The Dangerous Pursuit of Rewriting History

Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, and Lincoln; the unwavering image of Mount Rushmore.

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

George Orwell, 1984

It seems of late that every time you turn on the news or read a newspaper, stories of various groups petitioning to remove statues of historical figures and symbols are prevalent. Cries for the removal of these icons and the rewriting of the history they contain are rampant, and for me, quite disturbing.

Shannon Lanier, a direct descendent of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in an article for Time Magazine said it best when she wrote, “Historical documents and monuments like the Jefferson Memorial, in most cases are positioned in places where people can observe them in context with historical events. Additional information and resources help people understand their connection to us and the country.”

If we judge history only from today’s mindset, then we do not leave ourselves open to the opportunity to see the progression of our society, the transformation in our thinking and understanding, and the important lessons that have been learned from it. We relegate historical events and individuals to the static position of merely existing as black and white, good or bad, justified or unjustifiable by today’s standards. We diminish the important role they played in our Nation’s past, the conflicts and wars that were waged to change or defend it, and the wisdom gained from those experiences.

History Does Not Exist in a Vacuum

“National symbols should be respected — but not necessarily in the way most people think. National symbols deserve respect not because they are static representations of unchanging ideals, but because they offer a focal point for diverse societies to express and navigate what it is that unites and represents them.”

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, The New York Times

It is quite normal to debate our history, to discuss, and learn from it. At the same time, we should not be so quick to glorify only the heroic deeds and the heroes of the past, while downplaying its darker side. History does not exist in a vacuum. As we have grown and evolved as a country and as a society, our ideals have changed with us. And while things that were once common place in our past but that are no longer accepted today attest to that evolution, eradicating the history books of their existence is a dangerous and slippery slope to embark on.  

I taught American History for fifteen years in the public school system. During that time I saw the changes being made to the curriculum and the state mandated textbooks available for my use. While I adhered to the accepted educational standards of my District and State, I very seldom used the provided textbook and its associated materials as the main focus of my teaching strategy. Instead, I believed that casting a wider and much more diverse net would provide my students with the knowledge, facts and context with which to develop their observation, analysis, and critical thinking skills.

Memorizing names, dates and places had little relevance to my teaching of history. Rather, embarking on a journey of discovery that included active learning, debate, reflection, and evaluation were paramount. How could I expect my students to come to informed conclusions if I did not first present all sides of an historical event or issue, including the negative ones? If I simply glorified the past, how would they ever be able to understand it fully?

The Civil War as a Prime Example

I understood early on in my teaching career that finding truth in history takes work. It takes research and asking hard questions. It takes a great amount of patience and is a responsibility I took very seriously. I often told my students that to truly understand history would require them (and all of us) to place ourselves in the shoes of the ones who lived it.

Slavery and the subsequent abuses of civil rights is by far the most embarrassing and inhumane chapter in American History. However, expunging it from the history books is not the way to make this very important point.

As John C. Perry, WB Daily wrote “No 21st century person with even a semblance of a moral structure and a belief in human rights could ever condone, support or believe in Nazism, the supremacy of the races, or any discrimination due to race, class, or religion.”

That being said, does it follow then that we have the right to judge the past by today’s standards and thus, “with total disdain and completely out of context”? Were the Confederate leaders and soldiers any more traitorous than the American colonists who fought in the Revolutionary War? I suppose if you paint them with the broad and unfortunately misguided perception that the Civil War was fought “entirely to free the slaves”, than these men look like the monsters so many would have you believe them to be. And therefore, are wholly undeserving of their places in our history, our landscape, our story as a Nation.

That “terrible cause” of the South is usually thought of as the defense of slavery. This is what we are all taught in school; and the idea is strongly entrenched today.

Jeff Schweitzer, The Huffington Post

The attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, marked the beginning of the deadliest and most costly war fought on American soil. By war’s end, 630,000 soldiers were killed or wounded, nearly two percent of the total population of the U.S. at the time. Why was two percent of the population willing to suffer death or disfigurement? Most people, when asked that question, will respond, “in the defense of slavery”. Most of my students responded similarly. However, it would be misleading and terribly inaccurate if we just stopped there.

Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the underlying cause of the South’s secession from the Union was based on state versus federal sovereignty as defined by the Tenth Amendment (1791), “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”;  and the Supremacy Clause of Article IV of the Constitution, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th and first Republican President elected in the United States. The Republican Party was established in 1854, as a coalition opposing the extension of slavery into Western territories. The Republican Party fought to protect the rights of African Americans after the Civil War.

The South fought to defend against what they perceived to be federal usurpation of state powers. The North fought, as President Abraham Lincoln stated repeatedly, “To preserve the Union.” For the South, slavery entered into the equation only as a specific case of “a state’s right to declare a federal law null and void.” For the North, it became an issue one and half years into the conflict when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in order to prevent foreign countries from coming to the aid of the Confederacy.

France and Great Britain were poised to do so, but Lincoln, in a brilliant political maneuver, issued the Emancipation on January 1, 1863, thus squashing any hope for the South of obtaining critical foreign aid (France had abolished slavery in 1848; Great Britain in 1833). The war would have been unquestionably prolonged had this occurred and the outcome may have been markedly different. However, because of Lincoln’s bold move, and  the total annihilation of the South’s resources that resulted from General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, the war come to a decisive end in 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

Former West Point graduates, Grant and Lee fought on opposing sides during the Civil War. Top Union General, Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps more than any other Union General, contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Widely regarded by the public as the savior of the Union, Grant was elected president of the United States in 1868. In his memoirs during the latter years of his life, Grant reflected on the war between the states with uncanny depth and an understanding that can only come in hindsight. “The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre–what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation.” 

Bottom Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. commanded the Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War from 1862 until his surrender in 1865. When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his desire for the country to remain intact and an offer of a senior Union command. Following ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment Lee wrote to his wife, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.”

The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (1864) abolishing slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) granting citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States”, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibiting the disenfranchisement of voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”, were necessary laws that resulted from this bloody conflict. If we discount the significance of the Civil War in precipitating these events, then we most certainly throw out the baby with the bathwater.

“The Civil War is just one of many, many examples of history being rewritten, and misinformation perpetuated. Like using biblical references to uphold a religious position, history can also be interpreted, tweaked, even fabricated to further a cause or an agenda. If repeated often enough, it then becomes fact regardless of its origin and/or accuracy.”

Historical Context

Historical context is a key component of a thorough and unbiased examination of history, enabling us to place events within the social, religious, economic, and political conditions that existed at the time they occurred. Historical context is critical because without it our memories, the stories, and the events as a whole have less meaning and importance. Examining history in the context in which the events took place enables us to accurately interpret them rather than simply judging them.

The same applies to the symbols that represent the history of our Nation. National symbols confirm and celebrate our national identity. They honor the past, the sacrifices made, the groundwork laid, the lessons learned, the people who came before us. Removing these monuments leads to forgetting and opens us up to further rewriting of the very history that got us here.

The Jefferson Memorial, Washington D.C.

Keeping them in place, however, reinforces the salient lessons of the times, both good and bad, that have shaped our past and that enable us to build upon it. Removing a statue of Thomas Jefferson, for example from the national landscape because he owned slaves discounts completely his role as a Founding Father, writer of the Declaration of Independence, signer of the United States Constitution, the second President of the United States, as well as a political philosopher and great thinker of his time.

We must always remember that these men and women we judge using the long lens of time and the benefit of our current moral and social standards, were in fact human. They lived and breathed, made mistakes, suffered, and learned throughout the course of their lives, just as we do.

As a teacher and historian, I learned early on that as a society, we benefit from learning and understanding the history of our Nation, of the world, in all its complexity. In doing so, we gain the capacity to move forward with wisdom we can only acquire through close and unbiased examination and interpretation of the facts. It is the way I approached teaching history, and the way I encouraged my students to approach, not just history, but all aspects of their education.

That is why the current trend to alter and rewrite our Nation’s history is something I find aberrantly disturbing, wholly destructive, and detrimental to our future. This continued altering of history undermines the countless generations that came before us and significantly weakens the ones to follow. For if we don’t fully understand and learn from the past, we are most assuredly doomed to repeat it.

“For all of us involved in teaching (whether as faculty, parents or students), let’s preserve the past as it was rather than as we wish it were. Changing it, even in service of some perceived higher societal goal, is ultimately detrimental. As a parent, a pediatrician and an educator, I think that school boards and departments of education should be held to a higher standard of “truth telling” than a soapbox orator.”

Michael Rosenbaum, The Hill

Jennifer N. Fenwick, author Four Weeks and In the Eye of the Storm

Jennifer N. Fenwick is a former history teacher who works professionally as a program analyst and technical editor. She is an avid reader, researcher, as well as a lover of words and all things historical.