In case you haven’t heard of this before, Italian sculptor Gaetano Trentanove created the statue at the behest of the Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction in 1901 for their Centennial year celebration. As the National Parks Service describes it, Pike is portrayed: “…in civilian dress and presented as a Masonic leader rather than a military man. Pike stands 11 feet tall upon a high granite pedestal. Below his feet about halfway down the west face of the pedestal, sitting on a ledge, is the allegorical Goddess of Masonry, holding the banner of the Scottish Rite. The figure is in Greek dress and posed as looking down. Pike holds a book in his left hand, perhaps his popular Morals and Dogma of Scottish Rite Masonry.”
Pike was born and raised in Boston, but Pike and his family were living in Arkansas before and during the Civil War. He had lived among Indian tribes in the West in prior years with whom he was sympathetic. That’s why he was compelled by the Confederacy to enlist and command Indian troops. He resigned in disgust and felt disgraced specifically BECAUSE of their savagery in the wake of the Pea Ridge catastrophe that he had been unable to control.
Pike’s purported membership in the early Ku Klux Klan can neither be categorically proved nor disproved, but since neither organization ever once attempted to cash in on his alleged position, membership, or any other supposed role in the Klan’s formation at any time, before or after his death, there is no evidence to perpetuate such a tale anyway. However the single unattributed source of the initial false assertion has been known by legitimate researchers for more than 25 years. There is zero proof.
The persistent accusation that Pike wrote the Klan’s rituals has also never had any basis in fact. Rituals of the Klan versus a respectable study of Pike’s own voluminous works make it instantly obvious that they are not the work of the same pen. Even a casual comparison would render the assertion absurd on its face. While Pike quite openly admitted that he had no desire to socialize or intermingle with blacks on a personal basis—which was FAR from an unusual position throughout ALL of America at that time—nothing in the stacks of his books and private writings has ever been found that would support the open race hatred one would expect to find in a man posthumously accused of having been so intimately involved in the Klan’s original Reconstruction-era formation.
Further, during additional extensive (13 volumes) Congressional investigations into the Klan and the subsequent report of their findings published in 1921, Albert Pike’s name shows up precisely once, only indirectly as being a speaker in a public park at a totally unrelated event that did not involve any Klan activity or organizers at all. His name was simply mentioned casually by an attendee who was describing a flag dedication ceremony at the time. Pike was a near legendary figure during his life, and even more lionized in death by the Scottish Rite. He was NEVER mentioned in the Congressional inquiries and investigations in the 1870s into the “Ku Klux problem.” By the early 1920s during the massive period of increase in Masonic membership, if the United States Congress had EVER connected Pike’s name to the Klan, it would have been international news among Masons, who made up a substantial portion of that period’s swelling KKK membership. And given the way the Simmons/Evans/Stephenson era Klan of the 1920s was so enthusiastically promoted across the country by traveling, commissioned salesmen to millions of members in other fraternities, they certainly would have actively played up any possible association with Pike posthumously if it existed. It did not. Even the Washington Post, the African-American paper The Washington Informer, AND the DCist website itself came to this very same conclusion in 1995 and 2005 when this silliness was all trotted out before.
Pike wrote only ONE known editorial immediately after the war even referring to the Klan. He wrote that he thought there was a need for some kind of fraternal organization for disenfranchised Southerners who, like Pike himself, had their property confiscated in the Reconstruction period, and that such a group might exercise an organized political opposition that was “mutual, peaceful, lawful self-defense” over what he felt were unduly punitive and illegal measures by the North. (His land holdings were seized and sold at a tax sale, preventing him from even bequeathing them to his family after his death, even if he couldn’t profit from them in life.) However, he felt the Ku Klux Klan itself was nothing but a disorganized mess that would never amount to much of any value. This was during its earliest formative days before the KKK became just shorthand for almost any night-riding vigilante group that began terrorizing Northerners, “scalawag” Southerners, school teachers, administrators, and certainly the newly freed blacks.
Pike WAS a supporter of social segregation, just as probably 85% of all Americans were in that age, North or South. He also recognized the immediate post-war problem with suddenly inserting freed slaves, kept in deliberate general ignorance by the slave holding system of the time, suddenly being thrust into positions of government or administrative offices. All Southerners at the time undoubtedly noticed that purportedly more “enlightened” Northern legislatures and city halls and Congressional staff offices (to say nothing of elected officials) weren’t exactly packed with educated blacks themselves, and they became openly hostile over the blatant hypocrisy that Reconstruction was forcing on them. Northerners who sought to forcibly change the South were scarcely leading by their example, and were no quicker to embrace integration at any level. The end of slavery merely stopped the industry and the institution. But even in states where no actual Jim Crow laws were eventually passed, the practices and the mindset was almost every bit as widespread north of the Mason-Dixon line for decades after the Civil War.
