News and Commentary

SCHAEFFER: Monuments, Founders And Memories

There’s an old joke about what it was like to deal with a Soviet diplomat during the Cold War. The agitated American negotiator sitting across the table says to the taciturn Russian: “Okay. We’ve given in to every one of your demands. Now … what can we expect from you in return?”

The Russian smiles and says: “Our next set of demands.”

And so it goes with the tearing down of Confederate monuments now reaching a fever pitch across the USA today. A while back on these pages I fretted not over the tearing down of memorials to soldiers of the self-described “Slave-Holding Confederacy” per se, but rather where it could lead us. And where does it end? Or is the removal of Rebel statues just a beginning? Of course it’s just the beginning. Perverted Utopianism has no end.

It has taken less than a fortnight for the forces of nihilism shrouded in a cloak (and mask) of “progressivism” to cast a wider net in a call to erase homages to any American who once held slaves, even well before the Southern Confederacy was a twinkle in Jeff Davis’ eyes. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison — arguably the three most important Americans from its formative years — have now fallen in the crosshairs of the virtue police.

Former executive director and counsel for the Congressional Black Caucus (hardly a fringe wing of the Democratic Party) and CNN commentator Angela Rye offered this condemnation of two men who are synonymous with the American Revolution:

George Washington was a slave owner. We need to call them out for what they are, whether we think they were protecting American freedom or not. He wasn’t protecting my freedoms. My ancestors weren’t deemed human beings to him. And so, to me, I don’t care if it’s a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue, they all need to come down.

I’m not unsympathetic to her resentment. Slavery was always wrong, no matter who practiced it. I remember back in April of 2010 there was a story of an undated photo of two slave children which was found at a moving sale in Charlotte, North Carolina, accompanied by a document detailing the 1854 purchase of “John” for $1,150. If authentic, John is presumably one of the children. The two forlorn boys in this image stare back at us through the chasm of time. They are the ghosts of an ugly national past … the victims of a monstrous injustice that would take the violent deaths of 620,000 Americans to rectify.

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Still, what so many on the left miss is the breathtakingly steep arc of moral ascendancy we have seen in this great country since the blood-lettings from Lexington & Concord to Yorktown won for us our rightful place among nations. That we have evolved from a country in which African-Americans were once kept as slaves literally in chains and shackles to one that elects a man of African descent to the highest and most powerful office in the land and commander-in-chief of our armed forces speaks volumes about who we are as a people.

There will always be those on the far left who predictably highlight what they see as the inherent hypocrisy of the words of the Declaration of Independence … which to them is just a document of a slave nation drafted by a slave owner that had the brazenness to announce to the world our vision of a better country founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal.”

The cynical and opportunists know better; the sincere just miss the point.

The American experiment, and the two-century expansion of civil rights throughout the world it triggered, had to start somewhere. And without that incredibly brave initial push of the flywheel, the great events that followed, which over time would lead to the emancipation of millions — not just on this continent but throughout the globe where our American presence has been felt — may never have happened.

It’s easy in hindsight to cast aspersions upon those who by accident of birth were forced to live in their times. Again, slavery has never been anything but evil. But it was, until the mid-19th Century, considered the norm throughout the world. And even more so in the time in which the now-targeted and demonized Founding Fathers lived. This just makes what they accomplished even more remarkable and worthy of our gratitude and awe. In 1776, when tsars and kings ruled Europe, shoguns and emperors the Far East, and slavery was universally practiced across the planet by all races and cultures, these principled men’s upending of the regal order in favor of popular sovereignty was stunning in its audacity — and quite dangerous to the despots and lords who ruled the world.

Part of the reason our nation has endured nearly two-and-one-half centuries, through a 100-fold increase in population and an 800% in land mass, a horrific Civil War, a Great Depression, two world wars, race and labor riots, divisive foreign interventions, and the like is because ours was not a covetous uprising of the lows against the highs as was seen in bloody France in the 1790s, but rather it was initiated by the elites of colonial society. Unique in the annals of history, the American Revolution that broke our allegiance to the British Crown was one prosecuted by learned, wealthy men who certainly had the most to lose should their treason be crushed. Indeed, many of these gentlemen revolutionaries would ultimately suffer privation and ruin, and some even death, in the mayhem of a long, drawn-out war even though a final victory was won.

