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A Monumental History

Further thoughts on execrating Confederate statuary

I want to commend to your attention the speech New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu gave on the day the final Confederate monument — Robert E. Lee’s — was taken down in the city. It is quite moving. Excerpts:

But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture.

America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.

And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

He’s right about that. More:

Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?

Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?

We all know the answer to these very simple questions.

Well, we do, but I think it’s also true that these questions are too simplistic. They make history into therapy. Before I explain what I mean, let me make it clear that I’m very pleased that the white citizen’s rebellion monument was removed, pleased that Jefferson Davis’s statue is gone, indifferent to the Beauregard monument’s fate, and I am only somewhat troubled by the Lee monument’s removal. That’s not because of any sympathy for the Confederacy — it deserved to lose, and the suffering of the South in and after the war was, I believe, God’s judgment on it for the sin of slavery.

My unease over the Lee monument’s removal has to do with a couple of things. First,  This excerpt from a letter from Lee to Beauregard after the war has a lot to do with why I think it is wrong to cast his monument into the waste bin. Emphases mine:

After the surrender of the Southern armies in April, the revolution in the opinions and feelings of the people seemed so complete, and the return of the Southern States into the union of all the States so inevitable, that it became in my opinion the duty of every citizen, the contest being virtually ended, to cease opposition, and place himself in a position to serve the country. I, therefore, upon the promulgation of the proclamation of President Johnson of 29th of May, which indicated his policy in the restoration of peace, determined to comply with its requirements, and applied on the 13th of June to be embraced within its provisions. I have not heard the result of my application. Since then I have been elected to the Presidency of Washington College, and have entered upon the duties of the office in the hope of being of some service to the noble youth of our country. I need not tell you that true patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same. The circumstances which govern their actions change; and their conduct must conform to the new order of things. History is full of illustrations of this. Washington himself is an example. At one time he fought against the French under Braddock, in the service of the King of Great Britain; at another, he fought with the French at Yorktown, under the orders of the Continental Congress of America, against him. He has not been branded by the world with reproach for this; but his course has been applauded.

Lee fought for a bad cause out of loyalty to his home state, and if he had prevailed, an evil institution — slavery — would have prevailed. He fought for the wrong side and deserved to lose. But notice that after he lost, he called on all defeated Southerners to cease hostilities and to commit themselves to the service of the United States. Lee was the most prestigious figure in the South. It mattered that he did not urge bitter resistance, but rather nobly counseled patriotism. Had he done otherwise, the healing of the nation’s wounds likely would have taken longer.

Lee was a far more complex man than many people today seem to realize. In the 1950s, a New York dentist wrote to President Eisenhower, asking how he could display a photo of the traitor R.E. Lee on his desk. Ike responded:

General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was a poised and inspiring leader, true to the high trust reposed in him by millions of his fellow citizens; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.

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.

Read the whole exchange here.

Again, I’m not losing sleep over the removal of any of these statues, though I do wish they had kept the Lee statue because he was a great, deeply (and tragically) flawed American. Gen. Sherman fought for the right side of that war, but he did not have Lee’s character. To me, the national tragedy of the Civil War is exemplified not by Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, but by Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. To remember him as nothing other than a man who commanded an army that defended slavery is a mistake.

I don’t at all agree with Mayor Landrieu’s standard that public monuments exist to “encourage” children or anybody else, and if they don’t do that, then they should be removed. That is a crude and dangerous principle. Five years ago, when my family spent a month in Paris, I read a book about the French Revolution. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the hatred the revolutionaries and the opponents of the Revolution had for each other. Mobs tore down churches in rage over the Catholic Church’s support of the monarchy. And it is also true that the Church supported some appalling injustices, of the sort that could make a poor man hate it.

As a Christian and as a conservative, I, of course, think the French Revolution was a calamity. I stood in the garden behind a Carmelite convent in Paris, and prayed at the site where Revolutionaries murdered 150 bishops and priests, one by one, for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. The anti-clerical persecutions in revolutionary France were vicious. And yet, there are monuments to the revolution in the city, and to some of its leaders. There is no monument to the worst of the revolutionaries, Maximilien Robespierre, who instituted the Terror, but there is a metro station named for him. 

Should the city change the name of that metro station because it discourages five-year-old French Catholic girls, or offends other Catholics? How can a Catholic be “encouraged” by the Danton statue, given what the Revolution did to Catholics?  And if she can’t be, should the statue be removed?

Or think about Oliver Cromwell, the regicidal Puritan monster who horrifically persecuted Irish Catholics, and whose statue stands in Westminster today.  What should English Catholics think of that?

Of the finding of grievous fault among our ancestors there is no end. We should be deeply reluctant to remove statues and monuments, simply because it is very easy to yield to the passions of a given place and time, and to erase history. When I have been with my kids in the presence of Confederate monuments, I have done my best to explain to them what the Confederacy was and what slavery was. They are under no illusion that the Confederate cause was just.

But I have also stood with them in the local cemetery, lighting a candle on the grave of their great-great-great grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy with incredible bravery, and was wounded at the Battle of Port Hudson. He was a poor country man who held no slaves. My guess is that he fought for the South for the reason most Soviet soldiers fought for the USSR: not because he was enthusiastic about the ideology behind the state (though he might have been), but because it was home, and it was under attack. I have had to explain to my kids why it is right to honor this ancestor of ours, even though he fought for a government and a society that enslaved black human beings.

This is what history does to us. History is not there to comfort, to encourage, or to be instrumentalized. True, the society that erects monuments does so because it wants its people forevermore to honor whoever or whatever is being memorialized. All monuments are instrumentalizations of history. The City of New Orleans did not erect the Jefferson Davis monument in 1908 for neutral or scholarly reasons, heaven knows. But once in place, monuments bear witness to what values the people of a place once hallowed. When our ancestors got something very wrong, then that’s often worth remembering publicly. As John Daniel Davidson wrote in The Federalist:

The case for keeping our Confederate monuments has everything to do with preserving our history, the better to understand it. The history of the Civil War and the Confederacy is complicated and, even to this day, painful for some Americans. But a standing monument isn’t the same as a flag flying in a place of honor. Monuments become part of our landscape down through the decades, and their physical presence testifies to the past in a way that museums cannot.

This is especially true of our Civil War monuments. Something as central to American history as the war between North and South should impose on us and demand our attention—not so that we can honor the principles of the Confederacy, but so we can understand and remember who we were and all we suffered to survive the Civil War and remain one nation.

There are certainly limits. There are no statues to Marshal Pétain, the Nazi stooge who ran Vichy, even though he fought bravely in World War I. There shouldn’t be, either. His crimes were too great. I would support removing every public statue of Lenin or Stalin from Russian life, given the enormity of their crimes, but I would leave in place every statue honoring Soviet soldiers who fought and died in World War II, even though they could plausibly be said to have fought for communism. Most of them, I imagine, fought for the same reason my Confederate ancestor fought: because they were defending their home. The fact that they were fighting a hideous regime of world-historic brutality and criminality to defend a hideous regime of world-historic brutality and criminality only highlights their tragedy.

Granted, the Union was nothing like the Nazis. In fact, it was on the side of right in the Civil War. But you see the point I’m trying to make. This is one reason why if I were dictator, I would have kept the Lee statue, while ditching the Jefferson Davis one. And I would have built monuments to the slaves, and to black civil rights heroes. Add to the public marking of history, not detract from it.

I concede that these are fine distinctions that will seem cold and abstract to partisans on both sides of the monuments issue. The population of New Orleans is 61 percent black. I wouldn’t be surprised if a single black citizen opposed removing the monuments, and it’s certain that the white population was divided. It’s worth asking if monument-removal was a more pressing issue than the many other problems New Orleans’s municipal government faces. Still, we live in a democracy. If most of the people wanted the monuments gone, then take ’em down.

Note well, though, that in a 2016 statewide poll conducted by LSU, 75 percent of Louisianians (not just New Orleanians) opposed taking those monuments down. And get this: more black Louisiana residents opposed taking the monuments down (47 percent) than supported doing so (40 percent). Like history itself, this issue is not so black and white (no pun intended).

Finally, some of you pushed back the other day when I pointed out in connection with the monument-removal story that violent crime continues to be a major problem in New Orleans. My point was that monument removal is a symbolic act that does little to nothing to address the real problems of black New Orleanians, and all New Orleanians, which the city government is not so good at doing. That’s not an argument for keeping the monuments, necessarily, but it does put the controversy into a certain perspective. The city’s streets are in horrible shape, with potholes everywhere. Some snarky New Orleanians are spray-painting names of Confederate generals on the potholes in an effort to get the attention of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, so he will take them away too.

UPDATE: This is how crazy it is in New Orleans now:

The principal of an alternative school in New Orleans was asked to leave his post this week after he was pictured standing near a Confederate flag the morning before the city removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in downtown New Orleans.

Nicholas Dean, principal of Crescent Leadership Academy, confirmed Tuesday that he was told not to report to work for the next week or two after the photograph circulated on social media last weekend.



The picture, which drew immediate attention on Facebook, depicts Dean standing near a man holding a Confederate flag who was part of a crowd that had gathered in Lee Circle. Dean said the photo was taken about 2:30 a.m. Friday, long before the Robert E. Lee monument was removed that afternoon.

When reached by phone, Dean said he was there because he thought the monument would be taken down in the night and he wanted to witness it happening.

He said he was there for just a few minutes and left once he saw there was no equipment in place to take the statue down. He insisted that the photograph was taken “out of context.”

“I went to see history in the making,” Dean said. “And now I am history.”

Are you now standing or have you ever stood on the street in proximity to something Confederate, while white?

UPDATE.2: Holy moley! Turns out Dean appears in a video wearing rings associated with neo-Nazism, and appeared recently on a white nationalist podcast!



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