Posts tagged “History

A Necessary Evil?

Founding fathers and slavery

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819

Conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas is proposing national legislation that would prohibit Federal funds to any teacher, school or school district that uses content from the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times 1619 Project.

The 1619 Project isn’t without its critics. The folks at the conservative Manhattan Project aren’t fans. But by my count, no one gets it 100 percent right. Not the 1619 Project, but in this case, certainly not Senator Cotton.

In defending his “defunding” of anyone associated with the 1619 Project, Mr. Cotton said this:

“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

According to these same reports, Cotton claimed that instead of portraying America as “an irredeemably corrupt, rotten and racist country,” the nation should be viewed “as an imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.”

There’s a whole lot wrong about Senator Cotton’s comments. Perhaps he was having a moment.  I’ve said a lot of stupid things in my life and most of them – fortunately – were not to a reporter. But there are many claims here worth a historian’s review.

One thing to start. Lincoln was a great president – some would argue our greatest – but he was not a Founding Father.

To be sure, a fair and complete read of Lincoln’s history and record put him clearly in the anti-slavery camp. But when Lincoln unilaterally canceled emancipation proclamations by his generals, and then the following year signed the 1862 Confiscation Act that allowed the confiscation of rebel slaves because they were … well … “property,” abolitionist Horace Greely challenged the president to make clear his position on the abolition of slavery. Lincoln famously replied:

“…If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that….”

Lincoln’s first duty was to the union, not the abolition of slavery.

But the phrase by Sen. Cotton that has (or had) everyone talking about, was his claim that the Founding Fathers felt that slavery was a “necessary evil upon which the union was built.”

From a historians’ perspective, there are quite a few problems with this one too. First, the Founding Fathers were not a monolith. They were different people with very different perspectives on a host of issues, slavery among them. Some might suggest that the few areas of agreement among them were Enlightenment ideals, deism, and independence from the King and parliament.

There was considerable diversity of opinion over the institution of slavery – from staunch abolitionists (Adams, Hamilton) to guilt-ridden patriots (Jefferson, Washington) to straight-up racists (Virginia’s Edmund Randolph and Georgia’s James Jackson).

As historian Stephen Ambrose has noted, of the nine presidents who owned slaves, only one, George Washington, freed his. And of course there’s Jefferson, who penned the immortal “these truths are self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But neither Jefferson nor the rest of our Founding Fathers put that into practice. Writes Amrose:

“Jefferson, like all slaveholders and many other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. Jefferson, the genius of politics, could see no way for African-Americans to live in society as free people. He embraced the worst forms of racism to justify slavery.”

It would be hard to make the claim that there was a wide-spread consensus amongst the Founding Fathers that slavery was either “necessary” or “evil.” It would be easier to make the case that many (if not most) of the Founding Fathers saw slavery not as “necessary” but “normal.” Some in the paternalistic sense – that whites had the obligation to lift blacks out of their backward condition. Some, like Jefferson, in the very racist sense – that whites were inherently and genetically superior to blacks.

Perhaps the best “spin” that one could put on the Founding Fathers and slavery was their overall tolerance of it. Or perhaps one could use the word that historian Joseph Lewis used to describe the slavery debate amongst the revolutionary generation in is his Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Founding Brothers.” He titled that chapter of his book, “The Silence.”

Many of the Founding Fathers, knew the practice of slavery was evil but found it politically expedient to ignore and chose to pass the responsibility on to the next generation of Americans. And, as noted, aside from Washington this guilt did not drive them to free the hundreds and thousands of slaves they owned. Nor did it stop them from taking advantage of their position as slaveholders.

[Note that it did not stop Jefferson from having a long-term sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings which most historians believe began when Ms. Hemmings was only 14 years old. I’m sure most would put that in the ‘evil’ category but doubt anyone would argue it ‘necessary.’]

Was slavery “necessary”? Not economically. At least not in broadestr sense. The move by farmers and plantation owners from indentured servitude to slave labor helped large agribusinesses but it was a very bad deal for the working poor and lower-middle class.

Moreover, the acceleration of the slave trade came well after the U.S. independence and establishment of the U.S. Constitution. In that sense, the result of the Founding Fathers’ work was not to put slavery on the path to extinction, but rather on a path to spectacular growth. In 1790, three years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there were approximately 650,000 slaves in the United States. Just thirty years or approximately one generation later, that number doubled to 1.5 million. In another thirty years and on the eve of the Civil War in 1850, the number doubled again to 3 million. Enslaved people were not necessary for American independence. But many wealth landowners in the south felt they were essential for their own economic development and the sale of cotton and other agricultural goods. 

I guess one can argue that the acceptance of the heinous practice of slavery perhaps was necessary to get agreement amongst the thirteen colonies to support the nation’s rebellion against the British. Most specifically, it was a compromise to seal support from South Carolina, Georgia, and especially the nation’s largest state – Virginia. In that, it was less of a “necessity” and more a moral and ethical compromise – an acceptance of evil to ‘get the job done.’

The big problem with Senator Cotton’s position is one could read from his (wrong) interpretation of history that slavery was a reasonable “price to be paid” for the establishment of our union. It wasn’t and needn’t have been. Put more directly, it shouldn’t have been. And to believe so would be to pervert American ideas of democracy to an anti-democratic “ends justify the means” ideology – something more appropriate for Chairman Mao than General Washington.

The ultimate irony is that many African Americans –  those who suffered from slavery and segregation – likely agree with one thing Senator Cotton said about the U.S. That the U.S. is “imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.”  Indeed, Nikole Hanna-Jones opens her 1619 essay noting that her father, a military veteran, proudly flew the U.S. flag outside their small home in rural Iowa despite all the hardships he had faced throughout his life as a black man.

You don’t have to agree with everything said or written in The New York Times 1619 Project. But slavery was a defining element of our first one hundred years of history. It was evil. It wasn’t necessary. And even after slavery’s official demise, its legacy of racism and white supremacy left a heavy imprint on our next one hundred years. And it remains with us today.

Facing and wrestling with the hard truth of our history is not anti-American. It is another form of patriotism.

Statues

Jefferson Davis statue monument avenue by barxtux

There’s a lot of talk about statues these days. Actually, a lot more than just talk. And even the “talk” is a euphemism. Not a good time to be a statue.

While Andrew Jackson and the founding fathers have been the source of some of the grumbling most attention has been given to Confederate statues.

There are those who say these statues glorify those who fought to maintain the right for white people to enslave black people. Others say these statues simply document figures in U.S. history. 

Both views are correct. This is exactly why so many communities are deciding to rid themselves of them!

A recent news report about yet another confederate statue being taken down provides a clue. In what was otherwise a piece on protesters, police and community groups there was a seemingly random “throwaway” line that, from a historical perspective, made all the difference.   It was this:

“The Lee statue was erected in 1904.”

Wait. 1904? A statue of Lee almost forty years after the end of the Civil War? Over thirty years after Lee’s death? (He died in 1870.)

Usually, statues and commemorations are made either contemporaneously or immediately after a hero’s demise. We were busy naming buildings and airports after President Ronald Reagan while he was still living. Why erect a Lee statue more than a generation after his death?

James Loewen – who both in appearance in whose voice is eerily similar to Bernie Sanders – wrote a book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything that You American History Textbook Got Wrong.” Loewen was a sociologist who became interested in historical landmarks. He found that “historical markers” – including statues – were less about accurately recording history and more about the motivation of interested parties to leave a marker or message for current and future generations on how to interpret that history.

His recurring admonition was, if you want to understand the meaning of a statue – particularly a Confederate statue – don’t look at what it is or what it says, focus on when it was erected.

The fact is that up until post-Reconstruction, most civil war monuments were in remembrance of the fallen. The Civil War was and remains the bloodiest in American history. Rough estimates are that it claimed somewhere between 610,000 to 750,000 lives. Monuments and markers honored the dead.

But ten years after the Civil War the United States and its northern Republican reformers began to tire from the pains of reconstruction. And by the end of the 1870s and with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, whites clawed back to power and quickly implemented a range of laws crippling the 15th amendment – everything from the infamous “grandfather clause” in Louisiana to poll taxes and literacy tests. Between that, intimidation, and outright violence and lynching, white supremacists regained government control.

They, in turn, engaged in a well-organized effort to recast the Civil War as that of a “lost cause” pursued by noble, honorable, and well-intentioned men of the South. They also wanted to remind the negro – that was the nicest word used back then – who was in charge. In addition to rewriting history, another motivating factor was intimidation and domination. That campaign included monuments that blanketed the South from 1890 to 1920, all with the help of Ku Klux Klan and associated organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The goal of these statues was to remind both radical Republicans and freed African American slaves that segregation would not only continue in the South but would be celebrated as worthy and noble. As Wiley M. Nash noted at the erection of a Confederate statue in 1908:

Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.

The historical record is abundantly clear. These statues weren’t just about remembering history. They were about reinterpreting and ensuring a particular view or version of history – that of white supremacy – would be remembered in the future.

I grew up with these monuments as a boy in New Orleans. The Robert E. Lee statue was erected in 1880. “Lee Circle” – the site of the Robert E. Lee statue erected in 1880 – was notable for its prominence as the main thoroughfare from the Central Business District to the Lower Garden District and a central stop for the city’s famous streetcars. No matter that General Lee had never visited the city of New Orleans!

New Orleans Mayor Landrieu took down the monument at Lee Circle. In his speech – which I recommend everyone read – he noted that:

“The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.” 

Mayor Landrieu also repeated the oft-quoted claim by confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, who compared to Jefferson Davis, was a “moderate” on issues of slavery and race. Stephens noted that the Confederacy’s:

“cornerstone rests 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.”

So in taking down these statues are we taking down history?

Yes! But it is not the taking down of the history of the Civil War. That history remains and is well preserved if you visit Gettysburg, Antietam, or Manassas.

The history that is being taken down is that which happened a generation after the Civil War. The history that protesters are refusing to celebrate is that of a successful post-reconstruction effort to make acceptable – even honorable – a racist and segregated society long after emancipation and equal protection were American law.

 

“Along Monument Avenue” by barxtux is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Brain 1 – History (and Thanksgiving) 0

I’ve been plowing through a stack of books about the brain … how we process information, store it, understand it, and incorporate that information into our lives.  There’s no shortage of them.  The brain and its vagaries are hot topics, especially if you are in the behavioral marketing or communications sciences (that would be me).  I just finished a great read by Robert Burton.  It was the title that got me:

“On Being Certain:  Believing your are right even when you’re not”

Of course he wasn’t talking about you and me.  To steal the tag line from the late Senator Long, he was talking about “the person behind the tree”.  You and I … well, we’re sure we’re right.  Right?

Wrong.

Fact is, what we THINK happened in the past likely did not … at least not in the way we think.  We didn’t party as much (or as little) as we think we did in high school and college.   We weren’t as cool (or dopey) as we thought we were in our twenties.  And that summer road trip wasn’t as fun and bizarre (or mind stultingly boring) as we imagined.

Indeed … the road trip may not have even happened!

Fact is, after you finish reading Burton’s book you begin to rethink everything about what you think you know.  Because according to him a good chunk of it is something we made up along the way.

Burton explores the ‘hidden layer’ of the brain that enables us to – among other things – reinterpret history.  It is this subconscious layer that makes us certain about things that either allows us be certain about things that are either (a) dead wrong; or (b) didn’t happen.

He gives the example of Ulric Neisser‘s famous Challenger explosion study.  Ulric, a professor and psychologist, the day after the Challenger study asked his students to write down the details of that day.  Two and a-half years later he asked them again and guess what.  In a mere 30 months less than 10 percent told the same story.  A quarter of the participants told a ‘strikingly different’ story.  Most interesting was this – when shown their own original account many clung to the ‘new version’ of history.  As told by Burton:

“Many expressed a high level of confidence that their false recollections were correct, despite being confronted with their own handwritten journals.  The most unnerving was one student’s comment, ‘That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.'”

I’m imagining it is why all those politicians – both left and right – say stuff about themselves that isn’t true.  Maybe it is why Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have – as noted recently in the New York Times – created their own myth about the origins of Thanksgiving and the demise of American socialism and rise of American capitalism.

Doesn’t have much to do with truth.  But for them it has become their reality.  The past is metastasized, digested and recast.  And viola!  Out pops a new reality.

This is a sad reality for people like me that are in the communications business.  Every day someone can wake up and decide that they are going to change history.  Their ‘hidden layer’ is going to process the next wave of information and decide that you’re no longer cool.

Shoot, they may even decide that you are downright evil (e.g. you may have THOUGHT that those Pilgrims were nice folks yearning for religious freedom in funny hats but in reality they were communist, collectivist, fascist zealots that were only saved when unshackled from their socialist roots and given a heavy dose of capitalism and an across-the-board tax cut.)

Seems we have to work hard just to keep history the same.

Doesn’t leave much time to make for a better future.

Fact is, what we THINK happened in the past likely did not … at least not in the way we think.  We didn’t party as much (or as little) as we think we did in high school and college.   We weren’t as cool (or dopey) as we thought we were in our twenties.  And that road trip wasn’t as fun and bizarre (or mind stultingly boring) as we imagined.

Indeed … the road trip may not have even happened!