All That and a Bag of Mail

It’s Friday, and what an insanely crazy week it has been. I don’t know about you guys, but this week seems like it has lasted a month. That’s why the mailbag today is only one question, and it’s one that I have gotten hundreds of subtle variations on this week. Here’s that question distilled to its essence:

“What are your thoughts on the Confederate monument controversy, Charlottesville, and the state of our country?”

I’ve written about the Confederate flag before and the decision by Vanderbilt University to pay millions of dollars to wipe the word Confederate off a campus building. I’d encourage you guys to go read those two linked articles if you want even more analysis than you’re about to receive below.

But here are my thoughts on Charlottesville, the Confederate monuments, and the state of modern day political discourse in an era when no one actually reads history anymore:

1. This country has a woeful lack of historical knowledge that is being exacerbated by the Disneyfication of social media. 

Everything on social media is either the best or worst, purely good or purely evil. People with limited historical knowledge have latched onto the Civil War and are now classifying the North as good and the South as evil. Anyone who reads deeply about the war knows these opinions are severely flawed and overly simplistic.

First of all, 99% of the soldiers in the South and the North fought for their home states. That is, if you were from Mississippi you fought for the South and if you were from Michigan you fought for the North. Granted, soldiers in border states had to make difficult decisions — Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, and Virginia/West Virginia, all had soldiers fight on both sides — but the general rule for the vast majority of soldiers was you fought for your home state.

Why?

Because home states were like countries in 1861.

It was considered much more treasonous to turn your back on your home state than it was to turn your back on your country.

If Virginia had not seceded from the union then Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B Stuart, and countless other famous generals from Virginia would have likely fought for the North. And if George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had been alive in 1861 and been able bodied soldiers, I believe both men would have fought for the South. Now, it’s possible they would have remained loyal to the union — as I believe someone like Andrew Jackson would have as well — but it’s certainly not likely.

Just about every person fought for their home state and no one, at least not to my knowledge, has ever been able to determine which state they were born in. The side of the Civil War you fought on was about geography not racism.

2. A tiny percentage, around 3-4% of Southern soldiers, owned slaves and slavery would have likely ended soon after the war ended even if the South had won.

What’s more, most soldiers on both sides were not volunteers, they were conscripted forced to fight for their state and country.

Most don’t realize it, but the Confederate Congress voted in March of 1865 offering freedom to any black slave who fought for the South. In fact, when the Petersburg entrenchments were overrun in the spring of 1865 there were black soldiers in Confederate uniform training to fight for the South. (They were a small percentage of the army, but thousands of black soldiers did, in fact, fight for the South. There were also thousands of free black men who owned thousands of slaves in the antebellum South, which means there are probably millions of black people in America today who are descended from American slave owners, their fellow black men. They were a small percentage of overall slave ownership, but they existed. Again, history is complex. Edward P. Jones wrote an incredible novel called “The Known World,” which fictionalizes the life of one of these black slave owners. It’s a phenomenal novel, I’d suggest you read it.)

Arming the slaves and giving them freedom in exchange for their war service was an idea that many Southern generals, including Pat Cleburne, argued for years.

Was it controversial? Of course. Did the South do it out of desperation at the end of the war? Yes.

But what it represents is an important point — the idea the South would have allowed slavery to exist for hundreds of more years — as the new proposed HBO TV show suggests — is simply not true. The economics of slavery were collapsing all over the world and by 1890 every major power in the world had disallowed slavery.

We don’t know when a victorious South would have ended slavery, but it most certainly would have done so within a generation of the war’s end. That’s important because the South’s views on race are frozen in 1861-1865. Unlike the United States, which has been able to evolve and more forward when it comes to providing the right to vote to everyone — remember that initially only white men with property were allowed to vote in this country — the South’s history is perpetually frozen in amber, a relic of the day the war ended. Imagine how much different the Confederate flag’s legacy would be if former Confederate generals had also been voting to end slavery in their country?

Would the South have been a great place for blacks to live if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? Of course not. But the North wasn’t a great place for black people to live in America for a long time either. (Now, of course, the South is the best place, in my opinion, for anyone to live, but that’s a credit to the progress made over the past 150 years).

