Jon Meacham: What History Tells Us About the Future

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I had the opportunity this week to hear Jon Meacham deliver a lecture at the North Carolina Museum of History.  He won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson, and he has also profiled FDR and Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, and George Herbert Walker Bush.

In his lecture, Meacham identified four characteristics of great political leaders:

  • Curiosity.  He pointed to presidents such as FDR, JFK, and Jefferson as avid readers and intellectually curious leaders.  Look no further than Jefferson’s study of Enlightenment thought and its incorporation into American political life.
  • Candor.  He looked to the Great Depression and World War Two for leaders who were willing to talk to their constituents about the gravity of the situation without sugar-coating it.  FDR referred to it as shooting straight-from-the-shoulder, and Churchill certainly followed this pattern in handling the devastation of attacks on the British Isles.
  • Humility.  Great leaders have the ability to admit their mistakes and learn from them — despite the “ambient narcissism” that is a part of the political process.  Meacham pointed to JFK, who after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs contacted Eisenhower for guidance and by following his advice charted a positive end to the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.
  • Empathy.  Meacham argued that empathy doesn’t have to be the Bill Clinton “I feel your pain” kind of understanding.  He explained George H.W. Bush demonstrated empathy at the end of the Cold War by not using the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a photo opportunity that would help him politically while also being quite damaging to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in a tenuous position with the hardliners in the Communist party.

Ultimately, Meacham believes that “character is destiny.”  But that’s not to say he prefers studying only great people — instead, he suggested we can learn more from the sinners than the saints.  His closing words of hope were, “We can move forward.”  He reflected on the founding of our nation by flawed people — many of whom were slaveowners, for instance — but yet they came together to form a more perfect union.  To those who might question his highlighting of flaws, he countered that overly romanticizing the past actually does an injustice to those you mean to lionize.

Meacham explained his tests for determining the worth of studying a particular subject:

  • Is there a hole in the popular conversation about this person?
  • Is there a scholarly argument to make?
  • Are there new materials to be studied?  (Here’s how archivists can help the Meachams of the world!)

Meacham referenced the open letter he wrote to President Trump before his visit to the Hermitage in March.  Because Trump is fond of likening his leadership to that of Jackson, Meacham pointed out some of his traits that Trump would be wise to emulate:

  • Jackson valued the advice of people with experience in governmental and military affairs.
  • Despite his dislike of elements of the national government (e.g., the Second National Bank), Jackson believed our democratic system had to be preserved at all costs.  This meant both compromising on certain issues and also directly courting the understanding and support of his most ardent opposition (the nullifiers in South Carolina).

In his talk, Meacham also explained that Jackson always fired the second shot — never being the one to begin an attack and instead being in a perfect position to respond.  Jackson also understood his own vices (see humility above).


What Ansel Adams Could Teach Archivists

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I recently had an opportunity to view an exhibit of Ansel Adams photographs at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  Although I’ve been a fan of his work for some time, I appreciated learning more about his notion of visualization.  In an interview he explained that “the creative work is the internal event that happens inside your mind when you see the photograph.”  He credited Alfred Stieglitz as a model for the idea of seeing in the mind’s eye:

“I come across something that excites me, I see the picture in my mind’s eye, and I make a photograph, and then I give it to you as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.”

Adams did a lot of his work under the auspices of the National Park Service, so many of his photographs are available at the National Archives.

I believe the process that Adams followed could be useful archival work.  Too often it seems we dive into projects and hope for the best without having any notion of what we hope to see as the culmination.  While we can’t mandate what records cross our thresholds, we can try to be more proactive about how we handle the records we’ve already received and how we perceive our responsibilities to gather and preserve the stories of today for tomorrow’s users.  Although this would undoubtedly be seen as too interventionist by many, in keeping with concepts such as the documentation strategy, I think archivists should think carefully about how we reach out to people who are currently creating records and provide more guidance about how best to create and maintain records of events occurring today.  If we choose to avoid this role, I see two things happening — either the records are lost from history and/or archivists lose our voice as others step in to provide advice on managing the predominately digital records that are currently being created.

Don’t forget about Clay

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For some reason this week I feel compelled to turn to the pages of history.  While some have suggested that Andrew Jackson was the key to preventing the American Civil War, I would like to throw the name of his contemporary Henry Clay into the ring.  Clay spent decades in service to the federal government in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams.  He earned the nickname of the Great Compromiser due to his involvement with three agreements that postponed the Civil War:

  • Missouri Compromise: brought Maine into the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, with the rest of the Louisiana Territory below the 36°30′ line open to slavery
  • Compromise of 1833: resolved the nullification crisis begun when South Carolina defied the federal tariff by gradually reducing the tariff rates to prevent its secession
  • Compromise of 1850: adeptly ushered a set of 5 bills through Congress by breaking up the omnibus bill and instead getting each section to vote in favor of the elements they supported, thereby getting the entire package enacted:
    • California entered the Union as a free state
    • established popular sovereignty for the remaining territory won during the Mexican War, meaning the residents would be able to determine whether the territories would practice slavery
    • the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia
    • resolved the borders of Texas and the federal government took over its debt
    • enacted a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act to counteract the work of abolitionists who had been helping slaves escape to the North

