Monthly Archives: January 2011

Country music star Josh Turner admires Francis Marion

He admires him so much, in fact, that he named his new kid after him.  A fine choice.

I don’t know much about country music, but I’ve heard enough about Turner to know that he has a great voice and is one heck of a nice guy.  Congratulations to the family.  This calls for a cigar and a rousing chorus:

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board met today

…but, contrary to expectation, didn’t vote on who would be getting a new resort casino license.  One of the contenders, of course, is hoping to open a casino in Gettysburg, something a lot of us think is a bad idea.

The next meeting is scheduled for January 26, so maybe this whole thing will be resolved then.  Keep an eye on the PGCB’s website for the agenda to be posted. In the meantime, if you think Gettysburg isn’t the best place for a casino, drop them a line and let them know.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

Great men on the couch

Despite my fondness for history, I don’t read many biographies.  One of the reasons is that there are some tendencies of modern biographers that I find irritating.

The childhoods of men like Washington and Lincoln are obviously not as well documented as their public lives.  The data consists of a disjointed collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, strung together loosely by dates culled from family Bibles and baptismal records. Biographers often strain too hard to make something meaningful of this small pile of ingredients, seizing on minor incidents as harbingers of lifelong behavioral patterns.  (“This determination to find his lost puppy was the first indication of the tenacity that would, decades later, serve him so well on the battlefield.”)  If a subject’s early years are sparsely documented, then just be upfront about it.  There’s no need to fill in the gaps with foreshadowing.

Almost as common is a tendency to engage in superficial psychoanalysis, digging into the subject’s early experiences and relationships to identify the sources of later personality traits.  Hence Lincoln’s disdain for his father helped to fuel his ambition, or Washington’s domineering mother engendered a reactionary desire for control and independence.

Historians are not psychoanalysts.  We’re trained to interpret records within the context of the past, not unlock the inner workings of the human mind.  In fact, you can just as often explain seemingly aberrant characteristics using good old historical context, without resorting to psychological speculation.  Sure, Washington liked control and independence, but what eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, raised in a hierarchical society in which status came from obligations owed by others and from ownership of slaves, didn’t want to be the master of his own fate?  Even when psychologists themselves try to use their discipline to figure out what makes historical figures tick, the results are sometimes less than impressive. (Recall the gay Lincoln fiasco of not long ago.)

It’s perfectly legitimate to incorporate the insights of psychology when writing biography, but if historians are going to do so, they should tread with care, remembering that they’re venturing into foreign territory.

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Filed under Historiography

And the Park Service historian just sighs. . .

AOL News decided to start the year off with a glance at how America is getting geared up for the Civil War Sesquicentennial, so they called up the usual suspects for sound bites and came away with the predictable rhetoric, guaranteed to be 100% free of any meaningful historic sensibility.

NAACP official Lonnie Randolph compares the South Carolina fire-eaters to Timothy McVeigh, since both parties “disagreed with America.”  A nice grasp of political nuance, that.

Meanwhile, Mark Simpson of the SCV argues that focusing exclusively on slavery as a casus belli “would be like taking a book that has 10 or 15 chapters and tearing all the chapters out except one. While slavery was an issue, it was by no means what brought about the war.”  One wonders what the other nine or fourteen chapters might have been.

Meanwhile, the article reports, “Robert Sutton, the Park Service historian, just sighs.”  I know how he feels.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory