Monthly Archives: August 2009

History via txt msg

One of the nifty things about being into history is the fact that people text interesting questions to your cell phone.  For example, on Saturday I got this one out of the blue, from a friend of mine named Amy: “Who was colonel joe cecil?”

I had no idea, but luckily I happened to be on the computer at the time and looked it up.  It turns out Col. Josephus Cecil was an East Tennessean who won the Medal of Honor while serving in the Philippines.  (I usually feel a little defeated when somebody asks me a question I can’t answer, but this one wasn’t the sort of thing that’s common knowledge in history circles.) 

Apparently Amy was on the road in Cecil’s native Monroe County and saw a bridge that was named for him.  Too bad she wasn’t on John Sevier Highway.  I could’ve given her all sorts of information about him.

Just a couple of days later another friend named Travis sent this one: “Who was the 11th and a half president of the us?”  I finally figured out that he was referring to David Rice Atchison, President pro tempore of the Senate for the Thirtieth Congress. 

Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on Sunday, March 4, 1849 and instead took the oath the following day.  In the absence of both a POTUS and a V.P., the office normally falls on the President pro tem, but Atchison no longer held that title on March 4.  His term expired along with the Thirtieth Congress on March 3. 

In fact, I don’t actually know who the heck was running the country on March 4, 1849, but it wasn’t David Rice Atchison.  My money’s on either Taylor or the outgoing James K. Polk.  Twenty-four hours is not too long for a presidential grace period.

The ironic thing about all this is that nobody has ever texted me a question that my academic training was of any help in answering.  Maybe someday my phone will go off and I’ll have a request for a 150-word summary of the Market Revolution’s impact on gender roles, but I’m not holding my breath.

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Take a second to help a battlefield

If you’d like a quick, super-easy way to preserve a battlefield, then take a look at this post on Eric Wittenberg’s blog and follow the link there.  All you have to do is type a few words into an online form, and it won’t cost you a dime—but it’ll help keep some important Civil War ground intact.

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The economic cost of non-preservation

In the ongoing controversy over the proposed Wal-Mart at the Wilderness battleground, as in so many similar disputes, it’s easy to get the impression that people who oppose development are standing in the way of the community’s economic well-being.  Historic preservation, we’re told, comes at the expense of jobs and tax revenue.  The implication is that historians hundreds of miles away have no business telling a community that they can’t enjoy these economic benefits.

It’s a compelling argument.  I’m from a small town myself, and I have a strong localist orientation.  My general opinion is that any group of outside interests which attempts to dictate against a community’s best interests should take a long walk off a short pier into shark-infested waters.

Furthermore, I don’t doubt that many opponents of preservation in these situations really are concerned about the community’s economic welfare.  I can’t think of any sane person who would promote bulldozing some historic ground for no other reason than to destroy it.  Of course, the motives of outside corporate and real estate interests who stand to profit personally are another matter.  I’m referring here to people in the community who, naturally enough, want low prices for goods and a bigger tax base to provide revenue for the government services they and their families need.

I also realize that people who live near historic ground didn’t ask to be put in the position of stewardship over it.  A Civil War blogger once said something along the lines of, “It’s not their fault there was a battle in their backyard.”  (It’s worth pointing out, though, that as taxpayers we all have a legitimate economic stake in historic sites maintained by the federal government, besides the equally legitimate cultural stake we all share.)

But these argument from local economic health make a pretty big assumption, which is that the development projects in question would actually economically benefit the communities involved.  And when it comes to the Wilderness Wal-Mart, I’m not at all sure that’s the case. 

Quite the opposite, in fact.  Check out this story about Wal-Mart’s long-term economic impact on local communities, which recently appeared on MSN.  It cites study after study, and what it boils down to is this: Wal-Mart provides a short-term shot in the arm, but in the long run the local economy actually suffers. 

When Wal-Mart moves in, other local retailers have to cut costs or close entirely.  Therefore you can’t simply look at the number of jobs that will be available at the new Wal-Mart and add those to the number of jobs your community already has.  You have to subtract the number of jobs lost to the new chain store in reckoning that store’s overall economic impact. 

And, of course, the “new jobs” will be Wal-Mart’s notoriously low-paying, low-benefit ones, so you may very well end up trading a given number of decent local jobs for less desirable chain-store jobs.

Furthermore, before reckoning the value of the added tax base a new development project will bring to the community, you have to subtract whatever tax breaks the local leaders have promised the project.  How long will it take for the “new” tax revenue to make up this difference before you start seeing an actual gain?

If the Wilderness Wal-Mart will have the same impact as the stores in the similar case studies cited in the news story, then the people who are really promoting the community’s best economic interest are the same ones who support the battlefield’s protection. 

Local politicians who sacrifice long-term economic health and priceless historic ground for a year or two of small, short-term growth are putting themselves in Esau’s position—selling their birthright for one lousy bowl of soup.  What are the local citizens who lose their jobs and businesses, and the Americans who lose part of their common past, supposed to do when that bowl is empty?

(Wartime photo shows part of the Wilderness battlefield, from The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes via Wikimedia Commons)

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A profusion of links

If you’ll kindly direct your attention to the right side of your screen, you’ll notice a profusion of new links where before there was only a blogroll. 

I used to swear to myself that I wouldn’t add any other categories of history-related websites, simply because there are so many fine ones out there.  Lately, however, I’ve decided to show my support for and share my interest in some of these worthy historical entities by providing you folks with easy access to them here, should you decide to pay them a visit.

As you can see, I’ve added a link category for “Institutions, Organizations, and Resources” and another for “Museums and Historic Sites.”  The latter is pretty self-explanatory.  The former is for scholarly associations, state historical societies, archival repositories, preservation groups, and online historical publications and journals.  (Of course, some of the institutions in the first group have great museums of their own, but I’ve refrained from double-linking them, at least for now.) 

Some of these entities will be familiar, but I hope others will be something new and interesting for you.  It’s a safe bet that I’ll be adding more links as time goes on, to these new categories as well as the trusty ol’ blogroll.  Feel free to scroll through the lists and do some exploring.

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