Over the past thirty years, Ulysses S. Grant has seemingly become a topic of study for every pop historian and Civil War expert in the field. The heavy work of reassessing Grant started with historian Brooks Simpson, but now countless biographies of the man–several of them 700 to 1,000 pages long–have been published in recent years. Several noteworthy figures well-known beyond the academy such as H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have all taken their turn writing studies that can easily be found on the shelves of a local Barnes & Noble store. The accuracy and reliability of these Grant biographies vary. It is easy to look at every new major biography and wonder what else needs to be said that hasn’t already been said.
From my perspective on the ground level of public history, however, I can safely say that even though Grant’s reputation as a whole has improved considerably, the view of Grant’s presidency as hopelessly corrupt and failed still remains. Classrooms throughout the country still point to corruption claims as the one major fact to know about Grant’s presidency, and academic historians not intimately connected to the Grant studies phenomenon still frequently look upon his two terms negatively or not at all. Richard White’s magisterial new overview of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which it Stands, cites liberally from William McFeely’s problematic Grant biography and subsequently interprets Grant as a vain, publicity-starved executive who did not really care about the protection of black rights in the South. Eric Foner’s equally magisterial overview of Reconstruction barely mentions the Grant administration at all, even though its eight years in office occurred during that era. Kenneth Stampp’s now-dated study of Reconstruction conveys a sentiment still common among most Americans that Grant “contributed little but political ineptitude” during his presidency.
And so, within a crowded field of new Grant scholarship and still widely divergent understandings of Grant’s presidency among history enthusiasts of all levels, Charles Calhoun’s new study of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency manages to say something new about a greatly misunderstood time in American history. In assessing the Grant administration, Calhoun convincingly argues that Grant’s presidency “produced a record of considerable energy and success, tempered at times by frustration and blighted expectation” (7). Determined to face the new political challenges of Reconstruction in his own way, Grant faced enormous resistance from his critics even before taking office. Given the circumstances, one would be hard pressed to find anyone from the time who could have done any better.
Calhoun’s book works well on two levels. For those already familiar with the issues Grant faced during his presidency, Calhoun provides added depth. For those not familiar with those issues, the book’s clarity allows it to simultaneously function as a useful introduction.
Among the arguments Calhoun makes:
- Grant expressed great reluctance to run for President in 1868, but felt that it was his obligation to run. President Andrew Johnson had attempted to inaugurate a quick restoration of the Union on his own, without the help of Congress. He worked to re-enfranchise and pardon the mass of former Confederates who had recently engaged in active rebellion against the country. He also proclaimed that America should have a “white man’s government.” By essentially handing the keys of Reconstruction back to those most opposed to it while ignoring the black and white southern unionists who had fought to maintain the Union, Johnson unintentionally pushed Grant into the Republican Party. As Grant would state in his Eighth Annual Message to Congress, Reconstruction meant “whether the control of the Government should be thrown immediately into the hands of those who had so recently and persistently tried to destroy it, or whether the victors should continue to have an equal voice with them in this control,” with assistance from Congress. Grant sought political reunion and sectional reconciliation with former Confederates, but not at the expense of sacrificing the fruits of Union victory: Union, emancipation, and, in his mind, political equality irrespective of race, nativity, or sect.
- Senator Charles Sumner expressed skepticism about Grant’s dedication to the Republican Party and Reconstruction even before he ran for president. Even though many former Confederates bitterly resisted the Reconstruction process, a central theme of Calhoun’s book is that Sumner and his New England cohorts (Charles Francis Adams, Henry Adams, John Lothrop Motley, etc.) expressed their own vitriolic criticisms of Grant that arguably shaped future negative perceptions of his presidency more than the former group. Sumner believed his long service to the Republicans meant that he deserved the role of Secretary of State. When Grant went in a different direction and the New England cohort did not receive the plum government offices they believed they were entitled to, they actively resisted the administration and led the push to form the Anti-Grant Liberal Republican party. It was common to hear critics who called for “reform” and the end of the patronage system for filling government offices during Grant’s presidency, but with astonishing frequency these critics were often disgruntled office-seekers themselves.
