Quick thoughts on the Removal of Stonewall Jackson on Monument Ave.


Down goes Jackson, down goes Jackson!

So, when I “wore a younger man’s clothes” I was a grad student in Richmond working on a degree and as a seasonal and part-time ranger for the Richmond National Battlefield Park. For some extra money, I took a job one day-per-week giving bus tours to tourists, visiting the major sites and battlefields around Richmond. Monument Avenue was of course the centerpiece of the tour, so I have visited and given interpretation of the monuments there many, many times.

I watched online today as the process of taking down the statues began. Honestly, even though we’ve known this was coming, I am feeling kind of stunned. Too stunned to have anything profound or interesting to say about it.

Today’s target was Stonewall Jackson. I’m guessing the others will soon follow. Where they are going is unclear for now, except that they will be stored somewhere until all the legal and financial matters connected with their removal can be worked out.

I’ve been on record in the past as favoring the contextualization of these and other rebel monuments, but as I indicated in a recent post, I think that ship has sailed. I now believe these things have got to continuing coming down from their places of honor. And I have enjoyed watching it happen.

Still, I think they should not be destroyed or hidden away forever. I’d love to see them eventually re-emerge at historic sites or places where they can be brought down off their pedestals (literally and figuratively) and interpreted.

I doubt it’ll ever happen, but I think there would be real value in interpreting these statues, from the cultural forces of the Lost Cause movement that erected them, to the cultural forces of the Black Lives Matter movement that got them dismantled. That’s a darn good and important story to tell.

In my mind’s eye, I see the Lee statue (not on a pedestal) out on the Malvern Hill battlefield, (site of where his characteristically aggressive battlefield tactics led to the slaughter of thousands of Confederate soldiers in a doomed assault). J.E.B Stuart and Jefferson Davis would fit nicely near their graves in Hollywood cemetery. I see Stonewall, at his death site, which is preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service, or perhaps behind his home in Lexington, Virginia.

Perhaps one day.

But for now, I’m going to be stuck with the image of a large crowd that watched and cheered, and endured a steady rainstorm as Stonewall was lifted off his pedestal. It was definitely surreal that the rain began almost at the moment when Jackson was lifted, and it thundered as he was brought down to applause.

Once he was down, most of the crowd headed home to get dry. But there was a young rain soaked black woman berating folks for leaving before Jackson was hauled away. A local news crew caught her on camera as she shouted, “They said we couldn’t accomplish anything with these protests. Well, just look!  And I’m staying out here until this is finished, because my ancestors were out here picking cotton, even in the rain. They didn’t have the option to go up to the big house to get dry!”


And suddenly I am reminded, that in all those bus tours I gave on Monument Avenue, I never once had a black passenger.


On the Founders, “republican virtue,” American character, and the wearing of masks


Stay with me here, ultimately this is about the pandemic and the folks that are yelling about government tyranny and their personal freedom to not wear a mask.

The concepts that our Founders had about liberty and government were influenced and shaped by Enlightenment writers and thinkers. Perhaps the three most important were John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Baron de Montesquieu.

Hobbes and Locke argued that mankind was not created into a world controlled by government, on the contrary, mankind created government. Prior to man’s creation of this institution, Hobbes believed life was violent, brutish and short, and thus man created government (he believed monarchy worked best) to protect life. Mankind gave up certain rights to their ruler, in order to have their lives protected. Locke disagreed about the natural state of man and monarchy, but agreed that the time came when man had to give up certain rights to create government to protect lives, but also, he added, in the interest of protecting man’s natural right to liberty and property.

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Collectively, then, Locke and Hobbes instilled in the minds of 18th century Englishmen, and their colonists, that man created government, and did so for the duel purpose of protecting lives and the basic rights of liberty and property.  This was a “social contract.” Important to the spread of such ideas were newspapers infused with the concept that public criticism of our rulers kept them accountable to the people they ruled.

When our Founders turned against the British monarchy, (through a bloody rebellion that started out as a violent, antigovernment protest movement, and in which they toppled statues they felt no longer memorialized things they wanted to honor) they did so because they felt it had violated these purposes of government (that’s the thesis behind the Declaration of Independence).  They then created a republic; a representative democracy. In doing so, they were aware that they were betting against history, as this form of government in the ancient world had not lasted.



Learning from the failures of the Roman Republic, American thinkers concluded that the survival of such a government required what they called “republican virtue,” that is, the concept that everyone in the society would be focused on the good of the whole, rather than their own self interested, ambitious, greedy wants and desires.  They believed it was the only way a government of the people, rather than a monarch, could survive. The very word “republic,” Thomas Paine argued, “means the public good of the whole.” Another American patriot elaborated, “each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good.” This ideology drove Americans into the creation of their state and national governments, broken free from the British empire.

Yet it took only a few years during and especially after the Revolution for many of our leaders to realize that “republican virtue” was a pipe-dream. Unless forced not to, people acted on their own selfish desires, especially in commerce. As Washington wrote, “Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures best calculated for their own [common] good, without the intervention of a coercive power.” It seemed that the government would have to force public virtue for the common good. But such force would be a threat to basic freedoms, and thus a violation of one of the government’s mandates.

That’s where Montesquieu seemed to offer the best solution. Steeped in enlightenment literature and thought, during our Constitutional Convention James Madison and others promoted the idea that we could protect the common good from self interest, by actually depending on man’s pursuit of their self interest!  If we kept government divided, as Montesquieu promoted,  competition between individuals and groups (or “factions,” as they styled it) for power and influence would result in no one person or group being able to abuse its powers to the point of infringing upon the rights of others. Our Republic, then, would require compromise between competing factions (economic, political, and personal) in order to function, and this competition and compromise between them would ensure the common good. This is most reflected in the system of checks and balances and our federalism.  (Political parties, they knew, were a threat to all of this, and that’s why they hoped we’d never have them. But that’s another story).

Yet the Founders also realized that giving the national government more power could be a threat to personal liberty, thus they also put limits on those powers: elective office, impeachment, powers reserved for the states, etc. Due to those that objected to such a powerful government (the “antifederalists” who still wanted to rely on “republican virtue” to ensure the common good), the Constitution was amended with a Bill of Rights.  All this so that we could create a government that would promote the common good, protect lives, and yet still protect our basic rights. This is the Preamble to the U.

But just as the power of government had to be strong but limited, so must our individual rights, to some degree. This is required so that those rights do not threaten the lives and the rights of others (which would invalidate the purpose of government), as well as the common good. This requires a careful balance between the common good and personal liberty, but a balance that favors the common good or safety.  This way, government still serves all its mandates.

For instance, we have the right of free speech, but we can’t inaccurately yell “fire” into a crowded theater, or stand on the corner at midnight shouting with a bull horn.

We have freedom of religion, but that also means we can’t use the government or government funds to support or even promote one religion over another.

We can own a gun, but we can’t stand on a corner indiscriminately shooting people.

Of course, this concept is best summed up in that old saying, “your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” monstery_selfdefenseforgentlemenandladies.jpg

So, to provide the functions for which Americans created their government, laws have to be created that restrict what we can and can’t do.

Thus, we can drive a car, but we can’t drive it without a license, 95 miles an hour, on the wrong side of the road, through a stop sign, while drinking a beer. Why? Because the protection of other people’s lives requires these restrictions on what individuals can do. This is one of the purposes, as Hobbes and Locke would agree, as well as our Founders, for which man created government in the first place.

So what am I driving at here?

Let’s PLEASE stop insisting that our government can’t limit our freedoms to protect the lives of others or for the common good. As long as its efforts are not unreasonable, and strives for a balance between personal freedoms and the common good, such efforts are not a violation of the government’s powers. It’s actually the government performing one of the mandates that man had for it when we created it in the first place.

When this pandemic began, we hoped that Americans would do what they had to do to protect us all, without government having to step in. Sadly, however, we are once again learning what our Founders learned, that we can’t count on “republican virtue” to get people to even wear mask for the good of the whole and to protect lives.Screen Shot 2020-06-28 at 4.49.08 PM

Let’s say it again for the billionth time and for the people on the back row: the wearing of masks and/or face shields is not so much about protecting yourself, it is about protecting others from YOU. Further, you can show no symptoms whatsoever, and yet still go around spreading this thing to people that it will kill. Next time you see someone wearing a mask, they are saying “I care about your life.” What are you saying to them when you don’t have one on?

You’d think Americans could do such a simple thing as wear a mask. I mean we’ve done so much more arduous things in our history:

We defeated the world’s greatest military in a revolutionary war that required 8 years of sacrifice.

African Americans endured slavery, figuring out how to survive and resist and ultimately playing a major role in the destruction of slavery by forcing it on the nation as a war aim and fighting for its destruction as US soldiers.

We endured a four year Civil War that cost some 750,000 lives.

We had men die by the thousands in a senseless war in Europe, fighting to “make the world safe for democracy” when we didn’t even really have it here at home.

Over a century of women protested, petitioned, marched, faced ridicule and scorn, and ultimately imprisonment and self-starvation to win the right to vote.

We survived the crippling economic effects of the Great Depression, learning we had  “nothing to fear but fear itself,” and then came out a stronger people because of it.

We stormed Omaha beach and the heights of Iwo Jima, all while Americans at home were rationing gas and food, buying and selling war bonds, and constructing a mighty and irresistible arsenal. f7f1c974ee2bcd0c2fcada7ed86abe5f.jpg

We faced ravaging dogs, firehoses, police brutality, lynch mobs and murderers, all in a fight for the expansion of constitutional rights for all Americans.

We pooled the respective interests and talents of government, military, corporations, and civilians in order to put a man on the moon.

And we have repeatedly put soldiers in harm’s way across the globe theoretically to support and protect democracy, home and abroad.

In all these things and much more, we find and praise the American character. We celebrate and venerate it. We build monuments to it, call it exceptional, and salute the flag with pride for all these things that Americans have sacrificed for the common good.

And yet now, we can’t wear a mask??

Folks, we make up about 4.25 % of the world’s population, yet at the moment we are responsible for more than 25% of the world’s covid-19 deaths. (Meanwhile, our neighbor to the North, with its “socialized healthcare” accounts for less than 2%). Most countries are now starting to see this thing in the rear view mirror, including the E.U. But we are now the country that other nations are blocking travel to and from.

Yep, that’s what is making the United States exceptional these days.

I have to wonder what the women that got tubes shoved up their noses in Occoquan prison would think of us now. Or the soldiers that ran straight into the maelstrom of German fire on Omaha beach. Or Civil Rights protestors getting their heads bashed in by the forces of white supremacy on Pettus Bridge.

What happened to our greatness, our sacrifice for the common good?

So, we are likely to start seeing more mandatory face covering laws in more communities. It won’t happen in every community (which is why we need an administration willing to set nationwide policy and stop politicizing the issue, or at least put out a consistent policy and set a good example), but these ordinances are coming, and you can bet people are going to freak out, screaming about violation of their rights, just as they did when we closed down the economy. And they will be just as wrong as they were then.


Republican virtue?

Well, the economy is opening again and cases are surging. After all this time, we have more new cases per day than ever! And that’s largely because so many people can’t be bothered to wear masks, and they are not practicing social distancing. If that doesn’t change, and quick, businesses are going to be forced to shut down again. Do we want that?

It’s pretty simple: if you want businesses open, wear masks and practice social distancing. If you want the freedom to get a haircut, wear a mask!

Oh, and I’m sorry to tell you, but we’re reaching a point in which you can probably go ahead and write off the football season. UNLESS YOU WEAR A MASK!

And don’t get me started on these conspiracy theory folks who think the restrictions on our freedoms during the pandemic are the first steps in the formation of a tyrannical government bent on taking away all other rights. These are temporary measures in emergency times. You know, like the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, restrictions on certain types of speech during WWI,  cities forcing mask wearing during the Spanish flu, or government mandated rationing during WWII. All those things have come, and as soon as the common good no longer required them, they went away.

But here’s the thing that breaks my heart the most. Many of our Founders believed that we would be able to sustain “republican virtue” because we were a predominately Christian nation. Many Americans still proclaim America to be a Christian nation. And yet, we can’t seem to live by the most basic of Christ’s teachings, one that is common to all the world’s biggest religions: jesus-multitude.v3

“Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.”

I dunno, in the end, the fact that we can’t seem to do that, just by doing such a simple thing as wearing a mask, might be the biggest disappointment of all.






An Historian’s Review of “On the Basis of Sex”


First a disclaimer: While I have a PhD in US history and teach 20th century history every semester, I do not specialize in legal history, women’s rights, the career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or even modern U.S. history.  I’m far from an expert on those topics. That said, I found the historical accuracy of the new biopic On the Basis of Sex to be praiseworthy, but better still, it’s just a darn good movie that reminds us that most of our rights have come from people fighting for more than what our Founding Fathers intended.

I’ve been excited about seeing the film since the trailers started running several months ago, but alas my college town is not one of the chosen ones when films open in “select cities.” It was only this past week that it went nationwide, so I joined a couple of my fellow historians and caught it on a Saturday night when my local mutliplex was bustling with a large crowd of diverse filmgoers. Most were there to see the latest action flicks, comedies, and family films, of course,  but I was pleasantly surprised by both the number of people there to see On the Basis of Sex, as well as the diversity in the audience.  Excellent. Different races, genders, and ages were represented, and I even had two families with young children sitting behind me.  While that wouldn’t be surprising in a big budget action film, it was encouraging to see for a history film about a modern feminist icon.

On the Basis of Sex tells the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s path toward becoming one of the most successful legal champions of gender equality, from her early days in law school to one of her first successful cases before a circuit court.


1 of only 9 women in her 1956 Harvard class of over 500

Along the way, we learn  the important role her husband played in her career (It’s nice to see a flip on the normal Hollywood script of a male protagonist with a doting and supportive wife. Here it’s the other way around), but more importantly, her legal battle plan for taking on sex discrimination.

A little history: Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s success in Brown V. Board of Education came because the building blocks of legal precedents were in place before that landmark decision. The problem in the war against sex discrimination, however, was that when Ginsburg started her fight, the legal precedents did not exist. What did exist, however, were hundreds of laws nationwide that differentiated between the sexes, many of which restricted the rights of women.

Lawyers like Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray had argued for gender equality in the past, but had been unsuccessful, Ginsburg felt, because America’s culture was not ready for it. As she has noted, “the courts are seldom out in front of social change.”

Yet by the late 60s and early 70s, a cultural revolution had begun to bring about a social change for women, so Ginsburg set about to build the legal precedents for gender equality, one case at a time.

“I [saw] myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days,” she explained in the recent critically acclaimed documentary, RBG, “because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” This required her to hone a non-confrontational yet educational argumentative style that served her well, all the way to her current seat on the Supreme Court.  In lower courts and often before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, she successfully built a string of legal precedents which interpreted the 14th amendment as providing equal protection for citizens regardless of gender.

“My expectation,” she explained in RBG, “was that I would repeat that argument maybe half a dozen times. I didn’t expect it to happen in one fell swoop. I think generally in our society, real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

On the Basis of Sex focuses on just one of the first steps, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In it, Ginsburg and the A.C.L.U. did something seemingly ironic, taking on the case of a gentlemen for whom the law discriminated against in a tax-deduction law because he was a man.

Though not in the film, this case was not the only time Ginsburg used discrimination against men to build legal precedent for the unconstitutionality of sex discrimination (one case even included some frat bros challenging a law that allowed women to buy beer at a younger age than men!). This was not reverse psychology, it was constructing important legal building blocks that challenged gender-based discrimination.

On the Basis of Sex is an entertaining film that works because of a uniformly fine cast with particularly solid performances from Felicity Jone as Ruth, and Armie Hammer as her husband Martin. They make for a very attractive couple, which was true of the real life Ginsburgs.


But so too were the real Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Hammer & Jones, a good looking pair.

The set designs and wardrobes are subtly authentic (they don’t over-the-top scream “This is the 50s. This is the 60s! This is the 70s!” as we get in so many other films and shows), the story pacing feels just right, and the dialogue sounds true-to-life. The film also works on several levels; as love story, social commentary, and courtroom drama.


So is it accurate?

Warning: Some spoilers coming next. You might want to see the film before proceeding—

As with most history movies, the film has to simplify and condense some elements in order to suit the needs of a well-paced and dramatic two-hour story (something that all-too-often annoys historians as they nit-pick a film’s accuracy). In this case, most of these factual distortions are pretty minor (for examples, Ruth didn’t actually spur-of-the moment fly out to Denver to meet her client, the ACLU was not as reluctant to take the case as portrayed, there was never a moot court that led them to decide on splitting the argumentation between the husband and wife).

