Ask the Historian #4 – Statues (Or “Forrest Rested Here”)

Every morning on my way into work in a small, beautiful Middle Tennessee town, I pass an official state historical marker that reads, “Forrest Rested Here.”  Nathan Bedford Forrest is venerated in large circles of the two-county span that constitutes my stomping ground.  Many times, I have contemplated this as I drive from the flat farming country of one county to the slightly mountainous terrain of the next. 

Why is he famous here? This, I reason, is because he was a native Tennessean, and he became world-famous as a cavalry commander during the Civil War.  But I feel there is something additional, something I haven’t quite put my finger on.  There is more to the feeling for Forrest here than pride.  I ponder this, too.

I know that Forrest is controversial.  As a child, I remember a battle over whether to remove a statue of Forrest from the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.  I later learned the reason for the storm swirling around his legacy: his troops were responsible for the slaughter of Federal African American troops who were attempting to surrender to Confederates at the Battle of Fort Pillow.  Historians differ on Forrest’s involvement, with beliefs ranging from Forrest giving the order to kill and actively participating, to Forrest being outside the gates and unaware of what was taking place, to Forrest giving the order for the massacre to be halted and doing everything in his power to stop it.  He is also widely believed to be a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan, with controversies existing over the level and purposes of his involvement in this, too.  I have not researched enough to give my own opinion, but needless to say, it crosses my mind that there are less controversial figures to note with a historical marker.  

Then I decided as part of my Civil War research to read a biography of every major military figure, North and South.  When I made it to Forrest, I thought maybe I could get some elucidation on the matter of the respect for him here.  I never expected to find such a direct answer.  

The two-county span that constitutes my home is rather unheard-of in the grand scheme of the Civil War.  It is usually left out of all mention of era histories.  Not so in a biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest. I was stunned to see the two county seats mentioned again and again, one of them in a very harrowing way.  

Federal (Union) troops moved through as they marched on toward a much larger city. In the smaller of the two towns, they rounded up every civilian (non-combatant) male in the town, arrested them, and took them nineteen miles away to the larger city, where they imprisoned them.  Given that most able-bodied men were in the army, these were mostly old men and little boys.

There is a quote of Forrest’s that when he arrived in the wake of this take-over scene, the women of the town were “buzzing like hornets.”  At first, I thought this was a sexist comment about “noisy” women.  And then I stopped and thought about how one would feel if the old men and little boys of one’s family were marched away and locked into jail by an invading army.  Buzzing probably isn’t a dramatic word.  This was a rounding up of civilian males reminiscent of Pharaoh, with the purpose being what—extermination?  It very nearly happened.

Forrest rode into town, apparently asking what the commotion was. Upon being told, he promised the women that the men would be back with them by nightfall the next day.  And they were.  That was the magic of Forrest for Middle Tennessee.  Desperation knocked; he found a solution.  His troops rode into the larger city, where they seized the town.  Seeing that the matter was hopeless, a Union soldier set fire to the building where the men and boys were imprisoned, in an attempt to burn them alive.  The fire was put out by Forrest’s troops, and he collected the men and boys and returned them home.

As I am reading this almost fantastical story, I think: Why don’t I know this?  And just like that, my mind travels back through the years, and I realize: I do know this.  I am taken to a summer when I was a small child, and my mom and I were in the larger city shopping.  A history teacher, she never let an opportunity pass for learning. She said, “Do you see that building?  All of the men of [the small town] were rounded up during the Civil War and imprisoned there.  They were held there until Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry released them.”  Just the simple historical facts, yet they stayed in my mind’s recesses all of those years.

And I realize: We all know this.  Whether every person knows the facts, this feeling has been handed down through local history just enough that it has left an impression.  It is not general glory-heaping on a famous person.  It is not worship of a cause or a controversial character because of something he came to symbolize.  This is personal.  He saved their men.  Nothing more, nothing less.

This seems profound, somehow.  I think of our current controversy over historical markers and statues and am deeply affected because I grasp all sides of the arguments and cannot think of perfect solutions.  For the life of me, I cannot formulate a succinct answer when someone asks me how I feel about removing statues.

Many see historical memorials as honoring the person or event, and certainly many of them were put up for that purpose.  I have seen certain statues and markers that put off a worshipful vibe and others that are more of just a general notation of history.  (If you read the words even of the Forrest marker, it is more of a notation.) Even that question—honor or notation—is riddled with pitfalls, and again I have no answers.

I tend to a slight revolutionary streak that sides with philosophers who say things like, “No generation has any right to bind the next to its precepts!”  And I think: if we want to take them down, the argument “they have to stay because they’ve always been there” is just not good enough. But then I think of the people who raised money in centuries or decades past, of the artists who crafted the monuments, of the cities who have come to think of them as part of their city signature, and I reserve judgment.

A lot of times, the argument for the side of keeping statues is that the commemoration goes beyond the person, and what he or she did, to a value that is worth upholding. An example of this would be a Thomas Jefferson statue representing not his personal record as a slaveholder, but the founding principles of the country that are sacred, such as self-government, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fear is that if we remove the statues, we no longer stand for those things.

