Friday, June 24, 2011
It’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on… Sorry. Had to.
Well, some students have taken off to catch a plane or a train already, and most of us are leaving tomorrow morning. I’ll be taking a cab to Grand Central Station and then taking a train up to Peekskill, NY to spend time with family in the area before heading back to Worcester.
This week was full of wonderful experiences for an aspiring historian of American history such as myself. Earlier today we had a chance to hear Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian of the Civil War, talk about Lincoln and the evolution of his political career. Yesterday we heard from historian Steven Hahn about “Why the Civil War Mattered,” in which he argued that had Lincoln not kept the Union together, the United States would have broken up not only into two, but into several separate nations. Although this is what scholars call “speculative” history and is frowned upon in many circles, he drew from evidence in real documents and of real events to support his point. Personally, I think speculating about what could have happened in the past is a worthwhile exercise because it can provide valuable insight about what did happen and it often prompts one to consider evidence they otherwise may have overlooked. Many people would disagree with me in my approval of speculative history, and with legitimate reasons, but that’s what makes academia so much fun. On Wednesday we heard historian Stephanie McCurry present us with evidence of the way in which gender played a role in the rhetoric of Succession. I particularly enjoy exploring topics related to gender in history, so naturally I was enthralled by her talk. It was a favorite among many of the students in the program and without a doubt prompted the most informal discussion amongst us for the rest of the week.
In addition to hearing from historians, we had a chance to visit a few archives here in New York. Yesterday we visited the New York Public Library, which has an impressive collection of primary documents for an historian of early American history to utilize. In this respect they are unique as a public library. We also visited the Butler Library at Columbia, where an archivist explained to us the process of acquiring, preserving and cataloging materials—the stuff that goes on behind the scenes that you don’t necessarily see just by visiting a library to view their collections. On Wednesday we visited the New York Historical Society, where prints and manuscripts were pulled out for us to examine.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute has their own collection in the NYHS, and they have some real gems! One of these was a letter addressed to President Lincoln in which the author repeated “God damn you” a total of 33 times, and even more unsavory phrases that I’ll not repeat here. I had the honor of reading that particular manuscript aloud to my peers. They also have a copy of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, which in and of itself is impressive, but even more interesting was who was featured in the engraving. The first casualty of the so-called “massacre” was a man of color, Crispus Attucks; he is regarded by many as the first martyr of the American Revolution. In the Gilder Lehrman collection’s copy, Attucks is clearly identified by the color of his skin. Other copies only show seemingly white men. This particular copy remarkably acknowledges that people of color, free and enslaved, played an important and often forgotten role in the American Revolution. When I took Revolutionary America with Professor Keyes, the texts we read and the discussions we had in class often focused on those who participated in the Revolution that the public and scholars alike have neglected: African Americans, Native Americans, women, artisans, people living on the western frontier, religious minorities, Loyalists, and ordinary soldiers and militia men. Professor Keyes’ approach to the American Revolution gave me a much deeper understanding of the period than if we had focused on the traditional narrative of the great military heroes and Founding Fathers. That being said, I learned more about the military heroes and the Founding Fathers in Revolutionary America than in any other history class I’ve taken! But in the curriculum, they didn’t crowd out the multitudes of others who made significant contributions. I believe that approach makes for an honest, intellectually rigorous history class.
It has been a fun, engaging, enlightening and inspiring week here in New York. I’m sad to see everyone go as we exchange emails and bid each other, “find me on Facebook!” However, I’m coming back to Worcester with new insights and a reinvigorated passion for my area of study. I couldn’t have done this without Professor Keyes’ guidance, the support of the History Department, and Assumption’s commitment to its students. Of course, my own talent and hard work got me where I am as a student, but I had a lot of support from faculty who took the time and the care to help me succeed. Assumption has molded me into a student who sees the inherent value of knowledge and a student who recognizes that discovering the right questions is just as valuable as discovering the right answers. And as much as I love the tight-knit community at Assumption, this experience with another institution shows that what Assumption has done for me is not in a vacuum. The approach to academics it takes will remain with me as I go onto graduate school and beyond.
Thanks to all who helped me along the way! See you back in the Woo.