Professor Blight on Capitol Events and Confederacy

On Thursday, January 14, Yale Sterling Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies David W. Blight spoke to Lawrenceville students to discuss the January 6 riots in the U.S. Capitol.

On Thursday, January 14, Yale Sterling Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies David W. Blight spoke to Lawrenceville students to discuss the January 6 riots in the U.S. Capitol. Blight, who has previously joined the Lawrenceville community as the 2017 Weeden lecturer and on many other occasions, is a notable scholar of American history. His work include Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory and Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, among others.

History and Economics Teacher Regan Kerney H’49 ’95 ’98 ’99 ’03 ’11 began the lecture by recapping the events of January 6, when an armed mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election, halting Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential electoral ballots. Kerney shared that five people were killed and dozens more injured; this was the second time in American history that a seizure of the Capitol was made.

Following an introduction of Blight, Interdisciplinary Department Co-Chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program Erik Chaput H’20 also requested that Blight discuss the impact of the Confederate flag in the Capitol for the first time in American history, as well as the “age of Trump and the rise of neo-confederacy that has been connected to his presidency.”

In response to the January 6 mob, Blight said, “I personally found the photograph of the person carrying the Confederate flag in the capitol to be the most stunning thing of that night. It just struck me—it was painful to see.”

Blight then connected the Confederate Lost Cause to the January 6 mob, which “believes in something they have been learning from and living by ever since the 1980s—a genuine contempt for government itself.” He continued by generalizing the central themes upon which lost causes build themselves. “Lost Causes know what they hate…[the mob] hates liberalism as they define it. They’ve come to hate the black and browning of America, they’ve come to detest immigrants of color, and above all they hate the government. This is a lethal mix of beliefs that they’ve come to transform into a story. All Lost Causes only stick around because it becomes a powerful narrative, a story that explains everything,” he stated.

Blight then spoke on the effects of January 6 on the Republican party. He noted that the Republican party may reunify in opposition against major legislation proposed by the Biden administration, explaining that “what unifies a party is something to be against…It’s possible that the party could break into two, [but] I wouldn’t write its epitaph now.”

However, he noted that “our history does show us a number of cases that when our political party breaks apart, the union itself is in some danger. Those political parties are far more important than people wish they were.”

Next, looking at the Biden presidential administration’s role in unifying America, Blight said, “Biden is walking into one of the most difficult historical moments any president since Lincoln has faced. It’s comparable to FDR in [1952] and Obama in [2008]...He has to talk about healing and unity. However, you can’t have healing and unity without justice...This is one of those classic layered crises that you don’t want to miss. Crises are to be used for great change.”

Reflecting on the events in the Capitol, Blight concluded, “Here we are again, trying to understand what [is] happening in America. [We are] living through an extraordinary historical moment. I think it’s safe to say that we are living through a shock of events.”

Blight closed the night with a quote by Frederick Douglass from his speech “Sources of Danger to the Republic:” “Our government may at some times be in the hands of a bad man. When in the hands of a good man it is all well enough. We ought to, though, have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man it shall be safe.”

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