Marble and Mud: Political Commentary

The President’s remarks after Charlottesville engendered more controversy than usual. Some interpreted his measured denunciation along with the tacit support from many in his party as a GOP transitioning from the party of Lincoln into the party of George Lincoln Rockwell. The further irony of a Republican Commander-in-Chief defending monuments dedicated to “losers” from the Confederacy became muddled by the Chief Executive’s continued missteps. The incident and aftermath reignited the debate over the appropriateness of monuments honoring Civil War enemies. It’s confounding that it took an incident of this magnitude to bring the issue to the national forefront.

The United States may hold the distinction as the first nation in history to immortalize figures for taking up arms against it. It baffles the mind that individuals such as Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and other rebels would become marble effigies displayed on public properties throughout the union. This stretches the boundaries of Lincoln’s assurance: “malice towards none and charity for all.”

It astonishes that some deem such figures worthy of honor. The West Point alumni who abandoned their blue uniforms for gray forsook their oath to defend the nation from “all enemies foreign and domestic.” The Confederate States instigated a war of choice against their fellow Americans. The states that seceded from the Union did so unnecessarily. The Republican Party opposed the extension of slavery; it didn’t contest its existence.

All the legalese regarding “states’ rights” and “secession” only obfuscated the real issue. No state seethed over matters such as the Federal Government building a post office on prime public land. No local government raged over the unfairness of port duties getting sent to Washington. None invoked the “taxation without representation” epigram in response to state funds stuffing the coffers of a bloated national bureaucracy. Slavery served as the catalyst, cause and core of the conflict.

Myriad contributions to the American experience originated in the South. Authors such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote enhanced our nation’s literary tradition. Statesmen such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson built our political system. It’s difficult to imagine popular music without the influences of Elvis Presley, the Delta Blues and—America’s original art form– Jazz. Without these inspirations, American culture would not exist. The area south of the Mason-Dixon line gestated numerous boons that made the nation a “shining city on a hill.”

The Civil War is not among them. It seems macabre to “honor” those who waged a four year war of attrition against the United States government. Scholars debate the conflict’s human cost. Depending upon which estimates one uses, the hostilities caused casualties somewhere in the range of 600,000 to 900,000. The War Between the States initiating the deaths of more Americans than any other war is not open to conjecture.

Critics complain that removing Confederate monuments “erases” history. The question: just what history do they believe it erases? The very existence of these statues muddies the past. Even without the presence of the rebel effigies, Americans will still study and seek to understand the most violent war in our country’s history. Understanding why society held these figures in high regard for so long will prove more challenging.

It’s always mystified me that Americans adopted the Roman practice of deifying political figures. Imperial officials made (popular) former emperors into gods. They then chose to construct elaborate monuments honoring their memories. It’s bizarre to witness that practice in my own country. After all, the Founding Fathers crafted a constitution predicated upon a deep mistrust of government.

While appropriate to respect public servants, revering them is a dangerous practice; at times, a strange one. It defies all bounds of reason that a marble likeness of Roger Taney occupied the grounds of the Maryland State House until recently. While Chief Justice, he wrote the majority opinion in the Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) case. Legal scholars cite it as the worst decision SCOTUS ever handed down. The reckless application of judicial activism made the Civil War inevitable.

Some have suggested that Taney presided over a successful Court. His conduct in Dred Scott represented one mistake in an otherwise distinguished career. I find that comparable to lauding Neville Chamberlain for his contributions to European politics. It would be unfair to judge the whole of his career by his one failure. So what if that lone irresponsible act almost precipitated the end of liberal democracy?

Monuments to political figures reflect more upon the era of their dedication. Seldom are they timeless. History often mires public officials in mud. They have no place in marble.

 

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