Monthly Archives: May 2011

Shelby Foote and instant history on The Daily Show

Jon Meacham went on Comedy Central last night to talk about two projects he’s edited.  One of them is American Homer, an essay collection on Shelby Foote which is packaged with a new edition of Foote’s Civil War trilogy.  It’s an appropriate title; back when C-SPAN interviewed Foote, he agreed with a caller who cast his work in the Homeric narrative mold, as opposed to the more analytical model of other ancient writers like Thucydides.

Meacham’s other collection is an e-book on Bin Laden’s death and the War on Terror, which examines the shifts in American security efforts over the course of…well, the last week or so, I guess.

Here’s the interview.


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

What parts of Lincoln’s story do we tell, and how do we do it?

I always enjoy reading the Abraham Lincoln Observer, and a recent item at that blog takes note of something that bugs me about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield—the exhibits, while extensive, leave a lot of important things unsaid.

Of course, those exhibits have been controversial since before the museum opened.  I always thought it was ironic that the ALPLM’s critics adopted the shorthand phrase “rubber Lincolns” to condemn the institution’s Disneyesque approach, because the mannequin set pieces are actually one of the most traditional exhibit techniques used there.  Indeed, mannequins situated in historical tableaux have been a staple of museums for a long, long time.  The ALPLM isn’t even the only Lincoln institution to make use of them.  The Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville has a series of these life-size scenes, and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum where I used to work, has also used this exhibit technique, although all but one of their mannequins are now in storage.

The Lincoln family hanging out at the ALPLM, while Booth slouches in the corner. From Wikimedia Commons

The more innovative exhibits at the ALPLM are actually the ones that don’t use the life-size figures.  I had mixed reactions to these bells and whistles when I visited the museum a few years ago.  I found some of these exhibits very effective, especially the mock television control room set-up used to explain the Election of 1860.  Consider for a moment how difficult it is to make sense of a four-way presidential race using the medium of a standard museum exhibit.  You’re dealing with abstract things like political principles and party platforms.  How do you introduce the players and explain what it’s all about in an engaging and informative manner?  The ALPLM did it by setting up a TV control room where visitors see the whole election play out in front of them.  It’s not just gadgetry for its own sake; it’s a creative and effective use of the best tools available to get the job done.

I had a decidedly more negative reaction to the “Ghosts of the Library” presentation, which is intended to introduce visitors to the archives.  It’s a theater presentation in which a live performer lip-synchs a recorded spiel while showing the audience replicated items from the collection which then come to life via special effects.  There’s more than a little irony involved here.  We’re watching a presentation intended to make us appreciate the importance of the raw materials of history, but it employs an actor parading around with fake artifacts.  If all that old stuff is so darned important, then why don’t they let us see more of it?  One gets the impression that the designers occasionally let their budget get the better of them, asking each other how cool it would be to do such-and-such without coming to terms with whether or not it’s actually the best approach.

But one of my biggest qualms about the ALPLM is the point raised in the piece linked above.  I think the exhibits dealing with Lincoln’s presidency are a little uneven in terms of content.  It’s not that I expect them to try to tell everything—that’s a ridiculous standard, as any public historian can tell you—but I do expect a facility which is the 600 lb. gorilla among Lincoln institutions to hit the most important high points.  And my impression of the presidential galleries was that the debate over emancipation overwhelmed all else.  Topics such as Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief, his efforts to shape public opinion, his controversial acts regarding wartime civil liberties, his ideas about Reconstruction—these aren’t really addressed in as substantial a manner as they deserve.  As important as emancipation was, one can’t understand Lincoln’s presidency based solely on that facet of it.  Furthermore, it seems to me that the aspects of Lincoln’s presidential years that the galleries emphasize are precisely those things most visitors are likely to know already.  He freed the slaves, he gave the Gettysburg Address, and he generally had a rough go of it.

I hope all this doesn’t sound like I’m trying to slam the ALPLM.  As I said, I think some of the exhibits there are wonderfully effective, and someday I hope to go back and visit again.  I like the fact that its innovative approach provoked a public discussion about how best to teach history using exhibits, which is a subject historians who don’t work in the museum field need to involve themselves in more closely.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Museums and Historic Sites

Where’s the birth certificate, President Jackson?

Now that we have Obama’s long-form birth certificate on hand, maybe we can all get back to the important things in life.  Like wondering whether Andrew Jackson was really born in America, for example.

From Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t know it was an issue until I read Allan Eckert’s classic book The Frontiersmen.  Eckert has his protagonist, Simon Kenton, and Jackson getting into a brawl near Danville, KY in 1779.  Here, Jackson is a member of a rowdy surveying team led by “Dr. Jonas Walker” running the North Carolina-Virginia line, which at that time would have also passed between the unborn states of Tennessee and Kentucky.  The crew shows up at a tavern where Kenton is eating dinner, and a drunk Jackson suddenly knocks Kenton to the floor, only to have the big frontiersman get up and beat the stuffing out of him.  According to Eckert, both fighters were about the same age, in their early or mid-twenties.  That would put Jackson’s birth in the mid-1750’s.  Conventional wisdom puts Jackson’s birth in the Waxhaws region of northern South Carolina (or maybe in southern North Carolina, but one controversy is enough for this post, thanks) on March 15, 1767.  Eckert thus moves Jackson’s birth date back about twelve years.

In a note at the end of the book, Eckert defends this decision, claiming that “there is good cause to believe…that Jackson was, in fact, born at sea while his parents, Andrew and Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, were immigrating to America from County Antrim, Ireland, thus making him legally ineligible for the office of President of the United States, which he later assumed” (597). He presents four pieces of evidence to substantiate this claim.  For the sake of convenience, I’ve separated them out and numbered them here:

  1. Simon Kenton told the story of the fight to Judge John James in 1833, and James transcribed the interview.  Kenton said that he and Jackson were close to the same age.
  2. Henry Lee (not to be confused with Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame) claimed that he was with Kenton at the time of the fight, and corroborated Kenton’s account.
  3. The same Judge James who wrote down Kenton’s story stated that in 1840 he accompanied a Kentuckian by the name of John Chambers to a political meeting.  On that trip, Chambers told him of an elderly neighbor who claimed that she was on the same ship that Jackson’s parents took to America, that Jackson was born “three days from land,” and that she herself “received him in my own hands.”
  4. Finally, Eckert cites the testimony of Marshall Anderson.  Jackson and James Monroe stopped at the home of Anderson’s father during Monroe’s tour of the West in 1819.  Anderson overheard Jackson and his father chatting privately, and reported that when Anderson asked Jackson where he was born, Jackson replied, “I was born at sea.”

Eckert concludes that all this testimony makes it likely that “Andrew Jackson was not a native American and that his age has been altered by twelve years; that he was not, in fact, born after his father’s death, nor was he born in South Carolina, but instead was born in a ship at sea in 1755, the year his parents were immigrating from Ireland to America” (p. 598).

There are a few problems with this conclusion, aside from the fact that it dismisses all the other evidence we have that Jackson was born in the Carolinas in 1767.  First, Jackson’s parents did not emigrate to America in 1755, but a decade later.  I’m not sure why Eckert moves the date back, unless it’s simply to reconcile the born-at-sea theory with the early birth theory.

Second, while there are four pieces of evidence given in support of the theory that Jackson was born in the 1750’s and/or at sea, what we really have here are only two sources.  According to Eckert, Lee’s corroboration of Kenton’s story is in the manuscript collection assembled by frontier historian Lyman C. Draper. The other three pieces of evidence are recorded in an article written by Judge James and published in a volume of historical materials published in 1859.  In other words, we don’t necessarily have four independent witnesses, but rather four pieces of testimony reported by only two independent sources.

The quality of those sources also seems questionable.  Kenton and Lee got one thing right—there was a survey being run along the VA-NC border in the fall of 1779. Dr. Thomas Walker was one of the party’s leaders, and perhaps he’s the man Eckert refers to as “Dr. Jonas Walker.”  But I can’t find any evidence that Jackson was present.  I’ve been unable to find any reputable biographies of Old Hickory that mention a surveying trip in 1779; they all indicate that in that year he was right where he had always been, growing up in the Carolina backcountry.  We know that he was in the Waxhaws in the early summer of 1780 as the British swept into the area after the fall of Charleston.  I suspect that Kenton and Lee encountered someone else—perhaps someone else named Andrew Jackson?—and conflated this encounter with the name of a famous person, either through the fog of old age or a deliberate desire to magnify their own exploits. After all, in 1833, when Kenton told his story to Judge James, Jackson had just started his second term as president.

I therefore see little reason to believe the Kenton story, and even less reason to think Jackson was a grown man in 1779.  It is much simpler to believe that Kenton was either mistaken or fabricated the story than it is to believe that all the other evidence we have about Jackson’s age is wrong, or that a public figure like Jackson was able to knock ten years off his age without anyone who knew him as a younger man calling his hand on it. After all, this was an age of intensely personalized politics, and Jackson’s critics weren’t reluctant when it came to digging up dirt on his past.

The testimony regarding the birth at sea also seems dubious to me.  The remark attributed to Jackson by Marshall Anderson contradicts other public statements (at least as early as 1824) in which Jackson claimed South Carolina as his birthplace.  If Jackson lied about his place of birth just so he could take a shot at the presidency, why was he telling people that he was born at sea as late as 1819, when he was already a public figure?

The other piece of evidence for the birth at sea is a bit of hearsay attributed to an elderly woman for whom we don’t even have a name.  And the story dates from 1840, by which time Jackson had achieved the pinnacle of his fame and power.  It seems more reasonable to assume that the old lady was muddling things up, as older folks sometimes do, by placing herself at the birth of someone who had become a celebrity and a beloved hero.

Here’s something else to consider.  Even if the story about a birth at sea were true, would it necessarily have made Jackson ineligible for office?  Most people assume that the Constitution restricts the office to natural-born citizens. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that: “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”  The bit about being a citizen at the time of adoption was necessary, because technically none of the first presidents were “natural-born citizens.” Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were all born in British colonies. No man who had attained the required thirty-five years of age necessary to become president had, at the time the Constitution was written, been born in an independent United States of America.

I suspect that even if Jackson was born at sea, he would have fallen under the “citizen at the time of adoption” clause.  After all, he had essentially lived his entire life in America, and had participated as a teenager in the Revolution.

Since politics of the 1820’s and 1830’s were even nastier than those of today, I’d imagine that if any of Jackson’s opponents had evidence that he was constitutionally ineligible for office, they would’ve used it.  The fact that Old Hickory’s detractors didn’t become the first birthers is itself pretty good evidence that Jackson was born where and when most people think he was.

I don’t intend this to be a criticism either of Eckert or of his book.  I enjoy his work, and I think The Frontiersmen is an absorbing read.  In fact, the entire “Winning of America” series is worthwhile for anyone interested in the early American frontier, even if Eckert’s free use of reconstructed dialogue and other novelistic techniques makes me hesitant to lump them together with standard non-fiction works of history.  I just thought the issue of Jackson’s birth was a neat little historical controversy that ties into recent political debates, and therefore the kind of thing that makes for good blog fodder.


Filed under History and Memory