I gave this lecture at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Greenwich on February 3, 2019:
Yale historian David Blight talks about the differences between history and the past on the “Live the Best Version of You” podcast. It is a nice introduction to how historians work and how the work historians do must contribute to our democratic life.
A few great lines:
- Historians always work with their “umbilical cord” connected to the archives, but all research must be “rendered into a narrative.”
- Good historical story-telling is always going to “convince” some people and “offend” others. This, Blight says, is the “beauty” and “fun” of history writing, but it is also contributes to the “perils” of history writing.
- “It is the obligation of the trained historian to get close to truth as we can.”
- In this world of subjectivity and opinion, “every now and then people seem to want a historian” to tell us “what really happened.”
- “Some of the best history is written by people who have a good hunch.”
- “History is what historians do,” but “memory is what the public possesses.” Everybody “has a sense of the past in their head” and it usually comes from family and roots.
- “Stories take hold in the public mind that may or may not be directly connected to the history historians write, and hence memory can be therefore much more sacred than it is secular because people tend to say ‘I believe in this story.'”
- “We have to find ways to reduce” the distance “between public memory and history….This is the historian’s duty.”
- Blight calls for a “tolerant, educated, civil society” that is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama and human experience.”
- Blight quotes William James: “The enemy of any one of my truths, is the rest of my truths.” We are obligated to challenge our own beliefs.
Listen to the entire interview here.
Learn more about this Washington D.C. monument here.
I would also encourage you to read David Blight’s Washington Post piece on why it should stay. If you want to dig even deeper, read the opening chapter of Blight’s book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
Douglass delivered this speech on April 14, 1876. President U.S. Grant was in attendance. A large parade of African Americans proceeded the speech.
Here is a taste:
For the first time in the history of our people, and in the history of the whole American people, we join in this high worship, and march conspicuously in the line of this time–honored custom. First things are always interesting, and this is one of our first things. It is the first time that, in this form and manner, we have sought to do honor to an American great man, however deserving and illustrious. I commend the fact to notice; let it be told in every part of the Republic; let men of all parties and opinions hear it; let those who despise us, not less than those who respect us, know that now and here, in the spirit of liberty, loyalty, and gratitude, let it be known everywhere, and by everybody who takes an interest in human progress and in the amelioration of the condition of mankind, that, in the presence and with the approval of the members of the American House of Representatives, reflecting the general sentiment of the country; that in the presence of that august body, the American Senate, representing the highest intelligence and the calmest judgment of the country; in the presence of the Supreme Court and Chief–Justice of the United States, to whose decisions we all patriotically bow; in the presence and under the steady eye of the honored and trusted Cabinet, we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood–bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of after–coming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.
Fellow–citizens, in what we have said and done today, and in what we may say and do hereafter, we disclaim everything like arrogance and assumption. We claim for ourselves no superior devotion to the character, history, and memory of the illustrious name whose monument we have here dedicated today. We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.
He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow–citizens, a pre–eminence in this worship at once full and supreme.
First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step–children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor. Instead of supplanting you at his altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their forms be symmetrical, beautiful, and perfect, let their bases be upon solid rocks, and their summits lean against the unchanging blue, overhanging sky, and let them endure forever! But while in the abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose…
When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer is ready, full, and complete. Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave–holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave–trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave–trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave–holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.
Read the entire speech here.
Chris Gehrz‘s is known to many readers of this blog as the Pietist Schoolman. Read his Anxious Bench post, “It’s Not ‘Erasing History’ to Remove Confederate Memorials.”
Here is a taste:
Every pedestal emptied of someone who fought on behalf of slavery and racism is a pedestal open to an American who struggled for emancipation and equality. That cause — not the Lost Cause — is an honest basis for national unity. That kind of commemoration can truly teach us “how we became a better nation.”
In his 2015 eulogy at Mother Emanuel Church, Barack Obama argued that taking down the Confederate battle flag “would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union.” Five years later, taking down Confederate statues and taking away Confederate names can be one more step in that historical accounting, and one more chance for Americans to perfect their union.
Read the entire piece here.
400 years ago this year the Mayflower landed on present-day Cape Cod. Over at The New York Times, Tanya Mohn writes about how the United States, England, and the Netherlands will commemorate the event later this year. A taste:
Paula Peters remembers the last major anniversary of the historic voyage in 1620 of the Mayflower from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Mass. It was in 1970. She was 12. “It did not go well,” recalled Ms. Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Frank James, whose Wampanoag name was Wamsutta, was invited to give a speech, but was prevented from delivering it because the event’s organizers “didn’t like what he had to say.”
This year’s 400th anniversary promises to be different. “It will include all the things Frank James wanted to say and then some. It’s an opportunity to take our story out of the margins and onto an international platform,” said Ms. Peters, who through SmokeSygnals, a marketing and communications agency, curated and consulted for exhibitions and programs on both sides of the Atlantic. “What’s most important to stress is simply that we are still here.”
The Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the federally recognized Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes, are equal partners in the yearlong commemoration with Plymouth 400 in the United States, Mayﬂower 400 in the United Kingdom, and Leiden 400 in the Netherlands, umbrella groups for museums and organizations that are hosting Mayflower-related events in their respective regions.
Read the rest here.
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!
Shannon Bontrager is Associate Professor of History at Georgia Highlands College. This interview is based on his new book, Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921 (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Death at the Edges of Empire?
SB: One of the significant memories I have from my childhood was my grandmother’s (Mary Ann Bontrager) funeral. I was 13 and hers was my first funeral and it was such a sad dreary December Michigan day. She was a lovely woman who would peel the skin of my apples with a knife and give it to me salted, she made the best pound cake and sauce of anyone around, and she sadly died from cancer in 1986. My grandparents had left the Amish faith long before my birth and they were shunned (especially my grandfather, Ben) for doing so. My grandfather’s Amish family attended her funeral and Ben’s Amish sister even oversaw the food preparation for the meal afterwards. I remember getting my food and sitting with my grandfather at the table to eat and I did not suspect anything was up. But I remember my grandfather finishing quickly and then getting up to leave while we all were still eating. Perhaps it was one of my uncles or my dad, but I recall someone saying grandpa had to leave so that the Amish family could sit down to eat. The implication being that although they attended the funeral and even prepared the food for my grandfather, they could not have the decency to eat the funeral meal in his presence. I was shocked and angry that the boundaries of the shunning remained in place while commemorating my dead grandmother. I thought my Amish kin were cruel. My anger, however, was misplaced, as later I found out from my dad who reminded me that my Amish relatives actually had defied their Bishop who had decreed that in order to enforce my grandfather’s shunning my grandmother’s funeral was off limits to them. Their presence and their preparation of the food was a collective defiance of authority and boundaries out of respect for my grandmother’s death and my grandfather’s grief. They were risking a lot of social capital to be there. But the memory never left me and I found myself returning to it as I began to study the American past in earnest. The number of ways that people in society could use the dead (particularly the war dead) to remember, manipulate, forget the past, and create the present continued to astound me. This was particularly clear when in the late 1990s the family of Michael Blassie, who had been buried as the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, identified their son using DNA evidence. They disinterred their son’s body from Arlington so that he could be closer to their home and so that the family could finally grieve after so many years of not being able to mourn truly. For me, the Blassie family signaled a moment as if the past had come back to confront the present in a similar defiant way that my Amish relatives defied their Bishop. To do what was right even if it meant crossing reinforced social boundaries. Did other people have to endure these kinds of experiences? As my research unfolded, I found the answer was often yes and it was often yes across the decades of time and was actually a central and critical theme of the American experience.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Death at the Edges of Empire?
SB: Americans, since the time of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, have developed a collective memory of empire that could be hidden, particularly but not exclusively, in the rituals and traditions of commemorating the war dead. These imperial memories work incredibly hard to separate the past from the present and the citizenry from memory by hiding the practices and realities of American empire behind the cultural memory of democratic republicanism.
JF: Why do we need to read Death at the Edges of Empire?
SB: Americans are experiencing a particularly interesting time of flux and change. The past five years have given Americans multiple anniversaries to commemorate: from the 150 year anniversary of the ending of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, to the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, to the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. We are literally living at the crossroads of memory. These moments helped make the very institutions that Americans are now suspicious of and reconsidering. At a time when Americans are increasingly growing disillusioned with religious, government, and private institutions, we are commemorating the moments that made us embrace them. Such a moment of opportunity to reevaluate the present depends crucially on our willingness to let the past fill the present. It is vitally important that when we reassess institutions (and if we choose to keep some and discard others) that we make those decisions with the past fully penetrating the present. Only by making room in the present for the past to thrive, can we determine how we should commemorate the war dead, deal with Confederate monuments, address the health and welfare of U.S. veterans, define who gets access to American citizenship, and in general, frame the kind of institutions that we want and need in twenty-first century America. Death at the Edges of Empire seeks to open a conversation about the institutions and rituals Americans have built around the commemoration of the war dead, it charts how those rituals have changed over time and circumstance, and it signals that the institution of commemoration is now potentially unraveling in real time. By understanding how past Americans often tried to keep the present free from the past, we can better shape our own collective memories by bringing the past into the present.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SB: I lived and worked in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1994-95 right in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s attempts to help Jordan and Israel sign a peace treaty. Growing up in a small town in the rural Midwest, I thought these kinds of treaties were impossible. But now in Jordan, I was in the very place where history was happening. It was a time when I was not just witnessing history, I could feel it. Around about this time, my friends and I went to tour an ancient Crusader castle called Kerak Castle in al-Karak. I remember climbing the ruins and being overwhelmed with imagining what life might have been like for Christians and Muslims eight hundred years ago. They lived and fought in the very spot where I was standing. It was a transcendental moment and it was electric. I decided right then and there while sitting on the top of the wall of the ruined palace that I wanted to be a historian. After my year abroad I returned for my senior year in college to a newly developed major in history at my small religious college. I would have to take 8 history courses (I think 4 of them were centered on the U.S.) over my last two semesters to complete the degree but I did it and I nearly got straight As (something that previously was beyond my imagination). It was such a wonderful experience to do nothing but study history and the electricity I felt at Kerak Castle in Jordan continued to power my study of American history and still does.
