Dead Presidents: History, Memory, and the Legacies of Once 'Great Men'

Several institutions of higher education including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have reconsidered the historical legacies of dead presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. Homogeneous articulations of collective identity are often forged through commemorative practices that hold up specific historical figures from the dominant racial group as representative symbols of the nation in multiracial societies despite the complicated legacies of such figures. Why is it that we tend to focus on the achievements of once "great men" such as Jefferson and Wilson while forgetting the more negative aspects of their legacies in such societies? At best, this is a type of selective memory masquerading as history. But, this type of selective memory as history is also a way to advance a national identity (in the particular case of the United States) in public spaces that is rooted in white supremacist thinking predicated on the inferiority of black people and the perceived superiority of whites. In such a framework, the brutality leveled against black lives matters less than the lofty deeds of once great men.

Historians work from a body of evidence that includes both primary (documents, artifacts, or materials from the past) and secondary (texts written about the past by historians) sources. These are the building blocks of historical investigation and from these sources historians develop their interpretations of the past. Historians "do history" by considering both primary and secondary sources. It is not an act of political correctness nor is it an act of arbitrary historical revisionism to consider the actions of once great men in conjunction with the voices of marginalized groups as illustrated in the sources. That said, the reevaluation of historical figures such as Wilson has been ongoing for several decades. Both primary and secondary sources indicate that Wilson's attitude on race was regressive for his time, and more in line with the ideology of the new Ku Klux Klan. American racial intolerance and segregationist thinking was inculcated into Wilson's view of the U.S. in the world.

Scholars who study U.S. foreign policy such as Mary L. Dudziak and Mary A. Renda have long recognized both the relationship between domestic and foreign policy as well as the connection between race and nation. The rise of the study of race and nation as a type of subfield within historical studies of U.S. foreign policy emerged some decades ago. It is not new nor revisionist at the present to suggest that racism marred Wilsonian political achievements. Such an approach at best might be considered post-revisionist given that foreign policy historians have agreed, given the body of knowledge on the subject, that race was a factor in the development of both U.S. foreign and domestic policy in the twentieth century. Furthermore, revisionism is in large part a standard aspect of the historical method (i.e. all history is revisionist history).

Historians through their necessary analysis of secondary sources are always revising interpretations of the past. The secondary source literature regarding race and Wilson's much lauded foreign policy endeavors is every-expanding. It is an act of obfuscation to suggest that Wilson's ideas about race on the domestic scale were not interrelated to his more notable foreign policy initiatives in light of the secondary source literature. And, to suggest that Wilson's so-called great achievements should warrant lofty commemorative acts, when in fact it is impossible to disentangle his foreign policy achievements from a racism that helped to retard the development of American democracy, is a type of selective memory that has much to do with the maintenance of a homogeneous white collective identity.

Historian Jonathan Scott Holloway in Jim Crow Wisdom contends that history "does violence to memory." Holloway also asserts that memory does violence to history. Memories of the re-segregation of Washington, D.C., lynching, Wilson's endorsement of The Birth of a Nation and the occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) survive in documents and oral histories; though there are few historical monuments that exist to commemorate the victims of lynching or the thousands of Haitians who were killed by U.S. marines during the occupation. While on the other hand, the public commemoration of Wilson's goodness is an act of violence based on a type of selective memory. History and memory are not completely dissimilar. History is also many people talking at once not merely the voices of once great men; but, the complete elimination or suppression of marginalized voices in the U.S. history narrative was a common practice of historians or a type of selective memory existent in historical studies until the mid-twentieth century with the rise of the new social and cultural history. This approach to "doing history" by overlooking the voices of marginalized groups is no longer acceptable given the preponderance of secondary source literature that has validated the importance of such groups as historical actors within the context of the American narrative. Henceforth, in a multicultural society such as the U.S. perhaps Wilson deserves a statue and the victims of racial brutality should be commemorated with a building. It is a matter of memory I suppose.