Southern History Roundup

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"Mississippi Blues trail curriculum launched today," Clarion Ledger, May 6, 2013

A new Mississippi Blues Trail Curriculum launched online today will bring the state’s native arts and culture to the classroom by exploring Mississippi history through a Blues Trail lens.

The free 18-lesson curriculum, with an interactive, multi-media resource page, was launched by the Mississippi Arts Commission Monday. With three lessons for each of six core areas — music, meaning, cotton, transportation, civil rights and media — the curriculum is available at www.msbluestrail.org/curriculum.>>>

Jakob Schiller, "Civil War Lovers Can’t Leave the Past Behind at Awkward Reenactments," Wired, May 30, 2013

Some of our favorite photographers are ones that bring a fresh eye to a stale topic, which is what Anderson Scott has done with Civil War re-enactors — a favorite subject among photographers. In his recent photo book Whistling Dixie, Scott delves into the American South with a dirty aesthetic and an eye for the strange.

But just like his photos defy our expectations, the events themselves actually caught him by surprise. Scott, a lawyer in Atlanta, was raised in the South, but years spent documenting the Civil War reenactment scene revealed a group of staunch Confederate supporters among the history buffs and hobbyists.>>>

Stefanos Chen, "The Brandon Plantation is scheduled for auction in June," (photo essay) Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2012

The Brandon Plantation, a national historic landmark, dates in part to the 17th century, according to the National Park Service. The main house, pictured here, an English Palladian-style home, was built around 1765 in the Burrowsville area of Virginia, according to Park Service documents. It has been with the Daniel family, a prominent political family, since 1926, when the patriarch and future state senator, Robert Williams Daniel, bought the agricultural estate. The property measures roughly 4,500 acres, and is still used today for farming and timber.>>>

"Slave Cabin Set to Become Centerpiece of New Smithsonian Museum," Smithsonian, May 13, 2013

Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina, had more than 170 slaves before the Civil War working in the fields to pick Sea Island cotton. Not much evidence of the slaves’ daily toil exists now, though, except for a couple one-story, dilapidated cabins–the last physical reminders of the brutal and degrading living conditions of the enslaved, as well as an emblem of the strength and endurance of the nearly four million Americans living in bondage by the time of the war.

Today, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) announced the acquisition of one of these 19th-century cabins, which was donated by the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society last month after they received it from the plantation’s current owners. The cabin will travel to its new home at the Smithsonian to preserve the story it stands for.>>>

Alexandra Starr, "Contested State ‘Finding Florida,’ by T. D. Allman," NYT, April 26, 2013

Anyone who has commuted to a Fort Lauderdale beach will be familiar with the journey T. D. Allman describes in “Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State.”Because drawbridges that lead to the ocean’s edge are raised to allow large boats up the inland waterways, highway passengers are almost invariably subjected to long waits. This imposition — and the fact that the people behind steering wheels don’t protest — drives Allman to distraction. “Not one person demands to know: Why is it that the people with boats take precedence over us?” he writes.>>>

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Matthew Frye Jacobson on Why I Became a Historian

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Randall Stephens

Matthew Frye Jacobson, interviewed in the video posted here, is the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University.  He is the outgoing president of the American Studies Association.  He's also the
author of What Have They Built You to Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America (with Gaspar Gonzalex, University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Harvard University Press, 2005); Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917 (Hill and Wang, 2000); Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Harvard University Press, 1998); and Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States (University of California Press, 1995).

Jacobson was one of the keynote speakers at the Nordic Association for American Studies conference I attended this past weekend at Karlstad University in Sweden. Jacobson's talk dealt with a fascinating website cum archive he and others have developed called the Historian's Eye. This expansive visual and oral history project is described on the site:


Beginning as a modest effort in early 2009 to capture the historic moment of our first black president’s inauguration in photographs and interviews, the "Our Better History” project and the Historian’s Eye website have evolved into an expansive collection of some 3000+ photographs and an audio archive addressing Obama’s first term in office, the ’08 economic collapse and its fallout, two wars, the raucous politics of healthcare reform, the emergence of a new right-wing formation in opposition to Obama, the politics of immigration, Wall Street reform, street protests of every stripe, the BP oil spill, the escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide and the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement. 

I caught up with Jacobson in Karlstad to discuss his work and how he became a historian.  In the interview above he speaks about his interest in cultural history, his early understanding of the possibilities of historical study, and describes how he chose to work in the field.