However, there are deep feelings by those who look at certain statues and see instead a person, an event, or a cause that was harmful to their ancestors.  Of harm that still resonates today.  That still hurts today.  And lest you think anyone is immune from such feelings, picture your least favorite historical figure, then picture yourself standing in front of a statue of that person.  How would you feel?  For a test-drive, how about: Hitler? Mao Tse-tung?  Or what if your ancestors were killed by the Ku Klux Klan and you are standing in front of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose name is irrevocably tied to that organization?  Or a young man in my sister’s graduate class in South Carolina who recounted what it was like for his grandmother, whose ancestors had lost everything at the hands of General Sherman, to stand in front of his statue in New York City.  Or a Native American standing in front of a statue of one of the myriad generals who made war on your ancestors?  For these and others, it feels equivalent to standing in front of a statue to a murderer. 

I discussed feelings toward historical figures in a separate post, and I stand by the arguments made in that post. I am not speaking as to the personal character of any person in this post, but as to the separate issue of public historical commemoration, which has connotations outside of history itself. There is a feeling that statues send a message about what we value and don’t value, as well as about the legacy we are passing down to future generations. And so the argument does go deeper than just choices on aesthetic display, or liking/disliking someone.

Maybe the people who say we need statues to virtues are right. Certainly virtues are less complicated than any human who has lived. Except…it works for the Statue of Liberty.  I can’t imagine that working many more times.  There is something unique and interesting about expressing art in the form of historical, human figures.  But then, which ones?  I have heard legitimate, good historians say some of the most baffling things about this.  This person, because he didn’t own slaves.  My response: Yes, but he didn’t believe in equality for women.  Not Confederates because they fought against the United States government in an act of treason.  But we can leave the Revolutionary War figures because they built the nation.  My response: Yes, but they enslaved people.  You see the trouble with starting to pick and choose?  Then a historian will throw out a non-controversial figure and say, Why not this person?  He/she never hurt anybody.  And I think: Look hard enough; they did. 

Often these conversations themselves are frankly overblown. Statues are inanimate objects, after all. In the grand scheme of things the statues themselves do not speak to what is in the hearts and minds of people, nor can they physically harm us. This post was written before the recent humanitarian crisis reminded us of what oppression and fear looks like for many around the world… And I don’t want to post this without acknowledging that when statue conversations reach a fever pitch of life-or-death intensity…we have lost the thread.

To the extent conversations center around the public interest in the message being sent or the interests of all people concerned, along with the justifiable feelings of many, they are reasonable and productive. To the extent they descend into very emotional condemnation (or defense) of long-dead people, the conversations would benefit from the increment analysis to deconstruct emotion surrounding public historical figures that I suggested in the last post.

I don’t like historical demonization. I question whether we understand the human condition at all if don’t grasp the depth of our own personal sins and negative capabilities, as though as long as we haven’t done a handful of things that make up our current issues, we have it right.  It seems too easy to look back and point the finger, much easier than looking inwardly. I also do not like blind historical adulation. We run the risk of becoming insensitive if we cannot put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see that, while a past figure may be someone we admire and want to honor for various reasons, there are reasons others might feel differently. Both sides of the coin unfortunately sometimes betray a total lack of empathy for the other. Often the arguments do not consider context and use instead one aspect only to make a point, which, while it might be the most important point to one person, does not consider the whole story or aspects that might be important to others.

The closest I have gotten to hearing any real solution on the subject is the suggestion by some historians for local governments to form coalitions to research and then make thoughtful, reasoned decisions about historical markers and monuments, present and future. And that will work…until the very next generation has different ideas. The closest I myself can get to expressing an opinion is saying that these things shouldn’t be decided by mobs in the heat of protest.  I can imagine scenarios in which people cannot get things accomplished through the ordinary courses of government and peaceful demonstration.  I can picture situations in which the majority decides to leave something that feels, to some people, to be a huge deviation from morality.  And yet, to the extent the subject is not one of a violation of personal liberty or civil rights under the law, we do benefit by living in a peaceful, orderly society, and by submitting to the democratic, elected processes of government, even if that sometimes means we lose.

So where do we come down on the issue of statues? Throughout history, statues coming down have usually meant some sort of revolution is brewing. Some of them have been good for democracy. Some of them have been bad. That being the case, I do want to acknowledge that there are deep ramifications to this debate long-term. A disagreement over whether something is going to signal the end or beginning of something that goes to the core of freedom is something emotional. Both sides of the debate do have a radical wing that are just not good for the country. But for the largest portion of people in this debate, for now, I do not believe either side of this debate is feeling quite so radical. Both sides can stray into the territory of high emotionalism, yes. But at their core, there are good, valid arguments for both that center on admirable values. And I do not think there is any way to reconcile that perfectly.

But I think “Forrest Rested Here” has something to teach us.  Not everything is cut and dry.  There are complex histories, backstories, and emotions that often have nothing to do with what things might, on their surface, seem to be. A desire to remove a statue could be kindled by deep emotions based on lengthy history.  A desire to place a historical marker could similarly be more complicated than the things to which we boil it down today.  Historical memory is more complicated, too. Everyone has their story.  

These stories are complex at every level.  And once that acknowledgement is made, the urgency, on any side of the matter, is already diffused by half because the urgency is driven by perceived hatred from an opposing side.  But I would posit that hatred has very little to do with the valid feelings that most, for or against, historical notation, can bring to the table.

Cover Photo Credit: New York Times
In-text Photo by Tara Cowan

Ask the Historian #3: Politics, Historical Figures, and the Public Debate

One thing that is going to come up if we have any sort of involvement with history at all is dealing with historical figures who did bad things or do not fit modern behavioral ideals. These conversations usually get wrapped up with politics and cause a firestorm of public debate. The main point of this article is that history is usually irrelevant in any current-day political debate. Therefore, I do not push for political side-taking; rather, I advocate generally for keeping things neutral where history is concerned.

We discussed this a bit in the opening Q&A for this series. We said:

For events in our modern world, it’s appropriate for people who feel called to do so to denounce things which cause harm.  But people get confused when a historical figure gets brought into the debate.  The historical figure is not a participant in whatever modern debate is happening and becomes merely a vehicle for modern ideology. This causes more harm than good because it misses the nuances of history and character, building a narrative to be used for action which may not be grounded in the full story. (This can equally be true when attempting to put someone on a pedestal to make a modern political point.)

Tara Cowan and Hannah Cowan Jones

I also later on described why it is usually difficult and unhelpful to resurrect long-dead people from history to make a point:

Passing judgment from a twenty-first century perspective just doesn’t seem helpful.  Those who have lived before us had experiences, training, constraints, and pressures very different from our own… Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “Self-righteousness in retrospect is easy—also cheap.”  It’s easy to heap coals from our throne of self-congratulation, and it’s cheap to seize the moral high ground at history’s expense in making it seem as though the world was two-dimensional and clear-cut in a way it (almost) never is.

Tara Cowan

However, this does not imply an unvarnished rubber stamp of historical actions based on an illusion that the person (whoever we may be talking about) was “a man of his time.” There’s more to the story than just the fact that times were different, because we’re dealing with people. I discussed the need for utter honesty in historical research and writing:

Acknowledging what has happened is perhaps most important.  This consists of stating the unvarnished truth.  Brushing anything under the rug is inappropriate when addressing history because it paints a falsehood.  Uncovering what happened is absolutely vital to understanding the past, and nothing should be covered up in an effort to protect any reputations or ideologies.

Tara Cowan

The two points, coming at history from a point of non-judgment while also stating the unvarnished truth, are not in contradiction. With the debates, complete with the desire to wring something from history, that seem to swirl around any historical topic, you would think that the two are logically opposed, but they are not.

So with that background, let’s talk about approaching our feelings concerning the behavior and actions of historical figures. How do we stay unemotional when dealing with an increasingly emotional topic? How do we stay fair to all concerned? How do we address the urgency that modern commentators place on our handling of historical figures? I actually have thought a great deal about this topic, because I sense the anxiety people on all sides of the issue face. I can’t solve the problem, but I can offer some approaches that I have adopted that have helped me through these tricky questions…

When we are dealing with complicated figures who make up the popular historical imagination, it can become overwhelming. This need to say what was good and what was bad or to reconcile behaviors can turn history lovers away as we throw up our hands in defeat.  It’s almost as though history alone among the academic disciplines has been turned purely into a moral endeavor, with the morality, of course, dependent upon each individual historian or reader’s own experiences and belief system. This is how politics get brought into the mix, because where we come down on an issue usually depends on where we fall on the political spectrum, even though history doesn’t really fit into that spectrum. Therefore, the arguments themselves end up being baffling and devoid of political rationality. And so we are left polarized, and most often because we didn’t sit down and do our homework in the first place to find out what the facts were (I’m talking about both sides), and also because we are bent on making history a moral endeavor in an effort to back our own goals or belief system.

I listen to several history podcasts, and I am constantly struck by the confusion and angst people seem to feel when a historical character does something of which they disapprove or makes a choice we wouldn’t make in the present day.  I see historians and the public puzzling over how so many things or people, who were otherwise making strides, could make contradictory choices and do things that caused harm throughout history.  It is a recurring theme, question, and struggle that I hear again and again as people deal with history today.  The solution is almost universally to condemn, from afar, hundreds of years out, such actions almost as a way to grapple with the horror of something now unthinkable, or at the very least as a stopgap measure when commentators don’t know what else to say and do. Condemnation (or adulation) are also often used as a way to make a modern political point, even when the connection is quite tenuous.

It is clear to me that this approach is not working. These political debates or conversations almost always get highly emotional, and nothing is accomplished. And what gets lost in all of this struggle is the history itself. Losing the thread of history and the facts that go along with it is a huge loss for humanity. We need to approach historical topics rationally, and we need to have a method of dealing with moral questions regarding historical figures. And I have developed one! I have five increments for thinking about people from history, which follow in the next few paragraphs.


Clara Barton. Hers is a remarkable story of her bravery and heroism as a nurse and of starting the American Red Cross. She was also lukewarm on assisting the suffragist cause. Barton didn’t oppose suffrage; she just didn’t go to rallies, lend her voice, etc. (although she certainly led by example). She repeatedly returned enquiries asking for her help with the 19th century equivalent of “not in my lane.” There is a body of historical analysis that would find this to be a moral stain on her character.

I think we need to check ourselves when we go down this road. Barton was doing the task she had been given to do, or practicing her calling. She was using her talents to the best of her ability to contribute to the world where she could. And there is nothing wrong with that. Frankly, I couldn’t see how she could have found a single second to have fit in anything else, which rings true for many of us.

