A Student of History

August 12, 2006

South Carolina and the Revolutionary War

Filed under: Historic Preservation,Wars — John Maass @ 3:40 pm


Good news for preservationists and students of the Revolutionary War in the South.  “South Carolina is on the cusp of racking up another Revolutionary War victory, this one 225 years after the fact,” according to an article in The State on August 7.  Legislation has passed both the U.S. House and Senate, in slightly different forms, for a study that could lead to more recognition for the dozens of prominent battle sites in South Carolina, that could lead to what is being called a “Southern Campaign of the Revolution Heritage Area.” 

The article states that “The corridor designation would help with publicity and could lead to more federal money, but the story already is being told. The effort to gain a heritage corridor designation grew out of a meeting more than a decade ago to plan a brochure on the backcountry Revolutionary War sites. The concept gained momentum as the leaders of those sites gathered in recent years to commemorate the 225th anniversaries of the Revolutionary battles.”

Sites to be included are Historic Camden, Musgroves Mill, Landsford Canal, Andrew Jackson and King’s Mountain state parks, Historic Brattonsville and National Park Service sites at Ninety Six, Cowpens and Kings Mountain.  Highway signs and Web sites would point tourists to the various sites, and it would be easier to get federal help in protecting some of the sites still in private hands.

August 9, 2006

Mel Gibson & History

Filed under: The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 4:04 am

In an article of today, the American Spectator has published “The Real Case Against Mel Gibson,” by Hal Colebatch.  It is a lengthy piece about Mel getting history wrong–not regarding his recent drunken comments about Jews and their role (according to Mel) in historical events, but about how Mel gets history so wrong in all of his films dealing with history. These include Gallipoli, Braveheart and the Patriot. 

For a taste of the criticism (in this case, regarding The Patriot):

Gibson’s next piece of Anti-English propaganda masquerading as historical fact was The Patriot, made in 2000 and set in the American Revolution. Again, historians savaged its inaccuracies, particularly its exaggeration or invention of British atrocities. These included a scene in which the British burn a town’s inhabitants alive in a church, actually probably inspired by a Nazi atrocity in World War II. In fact, history is not merely falsified but inverted: American-owned slaves are shown being freed to serve in the Revolutionary Army and it is implied the American forces intended to free all slaves, when in fact it was the British who first offered slaves who joined them freedom with the Dunmore Proclamation.

The author sums up his article by writing:

Gibson’s drunken ravings about Jews were truly disgusting. But it is also true that they are not very important in themselves and it is wrong to scapegoat him for them. If we were all to be held to account for words of drunken stupidity few would escape whipping, I think. He has confessed to a long-standing problem with alcohol and one should wish him well in overcoming it.

The more serious matter is that he has taken part in a series of probably highly influential films that tend to portray falsehood as fact, and which, at a time when it seems “Anglosphere” cultural and political unity is of some importance, even setting aside the possible anti-Semitism of The Passion of the Christ, seem aimed at setting Australians against British, Scots against English and Americans against British.

Native Americans seek end to Old Charters

Filed under: The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 3:51 am

In South Dakota, a recent meeting of indiginous peoples have called for a rather interesting approach to getting what they hold to be their rights and lands back from those who made them lose it: the Pope and the Queen of England. 

Twenty-three organizations and 100 individuals signed a resolution Thursday at the Summit of Indigenous Nations at Bear Butte. The resolution, which will be sent to the Vatican for review, targets the Papal Bull Inter Caetera of 1493, in which Vatican officials urged Christopher Columbus to convert indigenous Americans to Catholicism.  The resolution equally targets the Queen of England and asks her to rescind a 1496 Royal Charter.

Usually these post-colonialist measures come from Africa or Asia, not America.  This one does.  “I’m really proud to see (everyone) stand up against the people that said we weren’t human,” one Indian said atthe conference. “We want our spiritual identity left alone.”

