History is a contested battlefield in which one needs to marshal evidence, documentation and sound logic to convince others of the merits of one’s views.
Facts matter, but those selected and omitted, as well as how they are interpreted, lead to different conclusions. One of the first lessons history professors share with their students is how dramatically an understanding of the past can change from one generation to the next. Students are astounded by what previous generations viewed as historical truth.
Consider, for example, the Dunning School of history, named for the Columbia University professor William A. Dunning, whose work on Reconstruction was the gold standard for the first 30 years of the 20th century. Dunning and his disciples viewed Black Americans as genetically inferior and unworthy of suffrage or political office. “The negroes exercised an influence in political affairs,” Dunning wrote in The Atlantic in 1901 “out of all relation to their intelligence or property.” Subsequent generations of historians would, through meticulous documentation, citation and argumentation, illustrate the fallacy of these interpretations. A new consensus was born that viewed the political equality of Black Americans as one of the noblest dimensions of Reconstruction.
The history of monuments is similar in that each one tells a particular story about the past that often reflects the political moment in which they were created. Each generation and region erects monuments that aim to convey the values, ideas, and interpretations of their particular culture. Those who hold power and resources get to tell their version of the past. Take the case of the Robert E. Lee monument constructed in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the height of the Dunning School in 1924. For many white southerners, the Lee monument stood as a symbol of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. For Black citizens, the statue served as a reminder of their subordinate status. Monuments, like history books, are not fixed truths, but rather claims about the meaning of the past. These, too, can be contested.
What, then, to make of President Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech in which he claimed that “our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, define our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” As is often the case, Trump takes a kernel of truth and injects it with hyperbole and vitriol. No doubt, there is a cultural war afoot about what lessons and ideals Americans want their monuments to teach them about the past.
But it is the president’s use of the word “our” that signifies his intent.
His is not a pluralistic view of history but rather a kind of fantastical, mythical version that worships flawless white men. When historians, political commentators or ordinary citizens call that into question, Trump responds that “they want to silence us, but we will not be silenced.” It doesn’t take a doctorate in history or cultural studies to determine what he means by “us” or “they.”
The president’s speech manipulated the legacy of fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln, whom he commended for “winning the Civil War, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and abolishing slavery.” Trump’s convoluted logic would lead one to believe that President Lincoln would be appalled by the “angry mob” attacking Confederate statues because it somehow betrayed the spirit of the Civil War. That’s quite an interpretative leap.
Trump also argued that Lincoln’s desire to “preserve the nation and our union cost him his life.” This, too, is misleading. John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln because of emancipation and the president’s overtures towards black equality. Lincoln lost his life not because he sought to preserve the union but because Wilkes preferred that it remained divided over race and region. Trump may soon find that his efforts to split the nation and ignore renewed calls for equality will cost him his re-election.
Andrew Darien is chair and professor of history at Salem State University.