Yes, I Am A Historian Who Cares About the Truth

A real photo of WWII soldiers raising an American Flag https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_the_Flag_on_Iwo_Jima#/media/File:WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising.jpg

Phil Leigh, a Civil War author and blogger who I’ve never heard of or interacted with before, criticizes me in a recent blog post about the Confederate flag on his website. The issue begins with an essay by Andy Hall. Noticing that a popular photo-shopped image of a World War II Marine in the Pacific with a Confederate flag was going viral on social media, Hall did some quick research and clearly demonstrated that the photo was a fake. I re-blogged the essay here because I appreciated Hall’s detective work and efforts to correct misinformation on the internet. By sharing it on this blog, however, I seemed to have fallen into Leigh’s bad graces.

Leigh argues that both Hall and I ignore tangible evidence that some white southern soldiers flew the Confederate flag during WWII and that they flew it as a genuine expression of southern pride. He also points to a different post of his where he shares nine real images of WWII soldiers with Confederate flags.

Okay, great, but that wasn’t the point of Hall’s post or why I shared it here. Neither Hall nor I deny the existence of Confederate flags among WWII soldiers, and Hall did not write the post with the intention of providing an overview of the flag’s use during the war. The point of the post was to highlight a deliberate attempt to falsify history for the purpose of promoting a contemporary political position and a preferred version of history. The post also highlights how quickly misinformation spreads on social media. If you want to use images of WWII soliders flying Confederate flags, share the real pictures, plain and simple. Why distort the past to promote Confederate heritage today? It’s lazy and dishonest.

Leigh is not finished with me, however. In a detour of his critique of Hall, he also criticizes my recent essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era about Civil War gift shops and concludes that “[Sacco] sees no reason why items displaying the Confederate flag should be sold in Civil War museum gifts shops.” Again, that was not the point of the essay. My argument is that memory scholars and public historians need to undertake a more critical analysis of the items that are sold in these spaces. What do those items say about the ways people remember the Civil War? What are the values of a given historic site, and how do gift shop items reinforce or detract from those larger values and mission of a site? That is not the same as saying all Confederate flags must go, and I even concluded the essay by saying that a “one-size-fits-all solution” to the questions I raise does not exist. If Civil War gift shops want to continue selling Confederate merchandise, great. I think it is more than fair, however, to put that merchandise under a critical lens and push museums to think about gift shops as an extension of their mission. My point is not to engage in “political correctness” or an outright ban on selling Confederate flags, which Leigh and his commenters suggest.

On top of these critiques, Leigh feels the need to point out my employment status to his readers, although he does not do the same for Hall. One wonders why he feels the need to do that other than to suggest that my employer creates a bias that prevents me from practicing honest history, or that I have some sort of alternate motive for writing about history besides seeking truth and understanding. Perhaps there’s a different way to interpret Leigh’s mention of my employment status, but I do find the action very odd regardless.

Let’s get to the bottom of this strange discussion and put it to rest: altering historic photos for the purpose of promoting a contemporary political cause or a preferred version of history is wrong. Sharing these photos online is doubly wrong, and the image in question that Hall exposed as being photo-shopped has unfortunately gone viral. Hall was right to correct it, as he’s done with a lot of bad history over the years on his blog. Why does Leigh feel the need to criticize Hall instead of the people who create and share false history? Furthermore, it’s rather pretentious for someone who does not know me to title their post “Which Historian Cares About the Truth?” and then subtly suggest that I (and Andy Hall) don’t. You’ll have to forgive me if I find such an approach obnoxious and bothersome. It’s one thing to say “I disagree with your conclusions,” but another thing entirely to say that I don’t care about the truth.

I welcome comments of the former variety, but not of the latter. Mr. Leigh suggests readers view both of our essays and draw their own conclusions, and I encourage the same.

Cheers

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Exit Through the Gift Shop: Historical Memory and Gift Shops at Civil War Historic Sites

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog went live last week. I wrote about gift shops at Civil War historic sites and the urgent need for memory scholars to analyze the ways these spaces shape visitor experiences at historic sites. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so far and I hope the essay will lead to a more sustained and substantial dialogue on how gift shops can better serve the mission of a given public history site.

