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If Liberty Dies in Our Hearts, no Constitution Law or Court Can Save It: A Meditation on Independence Day in the Trump Era

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been contemplating the ideas of liberty and freedom this week. I intentionally did not watch the President’s speech at Mount Rushmore for after what he did at Lafayette Park and in front of St. John’s Church on June 2nd showed me that when he speaks of freedom, he speaks of his own, and when he speaks of liberty it is for the few, and servitude for the masses, and yes those masses include the bulk of the men and women that blindly follow him. So instead I read the official transcript today and look at images and videos as well.

Nothing I read in it surprised me. It was as scripted as Leni Reifenstahl’s Film of the Nuremberg rallies, right to Trump making a flyover in Air Force One. After a series of platitudes invoking the President’s whose images are carved on that mountain, and a brief mention of American greatness, which he promised would “soon be greater.”  He made a perfunctory reference to the Declaration’s words that “all men are created equal,” words that only serve to camouflage a life and presidency that denies them, the protections of the Bill of Rights, and the guardrails of the Constitution and our institutions that curb the ability of one man to violate the Constitution and our laws, and surrender our nation into the hands of an avowed enemy, Russia, in word, thought, and deed.

He then went into a diatribe against attacking statues and memorials around the country, without mentioning that the primary memorials were those to Confederates, Slave Owners, traders, as well as those that helped exterminate the vast majority of indigenous, or native peoples of this land including the ancestors of the people who protested outside the park, for the land had been ceded to their ancestors in the Treaty of Laramie of 1868, and was considered sacred to the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Sioux, and Arapahoe tribes that agreed to that treaty with the United States. .I will come back to that later.

Interestingly, he mentioned the Battle of Gettysburg and other Civil War battles without mentioning why they were fought, at was as if the rebellion of the Confederacy a nation founded “upon the cornerstone of slavery,”  In Trump’s speech it was was if the cause of the Confederate rebellion never existed, and the lives shed to preserve the Union and in turn emancipate Black slaves didn’t matter. Like everything else in  his speech it was designed to camouflage and obscure his actions to disenfranchise Blacks, and to treat them as less than citizens, because for him the understanding is that Black Rights do not matter, and the rallying cry of many “Black Lives Matter” is uniquely anti-American and anti-freedom, that is his understanding that it is his freedom, and the liberty of the few that matter. No one else.

Of course  slavery, its continued existence where it was already legal as well is expansion by whatever means into new territories, reintroducing it to the Free States, and invading Cuba, and Central American nations to expand it, was the first reason cited in every Confederate State’s ordinance of Secession, and in Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’  Cornerstone Speech. 

In his speech, Trump never mentioned slavery, emancipation, of for that matter the evils committed in the name of racism against newly freed Blacks, Jim Crow, the thousands of Lynchings, the massacre of whole towns, or sections of cities by the terrorist paramilitaries of the White Leagues, Red Shirts, White Liners, and of course the Ku Klux Klan, of which Trump’s father was a member of, even being arrested at a Klan demonstration in New York in the 1920s.

He made no distinctions, but lumped anyone who disagreed with him into people who hated the United States and it’s history and were determined to overthrow America. It was a speech as vilifying as any made by Senator Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s. This should not be surprising, because Trump’s mentor was none other than McCarthy’s counsel when he was shot down in his crusade to accuse Army leaders of being communists, or supporting communism, Roy Cohn, in 1954.

In effect Trump declared over 60% of Americans were revolutionaries and traitors, with the implication that only he could stop them. It was about his authoritarian vision of Law and Order. It was Orwellian in structure. Based on his actions at Lafayette Park, I know what he will do if he feels threatened. His speech at Mount Rushmore was a prelude to what he will do if he gets the chance, and if the military follows his orders. As a historian I wanted to throw up.

But, back to that mountain and the land around it. As I mentioned, that land was ceded by treaty to the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Sioux, and the Arapaho in 1868. The treaty was to be observed by all parties. Instead in less than years, the treaty was revoked with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills  in 1877, though incidents of U.S. citizens violating the treaty went unpunished by the U.S. Government which also hamstrung and prevented the Sioux from punishing offenders. For Americans guided by Manifest Destiny it was only the latest action in a century of American crimes against humanity in the continued genocide of the indigenous tribes that began when Europeans colonized the Americas beginning in the 1500s, but in the British colonies beginning beginning at Jamestown in 1607, and the Plymouth Bay, later the Massachusetts Bay Colony a Little over a decade later.

