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 remains 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.
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.
- How Slavery Haunts Today’s America: On September 4th, a British publication called The Economist published a book review of Cornell University history professor Edward Baptist’s new book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The book review was offensive, even racist, and The Economist later issued an apology. Baptist wrote a thoughtful response to the review for CNN and asserted that slavery’s legacy is still a part of American society today.
- 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been acquainted with the term “civic engagement” for as long as I’ve been a practicing public historian, but I must admit my ignorance as to what exactly the term means. I am not the only public historian dealing with this confusion. Here is what Mary Rizzo of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and Rutgers University says about “civic engagement”:
It’s the Maltese falcon of the public humanities–the stuff dreams of made of, but no one really knows what it is. Everybody claims to be doing civic engagement, from the Ivy League to the state school, from the ballet to the ball club, from the mustiest archive to the quaintest house museum, but nobody ever defines it. Like that statue, it represents everything to everyone, a problematic state of flux.
“Civic” can mean a neighborhood, an organization, or a group of citizens within a local, state, regional, or national community. “Engagement,” however, is a vague term prone to multiple meanings and interpretations. What does it mean to “engage” with someone or something? Isn’t “engagement” simply another term for “education” and/or “awareness”? The American Academy of Arts and Sciences defines “civic engagement” as fostering “democratic decision-making” that helps produce “voters, informed consumers, and productive workers” (10). Should the core values public historians promote when they practice “civic engagement” include educational endeavors that encourage informed voting, consumerism, and productive work in society? Should the dissemination of public policy be a concern for public historians and the institutions they work for?
The floor is yours.
I am always leery of any efforts to wax nostalgically about the past or “the good times.” We all have great memories of past friendships, relationships, and moments of happiness, but those nostalgic moments often distort our understanding of the struggles and hardships people went through in the past while at the same time giving us an unhealthy sense of fear about contemporary society’s problems. That said, it’s clear to me that our world is experiencing hard times right now. Warfare, state violence, racism, sexism, economic struggles, political deadlock, social outrage, and a loss of faith in the promise of a better future greet us at every corner of our computers and in face-to-face interactions with those around us. These sentiments seem to be especially pronounced on social media, where the proliferation of information–“likes,” “retweets,” “click-bait,” “listicles,” and an endless quantity of thinkpieces–seems to breed confusion, misunderstanding, and anger rather than enlightened discussion.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the ways public history can redirect these concerns into a meaningful dialogue that addresses contemporary problems in society through a better understanding of the past. Some would call these efforts “civic engagement,” although I am not a fan of this term (more on that in a future post).
Before we can even begin to discuss public history as a civic good, however, we must ask whether historians should engage in any efforts to facilitate a dialogue about contemporary problems in the first place. Similar debates have raged in social studies classrooms for years and are relevant to public history as well. For example, Chester E. Finn, Jr. of the Hoover Institute remarked in 2003 about efforts to promote cultural understanding in social studies classrooms that “one camp believes that social studies classes should help children feel good about themselves, be nice to others, and learn to respect all cultures, with minimal attention to traditional history, geography, and civics. The other camp holds that the schools’ job is to transmit information to children about their shared American culture, how it works, and where it came from.” Anyone who embraced the former, according to Finn, was simply practicing “pop psychotherapy” that mistakenly diagnosed “that children needed to be comforted, reassured, and admonished not to cast blame or show bias toward any group, religion, or country.” Anyone that embraced the latter was a patriotic champion of teaching American heritage and exceptionalism to the nation’s youth.
Should public historians stick to interpreting [Euro or Ameri-centric] history without political commentary or civic instruction, or should they make efforts efforts to connect their historical interpretations to the present? The answer lies partly in whether public history is reflective of a “historical temple” or a “historical forum.”
Canadian museologist Duncan F. Cameron famously argued in 1971 that many cultural institutions faced an identity crisis of “role definition.” Were they temples or forums? Most museums, historic homes, and other public history destinations at that time framed themselves as “temples.” Cameron argued that many institutions, echoing Finn’s concerns about the need for children to learn about so-called traditional history, “created [spaces] that were the temples within which they enshrined those things they held to be significant and valuable. The public generally accepted the idea that if it was in the museum, it was not only real but represented a standard of excellence. If the museum said that this and that was so, then that was a statement of truth.” These “temple” spaces, according to Cameron, were more reflective of churches than schools. We can still see this mentality in many public history “temples” today, where audiences are exposed to and expected to unquestioningly bow to the enshrined “truths” of history as defined by either the state, an academic institution, or a private bourgeois interest group.
