Bill O’Reilly is at it again. Whatever merits the Fox News pundit may have as a commentator on current events, his endeavors in historical scholarship are less than stellar. I admit to not being a regular reader of his “Killing” series, but his book Killing Lincoln–which I have read–was a mistake-ridden flop that offered nothing new to the historiography of Lincoln studies. Historians roundly criticized the book and Ford’s Theater–the very place where Lincoln was assassinated–refuses to carry it in their gift shop. O’Reilly’s influential platform on a popular news station gives him an enormous presence to influence hearts and minds across the United States, however, and so all historians must take his historical claims seriously. Whether or not his claims are accurate or inaccurate is less significant than the fact that his “history” books sell well and his identification as a historian resonates with his television followers. I interned with the National Park Service at the U.S. Grant National Historic Site (where I now work full-time) around the time Killing Lincoln was released, and I must have had at least two dozen visitors to the park over three months who told me they came because they had read that book. Never once did someone say they were visiting because they read a reputable history of the Lincoln assassination by universally respected scholars such as James Swanson, Edward Steers, and Michael Kauffman.
And so it was with great disappointment when O’Reilly, citing his identification as a historian, felt compelled to respond to First Lady Michelle Obama’s acknowledgement of the White House’s construction by enslaved black Americans by stating that those enslaved people were actually well fed and adequately taken care of. O’Reilly’s comments continue a long history of Americans, particularly white Americans, addressing the history of U.S. slavery with qualifications, equivocations, and explanations that downplay the overarching influence of slavery in the building of this nation’s economic, social, and political foundations. “Slavery was bad, but…” “Slavery existed, but…”
In my years as a public historian on the front lines of historical interpretation–which include interpreting U.S. slavery–I have heard visitors claim that slavery was a benevolent influence on black Americans since it Christianized them and took them away from the savageries of Africa. I have heard visitors respond to my talks by saying that “black people owned slaves too” and that tens of thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy (“they don’t talk about that in the history books!”). They have told me that black slavery existed primarily “to address a labor shortage” and not because of race or racism. They have told me that these enslaved people, once they gained their freedom after the Civil War, largely chose to stay at their old master’s plantation because of their gratitude to the kindness and generosity of their former enslavers, and not because they lacked the economic resources or the freedom to obtain jobs, money, education, and land elsewhere. They have referred to the enslaved people as “the dependents,” a particularly ironic identifier given that “the dependents” were actually the white enslavers who relied on enslaved labor for their material success and high quality of life. They have told me that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War. They have gone on TripAdvisor and called my tours “politically correct” because we as an institution have made the interpretation of slavery a central goal of our educational mission. O’Reilly’s comments about slavery at the White House, therefore, were not new to me because they fit into this unfortunate tradition of literally whitewashing slavery from the story of the United States. I get these viewpoints expressed to me by ordinary white Americans too often.
Many historians have responded to O’Reilly’s comments with thoughtful essays refuting his perspective and asking what, exactly, he wanted to point out by stating them in the first place. Of these essays the biggest takeaway in my opinion has been the distinction between understanding the material conditions of slavery and the legal framework of U.S. slavery. This distinction, most forcefully argued by Rebecca Onion and Caleb McDaniel, shows that the day-to-day slave experience took many forms–from enslaved people who were “treated well” to those who were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused–but that legally all enslaved people were bound to the same rules and regulations of chattel slavery. This is not to suggest that the abuse any particular enslaved person endured or the personal gains an enslaved person made (such as Elizabeth Keckley earning wages and obtaining enough money to purchase her freedom and eventually become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker) should be disregarded, but that the bigger picture of the legal boundaries is necessary to understanding the crushing oppression of U.S. slavery. Whether or not the enslaved people who built the White House were well cared for must be fit within a legal context. That legal context includes the fact that U.S. chattel slavery was determined on the basis of race, that it was hereditary, that it was perpetual for the duration of one’s lifetime, that enslaved people always faced the fear of them or their loved ones being sold away, and that enslaved people lacked the most basic of individual freedoms, ownership of themselves. This is the context that is missing not just from O’Reilly’s comments, but many comments that I hear from Americans on a frequent basis. Part of my role as a public historian includes doing my part to provide a better understanding of this context for the people I interact with on a daily basis.
