You may have missed the teapot tempest of PC hysteria that inaugurated the campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. The nine announced candidates gather today (May 3) in Columbia, South Carolina, to unveil their charms in a public forum. The show was scheduled to take place at the Longstreet Theatre on the campus of the University of South Carolina.
Then someone discovered that the building is named for the Rev. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, one time president of the University’s predecessor institution, South Carolina College. And, Horrors! Mr. Longstreet in the period before the War for Southern Independence defended slavery and advocated secession! Of course, the august aspirants for World Emperor could not be expected to meet on such unhallowed ground, so the gathering was shifted to another building, about which more in a moment.
Let’s set aside the fact that the Longstreet Theatre has been the scene previously of numerous public occasions in which at least two Presidents of the United States, the current Pope, and numerous other world dignitaries have appeared. Even William F. Buckley used to televise his orchestrated debates from that very place since it is not too far from the family winter palace in Camden. No one ever complained about the name before.
What strikes most is the astounding ignorance of and contempt for American history that the political leaders and the press exhibit on this and similar occasions. They act as if some dark and terrible secret had been discovered. It is true that Longstreet, who was a Methodist minister, newspaper editor, college president, and author, believed, accurately, that the Scripture, while it condemned bad masters, did not condemn servitude per se. There was nothing surprising about this — every member of the clergy in the South at that time — Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Jewish — said the same thing. So did orthodox clergymen of the North (those opposed to evangelical hysteria and the overturning of society according to the alleged divine revelations of individuals). A number of distinguished Northern clergymen wrote learned treatises against the abolitionists.
The defenders of slavery were, unfortunately, forced into making these unseemly statements because society was under attack by abolitionists. Let’s be clear about this. Abolitionists were not people with rational and moral objections to slavery who were anxious to find measures to get rid of it, as the previous generations, including many Southerners, had been. They were secularized post-Christian Puritans conducting a malicious, slanderous, hate-filled, totalist propaganda campaign against every aspect of Southern life with the ruthless irresponsibility of religious zealots. (Remember, Lincoln was always careful to claim that he was not an abolitionist!)
Abolitionists proposed no practical steps for the end of slavery, an institution inherited from early colonial times and intricately intertwined in very basic ways with economics, society, and everyday life. Emancipation, however desirable, posed problems for which not even Lincoln could propose a real solution. Abolitionists were not concerned about the welfare of black people. They wished to expunge their sinful Southern fellow citizens from the earth, which they believed would lead to a pure and heavenly America. Their leading egghead, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said he was less concerned for the fate of a thousand blacks (who he expected to disappear with the end of slavery) than with one white man corrupted by slavery. Daniel Webster, the greatest man of the North no less, said that the abolitionists were solely responsible for destroying the prospects for eliminating slavery.
During the brief press furor over the Rev. Mr. Longstreet, there were two interesting (to me at least) facts about the situation that did not come out. No one knew or bothered to mention that in spite of his sins, Longstreet was the author of Georgia Scenes, one of the classics of early American literature. And that the Longstreet building, built in the 1850s as a gymnasium, was used as a stable by the U.S. Army during the war and Reconstruction (which saved it from being torched).
Also, most people, if they think about it at all, think the building was named for the Rev. Mr. Longstreet’s nephew, General James Longstreet.
But it gets funnier. The carnival has been moved to the theatre in a nearby campus building, Drayton Hall. I do not know for which member of the Drayton family Drayton Hall is named. I do know that the Draytons, who produced prominent leaders from the Revolution to the Southern war, including a Confederate general, were for generations among the largest slaveholders of South Carolina.
Drayton Hall is bordered by College Street, Main Street, Greene Street, and Sumter Street. Greene Street is named for General Nathaniel Greene of the American Revolution, who was awarded a large Georgia plantation for his services (the plantation on which, by the way, Eli Whitney perfected the cotton gin). Sumter is named for General Thomas Sumter, one of the heroic South Carolina partisan leaders of the Revolution. He was also a large slaveholder and as an old man in the late 1820s advocated the secession of South Carolina from the Union.
In fact, it is not easy to find a building built on the campus before the 20th century, or a street in the central area of the capital city of South Carolina that is not named for a slaveholder or a secessionist! Obviously we have not gone nearly far enough in expunging the evils of the past. While we are at it, let’s make a clean sweep. Why should we wait for the civil rights groups and the press to pick off these abominations one by one. Why should our national capital, Washington, be named for that old slaveholder, and the District of Columbia named for a dead white male exploiter and genocidist? For that matter, does not the "States" in United States suggest evil, exploded notions of State rights? It is long past time that these matters be attended to.
*Dwarf (noun), a little devil. Webster’s New World Dictionary.