It occurs to me that every step taken to blot out the historical record by pulling down monuments and removing commemorative plaques, or rewriting history to teach that great men who happened to have flaws were simply flawed, and not great at all, misses the point of why we honor and remember them in the first place. And reminds me that those men will never be forgotten by true patriots and lovers of liberty, regardless of how many statues are toppled and memorials are erased from human view.
Sure, Washington and Jefferson and many of the other Founding Fathers were slaveholders. Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous American Freemasons after George Washington himself, inventor, publisher, man of science, etc., was also known as (or was at least alleged to be) a great rake, who enjoyed the voluptuous and frequent company of women not his wife. John Dickinson, a member of the Continental Congress while it debated the great question of Independence, refused to sign that document, because he saw himself as a British subject, not as a rebellious colonial, and believed that the issues between the colonies and Great Britain could be worked out without resorting to the clash of arms — yet he returned home to Pennsylvania and took up arms against the British invaders regardless, being made a brigadier general of the Pennsylvania Militia, and fought with honor even as he was denigrated for his attitude on independence.
[Edit 11/3/2017 to add:] Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence with all of its soaring words about freedom and liberty and the rights of man, was nevertheless a slave-holder. Yet he nearly derailed the adoption of his own magnum opus (and the cause of independence with it) over his insistence that it must include a passage charging George III with perpetuating the slave trade, stating in part, “This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain” — a passage he was forced, in the end, to remove, in order to gain the acquiescence of the Southern colonies. And he railed against slavery all of his life, while keeping his own slaves to work his land until he freed them all at his death — a pragmatic and somewhat cynical nod to the idea that he would not survive financially if he had to pay them for their labor. Yet today he is scorned by some not only because he was a slave-holder, but because (reputedly, and backed up to some extent by genetic research) he had the gall to dally with one of his slaves (and produce children with her) after the death of his beloved wife Martha. The people who huff about his relationship with Sally Hemings usually tend to class him along with common rapists, claiming that as a slave, she had no choice in the matter.1
Benedict Arnold was a great general and leader of men, and also a traitor. He is remembered today more for the latter than for the former, but readers of history know that his leadership was crucial to American victories before he turned his coat. As much as Americans despise a traitor, we yet remember him, even as we spit at his name.
Robert E. Lee served the United States honorably, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army before the Civil War began. This was in a day and age when the loyalty of many a man remained primarily to his state rather than to the United States as a whole, because that was how the Federal Constitution was written.2 His family held slaves; he was a slaveholder. Yet he fought honorably for his state and ultimately for the Confederacy to which his state had cleaved, not for the institution of slavery per se. At the end of the Civil War, he did the best he could for the men who served under him, urging them to sign the amnesty petition and not to take to the hills as guerrilla fighters continuing to battle for the Cause, now irrevocably lost. He himself petitioned for amnesty and signed the amnesty oath, not that it did him any good; his amnesty oath (dated October 2, 1865) would be lost for over a hundred years and finally found bundled with a stack of State Department papers in the National Archives in 1970. His status as a full citizen of the United States was restored posthumously in 1975, backdated to the date on the amnesty petition, June 13, 1865. That it took so long for this to happen was simply a matter of malice and spite, as the Secretary of State at the time could simply have approved it and been done. But that wasn’t the way William Seward operated. And Lee wasn’t going to ask twice.
Ask any grunt Southern soldier why he was fighting the Yankees. He would have told you it was for his rights. He didn’t own any slaves, and he wasn’t the rich owner of a big plantation (if he was lucky, he might be a sharecropper farming 40 rented acres and his family nearly starving to death in the process). But he had a sense of honor, and that sense of honor had been pricked by a bunch of damn Yankees trying to tell his state, and by extension, him, how to live — and then having the gall to make war on him to force him to live that way.3
On the other hand, we practically deify Abraham Lincoln — or we did till the other day, anyway — for freeing the slaves and saving the Union, yet Lincoln himself said that if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do so.
But ask any Northerner of the day — or any Millennial alive today who has had the misfortune to be educated in our public schools and universities — why the South seceded and went to war, and they’ll tell you it was because of slavery.
Because slavery was evil, and the men who owned slaves were evil, and the South was beaten and the Confederacy destroyed because the righteous Northerners were on a crusade to stomp out slavery, that horrendous institution originated by Americans —
Well, now, wait a minute.
They can believe that all they want, but the fact of the matter is, slavery has been an institution in the world since Og bashed Gog over the head with a club and forced him to do his bidding. All of the early civilizations utilized slavery. The Greeks and the Romans, those great democrats and republicans, had slaves. Egyptians had ’em — who built the Pyramids? Jews have an entire holiday dedicated to their escape from Egyptian slavery. And the list goes on. There is practically no civilization in history, up until modern times, that didn’t institutionalize slavery in some form or another.4 And slavery, institutionalized or not, continues to be a problem all over the world.
The African slaves who made it to American shores were, like as not, members of tribes conquered by other tribes and then sold by their conquerers to the white men in the ships, who rarely if ever ventured past the beach. Arab slavers from northern Africa had no scruples about buying the human spoils of tribal wars, either, and then selling them on to whoever would pony up the price.
