Opinion: Celebrate the Declaration, not the Confederacy, this Fourth of July

Adam Carrington

And the Wall came down. This week, Richmond, Virginia’s mayor ordered the removal of that city’s statue of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. The move took part of a much larger wave, one that has swept away other statues, state flags, even the names of buildings.

Those calling for these moves point to the injustice perpetrated by the men or under the symbols at issue. They thus decry the honor we as a society give them in building monuments, raising flags and naming edifices.

Work crews remove the statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va.

My sympathies vary regarding this phenomenon. For starters, the method matters and removal by mob rather than a peaceful, ordered process through the choice of elected officials deserves condemnation.

Yet, the merits of the removals present a more complicated point. Every one rests on a critique of some aspect of America, historical and contemporary. Those bringing down statues of America’s Founders declare America intrinsically vile, born of racism, for instance, and other related sins.

These I find unconvincing. As we celebrate the Fourth of July, we can see in its great men and great documents imperfection, yes, but true striving toward just and noble purposes. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” is a truth that we have not realized fully. Yet it is our birthright that at once inspires and humbles, encourages and condemns. It states who we strive to be, not who we are, then or now.

A more circumscribed justification has focused on the Confederacy. Those calls make more sense. The Southern cause from 1861-1865 grounded itself on political dissolution and race-based chattel slavery. At the same time, we can see noble qualities in Robert E. Lee and Jackson.

Yet, even here, we find some reason to pause. Herman Melville, author of “Moby Dick,” wrestled with similar matters in the Civil War’s aftermath. A Northern man, his 1866 poetry collection, “Battle-Pieces,” struggled with the memory of Stonewall Jackson in particular. He therein noted his virtues. He poetically places in a Virginian’s mouth the praises of Jackson as possessing a “roman heart”; in Jackson, “The iron will and lion thew/Were strong to inflict as to endure.”

Even as we critique men and causes, we must not dehumanize them, even as they dehumanized others, into caricatures shorn of all dignity.

Protesters shout as work crews remove the statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va.

Melville, in a complementary entry on Jackson, admitted these virtues, even adding to them. Jackson’s “sword and prayer were long.” Still, Melville observed that he was “earnest in error.” Jackson’s bravery came in service to a wrong cause. His roman heart beat for an effort to rend the Union and perpetuate slavery. For that reason, echoing contemporary debates, Melville asked “Even him who stoutly stood for Wrong/How can we praise?”

He said we should not. “Justly his fame we outlaw,” he continued, and “no wreath we owe” him. To grant him fame, including the celebration of a wreath, unjustly praises the injustice he served, whatever his reasons for so serving.

Denying Jackson, and thus the Confederacy, such honor must not go too far. Melville wrote, in lieu of monuments, “We drop a tear on the bold Virginian’s bier.” In that act resides a kind of honoring, a recognition of the man's abilities. However, the honoring is shrouded in mourning. We see the virtues of the man, yes, but lament the cause in which he wielded those features. We see his humanity and wish he had protected the humanity of others. 

Still, Melville was right in 1866 and is right now. Our monuments to the Confederacy give undeserved fame. They lay a wreath where we should drop a tear. Those monuments dedicated to Confederates and their cause should come down. 

Meanwhile, we should defend those monuments we have dedicated to our Founders and their rightful heirs — to our Washington, our Hamilton, our Lincoln. Even more, we should honor their principles, encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence.

We should strive to know them and to follow them, to pursue liberty and equality for all. We will do so imperfectly, yes. But may we do so in a hope worthy of July 4: achieving a more perfect Union. 

Adam Carrington is assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College.