The past couple weeks have been pretty exciting for me:
– I showed up on the front cover of the local newspaper for South St. Louis County, the South County Times, as part of a proposal being discussed to possibly change the color of Ulysses S. Grant’s White Haven estate. You can read about it here. I was asked to give the reporter who did this story a tour of the home, so I knew I would be making an appearance somewhere, but little did I know that I’d be on the front cover! I have little to no say on the final decision on the house’s color and will interpret the house regardless of what the final decision is, but it’s been interesting to hear from others and I’d welcome more comments here on the proposal discussed in the paper.
– Earlier this week I was elected to the Board of the Missouri Council for History Education. I was nominated by a couple people in the National Park Service and am honored to play a role in the organization going forward. There are a lot of talented and passionate teachers throughout the state in this organization. The council more or less promotes and encourages the teaching of history in k-12 Missouri classrooms. It’s a particularly exciting time to be on the board given that the state is beginning to ramp up commemorations for Missouri’s bicentennial in 2021 and an increased emphasis on Missouri history will hopefully take place in classrooms throughout the state.
– I’ve been talking with a local high school history teacher about doing a presentation for his students about the Reconstruction era in January that I’ve been really excited about. The challenge is that I’ll only have fifteen minutes to hit the highlights and explain the significance of the era, but I actually feel like this time constraint could be a good thing that forces me to get to the point quickly.
Life is good and 2017 has been a great year for my development as a historian and educator.
Last week I had the honor of being invited to speak via the BlueJeans app to Dr. Thomas Cauvin’s history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments and historical interpretation. I found the discussion fascinating. The students had a lot of good questions, and some of them were really tough to answer cogently. It’s one thing to write out an idea while in deep contemplation and without a time limit, but a whole other challenge to answer a tough question on the spot. I am not a fan of watching or hearing myself after a recording, but if you want to see our discussion and learn a little about Dr. Cauvin’s class on historical monuments, follow this link. Hopefully I sound like I have a basic idea of what I’m talking about. Enjoy!
Is President Donald Trump like Andrew Jackson?
Wait, maybe he’s more like Andrew Johnson.
Or King George III.
Or Aaron Burr.
Or Abraham Lincoln.
Or Jefferson Davis.
Or Horace Greeley.
Or Ulysses S. Grant.
Or Huey Long.
Or Benito Mussolini.
Or George Patton.
Or George Wallace.
Or Barry Goldwater.
Or Richard Nixon.
Or Ronald Reagan.
Or Hugo Chavez.
Over the past week historians have been debating the merits of using historical analogy to educate lay audiences about the messy circumstances of our current political moment. Moshik Temkin started the discussion with an op-ed in the New York Times decrying the “historian as pundit” persona that, as can be seen above, has gotten attention within the online realm (not all of those essays were written by historians, but you get the point). Temkin expresses worries about “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies,” which in turn simplifies, trivializes, and downplays the significance of both past and present-day events. Conversely, many historians on my Twitter feed reacted negatively to Temkin’s piece, arguing that we must meet people where they are and that analogy provides opportunities for historians to demonstrate changes and continuities in American history.
Is there room to argue that both sides of this argument are a little bit right and a little bit wrong? I think so.
I do not agree with Temkin when he suggests historians should avoid appearances on TV and “quick-take notes” in a news article. Nor do I agree with the argument that we should leave analogy solely to the non-historian pundits. There are limitations to both TV and newspaper articles since they offer only small tidbits and soundbites for expressing a particular viewpoint, but they do offer historians an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the past in shaping the present. For example, my friend and fellow public historian Will Stoutamire contributed some wonderful insights into this article on the history of Arizona’s Confederate monuments. Last I heard that particular article had been viewed something like 70,000 times over the past month. Not bad! Likewise, I agree with Julian Zelizer when he argues that:
Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture.
At the same time, however, is Temkin incorrect when he suggests that we should be wary of poor historical analogies? Is he wrong when he asserts that we should remind our audiences that a similar event or person from the past does not lead to a similar outcome in the present? Can we conclude that some of the above historical analogies are trite and unhelpful? Are there better questions we can ask about the past and how it has shaped the present? Is their room to sometimes discuss the past on its own terms without resorting to comparisons with the present? I was struck by a recent article from a senior English major who, in discussing national politics in the classroom, warned that “if authors are only worth reading insofar as they inform modern phenomena, then the entire English canon is of mere antiquarian interest and can be summarily dismissed.” If you insert ‘history’ for the word ‘English,’ do we run into the same problem by downplaying huge swaths of history that don’t have an explicit relevance to current politics?
A huge shortcoming of this entire discussion, of course, is that public historians and the work they do are completely left out of the conversation. Here’s the thing. Public historians work in small spaces all the time; spaces that are more often then not much smaller than the ones academics use. We don’t get sixty minutes for lecture, 400 pages to write a book, or even a New York Times opinion piece. We get ten minute introductions, tweets, short Facebook posts, museum exhibits that are often viewed for ten seconds or less, and other educational programming of short duration. Both Temkin and his critics leave this important work out of their discussion.
So here’s a strong middle ground from which to argue. Historians should always strive to meet people where they are in their learning journey. They ought to embrace opportunities to give talks, speak on news shows, be quoted in a newspaper article, or write op-eds for a media outlet with a large platform. At the same time, they ought to use historical analogies responsibly and within the context of highlighting the importance of studying history. The past itself is interesting on its own terms, and sometimes it’s okay to discuss it without resorting to a comparison with Donald Trump. And perhaps academic historians can learn a thing or two from public historians about conveying complex historical subjects into clear, accessible interpretations of the past to a wide range of audiences.
The local NPR station in St. Louis, St. Louis Public Radio, has jumped into the discussion about the city’s Confederate monument with a recent “Pro & Con” feature about the monument’s future. One of the people the station interviewed was William Stage, a writer and photographer who took the “Pro” position in support of keeping up the monument. He stated, in part, that “erasing history” is bad. “It’s all of our history and maybe it’s good that it’s there for both the people who are offended by it and the people who enjoy it because it gives us something to talk about. It could be a springboard for dialogue.”
The problem I see with this argument is that no historical organization in St. Louis has ever taken steps to lead that dialogue, nor is there anyone who’s indicated a willingness to do it in this heated political moment. What would that dialogue look like? What steps would be taken after the dialogue to promote unity and reconciliation in the community? What cultural organization would be willing to take on the long-term expense, time, and effort necessary to interpret this monument after the dialogue has finished? What if a majority of St. Louisians aren’t interested in a dialogue or a history lesson?
The only answer is I have right now is that I don’t know.
More than two years after former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced that the time had come for a “reappraisal” of the Confederate Monument that sits in Forest Park in downtown St. Louis, current Mayor Lyda Krewson has announced that the monument will be coming down within three weeks. The last I had heard about the monument’s status was in December 2015 when Mayor Slay’s “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” was unable to find a cultural institution in the area willing to accept the monument and the Missouri Civil War Museum’s lone bid was deemed inadequate by the committee. The monument’s fate was not discussed much further in 2016 and it fell off my radar, but with New Orleans taking recent action to remove four Confederate/Reconstruction monuments and new protests boiling at the St. Louis Confederate monument, Mayor Krewson is taking steps to expedite the process.
As a native-born and current resident of St. Louis, I find myself still unsure what the best path forward for this monument is. The protests of the monument are becoming a political liability for the city government. Leaving the monument as is does not seem to be a practical situation moving forward, especially since I’d imagine that most of the city’s majority African American population is opposed to the monument. I have doubts about the effectiveness of writing a wayside marker to “add context” to the monument, although the current monument text is historically inaccurate Lost Cause nonsense that should be removed. I have also been disappointed with the lack of public discussion about the monument’s future, which is a great contrast to more democratic processes taking place in Baltimore, New Orleans, and numerous cities in Virginia on their Confederate monuments. To my knowledge there have been no votes taken by city residents or the Board of Alderman, no public meetings for local residents to share their perspectives, and no effort to educate the city’s residents on the monument’s history by any cultural institutions, including those of us at National Park Service sites in the area. Mayors Slay and Krewson have basically taken matters into their own hands, for better or worse.
As I have previously stated, local communities should be empowered to determine what sorts of public iconography they want to recognize and commemorate in their public spaces. The people and events these icons represent should be reflective of that community’s values and be considered something worthy of honor. If a majority in the community don’t consider that icon worthy of honor or reflective of their values, then there are sufficient grounds for the community to discuss that icon’s future, whether that be remaining in the same spot, being moved to a cultural institution like a museum for added context, removed and obliterated, or some other solution. I personally am fine with removing the monument from Forest Park and am tired of the argument that removing any public historical icon is “erasing history,” especially when the history being removed is inaccurate. My preference would be for a cultural institution in the city to take on the responsibility of interpreting this Confederate monument in a respectful way that educates residents about our city’s rich Civil War history. But for now it seems like we’ll be saying goodbye to the St. Louis Confederate Monument as it heads to a warehouse somewhere.
The National Council on Public History’s 2017 Annual Meeting has concluded and I’m back home doing my thing. There were more than 800 registrants at this year’s meeting who undoubtedly had a range of experiences during the conference, but on a personal level it was a true pleasure seeing old friends, making new ones, and having the chance to participate in important conversations about the state of the field.
In thinking about the conference’s theme since coming home–“The Middle: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going?“–my mind keeps going back to two sets of questions I have about the role of authority within the field. One is between public historians and the publics they work with, the other is between public historians and the people who employ them.
Regarding the former set of questions, I was struck by how various sessions grappled with whether public historians should cede or assert their authority in these situations. To cite one example, various presenters analyzing controversial monuments in the United States and Argentina all admitted during the conference that beyond doing research on the monuments and presenting their findings, a correct path for navigating where to go in the future was mystifying. Do historians conclude by presenting their findings and avoid making declarative statements one way or the other, or do they use their authority to advocate for a particular position that may or may not reflect the viewpoint of a majority of a local community’s residents? If historians take a position, whose voices within the community do they choose to amplify and why? More specifically, since community members already have a voice regardless of whether or not public historians are there, whose voices do we choose to use our privilege and platform in service of?
Additionally, are their times when further dialogue over something like the presence of a controversial monument is unnecessary and public historians must start taking political action to achieve a larger goal? How useful is it for public historians to keep discussing so-called “counter-monuments” and contextual markers for something like the Liberty Place Monument when local residents in that community are ready to take that monument down?
In “Touring Sites of Nostalgia and Violence: Historical Tourism and Memory in Germany, Poland, Turkey, and the United States,” a session I had the privilege of moderating, the question of historical authority in the visitor experience to sites of violence was a central question. Erica Fagan of the University of Massachusetts Amherst explored the use of Instagram at Holocaust sites like Auschwitz and Dachau and mused on what extent historians should moderate these posts, arguing that these sites needed to have a social media presence to dispel historical myths and falsehoods. Yagmur Karakaya of the University of Minnesota assessed several museum exhibits in Turkey that romanticized the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire. She made connections between the exhibit content and the rhetoric of the current Erdogen administration in promoting their own goals, wondering if there was a role for public historians to offer a more balanced and less nationalistic portrayal of the Ottoman past. And Amanda Tewes explored Calico Ghost Town, a small historic site in San Bernardino, California, that is entirely volunteer-run and is probably better described as a theme park than a historic site. Volunteers engage in battle reenactments and glorify the mythic western white miner who drank heavy, carried a gun, and asserted his individualism and masculinity. Meanwhile, the actual history of Chinese laborers in the area and Calico’s peaceful, relatively non-violent culture are completely ignored.
Assessing the correct relationship between public historians and their publics is not a new concept, and NCPH 2017 continued a long conversation within the field about this topic. Unfortunately I believe we all too often use buzzword jargon words like “shared authority,” “giving groups a voice,” “community,” “radical history,” and “relevance” without thinking critically about what, exactly, we mean by these terms. This is something I warned about after last year’s conference, but I still think it’s a problem within the field. Moreover, while I won’t get into specifics here, I think we sometimes run the risk of taking too much credit for capturing the stories of disaffected groups who, once again, already have their own voices regardless of our presence. And when we do that, we come off as condescending and patronizing at best.
With regards to my second set of questions–the relationship between public historians and the people who employ them–it was obvious from the beginning that this conference was very much inward looking towards questions of employment and financial support for the long-term health of the field. To be sure, I am of the opinion that the humanities have struggled to maintain support since Socrates died for asking too many questions. But circumstances change over time and with our current political moment being highlighted by hiring freezes, potential budget cuts, and an increasingly politicized culture not just at the federal level but also the state and local level, it is safe to say that grad students about to hit the job market and new professionals at entry-level jobs are wondering about finding work and establishing career tracks. What happens when institutions face severe cuts and education is the first thing to go? What are the implications when the number of public history programs increases in times of economic uncertainty?
