Can Colorized Photos Help People Better Understand the Past?

My colorization of Thomas Easterly’s photograph of Bob Wilkinson, a prominent barber and member of St. Louis’s free Black community before the Civil War. The original photo is courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

I have been interested in the concept of colorized historical photos for several years. This interest was initially sparked by artist Marina Amaral’s wonderful colorizations that she frequently shared on Twitter. I found myself drawn to the artistry of her use of colors to breathe a new life into old photos and often found myself pausing on my timeline to admire her work. She eventually published many of her colorizations in a book, The Color of Time, that now sits on my coffee table at home. I have also drawn much inspiration from museum historian Mark Loerher’s wonderful colorizations of St. Louis on his Instagram page, Arch City History. I have dabbled with photography for many years and have been drawn to 19th century history partly because so much of it has been documented through photographs.

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to get in on the fun. I was anxious to blend my passions for history and photography to see what I could produce with a new hobby. I downloaded GIMP, a free open-source photo editing software, and began watching video tutorials on how the use the software. I’ve colorized around 15 photos since December and have also been teaching myself how to restore badly damaged photos. Learning these new skills has been a lot of fun and has helped me get through a very cold winter. I’ve also created my own Instagram page, History Beyond Black and White, to showcase my own colorization projects.

It is safe to say, however, that I have been ambivalent about joining the colorization world partly because the historian in me recognizes several genuine criticisms to be made about their usefulness as historical documents. For one, colorizations are difficult to get right from an aesthetic viewpoint and I have seen many poor examples online, or at least examples that do not line up with my own imagination. One might also think about Ted Turner’s colorizations of classic movies, which are hard to watch and don’t hit the right way emotionally. There is also a risk of overly romanticizing colorized photos–which are ultimately interpretations of historical photos–at the expense of appreciating the artistry and historical value of original black and white photos.

A few historian colleagues have expressed skepticism about colorizations since I’ve started this new hobby. In what follows below I will try to outline my own views as to whether colorized photos can help people better understand the past.

How do you know what colors to use for colorizations? The answer, simply put, is that most of the time I don’t know what colors to use because there’s no documentation to confirm such details. The above colorization of Bob Wilkinson serves as a useful example. The colors of his suit jacket, vest, pocket watch, and skin tone are entirely my interpretation of what I envision Wilkinson’s appearance might have been on the day he had this photograph taken. Someone else could make his vest gold and his suit jacket black. Someone else could go with purple and green. The only thing that can be confirmed factually is the gold casing around the image.

In situations like the above image, it is important to stress that most colorizations are ultimately subjective, interpretive, and a form of art. The above work is not a scientific recreation of Wilkinson’s exact appearance with regards to colors, which is impossible to determine given the lack of documentation. It is merely an attempt to give an impression of what colors may have existed in this very specific moment in time. In this sense I would have a hard time saying that colorizations are a form of history. But I do think colorizations allow for us to think about history in new ways, however you may want to define that term. Perhaps most importantly, colorizations allow people to creatively use their imagination to envision how dynamic the past would have appeared at a given time.

To be sure, there are times when specific colors can be confirmed. For example, a Civil War soldier’s military records would have included a description of height, weight, hair color, and skin color, all of which could allow the artist a more approximate view of how a person would have appeared (although the number of skin tones within the terms “black,” “brown,” “white,” and other racial definers is infinite, making the choice of skin tone perhaps the most difficult part of colorizing historic photos). At other times the artist can rely on diaries, newspaper articles, obituaries, or other primary source documents to help confirm colors.

A good example is a somewhat famous picture of an unidentified United States Colored Troops soldier who was stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis for part of the Civil War. Enoch Long, an area photographer who took many pictures at Benton Barracks during the war, commissioned the painting of several colorful backdrops that were used to provide an extra visual appeal to his photographs. Thankfully, we have knowledge of the colors contained in the backdrop Long used in the below photo. Combined with my knowledge of Civil War uniforms, I was able to create a colorization that is pretty close to the actual colors that may have been used in the original photograph, I think.

My colorization of an unidentified USCT soldier stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. Original photo is courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Copy of Enoch Long’s backdrop used in many photos he took at Benton Barracks during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Hoffman, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Colorized photos are similar to cover songs. As a musician, I sometimes enjoy hearing cover songs and have played in several cover bands over the years. Some artists attempt to use cover songs to recreate original songs in their exact form, but in reality a wide canvas exists for musicians to create new meanings to original songs through different instrumentation, time signatures, key changes, tones, and dynamics. Sometimes covers can be just as inspiring as originals. John Mayer’s cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” on acoustic guitar is a beautiful remake of a classic that pushes the song into a new dimension not previously considered. More recently, the artist Roosevelt’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” uses synthesizers, electronic beats, and a key change from the original to create a catchy remake of a classic song. I can’t stop listening to it.

Cover songs, remixes, and mash-ups are an artistic form of expression that can be imaginative and inspiring. They can challenge people to think of original songs in new ways. I think the same kind of thinking towards colorized photos is helpful.

Black and white photos have their own inaccuracies. Black and white photos are accurate representations of the past in that they capture a moment in time and depict important qualities that help people understand how things appeared during that moment. These photos can accurately depict shape such as a person’s face, a billboard sign, a farm animal or an automobile. They can capture people, places, and objects in their materiality. The images captured by those cameras reflect the capabilities of the machine technology within the camera at the time the photo was produced. Black and white photographs therefore offer a representation of the past that can be relied upon as being accurate. At the same time, all would acknowledge that these photos are an accurate representation of the past only to a certain extent given the wide range of colors that were not captured by these cameras.

Critics of colorizations are quick to point out the subjective nature of coloring an image with colors that may not have been in the original image, which is a fair point. But it’s worth remembering that the world has never just been black and white. While colorizations are works of art that can rarely be elevated to the level of historical scholarship, colorized photos do hold the potential to convey a more accurate historical reality by depicting the dynamic color palettes of people, places, and objects from the past. They also hold the potential of exposing fine details not normally seen in a black and white photo. In other words, we may consider the idea of a black and white photo and its colorized counterpart as being two different interpretations of a moment in time, acknowledging that both versions have their own unique shortcomings.

Colorized photos can help students better connect with the past. I read an article several years ago–the author escapes me now–who argued that it was important for students to see Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in color. The author warned that the black and white tones of many photos from this time run the risk of acting as a veil. She argued that it was important to stress to students that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is recent history that remains a lived memory for many people still living today. By seeing people from this time in color, it helped humanize their stories and reinforced the idea that these were real people with meaningful experiences worth studying. These arguments were fascinating to me, and it would be an interesting experiment to see how children react to colorized images compared to their black and white counterparts.

It’s not that black and white photos aren’t important. They very much are. But the experience of seeing history in color can be powerful, meaningful, and inspiring. In my short time colorizing historic photos I’ve already seen and interacted with people who were moved by the art I was able to create. That alone inspires me to keep learning new techniques and to hopefully be in a position to help people who’d want to have their own family photos colorized someday. While colorizations are most certainly an art, I do consider them to be a tool I can use as a public historian to help people connect with the past.

Cheers

Notes on the “Reframing History” Report

For many years, public historians have called for an updated version of David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s 1998 book The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. That book summarized the results of a phone survey of 1,453 Americans from a range of backgrounds who reflected on their relationship with history. Participants in that study were asked how they define history, what value they put on it, and what sources they relied on to generate their understandings of the past.

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) have recently formed a partnership called “Reframing History.” This partnership is working with FrameWorks to conduct research and update our collective understandings of how people define their relationship with history. This work should be applauded. I was excited to read their recently published report, “Making History Work: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement,” when it was published earlier this week. According to the report’s research methods paper, 54 people were interviewed via Zoom and nearly 5,000 people filled out an online survey, tripling the number of respondents who participated in Thelen and Rosenzweig’s 1998 study.

What follows here is a summarization of four recommendations the report makes and some comments I have on these recommendations. Overall I think this report is a useful tool that public history sites should keep on file and discuss among staff that interacts with the public. I certainly look forward to chatting about it with my colleagues. However, I question a number of arguments and assumptions made in the report.

Introduction

The report argues that history communicators should strive to frame history as an ongoing process of developing critical thinking skills. These skills will help people better participate in contemporary society and promote a better future. The authors suggest that there are popular misconceptions about the purpose of history and the methods historians use to better understand the past. Somewhat controversially (to me, at least), the authors assert that “the reality is that people think of history as a hobby for enthusiasts rather than as something they should be concerned about.”

I disagree strongly with this latter assertion. History is of great interest to many people who are not professionals or don’t consider themselves professionals. The Barnes & Noble history section always gets a lot of traffic, history documentaries get high ratings, and people turn to a wide rage of sources to obtain information about the past. People who consume history often describe themselves as enthusiasts and are certainly concerned about history and the way it is taught. The challenge, to me, is not that people don’t care about history. It’s that new academic historical scholarship is not taken seriously or viewed with suspicion by many of the same enthusiasts who readily consume content on the History Channel or a David McCullough book. Public historians who challenge conventional understandings of the past or attempt to broaden narratives to include new racial, gender, or sexuality perspectives often face potential backlash for their efforts.

Another note with the introduction. One thing that immediately stuck out to me is that this report uses the term “communicators” as opposed to “public historians” or even “history communicators.” I’m sure this term was used in an effort to be inclusive given that not everyone who discusses history with public audiences identifies as a public historian. Fair enough. But as someone who personally identifies as a public historian, I find the term “communicator” awkward. What are we communicating about? We are communicating the stuff of history to public audiences from all different types of backgrounds. Regardless of whether one personally identifies as a historian, that person is a “history communicator” when they work within the realm of public history. Somewhat relatedly, while the list of authors and advisory board members of this report come from impressive backgrounds–including National Park Service sites and history museums–I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these scholars currently communicate with the public on a regular basis about history as a part of their daily work beyond the scope of this report.

Recommendation 1

The report argues that lay audiences consider the study of history to be an effort by scholars to find one universal, factual “truth” about the past. This truth, once it has been obtained, is definite and unchanging. Anyone who challenges historical “truth” is therefore criticized as being biased, subject, or a “revisionist.” To remedy this popular perception, the authors argue that history communicators should focus on skills-building rather than finding the “truth.” They should avoid talking about “historical truth” and instead help people formulate a “deeper understanding of our society and how it came to be.” Moreover, history communicators should stress the importance of using a variety of methods to study diverse perspectives and forms of evidence. The authors even go so far as to suggest that rather than saying “by studying history, we make sense of the past by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting [historical] stories,” history communicators should say “by studying history, we build critical thinking skills that apply to all aspects of our lives.”

While it is certainly important to stress the methodological benefits of studying history, the teaching of critical thinking skills should not be prioritized at the expense of answering difficult questions people may have about the accuracy of a given historical event. Rather than avoiding discussions about the meaning of “truth,” I would rather expand the idea of “truth” to suggest that multiple truths can coexist simultaneously. By extension, multiple plausible interpretations of a given event can coexist simultaneously. To this point, I think there is real value in what the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience describes as the “four truths of history.” These truths–forensic truth, personal truth, social truth, and healing truth–do a nice job of highlighting the intersection of memory and history in understanding the past. A person may have a memory about the past that they consider the truth. A society may have an understanding of the past that they consider the truth (as expressed through monuments, memorials, and other public iconography). And yet individuals and societies may hold individual and collective truths that don’t fully align with the historical record, which leads to the creation of myths and misinformation about the past. An important part of public history is helping people navigate the intersection of memory, history, and The Past. Avoiding discussions about the meaning of truth seems counterintuitive for any effort to discuss the meaning of history.

Recommendation 2

The report argues that people view historians as objective journalists who are asked to simply “report the facts.” With this view of history, the historian-journalist dutifully reports past events exactly as they happened. Eyewitness accounts are prioritized as the final word on what happened in the past; efforts by historians to critically analyze, contextualize, or interpret these eyewitness accounts is seen as a potential road to a biased understanding of the past. “The belief that the past can be easily and straightforwardly documented and reported on is connected to the public’s belief that ‘one truth’ about the past is out there waiting to be found,” according to the authors. The best way to work through these misconceptions is to use the metaphor of detective work to describe the historical process (but not the term “detective,” which the authors believe could lead to negative associations with police). The report argues that the detective metaphor is preferred to the journalism metaphor because it better demonstrates the use of sources and methods to provide new understandings of a past event.

The detective metaphor is not a new innovation. Nikki Madel and Bobbie Malone’s 2008 guidebook for k-12 history teachers effectively used the detective metaphor to help teachers explain the purpose of history to their students. Nevertheless I do think it is a useful metaphor and I have used it myself to explain the purpose of history to audiences (although I admit that I don’t see how the term “detective work” does not convey images of law enforcement while the term “detective” does). But it’s worth asking whether the terms “journalist” and “detective” are as opposite as the authors make them out to be. Doesn’t detective work also rely on eyewitnesses? Don’t journalists try to rely on a wide range of sources when conducting research and not simply eyewitness testimony? At the end of the day, aren’t journalists and detectives trying their best to find “one truth about the past . . . out there waiting to be found?”

A different metaphor mentioned in the methods report would be the advancement of medical knowledge. Simply put, nobody wants to receive medical care today using medical knowledge and tools from 1850 or 1950. That doesn’t mean that medical knowledge from 1850 or 1950 isn’t useful. On the contrary, we could learn a lot about what worked and didn’t work by studying medical history from those periods. But ultimately our understanding of medicine is updated as new insights are made and new technological advancements are made. The medicine metaphor is as useful if not more useful than the detective metaphor.

