By Matt Walsh, V Form
What to Do with Confederate Monuments
Despite the meteoric rise of clickbait fake news, the majority of “alternative facts” don’t come from shady fake news websites. Rather, they come from our distorted perception of American history. I only had to read one chapter of Dr. James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, a book that sheds light on the dishonesty of American history textbooks, to realize the problems with American history education. Lauded by the likes of Howard Zinn and Jon Wiener, Lies My Teacher Told Me provides a thorough examination of the lies promulgated by American history textbooks.
Dr. James Loewen, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University and taught at the University of Vermont and Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, came to visit St. Mark’s in October of 2017. Dr. Loewen’s talk to the St. Mark’s faculty and student body regarded the danger of misconceptions of the past and centered on the problems with Civil War monuments honoring Confederate generals. Loewen asserted that the construction of these statues—often in veneration of Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis—represent what he calls a “nadir” in racial equality in the United States.
Constructed in racially contentious post-Reconstruction America, these statues, Loewen claims, symbolize white America’s attempt to reaffirm its ascendancy over blacks shortly after their liberation after the Civil War. Although the North won the Civil War, non-Confederacy states like Kentucky saw an increase in the amount of confederate statues after 1866. The influences of the Confederate cause—the defense of slavery—seemed to permeate throughout the United States even after the Union began to value racial equality. In this light, one of Loewen’s taglines is that “the South won the Civil War” after 1866.
If the cause for Southern secession was states’ rights, as many Confederate apologists claim, esteeming Confederate generals with grandiose statues wouldn’t be so problematic. It makes sense, then, those who defend the monuments peddle the myth that the Civil War was a battle over states’ rights, not slavery (Loewen called this myth an “idiotic notion” in his speech at St. Mark’s).
In a quick poll of the audience, Dr. Loewen found that St. Mark’s was better than average—a significant majority of the students and faculty correctly identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Nonetheless, Loewen showed the aggregate statistics of his (albeit imperfect) poll, which revealed that a considerable amount (yet still a minority) of those polled believed in the aforementioned “idiotic notion”.
Loewen quickly provided evidence that defending slavery was, in fact, the motivation for secession, by citing an official statement, a primary source, from a high-ranking member of the Confederacy. If you didn’t get to hear Loewen speak and you are in the states’ rights camp, consider this: South Carolina Senator (and until last year, Yale University residential college namesake) John C. Calhoun worried that outlawing tariff nullification would allow the federal government to undermine the “peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States”. The “soil” and “climate” of the South “placed [the Southern States] in opposite relation to the majority of the Union,” Calhoun proclaimed.
What is the “peculiar domestick institution?” Slavery! In this speech in 1830, which addressed the newly imposed tariffs that benefitted Northern industry at the expense of the South, Calhoun generalized the speech to talk about more than just tariffs. He referenced to the unique nature of the Southern States to give basis to not only the South’s distaste for tariffs but also their “peculiar…institution” of slavery. Why did Calhoun need to distinguish the South from the North? Because he needed to make sure slavery was justified! Calhoun worried that the state’s right to nullify was essential to upholding slavery.
While states’ rights was a rallying cry for Southern defenders of slavery, “states’ rights” in this context referred to the right to uphold slavery. Or the right to subject people to servitude based on their race. Or the right to dehumanize a whole race of people..
In some cases in the 19th century, Southern supporters of slavery were willing to abandon their “states’ rights” convictions if allowing for states’ rights would threaten the institution of slavery. For example, residents of the slave state of Missouri infiltrated the voting precincts of the newly-minted state of Kansas when it became clear that Kansas was going to vote to outlaw slavery.
Moreover, despite the overwhelmingly abolitionist sentiment in Kansas, slavery supporters in Kansas somehow managed to pass a state constitution that protected slavery. In Kansas, slavery supporters undermined popular sovereignty and states’ rights—two virtues that they claimed to cherish—to defend slavery.
Loewen identified white supremacy as the reason for the construction of these Civil War monuments. But why are they still up today? The racist sentiment that motivated their construction, I believe, is alive and well in the United States, so it’s possible that some still want to maintain white ascendancy. Perhaps there simply isn’t enough understanding of the gravity of slavery. And the “idiotic notion” that states’ rights caused the Civil War certainly blinds many from realizing the racial element of the Civil War.
However, in my own conversations, I have found that most who support keeping these monuments up assert that they are part of our history and that taking them down is erasing history. It’s certain that the Civil War is integral to American history and that understanding it is necessary to understanding the development of American society to this day—but statues that hold those who fought for slavery, dehumanization, and racism in high regard do not provide a correct narrative of American history. They portray dishonorable figures as American heroes, all the while trivializing the atrocities—which remain apparent today—of slavery.
These statues should be preserved, not in public squares or outdoor parks, but rather in museums where they can be properly contextualized. While they do not reflect an accurate narrative of the Civil War, these statues, as said by Dr. Loewen, do represent something in American history: racism, particularly in the era after Reconstruction. In a history museum, these statues wouldn’t give false honor to reprehensible figures. Rather, they could shed light on mainstream white supremacy and the distortion of history after the Civil War.
Matt Walsh is a V Form Day Student from Southborough, Massachusetts. His academic interests include chemistry, history, and politics, and he enjoys playing baseball and performing with the trumpet in the jazz band.