Revisionist History Is a Fool’s Errand

by Bill O’Keefe

One of the actions growing from the Black Life Matters movement is an effort to eradicate the memory of anyone associated with the Confederacy. Here in Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University has a process in place that could lead to removing commemoration even of individuals who served as a doctor or nurse. The City of Richmond is removing all statues of Confederate generals from Monument Avenue. Only the statue of Robert E. Lee remains because of legal action taken by residents of the historical district.

Advocates are being carried away by emotion without thinking through the long run consequences or whether they have any historic, objective or logical justification. No one argues in favor of slavery or denies that it was morally reprehensible. But that comes from today’s knowledge and understanding. Applying today’s standards to  past actions not only distorts history but is misleading and robs future generations of the opportunity to learn accurately.

What does history tell us about slavery, secession, and Robert E. Lee? Slavery far predates the Civil War. It goes back to biblical times and was accepted in Europe up through much of the 18th century. Should our condemnation go as far back as the days of the pharaohs? The Emancipation Proclamation began a process that has taken far too long to achieve but much of human progress is slow and painful.

The late John Lewis recognized that we have made much progress since he was brutalized crossing the Edmund Pettis bridge. His comments opposing its renaming made clear that “we must tell our story fully rather than hide the chapters we wish did not exist. They also reflect a recognition that as Martin Luther King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long and bends toward justice.” The current impatience with the pace of racial justice reflects a justifiable frustration but the current move to rewrite the past won’t make it move faster or ensure a better future.

The advocates for rewriting history undermine their own case by misstating and distorting it. While the notion of secession seems alien today, it wasn’t at the time of the Civil War. Legal scholars and historians have pointed out that several of the original states — Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island — ratified the Constitution conditionally, retaining the right to secede. Indeed in 1814, New England states discussed secession. They have also pointed out that the Constitution does not prohibit a state from seceding. Chief Justice Samuel Chase made that point in advising President Johnson not to try Jefferson Davis and it explains why no confederate was tried for treason.

Calling Robert E. Lee a traitor is disingenuous and has no basis in law or history. Further, Lee received a full and complete pardon from President Johnson in part because he knew that there could be no conviction for treason. Lee’s entire life demonstrates the character and qualities that make him an icon. President Dwight Eisenhower summed it up best  In August 1960, responding to criticism of his having a picture of Lee in the Oval Office, he wrote:

From deep conviction, I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s calibre would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the Nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.

Attempts to re-write our history to conform to contemporaneous agendas is, according to Cardinal Dolan, much like the Puritan book burning of the 15th century. Dolan also noted that as there were many flawed characters in the Bible the same is true of America’s historical personalities. “All of them had flaws yet all of them still contributed a lot of good to our nation’s progress.”

Bill O’Keefe, founder of Solutions Consulting, lives in the Richmond area.

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25 responses to “Revisionist History Is a Fool’s Errand”

  1. Eric the Half a Troll Avatar
    Eric the Half a Troll

    “Should our condemnation go as far back as the days of the pharaohs?”

    If we have white supremacists building statues to the pharaohs to honor their support of slavery and to generally terrorize the population of freed slaves and their descendants, then, yes, those statues should come down as well in a moral society.

    1. Anonymous Avatar

      Merely _half_ a troll? Not at all.

    2. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
      Baconator with extra cheese

      VCU has a world famous (architecturally famous) Eqyptian building (it’s a bit odd the doctors chose to kneel there for BLM) celebrating Egyptian culture. Didn’t the Egyptians enslave the Jews? I vote we have it covered with a tarp until we can have an honest conversation about its future.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    The civil war was barely over when revisionist history was being written at the same time black folks were being terrorized and killed.

    Up went the statues to “heroes” who were really traitors – all over Virginia and the south in public squares, schools and public buildings.

    School textbooks were written with revisionist history that promoted lies and falsities to kids that they grew up believing.

    So now, 150 years later, taking down these original memorials to lies – revisionist history in and of itself – is “revisionist”?

    We have had decades to admit the truth and take steps to undo the lies and we chose not to and to instead continue the lies even as black folks were telling us it was wrong – we just refused to listen or do the right thing.

    Then when it blows up – we get this “please don’t destroy history” foolishness.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    45 years ago, August 5, 1975 President Gerard Ford signed a Congressional Resolution to restore the citizenship of Robert E. Lee. Lee’s paperwork had become seperated and lost at the National Archives. The application was never acted upon. It was discovered in 1970. Senator Harry Byrd Jr. sought to remedy the oversight. The Senate passed the resolution unanimously, including Senator Biden. The House passed the resolution 407-10. The ten dissenting votes wanted Ford to extend amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers.

    You still have to pay a premium for Robert E. Lee’s autograph.
    R.E. Lee: $6,000
    Bruce Lee: $375
    U.S. Grant: $1,300
    Amy Grant: $72

  4. djrippert Avatar

    I’m sorry but white upper crust people from Richmond just don’t get it. Gigantic statues of Confederates do not celebrate history. They do not celebrate Virginia and they don’t even celebrate Richmond. They just celebrate the Confederacy. They celebrate the worst idea in the long combined history of the colony and commonwealth of Virginia. Why? Because Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy? I’m sorry but that’s not something to celebrate.

