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14th of November 2018

Opinion



How the battle over the Supreme Court reflects hostility in politics

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the past, Republicans accepted Democratic nominees. Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor were confirmed by 63 and 68 votes, respectively. Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg received an astonishing 87 and 98 votes, respectively. These jurists were not their choice, but Republicans did not filibuster any of them.

The battle over the Supreme Court merely reflects the hostility that underlies American politics today. It is fashionable to blame President Donald Trump for all the nation’s ills. However, his success grew out of the political war that liberals have been waging on the American people for years.

Abraham Lincoln observed that all the armies of the Earth could not take over America. Rather, he warned: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time or die by suicide.” In other words, we will destroy ourselves.

He knew of what he spoke. A terrible civil war tore our nation apart and almost ended this great experiment in self-government. Once the conflict ended there was no guarantee that Americans would come back together. Ironically, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, one of Lincoln’s greatest antagonists, demonstrated how to do so.

It is sad that today it is controversial to say anything good about those who fought for the South. But we should be careful judging people who lived in a different time with today’s standards.

Only occasionally do people rise above their time, like Lincoln. Unfortunately, Lee did not, viewing Virginia as his “country.”

But the Confederate commander helped make up for that by emphasizing reconciliation once the conflict ended. To start, he rejected proposals to dissolve his army and fight a guerrilla war. “The Confederacy has failed,” he explained: “we must consider only the effect which our actions will have upon the country at large.” The impact of an insurgency would be horrendous.

When the fighting ended, he urged his countrymen to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. He also discouraged Southern leaders from fleeing abroad: “It would be better for them and their country if they remained at their homes and shared the fate of their respective States.”

He rejected proposals that he run for office or endorse business ventures. Instead, he took over failing Washington College. He spent the last five years of his life helping educate the South’s future leaders.

Moreover, he rejected attempts to promote the “Lost Cause.” In response to a campaign to erect monuments to Southern generals, he worried that the impact would be “continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the southern people labor.” Regarding a memorial at Gettysburg, he wrote “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

White nationalists might rally in defense of statues of Lee, but if alive he likely would reject their support. Shortly after the war’s end, he attended services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the minister prepared to administer communion a black man advanced to the altar, causing whites to freeze. Until Lee walked to the front.

Lee was not the “Marble Man” of myth, but a real human being who lived through disunion, conflict and occupation. After the war he was penniless, his investments largely valueless and his wife’s inherited home, Arlington, turned into a military cemetery.

His world had been turned upside down. Yet he never lost sight of what was best for his reunited nation.

The United States faces extraordinary challenges today. But Americans have overcome even greater trials in the past. And have done so by sacrificing their personal antagonisms and interests to something larger. We must come together in the same way today.

• Susan A. Carleson is the chairman and president of the American Civil Rights Union.

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