Scrubbing History: Sir John and General Lee

Sir John A. Macdonald is no Robert E. Lee. But the 19th-century leaders are similar in that they are leading again.

This time, they are serving as the focus of Americans and Canadians squabbling about their history. In the United States, the fights have sparked riots, injuries and a death. The fight is gearing up in Canada with an Ontario teacher’s union demanding that Sir John A. Macdonald Elementary School change its name.

Power and Sir John's Echo

In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders are being attacked as symbols of white supremacy – and the point is valid. Southern states seceded and fought the Civil War primarily to maintain slavery.

Most of the Confederate statues erected and most of what’s named after Confederate leaders were done to celebrate the legitimacy of that reprehensible goal; they appeared around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws and in the 1960s to combat the civil rights movement.

The statues should come down. The names should be changed.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced. He was the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. He was our first prime minister and built the country behind tariff walls and on steel rails with the National Policy and building of the transcontinental railway.

He saved Canada when he stopped Nova Scotia from seceding. He saved us from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States and negotiated the Washington Treaty in which Britain was considering giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations. He kept us united by having French and English work together and attempted to grant women the right to vote.

In American terms, Macdonald is our Jefferson, Washington and Madison.

However, Macdonald also ruthlessly exploited Chinese railway workers and later tried to expel them while imposing a prohibitively expensive tax on Chinese immigration. He negotiated with Métis leader Louis Riel to bring Manitoba into Confederation but then crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion.

Macdonald thought nothing of taking Indigenous land without consultation or ignoring treaties to take more. He withheld promised food and support from Indigenous nations to pressure them to surrender to reservations.

Lee fought for a horrible end. Macdonald worked for a remarkable goal. Macdonald’s image on our money and public monuments and his name on our highways and schools represent our respect for that goal, and not for all he did to pursue it.

And that is the difference.

We are constantly discussing who we are and who we aspire to be. History’s facts don’t change, but our interpretation of those facts does. History is not a shield to protect ideas or a sword to attack the ideas of others or a fence to keep us from unpleasant things we’d rather not see. History is a teacher.

It is there to teach us about ourselves and to intelligently inform our existential, national conversation.

Ironically, that is the point missed by members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario who asked school boards to rename schools bearing the name of our first prime minister. Since Macdonald’s primary goals were overwhelmingly positive, he should remain celebrated. Because aspects of his means to achieve them were inexcusably appalling, he should be used to teach and learn about crimes that he and we committed.

We should use them to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due and work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that swell our chests or well our tears?

What better place for those conversations than schools, especially those bearing his name. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces, instead, let history to do its job.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and was the subject of my appearances on CTV television’s Your Morning and CBC Radio’s The Current. I would appreciate your comments on this latest conversation about who we are.

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10 War Words We Use Today

We are people of peace who use words of war. We can’t help it. They have entered the vernacular so completely that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Consider the following ten and listen for them as you go through your day.

  1. Deadline

American Civil War battles sometimes resulted in the gathering of hundreds or even thousands of prisoners. It was seldom possible to quickly transfer them to camps or arrange prisoner swaps so they had to walk along with victorious army. At night or during rest stops, guards would draw a line in the dirt around prisoners and warn them that if they stepped over that line they would be shot. It was the deadline.

  1. Chatting

Soldiers in First World War trenches found, among other hardships, that their hair and uniforms were infested with lice. They would sit across from each other and use fingernails or cigarettes to remove the lice and their eggs – chats – from their mate’s hair and clothing. While doing the deed they would talk and soon, soldiers referred to anytime they made small talk as chatting.

I Was There: The Great War Interviews

(Photo: http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

  1. Heard It Through the Grapevine

Samuel Morse invented the telegraph. It was a code that could click messages through wires at a speed that was a 19th century marvel. At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, both sides strung wires from city to city and to the front lines. The wires reminded folks of hanging grapevines and so when asked where one had heard a particular bit of news it became common to respond, “I heard it through the grapevine.”

  1. Sniper

In the late 19th century, British soldiers seeking to amuse themselves with proof of marksmanship took birds as their targets. The most difficult to hit was the small and quick moving Snipe. Those able to accomplish the feat became known as snipers. The name stuck when in the First World War Germans began using telescope-sighted rifles to shoot individuals in enemy trenches. Soon, all armies used, and called them variants of, snipers.