Opportunities for questions and dialogue are rare in these sorts of places. Sociologist and historian James Loewen took a negative view of public history “temples” in his 1999 bestseller Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong when he argued that “public history . . . usually fosters the civic status quo by praising the government and defending its acts. Rarely do historic markers and monuments criticize the state. Instead, they make things that were problematic seem appropriate, ordained, even commendable” (26). The fact that many public history institutions enjoy financial backing from the state, the academy, or wealthy benefactors makes any questioning of the civic status quo difficult and inherently political. Then again, any concerted effort to ignore or silence dissent against the civic status quo is, of course, also political. Public history is as much a politics of historical omission as much as it is a politics of historical inclusion.
On the other hand, according to Cameron, some institutions by 1971 began expanding their mission statements to go beyond “simply a place where proved excellence should be exhibited and interpreted to the public.” These institutions sought to transform their spaces into local community centers and “forums” that interpreted “the immediate environment and the cultural heritage of that community” through historical exhibits and programs that sought to question the state and its actions. Cameron cited the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. as an example of a historical “forum” where local community members were invited to participate in the process of creating an exhibit deemed relevant to their concerns with museum professionals about urban rat problems in the DC area.
Here in St. Louis I have recently taken a great interest in the efforts of the Missouri History Museum to be a community “forum” for discussing the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. The museum hosted a “Ferguson Town Hall” meeting on Monday, August 25, and plans to host several lectures/discussions in the near future. As museum spokesperson Leigh Albright Walters recently explained, “The Missouri History Museum has always made it a point to address difficult topics. We felt it was important to have events and programming that relate to the current situation in Ferguson.”
Should the Missouri History Museum and other similar public history institutions continue to their efforts to be more like community “forums” instead of elite “temples,” or should they only focus on the transmission of historical knowledge without any civics instruction? What are some other examples of “historical forums” currently in action (such as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum)?
I believe listening is an undervalued yet highly important virtue.
Talking is easy. Relying on our prior beliefs, values, and what we think we know is easy. But listening is hard because it requires a great deal of mental effort and humiliation to acknowledge that one doesn’t have all the answers – that we might need to put ourselves on silent and listen to others for a better understanding of ourselves and our world. Listening is also hard because the things we hear from others often make us uncomfortable by exposing our own weaknesses and ignorances. We’ve been told to “like,” “comment,” “favorite,” and “retweet,” as if these things will lead us to true enlightenment and civil dialogue. But we’ve never been told to listen.
The best listeners have the greatest capacity for personal growth because they’ve freed themselves from the tyrannical prison of their own condescension and ignorance. When we listen, we get a little closer to understanding each other. When we listen, we convey respect. When we listen, we acknowledge the humanity of others.
Our understanding of nineteenth century United States history is primarily shaped by a focus on historical events that took place in two ill-defined regions: “the North” and “the South.” Embedded in this narrative are depictions of various political ideologies that supposedly illuminate the divisive conflicts between Northerners and Southerners during the Antebellum period. The general thrust of this narrative is that disagreements with seemingly clear distinctions–slavery versus freedom, black versus white, and North versus South–precipitated the outbreak of the American Civil War from 1861-1865.
While popular and intriguing, this narrative is woefully inadequate for understanding the complexities of the Civil War Era. For one, the Confederacy is not equivalent to “the South.” Many residents who lived within the Confederate states and considered themselves “Southerners” rejected calls for secession in 1860 and 1861. Nearly 100,000 white males from the Confederate states signed up to fight for the United States military (often incorrectly labeled as “the North”), while an additional 180,000 or so African Americans (most of which came from Southern slave states) also joined the U.S. military. These numbers don’t include the men who joined the Union from border slave states that never formally seceded, including Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. These people–whether black or white–were just as “Southern” as those who supported the Confederacy. Moreover, it was never the goal of the U.S. military to destroy the entire South in the first place. Rather, the U.S. military’s end-goal was to destroy the Confederacy and all secessionist sentiment within the United States. This goal is not the same as wanting to destroy the entire South.