- Calhoun dedicates a good chunk of the book to Grant’s foreign policy initiatives, including the Treaty of Washington, proclaiming neutrality amid growing tensions between Cuba and their Spanish colonizer, and his failed effort to annex Santo Domingo–the Dominican Republic today–to establish a military presence in the Caribbean and provide a black state for African Americans facing persecution in the south. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish’s able administration of the State Department is a central feature of Grant’s foreign policy.
- Another central focus lies in the reconstruction of the nation’s finances, which I’ve written about here. Grant and his first Treasury Secretary George Boutwell successfully lowered taxes, interest rates on government bonds, and the national debt. They desired a return to the gold standard in the wake of paper “greenbacks” being utilized during the Civil War to help fund the government, but were cautious not to return to the gold standard too quickly and subsequently deflate the country’s currency. They concocted a scheme to “grow up” greenbacks until they were of equal value to gold, upon which the government would return to the gold standard. Calhoun also assesses the 1869 “Black Friday” gold ring and the economic panic of 1873. Calhoun argues that Grant became increasingly conservative in his views towards financial matters by the time of the panic, and that this perspective complicated Grant’s and Congress’s efforts to alleviate the depression.
- Calhoun argues that Grant felt a sincere sympathy towards Native American Indians and argued that they had been “put upon” by whites. Rather than advocating for Indian extermination, which some Generals like William Sherman and Philip Sheridan supported, Grant sought peace through a new peace policy and a Board of Indian Commissioners that would clean up the country’s Indian trading posts. Grant, however, also advocated for white westward expansion and acknowledged that the two ideas were contradictory. Implicit in his policy was the belief that Indians would have to assimilate to white ways. This assimilation called for Indians to become Christianized farmers on reservations who would embrace “civilization” and be trained to eventually become American citizens. Some Indian tribes like the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek heartily supported Grant’s policies, which were strongly influenced by his friend and Seneca Indian Ely Parker. Other tribes, particularly those in the Plains region, realized that their lands and way of life were becoming extinct. The Peace Policy therefore led to some of the worst battles between Indian tribes and the U.S. Army, including the Battle of Little Bighorn. Calhoun offers a wonderful chapter on the Indian Peace Policy during Grant’s first term, but I would have liked more analysis of the negative effects of the policy during his second term as the violence increased.
- Grant tried his best to protect white and black unionists in the South and ensure that all would have a chance to enjoy citizenship and suffrage rights. Most notably, the Department of Justice was formed to prosecute white terrorists in groups like the Ku Kux Klan when states and localities refused to bring these groups to justice. This initiative was the first in which the federal government enforced and protected civil rights for Americans, but many white Americans, even those who were sympathetic to the Republican Party, were apprehensive about government overreach and the power of the federal government to intervene in local elections (even though many of these people heartily supported military intervention in Indian affairs). Grant himself even expressed more reluctance to get involved in Southern elections towards the end of his second term, no doubt influenced by a poor economy, growing northern indifference towards southern affairs, and a changing Congress (Democrats gained a majority of House seats in the 1874 midterms) that opposed his policies.
- Corruption did exist in the Grant administration, most notably through the Whiskey Ring Scandal of 1875 and Secretary of War William Belknap’s receiving of kickbacks from the sale of government jobs, but Calhoun offers a strong defense of Grant’s administration on this count. Some Cabinet members like Amos Akerman and Ely Parker were unfairly charged by political opponents with corruption charges. Disgruntled office-seekers called for civil service reform, and Grant expressed willingness to go along with these initiatives as long as Congress played a role in the process. When they continually slashed funds from a Civil Service Commission established in 1871, Grant concluded that civil service reform could not be effectively implemented. As with any claims of corruption today, one must always look at the agenda of the person making the claim. In a heated political climate with much resistance to Grant and Reconstruction more broadly, corruption claims were often used to delegitimize the President’s initiatives. Calhoun’s study, combined with Mark Summers’s Era of Good Stealings, convincingly shows that while government corruption as an issue was very important in the 1870s, actual corruption was not nearly as widespread as it was in the 1850s and 1860s.
