Tag Archives: historical memory

‘Sons of Liberty': Not much of the Sons, but plenty of liberties

Here’s how The History Channel describes their new miniseries: “SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary.”  That’s quite an understatement.  It’s like calling Godzilla a reptile of above-average stature.

I knew I was in for a doozy from the very start of last night’s first installment, when Samuel Adams escaped from a party of redcoats by bounding parkour-style across Boston’s rooftops.  No wonder they made him twenty years younger and thirty pounds lighter than his historical counterpart.  Can’t have the main character keeling over from cardiac arrest during a big chase sequence.  Hey, if video games have taught us anything, it’s that the eighteenth century was all about aerial stunts.

The History Channel claims that one of the show’s aims is to “convey the personalities of the main characters.”  If that’s true, they might want to head back to the drawing board.  The two main protagonists, Sam Adams and John Hancock, share little in common with the historical figures other than their names.

J.L. Bell has weighed in on the problems with Adams’ depiction at his blog.  As for Hancock, the miniseries portrays him as a dandy who’s quite uncomfortable walking into a tavern full of toughs.  The real Hancock was indeed a stupendously wealthy man, certainly no stranger to fine clothes, lavish parties, and good wine.  But he was also a man who, when informed that British regulars were en route to Lexington, brandished his gun and sword and swore up and down that he “would never turn my back on these troops.”  It took the entreaties of Sam Adams and Paul Revere to convince him to escape.

It was instructive—and a little depressing—to follow the Twitter hashtag #SonsOfLiberty during the premiere.  Most of the tweets I saw were pretty positive about the show.  There were plenty of remarks about how modern politicians could learn a thing or two by watching real ‘Murican patriots on TV.  I found these sentiments highly ironic, since the larger political issues surrounding the onset of the Revolution were actually absent from the first episode.

Instead, the miniseries emphasizes the personal aspects of the Whigs’ involvement.  Adams and Hancock aren’t motivated by abstract notions of rights and liberties.  They’ve got a beef with Hutchinson (promoted to governor in the first episode) over his meddling in their financial activities.  When the mob attacks Hutchinson’s house, they do so because he’s persecuting Adams, not because of the Stamp Act.  The premiere basically has the whole Revolution boiling down to a bunch of personal grudges.  Personal conflicts certainly played a role in the Revolution, but the show de-emphasizes principles to such an extent that I can’t fathom why so many back-to-the-founding folks tweeted enthusiastically about it.

Many tweets ran something like this: “Psyched about #SonsOfLiberty bc I’m such a total history nerd LOL!!!1!11!”  I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but if you were a “total history nerd,” you wouldn’t be so psyched about two hours of pure fiction.  You’d be reading Pauline Maier.

You could fill pages on the show’s historical discrepancies, both major and minor.  The chronology is hopelessly mangled.  John Adams’ house looks nothing like the real thing, nor does it bear any resemblance to any intact eighteenth-century home I’ve ever seen.  There’s far too much facial hair for the late 1700s.  Gen. Gage was already in America during the events depicted in the series.  You get the idea.  For a detailed breakdown, check out Thomas Verenna’s episode-by-episode critique.

I think the only thing the first installment really got right was the sense of tension and volatility in Revolutionary-era Boston, a place where the streets roiled with passion and violence, where officials were sitting on top of a volcano that could erupt in revolt at any minute.

If I disliked the first episode so much, I’ll be skipping the other two, right?  Yeah, I would…except I’ve always wanted to see Lexington and Concord on film.  It’s the prospect of a few well-executed battle sequences that will bring me back to the TV, in spite of my better judgment.  No doubt I’ll be disappointed, but not as disappointed as all those gals who watched the premiere will be when they do a Google Image search for Samuel Adams.

“Lllllllladies.” Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Selma and LBJ: Do filmmakers owe anything to historical figures?

There’s been an interesting discussion among historians and movie critics about the movie Selma, which plays up the antagonism between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s LBJ historian Mark Updegrove’s critique of the way Selma treats the president:

Why does the film’s mischaracterization matter? Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress.

The political courage President Johnson exhibited in adeptly pushing through passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago is worth celebrating in the same manner as the “Lincoln” filmmakers championed President Lincoln’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, putting a legal end to slavery.…

LBJ’s bold position on voting rights stands as an example of what is possible when America’s leadership is at its best.