Recommendation 3

The report argues that non-historians recognize the importance of learning from past mistakes, oftentimes repeating the overly-simplistic Santayana quote about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it. The authors argue that this knowledge suggests that many people recognize the importance of studying history. However, the authors correctly acknowledge that what it means to reckon with and “move forward” from the past greatly varies from person to person. They suggest that history communicators speak to universal ideals of progress and justice when explaining the significance of history, although they stress that communicators do not need to use these terms explicitly. With this view of history, the authors suggest that history communicators should not simply explain how we’ve gotten to the present, but that an emphasis should be made to highlight how history can create a more just future. The authors argue that framing history as essential to a better world “builds support for dedicating more resources” towards history education in schools, museums, and elsewhere.

In a world where every word is seemingly politicized and even bland terms like “social justice” and “progress” are viewed with scorn in certain quarters, I am skeptical of the pivot towards the future rather than what’s happening here and now. While I certainly believe history can help create a more just future, I am doubtful that such claims will lead to increased resources for history education.

More philosophically, I do not believe history automatically provides a roadmap for a more just world or helps us predict what is going to happen next. Without being overly pessimistic, it seems obvious to me that history proves that the arc of the moral universe does not automatically bend towards justice. I am reminded of what historian Robert Greene III argued on Twitter several years ago. While I don’t have his exact tweets on hand, Greene essentially argued that there will always be new mistakes to be made, unprecedented problems that can’t be solved by studying history, and new challenges that history alone can’t solve. Moreover, those who have a strong knowledge of history (see history and law student Vladimir Putin, for example), are often just as susceptible to making grave, tragic mistakes that negatively harm the world.

Am I opposed to promoting justice and progress? Of course not. But I do feel that the work of public history should be rooted in appreciating the ways history shapes our world today. How we move forward from history and what will happen in the future are questions that cannot be resolved by historians alone.

Recommendation 4

The report calls for history communicators to use specific, concrete examples to build support for inclusive history. Harkening back to a crucial insight from The Presence of the Past, the authors call for history communicators to emphasize local history when discussing inclusive narratives. This method shows how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) made a difference in local communities and will “help ward off abstract worries about the ‘liberal agenda’ of distant elites being imposed at home.”

I thought this recommendation was the strongest of the report and I don’t have many thoughts to add to it.

Discussion of “Critical Race Theory”

The report argues that:

“The recent backlash against ‘critical race theory’ (that is, teaching about systemic racism in schools and universities) is grounded in the assumption that when it comes to history, what matters and counts is the history of white people.”

This is a shortsighted, overly simplistic explanation of “critical race theory” criticisms that does little to advance the conversation forward.

While I have no doubt that racism does play a role for some CRT critics, I would argue that a great number of them are not opposed to having people of color in the history curriculum. They want discussions of Martin Luther King, Jr., but they want a non-controversial version of MLK who expressed his love for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and not the version of MLK who questioned capitalism, criticized the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, and criticized white moderates for their indifference to racial justice. They want Frederick Douglass as a loyal Republican party member, but not the Douglass who eloquently explained why African Americans did not view the 4th of July as “their” holiday or who believed Abraham Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” They want examples of minority success that reaffirm notions of American exceptionalism. They want stories that highlight the idea of individual success because any examination of systematic, structural racism (such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, the reservation system, or immigration restrictions based on race and ethnicity) is deemed “critical race theory” in the service of socialism, Marxism, or some other boogyman “ism” that is declared to be at war with American values. In other words, critics of so-called “critical race theory” ground their position not in wanting an all-white history, but in the assumption that what matters and counts are positive individual stories that promote patriotism, nationalism, and loyalty to the United States.

The failure to probe the relationship between participants’ views towards history and their views towards the nation is disappointing given the long history of “patriotic education” in the United States. Since the late 19th century, a central aim of history education has focused on promoting love of country and a belief that America was the shining example of democracy for the rest of the world. In this sense history education was seen as a “practical” study that prepared students to be ready to defend the country in times of need. Much of the anxiety surrounding CRT is rooted in the fact that history education in recent years has aimed to highlight stories of struggle, marginalization, and violence that do not automatically conform to the “patriotic education” model. Therefore critics fear that students are being taught to “hate” their country, when in reality the aim of many history teachers (and public historians) has been to demonstrate how concepts such as freedom, liberty, and democracy have been contested throughout U.S. history, and that this work continues today.

