Robert E. Lee

Amid further controversy regarding the politicization of Texas public school textbooks, it is time not only for the Powers administration but also UT faculty and students to evaluate the true significance of the statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, among others, which stand in the heart of our campus. 

A report released this month from the nonpartisan Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, debated in a point/counterpoint in this paper last week, found numerous instances of politically fueled bias in government, Texas, U.S. and world history textbooks. These included comic strips trivializing affirmative action as well as the statement that, during segregation, “Sometimes … the buildings, buses, and teachers for the all-black schools were lower in quality,” which is a significant understatement. Not only do these textbooks effectively whitewash the history of the Jim Crow South, but they are, according to a report, a statement that “understates the tremendous and widespread disadvantages of African-American schools compared to white schools.”

There was so much bias, in fact, that the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote, “The complicated but undeniable history of separation of church and state is dismissed” as well as textbooks undermining the fact that slavery was “the actual trigger for the sectional crisis.”

In the year 2014, this kind of revisionist history ought to be seriously reassessed. However, young students are not the only ones who will feel the consequences of agenda-fueled education.

“My heart is out as well to the students who come to my classrooms at SMU from the study of history in the Texas public schools,” wrote Edward Countryman, a history professor at Southern Methodist University, in his opening statement in his report on proposed Texas, U.S. and world history textbooks. “[I]f they have not taken Advanced Placement history, they are woefully underprepared for the college-level study of history.” 

Just as the Texas State Board of Education’s primary goal is likely not to directly misinform young students, the statues of Jefferson Davis, Albert S. Johnston and Robert E. Lee are not intended by the university to directly represent exclusion and the institution (and perpetuation) of slavery. Rather, these statues are presumably meant to reveal the pride Southerners feel regarding their legacy of rebellion and independence. Though this rationale is good enough for many, it is not good enough for a collegiate community concerned that certain statues represent blatant racism. 

In 2006, President William Powers, Jr. reacted to student-fueled sentiment regarding the removal of certain statues on campus. “[T]he statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well,” said Powers after forming an advisory committee, which to this day has no written proof of action. His argument based on tradition is not wholly dissimilar to arguments made in favor of the continuance of slavery in the 19th century, as well as many other contemporary polarizing social issues, including the fight for workplace equality and same-sex marriage. So why is it an argument that is considered valid in 2014?

We need look no further than into our own University’s history to find a complicated and nuanced relationship with race. We are a university that did not racially integrate until mandated to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1950 Sweatt v. Painter case. We are a university that recently has been an epicenter in the debate over affirmative action, from a Supreme Court case to a controversial on-campus bake sale. Race has been and will continue to be an incredibly sensitive issue, and to deny this would imply revisionist history. 

Anyone who has followed the recent controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins football team’s name can attest to the fact that symbolic imagery is important. Images that were considered benign 50, 20, 10 and perhaps even five years ago have taken on an entirely new meaning in our world of heightened sensitivity, especially with regards to race. All aspects of our proud and often ugly history ought to be taught and learned objectively. But by erecting statues in the names of Jefferson Davis, et al., we are also choosing which figures of our history we prioritize and stand behind. Do we choose to represent the ideals of equality, democracy and the acquisition of power through struggle, or do we choose to represent exclusion and the fight to maintain slavery at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives?

Sundin is an English and radio-television-film senior from San Antonio.

Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History and Government, Department of History

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

H.W. Brands focuses on the complexities of the denounced Union leader Ulysses S. Grant in his biography “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.” Brands is currently writing a history of the United States in biographies, and Grant’s biography is the fourth installation in a six-part series. The Daily Texan spoke with Brands about his unconventional portrayal of Grant as a progressive president rather than the brutal commander who destroyed the South.

The Daily Texan: Why did you pick Ulysses S. Grant to represent the Civil War time period in your documentation of American history?

H.W. Brands: In the first place, Grant was a soldier and I have come to realize that soldiers, warriors play a large role in history. I wanted to see what kind of personality became a great soldier. That was part of the reason. The other part was that America is a country that has been shaped dramatically by war. I wanted to look at the role of war in American history.  And I wanted to look at the character of a warrior or a soldier, and Grant was the obvious choice.

DT: Why do you think he was so disrespected after the Civil War?

Brands: There were people who felt like they needed to choose sides by their favorite general, and typically Grant was opposed to Robert E. Lee ... Robert E. Lee had the advantage of being more handsome, more dashing, more the mythical figure. [The South] thought Lee was the more brilliant general, Grant the butcher. This is the story that was told for decades afterwards. This overlooks a fundamental fact of war which is you win by whatever means you have available. Grant understood what could lead to a Union victory and he followed that path. Nonetheless, that didn’t seem dashing. That didn’t seem gentlemanly. That seemed plodding. That seemed almost barbarous.

DT: How would you characterize Grant?

Brands: Grant had a genius for war. He understood what was required to win. He could visualize the battlefield better than most people could. He understood logistics, how you get provisions, troops, equipment and ammunition to the front when you need it. He also had the ability to look past the casualties of any given battle to the long-term goal. Grant, unlike Lincoln’s previous generals, could make that awful decision to set the battle in motion, even when he knew that 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 young men might not survive the battle.

DT: At what point do you think that Grant had a downfall?

Brands: Grant had political enemies. All forceful politicians do. Grant remained the most popular man throughout his presidency. He could have been elected a third time if he had desired it, but he didn’t. He was enormously popular at his death in 1885. Grant was the great hero of his age. Needless to say, he wasn’t so popular in the South because he had been the general on the other side. But most people in the South considered him the good general, in part because he had given Robert E. Lee quite generous terms of peace at the surrender at Appomattox. He forbade his own soldiers from cheering as the Confederates marched out, because, as he said, they are no longer the enemy, they are our fellow Americans. And so Grant had a certain magnanimity that was not associated with many other officers.

DT: When you’re looking at a story or an idea, what is the most challenging part?

Brands: Well, I won’t say this is the most challenging part, but the thing I try to do first is hear the voice of my character. So I read what they wrote in diaries, and what they wrote in letters. I’m trying to figure out the impression this figure made on the world around them. For the purposes of telling my story, I want my main subject to speak. I don’t want my books to read like a history lecture, where the professor is telling you about these people. I want these people to come to life for the reader. With Grant, I have his memoir, his own telling of his life, letters that he wrote during the course of his life, and I’ve got a whole lot of orders that he gave when he was in the Army.

Printed on Thursday, October 25, 2012 as: Ulysses S. Grant's kind side revealed