The slave trade to the Americas largely withered after the British Navy began its official policy of suppression. Moreover, the importation of slaves into the United States ceased as of 1808, due to the agreement by the Founding Fathers that after that date, the Congress could prohibit it. (It’s in the Constitution. See Article I, Section 9.) So after 1808, slaveholders were limited to the slaves they had on hand — not that slaves couldn’t procreate, but look, folks, that’s a slow process of increase no matter what. Certainly it’s a lot slower than bringing slaves in by the shipload to Charleston or Savannah.
OK, so what? What about these supposedly great men who nevertheless owned slaves? How can we honor them as great Founders or heroes when they lived high and mighty off the labor and sweat of men who were not free? That’s offensive to modern sensibilities!
With all due respect: Fuck your modern sensibilities.
When I was in college, as a history major and later as a graduate student of history, I was taught that in order to do history properly, one had to leave their preconceived notions at the door and rely solely on the historical record as it was presented in primary texts and the physical record. Even secondary texts were suspect, to a degree, because they were subject to the author’s bias. The late historian Paul Fussell embodied the philosophy in this way:
Understanding the past requires pretending that you don’t know the present. It requires feeling its own pressure on your pulses without any ex post facto illumination.
The fact is that these were all men of honor — even Arnold, until his treason (which was largely the fault of his overly-large, insufficiently-stroked ego), and Lee (who believed in a Cause — namely, the defense of what he saw as the rights of the people to live as they saw fit, not as some faceless government ordained). The further fact is that slavery was simply what it was. No slave owner was in the business of oppression for oppression’s sake, unless he was simply a sadist who didn’t care that he was laying waste to his own personal economy. Indeed, by the time the Civil War rolled around and put paid to slavery (not to mention the lives of well over 600,000 Americans on both sides), there’s a good historical chance that slavery would have ended on its own within another generation. That’s because farming cotton or any other crop was going to be financially ruinous to the plantation owners who tried to do so with slave labor, as opposed to their competitors who could get a lot more done for a lot less money by investing in mechanization.5 Prior to Sumter, it wasn’t the government or the Army that was going to end slavery, it was Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.
“So, Mr. Curmudgeon,” you say, “are you really saying that it would have been better to let slavery run on for another 30 or 40 years than to end it right then and there in 1865? What kind of monster are you, anyway?”
First, I ain’t no monster. Second, yes, that is precisely what I’m saying. It would have been better because it would have been gradual. It would have (in my opinion) prevented the rise of the Klan; it would have prevented the disaster known as Reconstruction; it would have resulted in better relations between the races; and it would not have resulted in the deaths of so many fine American men on the field of battle. Think of the possibilities: No Jim Crow. No Brown v. Board. No need to send the National Guard in to ensure that black children could attend public schools. No Civil Rights Act (it wouldn’t have been needed, because it was already anticipated by the 14th Amendment). No Great Society (which wasn’t needed anyway; it just made things worse). No inner-city ghettos (to my point).
Possibly a lot fewer bigots on both sides of the race divide.6
And none of this burning desire to destroy history simply because it makes people feel icky. Man up, for God’s sake.
But back to my point about men of honor.
Let’s look at the Founding Fathers. Men of honor, most of them veterans of the Revolution, the ones who weren’t (because of age or whatever reason) were nevertheless viewed as respected philosophers and thinkers of the day.
They devised a system of government that served us well until certain elements subverted its clear meaning in order to enslave the people.
They were, as a group, probably the most amazing assemblage of intellect and reason since … since … well, since ever. And certainly no similar group has appeared since. (Possibly they were all aliens, or time travelers from the far future. Who knows?)
Certainly they had more honesty and integrity in their little fingers than our entire current Congress has in all 535 of its bodies.
They believed in freedom. They believed in the truth of the Biblical verse that every man should sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and that none should be afraid. They believed that all men were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that no king, prince, or potentate could deny those God-given rights.
Some of the slave owners among them vowed to free their slaves, and some of them did. (We’ll not think less of them for waiting to do so until they had passed away.)
They had a vision of America as a shining city on a hill, a new Jerusalem, a new start for free men in a free society united by patriotism, brotherhood, and the love of God.
And because of all this, the places where they visited and certain items associated with them became almost holy. Even if George Washington didn’t really sleep at your inn, you would be excused the untruth, because everyone revered Washington and knew that you must revere him, too, or you wouldn’t put up the sign that said he did.7
So you take a church in Alexandria, Virginia, where both George Washington and Robert Lee belonged and attended divine service. In 1870, the year Lee died, the congregation thought enough of both men to erect plaques honoring them in the sanctuary of the church. And nobody has said boo about that since that time (so far as we know). But in 2017, with every liberal moron in the country screaming about how awful it is that we actually have statues and monuments honoring Confederate generals and soldiers and victories — because of all that awful slaveholding that most of them didn’t actually have any part of — now comes Christ Church of Alexandria with an announcement that those plaques, honoring two of their own former parishioners, will be removed sometime in the next year and will be relocated elsewhere in the church.
