Jim Burt: “I am a docent at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, and part of my introduction to the Rembrandt Peale portraits of George and Martha Washington goes like this:
Who was the most famous American general of the Revolutionary War? That’s right, George Washington. And who was the second most famous American general of the Revolutionary War? Benedict Arnold. Arnold’s early service in the Revolution was competent and even heroic, suffering painful wounds as well as winning battles, but in addition to feeling slighted by Congress concerning honors and promotion, Benedict Arnold had a spendthrift and socially ambitious wife whose grasp exceeded his reach, which is thought to have contributed to his decision to turn traitor. (Turning to the portrait of Martha Washington.) By contrast, George Washington had a faithful and diligent wife who brought him a large fortune and whose business management skills enabled their large property holdings – which included slaves, as well as land and a profitable whiskey distillery – to prosper while George spent eight years away as a general during the Revolution plus another eight as president. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Martha George might well have been just another country squire trying to meet his mortgage payments.
“What I don’t typically mention, because we’re mostly talking about art and not politics, is that we don’t have any monuments in this country to Benedict Arnold, even though he was, part of the time, a hero and a good general. Fast forward to the Civil War era, and we have one acknowledged anti-slavery traitor, John Brown. Even though he was a hero to many abolitionists, he did take up arms against the United States government, and is therefore, by constitutional definition, a traitor. There are two monuments to John Brown, one a historical marker at Harper’s Ferry noting the location of his ‘fort,’ where he defended his band of terrorists against the Army’s effort to retake the arsenal there, and one in an enclosure blocked off to the public at the Akron, Ohio zoo. Neither glorifies John Brown, even though — unlike every Confederate soldier — he was a traitor in a good cause.
“If in the interests of ‘history, not hate’ we’re going to put up public monuments to traitors – defined in our Constitution as anyone who takes up arms against the government — we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, starting with Benedict Arnold and John Brown. I’m sure we can find a few others to glorify along the way. Nat Turner comes to mind, except that he and his fellow slaves did not take up arms against the United States, but against their masters. Anyway, I’ll take the ‘history, not hate’ crowd a lot more seriously when they start promoting monuments to John Brown. He was a traitor and a terrorist, but at least he was on the right side of history, unlike Robert E. Lee, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Jefferson Davis . . . and Benedict Arnold.
“Worth a read: What I Wish Democrats Would Say About Confederate Monuments. In a nutshell, Tomasky would like a major Democrat, preferably one in contention for the next presidential nomination, to say that the reason to demolish or sequester Confederate monuments is not that they depict racist or bigoted people – after all, until recently, everybody in public life was racist by contemporary standards, and certainly that was true of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and others — but rather that we should honor those who rose above their racism, or stood apart from it, and did good things for our country. I’d like to hear that speech, too. But I’d also like to hear people point out that not only were the Confederacy’s heroes traitors and losers, but they were these things in an evil cause. Slavery is evil.
“The myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ mired the South in economic stagnation and racial oppression for more than a century. Racial proportions varied by state and locale, but if we assume that 40% of the Deep South was prevented from full participation in the economy by the various manifestations of Jim Crow and the death squads and state-sponsored terrorism that enforced it, that means the Southern economy was operating well below capacity. Only, it was worse than that, because Jim Crow was not just a method of oppressing and plundering black people, but a method by which the ruling class of the South kept everyone, white as well as black, in servitude to their interests. Whites had it better than blacks to be sure, but real economic and social mobility was hard to achieve in the Jim Crow South, no matter how white your skin.
“De Tocqueville, who transited the Ohio River in the 1830s, observed that on the free bank, farms and towns appeared prosperous and well kept, while the opposite was true on the Kentucky side of the River. He attributed this to the fact that in a free society labor was valued and respected, while the opposite was true in a society in which an entire class of people was confined to labor and deprived of the right of ownership of themselves or anything else. Even today in the South generally, working people are not respected, and illegal tactics are still used by the owner class to put down attempts to organize unions. I’d like to see a truly free South. The only thing the non-owner class of Southerners has to lose is their unearned assumption of superiority over black people. But they can gain in self-respect, self-actualization, and self-ownership.”
There are tons of things to celebrate, love, and admire about the South. Here’s one more: a Congressional candidate from Kentucky, Amy McGrath. Take a minute to watch her story.