Tag Archives: historical memory

The problems with presidential libraries

Running a presidential library might just be the toughest gig in public history.

Michael Koncewicz, who worked at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, shares a few war stories over at Contingent Magazine.  It’s like a perfect storm of administrative and interpretive nightmares.

Private foundations raise the money to build and operate these institutions, while the federal government is generally responsible for the records themselves.  This can lead to tension over control of the programming.  The subject matter is inescapably political—and since you’re dealing with an individual’s life and legacy, it’s also personal.  The history is often recent and raw.

To top it all off, the subject’s family and associates likely sit on the foundation’s board, looking over the staff’s shoulders.  In the case of the Nixon Museum and Library, the subject himself was looking over everyone’s shoulder, weighing in on the exhibit content.  As Koncewicz writes, it led to some…well, problematic interpretive approaches:

The original exhibit on Watergate blamed the president’s enemies for his downfall and glossed over the key sections of the infamous tapes that led to his resignation. The text read, in part, “Commentators sought to portray Watergate strictly as a morality play, as a struggle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an epic and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred.” Museum visitors were told Nixon did not obstruct justice, and Watergate was nothing but partisan politics.

There was also the small matter of spying on the tour guides:

I was also informed they were upset that I had recently rushed through a temporary Nixon centennial exhibit during one of my school tours—which meant, among other things, that I had been spied on! I was further told they were less than thrilled with my dissertation research, a study of Republicans who resisted Nixon’s orders. (The project was born out of my time working on the revamped Watergate exhibit, and was an early version of what eventually became my first book, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.) Finally, there were another two or three instances in which I was spied on during a tour, and there were probably others I was not aware of.

Nixon’s presidential limousine at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Happyme22 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

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Mary Todd Lincoln without the caricature

We ended up having a little extra wall space in our new exhibit, so we’ve decided to get with our designer to create a new panel on Lincoln’s family life.  I’ve spent the past few days working on the text.

Writing exhibit copy is always hard—much more difficult, in my experience, than any other type of writing.  Your audience is necessarily broad and you don’t have much space.  The pressure to be clear and concise can be downright crushing.  And since museums speak with an authoritative voice, you have to be as even-handed as possible.  Covering the Lincolns’ marriage within these guidelines has been especially difficult, mostly because of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons

She was undeniably volatile.  She shouted.  She screamed.  She chased Lincoln out of the house with a broom, clocked him on the nose with a chunk of firewood, and chewed him out in front of friends and neighbors.  She pestered him over his informal manners and his unfashionable, ill-fitting clothes.  She bullied the maids and haggled unbecomingly with salesmen.

Lincoln’s friends and neighbors described her as “a hellion — a she devil — vexed — & harrowed the soul out of that good man — wouldn’t Cook for him — drove him from home &c — often & Often.”  His law partner William Herndon, one of her more strident detractors, claimed that she made Lincoln’s life “a domestic hell.”

But the stories of Mary’s theatrics (plentiful though they are) don’t tell the whole story of the Lincolns’ marriage.  Her niece remembered, “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed his home and he and Mary idolized their children. So far as I could see there was complete and loving kindness between Mary and her husband, consideration for each other’s wishes and a taste for the same books. They seemed congenial in all things.”  Another neighbor reported, “Mary was a little high strung. She came of blue blood, blue grass Kentucky stock; and her tastes were somewhat different from Abe’s, but, law, they got along well together.”

And it must be said in all fairness that her husband was a difficult man to be married to.  He was gone for weeks or months at a time, traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit or conducting political business, leaving Mary to raise the children alone.  (In 1850, Lincoln was away from Springfield more days than he was home.)

Even when he was home, some of Lincoln’s eccentricities must have compounded her stress.  He answered the door in his shirtsleeves, sat down to dinner without his coat, and stretched out on the floor to read.  He became so absorbed in thought that he didn’t notice her speaking to him, or failed to see that one of the boys had fallen out of the wagon in which he was pulling them.  When she launched into one of her tirades, one neighbor recalled, he would ignore her—or worse, laugh at her.

If we’re going to give our visitors a sense of what Lincoln’s domestic life was like, Mary’s tantrums have to be a part of the story.  They’re too prominent in the record to dismiss (although I suspect Herndon pressed the issue in his interviews with Lincoln’s acquaintances, given his evident dislike for the woman).

