Review: Springpad


I have been eval­u­at­ing Spring­pad, a note tak­ing tool.

It is not real­ly fair, though, to call it that. Spring­pad is more like a Swiss Army knife for the Inter­net. There’s a lot of util­i­ty in small and ele­gant pack­age.

Spring­pad was built to help you quick­ly grab infor­ma­tion from the web, asso­ciate it with oth­er infor­ma­tion, cre­ate and man­age tasks, and so on. There are spe­cif­ic inte­gra­tions with a dozen or more pop­u­lar ser­vices such as Ama­zon, Apple Trail­ers, IMDB, Flickr, and many oth­ers.

The cre­ators also obvi­ous­ly were think­ing of the iPad specif­i­cal­ly and tablets and smart phones more gen­er­al­ly when they named and designed this prod­uct. The user inter­face on the Android is easy to get around, and there are even big but­tons for some things (such as check­ing off a to-do list item) in the web ver­sion.

Where the appli­ca­tion real­ly shines is in find­ing rel­e­vant snip­pets and web links about cur­rent day loca­tions such as restau­rants, but also muse­ums and brick-and-mor­tar stores. The site then orga­nizes the infor­ma­tion and presents it in a clean list fash­ion, or as pins on a Google map, or on a vir­tu­al cork­board of images and stick­ies.

In your set­tings, you can link to Twit­ter, Yahoo, Gmail and Face­book accounts, as well as get an e‑mail address to mail things to if you have some­thing to add to Spring­pad when you are not on their site. There’s also a quick link to import your Deli­cious links. (When Yahoo’s deci­sion to divest itself of Deli­cious, users of the social book­mark­ing site got up-in-arms about it; soft­ware devel­op­ers at Ever­note, Spring­pad, Pin­board and oth­er sites quick­ly post­ed ways to import links from Deli­cious. Ever­note’s method brings every book­mark into a sin­gle note, which is just lame. Pin­board and Spring­pad were more ori­ent­ed to treat­ing the links as inde­pen­dent items.)

Spring­pad is designed to help you con­trol what you share. You can­not cre­ate fine-grained shar­ing con­trols. Items are either shared with every­one on the Inter­net or they are kept pri­vate. This can be con­trolled at the cat­e­go­ry lev­el (book­marks, restau­rants, prod­ucts, recipes, files, busi­ness­es, albums, wine, and so on) or at the lev­el of the indi­vid­ual item.

For Get­ting Things Done (GTD), Spring­pad pro­vides tasks and task lists, but also check lists, pack­ing lists, alarms, shop­ping lists, events, and mile­stones. This looks like it will be very handy: When you add a recipe that the site rec­og­nizes as such, you are lit­er­al­ly one click away from hav­ing a shop­ping list. Since the site syncs your devices, that list is ready to show up on your smart phone.

Spring­pad for geneal­o­gists is very handy as a pow­er­ful task list orga­niz­er, and as a quick way to gath­er in advance what is around the cour­t­house you will be vis­it­ing (the brew­pub, the golf course, the hotel), but it’s almost painful to see how deep the inte­gra­tion is with sites like Yelp and Epi­cu­ri­ous and real­ize that there is no such prod­uct that delves into, Rootsweb, Foot­note, and sim­i­lar sites. We still have to search for items one by one on var­i­ous web­sittes, then man­u­al­ly down­load and cat­a­log each find­ing. It’s only a mat­ter of time before some­one takes this lev­el of usabil­i­ty and applies it to the gath­er­ing and orga­niz­ing of his­tor­i­cal data. When that day comes, the irony is that it may make phys­i­cal repos­i­to­ries more impor­tant to the casu­al researcher, because genealog­i­cal data min­ing will pro­ceed faster.

Categories Uncategorized

Genealogy Resolutions for 2011

The end of the year gets us all think­ing about how this year went, what went well, what we could be bet­ter about.