So, were Pike’s views on race for his time and place “repugnant?” Or was he approaching it as Pike approached just about everything else in his life, by studying the prior civilizations and societies that had dealt with enslaved populations to see how they evolved in order to shape his own beliefs as the post war period unfolded? Depending on exactly when he was writing, he certainly believed American blacks were ignorant. Earlier in his life, he clearly ascribed that to an inherited trait. Later in life, that didn’t seem to be the case. Possibly because of his encounters with erudite Negro Masons, both in letters and in person, often from foreign countries. There’s no way to tell now, but human beings evolve through their experiences, and Pike was no different in that respect.
He DID indeed disapprove of any compelled race mixing in Freemasonry. So did the overwhelming majority of American society in almost every walk of life. Even the “Negro” grand lodges spreading westward after 1856 and into the South did not advocate for full integration on a widespread, practical basis. While Pike was decidedly against co-mingling with black Freemasons, he defended the separate Prince Hall-descended Masonic organizations as perfectly legitimate. Pike happily shared personal, autographed copies of his Scottish Rite Masonic degree rituals with his counterpart in the parallel Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction for black Prince Hall Masons, Thornton A. Jackson, in order to assist their fledgling organization sometime between 1887 and 1891. In writings of the period, Jackson described Pike as his friend. Curious attitude towards a man who is supposed to have been just a plain old, white, garden-variety, Protestant hater of blacks, and supposed cornerstone of the Ku Klux Klan.
Pike’s statue in DC commemorates his position in the Scottish Rite and NOT his very brief role in the Confederate Army, nor even his pre-war life, during which he defended Southern slave owners’ Constitutional property rights as their attorney in several cases. He was a lawyer, the Constitution and the Supreme Court declared slaves to be “property,” and Pike argued his cases on that basis. Abstractly, he knew slavery to be wrong morally, and had studied the subject as an historical issue. Legally, he defended clients according to the law until the law was changed otherwise. Lawyers today are rarely neither any more nor less principled. If the statue depicted Pike in uniform and was celebrating him as some hero of the Confederacy, the current detractors might have a leg to stand on. But it does not and they don’t.
Nevertheless, if this is going to be an ongoing controversy and not blow over this time as it did in the 1990s, the last thing Freemasonry wants or needs is a symbolic lightening rod of criticism and ire attached to it. Especially if it becomes a national focal point for the current frenzy on the 24-hour cable networks. I suspect they’ve been scouting around the parking lot out back of the House of the Temple this week for the best setting for it, should it come down to being relocated. The National Parks Service is currently reviewing the request. But the question may become not what the Scottish Rite is FORCED to do, but what they will find themselves COMPELLED to do.
I’m all for being offended over statues and advocating their removal, but only on artistic grounds as an offense against the eye. You can start with this one of Nathan Bedford Forrest that offends tens of thousands on a daily basis as they drive past it in Nashville, Tennessee. No one can possibly argue that it wouldn’t be of greater service to mankind as a submerged artificial coral reef off Key Biscayne.
Don’t advocate for the removal of statues over some reevaluation of past repugnant behavior or attitudes from an earlier era, no matter how real or imagined. Use them teach with, however you may choose to do that. That’s what they’re there for, no matter when or why they were first erected. Your own hero today may become the next generation’s villain who may be scraped from the statehouse lawn and paved over so that person’s memory is forever removed from the collective consciousness, too. Whom we honor and when becomes its own textbook from which to learn, and toppling statues is no less abhorrent than book burning. The reason that so many knee-jerk comparisons to Orwell quotes or equivalencies with the Taliban blowing up Afghan Buddhas or ISIS leveling Palmyra have been so frequent this week is because they are so true. It IS the same thing.
There are way too many people running loose these days with a mission dedicated to stopping debate, discussion, conversation—IDEAS. I never would have believed Americans would voluntarily line up for that kind of intellectual circular firing squad, but it’s happening now. Don’t fall for it, and for the love of all that is decent in the world, don’t let your children fall for it, either. And if you’re a Freemason, you should be the first guy in line to put a stop to it. This fraternity got its real start by being a crucible for the Enlightenment. It’s high time we start defending it and encouraging it again.
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