During the initial phases of Reconstruction, social reformers and advocates for black rights in the United States began calling for the West Point Military Academy to become racially integrated. Looking back at these developments, historian William McFeely wondered aloud in the 1980s why so much effort was exerted to integrate West Point in the years after the Civil War since it was, according to him, “perhaps the last place to look for democracy.” But the desire of blacks to enlist at West Point at this time does make sense. Nearly 200,000 African Americans joined United States Colored Troops regiments during the Civil War, and these efforts to defend the country in a time of need had played an integral role in postwar debates over the status of black rights in a newly reconstructed country. Amid the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments giving all native-born Americans the right of citizenship and all men regardless of color the right to vote, black men looked to postwar military opportunities to demonstrate their heightened presence in American society and establish stable careers for themselves.
The first black cadet accepted to West Point arrived in 1870. James Webster Smith was the man chosen for this task. A former South Carolina slave born in 1850, Smith garnered attention at an early age for his intellectual abilities and strong character, and a Connecticut philanthropist named David Clark eagerly used his wealth and influence to help Smith graduate high school and start a university education at the newly-established Howard University in Washington, D.C. During his time at Howard, South Carolina Congressman Solomon L. Hoge nominated Smith to attend West Point. Unfortunately for Smith, the West Point establishment–from the lowest cook to Cadet Commandant Emory Upton–were hostile to his presence there. After years of racial harassment and physical violence towards him, Smith was formally discharged from West Point in 1874 after Philosophy professor Peter S. Michie defied previous school custom and gave Smith a private examination. Michie declared that Smith had failed the exam and had “displayed a marked deficiency in deductive reasoning” which, in conjunction with prior claims against Smith’s character, established suitable grounds for his dismissal. Smith returned to his native South Carolina and taught mathematics and military tactics at what is now South Carolina Carolina State University, but he tragically died in 1876 at the age of 26 after a bout with tuberculosis. He was buried in Columbia, South Carolina, in an unmarked grave, and no one today knows the location of that grave.
The aforementioned historian William McFeely offers the most comprehensive analysis of Smith’s time at West Point in his Pulitzer Prize-winning but largely negative biography of Ulysses S. Grant. McFeely and subsequent historians have laid the primary blame for Smith’s mistreatment at West Point on President Grant for his failure to publicly speak out against these wrongdoings and Cadet Fredrick Dent Grant–eldest son of Ulysses and Julia Grant and a member of West Point’s Class of 1871–for allegedly being a ringleader in Smith’s harassment. I recently went back through McFeely’s biography and the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant to learn more about Ulysses and Fred’s roles in the Smith affair. I discovered that McFeely actually bungled some of the documentary evidence connecting Fred to any particular harassment against Smith, but I do concur with him that President Grant could and should have done more in his capacity as Commander in Chief and former General of the Army to stop the discrimination against Smith.
President Grant found himself in a number of difficult political situations when it came to West Point. Fred’s class of 1871 was a particularly unremarkable graduation class that often found itself in trouble with the academy’s leadership, much to the concern of President Grant, who hesitated to take any action that might suggest executive overreach or favoritism towards his son. Moreover, McFeely argues somewhat convincingly that Grant’s public comments one way or the other towards Smith’s harassment may have had limited influence on West Point’s daily culture anyway. “The place was impregnable to thought of any kind,” according to McFeely, and “his word would have penetrated neither mind nor heart” (376). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, apparently.