Here’s a list of articles by historians responding to O’Reilly:
- Rebecca Onion, “What Bill O’Reilly Doesnt Understand About Slavery”
- Caleb McDaniel’s Tweet Essay
- Kevin Levin, “Bill O’Reilly’s Benevolent Slaveowners”
- Glenn David Brasher, “Just Another Response to Bill O’Reilly’s Slave Comment”
- Peter Holley, “The Ugly Truth About the White House and its History of Slavery”
- David A. Graham,” How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly’s Wrong About Slavery”
- Ed Ayers’s comments in Time Magazine
I will update this list if I find more articles on the topic.
Update, 10/21/14: People change over time, and their perspective of the world is subject to constant revision. I am wrong quite often, and my perspective has changed since writing this essay. I would not have been so dismissive of the idea of Jon Stewart being considered a public historian had I wrote this essay today. I think public history should be broadly defined and warmly inviting of anyone who wants to be considered as such. – NS
Over at History@Work we learn that the American Historical Association, one of the preeminent history organizations in the United States, recently held their national conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. During the myriad discussions taking place about history, digital history, and many other topics, a question was raised as to whether or not Jon Stewart could be considered a public historian. Apparently the panel discussants who posed this question agreed that yes, Mr. Stewart could be considered as such because he does a good job of “confronting politicians with inconvenient truths about the past.”
First off, I am sympathetic to the idea that history can be “done” by just about anyone. If a non-historian, i.e. a person with no professional training in history, writes a book about history, they are “doing history” in my estimation. So yes, even Bill O’Reilly is “doing history” when he writes books about Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Furthermore, someone with no professional training in public history can be “doing public history.” While working at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic site several volunteers would sometimes conduct tours of the historic home White Haven. These people more often than not didn’t have any formal training in history – they merely enjoyed local history and wanted to do their part to preserve its legacy.
Yet I have to refrain from calling Stewart a public historian. Firstly, while he does in fact confront politicians in a fascinating and entertaining manner, the ways in which he conducts his confrontations are varied. Sometimes he uses historical examples, but just as often he uses jokes, punditry, or a different story in current events to make his point rather than anything concerning the past.
Erik Greenberg made the following comments about the Stewart-as-public-historian question:
No, he is not. He might be described more accurately as a public intellectual (although intellectuals are, or should be, by definition publicly minded so the term is redundant). But a public historian should be someone grounded in the arguments, practices, and habits of mind of an academically trained historian. So if Stewart, or Spielberg, etc. have studied history carefully, understood the intellectual and evidentiary rigor demanded of an historian, and then continue with their work as filmmakers, pundits, etc., THEN they are public historians.
I agree that one doesn’t need the academic training to be a historian, but he or she must learn and understand, at least to an extent, the mindset and thought process of a historian. Try to think “historically.” With people like Bill O’Reilly and other non-historians who have been able to publish books about history, I would argue that most of them have made a conscious effort to “think historically,” although they may or may not have lived up to the standards of academically trained historians. And the book sales show that there are plenty of people who think O’Reilly is doing a fine job of “doing history” anyway. Likewise, most of the volunteers at ULSG–while not receiving formal, academic training–have undergone some sort of interpretive training with the salaried staff at some point in time. They have also made an effort to think “historically.”
Jon Stewart is awesome, but calling him a public historian is a bit of a stretch in my book. If he is, then any sort of journalist or media figure that may have used historical example to question a politician–Chris Matthews, Savannah Guthrie, Tim Russert, David Gregory, Sean Hannity–should be considered as such too.