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On dead white men and the politics of Minnesota’s history

photo of fort snelling
MinnPost photo by Tom Nehil
The belief that changing building names on a campus or adding a single word to the signs orienting visitors to a historic site does violence to history is itself doing violence to history.

“However accurately we may determine the ‘facts’ of history, the facts themselves and our interpretations of them, and our interpretation of our own interpretations, will be seen in a different perspective or a less vivid light as mankind moves into the unknown future.”  

Are these the words of a postmodernist? A cultural Marxist? A historian with a sharply defined political agenda?  

No.  No. And — most importantly — no. These are the words of a dead white man. Carl Becker, to be specific. Becker (1873-1945), long-time historian at Cornell University, shared this basic vision of history and how it works during his presidential address at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in Minneapolis in 1931.

That’s right. 1931.

Becker’s understanding of history as a constantly changing set of interpretations rather than unchanging facts came to mind last week when the politicization of Minnesota history hit new heights. The Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota rejected its own faculty’s evidence-based interpretation of racist actions by university leadership in the past. Meanwhile, the GOP-controlled state Senate — seemingly troubled by the inclusion of the Dakota word Bdote in signage at Fort Snelling State Historic Site — voted to punish the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) by slashing its proposed annual budget by 20 percent.  

Detractors suggested that both the university’s faculty and MNHS were engaging in “revisionist” history. This phrase is a contradiction in terms that reveals how little the detractors know about the actual practice of history. Indeed, those who wrote a report on past injustices at the University of Minnesota as well as the historians at MNHS did not unduly politicize the state’s history. Those accusing them of revising the past did.

Every historian knows that history changes over time. That is one of the fundamental tenets of the discipline. Indeed, the past is always changing. New evidence, new questions, and new historians craft new interpretations. They add up to an always evolving understanding of history. That’s what makes the field so exciting. It’s a live project.

Michael J. Lansing

Importantly, Carl Becker didn’t go out on a limb in 1931. Forty years prior, historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) — famous for stints at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University, as well as for his frontier thesis — noted that “each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.” This dead white man was also right. His words are as true today as they were in 1891.  

The belief that changing building names on a campus or adding a single word to the signs orienting visitors to a historic site does violence to history is itself doing violence to history. Those who hold fast to such critiques reveal their own ignorance of the field’s most basic assumptions. Furthermore, they prove themselves to be guilty of the very charge they purport to identify. Suggesting that our understandings of the past remain unchanged — or suggesting that the standards of today are unfairly applied to past people or events — is the only actual politicization of history.

Minnesotans deserve better. Beliefs in an unchanging past are ahistorical. Historians at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society know what they’re doing. They’re not engaged in radical acts. They’re actually rather conservative. Evidence-based efforts to change the names of places with the questions and concerns of the present in mind is what the dead white men of the past tell us we should do. Historians of an earlier age knew that, by definition, history is always changing. On this count, we should listen to them closely.

Michael J. Lansing is associate professor of history at Augsburg University and author of “Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics” (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/29/2019 - 12:22 pm.

    This is a sad state of affairs when the Minnesota Republican Senate pulls a stunt like this. Among many things, it represents an absence of ideas to help Minnesotans. Rather, they continue to drum up support for meaningless identity politics. This is a ruse by an anti-Democracy party which has no intention of ever helping anyone except for the richest citizens.

    • Submitted by Rod Loper on 04/30/2019 - 07:03 am.

      Well said.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/30/2019 - 05:29 pm.

      Their actions should surprise no one. Grand standing is much easier than actually doing something for their rural constituents.

      And in reality, many of their constituents will fall for it.

      Next thing you know, the Senate GOP will be passing local interference laws for cities they don’t represent.

  2. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 04/30/2019 - 12:22 am.

    From the article: “each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.”

    In other words, the author’s ‘current’ negative conception of former Vice President and Senator, John Calhoun is based on today’s fleeting interpretations of history.

    We can only hope that in the coming years, as more accurate interpretations arise, the author will again proudly accept Mr. Calhoun’s accomplishments as they truly are: an asset to our country and our proud history.

  3. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 04/30/2019 - 12:38 pm.

    My views on Confederate statues and Robert E Lee are that they are part of our history, and we can learn from them.

    Mohammed had slaves, so did the majority of Romans, which means Christ’s followers probably had slaves. American Indians had slaves. Buddhists had slaves. Hindus had slaves.

    The above article references Carl Becker’s 1931 speech. Here is another quote from the same speech:

    “in every age history is taken to be a story of actual events from which a significant meaning may be derived; and in every age the illusion is that the present version is valid.”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/30/2019 - 01:01 pm.

      There is a difference between “learning from” statutes and monuments and celebrating those in them as heroic.

      Perhaps an appropriate statue of Robert E. Lee would show him whipping a slave (or, as would probably be more accurate, standing by when a flunky whipped the slave on his behalf and at his direction).

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/30/2019 - 01:29 pm.

        Or build a statue commemorating the free black civilians his Army of Northern Virginia captured in Pennsylvania and then sold into slavery in the South.

        The man committed treason against the United States, and anyone who has any semblance of reason should denounce his memory as a racist. There is nothing positive his legacy leaves behind.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/30/2019 - 01:30 pm.

      Chattel slavery was much different in virtually every context than the other examples you mentioned.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/30/2019 - 02:09 pm.

        You are correct: American slavery was a pervasive economic institution. In other nations, slaves were generally captives after some kind of war-like action. Slaves were not the profit center that American and European capitalism made them.

        In any event, I have never understood what the “lots of people had slaves” argument is supposed to accomplish. Does that somehow diminish the enormity of the evil of the American “Peculiar Institution?”

  4. Submitted by Dan Beck on 04/30/2019 - 03:47 pm.

    “Revisionist” is the short form of “shut up – we don’t want to talk about that part of the story”. Much like the idea of originalism in interpreting the Constitution, the idea that everything (at least everything I as an individual approve of) must be permanently unaltered in how we talk about the past or we are corrupting history assumes we can read the minds of people who were infallible. We can’t and they weren’t.

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