I have a lot of other exciting writing projects and upcoming presentations going on at the moment and I’ll let you know about those initiatives in a future post. For now, enjoy the above essay and let me know what you think in the comments section.

Cheers

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Becomes Gateway Arch National Park

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

There was a bit of minor news made in the public history world last week when Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill changing the name of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis to Gateway Arch National Park. Within my circle of public history and National Park Service colleagues the name change has been greeted with mixed reviews. And, of course, there had to be at least one disgruntled St. Louis Post-Dispatch reader who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the actions of “politically correct” politicians who allegedly changed the name simply because they wanted to “avoid honoring those who brought white privilege to the Plains.” I guess we shouldn’t bring up slavery, Sally Hemings, or anything mildly critical of Jefferson around this guy, or else we’ll have to face claims of hating history and America.

In any case, my opinion is that the name change is half good and half bad. “Gateway Arch” is good, “National Park” . . . not so much. Here are a few thoughts on the name change:

The name for the site came before the Gateway Arch existed: The U.S. government began looking for a suitable monument to Thomas Jefferson in the 1930s. Civic boosters in St. Louis advocated for the memorial to be placed there to symbolize Jefferson’s role in the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion, but also to revitalize a decaying downtown riverfront infrastructure. The Gateway Arch structure designed by Eero Saarinen was not created until 1947 and not completed until 1965. Whether intentional or not, the Gateway Arch complements Thomas Jefferson’s legacy but has also superseded it as a symbol of the site. People don’t visit the site because it’s associated with Thomas Jefferson – they visit because they want to see the Arch.

Nobody calls it “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial”: The vast majority of people who visit the site don’t call it by its official name, which, again, was established before the symbolic centerpiece of the site was established thirty years later.

Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is important, but it is not the sole theme for site interpretation: Thomas Jefferson never lived in nor visited St. Louis or the state of Missouri. His home in Virginia–Monticello–is a national shrine, as are national significantly places where he lived and worked, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. While his role in advancing westward expansion is no doubt significant, he is not the only person who had an important role in encouraging white westward expansion, especially within the context of Missouri. It could be argued that “Lewis and Clark National Expansion Memorial” would be an equally relevant name for the site, especially since they had a direct connection to the area.

Equally important, the site interprets other stories connected to westward expansion that go beyond the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Old Courthouse, located across the street from the Arch and a part of park’s holdings, was the site where Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. In this sense the site also interprets the antebellum politics of slavery’s westward expansion, manifest destiny, Indian removal, and the coming of the American Civil War. Additionally, the historical scholarship that informed the decision to name the site after Thomas Jefferson in the 1930s has admittedly evolved and been revised. Western history has become more complex and critical of territorial expansion and its negative consequences for the Native American Indian tribes that bore the brunt of this expansive vision. A simple interpretation of the expansion of freedom and American liberty to the west in the 19th century is no longer sustainable.

Naming the site after the Gateway Arch–a symbol of westward expansion and the title that visitors already give for the site–is a positive move that offers a more inclusive interpretation of the history of westward expansion. Jefferson’s vision of a westward “Empire of Liberty” won’t be erased by this name change. He’ll still be interpreted by park rangers and have a prominent place inside the park’s museum. But perhaps Jefferson’s political views will occupy a new interpretive space that sits in tension with other conceptions of westward expansion and its consequences, giving visitors a range of perspectives to contemplate during their experience at the park. From an educational standpoint this development is a positive one and will not, as the disgruntled letter to the editor writer suggests, lead to a simple interpretation of Jefferson bringing “white privilege to the plains.”

Calling the site a “National Park” is a mistake: The National Park Service includes more than 400 units throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Islands. 59 of these sites are designated as “National Parks.” The Gateway Arch is the 60th such site, and it is nothing like the others. It’s located in an urban center, has only 91 acres in size, and has a remarkably different interpretive mission than the other National Park sites in terms of content. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the other NPS units designated as “National Parks.” Missouri’s Congressional delegation pushed to have the site named a “National Park,” however, because the other 59 sites are the crown jewels of the agency and its most popularly visited sites. In other words, calling the Gateway Arch a “National Park” is motivated by tourism and money.

