Yale Professor Delivers Speech at Vance Birthplace Symposium

David Blight

In the midst of a national conversation about how we as a nation choose to remember the American Civil War, the University of North Carolina Asheville’s Department of History in tandem with the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site held a two-day symposium titled “Zebulon B. Vance Reconsidered.”

A blue granite obelisk tower 65 feet above Asheville’s epicenter at Pack Square, it was named for Zebulon Baird Vance, who served twice as North Carolina’s governor, and as a United States senator. Vance governed North Carolina through most of the Civil War, but the monument is not to the Civil War. It was erected after his death as a memorial to a beloved native of Buncombe County.

Yale University Professor David Blight was the keynote speaker for the symposium. He spoke about the Civil War and Reconstruction, but actually said very little about Vance, expounding instead upon philosophical quotes about the qualities of memory from Robert Penn Warren, James Baldwin, St. Augustine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Faulkner, Mark Twain, and James Oliver Horton. Blight said that all memory is like all politics; at some point it’s local. “A memory can be vast and national, and international, and even universally human, but all memory at some point is local,” he said.   

Blight shared a quote from Robert Penn Warren’s 1961 book, The Legacy of the Civil War. “The Civil War draws us as an oracle, darkly unriddled and portentous, of national as well as personal fate.” Blight agreed that it is indeed a place we go to ask the big questions, but also questioned where is it? “Is the oracle Stone Mountain? Is the oracle Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg? Is the oracle an April morning at Shiloh? If you’re interested in the Civil War, is your oracle the Lincoln Memorial, that great, vast, secular national temple?”

From a July 1961 interview with American author and social critic James Baldwin, Blight recalled Baldwin being asked what he meant when he said Americans don’t have any sense of history or tragedy. “What is a sense of history? Well, you read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person who always thinks that he is alone. That’s why art is important,” Baldwin said.

“When you get inside the complexity of history you’re going to realize you’re not alone. Whatever may happen to you or society has already probably happened before,” continued Blight. “There are very few events in history that are totally unique.” Of Baldwin’s answer to what is a sense of tragedy he quoted, “People think that a sense of tragedy is a kind of embroidery, something irrelevant that you can take or leave, but in fact it is a necessity. That is what the Blues and spirituals are about. It is the ability to look on things as they are and survive your losses.”

Blight said the Reconstruction Era, traditionally defined as starting at the end of the Civil War in 1865 and continuing to 1877, was both the cause and the product of revolutions, some of which have never ended and likely never will. “I bear bad news, reconstruction is not over. Lest this seem a little despairing, we need to remember that our country, our society, and our political culture have almost always been characterized by remaking, revival, regeneration, even reconciliation. Americans love redemption.”

Blight also said Americans love second acts. “Our second founding of the American Republic came out of the Civil War, born of the blood of that war and the emancipation of 4,000,000 African American slaves, and the recrafting of the Constitution in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, has never been so easy to comprehend or to embrace as just another literary second act.” He said Reconstruction was one long referendum on the meaning and memory of the war.

Blight asked, how do we make sectional reconciliation between North and South compatible with emancipation? “How do you square Black freedom, and the stirrings of racial equality, with the South’s cause that had lost almost everything except its unbroken belief in White supremacy? That includes Zebulon Vance.”

President Lincoln in his last public speech delivered from the White House balcony was quoted by Blight as having said, “Reconstruction is pressed much more closely upon our attention now, it is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike the case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with…We simply I must begin with, and mold from, disorganized and discordant elements.” This address from Lincoln was given on the day before his assassination.

Lincoln added toward the end of his speech, “…so new and unprecedented is the whole case, that no exclusive, and inflexible plan can safely be prescribed as to details and colatterals [sic]. Such exclusive, and inflexible plan, would surely become a new entanglement. Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.”

As to what plan would prevail, Blight identified three challenges would require answers: First, who would rule in the defeated South, ex-Confederates, White Unionists, Black former slaves, or Yankees who moved south (i.e. carpetbaggers)? Second, who would rule Washington, the U.S. Congress or the president? Third, what were the dimensions and definitions of Black freedom and equality under law and in human hearts?

Blight said, “Zebulon Vance is complex, but his approach to Reconstruction, as I understand it, is essentially caught in the famous Andrew Johnson slogan, although he didn’t invent it, and that is ‘the Union as it was, and the Constitution as it is.’ Bring the Southern states back into the Union, but don’t touch the Constitution. Don’t create any kind of civil rights, or racial equality. Don’t expand the democracy, keep America a White man’s country.”

Blight said this was the essence of Zebulon Vance’s political life, first as a member of the Conservative Party, and then as a Democrat. He said, “Republicans thought Reconstruction should be slow, with more of a military occupation – very controversial – a longer occupation with congressional authority, not presidential authority, and it should be rooted in a total remaking of the U.S. Constitution wrapped around this idea of the 14th Amendment.”   

Southerners in denial of losing the Civil War maintained that they never really fought for slavery, that it had never truly been defeated on the battlefield, and that it had only been defeated by “superior numbers and resources.” They held a belief that the “Lost Cause” was the same cause as the American Revolution’s rebellion against Great Britain. “A key part of their tradition was that they were the true vessel of the American Revolution resisting centralized power. It became common in Lost Cause oratory to call George Washington the first Rebel president,” Blight said. “I suppose in some way that was accurate.” By the 1890s it was no longer about loss, but a celebration of victory over Reconstruction, he added.

In attendance at Blight’s keynote speech were North Carolina Senator Terry Van Duyn and Representative John Ager. After the lecture Van Duyn said Blight’s presentation reminded her to keep an open mind. “To fully understand the implications of history it is important to remember that my truth is not necessarily everybody else’s truth, and we must be open to each other’s perceptions of reality. It is essential that as a society we move forward in a mutually respectful way where everyone has a voice and can live their life to the fullest. And for that to happen we have to acknowledge some difficult truths,” she said.       

Ager said Blight’s message reminded him how difficult it can be to face the historic memories of our forefathers. “It’s hard for me too. I’m an old Calvinist. John Calvin said he believed every aspect of human life is tainted with sin, and that’s what we have a hard time facing up to. When we adopt the whitewashed Hallmark version of history we skip over the darkness of our past,” he said. 

By Mark-Ellis Bennett

Photographs by Mark-Ellis Bennett:

3559 – Yale University Professor Dr. David Blight gave the keynote speech for the Vance Symposium at UNCA.

3560 – UNCA assistant professor of history Darin Waters whose research focuses on the history of African Americans in Western North Carolina.