Judge Learned Hand 

I will finish this article with an excerpt of Judge Learned Hand, of the 2nd Appeals Court, considered by many to be the greatest American jurist never appointed to the Supreme Court. In his I am an American Speech of May 21st 1944 in New York’s Central Park he addressed nearly a million and a half people, in a speech given at a naturalization ceremony for new immigrant citizens. In it he stressed that all Americans were immigrants who had come to America in search of liberty. Liberty, he said, was not located in America’s constitutions, laws, and courts, but in the hearts of the people.

In the most frequently cited section of the speech he said:

What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it… What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

The interesting thing is that while Hand referenced Jesus in the speech, is that he had abandoned the Christian Faith while at Harvard, and became an agnostic and skeptic, that he at least hoped for some kind of cosmic justice where the least would be equal to the greatest. Likewise, his words as to what freedom really is stand in stark contrast to everything Trump and his loyal supporters who consider everyone else an enemy and traitor, as Hand so rightly predicted:

What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow.

Sadly, we have seen that happen before our very eyes and it will continue for as long as Trump is in power or people who follow his  totalitarian beliefs, and perversions of history, overt racism, and denial of civil, voting, economic and religious rights of his opponents is practiced, be it at the Federal, state, or local level. Trump and his most committed followers are savage, with no understanding, appreciation, or respect of the culture, laws, and freedoms, they presume to defend.

Tonight, I watched the film Gettysburg. It is one of my favorites, even though it can cut though its errors, and somewhat mythologized depiction of some of the leaders portrayed in the movie. But in it there is an exchange between Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and an old Irish former Regular Army soldier named Buster Kilrain, who is more of a composite character than an actual historical character, but it is worth mentioning, because it contradicts everything that Trump shows in thought, word and deed on a daily basis. I can identify with Kilrain. As someone who is roughly 43% Irish by my DNA, and the son of a Navy Chief, educated in desegregated public schools and universities, I could not be considered a part of Trump’s sheltered rich, white elite. Likewise, as a Priest, career military officer and seminary graduate, there is much I can identify with in Chamberlain. The dialogue between the men is fascinating because it reveals my own inner struggle as a human being.

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: Tell me something, Buster. What do you think of Negroes?

Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Well, if you mean the race, I don’t really know. This is not a thing to be ashamed of. The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time.

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: To me, there was never any difference.

Pvt. Buster Kilrain: None at all?

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: None at all. Of course, I haven’t known that many freed men, but those I knew in Bangor, Portland, you look in the eye, there was a man. There was a “divine spark,” as my mother used to call it. That is all there is to it. Races are men. “What a piece of work is man. How infinite in faculties, in form and moving. How express and admirable. In action, how like an angel.”

Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Well, if he’s an angel, all right then. But he damn well must be a killer angel. Colonel, darling, you’re a lovely man. I see a great vast difference between us, yet I admire you, lad. You’re an idealist, praise be. The truth is, Colonel, there is no “divine spark.” There’s many a man alive no more of value than a dead dog. Believe me. When you’ve seen them hang each other the way I have back in the Old Country. Equality? What I’m fighting for is the right to prove I’m a better man than many of them. Where have you seen this “divine spark” in operation, Colonel? Where have you noted this magnificent equality? No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance. Not a leaf, not a tree. There’s many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don’t think race or country matters a damn. What matters, Colonel, is  justice. Which is why I’m here. I’ll be treated as I deserve. Not as my father deserved. I’m Kilrain, and I damn all gentlemen. There is only one aristocracy, and that is right here. [taps his temple]And that’s why we’ve got to win this war.

