Monuments and the Danger of Presentism

The United States has long been the shining light of the world, a place where all are welcome to come, and live, and embrace America and the United States, to contribute to its growth, and to set an example for the world to look up to, and to become Americans and proudly so.

Colonial America existed as a safe haven for the people of the Reformation to come and worship as they wished, without fear of remonstrations, or even imprisonment and execution.  And it was built up by an enormous workforce composed almost entirely of African Slaves.

Slavery had been going on in Africa since ancient times but what we call modern slavery was conducted by the Arabian Muslims who moved coast to coast through Central Africa taking slaves and marching them back to the Arab lands. This had been going on from the 8th Century.

By the middle of the 15th Century, Prince Henry of Portugal had established a school for sea captains, training them in sailing, seamanship and navigation.  He began sending these captains in their Caravels south from southern Portugal to the west coast of Africa.  At the end of each thrust farther south along the African Coast, the captains would establish a base camp/port, where they could stockpile supplies, and conduct trade with the local natives, taking home seeds, lumber, and elephant ivory.

But then they ran into Arab Muslim slave raiding expeditions and learned what had been happening for 700 years.  The slave raiders sold them a few slaves and they were taken back to Portugal.

Prince Henry and his brother, King Duarte [Edward], were devout Catholics, and supported the Church with riches brought back from Africa.  But when the slaves appeared in Portugal, the slave trade there was underway.  It was so lucrative that the Pope, Nicholas the V, during his 8 years as Pope, issued two relevant Papal Bulls:  the first, issued in 1452, basically said to the Captains of Prince Henry go ahead and subdue and capture any non-Christians they encountered for enslavement, and the second, issued in 1455, gave exclusive economic rights as they reached and eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope and went on to India.  It also authorized them to buy or capture non-Christians as slaves to bring back to Portugal.

Portugal, and its chief sea-going rivals, Spain and England, began exporting African slaves to the New World shortly after Christopher Columbus [trained by Prince Henry’s school] discovered it.  The Portuguese moved African slaves to what is now Brazil, while the Spanish moved them into Mexico, Florida, throughout the West Indies and the Caribbean, through Mexico north to California, and south through Central America and down the west coast of South America.  The English began importing slaves into Virginia in the early 17th Century though most early Black slaves were brought from the West Indies.

The African slaves were the people who cleared the swamps along the North American coast, and cleared and built the roads, and ports, and towns.  Then they learned to pick cotton.  Their owners got very rich from cotton.  Southern culture changed, the plantation owners gained great wealth, buying more land, and more slaves, to the extent that wealth in the Colonial South was measured in how many slaves they owned.  And they determined that the slaves were “less than human,” thus justifying the institution of slavery.

And then, an ancient Greek political philosophy suddenly re-emerged in the American colonies, and a new nation was formed in the fashion of that ancient Greek philosophy: Democracy.  It came to be called “The Great Experiment”, among other expressions.  And it based its foundations on the core of the Enlightenment: the natural rights of man.

By the time the Virginian philosopher, politician and revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote his treatise on “The Rights of Man”, talk had already started about slavery among the political leaders of the Colonial states.  The Northern states wanted to extinguish slavery, the South said “no.”  But the British government in England enacted some laws applying to Colonial Americans that became known as the Intolerable Acts, and independence was suddenly more important than slavery.  During the Revolutionary War, England offered freedom to any slaves that joined their army [as teamsters and servants, not as soldiers].  George Washington and Alexander Hamilton established a policy that any slave could join the Continental Army earning a rifle and his freedom.

The Constitutional Convention that followed the Independence of the United States and the insufficient first attempt at government under the Articles of Confederation took nearly a year to draft, and heated arguments on the floor during its construction were daily low-lights.  One of the most important was the issue of slavery.   Deals were made between states in order to obtain concessions from the Southern slave states.   One of the more well-known concessions is located in Section 9 of Article I:

“Section 9. The Migration of Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

This law ended the United States involvement in the International Slave Trade by 1808, but it spawned a new business in the South: slave breeding.  The slave markets were thus supplied past 1808.

