The Monument Debate Continues

In my home state of Kentucky, “A Confederate monument will be removed from a spot near the University of Louisville campus where it has stood since 1895.” I wonder if Lexington will be next? Let’s hope so.

Also, there is a nice piece in the Houston Chronicle this morning on the arguments surrounding changing the name of Sydney Lanier Middle School. My friend and Ph.D. advisor, Eric Walther, is quoted throughout. Here are two of Eric’s quotes:

“Schools that have the names of high-ranking Confederates should change, and statues should go down and be placed in a museum – that is the right spot for them.”

“We don’t want to forget about this war. One side was fighting for a more universal cause of freedom, and the other was not. We should tell the story and let it be.  We shouldn’t purge people or their history. We shouldn’t be Stalinist about this.” 

I agree with this, although with the caveat that it might allow statues of Confederate soldiers – as representatives of the “rightness” of the Confederacy – to remain in the public square. In addition, to place a statue in a museum is no erasure of history, as it allows for the study of the past to continue rather than commemorating the attempt to maintain a slaveholding republic on the North American continent as somehow noble. It is rather, it seems to me, an acknowledgement that we, as a society, no longer share the values of the Confederacy.  By so doing, we all gain.

Finally, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on “Public Symbols of the Confederacy” around the nation. Their main findings?

“These include:

  • 718 monuments and statues, nearly 300 of which are in Georgia, Virginia or North Carolina;
  • 109 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate icons;
  • 80 counties and cities named for Confederates;
  • 9 official Confederate holidays in six states; and
  • 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederates.”

I’ve said this before, but does any one believe that the establishments of these symbols across the United States were disconnected from a particular type of politics that, let’s face it, advanced a white supremacist vision of America? Of course not, and thus there is nothing wrong with aspiring to a better politics, one in which these symbols are, to the extent possible, relegated to museums where they can be studied, but extolled as virtuous no more. 

A Question for the Presidential Candidates

According to the Houston Chronicle, “A handful of Texas Republican district or county conventions in March passed resolutions calling for a vote on secession, paving the way for a potentially awkward debate at the state GOP conference in May.”

So, for presidential candidates Hilary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, do you support or repudiate this movement by portions of the Texas GOP?


Lincoln and Jefferson

Well, I have been so busy with directing the Lone Star Book Festival that is has been a long time indeed since I posted anything. But, as one more talented than me once said, I’m back.

One of the authors we had at our festival was Annette Gordon-Reed, and she spoke on her new biography (written with Peter Onuf) of Thomas Jefferson. The book is quite good and I think in some way confirms some of what Corey Robin has written about Jefferson, if not conservatism and libertarianism more generally.

At any rate, with last week being the anniversary of several important Civil War events (e.g. Fort Sumter, Lincoln’s assassination), one could be forgiven for forgetting that last Wednesday, April 13, was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Lincoln had great affection for Jefferson (perhaps a bit too much), as this quote shows. Still, in honor of Jefferson’s birthday last week:

The democracy of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar. . . . 

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany and oppression. Your obedient Servant A. LINCOLN—

Lincoln (and Darwin’s) Birthday

Today we celebrate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, both for their accomplishments and for the many, many people who made their work possible.

Here in Houston last night there was a vigorous debate in the Houston Independent School District about changing the schools who were named after Confederates. All I can say is, good for H.I.S.D. Here is Abraham Lincoln on those who defended slavery:

“Yet I have never failed—do not now fail—to remember that in the republican cause there is a higher aim than that of mere office. I have not allowed myself to forget that the abolition of the Slave-trade by Great Britain, was agitated a hundred years before it was a final success; that the measure had it’s open fire-eating opponents; it’s stealthy “dont care” opponents; it’s dollar and cent opponents; it’s inferior race opponents; its negro equality opponents; and its religion and good order opponents; that all these opponents got offices, and their adversaries got none. But I have also remembered that though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by the smell.”

If you’re near Lone Star College – Kingwood, come to our 2nd annual Darwin Day talk by Professor Scott Egan of Rice University at 12:30 in our Music Hall.

Darwin Day

“Of the People, by the People, for the People”?

Well, we now have the current Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott (R), advocating for, if not secession, something very much like it. This is, I think, far more serious than former Governor Rick Perry’s mention of it (as unfortunate as that was). I wrote about this in the conclusion to Loathing Lincoln, where I quoted Congressman Ron Paul, who in his book Liberty Defined predicted, perhaps accurately, that “no constitutional amendment will be passed to explicitly permit nullification or secession,” but “through a new relationship evolving out of current economic and political chaos, something approaching this goal is about to come” (page 328, Loathing Lincoln).

This, from the “Party of Lincoln.” (for a contrary view, see here and read at your leisure). I wish Abbott would read this piece, from Timothy Sandefur. I’d also be interested to hear what current candidates, Republican and Democrat, have to say about these ideas.

As I’ve stated on this blog before, people ask me from time to time to quantify anti-Lincoln sentiment, and my standard response is that this is impossible to do (although it increasingly seems that one could simply tally votes). But, it is there, and quite prevalent in our country, with all the deleterious consequences that follow.

Abbott’s recommendations reminds me of Sheldon Wolin’s book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, which if I understand it correctly, argues that we can maintain the forms of democratic rule, when in fact they have largely ceased to exist. Is this where, as Lincoln once put it, “we are tending”, a society where, as Wolin said, “inequalities will be taken for granted, rationalized, perhaps celebrated” (page 157)? Where government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” is paid lip-service only?





Dead Confederates and “Political Correctness”

A nice piece from Corey Robin yesterday, which supports a point I made several months ago about charges – spurious ones it seems to me – that it is “politically correct” to remove statues of Confederates from public places. To wit:

After 1991, when people in the former Soviet Union began toppling statues of Lenin, no liberal-minded person—at least none that I can recall—raised any alarm bells about “Soviet-style” erasure. Indeed, removing these signs and symbols of the past was considered the very essence of anti-Soviet-style politics. It was an act of emancipation.

But when we remove the name of Wilson or the face of Jackson, liberation becomes erasure, anti-Soviet-style politics becomes Soviet-style politics. . . .

So we’re left with the question: If removing the signs and symbols of the past is supposed to threaten our understanding and appreciation of that past—and that is Ungar’s point, after all— how does erasure become freedom in the one instance and tyranny in the other?

Update: Those are Corey’s words in italics, not mine!

Virginia Woolf on the 2016 Election

I’ve just finished reading Hermione Lee’s monumental biography of Virginia Woolf, a work I highly recommend. There is this nice tidbit from Woolf on page 264, written during WWI to her friend Duncan Grant:

“The revelation of what our compatriots feel about life is very distressing. One might have thought in peace time that they were harmless, if stupid: but now that they have been roused they seem full of the most violent and filthy passions.”

“Texas Secession”? and Lincoln and Fear

In Q and A sessions, after speaking on my book, I’m often asked to quantify anti-Lincoln sentiment. That, of course, is a very hard thing to do. This is from the Houston Chronicle (thanks to Ed Sebesta for the link). Who would have thought this could have even been considered ten years ago?

Also, here is Corey Robin on NPR this morning. If you  go the 4:56 mark you’ll hear a discussion on Lincoln and fear-mongering (or, his relative lack of it). But, the entire interview is worthwhile, so take a listen.



Lincoln and the “New Morality”

Corey Robin has an excellent piece on Robert George and other conservative opposition to marriage equality (e.g. gay marriage in their lexicon, I suppose) and their misuse of Lincoln’s opposition to the Dred Scott decision to buttress their position. I wanted to add a thought or two of my own.

First, as I was reading the Wall Street Journal this morning, there was an interesting essay by the Classicist Mary Beard on “Ancient Rome’s Open Borders.” A little more than midway through the essay Beard has an excellent paragraph on the purpose of history. To wit: “It is naïve to imagine that history can bequeath policy to the future—and simplistic to draw cheap parallels between then and now. There is no Roman [Lincolnian?] magic wand to be waved over 21st-century troubles, however seductive an idea that is. What history can do, however, is refine the way that we think about those troubles, challenge the assumptions we treat as natural and expose differences across time.” A good reminder for us all, without question, and one that David Donald pointed out long ago is particularly problematic for historians of Lincoln (see also Gordon Wood for  a similar argument).

Secondly, I wonder, do George and others in his camp not see that Lincoln and the Republicans, in criticizing Dred Scott, were criticizing a decision that denied the idea that blacks had rights, whereas George et al are opposed to the Obergefell decision, one that expands rights for others?

Finally, this reminds me of an excellent book I read this spring, Edward Rubin’s Soul, Self, and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State. Rubin’s sweeping historical narrative argues that “For the past two centuries, and at an accelerating rate, Western society has been experiencing an epochal transition. Our previous morality is declining, and a new one is replacing it. The norms that guided us for nearly a millennium are losing force, and different ones – unique and unprecedented ones, in fact – are arising in their stead. This process is now well advanced; it is transforming our society, and its consequences will become increasingly wide-ranging and profound as the new morality takes hold” (page 1). What is the new morality? “Very briefly,” Rubin argues, “the traditional morality urges people to direct their private actions to the salvation of their souls and deny themselves the pleasures of the present, while the new morality urges people to develop a life plan for their selves that will maximize those present pleasures over the expected course of their existence” (page 2).

I suspect Rubin is correct, which may help explain a couple of things. First, conservatives today are worried, and rightly so. What some see as overblown rhetoric may well be signs of a movement in its death throes. I believe this is an argument of Corey Robin’s, and to me at least it has merit. Second, I also think that this allows to see a little more clearly why Lincoln still has a hold on the American imagination. In a way, Lincoln straddled the old and the new morality. On the one hand, he never quite equated the American Union with God’s ways, – he once called Americans the “almost chosen people” – and it seems to me pretty clear that he believed some things were timelessly true: “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,” he said in 1864. On the other hand, he advocated for an America that gave “hope to all” , one where the Declaration of Independence gave hope “not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.” This sounds, to some degree, like the new morality that Rubin describes in his wonderful book.