The Boston Globe recently published an Op-Ed pieces on whether confederates and others should be honored. The article, by columnist Alex Beam, is titled, “Confederate flag flap isn’t an invitation to rewrite history.” In it, Beam writes, “The problem with simplifying history to accommodate a set agenda — North good, South bad — is that the facts just won’t cooperate. OK Democrats, you want to toss Jefferson and Jackson into the ashcan of history. What about Abraham Lincoln? ‘I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,’ Lincoln famously declared in an 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas. In that debate, Lincoln added that he didn’t want blacks voting, sitting on juries, or marrying white people.”
What Beam does is decry what he calls, “simplifying history” while simplifying and distorting history to defend his statement. Abraham Lincoln also called for a limited enfranchisement of blacks, provided for the enlistment of blacks in the US Army [which was a factor in convincing white Americans they deserved to be citizens of the United States], and did more than any other man to end slavery in the United States. Thomas Jefferson talked a good game regarding slavery’s evils, but when push came to shove he freed very few of his own slaves. Andrew Jackson, in his lifetime, would own over three hundred people. It’s disingenuous to try to claim Lincoln is in any way comparable to Jefferson and Jackson with regard to slavery and race relations.
Beam continues, “At this fraught moment in time, it is received wisdom that the men who fought under the Confederate battle flag were racists battling to preserve slavery. I’ve recently become reacquainted with Edmund Wilson’s 1962 book ‘Patriotic Gore,’ which took a jaundiced view of the jumped-up claims of moral purity on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. ‘The institution of slavery,’ Wilson wrote, ‘supplied the militant union North with the rabble-rousing moral issue which is necessary in every modern war to make the conflict appear as a melodrama.’ Wilson, channeling economic historian Charles Beard, thought the industrial North simply wanted to annex the agrarian South: ‘The myth that it was fighting to free the slaves is everywhere except in the South firmly fixed in the American popular mind,’ Wilson wrote. ‘These pseudo-moral issues which aroused such furious hatred were never fundamental for the North,’ he added. I think Wilson would be pilloried for writing those words today. But history is a moving stream, not a stagnant pond of water. Today’s certainties are tomorrow’s doubts. By all means, rethink the past. But let’s not hide from whom we were.” Here Beam shows his ignorance of the scholarship. Charles Beard has been discredited. There was no “industrial North.” A look at the 1860 Census shows that all sections of the country were overwhelmingly agricultural. Talk about simplifying history, Beam would have us believe “the North” was all factories when in fact it was predominantly farmland, with manufacturing confined to only a few locales. It’s incontrovertible that the confederacy seceded and sought its independence in order to protect the institution of slavery from a perceived threat to its continued existence. The United States fought to preserve the Union, eventually deciding that ending slavery had to be a part of that process.
Even with all of that, though, Beam misses the entire point. The point is not to simplify history, to ignore history, or even to erase parts of history. The point is to decide whether certain people deserve to be honored. Does Roger B. Taney deserve a statue in his honor? Does Andrew Jackson deserve a dinner in his honor? Ditto for Thomas Jefferson? The debate should contain a full discussion of the history of these men, including the fact that Taney freed the slaves he had owned, but ultimately it comes down to whether or not these men deserve the honors they are being given. Introducing phony comparisons and long discredited interpretations isn’t helpful.