(This has been inspired by recent events. I figured rather than writing an essay explaining my feelings, I’d use this.)
Alex surveyed the lecture hall, jam-packed on the first day of class. Visiting professors almost never got this kind of enrollment from students, but, thanks to the internet, her reputation preceded her.
“Well, now,” she said, adjusting the position of her headset microphone. “The last time I checked only history majors required this course, and my roster shows that nearly half of the students in here have different majors. I assume that means you came for the, shall we say, ‘other projects’?”
A murmur of laughter swept through the room.
“I thought so. Well, anyway, Welcome to Historical Enquiry. Even if it doesn’t fit into your major, you’ll get some upper division elective credits. I try to make these lectures as interactive as I can, even if there are three hundred of you. So, how many of you, by show of hands, attended or watched a video of the special lecture about Robert E. Lee?”
More hands went up than did not, which made Alex smile.
“Well, then, does anyone have a question? Feel free to shout it out. I promise I won’t be able to identify and embarrass you in a crowd this big.”
A low rumble of shifting and whisper followed, as was typical in any undergrad class, but then, someone got the courage up. “Most historians disagree with your theories about Lee purposefully losing at Gettysburg, that he was a staunch slave owner and not an abolitionist at all. How do you justify going against established facts?”
The voice was male, and came from somewhere on her right, with an echo-y quality that made Alex think it was about halfway back.
“That’s a good question. Most of my evidence comes from Lee’s strategies and his general sentiment towards the United States, but I have to take this to abstraction, first. You see, the history you were all taught—as far back as elementary school—was wrong.
“I need to qualify this. As an example, let’s examine abolitionists and slavery during this period. It’s true that Lee was no abolitionist as you have come to know the word, but then I’m willing to bet no one in this room truly understands what the abolitionists were.
“Of course, there were those that regard the word as we do today, wanting slaves to be freed and receive the same rights and privileges as whites. Sadly, those were considered zealots of the movement, taking things to the extreme. They were even called, ‘ultra-abolitionists,’ led largely by the Quakers and men like William Lloyd Garrison. This kind of thinking was not what most who called themselves abolitionists meant.”
She began walking across the stage, deliberately walking away from the podium. Using her small tablet, she called up slides from one of dozens of prepared presentations and sent one to the room’s projector.
“The literature majors in the room—and there are few of you—will most likely recognize this man as Walt Whitman, poet of the mid-nineteenth century. His famous book Leaves of Grass point that he was against the institution of slavery, and so, an abolitionist. But do you know that he was also an editor for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle? He frequently availed himself by writing editorials dealing with political topics.”
She clicked over to the next slide, bringing up one of the quotes she had memorized. “In the September 1st, 1847 edition, page 2, he wrote ‘The truth is that all practice and theory . . . are strongly arrayed in favor of limiting slavery to where it already exists. For this the clear eyes of Washington looked longingly; for this the great voice of Jefferson plead, his sacred fingers wrote; for this were uttered the prayers of Franklin and Madison and Monroe.’ From these words, it would be easy to conclude that the man is a staunch abolitionist, working as hard as possible to stop the extension and progress of slavery to new states, possibly—many would hope—to lead to the practice’s extinction.”
A murmur of agreement ran through the hall. Alex caught sight of a knot of students nodding their heads in a knowing fashion; most likely a knot of literature students clustering together for protection.
“However,” Alex held up an admonishing finger, waggling it to caution everyone. “However, this is only part of the story. Earlier, in the same editorial,” Alex clicked to the next slide, “Whitman explains that ‘Slavery is a good thing enough, (viewed partially,) to the rich—the one out of thousands; but it is destructive to the dignity and independence of all who work, and to labor itself. An honest poor mechanic, in a slave state, is put on a par with the negro slave mechanic—there being many of the latter, who are hired out by their owners.’
“Here we see that Whitman is not concerned with the moral plight of slaves, that it is wrong for one man to own another. Instead, he is concerned about ‘the influence of the institution of slavery is to bring the dignity of labor down to the level of slavery, which, God knows! is low enough.’
“And while he clearly equates negroes and slavery with the lowest levels, he feels quite strongly about ‘the indomitable energy of the Anglo-Saxon character.’ So, yes, while he does want the practice of slaver ended, it’s not because it’s immoral, but because it hampers the economic development of lower-class whites.”
The sound—as Alex liked to think of it—of epiphany rippled through the room.
“Whitman was not alone as an abolitionist who didn’t care about granting rights to slaves. There is John O’Sullivan, who is responsible for the phrase ‘manifest destiny’ in his article ‘Annexation.’” Alex clicked to the next slide, showing the cover for United States Magazine and Democratic Review.
“He believed in ‘the eventual voluntary abolition of slavery,’ as simply a matter of course. However, he also wanted the ‘ultimate disappearance of the negro race from [U.S.] borders.’
“In fact, many Americans desired not just the end of slavery but for those slaves to leave the country, so much so that the American Colonization Society was founded in 1816 to establish Liberia, specifically for former slaves to emigrate from America. But the number of slaves far outnumbered what this small colony could hold, which is why O’Sullivan proposed ‘The Spanish-Indian-American populations of Mexico, Central America and South America, afford the only receptacle capable of absorbing that race [negroes] whenever we shall be prepared to slough it off.’
Alex paused a few seconds to let that sink in. “Whitman and O’Sullivan are not alone. I could go on, easily, dredging up articles and editorials from dozens of publications, not to mention what we would find in actual Congressional records on the matter.” She brought up a new slide listing the names of authors, editors, lawyers, judges, and politicians who published their thoughts.
“And these are only the written records we have. What about the illiterate and uneducated masses who voiced their opinions in local taverns and by their election of these officials to represent their sentiments?”
She brought up another slide, a giant question mark, meant as a time for students to ask questions, but she repurposed it on the fly. “The question, now, is, what is the history? The version you know from school or what I have just revealed to you? History as you have been taught it bears the immutable concreteness of carvings in stone. It is presented as permanent and irrevocable. It is also shallow and conceals the marble within.
“We are facing controversies now where many seek to tear down Civil War monuments that take up the side of the Confederacy. Tear down Lee and Davis; tear down the Confederate Flag. These are history’s losers, who were bigoted and not worth our remembrance.
“In doing so, it’s a glorification of the Union and their staunch support of antislavery and civil rights for African Americans, but as we have just seen, that is an inflated and romanticized version. It’s long been stated that history is written by the victor, and is often the case. Many civilizations would even attempt to erase the history of dissenting parties, seeking to eradicate the ideas they represent by banishing the legacy. Frequently, they are successful. But of course, history will repeat itself. The only guard against that repetition is to learn from the lessons of history.”
She brought up a slide showing the Mission Statement of US Holocaust Museum.
“We need reminders of dark times. We need to face that which makes us uncomfortable; denying and changing history to suit our sensibilities will only allow that history to repeat. We must keep our discomfort alive to remind us to keep changing.
“And I suppose I should finally get around to giving a more direct—roundaboutly, anyway—answer to the original question. I’m glad so many of my colleagues disagree with me. I want them to question my sources. I want them to examine Lee’s tactics, the words of his generals, and the man after the war the same as I did. I want them working hard to look for cracks to prove me wrong. Dissenting opinions regarding history are good. We must examine everything. We must advance ideas which are contrary to the established belief. Only by doing so can we chisel away at the unnecessary concrete to get at what is real underneath. Sometimes I am wrong. I admit it, but that is no reason for me to stop advancing new ideas. And I do so by the process of Historical Enquiry.
“The study of history involves looking at all sources, in delving into all records to try and shine a light on the past, but in addition to looking at records, writings, and remnants, we must look at what we don’t have. What has not been said that we would expect? An omission can be just as telling as what’s been recorded. We must consider the tapestry of history as a whole to look for inconsistencies in the warp and weft.”
She brought up section of tapestry where the threads were reversed over one another in one particular section, making a slight distortion to the overall picture. “Inconsistencies are rarely mistakes, aberrations to be ignored; they reveal something more, a larger narrative and truth to themselves.”
The tapestry zoomed back to reveal the whole picture, the Bayeux Tapestry, and several spots of inconsistency appeared, but also formed a pattern, that of a five-pointed star.
“We must look to the whole to understand the individual points of inconsistency. This thing I call Historical Enquiry is disjointed at best, more usually maddeningly frustrating as the patterns refuse to identify themselves. It is only by advancing unpopular and irreverent theories that we can hope to make sense of them.”
Using a blue laser, she traced the outline, and there were some gasps. “Don’t get too excited,” she cautioned. “I Photoshopped that in there to illustrate my point. If finding patterns was as easy as that, my job would be considerably easier.”
That drew some laughs, and Alex let it continue before moving on, and taking on a more somber tone. “The greatest tragedy, when it comes to history, is that one version is advanced as the version of history, a version which has such popular support as to become not just concrete, but forever enshrined in marble mausoleums. The study of history needs to be alive, not just because history is constantly being created, but because we must continue to uncover what that history actually is.
“When I see the current controversy regarding Confederate monuments, I’m saddened at the very idea. We sit in judgement from what we believe is a lofty, superior position without true understanding. History is not democratic; the number of ‘likes’ ‘retweets’ or comments it receives does not make it the most valid. That is the way of tyranny. History must have informed discussion, and be motivated by curiosity. We truly enquire when don’t know answers, not when we are sure of them. But we have poured the concrete and let it set in the shape we wish it to be. We create and elevate one faction while disparaging another. History is complex, and the reduction of it to popular, concrete sentiments is as damaging—if not more—as erasing and ignoring it.
“We must reveal, rather than conceal or obscure, our history, for only through such revelation can we truly know and understand history. The naming of dates and places is not history. The story, the full tapestry is what teaches us not just about the fact of the events, but the motivations and historical forces at work. To study the Civil War is to study what happened before and after. Stretch it back even beyond the earliest colonization to the roots of institutions of slavery among ancient peoples. Then carry it forward to the present day and see that sentiments are still present, that we, as a people, have not changed as much as we claim to have.”
Alex checked the time, seeing that the class was nearly over, the entire time spent on that one question. Only some of the students also checked the time, and fewer still started packing up their bags. “Well, I believe I answered that question in far more depth and roundabout detail than even I anticipated. I usually save this lecture for my grad students. I’ll have to come up with new material so they get their money’s worth.”
A ripple of laughter went through the hall, but Alex picked out several faces who were deep in thought, their brows wrinkled or fingers rubbing at temples as if to lend extra power to mental mechanisms.
“I had hoped to launch a discussion about what our first special project should be, but let me ask instead, who would be interested in pursuing the ideas of the Civil War and slavery?”
Hands shot up across the room, such an overwhelming majority that those who didn’t raise their hands looked mildly confused at those who did.
“Very well. I’ll generate some ideas for us to decide on for next class. Class dismissed.”
(It’s long, I know, but I wanted to give a complete stance on this subject. For those interested, you can read Whitman’s editorial via https://www.newspapers.com/image/50252625/
For O’Sullivan, you can read “Annexation” here: https://pdcrodas.webs.ull.es/anglo/OSullivanAnnexation.pdf )