Building a More Perfect Union

By Alan W. Dowd

The killing of George Floyd while in police custody triggered peaceful protests across America, which were altogether appropriate and necessary; sparked violent and deadly riots, which were altogether illegal and unnecessary; and reenergized efforts to expunge certain symbols of America’s complicated past. Some of those efforts are necessary; others are wrong.

Opposite Ideas

At the top of the list of symbols of the past that need to be expunged from public spaces are Confederate emblems and the names of Confederate military commanders.

The Confederacy made war against the United States. Some in the South called (and still call) it “the war of northern aggression,” but the fact is that South Carolina severed its ties with the United States before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. Six other states joined South Carolina in its preemptive secession. “By the time Lincoln took his oath, the Confederates had seized all federal ports and Navy yards in the states under their control,” historian Wilson Sullivan notes. That was an act of war. And to remove all doubt, Confederate forces bombarded a U.S. military base to officially initiate hostilities.

“The Confederacy,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley recently reminded a House committee, “was an act of rebellion. It was an act of treason against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution.”

Gen. David Petraeus agrees, adding in a thoughtful essay that his “life in uniform essentially unfolded at a series of what might be termed ‘rebel forts’”—Fort Bragg, Fort Pickett, Fort Polk, Fort Lee, Fort Hood, Fort Rucker, Fort Gordon, Fort Benning. As a young soldier, he admits that he was “oblivious” to what most of those names stood for. But he learned that Ft. Benning was named for “Henry L. Benning, a Confederate general who was such an enthusiast for slavery that as early as 1849 he argued for the dissolution of the Union and the formation of a Southern slavocracy.” John Gordon, Petraeus adds, likely helped spawn the Ku Klux Klan.

According men like this the honor of affixing their names onto U.S. military bases is both senseless and, Petraeus adds, deeply insensitive “to the many African Americans serving on these installations.” With the exception of Lee, Petraeus points out that “most of the Confederate generals for whom our bases are named were undistinguished, if not incompetent, battlefield commanders.” Why, Petraeus matter-of-factly concludes, would “an organization designed to win wars train for them at installations named for those who led a losing force”?

Equally important: The cause for which the Confederacy fought was—and is—repugnant. The long-simmering debate over states’ rights may have been a factor, but it was slavery that lit the powder keg. All the compromises that forestalled the war were about slavery. And slavery animated and motivated the leaders of the Confederacy. But don’t take my word for it.

Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, declared that the United States “rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races,” while our his government was “founded upon exactly the opposite ideas: its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural…condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this…truth.” Shockingly, as Stephanie McCurry of Columbia University observes, “A statue of Alexander Stephens now stands in the U.S. Capitol.”

On the other side of the border, it pays to recall that the prime motivation for fighting the war among U.S. soldiers shifted from saving the Union to ending slavery. This evolution is evident in Lincoln’s speeches and in the wide embrace of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was penned in 1861 and soon adopted as the Union’s unofficial anthem. “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” the poem-turned-song thunders. By way of comparison, “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, romanticizes “the land of cotton”—and was born in a blackface minstrel show.

By way of further comparison, America’s president during the war declared, “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” He called slavery “a monstrous injustice.” He suggested that the war itself could be a kind of punishing atonement for America’s original sin: “If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

The Confederacy’s president, in his own words, defended “the rights of the owners of slaves,” criticized those “engaged in exciting amongst the slaves a spirit of discontent” and boasted about what enslaved people achieved “under the supervision of a superior race.”


In short, the symbols of the Confederacy should have been torn down and tossed into the ash heap of history in one fell swoop in 1865. In fact, there was an effort to do that, led by men like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens. They argued that the Confederacy should have been treated not as prodigal son or  wayward brother, but as a “conquered nation.”

As the New York Times reported in September 1865, Stevens saw the Confederacy as “a conquered alien enemy.” Stevens, an abolitionist congressman from Pennsylvania who helped draft the 13th amendment, advocated that the U.S. government “confiscate” Confederate plantations, turn some of the plantations over to liberated slaves, and sell the rest to pay down U.S. war debt. “We have conquered them,” Stevens said, “and as a conquered enemy we can give them laws [and] can abolish all their municipal institutions and give them new ones.”

Doubtless, Stevens would have included the battle flag of the Confederacy—the blue “x” studded with white stars on a red field—among those institutions. It was born with the Confederacy, and it should have been buried with the Confederacy’s defeat.

Postwar reconstruction efforts took neither Lincoln’s “malice toward none” approach nor Stevens’ “conquered nation” approach, but rather something in between, yielding the worst of both extremes. The victors instituted a brief period of martial law—far too brief to reeducate, reshape, reorder and reform the Confederacy. By the autumn of 1866, only 38,000 U.S. troops remained in the Confederacy’s massive 750,000 square-mile footprint. Reconstruction was uneven and unenthusiastic, and it rapidly gave way to local rule, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the return of brutality, and the emergence of Jim Crowism, which reinstituted the Confederacy’s slave-caste system under another name.

It would take another century for the Confederacy to be brought to heel—and for the Declaration’s promise of liberty and equality to be secured in America’s south. Even then, several states continued to incorporate symbols of the Confederacy into their state flags. Just this year—finally, sadly, stunningly—Mississippi approved legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the state flag. Navy leaders this year ordered the Confederate flag removed “from all public spaces and work areas aboard Navy installations, ships, aircraft and submarines.” NASCAR this spring banned the display of the flag of the Confederacy at all NASCAR events. There’s a bill working its way through Congress that would order the removal of statues inside the Capitol of Confederate figures. The Senate Armed Services Committee recently approved a measure ordering the removal of Confederate names from Defense Department facilities and authorizing a commission to rename those facilities. If members of that forthcoming commission need food for thought, they should talk with Andrew Bacevich and Danny Sjursen—both graduates of West Point and combat veterans—who offer a list of veterans that fought for rather than against the United States.


