Today I finished the three volume Shelby Foote classic “The Civil War: A Narrative“, a years in the making goal developed from my mid-life interest in the American nation’s biggest challenge to defining its character and identity. If one period can be recognized as the foundation for all the United States accomplished in the decades to follow, through two World Wars; a global depression; its period of international leadership following WWII; and the social upheavals still occurring to this day, it would be the sense of Nation that resulted through the challenges of The Civil War.
The reasons why the Civil War was necessary are readily apparent. The men, who created the country from a collection of separate colonies and wrote our Constitution, were inherently human. Which is to say, they were imperfect and eminently fallible. Yes, they made mistakes … huge mistakes. They made a terrible compromise in the name of creating a constitutional republic.
They allowed the possession of other human beings as property to hold the Southern states of the post-Revolution, pre-Constitution confederation. And that was just their biggest mistake. Early American politics were complicated, tenuous, and riddled with figurative minefields. When examined through the lenses of history, humanity, and modern social consciousness, a lot of modern, current day Americans fail to grasp what the expression “grand experiment” means.
It’s important to appreciate the extent to which these early American leaders knew they were imperfect and eminently fallible. For that reason, they recognized that The People needed to be protected from the vagaries of Government, which in all practical matters is motivated and directed by imperfect and eminently fallible men. The U.S. Constitution protected the States from the power and the potential for abuse from the National Government.
The Grand Experiment – as described by non-slave holder Alexander Hamilton (pre-Broadway version) – was hardly intended to be THE perfect solution to the many problems and challenges those early American leaders faced in creating a new nation. The necessity of amending The Constitution almost immediately (i.e. two years after USC ratification) in 10 ways – The Bill of Rights – was proof that blind spots had existed when the US Constitution was written. The Rights of the Individual – only the white male ones at the time – had to be protected as well from infringements by all levels of Government.
The Civil War was the inevitable solution for the most egregious shortcoming of those Founding Fathers. Though not all were slaveholders, and an argument could be made that many who did opposed it as an acceptable practice, they were an insufficient number inadequately strong – in influence and political power – to exclude it.
All out war in the end was the only remedy. And yet, slavery was not the ONLY reason the Civil War was fought. It was however the BIGGEST reason and the impenetrable barrier to a peaceful solution to several issues!
Foote’s “The Civil War: Epilogue” totaled the casualties of setting right the biggest mistake of The Founders: 640,000 Union, 450,000 Confederate casualties. 200,000 total killed in battle; 365,000 total dead for the Union; 256,000 dead Confederates when you include those who died from disease, unrelated crimes, drowning, suicide, etc. That’s 620,000 military dead from all causes. Add in another 470,000 wounded (total both sides) to almost reach 1.1 million total war-related casualties. And that does not include civilian losses.
I would normally write a good bit more about the book in a blog, but my reading of the third and last volume coincided with the egregious death of George Floyd and the latest rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) to such events. The Floyd death and calls for justice were traumatic enough and certainly understandable.
But then the movement morphed.
It morphed first into violence and vandalism. Then avowed anarchist usurped a theretofore justifiable outrage. It became more about hatred for and retaliation against law enforcement officers; disdain for modern social constructs and government; and a desire to gut American society in favor of certain not-so-grand experiments that have NEVER proved successful in past attempts (e.g. socialism, anarchy, elimination of law enforcement, the overthrow of systems of justice).
As one who admires our history with all its faults, mistakes, and injustices, it’s maddening to see the destruction of monuments to it. Yes, you can understand the desire of many who want to tear down statues to slave holders; their sympathizers; and their military protectors … as much as I might disagree. Such reactions are an insult to the our history, warts and all.
If humans cannot achieve perfection, what they create can never be perfect. Change will ultimately be necessary; and some of that change will be bloody, violent, destructive. How does one learn from history, and prevent the reoccurrence of destructive change, by removing all monuments and remembrances? How does that help to prevent history’s repetitive inclinations?
Foote’s epilogue contains a quote that appears surprisingly pertinent to recent events. Anaximander, an ancient Greek philosopher, once stated:
“It is necessary that things should pass away into that from which they are born. For things must pay one another the penalty and compensation for the injustice according to the ordinance of time.”
No stretch of consciousness should dismiss such a concept. At some point all our acts will be subject to human judgment through the prism of time and the evolution of Man’s thinking as expressed through social mores and their behavioral expression. Certainly slavery would fit that suggestion. Judgment of it as one of the bleakest points in the American Experiment is undisputed. Those that fought to preserve it as tradition, economic essential, or evolutionary dictate paid the physical price 160 years ago. But we cannot ignore that the emotional scars and even some social behaviors (i.e. racism) remain to this day.
So I can see why removing Confederate statuary would be a comfort to some … or even a political/social imperative. But there should be a process resulting from consensus and protected by local government for their removal, relocation, or destruction, providing no lesson for history continues to exist.
“… Providing no lesson for history continues to exist” is the crucial thought. Can we honestly say American society is beyond its racist past? Are there not still lessons to be learned about what transpired 160 years ago? How would current and future generations learn from invisible legacy, if all reminders are swept from view?
There’s a difference in suggesting the statue of Bedford Forest, who was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan, should be removed for its obvious racist symbolism; but quite another to suggest the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or James Longstreet offer nothing of value in the way of historical or military lessons. What do we learn from the past, if we erase all physical evidence of its existence?
In this the anarchist, anti-American factions betrayed themselves. They went far beyond righting the wrongs of racial suppression. When you cannot tell the difference – or more accurately don’t care – between Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant or Abraham Lincoln, you allow us to glimpse the true purpose of your “protest”.
It’s easier to understand the visceral reaction of the black community to the death of Floyd. But in essence that movement was usurped by those with broader motivations as we have seen before. There is no interest there in making America a better example to the world at large. They simply want America to die with no regard for all the good the country has accomplished since 1776.
This happens not because they cannot grasp the inherent fallibility of 18th century man or credit the foresight they displayed by even attempting such a Grand Experiment! They simply hate the fact that the system created 230 years ago requires they appeal to The People to make a difference. Not just some people, but all The People. They hate that they have to work hard to convince us that their insight is superior, let alone whether such insight offers a better world.
They don’t want to work for it. They want to convince you to destroy it. They want to be able to convince you without offering even the remotest idea of what those changes would look like.
For those reasons alone, you know their ideas are bankrupt!