Bastille Day

July 14, 1789, a group of Parisians, mainly artisans, stormed and destroyed the Bastille. The Bastille was an old prison, in little used in 1789, but a long established symbol of the French Monarchy and royal authority. The destruction of the Bastille was interpreted as a symbolic overthrow of the French monarchy and touched off rural unrest throughout France, known as “the Great Fear”. Rural violence culminated on August 4, 1789 when nobles voluntarily surrendered all feudal rights and privileges (in exchange for compensation).

As Dr. Nancy Fitch (CSU Fullerton) points out, even through the Bastille Day was celebrated on July 14, 1790, “Bastille Day did not become a holiday, however, until the end of the nineteenth century, and, even then, it was not always celebrated with regularity, as many men and women in France remained unsure if the fall of the Bastille represented the triumph of liberty of the lethal consequences of a mob of people our of control.” (Dr. Fitch has an excellent overview of the Revolution and it’s effects on her course: http://faculty.fullerton.edu/nfitch/history110b/rev.html).

The French Revolution has been pointed to as a watershed in “modern” history. In most European (or world) history classes, 1789 marks the end of the “early modern” and the “beginning of the modern”. Although historians have called this somewhat arbitrary periodization into question for decades, any college course catalog will tell you that the 1789 data has stuck, and stuck fast. This is in part because the French Revolution does seem to be the violent over throw of a feudal system in favor of capitalism ( and eventual industrialization), on the one hand, and the progressive triumph of Enlightenment notions of equal universal rights ("equal" and "universal" generally meaning, "amongst white, male-bodied individuals), on the other. For a brief moment, the Revolution attempted to re-write society in a new image - new revolutionary street names, new calendar months based on the seasons, a new, "equal," secular society. For a small example of the lasting legacy of the French Revolution on our present political discourse, consider the notion of the political "Left" and "Right". Within the Legislative Assembly , the Feuillants (constitutional monarchists) were seated on the right, while the more radical Girondins (later, the  Jacobins and the radical Montagnard), sat on the left.

The French Revolution is sometimes seen as “the dawn of the Modern Era”. From our Western, capitalist, “democracy”-loving (or should it be republic-loving), perspective, the French Revolution was the moment when the common people, inflamed by years of bad harvests and inspired by new ideas regarding universal (white, male) rights that had circulated widely thanks to an explosive printed media, threw off the oppressive, corrupt, nepotistic, exploitative Old Regime of king-aristocracy-Church. Experiments in varying levels of (extremely short-lived) Feminism, constitutional monarchy (1791-2), execution of the king, counter-revolution/Reign of Terror, (1792ish-5), and a Constitutional Republic (The Directory, 1795-99), until it was all ended (or perhaps entered under a new phase) by Napoleon’s seizure of power.

On the one hand, the Revolution (at least rethorically) was a triumph of Enlightenment notions and values. On the other, it was fearfully regarded as anarchistic mob rule, evidence that when the “unwashed masses” were able to step out of their confines and rule, it would end in little but violence, death, and destruction. During the years of the revolution itself, the world’s response was split between being: 1) Pro-Reform and inspired by the French people’s brave fights for reform against a corrupt and self-interested ruling class. A struggle in which a little violence was probably necessary - especially when bearing in mind the centuries of official violence used by Regimes to keep “the people” in line - but would all work out in the end. 2) Anti-Revolutionaries (generally the landed and/or ruling elites) who were scared pantsless by the sans-coulottes (see what I did there?). Although terrified they would lose their heads should the power be turned over to the people, they were also genuinely concerned that the level of violence, chaos, and the people’s seeming inability to actually govern themselves without dissolving into bloodbaths, would signify the end of the organized world as they knew it. The French Revolution sparked the Hatian Revolution - every white, slave-holding colonist’s greatest fear of a “slave rebellion” write large. It also entrenched decades of conservative government in England, that stifled attempts to call a National Convention and enact reforms via arrests, imprisonment, and deportation. The English reaction became all the more severe when in 1798 Irish radicals rebelled against oppressive British rule, but were savagely repressed by the British before French reinforcements arrived. Rightfully concerned regarding colonial (and domestic) rebellion/revolution in the wake of the American Independence/Insurrection and the Irish Rebellion, the ruling British dug in and dug in hard.

