Tag Archives: historical memory

Do we need a law against moving monuments?

Now, here’s the sort of thing that’s perfect for stirring up debate in the historical blogosphere:

A new bill proposed in the Georgia legislature would prohibit local governments from hiding or removing statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee or other Confederate army heroes indefinitely.…

Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, introduced the proposal at the request of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The bill, if passed, would require that monuments be kept in a prominent place. It would also make it illegal to “deface, defile, or abuse contemptuously” any memorial dedicated to the Confederate army.

“We’re not saying they can’t move them,” Benton said. “We’re just saying they can’t just put them in a field somewhere.”

You can read the proposed bill yourself by clicking here. It’s pretty short, so go ahead and give it a look.

Of course, I’m in favor of throwing the book at anybody who mutilates or damages historic monuments and markers, but I would assume Georgia already has vandalism laws to cover that sort of thing. As for the bill’s more novel provisions to stop such monuments from being “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered,” I’m not sure what to think.

My inclination in disputes over older monuments is usually to let them be and keep them in good condition, since they have intrinsic historic value. But I’m not sure it’s a good idea to have a state law prohibiting local government agencies from moving monuments except in cases of construction projects, since the bill (if I understand it correctly) makes no distinction among monuments “dedicated to a historical entity” based on their age or significance.

What do you guys think?

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Like I said a few days ago

…If I ever meet an editorial writer who’s capable of discussing sectionalism in modern American politics without invoking the Civil War, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Seriously, guys, find some original metaphors.  How about Federalists vs. Republicans, just to try something new?

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When this cruel war is over

If I ever meet an editorial writer who’s capable of discussing sectionalism in modern American politics without invoking the Civil War, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Sevier’s Parson Weems

Check out the latest post in Gordon Belt’s series on the memory of John Sevier, in which he examines the work of James R. Gilmore, the nineteenth-century writer who did for Sevier what Parson Weems did for George Washington.

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Taking Hollywood to task

When I wrote my own review of Lincoln, I said this: “You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink.  Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.”

Based on some of the responses to the movie that have hit the Interwebs since then, I might need to revise that statement.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was the main draw for me, but at least some viewers apparently had different expectations.

I have a tendency to judge all Lincoln-related movies by how convincingly they depict him.  If a film can sell me on its Lincoln, I can overlook any number of other flaws.  Conversely, if I don’t buy the Lincoln, then it’s hard for me to appreciate other strengths a movie might have.  I’ve enjoyed quite a few good Lincoln portrayals over the years, performances that have captured particular aspects of the genuine article—Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, and Sam Waterston are favorites of mine—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody inhabit the role as completely as Day-Lewis.  I didn’t love everything about Spielberg’s film, but what I really wanted to see was Lincoln himself, and I left the theater satisfied.

Some historians have noted the movie’s inaccuracies, which is a perfectly proper thing for historians to be doing.  Other commentators, though, seem less interested in what the filmmakers did wrong as much as they’re interested in what they didn’t do at all.

Over at The Atlantic, for example, Tony Horwitz writes, “I enjoyed Lincoln and agree that it strips away the nostalgic moss that has draped so much Civil War cinema and remembrance. But here’s my criticism. The movie obscures the distance Lincoln traveled in his views on race and slavery. Probing this journey would have made for better history and a finer, more complex film.”  Sure, but it also would’ve made for a completely different film.  Spielberg and Kushner made a conscious decision to focus on the last months of Lincoln’s life.  Including his transformation from a fairly conservative Whig into the man who embraced the Thirteenth Amendment and made public references to limited black enfranchisement would have required not a longer movie, but another one.

Historian Kate Masur, meanwhile, complains that “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.…Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.…[I]t reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”  But this isn’t a movie “devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery.”  It’s a movie about the twilight of Lincoln’s presidency.  Any examination of the men who stood at the pinnacle of the American government in the 1860′s is inevitably going to spend most of its time on white men.

William Harris wrote a book about the last months of Lincoln’s second term; I don’t think anyone who would criticize that book for failing to analyze the evolution of Lincoln’s views on race from 1858 to 1865 would get much of a hearing.  Similarly, I think most of us would be quite surprised if a reviewer referred to a novel about Lincoln as “an opportunity squandered” because the book didn’t deal with African-American life in nineteenth-century Washington.