As I look toward 2011, I can say that I have had some great learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties in 2010. I expect to have sim­i­lar ones in 2011, and even more so.

In 2010, I did the bulk of the work on the NGS Home Study Course. I should be fin­ish­ing that up soon.

I went to the NGS (Salt Lake City) and FGS (Knoxville) con­fer­ences, and will be attend­ing both con­fer­ences, in Charleston, SC and Spring­field, IL respec­tive­ly, in 2011. While I won’t have an NGS con­fer­ence in Salt Lake, I will have an NGS Board Meet­ing there in Feb­ru­ary, and I hope to get in some research hours while I am there.

I went to Sam­ford in 2010, and plan to do so again in 2011. The mad rush for seats will def­i­nite­ly be on when the course reg­is­tra­tion opens up.

I will con­tin­ue to fol­low the trends in cor­po­rate inter­est in geneal­o­gy (Ances­try, Bright­Sol­id), as well as the mass media view of it (NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”).

Where I plan to focus my atten­tion is in genealog­i­cal research trip plan­ning. I am start­ing to gath­er tasks in Ever­note that I can take with me to Salt Lake, the Nation­al Archives and oth­er repos­i­to­ries. Because of the pow­er­ful search and saved search func­tions, I can search for notes along the lines of:

Evernote Filtering

I will also be tak­ing a look at Spring­pad, which seems like a wor­thy com­peti­tor to Ever­note. It has a very appeal­ing user inter­face, has bet­ter con­trol of shar­ing of items, and some fun-look­ing inte­gra­tions with Ama­zon, GoodReads, Apple Trail­ers, IMDB, Fan­dan­go, Net­flix, and so on. When you add some­thing like a book or movie, Spring­pad sug­gests text and links about that item, pre­pop­u­lat­ing every­thing from links to pur­chase tick­ets, to the full cast list of a movie.

There is also inte­gra­tion with Gmail, Twit­ter, Face­book, and Flickr to help you import con­tent in (Flickr) as well as share it. They are set up to receive your Deli­cious tags, since it’s unclear what the future of that pop­u­lar ser­vice will be …

So, I resolve to keep on keep­ing on. To push for­ward into learn­ing more about method­ol­o­gy, and more about the records, the his­to­ry, and the law in the par­tic­u­lar loca­tions (Nebras­ka, West Vir­ginia, Vir­ginia, Swe­den), where I find myself doing research. And I resolve to keep myself open to new advances in tech­nol­o­gy, includ­ing seem­ing­ly styl­is­tic or usabil­i­ty advances, as the enthu­si­asms I have for tools like Ever­note and Tweet­Deck today, may be replaced by Spring­pad or some­thing else tomor­row. And I resolve to strive to main­tain enough dis­tance from the tech­ni­cal tools to avoid mis­tak­ing the tool for the point, which is progress through a “rea­son­ably exhaus­tive search” to come to an under­stand­ing of genealog­i­cal data, to prac­tice what I call “his­to­ry at ground lev­el.”

Hap­py New Year!

Review: Genline vs. Arkiv Digital

Arkiv Digital Example
Arkiv Dig­i­tal Exam­ple

As the year ends, I am both clos­ing out an account at Gen­line (now a sub­sidiary of Ances­try), and try­ing out Arkiv Dig­i­tal.

I have found Gen­line to be frus­trat­ing. Some of this, no doubt has to do with the fact that the fam­i­ly is not the eas­i­est to find, with the parish chang­ing names, as I men­tioned yes­ter­day. Some of it, though, is Gen­line’s inter­face and their images. In Gen­line, you select a län (Coun­ty), one or more parish­es, and one or more church record types. The inter­face is com­plete­ly in Eng­lish on the Mac, so at least you don’t strug­gle with rudi­men­ta­ry vocab­u­lary.

