Saturday, July 30, 2011

End of Summer and New Beginnings

The end of summer break draws near and I have finished my summer reading with Edward J. Larson's 1997 book, Summer for the Gods.  In this text, Larson gave an in-depth analysis of the famed Scopes Monkey Trial, the events leading to the trial, the trial itself, its immediate aftermath, legacies and historiography.  This particular case truly was the "case of the (20th) century" and marked a key moment in America's ongoing debate on science, religion and education.  Furthermore, it was a key event in the early-1900s emergence of modernism and reactions to modernism, an ideology that the Catholic Church responded to under the leadership of Popes Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI (*).  It is also an event that is often misunderstood today, especially with erroneous "histories" written decades later and the popularity of the fictitious and certainly not historically-accurate play turned film, Inherit the Wind

*Note: I try to include some Catholic history whenever possible.

As I turn my attention to a new school year and another journey through American History, I look forward to my eighth run of reading, analyzing and discussing the history of our people and our nation with bright, young minds.  This year in particular will bring some important developments in the field of United States History:

1. The continuation of the 150th Commemoration of the Civil War which I have already written about here
2. The 10-year anniversary of the attacks of September 11th.

The Organization of American Historians has dedicated this quarter's issue of the Magazine of History to 9/11.  In reading the first few articles, it is evident that at least the opening historians have a very negative view of the consequences of September 11th and the responses of President George W. Bush.  While I will avoid discussing or challenging those opinions here, it does bring to light this point (or opinion): It is simply too soon to give true historical analysis without the temptation to include one's political beliefs.  I hope that this tenth anniversary will be a time to properly remember those who lost their lives that day, to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty and to remember those soldiers who gave their lives in the years that followed.  Certainly, the legacies of September 11th are still with us and I hope that a genuine commemoration will take place.

I look forward to a new school year of conversation on these and other issues in our nation's past, present and future.

As always, I conclude with a few links:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The war has begun

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the first major battle of the Civil War at Manassas, Virginia (or as more commonly known, Bull Run).  It was this battle that served as the first sign that this would not be a short and limited war, but one of overwhelming destruction and one that would become a second American Revolution.  My goal was to finish John Keegan's book, The American Civil War: A Military History by today.  I accomplished that goal last night.

I learned so much from Keegan's book that it would be too much to recount here.  The military history of this four-year national saga is one of logistics, of using and overcoming geography and as a human story, of engaging ordinary citizens in shear horrific battle.  Here are just a few examples that prove how massive and traumatic this four-year-struggle was for the ordinary American citizens who lived through it or perished by it:
  • Approximately 10,000 battles were fought, 237 were named (Keegan, 362, 77).
  • Death toll: Approximately 620,000 - 360,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate; Total casualties (dead, wounded or missing) rank much higher than that (Stats: Keegan, 77).
  • There was no large professional army in the United States in 1861 which meant that ordinary citizens had to learn as they fought which only increased the casualty numbers.
  • Given the horrors of battle, lethal technology and the spreading of disease, one would expect high amounts of desertion and surrender.  However, whether through loyalty to comrades, to cause or out of a desire to preserve one's dignity, most of these ordinary citizens continued to fight courageously.
Of course, when studying the Civil War, we are left with the question of why.  Why did this war begin and linger so long? Why did Americans fight and continue to fight?

Studying the evidence, it is irrefutable that the debate over slavery and its extension west was the root cause of the secession crisis.  Certainly, most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves and many had very few encounters with African-Americans.  It can be said that for the ordinary citizens of the Confederacy, they fought to preserve the rights of their state.  For many northerners, the cause for which they fought was the preservation of the national union and though some were fervent abolitionists, most in the North were not.  However, the question of race and slavery remained at the core of the national discussion on both sides and it simply cannot be ignored.  Yet, making these statements today is still controversial, especially in the South.

Why is this?  For the southern perspective, many of the memoirs and histories written in the fifty years after Appomattox were intended to redeem the image of the South, a people recovering from the defeat of a traumatic and passionate conflict.  The arguments of these "Lost Cause" historians as well as the depictions in the famous novel turned film, Gone with the Wind, made their way into what historians refer to as "American Memory," the collective knowledge of history by ordinary people.

This is just one aspect of the controversy.  It is my hope that over the next four years of this 150th commemoration, we can reopen the national discussion of the Civil War and truly understand the war, its causes and consequences for what they truly were.  I hope that the distance of 150 years can provide some objectivity to the discussion and that we have an opportunity as Americans to truly learn from and appreciate our shared national heritage.

As always, I will conclude with links for further reading and review:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Since this week began with our celebration of Independence, I thought I would share my notes from a book I read last year on the leaders of the American Revolution.  The "founding era" is my favorite time period in U.S. history.  Last summer, I read Jack Rakove's Revolutionaries.  Here are some basic themes and lessons I learned from this book (from a Power Point I used in class to discuss the book with students):

- Must distinguish between 2 generations:
Older: Independence (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, etc.)
Younger: Constitutional government (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, etc.)
- "The revolution made them as much as they made the revolution”
- New England: lack of diversity = a people united
- Middle Colonies: diversity = potential for more civil disorder
- Radical or Conservative? (Ideas, what changes and doesn’t change)

- This revolution affected the world (inspiration for other revolutions, changing the geo-political relationship among nations, effects still evident today with our founding documents and ideas)

One segment of the book I personally enjoyed was the story of Henry and Jack Laurens of South Carolina and the personal trauma both endured.  I remember being so aggravated at Jack Laurens for how he treated his wife.  There's a brief discussion about Laurens on the Amazon page for this book (linked here). 

Here are some other notes regarding the social history of the Revolution that I use in class:
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...