At the same time, though, our handling of the Lincolns’ marriage needs to be well-rounded.  As tempting as it is to devote all our space to colorful anecdotes about Mary’s histrionics, those incidents don’t tell the whole story.  We don’t want to reduce her to a crude caricature.  Some depictions have stooped to this level.  In D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, Mary is an unbearable shrew, played almost strictly for laughs.

What our exhibit needs, in other words, is detail and nuance.  That’s not easy to pull off in the tightly confined space of a single panel.  A biographer could take an entire chapter to develop a balanced appraisal of Mary.  We have to do it in a few sentences. And those sentences have to be accessible and engaging to everybody from elementary school students to members of our institution’s faculty.

Sometimes people think public history is easier than academic history.  The truth is, public history only looks easy because part of the job is making it look easy.  And that’s usually the hardest part of the gig.

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Lincoln’s short-term legacy

One of the things that surprised me about The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s volume on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States, is how large Lincoln’s shadow looms over the whole book.  The previous volume in the series, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, ends with Lincoln’s assassination.  White picks up the story with his funeral, and many of the issues he brings to the fore in the body of the book are those in which Lincoln was deeply invested: the trans-Mississippi West as a haven for free labor, national unity reinforced through infrastructure, the fate of African Americans, the ascendancy of the Republican Party, and the struggle to build an egalitarian society of independent producers.

“Abraham Lincoln: The Martyr President,” by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03167).

These problems that dominated American life in the late nineteenth century lay at the heart of the “Greater Reconstruction,” a term White borrows from Elliott West.  The end goal was to propagate homogeneous, prosperous communities of free and independent householders—communities much like Lincoln’s own hometown of Springfield, Illinois.  Springfield, White claims, was “as close as any actual place could be to the template that the North planned to use in recasting the South, as well as the West” (p. 136).

But White’s book is also an account of disillusionment.  At the end of the story, the Greater Reconstruction has failed.  Since the tale begins with Lincoln’s death and revisits so many of the problems he supposedly resolved, the Greater Reconstruction’s failure raises troubling questions about Lincoln’s legacy.

Did Lincoln succeed?  To most Americans, the answer is self-evident.  The Union triumphed, the nation remained united, and legalized slavery came to an end.  Lincoln himself died, but he died a martyr, having completed what he called “the great task” of reaffirming the American promise.  But all this assumes that the story ends in April 1865.

Anti-slavery Whig and eventual Republican that he was, Lincoln idealized free labor.  He considered it a stepping-stone to becoming an independent producer.  “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” he once said.  “The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow.”  Slavery’s end marked the destruction of one great obstacle standing in the way of this ideal of self-advancement.  But for many Americans, the path to full independence and sufficiency remained closed.  The late nineteenth century witnessed some of the most bitter and violent contests between capital and labor.  Contract labor during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age may have been “free,” but in many cases it remained exploitative, and hardly a temporary way station on the road to prosperity and independence.

Nor did the end of slavery mean realization of racial equality.  We think of emancipation as Lincoln’s most enduring legacy.  But subordination of African Americans by means of terrorism, economic dependency, and legalized inequality continued into Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  It’s more difficult to celebrate the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg when you consider the reversals that came after.

As a Whig, Lincoln envisioned a united nation bound together by transportation and trade.  And as a Republican, he wanted the West to be settled by free laborers and landholders.  Here, too, White and other historians have painted a bleak picture of the decades following the Civil War.  Secessionism collapsed, but sectionalism persisted.  The transportation networks and markets that Lincoln and other Whigs had long wanted penetrated more deeply into the American landscape than ever before, but White claims that the late nineteenth century’s great railroads were more effective at forging interregional links than truly transcontinental ones.  And while the Civil War settled the question of whether the West would be slave or free, the period after the war saw much of the frontier engrossed by monopolists and speculators rather than egalitarian homesteaders.

The upshot here is that if you use 1865 as the end date for the “Age of Lincoln,” then Lincoln was a victorious martyr.  But if you use 1877 or 1898 as a terminal point, his success comes with important qualifications.

Should we make space to deal with the problematic nature of Lincoln’s short-term legacy when telling his story in exhibits, documentaries, and popular books?  On the one hand, it might help address Americans’ amnesia about Reconstruction.  On the other hand…well, the idea of the victorious martyr (shot on Good Friday, no less!) is about as compelling as you can get from a narrative standpoint.