  1. Bikini

In the first year of the Cold War, in 1946, the American military needed a remote spot to test atomic bombs. A group of Pacific Islands was deemed perfect and so 167 native people were moved from their homes. The women were wearing skimpy clothing that exposed their midriffs as they were removed from Bikini Island. The bikini bathing suite went on sale shortly afterwards.

  1. Lock, Stock, and Barrel

A 19th century Civil War musket had three parts: a lock, a stock, and a metal barrel. Each part was useless without the other one but deadly when working well together. Thus, when a person put everything into an action he was said to be doing it “lock, stock and barrel.”

  1. Beer

There is evidence that all ancient cultures made and enjoyed beer. However, it was not until Roman soldiers began moving north and drinking a home-made brew in what would later become Germany that the name was invented. They called the hearty ales and lagers by the Latin word for drink – biber. When Romans conquered the southern part of England they found English folks drinking the same grog and they Anglicized it to beer.

  1. Cardigan

During the Crimean War, an English military leader named James Thomas Burdenell carefully drilled his men so that they were unbeatable in battle. Their prowess led to their being called the Light Brigade. In their famous charge, he courageously led them from the front. That day, like many in which the morning dawned chilly, he wore a gift from his wife over his uniform, a knitted, buttoned sweater. Burdenell, his men, and his sweater became famous. He was the 7th Earl of Cardigan.

  1. Champion

Medieval knights trained in contests held on a large field which, in Latin, was called a campus. The contest winners were deemed the campion. For reasons unknown, English spellers simply added a letter to make it champion.

  1. D-Day

The expression came from a First World War way of explaining operations without revealing the time or day of an impending attack. The practice remained common in the Second World War. The first field order mentioning the Second World War amphibious landing at Normandy, consequently, stated that the allies would attack at “H-Hour on D-Day.” The D, rather redundantly, stands for Day. So D-Day, used now for many of our deadlines, recall that is another war word, really means Day-Day.

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The Third American Revolution

Let’s forget Donald Trump’s bragging about things better left personal and insults masquerading as debates and consider instead what is really going on. We are witnessing the third American Revolution.

The first began in the 1760s with rival Boston street gangs joining to challenge the authority of a British governor. Unrest spread and years of requests were ignored and demands snubbed until the government’s legitimacy was lost. Only a third of the colonists supported the rebels but in any revolution that’s plenty. By 1787, a new state was in place.

The second revolution was also a slow-motioned affair. It began with the constitutional compromise that allowed southerners to keep their slaves. The deal was torn asunder as every new state sparked arguments regarding slave or free. Lincoln’s election was the last straw for those fighting to protect their economic and social structure from a government that threatened both. Over 600,000 Americans died in the ensuing struggle and many old wounds are yet to heal.

The roots of the third American Revolution lay in Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. In 1968, the wily presidential candidate determined that white middle and working class southerners were angry about the Civil Rights movement that was desegregating their schools, the Women’s movement that was tempting their daughters, social policies that were increasing their taxes, and longhaired students who were insulting their beliefs. Nixon welcomed white segregationists and blue-collar workers to what he called his “silent majority” that would “win back America.”

Ronald Reagan expanded Nixon’s constituency to white, God-fearing Christians who feared the widening gulf between what they saw on their televisions and heard from their pulpits. Rights to abortionists, then gays, then immigrants, signalled the road to perdition with the government doing nothing to stop it.

The shift from all in which they had once believed became more disturbing when the fading industrial revolution closed factories and real wages stagnated or fell. Debt rose to desperately hold lifestyles that had before been assumed. Then the World Trade Centre fell with the government having failed to prevent it. Iraq became a debacle with sons and daughters arriving home in flag-draped caskets amid government lies about why. Finally, in 2008, homes were taken along with jobs and savings while people watched their tax money bail out those who caused the crisis. People recalled Reagan’s exhortation that government was not the solution but the problem itself.

Fox News and radio screamers fanned the flames of discontent and the donor elite, epitomized by the Koch Brothers, tried to convince the Nixon-Reagan folks to continue to vote against their interests. The Tea Party gave voice to the angry and cheated who increasingly rejected those claiming to speak for the little guys but once in Washington voted with and for the one percent. The Tea Party, and to a lesser extent the Occupy Movement with whom it shared enemies, was Toto who drew back the curtain to reveal the rigged game.

As in the first revolutions, the elite has lost control of the narrative. Mitt Romney’s recent speech attacking Trump showed the old oligarchy playing the old game but Trump’s supporters listened to him like the colonists heard the King or the Confederates heeded Lincoln. Equally dismissive of the DC elite are those “Feeling the Bern.” Of course Trump spouts nonsense and many of Sander’s ideas are impractical. It doesn’t matter. While Hillary Clinton offers the old world view, Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz, Sanders, and Trump speak to the same rage; to the same people with nothing to lose who gathered on Boston streets and Gettysburg fields.

The Third American Revolution

(Photo: http://www.breitbart.com)

America’s third revolution has arrived. We can look back at the slow progress of the first two and identify tipping points where power shifted and a new order was born. Let’s consider now if the current nomination races represent a new tipping point or, perhaps, if that point is already behind us.

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The Little Known Canadian Links to Lincoln’s Assassination

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, on April 15, 1865, famous actor John Wilkes Booth placed a small derringer behind Abraham Lincoln’s left ear. Several hours later, the president who had led the United States through the horrific Civil War that had ended only days before, was dead.

With Lincoln went his goal of treating Southerners not as conquered but countrymen. The Senate’s Radical Republicans ran roughshod over a new and weak president to impose their program of punishment and retribution. To a large degree, America’s regional, political, and racial divisions are echoes of the botched reconstruction that Lincoln would not have allowed. We understand the assassination’s consequences for America but few know of its Canadian connections.

Canada and Lincoln Assassination

(Photo: en.wikipedia.org)

A virulent racist and staunch believer in the Southern cause, Booth gathered a group of like-minded people at Mary Surratt’s Washington boarding house and hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln. They would release him when the United States, seen by Southerners as a foreign country that had invaded theirs, withdrew its forces. To help organize the plot, Booth travelled to Montreal.

Like many other Canadian cities, Montreal was a hotbed of Confederate activity. A year before, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had appointed Jacob Thompson, a former federal cabinet secretary, to save the South by going north. Thompson established offices in Montreal and Toronto. He organized Confederate deserters, escaped prisoners, and sympathetic Canadians who then harassed Lincoln’s Union with daring raids, Great Lakes piracy, and fifth column intrigues.

Booth arrived in Montreal in October 1864. He took a room at the swanky St. Lawrence Hall hotel that served as Thompson’s headquarters. He met with Confederate spies and gun and blockade-runners. At the Bank of Ontario, he exchanged $300 for gold sterling. Booth worked for 10 days making plans and contacts.

Booth’s failed kidnapping plot and the war’s end led to a new idea. On a single night they would kill Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and General Grant. The government would be decapitated and the South inspired to rise again. However, at the appointed hour, Grant had left Washington, Johnson’s assassin got drunk, and Seward survived his stab wounds. Only Booth succeeded.

Booth was hunted down and shot by a 26-man detail led by Quebec-born First Lieutenant Edward Doherty. On May 2, a proclamation stated that the government was seeking a number of Booth’s accomplices, including “rebels and traitors against the United States, harboured in Canada.” Among those listed was John Surratt. He had fled to Canada and was being hidden by priests, first in a Village north of Montreal and then in the city. Canadians helped him to escape to Europe.

Booth’s other conspirators were captured and brought to trial. The prosecution sought to prove their guilt along with the complicity of what it called the Confederacy’s “Canadian Cabinet”. The first words spoken in testimony were by a War Department spy, “I visited Canada in the summer of 1864, and except for the time I have going backward and forward, have remained there for almost two years.” Canada was central to the majority of testimony that followed, including that of a spy posing as a Montreal businessman who later arrived to clear his name. The trial’s final words went to Special Judge Advocate Bingham, “Surely no word further need be spoken to show that…[Booth, Surratt] and Davis and his several agents named in Canada, were in this conspiracy.”

Sensational American newspaper coverage spoke of Canada’s complicity in their president’s murder. Public meetings and vicious letters to editors revealed even greater anti-Canadian sentiment than had developed during the war. There were calls for retribution. The rising tide of hatred led Canadians and Maritimers to renew their demand for Confederation that the Civil War had turned from a good idea to a necessity. Canada had to create itself to save itself.

Today’s divided America and united Canada are the twin legacies of Booth’s smoking gun.

For more on this story and of Canada and the American Civil War please check out “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”. It’s available everywhere including here: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/contributor/author/john-boyko/#page=0&pid=978030736146