A week ago today I was privileged to take part in a panel discussion on “Reconstruction Tennessee” down in Knoxville. The panel was part of a two-day commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, one of five “signature events” that the state of Tennessee has sponsored over the past five years in various cities. The event drew more than a thousand attendees who enjoyed a range of historical exhibits, living-history demonstrations, and academic presentations.
I was joined on the panel by three other professional historians and we had a free-flowing discussion about the goals and realities of Reconstruction and, in particular, the factors that have shaped American memory of this crucial period. The attendance at our panel was disappointing, to be honest. The conversation was captured by C-SPAN, however, so eventually you should be able to catch it on cable, most probably at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.
Although there were several academic presentations on the program, this “signature event,” as the brochures labeled it, was not strictly an academic gathering. It was sponsored in part by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, and the goal was clearly to encourage a broad participation of Tennesseans interested in their history. This will help to explain why, as I sat down to sign copies of my book Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the Civil War, I was positioned squarely across from a booth manned by none other than the Tennessee chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This is more than a little ironic, as scarcely a month ago I had written about the SVC and shared my opinion that their reading of southern history is more fairy tale than fact. (See “License Plates and the Lost Cause.”)
The SVC would not be allowed space at any of the professional conferences I normally attend, such as the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The reason for this is simple: in the eyes of most academic historians, the SCV is not a legitimate historical organization. The fabulous tale they wish to tell about the southern past is not “history,” but “heritage.”
I’m not 100% sure about the origins of the terminology, but it likely comes from a 1996 book by English scholar David Lowenthal titled The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Lowenthal is better at describing “heritage” and “history” than he is at defining either category, and the book is as frustratingly inexact as it is condescending. Boiled down, the two categories are distinguished by their practice and purpose. History relies on “rational proof.” Heritage depends on “revealed faith.” History seeks to “explain through critical inquiry.” Heritage aims to “celebrate and congratulate.” By Lowenthal’s criteria, the Sons of Confederate Veterans may be doing many things, but they are NOT honoring history. They are promoting heritage, and they are doing so at the expense of both reason and truth.
Part of me accepts this verdict wholeheartedly. Certainly, as I wrote earlier, the SCV’s reading of the Civil War is worse than awful, and the literature that they were distributing at the conference was nothing short of appalling. The most innocuous was a SCV merchandise catalog crammed with items that I would only give as gag gifts. There were “Confederate Claus” Christmas cards, Stonewall Jackson tree ornaments, Confederate cufflinks and coloring books, and just about anything you can imagine with the Confederate battle flag slapped across it: playing cards, beer mugs, shot glasses, drink coasters, earrings, tote bags, and (my favorite) a “Battle Flag Faberge Egg Pendant” (just $69.95, chain not included).
More troubling was the SCV essay “Defending the Constitution since 1861,” which SCV members were passing out in front of an enormous wall banner carrying the same slogan. This brief essay makes two main points: first, that Abraham Lincoln did not originally define emancipation as a goal of the northern war effort (definitely true), and second, that the Confederate decision to secede in 1861 had nothing to do with slavery (egregiously false).
Sprinkled along the way are a succession of untruths and half-truths. For example, the author proclaims that southern cotton exports before the Civil War were “heavily taxed.” (The taxing of exports was explicitly prohibited under Article I, section 9 of the Constitution, a prohibition inserted at the insistence of southern delegates to the Constitutional convention.) He insists matter-of-factly that “secession by States was Constitutional and anticipated when the U.S. Constitution was adopted by the states.” (The Constitution is actually silent on the matter of secession and the perpetuity of the Union; some of the delegates at Philadelphia clearly feared that the Union would not last, but none openly affirmed a Constitutional right to secession.) Finally, the document insists that “the C.S.A. was formed in 1861 to defend the Constitutional rights of liberty and the rule of law.” (This is true, as long as we remember that the “liberty” they sought to defend included the liberty to hold other human beings in bondage.)
What is missing from all this is any mention whatsoever of the antebellum debate over slavery or the near hysterical determination of southern statesmen to destroy the Union rather than submit to a Republican administration whose leader opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories and who had expressed the desire to place slavery on a “course of ultimate extinction.” In the SCV rendering of southern history, the enslavement of four million African Americans doesn’t deserve mentioning. America’s bloodiest war erupted when liberty-loving (white) Southerners stood up to the power-mad Federal Government’s “unfair taxing policies.”
If this is so, then someone forgot to tell the rebel soldiers who filled the Confederate ranks from 1861 to 1865. Over the course of years spent combing the diaries and correspondence of Confederate soldiers, Southern historian Colin Woodward discovered that “the proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes.” In Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Woodward concluded that the war that erupted in 1861 “was about protecting slavery,” and all ranks “knew that going in.” The irony in all this is that the Confederate veterans whom the SCV claims to honor wouldn’t recognize themselves in the organization’s cartoonlike rendition of the causes of the war.
And speaking of cartoons, the most grotesque thing I picked up at the SCV booth was a “graphic novel” titled Sam Davis: Hero of the Confederacy. Obviously intended for young readers, this Confederate comic book tells the highly embellished story of Sam Davis, a young Confederate scout from Tennessee who was captured by Union troops late in 1863 with maps of the Union fortifications of Nashville on his person. Charged with spying, Davis refused to divulge how he got the documents but went willingly to his death. Just before the noose was placed around his neck, he is supposed to have declared, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend or be false to duty.” In the late-19th century, southern whites would remember Davis as a hero and martyr.
Like the SCV’s essay for grown-ups, the comic book doesn’t acknowledge slavery as a factor leading to war. (There is one reference to a slave, though. In one of many invented details, the comic explains that the Union maps were originally taken by a loyal young slave eager to serve the cause of the Confederacy.) On his way to the gallows, Sam meditates on “Mother” and “the old home place” and tells his executioners, “That’s why we’re fighting you, Yanks . . . for home and family!”
In the SCV’s retelling, the young Davis died so nobly that the Union soldiers at the foot of the gallows realized that they were in the presence of someone greater than themselves. “I didn’t know the South had men like this,” one marvels. “Bravest thing I’ve ever seen,” observes a second. What the Yanks had done “weren’t right,” laments a third. A final soldier prophesies, “God is gonna punish us for this.” Young readers may not consciously think of the centurion at Golgotha, but the author has unquestionably made Sam Davis into a Christ figure—the messiah of the Lost Cause.
So is this “heritage,” or just really, really bad history? I’d be interested to hear what you think. For my part, I’m torn on the matter, which might surprise you. It is surely tempting to follow Lowenthal’s criteria and dismiss the SCV’s claims as “not history” at all, as belonging to another universe that we can safely ignore. I’m hesitant to do that, though not for reasons that have anything to do with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I’m hesitant to do it because of the sense of calling that I have as a Christian historian to speak to Christians outside the Academy about how they engage the past.
By Lowenthal’s criteria, much of the ink spilt trying to prove that America was founded as a Christian country would fall into the heritage category. Certainly the work of David Barton would fall into this class, and you could probably place the late Peter Marshall Jr. (of The Light and the Glory fame) in that camp as well. I’m not sure that simply dismissing them as purveyors of “heritage” accomplishes much, however, especially if the goal is to reach Christians outside the Academy who do not automatically defer to anyone with a Ph.D.
Here is how I see it: Ever since the professionalization of history toward the end of the nineteenth century, academic historians have thought of “history” in one of two basic ways. The large and consistently growing majority have adopted a highly restrictive definition centered on method. History, from this standpoint, is in its essence an intellectual discipline that trains the mind to approach the past with logical rigor and epistemological sophistication. A small and dwindling minority has countered with a more expansive definition centered on focus. History, according to this view, encompasses any effort to remember and make sense of the past. From this perspective, the construction of historical knowledge is something that most humans engage in naturally, even unavoidably. The classic expression of this view came in the 1930s from Cornell University historian Carl Becker, who provocatively titled his presidential address to the American Historical Association “Everyman His Own Historian.”
I can see pros and cons in both views. Obviously, the more restrictive definition of history holds up a higher standard of accuracy and underscores the critical importance of reason and evidence to historical understanding. In contrast, the more expansive definition may seem to lower the bar distressingly, in the worst case legitimizing as “history” every crackpot commemoration of an imagined past. That’s a prospect not to be taken lightly.
But on the other hand, the more restrictive definition comes with its own cost, or so I’m beginning to believe. In conceiving of history as determined by method and training, academic historians came to think of history as something that only academic historians do. From there it was only a short step to our present state in which academic history is a self-contained conversation that we academic historians have among ourselves. In sum, I can’t shake the conviction that the more restrictive definition exacerbates the isolation and alienation that distances most professional historians from the larger society we seek to serve.
At any rate, I’m not yet ready to embrace the history/heritage distinction. I would rather call the claims of the Christian America camp “bad history” than relegate them to “heritage.” The former, at least, recognizes that we are engaged in the same fundamental pursuit, broadly defined. The latter simply encourages us to dismiss them, and perhaps to feel self-righteous in doing so.