    Over the many years since those statues were first erected Richmond could have become an historical city of Virginia. Or of the Civil War. But it didn’t.

    Given white upper crust Richmond’s inability to see the city as anything more than a celebration of the Confederacy its lucky that Richmond remains the capital of Virginia. A good argument could be made that any city which wants to celebrate the Confederacy to the exclusion of the rest of the Civil War or Virginia history overall should not be the capital of modern day Virginia.

    1. Good point….let’s move the capital to neutral ground somewhere around Winchester?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I don’t think we need to move anything but we do need to start calling out people who continue to insist that memorials to traitors is “history” that needs to remain in public squares… all over Virginia.

      2. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Mount Rush in Buckingham County. Geographic center of the state. The new state house can be the old general store.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Memorials to generals who sent soldiers to kill others to defend slavery is not “history”.

    Pointing out that slavery has existed and still does – does not change the fact that memorials to those who defend it is still wrong.

    And yet, we still have folks who claim that it’s “history” just illustrates how ingrained this thinking is.

    We just refuse to accept the harsh reality that 260,000 people in the south died – to defend the “right” to enslave other humans and to sell them, and take their sons and daughters from them and sell them all like they were livestock and then to put in textbooks that slaves admired and respected their “masters” and that’s just the start.

    For decades after, blacks were lynched and not allowed to vote, their houses burned, not allowed to attend public school, on and on and we still have folks talking about a “history” that is nothing like the truth.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Neither side gets the history right. Both sides abuse it for political gain. The memorials are mostly gone and soon will be totally gone, probably not even allowed to remain on battlefields or in cemeteries. This is about as useless an argument as you can imagine, and those seeking to defend the statues have picked a stupid hill upon which to die. This was all inevitable based on prior (and recent) bad acts like the Charleston church murders and the Charlottesville Nazi rally. I’ve always agreed with Lee that this veneration would be a baaaaad idea.

      When they are truly gone and forgotten and the underlying issues remain, maybe we can focus on what matters.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Some, not all of the memorials are now gone – decades later than they should have been.

        And we still have schools and roads and other public buildings and Army Camps still named for Confederates.

        I have ZERO problems with the statues going to a museum or a private memorial garden – but to say that removing them is removing history is in itself not true. You can’t “remove” history – but you can remove memorials to those who supported the enslavement of human beings, lynching them and gross discrimination against them for more than a hundred years.

      2. Bill O'Keefe Avatar
        Bill O’Keefe

        what about
        Edmund Burke’s admonition “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” ?

  6. AlongThePike Avatar

    Remember != Celebrate

    We can remember Lee without literally putting him on a pedestal.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Real students of military history will never forget. Unfortunately for our country, he had a gift for war. He faced the same long odds as his wife’s ancestor, old GW himself, and his own father and uncle (also generals), and damn near pulled it off.

      I hope somebody talks the Current Occupant out of vetoing the defense appropriations bill over the issue of base names. Same stupid hill to plant a flag on, and the same outcome will follow.

      1. He shouldn’t veto it for the sheer fact that the Million established for the renaming won’t even cover the letterhead change at a single post. If they were honestly serious about doing it and not merely pandering to a group they would have proposed $2.7 billion dollars. Roughly what it cost to change and move Walter Reed.

  7. novalad Avatar

    There are a few different but generally workable models for how to nudge historical memory in the right direction; none of them tend to involve wholesale replacement of statuary or demands for for public, vocal self-abasement by folks hewing to a significant regional culture.

    Rwanda’s take on historical memory — an emphasis on bilateral reconciliation — has been markedly effective; it’s a totally different country than it was 20 years ago. It’s also a country largely run with an iron fist by Tutsi elites — the group that suffered the most relative to its population size — yet recriminations have been effectively absent since Kagame came to power.

    In the former GDR, many Stasi officers still get their pensions. Nobody much cares.

    And in the ’30s, here in the States — when faced with the greatest exogenous threat the US had seen to date — Roosevelt launched a project of national renewal that obtained meaningful buy-in from every interest group out there, arguably succeeding in its goal. Why? Because everyone, aside from a few reactionaries like Gen. Butler & Co., recognized that 1) this was a struggle of national importance, and 2) there was something in it for them specifically. By the way, check out how many Civil War memorials were stood up in the 30s and 40s by the Feds through WPA and similar instruments.

    You can secure national unity by giving everyone skin in the game, but the second you start asking, “Well, what about *them*…”, you lose the plot. If we can’t come up with a workable framework through which to honor the length and breadth of our history — or otherwise let each group honor their chosen narrative in a way that doesn’t loom and leer over their fellow Americans — the cycle of vitriol and recrimination will continue apace. Let’s aim to be Germany circa-2000, not Ukraine in 2014.

