Dickinson College / Gilder Lehrman Institute

Author: mike kleiner

touching history(ans)

I couldn’t help but follow the previous post… no disrespect intended.

Last week I had a chance to meet David Blight, whose work on the Civil War in American Memory I found so captivating. He was here, in Vancouver, to give a talk from his new book, American Oracle. He is as friendly and accessible as one could hope, and as I share with him the status of being ex-patriot Michigan high school teachers, we shared a nice chat about our Tigers going to the World Series.

As a community, public lecture, the audience was a nice mix of people: students, on assignment; high school students receiving extra credit; educators of various stripes and curious members of the citizenry.

At one point he talked about the Lincoln Memorial as America’s oracle, the touchstone of our history. Perhaps, but what got me thinking was the question he threw out to the young students in the room: what’s your oracle? Really, what is it? What is mine? The answer is private, but the thought lingers about the wonderful power of good historical thinking… it can, perhaps should, intermix with the deeply personal to form something akin to a worldview. Or, at least, a point of view. Regardless, the challenge inherent in the question is to move beyond the passivity of data and story collection and into an awareness, if not wholehearted embrace, of the process by which we assimilate history into our own stories.

If “cogito, ergo sum” is true, is not “cogito, ergo ego sum historicus” not the takeaway from his question? “I think, therefore I am a historian.” Aside from the pesky details about historians doing history work, isn’t it also true that historians are truly steeped in their subject? At what point might we, as teachers of history, consider ourselves  historians? Do we have to have written an unreadable book with 4,000 footnotes? Maybe. At some point I hope to finish my own unreadable tome. But I don’t think teaching is enough.


the Civil War in our memory

Besides my fascination with the mindset of slavery advocates, I’m starting to take a keen interest in Americans’ attitudes (if they have them) about the war. Again, the work of David Blight on Civil War in American Memory has been wonderfully illuminating.

I need to study more about the collective memory surrounding the “cause lost” theories, and also the morphing patriotism of Sons and Daughters Of… organizations.

Here, on the west coast, we have Highway 99. It was the original north-south highway from Canada to Mexico, subsequently replaced by Interstate 5. At one time it was the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, a designation long-since legislated away. But remnants remain, which fascinate me. A couple photos, the recent one with The AndyBear, who was five at the time. This is the marker to be found in Jefferson Davis Park, which has a Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jefferson-Davis-Park/111684485552784

the first painting


The first mural in my room, a beautifully painted eagle breaking the chain to England. In its talons are the Declaration and Constitution. This one is 4 years old. I suggested we paint over it, but the kids fell into an uproar. They had waited 3 years “to get to the painting room.” The murals hold a surprising degree of allure to the younger students. I’m almost out of wall space.

decorating the classroom


I know the point to our group is to work with technology, but I am too happy with this not to share. I have two murals in my classroom. The first one will be in another post. The mural here is on the east wall of my room, created by last years’ students. It’s 12 feet wide. The main point is the constitutional crisis take on the Civil War. This is how I get at the slavery question. Yes, I considered having the kids add slaves, but human figures are tricky and we decided against. I feel strongly about the House Divided, so they divided Lincoln’s own Springfield house. On the far right is the Gettysburg Address. It’s roughly 5 feet high. We projected the G.A. from an overhead and a steady student traced it with Sharpie. It looks great, even nose-up to it. We did the same with “We the People”, but didn’t even attempt to write more. We all felt the point was made. We tried to find a simple way to show Lincoln, and someone thought of the funeral. As for authenticity, the Lincoln Museum folks sent me a photo of a model of his final funeral carriage… it was a loaner, and WAY too ornate to replicate. Forget it. But someone saw pictures of other presidents’ funerals, particularly Kennedy, and we agreed to what is here. The exaggerated tophat takes care of the Lincoln reference.

