Americans, it is often said, know very little about history, their own or anyone else’s. In a collegiate environment where business is the leading major in all institutions of higher education (with second place not even in sight), it feels like Henry Ford’s aphorism “History is bunk” is what passes for awareness of the past. But now — very unexpectedly — there have been numerous, audacious, and heartwarming acts of violence directed at public statuary, mostly in the South, and all in support of the cause of better historical understanding.
I enjoyed reading history from an early age. I have continued to broaden and deepen my appreciation of history up to the present time, and I benefit, always, from historians who reevaluate, reconsider, and upend the way individuals or whole eras are understood. Growing up in Santa Barbara, the teaching of history in public schools was generally good. However, instruction of California history was still bathed in the golden lie of a romantic past; an endless fiesta watched over by kindly padres. It was only when I discovered the work of Carey McWilliams that I really began to learn about California history. I was shocked by McWilliams’s insistence that the California mission system killed Indians with the efficiency of Nazis running concentration camps.
I began writing Santa Barbara history in the 1970s. There had been local historians for some time, notably Walker Tompkins, long associated with Tom Storke and the News-Press. Much of Tompkins’s work was quite good, but it was obvious that there were a range of topics that were never mentioned, that were too controversial or reflected badly on the city.
The writing of local history was incomplete and still is. Nevertheless, I took up a few of these ignored subjects with great enthusiasm. I researched and wrote about the history of Japanese-Americans in Santa Barbara County. I was fortunate in the 1970s that some of the first and many of the second-generation Japanese-Americans in this area were still alive, and perhaps more importantly, that enough time had passed and the style of social discourse had changed enough, so they were willing to discuss important but unfortunate aspects of their history — conspicuously, the removal from the entire West Coast and incarceration of Japanese-American citizens and legal residents into “relocation camps” during World War II.
The personal histories of these individuals were interesting but I filled in the detail and chronology by a very close reading of bound copies of the News-Press from the early 1940s. It was while doing this reading that I developed a profound loathing for the state Senator from Santa Barbara at that time, Clarence Ward. There was no end to the stupid, venomous and simply wrong things he would say about Japanese-Americans. First, as a leader in advocating the removal of Japanese-Americans from California and later as a champion for permanently barring their return, Ward was the virtual leader of anti-Japanese-American forces in the state.
Some years later, as the University of California at Santa Barbara was being created, a short stretch of highway was named Clarence Ward Memorial Boulevard — entranceway to the university! I wrote about this subject in the Independent in the 1990s, hoping that some group at the university might take up the idea that removing Ward’s name from the road might help erase the dishonor it does to local memory or any connection that might be assumed with the university. In recent years, of course, many colleges and universities have removed statues or changed the names of buildings because of racist or other shameful associations.
All this reflects on some of the larger historical questions of the moment. The period immediately after the Civil War in the American South is referred to as Reconstruction. The era has been vastly written about, but historians all arrive at one conclusion, that despite some good efforts and good intentions, Reconstruction was a failure. Whether the federal government lacked conviction, was too willing to appease, faced too much opposition, has all been debated endlessly. With the enfranchisement of former slaves, there was sudden and dramatic improvement; there were black representatives in local and state government throughout the South. But the situation after the Civil War faced consistent and intransigent hostility from white Southerners, and in time their will prevailed, denying voting rights, segregating and oppressing a very large black population. It would be nearly 100 years before the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s began to correct some of these injustices.
After the Civil War, many thought that Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis should have been hung. That would have made a point. If that course of action was not taken, there are other things that could have been done. Barring former officials of the so-called Confederacy from ever serving in public office seemed rather obvious. Instead we find an ardent reactionary like Alexander Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, representing Georgia in Congress after the war. White southern power reasserted itself, and Stephens, who also served as governor of Georgia, was the principal author of the “lost cause” mythologizing of the South.
Obviously, there might have been laws that forbade public monuments or public displays of any kind that were mean to praise or embolden the cause of southern secession (much like the anti-Nazi laws in Germany after World War II). Any version of a Confederate flag as a state flag should have been outlawed. But too often, symbolically the cause of slavery, racism, oppression, and withdrawal from the union was allowed to live on. The heroic statues of southern military leaders are public blasphemy and a degradation of appropriate historical memory.
Arlington National Cemetery was originally created as a burial ground for the Union dead during the Civil War. The property had been the home of Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis. At some point a small number of Confederate soldiers were also buried at Arlington. Over the years any effort to commemorate the Confederate dead at Arlington was always strongly opposed by Union Army veterans groups. Despite this, in 1914 a large, vulgar, and profane sentimentalizing monument to slavery and secession was erected in Arlington, and a very racist president, Woodrow Wilson, began the tradition of sending a wreath to the monument every Memorial Day. Even President Obama sent a wreath one year, though it was loudly protested. Removing this disgusting shrine will take more effort than tipping over a statue, but it deserves to go.
The idea that federal military bases — there are something like 10 of them — are named after Confederate generals like John Bell Hood and Braxton Bragg is horrifying and ludicrous. Hood and Bragg might have been the first to object. They were vicious and determined secessionists, real villains of American history. They hated the federal government and were ardent and ruthless killers of federal soldiers. Meanwhile, there is no major military based named for Ulysses S. Grant, Union general and president — or for that matter, for Dwight D. Eisenhower, general and president. The list of the worthy individuals with nothing named for them goes on and on, and makes the unworthy names all the more repulsive.
I said I have learned from historians that overturned assumptions and indeed American history is always in some state of upheaval or revision somewhere. In 1927 Vernon L. Parrington published his book Main Currents in American Thought. It was enormously influential and set up a kind of dichotomy in American history, counterposing Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton was the near-monarchist autocrat in Parrington’s version and Jefferson the decentralizing democrat. There are a lot of reasons why this model might be argued about, though Hamilton has always been a favorite of conservative, pro-business historians. Then Ron Chernow wrote a biography of Hamilton, adding a different slant, and then a Broadway musical was adapted from the Chernow work and Hamilton became the revolutionary paradigm and romantic hero! Parrington is very far out of fashion these days.
Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) had a very long run of influence and consideration. His work was nearly damning of the American Revolution and the way the Constitution was written with business interests and property rights in mind. Beard’s theories went into decline, though there was always something very tonic in his emphasis about class and money, and what John Jay Chapman later called slavery: “the sleeping serpent” under the table on which the Constitution was written. In recent years there is something like a neo-Beardian revival, and without overstating his case, this is generally good.
In 1918, the literary historian, Van Wyck Brooks, wrote a famous little essay called “On Creating a Usable Past.” His estimation of the cultural situation of the United States at that time was very grim. He said he felt like he lived in a country where “the past that survives in the common mind of the present is a past without living value.”
But he said that the “past is an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptable ideals …” Brooks’s phrase “a usable past” became a kind of slogan for individuals looking for the real heroes and best merits of American history.
No matter how flawed from its beginning, the American Revolution embodied the zeal of the enlightened ideals of its time. And there have always been individuals or movements that have wanted the United States to live up to those best ideals. We may be at a great moment right now in the pursuit of those ideals. We may be looking for what Brooks called “the best promise of a national culture.”