More Adventures in Bad Children’s History Books

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I’ve written before about bad history books for kids. The latest entry on our shelf is the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Civil War, picked up at our local library. The Eyewitness series is very kid-friendly because it is full of colorful photographs and lots of interesting information about weapons and technology and the way things work. Its historical narratives, however, may leave something to be desired.

In this particular book, the problem starts on the cover. Children are invited to “Discover the war that turned brother against brother—from the birth of the Confederacy to Reconstruction.”

This is a romantic, white-centered reconciliationist framing of the war as a tragic event. It takes a highly atypical scenario–brothers fighting on opposing sides–and turns it into the quintessential experience of the war. In the decades after the war, many white Americans made sense of the bloodletting by trying to forget what the war had been about. Slavery, a social revolution, emancipation—these were glossed over in favor of a struggle between two noble sides, figurative American brothers caught in a tragic conflict.

I’m sure there is a whole historiography on the origins and uses of this “brother against brother” narrative which civil war specialists can fill us in on. I don’t remember what Blight says about it in his Race and Reunion. But suffice it to say for now, in a war that mobilized some three million combatants from sectionalized societies, the brother against brother experience was not the norm. But it was highly symbolic of how the white supremacist mainstream wanted to remember the war.

A far more typical experience of the civil war was the transition of four million Americans from slavery to freedom. It was there that family dramas really played out, as formerly enslaved people sought to reconstitute family ties slavery had broken. But you won’t find this on the cover because the publisher unwittingly assumes that atypical experiences should be privileged because they align with a long tradition of white memory.

Within the text itself, here are the first sentences of the book:

What rights does a state enjoy? Can it ignore a federal law with which it does not agree? Americans had been arguing about the powers of the national government versus the rights of the states longer than they had been arguing about slavery.”

The basic problem here is that the factual claim is incorrect. Obviously, arguments over slavery predated the existence of the national government! The broader problem is that though the book will go on to talk about slavery in some detail, here at the outset it is framing the civil war at the widest angle as a states’ rights struggle. This is a lie. It’s a lie that former confederates started telling immediately after the war to try to rehabilitate their cause. 150 years later, it’s still finding its way into our kids’ history books.

If You See Something, Say Something

Confederate Flag Future

This weekend at a community celebration in white, small-town America, terrorist flags waved in the air. As children laughed and scampered about and people bought their glow sticks and funnel cakes, no one seemed to pay much attention to the symbols of evil the cart vendors pushed threw the crowd.

Of course I’m being deliberately provocative, but provocation can be a useful tool to awaken our deadened moral imaginations. Confederate flags at a community fair are evidence of cultural pathology. As far as I could discern, their presence stirred no resistance from the community.

I talked to one of the vendors pushing his little cart through the crowd. As best I can recall, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Hi, are these flags for sale?”

Vendor: “Yeah buddy, they’re $15 bucks, which one do you want?

Me: “No, I’m not going to buy one. I know you’re just doing your job, but this flag is wildly offensive.”

Vendor: “No it ain’t; I just sold one to a black woman down the street.”

Me: “Oh, really?” (It seemed a transparent lie, not least because there were almost no black people there)

Vendor: “It’s history. If you don’t know your history it might offend you.”

At that he rushed on, seeking to avoid engaging, and I declined to harass him further. (For the record, I’m a historian.)

About 15 minutes later he came through our section of the crowd again and the Confederate flag was gone. I assume someone bought it. But maybe, just maybe, he took it down.

If people in your community were waving ISIS flags you would notice. We need to reframe our understanding of how despicable confederate nostalgia is. There must be no tolerance for it in your community. Confront people lovingly and politely, but don’t remain silent and become complicit in their sin. If you see something, say something.

The American Historical Association Weighs In On The Confederate Monument Debate

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Confederate monument in Portsmouth, VA. Bill Tiernan, The Virgina-Pilot

The AHA has released a statement on the Confederate monument debate. It’s worth reading in full. It probably represents the closest thing we have to a historical consensus about these monuments. It also effectively explains why removing the monuments is not an erasure of history. Here it is:

The American Historical Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Confederate monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.

President Donald Trump was correct in his tweet of August 16: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”

Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.

Understanding the specific historical context of Confederate monuments in America is imperative to informed public debate. Historians who specialize in this period have done careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th. Commemorating not just the Confederacy but also the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, this enterprise was part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South. Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life. A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol. Events in Charlottesville and elsewhere indicate that these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.

To remove such monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. The AHA encourages such discussions in publications, in other venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence. Indeed, any governmental unit, at any level, may request from the AHA a historian to provide consultation. We expect to be able to fill any such request.

We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record. Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.

Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.

Nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, African Americans had no voice and no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of the Confederate States of America. The American Historical Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.

Defenders of Confederate Monuments Don’t Want To Think Historically

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The granddaddy of them all. Stone Mountain, Georgia.