Congressional leaders remind us that how something is done is as important as why it’s done. These emblems, symbols, nameplates and statues honoring the Confederacy should be removed in an orderly fashion, at the direction of and with the permission of relevant federal, state and local government agencies—not by rampaging mobs. Indeed, it is a sad irony that the mobs tearing down and vandalizing symbols of the Confederacy are acting in the same spirit of lawless rebellion as the men wrongly lionized by those very symbols.

That said, why something is done certainly matters. Motives matter, as scripture teaches. Importantly, the motivation put forward here for removing Confederate symbols and honorific names—like the motivation of congressional leaders, Milley, Petraeus and others—is to correct a mistake of history, not to revise or blot out history. And here we make a distinction between peaceful protestors and violent mobs. We know and appreciate the motives of the peaceful protestors—to shine a light on police misconduct and pursue justice. But what exactly are the motives of the mobs that for more than a month have defaced statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant and memorials honoring America’s war dead? Their motives are surely not justice or reform or a more perfect union. More likely, these mobs subscribe to the unattainable purity of Robespierre’s rampage or, equally apt, the Taliban’s terror.

Before balking at this comparison, consider the toppling of Grant’s statue. Do the mobs know that Grant liberated hundreds of thousands from slavery and tore down a racialist regime? During surrender parleys, such as at Vicksburg, Confederate commanders proposed terms that included the right of Confederate troops to retain their “property.” Grant, knowing that was code for enslaved human beings, rejected such terms.

Or consider the defacing of war memorials. Do the mobs know what these memorials represent?

In 1917-18, 116,000 Americans died defending democracy from authoritarian regimes. In 1941-45, 405,399 Americans—black and white, red, yellow and brown—died liberating Europe and Asia from racialist-eugenicist empires. From 1948 to 1991, America sacrificed 100,000 lives and $6 trillion protecting the frontiers of freedom from Soviet totalitarianism—the freedom to speak or remain silent, to peacefully assemble, to worship any god or no god at all, to define and pursue happiness. (Doubtless, the mobs will retort that America was/is no better than the Soviet Union. But then the mobs must explain why Moscow had to build walls to keep people in—and why Moscow’s former subjects are today America’s allies.) In the years since the Soviet empire’s collapse, America has served as civilization’s first-responder and last line of defense—saving Liberians from Ebola, Yazidis from ISIS, Somalis from famine; rescuing millions of Africans from AIDS, Indonesians from tsunamis, Haitians from anarchy; protecting Kuwaitis, Kurds, Kosovars and Koreans from violent neighbors; liberating Afghans, Iraqis and Libyans from terrorist tyrannies; prying open classrooms to Afghan girls; guarding Serbian Christian kids and Albanian Muslim kids on the way to school; defending the Baltics and rebuilding the Balkans; and pouring more into global COVID19 relief than any other country (12 times as much as China). This is the work of a great and good nation.

Sadly, the mobs rampaging through America understand less about this country than those who’ve never lived here. It’s telling that even as Americans torch the American flag and deface symbols of American sacrifice, the people of Hong Kong are waving the American flag and singing the “Star Spangled Banner.” Similar scenes can be glimpsed in Poland, Georgia, Libya, Kosovo, Taiwan, Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Tanzania. The list goes on. Related, the musical Hamilton has taken Britain by storm, will tour Asia in 2021, heads to France in 2022, and is being translated into German.  

Why is this? Why would Europeans and Asians want to see a musical that celebrates America’s founding? Why are they waving American flags in Hong Kong and Dar es Salaam, Warsaw and Pristina, Erbil and Tbilisi? Why aren’t they waving Russian or Chinese flags, or flocking to musicals about Mao or Lenin?


The answer is that America, while imperfect and flawed, is a force for good in the world—and always has been.

As they assault statues of Washington, Jefferson and other founding fathers, the mobs are unable or unwilling to make a distinction between something that is rotten and wrong at its core (like the Confederate States) and something that is imperfect yet good at its core (like the United States).

The entire founding project—with all its contortions and compromises—was a step toward a freer, more just nation and world. It’s telling and deeply moving, given the America he knew, that Martin Luther King was able to look beyond the flaws and failures of the founders—and see what they envisioned, what they hoped for, what they dreamed. Rather than calling for statues of Jefferson to be torn down, King called Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence “majestic,” specifically citing the most famous words in the American lexicon: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“This is a dream,” King cheered, “a great dream.”          

King saw that Jefferson’s masterpiece reflects “an amazing universalism.” The Declaration, King explained, “doesn’t say ‘some men,’ it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men,’ it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles,’ it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants,’ it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers,’ it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics.”

And King understood that this document, this dream, makes America exceptional. “That dream goes on to say another thing that ultimately distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system in the world. It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state…They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.”

Like Lincoln, King believed that “God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world.” And unlike the mob, King had the wisdom to recognize that even though America is imperfect and flawed and “tragically divided,” “the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream in all of its magnificence” and “professed the great principles of democracy.” They may not have practiced those principles to the full—they may not have known how to practice them—but they were the first to profess them so clearly and plainly. As King understood, that was an enormous step for humanity. “We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.”

King recognized that for nations, as for individuals, the measure of goodness and righteousness is not perfection, but rather direction. America was born headed in the right direction—and continues to build a “more perfect union” dreamed up by imperfect men.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.