We are not sure what’s next and we all admitted it at the conference.
So, in sum, I think the big challenge for the field of public history continues to revolve around authority: Asserting our value as historians who enlighten, challenge, and inspire our many publics to understand and learn from studying history, but also using our positions to give those many publics a platform to share their experiences, stories, and perspectives about the past without us dominating the process.
Oh, also: I did a workshop on starting a walking tour business with Jeff Sellers and Elizabeth Goetsch, and it was probably one of the best experiences I have ever had at an NCPH conference.
Whenever I study a particular time period in history, I find it very helpful to think about the sorts of questions people at the time would have been mulling over as they looked towards the future. It is easy to look at past events in hindsight and assume that everyone knew what would come next. Even trained historians can be guilty of minimizing the significance of a social, cultural, political, or economic change as “inevitable” when in reality it was anything but. I often wonder if assigning students papers in which they have to make a “thesis statement” is as effective as perhaps asking them to first think about one or more “guiding questions” to provide structure to their inquiry before formulating any sort of answer or argument when explaining a historical event.
In any case, the Reconstruction Era (generally defined as between 1863 to 1877) presents itself as one of the most misunderstood and ignored periods in American history, and the political complexities of the era do not lend themselves to easy explanation. Even after studying the period for a number of years I still find myself sometimes struggling to explain the significance of the era to visitors and students in a cogent manner. What follows are four questions that have helped me make sense of Reconstruction’s complexities:
- How would the United States restore and maintain a stronger union in the wake of a major secession crisis and the nation’s deadliest conflict?
- How would the country’s leaders find a balance between promoting liberty and establishing order?
- What economic labor system would replace slavery in the South, and to what extent would national, state, and local governments involve themselves in economic affairs?
- What would be the future status of African American freedpeople, former Confederate secessionists, and American Indian tribes? How would the government protect and expand the rights of African Americans, encourage former Confederates to become law-abiding citizens again, AND promote peace with American Indian tribes at the same time they promoted westward expansion?
(4a. What would be the correct size and scope of government to regulate society in a time of vast social, political, and economic changes?)
While the black freedom struggle has become a centerpiece of recent Reconstruction studies, we should always remember that for most whites in the North, the central question for them was how to restore the Union quickly and peacefully. African Americans served loyally in the Civil War and many believed they were entitled to protection, citizenship, and voting rights. Once white Northerners felt that the country had stabilized and that enough legislation had been passed to protect African Americans (most notably the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments), it did not take long for them to abandon Reconstruction and essentially state that blacks were on their own to face the future even though rampant racism, discrimination, and violence continued to exist.
What do you think? What essential questions do we need to consider when studying Reconstruction?
President Donald Trump went out of his way yesterday to honor the 250th birthday of Andrew Jackson in Tennessee, which in turn has amplified continued online conversation about who in American history is deserving of honor through public ceremony and monumentation. Writer Shaun King was quick to declare that “no President who ever owned human beings should be honored” and that “slavery was a monstrous system. Everybody who participated in it was evil for having done so. Period. No exceptions.”
Some of the most difficult work in public history right now, in my opinion, centers around the nature of public commemoration and understanding how societies choose to remember their past. These are difficult conversations to have and the boundary lines between “good” and “bad” are arbitrary and poorly defined. King’s argument is provocative and worth considering. Generally speaking, I agree that owning slaves was a choice and that participating in the institution of slavery is inexcusable. But once you read the story of Ulysses S. Grant, our last President to be a slaveholder, you might conclude that King’s argument is simplistic and not a very satisfying resolution to the question of who and who isn’t worthy of public honor.
Now, I make my living educating people about General Grant’s life and times, so it could be easy for a reader to claim that I am “biased” or that I am a Grant apologist. I would reject that claim. All I can say is that I have my views about Grant but that those views have been developed through years of vigorous study of the man based on the best historical scholarship around. I don’t approach my job with the intention of portraying Grant as a hero or a sinner to visitors, but rather seek to humanize his experiences and increase understanding of his beliefs, motivations, and actions within the context of 19th century history.
Ulysses S. Grant lived in St. Louis from 1854 to 1859. For most of that time he worked as a farmer and lived with his family at White Haven, his In-Laws slave plantation in South St. Louis county. During this time Grant somehow obtained one slave, William Jones (see here for a more detailed essay I wrote about Grant’s relationship to slavery). We don’t know how or why he obtained Jones, nor do we know for how long he owned him. We do know, however, that he freed Jones in March 1859 before leaving St. Louis, something many other slaveholding Presidents never did with their enslaved people. That was the extent of Grant’s personal experiences in slaveholding. Unfortunately for historians, Grant didn’t leave any letters before the war stating one way or the other how he felt about the institution as a whole. It appears that Grant never challenged slavery’s presence in America or considered the politics and philosophy of slavery in writing before the war.
Something changed in Grant’s mind during the Civil War, however. He embraced emancipation as a war aim and welcomed black troops into his ranks. By the end of the war, one out of seven troops in his ranks were black. During the initial phases of Reconstruction, Grant came to believe that President Andrew Johnson’s policies towards the South were too lenient and that the freedpeople deserved more protection against violence, black codes, and overt discrimination by whites. After the Memphis Massacre in 1866 Grant called upon the federal government to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators who killed 46 African Americans, which never happened. When Grant was elected President in 1868, he immediately called upon Congress and the states to ratify the 15th Amendment preventing states from banning men from voting based on their race. On March 30, 1870, he delivered a message to Congress in which he declared that the 15th Amendment was the most significant act in U.S. history and a repudiation of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision:
It is unusual to notify the two Houses of Congress by message of the promulgation, by proclamation of the Secretary of State, of the ratification of a constitutional amendment. In view, however, of the vast importance of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, this day declared a part of that revered instrument, I deem a departure from the usual custom justifiable. A measure which makes at once 4,000,000 people voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so (with the assertion that “at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, that black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”), is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.
In 1871 Grant responded to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan by using the KKK Act to shut down the group. That year he also used his Third Annual State of the Union Address to call upon Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to abolish slavery. He repeated the theme in his Fourth Address, stating that the Spanish Empire’s continuation of slavery in Cuba was “A terrible wrong [that] is the natural cause of a terrible evil. The abolition of slavery and the introduction of other reforms in the administration of government in Cuba could not fail to advance the restoration of peace and order. It is greatly to be hoped that the present liberal Government of Spain will voluntarily adopt this view.” In future addresses he spoke out against other White supremacist groups in the South like the White League and Red Shirts who continued to commit acts of violence and sometimes outright massacres against African Americans in the South. And during his Post-Presidency world tour, Grant stated to Otto von Bismarck about the Civil War that “As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”
Frederick Douglass spoke often about Grant and was a dedicated supporter of his Presidency. At one point he stated that “Ulysses S. Grant, the most illustrious warrior and statesman of modern times, the captain whose invincible sword saved the republic from dismemberment, made liberty the law of the land. A man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him, the negro found a protector . . .” and recalled in his 1881 book Life and Times of Frederick Douglass that:
My confidence in General Grant was not entirely due to the brilliant military successes achieved by him, but there was a moral as well as military basis for my faith in him. He had shown his single-mindedness and superiority to popular prejudice by his prompt cooperation with President Lincoln in his policy of employing colored troops, and his order commanding his soldiers to treat such troops with due respect. In this way he proved himself to be not only a wise general, but a great man, one who could adjust himself to new conditions, and adopt the lessons taught by the events of the hour. This quality in General Grant was and is made all the more conspicuous and striking in contrast with his West Point education and his former political associations; for neither West Point nor the Democratic party have been good schools in which to learn justice and fair play to the Negro (433-435).
Is Grant someone who should never be honored, as Shaun King suggests?
My biggest issue with King’s argument is that it assumes that people in the past never changed their thinking over time and that a former slaveholder like Ulysses S. Grant could never come to realize that holding humans in bondage was wrong. Grant was far from a saint: his ownership of William Jones was inexcusable, his General Orders No. 11 during the war expelling Jews from his lines was inexcusable, and his Indian policy during his Presidency was well-intentioned but flawed. But are there not actions he took in his life that were commendable and worth honoring?
One of the bigger problems I see with this whole discussion is that we as a society should really focus on understanding before honoring. I would rather see President Trump read a book about Andrew Jackson than stage a big ceremony honoring the man (who, to be sure, has a horrid record as a slaveholder, racist, and Indian fighter, and is someone I wouldn’t be comfortable honoring). I would like for Americans to go to historic sites with the intention of understanding the life and times of historic figures. I would like for people to appreciate complexity, nuance, and the basic idea that people–then and now–often hold evolving and contradictory views towards politics.
I suppose my historical training has soured me on the idea of “heroes” as a general approach to appreciating history. I admire the words of the Declaration of Independence, but I haven’t forgotten that the author of those words raped Sally Hemmings. I admire Washington’s words about entangling alliances and the importance of Union, but I haven’t forgotten that he too was a slaveholder. I think Jackson was right on the South Carolina Nullification Crisis, but I won’t forgive him for the Trail of Tears or his violent slaveholding. I think Grant was wrong for being a slaveholder, but I appreciate the efforts he undertook as President to protect the rights of all, and I appreciate that he came around to believe that slavery was an evil wrong. I appreciate moments in history when right triumphed over wrong and people in the past took principled stands for positions that protected the rights of all Americans, but I never forget that people in the past were humans, not Gods, and that even the best humans have their flaws. And I never forget that American freedom was first established in this country on a co-existence with and acceptance of slavery.
A few months ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Suhi Choi’s recent book about the Korean War and how it has been remembered in both the United States and (South) Korea. Choi, a communications professor at the University of Utah, employs public history techniques throughout the book to analyze oral histories she conducted with victims of the No Gun Ri massacre, media accounts of the massacre, and various monuments that have been erected in both countries to commemorate the war as a whole. I enjoyed reading the book for its content and arguments, but what I enjoyed the most was its brevity. Clocking in at 115 pages of main text and five chapters, the book was a quick read (with the exception of some jargon-y passages throughout) yet thoroughly researched and intellectually stimulating. The book’s shortness reminded me of the Southern Illinois University Press “Concise Lincoln Library” series that has published numerous short studies on various aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life that are typically between 100 and 150 pages long.
While I acknowledge that different historical topics require studies of varying length and depth (I currently have one book on my nightstand that is more than 800 pages long), I find myself increasingly supportive of the idea that academic histories, generally speaking, should be shorter and more concise than what they typically are now. I am no expert on publishing books with an academic press, but I’ve been told by those who’ve been through the process that they normally don’t accept anything less than 75,000 words, or roughly 250 to 300 pages. That makes sense because most PhD dissertations end up being about that length, but I think there should be some sort of system in place to encourage and publish more scholarship that would be more appropriately covered in a study between 100 and 150 pages.
As a scholar who regularly reads books from academic publishers, I crave the analysis, interpretation, and detailed research that such books offer to their readers. As a reader, however, I am more likely to go back to a short book and read it again in the future, whereas with a longer book I feel less inclined to read it in full or go back to read it a second time. It’s important for me to read as many print books as possible to get a more comprehensive understanding of historical topics that fascinate me, but the presence of thoughtful online essays and history blogs has changed how I read and reduced the amount of time I dedicate to reading full-length print books. I admit that nowadays page length plays an extremely important role in determining what I read next. 150 pages is more often compelling to me than 500 pages.
John C. Calhoun has become the latest casualty in an ongoing conversation about America’s commemorative landscape and who, exactly, is deserving of continued commemoration and a place of honor within that landscape. After the formation of a committee and much debate (noticeably without the voice of historian David Blight), Yale University has decided to remove Calhoun’s name from a residential college that was established in 1931. Journalist Geraldo Rivera, decrying “political correctness,” announced that he left a position at the university and, unsurprisingly, numerous thinkpieces have emerged making arguments for or against the change. Rivera is free to do what he pleases, although I find this episode a strange cause for which to give up a job. I also respect Yale’s position even though I can see compelling points on both sides of the argument.
One of the more thought-provoking essays I’ve come across since the announcement is Roger Kimball’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Kimball claims that the process by which Yale decided to remove Calhoun’s name was inconsistent and that, just like Rivera’s claim, the change was flawed since a “politically correct circus” of academic groupthink dominated the process. He rightly points out that Yale’s history as an educational institution is loaded with notable alumna and professors with controversial backgrounds, including Elihu Yale himself. In making this argument, however, Kimball downplays Calhoun’s historical legacy and never makes a compelling argument as to why Yale should have kept his name associated with the residential college. Equally important, he doesn’t make an effort to examine Yale’s reasoning for naming the college after Calhoun in the first place.