For other interviews in this ongoing series, click here.

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Granite Points to Unknown Continent

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Scientists this week announced they may have found a lost continent off the coast of Brazil. Granite boulders dredged from the seafloor off the coast of South America two years ago could be remnants of a long-vanished continent, according to Roberto Ventura Santos, the geology director of Brazil's Geology Service.
According to National Geographic:
"This could be the Brazilian Atlantis," Santos said, adding that he was speaking metaphorically and not claiming to have found the legendary sunken world. 
"Obviously, we don't expect to find a lost city in the middle of the Atlantic." 
Santos speculated that the granite—a relatively low-density rock found in continental crust—belonged to a continent that was submerged when Africa and South America drifted apart and formed the Atlantic Ocean about 100 million years ago.
But Michael Wysession, an Earth and planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that granite can find its way onto the seafloor through other means.
"There are pieces of granite in the middle of the seafloor that date to about 800 million years ago when we had a snowball earth scenario and there were large pieces of rock embedded in ice rafts"—mobile glaciers, essentially—"all over the ocean," explained Wysession.

Image: Divers near where the granite was found.

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Accurate History for Activists

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Dan Allosso

I spent last weekend in the Twin Cities, doing a radio interview about my book and giving a talk on freethought history at the monthly meeting of the Minnesota Atheists.  At roughly

the same time, Susan Jacoby was a featured speaker at the second annual Women in Secularism conference in Washington, DC.  A couple of people live-blogged Jacoby’s talk (here and here). Reading these transcripts and thinking about my own weekend as a presenter has changed my perspective on the role of historians in public discourse.

According to a bio produced for Bill Moyers’ website on PBS, Susan Jacoby

began her writing career as a reporter for THE WASHINGTON POST, is the author of five books, including WILD JUSTICE, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Awarded fellowships by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York Public Library's Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she has been a contributor to THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE NATION, TomPaine.com and the AARP BULLETIN, among other publications. She is also director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York and lives in New York City.

Although she’s not a professional historian, Jacoby has tons of credibility in the literary world.  Also in the secularist world and the liberal intellectual world.  Her recent books, Freethinkers, The Age of American Unreason, and The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, are all required reading for in-the-know secularists.  I’ve read the first and third, the other one is on my to-read list.  Jacoby has done a lot to remind contemporary readers of the existence of freethinkers in American history (especially Robert Ingersoll).  So I was a little surprised when I saw the live-bloggers recorded Jacoby saying something like this:

2:04: There have been no secular activists who have made women’s rights an issue, except insofar as they are threatened by radical Islam. Telling the truth about radical Islam and women is important, but we need secularists to understand that discrimination and violence against women are hardly confined to the Islamic world...Robert Ingersoll is the only male secularist who is an exception to this. 

While Jacoby’s point that secularists need to extend their understanding of oppression is undoubtedly correct, her historical example couldn’t be more incorrect.  Throughout history, freethinkers have more often than not linked secularism with women’s and family issues.  In addition to the many women freethinkers (Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, Eliza Sharples Carlile, Ernestine Rose, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc.) there have been many male freethinkers who worked for women’s rights.  In America, Dr. Charles Knowlton, Robert Dale Owen, and Abner Kneeland come easily to my mind (because I was talking to the MN Atheists about them while Jacoby was talking to the Secularist Women); in England Richard Carlile, Francis Place, and John Stuart Mill are also easy choices.  Dig beneath the surface layer of famous names, and there are many more.

The point is that Jacoby’s credibility and authority (and the audience’s sympathy with her point about understanding oppression) allowed her to insert bad history into the conference’s stream of consciousness.  It resurfaced later, in discussions like the one about whether Ingersoll would have accepted an invitation to speak at the conference, and in a general impression that secularism has generally NOT been particularly friendly to women and their issues.  The inaccuracy of this view hinders contemporary secular feminists in their efforts to identify freethought with the rights of women and oppressed minorities, and not just the “Rights of Man.”  But the authority of historical expertise (Heather Cox Richardson recently referred to it as the “oxygen”) belongs to the person at the podium — and all too often that person is not a historian.

I’m sure misleading her audience was the opposite of Susan Jacoby’s intent.  She seems to have been arguing that today’s secular women need to push beyond the movement’s history and win new victories of their own.  And this is good advice.  But pushing forward might not seem as difficult, if women were aware of the efforts and sacrifices made by earlier secularists in the same cause.  Today’s secular women might gain valuable information as well as inspiration, if the story of earlier secular feminists was better known.  So I’ve signed on with Secular Woman to tell the stories of secular feminists in the past.  I’ll be writing a monthly series of short biographies of secular women.  Secular Woman is an activist organization, so hopefully these stories will be useful to the women Jacoby was urging to continue the fight.

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Memorial Day Posts

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Randall Stephens

While I'm at an American Studies conference in Sweden, the blog will be taking a short break.  In the meantime, have a look at this two past posts that deal with Memorial Day:

Heather Cox Richardson, "A Thank You to Our Troops—All of Them—on this Memorial Day," May 30, 2011

Memorial Day came out of the Decoration Days held after the Civil War. This seems like a logical thing for me, a scholar of nineteenth century America, to write about today.

Instead, though, I’d like to talk about a group of soldiers that often gets forgotten when we remember our troops. I mean the WACs, the more than 150,000 women who served in the U.S. Army during World War II.>>>

Randall Stephens, "The History of Memorial Day and the National World War One Museum, Kansas City," May 23, 2009

As Americans cram their faces with hot dogs and swill cheap beer, many will also reflect on the heroic efforts of countless men and women who have served their country over the years. Parades, concerts, and ceremonies across Boston will turn our attention to those who fought and died for their country. The National memorial Day Concert in Washington, D.C., will draw a massive crowd of observers in the capitol and TV viewers.>>>

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Size Matters?

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Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

"Length of the average dissertation," from FlowData.
This chart initiated a round of chest thumping by academic historians. Apparently we historians write the longest dissertations. Now, according to this chart, philosophers and classicists do not write dissertations, when in fact they do. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the chart is correct. What does it tell us about historians? Either we do more research than scholars in any other field (unlikely from my interdisciplinary vantage point), or we are less able to articulate our findings in a pithy manner than our colleagues in other departments on campus.

When I made a snide remark about length on Facebook, my historian friends jumped to the defense of 325 page dissertations as the necessary length for a monograph. Other fields publish articles rather than books. Thus, the argument went, they can get away with less. This perplexed me. A doctoral dissertation no matter the field should demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge, right?

Last time I checked, one can’t measure originality with a ruler or a word count. The Encyclopedia Britannica used to fill rows of shelves, but it contained less innovation than the napkin upon which
Watson and Crick drew the double helix. I am a fan of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. It makes a mighty doorstop as well as an excellent overview of 18th-century political theory, but Madison’s concise constitution brought bigger results in fewer words.

Historians have never been certain whether we rank among humanists or social scientists. Do we weave tales or devise algorithms from the infinite human variables hidden in the past? Is our fundamental task to describe the human experience or analyze it? If the former, no wonder we run on so long. The infinite permutations of personal experience stand at odds with the virtues of pithy prose. We forgive Dickens and Dostoevsky their length for this reason, but should they serve as historians’ role models? According to the chart, anthropologists, whose ethnographic methodologies hinge upon description, nip at historians’ lengthy heels. Einstein captured rather a lot with E=MC2, that’s why mathematicians and physicists come in comfortably under 200 words.

I think most historians have had the experience of reading a brilliant, incisive essay in a journal or collected volume then trudged through the book that expanded the same analysis from 30 to 300 plus pages. The extra examples and paths through the past make us fall in love with our own research, but how many of our readers—even other historians—care?

A few days before the dissertation chart made the internet rounds, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow George Saunders spoke about his artistic practice as a short story writer on my campus. Years ago, I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies followed by The Namesake. Each of her short stories in the former Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection established a cast of characters, or—if you will—derived an equation constituted of characters as complex as that in the later novel. The novel (begun as a novella) attempted to propel the characters through a narrative/solve the equation with less critical acclaim. My equation analogy for Lahiri’s work came to mind as Saunders described his education as an engineer and his thrill when he takes ten pages and pares them down to one page of perfect prose. I tell my students to think of one page essays as a reduction sauce. Simmer off the excess and leave me with pure flavor. Like a good engineer who seeks to solve a problem, simplify the equation.