The resolution states that the 1493 Vatican document and the 1496 Royal Charter “represent principles of religious intolerance in its moral and legal implications” and served as a “doctrine of discovery,” a legal foundation for the “extinguishment of aboriginal title to Indian lands in the United States.”

The article from the Rapid City Journal is here.

August 8, 2006

Old Boat

Filed under: Ireland — John Maass @ 3:16 am

From the Irish Independent, this brief piece of historical news, about an old boat just unearthed:

A PREHISTORIC ‘dugout’ – a boat cut from a tree trunk, believed to be about 3,000 years old – has been unearthed. Archaeologists were called in after the find at Netley, near Crossmolina, during work on the Ballina Regional Water Scheme in Co Mayo. The boat is in very good condition and the National Museum has expressed interest, according to the site director, archaeologist Joanna Nolan.  Work on the water pipeline was delayed during the archaeological dig.http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/

Rousseau’s Dog

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 2:02 am

Rousseau's Dog Cover: Large 

I’m reading in stops and starts a small book entitled Rousseau’s Dog.  The publisher describes the book (2006)as such:

In 1766 Jean-Jacques Rousseau — philosopher, novelist, composer, educational and political provocateur — was on the run from intolerance, persecution, and enemies who decried him as a madman, dangerous to society. David Hume, now recognized as the foremost philosopher in the English language, was universally lauded as a paragon of decency. Having willingly put himself under Hume’s protection, Rousseau, with his beloved dog, Sultan, took refuge in England, where he would find safety and freedom. Yet within months, the exile had accused Hume of plotting to dishonor him. The violence of Hume’s response was totally out of character, and the resulting furor involved leading figures in British and French society, and became the talk of intellectual Europe.

In Rousseau’s Dog, David Edmonds and John Eidinow bring their engaging style and probing analysis to the bitter and very public quarrel that turned these two giants, the most influential thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, into the deadliest of foes. The result is a story of celebrity and its price, of shameless spin, of destroyed reputations and shattered friendships. It is a story of two men whose writings would forever shape our world but whose personalities and ideas could scarcely have had less in common. It is also the story of reason and skepticism, as epitomized by Hume, colliding with the emotionalism and highly personalized confessional style pioneered by Rousseau.

 Part of the review in the NYT is here:

Rousseau’s Dog does involve an all-star lineup of the Enlightenment’s heavy hitters —Voltaire, Walpole, Diderot, Boswell — and is enlivened by their mostly poisonous contributions to the Rousseau-Hume contretemps. Walpole warned that Rousseau “contradicts and quarrels with all mankind to obtain their admiration” and predicted that Hume could anticipate similar treatment. Voltaire later wrote of Rousseau: “I have always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: ‘My God, make our enemies very ridiculous.’ God has granted it to me.”

Hume and Rousseau had never met when the groundwork for the fight was laid. But Rousseau had made himself persona non grata in Geneva, antagonizing local clergymen and politicians with his fearless polemics and becoming the victim of lapidation — that is, the stoning of his house — even after he had been exiled. Acting on collegial admiration, Hume offered to help Rousseau find refuge in the English countryside, despite Rousseau’s ominous penchants for complaint and scorn.

Their four-month period of acquaintance began with Rousseau’s tears of gratitude, which he would later describe in terms more self-aggrandizing than humble. But their encounters led to an orgy of recrimination and self-serving diatribes from both sides. Among the burning issues: whether Hume had insulted Rousseau by trying to secure a royal pension for him and whether Hume had helped to write a satirical letter to Rousseau, supposedly from Frederick the Great. The letter concluded with this promise: “I will cease to persecute you, when you are no longer vain of persecution.”

It is not a very favorable review, but I am still reading after 78 pages so I will see how it goes…..there is also more here from NPR, including a exerpt. And for a more favorable reviews, go here, but for another one that is not, go here.

Georgia-Home of Saints?

