Archive for August, 2017

Of Statues, and Past History

August 26, 2017

Fitzhugh Lee, writing about his father, probably knew Robert E. Lee better than anyone. He served during the Civil War and later as a general in the Spanish American War.
His analysis of Lee’s thinking in 1860 is pertinent.
He pointed out that prior to the war, it was not illegal for a state to leave the union. That became so after the war; had it gone the other way, the union would be a lot different! But the issue was settled by war.
What I see in the current discussion is lack of empathy, of being unable to put yourself in Lee’s place AT THE TIME, knowing only what he knew then.
We cannot accurately judge a historic figure if we use only modern perceptions and ideals. We must look at their history and their times.
The USA had come into existence less than a century before. States were fearful of handing too much power to the newly-formed federal government. We ACCEPT that same federal government without question now (mostly!), but in the 1850s things were very different. STATES were considered to be independent. Hence the name, the UNITED STATES of America. We view a ‘state’ as a subdivision of ‘nation’. But state can also mean an independent nation. Such was the situation in the 1770s.
Lee’s father had fought in the Revolution (‘Light-horse Harry’). Family and ancestry were very important to his family; the ‘melting pot’ was still in the future. Family was not only the Lees who had settled in Virginia (successful, for the most part). There were others, including the Washingtons and many of the early presidents, who intermarried and formed extended families.
Fitzhugh makes the point that R.E.Lee wasn’t willing to lead an invasion of his home, his county, his neighbors. He understood what most didn’t; that it wouldn’t be a short, easy war, that invasion and conquest would be necessary.
So in a time when states were wary of the federal government, he made a choice.
It’s illuminating to look at what Lincoln intended to do and how Grant carried out the terms of Lee’s surrender. Neither intended to humiliate or punish the Confederates or the states of the Confederacy. Including Lee.
That came after Lincoln’s assassination.
It’s fashionable now to claim that the only issue for the Confederacy was slavery. Not so. Lincoln did not free the slaves immediately; that didn’t happen until 1863,  a year and a half after the war began.
There WAS no confederacy at first; individual states made the decision to remain in the Union or leave. Had the Federal government simply decided to leave them alone, there would likely have been no confederacy and no war.
Slavery as an issue would have vanished within a short time. Simply put, machines had already begun to take the place of people. Economics ruled then, just as it does now.
And we’d have a very different history.
But we have to deal with history as it is.
We know a lot more about slavery now than most people did then. We know a lot more about people, period. Not only the people who write history, or lead nations, but about the ordinary person who has no say in what happens. More on that in a moment.
Right now, history is less important than what a significant segment of our American population believes: that the statues represent the worst of the old south, bigotry and white supremacy (hatred came later).
I suspect they’re right. And for that reason alone, the statues have to go.
As some have suggested, we need at the very least balance, where the crime against humanity called slavery is held up for what it is. Because that’s what it was; legalized kidnapping, where the government supported an industry based on raiding, on taking human beings by force. On systematic murder, where victims were chained in a ship under conditions almost unimaginable. Where a significant portion of them died. Because black lives were cheap and economics ruled; a fast trip, very profitable, and if a third of the cargo died, hey, it’s just capitalism. Investors profited. Capitalism then, capitalism now; foreclose, turn people out, let them beg in the streets. Or die without medical care. It’s not about human beings, it never was. It was, and is, about money.
We know more now. But how many knew it back then?
How many now know of the Enclosure Laws in England? (Look it up)
How many know of the Potato Famine in Ireland? (Research that one too).
How many know of the moneyed classes, who ran governments, ALL of them, and how they treated people? Look that up too. Of how press gangs kidnapped men and brutalized them on the British Navy’s ships. Of soldiers who were considered subhuman, gutter sweepings, ordered to charge into cannons because their lives were worthless, and if not killed outright were turned out to starve or beg when they could no longer serve. It’s worth your time to look at WWI, of conditions in the trenches, of incompetent generals and the ‘nobility’ who sent a generation into machine guns to die.
Of the highly moral people in New England who saw nothing wrong with introducing disease into Indian lands to reduce the population, of forcing them systematically from rich lands so that whites could settle it. Slavery was evil; genocide less so. One was unprofitable. Guess which one that was?
Read the full history of the times, the 1700s, the 1800s, and even the 1900s. Understand it.
Then, and only then, can you really judge Robert E Lee and the others in the old south.
But judge softly; future generations will judge US just as harshly as we judge our ancestors now.
They’ll judge us by how many homeless there are in our society. By our inequality. By our unwillingness to make healthcare a human right. By our unwillingness to educate our people, by our willingness to turn a blind eye when our youth are exploited. By our unwillingness to deal intelligently with social issues such as drug use and care for our mentally ill.
By our unending wars, most of which are based on profit for the few, death and misery for the many.
Of our unwillingness to face head on the global climate change that WE, not our ancestors, caused.
By our stubborn resistance to change that would benefit all, not just the few.
You may judge our ancestors (and the statues they put up) harshly.
I, who live in this age, cannot. I lack the moral authority to do so.

 

Advertisements