Sins of our Fathers
History is littered with the defiled corpses of innocents. A miserable note to start an article on, but a necessary aspect of history to understand it - terrible things have been wrought on people who did not deserve it on a regular basis throughout the world, and this has been more the rule than the exception. Be it by natural disaster or human cruelty, misery is as intrinsic a human condition as ecstasy is. Our long and winding path from the dawn of man to the modern day has taken us through countless massacres, atrocities, and the occasional dick move. As humanity stumbled its way to a higher quality of life, these episodes of slaughter generally became less frequent as people became less insecure of their livelihood. But getting to this point required stepping over the innocents - and we find it necessary, once again, to address those who carried us to where we are.
The recent protests taking place across the southern United States concerning statues venerating the soldiers, officers and politicians of the Confederate States of America is the instigator of this need to address historical sins. The original sin of the United States is the core of this - slavery has been a burden on not only those who wore the manacles, but on the country as a whole. The mental flexibility needed to found a nation based on the principle of the innate freedom of men while keeping some men in bound servitude was necessary to convince the Southern colonies to join the revolution and the Union.
Some of the most prominent members of the Founding Fathers hailed from the South, and carried with them the stain of being a slaveowner - most notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. As the Western world began to eliminate the slave trade, the United States lagged behind. The eventual reckoning of the issue of slavery occurred during the American Civil War - citing state's rights as an adequate reason to ignore individual rights, the Confederate states broke away from the Union, fought to take control of Federal forts in their territory, and lost. The institution of slavery was gradually phased out, Reconstruction started and ended, and those that fought in the Gray aged and died.
It was after 1900 that most memorial statues of Confederate soldiers were erected. This would correlate with the natural deaths of Confederate veterans, and perhaps it is natural that their children would want to honor them for putting their life on the line to protect their homeland from the devastation of war - the venerable Robert E. Lee is often paraphrased as being unable to take up arms against his native Virginia, and his experience in the Mexican-American war surely made him knowledgeable of what warfare means for the land it is fought on. This aspect of warfare is something that native-born Americans know nothing about - there has not been a foreign invasion of the lower 48 states since the War of 1812. Immigrants and refugees fleeing war-zones can give first-hand stories and media can give us sights and sounds of active fighting, but you cannot recreate the smell, the fear, or the percussive sensory overload of an artillery barrage.
General Lee's loyalty to Virginia rather than to the United States also requires historical context - before the Civil War, the United States was a collection of theoretically sovereign countries held together by a legal federation ensuring free commerce and protection from invasion by the British Empire, Mexico, and Amerinds. The original political parties in the United States were called Federalists and Anti-federalists, the former supporting a centralized United States while the latter supported more legal flexibility for the states inside the Union. This political argument would find itself cuffed to the issue of slavery, and when the Confederacy lost, so did the cause of the Anti-federalists. Power increasingly started to centralize, and this was reflected with how the United States began to be referred to in the singular form ("The United States is") much more frequently than the plural ("The United States are").
Despite Lee's virtues, they were overshadowed by two undeniable facts - the cause he supported was undeniably tied to the promotion of slavery, as reflected in the Confederate Constitution, and he was a traitor to the United States of America. Regardless if Lee had any personal misgivings about the institution of slavery, he committed to defending it. His betrayal was forgiven, as was most other Confederate officers and soldiers, in the interest of bringing peace back to the Union and healing the nation. This gesture indubitably led to Reconstruction ending too soon and led to Jim Crow laws that still skulk around legal codes in the South.
So why does Lee have slavery hang over his head more than Jefferson or Washington? In short, it is because that Lee's participation in slavery involved an attempt to break up the country, while Jefferson and Washington's participation involved the creation of the country. The 1772 case of Somerset v Stewart made slavery illegal in Britain, and concern that this would lead to the abolition of slavery in its colonies encouraged the Southern colonies to join the revolution - colonies that Jefferson and Washington hailed from.
Furthermore, there is the matter of historical timing. Slavery has been an intrinsic specter haunting humanity since its genesis, as much as rape and murder have been. Slavery was a vital aspect of economies for thousands of years, and though there was doubtlessly some people throughout it all who hated that slavery existed, there would be nothing approaching a global abolition of the slave trade until the Enlightenment worked humanism into European thought. This global abolition did not happen at once - though Britain would make slavery illegal in its home islands in 1772, it would only officially abolish slavery in its empire (with exemptions) in 1833. France abolished slavery in the empire in 1794, reintroduced it in 1804, then abolished it again in 1848. The Russian abolition of serfdom did not happen until 1861. Mauritania was the last country to make slavery illegal, in 1981. Despite this it is estimated that between 10% and 20% of Mauritania remains enslaved, and terrible civil rights abuse of Tibetan and South Asian workers in the Arabian peninsula doubtlessly qualify as modern slavery. There is also the matter of sex trafficking - a truly global institution of slavery that might never go away.
Slavery was, and is, a constant while abolition was a start-and-stop process, and otherwise good and decent men used rationalization to justify slave ownership. Washington, for his part, requested in his will that his slaves would be freed as soon as his wife died, while Jefferson had a questionably consensual relationship with Sally Hemings. This is not an apology for their flaws - this is an example of how complex history is, and the difficulty that occurs when you apply modern morals to historical figures.
White supremacists call Muhammad a child rapist for marrying 9 year old Aisha, and the fact that he didn't consummate his marriage with her until she was 12 while he was in his 50's does little to dispel that title. But in seventh-century Arabia, that was not child rape - that was social convention. Genghis Khan was probably the most prolific rapist in history, and almost 1 out of every 200 people in the world is descended from his loins. But he is also the most successful conqueror in history and probably the only Mongolian you know the name of. Is it any surprise that Mongolia would erect a 130-foot tall statue to showcase his magnificence? Mahatma Gandhi held quite rude beliefs about Africans and found enjoyment in giving enemas to teenage girls; that does not stop him from being one of the most revered figures in the 20th century.
History is dirty business, and every historical figure has something that comes at odds to modern morality. How you make sense of it all is through context; context is the most important lesson that you learn from history. And with context on your side, judgment is simply not important - what is important are the lessons you learn about human behavior. And with these lessons learned, we can stop making the same mistakes - at the very least, mitigate the mistakes that we do make.