    2020 in the abstract is a rare opportunity to embark on such a project, but few with authority want to address real, broad material deprivation or questions of unity. The left’s response has so far been to lick their lips and press the advantage. The right is slavishly grafted to Trump, or is otherwise battening down the hatches.
    Unless something shifts, I’m tempted to hatch up myself.

    In short, the attitude should be, “Hey friend — let’s help you honor this on your own time,” not (at best) “Hey bud, truck that **** somewhere else.”

  8. Jim Loving Avatar
    Jim Loving

    Given that secession is not mentioned in the Constitution, and that there was (and is) no legally agreed upon means to do so, it is doubtful that the 11 states attempt at secession could have been accomplished peacefully, given the use of slavery in the southern economy, the inter-state commerce between the states, and the likelihood of continued vying and competition for the western territories (See Missouri Compromise) as either free or slave states.

    And, since the South decided to fire on Fort Sumter and begin the war, we will never know if the secession could have been accomplished peacefully. I think looking back, it is certainly best that there was no peaceful secession and CSA that flourished with slavery central to its economy.

    I think War was the only way to end the institution of slavery as it existed, and then the continuation of the white supremacy policies (Jim Crow and Segregation) that continued for 100 years until the 1960s Civil Rights laws were passed, shows that it had to happen – it was the policy that the founders compromised on from the beginning, kicking the can down the road. It was a big kick, but without it, there would have been no Union, no United States of America that would have included the southern states.

    So, if you leave a union that everyone agreed to join, and fire on the nation’s army and gear up for war to defend your economic system of slavery, then I think the case can be made for sedition and treason, but understand why not pursued – the nation accepted this stain of slavery from the beginning, and paid that price in the war that logically followed.

  9. Bill O'Keefe Avatar
    Bill O’Keefe

    Many of these comments miss the main point of my argument. It is not whether statues stay or go. It is the effort to rewrite history. Again, I quote the late John Lewis, ” we must tell our story fully rather than hide the chapters that we wish did not exist. The VCU commemorations like the statue of Robert E Lee tell a story, a sad one but still a story. Symbols are one way of how we learn. Germany has left Auschwitz standing for that purpose and it tell a dramatic and painful one.
    Dismissing Robert E Lee as the same as Benedict Arnold shows a lack of understanding of history and respect for a man who displayed many admirable qualities among his flaws. Read President Eisenhower’s complete letter. It is easy to access on the internet.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead V

      The Eisenhower letter is indeed a good one. Churchill, Gerard Ford, George Marshall, and both Roosevelts have also given admirable speeches that capture the best of the Robert E. Lee story.

  10. Bill O'Keefe Avatar
    Bill O’Keefe

    When I read many of the distortions I am reminded of two quotes–one by Daniel Patrick Moynihan; the other by Mark Twain.
    We are all entitled to our own opinions, just not our own facts and I am not troubled by all the things that you don’t know, just all the things you know that just ain’t so.

  11. Mary Nichols Avatar
    Mary Nichols

    “Symbols are one way of how we learn. Germany has left Auschwitz standing for that purpose and it tell a dramatic and painful one.”

    First of all Mr O’Keefe, Auschwitz is in Poland, not Germany. But you are right that the Germans have left Dachau standing as a museum so future generations can learn about the Holocaust. However, what you will NOT find in Germany is a big old statue of Hitler or any of the other Nazi leaders standing around for people to admire.
    The confederate memorials in this country were put there to intimidate the former slaves and their descendants and not teach any history lesson. And anyone who thinks the statues testify to the truth about the war is either oblivious or a liar. History has already been erased by the south in their teachings about the Civil War. The other part of history that has been erased is the contributions made to this country by non whites and women. Taking down statues to traitors will not erase history but correct the very wrong picture of the Confederacy too many people in this country have been taught.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Yep. My impression is that Mr. O’Keefe clearly does not understand …or want to understand… He just blithely thinks what he thinks. He’s not alone.

  12. Bill O'Keefe Avatar
    Bill O’Keefe

    You are correct, I misspoke about the location of Auschwitz but that was not the point. It is that Auschwitz is a powerful reminder of inhumanity.
    I am sure that you are partially right about statues being symbols of intimidation but making a blanket statement guarantees that you are wrong. The statue of Stonewall Jackson on the VMI campus was created in 1869 while the one of Lee on Monument Avenue was planned in 1870. And I never said that they testify to the truth about the war. You are making up points to justify your views. Further, Lee was not a traitor or guilty of treason. You would know that if you actually studied history.
    I believe in telling the whole story as accurately as possible.
    As for the comments by LarrytheG, their emptiness speaks for itself.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Why was Lee pardoned?

      And what would you say about statues and memorials that were sponsored and supported by the United Daughters of the Confederacy?

      I still think you are living in a bubble on this.

      You believe what you want to believe regardless of facts.

      History is never erased. Memorials to historical figures is not history – they’re memorials that represent SOME peoples feelings but in the case of the Civil War – they totally disregard the feelings of an entire race of people.

      How do we justify that?

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