Saturday, December 3, 2016

December 3-4, 2016: November 2016 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
October 31: ElectionStudying: 1800: A series on pivotal elections kicks off with the moment that did yet ultimately didn’t change things in post-Revolutionary America.
November 1: ElectionStudying: 1864: The series continues with one good and one very bad thing about a crucial wartime election.
November 2: ElectionStudying: 1876: How an AmericanStudies approach can help us understand a controversial—and frustratingly relevant—election, as the series rolls on.
November 3: ElectionStudying: 1948: A couple significant AmericanStudies stories beyond “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
November 4: ElectionStudying: 1994: The series concludes with three ways that the midterm elections foreshadowed 21st century American politics.
November 5-6: ElectionStudying the Media: Before the most frustrating election of my lifetime, I highlighted where the media had let us down, and where it had lived up to our ideals.
November 7: Veterans Days: The Bonus Army: A Veterans Day series kicks off with the radical veterans movement that ended in both tragedy and success.
November 8: Veterans Days: Miyoko Hikiji: The series continues with the book, author, and political candidate that can bring our veterans conversations into the 21st century.
November 9: Veterans Days: The Harrisburg Veterans Parade: One of the terrible, and then one of the great, American moments, as the series rolls on.
November 10: Veterans Days: Veterans’ Organizations: The distinct and often contrasting reasons why veterans’ organizations are founded.
November 11: Veterans Days: The Best Years of Our Lives: The series concludes with the film and performance that capture the spectrum and significance of veterans’ experiences.
November 12-13: Crowd-sourced Veterans Days and Election 2016: My latest crowd-sourced post features responses to both the week’s series and the election—add yours in comments!
November 14: Stranger (Things) Studying: Dungeons & Dragons: A series inspired by the year’s pop culture sensation starts with the stigmas and benefits of role-playing games.
November 15: Stranger (Things) Studying: Weird Sciences: The series continues with two sides to science in 80s pop culture, and how Stranger Things engages with both.
November 16: Stranger (Things) Studying: Lost Boys: Contextualizing and challenging 80s texts that feature boys adrift, as the series rolls on.
November 17: Stranger (Things) Studying: Pretty (Badass) Woman: StrangerStudying the show’s three badass female leads (with apologies to a much-lamented fourth, Barb).
November 18: Stranger (Things) Studying: ‘80s Nostalgia: The series concludes with three layers to the show’s nostalgic embrace of all things 80s.
November 19-23: Jeff Renye on Stranger Things: The New Weird Made Old?: I’m very thankful for my latest Guest Post, my friend and colleague Jeff on the show and the weird tale.
November 24-27: Thanksgiving and Supporting an Inclusive American Community: I’m also thankful for efforts to support Standing Rock, immigrant aid, and visions of an inclusive America—please add your suggestions for such efforts in comments!
November 28: James MonroeStudying: Ash Lawn-Highland: A series on the 200th anniversary of Monroe’s inauguration starts with the uses of his historic home.
November 29: James MonroeStudying: Slavery and the Founders: The series continues with two ways Monroe’s biography extends and amplifies a originating American truth.
November 30: James MonroeStudying: Expanding America: Three ways Monroe’s public service reflects a geographically and globally expanding nation, as the series rolls on.
December 1: James MonroeStudying: The Monroe Doctrine: The limits and possibilities of Monroe’s signature policy.
December 2: James MonroeStudying: Remembering Monroe: The series concludes with whether and how to better remember a lesser-known president like Monroe.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Friday, December 2, 2016

December 2, 2016: James MonroeStudying: Remembering Monroe

[On December 4th, 2016, James Monroe was elected the fifth president of the United States. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories and contexts linked to Monroe’s life and presidency.]
On whether and how to better remember a lesser-known president.
I’ve written before about the problem with our over-emphasis on presidents in our collective memories (which is the reason why I only included a couple presidents in my roster of Memory Day nominees), and would stand by that perspective. The problem is particularly acute with those Rushmore presidents, who often become the central (if not the sole) way in which we remember eras and histories that are far more multi-layered and complex than any individual could capture. But I believe even lesser-known presidents consistently receive far too much space in our collective memories, a trend that might make for successful performances on standardized tests or quiz shows (I myself memorized every president and vice president in chronological order for my high school quiz team, a personal history toward which I feel a precise mixture of pride and shame) but that can only tell us so much about our national histories and stories (if it does not indeed warp our understanding more than it positively shapes it). So you could argue that we shouldn’t remember James Monroe much better than we already do, and I’d be inclined to agree.
Part of the problem with those presidential memories, though, isn’t about the presidents themselves; it’s the emphasis on things like the dates of their terms or their number in the sequence, those standardized-test kinds of facts that have precious little to offer our historical understanding. So what would it mean if we remembered a president like James Monroe in our collective memories through a handful of key, complex historical facts like those about which I’ve written this week? If we wrote those facts in shorthand on the elementary school portraits, even? Monroe the plantation owner, Monroe the Revolutionary War officer, Monroe the ambassador to France, Monroe and African colonization, Monroe and Latin American revolutions, and so on. Those facts and phrases themselves only scratch the surface of the multi-layered histories to which they gesture, but they’re certainly starting points for further investigation, analysis, and conversation in a much more direct and meaningful way than are dates of terms or the like. Presidents and presidencies themselves, after all, are a kind of historical shorthand for those underlying and more broadly significant issues, and this form of collective memory would help use our presidents in precisely that way.
At the same time that we could better remember those broader histories through a president like Monroe, however, I also believe we could do a better job thinking about the individual human story and identity that he (like all of us) featured. By the time he was 20 years old, Monroe had both inherited a slave plantation after his father’s death and volunteered to fight in the Revolutionary War—and while those dual details nicely encapsulate the more and less inspiring sides to both the man and the era, they’re also two hugely complex and formative moments in the life of someone not yet two decades old. By the time of his death at age 73, on July 4th, 1831 (making him the third Founding Father and president to die on July 4th!), Monroe had been forced by debts to sell his plantations, was a widower who had moved to New York City to live with daughter and her family, and continued to be active in support of the American Colonization Society, to name three equally complex biographical details. Psychoanalyzing historical figures is always a fraught proposition, but we don’t have to put Monroe on the couch to consider what such details could help us understand about the man and the many histories to which he connects. One more way to better remember our fifth president.                                                                                                               
November Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

December 1, 2016: James MonroeStudying: The Monroe Doctrine

[On December 4th, 2016, James Monroe was elected the fifth president of the United States. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories and contexts linked to Monroe’s life and presidency.]
On the limits and possibilities of Monroe’s signature policy.
Although the U.S. in the Early Republic was globalizing in all the ways I highlighted yesterday, it was to its fellow North American and Western Hemisphere countries that the new nation was most fully and complicatedly connected. Many of those links were due to slavery, from the economic dominance of the Triangle Trade to the political, cultural, and social effects of the Haitian Revolution. The relationship between the United States and Mexico (especially after it gained its own independence from Spain in 1821, right in the middle of Monroe’s presidency) also loomed large over the era. But along with those actual historical events and their effects on the U.S., I would argue that ideas of our national neighbors played a consistently central role in how the United States developed and contested its own narratives of identity in the Early Republic. The controversial 1854 Ostend Manifesto, which plotted a U.S. purchase or annexation of Cuba as a new slaveholding state, offers one of many early 19th century moments when imagined versions of Caribbean or hemispheric connections directly shaped debates within America’s borders.
No single governmental statement or action better reflects that set of hemispheric ties and influences than the Monroe Doctrine. Co-written by Monroe and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, first articulated in Monroe’s 1823 State of the Union address, and given the name “Monroe Doctrine” in 1850, the doctrine laid out a perspective of hemispheric independence, arguing both that “the American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any Eurpean powers” and that any such colonization efforts would be viewed “as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” That latter clause embodies the most striking limit of the Doctrine, one directly visible in the Ostend Manifesto among many other moments: an entirely U.S.-centric view of the Western Hemisphere, one in which the histories and fates of other nations are significant precisely in relation to how much they impact our own identity and arc. Besides reducing the colonial histories and independence movements of dozens of other nations to an extension of U.S. foreign policy, this side to the Doctrine would become a longstanding justification for direct U.S. intervention in the affairs of these sovereign nations.
Yet if that kind of U.S.-centric narrative and overreaching hemispheric presence became the Doctrine’s effects in practice too much of the time, those are certainly not the only ways to read the statement and perspective themselves. In its own moment, the Doctrine was viewed positively by many of the prominent Latin American revolutionaries then fighting their own battles for independence from European rule: historian John Crow writes that leaders such as Simon Bolívar (fighting in Peru by 1823), Colombia’s Francisco de Paula Santander, Argentina’s Bernardino Rivadavia, and Mexico’s Guadalupe Victoria all “received Monroe’s words with sincerest gratitude.” What would it mean to connect Monroe’s own history as a Revolutionary War soldier and officer and Founding Father to these fellow hemispheric revolutionary leaders? Can we see this as one more manifestation of creolization, a reflection of interconnections and influences between the Western Hemisphere’s revolutions and revolutionaries? I’ve written elsewhere about my desire to see José Martí as part of (if also certainly separate from) the United States, but it would be just as important to see James Monroe as part of Latin American revolutions—not in a U.S.-centric way, but rather as an expression of the parallels and links between the moves toward independence and sovereignty around the region. The Monroe Doctrine offers one potent way to make that case.
Last MonroeStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Monroe histories or contexts you’d highlight?