Revisionist History Is a Fool’s Errand

by Bill O’Keeffe

One of the actions growing from the Black Life Matters movement is an effort to eradicate the memory of anyone associated with the Confederacy. Here in Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University has a process in place that could lead to removing commemoration even of individuals who served as a doctor or nurse. The City of Richmond is removing all statues of Confederate generals from Monument Avenue. Only the statue of Robert E. Lee remains because of legal action taken by residents of the historical district.

Advocates are being carried away by emotion without thinking through the long run consequences or whether they have any historic, objective or logical justification. No one argues in favor of slavery or denies that it was morally reprehensible. But that comes from today’s knowledge and understanding. Applying today’s standards to  past actions not only distorts history but is misleading and robs future generations of the opportunity to learn accurately.

What does history tell us about slavery, secession, and Robert E. Lee? Slavery far predates the Civil War. It goes back to biblical times and was accepted in Europe up through much of the 18th century. Should our condemnation go as far back as the days of the pharaohs? The Emancipation Proclamation began a process that has taken far too long to achieve but much of human progress is slow and painful.

The late John Lewis recognized that we have made much progress since he was brutalized crossing the Edmund Pettis bridge. His comments opposing its renaming made clear that “we must tell our story fully rather than hide the chapters we wish did not exist. They also reflect a recognition that as Martin Luther King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long and bends toward justice.” The current impatience with the pace of racial justice reflects a justifiable frustration but the current move to rewrite the past won’t make it move faster or ensure a better future.

The advocates for rewriting history undermine their own case by misstating and distorting it. While the notion of secession seems alien today, it wasn’t at the time of the Civil War. Legal scholars and historians have pointed out that several of the original states — Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island — ratified the Constitution conditionally, retaining the right to secede. Indeed in 1814, New England states discussed secession. They have also pointed out that the Constitution does not prohibit a state from seceding. Chief Justice Samuel Chase made that point in advising President Johnson not to try Jefferson Davis and it explains why no confederate was tried for treason.

Calling Robert E. Lee a traitor is disingenuous and has no basis in law or history. Further, Lee received a full and complete pardon from President Johnson in part because he knew that there could be no conviction for treason. Lee’s entire life demonstrates the character and qualities that make him an icon. President Dwight Eisenhower summed it up best  In August 1960, responding to criticism of his having a picture of Lee in the Oval Office, he wrote:

From deep conviction, I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s calibre would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the Nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.

Attempts to re-write our history to conform to contemporaneous agendas is, according to Cardinal Dolan, much like the Puritan book burning of the 15th century. Dolan also noted that as there were many flawed characters in the Bible the same is true of America’s historical personalities. “All of them had flaws yet all of them still contributed a lot of good to our nation’s progress.”

Bill O’Keefe, founder of Solutions Consulting, lives in the Richmond area.

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