The biggest bending of the facts are understandable and forgivable. In truth, Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray


Ginsburg & daughter meet with Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates).

were not involved in the case as depicted in the film (the above mentioned distortions were created for the purpose of getting them in the story). In real life, their names were added to the legal brief as a show of respect and acknowledgement of their pioneering work, and thus their additions in the movie come from the same honorable motive.

Further, the climactic court room scene before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals features a dramatic moment when Ginsburg gets a bit rattled by the challenging questions she received from the circuit justices. This requires her to buck up her resolve and find her voice, dramatically winning over the court during rebuttals. That’s all hogwash, as Ginsburg never actually faced that moment of weakness, she took control of the proceedings with her powerful argumentation from the outset.

Still, we can forgive the screenplay’s punching up of the drama (it was written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman), as it gives the film some tension-filled moments that ramp up the triumphant tone of the ultimate victory. I’m ok with that, it’s a movie that has to sell tickets. Unlike some historians, I sympathize with films taking a little dramatic license, as long as the the greater historical truth is told. That’s very true in the case of On the Basis of Sex.

The climactic moment in the film prominently features a quote that shows up in the movie’s commercials and trailers, and it seemingly challenges the assertion that On the Basis of Sex is accurate. In response to a judge’s assertion that the word “woman” does not appear in the Constitution, Ginsburg dramatically reminds the court, “nor does the word freedom.”


“Nor does the word ‘freedom,’ your honor.”

A knee-jerk reaction might be to point out that it DOES appear in the Bill of Rights, certainly that makes it in the Constitution.

Uh oh! Major error?

But the scene requires context. The unamended version of the Constitution in fact does not include “freedom.” Thus Ginsburg was reminding the court of something I try to remind my students of every semester. Our Constitution is not restricted by its framer’s values. It can, and has been amended to extend its rights and protections to people that our founders excluded.

Praise be! Otherwise, as I tell my students, many African Americans would still be legally enslaved, women would have few rights, and only white male landholders would have the right to vote!

Thus the line is not inaccurate and is in fact a powerful reminder that part of the story of our nation’s history has been the extension of rights beyond original intent.

While the movie ends there, the Moritz victory led to Ginsburg’s other 1970s victories in bigger and more important cases, most immediately Reed v. Reed (which the film shows Ginsburg writing the legal brief for, building on the Moritz case’s argumentation). Ending the film with this early triumph provides it with an appropriate running time and victorious moment, yet misses the challenges Ginsburg and the women’s right movement faced in the 1970s from conservative forces like Phyllis Schlafly.

The film’s focus also allows it to sidestep Ginsburg’s sometimes controversial thoughts on Roe v. Wade. While certainly not an opponent of the decision, she’s famously expressed the belief that grounding its argumentation in the right to privacy, rather than as a matter of equal protection, made it a questionable ruling without enough precedent to make it more firm. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped,” she has argued, may prove unstable.” Further, “Roe v. Wade sparked public opposition and academic criticism, in part, I believe, because the Court ventured too far in the change it ordered and presented an incomplete justification for its action.”

These sentiments (as well as a more moderate reputation she earned while on the DC Circuit Court–voting more with Republican appointees than Democrats and straying little from precedent) are part of the reason why many feminist groups initially privately opposed Ginsburg’s nomination for the Supreme Court.

But will the ongoing shift in the court’s make-up ultimately prove Ginsburg to have been correct about Roe v. Wade? Should it have been based more firmly on the precedents she established?

Also in light of current events, another thing that struck me about On the Basis of Sex stems from it reminding us in the ending titles that Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate, 96-3. This seems most remarkable now, and it is, especially considering she was a Clinton appointee. Of course her confirmation was a breath of fresh air that the nation needed after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill tawdriness, and that likely played a role in the vote count.

And yet the tally still tells us much about how our current polarization has unfortunately politicized our court, certainly not what the Founders intended for it. During Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing, Senator Orrin Hatch told her, “I disagree with you on a number of things, and I’m sure you disagree with me. But that isn’t the issue, is it? And frankly, I admire you. You’ve earned the right, in my opinion, to be on the Supreme Court.”

Can you imagine Hatch or very many other senators saying something like that now?

Anyway, go see On the Basis of Sex, it is an accurate and timely reminder that not all of our nation’s heroes have been men, that protests and cultural revolutions often have to precede changes to the law, and that the expansion of rights in this country has had to be fought for by those wiling to buck the system established by our Founding Fathers.

Twitter: @GlennBrasher




A Short History Lesson on the United States & “The Young and Fearless of Heart.”



“March for Our Lives” in DC, 3/24/2018

Flashback to the day after the 2016 election when I wrote this on my blog:

“After spending all day acting as a counselor for classrooms of college students that are angry and frightened by these results, I am actually a bit hopeful that the Election of 2016 will go down in history as the event that caused the millennial generation (and/or generation z) to create a powerful political movement that will be a force to be reckoned with. I heard them say some really powerful and encouraging things today. Stay tuned.”

Since then, more and more events have convinced me that this will turn out true, obviously none more than today’s “March For Our Lives” across the country. Yes, the shooting in Florida was the immediate catalyst for this movement, but it has been brewing well before now and is really about more than just gun control—and it is more than just teens.  The last year and a half has seen more highly attended marches, demonstrations, protests, and rallies than we have seen in a very long time. We’ve also seen several special elections that have reversed decades of voting patterns.

Is this all adding up to something big? Something revolutionary (again, beyond just gun control)? Only time will tell, but it sure looks like it today.

Besides a huge voting block, were there any future influential lobbyists and pundits, congressmen and women, judges, and presidents in the crowds of marchers? You can bet on it.

Yet it is perhaps too easy to dismiss the marches today as the product of naive, and overly emotional young people that do not fully understand the issues, or what they are up against.

To that, I say, almost every major successful movement in our nation’s history has been the result of the efforts of naive, overly emotional young people that perhaps did not fully understand what they were up against—including the protest movement that led to our independence and the founding of our Republic, and all the later movements that expanded the number of people that receive protection for their individual rights.

If you love our country and the rights that Americans have which are protected by our laws and Constitution, you must understand that those beautiful things are the results of protests movements—–usually led by the young.

To demonstrate the point, lets take a very brief look at some of those movements in our history, focusing on the ages of  just a select few  (for the sake of brevity) of the more famous and prominent leaders of those movements.

The American Revolution:

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was 26 when he was first elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and began arguing court cases in his legal profession that leaned on his belief in the “natural rights” of man and that the purpose of government was to protect those rights.


young James Madison

James Madison, considered the Father of the US Constitution, was 23 when he joined a pro-revolution militia unit. Just a year later, he was a member of the Virginia convention that broke the state free from the British empire, producing the Commonwealth of Virginia’s first constitution. At the convention, young Madison argued vehemently for separation of church and state and protection of religious freedom.

Alexander Hamilton, the “other” Father of the Constitution and current Broadway sensation,  was 17 (or 19, there is dispute about his birth year) when he too joined his local pro-revolution militia company, soon serving on George Washington’s staff and becoming part of his very exclusive inner circle as they fought a rebellious war against their own government.


Young and naive protestors in NYC  energetically and defiantly knocking down a statue of King George III.

The Abolitionist Movement:


William Lloyd Garrison was 25 when he joined the anti-slavery movement, soon becoming one of its most important leaders, later publishing the newspaper The Liberator, promising ” I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.” His paper helped unite the many localized abolitionist organizations, creating a powerful national organization that challenged a system that legalized human bondage.

Frederick Douglass was a young teen when he engaged in his first acts of defiance against slavery, clandestinely learning to read and getting into a physical confrontation with an overseer. He was about 19 or 20 years old when he successfully escaped from slavery, and 23 when he gave his first anti-slavery speech.


Bucktown Village store in Maryland, the recreated site of Harriet Tubman’s first act of defiance

Harriet Tubman was a pre-teen when she committed her first act of defiance, refusing to help a slave catcher wrangle a runaway slave and getting hit in the head with an iron as a result. She was 29 when she successfully escaped and soon began her famous Underground Railroad activities, helping undermine a system that was protected by government laws.

Women’s Suffrage

Susan B. Anthony, perhaps the most important suffrage leader of the 19th century, was in her twenties when she first began to attend and lead local social reform movement meetings.

Carrie Chapman Catt, who later built the League of Women Voters, was in her mid twenties when she first got involved in the Gilded Age women’s suffrage movement. She was later instrumental in the movement to get states to ratify the 19th amendment.


