A Quick Review of Sanford Levinson’s “Written in Stone”

Sanford Levinson - Written in Stone

A couple weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of meeting Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and currently a part-time history professor at New Mexico State University. Dr. Pitcaithley is an intellectual thinker and public historian that I really look up to, and it was great being able to participate in a workshop he put on about the causes of the Civil War for my work. In the course of the workshop we got wrapped up in the whole Confederate icons debate and he recommended that we read Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies by Sanford Levinson, a law professor and Constitutional scholar at the University of Texas Law School. Written in Stone clocks in at a very short 140 pages and I finished reading it a few days ago. I recommend it as a worthwhile read for those interested in this topic.

Although Written in Stone was published in 1998, it reads as if it was written in the past year. Levinson addresses all of the controversial icons that have either been removed or put under intense scrutiny in recent months, including the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State Capitol, Monument Avenue in Richmond, and the statue to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans, among many others.

Levinson’s legal training allows him a unique perspective on this topic that I hadn’t really considered until reading this book. One of the big questions of the book is whether the state “can properly honor anyone, or celebrate any particular views” in a fair fashion. Can the state celebrate its history and honor that history thorough public commemoration? One view is that public commemoration by the government should be ruthlessly neutral and regulated the same way religion is via the establishment clause of the Constitution, neither aiding one religion, all religions, or one over another. In this view one might look at the celebration of “American heroes” as a form of civil religion that could be deemed unconstitutional and is at the very least in bad taste. But Levinson argues that a “neutral” approach to historical commemoration is naive and impossible to achieve. While he acknowledges that the state runs the risk of dominating the intellectual marketplace, he asserts that the state does have a role in that marketplace, from politicians giving major policy speeches to public school teachers and school boards determining what textbooks will be used in the classroom to educate students. He also cites United States v. Gettysburg Electric Co., an 1896 Supreme Court case in which the Justices unanimously determined that the federal government could confiscate land from an electric company since the land in question, which the government intended to use for housing Civil War monuments, constituted a “public use.” Chief Justice Rufus Peckham’s opinion expressed the idea that preserving the land for monumentation and public use “manifests for the benefit of all its citizens the value put upon the services and exertions of the citizen soldiers of that period.” So, in sum, the government can engage in public acts of commemoration through monuments, flags, and other icons. This right is a double-edged sword, however, as what constitutes what is worthy of public commemoration is very much contested.

Levinson makes a number of arguments about Confederate icons in Written in Stone. He argues forcefully that the taint of racism, slavery, and opposition to Civil Rights that is so often identified with Confederate iconography makes the erection of new public iconography honoring the Confederacy in poor taste and something he would reject. At the same time, however, Levinson opposes the idea of taking down older, preexisting icons. He instead calls for them to either stay in place, to contextualize them, provide a counter-monument, and/or relocate them to a museum, all of which he prefers to outright demolition. At the end of Written in Stone Levinson offers nine different solutions for addressing the Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas, all of which are worth considering. (Last year that statue was removed from UT and relocated to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History).

I do not agree with Levinson on all points. I think he over-emphasizes the power of contextualized wayside markers as effective educational pieces for addressing the troubling history that something like the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place aims to venerate and celebrate. I think most people who view public icons with wayside markers don’t bother to read the markers or only skim them without really making a strong effort to interpret their meaning. I also think Levinson downplays the fact that many Confederate icons in public spaces like town squares and campus buildings have always been a point of controversy within local communities, particularly ones with a large African American presence. The recent debates may be new to many people, but they are old hat for those who live and work in communities where they see these icons on a daily basis. If the themes and messages of the Confederacy are too tainted and too offensive to be honored through newly constructed public iconography, then why should local communities be saddled with past Confederate icons that no longer represent the values of those communities? Are there times when taking down and destroying an icon is the most appropriate measures for ensuring healing, reconciliation, and closure from the past? I believe there is, such as when the Confederate Flag was lowered from the front of the South Carolina State House and when the city of New Orleans announced its intentions to remove its monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. I would say, however, that such drastic measures should only be a last resort and used sparingly on an individual basis. There are certainly times when contextualization, removal to a museum, or simply doing nothing are also appropriate.

Be sure to check out Levinson’s book if you get the chance.


Navigating the Intersection of History and Contemporary Politics

What it feels like to be a historian looking at contemporary politics.
What it feels like when a historian sees a politician abusing the past for his or her own ends.

Many of us who study history do so in part because we are curious to see how our current society came to be. When discussing anything like education, economic, or foreign policy, it helps to see how policies, theories, laws, and ideas have evolved over time. There is a seductive quality to historical thinking. Sometimes, for better or worse, it leads us to believe that studying the past can offer us stability, order, and a better understanding to the world. We should be cautious, however, about drawing hard and fast conclusions about what the past can really teach us about the present or what it can do in terms of mapping out a foundation for future policy. Likewise, we should be very cautions about drawing comparisons between historical events and contemporary politics. I’ve been seeing a lot of these types of articles lately. But of all the reasons one may be inclined to oppose Donald Trump’s presidential bid, I don’t think Zachary Taylor’s rise to the Whig party’s Presidential nomination in 1848 as an “outsider” candidate and the subsequent fall of the Whig party in the 1850s is one that would prevent many people from voting for Trump, even if there are some similarities between the 1848 and 2016 elections. (It also bears pointing out that Ulysses S. Grant was very much a political “outsider” when he accepted the Republican party’s nomination in 1868, and the party turned out to be just fine with him at the helm. So it seems like there is no accepted wisdom when it comes to choosing outsider candidates based on historical precedent).

Ultimately I think there is a very fine line between studying history for the sake of understanding changes over time and how things came to be, and studying history as a means of forming future policy. I often get lost in the gray area of the intersection of history and politics when thinking about the importance of historical thinking as a way of making sense of the world. I do think there are some connections to be made between past and present. Here in the United States I don’t believe it’s a mere coincidence that the states where the harshest anti-LGBTQ legislation has been passed are also the states that most ardently supported Jim Crow laws and resisted the Civil Rights Movement in the recent past. And yet at the same time I understand that the people of the past were not like us. There’s nothing suggesting that today’s society will act a certain way because of what happened in the past. I don’t believe that history repeats itself. But how we understand the past is contested in part because we disagree about the historical connections and comparisons that make sense for explaining the world today. As a society debates its history and competing interpretations vie for the most compelling understanding of the past based on available evidence, politics fills the void left by an uncertain, incomplete, and inchoate understanding of the role of history in shaping present circumstances.

Are there any “lessons of history” to be gleaned from studying the past? There are a few that come to mind for me.

One “lesson” is that humans are complex figures and nothing is predictable. Historical precedents often give us imperfect answers for solving contemporary problems. At the same time, while I value the contributions of social scientists in politics and economics, I tend to look upon their predictive models with great skepticism because they value generalizations that dismiss statistical outliers over complex interpretations that take a more holistic view of societal thinking, which is what historians try to do most of the time. That does not mean social science has nothing to contribute, but only that there will be incorrect predictions at times and human behaviors that go beyond numbers and trends. Nate Silver screws up sometimes.

The other lesson is that “progress” is a double-edged sword that always comes with a trade-off. The invention of standardized time in the 19th century provided order to an industrializing world and ensured more efficiency and larger production capabilities in a capitalist economy, but it also made people slaves to the clock and killed many workers who yielded under this unforgiving economic structure. The development of the world wide web, the internet, and smartphone technology quite literally gives us the world at our fingertips, allowing us the chance to access tens of thousands of books, articles, and bits of information that people in the past would have never had access to. And yet at the same time we have become addicted to our phones. The internet is full of misinformation that spreads like a wildfire through social media and poorly-written memes. Whether or not we are truly smarter than those who lived before this technology is very much an open question. And, as Evgeny Morozov has so convincingly demonstrated, the internet doesn’t make us freer and in fact can be used to prop up authoritarian governments. I subscribe to the Walter Benjamin theory of progress and his conception of history as a storm that we crash into while we have our backs to the future.

In the end I like what historian Ian Beacock has to say about history and contemporary politics. To wit:

Do we need to banish history from our public life? Of course not. But we ought to think more carefully about how we put it to use. Appeals to the past are most valuable, and do most to strengthen our democratic culture, when they help us see more potential futures: by showing events to be contingent and complex, turning us away from simplistic models and easy answers, and reminding us of the terrific, terrifying creativity that drives human behavior. In practice, that means we should spend less time trying to find the perfect single equivalence between Trump and politicians past and more time reflecting on broader patterns. More than particular historical analogies, we need historical thinking.


General Robert E. Lee’s Treason Case

Photo Credit: National Archives
Photo Credit: National Archives

I wrote this essay a couple of days ago for work. You can read more about General Lee’s Parole and Citizenship status here.


On June 13, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee wrote an important letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Six days earlier a U.S. District Judge in Virginia named John C. Underwood had handed down a treason indictment against Lee for his role as a Confederate military leader during the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson supported Underwood’s prosecution of Lee, who could have been tried for treason because he was not included in the president’s amnesty proclamation for the majority of former Confederates. “I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do,” Lee wrote to Grant. “I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, & do not wish to avoid trial.”

General Grant opposed the idea of prosecuting Lee for treason. He argued that the terms agreed upon at Appomattox granted parole to the surrendering forces. They exempted Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from further prosecution since they promised that the defeated Confederates would “not be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” To turn back on these terms and indict Lee for treason would damage the reputations of both the U.S. government and General Grant personally, hindering future efforts to reunify the country. Johnson and Grant argued over the matter for four days until Grant threatened to resign his generalship. Johnson relented and on June 20 his Attorney General James Speed ordered that no paroled officers or soldiers be arrested. General Lee would be granted amnesty and not tried for treason. His citizenship, however, would not be restored until a posthumous ceremony featuring President Gerald Ford in 1975.

