The Footsteps of Doom

indexStudying history is a unique experience.  While sometimes it is an exercise in discovery and exploration, at other moments it is more akin to reading a Shakespearean tragedy or watching a slow motion car crash.

You know what’s coming even when the people you are studying have absolutely no idea.

Investigating the background to the First World War as Europe blindly stumbles towards a bloodbath.  Reading a four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, all the while knowing he would leave the Presidency destroyed by the effects of Vietnam.  Understanding that Constantinople will fall in 1453 and that there is nothing you can do about it.  That’s what being an historian is like some days.

As someone who focuses most of his historical attention on the United States, there is little that has this sense of impending doom like the NollCivil War.  Slavery exists early in European colonization of the New World.  Every time it is mentioned, we know what’s going to happen.  The rhetoric of freedom in the Revolution highlights the inequities inherent in the system, even as Jefferson continues to own slaves.  Gradual abolition in the North gives hope every time you read about it.  Until, that is, the South begins to conservative and clamp down around its “peculiar institution.”

As the nation expanded westward–a process that happens every time I read about, without fail–the question of slave states versus free states continued to perplex.  Compromise after compromise was reached, but only papered over the growing differences between societies North and South.  Religiously they shared common belief and read a common Bible, but the situation on the ground led them to express and live that faith in increasingly different ways.  As denominations begin to shatter North and South starting around 1840, they were but a harbinger of the breaking of America that could no longer be averted by 1860-1.

conf0206-1-smallNothing, it seemed, could hold the nation together.  Not even the vaunted and optimistic claims of the dominant evangelicalism of the 19th century.  The United States’ lack of unity and inability to end the crime of slavery without war (like Britain) constitutes–together with the existence of slavery in the first place–a foundational tragedy at the center of the American story.  It is a drama written by no one person, but rather one with numerous actors continually impelled towards the bloody conclusion of places like Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Ford’s Theater.

As we reflect on this story again and again, may we seek to realize in our own day what the actors could not in theirs.  May we see the inner meaning of the tragedy to which they inadvertently pointed and, in so doing, gain more insight into the directions of our own contemporary story.  In the wreck of their blindness and failures of faith and deed, may we learn.


Forget the Cherry Tree

220px-Lies_my_teacher_told_meWhen we’re young, we often learn about people who are supposed to be our heroes.  We’re told about their lives, their deeds, and the various ways in which they’ve accomplished their heroic task(s).  It is a mythic time, and we enjoy the fun.

Then of course we get a little older, and we learn in school or college that the supposedly heroic people of history we used to worship were flawed.  Made mistakes.  And, in many cases, we find that the stories we learned about them were either heavily nuanced and simply fabricated.

For the professional historian, this kind of disillusionment can be even more profound.  It is a part of our academic discipline to be suspicious about narrative that are too cute by a half.

This past summer, however, while reading through the volumes of The Oxford History of the United States, I was able to reclaim a classic American hero: George Washington.

Our nation’s first president is so ubiquitous and revered that I had largely ignored him, thinking that no one man could live up to the legends surrounding him.  Visions of cherry trees and truth-telling were a bit too much for me, I thought, and while Washington did help our nation at the start, he was simply a popular symbolic placeholder in the role of our nation’s first President.

While it is true that Washington–at that time and since–was a popular symbol of the American spirit, he was no dimwitted placeholder.  What I’ve learned this summer is that he was a very thoughtful man, carefully inhabiting the office of our nation’s executive branch and realizing that every action he took or decision he made would be creating precedents that would be following over the long course of our nation’s

While the popular notion that Washington turned down an offer to become “king” seems a bit of a stretch, what is true is that as a popular general in the aftermath of the Revolution he probably could have gotten whatever he wanted.  When elected he could have assume near-royal trappings, could have become President for life, and in general run roughshod over everyone else.  He didn’t.  Purposely.  With thought and care, he realized that the new government was fragile and the Republic uncertain, so he therefore shepherded it well.  For that, I think, he is a real hero.

Washington wasn’t perfect, and towards the end of his administration and his final years of life he was a bit more politically partisan.  Even so, the helpful actions he took in the years after the Revolution and as President to lay down the track upon which the train of state and the course of our nation would follow are something for which all of us ought to be grateful.

This notion of precedent setting and pattern establishing is worth remembering today, not only in politics but in our own lives as well.

No Love for John Tyler

In honor of today’s release of the film Lincoln, the folks over at did a little research about how many times the various United States Presidents have been depicted in film.  Lincoln is far and away the most popular, with some of the usual suspects (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Civil War favorite Ulysses S. Grant, and the villainous Richard Nixon) occupying other top roles.

Unfortunately, some other of our nation’s leaders have not been so lucky.  To Lincoln’s 130 appearances, World War I leader Woodrow Wilson comes in at only 13…and many others fall below 10.  Three presidents fail to even appear once.  There are reasons for this, however.  James Buchanan is widely considered to be one of our nation’s worst presidents.  Warren G. Harding was, well…to be honest, I’m a student of American history and I can hardly tell you anything about the man.  It is not surprising they don’t appear.

Warren who now?

What is more interesting, I suppose, is the absence of John Tyler from cinematic depiction.  While he too is winning no awards for “best in class,” a number of facts about his life would make for some dramatic viewing: he was the first VP to assume the office of President after a death, worked (unsuccessfully) to secure the annexation of Texas, narrowly survived an explosion, had a wife who died during his presidency, and around fifteen years after leaving office actually sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It would be interesting, I think, to read the top biography of each president in chronological order.  Some would be powerful depictions of great leaders and great times.  Others would be snooze-fests.  Tyler’s?  Well, at least it would have a little drama.

In any case, enjoy Lincoln and the chart below: