The shocking killing of George Floyd has triggered a social tsunami, sweeping all before it. Among the most dramatic impacts have been on historical remembrances, so many of which reflect America’s tragic experience with slavery, Jim Crow, and racism.
There is no more potent symbol of the change than the battle — now in the courts, where else in modern America?! — over the statue of Robert E. Lee, which contributes so much grandeur to Richmond’s Monument Avenue. I ran a marathon many years ago in Virginia’s capital and that road provided the most dramatic, picturesque portion of the run.
But it is time to retire Marse Robert, as his men called him. Not because the statue is racist. It merely presents a historical figure who played an outsize role in Virginia’s history. Not because he was a racist. He was, but in the same way that the vast majority of southern and northern Americans were in 1861, when Lee resigned from the U.S. Army.
As Lincoln explained in a letter to publisher Horace Greeley, “If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Not because he was a slaveowner. Although from a distinguished family, it did not own a plantation; his father, a Revolutionary War hero, squandered the family’s assets. Lee criticized the institution but was forced to take a leave of absence to settle his father-in-law’s highly indebted estate, which included slaves who were ultimately freed. Not because he was a traitor. So was George Washington, but the latter’s treason was absolved by victory. Lee, like most southerners, perceived two important loyalties, of which his state was more fundamental. Not because he attacked his nation. When he quit the U.S. Army, he said he would not take up arms but in defense of Virginia — which was invaded by the Union military. The aggression was committed by others.
And not because he sought to become a symbol of the Lost Cause and ultimately a tool of southern elites seeking to strengthen white rule. To the contrary, he set the Confederacy aside when the war ended, never again wearing his uniform. He emphasized reconciliation, urged southerners to take the oath of allegiance, and rejected war commemorations. The conflict left him penniless and angry, but his response was to reject commercial offers that would have made him rich and take over a small, essentially bankrupt college, enabling him to look to the next generation.
Indeed, the best reason for retiring his statue is because that is very likely what he would have wanted. While alive he turned down invitations to attend war-related events and advised against creating military memorials. He did not write his account of the war and did not enter in the endless recriminations inevitable from such a bitter loss. Nor did he do anything to contribute to his cultish status, including promote celebrations and commemorations of the Civil War.
And he strongly resisted such efforts. A year after the war ended, he wrote former Confederate Gen. Thomas L. Rosser about the proposal for a military monument: “my conviction is, that however grateful it would be to the feelings of the South, the attempt in the present condition of the Country, would have the effect of retarding, instead of accelerating its accomplishment; & of continuing, if not adding to, the difficulties under which the Southern people labor.”
Three years later he refused an invitation to join a gathering of officers North and South at the Gettysburg battlefield to plan for monuments. He explained, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
After his death in 1870, corps commander Jubal Early and others made Lee the symbol of the doomed Confederacy. The Richmond statue was the first on what became Monument Avenue, illustrating Lee’s primacy. It was erected in 1890; as many as 150,000 people attended the unveiling, a testament to his popularity. J. E. B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis came along in 1907, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was added in 1919, and the more obscure Matthew Fontaine Maury, a Confederate naval officer, arrived in 1929.
Lee’s overriding desire for national reconciliation applies equally today, when the history so easily celebrated by many white southerners and others, engenders such different emotions for those whose enslaved ancestors were freed only by the defeat of the government embraced. I say that as someone who became fascinated with the Civil War — and a Lee fan — in childhood. And whose home, I shudder to admit, given the mob mentality of intellectual life today, sports more than one bit of Lee memorabilia.
Lee’s overriding desire, however, was to repair the painful divisions of a conflict that killed as many as 750,000 Americans. He would, I suspect, be saddened to find that the divisions remained 150 years after his death, exacerbated by monuments erected to celebrate his life. The spectacle of the 2017 Charlottesville rally, seeking to use Lee’s statue there to unite right-leaning activists behind a frankly racist and white supremacist agenda, was the reverse of what he sought for America. It is time to retire his statues, moving them from controversial public places, especially so prominent as Monument Avenue, to museums, private parks, battlefields, and other historically appropriate places.
Of course, that does not justify mob violence or historical nihilism. Last week a crowd tore down the statue of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, even though the city council had considered the issue and refused to do so. Earlier a mob attacked the Daughters of the Confederacy building, also in Richmond. The statue of a Confederate officer was toppled in Birmingham, Alabama. The passionate few deserve to be heard, but they don’t automatically get to decide and have no right to take the law into their own hands. Especially since historical interpretation requires more than a progressive playbook.
Virtually no one in history meets the putative moral standards of the woke lobby. The Founders generally were racists, misogynists, and slaveowners, or at least willing to tolerate such vices. Even Abraham Lincoln pushed colonization of free slaves back to Africa rather than abolition and full citizenship, and was ever ready to sacrifice constitutional liberties. Woodrow Wilson, long sainted by political liberals, and a gaggle of U.S. politicians well into the 20th century were virulent racists and imperialists. Franklin Delano Roosevelt imprisoned innocent Japanese-Americans, turned away Jewish refugees, and ignored Soviet crimes and atrocities.
America is not alone in facing a challenge in deciding who can be celebrated for what. In the United Kingdom Winston Churchill, oft viewed as the Man of the Millennium for confronting Nazi Germany, is under fire for views that upset his contemporaries, as well as today’s enlightened elite. The French unashamedly celebrate Napoleon; his tomb at Les Invalides is surrounded by monuments to his victories in wars that killed a million people. In China and Russia, mass murderers lie in state at mausoleums that act as huge tourist attractions.
