On January 21 Columbia University hosted a “History in Action” conference that received a lot of attention within the history community on Twitter. I was not at the conference, but I followed along online with much interest. The noted Harvard University historian Jill Lepore gave the keynote for the conference, which focused on writing for public audiences. Based on the tweets I saw it appears Lepore made a number of arguments about the state of the field today, most notably that historians have “retreated into the academy” and are hesitant to engage public audiences, that the speed by which they produce their work is “indefensibly slow,” and perhaps most provocatively:
The public doesn’t care about the past for its own sake, just about the relationship between the past and the present.
I want to address this last claim. While it’s something I might have agreed with while studying public history in graduate school a few years ago, I no longer agree with it.
The first problem lies in assuming that there is a singular non-academic audience–“The Public”–that exists for consuming historical scholarship. Public historians have argued since 2013 and probably earlier that there exists no singular public audience but many public audiences that approach history from a number of different perspectives. Students, activists, politicians, senior citizens, and other community members all bring different levels of pre-existing knowledge and interest with them when approaching historical scholarship in a book or at a public history site. If we wish to spark an interest and appreciation for history among these many publics, we must work to meet them where they are. That means working to move some people’s interest level and historical knowledge from square one to square two and other people from square nine to square ten. I think it’s great to see articles written by historians in The New Yorker and popular history books on the bestseller lists, but we need to think more broadly about the ways people consume history besides books and articles and acknowledge that the idea of “The Public” is a myth. Know your audience.
My personal observation is that many people interested in the past are interested for the sake of the past itself. Again, we have to look beyond the writing of op-eds, magazine features, and academic scholarship that can sometimes delve into contemporary issues. Why do people visit history museums and National Parks or watch history-related movies and television programming, things that get far more attention than most historical scholarship in print? One of the latest studies on visitor motivations suggests that people visit cultural sites to fulfill their identity-based needs, one of which is the desire to “escape the mundane, work-a-day world” and learn about things out of the ordinary like past historical societies. I contend that there are far more people that visit public history sites out of a genuine curiosity about the past than people who come specifically to find something relevant to the present. I am sympathetic to the idea of connecting historical interpretations to present-day issues, but we should acknowledge that such efforts are difficult to implement, often uncomfortable for both historians and audiences, and far from accepted practice in either written historical scholarship or at public history sites. The problem at many historic house museums is not that public historians are facilitating deep, thoughtful dialogues with audiences about the role of history in shaping contemporary political circumstances, but that too many house tours focus on giving “furniture tours” and offering positive anecdotes about happy slaves, benevolent enslavers, and the mythical good old days. The past is a foreign country, but it’s a country many people are still willing to travel to without the filter of a present-day connection.
Another consideration we need to keep in mind is that Lepore is an Americanist whose recent books include historical analyses of Wonder Woman and the conservative Tea Party movement, both popular subjects in recent U.S. historical memory and arguably relevant to present-day political issues and topics. But is every historian in a position to study and interpret historical topics that are so easily relevant to the present? Should Medieval and Ancient historians make their scholarship more accessible by only focusing on topics that are relevant to today? I’m just not sure how a Medievalist would respond to Lepore’s claim given that a topic like burial practices in 10th century France is going to be much tougher to relate to the present (although no less important) than the Tea Party’s use of American history to justify their movement’s political convictions and advocacy for conservative candidates in public office.
Finally, we should also keep in mind that what counts as “relevant” is subject to debate among historians and their many publics. Who in society gets to determine what history is relevant and irrelevant? Historians are not the only ones with the power to shape historical narratives and make connections to the present. What I as a historian may consider relevant to the state of society today may be dismissed by someone else as wholly irrelevant. If I wish to connect something like American slavery to present-day racism and mass incarceration, the onus is on me to craft those connections and prove their worth through a reasoned interpretation of available historical evidence. “Relevance” is not a self-evident concept.
What do you think?
I am currently working my way through The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by historian Stephanie Coontz. It’s a very provocative book that challenges a lot of our preconceived notions about family structures in U.S. history, and Coontz convincingly argues that the concept of “traditional family values” is really an invention of contemporary politics rather than anything rooted in historical fact.
Coontz points out that a common and persistent myth in current political discourse is that families today are suffering from the effects of modern “rootlessness”: this belief suggests that families today are more mobile and transient than they used to be, children generally have more fractured relationships with their parents and grandparents, and that children are being raised less by their parents and more by surrounding influences such as television, the internet, popular media, friends, and other community members. Coontz challenges this interpretation with a stunning fact that I have never seen before:
Families are not more mobile and transient than they used to be. In most nineteenth-century cities, both large and small, more than 50 percent–and often 75 percent–of the residents in any given year were no longer there ten years later. People born in the twentieth century are much more likely to live near their birthplace than were people in the nineteenth century (14).
She goes on to suggest that families today actually have stronger bonds than those of the nineteenth century. Grandparents are living longer and forging stronger relationships with their children, visits with relatives have increased, and only four percent of children today do not live with either parent, as compared to ten percent in 1940 and perhaps even higher in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, enslaved people in the nineteenth century often saw their families broken up and torn apart while family struggles and employment structures like apprenticeships for white families also demonstrate how communities and outside factors have always played an integral role in raising children.
This discussion got me thinking about the sorts of identities and allegiances nineteenth century Americans would have forged for themselves.
There is a school of thought that argues that more people identified with and considered themselves citizens of a state before aligning with the United States as a whole, especially before the Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee is seen as the archetype figure for this line of thinking. At the outbreak of war and with Virginia choosing to side with the Confederacy, Lee asserted that “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children & my home . . . & never desire again to draw my sword save in defence of my State.” Despite his years of service to the U.S. Army, Lee’s first allegiance was to Virginia and, by extension, his family. In his mind he had little agency in the matter since a choice to fight for the Union would be the ultimate form of betrayal to his primary allegiance. The novelist Shelby Foote infamously crystallized this state allegiance theory to millions of viewers on Ken Burns’s documentary of the Civil War:
Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are’—grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always ‘the United States is,’ as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.’
While this theory is compelling, I think there is room to question its accuracy.
Lee’s life experiences before the war represent an aberration from those of most nineteenth century Americans. He grew up in a prosperous, stable family with deep roots in his native state, and those roots were solidified even more when he married into the Custis family. Most families had neither the wealth nor the state roots of Lee’s family in the years before the Civil War. While it’s true that Lee’s army career took him to places far away from Virginia such as St. Louis and Texas, those travels initially strengthened his allegiance to the Union, not his state. As the late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor pointed out, Lee commented in 1857 that his patriotism extended to the whole country and that it “contained no North, no South, no East no West, but embraced the broad Union, in all its might & strength, present & future.” That argument clearly contradicts his later statements at the outbreak of war. Moreover, there were a number of Lee relatives that felt differently about their allegiances and eagerly signed up to fight for the United States against secession, and other notable Virginians like George Thomas and Winfield Scott had no qualms about maintaining their commissions in the U.S. army and their allegiance to the Union.
Shelby Foote’s assertion is also questionable. Andy Hall analyzed nineteenth century publications using Google Ngram and discovered that while “United States are” and “United States is” were used interchangeably during the early years of the Republic, the 1840s witnessed a sharp spike in the use of the term “United States is,” which may be indicative of wartime passions and calls for unity during the Mexican-American War. These calls were often led by nationalists North and South like Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and Daniel Webster. But beyond the written word we may also question how nineteenth-century Americans could have developed such strong allegiances to a state if they were so geographically mobile. And what about the millions of immigrants who came to the United States in the years before the Civil War? Did they emigrate out of an allegiance and identification with a particular city or state within the country, or did they come because of a belief in American ideals and a love of the whole Union?
Nineteenth century Americans were a mobile people. In an age of cheap, federally subsidized land, ever-developing transportation and communication technology, and rapid westward expansion, many Americans moved from place-to-place in search of communities and infrastructures that gave them the best chance at maintaining a stable family and economic life. It’s not evident to me that they would have automatically identified with a state more so than a local community, a city, or the whole Union. Their allegiances may have been multiple and endearing, but for many Americans their love of Union was paramount.
Last week the National Football League decided the St. Louis Rams would now be the Los Angeles Rams. The talented scholars at Sport in American History let me put my sportswriter’s hat on and submit a piece for the site, which went live today. I wrote about my disappointment as a St. Louisian who loved Rams football and made the case that the Rams relocation to Los Angeles sets a bad precedent for future NFL relocation crises. Writing this essay was simultaneously sad and liberating. Check it out here and let me know what you think.
One of the more eclectic works of scholarship in my library was published on the cusp of the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2010 and, as far as I know, has not received the attention I think it deserves. Don Doyle’s edited volume Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements brings together philosophers, political scientists, lawyers, and historians for many useful discussions about secessionist movements around the globe, both past and present. While an entire section of the book is dedicated to the exploration of Confederate secession and the American Civil War, other sections focus on secessionist movements in Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia, and still another section focuses on the philosophical challenges of developing what we might term an ethics of secession – a set of standards for establishing when and how a separatist group might establish the right of self-determination and be accepted into the global family of nations. For this overview I will mostly focus on a treatment of the essays that discuss the latter philosophical concerns. While discussions of Confederate secession and the causes of the Civil War are of great interest to me and many other scholars, this book’s strength lies in allowing readers a chance to look at secession with a broader focus.
Philosopher Christopher Wellman takes a fairly permissive view towards secession and argues that the sole factor determining when a separatist group can leave an established nation lies in its ability to perform basic political functions. If such a group demonstrates an ability to govern and protect “the human rights of their constituents,” he argues, then that group maintains a fairly solid case for establishing its own sovereignty in a separate state. Significantly, Wellman suggests that any cultural arguments for self-determination based on factors such as a group’s shared language, ethnicity, or religion are irrelevant to the secession process because a group that cannot conduct basic political functions will fail to lay claim to a given territory. This arguments goes against the history of many 19th and 20th century separatist movements that based their claims of self-determination largely on cultural factors, but I think it’s a sound one to make for assessing the political merits of contemporary secessionist movements.
Wellman also takes issue with scholars who simultaneously oppose unilateral secession and advocate for a voting process that allows secession only if a supermajority of voters in an entire territory approve such a measure. He argues that a simple majority in one or multiple elections over a quick period of time is preferable to a supermajority process that can be burdensome and undemocratic, since 51 percent of the population could hypothetically support secession and yet be denied their desire to separate because of the minority’s wishes to maintain the union. Wellman acknowledges that states often posses an amendment process like the one in the U.S. Constitution that requires a supermajority vote before making changes to their governing documents, since such proposals concern the stability and fundamental political concerns of the state. But apparently such a process for secession does not concern the stability of the state in Wellman’s eyes because the root question for him is whether the secessionist group can make the case for its own self-determination. On this point I am not as convinced by Wellman’s arguments.
Historian David Armitage explores the relationship between secession and civil war, and how active separatist movements (especially ones with arms) are frequently accompanied by severe warfare and violence, although that does not always have to be the case. He argues that commonly accepted definitions of secession and civil war today have been largely shaped by how they were defined at the time of the American Civil War, specifically through the legal definitions of lawyer and professor Francis Lieber’s famous “Lieber Code” that attempted to outline acceptable laws of war for pursuing the Union war effort. Armitage points out, however, that many conflicts today that could be considered an act of secession and/or a civil war don’t meet Lieber’s definition of those terms. Moreover, he suggests that a term like “Civil War” is reflective of a Unionist interpretation of a given conflict because it portrays events as a internal war, whereas secessionists would argue that such conflicts are analogous to an international conflict and not necessarily a civil war.
Armitage concludes his essay by arguing that the American Revolution was actually a civil war perpetuated by an act of secession by the American colonies. He asserts that the colonists initially wished to remain in the British empire and that their political concerns against the crown were born out of the perception that their rights as Englishmen were being compromised, not that they were a separate people distinct from the mainland British populace. When those rights were not acknowledged, the colonists presented the Declaration of Independence as an act of secession from the British empire. I personally do not buy most of this argument. While I’m willing to concede that the conflict had characteristics of a civil war, the Declaration of Independence asserts that the colonists were employing their natural right to revolution and not their political right to secession, which did not exist under the British empire. The colonist leaders of the war effort with Britain understood that they were breaking away from the empire through an act of revolution, not secession. Brooks Simpson has a thoughtful explanation of the distinction between revolution and secession here.
Much like the aforementioned two essays, law professor Peter Radan’s essay on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address has points of agreement and disagreement with me. In particular Radan focuses on Lincoln’s arguments that the Union preceded the States, that a state could not secede without the Union’s consent, and that a morally justifiable reason was necessary for Confederate secession to be valid. Radan disagrees with Lincoln’s reasoning in a number of ways by arguing that the States came before the Union, that unilateral secession can be justified if the terms of the political contract are altered (he posits scenarios in which both North and South violated this contract), and that a moral justification for secession is unnecessary for it to succeed and gain international acceptance. I believe Radan might be correct on the last point in that secessions and revolutions often occur regardless of their moral implications, but his other points have problems.
Radan points out, for example, that the Declaration of Independence’s wording states that the colonies were “free and independent States” and that “they [had] full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” “This assertion,” argues Radan, “can hardly be said to express the notion that there is a union and no independent states [in 1776].” But Lincoln himself gave a pretty convincing argument in his First Inaugural to suggest that some form of a union did already exist. Lincoln acknowledged the “free and independent states” clause of the Declaration, but argued that “even then the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge and their mutual action before, at the time, and afterwords abundantly show.” Indeed, Virginia, New York, or any other state never assumed the power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, or generally function as “free and independent states” as Radan conceives the term. Ultimately neither Radan nor Lincoln are completely correct about whether the States or the Union came first because the documentary evidence is complex and contradictory on this point. Historian Kenneth Stampp is closer to a correct answer when he argues that the question is moot because the 1787 Constitution aimed to “form a more perfect union” that established a clear break with all past forms of governance in the colonies and early nation. Stampp simply describes as the 1787 Constitution as “a new and better one” that completely overthrew the Articles of Confederation. What existed before that point no longer mattered, so perhaps Lincoln’s claims of the Union being older than the states may not hold as much weight as he hoped they would.
Radan’s arguments against Lincoln’s position on the illegality of unilateral secession are rooted in the belief that the union is (or was) a compact between states, what James Madison described as the assumption that “every party to a compact, has a right to take for granted, that its construction is the infallible one, and to act upon it against the construction of all others, having an equal right to expound the instrument.” In other words, the states are fully sovereign and can unilaterally break away from the compact at will. But is the Union really a compact of states that can be broken at will by any one of the states, or is it a nation whose powers are vested in the people of the states working in concert as a unified body? Madison himself pioneered the idea of dual sovereignty–that various forms of sovereignty could exist at both the national and state level–but concluded towards the end of his life that a state could not unilaterally nullify a federal law or break away from the Union. In an 1830 letter to Nicholas Trist he commented that “no State can at pleasure release itself therefrom, and set up for itself. The compact can only be dissolved by the consent of the other parties, or by usurpations or abuses of power justly having that effect. It will hardly be contended that there is anything in the terms or nature of the compact, authorizing a party to dissolve it at pleasure.” This is not to suggest that Madison is the last word on the subject, but only to suggest that the idea of the constitution granting the right of unilateral secession to the states would have been a surprise to many of the people who played a role in the writing of that very constitution.
Finally, there are two essays by Bruno Coppieters and Aleksander Pavkovic that are worth briefly mentioning. Coppieters focuses on recent separatist movements in Europe and how the European Union has addressed these conflicts within countries such as Belgium, Spain, and Slovenia. He demonstrates how the EU has distinguished between separatist movements based on just cause (that the state has committed a wrongdoing against a specific group of people) and movements based on choice theory (that a group should have the right to self-determination simply because they choose to do so, and not based on any moral considerations or wrongdoings). Coppieters concludes that the EU has attempted to mediate secessionist crises in the interest of maintaining peace and has more often supported separatist movements with specific grievances and wrongdoings committed against them rather than movements based solely on choice theory. He suggests that the EU should establish a clearer “institutional framework within which conflict transformation and resolution may take place” for maintaining peace and orderly transitions for new nations when secession is viewed as a viable solution.
Pavkovic offers what is perhaps my favorite and most provocative essay of the book by criticizing all nationalist ideologies because they “privilege, on no justifiable grounds, one group against all other groups and individuals.” He rightly points out that both the anti-secessionist state AND secessionist separatist groups run the risk of committing immoral acts of violence against unarmed civilians and opposition groups in the name of nationalism. Pavkovic wades into territory the other essays leave untouched by asking if “the use of military force in order to achieve or to prevent a secession is justified on moral grounds” and whether or not, in the case of warfare, “independent statehood is worth the sacrifice of human lives and misery that attends any military conflict.” Whereas Wellman is primarily concerned about the ability of separatist groups to demonstrate political self-determination and Radan seemingly discredits any moral implications of secession and its potential for prolonged violence, Pavkovic challenges readers to face the moral implications of secession head on and consider whether or not the national allegiances we hold are worth killing and dying for.
I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here and I’ve barely touched the surface on what this great book has to offer. Go out and buy it!
To kick off the new year I’ve done a little bit of maintenance work on the website that I’d like to share with readers.
My Resources page has been updated to include some of my better writings from 2015. The collection spans back to my first days blogging here at Exploring the Past back in 2013. It’s a good way to keep track of writings that would otherwise be hard to find though the search function on the website.
I have also created a Google Doc that contains all of my open access publications from other websites and papers I’ve presented at conferences. You can view that document here. I will also leave a permanent link to the document on my Curriculum Vitae.
Please take a look at these writing and enjoy (hopefully).