People who are paid to talk about history like to grouse about how Americans aren’t buying enough of what they’re selling. Commentators who bemoan Americans’ alleged lack of interest in the past claim that we’re too distracted by making and spending money. Or too caught up in celebrities and trends. Or that we think technology will make problems of the past obsolete. So we just don’t bother to learn history.
But today’s news shows that it’s not true. Judging by their actions, Americans are clearly more interested in history than ever. The toppling of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia was just the latest sign that more and more Americans, especially on the left, want to rethink our history and its place in public life.
For historian Matthew Karp, writing in Harper’s, what’s interesting is that in today’s history wars, it’s not historians but concerned citizens who are leading the way:
Strikingly, the most powerful energy behind this fight comes not only from scholars but from activists, journalists, and other thinkers who have made history a new kind of political priority. Although American historical amnesia is the laziest of tropes—“We learn nothing,” said Gore Vidal, “because we remember nothing”—liberals today are more committed than ever to a passionate remembrance of things past.
Karp’s analysis is a must-read for anyone who cares about how American politics connects to American history: “History As End: 1619, 1776, and the politics of the past.”
Acts of horror from the church murders in Charleston to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville to the killing of George Floyd to the MAGA insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 of this year have caused people on the left to search the past for precedent. That’s not entirely new. To buck up morale among his fellow travelers, Eugene Debs compared the socialists of 1908 to the abolitionists of 1858, in the darkest hour before the dawn of success. Martin Luther King, Jr. evoked the Declaration of Independence again and again to remind white Americans that the country had an outstanding promise to Black Americans that it needed to keep.
But the way people on the left use history today is different.
Rather than mine the past for usable politics—whether as analogue, inspiration, or warning—thinkers now travel in the opposite direction, from present injustice to historical crime. Current American inequalities, many liberals insist, must be addressed through encounters with the past. Programs of reform or redistribution, no matter how ambitious, can hope to succeed only after the country undergoes a profound “reckoning”—to use the key word of the day—with centuries of racial oppression.
In other words, liberals find problems in America today, they get angry about those problems, and then they look to the past for someone to blame.
So, today we hate racism and blame much of it on past slavery. Rightly so. But is the activists’ solution, to identify famous and iconic leaders of the past who owned slaves, from Jefferson and Washington to Ulysses S. Grant, denounce them for such, and then cancel them from public memory, the right approach?
Even if it’s sloppy history, will it help politically?
Karp worries that reforming symbolism is not a prelude to reforming substance, as those who want to remove offensive monuments or symbols claim, but rather a seductive and dangerous substitute for real action.
No, the Democrats who govern Virginia will not repeal the state’s anti-union right-to-work law, but yes, by all means, they will make Juneteenth an official holiday. If this movement only signals a shift from material demands to metaphysical “reckonings”—from movement politics to elite culture war—then it is not an advance but a retreat.
Conservative Dilemma: Preserve or Reject?
It’s become a confusing time for connecting the past to the present. In the old days, conservatives defended dominant American historical memory, no matter how repellent. North and South alike, conservatives used to balk at taking down statues of Confederate generals or removing the Stars and Bars. But Republicans have changed. Today they are more divided on how to remember the American past.
Some conservatives are willing to let statues of Robert E. Lee and Confederate flags come down but ready to draw the line at taking down statues of Washington, Lincoln or Grant. NASCAR dumped the Confederate flag and nearly half of House Republicans voted for a Democratic bill to remove all Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol. Many also agree with the 1776 Commission that Donald Trump convened near the end of his presidency to defend the icons of American history from today’s iconoclasts on the left. Unlike conservatives of just a couple decades earlier, Trump’s history panel didn’t bother to try to explain why Confederates weren’t really so bad. Yet, Trump’s commission still earned frowns from historians for sloppy work and howls from activists for its defense of traditional heroes of the American past.
But unlike most things from the Trump Administration, the project’s overall angle must sound sensible enough to those who value American history. The 1776 Report argued, unfortunately with more heart than brains as the panel included conservative activists but no qualified historians, for an additive rather than a subtractive approach to remembering U.S. history. This approach would expand the canon of American exemplars to include figures who are Black, female, indigenous or come from other marginalized groups while keeping many of the traditional white male politicians and generals who stood for the right values of freedom and equality.
The devil is in the details, of course, but as an overall approach, making history more accurate by making it more inclusive sounds pretty hard to argue with.
This is one way in which I agree with some Republicans — we should take down statues of traitors and symbols of racism. But we should not take down statues of the heroes who fought to protect our country against those exact same traitors.
But other conservatives seem to have abandoned the American quest to create a more perfect union, of a fitful and imperfect but nonetheless intentional effort make our country more fair and more free. I don’t agree with them at all.
It wasn’t only the kind of neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates who carried the Confederate flag into the U.S. Capitol on January 6 who question whether Jefferson’s assertion that all men are created equal still applies.
About half of Republicans today seem to think that white supremacy is not just acceptable but that it’s so desirable that they need to fight (with actual guns if voter suppression doesn’t work) to bring back the kind of white man’s republic that white men enjoyed before Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in 1861.
The history wars’ latest battle over the alleged teaching of “Critical Race Theory” in public schools is just a symptom of how some conservatives can’t take the truth about America’s past. These conservatives fear that making white kids learn how our country oppressed Black people in the past and how many things in America still harm Black people today will be disturbing. Triggering, you might say. And who knows — such teaching could turn little Republican kids into young adults who care about racial justice. Some conservatives want to stop that from happening, and then make sure their kids go the opposite direction, towards embracing their parents’ belief in white supremacy.
That’s frightening. We need to appeal to America’s past of fighting and defeating just this sort of oligarchy in the Civil War to fight against it today.
To Fix the Future, Liberals Should Mine the Past, Not Cancel It
As a person on the left, I’m interested in how conservatives misuse history but am more concerned about how my fellow liberals try to end history.
“American conservatives, traditionally attracted to history as an exercise in patrimonial devotion, have in the time of Trump abandoned many of their older pieties, instead oscillating between incoherence and outright nihilism,” Karp explains. “Liberals, meanwhile, seem to expect more from the past than ever before. Leaving behind the End of History, we have arrived at something like History as End.”
Karp finds the new liberal viewpoint represented in the 1619 Project produced by Black journalists at the New York Times. I have more sympathy for this pioneering effort than Karp seems to express. For all its flaws, the 1619 Project helped bring slavery and race back to the center of our memory of American history. And any writing about American history by writers who are exclusively Black should be encouraged as a counterweight to all the history by mostly white authors that we’ve had for centuries.
The specific issues Karp has with the 1619 Project are worth considering, but I’ll conclude here with Karp’s main point, that by tagging America’s beginning to the year slaves first arrived in the future United States, rather than to other traditional dates like 1492 or 1776, the 1619 Project tells a story about American history that’s not just about when things started to go wrong and how bad things have always been, but also how little things ever change.
“In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism,” one essay in the 1619 Project avers, “you have to start on the plantation.” Really? Karp asks. Wouldn’t starting with Shell Oil or Goldman Sachs be a better way to understand capitalism’s special brand of oppression?
Maybe the problem is the whole project of trying to find one time in the past that represents the authentic beginning for American history.
Locating the origin of American history in 1619, or in any year other year for that matter, tells a false story about origins. In reality American history goes back to Europe and Africa and lots of other places. And by now we should know that slavery wasn’t invented in 1619 and it wasn’t invented in America.
But more importantly, just because slavery existed in the past, even if it lasted for thousands of years, doesn’t mean it always had to exist in the future. Whatever Karp thinks about declaring Juneteenth a holiday, it reminds us of another significant year in American history, 1865, celebrated by freed American slaves as the Year of Jubilee. It’s a holiday created by Black Americans that joyfully remembers a day of liberation. Juneteenth is not a day of mourning for how nothing ever really gets any better.
America must continue to grapple with past slavery and the rest of our history. But the key word is “past.” Certainly, many horrible legacies of slavery live on in the United States today. Leaving all the effects of racism aside, here I could insert an asterisk pointing to a long footnote about the exceptions to the abolition of slavery: both legalized involuntary servitude through the criminal justice system as well as illegal slavery in sex trafficking and other black market labor.
But legal slavery in the United States, we must remember, is dead. And no amount of asterisks and footnotes will outweigh the historic achievement of ending chattel slavery in the largest slave society in world history in 1865.
Millions of enslaved Black southerners helped kill slavery by seizing freedom in a thousand different ways, with help from free Black abolitionists up North. White Americans like Lincoln, Grant, and even George Washington helped kill slavery too. Yes, our first president, enslaver though he was, did his part to end an institution that he had come to hate. Nobody ended slavery on his own — it took a biracial group of allies to win such an improbable and glorious victory for freedom.
Frederick Douglass was another American who helped end slavery and make America more free than it was previously. “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future,” Douglass declared as Karp quotes him. “To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time.”
Karp agrees with Douglass that history remains up for grabs. There’s no guarantee that things will get better in the future. But there’s no guarantee against it either. Big, impersonal forces like technology, markets, population growth, climate change and — now we have been reminded — pandemics shape history. But so do people.
And those people are us. We’re doing a good job of cancelling Confederates and other traitors and racists who don’t now and never have represented the best of America. But let’s not deprive ourselves and our kids of the examples of men and women from the past of all races who labored to make America more fair and more free.