Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students in central Virginia, bound for one of the area’s Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. It allows us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger community, one extending far back into the past. In those moments, in those still-dewy fields, the distance between the present and past collapses. I suspect it’s the same reason that bring hundreds of thousands of people each year to Fredericksburg, Manassas, Richmond, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley: We want, we feel compelled even, to understand what happened, why it happened and what it means that it happened.
Our standard narrative of Reconstruction goes something like this: After the war the southern states were forced to re-write their state constitutions to conform to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In many of these states these changes were imposed by occupying federal armies. Between 1865 and 1877 African Americans enjoyed a brief window of civil rights and political privileges that would not be seen again until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. The Compromise of 1877 left the southern states once again in control of their own futures and quickly instated a series of Jim Crow laws that left their African American population disfranchised and reduced to second class citizens. In short, the black population was abandoned by the federal government. This narrative has become so deeply embedded in our collective memory (at least in our textbooks) that we tend to assume that the end of Reconstruction led inevitably to Jim Crow.
Yesterday I spent the day in Virginia Beach working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers on how to teach the Civil War. I was joined by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, who lectured during the morning session on the war through emancipation and I followed up with an overview of how to use Civil War monuments in the classroom. The workshop was funded by the Teaching American History program, which as many of you know was recently cut by the federal government. We spend so much time in this country focusing on bad teachers and other problems with public education that we completely ignore the incredible wealth of talent that we have in the classroom. Here was a program that directly benefited thousands of history teachers throughout the country and it cost next to nothing. We constantly complain about how little our kids know about American history, but when push comes to shove we do so little to combat it by supporting the very people who are working on the front lines in your neighborhood classrooms.
I highly recommend heading over to Richard Williams’s Old Virginia Blog for a thoughtful commentary on the Lincoln Day resolution. Richard points out what he sees as an inconsistency between how Governor Robert McDonnell’s Confederate History Day proclamation was received and Sen. Marsh’s Lincoln resolution. Let’s be clear that this story has yet to hit the mainstream news so I must assume that Richard is responding to the debate over the past week on this blog. From OVB:
But this proclamation also leaves out quite a bit of President Lincoln’s legacy. In light of all the negative hoopla last year over McDonnell’s Confederate History proclamation, I’m having difficulty reconciling all the celebration over this proclamation, with all the hysterical objections we heard over the Confederate History proclamation. It just doesn’t add up. Am I the only one who sees the inconsistencies here?
Richard goes on to suggest a number of things about Lincoln’s racial outlook that ought to be remembered to determine whether he, in fact, deserves such an honor. They include references to colonization, the Emancipation Proclamation, the fugitive slave act, the Corwin Amendment, and a “fondness” for black minstrel shows and the “N” word. Some of these points are more relevant than others, but that is up to each individual to decide. Of course, I could come up with another short list that would tip the balance back in favor of Lincoln. The bigger problem, however, is with the nature of these resolutions and their tendency to pluck out specific acts from any historical context. In both Marsh’s resolution and Richard’s post we get no sense of Lincoln’s evolution in regard to his racial outlook nor do we understand his role at the time of the act. The Lincoln of 1865 that is contemplating a limited suffrage for African Americans is not the Lincoln of 1850 or even 1862.
The bigger point for Richard is whether the resolution includes “the whole story.”
Personally, I don’t have a big problem with giving Lincoln his day – as long as the record includes the whole story, as was demanded for Confederate History month. We do want to be consistent and objective, don’t we?
This is a curious point given that no monument or commemoration includes the whole story; rather, it includes the story that an individual or community has a desire or need to remember. In the case of Governor McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation enough Virginians voiced their concerns that it had ignored a salient aspect of Confederate history. This was enough to bring about a retraction and later a proclamation setting aside April as Civil War History in Virginia Month. The other problem for Gov. McDonnell’s original proclamation was that it was framed as reflecting a “shared history” for all Virginians. That was seen as problematic, especially among African Americans.
The verdict is still out on whether the Lincoln proclamation both includes the right historical references and whether it speaks to the preferred memory of the past and values of enough Virginians. There is no objective answer to this question. It depends entirely on who chooses to get involved and speak out through our democratic system. As I’ve said before, I am just happy that we now live at a time when all Virginians can take part in these discussions.
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.”