Filed under: The strange place called the South — John Maass @ 12:30 am

The Atlanta Journal has an interesting article on the South’s old Spanish past, which often is overlooked (part of the Black Legend, maybe?)  Here’s an extract:

As cold cases go, the cranium in his custom-made carry-on case was a classic. A long time ago, someone lost his head — this particular head — near present-day Darien, on the Georgia coast.

Now [Chris] Stojanowski, a bioarchaeologist at Arizona State University’s new School of Human Evolution and Social Change, wants to find out more about the brittle skull which, until recently, was gathering dust in a Georgia laboratory.

The Rev. Conrad Harkins is curious, too. For more than a decade, he has worked tirelessly to see that five Spanish missionaries killed by Indians on the Georgia coast in 1597 are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as martyrs and, perhaps in time, as saints.

It is not known for sure if these the relics are of a missionary or not, but scientists are working on that using forensics, DNA analysis “and some luck.” 

The skull was unearthed in the early 1900s at the site of a former Spanish mission near Darien, and 20 years after the Diocese of Savannah proposed beatification for the “Georgia martyrs.” 

“The case for beatification of the Georgia martyrs is a historical one, and it will be accepted or rejected by the Vatican on the basis of the historical record,” Harkins says.

Things have moved swifty it seems, as a “portfolio of Spanish records and the reports of Franciscan friars documenting the missionaries’ martyrdom — compiled, notarized and copied in triplicate — is now ready for submission to a Vatican tribunal this year.”  As the article points out, physical remains of the missionaries are not required for beatification. 

For the rest of this story, click here.

August 7, 2006

Academics, Popular History & Teaching

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 10:08 pm

Kevin M. Levin, who blogs at Civil War Memory (which I check several times a week, its a good read) reminded his readers in his 8/7 post about a speech David McCullough gave last year in which he talks about history teachers and how they should be prepared.  The text of the speech is here.  The part that struck Mr. Levin, and me too, was this:

We have to do a far better job of teaching our teachers. We have too many teachers who are graduating with degrees in education. They go to schools of education or they major in education, and they graduate knowing something called education, but they don’t know a subject. They’re assigned to teach botany or English literature or history, and of course they can’t perform as they should. Knowing a subject is important because you want to know what you’re talking about when you’re teaching. But beyond that, you can’t love what you don’t know.

Reminds me of a quip I read in AHA Perspectives in which the author noted that most school kids in the US are taught history by a guy named “Coach.”

However, what is also striking is how much of an optomist McCullough is, as one can tell in the text of that speech.  (See also my previous post “McCullough in Maine”.) He also has a certain sense of civic duty and (dare I say it) patriotism.  Not the “love it or leave it kind” but one that looks to the best Americans have to give and who we are, not the worst.  Sadly, perhaps that is what seperates him the most (in addition to major sales of his books!) from academics, many of whom in my seven years in their world sneer at notions of patriotism, and perform very lettle civic duties beyond voting and writing ascerbic, polemical letters to the NY Times.  Perhaps McDonough’s optomism, which does come across in his books, is what irritates a lot of the academic crowd, for he is certainly not one of them.  In a very interesting piece in Slate last year, called “That Barnes and Noble Dream” David Greenberg acknowledges this:

This month marks the publication of 1776, David McCullough’s rousing, feel-good tale of how George Washington led a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence. It’s safe to predict that 1776—the latest in a series of heavily hyped history blockbusters—will vault to the top of the best-seller lists, beguiling readers with its reverent portrait of Washington’s heroism and the dulcet cadences of McCullough’s finely wrought prose. It will also drive many academic historians up the wall.

Our exasperation will stem partly, to be sure, from envy of McCullough’s undeniable gift for storytelling and of his smashing popularity. But my academic colleagues will (or should) raise legitimate objections to the approach of a book like this—the surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered. McCullough’s fans won’t care. They typically have little use for what they regard—not always wrongly—as the narrowly focused, politically correct, jargon-clotted academic monographs that dwell on arcane issues instead of big, meaty topics like politics, diplomacy, and war.


