Week 13: True Americanism
The American Civil War was the culmination of decades of divided conversations surrounding slavery. As William Seward said in a speech known as "The Irrepressible Conflict" in 1858, "Our country is a theatre, which exhibits, in full operation, two radically different political systems; the one resting on the basis of servile or slave labor, the other on the basis of voluntary labor of freemen." He continues, "relatively increasing the number of slave states, (the slaveholding class of American citizens) will allow no amendment to the constitution prejudicial to their interest; and so, having permanently established their power, they expect the federal judiciary to nullify all state laws which shall interfere with internal or foreign commerce in slaves. When the free states shall be sufficiently demoralized to tolerate these designs, they reasonably conclude that slavery will be accepted by those states themselves" (American Speeches, 2006:649). Seward was sharing what Abraham Lincoln shared in his famous "House Divided" speech just half a year earlier: "Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new - North as well as South" (2006:634).
And then we get to 1859, the year of a raid by John Brown, who I have mentioned before. Brown devoted his life to the destruction of slavery in 1837. The national attention that he brought to the issue could not have been missed, especially by an educated professor like Jackson, or a military leader like Lee. Brown's speech to the court on November 2nd reveals the reason behind his actions: "the Bible...teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction... I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done" (2006:678-9).
In April of that year, immigrant Carl Schurz addressed US statesmen in Boston, MA, on True Americanism: "...the first time that I heard of America,...my childish imagination took possession of...a land where everybody could do what he thought best, and where nobody need be poor, because everybody was free" (2006:659). Schurz continues with the realization, "the system of slavery has enslaved them all, master as well as slave. What is the cause of all this? It is that you cannot deny one class of society the full measure of their natural rights without imposing restraints upon your own liberty. If you want to be free, there is but one way; it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other" (2006:667).
Brown was acting out Schurz's ideals of true Americanism. Jackson, Lee, Ashby, and other Confederate leaders were doing quite the opposite - supporting the dissolution of America for a completely different country founded on the principles of slave labor. They chose to turn their backs on America and to lead others in doing so.
One-hundred and sixty-one years. That's how long ago Jackson was in the Shenandoah County area and even then for only a small amount of time. Like Brown, he lost his life on Virginian soil. But for very different reasons. When Virginia seceded from the USA in 1861, Jackson accepted a commission as colonel in the CSA. Accepting a commission acknowledges an oath of allegiance. It's similar to The Pledge of Allegiance that students say in public schools every morning. "I pledge allegiance to the flag of The United States of America...." Only, for Jackson and for Ashby, the last oath they were to ever make on this earth was to the Confederate States of America, not the USA, for they died as foreign military leaders in active duty against today's America. Would Schurz see these gentlemen as signifying true Americanism?
Last year, in defense of the old school names, every person spoke more about the character of Jackson, than anything else. They spoke about how anyone could offend his memory. These images of Jackson are part of the Lost Cause narrative. We'll visit that soon. For now I want to quote Kierkegaard, who in "At the Side of a Grave," shares: "In the decision of death it is thus over, there is rest; nothing, nothing disturbs the dead; if this little word, if that lacking moment, made the death struggle restless, now the dead man is not disturbed. If the suppression of the little word confused the life of many living, if the mysterious work again and again engaged the attention of the inquiring scholar, the dead man is not disturbed" (Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life, 1941:87). Or more poetically perhaps: "a silent night overshadows them... nothing disturbs their peace" (1941:88). We look at the past to help us point the way toward the future; nothing more. It should not be something we wear like a red letter any more than we claim as a tiki torch while yelling, Blood and tears.
As African American poet Lucille Clifton shares: "they ask me to remember but they want me to remember their memories and i keep on remembering mine." The name Stonewall Jackson or Ashby-Lee or pick a Confederate leader on the name of an American public school, shares different messages depending on what side of the issue you were on. The only way to promote true Americanism is to make sure the names of our schools prove unifying and Confederate leaders do not do that in The United States of America.
2/6/2023 01:01:17 pm
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SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over seven years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.