Monthly Archives: February 2012

Reach out and touch someone

Me, to be specific.

Up until now, I haven’t made my e-mail address available here on the blog, mainly to avoid having my inbox filled with incoherent rants in case I posted something that set somebody off.

Lately, though, folks have started getting in touch with me about speaking engagements and various other things that they’d probably prefer to handle through e-mail, but since they had no address, they’ve had to leave a comment here on the blog.  So I’ve decided to set up a new e-mail account and post it on the “About the Blog” page for anybody who’d like to contact me. The address is mlynch5396@hotmail.com.

Truth be told, I needed a new e-mail address anyway.  The one I’ve used since high school is both difficult to spell and embarrassingly geeky, so I’m going to try to phase it out.  It didn’t occur to me when I was a teenager that someday I’d actually have to put that Hotmail handle on a résumé.  Come to think of it, I wonder how many potential jobs it’s cost me already.  Oh, well.  What’s done is done.

Since I mentioned speaking engagements, let me add that I’ve done quite a few public lectures, presentations, and seminars for historical societies, museums, and so on, and I’m always happy to do more.  So feel free to contact me if you’d like me to come and talk about the American Revolution, colonial history, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, regional history, museums, preservation, or the past in general.

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Virtual Lincoln

His digital resurrection approacheth.

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Kirk Cameron has found the “secret sauce” that made America great

It’s apparently made of seventeenth-century religious dissenters.

“I want to know the secret sauce,” he recently told MSNBC.  “Tell us what it is so we can move forward with it. What I discovered is the seeds that blossomed into this great nation really began with the faith of the Pilgrims.”

This is the subject of his upcoming movie Monumental, which hits theaters March 27.  It’s an appropriate title; judging by the trailer, it does have a lot of monuments in it.

If I’m not mistaken (someone correct me on this if I am), the particular monument highlighted near the end of that clip is the National Monument to the Forefathers, dedicated to the memory of the Pilgrims in 1889.  It’s also prominently featured in the film’s  poster.  You can see it just behind Cameron’s arm, the one in which he’s not clutching the American flag like it’s a piece of carry-on luggage.

Cameron’s opinion that you should look to the Pilgrims if you want to find the “secret sauce” that made the American character is a pretty common one.  Many Americans who dig down in search of the nation’s moral foundations stop once their shovels hit Plymouth Rock, assuming that there’s nothing else to excavate. This has always interested me, because when you think about it, the Pilgrims and the Puritans don’t sum up even the colonial experience, much less the entire history of early America.

I mean, why them?  They were neither the first settlers to set up shop in America nor the most typical ones (assuming there was such a thing as a “typical” group of colonists).  Why should we consider the Pilgrims normative, rather than the Jamestown colonists, the Dutch inhabitants of old New York, the Cavaliers of Virginia, the Germans of Pennsylvania, the Scotch-Irish settlers of the Carolina backcountry, the Irish immigrants of the mid-1800’s, the southern and eastern Europeans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and so on?

Partly, I think, it’s because the Puritans left an extensive paper trail, and thus colonial historians wrote more about them.  But I suspect it’s also because the Pilgrim past is a more useable one for people who believe Americans have tumbled from some towering religious or moral height.  As I said some time ago, conservatism seems to me to be a philosophy that is fundamentally restorative—the goal is to return to the good old days when all was right with America.  In order to hold this belief, one must first assume that the good old days were indeed good.  To folks who want to build a more cohesive, moral, and purposeful nation, the Pilgrims are a pretty good model.  From this perspective, the Pilgrims were the essential ingredient in the creation of America.  It’s easy to forget that they weren’t the only game in town.  In fact, as Jack Greene argues in his book Pursuits of Happiness, New England was in many respects downright atypical when you look at to early American development as a whole.