In the Marxist or “Classic” interpretation, the French Revolution was all about class warfare. It marked the moment when feudalism was decaying, capitalism was growing, and the classes that stood to gain the most from the developing European capitalist system, the middle classes, were waking up to the reality that the political systems the lived under were functioning against their best (capitalist) interests. The French Revolution is the Revolution par excellence. The one that had to happen before the proletariat revolution predicted by Marx and Engles - but also living proof that such a revolution was possible. It was a victory by the bourgeoise for the bourgeoise, but also set a precedent for revolution. In Europe's tumultuous 1848, and again in Russian in 1905 and 1917, and even Mao's revolution(s) in China in the mid-twentieth century. (Allegedly, when Mao was asked what where the consequences of the French Revolution he replied that it was "too early to tell".).

The Revisionists, headed by Alfred Cobban’s The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1965) questioned the Classic interpretation that the Revolution represented a triumph in favor of capitalism over feudalism. The Revisionists showed that the nobility and the bourgeoise were not too distinct classes and argued that the French Revolution was a fight over political power, not class warfare or a social movement. The Post-Revisionists have attempted to further complicate our understanding by analyzing the social and cultural aspects to the French Revolutionary period. Rather than searching for an over-arching theory to describe the Revolution, they attempt to understand how elements like language, rhetoric, print culture, gender, and even psychology functioned.

Greg, over at Greg's blog, offers a very accessible review of the historiography on the French Revolution here.

If you want to explore the French Revolution in its own words, you can find many primary documents and sources on the Internet Modern History Sourcebook, hosted by Fordham University. A little more "old school" as far as digital humanities projects and archives, but the IMHS was one of the first projects to make primary documents available, for free, from the comfort of your couch. This site is a hidden treasure for all history students, instructors, professors, and just general history buffs.

For my own two cents, the parts of the French Revolution I find most interesting are gender and the French Revolution.  In regards to gender, the Revolution’s relationship with women as physical beings and “women” as a larger category of (non)political entities, and “women” as symbols of family, is fascinating. On the one hand, actual women participated in or even started many of the events of the French revolution. On the other hand, the Revolution was highly influenced by Enlightenment notions of inherent differences between men and women, in which even the concept of “universal” rights which were denied to women because they were categorically distinct from (white) men. Further, as the Revolution progressed and women’s rights were were not just denied but literally quite unthinkable, the Revolution was increasingly personified as female.

Jeanne-Louise Vallain, dite Naine, La Liberté (1792). Source: L'histoire par l'image.

Marianne was also visibly displayed on the seal of the Republic:

And of course, Delacroix' Liberty Leading the People (1830):

And, of course, Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part I:

Ironically, French women were one of the last groups of European women to be enfranchised. They only received the right to vote on 21 April 1944, and the "indigenous Muslim" women in French-held Algeria were denied suffrage until 3 July 1958.

For those interested, some must reads in terms of gender and the French Revolution are:

-Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution Goodman, Ed. Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen. New York and London: Routledge, 2003

-Elinor Accampo includes an impressive survey of the literature pertaining to gender and the French Revolution in her article, "Integrating Women and Gender into the Teaching of French History, 1789 to the Present," in French Historical Studies 27.2 (2004) 267-92.




