Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 6, 2012

Student Reactions to Lincoln

As part of my U.S. History survey course, I offered students the opportunity to write a brief reflection of Lincoln. I was curious how they would respond, both because of the contours of the online debate about the movie’s portrayal of African-Americans, their role in emancipation, the process in Congress, and the depiction of Lincoln himself, and more importantly because my students are likely not as deeply engaged in the historians’ debates as many of us are. After seeing the responses, I thought it might be useful to share some of them (I asked each student’s permission and promised anonymity).

In general, the students who responded enjoyed the film and expressed an interest in learning more about the period (which is useful since we’re about to discuss the Civil War and Reconstruction in class). One went into the movie skeptical but found Spielberg’s framing alluring, noting that “I went into the movie figuring it would be quite boring, but I came out of the movie so interested I couldn’t help but recommend it to everyone.”

Everyone thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a fantastic job at portraying Lincoln (down to the voice), and unlike many historians, most of the students enjoyed the close focus on Lincoln himself. One, in fact, noted that she went in “afraid the movie was going to try to cover too many aspects of his presidency,” and was pleasantly surprised since she thought “the passing of this amendment was the most interesting part of his presidency.” Another offered a detailed analysis of Day-Lewis’s Lincoln:

I think what Spielberg really wanted to focus on was the character of Lincoln and I think Daniel Day Lewis delivered a very accurate portrayal of Lincoln. From what I saw in the movie, Lincoln seemed to be an optimist, as well as humorous and melancholy. You could see how much pressure and anxiety Lincoln suffered from; the pressure the be a father, a president and an all around good man. Something that really surprised me was Lincoln’s voice or what Lewis believed his voice would sound like. I figured that since Lincoln had so much weight on his shoulders he would carry those burdens in his voice and have a really deep, low, droned out kind of voice. But in the first line he delivered, he had a high pitched, soft voice. I think his voice was one of the many reasons he was such a loved president. When I was watching the scenes while he was giving speeches, his voice was kind of sweet and vulnerable which complimented his nature.

The same student had a strong reaction to previously conceived notions of “Honest Abe,” a trope that haunts studies of Lincoln. For this student, the film and Day-Lewis’s approach altered the meaning of the nickname:

One of the very few things I was taught about Lincoln was that he was given the nickname “Honest Abe” and I realize now that he didn’t have that nickname because he never lied, it was because he was so genuine. In an interview Daniel Day-Lewis described Abe as extremely “accessible” which was a dangerous quality to have as president during these times. Abe was the kind of man that wasn’t a puzzle to figure out, he carried his emotions on his face and in his words and had the courage not to wear a mask.

As many have noted, the film did not deal directly with the deep involvement of African-Americans in the emancipation movement. We’re covering that material this week and next in class, so for my students (who had already seen the film), it highlighted some of the racist aspects of the debate:

I didn’t realize how prejudiced the country actually was during this time in history. Of course I have sat through countless history classes learning about slavery, but seeing the lack of support Americans were willing to give to the idea of African Americans being free in their own country shocked me. Lincoln never gave up which is what makes him such a respected president even to this very day. His hard work paid off when the Thirteenth Amendment passed, but his bitter assassination shortly after proved that not all Americans approved.

And another:

As awful as it seems in the context of today, the blatant racism seems like it was portrayed accurately. Some whites truly felt superior to African-Americans. The constant use of biblical references claiming that God made whites superior showed how deeply engrained this belief was. However, there were some people who disagreed with such a belief who stood up for African-Americans when they really could not stand up for themselves and passed the thirteenth amendment.

The exclusion of African-Americans has spawned many a blog post, but I personally found the depiction of Thaddeus Stevens fascinating, as did a student, who seems inspired to go out and learn more (I may have a few reading recommendations…):

Thaddeus Stevens (as played by Tommy Lee Jones) was a great character as well in this movie and he enlightened me to the role of the 19th century Republican party in the abolitionist movement.  I had known very little about Thaddeus Stevens beforehand but I was most surprised to find out how vehemently opposed he was to slavery and that Lincoln actually had to ask him to “tone it down” as it were.

On the other hand, the film’s focus on Congressional debates left the climactic scene flat for one student.

The only time I was happy to be staring straight up at the screen in the second row of the theatre was during this scene because it felt like I was sitting in the court room. But I wasn’t as moved and riveted by this scene as I had anticipated. (Maybe because my dad leaned over and whispered, “Oh boy, I wonder what’s going to happen.”) I wish that they made that moment more captivating because it was a defining moment in history and it was a completely unexpected outcome.

In one small way, perhaps this is a residual effect of the decision to make the movie about Congress with the broader emancipation movement deep in the shadows.

Aside from the core of the film’s discussion of the Thirteenth Amendment, students picked up on scenes and moments with meaning for them that historians have not focused on particularly. One student, a veteran, was particularly struck by the reaction of the audience to the few scenes of fighting:

One thing that really stuck in my mind was the scene where Lincoln was touring the aftermath of the Battle of Petersburg. President Lincoln was riding on horseback through the battlefield looking at all the fallen soldiers. But the thing I can’t get out of my mind is the reaction from the audience. There were gasps as if this was something new to these people. I couldn’t help but thinking that this all still goes on everyday and these people don’t even care that the the month this movie came out 13 members of the armed services were killed in Afghanistan.

I may share my own thoughts on the film in the days to come. In the meantime, I’ve at a minimum found the film a good opportunity for students to think about and discuss presentations of the past in popular culture, and I hope having some students voices out in the blogosphere can help enlighten the discussion about the film’s historical arguments.


October 14, 2012

A Re-Election Campaign for the Ages

A little humor for your Sunday:, a website devoted to re-electing President Lincoln and electing Senator Andrew Johnson as Vice-President, discovered via blogger Matt Yglesias.

It’s unclear who’s behind it; the only live links go to pages devoted to campaign finance reform. But the site contains quite a bit of detail, and is clearly offered with malice toward none (save perhaps George McClellan) and with charity to all (of us).


June 22, 2012

In Other News

I don’t want to distract from the discussion about UVa that Ben, Jeff, and Morning Chronicler have begun. However, I do want to note several items of interest from around the web this week. Rather than bombard the blog with short posts, I decided instead to collect them here in roundup fashion, something which I cannot promise to do but in an irregular fashion.

  • At The Atlantic, senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates is turning his blog again this summer into a massive discussion group (affectionately titled the Effete Liberal Book Club) for an academic tome. Up this year is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. It seems like a good opportunity to read or re-read a classic text, and along the way to get a sense of how non-historians read and react to academic work.
  • W. Scott Poole offers some thoughts at The Huffington Post on the release of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer into movie theaters across the nation this weekend (a subject which has also come up on this blog). Having used the novel in his college’s undergraduate methodology course, Poole argues that it and other fantastical treatments of American history can be effective tools for teaching that history. First, he writes, he wanted his students “to think about how primary historical sources, the raw material of history, can be repurposed in surprising ways,” and indeed, many of them got turned on to Lincoln’s actual writings as well as the work of historians of the era—Poole notes in particular David Blight. Second, his students helped him to understand the novel’s treatment of darkness and evil in American history as a powerful lens to understand slavery. In other words, he concludes, “America needed a vampire hunter in 1860.” Definitely worth a read.
  • The rash of media coverage for the “discovery” of lost archival items has been nagging at me, largely because, while cool to have, few of them have seemed to change our understanding of the past very much. Suzanne Fischer, curator of technology at The Henry Ford, agrees.  She points out that the recent document unearthed about Lincoln’s assassination, drafted by the first doctor to reach Lincoln after he was shot, was “right where it was supposed to be (emphasis hers)”—that is, filed under the doctor’s name among the correspondence of the Surgeon General. The researcher who revealed the report, Helena Iles Papaioannou, responded that neither she nor anyone else knew of the report, and that even if its existence had been known, its location was not obvious from the cataloguing system. Because of the public fascination with “discoveries,” this issue will likely continue to spark discussion among archivists, librarians, and historians.
  • James Grossman and Allen Mikaelian analyzed the Politifact Truth-o-Meter and the ways in which it has taken advantage of (or not) the expertise of scholars. Not surprisingly, the journalists who interview scholars are more inclined to sift through the nuance and “shades of grey” opinions in favor of blunt, to-the-point assessments. To reduce Grossman and Mikaelian’s argument, the historians provide fascinating answers on the connections between the past and the present on the issue of, for example, whether new restrictions on voting can be described as “Jim Crow laws” … and then the legal scholars hold more sway in the final decision.
  • A teaching post of possible interest: Tona Hangen of Worcester State University writes about including her students in the process of creating the syllabus for her survey course (United States Since Reconstruction). The impetus for her to do so was the constant struggle in the survey course “between ‘sprinting’ and ‘digging down’” as one races through the material of 150 years (those who teach European or world history surveys are politely asked not to snicker). Would it work in the first half? I’m not sure; the topics may be a little too unfamiliar.
  • Last, a fascinating document find that’s attractive to me as someone who works on political history and history of the book: Houghton Library at Harvard owns a copy of a book from George Washington’s library with Washington’s annotations. But it’s not just any book; it’s an excoriation of the Washington administration’s foreign policy by its former ambassador to France, a young, up-and-coming Virginian named James Monroe. Washington, as curator John Overholt explains, was less than thrilled with Monroe’s opinion.