But I think there’s a sense in which the reversals and the unfinished business that followed Lincoln’s death doesn’t diminish his historical stature, but magnifies it.  If it’s true that the “great task” wasn’t completely finished in 1865, it’s also true that it’s not completely finished today.  And that makes the study of Lincoln and his legacy much more relevant than it would be if we could wrap the whole thing up with a bow and relegate it to a chapter of our history long since closed.

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Last stand of the Regulators

Alamance Battleground had been on my bucket list for many years, so I stopped by for a visit on my way back from a research trip a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a small site, but its story is very important to the history of the eighteenth-century backcountry

Settlers in the North Carolina uplands had a great deal to be upset about in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  Underrepresented in the provincial legislature, they were also subject to exorbitant taxation and fees by corrupt local officials who were, in the words of Richard Beeman, “as feckless, venal, and larcenous a lot as existed anywhere in America.”  Exasperated backcountry farmers—”Regulators,” as they called themselves—responded by breaking up courts and engaging in some of the same resistance tactics that seaboard colonists were employing against British taxation.

The revolt came to a head at Adamance, where a force of approximately 2,000 armed Regulators faced off against just over 1,000 militiamen under the command of Gov. William Tryon on May 16, 1771.

Here’s a view from near the Regulator lines, facing toward the position taken by Tryon’s men.

And here’s another, this time facing the Regulators’ position from the opposite side of the field.

After trading volleys with Tryon’s militia, the Regulators broke.  At least nine men died on each side (Tryon’s losses may have been higher).  The governor hanged one prisoner in his camp nearby; six more went to the gallows in Hillsborough the following month.  One of the condemned men appears on the plaque affixed to this monument, which was originally placed at the Guilford Courthouse battlefield in 1901 and moved to Alamance in 1962.

The fact that a monument to the Regulators’ defeat once sat on North Carolina’s largest Revolutionary War battlefield is significant.  Early chroniclers referred to Alamance as the “first battle of the American Revolution,” with determined farmers standing up to a tyrannical government headed by a royal appointee.  This monument, dedicated in 1880, identifies the combatants at Adamance as “THE BRITISH AND THE REGULATORS,” although the men in Tryon’s ranks were the Regulators’ fellow colonists.

The actual relationship between the Regulators and the Revolution was more complicated.  The rebels had indeed defied a royal governor.  But a good part of the blame for their predicament lay with the eastern Carolinians who dominated the colonial legislature and kept backcountry concerns marginalized in provincial politics.  And it was just such men who, calling themselves Patriots, led the protest movement against imperial taxation.  When the Revolutionary War broke out and these easterners looked westward for support, many backcountry citizens were still nursing grievances from the Regulator dispute.  The same thing happened in South Carolina, which underwent a separate Regulator movement in the 1760s.

The Regulation wasn’t a dress rehearsal for the Revolution.  Instead, it made the Whigs’ task of mobilizing the backcountry more difficult when war with Britain came.  As a result, both Carolinas went into that war divided, and British armies would find some of their most zealous supporters among the backcountry colonists that seaboard Patriots had antagonized.

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Commercializing the Confederacy in museum gift shops

By Joe Haupt from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t already, check out Nick Sacco’s thoughtful post on Civil War site gift shops over at Muster.  The potential of gift shop merchandise to trivialize or compromise a museum’s historical integrity is a problem I’ve touched on here in the past.

It’s a much more immediate concern to me now that I’m running a Lincoln/Civil War site.  In fact, at the same time I ran across Sacco’s post, we were dealing with this very issue at the ALLM.  We just received a huge order of stock for our gift shop, which prompted a discussion in the office about merchandise with the Confederate battle flag.

In the past—in the pretty recent past, actually—many Civil War sites would stock souvenirs featuring the flag without a second thought.  Indeed, a lot of sites and museums sold miniature CBFs themselves.  But in the wake of recent violence associated with the flag, and because of closer consideration of the flag’s historical meanings prompted by that violence, museums and sites are proceeding more carefully.  As Sacco notes, the National Park Service has stopped selling standalone Confederate flags.

