In the wake of the Charleston massacre, a bipartisan consensus has formed in South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag that has been flying over the grounds of the statehouse. And the movement has spread well beyond South Carolina, with retailers such as Wal-Mart removing Confederate flag merchandise and states from Mississippi to Virginia taking steps to remove the Stars and Bars from license plates, flags, etc. I have suggested going further and renaming streets and schools named in honor of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, as well as taking down public statues in honor of those men and others who fought for the Confederacy.
This has caused a predictable backlash from some conservatives who compare what is going on now to the rewriting of history undertaken by French revolutionaries, Russian Bolsheviks, and other radicals after seizing power — the kind of historical rewriting satirized in Orwell’s “1984.” I believe that these criticisms are wide of the mark.
No one is suggesting the rewriting of history — something that cannot be ordered by the government in any case, at least not in this country. Nor is anyone suggesting — at least I am not — removing the books of Mark Twain or William Faulkner from libraries because they contain depictions of racism. Heck, I’m not even suggesting that Amazon should stop selling bigoted, pro-Confederate tracts such as Thomas E. Woods’ crackpot Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Confederate flags can continue to be displayed in museums and Southerners can continue to go to Civil War cemeteries to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors who fought bravely in a bad cause.
But there is a big distinction to be made between remembering the past — something that, as a historian, I’m all in favor of — and honoring those who did bad things in the past. Remembrance does not require public displays of the Confederate flag, nor streets with names such as Jefferson Davis Highway — a road that always rankles me to drive down in Northern Virginia. Such gestures are designed to honor leaders of the Confederacy, who were responsible for the costliest war in American history — men who were traitors to this country, inveterate racists, and champions of slavery.
In this regard, honoring Jefferson Davis is particularly egregious, or, for that matter, Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. But I believe even honoring the nobler Robert E. Lee is inappropriate. True, he was a brave and skilled soldier, but he fought in a bad cause. Modern Germany does not have statues to Erwin Rommel even though he — unlike Lee — turned at the end of the day against the monstrous regime in whose cause he fought so skillfully. Thus, I don’t believe it is appropriate to have statues of Lee, or schools named after him, although I admit in his case it’s a closer call than with Jefferson Davis.
This is not “rewriting” history; it’s getting history right. The rewriting was done by Lost Cause mythologists who created pro-Confederate propaganda (such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind) to convince their countrymen that the South was actually in the right even as it imposed slavery and then segregation. This required impugning those Northerners who went south after the Civil War to try to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. They were labeled “carpetbaggers,” and their memory was tarnished while the actions of the white supremacists they opposed were glorified.
As Sally Jenkins recently noted in the Washington Post, “[I]n 1957, John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, in which he distorted and maligned the character of Union Medal of Honor winner Adelbert Ames, chased from the Mississippi governor’s office during Reconstruction by White Line terrorists, while instead lauding L.Q.C. Lamar as the more heroic figure. Lamar drafted Mississippi’s ordinance of secession and raised the 19th Mississippi Infantry Regiment.”
JFK was not especially racist by the standards of his time and place; he was just the victim of the Lost Cause mythology that made flying the Confederate battle flag appear to be a legitimate act of reverence for one’s ancestors. Southerners can continue to honor their ancestors, but doing so does not necessitate embracing the vile cause for which they fought — just as Germans can honor their ancestors without embracing Nazism and Japanese without embracing militarism.