But I see this sort of disappointment with people from history all the time, and the reason I call it baffling is: how could any person ever check off a list of all the good things they could have done? And when I ask myself what I have done to actively contribute to every good, humanitarian cause in the world, I fall abysmally short of that standard that seems to be out there for historical figures. And I would imagine everyone does. We can only do the things given to us to do, with the capabilities we have, in the time we have been given. This is how we live our lives in the modern world, and the standard for historical figures should be no different.


Frederick Douglass. I bet this one surprises you. He is one of my favorite historical figures, a very brave person who did amazing, ground-breaking things for abolition and civil rights in America. But he turned his back on the suffrage movement. This wasn’t a case of “not in his lane.” This was a betrayal. Suffragists put on hold their cause in order to support the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, in exchange for a promise that prominent abolitionists would support their cause when the abolition was accomplished. This was a promise Douglass never kept; after the Civil War, he made a calculated decision that the cause of equality for newly freed slaves was too fragile, too socially unaccepted at the time, to throw his weight behind another unpopular movement. His friendships with prominent suffragists never recovered from this decision to abandon their cause.

Do I think Frederick Douglass should be “cancelled?” Absolutely not. I think the whole story should be told, including the amazing things he did and the decision he made regarding women’s suffrage. Context should be given for both. Context will, more than likely, show the constraints of his time, which would highlight both the bravery of many of his actions as well as why he felt that his hands were tied in others. That is where history gets really illuminating, when we look at those constraints.


Thomas Jefferson. Who else? He was a huge player in American independence, expending great efforts in making infinitely better the lives of generations through democracy and actively supporting the trend of self-government at home and across the world. He also owned human beings. Despite the fact that both are true of many founding fathers, Jefferson has become the poster child for the American conundrum, causing a firestorm of academic and social debate.

What do we do with Jefferson’s slavery record? In the public conversation, there are two issues at play with Jefferson, one being his decision to continue ownership of the enslaved people he inherited and the other being his inability to free all slaves simultaneously while advocating for the freedom of Americans in general, which is taken as hypocritical. For the first, he took action (continuing ownership) that would ultimately make miserable, uncertain, and even ruinous the lives of many who were not allowed to leave his property to pursue of their own lives and happiness. There is no way to excuse that, and I don’t think historians should be in the business of excusing (or denouncing) anyone. At the same time, historians can illuminate why he made those choices, and that illumination can be revealing about history in its context, both in positive and negative ways.

For the second, while Jefferson did take some actions to attempt to end slavery on a large scale, he was not successful. Annette Gordon-Reed (again, renowned for her work on Sally Hemings, the Hemings family, and Thomas Jefferson), was asked what would have happened had Jefferson made a sort of against-all-odds stand against slavery. Gordon-Reed said that Jefferson’s career and his efficacy as a politician and statesman would have been finished. He would not have accomplished anything good. So he turned himself to the things he could do. That is a pretty profound example of context.

While not defending Jefferson’s flaws, Gordon-Reed, speaking in an interview on Ben Franklin’s World Podcast as to the perceived hypocrisy of Jefferson said that she thinks it is a little “unfair” to say:

“You’ve done this, you’ve done that…you’ve created a country, you’ve done all these other things—why didn’t you solve slavery?  And you compare that to us, as individuals… How much should any one person do and be responsible for? […] Think about how hard it is to do anything in the world, to make a change in the world, to make a difference in the world.  And here is a person who did lots of things.  And then to say, ‘You should have solved this problem, too…’  If I look at my own life and compare it, well, I haven’t done nearly as much as that, and a lot of people who are being supremely critical haven’t done nearly as much.  It’s hard to accomplish things in a lifetime.  And it doesn’t mean you aren’t critical of him and critical of the racism…” 

Annette Gordon-Reed speaking on the Ben Franklin’s World Podcast

And I agree with this. Basically, the same rules apply for this increment as what we have established already: after looking at context and constraints, we don’t need change the standards of behavior or heroism from what you would expect from someone in the modern world, and state the truth regardless of the ramifications in making someone look good or bad. In all historical honesty, we have to tell the whole story, even if that doesn’t fit into a neat narrative of good and evil.

The nuances of history and its people are profound.  No story is complete without its context, its beginning, middle, and end. We miss that when we rush to make a moral judgment. We might just be making ourselves feel better, when we never needed to put that pressure on ourselves in the first place. We do not have to make a final judgment on Jefferson’s worth. I’m not sure who told us we did.


I almost skipped this one because the same rules apply for this one as the others we have discussed. However, I think this category is actually where modern controversy truly begins. So, in usual fashion, we’re going to plunge right into that controversy.

I don’t want to use an example for this one, because placing someone in this category depends not just on fact, but on how you are historically placed. What I mean is, the old adage “what is one man’s fish is another man’s poison” applies here. Someone might, to one group, be the very devil because the person did something at his or her expense (I’m thinking of combat or occupied situations mostly), but if you were on the opposing side, you might consider that person a hero. For example, if you were an enslaved person during the Civil War, you would more than likely not have thought there were any redeeming qualities to Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was fighting a war to keep you in bondage and had dealt with surrendered USCT troops at Fort Pillow in a manner that was sketchy at best, homicidal at worst. You would think he should belong in this category. While, if you were a free resident of Tennessee for whom he liberated your civilian family member from imprisonment at the hands of the occupying army, you would obviously take a different view and wouldn’t want to place him in this category.