Yet Masur ultimately concludes that the move is “an opportunity squandered.”  That sort of reaction is legitimate when it comes to major museum exhibits or interpretation at an important historic site, since those are educational institutions which can and should try to tell definitive stories about their subjects.  Movies shouldn’t have to be so authoritative.

We seem to hold filmmakers to a lower standard when it comes to getting the facts straight, but a higher one when it comes to deciding what to include and what not to include.  The reason, I think, is because movies reach so many people and leave such an impression.  We envy filmmakers their audience and their influence, and since we know how many stories about the past need telling, we want filmmakers to use the tremendous resources at their disposal to tell the ones that matter to us, as well as to tell their own stories well.

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Lincoln’s Ethan Allen story

Lincoln as a candidate for the presidency, as depicted in a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier from a painting by Thomas Hicks. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

My favorite scene in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln takes place in the War Department’s telegraph office, as Lincoln and Stanton are waiting for news from Wilmington, NC. Lincoln decides to tell the assembled staff a vulgar story about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen. Stanton, already on the verge of bursting with the tension, can’t handle another of his boss’s rambling yarns and goes scurrying off. As the room erupts in laughter, the camera cuts to a portrait of Washington hanging overhead. The first president’s stern face gazes down impassively on one of his unlikeliest successors—an awkward, unpolished frontier lawyer—who’s cracking up at his own off-color joke, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s sitting at the nerve center of a vast war machine.

As it happens, the anecdote in question is one the historical Lincoln actually told on at least a couple of occasions.

Abner Ellis was one of many Lincoln acquaintances who shared their recollections about the slain president with William H. Herndon. Here’s how Ellis recorded the Ethan Allen story in a written statement from 1866, which you can find in the collection of Herndon’s research material edited by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis:

It appears that Shortly after we had pease with England Mr Allen had occasion to visit England, and while their the English took Great pleasure in teasing him, and trying to Make fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington, and hung it up the Back House whare Mr Allen Could see it

and they finally asked Mr A if he saw that picture of his freind in the Back House.

Mr Allen said no. but said he thought that it was a very appropriate for an Englishman to Keep it Why they asked, for said Mr Allen their is Nothing that Will Make an Englishman S**t So quick as the Sight of Genl Washington And after that they let Mr Allens Washington alone

(The asterisks aren’t in the original, but you never know who’s reading your blog.)

Ellis wasn’t the only one of Herndon’s sources who remembered Lincoln’s fondness for the Ethan Allen story. On the day the Republican National Convention nominated him for the presidency in Chicago, Lincoln was back in Springfield, playing ball and chewing the fat with some friends. One of them was Christopher C. Brown, who recalled that Lincoln was “nervous, fidgety” that day and that he passed the time telling anecdotes, including the one about “Washingtons picture in a necessary.”

Abner Ellis claimed that he never heard the Allen story from anyone but Lincoln, so one wonders where he got it. I don’t think Ethan Allen went to England after the war, so if the incident with the privy actually happened, it probably wasn’t exactly as Lincoln told it. Allen was imprisoned in England for a while following his capture at Longue-Pointe, so it’s possible that something along the lines of Lincoln’s story could have happened then.

Oddly enough, in the film Lincoln tells the War Department staff that Allen and the Green Mountain Boys captured Ft. Ticonderoga in 1776. The fort actually fell in May of 1775, just a few weeks after the war started. I’m guessing this was a slip on the part of the screenwriter; Lincoln himself had done his share of reading about the Revolution as a kid.

Anyway, it makes for a great scene.

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What your grandparents learned about the Kentucky frontier

This short classroom film about pioneer life in eighteenth-century Kentucky was produced in 1941, and it makes for an interesting historical artifact in its own right.  The frontiersmen are optimistic and hardy, the community in the fort is pleasant and sociable, the food is plentiful, the family slave is faithful, all the Indians are offscreen, and there will “always be freedom out there.”  Oh, and the candles are ready in plenty of time for the big hoedown.

How would today’s frontier historians tell this story differently?  For that matter, how would the pioneers themselves tell it?

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner resurrect Lincoln

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

First things first.  You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink.  Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.  In fact, between the two of them, star Daniel Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner have almost worked a miracle of resurrection.