(You can read and download an article I wrote about “patriotic education” below).

In conclusion, I think the spirit of reframing history is much needed, and I think this report will be useful for future public historians. But I was surprised by how often I found myself at odds with some of the central conclusions of the report. I hope future studies can be conducted that take a deeper look at how people conceive of history’s purposes within the context of how they view the purpose of patriotism, nationalism, and the nation-state.

Cheers

A Few Thoughts on the Passing of James W. Loewen

I was very saddened to hear that sociologist and historian James W. Loewen passed away yesterday at the age of 79 and feel compelled to write a few lines about the influence of his tremendous scholarship on my own work as a public historian.

I took a serious interest in history as a middle schooler in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and read Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me while I was still in high school. It was probably the first book I ever read that seriously questioned the way history was taught in the classroom. Loewen clearly demonstrated that difficult aspects of U.S. history were often swept under the rug in the interest of promoting a consensus version of history that promoted loyalty to the nation at the expense of historical accuracy, and that trivial facts and rote memorization of dates often replaced discussions of causes, context, and consequences in the history classroom.

High School students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history invariably comes in last. Students consider history “the most irrelevant” of twenty-one subjects commonly taught in high school. Bor-r-ring is the adjective they apply to it. When students can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even whey they are forced to take classes in history, they repress what they learn, so every year or two another study decries what our seventeen-year-olds don’t know.

James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, pg. 12

These were the sorts of words that inspired me to originally pursue a history teaching degree in undergrad so that I could be a part of the solution to poor teaching in the history classroom. Of course, that career track did not work out for me (I was even turned down from a position once “because we need a basketball coach”). But as I began pursuing a career in public history, Loewen’s Lies Across America probably played an even bigger role in my career development than Lies My Teacher Told Me. Loewen’s critical interrogation of public monuments, historical markers, and historic sites demonstrated the ways public history sites, just like history classrooms, often left out important stories from U.S. history in the interest of promoting consensus history. I wrote about one particularly influential story Loewen discussed in the book about Louisiana’s “Uncle Jack” statue here a few years ago. His ten questions for historic sites remains an excellent foundation for critically analyzing the interpretive focus of a given site:

Two important insights are worth further mentioning here. One is that Loewen was a gifted writer whose engaging and often humorous style really made the words jump off the page. As evidenced in my own story, a high school student could read his books and understand the arguments he made. The other insight is that many of Loewen’s arguments were not only right at the time these two books were written in the 1990s, but remain relevant to our own conversations today about history education in the classroom and public history across the United States. For example, In Lies My Teacher Told Me Loewen famously criticized the ways Christopher Columbus was hailed as a hero in the history classroom. He convincingly demonstrated the genocidal nature of Columbus’s voyage to the Western Hemisphere and forced readers to challenge their old, mythical understandings European voyages to “The New World.” While Loewen’s interpretation of Columbus has much more credence today, that was not the case in the 1990s. In Lies Across America, Loewen argued that public monuments were more reflective of the moment in which they were erected than the history they tried to commemorate, therefore demonstrating the inherently political/ideological nature of public monuments. Again, this insight is a fairly common talking point among historians today, but Loewen was already on the ball with this type of thinking thirty years ago. It’s easy to read Loewen and think that his books were written a year or two ago and not in the 1990s.

I never met Dr. Loewen personally but I’m grateful for his scholarship, which goes far beyond the two books under discussion here. You can learn more about Dr. Loewen’s scholarship by visiting his website, which had recently been created only a few months ago.

Cheers

Remembering Two Biographers of Ulysses S. Grant Who Died in 2019

Photo credit: Nick Sacco

2019 saw the deaths of two noteworthy scholars who wrote biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. Both biographies were popular best-sellers when they were released and both represent crucial landmarks within the Grant historiography. And yet both are what could be best described as a double-edge sword; they advance our knowledge of Grant and his times while still making crucial mistakes along the way that illuminate the difficulty of writing an accurate historical biography.

Jean Edward Smith died in September at the age of 86. The New York Times described Smith as “a political scientist and renowned biographer whose works helped restore luster to the tarnished reputations of underrated presidents.” That was certainly the case with his 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Smith specialized in 20th century presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower for most of his career. His study on Grant, however, is notable because it was one of the first major birth-to-death biographies that attempted to overturn some of the common stereotypes of Grant being a drunk butcher who oversaw a hopelessly failed and corrupt administration. While more recent popular narratives on Grant from biographers like H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have undoubtedly supplanted Smith on the best-seller list, I would actually place Smith’s study above all three of them. Grant is a readable page-turner that offers a sympathetic but also convincing interpretation of Ulysses S. Grant’s life. It was the first biography of Grant that I read while in college and inspired me to learn more about the American Civil War, so for that I will always be grateful to Jean Edward Smith.

