Harold Holzer: How should the country mark the sesquicentennial?
Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation
Frankly, it may never again be possible to unite Americans around any all-embracing national observance. But even in the face of enervating indifference fueled by dwindling history education, by the substitution of hand-held-device isolation for mass participation, and perhaps, ironically, by our ever-broadening diversity, the Civil War still represents a unique and priceless opportunity for reflection. Having botched the healing opportunity presented by the Civil War Centennial 50 years ago -- even if it did imbue white pre-teens like me with a lifelong passion for the subject -- we have a precious new chance to explore what truly divided us then, and what can better unite us now. We have a chance to learn (at last) how far we have come on the road to true democracy, and how much farther we have to go.
The Civil War is what made this country what it is. It was the dividing line between the inhumane system of slavery that made a mockery of our own Declaration of Independence, and the first steps toward freedom and equality. It replaced the coalition of original, self-interested states with a true and powerful nation. It transformed a government traditionally run by Congress to one dominated by presidential authority.
For all the “romance” of the Civil War -- the brother-against-brother conflicts, the demise of Southern aristocracy -- we need to remember that this was fundamentally a brutal war over a brutal institution -- slavery -- and if we focus on this truth and reflect on it, we will be doing a service not just to the past but to the future.
We’ve already seen some missteps along the way. Recently, the Governor of Virginia ill-advisedly issued a Confederate Heritage Month proclamation without referring to slavery (he apologized). A Virginia grade school textbook claimed that masses of African Americans fought willingly for the Confederacy -- a “fact” the author admitted she got from a “Confederate Memory” website (the board says its teachers will ask students not to read the ridiculous passage!). A Texas school board ruled that Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address could not be taught without granting equal time to Jefferson Davis’ -- a decision that not only showed idiotic literary judgment, but tacitly acknowledged the legitimacy of secession and rebellion.
How to separate fact from fiction? The fact that Congress neglected to establish a national Civil War Sesquicentennial commission has endangered this anniversary unimaginably. We are now at the mercy of extremist and localized remembrance that seeks to redefine and redirect public memory. The responsibility falls on historians to keep the record straight, and to do so in engaging and accessible manner. For that reason alone, this anniversary is worth observing -- and this newspaper is helping to keep it in focus.
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| November 15, 2010; 2:42 PM ET
Categories: Views | Tags: Harold Holzer
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