This might be the clearest example of the distinction between history and memory that I have ever come across. It’s not unusual to employ memory of the Civil War to run for and maintain office in South Carolina. Not too long ago two Republican state legislators proposed erecting a monument to the state’s loyal black Confederates on the capital grounds in Columbia. It’s pure fantasy.
Now Republican Catherine Templeton is running for governor by reminding voters of her own family’s connection to the war and relationship to the Confederacy. Templeton’s understanding is right out of the conservative playbook. In a recent speech she argued that:
I think it’s important to note that my family didn’t fight because we had slaves. My family fought because the federal government was trying to tell us how to live. We didn’t need them to tell us how to live way back then, and we don’t need them to tell us how to live today.
They didn’t fight to preserve slavery because as far as Templeton understood, the family didn’t own any slaves. On another occasion, Templeton shared that, “I’m proud to be from South Carolina. I’m proud of the Confederacy.”
I think you get the ‘states right gist’ of things.
The problem is that none of this is true. A little bit of digging uncovered that, in fact, the family owned 66 slaves as late as 1860, which made them one of the largest owners of enslaved people in Chester County.
There is no indication that Templeton lied about her family’s past. It would be more accurate to say that she has very little need or even interest in this aspect of her family’s story. What appears to matter to Templeton is the ability to employ a narrative that is appealing to her constituents. The narrative of an oppressive Federal government fits this bill, regardless of the fact that the Confederacy was far more centralized than the United States during the war.
Based on the available evidence, did Templeton’s ancestor have an interest in protecting the institution of slavery in 1861? Yes. Did he believe that the Confederacy was the best vehicle to achieve this goal in 1861? Most certainly, yes.
It will be interesting to see if Templeton comes around to acknowledge this crucial piece of her family’s history or whether she tries to double-down on steering away from the unpleasant implications that her ancestor very likely fought to protect slavery. As we have seen memory (heritage) often trumps history.
Finally, this is an excellent example to use with students in teaching them the distinction between history and memory.
- Why and how is Templeton employing her family’s history on the campaign trail?
- What obligations do we owe our ancestors when discussing their lives? Do facts matter?
- What are the dangers of elected officials or candidates employing history for purely political reasons?
These are just a few of the questions that come to mind.