The Constitution also contains another law that outlines slave-owners’ rights when a slave runs away.  The Runaway Slave Law is contained in Article IV, Section 2:

“No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

The U.S. Navy began patrolling the West Indies to prevent slaves being smuggled into the U.S. in 1819, and at the same time, began patrolling the eastern Atlantic along the coast of Africa to stop the slaves from being smuggled to the U.S. from Africa.

The make-up of early Government of the United States tells a tale in its numbers.  William Lee Miller wrote in his book Arguing About Slavery [Arguing About Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress. Vintage Books Division of Random House, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-679-76844-0.]

“Five of the first seven presidents were slaveholders, for thirty-two of the nation’s first thirty-six years, forty of its first forty-eight, fifty of its first sixty-four, the nation’s president was a slaveholder.  The powerful office of Speaker of the House was held by a slaveholder for twenty-eight of the nation’s first thirty-five years.  The president pro tem of the Senate was virtually always a slaveholder.  The majority of cabinet members and–very important–of justices of the Supreme Court were slaveholders.  The slave-holding Chief justice Roger Taney, appointed by the slave-holding president Andrew Jackson to succeed the slave-holding John Marshall, would serve all the way through the decades before the war into the years of the Civil War itself; it would be a radical change of the kind the slaveholders feared when, in 1863, President Lincoln would appoint the anti-slavery politician Salmon P. Chase of Ohio to succeed Taney.  But by then, even having a president Lincoln had been the occasion for the slaveholders to rebel, to secede, and to resort to arms.

 “One cites these facts about the formidable presence of the slave interests–to which, of course, dozens more could be added–not as later unhistorical moralizers sometimes do, as an indictment of the nation, but for almost the opposite purpose, to dramatize the immense power of the interest that the nation would nevertheless overcome.”

As one can begin to see, the fight to remove slavery from the United States was a knock-down-drag-out battle in the United States Congress, and in the newspapers throughout the nation.  Northern politicians also fought against the Slave interest in Congress by attempting to admit new states as “Free” states, allowing no slavery.  At least five generations of slave-owning Southerners were born before the Constitution was adopted.  To be sure there was indeed slavery in the North.  But by the 1840s most of those Northern States had ended slavery by outlawing it and granting freedom to the slaves.

Regardless, the fight in Congress went on, and grew to focus on the admission of Slave and Free states to the Union as the nation grew westward.

The Republican Party grew up in the upper Midwest in the 1850s as an anti-slavery liberal party.  It lost the 1856 election when Northern Democrat James Buchanan from Pennsylvania defeated explorer and scout from the wild western state of California, John C. Fremont.  It was a contest, but not really close.  But it was encouraging enough to the Anti-slavery states, and the Party grew.

By 1860 the U.S. was preparing for war, particularly in the South.  Slavery had a major role in Southern Culture.  Well over a century of successful slave-owning had solidified that role as a natural part and a natural right of the slave-holding South.  Slavery was a larger part of the Southern economy than real estate.

Along came Abraham Lincoln.  His seven fiery 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas during the race for the Senate seat from Illinois captured the attention of the nation.  Newspapers followed them around the state and reported in great detail what both men said.  It was Anti-Slavery Republican Lincoln vs. Slavery Defender Northern Democrat Douglas.   Douglas won the Senate seat, but it was tight.

And so it was again in 1860, when the two faced off in a fight for the White House.  Both had enhanced their reputations during the debates in Illinois, and it was clear what each man stood for.  The issue of slavery had finally come to the fore.  But the Democratic Party split along North-South lines, Southern Democrats backing John C. Breckinridge, and Northern Democrats backing Douglas, against the Republican, Abraham Lincoln.

