There are two issues being conflated in the aftermath of Charlottesville, and the confusion threatens to further inflame tensions across our country. Hateful protests by white supremacists and support for historical markers and monuments are not one and the same. There is no room in our society for any form of racial supremacy group, like neo-Nazis or the klan. These horrific and repugnant people, however, are not representative of the vast majority of people who do not believe that tearing-down historical markers and monuments is the right path to national unity.
As a native South Carolinian, I supported Governor Nikki Haley’s 2015 relocation of the Confederate Battle Flag from the Statehouse to the state museum. I did so out of the firm conviction that the seat of state government should not include a flag that, for some, signals exclusion. Additionally, I believe that the only flags that should fly over the people’s house are active flags, namely the American and South Carolinian. This conviction does not mean, however, that I support scrubbing the past from public view.
I said at the time that the Confederate Flag was moved from the Statehouse grounds that we needed to now let the past be the past. History is full of nuance and nonconformities; it is almost never a matter of all good or all evil when it comes to human beings. That being said, not everyone who fought for the Confederacy was an entrenched racist, nor was everyone who fought for the Union an ardent abolitionist. As such, the removal of statues and monuments to American founders, or Civil War era leaders, is fraught with political peril.
Take Robert E. Lee, for example. He is revered by a multitude, reviled by many, and misunderstood by most. He is a man who fought more for his native state than racist nativism, and his statements on slavery are contradictory. In a letter to his wife in 1856, Lee wrote that “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” Nevertheless, he himself owned slaves until freeing them in 1862, and did precious little to bring about abolition. Likewise, the family of Union General U.S. Grant owned slaves until emancipation in 1865.
No rational or honorable person can justify the abhorrent evil of slavery in American history. The so-called “peculiar institution” was the original sin of our nation’s otherwise noble founding, and one that certainly helped spur a war that cost 620,000 American lives. The notion that erasing all history from the Antebellum period, however, is not the solution. As former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said “When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it’s a bad thing.” We should, instead, learn lessons, good and bad, from our nation’s past.
Our nation’s history is full of complex men and women who were, simultaneously, noble and savages. Both honorable and horrible. Such is the nature of human history, and all nations founded by fallen human beings. Like the nation’s first president, George Washington, who held slaves he later freed, the nation overcame its own fatal flaw of slavery to form a more perfect Union. The Judeo-Christian Value system of our nation, ultimately, led to the abolition of slavery and to the successful Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. As Secretary Rice eloquently stated “What we should celebrate is that from the Jeffersons and the Washingtons as slave owners, look at where we are now.”
America is a beautiful work in progress, founded on the fundamental principle “that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”