An apology, first off: I just write when I feel prodded to do so, and even then, more immediate things may delay me. This summer has been largely taken up by some of those more immediate things. I have missed writing. You may not have missed reading it, but, anyway… No purely political stuff this time. No Trump. But for some, this probably is a political issue. It’s not political for me. It’s a matter of decency.
If you grew up in the United States of America, as I did, you studied the history of this nation: its birth in revolution from the English crown, its growth, its struggles, and the leaders of all of those struggles that led from our colonial past to where we find ourselves now, more than two centuries after our independent beginning. Several huge events shaped that history, the most momentous of which were several wars that defined a path this nation would follow. The horrific death tolls of wars, the sad memories of the sacrifices made in the name of those wars are especially important. The Revolutionary War, in the eighteenth century, gave this embryonic nation its independence. The Civil War, in the nineteenth, defined the type of nation it would be from that point on. Two World Wars in the twentieth dragged it, most reluctantly, from its isolation, where it had watched from afar the ancient cycles of aggression and revenge that consumed so much of the world.
Not everything in our national history is worthy of pride. The treatment of the original aboriginal inhabitants of this land was nothing to celebrate. Starting with the arrival of Columbus and his exploring party in the West Indies, the pattern was set–the New World, including its people, was plunder for Europeans. Several of these “Indians” were carried back to Spain as slaves: supposedly, they were to benefit by their introduction to Christianity.
At later times, and in other locales, other Indian (the name was well established by then) populations were subjugated, forcibly relocated, or exterminated if their continued existence was inconvenient to the progress of a technologically superior society that was being built. Morally, this turn of events was, of course, unjustifiable. It went on with a simple Darwinian justification: survival of the fittest. “These savages,” the thinking of the majority went, were not worthy to survive: not Christian, not endowed with immunities to the diseases the majority population carried–the list was long enough to result in the elimination of enough of the original occupants that they were no longer a threat, confined as they were to reservations or dead and maybe buried, and some melting into the American population at large through intermarriage.
The fate of the “American Indian” is a stain on the American psyche, but not the only stain, and I should note, as a history professor once pointed out, we today (hypocritically) can weep all the tears we like; the struggle for dominance is over and resolved in present-day Americans’ favor, after all, by our ancestors who performed the dirty deeds. And the Indians altogether were no more than a population of a few million, many of whom survived and even thrived.
A much larger stain is the institution of slavery on a large scale. It must be understood that at the time of the American Revolution slavery was legal, or at least not illegal throughout the territory of the United States (Vermont had outlawed slavery in 1770, while still independent territory); in the same breath, we all should recognize that individual states began to ban it shortly thereafter. All states north of the Mason-Dixon line (between Pennsylvania on the north and Maryland on the south) and west to the mouth of the Ohio River had banned it by 1804, and the federal government had banned further importation of slaves to any US state or territory in 1808. Why did the federal government not ban slavery, period? That’s easy for anyone who lives under today’s deeply divided government to understand. It simply could not get support from any southern state for prohibition. Slave-breeding was common and slave markets were numerous in the pre-Civil War South. Southern legislators watched westward national expansion critically so as to avoid a situation under which so-called “free” states would outnumber (and presumably, outvote) them in Congress as new states came into the union. They were able to maintain this rough equilibrium until the eve of the Civil War.
Now, to understand the mindset that prevailed in the Deep South circa 1850-1865, we should take a look at some conditions that prevailed there. The soils and the climate there were ideal for the cultivation of cash crops such as cotton. Subsistence farming could be carried on in relatively small plots of land so that tables could be furnished with vegetables as food, but the cash crop meant money for the “finer things in life.” Virginia tables were spread with Victorian china bought with labor-intensive cotton sold into English textile mills. The planter class could live well as long as large quantities of cotton could be grown without large labor costs. The invention of the cotton gin (c. 1800) had caused increased use of cotton, which caused a higher demand for slaves for the growth and harvest of more cotton. Never were the slaves considered as more than an economic asset to their owners.
In the late 1850’s, though, Abolitionist sentiment was on the rise through most of the country outside the South, and the scales tipped as new territories in the West were organized into states–states that rejected slavery. By the time a gangly lawyer named Lincoln campaigned for the new Republican party’s nomination for President in 1860, Southern oratory was rife with talk of secession to protect “our way of life” and other coded language understood by all to mean the institution of slavery. Lincoln swept free states while advocating an anti-slavery position, won the election, and was inaugurated in March of 1861. Several slave states adopted “articles of secession” before he even moved into the White House. An attack by “Confederate” partisans on Fort Sumter, a federal installation in South Carolina, caused the states that willingly remained within the Union to rally to Lincoln’s calls for a Union military campaign to put down the insurrection.
The Civil War followed–not a “War Between the States.” Connecticut did not go to war against New York, nor did Alabama make war on Georgia. It was the Union, as it was called, against the Confederate States. The Confederates were hopeful of recognition from Britain and France, but did not succeed in getting it. After more than four years of bloody, merciless, and very expensive (to both sides) war, it ended in the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant’s Union Army at Appomattox Courthouse, near Richmond, Virginia in 1865. The death toll will never be known for sure; it is variously estimated at from 620,000 to 850,000 (both sides). That toll was not equaled in all the nation’s other wars combined until some point during the Vietnam war, or if the 850,000 figure is correct, not yet at this writing.
Lincoln hinted at his hopes for a quick national reconciliation in his second Inaugural Address:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Shortly after the end of the war, Lincoln was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth, who shouted “The South is avenged!” just before escaping from the stage in Ford’s Theater, Washington, D. C.
Lincoln’s benevolent position toward those who had attempted to destroy the Union can never be objectively evaluated as a success or a failure in terms of the reunion of the country. A Reconstruction of the former states of the Confederacy had been planned before his death; there is much disagreement as to its success or lack thereof, and Lincoln himself was not around to see it through. As early as 1863, he had outlined a policy for the pardon of former Confederates and their reinstatement as American citizens on three conditions: that they had not served in a Confederate government civil position, had not abused Union prisoners, and were willing to sign an oath of allegiance to the United States government. Had he lived, he might have been inclined to return the Confederate states to the Union sooner rather than later. It was largely due to his efforts, though, that the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, enshrining in Constitutional law the abolition henceforth and forever over all US territory the institution of slavery.
Lincoln was a complicated man, as we all are, who at times changed his mind, at times struggled to change things he knew had to be changed, and is often quoted by his detractors as to his main goal of preserving the Union, whether that meant retaining some slavery or not, but it is hard to misunderstand his musing that “…this union cannot stand half-slave and half free.” He did save his country and eliminated slavery at the same time. I have visited his memorial in Washington many times. I see a brooding, tormented man, determined to continue the struggle on which he and so many others had embarked, simply because they were on the right side. To such leaders are monuments rightfully built, and they remind the population of such strength of purpose.
Now comes the point of all the history I have thrown in a short time. The country finds itself once again in a spasm of strained race relations. I have seen these come and go before. I feel confident this one will go its way as the others have.
If you have read this blog before, you know how I feel about the exhibiting of the Confederate battle flag in public places. It is a symbol of defiance of the legally-constituted government of the United States, the same government I twice swore to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Though I have no power to enforce my beliefs, I do not like to see this emblem on public display. This flag was not widely flown in the United States before 1948, when Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina walked out of the Democratic national convention in protest of President Truman’s nascent push for civil rights. The counterpush–for preservation of a system of caste based on skin color, from elementary schools to cemeteries, putting persons of color permanently in a position of inferiority–gained strength during the administration of President Lyndon Johnston, as Johnston engaged in a prolonged, and successful, effort to establish equal right to strive for all under the law. There is no other meaning to it, despite smooth-talking types who insist it is a representation of some vague “heritage and way of life.” Well, OK, maintain your heritage of a distinct speech pattern, public manifestations of religion in defense of whatever you want. Those are matters of heritage. But just the fact that some forbear of yours rode with General Lee does not entitle you to ignore the law of the land. You may hate in your heart, but not incite violence and foment hate in the public square with your speech or your actions.
Similarly, I have been disgusted by the outpouring of sympathy for some statues in various public spaces, mostly, though not all, in southern states. Two examples will suffice: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee. The former was a Lieutenant General in the Confederate Army who led troops mostly in Tennessee. He was a ferociously talented military tactician, by all accounts, but his fame/infamy stems from a couple of deeds, primarily. In Tennessee, during one battle, his troops had defeated a Union garrison composed in large part of freed slaves, poorly trained and poorly armed. When Forrest’s troops surrounded the survivors, they simply murdered the survivors where they stood, even as survivors begged for their lives. Some historians claim Forrest was unaware of the actions taken by those in his command. At any rate, neither he nor anyone in his command was ever called to account for this action. A couple of years after the war, he was or was not, according to the account you choose to believe, named the first Grand Dragon of the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. What is not in dispute at all is that he was there at the Klan’s founding. For this you get honored with equestrian statues all over the South?
As for General Lee, he was married to a descendant of George Washington, and was Virginia aristocracy as pure as they came. He had a good position in the US Army, even serving as the Superintendent of the US Military Academy at one point. Lee at one point swore that same oath to defend the United States from all enemies, both foreign and domestic, but instead served at the head of an army of those enemies. Just as Lincoln was complicated, I suspect Lee was, too. He was not severely punished for his role in the deaths of so many over the fate of the Union. He spent many lives on his own side and took many on the other side. His land was later appropriated for the land that today forms Arlington National Cemetery. A soldier’s grave there might have been appropriate. Statues in his honor in public squares are not.
After the war, such figures as Jefferson Davis, the supposed President of the Confederacy, and others, began a campaign of revisionist history that would cast the rebellion and insurrection of thousands against the United States as a noble but doomed “lost cause.” Don’t believe it. There was nothing noble about the “cause” of racial supremacy, and there isn’t now. They deserved to lose. Putting this all behind us as a nation is just a matter of decency.