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Who Controls the Present... - 9/20/16

There has been yet another attempt to rewrite history to make it more politically correct, this time in the town where I have lived for the past 30 years, Alexandria, Virginia.

Just a few days ago, the Alexandria City Council voted to move to a less prominent position a statue honoring those Alexandrians who died fighting for the Confederate States of America in the civil war of 1861-1865 and to rename Jefferson Davis Highway (also known as Route 1) which runs through the city.

The argument made by the City Council was the usual one in these cases, that the Confederate memorial and the name of the highway both honor a nation and an army that fought to maintain black slavery and that doing so injures the feelings of modern day black Americans.   After all, "black lives matter."

The counter-argument is that we should not judge how people behaved in the past by modern day standards.  If we condemn them as thoroughly without merit, where do we stop?  The same City Council that decided to do this was meeting in a room where portraits of George Washington and Robert E. Lee adorn the walls, both slave owners, and Lee, the commander of the greatest rebel armed force, the Army of Northern Virginia.  Should both Washington and Lee's portraits also be removed for this reason?  Should the U.S. capital be renamed?  Should Jefferson Davis' service fighting for the United States in the Mexican War and later as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of War count for nothing because of his decision to go with his state when the Union broke up in 1861?  Davis actually opposed Mississippi's secession and resigned from the U.S. Senate only after it was an accomplished fact.

As for the statue honoring the Confederate dead, very few southern soldiers would have told you that they were fighting for the preservation of slavery.  Very few of them owned slaves and most would have given the answer that the captured southern volunteer that Shelby Foote quoted gave to the Yankee soldiers when they asked him why he had taken up arms for the Confederacy, ''I'm fighting because you're down here."  Most fought for their land and their Southern way of life, of which, I admit, slavery was a shameful part, but not a part that they were responsible for creating.

Nor, at least at the beginning of the war, were most northern soldiers fighting to end slavery.  Most of them fought to preserve the Union and not to free the blacks.  The states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri remained with the Union and provided thousands of volunteers to fight for it, although slavery was legal in all four of them.  Abraham Lincoln's famed Emancipation Proclamation was primarily a military measure to weaken the south and not only did it specifically exempt slaves in the four loyal northern slaves from being freed, it also exempted those living in southern territory which had been occupied by Union troops.  Nor was the northern citizenry unanimous in opposition to slavery.  Even with the Southern states unable to vote, President Lincoln had great difficulty in passing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which officially freed all the slaves in the United States and it was not finally ratified until 1868, three years after the Civil War had ended.

There are a lot of historical figures whose opinions on various topics we find repugnant today, but it makes them no less important as historical figures.  Samuel Morse supported and ran for office as the candidate of an anti-Catholic political party.  Henry Ford printed and distributed anti-Semitic literature.  Yet are we to overlook their inventions of the telegraph or the assembly line because of these views?

The past is the past and all of what happened in it has contributed to what we are today.  It is an act of conscious blindness to pretend that part of it does not exist just to advance some modern day political agenda.

That is the path to the kind of thinking found in George Orwell's 1984, where history was constantly being rewritten to aid the current goals of the government of the totalitarian state of Oceania.  As the "Ministry of Truth" put it, "Who controls the present controls the past, who controls the past controls the future."

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