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Left With Lincoln

Professor Mark Miller explores Civil War legacy


12/09/2009

Although he is not a historian, English/communications Professor Mark Miller has a keen interest in history that stems from his work in American literature. This fall, in addition to his students, he helped educate the greater campus community when he delivered his Faculty Lecture Award-winning research, "Left with Lincoln: The lessons of John Brown and the Civil War for Barack Obama and the 21st Century." 

The paper considers John Brown's raid and the dilemmas that faced President Lincoln as a template for the new, modern society that emerged from the Civil War. According to Dr. Miller, there are implications of those events for contemporary society.

"John Brown was an absolutist," says Miller. "As a philosophical and political pragmatist, President Obama has an aversion to absolutism. However, in one of the most interesting passages in The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes that our history reminds him that it has sometimes been the cranks, the zealots, the prophets, the agitators, and the unreasonable - in other words, the absolutists - that have fought for a new order."

Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from Brown, Miller says, is that absolutism is alive and well in the 21st century, and it is just as difficult to deal with now as it was then. "However, Obama clearly wants to model his response to contemporary absolutism on the pragmatic response he finds in Abraham Lincoln." 

Miller was prompted to write the paper by this year's series on Modernism, which focuses on the watershed year 1859. The conference was organized MCLA Professor David Langston.

When Langston approached him with the idea, Miller immediately connected John Brown with 1859.

"It was in 1859 that Brown was tried and hanged by the Commonwealth of Virginia for his seizure of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia," Miller explains. "Herman Melville called him 'the meteor of the war,' for that act of domestic terrorism and the issues that it involved prefigured the conflagration to come."

When John Brown's actions at Harpers Ferry failed, he discovered the power of words, which includes the power of images, Miller says.

"Today, absolutistic words and images often seem to drive the national conversation about a whole host of things. Thus, Obama's message to Congress and the nation about healthcare gets derailed because someone in the chamber stands up and yells, 'You lie!'"

To be successful, Obama must rise above the fray, Miller says.

"Right now, Obama is being taken to task in the media because he is taking so long to decide what we should do in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the reasonable response to that should be relief that he is weighing so carefully a decision that could put thousands more of our citizens in harm's way and affect world affairs for years to come," Miller says.

Miller's classes include "American Literary Studies" and "Literature and Film of the Civil War."