Perhaps we should be encouraged that today’s black activists in the United States are concentrating on renaming public buildings, schools and places named after slave owners and on pulling down statues of Confederate generals. This would seem to indicate they regard past problems of black people as now less pressing. 

Moreover, they probably regard Black Lives Matter too incident-dependent to warrant more than occasional attention, whereas there are plenty of former slave owners to focus on.  

The problem with this is that many slave holders were honorable men and important to US nation building, beginning with George Washington without whom this country, as it is now, would not have existed and could well have become far less desirable and successful, and possibly, like Canada, still remain under British rule.  

Indeed, 12 presidents had slaves, eight while still in office. Those of lasting influence were: the father of the nation and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, as well as the main drafter of the Constitution, James Madison, and the 11th president, James Knox Polk, who left office with the United States being half again as large as when he began — largely as the result of a war with Mexico which he had precipitated. 

Initially there were slaves in most of the colonies. They were, however, generally decreasing in numbers, until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (which made growing cotton profitable) which was best suited to the south and then best served by slave labor. Were it not for this, slavery might well have disappeared in the US.  

Most Americans in the north were generally indifferent to slavery. There were relatively few abolitionists. It should be mentioned here that Woodrow Wilson, who was president from 1913 to 1921, has also been a target of the activists because he was “racist”. At that time, most white Americans were racist. This criticism of Wilson is an excellent example of “presentism”, an apt term invented several years ago by Professor Robert J. Norrell, who described it as viewing the past in terms of present assumptions and values. 

Today, we all rightly consider slavery as abhorrent and totally incompatible with what we in the US most cherish — independence and personal freedom. During the slavery period, however, Americans in the slave-free North were, as noted above, indifferent to slavery, whereas most southerners supported it, even when only 25 percent owned slaves. After the slaves were freed in 1865, Americans, black and white, generally lost interest in the closed chapter of slavery.  

I remember when there were still 100,000 ex-slaves in this country (I’m 98) and the only thing I ever heard about slavery then was that the Federal Writers Project interviewed three thousand ex-slaves and published them in a very interesting booklet.  There were also many Civil War veterans and no one said that the war was about slavery. The Union ones were fighting to preserve the Union and the Confederates defending against Northern aggression.  

One thing to understand about the Southerners was that loyalty to their States trumped loyalty to their nation. Robert E. Lee was a good example. He very much opposed Virginia’s leaving the Union. Had it remained in the Union, Lee might well have wound up leading the Union army. He was heartbroken when Virginia seceded. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to remain loyal to his State. 

Generals whose statues are now being torn down did not regard themselves as traitors (to the US), nor were they fighting to preserve slavery which, however, would have remained had they been successful. Today, they are a prime target of the activists. US military installations named after these generals are now prime targets of name change (something that is now being challenged by President Donald Trump).

Confederate statues, plaques, etc, have mostly been around at least a hundred years, and all this time no one paid much attention to them until recent times when they became actively associated with slavery.  

It should be mentioned here that Confederate flags were in a completely different category.

After the Civil War a Catholic Confederate chaplain set the tone for the flag in a very popular poem (then song) which called for respectfully furling the flag and then storing it out of sight. Partly as a result, one didn’t see much of this flag, generally mostly at cemeteries and at veteran reunions. This all changed when the flag was resurrected in the 1950s as a symbol of opposition to the budding civil rights movement. One then saw it everywhere. Later banning this flag made sense.  

The activists have, for example, set their sights on schools and other institutions named after slave owners as well as monuments. They believe they must be renamed. 

They seem unaware that many, if not most, of those now being criticized, were, in their day, regarded as perfectly normal, decent, even notable citizens.  George  Washington is, in large measure, exempted from activist renaming, not only because he is the father of our nation, but also the nations’ capital and one State are named after him.

Jefferson and others are not exempted. In fact, but to a lesser degree, Jefferson seems to be somewhat more exempted from criticism. (I recently learned that Montgomery county, Maryland’s largest county, was named after a slaveholder. I very much doubt, however, that this will lead to a name change.) 

Name change mania became reductio ad absurdum when a committee, appointed by Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, recommended renaming dozens of public schools, parks and government buildings in the nation’s capital named after slave owners including seven US presidents. They even included the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. This drew a torrent of criticism including a harsh rebuke from the White House. Mayor Bowser did not accept the report. 

Incidentally, this report stated that Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner, owned slaves. There must a school named after him…

Footnote: Secession always refers to the Southern one. Little known is that the New England States came very close to secession in opposing the War of 1812, which greatly harmed their economies and which could have been settled peacefully.

William Stearman

William Lloyd Stearman PhD was a Counselor US Foreign Service (Ret.), Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, and a member of the National Security Staff at the White House under four presidents. He...