There are two major problems with Kimball’s thinking, in my view. The first is the way he characterizes Calhoun. Kimball acknowledges that he was a slaveholder and brilliant politician who argued that slavery was a “positive good.” But Calhoun wasn’t just a racist slaveholder; he was a political and intellectual leader of American proslavery thought whose words influenced a generation of proslavery thinkers.
Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who maintained an uneasy relationship with the institution. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and contrary to the laws of human nature. John Calhoun told slaveholders to not feel ashamed any longer; slavery was a law of nature and servitude to white enslavers was the correct station in life for black people. Proslavery religious leaders used Calhoun’s logic to argue that enslavement allowed for African souls to be Christianized. Scientific thinkers like Samuel Cartwright said African Americans were biologically inferior and went so far as to invent a new disease, “Drapetomania,” to explain why slaves tried to run away from their enslavers. Proslavery political leaders in the days of the early republic through the 1820 Missouri Compromise were willing to set aside some new U.S. territories from slavery’s expansion in the interest of sectional harmony and free state/slave state political balance. But those proslavery leaders were replaced by new leaders in the 1840s and 1850s who said that compromise on the slavery question was dishonor and that all new territories should be opened for slavery. John Calhoun, in his racism but also his intellectual brilliance that was in part cultivated by his Yale education, played an integral role in fostering these developments, which in turn led to the eventual breakout of the American Civil War, the deadliest war in this country’s history.
These truths are too much for Kimball, however. He states that “You might, like me, think that Calhoun was wrong about [slavery]. But if you are [Yale President] Peter Salovey, you have to disparage Calhoun as a “white supremacist” whose legacy—“racism and bigotry,” according to a university statement—was fundamentally ‘at odds’ with the noble aspirations of Yale University” . . . “Who among whites at the time was not [a white supremacist]? Take your time.”
Wendel Phillips; the Grimke sisters; the Tappan brothers; Theodore Weld; John Brown; Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Gerrit Smith…
Is Calhoun somehow not a racist or white supremacist? Did he not believe that blacks as a race were inferior and that the white race should be able to control the black race through whatever legal means it saw fit? What does it say about Kimball that he becomes infuriated with the words “white supremacist” to describe Calhoun?
The second problem with Kimball’s argument is his “whatabout-ism” in the essay. What about slave trader Elihu Yale or other slaveholders associated with Yale like Timothy Dwight, Benjamin Silliman, and Jonathan Edwards? Shouldn’t they also have their names removed, he asks? Certainly Yale was a more “objectionable” person than Calhoun, right? This line of thinking is a crucial element of Kimball’s argument because it intends to discredit Yale’s process for removing Calhoun’s name and ultimately paint the university’s administration as playing politics with the issue. This is a fair critique, but only to a point. Isn’t it a bit subjective and unproductive to debate whether Yale or Calhoun was “more objectionable” when both said and did despicable things? Aren’t we deflecting from the real conversation–whether or not John Calhoun as an individual, regardless of anyone else’s legacy, is deserving of a place of honor at Yale–by arguing that other people were bad too and that all white people were racist at the time?
Buildings all over the world are named after historical figures whose names were placed there because powerful cultural elites believed that person represented values that were important to contemporary society and were therefore deserving of honor and recognition. Some of these names will remain in their location forever. Some of these names change over time because new people make history and earn a spot within the commemorative landscape while older names are forgotten. And sometimes those names change because contemporary values–which are always a factor in selecting who gets to be a part of a commemorative landscape–change.
It is more than fair to ask whether or not the process of removing Calhoun’s name was legitimate, but it’s a separate question from whether or not Calhoun deserves his place of honor. If we wish to have a productive conversation about John C. Calhoun’s historical legacy, we must be willing to have an honest look at his life, his deeds, and his time. We must be willing to acknowledge that he was a white supremacist and a controversial figure in his time. And we must consider why Yale leaders felt the need to honor Calhoun with a college in his namesake in 1931 and why it was considered acceptable at that time to do so. From there we can begin to debate Calhoun’s individual legacy without resorting to tired “political correctness” arguments or childishly saying that other people were bad too. If Calhoun deserves a college in his name, make a compelling case to justify it based on his merits as a historical figure.