Daniel Farber on Lincoln and the Constitution at LMU-DSOL

Here’s an event for all you East Tennessee devotees of Lincoln, the Civil War, and legal and constitutional history.  Dr. Daniel Farber will deliver the annual R. Gerald McMurtry Lecture at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law at noon on Thursday, Oct. 27.  The title of his talk is “Lincoln and the Transformation of American Constitutional Law.”  LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy is sponsoring the presentation.

Farber is Sho Sato Professor of Law at UC-Berkely.  He is a prolific scholar whose books include Lincoln’s Constitution, A History of the American Constitution, and Retained by the People: The “Silent” Ninth Amendment and the Constitutional Rights Americans Don’t Know They Have.

The lecture itself is at the LMU-DSOL building at 601 W Summit Hill Drive in Knoxville, but you can also watch via simulcast at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on the Harrogate campus.

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Can you see Russia from your American history class?


An Iñupiat seal drag made ca. 1900, one of the objects in the exhibit.  After killing a seal, the hunter slit the animal’s jaw and looped the leather thong through the hole, and then attached the loop to a longer line to haul the carcass across the ice.

Right now the McClung Museum has a special exhibit curated by Christine Dano Johnson, a UT grad and former intern.  It showcases items made by Yup’ik and Iñupiat people of Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and developed out of Johnson’s research into the museum’s collection of Native Alaskan and Pacific Northwest material.  She came back to the museum this week to discuss her research with an anthropology class.

When I sat in on her presentation, it occurred to me that I don’t recall discussing Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, or the inhabitants of these places at any length in any history class I’ve taken or taught, from grade school all the way to graduate seminars.  I’d wager the same is true of most history classes.

Do history courses need Alaska and its Native inhabitants?  My Ph.D. adviser asked my classmates and I a similar question during the first meeting of an early America seminar.  We were discussing the geographic and temporal boundaries historians use to define “colonial America.”  Alaska, after all, was a Russian colony in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  My adviser asked us to consider whether we need to incorporate this into our understanding of colonial America in order to make sense of it and to do the subject justice.  It’s an interesting—and provocative—question.  Most people associate colonial America with the eastern seaboard, while historians with a more expansive geographical vision have been careful to point out that the thirteen seaboard English provinces weren’t the only colonies out there.  The borders of colonial and early America have opened up in recent years.

But Alaska?  I think it’s a rare study indeed that considers its colonial experience to be part of either colonial or early American history.  Alan Taylor’s especially expansive and inclusive overview of colonial America is, of course, a notable exception.

Changes in geographical perspective can lead to interesting chronological reconceptualizations, too.  It’s no coincidence that Taylor’s continental studies of colonial America and the Revolution have later chronological end points than other, more geographically restrictive accounts.  Alaskan history forces us to reconsider when colonial America ends as well as where it ends.  It remained a European possession a century after those British colonies gave their king a pink slip.

A broader geographic perspective also has implications for teaching the second half of the American survey, and can help us correct demographic and cultural oversights that tend to characterize the post-1865 or 1877 history course.  Note that the Iñupiat seal drag in the photo dates from around the turn of the twentieth century.  How largely do indigenous people figure in most survey courses after the lectures move past, say, 1890?  Native Americans didn’t just vanish after Wounded Knee, as if they were figures in Marty McFly’s family photo.  Indeed, members of Native Alaskan communities continue their traditions of whaling and sealing today, mixing older practices with more modern technology.  (In fact, part of Johnson’s work in our collection involved consultation with these communities in an effort to better understand the cultural context of these objects.)

My point is not that every history course “needs” to cover Alaska and its inhabitants, but rather that greater attention to places we dismiss as marginal can prompt us to think and teach about the whole fabric of American history more creatively and intelligently.  If we want to shake up the ways we conceive of geographical, temporal, and demographic boundaries, Alaska could be a good place to get started.  The next time you’re putting together a syllabus, a little subarctic air might just prove invigorating.

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Historians weigh in on ‘The Birth of a Nation’

I’ve had The Birth of a Nation‘s release on my calendar for quite some time now.  I’m always eager to see major motion pictures based on historical events, and given BoaN‘s astounding reception at Sundance, I was looking forward to a landmark movie.  But a few informed reviews convinced me to skip opening night.  In fact, I’m starting to wonder if I should shell out money for a ticket at all.

The overall reviews are generally positive, but some historians of slavery and the black experience really, really dislike this movie.  Dr. Leslie Alexander of Ohio State says filmmaker Nate Parker “failed miserably” in his attempt to put the story of the revolt on the screen (some spoilers below):

Contrary to his promises of “historical fidelity,” Parker created a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America. Nearly everything in the movie—ranging from Turner’s relationship with his family, to his life as a slave, and even the rebellion itself—is a complete fabrication. Certainly the film contains sprinklings of historical fact, but the bulk of Parker’s story about the rebellion is fictitious: Nat Turner did not murder his owner, nor did he kill a slave patroller. Turner’s rebellion was not betrayed by a young boy, or by anyone else involved in the revolt. To the contrary, the rebels fought until the bitter end. The shootout depicted in Jerusalem, Virginia, never happened, because the rebels were stopped by the militia before they ever reached Jerusalem. The list of inaccuracies, distortions, and fabrications goes on and on.

The movie’s depiction of black women especially troubles Alexander:

A crucial turning point in the movie occurs when Turner’s wife, Cherry, is brutally gang raped by a group of slave patrollers—an attack the film portrays as the spark that ultimately drove Turner to launch his rebellion. But there is not a shred of historical evidence to suggest that Cherry was ever raped by slave patrollers, nor is there any evidence to indicate that an attack on his wife inspired Turner to rebel. By all accounts, Turner took up arms against slavery because he believed slavery was morally wrong and violated the law of God.

As Alexander notes, sexual violence was an important (and salty understudied) component of racial oppression, both before and after slavery.  But she argues that the gang rape plot device “is carefully constructed to redeem black masculinity at black women’s expense.”  The movie “perpetuates destructive lies about black women. Enslaved women fought for their dignity and freedom, and they exercised agency over their lives, in spite of unimaginable horrors.”

Dr. Vanessa Holden of Michigan State also takes Parker to task for the film’s treatment of black women:

The male slave rebels who joined him could not have succeeded without the help of longstanding support networks embedded in community life. Black women, free and enslaved, were not solely the victims of brutality that inspired men to resist, as portrayed in the film. They were also active participants in and witnesses to an event that proved catastrophic for their community just as they participated in the everyday resistance of their communities.

Holden also has a warning for those interested in using the movie as a teaching tool:

The Birth of a Nation is not an excerptable, classroom-ready movie. A screening of Parker’s film is not the place to learn about antebellum Southampton County or the lives of the enslaved and free African Americans who lived and labored there. It is also not the place to learn about the slave rebellion produced by this community in late August 1831.

The film’s setting, she writes, “is not a historically accurate recreation of 1800s Southampton County, Virginia. Instead, it is the imaginary ‘every South’ that often provides a backdrop for narratives set in the ‘slavery times’ of the public imagination.”

All this is disappointing to hear.  Between the plaudits from movie critics and the censures from historians, perhaps The Birth of a Nation is to antebellum slavery what The Patriot was to the American Revolution: a film that is entertaining and well-made, but not grounded in the history behind it.  Since The Birth of a Nation features real people and purports to tell the true story of a neglected event, its historical sins might be more serious than those of The Patriot, where the plot revolved around fictional characters.  Any filmmaker who claims that his motive is to bring a forgotten episode to public attention, I think, has a greater responsibility to the truth.

