Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Washington movie?

Darren Aronofsky is talking to Paramount about directing a George Washington film called The General.  Rumor has it the movie will be somewhat reminiscent of Unforgiven, whatever that means.  Maybe it’ll focus on his coming out of retirement to assume the presidency.

Several years ago I wondered whether George Washington would make a suitable protagonist for a biopic.  His life story offers plenty of excitement and drama, but how can you get audiences to sympathize with such an austere figure?

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Oh, and speaking of Knoxville’s relationship to the Civil War

…there’s a new Knoxville Civil War Gateway on the corner of Gay St. and Hill Ave:

Beginning May first the Civil War Gateway will be open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 AM- 4 PM, providing maps, walking tour brochures, videos, troop information, and graphic presentations of the Civil War story here in East Tennessee. Saturday guided tours will be announced and conducted regularly. Consult www.knoxcivilwar.org for all details.

Sounds pretty cool!

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Tennessee History

Admiral Farragut, both remembered and forgotten

Knoxville historian Jack Neely has written a fascinating article on the legacy of East Tennessee’s own Admiral David Farragut, with an update on the disappearing birthplace monument.

Wikimedia Commons

The current status of Farragut’s boyhood home and the marker that once stood there is…well, complicated.  Very, very complicated.

What I didn’t know before reading Neely’s piece is that Farragut has become a hero among Americans of Spanish-speaking descent.  His father was a native of Minorca who settled in the Knoxville area back when Tennessee was still the Southwest Territory.

Knoxville historians once assumed they were the only ones who’ve ever heard of George Farragut, the early settler. But there’s a high-quality portrait of him at the Smithsonian. He’s the one Knoxville settler of whom we have the clearest physical image: a robust fellow on the verge of a chuckle. Now he has his own Wikipedia page. George Farragut has emerged as a Spanish-American patriot of the Revolutionary War.

His son who became an admiral has also gained new attention. “I am extremely proud of sharing the same heritage as Admiral Farragut,” says Coral Getino, the Spanish-born leader of Knoxville’s HoLa Hora Latina, hosts of the popular annual festival. “Farragut is a role model for us: A first-generation Hispanic-American, hard-working family man, who earned the highest Navy rank for the first time in history,” she says. “His bravery, determination, and perseverance—in battle and in life—exemplify values we want to teach our children. He is a national hero who was born right here, almost in my neighborhood.” Learning the Farragut story, she says, helped inspire her to get involved in the Knoxville community.

Navy guys, Civil War buffs, and various other constituencies are also keenly interested in the fate of Farragut’s birthplace. A pity more people from the admiral’s own neck of the woods aren’t as concerned.  Neely notes that at the time of its dedication, the birthplace monument was probably the most prominent marker of its kind in the Knoxville area.  You wouldn’t expect a rock like that to fade from memory, but then you wouldn’t expect it to grow legs and walk away, either.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

Everybody cut footloose!

The latest heritage skirmish, from right here in the Volunteer State:

Gibson County High School senior Texanna Edwards was — like many of her classmates — looking forward to her prom last Saturday.

But Edwards didn’t get to attend because of her attire — a knee-length red dress decorated with bright blue stripes and white stars inside the stripes. The school’s colors are red, white and blue, but the dress resembles the controversial Confederate battle flag.

Edwards, 18, said she wasn’t allowed inside the prom after school officials told her the Confederate flag prom dress was “offensive and inappropriate.”

Before taking up pitchforks and torches against the school officials, note that Texanna didn’t exactly get blindsided when she showed up for the big dance.  The prom sponsor told her she might want to check with the principal ahead of time:

School officials said a teacher warned Edwards about two months ago that the dress might not be acceptable. The teacher, who served as prom sponsor, expressed concern and suggested to Edwards in February that she should clear the idea with the principal, but Edwards did not do so, said Eddie Pruett, director of schools for the Gibson County School System.

Pruett said there have been race-related issues at Gibson County High School in recent years and that Principal James Hughes thought Edwards’ dress could have caused a problem.

I doubt that any of that information will mollify Confederate flag proponents, just as I doubt that they’ll stop to ask themselves whether a prom dress is an appropriate use of the banner they profess to defend.

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The messy reprieve of 1850

In America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, published this month, Fergus Bordewich recounts the various controversies that the architects of the Compromise of 1850 tried to resolve and the process by which that decade-long reprieve for the Union made its tortuous way through the halls of the Capitol.  The expansion of slavery was central to the whole affair, but this core issue manifested itself in a number of intertwined controversies whose complexity may surprise readers used to abridged accounts of the compromise as only one of several steps toward the Civil War.