Smith’s harassment started immediately upon his arrival in 1870. That summer, cadets hurled racial epitaphs towards him and forced him to eat his meals at a separate table from the white cadets. Smith wrote a letter that June to his benefactor David Clark stating that the going was tough and that “these fellows appear to be trying their utmost to run me off.” Clark published this letter in a local paper to draw attention to Smith’s plight, and a court of inquiry found that the son of General Quincy Adams Gilmore and a nephew of Secretary of War William Belknap–among other cadets (but not Fred Grant)–were guilty of harassing Smith and subject to reprimands, but no punishment. Later in the fall Smith and another white cadet got into a physical altercation that led to another court of inquiry, this time led by General Oliver Otis Howard, a well-known supporter of black rights and the namesake of Howard University. Smith testified without counsel in the case and was successfully exonerated of any wrongdoing in January 1871. The harassment against Smith continued, however, and he was soon arrested after keeping his head down while marching. A third court martial came, this time overseen by Secretary Belknap (no friend to blacks and an unfortunate pick by President Grant to oversee the case). Belknap–with Grant’s support–was willing to pardon Smith, but only on the condition that he be held back a year to join the class of 1875. The former abolitionist Lewis Tappan, outraged at this ruling, offered to pay for Smith to leave West Point and attend a university in New England, but Smith refused. He endured for several more years at West Point until he failed Professor Michie’s “test.”
The nature of Frederick Dent Grant’s relationship to James Webster Smith and his role in the harassment towards Smith are hard to determine conclusively. McFeely claims that Fred led a “conspiracy” among white cadets to blackball Smith out of the academy and that “there was considerable evidence to suggest that he was an active participant in the ceaseless harassment of James Smith” (376). This is where McFeely screws up, however, because the evidence he employs to assert Fred’s racism actually comes from an entirely separate incident in 1870 involving a number of white cadets that Smith was never involved with. In that incident a group of senior cadets grabbed several white freshman cadets from their dorms and threw them out in the freezing cold to shiver in their underwear overnight. In a January 1871 investigation of the matter Fred testified to the Committee on Military Affairs that he was aware of the prank, that he supported it, and that he did nothing to stop it. McFeely conflates Fred’s testimony from this case with the separate court martial cases against Smith to make it look like he was aware of and supported Smith’s harassment. In actuality, Fred never testified in Smith’s cases nor admitted any role in his harassment.
Another claim against Fred that you will find on his Wikipedia page is that during a meeting between President Grant and David Clark in the summer of 1870 about Smith’s status in the academy, he exclaimed that “the time had not come to send colored boys to West Point” and that “no damned nigger will ever graduate from West Point.” But the source of this quote came from a letter Smith wrote four years after the meeting, and Smith himself was not present at that meeting. Added to this fact is a letter Clark wrote to Sayles J. Bowen in 1872 in which he asserted that Fred “said [at the meeting that] he had never spoken to Cadet Smith, nor had he any knowledge of any indignities heaped upon him, though he had heard about them. He said he should take neither one side nor the other in the quarrel, if one existed. He thought that it was premature to admit colored cadets at this time.” That’s quite different from what Smith reports in his later letter, leaving me to question whether Smith’s letter is a reliable source for understanding Fred’s role in this situation. Added to the complexity is that Fred himself never commented on the Smith case at any time later in his life.
To conclude: James Webster Smith’s courageous effort to racially integrate West Point and become the first African American graduate of the academy was marred by racist acts of harassment and violence towards him by fellow white cadets and apathetic indifference to stop it among the academy’s leadership and even President Grant himself. Although Grant claimed in his 1870 meeting with Clark that he supported Smith’s enrollment in West Point and vowed to protect him, his failure to make any public statements in support of Smith or against the harassment against him, and his appointment of prejudicial figures like Belknap to oversee Smith’s case represent a failure of leadership and a negative mark on his presidency. While other military figures like Upton, Belknap, and Howard deserve criticism for not doing more to protect Smith, it seems that Grant bears ultimate responsibility because even one public statement from him could have influenced public opinion and potentially pushed West Point into action. That he failed to do so is unfortunate to say the least. Even though McFeely’s interpretation of Frederick Dent Grant’s alleged racism at West Point has been largely accepted as gospel within the historical community, the available evidence against him is actually very shaky and unreliable. We simply don’t know a lot about Fred’s role in Smith’s harassment, but we can conclude that he was largely indifferent to the situation, did little to nothing as a senior cadet to offer support to Smith, and that he probably did hold some sort of racial prejudice against African Americans and their attending West Point. Ultimately both father and son could have taken a more proactive approach to protecting Smith’s welfare while at the academy.
