It’s Not About Statues

It’s not about statues. It’s about America. It isn’t about the dark past of slavery, treason, rebellion, segregation, and dominance symbolized by racist statues and flags. It’s about the present and the future–how do we see America? What do we want it to be?

Racists demand “Blood and Soil.” Your ancestors and where you were born matter most to them. That’s what the South fought for.

But the American idea is just that–an idea. It doesn’t care who your parents were, or where you were born. It only cares what you believe.

The founding fathers were fallen sinful men, products of their age. But they grasped a vision of something else. Not a theological vision, but a philosophical one. And this idea was spelled out in their Declaration of Independence from Great Britain:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

They didn’t act like it. They fought over whether slavery would be recognized. Some spoke of equality but kept slaves. But they signed their names to this Declaration, telling the world that this is what this country must look like.

And when many of those same men came together after the Revolution to draft a Constitution, they laid the foundation upon which such a vision could be built. They rejected any religious test for office–already in Article VI, not in the Bill of Rights. Religion, or lack thereof, could have nothing to do with public service.

They spoke of freedom of religion for all, and the establishment of no religion. They named rights protecting the inhabitants of the nation from one another, and from the government: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom to complain, freedom to be secure in your house and in your body, freedom to trial by an impartial jury. Oh, it took a long time to acknowledge that these rights must belong to all. Some crossed their fingers when they signed, I imagine, or couldn’t imagine how devastating these words were for the society in which they lived.

American had a common vision, a covenant with one another. And yet from the beginning part of the nation was slave, part was free–divided in how the nation would live out the vision of freedom and equality.

Tension between the sections increased in the decades which followed, a tension that astute observers knew must find a resolution.

A frontier farmer turned lawyer and politician put it this way:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Lincoln’s election as President forced the issue. The Slave states would not abide the election of a man who was against preservation of the status quo, and hostile to their desired expansion of slavery to new territories in the west. South Carolina stated clearly that slavery was the cause of their secession.

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, spelled out the heart of the problem in his “Cornerstone Speech.”  The founding fathers were wrong.  All men are not created equal.  This would be the “cornerstone” upon which their new nation would be founded.

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

This was the foundation of the Confederacy. This was the basis of the Rebellion. This was the cause for which men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest took up arms–the radical rejection of the fundamental principle enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.

The armies were defeated, the separate existence of the Slave state quashed, the principle of “equal protection under the law” spelled out in a new Amendment–but the idea of the Confederacy, the denial of equality of all men, lived in the hearts and minds of the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, of those who had sought to destroy the nation through violent insurrection. They turned their violence inward. Under white hoods and black judicial robes they struck back at the freed slaves and their descendants. They treated them as inferior, through both lynching and legislation and patronizing attitudes. They stomped with the weight of the law upon those who stop up, those who spoke up, those who dreamed that one day the vision of equality might come at last to the South. Well into the 20th century, over a century from the end of the war, the Southern cross remained an instrument of torture upon which the Son of God continued to be crucified anew.

This is what the statues and the flags and the institutions of the flag sought to preserve–a society built upon inequality.

Yes, they must go. The spirit must be driven out completely. Because we must finally come to the place the founders dreamed of–a society where all are equal, regardless of ancestry or accident of birth, regardless of religion or color or economic status. “Blood and soil” was the old European spirit of feudalism and inequality which spurred the colonial dreams of various states. “Blood and soil” was the stuff that the founders of this nation rejected.

What think ye? Will you cling to your parents’ apron strings–iron chains of thought that restrict your movement and your mind? Will you insist that this land, unknown to your grandparents’ grandparents, belongs only to their blood? Will you perpetuate ideas defeated in Revolution and Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, ideas of inequality, Romantic myths of benign paternalistic racism? Or will you embrace the vision of the nation’s founders–

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.