James I. Robertson’s Confederate Monument Rant

Update: Check out this interview of Robertson by Peter Carmichael from this year’s CWI. It’s well worth watching. Pete did a good job of focusing Robertson on his work during the centennial as well as his many books.

Recently historian James I. Robertson delivered the keynote address at a symposium on the history of Civil War monuments and the current debate at James Madison University. As I suggest in the title, “rant” is a more appropriate characterization of his presentation.

Let me be clear, Robertson is entitled to take any position on this debate that he wants. That is not my concern here. What disappointed me was his inability to provide a coherent argument in support of his position. Along the way he made a number of suspect claims after insisting that Americans today know less than generations past –  a claim that is often repeated, but unsupported by the evidence.

Robertson insists that slavery was dying a natural death by 1860. In his usual routine of waxing poetic about Robert E. Lee he suggested that Americans were more connected to their respective states as opposed to the nation. So much for trying to understand West Point graduates from the South who refused to resign their commissions in the United States army. According to Robertson, the Postal Service was the only way that the federal government directly impacted individual Americans.

The larger problem with Robertson’s comments about the current debate was that he failed to take seriously any position different from his own. He chastised the Episcopal Church for its recent decisions to remove Confederate iconography without any attempt to address their specific concerns and reasoning.

Much more problematic, however, was the failure to acknowledge the long history of controversy surrounding these monuments, especially stemming from within the African-American community. In a room with an audience of older white people this was an especially disappointing oversight. Black Americans don’t exist in his understanding of the relevant history and in the context of the current debate.

In the end, Robertson was happy simply to set up and knock down multiple strawmen to the delight of the audience. Thankfully, John Coski, Christy Coleman, and Caroline Janney were present to counter some of Robertson’s more egregious claims and/or deepen the audience’s understanding of this subject.

At some point you need to know when to bow out gracefully.

35 comments… add one
  • Alec Kohut Jul 31, 2018

    If the Postal Service was the only way the Federal Gov’t directly impacted individuals Americans…then why did the South go to War over Federal Tariffs??? (insert Sarcasm emoji)

    • CliosFanBoy (formerly Woodrowfan) Jul 31, 2018

      LOL. That was my first thought too along with “so it was the POST OFFICE that was threatening “state’s rights”???

  • chris meekins Jul 31, 2018

    As an attendee of the event, I also had some trouble with basic statements by this distinguished Civil War historian. He made hints at knowing a more current historiography (in such reference to current Lee scholarship for example) but seems to willfully ignore the same. Surely he has heard of Urban Slavery and the arguments there about the adaptation of slavery to an urban society – i.e. slaves in industrial settings.
    The audience showed a diversity of understanding greater than his talk – particularly when Janney and Coleman were speaking. They may have hearkened to Robertson (standing ovation should suggest) but Janney and Coleman (and Coski) certainly made them think and consider – a good deal harder to do than embrace the line of folic Robertson offered up.
    And, as an older white person, I can only say that it would have been wonderful to have a more ethnically diversified attendance.
    No doubt the organizer worked for a balanced sheet in terms of presentations and hoped for the same in attendees. I myself wondered what I was doing there once I saw armed law enforcement at the doors, in the presentation room, etc. Open discourse?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2018

      He clearly has not kept up with scholarship, which is fine. My concern is with his reinforcing the myth about the inevitable decline of slavery, which as you know is quite popular among neo-Confederates. I suspect that a more diversified audience in Harrisonburg is just not possible. You do what you can. Thanks for the comment, Chris.

  • Diane Hyra Jul 31, 2018

    I am glad you have mentioned this. I watched Prof. Robertson’s “talk” on television and was almost embarrassed for him. His worship — I know no other word for it — of Robert E. Lee is still supreme. (I wonder if he even tried to read Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man.) I agree, Kevin, the worst part was his seeming ignorance of the African-American perspective on the argument. From reading the other comments, I am very pleased the attendees heard from other speakers with differing viewpoints.

  • Sandi Saunders Jul 31, 2018

    Well that is disappointing. I have seen several of his talks and I thought he was at least a bit sympathetic to the many aspects that led to the tragedy and really respected all sides of the issue. It appears I was wrong to think that.

    Sadly, I do think the renewed emphasis and talk of as well as actual removal of monuments has forced many to show their true and unflattering colors.

    I am Southern, born and bred. I had ancestors on both sides of the Civil War and while I have respect for the soldiers, just as I do for Vietnam or Iraq, I disagree vehemently that the South had any kind of right, duty or sanction to rebel. It was treason; and in retrospect, only hanging some of the leaders would have given the Civil War the imprimatur it deserved.

