Let’s talk about President Obama’s National Monument proclamations! I read Kate Shepard’s article “One Big Piece of Obama’s Legacy: A Park System that Looks Like All of Us,” on Huffington Post this morning, and I just had to add a bit more about the sites’ historical significance to her discussion.[i]
Since 1906 the Antiquities Act has given U.S. Presidents the power to declare sites, historical and natural, National Monuments. Significantly, the act allows quick protections of landscape and buildings. Unlike a National Park designation, a National Monument is declared by presidential proclamation, and does not require congressional approval. Avoiding Congress makes National Monuments protected federal land immediately (comparatively), where as a National Park designation traditionally takes a long time.
The Presidents have used this power sparingly in the last 110 years. Wikipedia cites 121 sites as National Monuments (see below). Teddy Roosevelt gave us Montezuma’s Castle, Muir Forrest and others. Calvin Coolidge gave us Forts Marion and Pulaski, and the Statute of Liberty. Herbert Hoover designated George Washington’s Birthplace, and FDR gave us George Washington Caver’s home and many more. President George W. Bush added around 20 sites, historical and archaeological, and President Obama has added 23 and (hopefully) growing.
Presidential designations are often seen as benign, like kissing babies and the White House Easter Egg Roll. They are not reported as dramatic legislations and if discussions exist they are not well reported nor sensationalized like other measures. They are seen as secondary to other economic and political issues. But National Monuments are very important.
National historical, archaeological, and environmental sites shape the way that we understand our contemporary landscape and offer the sense of a shared past. The sites represent the accepted narratives that create the nation’s character and historical identity. Places deemed important to the nation make an argument about what narratives makeup the fabric of American identity and heritage.
Though the parks are not dramatized, as other political issues, they are just as political and important. Their importance can be seen in the way that Obama’s critics have tried to block his National Monuments. For the past 8 years the GOP has diligently worked to block, thwart, and belittle President Obama’s legislation, and the National Monuments are no different. In 2014 the House GOP endeavored to amend, and significantly limit, the Antiquity Act in response to Obama’s rapid proclamations. They argued that the Act harmed locals, did not take their interests into consideration, and limited economic growth. While their arguments came from the traditional small government GOP trope, their push back also recognized the power the act gives the president to shape the nation’s history. In order to successfully prevent President Obama from creating a positive presidential legacy, they would need to halt his ability to shape American history through the designation of National Monuments. The ol’ Orwell quote “He who controls the past controls the future,” carries a lot of truth.
In terms of the study of Public History…
President Obama’s historical site proclamations give a presidential anchor to “New Social History” narrative in the museum/public history history. New Social History, or historical narratives that include women, workers, African Americans and other non-white people came to historical sites in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The critics then, as today, call this “revisionist history.” They argue that the narratives from non-white males are political inclusions seeking to satisfy minorities and defame American heroes. But that understanding is stale and becoming more and more distasteful.
A recent flare up of this issue was waged out in the blogosphere after conservative blogger Suzanne Sherman critiqued Monticello and Montpelier for interpreting the homes with slavery.[ii] V.R. Bradley, another writer, offered a response in his open letter to Sherman and others, on the blog “The Negro Subversive.”[iii] Bradley explained that it is fundamentally inaccurate to ignore the work of enslaved peoples at plantation house museums. He said “It was not America’s founding documents which gave these places daily life, nor the theories of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau which created their domestic situation, Thomas
Paine’s pamphleteering did not do the labor and make the profits which made such luxury possible, all this was the work of slavery, or, more precisely, the hundreds of enslaved West African men, women and children which your founding fathers forcibly held in bondage.” Bradley and Sherman’s indirect discussion is only the most recent bout in the, now long, Culture Wars. Sherman represents the old, at times termed “traditional,” interpretation that wishes to see historical sites interpreted as celebratory centers of male achievement and the good taste of elite consumers. Bradley offers the more progressive interpretation that understands that the comfort and domesticity idealized at old plantation homes is really a story of domestic slavery. He points out “Madison had a wife and one son, which means that when the Madison family was home “alone,” if you exclude the one White overseer he employed and the overseer’s family who also lived on the estate, as many as 98% of the people living at Montpelier at any time were enslaved Africans. Which means, that while the story of Madison’s presidency and his intellectual contributions to the nation’s founding are his; the story of Montpelier is the story of its slaves.”
Today, the United States is suffering under a dramatized polarity of American identity, and a newly invigorated climate of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is both a continuation of the Culture Wars and a invigorated boom in xenophobia brought on by 9/11 panic. It may seem like the nation is sliding backwards into the violent and divisive race relations of the 1950’s and 60’s, but these white supremacist flare-ups are simply the loud thrashing of a dying social ideology. And Obama’s National Monuments reflect the reality that has come to crush them. As Kate Shepard pointed out in her Huffington Post article “One Big Piece of Obama’s Legacy: A Park System that Looks Like All of Us,” the president’s historical sites reflect the United State’s diversity, and highlight how far the nation has come, and how much work there is still to do. The sites he has designated for the American people include Harriet Tubman’s house, The Pullman company town, Cesar Chavez’s home, and most recently the Stone Wall Inn. In the last 8 years President Obama has added historical sites that include African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Laborers, Union workers, Women and the LGBTQ community into American history. Looking at his list of National Monuments it becomes clear that the New Social History is the accepted norm in the United States. While wailing screams from the “traditional” history fans can be heard for miles, it is only a death rattle.
I’m plugging right along with my own dissertation, so I’m eagerly waiting for the next young scholar to look into this in more detail. Or I’ll do it later, who knows!
[i] Kate Sheppard, “One Big Piece of Obama’s Legacy: A Park Service that Looks Like All of US.” Huffington Post (8, May 2016), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/obama-national-monuments-diversity_us_572cf95be4b0bc9cb046d8ca
[ii] Suzanne Sherman, “Will History Only Remember the Founders as Slave-owners: A Visit to the historic Homes of Jefferson and Madison was Spoiled by a Progressive Agenda.” The American Conservative (18, April 2016), http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/will-history-only-remember-the-founders-as-slaveowners/
[iii] “An Open Letter to White people Who Tire of Hearing About Slavery When They Visit Slave Plantations: Especially Suzanne Sherman,” The Negro Subversive (23, Spring 2016), https://thenegrosubversive.com/2016/04/23/an-open-letter-to-white-people-who-tire-of-hearing-about-slavery-when-they-visit-slave-plantations-especially-suzanne-sherman/