Recent events in the United States have seen its southern states grapple with their slave-owning past, and attempt to move beyond it. This kind of change is not an easy one, and it hasn’t been simple. It has been an ongoing process, marked with threats of violence amid protests.
White supremacists have been up in arms as they try to prevent the removal of Confederate statues. Neo-nazis, like Richard Spencer, claim cities are whitewashing history, replacing white achievments, and erasing their heritage.
These statues are connected to the US Civil War, which the Confederates fought to maintain the right to own other human beings as property. It has become increasingly popular to muddy the waters, and revise history after the fact. So much so, that white nationalists try to claim the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. This attack on what is “true” is a symptom of the larger problem in current politics, and its “alternate facts” and “fake news”. In order to combat this willful ignorance, facts need to be presented.
This questioning of reality, and the verification of historical events, should be a call for historians to step in.
The Civil War was indeed about slavery, and the subjugation of blacks, and the vice president of the Confederate states stated as much in his Cornerstone Speech. I will now quote excerpts given by Alexander Stephens (the aforementioned vice president):
…The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…
…Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition...
…Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system…
I have also heard claims these statues and monuments have nothing to do with white supremacy, and are there to commemorate Southern heritage. Again, these arguments are not supported by facts:
This is remarkably similar to arguments over flying the Confederate Battle Flag (or Rebel Flag). Many claim it is part of their heritage, and has nothing to do with slavery, or white supremacy. Again, facts do not back this up.
The design for what became the Confederate flag, certainly the one most are accustomed with, was promoted by William Tappan Thompson. Here are his own words concerning the design:
-As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.
-Such a flag would be a suitable emblem of our young confederacy, and sustained by the brave hearts and strong arms of the south, it would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.
-As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism. Another merit in the new flag is, that it bears no resemblance to the now infamous banner of the Yankee vandals.
So are these symbols divorced from slavery? Obviously not. The statues and flags cannot be so easily removed from the more unsavoury aspects of the United States’ history. They commemorate a war that was fought to allow the enslavement of an entire race. Revisionist amateur historians may say otherwise, but facts are not on their side. Monuments like the ones being removed glorify that past. Removing them isn’t an attempt to forget history; it’s a statement. History should be remembered, but aspects of it shouldn’t be glorified.
These monuments and statues should be placed in museums, where their white nationalist ideologies can be trounced. That way history is properly remembered, and public land isn’t being used to glorify those who fought for slavery. It may be difficult to come to terms with past generations’ actions, but those actions should not be forgotten, or misremembered.
This post has thus far focused on what is happening in the United States, but Canada also has a troubling history of commemorating events that are unworthy of 21st century adulation. We also have our own statues in cities that mark events which run counter to our own supposed values.
The above photo is from Ottawa, and depicts a statue commemorating those who died in the Second Boer War (or the South African War). You will often find this part of Canadian history in museums and textbooks, even if it is overlooked by the War of 1812, and the First World War. It’s usually noted as Canada’s first major international conflict since becoming a country, and we fought with distinction. This is your typical history book stuff, and as such, it leaves out certain facts. Facts that run counter to our alleged national identity, and how Canadians see themselves in a 21st century world.
Canadian volunteers went overseas in a war effort to bolster imperial British aggression. It was an act of violent colonialism, and it was protested as such at the time. Canadians did not fight for their rights, or to protect Canada. They fought for subjugation and British dominance. The Second Boer War (often called “the Boer War” in Canada) also has the unpleasant distinction for its use of concentration camps, and its imprisonment of non-combatant women and children (a tactic later employed by the Nazis in World War 2, as well as Canada in its Japanese internment camps). The political landscape of the country was affected by its end, and helped usher in South Africa’s infamous Apartheid system (a system Canada also had a hand in creating, as the reserves for our Indigenous population, were used as a template).
Statues like the one in Ottawa glorify this kind of revisionist history by leaving out key elements. If they are to remain, they need a companion piece that explains the uncomfortable aspects of our involvement. This kind of introspective context is necessary, so we can reflect on our actions, and ensure past mistakes aren’t repeated.
This falls upon those who teach history, as they are directly responsible for what they choose to present their students. Leaving out particular facts to better reinforce a narrative is a disservice to students and their abilities to think critically.