The same could be true for William Tecumseh Sherman. His name lived in infamy in the South after the war. He practiced hard war, scorched earth tactics in his marches. We can talk military necessity, but it was pretty serious, brutal stuff. A Southerner in 1865 would almost certainly place him in this category. On the other hand, if you are a Northerner, let’s say with a son in the war, and you’re watching the death toll rising, and you know the South is going to lose and just wish someone had the stomach to bring it to an end before more blood is shed… You probably wouldn’t want to place him in this category.

Historical record can give us the facts. Then we interpret them. Our interpretations are colored by our raising, our circumstances, our politics, our religion, our feelings. And I don’t want to pretend I have the perfect answer for how to deal with these things. But I do have two thoughts.

1. All people in the historical record are sinners. All of them hurt someone. That is, unfortunately to say the least, part of being human. I hesitated even to make these increments because I didn’t want to make it seem as though there are categories of humans. I believe that all are in need of grace. Equally. This is why I believe it is dangerous to make history a moral endeavor. It creates a sort of false reality in which we can say who was worthy of grace, and who was past it. This is dramatic, but this is the rhetoric I hear. Maybe there are belief systems which embrace this view; it is not mine. Therefore, when speaking of these increments, it is as a tool for viewing history as an academic discipline in which we discuss people and events. Because history is so emotional, the increments are a tool to be used to deconstruct the emotion that we feel so that we can get to the heart of the discipline of history.

2. History gives us the facts, which, based on sources, we find and use for the benefit of the discipline. In using the facts, we, by the nature of history being a story-telling process as well as a thesis-based endeavor, interpret the facts. In interpreting, we make arguments backed by reason and facts. In doing this, it is not irresponsible to make an argument about a historical figure such as “He/she contributed, perhaps more than any other, to the continued poverty of X group of people throughout history.” If that sounds like a moral judgment, it shouldn’t. This, if based in fact and reason, would be a historical thesis which is making commentary to add to a body of historical thought. It is only our reactions to such theses (and, yes, these are often driven by the actions of the historians themselves) which make history a moral endeavor. In these reactions we tee up, put on armor, feel outrage, and begin arguing. And that (again, unfortunately often helped along by historians) is when we begin the futile endeavor of categorizing humans. But if we can peel back to the history and the historical arguments, we can use these increments for examining and discussing events and choices in history (not as moral judgments). And in making those increments, I have found it useful to remember that most people fall into the first three. We really need to prove it to ourselves why we would be talking about someone in the context of Increment 4 given historical context. I had a person in mind that, in my opinion, should go into Increment 4, but when I went back and examined the historical record, I found that a strong counter-argument could be made to mine: i.e.: there were enough factors in defense or explanation of this person’s actions that I realized my own biases could be influencing this decision and that there were competing interests at stake. This approach helps with the heat of those conversations and is just really more truthful than our emotions-based drive to vilify or glorify.


All of this begs the question: But what about Hitler?

I know you’re thinking it. We’re all thinking it. I’ve grappled with this question in my mind over the course of many years. It’s not just Hitler (there are others). What is the proper theoretical approach to dealing with someone who literally exterminated millions of people? Exterminated them.

What are the approaches so far we have discussed when dealing with people who make us uncomfortable? Hard, unadulterated facts, leavened by context and constraints.

Context and constraints break down pretty quickly in the face of genocide. There is no context to a spontaneous, dictator-ordered holocaust that makes sense, no constraints of an era that can explain to a modern mind any sort of rationality behind a decision to do some things that have been done in history.

I don’t want to write this article without acknowledging that. And this to me, and nowhere else, is where politics should collide with history. Surely if there were ever a time for politics to actually weigh in on the actions of historical public figures, it would be here. The figures who do something so out of the bounds of morality and rationality that it devastates us utterly and completely on the grandest scale imaginable, and there are no redeeming facts. When these historical figures get brought up in the political debate, I never mind it, as long as everyone continues to speak with rationality and without hyperbole. Politics is the method by which we establish a government which will ensure peace, happiness, and prosperity for citizens, and to the extent history’s wisdom can help preserve the same, it is appropriate to use it.1

The trouble is, there is a tendency to push a lot of historical figures into this increment. But very few actually belong in this increment. I really mean that. In modern history of the subjects that make up the popular conception, I can think of five, maybe ten. No more. And this, as in the last increment, is where things get really sideways. Where history becomes an utter battleground.

The difference in this increment and in Increment 4 is that, with Increment 4 we weren’t talking about people who have totally abandoned any sort of moral code or sense of humanity in search of purely hedonistic, self-serving, and destroying goals. They, along with people in all of the other increments, may have taken actions at times where that could be true, but abandonment of humanity full-stop is not something that you see very often.

In most every situation, for the millions and millions of people who have lived before us, constraints and context is important. I cannot say this enough. If we don’t acknowledge that, we’ve missed the truth just as much as we miss it when we cover our eyes and pretend the bad things that people did never happened. There is no need to heighten the rhetoric around most everyone who has ever lived, because no benefit comes from it.

