I made a personal vow to myself at the beginning of this year to scale back the amount of blog posts I wrote about the ongoing Confederate iconography discussion now taking place throughout the United States. While I find the discussion fascinating in some regards, it has also been frustrating to see it turned into a series of fearmongering, reactionary claims about the “destruction of history” that could come along with the removal of any particular icon. Alex Beam’s screed in the Boston Globe in which he felt compelled to compare the takedown of Confederate icons to ISIS-led destruction of historical artifacts in the Middle East is a particularly harrowing example of this fearmongering in action. But last month’s NCPH roundtable on Confederate monuments and an ongoing controversy at Middle Tennessee State University about an ROTC hall named after Nathan Bedford Forrest have me fired up again, and I’m ready to jump back into the fray for a least a little while longer.
The root of these “destruction of history” claims lie partly in what I consider a basic misunderstanding of the reasons why honorific monuments, statues, memorials, and other icons are erected in the first place. Historical icons are established to designate a place of honor for people, causes, events, and ideas that political and cultural elites consider worthy of recognition by the rest of society. For some people, however, they are viewed only as artifacts that tell a pure, objective story about the facts of history and nothing else. In this line of thinking public iconography is devoid of politics, interpretation, and myths, so therefore any effort to remove an icon that is now seen by many people as offensive and historically inaccurate is a threat to our nation’s history and ultimately a flawed effort that will do nothing to change the politics of the present. The idea that a monument to the Confederacy erected in 1914 might be more reflective of the politics of 1914 and the ways rich elites understood their history at that time rather than the history that actually occurred in 1864 is often unappreciated in this discussion. Historians have sometimes missed these points as well. The latest example comes to us in Time from James C. Cobb, a retired history professor from the University of Georgia.
I find Dr. Cobb’s essay very odd. His overall argument is that “slavery was far more integral to America’s development as a nation than we have chosen thus far to acknowledge,” but because slavery’s influence colors the legacies of so many historical figures and institutions that we choose to venerate today, any effort to rename a building or remove an icon related to slavery and slaveholding is futile and a path towards the eventual destruction of All Historical Things That Make Us Feel Bad. Removing a few names doesn’t give society “a definitive resolution of so intricate and complex a historical dilemma,” so why bother?
This is akin to arguing that it’s futile for me to clean my room because its dirtiness is simply too overwhelming for me to deal with in an effective manner.
Cobb assumes that people advocating for removing the names of figures like Forrest, John Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis at college campuses are doing so because they don’t want to talk about slavery and in fact want to “cleanse American culture of ties to slavery.” On the contrary, the arguments in favor of renaming these halls are rooted in a belief that the legacy of slavery and its connections to the present aren’t talked about enough in college classrooms and society as a whole, and that a more critical approach to understanding U.S. slavery that removes its most vocal advocates from their places of honor is necessary for a better historical understanding of slavery that doesn’t casually gloss over past and present inequities, be they social, economic, or political. It’s not apparent to me that removing Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name from MTSU is going to end all classroom discussions of his legacy as a slaveholder, Confederate General, and
founder a member of the Ku Klux Klan*, but I do see how removing his name would demonstrate MTSU’s willingness to acknowledge its history of supporting racial segregation in public education (Forrest Hall was named in 1954 for those ends) and advance its commitment to fostering a campus culture that’s more welcoming to people of all colors and backgrounds today.
Cobb also makes a mistake in my opinion by lumping George Washington into this discussion. As I have previously argued here, the discussion about Confederate iconography is also about the merits of honoring the cause of disunion. Washington was a slaveholder but also an ardent Union-loving nationalist who was obviously long dead by the time of the Civil War, so lumping him with people like Robert E. Lee indicates to me that Cobb thinks these campus renaming discussions solely revolve around questions of slaveholding and slavery and not also patriotism, federalism vs. nationalism, unionism, and disunionism.
Finally, Cobb’s rundown of Northern support for slavery in the years before the Civil War does little to advance the discussion besides essentially arguing that “Northerners were bad people too.” It is well known, of course, that the economic engines of cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston used slave-produced goods in the South as fuel for their factories, commerce, and trade. New York City during the Civil War Era in both politics and finance was run by conservative Democrats who understood and profited from the economic benefits of slavery, and who were alarmed by the rise of the Republican party and its opposition to the future westward expansion of slavery. But Cobb seems to ignore the fact that the North was not a monolithic political entity and that a range of views towards slavery existed in that region. Many white Northerners by the time of the Civil War felt that slave labor was inferior and less productive than free labor and that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of republicanism and popular government. This is not to suggest that white Northerners were advocates for racial equality and black rights – the vast majority were not. But it suggests that Cobb’s interpretation of Northern perspectives towards slavery is inadequate and not truly representative of the full spectrum of political beliefs leading up to the Civil War, and therefore not very convincing for his larger argument about Confederate icons.
It bears repeating once again that the best approach going forward for addressing these Confederate iconography discussions is to look at each case individually on its own merits. A one-size-fits-all approach such as the one pushed by Cobb (and currently being written into law in some states) lacks the necessary historical context for understanding individual cases and runs the risk of paralyzing any future efforts to rename campus halls or remove offensive icons and simply bad history from our commemorative landscape.
*Addendum: It’s been brought to my attention several times that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, although he was an active member of the group during its early years after the Civil War. I did some fact-checking to verify the claim and it looks like I screwed up in saying he was the founder of the organization. I regret the mistake on my part and have amended this essay to correct it. The factual error, however, does not change the arguments I make in this essay one bit.