Dear ASALH Members and Friends:
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History rejects the appropriateness of memorializing persons whose support of slavery led them to disavow their loyalty to the United States. We do not hold as heroes men who took actions that led to war and to the formation of their own separate nation and government, with its attendant national capital, president, congress, military, its separate monetary system, and flag. And all this in order to preserve human bondage! Thus, ASALH makes a clear distinction between the Founding Fathers’ motivations that led to the Revolutionary War and the Secessionists’ motivations that led to the Civil War and the establishment of the Confederacy.
America’s Founding Fathers, though notable members among them were slaveholders, called themselves “Patriots,” as they went to war armed with words about the equality of mankind and the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. The Founding Fathers were imperfect men, but in 1776 they wrote a glorious document, the Declaration of Independence, which would inspire subsequent generations to strive to make its wording ring true.
In the 1840s and 1850s African American leaders like Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and Sojourner Truth adopted the words of the Declaration to demand freedom for the slaves and the rights of women. In 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln invoked the language and spirit of the Declaration in his famous Gettysburg Address, when he stated that “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” To equate, then, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with the Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee represents more than a mere inaccuracy. Such a statement represents the very antithesis of the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance-“one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
ASALH follows in the tradition of its founder Carter G. Woodson, who praised the leadership of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as that of Abraham Lincoln. In doing so, however, Woodson, called attention to a more complete and honest rendering of the historical record. He wrote: “We should not learn less of George Washington, but we should learn something also of the three thousand Negro soldiers of the American Revolution who helped to make this ‘Father of Our Country’ possible. We should not fail to appreciate the unusual contribution of Thomas Jefferson to freedom and democracy, but we should invite attention to one of his outstanding contemporaries, Benjamin Banneker, the mathematician, astronomer.” Regarding the Civil War, Woodson emphasized that “we should not cease to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln, but we should ascribe praise to the 178,975 Negroes who had to be mustered into service of the Union before it could be preserved, and who by their heroism demonstrated that they were entitled to freedom and citizenship.”
With unceasing commitment to liberty and justice for all, ASALH joins in solidarity with those persons and organizations that renounce Confederate monuments.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham
ASALH National President