Remember the Past with More Viewpoints, Not Fewer

lee_statueby Randy Salzman

There is a move afoot in Charlottesville to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. Rather than spend tax dollars to remove the statue and rename the park, perhaps Charlottesville City Council should consider a higher-order solution pioneered by the people of Australia.

White Australians in the 1800s were as brutal than the worst American slave owner, perhaps more so; they treated Aboriginals with a viciousness few can imagine today. Often, when a European settler, or his cow or sheep, disappeared, white Western Australians gathered guns and horses and went out and murdered members of the nearest Aboriginal tribe. Punishing every Aboriginal they could — even if no tribe member had committed any crime and often unsure that any actual crimes had been committed — the theory of these so-called “punitive expeditions” was that any remaining Aboriginals would never harm whites’ livestock in the future.

Lasting over 100 years, the final “battle” between spears and rifles took place in 1934. By then, white Australians had built statues and monuments honoring the “brave” members of earlier punitive expeditions and, after one, a particularly horrendous massacre of about 70 mostly women and children, a popular song was written to honor the leader.

By the turn of this century, with the publication of such books as “Why Weren’t We Told,” by Henry Reynolds, even the most strident white Australian began realizing that, as one historian put it, the celebrated “punitive expedition is most likely a euphemism for massacre.”

But rather than tear down the monuments and statues, the Aussies hit upon what I think Charlottesville should do with Lee and Jackson statues. They added another version, the Aboriginal version, to the monument’s story. Today, in places like Fremantle, Western Australia, the old statutes have bronze plagues explaining that there at least two versions of what happened, and why. In some cases, there’s a competing monument.

The history, good and bad, isn’t eradicated. Instead, it’s expanded in a manner which illustrates that all versions of life are seen through flawed human eyes. William Faulkner’s truism that “The past isn’t dead: It isn’t even past” is obvious to anyone reading the monuments.

Humans simply don’t know how our present actions will be perceived in future times; nor apparently do we know if what we do today is actually a plus or minus for society. We regularly forget what our grandmothers used to tell us, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are especially noteworthy for their “good intentions.” Neither was a proponent of slavery at a time when virtually all their peers were advocates for, as Lee put it, “a moral and political evil.” The most honored man in their youth, Thomas Jefferson, wrote eloquently about freedom but kept dozens of slaves at his plantation, Monticello — today a World Heritage site.

“In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery,” the father of American literature, Mark Twain, wrote three decades after Lee’s death. ”I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.”

In that climate, both Lee and Jackson decided that loyalty to their home state, Virginia, was the greater good and, of course, fought for the Confederacy. No one doubts that they fought honorably while few, if any, historians claim they ever treated a black man, woman or child with anything but kindness. The record of neither man contains anything like that of General Nathan Bedford Forrest whose troops apparently massacred black Union prisoners at Fort Pillow.

Highly religious, Stonewall Jackson, became a slave holder, history tells us, only because several members of his illegal school for blacks begged him to buy them. He had started the Sunday school on principle, and indeed in direct violation of Virginia law, because he believed, as Lee did, that the true road to emancipation came through education. Lee’s anguish at deciding whether to back Virginia or take command of all Union forces is famous.

Today, it’s obvious Lee made the wrong decision. But it wasn’t clear to anyone in 1861. Even the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, thought blacks were genetically inferior to whites; the brilliance of escaped slave Frederick Douglass being the “exception that proved the rule.”

Blacks today have solid grounds for despising the 1960s myth that “the South shall rise again” and have even stronger grounds for hating the symbols of racism, like the so-called Confederate flag. The reality of what happened all those generations ago was buried by the purveyors of pre-civil-rights hate but, like humans of all generations and cultures, this post-civil-rights generation should be cautious about “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

Lee and Jackson were wrong to fight connected with any concept of slavery. But right or wrong, how ironic that today when the whole world bemoans the intentional destruction of the Giant Buddha Statues of Afghanistan and the dynamiting of a half-dozen World Heritage sites in Palmyra, Syria we – in tiny Charlottesville, Va. — are considering eradicating “history” because the past’s version of it might be flawed.

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37 responses to “Remember the Past with More Viewpoints, Not Fewer

  1. Salz, Thank you for helping me clarify my own thinking on this subject.

    I have a problem with tearing down statues in fits of political correctness. The mindset behind such proposals is essentially totalitarian in character, desirous of expunging other points of view. It’s one thing to come up with new narratives about the past, it’s quite another to obliterate the old narratives.

    There are two ways to approach the past. One is a black/white, good/evil approach that insists that our monuments conform to current-day thinking. The other acknowledges that the past is complex, attitudes change, and narratives change. Rather than obliterate the symbols of the past, we should reinterpret them or supplement them.

    Richmond endured a huge controversy 20 years or so ago over whether or not to erect a statue to Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue. The statue added something, it did not take away. It made a positive statement — it honored Arthur Ashe as a hero and role model. It did not reject the heroism that others saw in the Confederate generals.

    It’s not as if we have a huge surfeit of statues in Virginia. (Anyone visiting a European city will have statue envy.) Let’s add new ones instead of tearing down old ones. Of course, that would take considerably more effort than some people can muster. You have to go into the community, build popular support and raise money. Tearing something down is so much easier!

  2. Dear Randy,

    It is important to remember that the principle that Lee and Jackson and other “Upper” Southerners fought for was opposition to Federal coercion. Virginia and certain other Southern states voted to secede only after Lincoln issued his call for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to “suppress the rebellion”, i.e. secession, of the Lower South. The use of arms was the test for these slaveholders. Other slaveholders, the “loyal” ones, like some in Maryland and other states, believed that REMAINING in the Union was the best path to preserving slavery. What about them? Should their having fought for “the Union,” i.e. the North and much of the Mountain South, be denigrated for the motive of preserving THEIR slaves as property? Going back to the American Revolution, should Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, be lionized for offering freedom to the slaves of “rebel” masters? The British did offer some slaves their freedom in exchange for taking up arms against these “refractory subjects,” the American Revolutionaries. To return to the War Between the States: Lincoln, himself, offered to guarantee slavery in perpetuity in the states where it existed, in exchange for the seceded states returning to the Union. For him, and for most Northerners, not slavery nor the status of Blacks, but the maintenance of the Union was what matter most. The only question was what was the most expedient way of accomplishing that. As it was, that turned out to be championing abolition, but only because it was the more expedient means to that end.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

    • Andrew, I’ve got my fair share of Confederate ancestors and have sipped the Lost Cause home brew but the reality is it was a war over slavery, the right of a state to preserve the institution of slavery. It was an incredibly stupid hill for the Tenth Amendment to die on….but dead it was in April of ’65.

  3. It’s my understanding that the Charlottesville City Council is going to appoint a commission to examine historical contextualization of the monuments. I think this could be a positive. We will see where the commission leads…

    I do have a question for those that favor maintaining statues: Is there any other nation in the world that has statues of failed armed secessionist traitors from 150 years ago?

    Even if you set aside the racial questions (which is impossible), I’ve never understood how one can view the Confederacy as anything other than traitors. Why should traitors ever be honored? It’s interesting that we have statues of Lee and Jackson, but nowhere near the pageantry for Winfield Scott…a Virginian (born in Dinwiddie County) who sided with the Union and viewed the Confederacy (rightly) as traitors. Hmmm. I wonder why we don’t have statues of Scott all over Virginia…..I think it may have something to do with those aforementioned racial questions.

    • …Winfield Scott, William and Mary alum! Gee, are there statues of that traitor G. Washington to be found anywhere in Great Britain? Or Jefferson, Adams, Franklin…Clearly traitors to the crown.

      See, I will admit it was a useless and doomed war over slavery and far too many were fired up by racial animus and greed, but I’m more ambivalent on the word traitor. There were strong legal arguments that a state had the right to secede, and in earlier crises it was northern states who threatened to do exactly the same thing.

      • Why do we have Colonial Williamsburg? Isn’t a tribute to British colonization and harsh rule of Americans? The Union Jack flies at Williamsburg. As my mother hammered into my head “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” If we are going to clean house, let’s clear out everything.

        As far as the Civil War is concerned, two of my 2nd great grandfathers wore Union Blue. But I don’t have any animus toward those whose ancestors wore Grey and respect the graves of those who fought my ancestors.