And to get your weekend started off right, I’ll re-post a trailer for a movie trailer from the comments on a previous post about the War of 1812 bicentennial. Enjoy!


CollegeHumor’s Favorite Funny Videos


June 7, 2012

The Year of Mashing Up Slavery

Filed under: Civil War Era,Film,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:12 am

. . . with vampire slayers and western gunfighters

Historians of 19th-century America, the pop-culture trend of dressing up modern genre tropes in period-drama drag has finally reached us. A couple of weeks from now, the latest big summer action movie will be Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, from the mind of the man who brought you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The plot posits a Lincoln who has secretly been using his rail-splitting ax skills on vampires his whole life; it seems that poor Nancy Hanks was actually murdered by bloodsuckers, and young Abe trained himself to become Whigman and fight back.  Slavery and the southern Confederacy are really vampire conspiracies to farm human beings and take control of a nation for themselves. It will take a vampire-aware chief executive to put a stake in their plans. There seems to be some kind of showdown between Lincoln and 20 vampires in a Gone With the Wind-style plantation Big House. Or at least that is what I can gather from the trailer. No time to read the book just now.

I wish had more hopes for the movie being any good — it looks like the kind of CGI-choked living cartoon that is typical of our current cinematic era — but I could not help but feel some bemusement at the trailer‘s opening narration. Abe the Vampire Slayer seems to be writing an historiographic essay in his diary about the superiority of social over political history: “History prefers legends to men, soaring speeches to quiet deeds. History remembers the battle, and forgets the blood. Whatever history remembers of me, if it remembers anything at all, it shall only be a fraction of the truth.”  So what we seem to have here is the labor history of vampire hunting — History from the Coffin Up, I guess you could call it.

For Christmas, well, I will let the eminent scholar of Caribbean slave rebellion Laurent Dubois give you the news, delivered via Twitter last night: “Tarantino does plantation slavery. What could possibly go wrong?” Quentin Tarantino of ultraviolent postmodern gangster movie fame, that is. You may remember his last movie, and first foray into history, Inglourious Basterds, the one where the magic of cinema and a band of Jewish commandos kill Hitler. In Django Unchained, a Roots-ish Jamie Foxx gets rescued from a slave trader’s coffle that seems to have accidentally wandered into Death Valley on its way from Virginia to Mississippi. Django then teams up with his rescuer, a strangely German-sounding bounty hunter, to rid the West of racist crackers and rescue his wife from the vicious planter-and-overseer combo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Johnson. We can only hope that some of the mayhem will be scored to anachronistic pop songs; James Brown sounds pretty good in the trailer.

What I find interesting about this new departure in historical action trash is the way both these films seem to represent a shift in a long-established pop-cultural convention regarding the use of the Civil War as “backstory” in adventure fiction. In popular westerns, especially, if the hero was a Civil War veteran, he was almost always an ex-Confederate, usually someone who had been victimized in some way by the Union and went west in exile . Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, originally from Virginia, was one of the first. A common western scenario was vividly depicted in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, in which a marauding band of “redlegs” in Union army uniforms burn Clint’s farm and murder his family, throwing in the rape without which no ’70s revenge film was complete. He then spends the movie hunting and being hunted by glowering heavies in blue. Conveniently, the ex-Confederate hero never has a word to say about slavery and seems to be remarkably free of racial animosity for a man who had fought to preserve white supremacy. John Carter is the only unprejudiced creature on all of Barsoom, bringing Virginian tolerance and civilization to the Red Planet’s multi-hued warring savages.  (Carter also kills a considerable number of bigoted no-hopers with his low-gravity-enabled super powers.) Josey Wales ends with Clint defending a multi-racial group of social outcasts from a pack of degenerate Union veterans. The convention was going strong right into 2012, with Disney’s John Carter film and the AMC transcontinental railroad drama Hell on Wheels. The latter features yet another ex-Confederate hero who also happens to be the least racist guy around. American culture’s devotion to the idea of lone rebel as the only possible repository of decency, honesty, and freedom — as opposed to the seemingly inevitable perfidy and rigidity of any character who serves an institution like the U.S. government — always seemed to trump the question of which side in the Civil War had actually fought for freedom.

In these two upcoming films, however, the script seems to have been flipped: we get antislavery heroes wreaking bloody vengeance on monstrous southern slaveowners, some of them literally monsters.  It is doubtless unintentional but still symbolic of the shift that the actor who plays vampire-hunting Lincoln, Benjamin Walker, was previously best known for playing an inappropriately young and handsome version of a pro-slavery president in the stage musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  It’s sad that it took lurid post-modern mash-ups of exhausted genres for Hollywood to finally get past its infatuation with Confederates, but with so much cultural recycling, I guess every idea has to come to the top of the pile eventually.

[UPDATE: YouTube embeds not working too well here lately, so instead I switched them out for images that will lead to trailers when clicked. NEW UPDATE: Testing new embed plugin below the jump. Let me know if it works.]



April 3, 2012

More Than We Thought

If you thought you knew how many died in the U.S. Civil War, you may be wrong, according to this morning’s New York Times. David Hacker of Binghamton University has offered new estimates in the December 2011 issue of Civil War History of the number of men killed in the Civil War (not women, see the article for why) that increase the total by about 20%. [NB: if you have access to Project Muse, you can read the Civil War History piece here.]

Portrait of Captain Bacon and the 34th Mass. Company E, courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

Hacker made the estimates by blending traditional methods of statistical estimation with new tools available digitally:

Enter Dr. Hacker, a specialist in 19th-century demographics, who was accustomed to using a system called the two-census method to calculate mortality. That method compares the number of 20-to-30-year-olds in one census with the number of 30-to-40-year-olds in the next census, 10 years later. The difference in the two figures is the number of people who died in that age group.

Pretty simple — but, Dr. Hacker soon realized, too simple for counting Civil War dead. Published census data from the era did not differentiate between native-born Americans and immigrants; about 500,000 foreign-born soldiers served in the Union Army alone.

“If you have a lot of immigrants age 20 moving in during one decade, it looks like negative mortality 10 years later,” Dr. Hacker said. While the Census Bureau in 1860 asked people their birthplace, the information never made it into the printed report.

As for Livermore’s assumption that deaths from disease could be correlated with battlefield deaths, Dr. Hacker found that wanting too. The Union had better medical care, food and shelter, especially in the war’s final years, suggesting that Southern losses to disease were probably much higher. Also, research has shown that soldiers from rural areas were more susceptible to disease and died at a higher rate than city dwellers. The Confederate Army had a higher percentage of farm boys.

Dr. Hacker said he realized in 2010 that a rigorous recalculation could finally be made if he used newly available detailed census data presented on the Internet by the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

The center’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series had put representative samples of in-depth, sortable information for individuals counted in 19th-century censuses. This meant that by sorting by place of birth, Dr. Hacker could count only the native-born.

Hacker then revised the data to control for the normal mortality rate and other factors, and acknowledged problems with estimating deaths for women (both white and black) and for black men. The new counts overturn data that historians have relied on for over a century. In a blog post last fall, Hacker answered the question of why the revised higher count matters:

So what? Above a certain count, do the numbers even matter? Well, yes. The difference between the two estimates is large enough to change the way we look at the war. The new estimate suggests that more men died as a result of the Civil War than from all other American wars combined. Approximately 1 in 10 white men of military age in 1860 died from the conflict, a substantial increase from the 1 in 13 implied by the traditional estimate. The death toll is also one of our most important measures of the war’s social and economic costs. A higher death toll, for example, implies that more women were widowed and more children were orphaned as a result of the war than has long been suspected.

The techniques that Prof. Hacker employed are fascinating, and point to some of the possibilities in thinking about newly digitized data sources. My question, however, is why—after publishing Hacker’s post on the Disunion blog last September, and with his journal article in print for four months—the Times waited to publish this piece until just now.


February 23, 2012

War and a Free Press

A student’s paper reminded me of the following quote by Union general William T. Sherman: “It is impossible to carry on a war with a free press.”  This famous utterance struck me in light of this week’s Supreme Court deliberations on U.S. v. Alvarez, which Dahlia Lithwick chronicles here.  Sherman (who knew how to use politics, publicity, and the press to military advantage) is observing that military values and democratic values are not always in perfect alignment.

While most of us would find a false claim to military honors to be pretty despicable, it seems fuzzier whether we ought to punish an offender with jail time (rather than good old-fashioned shame and ostracism).  Indeed, a number of journalistic organizations, in particular, have filed amicus briefs on Alvarez’s behalf, reminding us that while soldiers may not always find it convenient to wage war in a democratic republic, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are among the values those soldiers are fighting to defend–even when fellow citizens are spouting lies and blabbing military secrets.


February 28, 2010

Famous Events on February 27

In addition to being the birthday of Publick Occurrences 2.0′s senior proprietor, February 27 is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union address in 1860 (making this the sesquicentennial, come to think of it).  I was actually walking near Cooper Union this past evening, which gave me the chance to reflect on great men of American history and great American historians.  A fine way to say farewell to this short month.


November 2, 2009

Fun with Political Geography

My students and I had fun discussing political geography today.  For instance, take a look at these two maps side by side.  First, we have the presidential electoral map from 1860, from the National Atlas of the United States:


Then we have this recent study, from Open Left, depicting how white men (the only ones eligible to vote in 1860) voted in 2008:


Now, obviously it would be very easy to overdraw an analysis from these two maps.  And indeed, I think Open Left is a bit too Whiggish (despite trying not to be Whiggish) about the links between the expansion of voting rights and the election of Progressive presidential candidates–after all, the expanded electorate has certainly elected its share of conservative Presidents.

But it’s still pretty interesting.


August 21, 2009

The Post That Drove Old Dixie Down

Filed under: Civil War Era,Film,Historians,Music,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:51 am

There was an interesting but overheated discussion at “Edge of the West” of a beloved piece of classic rock, The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” There was contextualizin’ and politicizin’ a-plenty, and I made the following remarks way, way down in the comments:

Sorry I saw this late. I love “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” dearly, and hearing the Band’s searing, lumpy original version after growing up with the dopey, slick Joan Baez sing-along on AM radio was a formative musical experience for me: it just illustrated the difference between original popular art and dumbed-down music industry pablum. (Also, the correct lyrics actually told a story that made sense.)

That said, Robbie Robertson’s lyrics for that song and several of the others on “The Band” and “Stage Fright” partook of a fairly naive infatuation with Confederate/white southern Americana that was common in the counter culture and its offshoots circa 1969 (and after). Whilst heading back to nature and making laid-back country-rock, they loved them their doomed outlaws and rebels back in those days, and with less historical insight than we might like, the hippie songwriters and screenwriters tended to think they identified with the poor Confederate soldier, especially if he turned “social bandit” after the war. Even in the dark, revisionist westerns they turned out, the good guys were almost always ex-Confederates, just like John Wayne and Randolph Scott had always been. Blue uniforms were only seen sacking Indian villages and southern farms.

