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A Challenge to Patriots

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

For almost three generations, southern patriots have been complaining that history has been unfair to their section. Their crusade against alleged misinterpretation and injustice began when history first assumed importance as a subject of study in American schools, in the decade before the Civil War, and has continued with only slight interruption until our day. The assertion that the South has not yet received its historical deserts might indeed be challenged elsewhere, but almost nowhere within the limits of the former Confederacy would it give rise to a spirited debate. In prosperous industrial or commercial districts it might be greeted with relative indifference, but in few localities would more than a handful vote against the proposition; almost everywhere the “Ayes” would have it without a division. The vast majority of the southern historians, including those sometimes reproached with their northern training, would stand with the majority. Most of them, however, would insist on a definition of the question.

If we don’t want to be ridiculous, indeed, we must define our terms, critically examine our ancient grievance, test its present validity, and point out if we can its distinctive righteousness. Almost every, large minority group in the United States is now engaged in some sort of noisy effort to win for itself larger recognition in American history. Defenders of the historic South would hardly care to share the reproach, brought against so many would-be censors of school books, that they are actuated by excessive group-vanity. And certainly if they wear worthily the heritage of dignity of which they so often boast, they will not relish comparison with Mayor Bill Thompson, who has been shouting his grievances against the historians. Traditional individualists like ourselves should hesitate to further the movement for legalized conformity of opinion which the World War did so much to accelerate. Discriminating southerners, however loyal, should be unwilling parties to an orgy, of vanity and hysteria.

If they would escape uncomfortable analogies, ardent southerners must clearly define the objects of their crusade. If they are merely seeking for their ancestors higher pedestals in the hall of fame, they can hope for little sympathy outside their own borders. Partisans of every hue talk loudly about fairness to their own group. Few of them waste any breath demanding justice for others. Indeed, they are generally eager that somebody else be humbled in order that they themselves and their candidates may be exalted. There is no place for the fair-minded man in such a scramble for preferment. If, however, the dominant concern be to win a rightful place for one’s group, a platform may be built on which all honest men may stand. The South deserves its rightful place, but so do New England, the much-derided Middle West, the down-trodden Irish, the colored people, the Germans, organized labor, the Jews, the Italians. Southerners, like everybody else, are entitled to fair play, but not to special privilege. We assume that fairness, or approximate fairness, is more than a professor’s dream. Otherwise there is no particular need for the historian and he might as well retire from the field of danger and leave the determination of controversial questions to majority vote, with occasional modifications in behalf of some specially noisy minority.

Divesting ourselves of as many traditional prejudices as the limitations of personality will permit, we southerners can gain some illuminating information from an inquiry into the history of our complaint. It was not until the last ante-bellum decade that the dangers of hostile propaganda in the guise of history were realized by southerners. At an earlier time Jefferson, as a scholar, patriot, and politician, had protested against historical inaccuracy and injustice, but he and most of the generation that followed him regarded history, as light reading to be indulged in chiefly after dinner, not as a subject of serious academic consideration. Not even in the eighteen-fifties was history as a school study important anywhere in the republic. None the less, school histories of a sort had begun to appear and readers and geographies contained materials alleged to be historical. Against the unsympathetic descriptions of southern life contained in these, southern commercial conventions periodically protested and various excited writers expressed indignation in “DeBow’s Review,” and contemporary newspapers. Textbooks, one such protester claimed, were abolitionist works, filled with “slanders, caricatures and bloodthirsty sentiments,” and tending to array southern children against “the established ordinances of God.” Whatever may or may not be said about the ordinances of God, much can be justly and safely asserted about the unfairness of ante-bellum histories. Had they been used widely in an extensive public school system, stronger protest would undoubtedly have been made against them.

They were exclusively of northern origin and their partisanship was ill-disguised. Most southerners doubtless admitted, as William L. Yancey of Alabama complacently declared, that the South had made most of the history that had glorified the United States, but few of them bothered to wTrite it. For this failure to appear with counsel at the bar in an age of special pleading, the South herself was alone to blame.

After having made a good deal more history in the War, southerners had to turn to the imperative tasks of making a living and expelling the carpetbaggers. Counsel for the prosecution accordingly was unopposed and a vast amount of damning evidence was incorporated without effective protest in the historic record, whence, however, it was to be drawn forth at a later time for critical examination by ruthless scholars. When at length the United Confederate Veterans were emboldened to take up the cudgels in defense of their motives in the War, they were met in the open field by the equally determined Grand Army of the Republic. The dignified protest of the smaller group against injustice commands the sympathy of the impartial reader. The heroes of Chancellorsville and Second Manassas proclaimed their loyalty to the Union and denied that they wanted sectional histories. They insisted, however, that their own conduct had been entirely honorable, objected to their children’s reading of them as rebels and arch-conspirators, and urged that southerners themselves give more attention to the textbook business. The complaint of the Grand Army, on the other hand, was rather that the extreme and unwarranted claims made by the victors during the War and Reconstruction were being modified. They asserted that the true nature of the conflict was being forgotten and, it may be added, that their own glory was being somewhat obscured. Northern schoolmasters, more generous and fair-minded than the politicians, were beginning to refer to the War as a struggle between sections and not as an unsuccessful rebellion against constitutional authority in which the victors were clearly right and the vanquished wrong.

The efforts of the two groups of veterans to regain and maintain their glory were rewarded by considerable local success, which gratified them no little. Textbook writers and teachers on both sides of the line trod cautiously on the crust of public opinion. Ere long, though, the Spanish-American War allied old foes in a common cause under a common flag, and the Fourth of July began to be celebrated again even in South Carolina. By the first decade of our century the old soldiers on both sides seemed disposed to lay, down their arms. There had been no decisive victory, but the advantage lay with the wearers of the grey, partly because of increased generosity and indifference among the prosperous northern conquerors, partly because of the rise of a more accurate and objective history. The opprobrious terms to which the Confederates most objected have largely disappeared from the historical vernacular. Except in official records, the term “rebel” has become so rare that its appearance startles. The term “Civil “War,” however, against which a diminishing group of southern patriots protest but which was originally more objectionable to Unionists than Confederates, has been all but universally accepted. The high motives of their former rivals have been frankly acknowledged by the G. A. R., and textbooks of southern origin have been adopted in every southern state. It would appear that in history, as in politics, southern home rule is established and unchallenged. Within our own borders we can damn the Yankees with impunity—if we want to.

In the meantime, thanks to the critical scholars and popular reaction, the War has been increasingly described as a conflict between sections, not between right and wrong, the good points of the slavery system have been emphasized, the abolitionist—perhaps because of the latter-day analogy with the radical agitator—has been widely discredited, and Reconstruction is without a defender in high historical circles, or anywhere else so far as we know. John Brown is generally regarded as a wild-eyed fanatic, and Thad Stevens as a vindictive politician. The fame of Lee has long been a prized national possession and Jefferson Davis has gained in scholarly favor, to the discredit however of southern obstructionists who placed the interests of their states above the larger needs of the beleaguered Confederacy. The perplexities of the would-be prosecutors of the southern president and their futile efforts to have him tried for treason after the War have recently been described with skill and subtle humor by a northern writer, while the best known of the economic de-terminists has ruthlessly bared the motives which actuated many of the radical northern leaders in their successful efforts to annihilate the planter class by war and legislation.

Some may claim that history has not yet granted the South a peace of justice, but no one can fairly, deny that we have gained peace with honor. The more important positions were long ago surrendered into our hands and the honors of war have been granted nearly all our heroes. Certain minor positions, yet untaken and coveted, may well be acquired by negotiation without further recourse to arms. We have yet to settle the question who caused the War, it is true, but most of us now tacitly admit that a lot of people had a hand in bringing it about—politicians, capitalists, land-hungry planters and farmers, fanatics, and patriots more or less hysterical. The delicate task of distributing blame and assessing motives will long be a fascinating intellectual exercise for dispassionate historians, economists and psychologists, but the old sectional issue is as dead as the men who raised it.