Suffrage banner held during the White House protests of 1917

Alice Paul, perhaps the most important of the 20th century suffragettes (radicalizing the movement by leading protests at the White House and engaging in a hunger strike after being arrested), was 22 when she moved to England, got involved in the British women’s suffrage movement, and came to believe in that movement’s more militant tactics. She soon came home and brought youthful energy and activism to a stalled movement that soon broke the stubborn resistance of President Woodrow Wilson and got his support for the 19th amendment.

The Civil Rights Movement

This is perhaps the best example of the point being made, so the number of names here is WAY too few in number to do it justice, . . . yet still enough to support the point.

The 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement was largely energized by the defiant actions of 14 year old Emmett Till, which led to his lynching and the subsequent moral outrage from a nation shocked by his mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral so the world could look directly in the face of the violence of white supremacy.

Claudette Colvin was 15 when she was arrested for breaking Montgomery’s bus segregation laws, the often forgot progeny of the legal case that gained larger attention after the arrest of Rosa Parks and the subsequent bus boycott.

The “Little Rock Nine” were 16 and 17 year olds that choose to participate in the integration of the city’s main public high school, causing a confrontation that soon


The young, but exceptionally brave “Little Rock Nine” led the way in school integration.

involved the Arkansas governor, President Eisenhower, and US troops, beginning the slow and torturous process of school integration in America.

The lunch counter sit-in movement was started when 18 and 19 year old college students in Greensboro, NC., planned and executed a protest of local segregation laws at their local Woolworth Store.

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, often pronounced “Snick”) was organized and led by college students in their early 20s. The violent resistance the movement received in reaction to its efforts brought wide-scale media attention to the Civil Rights movement’s agenda, creating many moral crises that repeatedly forced the federal government to intervene. Perhaps their greatest results came with the Nashville Sit-ins, where 22 year old Diane Nash emerged as a particularly well spoken and charismatic leader, and the Freedom Rides, which included the 20 year old John Lewis, who later at the ripe old age of 25 led the March across the Pettus Bridge in Selma which pushed LBJ into pressuring Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.


The young, marching off to jail in Birmingham, 1963

Gwendolyn Sanders was 13 years old when she helped organize her classmates to participate in the 1963 Birmingham protests which led to the famous confrontation between young blacks and Eugene “Bull” Conner’s firehoses and police dogs, an event that sparked JFK to propose the Civil Rights Bill, which later ended public segregation.

And let’s not forget that Martin Luther King Jr. himself was only 26 when he was asked to help lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement.

Further, the Civil Rights movement’s successes were an inspiration for the Vietnam War protests that successfully turned public opinion against the War in Vietnam. It too was a youth movement in which upwards of 80% of college campuses held some form of protests, eventually resulting in the end of America’s involvement in a senseless war in which the young were paying the greatest price.

Of course this short list of names misses hundreds of thousands of others, from prominent leaders, to the largely unknown names of young Revolutionary soldiers, picket-sign makers, and tireless and brave marchers that were carted off to jail by the hundreds, frequently beaten, and all-too often killed because of their determination to change America in ways that made it live up to its promises of protection for the natural rights of all.

“And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this . . .” our last inspiring president reminded us a few years ago while standing in front of the Pettus Bridge in Selma:

“You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, and new ground to cover, and bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”




On The Beguiled, Hollywood, and the Lost Cause



UPDATE: I’ve now seen the film, and have a review here comparing it with the original.

We have a new Civil War movie going into wide release on Friday, June 30, and it has generated a ton of buzz after its premiere at Cannes. Director Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 film, The Beguiled (based on a 1966 novel), earned her the Best Director Award at the prestigious film festival, as she becomes only the second woman to win that particular prize. Reviews have also been strong.

If you have seen the original with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page (and FYI: if you haven’t, it is streaming this month on HBO GO), you know that the story is very strange, teetering somewhere between a perverse dark comedy, a character study, and horror. Pervading it all is repressed and unleashed sexuality, which is smolderingly handled even in the 1971 version (and includes some shocking incest). It is no masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good movie that will give you the creeps.

My sense is that this new version simply cranks up the sexuality for 2017 audiences, so I am going into it with some skepticism, as I almost always loathe remakes of good movies. Further, Sofia Coppola’s work tends to be hit-or-miss with me, though I did like her other stab at history, the unconventional Marie Antoinette (2006). That film featured Kirsten Dunst, as does this one, and she and the rest of the remake’s stellar cast (Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Elle Fanning) are getting high praise for their performances, particularly Kidman (based on the previews, if nothing else it sounds like the southern accents were done much better than in most movies). So perhaps it will live up to the hype even for a skeptic like me.

Yet one thing is for sure, the Civil War is not really that much of a component of the film other than the fact that it creates the scenario where a Union soldier has been taken in by a women’s seminary behind rebel lines (Mississippi or Louisiana in the original, Virginia in the remake), where men of a certain age are hard to come by.

Thus don’t expect any battle scenes or another assault on the Lost Cause like we have seen so much of lately from Hollywood (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Free State of Jones, Birth of a Nation, the Roots remake, Underground, Mercy Street. Wow, that is a really impressive lineup in just a few year’s time).  In fact, the most interesting thing about this movie is that it is getting criticism for not including slavery or African Americans in a story set in the South during the Civil War.

The original includes a black female character that helps the wounded Union soldier, but not in a way that accurately reflects the Antebellum and Civil War experiences of enslaved African Americans. Coppola chose to extract the character from her remake (which was a fairly minor role) because “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

This is a shame, and disregards the fact that she could have radically improved the character from the original. Even just one well-placed and well-written scene involving an enslaved women helping an injured Union soldier could have included very meaningful and insightful dialogue. (Or perhaps also a scene of open defiance toward her masters in light of the nearby presence of Union troops. “Get it yourself! Them days are over, ladies!”)  The fact that young girls watch her films is all the more reason to have included a bit of education about slavery and the Civil War, and to take a swipe, no matter how small, at the Lost Cause.

Look, not all Civil War movies have to include the African American experience or make a statement about slavery and the Confederacy (though they probably should). But aside from what I think was a poor choice by Coppola, what is really interesting to me about the controversy is that it is even a controversy at all. Would that have been the case even a decade ago? I’m not so sure.

Hollywood films are one of the most important reasons why the Lost Cause took root and became deeply engrained in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War and its causes. In an age in which Rebel monuments are coming down, have we now reached the point where it is unacceptable for a Hollywood movie set during the Civil War to not confront and highlight the Confederacy’s fight to preserve the right to enslave African Americans?

If so, I consider that big progress.

I’ll be seeing the movie this weekend, so I will have more thoughts later. Stay tuned.



Visiting Lizzie Borden (and getting creeped out).


The ominous looking house where the infamous Borden Murders went down

A piece on Smithsonian.com reminds us that today is the anniversary of the acquittal of Lizzie Borden in the case of the murder of her father and stepmother.  The article focuses on how she was largely a pariah in her neighborhood after the trial and for the rest of her life.  It is a good short read, so check it out.

You should also check out this essay from last year on We’re History, discussing the little-known fact that in the years after the murder, Lizzie funded an animal rescue shelter, which still reaps financial benefits from the money she left the organization. (I am convinced that one of the things that set her off is that she had a pigeon roost her father hated, leading him to decapitate the animals. Nice guy. That’s enough to piss off any animal lover).

The case is a good window into Gilded Age America. As Steven Cromack points out, “the prosecutors and defense attorneys, representative of the wealthiest Americans, argued over whether wealthy, good-natured, upstanding people are capable of bad behavior. The poor watched bitterly as a rich woman seemed literally to get away with murder. For the nativist residents of Fall River, Lizzie’s actions were the result of immigration, as well as changing demographics and gender norms: Mr. Borden had bought a home in the wrong section of the rapidly changing town and thus, in Lizzie’s eyes, relinquished the family’s status. Feminists would use the trial as a rallying cry for representative juries.”

I visited the Borden house a few years ago with friends because I had long been fascinated by the case. This is due largely to an HBO show called Whodunit: The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (anyone else remember it?) way back in 1979.  I was just a kid only starting to get interested in history and the case fascinated me, inspiring a trip to the school library to find more about it. Tracking down info about this infamous true crime event was one of my earliest experiences at doing historical research, and was provoked by an HBO show. Ah, just another example of how pop cultural depictions of history can have an inspiring impact. I have no doubt that many of you have similar stories.