Once you run your search, you receive a list of rel­e­vant pages. Each is marked with a Page Type (Nor­mal Page, Reg­is­ter Start, Cov­er of Book, and so on). There are columns for place names and years, but these area all too often blank. (Imag­ine how quick­ly this would be indexed by year if they had an open com­mu­ni­ty sourc­ing mod­el like that at Foot­note! Gen­line is start­ing to exper­i­ment with allow­ing users to anno­tate the images. I hope they con­tin­ue.) On both sites, many if not most of the pages are dis­tin­guished only by their num­ber. Arkiv Dig­i­tal often pro­vides a typed sheet at the begin­ning of a book telling you which page to go to for a par­tic­u­lar year. Even when there isn’t such a rough time index, the pages load about 50% slow­er on Gen­line. (This is not sci­en­tif­ic, but my per­cep­tion is that I was get­ting down­loads from Arkiv Dig­i­tal in few­er than 3 sec­onds and in about 5 sec­onds from Gen­line.)

Genline Example
Gen­line Exam­ple

When you decide to dive in, you have grayscale images that were tak­en from the LDS micro­films. They are ser­vice­able, but do not always have the best con­trast. (Gen­line does pro­vide some tools for adjust­ing bright­ness and con­trast.) Arkiv Dig­i­tal pro­vides clean, new high-con­trast col­or images. I don’t know about you, but if I am going to be read­ing images line by line in 150-year-old Swedish script, I much pre­fer the Arkiv Dig­i­tal prod­uct to that from Gen­line.

Gen­line offers a great fea­ture allow­ing to see where you are in the con­text of the image when you are zoomed in on the image, and might need some per­spec­tive, which I find handy. You can also use it to change how much of the image you want to see by inter­act­ing with this thumb­nail. How­ev­er, I find it per­plex­ing that the search win­dow dis­ap­pears when I want to look at the result. I much pre­fer Arkiv DIg­i­tal’s approach, which uses tabs, like a mod­ern web brows­er.

Then, there is the pric­ing. Archiv Dig­i­tal is 995 SEK (Swedish kro­nor) until Jan­u­ary 9th, or about $146. Gen­line is 1295 SEK, or about $190. Both seem over priced if you com­pare their prices for access to the 24 mil­lion Swedish church records to those for sites like Ances­try ($300 a year for the run of all 6 bil­lion his­tor­i­cal records), or Foot­note ($80 for a year, 72 mil­lion images).

One won­ders what Ances­try intends to do with sites like Gen­line, which (as does Arkiv Dig­i­tal) requires an instal­la­tion of the user, and still remain intense­ly coun­try spe­cif­ic. My hope is that Ances­try is try­ing to build its glob­al brand by focus­ing on com­pet­ing in local mar­kets, where a size­able chunk of the address­able mar­ket is inter­act­ing with oth­er ven­dors than Ances­try. If these prod­ucts can be fold­ed into the Ances­try World Access prod­uct, or as some more rea­son­ably priced add on, I think they have some real oppor­tu­ni­ties. And putting the inno­va­tion engine that is Foot­note into the mix — if Foot­note is allowed to teach Ances­try and all of its brands a trick or two — real­ly makes the new year inter­est­ing in the com­mer­cial ances­tral records mar­ket.

Finding My Swedes

Detail of the Baptismal Record of Nils Svensson (Nels Johnson)
Detail of the Bap­tismal Record of Nils Svens­son (Nels John­son)

In gen­er­al, Swedish records are easy to find and use. The Swedes start­ed keep­ing detailes records of vital records, but also of migra­tion and emi­gra­tion, from a very ear­ly date. And they have had a long-stand­ing tra­di­tion of paci­fism, mean­ing that com­par­a­tive­ly few records have been burned.

My elu­sive Swedes, how­ev­er.… They told every­one — in my great grand­fa­ther Nels John­son’s fam­i­ly Bible, in the his­to­ry of the fam­i­ly by the eldest daugh­ter (Lena John­son) of the eldest daugh­ter (Both­il­da John­son) of the immi­grants — that they emi­grat­ed from Viby in 1868. (Viby was small then, and is still small now: In 1995 pop­u­la­tion was 936.) There is such a parish, and they were not lying, they were from there.

They just did­n’t think to men­tion that it had changed its name a cou­ple of times:

  • After the Gus­tav IV Adolph ascend­ed to the throne of Nor­way and Swe­den in 1792, the name of the parish was changed to  Gus­tav Adolf in his hon­or.
  • Anoth­er wrin­kle: from 1681–1856, Viby was asso­ci­at­ed with Rink­a­by, and appar­ent­ly also with Åhus.
  • After 1856, Gus­tav Adolf and Rink­a­by become parish­es of the Vil­land Hun­dred.

Clear as mud? Just as one is told com­mon­ly in geneal­o­gy to look to the next coun­ty over, I am search­ing Viby, Gus­tav Adolph, Rink­a­by, and Åhus for my Swedish ances­tors.

I am hav­ing great suc­cess. I am still main­ly in the Gus­tav Adolph papers. (One of the lead­ing Swedish firms for genealog­i­cal records, Arkiv Dig­i­tal is pro­vid­ing free access for a cou­ple of days, end­ing on Decem­ber 30th.)

There is a lot to like about AD: The images are gor­geous new, col­or images, down­load­able as PNGs. (They are also sup­posed to be down­load­able as JPGs, but it does not seem to save the files when I ask for a JPG.) The doc­u­ments are not indexed by name, but AD pro­vides some handy ways into the doc­u­ments based on locale and time­frame, and the images load very quick­ly.

I have been able to locate 8 records of birth or birth and bap­tism, and one mar­riage cer­tifi­cate. The births include:

  • Nils Svens­son (my great grand­fa­ther, known in Amer­i­ca as Nels John­son), b. 24 Octo­ber 1863, #7 Viby, [Kris­tianstad län, Swe­den]; bapt. 31 Octo­ber 1863, Viby, [Kris­tianstad län, Swe­den]; son of Sven Jöns­son and Ker­stin Jöns­dot­ter, The god­par­ents were Nils Ander­s­son of #8 (next door) and Kar­na Jöns­dot­ter of #7. (Kar­na is men­tioned in the fam­i­ly his­to­ry as Ker­stin’s sis­ter, who they lat­er helped immi­grate to the U.S.).
  • Ker­sti­na Jöns­dot­ter (my great-great grand­moth­er, known in Amer­i­ca as Kjer­stin John­son), b. 6 Novem­ber 1834, in Wiby, [Kris­tianstad län, Swe­den]; daugh­er of Jöns Wes­t­as­sons [fam­i­ly doc­u­ments say “Vester­son” or “Wyscelius”]

I have also found the record of the mar­riage of Kjer­stin and Sven, in 1853, and the birth records of

  • Both­il­da (in Amer­i­ca Thil­da) (1854)
  • Petr (in Amer­i­ca, Peter) with a sep­a­rate bap­tismal record (1857)
  • Jöns (in Amer­i­ca, John) (1860)
  • Ingrid (in Amer­i­ca, Ida) (1865), and
  • Erik (in Amer­i­ca, Eric) (1868).

That’s just a high­light. There’s more for me to do, even with the records I found, but it is excit­ing to be work­ing with such well pre­served and well pre­sent­ed records. (Thanks Arkiv Dig­i­tal!)

Categories Uncategorized

Snow and Swedish Research

It has been snow­ing here in Raleigh, such that we woke up this Box­ing Day to a good 8 inch­es.

Not long after that, and before the cof­fee was even brewed, the pow­er went out. It was out until mid-after­noon, and the first time the pow­er com­pa­ny pro­vid­ed an esti­mat­ed time to res­o­lu­tion, they said mid­night.

