It’ll be at the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts in Madison starting Feb. 25, and it’s about the war’s impact on NJ civilians. Too bad I’m not within driving distance; I’d really like to see it.
Tag Archives: Revolutionary War
Washington and Lincoln usually rank among the more admired presidents, but most people don’t consider them in light of each other. Presidents’ Day seems like an appropriate occasion to compare and contrast these two men who had little in common except the office and above-average height.
Interestingly, recent years have witnessed renewed historical attention to both Lincoln and Washington as leaders of men. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller on Lincoln and his cabinet turned the phrase “team of rivals” into a catchphrase, while John Ferling has argued that Washington was a much more deft political operator than other biographies have indicated. Both men displayed an ability to handle opposition, but they approached interpersonal conflict in different ways.
Ferling has written that during the Revolutionary War, Washington felt especially vulnerable to criticism. He was particularly sensitive when he thought critics were comparing him to powerful rivals, as he believed to be the case after the fall of Philadelphia, fearing a plot to oust him from command was in the works among his detractors in both Congress and the army. Lincoln faced his fair share of criticism, too, but his skin was thicker than Washington’s. If Lincoln and his rivals never constituted a true “team”—dissensions and divisions plagued the cabinet, and several of its members didn’t last the duration of Lincoln’s first term—he was nevertheless more adept at keeping discordant elements in check than the sensitive Washington.
The two men also differed in their strengths and weaknesses when it came to the art of persuasion. Washington wasn’t known for his rhetorical gifts; his most well-regarded work of prose, the Farewell Address, was partly the work of Madison in its first draft form and Hamilton in a later one. But Washington was physically imposing and formidable, and he knew how to magnify his physical qualities with a little stagecraft. When he arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, he was decked out in military uniform, prepared to make a striking impression.
And he knew how to play on an audience’s emotions by letting his formidable exterior slip a little, as he did during the unrest in the Continental Army at Newburgh in 1783. Amid reports that disgruntled officers wanted to use the army to pressure Congress over a lack of pay, Washington addressed the men at a meeting on March 15. Fumbling over a letter from a member of Congress that he intended to read to them, he donned a pair of glasses, stating, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The officers were deeply moved by this rare show of weakness from a man noted for his vigor and powers of endurance.
Gangly and awkward, Lincoln could never command a room simply by walking into it, as Washington could. What he lacked in imposing presence, he made up for with his ability to craft compelling arguments and lyrical prose. When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860, one member of the audience found him “so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.” Eventually, though, the clarity of Lincoln’s ideas and the power of his words overcame the awful first impression and won his audience over. “I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities,” the eyewitness remembered. “Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.” At Newburgh, Washington used his physical presence to make up for what his prepared remarks lacked. At Cooper Union, by contrast, it was only Lincoln’s ability as a public speaker that overcame his ungainly appearance.
The Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build additional faculty housing at the Rev War battlefield has hit a snag. A state regulatory commission has blocked the proposal because of its proximity to a local stream.
A few items worthy of note as we ring in 2014.
- This list of New Year resolutions for Kentuckians includes a few history-related things to do, including some sites that every citizen of the Bluegrass State should visit. I’ll add one more assignment for Kentuckians in 2014: If you haven’t already, read either Thomas Clark’s classic history of the state or the more recent volume by Lowell Harrison and James Klotter.
- Speaking of knowing your local history, all you folks in Winston-Salem should get acquainted with your town’s Rev War namesake.
- We’re getting a new statue of Sam Houston here in Tennessee, where he made a name for himself before heading off to Texas. There’s also a new Civil War Trails marker going up in Maynardville, just down the road from my neck of the woods.
- Zachary Keck argues that Americans’ fondness for revolutions is misplaced, and stems partly from our own revolutionary beginnings. But he also claims that the American Revolution wasn’t all that revolutionary, because it didn’t upset the status quo. Keck notes that most revolutions don’t create stable, free societies; real progress is due more to evolution than revolution. But should we consider the democratization of the nineteenth century to be an effect of the American Revolution or an example of gradual evolution? Gordon Wood took the long view of the Revolution as a process that turned America away from the hierarchical, colonial past and toward the democratic, egalitarian nineteenth century. Taken as a discrete event which ended in the 1780s, though, the Revolution seems more limited in scope. I guess it all depends on your perspective.
