The nexus between history and politics–the tradition of a singular, shared culture and heritage

From John Hennessy:

To give you a sense of how intertwined culture, tradition, and politics have become, let me tell you a story.

About a year ago I gave a program to a group about slavery and the Civil War in Fredericksburg. It was strictly history—a pretty serious and wide-ranging conversation about slavery, secession, and war. Everyone seemed open to what I was saying; no one fled the room in a fit.

At the end I decided to ask the group a question, insisting that everyone there (about 55 people I’d guess) give an answer by show of hands.

“Who to you think I voted for 2008?”

The vast majority of the people guessed that I voted for Barack Obama.

Think about that. Because of the nature of a discussion about events 150 years ago, people presumed a political bent–that a particular perspective on history is somehow related to a political inclination or philosophy today.  Can there be more vivid evidence of the degree to which Civil War History and our own culture are bound together?  But why?

I have often heard, and reflected on, the dismissal of solidly documented, just history as “politically correct”–the implication that by conveying history in accordance with scholarship rather than tradition that we are somehow party to a political agenda.  Pure devotion to the traditional role of sites as memorials  and nothing more necessarily commands us to narrow the scope of our historical inquiry–to limit ourselves only to those things that support that narrowed, commemorative mission. Jerry Russell, the late, heroic battlefield preservationist and perhaps the greatest of all advocates of the continued and singular view of battlefields as memorials, felt strongly that that’s exactly what we should do.  His rationale rested on his belief (shared by many) that the nation needs a single heritage, a single national memory:  “This nation’s future and survival rests upon all Americans having a shared experience, a shared understanding of American history, a shared language, and a shared culture–a culture that unites us, not one which divides us.” One version. A common understanding.  A single memory.

But the obvious question: whose memory becomes The One? White Southerners? Northern abolitionists? Slaves? The women North and South who jumped into industrial jobs?

As it relates to the Civil War, Jerry Russell’s wish for a singular, uncontested memory was an American reality for probably a century.  I would suggest that it is this tradition (and for some, aspiration) of a single, common heritage that is at the rub of our profession: to some eyes, the Civil War is the last bastion of the American tradition of a single, uncontested heritage.  Which explains why, when that singular tradition is threatened by more expansive, challenging scholarship, people argue so passionately in defense of tradition, and why what we do is assumes in some eyes a hue of politics.

4 thoughts on “The nexus between history and politics–the tradition of a singular, shared culture and heritage

  1. In some ways I sympathize with those who wish for a shared understanding of American history. However, the more history I read (particularly that of the Civil War), I am convinced that the “singular uncontested memory” that held sway for so long was itself the product of a “particular perspective on (Civil War) history,” and that the fact that it is seen as sacrosanct today has more to do with its longevity than to its accuracy or objectivity.

    In the end, I would be content if we reached a shared understanding of the Civil War’s importance and then go from there.

  2. John,
    Jerry and his type are products of an education system that teaches American history as a feel-good march of progress. Any blemish in the past is overtaken by an evolving effort to reach a more perfect union. Very comforting, but easily upset by fact. I would argue that this mind set is not limited to the Civil War. Instead, it applies to any period in which people have an interest – whether “winning” the West, the “good” war known as World War !!, and even the way in which Vietnam is remembered by veterans and non-veterans alike. It is the triumph of sentimentalism over fact and even historians succumb to it on occasion. As an example, we used to believe that the CW ended slavery, but coerced labor characterized much of the South well into the twentieth century. How inconvenient.

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