Saunders noted that novelists make more money than writers of short stories. Historical essayists such as John Murrin and Bob Scribner never earn the royalties garnered by Gordon Wood or Stephen Ozment, let alone journalists cum historians David McCollough or Barbara Tuchman. Do historians seek an added intellectual value in books or a shot at big bucks and the ultimate money-earner, a movie? These books and films definitely reach a wider audience outside the classroom, but do they convey as much useful information as a tightly argued article assigned in an undergraduate seminar? Size clearly matters, but why and how?

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Staying Positive

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Craig Gallagher*

It's likely that if you have already applied and been accepted to graduate school to study history, you’ve heard it at least once. You’ll hear it plenty more times before you get that masters or Ph.D. in history you’re putting aside a lot of time and/or money to acquire.

In fact, if your decision to continue your education isn’t just about putting off the working world for a few years and is driven by a desire to change direction and start a new career, you’ll hear it so often that it will feel as though everyone thinks you’re running away to join the circus instead of pursuing another professional qualification.

I’m talking, of course, about that constant refrain that hangs over graduate school like a surly cloud at the moment: “There are no jobs!” Now, I don’t wish to debunk this statement with a much rosier picture of the job market than has hitherto been offered, because I can’t do that.

Not when respected publications like the Atlantic and the Chronicle of Higher Education have lined up to inform us that even seeking a degree in the sciences offers little economic advantage anymore in these straitened times, adding as an afterthought that the outlook for those who hold humanities degrees is downright bleak.

What I suggest, however, is that staying positive in the face of such bleak prospects is essential.

The fact remains that universities and colleges are still admitting graduate students to study history and are still training them to read, research, and write to a very high standard. Graduate students still get teaching experience, we still learn how to organize our time effectively, how to argue cogently and coherently and to condense vast amounts of information into digestible bites fit for any palate. We also learn to speak foreign languages.

It needs to be kept in mind that these are transferable skills applicable to a variety of jobs. Sure, we can’t change overnight the fact that some potential employers will see “M.A. in History” and immediately move on to the next CV. But we can embrace the abilities we develop in such a way as to help ourselves, first and foremost, compete in a fallow economy.

And, let’s not forget, these are just the classic skills any apprentice historian will develop. As the discipline broadens and deepens to accommodate technological changes, new opportunities arise in the burgeoning subfield known as the Digital Humanities.

My point is, when you hear “There are no jobs!” don’t translate this as “I am hopelessly unemployable.” Hear instead, “What can I do, say, and work on to make sure I get one of those ‘no jobs’?"

*Craig Gallagher is a PhD Candidate in History at Boston College. His dissertation project focuses on transnational Scottish Presbyterian merchants, ministers, settlers and soldiers in the late-17th century Atlantic World. In spring 2013 he received a research grant from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

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The Greatest Migration of All

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Eric B. Schultz

Ask an American historian to define the Great Migration and you’ll hear one of several answers.  Most will describe the movement of 6 million African Americans from the rural South who headed north and west, from
A Jack Delano photo of migrants
heading north from Florida, 1940.
World War I through 1970, seeking economic opportunity and relief from Jim Crow laws. This is the story so beautifully told in Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns.

There’s another group of historians who might describe the Great Migration as the 20,000 English men, women, and children who crossed the Atlantic between 1620 and 1640, seeking opportunity and relief in New England. These are the Mayflower names, the families that delight and provide such rich insights for genealogists.  Since 1988 the New England Historic Genealogical Society has sponsored the Great Migration Study Project, scheduled for completion in 2016.

In his monumental What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 Daniel Walker Howe describes “one of the greatest migrations in America,” when Andrew Jackson encouraged white squatters from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee to move onto 14 million acres expropriated from the Creeks. By 1819 this flood of humanity had established Mississippi and Alabama. “The Alabama fever rages here with great violence,” one North Carolina farmer moaned, “and has carried off vast numbers of our citizens.” Never, Howe remarks, had so large a territory been settled so rapidly—though the peopling of the Old Northwest Territory was not far behind.

Still, there has been another kind of Great Migration in America, less dramatic, but in some ways the steadiest and perhaps most influential. It also has great bearing upon one of today’s hottest political issues, immigration policy, and helps explain why Silicon Valley is so vested in the bill currently making its way through Congress.

"The Puritan Migration to America, 1620-1640."
From Bedford/St. Martin's MapCentral.
Brooke Hindle (1918-2001) was the historian emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History when he, along with (current) Brown University’s Steven Lubar, authored Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution 1790-1860. It’s a beautiful book that emphasizes the material aspects of innovation (later reinforced in Hindle’s excellent Emulation and Innovation). It also answers in a very simple way a very profound question: How did a nation of farmers stage their own Industrial Revolution and by 1851 stun the world with their technological prowess at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition?

One answer, of course, is theft and industrial espionage. If good ideas can be stolen and copied, from Samuel Slater’s work in duplicating an Arkwright-type spinning factory at Pawtucket, to Francis Cabot Lowell’s study of English power looms, then revolution is possible. Indeed, even Eli Whitney—who all good Americans know invented the cotton gin—relied upon a millennium of global cotton gin technology (and not very well, Angela Lakwete’s Inventing the Cotton Gin tells us). One wonders if the talk in 19th-century Parliament about Americans wasn’t roughly akin to that of today’s U.S government and its recent indictment of China’s military for stealing industrial technology.

A second answer is that Jefferson’s virtuous farmer also just happened to be conversant with machines of all kinds; a healthy farm required that cams, ratchets, escapements, pistons, and even (or especially!) whiskey stills be in good working order. Lubar and Hindle quote one New Jersey farmer-tavern keeper, who told an astounded visitor not long after the Revolution, “I am a mover, a shoemaker, furrier, wheelwright, farmer, gardener, and when it can’t be helped, a soldier. I make my bread, brew my beer, kill my pigs; I grind my axes and knives; I built those stalls and that shed there; I am barber, leech, and doctor.” 

Finally—and here’s the Great Migration aspect—America (with a few notable decades excepted) has long been a welcome destination for skilled artisans. Dutch and Polish glassworkers, Italian silk reelers, and German sawyers arrived in Jamestown, the authors tell us, at the invitation of the Virginia Company. England, itself a destination for German miners, Flemish weavers, and French glassworkers and horologists, in turn transferred those technologies to America as skilled artisans crossed the Atlantic.

As early as 1754, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had a pumped and piped water supply courtesy of Moravian Germans. The famous Pennsylvania rifle and Conestoga wagon evolved from German prototypes. The sawmill, so important to America’s growth, was brought by artisans from Hamburg. England passed along navigational and mathematical instruments, clockmaking, gunnery, and coal-fuel industries. In the 1830s and 1840s when the steam engine pushed the geographic center of industry from New England to Pennsylvania, it was English, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish miners and ironworkers who brought their skills to bear. “The leading cities—Philadelphia, Boston, and New York—received a continuing stream of artisans,” Hindle and Lubar write, “most of them from London, quickly making available the skills and newer developments of the British metropolis.”
Occupational portrait of a skilled worker,
ca. 1850. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There seems more than a casual relationship between the fact that, from 1824 to 1831, more than 1,000 Englishmen classifying themselves as “machinists” immigrated to the United States, and by 1860 American machinists were among the best in the world.

Like a modern CEO warning his engineers that they will surely fail if they adopt a “not invented here” mentality, George Washington told his countryman in his first address to Congress that “the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad” could be as valuable as those created by the “skill and genius” of Americans. Those kinds of “foreign entanglements” were ones that the Commander in Chief appeared to welcome.

While Hindle and Lubar focus on cutting edge technology, we also know that sometimes the sort of “artisan talent” that migrated to America came in the form of incredible persistence and sheer ambition. In The Maritime History of Massachusetts, Samuel Eliot Morison tells us that conditions on whaling vessels became so abysmal that American citizens refused to serve; this left opportunity for “Kanakas, Tongatabooras, Filipinos, and even Fiji cannibals like Melville’s hero Queequeg” to make their way in America. By taking jobs that Americans would not, these hearty immigrants supported an enormously profitable global trade and enriched their adopted country.

It’s a powerful historical reminder that this Great Migration of skills that advanced America’s innovation economy over the last 300 years sprang from both the most advantaged and the least advantaged immigrant groups.

Once again we are embroiled in a great debate about immigration. (For two sides of the coin, see Howie Carr’s piece here and David Brooks’ here.) I don’t pretend to know the best policy, nor do I suggest that three centuries of this Great Migration of talent and technology should be the only thing considered in the debate. I just hope, given the impact of this extraordinary gift, that it is at least one of the factors considered by those who might otherwise close our borders.

