Heather Heyer, who was ridden down in Charlottesville, Virginia by a white supremacist, became a martyr for those who were protesting Confederate statues as an affront to civil rights and our plural society. Afterward, the tone-deaf Donald Trump offered salve to alt-right racists, lamenting the loss of the statues and tweeting, “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” It was a statement born of historical ignorance.
In the first instance, facts of our past may not change, but our historical view of them changes all the time. For example, we no longer see Native Americans as “bloodthirsty savages.” In the second instance, history is human behavior written large, and we are far more likely, as a species, to repeat our behavior than to learn from it and shift its trajectory. Today’s anti-immigrant sentiment, propped by fear of Islamic terrorism, mirrors the No-Nothings of the 19th century and the anti-immigrant feelings that previously turned against the Irish and the Chinese. Our “America First” mentality mirrors our post-World War I nativist isolationism. In short, we are who we are.
As historians, we may believe that we help people “learn from their mistakes.” In fact, we are as guilty as anyone in accepting that “you can’t change history.” We often accept a particular version of history or portrayal of historical figures and call it done. History is so over. Then it takes heaven and earth to persuade historians, let alone the public, that the historical figure or event is not simply a cardboard cutout.
Let’s start with Robert E. Lee, since his statue was the focus in Charlottesville. The media characterized him as a Confederate general, which, of course, he was. But did any prominent historian, in that politically and socially charged atmosphere, challenge how shallow that characterization is?
Lee was one of the brightest military men in the United States Army. As an engineer, it was Lee who worked out the successful strategy in the victory at Cerro Gordo and opened the path for Winfield Scott’s invading army in Mexico. It was Lee who reconnoitered the volcanic field known as the Pedregal at night and found the safest path to Mexico City. It was Lee, serving the United States, who captured John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and it was Lee whom Abraham Lincoln asked to lead the Union Army at a time when states were considered by many to be sovereign. After the Civil War, Lee served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and was a voice of reason and peace and personally opposed Confederate monuments, writing in 1869 that it was best “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.” That Robert E. Lee is pigeon-holed as a Confederate general alone marginalizes his vast contributions to the America he served.
None of that is to say that the statue protests were not correct. We don’t memorialize nations we have fought in war, nor do we pay homage to swastikas or iron crosses or rising sun flags or other emblems of defeated foes. That does not make them any less a part of our history. Just so, we have no business creating monuments to the Confederate States of America, a country that no longer exists, but we should never forget the great schism that helped forge our nation and made us recognize that the United States IS rather than ARE.
What is missing from America’s collective consciousness – and what must be provided by historians of all stripes – is an appreciation for context. As a working historian, I find that we bury our true history under a blanket of myth. We “change” history to suit the memory we choose to memorialize. So we remember Patrick Henry as a Patriot (“Give me liberty or give me death”) – and forget that he neither signed the Declaration of Independence nor supported the Constitution. We remember Susan B. Anthony as the preeminent beacon of feminine freedom – and forget that she engineered a “midnight massacre” that wedded the women’s movement to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and excluded strong voices, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, who viewed the church as the greatest foe of women’s liberty. We hallow the memory of Rosa Parks but forget that she was not by any means the first black woman in Montgomery to refuse to surrender her bus seat. It is just as easy to portray historical losers as cardboard cutouts. Iconic “bad guys,” like iconic heroes, become cartoons. Thus the Tory sympathizers of the Revolution were simply the enemy, the antebellum South was composed of amoral racists, and Americans who supported Sen. Joseph McCarthy were all fear mongerers.
It is incumbent on us to let history bloom instead of nipping it in the bud. We should not make monuments our aim nor see either heroes or demons in isolation. Heather Heyer has already been lost in the talk of America’s racist heritage and Trump’s two cents. Behind her protest is the understanding that America is bigger and more diverse than our monuments and memory recognize. Let her legacy be our rededication to seeing history through a wider lens than what we have used. It may lead us to the higher ground that comes with seeing our history and heritage, as we would each other, in their true colors.
Craig P. Howard is a veteran journalist and history teacher. He is the author of Hard Rivers: The Untold Saga of La Salle: Expedition II (River Grove Books, 2016), and he is working with a colleague to re-examine, in context, the work of the Sieur de La Salle in America.