Malcolm X (S)peaks: The Myth of Politics and the Politics of Myth in the Wake of the Culture Wars

I recently finished reading Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X entitled, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Let me say from the outset, this is an outstanding book. Written over the course of two decades using previously unexamined and unavailable documents, Marable’s opus seeks to humanize Malcolm X– no easy task, given that the figure of Malcolm X and his place in history are so entrenched in the politics of race in the United States that his life and work can all too easily lend itself to caricature. In fact, the aftermath of this book’s publication has been accompanied by a number of critics who seem unwilling to loosen their grip on the symbolic power of Malcolm X’s life and politicization, particularly as it pertains to black liberation movements in the 1960s. Yet, in the debate (primarily) between Michael Eric Dyson and Amiri Baraka (found on Democracy Now!), disagreements over both the research and conclusions of Marable in Malcolm X raise specific questions about historical production and method, not the least of which is this: “where is the utility in ‘humanizing’ one of the most empowering historical figures in the twentieth century?”

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention reads almost like a corrective to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Through the research and details that Marable provides, A Life of Reinvention he is able to clearly show the ways in which The Autobiography of Malcolm X was less of a set of reflections on a life lived and more of a definitive political project, hence the exaggerations and misdirection littered throughout the narrative of The Autobiography were positioned– as Marable suggests (and most people who have read extensively on Malcolm know)– as a kind of didactic tool. Also, Marable’s work simply provides more detail– including many things that Malcolm himself could not have known, such as the level of surveillance by several law enforcement agencies– and clears up some of the vagueness of Malcolm’s early adulthood in Boston and Harlem.  Perhaps most illuminating (and controversial) in A Life of Reinvention were the charges of marital infidelity, of which Marable suggests both Betty and Malcolm were guilty, and a vaguely homosexual relationship that he had with an older white man while he was a young adult.

In the preface to the book, Marable discusses his initial reasons for taking on this project, noting that Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s discussion of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and The Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) left much to be desired, and he wanted to explore these in more depth. However, the final product did much more than cover the last two years of his life, filling in a number of gaps that were not discussed in The Autobiography, or perhaps might have been deemed unimportant by Malcolm or Alex Haley, the two authors of The Autobiography. He sheds new light on the assassination of Malcolm, but for me the most enlightening part of A Life of Reinvention is the chapter that gives an account of the two weeks before his assassination, which portray Malcolm as exhausted, harried, and almost resigned to his fate. Seriously, I got chills reading Marable’s expert prose in this chapter. In all, Marable is both sensitive and comprehensive in his discussion of Malcolm’s life, and at the end of the day, this work may even eclipse The Autobiography as the most important popular and even academic work on Malcolm X.

It was the comprehensiveness of Marable’s accounts of Malcolm’s life that has spurred some debate recently on Democracy Now! Here are a couple of excerpts from the rush transcript online:

Amiri Baraka:  Well, we should understand the impact that Malcolm had on the whole of American society. I think that the one problem I have with Marable’s book is Marable never understands that the black liberation movement had the most impact on American society—not the CP, not the DSA, not any of these social democratic groups, but the black liberation movement had. And it wasn’t—if it wasn’t for the black liberation movement and people like Malcolm, people like Martin Luther King, people like Rosa Parks, wouldn’t be an Obama. You know, that’s the fruit of that struggle. And to downplay—I mean, calling the Nation of Islam a sect, or saying that Malcolm loved history, but he wasn’t a historian, you know, these are the kind of things that show you that it’s a class bias that Marable had.
But the thing of trying to so-called humanize Malcolm, especially by adding these little unproven non-facts about him—see, because I’m not worried about the charges of, you know, homosexuality or that Betty, you know, had some kind of affair with this fool Kenyatta. There is no proof of that. That’s just speculation. Why put it in there? You understand?

And from Michael Eric Dyson, noted scholar at Georgetown University:

Michael Eric Dyson:Amiri Baraka is a genius. There’s no question about that. I would respectfully disagree with him on this point, however, because I think that Manning Marable’s consciousness is not what’s at stake here. What’s at stake here are the facts. What’s at stake here is the framework. And I think Mr. Baraka is absolutely right in terms of looking at the framework that informs and constructs the facts, that brings together this symphony of data, and trying to orchestrate it into an intelligible and a coherent treatise that gives us a sense of who Malcolm is.

Here is another short excerpt:

Michael Eric Dyson: Let me—let me finish. That the canon has an impact upon the construction of consciousness. But let me get to the point here. First of all, the deep and profound homophobia and the resistance of certain sectarian interests within African-American culture that refuse to acknowledge the full humanity wants to talk about black unity, but always wants to exclude—oh, my god. You don’t have a problem with Malcolm being a hustler, don’t have a problem. You haven’t asked no evidence of that, or the pimp. And it was exaggerated in the autobiography, with his amanuensis Alex Haley. Malcolm exaggerates his hustling itinerary to prove the redemptive power—

Amiri Baraka: You got that from Marable. You got that from Marable.

Michael Eric Dyson:—of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. None of that is being questioned. But when we talk about same-sex activity—and Manning Marable was talking about him as Malcolm Little, not as Malcolm X. He was speaking about what happened before the point of redemption from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

Amiri Baraka: How does he know that? What is facts?

Ok, I’m going to stop it there. You should read the transcript in its entirety, because it was a humdinger of a discussion! Usually when I listen to these types of debates between renowned scholars, I find myself picking a side and rooting for one or the other. And although I found Dyson’s analysis much more convincing (not to mention, up to date in a purely academic sense), I think that Baraka’s analysis (and the debate/discussion itself) raises important questions about what is truly at stake in this “humanizing” biography, the most important being, “What is Malcolm’s legacy and the future of black (any) activism in the United States?”

Sure, I find Baraka’s analysis problematic in some ways. For instance, at another point in the interview, Baraka discusses his own research on Malcolm and his examination of Malcolm’s FBI files:

Amiri Baraka: …When my wife and I got 3,000 pages from the FBI, which they claim they didn’t have, I had to go to Allen Ginsberg’s lawyer to get that. They charged me 10 cents apiece for the pages. What she said, Amina said this, she said, “Well, look, the stuff they crossed out—we need to worry about the stuff they let you see, because it’s the stuff they let you see that’s going to twist what you think.” And then I just pushed it aside. And I think the same thing. Marable got those tidbits from where? FBI, CIA, New York Police, BOSS, and people that hated him.

Baraka is right, those people probably hated Malcolm, and any good historian should question that source. On the other hand, what makes the sources coming from the people who loved Malcolm– the people who were loyal to him through everything– any less questionable? Do they not also have a vested interest in seeing their leader, friend, or family member portrayed in a particular way? I read the book carefully, and I believe that Marable questioned all of his sources, and he was careful to note in his own narrative the moments where there were either inconsistencies or possible motivations from his sources.

But the questioning of sources in A Life of Reinvention is not about accuracy or “facts.” Instead, I think it is about whether or not portraying Malcolm X as a human being who was fallible undermines the utility of his legacy for African Americans today. Baraka is holding tightly to a legacy of a man who was larger than life, and provides inspiration for many activists even today– Black, White, Asian, Latino, LGBT– and by turning him into a “mere mortal,” we stop thinking about the larger picture of liberation, and instead focus on whether or not he cheated on his wife or had a same sex relationship at some point. I don’t buy it. I think that instead of undermining the understanding and the possibilities of liberation for all communities, the humanization of Malcolm X enhances them. Marable’s portrayal in A Life of Reinvention shows that Malcolm X was a man driven by his experience and the desire to see justice and freedom, and Malcolm’s humanity in the midst of all the tension and violence of the 1950s and 60s demonstrates that even someone as human as you and I can do it too.


DH Spotlight: Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media

This week’s DH (Digital History) Spotlight turns to one of the earliest, best and continually innovative spaces for digital history: The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, housed at George Mason University.

Their mission statement is:

Since 1994 under the founding direction of Roy Rosenzweig, the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University has used digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.

CHNM uses digital media and technology to preserve and present history online, transform scholarship across the humanities, and advance historical education and understanding. Each year CHNM’s many project websites receive over 16 million visitors, and over a million people rely on its digital tools to teach, learn, and conduct research.

CHNM is one of the few sites that makes full use of digital technology in order to make history, histories, sources, and study more accessible. Best of all, it’s all free! To anyone, anywhere!

The website is divided into three main sections:

Teaching and Learning

Aimed at teachers, students, and anyone even slightly curious about history, Teaching and Learning combines teaching modules, short courses on how history is “done” and “why history matters”, and an outstanding collection of primary sources.

One of the biggest strengths of CHNM is their dedication to show that history is not just names, dates, and places – but also children, material culture like desks and voting machines, Gender and women, World-wideart, literature and film. Primary sources are organized into easy-to -navigate modules, and are accompanied by a scholarly short essay or interview that helps to contextualize the source and explain how and why historians make use of historical objects.

Most innovative are their use of video and  explorations of “recent history”.  They make ample use of video – including oral history interviews, but also interviews of historians and scholars discussing the history and context of older primary sources. Sites, sources, and discussions actively engage one another, created a site that is much more inter-active, multimedia, and integrated than most others.

Recently created modules such as Making the History of 1989, The 911Digital Archive, and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, simultaneously document events in recent history to provide an invaluable repository for research, and remind site visitors that history is not always “dead and gone”, but very much still in the making. Today’s current events are tomorrow’s PhD dissertation, and CHNM does a nice job of reminding people that one person’s history was another’s present, just as today’s present will be tomorrow’s fast.

Finally, and this is especially useful for students and teachers, CHNM provides outstanding tools for self-study. They are dedicated to teaching people how historians do what they do. Pages such as DoHistory and Historical Thinking Matters teach students how to critically read and contextualize primary sources, construct historical narratives from those sources, and think critically about current historical narratives.

I won’t go any further in-depth, but I must mention that CHNM also includes two addition valuable sites for scholars, archivists, librarians, and museum professionals. CHNM is pioneering the question “what does it mean to be or to do Digital Humanities” and is really at the center of groundbreaking work in this ares. Research and Tools includes a wide variety of sources for  new ways of publishing, archiving, collecting, collaborating, citing, and “un-conferencing” all in the digital. Finally, Collecting and Exhibiting is dedicated to creating, growing, and distributing primary and secondary material in the digital age.


Happy 2nd Birthday to Fun with History

Hey history lovers!

Today in 2009, Fun with History was launched! Since then the blog has had over 18,000 hits, added a couple new bloggers, and has written about a whole lotta history, I am so excited to be hitting 2 years!

Here’s to at least two more years!

~Meg~


The British Invasion and Early Modern History Online!

Hi! I’m the newest addition to Fun With History. I am a early modern Europeanist with a research focus on print culture in the British Isles, and a minor field in World History. On this American History blog I’m “one of those things that’s not like the other”, although in the period of my own research the American colonies were still part of the Commonwealth.

One of the topics I will focus on is the relationship between history, research, scholarship, and the Digital Humanities or the web at large. The basis of all historical research, especially on the PhD level and beyond, is the scholar’s time spent in the archives with (hopefully) original sources. In the last five years, digitization projects and the spread of the idea of the “digital humanities” has revolutionized the way historical research is conducted. In my case, the sources I work with are old, fragile, and generally housed in the UK. Even when I was in London doing dissertation work at the British Library, the archivists had me working with facsimiles and microfilmed copies a lot of the time out of concern for the fragility of the original documents. In recent years, archives, universities, libraries, and educational publishers such as GALE have moved away from microfilm and towards digital collections. Digitization allows for better copies of originals, can easily duplicate color, and provide access (sometimes free, sometimes via subscription) anywhere in the world. No more waiting for microfilm and getting dizzy while zipping through reels. And as any consumer of digital media knows, the ability to conduct a full-text search is invaluable for research.

The problem has been one of access. Digitization and maintenance of digital archives cost money and not all institutions, much less individuals, can afford it. Fortunately, this is changing. Starting today, Eighteenth Century Collections Online has partnered  up with TCP to create 18th Century Connect. For those who don’t know, ECCO is one of Gale’s database that includes searchable digitized original documents. Want to read an original copy of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels? You can find almost every copy that was printed available here. It’s like GoogleBooks for historians. They’ve teamed up to release “The roughly 2,000 texts released by Gale Cengage Learning and the Text Creation Partnership (see the News tab) are available for full-text searching here. ” This means that you can do full-text searches of these original sources! Not only do they have texts,they also have prints (browse the “marriage” tag for examples).

Harmony before Matrimony * Digital ID: (color film copy transparency) cph 3g08786 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g08786 * Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-8786 (color film copy transparency) * Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Once you create an account, you can collect items (save them in a folder), add a private annotation (note-taking for each source, great for research), or open a public discussion. The purpose of the project is to be both a research tool and an interactive, on-going, scholar discussion regarding sources. Best of all, it’s already Zotero-compatible (don’t know Zotero? You will in a post or two).

This and other publicly-accessible databases continue to revolutionize the historical field. They make research less expensive and more accessible. Because you can do your preliminary work in your pjs, on your couch, it allows for shorter more target archive trips – a necessity in the current budget crisis. They will never replace the dusty box experience – for example. with my work what you see on the back side of the document and the feel of the paper tells me as valuable information as the words on the page – but they can 1) help streamline research and 2) allow you to re-access sources once you’ve returned home.

The second impact of projects like this and others I will highlight in the coming months is that they provide students – elementary through the PhD- the opportunity to explore primary source material they would otherwise never get their hands on. Can’t get to DC but have internet? You can access impressions from the Library of Congress. As an instructor – set your students free and see what they find on their own. Or use the database as an introduction to using archives and doing historical research. Or create primary source assignments via 18thConnect.org instead of asking them to buy hard copies of the same books. For the book historians among us, ask students to do a project comparing the different editions – and take that print-is-fixed narrative and blow it right out the window.

For now, have fun, find me in the discussions and stay tuned for more introductions to some really incredible historical sources and databases that are at your fingertips (and where PJs are an acceptable dress code).


Disunion, the New York Times, and Lee’s Difficult Decision

Every now and again the media does something right. Shocking, I know. But have you been paying attention to the New York Times Disunion Series? Since the beginning of the year, the NYT has been publishing opinion pieces interpreting events and people of the Civil War. Of course, they are doing this because this year marks 150 years since the war between the states (but about slavery, yes I said it) began. And if there’s something that everyone (Republican, Democrat, Independent) in our nation loves to do, it’s remember a war. And Americans love the Civil War. It seems to me that the reasons for this love is unending: the end of slavery, states rights, Southern pride, the new military technology of the war, brother versus brother… and it just keeps going.

Anyway, the NYT series is an interesting one because it encompasses all of these ideas. Each article takes on an issue, event, or person. The authors make arguments and the pieces often conflict with each other. Many of the articles are also written not by journalists but Civil War historians. And not the pop ones like Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) but ones like Stephanie McCurry (Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South) or Ethan J. Kytle (Strike the First Blow: Romantic Liberalism and the Struggle Against Slavery in the United States, 1850 -1865). I love the Disunion Series because it demonstrates what’s exciting and interesting about history. It’s not about memorizing the dates and battle names of the War, but about picking apart the war, making interpretations, expressing arguments, and having a discussion. Fun with History’s new blogger expressed this type of sentiment about making and reading history in his recent post “Made Everyday.”

From NYT article, "The General in His Study" Courtesy of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial Mary Custis Lee

I haven’t read nearly enough of the articles in the series but the ones I have read are interesting, fresh, and illuminating. Today’s piece, “The General in His Study” takes up the oft-argued point that Robert E. Lee struggled between his loyalty to union and his loyalty to his beloved Virginia. Of course, we know he sided with Virginia and served as a great military leader for the Confederacy until 1865. Elizabeth Brown Pryor (Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters) presents a letter by Lee’s eldest daughter Mary Custis Lee (pictured above) that describes the difficult decision her father made. (The online version of this article includes a scan of this letter!) Lee worried about what his family would think of his decision to take up arms against the Union, apologizing “I suppose you will all think I have done very wrong.” What Brown introduces here isn’t that Lee made a difficult decision, but just how painful, how personal, and how un-inevitable it really was. History is never destiny, any number of realities can change the course, and Brown demonstrates this powerfully in her discussion of Lee.

It’s just this type of discussion and carefully writing of a historical figure’s decision that makes me love this series. In a moment when we remember the Civil War through endless reenactments and Charleston’s disturbing secession ball, the Disunion Series provides a serious and thoughtful discussion of America’s War.

Update: Just found out, you can also follow this series on Twitter: @nytcivilwar


Remember Ludlow

In the late nineteenth century, industrialization spurred a massive demographic transformation in the United States. People left their rural homes and towns for the opportunities that awaited them in the cities, and immigration from Europe and Latin America expanded at an unprecedented rate through the first decades of the twentieth century. New industries formed, as American fuel and technological needs created a demand for copper, coal, iron, and other metals. Mine workers had it especially hard. They worked long hours for little pay, under conditions that were unhealthy at best, extremely dangerous at worst. It did not take long for mine workers to realize that their risk was not being adequately compensated; either with pay or respect. This was the case in Ludlow, Colorado on this day in 1914.

It was early springtime when the strike was on,

They drove us miners out of doors,

Out from the houses that the Company owned,

We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.

As the pure and simple unionism that Samuel Gompers advocated took hold, the American Federation of Labor was a stalwart ally of the workingman. Formed back in 1886, the AF of L took on issues such as working conditions, the eight-hour day, and the initiation of the weekend as mandatory days off for all workers. Far from an explicitly politicized organization like the Knights of Labor, the AF of L directed its energy to simple “bread and butter issues”— but even such simple issues were too radical for federal and state governments, and they were out of the question as far as most company owners were concerned. It was in the second decade of the twentieth century that politicians and the wealthy began demonizing socialism and socialists, and with it, many laborers who simply wanted a better life and respect for their work. By the 1910s, it was not unusual to see state or federal soldiers at mines, called by state politicians to break up strikes through either intimidation or violence. On this day in Ludlow, mine workers on strike faced intimidation on the picket lines as well as in their homes, with entire families fleeing for their lives.

We were so afraid that you would kill our children,

We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,

Carried our young ones and pregnant women

Down inside the cave to sleep

That very night your soldiers waited,

Until all us miners were asleep

You snuck around our little tent town

Soaked our tents with your kerosene

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,

You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns

I made a run for the children but the firewall stopped me.

Thirteen children died from your guns.

–Woody Guthrie

The April 20th, 1914 Ludlow Massacre occurred in a social political context where free speech was curtailed, and the right to collectively bargain, strike, or even form a union was often difficult if not impossible. It occurred in a context where politicians expressed their disdain for working people, when they could be bothered to acknowledge them. When they did acknowledge workers, politicians and the wealthy accused them of being socialists, communists, and anarchists, and imprisoned them whenever they could.

I’m not about to say that things today are as bad as they were 97 years ago. Even though less that nine percent of the workforce is unionized in the United States, there are still safety regulations, a minimum wage, and workers of nearly all types have rights in the workplace. Yet at the same time, in the vast majority of workplaces, employees are helpless to negotiate the value of their work with their employers. In the public sector, politicians in a number of states are working to eliminate important aspects of collective bargaining. When pressed, they have admitted that it has nothing to do with deficits or the economy, but that instead it is a political and philosophical position about which they feel strongly. This is not 1914, obviously, but what we are seeing today is a concerted effort to make the worker invisible again. What happens after that? I can’t say. I’m a historian, so I can only speak authoritatively about the past, but I would bet there are some important clues about our future buried in Ludlow.


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