At its heart, the American Revolution was a movement to advance an idea that our basic human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness originate from a higher power than ourselves: Divine Providence. And since they are God-given, governments are constructed by the people to merely protect these rights, not rule our lives. That governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed is the essence of the classical American mindset and seems self-evident. It is almost impossible for us to imagine how very radical this notion was at the time.

And so our nation’s inception was as celestial as it was commercial — and that distinctive enlightened quality the Founders brought to Philadelphia has been the key to our development as a people who can identify a terrible injustice within our very midst as inconsistent with our founding ideals and rectify it — violently if need be.

As the haunting photograph of the two slave children drives home to us, the Revolution of 1776 was incomplete and fatally flawed in that equality in their day only applied to whites. For the four million Blacks living in slavery in the United States before the Thirteenth Amendment, it was “all midnightforever.” As an ex-slave once reflected, her elderly voice pressed on a crackly vinyl recording: “You know what I’d do if I ever had to be a slave again? I’d take a gun and end it. ‘Cause you ain’t nothin’ but a dog.”

But this nation has rolled over and been remade many times since the dark days of the Triangle Trade. As any visitor to Antietam or Gettysburg will attest, many Americans paid the ultimate price to wash away our original sin. Today, we citizens of the United States can still revere the men who created a nation that would eventually wipe away the original sin of slavery … a sin which many were guilty of committing themselves. Words and deeds have meanings beyond the author and actor. The liberation of a concentration camp is no less righteous or worthy of celebration because a few of the liberators may themselves be anti-Semites. The Emancipation Proclamation is no less a sublime decree because Lincoln (also recently targeted by the leftist, and historically ignorant, mob) was by 2017 standards, a “racist.” And therefore, our Revolution should always be remembered as the story of a new birth of dignity for mankind and that first most courageous step taken on the long road to freedom on behalf of generations to come. Yes, many of the Revolutionaries practiced slavery. But they also laid the very moral foundations for its eventual eradication.

Anti-Americanism is the ugly side of Anti-fa, BLM, and the other leftist movements, from the studio to the newsroom to the classroom. For them, ours is a nation founded by slavers, exploiters, racists, and hypocrites. Nothing more. But former British PM Tony Blair once astutely observed:

“ am not surprised by anti-Americanism; but it is a foolish indulgence. For all their faults — and all nations have them — the US are a force for good; they have liberal and democratic traditions of which any nation can be proud. I sometimes think it is a good rule of thumb to ask of a country: are people trying to get into it or out of it? It’s not a bad guide for what sort of country it is.

In 1776 the U.S. population was less than three million. Today it is over 300 million. That says much for the nation the brave delegates to the Second Continental Congress and eleven years later the Constitution Convention created on our behalf. And even for those not fortunate enough to reside here, hundreds of millions live in liberty in foreign lands as direct beneficiaries of the ideals that our Founding Fathers so eloquently and defiantly announced to the world as moral truths.

We who dwell in this shining city on a hill today are the beneficent custodians of the principles handed down to us by extraordinary people from many walks of life and successful in their fields of endeavor in the New World. These were educated and farsighted individuals who at the right place and right time came together to overcome their personal fears and sectional differences to launch a revolution of ideas that continues to inspire the world going on two and a half centuries after the fact: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and many others whose names are lesser known but no less deserving of our gratitude. That they did not go far enough, leaving the work of realizing their ideals in toto to posterity, in no way makes them worthy of vilification due to the fashionable whims of those who see value in no times but their hyper-enlightened present.

For our parts, we are tasked with carrying a reminder, as seen through the eyes of those two slave children who have long since passed into history, of what can still happen to our liberties should we abandon those founding principles when fallacious rationalization and hatred, disguised as virtue and tolerance, seize the day.