Anyway, while on a trip to New England a few years back, I convinced my friends to drive down from Boston to Fall River, Massachusetts, to check out the site of the murder (it was an easy sell).  Unfortunately, we arrived in the late afternoon just as their last tour of the day was leaving.

I was in the final stages of my book’s publication, and discussing some urgent business with my publisher on the telephone just as we arrived. I was only on the phone for a few minutes in the car, but this prevented us from being able to depart with the tour.  Despite being only a few minutes late, we were told that we could not join in.

I would not let it go at that, passionately explaining how I had always been interested in the case, that this was the only day of our trip we could do the tour, we were up from Alabama and had driven all the way from Boston, and would likely never be back in Fall River ever again. The young woman was rather rude, saying that I “must have a crystal ball” and could read the future since I was so sure I’d never be back (can you believe that?). Finally, someone apparently of higher rank came out and said that of course we could join the tour.

We were let in a side door, and instead of just discreetly slipping us in, the employee made a point of interrupting the tour, bringing up the alleged crystal ball, (I kid you not) and asking the guide if we could join in. The most frustrating thing of all was discovering the guide only had two people on his tour (there were four of us).  I can tell you from my years as a park ranger, guides are more than happy to have folks added to a tour when there are such few people on it to begin with.  (Oh, those one or two person tours. Yuck). He gladly welcomed us.

(For years I have been itching to publicly criticize this treatment, so thanks for letting me vent. In retrospect, however, perhaps it was appropriate that we were treated rudely by a young woman at the Borden house!)

The good news is that our guide had just entered the room in which Lizzie’s father was murdered and was only just then discussing it.  So we missed nothing but details about the history of the house prior to the murder. The sofa in the room is not the original one on which Mr. Borden was found (but a perfect replica). We were welcome to sit on it, leading one of my friends to playfully recreate the hatchet murder crime scene. A bit macabre for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to have a seat.


Nope, I’ll stand, thank you.

We were then led upstairs, and I can tell you this was the first moment when the house really started to freak me out. There is a palpable sense of dread and sadness lingering over it and it became oppressive when walking into the bedroom in which Mrs. Borden was found with her face basically pancaked into the floor with an axe.  The guide vividly described the brutal murder while standing in the spot where the body was found. I was taken aback when he told me I was likely standing exactly where the murderer delivered the first of eighteen blows.

Freaky. Get me out of here!


Here’s where Mrs. Borden was found next to the bed

The rest of the tour included Mr. Borden’s bedroom, where someone had stolen money from him a year before the murder (a crime the old man accused Lizzie of committing). We also saw the maid’s bedroom. She was outside washing windows during the murders, later testifying that she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs at around 10:30 AM on the day of the butcherings (Mrs. Borden was killed at around 9:30 AM, and Mr. Borden at about 11 AM). However, many speculate that the maid was in on it, or at least the cover up. Honestly, her room (which is in the attic) felt almost as creepy as the murder rooms. We wrapped up the tour in the kitchen where Lizzie was seen burning a blue dress days after the murder.

Our guide did a good job of covering the details of the crime and the evidence (or lack of) presented in the trial. It is often argued that Lizzie was acquitted due to the gender and class dynamics of the Gilded Age, but in fairness, the prosecution’s case was built largely on circumstantial evidence.

But come on, she did it.

(If you are really interested, read her inquest testimony: she’s clearly lying her butt off, but the whole thing was deemed inadmissible in the trial).

Sadly, the employees (at least when we were there) are not exactly professional historians, and I got the sense the place is being run by folks focused on capitalizing on tourists who are more interested in the supernatural than in history. A quick view of their website seems to confirm this assessment, which is a shame.

Further, the gift shop peddles such things as Lizzie Borden bobbleheads (complete with a hatchet in her hand), mugs with the crime scene photos on them, and hatchet keychains.

Still, the house is a treasure trove, and as powerful an experience as it is to visit, I have to wonder how much better served it would be with professional historians interpreting events within the context of what they reveal about the Gilded Age and our fascination with violent true crime.

The Borden home is also now a Bed and Breakfast, and I have no doubt people love getting to sleep in the bedroom where Mrs. Borden was found. As for me, I was creeped out just by my 45 minute tour.

But if you are ever near Fall River, Massachusetts, do yourself a favor and travel down to see the place. Just don’t expect high quality historical interpretation, and for goodness sakes, make sure you are on time for the tour (the last one leaves at three!)

If not, you better have a crystal ball proving you will never be back that way again.


Visiting our two new American Revolution museums

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Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution (left) and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (right)

My “travel blog” continues today. Two of the four brand new museums I recently visited were Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

My group of history nerd friends headed to Philadelphia after our day in DC (in which I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture), deciding to go via Annapolis and the Maryland Eastern Shore/Delaware route rather than up I-95 North through Baltimore. What a great decision! Anyone that has ever travelled on I-95 north of Richmond (all the way to Boston) will tell you to avoid it at all costs if you can. Not only did our route cut down on the toll charges, but it was a relaxing drive with very little traffic as we came through in the late evening. Having driven the stressful I-95 route many times (which sucks no matter what time of day or night it is), I can tell you, this was an extremely nice alternative. If you are traveling from DC to Philadelphia, I highly recommend it (sorry, Baltimore).

Our hotel was only a short walk from the museum (I also recommend the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District. I have stayed there twice now and it is easy walking distance from just about everything you want to see in Philly). The new museum is in a great location (the site of the old visitor’s center), across the street from the First Bank of the US, and next door to the historic (and delicious) City Tavern (don’t miss the dining experience there). Before construction began on the brand new building, they found about 82,000 relics from colonial and 19th century Philadelphia while excavating the site.

The new facility is visually appealing on the outside and strikingly beautiful inside, featuring a grand spiraling staircase. The ground floor contains the obligatory introductory movie (honestly I don’t recall much about it), and then you ascend the stairs to the main galleries.

Here you are immediately immersed into the history, as a film projected on a wall around and above you places you in the middle of the pulling down of the King George III statue in New York (an event that took place on July 9, 1776). This first room asks you to question why the colonists came to despise a king that they once celebrated with a monument. I don’t think the museum’s planners intended a connection to our current wave of dismantling monuments, but it is a good reminder that there are precedents for Americans tearing down monuments when they no longer wanted to lionize men that they once did. It seems our revolutionary generation was not against “erasing history.”

The tight hallways then usher you through the exhibits, starting with George III’s coronation and ending with the New Republic. Unlike some museums, there is no guesswork involved in where to go and what to view next, as tight corridors snake through chronologically arranged displays. These are a nice mix of relics, interpretation, and immersive experiences.

The core of the objects on display were first obtained in the early 20th century by Reverend W. Herbert Burk, a collector/amateur historian from Valley Forge who obtained the pieces and later bequeathed the collection to the Valley Forge Historical Society. Some of the objects were then loaned out to other institutions, but most of them sat in warehouses waiting for the organization to build a large facility to display it all. That didn’t come until the early 2000s when the collection was handed over to the planners of the Museum of the American Revolution, who then spent nearly two decades cataloging the relics, planning the museum, raising funds, constructing the 118,000 square foot facility, and finally openings the doors in April 2017.

On display are such items as a pocket bible that was carried by a soldier during the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Lincoln’s sword, some of Patrick Henry’s law books, remnants of the aforementioned destroyed statue of George III, silver cups used by Washington and his staff, a powder horn used in the Battle of Fort Washington, a wooden plank from Concord Bridge (seriously cool), and a sash that Washington used early in the war to distinguish his rank and which he is seen wearing in the famous portrait painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776.

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Washington wearing the sash in the Peale painting (left), and the sash on display

The relic collection is amazing, but the museum is also heavy on exhibits that use technology and carefully constructed sets and life-sized figurines to immerse visitors into the times. For instance, you’ll stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree, smell the tea that was cast into the Harbor, sit in replica chairs in a mockup of Independence Hall, get shot at during a skirmish with British troops, and (my favorite of all) stand among elders of the Oneida Nation as they make the decision to support the Patriots in the Revolution. (It is even way cooler that it might sound, and FYI, the Oneida Nation was one of the museum’s biggest financial contributors).

As the presence of the Oneida Nation suggests, the emphasis is on inclusiveness, and everyone in my group agreed that the Museum of the American Revolution does this exceptionally well. Instead of having a women’s section, or an African American section, or Native American section, etc., those people, their experiences, the roles they played in shaping the Revolution, and (most important) how it effected them, is fully, appropriately, and effectively interwoven into the narrative at nearly every step along the way.

