History, Types I and II

They tied a body bag around Cyrus Hall McCormick. The next day, I discovered what they were doing to this bronze campus statue of one of our biggest donors. They were catalyzing the greenish patina back to its original bronze glow.

McCormackMany visitors to Washington & Lee mistake this statue, at a distance, for Robert E. Lee. There is a certain sameness to the look of Prominent Men of the 19th century – the beard, hair flying out at the ears, a chest thrust out like a Pouter pigeon’s from an unbuttoned topcoat, a large Roman nose. The visitors who come looking for Lee’s crypt in Lee Chapel, and their misreading this statue, or confusing my Episcopal church, R.E. Lee Memorial, for Lee Chapel – all this makes me think of the difference between popular history and the history that historians claim. It’s the difference between public celebrations of history and what we mean when we say the “History Division” of the AEJMC.

I would refine that and say there are actually three kinds of history. There’s popular history. Then there is what historians say happened – with younger historians always coming up with new interpretations as time throws new light and shadows, new evidence and loss of artifacts over the significant past. Then, thirdly, there’s what actually happened, an epistemic abstraction that will always elude us.

There’s a brass plaque in the entryway of my building, installed by Sigma Delta Chi 44 years ago on the very day I write this, recognizing that W&L was where “professional education for journalism began.” It was not so much education “in” or “for” journalism, but a liberal arts education and scholarships “for” poor printers, to educate them as future newspaper editors. “Initiated by General Robert E. Lee, then President of Washington College, courses designated to prepare newspapermen for positions of leadership in a defeated South were taught from 1869 to 1878, the first formal instruction in journalism in the history of education.” A local newspaper editor was designated as an instructor in “typography,” and was to put the press-scholarship lads to work in his print shop for an hour each day.

You might say it was not really “professional” education either, in that the rise of a profession of journalism came later, culminating in schools of journalism that began at the University of Missouri in 1908 (see the wonderful chapters collected in Journalism 1908: Birth of a Profession, Betty Houchin Winfield, ed.). Leading editors of the day, including Frederick Hudson of the New York Herald and E.L. Godkin of the New York Evening Post, scoffed at Lee’s idea that journalism could be taught in college.

Lee is an interesting figure of public history. Whatever role he may have played in initiating journalism education, after he died in 1870, his role as a symbol of an honorable-though-defeated white South was confiscated by a powerful ideology. Over the next seven decades, Southern leaders of both high and low station appropriated Lee as a saintly icon of state’s rights and Southern identity. Today, looking back as historians, we see these as codes for the South’s racial apartheid and white supremacy.

Lee as icon was not abused as brazenly as was the Confederate battle flag, waved by a revived KKK and Southern resisters in the 1950s. But as University of Georgia historian James C. Cobb said in his Founder’s Day lecture at W&L earlier this year, Lee became part of a public history, what Robert Penn Warren called the big myths we live by, and in our own living, constantly remake. “Silenced by death,” Cobb said, “Lee could not protest.” Lee had accepted blame for losing at Gettysburg, but after Appomattox, remained silent about the war (and refused to give interviews to journalists). Cobb said this was to turn people’s attention from the war and toward the future. But that didn’t stop those who would not only erect monuments to him, “but actually make a monument of him.”

President Eisenhower hung a portrait of Lee in the White House as one of his military heroes. At W&L, where historical flags of the Confederacy last year were removed from around Lee’s recumbent statue in Lee Chapel for display in the museum below, it is “Mr. Lee” the reconciler and education reformer who is honored today. Still, the contested meanings of public history are gusting strong around Lee. Students who had won a Robert E. Lee Research grants for summer research found it helped in job and grad-school applications to remove that from their résumés, and the university has since changed the name of that grant.

And how about R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church, where he was a devout worshipper and senior warden when it was called Grace Church here in Lexington? “I thought Episcopal churches named for people all took the name of saints,” visitors would say, and the joke was that locals would respond, “Yes, and what’s your point?”

But the name of the leading rebel general who fought to preserve a system that accommodated slavery is not one that well represents the Christian gospel. Not today. I recently invited our director of Special Collections to look at a 1906 engraving of General Lee hanging in the parish house, with a Confederate flag and a W&L flag crossed underneath. I asked, Could we swap that with a reproduction of a Michael Miley photograph of “Mr.” Lee in civilian clothes? He thinks this might be done.

It’s a small thing, against the great ungovernable tides of public history and popular (or unpopular) symbols. But like that statue of Cyrus Hall McCormick (related to Joseph Medill, Col. Robert McCormick and Alicia Patterson), the symbols of our public history need to be occasionally worked on to recover something of their original nature.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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