Can I Have an Opinion on the Civil War if My Ancestors Immigrated to the United States After the War’s End?

Robert E. Lee has had a rough couple years on the commemorative landscape front. His statue in New Orleans was removed in 2017, his statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was removed last year, and his statue in Richmond, Virginia was removed a few days ago. While Lee’s legacy is still celebrated by a large number of Americans, it is clear that his presence within the nation’s public commemoration of the American Civil War through monuments, memorials, and statues is changing. A majority of residents within these local communities have expressed their values through activism and voting and have declared that Lee is no longer worthy of the public commemoration that he has enjoyed for more than 100 years. As our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new evidence comes to life and new interpretations are offered by historians, so too are public icons revised as new understandings of the past emerge.

There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of Lee’s statues on historical and aesthetic grounds and the process by which these three icons were ordered to be removed through government orders. I am not interested in rehashing those debates here, but the above tweet from David Reaboi of the Claremont Institute did raise my eyebrows for what it had to say about who could participate in debates about Confederate iconography. As can be seen, Reaboi is perplexed by people who have taken a strong view of Confederate iconography but whose families have no direct connection to the Civil War since their families immigrated to the United States after the war. Reaboi labels these people (of which I’m assuming he means people opposed to Lee’s statues) as “self-righteous” and the entire idea of their participation in these debates “gross.”

I find these comments to be troubling, possibly nativist, and “gross” for a number of reasons.

On the most basic level, these comments fly in the face of inclusive commentaries about the place of immigrants and their progeny in American society. Lofty rhetoric about the United States as “A Nation of Immigrants” and legal protections in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright and naturalized citizenship aim to abolish legal and cultural hierarchies between native and foreign-born citizens. In other words, once you are a citizen of the United States, it no longer matters whether you are a lifelong citizen or a citizen who became naturalized today. All citizens have the same legal protections to participate freely in American society and a right to help shape the country’s future. That would also mean the right to participate in what history is commemorated in the public square in the future, contrary to what Reaboi states.

One might also point out that a deep ancestral connection to the United States should not be fetishized. After all, there are plenty of native-born Americans with a very poor understanding of U.S. history and many foreign-born people with a strong understanding of U.S. history. It’s worth remembering, of course, that U.S. history plays an important role in the country’s naturalization test, a test that many native-born citizens would struggle with! Moreover, just because a person is descended from Robert E. Lee does not make them an expert on the American Civil War, nor does it give them an elevated voice on what should be done about Lee’s statue today. An understanding of history does not develop from genetics or through osmosis, but by use of historical methods, research, and interpretation. To say one U.S. citizen’s opinion on the Lee statue is more valid than another’s because of their ancestral origins is preposterous. What difference does it make if my ancestors came to the United States in 1826, 1866, or 2016 if I’ve studied the Civil War and have views about its history?

It is also worth mentioning that Reaboi fails to grapple with the idea that people whose descendants were here long before the American Civil War might also have a negative opinion of Confederate iconography. After all, some of the most vocal opponents of Lee’s statues are the descendants of African Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, and others who have a long ancestral history of living in the United States. The notion that the loudest “self-righteous” critics of Lee’s statues have no familial connections to the Civil War is therefore a strawman in no way rooted in the reality of the situation.

All of this is to say that NO, you do not have to have an ancestor who experienced the American Civil War firsthand in order to form an opinion on Robert E. Lee’s statue. In the end, it’s about the quality of the arguments being made and the evidence used to support those arguments. If you have a compelling argument to make, your ancestral background shouldn’t matter. Focus on the game, not the players.

Finally, I should also mention that Reaboi continued his opinions in another tweet by criticizing “our modern desire to see history as a simple morality play between forces of Progress and Evil.” The irony of this view is that public iconography is often guilty of doing this very thing by reducing complex history to a narrative of national progress and unquestioned hero worship through statuary. And since many Civil War monuments and statues were erected in the late 19th century and early 20th century, we can see that the desire to turn history into a simple morality play of progress and evil is not modern at all. These monuments and statues are actually reflective of a longstanding tradition of using history to promote nationalism, patriotism, and a “consensus” view of history. Many critics of public iconography like Robert E. Lee’s statues have grounded their criticisms on the idea that society needs to ask serious questions not just about history, but how and why we honor certain historical figures and events through public icons. Seen in this light, these critics are actually asking society to take history more seriously.

P.S… Just in case anyone is wondering about my own family connections to American history, I do have a Civil War ancestor. My great-great uncle Charles Brady served in the 49th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Union) during the war.

The enlistment paper for Charles Brady, who joined the 49th Missouri Regiment in September 1864 from St. Charles, Missouri.

A Few Thoughts on the Passing of James W. Loewen

I was very saddened to hear that sociologist and historian James W. Loewen passed away yesterday at the age of 79 and feel compelled to write a few lines about the influence of his tremendous scholarship on my own work as a public historian.

I took a serious interest in history as a middle schooler in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and read Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me while I was still in high school. It was probably the first book I ever read that seriously questioned the way history was taught in the classroom. Loewen clearly demonstrated that difficult aspects of U.S. history were often swept under the rug in the interest of promoting a consensus version of history that promoted loyalty to the nation at the expense of historical accuracy, and that trivial facts and rote memorization of dates often replaced discussions of causes, context, and consequences in the history classroom.

