“When the 118th Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, its members will walk the halls of a building whose paintings and statues pay homage to 141 enslavers.” Thus begins one of the lowest of low points in the history of the Washington Post, in this lengthy attempt to portray how slavery was implicitly honored in the choices for subjects of the artwork inside the U.S. Capitol.
But the ploy doesn’t work: first, the pictures are not self-explanatory. How many of the pieces portray the “enslavers” brutalizing their property? How would we know these people are “enslavers” without further context or explanation? Does the artwork depict the selling or buying of their slaves? Or do they portray men doing manly things? Generals? Are they chosen from a particular state? More precisely, let us say more about this “enslaver” word. What justifies its usage?
We would have to know about the subject’s character and deeds. Slaveowner may have been one trait, but surely there were others as well. Are the subjects recalled in art because they owned slaves? Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are or used to be known to Americans for many other reasons.
Of course, given the longevity of “wokeness,” everyone now knows that George Washington owned slaves. How he treated them and planned for them is another, perhaps paramount issue. How his consciousness concerning who his slaves were is also of note, but not to those interested in compiling numbers. These types would overlook the importance of a world in which the distinction between military and civilian rule is essential and an eventful break. Washington was the decisive person to make real that distinction in the modern world. But to the Post’s readers that isn’t relevant. Jesse Jackson claimed the United States was under military rule during the first years of the Constitution.
Surely the purpose of the lengthy essay and illustrations (including an interactive version for online readers) was not to make slavery routine and, therefore, acceptable. No, clearly, the purpose is to horrify and make these men (and one woman, Martha Washington) being enslavers the most fundamental fact about them—perhaps even to the point of inspiring some to want to vandalize the paintings and statues in a woke January 6 orgy. How can they deny this would be one purpose of such a lengthy diatribe?
But let’s stick with the political purpose behind the probe: to extend the reach of the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” To show that the mentality of the artists was to accept the evil of slavery. Why else are those portraits and statues there?
But this project is betrayed by the Post’s concession:
Just as governments and institutions across the country struggle with the complex and contradictory legacies of celebrated historical figures with troubling racial records, so too does any effort to catalogue the role of the Capitol artworks’ subjects in the institution of slavery. [The Post’s] analysis, for example, includes at least four enslavers—Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Rufus King and Bartolomé de las Casas—who voluntarily freed the people they enslaved and publicly disavowed slavery while they were living. Other people, such as Daniel Webster and Samuel Morse, were vocal defenders of slavery but did not themselves enslave people; artworks honoring them are not counted in The Post’s tally.
Here the Post makes a concession that exposes the dishonesty of the story. If it overcounts and undercounts some for the reasons they give, then many if not most of their categories are absurd on their face.
First, it would be difficult to say that Daniel Webster (New Hampshire and Massachusetts) was a “vocal defender” of slavery. It is true he supported the compromise of 1850, which made concessions to the slave states, including federal fugitive slave laws. But did that choice—one that could have been made for any number of reasons—in itself really make him a “vocal defender of slavery”?
The Post admits the possible overinclusion of those who freed their slaves and, in a puzzling formulation, “publicly disavowed slavery while they were living.” The Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas protested the enslavement of New World natives, conceded the legitimacy of enslaving Africans, and then came to condemn all slavery.
But, most stunning of all, the Post does not count George Washington among anti-slavery Americans. After all, if the Post decided to write about the anti-slavery, “freedom national” statesmen, wouldn’t they need to start with Washington—that is, those who owned slaves (“enslavers”), who eventually freed them? The way the Post counts, one apparently can never erase the mark of having owned slaves.
Something people forget, after all, is that a slave was expensive. I often ask self-righteous students who insist they would not have owned slaves, whether they have ever voluntarily given away anything as valuable as a slave (e.g., a car). This is not to compare a person to a car but to make the student understand the degree of sacrifice involved in the choice they purport to think was so easy. I further ask them if they have ever considered the risk of retaliation from former property, as one quite reasonably might expect from an angry former slave.
