Yale historian David Blight has been in the news lately. Even he is surprised about the frequency of his cable news appearances. His increased visibility derives from two related by difference sources: The Lost Cause and Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. In general terms, his expertise as an historian in the Reconstruction is what draws attention. But he muses at times about the need to be a lawyer, too. Either way, his “15 minutes in the sun” attests various adages about history not being dead and not in the past. There is a battle raging to control the past so those who call for the cutbacks or dissolution of history departments at the college and/graduate school level may wish to reconsider. For that matter the same applies to history in k-12 as well.
EUROPE IN 1989, AMERICA IN 2020, AND THE DEATH OF THE LOST CAUSE
This article from the New Yorker dated July 1, 2020, provides a snap shot into Blight’s thinking a little less than four years ago. The article begins with a vignette about his fallen Berlin Wall souvenir and the watching of Confederate monuments in the United States likewise being reduced to pieces. He calls those monuments “public vestiges of the Lost Cause tradition.” He raises the possibility that the summer of 2020 like autumn of 1989 “could mark the death of a specific vision on history.”
Blight advises caution: don’t celebrate too much. “The Lost Cause is one of the most deeply ingrained mythologies in American history.” He calls it a twisted version of history encouraging the revitalization of a vast system of oppression that can poison a civil society.
Some myths are benign as cultural markers. Others are rooted in lies so beguiling, so powerful as engines of resentment and political mobilization, that they can fill parade grounds in Nuremberg, or streets in Charlottesville, or rallies across the country.
The Lost Cause was bot about the preservation of slavery. The Confederacy was never truly defeated on the battlefields of glory. The Confederacy stood for civilization “in which both races thrived in their best ‘natural’ capacities.” Robert E. Lee was transformed into a godlike Christian leader and genius tactician who could only be defeated by overwhelming odds.
Blight goes to describe the ongoing development of the Lost Cause. There were:
The United Daughters of the Confederacy
The United Confederate Association
Ku Klux Klan
Monuments mushroomed across the Confederacy. Every town center and city square had one. The names of Confederate heroes adorned schools, streets, and parks. The Lost Cause had become a victory narrative where the South shall rise again.
Blight cites Jefferson Davis, the “ultimate sick soul.” Drawing on the 1279 memoir of Davis, Blight reports of some of the staples of the Lost Cause. Slavery was not the cause of the war. In fact slavery had been good for Africans where slavery already existed. Now they had been “’trained in the gentle arts of peace and order.’” They had “advanced from ‘unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers.’”
Blight chooses to end the article optimistically:
But if this is to be our 1989, we must make the most of it. The whole world may be watching.
One might add, we are a city on a hill and the eyes of the world are upon us as the last best hope of earth.
CONFEDERATE MEMORIAL DAY
Confederate Memorial Day, as the name suggests, is a holiday dedicated Confederates. In an article entitled “Engaging Toxic Nostalgia on Confederate Memorial Day” (History News Network, May 7, 2023), a somewhat shell shocked, Richard Brown PhD, senior executive editor for Religion at Rowman & Littlefield, described his close encounter of the third kind with Confederate Memorial Day.
Up ahead on the steps were clusters of Confederate Army reenactors, some wielding period rifles band nearby was blowing Dixie, and an unfurled battle flag of the Confederate States of America, roughly forty by sixty feet, was draped on the steps of the gold-domed Capitol building. We stopped at the traffic light on Gervais Street, next to a group of Black protesters. When the light changed, I turned to my daughter. She had witnessed Southern iconography during her college years in Richmond, living near Monument Avenue with its oversized statues of Confederate heroes, now vanquished. But even she was shell-shocked.
As Brown reports, Confederate Memorial Day continues to be a legal holiday in the state of South Carolina. Observed on May 10, it marks the anniversary of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s death in 1863. With the passage of Act 80 in 1896, South Carolina recognized two legal holidays: May 10 for Stonewall Jackson, and January 19 for the birthday of Robert E. Lee. Every April, state offices in Mississippi and Alabama also shut down for their Confederate Memorial Days. Legislators and advocates in all three states trumpet “Heritage, Not Hate.”
For those of us who have a visceral objection to Confederate Memorial Day—who are appalled at not only commemorating but celebrating an economic and social system that oppressed a race for over two centuries—how should we engage a worldview that doesn’t see the harm of such celebrations, or that embraces the mythology of the Lost Cause?
“TRUMP’S ‘LOST CAUSE,’ A KIND OF GANGSTER CULT, WON’T GO AWAY” (LA Times, January 14, 2024)
Blight returned to the Lost Cause this year, this time in reference to Trump’s failed attempt to steal the election. In his description of the failed insurrection of January 6, Blight writes about the event:
For the next four to five hours, in the most recorded event in American history, the world watched as a new “lost cause” was born in violence and spectacular lies.
Blight writes that there have been three lost causes in modern history,
1. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy
2. Following their bloody defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the French exhibited an intergenerational cultural need to avenge the loss. [Blight did not mention the Dreyfus Trial decades later.]
3. “Then, following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the Nazis gained traction by blaming Jews and leftists, who were depicted as ‘poisons’ in the blood of the body politic [a term Trump has now brought back when speaking of vermin immigrants.]
In a letter to The Atlantic (March 2023), Peter V Huisking writes:
Germans didn’t avoid their own “Lost Cause” movement by accident. At the end of World War II, the Allies set policies to ensure that there would be no tolerance for anything memorializing German military traditions or the Nazi Party. …
This established an environment that required the defeated Germany to face responsibility for what happened. The defeated American South never faced such a reckoning, and we still live with consequences.
Neither Confederates nor MAGAs have had to face such a reckoning.
Blight compares our “lost cause” today to a gangster cult. It is still early in the process. For example, eventually a parade of Republican witnesses will testify against him in criminal cases for his actions in instigating this failed insurrection attempt. But will the latest lost cause survive Trump?
Lost causes can turn lies into common coin and forge deep and lasting myths. We are a long way from knowing how much staying power the Trumpian “lost cause” will have, regardless of whether he survives his criminal charges and the election campaign. What we do know is that we have already witnessed its formative years.
There is a lot riding on the presidential election this year. If Trump loses again despite voter suppression and against someone who was practically at death’s bed last time, the repercussions could be violent. On the other hand, Biden controls the military and police forces in the Capital, he knows Nikki Haley from Nancy Pelosi, the MAGA forces may be willing to talk the talk but not so much to walk the walk this time. They have seen what has happened to the people who participated in the failed attempt last time. They will see the unleashing of civil and criminal cases which have been delayed until after the election. They will have seen that the world has not come to an end in brutal carnage despite Trump’s wishful thinking.
And perhaps, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, they will be ready to get on with their lives especially if MAGA candidates don’t do so well again. Instead of a ongoing lost cause, we should also think about post-trumphatic stress disorder and how to treat scammed people who want to return to Earth 1. On the other hand, Trump could win and the Stolen Election will be enshrined in American history.