There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.
The folks at the Journal of the Civil War Era gave me another opportunity earlier this week to write on their blog, Muster. In this essay I briefly discuss the political life of Missouri politician and general Frank Blair, Jr., and his statue in St. Louis’s Forest Park. It’s a statue I’ve seen numerous times and one that, frankly, has a textual inscription that ignores Blair’s blatant racism and support for colonization of African Americans. My thinking on public iconography of late has centered on the inadequacy of the medium in actually conveying accurate historical content to viewers. As I state in the essay, more and more I feel like the work of educating people about historical events and people must start in the classroom and museum, not the public square.
Stay tuned for more essays on this blog in the near future. I have made a point of trying to get more of my essays published to larger platforms beyond this blog over the past year, but I still have a lot on my mind about history and memory that will find a home here in the future 🙂
The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.
Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!
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.
Earlier this month I was in northwest Arkansas for a conference and had an opportunity to visit a number of history museums while there. Those site visits included the Daisy Air Gun Museum, the Rogers Historical Museum, and the Walmart Museum (yes, they have one). I found each site charming and the people who work at these sites extremely friendly. Everyone made me feel welcomed and were glad to have me as a visitor. On the whole I enjoyed my experiences at these places.
I am a critical viewer of museum exhibits, however, much in the same way that a musician is a critical viewer of other musicians or a filmmaker critically views rival cinema. My training in museum and historical methods ensures that I can never go back to looking at museums and public history sites as objective storehouses of artifacts and disinterested facts. I view every aspect from aesthetics to text markers to guided tours in an effort to see what larger interpretive messages these places hope to convey to their viewers. Although each site covers a wide time period that in some cases goes back to the late nineteenth century, they all had a similar interpretive centerpiece at the heart of their expererince: nostalgia for the 1950s.
Nostalgia is an inherently conservative emotion in my view. It smooths over the rough edges of history’s complexities and often focuses inward on our idealized personal memories of life experiences. Nobody looks back at a bad life memory in a nostalgic way. Nostalgia doesn’t convey how things were but how we wish they were and how we wish them to be. It tries to recreate an image of a past world that can never be recreated in the present, and the inability to bring this past world alive in the present intensifies our desire to bring it back against all odds. And above all else, we use nostalgia to reclaim our innocence – to return to a time when fear and insecurity didn’t exist and when things were simpler (at least in our minds). As Alan Jay Levinovitz argues in Aeon, “it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection.” Nostalgia is wistful thinking about a state of perfection that never existed. And it often sells within the context of museums.
The 1950s are a particularly unique time period shrouded in more nostalgia than any other era in recent history. Each museum I visited covered different aspects of this nostalgia. Men worked hard and had jobs to support the family; women stayed home and tended to the domestic sphere; children went to school and behaved like good little boys and girls; local law enforcement always had residents’ best interests at hand; everyone went to church and prayed to the same Christian God; racial, labor, or any other form of social strife was non-existent; everyone knew their place in society and happily accepted that place without reservation. We might call this interpretive phenomenon “Andy Griffith History.”
At one of the aforementioned sites I overheard a woman ask a museum employee why there were no exhibits on the contributions of African Americans or any other minority group to the life of the people in northwest Arkansas. The employee said that “well, we don’t have any exhibits on that topic unfortunately and the town of Rogers was a Sundown town in the 1950s.” A person visiting these sites without any sort of background in the history of the Civil Rights Movement would not realize that Walmart’s growth as a company occurred as Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus supported racial segregation of public schools and the Little Rock Nine crisis occurred. Nor would many people without prior knowledge look at the Walmart museum and learn that labor conflicts have occurred frequently throughout the company’s history. The pull of nostalgia only allows for a innocent view of the period devoid of any social conflict.
I suspect that 1950s nostalgia draws people to these places because the period has been so mythologized in popular culture and many (white) people alive today remember the era in fond terms. I do wonder, however, if this approach will continue to work over the next twenty or thirty years and if places that rely on nostalgia this way will have staying power in the long run. Again, I found a certain charm in these museums, and there were certainly good aspects of the 1950s that we should remember and celebrate. We should always heed Levinovitz’s advice, however, and avoid believing that any past era was perfect. That sort of thinking is bad for history and probably bad for determining contemporary policy too.
Back in August Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory wrote a short blog post about the Missouri Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He mentioned that the MO SCV paid to have two billboards put up–one “near Kansas City” and one “outside St. Louis”–with three men posing in Civil War outfits, a Confederate flag in the background, a listing of the organization’s website, and a very strange question: “75,000 Confederates of Color?” I read Kevin’s post and subsequent comments while having a good laugh but didn’t think much about it after that.
Well, I just happened to have found the billboard “outside St. Louis” yesterday while driving on Interstate 70. It is located in High Hill, a tiny town of 200 people about an hour west of St. Louis, and can be seen when going eastbound towards St. Louis.
In recent years there has been a push within some quarters of the Civil War history world to suggest that there were thousands–if not tens of thousands–of African American men who voluntarily chose to serve in the Confederate military during the war. I’ve chosen to stay out of this particular conversation because I think Levin and a number of other Civil War bloggers have done a fine job of covering the topic. Kevin’s also got a forthcoming book on the myth of Black Confederates that I look forward to reading when it comes out. But what I do know is that historians generally acknowledge that a small number of blacks may have served in the Confederate military following the Confederate Congress’s passing of General Order No. 14 on March 13, 1865, a month before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The act gave President Jefferson Davis the authority to “ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men . . . to perform military service.” But the idea that tens of thousands of African Americans slaves, much less 75,000 of them, voluntarily chose to fight for the Confederacy is simply wrong and without evidence. Suffice to say it would have been literally impossible for most enslaved African American males to voluntarily choose to fight for a government dedicated to their continued enslavement.
There are many reasons to explain the rise of this phenomenon. One is a simple misreading of so-called “Black Confederate Pensions” that some former camp servants received after the war. Since the United States government did not award pensions to former Confederate veterans in the years after the war, former Confederate states took it upon themselves to establish a pension system for former soldiers. But some of these pensions dollars also went to former black camp servants who could prove that they had rendered some sort of service for the Confederacy, be that building earthworks, cooking and cleaning, or attending to the needs of a white enlisted soldier. These pension records are sometimes misinterpreted to suggest that Black men were enlisted in the Confederate military and treated as soldiers at the time when in fact they were not. For example, our old friend George Purvis once attempted to argue on this blog that he could find “10,000 names and numbers [phone numbers???] of Negroes” based on his own misreading of these pension records, and, in an odd extension of this argument, suggested that it was actually black soldiers in the United States military who were forced to serve! In other situations I suppose the black Confederate argument emerges as a way of arguing that the war had nothing to do with slavery or, as seems to be the case of the Missouri SCV, to promote a preferred narrative of the war and boost membership in and awareness of the organization.
If the motivation of the SCV in raising these billboards is to promote awareness and support of the organization, why does the statement “75,000 Confederates of Color” end with a question mark? While High Hill gets tens of thousands of drivers on a daily basis driving through on Interstate 70, why is the sign located there and not closer to the St. Louis regional area, where upwards of three million people live and commute daily? And while we know that numerous Indian tribes and a smattering of other racial groups in small numbers supported the Confederacy during the war, how does the Missouri SCV come to conclude that the correct number of people of color who served in the Confederate military is 75,000? Why not 10,000, 100,000, or four million? Where is the evidence for this claim?
But, you may say, herein lies the power of effective advertising! The billboard is provocative and challenges you to learn more by visiting the MOSCV.ORG website, where you can find the answer to this question. Fair point.
Well, I did just that today, and in the course of researching every nook and cranny of this website I can pass along to you that there is not a single resource on it to substantiate the claim that there were 75,000 “Confederates of Color” in the Confederate military during the Civil War. The lone piece of evidence the Missouri SCV offers is a 1903 newspaper article from the Confederate Veteran about one “Uncle” George McDonald, who is identified as “a colored Confederate veteran” but whose military assignment and regimental unit go unmentioned. There are no other primary source documents or references to reliable historical scholarship on the topic of “Confederates of Color” listed anywhere on the site.
Since there wasn’t much else on the Missouri SCV’s website about this topic, I opened up the most recent newsletter to see if there was any mention of the billboards there. Nope. There was news about recent Confederate flag rallies throughout the state, including one in the St. Louis area that I didn’t realize was organized by the Missouri SCV when I wrote this blog post about it last year. And there was a rather interesting editorial that included the following commentary:
As I am sure ya’ll are aware, our heritage is under attack from every angle imaginable. Our enemy our opportunists and they do not rest; NOR SHOULD WE. Even within our borders of our sovereign MISSOURAH, the flags of our ancestors have been removed from the sacred grounds of their final resting places and monuments to their memory are moved or relocated. The very sight or mention of anything Confederate sends college students scurrying for their “safe zones.” In St. Louis, the politically correct liberal bastion of insanity, the Confederate Memorial at Forest Park has been deemed unfit for common public view by the historically incompetent Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis. Mayor Slay wants the memorial out of Forest Park. His actions are tantamount to what ISIS is doing worldwide as they spread their version of hate.
