Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Two MOOCs for American Revolution buffs

UVa and Monticello are launching a massive open online course on Jefferson; Peter Onuf is handling the teaching duties.  The kick-off date is Feb. 17.

William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg are also setting up a free online course on the Revolution, to be taught by James Whittenburg.

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Lincoln and the Founders’ “new nation”

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

I didn’t really start taking the Gettysburg Address seriously until one day when I was in grad school, trying to figure out how to finish a paper while eating a roast beef sandwich.  I was enrolled in a seminar on the early national period, and my professor had told us to write an essay answering the following question: Who was more prescient, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson?  Of these two men who had very different visions of what America should be, which one saw the country’s future direction more clearly?

My instinct was to go with Hamilton.  In terms of policy, he was probably the most forward-looking of all the Founders, envisioning a United States with a vigorous, centralized government and a modern, diversified economy.  The overall course of American history has been in this direction, especially since the late nineteenth century.

At the same time, in terms of ideology and values—what Americans have believed about themselves and their country, and what they have wanted to believe about their role in the world—Jefferson casts a long shadow.  If the overall trend of the operation of government and economics has been Hamiltonian, Jefferson’s ideals have been the ones espoused most frequently.  In fact, it’s in terms of equality that Hamilton and the other Federalists look most antiquated, committed as they were to older ideas about elitism and deference.  ”America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” according to G.K. Chesterton.  ”That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence….It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”

A rare photograph of Lincoln at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony on Nov. 19, 1863. (Wikimedia Commons)

I knew that I’d probably end up hedging a little, noting that while Hamilton was more prescient in terms of the way America has operated, Jefferson was more influential in terms of Americans’ self-definition.  But that answer seemed a little wishy-washy.  I wanted to come up with some sort of definitive answer.

So I was sitting at an Arby’s restaurant, trying to knock out an outline for the paper while getting a bite to eat, when I figured out how to give both Hamilton and Jefferson their due.  Neither man was totally correct.  It was Abraham Lincoln who understood America most clearly, because at Gettysburg he reconciled these two different visions of the nation so that each one supported the other.  Lincoln oversaw a Hamiltonian war—a war of national consolidation, and a war that would result in a more commercial nation with a more vigorous central government—but he did it to achieve Jeffersonian ends.  Indeed, he did it while invoking Jefferson, chapter and verse.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln tied the birth of America to the promise of liberty and Jefferson’s 1776 “proposition” that all men are created equal.  ”The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” he had claimed shortly before his presidency.  Lincoln praised Jefferson because his Declaration of Independence did not merely justify the Revolution.  Jefferson had used that document to set down “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

In 1863, the American experiment to work out this “abstract truth”—an experiment only “four score and seven years” old—would either survive and vindicate government of the people, or it would collapse and call the whole enterprise of popular government into question.  If a minority could dissolve the Union due to the outcome of an election, democracy by majority rule was unworkable.  To Lincoln, secession was therefore an existential threat to democratic government itself.  The stakes in the Civil War were breathtakingly high.  The survival of popular government was what the men buried at Gettysburg had given “the last full measure of devotion” to defend.

Lincoln thus believed that the Hamiltonian tools of a consolidated Union and an active national government were necessary to secure the Jeffersonian principles of liberty and equality.  These tools would also be the means to extend these Jeffersonian ideals to the enslaved.  The war would not only secure what the Founders had gained, but finish what they had left undone by resolving the great American contradiction of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.

Rather than merely dedicating a cemetery, Lincoln explained the meaning of America, defined the purpose of the war, paid tribute to the dead, exhorted his audience to continue their struggle on behalf of freedom, and reconciled the two seemingly contradictory American impulses of Union and liberty.  And he did it in less than three hundred words.

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The sequester and slavery in the City of Brotherly Love

We’re in the home stretch of posts about my trip to the Northeast, with two more cities to go.  It’s taken me as long to write all this stuff up as it did to see it.

I must’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere in New York, because by the time we got to Philadelphia the symptoms were on me in full force.  We hit the trail anyway.  I’m a first-rate wuss, but it takes more than a runny nose and a sore throat to keep me from historical sightseeing.

Something like the sequester, for example.

