The Fog Of History: The Jacksonian Straw Man

Dr. A and I had dinner last Friday night at the house of some old friends. Actually, our hosts were the parents of some friends who have become our friends over the years as well. These are white folks in their 80’s and I *never* talk politics with them. The good news is that they’re not the sort of people who sit around and watch Fox News all-day everyday. I know a few people like that and try to avoid them.

Our hostess asked me what I thought about the whole Confederate monuments controversy. I follow my usual policy with people I’d rather not go there with: I briefly express my real opinion and immediately try to change the subject. I prefer not to bite the hand that’s feeding me, especially when there’s brisket involved. Unfortunately, she asked a follow-up question prefaced with her opinion: “I hear Mitch wants to tear down the Jackson statute and change the name of the Square. What do you think of that?”

The Mitch in question is, of course, Mayor Landrieu and he’s never addressed Jackson Square nor is he likely to. He’s only discussed Confederate monuments erected in support of white supremacy and the so-called lost cause., which are one and the same. The Jackson Square meme is being put out there as a straw man by the “don’t erase our history and heitage” crowd. What does one do with a straw man? You knock it over or set it ablaze. I don’t believe in playing with matches so I’ll try to defog history without burning down the house. In any event, it’s too hot for striking matches. To my friends’ mom I offered a terse comment about Lee having nothing to do with New Orleans and Jackson being the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. I politely changed the subject. This time it worked.

More details after the break and this video:

The “them people” want to whitewash (an ironic phrase but if the shoe fits, wear it) our “history and heritage”meme popped up  in the City Council chambers when the Mayor’s proposals were debated. Landrieu said bupkis about Jackson Square or banning everything that commemorates prominent New Orleanians who were slave owners. This letter to the editor in the Advocate covers the waterfront:

If the statue to Robert E. Lee causes discomfort, unease, pain and anger to some of our citizens, why don’t these same citizens feel similarly when walking across Jackson Square and encountering the “slave owner and Indian killer” Andrew Jackson perched on his mighty steed?

<snip>

Not only did Andrew Jackson own slaves while holding the highest office in our country, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the forced removal of approximately 50,000 Native Americans from their 25 million acres of homeland. Remember the “Trail of Tears”? Surely, those with Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee or Seminole blood take great offense at the honorific position Andrew Jackson has been granted by the city of New Orleans. Why are our elected leaders silent on Jackson?

I am not an Andrew Jackson fan. I think he’s the most overrated President in American history. I believe that he was the only psychotic Oval One ever. He made Tricky Dick look sane. I do not approve of the American government’s policy in the 19th Century towards our native people BUT there’s a difference in motive behind the erection of the Lee statue, and the naming of Jackson Square after the lunatic General/President. First, Jackson Square was renamed to honor his role in the Battle of New Orleans soon after it happened. As far as I know, Robert E. Lee never stepped foot in either the Gret Stet or New Orleans. (Unlike say, General William Tecumseh Sherman who was the first superintendent of  what became LSU. Maybe we should put up a monument to him, he said maliciously. )The Jackson statue was installed in 1856 and had nothing to do with the talk of secession wafting about the Deep South at that point. The Lee statue was installed in 1884 as a symbol of white supremacy and the “redeemed South.”

Second, Andrew Jackson WAS NOT A TRAITOR. Jackson was adamantly opposed to the notions of nullification, interposition, and secession that were espoused by his first term Vice President, John C. Calhoun. In contrast, Robert E. Lee joined an armed rebellion against the United States government, which qualifies as treason in my book. The adherents of the lost cause and the “don’t erase our history and heritage” crowd are the ones who have rewritten history.

I am personally opposed to renaming Jackson Square or removing the Jackson statue. I would have no problem, however, with adding a plaque that explained the complexities of Jackson and his role in some of the less salubrious  aspects of our history. That would, of course,  give the “don’t erase our history and heritage” claque the vapors. Somebody find a fainting couch, a park bench will never do.

A new straw man was introduced in the Sunday Advocate by a tour guide. I should say straw woman or person:

What will happen to the plaque in the sidewalk on Royal Street honoring Henriette Delille? For those unfamiliar with her story, she was born in New Orleans in 1812, the daughter of a free woman of color. Henriette’s mother and sister followed the placage system, which means entering into “concubinage” with a wealthy white man once a daughter became of age.

 Henriette chose a religious life instead but was turned down when she applied to join the Ursuline and Carmelite sisters because she was of mixed race. As a teenager, Henriette began working to bring the Catholic faith to the enslaved and free people of color. Eventually, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1842, and all the sisters were free women of color. The sisters taught, worked in hospitals and tended to the elderly and those dying. They were Louisiana’s 19th-century hospice!

The Sisters of the Holy Family played an important role in Louisiana history. They cared for orphans and the sick during the worst yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans history, 1853 and 1897. These nuns continue to serve their community almost 175 years later.

Mother Henriette owned a slave. Her name was Betsy. Henriette freed her in her will when she died in 1862. Many African-Americans are descendants of free people of color that owned slaves.

Mother Henriette is in the process of sainthood. There are four phases, and two of them are complete. The venerable phase was decreed by Pope Benedict XVI on March 27, 2010.