        My paternal grandfather was gassed in World War One (mustard gas). He suffered greatly and spent more than 2 & 1/2 half months in a division hospital. My dad told the story that he once told his father how much he (my dad) hated the Germans for what they did in WWI. My grandfather told my dad that it was wrong to hate. The German soldiers were ordinary men who were just doing their job. While often hard to achieve, forgiveness is a noble virtue. I strive to fill my grandfather’s footprint.

      • Winfield Scott isn’t glorified because he obliterates the Confederate Lost Cause myths of “honor” and “devotion to one’s state.” He was a Southerner, a military man, etc. Yet he made the honorable decision not to raise a sword against his country.

        Also, when you read about Scott, the more you learn about Lee’s lack of “principle” and “honor.” For such a principled man, why did Lee ask if he could remain in the federal Army so long as he didn’t have to fight in the Civil War? Boy if that doesn’t sound like the 1861 version of “…but I didn’t inhale.”

        • Dear Cville Resident,

          So, the originator of Operation “Anaconda”, the waging of war against civilian and soldier is “honorable.” The citizens of the states had to be crushed because they were exercising their Tenth Amendment rights? You can have your General Scott, I much prefer Bobby Lee!

          Sincerely,

          Andrew

          • Shame on both of you for your crossing insults of two fine American soldiers who both did their duty as perceived, and who never expressed any bitterness toward each other that I’ve read about. Your penance is to visit the State Capitol to see the very moving statue of two young soldiers, brothers, reuniting at the end, one with CSA on his cartridge box and the other with US.

    • “Is there any other nation in the world that has statues of failed armed secessionist traitors from 150 years ago?” Certainly! All over Europe, particularly in areas where boundaries and loyalties have shifted — such as in the Balkans, or India. What is a Nation? What is a Traitor? What, indeed, is Secession? The world does not always share our assumptions on these tidy categories.

  4. Dear Cville Resident,

    When accusing the Confederates of having been “traitors,” or, “failed traitors,” one must first ask, “what were they betraying?” “The Union”? According to the understandings of Americans up until the 1850s, the American Union was a com pact able to be dissolved, if deemed necessary. It was deemed a horrendous thing, even one to horrible to contemplate, but it was understood by most people to fall within the “reserved rights of the States” as described in the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The American Revolutionaries, on the other hand, had no such legal ability to argue, except a philosophical, Lockean understanding of “natural rights”, whatever those are, and a peculiar belief in a British Ministry’s supposed desire to “destroy the liberties of the colonies.” Were the Confederates “traitors to the Constitution”? Which article? Which Amendment? Given that, only “an ex-post facto” definition of “treason” can be brought against them, and that, only because they lost. The ongoing attempts to “Reconstruct” Virginia and the South are but more of this specious, “victor’s justice.” Objectively speaking, such a charge is meaningless, except that one side has the power, and the other, for now, does not.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  5. Is there a difference between what we did when we settled the country and fought the indians and Mexicans for the land that ultimately became the US – and enslaving people – by race?

    If you went to modern day Native American reservations would you expect to find statues of Custer and Schools named after him ? Would you expect statues of Custer to stand next to statues of great Native American Heroes like Sitting Bull “explaining” things?

    I dunno guys.. I think white folks deciding how black folks should feel about slavery and the Civil War might be a stretch.

  6. Dear Larry,

    Ultimately, this discussion is more about the future than the past. If people cannot have a shared understanding of the past, neither, likely in my opinion, will they have a shared understanding of the future, and hence, some kind of division will occur, perhaps in the far, or not so far, future. Those who have opposed their own people will be free to join “the Other,” assuming that the said “Other” will take them. America is dissolving due to the incessant hostility of one group of its inhabitants against those who founded it. They are sawing off the branching upon which they, also, are sitting.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  7. A final thought: The most critical issues are not about differing understandings of the past, though these are important and related to, more important ones: Dramatically different understandings of ethics, and, opposed political and economic interests. I would argue that the differences in understanding the past, at least the great emphasis given to them, in the media, are a symptom of these political, social and economic rivalries also taking place, just a abolitionism as a major issue was swept up in the political and economic disputes between North and South. It is a case of both-and, not either-or.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  8. the key here is “shared”. It cannot be defined by one group to another and it means you have to accept other groups views of history.

    “shared” does not mean they must adopt your view.

