John Woolman, the Great Muslin Hope

John_WoolmanOctober 19, 2017 – John Woolman, the itinerate Quaker mystic who spread his peaceful witness throughout Colonial New Jersey in the mid 18th century, was born 295 years ago today.

Woolman became one of my heroes when I was a student at Eastern Baptist College (now Eastern University), 1968-71. I began classes as a recently discharged veteran of the Air Force but soon began to feel the Vietnam War was a hideous mistake by America’s best and brightest politicians, and an immoral travesty by the presidents who refused to stop it.

I became active in the peace movement and spent hours exploring pacifist ideas with Professor John L. Ruth, a Mennonite minister. One afternoon, John handed me his first-edition copy of John Woolman’s Journal. It was a loan, he said. “I know you’ll treat it gently.”

It was not easy reading because the pages were yellowed, the letter s was stylized f, and the ancient binding made crinkling sounds when I cradled it. But I turned each page with extreme gentleness and read the journal in one night.

No book I read at Eastern had a greater impact on me. Woolman, committed to Christ’s command to love God and neighbor, swore he would never do harm to any living creature. He adjured carriage drivers to treat both their horses and their African coachmen with kindness. He walked in friendship with indigenous peoples in New Jersey. And he was an early abolitionist.

As a notary public, he refused to notarize wills if they included slaves as property. An excerpt from his journal:

A person at some distance lying sick, his brother came to me to write his will. I knew he had slaves, and, asking his brother, was told he intended to leave them as slaves to his children. As writing is a profitable employ, and as offending sober people was disagreeable to my inclination, I was straitened in my mind; but as I looked to the Lord, he inclined my heart to His testimony. I told the man that I believed the practice of continuing slavery to this people was not right, and that I had a scruple in my mind against doing writings of that kind; that though many in our Society kept them as slaves, still I was not easy to be concerned in it, and desired to be excused from going to write the will. I spake to him in the fear of the Lord, and he made no reply to what I said, but went away; he also had some concerns in the practice, and I thought he was displeased with me. In this case I had fresh confirmation that acting contrary to present outward interest, from a motive of divine love and in regard to truth and righteousness, and thereby incurring the resentments of people, opens the way to a treasure better than silver, and to a friendship exceeding the friendship of men.

I will always wonder what it was about Woolman that people found so persuasive. I was used to the concussive debates of the sixties and seventies when we tended to shout at persons who disagreed with us, never expecting to convince them. But Woolman spoke with gentle persuasion and people generally saw he was right.

Incredibly, he could walk into a raucous New Jersey pub, preach about the evils of rum, and convince both the pub crowd and the pub owner that he was right. “When men take pleasure in feeling their minds elevated with strong drink,” he wrote in his journal, “and so indulge their appetite as to disorder their understandings, neglect their duty as members of a family or civil society, and cast off all regard to religion, their case is much to be pitied.” It’s a mystery – and perhaps a miracle – that Woolman was not simply thrown out on his head.

Woolman was eccentric in the extreme. He discovered that the harsh chemicals used to blacken men’s coats were blinding the slaves forced to do the dyeing. He couldn’t convince his fellow Quakers to stop dyeing their clothes, but he refused to do it himself. He wore white muslin clothes as traveled around Colonial New Jersey, snow time or mud time.

That is the image of Woolman I have carried in my head since I returned his journal safely to John Ruth’s keeping. He must have cut a comical figure when he arrived in meeting houses and pubs, wrinkled, yellowed, and stained with soot and sweat.

But it seems unlikely anyone laughed because most people quickly figured out that John Woolman was a prophet in their midst. He’s one of the unsung heroes of U.S. history, and I wish more people would sing about him.

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries since he passed from the American scene, I’d love to see his loving, peaceful spirit, rumpled jacket and all, returning to speak wisdom and nurture to our bitterly divided country.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Day I Was a Lazy, Filthy Fogger

foamyThe memory had been lost for fifty years in the dim recesses of my hippocampus. This morning a little dab of shaving foam dislodged it.

There it was, dangling defiantly from the plastic red spigot of my foamy shaving cream can. I gasped and knocked the can into the sink.

