Memorializing the Confederacy and the Misuses of History

It is undeniably a metaphor for my life that I have to pass under this sign every time I go to Wegmans.

It is undeniably a metaphor for my life that I have to pass under this sign every time I go to Wegmans.

This week, a weirdly fresh scab was ripped off an old wound by a class project undertaken by one of my colleagues in sociology.  In his political sociology course, Eric Bonds charged his students with undertaking “a community involvement project that would help them develop democracy skills and not simply vote in an election and then tune out.” The project that his class undertook was a petition and presentation to the Fredericksburg City Council arguing that they city should rename Jefferson Davis Highway (US Route 1) within the city limits.  At the Tuesday evening meeting, the class made its presentation to council.  Despite my irrational hope that somehow Fredericksburg wouldn’t be Fredericksburg on Tuesday evening, the proposal was roundly criticized and then summarily ignored.  Members of the public who rose to comment were critical of the proposal on the grounds that “chang[ing[ the highway’s name … would ‘erase’ a piece of the city’s history.”  Not only would City Council not entertain the petition, a motion to create a task force to study the issue couldn’t even get a second.  In other words, Fredericksburg is still Fredericksburg. Read more

A Lovely Piece Highlighting the Human Costs of Fredericksburg’s Lack of Affordable Housing

Fredericksburg Trailer Park circled in red.  Note how isolated it is from the rest of the city, by a power line and an arterial roadway.  (Click to enlarge.)

Fredericksburg Trailer Park circled in red. Note how isolated it is from the rest of the city, by a power line and an arterial roadway. (Click to enlarge.)

A recurring concern of this blog is Fredericksburg’s problems with affordable housing, and particularly how the civic culture of our small city shapes its openness to broadly diverse residents.  Since I last addressed the subject last winter, little has changed; indeed, the city has recently recommended rejection of a new downtown development that would add 110 units of relatively affordable housing (the key term here being “relatively”).*  In this morning’s Free Lance-Star, I found a lovely piece by Lindley Estes about the fate of the Fredericksburg Trailer Park and its residents, which speaks directly to the real and immediate human costs of Fredericksburg’s affordability crisis. Read more

Trump has a Good Old Fashioned American Fortune

He preferred to bankroll Henry Clay rather than take a shot at the big chair himself. Let's hope Trump is as successful as Clay was. (courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

He preferred to bankroll Henry Clay rather than take a shot at the big chair himself. Let’s hope Trump is as successful as Clay was. (courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York)

I have been fascinated by the debates raging about Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, and the related debates about the size of his fortune and the source of his wealth.  The consensus seems to be that he is refusing to release financial information because it will show that he isn’t nearly as rich as he says he is.  While it’s absolutely entertaining to watch Trump writhe as the gossamer threads of his “success” are blown away by gale-force media scrutiny, I was particularly struck by John Cassidy’s reporting on the specific sources of Trump’s wealth in The New Yorker.   It turns out that (unlike Romney in 2012) much to Trump’s wealth is derived from old-fashioned, boring, concrete real estate, rather than modern, sexy, ephemeral market capitalizations.  As Cassidy points out, “Trump certainly owns some very valuable properties, most of which are in New York City.”  It struck me that Trump’s fortune comes from what is perhaps the second-oldest form of American fortune-building: owning a piece of Manhattan Island.  While it’s not quite as old and venerable of an American wealth-building tradition as owning enslaved people and forcing them to grow tobacco for export, it’s pretty close.  It places Trump’s fortune in a long and “illustrious” tradition of great American fortunes, along with the Beekmans, the Schermerhorns, the Astors, and many others.  Those previous owners of bits and pieces of Manhattan Island inspired Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; too bad this one seems to be operating as The Destroyer of American Political Innocence.

The Grammar of Inevitability; Or, Why TED Speakers Write Like Undergraduates

"Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive... It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!"

“Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive … It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!”

I have always distrusted TED Talks.  They masquerade as scholarship for the masses, when they are in fact pretty much the exact opposite of scholarship.  They radically simplify rather than embrace complexity.  They rush towards answers without stopping to consider questions.  They reflect, or even celebrate, the conventional wisdom of their day, rather than questioning or even contextualizing it.  They may be the lyceums or chautauquas of the 21st century, but at least in the 19th century, sometimes you got to go swimming or sailing in between doses of packaged platitudes. Read more

Enough with March Madness. Scholarship Isn’t a Sport

This is the March Madness that historians should be obsessing over.

This is the March Madness that historians should be obsessing over.

