolved around the teaching of slavery in history classrooms. In teaching slavery, north county educators are preaching “hatred,” “propaganda,” “victimization,” and “slander” to the area’s African American population in an attempt to teach them to hate the United States, rely on the state and federal government for welfare handouts, and give votes and power to the Democratic party (“democrat slavers,” according to Mr. Knight). He says we live in a fully equal society and that blacks are completely at fault for any “racist hatred” against them.

Most rational readers, I hope, can easily see the ridiculousness and silliness of these claims.

There are plenty of history teachers around the United States who teach this country’s history of slavery and choose not to associate with the Democratic party. Over nine-tenths of all entitlement benefits in the U.S. go to elderly, disabled, or working households – not working-age people who simply refuse to work. Mr. Knight’s blaming of “racist hatred” on the victims of racism rather than actual racists is nothing new within the so-called “race conversation” in America. As I’ve argued repeatedly, teachers are often seen as the sole influence in a child’s upbringing when in reality schools are merely one part of a larger community effort to raise a child. And the idea of a fully equal society becoming reality in social practice is most likely impossible because the precise definition of what constitutes “equality” constantly changes over time as new questions force society to reconsider the boundaries of individual freedom, fair play, and equal protection under the law. This is not to suggest that equality doesn’t exist in some capacity or that the United States has not experienced great advances in economic, social, and political equality during its history. Far from it. It’s safe to say I am probably more content living under the boundaries of equality in 2014 than if I were to live under the boundaries of equality from 1860. It just means there will never be a time when we’ll all shake hands, say “everything’s equal!,” and dispose of our laws, justice systems, and lawyers.

Mr. Knight, however, challenged me on a philosophical level to consider the role of slavery in the history curriculum. What is the importance of teaching slavery in a U.S. history class, regardless of grade level?

As countless historians, scholars, and citizens have argued, the worst aspects of U.S. history–slavery, Indian extermination and western expansion, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, imperialism, and mass incarceration–are not merely blips along the road to American democracy as we understand it today. They were fundamental building blocks in its growth, and you cannot honestly describe this nation’s history without addressing them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued earlier this year, “to celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.” Our nation’s capitol was literally built with slave labor, for crying out loud.

Teaching slavery is not a form of propaganda or victimization, nor should its existence in the U.S. history curriculum be a partisan talking point in which parties debate whether or not it should be in the curriculum in the first place. Slavery is a part of our history whether we like it or not. Teaching our students of its wrongs illuminates the vast gulf between democratic principles and democratic practices. It also exposes the difficulty of finding a balance between liberty and order in a republican democracy.

It’s also true that we should acknowledge the history of antislavery and the eventual emancipation of all slaves with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865. Many heroes in U.S. history have put their lives on the line to right serious wrongs and promote peace, justice, and freedom. These people deserve our recognition, historical memories, and other acts of public commemoration. But how do students come to understand the challenges these people faced if you don’t first expose them to the wrongs and inequalities of the society in which they lived? How do students develop a genuine appreciation for abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Weld, or the Grimke sisters without exposing them to the history of slavery or the fact that the abolitionist movement was very small and almost universally hated throughout the country during the antebellum era? To focus only on what we today consider “a good fight against inequality” without discussing those inequalities in depth is to put the cart before the horse in historical thinking and teaching. Talking only about “good history” is boring and uninspiring to students. It seems to me that if we want our students to feel like empowered citizens who can help make positive changes in our communities, we should expose them to this nation’s historical failures and the ongoing fight to make society more just, humane, and equitable. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

I didn’t respond to all of Mr. Knight’s grievances, but for those interested you will find part of our twitter conversation below.


It’s a weird time to be living in St. Louis. It’s weird to see North St. Louis county, a place where members of both sides of my family have lived and worked since the 1930s and where I lived for eight years (Florissant), prominently displayed on national and international news outlets. It’s weird to read what seems like a lifetime of online punditry and thinkpiece material about your hometown from people who have spent little if any time there. And it’s definitely weird to see protests taking place in New York City, Boston, Oakland, and a number of other prominent U.S. cities in response to an event that occurred at a place within an easy driving distance of your house.

Since August I have wrestled with whether or not I should share my thoughts and perspective on Ferguson online. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t because I might offend someone or my words might be misinterpreted. And who the hell cares what I think anyway? At the same time, however, I feel like the topic is unavoidable and that I cannot write about other topics in good conscience without addressing it. No matter what any reader may think about my perspective, I owe it to myself to outline my thoughts and try to come to a better personal understanding through writing.

As with most political topics of discussion within society today, “mainstream” news media, social media, political pundits, and online writers have created false dichotomies framing the events in Ferguson in black and white terms (literally). Any sort of middle ground perspective–or at least a perspective that allows for nuanced thinking about protesters, police officers, and the United States criminal justice system–has been lost. It was probably never there in the first place. Countless online and face-to-face interactions with friends and family in St. Louis follow predictable lines: are you “for or against the protesters?” Do you support law enforcement and law and order? Who’s “side” do you support? Too often I feel like I must choose between a vision of society that either embraces a strong police state or a state of total anarchy. Like the nationalist who argues “my country: right or wrong,” I feel like I must either embrace “my police: right or wrong” or “my protest: right or wrong.”

On the one hand, some critics of the Ferguson Police Department and the U.S. criminal justice system have clearly gone too far in generalizing all police officers as bloodthirsty pigs. Some protesters have compared the Ferguson PD to ISIS, which is simply ridiculous. The St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe recently released a song called “War Cry” that seems to contradict the message of peace other protesters have attempted to convey to society and, in a way, dehumanizes Missouri political and law enforcement leaders in the process of demanding their own acknowledgement of black humanity. In the song description Poe argues that the Ferguson PD is an “uncontrollable force of wild cowboys,” and in an article for Time magazine he asserts that in the initial aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting “the police launched a preemptive and massively militarized offensive” against the protesters. While I agree with Poe that the initial police response in August was heavy-handed, it is disingenuous to criticize the police’s reaction without acknowledging the looting and property damage that precipitated most of those police actions.

I also agree with Jamelle Bouie that riots are not necessarily incomprehensible acts of violence, that we should work to understand the driving motivations behind rioting beyond simple moral condemnation, and that white supremacy reigned in the U.S. during the nineteenth and early twentieth century due in large part to white riots. And I can understand the perspective of a young Ferguson resident like Victor Mooring who considers the recent looting and arson along West Florissant street “a small price to pay for treating Brown’s life as worthless.” But the acknowledgement of a nation’s white supremacist history or a “means justify the ends” logic to violence will do little to comfort the numerous business owners and employees of all colors who are now out of work and a community whose local infrastructure and resources are literally crumbling. And if we were to embrace a “means justify the ends” logic towards arson and looting in Ferguson, then what stops a status quo advocate of the criminal justice system from embracing a “means justify the ends” logic towards the killing of perceived black criminals as a small price to pay for social order and state hegemony? We must also condemn state violence if we want to condemn riots.

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French recently lamented on Twitter that TV media failed to properly distinguish between the goals and intentions of peaceful protesters, looters, and arsonists. I share these sentiments, but unfortunately many people hostile to the protests have made these terms synonymous in their imaginations. Whereas some critics have generalized all police officers as racist, corrupt pigs, other critics have unfairly generalized all protesters as violent, police-hating rabble-rousers without any credible justification for protesting in Ferguson. A perspective that completely dismisses the complaints of most peaceful protesters is equally harmful, if not more harmful, to understanding where we are right now. To simply wish that “all of this would just go away” is a fool’s dream. To wish that everything would go back to “normal” is to conveniently forget that “normal” is the cause of events in Ferguson in the first place. St. Louis has a troubling history of slavery, racist government actions in criminal justice, housing, and redlining policies, and de facto segregation readily embraced by many white St. Louisians in practice if not by law. This troubling history is embedded within the very core of St. Louis society whether or not St. Louisans choose to acknowledge it.

The Missouri criminal justice system needs reforming, although the extent of that reform remains an open question. Municipal police departments in St. Louis County have profited off the backs of its most impoverished residents, as Radley Balko detailed in-depth for the Washington Post in September. The criminal justice system in Ferguson punishes its residents to such a point that last year each household possessed three warrants on average; 25,000 warrants in a city of 21,000 people. The Ferguson PD remains under federal investigation for several allegations that include excessive force against suspects, unwarranted traffic citations issued in a quest for money, and disproportionate traffic stops in black neighborhoods. And St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough’s operating procedures during the grand jury’s indictment hearing for Officer Darren Wilson were far from legally sound, engendering a wide range of criticisms from writers, legal experts, and the National Bar Association. Finally, Princeton University professor and sociologist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us that “Racist policing isn’t happening in a vacuum — it has to be seen, at least in part, as the flip side of the economic gutting of those communities. The local, state, and federal governments have slowly eroded black neighborhoods by shuttering public schools and public housing, closing public clinics and hospitals, and slashing funding for social programs.”

Once we acknowledge that those protesting in Ferguson and around the United States are doing so for myriad reasons–racist policing, police militarization, an unfair criminal justice system, economic inequality, racism within government and society, and many other reasons–we can acknowledge that peaceful protesters have many legitimate reasons for protesting, even if we were to give Darren Wilson’s explanation for his interactions with and killing of Michael Brown the complete benefit of the doubt.

For all of its bitter political, social, and economic divisiveness, the St. Louis region finds itself, as Sarah Kendzior argues, united only in fear. A geography of fear, a fear of what’s happening, and a fear of what might soon come. Governor Jay Nixon recently argued that Michael Brown’s death prompted these bitter divisions, but he is wrong. They have been here for a long, long time, and to think that we are somehow living in an unprecedented time in our city’s history is to downplay just how long these sorts of questions and disagreements have lingered under the surface.

By pure coincidence I am currently reading the late Tony Judt’s 2008 publication Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. Although the book largely revolves around European twentieth century history, Judt’s impassioned pleas for the importance of historical thinking are relevant for all space and time. Through a stronger historical consciousness we can escape the politics of fear and use our critical faculties to better understand how the complex questions we face as a society are perennial in nature.

Of all our contemporary illusions, the most dangerous is the one that underpins and accounts for all the others. And that is the idea that we live in a time without precedent: that what is happening to us is new and irreversible and that the past has nothing to teach us . . . except when it comes to ransacking it for serviceable precedents.

Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of circumstances and routines of one’s daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach. Few democracies can resist the temptation to turn this sentiment of fear to political advantage . . . we should not be surprised to see the revival of pressure groups, political parties, and political programs based upon fear: fear of foreigners, fear of change, fear of open frontiers and open communications; fear of the free exchange of unwelcome opinions (19-20).

Much of the substance within the perspectives I’ve shared above stems from the politics of fear. Fear of the Other, fear of the future, fear that listening to others and acknowledging the legitimacy of their arguments means taking away our personal dignity and compromising our values. It remains to be seen if Ferguson can help lead St. Louis beyond the politics of fear.


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 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 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. We can better 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. 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.

Others 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. 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.



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