Nevertheless there are shortcomings and mistakes that make me very conflicted about the biography. At times I believe the book is too defensive of Grant. To cite but one example, Smith portrays Grant’s Indian Peace Policy while president as progressive and forward-thinking. Grant certainly disagreed with the “removalist” school of thinking that wanted to eliminate all Native Americans through violent means (embodied most notably through General Philip Sheridan’s remark that “a good Indian is a dead Indian”). But Grant’s policies essentially called for forced confinement of native populations in poorly-supplied reservations and harsh assimilation policies that some scholars today would describe as cultural genocide. Grant’s views may have been moderate for the time, but they were most certainly not forward-thinking, in my opinion.

(Here’s a book review/essay I wrote about Grant’s Indian policies that you can read about on this topic).

An equally serious problem with Smith lies in at least one documented instance in which his writing veers dangerously close to plagiarism. Here’s the bit from Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf

From Jean Smith’s Grant, page 411, bottom paragraph:

The President’s casket, draped in black crepe, rested on a raised platform under a domed black canopy. President Johnson, the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for the President’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln felt unable to attend. At the head of the catalfalque, standing alone throughout the ceremony, was Grant – the living symbol of the cause for which the President had given his life.

Correspondent Noah Brooks reported that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant later said he was grateful that Lincoln had spent most of his final days with him at City Point. “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”

From Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton, 1969 ed., page 479, bottom paragraph:

Draped in crepe and black cloth, the President’s casket lay in the East Room under a domed canopy of black cloth. President Johnson, members of the Supreme
Court and the cabinet, the uniformed diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for members of Mr. Lincoln’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln feeling unable to attend. At the head of the catafalque, all through the service, stood General Grant, alone.

Correspondent Noah Brooks said that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant reflectively said he would always be glad that Lincoln had spent most of his final days in Grant’s company, and when he tried to sum up the man he could only say: “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”

Yikes.

William McFeely died just a few days ago at the age of 89. Like Smith, he received a New York Times obituary that describes him as an acclaimed biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and also Frederick Douglass. Contrary to Smith, McFeely was trained as a historian and specialized in African American history and the Civil War Era, particularly Reconstruction. His 1981 biography of Grant won a Pulitzer Prize and was the standard study on Grant for at least a generation. Also contrary to Smith, McFeely went the opposite direction and was a harsh critic of his subject. One quickly gets the impression from reading the book that McFeely simply didn’t like the guy.

On the one hand, McFeely’s book remains one of the best and most widely-researched studies within the genre. For example, while most biographers today consider Grant to have held anti-slavery beliefs throughout his life, I actually agreed with McFeely when he argued that Grant’s 1854 resignation from the Army and move to St. Louis to become a farmer was in part based on a desire to emulate his father-in-law’s luxurious plantation lifestyle. I appreciated McFeely’s attempts to contextualize Grant’s St. Louis experiences, and his interpretation on this subject makes an appearance in my Journal of the Civil War Era article on Grant’s relationship with slavery that was published this past September. On the other hand, McFeely made his own mistakes along the way. And his overall interpretation of a cold, heartless tactician who did not care about African Americans or Reconstruction more broadly led Brooks Simpson (who is, in my view, the preeminent scholar of Ulysses S. Grant over the past thirty years) to suggest that Grant would not recognize himself in McFeely’s biography.

The biggest problem with McFeely’s biography, in my opinion, is his excessive use of psychoanalysis to interpret Grant’s thoughts and personality. There are many examples to cite, but the most obvious one comes on pages 10 and 11. Here McFeely assesses Grant’s early boyhood in Ohio and how he communicated that upbringing in his Personal Memoirs. He cites this passage from the Memoirs:

A Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village . . . owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get to him, to give the twenty-five. I at once mounted a horse and went for the colt. When I got to Mr. Ralston’s house, I said to him: ‘Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, I am to give you twenty-five.’ It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon.

. . . this transaction caused me great heart-burning. The story got out among the boys of the village, and it was a long time before I heard the last of it. Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity. I kept the horse until he was four years old, when he went blind, and I sold him for twenty dollars.

