Sorry, Joe

What do you do when you don’t like the person you’re spending your life with? As a historian, I’ve studied lots of people with whom I didn’t agree. Alice Moore, Bob Jones, Max Rafferty, and Don McLeroy come to mind. In each of those cases, though, I never doubted the sincerity of my subjects. I didn’t agree with their goals or moral visions, but it was always clear to me that they were trying to make the world a better place, as they saw it. With this new book, though, I’m finding Joseph Lancaster to be a truly despicable person: Pathetic at best, scheming and self-obsessed at worst.

I haven’t been in this situation before. What are we supposed to do when we can’t sympathize with our subjects? In the past, I’ve always admired the people I’ve studied. Even when we were from different ends of the culture-war spectrum.

alice moore again

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

Take Alice Moore, for example. I wrote a lot about Moore’s work in Kanawha County, West Virginia in my book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century. On nearly every issue, Moore and I are diametrically opposed. Yet she agreed to talk with me about her memories and commitments and she was delightfully kind, humble, and self-effacing. The better I came to know her, the better I understood that she was brave, intelligent, and public-spirited. We’ll never agree, but she’s a good person.

As I delve into the Lancasterian school craze of the early 1800s, though, I’m finding that Joseph Lancaster himself was not a good person. I’m finishing a productive month of research into his archived papers at the American Antiquarian Society. With this rich collection of letters and personal papers, I’ve been able to dig deep into Lancaster’s head.

It’s not a pretty sight.

As I read through his personal notebooks, for example, I’m struck by the fact that he was always more interested in fame and fortune than educational reform. From his earliest days, he was making notes to himself about how much money one could earn as a grasping school-master.

Folio page sample

Notebook of a horrible man…

In his interactions with his friends, family, and colleagues, too, Lancaster was relentlessly self-centered, vindictive, and paranoid. His first backers, the Royal Lancasterian Society, got tired of bankrolling his extravagant spending habits. They cut him off, financially, and offered him a good job as a school superintendent with a good salary.

How did he respond? Viciously and aggressively. When a long-time friend advised Lancaster to take the offered job, Lancaster exploded. As Lancaster put it, he refused to be the “hireling or parlour dog” of his former associates.

It got worse. Lancaster’s first wife was subject to some sort of unspecified mental illness. She seemed delusional, hiding things all around the house and unable to maintain a polite façade. How did Lancaster respond to her malady? Here’s what he told his fourteen-year-old daughter in a letter from 1819:

As to poor Mother—this one thing I am determined on, I will never allow her to be an annoyance, and interrupt our comfort or our business—if she does, she must go—if not, it will be all well but I will not ruin thy temper, and my own—destroy our peace and impede her interests as well as our business—because of her wild nonsense which she can restrain.

The more I find out, the deeper I dislike. For me, this is new. How do historians handle it when they don’t like their subjects?

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  1. BM

     /  July 1, 2018

    I’m curious, who do you think caused more harm in the world: Lancaster or Alice Moore?

    I never liked any of the people I wrote about, nor to be honest, do I much like any of those you’ve written about (despite your considerable efforts at humanizing them). You can take for granted that most people have some virtues and are trying to do good. But so what? These are the people who made the world the way it is. Do they really deserve our empathy?

    Liking historical subjects seems to say more about the goals of the historian than the past. The (essentially conservative) goal of historical empathy seeks to understand the past in order to belong or get along in the present. But if the goal is liberation (from the past, in the present), what use is either liking or disliking persons?

    • Great questions. I agree wholeheartedly that liking and disliking aren’t much to the point. However, I guess I was surprised at my own reaction; surprised by how bummed I was to learn about Lancaster’s horribleness. Way back when, I sort of assumed that the Alice Moores and the Louise Padelfords of the world would be horrible people. They’re not–at least, not personally. From my secondary reading about Lancaster and my first few archival trips, I formed a preliminary idea about him as a person that turned out to be utterly wrong. I thought of Lancaster, initially, as a sort of Michelle Rhee–talented, naive, self-confident to a fault, in danger of having his head turned by the celebrity spotlight. After spending a month reading his correspondence, it turns out he was not that sort of person. He wasn’t quite a con man, but rather a megalomaniac.
      To me, the whole experience serves as a reminder of your final point. I didn’t realize that I thought I’d like Lancaster personally because I thought he would provide me with a different story to tell. To be brutally honest, I thought he was more like me. I’m feeling pretty shocked and dismayed to see how wrong I was, and also how possible it was for a person with whom I can identity to be a real jerkwad.


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