Regardless of whether The Birth of a Nation is the movie this story deserves, I think we’re living in a sort of golden age of black historical cinema.  In just a few years, we’ve had 12 Years a Slave, Selma (which had its own historical issues, of course), the depiction of a violent and troubled Reconstruction in Free State of Jones, and now a Nat Turner film.  In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted some interesting discussions about the historical context for current racial issues.  Americans might not be talking about the history of race and slavery with accuracy, but one thing’s for sure: we’re taking about it more than we used to.


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Talking history at UT this fall

Here are three upcoming lectures at the University of Tennessee you might be interested in if you’re a a history aficionado.

First up is the 2016 Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture, held every fall semester in honor of a former faculty member in the Department of History.  This year’s speaker is Dr. Elliott West, Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas and past president of the Western History Association.  His books include The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (winner of the Francis Parkman Prize) and The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story.  Dr. West will be discussing the West before Lewis and Clark.  This talk is this coming Monday, Oct. 3 at 5:00 p.m. in UT’s Howard Baker Center, room 103.

Later this fall, the McClung Museum is hosting two lectures on Knoxville’s history in conjunction with the new exhibit on historic archaeology and in celebration of the city’s 225th birthday.  On Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2:00 p.m. Jack Neely will present “Subterranean Knoxville: The Buried Narrative of a Distracted City” in the museum’s auditorium.  Neely has written a number of books on Knoxville’s history, including Market Square: A History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth and Knoxville: This Obscure Prismatic City.  He is also a longtime journalist, a regular contributor to the Knoxville Mercury, director of the Knoxville History Project, and the guy who probably knows more about this city and its past than anybody.

On Sunday, Nov. 6 at 2:00 p.m. Kim Trent of Knox Heritage will be at the museum to discuss historic preservation in Knoxville.  The folks at Knox Heritage have been working on behalf of this city’s historic structures for years, and they do some great stuff.

All three of these events are free, so if you’re in the Knoxville area, come by for a little historical edification.  And if you haven’t seen Knoxville Unearthed yet, you can check it out while you’re here.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

Digging up Knoxville at the McClung Museum

Well, my fellow East Tennessee history aficionados, the wait is over.  The McClung Museum’s special exhibit Knoxville Unearthed: Archaeology in the Heart of the Valley opened last Friday night, and it’s quite spiffy.  Kudos to the co-curators, archaeologists Charles Faulkner and Tim Baumann (bonus points to the latter because he’s a fellow Marble Springs board member), exhibits preparator Christopher Weddig, and all the other folks who helped make it happen.  It’s a fantastic 225th birthday present for the city.

The exhibit covers Knoxville’s transition from a rough frontier settlement into an industrialized city, but being an eighteenth-century guy, I’m most excited about the early stuff.  Let’s take a look at some highlights.

Before there was a State of Tennessee, Knoxville was the capital city of the Southwest Territory.  This English-made teapot was found at the site of the office Col. David Henley occupied after his appointment as agent of the Department of War in 1793.  It was the same location where, in 1796, a convention met which drafted Tennessee’s first constitution.

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Remember our visit to Tellico Blockhouse back in July?  Here’s a pearlware teacup recovered from the site, dating to the period when the fort was an active frontier post.

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East Tennessee’s original historic inhabitants are represented in the exhibit, too.  The archaeological record contains traces of items they obtained in trade with Anglo-Americans, like this eighteenth-century brass bucket fragment from the Cherokee town of Tomotley.

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Trading with whites didn’t mean the Cherokees slavishly adopted whatever products they obtained, however.  Sometimes they repurposed Anglo-American goods into something new.  A brass kettle from England might end up as ornamental tinkling cones, like these examples from Chota.

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James White was the first Anglo-American settler to take up residence in Knoxville, moving here with his family in the mid-1780s.  These bones belonged to a pig that ended up on the White family’s table.  Pork was an important staple of pioneer diets in the southern backcountry.

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Hey, speaking of pioneers, I think I know this guy…


I’m delighted that artifacts from Marble Springs figure prominently in the exhibit.  Teams of archaeologists from UT conducted excavations at the site in the early 2000s, but this is the first time their discoveries have been on display for the public.



