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Magazine

Challenging the Interpretations of the Past

by Terrence J. McDonald, Director

With all appropriate pomp and circumstance, on June 30, 1913, a statue of Michigan politician Zachariah Chandler was unveiled in the National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol. This was a singular honor for a significant Michigan politician. Each state is allowed to place only two statues in that remarkable place.

Chandler was a very successful Detroit businessman who had been elected mayor of Detroit in 1851, and served as U.S. senator from Michigan from 1857 to 1875, as Secretary of the Interior from 1875 to 1877, and again as senator from 1879 until his death later that year. He was a lifelong opponent of slavery, one of the founders of the Republican Party, a crucial political ally of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, and a protector of the rights of African Americans during the Reconstruction period.

And yet, in 2011 that statute was removed from Statuary Hall.

Was this an early example of the radical “cancel culture?”

Not unless you include the Governor and state Legislature of Michigan on your list of “radicals.” It was they who ordered the removal.

And therein lies a tale worth retelling at a time when efforts to challenge names on buildings and statues in parks are underway all over the country, including in Michigan.

When the name of a building or statue is challenged, some worry that the past will be hidden, changed, or damaged, but this is not true. What is being challenged is only an interpretation of the past.

When historians talk about the past, they distinguish between two things: primary and secondary sources. When Zachariah Chandler wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln, he produced a primary source: something constructed in the past by someone in the past. When historians later wrote about Chandler, they were constructing secondary sources: something constructed in modern times based on primary sources from the past.

In general, primary sources change little. Secondary sources, on the other hand change constantly. A whole field of professional history, called historiography, exists just to chart the changing interpretations of the past produced by historians and others. But these changes in interpretation have no effect on the past itself, only on our understanding of the past.

The value of archival libraries like the Bentley is that they house the relatively unchanging documents produced in the past on which succeeding generations base their almost always changing interpretations of that past.

Every statue or named building is a secondary source: an interpretation of the past relevant to the moment when that statue was erected or building dedicated.

What changes when a statute is moved or a building renamed is that the interpretation of the past of one generation is replaced by that of another. And that could, does, and probably should happen again and again.

The Zachariah Chandler story has a happy ending that proves this point.

After his death in 2006, various Michigan political leaders began to feel that former President Gerald R. Ford should be honored in Statuary Hall and that a statue of him should replace that of Chandler. This is what happened in 2011, when, with the approval of the Governor and both houses of the Michigan Legislature, Chandler’s statue was moved to Constitution Hall in Lansing on May 2 of that year, and Gerald Ford’s statue was unveiled on May 3, in Statuary Hall.

The past lives of neither Chandler nor Ford changed on those days; neither disappeared or reappeared. But the contemporary interpretation of what constitutes a political model did change.

When we argue over buildings and statues, we are having an important argument only about the present.