There was­n’t much we could do except ensure that we had long wood­en match­es, so we make cof­fee and what­ev­er else we might want, on the stove.

While we wait­ed to see to see if the pow­er would come on, I picked up the copy of Your Swedish Roots: A Step-By-Step Hand­book by Per Clemensson and Kjell Ander­s­son (Pro­vo: Ances­try Pub­lish­ing, 2004) that I bought about 18 months ago.

Clemensson and Ander­s­son write clear­ly and enter­tain­ing­ly. They pro­vide an excel­lent his­tor­i­cal con­text for the Swedish emi­gra­tion, which saw 1.2 mil­lion Swedes (or 20% of the pop­u­la­tion) leave the coun­try between 1821 and 1930. This made Swe­den the third Euro­pean coun­try in per­cent­age of  pop­u­la­tion to emi­grate to the New World and Ocea­nia (behind Ire­land and Nor­way) (p. 17). There is a very help­ful chart show­ing the scale of the emi­gra­tion from 1850 to 1962, includ­ing re-immi­gra­tion back to Swe­den, and not­ing eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al con­di­tions push­ing peo­ple from Swe­den and draw­ing them to Amer­i­ca (pp. 22–23).

In addi­tion to the his­tor­i­cal back­ground, Clemensson and Ander­s­son pro­vide ori­en­ta­tion to the records of Swe­den, guid­ance to some online resources (pri­mar­i­ly focus­ing on Gen­line, though there are many more sites now).

Their method is to take read­ers step-by-step through sam­ple research with one main fam­i­ly and a cou­ple of oth­er case stud­ies to illus­trate ear­li­er or lat­er research meth­ods, oppor­tu­ni­ties, and chal­lenges. They pro­vide a quick expla­na­tion of Swedish names, includ­ing the patronymic as well as the nature names often tak­en by mil­i­tary men and their fam­i­lies, and the names of the nobil­i­ty.

The book is an excel­lent start­ing point, slight­ly dat­ed in terms of Inter­net access to records, but sound in its rec­om­men­da­tions and meth­ods for get­ting to the home coun­try, when that home coun­try hap­pens to be that snowy land of Swe­den. A per­fect book to pick up on a snow day in Raleigh.

Categories Uncategorized

Ours was a Merry Christmas …

we hope yours was as well.

Look­ing for­ward to 2011, I am plan­ning a sev­er­al talks: two in Raleigh, NC, at the North Car­oli­na Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety Speak­ers Forum on Feb­ru­ary 19th, and three in Charleston, SC, at the Nation­al Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety Con­fer­ence between 11–14 May.

These along with trips to Salt Lake City in Feb­ru­ary (for a Board Meet­ing of the NGS) and to the FGS Con­fer­ence in Spring­field, IL in Sep­tem­ber, promise to make it a busy geneal­o­gy year.

2011 will also bring with it anoth­er sea­son of Exec­u­tive Pro­duc­er Lisa Kudrow’s “Who Do you Think You Are?”, which starts again on Feb­ru­ary 4th at 8 (7 Cen­tral). Accord­ing to the Asso­ci­at­ed Press, the new sea­son will include Tim McGraw, Kim Cat­trall, Lionel Richie, Ash­ley Judd, Steve Busce­mi, Vanes­sa Williams, and Rosie O’Don­nell.

The show has been a mixed bless­ing for geneal­o­gists. While it has clear­ly pop­u­lar­ized fam­i­ly his­to­ry research, and shown the trans­for­ma­tive nature of genealog­i­cal rev­e­la­tion. The painstak­ing and time-con­sum­ing research required to unearth many of these rev­e­la­tions is done off cam­era, and most view­ers are sim­ply unaware how much research is involved. A sim­ple title card stat­ing that “x num­ber of hours of genealog­i­cal research went into pro­duc­ing this episode,” would pro­vide the audi­ence with nec­es­sary con­text. Many researchers have received phone calls in the days and weeks after an episode of WDYTYA? ask­ing for “my fam­i­ly tree” to be cre­at­ed either gratis, pron­to, or both.

Still, it is a com­pelling show, and my fam­i­ly and I are look­ing for­ward to the new episodes.

Allen County Public Library Website

The Allen Coun­ty Library this fall has post­ed a new web­site at The site has a num­ber of fea­tures of inter­est.

  • There are eight free data­bas­es that you can search simul­ta­ne­ous­ly from their home­page:
    • African Amer­i­can Gate­way — Includes infor­ma­tion on US, Cana­di­an, and Caribbean resources.
    • Fam­i­ly Files and Resources — Six­teen unique fam­i­ly files sub­mit­ted by researchers.
    • Geneal­o­gy Cen­ter Micro­text Cat­a­log — A search­able list of micro­film and micro­fiche avail­able in The Geneal­o­gy Cen­ter of the Allen Coun­ty Pub­lic Library.
    • Indi­ana and Oth­er State Resources — These resources have been con­tributed by researchers. The states includ­ed at this point are Indi­ana (with the bulk of the resources), Illi­nois, Ken­tucky, Mary­land, Mass­a­chu­setts, Michi­gan, Min­neso­ta, Mon­tana, New Hamp­shire, New York, Ohio, Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia, and Wis­con­sin.
    • Fam­i­ly Bible Records — This appears to be a small (but poten­tial­ly grow­ing) col­lec­tion of records, cur­rent­ly total­ing 12 fam­i­lies.
    • Fort Wayne and Allen Coun­ty Resources — Mar­riage, death, ceme­tery, funer­al home, court records (guardian­ships, appli­ca­tions for nat­u­ral­iza­tions), eth­nic records (African-Amer­i­can, Ger­man), gov­ern­ment, his­to­ry, insti­tu­tion­al, and mil­i­tary records. If you have fam­i­ly from this part of the coun­try, this is an invalu­able resource.
    • Geneal­o­gy Cen­ter Sur­name File — A data­base of researchers who, since 1998, have left pro­vid­ed the Library with their con­tact infor­ma­tion, and infor­ma­tion on the sur­names they are search­ing.
    • Our Mil­i­tary Her­itage — A col­lec­tion of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary records from the colo­nial wars through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • There are a num­ber of guides to par­tic­u­lar top­ics in geneal­o­gy, includ­ing adop­tion, church records, East­ern Euro­pean research, Scot­tish research.
  • Geneal­o­gy Gems, the library’s e‑zine, is avail­able for free down­load from its incep­tion in March 2004 through 2009.
  • A blog out­lin­ing the new site and the Library.
  • There is a form you can use to request copies of arti­cles that are in the PERSI, the Peri­od­i­cal Source Index:

Well, I could stay here all night mak­ing a com­plete list, but these are some of the high­lights.…

I am look­ing for­ward to delv­ing fur­ther into the site.

Categories Uncategorized

New Google Offerings

Google con­tin­ues to offer new fea­tures and prod­ucts that can be of use to geneal­o­gists.

Among the most inter­est­ing recent releas­es is the abil­i­ty to dial cell phones and land lines from with­in G‑Mail using your com­put­er’s speak­ers and micro­phone and Google Voice tech­nol­o­gy. This allows for free long dis­tance calls, at least through 2011. After this year, Google will deter­mine whether to con­tin­ue this as a free ser­vice, or bill for it.

Here are some oth­er recent releas­es:

  • Google Instant is Google’s attempt to save you key­strokes by pro­vid­ing instant search results while you type. Google pays atten­tion to the results that mean the most to you, and to oth­ers typ­ing the char­ac­ters you are typ­ing and tries to pro­vide a pre­dic­tive search. The results are uncan­ny, even spooky. See to run an instant search (or, for more infor­ma­tion, see:
  • Google Real­time is the com­pa­ny’s attempt to keep peo­ple search­ing at Google, instead of at Bing or Twit­ter, when they are look­ing for up-to-the-sec­ond news, blog posts, and oth­er break­ing news. See to run a real­time search (or, for more infor­ma­tion, see:
  • Google eBook­store is Google’s long-await­ed entry into sell­ing elec­tron­ic books. It is the largest elec­tron­ic book­store in exis­tence, with 3 mil­lion titles. Books pur­chased or down­loaded for free from the Google eBook­store can be read in Google’s free read­ing soft­ware, on the web, or for the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android, Sony, and Nook read­ers. There are many titles of genealog­i­cal inter­est that are in the pub­lic domain and avail­able for free from this store. See: for the store, and the for the Google blog entry on the ebook­store.
  • Google Ngram View­er. This is per­haps the most inter­est­ing research tool Google has released in a long time. I just men­tioned that they have 3 mil­lion titles in their elec­tron­ic book­store. This is actu­al­ly only one fifth of the titles that they have scanned. All of those 15 mil­lion scanned books have been run through advanced opti­cal char­ac­ter recog­ni­tion (not per­fect, mind you, but pret­ty good). Two schol­ars at Google have tak­en 500 mil­lion words from 5.2 mil­lion books in Chi­nese, Eng­lish, French, Ger­man, Russ­ian and Span­ish and pro­vid­ed both the raw dataset of phras­es and how often they have been used on a year­ly basis, and a tool for novices to run these kinds of search. See for the search tool, and and for more infor­ma­tion. Geneal­o­gists can use this to see when words came and went in cur­ren­cy, which can help date let­ters and oth­er doc­u­ments.

Google has become quite a behe­moth. Loved and hat­ed at the same time for its pow­er, inno­va­tion, weird insis­tence on the mantra “don’t be evil,” while amass­ing tons of detail about our online activ­i­ties, the books we read, the things we search for, and so on. Despite all of this, for me, these tools are cre­at­ing a new access to infor­ma­tion that would oth­er­wise be inac­ces­si­ble. It’s a net plus.

[Updat­ed 12/25/2010, to cor­rect the exten­sion of Google voice calls from G‑Mail through the end of 2011.]

Categories Uncategorized

150 Years Ago …

The Flag of the State of South Carolina
South Car­oli­na Flag

Over the next five years, we will be observ­ing the sesqui­cen­ten­ni­al of the Civ­il War. On Decem­ber 20, 1860, that is, 150 years ago, this week, for exam­ple, South Car­oli­na seced­ed from the Union, touch­ing off a wave of seces­sions that led to the War itself.

While the war is often described these days as being about “states rights,” of course, it was about states rights to con­tin­ue slav­ery, and the con­cerns in the slave states that the North would abol­ish slav­ery, destroy­ing the econ­o­my that had been built upon the foun­da­tion of the “pecu­liar insti­tu­tion” of chat­tel slav­ery.

This argu­ment has not real­ly end­ed, as the blog post at the New York Times notes (“Danc­ing Around His­to­ry,” New York Times web­site, 20 Decem­ber 2010). There are still those who would cast the Civ­il War, and the seces­sion of the South­ern states, as a strug­gle for states rights, and one that con­tin­ues. But of course, the Con­sti­tu­tion was nev­er the Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion. The Arti­cles had indeed cre­at­ed a loose con­fed­er­a­tion of inde­pen­dent states, one so loose it was not work­able. The sin­gle over-rid­ing point of the Con­sti­tu­tion is the rule of law, and how fair­ness and equal­i­ty would be the cor­ner­stone of the new gov­ern­ment. (The “three fifths of all oth­er per­sons” clause out of the dis­cus­sion for the moment; the irony of that lack of equal­i­ty in the core of the doc­u­ment was not lost on the founders and does not inval­i­date the Con­sti­tu­tion, it was only itself invalid and con­tra­dic­to­ry to the point of the doc­u­ment.) Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Fam­i­ly, writes an espe­cial­ly poignant op-ed piece in the New York Times about revi­sion­ist his­to­ry rel­a­tive to seces­sion, slav­ery, and the Civ­il War (“Gone with the Myths,” New York Times, 18 Decem­ber 2010).

If the gov­ern­ment was to be a fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, and not a loose con­fed­er­a­tion of states, then the states would have some pow­ers, but not all. And the South­ern states, in join­ing the Unit­ed States had ced­ed some pow­er. That pow­er includ­ed that the Con­gress could enact, the Pres­i­dent sign, and the Pres­i­den­t’s admin­is­tra­tion car­ry out laws. Addi­tion­al­ly, that the Con­sti­tu­tion could be amend­ed.

Those who would say that seces­sion was about states’ rights should take a look at the South Car­olin­ian seces­sion dec­la­ra­tion (“Dec­la­ra­tion of the Imme­di­ate Caus­es Which Induce and Jus­ti­fy the Seces­sion of South Car­oli­na from the Fed­er­al Union”), which says in part:

We affirm that these ends for which this Gov­ern­ment was insti­tut­ed have been defeat­ed, and the Gov­ern­ment itself has been made destruc­tive of them by the action of the non-slave­hold­ing States. Those States have assume the right of decid­ing upon the pro­pri­ety of our domes­tic insti­tu­tions [i.e., slav­ery]; and have denied the rights of prop­er­ty [i.e., slav­ery] estab­lished in fif­teen of the States [i.e., the slave-hold­ing states] and rec­og­nized by the Con­sti­tu­tion [alas, all too true!]; they have denounced as sin­ful the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery; they have per­mit­ted open estab­lish­ment among them of soci­eties, whose avowed object is to dis­turb the peace and to eloign the prop­er­ty of the cit­i­zens of oth­er States [in oth­er words, they have allowed an abo­li­tion­ist move­ment to start and spread]. They have encour­aged and assist­ed thou­sands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incit­ed by emis­saries, books and pic­tures to servile insur­rec­tion.

For twen­ty-five years this agi­ta­tion has been steadi­ly increas­ing, until it has now secured to its aid the pow­er of the com­mon Gov­ern­ment. Observ­ing the forms [empha­sis in the orig­i­nal] of the Con­sti­tu­tion, a sec­tion­al par­ty has found with­in that Arti­cle estab­lish­ing the Exec­u­tive Depart­ment, the means of sub­vert­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion itself. A geo­graph­i­cal line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have unit­ed in the elec­tion of a man to the high office of Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, whose opin­ions and pur­pos­es are hos­tile to slav­ery. He is to be entrust­ed with the admin­is­tra­tion of the com­mon Gov­ern­ment, because he has declared that that “Gov­ern­ment can­not endure per­ma­nent­ly half slave, half free,” and that the pub­lic mind must rest in the belief that slav­ery is in the course of ulti­mate extinc­tion.

While the inten­tions of the South Car­oli­nan “fire eaters” (sup­port­ers of South­ern seces­sion) are clear, this should not be seen as an indict­ment of every indi­vid­ual in the South, espe­cial­ly not of South­ern sol­diers, most of whom were not direct ben­e­fi­cia­ries of plan­ta­tion slav­ery. As ever, sol­diers have fought for a num­ber of rea­sons, includ­ing soci­etal norms, the draft, a sense of duty, and on and on. Indi­vid­u­als were usu­al­ly doing their damn­d­est to do the right thing as they saw it, and not get killed in the process. We can hon­or their sac­ri­fice while not hon­or­ing their cause. How­ev­er, it is at our per­il that we revise his­to­ry in a vain attempt to reha­bil­i­tate our ances­tors. As geneal­o­gists, it is our role to see our fam­i­ly his­to­ry, as I think of it, “his­to­ry at ground lev­el,” with a clear, unbi­ased gaze.

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