High School students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history invariably comes in last. Students consider history “the most irrelevant” of twenty-one subjects commonly taught in high school. Bor-r-ring is the adjective they apply to it. When students can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even whey they are forced to take classes in history, they repress what they learn, so every year or two another study decries what our seventeen-year-olds don’t know.

James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, pg. 12

These were the sorts of words that inspired me to originally pursue a history teaching degree in undergrad so that I could be a part of the solution to poor teaching in the history classroom. Of course, that career track did not work out for me (I was even turned down from a position once “because we need a basketball coach”). But as I began pursuing a career in public history, Loewen’s Lies Across America probably played an even bigger role in my career development than Lies My Teacher Told Me. Loewen’s critical interrogation of public monuments, historical markers, and historic sites demonstrated the ways public history sites, just like history classrooms, often left out important stories from U.S. history in the interest of promoting consensus history. I wrote about one particularly influential story Loewen discussed in the book about Louisiana’s “Uncle Jack” statue here a few years ago. His ten questions for historic sites remains an excellent foundation for critically analyzing the interpretive focus of a given site:

Two important insights are worth further mentioning here. One is that Loewen was a gifted writer whose engaging and often humorous style really made the words jump off the page. As evidenced in my own story, a high school student could read his books and understand the arguments he made. The other insight is that many of Loewen’s arguments were not only right at the time these two books were written in the 1990s, but remain relevant to our own conversations today about history education in the classroom and public history across the United States. For example, In Lies My Teacher Told Me Loewen famously criticized the ways Christopher Columbus was hailed as a hero in the history classroom. He convincingly demonstrated the genocidal nature of Columbus’s voyage to the Western Hemisphere and forced readers to challenge their old, mythical understandings European voyages to “The New World.” While Loewen’s interpretation of Columbus has much more credence today, that was not the case in the 1990s. In Lies Across America, Loewen argued that public monuments were more reflective of the moment in which they were erected than the history they tried to commemorate, therefore demonstrating the inherently political/ideological nature of public monuments. Again, this insight is a fairly common talking point among historians today, but Loewen was already on the ball with this type of thinking thirty years ago. It’s easy to read Loewen and think that his books were written a year or two ago and not in the 1990s.

I never met Dr. Loewen personally but I’m grateful for his scholarship, which goes far beyond the two books under discussion here. You can learn more about Dr. Loewen’s scholarship by visiting his website, which had recently been created only a few months ago.

Cheers

Where Did All the Bloggers Go? A Few Thoughts on Historians and Blogging

When the horrible pandemic of 2020 required me to telework from home for three months and halted some of my favorite hobbies outside the home, there was a part of me that wanted to renew my presence on this blog. Why not take some of my newfound free time to write more essays about my historical interests? Instead, I didn’t write a single post between February and September. Equally important, I can’t help but notice that since maybe 2017 or 2018 there has been a significant decline in blogging by historians more broadly. Al Mackey’s still chugging away at Student of the Civil War and Pat Young’s doing his thing at The Reconstruction Era Blog, but many other noteworthy names have moved on. What gives?

With regards to the pandemic, one could argue that we are all burnt out by Zoom meetings, emails, and the constant isolation of working from home, therefore the idea of spending a few more hours each day writing on a blog is unappealing. And yet, plenty of historians (myself included) spent plenty of unnecessary time on Twitter talking and tweeting about history during this time.

I would suggest that the rise of the Twitter thread is one reason that blogging has changed. For those not on Twitter, a thread enables users to connect a series of tweets together to form a more coherent stream of thoughts. Some have taken to calling this medium “microblogging” since each tweet is, at most, 280 characters long. To cite but one example, Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse has gained international fame for his threads on 20th century history, particularly the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these threads were started by Kruse’s attempts to debunk bad history being peddled by known psuedo-historian Dinesh D’Souza and others like him on Twitter. There has been vigorous debate about the effectiveness of these threads and the usefulness of debating people who are not invested in having a fair discussion about history. I personally don’t care to see a bunch of people wasting too much time on a single tweet or getting into condescending arguments (“Historian here…”) with pundits, celebrities, and politicians. Nevertheless I do think Twitter threads, when done well, can be really informative. And there’s something to be said about engaging in debates about history not because D’Souza will change his mind, but that other open-minded people might be exposed to your arguments and be compelled to learn more about a given subject.

Other factors play into the decline of blogging. Podcasts have become a popular medium for historians, although they can be much more time consuming than a blog. Conversely, writing tweets is easier than blogging and allows for short thoughts to be quickly thrown into the social media mix. Additionally, Twitter’s algorithm now privileges popular tweets and threads more broadly rather than a chronological timeline, meaning that someone could log in eight hours after a thread was written and still see it on their personal timeline. Meanwhile, at the academic level, blogging has been largely dismissed as an effective tool of scholarship and is viewed by many historians not on social media as pointless. Perhaps the best example of this line of thinking is Princeton historian Allen Guelzo’s remark that blogging is a “pernicious waste of scholarly time” (I guess he has not talked with Kevin Kruse about social media at a department meeting yet). It appears that any sort of blogging done by emerging scholars does not figure into their employment prospects, nor does it figure into a tenure application. Why waste your time on something that doesn’t advance your career?

In sum, a multitude of factors have made history blogging less appealing, including changes to Twitter’s platform, the appeal of writing twitter threads that could gain a wide audience (and more attention for the historian), the rise of podcasts, scholarly dismissals of blogging, and a crippling pandemic that has changed our lives. Speaking personally, I am at a different chapter in my life compared to when I was a graduate student who was single and living, eating, and breathing history 24/7 with little time for much else. Furthermore, @theglamacademic also makes a good point in suggesting that “the continuous disruption caused by new social media tools is also something to note,” by which she means that social media communities have always been in flux, whether the platform is AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace, WordPress, or TikTok.

I still believe in blogging, however.

The most important argument I can make is that a blog is an easily accessible record of YOU. While a Twitter thread may be more accessible within a moment of hot discussion or controversy, it becomes very, very difficult to find that thread on Twitter long after the discussion has ended. Moreover, many people who are enthusiastic about history are not on Twitter, which can do much to limit exposure to your content. With blogging, the use of tags, metadata, algorithms, and search engines makes your content more accessible in the long term in a way that can’t be achieved by using Twitter. Nobody has to log in to view your content on a blog. Finally, I would argue that in comparison to tweets, blogs allow for more extended thoughts to be expressed in a more nuanced manner (although this argument is somewhat ironic since much academic resistance to blogging originally argued that blogs were too short and cut out important context that could be included in a 30-page journal article).

I came of age as a blogger, writer, and historian in the early 2010s, when we were living in what could be described as a “golden age” of blogging by historians. Those blogs were really crucial in helping me learn more about public history, 19th century U.S. history, and current debates about both fields taking place among sharp minds. At one point I was writing upwards of 15 to 20 posts on a month on this very website. I don’t know if (I) or (we) will ever get back to that point ever again, but I still love blogging about history and will continue to write in this space when time permits.

Cheers

Anti-Catholic Sentiment in President Ulysses S. Grant’s 1875 Address to Civil War Veterans

The Pope’s Big Toe,” Harper’s Weekly, October 30, 1875

In the wake of an armed insurrection upon the U.S. Capitol and members of Congress a few weeks ago on January 6th, a well known-quote among those of us who study Ulysses S. Grant went viral. The quote is from an 1875 speech President Grant made to U.S. Civil War veterans attending a reunion of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee in Des Moines, Iowa. Grant, known for his reluctance at public speaking, allegedly wrote this speech in thirty minutes:

“If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason’s and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.”

Ulysses S. Grant Address to the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, September 29, 1875

For many of us who were horrified by the insurrection and outraged at the politicians who helped enable it, Grant’s message appears to have foresight and relevance to today’s world. After all, critics would argue that the effort to stop the counting of the Electoral College vote was rooted in ignorance and blinded by an ambition to overthrow the results of a free and fair election. But was it also rooted in superstition?

This is where we may have to take a step back to look at the context of Grant’s speech and, I would argue, proceed with caution before gleefully sharing it on social media.

During the Reconstruction era, a growing number of European immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were making their way to the United States. Many of these immigrants were Catholics. For the Republican Party, this growing population was a point of concern. Before the Civil War, some Republicans had been members of the nativist American “Know Nothing” Party or, at the very least, harbored anti-immigrant sentiments. Republicans also believed that Catholic immigrants continued to hold their allegiance to the Pope. They were ignorant of the values inherent to living in a society governed by republican (small r) institutions and in need of further education. As such, many of these new immigrants identified with the Democrat Party in the 1860s and 1870s.

Grant summarized this nativist mentality in an interview with John Russell Young during his two-and-a-half-year world tour (1877-1879). In explaining why he was a Republican, Grant argued that the Democratic party was made up of two elements who were at war with the Union: former Confederates who clung to the righteousness of their cause and immigrants. Regarding immigrants, Grant remarked that they “[have] not learned what the Union is . . . [they are] an element which has not been long enough with us to acquire the education or experience necessary to true citizenship . . .” (See page 269-270 of Around the World with General Grant, Volume II)

There was also an expansion of public schools throughout the country during Reconstruction. Some of this growth can be attributed to state legislatures in the former Confederate states–which now included African American men who voted and were elected to office–passing laws that guaranteed a universal education for all children within those states. Other reasons for this national growth, however, were the desire to promote Protestant values and morals, educate children to be lawful citizens, and to promote loyalty and obedience to the nation. In other words, the Republican party aimed to create a national, Protestant-based culture amid the dramatic changes of emancipation, westward expansion, and mass immigration from poor European countries with large Catholic populations.

Two major issues emerged at the intersection of public education and immigration. The first regarded religious instruction and the second regarded funding for Catholic education. Many schools offered religious instruction based on the King James Bible. Although claiming to not endorse any particular religious sect, the use of the King James Bible was clearly an endorsement of Protestantism. Rejecting the use of Protestant bibles and teachings in the public school classroom, Catholics worked to create their own school system (one that still remains in the U.S. today) based on Catholic teachings. Since public schools received public funding while teaching Protestantism, the Catholic church argued that it was only fair to use an equal amount of public funds to support Catholic education as well.

Historian Ward McAfee points out that by 1875, public education and anti-Catholic sentiment had become “winning issues” for the Republican Party. After dealing with the Panic of 1873 and growing national sentiment against Reconstruction, Republicans lost control of Congress after the 1874 elections. However, “the school issue allowed the Republicans to present themselves as the champions of progress, fighting against medieval forces of ignorance and superstition from Rome. Anti-Catholicism allowed the party to keep the Southern issue alive, despite the country’s clear rejection of racial equity in 1874 . . . in the North, the Democratic party was the handmaiden of the Roman Catholic church seeking to destroy the public school” (190). One example of Republican success was Rutherford B. Hayes winning the Ohio governorship in 1875 (one year before winning the presidency) based partly on opposition to using public funds for Catholic schools.

Broadly speaking, this is the context in which President Grant made his 1875 address.

Grant argued that the soldiers who fought to maintain the Union had also fought to promote public education. “How many of our comrades of those days paid the latter price for our preserved Union! Let their heroism and sacrifices be ever green and in our memory,” Grant argued. “Let not the results of their sacrifices be destroyed. The Union and the free institutions for which they fell, should be held more dear for their sacrifices.”

“Where the citizen is sovereign and the official the servant, where no power is exercised except by the will of the people, it is important that the sovereign — the people — should possess intelligence,” Grant continued. “The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation . . . Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that neither the state nor nation, or both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, Pagan, or Atheistical tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”

To Grant’s credit, he appears to go further than some of his Republican colleagues by trying to avoid a double standard. Keep the church and state forever separate and keep religion out of the schools entirely, he argues. However, one can also see how the use of the words “superstition” and “sectarian” were clearly targeted at the Catholic Church. It’s also worth pointing out that Grant returned to this theme in his Seventh Annual Message to Congress later that year. In it, Grant proposed a constitutional amendment that would, among other things, guarantee a public education to every American child free of any sectarian division of public funds of “religious, atheistic, or pagan tenants.” He also proposed that religious institutions be taxed at the same rate as businesses, a move seen by critics as unfairly attacking the wealth and resources of the Catholic Church, although technically at that time the tax would have taken on a larger burden for Protestant institutions throughout the country.

Finally, McAfee reminds us that the Catholic church was very critical of President Grant’s Des Moines speech. The Catholic World remarked that “the reading of the scriptures as a public ceremony is as distinctive to [Protestants] as the celebration of mass would be to Catholics.” If Republicans were truly committed to the separation of church and state, there would no longer be any scripture readings and other Protestant practices in the public school classroom. Democrats were also anxious to jump on the issue, with one article written by New York Democrats remarking that “the President at last changes front in the face of his victorious opponents, discards the ‘bloody shirt’ as an obsolete rag, and, nailing to the mast the black flag of Know-Nothingism, unsheathes his sword for a ‘religious war’ [with Catholics].”

(Grant’s speech also prompted the controversial Blaine Amendment, which was never ratified nationally but passed in a majority of states in the 1870s. You can read about it here).

Was Ulysses S. Grant anti-Catholic, or simply going along with the desires of his party? Based on my own studies, it appears that Grant personally respected individual people of all religious and counted people of the Catholic faith as among his friends. Historian Tyler Anbinder also points out that Grant “was not an obsessive nativist.” He rarely resorted to nativism or anti-Catholic sentiment in his public life compared to other Republicans. However, it does appear that at the very least Grant did harbor skepticism and concern about the Catholic church’s growing influence in U.S. affairs. During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Grant wrote of the conditions in Mexico and stated his opinion that the Catholic Church’s influence in all facets of political and social life had created a weak, impoverished nation. Sadly, Grant family members later removed some of his letters from this time in his life from his official papers because they felt that the letters were too anti-Catholic. Equally important, Grant also spoke of his brief association with the Know-Nothing party while living in St. Louis (1854-1859) in his Personal Memoirs. Rather than disavowing that association, Grant remarked that he had nothing to apologize for and that the reason he left the party was not because of its anti-immigrant platform, but because of its secret oaths:

I have no apologies to make for having been one week a member of the American party; for I still think that native-born citizens of the United States should have as much protection, as many privileges in their native country, as those who voluntarily select it for a home. But all secret, oath-bound political parties are dangerous to any nation, no matter how pure or how patriotic the motives and principles which first bring them together, , , , Nevertheless, if a sect sets up its laws as binding above the State laws, whenever the two come in conflict this claim must be resisted and suppressed at whatever cost.

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume I

In the end, while I think the cherry-picked quote from Grant’s 1875 speech seemed to resonate with many people and spoke to their frustrations about misinformation, ignorance, and political violence in the present, the same people who shared the quote failed to recognize the context in which it was made and may not realize how Grant’s words were perceived as bigoted by many Catholics at the time. As Abraham Lincoln stated in 1862, be careful about what historical quotes you choose to share online.

Cheers

A Review of “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States”

The Broken Heart of AmericaThis is not the history of St. Louis that your parents learned about!

That was the first thought that ran through my head as I began reading Walter Johnson’s new book, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (2020). Whereas James Neal Primm’s history of St. Louis (1981) often celebrated the city’s capitalist growth, industrial might, and institutional popularity (the St. Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and the Gateway Arch, for example), Johnson’s transparently Marxist interpretation asks readers to pull back the fancy curtains to take a more critical look at the growth of the Gateway to the West. Readers are challenged with considering larger questions about the relationship between capital and labor, the use of racist legislation to not just segregate but literally remove Black and Brown people from the city, and to consider whether or not capitalism can ensure a more just future in the United States.

Johnson contends that the history of St. Louis has meaning and relevance to all Americans. From the city’s 1764 founding to the Ferguson unrest of more recent days, St. Louis has served as a flashpoint of the nation’s most pressing political debates throughout U.S. history. As Johnson puts it, “St. Louis has been the crucible of American history . . . much of American history has unfolded from the junction of empire and anti-Blackness . . . [it] rose as the morning star of US imperialism. It was from St. Louis, itself a city built on stolen land, that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed on the journey to survey the commercial potential of the vast Louisiana Purchase Territory, the homeland of dozens of nations that had not been party to the bargain” (5).

Spanning outward from Lewis and Clark, Johnson shows how numerous treaties ceding millions of acres–often signed by the leaders of various Indian nations under threats of violence from the U.S. military–were signed in St. Louis. He highlights how Jefferson Barracks was not just the country’s largest military post in the 1840s but the vanguard of westward military strength. The violence of slavery is highlighted as an important part of the St. Louis economy’s growth before the Civil War. Meanwhile, a growing antislavery sentiment in the city during the 1850s led by Frank Blair and Benjamin Gratz Brown called for the state’s enslaved population to not only be emancipated, but to then be colonized to another country so that white laborers could settle in new western territories without having to compete with enslaved labor. In this sense, St. Louis’s political leadership before the Civil War was not divided over slavery because of its morality or the way the institution harmed enslaved African Americans, but because this political leadership was divided as to whether or not slavery helped advance the interests of White laborers. 

Johnson’s treatment continues into the Civil War, Reconstruction, and early 20th century. Of particular interest in this section is the General Strike of 1877, a nationwide strike that had much of its roots in the grievances of the laboring class in St. Louis. Johnson contends that the significance of the Reconstruction era cannot be based only on the story of expanding civil and political rights for African American men, but on the ways labor fought for better working conditions, fair pay, and limited work hours. Whereas the pre-Civil War Republican party argued that the interests of capital and labor were in harmony, Johnson argues that industrialization during the last half of the nineteenth century exposed how the two interests were in conflict with each other. The brutal crushing of the 1877 General Strike was, in Johnson’s terms, a “counterrevolution of property” against labor’s resistance to the forces of industrial capitalism. Johnson attempts to prove the point further by using future chapters to highlight the exploitive nature of the 1904 World’s Fair and the 1917 East St. Louis riots, which were really a racial massacre against the city’s Black laborers. 

While I am not a scholar of twentieth century U.S. history and even less of an expert on today’s politics, I found Johnson’s treatment of St. Louis during this time to be enlightening. In sum, St. Louis is the 6th most segregated city in the United States today because of deliberate policy decisions. St. Louis in the 20th century is marked by numerous efforts to remove and relocate Black St. Louisians in the interest of removing blighted housing areas and promoting urban renewal. Johnson gives special attention to the story of Mill Creek Valley, a Black neighborhood of nearly 20,000 residents that began to be demolished on orders of the city’s white leadership in 1959 to promote urban renewal. Civil Rights leader Ivory Perry described the demolition of Mill Creek and subsequent forced removal of its Black residents as “Black removal by White approval.”

Elsewhere, Johnson discusses the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, the destruction of the city’s downtown core to make way for the construction of the Gateway Arch, attempts to enforce racial zoning codes (U.S. v. Black Jack, Missouri, 1974), efforts to keep a Black doctor from settling in Creve Coeur by turning the property he wanted to purchase into a public park, the destruction of Meachum Park, a Black neighborhood in Kirkwood, the construction of four interstate highways through downtown St. Louis (the only city in the U.S. to have four separate interstate highways connected to it) to facilitate suburban growth out after World War II, and the use of Tax-Increment Financing to promote business growth at the expense of necessary tax revenue. As an example of the latter, Johnson points out that Michael Brown’s Normandy School District, struggling and unaccredited, is located next to Emerson Electric, an immensely wealthy company with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits. 

There are numerous mistakes and omissions throughout the narrative, and I did not always agree with Johnson’s conclusions. On the more minor side of things, Johnson misdates the Emancipation Proclamation to March 1863, mistakenly names Confederate General Daniel Frost as “David” Frost, describes Ulysses S. Grant as “an indifferent farmer” while living in St. Louis (not sure what that is supposed to mean), and incorrectly states that the 1820 Missouri Compromise extended the 36-30 line dividing slavery to the Pacific Ocean. This was an impossibility given that the line only applied to lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and that what is today the Western United States was still owned by Spain at this time. 

More serious are omissions of key moments in St. Louis history that could have further enhanced the narrative. For example, for all the early discussion of Indian removal that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there is no discussion of the Treaty of Fort Clark (1808), which formally ceded St. Louis and most of present-day Missouri from the Little and Great Osage nations, or the Treaty of St. Louis (1824), which saw the Sac and Fox tribes cede northeastern Missouri and other lands to the U.S. government. Moving to Reconstruction, the focus on the 1877 General Strike leads to the omitting of noteworthy Black St. Louisians such as James Milton Turner, Moses Dickson, and Charleston Tandy from the narrative. Whereas Black civil rights leaders in St. Louis during the 20th century are named and discussed in-depth, the same treatment is not given for exploring Black life immediately after the Civil War. Another noteworthy omission is the Populist Party convention that was held in St. Louis in 1892. Through this convention we can see the intersection of labor advocacy with settler colonialism and the abandonment of Black rights by a major political party. I would also add that with the exception of German immigrants, there is scant attention paid to other immigrant groups who came to St. Louis. How did these groups interact with the racial politics of St. Louis? If St. Louis is truly the “Broken Heart of America,” then why have so many other people from the world over considered this broken heart the answer to their own broken dreams? 

Finally, a note on agency. Agency is, broadly defined, the ability of an individual or group to shape a course of events. Johnson is famously skeptical of the concept as it relates to slavery. In a 2003 essay he argued that historians excessively rely on agency arguments to demonstrate the “humanity” of the enslaved. Johnson responded that all people, whether enslaved or enslavers, demonstrate humanity by their mere existence. Fighting in favor of slavery was as much a part of “humanity” as fighting against slavery. More to the point, he questioned how slavery could have existed as a powerful force in American life for so long if the enslaved were able to truly demonstrate agency on a mass scale. By overplaying the role of agency in resistance to slavery, Johnson argued that historians ran the risk of “practicing therapy rather than politics[.] We are using our work to make ourselves feel better and more righteous rather than to make the world better or more righteous.” 

These are fair points and historians must keep them in mind when trying to place the experiences of Black and Brown people within the context of 18th and 19th United States history. But I do think there is a danger, particularly with regards to students learning about U.S. history, with focusing on the nature of white supremacy without accounting for the ways enslaved people and people forcibly removed from their homelands resisted this world order, both in large and small ways. This tension explains my frustration with the lack of attention paid to Black resistance to white supremacy during the Reconstruction era in The Broken Heart of America. If students read about the overwhelming reach of white supremacy and conclude that “it’s been like this for 200 years, I won’t be able to do anything about it today,” I fear that the force of history could act as a barrier to meaningful reform rather than an inspiration to make the world anew in the future. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Broken Heart of America. While disagreements about the Marxist interpretation of history will emerge from readers of this book, Johnson convincingly shows that capitalism, as it has been practiced in St. Louis, has a less than spectacular history of promoting justice for all. A system built to promote white prosperity and racial supremacy through slavery and Indian removal continues to have ramifications for policy today. How to promote a just and fair society in the United States will always be a point fierce debate, but one thing is true: readers will never look at St. Louis the same way again after reading The Broken Heart of America

Cheers

What Public Historians Can Learn from Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares”

Gordon Ramsay smiling with woman in yellow suit singing in background.
The smirk on Gordon’s Ramsay’s face when he sees something dumb.

I have been a fan of Chef Gordon Ramsay for a long time, but at the start of this pandemic my wife and I decided to start watching every episode of the American version of “Kitchen Nightmares,” the popular show in which Ramsay takes a week to help a struggling restaurant on the brink of collapse. (The British version is better, but I’ve already seen all of those episodes!). In watching around 60 or 70 of these episodes over the past few months I’ve noticed certain explanations–excuses, perhaps–used by the owners of these failing restaurants that often make me think of the way we talk about struggling public history sites.

A consistent theme of Kitchen Nightmares is that many of the featured restaurants have been left in a time machine. A menu that hasn’t been updated in 30 years. Decor that is smelly and out of date. Disgusting walk-in refrigerators. Frozen food that’s lazily thrown in the microwave (sometimes defensively claimed to be FREEZER-FRESH FOOD). An ownership team that doesn’t communicate with staff, has lowered its standards of excellence, and is quick to cast blame on others. Oftentimes, when Chef Ramsay asks these confused owners why they think their restaurants are struggling, they argue that their food is a 10 out of 10 and that “this town doesn’t appreciate good food.” The old ways of doing things have been working just fine and we don’t want to alienate our loyal customers, they say.

Does any of this rhetoric sound familiar to those of us working in public history? Interpretive programs with content that is out of date and has nothing new to offer visitors. A historic house tour that is really just a glorified furniture tour and does little to tell visitors why history is important and gives no room for visitors to share their own perspectives during the experience. Museum exhibits that feature the same artifacts that were there twenty years ago. A hesitance to revise educational programming at the risk of alienating “loyal” visitors. An ownership team that does not communicate well and is unresponsive to staff needs. A Board of Directors that is out of touch with the struggles of frontline staff and does not respect the ideals of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. A culture that is anxious to point fingers and cast blame on others rather than taking an honest view inwards. “Young people just don’t respect history! They have to be on a phone all the time.” It’s not us, it’s them!

The term “revisionist” is sometimes used by critics of new approaches towards studying history. These are the people I envision as the disgruntled restaurant owners in Kitchen Nightmares who want everything to be the way it was in 1980. Medical scientists are rarely accused of being revisionists for trying to develop new medicines and cures for deadly diseases, but for a multitude of reasons there is a preference in some quarters for history to be told the same way it was thirty or fifty years ago. In reality, revisionism is fundamental to historical practice. Historians make new primary sources discoveries, revisit old interpretations, and constantly think anew about the many meanings the past may offer for today’s society. The same line of thinking should be embraced in public history as well.

Bruce Catton’s version of Civil War history from the 1950s and 1960s was readable, intriguing, and very popular. His writings influenced a generation of historians to study the American Civil War, and they influenced the way history was interpreted at Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg and Vicksburg for a very long time. I enjoy Catton as much as anyone. But those writings were a product of an earlier time and are now themselves a part of history. And those writings have their own shortcomings. Catton rarely, if ever, discussed the political issues of surrounding the conflict and most certainly avoided discussing slavery except as an issue on the periphery. His analysis of military strategy and tactics has been questioned by subsequent historians. Catton was a lovely author, but his interpretations need revision. Trying to write or interpret history at a public history site the way it was in 1965 is not going to work moving forward.

So . . . the big, broad lesson from Kitchen Nightmares is for public historians to stay up with the latest scholarship, regularly communicate with fellow staff members and colleagues in the field, and to never get too rooted in tradition or the idea that “this is the way we do things around here.” A very crappy 2020 should be the catalyst for change, not the excuse for doing more of the same. Otherwise you could very well find yourself in your own public history nightmare.

Cheers

Remembering Two Biographers of Ulysses S. Grant Who Died in 2019

Photo credit: Nick Sacco

2019 saw the deaths of two noteworthy scholars who wrote biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. Both biographies were popular best-sellers when they were released and both represent crucial landmarks within the Grant historiography. And yet both are what could be best described as a double-edge sword; they advance our knowledge of Grant and his times while still making crucial mistakes along the way that illuminate the difficulty of writing an accurate historical biography.

Jean Edward Smith died in September at the age of 86. The New York Times described Smith as “a political scientist and renowned biographer whose works helped restore luster to the tarnished reputations of underrated presidents.” That was certainly the case with his 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Smith specialized in 20th century presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower for most of his career. His study on Grant, however, is notable because it was one of the first major birth-to-death biographies that attempted to overturn some of the common stereotypes of Grant being a drunk butcher who oversaw a hopelessly failed and corrupt administration. While more recent popular narratives on Grant from biographers like H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have undoubtedly supplanted Smith on the best-seller list, I would actually place Smith’s study above all three of them. Grant is a readable page-turner that offers a sympathetic but also convincing interpretation of Ulysses S. Grant’s life. It was the first biography of Grant that I read while in college and inspired me to learn more about the American Civil War, so for that I will always be grateful to Jean Edward Smith.

Nevertheless there are shortcomings and mistakes that make me very conflicted about the biography. At times I believe the book is too defensive of Grant. To cite but one example, Smith portrays Grant’s Indian Peace Policy while president as progressive and forward-thinking. Grant certainly disagreed with the “removalist” school of thinking that wanted to eliminate all Native Americans through violent means (embodied most notably through General Philip Sheridan’s remark that “a good Indian is a dead Indian”). But Grant’s policies essentially called for forced confinement of native populations in poorly-supplied reservations and harsh assimilation policies that some scholars today would describe as cultural genocide. Grant’s views may have been moderate for the time, but they were most certainly not forward-thinking, in my opinion.

(Here’s a book review/essay I wrote about Grant’s Indian policies that you can read about on this topic).

An equally serious problem with Smith lies in at least one documented instance in which his writing veers dangerously close to plagiarism. Here’s the bit from Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf

From Jean Smith’s Grant, page 411, bottom paragraph:

The President’s casket, draped in black crepe, rested on a raised platform under a domed black canopy. President Johnson, the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for the President’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln felt unable to attend. At the head of the catalfalque, standing alone throughout the ceremony, was Grant – the living symbol of the cause for which the President had given his life.

Correspondent Noah Brooks reported that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant later said he was grateful that Lincoln had spent most of his final days with him at City Point. “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”

From Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton, 1969 ed., page 479, bottom paragraph:

Draped in crepe and black cloth, the President’s casket lay in the East Room under a domed canopy of black cloth. President Johnson, members of the Supreme
Court and the cabinet, the uniformed diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for members of Mr. Lincoln’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln feeling unable to attend. At the head of the catafalque, all through the service, stood General Grant, alone.

Correspondent Noah Brooks said that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant reflectively said he would always be glad that Lincoln had spent most of his final days in Grant’s company, and when he tried to sum up the man he could only say: “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”

Yikes.

