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Confederate Monuments: Can We Talk?

July 10, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

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By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

It seems as if not a week goes by that we don’t hear of another Confederate monument being torn down. In New Orleans, they removed the monument to Robert E. Lee, in Memphis the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest. There is a call in Richmond to remove every statue on Monument Avenue: those commemorating Jefferson Davis, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart. The Confederate flag has been taken down in one state capital after another in the South.
We also saw Yale University recently renaming its Calhoun College because the building was named in honor of Yale alumnus John C. Calhoun, a noted defender of slavery; also Georgetown University renaming two buildings on campus that were named after Jesuits who organized the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves to help pay off campus debt in the 1830s.
It is easy to see why African-Americans applaud these actions. For them the issue is simple: The United States should not be honoring men who were slave owners. They see these monuments as an affront to their dignity, a slap in the face.
Am I saying they are wrong? That they should see these individuals as good men who deserve to be honored in spite of the fact that they slave owners?
To be direct, yes; at least in certain instances. There is a difference between honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, who personally ordered the massacre of freed slaves, and honoring Robert E. Lee. There is no other way to say it: There were good men, worthy of public honors, who owned slaves.
In a recent column, Walter Williams made a list of the people whose names we would have to remove from our public spaces, if slaveholding, in and of itself, makes an individual unworthy of our respect: George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant, for starters. Williams notes that half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners, as well as half the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
How could these individuals, if they were men of virtue and character, have thought it was morally permissible to own another human being? No question, in indicates a moral blind spot, but it was a moral blindness that was part of the spirit of the times. Most of the world held slaves before the 19th century. It was not a singular fault of dead, white males. Black tribes sold black captives to the slave traders, many of whom were Arabs, who also owned slaves. There was slavery in China and Japan. Native American tribes held slaves, usually individuals captured in war: Sacagawea was one example.
Asking how good men could have thought it permissible to own slaves is comparable to asking how good men and women could have once thought taking their children to a public hanging was a fine way to spend an afternoon; how good men and women could have once called for the execution of witches, thought it good parenting to take a belt to their children, and argued it was logical and fair to exclude women from the vote.
All these things were part of the moral consensus in most societies not that long ago. If we are to accept that anyone in the past who held these beliefs should be seen as an irredeemable villain, regardless of any of their other achievements, we would have to treat nearly everyone in our history as unworthy of public honor. Marxist deconstructionists take that position, but I don’t think the rest of us want to go that far.
Moreover, if we are going to tear down monuments to Robert E. Lee and rename buildings honoring slave-owning Jesuits, what should we do with schools named after Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy — if someone brings up the manner in which these men treated young women as sexual toys, to be cast aside when convenient? Are we going to devise benchmarks for what kind of shameful behavior makes an individual unworthy of public recognition? Who is going to be in charge of establishing those benchmarks?
I have no simple explanation for why the human race has been able to move to morally higher ground on many issues in the last few centuries. But it has, while at the same time devolving in many ways, such as in its view of the rights of the unborn and the sanctity of marriage.
Teilhard de Chardin had an explanation, what he called the world being “Christofied” by Christians as they sought to remake all things in Christ. Let us leave aside for the moment the controversial elements of Teilhard’s work that many Catholics find objectionable. The point just now is that Jesus’ teachings, as they are carried into our societal life by individual Christians, have the power to make the world a better place. That is why the above-mentioned shameful practices of the past — torture, misogyny, public hangings, slavery — were ended. Christian people realized that they were practices that did not belong in a good society.
It is not a coincidence that the Christian West took the lead in abolishing these practices, carrying the new insights to all corners of the world during the colonial era.
How, then, am I suggesting that we deal with this matter?
Perhaps we could begin by agreeing that certain Confederate monuments need to go: the ones to Nathan Bedford Forrest, for starters. But then also acknowledge that the monuments to men like Robert E. Lee are not in the same category. They were not erected to commemorate slavery. Lee was honored by Southerners in the years after the Civil War because he took the lead in defending his neighbors against an invading army, not because he championed slavery. We should not forget that only about one-quarter of Southerners owned slaves before the Civil War.
I realize how out-of-place it would be for me to suggest how black parents should react when they walk with their children past a statue to Robert E. Lee. But I am not uncomfortable recommending a response that the administrators at Georgetown could have offered in a discussion with black students over the demands to rename buildings.
Why could they not have simply said, “These priests were good men, who deserve to be honored on campus. As hard as it is to believe, many good men all over the world back at that time held a morally indefensible view about slavery. America knows better now. We’ve come a long way.”

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