There are more than fourteen different park designations used by the NPS. This designation system, in my opinion, is overly cumbersome and confusing for visitors. Any sort of semblance these designations offer is made all the more confusing by designating a place like the Gateway Arch as a “National Park.” If I were in charge of things I would consolidate the park designation system to make it more user friendly, and I would have implemented the name “Gateway Arch National Monument” instead of Gateway Arch National Park for this particular site.

Cheers

National Park Service Units Need to Have a Social Media Presence

Over at the NPS Employees Facebook page there was a recent, fascinating conversation about the need for National Park Service units to have a social media presence. The conversation was prompted by this comment:

The NPS should not be building a social media presence. Do [sic] to resource issues related to visitor impacts, it is not in the best interest of the parks to promote and advertise themselves. A social media presence is also counter to the ideological foundations of the park system as a whole. Parks are the safe haven and the escape from “modern life”, why then are we building straight into that?

strongly disagree with this point of view. For one, the NPS Mission statement says nothing about creating safe havens and escapes from “modern life.” The historic and natural sites the NPS runs are in actuality a part of “modern life”: they are living, breathing entities that are preserved, interpreted, and patronized by and for humans living in a modern world. Moreover, the NPS exists for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone. Contrary to the above statement, it is imperative that the agency “promote and advertise themselves” to the very people whose tax dollars help subsidize the agency’s operations. The sites exist for their enjoyment.

There is ample justification in the agency’s mission statement for the NPS to have a social media presence. The statement calls for the NPS to promote “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” of the agency’s natural and cultural resources. NPS social media promotes these goals. Off the top of my head I can think of five ways NPS social media advances the agency’s mission:

  1. Provide updates on park conditions & news (particularly important when non-NPS related social media can often share incorrect information across social media and NPS websites take more time to update than social media).
  2. Make announcements for upcoming programs and events at NPS units.
  3. Share relevant scholarship through books, journal articles, online articles and research conducted by NPS staff.
  4. Promote safety and conservation of history and nature.
  5. Expose the agency’s holdings to an online audience that may not have the opportunity to visit a site in person (one commenter pointed out that his friend enjoyed looking at pictures on his phone of NPS sites shared on social media during his lunch break, which is a fantastic example of promoting the NPS Mission to an online audience).

At the end of the day, if you’re interested in getting away from “modern life,” you have the freedom to log off social media and enjoy NPS sites without technology.

Cheers

The Emancipation Proclamation Within the Larger Process of Ending Slavery During the Civil War

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, and every year on social media there seems to be a renewed debate about the effectiveness of the proclamation, Lincoln’s motivations in issuing it, and how the act shaped the overall war effort. The strangest thing in this debate is the weird convergence of neo-Confederates and some historians who profess (incorrectly) that the EP didn’t free any slaves; that Lincoln didn’t do enough to try and end slavery during the war (although some of those same folks would be the first to claim that Lincoln was a tyrant who abused his presidential powers); and that the act was borderline meaningless. And so it was interesting to read a couple Twitter comments after historian Kevin Levin posted a picture on Twitter of areas throughout the south where the Emancipation Proclamation took effect and immediately free thousands of slaves.  One academic complained that Lincoln’s proclamation was “public diplomacy” that didn’t go far enough in freeing the enslaved.

(In reality, the real act of “public diplomacy” was Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, in which he proclaimed that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery” while having already completed the writing of his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation).

True, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves of the South, it did not apply to slave states still in the Union, and would it not have had any legal standing once the war ended. But it fundamentally changed the nature of the Civil War and made the abolition of slavery a war aim. More specifically, the act would spread and apply to more enslaved people as the U.S. Army reacquired control of areas within the Confederacy and essentially became an army of liberation. It also encouraged African Americans to enlist in the United States military, and it set the table for future legal actions to abolish slavery, most notably the 13th Amendment, which would make slavery’s abolition permanent after the end of the war. Finally, it also garnered support for the U.S. war effort internationally.

