Preserving sacred land in Virginia, but not in North Dakota; Yorktown’s New American Revolution museum; Miranda on Drunk History; A Civil War comedy?

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More great National Park Service news: The other day we learned about the impending creation of a Civil Rights National Monument in Birmingham, as well as the potential saving of almost all of the Malvern Hill Battlefield in Virginia. Now, we learn that a bill that has long been in the works is close to approval that would triple the size of the Petersburg National Battlefield, making it the largest Civil War park in the nation. Virginia’s senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have been working on this for a long while, picking up where others before them left off.

And yet while we are protecting all this land that has been deemed sacred to U.S. history, the protests continue in North Dakota to preserve land sacred to Native Americans. Now we get news that some 2,000 US military veterans are starting to arrive at the Standing Rock site, dedicated to creating a human wall around the protestors to protect them in the event of a forced removal (just think of the historical ironies of that for a second). North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered the protestors to leave, though noting that force would not be used to make them comply. Hiding behind feigned concern for the protestors (which reminds one of actions taken by certain officials during the Civil Rights movement), he insists that the order is meant to protect them from some rapidly approaching severe winter weather. I love the response of the Standing Rock Sioux to the governor. In a statement on Wednesday, they said that because “the Governor of North Dakota and Sheriff of Morton County are relative newcomers” to the land, “it is understandable they would be concerned about severe winter weather.” Further, the Great Sioux Nation has survived “in this region for millennia without the concerns of state or county governments.” Nice. Let’s hope this situation does not get any uglier, but with the veterans arriving, I think it is quickly reaching a boiling point. Our nation does have a history of dealing harshly with protestors like this (even when they include veterans), and I fear for what kinds of things can happen in Trump’s America. (Too bad that North Dakota does not seem to be represented by men like Warner and Kaine).

And while we are on Standing Rock, I highly encourage you to take he time to read the blog post of Wisconsin basketball player Bronson Koenig about his experiences at the protest site, his recent delvings into Native American history, and the impact it all has had on his ongoing personal self discovery.  It is a great read that will take you much deeper into what is going on out there than we see in the headlines.

Well we know about the new American Revolution museum soon opening in Philadelphia, but there is also a new one already open in Yorktown, Virginia. According to the Virginia Gazette, the new facility is heavy on technology designed to draw visitors into an immersive experience (and includes battle simulation games). “You never want to do technology just to do technology,” one of the institution’s media managers said. “So we didn’t just do something because it looked cool or because it was a big wow, but rather, does it present the content in the way that is going to mean the most to the visitor who’s interacting with it?” As a result, the new $50 million museum has 22,000-square-foot gallery that, in addition to 500 artifacts, contains four film experiences, six computer interactives, projections, audio wands and more. I’ll be in the area in just a few weeks, so I can’t wait to drop by and see the new place. I’ll let you know what I think! Stay tuned.

Did you catch Lin-Manuel Miranda on Drunk History the other night? It was pretty funny, although I think it did not completely live up to the hype. It was most successful at painting the lead up to the Hamilton/Burr duel as all very high school-ish (if that is possible), but clearly Miranda knows Hamilton’s story so well that he can tell it pretty adeptly even while drunk. That mutes the comedic aspects of the show, though Drunk History was able to compensate for it pretty well with their always hilarious renditions of the story-teller’s words. If you missed it, you can watch it here at the Comedy Central website. (You’ll need to sign in by using your cable/satellite account info). I love that Miranda concludes by noting that although he was killed by Burr, Hamilton won in the end because someone eventually made an amazing Broadway show about how great he was. Indeed!

Looking for a good history movie on Netflix? How about a Civil War comedy? Not sure how it is possible to make a good comedy out of such a tragic event, but over on Civil War Pop, Christian McWhirter lets us know that an independent film called Men Go to Battle somewhat pulls it off, and manages to be historically accurate. I think I’ll check it out.

And while we’re back on the Civil War: there is apparently a new mini-series set to air in a couple of weeks called Blood and Fury: America’s Civil War. The rather hyperbolic title of the show does not inspire much confidence that this thing will be any good, nor does its description that tells us that the “war’s most significant battles” were “Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettsyburg, Nashville, and Petersburg.” What, no Vicksburg? How does Fredericksburg make that list but not Vicksburg? Or Atlanta, for that matter? I’ll try not to pre-judge though, so lets see how this thing turns out. It premieres Dec 14 on The American Heroes Channel.  (What the heck is that? I’ll have to check to see if I even have that!)