This is the way that I think history should be done, not just in museums, but in textbooks and classrooms. I am not a fan of segregating people that were not caucasian men off in their own museum sections, book sidebars, or separate lectures, because that in itself suggests that they are not included in the mainstream narrative. For instance, I’ll never deliver a lecture titled “African Americans in the Revolution,” or “Women in the Civil War,” because I feel when done correctly, those groups show up in meaningful ways in every lecture. In my mind, the Museum of the American Revolution is now a model for how to do this effectively. Other museums, and teachers, take note.

The crown jewel in the museum’s collection is the exterior section of one of George Washington’s headquarter tents (his office and sleeping tent). Once you have finished your trip through the exhibits, you’ll be sent into a movie-theater-like room where a high tech audio/visual program introduces the history of the tent and its usage during the war. The climax is the reveal of the tent, which you’ll never come anywhere near arm’s reach to, as swelling music and dramatic dialogue dictate exactly how you should feel as you view the relic. I found this presentation to be a bit overly dramatic/cheesy. (“The Republic, like the tent, endures”), but I’ll admit it was effective, leaving you feeling like you have seen and experienced something quite amazing.

Visitors should know, however, that Washington had two campaign tents, and the interior of the other one (the dining and meeting tent for Washington and his officers) is at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor’s Center at the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Yet not only do they have the interior of the dining/meeting tent, they possess the interior of the sleeping/office tent (the exterior of which is what they are displaying in Philadelphia) as well as its poles. Further, without the stirring music and grandiose rhetoric, the Yorktown display is set up in a way that allows you to walk part-way inside the tent (you are separated from it by glass). Personally,  I like the tent display by the National Park Service in Yorktown much better. It is immersive and powerful without the high tech and overly dramatic fluff.

And speaking of Yorktown, the other new American Revolution museum is there at the site of what was formally known as the Yorktown Victory Center. After 50 million in upgrades, the institution has recently opened a new museum dedicated to telling the story of the whole Revolution. My group visited it two days later (after spending a day on Maryland’s Eastern Shore tracking down Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. More on that in my next posting).

Like the one in Philly, the building is immediately impressive and welcoming, with a brand new smell and shine. First up is once again the obligatory intro movie, but the Yorktown film is far more original than the one in Philadelphia (and most other historic sites). Set in the early 19th century, the film depicts a traveling carnival-type show that uses high tech (for the times) displays and a charismatic barker (“gather round, ladies and gents!”) to tell the story of the American Revolution to a group of enthralled children and adults. I really appreciated the originality of this film’s introduction to the museum’s interpretive themes. You really feel as though you are about to experience something special.

The museum does not disappoint. Honestly, the thing I immediately liked most about it is that it is open and airy, containing far more places to sit down among the exhibits than are available in the Philadelphia museum (for a weary traveler with a strained back and tired feet, this was a godsend).  It too is laid out in mostly easy to follow chronological order (although the drawback to the openness is that in contrast to the tight corridors in Philly, there are a couple of spots where it is not clear where you should go next to maintain the chronological flow. But that doesn’t last for long and is not a major problem.)

The Yorktown museum has less relics (though there are many, and some nice pieces, such as pistols owned by Lafayette), relying mostly on the interpretation and immersive exhibits.


Two of Lafayette’s pistols on display at Yorktown

Unlike Philadelphia’s museum, Yorktown’s focuses more attention on the “big name” Founders and their influences. For instance, the Enlightenment, the philosophes, and their impact on the Founders is largely missing in Philly, and less attention is paid to the standard pantheon of Founding Fathers. These men get more of their just due in Yorktown.

Yet, while the Yorktown museum also strives for an inclusive story, it commits what I consider the sin of mostly (not exclusively) segregating women, African Americans, and Native Americans into their own separate sections.

In defense of the museum, these exhibits feature solid interpretation and derive from a genuine and non-patronizing effort (there are no “tokens” here). I just think there is a better way.

Further stemming from efforts at inclusiveness, the museum has exhibits on the typical life and the homes of colonial and revolutionary Americans of all classes.  I found this to be an odd waste of space, as Colonial Williamsburg is nearby, and anyone visiting the area will likely be spending time there. (The Philadelphia museum, for instance, spends little time on Benjamin Franklin or even the Continental Congress, presumably because there are famous areas nearby where those stories are explored in detail).

As in Philadelphia, technology is used to draw you into the Revolution, as an especially neat exhibit features a battle simulation game in which visitors can compete against the computer, or each other, and then learn how the real battle played out. Yorktown also has a Liberty Tree exhibit, yet upstages the Philly museum because visitors can type in a message that is quickly posted electronically on the tree’s lanterns. (I may or may not have posted something about being vigilant against tyranny and the need to resist chief executives that obstruct justice and decry a free press).

Far and away, however, the coolest thing I found at either museum was Yorktown’s immersive film on the Battle of the Capes and the Yorktown Siege. It is only about 12 minutes long, but is rather amazing. As you sit surrounded on three sides by film screens, you’ll feel the sea air in your face, smell the coffee being served to troops in the entrenchments (seriously, the coffee), feel the rattle of shell explosions and thunder, and be surrounded by fog and smoke during the Alexander Hamilton-led attack on redoubt # 10. The combat scenes are beautifully filmed and thrilling, yet not gruesomely realistic. Yes, other museums have similar presentations, but this one if by far the best I have ever seen (I watched it three times!) It alone is worth the price of admission.

The Yorktown museum includes a living-history area, where siege lines, military encampments, and even a colonial farm are replicated. My group did not have time to visit this area, and it didn’t seem to be much different than what has long been available at the previous Yorktown Victory Center. Still, it should be noted this alone makes a visit to the Yorktown museum a much different experience than the one in Philadelphia.

In both museums, all the high tech bells and whistles are largely designed to deliver the message that the American Revolution and our experiment in republican government are far from over. The last exhibits in both focus on the fact that our nation’s history is largely the story of increasing freedoms for peoples and groups that our Founders left out when creating a government to protect individual liberties.

Despite powerful and significant opposition, slow and halting progress, and significant times of retrogression, we’ve continually forced the United States to live up to and expand the promises of the Revolutionary generation in ways that the Founders never intended or even envisoned. Instead of canonizing them, their work, and their design for our government as infallible, we’ve honed, expanded, and bettered what they started. It is up to us to continue to do so.  Thus, both museums stress, the Revolution continues, and whatever it becomes is up to our current values and actions, as well as our vigilance and resistance to those that would turn the Revolution backwards.

It may have been because I was rushed at the end of the day through the final exhibits at Yorktown, but I felt the Philadelphia museum delivered this message more powerfully. As you exit the exhibits, you very literally look into the faces of the current generation of revolutionaries. (Hint: it is us).

Bottom line: Both of these new museums are exceptional and dedicated to telling an inclusive story of the American Revolution.  The intro movie is more unique at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the facility is more comfortable, and the Yorktown battle presentation is by far the coolest and most successfully immersive exhibit at either site. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution more effectively tells its inclusive narrative, has more awe-inspiring relics, and more inspiringly delivers its message.

Thus the Philadelphia museum is the superior one, but not by much (and perhaps the outdoor living history displays at Yorktown make the experience there superior in the end).

I highly encourage you to make it a goal to see visit both institutions.

Review of Mercy Street finale and why we must #SaveMercyStreet!

Mercy Street GIF Recap

Well, just as I finally had a day this week with enough time to write a review of the season finale of Mercy Street, news came out that PBS has cancelled the show. It seems that ratings were not the issue. Scheduling around the large and active cast’s other commitments, as well as funding, seem to be the culprits. The producers are holding out hope that another network will save the show, so who knows? Perhaps Amazon, Netflix, or someone else could wind up coming to the rescue. I sure hope so, because this season was far superior to the first one, establishing the series as an important pop cultural depiction of the Civil War. In fact, I will be so bold as to proclaim it was marching toward becoming our most important movie or TV show involving the Civil War. Thus, seeing it end now before it reached its full potential is all the more distressing.

True, the final episode contained some disappointments and interpretive problems. Major McBurney’s character and storyline dissolved into silliness (though it was good for some real laughs). I had hopes that his OCD and PTSD would be taken seriously, but with Hale and Hastings doing everything they could to gaslight him into thinking he was losing his mind, it was clear the writers mainly wanted to use McBurney for comic relief. Another failure was how they handled James Green’s dealings with the British envoy. When told that slavery would be a sticking point to British intervention, Green assures the envoy that slavery would gradually be eliminated by the Confederacy. NO!! (Slap to the forehead). This is one of the ridiculous assertions of the Lost Cause, and it has no basis in reality. Any suggestion of freeing slaves at this point in the war would have been met by firm resistance, as holding on to slavery was in fact the sole purpose for secession and the establishment of the Confederacy. That the show’s writers would have Green utter such words was disappointing and perpetuates Lost Cause mythology. (To be fair, when Green says it, his son gives him a look that suggests he knows better. But this should have been made explicit).  Thankfully, this storyline was saved in the end when Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, ending all hope of British intervention. This is somewhat accurate. Still, the writers remained on shaky ground as Green bemoaned that after Lincoln’s proclamation, the Confederacy would now be seen “as one thing, and one thing only—slavers. And no amount of diplomacy will overcome that.” True, but the Confederacy had always been about that!

Those problems aside, this episode dealt with the enslaved and slavery exceptionally well. As I had hoped all season, Pinkerton’s investigation of the Greens reached fruition because of his questioning of slaves, though this week it was not Belinda, it was the two men that Jimmy let escape earlier this season. That southern blacks were such an important source of information for the Federals, and Pinkerton in particular, is not widely explored outside of academia, so this was exciting to watch.

Even more exciting was that instead of focusing on the physical brutalization of slaves as we normally get in TV and movies, Mercy Street often made it clear that slavery was the abomination that it was for more than just the fact that slaves were worked beyond endurance and beaten. That was never more true than in this last episode, as it focused on how the institution often separated lovers and spouses, as well as children from parents. In perhaps one of the series’s finest moments, Belinda explains to Emma and Mrs Green that she was long ago prevented from marrying the love of her life because the man’s owner would not allow it (because the babies would not be his property). And yet for twenty years she was able to share fleeting moments with her love as he managed to slip away to see her weekly. As tears slid down their faces, the Green women clearly realized that a woman they had known intimately their entire lives had a secret life apart from her world as a slave, and that perhaps they had never really known her at all. Brilliant. Powerful. Better than almost anything we saw in the recent Roots remake.

Tying into Belinda’s story is one involving the efforts of Charlotte Jenkins to procure a minister to perform a wedding ceremony within the contraband camp. This allows her to explain the historical fact that slave marriages could not be made legal, were often broken apart because of the selling of spouses away from each other, and that newly freed slaves desired to make their marriages legal. This is all true, and as anyone that has researched slavery during the Civil War can attest, making their marriages legal was one of the first concerns that newly liberated slaves attended to once behind Union lines. Emma Green gets involved with wrangling the chaplain into doing the honors, and this helps the two of them reconcile. But more joyously, it leads to a very moving scene at the end of the episode as several slaves get legally married, including Belinda and her long time love, and they all celebrate the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Further, the episode took us to the Maryland plantation home of Dr. Foster, as he and Samuel went out to deliver a prosthetic leg to his brother. This was filmed at Richmond’s historic Tuckahoe Plantation (which is the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson). The scene allows us to see that slavery died away in stages, not as the result of one revolutionary moment. Foster’s mom discusses how her slaves have become disobedient and impudent, but she fears “if I punish them they will run away, or worse.” This dynamic is extremely accurate.  Further, it turns out that one of the enslaved women is suffering from a difficult pregnancy, springing Foster and Samuel into action. Once the baby is delivered and the mother out of harm’s way, Foster’s brother immediately wants to sell the child, which seems all the more cruel when it is learned that the white man is in fact the father. Exasperated, Foster screams at his mother, “This is over! All of this!,” referring to the world of slavery and such cruelties (which, again, have been depicted without the show having even one scene of a slave whipping).

There are other small but very realistic moments in these plantation scenes.  One is Foster’s memory of growing up playing with one of the enslaved men on the plantation, and he struggles to recall the details of a game they played in which they were running from some bad men on horseback with guns. The black man initially feigns ignorance, but when he later discovers how sympathetic Foster is, tells the doctor that the men they were hiding from were in fact slave patrollers. Shaking Foster’s hand, the enslaved man reveals that even with slavery crumbling, he had been timid about running away before then from fear of the unknown, but now thinks he’ll see what else is out there. Another scene takes place at the dinner table, as Foster and his mother discuss the fate of slavery. Listening intently is a slave woman who is clearly curious as to how the white folks think the war will impact her life, though she feigns disinterest so that Foster’s mom will continue to speak freely. It is a small scene, but a realistic depiction of how the enslaved gathered information they quickly spread along the grapevine. How did slaves learn information about the progress of the war and its impact on slavery? The same place they had learned much of the information that kept them well informed their entire lives—the mouths of their owners. This clandestine gathering of information was a form of slave resistance, and it it very rare they we see it depicted so well, or at all.

Which leads me to the episode’s best moment. At the start of the episode, Samuel is still intent on leaving Alexandria and his work in both the hospital and the contraband camp in order to study medicine in Philadelphia. Charlotte Jenkins tries to stop him from leaving because of her affection for him, but also for bigger reasons. Telling him that his pursuit of a medical degree is important, she insists that it can wait until after the war. At the moment, helping prepare the runaways behind Union lines for freedom and playing a role in shaping the war must be their first priority. “Here we are in this struggle,” she says, “and we have to be to part of the victory.” If not, she warns him, “someday when they write the books they will say our freedom was won for us by white people. . . . We have to be actors in our own story, Samuel, not secondary players in theirs.”

Wow. I am guessing I don’t have to tell many of you how big a line that was when viewed in context of the long trajectory of Civil War historiography. Due largely to the Lost Cause, the role of African Americans in the Civil War did in fact get largely written out of the history books until late in the 20th century. It has only been relatively recently (as in the last 30 years or so) that many historians have begun placing blacks on the center of the Civil War stage, exploring the crucial roles that they played in their own liberation. Personally, Jenkins’ line pretty much perfectly sums up what I humbly tried to accomplish in my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation.

But the line is not just accurate from our perspective of hindsight. Indeed, many African Americans made the exact same point during the war, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. African American newspaper editors, ministers, abolitionist speakers, and military recruiters encouraged their race to not only shape the war to their own purposes, but also to help save the Union in order to demonstrate that they warranted citizenship in it.

Mercy Street told many stories in this short second season, and much of it reflected current Civil War historiography (particularly the new exploration of the war’s non-glorified “dark side.”) If for no other reason than that, the show should be saved. The potential for the large and varied stories and truthful Civil War history it could explore is almost limitless, and if the show continued, I really think it could become far and away our most important pop cultural depiction of the Civil War. At the end of the episode, Foster is reunited with Phinney as she lays gravely ill in her bed. Reading the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation together from a newspaper (by the way, the episode also nicely revealed the problematic nature of the openly biased newspapers of the time), Foster tells her that the world (and the war) is changing and promises she will see it. I sure wish we would have gotten a chance to see just how well the show would have explored all those changes.

But think about everything I just wrote about how slavery was handled in just this episode alone. What other pop cultural depiction of the Civil War has done so much with slavery, and done it so well? North and South? Please. Glory? A groundbreaking film, but it focused on black troops and could not go down as many paths as a TV series. Gettysburg? Um, no. There is only one black man in the whole film, and he never says a word while two white men very briefly discuss race and slavery. Lincoln? Free State of Jones? Those movies told their stories well, but as Jenkins said, blacks were only secondary players.

For this reason above all, we must #SaveMercyStreet.

Hidden Figures and history


I’ve been looking forward to seeing Hidden Figures since seeing the movie trailer months ago. The film is based on the story of female African American mathematicians and physicists that played vitally important roles in the success of our 1960s space program, and is set to open in theaters on January 6. Reviews have been good (like here, and here), and Space.com has an interesting piece about the movie’s commitment to authenticity. Meanwhile, PBS provides background on the true history and the book on which the film is based. Apparently, besides the film’s female protagonists, John Glenn is portrayed in a particularly positive light. Although the movie takes some liberties and condenses timelines and events, NASA chief historian Bill Barry was impressed with its accuracy. “Ever so often,” one reviewer writes, “Hollywood actually finds something new under the sun and tells us a story we haven’t heard before.” Now, isn’t that much better than remakes and all these computer generated –the-world-is-ending-unless-some-superheroes-save-us– flicks that we have been overwhelmed with lately? Hey screenwriters, history is filled with such tales.

