Monthly Archives: July 2012

In heritage tourism no one can hear you scream

Historic site preservation keeps getting more and more complicated.

The reality of imminent commercial space tourism is exciting — and threatening. The temptation for tourists to visit Tranquility Base, to walk in Armstrong’s footsteps or to pocket some small treasure as a keepsake may be too strong to resist. Artifacts too small to notice may be trampled. Those too large to move may be vandalized. The three-dimensional relationship of these objects — which tells the story of the Apollo 11 crew’s activities and makes the site so significant — could be destroyed. The integrity of this historical site could be irreparably damaged. It is imperative that these artifacts be protected in their current positions.

Your homework assignment is to design a brochure for Tranquility Base National Historical Park using the venerable Unigrid System.

“Come on, kids! The cyclorama starts in five minutes!”

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Yet another Lincoln movie

This one is apparently about Abe’s boyhood, with Diane Kruger as Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln.  This carries on a long, proud tradition of filling Lincoln movie roles with actresses who are far more attractive than the historical figures they play.

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David Barton wins HNN poll (if “winning” is the correct term)

HNN’s poll to name the “least credible history book in print” has come to a close, and David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies came out on top, just barely beating Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

What strikes me about the poll is that while all the nominated books are undeniably problematic, they’re problematic in very different ways.  Whereas The Jefferson Lies has become notorious for numerous errors of fact and interpretation, most of the HNN readers who left comments about A People’s History seemed to take issue with Zinn’s blatant partiality rather than with any specific claims in the book.  Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered the World is almost in a class by itself, since its whole premise is open to question.

I also think it’s interesting that we had a string of high-profile accusations of plagiarism, fabrication of evidence, and other forms of scholarly malfeasance in the past several years, but none of the books involved in these scandals made the list of front-runners.

Anyway, they say any publicity is good as long as they spell your name right, so perhaps congratulations are in order.

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Principles of historical punditry #107

For the purposes of writing an op-ed, any form of dissonance—be it political, cultural, or sectional—portends that we are either (a) in the midst of a metaphorical Civil War or (b) on the brink of another literal one.

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What’s going to be in the Museum of the American Revolution?

The Huffington Post has a sneak peek.

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Some thoughts on Lincoln and Sandburg

prompted by a visit to Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.  It was a scorchingly hot day to be visiting national parks, but it was still a nice trip, and King’s Mountain was only eighty miles away.

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Our civilized, God-fearing, English-speaking Revolution

Ann Coulter must have a real beef against popular uprisings.  Last fall we looked at a column in which she argued that mass upheaval ran against the grain of American history.  Now she’s contrasting the radical, bloody, atheistic French Revolution with our law-abiding, orderly, religious one.

I think she’s correct to draw the distinction.  In many ways, the American and French Revolutions were qualitatively different.  But I would quibble with her over a few points.

Edmond-Charles Genet, the ambassador from Revolutionary France who whipped up a ruckus in the U.S. By Harper & Brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For one thing, when the French Revolution did erupt, it was pretty popular among large segments of the American population.  After all, the Democratic-Republican Societies openly celebrated Bastille Day, and cheering crowds greeted Citizen Genêt when he arrived in the U.S.  One reason for this enthusiasm was the Republicans’ conviction that the French Revolution was part of the same movement begun in 1776, a conviction embraced by their spiritual figurehead, Thomas Jefferson.

Second, let me reiterate something I’ve suggested before in comparing the two revolutions.  The Americans didn’t keep the guillotines running around the clock during their struggle for independence, but that doesn’t mean it was a bloodless affair.  The Tories who suffered lynchings, floggings, confiscation, and exile would probably argue that the American Revolution was rather savage indeed.  Washington and his subordinates managed to keep the Continental Army on a fairly tight leash, but militiamen and partisans weren’t always so restrained in dealing out violence.  And if we consider the war between Indians and whites that coincided with the contest between America and England, the French Revolution doesn’t always look all that cataclysmic by comparison.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the American Revolution meant different things to different people.  Some Patriots were content to define it as a separation from Britain and monarchy.  Others had more radical ambitions.  Independence was a chance to redefine the nature of American politics and society—to empower popular legislatures, to eliminate the deference that characterized the colonial world, and to alter the status of women and blacks.  For some Americans, the Revolution rolled right on after the ratification of the Constitution, supplied with the momentum of its own ideology.

It’s not that Coulter’s portrait of the Revolution is wrong; there’s a good deal of truth to it.  The problem is that it’s incomplete.  You could fundamentally disagree with her about the American Revolution and its legacies, and both of you could still be correct because the Revolution was itself a sometimes contradictory affair.  Even the participants and their heirs never completely agreed on what it all meant.

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