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Sunday, September 03, 2017

Peace & Reconciliation Commissions versus Acts of Oblivion: Confederate Monuments as a Problem in Undoing an "Oblivious" Settlement of Civil Conflict

Suppose that a society, out of a desire to avoid violence and instill cooperation, wants to end a bloody civil conflict even at the expense of what the winning side regards as justice. Traditionally, there have been (at least) two mechanisms for such a settlement: the Act of Oblivion and the Peace & Reconciliation Commission. With an "Act of Oblivion," exemplified by the statute enacted by the Covenant Parliament ending the English Civil War, the winning side enacts a statute (the "Act of Oblivion") literally wiping clean the slate of the rebels, providing a general pardon that allows them to participate fully and immediately in the political life of the country. The key characteristic of the general pardon is that there is no specific description of the wrongs and rights of the conflict and no individualized hearings precisely assigning blame to specific individuals. Instead, the Act literally "forgets" what the conflict was all about toward the end of erasing hard feelings and allowing vanquished opponents to serve with honor in the new regime. The English Act of Oblivion, for instance, referred vaguely to "the long and great troubles, discords and wars that have for many years past been in this kingdom" without much further description and handed out a general pardon allowing Commonwealth and Protectorate military and civilian leaders like Pepys, Montagu, and Penn to serve Charles II with distinction. By contrast, Peace and Reconciliation Commissions try to hash out the rights and the wrongs with specific findings of the injustices committed, toward the end of reconciling the winners to allowing the losers to escape punishment.

One can regard Confederate Monuments as a sort of de facto "Act of Oblivion." As most famously described by David Blight, Northern white Republicans gradually adopted the position proposed by white Southerners like L.Q.C. Lamar (in his 1874 eulogy for Charles Sumner to the Massachusetts Legislature) and Henry Grady (in his 1886 address to the New England Society in NYC) that no blame should be assigned for the Civil War, which was not really about slavery but instead about constitutional questions of local autonomy. If this de facto Oblivion had an official recognition, it was the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion of Union and Confederate veterans in which Woodrow Wilson -- the first Southerner elected to the Presidency since the Civil War -- gushed " "We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten-— except that we shall not forget the splendid valor." In the process of reconciling, as Blight notes, northern and southern whites conveniently forgot about the South's past and current oppression of the freedmen and black citizens' equality more generally.

One can ask two questions about our national Act of Oblivion. First, was it a justified injustice, or not? Second, whether it was justified or not, how can it be undone now that it has served its end of reconciling losers and winners and its immediate beneficiaries are long dead?


The second question, to my mind, is the most interesting, because the very success of Oblivion makes undoing the oblivious settlement especially difficult. Precisely because the past was so thoroughly purged between the 1870s and the 1920s, the resurrection of the truth will seem like a "politically correct" rectification campaign in which the historical truth is sacrificed to current present-day political necessities. I am old enough to remember reading JFK's "Profiles in Courage" in grade school in which L.Q.C. Lamar's 1886 speech was celebrated as a supreme act of statesmanship. In truth, as dramatically described by Lemann in Redemption Lamar was a vicious and cunning white supremacist who abetted the violent redemption of Mississippi. Those who unwind these lies must breach formidable parapets of deliberately constructed oblivion: Is the benefit of changing the public's mind about the past worth the effort, and how can the effort succeed?

1. Was our "Act of Oblivion" a justified injustice?

The strongest case against our Oblivion is rests on its failure to purchase an end to violence. To the contrary, northern Republicans reconciled themselves to white Southerners' use of violence to "redeem" Southern governments by abandoning not only Henry Cabot Lodge's 1890 Election Bill but also Albert Pillsbury's and George Hoar's anti-lynching bill of 1901. The Southerners' lynching campaign to suppress black political participation reached its peak during this decade of white reconciliation: Far from buying a quid pro quo of civil peace, our Oblivion facilitated the South's continuation of civil war.

In defense of such a racially one-sided settlement, one can note only that Republicans' pursuit of justice against the Redeemers would have been futile, because northern whites, sharing Southern whites' racism, lacked any stomach to protect the freedmen and their descendants. Albion Tourgee, the Union general and carpet-bagging northern reformer who almost lost his life to the Klan trying to reconstruct the South, illustrates this futility in A Fool's Errand, his autobiographical novel. In explaining why the Klan triumphed over "the Fool" (himself), Tourgee praised the Klan's "unfaltering determination" and "invincible defiance" that "laughed to scorn the Reconstruction Acts." Tourgee's tribute to the Klan's violence as an expression of the "magnificent sentiment" of "a grand and kingly people" suggests how utterly hopeless it was to enlist white northerners in the defense of black Southerners' civil rights. Tourgee, after all, was not only Homer Plessy's lawyer in Plessy v. Ferguson but a courageous carpet-bagging state judge who fought to keep blacks on juries and investigate the Klan at great personal risk. If even Tourgee thought that Reconstruction was a lost cause because of northern whites' indifference and Southern whites' determination, then odds are good that withholding the reconciliation for the sake of justice would have been futile.

Inevitability, however, does not imply any great moral worth: I think it a fair verdict that our Oblivion was, at the very least, difficult to justify and impossible to admire. In any case, whatever value it had in ending the Civil War and that war's guerilla war aftermath has long since passed away.

2. Why our de facto Oblivion is so hard to reverse

So how can we undo our Oblivion in the interests of historical accuracy and the equal citizenship of the people that our Oblivion suppressed? Here's the challenge: Our Oblivion was an extraordinarily thorough and lengthy propaganda campaign. JFK's and Ted Sorensen's white-washing of L.Q.C. Lamar is a nice illustration of how deeply this propaganda has been entrenched in our public history. (Despite repeated efforts presenting voluminous evidence, Blanche Ames could not induce JFK to retract the vicious lies that Kennedy repeated about her grandfather Adelbert Ames, Mississippi's Reconstruction governor and Lamar's opponent. Kennedy, a Catholic seeking Southern votes to redeem Al Smith's loss of the Dixecrat South back in '28, was continuing the Oblivion for his own personal project of national reconciliation). The secular canonization of Robert E. Lee is another example. Of course, there have been a parade of books from Eric Foner's Reconstruction to David Blight's Race and Reunion undoing the damage done by the "Dunning School" of Reconstruction history. But I am inclined to believe that scholarly monographs are not equal to the task: Public history -- the history purveyed by plaques, statues, museum displays, and high school history textbooks needs to be enlisted to undo our Act of Oblivion.

3. The case for re-purposing rather than tearing down Confederate monuments

To undo Oblivion, one needs to remember. Our de facto Oblivion can be overcome only by describing it. To this end, I will make what I suspect will be the only really controversial suggestion in this post: Rather than tear down Confederate monuments, perhaps they should be re-purposed to commemorate the sordid circumstances under which they themselves were created.

Suppose, for instance, that we surrounded Lee's statue in Charlottesville with durable and salient descriptions of the political scene in 1924 when the statue was erected -- not just the giant rally of the descendants of Confederate veterans and Governor Trinkle's speech describing Lee as "the greatest man that ever lived" but also Trinkle's role in promoting white supremacy in Jim Crow Virginia and the location of the statue next to the site of Vinegar Hill, Charlottesville's former black neighborhood destroyed by eminent domain in the 1960s? Why not accompany every such monument with an explanation of how reconciliation between the white North and South was purchased at the expense of black life and liberty? Why not include right next to the Stone Mountain carving of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis a display describing Stone Mountain's site as the founding of the Second Klan in 1915 and the control of the Klan over the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association that funded and sponsored the monument?

Note that this approach to Confederate monuments differs from the idea of "balancing" the Confederate monument with a counter-monument celebrating black civil rights, in the manner of Freedom Park Trail's juxtaposition with Stone Mountain. The point of my suggested counter-narrative is not to distract the observer from the offensive monument but, to the contrary, to highlight the offensive monument's actual history as part of the de facto Act of Oblivion which we settled the civil war to achieve white unity.

Against this suggestion that these Confederate monuments be preserved along with the sordid history of their funding and creation is the perfectly reasonable point that our times are polarized enough without the added provocation of plaques and statues displaying the role of the Klan and other white supremacists in shaping our parks and plazas. Who wants to take a stroll through Charlottesville's now-Emancipation Park only to be confronted by a plaque detailing white supremacy in 1920s Virginia? Put another way, maybe both the Confederate monuments and the history of Redemption that they symbolize should both be consigned to oblivion for the sake of social peace. Such an approach has much to be said for it -- and Robert E. Lee himself said it when he recommended that Civil War veterans "obliterate the marks of civil strife & to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

If one seeks a response to those protests that tearing down statues is an attack on history, however, then my proposal that Confederate monuments not be torn down but instead built up might be a decent riposte. If we really want divisive history in our parks, then let's have horse doctor's doses of it, including the history of post-Civil War white supremacy of which these monuments are a part. If instead we are ready for a second Act of Oblivion, then let the statues come down in the name of social peace.

The middle ground of keeping the statues up without explaining their origins, however, strikes me divisive without being honest -- oblivious in the most derogatory sense of the word.

Posted by Rick Hills on September 3, 2017 at 12:42 AM | Permalink

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