For more on the Monument to the Forefathers and the selective nature of how we remember history, I recommend this 2008 post at American Creation.  I should note that personally, all snark and nitpicking aside, I like Kirk Cameron.  He’s maintained his integrity and decency while working in the entertainment business, and that’s worthy of admiration.  As for this film project, I think his heart is in the right place, but I’m guessing that both the American past and the American future are a little more complicated than he’d have us believe.

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So you want to have a national heritage area

There’s an interesting controversy brewing in the Carolinas.

Advocates in North and South Carolina are fighting to have a region made up of 58 counties recognized as a national heritage area, specifically focusing on the contributions made by the Carolinas during the American Revolution.

The national heritage designation is a way to celebrate, protect and preserve what makes a region unique and can be used as a tool for tourism.

Examples of places with a national heritage designation include the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and Iowa’s Silo and Smokestacks National Heritage Area.

Sounds like a good idea to me.  So what’s the problem?

A recent National Park Service study was completed, and the counties were told they did not meet the necessary criteria for the designation.

In the published results, one of the reasons cited was that there is a lack of distinctive cultural traditions in North and South Carolina from the 18th century that have carried over into today’s everyday life. These distinctive characteristics must be readily apparent to an outside observer.

What, I wonder, would constitute a readily apparent and distinctive cultural tradition from the eighteenth century?  Knee breeches?  Smallpox inoculation?

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Another sorta-kinda history series

Next month Spike TV will debut a new show in which Ric Savage and his team of associates will root around in people’s yards in search of valuable artifacts.  If the name rings a bell, it’s probably because Savage gained national fame by beating grown men within an inch of their lives as a professional wrestler.

“Heavy Metal” Ric Savage had a prolific seven year career in the sport, competing in nearly every wrestling organization, among them the WCW (World Championship Wrestling), the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) and the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance). Following his retirement from professional wrestling in 1997, Savage returned to his other passion, the Civil War era, by getting his start in relic hunting.

These endeavors have not been unprofitable.  Savage now runs one of the leading artifact recovery enterprises in the country.  Here’s how the show works:

In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit. “American Digger” hopes to claim a piece of that pie as the series travels to a different city each week, including Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, NY, Chicago, IL and Jamestown, VA searching for high-value artifacts and relics, some of which have been untouched for centuries. After pinpointing historical locations such as Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields, Savage’s first task is to convince reluctant homeowners to let his team dig up their property using state-of-the-art metal detectors and heavy-duty excavation equipment. The team will then sell any artifacts found for a substantial profit by consulting experts and scouring the antique and collectible markets, but not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.

Mr. Savage is pictured below in the act of wielding a chair.

From Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m not about to tell that guy he can’t dig up my property.  In fact, I’d tell him to go ahead and tear up the floor of my living room and then help himself to whatever I had in the fridge, and perhaps have his way with my wife and daughters if he felt so inclined.

Is the launch of “American Digger” a sign of the public’s interest in history?  I’m not so sure.  As I’ve said before, I’m becoming convinced that Americans aren’t so much interested in history as interested in the past.  Lots of people enjoy the subject matter of history, but the process of history, the scholarly discipline of making sense of the past, goes largely ignored.  Hence we have wildly popular TV shows which depict people digging up artifacts, haggling over the price of heirlooms, and firing old guns, but the level of historical sensibility among the public can simultaneously remain low.

I don’t intend this as criticism of the show; I think I might give it a look.  I’m just suggesting that the appeal of the past is not necessarily a reliable indicator of any widespread historical awareness in America.

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In recognition of Valentine’s Day

…I recommend you spend a few moments perusing the remarkable letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams.  They don’t make marriages like that anymore.

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Messy endings

The Center for Education and Leadership at Ford’s Theatre opens this month, and The New York Times paid a visit (hat tip to Brooks Simpson).  This article merits quoting at length.

After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”

Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.

That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.

In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”

Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.

But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.

This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured.  The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring.  This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented.  The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.

And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865.  Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.

It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory.  In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.

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