Thursday, August 16, 2012

Two Virginia Icons and the Limits of Faith and Reason

If you read this blog at all, you'll know I'm from Virginia.  Fairfax county, sure, but born to a father from Richmond and raised with the myths of my native state.  The glorious past of the mother of presidents and all that.  Probably the most captivating part of those myths were the heroes -- Washington, Madison, Patrick Henry, JEB Stuart, Lighthorse Harry Lee, Jefferson, Robert E. Lee.  A whole host of dead patricians (or men of patrician pretensions) related through distant cousins and marriages of convenience.  But the ones that I liked best were Jefferson and Robert E Lee, for reason's I couldn't say.  Perhaps the idealized portrait of Jefferson the intellectual spoke to my own pretensions as a precocious 11 year old, or Lee's idealized, fatherly image image (filtered third hand from people who had read Douglass Southall Freedman) reminded me of my own father.

Now I no longer adhere to those myths*, though in many ways I'm glad I was raised with them -- myths can become touchstones even when they are abandoned or actively renounced.  Jefferson's hypocrisy about liberty and slavery, his refusal to free his slaves even when his revolutionary friends did their utmost to push him to do so, all of these have replaced the icon of my youth with something much more complicated.  With Lee, it seems as though the saintly figure portrayed by the myth had little relation to the deeply flawed man who broke his oath to his country and went to war to defend a nation built on slavery and built for its perpetuation.

Slavery is the essence of most of what is wrong with Lee* and with Jefferson.  They have little in common, other than slavery, their class and the state of their birth (three related facts); one was a deistic rationalist, the other a devout Episcopalian, one an intellectual, the other a career soldier who read little.

They both made noises about slavery being a necessary evil, and that it ought to die out in time, but neither, when they had ample opportunity, took steps to end it.  Jefferson, famously, did not free his slaves (even when his revolutionary friends tried to cajole him and help him do so), and he did nothing to use his influence to move Virginia away from slavery.  When the country began to split on sectional lines in  the early 19th century, Jefferson fought to defend slavery with favorable compromises -- he did nothing to bring about the gradual extinction that he supposedly desired (like, for instance, advocating for curtailing the number of future slave states).  Lee, of course, fought tooth and nail to preserve the confederacy, which was founded in opposition to Lincoln's gradualist anti-slavery program.  Lee kept the slaves inherited from his father in law, going so far as to oversee their whipping on at least one occasion.   So both failed the test that seems most obvious to us -- shall we keep human beings as property?

And this is the dark heart of the matter -- nothing in either of their philosophies or faiths gave them the moral clarity or the simple courage to actively reject slavery.  Lee's staunch Episcopalian faith did not keep him from ordering slaves whipped, and Jefferson's rational humanism did not prevent him from holding onto his slaves or bedding them.

Some people will say that Christianity (or, less coherently 'judeo-christian morality'*) is the only true guarantee of moral behavior.  To this we can point to Lee and Jackson and thousands of other God-fearing slaveholders, whose religion did not forbid and even encouraged their holding other human beings in bondage.

Others will say that reason is the only real source of moral guidance and that eliminating religion will free humans of their mental shackles and allow them to live truly compassionate lives.  And yet, Jefferson and his fellow Enlightened Virginians did not see a rational dictate that they free their slaves -- they saw an inevitable evil, certainly, but not an imperative that would inconvenience them or help black people in any way.  Jefferson noted with interest instances of intelligent black men, like the surveyor and amateur astronomer Benjamin Banneker, but examples like that did not convince him that he should free his slaves -- they were curiosities, certainly, but nothing that would change his opinion.

Here faith and reason are not the impetus behind moral behavior, but only offer an after the fact justification for self-interest, emotion and social conditioning.  In the case of Lee and Jefferson, their actions had nothing to do with what they believed and everything to do with the world in which they lived, and in their lack of courage, rather than any deficiency in their first principles.

Using this example, I would be suspicious of any claims that a particular faith or philosophy will make people better or worse.  The factors that make us good or bad don't seem to be contained in our creeds, but in our surroundings and, in a few rare and heroic occasions (the Grimke sisters come to mind) in our hearts.

*with Lee there is the whole 'leading an army of rebels against the nation he swore to defend' thing as well

**There is no such religion as 'judeo-christianity', and the two religions thus combined differ greatly in theology and moral philosophy

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