Abraham Lincoln warned against such self-serving moralizing in his Peoria address in October 1854. He did, however, note the unanimity, north and south, condemning the character of the slave-trader.
Before proceeding, let me say that I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us [in Illinois], we should not instantly give it up.—This I believe of the masses North and South.—Doubtless there are individuals on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances, and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.
But the Post proceeds without any of Lincoln’s charity—which too many uninitiated readers mistake for a lack of moral certitude on Lincoln’s part about the evil of slavery. Late in the Civil War he would write a letter to newspaper editor Albert Hodges: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
Moreover, why isn’t the signing of the Declaration, the subject of the first painting interpreted in the article, presented as an anti-slavery painting? After all, slavery was legal in all the colonies; after independence, the New England and mid-Atlantic states prohibited it. In Chief Justice Roger Taney’s view of the Declaration, if it was signed by slaveholders, it must be a pro-slavery document. But that was not the view of most of its signatories, who knew the difference between a compromise of tactics and a compromise of principle.
But what prevails today is the understanding of Taney, not the writings or deeds of Washington and Jefferson, as we see in the presumptions of the Post’s feature. Of course, the Democrats expunged the bust of Taney, that is to say, the icon, thinking that thereby they also vanquished the evil principle. Ironically, that principle remains, despite their fulminations and, in fact, because of them. Democrats, like the author of the Post’s article, confuse anti-racism with anti-slavery. No matter, values like tastes change. Why not have a feature article on gender fluidity deniers in Capitol art?
In my preferred presentation of Capitol art, who would the anti-enslavers be? Lincoln, John Brown, John Quincy Adams?
What about Ulysses S. Grant, brought up in an Ohio abolitionist family but whose wife brought him slaves in their marriage, which he used at the farming property in Missouri her family gave him? But if we allow Grant to avoid the tarnish of “enslaver” on account of the liberation the Union army brought to thousands of slaves, where does this end? The statue of Grant that stands on guard on its west side, facing the Mall, answers the Post’s silly categorization of him as an “enslaver.”
Consider as well the Kentucky “enslaver” John Marshall Harlan, who served in the Union army and afterward became the “Great Dissenter” on the U.S. Supreme Court, writing dissenting opinions expanding the scope of the Reconstruction Amendments, including the “color-blind constitution” dissent of Plessy v. Ferguson. Can there be a greater example of an “enslaver” who transformed himself into a republican citizen?
And to make things even more perplexing, what of “enslaver” Andrew Johnson, who barely escaped Senate conviction after having been impeached by the House? Lincoln chose Johnson, whom he appointed as military governor of Tennessee, as his vice president in order to promote postwar national unity. Johnson opposed secession and eventually supported emancipation. Indeed, August 8, 1863, in Tennessee preceded Juneteenth 1865 in Texas (now a national holiday) as emancipation day.
Thus, Johnson presided over the liberation of slaves in Tennessee, including his own. None of this ennobles his opposition to Reconstruction. But we today should at least acknowledge that it is harder for a slaveowner to take the lead and emancipate his own slaves and those of his family, friends, neighbors, and political allies than to pontificate about the evils of slavery in the abstract as the bloviator Charles Sumner did. The Post’s attempted take-down concludes:
When the Taney bust was first proposed in 1865, many lawmakers condemned the idea of honoring him because he had written the Dred Scott decision [which, of course, led to the Civil War, just concluded]. Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) said on the Senate floor that ‘the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgment is beginning now; and an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.’ Sumner was right—but he probably didn’t anticipate that it would take a century and a half.
Lincoln destroyed Taney’s arguments on behalf of slavery as the source of American exceptionalism. If one agrees with Lincoln, why present a long denunciation, derived from Taney, of the art in that Capitol as pro-enslaver? It makes far more sense to see that the artwork honors those who acted, fought, and died on behalf of freedom. And freedom means not only the right not to be a slave. Lincoln defined slavery as “you work, and I eat.” By this appropriate definition of slavery, the Post’s count will, in fact, have to be altered.