The plaque honoring Henriette is on the sidewalk on Royal Street behind the St. Louis Cathedral. As a mixed-race slave owner, will the plaque honoring her and the Sisters of the Holy Family be removed if the city takes down statues and removes monuments that have anything to do with slavery?

Nothing will happen to that plaque because only the “don’t erase our history and heritage” crowd is talking about removing everything having to do with the bad old days of slavery with the exception of veteran local crackpot Malcolm Suber who represents only himself. Nobody that I’m aware of advocates “erasing” our checkered history as a bastion of the slave economy, certainly not the Mayor or City Council. This letter by Ms. DeSalvo is interesting because it points out the complexity of Louisiana history and the Creole heritage of New Orleans. Nobody has suggsted the removal of this plaque and it’s unlikely anyone will. The only reason one needs to create
straw men/women is if one’s case is as weak as this one.
Now that I’ve ridiculed two letters to the editor, there was a good one by local writer Jason Berry who should not be confused with Jason Brad Berry, the world’s only investigative zombie:
I’d like to see the statues of Lee and Gen. PGT Beauregard on horseback repositioned in a green area with newly-commissioned works: A grove of figures, to include the rebellious slave St. Malo, civil rights pioneer Homer Plessy and other historic figures, in City Park as a Forest of the Ancients for us and generations to come. Don’t hide them. Ground them in a new constellation of historical memory.
<snip>
The past is messy. It intrudes like an unwanted cousin, spilling wine and gravy at the supper table. But we cannot grow as a city or a people without an honest confrontation with that messy past.
I like idea of a Confederate sculpture garden that discusses these statues and their meaning in our history. Looks like a damn good way of preserving our “history and heritage” without all the moonlight and magnolias/lost cause crapola that pollutes most discussions of Southern history.
Finally, there’s one more straw man to address. This one comes courtesy of local libertarian lawyer and pundit, Owen Courrges, who writes for an otherwise fine online publication, the Uptown Messenger:

Even the ubiquitous symbol of the city, the fleur-de-lis, came under fire. Just this Friday,WWL-TV published an article by Wynton Yates entitled “Historians say fleur-de-lis has troubled history.” The piece quoted slave historian Dr. Ibrahima Seck as describing how slaves accused of fleeing “would be taken before a court and the sentence would be being branded on one shoulder and with the fleur-de-lis[.]”

Yates mused that “some may wonder whether there are parallels to the Confederate flag.”

At least he has the Courreges of his convictions, but he’s Owen us an explanation as to why he’s taking a piece by a baby reporter for WWL-TV so seriously. I know why: he needs a straw man to back up his thesis that the city’s “history and heritage” is being destroyed by having this discussion. He also failed to link to the piece he found so horrifying, which was written by a reporter who’s wet behind the ears as opposed to all wet…

Repeat after me: nobody is arguing for the expungement of the fleur de lis, which was imported to New Orleans by French royals who were long ago removed from power. The Courreges piece combines two forms of specious argument. First, our old pal, the straw man. Second, the slippery slope argument. Ain’t no slope slippery enough to make New Orleanians give up something that now symbolizes our beloved NFL team and the city’s resiliency after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood. Symbols have a way of changing over time, the best example being the swastika, which started life as a symbol of good fortune and now symbolizes genocidal Nazi depravity. At least the fleur de lis has come up in the world.

I’m glad we’re having this debate. I only wish people didn’t feel the need to create straw men and ascribe non-existent motives to various actors in this contemporary drama about the past. Nobody in power is trying to dismount General/President Jackson or rename his Square, which is a good thing since the crazy sumbitch may return from the grave and challenge all and sundry to a duel if anyone messes with the Square.

I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of the Jacksonian straw man but I did my best to knock it over without resorting to arson or mendacity. If only the “don’t erase our history and heritage” crowd could say the same.

NOTE ON FORMATTING: I *almost* lost this post. The only way I could save it was to cut and paste it from my Feedly reader. That, in turn, lead to some paragraphs getting squished together. I tried to fix it but couldn’t. Besides, what’s a little squishiness among friends?

11 thoughts on “The Fog Of History: The Jacksonian Straw Man

  1. skooks says:

    Another fun note about Jackson Square which, I know you already know, but is worth pointing out in this context. During the Union occupation of New Orleans, General Butler had the statue’s pedestal inscribed with the Jackson quote, “The Union Must And Shall Be Preserved.”

    Rather than pretending that statue is under any sort of threat, shouldn’t the neo-confederates themselves be clamoring to have it removed?

    Like

  2. gratuitous says:

    Not only the straw man arguments, but the ridiculous “all or nothing” inanities. “Oh, you want to take down all the slave stuff? Well, what about . . .” Nuance and subtlety is just lost on these knuckleheads. There’s no reason to censor these dopes, but there’s no reason the local media outlets need to provide them a platform, either.

    Like

    • Adrastos says:

      Exactly. It’s been driving me crazy. Speaking of nuance, I’m not sure if renaming Jefferson Davis Parkway, which is a long ass street is a good idea on a practical level. I’d let the residents and business owners on it decide.

