Let communities decide how to represent themselves

5 mins read

In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, I’ve heard the question asked, “If we decry statues to Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery, why do we honor presidents Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Grant, and founding father Benjamin Franklin on our currency if they were slaveowners?”

While it is true they all owned slaves, Washington, Grant and Franklin freed theirs. Washington did so upon his death, while Franklin became an avowed abolitionist, and Grant was instrumental in bringing about the end of slavery. As for their usage on our currency, I think the case is easily made that the overall achievements of each, with Jackson a possible exception, is such that their contributions to our nation help to at least balance the fact of their slave ownership.

Washington led us to Independence and ensured we would have a government of laws; Jefferson put to words the sentiments that inspired our national character and then made sure we would be a continental power; Jackson was a hero of the War of 1812 who faced down a secessionist movement while President, but also mercilessly destroyed a proud Cherokee nation; Grant kept the Union together by providing much-needed victories at Shiloh and Vicksburg before coming east and grinding away at the Army of Northern Virginia until the Confederacy surrendered; and Franklin was the first world-renowned American known for his scientific mind and inventive genius long before he became a Founding Father, and who was key to convincing the French to aid us against the British.

But who was Robert E. Lee? A brilliant tactician (with a dash of luck and Union incompetence) to be sure. But what else? He played a relatively minor role in the Mexican-American War and if not for the Civil War, would be unknown to us. He was given the chance to honor his Army oath and lead Union forces, but instead threw his lot in with those who sought to not only preserve slavery in the South, but expand it to the West. Lee likely prolonged the war’s foregone conclusion, costing untold lives. (By the way, Arlington National Cemetery is Lee’s former estate. It was occupied soon after the start of the war and eventually used as a repository for Union dead as a deliberate demonstration of contempt for Lee.)

The same can be said to varying degrees for all of the other Confederate generals. What great contributions did they make to the United States, the nation from which they fought to secede?

We should not excuse the slave-owning history of our Founding Fathers. It is forever an indelible mark against them; nor should we honor those whose ONLY mark on history was to fight to preserve human bondage. We should remember them, we should study them, we should preserve their histories, but we need not honor them.

Having said that, we need to let individual communities decide what they want to do with these statues, almost all of which were created during the Jim Crow era with the purpose of redefining the Civil War as a battle for states rights instead of what it was: a war initiated to preserve and expand slavery.

If communities wish to be identified as honoring the effort to re-subjugate former slaves and their children, then that is their choice. But if they, like Charlottesville and so many other communities, have decided that it no longer appropriate to validate that effort with positions of honor, then we should accept that choice as well. No one is erasing history (Hello, books?), in fact it is honoring our history that we tell the full story, blemishes and all.

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