Making Room For a Richer History

From Governor Robert McDonnell’s recent announcement:

This proclamation will encapsulate all of our history. It will remember all Virginians-free and enslaved; Union and Confederate. It will be written for all Virginians.

While we cannot fully put to paper the definitive collective memory of this period, we are going to at least ensure that all voices are heard in the attempt.

One of the things that I strive to do in my classroom is to give my students a sense of the complexity of the past.  I want them to struggle with competing voices from the past as well as our continuing struggle as historians to make sense of it all.  One of the aspects of Gov. McDonnell’s recent speech that I truly appreciate is that it aligns his office, and the influence that accompanies it, with this worthy goal.  Over the next few years we need to figure out how to challenge the boundaries of our own personal narratives of the past.  If we claim to be serious students of the Civil War as well as educators then we need to find ways to bring these stories to the public and help to forge a richer collective past.

Here are two examples that I came across today in my reading.  The first is an 1856 editorial written by University of North Carolina Professor, Benjamin Hendrick:

Opposition to slavery extension is neither a Northern nor a Southern sectional ism.  It originated with the great Southern statesmen of the Revolution.  Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, Randolph were all opposed to slavery in the abstract, and were all opposed to admitting it into new territory.  One of the early acts of the patriots of the Revolution was to pass the ordinance of ’87’ by which slavery was excluded from all the territories we then possessed.  This was going farther than the Republicans of the present day claim.  Many of these great men were slaveholders; but they did not let self interest blind them to the evils of the system.

Hendrick reminds us that while the antebellum South was committed to maintaining a slave society there were voices that continued to reflect antislavery sentiment.

Today in the Boston Globe there is an excellent article on the history of slavery in New England:

As the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in 2011, with commemorations that reinforce the North/South divide, researchers are offering uncomfortable answers to that question, unearthing more and more of the hidden stories of New England slavery — its brutality, its staying power, and its silent presence in the very places that have become synonymous with freedom. With the markers of slavery forgotten even as they lurk beneath our feet — from graveyards to historic homes, from Lexington and Concord to the halls of Harvard University — historians say it is time to radically rewrite America’s slavery story to include its buried history in New England.

As a teacher, historian, and proud citizen of Virginia I consider the governor’s words to be our marching orders to ensure that the Sesquicentennial gets as close to the “definitive collective memory of this period” as possible.  Thank you, governor.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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6 comments… add one
  • Sherree Sep 29, 2010 @ 3:02

    Thanks for this post, Kevin. Governor McDonnell’s announcement and the article in the Boston Globe are both encouraging. It is time to rethink American history, in my opinion. Perhaps the sesquicentennial will provide an opportunity for our nation to do just that. Even if only a few Americans undergo a paradigm shift, much will have been accomplished.

  • Daniel Sep 27, 2010 @ 19:00

    I really would like for it to be common knowledge that the Civil War was a very complex war but I just don’t see the majority of Americans ever understanding that. The larger the population the simpler the fact has to be.

    • Andy Hall Sep 28, 2010 @ 6:51

      The larger the population the simpler the fact has to be.

      That reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons where Apu, the clerk at the Quicky-Mart, is reviewing for his citizenship test. The tutor asks, “what caused the Civil War?”

      Apu replies, “There were numerous social, political and economic factors that led. . . .”

      The tutor cuts him off: “Just say ‘slavery,’ OK?”

      • Wayne Carlson Sep 30, 2010 @ 19:43

        Andy, you are exactly right and have hit the nail on the head. Most people have a Simpsons quality understanding of the past. This is especially true of the War to Prevent Southern Independence.

        • Andy Hall Oct 1, 2010 @ 4:26

          Unfortunately the Southron Heritage™ types make two fundamental, closely-related errors. First, they assume that those who disagree with them do so out of ignorance, themselves having (or having bought into) a similarly cartoonish, grade-school-level understanding of the past. Second, they seek to replace that understanding with a preferred narrative that is every bit as partisan, dogmatic and intolerant of dissent as they claim the “Northern” interpretation of the war to be.

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