From John Hennessy:
Yesterday we had more than 600 people pack into the Fredericksburg Baptist Church for Years of Anguish: The Coming Storm, which recounted the South’s, Virginia’s, and Fredericksburg’s march toward secession. That they enjoyed themselves (emphatically), learned a great deal, and had a pretty vivid experience while doing so is not really surprising. We had two world-class talents on hand: George Rable and Bill Freehling. Dr. Rable was awesome in his presentation. I think even he would agree, though, that the high moment of the day belonged to Bill Freehling, when, as he assumed the role of Governor Henry Wise arguing in favor of Virginia troops taking the field, he reached into a bag and pulled out, as Wise did 150 years ago, a gun, brandishing it about, arguing forcefully in favor of force. The audience gasped…then laughed…but in the end, a powerful point was made: the debate over secession was a debate over life and death, and those who took up that debate knew it. I daresay no one who was there yesterday will ever forget Bill Freehling brandishing a gun and cursing in the pulpit of a Baptist Church, but more importantly, no one will forget the message he conveyed by doing so. It was a brilliant interpretive moment. (If anyone out there has photos of the scene, pass them along and we’ll post them.)
The methods were at times light and engaging, but the message of the day was profound. That’s not surprising, given the talents of Drs. Freehling and Rable.
Another great contributor to the day was the audience itself. Audiences rarely recognize their role in determining the quality of the programs they receive. Speakers don’t just speak, and audiences don’t just listen. In a really good program, there’s a constant, usually unspoken give-and-take between the two. The energy invested by a rapt audience fuels the speaker, and an energized speaker in turn elevates the audience. I firmly believe that audiences get out of a program what they put into it. Yesterday’s audience might have been the most amazing I have seen on that account. From the first word by our moderator Jeff McClurken of UMW (who did a fabulous job and set the perfect tone), the energy in the place was astonishing.
The audience’s investment took voice in the form of questions. We were all mightily impressed, even amazed, at the quality of questions–articulate, complex, heartfelt–and they made for some of the day’s best moments. Even those who sought to make a contrary point to the speakers did so in a thoughtful way. Great kudos to the audience…..
What was most amazing–in fact it stunned all of us–was that more than 600 people attended in the first place, and most of them stayed throughout the four hours. Mind you, secession is not the sexiest of topics–it’s weighty, complex–and it’s not the type of thing that typically draws people off the streets on a perfectly beautiful Saturday afternoon. But it did yesterday. Certainly having Drs. Rable and Freehling on hand was part of it. But, the response far exceeded anything we expected. Why it is that some programs catch on with the public and inspire them to come, and why some that you’d expect to be very appealing just fall flat (I have been involved in both over the years) is a mystery I have not been able to unravel.
But, it certainly suggests that the public is anxious and willing to be engaged–and maybe more importantly to engage us–in a thoughtful way about the American Civil War. For those of us in the field of public history, that’s a hopeful sign as we move ahead with the 150th.