Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor of the History of the American Civil War
Convocation Address – University of Virginia
October 31, 2014
I was deeply flattered when President Sullivan invited me to speak at this year’s Fall Convocation. It is an honor to be part of an event whose sole purpose is to acknowledge achievement. I congratulate all of the students in the audience—Intermediate Honors based on ranking in the top 20 percent of your class after two years is a splendid accomplishment for which you, your parents, your other family members, and your friends should be very proud.
My instructions are to speak for 15-20 minutes, a limit I promise to observe. I have been in your position often enough to know that the prevalent sentiment often is that the speaker will have the good sense, some might say compassion for those in the audience, to be brief—whatever the topic. My remarks consist of four suggestions, which as a quartet, I believe, will yield benefits to all of you as well as to others.
I will start with something that might seem obvious, even trite, but which I consider supremely important. I urge you never to settle for less than what you, from an honest assessment of your capabilities and of the nature of a project or assignment, know to be a full effort. You should make your research or other preparation as sound as possible, and your oral and written presentations and other work should pay scrupulous attention to accuracy and proper format. In other words, I hope you never produce anything with the thought that someone else will take care of omissions, sloppiness, or otherwise clean up rough edges of the project that you could have corrected. This is especially pertinent for a group such as you, who have demonstrated excellence in academic endeavors and always, whatever your choices about careers, will have much expected, and much to offer, in the way of substance.
I believe you should hold yourselves to a personal standard higher than those set by others—including, at times, by those who measure and grade your efforts. Because we live in a world too often filled with hyperbolic froth, it is especially important to have an internal check on how we do—to make certain that we strive to get things right. On the subject of hyperbole in our culture, I cannot resist a parenthetical anecdote. While eating on The Corner a while back, I heard someone proclaim, “That was an awesome hamburger.” I thought, really . . . that person’s hamburger is “awesome?” The Oxford English Dictionary tells us, in its stuffy but authoritative way, that “awesome” used to be a modifier reserved for things that inspire awe. I wondered what adjectives a person who described a hamburger as awesome would apply to the Grand Canyon upon seeing it for the first time. Maybe they would take a breath and, after contemplating that stunning landscape created in the Colorado River Plateau over the past 17 million years, pronounce it “Like, really awesome!”
My second suggestion, which continues with the theme of hyperbole, is that you be alert to exaggeration in what passes for news coverage. The current political campaigning prompted me to take up this topic today. The “news” frequently emerges as breathless overstatement, with everything reported as the worst, the biggest, the best, unprecedented in implication and impact—and almost never framed with an appreciation for historical context that would reveal that almost nothing is really new and that our nation, at various points, has dealt with far greater crises than any currently unfolding.
Political reporting and discussion suffer especially from a lack of attention to proper historical framing. The handling of immigration, for example, generally overlooks the fact that we have engaged in similar public debates throughout our history—or that the vitriol characteristic of earlier debates makes the current ones seem tame. Often lost is awareness that percentages of foreign-born residents are not remarkably high right now. In 1861, as the loyal states prepared to go to war to suppress the Confederate rebellion and restore the Union, almost one-third of all the military-age males in the country had been born outside the United States. For the entire period between 1860 and 1920, the percentage of foreign-born residents exceeded that of today.
Similarly, coverage of the possible spread of Ebola often leaves the impression that this is a unique medical threat. Ebola certainly presents a challenge, both medical and administrative, yet we are dealing with a handful of cases in a nation of more than 300 million people. Reporters and news readers might profitably compare our current situation to the pandemic of influenza in 1918-1919, which infected almost 30 per cent of the entire U.S. population (which stood at just more than 106,000,000) and killed between 500,000 and 675,000 Americans (more than perished in World Wars I and II combined and almost as many as died n the Civil War).
Neither are we unusually divided politically in the early 21st century—though you would never know it if you habitually watch Fox News or MSNBC, read blogs, or even tune in to the more mainstream networks or consult flagship newspapers. A leitmotif in coverage of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and of other political campaigns and wrangles in Washington and the hinterlands suggests that we are witnessing a unique breakdown of national civility, and that criticisms of the president—whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama—have reached new levels of intensity. The only way to argue these things is to know nothing, and to ignore everything, about previous American political history.
Let me offer two vignettes that illustrate what real political divisions look like. On the morning of July 11, 1804, the vice president serving in Thomas Jefferson’s first administration got into a small boat in New York City, crossed the Hudson River, climbed up to a shelf of land below the New Jersey Palisades, and in a formal duel shot and mortally wounded one of the most important political figures in the nation. A half-century later, in May 1856, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina strode into the Senate chamber carrying a small walking cane. He confronted the senior senator from Massachusetts, who was seated at his desk, and caned him into bloody insensibility. The senator was absent from Congress for the next three years; the assailant suffered no legal penalty—and was in fact cheered by many who shared his political opinions. I often wonder how the current media might cover reports that Vice President Biden shot and mortally wounded Mitt Romney . . . or that Paul Ryan viciously clubbed Harry Reid on the floor of the Senate.
I strongly suspect that Abraham Lincoln, or Thomas Jefferson, or many other presidents for that matter, would find political criticism directed toward our recent presidents rather mild. As for our never having been so divided, historians of the Civil War can counter with at least one obvious example that puts the lie to that idea.
This hyperbolic distortion matters because we live in a democratic republic that functions best with the type of informed citizenry the founding generation believed necessary for any successful experiment in self-government. Avoiding hyperbole—hysterical excess might be a better phrase--in our political discussions would render us far better able to deal with the kinds of crises that have come up before, and which, as a nation, we always have managed to overcome.
My third suggestion, which contains no allusions to hyperbole, relates to your choice of careers. Apart from relationships with family and loved ones, few things will be more important in your lives. All too many people count the days—or even the hours—until the end of every week, mark off years in eager anticipation of retirement, or yearn for any break from the tedium of their workplace. You will spend untold thousands of hours at work, and few things can give you as much chance for long-term satisfaction as choosing a profession that gives you a sense of enjoyment, challenge, and accomplishment.
I can offer my own example as proof of this claim. I have loved history virtually my entire life—read about it from the time I was a boy growing up on a farm in southern Colorado. I was especially drawn to the era of the Civil War, and my heart lay in the Virginia of 1861-1865 even when I looked at the 14,000-foot-high mountains that surrounded the large alpine valley where I lived.
I planned on teaching and writing from an early age—fortunate in my teachers in undergraduate and graduate school. But there were no academic jobs in U.S. history when I finished—it was a much worse job market than now. I lived in Austin, Texas (a wonderful city), and took a job that paid well, offered complete long-term security, superior benefits of all kinds, and a range of good co-workers. But I was not doing what I really wanted to do. I published my first book while in that job and then, after 10 years, went on the market for a teaching position. I received an offer from Penn State University and took it—accepting a 35% reduction in salary and much less impressive benefits . . . and did not have tenure.
It was the best thing I could have done. I began to earn my living teaching and writing and speaking about the Civil War. I embraced every aspect of the job—and then had the opportunity, sixteen years ago, to come to UVA. I would not trade places with anyone in the United States. I have near at hand our great libraries, superior students such as all of you, easy access to untold historic sites, the chance to walk across The Lawn whenever I like, colleagues who share my passion for history, and a Starbuck’s two minutes from my office on the fourth floor of the Nau Building.
Over the years, untold people have come up after a lecture or during a historic tour and said something like, “I would give anything to be able to do what you do for a living.” A number of these people are lawyers, by the way . . . I think they mean it, though they might have a more difficult time affording a vacation home in Montana or on Martha’s Vineyard if they became academic historians.
After thirty years as a teacher and publishing scholar, I find endless reasons to savor my working situation. I wish the same for all of you who are being honored here this afternoon. I like to think of you getting things right in your own work and experiencing the singular delight and satisfaction of succeeding at something that matters to you. I like to imagine as well that you develop a habit of skepticism that will enable you, among other things, to engage with political issues in an informed manner that best suits our political system.
I said there would be four suggestions. Here is the last one—and I have in mind especially the young men in the audience who might be resistant to this advice. Read Jane Austen. Start with Pride and Prejudice, move on to Persuasion, and take the other four novels in whatever order you prefer—always keeping in mind that Northanger Abbey might as well have been written by Emily Brontë. Each of you will be a better person, and we will be a better society, in direct proportion to your knowledge of Lizzy Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Anne and Sir Walter Elliot, Colonel Brandon, and the other wonderful, and instructive, characters in Austen’s novels.