[Marxism] Confederate Statues and ‘Our’ History

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 21 10:03:24 MDT 2017

NY Times Op-Ed, August 21 2017
Confederate Statues and ‘Our’ History

President Trump’s Thursday morning tweet lamenting that the removal of 
Confederate statues tears apart “the history and culture of our great 
country” raises numerous questions, among them: Who is encompassed in 
that “our”?

Mr. Trump may not know it, but he has entered a debate that goes back to 
the founding of the republic. Should American nationality be based on 
shared values, regardless of race, ethnicity and national origin, or 
should it rest on “blood and soil,” to quote the neo-Nazis in 
Charlottesville, Va., whom Trump has at least partly embraced?

Neither Mr. Trump nor the Charlottesville marchers invented the idea 
that the United States is essentially a country for white persons. The 
very first naturalization law, enacted in 1790 to establish guidelines 
for how immigrants could become American citizens, limited the process 
to “white” persons.

What about nonwhites born in this country? Before the Civil War, 
citizenship was largely defined by individual states. Some recognized 
blacks born within their boundaries as citizens, but many did not. As 
far as national law was concerned, the question was resolved by the 
Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Blacks, wrote 
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (a statue of whom was removed from public 
display in Baltimore this week), were and would always be aliens in America.

This was the law of the land when the Civil War broke out in 1861. This 
is the tradition that the Southern Confederacy embodied and sought to 
preserve and that Mr. Trump, inadvertently or not, identifies with by 
equating the Confederacy with “our history and culture.”

Many Americans, of course, rejected this racial definition of American 
nationality. Foremost among them were abolitionists, male and female, 
black and white, who put forward an alternative definition, known today 
as birthright citizenship. Anybody born in the United States, they 
insisted, was a citizen, and all citizens should enjoy equality before 
the law. Abolitionists advocated not only the end of slavery, but also 
the incorporation of the freed people as equal members of American society.

In the period of Reconstruction that followed the war, this egalitarian 
vision was, for the first time, written into our laws and Constitution. 
But the advent of multiracial democracy in the Southern states inspired 
a wave of terrorist opposition by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups, 
antecedents of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who marched in 
Charlottesville. One by one the Reconstruction governments were 
overthrown, and in the next generation white supremacy again took hold 
in the South.

When Mr. Trump identifies statues commemorating Confederate leaders as 
essential parts of “our” history and culture, he is honoring that dark 
period. Like all monuments, these statues say a lot more about the time 
they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of 
Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the 
Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and 
the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, 
the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The 
statues were part of the legitimation of this racist regime and of an 
exclusionary definition of America.

The historian Carl Becker wrote that history is what the present chooses 
to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other 
things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to 
choose how history is remembered in public places.

If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. 
James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not 
because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against 
undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. 
Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male 
suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 
1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize 
control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white 
supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by 
those who long controlled public memory in the South.

As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public 
understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not 
simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor 
one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states 
honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with 
the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the 
Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the 
hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in 
positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to 
school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has 
been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.

We have come a long way from the days of the Dred Scott decision. But 
our public monuments have not kept up. The debate unleashed by 
Charlottesville is a healthy re-examination of the question “Who is an 
American?” And “our” history and culture is far more complex, diverse 
and inclusive than the president appears to realize.

Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia and the author, most 
recently, of “Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History.”

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