In his February 5-6 speeches to garner support for the Compromise of 1850, Clay concluded with these words, captured in the Appendix to the Congressional Globe:

“I conjure gentlemen–whether from the South or the North, by all they hold dear in this world–by all their love of liberty–by all their veneration for their ancestors–by all their regard for posterity–by all their gratitude to Him who has bestowed upon them such unnumbered blessings–by all the duties they owe to themselves–by all these consideration I implore them to pause–solemnly to pause–at the edge of the precipice, before the fearful and disastrous leap is taken in the yawning abyss below, which will inevitably lead to certain and irretrievable destruction.

“. . . I implore, as the best blessing which Heaven can bestow upon me upon earth, that if the direful and sad event of the dissolution of the Union shall happen, I may not survive to behold the sad and heart-rending spectacle.”

Henry Clay died in June 1852.

For his part, here are some of the actions and events that shaped the uneven legacy of Andrew Jackson:

  • Fought against the Creek Indians in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend
  • Defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812
  • Invaded Spanish Florida and fought against the Seminole Indians
  • Owned slaves on his Tennessee plantation the Hermitage
  • Advocated for the power of the “common man” in politics
  • Vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank of the U.S. as a means of fighting economic privilege
  • Authorized the Indian Removal Act
  • Refused to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Worcester v. Georgia) that denied Georgia authority over tribal lands belonging the Cherokee
  • The combination of the prior two actions set the stage for the forced removal of Cherokees to the west of the Mississippi River that became known as the Trail of Tears after more than a quarter of the Cherokee population died during this journey.

Jackson died in June 1845.

The Civil War began in April 1861.

All I Need to Know about Archival Work I Learned from Choral Singing

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Having just finished singing a concert with the Duke Chapel Choir, it seems appropriate to continue my irregular series looking at archival work from a variety of perspectives.  I suggest three ways that choral singing parallels archival work:

Accountability.  There is both an individual and a corporate accountability in a choir.  Many rehearsals come before any service or concert performance, and singers have a responsibility to attend these rehearsals in order to learn the music — but also to put in the time outside of rehearsal to learn any parts that are not mastered during rehearsals.  Anyone who chooses not to do so will likely be called out by fellow singers as well as by the conductor.  Similarly, in many archival shops, archivists have discrete tasks to perform that come together to preserve and provide access to collections.  The work of arrangement and description, preservation, and reference are all necessary, and if any person along the way doesn’t complete a job, the whole product suffers.

Being part of a whole.  Unlike the work of soloists, choral singing demands a consistent tone and volume from all singers.  A singer who has too bright a tone or who sings more loudly than anyone else will stand out in an inappropriate way for choral singing.  I argue that archivists also need to see the bigger picture, from records creation to accessioning to preservation to access.  Especially for archivists in government positions, it can be useful to encourage conversations about how records are created and maintained rather than merely waiting around for the occasional deliveries of archival materials.

Protocols and procedures.  Just like archivists are fond of protocols and procedures for everything from donor agreements to finding aids, choral singing demands a uniformity from all performers.

  • Singers walk onto stage carrying music in the hand away from the audience.
  • When accompanied by an orchestra, singers rise when the concertmaster enters.
  • The oboe is usually the instrument that plays the A pitch to which the other instruments tune.  Absolutely no talking should occur during this tuning.
  • And just as archivists expect patrons to follow certain rules when they visit our repositories, musicians for a formal classical concert expect the audience to remain quiet during the performance and to clap only at the end of the piece, when the conductor lowers the baton.

These sorts of rules allow both performers and audience members to have certain expectations that can transcend locale, just like writing finding aids with certain metadata standards allows for the creation of union catalogs of archival materials.

The Tempest

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We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again,
And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.

These lines belong to Antonio in Act 2, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, written in the early 17th century.  Antonio tries to convince Sebastian to murder his brother and assume the throne as the King of Naples.  Antonio had previously usurped his own brother’s position as Duke of Milan — so Prospero retaliates by using his powers of sorcery to create a storm that causes Antonio and King Alonso of Naples to believe they are shipwrecked and marooned on the island.  Spoiler alert: Antonio and Sebastian don’t succeed in killing King Alonso.

Where Antonio was suggesting some sort of fated destiny, these lines have been embraced over the years by archivists who who interpret them as evidence of the value of history as a springboard for later events.  These words are inscribed on Future, Robert Aitken’s 1935 statue located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2

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I’m taking my dive into context in a slightly different direction this week.  Several times, I’ve had the pleasure of singing Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, known as the “Resurrection” symphony.  While it is primarily an orchestral work, in the final movement, the chorus along with soloists give voice to the words of resurrection.  I knew the text isn’t biblical in origin, so I set out to discover the story.

