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Myths, Legends, Heroes, and History

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

The “cancel culture” debate has little to do with “culture”, or more to the point, little to do with history. It is a conflict over whose “legends” we want to dominate. A legend is not a bad thing, but compared to history it is like a caricature to a portrait. It emphasizes some things about a person or event or culture at the expense of others. And sometimes the things emphasized are mythological.

Myths also are not bad things unless they are taken to be history. Myths provide etiological narratives that give reasons why things are as they are. The creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 (Gen 1:28, 2:19-20a) tell why Homo sapiens have apparent dominion within terrestrial ecosystems. They are stories that reflect the historical fact of the emergence of agri-culture. Genesis 2 also offers stories of why human beings are a social species (Gen. 2:18) and portrays marriage as the paradigm of organic human community (Gen. 2:23-34).

Mythological stories like Aesop’s Fables, on moral themes, and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, about the origins of various animals, have become staple parts of western literature. The former served as resources for the moral instruction of children and the latter as imaginative entertainment for children.

The play and film, Inherit the Wind, is a mythological account of the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial". Like popular accounts of the trial of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition, it pits rationalistic scientific integrity against religious dogmatism. Yet neither the play nor the Galileo myth are accurate accounts of the actual complex histories of these events as historians Edward Larson and Ronald Numbers respectively attest.

Heroes are often the stars of myths and legends but are few and far between in history. Acts of heroism are ordinarily spontaneous, seldom calculated, and often involve risk to the hero. Heroes are recognized by others but rarely see themselves as heroic. There are times when the term hero is used so broadly, as when anyone in a particular occupation is identified as a hero, that the term becomes cheap. Sometimes in childish hero worship we elevate individuals well above their historical reality.

But there comes a time when it is important to put away childish things. In the words of Paul, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (I Cor 13.11)

In our present climate of moral outrage it is too easy to either mythologically cling to cultural icons of the past as unassailable heroes or to iconoclastically throw them down. History is not painted in blacks and whites, nor in grays. History is multicolored and, like the spectrum of visible light, has no lines in it except for the ones that we draw. History is also multidimensional.

Two cases in point: Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee. Both were men of their time. Both had intellectual and personal qualities to be admired. Both were deeply flawed when it came to slavery. Yet, in my view, one still deserves a national monument and the other a very local one.

The musical/movie, 1776, has been criticized as an entirely too humorous and too often fictionalized account of the struggles surrounding the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Accepting that criticism, it, nevertheless, remains one of my favorite films; and not the least because of the scene in which the Continental Congress debates the passage on slavery in the draft.

In his rough draft Jefferson wrote of George III

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobium of INFIDEL Powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.

In order to secure unanimous passage of the Declaration, South Carolina and Georgia were placated by having this paragraph stricken. There was also the concern that supporters of the revolution in Great Britain would be alienated by the paragraph.

It seems ironic that the Jefferson who wrote this passage was also a slave owner; one who, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the consensus of historians hold, was the father of six children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Although he emancipated some of his slaves, he did not emancipate them all. At the same time he held that slavery was harmful to both slave and master.

Given his moral ambiguity on slavery, it is not surprising that Jefferson’s political record on slavery was mixed. In 1784 he proposed abolishing slavery in all the western US territories of his day. He supported passage of the Northwest Ordinance (1787) that prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory (what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin), the effect of which was to make the Ohio River the boundary between slave-holding and non-slave-holding states. But during his presidency he was essentially silent on the question of slavery.

Curiously, Jefferson viewed Native Americans in no way inferior to Europeans but viewed persons of African decent as both mentally and physically inferior. At the same time, he held that Blacks possessed natural right; in other words, that they were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As a last note Jefferson’s commitment to an educated citizenry led him to establish the University of Virginia in 1819. He was an advocate of education for black freedmen or those who were near being freed but not for slaves. The university that he founded is today an internationally recognized center for educational and research excellence. However, it did not accept its first black student until 1950 and then in the face of a lawsuit. It did not become fully integrated until the 1960s.

Lest one think that Jefferson’s moral ambiguity about slavery was exceptional, documentary filmmaker Arlen Parsa’s edit of John Turnbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence identifies 34 of the 47 depicted signers as slaveholders. This reinforces the fact that the social status of black Americans was compromised from the very foundation of the nation by virtue of the practice of chattel slavery.

Robert E. Lee was the son of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, an officer in the Revolutionary War, a member of the pre-constitutional Congress of the Confederation, and Governor of Virginia. It was Henry Lee speaking at Washington’s funeral who declared the late president to be “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Robert graduated first in his class at West Point where he later served as Superintendent. His early service was as a military engineer. Again, in terms of historical irony, during the Mexican-American War he met and worked with Ulysses S. Grant.

Prior to the Civil War, Lee’s father-in-law died and, as executor of the estate, it fell upon Lee to manage a large landholding in Arlington VA as well as hundreds of slaves. These responsibilities required him to take a two-year leave of absence from the army and he found them to be very troublesome. One reason for the “trouble” was that his father-in-law’s will called for the emancipation of his slaves at the discretion of his executors within five years of his death. It took a court decision to require Lee to fulfill this condition of the will. One factor influencing his reluctance toward emancipation was pragmatic, the labor needs for a large plantation. But other ideas also factored into his views concerning freeing slaves.

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.

But he went on to write

It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

As a man of his time and place, Lee embodied a religiously reinforced ethnocentrism and paternalistic racism that persisted well beyond his time and place; not only in the southern US but also in Afrikaner South Africa. As upstate South Carolinians my parents were paternalistic racists though they lived their professional lives in relatively progressive Maryland suburbs of DC.

When secession finally occurred in 1861, it is a measure of the regard in which Lee was held by his military peers that on April 18, 1861, he was informally offered the rank of major general and command of troops to protect the nation’s capital. It was Lee who had commanded the forces that captured John Brown at the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry six years earlier. However, the day before on April 17 Virginia had formally seceded from the Union. Lee’s decision to resign from the U.S. Army was a difficult one as family correspondence reveals. Nevertheless, he accepted command of Virginia forces and was one of the first generals named to command military forces of the seceded Confederate States.

Military historians differ in their judgment of Lee's military prowess. But, whatever that may be he was eventually defeated by his his earlier colleague, U.S. Grant. After his surrender of the Confederate Army to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1861, Lee campaigned for reconciliation among the states. Though he had a desire to return to farming and had a number of financial opportunities, Lee accepted the call of Washington College to become its president in October 1865.

In the five years he served as president before his death in 1870, Lee created programs in journalism, engineering, law and business. In its day connecting these “technical disciplines” to a liberal arts education was radical. Lee was successful in recruiting from northern states as well as southern ones. He also instituted an honor code system for student self-government that has continued to the present. Nevertheless, Lee, who was venerated as a beloved disciplinarian, apparently turned a blind-eye on the actions of his students harassing black schoolgirls, throwing stones at freedmen’s schools and allowing the formation of a Ku Klux Klan chapter on campus. The social fraternity, Kappa Alpha Order (KA), was founded at Washington College in 1865 and considers Lee its "spiritual founder." It continues to identify itself with ante-bellum, so-called "southern ideals" and has identified itself with Confederate iconography like the "stars and bars." Washington and Lee University (formerly, Washington College) continues to address its mixed Lee legacy.

Myths can be instructive and entertaining. Legends can caricature the values embodied in an individual or an event. Heroes can be inspirational. But history, like nature, is inevitably messy. When we take our chosen myths or legends as history we delude ourselves and narrow our vision of what is real. When we idolatrize our heroes, we rob them of their authentic humanity. As a woeful Calvinist, I am confident to declare that for all of their virtues, our heroes are also sinners. History, even though perspectival, at its best is like an untouched photo, showing warts and all.

It has been said that we need to learn to “forgive and forget.” But forgiveness has nothing to do with forgetting. Forgiveness is remembering the offence but not holding it against the offender. Forgiveness is hard. In a remarkable public display of forgiveness, families of those killed at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, forgave the perpetrator at his bond hearing.

Recognizing the contributions of people like Jefferson and Lee to American history does not mean that we forget their flaws. But forgiveness allows us to emulate what we can and decry through word and deed what we must in their historical legacies.

It seems to me that a statue of Jefferson in a memorial surrounded by his enlightened words in Washington DC and a statue in death repose of Lee over a crypt in the chapel at Washington and Lee University are fitting settings for these historically significant American figures.

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Jul 26, 2020

Thanks, Jim. Hadn't read or had forgotten Jefferson's deleted paragraph. History is messy and not black and white. Many heroes are those who work tireless and anonymously at the local community level. "1776" musical remains a favorite--definite-lee.

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