And it has the added benefit of being true.

Selma doesn’t just portray LBJ as dragging his feet on civil rights.  It makes him complicit in the FBI’s attempt to silence King by blackmailing him with evidence of his extramarital affairs.

Others claim that LBJ’s defenders have overstated their case by attributing the march to Johnson himself, as if he came up with the whole idea.

This certainly isn’t the first time filmmakers have taken historical liberties—far from it—but it’s a particularly interesting case.  It portrays a prominent individual as standing further to the wrong side of history than he did, and deprives him of credit for contributing to equality and moral progress.

So leaving aside for the moment the well-worn question of whether filmmakers have a moral obligation to be as historically accurate as possible, do they have a more specific moral obligation to avoid portraying historical figures as acting less nobly or honorably than they actually did?  And does the fact that Selma deals with very recent history make this obligation greater?

I haven’t seen the film yet (although I plan to), and twentieth-century history isn’t really my thing, so I’m hesitant to weigh in.  What do you folks think?

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Images of Native Americans on the next BackStory

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been taking a seminar on Native American history this semester.  It’s been an absolute blast, and I’ve learned a lot.  My professor for that course, Dr. Julie Reed, will be on the next BackStory with the American History Guys to discuss depictions of American Indians through the years.  Click here for info on how to listen.

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Agency doesn’t always look the way we want it to

I’m really enjoying the seminar I’m taking on Native American history.  Last week we had a lively discussion about Nancy Ward, a prominent Cherokee woman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whose name has come up here on the blog before.  One of my most pleasant surprises as a history buff was the day I was on a short road trip with my mom; our route unexpectedly took us right by Nancy Ward’s gravesite, so I got to step out and take a look at it.

She made a name for herself when she was still a teenager in the 1750s, taking up her mortally wounded husband’s gun during a battle with the Creeks.  Shortly thereafter she married an English trader and became one of those cross-cultural mediators that popped up from time to time in the history of the American borderlands.

Nancy Ward’s grave, along with the graves of her son and brother, in Polk County, TN. Photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1776, as Cherokee warriors prepared to launch attacks on settlements along the southern frontier, word of the impending assault made its way to the whites.  Nancy Ward was one of those responsible for sending the warning.  When the attacks fell in July, the settlers were hunkered down behind the wooden palisades of their forts.  Warriors did manage to capture Lydia Bean, wife of one of the first settlers in present-day Tennessee.  As Beloved Woman, Ward had authority over the fate of prisoners and saved Bean from the stake, reportedly keeping the captive in her home to make butter and cheese until she could return home.  It wasn’t the only occasion Ward would use her influence to prevent the shedding of white blood.

The reason our discussion in class got lively was because Nancy Ward is a controversial subject for many modern Cherokees.  My professor noted that some members of the tribe still consider Ward a traitor because of her affinity for the settlers and her tendency to intervene on their behalf, and one of my classmates (who does preservation work for the Eastern Band) cringed when her name came up.  And by modern standards, it’s hard to argue with the “traitor” label.  What else would you call someone who sent word to the opposing side that her own people were about to launch an invasion?

But, as my professor pointed out, it’s not quite that simple.  For one thing, Ward’s status as Beloved Woman gave her a certain amount of authority in matters of war and peace.  In her excellent book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, Theda Perdue discusses how women sought to maintain their prerogatives when it came to the disposition of captives, treaty negotiations, and other important business during the tumultuous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Maybe Ward’s actions had as much to do with the preservation of female power as it did with saving whites’ lives.

More importantly, judging Ward reduces our ability to see their activity for what it was, namely a form of agency.  “Agency” is a term we’ve been discussing a lot in that class.  When you’re dealing with marginalized and often voiceless historical groups—groups such as Indians, women, slaves, or the poor—it’s important to remember that their circumstances didn’t reduce them to passive blobs of matter.  They remained human beings who confronted, resisted, and adapted to the forces around them.  Historians spend a lot of time trying to recover the agency of marginalized people, and when they do, they usually identify agency with some form of resistance.  Resistance can come in many forms besides open rebellion.  Workers who protested harsh factory conditions, slaves who broke farming tools—these are the sorts of activities historians generally have in mind when people refer to “agency.”  Just because oppressed people weren’t taking up pitchforks and raising hell doesn’t mean they weren’t holding on to their humanity.  An act as simple as doing one’s work a little bit more slowly than expected could be a form of resistance.

But maybe agency doesn’t have to equal resistance at all.  Any time some historical figure faced a choice and made a decision, they were exercising agency.  Perhaps Nancy Ward’s decision to forewarn the settlers was an act of agency, too.  In fact, it was a pretty striking one; she chose to act in a way that seems counter to the interests of many of her own people.

Why did she do it?  Maybe she thought a war with the whites would just bring down even harsher retribution, which is what indeed happened, and she wanted to minimize its effects.  Maybe, as I suggested above, she felt the councils had failed to take into account her opinion and that of other leading women in the discussions that led up to the decision to launch the assaults.  Maybe her marriage to a white trader had given her a soft spot for the settlers.  I don’t know.  But whatever her motives, she decided to act as she did, even though she didn’t act the way we might expect a woman in her position “should” act.

As a Native American woman (albeit a very influential and prominent one), Nancy Ward was the kind of person whose decisions usually didn’t make it into the history books.  But in her case, we get the opportunity to observe an Indian woman choosing to act, and doing so.  Her choice might look odd to us, but it was still her choice.  Nancy Ward made her choices and shaped her own circumstances, as surely as did the Indians who fought white encroachment to the last bullet and resisted acculturation to the last breath.  As my professor put it, people want their historical Indians to behave like Geronimo, but not all of them did.

Sometimes historical figures acted in ways that seem nonsensical or even immoral to us.  Our job is to figure out why they acted as they did, and what their choices can reveal about larger patterns of behavior and about the societies that produced them.  We can’t choose for them; nor can we judge their choices.  The choices were ultimately theirs.

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

From the “Lincoln Was a Godless Communist” File

Because if there’s one thing a longtime Whig like Lincoln couldn’t stand, it was capitalism, right?

Religious right broadcaster Kevin Swanson agreed with one of his guests that Abraham Lincoln imposed socialism on the United States during the “war against the South” – more commonly known as the Civil War.

Swanson hosted neo-Confederate author Walter Kennedy last month on his radio program, reported Right Wing Watch, where the pair argued the Republican Party had been founded by “radical socialists and communists.”

“The Democrats, both Northern and Southerners, believed in limited government, and the Marxists hated that concept,” Kennedy said. “They wanted to do away with states’ rights and limited government so that they’d have one big all-powerful indivisible government that could force its will upon the American people.”

The broadcaster – who has argued the Disney hit movie “Frozen” was a satanic tool for indoctrinating girls to become lesbians — agreed with his guest, saying Lincoln and Mark Twain helped ruin the U.S. by replacing Southern slavery with socialist slavery.…

The author told Swanson that Lincoln had given a “big boost” to communism by winning the Civil War and then created a federal government that began an “incessant attack on religious values in America.”

“What Marxist dictator could ask for less?” Kennedy said. “All of these communists that have wormed their way into power, into powerful positions, they began to influence other people to pursue this objective of a big, indivisible government, and government supplants God as being sovereign.”

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Revolutionary backwoodsmen ride onto the stage again

I’m obliged to Gordon Belt for passing this along.  In North Carolina there’s a new play in the works about the Battle of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there.  Here’s how the play’s author describes the backcountry settlers:

“They had a bone to pick with the British government even when they lived there,” he said “They lived a hard life under landlords that were very hard to deal with. They had famine and drought, and they were seeking a new life in the New World where they could make a living, raise their families and worship as they please.”
The settlers came to the backcountry of North and South Carolina and quickly adapted to the frontier area.
“They had to be rugged, independent people. They endured hardships, they had to fight Indians. They persevered,” Inman said.
When the war began, the backcountry patriots just wanted the British to leave them alone.
“The British said, ‘You have to support the crown.’ They said, ‘No, that’s not the way we operate.’ And so, they took up arms against the British and won,” Inman said.

The backcountry settlers who fought in the Southern Campaign have been the subject of dramatic works before, especially in the 1950s, when Pat Alderman‘s outdoor drama The Overmountain Men premiered in Erwin, TN.  It told the settlers’ story from the genesis of the settlements west of the mountains through the Battle of King’s Mountain.