Is this approach really the best one for making your point and convincing others of your arguments? To be sure, I’m not interested in making blanket generalizations about the views and opinions of the Missouri SCV as a whole, but we learn a few things about the editors of their publications in this commentary. Obviously there is a tinge of contemporary politics underlying the SCV, particularly the belief that liberals can’t handle dissenting opinions (although this screed makes you wonder if these newsletter editors can handle dissenting opinions without going off the rails) and that places that lean liberal are bastions of “insanity.” Most interesting is the implied proclamation (to me at least) that a true Missourian supports Confederate heritage and proudly calls this state “Missourah” while the city of St. Louis is some sort of otherized foreign entity whose residents don’t represent that values of the state as a whole. What’s equally odd about all of this is how the SCV boldly proclaims on its homepage that it has taken steps to “[educate] the public about the ethnic diversity that existed in the Confederate ranks,” yet these newsletter editors have no qualms saying such nasty things about St. Louis, a place where, you know, many PEOPLE OF COLOR live.
(Also, just to clarify, Mayor Slay did not call for the Confederate Memorial at Forest Park to be removed, only that it was “time for a reappraisal” and a broader conversation within the St. Louis community about the merits of the monument remaining in Forest Park. Mayor Slay’s committee looked into finding an institution willing to take the monument without success and it remains in Forest Park today).
It’s never a dull day here in Missouri.
Back in February I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Memphis to hear a talk from Dr. Andre E. Johnson and meet leaders at both the University of Memphis and the larger Memphis community to discuss efforts to commemorate the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The formal ceremony commemorating the event occurred in May. What follows is a brief essay I wrote following my trip to Memphis. At this point it is slated to be published in a future National Park Service Handbook on the Memphis Massacre, but I want to also share it with readers here on the blog.
My job with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in St. Louis, Missouri, requires that I interpret difficult and contentious topics in nineteenth century American history, including slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction. The programs we offer at the park are reflective of a larger interpretive shift within the NPS over the past twenty years. This shift explicitly ties stories of emancipation and political debates over civil rights to the military aspects of the Civil War experience. By connecting political and military conflicts within a broader interpretive framework, the agency’s educational initiatives aim to demonstrate how the Civil War Era represented a prolonged and violent struggle over the meaning of American freedom. One such initiative is taking place at the University of Memphis, where NPS officials at ULSG recently began working with the university and other community members to raise awareness of one particularly harrowing event from the era: the Memphis Massacre of 1866.
One major takeaway from learning about the massacre and meeting community leaders in Memphis pushing for a public commemoration of this tragic event is that I’ve gained a better understanding of the evolving terminology scholars are currently using to describe racialized violence in American history. The words we use to describe historical events can say much about the ways we understand and remember the past, and they play a crucial role in providing context for describing historical events. Historically the May 1866 mass killing of African Americans in Memphis by white residents has been described by scholars and popular media as a “race riot.” This has also been the case with similar events in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921). But the leaders of this commemorative effort in Memphis have boldly and correctly reframed this event as a “massacre.” I believe riots and massacres are distinct from each other in two different ways.
The first distinction lies in the use of violence. In a riot there are usually two groups of people engaging in violence. One group attacks property, other citizens, and/or a government authority, while the second group—typically the government authority—responds by using law enforcement to shut down the first group, often through their own use of violence. In a massacre, however, only one group uses violence, and that violence is often targeted towards powerless groups unable to defend themselves. Under this terminology we can clearly say that what happened in Memphis was indeed a massacre of innocent victims, not a riot. In fact, governmental authorities in Memphis actually encouraged the plundering of black lives and property in the area. General George Stoneman, in charge of black and white Army troops at nearby Fort Pickering, stated as much in later Congressional testimony about the violence.
The second distinction lies in emphasis. The language of riots places the interpretive focus on groups engaging in violent attacks. The language of massacres, however, places the interpretive focus on the victims of those violent attacks, forcing us to ask why these people were targeted for the destructive treatment they received from oppressive social groups and government entities. By rebranding the events in Memphis in 1866 as a massacre, the National Park Service, scholars at the University of Memphis, and other community members are leading an important effort to commemorate the lives of black Memphians who attempted to carve an existence for themselves as freedpeople in a newly reconstructed country, but whose hopes and dreams for the future were destroyed over three days of deadly racialized violence towards their community.
“Make America Great Again,” “A Future to Believe In,” and Competing Philosophies of American History
The current U.S. election has been a consistent stream of embarrassing statements, extremist rhetoric, radical political stances, glaring hypocrisies, and nonstop media coverage that in many cases comes off as an uncritical infomercial for Hilary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominees of the Democrat and Republican Parties. I rarely discuss contemporary politics on this website and I don’t want to wade too deeply into those depths with this post.
One theme from this election that interests me, however, is the degree to which political change from the status quo is necessary to ensure future prosperity for the United States. Bernie Sanders and Trump maintain two remarkably contrasting political platforms, but they’re also the two loudest advocates for a political revolution that completely dismantles the vaguely-defined Washington “establishment” and puts a totally new order of governance into place. Meanwhile other candidates like Clinton and the now-departed John Kasich often speak in more moderate terms about incremental change, compromise, and the toning down of heated rhetoric.
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has clearly resonated with a good number of Americans who, for various reasons, feel like they are falling behind economically while also watching their moral values and ways of life being destroyed in a twenty-first century culture war. The slogan offers itself as a great title for a manifesto in support of a conservative revolution. But what, exactly, does it mean when we call for America to become great again? Are we not great now? What greatness are we trying to recover? Who are we trying to take the country back from? When in American history was this country ever truly great for all? What does “Make America Great Again” say about how we view the whole of U.S. history?
In his 2015 publication Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, historian Andrew M. Schocket argues that the memory of the American Revolution and the development of U.S. history holds inherent “political and cultural implications” for how we view the world today. In sum, how we view the origins of the country’s founding can say a lot about how we view the role of politics and government in our lives today. Schocket distinguishes between those who view the American Revolution from an “essentialist” viewpoint and those who view it from an “organicist” viewpoint.
The essentialists argue that American history has only one discernible meaning that offers us clear lessons for navigating the contemporary world, and that any other interpretation or act of “historical revisionism” that diverts from the clear, God-ordained version of American history is flawed. This version of history emphasizes the importance of “private property, capitalism, traditional gender roles, and Protestant Christianity,” according to Schocket, and it views the U.S. Constitution as a perfect or near-perfect document that promotes freedom and liberty for all. The essentialists also assume that our contemporary U.S. government has strayed from its glorious founding ideals, and that the great future struggle of American society lies in restoring our political life to one that sits in harmony with the constitutional order that existed during the nation’s founding and early formation, which is the greatest, most free era in our history. The essentialist vision is all about making American great again.
The “organicist,” version of American history differs from the essentialist one in several ways. The organicists argue that there is no single, fully accurate version of American history that can be learned without interpreting the facts of the past. They believe that there are many ways to interpret this history and that appreciating the various interpretations people form about the past allows for a more holistic and accurate understanding of American history. For example, Schocket explains that “you might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they wanted to keep their slaves, and I might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they resented British governance, and we could both have a legitimate claim to be debated.” The organicists also refrain from glorifying the American Revolution and the nation’s early years too much, instead stressing the contrast between the ideals of the founders and the sometimes destructive policies they implemented in practice. The great future struggle of American society for the organicists isn’t so much about returning the country’s government to a state of perfect alignment with its glorious past (which in their minds is a contested belief subject to debate) as much as it’s about improving upon that past by achieving the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality through good governmental practices in the present. The organicist vision is perhaps best articulated through Sanders’ campaign slogan, “A Future to Believe In.” (It bears repeating, however, that the Sanders campaign platform of a “political revolution” to accomplish these ideals is contested, and I doubt all organicist-minded thinkers would agree with the necessity of such a revolution).
I suspect that most Americans fall somewhere in between the essentialist-organicist spectrum. I don’t believe the constitution or American history as a whole can be understood through one uniform narrative devoid of interpretation, and my training as a historian stresses the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and interpreting history through both primary and secondary sources. I also tend to agree with Ulysses S. Grant when he wrote (more or less) that it’s impossible for a contemporary society to solely live by the rules set by people hundreds of years ago. In these regards I find myself aligned more with the organicist interpretation. I can embrace some essentialist philosophies, such as the belief that the nation’s constitution and republican form of government have promoted freedom and liberty for many Americans, but I would argue that the challenge of enhancing everyone’s freedoms is a never-ending project that requires constant debate and discussion about the best path forward. There will never be a point when we wave a “Mission Accomplished” banner once we’ve successfully implemented a perfect form of Republican governance throughout the United States. Moreover, asking an essentialist-type question like “What would Jefferson do?” is not very useful. Instead, we should follow the lead of historian David Sehat and ask, “What is the common good today?”