Film Documentary Film Screening: Stephen Douglas and the Fate of American Democracy

Friday, January 8, 2016: 1:00 PM-2:20 PM
Room 213 (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Dan Carter, University of South Carolina

Graham A. Peck, writer, producer, and director (Installed as a permanent exhibit at the Douglas Tomb State Historic Site in Chicago, 2014)

This film began in the classroom as a public history project led by a Douglas scholar, and was completed with contributions from other historians, reenactors, and artists, thus illustrating how the production and consumption of history is a shared enterprise. By probing the ambiguities of 19th-century American democracy through the prism of Douglas' career, showing how his democratic and nationalist sensibilities combined to promote racism, expansionism, and support for slavery, and ultimately civil war, it encourages contemplation about the moral parameters of democracy today.

Dan Carter, University of South Carolina and Graham A. Peck, Saint Xavier University will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

Session Abstract

This session will screen a 57-minute biography of Stephen Douglas that was directed by a Douglas scholar. The film began as a class project, and was completed with contributions from historians, students, reenactors, and artists eager to create an exhibit for the Douglas Tomb State Historic Site. The film underscores the degree to which the production and consumption of history is a shared enterprise, and suggests that there are important new ways for professional historians to do their work in a digital age.

The film is the product of scholarship. At root, it explores an ambiguous national past that Douglas aptly represents. He advocated racist and expansionist national policies that to his mind sustained democracy, promoted social mobility, and created hope for the common man. The film reflects this ambiguity. It acknowledges Douglas' oversight of hundreds of slaves and highlights the connections between democracy, expansionism, racism, and Unionism in his politics; but it also portrays his conviction that antislavery politics would precipitate a fratricidal civil war, an unerring judgment that underlay his unwillingness to discuss slavery's morality. By thus compelling viewers to interpret the precepts and practice of American democracy through the prism of his career, the film is truly shaped by an historian's sensibilities.

The film should spur a conversation about how and why historians do history. It asks whether we ought to reconceptualize our understanding of professional history in a digital age, when visual representations of history are becoming increasingly influential and when digital tools have democratized both history and filmmaking. Inexpensive software and hardware makes filmmaking feasible for historians, and we are now limited primarily by our own imagination. If we refuse to embrace these new tools and skill sets, we stifle our creativity, our prospects for collaboration and employment, and our influence.

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