Monumental miss

Posted on August 25, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

I’ve never met anyone who supports repealing the 13th Amendment, and reinstituting slavery. I’ve never heard of anyone proposing such a thing, regardless of how radically right the “alt-” reaches.

That peculiar institution perished forever on American soil in 1865, thank God. Involuntary servitude of that sort isn’t part of anyone’s daily life, and hasn’t been now for more than 150 years.

It is, however, part of U.S. history.

And in all the ruckus surrounding monuments lately, we’ve missed a tremendous opportunity for some truly teachable moments.

At an intellectual level, historical knowledge among average Americans runs on the low side. There’s no H in STEM, which helps explain why national benchmark scores for proficiency in history among American eighth-graders is around 18 percent.

Stories and examples of people, young and old, being befuddled about correctly connecting dates and events and wars and presidents and so forth are as amusing as they are commonplace.

YouTube videos of random Americans on the street being unable to answer the most basic questions of U.S. history garner views in the tens of millions for their humor.

Interviewer: “Who won the Civil War?”

Young woman: “We did!”

Every Fourth of July average passersby caught on camera can’t name a founding father, pin down the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, or even identify the country from which we gained our independence.

A populace that has trouble placing our founding conflict in the right century is most assuredly easily misled about the finer points of complex politics and economic pressures leading up to secession.

Instead of tearing statues down, we should be holding them up for discussion, and challenging everyone with an interest about the value of historical education—and the risks and costs of historical ignorance.

History books are typically large and thick for a reason. Skimming the surface on major historical matters generally results in mis-education, and the ensuing peril isn’t the erasure of history but the propagandizing of it. That’s what’s most on display in this ongoing uproar over Civil War statuary.

See what you can score on a few “Trivial Pursuit-type” questions:

1.Who wrote “In this enlightened age, there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.”

(A) William Seward (B) Robert E. Lee (C) Abraham Lincoln (D) Henry Clay

2.Which Civil War general owned more slaves?

(A) William Tecumseh Sherman (B) Robert E. Lee (C) Ulysses S. Grant

3.Name the U.S. state whose Black Code of 1853 prohibited any black persons from outside of the state from staying in the state for more than 10 days, subjecting blacks who violated that rule to arrest, detention, a $50 fine, or deportation?

(A) Kentucky (B) Illinois (C) Missouri (D) West Virginia

The words condemning slavery as evil were written in a letter to his wife in 1856 by Robert E. Lee.

Contrary to popular belief, Lee owned no slaves. He was executor of his father-in-law’s estate, which included a slave plantation. Reports of Lee “freeing his slaves” are false; the slaves Lee freed belonged to his father-in-law, in accordance with the dying man’s wishes.

Sherman never owned slaves, having never lived in a state where slavery was legal. The only general among the three that apparently owned a slave was Grant, and the only evidence of that is a manumission document for a single slave Grant signed in 1859.

Like Lee, Grant managed his father-in-law’s farm on which a number of slaves worked.

Racist and discriminatory black codes were prevalent in antebellum northern states in what is now the midwest region. The language above is from Illinois, but other states such as Indiana and Michigan had similar discriminatory laws designed to impede racial immigration.

Indeed, in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville observed racial prejudice in America to be “stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant,” he wrote, “as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

He pondered the paradox, and offered a provocative proposition: “[W]hy have the Americans abolished slavery in the North …, why do they maintain it in the South, and why do they aggravate its hardships?” he asked.

“The answer is easily given. It is not for the good of the Negroes, but for that of the whites, that measures are taken to abolish slavery in the United States.”

It’s unclear how many of the chanting protesters have ever bothered to read Chapter 18 of Democracy in America, but a safe wager is the number would be minuscule. Tocqueville is only one voice on the matter; the vast chronicled record is full of brilliant thinkers.

The historical racial relationship in America isn’t tidy, and neither were the Civil War’s causes or consequences; simplistically portraying either as such will produce no progress.

The undeniable truth is that broader, deeper knowledge dispersed among any participants in this overcharged argument would bring greater empathy to all. It’s never too late to learn.

A toppled monument educates no one. Ignorance threatens us all.

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