Four score and seven beers ago. . .

In seventeen years of teaching the U.S. History survey through the Civil War and Reconstruction, I have never failed to cry while reading the Gettysburg Address.

I feel like such a sentimental dork, but it’s one of the few times that you can hear a pin drop in the classroom as the students wait for me to pull myself back together.

16 thoughts on “Four score and seven beers ago. . .

  1. I feel exactly the same way when I read, out loud, pieces from “Of the Passing of the First-born” from Souls of Black Folk to my students. Nothing wrong with keeping the humane in the humanities.


  2. I was in DC last fall, had half a day for art, and so among other things, visited a special exhibit about the Shaw Memorial and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The wonderful exhibit included a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which I stood there and read in its entirety. I cried, for sure, for the words, what they meant, and the signature made by by Lincoln’s own hand. There was an important feeling of connectedness for me, seeing an actual document that the Great Emancipator touched, and signed.

    Thinking about the impact of that modest exhibit really clarifies for me why public history practiced by historians is so important (and what is wrong with the current trajectory of the national women’s history museum). I’ve had similar experiences so many times at great museums. I like being challenged to think in the ways museum curators are capable of achieving.

    An aside, for what it is worth, I have been much more likely to weep at things like this since my children were born.


  3. There was an apocryphal former faculty member at a place where I taught previously who was always invoked by long timers there, who had once taught both halves of the U.S. Survey. He taught the first half from whenever to 1860. Then in the spring he taught the second half from 1865 to whenever. In response to the inevitable questions about the Civil War, he would only say that he found it “too depressing” to teach it in either half. Better to go a little emo on this subject than to bite back on it that hard and that long.

    I’ve just never found the Civil War as interesting to study, think about, or teach as one is seemingly supposed to on the Americanist side. Through graduate school I was a post-bellum guy. Then in faculty life, I became an early Americanist. If there are any third acts in American life, I might channel Bruce Catton or James McPherson. I’m on a rotation to teach “the” survey, but it hasn’t rotated lately and I don’t miss it. Instead I teach a sort of American pseudo-survey to students bayonetted into the program by the curricular process, and I don’t feel any hard chronological constraints about its boundaries. I begin in the pre-historic Arctic, and lately I’ve been ending it with the imprudent and senseless death-by-oratory of William Henry Harrison. Talk about disruptive periodization!


  4. For us DC folks, Gettysburg is a short drive from home (about 1+ hour). Monday night we had dinner with dear friends in the heart to Gettysburg just across from where Lincoln stayed. Every Memorial Day weekend, we hike through the battlefield with a guide. Sometimes we do it in the fall too. Gettysburg became part of our life, a good happy part.


  5. I get choked up every single time we talk about the letter of Johannes Junius, tried for witchcraft in Bamberg Germany in 1628. He managed to get a letter smuggled out of prison before his execution, written to his daughter.It begins: “Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come to into prison, innocent have i been tortured, innocent must I die.” It goes on to explain how he was tortured and forced to confess, and forced to name others. In the margin at the end, he writes an additional note, telling her the names of those who confessed against him, and how they begged him for forgiveness before their executions. Gets me every time.


  6. Wow, Perpetua, that sounds like a moving letter.

    I think it’s totally reasonable to be moved by historical documents. They reveal so much about the pain of being human.

    I find it a bit sillier to be moved to tears (in class) by poetry, but it happens to me! And the students deal.


  7. Because of snow days, I had to contract my WW I unit. I crammed two lesson plans into one class (never a good idea) which meant that my reading of Dulce Et Decorum Est that usually ends the class a couple of minutes early and then everyone just sits in silence and cries a bit didn’t go off as planned. First time I’ve failed to move a class (and myself) to tears.

    Damn snow.


  8. You can find the letter in the Kors and Peters reader, Witchcraft in Europe, under “Persecutions in Bamberg”. Just don’t try to read it out loud to your students!


  9. Peters, using the powers thereunto appertaining to his then-office of history graduate group chair, signed my dissertation (form), the second to last bureaucratic hurdle before a multi-thousand dollar check to the u. bursar to becoming endoctorated. This happened in his highly-medieval looking hideaway office on the now-destroyed sixth floor of Van Pelt Library. It was a simultaneously scary and emotive moment, but I just ran for the elevators, a la “Hotel California,” and escaped.


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