Three weeks ago, we witnessed a tableau of hate, violence and tension as white supremacist groups and others protesting them descended on the campus of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. At the center of those gathered was a statue of Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The violence on display there was despicable, but beneath all of the hate and frustration lurks a question haunting every American: What do we do with our past?
In Charlottesville and in many other cities, citizens are asking and yelling answers to the question of how we deal with the many confederate monuments littering our town squares. America has a wonderful history of liberation, sacrifice and generosity. We also have a lengthy past of violence against people of color, greed and hypocrisy. For the most part, we have not found a way to explore these conflicting legacies in our churches, classrooms, or in the public sphere.
Abraham Lincoln famously signed the Emancipation Proclamation; Lincoln also less famously argued that if he could preserve the Union without ending slavery he would do so. The conflict he experienced and the priorities he gave his passions can serve as a metaphor for our current conversation. Most Americans agree that slavery was bad, but many refuse to admit that the idea of the South to which they cling produced the odious institution of slavery. If monuments celebrating the Confederacy only represented slavery, people would be less likely to overtly defend their places of honor. These mementos do not only represent one story though, and if we examine what they signify we might better understand the debate surrounding them.
I believe the magnitude of passion surrounding this issue is due, in large part, to the national angst felt about the Civil War. Was secession a hateful and treasonous act of aggression in order to protect the cruel practice of slavery? Was it a noble stand to preserve states’ rights and defend against Northern aggression? Having studied many angles of American history and the conflicts that resulted in and were partially resolved by the Civil War, I would like to contextualize this debate by revisiting the history that is memorialized by the argued-over monuments. I do this hoping we can be more precise in what we are arguing about, and to help articulate precisely the history for which we advocate.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Southern states and their congressional representatives began to realize that they were in danger of becoming a minority in the United States’ Congress. This reality, along with the impact of William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, whose abolitionary voices were growing louder, and the active resistance of the slaves themselves, led the Southern states to actively advocate for new states to enter the Union as slave states. Battles over this desired balance led to legislation like the Compromise of 1850, the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. These acts upheld the precarious balance of states, providing equal numbers of slave and free states, and importantly, protection for the rights and legislative power of slaveowners. The South seceded when threats to that balance—and the power it protected—finally seemed to permanently favor free states.
The economic stability of the country, both in Southern plantations and in Northern factories, was dependent on harvested cotton. Harvested cotton was entirely dependent on the practice of slavery. Indeed, the work product of slavery had paid off American debts after the Revolutionary War, and continued to be crucial to the economic foundation of our country. Knowing this, many defenders of Confederate monuments, and lovers of a romanticized Southern past, remember that slavery was not only a dirty pleasure of the South, but a necessity for the United States of America. These Americans feel unfairly blamed for slavery, as if white Southern ancestors were evil and greedy, rather than making the best of a system the entire citizenry willingly endorsed and relied on for decades.
It is likely that America’s survival as a postcolonial powerhouse would have been impossible without the foundation of slavery. Slaves provided the expertise and labor that made the South financially great and culturally worth remembering. Our country was built by, on the bodies of, and under the creative leadership of African and African American men and women who were owned by white people. The entire country benefitted from this institution, and white Southern defensiveness about being solely blamed for two centuries of an atrocious moral lapse is logical when seen in this light. However, when powerful voices began to acknowledge the horrific nature of slavery, and tried to take active steps to free slaves and extricate themselves from this outrageously destructive bind, Southern states defended the practice to such an extent that they seceded from the Union that gave them their American identity. Despite the justifying narrative of Christian paternalism, the Confederacy was established and built on the idea of white supremacy and cruelty against slaves. Indeed, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, in his Cornerstone speech, asserted his new government was built “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Confederate soldiers fought and died to uphold a racial hierarchy, and the monuments at issue here are, by definition, representatives of this view.
Although the South lost the war, a new war quickly began for the memory of who the South was, how slavery functioned in it, and why the physical war occurred. In the words of Robert Penn Warren: “in the moment of its death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.” Peter Kolchin, in his definitive history American Slavery, explains that during and after Reconstruction, and later while monuments were erected, “white scholars, politicians, and publicists celebrated the virtues of a Southern civilization now ‘gone with the wind’ and sang the glories of the ‘lost cause.’ An uninformed observer of the South in 1910 might well be pardoned if he or she concluded that the Confederates had won the Civil War.” The placement of Confederate monuments all over the South solidified this created—and now lasting—memory of Southern nobility. In next week’s essay I will define the mythology of the Lost Cause, explaining how it came to define the South, fueled the monument movement and solidified the new foundation for white supremacy. As one historian put it, “High atop his monument in Richmond, Lee represented many of the inspirations Southerners now took from their heritage: a sense of pride and soldierly honor, an end to defeatism, and a new sense of racial mastery” (Blight). In forming our views on the monument debate, it is worthwhile to examine our own thoughts about the South, the reasons for secession, and the place of white supremacy in our past and present.