Where is the Line? Part II

[If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there.  I’ve realized that in Part I, I overlooked arguably the most offensive existing Confederate memorial:  the flag of the State of Mississippi, which includes within its design the Confederate battle flag.  The Mississippi legislature has now voted to have this Confederate remnant removed.]  

In recent days, vandals in Portland, OR, have pulled down statues of Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, others in Washington, D.C., have attempted to pull down a statue of General (later President) Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, and yet others in San Francisco pulled down a statue of President Ulysses Grant — presumably because Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Grant were among the twelve of our first 18 Presidents who were slave owners.  (Mr. Grant owned one slave in Missouri in the late 1850s, “given” him by his slaveholder father-in-law, whom Mr. Grant freed before the Civil War.)

I consider such actions despicable destruction, at best (if one assumes honorable intentions by the actors to avenge past atrocities against African Americans) aberrant overreaction.  These Presidents were not paragons of virtue, but I – again, a white man unburdened by the deep pain of our African American citizens — would submit that this deep stain upon their legacies must nonetheless be viewed within the entire respective mosaics of their lives’ efforts.  If Mr. Washington had not served as our first president, the fledgling nation might well have dissolved in bickering among the states.  No such dissolution would have bettered the lot of black slaves.  Mr. Jefferson famously penned the phrase, “All men are created equal”; although freedoms accorded to white Americans were malevolently denied to our African citizens for generations, they could have hope for the future specifically because of the sentiments Mr. Jefferson expressed.  Mr. Grant was obviously more responsible than any single American save Abraham Lincoln for the final abolition of slavery.  Mr. Jackson has of the four men perhaps the most questionable legacy, but as President quelled a nascent attempt by South Carolina to secede from the Union, calling it “treason.”  Each of these Presidents and a number of their slaveholder presidential peers had primary roles in laying the foundation for the nation that has provided the greatest freedom to all of its citizens of any nation in the history of the world.  Their transgressions should certainly not be glossed over, but neither should they be magnified out of proportion to the entire body of their achievements.

How saintly must a person be before his or her deeds are worthy of commemoration?  President Theodore Roosevelt never owned slaves, but called black people “backward” and native Americans “savages.”  Do we rip down his Monuments, despite all he did to strengthen America – including effecting progressive standards such as big business regulation and environmental protection? 

Or … Mr. Lincoln.  Mr. Lincoln obviously never owned slaves, but when inaugurated would have tolerated slavery in the Southern States had they not chosen to secede.  His Emancipation Proclamation was arguably primarily a battle tactic designed to help win the Civil War.  During his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Mr. Lincoln is reported to have said:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

Hardly a ringing affirmation for black rights or equality.  Should we, despite all that Mr. Lincoln thereafter did to protect our nation and free its slaves, tear down the Lincoln Memorial and the countless other memorials to him across the nation?

Given its honorees, such thinking, if taken to its logical conclusion, would seemingly call for the destruction of Mount Rushmore.

From a different perspective:  The strong support of President Lyndon Johnson resulted in the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination on the basis of (among other things) race, unequal voter registration requirements, and segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. That notwithstanding, audiotapes now make clear that early in his presidency Mr. Johnson recognized that Vietnamese communism was not a strategic threat to the United States; he nonetheless continued and widened the war because he saw no politically palatable way to withdraw.  Monuments to Mr. Johnson exist.  If we deem it necessary to find our Presidents historically spotless, should the families of the 58,000 Americans who were killed in Vietnam during and/or arguably as a result Mr. Johnson’s presidency have the right to tear down his Monuments – despite his undisputedly pivotal role in helping to secure equal rights for black Americans?

For well-meaning protestors appropriately outraged by the monstrous nature of Mr. Floyd’s killing – as distinguished from actors merely using the cloak of protest to lay waste, such as the vandals that recently destroyed statues near the Capitol Square of Madison, WI, which could in no way be construed as glorifying racism – I would suggest that our nation was founded and nurtured in its early days by human beings – awesomely talented and farsighted, but nonetheless in other ways deeply flawed.  While their failings should be noted, their honorable achievements deserve to – indeed, need to — be commemorated and cherished if we are to move forward as a nation.  If well-intended protestors insist on saints, I submit that they should avoid mirrors and look in heaven; but if they do, it seems likely that they will soon confront St. Paul, arguably the most effective proselytizer of Christianity in history aside from the Lord himself – also known as Saul of Tarsus — who got his start … killing Christians.

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