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.