JF: What is your next project?
SB: My next project is tentatively titled “The Affinity of War: Traveling Memory, the War Dead, and the American Empire in France.” It is a kind of volume 2, to Death at the Edges of Empire that focuses on the travelling and transnational memories of the Franco-American interwar and early WWII period (1923-1943). It examines how French and American people took their memories and exchanged them with each other as Americans toured or made pilgrimages to World War I memory sites in France. I conducted research at the French Foreign Affairs Archives outside of Paris a few years ago and I am able to take Franco-American collective memory up to and through the Vichy regime before the U.S. diplomatic staff was forced to escape France in 1943 leaving American cemeteries and monuments commemorating the war dead behind for local French people under Nazi occupation to tend and look after until the Second World War concluded. I think it could be an exciting topic to explore. I am now at the beginning of translating the French language documents into English and then I hope to complete this, my second manuscript.
JF: Thanks, Shannon!
Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about the upcoming Christmas season. –JF
It seems as if the Christmas Season is in full swing. While I (shamelessly) started listening to Christmas music and watching Hallmark movies on November first, on the day after Thanksgiving the entire world seems to turn shades of red and green. Michael Bublé comes out of hiding and sings out on radio broadcasts, coffee shops and supermarkets alike play festive tunes for their customers. Netted fir trees strapped atop SUVs become a regular appearance on highways, supplemented by the occasional Amazon or UPS truck packed to the brim with black Friday orders. Every year after Thanksgiving my family ventures into our dusty attic to retrieve our Christmas decorations; we pull out our snowy Disney Princess village, our singing Christmas clock, and our many, many farm-themed ornaments for the tree.
I traveled back to Messiah on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was welcomed by a campus decked out for the Christmas season. After a long nine hour drive from Michigan I was greeted by house-mates Chloe and Amy, hard at work assembling a faux Christmas tree in our living room and stringing lights outside. I’m sure first-year dorms are busy at work decorating for Messiah’s annual “Deck the Halls” competition.
The Christmas season is pretty special on a Christian college campus. Once December hits Messiah’s worship teams dust off the Christmas songs in their repertoire and play them at chapel and other services on campus. Murray Library hosts a Christmas tea and crafting event for students each year, serving homemade scones and striped candy canes. Students flock to Lottie-Nelson Dining Hall for Christmas dinner the week before exams to stuff themselves with comfort food and seasonal desserts. Teachers tell students about their Christmas plans and share their favorite holiday traditions.
I love the Christmas season. I adore the lights, the food, all the time with family and friends; but one of my favorite things about Christmas is that it has deep roots in history. The task of the historian is to remember the past and to recreate it in the present; when we celebrate Christmas that’s exactly what we’re doing. As a Christian I believe that Christ’s miraculous birth was a real event that happened about two thousand years ago, a real event from the past that should be brought to life in the present for the world to see. When we sing Christmas songs, set up our nativities or light our advent candles, we do just that; we resurrect Christ’s story and remember that our God is not just the God of heaven, but He’s also God on earth, God with us, Emmanuel.
Christmas isn’t the only holiday with deep roots in history. All holidays have historical beginnings–even if they’re often entangled with myth, distorted by exaggerations, or littered with omissions along the way. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter, for example are all meant, in one way or another, to remember and celebrate an event that happened in the past and shape the meaning it retains in the present. When the holiday season comes around, we are all historians, in a sense. We remember, resurrect, and make meaning out of things that happened. Then, as historians, it is up to us to sort fact from fiction, reality from myth. We examine the events and the meanings that they hold all wrapped up in bows and lights and “Christmas magic.” Instead of getting caught up in all the glamour, we seek out what really happened.
Check out Peter Candler‘s piece at The Christian Century on a little-known Flannery O’Connor short story in which she wrestles with memory and history in the South. Here is a taste of his piece, “Flannery O’Connor’s challenge to the Lost Cause myths of the Confederacy.”
Propping up an illusory history has a price, and not just on balance sheets. The human cost of such self-deception is the subject of an early and little-known story by Flannery O’Connor, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1953 and included in A Good Man Is Hard to Find two years later, the story is about the ways in which the burdens of history, when honestly confronted, can bring not enlightenment but devastation.
“Late Encounter” is barely ten pages in the Library of America edition. It is hardly one of her major works (O’Connor described it as “not so bad”), and it rarely figures in critical studies of her work. But it is notable for being the only piece of her fiction that directly treats the Civil War and its legacy. The story is only superficially about the war, though; it is really about the way in which the war is—or is not—remembered. It is a story about memory and the deep conflict between public commemoration, sectarian mythology, and historical reality.
“Late Encounter” is structurally simple: there is a single main scene framing one flashback. Sally Poker Sash is about to attend her college graduation, the joyful fruit of a protracted education spread out over 20 summers while she was teaching school. It’s such a big deal that she has invited her 104-year-old grandfather, a Confederate veteran, to attend in full military dress. Sally arranges for him to sit up on stage—not so that he will have a good view of the proceedings but because she wants him to be seen: “she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, ‘what all was behind her,’ and was not behind them. This them was not anybody in particular. It was just all the upstarts who had turned the world on its head and unsettled the ways of decent living.” She wants the crowd to see him, and herself through him—“Glorious upright old man stand-in for the old traditions! Dignity! Honor! Courage!”—as a rebuke to their wanton ways.
And here is Candler’s conclusion:
What if history is not at all the way we prefer to remember it? Could it be that monuments—not just public ones but also those our own personal histories are made of—are tokens of a tacit agreement to forget certain difficult truths? Directed both generally at an inveterate human skill for self-deception and specifically at the mythology of the Lost Cause, the question that O’Connor’s “Late Encounter” puts to the reader is both blunt and surgical: What if you are wrong about what it is you think you were fighting for?
Read the entire piece here.
You quote Reinhold Niebuhr early on [in Race and Reunion], “The processes of historical justice are not exact enough to warrant the simple confidence of the moral character of history.” What do you understand that to mean?
Well Niebuhr was trying to tell us to have humility. He comes from that deep Protestant tradition of humility. He’s trying to tell us to be careful about our certitudes, but he’s also arguing, never lose sight of the essential tragic character of history. We’re all part of it. We’re all capable of good and evil, and especially evil.
Niebuhr, the theologian philosopher, helps one understand that history is, one, never over—that history’s a very messy, complicated thing, and at its core is our human potential for tragedy. That if we ever lose sight of that—especially I think Niebuhr was arguing this as an American, to Americans. Because by and large—here’s one of your deep American myths—we don’t like the word even. We tend to use it in superficial ways. We tend not to want to view our own past as essentially tragic. I mean, we’re willing to view Russian history, if we know it, as tragic. We’re willing to view modern German history as tragic. What about our past?
Americans are always demanding—this is what Niebuhr’s trying to point out—Americans are always trying to imagine our past as always somehow progress. We are the people of progress. California is about renewal, it’s about always starting over, it’s about progress, and it has been of course. Our task as historians, our task as teachers, is to help people understand that history is always a combination of these things.
Of course there’s progress, but as soon as you think you’ve won something, as soon as you think you’ve turned that great corner of history, or as Obama used to love to quote King saying, who was really quoting Theodore Parker from the 19th century, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Every time I heard Obama say that I would think to myself, “No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t. Come on, and you know that.” Of course, a president has to say that, at least a thoughtful president does. Lo and behold what happens? We get a Donald Trump elected, and people are still in shock, wondering how we could go from such progress to this.
Do you consider Race and Reunion a theological work? To the extent that you are tinkering with major American theologies, and you’ve said there are three visions of this war, this war that, in Garry Wills’ words, “revolutionized the revolution.” There was the emancipationist, there was white supremacy, and there was reconciliation, but are you sifting through the theologies to create a new one?
Not consciously, necessarily. I am deeply aware that American history has theological roots. All you’ve got to do is study the Puritans for one week. All you’ve got to do is look at the American founding. The American Revolution is layered with theological rhetoric, even in the hands of people like a Jefferson or a Madison, who were not very deeply religious. They saw themselves in teleological time. They saw themselves creating something that was partly of divine inspiration.
I’m not trying to create a new theology. I am trying to help, I hope, the reader understand that narratives of the American past are never without this—like it or not—never without this theological underlay of a nation with some kind of special destiny and design. Look at our rhetoric through time. Look at presidential rhetoric through time. Look at Reinhold Niebuhr, who comes from the more tragic Protestant tradition, or more realist tradition. Nevertheless, Americans have never been able to crawl out of this idea that we are somehow living our history in some kind of religious or theological time.
However, our greatest events probably are caught up in a kind of a theological history. We just can’t seem to help it. Look at the rhetoric of World War II.
Read the rest the entire interview here.
For the past decade I have been teaching a course on Pennsylvania History at Messiah College. The class meets several requirements. Some history majors take it for a 300-level American history elective. Other history majors take it as part of their concentration in public history. Non-history majors take the course to fulfill their general education pluralism requirement.
I have to make this course work for all of these students. For the public history students, we do a lot of work on the relationship between “history,” “heritage,” and “memory.” We also feature some training in oral history. Each student is required to do an oral history project in which they interview and interpret someone who can shed light on a particular moment in Pennsylvania history. As a pluralism course, Pennsylvania History must address questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and social class in some meaningful way.
This year, I split the class into four units:
- “History, memory, and the social history of early American Philadelphia.” We read Gary Nash’s book First City and students took a field trip to the city.
- “The Conestoga Massacre (Paxton Boys riots).” We read Kevin Kenny’s excellent history of the Paxton Boys and students were required to write an essay on a document at the Digital Paxton website.
- “History and memory at Gettysburg.” We read Jim Weeks’s book Gettysburg: History, Memory, and an American Shrine. I put together a “memory” field trip of Gettysburg that focused on race, reunion, and the post July 3, 1863 history of the battlefield.
- “Harrisburg’s City Beautiful Movement and the fate of the Old 8th Ward.” We read multiple articles and utilized the amazing resources at the Digital Harrisburg Project. Students took a field trip to the Capitol Complex, the site of the Old 8th Ward.
After several tries, I think I have finally found a pedagogical formula that works. The students take their two-hour final exam on Friday. Here are the questions they are preparing:
In preparation for the exam, please prepare an answer to one of the following questions:
In each of our four units this semester, we spend considerable time talking about the idea of race and race relations in Pennsylvania History. How do issues related to race play out in the following periods and places in state history:
- Early 19th-century Philadelphia
- The Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s and 1760s.
- The way the Civil War has been interpreted at Gettysburg
- The City Beautiful movement in Harrisburg
- The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia (1876)
- The Paxton Boys Riots
- Gettysburg as a “sacred” site
- The portrayal of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward by reformers affiliated with the City Beautiful movement.
Good luck! Or as I like to say to my Calvinist students: “May God providential give you the grade you deserve on this exam.”
It is a beautiful today in south-central Pennsylvania–a perfect day to spend some time on the Gettysburg battlefield. This morning we took ten students from my Pennsylvania history class to Gettysburg. We have been reading Jim Weeks’s book Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine and exploring the way the battlefield has evolved since July 4, 1863. I have given a lot tours of Gettysburg focused on military history, but until today I had never done a Gettysburg “memory” tour.
We have been focusing on how Gettysburg became a shrine of American civil religion–a destination for patriotic pilgrims. We arrived at 7:30am for “devotions” at the Gettysburg National Cemetery. I read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and stressed the religious nature of the speech. We talked about what Lincoln meant by the use of words such as “consecrate,” “hallow,” “devotion,” and “new birth.” We discussed the blood sacrifice necessary to the consecration of such sacred ground. And, since I teach at a Christian college, we talked about the difference between civil religion and Christian faith.
After our devotion in civil religion we headed to the Visitor Center. Most of the students ended up in the bookstore. Some of them bought souvenirs to remember their pilgrimage to this sacred site of American nationalism. Others noted the way this sacred site is connected with the marketplace. We even got our pictures taken with Lincoln, the great prophet of U.S. civil religion.
We spent the rest of the tour on these topics: race and the 1913 and 1938 reunions of Gettysburg veterans, with an assist from David Blight (at the Eternal Light Peace Memorial); the meaning of the Robert E. Lee statue (on Confederate Avenue); the Eisenhower Farm and Gettysburg as a Cold War site; the tension between battlefield authenticity and environmental concerns; the influence of popular culture (Jeff Schaara and Ted Turner) on the battlefield (at the monument to the 20th Maine on Little Round Top); and the role of Daniel Sickles in promoting the bill that brought the battlefield under control of the U.S. War Department.
Here are some pics:
A few weeks ago we introduced Annie Thorn, a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our new intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.” It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she offers a moving reflection on the life of her grandfather. Enjoy! –JF
This weekend, I’ll be heading home to Michigan for the funeral of my grandfather, Norman VanHeulen, who went home on Saturday morning after a month and a half of hospice. My Grandpa VanHeulen passed a day before his 86th birthday; recounting his experiences would be a history lesson in itself. However I think there’s a little something more we can learn about history, and about people in general, from the liturgy he practiced faithfully throughout his life.
Historians write and remember. We reincarnate human life on the pages of books, on the walls of museums or in the body of classroom lectures. We set loose memories once thought lost, after years, decades, or centuries of captivity. My grandpa did that, too. Every day for most of his near-century-long life he wrote in black leather-bound journals, which now sit in heavy boxes in my aunt’s storage room. He recorded everything–from an event so significant as the birth of four grandchildren in less than 24 hours, to something so trifling as the price of a cup of coffee. I have countless memories of spending the night at Grandma and Grandpa VanHeulen’s house, playing cards or eating ice cream or watching Disney Channel (my family didn’t have cable) while Grandpa sat in his chair, pouring words into those journals until they overflowed.
Maybe someday I’ll read through all those journals. In my Introduction to History class in the fall we had a long discussion about our family histories–I got to gush about my wonderful grandfather and his own archival work. When I do get to read them, I’m sure I’ll be reminded of the ways my grandpa loved people well for decades. I’ll see that though his life was long, he didn’t waste a minute of it.
One of the fondest memories I have of my grandpa took the form of a short voicemail he left for me one afternoon while I was at school. Exactly a year previous, my grandparents sat on the sideline at one of my soccer games, as they often did when they still lived in Kalamazoo. I remember standing in our dining room as his warm voice crackled through our answering machine. He read his journal entry from the year before, in which he recorded the events of my game. He recalled that I scored four goals and wrote about how proud he and my family were of me that day. To say I was touched by his minor gesture would be a massive understatement. I remember wiping a couple tears from my eyes. He remembered something that I had forgotten about–and not only that, he went out of his way to let me know he did.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not very good at remembering things. The only reason I can remember my siblings’ birthdays is because my brother and sister share mine. It’s not easy to remember things, and sometimes it’s more painful than we expect to look back on the times that we know were difficult. Sometimes it’s even harder to reminisce about the years things were better or easier than they are now. With my Grandpa’s funeral approaching this weekend, I’m sure I’ll experience a little bit of that pain firsthand. Nevertheless, there’s something deeply good and meaningful in digging up our past for others to see–my Grandpa showed me it’s our duty to do so.
There is power in remembrance. That’s what history is all about.
In this exchange, Blight talks about the importance of memory:
MH: Memory is a theme that runs deeply through your work, David. And of course, memories of the Civil War mattered deeply to Frederick Douglass. What memory of the war did Douglass want to endure? And then what happened to Douglass’s vision in the aftermath of the war, which is in many ways the subject of your book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory?
DB: I was confused about what to do with this idea of memory. We all know that memory is a biological thing. We can’t find our car or our keys or our home from here if we don’t have a memory, and it’s why the memory diseases are so terrifying, because our very humanity depends on this quality of memory.
On the other hand, we also are aware, as historians, that memory is a social creation. There are collective memories. Lots of memory scholars love to debate whether there is such a thing as collective memory, and how do you know a collective memory when you meet one, and so on, but we do know they exist. Institutions build memories. People create memories. Churches create memories. Nations create memories. And all that really means is that they create narratives. They create stories that go to battle with other stories.
Now, in Douglass’s case, he was trying to preserve, to hold on to, to keep fashioning and refashioning, a narrative of the Civil War that said the destruction of slavery, emancipation, and the creation of black equality are at the absolute center, are at the core of Union victory. The nation was saved and preserved, but the way it was saved and preserved was by destroying slavery and creating four million new citizens with rights.
And he lives long enough, as we said earlier, to see that victory eroding, first in Reconstruction and then directly betrayed by certain Supreme Court decisions, especially the Cruikshank case in 1876 and the civil rights cases in 1883, and then eventually not only eroded, but defeated by the use of violence and terror by the Southern Democrats and by the Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators. He lives long enough to see even the terrible problem of lynching at its peak by the early to mid-1890s.
And here is a nice exchange on the importance of history:
MH: So let me ask you this, David. Let’s talk about studying history, learning history, reading history, at this moment. Why does it matter? Why does history matter? Why does the 19th century matter? Why does the Civil War matter?
DB: Well, hopefully we don’t skirt this with clichés, but of course learning some history is the only way to know who we are, how we got here, where we might be going, although we’re bad at predicting, we historians.
DB: We’re asked all the time, but we’re really bad at predicting. But mostly, I think, history gives a person a sensibility. It gives them a way of understanding how to ask questions. It gives them a way of scrutinizing both evidence and narrative, evidence and the story. Why am I being told that story by politicians or by the press or by whomever? What’s it based on? You study enough history, you begin to realize it is ultimately about interpretation rooted to some kind of evidence, and it means that that interpretation is always changing. It’s baffling and befuddling, and people don’t like it sometimes. They want to just know, what happened? “Just tell me.”
DB: But back to your point about tragedy: the whole point of tragedy is that tragedy is a way of viewing the world. I think to have a solid sense of tragedy about the human condition, and about history, is the real source of hope. It prepares you for when the next cataclysm might come, and when something even like 9/11, which was so cataclysmic, occurs, to know that it is not original. It’s happened throughout history that people have attacked civilians on a mass scale. It happened in the Trojan War. It’s happened ever since.
The more you know that, the more prepared you are for those times when it may actually happen to you. That was James Baldwin’s definition of what it meant to have a sense of history.
DB: I loved his answer when he was asked: what is a sense of history? He said: you think something has only happened to you, and then you realize it happened to Dostoyevsky a hundred years ago, and it’s especially important for a young person to know that they are, therefore, not alone.
To have a sense of history means you’re not alone. You know enough of the past to know that things that happen have happened before. You’re not alone in this story.
Read the entire interview here.
David Graham is an assistant professor of history at Snow College. This interview is based on his new book Loyalty on the Line: Civil War Maryland in American Memory (University of Georgia Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Loyalty on the Line: Civil War Maryland in American Memory?
DG: My interest in Maryland and Civil War memory began when I visited Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland while in graduate school. It was a dreary day with on and off rain. I was practically alone on the battlefield and as I visited the various parts of the landscape and the different monuments, I became interested in learning more about the history of the preservation of the battlefield and the monuments that dotted it. I ended up writing my Master’s thesis on the commemoration history of Antietam and that led me to look at Maryland’s place in the Civil War and American memory for my PhD dissertation at Purdue University. This research formed the basis of my new book.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Loyalty on the Line: Civil War Maryland in American Memory?
DG: Maryland did not adopt a clear, postbellum Civil War identity. The divisions within Maryland during the war persisted after 1865 and not only reflected the divisions of the country but also revealed the importance of the border state experience to American society decades after the Civil War.
JF: Why do we need to read Loyalty on the Line: Civil War Maryland in American Memory?
DG: It is my hope that this book offers an important argument to not only the field of Civil War memory but that it can also help inform our current conversations about the legacy of the Civil War and the manifestations of that legacy in our public spaces. In August of last year, the mayor of Baltimore made the decision to remove the city’s Confederate monuments. There was intense reaction and debate regarding this decision. I discuss these monuments in my book and add historical context to the current controversy. One of the themes in the book that I think is pretty clear is that controversy surrounding Civil War memory, monuments and otherwise, is not new. There is a long history of struggling with these symbols. That is a major part of my book.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DG: My interest in history was actually sparked by a high school English teacher. I always enjoyed history but never thought of it as a career until her class. She was a Civil War reenactor and her passion for Civil War history was clear. We read The Killer Angels (one of the few books in high school I actually read from cover to cover). I enjoyed the book but the life altering moment happened when we visited Gettysburg as a class. Standing on the battlefield imagining the events of those three days in July 1863 was surreal. The experience was heightened by the fact that we read the novel shortly before the trip to the battlefield. At one point in the battlefield’s museum, I was left behind by the rest of my class because I lost track of time while gazing at the artifacts and I completely forgot what I was supposed to be doing. From that point on, I knew I wanted to study history and I wanted to become a teacher of some kind. Preserved historic sites and wonderful educators are the reason I am an American historian.
JF: What is your next project?
DG: My second book project centers on reunions of former slaves during the postbellum period. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, freedpeople and their descendants began holding reunions throughout the United States as a way to reconnect with those who they labored beside before the outbreak of the Civil War. These gatherings indicate that the intimate relationships and neighborhoods that slaves cultivated during the antebellum period did not conclude with emancipation or the end of the war but persisted for the remainder of their lives. I’m currently researching the motivations of these reunions, their frequency, and the response they generated from white southerners. Looking forward to see where the research takes me.
JF: Thanks, David!
Noble. Civil. Classy. Kind. Gentle. Hopeful. Dignified. Selfless. Honest. Wise. Beloved. Modest. Hero. Leader. Moral. Courageous.
These are all words that have been used to describe George H.W. Bush since he passed away this weekend. Of course there are many writers on the Left who have complicated this glowing perspective, but as I watch his state funeral right now I am essentially listening to commentators describe the anti-Donald Trump.
I never met David Lowenthal, but his scholarship has influenced my work. I highly recommend The Past is a Foreign Country (1985) and Possessed by the Past: Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996).
Here is a taste of his obituary at The Guardian:
In 2017 the historian and geographer David Lowenthal, who has died aged 95, gave a lecture at University College London in which he insisted: “Heritage is not history: heritage is what people make of their history to make themselves feel good.” He contrasted the way that individual nations and tribes imagine their own heritage with the conception recently promoted by international organisations, notably Unesco, that heritage must be universal, for the good of all.
A case in point is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on a site said to cover locations important around the time of Jesus’s death. Six Orthodox and Catholic Christian denominations own different parts of the church, while two Muslim families look after its entrance. Solutions to the resulting clashes of responsibility are very much needed, just as with other sacred sites in the city.
American-born but British by inclination, David became professor of geography at UCL in 1972, retiring as emeritus professor in 1986. Apart from Unesco, the heritage agencies he advised included the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, the US National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust of Australia. Never afraid of controversy, he presented cogent opinions on a host of topics, such as the Elgin Marbles, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the role of the Barclay twins on the island of Sark.
He helped make heritage studies a discipline in its own right: the lecture he gave last year was the first in an annual series for UCL’s recently founded Centre for Critical Heritage Studies. In doing so, he pointed to the way history seeks to identify the truth while heritage exaggerates and omits, invents and forgets in order to fabricate prejudiced pride in the past. Heritage is fashioned to “attest our identity and affirm our worth”, an argument he developed further in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997).
Read the rest here.
A few quick comments:
- I support the spirit behind this act. The statue needed to be removed from its prominent place on campus.
- I understand what Silent Sam stands for, and I oppose it, but I was bothered by the hate and rage I witnessed during this video.
- The UNC History Department has made an earlier statement about the monument. The department proposed removing the monument from its prominent position on campus and moving it to an “appropriate place” where it could “become a useful historical artifact with which to teach the history of the university and its still incomplete mission to be ‘the People’s University.'” I wish the UNC administration would have acted sooner on the UNC History Department’s recommendation.
Robert Greene II, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, has a nice piece at Religion & Politics on the way we remember the careers and tragic deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Both were assassinated in 1968.
Public memory is how a nation remembers its past. It’s shown through acts of commemoration such as the dedication of statues, presidential proclamations, or national holidays. Memory can bind together the citizens of a nation through symbolism and pageantry. Conversely, it can also gloss over the legacies of important figures and moments. The deaths of King and Kennedy loom large in any misremembering of 1968. Though the two men had minimal interaction in their lifetimes, and what relationship they had was complicated, their assassinations during the same year marked a turning point. They occurred just prior to the rise of a staunch conservative ascendancy and liberal division that have continued to saturate American politics. King’s death left a hole in the moral leadership of the American left, while Kennedy’s death was the end of the optimism that defined the “Camelot”-style politics of the 1960s. For Americans to properly talk about what the nation is missing without those two figures would mean to fully reckon with the myriad of ways the United States has failed to uphold King’s dream and has ignored the words of Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president.
Read the entire piece here.
Last weekend Edward Ayers gave a stirring and inspiration presidential address at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento. (See our coverage here). The title was “Everyone Their Own Historian.” I was not in Sacramento for the conference, but I followed along eagerly as Liz Covart of “Ben Franklin’s World” fame live-tweeted:
We are accountable to the record on which we base our interpretations and tell our stories. We respect the materials with which we work. We are humbled by its complexity. We know we will never have enough information to make our claims. #OAH18
— Liz Covart (@lizcovart) April 15, 2018
— Liz Covart (@lizcovart) April 15, 2018
Still the profession has not always welcomed our fellow practitioners of history. Secondary and Primary teachers, public historians, community college teachers, contingent faculty, and independent historians have not always been welcome and have fought for acceptance. 2/2 #OAH18
— Liz Covart (@lizcovart) April 15, 2018
We can take our discipline out into the world, show that historical record matters. We can show that context matters and is important. We can show that some historical records are more reliable than others. #OAH18
— Liz Covart (@lizcovart) April 15, 2018
Over at Salon, Chauncey Devega interviews Ayers about Trump, Confederate monuments, and Civil War history. Here is a taste:
The Republican Party is in many ways the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South updated for the 21st century. There has long been a neo-Confederate element in the post-civil rights era Republican Party. With Trump’s election they have fully empowered. And in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, we actually saw the president of the United States, suggesting that there are “some very fine people” among neo-Nazis and white supremacists. How do you make sense of this?
I was in Charlottesville that day. I was going to teach a class that afternoon at the University of Virginia. I would start by explaining how there are people who turn to the symbols of the Confederacy as a native, indigenous rebellion against the power of the federal government. That appeals to a lot of people. But when you see that Confederate flag being mingled with Nazi flags, suddenly that claim upon an indigenous, pure and non-racialized argument about politics and “traditions” is gone. It has been forever entangled with white supremacy.
You might be surprised by the number of people who will come up to me after I give a lecture and tell me, “Slavery was wrong, I would never defend it. But the fact is that Robert E. Lee was a fine man and he was fighting for his home, right? He was fighting for what he thought was right.” You hear that a lot. It makes you realize all the evasions that are built into this defense of the Confederacy.
We have all these formulas that people use to say that they are proud of their ancestors. For example, he was a “good” slaveholder. Two, he didn’t really believe in slavery. Three, he wanted to get rid of slavery. Four, most white Southerners weren’t slaveholders so they could not have been fighting for slavery, and so forth. I listen to these folks and I then say, yes, let’s think about this. Let’s forget about whatever you might think about the character or identity of Robert E. Lee. What if the Confederacy had won? What if those men on horseback had actually accomplished what they set out to do? They would have created a nation explicitly based on perpetual bondage that would have been the fourth-richest economy in the world with a monopoly over the single most valuable commodity in the world. How would world history have been different? Other parts of the world would have looked to the South and said, “Ah, the path to the future leads through slavery.”
If you try to argue with them on the same ground that they form the question on, you will have a hard time persuading them. But it’s also the case that white Northerners and Westerners have a smug belief in the inevitable end of American slavery that is not warranted either.
Read the entire interview here.