SAN DIEGO, August 17, 2017 —To start with, for the record, I personally am a “northerner” without a lot of sentiment for statues of Robert E. Lee. I do, however, have sentiment for the news being reported accurately.
When President Trump claimed that some people protesting the removal of the statue in Charlottesville, Virginia were not white supremacists and were only trying to protect a monument, he was speaking the truth. Without question, those particular people would have been wiser to not join in a rally where there were also Klansmen etc. but that does not mean Trump is not honestly describing the situation.
Be that as it may, Trump raised a point at his press conference that is not getting enough attention. If we start with a statue of Robert E. Lee, where will we stop?
“This week, it is Robert E Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop… George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? … How about Thomas Jefferson?”
Although there exists a vast gulf between two Forefathers and the head of the Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee did have something in common with the former, a personal disdain for slavery despite his own life getting entangled with it. While Lee did inherit some slaves and while he failed to deal properly with the moral dilemma it caused him, he personally spoke out against slavery.
“There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race” (Robert E. Lee letter, December 27, 1856).
Lee was also against the succession of Virginia from the Union. Nevertheless, he felt that if his home state of Virginia was being attacked he had no choice but to defend her. For many in those days, it was a point of honor.
Whatever our opinion of Robert E. Lee statues, the concern that this will establish a precedent for other historical figures, even our Forefathers, is valid. In fact, it’s already starting to happen.
Chicago’s Bishop James E. Dukes has challenged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take down a statue of our first president from Washington Park and also rename the park. The reason: Washington owned slaves.
This is but one of many examples from all over the country.
The very word, slavery at once produces images of shame and pride. We can be proud of the many Americans who either dedicated their lives or sacrificed their lives to eventually end this horrific institution. We also shudder to think that a wicked, inexcusable mistreatment of people could ever have been allowed by our country at all. American history is a paradox and can only be viewed honestly as a dual truth.
On one hand, the word hypocrisy seems almost too obvious a description for our nation forged upon premises of freedom, all the while embracing the most opposite idea to freedom ever witnessed. In the mind of any decent thinker, nothing could be more abhorrent than human beings actually buying, selling and owning other human beings.
On the other hand, much as idealistic individuals hate to admit it, life can often be a series of contradictions and ethical inconsistencies. 21st-century citizens with their 20/20 hindsight find 18th-century moral paradoxes difficult to fathom. As a result, they dive into conversations of conscience with simplistic thinking. But the legacy left behind by our Founding Fathers is simplistic only in its ideals.
The accomplishment of these ideals came into being like a long three-act play, one where the protagonist had to deal with a few demons of his own, unable to quickly slay dragons with his shining armor. American history is both wonderful and horrible at the same time. People often embrace the record they were exposed to first, forgetting to play its flip side.
We have the luxury of living at a time when verbal condemnation of slavery was one of the first lessons taught by grade school teachers. Earlier generations were offered a strikingly different presentation of this peculiar institution. They were taught that any people at all in those days who rose above such brainwashing to fight the practice were to be admired even if they moved more slowly than molasses.
Men like John Adams were quite vocal against slavery and said with passion, “Never in my life did I own a slave” (The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), vol IX pp. 92-93. In a letter to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley on January 24, 1801).
Between the years 1777-1804, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and New Jersey either abolished slavery or passed laws setting into motion its eventual demise. These decisions were not made in a vacuum and were partially influenced by our Founding Fathers.
The new states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin joined the Union slave-free as a result of standards put in place earlier for the Northwest Territory during the Ordinance of 1787 inspired by Rufus King, one of the Constitution signers.
Founding Fathers involved with societies for ending slavery included Richard Bassett, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshal and many more.
Nevertheless, skeptics love to remind us of Founders who spoke against slavery yet owned slaves themselves, some their entire lives. Indeed, the much-admired Ben Franklin owned servants but changed his views on slavery as he grew older and helped to establish the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
Thomas Jefferson tried unsuccessfully through the Continental Congress to pass a law ending slavery and also penned some famous words, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free”(Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99. 10 vols. pg 44).
Unfortunately, Jefferson found himself unable to personally break from the practice, in part because of its financial trappings. Personal writings reveal that the man was tortured over his own inconsistencies.
Similarly conflicted, George Washington remained a slave owner his entire life but also worked against the importing of new slaves into American colonies and eventually vowed to never again buy or sell a slave. Finally, Washington arranged for the release of all personal slaves at the time of his death and of his wife’s death.
Such self-reflection and growth cannot be overestimated. Our human conscience tends to hide on the mind’s back shelf when bombarded by popular, accepted practices of society. A typical ancient Roman, if asked how he felt about murder, would have condemned it without hesitation. But if asked about the gladiator games, this very same citizen might have offered a completely different answer and a puzzled expression, since in his mind, the gladiator fights were mere sporting events.
America today, having long since settled its position on slavery, remains sharply divided over other matters of conscience. The jury is still out on how future generations will look back at us. One such issue, the red-hot topic of abortion, serves as an interesting analogy. You may currently ascribe to a Pro-Choice position. If so, I respect your view provided you sincerely believe the unborn fetus is something less than a life.
Meanwhile, many who once defended a woman’s right to abortion are now leading activists in Pro-Life organizations, having concluded that the unborn child, even at an early state, is, in fact, a living person, not mere tissue, or the property of another human being to be kept or disposed of at will simply because it resides inside the mother’s body.
As a matter of fact, countless testimonies of key women who take on such cases reveal how they once had abortions themselves. Does such personal history make them hypocrites or, instead, people who rethought a moral situation based upon their own experience?
Our joint pilgrimage as human beings includes the marvelous ability to learn, grow and eventually change. This is also true for countries. Slowly but surely, the high ideals of our Founding Fathers have been put into more consistent operation.
If some historians made the mistake of painting these men as saints, just as many are mistaken to paint them as devils. They were in fact, human beings, nothing more, and nothing less. Let history reflect them accurately. Let their statues remain.