Imposing 21st Century Sensibilities on 18th and 19th Century Actions

Perhaps the most beloved hymn of the past two centuries is Amazing Grace – and if Star Trek, The Wrath of Khan is any indication, it will continue to be a beloved hymn well into the 23rd Century.  As a measure of its popularity, this song is performed 10 million times each year, and it has been recorded in more than 11,000 albums.

Judy Collins’ stunning version spent 67 weeks on the Billboard charts in the early 1970s, and other musical greats – including Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and Celtic Woman – all recorded popular versions of this song.  At the funeral service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney – who was murdered in that heinous massacre in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church two years ago – President Barack Obama sang this hymn from the church’s pulpit. He proved himself to be a better politician than singer, but he also proved beyond question the popularity of this song among black Americans.

Yet if one-issue social pressure continues to mount, Amazing Grace may disappear from politically-sensitive YouTube, Facebook, Google, and more broadly from popular culture.

Why?  Because the man who wrote this hymn, English sailor John Newton, had been a slave trader before experiencing a Jonah-like miraculous salvation of his own.  Newton’s experience with slavery was varied – a slave trader and blackbirder, at one point in that career he was held as a slave by a black African Princess, the wife of an English slave-trader. This occurred after the crew of Newton’s own slaving ship abandoned him in West Africa.

Freed from bondage and heading home, Newton’s ship was caught in a gale off the Irish coast.  Newton – not then a believer – nonetheless prayed to God for salvation.  Almost at once, the ship’s cargo shifted, plugging a hole in the hull and allowing the foundering ship to reach safety.  Newton took this miracle as a sign, converted to Christianity then – years later, and with a fuller understanding of the bible, Newton, now an Anglican priest – not only renounced slavery and became its vocal opponent, but also penned Amazing Grace to describe his miraculous conversion, and what it meant to him.

By all accounts, following his conversion, he was a great and good man of God, and he strenuously opposed the evil he’d once helped to facilitate.  The Reverend Newton had become a man of faith, and in that role he worked hard to end legal slavery in Great Britain.  Perhaps as a final sign of God’s Grace, Newton lived to see England outlaw slavery, dying just a few months later.

Yet by the standards of organizations such as Black Lives Matter, Newton must now and for all time be seen as one beyond the Pale.  Recordings of his song readily could be banished from YouTube, Facebook, Google -- and even from churches and Star Trek movies.  For by their lights, anyone who was ever a slave-holder can never be forgiven – nor honored – no matter what other good he or she might have done.

Supporting Black Lives Matter, noted black activist with -- following his avid support of demonstrably false claims of rape made by Tawana Brawley -- a reputation for race-baiting, is now calling for the de-funding and closure of the Jefferson Memorial. That memorial was built to honor the man who wrote one of the most stirring proclamations of human dignity and liberty, the Declaration of Independence. 

Other Black Lives Matter leaders are calling for the removal of a statue of President George Washington from a public park in Chicago. Washington was perhaps the one indispensible man who was responsible for America’s success in winning its freedom from England, who then presided over the Constitutional Convention, and who later set a model for decorum and dignity as our first President.

Yes, these two men owned slaves, yet neither of them ever publicly advocated in favor of slavery.  Washington provided retirement benefits for aged slaves, and later freed his slaves in his last will and testament.  As President, Jefferson opposed slavery’s spread into the Indiana Territory, and upon his death, he freed some of his slaves.

However, for those on the more radical Left – who have abandoned advocating against sports-team names that were intended to honor Native Americans in favor of excoriating long-dead slave-holders – there is apparently no amount of patriotic good works a man can do that will offset his ownership of slaves.  Washington and Jefferson are under fire, with – no doubt – more otherwise-patriotic slaveholders to come.  The ultimate “logic” of Black Lives Matter will see the destruction of Monticello and the Jefferson Memorial, Mount Vernon and the Washington Monument, the defacing of Mount Rushmore and – perhaps – the renaming of Washington DC and the State of Washington.

One wonders.  With Washington and Jefferson now under fire, can Amazing Grace be far behind?

Trying to anticipate just how far this assault against one-time slave-holders will go, consider the possible fate of President Ulysses S. Grant.  In a gift from his slave-owning father-in-law, Grant acquired one slave William Jones. Grant, no friend of slavery, owned Jones for just two years before, in March 1859, Grant freed him.  On the slave market, Jones would have been worth $1,500, which had a value of $42,211 in 2017 currency. But instead of selling Jones at a time when he desperately needed money, Grant freed his slave.  All but bankrupt, Grant abandoned his farm and move in with his family in Illinois.

Beginning two years later, General Grant’s Union armies freed millions of slaves. He also freed, then enlisted, nearly 200,000 black slaves in the Union Army and – against all precedent – paid them for their service. Post-war, President Grant presided over and implemented Reconstruction, including advocating for Constitutional and legal efforts to provide civil rights for all freed slaves. 

Yet he did own a slave. To be sure, it was only one slave, for just two years, before he freed him against his own financial well-being.  But because he did own a slave, will Grant, too, come under fire?  If so, that’s sure to provide new meaning to the old joke about “who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

Ned Barnett is a trained historian specializing in American military history – he’s appeared as an historian in nine History Channel programs.  He is also a political campaign consultant who has, among other accomplishments, headed media and strategy at the state level in three Presidential campaigns, beginning with Ford’s 1976 campaign.