It’s not the worst memory I’ve blocked, and now that I’m revisiting it in daylight, in seems relatively harmless. But it’s clearly the source of more than one of my neurotic habits.

The memory dates back to an incident in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in September 1964.

Our World War II vintage barracks were open-bay with rows of GI bunk beds lined up in precisely measured formation. The beds were covered with olive green GI blankets pulled tightly into hospital corners. The blankets were hardly necessary in the stifling summer heat of San Antonio, but we were required to sleep beneath them anyway.

Most of our earthly possessions were neatly organized in footlockers at the foot of the bed. By neatly, I mean in military fashion. Boxer shorts, T-shirts, and black socks were tightly rolled in rows. Shoe polishing rags were also rolled, and toiletries – safety razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a can of shaving cream – were fastidiously cleaned after each use. The shaving cream can had to be dismantled at the nozzle to remove excess lather so it wouldn’t dribble out.

But sometimes the cans dribbled anyway.

Each morning the TI’s – training instructors – conducted a full inspection of our personal areas. The beds had to be firmly made, shoes shined, uniforms clean and hung precisely on a rack, and foot lockers immaculate.

Dressed in white baggy boxers and T-shirts, we’d stand nervously at parade rest while the TI, scowling disapprovingly, would move among the beds.

A1C Elihu Ellefson, a tall, blond, foul-mouthed TI, opened my footlocker and peered in. It looked perfect to me.

But Ellefson reached in, rudely dislodging rows of socks and underwear, and pulled out my shaving cream can. A tiny blob of cream was attempting to escape from the spout.

“What the fog is this?” he asked shrilly, pushing the can onto my nose. (Of course, he didn’t say “fog,” but I decline to use Norman Mailer’s 1946 transliteration “fug.”)

I was silent.

Ellefson glared at me censoriously. He up-ended my footlocker and poured the contents onto the floor. Boxers unraveled among socks and rolled away. My toothbrush clattered on the linoleum, and my safety raiser made a snapping sound. Ellefson picked up the offending can and, staring at me, spewed shaving cream onto the remaining contents of my locker.

“Jenks,” he said, “The only thing I hate more than a lazy fogger is a filthy fogger.”

I was silent. After Ellefson left, I picked up my locker and its contents and went into the latrine to remove the foam and put everything back into GI order. One of other trainees followed me in to commiserate.

“Geez, too bad,” he kept saying. “What a dick.”

Of course, Ellefson was not supposed to be popular with the trainees, and most of us hated him. In 1964, he used racial and ethnic slurs freely, including the N word, and he seemed particularly punitive with Jews. I’m not sure why that was, unless he was angry with his parents for naming him Elihu.

No other GI in our training flight had his footlocker tossed. No doubt Ellefson felt the point had been made.

And, looking back, having one’s footlocker tossed is not a big deal. It probably pretty much of a universal experience for basic trainees in all branches of the service.

Even so, I’m curious about whatever happened to Ellefson. I don’t hold any grudges against him, beyond the fact that he was a racist, homophobic, anti-Semite.

But it was clearly Ellefson who made me mildly obsessive with my personal hygiene habits over five ensuing decades, a habit I may have passed along to some of my children.

And I’d like to thank the son of a bitch.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

When Uncle Frank Jenks out-acted Raymond Massey

cantreadmylinesME TV (Memorable Entertainment Television) is one of several networks catering to Boomers by broadcasting reruns of 1950s and 1960s era TV programs we loved.

Sometimes I think it would be kinder if they left some shows to our fading memories. If Perry Mason or The Beverly Hillbillies were not as brilliant as we remember them, what does that say about us? That we were not as sophisticated about popular culture as we thought?

I tended to favor westerns when I was growing up. I still enjoy watching The Rifleman Chuck Connors brace his 44-40 Winchester into his hip and blaze away at an unseen target (this is the early sixties so we’re not supposed to see this as an erotic metaphor). I love listening to Richard Boone quote Shakespeare or Euripides as he outdraws the menacing bad guy and climbs on his horse to serenely ride away, a weekly scene on Have Gun, Will Travel. I can even get through the first twenty minutes of Gunsmoke without switching to CNN.

But my favorite western was Wagon Train. And it is Wagon Train that I wish METV had left unmolested on the shelf. Each rerun has been a painful disappointment.

The weekly show dramatized the adventures of a wagon train traveling from Missouri to California.  It featured Ward Bond (Bert the cop in It’s a Wonderful Life and Rev. Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton in The Searchers) as wagon master Major Seth Adams, and Robert Horton as scout Flint McCullough. Bond was one of those character actors who played his craggy self in hundreds of roles, and Horton was the show’s pretty face, so neither of them was called upon to actually act.

Each episode featured a guest star famous enough to give the show heft and attract viewers. Over the years they included Dan Duryea, George Gobel, Joan Blondell, Gloria DeHaven, Ernest Borgnine, Annette Funicello, and Charles Laughton. Few of them appeared to take their roles seriously, and Laughton – playing a mean-spirited British officer – seemed to be reprising his Captain Bligh pouts from Mutiny on the Bounty.

RayMasseyasMontezumaBut the distinguished actor who did the worst job was Raymond Massey, although it probably wasn’t his fault. Massey, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 1940 portrayal of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, was assigned the silliest role of his career: Montezuma IX, complete with an ornately feathered Aztec crown and a garish Aztec royal robe.

In Wagon Train’s sixth episode of its fourth season, the story line finds Flint McCullough leading a four-man party searching for the father of one of the riders. They encounter – inexplicably it would seem – an Aztec princess from a lost remnant of a tribe that has been extinct for 400 years. Princess Lia is played by Linda Lawson, the only member of the cast still alive, and the role requires little of her but to maintain a blank face and speak in etherial monotones. Since Lawson has continued acting for decades after this role, she must have been capable of a wider emotional range than was permitted by the script or by Wagon Train director Richard Whorf.

As the story progresses, Flint McCullough falls improbably in love with Princess Lia, despite her wooden demeanor and dazed expressions. Their love is star-crossed because Lia is to be sacrificed to an Aztec God, a fate she accepts with stoned stoicism. When Flint finds out about it, Robert Horton’s limited acting range is harshly exposed:

“You were born to live a full life, to know the love of a man, to bear his sons,” he pleads, flatly and unconvincingly. “Everything that I am and everything that I feel and believe demands that I stay here and fight for you.” But when Lia insists she must die “for the greatest good,” Flint needs little persuading to high-tail it out of there.

But the award for the most excruciating performance in the episode belongs to Massey, who must feel as ridiculous as he looks in his feathered crown and gilded frock. The only emotion he betrays is suppressed embarrassment, and when the role calls upon him to show anger he must be motivated by an urge to strangle his agent. Massey seems to be reading his lines from a cue card, and he sounds painfully aware of their inanity (“You and your party enter the gates of Tenochtitlan favored by the gods. We are honored by your presence and it is our heartfelt wish that happiness attend you each day you stay with us …”

In my opinion, the most stellar performance in the episode belongs to Frank Jenks, a busy but fairly obscure character actor of the 1940s and 1950s. METV viewers can catch Frank, a distant relative of mine, on reruns of Perry Mason, The Adventures of Superman, and various TV oaters, usually playing a bartender, a con man, or a petty hood. Curiously, his role in this episode of Wagon Train is utterly superfluous. I can only surmise that the director saw him as a Greek Chorus commenting on the action.

Uncle Frank plays a character named Carl “Dutch” Anders, described by Flint McCullough as a man “available for almost any job for almost any money.” But as the four-man party embarks on its search Frank is called upon to use his nasally voice to set the mood for the episode: “I’m sorry I took this job. I’ll swear I felt eyes on the back of my neck all afternoon.”

When Flint discovers Princess Lia of the Aztecs along the trail, Frank utters a necessary warning: “The Aztecs made human sacrifices didn’t they?”

Later, when the search party is led into the re-fabricated city of Tenochtitlan, Frank is called upon to exchange incredulous glances with his fellow actors as Massey’s Montezuma proclaims the interlopers as messengers of the gods. “We’re not messengers of the gods,” Frank complains undiplomatically. “We’re a searching party. We’re from a wagon train. Were on our way to California.”

