Question of the Day

Should a slave-holding Southerner in rebellion against his country and in support of a government that supports slavery be held up as a model of admiration?

If you said “No,” then you have just disqualified George Washington.

After all, the American Revolution was a rebellion against Washington’s native country. He was a Southerner, and he did own slaves. And if you don’t think the colonies supported slavery, look at the Constitution’s infamous 3/5 Clause.

Because Americans won their independence, though, we look at Washington’s story through a different frame.

My point is not to denigrate Washington, who was truly THE best of us in our country’s history. Rather, I want to call attention to the frames we see things through, and I want to call attention to the need for well-rounded consideration of anyone in our history. We need to see them three-dimensionally, in all their highs and lows, rights and wrongs. When we do that, the saints and the rogues all have something to teach us.

The challenge is to understand the people of our past as products of their times and not judge them by the values of ours. When we can do that, we can all have better conversations that lead to richer understandings.

26 Responses to Question of the Day

  1. Washington was pretty crummy about it, also. He said he would free his slaves, but not until Mrs. Washington died. Then another relative rescinded a freedom clause in his father’s will . . . wasn’t it Robert E. Lee??

  2. Except to say that Confederate leaders were traitors to their country *is* looking at it through their time’s lens. West Point cadets pledged to defend their country, and in their country’s darkest hour, they abandoned it. And if we go with the old cop-out of state over country, which is bull crap in my opinion, we spit on the likes of George Thomas, William Terrill, David Farragut, etc, who stood up for their country before all else. They certainly didn’t think Virginia or any other state was more important than a country as a whole.

    1. From a Union perspective, yes, but not from a Southern perspective. Many Southerns felt the government had betrayed THEM, not vis versa, which is why so many of them framed it as a second American Revolution.

      Many historians have made the distinction that the Civil War turned the United States from plural to singular–instead of “the United States ARE” to “the United States IS.” That rhetorical shift is indicative of the states-first mentality of prewar America and the war’s impact on that. Call it “crap” and a cop-out if you want, but it’s the way things were, particularly in the South.

      The examples you pick of Southerners who stayed true to the Federal army only proves that the issue was complicated and that not everyone saw it the way a majority of Southerners did–not that either perspective was the “right” one. John Gibbon stayed in the army but had three brothers who fought for the South; go ask their mom who was “right.”

      I’m not trying to defend the Southern position–just asking people to understand it on their terms, not ours.

      1. Forgive me for nitpicking this, Chris, but this is a pet peeve of mine. “Many historians have made the distinction that the Civil War turned the United States from plural to singular–instead of “the United States ARE” to “the United States IS.” That rhetorical shift is indicative of the states-first mentality of prewar America and the war’s impact on that. ”

        Whichever historians make that claim are wrong. The Civil War did not turn the United States from a plural to a singular. Fellow blogger Andy Hall has shown that “the United States is” became more prevalent than “the United States are” in the 1840s. The way we Americans refer to all collective nouns [such as “United States”] evolved from the British way of referring to them in the plural [which they still do to this day] to the American English way of referring to them in the singular. Proper British English, for example, would construct this sentence: “The team are playing tomorrow.” Proper American English would construct it, “The team is playing tomorrow.” That’s not a result of the Civil War, and neither is referring to “United States” in the singular.

    2. doesn’t change the fact that the Patriots of 1776 made the same oath to Great Britain and King–so the West Point comparison doesn’t hold water

      1. the same book that says the enlisted men of the Confederacy took an oath to the Union…we are talking officers. GW, Gates, etc…

      2. And my friendly Californian friend…most of the fighting men in the Rev War were militia not Continentals. Most militias before the war did have oaths to their Royal govts. etc….point being, they were all traitors by strict definition of the word and were fighting for their percieved American way of life…which very much included slavery

  3. Not exactly congruent situations, though, since the American Revolution was not about keeping slavery safe from a perceived threat, whereas the confederacy was set up because seven states attempted secession in order to protect slavery from the perceived threat posed by Abraham Lincoln’s election. So your setup is amusing but ultimately it seems to me the point you intended to make is nullified by that major difference between the two. Having said that, though, I agree with your conclusion that we shouldn’t try to judge historical figures by our values. Rather, we should do our best to understand them on their terms. To the point of the premise of your question, though, if we’re looking for people to admire, most historical figures have admirable aspects as well as aspects that are not admirable. It just depends on what we want to stress and what we want to ignore about them. Instead of holding up a person to be a model for admiration, I suggest we hold up admirable behaviors as models, which in turn allows us to look at several historical figures who at one time or another exhibited those behaviors. Ultimately, holding up an individual as a model can be self-defeating, because then we discover our shining model, being a fallable human being and not a demigod, has feet of clay. But if we recognize that human beings are complex individuals who embody both good and bad behavior, we develop, in my opinion, a more realistic view. We can admire the good behavior and use it as an example of what to do, and we can also use the bad behavior as an example of what to try to avoid doing.

    1. I really like what you’re saying, Al. And I agree, the situations aren’t entirely parallel, so I can only take that point so far. But that’s part of the point, too (which you get at): if we just start labeling with broad brush strokes without considering all the nuances, it’s easy to start manipulating and stereotyping.

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response.

    2. well…Great Britian did order freedom to the slaves if they left so it’s pretty darn close to similar…especially when reading the letters and acts of Congress when the British began that policy

      1. Lord Dunmore made his proclamation after the rebellion had started, and the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence didn’t include a threat to slavery. In fact, Jefferson’s original draft included a clause complaining about the King implementing slavery.

  4. Well said, Chris. Our history is checkered with all sorts of people and actions that are not to be enshrined in our Hall of Fame. But it IS our history, good and bad and that has made us what we are today. There is not doubt that the Civil War was all about slavery, yet I recognize the ambivalence in the North and the other motives of the rank and file (like my poor Irish immigrant relatives) that wore gray uniform.

  5. I find this curious. One can admire a historical figure while admitting to flaws, sometimes serious ones, because, after all, one’s simply admiring aspects of the figure. I would think that people find Nathan Bedford Forrest’s generalship worthy of study and even admiration, but as for the rest … not so much. One can admire Grant, for example, but he, too, owned a slave, and I don’t know anyone who finds that admirable. So isn’t there something of the strawman in the exercise you’re conducting?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brooks. Indeed, the whole exercise is a straw man, but that’s my point. I think too much “strawmanning” is going on of late…too much stereotyping…too much rush to judgement based on too little understanding. I am completely in sympathy with the modern dynamics at play on many levels–my trip to Charleston earlier this month certainly drove that home–but I’m so disheartened by the rush to give everything an Orwellian whitewash. THAT’s why I’m really trying to push back against.

      1. That’s a good question, and to the best of my knowledge, the answer is “no.” Thus far, much of what I have seen has taken place in the public arena: politicians, public officials, upset crowds, special interest groups, policymakers, etc. There are many good intentions, many strong emotions, and many misconceptions/perceptions. I wish more of those people were turning to historians to ask for help in contextualizing things, but instead, decisions are getting made without that kind of useful input.

        I’m still poking around. Have you found anything in your readings and travels?

      2. Also missing from the discussion, as a friend pointed out to me, is any talk of things like the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Historic Sites Act of 1935, the Historic Preservation Act of 1935, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, etc. That would nip some of the reactionary-ism in the bud, I suspect.

  6. I feel that in too many cases all Confederates are painted with the same brush. Were there Confeferates who owned slaves? Abso,utely, a minority of the army as a whole, did. Did they secede and rebel,. yes, as did George Washington and all the sighners of the Declaration of Independence. Was that “legal”? Today very little is mentioned about non slaveholding southern soldiers because it is easier to demonize people fighting for slavety then to acknowledge poor southrrn farmers with an invading army camped in his front yard, as someone fighting bravely for a worthy cause such as protecting his home and family. All you seem to hear totday is slaveowner and treason. Not the treason of the founding fathets, only that of the Confederates.

  7. The answer, of course, is yes, and it applies as much to R.E. Lee as it does to an illiterate yeoman farmer in the Shenandoah Valley who didn’t necessarily think highly of slavery, but thought even less of the idea that he should stand aside while Phil Sheridan & Co. dropped the torch on his crops, barn, house and neighborhood.

    I’d be the last person to “spit on David Farragut,” but I’m happy to acknowledge the endless complexities and contradictions that make the Civil War the most interesting thing that ever happened on this soil.

  8. Chris has the “more balanced” view(perhaps like being “fairer”; either fair or not fair, in truth). Many current ‘swings in this current pendulum swing’ seem to have more to do with 1960’s than 1860’s. Many of us experienced vividly the 1960’s…none experienced the 1860’s. Ah! the eye of the beholder… the lens of history, etc.
    I admire ECW!

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