Today, for the 120th year, the commonwealth of Virginia pauses to honor Gen. Robert E. Lee. Additionally, for the 105th year, Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is also remembered. To “celebrate” the day, certain state and local employees will have the day off and some politicians will compose proclamations.
If you recall, last week, I called for ending this practice and replacing it with a day to honor all heroes of the commonwealth with a “Virginia Heritage Day.” I asked you to sign a petition in favor of this proposal.
Needless to say, this proposition has not been met with overwhelming favor.
Over the past week, since posting the petition, I have been amused by the comments and discussion both for and against the idea. And, have appreciated the impassioned emails some of you have sent my way.
Certainly emotions run high (perhaps more so than I expected) on this particular subject. Those that support Lee-Jackson Day take my idea as a personal affront to their culture and heritage and as a slap to the honor of two “great men.”
I can appreciate their sentiment, but I do not agree with it. Therefore, this post is not for them.
It is patently obvious to me that no matter what logic I use, or argument I make, I will be accused of being a dumb, ignorant, liberal carpetbagger, who sees history only through a modern-day prism.
Therefore, instead of addressing folks who would rather spread discord than attempt discourse, I won’t bother to waste my words or my time on them. They will find nothing of value in the words that follow.
However, for those of you who are still on-the-fence regarding this subject, support the idea, or are willing to at least give me a fair hearing, let me attempt to answer some of the assertions that others have made, and further clarify why I believe as I do.
My Rationale – Historically Based
Let’s first address head-on the premise of my argument.
Frankly, I view holidays as largely symbolic. Not necessarily as a day to honor the person.
In other words, I see Martin Luther King Jr. Day as representative of the civil rights era and an appeal to service, Presidents’ Day as representative of all who have led our nation in its highest office and to make us think of duty and commitment, and Columbus Day as honoring the spirit of exploration and the bold vision, determination, and courage it takes to take a risk.
So, what is the symbolism of Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia? Is it honor to one’s state? Is it duty to your fellow citizen? Is it perseverance in the face of adversity? Is it the ability to take a bold stand on principle?
I would argue: yes.
I see Lee and Jackson as all those things. And, today, I will think about those characteristics and how I too can live up to that example of courage and sacrifice.
But the question is, for what motive did they serve?
In the end, their motive was to side with the disintegration of the union for the cause of a state’s right to choose for itself whether it would permit the enslavement of another human being.
This leads me to my second point. Many have argued that “Lee was forced to fight for Virginia, as federal forces were going to invade – it was not because of slavery.”
In order to accurately assess that statement, you have to look at the timeline.
It began when Virginia attempted to hold a peace conference in February, after several states had already seceded.
The results of the Virginia peace conference, which concluded in late February, were very similar to the Crittenden Compromise, thus, they didn’t stand much chance in Congress.
The final proposals from the conference were:
1 –For territories south of 36-degrees 30-minutes north longitude, slavery could exist and Congress could not hinder it; and, that any state admitted to the union from those territories could enter with or without slavery, as their state constitution directed.
2 – No further territory should be acquired without treaty and consent of 4/5 of the Senate.
3 –That Congress could not regulate, abolish, or control slavery in the states or territories.
4- Fugitive slave provisions in the Constitution should be enforced and Congress should not interfere.
5- The foreign slave trade should be prohibited.
6-There should be compensation for the loss of fugitives from labor.
The peace conference amendments were rejected by Congress.
Just over a month later in April, the Virginia State Convention met to discuss the possibility of secession. To this date, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas had already seceded. The Virginia State Convention rejected secession on April 4 by a vote of 89-45.
However, after tension in South Carolina finally broke into an attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, and Lincoln called for a militia of 75,000 from the Union states on April 15, Virginia balked.
First, Gov. John Letcher told Lincoln on April 16 that he would not furnish troops. He was opposed to what he said was the subjugation of the southern states.
Second, on April 17, the Virginia State Convention met again, this time voting for secession 88-55, and permitted the governor the authority to raise a volunteer army.
Third, on April 18, federal forces abandoned and burned the armory at Harper’s Ferry. On the same day, Col. Robert E. Lee of the Union Army refused command of the army at Blair House.
Fourth, on April 19, Southerner and U.S. Navy Capt. David Farragut left his home in Norfolk to remain in the service of his country.
Fifth, on April 20, federal troops evacuated Norfolk and burned and scuttled the USS Merrimack.
Sixth, on April 22, Robert E. Lee is commissioned major general and given command of the confederate forces in Virginia.
If you follow the timeline, you will notice that the turnaround from honest broker to belligerent is very quick; it seems ironic to me that so quickly after aggressive, independent action by South Carolina on rightful union property, that Virginia, who had been brokering for compromise, would turn around within a week and raise an army for insurrection. In many ways, it’s like Germany declaring war on the U.S. because Japan invaded Pearl Harbor. Was the quick turnaround because Virginia was ready for secession, despite their outward overtures?
To this point, no federal forces were advancing on Virginia – they were fleeing because Virginia was seceding and raising an army!
Looking at the history, we can see several flaws in arguments that have been made over the past week by those who are against the petition.
First, they say that the confederacy was only fighting for “states’ rights”.
This argument is not only naïve, but it is somewhat insulting to everyone’s intelligence.
It seems those that wrap themselves in the blanket of the 10th amendment fail to see that the whole reason behind the argument was that it was the right of a state to self-determine its position on slavery. Clearly the amendments from the peace conference indicate that slavery was very much on the minds of southern secessionists.
Second, many have argued that Lee did not have a choice but to fight for Virginia.
But, looking at the history, you can compare the loyalty of Gen. Lee and Adm. Farragut. Both Lee and Farragut were exceptional officers, and both, by most accounts, exceptional men. However, Lee, instead of remaining loyal to the Union took the route of rebellion and Farragut, also a Southerner – and, by all accounts, a Virginian (his home was here) – remained loyal to the Union throughout the war.
Had Lee taken command of the union, could the war have ended more peacefully – perhaps with no battles or bloodshed? Would he have been able to convince other Virginian’s that their rush to war following South Carolina’s actions was not prudent?
We’ll never know because Lee chose the path that led him and Virginia deeper into conflict.
Third, it is clear that the south instigated this war. By taking steps to secession, raising an army, and firing on federal soldiers, it is clear that the south was “itch’n to fight.” Therefore, when the anti-petition crowd argues that slavery as an institution was being eliminated by states in the south, why did southern states feel compelled to attack union soldiers and seize federal property? If slavery didn’t matter, then certainly there was no need to go to war over the state’s right to eliminate it, right?
Finally, folks believe the days came to fruition simply out of reverence for Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Not quite.
The tradition to honor the two generals is more than a century old and began in 1889. Virginians began paying remembrance to Robert E. Lee — nearly nineteen years following his death (and nineteen years following the end of federal military control). The holiday started while Fitzhugh Lee, Robert’s nephew, and fellow confederate officer, served as governor; F. Lee enacted the legislation during his last year in office.
In 1904, Jackson’s name was added by the General Assembly, but in a less than desirable political climate.
Andrew Jackson Montague (born in 1862) was elected governor in 1902 having made two major promises – education reform and the disfranchisement of black voters. During Montague’s term, poll taxes and literacy tests came into being: the very laws we know now as “Jim Crow” laws.
For nearly twenty years following Lee’s death, Virginia did not honor him. It took his nephew on his way out the door from serving in Virginia’s highest office to give him a day. As for Jackson, his day came during a time of deep racial discrimination and mistrust, where some Virginians were looking back to the confederacy with wistful longing.
Many have questioned my motive for doing this.
My motive is simple.
I see both Lee and Jackson as symbols of the confederacy – which implies the armed insurrection against the government of the United States for the right to enslave people for personal profit. I cannot in good faith recognize and honor them with an exclusive day…nor accept that my tax dollars are going towards a paid holiday for government employees on such a day.
Every time this day arrives on the calendar, it is a day that reminds us of what the confederacy gave us: the pain and suffering of slavery, the burdens of Reconstruction, and the unnecessary era of Jim Crow.
It just isn’t very uplifting.
All of the other holidays that exclusively honor a person that I mentioned earlier are inspirational and motivate us to greater things. But Lee-Jackson Day seems to remind us of Virginia’s darkest hour.
Understandably, a good portion of Virginia’s 400+ years of heritage includes some of our greatest patriots as slave owners. However, the difference is that those patriots remind all Americans of the promise of freedom and liberty – not the repression of it. Jefferson and Washington helped put this country together – not take pains to tear it apart.
Virginia Heritage Day is not meant to gloss-over or diminish Lee and Jackson – or the pains of slavery and discrimination. In fact, as Virginia heritage, they should very much be included in any remembrance. However, with Virginia rich in heritage from the waterman on the Chesapeake to the farmers in the southern counties; from personalities such as Patrick Henry to Douglas Wilder; it seems that we, as citizens of the commonwealth, are missing out on so much more to celebrate.
For all to see – including other Americans and our children – we place Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson up as model Virginia citizens; citizens, who if they were successful in their endeavors, would have torn the country apart and allowed the institution of slavery to perpetuate in states until that state decided to stop the practice – if ever.
Because of the Southern Strategy employed by the Republican Party since Barry Goldwater, disillusioned Democrats “realigned” the “solid south” from being predominantly Democratic to mainly Republican.
When you consider the irony that it was the election of a Republican that set the above course of events into motion, you cannot help but shake your head.
I am a traditional Republican…of the 1856 variety.
My brand of conservatism is based upon fiscal responsibility, a limited central government, strong national defense, and individual liberty.
I believe that all men and women are capable of achieving great things in this country if they are given equal access to education, employment, and property ownership. If allowed to compete and be motivated by the “pursuit of happiness”, I am convinced anyone can be successful.
The celebration of Lee-Jackson Day, regardless of what they personally felt or did with slaves and African Americans, symbolizes the repression of individual liberty.
For a true conservative, it goes against our very fiber.
With my political party in shambles, it is time to go back to basics.
Closing thoughts – or parting shots
Some have decided to take this argument to a personal level; I can only say that such arguments diminish only the person making them and further sustain my beliefs.
If you feel that you must personally attack someone to make your point, then you really don’t have a point, do you?
PS If you didn’t get in the title my use of the word “apology”, it also means a formal justification or defense.