Removing Confederate monuments erases history–or not

Posted on June 22, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We were reading a great interview with Harvard Law School history professor Annette Gordon-Reed on the recent attacks made on statues of slaveholders, conquistadors, and Confederate soldiers. You can read it all here; we’ve pulled out a few highlights.

GAZETTE: What do you say to those who argue that the removal of such statues in prominent public settings dishonors the memory of those who died fighting for the Confederacy?

GORDON-REED: I would say there are other places for that — on battlefields and cemeteries. The Confederates lost the war, the rebellion. The victors, the thousands of soldiers — black and white — in the armed forces of the United States, died to protect this country. I think it dishonors them to celebrate the men who killed them and tried to kill off the American nation. The United States was far from perfect, but the values of the Confederacy, open and unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of black people, to the extent they still exist, have produced tragedy and discord. There is no path to a peaceful and prosperous country without challenging and rejecting that as a basis for our society.

–This is extremely well-put and we can add nothing of value to it. The BLM protests happening all over our country are based on the truth of the last sentence.

GAZETTE: Many believe that taking the statues down is an attempt to cover up or erase history. Do you agree?

GORDON-REED: No. I don’t. History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. Who Frederick Douglass was. Who Abraham Lincoln was. There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.

–Here Gordon-Reed addresses the argument that always irritates us as historians. As if the main vehicle of learning about U.S. history were Confederate statues! Those statues are not preserved and defended in the name of the objective study of our national history. They are preserved and defended as evidence of the Lost Cause and meant to enforce a sense of alienation from the U.S. predicated on primary identification with “the South”.

GAZETTE: What about the slippery slope argument? Many of America’s founders — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — owned slaves. Does removing statues of Columbus or Confederate officials pave the way for action against monuments honoring those who helped create the United States?

GORDON-REED: I suppose, if people want to, everything can pave the way to some other point. I’ve said it before: There is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years. …No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation.

–Again, perfectly stated, and in need of no confirmation from us. But we celebrate this truth-telling, and recommend it to all Americans.

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Confederate monuments and the cult of the Lost Cause

Posted on March 13, 2018. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a great article from Smithsonian, by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, on the real reason so many Confederate monuments were put up in this country, both just after the Civil War and in the 1950s and 60s. One application for federal funding to preserve three Confederate statues as historically important specifically states that the statues commemorate the Cult of the Lost Cause:

“The Cult of the Lost Cause had its roots in the Southern search for justification and the need to find a substitute for victory in the Civil War. In attempting to deal with defeat, Southerners created an image of the war as a great heroic epic. A major theme of the Cult of the Lost Cause was the clash of two civilizations, one inferior to the other. The North, “invigorated by constant struggle with nature, had become materialistic, grasping for wealth and power.” The South had a “more generous climate” which had led to a finer society based upon “veracity and honor in man, chastity and fidelity in women.” Like tragic heroes, Southerners had waged a noble but doomed struggle to preserve their superior civilization. There was an element of chivalry in the way the South had fought, achieving noteworthy victories against staggering odds. This was the “Lost Cause” as the late nineteenth century saw it, and a whole generation of Southerners set about glorifying and celebrating it.”

It’s very odd that this clear-eyed assessment of the Lost Cause as a cult and therefore a myth was successfully used to justify maintaining three Confederate statues in Louisiana. One would think that the goal of preserving acknowledged racist propaganda would be recognized as out of step with real American founding principles.

The only thing we would add is that Landrieu mentions the fact that Confederate memorials were put up in the North as well as the South. This is true; it happened directly after the war as part of an attempt to heal the breach and offer a socio-political olive branch to the South. But that misguided effort quickly died away in the North, while statues continued to go up regularly and in abundance in the former Confederacy.

“How I Learned About the Cult of the Lost Cause,” by Mitch Landrieu—enjoy!

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