President James Monroe insisted on dressing himself in the eighteenth-century fashions of his youth. A veteran of America’s glorious revolutionary past and inconspicuous in the party struggles of the 1790s, Monroe was uniquely qualified to preside over that brief interlude of national unity and relative political serenity known as the “Era of Good Feelings,” in part because, in the words of the great historian George Dangerfield, Monroe, by his very appearance, reminded his countrymen of “a time sufficiently distant for everyone to be proud of it.”
Following Professor Gordon Wood's recent lecture at the ISI Summer Institute, one of my new friends and fellow participants, a non-historian, posed an interesting question to me and several other Early American historians then present. "So," my colleague began, "how does one become Gordon Wood?" Without altering the substance of my friend's query, and for the benefit of an interdisciplinary audience, I might re-frame and expand the question as follows: Why do some historians of the American Revolution and Early Republic consider Gordon Wood the finest practitioner of their craft, certainly of the last fifty years and perhaps of all time, and how might conservative specialists and non-specialists alike profit from Wood's insights?
Several weeks ago Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell declared April 2010 Confederate History Month, thus inaugurating another brief-but-intense national debate over the Confederacy’s place in our collective memory. No doubt the declaration alone would have sparked controversy, but the omission of slavery from a gubernatorial proclamation that mentioned “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens,” among other things presumably worth remembering, did not help matters. Governor McDonnell has since apologized and inserted into his proclamation a new passage recognizing the self-evident: that slavery was “evil and inhumane.” The updated proclamation also contains belated acknowledgement of something on which not all agree: that slavery “led to this war.”
For those of us charged with teaching introductory-level U.S. History courses, this episode serves as a reminder of the challenges we face near the end of each semester, when the American Civil War emerges from the lifeless pages of the syllabus to stir anew the curiosities and even the passions of young students.