Michael Gaynor
Displaying a Robert E. Lee biography in a congressional office may not be politically correct...
But it does not justify a violent protest
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By Michael Gaynor
February 18, 2019

Instead of looking for excuses to feel (or pretend to feel to be) insulted or disrespected and then seek publicity and demand apologies, let's be "civilized" and suppress the impulse to destroy glass bookcases or burn books, respect private property and appreciate the wisdom of these words: "the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech."

The day before St. Valentine's Day 2019, CNN broke this distressing news:

"Members of a federal labor union say they were stunned by what they found displayed in a Georgia Congressman's office.

"A biography of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was encased in glass, opened to a page full of racist statements, when the American Federation of Government Employees came to visit the office of Republican Rep. Drew Ferguson" (www.kplctv.com/2019/02/14/confederate-book-containing-racist-statements-displayed-georgia-congressmans-office-congressman-blames-staff/):."

More disturbingly, CNN further reported:

"'I was very enraged, said Octavius Miller, one of the union representatives. 'The first thought that came to my mind was to flip the bookcase over.'"

"The book, 'General Robert Edward Lee: Soldier, Citizen and Christian Patriot,' a biography of the Civil War general, was opened to a page highlighting the racist ideology of the time.

"'Upon inspecting the items in the case, that's when we found out that the book had some quotes from Gen. Robert E. Lee that were very, very anti-African American,' Miller said.

"A quote on that page: 'The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and, I hope, will prepare and lead them to better things.

"'Me being a person of color, it was just disrespectful,' Miller said."

The impulse to react violently in 2019 upon finding an old book with racist notions is dangerous.

History cannot be undone, but we can and should learn from it and we should put it in context instead of trying to erase it.

That's why the "Never Again" pledge was the right response to the Holocaust and studying the ugly parts of human history is vital.

In his forward to Great Economists in Their Times published in 1966, the late Dr. Broadus Mitchell expressed the hope that "the doctrines reviewed will be readily understandable when we see how they sprang from prevailing circumstances," because "t]his allows us to appreciate progress."

Mitchell opined: "We are less apt to condemn shortcomings of analysis in, for example, the seventeenth century, when we keep in mind the stage of economic development which provoked what they seemed to be appropriate beliefs. 'Other men, other minds' is an accepted saying, but changed notions were linked to the passing scene."

Instead of looking for excuses to feel (or pretend to feel to be) insulted or disrespected and then seek publicity and demand apologies, let's be "civilized" and suppress the impulse to destroy glass bookcases or burn books, respect private property and appreciate the wisdom of these words: "the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech."

So said President Barack Obama.

Those who condemn not only Robert E. Lee, but a Congressman who had a Lee biography in his Congressional office in 2019, should take a deep breath and note that in 1948, when slavery had been abolished under the Thirteenth Amendment for 83 years and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was eight years old, her father, Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr. enthusiastically dedicated a statute of both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

As reported in 2017 by Kerry Picket (dailycaller.com/2017/08/19/pelosis-dad-once-praised-the-lives-of-robert-e-lee-and-stonewall-jackson-at-statue-dedication/):

"House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's father, the late former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., once lauded Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at a monument dedication ceremony in his city over half a century ago."

Mayor D'Alesandro reportedly said at the ceremony: "Today, with our nation beset by subversive groups and propaganda which seeks to destroy our national unity, we can look for inspiration to the lives of Lee and Jackson to remind us to be resolute and determined in preserving our sacred institutions."

The political positioning that worked well for Mayor D'Alesandro, a career politician who served in that position from May 1947 to May 1959, ultimately was rejected by the great majority of Americans, but fundamental fairness requires both Mayor D'Alesandro and Robert E. Lee should be evaluated in the context of their respective times, not what now is considered what Chief judge Taney called "civilized and enlightened."

At the 1948 statute dedication, D'Alesandro said: "Today, with our nation beset by subversive groups and propaganda which seeks to destroy our national unity, we can look for inspiration to the lives of Lee and Jackson to remind us to be resolute and determined in preserving our sacred institutions."

Compare Robert E. Lee's views on race with the view expressed by Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1857 in the Dred Scott case:

"In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

"It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.

"They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics which no one thought of disputing or supposed to be open to dispute, and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.

"And in no nation was this opinion more firmly fixed or more uniformly acted upon than by the English Government and English people. They not only seized them on the coast of Africa and sold them or held them in slavery for their own use, but they took them as ordinary articles of merchandise to every country where they could make a profit on them, and were far more extensively engaged in this commerce than any other nation in the world.

"The opinion thus entertained and acted upon in England was naturally impressed upon the colonies they founded on this side of the Atlantic. And, accordingly, a negro of the African race was regarded by them as an article of property, and held, and bought and sold as such, in every one of the thirteen colonies which united in the Declaration of Independence and afterwards formed the Constitution of the United States. The slaves were more or less numerous in the different colonies as slave labor was found more or less profitable. But no one seems to have doubted the correctness of the prevailing opinion of the time.

"The legislation of the different colonies furnishes positive and indisputable proof of this fact.

"It would be tedious, in this opinion, to enumerate the various laws they passed upon this subject. It will be sufficient, as a sample of the legislation which then generally prevailed throughout the British colonies, to give the laws of two of them, one being still a large slaveholding State and the other the first State in which slavery ceased to exist."

© Michael Gaynor

 

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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)

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