Robert E. Lee and slavery edition: misinformation, hyperbole, and unfounded revision are clouding the facts behind Lee’s slave owning
There is very little evidence Lee personally owned slaves- his mother, Ann Carter-Lee, may have willed him six slaves upon her death in 1829; the same year he graduated from West Point and entered military service.
Lee married into the wealthy Custis family in 1831. His father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis, owned as many as 198 slaves by 1856.
Lee and his wife, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, were both lifetime members of the American Colonization society. Lee did not speak publicly against slavery, which was typical of US military officers. Lee’s opinions on slavery were neither progressive nor vehement.
George Custis’s will called for the manumission of his slaves within five years of his death in 1857. Lee was the executor of the estate and kept the people in bondage all five years. They were not freed until 1863.
Lee’s failure to free his father-in-law’s slaves nearly caused a slave revolt at Arlington in 1858. Lee did oversee the capture and punishment of the Norris family, after a failed escape attempt. The evidence does not support Lee personally whipping the captives.
Secondary social studies educators around the country continue to be offered this project as curriculum. Efforts in the US Congress to prevent this are misguided. The 1619 project is far too politicized on its own grounds. The real choice for educators is between editorials based on dubious interpretations, or well established and peer reviewed historical scholarship.
A panel of distinguished historians called for reasonable debate and corrections to be made to the controversial “1619 Project” produced by the New York Times Magazine:
“We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.
These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.“
The Editor’s response was to defend the ideological intentions of the project’s founder:
“The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a chance to respond directly to some of their objections.
Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.
The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).
Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times.“
In short, the “1619 Project” has presented a dubious interpretation of a complex and vital part of our history, and refuses to accept criticism as anything but racial politics.
Lincoln effectively broke down the secession crisis in both legal and moral terms during his First Inaugural address.
“I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.
Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it–break it, so to speak–but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?
I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and Ishall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute...
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.“
Wishing to return the Union to its 1840 form, moderate Southerners formed the Constitutional Union party and nominated John C. Bell of Tennessee for President. This party did not endorse the fiery rhetoric of Breckinridge, but would not back a Republican candidate.
Bell supported this platform:
May 09, 1860
Whereas, Experience has demonstrated that Platforms adopted by the partisan Conventions of the country have had the effect to mislead and deceive the people, and at the same time to widen the political divisions of the country, by the creation and encouragement of geographical and sectional parties; therefore
Resolved, that it is both the part of patriotism and of duty to recognize no political principle other than THE CONSTITUTION OF THE COUNTRY, THE UNION OF THE STATES, AND THE ENFORCEMENT OF THE LAWS, and that, as representatives of the Constitutional Union men of the country, in National Convention assembled, we hereby pledge ourselves to maintain, protect, and defend, separately and unitedly, these great principles of public liberty and national safety, against all enemies, at home and abroad; believing that thereby peace may once more be restored to the country; the rights of the People and of the States re-established, and the Government again placed in that condition of justice, fraternity and equality, which, under the example and Constitution of our fathers, has solemnly bound every citizen of the United States to maintain a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
John C. Breckinridge served as Buchanan’s Vice President and was a leading voice in the “Fire Eater” movement which dominated the US Senate. The Southern faction of the Democratic party nominated him for President rather than support Stephen Douglas in 1860. Douglas was seen as a weak on the issue of slave owning rights.
The faction backing Breckinridge produced this platform:
June, 1860 Richmond, Virginia
Resolved, that the platform adopted by the Democratic Party at Cincinnati be affirmed, with the following explanatory resolutions:
1. That the Government of a Territory organized by an act of Congress is provisional and temporary, and during its existence all citizens of the United States have an equal right to settle with their property in the Territory, without their rights, either of person or property, being destroyed or impaired by Congressional or Territorial legislation.
2. That it is the duty of the Federal Government, in all its departments, to protect, when necessary, the rights of persons and property in the Territories, and wherever else its constitutional authority extends.
3. That when the settlers in a Territory, having an adequate population, form a State Constitution, the right of sovereignty commences, and being consummated by admission into the Union, they stand on an equal footing with the people of other States, and the State thus organized ought to be admitted into the Federal Union, whether its constitution prohibits or recognizes the institution of slavery.
Resolved, That the Democratic party are in favor of the acquisition of the Island of Cuba, on such terms as shall be honorable to ourselves and just to Spain, at the earliest practicable moment.
Resolved, That the enactments of State Legislatures to defeat the faithful execution of the Fugitive Slave Law are hostile in character, subversive of the Constitution, and revolutionary in their effect.
Resolved, That the Democracy of the United States recognize it as the imperative duty of this Government to protect the naturalized citizen in all his rights, whether at home or in foreign lands, to the same extent as its native-born citizens.
Whereas, one of the greatest necessities of the age, in a political, commercial, postal and military point of view, is speedy communication between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Therefore be it
Resolved, that the National Democratic party do hereby pledge themselves to use every means in their power to secure the passage of some bill, to the extent of the constitutional authority of Congress, for the construction of a Pacific Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, at the earliest practicable moment.
Source: National Party Platforms: Volume I 1840-1956, compiled by Donald Bruce Johnson, University of Illinois Press, p. 31
Shortly after the violent sacking of Free State Headquarters in Lawrence, Kansas, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner stood before the Senate and lambasted the primary authors of the Kansas/Nebraska bill, Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.
Sumner was especially malevolent to Butler, who he saw as the leader of the pro-slavery block, “The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator...He touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.“
Preston Brooks, cousin of Butler and member of the House of Representatives, strode into the Senate chamber on May 22, 1856 armed with a walking stick with a gold topper. He confronted Sumner, denouncing him, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”
Fellow Congressmen had advised Brooks to attack Sumner, rather than duel him. Sumner was not considered a gentleman by the Southern elite in the Halls of Congress.
Brooks beat Sumner with the cane until it shattered. He chased Sumner up the aisle, grasped his lapel, and continued the beating with the top portion of the cane- until Sumner lost consciousness. No one came to the Senator’s aid until Brooks and his gang left the chamber.
Historians, politicians, and neo-secessionists who argue that the Civil War… was caused by the Federal government’s manipulation of tariffs are at best terribly deluded, at worst, they are scurrilous ideologues with a shameful political agenda.
A brief history lesson for Tom DiLorenzo, Governor Greg Abbott, President Donald Trump, the Freedom Caucus, Ron and Rand Paul, and any other woefully misguided students of history:
Article 1, Section 8 of the Federal Constitution- The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States……… Really, this should explain it, but secessionists were never concerned with Constitutional restraint.
The first tariff in our history was signed into law by George Washington on July 4, 1789.
The Walker Tariff of 1845 slashed duties in place since the Whig’s controlled Congress- A southern coalition pushed for the reduction
Tariffs were reduced again in 1852 and 1857. The 1857 tariff was only 18%- the lowest since the 18th century.
The Morrill Tariff of 1861 was not passed until Southerners had already resigned from Congress. During the secession crisis, Southern Senators had blocked the increase. When in place, it raised the duty from 18-36%.
Great men with larger-than-life personalities … do not always make the best Presidents. Too much of their focus is directed inward, and the needs of the electorate are overlooked (see Jackson.) Consistency is required when dealing with momentous issues.
A top ten President
James Knox Polk was the right man… in the right place, at the right time. He was not flashy, brilliant, cagy, or diabolical as many have charged. Polk was steady, determined, erudite, and conscientious; some might even call him boring. His presence demanded respect, but did not inspire awe. He possessed a keen mind and was an excellent administrator. Simply put, he got things done, with nearly no regard for his own legacy.
For too long revisionists in academia… have kept the real Polk from us. Hopefully this blogger has been able to shed new light on an important figure long shrouded by academic misdeeds. Polk now sits comfortably in the top ten lists of most Presidential historians…where he belongs.
“The inestimable value of our Federal Union is felt and acknowledged by all. By this system of united and confederated States our people are permitted collectively and individually to seek their own happiness in their own way, and the consequences have been most auspicious…Our Federal Union—it must be preserved. To preserve it the compromises which alone enabled our fathers to form a common constitution for the government and protection of so many States and distinct communities, of such diversified habits, interests, and domestic institutions, must be sacredly and religiously observed. Any attempt to disturb or destroy these compromises, being terms of the compact of union, can lead to none other than the most ruinous and disastrous consequences.”