I’m stuck on what happened in Charlottesville. Can’t get it out of my mind. I am so disappointed that we haven’t been able to make more progress in diminishing the presence of racism, hate and violence in our country. I’m frustrated. There isn’t much I can do. Except share some thoughts, if you don’t mind. I warn you though, I may repeat myself…
Yesterday, Trump complained about the removal of Robert E. Lee statues. He said that he’d heard Stonewall Jackson was next. What then, he asked. Are we going to take down statues of Washington and Jefferson because they were slave-owners?
These remarks alone show that Trump has zero understanding of the problem of race in America. Yes, all four men had owned slaves. However, unlike Jackson and Lee, Washington and Jefferson were not traitors to their country. Jackson and Lee were military men who attempted to destroy the Union, split our country in two. And it is for that alone they are remembered.
Washington, on the other hand, led the colonial troops into battle for the purpose of establishing a new country free from tyranny. Washington and Jefferson were founders of our nation. But their efforts were directed toward something greater than merely the formation of another country, they envisioned the creation of a new society based upon freedom and equality and the sovereignty of the people.
They were involved, as Tagore put it, in the “constant struggle for a great Further…” our “ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.” The difference between them and the two Confederate generals should be obvious.
While looking up some information on Stonewall Jackson, I ran across this quote from James Robertson, the preeminent scholar on Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: “[In] his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.”
I suspect that this was the predominate rationalization for slave owning among whites at that time. I hope most Christians today reject the idea that God would sanction the bondage of any of his creatures no matter how well they were treated. But Jackson and the others lived in a different time.
Jefferson denounced slavery, and yet he was unable to free himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.” His relationship to slavery is still debated by scholars. But the important thing is that some 48 years before Stonewall Jackson was born, Thomas Jefferson had this to say about the Creator, the most revolutionary words ever composed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The American Declaration of Independence, the real shot heard round the world.
On July 9, 1776, several thousand Continental soldiers had come to New York from Boston to defend the city from the British. General George Washington ordered them to gather at the parade grounds in Lower Manhattan at six o’clock to listen to a declaration endorsed by the Continental Congress declaring American independence from England.
When the troops heard Jefferson’s inspiring words about equality and the right to pursue happiness – the right of self-determination – and then heard the list of grievances Jefferson compiled of King George III’s tyrannical violations of those rights, the soldiers were motivated to march down Broadway where they toppled and decapitated a statue of George III. They melted the statue down and made bullets to use against the British.
It appears that removing statues is another old American tradition.
A year before he died, Jefferson wrote in a letter that his stirring words were “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”
Some 80 years later, Abraham Lincoln’s mind was inspired by the same words. In 1856, he said, “Let us revere the Declaration of Independence… Let us readopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices and policy which harmonize with it.” In his own declaration, The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln proclaimed that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Franklin Roosevelt, a great admirer of Jefferson, was obsessed with building a memorial to him. He laid the cornerstone in 1939. He ordered all the trees between the Memorial and the White House cut down so that he would have an unencumbered view of the memorial every day. In 1943, during his address at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. , Roosevelt called Jefferson the “Apostle of Freedom”:
“The Declaration of Independence and the very purposes of the American Revolution itself, while seeking freedoms, called for the abandonment of privileges… [Jefferson] believed, as we believe, in certain inalienable rights. He, as we, saw those principles and freedoms challenged. He fought for them, as we fight for them.”
The fight Roosevelt was referring to was the World War, the struggle against fascism. We are still fighting that fight for fascism has not disappeared from the earth and we are still struggling to abandon privilege, the privilege of being born into wealth, of being white or male. What did Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee fight for? The right to own slaves? There were a number of issues that caused the American Civil War, taxation and States Rights, but most scholars maintain the primary cause was the South’s desire to protect the institution of slavery. Not a just cause.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address (1796) as president, warned that the establishment of political factions, “sharpened by the spirit of revenge,” and would lead to “formal and permanent despotism.” We have not heeded this warning and we have fallen short of fulfilling the promise of Jefferson’s ideals. We have to heal the wounds of division because as Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And we must stand. We must stand up for the ideals of equality and stand against this new wave of hate and racism.
Jackson, Lee and all the other Confederate leaders and supporters were traitors. They betrayed our “American Mind.”
Jefferson and Washington, though imperfect men, sought to build a nation not tear it apart. Jefferson’s words continue to inspire us 241 years later as we work to create a more perfect and just union. And this is why their statues and memorials won’t be coming down.
Those who brandish Nazi flags and swastikas, offer Nazi salutes, glorify traitors, preach hate and bigotry and try to divide our country, betray the American Mind. And those who aid and comfort them are complicit in this betrayal. It is, in a sense, a form of treason.
We must meet this treason with reason. Once again, dialogue not violence is the best weapon against prejudiced views. It is the only way to change their minds.
“Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.”
– Jane Goodall