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.
7 thoughts on “A Brief Recap of “Grant or Greeley – Which? The Election of 1872 Living History Weekend””
Glad to hear it went well. 750-800 visitors? That’s amazing.
Can you tell if these visitors were the same that would turn out for a traditional military living history, or were they different because of the different topic? It would make for valuable lessons either way.
I’m lately warming to the idea of doing Civil War and Reconstruction events under different titles and labels. Those terms carry too much baggage. Traditional visitors want traditional stories; potential visitors will shy away, knowing they’ll get traditional stories (even if that’s not actually what’s offered), is my thinking. So you have an election event in election year? Surprise! You just got Reconstruction history!
Thinking of ways to further blur these boundaries and expectations away from telling these stories in a “north-south military conflict” and after framework. I’m working on a thing that begins in 1862 and ends in 1893 and doesn’t mention the Confederacy at all, and it’s Civil War history.
Then again, I’ve worked enough living histories to know that the bang-bang works.
Anyhow, did the political debates at your event include speeches on monetary policy, greenback, and gold?
I think many of the people who came out would also turn out for a traditional military living history because they are, in general, interested in living history as a form of entertainment and learning about history. I think you’re on to something with labeling Civil War and Reconstruction events with different terms – we never billed this program as a Reconstruction Era program but as a historic Presidential Election during an election year. We also challenged people to think about some political connections between 1872 and today, although we worked not to explicitly make those connections in the program. The introduction for the program, for example, mentioned that the candidates included an eccentric media figure with contradictory positions on important topics and no political experience (Greeley), a candidate who has had held important positions of trust but who had been accused of corruption, nepotism, friendliness with Wall Street, and poor foreign policy initiatives (Grant), and a woman candidate (Woodhull). Several people came up to us and said they appreciated the context that was given for explaining what was going on in 1872.
Regarding the political debates, a co-worker and I did a bunch of research and found original speeches given by various figures in 1872 (a list of presenters is here), which we then (in some cases, if necessary) condensed into 10-15 minute presentations. While some speeches mention paying down the federal debt incurred through the Civil War in general terms without regard for paper or specie, most speeches focused on the size and scope of government and the protection of Civil Rights. While Grant had called for the paying of debts (preferably in gold) as early as his inaugural address, I don’t think the paper vs. specie question was as talked about as the aforementioned topics during the campaign. The Panic of 1873, of course, would change the conversation after the election.
You have GOT to post a picture of yourself as Logan! 😉
There will be a picture forthcoming!
I had a great time and I think you guys did a wonderful job! I had no idea we had so many people there. Congratulations and you deserve the rest!
Thanks, Nicole! I was surprised by the final number too but we really did have a pretty good number of people who came out. You did a great job fielding questions about Victoria Woodhull – thanks for helping us with the program!
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