I highly recommend Calhoun’s book.
Last week I had the honor of being invited to speak via the BlueJeans app to Dr. Thomas Cauvin’s history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments and historical interpretation. I found the discussion fascinating. The students had a lot of good questions, and some of them were really tough to answer cogently. It’s one thing to write out an idea while in deep contemplation and without a time limit, but a whole other challenge to answer a tough question on the spot. I am not a fan of watching or hearing myself after a recording, but if you want to see our discussion and learn a little about Dr. Cauvin’s class on historical monuments, follow this link. Hopefully I sound like I have a basic idea of what I’m talking about. Enjoy!
In the great lexicon of “Commonly-Used Words that Mean Absolutely Nothing in Contemporary Discourse,” the term “biased” is perhaps the most meaningless of all. Go through a few Amazon book reviews of recent historical scholarship and you will undoubtedly read reviews that don’t actually engage in the book’s content but claim that the author is “biased.” Scroll through social media and view discussions about essays in online news sources, and sure enough you’ll see people complaining about bias.
Complaining that a writer has a bias is more often than not a completely meaningless gesture that simply intends to end discussion about a particular topic. Rather than engaging the writer’s argument, claiming bias means shifting the argument towards questions about the writer’s motivations. And more often not, this exercise is speculative and the critic really doesn’t know anything about the writer’s motivations or his or her scholarship and personal experiences. If you cannot explain those motivations or clearly explain what the author is biased for or against, then claiming “bias” is meaningless.
I’ve experienced claims of “bias” in my own writing on this website. One of the most popular essays I’ve written here explores Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery before the Civil War. As you can see in the comments of that essay, several readers claimed that I was “biased,” overly generous to Grant, and that I wouldn’t be so generous to Robert E. Lee. While I’ve mentioned Lee in passing in various essays here, I have never made him a featured subject and have never discussed his relationship with slavery, so there’s no proof I would actually treat Lee differently from Grant. The claims against me are speculative in nature, based on feelings and a speculative judgement that I would be biased in that case. In reality, these claims against me say more about the reader than my scholarship and are a perfect example of why claiming “bias” is meaningless.
All writers approach their subjects with biases shaped by past life experiences, education, and political motivations. Having biases is in fact perfectly natural. The burden of proof in determining whether those biases irreparably damage the writer’s argument falls onto the critic, however, and thinking about bias claims this way actually makes the task of convincingly arguing that an author is biased all the more difficult. Even when the case of a writer being biased is completely noticeable, such as the case of Dinesh D’Souza’s relentless distortion of history and the Ku Klux Klan to support his hatred of the Democratic Party, focusing on the writer’s arguments is a far better course of action that speculating about his or her personal motivations.
Focus on the game, not the players.
There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.
In between producing television shows about ice road truckers, swamp people, or whatever else the History Channel airs these days, the famously un-historic channel gained attention for recently claiming that pilots Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan survived their plane crash in the Marshall Islands and were subsequently captured by the Japanese military. For whatever reason, the History Channel’s social media feeds are playing up a dubious claim that somehow the federal government is actively suppressing the “truth” of Earhart’s story, even though the documents they found to support their theory of Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance came from…a government archive.
According to the official website of the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency possesses “approximately 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data.” It should not be surprising that some of these documents get placed in storage and are sometimes forgotten about by researchers (or they simply don’t know the documents exist). That is not the same as saying the National Archives is deliberately withholding an unclassified document from researchers in the interest of hiding the government’s “secrets.”
By now I should realize that it’s all about the ratings when it comes to the History Channel. Support your local archivist and thank them for preserving history!
UPDATE: There’s a good chance the History Channel’s claims about Earhart are untrue. The power of history blogging!
The local NPR station in St. Louis, St. Louis Public Radio, has jumped into the discussion about the city’s Confederate monument with a recent “Pro & Con” feature about the monument’s future. One of the people the station interviewed was William Stage, a writer and photographer who took the “Pro” position in support of keeping up the monument. He stated, in part, that “erasing history” is bad. “It’s all of our history and maybe it’s good that it’s there for both the people who are offended by it and the people who enjoy it because it gives us something to talk about. It could be a springboard for dialogue.”
The problem I see with this argument is that no historical organization in St. Louis has ever taken steps to lead that dialogue, nor is there anyone who’s indicated a willingness to do it in this heated political moment. What would that dialogue look like? What steps would be taken after the dialogue to promote unity and reconciliation in the community? What cultural organization would be willing to take on the long-term expense, time, and effort necessary to interpret this monument after the dialogue has finished? What if a majority of St. Louisians aren’t interested in a dialogue or a history lesson?
The only answer is I have right now is that I don’t know.
More than two years after former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced that the time had come for a “reappraisal” of the Confederate Monument that sits in Forest Park in downtown St. Louis, current Mayor Lyda Krewson has announced that the monument will be coming down within three weeks. The last I had heard about the monument’s status was in December 2015 when Mayor Slay’s “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” was unable to find a cultural institution in the area willing to accept the monument and the Missouri Civil War Museum’s lone bid was deemed inadequate by the committee. The monument’s fate was not discussed much further in 2016 and it fell off my radar, but with New Orleans taking recent action to remove four Confederate/Reconstruction monuments and new protests boiling at the St. Louis Confederate monument, Mayor Krewson is taking steps to expedite the process.
As a native-born and current resident of St. Louis, I find myself still unsure what the best path forward for this monument is. The protests of the monument are becoming a political liability for the city government. Leaving the monument as is does not seem to be a practical situation moving forward, especially since I’d imagine that most of the city’s majority African American population is opposed to the monument. I have doubts about the effectiveness of writing a wayside marker to “add context” to the monument, although the current monument text is historically inaccurate Lost Cause nonsense that should be removed. I have also been disappointed with the lack of public discussion about the monument’s future, which is a great contrast to more democratic processes taking place in Baltimore, New Orleans, and numerous cities in Virginia on their Confederate monuments. To my knowledge there have been no votes taken by city residents or the Board of Alderman, no public meetings for local residents to share their perspectives, and no effort to educate the city’s residents on the monument’s history by any cultural institutions, including those of us at National Park Service sites in the area. Mayors Slay and Krewson have basically taken matters into their own hands, for better or worse.
As I have previously stated, local communities should be empowered to determine what sorts of public iconography they want to recognize and commemorate in their public spaces. The people and events these icons represent should be reflective of that community’s values and be considered something worthy of honor. If a majority in the community don’t consider that icon worthy of honor or reflective of their values, then there are sufficient grounds for the community to discuss that icon’s future, whether that be remaining in the same spot, being moved to a cultural institution like a museum for added context, removed and obliterated, or some other solution. I personally am fine with removing the monument from Forest Park and am tired of the argument that removing any public historical icon is “erasing history,” especially when the history being removed is inaccurate. My preference would be for a cultural institution in the city to take on the responsibility of interpreting this Confederate monument in a respectful way that educates residents about our city’s rich Civil War history. But for now it seems like we’ll be saying goodbye to the St. Louis Confederate Monument as it heads to a warehouse somewhere.
The American Presidents Series, first started by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and now continued by Sean Wilentz, offers readers a series of short, concise biographies of each U.S. president that are accessible to a wide audience. They are wonderful introductions into the character and political outlook of past presidents, and I have a number of these biographies in my library. The latest addition to my collection is historian Jean H. Baker’s biography of James Buchanan, and I can’t recommend it enough.