We want to learn from history, so we think there has to be a moral takeaway.  But you don’t have to put that pressure on yourself.  You can just sit back and learn.  When we do not try to wring lessons from history, we feel more comfortable with nuances and flaws and are able to listen to what history has to say to us (and maybe learn a lot more).

As I have said in other places, history speaks louder than we ever could. 



1. The same can be true for examining systems perpetuated by society that are detrimental to humanity, such as slavery. It is good to look at the tell-tale signs of why something has happened, because there are patterns in behavior that seeks to diminish humanity that could be helpful to note in order to avoid.


Ben Franklin’s World Podcast, Episode 117: The Life and Ideas of Thomas Jefferson, with Annette Gordon-Reed.

Ask the Historian #2 – History in the Wild

Welcome to the second installment of the Ask the Historian Series! Before you dive into the article, check out these two recordings. The first is my approach to applying history to the present day, and the second is my sister’s.

Tara’s Approach
Hannah’s Approach

If you’ve listened to the audios that pair with this blog post, you have already heard our approaches to applying history to the modern world.  I thought this aspect of approaching history broadly would be useful to pair with this article, which explores the more narrow topic of what it’s like for the average history lover in the wild, sifting through mountains of information and opinions.  The audios show a broad theoretical approach, and the post gives practical advice for getting into the nitty gritty. Here, I wanted to talk a bit about the intellectual side of approaching studying works of history.

For me, what has always been a thief of the full joy of exploring history is any sort of cap on independent thinking.  We sort of receive through osmosis this impression that we have to think about history or historical figures or events in one of two ways—one that pushes us to look at things only in the way they have always been looked at, and one that says that if we don’t look at things in this particular nuanced and often new way that has been developed based on recent scholarly research, we don’t really have it right.  Both put incredible pressure on history lovers as we are sifting through the information we receive.  Somewhere in this process, we begin to think that the way we approach history is somehow reflective of our morality.  So, again, farewell to the joy of history.

One thing that I’ve learned from listening to (and learning from) just about every side of the historical coin is this: no one is ever totally right.  Your instincts are often good.  It’s okay to have your own opinions outside of what anyone else says you should think and to trust yourself.  It’s also okay to get it wrong and then learn and increase your knowledge as you go.  

I think every good historical journey begins with questioning everything.  Does what you’re hearing “wash” for you?  Does it sound reasonable and legitimate?  Can you think of an opposing point of view? An example that comes to mind is a phenomenon thoroughly explored by Annette Gordon-Reed in The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.  For years, historians had taken the word of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants from his marriage, who had numerous reasons to claim so, that there was no relationship between Sally Hemings and Jefferson.  Then Gordon-Reed entered the body of historical research and started asking pertinent questions like: why would historians take the word of Thomas Jefferson Randolph (Jefferson’s grandson) as unimpeachable fact but completely disregard an interview with Madison Hemings (Jefferson’s youngest son with Sally Hemings)?

Once her lawyer-like historian’s tactics were introduced to me, my mind opened up to numerous avenues of historical exploration.  I even tried it myself.  While I was reading Grant, by Ron Chernow (an otherwise magnificent book which is a landmark achievement for Chernow), I noticed that Chernow disregarded out of hand a statement by a Native American woman that Grant had fathered her child while he was stationed as a young man in the West.  Chernow’s evidence was: that none of Grant’s friends believed it to be true.  Putting on my Gordon-Reed cap, I started to ask: is this dismissal based in biases such as the belief that a Native American woman would want to curry favor with the broader society by associating herself with Grant once he was a national hero?  Why did Chernow believe the feelings of Grant’s army friends but not the Native American woman?  Could this be based in biases, too?  And if we are going to allow in weak evidence, as Chernow did, why don’t we allow in weak opposing evidence?  Could I think of any?  What about the fact that Grant seemed to have a sympathy for Native peoples that was far beyond his time and certainly not expected by the general public?  What about the fact that one of the highest-ranking officers on his staff during the Civil War, who was actually in the room playing an active role during the surrender with Robert E. Lee, was a Native American?  What sort of sympathies could be created by having a child who lived as a Native American?  Now, of course, I’m no closer to knowing whether Grant actually had a Native American child.  I wouldn’t try to opine on that either.  Broad speculation is just that and shouldn’t be given the weight of truth until proven. But I have acknowledged that Chernow could be wrong, that historians are only human, and used my own logic to assert that there could be a different answer.

But can we go too far when usurping the “expert status” of historians?  I do see trends towards believing one has a broad understanding of something with minimal study.  History is an academic discipline, like psychology, or mathematics, or neuroscience—and it always seems like the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, which makes it dangerous to draw certain conclusions based on minimal research.  Developing a small historical thesis takes months of research; making a large claim can take years or decades.  Needless to say, the field of history is a broad, trained field which requires deep study prior to forming any conclusions.  That is why I can’t opine as to whether Ulysses Grant fathered the child of a Native American woman.

At the same time, the enormity of the field of history shouldn’t limit our study of history.  And historians should be held accountable to the basics of logic. You are absolutely capable of doing your own analysis of the argument presented based on the facts given in the manner that I have discussed.  

