In 1975 Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr., an avowed segregationist introduced a resolution in the United States Senate to restore General Robert E. Lee’s citizenship. The resolution was seconded by Democratic Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, a liberal progressive, who stated “I know I am what one would call a Yankee, but I am more than that. I am an American and one great American was Robert E. Lee.” The Senate adopted the resolution unanimously. This included votes from Senator Edward Kennedy, George McGovern, and John Heinz.
The House controlled by the Democrats adopted by a lop-sided vote of 407-10. Republican President Gerald Ford signed the resolution into law soon after at a public ceremony stating: “As a soldier, Gen. Lee left his mark on military strategy,” Ford said. “As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty. As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox.”
In 1978 liberal Republican Senator Mark Hatfield introduced a joint resolution to restore citizenship posthumously to Jefferson Davis, calling Davis an “outstanding American.” It passed the Senate unanimously and passed the House by a wide margin. On October 17, 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed the resolution into law, stating, “Jefferson Davis was no longer a non-citizen in the land of his birth, a nation he had served as an army officer, a congressman, a wounded Mexican war hero, a United States Senator and Secretary of War.” The President believed that in posthumously restoring the full rights of citizenship to Jefferson Davis, Congress had officially completed the long process of reconciliation that reunites our people following the tragic conflict between the States. President Carter said, “Nation needs to clear away the guilt and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our Nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded. Our people need to turn their attention to the important tasks that still lie before us in establishing those principles for all people.”
Apparently in 2017 all of that history has been forgotten and Carter’s hope that the American people would now turn their attention to the important tasks that lie before us has also been overshadowed. President Carter might be heckled and shouted off the podium if he repeated his earlier words today.
Should statues of any person be considered permanent? Certainly not. However it seems that if the bipartisan Congress was able to forgive the wrongdoings of Lee and Davis, then American people should have the right to discuss the appropriateness of monuments in a rational manner. If existing statues are no longer desired, a more appropriate home should be found or a way to modify the setting of the statue. Statues or symbols should never be used to glorify slavery nor any other repugnant philosophy. However, history should not be erased impulsively by a mob. In Rome the Coliseum was built by slaves and used to degrade slaves and Christians, but its attraction today is on the historical significance and not on the glorification of slavery and torture. I have not heard any outcry to remove the Coliseum (yet).
Should there be memorials erected honoring historically significant females and minority members? Yes, as history is a continually expanding process. Again, it requires a thought out discussion with the assistance of respected historians, and an appropriate waiting time.
Locally, Pottsville’s Henry Clay monument has been a landmark for over a century. It would be a travesty to see it removed in the hysteria now creeping across the nation led by a few vigilante thought police attempting to eradicate history; obsessed with a desire to replace the past with a cleansed, politically-correct version that they perceive and approve of. As George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Henry Clay was a slave owner. Likewise William Penn, the founder of our Commonwealth. He owned approximately twelve slaves. Should Henry Clay come down from his pedestal and should the name of the state now be changed so as not to insult those who demand their “safe space?”
As a side note, if the name of the Commonwealth is changed, what will become of the song “Pennsylvania Polka?” Will it be discarded along with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?” Will I need to delete both from my Ipod playlist so as not to offend the sensitivities of a few?
The views expressed in this article at those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SCHS Board or the Society as a whole. As free speech is valued, differing viewpoints are welcome.