Monthly Archives: January 2017

Monday Night Massacre?

UPDATE: Check out this HNN piece by David Shorten, who notes the problems inherent in interpreting current events with simple historical analogies.  He urges us to “give up on historical comparisons and replace them with historicism—to quit analogizing and start contextualizing.”

Well, look on the bright side.  This administration is going to be a freaking bonanza for historians looking to get on the talking head circuit.  The Lincoln folks had all the fun for eight years, but now we’re less than two weeks into the new regime and the Jacksonian scholars are already passing the mic to the Nixon experts.

U.S. President Donald Trump fired the federal government’s top lawyer Sally Yates on Monday after she took the extraordinarily rare step of defying the White House and saying the Justice Department would not defend his new travel restrictions targeting seven Muslim-majority nations.

The White House said on Twitter that Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, would replace Yates, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama, as acting U.S. attorney general.

…There have been only a handful of instances in U.S. history of top Justice Department officials publicly breaking with the White House. The most famous example was in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

And it looks like things are only gonna keep spiraling down from here.  If society totally breaks down, maybe us backcountry Rev War guys will get our fifteen minutes on C-SPAN.

NSFW but apropos and amusing:

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

And killing IMLS is a terrible idea, too

Check out that whole thread of tweets, if you haven’t already.  If you care about history—and since you’re reading this blog, I assume you do—this should terrify you.

Eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services would be devastating to institutions that preserve the past and make it accessible.  These grants are critical to the maintenance of important historical collections, the technology that ensures their availability, and the programs that allow us to share them.

Now would be a very good time to contact your representative.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

Killing the NEH is still a terrible idea

A horribly misguided proposal from 2014 now rears its head again.  From The Hill:

Staffers for the Trump transition team have been meeting with career staff at the White House ahead of Friday’s presidential inauguration to outline their plans for shrinking the federal bureaucracy, The Hill has learned.…

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.

Overall, the blueprint being used by Trump’s team would reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years.

The proposed cuts hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has helped staff the Trump transition.

You’d think an organization called “The Heritage Foundation” would be more serious about programs that protect and interpret our, y’know, heritage.

Look, I don’t like extravagant federal spending any more than the next guy.  But killing the NEH to reduce the federal budget is like cutting out a Tic Tac because you want to lose weight.  Last year the NEH requested a budget of $148 million.  That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only 0.003% of federal spending.  The NEA’s budget for last year was about the same, so eliminating both agencies would’ve saved a whopping 0.006% out of the $3.9 trillion the government spent in 2016.

And that 0.003% isn’t just for ivory tower academics.  It benefits everyone.  Ever read a popular history book?  Watched a Ken Burns documentary?  Used the Internet or microfilm for genealogical research?  Visited a museum or historic site?  If the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve benefited from an NEH grant.

Contact your representative and tell them the humanities are worth 0.003%.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Upcoming talk on Eugene Debs at UTK

Here’s a timely event for those of you in the Knoxville area as we move closer to the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War.  On Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 6:00 P.M., Ernest Freeberg will present “Eugene V. Debs and the Fight For Free Speech in World War One” in UT’s Hodges Library, room 212.

Dr. Freeberg, head of the Department of History at UT, is the author of a prize-winning book on Debs and civil liberties in wartime titled Democracy’s Prisoner.  His other works include The Age of Edison and The Education of Laura Bridgman, which won the AHA’s Dunning Prize.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

It’s up to Theodore Roosevelt to save Queen Victoria

Steven Wilson, my pal and former boss at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, just published a new historical thriller.  Roosevelt’s Jubilee pits TR against a group of assassins in Victorian London:

Future president Theodore Roosevelt and his new wife, Edith, travel to London on their honeymoon in 1887. After a chance encounter with the Prince of Wales, they uncover a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria. When the criminals kidnap Edith to use as leverage, Theodore teams up with Inspector Frederick Abberline of Scotland Yard.

Roosevelt discovers that Abberline’s boss is one of the conspirators and that an Irish separatist group is behind the evil scheme. Roosevelt and Abberline learn that the would-be assassins are planning a deadly, explosive spectacle during the queen’s Golden Jubilee celebration in hopes of destroying the British monarchy.

Author Steven Wilson weaves fact and fiction together in this suspenseful historical novel set right before the turn of the century, when the British government is struggling to remain relevant. This is London just before Jack the Ripper terrorizes the city, as social classes battle and war looms on the horizon.

As Theodore and Edith discover, it’s a place where no one can be trusted and everyone has a second trick up his or her sleeve. And unless they can outwit the tricksters, the sun will be setting on the British Empire.

And while you’re at it, check out Steven’s earlier novels set on the high seas during World War II and the realm of Civil War espionage.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

UTK historians on the 2016 election

Pundits like to toss around the word “historic” when referring to presidential elections, and the last election in particular stirred up a lot of talk about historical parallels.  But if you’re in the Knoxville area and you’d like to hear some actual historians weigh in, the University of Tennessee is hosting an Inauguration Eve symposium that might be of interest.  On Thursday, Jan. 19 these folks from UT’s Department of History will discuss the significance of the 2016 election, provide some historical perspective, and use the past to shed light on its implications:

  • Joshua Hodge, doctoral student specializing in nineteenth-century land use in the South
  • Bob Hutton, senior lecturer and authority on Appalachia
  • Max Matherne, doctoral student specializing in Jacksonian political thought
  • Brad Nichols, lecturer and specialist in Nazism and genocide
  • Tore Olsson, assistant professor and expert on the history of food, agriculture, the environment, and politics in the U.S. and Latin America
  • Julie Reed, assistant professor and authority on Cherokee social policy and education

This event will be in the Lindsay Young Auditorium of Hodges Library, 5:00-6:30 p.m.  It’s free and open to the public.  (And the panelists are some of my favorite people!)

