Polk’s Rise

Great men with larger-than-life personalities … do not always make the best Presidents.  Too much of their focus is directed inward, and the needs of the electorate are overlooked (see Jackson.)  Consistency is required when dealing with momentous issues.

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A top ten President

James Knox Polk was the right man… in the right place, at the right time.  He was not flashy, brilliant, cagy, or diabolical as many have charged.  Polk was steady, determined, erudite, and conscientious; some might even call him boring.  His presence demanded respect, but did not inspire awe.  He possessed a keen mind and was an excellent administrator.  Simply put, he got things done, with nearly no regard for his own legacy.

For too long revisionists in academia… have kept the real Polk from us.  Hopefully this blogger has been able to shed new light on an important figure long shrouded by academic misdeeds.  Polk now sits comfortably in the top ten lists of most Presidential historians…where he belongs.

“The inestimable value of our Federal Union is felt and acknowledged by all. By this system of united and confederated States our people are permitted collectively and individually to seek their own happiness in their own way, and the consequences have been most auspicious…Our Federal Union—it must be preserved. To preserve it the compromises which alone enabled our fathers to form a common constitution for the government and protection of so many States and distinct communities, of such diversified habits, interests, and domestic institutions, must be sacredly and religiously observed. Any attempt to disturb or destroy these compromises, being terms of the compact of union, can lead to none other than the most ruinous and disastrous consequences.”

The Civil War is Being Lost

In 2013 I attended the sesquicentennial celebrations at Gettysburg.  150 years of living history, remembrance,  and understanding.

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I tried to describe the experience in words….

 

A week never to be forgotten– the perfect culmination to my 20+ years of reenacting – men and women from all over the country coming together for history and remembrance-

Spiritual connections–  Every reenactor on the field could feel the magnitude of the occasion, and at times it was awe inspiring.  The brave men who struggled here do speak to us, we do our best to honor their memory- by sharing the experience with the latest generation.

The real purpose-  Living history is an education experience.  Reenactors are students of the Civil War as well as a gateway to the past for spectators.  A reenactor who quits learning has already left the hobby.  There was plenty to learn this week by all in attendance…  for the sake of our country, let’s hope the lessons were embraced by everyone.

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        Learning- Remembrance- Inspiration- Healing….

I believed the event had helped our country turn a corner

    I was wrong…

 

The seminal event of our history- the most written about subject in all of our history-  is being rebranded by overly-sensitive reactionaries completely disinterested in finding meaning in the sacrifice made by 715,000 Americans.

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James McPherson described our Civil War experience the best:

Five generations(now six)  have passed and the War is still with us…”

Douglass Out of Context

Armchair historians like Colin Kaepernick often quote Frederick Douglass when making disingenuous points about civil rights history.

Douglass is too often misquoted or valuable context is ignored, most persistently in regards to Abraham Lincoln and emancipation.

In history, context does matter.

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Frederick Douglass is often cited as proof that slaves never cared for Lincoln or his deeds.  Ignoring context, Douglass is cited as the authoritative critic of Lincoln….

“you (white people) are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children.”

This disingenuous, lazy, line of reasoning…  has created a terrible myth about the creation of the civil rights movement.  Failure to place words in a proper context have terrible implications on historical interpretation.  In the same speech, Frederick Douglass explained to his predominately white audience, his true feelings for Abraham Lincoln:

“Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined…. infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than Abraham Lincoln.”  Frederick Douglass  April 14, 1876

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Best Biographies of Jefferson

There is excellent Jefferson scholarship… available to interested readers.  Current scholars seem bound by political correctness to debase the Jeffersonian legacy with tales of slave concubines and youthful indiscretions.  Look to the work of the established Jefferson scholars to find the elusive inroads to one of America’s greatest, but most enigmatic minds.

Jefferson and the New Nation by Merrill D. Peterson– At over 1,000 pages, there is no more detailed one volume biography of Jefferson.  Peterson was a history professor at the University of Virginia for over 30 years and specialized in analyzing Jefferson’s impact on the American character.  Peterson passed away in 2009, but his research remains vital in understanding Jefferson’s mind.

Thomas Jefferson; A Life by Willard Sterne Randall– The calm before the Sally storm, Randall’s biography focused primarily on Jefferson’s diplomatic career.  Largely lost in the deluge of revisionist biographies that emerged in the late 90′s, Randall’s volume provides new interpretations of Jefferson’s political life.

Jefferson and His Time; Vol. 1  Jefferson the Virginian by Dumas Malone– No history library is complete without the definitive Jefferson biography.  A massive undertaking of six volumes spanning Jefferson’s life, Malone is definitely the final word.  Volume 1 traces Jefferson’s youth, education, marriage, and the construction of Monticello.  A deeply personal look into Jefferson’s character, this book examines his life prior to his public career.  No Jefferson scholar is more maligned by the revisionists than Malone.  The vitriol used against Malone’s work is evidence of his influence.

Jefferson and a New Historical Focus

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Revisionists perpetuating the allegation that Thomas Jefferson… fathered all of Sally Hemings’ children now believe history is on their side.  The pressures of political correctness have relegated reasonable discourse on the issue to the fringe.  A scholar who questions the findings of writers like Annette Gordon-Reed, must be prepared to be labeled a racist.  The discipline of history demands that consensus never be granted immunity, regardless of social convention or political correctness.  A fair evaluation of the evidence provides reasonable doubt in the revisionists’ narrative.  Thus far, they show little interest in fielding these questions:

  • Where was Sally ?  Jefferson was at Monticello nine months before the birth of her children (so was the rest of his extended family) but there is almost no evidence showing she was there.  Sally was Patsy’s handmaiden and reasonable historical inference would place them together- including the periods when Patsy did not live at Monticello.
  • Can we really trust the “conception windows?”   There is no way of proving that Sally Hemings carried her children full term.  Birth records from the 19th century make it difficult to see six full term pregnancies for one woman. What about the more than 20 windows when Hemings did not conceive?
  • Is the oral history truly reliable?  Madison Hemings was the only child to claim Jefferson was his father.  His descendants will not submit to DNA testing.  Eston Hemings descendants have the male Jefferson gene, but have never claimed to be descendants.  Confused yet?
  • Can we stop talking about secret passages?  It is well documented that revisionists have misquoted or ignored critical evidence proving no servants could have entered Jefferson’s bedroom without being seen. 
  • Are we ready to acknowledge the inconsistencies in the DNA testing?  There were 25 Jefferson’s who possessed that Y-chromosome within 100 miles of Monticello.  Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’ brother and his five sons,  need further scrutiny. 
  • Why did Sally stop having children in 1808?   Jefferson took up full-time residence at Monticello in 1809, shouldn’t there be more children?  Jefferson was 64 years old when he allegedly fathered Eston Hemings in 1808. 
  • Can we throw Callender’s reputation back on the ash heap of history, where it belongs?  There is no proof he ever visited Charlottesville, the DNA test proved there was no ‘Tom’ Jefferson conceived in France, and no one can identify a shred of credibility in his reporting. 

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TV Review- History Channel’s “Washington”

Historical documentaries have changed forever. Reduced attention spans have spelled the end of the wistful images and genteel music of the Ken Burns style of documentary making. Now, actors and live action fill the time between the insight provided by “experts.” The word of historians apparently ring hollow, so the new style also interjects opinions from biographers, celebrities, and even former Presidents.

Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s production of “Washington” exemplifies this new breed of historical documentary. British stage actor, Nicholas Rowe, has the unenviable task of humanizing the marble face of George Washington. The purpose of this production is to present the Father of our country, “warts and all.” The production values are commendable and most of the actors do justice to their historical characters. All of the historic vignettes are competently staged, though do not rise to the level of a Hollywood production. It is not too hard to imagine what an extra episode could have contributed, as large segments of Washington’s career are passed over. Too often, the depictions rely on the performances, which are acceptable, but not necessarily moving.

A diverse collection of scholars is assembled by Kearns-Goodwin. Joe Ellis, Jon Meacham, Joanne Freeman, and Alan Taylor provide valuable insights into 18th century American life, as well as Washington’s complicated character. Ellis stands out as the authoritative voice among the academic contributors. Colin Powell’s insights into military logistics, strategy, and leadership are especially valuable. Bill Clinton’s contributions are surprisingly pedestrian, his presence must be seen as promotional. To emphasize Washington’s slave-owning, Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Annette Gordon-Reed are called upon to explain these experiences, though both offer plenty of digression. The most interesting contributor is “biographer,” Alexis Coe. She’s recently written an irreverent biography of Washington and served here as a co-producer. The producers must have seen her value in appealing to millennials.

It is most satisfying to see the History Channel producing content about history again. Despite the cinematic limitations and inconsistent insights, “Washington” does make for three nights of enjoyable viewing.

Uncommon Valor- Fredericksburg

Lt. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain describes the horrific night of December 13th, 1862 at the base of Marye’s Heights.

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Fredericksburg, Virginia- December 14, 1862

“But out of that silence rose new sounds more appalling still; a strange ventriloquism, of which you could not locate the source, a smothered moan, as if a thousand discords were flowing together into a key-note weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear, yet startling with its nearness; the writhing concord broken by cries for help, some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity; and some on friendly hands to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun; some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names, as if the dearest were bending over them; and underneath, all the time, the deep bass note from closed lips too hopeless, or too heroic to articulate their agony…It seemed best to bestow myself between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds, and still more chilling, the deep, many voiced moan that overspread the field.”