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Study of Past Sparks Debate about the Future in the UK

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Randall Stephens

Readers might find interesting this recent article in the Guardian about history battles.   On the heels of the Niall Ferguson scandal, Labour Education spokesman and historian Tristram Hunt writes: "From curriculum rows to Niall Ferguson's remarks on Keynes, our past is the fuel for debate about th
Read the above at the BBC
e future." ("History is where the great battles of public life are now being fought," Guardian, May 12, 2013).


Here's a brief excerpt:

For as [Niall] Ferguson has discovered to his cost, history enjoys a uniquely controversial place within British public life. "There is no part of the national curriculum so likely to prove an ideological battleground for contending armies as history," complained an embattled Michael Gove in a speech last week. "There may, for all I know, be rival Whig and Marxist schools fighting a war of interpretation in chemistry or food technology but their partisans don't tend to command much column space in the broadsheets."

Even if academic historians might not like it, politicians are right to involve themselves in the curriculum debate. The importance of history in the shaping of citizenship, developing national identity and exploring the ties that bind in our increasingly disparate, multicultural society demands a democratic input. The problem is that too many of the progressive partisans we need in this struggle are missing from the field.

How different it all was 50 years ago this summer when EP Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class , his seminal account of British social history during the Industrial Revolution. "I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand loom weaver, the 'utopian' artist ... from the condescension of posterity," he wrote.>>>

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Summer Reading: Understanding Historical Theory (Quickly)

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Heather Cox Richardson

As the school year winds to a close, incoming graduate students have been asking me what they should read to prepare for the fall. That question has an obvious answer, and the answer brings up what strikes me as an oddity in the way we handle graduate education in history.
Boston Public Library.
Photo by Randall Stephens.


It has always seemed to me bizarre that we treat graduate education as if it has little connection to undergraduate studies. A brilliant undergrad will understand facts, argument, and, with luck, historiography, as well as how to write. But one of the first things that brilliant undergrad will do in graduate school is to take a seminar in historical theory, where s/he’s supposed to converse intelligently about historical theories of which s/he has never heard. First year grad students are lost and frightened. (Except for that One Guy who throws around Foucault's name like they're long-time tennis partners.)

My antidote to that deer-in-the-headlights experience of first-year graduate school in history is Marnie Hughes-Warrington’s book, Fifty Key Thinkers on History. It lays out the major arguments of Tacitus, Natalie Zemon Davis, E P. Thompson, Michel Foucault, Marc Bloch, and so on, in a few pages each. It identifies both the major works of each historian, and how the argument of those works fits into the historiography of their era.

It's not perfect (of course), but it's a godsend for showing students the lay of the land so they can then absorb individual hills. This book lays out major theoretical arguments in history and situates them in their historical moment. It opens up the world of historical theory so students can then examine it in more detail, piece by piece.

This book helps to ease the transition from undergraduate course work to graduate studies. If you are looking for something to give you a leg up in your first year of graduate school, this is your first assignment.

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A New Old Look at Mother's Day

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The following is a reposting of a May 6, 2011 piece.

Heather Cox Richardson

While I’m as happy as the next mom to get chocolate on Mother’s Day—or on any other day, frankly—I can’t help pointing out that “Mother’s Day,” did not originate as a way to encourage people to be nice to their mothers. It was part of women’s empowerment and social reform in the late nineteenth century. Rather than starting in 1908 when Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother, it was an impassioned effort by women in the late nineteenth century to end war forever.

The Civil War years taught naïve Americans what carnage meant in a modern war. Soldiers who had marched jauntily off to war discovered that long-range weapons turned the inaccurate volleys of the past into murderous waves of death. Their romantic notions of brave battle and either a victorious return or a clean end died even before the men did. They saw their friends trampled into blood-soaked mud, piled like cordwood in ditches, turned into emaciated corpses after dysentery had drained their lives away.

The women who had sent their men off to war were also haunted by its results. They lost fathers, husbands, sons. If their menfolk did come home, they brought scars: wounds, missing limbs, and psychological trauma.

Modern war, it seemed, was not a game.

Out of the war came not only the horror of war, but also a new sense of empowerment for Union women. During the war, they had bought bonds, paid taxes, raised money for the war effort, managed farms, harvested fields, worked in war industries, reared children, nursed soldiers. When the war ended, they were eager to continue to participate in national affairs. Resenting that the Fourteenth Amendment did not establish that women, as well as African-American men, were citizens, women in 1869 organized the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the American Woman’s Suffrage Association to promote women’s right to have a say in the direction of the country.