Addendum: See The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 21, pages 28-34 and 140-141 for the primary source documents I have cited in this blog post.
In my time blogging at Exploring the Past I’ve gone on a sort of mini-crusade against conventional understandings within popular media about millennials’ relationship to digital technology and the ways they acquire knowledge. See here, here, and here for examples. Common arguments in this discourse include the belief that millennials acquire knowledge about the world in fundamentally different ways than older people; that old, conventional mediums of learning such as reading books or visiting museums are of little interest to millennials; and that we educators must fundamentally overhaul our approach to working with young students. We must embrace “disruption” in order to unlock the potential of young people. In the teaching world you might hear about the incorporation of digital technology in the form of iPads, computers, and ebooks as a way of making classes more hands-on and interactive, whereas in the public history world you might hear some vague jargon-y gobbledygook about “engagement” or “meeting the needs of a new generation” to get them to visit museums, National Parks, and the like.
I don’t buy into the “disruption” hype that says we must dismantle everything and that we must completely do away with books, textbooks, or lectures (although I agree that educators can and do abuse the lecture medium to their students detriment). The logic of “disruption” fits into a long history of what one scholar describes as “giddy prophecies” about new developments in media technology. Thomas Edison predicted in 1922 that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and . . . in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Similar prophecies have been uttered in recent years about floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and computers.
Well, it turns out that at least a few traditional educational mediums are resilient. A forthcoming study by linguistics professor Naomi Baron asserts that 92 percent of students and millennials prefer print books over ebooks, and that print publications still play an integral role in educational classrooms regardless of grade level. It turns out that print publications still have an important educational purpose nearly 100 years after Edison predicted their eventual demise. Furthermore, millennials actually read more than older adults!
Don’t get me wrong: I support the implementation of digital technology in both formal and informal learning environments, but I’ve always believed that such implementations need to be done with an understanding that these mediums are merely tools. They need to be used carefully towards a larger goal of making our students critical thinkers who ask good questions and demonstrate sharp, analytical thinking. If an “interactive” activity doesn’t accomplish these goals, then it’s worthless in my view. Rather than debating whether or not digital technology should play a role in education (it can and should), we need to discuss what approaches with digital tools work and which ones don’t. And again, the end goal is key. I believe Sam Wineburg is mostly correct when he asserts, with regards to the history classroom, that:
I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as . . . making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to think rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.
On January 21 Columbia University hosted a “History in Action” conference that received a lot of attention within the history community on Twitter. I was not at the conference, but I followed along online with much interest. The noted Harvard University historian Jill Lepore gave the keynote for the conference, which focused on writing for public audiences. Based on the tweets I saw it appears Lepore made a number of arguments about the state of the field today, most notably that historians have “retreated into the academy” and are hesitant to engage public audiences, that the speed by which they produce their work is “indefensibly slow,” and perhaps most provocatively:
The public doesn’t care about the past for its own sake, just about the relationship between the past and the present.
I want to address this last claim. While it’s something I might have agreed with while studying public history in graduate school a few years ago, I no longer agree with it.
The first problem lies in assuming that there is a singular non-academic audience–“The Public”–that exists for consuming historical scholarship. Public historians have argued since 2013 and probably earlier that there exists no singular public audience but many public audiences that approach history from a number of different perspectives. Students, activists, politicians, senior citizens, and other community members all bring different levels of pre-existing knowledge and interest with them when approaching historical scholarship in a book or at a public history site. If we wish to spark an interest and appreciation for history among these many publics, we must work to meet them where they are. That means working to move some people’s interest level and historical knowledge from square one to square two and other people from square nine to square ten. I think it’s great to see articles written by historians in The New Yorker and popular history books on the bestseller lists, but we need to think more broadly about the ways people consume history besides books and articles and acknowledge that the idea of “The Public” is a myth. Know your audience.
