These Lifeless Things

Three weeks ago, officials announced the removal of a statue of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Kentucky statehouse. Go ahead and check your history book. No, your memory didn’t fail you. Kentucky was never part of the Confederacy. Indeed, Kentucky’s loyalty to the Union was so critical in the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln once reportedly said “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

After the war, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Davis, but he never truly reconciled to the reclaimed Union. He bitterly opposed Reconstruction, and upon his death, wore a suit of Confederate gray while American and Confederate flags flew overhead.

In 1936—seven decades after the Civil War’s end—the Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored Kentucky’s Davis statue. Its erection was part of the South’s attempt to recover wounded pride, just one of hundreds of similar monuments dotting the South and its border states. They were built as Southern whites brutalized African-Americans through oppression and segregation.

The South’s reclamation campaign was not merely one for iron and stone, but for control of a historical narrative. One victim was U. S. Grant. Generations of revisionist historians painted Grant as an overrated drunkard successful only because of the North’s advantage in manpower and means. But Grant’s strategic assault down the Cumberland River cleaved the South in half, then culminated in the extraordinary Vicksburg campaign that recaptured the Mississippi River and rendered the war’s conclusion all but inevitable. Grant was a military genius based on this eighteen-month stretch alone.

The same historians also defined Grant’s two-term presidency as a failure, constituting eight years of drunken scandal. Now, a fairer look reveals foibles, but also committed dedication to Reconstruction and competent management of a fragile post-war economy.

Conversely, the same historians praised Lee as the strategist who overcame the South’s limited manpower and kept the Confederacy in the war. As these judgments emerged, neither Pickett’s men nor their progeny were available for comment. Closer to the truth is that the Confederacy lost the Civil War on July 4, 1863, the day its armies surrendered Vicksburg and were repulsed from Gettysburg. Everything after was simply Southern obdurance.

Fortunately, modern historians have commenced salvaging the warped historical record. No fewer than four1H.W. Brands, Jean Edward Smith, Ronald C. White, and Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow. All are excellent. biographies in the last decade have revisited Grant’s life, revealing a unique, complex, but ultimately humble and endearing leader.2Incidentally, Grant’s multi-volume autobiography generally is considered the finest presidential memoir ever written. I suspect they are correct, conceding that I have not read every presidential memoir.

One irony is that Grant and Lee understood their respective places in post-war history. Grant called the Confederate cause “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Not much to commemorate there. And when Lee was approached after the war about a potential Stonewall Jackson memorial, he explained that:

[H]owever grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; [and] of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labour.

In Lee’s explanation lies the root of today’s problem. He was concerned that monuments to the South’s insurrection would permanently enshrine the war’s divisiveness into the national culture. The “present condition of the Country” was already fragile enough.

But conditions for Southern self-celebration never improved. The South adopted “Jim Crow” laws relegating African-Americans to second-class status, a grave moral wrong. At the same time, these Confederate monuments began appearing—symbols not of ancient military honor, but of a South reclaiming its racial heritage or, to be blunt, superiority.

Likewise, in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights movement gaining steam and federal intervention forcing the issue, yet another spate of “Confederate” pride emerged. Another round of monument building followed.

The sixty-year cycle has now reached another peak, though now it is 2020 and Black Lives Matter. It is no longer politically feasible to build more Confederate monuments, but when white America’s identity is threatened, these monuments still migrate to the forefront of the agenda. But Confederate monument-building is no longer a growth industry. Some have been voluntarily removed, and others have fallen victim to vigilantism.

The usual objections are raised as the monuments fall. Some complain about the alleged erasure of history. But the Confederacy’s place in the history books is assured—some merely refuse to leave it there.

Still others obsess about legacy, and these have invested their future with Donald Trump. A shotgun marriage to be sure. Trump’s bona fides for the role are surprising if only because he is the most ahistorical of presidents. Trump’s racism isn’t a legacy bequest—he is in this regard the self-made man he otherwise claims to be.

To that end, Trump may not be a Confederate, but he makes a reasonable facsimile for a guy from Queens. Consider his blustery, militaristic speech prior to invading St. John’s Episcopal. While it consisted mostly of incoherent babble, Trump managed to spit out something of a theme: “One law and order and that is what it is, one law, one beautiful law, and once that is restored, we will help you.”

Apparently there’s one beautiful law, though we are abandoned to our wits to discover what it is. But discover it we must, because some worry it is not being followed. Let’s consider a few alternatives.

The poet Percy Shelley identifies perhaps the most relevant law: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.3Ozymandias (1818) But Trump insists these monuments must stand forever. They would not on their own, so what law demands it?

Well, Trump is fond of comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln, if in the same way Eddie Deezen might compare himself to Muhammad Ali. To say they have little in common tests all boundaries of understatement. In particular, Lincoln understood that a just law incorporates mercy. To that end, recall Lincoln’s openhearted invitation to the South, even after four years of insurrection and hundreds of thousands of dead and injured American soldiers:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and all nations.

This can’t be what Trump means. Lincoln recognized that the law demands charity, empathy, and reconciliation. Perhaps more importantly, Lincoln was talking about live people, whereas Trump sees only animals and military targets.

No, one must go directly to the source to understand the law Trump invokes. Here it is:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

This was Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens’s explanation for the Confederacy’s existence. This is why the Confederate flag flew, why Confederate soldiers died, and why Confederate monuments exist today. In fact, this conclusion is tautological. Absent this principle, the Confederacy never would have existed. If there is “one law” demanding the survival of Confederate symbols, this must be it.

This is more than tragic—it is a national disgrace. And it always has been. Confederate monuments have survived only because America has squandered the blood and sacrifice of its Civil War dead. Trump should invoke Shelley’s law, and let these monuments rot. His failure to do so further poisons his already malignant presidency.

Grant, once considered among the worst of presidents, is redeemed. Whether in four months or four years, Trump will join Grant as a former president. But he will not find redemption. Maybe, only, then, Trump himself will be subject to Shelley’s law.

7 thoughts on “These Lifeless Things

  1. Really enjoyed this article. Trump really is the anti-Lincoln, with malice towards all, whose only guiding principle seems to be to use every opportunity to foment hate, pouring salt in our nation’s wounds to advance himself.

    1. I’ve started the Trump as anti-Lincoln piece at least twice, but it makes me want to jab pencils in my ears. I will get there eventually.

  2. Pretty unfair to Eddie Deezen here, Steve. He didn’t ask for this, and a quick glance at his IMDB page reveals a pretty successful and long-lasting career without bankruptcies or mob ties.

  3. I appreciated the quote from the cornerstone speech, which led me to its wikipedia page. Lots more interesting context there.

    Lots of good ideas packed into this piece (too many to quote) in particular I appreciated this point: “The usual objections are raised as the monuments fall. Some complain about the alleged erasure of history. But the Confederacy’s place in the history books is assured—some merely refuse to leave it there.”

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