Our History & Our Heritage By Bill Kiefer

So why does anyone care that there are Monuments to a Confederate General on the Capitol Grounds in Charleston or in front of the Harrison County Courthouse?
Well, replace those monuments with a Nativity Scene at Christmas or a Cross at Easter and it will likely trigger a First Amendment law suit. As individuals, and perhaps as Christians, we may not agree with those law suits, but the very first words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution state: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” seventeen words. Most commentators say that the First Amendment guarantees Americans five Freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble and freedom to petition the government.
Freedom of religion was put into the Constitution because a number of the original colonies were founded by groups seeking to avoid government oppression caused by their religious beliefs. Puritans and Quakers left England for Massachusetts and Pennsylvania respectively, because they were being oppressed by the English government, which, depending who was on the throne, either sponsored the Church of England and oppressed all others, or sponsored the Catholic Church and oppressed all others. Eventually a group of Catholics left England to found the colony of Maryland in order to end their oppression when supporters of the Church of England were in complete power and discrimination against Catholics became the law. Ironically, the colony of Rhode Island split from the colony of Massachusetts, at least in part, for religious reasons. Obviously by the 1790’s, freedom in matters of religion was something that our founding fathers could agree upon, at least in theory.
I am old enough to recall that each school day in Western Pennsylvania started with a Bible reading, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Some states mandated similar practices, others did not. In 1962 and 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court acted on appeals concerning these practices. Briefly, in Engel v Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) the Supreme Court struck down a New York law requiring the group recitation of a twenty-three word prayer to “Almighty God” at the beginning of each school day. In Abington School District v. Schempp and its companion case Murray v. Curlett, 304 U.S. 203 (1963) the Supreme Court ruled that compulsory prayer and Bible reading in schools were barred by the First Amendment. Essentially, the ruling was that the government must be neutral in matters of religion, “protecting all, preferring none and disparaging none.” So right about now, if you are still reading this, you are probably asking yourself where is this guy going? Yup, there is a rabbit hole here.
Before there was the Constitution there was the Declaration of Independence. How does it begin? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We were all taught this in school, perhaps even had to memorize it. At the time it was written, it only applied to white men. We had slaves in the colonies at that time. Thomas Jefferson, our third President wrote those words in 1776, and still owned slaves at the time of his death fifty years later, which occurred (perhaps ironically) on July 4, 1826.
Significantly, neither of these historic documents dealt with slavery.
One generation after Jefferson’s death, from 1861-1865, the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. The post war period brought reconstruction. That ended with the “deal” cut to decide the Hayes-Tilden election. Then, by the beginning of the 20th century many of the people who had fought the civil war were dead. Some of the major actors had written memoirs voicing their view of the conflict, and their role in it. This is where the “Lost Cause” comes to the fore. But not just in historical works, also in works of fiction. One of the most popular of these was “Gone with the Wind.” Other early examples include movies such as Cecile B. DeMille’s “the Klansman.” A central tenet of these is that the institution of slavery was paternalistic and good for black people, and when the North caused its destruction it let loose a plague of evils. Even historians such as the great Shelby Foote in his work on the Civil War may have furthered this view, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps not.
When I first began to practice law in the area, nearly fifty years ago, my impression of the Brooke County Courthouse one of curiosity, largely because on the rear wall of the courtroom there was a portrait of Stonewall Jackson in uniform. It was the only picture hanging on any of the walls in the room. I thought “what is that doing here?”
By the early 1900’s the losers, at least in the South, had moved from traitors to tragic heroes. Southern cities began erecting monuments to Southern Generals and wartime leaders. These were frequently funded by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The idea behind the statues is that the men: Lee, Jackson, Stuart and others were heroes. Placing them in a capitol or courthouse is actually governmental recognition of those who were traitors to the United States and who had fought to keep people of color enslaved. When I finally realized this, I could put my first visit to the Brooke County Courthouse in perspective. Jackson’s portrait did not belong there because that room was a place of justice for all, black or white, indigent or rich. It should not have been in the courtroom. A statue of a Jackson, Lee Stuart or any other Southern General would have been just as out of place on the lawn of the courthouse in Wellsburg. The same goes for other courthouses and our state capitol grounds.