  • Beth Kruse Jul 31, 2018

    Yes, I watched him also, & I was profoundly saddened to watch a historian stand up for & promote historical theories which represented early & mid-20th century interpretations. His U.B. Phillips argument of slavery as dying, using a quote by Daniel Webster, was baffling considering we live in a world that still combats slavery, albeit not race based, but certainly kidnapping & coercion of labor are still elements. Slavery as a “catalyst” versus the overarching cause certainly undermined the understanding & provided Lost Causers with support. He made the biggest historical mistake of becoming enraptured with his subject & again providing support for Lost Causers by declaring that Lee personifies the meaning of noble. Lee is certainly someone from the past who needs studied, but offering counter-factual arguments suggesting that Lee would have been a Union officer had VA not secceeded was absurd! Attempting to support his love of Lee by offering an alternate history was unacceptable. Likewise promoting the study of “Great Men” history by quoting Truman’s “Men make history” undervalues all the others who played a role in Lee’s successes & failures because “no man is an island.” And lastly, his James G. Randall “blundering generation” puts the study of history backwards. But his point about “long on noise & short on knowledge” has elements of truth, for today. Here, in a way, I disagree with your argument about the current populace understanding history. Our nation has fallen victim to myths. Although you & others are attempting to eradicate mythical history, it permeates society. People do not know how to distinguish reliable sources from bad ones & they don’t look for or read the primary sources. The U.S. does have a serious problem with its people understanding history & historical context. This problem is effecting our Democracy. Overall, the lecture was a sad moment to watch, as a once weighted scholar, demonstrated how he is now a dinosaur in his field.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2018

      Here, in a way, I disagree with your argument about the current populace understanding history. Our nation has fallen victim to myths.

      I am happy to review the evidence if you provide it.

      • Beth Kruse Jul 31, 2018

        Well, first I would offer the recent publications & growing field of memory studies. A field where we both demonstrate an interest. If historical memory wasn’t an issue, historians wouldn’t be studying it & publishers wouldn’t invest their resources in publishing the books . Second, would be the rise of alt-right groups such as the 3%’s who promote their own interpretation of the Revolutionary War, it’s patriots, & the meaning of the militia & gun rights. And lastly, my own interactions with students, people of my own age, & baby-boomers. The most recent ahistorical statement I attempted to counter was “If Kennedy were alive, he wouldn’t be a member of the Democratic party.” Two long-time acquaintances, with blue-collar backgrounds, were unconvinced when I offered his policies on immigration, Russia, and Civil Rights & how they aligned with current party ideologies. I also supported my statements with articles from his presidential library, still they stood by their sentiments of the “good old days” & their “feelings” concerning an assassinated President. Or how about Trump’s recent statement that his approval rating is higher than Lincoln’s? How many people will take that as a historical fact because many average Americans lack the skills to research & find the evidence that these types of polls are 20th century creations. The focus of education from humanities based to technology skills, and the decline in history majors is overall undermining the nation’s understanding of historical events & people & their relevance in modernity.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2018

          Myths about the past have always been present in our culture.

          • Beth Kruse Jul 31, 2018

            Agreed. But you cannot possibly argue that the switch from humanities to technologies focus in education has not created a gap in the general public’s understanding of history? Professional scholars must see and admit this, and then create ways to close that gap. Collective memory and individual’s sentiments about historical actors and events will always need countering, but in today’s world of FB, Twitter, & unethical news sources, the general public does not have the skills to evaluate sources or seek out primary sources & the unreliable histories are becoming the dominant narrative.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2018

              The biggest challenge facing history educators today is in training students to be able to search and assess digital sources. I’ve been saying this for years and I just finished a book about one of the biggest Civil War myths that continues to be spread on the Internet.

              That said, you still have not provided any evidence that demonstrates that previous generations were better informed about American history beyond a few anecdotes.

              • Beth Kruse Jul 31, 2018

                I do not know if any data that mined for statistical support of understanding history, but let’s go with U.S. Dept. of Ed Nat. Adult Literacy Study (1992) “44 million Americans cannot read well enough to read a simple story to a child.” Since reading is a basic tool of understanding history this would be one sign of a decrease in Americans being informed. I’m going to just link you to Concordia University – Portland blog that puts out statistics on literacy. Including how the 2013 U.S. Dept. of Edu. Natl. Center for Education Statistics PIAAC results determined “people born after 1980 in the U.S. scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries. Overall, U.S. adults aged 16-65 scored below the international average in all three categories – ranking near the very bottom in numeracy.” It would be convenient if this was a national over time study instead of an international study. Although, any resource you want to hit determines America is suffering from a “widening literacy gap.” The Portland study group also included that the “NCAL report notes that the U.S. is less educated than it was a generation ago.” I have a degree in workforce education & I know from my studies & my internship at a state agency developing workforce programs that the decline in education & skills is a barrier for both workers & employers. I will give you that challenging me to provide you with concrete information made me realize there is a gap in quantitative statistics related to the study of history. I can offer you this experiment, as I move forward, I can provide a sample questionnaire for students & lecture attendees, who are not scholars of history, and document responses every 5 -10 years to see if correct answers increase or decrease. https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/education-news-roundup/illiteracy-in-america/

              • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2018

                I appreciate the links. In the end, I have seen test results that go back to the 1930s that are accompanied by the exact same concerns that today generate the same worries.

        • CliosFanBoy (formerly Woodrowfan) Jul 31, 2018

          I agree it’s a big problem, but I have to go with Kevin in that I do not think it’s gotten worse. There are new ways in which myths about history are spread and new myths appear, but I think the overall level of historical literacy is probably pretty consistent overall. After all, there are also new ways in which people learn accurate history. For example, I’ve learned a lot about the Civil War from this website and others (Hi Andy!). It’s not my area of specialization so there is a lot for me still to learn, and while websites/podcasts/blogs/etc spread nonsense about “black confederates” there are also those that introduce their readers to good historical research.

          OTOH, I am open to evidence that historical literacy is dropping. I am judging from what my students know and what I remember from my college history classes.

          • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2018

            OTOH, I am open to evidence that historical literacy is dropping. I am judging from what my students know and what I remember from my college history classes.

            OTOH, I was a horrible student and don’t remember a single history class. Works both ways. 🙂

  • Kellen Jul 31, 2018

    It was both predictable and disappointing to hear Robertson repeat the fatuous and bromidic claim that The War for Confederate Independence was fought over slavery. That worthless idea should have been consigned to the ash heap of history long ago, and replaced with the factual notion that the war was fought over the right of secession and political self-determination.

    Equally problematic is Robertson’s assertion that persons constitutionally held to service would have been naturally liberated. There is no evidence at all to indicate that Northern consumption of Southern products, especially cotton, sugar, tobacco, and indigo, would have diminished. Indeed, the Northern population continued to grow and correspondingly, so did its enormous demand for materials and products generated by Southern agricultural laborers.

    Lastly, and as for the homogeneous audience, all I can say is that it was orderly, attentive, knowledgeable, and respectful. Indeed, the audience was a delight.

  • Gary Norton Jul 31, 2018

    Maybe its like in the Star War: The Force Awakens when Han Solo tell Princess Leia he saw their son Ben and comments that he (Ben) has too much Vader in him.

    Robertson seems to have too much of the Lost Cause in him.

    • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 3, 2018

      Except sadly Lost Cause rubbish is all too real.

  • Crandall Shifflett Aug 3, 2018

    However troubling, and it is very troubling, it is not surprising to see Professor Robertson’s jaded and out of touch positions on the Civil War. Nearly a half-century ago, as a graduate student at the University of Virginia, I heard Professor Charles Dew lecture on the current scholarship that convincingly challenged the “old saw” on slavery dying a natural death. Robertson’s assertion that “Americans today know less than generations of the past” proves that for this historian the claim is true. His position on monuments (like the position on slavery) reveals tone-deafness about the perspectives of African Americans. One can almost hear Rhett Butler say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Popular history and scholarship are two different endeavors. Yes, Kevin, it was a rant.

  • Mike Furlan Aug 4, 2018

    I did not watch the Robertson rant, just John Coski, Christy Coleman, and Caroline Janney. Without the dark black background of Robertson’s address, the muddled greys of Coski and Janney looked a lot darker and disturbing to me. At best Coski and Janney came across as soulless careerists who knew that they had to placate the white supremacist plurality of Civil War monument supporters to keep their jobs. Christy Colemen in contrast bravely read “the writing on the wall” to the assembled Balshazzars, telling them that their days are numbered, they have been judged and found wanting, and that their kingdom would be given to new, sane, democratic generation.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 4, 2018

      This is an unfair assessment. The three occupy very different positions and approaches to this complex issue. We need the talents of all three.