My personal observation is that many people interested in the past are interested for the sake of the past itself. Again, we have to look beyond the writing of op-eds, magazine features, and academic scholarship that can sometimes delve into contemporary issues. Why do people visit history museums and National Parks or watch history-related movies and television programming, things that get far more attention than most historical scholarship in print? One of the latest studies on visitor motivations suggests that people visit cultural sites to fulfill their identity-based needs, one of which is the desire to “escape the mundane, work-a-day world” and learn about things out of the ordinary like past historical societies. I contend that there are far more people that visit public history sites out of a genuine curiosity about the past than people who come specifically to find something relevant to the present. I am sympathetic to the idea of connecting historical interpretations to present-day issues, but we should acknowledge that such efforts are difficult to implement, often uncomfortable for both historians and audiences, and far from accepted practice in either written historical scholarship or at public history sites. The problem at many historic house museums is not that public historians are facilitating deep, thoughtful dialogues with audiences about the role of history in shaping contemporary political circumstances, but that too many house tours focus on giving “furniture tours” and offering positive anecdotes about happy slaves, benevolent enslavers, and the mythical good old days. The past is a foreign country, but it’s a country many people are still willing to travel to without the filter of a present-day connection.
Another consideration we need to keep in mind is that Lepore is an Americanist whose recent books include historical analyses of Wonder Woman and the conservative Tea Party movement, both popular subjects in recent U.S. historical memory and arguably relevant to present-day political issues and topics. But is every historian in a position to study and interpret historical topics that are so easily relevant to the present? Should Medieval and Ancient historians make their scholarship more accessible by only focusing on topics that are relevant to today? I’m just not sure how a Medievalist would respond to Lepore’s claim given that a topic like burial practices in 10th century France is going to be much tougher to relate to the present (although no less important) than the Tea Party’s use of American history to justify their movement’s political convictions and advocacy for conservative candidates in public office.
Finally, we should also keep in mind that what counts as “relevant” is subject to debate among historians and their many publics. Who in society gets to determine what history is relevant and irrelevant? Historians are not the only ones with the power to shape historical narratives and make connections to the present. What I as a historian may consider relevant to the state of society today may be dismissed by someone else as wholly irrelevant. If I wish to connect something like American slavery to present-day racism and mass incarceration, the onus is on me to craft those connections and prove their worth through a reasoned interpretation of available historical evidence. “Relevance” is not a self-evident concept.
What do you think?
I am currently working my way through The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by historian Stephanie Coontz. It’s a very provocative book that challenges a lot of our preconceived notions about family structures in U.S. history, and Coontz convincingly argues that the concept of “traditional family values” is really an invention of contemporary politics rather than anything rooted in historical fact.
Coontz points out that a common and persistent myth in current political discourse is that families today are suffering from the effects of modern “rootlessness”: this belief suggests that families today are more mobile and transient than they used to be, children generally have more fractured relationships with their parents and grandparents, and that children are being raised less by their parents and more by surrounding influences such as television, the internet, popular media, friends, and other community members. Coontz challenges this interpretation with a stunning fact that I have never seen before:
Families are not more mobile and transient than they used to be. In most nineteenth-century cities, both large and small, more than 50 percent–and often 75 percent–of the residents in any given year were no longer there ten years later. People born in the twentieth century are much more likely to live near their birthplace than were people in the nineteenth century (14).
She goes on to suggest that families today actually have stronger bonds than those of the nineteenth century. Grandparents are living longer and forging stronger relationships with their children, visits with relatives have increased, and only four percent of children today do not live with either parent, as compared to ten percent in 1940 and perhaps even higher in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, enslaved people in the nineteenth century often saw their families broken up and torn apart while family struggles and employment structures like apprenticeships for white families also demonstrate how communities and outside factors have always played an integral role in raising children.
This discussion got me thinking about the sorts of identities and allegiances nineteenth century Americans would have forged for themselves.
There is a school of thought that argues that more people identified with and considered themselves citizens of a state before aligning with the United States as a whole, especially before the Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee is seen as the archetype figure for this line of thinking. At the outbreak of war and with Virginia choosing to side with the Confederacy, Lee asserted that “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children & my home . . . & never desire again to draw my sword save in defence of my State.” Despite his years of service to the U.S. Army, Lee’s first allegiance was to Virginia and, by extension, his family. In his mind he had little agency in the matter since a choice to fight for the Union would be the ultimate form of betrayal to his primary allegiance. The novelist Shelby Foote infamously crystallized this state allegiance theory to millions of viewers on Ken Burns’s documentary of the Civil War:
Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are’—grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always ‘the United States is,’ as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.’
While this theory is compelling, I think there is room to question its accuracy.
Lee’s life experiences before the war represent an aberration from those of most nineteenth century Americans. He grew up in a prosperous, stable family with deep roots in his native state, and those roots were solidified even more when he married into the Custis family. Most families had neither the wealth nor the state roots of Lee’s family in the years before the Civil War. While it’s true that Lee’s army career took him to places far away from Virginia such as St. Louis and Texas, those travels initially strengthened his allegiance to the Union, not his state. As the late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor pointed out, Lee commented in 1857 that his patriotism extended to the whole country and that it “contained no North, no South, no East no West, but embraced the broad Union, in all its might & strength, present & future.” That argument clearly contradicts his later statements at the outbreak of war. Moreover, there were a number of Lee relatives that felt differently about their allegiances and eagerly signed up to fight for the United States against secession, and other notable Virginians like George Thomas and Winfield Scott had no qualms about maintaining their commissions in the U.S. army and their allegiance to the Union.
Shelby Foote’s assertion is also questionable. Andy Hall analyzed nineteenth century publications using Google Ngram and discovered that while “United States are” and “United States is” were used interchangeably during the early years of the Republic, the 1840s witnessed a sharp spike in the use of the term “United States is,” which may be indicative of wartime passions and calls for unity during the Mexican-American War. These calls were often led by nationalists North and South like Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and Daniel Webster. But beyond the written word we may also question how nineteenth-century Americans could have developed such strong allegiances to a state if they were so geographically mobile. And what about the millions of immigrants who came to the United States in the years before the Civil War? Did they emigrate out of an allegiance and identification with a particular city or state within the country, or did they come because of a belief in American ideals and a love of the whole Union?
Nineteenth century Americans were a mobile people. In an age of cheap, federally subsidized land, ever-developing transportation and communication technology, and rapid westward expansion, many Americans moved from place-to-place in search of communities and infrastructures that gave them the best chance at maintaining a stable family and economic life. It’s not evident to me that they would have automatically identified with a state more so than a local community, a city, or the whole Union. Their allegiances may have been multiple and endearing, but for many Americans their love of Union was paramount.
Last week the National Football League decided the St. Louis Rams would now be the Los Angeles Rams. The talented scholars at Sport in American History let me put my sportswriter’s hat on and submit a piece for the site, which went live today. I wrote about my disappointment as a St. Louisian who loved Rams football and made the case that the Rams relocation to Los Angeles sets a bad precedent for future NFL relocation crises. Writing this essay was simultaneously sad and liberating. Check it out here and let me know what you think.
One of the more eclectic works of scholarship in my library was published on the cusp of the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2010 and, as far as I know, has not received the attention I think it deserves. Don Doyle’s edited volume Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements brings together philosophers, political scientists, lawyers, and historians for many useful discussions about secessionist movements around the globe, both past and present. While an entire section of the book is dedicated to the exploration of Confederate secession and the American Civil War, other sections focus on secessionist movements in Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia, and still another section focuses on the philosophical challenges of developing what we might term an ethics of secession – a set of standards for establishing when and how a separatist group might establish the right of self-determination and be accepted into the global family of nations. For this overview I will mostly focus on a treatment of the essays that discuss the latter philosophical concerns. While discussions of Confederate secession and the causes of the Civil War are of great interest to me and many other scholars, this book’s strength lies in allowing readers a chance to look at secession with a broader focus.
