In “Charity or malice” (Opinion Exchange, Oct. 8), while discussing forgiveness for various leaders who made grievous mistakes in the name of patriotism, Stephen B. Young asks us to consider what Lincoln would do.
Lincoln showed an admirable ability to evolve in his views and actions. For example, after declaring that the Civil War was being fought to save the Union, and insisting that he sought only to prevent the expansion of slavery (not to abolish slavery where it existed), Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in some areas of the South. He initially opposed allowing African-American troops to fight, then allowed it.
So, had he lived, what would Lincoln have done when he saw the “readmitted” Southern states enacting black codes that, in effect, restored slavery by another name?
Young says Lincoln rejected retribution. Yet it took the Republicans in Congress, at the insistence of the Radicals, accused by Southerners of greed and vengeance, to pass the 14th Amendment to guarantee citizenship to African-Americans, and the 15th Amendment to guarantee voting rights.
Southern state governments run by Reconstruction Republicans (including the first African-Americans to hold office in the South) were required in order to get the amendments ratified by three-fourths of the states. (And those state governments were elected because many ex-Confederates were not allowed to vote.) Federal troops were necessary to protect black voters and to suppress the Ku Klux Klan.
What actions might Lincoln have thought were required to force an unrepentant South to accept black civil rights? We don’t know, given that he was assassinated by a vengeful Southerner before the results of his generous policy were evident.
A myth arose following the Civil War. It presented the cause being fought for as honorable on both sides. But the Reconstruction period following the war, which abolished slavery throughout the country (through the 13th Amendment) and saw adoption of the aforementioned amendments, was depicted as Northern oppression of the South by corrupt, greedy and vengeful Northerners. This myth has contributed to our inability to be honest in confronting American racism.
The effort to remove monuments honoring the leaders of the Confederacy is not about vengeance, malice or depriving white Southerners of their heritage. It is an attempt to acknowledge what many whites seem hard-pressed to admit: The South’s cause was to support an evil system of slavery. It was followed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by decades of systematic “legal” violation of black civil and voting rights in the South — and de facto violation of their rights in the North. There is still a movement for “white supremacy” in this country. The issue is not about forgiving; it is about continuing racism and the meaning of Confederate symbols within that context.
If racism were a thing of the past, the forgiveness for which Young longs might be reflected in actions as well. I suspect most Americans would be appalled by Germans waving the swastika; why then is waving the Confederate flag argued to be a benign action honoring Southern heritage? The reality is that the U.S. has a long way to go in confronting our racist past and present. Forgiveness is more likely to come when the sin is admitted.
As for the leaders who took us into the Vietnam War, my own opinion is that it was a “lost and misguided cause.” And Young’s pain resulting from his experience in and after the war is something I cannot fully understand because I was not there. The Vietnam War is over. I would willingly debate our policy, and I would resist any effort to turn it into a romantic “lost cause,” as the Southern rebellion has been.
If we can be honest about our history, we are more likely to address the evils that remain. That must come with the forgiveness Young advocates.
Diane M. Ring, of Minneapolis, is a retired history teacher.