Asheville’s monument to tolerance

Zebulon B. Vance spoke movingly and influentially against what he called “the wickedness and the folly of intolerance.”

Rising skyward from the busy downtown crossroads of this Appalachian mountain town is an elegant spire of rough-hewn granite: the Vance Monument. Recently, Asheville’s answer to the Washington Monument has been a focal point for controversy over nation-sized issues of war and freedom of speech, after police and city officials clamped down on the peace protests that, for months, had swirled around this memorial to North Carolina’s own reluctant rebel.

The Vance Monument is more than just a shrine to a Civil War-era governor; more, even, than a forum for Asheville’s remarkably diverse political views. Ever since the winter solstice day in 1897 when its cornerstone was laid (in a rare public Masonic ritual) to honor the Confederate Christian who stood up for the Jews, the monument has symbolized that most controversial of First Amendment rights: freedom of religion.

For more than a century — even in the dark days of the Ku Klux Klan’s ascendancy, when hooded Jew-haters burned crosses and smashed windows in other Southern towns — the Asheville chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy has conducted a joint ceremony with the local chapter of B’nai B’rith each year at the foot of the Vance Monument. What brings together such seemingly mismatched constituencies as a Southern-heritage organization and a Jewish-advocacy group on or about May 13 is the birthday of a Buncombe County native who probably did more than any other American statesman to prevent anti-Semitic prejudice from closing the nation’s doors of immigration to a despised and persecuted people.

A voice for civil liberties

Zebulon Baird Vance, best known in today’s history books as North Carolina’s governor during the Civil War, might seem an unlikely champion of religious tolerance. Like so many other native and adopted offspring of these mountains, however, the independent-minded Zeb Vance could not be confined to a narrow stereotype.

Born in 1830 in a log cabin in Reems Creek (now a state historic site), this son of a farmer and country merchant grew up to be a lawyer noted for his sharp and earthy wit. A U.S. congressman who was an eloquent supporter of the Union until the very outbreak of the Civil War, Vance chose loyalty to his home state once hostilities began. In Asheville, he organized the Confederate Rough and Ready Guards; as colonel of the 26th North Carolina Regiment, he gained such fame for his courage that he was elected governor of North Carolina in 1862 and again in 1864.

Vance’s toughest fight as his state’s wartime governor, however, was not against the depredations of Northern raiders but the draconian wartime dictates of his own government. When the Confederate Congress authorized President Jefferson Davis to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and indefinitely imprison Southern citizens suspected of “disloyalty” without trial, Vance declared that if North Carolinians were deprived of this constitutional right, he would “issue a proclamation recalling the North Carolina soldiers from Virginia, and call out the State’s militia to protect the liberties of the citizens.” The humanitarian governor also worked hard to improve the harsh conditions in which enemy prisoners of war were being held, and when it became clear to everyone except Southern leaders that the war could not be won, Vance pressed for peace with the North.

But it wasn’t until the very end of the war, when a Jewish hatmaker rescued the captured Confederate governor from what could have been the most degrading moment of his life, that a profound respect for the despised Jews apparently first took root in Vance’s heart. On his 35th birthday, Union cavalry surrounded the governor’s home in Statesville and arrested him. The Union officer in charge was trying to force the portly and somewhat horsemanship-challenged Vance to ride or walk, in full public view, the 35 miles to the nearest rail line to Washington when Samuel Wittkowsky, a local Polish immigrant who admired Vance, intervened, persuading the officer to let him drive the governor in his carriage.

The Southerner and the Jew became lifelong friends. After the war, Vance won election to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina — but the Reconstruction-era Republicans controlling Congress refused to allow the ex-Confederate to take his seat. Forced to return to his law practice in Charlotte for several years until the political climate in Washington had moderated, Vance — most likely through Wittkowsky — got to know and respect other members of that city’s prospering community of recent escapees from Old World ghettos and pogroms.

“The Scattered Nation”

Around 1870, during his own exile from Washington, Vance composed “The Scattered Nation,” a speech he would give hundreds of times to sold-out crowds in lyceums and lecture halls (the 19th-century forerunners of today’s radio and TV talk shows) all across America in years to come, including his 20 years as a U.S. senator. Drawing on its author’s oratorical gifts and wide reading in ancient and biblical history, the lecture makes a powerful case against what it calls “the wickedness and the folly of intolerance.”

Vance opens with a striking comparison of the Jewish people to the Gulf Stream — a river of people moving through the sea of nations yet never mingling with it. He goes on to trace elements of such modern ideals as representative democracy and property rights to the ancient Hebrew tribal confederation, praising the lack of crime and the intelligence and strong family values he has personally seen among their modern descendants.

Standing the anti-Semitic stereotype of the mercantile, ghettoized Jew on its head, Vance shows how, when persecution forced the Jews away from agriculture and land ownership, the “scattered nation” turned its hardships into virtues by establishing a system of universal commerce, based on mutual trust, such as could never have developed among the border-bound and language-divided “consolidated nations” of the gentiles. Such arguments were eye-openers in an age when even educated Victorian Christians routinely stereotyped Jews as greedy Shylocks and thieving Fagins, refusing to allow even wealthy Jews into New York hotels — much less into such inner sanctums for political and economic decision-makers as the New York Athletic Club and Tuxedo Park (two places where Sen. Vance gave his speech).

Indeed, Vance is not above resorting to a Mark Twain-like gibe at Northerner stereotypes to get his point across:

“Is there any man who hears me tonight who, if a Yankee and a Jew were to ‘lock horns’ in a regular encounter of commercial wits, would not give large odds on the Yankee? My own opinion is that the genuine ‘guessing’ Yankee, with a jackknife and a pine shingle, could in two hours time whittle the smartest Jew in New York out of his homestead in the Abrahamic covenant.”

Vance reminds his listeners that the Jews were the source of their own faith: “All Christian churches are but off-shoots from or grafts upon the old Jewish stock. Strike out all of Judaism from the Christian church and there remains nothing but an unmeaning superstition.”

He also takes keen aim at religious bigotry, observing: “The popular habit is to regard an injury done to one by a man of a different creed as a double wrong; to me it seems that the wrong is greater coming from my own. To hold also, as some do, that the sins of all people are due to their creeds, would leave the sins of the sinners of my creed quite unaccounted for. With some, faith of a scoundrel is all important; it is not so for me.”

And just as the rising sun — which Vance says he’s seen from “the summit of the very monarch of our great Southern Alleghenies” — disperses the night fogs that fill the mountain valleys, “so,” Vance concludes, “may the real spirit of Christ yet be so triumphantly infused amongst those who profess to obey his teachings, that with one voice and one hand they will stay the persecutions and hush the sorrows of these their wondrous kinsmen.”

Wreathed in galax

Two years after the widely admired senator’s death in 1894, noted local benefactor George W. Pack offered to donate $2,000 to help pay for a monument to Vance in front of the Buncombe County Courthouse (then located on the east side of the current Pack Square). By 1898, the obelisk was complete. (A few years later, Pack proposed a more ambitious deal, offering to trade the county land for a new courthouse in exchange for its holdings on the public square, which would be “forever… held in trust for public use as a … park” by Pack and his heirs.)

“To North Carolinians, he is the incomparable Vance of war and Senate fame and many jests; to the Jewish people he is the author of ‘The Scattered Nation’, the one American statesman of his day who pleaded their cause to the people of the United States,” Vance biographer Selig Adler wrote in 1941. That advocacy, noted Adler, was all the more remarkable, given that “there were somewhat less than five hundred Jews in North Carolina at the time Vance wrote the speech, a fact that discounts all political motives.”

Jewish publishing houses repeatedly reprinted the famous speech. And more recently, Maurice A. Weinstein’s Zebulon B. Vance and “The Scattered Nation”, Wildacres Press, Charlotte, 1995) shone the spotlight on this remarkable story, helping keep Vance’s memory alive among American Jews.

The same could not be said for many others, however. In the words of a 1930s-era story in the old Asheville Citizen on the “Colorful History Of Shaft On Pack Square”: “As to the attitude of visitors to it, two contrasting stories may be told. A woman who has lived here all her life and is familiar with the story of the monument overheard two women on the street car: ‘Who is the Monument to?’ asked one. The other woman shrugged. ‘Oh, some little local man, I suppose.’ On the other hand many people will remember a wreath that used to hang on the monument: It was put there by a better informed visitor, a Jew who used to come to Asheville sometimes and who laid the wreath on Vance’s Monument to honor the man who made the famous speech on the Jews.”

That “better informed visitor” was none other than Jewish merchandising magnate/philanthropist Nathan Straus of R.H. Macy Company fame, who came to Asheville shortly after World War I to lay a wreath on the monument because, he said, he did not want to die without discharging a debt of gratitude. It was Straus, too, who arranged for the erection of the wrought-iron fence that still surrounds the obelisk, to fend off the loungers who even then frequented Pack Square. Straus also left behind an endowment to pay for placing a wreath at the site each year.

Tradition holds that a member of B’nai B’rith was present when the United Daughters of the Confederacy laid the first wreath at the monument when it was dedicated in 1898. Forty years later, a photograph published in the Asheville Times shows representatives of the UDC, the American Legion and B’nai B’rith standing next to a sumptuous wreath (and behind the captured World War I German cannon that pointed down Patton Avenue until it was melted for scrap during World War II) as they unveiled a bronze plaque honoring Vance (which can still be seen on the monument’s west face). Poignantly, the newspaper is dated May 14, 1938 — just a month and a day before the Nazis commenced “Operation June,” a roundup of Jews who were unemployed or had committed petty administrative offenses (such as illegal parking or late payments); the victims were imprisoned in concentration camps until they agreed to leave Germany.

According to Sudie Wheeler, the former Vance Birthplace manager who now oversees the annual Vance birthday ceremony for the UDC, the wreath the Daughters of the Confederacy lay alongside the B’nai B’rith’s is always made of galax leaves. (Galax, appropriately, is used by mountain herbalists to heal wounds.)

“Some of the ladies did do a wreath and place it at the monument [at its 1898 dedication] with the galax leaves, and that’s the reason we use the galax leaves today,” said Wheeler. One unconfirmed story is that the leaves were traditionally gathered at a Black Mountain property formerly owned by Vance. In recent years, notes Wheeler, the ceremony has often been held at the Vance Birthplace or — as it will be this year — at Vance’s grave in Riverside Cemetery, instead of at the downtown monument.

Most years, local members of B’nai B’rith still join the Daughters in the ceremony. Henry Meyers, the former state chairman of B’nai B’rith, speaks there nearly every year.

To Jews, “what [Vance] represented was an understanding of where the Jewish place in the world was, and that having a Jewish population could enrich the general population,” Meyers told Xpress. “He was a countervailing force against the evil of prejudice.”

And by saying to his fellow senators and congressman what no Jew was allowed into the exclusive clubs and fraternities where they gathered to say, notes Meyers, Vance kept America’s doors open to Jewish immigrants such as the Russian parents of Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine.

“Vance was making sure that the Jews were understood for what they were — that all they needed was a place where they could flourish. And some of those people who flourished were amazing,” Meyers observes.

“No Vance, no Salk.”

This year’s wreath-laying will be held on Saturday, May 10 at 11 a.m., in combination with Confederate Memorial Day. Flags will also be placed on the graves of known Confederate soldiers in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery.


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5 thoughts on “Asheville’s monument to tolerance

  1. Julie Vida

    Wonderful article…I was driving through Zebulon, N. C. one day when I noticed all these unusual street names such as King of Kings Avenue. It sparked my curiosity to look up the history of this town. What a gold mine!

  2. Mica

    Wow. What a “glowing” piece of writing. Zero perspective from African-American community. Zero mention of Vance’s participation in the enslavement culture. Quote that “All North Carolinians” appreciate the monument — super biased. Who is that author speaking for? Black North Carolinians? Obviously not. What about the historical position of the UDC — and of other “Civil War” monuments e.g. Silent Sam — that are explicitly erected with a racist, white-supremacist agenda? Yes, this is history. Yes, Vance seems to have been progressive for his times in a way that is admirable. No, this is not the “universal symbol of Asheville for all people” — the author of this article is presumptuous, entitled, narcissistic, and uninformed. Great propaganda writing! For real.

    • I’d also like to wonder aloud why so many people are so eager to demolish this beautiful historic spire (designed by Richard Sharp Smith, the Biltmore House architect) rather than just change the label on it. It’s as if the mindset of ISIS and the Taliban — who blew up rare antiquities that they deemed idolatrous — has become contagious. Granted, this city has a long hypocritical history of bragging to tourists about our historic architecture and then razing it as soon as some rich guy wants it out of the way of his development. But when rightfully angry people go so far with their frustration as to justify as “symbolism” the destruction of this monument they’ve decided is Confederate, they’ve gone from rightful to self-righteous — and in the end, it’s just as petty as expressing your rage against your ex-spouse by taking it out on their heirloom dishes. Really.

  3. Thanks for the name-calling, Mica — always elevates the discourse. I’m the author, and you are right about one thing — the article completely overlooks the vile side of Vance. At the time I wrote it, very little information was available about things like Vance’s repulsively bigoted 1860 speech, which nowadays has been found in the thick biographies existing on him and widely published. I would certainly have put that in and altered the tone entirely had I known about this.

    But this monument was not “explicitly erected with a white-supremacist agenda”. It was built by local Freemasons at the crossroads of our town as a studiedly neutral obelisk, not a Daughters of the Confederacy-style soldier on horseback or with a gun. It should not at all be lumped in with those monuments — that’s way, way too simplistic and binary, because it means far more to most Ashevilleans (don’t know how long you’ve lived here) than the guy whose name is on it. But all this will come out in the discussion about its fate that the City has arranged for.

    • Mica

      Thanks for the reply. Thanks for the call-in on name-calling. I’ll try to be more nuanced in the future, and own my opinions more. And thanks for the updates on new information that has come out. And the monument’s history.

      I still stand by calling out the lack of Black Asheville perspective — and the tone of the article that it seems to represent everyone’s Asheville. Read: a certain perspective written as though it is everyone’s. Yes, I know this is an old piece of writing for you. Perhaps you can weigh in with some additional writing… This is all in the public dialogue at the moment. Thanks for replying.

      Any thoughts on Daughters of the Confedaracy?

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