Let me start by stipulating that I really like The Junto, which is “a group blog on Early American history.”  I think it makes a great contribution to the online life of early Americanists … more collaborative than solo outlets like mine or The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and less formal than Common-place.  But every year around this time I have to take a break from reading it because they give so much play to their annual “March Madness” feature.  As they described it this year, “each year we engage in a spirited tournament of voting in some category related to early American history.”  They accept nominations in the category (this year it’s journal articles) and “[t]hen, by the power of The Junto’s bracketologists, [they] put together tournament brackets, announce the brackets, and open it up for your votes.”  I think this exercise is highly problematic for two reasons, one of which is broad and general, and the other of which is narrower and more specific. Read more

A Modest Proposal


The best reaction so far to yesterday’s thoughts on the Mount St. Mary’s debacle: “[President] Newman and that Shkreli bro should be forced to live together on a desert island for a lifetime or so.” Quotation by anonymous.  Brilliant artwork by me.

The “Scorecard” Bites Back

It's hard to live in a Citty upon a Hill.

It’s hard to live in a Citty upon a Hill.

Like much of academia I have been riveted over the past 24 hours by the saga unfolding at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland. (Imagine me, late last night, trying to peer around the paywall at the Frederick News-Post while feeding a baby.)  Briefly, from what I can gather from news reports like this, this, this, and this, the story begins with the hiring in 2014 of Simon Newman, “an executive with a strong background in private equity, strategy consulting, and operations,” as president of the well-regarded Catholic liberal arts college.  Although he had no experience in higher education, Newman was hired because  the search committee was looking for “a new leader with fundraising, strategic planning and fiscal leadership skills.”  Readers who are immersed in the culture of academia can probably already tell exactly where this is headed. Read more

Debating Downtown Development and Preservation

Luckily, it's pretty much been uphill since then. (Harper's Weekly, Jan 3, 1863

Luckily, it’s pretty much been uphill since then. (Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 3, 1863)

My last post on the tension between preservation, development, and economic inequality in Fredericksburg attracted quite a bit of attention around town, which was gratifying.  By far the most interesting and engaging reaction came from Michael Spencer, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Historic Preservation in the Department of Historic Preservation at Mary Washington, in the form of a private email.  His email sparked what I found to be a challenging exchange about preservation, economic development, and the specific proposals that are currently on the table for downtown Fredericksburg.  I was extremely gratified to get the feedback of a professional preservationist, since my training has prepared me to work with documents and words, not brick and slate.  I think our debate reflects our disciplinary differences in a productive and illuminating fashion, so I have (with his permission, of course) shared it here in its entirety.

Read more

Fredericksburg’s Small-town Fetish and Economic Inequality

Looks like something out of Norman Rockwell, doesn't it?

Looks like something out of Norman Rockwell, doesn’t it?

The city of Fredericksburg has 28,000 people and is the fastest growing municipality in the state of Virginia, and it is the hub of a region has over 300,000 people, which is also the fastest growing the state.  Nevertheless, many of the city’s residents, especially its downtown residents, insist on thinking of it as a small town.  Residents of the old part of the city might possibly be forgiven for mistaking it for a small town; it was a small town for most of its history, and the built environment and residential distribution of the downtown reflect that history.  Fredericksburg can often feel like a small town, even if the diminutive old city is really the hub of a large and growing region.  The scale of the buildings and the patterns of land usage are village-like, and the relatively minuscule downtown population (compared to the whole area) and its relative isolation from the newer regions of sprawl beyond the interstate make the social experience of downtown Fredericksburg feel decidedly intimate in a small-town way.  I get that the “small town character” of Fredericksburg is a large part of its appeal, but the overzealous commitment of downtown’s residents to preserving that “small town character” contributes significantly to Fredericksburg’s extreme income inequality. Read more

A Brief Respite From a Season of Terrible Historical Analogies

El Douche? I see what you did there...

El Douche? I see what you did there…

Something about this political season has encouraged a string of blockbuster new hits at the Bad Historical Analogy Theater.  All political seasons introduce a handful of entertaining new acts, but something about the unpredictability of national political life in the Age of Trump has really lit up the marquees on the Great White Way of Facile Comparisons. The presence of multiple political dynasties, the institutional and ideological implosion of the Republican party, the campaign finance Wild West of Citizens United, and the rise of nontraditional candidates have all stumped pundits and political writers of all stripes (and abilities), and in the face of such novelty and uncertainty many of them have an unerring instinct to grasp at historical analogies to explain what we’re living through.  Most of those analogies are terrible, in that they rely on superficial similarities for their explanatory power, while papering over vast historical differences that undermine any explanation they purport to make.  And if there’s one thing this blog is against, it’s Bad Historical Analogies. Read more