If You Don’t Like Being Stereotyped, Don’t Stereotype Others

Twitter can be a really weird place sometimes.

We’ve had another mass shooting here in America. As is the case for every other shooting that’s gained national attention since the advent of popular online venues like Facebook and Twitter, many Americans turned to their social media accounts after the Orlando Massacre to express grief, find consolation within their networks, and express their political opinions about what problems need to be addressed to ensure a better future for the country. As much as some people would love for the country to come together in the wake of tragedy and put politics aside, the easiness with which social media allows us to amplify our views to a large audience is too tempting for many users. I am sympathetic to the idea of scaling back the personal opinions during trying times such as these, but I’m realistic enough to know that national tragedies often become politicized before the blood is dry.

And so it was no surprise to me when I came across this dumb meme on Twitter the other day. Of course someone had to turn this tragedy into a statement about the true victims in this country. Yes, those folks who like waving Confederate flags and celebrating the ideals of the Confederacy who face cultural persecution and impending death by a lethal dose of political correctness.

White Supremacists Lack Spelling Skills

The message seems clear enough. The perpetrator of last year’s Charleston Massacre, Dylan Roof, is a known white supremacist who proudly posed with Confederate flags in numerous pictures before the shooting. In response, there have been efforts throughout the country to reassess and in some cases take action to remove Confederate icons and symbols from public places of honor. We can see that whoever created this meme believes that as a supporter of Confederate heritage, he or she is being perceived as racist for waving the flag, and that the actions of one person are unfairly representing the views and values of an entire group of people. That’s actually a fair point to make. Self-identified interest groups, whether political, social, or cultural, often maintain a spectrum of views that are sometimes hard to generalize about. Certainly we can all agree that most Confederate heritage defenders are not bent on committing a mass shooting to incite a race war, as Roof hoped to do.

But then this person engages in the very same behavior he or she criticizes in others by complaining that they can’t make generalizations and demeaning comments about an entire religion and ethnic group without being called a racist! “You’re called racist if you speak out against Islam.” Well yes, that’s what happens when you make generalizations and stereotypes about an entire religion or ethnic group based on the actions of one person and deem them inferior to your own group. Apparently Dylan Roof’s actions do not speak for all Confederate Heritage advocates, but Omar Mateen’s actions speak for all Muslims around the world. Get the picture yet?

There are all different sorts of radical ideologies that worry me, not the least a group like ISIS. But I think there’s a lesson to be learned here. If you don’t like being stereotyped, then don’t stereotype others. If you take exception to being called a racist, then don’t engage in racist behavior. If you don’t like seeing a radical appropriate and define the message of your group, then take actions to change the perception and redefine the message. And please, for the love of God, check your spelling and grammar before sharing these silly memes.


Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon Are Not the Only National Parks in the United States

NPS Logo

If you’ve turned on the news within the past month and heard something about the National Park Service, it was most likely bad news. Indeed, the media perception of late is that the agency is crumbling apart amid the weight of too many visitors (and too many visitors behaving stupidly), broken down facilities, and staffing shortages. A baby bison died after visitors thought it was smart to put it in their car; a man died at the Norris Geyser Basin hot spring after walking off the designated trail; another group of six people were kicked out of a park after being spotted walking across a hot spring and putting their lives in danger. All of these events, of course, occurred at Yellowstone National Park, arguably one of the most popular national parks in the entire country.

It’s true that record-breaking attendance numbers, maintenance backlogs, and staffing shortages (!!) exist within the National Park Service. For these reasons the agency’s #FindYourPark Centennial campaign has been scrutinized in some quarters for privileging access to resources over the preservation of those resources, and a powerful essay from conservationist Erica Prather on Medium going around on social media now calls upon the Park Service to abandon the #FindYourPark campaign for a #ProtectYourPark campaign and for visitors to change their behaviors for the good of the natural and cultural resources now in danger.

I agree and disagree with Prather. She proves that EPA air quality standards and human-wildlife interactions are becoming a problem at many national parks, and I agree with the general sentiment that more visitor education about park safety and the importance of protecting our parks are sorely needed. But overall her essay is alarmist, exclusionary, and elitist.