I would say it is to Robbie Robertson’s credit that, unlike a number of left-wing historians of that day, he wrote his elegiac ballad about Confederate cannon fodder rather than, say, a revanchist thug like Jesse James.

Now playing: The Band – Rockin’ Chair
via FoxyTunes


August 14, 2009

Jim Downs: ‘The Interesting Narrative’ of President Obama’s Trip to Ghana

Filed under: Black history,Civil War Era,Colonial Period,Guest posts,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:44 am
“Does President Obama need a history lesson?,” asks Prof. Jim Downs of Connecticut College. Quite possibly, I would have to agree, especially on matters besides the Lincoln Administration. Obama has got the hiring your rivals and frustrating moderation parts down, anyway, but there is no doubt about his penchant for bland, comforting, conventional history designed not to upset the suburban voter. (Unfortunately, the president’s recent experience commenting too honestly on the Gates arrest probably is not going to push him in more daring directions anytime soon.) Downs sent in the following comment, which I am happy to publish here as a guest post:

During his recent trip to Ghana, President Obama did not discuss the brutal history of the Atlantic slave trade that began in Ghana, and only mentioned the word slavery once during his speech. Instead, the President spoke in general terms about “oppression” and “evil.” In fact, in the opening sentence that he delivered standing outside the haunting Elmina Castle, Obama likened his trip to Ghana to his visit to a concentration camp in Germany.  For decades, historians have been trying to dissuade the American public from comparing the slave trade to the Holocaust, which often leads to explosive debates on which group suffered more, and to the imminent question: would the President standing on the grounds of a former concentration camp evoke the history of slavery?

By discussing the history of the slave trade in Ghana as part of larger history of “evil” and “cruelty,” the President missed the opportunity to educate the American public (and the world for that matter) about the actual history of the slave trade: the 2 million slaves who died en route to the Americas and the millions more who suffered in the crowded, disease-ridden, dark bowels of the slave ships. He also gave up the chance to discuss the effects of the international slave trade: the destruction of African cultural traditions, languages, and religious practices by New World slaveholders; the pain felt by African families torn apart by the hands of Dutch, Spanish, and English traders and merchants; the greedy profits gained by European nations and the burgeoning colonies in the Americas; and even the transformation of West African economies; political structures; and military strategies.

Throughout his speech in front the 15th century slave castle, Obama only mentioned the word slavery once and when he did invoke it, he made enormous historical leaps. He reflected on the 19th century abolitionist movement when whites and blacks fought together to end slavery. While white and black people did eventually work together in the early to mid-nineteenth century to terminate slavery, one cannot ignore that on the ground where the President made such a comment, whites and blacks worked together during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to send Africans into chattel slavery in the New World. While Obama more than likely made this remark in order to illuminate a moment of interracial solidarity with the hope of improving race relations, he forfeited the opportunity for Americans to actually reflect on the horrors of the slave trade—a cultural memory that most black people acknowledge but one that most non-black Americans know little about. A more informed reflection on the actual history of the slave trade could do more to improve race relations than cherry picking a moment in history that happened after the international slave trade ended and did not even lead to the abolition of slavery. President Obama ought to know that it was not just abolitionists who ended slavery, but enslaved people themselves. Southern blacks dismantled the institution of slavery by fleeing from plantations across the Confederacy and joining the Union Army, contributing mightily to the North’s victory in the Civil War and the collapse of the slaveocracy.

Jim Downs is a history professor at Connecticut College, focusing on African-American history and 19th century U.S. History. His books include Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write. His articles have appeared in History Today, the Chicago Tribune, The Southern Historian, Prologue, History News Network, and Reviews in American History, among other places.

Now playing: Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians – The President
via FoxyTunes

Next Page »

Copyright © Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved
Powered by WordPress