McFeely argues that this “one boyhood experience haunted Grant all his life. He referred to it often, usually giving the appearance of laughing it off; but something that must be laughed off repeatedly cannot be dismissed.” McFeely continues:

In the Memoirs, Grant presented this incident as having provided a lesson well learned in his education as a maturing businessman, but actually it functioned in the opposite way. It reminded him every time he had business to do that he was not good at it, that he was still an embarassable boy. What was more, he had been humiliated and mocked not for being discovered secretly doing something nasty, but for being innocent and open; in effect, he had been told that grown-up things, business things, were the affairs of men who laughed at boys who were direct about what they wanted. The mockery came not from the horse, but from the boys in town who feigned sophistication, from the owner of the horse, and very probably his father, who without malice but with great ability to harm, may have laughed at the boy’s ingenuousness. If the story is seen as demonstrating a second point, Ulysses’ love of horses, the blinding of the animal sours the effect. ‘My colt’–that unspoiled beautiful moment–became a broken animal, and in the terrifyingly cruel end to which the creature had come Grant saw himself. The blinded beast walked nowhere in the ceaseless drudgery. Trivial though the story of the purchase of the horse may seem, Grant spent a lifetime not getting over the transaction with Mr. Ralston.

Really?

Is this a fair and reasonable interpretation of Grant? Does the blinded horse really symbolize how Grant viewed himself; a broken beast walking through ceaseless drudgery to nowhere? Did Grant include this story in his Personal Memoirs because he was traumatized by the event? Could it not be interpreted with equal credibility that Grant’s own explanation for telling the story–that it was an important lesson in the harsh realities of the business world and reflective of a small, rural town’s culture where everyone knows everyone’s business–is valid?

Historians and particularly biographers face a tough task when they attempt to interpret their subjects inner-most thoughts and personality. The subject offers the biographer pieces of the puzzle through letters, diary entries, written books like a Personal Memoir, and other related documents. The biographer must sift through those pieces and put together a picture that makes sense and an accurate portrait of a person’s life and times. Psychoanalysis may serve a purpose in that process, but sitting a historical subject down and becoming an armchair psychologist requires a great deal of caution. In my view McFeely too often throws caution to wind to craft interpretations that are too loosely based on personal speculation and innuendo.

By all accounts, however, McFeely was a generous scholar who advanced the fields of black studies, African American history, and Reconstruction. His biography on Frederick Douglass is still highly regarded, and from what other historians have said he was a thoughtful, caring person (as I’m sure Smith was as well).

Both biographers’ studies of Ulysses S. Grant represent important landmarks for understanding Grant and should be taken seriously by scholars. May they both rest in peace.

Cheers

A Short Note on Empathy in Historical Practice

I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?

First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.

I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.

Cheers

Losing My Faith in Public Monuments

Goodbye

Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.

To be sure, my current views still strongly align with the arguments I made in this essay for the National Council on Public History about a year and a half ago:

Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.

Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.

Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.

It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:

Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?

Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.

Cheers

How History and Memory Converge to Make Sense of The Past

Photo Credit: https://sites.google.com/a/worth.org.uk/worth-school-activities/history-society

History is the process by which individuals and societies make sense of the past. Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms “History” and “The Past” are not mutually exclusive. “The Past” is the verified, factual information we know about past events in human history. We know, for example, that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. “History,” however, is the process by which we document, contextualize, and interpret the meaning of a particular event. Why was the Declaration of Independence written? Who wrote it? What was going on in the world at the time of its writing? What social, economic, religious, and political forces inspired the document’s author? What were the consequences of its publication? These are the types of questions historians ask when researching and interpreting “The Past” to make an informed historical argument about something like the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Memory plays a necessary and crucial role in creating history. “Memory” is the process by which individuals and societies choose to remember (and forget) their pasts. Memories are created after an event has taken place and take the form of oral recollection, art, public iconography, and many other expressions of personal reflection. How did Thomas Jefferson remember his role in writing the Declaration years later? What did members of the Continental Congress think of the event? How did citizens of the colonies remember hearing about the Declaration of Independence? What monuments, statues, markers, and plaques were created to commemorate the event? What messages did these icons attempt to convey to viewers about the Declaration? How is the Declaration remembered by society today? These are the types of questions historians and memory scholars ask when researching how present-day conditions simultaneously shape and are shaped by past events. History and memory intersect to tell us what happened in the past, and what it means for us today.

What are the distinctions between history and memory? Is there a distinction between the two? Scholars disagree on this question, but I think there are distinctions, albeit very subtle.

Take the case of the veteran’s recollection of a wartime experience twenty years after a significant battle. The truthfulness of that soldier’s recollection may not be fully verifiable based on the evidence that was created from the time in which the battle originally took place. His or her recollection may contradict the official battle report created at the time (“The Past”), or it may include details that were previously omitted. Sometimes the recollection may even unintentionally confuse or invent crucial details with the passage of time. Nevertheless the veteran’s memory exists as a “personal truth” for him or herself; an individual process by which the soldier copes with, comprehends, and understands their experiences in that battle. The tricky task for the historian is to determine whether the veteran’s recollection should be incorporated into the body of evidence being used to interpret the history of that battle. Is the recollection reliable? Does it help advance the story? Does it help or hinder the historian’s effort to make sense of The Past?

Historian Jonathan Hansen argues that history advances through hypothesis while memory evolves over time but never really advances. I like that description because memories of a given event will change over time (a new personal reflection or the erection of a new monument, for example) but those memories may not be verifiable in the same way a historical fact can be through a hypothesis.

Much of what we understand about The Past is based on memory, which simultaneously informs and muddles the historical process. As such, the concept of “Truth” does exist within the historical process, but it takes multiple forms. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience defines four different forms of “Truth”: forensic truth (The factual, verifiable past), personal truth (a personal memory), social truth (a collectively held truth as expressed through art, public iconography, political speechs, etc.) and healing truth (a collective process of historical reckoning such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

The above description is how I understand the distinctions between The Past, history, and memory.  These three phenomenons constantly interact and shape each other, leading to the creation of individual and collective understandings of past events that in many cases contain multiple truths for us to learn from.

Cheers

How Historians and Musicians Receive Similar Training in College

Yours Truly Performing at Off Broadway in St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rick Miller Photography

Over the years numerous friends and family, knowing that I studied history in college and now work as a public historian for a living, have come to me with a range of questions about people and events from the past. I think more often than not I have failed to give them a satisfactory answer to their questions. That’s because in most cases they’ve asked questions about time periods in which I have only a basic and limited understanding. As fascinating as I find the Roman Empire, the Medieval Era, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and other periods in history, I just don’t have the specialized knowledge to give an accurate, informative answer in most cases. And yet oftentimes these questions are prefaced with a comment like, “you’re a historian, so you should be able to help me…”

The reality is that most professional historians specialize in a particular time period, and that time period can be quite small in scope depending on the individual historian’s interests. I think non-historians sometimes assume that the primary goal of studying history is the accumulation of facts. As historian David McKenzie pointed out on Twitter, historical knowledge for many is “simply cramming facts into one’s head to be spit out at a moment’s notice.” While learning facts and establishing historical accuracy are certainly important facets of any history degree program, there are many other elements of good historical practice. This includes (but is not limited to) the ability to search for and interpret the larger context surrounding a particular event, the need to understand change over time, the importance of crafting solid research questions, the talent to be a good reader, writer, and speaker, and the training needed to become well-versed in both primary and secondary source material of a particular, specialized historical era.

When I struggle to answer my friends’ and family’s questions, I point out that historians are in some ways similar to musicians. My area of expertise is nineteenth century U.S. history–particularly the Civil War Era–and that is my “musical instrument,” so to speak. You wouldn’t say “oh, you’re a musician! Go over and play that guitar” without first asking that musician what instrument they play and if they could play guitar. And just because a musician can play guitar doesn’t mean they can play tuba or do a freestyle rap on the spot. The situation is similar with historians. I can talk about the Battle of Shiloh or the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but I’d have a more difficult time giving a detailed answer about, say, the Battle of D-Day or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As much as I’d love to give detailed answers and remarkable facts about every event in human history, the limits of human intelligence require a more specific and concentrated focus.

Music education students in college are required to learn how to play a string instrument, a brass/woodwind instrument, and sing in a choir regardless of their prior expertise. They also learn music theory and develop an ability to read sheet music whether it’s in treble clef or bass clef (or alto clef!). As future teachers of band, orchestra, and choir in a k-12 setting, this training prepares them to help students learn how to play an instrument, read sheet music, and perform together in an organized creation of musical sound. History students at the undergrad level receive a similar curriculum in that they take courses in U.S., European, and World history during their training. They receive a broad instruction that enables them to educate younger students about a wide swath of human history. But like the musician with a specific instrument that they specialize in and perform with in concerts, the historian finds a time period to specialize in and contribute to through public talks, the creation of scholarship, and, in my case as a public historian, by interpreting history to a wide range of publics.

Cheers

 

Why Claiming that a Writer is “Biased” is Usually Meaningless

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.

Cheers

The Importance of Using Caution When Interpreting Personal Recollections of Historic Events

When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.

There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.

I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?

The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.

One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:

Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.

This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?

What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.

An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.

The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.

Cheers