E Pluribus Unum

 

On a recent vacation, my son, Howard, and I visited Lexington, Virginia. Lexington is the home of the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. It is also the burial site for Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. At the Visitors’ Center, we were given information by a gentleman in his fifties regarding points of interest in Lexington, referring to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” Aside from the inaccuracy of this statement, as the Confederacy fired the first shots of the war, I was astonished as to how one American citizen could still harbor such resentment and divisiveness generations after this epochal event, in which we lost over 600,000 of our young men.

Virginia Mourning Her Dead
"Virginia Mourning Her Dead," a monument at VMI in memory of the ten cadets who died at New Market. (Photo by Howard Kleinman)

 G-d willing, we will never, ever, experience another catastrophic civil war. But I am somewhat perplexed by the lack of civility in the media about the different states and regions of our country. Our great middle states are referred to by derisive elites on either coasts as “fly-over country,” as if all that mattered are the Eastern and Western edges of our continent. One columnist in The New Yorker recently referred to the “Coasts” as “brainland,” consigning tens of millions of Middle America to “dunceland.” Even referring to states as either “blue” or “red” is either a badge of honor or dishonor, depending upon your political affiliation. Of course, this lack of civility is exacerbated during our Presidential election cycle.

On this same vacation, my wife, Gail, and I visited the New Market, Virginia, Civil War Battleground. This battle is famous because cadets from VMI volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army to fight against a Northern force trying to conquer the Shenandoah Valley. As a result of the battle, one of the cadets, Thomas Garland Jefferson, grandson of Thomas Jefferson, died in the arms of a fellow cadet, Moses Ezekiel. Ezekiel was the first Jewish cadet admitted to VMI. His father, Jacob, received an acknowledgment from President John Tyler in 1841 that his characterization of the American nation as a “Christian people” was a mistake. Jacob was also largely responsible for Virginia’s amendment to grant equality to those who observed Saturday as the Sabbath.

When the War ended, and VMI re-opened, Ezekiel returned to finish his education. Robert E. Lee, who became president of the nearby Washington College, encouraged Ezekiel to pursue his artistic talents rather than continuing in the military. Ezekiel followed his advice and became one of the most renowned sculptors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His works grace all the major public monuments of his day, and he was knighted by King Victor Emanuel III of Italy, as Ezekiel’s primary studio was in Rome. He also sculpted works of Judaica, featured at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and numerous museums.

What caught my attention was that he sculpted the bust of the Civil War Governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Gregg Curtin, part of the largest and most impressive Civil War monument in the country, honoring native sons of the Keystone State who fought in the Civil War against Ezekiel’s side. But he believed in one nation, indivisible, despite the carnage he had witnessed in 1864.
The Great Seal of our country displays the motto, E Pluribus Unum: “Out of many, one.“ We may have different regions, dialects, languages, ethnic, religious groups and races. But we are one nation. Next time you hear someone castigating one region of our country or a group, remind them of the sacrifices so many made in defense of E Pluribus Unum.

 

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