Items dating from John Sevier’s occupancy of the site include this English bowl fragment…

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…and a small piece of a pepper shaker.  Perhaps Nolichucky Jack used it to add a little flavor to his food while mulling over how much he hated Andrew Jackson.

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Ceramics recovered from Marble Springs indicate that while Sevier lived pretty well, he wasn’t using the finest dinnerware available on the early frontier.  But he was wealthy enough to have other people doing his work for him.  This hatchet head and knife were recovered from the location of one of the slave cabins.  They offer a tangible link to men and women we know mostly from brief, passing references in Sevier’s journal.

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Artifacts excavated from the slave quarters of Blount Mansion, the 1790s home of the Southwest Territory’s governor, provide another look at the lives of enslaved laborers in early Tennessee.  One of them wore this good luck amulet…

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…while fragments of English and Chinese ceramics indicate that slaves used hand-me-down dinnerware from their owners.

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About a year ago, as you may recall, we paid a virtual visit to Ramsey House.  When Francis Ramsey took up residence in the Knoxville area in the 1790s, he initially lived in a log cabin.  Later, after completing the impressive stone house that is still standing to this day, he seems to have used the log building as an office.  In the nineteenth century, the log structure changed functions again, this time to a slave quarters.  Here are a few bits and pieces recovered from the site, including another amulet.

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Finally, this may be the most poignant item featured in the exhibit, a neck restraint dating from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century excavated from the Tellico Blockhouse site.  Little wonder the enslaved inhabitants of early Knoxville carried those amulets; they needed all the good fortune they could get.

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And we haven’t even gotten to the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts yet.  Knoxville Unearthed runs until January 8, 2017.  Admission to the museum is free, so stop by and check it out.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

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Object lessons in museums and the humanities

Last week I got an object lesson—quite literally, since it was a lesson with objects—in how valuable university museums and the humanities can be.

As you may recall, this semester I have the tremendous good fortune of doing my graduate assistantship at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture.  I’m helping out with the museum’s academic programs, which means I get to work with university classes that use the collection and exhibits as teaching tools.  One of the neat things about working at the McClung is the fact that the collection is so eclectic: Native American archaeology, Egyptian artifacts, fossils, early modern maps, firearms, malacological specimens, decorative arts from every corner of the globe, you name it.  The possibilities for teaching with the museum’s holdings are pretty much endless.

Which brings me to last week’s object lesson.  My supervisor, who’s both an art historian and an extraordinarily gifted museum educator, hosted a group of graduate students for some critical examination of the McClung’s most impressive pieces, like this Buddha statue dating from the Ming Dynasty.


Now, here’s the cool part.  This wasn’t a class in art history, Chinese civilization, or religion.  It was a nursing class, and the students were there to hone their observational and communication abilities.  A lot of the same skills involved in learning to evaluate works of art and articulate what you observe when you examine an object are the same skills physicians use in diagnosis and other aspects of patient care.

Art museums, it turns out, are great places to train physicians.  When university museums like the McClung or UVa’s Fralin Museum of Art team up with medical schools, the results are both real and measurable:

The Clinician’s Eye Program—using art exposure to help medical students build their observational and diagnostic ‘toolkit’—was launched in 2013 in partnership with U.Va.’s School of Medicine. Based on similar programs at leading medical schools, the program includes interactive tours of objects in the Museum, as well as drawing exercises that strengthen communication skills. Pre- and post-testing demonstrated a measurable impact; 90% of participants reported improved observational skills, increased tolerance for ambiguity, or heightened communication skills, and corresponding testing revealed a marked improvement in these abilities after one 2-hour workshop.

So when the rubber hits the road, when everything is about the bottom line, and when every academic and cultural endeavor must justify its own existence, what good are museums, the humanities, art, and all that other squishy stuff?  Well, for starters, they just might end up saving your life.

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