The Hamilton electors; Preserving Malvern Hill Battlefield; Black history tourism and a National Monument for Birmingham; Miranda on Drunk History TONIGHT!

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Hopefully by now you have heard about the so-called “Hamilton Electors,” a group of electoral college members that are trying to sway other members into denying Trump the presidency. Citing Alexander Hamilton’s explanation of the electoral college, they argue that the institution was created for just this very purpose—to protect us from having an unqualified demagogue that swayed the masses from actually obtaining the presidency. “We honor Alexander Hamilton’s vision,” their new website proclaims, “that the Electoral College should, when necessary, act as a Constitutional failsafe against those lacking the qualifications from becoming President. In 2016 we’re dedicated to putting political parties aside and putting America first.” I believe they are correct in their interpretation, at least in how Hamilton explained it in the Federalist Papers, and I love that they have invoked his name for their cause (which is all the more apropos given Trump’s ridiculous feud with the Broadway cast of Hamilton. Oh, and did you see that they just broke a box office record?). The movement seems to be slowly growing among the electors.  Will it work? Doubtful, but at the very least it sure would be interesting to see them get this thing thrown into the House of Representatives and then to watch and see what House Republicans would do. I’ve seen commentators (like here in The Atlantic,  and from the opposite end of the political spectrum,  The American Conservative) argue that there is no way they can (or should) be able to get electors to switch their vote to Clinton because she won the popular vote. Yet while that is what some petitioners are going for,  that is not what the Hamilton Electors are trying to do. They are very aware that the only hope is to convince Republican and Democrat electors to support a compromise Republican candidate. Of course this would send the country into even more chaos, but there is a viable scenario where this could happen (although it is more likely that they could get it thrown into the House by denying Trump the 270 he needs to win). There is historical precedence for “rogue electors,” as the mayor of Charlottesville, Va., Michael Signer, points out in his interesting and somewhat persuasive post for Vox, calling on us to “make the Electoral College great again.” Frustrated by the election results, many people have called for an end to the electoral college (and Trump supporters were doing so before the election), so wouldn’t it be ironic if in the end it became the thing that denied a Trump presidency? The chances are slim, especially because an elector revolt would likely create some major legal battles, but if this year has shown us anything, it is that anything is possible. Right? At the very least, a revolt of the electors might create the groundswell of public opinion needed to finally do away with the Electoral College altogether.

The Hamilton Electors have created a nice succinct video to explain and support their cause:

Oh, and then there is this guy: an elector from Texas has decided to resign his position rather than vote for Trump. Doing so, he insists, would “bring dishonor to God.”

Here is the best history news I have heard for a while: a deal is in the works that would result in the protection of about 90-95% of the Malvern Hill battlefield in Virginia. Hurrah! My beloved Richmond National Battlefield Park would then be able to ensure that the site (which is almost untouched by modern development) would stay that way. Anyone that has been to the site can testify to what a special place it is, so this is great news. I have a strong personal connection to it, as I have given many tours there , including one that helped inspire my book.

Great to see this National Park Service news too: As the overwhelming crowds at the Smithsonian‘s new museum reveal, there is a growing interest in the African American aspects of United States history.  As a Birmingham, Alabama, native, I am proud to see that President Obama is set to turn areas of downtown into a “national monument.” These sites were central to the 1963 protests that played a pivotal role in pushing JFK into proposing the Civil Rights Act. Legislation to turn these areas into a National Park is now stalled in congressional committee, but in the meantime, the NPS treats “monuments,” and “parks” pretty much the same. I was a young man in college in the early 90s when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute first opened a museum and began interpreting the sites, so it is really amazing and exciting to see the area on the verge of getting the NPS treatment.

Related to that is this story from the Washington Post about the growing interest in touring sites related to black history. The article focuses on a new company in Alexandria, Virginia called “Manumission Tours,” and I for one am really interested in taking one of their tours next time I am in the area. While these types of historical tours and sites are growing rapidly in number (that new Nat Turner trail can’t get here fast enough), and other historical sites are increasingly adding black history to their interpretations, I hope we do not begin to pigeonhole these places as “African American” sites. These are US history sites that are relevant to us all and tell the story of America. Period.

Lastly for today, don’t forget that TONIGHT is the premiere of the Drunk History episode featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda’s drunken telling of the Hamilton/Burr story. Set your DVRs!

PBS’s documentary on Hamilton (the musical), the value of historic sites, and being a Hamiltonian when Hamilton wasn’t cool


I finally got around to watching that PBS documentary on the making of Broadway’s Hamilton (which premiered last week to an audience of 3.6 million viewers), so I thought I would share a few thoughts on it. When I first started teaching back in the late 1990s, I was at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond. Most of my students were Virginia natives and had grown up with teachers that loved Thomas Jefferson and vilified Alexander Hamilton. They almost always expressed some surprise when I complicated that picture by giving a more sympathetic depiction of Hamilton, and, in fact, I embraced a more Hamiltonian point of view when discussing the Early Republic. I took great glee in this, as it not only got students to see that history is contested, but also because I was (and am) an avowed Hamilton fan.

When I moved back to my home state of Alabama for grad school and also began teaching here, I found much less resistance from students that had not grown up in the shadow of Monticello. But what I did find was graduate courses with the eminent historian Forrest McDonald, and he was obviously a fervent defender of Hamilton. I came to appreciate the least-celebrated of the Founders even more, and over the years have engaged in debates with fellow grad students and now colleagues over the whole Jefferson/Hamilton divide (which are all the more fun in casual conversations).  My undergrad courses in US History to 1877 have always incorporated that division in some way in the final exam, with students always pretty much aware of where I stand. So yes, what I am trying to point out is that I was Hamiltonian when Hamilton wasn’t cool.

But now he is cool.  Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical (which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s exhaustive and exhausting biography), Hamilton is now the hippest of all the Founders and Jefferson is the villain of the story. The PBS documentary does an exceptional job of showing the very personal reasons why Miranda became obsessed with Hamilton, and gives some interesting insights into the process of writing a musical. The generous helpings of performance clips were also mesmerizing (especially for someone that has not seen the show yet), and offered a broad outline of how the musical translates the main events of Hamilton’s life for the stage. Along the way, the documentary provides commentary from cast members (including Miranda himself), celebrities and politicians (including Jimmy Fallon, who admits that he had barely even heard of Hamilton before seeing the show, and George W. Bush–strangely enough),  but also from several nicely chosen historians. The result is a pretty good mini-biography of Alexander Hamilton which offers a sympathetic rendering of his life.

It also indirectly promotes historic tourism.  I loved that the documentary featured scenes of cast members visiting historic sites associated with Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton’s lives (as well as George Washington’s), as they learned from museum curators, historic home tour guides, and National Park Service rangers. The experiences were clearly inspirational for the cast members (especially for Miranda and Christopher Jackson–who portrays Washington in the musical) and helped them to feel more connected to their roles.  As a big believer in the value of historic sites as teaching tools, I am hopeful that the many people that have fallen in love with the musical might be inspired by the documentary to seek out these sites, and from there begin to look for other historic sites around them and while traveling.

And yet, even as a Hamilton fan, I was a little annoyed by the hero-making aspects of both the musical and the documentary. Jefferson’s objections to Hamilton’s policies and character definitely do not get much treatment, and this is despite the fact that Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed was one of the documentary’s talking heads. I’m more than certain that she offered her interviewers commentary that provided a more complicated view of both Jefferson and Hamilton, but most of it must have been left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I won’t complain too much about this, but it does leave me wondering if the pop cultural power of the musical (which will soon be traveling the country and will no doubt eventually get turned into a movie) will soon have such an impact that future teachers will find students are stunned when they offer a sympathetic treatment of Jefferson!

Bottom line: if you have it recorded or want to stream it online (which you can do with the link below), be sure to catch the documentary. It will make you hunger to see the musical and inspire you while watching Miranda’s passion and his creative process (He is a very interesting artist). It also provides a nice little history lesson, although not a very objective one.

I guess I will just have to accept that being a Hamilton fan no longer places me in an exclusive club.