I learned a lot about Buchanan in this short volume. When past historians have chosen to assess Buchanan’s presidency and the coming of the American Civil War, they often portray him as a weak, ineffective leader who did too little to stop the onslaught of southern secession prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. Kenneth Stampp’s America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, among other studies, hews to this standard interpretation. While Baker concurs that Buchanan’s response to secession was weak, she instead portrays him overall as an overwhelming figure whose domineering personality, unwillingness to compromise, and inability to take dissent seriously doomed his presidency from the start of his term in 1857. Despite proclaiming himself as the only non-sectional candidate who would promote the interests of the entire country during the 1856 presidential election (a claim that Ulysses S. Grant took seriously when he voted in his first presidential election that year), Buchanan was in fact a pro-South sectional candidate in his own right who downplayed the extent of Northern frustration with Southern proslavery demands. I was particularly struck by this passage:
Buchanan had long since chosen sides. Both physically and politically, he had only one farsighted eye, and it looked southward. Looking to the past and heralding the Democratic party’s eternal principles against the “isms” of free-soilism and anti-slaveryism, the president-elect was blind to what was happening in the North . . . despite his experience in politics, [he] read the opposition party as ephemeral as lighting bugs in August.
In his desire to end division between North and South, the president-elect moved beyond the tradition of permissible institutionalized antagonism between political organizations. The concept of loyal opposition, inherited from Great Britain, sanctioned criticism of administrations and the presentation of alternative policies. What it did not permit was the castigation of another party as disloyal and un-American, as Buchanan held the Republicans. In his years as president, Buchanan did a great deal to popularize the view that the Republicans were a threat to the South, thereby encouraging its secession from the Union when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 [p. 72].
Perhaps there is something for us to learn in Buchanan’s failure as a president. He was arguably one of the most qualified candidates based on his experience as a politician and diplomat for nearly forty years before his election in 1856, but his lack of leadership, vision, communication skills, or a sense of changing political circumstances in the 1850s doomed his tenure. As more white Northerners desired restrictions for slavery’s westward expansion into new territories, Buchanan came to view such a position as dangerous and an abridgement of constitutional rights. That most Northerners had no intention to touch slavery where it existed and held strong racial prejudices against blacks made no difference to him. Buchanan couldn’t handle differing interpretations of the constitution or dissent from his ideology, which in his mind meant that his enemies were not fellow Americans with a difference of opinion who were still worthy of respect, but traitors whose views had to be obliterated at all costs. The president’s rhetoric damaged any future compromise over slavery since any such agreement would be considered a threat to Southern honor.
And then the war came…
Whenever I study a particular time period in history, I find it very helpful to think about the sorts of questions people at the time would have been mulling over as they looked towards the future. It is easy to look at past events in hindsight and assume that everyone knew what would come next. Even trained historians can be guilty of minimizing the significance of a social, cultural, political, or economic change as “inevitable” when in reality it was anything but. I often wonder if assigning students papers in which they have to make a “thesis statement” is as effective as perhaps asking them to first think about one or more “guiding questions” to provide structure to their inquiry before formulating any sort of answer or argument when explaining a historical event.
In any case, the Reconstruction Era (generally defined as between 1863 to 1877) presents itself as one of the most misunderstood and ignored periods in American history, and the political complexities of the era do not lend themselves to easy explanation. Even after studying the period for a number of years I still find myself sometimes struggling to explain the significance of the era to visitors and students in a cogent manner. What follows are four questions that have helped me make sense of Reconstruction’s complexities:
- How would the United States restore and maintain a stronger union in the wake of a major secession crisis and the nation’s deadliest conflict?
- How would the country’s leaders find a balance between promoting liberty and establishing order?
- What economic labor system would replace slavery in the South, and to what extent would national, state, and local governments involve themselves in economic affairs?
- What would be the future status of African American freedpeople, former Confederate secessionists, and American Indian tribes? How would the government protect and expand the rights of African Americans, encourage former Confederates to become law-abiding citizens again, AND promote peace with American Indian tribes at the same time they promoted westward expansion?
(4a. What would be the correct size and scope of government to regulate society in a time of vast social, political, and economic changes?)
