Amid the hustle and bustle of this Independence Day weekend I had a brief, interesting discussion with a person about this nation’s recent and widespread conversation about the Civil War and slavery in the United States. The person agreed with me that acknowledging slavery’s presence in America since 1619 was an important step towards a fuller understanding of our past, but he/she took issue with the calls of various media outlets, social activists, and even historical sites for people to “come to terms with America’s troubled slaveholding past.” More specifically, this person questioned the phrase “come to terms” and what exactly these organizations and people were trying to imply about the ways we should now approach our collective understanding of slavery’s legacy.
I love these sorts of questions and can usually find an answer within my head to help advance the conversation, but I was stumped here. The tenuous intersections between past, present, objectivity, and activism all came to a head in one very complex question.
I think the question requires two separate answers – what coming to terms with slavery means for our historical understanding and what coming to terms with slavery means for our future.
The first answer, upon further reflection, is easier for me to address. Although it doesn’t happen on too frequent a basis, I’ve interacted with enough people in my years as a public historian to know that the things people say about slavery on historic plantation tours in this article by Margaret Biser reign true for me too. I can’t tell you how many times visitors have suggested something along the lines of “slavery wasn’t as bad as the historians want us to believe,” “slavery was a part of our past and we must now move on from it,” “the Civil War was fought over economics/states’ rights,” “some slaves were treated well,” etc. etc. These sorts of comments suggest that some people are still skeptical about the horrific violence of African-American chattel slavery and its all-encompassing presence in America’s economic, social, cultural, and political evolution.
“Coming to terms” in this context, it seems, simply means acknowledging that slavery’s presence in the U.S. during its early years ensured that the process of putting its founding ideals into practice would proceed from an inherently unequal starting point, one that we are still trying to rectify today. The legal right to human property was tolerated, accepted, and even encouraged for more than 75 years after the nation’s founding, and the deadliest war in American history occurred in the 1860s as the nation’s white political leadership failed to come to a peaceful agreement about what to do with slavery moving forward. Many Americans understand these truths, but there’s no doubt in my mind that “coming to terms” with this past will be a monumental undertaking for some people.
But what are the future implications for society’s coming to terms with slavery? Does it matter whether or not we acknowledge the past so that we can ensure a more just future? Does coming to terms with slavery mean historians should be advocating for policy reforms and other collective actions like peaceful protests? What can I say and not say as a professional historian in uniform speaking on behalf of the federal government to the public? These are the sorts of questions I wrestle with all the time at work, and in this particular instance I was at a loss for words.
What does coming to terms with slavery mean to you? The floor is yours.