Today, I find myself agreeing with them and Judge Learned Hand. President Trump has declared war on a majority of American citizens, including me. On June 2nd for the first time in my life I felt like a President of the United States was threatening me, as a Priest, a citizen, and Naval Officer. I felt that again in his Mount Rushmore speech. I will respect his office and obey lawful orders, but my oath is to the Constitution of the United States, and not political leader or party. I will not remain silent when he attacks the very foundations of the United States to protect the racist monuments of the Confederacy and the other sordid actions of Americans, and other people who enslaved and committed genocide in the name of race and religion.

Donald Trump is an existential threat to every American who values liberty and freedom, and a man who would destroy his country in order to enrich and save himself, although I wonder if there can be salvation for anyone like him.

So, don’t forget why Independence Day matters, what our history really teaches, and that those who oppose Trump do not want to overthrow the United States, but seek to uphold and advance its highest ideals while being absolutely honest as to where we have failed as individuals and a nation to do so. That is patriotism. What Trump proclaims is a toxic nationalism. Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote in his book On Tyranny:

The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,” wrote Orwell, tends to be “uninterested in what happens in the real world.” Nationalism is relativist, since the only truth is the resentment we feel when we contemplate others. As the novelist Danilo Kiš put it, nationalism “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.” A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.

Trump is a nationalist in the tradition of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Putin, the Kims of North Korea, Erdogan, and so many other nationalists only concerned about their power over a state that can make their wishes come true.

So until tomorrow, with thoughts of true freedom, independence and the protections of basic human rights for all,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Statues With Limitations: Part One


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past week I have written a number of articles about what happened in Charlottesville and I have promised to write something about the Confederate Monument controversy. Last night I posted an article about that controversy in light of one particular monument in Colfax, Louisiana, the site of one of the most brutal massacres committed in the name of White Supremacy in our nation’s history. I do hope that you read it and share it. 

Likewise I have I have posted quite a few articles and links to articles regarding what happened at Charlottesville and the subsequent debate about removing Confederate statues on my Facebook and Twitter pages. 

Today I am beginning a two part article dealing with my thoughts on the monuments themselves. This section is more of a background article before part two which will deal with my thoughts about the monuments themselves in the broader context of them, as well as other monuments not necessarily connected with the Confederate monuments. 

First, as to the Confederate Monuments, my comments are not meant to impugn the lives of people’s ancestors. My family on both my paternal and maternal sides fought as members of the 8th Virginia Cavalry on the side of the Confederacy even though their part of Virginia officially sided with the Union. One of them, the family patriarch on my paternal side was a slave holder who after the war refused to swear his allegiance to the United States and probably was a member of White Supremacist groups after the war. There is no doubt of what he fought for, and the fact that he was a traitor and remained a traitor to our country. I don’t know as many details about the maternal side except they were part of the same regiment, except that they were not subject to conscription and as such all volunteered willingly to fight against the United States. For that is a problem, I find it hard to honor their military service because it was against the United States. There are no records that I know of, no letters that they wrote which say what they thought, and they are not “mentioned in dispatches” (the manner in which the Confederate Army honored soldiers) for any particular gallantry, in fact the history of the regiment mentions that my paternal family patriarch deserted in February of 1865. 

I do draw a distinction between the kinds of men that served in the Confederate Army. In particular I make a distinction between those that were eager volunteers for the Confederacy and those who were unwilling conscripted in the Confederate Draft beginning in early 1862 because the Confederate Army could not get enough willing volunteers. These men were drafted, often against their will. Most had no means to pay for a substitute or did not have political connections. Interestingly one of the notable exemptions to the Confederate Draft were the men who were exempted  because they owned more than ten slaves or worked for someone that owned more than 20 slaves. This was known as the Twenty Slave Rule, which modified in Draft Law of 1864 to 15 slaves. As you can imagine many poor Whites who owned no slaves found the rule to be quite unjust, but privilege is just that, quite unjust. 

As a result the conscripts were frequently abused by the willing volunteers and frequently deserted. When found, most were summarily executed following a Drumhead Trial. As the war became more desperate, deserters were summarily exectuted without trial. Hundreds of deserters from the Army of Northern Virginia were executed in the last months of the war by the direct order of Robert E. Lee simply because they were trying to go home to their families who had been displaced by the advance of Sherman’s army in Georgia and the Carolinas. These men were victims of the war and secessionist leaders as much as anyone. If you read some of their letters they are heartbreaking. 

Those who volunteered to serve the Confederate cause, especially men who had been officers in the United States Army or Navy no-matter their reason for serving the Confederacy, their gallantry as soldiers, battlefield heroics, leadership skills, or tactical brilliance were traitors to the United States. Yes they were Americans, and many had served honorably before the Civil War, but that makes them no less traitors. After the war a good number of the survivors reconciled with the Union, opposed the growing myth of the Lost Cause, and took no part in subsequent violence or in implementing discriminatory measures against the now free Blacks. Among the most prominent of these men were Lee’s lieutenants James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, John Mosby, and Billy Mahone. I have no doubt that A.P. Hill would have joined them had he not been killed in action at the end of the war, and following the war his widow opposed Jubal Early and other proponents of the Lost Cause. Robert E. Lee himself did reconcile and opposed the use of the Confederate flags, uniforms, and monuments. I will explore Lee’s actions before, during and after the war in another article that I have already started to draft. 

Interestingly, very few monuments, except those on battlefields are dedicated to these men in the South, except from Robert E. Lee who ironically wanted no part of them. Nor are there monuments in the South to Southern officers who remained loyal to the Union during the war including Generals Winfield Scott, George Thomas, John Buford, John Gibbon, Montgomery Miegs, and Admiral David Farragut. 

Likewise there is another class of men who have to be considered when dealing with the Monument Controversy. These were the political leaders whose actions led directly to the deaths of three quarters of a million men, including hundreds of thousands of Southern men, and the destruction of much of the South. How even the most devoted Southerner who wants to honor their soldiers can tolerate monuments to these leaders in their back yards is beyond me. These were also the men who ensured that every state legislature made sure that the primary reason they gave for secession in their various articles of secession was preserving and expanding slavery, while maintain white superiority. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens noted in his Cornerstone Speech:

“Our new Government 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; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

There is a final group that needs to be considered. These were Confederate veterans, including notables like General Nathan Bedford Forrest, as well as men who did not serve in the war who joined paramilitaries that terrorized and killed newly free blacks. There were others who established the Black Codes which were pre-Jim Crow laws that placed many former slaves into a form of slavery by other means, imprisoning them and making them forced laborers on plantations, and businesses, many owned by Northerners. 

Racism and slavery was at the heart of the war, and it was not just a Southern problem. Many Northern businesses and banks had a strong financial interest in slavery, and there was a strong anti-war, pro-Confederate movement in the North that fully approved of slavery, the post-war Black Codes, and Jim Crow. Likewise there were many Northerners who were just as racist before, during and after the war. There were and are still are many Sundown Towns in the North and states that were never a part of the Confederacy. In no way can Northerners be fully excused from the crime of slavery, nor can they be absolved of being as racist any pro-slavery Confederate or Jim Crow proponent. Some of these men have monuments built in their honor which likewise should be examined if we are going to talk about the Confederate monuments. 

As to the monuments themselves, the vast majority were erected after the Plessy v. Ferguson case that legalized the Jim Crow Laws and empowered the movement to disenfranchise blacks, to fire them from positions in Federal and State governments, and to use violence against Blacks to keep them in line. Almost all of the monuments which were erected between 1895 and 1930 were put up not to honor the men who served but to remind Blacks of their status. The same is true of the next major surge of monument building which occurred during the Civil Rights movement, again to demonstrate to Blacks that they were subordinate to Whites, and many of these monuments were erected in places where no Confederate soldiers came from, and others which commemorate men who committed terrorist acts and murder against Blacks in the years after the war. In many case these monuments are located in cities and towns that are heavily African American. Two of these are no far from where I live in Norfolk and Portsmouth Virginia. They have different histories which I think leads to a discussion about their context. 

So, that is some of the background. I’ve written a lot about slavery, secession, and Jim Crow and will put some of those articles out again, and tomorrow I will have my proposal on what I think should be done with the various monuments. This will take into the context each type of monument and how to respectfully deal with them and how people feel about them, both opponents and supporters. In looking at what I wrote here the series may well be more than two parts. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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