Because the Civil War is the American Iliad, it is constantly being refought in the public memory. Much is at stake, for myths make meaning, meaning makes politics, and politics make myths…

american iliadJesse Jackson made a remarkable run for the presidency in the early months of 1988—two decades before America would elect its first black president, Barack Obama. Michigan played a significant role in the ascent of the civil rights leader: After he won the Democratic caucus with fifty-five percent of the vote, Mr. Jackson for a brief time was the Democratic front-runner since he had the most pledged delegates. Whatever their politics, many voters recognized that it was a significant threshold for an African-American to cross.[1]

Stephen Tonsor was cynical about this historic moment. When I joined him and Mrs. Caroline Tonsor for lunch a few days after the caucus, he dismissed the result: “Jesse Jackson’s showing in Michigan is a fluke and he won’t win—he can’t win. America is not ready for a black president. To cite that great expert, the comedian Don Rickles: ‘Last year we said things can’t go on like this, and they didn’t—they got worse.'”

He chuckled, but I was not feeling the vibe. Because of recent conversations among my circle of acquaintances and friends, the topic hit an irritating boil that was ready to pop. In my agitation, I hardly noticed that the ever-gracious Caroline set a plate of hot food before me.

“Well,” I said, “I was born and raised in Texas and also spent part of my childhood in New Orleans, and I find it interesting how many Northerners think they’re experts on the South. Some of our colleagues on campus have expressed dismay that Jackson is racking up primary victories below the Mason-Dixon Line, and not just with the support of black voters. He’s winning with significant white support, too.[2] I am starting to think that Northerners don’t want to give the South any credit for overcoming the burden of its history.”

My Texas drawl was subtly surfacing in my speech, as it often did when I spoke about my childhood home at any length or with any passion. Tonsor sat squarely in his chair, looking at me through his thick glasses with that sphinx-like expression of his. I had no idea what he was thinking—maybe he had never heard my Texas accent before—but I raised the ante in an effort to get him to play his hand.

“I’ve been surprised by the prejudice against the South on campus,” I persisted, “and by the condescension toward Southerners. Yesterday one of our department’s star grad students said that a Southern accent knocked ten points off a speaker’s IQ.

“But I’ll tell you what I think after living in the North these past several months: When it comes to race relations, I think the North needs the South to be its scapegoat. Look at how Northerners are always calling out the South for being racist. But notice that they bring out their fog machine to obscure the truth and hide their own racist past.”

Tonsor, I perceived, began to shake his head but I could not tell whether it was in agreement or disagreement.

“Don’t you think,” I repeated with growing heat, “that a lot of Northerners use the South as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from their own legacy of racism—whether it’s Brown University capitalizing on the New England slave trade, or it’s Indiana reviving the KKK after World War I, or it’s Detroit being the most segregated city in North America? Aren’t both sections of the country stained with the blood of America’s original sin. It’s always easier to look at the splinter in the other fellow’s eye than to deal with the splinter in your own. I don’t think the North is in any position to lecture the South when it comes to race.”


Caroline and Tonsor fussed with their food. They were uncharacteristically quiet. It suddenly occurred to me that I was violating their hospitality. Here I sat at the table of two Northerners who were feeding me and who likely sympathized with my complaint. But I had a burr under my saddle, and my heated and defensive rant was not conducive to friendly conversation. The irony was not lost on me that I was acting in a very un-Southern way; my mother would have been mortified. Apologizing, I looked for a way to change the subject.

“You are just expressing your Southern pride,” said Tonsor with understanding.

“It just shows that you feel comfortable enough with us to say what’s on your mind,” added Caroline kindly.

“Thank you for saying that,” I said. “As you can probably sense, I feel more conflicted than ever. It’s not as though I can return to the South and fall into the old conversations. I cannot act as though I haven’t learned things. Maybe the Dunning School is not the last word on the subject.”

For Caroline’s benefit, and for mine too it turned out, Tonsor elaborated, “Mr. Whitney is referring to one of the most influential historians in U.S. history, William Dunning. During the Gay Nineties and early twentieth century, he left his mark on the first generation of university-trained doctoral students who wrote on the Reconstruction era, and their work would influence the interpretation of Reconstruction for a hundred years.[3] His intellectual genealogy is also worthy of note. He himself was German trained—by the extreme nationalist Heinrich von Treitschke, a historian who is best handled with tongs. After returning to the U.S., Dunning established himself at Columbia where he was a teacher of Carlton J.H. Hayes, who was a teacher of Joseph Ward Swain, who was a teacher of mine.”[4]

“So your professional genealogy descends from Dunning?” I queried, wondering whether I had just stuck my foot in my mouth.

“I would be a mutation,” Tonsor said sarcastically, “for I am much more in Lord Acton’s line of descent and have never considered myself part of Dunning’s so-called school. But it is important to know who he is. Dunning notched his gun by slaying apologist after Northern apologist of Reconstruction. Not surprisingly his legacy is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the South is quite enthusiastic about him. He and his doctoral students at Columbia did painstaking archival research to demonstrate how much the Radical Republicans hurt the former Confederate States of America. There was much of value in their findings, for they help us understand why the South resents the North to this day. On the other hand—a stained hand, no doubt—in retrospect he is considered a racist. People think his work extended the shelf life of Jim Crow and made black disenfranchisement respectable. Today, as you can imagine, his shade is persona non grata at the American Historical Association, which is ironic considering he was one of its founders.

“I also mentioned Lord Acton whose reflections are to the point. It is my considered judgment that Acton was the most knowledgeable foreign observer of American affairs in the nineteenth century. His writings on America are not much read nowadays because he supported the South in the Civil War. Yet I urge you to read his long essay on what he called the Second American Revolution; it’s published in his journal The Rambler, and it’s misleadingly titled, ‘Political Causes of the American Revolution.’ Acton was no defender of chattel slavery—not at all like Calhoun who wrote of slavery as a ‘positive good’—yet he believed the federal system of states’ rights was critically important to upholding freedom and curbing the enlargement of the national government, not to mention the expanding tyranny of the president. The South, Acton believed, was fighting for liberty, for progress, and for civilization.[5] And while he believed that most great men were bad men,[6] he sympathized with the tragic pathos of Robert E. Lee, who felt duty-bound to defend his homeland against invasion. He wrote to Lee following his surrender, ‘I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.'”[7]

I silently noted the irony that Acton wanted to uphold freedom in the states that supported slavery but, feeling that I had been combative enough already, kept the observation to myself.

“For me,” I offered instead, “there’s no going home to the same South. I see it differently now. I’ll always love my family, of course, and the flavors, smells, and scenes of my childhood, but I’ve had to rethink what I learned in childhood—about race, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, all of it. I mean, my generation is probably the last to see Southerners stand when the band strikes up Dixie! Even my view of Lincoln has taken a 180. Several members of my family thought he was a tyrant who ran roughshod over the Constitution. They could never speak his name without gnawing their hand over his invasion of the South. They have a point. But then you travel. You read. You talk. You reconsider. It takes time to come to terms with the South’s mixed legacy.”


“You are dealing with a tangle of myth, memory, and the politics of nostalgia. Because the Civil War is the American Iliad,[8] it is constantly being refought in the public memory. Much is at stake, for myths make meaning, meaning makes politics, and politics make myths.[9] It will take time, but you will find a way to come to terms with your Southern legacy,” Tonsor said, and added, in a softer register: “Maybe it’s harder for Texans because of the pride Texans have in the Lone Star State. But with time and perspective, you will sort it out.

“I have a similarly complicated relationship to my home, the Great River Country of south-central Illinois, with its large horizons, its prairie panoramas, and its riparian woodlands. The Land of Lincoln,” he added with a mischievous grin. I smiled back at him, for we had reversed roles. In dialogue he was more likely to be the edgy one with the chip on his shoulder; I the patient listener. Today we got to see things from the other side of the fence.

Lincoln Hall

“I was raised on Lincoln,” said Tonsor. “He was everywhere in my childhood. After World War II, when I attended Illinois—a land-grant university whose founding was owed to Lincoln’s support for the Morrill Act—I encountered his words every day, literally. The history department was then in Lincoln Hall, a building that was designed to look vaguely like a Roman temple to a god, and in this case the god was Abraham Lincoln. As you approach Lincoln Hall from the Main Quad, you can look up at the entablature which girds the top of the building and see a Bartlett’s worth of Lincoln quotations.”

“The hall is a veritable shrine to Lincoln,” added Caroline. She looked at her husband and said, somewhat tentatively: “There must be three dozen quotations of the President, and a bust in the lobby.”

“Yes.” Then, turning to me he remarked, “I have mixed feelings when I return home, to south-central Illinois. Caroline and I usually drive back to Jerseyville over the Fourth of July to be with family. But there is always something depressing about going back. So many people there have never reached for more than a very average life. Meaningful conversation can be tough slogging. Most of what they know about the world comes from lowbrow television shows. But these are my people and it’s home.

“So I understand your attachment to place, as well as your very complicated relationship to Texas and the South. It’s similar to my complicated relationship to south-central Illinois. The irrational attachment to place is one of the things that makes us human. Alas, the importance of place is often overlooked in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Ann Arbor. Here reign the deracine.”

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] R.W. Apple Jr., “Jackson Wins Easily in Michigan in Surprising Setback to Dukakis,” New York Times, March 27, 1988. R.W. Apple Jr., “Jackson Is Seen as Winning a Solid Place in History,” New York Times, April 29, 1988.

[2] E.J. Dionne Jr., “Black and White: How Jesse Jackson Made History While Losing Wisconsin, New York Times, April 10, 1988. E.J. Dionne Jr., “Jackson’s Share of Votes by Whites Triples in ’88, New York Times, June 13, 1988.

[3] For a more recent treatment of the state of the historiographic debate over William Dunning and his legacy, see The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, ed. John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, Foreword by Eric Foner (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013).

[4] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Joseph Ward Swain,” Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 312.

[5] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Quest for Liberty: America in Acton’s Thought,” Introduction by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Occasional Paper No. 1, 1993).

[6] Lord Acton letter to Mandell Creighton, quoted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Kindle edition), chap. 9, loc. 4880.

[7] Lord Acton letter to Robert E. Lee, November 1866; quoted by Tonsor, “Quest for Liberty.”

[8] This expressive allusion was used by the University of Chicago professor Richard Weaver in “Lee the Philosopher,” Georgia Review, vol. 2, no. 3 (fall 1948): 297. Previously it was the title of a book that was published when Tonsor was an undergraduate: Otto Eisenschiml and Ralph Newman, The American Iliad: The Epic Story of the Civil War (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947).

[9] A similar formulation was offered by the Berkeley historian T.J. Stiles, “We Need a New Museum that Tells Us How We Came to Believe What We Believe,” History News Network, August 27, 2017.

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