I just got back from my second biennial American History Road Trip, and this year’s extravaganza was even bigger and better than the one in 2013 that inaugurated this hoary tradition. It’s a testimony to my advancing years that I hesitated telling you about it. When I was growing up it was considered bad form to inflict others with stories about your vacation—nobody liked the neighbors who invited you over for dessert and then ambushed you with home movies of the Grand Canyon. I didn’t want to be like them. And then I remembered that the 1960s were over. Al Gore invented the internet ages ago, and I make my living trying to connect with students who post updates when they go to the cafeteria. Unless I want to seem hopelessly out of date, I figure I’m practically obligated to give you a detailed account of my travels. But don’t worry: there won’t be any selfies.
The focal point of the trip was a three-and-a-half-day conference at Yale University on the teaching of nineteenth-century American slave narratives. I had never been to Yale before, and one of the side benefits of the conference was simply the pleasure of strolling around that glorious campus. I did my best Gomer-Pyle-goes-to-the-big-city impression, gawking wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the school’s ivy-covered edifices and its magisterial Sterling Library, a cathedral of learning only slightly smaller than Rhode Island. We ate all our meals together in the dining room of Timothy Dwight Hall, which reminded me more than a little of Hogwarts—lots of wood-paneling, chandeliers, and portraits of scary-looking dead men.
The conference itself was a pleasure. I was joined by twenty-eight other college teachers (specialists in either American history or American literature), who had come from all over the country to take part. Our leader was Yale Professor David Blight, a prolific historian who has written widely on slavery, abolition, and the American Civil War. The days were long and the pace was intense—we discussed six book-length slave narratives and screened two movies—and I had a blast.
The highlight for me was when we spent an afternoon exploring 19th-century documents housed in the manuscripts and rare books collections of the Yale library. Among other documents, I held in my hands a letter from ex-president John Quincy Adams discussing the famous “Amistad” case (perhaps you’ve seen the movie starring Anthony Hopkins), a note from Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to her brother discussing an upcoming antislavery rally, and a letter from John Brown while he was awaiting execution in the aftermath of the Harper’s Ferry raid. For a U. S. historian, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Thanks to the encouragement of my wife (and a small financial award from my college), I was able to bookend the conference with a whirlwind tour of several other historical sites in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. I spent the first night on the road near Rochester, New York (site of Charles Finney’s famous 1831 revival), and was delighted to discover that the motel I had pulled into at random was only minutes from Mount Hope Cemetery, the burial place of both Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, and Susan B. Anthony, the influential nineteenth-century women’s rights activist. I broke up the second day of driving with a side-trip to the site of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention (the first national women’s rights gathering in the U. S.) and got into Lexington, Massachusetts just in time to scope out Minute Man National Historical Park before the sun went down.
I was on the road early the next morning to downtown Boston, and after briefly getting lost and ending up at Logan Airport (I blame my GPS), I hit the Freedom Trail along with, conservatively, a bazillion other sightseers. Highlights included Boston Common, the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, the site of the Boston Massacre, the Paul Revere house, and the Old North Church with its famous steeple (“one if by land and two if by sea”). From Boston I raced west in time to visit the North Bridge in Concord—where minute men squared off against British regulars on April 19, 1775 in the first real battle of the American Revolution—and then squeezed in two hours walking the “Battle Road” from Concord toward Lexington, following the route of the British Army’s withdrawal back toward the safety of Boston. The next day I had to head to New Haven, but before leaving I spent an hour in a downpour in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery visiting the graves of nineteenth-century writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, all of whom were interred within a few dozen yards of each other.
Once the conference was over I drove to the outskirts of Philadelphia and spent the following day at Independence National Historical Park. I toured Independence Hall (where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were conceived), explored Congress Hall (where the House of Representatives and Senate met between 1790 and 1800), visited the Old City Hall (where the U. S. Supreme Court held its sessions), viewed the Liberty Bell, the First Bank of the United States (brain-child of Alexander Hamilton), and the house where Thomas Jefferson crafted the first draft of the Declaration. The next day I hiked all around Valley Forge, site of the Continental Army’s famous ordeal during the winter of 1778, but by dusk I was pulling into Gettysburg, where I spent a final glorious day before heading home and bringing my eleven-day, 2400-mile road trip to a close.
I visited all of these sites with my U. S. history classes in mind. Some of them—Lexington and Concord, Valley Forge—I had never visited before. Others I had visited decades ago and scarcely remembered. The last time I toured Independence Hall, for example, I was fifteen years old and on the way home from a national convention of Mu Alpha Theta, a mathematics honor society. (Yes, I was one of the cool kids in high school.) It excites me to think how my visit to these sites can inform and invigorate what I bring to the classroom. Collectively, they underscore two basic truths that are foundational to all sound historical thinking: 1) the past was real, and 2) the past is gone.
In her wonderful little book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, historian Margaret Bendroth observes that it’s all too easy for twenty-first-century Americans to think of figures from the past as “not really real.” Visiting historical sites such as these can be a powerful antidote to this. One of my favorite historical sites in Philadelphia is Franklin Court, an area on Market Street about two blocks from Independence Hall where Benjamin Franklin built a handsome brick home for himself as well as a series of four-story townhomes that he rented to tenants. The shell of one of the latter has been preserved and the original walls now house countless artifacts from an archaeological excavation of the site. If you take the time to look and listen, the buttons, coins, teacups, medicine bottles, combs and pipes whisper to us about the reality of the forgotten lives lived here.
But if these sites persuade us that the past was real, they also remind us that the past is past, i.e., gone for good. History is not the past itself but our memory of the past, and like all forms of memory, it exists only in the present. At their very best, these sites are but shadows. They tantalize us with fleeting glimpses of what was. The present is always palpably there, however–urgent, loud, perpetually threatening to overrun all else.
Do any of you remember the sentimental 1980 movie Somewhere in Time? Most people who’ve seen it think it’s a romance, but it’s actually all about historical epistemology, a meditation on our ability to bring the past to life by eliminating anachronism. (I’m sure this was the director’s intention.) In the movie’s entirely plausible plot, a 1970s playwright (played by Christopher Reeve), falls in love with an early-twentieth century actress (Jane Seymour) whose picture he sees on the wall of an old grand hotel. After learning about the possibility of time travel through self-hypnosis, the writer dresses himself in period clothing, checks into a room in the old hotel, removes everything that would remind him of the present, and somehow makes it back to 1912. There he meets his true love (who readily falls in love with him in return), and it looks like they are going to live happily ever after until he stumbles across a 1979 penny that he had inadvertently left in his coat pocket. This tiny reminder of the present is enough to break the spell, cause the past to vanish, and wrench the heartbroken playwright back into the present.
The point of this labored analogy is simply to assure you that I was never in danger during my trip of forgetting that it was 2015. From the street vendors hawking $6 cheesesteaks outside Independence Hall, to the subway stop a few yards from the site of the Boston Massacre, to the gauntlet of souvenir shops a stone’s throw from the site of the Gettysburg Address, the present was all too evident. This is frustrating but it is also a gift, inasmuch as it underscores the preciousness of those glimpses we are allowed to see.
And I’ll have to admit–begrudgingly–that there are more mundane benefits to the intrusion of the present: I did come home with an awesome souvenir.