After a war, even one fought for the highest of principles, civilized people long to return to civilian life. Good people are repulsed by the waste and the horror of war. They yearn for the many blessings that only peace can contain. They naturally and properly want to put all war as far away as possible and devote all their efforts to increasing prosperity and comfort.
The violent indulgences of the monument topplers obscure the genuine historical issue on which we need to focus.
Good people therefore look for reconciliation. Winning a war is not the same as winning a peace. Great empires have failed because their conquered peoples had no reason to be loyal. Great rules like Cyrus of Persia or Alexander of Macedon actively reconciled themselves with those they had conquered, offering them important freedoms and autonomies.
But sometimes, reconciliation is not legitimate and brings little good. The usual symptom of this is when the “reconciling” is done at the expense of principle, or, even worse, when another, less powerful group of people is sacrificed as the cost of the victor’s attaining ease.
The years before the outbreak of World War II saw several examples of this kind of false reconciliation. Britain had shed rivers of blood and had nearly bankrupted its finances in order to stop German aggression in World War I. So when Hitler began to rattle his saber, Britain was leery of the expense of meeting military threat with military deterrence. Its leader, Neville Chamberlain, thought to establish reconciliation by forcing Czechoslovakia to cede its territory and eventually its whole independence of Germany.
In 1939, Chamberlain went further. Knowing full well the brutal treatment to which European Jews were exposed, and knowing full well Britain had accepted a mandate from the League of Nations to help develop a Jewish national home in what is now called Israel, Chamberlain instead changed British policy to allow only a small number of Jews to immigrate to the Holy Land and then to close off immigration entirely. The Colonial Secretary of the day later explained the reason why: the Arabs of the Middle East could ally themselves with Germany if they so chose, whereas the Jews were stuck with Britain, whatever policy it established.
In both of these cases, no reconciliation was established, and no war was avoided.
We have had something of the same sort in America. The violent indulgences of the monument topplers obscure the genuine historical issue on which we need to focus.
Our great American reconciliation came after our bloodiest war, the Civil War. It was fought for the highest of purposes — in the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “Let us die to make men free.”
For the Civil War was fought because the founding principle of the Declaration, that all men are created equal, had been officially denied to America’s blacks. In the Dred Scott decision, a Supreme Court majority declared that the original vision of the Founders had been that the blacks
as a subordinate and inferior class of beings … had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.
Abraham Lincoln called out the Court in his debates with Stephen Douglas. Lincoln would not accept that such a poor decision would be the last word — and it was not. He was called upon to lead the new party that was devoted to stopping the spread of slavery, a program that SCOTUS had just declared unconstitutional.
The Civil War that ensued took over 600,000 American lives and spread ruin far and wide. But the goal was achieved, the Union survived and triumphed, and the Republican vision was realized in three constitutional amendments, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, and other legislation. Slavery was made explicitly unconstitutional, and equality before the law was now backed up by federal statute.
But as with any war, if no reconciliation is made with those who have lost, the fruits of victory may rot on the vine. Accordingly, Lincoln wisely and generously turned away from treating the South as traitors. He sought to avoid bringing even the top Confederate leaders to trial for their betrayal of the solemn compact of American union. He expressed his vision in the immortal closing words of his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Lincoln held together in one sentence that need to reconcile and the need to be firm on principle, which clearly was that of establishing the political rights of America’s blacks.
There were those in the bitter and defeated South who spurned this and took underground the war they had lost in the field. John Wilkes Booth and his band of conspirators attempted to take out the whole upper tier of the government, but were successful only in murdering Lincoln. Worse would follow.
After Lincoln’s death and the failure of Andrew Johnson to inspire confidence, Congress took the leadership. It acted to establish the vision of black rights by a series of highly consequential acts — the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875. Through these magnificent acts, the federal government affirmed the political equality of black Americans in the strongest terms. And even as Congress was acting, the blacks of the South organized themselves, took advantage of their new political opportunities, and took prominent places in the government and Congressional representation of the Southern states where they lived in large numbers.
But this surge forward was met by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s dark genius. He helped to establish the Ku Klux Klan, a secret army that circumvented the Republicans by terrorizing blacks. The Klan’s aim was to force the blacks to give up any exercise of their newly affirmed equal political rights.
Despite the Klan’s terror campaign, blacks continued to govern themselves. By 1869, with President Grant in office, the U.S. military provided a counterbalance and kept the Klan in check. The Republican governments in the South were not overthrown.
But the continued effort of combatting the Klan gradually became less and less tolerated by the people of the North. The concept of reconciliation, necessary and positive, gained in persuasive power, but gradually became unhinged from what Lincoln called “firmness in the right.”
Successful guerillas wear down the will of larger and more powerful conquerors. By the winter of 1877, the Republicans were ready to strike a deal. In return for Democratic acquiescence to the inauguration of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president, the Republicans agreed to withdraw all federal troops from the South. Shortly afterwards, all those governments in which blacks were serving fell. Shortly afterwards, the Jim Crow laws were passed throughout the South, enforcing third-class citizenship on blacks and ending their participation in self-governance there for nearly a hundred years.
This defeat was characterized as reconciliation and sold as something positive. North and South were reunited as brothers. We all found peace under one flag. Yet it was not true reconciliation, for like the peace bought at Munich and in the Middle East, it had been paid for by a group of people forcibly excluded from the deal-making.
This is a history that was not much told where it counts, in the schools. The narrative of reconciliation was there in the textbooks, even in the North, where I grew up. The stark fact of the state-enforced repression of the Jim Crow laws and the effective continuance of something pretty close to slavery in the landlessness and penury of Southern blacks wasn’t spoken of directly by the textbooks.
But outside the textbooks, the real struggle to right the wrongs was going on. I was captivated by the drama of the restaurant eat-ins and the Freedom Riders, amazed by the courage and the dignity of the marchers in Selma, appalled by the murder of Medgar Evers. How could a free country harbor such hatred and allow it to be enshrined in law? The hundred-year guerrilla war against equality was being engaged for what it really was. The Klan might still draw blood, but it was not going to have the last word. So it felt to me at the beginning of my teen years.
But hard on the heels of the passage of the monumental civil rights legislation of the ’60s came the massive and bloody riots in city after city. Watts, Detroit, Newark, and scores of other downtowns melted down in violence, looting, and death. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination brought a sense of hopelessness that the gloom of Vietnam compounded. Where was the way forward?
The extreme gloom of 1968 eventually and gradually lightened. We did not stumble yet into the land of “all is right,” but we could see that the structure of state-enforced racism had been shattered irrevocably. That was increasingly clear and final. What was also clear and remains so is that many actual disparities in ongoing daily life remain. As Tim Scott has reminded us by telling his story, even a United States senator gets stopped repeatedly by police, when nothing of the sort happens to his white colleagues.
The Antifa goon squads attacking statues hold no answers, though they do tell us that the real issue today is our national story. As tyrants do in every age, they want to dictate that story, eliminating every alternative. But despite their intentions, we are slowly getting the point of the overriding importance of the story we tell of ourselves as Americans.
As conservatives, we understand that the true power is held by the people, and there is no more fundamental power than the telling of our story. How we conceive of America and our place in it will decisively color every action that we take. Good governance will flow from a good story, in which each person understands and commits to what a government of, by, and for the people needs to be. On the other hand, suppression of a story results in suppression of people. The people will preserve their story, but the country will be the worse for it, and the national narrative will and must reflect shame if it is to recover its power.
After a hundred years of a bogus reconciliation, all of us, black and white, need to think over our history and understand it better and more truthfully.
There is nothing older or more revered in our cultural heritage than the biblical tradition. It has shown that keeping the story alive and true is the greatest power given to humankind. It is capable of surviving every oppression; it is capable of surviving our own worst mistakes; it is capable of showing us the path to true reconciliation and the accomplishment of our highest purpose, at once as individuals and as a nation.
Yesterday, I heard of a renewal of one of the oldest and most destructive narratives: DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles sending out a horrible online posting reeking of anti-Semitism. He took a small step at walking it back, but my faith in the power of the story was revived this morning seeing the posting of another NFL player, Zach Banner of the Steelers. He wrote, “We talk about elevating ourselves – we can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves. That’s very very important for me and it should be important to everyone.”
He summed up in with sparkling brevity the difference between a true a false narrative of reconciliation. Hearing Banner, we know clearly that we have within us the intelligence and the dignity to work this out together. We the people can talk this through, see and hear each other, and bring out the power of our individual faith in true reconciliation.
Sure, we would like the politicians to speak of this, but we are not waiting for them, We are the sovereigns, and we will not wait for some order or law to deliver us from ourselves.
The deepest work we have is telling our story right. Just as ancient Israel’s stumbling and missteps as they left Egypt became part of its ongoing story, so too we can find the way to tell of our own missteps and strengthen our resolve to actually achieve those lofty ideals that we have claimed as our own since 1776.
Our story is in our hands, as it always has been. Slaves told their stories, though only other slaves may have listened at first. But those stories keep accumulating their power, as long as they are told truly. My ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and the stories they told changed the world.
Freedom acknowledges that we each hold the power of our story. When we hear each other’s stories and weave the threads together, we gain strength. We renounce a story told at the expense of the suppression of someone else’s story. We cleanse the air, and poisonous narratives lose their grip on our politics.
The story of America is too great to not tell it right.