      Like

  3. muddy says:

    Everything seems to be a slippery slope with these nitwits. Maybe they should get out of their slippers and put some damned outdoor shoes on.

    Like

  4. My argument isn’t a strawman or histrionics; it’s about the fact that once you start removing historic monuments on these types of grounds, there’s no really principled place to stop doing so. Any division is just a pretextual basis for stopping somewhere, because at its heart, this is simply a ridiculous endeavor.

    The lack of a principled argument for why this move to purge the public sphere should stop with Lee, Beauregard, or Davis, is why people are pointing out that many other symbols and monuments are around that commemorate persons deemed dubious by modern mores. If we removed monuments that a fair number of people later found offensive (and refuse to simply see as historic relics) we’d be removing a lot more than the four that Landrieu is discussing.

    Moreover, the only way you seem to work your way around this is with your own brand of histrionics, which is to say that any monument to a leader in the Confederacy is necessarily a monument to treason, white supremacy, eating babies, etc. That’s really not a fair-minded reading of a complex historical record. It’s not even the position of the federal government, which granted general amnesty.

    Even good ‘ol Jimmy Carter took a role by posthumously restoring Jefferson Davis’ citizenship in 1978, claiming it was necessary because “[o]ur Nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past[.]” Official US policy has long been against dismissing Confederate leaders in the manner you and Morial would, but that’s the only distinction you can rest on. I say it’s pathetically weak.

    Like

    • Mary says:

      I’m afraid you lost me when I realized you were afraid to have an adult conversation with an 80 year old white women. Was it because she was 80 or white or she might faint? You might give it another try. You might learn something.

      Like

      • Adrastos says:

        @Mary: It was not the time or place to have a political discussion. It was a social occasion and I preferred not to get into a row with my hostess. I was raised to be polite. She was not interested in a prolonged wrangle either. It’s the way civilized people deal with disagreements like this. The world would be a better place if more people agreed to disagree.

        Like

    • Adrastos says:

      @Owen: “Moreover, the only way you seem to work your way around this is with your own brand of histrionics, which is to say that any monument to a leader in the Confederacy is necessarily a monument to treason, white supremacy, eating babies, etc. That’s really not a fair-minded reading of a complex historical record. It’s not even the position of the federal government, which granted general amnesty.”

      It was an armed uprising against the Union Government that Lee himself referred to as treason in the years after the war. The federal government at the time chose forgiveness. The Lee monument is clearly an homage to white supremacy and the “redemption” of the South after Reconstruction. Timing is everything.

      The only thing that’s pathetically weak is your logic.

      Like

      • When the heck did Lee ever say that what he did was “treason?” I would definitely need a citation for that. Lee consistently opposed secession but felt that he couldn’t turn his back on his state and fight his own neighbors. Again, that’s a far more complex narrative that isn’t encompassed by simply slandering him as a traitor.

        As for timing, money started being raised just after Lee’s death. That’s the only reason for the timing.

        Like

  5. Southern Pride says:

    As a native New Orleanian, I don’t need a straw man, nor a logical argument. I only need to say that I love those old statues. They have been here 130+yrs, long before any of us. They add to the aesthetic quality of our city. Tourists come here every year, to see these Civil War monuments. What is New Orleans without history? Just a miserably hot/humid, crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, pothole-having, no-opportunity nightmare. Without our history, we have Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, po-boys, alcoholism, and the Saints. Not much else. The historical presence is what makes us New Orleans.

    The statues are part of our childhood memories. Many families, including mine, watched Mardi Gras @ Lee Circle, and played on the green fields in City Park, right across from General P.G.T Beauregard’s statue (a St. Bernard Parish native). Lee & Beauregard are men who defended the South from the aggressive Northern armies. For me, it’s about Southern pride, in addition to childhood memories. I am proud of this great land of these Southern United States. It’s home, it’s beautiful, it’s where the heart lives. God Bless ol’ Dixie! Let’s not forget, Atlanta was burned to the ground by Northern troops. Lest we forget the brave men who stood their ground, yet ultimately perished… the survivors wanted to honor their general, so they built Lee Circle. Or the struggle for the right to govern ourselves; a struggle that continues today. If you feel alienated in the South, I invite you to spend some time up North. They are neither hospitable nor welcoming. They don’t understand the South, or it’s wonderful charm. They don’t like us & look down on us. They think erroneously of us, as backwards, uneducated, ignorant, inbred, insect-eating buffoons. There exists an air of love, generosity, and inclusiveness in the South, you just can’t find up North. Our food, football, traditions, and yes, our heritage. Our love of the Good Lord & his risen son, Jesus Christ. These, and so many other reasons, cause my heart to swell with pride, when I ride by General Lee’s statue, and see him facing the North, as our protector from their judgment & hatred of the South.

    If anything, we should have pride in where we are from. Yes, these men where wrong about slavery. It’s something we should never forget. But the conflict between North & South goes much deeper; it’s more complex & cannot be reduced down to a single cause. For these reasons I’ve given, we should keep the Confederate monuments. And because the only way they’re coming down, is over my dead body.

    Like

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