Frank’s longest speech is a dialogue with Flint McCullough on the second day of their stay in Tenochtitlan:

“Someone washed my clothes while I was lulling in my marble bed. I never took a marble bath in in my life before.” He picks up a small artifact and tests its weight. “Solid gold, Take it from me those jewels aren’t glass. There’s a couple of pieces in my  room too. They’d make nice souvenirs don’t you think? What do you think? You haven’t said a word. The old man sure talks a lot of mumbo jumbo doesn’t he.”

Flint dissuades Frank’s character from grabbing souvenirs, and in a later scene Montezuma explains to the visitors that gold has little value in Tenochtitlan. “You mean a man  is poor if he has gold?” he exclaims to the emperor. “You sure out of touch with the world.” I suspect that was intended to be a profound insight, and Frank pulls it off with aplomb.

That’s the last time we see Frank in this ridiculous episode, which ends with Flint’s unconvincing melancholy over his lost love. More likely he dodged a bullet. At least he will not be spending the rest of his life with a catatonic woman in an emotionless trance.

This episode may well be the worst Wagon Train ever produced. But, for me and other Jenkses and Jenks relatives, it has some redeeming value.

This is the episode in which Frank Jenks acted circles around the great Raymond Massey.

It suggests to me that Frank could have gone much further than he did, if casting directors had given him half a chance. I can’t see him as Abe Lincoln in Illinois, exactly. But I can easily see Frank Jenks as Adam Trask, bringing James Dean to tears in East of Eden.

But regardless of Frank’s presence, was Wagon Train really as bad as all that?

I invite nostalgic boomers to judge for themselves:


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dick Gregory, October 12, 1932 – August 19, 2017

Dick Gregory was a lean, mean running machine in 1974 when he came to the first annual Communication Center at Green Lake, Wis.

The Center was a week-long seminar in interfaith communication planned by the American Baptist Division of Communication, then headed by Norman R. DePuy. The speakers who addressed the conference that week were stellar in their own rights, including editor Norman Cousins, pop-anthropologist Ashley Montague, George Gerbner, legendary chair of the communications department at the University of Pennsylvania, and NAACP head Benjamin Hooks.

All of these luminaries stayed in the Green Lake Center’s elegant but rickety Roger Williams Inn, where the ancient elevator doors clunked open with (in Montague’s words) “the thud of an atomic bomb.” Montague, an elegant Brit who was famous for occasional appearances on the Johnny Carson show, exposed his bony white knees between the hem of his yellow Bermuda shorts and black knee socks, and he was a pain in the neck to the Center organizers. He was an avowed Unitarian who hated the Roman Catholic Church and frowned condescendingly at the Protestant Christians who came to the Center, “The only time I hear Jesus Christ’s name in my church,” he proclaimed in his opening lecture, “is when the janitor falls down stairs.”

Cousins and Hooks, fortunately, were charming and accessible to all attenders. Gerbner cheerfully accepted the uneven surface of the Green Lake tennis courts, saying they were useful lessons for life: “You never know where the ball will bounce.”

But it was comedian and social activist Dick Gregory whose presence was remembered by most. In the summer of 1974, Dick was running from coast to coast to express his opposition to the Vietnam War. He agreed to come to Green Lake if the organizers would allow him to run when he wasn’t making speeches, and that’s how I remember him: brief glimpses of a skinny, sweating, bearded man running quickly through crowds, often accompanied by teen-ager Scott Waterston, the son of one of the Baptist organizers.

But Gregory never refused to stop and talk with people, and he was generous with his autographs. His humor was always present and occasionally cutting. One day the staff was meeting in the canteen, a small snack shop at the rear of the Roger Williams Inn, and Gregory walked in to ask for water. He had removed his running shoes, which created a dilemma for the young woman at the cash register. “I’m sorry,” she said with adolescent firmness, “you can’t come in here without shoes.”

“What?” Gregory said, stifling a smile.

“You can’t come in here without shoes.”

Gregory quickly surveyed the small crowd in the canteen and raised his voice. “JESUS wouldn’t be allowed in here,” he announced loudly. But he stepped outside obediently and slipped into his shoes.

Dick Gregory’s keynote address was brilliant and full of famous lines from his public appearances. “I was told, ‘We don’t serve colored people in here,’ and I said, ‘That’s okay, I don’t eat colored people.’” And, “These big white guys surrounded my table and said, whatever you do to that chicken, we goin’ to do you. So I kissed it.”

Not everything Gregory said was scientifically substantiated, including his assertion that feeding cows milk to human babies was the underlying cause of sudden infant death syndrome. But his social observations were usually insightful and always wise.

During the question and answer session following his evening speech, Dick asked for water and sipped from a cup while responding thoughtfully and humorously to each question. As the hour grew late, Division of Communication staffer Milt Ryder, who was presiding over the session, announced there would be time for one more question. The question came, Gregory answered it thoughtfully, and turned to Milt for the adjournment.

But before Milt could get to the microphone, Phil English, an African American pastor, stood to be recognized. Milt looked awkwardly from English to Gregory and back to English.

After a few seconds of enjoying the awkwardness, Gregory intervened.

“Don’t worry, Brother,” he told English. “No way these folks will dare tell you to sit down.”

There were other communications centers at Green Lake, and later gatherings in Mississauga, Ontario, and Valley Forge, Pa. None of them quite matched the power and eloquence of the first one in 1974.

Years later I  ran into Dick Gregory by chance, some time in the early nineties. He and I found ourselves on the same commuter plane, probably en route to Philadelphia. His beard was longer and almost white, but he was still lean and his eyes still studied his surroundings to search for irony. As we were shuffling off the plane, he noticed I had recognized him.

Twenty years earlier we had been in daily contact for a week at Green Lake, and he seemed to be studying my face. Perhaps, I thought, he might actually recognize me.

Whether he did or not, he smiled and nodded. “Hello, bro-ther,” he said.

I smiled back and grasped his hand.

That was the last I saw of Dick, but the impression I had of him during these fleeting encounters never dimmed.

He was a great and a good man, and he will be missed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Smoke Signals to Eleanor

19732277_10210159996176119_6473011920983640967_nThanks to daughter Lauren Jenks for uncovering this long-lost response from Eleanor Roosevelt, pasted 55 years ago in a book to keep it safe.

The topic was an interview I conducted with her through the mail. The elaborate adolescent signature to the right is my own.

“Smoke Signals” was the mimeographed student newspaper of Morrisville-Eaton Central School. We justified the columns (making them flush on the left and the right) by typing slash marks at the end of each column. The slash marks were counted by the typist so he or she would know how many spaces to add between words so the right-hand column would be even. It was crude, but I have an idea Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t mind.

The back story of the exchange with Mrs R. is here.

The older I get, the more incredulous I am that this towering figure of the 20th century took the time to sit down at her typewriter to craft such thoughtful answers. Did she ever let a letter go unanswered?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Governor Jenks and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Cloak

GovJenks1 copy

Even before, my family was steeped in genealogical lore.

Grandpa Addison Jenks and his sister, Aunt Ava, spent their lives searching courthouse records for birth certificates, wills, and deeds that bore the Jenks name. Addison liked to do family research in graveyards, noting the birth and death dates of subterranean Jenkses. This creepy predilection led my mother, who was an Emerson, not a Jenks, to whisper, “The only people he cares about are dead.”

That was probably untrue, and when the Divine M* and I prowled the West End cemetery in Oneonta, N.Y., we immediately grasped the joys of tombstone prowling. One of our favorite graves is in that cemetery and I wrote about it here.

There are other macabre idiosyncrasies in the Oneonta cemetery. On at least two Jenks graves the birthdates are etched but death dates are blank. I theorize the practical decedent had purchased the stone as a hedge against inflation but died somewhere else. The Divine M theorizes they were vampires.

Addison was a farmer in South Side, Oneonta, and he ran the Oneonta Armory for most of the time I knew him. Both were reputable callings but I suspect he wanted to prove his ancestors were tinged with greatness. He traced the family name back to Wales and believed he could prove he was descended from a line of Welsh kings whose long names he could not pronounce because they contained no vowels.

He made a better case that an ancestor had “come over on the Mayflower” (her name was Elizabeth Tilley). He was happy about that, although, logically, if one’s ancestors have been procreating in America since the 17th century, the massive and infinitely snarled web of familial connections makes a distant Mayflower connection almost unavoidable.

I was 16 when Addison died, but I had shown a sufficient interest in his research that his papers eventually found their way to me. I quickly discovered the family has its share of heroes and anti-heroes.

One of Addison’s heroes was Major Lory Jenks,** a Revolutionary War veteran who moved the family from Rhode Island to Oneonta where he owned a popular pub. On the less heroic side, there was Jeremiah Jenks, a cousin of Addison’s father, George. Jeremiah was a blatant eugenist who wrote books explaining why non-white, non-European, non-Republican, and non-Jenks people were naturally inferior. I’d like to think Addison did not agree because he doesn’t mention Jeremiah in his research.

Most Jenkses in the United States trace their ancestry back to Joseph Jenks (1599 -1682), who – as Addison tirelessly reminded us – was awarded in 1646 the first patent in North America, for a new design for making scythes. In 1654 he also built the first fire engine in North America for use in Boston, and in 1647, in order to manufacture his scythes, he built the forge at the Saugus, Mass., iron works.  My family and I have often visited the Saugus restoration, now a national historic site. One hot summer I followed an exhausted guide around the site and decided it would be good to introduce myself by surname. Before I could approach him, he told the crowd, “There are thousands of Jenks descendants in the U.S. And some summers it seems like every goddamned one of them comes here.”

For me, the most interesting Jenks of yore was Joseph Jenks III (1656-1740), the first of the line to be born in North America. As governor of the Rhode Island colony, Governor Jenks presided over the first geo-political entity in the world founded for religious liberty. There’s no evidence Joseph knew Rhode Island’s spiritual founder, Roger Williams, or that he was a Baptist. But he was an early hero of church-state separation.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Governor Jenks was that he was six-feet, seven inches tall, and looked much taller because of the Charles II wig he plopped on his head.

According to family lore, Governor Jenks was concerned that his cloak of office, designed for much shorter men, exposed his skinny calves and made him look ridiculous. When the wig was added to his attire, he was undoubtedly right,

Grabbing his quill, he scrawled out an order for a six-foot, seven-inch cloak suitable to his office and sent it via tall ship to England where the best cloaks were made.

No one knows how long it took the ship to make its way to England, or how much time it stayed in England, or how long it took to sail back to Providence. The process probably took more than a year.

No one knows if Governor Jenks was a patient man, but he must have been delighted when a package finally arrived from the mother country. But – as nearly every Jenks knows – when he opened the package, it contained not a cloak, but a six-foot, seven-inch clock.

No one knows if Governor Jenks laughed, cried, or raged when he realized he should have written the order in easier-to-read block letters. But a Baptist friend who served in the Rhode Island legislature once assured me that a six-foot, seven-inch clock still stands in the capitol.

I must admit, I have always suspected that this droll story is apocryphal and told exclusively among Jenkses, the only people likely to find it interesting.

So I was amazed the other day when I was surfing the Internet and discovered an old newspaper clipping of a spirited piece of doggerel that told the same story in imaginative detail. I was unable to discover how old the clipping is, or who wrote it. But I’m delighted to have this little item which appears to document an old family legend

If nothing else, it is passable evidence that my ancestry might just as interesting as yours.

And I know Addison, who always wanted people to know how interesting we secretly were, would have been pleased to add it to his voluminous research.

I wish he had lived to see it.


* The Divine M, of course, is my spouse, the Rev. Martha M. Cruz.

** Throughout history, Jenks has been spelled different ways. Grandpa Addison’s theory was that Jenks was adopted by patriotic supporters of the American Revolution, leaving the redundant letters to the loyalist Jenckes branch.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bobby Lee and the Great Statuary Purge


NOTE: This essay was written June 14, two months before President Trump’s vainglorious efforts to justify Neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville on efforts to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Statues of Civil War generals and politicians are being removed throughout the U.S., often with as little ceremony as the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Bagdad.

