Cleaning up the past

“There are all kinds of myths that a people has about itself, some positive, some negative, some healthy, and some not healthy. I think that one job of the historian is to try to cut through some of those myths and get closer to some kind of reality. So that people can face their current situation realistically, rather than mythically.”  

— Professor James McPherson

The editors of Your Favorite Periodical have never asked me to cover any particular Princeton history topic, or even just to avoid one — a rare treasure for an itinerant columnist. But lately, I’ve sensed external events pressing in, demanding a commentary that I really didn’t want to go into again. Tough luck.

So here we go. How about that Confederacy, huh?

You might rightly point out that the Confederate States of America was a pretty bad idea that had suspicious overtones of an economic elite putting one over on the itinerant masses and marching them off to a hopeless war. Toward whatever possible end, we could quibble, but that’s not really the point. Many people died horribly as a result, and it seems that as much as those who sacrificed should be remembered, the cause itself should be disparaged and parked on the siding of history with apartheid and the Spanish Inquisition. That’s a very sensible idea, and of course, something that did not happen. A confluence of historical forces, including a pathetic stab at Reconstruction by an ambivalent United States, blaming of the powerless poor and minorities for the sins of the rich and white, and a toxic mixture of regional esprit and invocation of an imaginary past to Make the South Great Again, all combined with overt racism to cause a century of darkness beyond the end of the battle. Symbols were erected to perpetuate the darkness and its myths. We have indeed not yet recovered fully from that delusional century, and suddenly today see irresponsible people in responsible positions declaring this our cultural heritage.

But hold on, you say perspicaciously, hold on now. We’re not Duke, with a statue of Robert E. Lee on the Chapel of all places (it was removed in August); we’re not the University of Texas, with a statue of Jefferson Davis on the South Mall (relocated to a campus museum last spring). In fact, although its constituency was unusually nationwide for its day, Princeton and its trustees were pro-Union in the Civil War, even in a state only 15 years removed from slavery where secessionist sympathies were not uncommon. The vast majority of our Southern students left when war was declared, albeit many of them sadly; and outside of a few random Confederate battle flags hanging from dorm windows in the silly springs of years past, the vestiges of the rebellion have been essentially nil. Why us?

The answer, alas, is that dark hangover century. Under the lull of “peace,” the entire country, despite the 14th and 15th Amendments, backslid into a Jim Crow mentality that varied in intensity from legal restrictions in some areas to subtle economic and educational bigotry in others. Until Brown v. Board of Education and the 1965 Civil Rights Act the U.S. was a structurally multitiered society, which — if you were paying attention to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — was not what we said we were. Even the succeeding 50 years have seen only fragile improvements, and we now face direct attacks on those.

One metastatic vestige of that is the “cultural heritage” palaver involving the various Confederate monuments erected to commemorate not heroes but bankrupt ideas. This is not only my take, but also the subject of one of the great political addresses of our generation, by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. By itself, it’s sufficient reason for this column, and if you have not before this heard every word, I beseech you to view it now.

This is what Princeton’s Black Justice League was trying to get across a couple years back, the proximate cause of Princeton’s recollection and reprocessing of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson 1879, and hopefully in addition many deeper historical forces on campus. Another instructive example to consider in this vein is that of Washington & Lee University in Virginia. Slave-owner or not, nobody’s seriously questioning the propriety of Washington’s name at the school. But after all these years, Lee, who even served as its president following the Civil War, is under question because of his historic secessionist choices and their resulting evil. We need to be aware of these things, and use them as a precautionary goad. Princeton’s trustees and their advisers found that Wilson’s Fourteen Points and public service (it killed him, for heaven’s sake) were sufficient to retain the Wilson School name so strongly sought by its creators, and that his efforts to democratize, reform and educate the Princeton student body were sufficient to retain the name of Wilson College, although a mural of him there was removed.  And they began to take steps to see that his hideous track record in bringing anguish to black people was thoroughly understood and decried, and won’t be minimalized in the future as it had been, however unintentionally, before. And the Princeton and Slavery Project Symposium will take place on campus November 17-18.

Princeton has, following the dark century, begun to address its Jim Crow legacy through steps that began with the hiring of Carl Fields as the University’s first black administrator in 1964 and led most recently to the renaming of West College to honor Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize winner and revered teacher, and the renaming of the principal auditorium at the Wilson School to honor Nobel Prize winner and revered teacher Arthur Lewis, one of the most service-minded and international of Princeton heroes. The prior name, that of Harold Dodds *1914, founding head of the school and yeoman president of the University for 24 years, including the bulk of the Depression and the entirety of World War II and the Korean War, was moved to the adjacent lobby of Robertson Hall. We should however consider, in the spirit of today’s message, that he also presided over the continuation of blatant bigotry in the admission of African Americans and Jews to Princeton, our contribution to Jim Crow. Many other institutions did the same, the apologists might say, but that’s the crucial point: The widespread prevalence of the drinking of the racist Kool-Aid that was the “cultural heritage” of the Confederacy was critical to successfully perpetuating the misery of those victimized, and so an even greater shame to those who went along. It was and is nothing but a crass power grab by those who desperately hope to psychologically belittle others, so as to avoid engaging them in democratic discourse. In other words, the coward’s way out of being an American.

Civil War dead in Memorial Hall: Reunited
Back at the beginning, the men who actually died in the Civil War, overwhelmingly young and poor, victimized by the lethal combination of new weapons and old tactics, were only vaguely aware of much of this in the haze of patriotism, whichever side they were on. Regarding their knowing leaders, anyone who has stood where Lee did at Gettysburg and ordered Pickett’s charge would, frankly, never consider naming even an animal shelter for him. Statues of military leaders may for argument’s sake belong on battlefields, but not in the town square, as far as I can see; but the sacrifices of the village sons and husbands are quite another question. That’s why the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, sans statues of generals, has such power and undeniable import; all it lacks are the names of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who died alongside the Americans. Which leads us back to perhaps the most effective and educational Civil War monument of all, coincidentally created in 1919 as many of worst Confederate statues were being erected. The Civil War panel in the Memorial Hall of Nassau Hall lists the 70 alumni who died in the war, but even to the current day no one is quite sure how many fought on each side; the wistfully idealistic legend has always been 35/35. The true point is that no one now cares, and didn’t even in 1919. Meanwhile, outside that National Historic Landmark, the only flag flying is American, and that is more than sufficient to fully honor them all.