Memphis – 2009

Reconstruction was about many things, but it’s hard to separate from the word, “legacy.” We talk about legacies in terms of current effects of past behaviors… history’s hand-me-downs. Reconstruction left legacies, of course, Jim Crow among the most prolific. One fine morning I found myself in Memphis, experiencing the irony I would later ‘anecdotalize’ on the eve of Obama’s inauguration. I share this brief story as a way of tipping my hat, in acknowledgment of the background radiation of the legacy of Reconstruction that permeates the South. https://700billionreasons.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/memphis/

on history and memory

I am a big fan of iTunes University, especially the many items found in the Gilder Lehrman section. The process is simple and I really don’t need to just watch someone talk… I’d much rather pop in the earbuds and get moving.

A few months ago I came across a talk by David Blight that is similar to the video on the syllabus. The talk is about the Civil War in American Memory, but the part I find most engaging comes at 17:10, when he discourses on the differences between history and memory. Some people may consider it a matter of parsing words, but he makes a great case for considering them separately and cautiously.

An immediate difference that comes to mind is the naming of the conflict itself. I grew up in Detroit, where an intrepid person can find statuary and memorials of the ‘Civil War’ and Michigan’s importance in it. I have friends my age, 47, who grew up in Tennessee, and heard nothing except of ‘The War of Northern Aggression’ and didn’t realize the South lost until they had long departed middle school.

Blight asserts that memory is “owned,” not necessarily shared. My travels in Northern Ireland and Central Europe in the mid-1990’s pointedly drove home the violent power of collective memory. What I saw were the festering, amorphous resentments of many decades of real and perceived abuse. These seventeen years later I hear Blight and I  wonder about resentment, the accumulating emotional plaque that hardened the hearts of the non-planter class in the South in the wake of the Civil War and helped make Jim Crow so widely mainstream.

I want to reread Faust and McPherson with an eye toward Blight’s points. As I do so I’ll add some asides to this, or perhaps add posts.

What follows:

1. my annotation of Blight’s talk, simply tabled to help generate talking points. I’ve quoted him directly… none of the words are mine, although I’m only as exact as the toddler in my lap will allow.

2. a screenshot of the page where the lecture can be found in iTunes.

This is all quoted as carefully as I could manage. These are David Blight’s words, not mine.Where he directly sets one point against another, I have placed them side-by-side on the table.

“Although history and memory are often conflated, keeping something separate and distinct… is valuable.



is what trained historians do – a reasonable reconstruction of the past rooted in research.
is critical and skeptical of human motives and actions.  can be a safe place to escape to, or sometimes it just plays romantic, sentimental tricks on us.
is more secular than memory. is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage and identity of a community.
can be read by, and belong to, everyone. is often owned.
just gets interpreted.
is more relative – it depends on place, chronology and scale, and a host of other factors.
gets revised. is passed down through generations.
seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. That’s why it’s harder. often coalesces in objects, sights, monuments and places.
Historians assert the authority of academic training, of canons of evidence, of authority. often carries the more immediate authority of community membership and some kind of personal experience.
Historians study In reference to Bernard Bailyn’s writing, Blight quotes: “Memory’s appeal is in its relation to the past as an embrace, ultimately emotional, and not intellectual.”
Historians these days study memory because it has been such an important modern instrument of power.”

where to find this on iTunes:

fascinated with pro-slavery thought


Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone" speech

Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech


I was mucking about with Tagxedo…

I am fascinated with pro-slavery thought. My younger self believed the planter class lived in a sad state of denial, not knowing the wrongs they committed. A bit later, I wondered at the stress that must have consumed those whose hands held the wolf’s ears. It’s not that I never felt deeply for the slaves, or at all blamed enslaved people for their condition and treatment. I don’t blame victims.

But I am curious about the mindset of victimizers; perhaps there may be some future value in that understanding. Among the most interesting elements of the buildup to the Civil War was the reaction of Southern political leaders to the pending ascendancy of the Republican party, especially among the most eloquent pro-slavery speakers.