Saddam should have listened to Harry Truman before he ordered statues of himself. When Israel moved to erect a statue of Truman, the president vetoed the idea. “Never raise a statue to a living person,” he said. “You never know when you might have to take it down.”

Truman understood that one’s reputation ebbed and flowed with the capricious winds of history. This is particularly true of Confederate idols whose prominence in the Civil War has given way to the reality that they were brutal racists and slave owners. The statuary that was raised to them, in the South and elsewhere, commemorates their inhuman cruelty. Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, in one of the best political speeches in recent memory, said this:

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

As statues of the terrorists are dragged away, some would make an exception for Robert E. Lee, the general whose surrender at Appomattox brought a merciful end to the carnage and who is popularly remembered as a decent human being.

But some historians argue that Lee was not a nice man and he deserves to be remembered for his shortsighted malice. Adam Serwer, writing in the current issue of Atlantic, wrote:

Lee’s cruelty as a slave master was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

Dan McGlaughlin of National Review acknowledged Lee’s imperfections, but insisted a blanked condemnation of the man was “myopic.”

Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost. Unlike the Founding Fathers (even the slaveholders among them), he failed the basic test of history: leaving the world better and freer than he found it. And while he was not responsible for the South’s strategic failures, his lack of strategic vision places him below Grant, Sherman and Winfield Scott in any assessment of the war’s greatest generals. We should not be building new monuments to him, but if we fail to understand why the men of his day revered him, we are likelier to fail to understand who people revere today, and why. And tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.

McGlaughlin’s observation also requires an examination of many American heroes whose statuary populates tens of thousands of city parks and village greens. Many of them were slave-owning racists with a record of cruelty that challenges Lee’s.

George Washington was one of them.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Washington: A Life, Gene Chernow reminds us of some disturbing facts about the Father of Our Country that were never highlighted in high school texts. As a general and later as president, a large retinue of slaves dressed in uniforms bearing his family crest attended Washington. When the U.S. capital was temporarily lodged in Philadelphia, President Washington brought a large number of his slaves along to run his household. He circumvented a Pennsylvania law that automatically freed slaves who resided in the commonwealth for more than six months by returning them temporarily to Mount Vernon every five months.

Washington freed all his slaves in his will (effective upon the death of his wife Martha, which surrounded her with people who eagerly anticipated her passing). And few historians believe Washington’s enormous contributions to U.S. history should be lost in the reality that he was a slave-owning Southern aristocrat who acted like one.

There are other great figures of U.S. history who don’t deserve all the nice things high school texts say about them. President Jefferson had a slave mistress who carried several of his children. President Jackson’s relocation of Native American communities was genocidal and brutal. Even the Great Emancipator, President Lincoln, did not believe African Americans were his biological or intellectual equals.

In a seamier side of history, which may or may not call into question their political performance, Presidents Cleveland, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were all purported to have extra marital affairs.

But given that much we think we know about American History is not true, including the assumed purity of the greats, the question remains what we should do about it.

Should we tear down their statues and nameplates?

Certainly the first to go should be those statues of Confederate functionaries in public squares that proclaim racism as vividly as if they were cross burning hooded Klansmen waving the Confederate battle flag.

As for statues of heroes like Washington and Jackson, they will remain. Even if all their edifices were removed, their absence would not cleanse our memories of their sordid slave-owning history.

But it is important to remember that side of our history if we are ever going to realize our democratic ideals. In truth, we were never a nation that favored life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Reaching that conclusion will require some personal discipline as we gaze in awe at slave-raping Jefferson in his monument and try to remember the good along with the bad.

But we must remember because it is the only way we can finally move toward the American ideal of freedom, justice, and equality. We must never forget the dark side of who we really were – and are. In the final analysis, perhaps the green corrosion and pigeon stains on the statues of our well-meaning but racist progenitors will keep those unpleasant truths before us,

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment