You Don’t Get to Choose Where You Are Born
Or when you are born
Like many, I suspect, I was quite disappointed in the performance of Louisiana Senator John Neely Kennedy in the recent confirmation hearings for Dr. Saule Omarova, President Joseph Biden’s nominee for Comptroller of the Currency, a senior position within the Treasury Department. Since Dr. Omarova was born in the Soviet Union, Kennedy somehow felt it appropriate to grill her about her membership in the Komsomol, a Soviet-era youth organization. For important clarification, remember that the Soviet Union collapsed on December 31, 1991 — exactly thirty years ago.
Although Omarova and her family fled the Soviet Union when she was 25 years old and became American citizens, Kennedy seemingly felt that her ancient Komsomol membership verified that she was a committed communist. This is just a contemporary example going back to the McCarthy era when Republicans somehow found it politically useful to accuse people of being either overt or covert communists. McCarthy even accused certified American hero George C. Marshall of being a communist, but I’ll discuss that issue in another piece.
During her exchange with Kennedy, Omorova noted that one does not get to choose where they are born. It is an irrefutable observation. But by the same irrefutable logic, neither does one get to choose the era into which they are born. Accordingly, it strikes me — in general — as both unhelpful and unreasonable to judge historical figures by contemporary standards. What was “known” 245 years ago when the United States was founded is quite minor compared to what we know — or should know — today.
American architect and futurist Buckminister Fuller theorized that knowledge doubled about every century up until around 1900 when it began to sharply accelerate, doubling every eighteen months. If anywhere near correct, then we have nearly 5,000 times more “knowledge” today than was available in 1776.
Of course, this is likely a significant overstatement as newly acquired knowledge often meets some significant resistance. British military historian Liddell Hart once said, “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is getting an old idea out.” Regrettably, it seems that this challenge is not restricted to “the military mind.”
Which brings us to the current discussion about historical figures who were “enslavers” of other people. Slavery is — and was — reprehensible. That view is broadly, hopefully universally, accepted today. But it was not the universal view in the years extending back to 1619 when slavery first came to America. And a century and a half after 1619, when the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia, the damaging distress of slavery was far from a general opinion.
One would have to suspect that the southern states that agreed to join the new Union knew their “peculiar institution” was wrong. Why else would their convention representatives have gone to such great lengths to keep the very word “slave” and its derivatives out of the new unity document? Even such enlightened men as Virginia’s George Mason declared slaveowners “petty tyrants,” who would bring, “the judgment of heaven on the country.” This was an interesting prediction given that Mason was himself a slaveowner, as was his better known fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry of “give me liberty or give me death” fame.
When the constitution permitted an end to the slave trade twenty years after its ratification, the Slave Act of 1808 ended it — an act signed into law by Jefferson. Henry had worked to have Virginia end the importation of slaves thirty years before.
Jefferson, Mason, and Henry were clearly concerned about the deeper, philosophical issues of slavery; however, not to the extent that they argued for its immediate eradication. Why? Likely because it was the era into which they were born. Slavery was a major component of the world they knew, and its correctness was reinforced in many ways, even from the pulpit. The always eloquent and often blunt Henry once said he was “drawn along” by the conveniences he accrued from owning slaves, although of slavery itself he stated he could not “justify it.”
Which brings us to the modern era. We are stumbling through a period in which the contemporary view of slavery and all its numerous, obvious wrongs are being broadly applied to historical figures. Many of those figures “knew” slavery and its inherent racism was wrong, but neither condemned nor actively worked against it because it was — simply stated — what they knew and an integral part of the world in which they lived.
President Woodrow Wilson offers a good example of contemporary values being applied to a historical figure. As president, Wilson sought to be a man of peace, to keep the nation out of World War I (at least during his first term), and when the US entered that terrible conflict he attempted to have it end with new, internationally accepted principles about self-determination matched with instruments of world order, principles that he expected would benefit all mankind.
These were laudable objectives. Nonetheless, in 2020 Princeton University dropped Wilson’s name from its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, with Princeton’s president declaring that Wilson’s racist views were, “significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”
That assessment would be difficult to fully validate. After all, one must remember that Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1856, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, and as a small child moved to Augusta, Georgia where he grew up with the Civil War and the shadow of General William Sherman’s Union army as a daily backdrop. Wilson’s parents were ardent supporters of the confederacy, and his minister father even served as a chaplain in the confederate army. That was Wilson’s world in his formative years.
Although many perceive Wilson as a northerner because he later attended Princeton, earned his doctoral degree there, then served eight years as the college’s president before becoming the governor of New Jersey, Wilson was actually a mid-nineteenth century southerner whose racial views were very likely consistent with his home area and his historical era, no matter how onerous and distasteful they are today.
Would a twenty-first century Wilson have such views? Would the slave-owning Virginians who played such a major role in establishing the philosophical and institutional foundations of the nation retain their uncomfortable support of a racist institution, or would they now broaden their comprehension of the phrase “all men are created equal”? We, of course, can never know with certainty; but it is not an intellectual strain to imagine that their contemporary views would be quite distinct from those of their historical time.
The doctors who treated George Washington when he came down with what may have been a bronchial infection treated him by bleeding out about forty percent of his blood. As one medical authority put it, “if the disease itself didn’t get George Washington, the doctors certainly did.” By contemporary standards, the doctors treating Washington committed gross medical malpractice. But the bleeding treatment was what they knew, and they lived in an era where empirical observation largely substituted for scientific investigation. The doctors thought they were doing the right thing — and they were tragically wrong.
In these past eras, where actual knowledge was a fraction of today’s, what was known about many things, including medicine and social order, were simply wrong. But there was one thing that was well understood in those past periods and today– treason.
Retired Brigadier General Ty Seidule, the former head of the History Department at West Point, has authored a most interesting book, Robert E. Lee and Me. Seidule is a southerner (like me), and in fact earned his undergraduate degree at Washington and Lee University — yes THAT Washington and THAT Lee. Indeed, Lee is buried in a small chapel on the Washington and Lee campus, which is adjacent to the Virginia Military Institute, a school that until recently required its cadets to salute a statue of Stonewall Jackson standing outside the cadet barracks.
Whatever Lee believed about slavery and its economic importance to southern life, and whatever he believed about white racial superiority, and whether he was a kind or brutal slave owner, Lee reflected the views of where and when he was born. Being, like Wilson, a highly intelligent man did not mean he had the capacity to understand societal mores and directions two centuries after his lifetime.
But Lee, unlike Washington, Jefferson, Mason, Madison, and Patrick Henry, committed treason. Of the eight Virginia-born colonels in the federal army on the eve of the Civil War, only one resigned his commission and joined the confederate cause — Robert E. Lee. Others wrestling with the same difficult choice, such as George B. Thomas, stayed with the Union. Thomas became one of the senior officers in the union army, even though his Virginia family never spoke with him again.
Like most of the senior confederate generals, Lee lived out the remainder of his life quietly and, like the others, was never charged with treason. That was part of the Lincoln legacy asking for “malice towards none, and charity for all.” We should not condemn Lee and his subordinates for what they did not know was wrong, but it is appropriate to judge them for dismissing what they did know was right.
To this day, cadets entering West Point take a unique oath, one differing in a specific way from that given all other federal officials. It includes the sentence that, “I will maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States, paramount to any and all allegiance, sovereignty, or fealty I may owe to any State or Country whatsoever.” Congress directed this oath after the first battles of the Civil War, doing so because many cadets and officers, like Robert E. Lee, had decided other allegiances were of greater priority and importance than the one they had sworn to the United States.
The removal of confederate monuments, and the on-going effort to re-name several army posts — mostly across the south from Ft. Hood in Texas to Ft. Lee in Virginia — is appropriate because these bases are named for leaders who turned on the United States and took up arms against it. They knew better. They had sworn otherwise. They had heard of Benedict Arnold. Lee and the others correctly understood treason, and for that they should be held accountable. By contrast, holding them to account for embracing the social beliefs of their time in the societies where they were born, however onerous those beliefs may be today, is unfair and unreasonable. We might just as well posthumously revoke the medical licenses of George Washington’s doctors and charge them with malpractice.