Changing the name of Lee Elementary changes a school’s name, not history

SLT+confederate+08Confederate apologists responded to the Austin school board’s decision to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School with a barrage of familiar comments blaming the Civil War on Northern abolitionists, Northern evangelicals, Northern aggression, Northern tariffs, Northern violations of state’s rights — all of which added up to one conclusion: The Civil War was not centrally about slavery. By God, sir, no; bite your tongue.

What the school board’s decision most represented, numerous apologists argued, was a failure to educate students about the “true history” of the 1860s.

Historians value primary sources. The response to Monday’s school board vote is a reminder that few primary sources better clarify the causes of the Civil War than the declarations of secession issued by Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states. It’s always worth revisiting and repeating what the American-Statesman’s editorial board and various Viewpoints contributors have argued over the years, whether the issue is the Confederate battle flag or Confederate statues on the University of Texas campus: All one has to do is read these declarations of secession to know that all causes of the Civil War come back to slavery.

The Texas declaration of secession, in defending slavery, denounces “the debasing doctrine” that all men are created equal. So much for your Southern great-great-grandpappy’s patriotic loyalty to the nation’s founding principle.

Mississippi’s declaration of secession wastes no time getting to its point, announcing in its second sentence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

Then there’s Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. In his infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” delivered March 21, 1861, Stephens concedes that the Founding Fathers, though many of them owned slaves, considered slavery a “violation of the laws of nature” and “an evil” that they hoped would somehow magically disappear over time. But the assumption on which the Founders rested their ideas — that all men are created equal — “was an error,” Stephens declares.

The Confederate government, he continues, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; and that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

Lee’s apologists like to pull three sentences from an 1856 letter the future Confederate general wrote to his wife, in which he describes slavery as “a moral and political evil,” as proof he opposed slavery, and only joined the rebellion against the United States out of a sense of honor and duty to his home state of Virginia. What they usually leave out, however, is Lee telling his wife that “blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically,” and that slavery was “necessary for their further instruction as a race.” Lee also grouses about Northern abolitionists and cloaks the last part of his letter in a bunch of hooey about how abolitionists should let Providence accomplish its purpose on its own time. He never stops to ponder whether Providence might be using abolitionists to work its will.

Lee inherited about 200 slaves from his father-in-law, George Custis, whose will stipulated the slaves were to be freed as quickly as possible and certainly within five years of his death. Lee tarried and was known as a harsh taskmaster. While Lee opposed secession, in the end he betrayed his oath as an Army officer and joined the Confederacy. Numerous other Army officers from Virginia honored their commissions and fought to preserve the Union.

Changing the name of Lee Elementary won’t change this history of the Civil War.

What changing the name of Lee Elementary does do is it brings another small close to the reactionary, post-Reconstruction effort in the South to revise the Civil War’s history into a Lost Cause myth — an effort that gained new reactionary force during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The naming of Lee Elementary in 1939 was part of this historical revision.

A campaign to rename three other Austin schools named after Confederates — Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston campus, named after Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston of Texas, who was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862; John H. Reagan High School, named after a Texas member of Congress who served as the postmaster general for the Confederacy; and Sidney Lanier High School, named after the musician and author who served in the Confederate army — has not materialized. As the American-Statesman’s Melissa B. Taboada reported Tuesday, the Austin school district will consider changing a school’s name only if a push to do so develops.

Meanwhile, the district is accepting nominations for Lee Elementary’s new name. Berkeley Breathed* Elementary anyone? …

__________________

* Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of “Bloom County.” Raised in Houston, University of Texas alumnus, former freelance American-Statesman editorial cartoonist (briefly). Offered in lieu of Matthew McConaughey Elementary.