Note that Greenberg says that 1776–which you will note he has not even read yet at the time of the article–will be in academic eyes an amateurish, ignorable book because it deals with “personality,” and has “meager analysis and argument.”  Greenberg also deplores “the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered.”  Doubtless Greeneberg could find a rationale for another book on, say, McCarthyism or some other favorite topic of the academic establishment even though “amply covered.” 

It is quite interesting to note that one never reads of McCullough trashing academics in interviews or columns.  That gets back to his optomism.  Like this, in which you will note that he emphasizes teaching–something many university profs go to some length to avoid during the careers: 

History isn’t just something that ought to be taught or ought to be read or ought to be encouraged because it’s going to make us a better citizen. It will make us a better citizen; or because it will make us a more thoughtful and understanding human being, which it will; or because it will cause us to behave better, which it will. It should be taught for pleasure: The pleasure of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive, which is what education is largely about.

Wicked History, again!

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 9:41 pm

About a week ago, I posted on Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia that has come under some fire recently, for a number of issues including false entries, and inaccuracies as well.  The previous post is here. Now, just in time, The Onion has a spoof of Wikipedia’s troubles, including this:

Wikipedia, the online, reader-edited encyclopedia, honored the 750th anniversary of American independence on July 25 with a special featured section on its main page Tuesday.  “It would have been a major oversight to ignore this portentous anniversary,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, whose site now boasts over 4,300,000 articles in multiple languages, over one-quarter of which are in English, including 11,000 concerning popular toys of the 1980s alone. “At 750 years, the U.S. is by far the world’s oldest surviving democracy, and is certainly deserving of our recognition,” Wales said. “According to our database, that’s 212 years older than the Eiffel Tower, 347 years older than the earliest-known woolly-mammoth fossil, and a full 493 years older than the microwave oven.”

The complete article is here.

More on 9/11 and Academic Freedom

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 12:42 am

Here, a few days ago, I mentioned a University of Wisc. prof who has some unpopular things to say about who was really at fault–in his mind–for 9/11.  And even the NYT has covered this lecturer.  Now CNN has as well, here.  Its a growing movement too, though I am not a member to be sure.  From CNN:

Five years after the terrorist attacks, a community that believes widely discredited ideas about what happened on September 11, 2001, persists and even thrives. Members trade their ideas on the Internet and in self-published papers and in books. About 500 of them attended a recent conference in Chicago, Illinois.

The movement claims to be drawing fresh energy and credibility from a recently formed group called Scholars for 9/11 Truth.

The organization says publicity over Barrett’s case has helped boost membership to about 75 academics. They are a tiny minority of the 1 million part- and full-time faculty nationwide, and some have no university affiliation. Most aren’t experts in relevant fields.

Italics mine.  I’ve never really believed in conspiracy theories, and don’t buy this one either.  What is it about some folks who are so quick believe the evil behind each tragedy, or world news-making event?  Is it paranoia? 

August 4, 2006

Noah’s Ark

Filed under: The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 8:15 pm

In a previous post, I mentioned an ABC news article on a group of self-described “Christian Archaeologists” who claim to have found Noach’s Ark.  It is in Iran.  Not Turkey, as previous claims have asserted.  Anyway, the group (B.A.S.E.) has posted photos of their findings at their website.


Ahhhh……is it me or do I just see a bunch of rocks?  The group states that “Recently the search for Noah’s ark has exploded with media attention after we shared pictures of a rock formation found on a high mountain in Iran. I have been careful to position all comments that I am not claiming to conclusively to have found the ark. I am not however dismissing the potential of that find in Iran has significant historical relevance. We think that the Bible and other sources point to Iran as being the most probable resting place for the Ark.”  I still don’t see more than rocks.

Irish Traitor or Patriot?

Filed under: Ireland,The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 1:44 pm

That is the question asked in a BBC article on Sir Roger Casement, executed for treason in Pentonville Prison 90 years ago. He was also the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and a man admired by writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a Knight of the Realm and a man whose morality came under attack through the publication of his so-called Black Diaries.

