AHA Activities , Letters to the Editor

Response to the "AHA Statement on Confederate Monuments"

David Lowenthal | Nov 1, 2017

Editor’s note: On August 28, 2017, the AHA Council approved the “AHA Statement on Confederate Monuments” (posted on blog.historians.org and reprinted in Perspectives, October 2017). A longer version of the letter above was sent to the AHA Council in response. The letter was edited by the author for publication in Perspectives.

To the AHA Council:

As a longtime AHA member and heritage historian, I deplore the AHA Council’s Confederate monuments statement. The Council rightly urges monument decisions to consider historical context and recognize that “all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place.” But removing them to conform with what is now deemed “worthy of public honor” negates the Council’s aim to “call attention to a previous interpretation of history.” Instead of drawing attention to a now reprehended heritage, shedding Confederate memorials scrubs that memory from the landscape, stoking amnesia of “lost cause” Jim Crow racism. Memorials matter not only for what they commemorate but for what the memorialists held praiseworthy. Extolling Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument in 1833, Edward Everett noted that it aimed both to recall the Revolutionary struggle and to show posterity that Massachusetts folk “of this generation” wished to do so. Monuments are history. Their erasure facilitates Orwellian perversion of the past as present-day propaganda.

Likewise troubling is the Council’s designation of the nation’s founders as flawed and imperfect historical figures. Does condescension entitle 21st-century historians to reproach 18th-century slaveholders? Should we, like Lord Acton, pass judgment on men of the past, demurred Henry C. Lea in his 1903 AHA presidential address, “secure that we make no mistake when we measure them by our own moral yardstick”? Today’s iniquities will similarly outrage posterity.

Retrospective humility mandates not only remembering acts and views now condemned, but displaying tributes later accorded their authors. They are cautionary reminders that many then lauded what we now loathe. We should retain visual evidence of actions and agents once acclaimed but since repudiated. Public memorials that later prove false or become repugnant remain salutary testaments to time-altered judgment. Roman Catholics were long suspected of setting London’s 1666 Great Fire. A 1681 inscription blames papist agent Hubert, “who confessed, for which he was hanged.” The papists were innocent; Hubert confessed under torture. Yet the inscription is prized: “it now commemorates contemporary prejudice where it once commemorated wrongdoing,” remarks historian Antonia Fraser; “both, after all, are part of history.”

So is Harvard Law School’s wheat-sheave seal, lately disowned because it embodies a slaveowning benefactor’s coat of arms. Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed urged its retention. “For many, there is great discomfort—disgust even—looking at the Harvard shield and having to think of slavery.” But “people should have to think about slavery, from now on, with a narrative that emphasizes the enslaved. . . . That will provoke strong and unpleasant feelings.” But it serves purposes “more important than one’s personal feelings.” Commemorative display that many find “downright offensive” encourages present converse with the past, argues the AHA’s James Grossman. “The past really should trouble us,” asserts David Blight. “Memorialization . . . needs to cause pain.” Now discomfiting residues of detestable pasts attest the transience of fame and the fallibility of repute.

David Lowenthal
University College London

AHA President Tyler Stovall responds:

The AHA Council welcomes dissenting voices; the AHA’s venues (publications, Member Forum, and annual meeting) fulfill the Association’s mission most effectively when a range of perspectives is on the table. The Council refers readers to the extensive bibliography of articles by and interviews with our members on this issue and invites additional citations from members.

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