Leave a comment

Filed under History and Memory

Reenacted hanging of Native American draws criticism

A bit of a fracas involving public history and memory developed over the weekend.  From Indian Country Today:

For approximately 10 years, the Westmoreland County Historical Society and local volunteers have created annual reenactments of historical court cases during their annual Frontier Court Reenactment Days celebration in June.

For the first time in the Society’s history, the celebration coordinators chose to reenact a public hanging, this time of Mamachtaga, a Delaware man convicted of murder in 1785.

According to Lisa Hays, Westmoreland County Historical Society Executive Director, the June 25 and 26 Frontier Court reenactments went well and, in the interest of historical accuracy, included the moment when the first attempt to hang Mamachtaga failed because the rope broke and had to be repeated with a new rope.

A video of the public hanging was posted on Youtube on June 26, where it languished with little comment until Friday when several Native Americans began sharing the link on Facebook.…

Many people have also directly contacted both the Westmoreland County Historical Society as well as members of the volunteer group who participated in the public hanging reenactment to let them know of their opposition to such depictions. Both Hays and Scott Henry, local volunteers who help coordinate reenactors for the Frontier Court Reenactment Days, were caught off guard by the strong emotions than many callers expressed.

“There was nothing malicious intended. We simply tried to accurately portray a case that was tried at Hanna’s Town,” said Henry. Clearly upset over the calls he’d received from those opposing the reenactment he said, “One caller accused us of perpetuating a legacy of ethnic cleansing. This has all been blown out of proportion.”

Hays agreed that neither the reenactors nor the Historical Society intended any malice in the performance. She noted that one of the main purposes of the reenactment was to depict the milieu of court sanctioned corporeal punishment of the day. “Cruel punishments such as these led to creation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The reenactment helped give context to the need for the Amendment which prohibits the government’s use of excessive bail, fines or cruel and unusual punishments,” she explained.…

Kerry Holton, President of the federally recognized Delaware tribe of Bartlesville, Oklahoma was skeptical that the Lenape reenactor was actually a member of the Delaware tribe. “Although we speak Lenape, we don’t refer to ourselves as Lenape; we call ourselves Delaware,” he said. “I find it hard to believe.”

“I was quite disturbed by the video and frankly wished I hadn’t watched it,” Holton said. “When I started going through my newsfeed this morning, the video of the Chicago torture popped up and then shortly after I saw this video. I understand this is a reenactment, but there is some parallel there that is disturbing, that people think it is okay for our children to witness such violence.”

The Westmoreland County Historical Society also posted this statement on Facebook:

Hanna’s Town was the site of the first English Courts west of the Allegheny Mountains, and we present and annual reenactment of authentic court cases heard there between 1773 and 1786. The Trial of Mamachtaga in 1785, was one of several cases reenacted that day at Frontier Court. Each case, including the one in question, provided an analysis of the early-American judicial system, which was based on English Common Law, and a comparison to our Constitutional law and the Bill of Rights. We address the historic political climate and social attitudes as well. The video clip excludes the context of the reenactment and only shows the result of the verdict.

The reenactment of the hanging of Mamachtaga was not a depiction of a murder, nor was it a lynching. It was the portrayal of an actual trial and subsequent hanging by the court system that was carried out at Hanna’s Town. The defense attorney for Mamachtaga, Hugh Henry Breckenridge, left a detailed account of the trial and execution and provides the context of the event, which the video does not show. Another man, who was white, was also tried and hung that day, but the historical record does not provide a thorough narrative.

Mamachtaga did not deny killing two men near Pittsburgh, and he stated that he thought his trial was fair. He asked for the opportunity to prepare for his death including painting his face as a warrior, and it was granted. He also said that he did not want his people taking any revenge for him.

The account of the defense attorney, Hugh Breckenridge, can be accessed here: Link: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/…/text4/brackenridge.pdf

We don’t take concerns about the video lightly. We have talked to Native people who assist us with programming, and they continue to support our organization and educational activities. They know our true heart. To discuss this sensitive aspect of American history in a constructive way, please contact us via email at history@westmorelandhistory.org.

Finally, here’s the video itself: EDIT: Looks like the video’s been removed from YouTube.

Reenacting historical court cases is both instructive and a pretty well-established practice when it comes to living history interpretation, but staging an execution is a dicey matter indeed.  That’s especially true when racial or intercultural issues are involved.

Personally, I don’t really see how a mock hanging adds any educational value to a reenacted trial.  Nor do I see the connection between a mock hanging and the historical context of the Eighth Amendment.  If the idea is to demonstrate the range of corporal punishments meted out by eighteenth-century courts, there’s no shortage of “cruel and unusual” options to choose from: branding, ear cropping, flogging, etc.  Execution by hanging was not considered cruel and unusual punishment in the eighteenth century, nor for a long time thereafter.

I should stress that I’m not trying to slam the Westmoreland County Historical Society here.  I don’t doubt that it’s a professional public history organization that does fine work, and I’m sure there was no ill intention.  I just think the mock hanging was a bad idea.

Anyway, if you’re teaching a course on public history or historical memory, you might want to file this story away.  It would make for an interesting and provocative classroom case study.

2 Comments

Filed under History and Memory, Reenacting