Alexander Stephens is represented above, in his Cornerstone speech of March 21, 1861. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” 


signing statements and executive orders

Matt talked about signing statements.

The American Presidency Project tracks signing statements from Hoover through Obama, as well as executive orders back to 1826 (Ironically, or not, the year Jefferson died. His was one of the most eloquent voices cautioning against such power in the executive.)

I’d also like to add a plug for David Gray Adler, one of the most articulate presenters on presidential power I have ever heard. A recent article is here: Executive power is ‘pregnant with menace’


Rodney King and the Civil War

Sorry… this isn’t a deeply introspective connection between the late Mr. King and the CW. I am thinking much more shallowly (there’s one for my Language Arts friends) about the famous video of his beating. Remember how obvious the issue seemed when we first saw it? But the case got more and more complicated as the trial progressed, enticing people to consider that what we saw wasn’t what actually happened, that seeing wasn’t believing and there was so much more to the incident. I don’t think my students would have followed such entreaties. What they see is what they see.

We may consider developmental stages, but regardless of that there is elegance in their distillation of causes…  of course the CW was about slavery… like, duh.

But how was it about slavery? How can we prove it? Can we use the words of the central actors to establish the true causes of the war? Lincoln went there, at least in part, in his Second Inaugural:

“All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

Then he went into the similarities of both sides, laying the groundwork for his renowned “charity for all”:

Neither party.. Neither anticipated.. Each looked… Both read… and each invokes… but let us judge not… prayers of both… neither has been…”

Words expressing commonality, but words in common, too.

Despite the relentless nature of anywhere “content,” words matter. The right words impel people to fight, make love, vote, revolt, endear, die.

Here, though, I have a problem. Our 8th graders are now largely visual learners, and simply compelling them to parse historical texts is less effective than it has ever been. While I’ve heard the jargon of “differentiated instruction” and “learning styles” ad mortem, the reality is that my kids can’t read Lincoln. Really, they can’t derive much meaning from what they read, whether it is historical or contemporary. This is a generality, but it’s true enough to drive the organization of my classroom.

To deal with the YouTube reality, I start with the importance of discrete words, then work my way up to quotes and passages, then to letters and documents. **




Below are seven word clouds. The fonts, layout and colors are the same – purposefully. I ask kids to compare and contrast between the different clouds, and only at that point do I explain a bit about each. Once we find common words we can begin to get at causes.

Preamble to the Constitution

Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone" speech March, 1861

Declaration of Independence





Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech

Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union

Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”

James Henry Hammond's "Mudsill" speech








**To this end we’ve started teaching basic Latin in our Language Arts classes, in an effort to better connect our kids to words. By the end of the year most of my kids could at least understand what I meant by, “casus belli.”



textbooks and URR routes

The American Journey is a ubiquitous middle school text, and I have used it in Michigan and Washington. This screenshot is from page 423 of the 2005 edition:

As mentioned in today’s wrap-up, students typically perceive the URR as having been “Mississippi to Maine.” What this map shows, however, is that the majority of escapees made their flights from starting points along the boundary with the North.

I occasionally have students who paid attention in 1st through 7th grades, and these are sometimes offended by my attempt to disabuse them of their perception of the URR. They remember “follow the drinking gourd” and “Harriet Tubman,” and only reluctantly let go of their certainty that most escaped slaves traversed hundreds of miles of hostile territory to attain freedom. Close study of the map is a bit of a buzzkill; slaves who simply stepped from Maryland into Pennsylvania don’t make for such exciting stories.

We may not get to it in this course, but another Gilder Lehrman contributor, David Blight, offers his perspective on the mythologies surrounding Americans’ views of the Civil War. He talks, quite eloquently, about the different types of memory associated with it. His take on “emancipationist memory” is a nice corollary to this course. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. (also in iTunes University)

My son came home from 1st grade to tell me about a railroad that was dug “under the dirt so the bad people won’t find them,” and “they came up at night to find the drinking gourd and get fresh water.”

We have work to do.


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