These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history.  These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

So said New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu on his city’s removal from Lee Circle of its statue of Robert E. Lee, the last remaining of four New Orleans’ statues long ago erected in honor of the city’s Confederate past.  

One suspects that if terrorism really resulted in the building of statues, the British would not presently be patrolling the streets of London with machine guns and armored vehicles. Combined with Landrieu’s complaint that no one had ever built a monument to a slave ship, one also suspects that the mayor has as little understanding of the purpose of statues as he does of the tactics of terrorism.

Had Southerners so admired it, they could presumably have somewhere erected a monument to slavery: a pair of shackles forged of iron, perhaps even a slave ship, as Landrieu now seems to be suggesting. If they had intended their statuary to be a symbol of terrorism “as much as burning a cross on someone’s lawn”, the simplest choice would have been to erect a statue of a burning cross. Indeed, had Southerners anywhere raised monuments to slavery or to the terrorism of the Klan, they would have been rightly condemned for doing so. Instead, in an odd twist, if any society seems poised to build monuments to slavery or memorials to the era of burning crosses, it would be ours, obsessed as we are with systems and institutions, with slavery and oppression.

But Southerners did not build monuments to slave ships any more than they built monuments to terrorism or slavery, for the same reason that professional basketball teams today dedicate statues to men like Bill Russell and Michael Jordan while no one cares to commemorate the three-point shot or erect monuments to the injustice of technical fouls. People build monuments to great men and heroic deeds, not to hierarchical social structures or demeaning systems of labor.     

Questioned as to why he kept a portrait of Lee in his office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated that, “From deep conviction, I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s calibre would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the Nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained. Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.”

Lee has long been honored by North and South for the same reasons: because he was one of the best men America has ever produced, and because his character was confirmed by the crucible that most proves a man: the crucible of battle. This mutual recognition of Lee was true from the very beginning, with Union General Joshua Chamberlain ordering his men to salute Lee’s surrendering army at Appomattox.  It was, Chamberlain said, “Honor answering honor.”

“Under a pious predilection to those ancestors,” said British statesman Edmund Burke, “your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour: and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”

History may for historians be an impartial search for truth, a neutral standard used to measure every figure. For nations and peoples, however, history can never be a neutral endeavor. It is a search for the best of our very own because it can help bring out the best in the rest of us. We respect our greatest ancestors because they teach us to respect ourselves and our potential, because their best traits become for us a standard of virtue and wisdom for imitation. We don’t erect statues to common men, because we would never stop building; or to ships and institutions, because there is nothing there to emulate; or to sinless men, because we would never have anything to build.

The most salient point of these memorials, though, is not the purpose for which they were erected, but the identity of those who erected them, not only in New Orleans, but everywhere else around the country: they were raised not by the citizens of the Confederacy during its brief existence in the 1860s, but by citizens of the United States ever since.

The Hebrew prophets of old condemned the rich and powerful of their own time, putting themselves and their lives at risk. The moralizers of today, on the other hand, love to attack the Confederacy, a dead and defenseless thing and no threat at all to anyone. Even so, and perhaps without even realizing it, the attack on the Confederate States seamlessly shifts into an attack on the legitimacy of the United States as well.

For the statue of Lee in New Orleans wasn’t dedicated by citizens of the Confederacy during its brief existence in the 1860s, but by the will of American citizens on the occasion of Washington’s birthday in 1884. The statue of Lee that now stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol was raised by American citizens in the 1900s. The statue of Lee on his horse at Lee Park in Charlottesville was chiseled by Americans in the 1920s. A portrait of Lee hung in the Oval Office thanks to President Eisenhower in 1960. Lee’s American citizenship was restored by a 407-10 vote of the U.S. Congress and signed by President Ford in 1975.  

Whatever the taint of the Confederacy, the taint of the monuments to its men and memory lies with this country, with the United States, with us, and not to a different country from the distant past. Indeed, Landrieu noted that New Orleans was “America’s” largest slave market; that “America” was “the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched”; that American courts “enshrined ‘separate but equal’.”  In Landrieu’s public charge of slavery and white supremacy, the sole defendant isn’t only the Confederacy; it is a multi-count indictment in which the United States is co-conspirator.

Once the Confederate heroes have been declared anathema, is there any hope for the America that has since honored their memory? When Mayor Landrieu tells us that Lee’s statue was a form of “terrorism”, an intended reminder of “who was still in charge”, then doesn’t the nation that honored him become anathema, too? How else does heresy work?

Forget Confederate General Robert E. Lee of the 1860s. What place can there be for the American presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, who praised him in the 1960s and 70s? Forget Confederate president Jefferson Davis. What place can there be for the American president Jimmy Carter, who in 1978 honored him and restored his American citizenship? Indeed, when former president Andrew Jackson was recently praised by the current president of the United States, the backlash against Jackson’s status as a slaveholder and Indian fighter was nearly universal, and the condemnation of both presidents crossed two centuries. How long can it be before the victor of the Battle of New Orleans sees his statute come down in that city? And when it does, won’t the United States of 2017 and the president it elected be found complicit as well?  

Despite Landrieu’s complaint that, “Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place,” the statue he just tore down was an example of deep and old wounds that had healed just fine. Honoring the heroes and the war dead of the Confederacy was for our nation a symbol of American reconciliation, part of the basis for the nation that we had again become. It was proof of our nationhood that we could slaughter each other across gruesome battlefields and again shake hands as brothers.  Today’s iconoclasm proves only national disintegration, that even in our imaginations we cannot shake hands across time with our own ancestors, that the magnanimous peace forged by the Civil War combatants has been disregarded, and that now both North and South are being routed and forced to flee from the battlefield.

Landrieu listed all the old inhabitants of New Orleans:

. . . . the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha . . . . Hernando de Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the Acadians, the Islenos, the enslaved people from Senegambia, Free People of Color, the Haitians, the Germans, both the empires of France and Spain.  The Italians, the Irish, the Cubans, the south and central Americans, the Vietnamese . . . .

It was as if he were running through the roll call of the General Assembly of the United Nations, but many of them posed in some way or another a mortal threat to New Orleans’ status as an American city. What made New Orleans part of the United States was that the English-speaking peoples conquered or assimilated all the rest of them, imposing on them their language and their laws, their political institutions and their national allegiances.  

We have been schooled to recognize the blessings of our geography, of the two oceans that have shielded us from the trials and tribulations of the Old World. But we for some reason forget that the near unquestioned peace we inherited came to us only because our victories in the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries cleared the field of our competitors.  

Our statues do indeed tell us who is in charge of a city. For 130 years, the statues of Lee and other Confederates have been the statues of Southern reconciliation. They told the people of New Orleans that they belonged to a United States into which had been folded the sacrifices and greatness of Southerners past and present. In a larger sense, the New Orleans monuments to men like Lee (and Jackson) were monuments to the shared nationhood of the men who created a nation and conquered a continent, and tearing them down is today an aftershock of a revolution in identity and has always in history been a symbol of the seizure of power. Whatever the stated intention, the fact that Lee has come down—and that Jackson, we must all recognize by now, cannot be far behind—is a testament to the fact that the old battles for control of North America are starting to be waged all over again.

Quentin B. Fairchild is an attorney who writes from Florida.  His articles have appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, the Florida Weekly, the Fort-Myers News-Press, Chronicles, and The Daily Caller.