Who would have thought so many of those competing to be president of the United States would have slept through American History 101? And I wonder why, if a working-class student at a modest Catholic school in Baltimore managed bus trips to museums in that city and neighboring Washington, D.C., folks who grew up with far more resources than I ever dreamed of never found the time to learn from the treasures such institutions contain?
Welcome to campaign 2024, when it seems each day’s headlines include at least one fractured history lesson, revealing just how much our leaders don’t know or don’t want to know about America’s past, and why that matters for our present and future.
There’s Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, trying to snatch the title of “great negotiator” from the president he has said in the past he could have beaten, Abraham Lincoln
“The Civil War was so fascinating, so horrible,” Trump said while campaigning in Iowa, as reported in The Washington Post and other outlets. “So many mistakes were made. See, there was something I think could have been negotiated, to be honest with you,” he told prospective voters.
As Liz Cheney retorted on X: “Which part of the Civil War ‘could have been negotiated’? The slavery part? The secession part? Whether Lincoln should have preserved the Union? Question for members of the GOP — the party of Lincoln — who have endorsed Donald Trump: How can you possibly defend this?”
Historians agree with the assessment of the former Wyoming congresswoman, whose rejection of Trump-worship cast her into the wilderness, despite former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s long-ago promise that difference of opinion would be welcome in his GOP.
Those who have studied history cite states’ declarations of secession that explicitly listed maintaining the lucrative system that bought, sold and “owned” men, women and children as the reason for rebellion against the United States of America.
Because of my habit of hanging around museums, I actually read South Carolina’s document, displayed with reverence in Charleston years ago. A secession convention called in that state shortly after Lincoln’s election could not tolerate “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.”
South Carolina was the first to secede, motivated as well by the reluctance of some states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, returning escapees to bondage. I guess those states’ rights — the right of individual states to determine their own course — mattered.
Until they didn’t.
It’s rather ironic that so much occurred in the home state of another history-challenged candidate, Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, whose gaffe of forgetting to mention slavery when asked what caused the Civil War was anything but, considering her record.
Her rambling answer read more like a candidate being too clever by half, trying to keep her South Carolina conservative base as well as Trump supporters happy by sidestepping the “s” word. She was not quick enough on her feet to realize that telling the truth wouldn’t be a deal-breaker in New Hampshire, which sent many of its own to fight and die to keep the Union intact.
Though the woman trying on the cape of super-hero Republican Trump-vanquisher would like to move on from her original answer and ever clumsier attempts at clean-up, the whole chapter remains a part of Haley’s story because it reveals a lot about her.
Haley is the same candidate who in 2010 called the Civil War a matter of “tradition versus change,” and said she could cynically and strategically use her identity as an Indian-American woman and governor to counter NAACP efforts to force removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds with boycotts. Maybe working with civil rights groups to expand voting rights or bolster her state’s public schools would be the more positive play.
But the literal audience for Haley’s messaging was Confederate heritage group members.
Nikki Haley wouldn’t even have to travel far for a history lesson.
My brief holiday season trip to Charleston, S.C., would not have been complete without a visit to the International African American Museum, opened last year, looking out onto the city’s harbor, where an estimated 40 percent of enslaved Africans entered the U.S. Its dynamic exhibitions explore culture, connections and invaluable history, including the story of the Carolina gold rice that made the state rich with the skill and knowledge of the enslaved, many of whom died from that crop’s brutal cultivation.
It’s a skill many brought from home countries, perhaps a lesson for that fading Republican candidate Ron DeSantis, whose Florida African American history curriculum might actually make students less informed since it teaches Africans had to be dragged to America to learn a thing or two.
When President Joe Biden made his own trip to Charleston this week, he honored the history, both sad and triumphant, of Mother Emanuel AME Church. It’s where activists rebelled against oppression, and where that legacy fueled a white supremacist’s massacre of nine worshippers in 2015.
Their deaths were the final push that led Haley to join those calling for the flag she had defended to be moved.
The nine South Carolinians shot that day, pictured on the wall of the museum in Charleston, are as much a sign of the state’s current challenges as they are a part of its very recent past. As Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte, N.C., city councilman and brother of Mother Emanuel victim Cynthia Graham Hurd states on a quote on the museum wall: “We can’t simply move on. We’ve got work to do.”
In Biden’s return to the church, he looked to the future, as well, to honor the resolve of the generations who have worshipped and worked for change there: “That’s patriotism. That’s patriotism. To love something so much you make it better, no matter the struggle.”
It’s a word — patriotism — that some would twist to describe those aching for another Civil War not as jailed criminals but as “hostages,” as Trump and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., outrageously suggested.
In rapid news cycles with primary contests looming, it’s folly to glance in the rearview mirror for too long, I suppose. But that kind of amnesia could be perilous for those Americans who refuse to let hard-won progress slip away.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.