Such complexity also afflicts any discussion of the Civil War and Lee. Racism was prevalent in North as well as South. Indiana barred free blacks. Several states, including Lincoln’s Illinois, restricted their presence. Most everywhere in the North free blacks faced discrimination and segregation. Only in a handful of states could free blacks vote. Most Republican politicians advocated containment of slavery, not abolition. Had Abraham Lincoln set the latter as his war aim, he would have had few recruits in the military. Even the Emancipation Proclamation, a war measure, initially applied only to areas outside of Union control.
Of particular importance is the conflict’s dubious moral basis, resting on union rather than abolition. The seven deep South states seceded over slavery. There were other issues, but most of them, such as trade protectionism, were shadow-boxing over slavery. Then Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion. He acted not to abolish slavery but prevent the southern states from leaving. As he explained in a letter to publisher Horace Greeley, “If I could save the union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
And had the conflict ended quickly — as it may have had Lee accepted the offer to command the union armies — slavery would have survived. There would have been no expansion into the territories, but also no interference within the states. The preservation of the “peculiar institution” was explicitly offered as an incentive to the seceding states to reunify and especially hold the eight slave states that remained in the Union in early 1861.
Instead of adopting a position of Union-uber-alles and initiating a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of people and ravaged much of the country, Lincoln could have accepted the southerners’ unfortunate decision, allowing the South to leave in peace. True, firing on Fort Sumter was an act of war. But that did not require the U.S. government to respond with a full-scale state of war. Unfortunately, virtually no one — William Tecumseh Sherman was a rare exception — had any sense as to what was to come. Amid the 1864 Overland Campaign, during which Army of the Potomac casualty lists filled northern newspapers, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts admitted, “If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said: ‘The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace.’ ”
Notably, the outer four southern states, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, along with Lee, came out only after Lincoln called for troops to subjugate the original seven. These states essentially fought for a voluntary union and against an invasion by the North. Slavery was a horrid cause. The right to change one’s political arrangements without being killed is much better. And one that most Americans believe today — at least, the U.S. government now routinely tells other nations to settle such differences peacefully, unlike what America did in 1861.
Of course Lee was not perfect and has a hard time living up to his exalted reputation, that of the “marble man.” Nevertheless, he warrants respect, and there is much to admire about him. Among the extraordinary themes of his life, he overcame his father’s humiliation and flight; defined duty while serving in a career marked by mind-numbing monotony; demonstrated extraordinary courage and resourcefulness during the Mexican–American War; faced a problem of dual loyalty involving Virginia and the U.S. that most Americans today cannot understand or even imagine; placed loyalty to his home and community above ambition, requiring him to refuse command of the U.S. Army, the ultimate honor for such a soldier; demonstrated virtuosity and daring as a military commander; afterwards refused to use his name and reputation to gain the wealth denied him throughout his military career; promoted postwar reconciliation starting with his refusal to disband the Army of Northern Virginia and resort to irregular combat; and finished his life seeking to educate the next generation.
Throughout he subordinated seeking personal advantage to encouraging social peace. He and his wife lost the Washington estate, hers and their eldest son’s through inheritance, to Union confiscation during the war. Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs started burying the Union dead there to prevent Lee from ever recovering the property. (George Washington Custis Lee won compensation after his father’s death.) After the conflict Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary petitioned the Johnson administration to return Washington family heirlooms, which had been seized along with the estate. A terrible public hue and cry arose, and Congress got involved; Lee recommended that she drop the matter. Even as death neared he wanted to pacify, not inflame, public opinion.
It dishonors him for his presumed admirers to turn his life into the epicenter of a battle over racism and slavery. The Right naturally bridles at what it sees as PC run amok, but that position, though understandable, ignores the impact of Confederate imagery on African-Americans and other minorities. It is easy for whites to look beyond race. Not so for blacks, who see defense of a slave society rather than battlefield heroism. The issue should be treated not as partisan politics, but as history and community. America has changed. How we view our past and what we value most have changed. People having a voice have changed.
That doesn’t mean expunging history but finding less toxic forums in which to explore the deeper complexity, varying symbolism, and divergent understandings. Move the symbols out of politics and allow them to become opportunities for teaching rather than occasions for fighting. If Gov. Ralph Northam can’t find a place for the Lee statue in Richmond, I’d be happy to place it in my backyard!
The issue of names for schools, streets, and Army bases is similar. There are plenty of heroic service members who deserve to be honored and whose names would uplift military facilities. (And, frankly, only a dedicated Yankee would consider naming a base after Braxton Bragg or George Pickett as ennobling the South!) Communities change, so why shouldn’t they update school names? So, too, streets: many people know little about the Civil War, so why not look to people and events that could inspire them today? The demand for change sometimes reflects the worst sort of politics today. Nevertheless, changing names would still be the right thing to do in many if not most cases.
What about attacks on George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and others well beyond the Confederacy? Consider them one by one. Washington was much more than slavery and deserves veneration, especially for his willingness to abandon power, an example through the ages. Columbus was intrepid, but also brutal, even cruel. Celebrate the discovery, not him. And so on.
Being right is important. But it isn’t necessarily the most important thing. This is the case with the history wars raging across America and beyond. Robert E. Lee cared more about reunifying America than being celebrated by his contemporaries. We need a similar commitment to unity today. If Lee was around and asked what to do with his dominating presence on Monument Avenue, I suspect he’d respond that it should be retired into the sunset. He would not desire to be another cause of division in America today.
Doug Bandow celebrated his birthday in 1970 visiting Civil War battlefields with his father. A graduate of Florida State University and Stanford Law School and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
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