Alderman eventually turned his research into a book, and if you compare the description of the settlers in its pages to the news item quoted above, you’ll see that the characterization of the backwoodsmen hasn’t changed much over the decades:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.…This unhampered wilderness freedom, far removed from royal rulers and their taxes, was to their liking.  These bold, resolute men were self-reliant.  They were independent, individualistic, and not always inclined to respect or observe the niceties of the soft life.  Living on the outskirts of civilization, their law was to have and to hold.

In fact, you could quote lengthy passages from books on the backwoodsmen written in the late 1800s and find many of the same sentiments.  It’s fascinating to see how popular notions about the eighteenth-century frontiersmen have remained so steady.

For more information about Revolutionary-era settlers on the stage, check out Gordon’s book on John Sevier in myth and memory.  (Sevier was the subject of his own biographical play about sixty years ago.)  And if you’d like to see an outdoor drama about the eighteenth-century settlers for yourself, Sycamore Shoals hosts a very popular and long-running show every year.

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Remembering and forgetting John Sevier

If you’re in the Knoxville area, come out to Marble Springs State Historic Site this Saturday at 1:00 P.M.  Fellow history blogger Gordon Belt will talk about his new book John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Heroan examination of the ways we’ve remembered, misremembered, and failed to remember the man who probably did more than anyone else to create the Volunteer State.  

The cool thing about this book is that it offers an accessible introduction to Sevier’s life as well as a thoroughly researched examination of his place in tradition and memory. It traces the development of the Sevier legend across the three major phases of his life as a pioneer, a soldier, and a statesman, stopping along the way to address some of the more popular stories about him, such as the dramatic rescue of his future wife at Ft. Watauga, his involvement in the Franklin movement, and his public feud with Andrew Jackson.

I eagerly awaited the publication of Gordon’s book, not just because it fits my personal research interests to a T but also because I think it will help address a troubling bit of historical amnesia we have here in Tennessee.

I think I first realized the extent of the problem the day I went to UT’s library to borrow a book about Sevier.  It was Carl Driver’s 1932 biography, and I needed it for my master’s thesis on memory and the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The guy behind the counter looked at the title and said, “Oh, the highway guy.”

The highway guy?  And then it hit me: Gov. John Sevier Highway loops around the southern and eastern sides of Knoxville.

He was the state’s first governor, a member of Congress, a state senator, the only governor of the Lost State of Franklin, an officer in one of the Revolutionary War’s pivotal battles, commander of the state militia, defender of the frontier and the scourge of the Cherokees.  If we don’t remember his stellar résumé, we should at least remember his name, because it’s all over East Tennessee: Sevierville, Sevier County, Gov. John Sevier Animal Clinic, John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant, John Sevier Elementary School.  Along with his nemesis Old Hickory, he’s one of two Tennessee heroes in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.  Even his wife has an elementary school named in her honor.

But to the kid behind the library desk, he was “the highway guy.”

The notion that a Tennessean of any era would be unfamiliar with the exploits of “Nolichucky Jack” would have come as quite a shock to his contemporaries.  From the time of the American Revolution until his death in 1815, Sevier was one of the most popular men in his corner of the world.

But by the late 1800s, there was already a sense among antiquarians, regional authors, and amateur historians that Sevier and the other heroes of the old frontier had not received their historical due.  These men were determined to rectify the problem, but they overcompensated.  In the work of writers like James Gilmore and Francis M. Turner, Sevier became a frontier demigod.  The hero-worshipping writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries obscured the flesh-and-blood man behind a haze of tradition and sentimental prose.

There were other, later attempts to understand and commemorate Sevier and his times in the twentieth century.  Some of the most interesting were on the stage, as the early settlement of Tennessee became the subject of outdoor dramas.  On the printed page, regional historians like Samuel Cole Williams and Pat Alderman picked up where the antiquarians of the 1800s had left off.  But separating the man from the myth remained a problem.  Although Driver’s biography is the most thorough cradle-to-grave treatment of Sevier, it dates back to the Great Depression.

Gordon’s book is just the sort of fresh take we need to kickstart another revival of interest in one of the frontier’s most important figures.  Visit Marble Springs this weekend to hear him discuss it.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History