    We’re not “dissolving” if we truly are going to accept other views and not insist that they be our views or else they are not legitimate.

    so when a black person tells you they do not have a high opinion of civil war statues – you don’t suggest to them that it will be “better” if they add their statue or plague that explains their alternative version of history.

    that’s pretty much a faux pas but some of us are pretty thick

    “hostility” is what happens when one group insists the other group accept the first groups vision of history – or else.

    This is why I feel – it is up to black folks to tell us how they feel about civil war statues and not what white folks think the blacks folks should be thinking.

    I know.. it’s a real buzz killer – but that’s the way it is….

    When another person of color (or gender) tells me they find something really offensive – how can I ever presume I am of their color or gender to disagree?

    how arrogant is that?

    One might get away with an individual view but when a majority of the race or gender feels the same way – it’s time to pay attention or if you cannot or will not , – then admit the failing is with you not them.

    we end up killing thousands, millions of each other – over such refusals to see through the other folks eyes.. not exactly a wonderful characteristic of beings who supposedly are better than critters and livestock, eh?

    • Dear Larry,

      Black folks are free to “feel” however they want, but public utterances ought to be grounded, to some degree, in facts. If someone says “Lee was a traitor”, in what sense? If someone says “the Old South was like Nazi Germany,” in what sense? Public discourse cannot, or should not, be based solely on emoting and no recourse to reason, otherwise the parties involved descend into a frenzy of recrimination. My earlier points were addressed to defending Lee and Jackson, and Virginia, and Southerners, generally, from allegations of their being traitors. These things matter because the truth, including historic truth, matters. Now, my question to you: Will those who know the seemy side of Martin Luther King, Jr., will THEY be at liberty to voice their opposition in public to his “cult”?

      Sincerely,

      Andrew

    • Dear Larry,

      If differing group ethics and understandings are unbridgeable by any transcendent measure, then the logical conclusion of your view is that we cannot live under the same government, or occupy the same real estate, since it will be “your laws governing us, and your laws don’t ‘speak’ to us, or for us, because only ours can do that.”

      Sincerely,

      Andrew

  9. ” These things matter because the truth, including historic truth, matters.”

    Andrew – you don’t define truth guy..

    when an entire race of people disagree with you – “truth” is not what you think it is – especially when quite a few white folks – do acknowledge the history of what black folks have had to deal with in this country – from the time of the Civil War.

    Do you not agree with the history?

    • “When an entire race of people disagree with you…”

      Isn’t that kind of racist? Are you saying that African-Americans think in a monolithic way, that they do not display the same diversity of views as other races? What basis do you have for making such an extraordinary statement?

  10. re: ” Now, my question to you: Will those who know the seemy side of Martin Luther King, Jr., will THEY be at liberty to voice their opposition in public to his “cult”?”

    King was a flawed human being.. as was Thomas Jefferson , my friend.

    do you know Mr. Jefferson’s “history”?

    • Dear Larry,

      I am aware of the Sally Hemmings allegations, and do not know if they are true. I probably have “more bones to pick” with the Gentleman from Ablemarle than do you! ;-)<

      Sincerely,

      Andrew

      • Andrew – you do not “know” they are true?

        seriously?

        and we’re talking about what people think “truth” is here?

        come on guy – do you think the “history” that is pretty darn thick and voluminous on this issue is in doubt?

        and then you ding Martin Luther King for his flaws?

        good grief Andrew!

        I’m giving up on you guy!

        • Dear Larry,

          The situation with King is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but for Jefferson, it is more speculative. I have no “investment” either way with TJ, being pro-Loyalist on the Revolution, and having mixed opinions of Jefferson’s other views beyond that event. So, give up on me if you want, but, based on what I know, those are my conclusions, and I have not investigated the Hemmings matter, nor have any interest in it. But God knows.

          Sincerely,

          Andrew

  11. Dear Larry,

    Then, apparently, with you, all is opinion, with no truth? (That is a question). I do not agree with the so-called “Neo-Abolitionist” view of history’s assertions of the War. I do agree with Vann Woodward’s views of the New South and Jim Crow. I do agree with those who state that some slave masters and mistresses were bad men and women, but, that was not due to their statuses as such, i.e. “class enemies” in a Marxist sense, but due to their individual acts of evil, whether of commission or omission. I seek to constrain no ones speech but would, echoing Saint Paul, exhort, “all things are lawful, not all things are expedient.” Ultimately, our differing views of ethics are rooted in differing sources, in religion and / or philosophy. The controversy over the statues stems in some measure from those differences.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  12. Andrew – you cannot define truth as one person.

    it’ s your opinion.

    it’s not “containing” others speech – it’s acknowledging that you are not them and never can be – and whether or not you respect them and their experiences.

    you can never be black … and yet – you seek to decide for them what they should believe and what their truth is?

  13. Australia has also found a way to recognize the indigenous people who were there when “Europeans” arrived. They now start every public meeting recognizing those citizens and that “they owned the land on which the building we are meeting in today is built.” Our international conference’s opening session was designed to honor those who came before us – especially those who were forced off their land. They showed that there are ways to do things to be respectful of those who came before, and to acknowledge their unfair treatment while moving forward in history. We found it a helpful and meaningful strategy.

    • But if we are to be actually correct, instead of loosely politically correct, how do we deal with one indigenous nation that may have driven another from its territory? Or those among Native Americans who owned African slaves? Or Confederate General and Cherokee leader Stand Watie?

  14. ” For Hobbs and many other Native Americans, the U.S. Treasury’s decision to replace Jackson’s portrait with Harriet Tubman’s is a hugely meaningful change.

    A slave-owning president who forced Cherokees and many other Indian nations on deadly marches out of their southern homelands, being succeeded by an African-American abolitionist who risked her life to free others? Unprecedented.

    “We’re just thrilled that Andrew Jackson has had a removal of his own,” said Hobbs. “The constant reminder of Andrew Jackson being glorified is sad and sickening to our people.”

    • I love the addition of Harriett Tubman to our currency, a black woman who rescued many from slavery, who also carried firearms and was a Republican.

  15. Didn’t mean to start anything that led to “giving up on…” anyone. Please do continue discussing politely.

    By the way, Mr. Bacon edited out my last line. It, and the prior paragraph:

    “Lee and Jackson were wrong to fight connected with any concept of slavery. But right or wrong, how ironic that today when the whole world bemoans the intentional destruction of the Giant Buddha Statues of Afghanistan and the dynamiting of a half-dozen World Heritage sites in Palmyra, Syria we – in tiny Charlottesville Virginia – are considering eradicating “history” because the past’s version of it might be flawed.

    And we’re doing so when we don’t have enough money to build affordable housing. “

  16. I think there is , as usual in BR, some conflation of issues here and a modern-day practice of attempting re-casting of history itself – in popular media even as the truth itself remains firmly embedded in actual documented history and not so easily erased.

    And, it’s not really basic “history” that is the issue – it’s memorializing someone or some event for deeds deemed as an accomplishment – a contribution to society, to posterity to succeeding generations of citizens by some while others strongly disagree that such memorialized people/events were something good, rather the opposite – a symbol of defending the practice of enslaving people for economic purposes – as well as the legitimacy of States and their citizens to exercise that as a “right” when those that were enslaved – an entire race – see it as shameful acts of bigotry and horrible treatment of humans considered inferior.

    The continuing insistence of maintaining the memorial is considered to be a modern day statement that such things were not “wrong” back then and so they can’t be considered wrong today in that context so the memorial should be retained.

    there’s a whole separate issue of Native Americans and their treatment including them adopting the practice of Chattel slavery after the Europeans brought that practice with them. Prior to that – slavery was a by product of tribal wars and capture of each other – not an economic system to acquire wealth for those who would own others as labor.

    This whole area is now glommed into a hash of actual history – for the purposes of not only justifying it back then – but memorializing it now and the way you actually KNOW is by asking those whose ancestors were the enslaved – not by the descendants of those who enslaved others deciding what is “okay’ or not.

  17. This discussion of “competing narratives” around Confederate, and other, statues and memorials reminds me of the opening credits to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4I2qWq9L6rw
    Weep after enjoying.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  18. Monuments of old tell us who we were, while monuments of today tell who we are.
    One cannot tell the slave’s story without telling master’s, for without one there in not the other.

  19. Human history needs to be remembered – good or bad. We cannot figure out who we are unless we know where we came from. Like free speech, we need more not less.

    I see a strong parallel between those who would eradicate statutes and monuments that are parts of our past because they are found to be inconsistent with current values and the Taliban who destroyed the Buddhist statutes in Afghanistan.

  20. Another excellent article, Randy. Thank you.

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