Update: Here is video of State Senator Hanger’s tribute to Stonewall Jackson in Richmond. Notice that he doesn’t even get to Jackson until the 3 minute mark. My have times changed.
You don’t have to go too far back in time in Virginia history to find a political culture that was perfectly aligned with the memorialization of the Confederacy. Monuments, street names, holidays, public school textbooks all taught that Confederate leaders and their cause should be celebrated and propped up as a set of ideals that all citizens should strive to emulate.
Thankfully, that is no longer the case.
While the removal of monuments have received most of the mainstream media’s attention over the past few years, it is really the smaller acts of defiance that are responsible for the erosion of the celebration of the Lost Cause in public spaces over a longer period of time. Consider what happened in Virginia’s state Senate this past Friday when Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta began a speech in honor of Stonewall Jackson’s birthday.
As he began Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax – only the second elected black leader in Virginia – walked off the dais to take a seat on a bench. Later he told reporters:
It’s a personal decision for me. There are people in Virginia history that I think it’s appropriate to memorialize and remember in that way, and others that I would have a difference of opinion on.
Fairfax’s very presence in elected office is a an act of defiance against everything the Confederacy stood for and everything that Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were willing to give their lives to achieve: a slave holding republic based on white supremacy. With this small act, Fairfax managed to hijack the holiday through media coverage, which likely would have been absent without it.
Virginia still celebrates Lee-Jackson Day, but you will be hard pressed to find any public acknowledgment of the holiday. Elected officials still deliver addresses in Richmond, but this is likely a political calculation more than a reflection of any deep belief.
The most vocal Confederate apologist in Virginia right now is Corey Stewart, who failed in his first campaign for state office. He is from Minnesota.
This may have been a personal decision for Fairfax, but in that moment he spoke for decent people throughout Virginia and beyond, who no longer buy into the mythology surrounding the Confederacy.
We should celebrate the fact that Stonewall Jackson would roll over in his grave in response to Fairfax’s act of protest.
What do we imply when we condemn slavery and racism in a society that is not our own? What moral compass ought we to use that ignores greed and sets aside society norms? Today slavery is considered by our society as profoundly dishonorable but if the opinion of our society is the only reason we think it dishonorable then how can we judge other societies with different opinions?
By condemning slavery and racism within another culture we also convey the idea that we hold human dignity and equality as two of the foundations of a just society. Additionally, why should a person’s ability to judge what is right and wrong not take into account greed or societal norms?
Lastly, you’re making the assumption that America’s current position on slavery is solely determined by contemporary cultural developments and consequently who are we today to judge the past. You must remember, however, that a growing segment of early to mid-19th century America began to view slavery as reprehensible and incapable with a modern society. This opinion did not just come out of nowhere and was far from unique when one takes into account the greater Anglosphere. Heck, even the Founding Fathers attempted to tackle the issue of slavery, albeit unsuccessfully, almost a century before the Civil War. Thus in the case of slavery within the United States, one does not have to apply 21st century morals to condemn it.
I think if you were to question a different society, they may well tell you that the role different people play in their society is in accordance with their nature, e.g. women should be in the home and not the workplace, etc. They wouldn’t see those opinions as you do and so they would refute your vision of justice, reprehensibility and compatibility. Then what would you say to convince them that your opinion is the right opinion?
Why do we have to twist ourselves into knots to make the simple point that fighting to create a slave holding nation based on white supremacy, at a time when slavery was being rejected elsewhere, is morally wrong?
Of course one should expect push back. To believe otherwise would be naive. But if I was a British subject from Canada West speaking to a Virginian in the mid-1840s, I would try to appeal my case through emotion and reason and hopefully change their way of thinking. I would likely use the Bible to back up my arguments and in answer to the claims of the pro-slavery position, I would attest that if we carefully examine the scriptures we shall find that slavery and the oppression were ever abominable in the sight of God.
Good. The only rational basis for a moral stance against slavery is that stated by Jefferson (“Created equal” and “Endowed by our Creator”). That same basis ought to have applied to brotherhood, e.g. “how many times should I forgive my brother?”
May 29, 1865 in a general amnesty to Confederate soldiers. Repeatedly over the next few years to thousands of individual traitors. Finally in December of 1868 to the rest of the traitors.
Interestingly, Jefferson thought slavery needed to end, but he couldn’t do without having slaves. He lacked the moral courage to stand by his beliefs on slavery in the face of opposition as well as to stop financially profiting by their labor.
It is our common human condition that we self justify and deceive ourselves in order to get what we think is our happiness. Our innate capacity for self deception even keeps us from realizing the scope of our own self deceptions. I think Jefferson understood that.
Just by penning the words “Endowed by their Creator”, Jefferson laid the everlasting charge of hypocrisy on all Christians who denied the benefits and affections of brotherhood to their brothers and sisters.
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” (T. Jefferson)
It is hard to stomach a reality that was avoided by so many white people in the South for 150 years. The Civil War was about owning people, about the wealth that slavery created. Do we need to condemn them for sharing a common interest and prejudice of their times? One held by many Northerners and Midwesterner folks and others who did not live in the South? I think the answer is yes we can condemn them for that just as we can condemn any form of tyranny and slavery was tyranny. The Great Shame of America is slavery and our use of it for 250 years and our suppression of its memory for 100 or more years. (Still occurring with some folks.)
I say no we do not honor people for betraying their oath nor for fighting for slavery. Their statues and memorials belong in museums (when they have historical significance), in places of education rather than honor.
Our soldiers and sailors can study their tactics and their strategy to better defend the Republic but there is no honor in treason nor in slavery.
The Lt. Governor and you are entitled to your opinions regarding honoring either Lee or Jackson, and his form of protest is certainly to be preferred to vandalizing public and private property, or desecrating graves, which has now spread from civil war sites to monuments of other historical eras. I would take issue with your statement that Lee and Jackson “were willing to give their lives to achieve a slave holding republic based on white supremacy.” While there were indeed many leaders in the South whose motive was exactly that, neither Lee nor Jackson were among them. There is abundant evidence from his own mouth that Lee was not a supporter of seceding from the Union and that his decision to side with the Confederacy rather than the Federal government was not an easy one for him. With Jackson, there is also primary source material to support the view that his attitude towards African Americans, free or slave, was anything but white supremacist; moreover, his widow explicitly stated in her memoirs that defense of slavery was not his motive for joining the Confederacy. They were both men of their times and the notion that loyalty to one’s home state trumped loyalty to the Union as a whole may seem inconsequential or absurd to the modern mind, but it was a very real thing to many in 1861. One need not be an adherent to “The Lost Cause” to recognize that both Lee and Jackson were men of honor who made their decision based on the sincerity of their beliefs and that that decision, in their cases, was not an easy one. That their decision was wrong, I think goes without saying, but at least we should acknowledge the honesty of their beliefs. Political beliefs that are today considered perfectly legitimate may, to future generations, well be viewed in retrospect with horror and dismay.
I suggest reading Gary Gallagher’s essay “An Old-Fashioned Soldier in a Modern War?: Lee Confederate Generalship” which you can find in his book, Lee & His Army in Confederate History. Lee fully understood the goals of the Confederacy and expressed support of it more than once during the war. He was a thoroughgoing Confederate nationalist by 1865.
Both of these men supported the slave system, but ultimately, it is irrelevant where they stood on this and related issues such as emancipation. They fought for a government whose explicit goal was not only the protection of, but the spread of slavery. Every Confederate victory brought them one step closer to achieving that goal. That fact alone justifies Lt. Governor Fairfax’s protest.
Lee was perfectly happy to let his army kidnap free African Americans in Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign, and sell them as slaves in Virginia after the retreat. White supremacist.
A community’s democratic decision to remove or relabel a monument is completely different from the desecration of graves or vandalism, which have, sadly, been going on for thousands of years.
But both Lee and Jackson owned people. How could they be against something they did?
some go with the flow, others swim against it and some re-channel it.
The great people of history are of the latter, with help from the second. Lee and Jackson did not change history as they were of the first group.