“You May Be Whatever You Resolve To Be”

While a cadet at West Point, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson kept a notebook that included a list of inspirational maxims. One of those included was the headline above. It’s often quoted during discussions about Jackson, buy why? More specifically, why do we bother at all to prop up Jackson as some kind of moral standard bearer that deserves our attention?

I was struck by this recent Civil War in4 video from the American Battlefield Trust, featuring a historian, who references this maxim as a way to frame a short discussion about Jackson.

What struck me is that in roughly four minutes of highlighting how this maxim propelled Jackson through his life and some of the most important moments in American history not once is the subject of slavery mentioned.

How do we understand Jackson’s “resolve” when it came to fighting for a nation whose purpose was the establishment of an independent slaveholding republic built on white supremacy? Certainly, we fail to fully appreciate the moral implications or limits of such a maxim apart from this important and undeniable fact.

I would argue that Jackson’s resolve from First Manassas through Chancellorsville was in the service of an immoral cause. Confederate resolve almost destroyed this nation. Confederate resolve almost resulted in the continued enslavement of millions of human beings.

This is another example of how the Lost Cause continues to shape how we remember the Civil War. Are there any other examples of civil wars where its military and political leaders are held up in such a way?

Why do we continue to do this 150 years later?

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

27 comments… add one
  • Joshism Feb 17, 2019 @ 7:18

    “What struck me is that in roughly four minutes of highlighting how this maxim propelled Jackson through his life and some of the most important moments in American history not once is the subject of slavery mentioned.”

    Thomas J. Jackson never resolved to oppose slavery any more than he resolved to be President.

  • Jeff Abbey Feb 17, 2019 @ 7:34

    Can we admire any human for outstanding qualities and efforts while we at the same time recognize what appear to be grand lapses in judgement or ethics? From the very beginnings of this nation, have we had one leader that appeared to have no lapses in judgement, what appear to be no flaws in their ethical compass, or at times compromised their values in one area to serve another priority?

    From our very beginnings, our most prominent national leaders have had varying interpretations of what the words of our constitution, our founding documents, our pledges, our most prominent songs, and our national vision truly is. These leaders often also compromised one ideal for another that seemed more important to them. As part of this process we became one nation with the flaw that we accepted slavery in some regions or the colonies would not have began as one country at all. The bargain of that time allowed us to free ourselves of the whims of European monarchs, yet included a bargain on slavery that eventually led to a Civil War.

    Today, we are still debating the value and meaning of the ideals that have been part of our lasting national vision-
    “all men are created equal”?
    “liberty, and justice for all”?
    “the land of the free”?
    “and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea”?

    The future of America will be much better if we together channel the words of Stonewall Jackson when he said that we can all “be what ever we resolve to be” to a calling for our nation to live up to the vision quoted above in our founding documents, pledges, and songs written long ago.

    I will continue to admire flawed humans for their strengths as I also try to forgive and avoid their weaknesses.

    We, the people of the United States, will never be free from the risks of the oppression or whims of various tyrants if our system allows the selective oppression of the rights of any within our nation. A nation with an appropriate legal framework that justly protects the right to “To Be Whatever You Resolve To Be” without denying this right to others will live up to the vision of long ago.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2019 @ 7:47

      I appreciate the comment. Of course, we are all flawed. That much we can all agree.

      Let’s follow your own advice. If fighting for the Confederacy was a flaw in Jackson’s character than let’s try to make sense of the maxim in light of it rather than ignoring it entirely.

  • Randolph H Watkins Feb 17, 2019 @ 8:53

    It is the American Battlefield Trust. It is military oriented. Slavery doesn’t have a place in discussions of military tactics, strategy, leadership, etc. That is why it is a BATTLEFIELD trust. For you every thing revolves around slavery and the lost cause. If Confederate leaders aren’t discussed and sometimes even admired, the Union Army is lessened in its importance and heroism. There must be two sides to every war to have one. Irwin Rommel was a fine soldier even if he fought for a terrible cause. If we don’t recognize his talent then we denigrate the Allies who fought against him.

    Stonewall Jackson had his good points. You never say anything about the role that Union generals both during and after the Civil War had in subjugating Native Americans. Grant, Sheridan, Sherman, Gibbon, Custer and others were major parties to what many rightly call a Native American genocide.

    Give the Confederate leaders a break when they said or did something good. Good advice is good advice no matter who said it.

    I had a black friend tell me once that the Civil War was “very painful to her people.” I asked why would that be since the war freed them from slavery. It would look to me that they would celebrate it. She said, “I never thought about it that way.”

    Slavery doesn’t have a place in EVERY conversation about the war.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2019 @ 9:08

      It is the American Battlefield Trust. It is military oriented. Slavery doesn’t have a place in discussions of military tactics, strategy, leadership, etc.

      You apparently have not spent much time on the American Battlefield Trust website. They have plenty of information about the place of slavery in the war. In fact, I know people who work there that would disagree with the very assumption of your comment, including the historian featured in the video.

  • Randolph Watkins Feb 17, 2019 @ 9:51

    Sure there is, but it doesn’t have to be interjected into everything. Especially those of limited length. And I do spend a lot of time on their website.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2019 @ 9:58

      No, not every time, just those times when you are asking your audience to reflect on someone who RESOLVED to give his life for a nation whose goal was the perpetuation of slavery.

  • Al Mackey Feb 17, 2019 @ 10:25

    I think the maxim applies because Jackson came from virtually nothing, with the most rudimentary of educations, and through sheer determination he mastered the curriculum at West Point, rising in class rank each year until he graduated #17 out of 59 in his graduating class, not counting all who dropped out along the way. He was probably on the autism spectrum, and yet made himself a successful and respected member of Lexington society before the Civil War. He was a successful warrior who came out of the Mexican War with two brevet promotions for bravery and distinguished himself in the Civil War. No, he wasn’t perfect, but he was still successful. I don’t think we need to interpret it as it pertains to slavery, but rather how it pertains to a person who rises from the poorest circumstances to be a successful member of society.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2019 @ 10:39

      Hi Al,

      I am not faulting Jackson for falling short of moral perfection. I am not even sure what that even means. What I find curious is our continued need to embrace Confederate generals as moral exemplars. This to me is a relic of the Lost Cause, which as you know Jackson fits prominently in. I just don’t think we can talk about the character of a Confederate general without acknowledging the cause for which he fought.

  • lloyd1927 Feb 17, 2019 @ 10:47

    The Myth of the Kindly General Lee
    The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2019 @ 11:02

      Thanks for linking to this excellent op-ed by Adam Serwer. I don’t think anyone will deny that Jackson didn’t struggle and persevere at different moments in his life, but why we single him out in this way seems to me to be part of a larger story about the influence of the Lost Cause.

      • Jeff Abbey Feb 17, 2019 @ 16:16

        Yes, thanks for the piece by Adam Serwer.

  • lloyd1927 Feb 17, 2019 @ 11:17
    • Andy Hall Feb 18, 2019 @ 7:42

      Lots of siblings and other close family members of famous Confederates remained loyal to the Union. Traditionally that’s been papered over — if it gets mentioned at all — with hoary old platitudes like “brother against brother,” and the like. That really does a disservice to the violence that split did to relationships, and the profound difficulty that many of them had in choosing what course to follow. Their stories need to be told, too.

      • Msb Feb 18, 2019 @ 22:48

        Good reminder. Similarly, Union General GEORGE Thomas’ Virginia family never forgave him for siding with the Union, even when he financially supported them after the War.

  • Eric Koszyk Feb 17, 2019 @ 15:36

    Hello, I sent you a message regarding your thoughts on the Northern Ireland sectarian murals, a topic of which I believe parallels how communities across the U.S. and eastern Europe commemorate Confederate and Soviet history, respectively.

    Anyway, here are a few articles which I think may be of some interest to you and your readers.

    The first one is of a mural which was once in a Unionist section of Belfast, which glorified Confederates who were of Ulster Scots (Scots Irish) descent and which called the U.S. Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression.”

    https://extramuralactivity.com/2008/06/04/the-war-of-northern-aggression/

    The second one is from the Queens University of Belfast and is an examination of the mural and on how Ulster Scots are trying to memorialize themselves (although missing an opportunity by failing to illustrate the history of slavery in the process). I found it very interesting.

    https://qubpublichistory.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/heritage-not-hate-the-monumental-history-of-the-ulster-scots/

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2019 @ 17:49

      I received your message. Will try and respond in the next few days.

      • Eric Koszyk Feb 18, 2019 @ 12:49

        Okay thank you.

  • Billy Wetherington Feb 18, 2019 @ 9:17

    Well, slavery was a part of the tactics and strategy of the war. Slaves worked in the field with the armies, “freeing” white men to fight to keep them slaves.

  • Wallce Hettle Feb 18, 2019 @ 12:50

    The irony is that Jackson plucked this maxim, along with other material from a best-selling maxim book inclother material from the Young Man’s Guide. The book was written by William Andrus Alcott, anabolitionist who happened to be the uncle of Louisa May Alcott.

    See my article, “The Minister, the Martyr, and the Maxim: Robert Lewis Dabney and Stonewall Jackson Biography,” Civil War History, 49 (December 2003): 353-69 and Wallace Hettle Inventing Stonewall Jackson (LSU Press, 2011). The only other material than that from Alcott comes from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. The reason why that maxim is remembered is that it was plucked out of the commonplace book by the radical proslavery theologian and first Jackson biographer Robert Lewis Dabney.

    Sorry for the plug, but in this case the material is relevant.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 18, 2019 @ 13:01

      Thanks for the additional information.

  • Msb Feb 18, 2019 @ 22:51

    Jackson’s story sounds rather like Sherman’s. Both orphaned at a young age, making themselves into successful fighters. If Jackson was slightly autistic, Sherman struggled with some mental issues.

  • Terry M. Klima Feb 19, 2019 @ 8:41

    Based upon Jackson’s very humble origins, it would seem the maxim “You May Be Whatever You Resolve To Be” did serve Jackson well. Interestingly, the United States Army would adopt the remarkably similar recruiting slogan “Be all you can be” one hundred years later

    Who would have imagined that a largely self educated orphan could have achieved the record of accomplishment that Thomas Jackson did. Barely passing the entrance examination to West Point and being the last Cadet admitted, he persevered academically to graduate 17th out of a class of 59. His record of military accomplishments as a Commander, tactician and strategist is exemplary.

    It is indeed unfortunate to assume that Jackson’s Confederate service was in support of slavery and white supremacy. Jackson, like Robert E,. Lee, was a Unionist and had hoped Virginia would remain in the Union. When Virginia seceded, he felt his primary allegiance was to his home state.

    How unfortunate that no one recognized what a “Man of all seasons” Jackson truly was. At a time when it was against Virginia law to teach reading to Blacks, he helped establish in 1855 a Sunday School for Black children, suffering criticisms from members of the Lexington community. He felt it was crucial to teach reading to the children in order that they be able to read the Bible. He remained resolute when threatened with criminal prosecution by the Clerk of the Court regarding a possible Grand Jury indictment. In spite of laws and regulations to the contrary, he continued with the Sunday school, the teaching of reading and allowing assemblies of both free and enslaved Blacks to meet in his home after dark for religious instruction. Even while serving as a Confederate General, he continued to send monetary contributions to buy books for his much beloved “Colored Sabbath School”.

    A number of the Sabbath School students influenced by Jackson “Resolved” to be leaders in their community, many pursuing notable careers in the ministry or education. Not surprisingly, some of the first monetary contributions to erect a memorial to Stonewall Jackson at his grave site came from students of his Sabbath School. Certainly, this does not fit the popular contemporary narrative regarding the erection of memorials to Confederates.

    Viewing 19th century individuals through the lens of the 21st century leads to highly questionable assumptions and generalizations as to one’s motivations and beliefs. Stonewall Jackson’s unacclaimed efforts in educating and improving the lives of his Sunday school students may in fact be the accomplishment that he would take the most personal satisfaction in Jackson was a humble man who did not seek accolades from others but had strong moral convictions which he followed, in spite of the costs.

    We should all be careful when attempting to claim the moral high ground….be reminded that it is lonely at the top!

    • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2019 @ 9:38

      It is indeed unfortunate to assume that Jackson’s Confederate service was in support of slavery and white supremacy.

      We don’t have to assume anything. The goals of the Confederate government were made crystal clear from the beginning to the end of the war.

      At a time when it was against Virginia law to teach reading to Blacks, he helped establish in 1855 a Sunday School for Black children, suffering criticisms from members of the Lexington community.

      Perhaps you can share what Christian teachings were shared with enslaved people. Did they encourage enslaved people to think of themselves as free individuals deserving of the same respect as any other person or did these teachings reinforce the slave system?

      • Lee Mar 5, 2019 @ 4:16

        Kevin,

        You said “We don’t have to assume anything. The goals of the Confederate government were made crystal clear from the beginning to the end of the war.”

        I think what Terry meant by “in support” was Jackson’s personal motivation for serving, not the aims of the Confederate government. Just like James McPherson’s books “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War” and “What They Fought For: 1861-1865” deal with the motives of individual soldiers and sailors, not the objectives of the Lincoln and Davis administrations.

  • Terry M. Klima Feb 19, 2019 @ 12:20

    In 1861, when Jackson entered Confederate military service, the United States was not standing in opposition to the “peculiar institution”. In fact, both Houses of the US Congress had recently adopted the Corwin Amendment to the United States Constitution which, upon ratification of the States, would have preserved chattel slavery in perpetuity. In his Inauguration Address, Lincoln referenced that he would have no objection to the Amendment being made “Express and Irrevocable”.

    Unfortunately, I am unable to definitively share what specific Christian teachings Jackson and his Sunday School staff shared with the enslaved individuals as I wasn’t present to memorialize the lesson plans.Nor can you or should presume Jackson’s motivation in defending his home state of Virginia over 155 years ago.

    Based upon the achievements of many of his students, one could reasonably speculate that the teachings offered hope of a brighter future and advancement.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 19, 2019 @ 12:30

      In 1861, when Jackson entered Confederate military service, the United States was not standing in opposition to the “peculiar institution”.

      The war aims of the United States was consistent from 1861 to 1865: the preservation of the Union. By 1863 it had taken steps to end slavery as a means to save the Union. From day 1 the Confederacy was committed to protecting and expanding slavery. Jackson served in the military arm of that government.

      Christianity in the South had long been framed to prop up the institution of slavery. Jackson teachings would have fallen squarely in that framework.

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