Just because both of them owned slaves, and I suppose because one of them fought a war that wasn’t really about slavery as much as it was about whether or not the Federal Constitution afforded states the kind of rights the Southern states believed it did — up to and including the right to say, “to hell with that,” and leave the Union. After all, they had to agree to join the Union, and there’s nothing in the document that says they can’t leave. The powers not enumerated in the Constitution are reserved to the States and to the people, and the document doesn’t say “no secession”. Go look. I’ll wait.8
But again, that’s not the point.
The members of the church in 1870 wanted the two men honored in the sanctuary. What of their wishes? What would they say if they could speak from their graves?
Remember what Fussell said. You can’t understand history if you insist on looking at it through the biases of your own time and your own experiences. If you think either man was unworthy of recognition because he owned slaves, your bias is showing. You cannot respect those churchmen who decided to honor two of their own because you have refused to put yourself in their place.
Let us now praise famous men.
That is what they would have said, along with statements about honor and patriotism and forgiveness. Turning the other cheek, and all that good stuff. Accepting Lee’s remorse for what he had done. Understanding that both men were men of their times — times in which slavery was acceptable, until suddenly it wasn’t.
Succeeding generations honored that legacy.
Until they didn’t.
And our history fades, monument by monument, statue by statue, plaque by plaque. When they come for the history books, let me know; because our liberty won’t be far behind.
In volumes two and three of his magnum opus, The Civil War: A Narrative, Shelby Foote caused the following to be printed as an epigraph.
ALL THESE WERE HONOURED IN THEIR GENERATIONS AND WERE THE GLORY OF THEIR TIMES
THERE BE OF THEM THAT HAVE LEFT A NAME BEHIND THEM
THAT THEIR PRAISES MIGHT BE REPORTED
AND SOME THERE BE WHICH HAVE NO MEMORIAL
WHO ARE PERISHED AS THOUGH THEY HAD NEVER BEEN
AND ARE BECOME AS THOUGH THEY HAD NEVER BEEN BORN
AND THEIR CHILDREN AFTER THEM
BUT THESE WERE MERCIFUL MEN
WHOSE RIGHTEOUSNESS HATH NOT BEEN FORGOTTEN
WITH THEIR SEED SHALL CONTINUALLY REMAIN
A GOOD INHERITANCE
AND THEIR CHILDREN ARE WITHIN THE COVENANT
THEIR SEED STANDETH FAST
AND THEIR CHILDREN FOR THEIR SAKES
THEIR SEED SHALL REMAIN FOR EVER
AND THEIR GLORY SHALL NOT BE BLOTTED OUT
THEIR BODIES ARE BURIED IN PEACE
BUT THEIR NAME LIVETH FOREVERMORE
You may or may not recognize it. I’ve alluded to the passage already, above: “Let us now praise famous men” is its first verse. This quote is verses 7 through 14. It comes from the Apocrypha, the book called variously Ecclesiasticus, or The Wisdom of Sirach, and it must have struck a chord with Foote, as the second volume of his history is concerned with many battles between great armies, resulting in thousands of casualties and deaths — mostly of “some there be which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been born.”
Of Washington and Lee, and our other “famous men” of history, only the future can tell whether the same will be their fate.
Yet all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
These were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
No matter how many monuments and statues and plaques and books are destroyed, as long as we remember them, their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth forevermore.
So mote it be.
1 Her descendants don’t seem to take this attitude, unless I’m missing something.
2 It still is, even though states have surrendered most of their autonomy to the Federal government. While many Americans today inaccurately peg the beginning of that slide to FDR’s New Deal, in point of fact it began with Abraham Lincoln and the extension of federal control made necessary in order to fight the Civil War. Historians also note a subtle change in language at about the same time; while prior to the Civil War, it was normal to read “The United States are“, that is, the nation referred to as a collective plural, after the War the country was referred to by the more familiar (to us) singular form: “The United States is“. I contend that this is at least partly why modern Americans have so much trouble understanding how any person born in the antebellum world could have held his loyalty to his state above his loyalty to his country. The states were (and would be today, if they had the spine to stand up to federal usurpation of their prerogatives) no less than independent nations that had bound themselves together for mutual defense and the promotion of personal and economic liberty.
3 Never mind that the South fired the first shots, and that a rich plantation owner and legislator from Virginia, a fiery advocate of secession, was offered the opportunity to fire the first cannon at Fort Sumter; he at least had the decency to decline, declaring that he could not fire the first gun of the war.
4 The point could be made that it’s still an institution in North Korea.
5 See also: Cliometrics.
6 My only hesitation in making such sweeping statements is what the white man did to the red man in the wake of the Civil War. Would we have still gone to war against the Indians and forced them to choose between life on the rez and death? Fuck me, I don’t know. Humans being humans, I figure the chances are about even either way.
7 After all, what was it people said? “Well, you know, he slept everywhere.” With a knowing nod and wink.
8 Not that I agree that you can; we sort of settled that in 1865. The answer is, “No, and if you try, we’ll send in Federal troops to end you.” So California and Texas can both take a flying leap if they think they’re going to secede. Not that we hear much from Texas about secession since Barry left office, but the fruits and nuts in California have taken up that banner now that Trump is prez. It never ends.