Patriotism–love of country–can be a noble ideal that promotes informed, educated citizenship and respect for its governing institutions and the people who compose its society. But patriotism without criticism is lazy and toothless; a cheap way of demanding conformity to the status quo. Condescendingly demanding that people must either love this country unconditionally or “leave it” is deeply insulting to the many patriotic Americans both yesterday and today who have fought injustices throughout our country’s history and have argued through the language of protest that this country can and should do better. The late author James Baldwin correctly argued that “I love America more than any country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Democracies and Republics thrive on dissent. Fascist and authoritarian governments thrive on the suppression of dissent.
We Americans are a free people whose country was born of protest. The right to protest is a right codified in law and protected by those who put their lives on the line for us in military service for this country (and who, by the way, do not need to be apologized to before engaging in protest). We can debate all day about correct and incorrect protest methods, but peaceful protesters–whatever the cause–have just as much a right to pursue freedom and liberty for themselves as anyone else, even if their actions and messages are distasteful in our eyes. The National Anthem and our ritual of standing up for it should not be empty gestures done just to be polite or to adhere to forced standards of patriotism, but should be practiced by freedom-loving people who stand on their own free will because they believe in its words and the patriotic spirit they invoke.
In 1943 a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses students in West Virginia refused to salute the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance and were expelled from school. The case went to the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Chief Justice Robert Jackson stated that:
“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
One of the most urgent questions in recent years for those of us public historians who work at slave plantations has revolved around the proper terminology for referring to the historical victims of black chattel slavery. For years historians–both public and academic–have used the term “slave,” but a vigorous and compelling argument has recently been made to replace “slave” with “enslaved people.” Last year I wrote an essay outlining some of those arguments, and since that time I have come around to believe that “enslaved people” is the better term to use (although I do a bit of interchanging between the terms for clarity and to avoid repetitiveness in my talks). The reasoning is simple. “Slave” runs the risk of portraying these people as property first and foremost, whereas “enslaved people” highlights the human dignity of those who labored under the status of enslavement. Enslaved people were people first and foremost, even if some at the time like Chief Justice Roger Taney considered “slaves” property and not people under the terms of the 5th amendment. While there are concerns about presentism in the word “enslaved people,” I am not as worried as I once was about that particular concern because we use “presentist” terms in other contexts without hesitation. “Negroes” are now referred to as Black or African American, and the “War of the Rebellion” is now commonly referred to as “The Civil War” or, if you are so inclined, “The War of Northern Aggression,” a term invented during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
In the course of actively using the term “enslaved people” more frequently on my tours, I’ve been impressed by the number of visitors who have asked questions about the term and/or praised my use of it. To be sure, the vast majority of visitors either have no opinion one way or the other or choose to keep their thoughts to themselves, but it’s nonetheless remarkable how many conversations have occurred with visitors over the term. Those who’ve engaged me in conversation have often commented on how they appreciated how the term more strongly brought out the humanity of enslaved blacks than did the term “slave,” and one visitor who works in the education field commented that the term represented one small step towards making historic sites more welcoming to people of color. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
I recently experienced my first considerable pushback from a couple taking my tour, however. They were actually very friendly people and we had a good conversation about a range of topics, but it was obvious that the term “enslaved people” had rubbed them the wrong way. “Are you not allowed to use the word ‘slave’ anymore? Is the government making you say that term? ‘Enslaved people’ sounds like a politically correct term to me.” No, I’m not a leftist government agent tasked with engaging in an Orwellian project to push political correctness onto the American people. I just want to use inclusive, respectful language that accounts for the varied experiences of people who lived in the United States during the nineteenth century.
It’s unfortunate that someone could put up such a fuss about the term “enslaved people,” but the use of the term “political correctness” is instructive. One of the most obnoxious traits of contemporary society is to assume the worst intentions in what people say to each other. If everyone around you is perceived to have bad intentions, it’s not a stretch to say they might assume the worst of intentions in you as well. Of course intentions and outcomes are two separate entities, and one person’s positive or at least innocuous intentions can definitely lead to negative consequences. But to constantly assume that a person’s attempt at respectful language is “political correctness” is, in reality, a sign of personal sensitivity, anger, and defensiveness. And the term “political correctness” is typically used in an effort to shut down debate and enforce silence on potentially touchy topics.
Anyway. The effort to more frequently and consciously use the term “enslaved people” on my tours has been largely successful and I hope more interpreters at slave plantations consider using it in the future.
Over the past year we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site worked on an ambitious living history program that aimed to highlight the political issues of the 1872 Presidential campaign and re-create the atmosphere of a nineteenth century election. The program “Grant or Greeley – Which? The Election of 1872 Living History Program” happened this past weekend from Friday, September 9 through Sunday, September 11 and I think it was a great success. We had professional actors, staff, and volunteers portraying a range of figures including Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, and Victoria Woodhull. I portrayed Senator John A. Logan. We also designed a voting window where visitors had the chance to vote for their own preferred 1872 candidate (Grant won but Victoria Woodhull took second place ahead of Greeley), nineteenth century children’s games, an arts and crafts table, a band playing 1872 election tunes, and open-house tours of President Grant’s White Haven estate. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved.
I have previously voiced some skepticism about living history programs on this website, but I really think we put together a solid program. It was unique in that we moved away from the Civil War battlefield and focused on political issues and topics during the Reconstruction Era, something I don’t think you’d see too much of at other related sites. The program was probably the biggest one ULSG has ever had. Anyone who thinks a public history program centered around the Reconstruction Era won’t work with a lay audience should have listened to the questions and comments of interested visitors. We ended up having somewhere around 750 or 800 visitors who came to the park at some point during the weekend, which is pretty good. Some video footage of various speakers has been posted to the park’s Facebook page if you’d like to check it out. While we haven’t figured out what we’re doing from here, I hope this program is a sign of good things to come with our special event programming at ULSG.
I am breathing a sigh of relief for the moment, but it’s back in the saddle very soon as we start planning next year’s program.
Ulysses S. Grant has received much attention from historians and biographers over the past thirty years. So much attention, in fact, that an argument can be made that we might actually have an over-saturation of Grant studies on the market right now. During the first half of the twentieth century the most notable Grant biographers–William Hesseltine, William E. Woodward, Louis Coolidge, and Allan Nevins (whose study of Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish is in many ways a study of Grant and his presidency)–offered largely negative portrayals of Grant. The mid-1900s saw a dearth of Grant studies save for Lloyd Lewis and Bruce Catton’s biographical trilogy that went through General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. William McFeeley’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography brought renewed interest to Grant, but a combination of factors in the 1990s brought about a Grant renaissance that continues today, including a reevaluation of Grant’s generalship and presidency (and the Civil War era more broadly) within historical scholarship and at public history sites (Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary may have possibly influenced interest in Grant as well). Two years ago I wrote an essay on this website outlining my favorite and least-favorite Grant biographies that you can check out here.
With this post I aim to briefly analyze Grant biographies published since 2012 and update readers on what I know about upcoming biographies to be published in the future. I haven’t read all of these books yet but will provide additional commentary for the ones I have read. Off we go:
H.W. Brands – The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace (2013): In recent years Dr. Brands has devoted his scholarly endeavors to telling the story of American history through biography, which includes works on Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Ben Franklin, and Ronald Reagan. With this Grant biography Brands looked to portray the Civil War era and nineteenth century history more broadly through the eyes of Grant. The Man Who Saved the Union, however, lacks analytical depth and doesn’t really tell us anything new about Grant. The source material is heavily skewed towards secondary sources and repackaging what prior biographers have said about the man. Overall the book is very similar in style to Jean Edward Smith’s 2002 biography of Grant but not as well researched. Readers who are new to Ulysses S. Grant could benefit from starting with The Man Who Saved the Union, but others won’t find anything new here.
Geoffrey C. Ward – A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States (2012): This book is actually a biography of Ferdinand Ward, the “Napoleon of Finance” of Gilded Age Wall Street and Grant’s business partner in the investment banking firm Grant & Ward. But the book is so well-written and engaging that I have to include it on this list. Geoffrey Ward–a partner with Ken Burns on their famous television documentaries and the Great-Grandson of Ferdinand Ward–includes a good analysis of the rise and fall of Grant & Ward and the Grant family’s response to the loss of their fortune. The book was a joy to read and I highly recommend it.
Chris Mackowski – Grant’s Last Battle: The Story Behind the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (2015): This little book is a real joy to read. Mackowski analyzes Grant’s fight against throat cancer and the race to finish his personal memoirs before his death in 1885. The overall argument is that Grant’s Memoirs aimed to cement his legacy and “secure the meaning of the Civil War.” Highly recommended.