One of these controversies involved California, where (by a stroke of either remarkably good or remarkably bad fortune) the discovery of gold shortly after the acquisition of that future state from Mexico forced the nation to quickly come to terms with the question of its admission to the Union.  The admission of a new state threatened to upset the delicate balance between free and slave states in the Senate, and both opponents and apologists for the spread of the peculiar institution put forth various proposals for the organization of territories gained in the Mexican War—an outright ban on slavery, popular sovereignty, an absence of any restriction on slavery whatsoever, and so on.  Combined with this dispute over the fate of slavery in the former Mexican territories, and related to it, was a bitter controversy involving territorial claims by Texas.  Texans insisted that their state’s jurisdiction extended west of the Rio Grande into present-day New Mexico, whereas New Mexicans denied encroachment on what they believed to be their own domain.  These disputes emerged at a time when passions about the fate of the peculiar institution and the federal government’s role in upholding it were at a fever pitch.

Into this web of controversy and contested suggestions for untangling it stepped Henry Clay, member of a generation of elder statesmen for whom the coming debate would be their last great act on the national stage.  Clay’s proposal to cut the Gordian knot of the dispute over the fate of slavery in the territories called for the admission of a free California, the restriction of Texan claims to eastern New Mexico, an abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital, a more effective fugitive slave law, and freedom from congressional interference in the interstate slave trade.

Clay feared that if these measures were presented to the Senate as a unit, extremists on both sides would balk at passing it.  That is precisely what happened, as opponents of slavery led by William Seward denounced the stiffer anti-fugitive provisions and the expansion of human bondage into the Mexican cessions while slavery advocates such as John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis claimed that prohibitions on the spread of he peculiar institution into the territories threatened the South.  Debate on the “omnibus” bill combining Clay’s proposals became so heated that at one point Mississippi’s Henry Foote drew a pistol on Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton.

Meanwhile, the crises which the compromise was meant to address continued to escalate, with delegates from nine slaveholding states meeting in Nashville to consider possible courses of action.  Among those possibilities was secession from the Union, a drastic measure ultimately repudiated the convention’s more moderate attendees.  After the packaged compromise proposals went down to defeat, Stephen Douglas herded the measures through the Senate separately; Texas was mollified with payment of her debts, a tougher fugitive slave law passed despite opposition from a few northern politicos, and California gained admission as a free state.

Adroit maneuvering by Speaker Howell Cobb secured passage of the compromise measures in the House of Representatives, even though hard-liners on both sides of the expansion and slavery debates continued to contest the implications of the individual provisions.  The beefed-up Fugitive Slave Law was a particularly bitter pill for Whigs in the North to swallow.  Despite continued tension, and the fact that the compromise ultimately proved to be a reprieve rather than a cure for sectional animosity, Bordewich concludes that it was a laudable political success, staving off as it did a rending of the Union and subsequent war which he claims the government was ill-prepared to face in 1850.

America’s Great Debate could benefit from additional attention to the way in which the country at large reacted to the wrangling in the Senate.  Some chapters take the reader on short forays into the disputed Texas-New Mexico border region, but for the most part Bordewich does not stray far from the halls of power in Washington.  Nor does he stray far from the conventions of narrative history; readers looking for intensive analysis and overt engagement with the secondary literature should look elsewhere.  Taken on its own terms as a straightforward narrative political history, however, this is a solid account, making effective use of published primary material and offering an intimate look at the inner workings of politics at the national level during the tumultuous mid-1800′s.

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Nancy Ward hits the stage

Through the magic of the Interwebs, I just found out that somebody has written a musical about Nancy Ward, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.  The show’s on its premiere run in Hartwell, GA.

Ward (or Nanye-hi, if you prefer to use her Cherokee name) was one of those intercultural mediators that played such a prominent role on the early American frontier, which in her case consisted of what eventually became northeastern Tennessee.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

We’ve got an interview with William Harris

over at the Lincoln Institute blog.  I had the privilege of asking him some questions about his work on Lincoln, which he was kind enough to answer.  We’re hoping to do an occasional series of these conversations with Lincoln scholars, so stay tuned.

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The ultimate compliment

From the Daily Mail:

American revolutionary leader George Washington has been voted the greatest enemy commander to face Britain, lauded for his spirit of endurance against the odds and the enormous impact of his victory.

In a contest organised by Britain’s National Army Museum, the first President of the U.S triumphed over Irish independence hero Michael Collins, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Making the case for Washington, historian Stephen Brumwell said the American War of Independence (1775-83) was ‘the worst defeat for the British Empire ever.’

More formidable than Napoleon!  Not bad for a guy who spent the latter months of ’76 retreating across New York and New Jersey.

