Last week’s tragedy in Charlottesville has touched close to home here in Richmond, the capital of the old Confederacy. Lt. H. Jay Cullen was one of two police officers killed in the effort to restore peace. His viewing is tonight; his funeral is tomorrow. My optometrist is attending because she serves as a delegate to the state house. My daughter is attending because she’s a former co-worker and friend of Lt. Cullen’s wife. Amidst the grief and mourning, the firestorm of what passes for debate regarding the whole affair cries out for a WMBW perspective.
A few months back, when the removal of four confederate statues in New Orleans was in the news, my own thinking distinguished among the statues. I thought the removal of some made sense, but not others. I was struck by the fact that no one else seemed to consider them as separate cases. Everyone seemed to have adopted an all-or-nothing posture: either you were for, or against, the “removal of the statues,” as if alignment with one side or the other mattered more than considering the merits of each statue on its own. Was I the only one in my circle who saw a middle ground? I still worry about a group-think tendency to align entirely with one side or the other. Such polarizing alignment seems to me precisely what led to the Civil War in the first place. But in the meantime, Charlottesville has caused me to consider the matter anew – and I’ve decided I was wrong about the statues in New Orleans.
I approved of the removal of most of the New Orleans statues, but felt otherwise about the statue of Robert E. Lee. My opposition was on the ground that Lee was a good (if imperfect) man and that to remove his statue did an injustice, both to history and to him personally. Now, I believe that I was wrong about the Lee statue, and I’m moved to explain why.
First, let’s consider what history tells us about the man in relation to slavery. While historians disagree on certain details, it seems clear that Lee personally ordered the corporal punishment of slaves who resisted his authority. Today, all but the most extreme white supremacists can agree that this was wrong. Of course, Lee’s treatment of his slaves was not remarkably better or worse than the racism of thousands of other white men who owned slaves in those days; he apparently believed what most white Southerners (as well as many in the North) believed: that the Bible made it their Christian duty to “look after” African Americans. And for Lee, as for most slave-owners, this paternalistic attitude included both kindness (especially as a reward for loyalty and good work) and infliction of severe corporal punishment (as a deterrent to disobedience). These days, it’s extremely hard to understand how so many people could have been so wrong, but hundreds of thousands of Lees’ white peers thought and acted as he did in their relation to black Americans. This conduct was widespread; it shames us all. While being widespread doesn’t justify what Lee did, it makes it a lot easier for me to recognize that Lee was much like the rest of us: i.e., capable of well-intended conduct that future generations may condemn as fundamentally, grievously wrong.
My admiration for Lee – which continues — comes despite his participation in the injustice of slavery. I also admire slave-owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (despite the fact that Jefferson described African Americans as having “a very strong and disagreeable odor,” a capacity for love limited to “eager desire” more than sentiment, and a capacity for reason he insisted was far inferior to that of the white man.) I admire these white men for the good that they did, despite my recognition that they were so grievously wrong about African Americans and slavery.
Lee, the man, was more than a participant in the repugnant institution of slavery. He was a great military strategist. He was a man who sacrificed his personal welfare for what he saw as his duty to his country. And perhaps most importantly for me, he became a significant force for reconciliation after the war. When the government of the Confederacy collapsed and its armies surrendered, many Southerners wanted to continue the fight for slavery, on an underground, guerrilla-warfare basis. This stubborn, “never-say-die” sentiment led to formation of the K.K.K., and to the worst atrocities of the Reconstruction era. Indirectly, it led to the current existence of hate groups like the Nazi group that marched in Charlottesville. In the face of such atrocities, Robert E. Lee advocated against continued resistance, calling repeatedly for reconciliation with the north, for fair and decent treatment of the freedman, respect for the law, and the putting aside of past hatreds in order to restore unity, harmony, and civility. True, he didn’t support giving blacks the right to vote, and I fault him for that, but he lived in an era when that was viewed as an extremist position. And if one looks at his postwar record as a whole, he was primarily a peacemaker. A man who sought a better life for blacks and whites alike, and had to swallow a great deal of personal pride to do so. Indeed, I think he might have been an early supporter of WMBW, had it been around in his day! Chiefly for that reason, I count myself as a fan and supporter of the man.
And because I admire the man, I was, until recently, opposed to the removal of statues honoring him.
But what now? Sadly, it sometimes takes jarring events, close to home, to get us to change our minds. And in this case, I have changed mine. Many of those opposed to removal of Lee’s statues say that removal is an affront to history. That was my own thinking just a couple of months again. But now I think I was wrong. Whatever we may think of a particular person, good or bad, is there not room to distinguish between our sentiments about the person and the reasons to erect (or take down) a statue? And aren’t the reasons for erection or removal of a statue important? Let’s consider, carefully and dispassionately, the possible reasons for removing Lee’s statue.
First, if Lee’s participation in the atrocities of slavery oblige us to take down his statue, it seems to me consistency would require us to demolish the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. Can a consistent standard for statues limit us to memorialize only those leaders who were entirely free from wrong? Limiting statues to perfect people may put a lot of sculptors out of work…
What about the assertions of Anderson Cooper, the Los Angeles Times, and others, who claim that Lee’s statute should be taken down because Lee (unlike Washington and Jefferson) was a traitor to his country? Anderson Cooper asserted that Washington fought for his country, and Lee against his. The Los Angeles Time’s headline said that Washington’s ownership of slaves was not the equivalent to Lee’s “treason.” But didn’t George Washington lead an army against his mother-country (England)? And didn’t Lee lead an army that defended his homeland (the Commonwealth of Virginia) against an army that had invaded it and was bearing down on its capital? In labeling Lee a traitor, or Washington a patriot, I believe it important to distinguish between today’s perspectives and those at the time these men lived. Washington and Jefferson were subjects of the British Crown, and readily admitted that they were engaged in rebellion against their government, for which they’d be found guilty of treason if they lost. Washington and Jefferson were among the rebels who embedded slavery in the Constitution in the first place. And by the time Lee threw in his lot with Virginia, the Supreme Court of the United States had upheld slavery as the law of the land. Today, we think of our primary patriotic allegiance as belonging to the United States, which we regard as a single, unitary country. But our pledge of allegiance to such a unified country resulted from the Federal victory in the Civil War (which is to say, in large part, from Lee’s willingness to give up the fight to preserve slavery, and to accede to the prevailing egalitarian view.) Prior to that war, we had been a confederated union of sovereign states. The very words “commonwealth” and “state” reflect the idea of nationhood to which patriotism was generally believed to adhere. (As but one example of the perceived sovereignty of the individual states, when Merriweather Lewis went west in the early 1800’s, meeting with native American tribes who knew nothing of the new government in Washington, he gave the same prepared speech to all of them, a speech that referred to President Thomas Jefferson as the great chief of “seventeen nations” (the number of sovereign states then comprising the U.S.). I believe strongly that Lee’s sense of allegiance to his homeland, the Commonwealth of Virginia, was an honorable, patriotic position – moreso, by far, than Washington’s taking up of arms against England. As I understand history, it was Washington who was the traitor to his country; Lee was the dutiful servant of his.
Is the difference, then, that the 1776 war for American independence was a morally “just war,” and the war to preserve the southern Confederacy and slavery an unjust one? A lot of historians question whether the atrocities allegedly committed by England really were sufficient to warrant rebellion against them, but assuming you think Lee’s war relatively wrong, compared to Washington’s, I see Lee’s status, in this regard, as similar to the status of thousands of soldiers whose names appear on the Vietnam Memorial. As a people, we have adopted the principle of honoring servicemen who have fought for their sovereign government, even when the war in which they served is judged by history to have been wrong. If we remove the statue of Lee because he served his homeland in an unjust war, what are we to do with the Vietnam War Memorial?
What about the argument that most attracted me, that to remove the statue of Lee is to rewrite history? It’s undeniable that Lee played an important part in history, but so did Lord Cornwallis, John Wilkes Booth, and Lee Harvey Oswald. To have no statues honoring them is not to rewrite history, nor to deny the place of these individuals in it. It is simply to recognize the difference between preserving history and the reasons to honor praiseworthy individuals by erecting public memorials to them. A public statue is a symbol, intended to celebrate an idea. If we ignore what the subjects of our statues symbolize, we risk celebrating the wrong things. So, the right question, I think, is not whether Lee was a great general, or played an important role in history, or owned or punished his slaves, or was a traitor or a dutiful servant. The right question to ask, I would suggest, is what does his memorial symbolize?
In considering that question, I think the key consideration is that while Washington was a traitor to his country, he did fight for ours. And while Lee was a loyal, dutiful patriot who fought for his homeland, he did fight against the unified country that arose from that war. It is not to demean the man’s character, or his service, or history itself, to recognize that he fought to divide what has (since) become the nation to which we now pledge allegiance. If our public memorials are intended to remind us of our public principles, then it is the principle of unity, as a nation, that seems especially in need of attention these days – not the division for which Lee fought. I have no idea whether Lord Cornwallis owned any slaves. And he may have been a fine and honorable man, even a role model. But we Americans don’t erect public statues to honor him. In one sense, Lee symbolizes the opposition to the current American government every bit as much as Cornwallis does. I see no loss in failing to memorialize either man.
