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I Thought It Was Only Crazy Islamists That Wanted to Destroy Their Heritage?

Apparently, now that the left and the right have joined forces to start removing Confederate flags from public display, some commenters have started suggesting we need to go after street signs and statues next! This is basically insane. As bad as the Confederacy was (and of course slavery was even worse), given its integral role in American history, it just does not merit such scorn. And many of their leaders and heroes were America's leaders and heroes as well.

In thinking about what I want to say in response to my fellow statue-destroying citizens, I realized I couldn't say anything more original than Civil War veteran Charles Francis Adams Jr., the great-grandson of United States President John Adams, and the grandson of president John Quincy Adams. (His father was not slouch either -- lawyer, writer, politician, and diplomat (Lincoln’s foreign minister in London and key to helping keep Great Britain neutral during the war). He gave a famous speech (famous for the times) in 1902 to the Phi Beta Kappa society of the University of Chicago called "Shall Cromwell Have a Statue?" The whole speech is excellent and I recommend you all check it out -- it seems like everything old is new again. Here is how that speech starts:

"Whom doth the king delight to honour? that is the question of questions concerning the king's own honour. Show me the man you honour; I know by that symptom, better than by any other, what kind of man you yourself are. For you show me there what your ideal of manhood is; what kind of man you long inexpressibly to be; and would thank the gods, with your whole soul, for being if you could.”

“Who is to have a Statue? means, Whom shall we consecrate and set apart as one of our sacred men? Sacred; that all men may see him, be reminded of him, and, by new example added to old perpetual precept, be taught what is real worth in man. Whom do you wish us to resemble? Him you set on a high column, that all men looking on it, may be continually apprised of the duty you expect from them.” - Thomas Carlyle, “Latter Day Pamphlets” (1850.)

At about 3 o’clock of the afternoon of September 3rd, 1658, the day of Worcester and of Dunbar, and as a great tempest was wearing itself to rest, Oliver Cromwell died. He died in London, in the palace of Whitehall; that palace of the great banqueting hall, through whose central window Charles I had walked forth to the scaffold a little less than ten years before. A few weeks later, “with a more than regal solemnity,” the body of the great Lord Protector was carried to Westminster Abbey, and there buried “amongst Kings.” Two years then elapsed; and, on the twelfth anniversary of King Charles's execution, the remains of the usurper, having been disinterred by a unanimous vote of the Convention Parliament, were hung at Tyburn. The trunk was then buried under the gallows, while Cromwell's head was set on a pole over the roof of Westminster Hall. Nearly two centuries of execration ensued, until, in the sixth generation, the earlier verdict was challenged, and the question at last asked; -- “Shall Cromwell have a statue?” Cromwell, the traitor, the usurper, the execrable murderer of the martyred Charles! At first, and for long, the suggestion was looked upon almost as an impiety, and, as such, scornfully repelled. Not only did the old loyal King-worship of England recoil from the thought, but, indignantly appealing to the church, it declared that no such distinction could be granted so long as there remained in the prayer-book a form of supplication for “King Charles, the Martyr” and of “praise and thanksgiving for the wonderful deliverance of these kingdoms from the great rebellion, and all the other miseries and oppressions consequent thereon, under which they had so long groaned.” None the less, the demand was insistent; and at last, but only after two full centuries had elapsed and a third was well advanced, was the verdict of 1661 reversed. Today the bronze effigy of Oliver Cromwell, -- massive in size, rugged in feature, characteristic in attitude, -- stands defiantly in the yard of that Westminster Hall, from a pole on the top of which, twelve score years ago, the flesh crumbled from his skull.

In this dramatic reversal of an accepted verdict, -- this complete revision of opinions once deemed settled and immutable, -- there is, I submit, a lesson, -- an academic lesson. The present occasion is essentially educational. The Phi Beta Kappa oration, as it is called, is the last, the crowning utterance of the college year, and very properly is expected to deal with some fitting theme in a kindred spirit. I propose to do so today; but in a fashion somewhat exceptional. The phases of moral and intellectual growth through which the English race has passed on the subject of Cromwell's statue afford, I submit, to the reflecting man an educational study of exceptional interest. In the first place, it was a growth of two centuries; in the second place it marks the passage of a nation from an existence under the traditions of feudalism to one under the principles of self-government; finally it illustrates the gradual development of that broad spirit of tolerance, which coming with time and study, measures the men and events of the past independently of the prejudices and passions which obscure and distort the immediate vision.

We, too, as well as the English, have had our “Great Rebellion.” It came to a dramatic close thirty-seven years since; as theirs came to a close not less dramatic some seven times thirty-seven years since. We, also, as they in their time, formed our contemporaneous judgments and recorded our verdicts, assumed to be irreversible, of the men, the issues and the events of the great conflict; and those verdicts and judgments, in our case as in theirs, will unquestionably be revised, modified, and in not a few cases wholly reversed. Better knowledge, calmer reflection, and a more judicial frame of mind come with the passage of the years; in time passions subside, prejudices disappear, truth asserts itself. In England this process has been going on for over two centuries and a half, with what result Cromwell's statue stands as proof. We live in another age and a different environment; and, as fifty years of Europe out-measure in their growth a cycle of Cathay, so I hold one year of twentieth century America works more progress in thought than thirty-seven years of Britain during the interval between its Great Rebellion and ours. We who took active part in the Civil War have not yet wholly vanished from the stage; the rear guard of the Grand Army, we linger. Today is separated from the death of Lincoln by the same number of years only which separated “the Glorious Revolution of 1688” from the execution of Charles Stuart; yet to us is already given to look back on the events of which we were a part with the same perspective effects with which the Victorian Englishman looks back on the men and events of the Commonwealth.

I propose on this occasion to do so and reverting to my text – “Shall Cromwell have a Statue” -- and reading that text in the gloss of Carlyle's Latter Day Pamphlet utterance I quote you Horace's familiar precept:

Mutato nomine, de te Fabula narratur

and ask abruptly, “Shall Robert E Lee have a Statue?” I propose also to offer to your consideration some reasons he should, and, assuredly will have one, if not now, then presently. Shortly after Lee's death, in October, 1870, leave was asked in the United States Senate by Mr McCreery of Kentucky, to introduce a Joint Resolution providing for the return of the estate and mansion of Arlington to the family of the deceased Confederate Commander-in-chief. In view of the use which had then already been made of Arlington as a military cemetery this proposal involving as it necessarily did a removal of the dead naturally led to warm debate. The proposition was one not to be considered. If a defect in the title of the government existed, it must in some way be cured, as, subsequently, it was cured. But I call attention to the debate because Charles Sumner, then a Senator from Massachusetts, participated in it using the following language: -- “Eloquent Senators have already characterized the proposition and the traitor it seeks to commemorate. I am not disposed to speak of General Lee. It is enough to say he stands high in the catalogue of those who have imbrued their hands in their country's blood. I hand him over to the avenging pen of History.” This was when Lee had been just two months dead; but, three quarters of a century after the Protector's skull had been removed from over the roof of Westminster Hall, Pope wrote in similar spirit:

“See Cromwell damn’d to everlasting fame;”

and sixteen years later, four-fifths of a century after Cromwell's disentombment at Westminster and reburial at Tyburn, -- a period from the death of Lee equal to that which will have elapsed in 1950, Gray wrote of the Stoke Pogis churchyard –

“Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.”

And now a century and a half later, Cromwell's statue looms defiantly up in front of the Parliament House. When, therefore, an appeal is in such cases made to the “avenging pen of History,” it is well to bear this instance in mind, while recalling perchance that other line of a greater than Pope, or Gray, or Sumner, --

“Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”

Was then Robert E Lee a “traitor” -- was he also guilty of his “country's blood?” These questions I propose now to discuss. I am one of those who, in other days, was arrayed in the ranks which confronted Lee; one of those whom Lee baffled and beat, but who, finally, baffled and beat Lee. As one thus formerly lined up against him, these questions I propose to discuss in the calmer and cooler, and altogether more reasonable light which comes to most men when a whole generation of the human race lies buried between them and the issues and actors upon which we undertake to pass.

Was Robert E Lee a traitor? Technically I think he was indisputably a traitor to the United States; for a traitor as I understand it technically, is one guilty of the crime of treason; or as the Century Dictionary puts it, violating his allegiance to the chief authority of the State; while treason against the United States is specifically defined in the Constitution as “levying war” against it, or “giving their enemies aid and comfort.” That Robert E Lee did levy war against the United States, can, I suppose no more be denied than that he gave “aid and comfort” to its enemies. This technically; but, in history, there is treason and treason as there are traitors and traitors. And, furthermore, if Robert E. Lee was a traitor so also and indisputably were George Washington, Oliver Cromwell, John Hampden, and William of Orange. The list might be extended indefinitely; but these will suffice. There can be no question that every one of those named violated his allegiance, and gave aid and comfort to the enemies of his sovereign. Washington furnishes a precedent at every point. A Virginian like Lee, he was also a British subject; he had fought under the British flag, as Lee had fought under that of the United States; when, in 1776, Virginia seceded from the British Empire, he “went with his State,” just as Lee went with it eighty-five years later; subsequently Washington commanded armies in the field designated by those opposed to them as “rebels” and whose descendants now glorify them as the “rebels of ’76,” much as Lee later commanded, and at last surrendered much larger armies also designated rebels by those they confronted. Except in their outcome, the cases were, therefore, precisely alike; and logic is logic. It consequently appears to follow, that, if Lee was a traitor, Washington was also. It is unnecessary to institute similar comparisons with Cromwell, Hampden, and William of Orange. No defence can in their cases be made. Technically, one and all, they undeniably were traitors.

But there are, as I have said, traitors and traitors, -- Catalines, Arnolds and Gorgeis, as well as Cromwells, Hampdens and Washingtons. To reach any satisfactory conclusion concerning a candidate for “everlasting fame,” -- whether to praise him or to damn him, -- enroll him as savior, as martyr, or as criminal, -- it is, therefore, necessary still further to discriminate. The cause, the motive, the conduct must be passed in review. Did turpitude anywhere attach to the original taking of sides, or to subsequent act? Was the man a self-seeker? Did low or sordid motives impel him? Did he seek to aggrandize himself at his country's cost? Did he strike with a parricidal hand?

These are grave questions; and in the case of Lee, their consideration brings us at the threshold face to face with issues which have perplexed and divided the country since the day the United States became a country. They perplex and divide historians now. Legally, technically, -- the moral and humanitarian aspects of the issue wholly apart, -- which side had the best of the argument as to the rights and the wrongs of the case in the great debate which led up to the Civil War? Before entering, however, on this well-worn, -- I might say, this threadbare – theme, as I find myself compelled in briefest way to do, there is one preliminary very essential to be gone through with. A species of moral purgation. Bearing in mind Dr. Johnson's advice to Boswell, on a certain memorable occasion, we should at least try to clear our minds of cant. Many years ago, but only shortly before his death, Richard Cobden said in one of his truth-telling deliverances to his Rochdale constituents, -- “I really believe I might be Prime Minster. If I would get up and say you are the greatest, the wisest, the best, the happiest people in the world, and keep on repeating that, I don’t doubt but what I might be Prime Minister. I have seen Prime Ministers made in my experience precisely by that process.” The same great apostle of homely sense, on another occasion bluntly remarked in a similar spirit to the House of Commons, -- “We generally sympathise with everybody's rebels but our own.” In both these respects I submit we Americans are true descendants from the Anglo-Saxon stock; and nowhere is this more unpleasantly apparent than in any discussion which may arise of the motives which actuated those of our countrymen who did not at the time see the issues involved in our Civil War as we saw them. Like those whom Cobden addressed, we like to glorify our ancestors and ourselves and we do not particularly care to give ear to what we are pleased to term unpatriotic, and, at times, even treasonable, talk. In cither words, and in plain, unpalatable, English, our minds are saturated with cant. Only in the ease of others do we see things as they really are. Then, ceasing to be antagonistic, we are nothing unless critical. So when it comes to rebellions, we, like Cobden's Englishmen, are wont almost invariably to sympathize with everybody's rebels but our own.

Our souls go forth at once to Celt, Pole, Hungarian, Boer and Hindoo: but, when we are concerned, language quite fails us in which adequately to depict the moral turpitude which must actuate Confederate or Filipino who rises in resistance against what we are pleased really to consider, as well as call, the best and most beneficent government the world has yet been permitted to see, -- Our Government. This, I submit, is cant, -- pure cant; and at the threshold of discussion we had best free our minds of it, wholly if we can; if not wholly, then in so far as we can. Philip the Second of Spain, when he directed his crusade in the name of God, Church, and Government, against William of Orange, indulged in it in quite as good faith as we; and as for Charles “the Martyr” and the “sainted” Laud, for two centuries after Cromwell's head was stuck on a pole, all England every Sunday lamented in sackcloth and ashes the wrongs inflicted by sacrilegious hands on those most assuredly well -meaning rulers and men. All depends on the point of view; and, during our own Civil War, while we unceasingly denounced the wilful wickedness of those who bore parricidal arms against the one immaculate authority yet given the eye of man to look upon, the leading newspaper of the world was referring to us in perfect good faith “as an insensate and degenerate people.” An English member of Parliament, speaking at the same time in equally good faith, declared that throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain, public sentiment was almost unanimously on the side of “the Southerners,” -- as ours was on the side of the Boers, -- because our “rebels” were” fighting against one of the most grinding one of the most galling one of the most irritating attempts to establish tyrannical government that ever disgraced the history of the world.”

Comments (3)

This is very good, Jeff, thanks for posting it. Adams is calling us to have a sense of the complexity of history, a sense of perspective. This is the kind of understanding which a liberal education, in the old sense of the word, is supposed to give a man. It is supposed to break him out of parochialism and give him some ability to see the other point of view. But unfortunately, it does not always succeed in doing so.

And by the way, the word "cant" needs to be brought back into our regular vocabulary!

I found a better formatted (PDF) copy of the full speech here:


and an useful supplement with interesting links here:


"Even slavery we may come to regard as a phase, pardonable as passing, in the evolution of a race." (page 42 of the oration)

Adam's panglossian view is of his age and class. I remember 1965 (go to page 42) and its seemed different to me.

They - for we by that time will have rejoined the generation to which we belonged, - will recognize the somewhat essential fact, indubitably true, that all the honest conviction, all the loyalty, all the patriotic devotion and self-sacrifice were not then, any more than all the courage, on the victor's side.

"I remember 1965 (go to page 42) and its seemed different to me."

It's funny, Al, I am not sure what experience you are thinking of, but my experience just a few years later than 1965 was much in concert with this quote. All the history books I read in school (in the North) displayed complete favor toward the cause of the North. All the accounts of Lincoln in any school text I saw showed a saintly portrait, and never once raised doubts about his choices. And yet, in spite of that, all the accounts also included admission that men like Lee, however mistaken they were, had real conviction of their stance, were inspired by loyalty to Virginia and patriotic devotion to his state, that the South endured great sacrifice to wage war on something even remotely like an even footing with the North for 3 years until things got away from them.

It is true that slavery, of itself, is not "forgiven" in the accounts of 1965 (or today). Yet in more than a few accounts, it is both condemned and explained. It is viewed from more than just the angle of its sheer gross injustice and horrendous other evils (such as tearing families apart).

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