No Southern pride over slave legacy

Comment

September 10, 2000|By NORRIS WEST

THE QUESTIONABLE deal that transferred 16 acres of property to an old friend of County Executive Janet S. Owens got my attention, simply because the county has become a poster child for bad government practices.

But I'll have to put aside that issue for a while. The county executive's friend, William Franklin Chaney, got my blood boiling with other remarks he made in a profile by Sun reporter Scott Calvert while discussing the Civil War and slavery.

Mr. Chaney finds himself in the news quite often for someone who considers himself a private man.

The last time he made the papers, it was for doing something good. He donated money to a reward fund, thus helping Annapolis police arrest and charge a man for vandalizing the statue of the late African-American legislator and physician Aris T. Allen.

But usually, he's in the limelight while championing the Confederate cause. The statue of Confederate soldier Benjamin Welch Owens (an ancestor of the county executive) stands in Lothian, largely because of Mr. Chaney. And the southern Anne Arundel County man plans to erect a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee near the Antietam battlefield grounds.

County residents have reminded me over the past 17 months that despite what historians tell us, the real Mason-Dixon Line bisects Anne Arundel County. Somewhere in or south of Annapolis -- perhaps it's South River -- the Confederate heart still beats.

Those hearts beat with pride, honoring the valiant men who died for their cause.

But the hearts should beat with shame. The shame over honoring men who fought to preserve an inhumane system -- a system in which one race brutally and sometimes fatally subjugated another.

The folks in southern Arundel and elsewhere in the South seek to whitewash that history and the Civil War.

States' rights, they say, was the Confederacy's singular goal. It wasn't about slavery.

Mr. Chaney repeated that lie in the profile last week. He told Mr. Calvert that slavery wasn't a key factor in the Civil War, which he no doubt refers to as the War of Northern Aggression.

He repeated another lie: "Lee was against slavery," he said.

Let's take one at a time.

Jefferson Davis threatened secession a decade before South Carolina and then Mississippi finally withdrew from the union. Secession would come, he said, unless slavery was extended to the western territories.

When he was inaugurated as the Confederacy's president, his vice president, Alexander Stephens, stated clearly what states' rights were all about.

"Our new government is founded on the opposite idea of the equality of the races," Stephens said on Feb. 18, 1861. "It's cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. This ... government is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical and moral truth."

Southern pride? Or shame?

When he resigned from the U.S. Senate two months before his inauguration, Davis said secessionist states had "the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children." However, just about the only thing Davis inherited from his father was the right to own a slave. He was born into a family of modest means in Wilkinson County, Miss., but his father owned slaves. The elder Davis gave each of his children a slave -- their birthright unshorn.

Indeed, the right to own slaves was an integral part of the Confederates' state's rights. You can't separate the two, just as you can't extract hydrogen from oxygen and still have water.

Mr. Chaney traces his roots to Robert E. Lee, who became a traitor to his country when he joined the Confederacy.

Mr. Chaney likes to think that his ancestor was antislavery. But Lee was said to believe that slavery existed because God willed it to exist, a common justification back then. But don't blame God for slavery. People -- including Lee and Davis -- willed it to exist.

After the war, Lee told a Reconstruction committee that he "was always in favor of emancipation -- gradual emancipation."

But he owned slaves and participated in the slave trade and the recapture of escaped slaves.

Antislavery he was not.

Those who want to celebrate the Confederacy certainly should. Unlike blacks in the antebellum South, they are free to do many things. But they can't deceive themselves or anyone else into believing that they honor noble people and a noble cause.

When they salute the Southern cause, they praise a contemptible idea and the combatants who fought for states' rights to make sure other humans had none.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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