To explain how the folks in Washington put a real damper on this leg of the trip, I need to back up and give you a brief history of my previous visits to the City of Brotherly Love.  I was still in high school the first time I went there, accompanying my mom on a research trip.  We were only in town for one day, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.  I got to pick one destination to visit, and it came down to either Independence Hall or the Academy of Natural Sciences.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer for a Rev War buff, but at that time my history buffdom was still in its embryonic stage.  Like our tiny mammalian ancestors, it scurried around in the underbrush, unable to compete for resources with the ginormous reptiles who took up all the good habitat space.  In this case, the ginormous reptile was a hadrosaur, the first major dinosaur find ever made in the U.S. and one of the star attractions of the Academy of Natural Science’s collections.  So I picked the ANS and vowed that if I ever made it back to Philly I’d see Independence National Historical Park.

Many years later, I had to fly up to Philadelphia on a trip for the Lincoln museum.  With a couple of hours to myself, I managed to hit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the buildings where Congress and the Supreme Court sat.  I’d really wanted to see the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the New Hall Military Museum, and the gallery of Charles Wilson Peale’s portraits, but there just wasn’t enough time.  Once again I left Philadelphia with unfinished business, promising myself that someday I’d be back to fill in the blanks.

So here I was again in 2013, ready to take another crack at seeing everything INHP had to offer.  You can imagine my reaction when when we found the Declaration House, the military museum, and the Peale gallery closed.  If you’re familiar with that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the Griswolds finally make it to Walley World, and they run giddily up to the entrance only to encounter a statue of Marty Moose with a recorded message announcing that the park is shut down for renovation, well…

Image via news.moviefone.com

…it was sort of like that.

Missing the Peale gallery was just plain bad luck; it’s only open on certain days of the week, and we happened to be there on one of the other ones.  But I couldn’t figure out why the Declaration House and the military museum were off limits.  The park’s website gave no information.  I wondered if the sequester might have had something to do with it, and apparently that was the case.

On the off chance you ever read this, members of Congress and President Obama—thanks for nothing.

Still, an incomplete visit to INHP is better than a full visit to most places.  It’s an awesome park.  We did manage to see the reconstructed Declaration House from the outside.  The original was demolished in 1883.

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And Independence Hall makes any trip to INHP well worth it, even if some of the other buildings are closed.

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People have been paying their respects here for a long time.

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The line to see the Liberty Bell was much longer than on my last visit, wrapping all the way around the outside of the building.  I wondered if this was due to the fact that so many of the other buildings were closed.  There’s a great exhibit in the building that houses the bell, covering everything from its manufacture to its evolution as a symbol of freedom and protest down to the present day.  It’s a fascinating look at the development of historical memory.

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I didn’t get to visit Carpenters Hall on my last trip, so I was glad to see it this time.  The interior is much smaller than I’d expected.

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We also walked through Christ Church Burial Ground.  Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are at rest here, including Benjamin Franklin.

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One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet.  It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800.  A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.

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It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.

Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there.  As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.

There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here.  Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.

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Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter.  By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free.  The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges.  Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.

Washington never came under legal scrutiny for these shenanigans, but his slaves still proved harder to hold onto in the capital city than he anticipated.  As he prepared to leave Philadelphia and return to Virginia, a young woman named Oney Judge (one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves) fled the household.  Knowing that escape would be extremely difficult back in the Old Dominion, she used her connections among Philadelphia’s black community to make a bid for freedom and made it to New Hampshire, where she married a sailor and had three children.  Washington’s efforts to recover her ended in failure, and she died a free woman—in practice if not by law—in 1848.

It’s one heck of a story, and I’m glad the exhibit is telling it.  At the same time, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were juggling two different topics, and not entirely successfully.  The origins of the presidency and the role of slavery in the Washington household are both immensely important and very complicated subjects, requiring as much space and ingenuity as possible.  The President’s House exhibit conveys the slaves’ story much more effectively than the story of the executive branch’s early development.  This is a problem, because there aren’t many historical topics more consequential than the presidencies of Washington and Adams.  Every decision, every measure, every bit of protocol established precedents that would shape American government for more than two centuries, and in some cases determined whether the U.S. would maintain its precarious existence or be caught up in the torrent of European war.

I would’ve preferred the exhibit take its time and tell either one of these stories fully, either the bottom-up story of Washington’s slaves or the top-down story of the first two men to take the oath of office.  To me, the limited space devoted to the top-down story only called attention to the fact that the coverage was so basic and limited, like an afterthought tacked on because there happened to be room for a few more exhibit panels.  It was as if the interpreters were trying to cram in enough to please everybody, with the result that nothing got covered as thoroughly as it should have.

