I keep meaning to link to this Fresh Air interview in which Eric Foner discusses his new book on Lincoln. A significant part of it deals with some of the more objectionable statements by Lincoln in regards to black equality. This is, for us, a variation on a running theme. How do you regard your heroes when they do, or say, wrong or even odious things?
My sense is that all you can really ask is that they display an open-mind, and a willingness to evolve. Moreover, I think it's important to grapple with the reality of physical death and history. Life ends and its very hard to ask people to be more than their historical circumstances. Grant's defense of emancipation involved smacking down the notion that it automatically led to social equality or miscegenation. And yet the racists, by the light of history, were right. It's discomfiting to read Grant's defense, but then, I can't really imagine a past-president, toward the end of the 19th century, defending "social equality" between whites and blacks.
I think the particular problem for the Confederacy, is that lack of openness and evolution. I have said before that one could, conceivably, admire a Robert E. Lee while acknowledging his faults. In all honesty, I'm not sure that's true. Perhaps it is, I don't know enough to prove a case, except that the twin sins of treason, and leading an Army in the hopes of creating slave-holding republic, are tough to blot out.
But our personal Valhallas change as we do. Once mine included Nat Turner and Huey P. Newton. Now, not so much.
In other news, I copped Foner's Reconstruction yesterday. Looking forward to cracking it.
UPDATE: I should also add, in regards to Lee, the other problem is that--as we've said before-- the South is not without figures who were more admirable, and more right then Lee. I suspect part of the problem is that a significant number of those heroes were black.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.
is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power