White Southerners Embrace Lincoln

This post is a few years old, but given the recent discussion about a possible Lincoln Day in Virginia I thought it was worth re-posting.

I highly recommend Barry Schwartz’s new book, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2009). There is an interesting section on the image of Lincoln during the Depression, which is a moment where, according to Schwartz his reputation had peaked only to decline following WWII. Schwartz not only surveys popular or institutional representations of Lincoln, but also tries to uncover the views of ordinary Americans. One of the more interesting sections is his analysis of how white Southerners viewed Lincoln from the turn of the twentieth century through the New Deal. Along the way, Schwartz mentions Thomas Dixon, D.W. Griffith, and Mary R.S. Andrews and a host of lesser-known writers.

I learned that on February 12, 1928, the Virginia House of Delegates rose for the first time in respect for Lincoln’s memory and adjourned “in honor of…the martyred President of the United States, whose death was a distinct blow to the South, resulting in a national calamity.” Not surprisingly, a number of public figures, including Lyon G. Tyler (son of of the president) and Reverend Giles B. Cook (Lee’s staff) offered a request to “to Repeal the Resolution of respect for Abraham Lincoln, the Barbarian…” and an eleven-page resolution. At least one newspaper editor encouraged its readers to “put aside old animosities.”

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Virginia’s Lincoln

On Tuesday I will be working with a group of k-12 history teachers in Virginia on how they can introduce the subject of historical memory in their classrooms.  The news that Virginia may set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln could not have come at a better time and I plan on offering some suggestions on how teachers and students can get involved.

This morning I came across the state’s Lincoln bicentennial commission website and it includes some very helpful links on their work as well as sources on Lincoln’s deep Virginia roots.  There is a section for teachers, students as well as other helpful resources that can be used in the classroom.  My suggestion to history teachers in Virginia is to find a way to integrate this issue into their classrooms as a culminating activity.  The sesquicentennial is a unique opportunity to involve students in the act of commemoration based on their understanding of this crucial period.

Have students debate the resolution in its present form.  Should Virginia commemorate President Abraham Lincoln with his own day?  Present the results to the rest of the student body.  Better yet, contact your local state representative and have him/her visit the class to receive the results.  Have students write their own resolutions as individuals or in small groups to reflect the challenges of committee work.  Students who disagree with the resolution can offer a counter-resolution that supports their preferred candidate.

Don’t just study history, shape it!

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Should Virginians Give Lincoln His Day?

The news that the Virginia General Assembly is considering setting aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln has certainly triggered some emotional responses.  That is not surprising, but let’s not deceive ourselves in thinking that this is a question with an answer.  How we approach this question will be determined by a host of factors, but this has little to do with what matters.

Whether Lincoln deserves a day in Virginia will be determined by whether the sponsors of the bill can gain enough support in Richmond and ultimately among the general public.  This is not about political correctness , but about political persuasion.  In other words, whoever makes the best case within the marketplace of commemorative visions and can rally sufficient support will prevail.  In the context of the public sphere how we as a community commemorate and remember our past has always proceeded along these lines.   One of the comments on the previous post pointed out that the sponsor of the resolution is both a Democrat and African American.  I suggested that it is irrelevant given that Democrats and African Americans have just as much a right as anyone to propose such commemorative events.  Perhaps if the sponsor had chosen to honor an ex-Confederate general there would have been no need to bring up politics and race.  I don’t know.

What gives me comfort is that unlike the formative period of Civil War commemorations we now live at a time when these questions can be discussed and debated by both black and white Virginians.  After all, it is a shared history.

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Lincoln May Get His Own Day in Virginia

Just a quick update for those of you following the ongoing discussion in Richmond over whether to set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln.  The original bill can be found here.  There have been reports that the senate decided against the bill, but what follows is an update from Jeffry Burden, who is involved in the crafting of the legislation:

Per Sen. Marsh’s office: pressure was brought to bear over the last week on various Senators by the good folks at Mt. Vernon, who suggested that the bill be amended to provide another date for a paid “Lincoln Day”, which is not fiscally feasible (or that the bill designate a non-paid State holiday, which was also by law a complete non-starter).

