In our beloved sister city of New Orleans, an act of true political courage is being carried out — the courage to face truth and respond rightly to it. What is it? The decision by the mayor and the City Council, with support from various community groups, to remove Confederate monuments from public display.
In any city — or society for that matter — monuments and statues help frame and tell a story about it. Accordingly, the location and visibility of such objects speak to the veneration, importance and prominence a people have attached to a particular monument or statue. Generally, the greater the visibility, the greater the pride in and reverence of the person or event being commemorated. Though silent, their presence speaks powerfully to residents and visitors alike: What you see represents who we were and what we value.
For the leaders of New Orleans, the message the monuments being removed sent and the stories they told don’t represent the values the city holds dear. As New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu noted, “We must always remember our history and learn from it. But that doesn’t mean we must valorize the ugliest chapters, as we do when we put the Confederacy on a pedestal — literally — in our most prominent public places.” He’s right.
It may be a contentious issue in the South, but historians are largely in agreement about the cause of the Civil War: slavery. No serious scholar of history disputes this. By the middle of the 1800s, America was a firestorm of controversy and conflict between North and South due to one overriding issue: slavery. The historical record is clear.
The Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and “Bleeding Kansas,” the Dred-Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857, John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, the Democratic Party Convention split in 1860 and the final straw for many Southerners — the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in November 1860 — lined up like a row of dominoes collapsing as events made their way to a violent climax between North and South. The connecting thread between them all — slavery.
Slavery is referred to as America’s original sin. Yet, as the esteemed historian James McPherson noted in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” his authoritative work on the Civil War, “Slaveholders did not consider themselves egregious sinners. And they managed to convince most non-slaveholding whites in the South (two-thirds of the white population there) that emancipation [freeing the slaves] would produce economic ruin, social chaos, and racial war.”
Southern slaveholders, as well as political leaders, had no desire to seek absolution over a “sin” that allowed them to be the suppliers of three-fourths of the world’s cotton. Such market domination generated enormous wealth for Southern elites, and “King Cotton” would be preserved at all costs.
South Carolina, the first state to bolt from the Union in December 1860, declared in its “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union”: “Those [Northern] States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety [right or wrongness] of our domestic institutions [slavery]; and have denied the rights of property [slaves] … recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies [abolitionist groups], whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and eloign the property of the citizens of other states.”
In its address “to the People of the Slave-holding States of the United States,” leaders in South Carolina appealed to their slaveholding brethren to follow their lead. In one Southern state secession convention after another the call to leave the Union was predicated on the maintenance and defense of the “Peculiar Institution” (a Southern euphemism or term for slavery) and the incredible profits this Peculiar Institution made possible. Primary source, after primary source, after primary source show that is the historical record.
The resulting war took the lives of more than 600,000 young men, the deadliest war in American history. It left tens of thousands to live out the remainder of their days as amputees. Its total economic cost exceeded $5 billion. It should forever serve as a cautionary tale. It’s a war that should forever be remembered. The crucial question, though, is how should it be remembered?
The majority of Southern soldiers fought for their homes, for their land, for their families. However, the instigators of the war, the leaders of the Confederacy, understood precisely the motivations behind the formation of the Confederate States of America and the chief benefit victory over the North would give them: continued and uninterrupted control over its slave labor force. The Confederate cause was not noble, nor was it just.
Do we venerate, hold in esteem and lift up on a pedestal in public squares such leaders for our modern-day citizenry to see and admire daily? Or do we place such monuments and statues in museums and on battlefields?
This issue is not about political correctness, but about owning up to historical correctness and the actions we need to take as a result. It’s important because the stories we believe about ourselves, and tell about ourselves, are important. They should be grounded not in romanticized myths but in truth, no matter how ugly.
To take the sting out of defeat, leaders began to ennoble a cause lacking nobility, to attempt to glorify a movement that was the antithesis of liberty and equality, political values we hold so dear.