This post is based on a workshop Rich Christen, Peter Thacker, and I put together for Saturday’s Northwest Teachers for Social Justice conference. I’m posting it here thinking that it might prove useful in articulating a rationale for using primary documents with students or parents.
When historical memory drives a news story, the media fills with representatives portraying competing visions about the past. These talking heads blather past each other, typically driven by ideology rather than historical inquiry. How might the interrogation of primary sources assist citizens in making sense of the debate? The recent debate over Confederate History Day provides a case study.
Historical memory is manufactured in a tremendous variety of ways, with film, books, symbols and statuary being especially significant ways. Political proclamations also play a role in memorializing the past. On April 6, 2010, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell issued a proclamation declaring “Confederate History Month.” It’s valuable to start by reading the proclamation as originally issued, noting what you think it says about how McDonnell remembers the Confederacy.
I think it’s an incredible document. On first glance, I couldn’t get past the idea that he was calling it “Confederate History Month” rather than “Civil War History Month.” On return readings, other phrases jumped out: He calls the Civil War a “war between the states for independence“, combining two highly partisan names for the war (“War Between the States” and “War for Southern Independence”). He calls the period “a time very different from our own,” which – while no doubt true – could be seen to remove any ability to assess motivations today. He talks about the “insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union [note: not "United States"] Army“, conjuring Lost Cause mythology, and his reference to Lee’s surrender echoes Reconciliation mythology.
National outrage ensued. Many – including Barack Obama – argued that omitting slavery from the proclamation was unacceptable. Others defended McDonnell: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, for example, said that “it goes without saying” that slavery was bad and that protesters were “trying to make a big deal over something that doesn’t amount to diddly.” Watch, for example, this CNN debate on the issue.
In watching the clip, it seems to me plausible that most viewers would adopt a relativistic response – these are two different ways of thinking about the past; two truths, both equally valid and worthy of consideration. What happens, though, when – rather than listening to debaters giving only the slightest of consideration to the other’s arguments – we add primary sources to the mix? If we are wondering how we should remember the Confederacy, shouldn’t we invite the Confederates to speak for themselves?
While many different documents can do the trick, one could do far worse than using Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech for this purpose. In the speech, given March 21, 1861, the Vice-President of the Confederacy is celebrating the Confederacy’s foundation for “all, not only in this city, but in this State, and throughout our Confederate Republic.” He
elaborates on the Confederate constitution’s vast improvements over the US Constitution, detailing progress in interstate commerce, representation, and presidential terms. He then turns, “last, not least” to slavery. He says that the authors of the US Constitution – Thomas Jefferson and “most of the leading statesmen of the time” – believed “that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time.“ In this belief, Stephens says, they were in error – and the Confederacy was founded to correct that mistake:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
With great detail, Stephens goes on with an argument for White Supremacy and the foundational role it plays in the Confederacy. One exercise people might be asked to do is to highlight spots where Stephens’ speech is consistent with McDonnell’s proclamation in one color with inconsistencies labeled with a different color – it’s a strong contrast.
Response to McDonnell’s proclamation brought revision from the governor: first, he added a clause regarding slavery; more recently, “Confederate History Month” became “Civil War in Virginia” month.
Thinking beyond Confederate History Month, though: In what other studies might primary sources shine light on contemporary debates? Leonard Pitts had a recent piece on remembering the Civil Rights Movement; Larry Cebula had a post about quoting Patrick Henry; Ron Chernow wrote about The Founding Fathers versus The Tea Party. Are you doing work with students confronting historical memory? Let’s hear about it!
Update: I wish I had known about this video prior to our presentation – Lost Cause Nostalgia – “Virginia.” Definitely worth the watch – but you need to stick around for the whole thing. h/t: Kevin Levin – Civil War Memory