Musings on The Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner’s rebellion


(-Disclaimer: I fully understand why many people are reluctant to see and support this movie given the  allegations swirling around Nate Parker’s past. My review, however, is focused on the film itself, and should not be seen as a statement about the alleged legal and moral transgressions of the film’s creator).

I have many thoughts about Nate Parker’s controversial new film, The Birth of a Nation, so bear with me. Before getting to the mild spoilers below, let me say right off that the film has a TON of historical inaccuracies that will anger and frustrate many historians, myself included. Yet the key to appreciating this very powerful film is to understand that it is “based” on a true story (as the opening credits proclaim), only using the broad outlines of Nat Turner’s rebellion to tell its largely fictional tale. While the most provocative aspects of the event are missing or obscured, other important dynamics of it are not, and the film delivers them exceptionally well.

I often have my classes read about the 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, write an essay on it, and engage in a discussion of whether or not Nat Turner was a “hero.” Was he a murderer or a warrior in a justified war? This almost always leads to interesting exchanges. I had hoped that this film would leave audience members pondering the same thing, believing that if it did so, it would blow their minds and induce some deep and dark questions about antebellum slavery. Unfortunately, the film does not do that, giving us an interpretation of Turner that was embraced by 1960s black radicals–an almost wholly heroic man waging a war against slavery and the brutalization of black lives.

In doing so, Parker has to omit important historical details and distort others, stripping the Turner rebellion of what I think is its most important consideration: What does the hatred unleashed during the revolt reveal about the institution of slavery? Southampton County was dominated by small farms and enslaved blacks that had close personal connections with whites that most of them had known their whole lives. Their workload was relatively lighter than those on larger plantations, and especially in the Deep South. Many, like Nat, were routinely allowed to travel throughout the community to visit friends and family members on other farms, and masters were somewhat indulgent of minor transgressions. And yet, in a volcanic eruption of rage, enslaved blacks let loose a hellish and unspeakably horrific orgy of violence that involved the use of axes, clubs, and other instruments to decapitate and bludgeon some 60 whites into bloody pulps–a large number of them women and children (and in one instance, an infant in its cradle). Surely, such fury tells us much about the true evils of slavery. If we condemn Turner and his rebels, I often tell my students, we must in the same breath condemn the institution that created the anger and hatred revealed in the brutal nature of the murders.

Sadly, The Birth of a Nation does little to force audiences into the moral dilemma of considering whether or not Turner was a hero, because it opts for depicting all the standard slavery horrors that we normally get in movies (depicting an “every South” rather than the particular dynamics in Southampton), and the rebellion itself is given short shrift. We only see the whites that seemingly deserved it the most get killed.

Further, Turner is not depicted as motivated by a lifelong mystic faith that he was called to a higher purpose (though the opening scene and other vague dreamlike sequences suggest it). Rather than the supernatural voices and strange visions that Turner was convinced frequently spoke to him his whole life, it is the rape and brutal beating of his wife, the rape of a close friend’s wife, and a whipping he suffers, that instigate his rebellious plans. In truth, Turner’s motivations were deeper and more psychologically disturbing than the film demonstrates, which weakens what the movie could have said about the institution of slavery.

And yet, the film brilliantly presents a story that is powerful in and of itself. This is a excellent film, with beautiful cinematography, pitch perfect use of sound and music, and near uniformly superb acting. Much like the writings of Frederick Douglass, Nate Parker’s movie demonstrates that slavery tainted everything it touched, including seemingly “good” masters.

More impressive, it successfully depicts how important black families and personal relationships were to enduring enslavement. The first hour of the movie centers on a tender love story that blooms within the confines of an evil system. The love offers a light in a dark world, and aside from Roots, we rarely see this depicted in films about slavery. Further, the film makes it clear that an enslaved individual’s quality of life was influenced by the type of master they had, and that this could vary from farm to farm. One scene that will long haunt me involves a sadistic master’s brutal treatment of a slave that refuses to eat, and it is all the more powerful because it does not involve the typical whipping scene we so often get. In the end, the film leaves us with an image of the Old South that is far from moonlight and magnolias.

****Here come very mild spoilers in a discussion of the film’s inaccuracies. Skip to my last two paragraphs if you want to avoid spoilers ****

The historical inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions in this film are numerous and frustrating. Some are only minor, but still annoying. For instance, slave patrollers would not have tried to kill a surrendering runaway slave, nor raped and beaten a slave on her master’s property, as they would have then owed financial restitution to the master. Turner’s mother had been brought directly from Africa, but in the film she has no African accent, nor do we see her infuse her son’s religion with African traditions.

We can forgive many of these inaccuracies, such as the simplification of Nat’s ownership. As property, he was transferred between masters several times, and yet the movie depicts him as the lifetime property of a man that he grew up playing with as a child. This is a case of a screenwriter justifiably condensing things for the sake of streamlining the story, and depicts a situation that was true for many slaves.

However, bigger problems involve the rebellion itself, which is largely sanitized (yes, it was even more brutal than what is seen on the screen). There is no orgy of violence that shows slaves chasing down, beating, and chopping to death women and children. The only slayings we see are folks that the film has depicted as wholly bad (except Nat’s owner, but he had recently angered Nat by requiring his friend’s wife to sleep with a visiting guest, and also had recently given Nat a brutal beating).

In truth, a large percent of the victims were women and children, including those at a boarding school that the rebels butchered and threw on a pile. Further, Nat is shown directly involved in the killings, when in fact he murdered only one person (a woman he chased down and beat to death with a fence rail). Instead, we see him kill his master and a slave patroller that almost killed his father and that raped and beat his wife (neither of which actually happened). There is no moral dilemma in these killings, they are an act of justice.

Further, there is also a pitched battle in the town of Jerusalem that did not happen, as the militia was able to keep the rebels out of the city. Nat’s rebels are always under his control, steadfast, and resolute, when in fact, he lingered behind during their march of bloody vengeance and many of his cohorts fell into pillaging and drunkenness that slowed them down.

But the inaccuracy and omissions that weaken the film the most are in the ending. In the film, Nat turns himself in when he discovers that innocent blacks are being murdered until he is found. He heroically sacrifices himself by walking boldly into town to surrender to a mob. In fact, Turner hid for months in a couple of dugout spots in the woods, and was captured by accident by a man that stumbled upon him. Parker’s portrayal, of course, is meant to give Turner a heroic finale, but it does not match the reality.

Most frustrating of all is that the movie robs us of Nat’s courtroom and jail cell confessions. Here was the moment when we could hear Nat’s eloquent words about why he did it. Nate Parker’s screenplay could have quoted Turner directly, condemning an evil institution and revealing his belief in a divinely ordained mission to eradicate slavery. And yet, we get nothing but his (accurate) last words of “I’m ready,” and a Christ-like depiction of martyrdom at the end of a noose.

****Spoilers over***

Despite these historical inaccuracies, this is a film that gets a lot of things right. Yes, as other reviewers have pointed out, slave women are largely depicted as needing a savior and are not front-and-center during the rebellion—but much else about the rebellion is wrong, not just the omission of women. Still, enslaved women are an integral part of the film. They are portrayed as the core of slave families, responsible for instilling the self esteem and self worth that the institution of slavery seeks to destroy. The enslaved community and its culture is shown as important to survival by creating camaraderie, love, and hope, elements that are sadly missing in many current slave movies. Yes, the film needs more of this, as do many of our other presentations of slavery (and if you have read much of my writing you know this is one of my pet peeves), but this film is about a true instance of violent rebellion, not day-to-day slave resistance.

Further, the broad details of Nat Turner’s rebellion are correctly depicted: Turner is motivated by the wrathful God of the Old Testament; his preaching gives him many advantages that other slaves did not have; yet he leads a rebellion that shatters the image of happy and contented slaves (as it did at the time). The Old South we see in the film is a strange, complex, nay schizophrenic world, with a mixture of sadistic and more benign masters, tender, affectionate, and sometimes joyful slave families, and yet a palpable sense of dread and foreboding hovers over it all.

The Birth of a Nation is a fine and powerful film made with skill and passion. If you accept that it is merely based on a true story, and not actually the true story, you will be able to enjoy it and see it for what it is: another powerful and accurate depiction of the antebellum South that demolishes the lies of the Lost Cause and many of the Hollywood movies of the past.

Oh, and you’re gonna love that last shot just before the film fades to black.