Lincoln’s short-term legacy

One of the things that surprised me about The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s volume on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States, is how large Lincoln’s shadow looms over the whole book.  The previous volume in the series, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, ends with Lincoln’s assassination.  White picks up the story with his funeral, and many of the issues he brings to the fore in the body of the book are those in which Lincoln was deeply invested: the trans-Mississippi West as a haven for free labor, national unity reinforced through infrastructure, the fate of African Americans, the ascendancy of the Republican Party, and the struggle to build an egalitarian society of independent producers.

“Abraham Lincoln: The Martyr President,” by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03167).

These problems that dominated American life in the late nineteenth century lay at the heart of the “Greater Reconstruction,” a term White borrows from Elliott West.  The end goal was to propagate homogeneous, prosperous communities of free and independent householders—communities much like Lincoln’s own hometown of Springfield, Illinois.  Springfield, White claims, was “as close as any actual place could be to the template that the North planned to use in recasting the South, as well as the West” (p. 136).

But White’s book is also an account of disillusionment.  At the end of the story, the Greater Reconstruction has failed.  Since the tale begins with Lincoln’s death and revisits so many of the problems he supposedly resolved, the Greater Reconstruction’s failure raises troubling questions about Lincoln’s legacy.

Did Lincoln succeed?  To most Americans, the answer is self-evident.  The Union triumphed, the nation remained united, and legalized slavery came to an end.  Lincoln himself died, but he died a martyr, having completed what he called “the great task” of reaffirming the American promise.  But all this assumes that the story ends in April 1865.

Anti-slavery Whig and eventual Republican that he was, Lincoln idealized free labor.  He considered it a stepping-stone to becoming an independent producer.  “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” he once said.  “The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow.”  Slavery’s end marked the destruction of one great obstacle standing in the way of this ideal of self-advancement.  But for many Americans, the path to full independence and sufficiency remained closed.  The late nineteenth century witnessed some of the most bitter and violent contests between capital and labor.  Contract labor during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age may have been “free,” but in many cases it remained exploitative, and hardly a temporary way station on the road to prosperity and independence.

Nor did the end of slavery mean realization of racial equality.  We think of emancipation as Lincoln’s most enduring legacy.  But subordination of African Americans by means of terrorism, economic dependency, and legalized inequality continued into Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  It’s more difficult to celebrate the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg when you consider the reversals that came after.

As a Whig, Lincoln envisioned a united nation bound together by transportation and trade.  And as a Republican, he wanted the West to be settled by free laborers and landholders.  Here, too, White and other historians have painted a bleak picture of the decades following the Civil War.  Secessionism collapsed, but sectionalism persisted.  The transportation networks and markets that Lincoln and other Whigs had long wanted penetrated more deeply into the American landscape than ever before, but White claims that the late nineteenth century’s great railroads were more effective at forging interregional links than truly transcontinental ones.  And while the Civil War settled the question of whether the West would be slave or free, the period after the war saw much of the frontier engrossed by monopolists and speculators rather than egalitarian homesteaders.

The upshot here is that if you use 1865 as the end date for the “Age of Lincoln,” then Lincoln was a victorious martyr.  But if you use 1877 or 1898 as a terminal point, his success comes with important qualifications.

Should we make space to deal with the problematic nature of Lincoln’s short-term legacy when telling his story in exhibits, documentaries, and popular books?  On the one hand, it might help address Americans’ amnesia about Reconstruction.  On the other hand…well, the idea of the victorious martyr (shot on Good Friday, no less!) is about as compelling as you can get from a narrative standpoint.

But I think there’s a sense in which the reversals and the unfinished business that followed Lincoln’s death doesn’t diminish his historical stature, but magnifies it.  If it’s true that the “great task” wasn’t completely finished in 1865, it’s also true that it’s not completely finished today.  And that makes the study of Lincoln and his legacy much more relevant than it would be if we could wrap the whole thing up with a bow and relegate it to a chapter of our history long since closed.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory

Is the historical blogosphere doomed to peter out?

A couple of years ago I took a grad course from a very tech-savvy professor.  A classmate asked him about setting up a blog for purposes of professional visibility.  The prof was dismissive.  “The whole blogging thing has pretty much run its course,” he said.  “Everything’s moving to Twitter.”

For my own part, I’ve become much, much more active on Twitter than here on the blog in the past couple of years.  We’re still chugging along here at PitP, but between a full-time gig running a museum and trying to write a dissertation, I’m doing well to crank out a post every week or ten days.  And just as I don’t have much time to write blog posts, I don’t have much time to read them, either.  I used to make a daily circuit of history blogs, checking in with my favorite writers every morning or during a lunch break, keeping up with whatever conversations were current.

On those rare occasions when I’m able to make my electronic rounds, it seems a lot of history bloggers are having the same problem I am.  Many of the sites I used to frequent have been dormant for months, especially the Civil War ones.  Civil War Memory is still going strong, but some of the old standards have apparently given up the ghost.  With so many folks blogging less frequently or ceasing to blog altogether, the sense of community across the historical blogosphere—of a conversation among like-minded folks—isn’t what it used to be.

