by Henry Oliner
In The National Review, Kevin Williams writes Let It Be. He addresses the myth that slavery was only a secondary issue that led to the Civil War, but does not hide the political opportunism that pollutes the moralizing that is pushing for the removal of the Civil War memorials in so many towns.
Kevin suggests that memorials can be re-purposed. The confederacy should be remembered as a watershed event in American history that corrected a major flaw in our constitution. Our history is a struggle to bring the rights and privileges of our constitution to the people who were not originally included.
It rings hollow to sing the praises of good men who fought for a misguided or bad cause. We can remember the terrible destruction the South wreaked upon itself in the name of saving an economic and political system dependent on slavery. We can also admit that it was a good thing that we lost.
The most underutilized word in the lexicon of historical revisionists is “and”. Woodrow Wilson was the intellectual engine of the progressive movement “and” a racist. Do we reject the premises of progressivism because of Wilson’s racism? Do we reject the political genius of Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves?
Do we reject the moral crusade of the abolitionists because many of them were anti-Semitic? History is full of such incongruences.
Before the Civil War there were more Jewish representatives in Congress from the South than from the North. Immigrant Jews encountered less anti-Semitism in the South than in the North. 3500 Jews fought in the Confederate Army. The Jewish Confederates by Robert Rosen documents the Jewish contribution to the confederacy. The treasurer of the Confederacy, Judah Benjamin, was Jewish.
This is an embarrassment to the liberal Jews of today, but the history remains. We cannot pretend that Jews in the South did not own slaves, even if it may have been at a lower rate. Nor can we assume that the Jews of the South treated their slaves better. Perhaps they did but this is more wishful thinking than historically validated.
But just as we can acknowledge that the Founding Fathers who accepted slavery, however limited, should not be exclusively defined by this flaw, perhaps we can acknowledge that the culture of the South may stand for something more than slavery, however hideous this institution was. The monuments do stand for something more than slavery in the eyes of many, even if this is hard to comprehend to moralizing opportunists.
If they are offensive, they can be moved, but they can also be repurposed to examine the history of slavery and the Confederacy and the evolution of Civil Rights in America. We should construct new memorials to remember the giants of the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe they should replace the confederate memorials, but maybe they should share a space to highlight the contrast.
We as a nation are the sum of our sins and our virtues. The defining characteristic of America is its motion and progress. We continuously redefine ourselves. We do not cherish our history of slavery, but our growth out of it and continued efforts to eradicate its legacy with Amendments 13, 14 16, The Civil Rights Act and further acts until we could not only elect a Black president but re-elect him.
Our desire to preserve our history is not the same as a desire to preserve our sins.