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

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

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

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



Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Becomes Gateway Arch National Park

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


The History of U.S. Slavery and the Problem of Moral Equivalency

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.


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.


History Channel Gonna History Channel

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.

Photo Credit: Twitter Feed of author and public historian Gordon Belt.

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!

What James Buchanan Can Teach Us About Respecting Dissenting Opinions

James Buchanan (1791 – 1868)

The American Presidents Series, first started by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and now continued by Sean Wilentz, offers readers a series of short, concise biographies of each U.S. president that are accessible to a wide audience. They are wonderful introductions into the character and political outlook of past presidents, and I have a number of these biographies in my library. The latest addition to my collection is historian Jean H. Baker’s biography of James Buchanan, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I learned a lot about Buchanan in this short volume. When past historians have chosen to assess Buchanan’s presidency and the coming of the American Civil War, they often portray him as a weak, ineffective leader who did too little to stop the onslaught of southern secession prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. Kenneth Stampp’s America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, among other studies, hews to this standard interpretation. While Baker concurs that Buchanan’s response to secession was weak, she instead portrays him overall as an overwhelming figure whose domineering personality, unwillingness to compromise, and inability to take dissent seriously doomed his presidency from the start of his term in 1857. Despite proclaiming himself as the only non-sectional candidate who would promote the interests of the entire country during the 1856 presidential election (a claim that Ulysses S. Grant took seriously when he voted in his first presidential election that year), Buchanan was in fact a pro-South sectional candidate in his own right who downplayed the extent of Northern frustration with Southern proslavery demands. I was particularly struck by this passage:

Buchanan had long since chosen sides. Both physically and politically, he had only one farsighted eye, and it looked southward. Looking to the past and heralding the Democratic party’s eternal principles against the “isms” of free-soilism and anti-slaveryism, the president-elect was blind to what was happening in the North . . . despite his experience in politics, [he] read the opposition party as ephemeral as lighting bugs in August.

In his desire to end division between North and South, the president-elect moved beyond the tradition of permissible institutionalized antagonism between political organizations. The concept of loyal opposition, inherited from Great Britain, sanctioned criticism of administrations and the presentation of alternative policies. What it did not permit was the castigation of another party as disloyal and un-American, as Buchanan held the Republicans. In his years as president, Buchanan did a great deal to popularize the view that the Republicans were a threat to the South, thereby encouraging its secession from the Union when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 [p. 72].

Perhaps there is something for us to learn in Buchanan’s failure as a president. He was arguably one of the most qualified candidates based on his experience as a politician and diplomat for nearly forty years before his election in 1856, but his lack of leadership, vision, communication skills, or a sense of changing political circumstances in the 1850s doomed his tenure. As more white Northerners desired restrictions for slavery’s westward expansion into new territories, Buchanan came to view such a position as dangerous and an abridgement of constitutional rights. That most Northerners had no intention to touch slavery where it existed and held strong racial prejudices against blacks made no difference to him. Buchanan couldn’t handle differing interpretations of the constitution or dissent from his ideology, which in his mind meant that his enemies were not fellow Americans with a difference of opinion who were still worthy of respect, but traitors whose views had to be obliterated at all costs. The president’s rhetoric damaged any future compromise over slavery since any such agreement would be considered a threat to Southern honor.

And then the war came…