3. Everyone was racist by modern day standards in the 1860’s. 

Abraham Lincoln wanted slaves sent back to Africa and his wife’s family in Kentucky fought for the South and owned slaves. Union General Ulysses Grant owned slaves — before freeing them. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation there were nasty race riots all over the North.

It’s a totally fake and Disneyfied world view that suggests the North wasn’t racist and the South was racist.

Lincoln was a brilliant politician, but his Emancipation Proclamation was a brilliant political move designed to ensure that France and England didn’t ally themselves with the South and lead to Southern independence. In fact, and this isn’t ever discussed, but the Emancipation Proclamation was so politically problematic for the North that Lincoln expressly only freed the slaves in the Southern states. He didn’t free the slaves in the slaveholding Northern border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware because he was afraid those states might secede as well.

4. The Supreme Court would have likely ruled secession was legal. 

When he left Washington, D.C., resigning his Senate seat upon Mississippi’s secession, Senator Jefferson Davis, later to become the President of the Confederacy, hoped that he would be arrested and tried for treason.

Why?

Because Davis, and many other lawyers at the time including President Abraham Lincoln, believed the Supreme Court would rule secession was legal. That’s because it was an open question whether a state could withdraw from the union. Indeed, based upon the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court would have likely ruled the South was justified in forming its own independent country.

That’s why Lincoln was terrified this would happen.

If the Supreme Court ruled secession was legal, then how could Lincoln draft an army and invade the South?

Given those parameters think about what the average soldier in the South would have believed. His state — which was the equivalent of a country to him — was trying to peacefully withdraw from the United States and form its own government. Rather than allow that to occur, the North, a foreign land he’d likely never visited in his life, sent armies to invade his state and insist that he submit to the rule of a foreign power.

To many Southern soldiers this was the exact same thing that had happened in the American Revolutionary War, just 83 years prior, their grandfathers had rebelled against England because the government didn’t reflect the will of the people.

The lesson they’d learned from the American Revolution was simple: If you don’t agree with the government, you withdraw and form a new government.

The far left wing loves to compare the Confederacy to Nazis. That’s absurd. The Confederacy likely had the legal right to secede and defended itself when the North invaded. The South lost, and our country was better for it, likely because by World War II we were a unified country capable of defeating the Nazis, but any comparison of the two sides is absurd.

5. Most Southern and Northern generals were moderates politically.

They were not choosing which side to fight on based on their opinions on slavery.

Again, the vast, vast majority of soldiers made their decision of which side to support based upon what their home states chose to do.

Sometimes there were differences — General John C. Pemberton was a Pennsylvanian who supported the South and General George Thomas, the commanding Union officer at the Battle of Nashville, was a Virginian who supported the North, but these men were exceptions. And, if you read any books about the war at all, you’ll see those men were held in contempt by most soldiers on both sides for turning their backs on their home states.

General Robert E. Lee — and just about every general in the war — wouldn’t have been alt right or alt left, they were reasonable and rational educated men, the radical moderates of their age.

6. Judging historical figures using modern standards of morality is a fool’s errand.

Guess what, if you’d lived in 1861 you wouldn’t have supported gay marriage or transgender bathroom rights. That doesn’t mean you would have been an awful human being, it just means you would have been a product of your times.

This is true for all men of all times.

I Tweeted this out yesterday, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is on tape banging prostitutes saying, “I’m fucking for God,” and having sex with white women while saying, “I’m not a Negro tonight!” When he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel there was a mistress he’d just slept with inside his hotel room.

MLK also said gay people were making a “culturally acquired” choice to be gay and suggested gay people go see psychiatrists to get healthy.

That doesn’t mean the MLK Memorial — or the countless statues to him — should be torn down. It simply means MLK, one of my historical heroes because of his absolute fearlessness, was, like all of us, an imperfect product of his times.

I got to meet Taylor Branch, the author of the books I’m telling you to read below, when I was in college and I thanked him for telling the entire story of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. He told me he’d received substantial criticism for including King’s sexual history, but his response to those critics was fantastic. He told me, “If Martin Luther King was able to accomplish all he did despite all the troubles in his personal life, imagine what you, totally without flaws in your own life, should be able to accomplish.”

Studying history teaches all of us to be humble.

You may find it unbelievable, but it’s likely there is something most of us are doing today that in 150 years will be considered culturally abhorrent by our latter day ancestors. Who knows what it is? Maybe it will be eating meat. Generations from now they may consider us savages for ever having eaten animals. Maybe it will be for having ever believed in organized relation at all. Maybe it will be for having a gender. Maybe 150 years from now we’ll all be genderless, asexual beings. Who knows what it will be, but something we do now will be considered abhorrent by our offspring in the future.

That doesn’t mean we are all horrible people today it just means we are all, for better or worse, a product of our times.

7. The removal of Confederate statues isn’t about making things better, it’s about attacking people.

If you told me that removing Confederate statues would end racism, I’d be all for it. But that’s not what this is about. This is about attacking people who the left wing disagrees with politically. The left wing in this country looks down on white Southerners and considers their opinions unworthy of respect.

The number one supporters of these monuments in the country are white Southern men. And the most hated people in the country by the left wing are white Southern men.

The left wing is not making the country better by doing tearing down monuments, they are fomenting more division and rancor and creating more people who will support the far right in this country. The reason Donald Trump won the election wasn’t because his supporters believe he’s perfect, it’s because many of his supporters hated what the left wing in this country has become.

When people believe that their way of life is being attacked, they respond with violence and irrationality. This is what is presently happening on both the left and right wing in this country. The deaths in Charlottesville, Baton Rouge, and Dallas are all connected. Whether it’s far left wingers motivated by the anger of Black Lives Matter activists who have convinced them, falsely, that police are killing minorities thereby leading them to target innocent policemen and kill them or far right wingers motivated by rage and anger to kill those that oppose their world view, these people are two sides of the same coin.

As much as the far right and far left hate each other, they’re the same people, just different colors.

Both believe that their way of life is under attack and both have supporters willing to embrace violence to combat that perceived attack.

What we have to do, those of us that I call the radical moderates, is hold this country together with a strong and vibrant center and avoid the temptation to join up with either side. Love and hate are both powerful emotions, but right now hate is much more potent on social media than love is.

What’s important for all of you to realize is this, as much fun as social media is, it doesn’t reflect real life. It’s a funhouse mirror, exaggerating life for comedic effect. Most people aren’t crazy left or right wingers, they’re reasonable and good. They just don’t get the media attention. Being calm and reasoned isn’t as good for media ratings.

It may well seem like there’s a legitimate drive to tear down Confederate monuments in this country –as well as monuments to anyone who’s ever owned a slave — but look at these numbers — 62% of Americans disagree with pulling down monuments and only 27% support the move. Even Democrats are split on the issue and independents are hugely against it. That’s because the vast majority of Americans don’t support sanitizing history to make anyone feel better.

If the left wing insists on pushing this narrative, all they’re doing is making their opponents stronger.

Ultimately, I’ve written a lot of words here, but you know who might just sum up everything best of all?

Charles Barkley.

Well said, Chuck.

Now many of you are probably asking, okay, what can we do to combat this insanity on the left and the right wings? My suggestion is this — educate yourselves and don’t succumb to the easy temptation of Disneyfied history. There are two great trilogies I think every American should read:

The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote

and

Taylor Branch’s history of the American Civil Rights era with Martin Luther King as his central focus.

The Civil War and the Civil Rights movement are the two most important things to ever happen, in my opinion, in American history. If you read these six books, you will be better equipped to understand modern American life than 99% of all the people out there screaming and yelling at each other on social media.

Warning, these are very long books. And they aren’t filled with simple characters who are good or evil. They’re filled with real humans, people just like you and me, who often do good things and sometimes do bad things, but, ultimately, are trying to do what we all do every day — just be a little bit better than we actually are.

Thanks for reading and I hope y’all have great weekends.

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