The mystery of public appeal

From John Hennessy:

The Baptist Church, setting for November 20th's Years of Anguish program

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.

6 thoughts on “The mystery of public appeal

  1. In reference to your marvel at the turnout, It seems to me that there were two dynamics at play. The first was that it was a well planned and well publicized program of excellence, featuring engaging presenters (of which you were certainly one on par with Rable and Freehling) in a complementary setting,

    I think that the other dynamic may be possibly that folks are looking to make sense out of the current political maelstrom afflicting our nation. As today’s FLS article pointed out, there are many political forces currently swirling not unlike those evident during the secession crisis. Perhaps people are looking to see if there are lessons that can be learned to provide guidance for us in our present day tortuous times.

    • Thanks Dennis. For those of you who do not know, Dennis is the administrator at the Baptist Church, and his support of the program yesterday went a long way toward making it successful. John H.

      • Thanks Breck. Glad you made it. You should all know that Breck, a high school student, recently undertook an exploration of the wartime Richmond Examiner and found some great material. One of those pieces will be published in the next issue of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust journal, Fredericksburg History and Biography. A pretty loft thing for a high school student…. John H.

  2. I had a fantastic time at the event, thanks to you and Doctors Freehling and Rable. I doubt I will ever forget Dr. Freehling brandishing the gun in the role of Henry A. Wise. It was a entertaining and very informative event. Thank you for your own informative presentation and role in organizing the event.

  3. I have spent much of today, and all of last night, pondering the day’s events. The question of why we still, after all of these years, are separated on the issues of the war, both the causes and the legacies, is in the forefront of my brain. I am not alone in this, as so demonstrated by yesterday’s attendance. It is through discussion, study and acceptance that we will close the divide. Thank you to John, Jeff McClurken, Drs. Rable and Freehling for their tireless charge as they lead us in the march to understanding.

  4. I am ecstatic to hear so many wonderful comments about this event. Just last week I posted a rather somber blog predicting a lack of interest (among young people and non-history enthusiasts) for the upcoming Sesquicentennial, yet today, I feel blessed to live in Fredericksburg. Only time will tell if the general public will get on board , but an inaugural audience of 600 for a program like that is outstanding. I hope we get half as many attendees at our program up in Pittsburgh this weekend. Well done John and Sara!

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