Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Hey SCV, Welcome to 2009

I am pleased to see that the Sons of Confederate Veterans have given a thumbs-up to the recent PBS Lincoln documentary, “Looking For Lincoln”, narrated by Henry Louis Gates.  The reviewer takes pride in the way in which the SCV is portrayed as well as the emphasis on the challenging of various “Lincoln myths.”

For the first time in memory, almost all the coverage was positive. In the rare worst case it was neutral and not negative. Our flags and symbols were prominent. If every one of us went out flagging for a whole day we couldn’t have nearly shown our colors to as many as the millions watching.   Our people were shown were well dressed, with attractive personalities and articulate messages including delegates in the scenes at the reunion.

The reviewer is no doubt correct to note that the SCV was allowed to state their position on Lincoln, but this should not be confused with any tacit endorsement of that position by the producers or even Gates himself.  The goal of the documentary was to survey the way various groups, and at different times, have remembered and commemorated Lincoln.  It was not Gates’s purpose to criticize any one interpretation.

More interesting is their assessment of how the documentary handled what the SCV assumes to be a deeply ingrained set of Lincoln myths.  The SCV and other heritage organizations have been outspoken in blaming academics for not addressing these myths:

The bottom line is the program attacked the Lincoln myth and presented so many of the negatives in Lincoln’s life that have been avoided by historians for years. This includes some who appeared on the program and now exposed by having to admit there is a Lincoln “myth”. They also chide each other for not viewing history in light of the times, rather than viewing it, as they often do, as if the events were today.

The program further gives us an opportunity to see to it that it is and used by schools throughout the country to help overcome the problem of children being misled on the life of Lincoln and the causes of the War Between the States. Is also serves as an introduction to the Sons of Confederate Veterans by the SCV being portrayed in a favorable light. Dr. Gates has assured me he wholeheartedly endorses this idea. In his case, he has convinced me he is interested in the truth as defined in the program, though he continues as a devoted Lincoln fan, blemishes and all.

This is a bizarre thing to say given that Henry L. Gates as well as others featured on the program, including Allen Guelzo, David Blight, Harold Holzer, and James O. Horton are all academics and have been arguing for a more sophisticated interpretation of Lincoln for well over twenty years.  Unless you’ve had your head in the sand academic historians have challenged every aspect of the Lincoln myth out there, especially his position on slavery and race.  Actually, the more you think about this passage the more confusing it is.  I am not aware of any high school history textbooks that fail to follow the outline of Gates’s documentary.  In other words, most texts distinguish between Lincoln’s views on race and slavery and do a pretty good job of explaining the complex set of conditions that led to the Emancipation Proclamation – the very core of Lincoln mythology, according to the SCV.

I think what this reflects is how far removed the SCV – as an organization – is from a mature understanding of Lincoln/Civil War historiography.  They think that “Looking for Lincoln” somehow reflects a new direction in scholarship when all it really is is an entertaining/educational overview of what most historians have come to believe about Lincoln.  The straightforward historical interpretation of Lincoln that emerges is a synthesis of the last twenty-five years of scholarship.  Maybe if the SCV took the time to get beyond their meaningless generalizations regarding professional historians and took the time to read their books they would see this.  Welcome to 2009.

Please Accept Our Statue

0_61_statue_320The Sons of Confederate Veterans is still trying to find a home for their statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber.  The statue, which cost $100,000, was originally planned for the grounds at Tredegar in Richmond next to the statue of Lincoln and his son Tad.  The American Civil War Museum accepted the statue, but made no promises as to whether it would be displayed and how.  Apparently, the SCV doesn’t know the first thing about how museums operate.  Now they are offering the statue to the state of Mississippi.  Good luck boys, but in this political climate my guess is that you don’t have a chance.  My offer still stands to use it in my classroom as an interpretive piece to help my students better understand the continued influence of the Lost Cause.  What do you say? We will take very good care of it.

Between the statue, their big ass Confederate flags flying over Southern highways, and their endorsement of a NASCAR driver, the SCV has demonstrated their commitment to wasting money and their inability to take Southern heritage seriously.

“Looking for Lincoln”

abraham-lincoln-statueI am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website.  I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content.  The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use.  My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful.  I was very impressed with the documentary.  Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man.  Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life.  From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.

A few moments stand out.  I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation.  I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation.  As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery.  His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln.  I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.

Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper.  Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship.  I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge.  Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.

Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention.  At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln.  They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc.  It’s all so boring and uninformative.  Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog.  Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate.  It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering.  Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery.  After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.”  I couldn’t agree more.

All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience.  The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.

The Pervasiveness of Reconstruction Mythology

Yesterday I caught an interesting program on C-SPAN’s “In-Depth” which featured Frank J. Williams and Howard University historian, Edna C. Medford discussing Lincoln’s legacy.  I don’t remember how it came up, but at one point early on in the broadcast the two guests discussed Reconstruction and the political in-roads made by African Americans in southern state legislatures.  Williams made it a point to emphasize that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write or had no training for the demands of political governance.  This is a very sensitive point that was emphasized by white Southern “Redeemers” who worked vigorously to overturn Reconstruction governments and reimpose white supremacy.  Recent scholarship has successfully challenged this important narrative thread of the Lost Cause.  Historians such as Eric Foner have documented the wide range of legislation that benefited both poor black as well as white Southerners.  On the other hand there it is indisputable that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write.

Professor Medford immediately countered by pointing out that white men had been voting, regardless of their capacity to read and/or write, since the 1830s.  By the 1830s qualifications such as property had been overturned as the country continued to push west and in turn challenged traditional notions of privilege.  Most white men were eligible to vote and just about all presidential electors were chosen directly by the people.  With this in mind it is curious to me that we continue to feel the need to point out that blacks were illiterate at a time when literacy ceased to be a factor in determining the suffrage as well as the right to run for office.  We tend to think of the expansion of the franchise in the 1830s as an important step in the evolution of American democracy so why do we continue to feel a need to point out that recently-freed slaves could not read or write?