We’ve seen plenty of knee-jerk reactions over the past few days that prove just how far down into the gutter of political correctness that we’ve slid…from Amazon pulling its Confederate merchandise while still offering Nazi merchandise to the sudden belief that monuments that have been in place for decades are suddenly not okay because one man out of a nation of more than 300 million people acted stupidly and evilly hundreds of miles away.
But this might prove that we’ve officially lost our minds: Questioning whether it’s time for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. to be removed. And, not surprisingly, those ridiculous questions were raised by anchors of CNN — which is to cable news as the New York Times is to newspapers.
Jefferson has a memorial in his honor in the nation’s capital because he was one of America’s foremost founding fathers — the nation’s third president and, more importantly, the author of the Declaration of Independence.
But CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield questions whether the Jefferson memorial should be taken down because he owned slaves.
Her colleague, Don Lemon, chimed in to express doubt . . . but then said, “There may come a day when we want to rethink Jefferson.”
Lemon had an epiphany, though. He said that Jefferson represented, “The entire United States, not just the South.”
I’m not exactly sure what to make of that. Is it only Southern slave-owners who should be stricken from American history? Or all of them?
Jefferson may have represented the entire U.S.; certainly he was a national figure. But he did hail from what would eventually become a Confederate state (Virginia) and had he been alive as national tensions over slavery and tariffs reached a breaking point, he would have almost certainly become a key player in the Confederacy.
But here’s something both Lemon and Banfield might be interested in knowing: George Washington owned slaves, too.
Obviously you would expect CNN news anchors to know that; it’s basic middle school social studies stuff. But since they questioned the Jefferson Memorial without questioning the Washington Monument, who knows?
But Washington did own slaves — more than 200, in fact. And he owned them while serving as president. In fact, when Pennsylvania passed a law freeing slaves that had been residents of the state for six months or more while he was president in the nation’s capital of Philadelphia, he responded by sending his two most valuable slaves back home to Virginia.
So if the Jefferson Memorial comes down, clearly the Washington Monument has to come down, too. For that matter, the name of our nation’s capital has to change. The $1 bill (and much rarer $2 bill) has to be changed to remove Washington’s and Jefferson’s likenesses. Then, while we’re at it, the $20 bill has to be changed to remove Andrew Jackson’s face, since he owned more than 150 slaves. Then, of course, ol’ Ben Franklin will have to go from the $100 bill, since he owned slaves. And how about Ulysses S. Grant? He commanded Union forces during the Civil War, but he was once a slaveowner himself. He’ll have to be removed, as well.
It’s true. Grant was once a slaveowner. His lone slave paled in comparison to the 200+ owned by Jefferson, but he was a slaveowner nonetheless.
It might come as a surprise to Banfield and Lemon, but slavery was not just a Southern problem. It was an American problem. Yes, the North enlightened itself a little sooner, and the South tried to hang on to the institution of slavery for too long, but there was a time when the entire nation, with few exceptions, was ignorant to the basic tenet of all men being created equal. (In fact, it might even surprise Banfield and Lemon to know that while General Grant had freed his slave[s] by the start of the Civil War, Southern General Robert E. Lee freed his slaves amid the war, in 1862, and wrote letters generally opposing slavery.)
Without rehashing the entire debate of whether the Civil War was fought over slavery, South Carolina — the first state to secede — did so by proposing a “Confederacy of slave states,” and several of the southern states, including Mississippi and Texas, mentioned slavery prominently in their secession documents. To contrast that, most northern states had abolished slavery by the start of the war. Pro-union enclaves in the South, such as East Tennessee and Winston County, Alabama, just happened to correlate with areas where there were few to no plantations and few to no slaves. Slavery wasn’t the only issue at stake, but it was a central and prominent one.
Still, the fact remains that the United States of America for many years embraced slavery as a nation. While we’re tearing down monuments (Mount Rushmore must go as well, incidentally, since it includes Washington’s and Jefferson’s likenesses), are we going to rewrite history? Until the late 1800s, there were only a few U.S. presidents who did not own slaves at some point. John Adams did not, John Quincy Adams did not, but most of the other notable founding fathers and/or presidents did.
Ironically, perhaps, the last four presidents before the Civil War did not own slaves (Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln), but the immediate post-war era saw the election of two presidents who had once owned slaves — Johnson and Grant.
Are we prepared to rewrite all of America’s founding history?
Before you scoff at that notion, consider that there are Americans who think we should. Huffington Post writer Elizabeth Dowling Taylor opined three years ago that America’s slave-owning founding fathers should not be honored at all.
As if tearing down the Washington and Jefferson memorials, reprinting our money and demolishing Mount Rushmore would not be enough, there will have to be countless name changes of roads, towns, universities . . . the list goes on and on. After all, 12 of our presidents owned slaves, and eight of them owned slaves while in office.
You can see how it might become quite complicated.
To suggest that we should be ashamed of our founding fathers for owning slaves, even so far as to refuse to honor them today, is to ignore the simple fact that there was a time when we were all ignorant. In her piece linked above, Taylor wrote that “slavery was not a debate” in the 1700s. That’s a demonstration of historical ignorance. There was a time in our nation’s history when you would’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone of national prominence who opposed slavery on moral grounds. We like to consider ourselves enlightened today, but if Taylor and myself had been born far enough back, we, too, would have almost certainly supported slavery. That’s sad, because we now realize just how cruel and awful the institution of slavery was. It’s sadder still that we used some of the basic tenets of Christianity to justify slavery when those very principles should’ve showed us how wrong it was. It’s a black mark on our nation’s history that we can never scrub clean no matter how hard we try.
And that’s why we shouldn’t. Rewriting our past is an exercise in futility. The best we can do is ensure that the injustices of our forefathers never repeat themselves and do our best to repair the racial discord that remains some 200 years later.
Because here’s the simple truth: Even if it were possible to rewrite our past by tearing down monuments and censoring historical manuscripts, we will have another major undertaking once we get past slavery: the misdeeds committed against the American Indian. Under the guise of what was best for America, many Native Americans were cruelly slain and many more were driven from their homeland by the U.S. government, flying a U.S. flag. And for as few people who thought slavery a crime in the 1700s, fewer still thought it a crime to uproot the natives in order to make room for expansion.
Yet you can count on comments like Banfield’s and Lemon’s becoming more frequent in the days to come. Just yesterday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam proposed to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capital. Forrest was more than just an ingenious (if somewhat ruthless) Tennessee war leader during the Civil War; he was also one of the early fathers of the Ku Klux Klan.
But would you be surprised to know who said this:
I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? . . . I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going . . . I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment.
Those comments were made by Forrest to a black audience, after a black lady had handed him a bouquet of flowers as an expression of the group’s spirit of reconciliation with Forrest, who had by that time distanced himself from the Klan.
There’s no doubt that Forrest committed atrocities while serving as a Confederate war leader (see the alleged Fort Pillow Massacre), and there’s little doubt that he committed more atrocities as a KKK leader.
But Forrest also distanced himself from the Klan and its activities. Apparently, he made peace with his black people and, apparently, they made peace with him. And he was one of the first once-prominent white Southern leaders to make efforts to reconcile the races and put an end to the racial divide in the post-slavery era.
Is that so much different from guys like General Grant, who was once a slave-owner before he realized the error of his ways?
This isn’t a diatribe that is intended to romanticize the Old South. I caught a little flack for writing earlier in the week that I think South Carolina (and other states) have no business flying the Confederate flag at government buildings, and I do not consider the Confederate flag a part of my heritage, as an East Tennessean whose ancestors were almost certainly pro-Union.
But our efforts to rewrite our history are little more than knee-jerk reactions that distract from what should be the main goal at hand: and that is to make sure that white people and black people stop killing one another out of hatred.