It’s not just that Day-Lewis disappears into the role.  It’s that his Lincoln is so complete.  We’ve had excellent movie Lincolns before, but I don’t think anyone has captured so many aspects of his personality in one performance.  You get the gregarious raconteur as well as the melancholy brooder, the profound thinker as well as the unpolished product of the frontier, the pragmatic political operator as well as the man of principle.  He amuses the War Department staff with off-color jokes in one scene, then ruminates on Euclid and the Constitution in another.  It’s the closest you’re going to get to the real thing this side of a time machine, a distillation of all the recollections and anecdotes from Herndon, Welles, and the other contemporaries into one remarkable character study.

And it’s primarily as a character study that the movie stands out, for there is much about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that is unremarkable.  Not bad, mind you, but unremarkable.  The film takes as its story the effort to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, and at times it’s too much a run-of-the-mill political procedural.  The Thirteenth Amendment was undeniably one of the Civil War’s most important outcomes; it formally ended a divisive institution which had existed in America for more than two centuries and contributed to a fundamental shift in the relationship between U.S. citizens and their government.  But it seems—to me, anyway—like an odd method of approach if one is trying to convey all the drama and significance of Lincoln’s presidency in a couple of hours.  Why not the Emancipation Proclamation or the ups and downs of the Union’s military fortunes, instead of an issue dependent on so much wheeling, dealing, cajoling, speech-making, and roll-calling?  Telling the story of the amendment’s fate makes this a movie that’s as much about democracy as it is about Lincoln himself, and that’s fine, but Day-Lewis and Kushner have given us such an interesting central character that the rest of the film seems unexpectedly average by comparison.

Even Spielberg’s directorial trademarks—his tendency toward sentimentality and his flair as a visual stylist—are surprisingly kept in the background.  This movie doesn’t have the signature Spielberg “moments”—no little girl dressed in a crowd of black and white, no thundering footfalls from some unseen menace causing ominous vibrations in the water, no kids on flying bicycles silhouetted against the moon.  One scene between Lincoln and Mary does have a distinctively “Spielbergian” sense of light and shadow, but other than that, the director’s fingerprints are not really apparent.  It’s a very restrained, straightforward effort.

Perhaps that’s as it should be, because ultimately this show belongs to the screenwriter and the cast.  Like Lincoln himself, Kushner has a flair for language, and the dialogue is some of his best work.  Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn give some of the finest performances of their careers, and Jackie Earle Haley looks more like Alexander Stephens than Alexander Stephens himself did.

Ultimately, though, when this movie soars it’s because it makes one of the most compelling figures in American history seem to live again.  When I was in the museum business, we used to bring in Lincoln impersonators to do presentations for groups of schoolchildren.  These events were always a lot of fun, but the most memorable moments for me happened offstage, when “Lincoln” would relax on a couch in the office, out of character.  At those times you could catch a glimpse of him, sitting there in a black suit with his stovepipe hat on the table beside him, one long leg folded over the other while he chatted and joked with the staff.  It was downright surreal.  This, I would think to myself, is what it must have been like to sit in the telegraph office at the War Department or in a parlor at the Executive Mansion, watching Lincoln just being himself.  I had the same thought the first time Spielberg’s Lincoln appeared on the screen, and that was more than worth the price of a movie ticket.

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Once bitten, twice shy

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is out on DVD now, and my mom has been determined to see it, for reasons unfathomable to me. The day before yesterday she went to the local rental place, and every copy was checked out. Every single one.

She went back again yesterday, and still had no luck.

On her way home from work today she tried for the third time, and there was one copy available. She snagged it and carried it around while looking over the other new releases, and while she was in the store she overheard two different people ask the clerk if there were any extra copies of AL:VH in the back.

Maybe it’ll be one of those movies that die an ignominious death in theaters only to enjoy cult status in the home video market.

By the way, Mom didn’t like it.

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Old slogans

A Chinese guy who ordered a t-shirt with a Patrick Henry quote on it is appealing his sentence of two years in a labor camp.  When you live in America, it’s easy to forget that in some parts of the world those 250-year-old words are still…well, revolutionary.

On a much lighter note, there’s a pretty clever Lincoln-Johnson campaign site you guys should see.  Oh, and some new John Bell Hood documents are coming to light.

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