Friday, August 18, 2017

Were the Founders Racist and Pro-Slavery?

The momentum to take down (or vandalize) statues to Confederate leaders has now extended to statues and memorials to America's Founding Fathers. The premise driving this is, of course, that the Founders were (by consensus) racist and pro-slavery. Most mainstream academic texts either affirm this premise or ignore it. But David Barton, a controversial speaker and author, counters this narrative. 

What follows is the first part of a video presentation titled "American History in Black & White." This first part deals with the founding era. 

As always...civil comments are welcome. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Robert E. Lee and George Washington Are Not The Same

Robert E Lee's statue in Charlottesville, Va.
In a combative August 15 press conference, President Donald Trump expressed dismay at the removal of the statue to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia (that planned removal being the flashpoint of the violent protests which erupted this past weekend) and in doing so, seemed to compare General Lee to George Washington.

"So, this week it's Robert E. Lee," said the President. "I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?"

Let's agree that there are many in this country who would make little to no distinction between Confederate generals and slave-owning Founding Fathers. These activists would like to see statues and memorials to any and all slave owners (Confederate or loyal American) removed, and they would like to see any schools, towns, cities, or states likewise renamed. This includes Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and so on. President Trump is correct on this point, but...

I believe it's wrong to encourage such linking or association. It's unnecessary to suggest an all-or-nothing approach to statues and memorials.

There are indeed some similarities between George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Both professed to be Christians. Both were Virginians. Both were generals. Both led (depending on one's point of view) revolutionary or insurrectionist armies. And, yes, both owned and managed slaves. But... there are also several very meaningful differences.

Robert E. Lee emphasized loyalty to state over nation. By contrast, George Washington called for national allegiance. In his Farewell Address, President Washington declared: "Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations." Despite post-Civil War "Lost Cause" mythology and propaganda, the southern states in 1860-61 (particularly in the Deep South), clearly centered their grievances around the issue of slavery. This was made clear in their speeches, editorials, proclamations, formal deliberations, and official resolutions. Their desire to protect the institution of slavery (as well as its expansion and the capture of slaves who escaped to the North) was what drove them to secession. (See Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens' Cornerstone Speech). Lee took up his sword to defend this cause.

In contrast, the Second Continental Congress listed out their grievances (17 of them) against the British in the Declaration of Independence. Not one of those grievances was the desire to guard or expand slavery. (In fact, despite popular misconception today, most of the Founders didn't own slaves and even many who did had deep reservations with the institution). Both Lee and Washington expressed moral disapproval of slavery, and yet one of them (Lee) took up arms to effectively defend (and, had he been successful, to advance) slavery. The other capped off his long career by freeing his slaves in his will and (in so doing) publicly adding his name to the cause of manumission.

On the issue of slavery, it should be noted that Lee may not have been the "benevolent" slave master that his defenders would have us believe. Wesley Norris was a slave owned by the family and estate of George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington. It was, as Norris said, the "general impression" of the slaves that when Mr. Custis passed, they would be freed. This understanding was no doubt inspired by the spirit of George Washington's will. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. When Custis died, Norris was informed he would have to remain a slave, under the authority of (at the time) Colonel Lee according to the "conditions of the will." Seventeen months into their 5-year extension, Norris and two or three other slaves escaped to Maryland where they were captured and returned to Lee. Norris' account of what happened next is damning. Though Lee privately denied these allegations, there is some compelling evidence to back up Norris' claims. But even if Lee is technically innocent of some of the specifics of what Norris says, the nature of the controversy speaks to the relations Lee had with the slaves on his and his wife's plantation. It also makes clear that the Custis family and Lee broke with George Washington's trajectory against slavery.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor, author of Reading The Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, explains how Lee should be seen on the issue of slavery in contrast to George Washington. She writes:
The tragedy for Lee is that he never made the transformational leap that would recognize the fundamental human nature of the slaves. George Washington wrestled with it; Abraham Lincoln did as well. Neither of these men ever considered African-Americans their equal. Ultimately, however, they both grasped the fact that what was wrong with slavery was not an absence of sufficient laws, or a need for more humane treatment within an exploitative system. What was wrong with slavery was that it failed to recognize the brotherhood of the human condition. The entangled lives of the slaves and their masters, the emotional, historical, sexual, and communal connections, could mean only one thing: that these beings were equal as part of mankind; equal in their human instincts, passions, desires, and inclinations, including the desire for self-determination. Equal, as Lincoln said, in the "right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns. . . ." Capable, as George Washington finally realized, "of a destiny different from that in which they were born." Robert E. Lee would never cross this threshold. He could embrace the need for justice, but it was a justice defined by unjust principles. His racism and his limited imagination meant that he never admitted the humanity of the slaves with whom he lived. In avoiding that truth, he bound himself to slavery's inhumanity.

Finally, though Lee verbally objected to secession (calling it "anarchy"), he ultimately took up arms against the national government when his home state seceded. Washington, on the other hand, responded to rebellion against the national government with a swift and overwhelming display of military force (even leading troops in the field himself while President). See the Whiskey Rebellion. He also reportedly told an English friend, after the American Revolution, that if the southern states (including Virginia) were to secede over the issue of slavery, he would move north and side with the Union.

Bottom line: George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same.

There are similarities, but there are also some very important differences -- differences that we should not miss today.

The President is right that some will seek to remove Washington's hero status (by tearing down statues in his honor and removing his name from schools and parks). Some are already doing this (and have been for a few years). Tearing down or removing Confederate statues is undoubtedly fueling momentum for downgrading the hero status of anyone associated with slavery - and that certainly includes men like Washington. But...

It's fallacious to say that we should keep up statues to undeserving historical figures so that we don't lose our statues to deserving ones.

We should not honor the Confederacy as a noble cause. Anyone who reads Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens' infamous "Cornerstone Speech" should agree. For this reason, I understand - and will not oppose - the removal of statues to Confederate leaders from public grounds. Confederate flags and statues belong on cemeteries and museums - not in public squares. Not in 2017.

But we should honor our nation's Founding Fathers. And I will oppose (vigorously so) any attempt to dishonor our nation's Founders.

This is how, I hope, most Americans today feel.