While the black freedom struggle has become a centerpiece of recent Reconstruction studies, we should always remember that for most whites in the North, the central question for them was how to restore the Union quickly and peacefully. African Americans served loyally in the Civil War and many believed they were entitled to protection, citizenship, and voting rights. Once white Northerners felt that the country had stabilized and that enough legislation had been passed to protect African Americans (most notably the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments), it did not take long for them to abandon Reconstruction and essentially state that blacks were on their own to face the future even though rampant racism, discrimination, and violence continued to exist.
What do you think? What essential questions do we need to consider when studying Reconstruction?
Earlier this month I was in northwest Arkansas for a conference and had an opportunity to visit a number of history museums while there. Those site visits included the Daisy Air Gun Museum, the Rogers Historical Museum, and the Walmart Museum (yes, they have one). I found each site charming and the people who work at these sites extremely friendly. Everyone made me feel welcomed and were glad to have me as a visitor. On the whole I enjoyed my experiences at these places.
I am a critical viewer of museum exhibits, however, much in the same way that a musician is a critical viewer of other musicians or a filmmaker critically views rival cinema. My training in museum and historical methods ensures that I can never go back to looking at museums and public history sites as objective storehouses of artifacts and disinterested facts. I view every aspect from aesthetics to text markers to guided tours in an effort to see what larger interpretive messages these places hope to convey to their viewers. Although each site covers a wide time period that in some cases goes back to the late nineteenth century, they all had a similar interpretive centerpiece at the heart of their expererince: nostalgia for the 1950s.
Nostalgia is an inherently conservative emotion in my view. It smooths over the rough edges of history’s complexities and often focuses inward on our idealized personal memories of life experiences. Nobody looks back at a bad life memory in a nostalgic way. Nostalgia doesn’t convey how things were but how we wish they were and how we wish them to be. It tries to recreate an image of a past world that can never be recreated in the present, and the inability to bring this past world alive in the present intensifies our desire to bring it back against all odds. And above all else, we use nostalgia to reclaim our innocence – to return to a time when fear and insecurity didn’t exist and when things were simpler (at least in our minds). As Alan Jay Levinovitz argues in Aeon, “it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection.” Nostalgia is wistful thinking about a state of perfection that never existed. And it often sells within the context of museums.
The 1950s are a particularly unique time period shrouded in more nostalgia than any other era in recent history. Each museum I visited covered different aspects of this nostalgia. Men worked hard and had jobs to support the family; women stayed home and tended to the domestic sphere; children went to school and behaved like good little boys and girls; local law enforcement always had residents’ best interests at hand; everyone went to church and prayed to the same Christian God; racial, labor, or any other form of social strife was non-existent; everyone knew their place in society and happily accepted that place without reservation. We might call this interpretive phenomenon “Andy Griffith History.”
At one of the aforementioned sites I overheard a woman ask a museum employee why there were no exhibits on the contributions of African Americans or any other minority group to the life of the people in northwest Arkansas. The employee said that “well, we don’t have any exhibits on that topic unfortunately and the town of Rogers was a Sundown town in the 1950s.” A person visiting these sites without any sort of background in the history of the Civil Rights Movement would not realize that Walmart’s growth as a company occurred as Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus supported racial segregation of public schools and the Little Rock Nine crisis occurred. Nor would many people without prior knowledge look at the Walmart museum and learn that labor conflicts have occurred frequently throughout the company’s history. The pull of nostalgia only allows for a innocent view of the period devoid of any social conflict.
I suspect that 1950s nostalgia draws people to these places because the period has been so mythologized in popular culture and many (white) people alive today remember the era in fond terms. I do wonder, however, if this approach will continue to work over the next twenty or thirty years and if places that rely on nostalgia this way will have staying power in the long run. Again, I found a certain charm in these museums, and there were certainly good aspects of the 1950s that we should remember and celebrate. We should always heed Levinovitz’s advice, however, and avoid believing that any past era was perfect. That sort of thinking is bad for history and probably bad for determining contemporary policy too.