As a public historian who discusses the history of U.S. slavery on a daily basis with a wide range of audiences, I accept that some of the visitors I interact with are ambivalent about the topic. Online reviews sometimes complain of “political correctness” in our interpretations, which I view as a politically correct way of saying we spend too much time discussing slavery and African American history. A few rare times visitors have approached me minutes after my tour introduction to tell me that, well, slavery was bad and all, but this whole Civil War thing was really about [insert reference to states’ rights, “economics,” or “money”] and it really had little to do with slavery.
I am used to these sorts of comments now and am usually ready to gently push back against them in a respectful way. I have the support of vast amounts of historical evidence and institutional backing to justify my basic claim that debates over slavery–particularly its westward expansion into new territories and states–became increasingly heated and played a huge role in the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and the Confederacy in 1861. Slavery and opposition to it are worthwhile topics of study because they speak to larger values that shaped the country’s governing documents and its history. They show us that the white residents of the freest country in the world couldn’t agree on what it actually meant to be free. Who would be allowed to participate in the process of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” or enjoy the benefits of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The end of slavery partially addressed the problem of freedom’s definition, and we should strive to end it wherever it exists today.
It has become increasingly troubling to me, therefore, to experience an increasing number of visitors who aggressively assert that because slavery had long existed before the United States became a country, its existence here during the country’s first eighty years should not be condemned or judged. Today a man in his 60s or 70s raised his voice to tell me, more or less, that:
Slavery existed all over the world before it came here! The Romans owned slaves! SLAVES OWNED SLAVES! It wasn’t evil and we can’t judge it – slavery was a normal practice and a way of life for many cultures throughout history. We don’t really teach our students history anymore, just politics.
I wondered to myself during this moment that if slavery wasn’t that bad, certainly this person would be the first one to volunteer himself onto the auction block to be sold into chains.
Some Americans believe that the United States was given a divine mission from God to promote and spread freedom and liberty here and abroad; that we are a unique people who have transcended human history and made the world a better place; that a republican form of government that ensures equality, opportunity, and freedom of body and mind is ultimately more powerful and enduring than a government based on dictators, monarchs, arbitrary power, hierarchy, and the enslavement of any part of its populace. I don’t believe we’ve always lived up to these basic ideals, nor do I believe we are God’s uniquely chosen people, but admire much of the spirit of our republican ideals.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t necessarily believe that white and black Americans were equal or that they could even live together in harmony, but he boldly declared slavery an evil when other Americans said that slavery was natural, historical (“the Romans owned slaves!”), and not that bad:
I can not but hate [the declared indifference for slavery’s spread]. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty — criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
Lincoln and the Republicans of the 1850s believed that freedom–not slavery–was the natural state of humanity, and that all people were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of their station in life.
It’s worth thinking about the state of contemporary society when this moral equivalence about slavery is expressed by self-professed lovers of freedom in such a casual way – when the spirit of Stephen Douglas and not Abraham Lincoln is the moral compass of contemporary American politics. I hate the indifference, the injustice, and the moral equivalency of such rhetoric. I’ve gotten used to hearing stuff about how slavery existed long before it arrived in America and that we should stop making such a big deal about it, but I will never be comfortable with it.
The work continues.
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!
My first post as a regular contributor for Muster is now up. With this essay I wanted to take a look at the question of whether or not erecting monuments to the “heroes” of Reconstruction would do anything to improve understanding of the era. I also discussed some of the work taking place at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site to educate teachers in the St. Louis area about Reconstruction. Enjoy!
A couple weeks ago the Journal of the Civil War Era announced that they had overhauled the design of their blog, Muster. A couple days after that I received an email stating that the blog was looking for writers to contribute essays on a regular basis, and that I was invited to join the team. So…I’m very pleased to announce that I will now be a regular contributor to Muster. I will be writing roughly five or six essays a year and offering a particular focus on interpreting the Civil War era within a public history setting, although that will not be my only focus. I’ve written previously for Muster before becoming a regular contributor, with the most recent essay focusing on the Frank Blair statue at Forest Park in downtown St. Louis.
The team of regular correspondents now writing for Muster is truly outstanding, and I am greatly honored to have been asked to be a part of this exciting initiative. My first essay as a regular correspondent should be up next week – we’ll see what happens from here!
I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a visitor about morality and judgement in historical interpretation. The visitor was very adamant about the historian’s obligation to objectivity when interpreting the past, but his definition of objectivity was, in my opinion, far too rigid. “We have no right to judge the people of the past and the decisions they make,” he said. “At one point 97% of scientists believed the earth was flat! They were wrong, but how were they supposed to know?” The historians of today, in his view, are too emotional. They are too focused on picking winners and losers and distinguishing between good and bad. People get too worked up about the past.
There is a grain of validity in his statements. The concept of “historical thinking” emphasizes the importance of understanding historical events from the perspective of the people at the time in which the event happened rather than from our perspective today. To understand why most scientists believed the world was flat requires an understanding of the scientific community’s knowledge of astronomy at that time. Who were the leading thinkers? What works of scholarship were they reading and producing? What sorts of assumptions did they make about the universe and its inner workings? Where did these scientists receive their education, and who funded their scientific research? What was the social, political, religious, and economic climate at that time? What ideologies did these scientists embrace; in other words, how did politics shape their understanding of how the world should work? And, equally important, what developments within the scientific community and the larger world led to the evolving view that the world is round?
In my opinion, however, it does not follow that historical thinking must be devoid of all judgement of the past. The flat-earth scientists were objectively wrong, after all. Historians can still offer a fair analysis of flat-earth theory while working under the understanding that such a theory is mistaken. Likewise, historians of topics like slavery, Indian removal, and genocide can offer thoughtful interpretations while making a judgement that those things are wrong.
Choices have consequences, both negative and positive. Understanding when, how, and why those choices came about is fundamental to historical interpretation. I believe assessing the consequences and making judgements about those choices is also part of the equation. One doesn’t need to look any further than their own family history to see the cracks of this “non-judgement” theory. Your own life is shaped by the decisions your ancestors made, the decisions that were made for them by others in power, and the worlds they lived in, with all the limits and possibilities that existed at a given time. You are a product of past decisions, and as such it is rational for you to make judgements about the decisions of your ancestors and what those decisions mean for your life today, just as your posterity will make judgements about your choices in life.
To avoid making any judgements whatsoever about the past–both negative AND positive–is, above all else, boring historical interpretation. The best studies make arguments and challenge me to think anew about my prior understanding of a given topic. But non-judgement also strives for an idea of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Prefect neutrality is a fiction. Claims of “bias” are meaningless most of the time because everyone has biases shaped by perception, experience, and education. When we acknowledge that all historians have their own biases, we can focus on the arguments they make rather than debating about whether the scholar is biased or not. I believe “fairness” in historical interpretation is a far better ideal to strive for than objectivity. I have my views and own experiences that shape how I interpret the past, and they shape the educational programs I create. I don’t claim to be fully free of bias, but I always strive to be fair in my interpretation and utilize historical thinking throughout the process. I think that’s all one can ask for in any sort of scholarly study or educational initiative. If I’m wrong in my interpretations and scholarship, I expect to be called out for it. 🙂
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!
Is President Donald Trump like Andrew Jackson?
Wait, maybe he’s more like Andrew Johnson.
Or King George III.
Or Aaron Burr.
Or Abraham Lincoln.
Or Jefferson Davis.
Or Horace Greeley.
Or Ulysses S. Grant.
Or Huey Long.
Or Benito Mussolini.
Or George Patton.
Or George Wallace.
Or Barry Goldwater.
Or Richard Nixon.
Or Ronald Reagan.
Or Hugo Chavez.
Over the past week historians have been debating the merits of using historical analogy to educate lay audiences about the messy circumstances of our current political moment. Moshik Temkin started the discussion with an op-ed in the New York Times decrying the “historian as pundit” persona that, as can be seen above, has gotten attention within the online realm (not all of those essays were written by historians, but you get the point). Temkin expresses worries about “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies,” which in turn simplifies, trivializes, and downplays the significance of both past and present-day events. Conversely, many historians on my Twitter feed reacted negatively to Temkin’s piece, arguing that we must meet people where they are and that analogy provides opportunities for historians to demonstrate changes and continuities in American history.
Is there room to argue that both sides of this argument are a little bit right and a little bit wrong? I think so.
I do not agree with Temkin when he suggests historians should avoid appearances on TV and “quick-take notes” in a news article. Nor do I agree with the argument that we should leave analogy solely to the non-historian pundits. There are limitations to both TV and newspaper articles since they offer only small tidbits and soundbites for expressing a particular viewpoint, but they do offer historians an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the past in shaping the present. For example, my friend and fellow public historian Will Stoutamire contributed some wonderful insights into this article on the history of Arizona’s Confederate monuments. Last I heard that particular article had been viewed something like 70,000 times over the past month. Not bad! Likewise, I agree with Julian Zelizer when he argues that:
Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture.
At the same time, however, is Temkin incorrect when he suggests that we should be wary of poor historical analogies? Is he wrong when he asserts that we should remind our audiences that a similar event or person from the past does not lead to a similar outcome in the present? Can we conclude that some of the above historical analogies are trite and unhelpful? Are there better questions we can ask about the past and how it has shaped the present? Is their room to sometimes discuss the past on its own terms without resorting to comparisons with the present? I was struck by a recent article from a senior English major who, in discussing national politics in the classroom, warned that “if authors are only worth reading insofar as they inform modern phenomena, then the entire English canon is of mere antiquarian interest and can be summarily dismissed.” If you insert ‘history’ for the word ‘English,’ do we run into the same problem by downplaying huge swaths of history that don’t have an explicit relevance to current politics?
A huge shortcoming of this entire discussion, of course, is that public historians and the work they do are completely left out of the conversation. Here’s the thing. Public historians work in small spaces all the time; spaces that are more often then not much smaller than the ones academics use. We don’t get sixty minutes for lecture, 400 pages to write a book, or even a New York Times opinion piece. We get ten minute introductions, tweets, short Facebook posts, museum exhibits that are often viewed for ten seconds or less, and other educational programming of short duration. Both Temkin and his critics leave this important work out of their discussion.
So here’s a strong middle ground from which to argue. Historians should always strive to meet people where they are in their learning journey. They ought to embrace opportunities to give talks, speak on news shows, be quoted in a newspaper article, or write op-eds for a media outlet with a large platform. At the same time, they ought to use historical analogies responsibly and within the context of highlighting the importance of studying history. The past itself is interesting on its own terms, and sometimes it’s okay to discuss it without resorting to a comparison with Donald Trump. And perhaps academic historians can learn a thing or two from public historians about conveying complex historical subjects into clear, accessible interpretations of the past to a wide range of audiences.
The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.
Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!