AS for the many arguments in the nature of “If we remove this statue, what next?” I believe there are matters of institutional purpose to consider. I doubt the NAACP will ever erect a statue to George Washington, the white slave owner, nor should they, because he was a white slave-owner and as such is inimical to the interests of that organization. The racist Louis Agassiz’s name has, thankfully, been removed from schools named to honor him, but I believe his name properly remains as the name of Agassiz Glacier, in Glacier National Park, because Agassiz remains respected for his pioneering scientific work on glaciers. As abhorrent as I consider the Nazis to be, if they want to erect a statue of Adolf Hitler on their own property, they’d have the right to do so. As for Washington and Lee, I do not believe that the college bearing their names should feel compelled to change its name or remove the statues I presume exist on its campus to remember them. Washington saved the school with his financial support; as the college’s president, Lee greatly expanded the school; I believe the college should honor these men for that institution-specific history, and if that includes maintaining statues to both men, I support that. In that context, Washington and Lee would symbolize, and be accorded honored for, their service to that institution. In 1962, the United States Military Academy named one of its barracks after Lee. I think that appropriate, because Lee was a brilliant military strategist and because he had served as that school’s commander. And I think George Washington should (and will) properly remain on our dollar bills, and be honored in our national capital, because despite his racism and ownership of slaves, and despite his being a traitor to his sovereign country, he was still instrumental in the establishment of this country. By this reasoning, even a statue of John Wilkes Booth might be appropriate at Ford’s Theater. My point is that there’s a proper role for institutional purpose in the choice of who an institution recognizes through its memorials. Even if we get to the point of tearing down his memorial in Washington, a statue of Thomas Jefferson will always be appropriate at Monticello, and a statue of Lee appropriate at Stratford Hall. To remove some statues of Robert E. Lee does not require the removal of all of them, and certainly doesn’t mean to erase him from history; much depends, I think, on the institution and its purposes.
So where does that leave us? The City Councils of New Orleans and Charlottesville are institutions, and institutions of a particular type: they have been elected to represent all their citizens. They should be celebrating the current government (American, not British; the USA, not the CSA). And they should be choosing memorials that symbolize the current ideals of the people they represent – the ideals of a diverse nation that has come together in peace. In these divisive times, it is as important as ever that they choose symbols of tolerance and inclusion. By virtue of his position as opposition commander in an effort to divide the union, Robert E. Lee necessarily symbolizes opposition to the national government that won the war. He symbolizes a divided country, one in which the north would have been free to abolish slavery as long as the south was free to continue it. That’s not an ideal any government in the United States should want to memorialize. It is past time to stop celebrating it, or anyone who represents ethnic, racial or ideological division.
Right or wrong, those are my views. But this week, as I watched our president, and our news media, address the issue from opposite sides, I was struck again by the all-or-nothing positioning on both sides. Trump and the media both talked about “the two sides” – those for, and against, removal, and sometimes, as if all those who opposed removal were white supremacists or Neo-Nazis. Are we no longer capable of a more nuanced analysis? Must every individual be vilified by association with the worst of the people on the other side? Must people classify me as a Nazi, if I utter a single word of respect for a man like Robert E. Lee, or a liberal destroyer of history, if I support the removal of his statue?
Changing people’s minds will only happen when people starting listening to each other. These days, it seems, no one is listening to anybody; people seem interested in knowing whether you’re for them or against them, and that’s it – not your reasons, not the finer points of what you have to say, or the reasoning behind it. The scary thing is, it’s remarkably like the situation in 1860, when the polar opposites took their corners and came out fighting, leaving hundreds of thousands of casualties in their wake. In my view, the only way to avoid a repeat of such violence is to be alert to the possible faults in ourselves; and to be willing to continue looking for the good in people even after we see the bad in them. We have to be willing to learn from those we think are wrong. Otherwise, I believe, we will all share responsibility for the violence to come.
So though I join the call for removing his statues from public places, I still think we can learn from Robert E. Lee. In an 1865 letter to a magazine editor, he wrote, at the end of the war, “It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion.”
How I wish that Lee himself had been in Charlottesville last week, to make that point to all those present. I wonder if any of those whose acts led to violence had any idea of that side of Robert E. Lee. Or did both “sides” simply think of him as a symbol of an era in which white supremacy was the law of the land, and align themselves accordingly?
The next fight close to home will no doubt involve the statues of all the confederate generals lining Monument Avenue here in Richmond. The very short video attached, courtesy of our local TV station, offers a message I think Robert E. Lee would have approved of.
Please follow, share and like us: