Dear Decaturish – In Confederate monument discussion, past shouldn’t be master of the presentThe monument in downtown Decatur. Photo provided to Decaturish
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I am a historian of religion and nationalism in the United States. My research focuses on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the periods at the turn of the twentieth century in which Americans worked to define their national identity following the Civil War and Reconstruction. Perhaps the future will prove me wrong, but in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the pulling down of a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina, and the ongoing debates across the country, including here in Decatur, about similar monuments to the Confederacy, I suspect that we may be in the midst of a similar, collective reimagining of our history and what it means to be American.
Words, symbols, and commemorative displays are enormously important. They tell us much less about the past, though, than about the people who produced them and those who debate their meanings today. Most of the Confederate memorials that populate the southern landscape were not constructed immediately after the Civil War but were rather installed during the Jim Crow period. These monuments appeared when they did for clear political purposes. Many were motivated by the campaign to repress African Americans and by an attempt to rewrite the history of the war.
Decatur’s Confederate memorial serves as a striking example of such commemorative statuary. It was dedicated in 1908, forty-three years after the Civil War and amid the reinvention of the Confederate cause as one pursued not in defense of slavery but rather for the more vague notion of states’ rights. Consider the language of the monument: “These men held that the states made the Union, that the Constitution is the evidence of the covenant, that the people of the state are subject to no power except as they have agreed that free government binds the parties to it, that there is sanctity in oaths and obligation in contracts, and in defense of these principles they mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.”
Now compare the monument’s language with the words used by Georgia’s leading statesman during the war, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, in his famous Cornerstone Speech of March 21, 1861: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition”
I could add numerous other examples from the speeches of secession commissioners from multiple Confederate states and from these same states’ secession ordinances which make clear that the defense of slavery was the foundation of the Confederacy. Memorials like that in Decatur, however, include nary a mention of slavery, and these omissions were deliberate.
Memorializing the past may be a normal human impulse, but the particular past which people memorialize is significant. There is a reason, for example, why Americans do not publicly celebrate British loyalists of the American Revolution. It does not fit with the American national ethos. Nor does the celebration of the Confederacy, a nineteenth-century attempt to create a white nation built on the backs of enslaved black men and women and which made war against the United States. The idea that we must keep unaltered all monuments erected by previous generations is a strange one and is certainly selective. Changes to our commemorative and architectural landscapes are routine. The relationship between the present and the past is one of complex dialogue, and reevaluation and reconsideration of the past are normal parts of this conversation. In short, the past need not necessarily be the absolute master of the present.
Were there Confederate soldiers who fought in defense of hearth and home? Certainly. Their descendants’ desire to honor their memory is a natural one, and they should be free to do so. However, defenders of Confederate memory should also acknowledge what their public monuments represent: a mythical South and a failed state which was founded on the principle of slavery’s perpetuation and expansion.
– William S. Cossen
William S. Cossen has a PhD in history from Penn State University and is the book review editor for the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He resides in Decatur.