Monthly Archives: July 2012

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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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

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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Rev War books are headed your way

Some new and upcoming titles I find worthy of note:

I’m going to be completely broke by the end of the year.

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What’s the epicenter of the Revolution?

At least one writer in Boston is a little miffed because Philadelphia will be home to the new Museum of the American Revolution.  Personally, I think Philly is the better option, just because it’s more centrally located and because it was the capital.

Besides, Boston already has so many great early American sites that maybe it’s time to share the love a little.  New England is the only American region I haven’t visited yet, but when I finally go there, it’ll be a multi-week orgy of historical sightseeing the like of which mankind has yet to witness.

This might surprise you, but I think a good third-runner-up home for the museum would be Charleston.  Think about it: Almost one-fifth of all American combat deaths in the war were in South Carolina during the war’s last years, and there were probably more armed clashes there than in any other state with the possible exception of New Jersey.  (My source for these claims is John Gordon’s book on Rev War battles in the Palmetto State.)  Of course, two things you don’t want near your artifacts are humidity and hurricanes, but I’m in favor of anything that will shave a few hours off my drive when this thing opens.

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African-American involvement in the DAR is increasing

Check out this New York Times article on the growth of black membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.  The new chapter in Queens is the first one started by an African-American woman.

We’ve come a long way since 1939, when the DAR refused to let contralto Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall.  That refusal famously prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her membership and led to a public concert at the Lincoln Memorial.  (The DAR invited Anderson to perform a benefit concert at Constitution Hall in 1942.)

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The Rev War on the silver screen

Daniel Eagen considers the state of American Revolution movies and doesn’t see much cause for optimism.

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Did the plantation aristocrats ruin America?

Over at Salon.com, Sara Robinson claims that the Southern aristocracy’s values—or lack thereof—have become the dominant ones among the governing class. This, she believes, is sending us all to hell in a handcart.  I stumble across similar editorials from time to time, in which a pundit flies into hysterics over the ascendancy of Southern and/or conservative and/or evangelical forces with the same horror of a Roman patrician watching the Goths pour across the border.

Robinson started losing me right at the outset.  She argues that the Yankee elite had a sense of noblesse oblige, whereas Southern planters always displayed an “utter lack of civic interest.”  From a purely historical standpoint, this is simply asinine.  Noblesse oblige was an integral part of the worldview of colonial Tidewater planters.  Anyone who’s read anything substantial on early Virginia society should know this.

Equally bizarre is her inclusion of Woodrow Wilson as one of the “nerdy, wonky intellectuals who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good government seriously.”  It’s true that Wilson was a reformer.  And yet Wilson was also a Southern Democrat, the son of a Celtic father who migrated from Ohio to the South before the Civil War and enthusiastically embraced the Confederacy. Robinson decries the Southern aristocracy’s belief in inequality; she should recall that Wilson held firmly to that belief, and allowed his cabinet members to segregate their departments’ offices.  In fact, Wilson is one of many examples one might cite to demonstrate the extent of Robinson’s drastic over-generalization; neither Southernness nor a belief in racial inequality have been incompatible with the reformist spirit over the course of American history.

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Northern POW camp found?

Archaeologists think they’ve found remains of Camp Douglas in Chicago.

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