My wife and I went out on Thursday for just the third time since our son’s birth, this time to see Lincoln.

Several historians chimed in with their opinions and evaluations at film’s release. Kate Masur, a historian of slavery race and Washington, D.C., critiqued the film’s portrayal of African Americans as passive and bland characters waiting for emancipation to be handed to them — even when the actual figures portrayed worked to support escaped slaves and were leaders of the District’s black community. Notably, she emphasizes,

It is a well-known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.

This is true — “fact-checking” films is a cottage industry for historians great and small. But Masur makes another important point — that the way stories are told is important to how we respond to them. Whether White House servant Keckley had a poignant exchange with Lincoln (or whether her costume in the film was accurate) is really less important than her overall portrayal — whether the spirit of her character was right and represented her (and other African Americans’) own efforts to oppose slavery.

Historian Eric Foner basically validates DDL’s version of Lincoln but makes a similar point about interpretation — the audience is left with the impression that Lincoln was the sole force for passage of the 13th Amendment, rather than working within a broad set of movements and forces set against slavery (and, at times, stalling them). In essence, we see too much of the Washington inside game.

Timothy Burke responds to Foner’s critique and puts the issue as really a tension between accuracy and narrative. In service of narrative, screenwriter Tony Kushner made some interpretive choices that ring hollow for historians, but work to make a more watchable film.

If we’re going to have that argument through and around cinema, we would be wise to always avoid scolding a film for inaccuracy. Finger-wagging is a death trap for public intellectuals: it keeps us from appreciating the complexity of how a film or other cultural work can have meaning for its audiences, and it casts us outside and above the world of ordinary spectatorship. More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source.

This is a useful point, but a bit irrelevant to Masur and Foner’s kinds of points, that the content of historical films is worth debating and evaluating. Burke’s point is really more about the meaning of films, regardless of the accuracy of its historical content — the cultural historian’s assertion of the film as a historical fact or object, or machine for creating historical memory in its own right. There is a similar kind of debate over perspectives in public history (or reception, in classics, for example).

But my critique of the film, and de facto response to Burke, is that even taking the film on its own terms, it exhibits key failings. [Let’s just stipulate that the anecdoting and speechifying was out of control and it seemed like Kushner was trying to outdo Aaron Sorkin’s Jed Bartlett for erudite but down home wit. I mean, Jesus, did his dictation of a telegram have to be a grand speech? And his joke of a one-paragraph speech at the flag-raising to seem totally clever?] Lincoln was criticized by Radical Republicans (and others) for moving too slowly on emancipation, but Kushner ultimately redeems Lincoln’s caution. The president was wrestling with the moral and legal issues and, even when he made up his own mind, he had a keen sense of the politics — he was not about to move before the issue was ready to pass. So he waited for the lame duck session, faced down criticism from left and right, cajoled and log rolled Congressmen, and ultimately won the day. This is the essence of Lincoln’s heroic actions — caution, prudence, and conviction, but agency bounded by the limits of the political system of his time.

Congressmen are given no such consideration or charitable interpretation, though Lincoln himself had served in the lower House. Nearly every Congressman is presented as a racial reactionary or supremely self-interested — each choice is made simply on personal grounds revealing either nobility or lack of character. The lens of political history, I think, helps us understand that each of those Congressmen were going through their own deliberations and were pulled by a multiplicity of changing forces, personally, and within their district, just as Lincoln was facing. Sure, the 20 Democrats may have been lame ducks not running for re-election, but were they really free of political concerns? What if they were to face off in an election rematch 2 years later? Or were hoping for a non-patronage position in their district from a business leader? Or what if they had a law firm or some other professional enterprise that required staying within the Democratic mainstream in their district? We know none of this, though it must be true for several of the men, and the point is belabored when the audience considers Lincoln’s process (to his ultimate benefit). Fernando Wood, one of the nastiest opponents of the amendment in the film, fit this very description. A New York City machine Democrat, he lost in 1864, but ran again in 1866 and won — we might just as well blame the machine Democrats of New York City for his opposition, but again, we would have no idea that they might be a consideration in this personal, moral question.

Thus, the film uses two different lenses for different politicians, one sensitive for examining Lincoln, the other uncharitable and warped for examining the Congressmen. Though Kushner put words in their mouths and gave the politicians some agency, he did it so sloppily and lazily that I think he did violence to them. In that sense, I echo Kate Masur’s point rather than Eric Foner’s — it’s not that Kushner and Spielberg chose to foreground one perspective at the expense of another, it’s that they actually misrepresented a set of characters by violating their own logic of representation within the film. And this is the key issue historians should have with the film.

Virginia Senators

Rank of VA Senators based on DW-NOMINATE data. 1=most liberal/Democratic, 100=most conservative/Republican

While Virginia had very Democratic Senators in the first part of the century, from the election of Harry Byrd, the state’s Senate Delegation became much more conservative, though for most of the 20th century the seats remained Democratic. Only recently, with the election of Chuck Robb (electorally) and the shift of the Northern Virginia suburbs (demographically), did the Senate seat holders occupy less partisan positions.

Virginia 9th Congressional District

Based on DW-NOMINATE Scores ( 1=most liberal/Democratic; 435=most conservative/Republican.

Working with some DW-NOMINATE data, I plotted the ideological rank of the Congressional Representative for VA-9, where Blacksburg and Virginia Tech are. We can see that the current representative, Morgan Griffith, is the most conservative representative of the district since before World War I. This is an illustration of the DW-NOMINATE data and one of the first steps in my Mapping Congress digital history project. Based on roll call votes, they assess a partisan polarization rating from -1 to 1 along two dimensions/axes. That rating is for a politician’s whole career. So this rank might change because the Congress around him changes (these are all men in VA-9), however, it is a good indication of how the election of an individual can make a dramatic change in the district’s representation in Congress — candidates are not fighting over the middle ground in VA-9 even though it is one that has swung between parties several times over the last century.

The election of Morgan Griffith in 2010 shifted the seat 150 seats to the right, the second largest shift of the last century (the single term of Joseph Shaffer in the 1928 election was a greater shift and immediately swung back).

See also this great xkcd info graphic based on DW-NOMINATE data.

Berkeley in the 60s

Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal have a piece up at Dissent on the reuse of the Reagan playbook at the University of California, linking the 1960s to the 2000s.

The last few years that point has been broadly made several times and in several different ways, much more than it had when I started researching the University of California and the Master Plan during my graduate work. But one thing that I think is still under appreciated is the state’s use of violence and force against students. I have read numerous accounts of students and faculty getting teargassed whether they were involved in protests or not, and it was quite striking to me — and I emphasize this when the topic comes up in classes — when I realized that in the most heated days, the most straitlaced students, those going to classes and keeping with the most conservative traditions of education, were getting gassed even in the classrooms because the gas attacks was so widespread and severe.

Frank Newman, the dean of the law school (later state Supreme Court justice) includes an account in his oral history for Berkeley here.

N:[…]Well, Vasak was fascinated by all this, and we were concerned with the human rights implications, specifically those affecting civil liberties. So he and I did a lot of poking around. He taught me how to use a wet handkerchief for tear gas. On one occasion he and I, after running with one of the mobs, found ourselves all alone, in one comer of the big lower plaza of the student center; and a cop came up and fired tear gas at us.
H: At you?
N: Yes. And we were dressed nicely; we were always careful to do that so we would be segregated; and I learned to handle tear gas.1

  1. Frank C. Newman, Oral History Interview, Conducted 1989 and 1991 by
    Carole Hicke, Regional Oral History Office, University of California at
    Berkeley, for the California State Archives State Government Oral History

The Philadelphia Story

One of my friends and colleagues, Andrew Highsmith, has a review essay out in the newest issue of the Journal of Urban History. In it, he takes up several recent works on postwar American cities including Tombstone and Jerome, AZ; New Haven, CT; St. Louis, MO; Youngstown, OH; and Philadelphia, PA. The essay challenges the framework of urban decline that has such a strong effect on how we think about cities, whether visually, narratively, or economically.

Despite what Daniel Okrent and others have written, cities are immortal geographic and political constructs. Even if they could die, though, recent experience suggests that civic boosters rarely abandon their chosen cities. When renewers cannot lure new residents to declining cities, as was the case in Tombstone, “the town too tough to die,” enterprising locals reinvent them as ghost towns and heritage sites. And if those efforts fail, scavengers and urban explorers arrive to pick through and salivate over the ruins. Tellingly, even “lost cities” of antiquity—places such as Pompeii, in present-day Italy, and Mexico’s Chichen Itza—have become major tourist attractions many centuries after their supposed deaths. And this, in short, is why even the most nuanced narratives of urban declension remain problematic.