Mahler began working on parts of what would become his Second Symphony in 1887, but he struggled to conceive a work that would not be merely seem imitative of other great composers.  In 1894, Mahler heard a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock set to a chorale tune at the funeral of Hans von Bülow, a well-renowned German conductor and pianist.  He recognized this text of “Die Auferstehen” (“The Resurrection”), which had first been published in 1758 in a collection entitled Sacred Songs, as the frame that could bring form to his symphony.  Several years later, he wrote to an arts critic, Arthur Seidl:

“I had long contemplated bringing in the choir in the last movement, and only the fear that it would be taken as a formal imitation of Beethoven made me hesitate again and again.  Then Bülow died, and I went to the memorial service. — The mood in which I sat and pondered on the departed was utterly in the spirit of what I was working on at the time. — Then the choir, up in the organ-loft, intoned Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale. — It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for — “conceiving by the Holy Ghost”!  What I then experienced had now to be expressed in sound. And yet — if I had not already borne the work within me — how could I have had that experience?”

Mahler did not incorporate the entirety of Klopstock’s poem (only the first two stanzas), but for the sake of context, here it is (as translated from the German by William Lind in 1848):

YES! thou wilt rise, wilt rise as Jesus rose, / My dust, from brief repose. / Endless to live / Will He who made thee give. / Praise ye the Lord.

Again to bloom the seed the sower sows. / The Lord of harvest goes / Gathering the sheaves, / Death’s sickle reaps and heaves. / Praise ye the Lord.

Oh! day of thankfulness and joyful tears, / The day when God appears! / When ‘neath the sod / I have slept long, my God / Will wake me up.

Then shall we be like unto them that dream, / And into joy supreme / With Jesus go. / The pilgrim then shall know / Sorrow no more.

Ah! then my Saviour me shall lead in grace / To the Most Holy Place, / If Him I serve / This side the veil, nor swerve. / Praise ye the Lord.

Mahler was born Jewish, though he did not publicly practice any religion and secretly converted to Catholicism in order to become conductor of the Vienna Court Opera.  He did have a lifelong interest in spirituality and philosophy, and he penned the remaining words for this final movement:

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing is lost to you!
Yours is what you longed for!
Yours what you loved, what you fought for!
O believe: you were not born in vain!
You have not lived in vain, suffered in vain!
What has arisen must pass!
What has passed must rise!
Cease to tremble!
Prepare yourself to live!
O pain! You all-pervasive one!
From you I am wrested!
O death! You all-conquering one!
Now you are conquered!
With wings I have won for myself
In love’s ardent striving, I will soar
To the light to which no eye has penetrated!
I will die, so as to live!
Rise, yes, you will rise,
My heart, in an instant!
What you have defeated
Will carry you to God!

Around the time of the premiere performance of this symphony, he wrote to a friend,

“We shall all return, and only the certainty of this gives meaning to our life.  It is immaterial whether or not we remember our previous incarnations.  This does not depend on the individual, his memory, or his willingness, but upon the great profession toward perfection . . . .”

After being on loan at the New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library for many years, the manuscript for this symphony sold at auction in 2016 and is now held in private hands.


P.S. If today’s post doesn’t fill all of your archival reading needs, take a look at my case study that was published this week by SAA’s Government Records Section about the functional analysis initiative at the State Archives of North Carolina.


Charles W. Chesnutt

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“Some time, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years.  God speed the day, and let not the shining thread of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!”

I was introduced to the writings of Charles Waddell Chesnutt during a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored Landmarks of American History seminar during the summer of 2010.  I was in Atlanta to study the civil rights history of the region, and we read some of Chesnutt’s 19th century stories, which earned acclaim both for his conjure tales written in the vernacular but also for his stories that addressed the color line.  Probably his most famous story is “The Goophered Grapevine.”

The quote above comes from “The Web of Circumstance,” which was published in 1899 as part of a story collection entitled The Wife of His Youth.  Only recently have I learned more about Chesnutt’s personal history.  He was born in 1858 to free mulattoes, and his family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, after the Civil War.  He attended Howard School and taught in several places before becoming the principal of the new State Colored Normal School for teacher training in 1879.  In 1883, he moved north to pursue his writing dream, though he still set his stories primarily in the American South.  Although a number of his stories were published in The Atlantic Monthly, his foray into novel writing was less successful, and writing never became a full-time profession for him.  However, many credit him for laying the foundation for the success of the Harlem Renaissance.

Chesnutt wound up living in Cleveland, passed the state bar examination in Ohio, and established his own court reporting firm.  He died in 1932, and his papers can be found at Fayetteville State University — the successor to the State Colored Normal School — where the special collections are named in his honor.

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