Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's right there in black and white! And it's dead wrong!

William Leuchtenburg's The White House Looks South (2005) is a readable, entertaining look at the way in which three twentieth century presidents--Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson--were influenced by, and themselves influenced, the South. Being a Yankee living in the Deep South, I might have gotten more out of the book than most folks would, but still I recommend it very highly. I've always enjoyed in Leuchtenburg's writings his use of letters written to historical figures by ordinary citizens, and there is plenty of that here.

And, there is one honking big, how-in-the-world-did-that-make-it-past-the-editor goof in the last sentence of the volume. There, Leuchtenburg writes:

"In sum, the South in the twenty-first century--indeed the South on Lyndon Johnson's final day in office in 1973--is a very different place from the South Franklin Roosevelt found when he got off a train in a rundown Georgia village in 1923." (p. 418).

Of course, LBJ's final day in office was January 20th, 1969, he famously declined to seek reelection in 1968.

I'm not writing this to pick on Professor Leuchtenburg; we all make mistakes and I've contributed to the universe's tally of errors in this blog. But the point is, you always need to be alert when reading about history; boo-boos do creep in and often you won't know unless you've already got some sound knowledge of the topic at hand. The thing about Leuchtenburg's wrong date is that lots of people would catch this one right away, because there are so many people alive today who were also alive in 1973 and know that Nixon was President.

Another interesting book I've almost finished has a great example of a mistake that I would wager better than 99% of its readers wouldn't catch. On page 150 of Democracy Reborn:The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2006), author Garrett Epps has this to say:

"The population [of African-Americans in 1865] was overwhelmingly concentrated in the Deep South--in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, in fact, blacks formed a majority of the population."

No, in fact, they didn't--at least not in Georgia and Alabama. I remembered from some earlier research that there were about four and a half million slaves in Georgia in 1860 and over five and half million whites, but I checked the census figures from 1860 and 1870 again just to be certain. (Isn't it great living in an age where you can access the Census Bureau's website and look at actual facsimiles of the books from 1860 and 1870 instead of having to go to a research library and pour through dusty books in a remote corner of the building?)

Sure enough, in 1860 Georgia recorded 465,698 "colored" people and 591,550 whites. Ten years later the figures were 591,550 colored and 638,926 white.

I checked the other five Deep South States--the four Epps mentions plus Mississippi and Florida. It's odd he didn't mention Mississippi, since this is one of two states--South Carolina being the other--where blacks did outnumber whites in both the last antebellum census and the first Reconstruction one. Alabama and Florida, like Georgia, had more white people than black in both counts. Louisiana had a few thousand more white than black in 1860 and in the following decade it flipped so that there were a few thousand more blacks in 1870, so I don't see how you could safely say which race was better represented halfway between the tallies.

Then there are those statements in books that are mostly true, but not entirely true, and so we should take care not to phrase them as absolutes. Epps provides another example of this on page 211 when he writes:

"Together [Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton] formed a mighty force that--though it did not win the vote [for women] in their own lifetimes--transformed the world around them."

I've seen similar comments--about Anthony--at least, elsewhere, including in a museum journal article written by an interpreter at the Susan B. Anthony home. Remember this: if you read that Susan B. Anthony--who died in 1906--passed away before women could vote, it is exactly as if you said that someone who died today went to the grave before gays could legally marry. As of last week, we've got four states that permit gay marriage; when Anthony died four states--Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho--fully enfranchised women (Keyssar, The Right to Vote, 2000, p. 402). Actually, gay marriage in 2009 and women voting in 1906 isn't quite so perfect an analogy, because while gay marriage is a black and white thing--they can either do it or they can't--women voting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has shades of gray. Ladies in Kansas, for instance, could vote in 1887, but only in municipal elections (Keyssar, p. 400). The point is, a lot of woman had voted in one capacity or another when Susan B. Anthony died--or Elizabeth Stanton, for that matter, who passed away in 1903.

What it all boils down to is that when you write something its a good idea to cite multiple sources; it's an even better idea to go to the original source, as I did with the census figures.

And for goodness sakes, be skeptical about what columnists write. What set me to penning this little essay on errors was the groan I uttered when I got up this morning, checked out the website, and read this assertion by Walter E. Williams, a professor at George Mason University:

"The Constitution's Article V empowers two-thirds of state legislatures to call for a constitutional convention to propose amendments that become law when ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures. I used to be for this option as a means of enacting a spending limitation amendment to the Constitution but have since reconsidered. Unlike the 1787 convention attended by men of high stature such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams, today's attendees would be moral midgets: the likes of Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Olympia Snowe and Nancy Pelosi."

If you choose, you may agree with Williams that Barney Frank is a moral midget. But you know, Congressman Frank has at least one thing in common with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. They did not attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787 either.

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