Adam H. Domby is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. This interview is based on his new book, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (University of Virginia Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write The False Cause?
AD: Honestly, I didn’t intend to write this book. Originally, I was just going to write a couple of articles before revising my dissertation for publication. I had found the Julian Carr speech that he gave at UNC while a graduate student. In the speech, Carr brags about whipping “a negro wench” during Reconstruction. I thought it was a neat source to use to discuss monuments and teach about Jim Crow. However, after a letter to the editor I wrote was published in 2011, activists mobilized my research, and really shifted public opinion about “Silent Sam.” In time, this made me realize that these speeches had an important power worthy of looking at more closely.
Meanwhile, I also stumbled upon evidence of pension fraud at the NC State archives. At first I thought I would just write an article about the extent of pension fraud. As I dug deeper it became clear to me that all of the increasing number of fabrications I was finding were not just about remembering the past in a positive fashion but about controlling contemporary politics. And I came to realize the stories told during monument dedication speeches were tied to the acceptance of fraudulent pensioners as legitimate. These were not separate side projects. I had started considering making it a second book project when then the election of Donald Trump occurred and I thought, a book about lies and white supremacy might be timely. Indeed, it became increasingly clear as I wrote that Americans were struggling to understand how lies, often lies that were obvious to everyone–even those who accepted them–functioned to erode democracy today. The creation and evolution of of the Lost Cause in North Carolina provides numerous parallels in examining how democracy is harmed by lies and how lies function to support white supremacist ideologies. So I put aside my dissertation based book on divided communities during the Civil War and Reconstruction (which I will one day return to) and set out to write this one.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The False Cause?
AD: That is hard but here goes: The book argues that the Lost Cause narrative of the past was not only shaped by lies, but that these lies served to uphold white supremacy and to justify the establishment of Jim Crow. Additionally, the book shows how these lies still influence how the public, and even some historians, remember the Civil War today, and still serve to uphold white supremacist world views.
JF: Why do we need to read The False Cause?
AD: I think it depends on who you are but most people will find something in this book of use. We live in a time when lies are being used to erode democracy and empower white supremacists. North Carolina in the 1890s-1900s can teach us a lot about white supremacists. Additionally, the Lost Cause remains a robust mythology that many Americans still believe to be an accurate reflection of the past. These narratives continue to uphold racist ideologies today. The evolution and creation of these narratives of history need to be better understood. If you believe the Confederacy fought for states’s rights and slavery had nothing to do with it, then you need to read this to understand why you were taught a false narrative. For historians of the Civil War the book makes the argument that historical memory and the study of fraud can also teach us about events during the war as well as the memory of the conflict. Historians of memory may find my methodology of focusing on lies and fabrication innovative (I hope). Political historians will hopefully find the analysis of how historical memory was used in North Carolina politics new and exciting. Commentators on contemporary race relations may gain a better understanding of how ideologies of white supremacy depend on false narratives of the past. If you are interested in Confederate monuments and flags The False Cause explains how they are tied to white supremacy. I like to think the book has something for everyone. I think every professor of American historian needs to be able to discuss many of the aforementioned issues with their students. This book provides the tools needed to talk about why lies, white supremacy, and rewriting the past are so relevant today.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AD: When I got to college, I was a math major. That lasted one semester. I’d always been interested in history but had not considered it as a career. Some early classes, which I thought at the time would be electives, made me realize I loved research. You can blame Aaron Sachs, Bob Morrissey, John Demos, and David Blight for me ending up a historian. I highlight those four because early on they took the time to teach me about doing my own research and showed me I could enjoy writing. They also made me realize how important the past was to the present. We don’t always realize how important a good teacher is in shaping where we go in life. Still, even as I graduated college, I was convinced I was going to be a Park Ranger and would never return to school. Only after a stint in politics did I return to graduate school and start to consider myself “a historian.”
JF: What is your next project?
AD: I have a variety of projects. I will return to the book based on my dissertation eventually. That examines how divided communities were fractured during the Civil War, and their legacies long after Appomattox. It has arguments about both the Civil War and the postwar period. But first I am finishing a bunch of smaller projects. I have two coauthored projects; one on a rabbi who was also a conman and one on how public historians can better incorporate the experience of prisoners of war into the interpretive framework at historic sites. I have a smaller article project about the College of Charleston’s ties to slavery in the works that I am researching currently. Finally, I have been working with a graduate student of mine to create a geographic database of over 5,000 Confederate pay rolls that detail the impressment of enslaved people during the Civil War. We hope to have that available for scholars to use by year’s end. I like to keep myself busy.
JF: Thanks, Adam!