Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis tells the story of Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’ smiling ambassador of the music invented in that city, leaving his hometown for good because of four statues standing in public spaces honoring deep roots of racism and the affirmation of slavery. The most prominent of them reproduced the likeness of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a graduate of West Point and arguably one of the most brilliant battle tacticians America has produced.
However, Lee fought for the enslavement of a people against our national army fighting for their freedom; killed more fellow Americans than any opposing general in history; made no attempt to defend or protect the city of New Orleans; and even more absurdly, never even set foot in Louisiana. In the heart of the most progressive and creative cultural center in America, why continue to commemorate this legacy?
And so, after the 2015 Charleston church massacre, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered the removal of the monuments commemorating a romanticized vision of antebellum America. If they hadn’t been removed then, it’s likely the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement would happily take on that task today. Indeed, there is renewed pressure on the remaining public monuments that add insult to injury for those who recognize the damage done by reactionary forces who sought to rewrite the history and intent of Reconstruction and Abraham Lincoln’s vision of an American society that actually lives up to the words in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.”
Still, the movement to reorder the symbols of what we honor in our public spaces is fraught with ambiguity. Lee is a prime example. His legend is shrouded in romance; we know the name of his horse, and that his home was filled with Founding Fathers memorabilia. During the week before the attack on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln’s adviser Francis Blair asked Lee to take on the role of major general to command the defense of the national capital, with an eye toward eventual accession to the position of chief general. But, in 1861, it was not at all uncommon for military leaders to feel the tug of loyalty more strongly from one’s home state rather than the country as a whole. And so Lee decided to don a uniform as leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, effective June 1862.
When General Ulysses S. Grant caught up with Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Grant feared that Lee might choose to prolong the war by breaking up the remains of his army into pockets of guerrillas, sending them into the hills of Virginia and North Carolina to carry on the fight. But Lee thought it more honorable to accede to surrender on Grant’s surprisingly generous terms; terms intended to set the tone for a period of reconstruction that would truly reunite the nation. Lincoln’s death and Andrew Johnson’s succession derailed the plans envisioned in Lincoln’s second inaugural address. How does a man who can see that greater good still harbor a worldview that sanctions the enslavement of fellow humans?
Unfortunately for everyone concerned, President Johnson (17) was an arch racist, sneering at such redoubtable figures as Frederick Douglass.
Even more cognitive dissonance swirls around the figure of Thomas Jefferson. Although he was a principal author of the Declaration of Independence, he, like many of the framers, was himself an owner of a large contingent of slaves. What are we to think of his relationship with Sally Hemings? Since 1998 and a DNA study, several historians have concluded that Jefferson maintained a long sexual relationship with Hemings and fathered six children with her, four of whom survived to adulthood. It doesn’t really matter how she felt about Mr. Jefferson. She was there because she was enslaved. Yes, it’s true he promised to free the four surviving children when they reached majority. That probably sounded more generous then than it does today.
Lost causes are dangerous. When a way of life dependent upon a breathtaking injustice is romanticized into a twisted version of history, and when loss is allowed to freely commemorate itself in stone and in sentimentalism across the social landscape, it can poison a civil society and transform itself into a ruling regime. That very thing happened in the Southern states after President Grant’s two terms in office. Although a staunch abolitionist, Rutherford B. Hayes stopped sending troops into the South to neutralize the Ku Klux Klan. Jim Crow ruled the land until well into the 20th century.
During the 1870s, the mythology that bolstered the lost cause of the antebellum South tried to make the case that states’ rights, rather than slavery, powered the engine of secession. Yet the Articles of Secession as submitted to Washington, D.C., mention slavery no fewer than 80 times. The narrative of the lost cause in the postbellum era promulgated the myth that the Civil War had upset the “natural” order of interracial dynamics, which therefore demanded a reactionary reset to a culture in which Anglo-Saxons retained all political power, all social importance and all moral rectitude. This vision of the social order is the preserved subtext within Confederate statuary, as well as place names such as Fort Bragg. The message is unmistakable — they considered the lost cause to be rediscovered in Jim Crow.
The irony for governance within the Confederacy was that the sanctity of states’ rights rendered Jefferson Davis nearly powerless to run a country. He was reduced to begging the several states to tax the populace to support the war effort. And Davis would have given his right arm to have Lincoln’s power to suspend habeas corpus. But, I digress.
I’ve driven down Monument Avenue in Richmond. It was a genuinely creepy experience even 30 years ago. Last month and last week, respectively, the statues of Jefferson Davis and Gen. Stonewall Jackson were removed. Both men died still fighting for that lost cause. It saddens me to think of the discomfort those monuments caused the African-American residents of Richmond for the last 150 years. Lee and Davis never retreated from their retrograde views on slavery.
So, what do we make of the Founding Fathers, most of whom were slaveholders? Well, we can say this: They may not have resolved the issue of how to reconcile “all men are created equal,” even as they held human beings as property, but they started the conversation leading to how yesterday’s slave would become tomorrow’s person one regards as fully correspondent in every way. They didn’t finish the conversation, but it began. There’s justice in how it vexed them.
As the likeness of Stonewall Jackson rolled away from its pedestal on a flatbed truck, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said what had to be said: “As the capital city of Virginia, we have needed to turn this page for decades.” At last the page is being turned.
Gerry Dionne is a writer, musician and coffee-table philosopher who moved to our area when he was 18. He’s in his 70s now, so y’all give him a break.
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