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Tear slavery’s defenders from our public squares and from our hearts

I like to read speeches, and a few months ago, I was reading Vol. 9 in a 10-volume set of little books called “The World’s Famous Orations,” published early in the 20th century, with William Jennings Bryan as editor in chief. The volume includes speeches from an 1830 speech by Robert Hayne, senator from South Carolina, to several from the 1860s by Abraham Lincoln. A couple of things jump out when you read those speeches — Daniel Webster’s “Reply to Hayne” is one of the most famous American speeches — namely, how inflamed political passions were at that time (so much more than now) and how it was taken for granted, by both sides, that slavery was the cause of the rancor. There was no quibbling or equivocation on that point. Southern leaders acknowledged it, and apparently felt no shame in asserting it; and northern leaders insisted on it.

No one tried the mealy-mouthed approach of more recent days, that the leaders of Southern states were simply trying to assert their states’ sovereign rights, separate from the issue of slavery. No one tried to argue that only a small minority of Southerners were slave-owners and, somehow, that made the issue less important.

There was a tremendous amount of humbug in the way Southern political leaders like Hayne discussed their “honor,” and the way they framed the moral questions surrounding slavery. If you want to read something really sickening, but historically educational, read Hayne’s speech, “On the Foote Resolution,” which was part of his debate with Webster in the Senate. He makes the evil but straightforward argument that black people are better off as slaves, saying this about “free people of color:”

“Sir, there does not exist on the face of the whole earth a population so poor, so wretched, so vile, so loathsome, so utterly destitute of all the comforts, conveniences, and decencies of life, as the unfortunate blacks of Philadelphia, and New York and Boston. Liberty has been to them the greatest of calamities, the heaviest of curses.”

He and other Southern politicians, while insisting on their own honor, did find someone to blame for the division in the country — the abolitionists. It was not the fault of those who perpetuated and sought to expand a system of owning human beings and subjecting them to awful abuse who were to blame; it was the fault of those who condemned that system. It was the fault of those who insisted that system had to be abolished.

Those arguments have contemporary echoes — for example, from those who respond to complaints of police abuse of black people by bringing up crime within the black community, especially in urban centers like Chicago. Can’t two problems exist at once? If I suggest that malnutrition is a problem in the rural white areas of the U.S. (like our own area), does it contradict that to say that welfare fraud is a problem in those same areas? Should we let poor rural white children suffer from malnutrition because some poor rural white people are gaming the system? This kind of argument is insulting — to the intelligence of everyone who has to hear it and to the people who have done nothing wrong and are suffering.

The arguments of the past from Southern politicians, as concerned as they said they were about honor and tradition, also have echoes now in the arguments used to continue to honor those very leaders (including the ones who eventually betrayed and sought to destroy the United States,) with plaques and statues in public places. This debate is not about “erasing history.” I wish schools would go into much greater detail about Civil War history, and delve into what the leaders of the South did and how they justified it. Statues don’t teach history; they honor certain parts of it. A statue of Jefferson Davis, a building named after John C. Calhoun send a simple message — these were great men, deserving of honor. But these men were traitors. They defended one of the most extensive and oppressive systems of human subjugation in human history. We should study them — as a negative example. We should hold them up — not in public squares but in classrooms — as models of what not to do.

We also hear echoes now of the pre Civil War era’s argument that abolitionists were to blame for “stirring things up.” If only those who felt moral repugnance about the selling and beating and lynching and raping of other human beings had kept their mouths shut, then the country could have remained united — that was their argument. We hear that sort of thing now from various quarters, arguing that anger is not the way to make change, that mass protests and marches and speeches and confrontational behavior is not the way to go about persuading people to your side. Should protesters be writing polite letters? Saying “please?” Pressure, not politeness, creates change. So when you hear complaints from people like Jeff Murphy, sheriff of Washington County and head of the state Sheriffs Association, about “anti-police hysteria and unwarranted political rhetoric,” then you know the protests are working, creating that pressure that can and hopefully will lead to positive change.

Will Doolittle is projects editor of The Post-Star of Glens Falls.

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