The split doomed the Democrats,  Lincoln won in a landslide.

The South was in shock, and immediately began serious talk of secession and Civil War.  Lincoln made it clear he would not seek to end slavery.  What he didn’t say is that he would seek to block any new states from joining as Slave States.  It wasn’t enough.  By the time Lincoln reached Washington in the Spring of 1861 to be sworn in, many of the deep Southern states had already left the Union forming the Confederate States of America.

The rest of the South seceded.  Lincoln moved to keep Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri from leaving the Union.

America went to war with itself.  The Civil War was fought over four long years, killing approximately 620,000 men.  That is almost half the total of U.S. war dead in all wars.

In December of 1865 the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.  It states in full:

“Section 1. Neither Slavery, nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

“Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Slavery in the United States was ended.  A great moral and ethical wrong was righted, decided on the Battlefields of the Civil War.  The deaths of 620,000 men locked that down tight.  Those 620,000 men included both Union and Confederate, men from North and South.  For the most part the war was fought with honor, and with a full belief in the cause of each side.  Those beliefs were not abandoned on either side, but they accepted the outcome.  Both sides honored their returning soldiers, sailors and marines.  Both sides held reunions.  Many Veterans from both sides returned repeatedly over the rest of their lives to the fields on which they fought.  They were drawn there.  Fate drew them there as it was fate that allowed them to survive.

At home, statues and monuments were erected honoring the leaders and heroes of both armies.  They were doing the bidding of their political leaders, and for those leaders’ political and economic reasons.  They did so with ferocity and honor – how else can you explain 620,000 dead men?

We now have generations that have grown distant from that event.  They look at these events only on the surface, and through the colored glass of the present.  This is called Presentism: judging the past by modern values and mores.  It is a terrible mistake to judge someone by today’s standards that lived 155 years ago.

 The result of presentism is the mistake that George Santayana warned about: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” 

It was a different time.  The universal mores were different — vastly different.  For example, science had not advanced to the point where there was accepted dogma on race: specifically Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” was not published until 1859, and was not readily accepted by scientists.  And Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo River had not been studied or even explored to any great degree.  Dr. David Livingston left on his expedition into Africa’s interior in 1866, and he was not found by reporter Henry Morton Stanley until 1871.  Little was really known about Black, non-Muslim Africans of Central Africa.

That is looking at an historical era with objectivity.  Indeed, if we remove the monuments and markers from the locations where they were erected, then we risk erasing a part of history.  The next step, already underway in some schools and colleges, is to remove that unpleasant past from the curriculum because it offends.

If that is allowed to persist, and is not corrected, we will not only lose our history, we will lose the significance of the great events of our past.  And thus, we will lose our national identity of being not just a beacon of hope for the world, but how we became one by recognizing and righting the wrongs that we made as a people, as a nation, along the way.

Do not look at a Confederate monument and be offended.  Instead, be proud that the nation recognized the inhumanity of slavery and eradicated it, at the expense of 620,000 American lives.  We need to remember that man is not infallible: Benjamin Franklin sold slaves, George Washington owned slaves, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, James Madison owned slaves, yet these men are honored for founding and framing our country.  It was these men and others in their conventions, who framed the nation’s charter of laws to include paths and mechanisms for change.  The larger good far outweighs their slave-owning or dealing, because of the times, not because of now.  Good people can do bad things, as well as good things, but look at their lives in the light of the mores of the times, not the mores of today.  620,000 men died, in part, so you would not judge them by today’s mores, but by the mores of their time.

W. G. Davis

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About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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2 Responses to Monuments and the Danger of Presentism

  1. wgdavis says:

    I must admit that I am both astonished and disappointed that, to my knowledge, no historians or history professors/teachers/instructors have gone public about the consequences of monument removal. It is a sad state of affairs in academia that they remain silent.

  2. Raymond Doolittle says:

    Thank you for this well thought-out piece!

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