One of Winston’s Churchill’s duties as First Lord of the Admiralty was to submit names for new navy ships to the king. As a matter of course, approval would be routine. But once, King George V demurred.
Churchill had submitted the name of Cromwell for the new ship. In Churchill’s mind, as he would later write the king in defense of his choice, Cromwell’s name was one that struck fear into Britain’s enemy. Cromwell had forged not only the New Model Army into the most formidable army of his day, but had successfully projected naval strength as well.
Quell the mobs, but let the discussion continue. We are capable as a people of sifting the wheat from the chaff.
Often headstrong, Churchill tried to get his sovereign to see things his way. But King George exercised his prerogative. To him, Cromwell was a regicide and a dictator, and no ship in the king’s navy would bear that name.
Churchill himself would later write of Cromwell as exactly that — a military dictator and the driving force behind the show trial and beheading of Charles I. He criticized historians who played Cromwell up as a fighter for democracy for ignoring the simple facts that Cromwell used military force to trash the constitution and with no credible process of law, executed a legitimate king.
Rep. Mike Garcia, a Republican from California of all places, called to mind some similarly uncomfortable truths about Confederate officers who have been memorialized by statues or by naming of bases. Regarding those various Confederate memorials, Garcia wrote on the Wall Street Journal’s July 2 op-ed page, “Pro-slavery secessionists who split the nation in two and killed so many of their countrymen don’t deserve such honors.”
Garcia has an admirable record. A Naval Academy graduate and Navy fighter pilot, he saw action in Iraq serving with distinction in over 30 combat missions. He opposes the toppling of statues by mobs; he stands against the defunding of police. He recognizes and affirms that the first business of a civilized government is to protect its citizens and to ensure that the society doesn’t sink into barbarism. He honors the oath, to uphold the Constitution, sworn to by every office holder and every member of the armed forces.
He bases his argument on the power of compelling ideas that he thinks should be able to prevail in orderly policy debate and legal political process. The clear and simple reasoning is this: “America’s true heroes are those who fight to preserve order, deliver us from evil and ensure all Americans are treated equally.”
There are certainly distinctions to be made. It is easier to make a case in support of leaders like Robert E. Lee and Joe Wheeler, who actively worked to bind up the country’s wounds after the Civil War, than for someone like Nathan Bedford Forrest, who continued to use violence long after the war had ended in a successful attempt to keep Southern blacks utterly subservient to the whites for many decades.
But much like the most uncomfortable fact King George threw back at Churchill when he vetoed Cromwell for his disloyalty and for the immense loss of life caused by his rebel campaign, there is a glaring problem with continuing to afford national honor to those who violently opposed the rule of law and whose violence served to oppose the ending or even any limitation on the enslavement of an entire race of people.
As for the charge that changing names or taking down statues even by an orderly and legal process would be warring against history, Garcia wrote,
I respectfully disagree. I believe Americans must study history and learn from it; service members are encouraged to read history on their own time, and veterans like me maintain the habit. But studying history doesn’t require honoring Confederate figures.
Quell the mobs, but let the discussion continue. We are capable as a people of sifting the wheat from the chaff. We can clarify to ourselves and to the world the worth of the principles that we honor and to which we dedicate our lives.