A way past the statue standoff: The treason test

“Blood and soil” is un-American. Period.

It was one of the slogans shouted last week in Charlottesville. Its popular lineage can be traced back to Weimar-era Germany as a rallying cry for those enamored with the pseudoscience of eugenics and race theory. In short, it is an idiom of an ideology focused on blood purity and some type of hereditary connection to the land which they inhabit.

That belief is diametrically opposed to the very idea of America. Our nation was not founded on mere geographic happenstance or tribal affinity, but rather the conviction that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. Those foundational facts are embodied in the term “American exceptionalism,” setting the United States apart from other nations of the world.

Our great orators have hewn closely to that ideal. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama all recalled John Winthrop’s analogy of a “City upon a Hill.” America was set apart, an example to people the world over. And yes, although we continually strive towards it, sometimes we fall short of that high calling. We struggle with incarceration, we have been challenged by hate and bigotry, and the memory of slavery — and civil war — remains a stain.

Workers remove monuments to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from Wyman Park in Baltimore early Wednesday morning. Courtesy of Alec MacGillis | ProPublica via Reuters

That is the challenge with some Confederate memorials. Leaders of the rebellion — Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, “Stonewall” Jackson — levied war against the United States and committed treason by the plain language of the Constitution. Indeed, Lee wrote to his son in early 1861, declaring “secession is nothing but revolution.” Placing monuments to these men in places of honor — rather than museums, historical battlegrounds, or other locations providing context — is a practice fairly subject to debate, with strong arguments that they should not receive accolades for raising arms against their nation.

However, with other monuments, it is not quite so simple. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain honored the soldiers in grey during surrender. Thousands of Confederates were pardoned for their treason, legally lifting punishment for their acts. The graves of Johnny Rebels were given rights to headstones equal with American veterans, while some Confederate leaders went on to serve the United States honorably; James Longstreet served as an ambassador and railroad commissioner for several U.S. presidents.

This confusion — who is appropriate to honor? — contributes to the strife we face today. Slavery and bigotry are clear examples of where we failed as a nation, but we cannot erase them from our history. And historical figures must be judged in the context of their time; it is unreasonable to use today’s measuring sticks to evaluate their choices.

In that way, modern arguments over statues and names open old wounds. And the national conversation is confused. Earlier this year, Yale removed the name of John C. Calhoun from a college. Why? Because he supported slavery. Nevermind that John F. Kennedy honored him as one of the greatest U.S. senators in history.

Or look at GOP Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland. In the wake of Charlottesville, he declared the statue of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney must be removed from the terrapin State House. Why? Because he wrote the Dred Scott decision.

Viewed through history, Calhoun and Taney were both wrong; no reasonable person can think otherwise. But they were not treasonous. Calhoun died in 1850, while Taney remained on the Supreme Court until his death in 1864. Should they be treated similarly to those who bore arms for the Confederacy against the United States?

If so, then who else should? Numerous Founders were slave owners. Nearly a century after the Civil War, Justice Hugo Black wrote the Korematsu decision permitting the internment of Americans of Japanese descent. Franklin Roosevelt signed the order permitting it.

“Treason” seems a clean line. If the arguments over statues and names were limited to those who bore arms against America and were not later rehabilitated by service or pardon, a national accord may be in reach. “American Exceptionalism” can then continue to set our nation apart, acknowledging our past failings in the appropriate context while striving with a renewed vigor in pursuit of the ideals on which we were founded.

Because America does not belong to those with some delusional claim to “blood and soil.” It remains a City on a Hill, sometimes blemished, but open to anyone who believes we are all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And true Americans will stand fast against all enemies — foreign or domestic — who dare to threaten it. It is our inheritance, our duty, and our honor to keep that flame alive.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.