One of the aspects that’s most interesting for me, however, is Guian McKee’s research on Philadelphia — The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia. McKee argues in his introduction that Philadelphia’s local flavor of liberalism was somewhat more activist and creative in addressing the problems of job loss for the industrial metropolis,

“[Drawing] on American liberalism’s rich legacy of policy ideas and experiments to develop a series of local industrial and employment policies that sought to arrest the decline of the city’s manufacturing sector…liberals in Philadelphia recognized the problem of deindustrialization at a very early date and used the resources they had available to shape activist, public solutions to crucial economic problems. While they did not always succeed, the vibrancy and ceativity of this local liberal response invites a reassessment of the role of urban political actors during this period…”

However, McKee notes,

“for all of its innovation, Philadelphia’s postwar liberalism suffered from a critical flaw. Its core economic strategy bifurcated along racial lines. The resulting division, into parallel, racially defined tracks of industrial and employment policy, ultimately limited the city’s ability to respond effectively to the challenges of economic transformation during the post-World War II period.”

These are salient points, and ones that I have found in my own research — it was not all state-enabled policy segregation and decline, though there was much of that. In higher education and health care, some urban actors found ways to overcome (if not drive) the transformation of the urban economy and the metropolitan landscape. In places like Philadelphia, where this also went on, there were significant efforts to arrest the flight of jobs to the PA/NJ suburbs, but these were tied up in the larger metropolitan order, in which race seemed an insurmountable barrier (or, in McKee’s telling following Gunnar Myrdal, a long term cultural and psychological problem).

I was sufficiently intrigued to buy McKee’s book for my Kindle. Now to figure out how to cite the dang thing.

University of Chicago Sit-In, 1962

I thought it worth re-visiting this find from a while back at the request of Angus Johnston.

In my dissertation, “Building the Ivory Tower: Campus Planning, University Development, and the Politics of Urban Space,” I research the development of American universities over the course of the 20th century, using the built environment as a lens for examining urban politics, student life, and academic culture in the process of urbanization. In short, I argue that universities are integral to urbanization, in contrast to previous scholarship that characterizes them as inherently suburban or anti-urban.

In the process of researching one of my cases, the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, I came across an interesting student sit-in during January of 1962. Students in a chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) realized that the university had bought up a large number of private apartment buildings in Hyde Park and hired a real estate management company to steer and segregate tenants as part of a larger neighborhood management process to insulate the university from the expanding Black Belt (Arnold Hirsch touches on this in a chapter of Making the Second Ghetto). After some paired applicant testing to establish discrimination, CORE arranged a sit-in (pdf) at the UofC administration building and the real estate management company offices that lasted for two weeks. I was surprised to find out how lines of support and opposition were drawn. It turns out one of the leaders of CORE was Bernie Sanders, an undergrad from New York who had transferred to Chicago for his degree (he mentions this in his political autobiography, Outsider in the House). Students were split on the issue. The faculty was largely opposed to the students’ action, preferring discussion and research on the topic of segregation and housing. And there were some other surprising discoveries I won’t go into here.

One of the items I found in the archive was this image of the sit-in, including Bernie Sanders (standing). Since I am a big supporter of the Senator, and am in DC on a research fellowship, I got two prints of the image and went down to his office on Capitol Hill. I left them with his staff with an explanatory note and a request for a signature on one (the other for him to keep in his papers if he wanted). Today I went and picked this up — his staff reported he was pleased with my gift.

Thanks for the signature, Senator Sanders. I defend my dissertation May 4th at the University of Michigan.


I’m psyched not just as a politically-minded person, but as a historian, that Judd Gregg has withdrawn from consideration from the Commerce position. The United States Decennial Census is one of the most important tools we have for understanding the American population, American communities, and the contours of individual families over time. Since the announcement of Judd Gregg’s consideration a number of work-arounds were proposed, all basically indicating that he would not have oversight of the Census — because he hated Commerce and the Census.

I was concerned, since that kind of a situation shouldn’t be necessary and there are all sorts of entanglements among departments and bureaus that may be difficult to break with a change in the org chart. Almost anyone, in that there are few anti-Commerce ideologues hanging around, will be better. Why Gregg got the nod despite that seeming disqualifier is beyond me.

The End of Sprawl

Rallying for stimulus, Obama spoke in Fort Myers today, liveblogged by…the White House.

[Obama] Makes a case for high-speed rail and mass tranit — says the days of sprawl are over. “Everyone recognizes that’s not a good way to design communities.”

I’d like to believe he means to do something about it. I’d also like to see the Amtrak funds cut from the Senate stimulus bill restored in conference to go with the Amtrak funding from last fall.