Like most Americans, I’ve been struggling with reconciling the preservation of our history and the increasing demand by many that we get rid of all Confederate symbols. There are three areas to address: First, the current controversy over the statues of Confederate soldiers and leaders. Once we figure that out, maybe we can address the second issue: the whole flag thing once and for all. Finally, what does this mean about how we look at the founders of our country who were slave owners themselves and what should we do about their memorials?
One of the problems we have unpacking all of this stuff is that Americans are woefully lacking in their understanding of American history, The Civil War and the pervasive effect of slavery on our society.
It’s not all our fault. Most Americans grew up and were fed a bunch of revisionist history. The dominant view we were taught for most of the 20th Century was the so -called “Lost Cause” story about the Confederacy. The way it goes is that the South was fighting for its unique way of life against an aggressive industrial North. Slavery was but one of the issues involved. The Confederacy just wanted to be left alone and live without the domination of a central government. When, the North invaded the South, they reluctantly picked up their weapons to defend themselves, all the time knowing it was no use. But they had no choice.
If that were actually true, you could sort of see why those statues are so sacred and why the “stars and bars” are so hard to get rid of – who wouldn’t feel some sympathy for the Lost Cause?
Except… that version of history is simply not true. Nope. The Civil War was all about slavery as a way of life and an economic crutch for the South.
The guy that made this very clear to me was the head of the History Department at LaSalle University, Dr. Stuart Leibiger. He was one of the professors in my graduate program and his analysis made a lot of impact on me and forever drove “The Lost Cause” from my mind.
So I recently got in touch with him to get my head straight on this whole statue thing. He responded to me quickly by quoting The Confederate States’ vice -President, Alexander Stephens from his Cornerstone Speech, which he gave less than a month before the Civil War hostilities broke out. Here, he defines the true motive behind the secession of the South:
“Our new government is founded…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Like it or not, this was the result of the compromises between the northern and southern colonies that enabled the birth of the United States. And even worse still is that the attitude contained in that quote was a major reason for subjugation and terrorizing of freed slaves for much of the post war period and much of the Twentieth Century in the South and sometimes the North which saw the birth of the KKK and the Jim Crow Laws, which legally separated Blacks from Whites in the South until the Civil Rights Act in 1965.
Nope, there’s no getting around this history. You see, the White folks in America reconciled pretty quickly and decided to share some version of “The Lost Cause” story. But for the former slaves and their successive generations, the reconciliation hasn’t been so smooth.
With all of that in mind, let’s now talk about what should be done with Confederate statues. No serious person would condone vandalism and public disorder. However, they should be systematically removed and placed in museums or on Civil War battlefields because that’s where they belong – as something to study as historic artifacts.
If you doubt this, feel free to take a look at what I dug up about when these statues were commissioned. It turns out that the greatest eras for the placement of the Confederate statues were during the height of KKK activity and violence directed at Black people in the South, 1900-1920 and in the Civil Rights era of the late 1950’s to 1970.
Does that change anything for you? It makes me think that we need to step up for the 12-14% of African Americans, our countrymen and women and do the right thing. Last I heard they too pay taxes where these statues exist and keeping them there is just wrong. I’d be pretty upset about that too.
The next issue is the Confederate flag. This always generates a lot of emotion in America. Let me give you one fact that will help you get your head right on this. Just recognize that the flag we see all the time, which is the cause of all the emotion was NOT the flag of the Confederacy – it was the Confederate battleflag. And remember, the “Lost Cause” history is not true. It represents a violent secession over slavery and a history of oppression of the ancestors of many fellow Americans. It needs to go to the museum. Now.
And finally, where does all this stop? What about our founders like Jefferson, Lincoln and even Ben Franklin for God’s sake who all had slaves? I again call on LaSalle’s Stuart Leibiger who wrote this to me: “The statues of Washington and Jefferson are fine, because those men are being honored in spite of being slaveholders, as opposed to Lee, who fought to found a nation for the purpose of upholding slavery. “
And that seems exactly right to me.
There’s no getting around the fact that important divisions remain in America due to the stain of slavery and it’s been with us since the beginning. And to those who arrived in America, after slavery, I understand you’re innocent of slave holding. But you’re Americans and you need to be part of the solution so that we can put this behind us. It’s time to throw open the window and get some fresh air into the country. The longer we wait, the more we will suffer for it.
Jon Saltzman is the Senior Editor and Publisher of Political Storm