History 17B Lecture 1 What is History? Page 4

C.  Building the Memorial:  Savior of the Union

Lincoln as a national unifier was the guiding theme for the design of the Lincoln Memorial, constructed between 1912 and 1921.  Even its Potomac River site opposite Robert E. Lee's former Virginia home bespoke sectional reunion.  The final design would feature an exterior with a single message, with columns and festoons embodying the states as a symbol of union.

The inscription inside reads:  "In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."  Commentators at the time applauded the fact that the Memorial made no mention of slavery - which only would have rubbed old sores.  Only one speaker of many at the commemoration ceremony referred to Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.  All others stressed the saving of the Union. Lincl_mem.JPG (40825 bytes)

Lincoln as the Great Emancipator

How did our historical interpretation of Lincoln change?  As the century progressed and black Americans fought for civil rights, historians and politicians reshaped the mythological image of Lincoln.  Today in America we are more sensitive to the issues of race than we ever were, and the symbol of Lincoln as emancipator gained currency.  Today, we equate Lincoln mostly with the freeing of the slaves rather than the saving of the Union.  Ironically we still shroud Lincoln in myth.  In fact, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 less out of any great passion to free the slaves (though he did abhor slavery) and more as a military tactic to put pressure on the South by possibly instigating a slave rebellion (or at least the fear of one in the minds of Southern whites.)

SlaveFamily.JPG (38607 bytes) My point in all of this is to show you that history written today is affected by the events and beliefs of today.  For example, prior to the mid-1950s, historians described slavery as either a necessary evil of the times or a benevolent institution which served to civilize black-Africans.  At the foundation of this interpretation was a belief in white superiority. 

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With the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, however, historical interpretations of slavery largely turned to its brutality and moral injustice.  No serious historian today would argue that slavery served any beneficial good.  Likewise, historians today argue that Reconstruction was a tragedy - but for Southern blacks, not whites.  The promise initially held out of equal rights for African Americans was dashed by racism in both the North and South.

E.  Sum-up:  An Interpretation without end

So - what is history?  It is an interpretation without end - always subject to reinterpretation based on new evidence and new ways at looking at the past.  That doesn't mean that history is whatever you make it.  There is still a difference between "good" history and "bad" or "incorrect" history.  Hitler tried to use history to justify German domination of Europe and the extermination of the Jews, but his analysis of history was obviously faulty.  Good history is determined by good and solid evidence to support an argument.

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