Historical Symbols, The Nature of Truth, and the Sides of History

14 07 2015

Thus far, apart from this post pointing out that the Confederate Battle Flag did not exist at the time of the First Battle of Bull Run, I’ve stayed out of the feeding frenzy that is the controversy regarding symbols of the Confederacy in our modern landscape. I’ve decided to dip my toe not as a prelude to diving in, but in deference to the rules of this site I think a mere dip is all I can take. Otherwise I – or you – may feel compelled to wade into modern political waters. And we can’t have that. However, I do feel there are issues of history involved which are altogether fitting and proper to discuss here.

It’s pretty clear to most that the Confederate States of America was founded to perpetuate the institution of slavery. It was the national cause. When it comes to what caused individuals to fight for or support that national cause – the personal causes, so to speak – I suspect there were as many causes as there were fighters and supporters, be they volunteer or conscripted soldiers, suppliers of their support in the field, manufacturers of the products necessary to wage war and support the government (and their employees), more-than-subsistence-farmers, planters, free- and not-free laborers, members of the media, elected and un-elected government officials, etc. We can’t of course assign to them the national cause as their personal cause. It doesn’t make sense. But we can’t exactly separate them. They existed hand in hand, effectively.

What we wind up with are symbols with multiple meanings: flags, monuments, place-names. And those meanings are as various as not only the individuals they commemorate, but as the individuals doing the commemorating. The simple fact that they are meaningful to a person tells me nothing – absolutely nothing – about that person.

I’m pointing this out simply to emphasize why I don’t have a problem with the existence and placement of these symbols in most – not all – cases. I recognize the schizophrenic and inconsistent nature of the symbols. In fact, I celebrate it. It’s fascinating.

So I don’t have a problem with Monument Row in Richmond, the same way I don’t have a problem with the biggest monuments to slavery on the planet:

13.-Pyramids-of-Giza-Egypt

Pyramids of Giza

or with this monument to a guy who was less than nice to Native Americans:

O. O. Howard

O. O. Howard

or with this monument to the man who ordered the mass imprisonment of US citizens of Asian descent:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt – In Washington, DC. I know, don’t get me started on that…

And before you say this is only because I’m not a Jew, or a Native American, or Japanese, I also don’t have a problem with the existence or placement of memorials to these guys, who were pretty brutal to my ancestors:

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

or of this flag:

1280px-Flag_of_the_United_Kingdom.svg

Which brings us to Truth, and the Sides of History.

As a Catholic school kid back in the early-mid 1970s, I used to play the hell out of my LP and (later) cassette copy of the original recording (that is, 1970 with Ian Gillan) of the Weber/Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar. At the same time, my interest in history was really taking off (it would be nipped in the bud by a high school guidance counselor soon enough – no future in it, he said.) One line in particular, from Trial Before Pilate really stood out to me then and has stayed with me over the years. Pontius Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king:

JC: It’s you who say I am. I look for truth, and find that I get damned.

PP: But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Aren’t mine the same as yours?

(As an aside, these lines were changed somewhat in both film adaptations of the play. I’m sure there’s a story in there.)

Some might see Pilate’s question as rhetorical. I never did. Of course Truth changes, because Truth is in the eye of the beholder. Not only are times, people, and opinions different at any one point, but times change, and with it, people and opinions. Truth has its basis in belief, some might argue.

Today, the Truth of slavery is that it is an absolute wrong, legally and morally. This Truth is generally, overwhelmingly (though in varying degrees not universally) recognized. But, like it or not, in 1860 it was not, or at the very least was less so. Arguments were made for and against it on the basis of law, property rights, religion, morality, and the definition of human life. And those arguments were on a sliding scale, with different shades. Eventually, the Truth of the issue was decided to a nearly absolute degree. But this Truth does not change the Truth of 1860. Can you think of any issues like this today, with similar arguments, and supporters on both ends of the scale? If you can, keep them to yourself. Please. But also keep in mind that those current issues will one day be decided as well. Truth will win out, whatever it may be.

Once the Truth of slavery was established – or, at least, established as it stands today – believers and non-believers wound up on one of the two Sides of History: the Right Side, or what we call the Wrong Side. But these current sides do not change the fact that Truth was and is a moving target. Eventually, some current issue with multiple interpretations of Truth will be absolutely decided. And you and yours, dear reader, will wind up on the Right Side, or the Wrong Side. It will happen.

What do we do with the Wrong Side? Erase it? Write over it? Maybe it’s just too hard to interpret it. But isn’t that a historian’s job?

HD_mosbyJS2

John Singleton Mosby

Consider one John Singleton Mosby. Here was a man who fought for the Confederacy, took up arms to perpetuate slavery. There was no doubt in his mind why he did it. He admitted to it, to his credit, after the issue had been decided. He also accepted that the issue was decided. In a 1907 letter to a comrade, he lamented (at least, I think of it as a lament):

People must be judged by the people of their own age.

What did he mean by this? Well, I see him saying that his actions had to be viewed in the context of his times and their Truths, by people who understood those times and their Truths. And in 1907, many of those people were gone. So who takes their place? Isn’t that a historian’s job?

Before we celebrate or encourage the removal of Confederate symbols from the landscape, we would do well to consider the words of a wise Vulcan:

After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.


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21 responses

14 07 2015
Theodore P. Savas

Brilliantly stated. Now duck for cover.

Liked by 1 person

14 07 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Ted.

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15 07 2015
John Foskett

Harry: This is a pretty solid analysis. Here’s why i think that the Rebel Battle Flag is in a different category. Flags are essentially symbols. When it came into existence during the unlawful rebellion, it symbolized, first, a rebellion against the United States (and arguably “treason”, although technically there was no foreign government involved, etc.) Equally important, however, starting in the late 1950’s, it was deliberately adopted as a symbol of opposition, sometimes violent, to the Civil Rights movement and desegregation. Unlike various monuments and sites, its symbolism (both as of 1863 and as of today) should not be ignored. It should never be displayed as anything other than an artifact of the rebellion. Museums? Re-enactments? Fine. On the grounds of a state capitol – never. Just my opinion.

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15 07 2015
Harry Smeltzer

I don’t have a problem with banning the CBF from government administrative facilities, or from state flags, for that matter. While it is of course up to the citizens of those governments. They do have the right to be insensitive. It all comes down to what Spock said. Pendulums swing in a wide arc. I tend to think that hopes that this will all spur more serious, thoughtful, productive debate are pipe dreams. Polemics rule the day. If you oppose any restriction on these symbols, NO MATTER HOW DRACONIAN, be prepared to deal with shouts of “racist/neo-Confederate/apologist/denier/whatever.” If you support them, NO MATTER HOW REASONABLE, you’ll get “history hater/heritage destroyer/etc…” from the other side.

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15 07 2015
John Foskett

Yep. Unfortunately, that’s no different from the way most issues are “discussed” in this country today. It’s “my way or the highway” from both sides, which leaves those of us who like to look at things from an objective viewpoint on an island.

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19 07 2015
Dennis Harris

Mr. Foskett, Please be aware secession is not “unlawful” as you state above. The Constitution neither prohibits secession nor prohibits it. The Constitution is silent on the act of secession. The “rebellion” is also incorrectly used as there was no rebellion by the Southern States withdrawing from the Union. Additionally, there was no “Civil War” as the Confederate States did not want to overthrow the regime in Washington, DC. They simply wanted out. Rebellion and Civil War were terms coined by war mongering Northerners who needed volunteers and draftees to go to war.

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21 07 2015
Dennis Harris

The second sentence above should read, ” …neither prohibits secession nor proscribes it.”

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15 07 2015
Brian Klisavage

Well done Harry. I’m going to interject some sociology here. The German sociologist Max Weber taught about the need to apply “verstehen” – understanding- in our study of culture and society. We need to learn the values of the culture that we are studying in order to evaluate them. Judging them based only on our own values is not legitimate.

I have taught several international students in recent years and I love to get their take on the history and events of their countries and ours. More then once one of them has corrected me on the “facts” that our history books teach about their history.

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17 07 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Brian!

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17 07 2015
sdail

Harry,

This is undoubtedly the best discussion and analysis I’ve encountered on the subject. You’re dead on. It is the historian’s job to insist that historical figures be judged by the “truth” of their time and not by contemporary “truth.” And – as Ted Savas has phrased it above – to be ready to “duck for cover” while doing it. Because unfortunately you’re either right or wrong these days, with no room for the gray area where the answer resides.

Sean

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17 07 2015
John Foskett

Sean: I agree. Sometimes, however, we can become too “objective” about conduct by diluting it with the “times” or the “context”. For just one example, I’m not about to give Robert E. Lee a “pass” on having his slaves flogged because it was a different time. The same applies to the British treatment of POWs during the AWI. Sort of a historical methodology analogous to “trust but verify”.

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17 07 2015
Harry Smeltzer

I don’t think anyone’s looking or asking for “passes.” Exceptional opinions or behaviors need to be recognized and categorized, but more importantly understood.

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18 07 2015
John Foskett

I agree. I just don’t think there’s much to be understood about some things, such as flogging a slave or starving POW’s aboard the Jersey. But I’m only pointing to those because they’re outliers IMHO. There are a lot of other incidents/behaviors that lie in the gray areas where the times, the context, and subsequent experience can color them.

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18 07 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Outliers appear to rule the day.

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19 07 2015
Dennis Harris

I have recently seen a TV program in which a Brooklyn NY Park Ranger states that during the American Revolution approximately 8.500 men were killed due to combat and 11, 500 men died as POW’s in the hands of the British – mostly in the prison ships/hulks anchored off of the Brooklyn shore line. Any more creditable input here?

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23 07 2015
Sean Dail

Hi John,

Thanks for the response. I’m certainly not interested in giving anyone a pass. But I don’t like to see a 19-year-old who went to war to defend his community villified in the same manner as the fire-eaters who started the war. History is complex and “the Confederacy” was not a monolith.

In response to your example, it’s easy for us to agree that a cruel slaveowner should be judged more harshly than a slaveowner who may have made efforts to better the lives of his slaves. But we start down the proverbial slippery slope when we attempt to apply our modern standards and sensibilities to people who did not share them.

Sean

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17 07 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Sean. Good to hear from you!

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17 07 2015
Luke

http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/confederate-outkasts_992558.html
It’s all getting a tad surreal. Love Bull Runnings, Thanks for all your hard work!

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22 07 2015
Chris Evans

Excellently put Harry! Much better than weeks of idiotic talking heads!

It’s like in New Orleans they want to take down the Confederate monuments. They better haul out the Andy Jackson statue in Jackson Square while there at it with all of his historical baggage. Napoleon Street and Napoleon House better go too! And the Huey P. Long bridge I’d say he was a little controversial.

What silliness!

Chris

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22 07 2015
Chris Evans

I’m glad also you brought up Mosby. He’s a tough Confederate nut to crack for all of those that the Confederates were all evil and didn’t think about their actions or didn’t do something different after the war like join the Republican party. Another one would be James Longstreet. Also, Mahone in Virginia.

Chris

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22 07 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Chris.

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