Why not destroy American monuments?

Slavery, war and the artifacts left behind

Christ Church in Alexandria, Va. — an Episcopal parish where George Washington and Robert E. Lee worshiped — is depicted here. The parish vestry announced on Oct. 26, 2017, that it would remove and relocate memorial plaques in honor of both men, citing a desire to provide a “welcoming” worship space. (Wikimedia Commons)

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Destruction of historical statues, icons and documents appears to be one of the latest fads of the Left. This idea seemed a bit quaint for the “hate America” fringe until it caught fire with the Leftist establishment. The removal of the George Washington memorabilia so proudly displayed by Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, convinced many Americans that this fad has joined the leftist orthodoxy and is now a force to be reckoned with.

The primary objection seems to be that many of the most famous Americans were on the wrong side of the slavery issue. Not only does this accusation include the entire Confederate States of America, but also many of the original generation of the American Revolution. It is a serious objection and deserves an answer.

The short answer is that these historical statues and writings can teach us much about the long road our country has traveled in its quest to achieve its fundamental ideal, as stated in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Yet the writer of these words, Thomas Jefferson, and many of the signers of that Declaration, were themselves owners of human slaves. How can that be?

That answer starts with the observation that people do not always live up to their ideals. For civilization to advance, however, we must seek the best ideals and try to live by them. The most important standard we as Americans have adopted and by which we define the advancement of civilization is the Christian ideal — which has become the foundation of American orthodoxy – namely, that “All men are created equal.” Few Americans would disagree with that ideal. But most of us would have to admit that our actions have not always reflected it.

So, now we come to the most notorious violation of that ideal in American history, namely, slavery. In the New World – though not in Arabian, African, Chinese, Native American and many other cultures — slavery was limited to people of African descent. This reality led to the intermingling of slavery and racism, a factor which has complicated the issue throughout our history.

The slavery of Africans was the most contentious issue of the Continental Convention. Then, as now, there were extremists and pragmatists. The extremists on the side of maintaining slavery were Southerners, whose entire economy was built on slavery.  They had also built a whole mythology to justify their use of slaves. It included, as dogma, that the Negro race was inferior to the European race, and was therefore unable to care for its members in a civilized manner. The mythology was very detailed and so stupid, insulting and demonstrably fallacious that it will not be repeated here.

Nevertheless, there were many delegates from the Southern states who were prepared to remain under British rule rather than abolish slavery. The extremists in favor of abolition were from the Northern states and they would rather remain under British rule than found a new country that recognized slavery. Everyone at that convention wanted to revolt against Britain, but the North could not hope to win a war against the British without the South. The South could not sustain its economy if the British tariffs and taxes continued. Besides, men like Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry’s slogan, “Give me liberty or give me death” had swept the South.

In the middle were the pragmatists. Their primary goal was rebellion. Some Northerners were already known for their sentiments and their personal futures were at stake. It was clear to everyone that the two most powerful states, Virginia and Massachusetts, had to be included or there was no chance for an American Revolution to succeed. The Convention was committed to rule by majority vote, but the rural South had fewer white people than industrial New England. If the Negro slaves were not counted, the South was outnumbered and clearly was poised to withdraw from the Convention. The North sent a delegation to Canada to see if they could be induced to join the rebellion, but found no interest. In the end, they did what all politicians do, they compromised. They “kicked the can down the road.”

The issue of slavery haunted the new United States of America until the North became powerful enough to challenge the South in the Civil War. But, all that accomplished after 650,000 deaths was to establish the legal basis for abolition. The problem was far from settled. In fact, with the black migration to northern manufacturing centers in succeeding years, their competition with the white working class provided a new battleground for the racism component of slavery. The old Southern mythology gained new converts.

So, what does all this have to do with the destruction of historical monuments?

First, America has been struggling with the issue of slavery and racism since before the American Revolution. Second, that struggle has had many phases through 241 years with many failures, but also many successes. Third, the statues and monuments of this past, when properly understood, are road signs on the way from 1776 to 2017. Some road signs:

  • If the Continental Congress had not compromised on the issue of slavery, there would have been no Revolutionary War, or the Colonies would have lost and the United States of America would never have existed at all. Clearly, the slaves had a better chance of advancing in the new Republic than in the Colonies.
  • The Founding Fathers have undoubtedly been too mythologized, but they not only professed the Declaration of Independence, they also fought and won an impossible victory to start a new country. That country has set the standard of freedom for the entire world, even as it struggled to meet its own standard.
  • If the Civil War secured the legal status of all races, it also led to much suffering and hatred which we are still feeling today. Maybe a war was the most effective way of procuring independence from a foreign power, but not the best way to solve an inherently moral dispute between regions of the same nation. We should not look at the violent confrontations of the Civil War as a model for solving the deep problems of racism. After all, the non-violent protests of Mahatma Gandhi had the same effect as the Revolutionary War (although in a much different time), and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s American version did more to teach both races how to get along than any war.
  • People are more productively judged by the ideals they espouse, fight and die for than for their sins.

As George Santayana said, “Those who do not lean from the past are doomed to repeat it.”

 

Copyright: Washington Times LLC, 2017


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