MADAME X: The Historical Hypocrisy Of Walter Isaacson

Yesterday morning, around six o’clock, my phone blew up. Bleary-eyed, I read the chains of text messages, astonished to discover that Walter Isaacson, an esteemed scholar (one of his many hats), yet astonishingly a proponent of Mitch Landrieu’s reductive and anti-intellectual monumental destruction, had penned an article for the Advocate against the cancelling of Benjamin Franklin.

My friends knew to come and tell me: both Isaacson and monuments are passionate topics for me.

I wasn’t so surprised that Isaacson would defend Franklin. He published an excellent work on Franklin, among other shared connections and interests. What floored me was Isaacson’s argument, which suggests that we should judge a man on the totality of his life.

This was the very argument that so many who wanted to keep the monuments championed into the unhearing void of Landrieu’s Removalfest.

Isaacson goes on: while a sometime slave owner himself, Franklin self-corrects by observing that Black Americans were worthy and capable of education and participation in the broader citizenry of young America. Franklin supported education for Black Americans. Franklin was a man who made many contributions to society. So, we should not cancel Franklin by removing his name from schools.

Blinking away sleep and shock, I read on.

Isaacson rightly notes that abolitionists of Franklin’s era largely believed that Black Americans could not be educated. One must take the baffling stupidity of this position with the understanding that many of these people hailed from Northern regions and had never seen a Black face, let alone did business with a Black man or sought pharmaceutical treatment from a Black woman, as White New Orleanians did. They certainly didn’t often interact socially with Black people—or ride into battle beside them.

General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, of course, was from New Orleans. He had grown up around Black people, he counted Black people his friends. In truth he had a commercial interest in maintaining slavery, but his clearest reason for refusing to denounce Louisiana—which cost him his position as superintendent of West Point—was that he wasn’t about to shoot his neighbors over the fact that the Federal Government wouldn’t grant the South a divorce.

An historian, an intellectual, as Isaacson assuredly is, would examine Beauregard’s position as the son of a slaveholding family in a rational light. It is entirely possible for the intellectual to disdain the primitive customs of one’s ancestors while acknowledging that these customs were a part of the world into which the ancestor was born.

New Orleans was a city founded by men, a disproportionate number of those second and third sons of landed French aristocracy, who had one foot in a feudal world where men owning other men was simply the way society was constructed, and had always been constructed. The social reconstruction of revolution had not occurred yet.

New Orleans was also founded as an agrarian colony under a plantation system with its roots in Mediterranean antiquity, and all the way down the Nile. The purpose was entirely commercial. It follows then that the leading men of New Orleans society, indeed most men and women of wealth Black, White, and Otherwise, owned slaves. There it is.

Does this mean New Orleans must cancel all of her statesmen, all of her champions, all of her famous men because they existed in the world in which they were born? As it is possible to disdain that primitive custom—which easily and often existed in the realms of barbarity, as systems of total control must do—it is also wise to do as Isaacson suggests: examine the moral arc of the individual, not born in Philadelphia, but born on a plantation right here, just outside the city.

So, let us do it honestly, for once.

Let me set aside Beauregard the engineer, who built forts around the state to protect us, who dredged channels around the river to supply us with goods, who designed street cars for us to ride on.

Let me set aside Beauregard the warrior who fought in the Mexican-American war for us, who didn’t want to shoot you, his neighbor, and so sacrificed a plum career-enhancing gig at West Point to pick up the State Flag.

Let me focus only here on Beauregard On Race, as Isaacson primarily focused on Franklin’s ideas of race in America.

Returning to an occupied City after the war, Beauregard immediately launched into a project to restore home rule. His partners in this project were the men he knew and men he made the acquaintance of, the men he respected, many Creoles like him: White, and Creoles of Color. In all cases we’re cousins, sharing no small degree of blood, and that’s another article all together, but what matters here was that his political party was one where men of all complexions served together in equality.

What matters here is that his party platform included equal voting rights.

What matters here are the words he spoke (perhaps to reluctant transplants unaccustomed to 150 years of shared culture and shared commerce): “I am persuaded that the natural relation between the white and colored people is that of friendship, I am persuaded that their interests are identical; that their destinies in this state, where the two races are equally divided, are linked together; and that there is no prosperity for Louisiana which must not be the result of their cooperation.”

