econintersect .com

FREE NEWSLETTER: Econintersect sends a nightly newsletter highlighting news events of the day, and providing a summary of new articles posted on the website. Econintersect will not sell or pass your email address to others per our privacy policy. You can cancel this subscription at any time by selecting the unsubscribing link in the footer of each email.

posted on 28 October 2017

Robert E Lee, George Washington And The Trouble With The American Pantheon

from The Conversation

-- this post authored by Erik Mathisen, Queen Mary University of London

When the US president, Donald Trump, was asked to clarify his position on the violence that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia during a press conference at Trump Tower in New York, he poured gasoline on a raging fire.

Please share this article - Go to very top of page, right hand side, for social media buttons.

In a comment about the historical monument to Confederate general Robert E Lee, which had become a flashpoint in the protests, Trump remarked:

This week it’s Robert E Lee … I wonder is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?

For years, a debate about Confederate monuments has been growing in intensity, setting protesters and city counsellors around the country against activists who see the monuments to southern civil war heroes as a part of the region’s heritage - even though the majority of them were erected long after the war. Indeed, most were put up around the beginning of the 20th century, as African-American disfranchisement began to well and truly bite across the country and in the 1950s and 1960s, largely in reaction to the civil rights movement and desegregation. Though they might hold a civil war figure aloft, monuments to the Confederacy commemorate white supremacy in marble. This is the message. The rest is historical window dressing.

A few of these statues make this fact plain. Most do not. All of them trade in a historical bait and switch. The statues memorialising the Confederacy gave segregationists the historical justification they needed to act, while at the same time allowing them to cast their efforts in a regional history of lost causes rather than white supremacy and the perpetuation of slavery.

But Trump’s stance also raise questions about not so much whether monuments ought to be taken down, but the company that Robert E Lee keeps in the pantheon of the republic’s most important civic icons. Here too there are problems, but not only the ones you might think.

On the surface, the president’s remarks make no sense to anyone who has read in any depth about American history. Thomas Jefferson wrote the document that set the American colonies down the road to independence. He was a president, as was George Washington. Lee was a decorated soldier - but a founding father he was not. He renounced his citizenship, joined a cause to break up the Union and stood at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia which inflicted incredible damage on the United States and killed tens of thousands of American soldiers. Washington and Jefferson helped to build the republic. Lee was out to destroy it.

George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore. Bernard Spragg

However, one of the odd and understudied by-products of the war is that, despite the all-consuming talk of treason and loyalty during and immediately following the conflict, by the later decades of the century former Confederate citizens could wrap themselves in the American flag and still erect monuments to their Confederate heroes, all without irony or sanction from the rest of the country.

For a good many Americans, Lee is held up as a national hero - even if he had a hand in almost tearing the republic to pieces. The historical narrative that wraps Lee, Washington and all the rest into one whole is a story of misdirection. It is a memory of the war that few who survived the conflict would have recognised. And it is certainly not how those who were slaves when the war began remembered it.

An accidental challenge

But there is more to think about here. By associating Lee, Washington and Jefferson, Trump made an unintended but instructive point about the problem of whiteness, slavery and power in American history more broadly.

For all of the plaudits historians and the broader public throw at the feet of the so-called founding fathers, there is something to the idea that by holding them up and casting aspersions on Lee, we are somehow scrubbing up the former, and heaping scorn on the latter. The fact remains that most of the most powerful Americans in the first century of the republic’s history traded in slaves or profited from their labour. Few institutions were untouched by slavery’s influence. Though white nationalists might deny it, it is difficult to point on a map to any part of the United States that was not settled, improved or made profitable through the labour of African Americans in chains.

The ConversationTrump was by no means out to make this point, but in his profound desire to lash out at his enemies and expose their weaknesses, his words inadvertently ought to force historians and the broader public to think again - and think again a lot harder - at the historical assumptions we make. No monument erected or destroyed can obscure the reality that racism remains one of the most powerful markers in American society. A darker reckoning with the nation’s history is sorely needed.

Erik Mathisen, Teaching Fellow, Queen Mary University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

>>>>> Scroll down to view and make comments <<<<<<

Click here for Historical Opinion Post Listing

Make a Comment

Econintersect wants your comments, data and opinion on the articles posted. You can also comment using Facebook directly using he comment block below.

Econintersect Opinion

Print this page or create a PDF file of this page
Print Friendly and PDF

The growing use of ad blocking software is creating a shortfall in covering our fixed expenses. Please consider a donation to Econintersect to allow continuing output of quality and balanced financial and economic news and analysis.

Keep up with economic news using our dynamic economic newspapers with the largest international coverage on the internet
Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government

 navigate econintersect .com


Analysis Blog
News Blog
Investing Blog
Opinion Blog
Precious Metals Blog
Markets Blog
Video of the Day


Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government

RSS Feeds / Social Media

Combined Econintersect Feed

Free Newsletter

Marketplace - Books & More

Economic Forecast

Content Contribution



  Top Economics Site Contributor TalkMarkets Contributor Finance Blogs Free PageRank Checker Active Search Results Google+

This Web Page by Steven Hansen ---- Copyright 2010 - 2018 Econintersect LLC - all rights reserved