Liberals and their “conservative” enablers — many of them never-Trumpers — would have us believe that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech in defense of his removal of Confederate statues from the city of New Orleans was the masterful address of a true statesman. It was, in fact, nothing of the kind. It was what we should expect of a grandstanding Democratic politician — a mere matter of power politics, of trying to control the past in order to control the future, of ignorance and deceit masquerading as virtue.
In one widely quoted passage, Landrieu said: “why are there no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks…. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.” Actually, the absence of those monuments undercuts the very point Landrieu wanted to make, that the cause of the Confederacy was nothing more than a defense of slavery, and that any other arguments amounted to the foisting of a myth of the Lost Cause.
But the South isn’t proud of slavery or the slave trade. (The Confederate Constitution actually prohibited the importation of slaves; there were no Confederate slave ships.) It is, however, or has been, proud of the likes of Robert E. Lee.
Landrieu asks whether one can imagine a young black girl looking up and being inspired by Lee’s statue. Well, I reckon she can, on several grounds. One is that I have indeed met black people who respect and admire Robert E. Lee (perhaps I lead a less sheltered life than Mayor Landrieu or one less driven by political expediency). I have seen black children visiting a Civil War battlefield playfully contesting over who could wear Confederate grey from a costume box, because “We’re from the South!” No doubt their consciousness has since been raised by Landrieu and similar professors of liberal rectitude.
Another reason that young black girl might admire Lee is that she might have done some reading of her own; and in doing so, she might discover that if the Lost Cause narrative is a myth, it is one that actually predates the war. It was, after all, Robert E. Lee, the future commander of the Confederate armies, who wrote in 1856 that “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil….” Immediately after the war, in 1866, before Landrieu believes the “cult of the Lost Cause” got started, the great liberal British statesman Lord Acton wrote to Lee that in his mind the cause of the war was not slavery, but state’s rights, and that “I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction of but as the redemption of Democracy.…” Lee replied, “Although the South would have preferred any honourable compromise to the fratricidal war which has taken place, she now accepts in good faith its constitutional results, and receives without reserve the amendment which has already been made to the constitution for the extinction of slavery. This is an event that has been long sought, though in a different way, and by none has it been more earnestly desired than by the citizens of Virginia.”
So maybe, just maybe, there were other issues involved.
Landrieu quotes the admittedly loathsome Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and his infamous speech about slavery being the cornerstone of the Confederacy. What he neglects to mention is that Stephens’ views were not those of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, or P.G.T. Beauregard — the men whose statues he removed. If he knew his Louisiana history, he might have more fruitfully quoted Confederate General Richard Taylor, the son of President Zachary Taylor, who commanded in Louisiana and who wrote in his memoirs, published in 1879, that the people of Confederacy “struggled in all honorable ways, and for what? For their slaves? Regret for their loss has neither been felt nor expressed. But they have striven for that which brought our forefathers to Runnymede, the privilege of exercising some influence over their own government.” In bitter repudiation of Stephens, Taylor added: “Yet we fought for nothing but slavery, says the world, and the late vice-president of the Confederacy, Mr. Alexander Stephens reechoes the cry, declaring that it was the cornerstone of his government.” Mayor Landrieu might agree with Stephens; many leading Confederates did not.
For Lee the issue was not slavery, it was whether the union was to be preserved by “swords and bayonets” rather than by the free consent of the states. Landrieu says the Confederacy was on “the wrong side of humanity.” But I would guess that Landrieu’s imaginary black girl, if she had not yet been indoctrinated by the New Orleans public schools, might see things differently. She might see Robert E. Lee on the right side of humanity when he said, declining command of the Union forces, that “though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in the invasion of the Southern states.” As he had earlier confessed, “a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets… has no charm for me…. If the Union is dissolved and government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people and save in defense will draw my sword on none.” He made good on his promise and took the position that every humane man can echo: “With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty as an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” So spoke a man who had served the flag of the United States his entire life, a West Pointer, a former superintendent of West Point, a veteran of the Mexican War.
That humane, noble sentiment, as well as his military prowess, is the reason there are statues of Lee from Virginia to Texas, and schools named after him all the way (until recently) to San Diego. It was a Republican President and Union officer of the Civil War, William McKinley, who ordered the federal government to maintain Confederate graves as “a tribute to American valor.” It was a Unionist Republican Secretary of War William Howard Taft who authorized a Confederate memorial at Arlington Cemetery. It was a Unionist Republican President Theodore Roosevelt who said that Lee was “without any exception the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth.”
It seems like only yesterday that Americans understood the Civil War to be our national Iliad with worthy heroes on both sides. It was President Dwight David Eisenhower, the man who sent troops to ensure the integration of the public schools in Little Rock, who kept a portrait of Lee in his office. It was Ken Burns, a liberal documentarian, who not so very long ago allowed the great historian Shelby Foote to express his admiration for Nathan Bedford Forrest — and on PBS no less.
We’ve come a long way since then, and it’s not a good way. The so-called myth of the Lost Cause is far less of a myth than is the Landrieu version, the liberal myth of America’s past being one long litany of crimes in need of correction. James Burnham once encapsulated liberalism as the ideology that justifies and makes palatable the “suicide of the West.” Landrieu, and the new war on the Confederacy (which can be extended to the war on Andrew Jackson or the disparagement of the slave-holding founding fathers), is in his own small way advancing the domestic version. And it’s a pity that so many “conservatives” are willing to be his useful idiots.