Recently there has been some debate in Helena about the propriety of keeping a fountain that serves as a monument to the Confederacy in Hill Park. One of my former students wrote a thoughtful letter to the editor suggesting that the monument be rededicated to “a cause that celebrates Montana’s history of fostering equality.”
The Montana Cowgirl blog offers more support for rededicating the monument, arguing that “it’s hard to understand how anyone would oppose rededicating a monument currently dedicated to the battle to keep slavery legal,” while the Flathead Memo argues Helena should “recycle the granite in the spirit of beating swords into plowshares.”
Commenters at both the IR and the MT Cowgirl have swooped in on outraged wings to argue that changing or removing the fountain is just another example of liberals wanting to rewrite history, with some, of course, going as far as to suggest that renaming the fountain is something Stalin would have done or ISIS is doing, always the measure of someone interested in a reasoned argument.
What that argument ignores is that this nation has been subjected to over a century of historical revisionism about the nature of the Confederacy that has become so pervasive that a majority of American high school students don’t believe the South left the Union over slavery, but for “states’ rights.”
And who was most responsible for reshaping public perception of the war? A group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who spent 1894-1960s in efforts to “revere the memory of those heroes in gray and to honor that unswerving devotion to principle which has made the confederate soldier the most majestic in history,” building monuments to the war as part of their strategy.
The truth is that the only rewriting of history that has really happened is the bizarre effort to paint the Civil War as something other than what it was: the insurrection of a band of traitors willing to rip the nation in half to preserve the odious institution of slavery.
Given that the Helena City Commission plans to discuss next week whether anything should be done with the monument, I’d like to offer a humble proposal: keep the monument, but make sure that it actually tells the history of the Confederacy. While my initial thought was passing a law that required all Confederate monuments fly the white flag of surrender, I realized that would be a missed opportunity to preserve history, as defenders of the Confederacy purport to care so much about.
So, my proposal is this: if we keep the Confederate monument, the city should add a series of plaques or other displays providing historical context, including the following information:
- that the rather short Confederate constitution included no fewer than ten references to slavery;
- that in its Declaration of Causes, almost singularly obsessed with slavery, the people of South Carolina, wrote of the North that “they have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.”
- that the people of Georgia rebelled against the Union almost entirely because of slavery, writing in their declaration of causes that: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property.”
- that the people of Mississippi, in their declaration opened with this: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”
- that the people of Louisiana left, “bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”
- that the Vice President of the Confederacy, in his Cornerstone Speech argued that slavery was the cause of the rebellion: “The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
- quotes from the moving slave narratives about the real lives of slaves in the South.
If the defenders of historical integrity would prefer other examples, I am more than willing to compromise, as each state that left the Union at the time of the Civil War left largely for fear that Abraham Lincoln would eventually abolish their “peculiar institution” and there is copious historical evidence attesting to the Confederacy’s focus on slavery.
I am sympathetic to the argument that we need to be careful about tearing down parts of our history, because preserving our worst moments can serve us, but only if we use those moments to tell the entire story. The city of Helena, appearing to sanction, by its prominent placement in a city park, the hateful ideology of the Confederacy cannot be permitted to continue, but if we transform the site into a place of authentic memory, complete with the history of the horrors of the institution the Confederacy was birthed to defend, Helena might just offer its young people history of value.