  • Guy Fletcher Aug 4, 2018

    It was sad to hear an educated historian clutch onto hackneyed and factually fanciful positions that, unfortunately, are shared by many others living in denial. When he said Lee never owned slaves but his wife did, I laughed out loud. Seriously. Thanks for that important destinction, Mr. Robertson. Or that Lee helped rebuild the country as much as Grant did. That’s not even close to being true. Lee fought for just the opposite. … But more disturbing than his grasp of the facts is his overarching thesis that rebellion and the Civil War shaped the United States into a great nation, that we somehow needed the deaths of 700,000 people to build a country. It was all just sickening to hear and CSPAN can do better than giving these wacky beliefs a platform.

  • Ben Allen Aug 4, 2018

    Watching him I felt a mixture of anger, disappointment, and sadness. He seems to have become senile; that is my most charitable assessment. I did not appreciate his foray into incivility, either. For example, he called fellow historians, among others (like Ken Burns), “airheads.” Sure he has an established reputation, but it is still imprudent. After all, he was at a public podium.

    He made outlandish claims. According to him, college campuses are in perpetual anarchy. Ninety percent of “our citizens” can’t pass a U.S. history exam? Don’t know who Abraham Lincoln is? Don’t know about the Declaration of Independence?

    Robertson reminds me a bit of Woodrow Wilson, a Wilsonian academic– well-meaning but virtually clueless about race. (To a lesser extent, he also reminds me of Lee postbellum, a curmudgeon.) He mostly ignored the African American community.

    Well, at least I now have a better idea of why certain millennials are called “snowflakes.” I don’t really see the insult in the term. Snowflakes can morph into water, ice, air, and back into snowflakes, whereas heat can’t transfer from one object to another indefinitely. Besides, for delicate things, you can’t crush snowflakes to break them; they just condense. Indeed, individually they are weak, but when crushed into a snowball they can sure pack a punch… and when they are piled on mountains, they can change topography and wreak havoc as avalanches. Anyway, this whole business of epithets is stupid.

    This rant shows that it is time for Robertson to bow out from public life and stop talking. His intermittent coughs seem to be fitting… I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a stroke soon.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 4, 2018

      We agree that the presentation was problematic, but it seems to me we can be critical without insulting the man or bringing up the possibility of a stroke. That is out of line here.

      • Mark Snell Aug 4, 2018

        Kevin, I didn’t listen to the address, but I am glad that you drew the line on Mr. Allen’s churlish remarks. Bud is 88 years old; hell–I hope I am still going at it when I am his age! (Actually, I bowed out at the age of 59. Life is good . . . .)

        • Kevin Levin Aug 5, 2018

          Hi Mark,

          I give Robertson a hell of a lot of credit for the way he has stayed active at his age. At the same time I think what Robertson says deserves to be critiqued if he is going to stay in the arena.

        • Ben Allen Aug 5, 2018

          I was serious. It could really be senility. But Kevin doesn’t want to go there on this platform, and I’ll respect that.

          To be fair, he was open to compromise, favoring erecting an interpretive plaques next to some monuments while removing the belligerent ones. I’m fine with that. Pity it was couched in a rant with an excess of vituperation and hyperbole. (It was a kind of rant I’ve heard some white hairs; hence my unwelcome speculation.)

  • Ted McKnight Aug 4, 2018

    Are you saying Ken Burns isn’t an ‘airhead’? I would like proof and sources.

  • Ben Allen Aug 4, 2018

    I don’t know how else to put it. Senility does stuff to your mind; you can get lazy. At best, it can have a worsening effect on what is already there. Am I completely sure it is senility? No. To reiterate, it is my most charitable assessment, something to explain, if not excuse, his rant.

    Oh, sorry. I thought anger was a warning sign of a stroke. Turns out it could be a trigger, not a sign. :/

    Anyway, it could be anything. Senility… weltanschauung… or a combination of the two. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was a rant, and I am wondering why it was so.

    I didn’t know he had it in him.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 5, 2018

      Like I said, let’s stick to critiquing the argument.

  • Bob Huddleston Aug 8, 2018

    Alexander Stephens, in his capacity as Vice President of the Confederate States, appeared before the Virginia “secession” convention, making another of his “cornerstone” speeches, advocating Virginia join the CSA.
    He was invited to speak but a Virginian chose the same day (23 April 1861) to accept an offer from the convention: Major General of the state troops. Complements to Robert E. Lee delayed Stephens’ speech, after which Lee sat and listened to Stephens.

    See George H Reese, editor, Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, February 13 — May 1; In Four Volumes, Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1966, 4: 361-390.

    I have scanned the relevant pages, if anyone is interested.

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