Part of the problem is that most historians already have to do a lot of unpaid writing.  For a lot of them, blogging doesn’t even bring in the sort of professional, non-financial rewards they get from all this other uncompensated writing.  If you start something that requires time but brings in neither money nor professional cred, there’s a good chance it’ll be the first thing to fall by the wayside when you’re stretched too thin.

Personally, I’d hate to see the historical blogosphere dry up entirely.  I think there are itches that only a forum like this could scratch—discussions about the intersections between history and pop culture, informed but informal discussions about historic sites and museums, updates on preservation advocacy, and so on.  Those itches are still there, and I think it’s worthwhile for historians and history enthusiasts to address them.

By CrunchySkies [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Leave a comment

Filed under History on the Web

Archivist job opportunity at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

We’re looking for an archivist and librarian to join our team at one of the nation’s best repositories of Lincoln and Civil War material.  If you’ve got a master’s degree in library science; a background in archival work with manuscripts, photos, prints, and rare books and pamphlets; and an interest in nineteenth-century American history, then click here for more information.  I’d especially encourage those of you with knowledge of PastPerfect software and experience in digitization to apply.

And if you’re in the public history or archival field, please feel free to share this opening as widely as possible.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

GDP: A couple of Carolina dinosaurs

Well, it was supposed to be a working trip—no prehistoric shenanigans allowed.  But it turns out the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is practically right across the street from the state archives.  I took it as a sign.

A most welcome sign, too, because the NCMNS has two dinosaur specimens I’d wanted to see in person for a long time.  The first is “Willo,” a remarkable Thescelosaurus from South Dakota.

This guy (gal?) was all over the news back in 2000 due to a claim that the stony mass under the shoulder blade was actually a petrified heart.  Other researchers have argued that it’s just a concretion.  Either way, Willo is a really neat fossil.

The other dino I wanted to check out was the world’s largest and most complete Acrocanthosaurus, a massive Early Cretaceous meat-eater famous for the spines along its neck and back.

Note that some of the bones are missing.  I think the museum is replacing the original fossils in the mount with replicas because of the preservation conditions in the exhibit space, so if you want to see the genuine article, you’d better do it sooner rather than later.

The original skull is in a case nearby, and it’s a beauty.

 

The acro shares its gallery with an Astrodon.  Those wicked teeth have already ripped a chunk out of the sauropod’s hindquarters, and it looks like the acro is going to make another lunge.

 

The dinos alone were well worth the stroll over from the archives, but this ginormous ground sloth is one of the most impressive fossil mammals I’ve ever seen.

Even more ginormous are the whale skeletons looming over the Coastal North Carolina exhibit.  My faves were the blue whale…

 

…and “Trouble,” the skeleton of a sperm whale that washed up on the Carolina coast in 1928.  The name came from the ordeal museum personnel had getting the bones back to Raleigh.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

Last stand of the Regulators

Alamance Battleground had been on my bucket list for many years, so I stopped by for a visit on my way back from a research trip a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a small site, but its story is very important to the history of the eighteenth-century backcountry

Settlers in the North Carolina uplands had a great deal to be upset about in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  Underrepresented in the provincial legislature, they were also subject to exorbitant taxation and fees by corrupt local officials who were, in the words of Richard Beeman, “as feckless, venal, and larcenous a lot as existed anywhere in America.”  Exasperated backcountry farmers—”Regulators,” as they called themselves—responded by breaking up courts and engaging in some of the same resistance tactics that seaboard colonists were employing against British taxation.

The revolt came to a head at Adamance, where a force of approximately 2,000 armed Regulators faced off against just over 1,000 militiamen under the command of Gov. William Tryon on May 16, 1771.

Here’s a view from near the Regulator lines, facing toward the position taken by Tryon’s men.

And here’s another, this time facing the Regulators’ position from the opposite side of the field.

After trading volleys with Tryon’s militia, the Regulators broke.  At least nine men died on each side (Tryon’s losses may have been higher).  The governor hanged one of prisoner in his camp nearby; six more went to the gallows in Hillsborough the following month.  One of the condemned men appears on the plaque affixed to this monument, which was originally placed at the Guilford Courthouse battlefield in 1901 and moved to Adamance in 1962.

The fact that a monument to the Regulators’ defeat once sat on North Carolina’s largest Revolutionary War battlefield is significant.  Early chroniclers referred to Alamance as the “first battle of the American Revolution,” with determined farmers standing up to a tyrannical government headed by a royal appointee.  This monument, dedicated in 1880, identifies the combatants at Adamance as “THE BRITISH AND THE REGULATORS,” although the men in Tryon’s ranks were the Regulators’ fellow colonists.

