Monthly Archives: August 2009

History in your veins

Here’s an interesting news story, via a blog devoted to John Brown, about an event attended by descendants of Brown and his followers.  One of the attendees was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy of Allen, Texas.

For some reason the notion that I’m sharing the planet with John Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter struck me as pretty darn cool.

I had a similar feeling a few years ago when I saw a local TV spot here in East Tennessee.  It was a campaign ad for Andrew Jackson VI, who was running for a judgeship in Knox County.  The background music was an instrumental version of “The Battle of New Orleans.”  I had no idea there was an Andrew Jackson VI, and I certainly didn’t know he lived in Knoxville.  But lo and behold, it was true.

Technically, of course, he’s not a biological descendant of Andrew Jackson, who fathered no kids of his own; he’s descended from Rachel Donelson’s nephew.  But Old Hickory adopted the nephew and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr.  That’s good enough for me.

I actually met a John Sevier descendant once.  She was a delightful lady, and strikingly resembled the Peale portrait of him.

I decided to see what I could find out about people who are carrying history around in their genes.  Web browsers make it a lot easier to indulge this kind of idle, unproductive curiosity.

  • News story about the release of the John Adams dollar coin, with a picture and quote from a seventh-generation descendant.  I think he looks more like Sam Adams than John, but that’s just me.
  • Jefferson descendants have their own organization.  Benefits include burial at Monticello.  Last I heard there was a Hemingses-need-not-apply policy, but that might have changed by now.
  • Madison’s relatives also have a group of their own, with a spiffy website.
  • There’s also a group for Washington relatives, although His Excellency (like Jackson) had no biological children of his own, and thus no direct descendants. 
  • No Lincoln descendants left either, though if I had one of those John Adams dollar coins for every time somebody told me they were in Abe’s direct line, I could buy an original Gettysburg Address.  But here’s an item about a modern-day Abraham Lincoln who claims a distant relation.  Imagine the trouble this guy has passing checks.
  • Back in May, a Virginia reporter caught up with U.S. Grant’s great-great-grandson—who’s a Confederate reenactor.
  • A fellow named David Morenus has a website on his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma, Pocahontas.
  • Davy Crockett’s descendants and relatives are taking applications for new members at their website.
  • If you’re one of the millions of Mayflower descendants, maybe you’ll be interested in joining this group.  Given the math, though, this is about as exclusive as having your name listed in the white pages.
  • Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, runs a foundation that opposes modern-day slavery, which seems very appropriate.
  • Here’s an old news item about an event with appearances by various relatives of Ohio’s presidents.  One of the guests of honor was a guy named Rick Taft, great-grandson of you-know-who.  According to the news item, he’s a lawyer and software developer.  Here’s a picture and blurb from his company’s website. 
  • The same event also hosted Stephen Hayes, great-great-grandson of Rutherford B.  He’s a consultant with one of those firms which have really impressive-sounding names, the kind for which you see commercials on television that never actually explain what service they offer.  I think this one finds people to run companies.  (Wouldn’t it be easier to just promote somebody from the ranks?)

And finally, for the rest of us whose family trees are undistinguished, weep no more.

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Lee’s virtual office

Lee Chapel & Museum has added a neat feature to their website.  It’s a virtual tour of Lee’s office that allows you to examine each of its objects in detail, with explanations of how they fit into the larger story of his time at W&L.

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Filed under Civil War, History on the Web, Museums and Historic Sites

Digging up one battlefield, tearing up another

Here’s a story that ran on the NBC affiliate out of Knoxville last night.  Archaeologists are excavating the site of Confederate works from the siege of Knoxville and assault on Ft. Sanders.

Here’s another one about the Orange County Board of Supervisors striking a blow for low-wage, dead-end retail jobs; corporate competition for locally-owned businesses; and even more encroachment on Virginia’s historic landscape.  Enjoy that soup, Esau.


Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History

The State of Franklin, lost and found

Not too long ago I posted about a recently-published book I’d run across, Kevin T. Barksdale’s The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009).  I’m always excited to see any new work on the Tennessee frontier, and I eagerly looked forward to reading it.

Franklin was a 1780’s separatist movement in what was then western North Carolina and is now eastern Tennessee.  Residents of the Tennessee Valley had, for some time, wanted a government closer to home to be more responsive to their own needs.

In April 1784, North Carolina finally ceded her western lands to the federal government, but by the time westerners actually voted to create an independent state that December, the North Carolina legislature had repealed the cession and reclaimed sovereignty over the lands west of the mountains.  The new state of Franklin was once again a part of its parent, and its adherents were technically insurgents.  The Tennessee frontier, which Barksdale argues had been a haven of political unity up until this time, was now the setting for a nasty political squabble.

This led to the bizarre situation of overlapping Franklin and North Carolina jurisdictions, with competing courts, sheriffs, elections, and tax systems operating in the same area.  North Carolina used a divide-and-conquer strategy to win over the residents of the Tennessee Valley, liberally offering pardons, offices, and freedom from back taxes.  Still, there was rancor and violence between North Carolina loyalists and Franklinites, particularly near the end of the state’s existence.

Barksdale’s view of Franklin’s origins and development is decidedly cynical.  Before the separation, he argues, wealthy elites enjoyed effective control over the region’s economic and political life.  The movement’s main architects tended to be the wealthiest landowners—Barksdale finds that their landholdings were significantly higher than those of the average Tennessee Valley resident or of Franklin opponents.  Separation allowed these elites to consolidate their control, and to promote their goals of better access to markets and protection of land claims—goals their less influential neighbors also shared.

Furthermore, Barksdale argues that the new state was hardly democratic.  When the convention to draw up a frame of government for Franklin met in Greeneville in November 1785, a group of Presbyterian-influenced idealists presented a plan that would have provided for a unicameral legislature, universal suffrage for free males, and widespread education.  The convention instead adopted a modified form of North Carolina’s government, stifling the possibility of political power passing out of the hands of the frontier elite and becoming broadly diffused among average Tennessee Valley residents.

The establishment of Franklin also allowed regional leaders a freer hand in dealing with the Indians than they experienced before.  In 1785 Franklin secured its first Indian treaty at Dumplin Creek, obtaining land set aside by North Carolina for the Cherokee from a cadre of tribal members pliant enough to give in to their demands.  Both the U.S. and North Carolina governments repudiated Franlin’s Indian relations, but they were unable to enforce their own separate agreements with the Indians.  Violence between settlers and Native Americans in the Tennessee Valley eventually led to open warfare that outlasted Franklin itself.  Leading Franklinites also secured an alliance with Georgia to drive out the Creeks who inhabited the fertile Muscle Shoals region, hoping to profit from developing the lands there.

North Carolina’s refusal to accept Franklin, her conciliatory approach to wooing her former citizens, and the new national government’s refusal to acknowledge a state’s creation without the consent of its parent, prompted more and more Franklinites to abandon the movement.  Not even tentative western attempts to secure Spanish support prevented Franklin from collapsing.  In late February 1788, Franklin’s governor, John Sevier, led an armed force to the farm of his arch-opponent John Tipton in order to reclaim property seized for non-payment of North Carolina taxes.  Sevier’s followers drove off one party marching to Tipton’s aid, but when Tiptonite reinforcements arrived, the Franklinites fled.

Following this confrontation, Sevier found himself wanted for treason by a new North Carolina governor less conciliatory than his predecessor.  Sevier was arrested in October and taken to North Carolina for trial; his friends bailed him out of jail in Morganton, and the backcountry hero escaped to Jonesboro, eventually receiving a pardon and enjoying a long career under the governments of North Carolina and eventually Tennessee.  Franklin dissolved, but enjoyed a kind of second life as a rhetorical weapon in debates over Tennessee’s Revolutionary legacy and Appalachian Unionism.

Barksdale’s work is a solid study, clearly written and argued.  It is grounded in secondary scholarship on early Tennessee history and in important primary materials such as the Draper manuscripts.  Furthermore, it makes a real contribution to historiography, since good academic work on the Tennessee frontier is all too scarce.

I do, however, wonder whether Barksdale has been too quick to attribute events to the activities of self-interested elites.  He effectively demonstrates that the region’s wealthiest and most influential citizens were active proponents of Franklin, and that they held many of the new state’s most important offices.  Certainly the creation of an independent western state allowed these men to exercise greater influence than they would have in the bigger pond of North Carolina politics.

But there are other statements in the book that would seem to challenge this explanation.  Barksdale notes that these elites enjoyed broad support from Tennessee Valley yeomen before the separatist movement, and these average inhabitants shared the elites’ desire to improve access to outside markets and to secure themselves from attack.  If the region was indeed unified behind elite leadership, and if yeomen and elites shared many of the same goals, then perhaps the average Tennessee Valley resident was more active in the state’s creation than Barksdale indicates.  It’s possible that the elites led the way simply because they had the influence to do so, and that records of their activities have survived simply because they were more prominent.

Furthermore, the argument from self-interest leaves open the question of why many Tennessee Valley residents opposed Franklin.  Presumably, these opponents would also have benefited from secure land claims, access to markets, a more responsive state government, and a proactive Indian policy.  This is where Barksdale’s top-down approach falters a bit.  I hasten to add that the motives of rank-and-file frontiersmen may not be recoverable to us, but the consistent focus on the leadership made me wonder whether Barksdale was too hasty in dismissing factors besides elite agency.

These aren’t so much criticisms of the book as they are unresolved questions I had while reading it.  I was glad to see a study like this in print, and I recommend it to everyone interested in the eighteenth century or the southern frontier.  Thanks to Barksdale’s work, we now have a much clearer picture of this brief but fascinating episode in Tennessee history than we’ve ever had before.  The “Lost State of Franklin” didn’t endure, but in terms of scholarship, it isn’t lost anymore.


Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, Tennessee History

Too much scope can be a bad thing

I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to teach both specialized, upper-level college courses and introductory survey courses, and I’ve long maintained that doing the latter is much, much more challenging than doing the former.  For one thing, in a survey class you’re going to be covering material that’s outside your comfort zone.  For another, each student in a required general studies course will have his or her own levels of familiarity with history, depending on background, educational experience, and aptitude.

To me, though, the hardest thing about teaching survey courses is the sheer amount of material covered and the speed at which you have to do so.  Your standard World History II course will encompass five centuries.  This semester I’m teaching a section of World History I, which whirls through several millennia, from the origin of man to the Renaissance—all in just a few months.

This approach invariably means that you have to make serious sacrifices in terms of content.  Nobody can responsibly cover everything in the survey textbooks in the short time allowed, and the textbooks themselves often reduce complex issues down to the barest minimum, simply out of sheer necessity. Last semester I taught the second half of World History using the fourth edition of Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, by Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler.  In terms of similar books, I think it holds up pretty well. 

Yet it does what so many textbooks have to do, which is boil things down to the point where there isn’t much left.  The entire American Revolution takes up a mere three pages.  The war itself is wrapped up in two paragraphs:

     It was one thing to declare independence, but a different matter altogether to make independence a reality.  At the beginning of the war for independence, Britain enjoyed many advantages over the rebels: a strong government with clear lines of authority [I wonder if Burgoyne and Howe would agree!], the most powerful navy in the world, a competent army, and a sizable population of loyalists in the colonies.  But to wage a war in a distant land full of opponents, Britain had to ship supplies and reinforcements across a stormy ocean.  Meanwhile, the rebels benefited from the military and economic support of European states that were eager to chip away at British hegemony in the Atlantic Ocean basin: France, Spain, the Netherlands, and several German principalities contributed to the American quest for independence.  Moreover, George Washington (1732-1799) provided strong and imaginative military leadership for the colonial army while local militias employed guerilla tactics effectively against British forces.

     By 1780 all combatants were weary of the conflict.  In the final military confrontation of the war, American and French forces under the command of George Washington surrounded the British forces of Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.  After a twenty-day siege, the British forces surrendered in October 1781, and major military hostilities ceased from that point forward.  In September 1783 diplomats concluded the Peace of Paris, by which the British government formally recognized American independence.

And there you have it.  On to the French Revolution!

Of course, I’m being more than a little unfair here; I doubt anyone could adequately handle this material in so little space.  And when I set up my lectures, I was able to devote only about half an hour to the American Revolution.  There was simply so much to cover.  That’s why I’ve started to wonder whether the World History survey course is too unwieldy for its own good.

I understand the purpose of replacing Western Civ or American History classes with World History courses.  The world isn’t as big as it used to be, and college graduates can’t afford to be as parochialas their parents and grandparents. 

There comes a point, though, where inclusivity stretches a class so thin that it snaps.  Consider that history is one of the few disciplines that tries to cram an overview of its entire body of knowledge into two semesters.  “World History” pretty much equates to everything that’s ever happened.  It’s equivalent to having “Science I” and “Science II,” instead of breaking first-year science courses up into different sub-disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), which is the standard practice.

There is, of course, a very important role for international history, utilizing a comparative approach to politics, religion, and so forth across various times and places.  But in terms of an introductory survey class, I think aiming for “the world”  is casting the net too wide.  Maybe we should emulate the sciences and pare down our introductory classes into manageable subjects.

This will undoubtedly mean that non-history majors will graduate with a narrower perspective on history than they would by taking a World History course.  I think, though, that the benefits would more than compensate for this loss.  Students taking survey classes so rarely get to do history, to take the time to examine contradictory explanations for things and sort them out, to become comfortable enough in a subject to poke around in the corners and see what’s there.  So many people see history as a set of facts to be learned, rather than a means to arrive at an understanding, and it’s little wonder.  Only history majors get to experience the thrill of learning to think historically and do what historians do.

I’m sure there are many instructors teaching World History surveys who are able to engage students in thinking historically, and who take the time to make the subject come alive; I was lucky to have such instructors.  But I’m also pretty sure that many of them do it by sacrificing the comprehensive approach.  They do in the classroom what we might want to start doing in our course catalogs, sacrificing some breadth for depth.  The guy driving a speedboat covers more territory than the guy wearing fins and a snorkel, but he doesn’t get to see much, except for the waves.  Deciding when and how often to stop the boat will be one of the toughest decisions instructors make this semester, and one of the most important.


Filed under Teaching History

URGENT: Battlefield in trouble

Brandywine Battlefield, one of the most important Revolutionary War sites in the country, is in some serious trouble, and its supporters have set up a website where you can get information and offer your support.

Due to a loss of state funding, the park’s supporters are trying to raise enough money to keep the site running and keep it from becoming nothing more than an open-air park.

Go to the website and get involved.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

Unconventional warfare at its most ruthless

Remember during the invasion of Panama, when Noriega was holed up in the Apostolci Nunciature, and the American troops set up loudspeakers and blasted rock music around the clock to try to break his will?

It might shed light on why the British finally evacuated South Carolina.

Incidentally, I had no idea until I saw the credits at the end of this clip that Disney’s Swamp Fox series was based on the biography of the same name by Robert Bass, who also wrote books on Thomas Sumter and Banastre Tarleton

All three books contain a fair amount of romanticization and legend, but are still valuable resources on the Revolution.  That’s assuming, of course, that you can still read after listening to the incessant repetition of that song, which could turn even the most ardent history buff into a babbling lunatic.

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History via txt msg

One of the nifty things about being into history is the fact that people text interesting questions to your cell phone.  For example, on Saturday I got this one out of the blue, from a friend of mine named Amy: “Who was colonel joe cecil?”

I had no idea, but luckily I happened to be on the computer at the time and looked it up.  It turns out Col. Josephus Cecil was an East Tennessean who won the Medal of Honor while serving in the Philippines.  (I usually feel a little defeated when somebody asks me a question I can’t answer, but this one wasn’t the sort of thing that’s common knowledge in history circles.) 

Apparently Amy was on the road in Cecil’s native Monroe County and saw a bridge that was named for him.  Too bad she wasn’t on John Sevier Highway.  I could’ve given her all sorts of information about him.

Just a couple of days later another friend named Travis sent this one: “Who was the 11th and a half president of the us?”  I finally figured out that he was referring to David Rice Atchison, President pro tempore of the Senate for the Thirtieth Congress. 

Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on Sunday, March 4, 1849 and instead took the oath the following day.  In the absence of both a POTUS and a V.P., the office normally falls on the President pro tem, but Atchison no longer held that title on March 4.  His term expired along with the Thirtieth Congress on March 3. 

In fact, I don’t actually know who the heck was running the country on March 4, 1849, but it wasn’t David Rice Atchison.  My money’s on either Taylor or the outgoing James K. Polk.  Twenty-four hours is not too long for a presidential grace period.

The ironic thing about all this is that nobody has ever texted me a question that my academic training was of any help in answering.  Maybe someday my phone will go off and I’ll have a request for a 150-word summary of the Market Revolution’s impact on gender roles, but I’m not holding my breath.

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Take a second to help a battlefield

If you’d like a quick, super-easy way to preserve a battlefield, then take a look at this post on Eric Wittenberg’s blog and follow the link there.  All you have to do is type a few words into an online form, and it won’t cost you a dime—but it’ll help keep some important Civil War ground intact.

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The economic cost of non-preservation

In the ongoing controversy over the proposed Wal-Mart at the Wilderness battleground, as in so many similar disputes, it’s easy to get the impression that people who oppose development are standing in the way of the community’s economic well-being.  Historic preservation, we’re told, comes at the expense of jobs and tax revenue.  The implication is that historians hundreds of miles away have no business telling a community that they can’t enjoy these economic benefits.

It’s a compelling argument.  I’m from a small town myself, and I have a strong localist orientation.  My general opinion is that any group of outside interests which attempts to dictate against a community’s best interests should take a long walk off a short pier into shark-infested waters.

Furthermore, I don’t doubt that many opponents of preservation in these situations really are concerned about the community’s economic welfare.  I can’t think of any sane person who would promote bulldozing some historic ground for no other reason than to destroy it.  Of course, the motives of outside corporate and real estate interests who stand to profit personally are another matter.  I’m referring here to people in the community who, naturally enough, want low prices for goods and a bigger tax base to provide revenue for the government services they and their families need.

I also realize that people who live near historic ground didn’t ask to be put in the position of stewardship over it.  A Civil War blogger once said something along the lines of, “It’s not their fault there was a battle in their backyard.”  (It’s worth pointing out, though, that as taxpayers we all have a legitimate economic stake in historic sites maintained by the federal government, besides the equally legitimate cultural stake we all share.)

But these argument from local economic health make a pretty big assumption, which is that the development projects in question would actually economically benefit the communities involved.  And when it comes to the Wilderness Wal-Mart, I’m not at all sure that’s the case. 

Quite the opposite, in fact.  Check out this story about Wal-Mart’s long-term economic impact on local communities, which recently appeared on MSN.  It cites study after study, and what it boils down to is this: Wal-Mart provides a short-term shot in the arm, but in the long run the local economy actually suffers. 

When Wal-Mart moves in, other local retailers have to cut costs or close entirely.  Therefore you can’t simply look at the number of jobs that will be available at the new Wal-Mart and add those to the number of jobs your community already has.  You have to subtract the number of jobs lost to the new chain store in reckoning that store’s overall economic impact. 

And, of course, the “new jobs” will be Wal-Mart’s notoriously low-paying, low-benefit ones, so you may very well end up trading a given number of decent local jobs for less desirable chain-store jobs.

Furthermore, before reckoning the value of the added tax base a new development project will bring to the community, you have to subtract whatever tax breaks the local leaders have promised the project.  How long will it take for the “new” tax revenue to make up this difference before you start seeing an actual gain?

If the Wilderness Wal-Mart will have the same impact as the stores in the similar case studies cited in the news story, then the people who are really promoting the community’s best economic interest are the same ones who support the battlefield’s protection. 

Local politicians who sacrifice long-term economic health and priceless historic ground for a year or two of small, short-term growth are putting themselves in Esau’s position—selling their birthright for one lousy bowl of soup.  What are the local citizens who lose their jobs and businesses, and the Americans who lose part of their common past, supposed to do when that bowl is empty?

(Wartime photo shows part of the Wilderness battlefield, from The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes via Wikimedia Commons)

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