In a penetrating essay in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, the distinguished Columbia professor, Eric Foner, weighed in on the Robert E. Lee question. The question, of course, is whether the many statues of Lee throughout the South should be ripped down and destroyed or perhaps consigned to a few out-of-the-way museums. That was the question that led to violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few weeks ago and which surely will agitate American politics in coming months and years.

Foner gives the South’s greatest Civil War general his due in terms of character and personal rectitude. He reports that the young Lee, at West Point, never got any disciplinary demerits, “an almost impossible feat.” The general, writes Foner, “always prided himself on following the strict moral code of a gentleman.” He notes that Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman warned against looking for ambiguity or complexity in the Lee persona, for his virtue was simply too simple.

But of course Lee held views on race and slavery that today are considered anathema to most Americans. And so, writes Foner, the Lee “legend” should be retired—“whatever the fate of his statues and memorials.”

But what should be the fate of those statues and memorials? Foner doesn’t exactly say. He merely predicts that future historians won’t likely return Lee to his pedestal, “metaphorically speaking.”

Thus does Foner seemingly seek to separate history’s “metaphorical” judgment from the real-world effort to remove or destroy statues of men once considered figures of greatness but now considered villainous by modern standards. But in reality, no such separation can work. Just the other day, a famous Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded, was shrouded in black, with the words “racist” and “rapist” spread across it. While Foner may wish to separate himself from such activities, his Times essay certainly gives encouragement to those bent on going beyond mere metaphorical expression on such matters.

That’s because it’s all about power. As Foner wrote in another Times piece in August, “Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power—an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.” True, but how history is remembered in the history books can have great impact on the battles over history in the public square. A compelling example is Eric Foner himself.

The historian’s Times Book Review essay contains an extended passage explaining the evolution in history’s prevailing attitude about Lee, along with the post-Civil War Reconstruction years and Southern race relations generally. Foner modestly excludes mention of his own significant role in this evolution, but his historical narrative merits attention.

Between the Civil War’s end and the 1890s, Lee’s image as an American went from his being “the embodiment of the Southern cause” to his becoming a “national hero.” This, writes Foner, accompanied the nation’s acceptance, however uncomfortably in much of the North, of the South’s institutional resolve to thwart black progress through brutal repression. Slavery as a cause of the war was de-emphasized, while a “reconciliationist” view of national healing gained sway. This vision, Foner tells us, “was reinforced by the ‘cult of Lincoln and Lee,’ each a figure Americans of all regions could look back on with pride.”

All this was reinforced by the prevailing scholarship of that time, from about the 1890s to the 1950s. Historians such as W. A. Dunning and Claude Bowers argued that the harsh Reconstruction policies of congressional “Radical Republicans” delayed the sectional healing needed to bring the country back together. According to that argument, it kept the prostrate South at the mercy of freed blacks and Northern carpetbaggers, whose political machinations were designed to keep the old white planter class out of the power equation. Also, the new politics of the South, they argued, was riddled with corruption.

There was much wrongheadedness, and a fair degree of racism, in this interpretation, and it met a powerful counterargument in 1935 with publication of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, which argued that Reconstruction represented an aspiration of true democracy, that it held great promise for eventual civic healing, and that its defeat was a national tragedy for the nation but particularly for blacks. The DuBois thesis was largely ignored initially, but eventually
“revisionist” historians picked up on his interpretation, equating Reconstruction politicians with the courageous civil rights activists of a century later. One of the early ones was Berkeley’s Kenneth M. Stamp, but Foner became prominent in these academic circles with a 1982 essay in American Heritage that declared that the traditional view of Reconstruction had been “irrevocably…laid to rest.” Six years later he produced a seminal book on the subject, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. It won numerous literary prizes and much popular acclaim.

The implications of this academic turnaround have been significant. In the academic polls of presidential performance, the standing of Ulysses Grant improved, largely because he sought to bring the South to heel during Reconstruction. Conversely, Andrew Johnson, who fought congressional Republicans on the issue and nearly lost his presidency in the bargain, has declined in the academic surveys. As part of the same process, Lee has lost his luster, thus becoming fodder for attack from the forces of political moralism and correctness.

No doubt the revisionists have rendered a valuable correction in history’s judgment. But there’s a sad aspect to this academic development. The scholarship generally has been more nuanced and balanced than the resulting debate. Hence, the view of Bowers and Dunning that Reconstruction was a terrible mistake has been supplanted by the revisionist view that its termination in 1877 was the terrible mistake.

But the human experience, and hence history, is seldom so simple. As Kenneth Stampp pointed out, few revisionists claimed that the Dunning interpretation of Reconstruction was pure fabrication. They recognized, he notes, shabby aspects to it: “the corruption was real, the failures obvious, the tragedy undeniable….[The revisionists] understood that the radical Republicans were not all selfless patriots, and that southern white men were not all Negro-hating rebels. In short, they have not turned history on its head, but rather, they recognized that much of what Dunning’s disciples have said about reconstruction is true.”

In other words, it was complicated. Consider the fate of Andrew Johnson, impeached by the House and nearly convicted by the Senate for resisting the harsh Reconstruction policies of the Radical Republicans. In the revisionist view, the Republicans were right on the merits and Johnson wrong. That’s a defensible position. But the veto-proof Congress essentially ran the government, often in league with Johnson’s own cabinet members, particularly War Secretary Edwin Stanton. Fearing Johnson would fire Stanton, Congress passed, over Johnson’s veto, the Tenure of Office Act, which placed restrictions on the president’s ability to discharge his subordinates.

It was clearly unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court later affirmed. But when Johnson defied this unconstitutional law and sought to dismiss Stanton, Congress promptly added that to the bill of impeachment. Claude Bowers later wrote that Johnson “fought the bravest battle for constitutional liberty and for the preservation of our institutions ever waged by an Executive.” Of course Bowers is now dismissed by historians who view Johnson as a stubborn impediment to the country’s racial progress. But that poses a question of whether it was a healthy development in the American Republican, with its separation of powers, to have Congress essentially take over the government’s executive branch, even in a time of crisis.

Further, there is room for debate on whether national reconciliation was possible in the war-torn nation, with some 750,000 killed and devastation throughout the vanquished South, had Reconstruction continued. Even three decades later, it took serious effort and well-chosen words to continue progress toward bringing the country back together. David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote a piece in his paper recently extolling a speech by President William McKinley in September 1897, before his fellow soldiers of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which saw plenty of action at Antietam and the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War.

“[T]oday,” said the president, “instead of having sectional divisions beneath this flag, we have none. They are all obliterated, and the men who fought for this flag and the men who opposed it, on the many battlefields of the South, are now forever united in faith and friendship for its defense.”

He didn’t talk about the fate of black Americans, then experiencing the emergence of Jim Crow in the South and threatened by the lynchings that constitute such an ugly blot upon the American story. As president, McKinley paid lip service to the need to thwart that awful assault on black citizens and the Constitution that was supposed to protect them. But he didn’t do much about it.

There is no evidence that McKinley ever harbored racist sentiments. He grew up in an Ohio home where the parents subscribed to Horace Greeley’s Weekly Tribune, which reinforced the family’s aversion to the blight of slavery. The president’s mother once told an interviewer that “the McKinleys were very strong abolitionists, and William early imbibed very radical views regarding the enslavement of the colored race.”

But McKinley placed reconciliation above the rights and interests of black Americans. He was excoriated for it at a December 1898 meeting of the Afro-American Council, where a New Jersey churchman named A. Walters declared, “Should we be silent when the President…is utterly silent in his last message to Congress concerning the outrages in [the South]?…Silent while the officials of the States of North and South Carolina admit they are powerless to protect us in our rights? Silent while Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina, by statutory enactment have practically disfranchised their negro population….? Shall we not speak out when innocent men and women of our race are burned at the stake, hung to the limbs of trees, and shot down like dogs?”

Did McKinley deserve the rebuke? Probably. But, as passionate and eloquent as were those words, and many more from many quarters of the nation at the time, the country wasn’t stirred to respond as it struggled to get beyond the lingering horrors of that devastating war. And McKinley, focused on the still-oozing war wounds, wasn’t stirred to respond either.

What this tells us is that politics is messy, and any serious history must reflect that messiness. Sometimes it’s tragic. Injustice abounds, even in a nation dedicated to justice. History is the story of humans, and humans are flawed. The meaning is in the spectacle and the long-term trajectory of progress.

But now we live in a time when history is reduced to good and evil, moral people and bad people, with figures of the heritage stamped with opprobrium for their worst traits, without consideration to other exemplary traits or what may be awesome contributions.

The growing cadres of iconoclasm, going after the reputations and statues of historical figures they despise, don’t seem to understand any of this human aspect of their heritage, the awesome mix of good and bad, the complexity of peoples struggling to express themselves and define themselves in the context of their times and experiences. And they won’t derive any instruction in the matter from that Times Book Review piece by Eric Foner, calling for keeping Robert E. Lee off his pedestal—but only metaphorically speaking, of course.    

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, is due out from Simon & Schuster in November.