These semantic differences, however, do not provide the chance for a more inclusive understanding of the Civil War that incorporates the role of “the West” in shaping the country’s prewar disagreements, nor do they hint at the difficult tensions underlying concepts like “slavery” and “free labor.” Stacy L. Smith’s 2013 publication Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction complicates our understanding of the Civil War Era, demonstrating the complex ways freedom and enslavement entangled themselves within a larger debate about the future of the United States.
Smith argues in the introduction of her book that scholars can benefit from “recast[ing] the narrative of the sectional crisis, emancipation, and Reconstruction in the United States by geographically recentering it in the Far West.” California presents itself as a particularly appropriate case study because “California’s struggle over slavery did not end with its entrance into the Union as a free state . . . instead . . . California’s free soil was far less solid, its contests over human bondage far more complicated, contentious, and protracted, than historians have usually imagined” (2).
What were these “contests over human bondage” that emerged in California after achieving statehood in 1850? Smith analyzes the experiences of several different racial and ethnic groups throughout Freedom’s Frontier.
Indian Enslavement: As more men emigrated to California following the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, the need for domestic laborers increased. Many single males and families sought servants that they could bind into long-term contracts. The California legislature responded to demands for more domestic labor by passing the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which allowed white householders to claim Indian children as long-term wards. As long as white householders could justify that these Indian children were orphans or living with impoverished, “unsuitable” parents, state courts could convey legal guardianship of these Indian children to white “parents” until the age of eighteen, even if the children had been stolen from their parents and tribes. This act perpetuated a thriving trade in Indian children in the years before the Civil War, even though California was a “free state” according to the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 and its 1850 state constitution.
African Enslavement: Despite California’s status as a free state, many California residents originally from slave states hoped to carry their slaves with them to the gold mines. According to Smith, 36 percent of California’s U.S.-born residents in 1850 were from a slaveholding state (8), and they were vastly overrepresented in the California state legislature. Arguing that they had had the right to bring their slaves into California when it was still a federal territory, proslavery forces in the state legislature helped facilitate the passage of a fugitive slave law in 1852 that allowed masters to claim slaves that they brought to California before statehood. Another provision of this fugitive law stipulated that the state would capture runaway slaves (who arrived before and after statehood) and return them to the South, despite the arguments of anti-slavery Californians who argued that black slaves were free immediately upon arrival in the state. Nevertheless, the 1850 census shows that there were at least 203 slaves in California, although Smith suggests that the incompleteness of these records could mean that there may be “a substantial undercount of masters and slaves in my study” (238-239).
Slaves, Coolies, and Peons: Before and after California’s statehood in 1850, Mexican, Chilean, Hawaiian, and Chinese laborers voluntarily and involuntarily emigrated to the state to work as miners in the gold fields. These laborers often entered into voluntary contracts and received wages, but as Smith argues, “contracts were not symbols of freedom but markers of bondage. Foreign employers used these legal instruments to bind otherwise free workers to toil for years on end and to accept nonmonetary compensation–passage, food, clothing, and goods–in lieu of meaningful cash wages,” essentially making them slaves in all but name (10). White free-soil Democrats and Whigs argued that these laborers would degrade the value of free labor, reduce wages, and help drive white male laborers out of the mines. With regards to Chinese labor, the Republican party echoed these concerns about “Coolie” labor well after the Civil War, and it was the Republican party who led the charges in Congress to pass the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Both of these acts restricted Chinese immigration to the United States on the grounds that Chinese laborers were actually “forced laborers” who devalued free white labor and who violated the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery in the United States. Rather than punishing the employers who arranged these contracts with Chinese laborers, Californians chose to punish Chinese laborers through exclusion.
Chinese Prostitution: Chinese women in California often found themselves in an underground sex trade before, during, and after the Civil War. According to Smith, “demand for domestic labor also fueled a market in bound women and children who worked in private households as wards, apprentices, debt-bound servants, and slaves . . . Diverse Californians bought and sold women as domestic servants and as forced sexual partners, prostitutes, concubines, and wives. The struggle over free-state status, then, often moved out of the mines and into the intimate labor and sexual relations of California households” (11).
Stacy L. Smith’s analysis of nineteenth century California was eye-opening and insightful for me. Books like Smith’s challenge us to view the Civil War in new ways that dismantle commonly-held distinctions between slave and free labor and “North versus South.” Freedom’s Frontier is one of the finest publications I’ve read in a long time and I highly recommend it for scholars of the Civil War and the West.