When States’ Rights were Progressive

As the proverbial blessing and/or curse foretold, we are living in interesting times. The Left finds itself rooting for executive-branch departmental bureaucrats and the Right launched a boycott of Budweiser. I don’t care how politically prescient you are–NO ONE saw this turn of events coming. Continue reading “When States’ Rights were Progressive”

Historical Periodization and the Long Civil War

Periodization is both the most useful and most obfuscatory tool in the historian’s toolbox. In Western historical writing (and because of the West’s culturally-imperialist tendencies, in many other historiographies as well), we reckon time largely according to the conventions of the Gregorian Calendar: days, months, years on a cycle that mostly matches the Earth’s perambulation around the Sun. Conversely, “Big,” or “Deep” History challenges us to move beyond Puny Human Time and think in terms of (at minimum) geologic time. It’s enough of a struggle to finish our survey courses anywhere near where we’re “supposed” to; the very thought of beginning our studies with, say, the Pleistocene Era is enough to give an instructor palpitations. Within the generally-accepted chronology, then, we’ve carved out our scholarly spaces within a framework so well-established as to be internalized. I’m a nineteenth-century US historian. I do the Cold War. I’m a medievalist. We often interrogate these divisions—when does “modern” begin?—but when it comes to our scholarly autobiographies, we default to the divisions we once criticized. Undergirding this hegemony of the Established Historical Era is the way in which we teach our field. Chronological markers of varying specificity define our courses: Early Modern Europe; US History to 1877; The Vietnam War, 1954-1975. And, as these examples suggest, chronological boundaries are often accompanied by geographic designators. Thus, largely without meaning to, we enclose History into digestible packages. And that’s how we and our audiences—students, readers, each other—tend to consume it. Continue reading “Historical Periodization and the Long Civil War”

In the Shadow of the Civil War’s Beginning

As a scholar engaged in a study of the Civil War Era in the United States, It’s been my job lately to think about the way we remember and interpret this period. And the more I think about it, the more I believe we’ve been doing it wrong. Our national obsession with primarily Eastern, predominately politico-military events from April, 1861 to June, 1865, creates a refuge for bad history–teleology, really–that has had nothing short of a disastrous effect on the way we reckon with things like class, race, and freedom.  Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Civil War’s Beginning”

I Will Not Argue About the Confederate Flag.

The murder of nine Americans by a terrorist in Charleston Wednesday night, besides being a monumental tragedy, also gave us the absurd spectacle of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (a woman of color) telling us “that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another” as pictures emerged of the killer wearing flags of apartheid regimes on his jacket, sitting on his car with a Confederate States faux license plate, all in a state where the only flag not lowered to half-mast was the Confederate Battle Flag that sits astride the front approach to South Carolina’s capitol. The mental gymnastics it took for Haley to blithely claim we’ll never know the motives of a killer who actually told victims what his motives were as well as literally wearing those motives on his sleeve defy imagination. She has since added more nuance to her public statements on the tragedy (for which the bar was set remarkably low), but still ignores one area in which much of the state–and nation–has focused on: the continuing official presence of the Confederate flag on the State House grounds in Columbia. How can one try to explain away the racist motives of Dylann Roof in a state where the flag of an actual racist regime occupies such pride of place? The short answer is that one cannot do so without extraordinary exertions of willful ignorance. But we also know that this hasn’t stopped racists before. Continue reading “I Will Not Argue About the Confederate Flag.”

The Case of the Missing Adjective: Writing and Choosing Whiteness

Consider the following sentences:

“…learning absorbed the lives of southern youth prior to the Civil War in substantial ways.”

“A belief in Manifest Destiny cut across partisan and sectional lines…Southerners as well as Northerners expressed it.”

“The states rights reaction came after several decades of loose construction on the part of southerners concerning slavery in the territories.”

“Most Southerners saw the election [of 1860] as a catastrophe.”

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Overheard at the SHA?

Each of them is drawn from an essay or textbook, a batch of sources united only by the fact that I have personally been reading them in the last twenty-four hours. Know what else they have in common? They represent something historians of this period do ALL THE TIME, an implicit and unthinking elision that I argue does more damage than we ever realize.

Continue reading “The Case of the Missing Adjective: Writing and Choosing Whiteness”