Americans have been intrigued by trying to make a past for our young country for a long time. The Colonial Revival, an effort to gin up images of pastoral, warm and gentle New England communities in Colonial America, generated in the face of hoards of Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, was a big thing over a hundred years ago. Towns with lovely green “commons”, white churches and tidy streets, were created that had little or no relationship to what actually existed in Colonial America, but it became the accepted image of New England.
In New Hampshire, faced with a dwindling population, economic stagnation and continued out migration the state worked hard to get New Hampshire families whose ancestors had trekked out across the country to “Come Home” to visit the derelict farms their families had fled many many years ago. Come back to your historic roots! Spend a little money in New Hampshire…maybe buy a summer place back where your great, great grandfather, the youngest of four sons, tried to farm a too small piece of land amongst the rocks.
Perhaps the single most successful creation of our past took place starting about ten years after the Civil War. Reconstruction was being dismembered and concerted efforts, in both the North and the South, designed to bury the Civil War in a mist of false remembrance, false heros and the firm re-establishment of the racist basis of of American society that the Civil War had been fought to change took a firm hold. Separate, “but equal” was not defined as slavery, where non-white people were under law defined as property, but economic and social chains, as well as new state laws, recreated a second class citizenry based on race that was no less controlling and demeaning than slavery .
There were literally hundreds of actions and asserted beliefs put in place to try and make the residue and causes of our Civil War go away. Perhaps no other single action in this social and political effort to erase the Civil War was more stunning and more successful than the deification of Robert E. Lee.
Look at it this way. If today, a top graduate of West Point, took his oath to uphold the Constitution, served in the Army for twenty years, became a high ranking officer and then took off for the Middle East to take over the military operations of ISIS, what would you call him? Perhaps traitor would be appropriate? Lee was a top graduate from West Point. Took his oath to serve the United States, became a high ranking officer in the US Army, and then took up the military leadership of a group whose stated purpose was to destroy the United States.
The current controversy over the broad swath of monuments, statues, street names and other memorials to the leaders of insurrectionist states continues this effort to remake American history. After one hundred and fifty years these Confederate memorials have accumulated a long tail of symbolic baggage. These statues, memorials and named buildings had at the time of their creation and do not have now a great deal to do with what happened between 1859 and 1866. These post dated symbols do have a great deal do with the racists myths that were created in the last decades of the nineteenth century to try to cover in white plaster the instigators and the reality of Civil War. Institutionalized, state supported racism was given a new glimmer by the creation of symbols, myths and fictional stories in a process that lasted through the twentieth century and only now appears to be losing some steam.
Movies, books and paintings depicted slavery as really not so bad with happy black folk supporting their generous white masters, before, during and after the Civil War. The Confederate economic and political elite became Southern Gentlemen forced into war to protect and preserve some mythical “way of life” modeled after idealized European aristocracy and a dash of “The Sheik”. In one of the multitude of contradictions in this great southern mythology, idolized Southern Women had to be protected against the rampant hordes of barbarous black men whose fanatic goal was to ravage white women: except when these same black barbarians were playing the banjo and happily working for generous white men who deigned to hire them, pay them as little as possible and made sure they lived in poverty stricken ghettos.
Removing these romanticized symbols of a failed effort to break up the United States so that slavery could be retained and millions of human beings continue to be treated as chattel does no harm to our history because they are not our history. They are part of a mythology created to justify and whitewash the unjustifiable. The academic study of the re-write of our Civil War and its aftermath is a legitimate undertaking which should be done, but we do not need to retain the false symbols and history created after the Civil War to undertake such academic work. In fact, the retention and in some cases veneration, of these false history symbols continues to harm our entire country providing back handed justification for slavery and implied acceptance of economic, social and political denigration of millions of Americans based on race.