I believe it’s best to view the Emancipation Proclamation as a major step within a larger legal process towards the end of slavery in the United States. Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, James Oakes’s Freedom National was important in showing me that the end of slavery was a process and not a single moment of jubilation. It started with three enslaved runaways who sought refuge at Fort Monroe and the Port Royal Experiment in South Carolina. It continued with the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect in 1863, and eventually loyal border slave states like Maryland (1864) and Missouri (1865) voluntarily abolishing slavery before the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865. These legal steps also can’t be separated from the actions of enslaved people themselves who played a role in their own liberation from slavery.

To appreciate the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation, therefore, means fitting it within a broader context of the larger legal process undertaken during the Civil War to abolish slavery within the United States. It was not an overly radical act that freed all slaves in both loyal states and the Confederate states, but conversely it was not a meaningless piece of paper that did nothing to effect a change in slavery’s future in the country. It was radical in a sense and extremely significant within the context of the American Civil War.

Cheers

Exploring the Past Turns 5

Photo Credit: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/explore/helicopter-cake/

January 1 marks the fifth anniversary of creating Exploring the Past. Establishing on online presence to share thoughts, ideas, and scholarship with interested readers and to network with other history scholars has been immensely rewarding for me on a personal and professional level. I initially created this website as an avenue to work on my writing skills while I was a graduate student at IUPUI and to contemplate (in a public setting) what studying history meant to me. I continue to write here for those same reasons, but as a professional public historian I’ve also worked to discuss challenges I face in my work and to contribute to larger conversations within the field about fair employment practices, “public engagement,” and interpreting difficult histories.

Through this blog I’ve written more than 400 posts and have received thousands of comments, most of which came from real people and were positive in nature. I’ve developed strong real-life and online friendships, have been offered speaking and writing gigs, and have felt a sense of personal accomplishment from this blog. Most notably for this year, through this blog I was offered a regular writing position at the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog Muster, which has put me in contact with some of the finest Civil War scholars in the field and has challenged me to become a better writer.

What guides me in my public writing is the belief that historians should make their work accessible in content, style, and location. Historians will continue writing in long-form mediums like books and journal articles because the field needs “slow scholarship” – scholarship that needs time for comprehensive research, thinking, and evolution over a long period of time, oftentimes several years. But blogging is a unique art form in and of itself: the ability to break down a complex topic into 100 to 1,200 words is a challenge not easily accomplished even by the best historians. History blogging oftentimes reaches an audience much broader than the one reached by books and journal articles, and it forces writers to put their best foot forward when making an argument that will reach an audience beyond the confines of the academy or the museum. I consider my public writing an extension of my work as a public historian and it offers me a chance to discuss topics that I may not get to discuss in my regular job.

I believe 2017 was a major year of growth for me as a historian, intellectual, and scholar. I gave several talks, including one you can see here in which I discussed controversial public monuments; I wrote a journal article on Missouri Congressman John Richard Barret that now looks to be published next year; I was elected to the Board of the Missouri Council for History Education; I made huge strides at work, where I’ve taken on increased responsibilities, including developing education programs for schools and senior groups, running teacher workshops, and conducting historical research; and I wrote five online essays that in my belief constitute some of my best writing:

Conversely, my personal success was marked on this blog with a good number of negative, personally insulting, and trollish comments – more than the previous four years combined. I attribute part of this development to the internet in general, where efforts to improve the public discourse are Sisyphean in nature, but I also believe it’s reflective of this blog’s growing readership. If a post shows up on Google and ends up being shared by a few people who may love or hate what you have to say, you’ll quickly find out that people from all parts of the globe will find your writings, for better or worse.

What was particularly strange for me was the number of negative comments on blog posts that I wrote several years ago. There is no such thing as a perfect writer, and the work of improving one’s writing is a process that takes years to develop. There has been a noticeable movement among Twitter users to delete old tweets that could be harmful in the present, and more than a few times I have contemplated deleting old blog posts here that no longer reflect my thinking (and there are a good number of them here). I have made mistakes over the past five years and it would be easy to remove them. At the same time, however, I believe this blog is in some ways a tangible story of my growth and development as a historian. It is a personal archive of sorts, and I choose to leave it as is not just for others but for myself.

2018 will start with lots of exciting projects and I look forward to seeing what happens from here. As always, thank you for your readership and support over the past five years.

Cheers

On Compromise and the Coming of the Civil War

The essence of all politics is the art of compromise. The success or failure of a nation-state’s policy goals lies in the ability of its political actors–some of which may have vastly different interests–to negotiate and sometimes compromise on preferred ideals in the interest of crafting intelligent policy that promotes the greater good. Compromise, of course, doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes. As the philosopher Avishai Margalit beautifully argues in On Compromise and Rotten Compromises:

We very rarely attain what is first on our list of priorities, either as individuals or as collectives. We are forced by circumstances to settle for much less than what we aspire to. We compromise. We should, I believe, be judged by our compromises more than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are. (5)

Superficially, it sounds silly to ask whether compromises are good or bad, much like asking whether bacteria are good or bad: we cannot live without bacteria, though sometimes we die because of bacteria. Yet that asymmetry makes the question about the goodness and the badness of bacteria, as well as those of compromise, worth asking. We have ten times as many bacteria in our bodies as we have cells, and many of those are vital for our existence. A small number of bacteria are pathologic and cause disease, and and with the proper treatment, we may get rid of them. Similarly, compromises are vital for social life, even though some compromises are pathogenic. We need antibiotics to resist pathogenic bacteria, and we need to actively resist rotten compromises that are lethal for the moral life of a body politic. (7)

This description captures one of the most fundamental quandaries of human existence: when should individuals and groups make compromises on ideals to accomplish an objective, and when is refusing to compromise the better option of the two? Studying history is a worthwhile endeavor for considering the ramifications of political compromise on the health of a nation-state and its people.

It was with this conception of compromise on my mind when I read historian Carole Emberton’s fine essay in the Washington Post and Caleb McDaniel’s in The Atlantic today on the breakdown of compromise efforts leading up to the Civil War. White northerners and southerners forged successful compromise efforts (at least in the minds of those seeking political union between the sections) on the issue of slavery from the beginning of the nation’s founding. As the country acquired new western territory through conquest and purchase in the years before the Civil War, debates continually sprang up about whether the institution of slavery would accompany the white American settlers moving westward. In hindsight, various compromise efforts like the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and others were really measures to appease the proslavery south, but they nonetheless allowed the Union to be maintained for nearly eighty years after its founding.

It’s worth asking students of the Civil War to consider how compromise over slavery was possible in 1850 but not in 1860. My answer would be that the Republican Party’s successful entrance into electoral politics changed the game. The Republicans explicitly organized as a party in 1854 on the principle that slavery should be banned in the western territories and left open for free labor (for some Republicans, this meant only free white labor). Although Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that Constitutionally speaking slavery could not be touched where it already existed in the south, his personal hatred of slavery was well-know and feared by proslavery fire-eaters who saw his election as a step towards federal governance dominated by northern anti-slavery convictions. In other words, an administration that was hostile to the south’s economic, political, and social interest in keeping African Americans enslaved.

President-elect Lincoln was willing to compromise to the extent that he offered support to the first proposed 13th Amendment guaranteeing the federal government’s protection of slavery in the states where it already existed, but he refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s westward expansion, drawing a line in the sand and arguing that he had been elected on the belief that the west should be for free labor. Compromising on this question would sacrifice the Republican Party’s core principle of existence. Likewise, many white Southern Democrats argued that talk of disunion could be mollified if the federal government passed legislation guaranteeing the right to bring their slave property west with them. They refused, however, to make any further compromises short of these new guarantees from the federal government. As Emberton argues, “it was slavery, and the refusal of Southern slaveholders to compromise on slavery, that launched the Civil War.”

Cheers