By Sam Burnham
What is shared in this post is a correction, perhaps even a mea culpa. This past Friday, I appeared on the GPB Show On Second Thought. I was asked a question about the removal of Confederate Flags from the stained glass windows in the National Cathedral in Washington. I had prepared to answer the question prior to the show. When my time to opine arrived, my mouth rebelled and the unorganized torrent of stupidity that came from it was nowhere near what I had prepared. Instead of being a proper representative for the preservation of Southern History, I looked like a fool. I'm taking to the keyboard now to give the long response to the question that I had shrunken to fit into the time allowed. My apologies to fans of ABG & OST who did not get my best on that question on Friday.
The National Cathedral in Washington is removing the Confederate flags from the stained glass windows that pay tribute to Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. The generals themselves are remaining for now but we can only wonder how long that will last as there is talk of a "conversation" on their roles and suitability for display in the cathedral. I find myself disappointed by this decision but not surprised. There has been a coordinated effort over the last several years to remove symbols of the Confederacy from any place where they may be seen by the general public. This stems from the feelings of shock and disdain because of the role slavery played in the history of the Confederacy and the antebellum South.
At this point, most arguments from the Southern point of view would veer off into the various causes of the war while downplaying the influence of slavery. Northern views would focus on slavery while trying to negate any other possible causes. In fact there are two great fallacies pertaining to the causes of the war: 1) Slavery was the only cause of the war & 2) Slavery had nothing to do with the war. The causes for political upheaval were many and diverse, much like our current era. Slavery was a hot button issue, but it was only one issue. Unfortunately, this post cannot remotely expound on the myriad of causes for two regions with very different economies and cultures to go to war with each other. Suffice it to say the war came when men stopped listening to one another and started shooting at one another.
Allow me to address the setting. There is a long held tradition in Christendom of using stained glass to tell stories. In medieval times parishioners who were typically illiterate could look to the windows for a visual interpretation of the stories from Scripture and even the very nature of the man Christ. I remember gazing up at three such windows with my young son who remarked, "Dad, they tell a story." He then preceded to explain the story to me by progressing from one window to the next. As a child of six or seven, he easily could tell there was a story, without my prompting him. The windows of the National Cathedral tell the story of our nation, of Americans as a people, and of our progress through time that has brought us to where we are today. Our history is complicated, it is checkered, and, at times, downright dark. There is plenty that we might not be proud of. But we should never censor or hide that past. We must face the good and the bad with the understanding that our republic is not perfect and never will be but we must understand our past to know our present and plan for our future.
Then there are the men themselves. While there are nutcases who try to spread disparaging stories about these two men, they were great men with great contributions to our nation from their service to the United States in the Mexican War, through their defense of their home state. These men both served as educators and are considered by all serious historians to be men of faith and virtue. Jackson is even enshrined in stained glass in the historically black Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA. That window was placed by the children of the slaves that attended the Sunday school class that Jackson taught for slaves. These families thought so much of the general that they raised the funds for the window and even refused the cries of those who called for its removal during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Jackson is thought to be the only Confederate general with such a memorial in a black church in the nation.
As far as the battle flags are concerned, I really do see where some are offended. I understand. I also know that there is a lot in our history and our present to offend most people, if not everyone. If we choose to censor any of our history, then fairness suggests that all of our history be subject to the same treatment and once we start editing and censoring en masse, we lose the essence in who we are as a people. Our identity is destroyed and we have no story, no legacy, nothing but conjecture about how this nation arrived in the 21st Century.
And so, I'd call upon us all to engage in a true conversation about our past. I'd ask that we'd consider if we are, to quote Sir Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants, taking the advancements and wisdom of men we can now identify as flawed and wrong on certain topics, and furthering their world by adding our wisdom to that. Because we inherited the philosophies of men who kept people enslaved but began an experiment in Liberty and representative democracy, we are able to move forward, accepting and promoting equal protection under the law for all people, and then pass the experiment to our children who will stand on our shoulders and then remove our errors.
I'd suggest that is exactly what we are doing, and Lee and Jackson are two of those giants. It is my hope that we will stand on their shoulders rather than throw them under the bus.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire