Monthly Archives: October 2012

They’re really into commemorating the Hatfield-Mccoy feud

A new geocaching trail devoted to the feud opened last month, and a fundraising effort for a Randolph McCoy monument in Pike County, KY has been getting donations from as far away as Hawaii.  I wish every aspect of Appalachian history could generate this kind of widespread interest.

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Judge refuses to have Blair Mountain put back on the National Register

Let’s imagine for a minute that I blew up Cemetery Ridge.  Just hypothetically, I mean.  Imagine that Gettysburg National Military Park up and decided to sell off some land, and I bought Cemetery Ridge and then bulldozed away all the soil, and then I drilled down into the rock and placed some explosives and then just blasted it all to smithereens.

If that scenario disturbs you, consider this: Last week a federal judge, siding with coal companies, refused to have the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain put back on the National Register of Historic Places.

You’d think a place where one of the biggest armed uprisings in American history happened, and one of the most significant historic sites in Appalachia, would get a little more respect.

Why did Blair Mountain get removed from the register to begin with?  Believe it or not, Randall Reid-Smith, West Virginia’s State Historic Preservation Officer, asked for it to be taken off, claiming that most of the property owners objected to the designation. When a real estate lawyer took a closer look at these dissenting property owners, a funny thing happened.

The list of objectors, Bailey discovered, included two dead men—one of whom had perished nearly three decades earlier—as well as a property owner who had sold her land years before the nomination process. In addition, Bailey identified 13 property owners who did not appear on the SHPO list at all. “The final count we reached was 63 landowners and only 25 objectors,” Ayers said.

Hey, if two guys came back from the hereafter and asked you to get a site taken off the National Register of Historic Places, you’d probably get right on it too, wouldn’t you?

There’s a sickening irony here; the Battle of Blair Mountain happened because the miners got fed up with the coal companies’ rapacity, and now the site itself is threatened by coal companies’ rapacity.  Picture an original safe house on the Underground Railroad being torn down to build a whites-only restaurant, and you’d have an analogous situation.

If you care about historic ground, now would be a good time to let some elected officials know it.

After the battle, the miners of Blair Mountain hand over their guns. West Virginia Division of Culture and History (wvculture.org)

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation

Dodged a bullet

Let me bring my ongoing effort to make sense of American history to a momentary halt, so that I may offer up a silent but fervent prayer of thanks that the utter ruination of my favorite movie franchise was avoided…

Amen, and amen.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

A couple of Lincoln notices

Spielberg’s Lincoln screened at the New York Film Festival, and the early reviews have been pretty good.  Everybody seems to be impressed with Daniel Day-Lewis and the rest of the cast; the story is apparently good, if a little slow-moving.  I’m guessing the NYFF screening wasn’t the final cut, so the wide release version will probably be a little tighter.

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado tried valiantly to put the best face on Obama’s debate performance: “It’s just like Lincoln. When Lincoln ran for re-election, it was…dead close, I mean really a struggle, really close, and he wasn’t a great public speaker. I mean, Obama’s a great speaker. Lincoln wasn’t a great debater.”

He later clarified his remarks by stating, “Evidently…in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, by most accounts, he had a hard time keeping up with Stephen Douglas, who was great. That’s what I was referring to.”

Because if there was one area where the man who delivered the Gettysburg Address needed improvement, it was public speaking.  But to be fair, Republicans have been having their own history issues lately.

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Toil and trouble

In 1663 Connecticut authorities hanged Mary Barnes for witchcraft, and now her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter wants her ancestor’s name cleared, along with those of ten other executed witches.  It must be a lot harder to live down a family scandal in Connecticut.  “Uh-oh, Mildred, here comes that woman whose seventh grandmother was hanged for being a witch.  I hope she doesn’t try to sit next to us.”

From The Witch of Salem, by Freeland A. Carter via Wikimedia Commons

This effort has attracted the attention of the Connecticut Wiccan & Pagan Network (suggested motto: “Loki is Our Homeboy”), which wants a proclamation from the governor.  They’re sending postcards—I’m not making this up—with the message, “I am a Pagan/Witch and I vote. Clear the names of Connecticut’s eleven accused and executed witches.”

I’m assuming the descendants of the condemned witches want their ancestors declared innocent.  If that’s the case, it doesn’t really seem helpful to have the witch/pagan lobby involved.  If the point is that grandma was executed for something she didn’t do, wouldn’t you want to keep people who affirm the okayness of what she was accused of doing from appropriating her as a symbol?

Oh, and if you’re thinking that Connecticut was still a colony when it was executing witches and the aggrieved parties should therefore take their case to the British Empire, the CWPN already tried applying to Queen Elizabeth II for a pardon.  Gotta admire their persistence.

(Hat tip to John Fea)

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

Of individuals and their eras

Lately the historical Interwebs has been talking about the new Grant bio by H.W. Brands.  I read his life of Andrew Jackson several years ago and thought it was pretty good, even if the availability of Robert Remini’s one-volume abridgment version of his multi-volume work made another popular Jackson bio seem a little superfluous.

The Grant and Jackson books are both part of a series of biographies which will constitute a complete history of the United States, with Brands using each individual exemplifying a particular era.  It’s a pretty interesting idea.

I wonder if you could do the same thing for a survey course, organizing each lecture around the life of some historical figure.  Could students learn history just by getting acquainted with individuals whose life stories reflect their respective time periods or subjects?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Pocahontas for early colonial Anglo-Indian relations with her first encounters with the Jamestown colonists, her capture, baptism, marriage, and eventual death
  • Jacob Leisler for the evolution of the colonial-English relationship in the late seventeenth century
  • Jonathan Edwards for the intellectual/religious developments of the early eighteenth century
  • John Adams for the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, with the emergence of his commitment to independence and the development of his ideas on government
  • John Sevier for the trans-Appalachian frontier, with his career as Indian fighter, leader of a dissident separatist movement, land speculator, and state governor

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Filed under Historiography, Teaching History

Washington joins the dark side

Video game developers are giving the Revolution’s hero the dictatorship he never had.  My question: If George Washington makes a grab for absolute power, doesn’t he sort of cease to be George Washington?

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Brian Dirck discusses his Lincoln research

…over at the Lincoln Institute blog.  Check it out.

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Is Lincoln to blame for America’s empire?

Some observers see Lincoln’s presidency and the outcome of the Civil War as the point when America got off-kilter, sort of like a national equivalent to the Fall of Man.  At some point between 1860 and 1865, so this line of thinking goes, the country went off the rails and abandoned the legacy of the Revolution and the Constitution, leaving us with the centralized, interventionist, and industrial nation in which we now live.

There’s a nugget of truth to all this, but it’s hidden among a lot of overstatement and moralization.  The Civil War did contribute to the creation of a stronger and more vigorous central government, Lincoln’s use of presidential authority was broader than many of his predecessors, and the Union’s victory did accelerate the creation of a more consolidated and economically modern America.  At the same time, though, you can’t attribute America’s transformation entirely to the Civil War or to Lincoln’s presidency.  The war was a critical step down that road, but it wasn’t the only one—and the road itself was circuitous, since the exertion of federal authority has expanded and contracted at various times between 1865 and today.  Lincoln did a great many consequential things, but he didn’t sucker punch the whole country into the modern age single-handedly.

Abraham Lincoln portrait by William F. Cogswell, 1869 (The White House Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons)

In an interesting and provocative essay, Thomas DiLorenzo takes this notion of the Lincoln presidency as something akin to America’s moment of original sin and applies it to foreign policy.  He argues that Lincoln abandoned the Founders’ desire for neutrality and friendly commerce in favor of “imperialist fantasies about perfecting the entire planet as the bedrock of American foreign policy ideas.”  Lincoln, he states, believed that it was incumbent upon Americans to impose democratic ideals on other countries, and so our subsequent foreign entanglements and interventions follow from this misguided conviction.

DiLorenzo thus uses an interpretation of the past to critique the present.  As far as his criticism of American interventionism goes, I’m inclined to agree with him, at least to a considerable extent.  What I don’t agree with is his diagnosis of the historical origins of the problem.  Like the larger concept of which it’s a part—the notion that the Civil War is the point at which the country somehow went wrong—I think his argument contains a kernel of historic truth hidden in a matrix of serious oversimplification.  DiLorenzo makes Lincoln out to be a far more influential figure than he actually was.

He’s certainly correct that Lincoln believed the U.S., as an experiment in popular government, had an important role to play in the world.  Indeed, that’s one reason why he took secession so seriously.  If the nation collapsed in civil warfare, he thought, then the whole notion of a nation governed by the people themselves was in doubt.  Hence his argument at Gettysburg that America was a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition of equality, and that the war was a contest to determine whether any such nation could survive.  If the Union prevailed, self-government would be vindicated and would have the opportunity to take root elsewhere.

But I don’t think DiLorenzo is accurate in equating Lincoln’s brand of American exceptionalism with a zealous support of foreign intervention.  Ever since the Revolution—since earlier than that, actually, if one takes the Puritans into account—Americans have believed they could instruct the world, but not all of them have believed they must do so by force.  I don’t really see any reason to assume that Lincoln’s American exceptionalism was necessarily of the militant kind or to lay the blame for America’s status as a global policeman at his feet.  True, the interventionist and expansionist U.S. of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries probably wouldn’t have taken the form it did if it weren’t for the creation of a consolidated and industrial nation with a vigorous government, which the Civil War made possible.  But that’s not to say that it wouldn’t have become an interventionist and expansionist country at all.  The agrarian, slave-based economic interest that was so influential in antebellum America was something of an imperialist engine in its own right, spurring on conflict with Mexico and sparking filibustering expeditions in other parts of Latin America.  Indeed, well before the Civil War, America had been practicing a form of internal imperialism with regard to the Indians.  It’s therefore entirely possible that an America without a Lincoln presidency or a Civil War might have become an interventionist world power anyway, albeit an interventionist power of a different kind.

I have no idea how Lincoln would feel about modern America’s willingness to spend blood and treasure policing the world.  Maybe he’d endorse the extension of American ideals and institutions to foreign countries by force of arms, at least under some circumstances.  Or maybe not; after all, he was a vocal critic of America’s war with Mexico in the 1840′s.  Whatever the case, I think he’d be quite surprised that anyone would draw a direct line between his readiness to use force to suppress what he considered an internal rebellion and the deployment of American forces across the globe a century and a half later.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War