William C. Davis – Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee – The War They Fought, The Peace They Forged (2015): Davis is a well-renowned Civil War historian who has written a legendary number of books and articles about the war. In this well-researched dual biography of Grant and Lee, Davis relies mostly on primary sources and does a nice job interpreting both men’s lives. The most ambitious aspect of the book is the “peace they forged” part, which focuses on the relationship between the two men during Reconstruction and their reaction to political events during that time. Davis argues that Grant and Lee were, for the most part, on the same page when it came to creating a political blueprint for bringing former Confederate states back into the Union. My friend and colleague Bob Pollock wrote a blog post last year suggesting that the two did not see eye-to-eye as much as Davis suggests, but he nevertheless recommends reading Crucible of Command. I also recommend it.
G.L. Corum – Ulysses Underground: The Unexplored Roots of U.S. Grant and the Underground Railroad (2015): This book is well-researched but with an interpretation that is badly flawed. In the book description we are told that Grant held “a fierce commitment to slavery’s demise” bordering on abolitionism before the war that was born of his upbringing in the strongly abolitionist enclave of Southern Ohio, a central point on the Underground Railroad. The evidence for this claim, however, is supported not by anything in Grant’s own writings (he never stated anything against slavery in writing before the war) but by the contention that Grant’s surroundings in Ohio profoundly shaped his views towards slavery. The lack of reliable evidence to verify this claim undermines its validity. In fact, Grant’s moving to St. Louis in the 1850s to live on his in-laws slave plantation, his ownership of William Jones while in St. Louis, and an 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War all suggest something quite different. In that letter Grant stated that he “was never an abolitionest, [n]ot even what you would call anti slavery” before the Civil War, but that the contingencies of the war had changed his perspective. These inconvenient facts are glossed over in Ulysses Underground. Furthermore, her contention that previous Grant biographers have neglected to analyze Grant’s early childhood is undercut by the numerous biographies–most notably Lloyd Lewis’s Captain Sam Grant–that do just that. To be sure, Corum does a wonderful job of illuminating the history of Southern Ohio, and on that front she does an excellent job. But her efforts to incorporate an abolitionist-minded Grant into this narrative are in vain.
Edwina Campbell – Citizen of a Wider Commonwealth: Ulysses S. Grant’s Postpresidential Diplomacy (2016): Campbell, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, provides readers one of the first scholarly analyses of Grant’s two-and-a-half year world tour. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet but I’m very much looking forward to this one.
John F. Marszalek – The Best Writings of Ulysses S. Grant (2015): Marszalek, the current Executive Director of the U.S. Grant Association’s Presidential Library and an editor of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, compiles a sort of “greatest hits” of Grant’s letters throughout his lifetime. I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet but I anticipate that it’s a good, handy primer for those wanting to read Grant’s letters.
Frank Varney – General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War (2013): I haven’t read this book yet, but the title offers some obvious clues about the interpretive focus of the book. Varney argues that Grant–both intentionally and unintentionally–includes a number of mistakes about the Civil War in his Personal Memoirs that unfairly inflate his own accomplishments and downplay General Rosecrans’s role in the war. This review by Jason Frawley in The Civil War Monitor offers a mixed assessment.
Ronald C. White – American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
Brooks Simpson‘s much-anticipated second volume of his Grant biography exploring Grant’s life from 1865-1885 is, I believe, on the path towards eventual publication, but at this point I’m not sure when that will actually happen.
Ron Chernow, yes, that Ron Chernow that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the hit Broadway show Hamilton, has intentions of writing a Grant biography.
Charles Calhoun of East Carolina University is working on a book about Grant’s presidency.
James Ramage of Northern Kentucky University is also working on a Grant biography. Ramage’s biography of Confederate guerilla John Singleton Mosby and the subsequent friendship of Mosby and Grant inspired Ramage to write a book on Grant and, according to a friend of his that I recently met, he hopes to analyze how Grant has been remembered by Americans since his death in 1885.
If I’ve missed any books along the way, please let me know.
A few months ago I was interviewed by the website Mental Floss about working for the National Park Service. The finished article went live a few days ago and I was quoted a few times, including an anecdote about one of the most memorable tours I’ve ever given. You can read it here. Enjoy!
The Junior Ranger Program is one of the most successful education initiatives the National Park Service has ever rolled out. Kids of all ages work on activity books as they go through a particular unit of the Park Service and, upon completion, get a Junior Ranger badge modeled after the badge that we park rangers wear on our uniforms. Almost every unit of the NPS participates in the program by creating their own unique educational activities. Some Junior Rangers may only go to one, two, or five parks during their youth, but others collect literally hundreds of badges. It’s a nice program that provides a chance for kids to learn about national parks, and I work really hard to provide an enjoyable learning experience for Junior Rangers who go on my tours.
One of the Junior Ranger activity books that we offer at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site includes a page where Junior Rangers are required to interview a Park Ranger. One of the interview questions is the following:
Which NPS value is most important to you? Why?
Caring for People
Caring for Places
Caring for Nature
I have thought a lot about this question and what my answer to it would be.
There are now currently 412 units of the National Park Service. Some of those places teach us about nature, wildlife, and the importance of protecting natural resources, while others tell us stories about our history and the importance of understanding the past. Some of the best sites find ways to incorporate lessons about both in their interpretive programming. Each NPS unit has a unique story. Some of those stories–ones the remind us of the wrongs of slavery, Indian removal, Japanese internment during World War II, the horrors and bloodshed of war–expose our country’s shortcomings and faults, forcing us to remember that there is much work to do in striving to create a more equal society that promotes liberty for all. Other stories remind us of the natural beauty of our country and the possibility of a better tomorrow that learns from and avoids the pitfalls of the past.
But while caring for places and nature is definitely important, the most important value to me, by far, is the importance of caring for people. What’s the point of taking care of a historic place or a natural wonder if nobody came to visit that place? How successful would the National Park Service be in executing its mission of preserving and providing access to America’s natural and cultural treasures if caring for people wasn’t the first priority? It is only when we care for people first and foremost–both the people who visit and the employees who dedicate their lives to this work–that we’re in a better position to care for historic places and natural wonders.
I have worked full-time for the National Park Service for two years and throughout my life I’ve visited probably 25 or 30 units of the NPS throughout the country (I’ve got a lot of work to do still). I love visiting every site, whether big or small, historic or scenic. My passion for history and the discovery that I could possibly find work educating people about history outside of a traditional classroom inspired me to give up my efforts to become a high school history teacher and pursue a career with the Park Service. It was an amazing feeling when the Grant site in my native St. Louis offered me a full-time job, and my role as a steward of the NPS and American history is not something I take lightly. That love of history initially drove me to the NPS, but it’s the people I interact with on a daily basis at my job and the people I meet during my own travels that make the NPS special to me. It’s the friendships I’ve made and the thoughtful people I’ve met from all over the country who inspire me to put on the green and gray uniform every working day and strive to do a better job tomorrow. I’ve given tours to TV personalities and NFL football players but also eight graders from Ferguson, senior citizens enjoying a life of retirement, and hard-working everyday people of all ages and backgrounds whose desire to learn from and enjoy NPS sites inspires them as they traverse thousands of miles around the country to find each unique place.
The NPS has its challenges going forward. We need to be a more inclusive place, both in our visitation and in our hiring practices. Not every day on the job is a great one. Working with the public can sometimes be a double-edged sword, like those times when a kids yells and screams during a tour or when I’m told by a visitor that my understanding of history is “completely wrong.” I have hopes for moving up the NPS career ladder, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen right now. Working any job for 40 hours a week is bound to be mentally grinding and monotonous at times. But the people I meet on a daily basis make my job a special one; the visitors who share their stories with me and take my tours; my co-workers who make my work environment a pleasant one and who challenge me to be a better historian and educator; those moments when a visitor smiles and says “I learned something new today.” That’s what the National Park Service is all about.
Here’s to another 100 years of preserving America’s natural and cultural resources.
It’s reassuring to know that there are enlightened people like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson who are in positions of power and have the ability to set education policy in this country.
Senator Johnson says that the “tenured professors in the higher education cartel” are working to keep college costs high and not doing enough to embrace digital technology like Blue-Ray discs, the internet, and the world wide web in the classroom – a classroom that he believes should have fewer teachers and replaced with what he calls “destructive technology.”
Johnson: We’ve got the internet – you have so much information available. Why do we have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to the knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system.
WISPOLITICS: But online education is missing some facet of a good –
Johnson: Of course, it’s a combination, but prior to me doing this crazy thing [of being in the Senate] . . . I was really involved on a volunteer basis in an education system in Oshkosh. And one of the things we did in the Catholic school system was we had something called “academic excellence initiative.” How do you teach more, better, easier?
One of the examples I always used – if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.
Where do you even start with this nonsense?
- Digital technology–more specifically education technology–is not a panacea that automatically enhances classroom learning. In 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” That “revolution,” of course, never came about, partly because any sort of technology used in the classroom is merely a tool for achieving the larger goal of learning. Technology is not an end in and of itself, and watching a documentary is no more effective than listening to someone drone on forever in the front of a classroom. It’s how you use those tools that matters, and the best teachers put a range of tools–from pens and pencils to computers and tablets–to work in fostering a positive learning environment.
- Jonathan Rees has blogged for several years about MOOCs and ed tech and has a book coming out on the subject. Mr. Johnson ought to read it.
- Ken Burns is a wonderful filmmaker and producer, but his PBS series is not the definitive word on the history of the American Civil War. It’s been twenty-plus years since the documentary came out. It is dated and has a few questionable interpretations. Again, teaching history or any subject doesn’t mean popping in a movie and having students take notes. Pairing the documentary with other works of scholarship–written and on film–and analyzing how historians have interpreted the war and constructed narratives about the history of the war is a better start. Having students learn from a trained professional how to find, analyze, and interpret primary sources…that’s also a good start. And having a teacher facilitate dialogue through guided questions or some other thoughtful activity after the film holds more potential for learning than watching a video from “a solid lecturer” after watching a fourteen-hour documentary.
- Ron Johnson sounds like he hasn’t stepped foot in a college in forty years. Tenure basically doesn’t exist for most young faculty members anymore. The “higher education cartel,” if any such thing exists, has bought into Senator Johnson’s rhetoric and has actively worked to implement austerity measures while relying more on part-time contingent faculty, especially since the 2008 recession. College doesn’t consist of professors constantly lecturing their students anymore. Higher education is not an Orwellian propaganda machine where students read Das Kapital and dream about Cultural Marxism all day and then party all night. We should be investing more in public education rather than advocating for “destructive technology” or busting up some make-believe “higher education cartel.”
You can’t make up this stuff up.
The famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a fierce critic of the idea of scholarly “objectivity.” As Brandon Byrd points out in an excellent essay for the African American Intellectual History Society, Du Bois’s status at the turn of the twentieth century as a black professor at Atlanta University in the Jim Crow South exposed him to the necessity of fusing “scholarship and struggle . . . social analysis and social transformation” to remake American society upon the ideals of social and political equality and equal protection of the laws. Indeed, Du Bois understood long before most of his academic contemporaries that claims of “objectivity” and being “cool, calm and detached” in one’s work run the risk of merely being a rhetorical claim to unwarranted power and authority and the maintenance of the scholarly status quo.
Byrd’s essay reminded me of another work from the Du Bois canon: a chapter from his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) entitled “The Propaganda of History.” Historians correctly cite Black Reconstruction as a landmark publication in the historiography of Reconstruction scholarship. In a time when the Dunning School of though argued that Reconstruction was a complete failure and that the effort to enfranchise black men and engage in bi-racial governance after the Civil War was a mistake, Du Bois provided comprehensive statistical analysis and primary source evidence to argue that Reconstruction was actually an era of great civil rights achievements and remarkable evolution in both economics and legal practices in the United States.
Black Reconstruction is also a remarkable achievement, however, because it probes the philosophical depths of the historical enterprise itself. Is history a science or art? How do people remember the past over time, and how do those memories shape the way we understand history? Can a nation collectively write its own history in an objective fashion? In the chapter “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois argues that the history of Reconstruction taught in schools throughout the country at that time had been largely incorrect–even based on lies–because its authors were white supremacists who were “objective” in name only and because the United States was “ashamed” of its Civil War history. “The Propaganda of History” is a really remarkable essay for its time and I believe it still resonates today. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy!
“How the facts of American history have in the last half century been falsified because the nation was ashamed. The South was ashamed because it fought to perpetuate human slavery. The North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and established democracy.
What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? . . . [A]n American youth attending college today would learn from current textbooks of history that the Constitution recognized slavery; that the chance of getting rid of slavery by peaceful methods was ruined by the Abolitionists; that after the period of Andrew Jackson, the two sections of the United States “had become fully conscious of their conflicting interests. Two irreconcilable forms of civilization . . . [with] the democratic . . . in the South, a more stationary and aristocratic civilization.” He would read that Harriet Beecher Stowe brought on the Civil War; that the assault on Charles Sumner was due to his “coarse invective” against a South Carolina Senator; and that Negroes were the only people to achieve emancipation with no effort on their part. That Reconstruction was a disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule . . .
In other words, he would in all probability complete his education without any idea of the part which the black race has played in America; of the tremendous moral problem of abolition; of the cause and meaning of the Civil War and the relation which Reconstruction had to democratic government and the labor movement today.
Herein lies more than mere omission and difference of emphasis. The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists. We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans. The editors of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica asked me for an article on the history of the American Negro. From my manuscript they cut out all my references to Reconstruction. I insisted on including the following statement:
White historians have ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption. But the Negro insists that it was Negro loyalty and the Negro vote alone that restored the South to the Union; established the new democracy, both for white and black, and instituted the public schools.
This the editor refused to print, although he said that the article otherwise was “in my judgment, and in the judgment of others in the office, an excellent one, and one with which it seems to me we may all be well satisfied.” I was not satisfied and refused to allow the article to appear.
War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led. And so, first of all, we minimized the slavery controversy which convulsed the nation from the Missouri Compromise down to the Civil War. On top of that, we passed by Reconstruction with a phrase of regret or disgust.
But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth? If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.
If, on the other hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.
It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is “lies agreed upon”; and to point out the danger in such misinformation. It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action. Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?
Here in the United States we have a clear example. It was morally wrong and economically retrogressive to build human slavery in the United States in the eighteenth century. We know that now, perfectly well; and there were many Americans North and South who knew this and said it in the eighteenth century. Today, in the face of new slavery established elsewhere in the world under other names and guises, we ought to emphasize this lesson of the past.
Moreover, it is not well to be reticent in describing that past. Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center. The difference of development, North and South, is explained as a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law.
One reads, for instance, Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved. Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash, as winds and water strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today.
Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of this story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in the fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted or half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific? Or, to come nearer the center and climax of this fascinating history: What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned? Shall we accept the conventional story of the old slave plantation and its owner’s fine, aristocratic life of cultured leisure? Or shall we note slave biographies, like those of Charles Ball, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass; the careful observations of Olmsted and the indictment of Hinton Helper? . . .
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
No one reading the history of the United States during 1850–1860 can have the slightest doubt left in his mind that Negro slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and yet during and since we learn that a great nation murdered thousands and destroyed millions on account of abstract doctrines concerning the nature of the Federal Union. Since the attitude of the nation concerning state rights has been revolutionized by the development of the central government since the war, the whole argument becomes an astonishing reduction ad absurdum, leaving us apparently with no cause for the Civil War except the recent reiteration of statements which make the great public men on one side narrow, hypocritical fanatics and liars, while the leaders on the other side were extraordinary and unexampled for their beauty, unselfishness and fairness . . .
This, then, is the book basis upon which today we judge Reconstruction. In order to paint the South as a martyr to inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in the whole development, we have in fifty years, by libel, innuendo and silence, so completely misstated and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to its work and government that today it is almost unknown. This may be fine romance, but it is not science. It may be inspiring, but it is certainly not the truth. And beyond this it is dangerous. It is not only ideals; it has, more than that, led the world to embrace and worship the color bar as social salvation and it is helping to range mankind in ranks of mutual hatred and contempt, at the summons of a cheap and false myth.”
What is the Appropriateness of Living History Programs that Feature Actors Portraying Enslaved People?
One of the most powerful living history programs I have ever participated in is Conner Prairie Interactive History Park’s “Follow the North Star.” Located in Fishers, Indiana, Conner Prairie is a popular award-winning history park with strong leadership and innovative programming. “Follow the North Star” is one of the park’s most popular programs and is probably its most polarizing. Set in 1830s Indiana, visitors who participate in the program are designated as runaway enslaved people from Kentucky seeking help along the Underground Railroad towards eventual freedom in Canada. As a participant I was screamed at and belittled by reenactors portraying racist white Hoosiers, and ultimately I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of the program. “Follow the North Star” was powerful not in the sense that I felt happy or inspired at the end. It was powerful because it was an emotionally draining yet memorable experience that, in my own weird way of wanting to read more about American history when I learn about its most oppressive aspects, pushed me to learn more about the relationship between slavery and race and the depths of white Northern racism in the nineteenth century. In that sense the program was a success for me.
In an essay I wrote about the future of historical reenacting last year I cited “Follow the North Star” as a case study for future living history programs, many of which I currently find boring, uninspiring, and forgettable. In particular I was impressed with the way the program’s organizers undertook comprehensive research prior to going live and how they developed mandatory pre– and post-program activities that allowed people a space to prepare for what they were about to undertake and then mentally decompress afterwords. “Follow the North Star” has won several prestigious awards and was one of the first among several other programs over the past twenty years at public history sites that include actors portraying enslaved people in first- and third-person portrayals. Among other programs during this time, James and Lois Horton’s Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of Public History briefly discusses a 1994 slave auction reenactment at Colonial Williamsburg, renactors like Azie Mira Dungey (most popularly known through her Ask a Slave series) regularly interact with visitors at places like Mount Vernon and Monticello, and another slave auction took place in St. Louis at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s Old Courthouse in 2011 (reactions here and here to that event). I’m sure there are other similar events I’m missing.
“Follow the North Star” and other programs that feature renactors portraying enslaved people are far from perfect, however. The Indianapolis Star recently wrote a largely negative critique of the program, and after reading it a few times I think most of these critiques are fair. Among the problems journalist Olivia Lewis discusses are:
- The idea, as expressed by IUPUI professor Lori Patton Davis, that no reenactment whatsoever can truly convey the horrors and tragedy of slavery.
- That “Follow the North Star” diminishes the violence of slavery, with one student interviewed in the article going so far as to say that it made “a mockery of…the actual severity of things.”
- That the experience of role-playing as an enslaved person is a potentially traumatic experience for participants, particularly young people of color.
- That pre- and post-program activities need to focus on making connections between slavery and race, institutional racism, white supremacy, and racism in American society today, topics that are not always discussed among program leaders, school teachers, and students throughout the process.
I am sensitive to these critiques, particularly the potential for “Follow the North Star” being a traumatic experience for people of color, and I can understand how these sorts of programs could be perceived not merely as offensive but actually hurtful. Point four is difficult to define in precise terms because it’s one thing to make connections between past and present and another thing entirely to turn those connections into concrete actions through policy and/or changed behavior and social practices. I agree that the former is necessary, but there’s lots of room for debate on the appropriate measures for the latter step. I don’t have all the answers for that part of the equation.
But let’s backtrack to point one, the idea that in Dr. Davis’s words, “There were gruesome things that happened to people, black people, and there’s no amount of [historical] re-enactment that can help you understand the tragedy that slavery was.” Is there merit in this point? Should public history sites refrain from historical re-enactments that feature actors portraying enslaved people?
One argument to support this point is the idea that other traumatic events such as Indian removal and the Holocaust are not taught to students through historical reenactment. A lawyer quoted in the Indianapolis Star article takes this position, and my good friend and fellow public historian Nicholas K. Johnson took the same position as well. In a phone conversation with Nick he commented that “[I] find slavery reenactments gross. I feel that they are a step on the road to a Dachau reenactment (slippery slope, I know).” He added that “I find living history hokey and fake a lot of the time.”
But what about the good work of slave reenactors and dramatic performers like the aforementioned Azie Mira Dungey and Michael Twitty, whose living history performances focus on the experiences and foodways of enslaved people? Do public history sites that interpret slavery lose a bit of their educational appeal by eschewing living history performances that feature actors portraying enslaved people?
I think one of the big distinctions here is that “Follow the North Star” attempts to recreate something that really can’t be recreated, and in the process runs the risk of hurting people emotionally. And the process of historical role-playing as an enslaved person is at the very least extremely jarring and at its worst completely hurtful and traumatic. A dramatic performance by someone portraying an enslaved person doesn’t necessarily attempt to do the same thing or force participants to role play as slaves. A dramatic performance, however, isn’t without its own pitfalls and requires the performer to undertake extensive research to ensure that they know what they’re talking about and that they discuss slavery in accurate and respectful terms.
I’m very much thinking out loud with this post and don’t propose to offer answers to these questions or speak for anyone else besides myself. But I think these sorts of conversations are vitally important to have because the way public historians and public history sites talk about, interpret, and portray slavery matters a great deal.
What do you think?
Bill O’Reilly is at it again. Whatever merits the Fox News pundit may have as a commentator on current events, his endeavors in historical scholarship are less than stellar. I admit to not being a regular reader of his “Killing” series, but his book Killing Lincoln–which I have read–was a mistake-ridden flop that offered nothing new to the historiography of Lincoln studies. Historians roundly criticized the book and Ford’s Theater–the very place where Lincoln was assassinated–refuses to carry it in their gift shop. O’Reilly’s influential platform on a popular news station gives him an enormous presence to influence hearts and minds across the United States, however, and so all historians must take his historical claims seriously. Whether or not his claims are accurate or inaccurate is less significant than the fact that his “history” books sell well and his identification as a historian resonates with his television followers. I interned with the National Park Service at the U.S. Grant National Historic Site (where I now work full-time) around the time Killing Lincoln was released, and I must have had at least two dozen visitors to the park over three months who told me they came because they had read that book. Never once did someone say they were visiting because they read a reputable history of the Lincoln assassination by universally respected scholars such as James Swanson, Edward Steers, and Michael Kauffman.
And so it was with great disappointment when O’Reilly, citing his identification as a historian, felt compelled to respond to First Lady Michelle Obama’s acknowledgement of the White House’s construction by enslaved black Americans by stating that those enslaved people were actually well fed and adequately taken care of. O’Reilly’s comments continue a long history of Americans, particularly white Americans, addressing the history of U.S. slavery with qualifications, equivocations, and explanations that downplay the overarching influence of slavery in the building of this nation’s economic, social, and political foundations. “Slavery was bad, but…” “Slavery existed, but…”
In my years as a public historian on the front lines of historical interpretation–which include interpreting U.S. slavery–I have heard visitors claim that slavery was a benevolent influence on black Americans since it Christianized them and took them away from the savageries of Africa. I have heard visitors respond to my talks by saying that “black people owned slaves too” and that tens of thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy (“they don’t talk about that in the history books!”). They have told me that black slavery existed primarily “to address a labor shortage” and not because of race or racism. They have told me that these enslaved people, once they gained their freedom after the Civil War, largely chose to stay at their old master’s plantation because of their gratitude to the kindness and generosity of their former enslavers, and not because they lacked the economic resources or the freedom to obtain jobs, money, education, and land elsewhere. They have referred to the enslaved people as “the dependents,” a particularly ironic identifier given that “the dependents” were actually the white enslavers who relied on enslaved labor for their material success and high quality of life. They have told me that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War. They have gone on TripAdvisor and called my tours “politically correct” because we as an institution have made the interpretation of slavery a central goal of our educational mission. O’Reilly’s comments about slavery at the White House, therefore, were not new to me because they fit into this unfortunate tradition of literally whitewashing slavery from the story of the United States. I get these viewpoints expressed to me by ordinary white Americans too often.
Many historians have responded to O’Reilly’s comments with thoughtful essays refuting his perspective and asking what, exactly, he wanted to point out by stating them in the first place. Of these essays the biggest takeaway in my opinion has been the distinction between understanding the material conditions of slavery and the legal framework of U.S. slavery. This distinction, most forcefully argued by Rebecca Onion and Caleb McDaniel, shows that the day-to-day slave experience took many forms–from enslaved people who were “treated well” to those who were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused–but that legally all enslaved people were bound to the same rules and regulations of chattel slavery. This is not to suggest that the abuse any particular enslaved person endured or the personal gains an enslaved person made (such as Elizabeth Keckley earning wages and obtaining enough money to purchase her freedom and eventually become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker) should be disregarded, but that the bigger picture of the legal boundaries is necessary to understanding the crushing oppression of U.S. slavery. Whether or not the enslaved people who built the White House were well cared for must be fit within a legal context. That legal context includes the fact that U.S. chattel slavery was determined on the basis of race, that it was hereditary, that it was perpetual for the duration of one’s lifetime, that enslaved people always faced the fear of them or their loved ones being sold away, and that enslaved people lacked the most basic of individual freedoms, ownership of themselves. This is the context that is missing not just from O’Reilly’s comments, but many comments that I hear from Americans on a frequent basis. Part of my role as a public historian includes doing my part to provide a better understanding of this context for the people I interact with on a daily basis.
Here’s a list of articles by historians responding to O’Reilly:
- Rebecca Onion, “What Bill O’Reilly Doesnt Understand About Slavery”
- Caleb McDaniel’s Tweet Essay
- Kevin Levin, “Bill O’Reilly’s Benevolent Slaveowners”
- Glenn David Brasher, “Just Another Response to Bill O’Reilly’s Slave Comment”
- Peter Holley, “The Ugly Truth About the White House and its History of Slavery”
- David A. Graham,” How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly’s Wrong About Slavery”
- Ed Ayers’s comments in Time Magazine
I will update this list if I find more articles on the topic.