Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 8

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008. 798 ppg.

Sally Hemings?
            This was a very well written book that clearly showed the meticulous research behind the narrative. Gordon-Reed’s thesis was explained and correlated quite well. Once again, we see where primary sources played a major role in correcting a misconception of history. In this case that misconception was in Thomas Jefferson not taking a black slave as a mistress at some point following his wife’s death. The evidence is overwhelming that he did, even after sorting through what appeared to be an attempt to cover this fact up by his grandson. Gordon-Reed made an extremely strong case for Sally Hemings to have been Jefferson’s mistress.

Thomas Jefferson
            The most striking thing about this book is that it is not really about Sally Hemings as much as it is her family and the world they lived in. Obviously, Gordon-Reed had to know a great amount of detail about Thomas Jefferson in order to explore the role of the Hemings family in his life. She also relied on Peter Onuf to examine what she wrote. Onuf was until his recent retirement the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation at the University of Virginia, the school founded by Thomas Jefferson, and who arguably is the leading Jefferson expert in the United States. In fact, Gordon-Reed’s research was peer reviewed by multiple historians which definitely gave a lot of credence to her interpretation.

            Gordon-Reed’s real contribution to history with this book though comes with her detailed explanation of slavery in America during the era described in the book. In addition, she also explored slavery in France, particular Paris during the time that James and Sally Hemings were there. It is in this exposition of American life that this book really makes its mark. The story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson became the story in which the relationship between slaves and masters was examined. Theirs was not an aberration from social custom, but fully in accord with accepted and well known practices of that time period. Jefferson’s actions were certainly well in keeping with that of his neighbors who knew perfectly well that Jefferson was keeping Sally Hemings as this concubine. 

Eston Hemings
            That he was doing so was not a major secret in his life. James Callendar has announced it to the nation during Jefferson’s presidency, but the issue failed to turn the public against Jefferson mainly because it was either ignored or acknowledged as the rule of the day. Gordon-Reed’s work clearly showed how Jefferson continued to keep Sally Hemings at Monticello while all of that publicity continued. Again, this was a very different world from the one we live in today. The people of that time had their way of doing things and our considerations were not in their minds. 

Aerial View of Monticello
            The result is a very good book that does far more than just explore the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. It goes far beyond that in its historical analysis of the era and actually shows us a quite vivid picture of slavery in America. For Jefferson scholars, this book is a must read. For those that wish to believe otherwise about this relationship, they will have to ignore the massive amount of information which pretty much ends the speculation about their relationship. For students of American slavery, they too should be advised to read this book. It is quite illuminating in that area. Gordon-Reed gets a very well deserved five star rating for this work.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 7

Teaching with HBO's John Adams
     When teaching the American History to 1865 survey course, we cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time. I teach for 85 minutes twice a week and with breaks, weather and holidays end up with 30 class periods on average. I have roughly 45 hours of instruction time to teach American History from the time the Native Americans arrived in North America to the end of the Civil War. As I have written before, time is my most precious commodity in this course. 
     The use of film in teaching history is quite useful. I teach a film course as well and one of the things my students learn is that film is a horrible medium to learn history from. Now wait a minute you say! Didn't I just say that the use of film in teaching history is quite useful? Yes, I did. It is useful to teach history with, but next to useless to learn history from. There is a major difference. One cannot learn history from film because the film is never completely accurate. No matter how meticulously the history is studied, it comes in second, third or far distant place related to the story itself. 

     Unless one has a good knowledge of the time and events, the film will only be a flawed interpretation of the past. Learning from film means the student has learned an incorrect and flawed history. This is not what we want. Now, using the same film in conjunction with primary sources, and a guide to history can be quite useful. That is where an instructor can come in and use film to teach history. The students are learning from the instructor, not the film. The film has become a visual medium or platform for the instructor to use in teaching history.

     That is what I do with John Adams. Some of the best teaching of history is really nothing more than telling stories and linking them together. However, no matter how good an instructor is they can only convey so much in words. Using visual references, instructors can expand upon what they are teaching and link images to elements of the themes. For the period of the American Revolution I find using HBO's miniseries John Adams quite helpful.

     For one thing, the period setting with the clothes, the backgrounds, the hair styles, and character interactions present the people and events of the past to the students far better than words can. However, unless students know who the characters are, they will not make the connections between them. Case in point: Several scenes set in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress involve several key characters. John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Edward Rutledge, Caesar Rodney and other make appearances in many of these scenes along with others. Most of these men, Founding Fathers all, will not be known to the students nor will what their role was in the founding of the country.

    These scenes have outstanding teachable moments. This semester I showed the scenes. In some, John Dickinson is of course doing what he can to block everything that would lead to a break with Great Britain. Why he does this will not be known to students unless they are told what and why Dickinson opposed independence. That is why learning from film will not suffice. However, when students are asking who this guy is, you have a teaching opportunity thanks to the film. At that point the students are receptive and ready to learn. Anyone who has taught the survey courses knows that is a golden opportunity that does not exist very often.
     Every time I've shown the scenes the class is asking who these men are. I strike while the iron is hot. I select my scenes with care. I know who the people are in them and I am prepared to answer questions. I even link the scenes to the lesson plans so students reinforce their learning. The miniseries is full of teachable scenes. I use several for the Federalist era. I use a few to explain the letters between Adams and Jefferson. The visual references help students associate what they learn in their memory. 

     Unfortunately, I do not have the time to show the entire miniseries. Therefore I have to select the scenes that enhance learning opportunities. This works not only for using John Adams, but any other film or documentary in the class. Student learning needs to be varied so they have a good diverse course dedicated to that function. Film is what I call a useful tool in the instructor arsenal. Just like any tool, its use must fit the right opportunity and the user of the tool needs to know how to use it. Showing students scenes without providing reference and context is a waste of valuable teaching time. 

    I use a flipped classroom and have students watch clips of lectures, film, and documentaries for every lesson. However, I also provide context and reference for them. Then, we take what they saw and explain it in the class. I find this helps students who are more visually learning oriented while the other medium in the lesson plan helps students with their learning orientations. This is a variant of differentiated learning in which different methods are employed to convey information.

    John Adams is loaded with teaching opportunities that fit this teaching method. I highly recommend using it. Many scenes are on YouTube, but I suggest having your own copy of the show or make a DVD of the scenes you want to use in class. It will be smoother than hunting for them. In any event, use them. Not only them, but use other film as well. Break the monotony and put some life in the lessons. In many ways, this can set up lecture and even homework assignments. I have one of the essays built around the Declaration and point the students to it via the show. In any event, use the series and teach with it. It is outstanding for that purpose.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

HIstory According to Jim, Vol. 1, No. 7

John Adams: The HBO Miniseries

     This is the first part of a two part post between History According to Jim and tomorrow's Tilting at Windmills. As it is John Adams week here on Diffusion, I will focus on the history of the miniseries in this post and the educational value of the series in tomorrow's. For now, let us turn to HBO's miniseries and Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, and an outstanding cast of actors and actresses along with a wonderful production crew that brought John Adams to light for us.

     Personally, I think this is an outstanding historical miniseries. It is not perfect, but you will not find any movie or series that is historically accurate. In fact, you will not find a documentary that gets everything right either. So as I advise my students, you never "learn" history from the screen. You merely give it visual qualities that capture an audience's attention. You use their attention to begin teaching history to them.

     There are many faults with the show. It does deviate from David McCullough's book, John Adams, quite a bit in places. I am not going to delve into the differences as you can find them on Wikipedia or picked them out yourselves while watching. I do not think they detract seriously from the general historical concept that much or in such a way as to seriously distort the past. Unfortunately, history has to take a back seat in film at times in order to accommodate constructing an audience, introducing conflict which is the key element in gaining an audience and keeping it, and production necessities.

    What was great is that the producers were able to capture the conflict of the periods the series covers and let the characters interact with each other in the context of the conflict. Let's face it, John Adams was a man who thrived on conflict. He was at his best at the heart of conflict's maelstrom even if he was vain and impetuous at the same time. When he lacked conflict, he either sought some out or manufactured it.

Paul Giamatti as John Adams
     Maybe John Adams failed to rise to the top as our nation's second president. Considering the two men he was sandwiched between, comparisons are often difficult to avoid. Yet, in many ways, Adams may have been the better man than either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. At the end of his presidency Adams rejected party wishes and worked on the behalf of his nation to avoid a war with France which he felt would not have been to the best wishes of his fellow countrymen. That, my friends, is virtue. We may say what we want about John Adams, but he put his nation first. I daresay we could use men like John Adams today in this political climate.

Jefferson, Adams, Franklin 
     One of the best things about this series is the cast. These are some outstanding actors and actresses filling roles that we historians have visualized for years. Stephen Dillane was simply marvelous as Thomas Jefferson. Tom Wilkinson was perfect as Benjamin Franklin. The scenes with those two and Paul Giamatti as John Adams are the best in the show. You almost wish they would have filmed miniseries for those two men with the same cast.
Laura Linney as Abigail Adams

     Laura Linney as Abigail Adams though was a stroke of genius. We often ignore the role of passion between husband and wife at this time. Both John and Abigail had passion for each other. It may have been in the context of the time, but those two were a match for each other. Giamatti and Linney have some real chemistry in their scenes. The restraint, the deference, and the passion come forth and I think this may be their best acting. Both won major awards for their performance and I think they were well deserved by both.

David Morse as George Washington
     The second best thing about this series is that it also focuses on relationships instead of events. The events are the setting for the character interaction. Instead of letting the events drive the narrative of the show, it clearly lets the characters reveal that their actions where what drove the events and thus this series. Nothing was or is inevitable. People make choices and those choices are what lead to things happening. This series made that clear. These were flesh and blood people making life shaking and ultimately world shaking choices. David Morse in his role as George Washington embodies this quite well, especially during the presidential episodes.

Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson with Giamatti and Linney
    Their relationships with each other often drove those choices. Adams' interactions with delegates in Philadelphia were instrumental in deciding what would happen over time. His actions in Paris were both not so good and great at times. The actions of Ben Franklin were just as important. Later, the conflict between Jefferson and Adams, two men who were friends with each other, would both sunder and repair that friendship. If I had to choose a favorite of the series, I would choose the last episode. I have always been touched by the letters between Adams and Jefferson from 1812 until their deaths on July 4, 1826. If ever two men led intertwined lives, those two did.

     Tomorrow: Showing clips of John Adams to my survey class.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Blog of the Week, Vol. 1, No. 7

(Reprinting this from a post made a few months ago. While not a blog in the true meaning of the word, the Journal does allow writers to contribute original material which makes it a writer driven site. Also, as we spotlight John Adams this week, I wanted to keep this week's focus on him and his world or time period.)

In the current political climate, the Internet often serves as version of the Wild West where websites of all types abound. Unfettered by notions of truthfulness and accuracy, some sites make all kinds of claims regarding events in history. An area that is heavily corrupted by political rhetoric and claims of dubious facts to outright lies thanks to a proliferation of these sites is that of the American Revolution. Unfortunately, far too many people seek to establish their modern ideological credentials by trying to gain legitimacy through an association with that era. It seems that patriotism must be part of the lunatic fringe at times.

Todd Andrlik
            Fortunately, there are some high quality websites available for students of history as well as the general audience who seeks history written from factual evidence instead of history created to suit someone’s political and or religious beliefs. One of these websites has been created by Todd Andrlik, author of Reporting the American Revolution: Before it was History, it was News. Andrlik, who has collected one of the largest private archives of newspapers from the Revolutionary era, developed a website dedicated to the delivery of “impeccable, ideally groundbreaking historical research and well-written narrative” concerning that era. Conceived on a napkin at first, Andrlik brainstormed with Hugh T. Harrington and developed the idea that resulted in the creation of The Journal of the American Revolution.
          Anyone that has looked for magazines dealing solely with this era will quickly discover two things. One is that there are none and the second is that in the last several years every attempt to create one has failed. The costs of creating a physical publication are too high for reaching the required number of readers it takes to sustain such an endeavor. However, as an astute observer might realize by looking at various websites, the cost of producing an online publication are a fraction of that expense. The real key is producing content to sustain viewers. Andrlik has managed to accomplish that feat by allowing the readers to be the content creators, which has been a masterful stroke of genius.

            As anyone knows who deals in academia, the mantra of the profession is publish or perish. With a limited audience for physical books dealing with this era, the numbers of titles that can be published each year remain small. Often, academic presses are the major source for publication and they tend to prefer those who are teaching in the colleges for their monographs. This has left historians who do not write monographs, but do write articles with little room for their work few opportunities to share their knowledge. That has also resulted in a decided lack of accurate and highly researched information reaching the public. Instead, the shoddy and often erroneous material whipped together to support ideologies and beliefs has been what reached the public.

            With the introduction of The Journal of the American Revolution in January of 2013, an outlet for magazine length articles of high quality research existed. Andrlik’s plan bore fruition as historians began to submit articles for publication. Today, a growing stable of historians with a wide range of publishing experience are submitting articles to the Journal on a regular basis. The website is a valuable outlet for public historians as well as grad students, academic historians, park rangers, and others who submit their work and receive nothing more than a byline for remittance. Yet, those same authors are adding to our knowledge of this period and gaining recognition for their work which they never would have received had this Journal not been created. 

            Today the Journal reaches over 165,000 unique views each month. Over one million unique views have occurred since the Journal began over its first two years. Articles have been picked up for distribution in major media outlets, featured on television, and lauded on National Public Radio. Many of the contributors have seen their work cited by professional historians. Television and movie producers seek these authors out for guidance concerning their programming. Teachers have used the information in their classes and constructed interactive learning lessons with them. 

            During that process, Andrlik has increased the number of editors to seven in order to keep up with the flow of submissions and maintain high standards of accuracy and research. In addition to the online Journal, Andrlik and his team have also taken the submissions and published them in annual hardcover volumes. The second volume is slated for publication in May of 2015. These articles range from general topics to specific concerns, book reviews, critiques on television shows and movies, and other issues dealing with the American Revolution. Every possible theme from the Revolution is being explored somewhere in the Journal. Recipes mingle with battles while spies lurk, women support their men, heroes and villains strive to sway public opinion and win a war in the articles on this website. 