Julia Ward Howe was a key figure in the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. She was a Boston lady drawn to women’s rights because current laws meant that if she broke free from her abusive husband, she would lose any right to see her children (a fact he threw at her whenever she threatened to leave him). She was not a radical in the mold of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Rather, she believed strongly that women, as mothers, had a special role to perform in the world.

For Howe, the Civil War had been traumatic, but that it led to emancipation might have justified its terrible bloodshed (a theme she developed in her “Battle Hymn of the Republic”). The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 was another story. As she remembered:

I was visited by a sudden feeling of the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. It seemed to me a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed. The question forced itself upon me, “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?” (Julia Ward Howe, Reminiscences, pp. 327-328)

Howe had a new vision, she said, of “the august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities.” She sat down immediately and wrote an “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World.” Men always had and always would decide questions by resorting to “mutual murder.” But women did not have to accept this state of affairs, she wrote. Mothers could command their sons to stop the madness.

Arise, women! Howe commanded. Say firmly:

We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” (Laura E. H. Richards, et al., Julia Ward Howe, vol. 1, pp. 302-303)

Howe had her document translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Swedish, and distributed it as widely as her extensive contacts made possible. She believed that her Women’s Peace Movement would be the next great development in human history, ending war just as the anti-slavery movement had ended human bondage. She called for a “festival which should be observed as mothers’ day, and which should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines” to be held around the world on June 2 of every year, a date that would permit open-air meetings.

Howe organized international peace conferences; American states developed their own Mothers’ Day festivals. But Howe quickly gave up on her project. She realized that there was much to be done before women could come together on such a momentous scale. She abandoned her grand vision of world peace and turned her attention to women’s clubs “to constitute a working and united womanhood.”

Perhaps Anna Jarvis remembered seeing her mother participate in an original American Mothers’ Day, and decided to honor her own mother’s idealism. In moving the apostrophe to turn Mothers’ Day into Mother’s Day, though, she changed the meaning of the holiday profoundly.

While we celebrate Mother’s Day, it’s worth also remembering Mothers’ Day, and Julia Ward Howe’s conviction that women must make their voices heard in politics.

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A Century of New York City Photographs

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Heather Cox Richardson

The New York City Municipal Archives has put on-line more than 800,000 images. This is simply an astonishing collection. A must for anyone who studies New York City and the U.S. in general.

Click here for more

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The Chinese Exclusion Act and American Economic Policy

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Heather Cox Richardson

On May 6, 1882, President Chester Arthur signed into law theChinese Exclusion Act. This hotly contested law was the first in American history to prevent voluntary immigration to the United States. It was also the formal rejection of one of the founding principles of the Republican Party: that the immigration of workers to the U.S. was fundamental to the country’s strength.
An 1882 cartoon: "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT.
Enlightened American Statesman.--"We must
draw the line somewhere, you know."
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Chinese immigration to America began with the Gold Rush. Its flood tide in 1849 coincided with the economic catastrophe left in China by the Opium Wars, and young Chinese men came to “Gold Mountain” to earn money to feed their families back home. Chinese miners did well financially in California, but quickly came under fire from native-born Americans, who first passed a “Foreign Miners’ Tax” targeting Chinese miners and then tried to prevent Chinese immigrants from testifying in court.

The attempts to create a legal caste system bothered budding Republicans like William Henry Seward and Abraham Lincoln. The idea that men were not equal in America, but rather could be divided by legal status, echoed the beliefs of the southern Democrats that Republicans opposed. When Republicans took over the national government, they stood firm against that theory. They not only ended slavery, but also promoted immigration. Immigrants, their 1864 platform declared: had “added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations,” that immigration “should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.” Immigrants worked hard, made products that created value, and helped to fuel a rising spiral of economic prosperity. Republicans believed that the more immigrants a country attracted, the more its economy would expand.

The Republican government fostered and encouraged Chinese immigration through the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, which opened both China and America to immigrants from the opposite country. While migrants to China tended to be missionaries and engineers, migrants to America tended to be laborers. The Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed it turned native-born Americans against those same Chinese laborers, and calls to exclude the Chinese from access to America grew loud.

