Donald Trump was combative at his news conference on Aug. 15. “This week it’s Robert E. Lee,” he said. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself where does it stop?”
Destroying statues and monuments has been going on forever. “Instances were recorded in the Bible. Medieval Christians smashed sculptures of Ancient Rome. Spanish conquerors destroyed temples of the Aztecs and the Incas,” says a recent article in the New York Times. More recent is the sensational destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan) in 2001 and the iconoclasm systematically exercised by Daesh (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
But getting rid of statues and other relics connected with slavery or the Confederacy in the United States is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, undertaking.
To begin with, their sheer number and widespread distribution over the country is foreboding. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more than 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces, 109 public schools named after prominent Confederates, many with large African-American student populations, and more than 700 Confederate monuments and statues on public property throughout the country.
One Confederate monument, the largest section of exposed granite on Earth, presents special difficulties. It is the State of Georgia-sponsored figure of three horsemen, representing Confederate Gens. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, in addition to the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Will it be dynamited in the same way as the Buddhas of Bamiyan?
But there is something more disturbing in what Trump said; something that Americans have desperately tried to ignore in their history. Until late in the past century, most American history books gave a polished picture of the founding fathers and the democracy they created. It took a new generation of American revisionist historians, led by Howard Zinn and his “People’s History of the United States,” to bring the naked truth out. It was followed by a slate of books with titles like “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Why American History is Not What They Say.” Thus Trump’s question opened a wound that most Americans prefer to keep under rap.
Of the first 12 presidents of the United States, 10 owned slaves while in office. The four largest slave owners among them (by approximate number of slaves) were; Thomas Jefferson, the principle drafter of the Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal” – at 600, George Washington – to Americans “the father of our country” – at 317 (practically all acquired by his own toil since he inherited only 10 from his father), Andrew Jackson – who was also accused of being a slave trader – at 200 and James Madison – the principal writer of the U.S. Bill of Rights and the first Ten Amendments of the Constitution – at 100.
Andrew Jackson, the father of the populist “Jacksonian democracy,” was also the most ferocious fighter against the native Indians. He burned and razed scores of Indian villages, often with their inhabitants in them, to force the Indians away from their land in the south east, to west of the Mississippi River. In 1832, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall issued a court decision against the removal of the Cherokee Indians. Jackson refused to implement it retorting: “John Marshall has made a decision, now let him enforce it.” In 1830, Jackson signed the “Indian removal act,” which forced what remained of the Cherokee Indians in the east to start a long march westward, which they called the “Trail of Tears.” Four thousand of the 15,000 who took the journey died of hunger, disease or exhaustion.
Arthur Schlesinger, as most who wrote about Jackson prior to the 1990s, ignored this crucial aspect of Jackson’s life in his classic book “the Age of Jackson” (1945), but admitted his “mistake” years later when working in the Kennedy White House.
Thomas Jefferson’s main real estate, Monticello, was the home of both agricultural production and industrial undertakings. One of the latter was a nail factory, which apparently was extremely profitable. This factory depended largely on slave children ages 10 to 12 years. These little children were often whipped to increase their productivity. This was discovered by the historian Edwin Betts in the 1950s when doing research on the plantation. Betts decided to hide this fact, apparently because of the implicit taboo placed on such revelations at the time.
“Betts’s omission,” wrote Henry Wiencek in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2012, was important in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand.” In his autobiography Jefferson wrote: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [the black slaves] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.” This part of his statement was deleted from the quotation embedded in Jefferson’s monument.
Abraham Lincoln was, as we all know, “the Great Emancipator.” His Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1862 was actually a threat to the slave states fighting against the Union, that their slaves will be declared free if they continued their war. Slave states that did not go to war could keep their slaves. As a result, 10 states were declared slave free while five were permitted to keep their slaves. Zinn quotes the London Spectator: “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.” Lincoln spent all his political life with doubts about the equality between the races. During his presidential campaign in southern Illinois, he once proclaimed: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races ... I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.” He was thus echoing the position of Jefferson above, and of practically all other founding fathers.
So why should the statue of Jefferson Davis be downed, while that of Andrew Jackson remain? Is a slave owner and slave trader who killed Indians savagely and indiscriminately like Jackson more worthy of having iconic statues of him on public property than a General like Lee who fought on the side of maintaining slavery? Did anyone ask the Native Americans? If judged, as they should be, on the totality of their lives, they all have made major contributions to their country. Everyone knows the contributions made by George Washington in the war of independence, Jackson in the decisive battle of New Orleans and Jefferson’s contribution to democratic principles; but few know, for example, that Jefferson Davis had served as a congressman and a senator, and that he was widely acclaimed as a war hero of the American Mexican War.
The New York Times argues that the Confederate leaders did not work to promote the Union but attempted to divide it and, therefore, their statues and icons should go. This is true, for in the end, it is the winner of the war who determines who is good and who is evil, and whose statues represent the former and whose represent the latter.
Riad Tabbarah is the author of the book “America and Freedoms: an Historical View” (in Arabic) from which some of the information for this article is taken.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2017, on page 7.