Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 15, 2013

How Jefferson Lives Now

Filed under: Founders,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:56 pm

The old blog rises temporarily from the grave. Occasionally, I dare to watch television, and I had to share this little dispatch from the land of popular historical perception. One of the current television season’s most successful new shows is Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. This is the one where Ichabod Crane is not a pathetic Yankee schoolmaster, but a time-travelling secret agent whose uses the mystic wisdom of the Founders to fight E-VIL in the present day. You know, George Washington’s magic Bible, John Adams’s secret code, Paul Revere’s silver-lined skull, completely authentic stuff like that. This week, Thomas Jefferson supplied some magic technology, but also comes in for the only non-hyper-reverence the show has yet shown toward any Founder. And there is historical fact-checking. It’s a clever scene, actually, but quite telling of Jefferson’s current highly dubious place in the culture. (This is the best quality video I was able to find. Those who dare can watch the entire show at http://fox.tv/1ih9Bf5).

The video cannot be shown at the moment. Please try again later.

No mention of what Washington did for a living when he was not handing out secret missions. Magic Bible salesman, perhaps?

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December 14, 2012

Understanding the Uses of the Past

I haven’t yet mentioned the new early Americanist blog in town, The Junto, so I would encourage you to head over there and check it out. As Ben Park wrote in the opening post on Monday:

Staffed by a host of junior academics studying a broad range of topics—our brief bios are found at the end of the post, and more details are found on each individual author’s page—we aim to provide frequent content related to the academic study of America prior(ish) to the Civil War. But more than just serving as a sounding board for our authors and a clearinghouse for various news, events, and calls for papers, we hope that The Junto will become a vibrant community for the field of early American studies.

I am one of those signed on to write for the blog, and I look forward to being part of that conversation, but you will still be able to find me here.

In that spirit, I want to pick up on a conversation that Ken Owen began there yesterday with a post on Herman Husband and historical imagination. In that post, Ken suggested that using figures such as Husband as a counter to Founders Chic does a disservice to history by reinforcing the notion of history as the realm of “Great Men,” even as we try to find different (and, as Ken notes, less conservative) figures to describe.

Part of the discussion in the comments has led me to think more deeply about historical memory as the key to creating a better sense for students (and by extension the public) of how to make a useable past. To expand on that here, I’d like to ironically return to the Founding Father among the Founding Fathers, George Washington. As loyal readers may know, today (December 14) is the anniversary of Washington’s death in 1799, an event that precipitated broad mourning across the young nation and launched a cottage industry of merchandising. The most important of those efforts may have been Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, published in several editions in the early 1800s by the noted itinerant book salesman.

I bring up Weems because I’ve been using his chapter on Washington’s death in my survey course to have precisely the kind of discussion about the uses of history that Ken points to. If you’ve never read it, it’s near comical in its maudlin description of the deathbed scene:

Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father– around the last bed of him to whom under God you and your children owe many of the best blessings of this life. When Joseph the prime minister of Egypt heard that his shepherd father was sick, he hastened up, to see him; and fell on his face, and kissed him, and wept a long while. But Joseph had never received such services from Jacob as you have received from Washington. But we call you not to weep for Washington. We ask you not to view those eyes, now sunk hollow, which formerly darted their lightning flashes against your enemies–nor to feel that heart, now faintly laboring, which so often throbbed with more than mortal joys when he saw his young country- men charging like lions, upon the foes of liberty. No! we call you not to weep, but to rejoice. Washington, who so often conquered himself, is now about to conquer the last enemy.

Much of the discussion in the class period centered around how to use a document such as this to learn anything about Washington (it’s useful as biography for the things we can trust that he got from other sources, as the newspaper accounts of Congress’s mourning would have been broad public knowledge) and to learn about Weems and his goals (the deathbed scene with not a soul present, and surely no one who gave an exclusive interview to Weems). Through the discussion, I want to help my students understand not just the past but also how people attempt to use the past. In other words, as I mentioned in my comments to Ken, Al Young may have had the right approach to helping students understand the past as a process of historical memory. (Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy thwarted the class days devoted to Shoemaker and the Tea Party – so I can’t discuss the pairing of Hewes and Weems until April).

The important part, therefore, is not just to engage in mythbusting, which can be useful even if it’s not a complete process. As important, to my mind, is to encourage students not just to engage in historical thinking, but also to engage in thinking about the uses of history through an engagement with historical memory.

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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.

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October 14, 2012

A Re-Election Campaign for the Ages

A little humor for your Sunday: Lincoln1864.com, 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).

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July 2, 2012

Picking America’s Most Influential Books

Last week, the Library of Congress posted a list of eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America” as part of an exhibition of the same name at the Library. The list includes a disclaimer from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington:

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

As an early Americanist, the first thing I did was to sort the list by date published, just to see how many early American books made the cut. The verdict: nine from before 1800 (none earlier than 1751) and sixteen from 1850 and earlier (which cuts off the list just before the publication of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). On a certain level, that’s fair enough: considerably more books have been published since 1850 than before. In addition, the Library has insisted that the list is a starting point, not the definitive list, and has invited comments and suggestions from the public. (The press release also notes that some books were cut because of limits on the exhibition space.)

I was also curious about the inclusion of Common Sense, for two reasons. First of all, it’s rarely classified as a “book,” but rather a pamphlet. Now, I consider my work to have implications on the field of the “history of the book,” and most of my material comes from newspapers, so I’m certainly open to a broad definition of the book. As I’ll discuss below, opening up the field that way leaves room for some other possible inclusions. Second, Billington notes in the comment above that these were books “written by Americans.” That makes it somewhat odd for Thomas Paine to be on the list. He arrived in Philadelphia from his native England barely eighteen months before the first publication of Common Sense. While the text was written and published first in North America, making it a decidedly American creation, it seems a rather loose definition to call Paine an “American.” The same goes, it was pointed out, for Jacob Riis, native of Denmark. That complication—what to do with immigrants?—bears particular resonance for asking the question of what early American books should be included on the list.

Via Library of Congress Exhibit on American Treasures

Which brings me to the question: what else should be included in the list from the early period? My answer comes from two places. One is simply my research and reading in the field. The other is that I’m thinking about what texts to assign as I put together a U.S. survey syllabus for the fall (though please note that not everything I discuss below would necessarily make sense in toto for an introductory course). To start with, there are a number of ways to judge whether a book “shaped” America. Is it based on readership? Long-term popularity? Sales? Editions? We can discuss those, but since this is a blog post, I’m going with the Potter Stewart approach and justifying choices however necessary.

[NB: I also want to refer everyone to the special issue of Common-place on "Who Reads an Early American Book?"]

First off, if we eliminate the restriction on books written by Americans, by far and away the most important book in early American was the Bible. It was the most widely owned and most widely read book in British North America; it was certainly (and remains to this day, in many respects) a “Book That Shaped America.” Actually, I’m sort of curious what the Library would do with that suggestion, and how to visually display it: the first American Bible in English wasn’t printed until the 1790s, so examples would have to be of European extraction.

Religion is one area that the Library’s list seems to underemphasize. Based simply on reading the list, one would never know about the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. I’m less of an expert in religious history, but I would suggest as at least representative of that era the collected sermons of George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. For the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it would make sense to include Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), on the divine history of the Puritans in New England.

We also ought to consider works that discuss the massive influence of the cultural encounters between Europeans and natives. Perhaps we could include John Eliot’s Bible translated into Algonquian (and already profiled as an American Treasure by the Library of Congress). Or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, which was first published in 1682 and went through dozens of editions right up to the Revolution. (It also, of course, is a deeply religious text.)

See Lisa M. Gordis, “None Need Think Their Sympathy Wasted,” Common-place, v. 9, no. 3

I would be remiss if I didn’t add at least one title in the political realm. Common Sense was by far the most important publication of the revolutionary period (on which I refer you to Pauline Maier’s fantastic book, American Scripture). Other authors (and publishers) did significant work elsewhere, such as in the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The letters, penned by John Dickinson, were first circulated in newspapers in 1767 and 1768 during the protests over the Townshend Acts and later repackaged as pamphlets in eleven editions from 1768 to 1774. Benjamin Franklin found Dickinson’s arguments against British taxation so well distilled that he arranged for a London edition (to which he could not resist adding his own preface).

Last, it seems important to more closely reflect the urgent importance of the novel in early Republic reading culture. For example, consider Charlotte Temple, written and first published in Britain by Susannah Rowson (another immigrant: she later moved to the United States). The book was the most popular novel of the 1790s, so much so, in fact, that people visited the “grave” of Charlotte Temple in the Trinity Church yard in lower Manhattan. To a lesser extent, the same is true for The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, which was also popular at the time and has become a popular text in English and history courses.

These are just some first thoughts, of course, and I would never claim that my suggestions are the only ones possible or even that they are the last word. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, and by all means please do respond to the Library’s call if you feel so inclined.

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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

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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.]

(more…)

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January 19, 2012

“By securing the copies”

I’ve been going in circles about copyright, intellectual property, and the role of history in debating them. I started a post yesterday about the protests against SOPA and PIPA, in which major Internet sites (including Wikipedia, Google, and Wired.com, among others) and countless personal sites have shut down or curtailed their operations to protest the two bills currently being considered by Congress. Each would grant new powers to the federal government to monitor and control information posted online, including the power to block domain names based on copyright infringement claims.

But before I could get very far on that post, I read of the Supreme Court’s 6-2 decision in Golan v. Holder that allows the federal government to take works that had moved into the public domain and place them back under copyright protection (Justice Kagan recused herself, presumably because the case was working its way through the courts while she was Solicitor General).  The logic of the majority, by the way, is to require the federal government to meet obligations it made to hew to international copyright treaties to which the United States is a signatory, but of course the decision’s impact goes far beyond foreign works.

If you haven’t yet read the Supreme Court’s decision in Golan v. Holder (available here in PDF), take a look. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Ginsburg, is, as Yoni Appelbaum (@Yappelbaum) noted on Twitter, a “narrowly legalistic opinion for the Court.” It used historical evidence, to be sure, going back to the original 1886 Berne international copyright convention. But it delved no further, and did not explore the deep background of copyright law in the United States. The Breyer dissent (concurred by Alito), by contrast, digs all the way back in Anglo-American jurisprudence to the earliest copyright statutes in Great Britain (in 1710). Breyer has a very good account of the development of copyright in the eighteenth century, both in Britain and America. Here’s a representative paragraph:

Yet, as the Founders recognized, monopoly is a two­ edged sword. On the one hand, it can encourage produc­tion of new works.  In the absence of copyright protection, anyone might freely copy the products of an author’s creative labor, appropriating the benefits without incur­ring the nonrepeatable costs of creation, thereby deterring authors from exerting themselves in the first place.  On the other hand, copyright tends to restrict the dissemina­tion (and use) of works once produced either because the absence of competition translates directly into higher consumer prices or because the need to secure copying permission sometimes imposes administrative costs that make it difficult for potential users of a copyrighted work to find its owner and strike a bargain.  See W. Landes & R. Posner, The Economic Structure of Intellectual Proper­ty Law 68–70, 213–214 (2003).  Consequently, the original British copyright statute, the Constitution’s Framers, and our case law all have recognized copyright’s resulting and necessary call for balance.

Copyright has always been meant to protect the rights of producers — though crucially in the eighteenth century, copyright usually resided with publishers rather than authors. The Statute of Anne, in fact, was part of a regime that protected the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company of London. As Sarah Arndt points out, the monopoly was limited to England; Ireland (and Dublin in particular) became the publishing piracy capital of the British Atlantic. The colonies also lacked firm copyright law, but almost no printers (which is to say, Benjamin Franklin and nobody else) had the capacity to publish books; they imported from Britain and Ireland (see Richard Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book and volume 1 of A History of the Book in America, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World for full details).

As it happens, the eighteenth century history of copyright and censorship provides two good case studies for efforts to protect artistic productions and government limitations of publications.

First, there are unintended consequences even to well-meaning legislation in the realm of publications. For a moment, take the British view of the Stamp Act, what would have been the largest effective restriction on print publication ever in British colonial America. Coming out of the Seven Years’ War, Britain was saddled with unprecedented debt, a new and very young king, and an unstable domestic political environment. To pay down the debt, Parliamentary ministers explored all sorts of options; asking colonists to pay a little more in taxes seemed unproblematic to them (for obvious reasons). England’s printing trade had operated with a Stamp Act since 1712, and several of the colonies (notably New York and Massachusetts) had passed temporary stamp taxes to fund the war effort in the 1750s. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, printers (as I argue in my research) saw it as a massive threat to their businesses and many colonists saw it as a threat to free and open political communication. Printers turned their publications into forums for protest, publishing essays against the Act, following protests, and organizing to lobby for its repeal and nullification. When November 1, the planned effective date of the Act, rolled around, presses across the colonies went silent in protest. Some printers, like William Bradford, publisher of the Pennsylvania Journal, melodramatically eulogized their newspapers. Merchants organized boycotts of British goods. And in thirteen of Britain’s colonies, the law was nullified (it took effect in Canada and the West Indies). By spring, Parliament repealed the law (with an assertion of its power to boot). I’m not predicting that there will be a second American Revolution, of course, but if Congress passes a tax on china, glass, and painters’ colors in a few years, all bets are off.

The second lesson is that copyright law in the United States originated in an environment that envisioned a free market for foreign works. Congress passed a copyright law in 1790 to cover new works in the United States—and as Breyer and Alito note, it did not cover foreign works. Noah Webster pushed hard for the law because of the massive success of his speller. He had spent years  traveling through the states trying to sew up copyright in each to protect his publication from piracy. For foreign works, the standard remained that whoever got there first stood to make a profit. For the most popular author of the early republic, Walter Scott, Mathew Carey made a deal with Scott’s London publisher to get access to the text first. Was there a better solution to solving the question of works copyrighted abroad? Almost certainly.

Putting modern debates into context is important. Laws restricting the circulation of information and publications have not been warmly received. Copyright has been an instrument to limit that circulation. And lastly, it was never intended to be permanent or retroactive. (Though, like many others, I doubt I will live to see the day when Mickey Mouse (first copyrighted in 1928) enters the public domain.) Understanding the background of copyright law and censorship helps us to understand both the law and the protests against it.

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November 28, 2011

Valences of Liberty

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Democracy,Film,Foreign policy,Historians,Voting — Benjamin Carp @ 2:46 pm

In the past few weeks there have been two excellent reviews of John Lewis Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life, by Louis Menand and Frank Costigliola.  Ta-Nehisi Coates does an interesting riff on these reviews, which gives him a chance to muse about the challenges of self-mastery in a democratic society.  Kennan is most famous for his advocacy of a doctrine of containment in 1947.

By coincidence, I watched John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for the first time this weekend, itself a product of the Cold War years (and which previous critics have linked to the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.).  It’s a movie that asks, “how do you respond to violence that can’t be contained?” and ponders the nature of the American conquest of the West.

A fun question to ask yourself: “who is the hero of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?”  Is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery through education, representative democracy, modernity, and the rule of law, or is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery by proving himself as physically dominant, but denying himself the fruits of victory?  And what does it say about America when the non-violent hero achieves worldly success, not wholly because of the values he’s espoused, but because the populace lionizes him for a violent deed?

The Library of Congress selected the movie (which stars John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin) for the National Film Registry because of its cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance, while Gaddis assesses Kennan’s “American Life.”  It’s interesting to ponder both artifacts side by side when thinking about American power and American democracy.

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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.

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Now playing: The Band – Rockin’ Chair
via FoxyTunes

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