Lies Across America Reviewed

Lies Across America, James W. Loewen. The New Press, New York. Second Edition, 2019.

I live in Guelph, a mid-sized city in Southern Ontario. We like to think of our home as a green and growing place, full of people who are alert to environmental and social justice. We think we know our history. Guelph was founded in 1827 by a Scottish novelist and businessman named John Galt. As a director of the Canada Company, it was his job to open the countryside for immigrant settlers. There’s a bronze and granite bust of him outside our former city hall downtown. It’s the courthouse now. There’s a school named after him. The Ontario Civic Holiday on the first Monday in August is called John Galt Day here in Guelph.

You don’t mess with John Galt’s memory. He has only one rival in our municipal consciousness. John McCrae, the military doctor who wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields was born here. He also has a school named after him, and a statue outside the civic museum. His birthplace is a National Historic Site. Any suggestion that his poem is not a great one, or that it is not a plea for peace, can get a person’s citizenship revoked.

How accurate are our manufactured memories of these two men? It depends on who you ask. James Loewen has provided us with a guidebook that can help us find out.

The American sociologist and historian has updated his 1999 book in which he examines monuments erected across his country to honour historic people and events. A dismally large number of them honour Confederate military and political leaders. A lot are racist. A very large number have plaques that do not accurately describe the events commemorated. Historical monuments are not covered by any truth in advertising laws.

It’s a well-known adage that history is written by the winners. Loewen makes a further point that statues and other monuments determine how this history will be remembered. Most commemorate military victories and significant battles. This has consequences. One of these is that memorials tell us what is worth dying for, which turns out to be mostly the state.

There are hundreds of thousands of historic markers scattered across the United States, including museums, statues, tombstones and roadside plaques. Loewen uses about a hundred of them to illustrate his points. Some are, in a bizarre way, amusing. A statue in Lexington, Kentucky, of Confederate General, John Morgan, for example, had him riding a stallion. In fact, he rode a mare into battle. The sculptor obviously thought no females of any kind belonged on a battlefield.

Loewen suggests ten questions to ask at a historic site, and twenty monuments that should be removed as soon as possible. There are others that should follow. Photographs could be taken and placed in museums to illustrate the terrible history of race relations in America.

As we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago, America still has plenty of white supremacists who will fight to protect the memory of the Confederacy. They rioted, and killed a woman, to protest the removal of Confederate monuments. The American president, Donald Trump, said some of them were very fine people.

I used to think the southern states lost the American civil war because it was all about the right to own slaves and slavery was abolished. Loewen makes the point that the Confederacy won the war. He says it was really about white supremacy, of which slavery was one manifestation. In the decades following the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow laws were enacted formalizing segregation and sundown laws were passed requiring black people to leave white neighbourhoods at dusk.

Canada has had similar experiences with the removal of monuments. Edward Cornwallis is generally regarded as the founder of Halifax. In 1749 he issued a proclamation offering to pay for the scalps of Mi’kmaq people. In 2017, a rally calling for the removal of his statue from a park named after him was disrupted by a white supremacist group called the Proud Boys. The statue was finally removed in 2018.

Another example is the Langevin Block of our Parliament Building in Ottawa. It was named after Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the architects of the residential school system that abused thousands of Indigenous children. His name was removed, but not replaced by anyone else. In an act of typical Liberal blandness, it is now known for what goes on inside. It is now called “the Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council.” They can’t be on the wrong side of history if they say nothing about it.

Now, what about Guelph’s founding father? When the city was up and running, John Galt was fired by the Canada Company because of his poor management practices. When he returned to Scotland, he was sent to debtor’s prison for a few months. These are minor blemishes on his record.

A plaque near the River Run performing arts centre says, among other things, “Galt was conscientious and hard working and showed considerable humanity in his dealings with the company’s pioneer settlers.” What it doesn’t say is how he and his company dealt with the pre-pioneer population.

The plaque stands near the spot where Galt chopped down a tree to begin clearing land for Guelph. It wasn’t his to remove. It belonged to the Anishnaabek First Nation peoples and was ceded to the settlers through Treaty 29 in 1827, just before Galt swung his axe. Why doesn’t the plaque say anything about the people who were already here?

History is a complicated business. It is always subject to review and re-evaluation. Loewen quotes the American philosopher George Santayana who said, “History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.”

Lies Across America lays out a useful guide for evaluating what needs to be done. The second edition is scheduled for release on 24 September 2019.