Written by Timothy Messer-Kruse
Being a classroom lecturer, I am accustomed to speaking extemporaneously, but tonight I must break with old habits and read from my prepared text as I do not want to ramble on and force Chuck to get the hook and pull me from the podium. When I was offered the honor of speaking at the society’s annual dinner, I quickly accepted before I had a clear idea of what it was I was going to talk about. (Accepting without thinking is one of the reasons I was recently elected chair of the history department.) I knew that my current research into the history of Toledo’s bank failures during the Great Depression was not a suitable topic for if presented thoroughly, its procession of graphs and spreadsheets would be certain to bore and if not presented thoroughly would expose me to actions for slander. Better than such a potentially litigious subject, I figured I could safely find something to say about Ohio’s Bicentennial, not offend anyone, and escape without any lawyers becoming involved.
After spending the past few weeks researching Ohio’s Bicentennial, I think I am safe from the courtroom, though perhaps not from someone taking offense. If what I have to say does at points ruffle any feathers, I sincerely apologize and beg that those ruffled understand that no animus or ill-will is intentioned, and that my apparent lack of sentiment is motivated not by a deficiency of feeling for Ohio (even though it is a clearly established fact that Ohio is to blame for my home-state of Wisconsin losing the upper peninsula to Michigan) but is merely a byproduct of striving to view history in an objective light.
I’ve long been fascinated by public holidays and anniversaries. One of the most distinct memories from my own childhood is the U.S. Bicentennial celebration in 1976. This event is memorable for me partly because I had just [reached] 13, an age at which all shy boys desire most of all to be anonymous, especially in public. My parents owned a small novelty store which sold gags, clown supplies, and magic tricks—a whimsical business that my very outgoing father reveled in. Dad decided it would be good for business to join our city’s bicentennial parade, and in keeping with the theme of his store found a way to make a joke at the same time. He rented a twelve-foot tall fiberglass buffalo that was bolted onto a trailer and draped a banner over its side saying “Happy Bison-Tennial.” My job was to ride on the trailer and toss coupons in the shape of buffalo chips to the crowds lining the street. I’m not sure how he persuaded me to do this; perhaps I figured it was better than the previous Christmas when I had to dress up as an elf with green leotards and curled toes and work as Santa’s helper at the local mall. Somehow I survived and this is my revenge.
The practice of observing centenaries of events with large, publicly-funded ceremonies began in the mid-nineteenth century with the celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1876. A massive international exposition was organized in Philadelphia, underwritten by a 1.5 million dollar loan from Congress. Scores of monumental pavilions were constructed to house exhibitions from most states and many foreign nations. Over that summer, an estimated eight million visitors walked the Philadelphia exposition grounds, about one in twenty Americans.
The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was a huge success because it functioned perfectly as a psychic balm for the deep anxieties haunting the nation. The wounds of a devastating civil war were still fresh. The nation was still deeply divided over the nature of the political and social reconstruction of the South. On the grandest day of the exposition, the Fourth of July itself, as war veterans marched in honor of the birth of the nation, news arrived that six African Americans had been murdered by Klansmen in Hamburgh, South Carolina, illustrating clearly the unfinished business of the war. The next day, news arrived across the telegraph wires from the west that General Custer and his men had been defeated at Little Big Horn, illustrating the limits of American power. Industrialization was beginning to uproot and threaten traditional customs and patterns of work and community ties. Earlier that same year, twenty-four Pennsylvania miners were tried for conspiracy to murder local officials and mine bosses and sentenced to death. Immigrants were beginning to pour upon American shores in record numbers from places increasingly foreign to Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, prompting Congress to debate placing racial restrictions on immigration for the first time. Not least of all, Americans were beginning to doubt the virtues of their government, as President Grant’s administration was then embroiled in a series of scandals involving graft of whiskey taxes; the corrupt sale of federal lands; and bribery.
Plastering over these wounds was a centennial event that celebrated a fictional national unity, the universal goodness and progress of technology, and the divine perfection of American institutions. Though one could find pieces of the exhibition that challenged these ideas – the abolitionist-financed statue commemorating emancipation, or the unfinished hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty in the French exhibit – these were little noticed or commented upon at the time. Instead, the massive Corliss Engine in Machinery Hall, symbolizing the unbridled power and progress of industry, was most popular, as were the international exhibits whose presence gave Americans a sense of being noticed and respected by a larger community of nations.