           The result is one of the best websites on the Internet that covers this era. Students of history will not be disappointed with the articles nor will anyone with an interest in the period. For those who seek to know what really happened in that period, The Journal of the American Revolution is a must visit site. The best part is that the information is completely free. Actually, that is the second best part. The best is yet to come as more articles are published and added to the archives. As we enter the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, The Journal of the American Revolution is poised to be one of the leading Internet sources of information on this period. Not too shabby for a concept sketched out on a napkin!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 7

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 751 ppg.

            David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Truman struck historical gold with this biography of John Adams in 2001. The life of our second president was examined in great detail by McCullough as he pored through primary source materials which are unique to Adams. Alone of the Founders, Adams left behind more personal documentation through his enormous collection of letters written to and from the members of the Adams family. Few figures in history left behind since an intimate record of themselves. Many like Thomas Jefferson left behind letters and official correspondence, but few approach the quantity of John Adams and his family. 

            McCullough’s research into this correspondence enabled him to develop an interpretation of John Adams and his life as never before published. In fact, McCullough’s work redefined John Adams for a new generation of Americans and also revived interest in Adams among American historians. His effort resulted in the winning of another Pulitzer Prize for John Adams and served as the basis of the HBO miniseries of the same name starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams. Both works served to present an interpretation of a passionate, intellectual, and articulate man who worked tirelessly to create the United States of America while enduring long stretches of time away from his home and family.

            This version of John Adams is far from the bumbling fool interpretation given to Americans for decades. This John Adams is the man who championed Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and through his oratory helped secure its acceptance in 1776. This interpretation went to France on behalf of the new nation he had helped create in order to use his abilities in an arena far from the battlefields of North America, but just as integral to the ultimate victory. Americans have tended to forget that it was John Adams who was the main figure behind the Treaty of Paris (1783) that formally ended Britain’s claim on the thirteen colonies as his fellow commissioners were absent for various reasons.

            They also forget that it was John Adams who worked to obtain desperately needed loans from the Dutch bankers both during and after the war, and who labored to develop commercial treaties with European nations. It was John Adams who represented the new country in the Court of St. James and endured the tribulations delivered by the British who were understandingly upset with the arrival of an official American ambassador to their country when that man had been declared a rebel and outlaw by the King. Adams’ presence in Britain after the war served to remind them of their loss and humiliation at the hands of a colonial army. Americans also forget that it was John Adams who authored the oldest working written Constitution in the world, that of Massachusetts. 

            McCullough explored John Adams in great detail thanks to that voluminous correspondence which is used as source material for bringing not only John, but his entire family and many of the Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson to us as fully fleshed out people, not names from history. These people are portrayed not as their own biographies have depicted them over the centuries, but with the added details as seen by John Adams and written down in his own hand. Thus, we see a Thomas Jefferson far removed from the altar he is usually placed upon by most Americans. We get to see a naked Thomas Jefferson as he appeared to John Adams through his deeds and own words. 

            It is the portrayal of the Founders like this that really makes this book stand out. Gone are the trappings of reverence for them. Instead, they exist as real people confronted by the problems that they had to deal with in their own time using their knowledge and resources to resolve those issues according to their own interests. They are not perfect people making decisions for an America two centuries removed from their own time, but for themselves and the Americans of the period in which they lived and died. This is a John Adams and America that is raw with an unknown future trying to make the best decisions they can while balancing their choices against the needs of the people they live among. In that regard, this book is one which brushes aside the detritus of the past and brings it to live. When we ask ourselves why those people made the choices they did, their own words as quoted by McCullough and passed to us in these pages explains their actions.

            The best historians do not really explain history. They tell a story and let the people of the past explain themselves in their own words. McCullough does just that in John Adams by letting the people of the past talk for themselves as he presents extracts from their writings. He places those sources in context with the events of the past in order to provide reference for the reader. When John Adams speaks to us through his letters written during the American War of Independence, we find an Adams who acted as a man who understood the consequences of his choices. For had Adams and the upstart Americans failed, he would have been hung as a traitor to the Crown as his name was not on the official list of people to be pardoned if America were to change its mind. We find an Adams whom the saying, “Victory or death” had real meaning, and with him the rest of the Founders who really did gamble their lives, fortunes, and honor on the outcome of the American Revolution.

            The end result is a book that is a must read for any student of the American Revolution or Early Republic era. Although endnotes are used for sources at the end of the work, McCullough’s sources are outstanding and well documented. The Adams Family Papers served as the main source of inspiration along with thousands of other documents. While McCullough is not a historian with a Ph.D, he delivers the work any historian would be proud of and one that most aspire to write. John Adams is a first rate addition to our American history and a volume that restores our second president to his rightful place as a pivotal figure in the creation of the United States of America, its government, its Navy, and its place in world history.