I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a visitor about morality and judgement in historical interpretation. The visitor was very adamant about the historian’s obligation to objectivity when interpreting the past, but his definition of objectivity was, in my opinion, far too rigid. “We have no right to judge the people of the past and the decisions they make,” he said. “At one point 97% of scientists believed the earth was flat! They were wrong, but how were they supposed to know?” The historians of today, in his view, are too emotional. They are too focused on picking winners and losers and distinguishing between good and bad. People get too worked up about the past.
There is a grain of validity in his statements. The concept of “historical thinking” emphasizes the importance of understanding historical events from the perspective of the people at the time in which the event happened rather than from our perspective today. To understand why most scientists believed the world was flat requires an understanding of the scientific community’s knowledge of astronomy at that time. Who were the leading thinkers? What works of scholarship were they reading and producing? What sorts of assumptions did they make about the universe and its inner workings? Where did these scientists receive their education, and who funded their scientific research? What was the social, political, religious, and economic climate at that time? What ideologies did these scientists embrace; in other words, how did politics shape their understanding of how the world should work? And, equally important, what developments within the scientific community and the larger world led to the evolving view that the world is round?
In my opinion, however, it does not follow that historical thinking must be devoid of all judgement of the past. The flat-earth scientists were objectively wrong, after all. Historians can still offer a fair analysis of flat-earth theory while working under the understanding that such a theory is mistaken. Likewise, historians of topics like slavery, Indian removal, and genocide can offer thoughtful interpretations while making a judgement that those things are wrong.
Choices have consequences, both negative and positive. Understanding when, how, and why those choices came about is fundamental to historical interpretation. I believe assessing the consequences and making judgements about those choices is also part of the equation. One doesn’t need to look any further than their own family history to see the cracks of this “non-judgement” theory. Your own life is shaped by the decisions your ancestors made, the decisions that were made for them by others in power, and the worlds they lived in, with all the limits and possibilities that existed at a given time. You are a product of past decisions, and as such it is rational for you to make judgements about the decisions of your ancestors and what those decisions mean for your life today, just as your posterity will make judgements about your choices in life.
To avoid making any judgements whatsoever about the past–both negative AND positive–is, above all else, boring historical interpretation. The best studies make arguments and challenge me to think anew about my prior understanding of a given topic. But non-judgement also strives for an idea of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Prefect neutrality is a fiction. Claims of “bias” are meaningless most of the time because everyone has biases shaped by perception, experience, and education. When we acknowledge that all historians have their own biases, we can focus on the arguments they make rather than debating about whether the scholar is biased or not. I believe “fairness” in historical interpretation is a far better ideal to strive for than objectivity. I have my views and own experiences that shape how I interpret the past, and they shape the educational programs I create. I don’t claim to be fully free of bias, but I always strive to be fair in my interpretation and utilize historical thinking throughout the process. I think that’s all one can ask for in any sort of scholarly study or educational initiative. If I’m wrong in my interpretations and scholarship, I expect to be called out for it. 🙂
As Reconstruction continued in the mid-1870s, white Democrats in states throughout the south became increasingly desperate and brazen in their efforts to overthrown the Republican Party from power. The Republicans–the party of which the vast majority of black voters aligned with–faced intimidation at the polls and armed paramilitary groups at political meetings. Sometimes outright violence occurred. In the contentious state elections of 1875 in Mississippi, the Democrats and various paramilitary groups created the “Mississippi Plan” to remove Republicans from office, by violence if necessary. President Ulysses S. Grant hesitated to offer aid to Republican Governor Adelbert Ames when asked for federal troops to restore order. Grant feared that the sight of federal troops meddling in a state election would hurt the Republicans in state elections in Ohio, a place where support for military rule of the South and Reconstruction as a whole was beginning to wane.
African American Congressman John Roy Lynch of Mississippi arranged a meeting with President Grant to discuss patronage matters and the President’s refusal to send troops to help Governor Ames. What follows is Lynch’s recollection of that meeting, which he included in his fascinating bookThe Facts of Reconstruction (1913). I think it is one of the clearest explanations Grant offered in discussing his understanding of Reconstruction’s goals and what the “fruits of victory” in the Civil War meant for the country’s future. We can also see that the end of Reconstruction came about partly because of white Northern indifference to violence and fraud at the polls during elections in the South. What follows is from pages 150-155.
“[I] informed the President that there was another matter about which I desired to have a short talk with him, that was the recent election in Mississippi. After calling his attention to the sanguinary struggle through which we had passed, and the great disadvantages under which we labored, I reminded him of the fact that the Governor, when he saw that he could not put down without the assistance of the National Administration what was practically an insurrection against the State Government, made application for assistance in the manner and form prescribed by the Constitution, with the confident belief that it would be forthcoming. But in this we were, for some reason, seriously disappointed and sadly surprised. The reason for this action, or rather non-action, was still an unexplained mystery to us. For my own satisfaction and information I should be pleased to have the President enlighten me on the subject.
The President said that he was glad I had asked him the question, and that he would take pleasure in giving me a frank reply. He said he had sent Governor Ames’ requisition to the War Department with his approval and with instructions to have the necessary assistance furnished without delay. He had also given instructions to the Attorney-General to use the marshals and the machinery of the Federal judiciary as far as possible in cooperation with the War Department in an effort to maintain order and to bring about a condition which would insure a peaceable and fair election. But before the orders were put into execution a committee of prominent Republicans from Ohio had called him. (Ohio was then an October State–that is, her elections took place in October instead of November.) An important election was then pending in that State. This committee, the President stated, protested against having the requisition of Governor Ames honored. The committee, the President said, informed him in a most emphatic way that if the requisition of Governor Ames were honored, the Democrats would not only carry Mississippi–a State which would be lost to the Republicans in any event–but that Democratic success in Ohio would be an assured fact. If the requisition were not honored it would make no change in the result in Mississippi, but that Ohio would be saved to the Republicans. The President assured me that it was with great reluctance that he yielded–against his own judgement and sense of official duty–to the arguments of this committee, and directed the withdrawal of the orders which been given to the Secretary of War and the Attorney-General in that matter.
This statement, I confess, surprised me very much.
‘Can it be possible,’ I asked, ‘that there is such a prevailing sentiment in any State in the North, East or West as renders it necessary for a Republican President to virtually give his sanction to what is equivalent to a suspension of the Constitution and laws of the land to unsure Republican success in such a State? I cannot believe this to be true, the opinion of the Republican committee from Ohio to the contrary notwithstanding. What surprises me more, Mr. President, is that you yielded and granted this remarkable request. That is not like you. It is the first time I have ever known you to show the white feather. Instead of granting the request of that committee, you should have rebuked the men–told them that is is your duty as chief magistrate of the country to enforce the Constitution and laws of the land, and the protect American citizens in the exercise and enjoyment of their rights, let the consequences be what they may; and that if by doing this Ohio should be lost to the Republicans it ought to be lost. In other words, no victory is worth having if it is to be brought about upon such conditions as these–if it is to be purchased at such a fearful cost as was paid in this case.’
‘Yes,’ said the President, ‘I admit that you are right. I should not have yielded. I believed at the time that I was making a grave mistake. But as present, it was duty on one side, and party obligation on the other. Between the two I hesitated, but finally yielded to what was believed to be party obligation. If a mistake was made, it was one of the head and not of the heart. That my heart was right and intentions good, no on who knows me will question. If I had believed that any effort on my part would have saved Mississippi I would have made it, even if I had been convinced that it would have resulted in the loss of Ohio to the Republicans. But I was satisfied then, as I am now, that Mississippi could not have been saved to the party in any event and I wanted to avoid the responsibility of the loss of Ohio, in addition. This was the turning-point in the case.’
‘And while on this subject,’ the President went on, ‘let us look more closely into the significance of this situation. I am very much concerned about the future of our country. When the War came to an end it was thought that four things had been brought about and effectually accomplished as a result thereof. They were: first, that slavery had been forever abolished; second, that the indissolubility of the Federal Union had been permanently established and universally recognized; third, that the absolute and independent sovereignty of the several States was a thing of the past; fourth, that a national sovereignty had been at last created and established, resulting in sufficient power being vested in the general government not only to guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican form of government, but to protect, when necessary, the individual citizen of the United States in the exercise and enjoyment of the rights and privileges to which he is entitled under the Constitution and laws of his country. In other words, that there had been created a National citizenship, resulting in a paramount allegiance to the United States–the general Government–having ample power to protect its own citizens against domestic and personal violence whenever the State in which he may live should fail, refuse, or neglect to do so. In other words, so far as citizens of the United States are concerned, the States in the future would only act as agents of the general Government in protecting the citizens of the United States in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.’
‘This has been my conception of the duties of the President, and until recently I have pursued that course. But there seems to be a number of leading and influential men in the Republican party who take a different view of these matters. These men have used and are still using their power and influence, not to strengthen but to cripple the President and this prevent him from enforcing the Constitution and laws along these lines. They have not only used their power and influence to prevent and defeat wise and necessary legislation for these purposes, but they have contributed, through the medium of public meetings and newspaper and magazine articles, to the creation of a public sentiment hostile to the policy of the administration. Whatever their motives may be, future mischief of a very serious nature is bout to be the result. It requires no prophet to foresee the that national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost. In other words, that the first two of the four propositions above stated will represent all that will have been accomplished as a result of the war, and even they, for the lack of power of enforcement in the general government, will be largely of a negative character. What you have just passed through in the State of Mississippi is only the beginning of what is sure to follow. I do not wish to create unnecessary alarm, nor to be looked upon as a prophet of evil, but it is impossible for me to close my eyes in the face of things that are as plain to me as the noonday sun.’
It is needless to say that I was deeply interested in the President’s eloquent and prophetic talk which subsequent events have more than fully verified.
From journalist Adam Serwer’s two essays (here and here) on the now-removed statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans:
[Robert E.] Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time. We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.
There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.