Column: We are always rewriting our past — we must

  • The image of George Floyd along with the Black Lives Matter letters are projected on to the Robert E. Lee Statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond last month. MUSTCREDIT: Washington Post photo by John McDonnell The Washington Post — John McDonnell

For the Valley News
Published: 7/11/2020 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 7/11/2020 10:10:11 PM


President Donald Trump celebrated Independence Day on July 3 in South Dakota and on July 4 in Washington. For these occasions he provided a history lesson. But it was a lesson with a political edge: He was critical of those who were demanding the removal of offensive statues and he countered with his own plans for a statuary garden of heroes.

And his history lessons were based on what many would consider an ideological and partisan message rather than an affirmation of shared values.

At Mount Rushmore he argued, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” He insisted that left-wing radicals seek “to tear down every statue, symbol and memory of our national heritage.” Recently he has defended the Confederate flag, statues honoring Confederate military and civilian leaders, and bases named after Confederate generals.

He has insisted that Americans need be careful of radicals who seek to “re-write” history. His comments notwithstanding, our understanding of history is not doctrinal and is fortunately being revised and expanded regularly. Being rewritten.

History is the study of the past — and “the past” is the totality of the human experience. As Arnold Toynbee is reputed to have said, many think that history “is just one damned thing after another.” And it is, much of which we can never recover in sufficient detail to really study. The past holds the record of human actions and of human reactions to those natural and human forces that affect them.

Seeking to know and to understand better the past is a basic human instinct. We need to know better where we came from, who and what preceded us, in order better to understand ourselves. Our lives and institutions are the products of our history. Abraham Lincoln cautioned, “we cannot escape history.”

The effort to “rewrite” history is not, as critics claim, an effort to alter the record of the past. We cannot do that. It stands — and challenges us to learn from it. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “History has to be rewritten because history is the selection of those threads of causes or antecedents that we are interested in.”

There is obviously an opportunity in this constant rewriting to seek a history that expands our understanding of our heritage, our origins, our antecedents. And to many there is also an opportunity to narrate what we want our past to be and to justify our lives and our interest. To glorify our past, to locate ancestors who are worthy of their descendants.

Perhaps one of the most egregious and successful rewrites of history was that of the late 19th century, which revised the history of the American South and of slavery and of the nature and causes and consequences of the Civil War. “The Lost Cause” celebrated the Old South, a land of happy folks, Black as well as white.

Advocates depicted an idyllic Old South destroyed by a Civil War in which Southerners fought gallantly to defend the states and their way of life and was further savaged by punitive Northerners in the Reconstruction period. This nostalgic revisionism defined what became the dominant Southern “history,” along with the savage Jim Crow laws and racism it accommodated. And the North acceded to this.

Whether it is our view of the Confederacy or Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson, this tension underlines what is substantively and intellectually at issue today — it is not about the history that happened, it is not about the history that historians write and teach and revise and rethink, but about the history we celebrate.

A few years ago, when I was meeting a class and speaking at West Point, a senior officer pointed out that in the superintendent’s office there was a wall with portraits of several of the exemplary leaders of the academy — Douglas MacArthur, Otis Howard, William Westmoreland, Sylvanus Thayer — and Robert E. Lee. He asked me what I thought of having General Lee there.

I replied that I understood that Lee had been an accomplished superintendent of the academy and had served admirably as an officer in the Mexican War, but that he had then taken up arms against the United States, an act of treason that violated the oath that he and all U.S. Army officers had taken. I thought it was inconsistent to celebrate him at the Academy. Was he really a good role model for what we hoped for in our officers today?

Considering this locally, I applaud Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon and the Dartmouth trustees for their decision to take down the weather vane on Baker Tower. It celebrated and romanticized a past that never was and interfered with our ability to make Dartmouth a better, more inclusive place. It depicted not the origins of the college but the view of these origins that took root in the late 19th century and continued well into the 20th century. Not a “lost cause” but a self-satisfying “good cause” perhaps. As one who has for 50 years been involved in activities to make Native Americans more welcome at the college, I wish I had done that.

The past is fixed, a given. We cannot modify it even when it makes us very uncomfortable. The history by which we understand this past is something that needs to be written and rewritten, expanded and thought about. Being uncomfortable is part of this.

The history we celebrate too often has little relationship to what happened or to the understanding of that. But the history we celebrate does have consequences. There is much in the history of this country and its articulated values and ideals from which we can take pride. And much that is not a source of pride.

Confronting the racism of our past and its icons is critical to shaping a world that will provide a history of which those who follow can take genuine pride. It is time to take on that confrontation.

James Wright joined the Dartmouth College History Department in 1969 and served as the school’s 16th president from 1998 to 2009. He and his wife, Susan, live in Hanover.

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