Philosopher Christopher Wellman takes a fairly permissive view towards secession and argues that the sole factor determining when a separatist group can leave an established nation lies in its ability to perform basic political functions. If such a group demonstrates an ability to govern and protect “the human rights of their constituents,” he argues, then that group maintains a fairly solid case for establishing its own sovereignty in a separate state. Significantly, Wellman suggests that any cultural arguments for self-determination based on factors such as a group’s shared language, ethnicity, or religion are irrelevant to the secession process because a group that cannot conduct basic political functions will fail to lay claim to a given territory. This arguments goes against the history of many 19th and 20th century separatist movements that based their claims of self-determination largely on cultural factors, but I think it’s a sound one to make for assessing the political merits of contemporary secessionist movements.
Wellman also takes issue with scholars who simultaneously oppose unilateral secession and advocate for a voting process that allows secession only if a supermajority of voters in an entire territory approve such a measure. He argues that a simple majority in one or multiple elections over a quick period of time is preferable to a supermajority process that can be burdensome and undemocratic, since 51 percent of the population could hypothetically support secession and yet be denied their desire to separate because of the minority’s wishes to maintain the union. Wellman acknowledges that states often posses an amendment process like the one in the U.S. Constitution that requires a supermajority vote before making changes to their governing documents, since such proposals concern the stability and fundamental political concerns of the state. But apparently such a process for secession does not concern the stability of the state in Wellman’s eyes because the root question for him is whether the secessionist group can make the case for its own self-determination. On this point I am not as convinced by Wellman’s arguments.
Historian David Armitage explores the relationship between secession and civil war, and how active separatist movements (especially ones with arms) are frequently accompanied by severe warfare and violence, although that does not always have to be the case. He argues that commonly accepted definitions of secession and civil war today have been largely shaped by how they were defined at the time of the American Civil War, specifically through the legal definitions of lawyer and professor Francis Lieber’s famous “Lieber Code” that attempted to outline acceptable laws of war for pursuing the Union war effort. Armitage points out, however, that many conflicts today that could be considered an act of secession and/or a civil war don’t meet Lieber’s definition of those terms. Moreover, he suggests that a term like “Civil War” is reflective of a Unionist interpretation of a given conflict because it portrays events as a internal war, whereas secessionists would argue that such conflicts are analogous to an international conflict and not necessarily a civil war.
Armitage concludes his essay by arguing that the American Revolution was actually a civil war perpetuated by an act of secession by the American colonies. He asserts that the colonists initially wished to remain in the British empire and that their political concerns against the crown were born out of the perception that their rights as Englishmen were being compromised, not that they were a separate people distinct from the mainland British populace. When those rights were not acknowledged, the colonists presented the Declaration of Independence as an act of secession from the British empire. I personally do not buy most of this argument. While I’m willing to concede that the conflict had characteristics of a civil war, the Declaration of Independence asserts that the colonists were employing their natural right to revolution and not their political right to secession, which did not exist under the British empire. The colonist leaders of the war effort with Britain understood that they were breaking away from the empire through an act of revolution, not secession. Brooks Simpson has a thoughtful explanation of the distinction between revolution and secession here.
Much like the aforementioned two essays, law professor Peter Radan’s essay on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address has points of agreement and disagreement with me. In particular Radan focuses on Lincoln’s arguments that the Union preceded the States, that a state could not secede without the Union’s consent, and that a morally justifiable reason was necessary for Confederate secession to be valid. Radan disagrees with Lincoln’s reasoning in a number of ways by arguing that the States came before the Union, that unilateral secession can be justified if the terms of the political contract are altered (he posits scenarios in which both North and South violated this contract), and that a moral justification for secession is unnecessary for it to succeed and gain international acceptance. I believe Radan might be correct on the last point in that secessions and revolutions often occur regardless of their moral implications, but his other points have problems.
Radan points out, for example, that the Declaration of Independence’s wording states that the colonies were “free and independent States” and that “they [had] full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” “This assertion,” argues Radan, “can hardly be said to express the notion that there is a union and no independent states [in 1776].” But Lincoln himself gave a pretty convincing argument in his First Inaugural to suggest that some form of a union did already exist. Lincoln acknowledged the “free and independent states” clause of the Declaration, but argued that “even then the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge and their mutual action before, at the time, and afterwords abundantly show.” Indeed, Virginia, New York, or any other state never assumed the power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, or generally function as “free and independent states” as Radan conceives the term. Ultimately neither Radan nor Lincoln are completely correct about whether the States or the Union came first because the documentary evidence is complex and contradictory on this point. Historian Kenneth Stampp is closer to a correct answer when he argues that the question is moot because the 1787 Constitution aimed to “form a more perfect union” that established a clear break with all past forms of governance in the colonies and early nation. Stampp simply describes as the 1787 Constitution as “a new and better one” that completely overthrew the Articles of Confederation. What existed before that point no longer mattered, so perhaps Lincoln’s claims of the Union being older than the states may not hold as much weight as he hoped they would.
Radan’s arguments against Lincoln’s position on the illegality of unilateral secession are rooted in the belief that the union is (or was) a compact between states, what James Madison described as the assumption that “every party to a compact, has a right to take for granted, that its construction is the infallible one, and to act upon it against the construction of all others, having an equal right to expound the instrument.” In other words, the states are fully sovereign and can unilaterally break away from the compact at will. But is the Union really a compact of states that can be broken at will by any one of the states, or is it a nation whose powers are vested in the people of the states working in concert as a unified body? Madison himself pioneered the idea of dual sovereignty–that various forms of sovereignty could exist at both the national and state level–but concluded towards the end of his life that a state could not unilaterally nullify a federal law or break away from the Union. In an 1830 letter to Nicholas Trist he commented that “no State can at pleasure release itself therefrom, and set up for itself. The compact can only be dissolved by the consent of the other parties, or by usurpations or abuses of power justly having that effect. It will hardly be contended that there is anything in the terms or nature of the compact, authorizing a party to dissolve it at pleasure.” This is not to suggest that Madison is the last word on the subject, but only to suggest that the idea of the constitution granting the right of unilateral secession to the states would have been a surprise to many of the people who played a role in the writing of that very constitution.
Finally, there are two essays by Bruno Coppieters and Aleksander Pavkovic that are worth briefly mentioning. Coppieters focuses on recent separatist movements in Europe and how the European Union has addressed these conflicts within countries such as Belgium, Spain, and Slovenia. He demonstrates how the EU has distinguished between separatist movements based on just cause (that the state has committed a wrongdoing against a specific group of people) and movements based on choice theory (that a group should have the right to self-determination simply because they choose to do so, and not based on any moral considerations or wrongdoings). Coppieters concludes that the EU has attempted to mediate secessionist crises in the interest of maintaining peace and has more often supported separatist movements with specific grievances and wrongdoings committed against them rather than movements based solely on choice theory. He suggests that the EU should establish a clearer “institutional framework within which conflict transformation and resolution may take place” for maintaining peace and orderly transitions for new nations when secession is viewed as a viable solution.
Pavkovic offers what is perhaps my favorite and most provocative essay of the book by criticizing all nationalist ideologies because they “privilege, on no justifiable grounds, one group against all other groups and individuals.” He rightly points out that both the anti-secessionist state AND secessionist separatist groups run the risk of committing immoral acts of violence against unarmed civilians and opposition groups in the name of nationalism. Pavkovic wades into territory the other essays leave untouched by asking if “the use of military force in order to achieve or to prevent a secession is justified on moral grounds” and whether or not, in the case of warfare, “independent statehood is worth the sacrifice of human lives and misery that attends any military conflict.” Whereas Wellman is primarily concerned about the ability of separatist groups to demonstrate political self-determination and Radan seemingly discredits any moral implications of secession and its potential for prolonged violence, Pavkovic challenges readers to face the moral implications of secession head on and consider whether or not the national allegiances we hold are worth killing and dying for.
I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here and I’ve barely touched the surface on what this great book has to offer. Go out and buy it!
