The trailer for Ron Howard’s film In the Heart of the Sea, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestseller of the same name, is finally out. It’s about time somebody put the tragedy of the Essex on the big screen; it’s one of the most harrowing and incredible episodes in human history.
The Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy and The Duncan School of Law are pleased to present the R. Gerald McMurtry Lecture. The 2014 McMurtry Lecture is scheduled for Friday October 24, 2014 from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum’s Arnold Auditorium. The subject of this year’s lecture is “The Emancipation Proclamation to the March on Washington” by Dr. Orville Vernon Burton, a prolific author and expert on the South and race relations.
Burton is Creativity Professor of Humanities, Professor of History, Sociology, and Computer Science at Clemson University, and the Director of the Clemson CyberInstitute. His books include The Age of Lincoln (2007) and In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985).
Burton obtained his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He was the founding Director of the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (I-CHASS) at the University of Illinois, where he is emeritus University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar, University Scholar, and Professor of History, African American Studies, and Sociology. He is a Senior Research Scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), where he was Associate Director for Humanities and Social Sciences. He is also vice-chair of the Board of Directors of the Congressional National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.
His honors and recognitions include: selection as the 1999 U.S. Research and Doctoral University Professor of the Year, the 2004 American Historical Association’s Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Prize, the 2006 Campus Award for Excellence in Public Engagement from the University of Illinois, appointment as an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer, and election to honorary life membership in BrANCH (British American Nineteenth-Century Historians) and the Society of American Historians. He has served as president of the Southern Historical Association and of the Agricultural History Society, and was one of ten historians selected to contribute to the Presidential Inaugural Portfolio by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies for 2013.
I’m really enjoying the seminar I’m taking on Native American history. Last week we had a lively discussion about Nancy Ward, a prominent Cherokee woman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whose name has come up here on the blog before. One of my most pleasant surprises as a history buff was the day I was on a short road trip with my mom; our route unexpectedly took us right by Nancy Ward’s gravesite, so I got to step out and take a look at it.
She made a name for herself when she was still a teenager in the 1750s, taking up her mortally wounded husband’s gun during a battle with the Creeks. Shortly thereafter she married an English trader and became one of those cross-cultural mediators that popped up from time to time in the history of the American borderlands.
In the summer of 1776, as Cherokee warriors prepared to launch attacks on settlements along the southern frontier, word of the impending assault made its way to the whites. Nancy Ward was one of those responsible for sending the warning. When the attacks fell in July, the settlers were hunkered down behind the wooden palisades of their forts. Warriors did manage to capture Lydia Bean, wife of one of the first settlers in present-day Tennessee. As Beloved Woman, Ward had authority over the fate of prisoners and saved Bean from the stake, reportedly keeping the captive in her home to make butter and cheese until she could return home. It wasn’t the only occasion Ward would use her influence to prevent the shedding of white blood.
The reason our discussion in class got lively was because Nancy Ward is a controversial subject for many modern Cherokees. My professor noted that some members of the tribe still consider Ward a traitor because of her affinity for the settlers and her tendency to intervene on their behalf, and one of my classmates (who does preservation work for the Eastern Band) cringed when her name came up. And by modern standards, it’s hard to argue with the “traitor” label. What else would you call someone who sent word to the opposing side that her own people were about to launch an invasion?
But, as my professor pointed out, it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, Ward’s status as Beloved Woman gave her a certain amount of authority in matters of war and peace. In her excellent book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, Theda Perdue discusses how women sought to maintain their prerogatives when it came to the disposition of captives, treaty negotiations, and other important business during the tumultuous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Maybe Ward’s actions had as much to do with the preservation of female power as it did with saving whites’ lives.
More importantly, judging Ward reduces our ability to see their activity for what it was, namely a form of agency. “Agency” is a term we’ve been discussing a lot in that class. When you’re dealing with marginalized and often voiceless historical groups—groups such as Indians, women, slaves, or the poor—it’s important to remember that their circumstances didn’t reduce them to passive blobs of matter. They remained human beings who confronted, resisted, and adapted to the forces around them. Historians spend a lot of time trying to recover the agency of marginalized people, and when they do, they usually identify agency with some form of resistance. Resistance can come in many forms besides open rebellion. Workers who protested harsh factory conditions, slaves who broke farming tools—these are the sorts of activities historians generally have in mind when people refer to “agency.” Just because oppressed people weren’t taking up pitchforks and raising hell doesn’t mean they weren’t holding on to their humanity. An act as simple as doing one’s work a little bit more slowly than expected could be a form of resistance.
But maybe agency doesn’t have to equal resistance at all. Any time some historical figure faced a choice and made a decision, they were exercising agency. Perhaps Nancy Ward’s decision to forewarn the settlers was an act of agency, too. In fact, it was a pretty striking one; she chose to act in a way that seems counter to the interests of many of her own people.
Why did she do it? Maybe she thought a war with the whites would just bring down even harsher retribution, which is what indeed happened, and she wanted to minimize its effects. Maybe, as I suggested above, she felt the councils had failed to take into account her opinion and that of other leading women in the discussions that led up to the decision to launch the assaults. Maybe her marriage to a white trader had given her a soft spot for the settlers. I don’t know. But whatever her motives, she decided to act as she did, even though she didn’t act the way we might expect a woman in her position “should” act.
As a Native American woman (albeit a very influential and prominent one), Nancy Ward was the kind of person whose decisions usually didn’t make it into the history books. But in her case, we get the opportunity to observe an Indian woman choosing to act, and doing so. Her choice might look odd to us, but it was still her choice. Nancy Ward made her choices and shaped her own circumstances, as surely as did the Indians who fought white encroachment to the last bullet and resisted acculturation to the last breath. As my professor put it, people want their historical Indians to behave like Geronimo, but not all of them did.
Sometimes historical figures acted in ways that seem nonsensical or even immoral to us. Our job is to figure out why they acted as they did, and what their choices can reveal about larger patterns of behavior and about the societies that produced them. We can’t choose for them; nor can we judge their choices. The choices were ultimately theirs.
For my America and the World course I’ve been reading We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis. The twentieth century isn’t really my thing, but I’ve really enjoyed this book.
One of the themes running through We Now Know is that the Soviet Union operated with a number of disadvantages. Its authoritarian structure could not create and maintain alliances as well as the democratic U.S., which was more accustomed to compromises and building coalitions. The USSR therefore had to coerce its “allies,” whereas allies of the U.S. enjoyed more flexibility and initiative. And since there was nobody in a position to say “no” to a Stalin or a Khrushchev, nobody could stop them when they pursued a course that was misguided, as they tended to do often. (Gaddis notes that “there seems to have been something about authoritarians that caused them to lose touch with reality.”)
One of the few things the USSR had going for it was the appearance of military strength, which brings us to this delightful metaphor:
The end of the Cold War made it blindingly clear that military strength does not always determine the course of great events: the Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with its arms and armed forces fully intact. Deficiencies in other kids of power—economic, ideological, cultural, moral—caused the USSR to lose its superpower status, and we can now see that a slow but steady erosion in those non-military capabilities had been going on for some time.
To visualize what happened, imagine a troubled triceratops. From the outside, as rivals contemplated its sheer size, tough skin, bristling armament, and aggressive posturing, the beast looked sufficiently formidable that none dared tangle with it. Appearances deceived, though, for within its digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems were slowly clogging up, and then shutting down. There were few external signs of this until the day the creature was found with all four feet in the air, still awesome but now bloated, stiff, and quite dead. The moral of the fable is that armaments make impressive exoskeletons, but a shell alone ensures the survival of no animal and no state (p. 284).
These words of wisdom turned up in my pending comments: “When some one searches for his vital thing, therefore he/she desires to be available that in detail, so that thing is maintained over here.”
How profound. How pithy. And how eternally true.
We just had our annual John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs, along with our “Sevier Soirée” fundraiser. Thanks to everybody who stopped by; I think both events went over really well.
It gave me a good excuse to take a brief respite from doctoral work and do a little public history. I really enjoyed the time I spent working in museums, and interpretation was always my favorite part of the job. Part of me has always missed it, so it was nice to get to do it again this weekend.
Plus, there’s nothing like sitting on the step by the door of the Sevier cabin and listening to an afternoon rain shower. Rain doesn’t do much for visitation, but something about the way it sounds against a two-hundred-year-old roof is just wonderful.
I’m taking a seminar on African history this semester, and we’re supposed to write a substantial research paper on a topic in which Africa intersects with our own area of research.
Inspired by my visit to the USS Constellation a few months ago, I thought I might look into the US Navy’s suppression of the slave trade in the Civil War era, maybe examining how this activity changed between the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations or something along those lines.
So here’s a question for you naval history folks out there. What sources would you suggest? I know where to go to find presidential documents, but I want to see what the Navy itself was doing, and if possible get some accounts from the sailors who were confronting the slave trade in person to see how they felt about it. Help a landlubber like me get started.