I realize that I’ve devoted more verbiage to my critique of the President’s House exhibit than any other aspect of INHP.  I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my overall assessment of the park is negative.  Far from it; the only reason I haven’t discussed the park as a whole in the same detail is because the President’s House exhibit was new to me, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we interpret historic sites.  I consider the park as whole to be one of the crown jewels of the entire national park system.  I’ve had two guided tours of Independence Hall and the buildings alongside it over the years, and both were among the best historic building tours I’ve ever taken.  The rangers here are extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging, the buildings are beautifully restored and maintained, and in terms of historical significance it might just outrank every other historic site in the country.  If you’re making a list of historic places to see in the U.S., this one should be at the very top.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

This historian gig is messing with my culture war

David Barton recently responded to Gregg Frazer’s critique of his Jefferson book in WORLD Magazine:

Throckmorton’s original assault on my book managed to avoid its major points and instead criticize minor and even obscure facts, and this new attack by Frazer seems to suggest that this “debate” may become a never-ending discussion over less and less. With so many important cultural battles that desperately need our focused attention, it seems a misuse of time and energy to continue arguing over relatively inconsequential points with those who profess to hold the same common Christian values, so I will now resume my efforts attempting to beat back the secularist progressive movement that wrongly invokes Jefferson in their efforts to expunge any presence of faith from the public square.

I found this response interesting for two reasons. First, I think Barton is understating both the number and the seriousness of the issues his critics have raised. There comes a point where so many errors and misinterpretations accumulate that it’s not a matter of a few tiny nicks, but something more like the old Chinese punishment of death by a thousand cuts.

Second, what to make of Barton’s statement that defending his work against fellow believers is a misuse of time and energy?  Does this mean he’ll only be responding to “secularist” critiques from now on?  It almost comes across as a tacit admission that his historical writing is merely ammo for the culture war, and that he’s not really interested in teaching history for its own sake.

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Two new American Revolution books

In his new book, Kevin Phillips argues that 1775, rather than ’76, was the decisive year of the American Revolution.  (Personally, I’d go for 1781, but that’s just me.)  Based on a quick appraisal while standing in the bookstore, this looks like a wide-ranging and meaty volume that’s well worth a read.

Jon Meacham also has a new biography of Thomas Jefferson out that’s gotten enthusiastic blurbs from some heavy hitters in American Revolution studies.

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Labor Day miscellanea

A few items for your edification as you kiss your summer goodbye.

  • Joel McDurmon argues that David Barton failed to make his case in The Jefferson Lies.  The reason this is noteworthy is because McDurmon’s piece is posted at the American Vision website.  This organization calls for a nation “that recognizes the sovereignty of God over all of life, where Christians apply a Biblical worldview to every facet of society. This future America will be again a ‘city on a hill’ drawing all nations to the Lord Jesus Christ and teaching them to subdue the earth for the advancement of His Kingdom.”  It’s pretty interesting to see Christian Reconstructionists taking Barton apart.  (Hat tip to John Fea)
  • A few months ago Connecticut rolled out a $27 million tourism marketing campaign organized around the slogan “Still Revolutionary,” which “speaks to Connecticut’s deep roots in the founding of this country and reminds us that we still have that independent, revolutionary spirit,” according to Gov. Daniel Malloy. It’s a little odd, therefore, that Fort Griswold (site of the 1781 Battle of Groton Heights and one of the state’s most important Rev War attractions) is conspicuously absent in the ads that have been released so far.  It’s the thought that counts, anyway.
  • In a new book, Robert Sullivan does for the Revolutionary War in the middle states what Tony Horwitz did for the Civil War in the South.
  • Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg is getting a new museum, slated to open next July.
  • An Illinois Lincoln fan is heading out on a cross-country trip to read the Gettysburg Address from the steps of every state capitol.  If my reckoning is correct, that adds up to about an hour and forty minutes of actual speaking time.
  • Speaking of Lincoln, the folks at Simon & Schuster know an opportunity when they see one.

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Were you thinking about reading Barton’s Jefferson book?

Looks like you waited too late.  The publisher has decided to pull it from the shelves.  (Hat tip: American Creation.)

Why they didn’t get somebody to vet the text more carefully before printing and marketing it is entirely beyond me.  I’m guessing Barton will self-publish it through WallBuilders, as he did with his earlier books.

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