By 21st century standards, our country was founded on hypocrisy. Our founding fathers’ famous words in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” didn’t mean ALL men and definitely did not include women.
But by the standards of 1776, owning human beings and treating women as non-persons were apparently acceptable practices, at least in the new union. Abolitionism was only a very faint murmur at the time, and would not grow loud until the next century. Despite their egalitarian words, the Founding Fathers gave themselves and the new nation a pass on slavery. Yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves themselves. It makes no sense to us today, because we accept that there are no rationalizations for slavery.
Fast forward to the 19th century, and the abolition movement became a loud roar. Northern states that had legalized slavery began to ban it. Southern states, worried more about their economies than the brutality of the practice, chose instead to secede. They made Jefferson Davis their leader and Robert E Lee a commander of the Confederate Army in the war that erupted with the North, which sought to preserve the country under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.
Davis, Lee and the other generals of the Confederacy KNEW slavery was wrong. They chose to destroy the United States of America rather than support the right of black slaves to be free and entitled to “the pursuit of happiness” and all the other rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution. In 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing every slave in the divided nation. The Confederacy, however, continued to fight, but their cause was lost.
The next several decades, including Reconstruction, were brutal for the freed slaves. Jim Crow segregation was instituted. There was no justice – social, legal or economic – for black people – and certainly no equal rights or equal anything – not even the despicable “separate but equal” practices were yet in effect.
To assuage their egos and perpetuate their racist views, Southern states made heroes out of the likes of Lee, Davis and other Confederate leaders, building monuments and naming schools and public buildings for men who had fought to destroy our country and continue the enslavement of their fellow human beings.
There is absolutely no equivalence between them and Washington and Jefferson, who articulated the values and principles that would rightfully lead to the abolition of slavery and to contemporary laws and judgments protecting the rights of all, even if they themselves had practiced the most vile form of inequality. Though their flaws must be acknowledged, it was their vision that built the country. Lee, Davis and their fellow Confederates sought to destroy it in order to maintain a dehumanizing, purely evil practice. Their likenesses and histories belong in books and museums, not in places of honor in our town squares and on our school buildings.