History is the Remembered Past. These are the words John Lukacs, perhaps the finest historical thinker of the last century.
The past informs our present. Or, to be more precise, our understanding of the past informs our present.
We keep the past fresh in memory by memorializing it. We fill our capital with monuments to Presidents, we name parks after local worthies. And the South is no different from any other place. They have countless places named, and statues and monuments erected, to honor their men who fell in the Civil War.
Now radicals are calling for the destruction of every monument which honors leaders of the Southern Confederacy. Not only radicals, but conservatives as well. Writers on The Federalist and Ben Shapiro have expressed sympathy for attempts to remove all confederate monuments.
There are now plans to tear down Confederate statues across the US, from Baltimore to Virginia. In Georgia, a gubernatorial candidate has called for the Stone Mountain relief to be destroyed. This is following the destruction of Confederate memorials in New Orleans last month.
Everyone seems to be treating these monuments as if they represent three things which are taken to be evil. Racism, Slavery, and Secession.
First let’s talk about racism. In the 19th century, virtually all white Americans were racists. Full stop. Virtually everyone we know of was a racist. Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans said vile things about blacks.. North and South held vile views of blacks. Illinois passed an amendment to their constitution barring free blacks from settling there. Leading Republicans wanted to restrict the Western lands for the settlement of white men alone. Tocqueville noted during his travels that the South was more welcoming to blacks than was the North. Nowhere in America in 1861 or prior were black Americans treated as human persons. That stain belongs to the entire Union, not the South alone.
The accusation of racism as an unspeakable moral evil, while true, is a point of politics for the Left, and not morals. If they truly cared about racsim, they would care about the fact that Korea has been quietly expelling black English teachers from their country. They would care about the racism of many Japanese against Miss Japan, because she is half-black, and not pure Japanese. They would care about the mistreatment of Asians in African nations, at the hands of African governments. That they do not says that they do not care for the morality of racism, which is evil. What they care for is the political power the term racism gives them.
Our world has lost almost all its moral vocabulary. We cannot speak anymore of vice and virtue, or of sin and righteousness, or of cowardice and courage. Old verities are now replaced by new ones. Instead of fornication as an evil, it is evil to restrict a woman’s ‘right to her own body.’ Racism, as one of the few moral certainties of a confused generation, must be extirpated everywhere that it is convenient to destroy it. One of these places is the American South
But why the American South? The South is unique in the United States, having its own culture and even civilization which no other part of the Union can match. It’s literature, statesmen, soldiers, and writers rank as among the finest, and perhaps the finest, we have ever seen. Beside the humane literature of Flannery O Connor or William Faulkner, where does the silly frippery of Emerson stand? How can the crony capitalists of the early Republican Party match up to the greatness of Jefferson or Calhoun? The South also stands on the cultural periphery, and so is an easy target for the Left’s need to destroy things.
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So much for the racism charge.
Slavery is also taken to be a great sin by the South. And is true that slavery is a great moral evil. Just as it is also true that slavery existed in the North during the Civil War. 4 slave states jointed the Union, but never did Lincoln threaten their peculiar institution, only that of the states which seceded. Further, it is also true that slavery has been universal to all societies, in all times. The first step towards abolition came in 1688, according to historian David Brion Davis. To condemn the South for slavery is to condemn every society in history.
If Confederate monuments are built to honor slavery, and therefore must be torn down, then the list of things to destroy will get rather long. The Coliseum, the Pyramids, Kharnak Temple at Luxor, countless medieval cathedrals, were built using slave labor. Should we destroy them too?
Slavery was by no means the sole cause of war. In his For Cause and Comrades, James McPherson found that, for a most soldiers North and South, slavery was not their main reason for fighting. They fought for Union and for State, slavery was often an afterthought.
The final moral charge is that of destroying the Union, but why this this an evil? The States, through their conventions, created the Union in 1789. Union was the creature of the States, with no law or amendment ever passed to forbid leaving it. Instead there were endless debates over the exact language used in the Construction, whether it allowed secession or not. These debates were ended, not through compromise, but by force.
If none of these charges make sense, then why is the Left so determined to tear down these monuments?
By taking down Confederate monuments, today’s radicals are engaged upon a war against cultural and historical memory. If these monuments are taken down, because they do not match up to today’s moral standards, then it is a path to the general cultural destruction of our heritage. Trump, in his recent confusing press conference, perceptively asked when the statues of Washington and Jefferson might also be taken down. He is right. If today it is Lee and Davis, why not tomorrow Jefferson and Washington, and the day after that why not Churchill, FDR or Eisenhower?
If there can be no respect for our past, for those who left behind a legacy to us, then what hope is there for preserving it? And if the past must be destroyed because it is seen to be immoral, then how can anything from our past be called good? For all men have done evil.