William McFeely died just a few days ago at the age of 89. Like Smith, he received a New York Times obituary that describes him as an acclaimed biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and also Frederick Douglass. Contrary to Smith, McFeely was trained as a historian and specialized in African American history and the Civil War Era, particularly Reconstruction. His 1981 biography of Grant won a Pulitzer Prize and was the standard study on Grant for at least a generation. Also contrary to Smith, McFeely went the opposite direction and was a harsh critic of his subject. One quickly gets the impression from reading the book that McFeely simply didn’t like the guy.

On the one hand, McFeely’s book remains one of the best and most widely-researched studies within the genre. For example, while most biographers today consider Grant to have held anti-slavery beliefs throughout his life, I actually agreed with McFeely when he argued that Grant’s 1854 resignation from the Army and move to St. Louis to become a farmer was in part based on a desire to emulate his father-in-law’s luxurious plantation lifestyle. I appreciated McFeely’s attempts to contextualize Grant’s St. Louis experiences, and his interpretation on this subject makes an appearance in my Journal of the Civil War Era article on Grant’s relationship with slavery that was published this past September. On the other hand, McFeely made his own mistakes along the way. And his overall interpretation of a cold, heartless tactician who did not care about African Americans or Reconstruction more broadly led Brooks Simpson (who is, in my view, the preeminent scholar of Ulysses S. Grant over the past thirty years) to suggest that Grant would not recognize himself in McFeely’s biography.

The biggest problem with McFeely’s biography, in my opinion, is his excessive use of psychoanalysis to interpret Grant’s thoughts and personality. There are many examples to cite, but the most obvious one comes on pages 10 and 11. Here McFeely assesses Grant’s early boyhood in Ohio and how he communicated that upbringing in his Personal Memoirs. He cites this passage from the Memoirs:

A Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village . . . owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get to him, to give the twenty-five. I at once mounted a horse and went for the colt. When I got to Mr. Ralston’s house, I said to him: ‘Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, I am to give you twenty-five.’ It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon.

. . . this transaction caused me great heart-burning. The story got out among the boys of the village, and it was a long time before I heard the last of it. Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity. I kept the horse until he was four years old, when he went blind, and I sold him for twenty dollars.

McFeely argues that this “one boyhood experience haunted Grant all his life. He referred to it often, usually giving the appearance of laughing it off; but something that must be laughed off repeatedly cannot be dismissed.” McFeely continues:

In the Memoirs, Grant presented this incident as having provided a lesson well learned in his education as a maturing businessman, but actually it functioned in the opposite way. It reminded him every time he had business to do that he was not good at it, that he was still an embarassable boy. What was more, he had been humiliated and mocked not for being discovered secretly doing something nasty, but for being innocent and open; in effect, he had been told that grown-up things, business things, were the affairs of men who laughed at boys who were direct about what they wanted. The mockery came not from the horse, but from the boys in town who feigned sophistication, from the owner of the horse, and very probably his father, who without malice but with great ability to harm, may have laughed at the boy’s ingenuousness. If the story is seen as demonstrating a second point, Ulysses’ love of horses, the blinding of the animal sours the effect. ‘My colt’–that unspoiled beautiful moment–became a broken animal, and in the terrifyingly cruel end to which the creature had come Grant saw himself. The blinded beast walked nowhere in the ceaseless drudgery. Trivial though the story of the purchase of the horse may seem, Grant spent a lifetime not getting over the transaction with Mr. Ralston.

Really?

Is this a fair and reasonable interpretation of Grant? Does the blinded horse really symbolize how Grant viewed himself; a broken beast walking through ceaseless drudgery to nowhere? Did Grant include this story in his Personal Memoirs because he was traumatized by the event? Could it not be interpreted with equal credibility that Grant’s own explanation for telling the story–that it was an important lesson in the harsh realities of the business world and reflective of a small, rural town’s culture where everyone knows everyone’s business–is valid?

Historians and particularly biographers face a tough task when they attempt to interpret their subjects inner-most thoughts and personality. The subject offers the biographer pieces of the puzzle through letters, diary entries, written books like a Personal Memoir, and other related documents. The biographer must sift through those pieces and put together a picture that makes sense and an accurate portrait of a person’s life and times. Psychoanalysis may serve a purpose in that process, but sitting a historical subject down and becoming an armchair psychologist requires a great deal of caution. In my view McFeely too often throws caution to wind to craft interpretations that are too loosely based on personal speculation and innuendo.

By all accounts, however, McFeely was a generous scholar who advanced the fields of black studies, African American history, and Reconstruction. His biography on Frederick Douglass is still highly regarded, and from what other historians have said he was a thoughtful, caring person (as I’m sure Smith was as well).

Both biographers’ studies of Ulysses S. Grant represent important landmarks for understanding Grant and should be taken seriously by scholars. May they both rest in peace.

Cheers

The Times Are A Changin’

Two Civil War Veterans at the 1913 Veterans Reunion at Gettysburg. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.

Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.

Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.

A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.

Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?

I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.

Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.

Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.

Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.

Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.

Cheers

A Short Note on Empathy in Historical Practice

I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?

First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.

I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.

Cheers

Losing My Faith in Public Monuments

Goodbye

Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.

To be sure, my current views still strongly align with the arguments I made in this essay for the National Council on Public History about a year and a half ago:

Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.

Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.

Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.

It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:

Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?

Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.

Cheers