Take That, Johnny Reb

IMG00465-20110629-1909It’s not every day that I called away for an impromptu business trip to Cleveland, set to begin about five hours after I got the notice. In fact, it’s happened exactly once–on last Monday. But I seized the opportunity to do a little evening sightseeing in one of the great American cities. And spare me your Cleveland jokes: the core of the city is far cleaner, fuller of public spaces, and more architecturally interesting than anything we’ve got in Florida. For example, the view from the office or from Lake Erie looking back toward downtown.

In the course of one of my evening walks, I took the picture you see at right. It’s the front element of the massive Soldiers and Sailors Monument that stands in the heart of Cleveland’s Public Square. (That’s Terminal Tower in the background, a classic and beautiful American building.) Built in 1896, the monument is the triumphal Yankee counterpart to the somber Confederate sentries that stand in almost every town square in the South, including Lakeland and my hometown of Palatka.

My family goes back in Palatka until at least 1884. My great, great grandmother and great, great aunt were charter members of Palatka’s Daughters of the Confederacy chapter. Growing up in that culture, as a reasonably bright kid attuned to history, I tended to root for the South in the Civil War when I read Faulkner or “The Killer Angels” or watched Shelby Foote and Ken Burns do their thing. I didn’t root for the preservation of slavery, of course. No one ever does, right? Instead, I rooted for the characters and the idea of protecting home.

But over the last few years, and particularly in the process of writing the book I sometimes discuss about pre and post WWI Florida, that has changed. Now, as I read and learn, I find myself rooting rather intensely for the polyglot rabble–the volatile Irish immigrants, the New England farmers, the hard Ohio frontiersmen, and the hundreds of thousands of blacks who fought to unrig America, who fought to honor free labor–if not equality. I root for those brutes that humbled Tara and razed half of Georgia on their way to the sea. I root for Sherman.

You won’t see all of those men on Cleveland’s monument. (Guess who ain’t there.) But they destroyed a way of life that would have rendered America as we know it impossible. And they empowered a political force, whether they intended to or not, that created the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.

The 14th, particularly, is the core of modern America. It took us 100 more years to actually enforce it and the 15th over the howls of angry conservative white people and their Impeach Earl Warren bumper stickers. But better late than never. You should read the 14th on this July 4th.

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Equal protection. No matter who the hell you are. We’ve got some work to do on that front these days, with particular emphasis on making sure our Galtian overlords do not become too much more equal than the rest of us. But there’s no doubt that the spirit of the 14th, which is the spirit of the 54th (many of whom died in Olustee, right here in Florida), is in greater effect today, in the way we live our lives, than in the vast majority of American history. So here’s to you, hard Ohioans.

You’ll often hear it said that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves and just fought for their homes. That’s true enough, in its most literal sense. But my home, today, is the 14th amendment as much as it Lakeland or Palatka. That’s the home I want to defend however I can.

Happy Fourth.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Billy Townsend for Lakeland Local

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