The actual relationship between the Regulators and the Revolution was more complicated.  The rebels had indeed defied a royal governor.  But a good part of the blame for their predicament lay with the eastern Carolinians who dominated the colonial legislature and kept backcountry concerns marginalized in provincial politics.  And it was just such men who, calling themselves Patriots, led the protest movement against imperial taxation.  When the Revolutionary War broke out and these easterners looked westward for support, many backcountry citizens were still nursing grievances from the Regulator dispute.  The same thing happened in South Carolina, which underwent a separate Regulator movement in the 1760s.

The Regulation wasn’t a dress rehearsal for the Revolution.  Instead, it made the Whigs’ task of mobilizing the backcountry more difficult when war with Britain came.  As a result, both Carolinas went into that war divided, and British armies would find some of their most zealous supporters among the backcountry colonists that seaboard Patriots had antagonized.

2 Comments

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

Bypassing books in museum gift shops

History people tend to be book people.  The first place I hit up when I visit a museum or historic site is the gift shop, so I can scope out the book selection.  It’s a great chance to find titles I might not be aware of, and since I’m OCD, I have to get a sense of what I’ll be buying on the way out before I can settle down and enjoy the exhibits.

That’s why this tweet caught my eye the other day:

Books’ aren’t top sellers at the ALLM’s gift shop, either.  The only exception is a history title that LMU publishes in-house, meaning our shop is one of the few places you can buy a copy.  Our most popular items are inexpensive souvenirs: facsimile Gettysburg Addresses (we sell a lot of those), novelty Lincoln items, mugs, pencils, postcards, and plastic Civil War soldiers.

It’s a little frustrating.  If you want your gift shop to contribute directly your institution’s mission—if you want it to be something besides a simple income generator—offering your visitors edifying books seems like a good way to make it happen.  But if visitors don’t buy them, there seems little point in stocking them.  A lot of gift shops thus end up contributing to the site’s mission only indirectly, by defraying the costs associated with other areas of operations.  (Of course, a lot of visitors who scout out good books at museum and site shops might be trying to save some money by waiting until they return home to order them online.)

Maybe there’s a way to incorporate “teachable moments” into visitors’ gift shop browsing.  Some chain bookstores have staff recommendation sections where the displays include a brief message from employees about why particular books appealed to them.  Maybe museum shops should set aside some shelf space where curators and staff historians could highlight especially good works in their fields, complete with blurbs about why each title appeals to them.  Besides encouraging people to pick up solid works, it would have the added benefit of putting a human face on the staff, allowing them to engage visitors on a personal level without even setting foot outside their offices.

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Commercializing the Confederacy in museum gift shops

By Joe Haupt from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t already, check out Nick Sacco’s thoughtful post on Civil War site gift shops over at Muster.  The potential of gift shop merchandise to trivialize or compromise a museum’s historical integrity is a problem I’ve touched on here in the past.

It’s a much more immediate concern to me now that I’m running a Lincoln/Civil War site.  In fact, at the same time I ran across Sacco’s post, we were dealing with this very issue at the ALLM.  We just received a huge order of stock for our gift shop, which prompted a discussion in the office about merchandise with the Confederate battle flag.

In the past—in the pretty recent past, actually—many Civil War sites would stock souvenirs featuring the flag without a second thought.  Indeed, a lot of sites and museums sold miniature CBFs themselves.  But in the wake of recent violence associated with the flag, and because of closer consideration of the flag’s historical meanings prompted by that violence, museums and sites are proceeding more carefully.  As Sacco notes, the National Park Service has stopped selling standalone Confederate flags.

But what about selling other items with Confederate iconography, like the miniature kepis emblazoned with the flag that Sacco spotted at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum?  Items like this encourage kids to situate their play in history, directing their imagination into historical channels.  This playful engagement with the past might seem insubstantial, but in many cases it’s the sort of thing that makes future historians and history enthusiasts. Quite a few of you reading this probably started out by role-playing mock battles with toy guns and hats before moving on to books, battlefield trips, and perhaps careers in history. But is a Confederate flag on top of a toy kepi less problematic than one flying from a staff?  A lot of folks would say no; indeed, some might argue that it’s even more problematic. What about those bags of plastic soldiers that are a staple of every Civil War site’s gift shop?

Here’s another example to consider. A few years ago I picked up a t-shirt at a museum in Corinth, MS.  The back features an illustration of the death of Col. John Rogers, who fell after seizing his regiment’s colors in the attack on Battery Robinett.  I bought it partly because, while working in an exhibit, I’d done some research on the photograph of Rogers’s body taken after the battle, and partly just because I wanted a shirt from my trip.  It’s not really a “Confederate flag t-shirt” per se, but the battle flag is a pretty prominent part of the image on the back. Should a museum gift shop rethink stocking an item like that in the wake of Charleston and Charlottesville?

If you’re on staff at a Civil War museum or site, where do you draw the line when it comes to selling items with Confederate iconography?  Does your site have a hard and fast policy in place, or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this something that hasn’t even come up for consideration?

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites