In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. By the time he turned 52, on February 12, 1861, the Union was crumbling. The day of his inauguration, March 4, had yet to arrive. Continue reading
As a result of the internet revolution, the historian (whether armchair or professional) has better materials to work with than ever before. Museums, libraries, antique dealers, auction houses, even private collectors are increasingly sharing images of their holdings online, giving the material culture of the past a prominence and visibility that it lacked formerly. Hidden away for centuries in cellars and attics, History’s shoes and dresses, waistcoats and wallpapers, jewelry, love letters, paintings, and furnishings are suddenly everywhere, courtesy of digital photography.
The impact of these items can be surprisingly revolutionary, correcting and revitalizing the past that has come down to us through historical writing. Architecture, photography, and other vestiges of material culture together impart a more accurate and sophisticated view of earlier cultures. Rather than growing dimmer, views of nineteenth-century America, for instance, are growing more vivid each day.
Dipping into that past is the business of “In The Swan’s Shadow,” a blog that’s been around for about 5 years. The unidentified blogger who puts it out is amazingly dedicated and prolific, posting 1,560 items in 2013.
The site is a trove of images of items surviving from the era of the American Civil War, documenting the lives of women (and children) in particular. There are laces and shawls, bonnets and gloves, cameos, fancy dresses, portraits big and small, genre paintings, fashion illustrations, Victorian earrings and bracelets made of jet and turquoise, old photographs of women, hair-do designs, crinolines—you name it. I love the items the “ebon swan” features.
Popular interest in the Civil War period, about what women wore and how they looked, has been stoked by historical re-enactment and its sister art, historical costuming, both of which are the focus of innumerable blogs. A desire to re-create and re-inhabit the past, however briefly, has proved a powerful motive for taking history apart at the seams.
Thanks to an unsung army of hobbyists, curators, shopkeepers, and bloggers, two great gains for history are being achieved. First, the scrim of drab sentimentalism that formerly enveloped the antebellum and war period is being torn away. The era’s clothes, jewelry, and pictures bring back a culture that was sumptuous, passionate, colorful, and edgy. The heavy clothes that, in fashion plates, look only imprisoning can now also be appreciated as opulent expressions of female power and dignity.
Second, nineteenth-century America’s participation in a trans-Atlantic culture has never been more plain. Many Americans lived in primitive conditions in the early national and pre-Civil War periods, but others had access to goods that were dazzling. Lacking a fully developed sensibility, upper-class Americans continued to rely on Europe for luxury goods and ideas—for the glamour distilled in a fine silk damask, or in the light flutter of a lady’s fan.
Yes, the real stuff of history is piling up at a crucial intersection of proof and inspiration, offering its mute truths as a feast to our vision.
In politics, as in the circus world, a fire-eater is a performer who will swallow fire to attract a crowd and earn a living. This aptly describes the tawdry crowd of grand-standing Republicans threatening to shut down the federal government today.
Their behavior resembles nothing so strongly as that of radical pro-slavery men, who, before the Civil War, threatened angrily to secede from the Union whenever the federal government wasn’t going their way. Antebellum fire-eaters pretended to be great patriots and high-minded constitutionalists while actually serving the retrograde interests of a minority.
So it is with today’s right-wing Republicans, whose aversion to President Obama and health-care reform is so intense as to drive them along a reckless and self-defeating course. Ted Cruz is, if anything, more self-serving and sophomoric than leading pro-slavery apologists–men such as William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama or Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina–whose parochial defense of slave-holding and states’ rights marred careers as distinguished as any in their day. In the end, these men could not love the United States more than they loved holding slaves, leading them to sacrifice true patriotism to an ignoble cause.
By now it has dawned on many Americans that those in Congress intent on derailing Obamacare at all costs are more like demagogues than patriots. In their stubborn attempt to thwart the inclinations of a national majority, stand in the way of progress, and sabotage the federal government, Cruz and his ilk recall the secessionists whose noblest vision was to arouse local populations to follow them. Intent on justifying their contempt of the federal government with high-toned ideas, the first fire-eaters used every conceivable means they could to oppose the federal government and the will of the majority, ultimately succeeding in persuading their fellow-citizens to withdraw from the Union and take up arms.
So it is with the current Republican spoilers, laboring unceasingly to deprive Americans of access to the new ACA-mandated health-insurance plans. Don’t they realize that most Americans are tired of extremism, tired of factions intent only on undoing? Republican fire-eaters would be better off quitting the circus and getting down to the sober, un-sensational business of governing.
Image: A 1900 political cartoon from Puck showing various American political types, including the fire-eater at right, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Want to tell the fire-eaters what you think of their actions?
FOR A HANDY LIST OF THEIR TELEPHONE NUMBERS, COMPILED BY FELLOW BLOGGER ERIC PRILESON,