NOTE: This essay was written June 14, two months before President Trump’s vainglorious efforts to justify Neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville on efforts to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Statues of Civil War generals and politicians are being removed throughout the U.S., often with as little ceremony as the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Bagdad.
Saddam should have listened to Harry Truman before he ordered statues of himself. When Israel moved to erect a statue of Truman, the president vetoed the idea. “Never raise a statue to a living person,” he said. “You never know when you might have to take it down.”
Truman understood that one’s reputation ebbed and flowed with the capricious winds of history. This is particularly true of Confederate idols whose prominence in the Civil War has given way to the reality that they were brutal racists and slave owners. The statuary that was raised to them, in the South and elsewhere, commemorates their inhuman cruelty. Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, in one of the best political speeches in recent memory, said this:
It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. 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.
As statues of the terrorists are dragged away, some would make an exception for Robert E. Lee, the general whose surrender at Appomattox brought a merciful end to the carnage and who is popularly remembered as a decent human being.
But some historians argue that Lee was not a nice man and he deserves to be remembered for his shortsighted malice. Adam Serwer, writing in the current issue of Atlantic, wrote:
Lee’s cruelty as a slave master was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”
Dan McGlaughlin of National Review acknowledged Lee’s imperfections, but insisted a blanked condemnation of the man was “myopic.”
Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost. Unlike the Founding Fathers (even the slaveholders among them), he failed the basic test of history: leaving the world better and freer than he found it. And while he was not responsible for the South’s strategic failures, his lack of strategic vision places him below Grant, Sherman and Winfield Scott in any assessment of the war’s greatest generals. We should not be building new monuments to him, but if we fail to understand why the men of his day revered him, we are likelier to fail to understand who people revere today, and why. And tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.
McGlaughlin’s observation also requires an examination of many American heroes whose statuary populates tens of thousands of city parks and village greens. Many of them were slave-owning racists with a record of cruelty that challenges Lee’s.
George Washington was one of them.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Washington: A Life, Gene Chernow reminds us of some disturbing facts about the Father of Our Country that were never highlighted in high school texts. As a general and later as president, a large retinue of slaves dressed in uniforms bearing his family crest attended Washington. When the U.S. capital was temporarily lodged in Philadelphia, President Washington brought a large number of his slaves along to run his household. He circumvented a Pennsylvania law that automatically freed slaves who resided in the commonwealth for more than six months by returning them temporarily to Mount Vernon every five months.
Washington freed all his slaves in his will (effective upon the death of his wife Martha, which surrounded her with people who eagerly anticipated her passing). And few historians believe Washington’s enormous contributions to U.S. history should be lost in the reality that he was a slave-owning Southern aristocrat who acted like one.
There are other great figures of U.S. history who don’t deserve all the nice things high school texts say about them. President Jefferson had a slave mistress who carried several of his children. President Jackson’s relocation of Native American communities was genocidal and brutal. Even the Great Emancipator, President Lincoln, did not believe African Americans were his biological or intellectual equals.
In a seamier side of history, which may or may not call into question their political performance, Presidents Cleveland, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were all purported to have extra marital affairs.
But given that much we think we know about American History is not true, including the assumed purity of the greats, the question remains what we should do about it.
Should we tear down their statues and nameplates?
Certainly the first to go should be those statues of Confederate functionaries in public squares that proclaim racism as vividly as if they were cross burning hooded Klansmen waving the Confederate battle flag.
As for statues of heroes like Washington and Jackson, they will remain. Even if all their edifices were removed, their absence would not cleanse our memories of their sordid slave-owning history.
But it is important to remember that side of our history if we are ever going to realize our democratic ideals. In truth, we were never a nation that favored life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
Reaching that conclusion will require some personal discipline as we gaze in awe at slave-raping Jefferson in his monument and try to remember the good along with the bad.
But we must remember because it is the only way we can finally move toward the American ideal of freedom, justice, and equality. We must never forget the dark side of who we really were – and are. In the final analysis, perhaps the green corrosion and pigeon stains on the statues of our well-meaning but racist progenitors will keep those unpleasant truths before us,