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The garbled scholarship of the American Civil War

By Donald Stoker
How can we frame a discussion? What terminologies give us a basis for common understanding? While many deplore arguing semantics, it is often essential to argue the meaning of words. Scholars aren’t immune to speaking to opposite ends when they don’t share common definitions. The American Civil War does not lack for books, but they aren’t all talking on the same terms. For example, what do we mean by “strategy”?

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Osama and Obama

By Andrew J. Polsky
No Easy Day, the new book by a member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden on 30 April 2011, has attracted widespread comment, most of it focused on whether bin Laden posed a threat at the time he was gunned down. Another theme in the account by Mark Owen (a pseudonym) is how the team members openly weighed the political ramifications of their actions.

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The Wartime Presidency

By Andrew Polsky
In 2012, the American people will choose between two candidates for the Oval Office who share in common something unusual — neither one has ever spent a day in a military uniform. No presidential election since 1944 has featured two major party candidates with no military experience. The absence of a candidate with time in the military has led some to bemoan the separation between civilian life and military service. But the more immediate concern should be whether a lack of military experience has an impact on how well a president performs as a wartime leader.

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“The picture was made for the apple”

By David Bodenhamer
Americans do not question the revolutionary character of the Declaration of Independence. Far fewer view the US Constitution in such terms. It is easy to identify many reasons for this duality. The Declaration speaks in the cadences of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. By comparison, the Constitution is a mechanics manual or lawyers brief. The Declaration offers a concise statement of first principles and goals; it created a nation, and it called for noble sacrifice for the sake of liberty. The Constitution is more procedural.

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Presidents, protest, and patriotism

By Andrew J. Polsky
In the midst of a military conflict, domestic antiwar opposition always vexes a president. This reaction is understandable. He sees the criticism as a risk to national security, something that will give aid and comfort to the enemy, demoralize American troops in combat, and weaken the resolve of the public. What he fails to appreciate is how protest serves as a warning that something has gone very wrong with his war.

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To be Commander-in-Chief

On April 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln made a shocking admission about his presidency during the Civil War. “I claim not to have controlled events,” he wrote in a letter, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Lincoln’s words carry an invaluable lesson for wartime presidents. Author Andrew J. Polsky believes when commanders-in-chief do try to control wartime events, more often than not they fail utterly. He examines Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, showing how each gravely overestimated his power as commander-in-chief.

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To sell a son… Uncle Tom’s Cabin

On 5 June 1851, the abolitionist journal National Era began running a serial by the wife of a professor at Bowdoin College. A deeply religious and well-educated white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe was an ardent opponent of slavery. As she wrote to the journal editor, Gamaliel Bailey: “I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak… I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.” The work, eventually titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or Life Among the Lowly, became a national sensation.

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Writing and recording with scrapbooks

By Ellen Gruber Garvey
May 5 is National Scrapbooking Day. Like National Fig Newton Day or National Golf Month, its purpose is mainly commercial. It was unsurprisingly started by an album company. Scrapbook making is hugely popular and profitable. Stores that sell scrapbooking supplies use the day to sponsor scrapping gatherings or crops where scrapbookers — nearly all women — get together to spread their projects out at tables with equipment for diecutting, embossing, distressing paper to make it look old, and sharing tips about layout and technique as they paste family pictures and memorabilia into their scrapbooks.

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Do you know Shakespeare’s American career?

By Alden T. Vaughan and Viriginia Mason Vaughan
Although England had colonies in Virginia and Bermuda before William Shakespeare died in 1616, he never came to America. But no Englishman ever had such a triumphant posthumous migration to America as did Shakespeare: in books (by him and about him), in performances of his dramas on virtually every stage from coast to coast, in school and college curricula from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, in Broadway musicals, in “blackface” minstrel shows, in summer festivals, in stuffed dolls, trinkets, key rings, and tea cups. Shakespeare in America is multifaceted and ubiquitous.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., Rhetorically Speaking

Each year on the third Monday of January, we’re reminded of the practice of civil disobedience, of overcoming (and sometimes succumbing to) overwhelming adversities over which we have but marginal control, and of the power that language has to effect change in the world.

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The disconnect between democracy and Republicanism

By Elvin Lim It should now be clear to all that the highly polarized environment that is Washington is dysfunctional, and the disillusionment it is causing portends yet more headlocks and cynicism to come. Here is the all-too-familiar cycle of American electoral politics in the last few decades. Campaign gurus draw sharp distinctions to get […]

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Monumental decisions

By Margot Minardi
The new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC, attracted criticism from an unlikely corner recently when poet Maya Angelou complained that one of the inscriptions made the civil rights leader seem like an “arrogant twit.” In a sermon on “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered two months before

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Will the real John Quincy Adams please stand up?

By R. B. Bernstein

Historians these days regularly have to brace themselves for some new, hallucinatory version of the American past. The latest example is Representative Michele Bachmann’s claim that the founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery.

Really?

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What’s on your sesquicentennial playlist?

Looking for something good to put on your iPod for the next four years?  When Louis Masur stopped by I learned that in addition to being able to summarize the entire Civil War in less than 100 pages (see: The Civil War: A Concise History), he also happens to be a huge music buff, having written his previous book on some guy called The Boss. I asked if he wouldn’t mind making us something special for the big 1-5-0 and he kindly obliged. Enjoy!

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