The result of their hostility was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which kept Chinese laborers—but not businessmen, scholars, or diplomats—0ut of America. Over the vehement protests of older Republicans, Americans insisted that America had no place for immigrants who might take jobs from native-born workers. No longer did the nation adhere to the belief that all workers fed a growing economy. Instead, a majority of Americans subscribed to the idea that workers competed with each other, and that certain workers were not welcome to be part of that competition.

The Chinese Exclusion Act marked a major shift in immigration policy, to be sure. But it also marked a seismic shift in the national understanding of the mechanics of economic growth.

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Apologia pro Common Core

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Steven Cromack

The 1983 report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reformstunned Americans. Schools across the country scrambled to design content standards and implement assessments.
Thirty-years later, history seems to be repeating itself. In an effort to improve K-12 education, forty-five states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted and implemented the Common Core State Standards. As of 2013, Texas, Alaska, Virginia, Minnesota, and Nebraska are the five holdouts. Members of the academy and secondary school history teachers should be euphoric about the Common Core, which mandates that middle and high school students actually do the work of historians. This includes, but is not limited to, reading and analyzing primary and secondary sources, as well as synthesizing such information coherently in written assignments. The crux of the Common Core is 21st-century readiness, i.e., putting a verb in a sentence correctly, and being able to read not “good,” but well. 

The standards themselves are not revolutionary. In fact, they simply mandate that teachers actually teach reading and writing. The best teachers have always done this. But at least with the Standards, teachers will be held accountable if they choose to use PowerPoint and the textbook as their sole methods of instruction. 

Members of the academy should be excited, too. With Common Core on the ground in high schools, the next generation of students should be better readers and writers. It is now time to double down and ensure that history undergraduates who plan to be teachers are introduced to the seminal primary source documents of American history so they can be prepared to teach the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Seneca Falls Declaration, among many others, to the upcoming generations.

Finally, Common Core reminds teachers of something that they perhaps take for granted: words are powerful. Whether they rally the troops before battle, convey universal truths, or declare new ideas about government, words are at the center of any society. Ideas can only be expressed through words. Words are like the ka of the Pharaoh, the lifeblood of any civilization. They are the written and spoken laws. They are nomoi (human conventions) and physis (nature). They are a means of grace, salus (healing), and salvation provided by the religions of the world. Words ended slavery and apartheid. Words relocated sovereignty from the King in Parliament to the American people. They toppled the Senātus Populusque Rōmānus and the House of Bourbon.  Words inspired nationalism and broke the yoke of colonialism. Words also sentenced prisoners to execution, inspired terror, and declared purges. 

History is not just the study of past events, but of words and their meaning. The Common Core Standards allow for history teachers to roll up their sleeves and rediscover with their students the words that have shaped our world.

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Jamestown Cannibalism Roundup

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Joseph Stromberg, "Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism New archaeological evidence and forensic analysis reveals that a 14-year-old girl was cannibalized in desperation," Smithsonian, May 1, 2013

The harsh winter of 1609 in Virginia’s Jamestown Colony forced residents to do the unthinkable. A recent excavation at the historic site discovered the carcasses of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the “Starving Time.” But a few other newly discovered bones in particular, though, tell a far more gruesome story: the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old English girl.>>>

"Study reveals cannibalism in first US colony," AlJazeeraEnglish, May 1, 2013

 

 raherrmann, "Digging Out My Cannibal Girl Hat," The Junto blog, May 2, 2013

. . . . So, funny story. When I first submitted my article on cannibalism and the Starving Time at Jamestown to the William and Mary Quarterly, the piece strongly argued against any occurrence of cannibalism. When I got my readers’ reports back, Editor Chris Grasso pointed out that I didn’t really have the evidence to convincingly make that claim. He said that he’d accept the article only if I agreed to temper the argument—which was really fine with me because the main point of the essay was to ask why the stories of cannibalism mattered, not to argue for or against the existence of cannibalism in colonial Virginia.>>>

Jane O'Brien, "'Proof' Jamestown settlers turned to cannibalism," BBC News, May 1, 2013

Newly discovered human bones prove the first permanent English settlers in North America turned to cannibalism over the cruel winter of 1609-10, US researchers have said.

Scientists found unusual cuts consistent with butchering for meat on human bones dumped in a rubbish pit.>>>

"Starving Jamestown settlers turned to cannibalism," Telegraph, May 2, 2013

Scientists in the US have found the first solid archaeological evidence that some of the earliest colonists at Jamestown, Virginia, survived harsh conditions by resorting to cannibalism.

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