A Facebook post this morning from my rector says that someone has defaced the Francis Scott Key monument in Bolton Hill, and a commenter is quick to chime in that Key was a slaveholder, an opponent of abolition, and a racist, deserving no monument.
The defense that the monument commemorates the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of the poem that became the national anthem can take us only so far, because Key was a slaveholder, an opponent of abolition, and a racist. Moreover, the third verse of his poem, which we never sing, mentions the “hireling and slave,” obliquely referring to British efforts in the War of 1812 to enlist America’s slaves against their masters.
Key was a more complex man than the schoolroom account of the battle and writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” would suggest, as a Baltimore Sun article has explored.
But how far should we extend our retrospective virtue?* Just about all nineteenth-century white people except Quakers and a handful of abolitionists were racist in our understanding. It was commonly held that black people were inferior to white people and that the races could not exist on a level of equality.
And there are the slaveholders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington freed slaves in his will, and Jefferson understood that slavery was an evil threatening the republic he had worked to establish, but he could not figure out how to extricate himself from it.
For people enmeshed in the slave economy, slavery was taken as a given (as it is in the Bible). The halting efforts to end it, by gradual emancipation, repatriation to Africa, and other methods all failed. It took a devastating Civil War that killed more than 600,000 people and destroyed the South’s economy to end it, and its effects linger to this day. There was no easy way out of slavery.
I wonder how subsequent generations will look at us, enmeshed as we are in corporate capitalism, which, apart from its benefits, dislocates workers, disrupts communities, damages the environment, and perpetuates poverty, all because its principal and perhaps sole value, as enunciated by Milton Friedman, is to maximize shareholder value. How do you suppose we’ll look to the next century?
It’s not a bad idea to look at our monuments and talk about what they signify, but to do so intelligently means looking into the complexities and ambiguities of the past instead of the cartoon histories we are familiar with.
* Shall we take St. Joan of Arc off the liturgical calendar because she supported oppressive monarchical feudalism?