At least we had thought it was. Since the World War some have endeavored to resurrect it. The call has gone forth from certain patriotic quarters for a new crusade against our ancient foes. A crusade against the machine civilization, northern if you like, which has conquered our land and obscured so many of our once-honored traditions, would be magnificent, even though we cannot hope to bring back the proud planting gentry. However completely we may be reconciled to prosperity, we may well lament the increasing conformity of the South to the northern economic and social pattern. The appropriateness of the new assault upon the hapless historians, however, we may seriously question, indisposed as southerners still are to criticize anything that bears the stamp of local loyalty. The extravagant assertion which has been made in certain patriotic circles that history as now written will consign the South to infamy can command no support among those who are aware of the consensus of scholarly opinion at the present time. No reputable contemporary historian would think of describing southern conduct during, before, or since the War as infamous. The statement that the vast majority of books now used in southern schools are inadequate and unfair seems extraordinary in view of the fact that these are largely of southern origin and have been selected by boards and commissions whose patriotism might have been assumed. After an examination of the books now most commonly used in southern schools, a disinterested scholar from the Middle West, Miss Bessie L. Pierce of Iowa, has concluded that these are generally quite temperate in their treatment of controversial questions, but that they carefully avoid opprobrious or uncomplimentary terms. They certainly don’t talk about the Rebellion or southern treason. Perhaps the mere fact that they are relatively inoffensive to an outsider would be sufficient to convince some extremists that they are much too mild! When patriots conjoin with their complaint that southern books are not sufficiently pro-southern the objection that too much praise of northern heroes, and not enough of southern, is given in the North itself, unsympathetic observers not unnaturally conclude that we are more desirous of eulogy, than history, that we want American history to be, in short, “the glorious story of us.”

A solution of the textbook problem satisfactory to sectional patriots would be relatively simple. The various southern boards and commissions can select what books they like. If local pride is not sufficiently gratified by any books now available, other books can undoubtedly be written. If, however, we act upon the principle that local sentiment should be reflected in books used among us, we cannot consistently challenge the right of others to apply the same principle in their localities. The more we insist upon pro-southern books in the South, the more we must admit the justification for pro-western books in the West, pro-New England books in New England, anti-British books among the Irish.

Southerners, for example, do not care for Charles Sumner. We feel that he was most unreasonable in his antebellum attacks on the southern slave system and his post-bellum insistence on racial equality. We may even detest him as a conspicuous author of Reconstruction woes. Advocates of state rights and local autonomy, however, cannot consistently object to his statue on the Cambridge Green. We may not like it, but we can’t do anything about it. Nor can advocates of pro-southern textbooks in Virginia, Mississippi or Georgia well object if Sumner should be eulogized in the schools of Massachusetts. In the realm of politics, the South voluntarily sacrificed national influence in order to obtain white solidarity and complete home rule. The one-party system has guaranteed local control but has rendered the South relatively uninfluential in national politics. If we wish, we can adopt the same policy in regard to the teaching of history. We can have what we want in our own schools and cease to concern ourselves about the rest of the country. Magnanimity at home such as would give us the right to expect magnanimity abroad does not, however, seem very perilous. The persistence of southern pride and loyalty may be safely assumed. If the South has played the conspicuous and distinguished part in American history that we believe it has, certainly we need not dread the most searching and critical inquiry. If our civilization has hitherto been viewed too much through hostile eyes, we have vastly more to hope than to fear from a revaluation.

The only safe and legitimate way to gain for the South its deserved place in history is to facilitate historical scholarship, both in the South and out of it. Propaganda against uncomplimentary books defeats its own ends and starts partisans on a vicious circle. Authors of textbooks, if sufficiently harassed, may modify, offensive statements, but, unless mob rule should prevail, textbooks will in the end reflect the consensus of scholarly opinion. Many professors write textbooks, for reasons which a glance at the family budget would make apparent, but a professor is keenly aware of the opinions of his fellow scholars and is hardly likely of his own accord to insert anything which would lose him their respect. He may assume a colorless attitude toward controversial questions, but if he be a true scholar will be secretly ashamed of any concession to censorship beyond what is warranted by pedagogical considerations, and as soon as he dares will re-insert his actual opinions. The corrective to partisanship and unfairness is supplied by historical scholarship itself and can be guaranteed in no other way. To return to Massachusetts, it is unlikely that a reputable scholar in that center of intellectuality and learning would be now disposed to eulogize Charles Sumner, whatever the local public might think of him, for the simple and sufficient reason that this particular New England statesman no longer enjoys historical favor. Since both textbooks and popular writings depend on scholarship, after all, the vitally important thing is to keep the stream of history pure at its source.

The purity of the motives of the historical scholars as a group can be seriously questioned only by the ignorant. No man can entirely divest himself of his prejudices, it may be, but no one tries harder to be fair and disinterested than the professional historian. Nor is any one more anxious than he to correct false emphases. People who are satisfied with history as currently, written had better discourage the scholars, for nothing delights them more than to find something wrong and to attempt to set it right, and no one is surer of professional recognition than the successful revaluator of an ancient opinion. We are not concerned here with “de-bunkers” and exploiters of the sex-life of dead heroes. They gain popular notoriety, not professional eminence. The highest distinction is all but impossible without fairness of mind and sanity of judgment. A member of the gild may well be suspected of exaggerating its virtues and importance, but he may be pardoned the conviction that if bona fide historians cannot settle the seething caldron of sectional and racial propaganda no one can.

The chief obstacle to the just recognition of the claims of any particular group is not the bias or deliberate unfriendliness of the scholars; it is the limitation or inaccessibility of the materials on which such recognition depends. Historically speaking, the mute are sure to be inglorious. Individuals and societies that leave full records may not be glorious but are unlikely to remain permanently unknown. The extreme prominence of New England in American history, as many have remarked, has been chiefly due to the abundance and accessibility of its historical documents, combined with great local appreciation of those who make use of them. On the other hand, many aspects of southern life have been neglected or misunderstood because no information about them has been available. Many of the cruel comments on southern planters and overseers, made by northerners before the War and during the generation which followed it, may be explained in terms of politics, but many of them were due to sheer ignorance. The intimate personal documents relating to plantation problems and practices which industrious scholars have published during our century have made indiscriminate condemnation of the old type forever impossible. A recent writer of great distinction, speaking of colonial culture, says that the tradition of the literary preeminence of New England during the eighteenth century was largely due to mere ignorance of conditions in the other colonies. From his own study of contemporary documents hitherto little used he concludes that probably in literary interest, and certainly in science, art, music and the drama, South Carolina and Virginia were superior. It would hardly be just to say that the two southern states have been more modest than Massachusetts in presenting their historic claims. The present writer, who has special personal ties with all three, feels safe in saying that modesty about the past is not characteristic of any one of them. Interest in preserving, publishing and utilizing historical documents, however, has undoubtedly been greatest in the New England commonwealth, and least in the gallant Palmetto State, which has made much glorious history and written very little. When southerners have written more their section will be better understood. Partisanship may have done much in the past to obscure the truth but if, in our day, the South does not gain the credit it deserves, the fault will be primarily our own. If we make the records of our past readily accessible and encourage scholars, our own in particular, to make use of them, we shall have no further necessity for talking of injustice.

Southern historical scholarship deserves encouragement. Long retarded by poverty, and indifference, it has begun to make perceptible progress. It is hardly eminent yet, but has become distinctly, respectable. Our scholars have an advantage in the matter of their native history. They don’t need to be orientated. They sense the southern tradition almost by instinct. But spiritual fitness will count for little if they lack tools and workshops. Few southern states have notable historical collections, and most of our college and university libraries are distressing. Thousands of our manuscripts are annually sold into northern bondage. Scores of southerners study their own history outside their section every year. Students and materials ought to go, and will continue to go, where they can best be cared for, but surely the time has come when the South is able to care for its own. Here is the supreme challenge to the patriots.

The professional historian greatly appreciates the zeal of the southern patriots. Not many people are so interested in the past as they are or so anxious to preserve its monuments and conserve its traditions. The enthusiasm of loyal souls, in the South and everywhere else, should be mobilized for constructive ends, not allowed to spend itself in futile propaganda and petty vanities. Much of our sectional history, intellectual and cultural as well as political and economic, remains to be adequately investigated and portrayed. An increasing number of capable scholars, southern and northern, view the opportunity with enthusiasm. All lovers of the South should aid them by providing materials, facilities, and encouragement. To build libraries, collect books and documents, provide catalogues and research funds, may seem unheroic but it is the primary task by which our historical statesmanship is confronted. Human nature being what it is, occasional outbursts of indignation against apparent misinterpretation and injustice are to be expected, but it is not necessary to launch a new crusade to rescue the holy land from pagan hands. We need a program of construction and somebody to provide brick and mortar for the builders.


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