Sir Roger Casement

How should he be remembered?

From this site: While in British consular service, he exposed (1904) the atrocious exploitation of wild-rubber gatherers in the Congo (thus helping to bring about the extinction of the Congo Free State in 1908) and later exposed similar conditions in South America. He was knighted for these services in 1911. Although an Ulster Protestant, Casement became an ardent Irish nationalist. After the outbreak of World War I he went first to the United States and then to Germany to secure aid for an Irish uprising. The Germans promised help, but Casement considered it insufficient and returned to Ireland in Apr., 1916, hoping to secure a postponement of the Easter Rebellion. Arrested immediately after his landing from a German submarine, he was tried, convicted, and hanged for treason. To further blacken his name, some British agents had circulated his diaries, which showed him to be a homosexual. The diaries were probably genuine, but the manner of their use helped to inspire controversy about the possibility of forgery.

August 3, 2006

Wicked history

Filed under: What is History? — John Maass @ 11:34 pm

The at the website of the Atlantic Monthly is an article on Wikepedia, which is described there as “history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge.”  As the author mentions, “instead of relying on experts to write articles according to their expertise, Wikipedia lets anyone write about anything. You, I, and any wired-up fool can add entries, change entries, even propose that entries be deleted.”  It is a long piece, but quite good, and can be accessed here.

Wikipedia has come under some fire of late, mainly due to its open format in that anyone can make changes to an entry, or provide factually incorrect information to the entries.  As one critic has written, “The credentials of the people authoring grassroots Web journals and a committee-written encyclopedia called Wikipedia are often unclear. Nevertheless, some Internet users believe that such resources can collectively portray events more accurately than any single gatekeeper.”  Or, somebody can write misleading things as well, such as in cases of political or religious controversies.  For example, on the Wikepedia site, look up “Mormonism,” and one can see the problems involved in trying to be objective. 

A number of months ago, stories splashed all over the web and in print about credibility questions concerning Wikipedia.  See this article, for example. USA Today reports on a case of character assassination by somebody who placed a false article or entry at Wikipedia.  It seems that someone wrote a biographical entry on a man, in which it stated that the subject was somehow involved in the assassinations of JFK & RFK.  Since authorship is anonymous, there was no trail back to whomever penned these accusations.  A related column on this well-reported issue is here. Luckily, a man in Nashville has admitted that, in trying to shock a colleague with a joke, he put false information into this Wikipedia entry. The New York Times concludes that “At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts- one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.”  A summary of some of the criticisms is here as well.

The problem for historians who teach is that students love to use it when writing papers, since it pops up so easily.  Just “Google” a historical figure or event and see how many Wikipedia entries pop up first, or close to the top.  But it isn’t just that the site is easy to use–what opponents of its frequent use by students say is that the information can be, well, wrong!  See “How Much do you trust Wikipedia,” an on-line piece here.  It links many stories about this issue, so for further reading it is valuable.  One quote from it:

The concept of “collective knowledge” is often lauded as the next step toward truth in online media. But recent scuffles over inaccuracies in Wikipedia entries call into question the reliability of the medium. Some scathing press and ongoing abuses of the site’s open format caused Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to limit the article submission process. But doubts about whether these changes will mean more accurate entries are still circulating.

Here is an example of the factual issues.  I looked up “The Battle of Camden” within the site’s search box, and took the first entry, here. The text states: “Each army by a night march attempted to surprise the other, and fought a confused skirmish at Waxhaws. The next morning, both armies deployed face-to-face. Gates placed Baron de Kalb’s troops on his right flank and the militia on his left, and ordered De Kalb forward.”  Guess what?  There are two mistakes in this brief exerpt.  The confused skirmish was not at the Waxhaws, and Gates did not order Kalb’s troops forward.  Doesn’t that make you wonder how much else could be factually wrong at the site?

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