Let that sink in a moment, then forgive any aspersions I may cast on the esteemed Franklin when I clarify this comment for the modern reader: this is not the rather skin-crawling, “OMG I met a Black person and wouldn’t you know, they CAN read, let’s go save them!”

This is: we are brothers. Our destinies are tied. We must share power and position and prosperity if we’re going to get ahead in this world.

There was no question of ability or rightness in this plan. Beauregard was not riding in as the Great White Savior. Beauregard was a White man who’d grown up in a half-Black City, he knew better, and what he articulates is not “I wonder if we can share power and work together” but “Without question we will and we must, it’s the only damn way we’ll ever be anything at all.”

Possibility and doubt don’t even enter the equation. And that—shared power, shared prosperity—is the essence of everything the Civil Rights movement speaks to. That is equality, from the brew house to the State House.

I imagine that’s a terrible message for the modern mediocre politician to encounter, when he himself has no method of securing immortal legacy without playing on racial fear and division.

When Beauregard died, his friend, a Black poet, read out his eulogy in front of his friends and his Creole family. He was a local boy, and he died a local boy who believed in us getting along, respecting each other, and succeeding together. He put his family name and his reputation on that belief. That’s Beauregard’s “arc” in a summary. His message is the City we are today (although we’re falling insanely short by so many measures, rather than living up to our promise—another article still.)

I would be remiss if I failed to mention John McDonough. Isaacson defends Franklin from cancellation by lauding Franklin’s statements promoting the education of Black people. McDonough left his fortune to this purpose, establishing schools that so many New Orleanians attended. Yes, by God, the idea of Black children having to stand behind White children to pay tribute to this is a nasty one, and frankly, were I myself, but as a little Black girl, I’d have marched right up to the front of that line and demand, “Who are you to put me in the back?” It’s hurtful personally and it’s damaging to society, and it’s not going to happen again.

And it’s not a reason to cancel McDonough either.

Isaacson made no mention of McDonough’s dedication to the education of Black children, when Franklin’s words alone on the topic earned him his “redemption.”

There is, of course, a better way to wrap our hands around the damages left by our past, one that doesn’t fuel the fire of perpetual pain and shame. I have no doubt that Isaacson can discourse on Intention, on Energy, on the Laws of Attraction, on how negative reaction tends to feed energy to that which one wishes to resist and so enhances it, with American race relations no exception.

I shall put it this Better Way to him then, and to all of you, as we stand at the chasm contemplating a national abyss, one which we would not profit from crossing.

Children—particularly Black children—study antebellum history with an almost singular focus on slavery. This in itself is a reaction to earlier texts which refused to examine it, an equal mistake. However, once the children have had their fill of this, they are given some more. And then they are told how it touches them today, often in the most graphic terms: if Black, they are taught that they were and perhaps still are viewed as inferior, that they have been hurt and degraded and walked naked through the streets. If they are White, they are taught that they come from pure evil and nothing more, that they owe all but their blood for this guilt. And then, as if we were making the most negative, most self-hating fearful fois gras of our own babies, we force their little brains open and pour in some more shame and terror. We give them no foundation with which to see their ancestors—themselves, in a metaphysical sense—in any positive light whatsoever. And we strip ourselves of any foundation to be friends, to share power, to create the prosperity that is so linked to our mutual survival. As a Great Man once similarly said.

When the Monument Removal—foregone conclusion that it was—was under “discussion,” some among us asked: since there is honestly and truly an error of one-sided public honoring of prominent ancestors, where we see the European sons but not the African—why shouldn’t we raise monuments all over the City to prominent Black men and women from our rich historical past? New Orleanians know exactly who and what we are here, and that we have a deep, deep well of Black ancestors of prominence and honor to draw from, men and women whose monuments are long overdue.

It was often suggested in Creole circles that Joseph Savary, a hero and officer who led Creoles of Color to victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans, would keep Beauregard fine company. Let our sons and daughters see our flawed fathers, crowned with immortal laurels for their courage! What a message: that we flawed citizens, we sinning citizens, can face our enemies (and our demons) with heroic courage, and so transform ourselves and win the eternal acclaim of our descendants.

Is that not the very point, Mr. Isaacson, that you make about Franklin as a lesson to us all? Would this not have been the better way? Can you hear me?

New Orleans deserved better.

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