But what about selling other items with Confederate iconography, like the miniature kepis emblazoned with the flag that Sacco spotted at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum?  Items like this encourage kids to situate their play in history, directing their imagination into historical channels.  This playful engagement with the past might seem insubstantial, but in many cases it’s the sort of thing that makes future historians and history enthusiasts. Quite a few of you reading this probably started out by role-playing mock battles with toy guns and hats before moving on to books, battlefield trips, and perhaps careers in history. But is a Confederate flag on top of a toy kepi less problematic than one flying from a staff?  A lot of folks would say no; indeed, some might argue that it’s even more problematic. What about those bags of plastic soldiers that are a staple of every Civil War site’s gift shop?

Here’s another example to consider. A few years ago I picked up a t-shirt at a museum in Corinth, MS.  The back features an illustration of the death of Col. John Rogers, who fell after seizing his regiment’s colors in the attack on Battery Robinett.  I bought it partly because, while working in an exhibit, I’d done some research on the photograph of Rogers’s body taken after the battle, and partly just because I wanted a shirt from my trip.  It’s not really a “Confederate flag t-shirt” per se, but the battle flag is a pretty prominent part of the image on the back. Should a museum gift shop rethink stocking an item like that in the wake of Charleston and Charlottesville?

If you’re on staff at a Civil War museum or site, where do you draw the line when it comes to selling items with Confederate iconography?  Does your site have a hard and fast policy in place, or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?  Or is this something that hasn’t even come up for consideration?

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Stopping Reconstruction from falling through the cracks

Kevin Gannon has some worthwhile remarks on teaching Reconstruction.  He notes that one of the reasons we fail to do the subject justice is the way we divide the two halves of the U.S. survey course:

The standard two-semester survey model, for example, can give short shrift to a thorough examination of the postwar era. How many times has Reconstruction been pushed to the last day or two of class because we get behind in the schedule? And many of us start the second semester of the survey with the assumption that students “got Reconstruction” in the first portion? But what if they didn’t? Or what about those students who haven’t taken the first half of the survey?

I agree.  Cleaving the U.S. survey in twain at the 1865 or 1877 mark, as is customary, has consequences.  If you’re teaching the first half and you’re running low on time toward the end of the semester, it’s easy to gloss over Reconstruction.  And if you’re teaching the second half, you’re faced with two unsatisfactory options.  You can pick up the story at the end of the war and launch right into Reconstruction, but that separates the subject from the context out of which it arose.  Or you can leapfrog over Reconstruction and hope that whoever had your students the previous semester got around to it.

Of course, there’s an artificiality and arbitrariness inherent in any periodization scheme, and splitting the survey at any other point would create different problems.  But one thing I’ve done in the past is to begin the second half of the survey with the debate over the nature of Reconstruction between Lincoln and Radical Republicans.  That helps underscore what was at stake in the postwar period, and gets students thinking about Reconstruction as something other than an epilogue to Appomattox, a sort of post-credits scene after the main plot has been wrapped up.

I also think it’s useful to bring in historiography when dealing with Reconstruction in the survey.  Have students read some excerpts from the Dunning School, and then follow up with some DuBois.  This not only gets them thinking critically about the period, but also conveys a sense of history as a contest of interpretations and explanations.

By Waud, Alfred R. (Alfred Rudolph), 1828-1891, artist. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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More alternate Civil War histories? Look away!

I assume we’ve all heard that the guys behind Game of Thrones are doing an alt-history series where the Confederacy survives into the present day, and that the entire Twittersphere ripped HBO a new one over it.

We don’t yet know how well the show would grapple with the subject matter, but that interview in which one of the GoT guys seemed to have difficulty recalling the name of the Battle of Antietam doesn’t inspire confidence, does it?

Setting aside questions of historical sensibility or whether a series about modern-day legal slavery would be in good taste, one of the reasons it strikes me as a dumb idea is the fact that we’ve seen the whole Confederacy-wins-the-war premise done So. Many. Times.  The only alt-history scenario that’s more worn-out is the notion of an Axis victory in WWII.  There are so many novels based on the idea that you could build your own Fort Sumter using only the ones written by Harry Turtledove.  In fact, a Civil War setting for alternative history of any kind is pretty stale; it’s got its own Wikipedia page, for crying out loud.

Now comes news that Amazon is developing its own alternative offering—an alt-alt-history, I suppose you could call it—which “focuses on freed slaves who form their own country, New Colonia, out of the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, given to them as reparations for the country’s original sin.”  At least that’s a somewhat original twist.

If you ask me, though, storytellers need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to alt-history settings.  They’ve got centuries of the human past to play with.  Give the 1860s and 1940s a rest.

 

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