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You may be shocked to hear this, but

…David Barton managed to get a lot of things wrong in his new Thomas Jefferson book.

My favorite quote: “But to claim, as Mr. Barton does, that Jefferson was ‘unpretentious, living and acting as the common person for whom he had sacrificed so much’ lays it on a little thick.”  That’s a masterpiece of understatement.  When it came to matters of personal expenditures, Jefferson’s profligacy knew no bounds.

And then there’s the whole religion thing:

Jefferson’s religious beliefs are central to Mr. Barton’s thesis, in the service of which straw men are consumed in bonfires. No Jefferson scholar to my knowledge has ever concluded that Jefferson was an “atheist,” as Mr. Barton suggests. That Jefferson might have been what we would think of as a deist or even a Unitarian, as many historians believe, Mr. Barton also disputes. Jefferson was “pro-Christian and pro-Jesus,” he says, although he concedes that the president did have a few qualms about “specific Christian doctrines.” The doctrines Jefferson rejected—the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Trinity—are what place him in the camp of the deists and Unitarians in the first place. It was Jefferson’s difficulty with these doctrines that persuaded his close friends Benjamin Rush and Joseph Priestley that Jefferson’s skepticism went beyond anything even these latitudinarian believers could endorse.

In other words, the “specific Christian doctrines” Jefferson doubted were the very doctrines that were specifically Christian.

Hat tip: American Creation.

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A jaunt through Jonesborough

If you want to see a stellar example of what happens when a community embraces historic preservation, you should visit Jonesborough, TN.  It’s the oldest town in the state (founded in 1779, when eastern Tennessee was still part of North Carolina) and a history lover’s paradise.  My cousin and I paid a visit the other day, after our tour of Carter’s Mansion in nearby Elizabethton.

The first thing you’ll want to do is stop by the visitor center to pick up a walking guide.  These brochures are only $1.00, and they point out all the important historic structures and locations, most of them within easy walking distance.  The visitor center also has a nice little exhibit on various aspects of Jonesborough’s past, including some nifty antique fire pumps.

Jonesborough has, at various times, been the seat of Washington Co., created by North Carolina out of some of the western districts across the mountains; a capital of the abortive State of Franklin, which ceased to exist in 1788; a government and economic center for the Southwest Territory, when North Carolina ceded her western lands to the federal government; and finally, a county seat for Tennessee.  A monument in front of the current courthouse building marks the approximate spot where a log courthouse sat over two centuries ago.

One of the oldest structures you’ll see in Jonesborough (one of the oldest structures you’ll see in the whole state, actually) is the log home of Christopher Taylor, built in 1788.  A young backwoods lawyer named Andrew Jackson lived there for a short time before moving on to Nashville and national fame.

Later, after his election to the presidency, Jackson was a guest at the Chester Inn.  Built in the late 1790′s, this building has also hosted Presidents Polk and Johnson, along with various other historic luminaries.  Now it’s the home of the National Storytelling Festival.  Check out the exhibit on the first floor; it offers a fine overview of the town’s history, and includes some pretty neat artifacts.

Next to the Taylor cabin is the site where Elihu Embree published two anti-slavery newspapers, The Manumission Intelligencer and The Emancipator.  The latter was the first newspaper in the country devoted solely to promoting the eventual eradication of slavery.  The son of Pennsylvania Quakers, Embree was actually a slaveowner himself until age thirty, joining a Tennessee manumission organization in 1815.  The Emancipator circulated as far as Boston, but its run ended when Embree died at a young age in 1820.

Our last stop was the town’s old cemetery, which sits on a hill near the historic district.  Noticing a couple of small Confederate flags on one monument, I walked over to have a closer look.  Turned out to be the grave of Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson, who served as a quartermaster and paymaster before spending much of the rest of the war engaged in the small-scale actions that often flared up in the mountains of Appalachia.  Jackson was quite unpopular among other Confederate officers; subordinates in Thomas’ Legion (which constituted part of his brigade) considered him “morally and physically unfit” for command and asked Jefferson Davis to give him the boot.  The end of the war found this formerly prosperous businessman farming rented land in southwestern Virginia.  He was eventually able to recover some of his antebellum prosperity and died in Jonesborough in 1889.

There are plenty of other stories and buildings to check out in Jonesborough, along with quite a few historic inns and small restaurants.  The town is just a short drive from some of Tennessee’s best parks and historic sites—Sycamore Shoals, Rocky Mount, Andrew Johnson’s home, and Tipton-Haynes Historic Site, to name a few—so if you’re looking for a place to spend a history-soaked weekend, it’s hard to beat.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History