However, Senate Joint Resolution 131 has been introduced in lieu of Senate Bill 43. It will establish February 12 as “Lincoln Day” in the Commonwealth. It does not go to the Governor for approval, so there’s no amendment or veto. Once agreed to by House and Senate, it will be up to Senator Marsh’s committee, the Lincoln Society of Virginia, and others to request that the Governor create the appropriate proclamation and urge appropriate commemorations.

You can read it here, but what follows are a few choice selections from the resolution:

WHEREAS, Abraham Lincoln’s roots run deep within the Commonwealth, and his great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents lived in Virginia; his parents met, married, and lived for a time in the Shenandoah Valley; his great-grandparents and multiple relatives are buried in Virginia in the Lincoln Cemetery at the Lincoln Family Homestead in Rockingham County; there are Lincoln descendants living in the Shenandoah Valley today. During the Civil War, Lincoln’s family in Virginia were slave owners and Confederates, and he visited several Virginia localities, including Petersburg and Richmond, the Confederate capital, in April 1865, just a few days prior to his death[.]

WHEREAS, at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln rededicated the nation to freedom and democracy, stating, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” and the principles that he espoused remain a core part of the American value system[.]

And this just in…

HB 527 Establishes the Virginia Slave Commission in the legislative branch of state government for the purpose of addressing contemporary political, economic, educational, and societal issues and public policies whose roots lie in the transatlantic slave trade.

The Commission, among other things, must (i) identify the vestiges and assess the effects of the transatlantic slave trade on African Americans, the Commonwealth, and modern societal problems and public policies, (ii) explore and showcase the contributions of African Americans in building Virginia and the nation, (iii) determine the educational and economic value to the Commonwealth of preserving sites and facilities of historic and archaeological significance to African American culture and contributions, and (iv) recommend feasible and appropriate options to resolve lingering societal problems whose roots lie in slavery. Patron Del. McQuinn.

I’ve said it before, this is not your grandfather’s Civil War commemoration.

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A Crime Against Our People

[H/T to Andy Hall at Dead Confederates]

I chose not to comment on this story when it broke the other day in central Texas.  Turns out a noose was discovered hanging from a large Sons of Confederate Veterans billboard along Highway 290.  This was reported by a member of the local chapter of the SCV, but one Star-Telegram reporter is hinting that something is not quite right with this story.  Better to let him tell it:

“It’s racist — a hate crime,” rancher Donnie Roberts said.  Washington County Chief Deputy Mike Herzog laughed.  “They were the first people who saw those nooses, and then they alerted the media,” he said.  I got the feeling he won’t bring in the FBI.  “It’s on a busy highway, and nobody else saw it,” he said.  It would have taken three people with a bucket truck and extension ladder to hang the nooses, he said.  Coincidentally, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans history and heritage group responded quickly with a bucket truck and extension ladder to take them down.  The giant double billboard went up last year on the busy highway east of Brenham. Both sides wave battle flags with the message “Southern Born, Texas Proud! Learn About Your Heritage” and the phone number to buy $30-a-year Sons memberships.  Chappell Hill physician Robert Stark, also a Sons member, said Roberts saw the nooses first.

So what did they do?  Why, they were so insulted and threatened that Stark immediately took a bunch of photos and e-mailed them to a radio station.  KWHI/1280 AM’s website headlined “Local Billboard Vandalized.”  Roberts declared a “degradation of our historic heritage.”  At the sheriff’s office, Herzog called it a “prank.”  Deputies will investigate it as criminal mischief, he said.  Roberts said he wants the national SCV to investigate a “crime against our people” and will offer a $5,000 reward.  He said the suspect might be “white or black.”  But he added: “Well, it did happen on Martin Luther King’s birthday.”

Like Andy, I have no idea what happened nor do I really care.  That said, there is something fishy here.  The “crime” plays right into the SCV’s tendency to see itself as some kind of victim in a society that shows no respect to southern heritage.  But the belief that this constitutes a “crime against our people” and the insinuation that the perpetrator was black because it happened on MLK Day undermines their broader claim that southern heritage includes whites and blacks.  What happened to all those black Confederates and loyal slaves?

Well, at least they are honest about who constitutes “our people.”

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