You are also absolutely capable of of getting up to speed on any topic you would like, just acknowledging that it is going to take time and great effort.  I have done it myself on several different topics without a formal history degree. It just takes diligence, good sources, and using logic to sift through historical arguments. I think, for the reasons we discussed in the videos, that history is vital to the modern world, and a layman’s thoughtful analysis of history (which is what I do) plays a huge role.  At the same time, remembering there are experts, and not being afraid to learn will keep your research on track and prevent your viewpoint from being self-indulgent in the sense that you are just trying to get from history what you need.  Balance, and the willingness to be objective, is key.

Ask the Historian: #1 – Introduction Q&A

Hi friends! This is the first in a series of articles in which I (with the help of my sister) am going to be exploring history, historical controversies, the way we look back on history, and more!

Check out the link here to learn about our training and credentials (or in my case, lack thereof!).

We are very excited to share this series with you. We have put a lot of thought and work into the project and hope you walk away feeling a little lighter and more at ease with the more difficult aspects of the study of history. We thought it would be good to open with a little Q&A on some of the topics we’re going to be exploring, so without further ado, here we go…

The following is a conversation, so to speak, between the participants in the Ask the Historian Series, Tara Cowan and Hannah Cowan Jones, to introduce you to some of the themes we are going to be discussing in this new blog series.  We have put the conversation into a Question & Answer format to enhance readability.  You can think of it as a dialogue involving questions we ask each other, questions we have received from others, and thoughts we have pondered for a long time.

Q: What is your approach to the study of history?

A:  (Tara) I have certain boundaries of what I consider “responsible history”: let history speak for itself, state the facts, don’t use any of it as a vehicle for modern ideology… Approaching history with detachment is a good start to not swerving outside any boundaries.  Inevitably, we come at anything with biases and preferences that sway us.  But history speaks for itself.  It doesn’t need a champion or a modern spin.  And once you truly immerse yourself into anything, historically speaking, it’s a lot easier to lay your biases aside.  When you’re looking at cold, hard facts, the picture becomes a lot more complicated and complex, and the picture is usually messy.

I am not a proponent of pushing any sort of agenda through history or exalting any person or events. I’m sensitive to the fact that history is still emotionally charged and that it still means something to people across the broad spectrum of historical memory.  But if I could suggest one thing that has changed my study of history, changed my writing, and helped me get down to the gritty truth, it would be: just love history for the history.  Its truths will shine brighter than any point you could make about it.  Take yourself out of it.  Don’t demonize. Don’t glorify.  Don’t sanitize.  Call it like it is.

Note: Hannah has her own approach to the study of history, which will be in an audio on a subsequent blog post.

Q: What is historiography?

A: Historiography is the history of historical studies. It’s the basis of all history. It follows the approaches, shifting attitudes, and lenses of historians throughout the years. The first person to address a topic is the beginning point, and you move forward through the people and decades which have continued to address the topic, recording the shifting approaches as a sort of history in and of itself.

Q: What is historical memory?

A:  (Hannah) As with all memory studies, historical memory can be grounds for contention between what is popularly believed and what the historical record holds. The idea of collective memory comes into play from this idea. For instance, I have worked at an historical site in South Carolina where the collective memory tells that the Massachusetts 55th Infantry Regiment stayed onsite for more than a month, helped distribute medical care to newly freed African Americans returning to the Sea Islands to claim lands from the United States government, and served as a key transition of power from the United States military to the Freedmen’s Bureau in the months leading up to the end and following the Civil War. The local community has powerful oral histories that they cling to still surrounding this event, yet the historical record indicates that The Massachusetts 55th perhaps only passed through briefly on their way to the upstate, perhaps not even staying at this site. Historical memories should be acknowledged for the power that communities place in them. Triangulating them with other sources provides a richer context for getting to what actually happened. Allessandro Portelli, an Italian scholar of American culture and oral history, is a great place to start if you are interested in reading examples of where “truth” and “memory” collide. 

Q: What is hagiographic history?

A:  Oh, what fun hagiographies can be! Modern understanding of hagiographic histories tends to mean history which seeks to venerate a person, a cause, or a group. It is a one-sided telling which tends to spin everything in a positive light and assign almost heroic traits to the subject without providing a balanced prospective of true humanity or differing points of view. One modern example is often found in early biographies of historic generals. The term originated here – From about the 2nd Century on, hagiographies have been used to venerate the lives of Christian saints. Often packed with gruesome accounts of martyrdom, intense fasting, terrifying dreams, and profound miracles, hagiographers often *expanded* the truth to better embrace the fullness of the incredible lives of the saints they studied. Hagiographers examined the lives of these saints, typically knowing them very personally, and their records provide an important avenue for interpreting early Catholicism, beliefs about men and women, daily lives and customs, and much more during periods of time when the historical record can feel limited.  

Q: What is revisionist history?

A:  When you find a topic in history that interests you and you delve into its historiography, it doesn’t take long for a revisionist historian to pop up with a reinterpretation of the subject or even a bold criticism for the long-held interpretation of the subject. He or she might present new evidence that directly contradicts orthodox conceptions of the topic. More often, though, a revisionist historian will present a revised reading of historical events by challenging the moral perspective or interpretation of events with new academic theories (you commonly see this surrounding topics of race, gender, etc). These conversations can be so productive for the academic community to regard “mainstream” history through new, relevant lenses. The downside to revisionist history is that is can go too far and attribute modern morals or feelings on historic people and events—and it’s always dangerous territory to presume the motivations of people not here to speak for themselves. 

Q: Do you have any “least favorite” historical figures?

A:  A lot of people did a lot of harmful things throughout history.  Naturally, there are people who, when I am studying them, give me a sort of aversion.  If I don’t like a historical figure, I try to study him or her more.  Writing someone off based on limited knowledge, or because he or she has come to symbolize something in popular memory, isn’t historically honest or sound.  Everyone has motivations for the things they do.  Sometimes, you come out still not liking them very much, but at least you can understand them.

Q: What do you think of the phrase, “He was a man of his time?”

A:  I’m not a huge fan of the phrase. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge the humanity in all of us across history. It makes it sound as if we are no more than the cultural conditioning we have received in the world in which we were raised. But we all have an enormous capacity for good, for transcending the workaday practices in our world. Stamping that on someone is to deny that he/she had that capacity, which is to put them in a “history” box.  But he or she was a fully formed, living, breathing person. That’s not to say we become judgmental once we acknowledge that the person had the capacity to have gone beyond the influences of their day.  But just acknowledge that they could have done so first.

I think the better approach is, after acknowledging that the figure had the human capacity to “rise above,” to take a look at why they didn’t.  Then it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about what the pressures of that person’s time looked like. Sometimes we can’t answer these questions, sometimes we can.  Either way, our knowledge is the richer for having the full story.

Q:  I’ve noticed in your writing that, while you present both sides, you rarely, or never, tell the reader how to feel or wholesale condemn anyone.  Why is that?

A:  (Tara) Passing judgment from a twenty-first century perspective just doesn’t seem helpful.  Those who have lived before us had experiences, training, constraints, and pressures very different from our own.  To paraphrase several historians, we’ve had the advantage of decades or centuries to consider our problems, to try to ‘get it right.’  We have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of giants who have, in their own generations, brought us to a greater awareness of the need for equality, freedom, fairness, kindness, etc…  We are the beneficiaries of that, not the authors.  To condemn would be to deny my own need for grace and the problems in our own world today, some of which I actively try to address and others which I do not.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “Self-righteousness in retrospect is easy—also cheap.”  It’s easy to heap coals from our throne of self-congratulation, and it’s cheap to seize the moral high ground at history’s expense in making it seem as though the world was two-dimensional and clear-cut in a way it (almost) never is.

Q:  Should we condemn historical figures for the things they have done to cause harm to others?

A:  Acknowledging what has happened is perhaps most important.  This consists of stating the unvarnished truth.  Brushing anything under the rug is inappropriate when addressing history because it paints a falsehood.  Uncovering what happened is absolutely vital to understanding the past, and nothing should be covered up in an effort to protect any reputations or ideologies.

But acknowledging is different from condemning.  For events in our modern world, it’s appropriate for people who feel called to do so to denounce things which cause harm.  But people get confused when a historical figure gets brought into the debate.  The historical figure is not a participant in whatever modern debate is happening and becomes merely a vehicle for modern ideology. This causes more harm than good because it misses the nuances of history and character, building a narrative to be used for action which may not be grounded in the full story. (This can equally be true when attempting to put a historical figure on a pedestal to make a modern political point.)

It’s so hard not to get emotional when reading history because it does feel personal.  History is only compelling, after all, because humans are similar in their desires, drives, loves, and sins through the ages.  And every group—national, religious, racial, sectional, ethnic, etc.—can point to a person or multiple people who caused their ancestors great grief, hardship, and pain.  I have an example of this in my own life, which I won’t name because I imagine everyone has one, so we’ll keep this universal.  With the best will in the world to view all historical figures and peoples with detachment, this historical event and the person who perpetrated it are continual stumbling blocks for me, and I want to condemn everyone involved.  I say this to let you know that I understand the feeling.

But I know, even in the grip of my emotional responses to that subject, that this is not the right way to think.  Because no matter the event or person in history we might be discussing, there is probably someone who feels just as vehemently as I do about my stumbling block in relation to that person or event.  And where would we be if all we could do in history is sit around, a bundle of anger and emotions?  After all, no matter the legacies of the past that we are forced to live with today, shouldn’t our goal while studying history be to build a better tomorrow in our own world?  And how can we do that if we don’t view historical events or figures honestly and unemotionally?

In the words of Jon Meacham, “We learn more, not when we look up adoringly, or down condescendingly; we learn more when we look them in the eye.  Because then we might be able to see what we can do when we turn around and look at our own world.”

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ask the Historian Series

Hi friends! I am excited to announce a new series that is going to be running on the blog called “Ask the Historian.” There is going to be a series of five articles exploring approaches to history, the discipline of history, the way we look back on history and feel emotional, as well as some of the more controversial topics we have seen in the news and heard about involving history’s connection with the present.

There is also going to be a video recording with some of the posts which will explore a related topic. These will be my voice, and sometimes my sister is going to be joining us. My sister is a professional historian, while I am just a layman historian or history lover. We believe there are many valid opinions and points of view. We seek to share some helpful tips or perpsectives for navigating the often-tricky historical landscape of today.

I invite you along for the ride and look forward to sharing our thoughts with you!

Here is an audio introducing you to the themes and goals of the series!

Photo Credit: HistoryExtra.