The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition shows well the functions of centennial celebrations. They can provide a means of reasserting or even inventing a sense of historic community, creating the sense of a shared experience through time. An idea that somehow, in spite of all our differences and disagreements, we share a past and a future together. This is accomplished by enshrining a single event of the past as a “founding moment,” a moment whose importance and being extends from the past to the future through all members of the community. In Philadelphia, the signing of the Declaration of Independence provided this seminal “founding moment” and was a means of erasing the bloody and deep divisions that split the nation North and South, rich and poor, native and immigrant, white, black, yellow, and red.
The problem is that the reality of these historic moments is not nearly as neatly unified and ideal as is their remembrance of them. For example, in 1921, America celebrated the tercentenary of the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock. Congress appropriated half a million dollars for the event and a long line of major political figures spoke at the seaside amphitheater built especially for the event. History was then a pastiche of myth and misrepresentation. The Pilgrims were depicted as enterprising, law-abiding, selflessly Christian – though perhaps somewhat dour – and overly temperate people. What historians tell us about their intolerant theocratic tendencies, their good fortune at landing at the site of an abandoned Indian village with corn still standing in the fields, their incessant bickering among themselves (they would become the most litigious community in America), or their typical pre-modern habits of life (Increase Mather wrote: “Drink is in it self a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness...” and among William Bradford’s possessions listed in his will were a couple of “great beer bowls”) was, of course, absent. So little attention was given to actual history in this event that pilgrims were depicted nobly on horseback when, in fact, no horses took passage on the Mayflower.
Here the function of a Plymouth centennial celebration stands in stark contrast to its own history. Historians, by ruthlessly stripping away the layers of myth from the actual occurrences of the past, have undermined the usefulness of these founding moments and thereby enfeebled the power of centennial events to spread an imaginary ideal of civic unity. Over the course of the Twentieth century, the inclusion of minority voices into our mainstream political life has both broadened our sense of history and complicated its retelling. This progress in terms of our public knowledge and appreciation of history has as one unintended byproduct the rendering of public commemorative events less able to construct a past useful in promoting a sense of citizenship.
The disjunction between historical reality and commemorative ideal grows widest in times of crisis. In 1932, Congress mandated that the nation observe the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, and no effort was spared in the event: commemorative postage stamps; the planting of 35 million Washington centennial trees; the minting of the Washington quarter; the naming of the world’s largest suspension bridge for Washington; the building a replica of Mt. Vernon in Paris, France; a bicentennial baseball game; a bicentennial pigeon race; the compiling of all of Washington’s writings; a nation-wide Washington elementary school declamatory contest; the commissioning of Washington dramas and the distribution of 160,000 play scripts to schools and civic organizations; and the commissioning of songs from famous composers (John Philip Sousa composed one of his last works, “The George Washington Bicentennial March”). George M. Cohan, famous for his war tune, “Over There,” composed “Father of the Land We Love,” and John Alden Carpenter composed “Song of Faith” for chorus and the distribution of millions of pamphlets. Each state and city coordinated its own celebrations.
But one of the most salient facts about Washington’s life and history was completely neglected in spite of all of this attention. The fact that he was one of the largest slave owners in Virginia all of his adult life passed without mention. The only reference to slavery I can find in the multi-volume compendium of the bicentennial commission is from a play intended to be performed by school-children entitled “Childhood Days in Washington’s Time.” In Act III, “The Possum Hunt,” young Washington is out in the woods with his friend Dickey Lee.
Dickey Lee (in a frightened voice): What’s that over in that shadow? I saw someone moving.
George (to the shadow): Here you, come here. ((Little) Peter comes toward them) [The script says that Little Peter’s costume should include “a black stocking pulled over the head like a cap and covered with tufts of black curled hair to make a wig. The face, neck, arms, hands, legs and feet should be blackened...”]
What you mean spying on me and tagging after me this time o’night? Take that (He gives the little darkey a slap across the face, who falls down and lies motionless at his feet.)
Dickey Lee: George, what have you done? You’re so strong.
George: If we only could see. Hey Peter, come to life; quit your fooling.
Dickey Lee: He’s playing possum, I do believe. Let’s shake him good.
Peter (Opening his eyes and grinning): You hits mighty hard, Marse George.
Except for this bizarre glorification of Washington the strong master, the 1932 festival gloried in an uncomplicated Mason Weems version of the mythic hero Washington. In 1932, when the nation was racked by the worst economic depression in its history, with Jim Crow at its height in the South, with veterans staging a massive protest in the capital, and with the political system undergoing an historic shift towards Democratic control, the nation rushed to embrace an image of national unity, even if this symbol implicitly excluded a large proportion of the population from the notion of citizenship.