In a speech one month ago, the first black president of the United States challenged millions of white Americans to resist the convenient allure of overlooking the country’s blemished moral record. It was a dual challenge, actually—first to the classical understanding of American exceptionalism, but also to America’s persistent critics, who abjure the concept of exceptionalism altogether.
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this?” President Barack Obama said. “What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
This was both a rejection of the fairytale America perpetuated by American conservatives, in which national virtue overwhelms sin, and a statement of faith in the country’s robust capacity for self-improvement. And he delivered it in Selma, Alabama—a Southern city whose folksy name evokes state-sanctioned, state-administered violence against black citizens—on the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Selma would be a perverse venue for celebrating the Jingo’s exceptional America, but it was the perfect backdrop for Obama’s more nuanced rendering: the convening point of the march to Montgomery, on a bridge named after Edmund Pettus—a vicious white supremacist, who committed treason against the United States as a Confederate general, and later terrorized former slaves as an Alabama Klansman and Democratic Senator.
In the self-critical America of Obama’s imagination, more people would know about the Edmund Pettus bridge and its namesake. The bridge itself wouldn’t necessarily be renamed after Martin Luther King or John Lewis or another civil rights hero; because it is synonymous with racist violence, the bridge should bear Pettus’s name eternally, with the explicit intent of linking the sins of the Confederacy to the sins of Jim Crow. But Obama’s America would also reject the romantic reimagining of the Civil War, and thus, the myriad totems to the Confederacy and its leaders that pockmark the South, most of which don’t share the Pettus bridge’s incidental association with the struggle for civil rights.
This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.
Two years ago, writing in The New York Times on the occasion of Memorial Day, Jamie Malanowski proposed recommemorating 10 Southern U.S. Army bases that bear the names of Confederate officers. These include both obscure fighters—like Edmund Rucker, who is commemorated more for his successes as a post-war industrialist than as a combatant—and extremely prominent warriors for the cause of slavery—like P. G. T. Beauregard, whose men fired the first shots at Fort Sumter; and A. P. Hill, who made an example of race mixers by parading hundreds of captured Union soldiers, black and white, through the taunting streets of Petersburg, Virginia. As Malanowski explained, all of the bases were built during the world-war mobilizations in the first half of the 20th century. The responsibility for naming them fell to people with antiquated racial views and blinkered memories of the Civil War itself.
It’s unfathomable that anyone today would attempt to name a new military installation, or rename an old one, after a Confederate general. But at the time these bases were named, there wasn’t nearly as much of a consensus behind the argument that the Confederates committed treason against the United States in support of a war for slavery.
That lack of consensus was an ineluctable consequence of concerted postbellum efforts to sand down the seams reuniting the states. There was a real but inadequate constituency for crushing the Southern establishment after the Civil War, and reintegrating the country under an entirely different paradigm. Instead, the North enabled the South by giving it unusual influence over shaping the official mythology of the war. Yes, the South surrendered. The states ratified the 13th Amendment. The Union survived. These facts couldn’t be altered. But memorializing the rebellion as a tragedy of circumstance, or a bravely fought battle of principle—those narratives were adopted in part for the unspoken purpose of making the reunion stick. “You lost, we won, and we’re all living in the USA,” Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall once wrote. “But we’ll let you win in the battle of memory and valor and nostalgia.”
People of good faith can argue over whether these kinds of symbolic concessions (as opposed to the concrete ones, which consigned emancipated slaves to a century of sanctioned depredations) were wise or necessary means to the end of preserving the Union. Some of them weren’t concessions at all, so much as insufficient commitment on the part of Northerners to the livelihood of blacks in the South. “[A]s Northern Republican Party became more conservative,” historian Eric Foner wrote recently, “Reconstruction came to be seen as a misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes of society.” But 150 years on, we know that subjugation is a moral obscenity, and that there’s no valid modern argument for spitshining the Confederacy.
Today, the South is home to innumerable counties, schools, and other monuments named in honor of Confederate men, or established to celebrate the Confederacy itself. The federal government can’t change that on its own, but it can refuse to participate in the celebration. It could rename these 10 army installations after Union fighters. It could remove monuments to the Confederacy (as opposed to museums and landmarks) from the National Register of Historic Places, and disclaim any obligation to finance their maintenance. It could stop producing headstones for Confederate graves—as Steven I. Weiss documented in The Atlantic, the feds process nearly 2,000 of these a year, at a cost of half a million dollars, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for maintaining more Confederate graves and monuments than Union ones. It could remove the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery and place it in the custody of the Smithsonian—or at least end the spectacle of the president of the United States bestowing it with a wreath every Memorial Day. We aren’t being polite to anyone worthy of politeness, or advancing any noble end, by continuing to honor traitors in this way.
We know from experience that there will be resistance to such efforts. Some critics will caution that singling out Confederate officers will give way to politically correct efforts to sideline other historically important Americans. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveowners. Shouldn’t we expiate their sins by banishment as well, starting with the $1 and $2 bills?
But figures like Washington and Jefferson fit comfortably within the framework of exceptionalism that Obama sketched in Selma, while supporters of secession do not. Obama’s telling of American history is one in which an establishment worthy of preservation is continually improved by righteous internal forces. You don’t need to be morally pristine to be immortalized in Obama’s America, but you can’t be on the side of forces that reject the establishment altogether when it advances incrementally toward its founding ideals. Likewise, those who would caution that a more accurate reckoning with the Confederacy would inflame racial tensions are merely restating the implication that the country is too weak to be introspective. If Obama’s expression of American exceptionalism is correct about anything, it’s that this kind of thinking has no merit.
By contrast, the Union’s victory, and the abolition of slavery, both merit celebration as exemplars of American improvement and renewal, even if many Unionists weren’t moral heroes. These twin accomplishments are as worthy of a federal holiday as any holiday we already celebrate. So let’s name April 9 New Birth of Freedom Day. And if that creates too much paid leave for government workers, we could swap out Columbus Day. We don’t yet live in the America Obama described, but we should strive to.
In a better America, we’d all have Thursday off. And there would be fireworks.