BY EFFIE DEANS
When the Thirteen Colonies rebelled against Britain, slavery existed in each of them and did so legally. In Britain by contrast the Somerset v Stewart case (1772) made explicit what had been implicit for centuries – that there was no basis for slavery in law in Britain. If a slave entered Britain, he was thereby made free. In 1807 Britain abolished the Atlantic Slave Trade in the lands that it controlled and in the seas that it patrolled and enforced this abolition by means of the Royal Navy.
The American War of Independence therefore can logically be characterised as a war of thirteen slave states to gain independence from a country where each one of the slaves living in America would be immediately freed if he could reach it.
Many of those who fought for American independence owned slaves as did some of their most important generals such as George Washington.
This of course is not to suggest that the people who fought for independence did so in order to protect slavery. They like us were unable to see into a future that would have seen slavery abolished in America in 1833 if it had stayed with Britain rather than some thirty years later because it didn’t.
The motives of those fighting for American independence like the motives of everyone else were a mixture of the noble and the base. They desired democracy and separation from a Britain that was geographically distant and politically remote. But the American colonists had short memories about how the British Army had helped them defeat the French in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and resented the taxes they were obliged to pay in consequence. The war doubled Britain’s national debt but when it finished the Americans did not want to pay their share. They preferred to throw tea in the harbour, but they would have complained still louder if we had thrown them to the French.
Having won the revolution, the United States Constitution neither forbade slavery nor did it forbid importing slaves. Unlike in Britain it prohibited the freeing of slaves who were able to reach a free state.
The northern states gradually abolished slavery, while the southern states retained it. Eventually this led to conflict and the Civil War (1861-1865).
But from the point of the view of those who rebelled in 1861 they were merely repeating the rebellion of their fathers. Logically they were.
If thirteen slave states can morally rebel against a Britain where slavery had been abolished why cannot the states of the Confederacy justifiably rebel against the United States and the northern free states on precisely the same grounds.
If Light Horse Harry Lee is a patriot and hero, why is his son Robert E Lee a villain for doing exactly the same thing?
The motives of those who fought for the Confederacy were as mixed as their fathers and grandfathers. Slavery was no more threatened in the South in 1860 than it had been threatened in the 13 colonies in 1776. There were no immediate plans to abolish it in either.
It was possible for George Washington and his colleagues to guess that Britain was intent on abolishing slavery everywhere, but this was not their motive for rebellion.
So too, the vast majority of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves and many prominent generals including Lee opposed it in favour of the gradual abolition that had occurred in the North a generation or two earlier.
The Civil War is a vital part of the history of the United States and it is simply crude to treat it as a struggle between Nazis and wonderful northern abolitionists. Almost all Americans in 1861 were racists to some extent as indeed were nearly all British people.
The problem with viewing history through the lens of hero and villain judging by today’s standard is that we rapidly turn ourselves into hypocrites.
If you tear down statues of Confederate generals, then you logically have to tear down monuments to the heroes of the War of Independence.
If the Confederacy had won the Civil War or “Second American War of Independence” then it would gradually have freed its slaves just as the Northern states of the USA did earlier. It is impossible to imagine Southern slavery lasting much longer anyway. Economic forces would have abolished it. Slavery impoverished the South and was one of the main reasons it lost the war.
It was certainly a good thing that the Confederacy lost the war. This is not least because the United States since 1776 has been one of the great countries of the world and has done more for the rest of us than anywhere else.
All the important figures of American history should be displayed because it is only through monuments that this history becomes part of a shared public life. To turn Robert E Lee into a Nazi is to misunderstand history and to condemn the inhabitants of half of the United States into something so vile that they cannot be shown. But this is to misrepresent a war that for the most part was fought with great heroism, sacrifice and honour by both Blue and Grey.
Both sides of the Civil War deserve their monuments because their story is the most important story in American history. No reconciliation can come by cancelling the South. Rather the seeds of a new rebellion and Third American Revolution are being recklessly sown by tearing down the heritage of the South as if re-enacting Sherman’s march to the sea will bring about harmony if only the destruction is more thorough this time.
To tear down statues of Columbus, Washington and others is to wish that North America was never settled by people from Europe and that it would have been better if the American Revolution had been lost.
But if Europeans had not settled America, does anyone suppose that it would have been left alone? Someone else would have arrived (the Russians, the Chinese?). A different state or states would have been formed in North America and it is unlikely that those who were there already would have been treated any better nor indeed is it likely that a country as fine as the United States with its democracy and freedom would have been established.
To wish that there had been no Columbus is to wish that the vast majority of United States Citizens don’t live there. Well if that is what you wish, the only logical response is for you to leave.
The history of the United States is a history of flawed individuals who through the combination of their noble and base qualities created the wealthiest, freest and best country in the world. If you tear down the monuments to their story, you tear down America itself.
People who express their hatred for America by tearing down the statues of those who created it are implicitly saying that it would have been better that the United States had never been born. It would have been better if their ancestors unless native to the continent had never arrived. But this exposes the mere nihilism of those who choose to live in a country that they think ought not to exist. It exposes the hypocrisy of those who respond with fury when this logic is pointed out that if you regret the arrival of your ancestor why not return to where he came from.
The United States may have been founded by thirteen slave states, but the great historical figures in American history whose statues are being torn down by mobs did more to bring freedom to the world than anyone else in our imperfect world. Together they created the leader of the free world and a country admired by those who everywhere are not free. God bless America when it is attacked by those who hate both God and America.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.