Prather argues that one of the central flaws of #FindYourPark is that “social media [ensures] that they’ve already been found.” She comes to this conclusion, however, because she narrowly defines the NPS and the #FindYourPark campaign as applying only to the 59 sites designated as “national parks” and not the entire agency’s 411 sites that include national historic sites, national monuments, national seashores, national battlefields, and much else. The sites designated “National Parks” are apparently the only ones that count in Prather’s book. Yes, people are undoubtedly aware of most if not all of the “national parks” within the agency, but are they really aware of all 411 sites or the fact that the NPS includes not just sites with wildlife and scenic views but also historic sites that tell the story of the United States? I have my doubts. Recent studies indicate that historic site visitation throughout the country is actually down since 2002, and there are many non-“national park”-designated sites with less than 40,000 visitors each year who are struggling for audiences.

Ultimately I think it’s important to understand two things. One is that for all of our concerns about visitor stupidity, the vast majority of visitors are good park stewards who support the NPS. Roughly 25 people die at the Grand Canyon annually, which is obviously terrible, but there are also more than 5.5 million annual visitors to that site. Let’s not blow things out of proportion. The other is that what happens at the big national parks whose names start with a G or a Y are not necessarily indicative of what happens at other places. #FindYourPark applies to William Howard Taft National Historic Site and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument as much as it applies to Grand Canyon National Park or Yellowstone National Park. We should always value the importance of conservation and protection, but it doesn’t mean that we should ever stop promoting the value of all our national park sites and encouraging people to visit them. We can do all of this at the same time. Isn’t it a good thing to have lots of people interested in visiting your site as opposed to none at all?

National Parks enthusiasts also need to stop forcing park newcomers to experience these places the same way they do. I do not mean to suggest that breaking the rules and putting people and resources in danger is in any way acceptable. But let’s stop telling people to “hike without a camera” or portray people with cell phones as selfie-obsessed narcissists who view national park sites as “Six-flags style places to visit and check off the bucket list.” There are many ways to experience a national park site. Visitors should be allowed to enjoy their time in a way they see fit as long as they don’t break the rules.

Want to bring your phone? Great, just make sure to get my good side 🙂


From Riot to Massacre: The Challenge of Describing Racialized Violence in U.S. History

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Back in February I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Memphis to hear a talk from Dr. Andre E. Johnson and meet leaders at both the University of Memphis and the larger Memphis community to discuss efforts to commemorate the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The formal ceremony commemorating the event occurred in May. What follows is a brief essay I wrote following my trip to Memphis. At this point it is slated to be published in a future National Park Service Handbook on the Memphis Massacre, but I want to also share it with readers here on the blog.


My job with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in St. Louis, Missouri, requires that I interpret difficult and contentious topics in nineteenth century American history, including slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction. The programs we offer at the park are reflective of a larger interpretive shift within the NPS over the past twenty years. This shift explicitly ties stories of emancipation and political debates over civil rights to the military aspects of the Civil War experience. By connecting political and military conflicts within a broader interpretive framework, the agency’s educational initiatives aim to demonstrate how the Civil War Era represented a prolonged and violent struggle over the meaning of American freedom. One such initiative is taking place at the University of Memphis, where NPS officials at ULSG recently began working with the university and other community members to raise awareness of one particularly harrowing event from the era: the Memphis Massacre of 1866.

One major takeaway from learning about the massacre and meeting community leaders in Memphis pushing for a public commemoration of this tragic event is that I’ve gained a better understanding of the evolving terminology scholars are currently using to describe racialized violence in American history. The words we use to describe historical events can say much about the ways we understand and remember the past, and they play a crucial role in providing context for describing historical events. Historically the May 1866 mass killing of African Americans in Memphis by white residents has been described by scholars and popular media as a “race riot.” This has also been the case with similar events in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921). But the leaders of this commemorative effort in Memphis have boldly and correctly reframed this event as a “massacre.” I believe riots and massacres are distinct from each other in two different ways.

The first distinction lies in the use of violence. In a riot there are usually two groups of people engaging in violence. One group attacks property, other citizens, and/or a government authority, while the second group—typically the government authority—responds by using law enforcement to shut down the first group, often through their own use of violence. In a massacre, however, only one group uses violence, and that violence is often targeted towards powerless groups unable to defend themselves. Under this terminology we can clearly say that what happened in Memphis was indeed a massacre of innocent victims, not a riot. In fact, governmental authorities in Memphis actually encouraged the plundering of black lives and property in the area. General George Stoneman, in charge of black and white Army troops at nearby Fort Pickering, stated as much in later Congressional testimony about the violence.

The second distinction lies in emphasis. The language of riots places the interpretive focus on groups engaging in violent attacks. The language of massacres, however, places the interpretive focus on the victims of those violent attacks, forcing us to ask why these people were targeted for the destructive treatment they received from oppressive social groups and government entities. By rebranding the events in Memphis in 1866 as a massacre, the National Park Service, scholars at the University of Memphis, and other community members are leading an important effort to commemorate the lives of black Memphians who attempted to carve an existence for themselves as freedpeople in a newly reconstructed country, but whose hopes and dreams for the future were destroyed over three days of deadly racialized violence towards their community.