To kick off the new year I’ve done a little bit of maintenance work on the website that I’d like to share with readers.
My Resources page has been updated to include some of my better writings from 2015. The collection spans back to my first days blogging here at Exploring the Past back in 2013. It’s a good way to keep track of writings that would otherwise be hard to find though the search function on the website.
I have also created a Google Doc that contains all of my open access publications from other websites and papers I’ve presented at conferences. You can view that document here. I will also leave a permanent link to the document on my Curriculum Vitae.
Please take a look at these writing and enjoy (hopefully).
I always said, blacks need to stop bringing up slavery all the time. It was a long time ago. Why can’t they just move on and forget about it? But then they wanted to move on and get rid of these confederate statues, and I was all like, “Things that happened a long time ago are still important. You shouldn’t forget about them!”
The above quote comes from a really funny piece of satire that a friend shared with me from The Push Pole, a website based out of Southern Louisiana. Its title seems apt for the times: “Thousands of History Buffs Magically Appear After City Council Votes to Remove Confederate Monuments.” The piece is funny because it’s rooted in a partial truth about the complex and contradictory ways Americans often choose to remember their history: “Never Forget” is an arbitrary term that extends to historical events and people we care about, but when it comes to historical things we consider to be overblown or simply not worth caring about, “we need to move on” becomes the default response. (See Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s essential essay on “Never Forget” for more thoughts on the subjective nature of the term).
The taking down or altering of some public statues, monuments, and memorials honoring the Confederacy sparked a vigorous debate in 2015 about the place of Confederate iconography in America’s commemorative landscape and whether or not some of these icons–particularly the ones in places of public governance, public schools, town squares, and the like–should remain in their place of honor. The online discussion took place through blog posts, newspaper op-eds, and thousands upon thousands of comments. While some of these discussions were productive and enlightening, we were also treated to excessive and misleading cries of “erasing history” (which is a flawed argument to take when analyzing public iconography), poor analogies that compared changes to Confederate iconography to ISIS-led destruction of Middle Eastern history, and emotion-filled hysterics that often said more about the politics of the present than any actual grasp of historical knowledge. And while folks got emotionally heated about Confederate icons, other historical artifacts such as this 19th century Virginia slave cabin are being demolished or in other cases facing potential demolition in the near future, all amid the sound of near silence on and offline.
What is the point of preserving symbolic icons that commemorate historic events and people if the actual historical artifacts that act as tangible representations of these events and people go away; things like letters, historic homes, battlefields, and other material artifacts? What would happen if some of that energy expended on debating iconography went towards preserving local history, Civil War battlefields, slave cabins, historic cemeteries, material artifacts, or archival records?
You and I can write blog posts or comment on newspaper articles until our fingers break off, but none of it really matters unless we get involved in our local communities and work towards convincing our neighbors of the importance of preserving history. Contact your local officials and tell them why public funding is important for ensuring a future grounded in an honest, responsible understanding of the past. Tell them to support historic preservation efforts in your area. Tell them that it’s important to support history education initiatives in the k-12 classroom such as National History Day and humanities programs in community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Tell them to support local institutions like historical societies, museums, and archival repositories. Join a preservation group like the Civil War Trust or the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Go visit a nearby National Historic Site. Attend a historical reenactment. Ask questions and be willing to listen and learn about the past, even if it’s difficult and unpleasant.
If you live in a community where a statue, monument, or memorial is currently garnering controversy, read up on relevant scholarship about the historical event being commemorated and why a symbolic icon was erected to preserve the memory of that event. Honestly consider whether or not that symbolic icon should remain in a place of honor in your community. If town hall meetings or other events are taking place about the history in your area, go to them. Listen to the perspective of other community members and express your own thoughts as well. Work towards becoming an active member of your community and an advocate for history.
If 2015 marks the beginning of a renewed conversation about history and memory in American society, let us use 2016 as a starting point for a renewed effort towards advancing the importance of supporting, preserving, and educating people about the history that is all around us. Get off the message boards and get to work in your community.
Cheers to a great new year.