Last month I attended my fiftieth college reunion, at Haverford College. There, I was part of a panel discussing "Statues, Monuments and the Moral Tide of History." Also participating were fellow classmates Jack Rakove, a historian now teaching at Stanford University, and John Hough, Jr., a fine novelist whose work includes Seen the Glory, about the battle of Gettysburg. Glenn Swanson, another classmate who has long taught American history, acted as moderator. Finally, and most pleasing for the rest of us, Roger Lane was present, emeritus professor of History, who taught us all fifty years ago and today remains as insightful as ever (far right, photo above). I'm posting below my own talk for that morning, "The Ecology of Confederate Monuments." For those interested in hearing the remarks of all the panelists, this video is available from Haverford.
The Ecology of Confederate Monuments
Comments for a panel at Haverford College
Class of 1968 50th Reunion, June 2, 2018
© 2018 James West Davidson
First, I want to say what a thrill it is to be back in class with Roger Lane! He really was the guy who first brought history alive for me. And the number of students who would echo that sentiment, I know, are legion.
I want to enlarge on Roger’s themes, though coming at it from a slightly different direction, which, metaphorically speaking, is ecological. The discipline of ecology shifted the gaze of biologists from the analysis of individual species to understanding the relations among plants and animals within their larger habitat. Similarly, I want to focus less on the monuments themselves than on the historical context which encouraged their creation—their original habitat, so to speak.
Roger has appropriately referred to slavery as America’s Original Sin: a system of racial slavery, he adds. But by the time these monuments were created, legal slavery had been struck down for decades. After 1865 race and slavery were no longer yoked together. This separation had significant consequences for understanding the role played by race.
Geneticists have established the scientific futility of trying to define race, be it black, white, red or brown. But as a social construct, race remained of tremendous import in the post-emancipation South. Most significantly, it was a construct whose definition was being transformed to suit new social needs. One might even say, race was being reconstructed.
We’re familiar with Reconstruction as the process undertaken by the Union to bring the seceded Southern states back into proper national relation. That process ended formally in 1877, with the elevation of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency. And the standard survey textbooks treat Reconstruction pretty much as over and done with by 1877. But in fact, the reconstruction of race as a concept was still very much under way in the 1880s and 1890s. In pre-Civil War days, the law of the land prescribed a legal status, slave, which could be regulated and legislated. But once the legal props of slavery disappeared, it became a good deal more difficult for one group of people to keep another in an inferior position.
Race became the key. During the 1880s and 1890s a line was drawn—“the color line,” it was called—that was increasingly buttressed by new laws, customs, and sanctions, until finally it became established that a person with any “black blood”—even a single drop—was on the far side of the color line. Historian Martha Hodes has brilliantly laid out this transformation. “Without the legal status of slavery and freedom as a dividing line,” she said, “white Southerners had to rely on the fickle categories of “black” and “white” to define white supremacy. The color line, therefore, had to be...established first by stricter racial definitions, which would come to fruition in the late nineteenth century with a codified “one-drop rule.” It also had to be established by distinct political, economic, and social castes for white men and black men, a task that required constant vigilance on the part of white people in order to ensure that no black man crossed over into the territory of political power, economic independence, or social authority.”
Continue The Ecology of Confederate Monuments
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors