Edward Ayers: Reckoning with Ourselves: Principle and Persuasion in Remembering the Civil War

Atkinson Forum in American Studies: Place, Memory, and the Public Monument

Edward Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. Ayers has been named National Professor of the Year, received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama at the White House, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and won the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history. Ayers is one of the cohosts for BackStory, a popular podcast about American history. His newest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (W. W. Norton and Company, 2017), has received the Lincoln Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute and Gettysburg College.

Ayers helped lead the Future of Richmond's Past, a collaborative city-wide effort to commemorate the anniversaries of the Civil War and emancipation. With the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he oversaw a national conversation about the war and freedom in public libraries across the nation. Ayers is chair of the board of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, dedicated to telling an inclusive story of slavery and the war over slavery.


For the last two decades, Americans have struggled with and fought over the flags, monuments, and memory of the Confederacy. At the same time, our textbooks, classrooms, and museums have emphasized the central role of slavery in fomenting secession and driving the war. Despite that important work, about four in 10 Americans, cutting across lines of region, party, ethnicity, gender, and generation, tell polling groups that the war was "about" or "over" something other than slavery, usually states' rights. How might we go about changing the minds of Americans to accord with the historical record?

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