- By far the year’s most popular post here at Past in the Present was a 2012 item about an off-color anecdote told by Abraham Lincoln which made its way into Spielberg’s film.
- I’d like to pick a best American history book of 2013, but most of the books I read this year had already been in circulation for a while. People have been writing history books for a lot longer than I’ve been reading them, so I spend most of my reading time trying to catch up with backlisted titles. As for the best American history book I read in 2013, I’d probably go with Rachel Klein’s Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808.
- High point of 2013 for me? Under any other circumstances, visiting the Freedom Trail, Lexington and Concord would be impossible to top, but…
Every Christmas there’s a reenactment of the Continental Army’s crossing of the Delaware River on the way to attack the Hessians at Trenton, and one lucky guy gets to portray George Washington. I’d always assumed the organizers got their Washington the same way other museums and historic sites find people who do first-person portrayals—just flip through the Rolodex and make a phone call. Back when I was in the Lincoln museum business, we had a couple of go-to guys we used for this sort of thing. (There is, in fact, an Association of Lincoln Presenters in case you need somebody to show up at an event and deliver the Gettysburg Address.)
But it turns out the organizers of the Delaware crossing reenactment pick their Washington through a formal audition process every few years. Think American Idol, except with middle-aged men in tricorn hats. It’s the subject of a short documentary produced by The Star-Ledger.
I recommend watching the film, not just because it’s a fascinating glimpse into the commemoration of the Revolution but also because it’s surprising to see how fierce the competition is and how passionately these guys want the role. There are Rev War reenactors for whom this is the holy grail of living history, but of course only one guy is chosen, and there are some bitter feelings when the winner is announced. Of the competitors featured in the documentary, I think the guy who bore the strongest resemblance to Washington was the winner, but the film doesn’t really show any of them in character except for a few brief speech excerpts.
Portraying Washington at an event seems like it would be pretty tough, at least if you were really trying to get it right. Doing first-person interpretation to a crowd requires you to be engaging, but Washington was famously reserved. He was also a rather bland public speaker, at least when using a prepared text. I’d imagine that playing somebody more personable, like Franklin or Lincoln, would be a lot more fun.
When I was working on my master’s thesis, one of the things I wanted to do was examine the federal pension applications of King’s Mountain veterans. The NARA Rev War pension files are fantastic sources, sort of like miniature autobiographies of common soldiers along with supporting documentation. Thing is, there are a heck of a lot of them, and I was only after pension files from veterans of one particular battle, so each roll of microfilm only had a few documents that were relevant to my project. I spent as much time fast forwarding through microfilm reels to get to what I needed as I did reading the material I wanted to see.
Fortunately, people who are interested in using the Rev War pension files have it a lot easier these days. Almost all of them are available at Fold3, one of the best subscription services to access digitized material. These aren’t transcriptions, mind you, but digital versions of what you’d see if you were looking at the microfilm. All you have to do is pay a subscription fee and you can peruse these documents to your heart’s content while sitting on the couch in your pajamas. No gas mileage, no parking hassles, no library closing hours, no other researchers hogging the microfilm reader, and no duplication costs.
The Rev War pension files are just one example of the sort of thing you can access through these online subscription services—pay vouchers, muster rolls, the records of the Southern Claims Commission, Indian treaties, journals of the Continental Congress, Washington’s letters.
There’s clearly a lot to be said for these online services, and yet I haven’t run across that many academic history books that cite them. Part of the reason for this is simple: people haven’t been digitizing manuscripts for all that long. But even when it comes to more recent books, I don’t see that many online collections cited. I know a lot of genealogists who make extensive use of these online services, but not many professional historians who do so.
Again, these sites offer digitized versions of the exact same thing you’d see if you consulted the microform, so on the face of it it’s hard to see why there would be any difference in citing one instead of the other. In fact, if one of the purposes of citation is accountability (i.e., to allow readers to easily check an author’s sources), citing an online digitized document would seem to facilitate that better than citing the same thing from a roll of microfilm or a folder in a vault.
So is it just me, or are academic historians reluctant to use online services like Fold3, and is there some reason for that? And will we start to see these types of services utilized more frequently by academic researchers as time passes?
(By the way, if it seems like I’ve been obsessing lately about choosing among different formats of primary source material, I plead guilty as charged. This book project has made it something of a pressing issue for me.)