History and Memory: Confederate History Month

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.

Confederate History Month Proclamation

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


6 responses to “History and Memory: Confederate History Month

  1. Hi;
    I teach IB History of the Americas at a school in Honolulu. The nature of the IB course gives me leeway in the topics I choose, so I have been teaching the American Revolution & Constitution; the Civil War and Reconstruction; and the Civil Rights Movement in the first semester. I had traditionally done this with the idea of tracing the development of equality and rights within the Constitution, but this summer I had the kids read Obama’s 2008 speech on Race as a summer assignment, and having the course built around how the past is remembered differently based on race and history (if that makes sense.)

    So, at the end of the revolutionary era, we discussed the Tea Party and the modern purposes for which the Revolution has been appropriated. I’m going through the final thought essays now and getting some interesting, very thoughtful stuff.
    For the unit on the Civil War, we will end with readings on the Confederate History Month brouhaha (I’m using pieces from the actual proclamation, Roland Martin’s article in which he called Confederates terrorists and a Confederate heritage website, among others).
    For Civil Rights, I’m using an article that centers on Haley Barbour’s memories of his relationship with a black student in the 1960s, and the reporter’s subsequent interview with that student. the contrast between their memories in striking. Their final assessment will be linking all this back to Obama’s Speech.

    I’m kind of excited to see how this all comes out…I’m posting stuff on a blog I’ve started up as part of a program I’m taking on Project-Based Learning. It’s pwninghistory.tumblr.com. If anyone wants to see these documents I’m using, or student work, feel free to e-mail me.

    • Hi Raleigh –
      Thanks for visiting the blog and leaving your comment. You started by discussing the modern Tea Party’s appropriation of the American Revolution: I was sitting at my desk reading Jill Lepore’s new book on the topic as I received your comment (if you want to read her New Yorker article on the topic, it’s posted here.) She situates the movement as just another in a long political tradition of interpreters, though she does seem to give the current group a special spot in their anti-historical reading of the past. I’d love to read some selections from your students’ writing to see what sense they’re making of it!

      I’m guessing that the Barbour article you mention is the Leonard Pitts one, right? We used that article in our workshop as well (it had a nice local tie in, as Verna Bailey is now an elementary school principal in nearby Beaverton.) In continuing your approach as you move on to the Civil Rights Movement, you’ve got nothing but opportunities in the news, with recent debates over whether or not it’s appropriate to link Glenn Beck to Martin Luther King, Jr, and UV’s Gerard Alexander’s recent op-ed, Conservatism does not equal racism.

      I’m looking forward to reading your blog and I wish you the best as you involve your students in making their own sense of these conflicts through interrogating primary sources.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. The Haley Barbour article is actually from McClatchy. It was written by Margaret Talev (It’s at: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/09/09/100339/haley-barbour-race-ole-miss-from.html. Couldn’t figure out how to embed here…)

    And I did come up with the idea of using the Tea Party from Lepore’s article.

    It’s good to hear what other history teachers are doing. I appreciate your hard work and your willingness to be a resource! I’ll probably put some of the greatest hits from the student’s papers up at my website this weekend. They’re pretty perceptive…maybe it’s growing up watching the Daily Show and South Park…

  3. You mentioned you wanted to see some examples of student writing. i Saved a few as PDfs, and I’m not sure how to get them to you if you do want to see them, but here’s a taste: (this is by a high school junior)

    The colloquial definition of Kitsch is, and I’m paraphrasing, a jejune object that idea or object that panders to what the general public. However, I am using Kitsch as defined by the Unbearable lightness of being, a novel by Milan Kundera. According to him, Kitsch is essentially the denial of an obvious or unpleasant truth.

    Before I get too sidetracked by that which isn’t immediately relevant, I feel obligated to point out the connection between kitsch and the Tea Party. The modern Tea party decided that they had the ability to magically know what the founding father’s would’ve wanted when they wrote the constitution. Furthermore, they use the original tea party as their excuse for their disreputable actions even though the events they cited didn’t really play out the way they described. In fact, as I learned more about the Tea Partiers, it became readily apparent that they didn’t know anything about the revolution, or at least, they didn’t cite any actual facts. This indicates that they are ignoring the nastier parts of History. This ties into my previous mention of Kitsch as it shows that either the Tea Partiers knows what had actually happened and is using Kitsch as a method of both justifying their actions and the founding father’s actions or the much more likely option, which would be that they don’t know, and in this case one would find Kitsch in the Educational system, as it is that which “teaches” America “History”…

    …I [also} noticed that none of what we learned about in unit about the American revolution actually correlated with what I observe that America wants us to believe. School house rock, for instance didn’t account for slavery, or the Indians, and put all the blame on Britain. This is relevant because then the question of who actually wanted slavery becomes unanswerable because there is no evidence of any colonists wanting unity. The underclass wanted independence, and the Upper class promised it, but it was implemented in a way so the Upper class still maintained power. Note that the upper class only agreed to formally break away from Britain because everyone else had and they wanted to maintain their wealth. All of these seemingly events make me wonder if anyone really wanted the united states of America. The upperclass didn’t, as they were perfectly happy with Britain, until their hand was forced. Britain didn’t, as they lost potential tax revenue and trading, even though all of their taxes were rebuffed, and the Lower class didn’t really want it, as they were more concerned about representation. Finally, I feel the need to mention that we call ourselves the United states of America, but we have never been united. This is the cost of democracy, for as long as people are allowed to have different view points and protect their interests, people will do so, even at the cost of our nation as a whole. Poor Britain, having to deal with the colonists.

  4. Tony Liberatore

    Matt and Raleigh – I know I am commenting on your discussion about 3 weeks too late but I needed to reply.

    Raleigh I also teach History of The Americas and start the year with Am Rev and the creation of the Republic. I also try to tie in current “history” with our study of the past and will use some of the same articles/lessons that you posted. As you know IB History reolves around different interpertations (historiography) of the past events and teaching this concept is difficult at times but very important. When you mentioned in your last post; “I feel the need to mention that we call ourselves the United states of America, but we have never been united.” I am reminded of Prof. Woody Holton’s excellent book covering the Independece/Revolution era, titled Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (I use excerpts in class). Holton argues that the Constituion has bulit in contradictions i.e it was written to divide us, to better unite us, to better serve us. This is a mind-boggling concept for 11th graders to grasp but is an important part of the historiography of the founding of America.

    Good luck to you.

    • Thanks for adding to the discussion, Tony. I’m glad that you use Unruly Americans with your students! Holton had a nice piece in a 2009 History Now on the Revolution’s winners and losers; at the program he did for us he suggested reading the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 and the US Constitution against each other. Audio from his 2008 ESD112 TAH program is posted here.
      Last night, I saw Jill Lepore speak at Powells. Previous in this conversation, we discussed her articles for the New Yorker; I think that her new book would be quite readable for your students as well. I’m hoping to add a post on it later this week.

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