- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2000

Column throws the baby out with the bath water


Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden is my favorite columnist. I always look forward with great anticipation to his semiweekly skewering of liberal wackiness. But by criticizing Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in an effort to ridicule those who seek to pull down the Confederate flag from atop the South Carolina Statehouse, he has thrown out the baby with the bath water ("One flag down and two memorials to go," Pruden on Politics, April 14).
As Mr. Pruden should know, most of those who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism also see Jefferson and Lincoln as racists. This is because, as Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote in a 1968 Ebony essay, "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" "the American tradition … is, as we all know, a racist tradition."
In his haste to score debating points against the politically correct anti-flag forces, Mr. Pruden gives aid and comfort to the Lerone Bennetts of the world. He does so by giving credence to the claim that Jefferson and Lincoln were hypocrites when it came to race.
Like the politically correct crowds he disdains, Mr. Pruden invokes Sally Hemings to tar Jefferson. But the evidence for Jefferson's paternity of Hemings' last child, Eston, is far from incontrovertible. There were at least eight other Jeffersons who could have been the father. And even if the charge is true, it does not mean that Jefferson didn't mean what he said in the Declaration of Independence.
The passage Mr. Pruden cites to prove that Lincoln was a racist must be understood in the context of the 1858 campaign between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the latter constantly played the race card against Lincoln and the "black Republicans." He claimed again and again that the founders never intended to include blacks in the Declaration of Independence and that Lincoln's attempt to extend the principles of that document to them would lead to the mixing of the races. Lincoln's denial of any intention to bring about the social or political equality of the races was necessary to distance himself from the abolitionists and, thus, to avoid alienating many anti-slavery Northerners, whose support he could not do without.
The passage Mr. Pruden cites is from the fourth joint debate at Charleston. Mr. Pruden would have done well to supplement that passage with this one from the earlier debate at Ottawa: "I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position … but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects… . But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man."
Contrast this view with that of a Southern "moderate," Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens is best known for his postwar book, "A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States," the most detailed presentation of the states' rights position and articulate defense of the idea that secession was a constitutional right having little or nothing to do with slavery.
Here is what Stephens said before the war. In his "cornerstone" speech in Savannah, Ga., on March 21, 1861, Stephens repudiated Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence as "the sandy foundation" of the old Constitution. Jefferson erroneously believed, Stephens said, "that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that [African slavery] was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically."
In the course of his speech, Stephens acknowledged slavery to be the cause of the sectional crisis that had afflicted the nation, and claimed that the new Confederate constitution would solve the problem upon which the "old Union" had foundered. The "foundations [of our new government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition." This explains why Pat Cleburne didn't get his fourth star. His idea of freeing slaves and arming them to fight for the Confederacy was simply beyond the pale for most Southerners at the time certainly for the officers of the Army of Tennessee and the politicians in Richmond.
There is a world of difference between Lincoln's views and those of Stephens, and they get to the heart of what is wrong with Mr. Pruden's column. His column gives credence to the view that America is irretrievably racist to its very core. Nothing could be further from the truth. Individual Americans can be and have been racists. There have been laws perpetuating the inequality of the races. Indeed, the Constitution itself once protected the institution of slavery and Jim Crow. But these examples always have been in violation of the central idea of the American republic. This central idea is the principle of equality as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, an idea that Jefferson and Lincoln understood intuitively.
MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Newport, R.I.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the U.S. Naval War College.

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Although Wesley Pruden has taken up the South's cause numerous times in an effective and humorous way, he crossed the line with respect to Abraham Lincoln and his views on race.

Mr. Pruden paints Lincoln as a racist. If one is to judge another, then the one judged should be judged in the context of the time he lived. Lincoln abolished slavery in a nation that was less than 100 years old and that grew and benefited from this terrible practice. The economy of about half the states in the Union depended upon slavery. The emancipation and related actions Lincoln took to keep this country together speak louder than any words.

It is never pretty when a Southerner's bitterness surfaces over what he could have had. The right side won.

GORDON M. DAVIDSON

Burke

Columnist's 'Pay as you earn' plan a good idea


Twenty-two years ago, I left the corporate world to become a free-lance writer and marketing consultant. As I read Kenneth Smith's column about writing checks to the government on a quarterly basis, I nodded in sad agreement ("Pay as you earn," Op-Ed, April 13).
Of course, that is what I and every other self-employed person do with our estimated tax payments four times a year. In fact, just the other night I wrote a check for my "underpayment" for 1999, plus the first whopping installment for 2000. (Added to that pain is the realization that the employer and employee portions of the rapacious FICA taxes also must be paid.)
I am not knowledgeable enough in such matters to know whether replacing the income tax with a national sales tax would work, but I feel confident I could restrain my own spending a lot more effectively than the various levels of government seem to be able to manage.
JOHN DALLAS BOWERS
Radnor, Pa.

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I find it difficult to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric in discussing the outrage that is income-tax withholding. The column "Pay as you earn" by Kenneth Smith (Op-Ed, April 13) is right on the money.

Besides withholding, I pay quarterly estimated taxes, too. It's a bad joke when no federal budget office seems to be able to arrive at correct projections, but taxpayers are expected to do so.

Income taxes are not the only taxes people pay. The numbers I see for total taxes paid never add them all up. But I do. I can assure you that 70 percent to 75 percent of my income goes to taxes. I don't think I'm alone in this.

There are many organizations devoted to ameliorating this barbarous tax situation, but I can't feel hopeful that the situation ever will get better. Congress couldn't even bring itself to suspend 4 cents worth of gas tax this month.

DOLORES DEMBUS

BITTLEMAN

Washington

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