On the first day of class this semester, I’ll be introducing my students to the 5 C’s of Historical Thinking. Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke developed this framework as a simple way to introduce students to some of what it means to think historically. One of the C’s is context.

Historians spend much of our energy trying to figure out context. We must understand past people and events in light of the totality of the circumstances around them: their culture, beliefs, economy, language, and more.

When we try to understand a specific source, a sentence needs to be read in light of the whole document, the document in light of other documents, those documents read in light of other factors, and so on.

It gets harder. The past is a foreign country. That means you can’t assume that words mean what you think they mean, that people thought the way you think, or even that the historical document you have sitting right in front of you isn’t giving you a misleading picture of the past.

It gets harder still. Think about all the things in your life, the subtle social cues, the idioms, the inside jokes, the norms, the kinds of clothes that will make you stand out and those that will make you blend in. Think about what is ingrained and intuitive. These things are so obvious to you that they don’t need to be said. Centuries from now, if historians want to understand our world, they will have to try to recover what is unsaid. And so do we as we look at the past.

But sometimes, a public controversy rages even when it’s relatively easy to understand the historical context. So it is with the debate over Confederate monuments. Though defenders of the monuments style themselves as protectors of history, they actually tend to be hostile toward historical inquiry.

If we actually want to explore historical context—that is, think historically—here are some questions we might ask:

Who built the monuments?

When?

Why?

Was the building of them part of any broader social or intellectual movement?

These are exactly the kinds of questions monument defenders don’t want to explore. Their reluctance to ask serious questions of the past tells us how much they really value history. If you’re interested in the answers to those questions there are lots of historians who have tried to inform the public debate.

Here are a few:

Jane Dailey

Adam Goodheart

Annette Gordon-Reed

Karen Cox

W. Fitzhugh Brundage

The Lee Myth That Won’t Die

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Good riddance!

Robert E. Lee has been back in the news because his statue was one of those removed recently in New Orleans, and self-described white supremacists have been speaking up on his behalf. As Adam Serwer writes today in the Atlantic, some mainstream conservatives took umbrage at white supremacists’ efforts to claim an all-American hero for their hateful cause:

In the Richmond Times Dispatch, R. David Cox wrote that “For white supremacist protesters to invoke his name violates Lee’s most fundamental convictions.” In the conservative publication Townhall,  Jack Kerwick concluded that Lee was “among the finest human beings that has ever walked the Earth.” John Daniel Davidson, in an essay for The Federalist, opposed the removal of the Lee statute in part on the grounds that Lee “arguably did more than anyone to unite the country after the war and bind up its wounds.” Praise for Lee of this sort has flowed forth from past historians and presidents alike.

Serwer goes on to demolish this ignorant drivel and place Lee in a more appropriate context:

White supremacy does not “violate” Lee’s “most fundamental convictions.” White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions…

In Reading The Man, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.” …

Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly lead to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.

When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to “lay it on well.” Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.” …

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender. Then, in a spectacle hatched by Lee’s senior corps commander A.P. Hill, the Confederates paraded the Union survivors through the streets of Petersburg to the slurs and jeers of the southern crowd. Lee never discouraged such behavior. As historian Richard Plotkin wrote in No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, “his silence was permissive.”

This information is still new to many Americans because of the enduring and successful effort to mythologize Lee as the emblem of a noble white South. It’s past time to discard these romantic stories.

In the debate surrounding Lee and the removal of Confederate statues we repeatedly hear two fallacious arguments. First, that Lee was a man of his time. This obvious truism doesn’t have the absolving power people seem to think it does. All the southern military officers who decided to fight for the Union were also men of their time. So too were the abolitionists who knew slavery was evil. And Lee’s decision to prioritize his material interests and the interests of white people was a decision made in rejection of other possibilities of which Lee was well aware.

Choosing wealth and honor over humanity is quite common! We shouldn’t be so sure that we aren’t making the same choice with our lives right now. But that’s the advantage hindsight gives us: we can learn from the banal evil of people like Lee, and we can perhaps learn to see it in ourselves. But venerating it or excusing it is unacceptable.

The second fallacy is the conflation of remembrance and honor. It’s not hard to understand the difference between learning about the past and celebrating it. A lot of people seem to be deliberately obscuring this difference. The South is littered with public spaces that honor horrendous evil while telling a false story about the past. The irony of those who say removing these statues “erases history” is that the monuments are there precisely for the purpose of erasure. Lost Causers built them as creative acts of historical fiction. They honor a past of their own making.

