Who would have thought? A demented 21-year-old troll named Dylann Roof, accused of killing nine parishioners at a historic black church, has turned history upside down. Roof’s attachment to the Confederate battle flag has set off a dramatic reconsideration of how we remember the Civil War.
■ Yale University may rename its venerable Calhoun College. Senator John C. Calhoun was the famous white supremacist whom historian Richard Hofstadter memorably called “the Marx of the Master Class.”
■ The finger-in-the-wind leaders of the Democratic Party are abandoning their tradition of Jefferson-Jackson dinners, rubber chicken meetups named for Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, great presidents who happened to own slaves.
■ There are moves afoot in Maryland to take down statues of native son Roger Taney, the chief justice of the Supreme Court who authored the 1857 Dred Scott decision that denied citizenship to black Americans.
On the one hand, I celebrate all historical revision. Every body of knowledge — physics, mathematics, medicine – has to be reexamined as often as necessary to stay honest and relevant. History enjoys no special privilege.
Yet I agree with Civil War historian Ernest Furgurson, writing in The American Scholar, who compares willy-nilly de-Confederatization in the South to de-Stalinization in the former Soviet Union, or the “destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS and Taliban fanatics. . . . Totalitarian states may decree that the painful past never happened, but any such official effort in our country . . . would be tragic.”
The problem with simplifying history to accommodate a set agenda — North good, South bad — is that the facts just won’t cooperate. OK Democrats, you want to toss Jefferson and Jackson into the ashcan of history. What about Abraham Lincoln? “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” Lincoln famously declared in an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas. In that debate, Lincoln added that he didn’t want blacks voting, sitting on juries, or marrying white people.
So, Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – you support tearing down the Lincoln Memorial, I assume? His words make him sound like a racist on a par with Jefferson and Jackson.
What about Roger Taney? Unlike Jackson and Jefferson, he freed his slaves. Inconveniently for the iconoclasts (literally: “those who destroy statues”), Taney declared that “slavery is a blot on our national character, and every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be effectually . . . wiped away.”
At this fraught moment in time, it is received wisdom that the men who fought under the Confederate battle flag were racists battling to preserve slavery. I’ve recently become reacquainted with Edmund Wilson’s 1962 book “Patriotic Gore,” which took a jaundiced view of the jumped-up claims of moral purity on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.
“The institution of slavery,” Wilson wrote, “supplied the militant union North with the rabble-rousing moral issue which is necessary in every modern war to make the conflict appear as a melodrama.”
Wilson, channeling economic historian Charles Beard, thought the industrial North simply wanted to annex the agrarian South: “The myth that it was fighting to free the slaves is everywhere except in the South firmly fixed in the American popular mind,” Wilson wrote. “These pseudo-moral issues which aroused such furious hatred were never fundamental for the North,” he added.
I think Wilson would be pilloried for writing those words today. But history is a moving stream, not a stagnant pond of water. Today’s certainties are tomorrow’s doubts. By all means, rethink the past. But let’s not hide from whom we were.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.