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Local News

It's about flesh and blood, not bronze and granite

This statue thing has me a little confused.

I mean, I can understand the rage: monuments to slave traders, conquistadors, Confederate soldiers (there are 771 across the U.S.) and, especially, Andrew Jackson (the guy who deported all of the southern native tribes so he could sell their land to the South's future plantation slave owners) are going to infuriate a lot of people.

But then they go and set poor George Washington's head on fire. And pull down Thomas Jefferson off his pedestal. And knock over Ulysses S. Grant. And now a couple of statues – one of Abraham Lincoln and the other of Theodore Roosevelt – have been targeted for denigrating Blacks and Native Americans.

I can't say I ever really paid much attention to monuments, except maybe the time we visited Gettysburg. They're only inanimate objects of bronze and granite, after all. Most were built decades ago, long before we were armed with Facebook and digital cameras to memorialize our own fascinating personal histories. Yet they're also symbols, emblems, for better or worse, of our collective past.

Hindsight, they say, is 20-20. Yet it's hard to believe those who targeted the following individuals had a full grasp of the history, let alone the complex lives of these larger-than-life yet imperfect men:

• Washington was basically a farmer though, in his free time, he won the Revolutionary War and served as our first president (after turning down an offer to become King of America). He became a slave owner at age 11, when his father died. At the time of his death, he owned 123 slaves (Martha, owned another 194, an inheritance from her first husband). Later in life, Washington privately stated he no longer wished to own slaves and supported gradual abolition, though he never spoke publicly on the issue. His will included a provision to free his 123 slaves after his death, though it took Martha more than 20 years before she finally got around to doing so.

• Jefferson, unlike Washington, was publicly opposed to slavery, which he called "a hideous blot" and "a moral depravity," yet the moral outrage of the man who penned the Declaration of Independence did not induce him to offer independence to his 175 slaves at Monticello. Still, he made several legislative attempts to abolish slavery, which he feared would destroy the country and likened to holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

• Lincoln believed slavery was morally wrong, but struggled with how to address it since it was sanctioned under two clauses in the U.S. Constitution. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, freeing all slaves in Confederate states, and then pushed through the 13th Amendment, which banished slavery throughout America in 1865 (though it wasn't ratified until after this assassination). Despite all this, some modern scholars maintain Lincoln was racist, pointing to comments made during the Lincoln-Douglas debates and elsewhere, but then you know those modern scholars.

• Grant was the son of fiercely abolitionist parents who had the bad luck to fall in love with the sister of one of his fellow West Point cadets. Her Missouri parents were slave-owners and, a few years after the couple were married, gifted Grant with a slave of his own, one William Jones. Grant, disgusted by the slavery practices of his in-laws (his own parents refused to attend their son's wedding), freed the man less than a year later. Later on he did some other stuff, like winning the Civil War, becoming President of the United States and helping reconstruct the South (a task about as easy then as overcoming COVID-19 is now).

• Roosevelt was ... a complicated guy. Crusader against corruption. Ardent nationalist. Progressive Republican who laid the groundwork for the modern Democratic Party. Sympathetic to both business and labor. Adventurer. Environmentalist. Fiercely opposed to slavery and foreign colonialism in the Western hemisphere, and then made America a world power by acquiring a slew of overseas territories. Yet his vision of America took a dismissive view of Blacks, Native Americans (whom he considered noble savages) and any other non-white races.

Still, at the end of the day, the statues of these five presidents are only things. Vandalizing them is little more than a misdemeanor. Ignoring the history behind them, however, is tragic.

That might not be enough to stop the self-appointed moral judges of statuary and effigies. But getting rid of these guys' memorials (short of Grant) is going to present some real problems. Especially at Mount Rushmore.

There's no denying there's racial injustice in America. But raising up flesh-and-blood issues like fair policing, lending and education will go a lot longer way to resolving inequality than tearing down bronze and granite.

• Bill Wimbiscus is a former editor and reporter at The Herald-News.

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