There are legitimate arguments to be made for new forms of contextualization around the monuments rather than removal. A solution appropriate in one space might not work in another. But wherever you come down on the issue, don’t pretend there isn’t a difference between remembering the past and honoring its worst actors. Serwer concludes with a revealing point about the meaning of these statues:

There are former Confederates who sought redeem themselves—one thinks of James Longstreet, wrongly blamed by Lost Causers for Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg, who went from fighting the Union army to leading New Orleans’ integrated police force in battle against white supremacist paramilitaries. But there are no statues of Longstreet in New Orleans; there are no statues of Longstreet anywhere in the American South. Lee was devoted to defending the principle of white supremacy; Longstreet was not. This, perhaps, is why Lee was placed atop the largest Confederate monument at Gettysburg in 1917,  but the 6’2” Longstreet had to wait until 1998 to receive a smaller-scale statue hidden in the woods that makes him look like a hobbit riding a donkey. It’s why Lee is remembered as a hero, and Longstreet is remembered as a disgrace.

The white supremacists who have protested on Lee’s behalf are not betraying his legacy. In fact, they have every reason to admire him. Lee, whose devotion to white supremacy outshone his loyalty to his country, is the embodiment of everything they stand for. Tribe and race over country is the core of white nationalism, and racists can embrace Lee in good conscience.

The question is why anyone else would.

A Foreign Policy of Slavery

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Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

For decades, historians portrayed American slavery as a backward institution destined to wither in the onrushing tide of modernity. In the 1970s, Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll conjured images of a lost feudal world of master and slave. In the 1930s, even Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction argued that slavery “would have disintegrated of its own weight” had the Civil War not intervened. Whatever it was, American slavery was not modern, progressive, or efficient.

Based on anecdotal conversation with those who are not historians, my guess is that this is still the popular consensus. But in recent years historians have challenged this view. In the work of Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist, and Sven Beckert, we see a system of slavery that is adaptable, modern, capitalistic, and forward-looking. This Vast Southern Empire bears the imprint of the new scholarship on American slavery, but it’s really a book about foreign policy.

It has often been pointed out that the South dominated the federal government until 1860. Usually, a slaveowner sat in the White House, and the South enjoyed disproportionate power in congress and the judiciary. But what exactly did white southerners do with that power? In Karp’s narrative, it’s not just that southern elites sought to maintain a stranglehold on the federal government in a sectional battle for supremacy between North and South. They had bigger ambitions. From the broader perspective of foreign relations, the entire American state was a vehicle for the promotion of slavery. Southern slaveholders were not narrow sectionalists, but nationalists who skilfully used the federal government to promote a foreign policy of slavery.

The same southerners who feared federal power at home counted on its vigorous application abroad to advance a “hemispheric defense of slavery.” It was no coincidence that southerners led the effort to modernize and enlarge the army and navy in the 1840s and 1850s. Southerners annexed Texas, spurred the invasion of Mexico, and engaged in diplomatic intrigues in Europe and South America to thwart British abolitionist aims. Their vehicle for these endeavors was, simply, the American state.

Karp convincingly shows that the filibuster invasions of Nicaraugua and Cuba in the 1840s and 1850s are the wrong place to look for the global ambitions of southern slaveholders. Why turn to private armies and hapless adventurers when the vast powers of the federal government lay at their disposal?

Karp shows that southern elites were not reflexive supporters of expansionist schemes. Theirs was a foreign policy that regarded sovereignty as less important than social organization. Cuba would make a nice addition to the American union, but a slave-based Cuba under Spanish rule was better than an American-ruled emancipated Cuba. Southern slaveholders regarded monarchist Brazil and Spanish Cuba as allies and parliamentary Britain as a dangerous foe. Differences in governance aside, Brazil, Cuba, and the United States shared a common interest in protecting racial slavery from the influence of British abolitionism after 1833.

In this light, the crisis of 1860 looks different. Karp writes that Lincoln’s election was a revolution not just in the domestic balance of power between North and South, but in global power relations. For over two decades, the United States had acted as the pro-slavery counterweight in the western hemisphere to abolitionist Britain. With Lincoln’s election, the world’s leading promoter of slavery had effectively–and suddenly–switched sides.

Southern elites’ headlong rush into self-destruction in the crisis of 1860-1861 has long been a cause of fascination and debate. What was the source of their hubris? Karp demonstrates that slaveholders’ confidence was not only based on the narrow calculation that British mills could not forgo southern cotton. More broadly, many southern elites looked around the globe and persuaded themselves that the world was trending in their direction.

The most respected scientists on both sides of the Atlantic seemed to have established beyond reasonable doubt the fact of white racial supremacy, and the influence of scientific racism was growing by the day. Economically and geopolitically, too, southern slaveholders had reasons for optimism. Britain had passed its emancipation bill in 1833, and then watched as the economic value of its Caribbean colonies promptly collapsed. Britain’s subsequent resort to various forms of coerced labor was seen among southern elites as a kind of vindication. Europe’s imperial powers might have been opposed to slavery, but they were self-consciously white supremacist empires using the labor of people of color and violently extending their rule over new territories. They were, in other words, groping toward the economic and scientific “truths” the slaveholding South had already discovered.

Good historical scholarship allows us to see the past in new ways and imagine what might have been. After reading This Vast Southern Empire, it is easier to see why southern slaveholders believed they were on the right side of history, and it is almost surprising that their bold and despicable plans failed.