The city of New Orleans completed its purge of its own history last week when a statue of Robert E. Lee was torn down.
Throngs of historically illiterate people stood by and cheered as a monument to one of this country's greatest generals was destroyed. On social media, many more applauded the move, demonstrating a level of disrespect and contempt for General Lee that his enemies on the battlefield did not even have. When General Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, the victors treated Lee and his men with dignity and honor. It took 150 years for Lee to become nothing but a cowardly, racist traitor, as he's been described by the noted historians on Twitter.
I have long been of the opinion that one must refrain from forming concrete opinions of historical events and historical figures if one has never read a history book. And if the pitchfork mob would stop for a moment to read a book about Robert E. Lee, they would learn that he was far from the slobbering, slave-owning, treasonous bigot they make him out to be. Indeed, Lee never purchased a single slave. The slaves he inherited from his wife's family, he freed long before the end of the war. Lee considered slavery to be a "moral and political evil," which means he condemned it in harsher terms than even many of his northern counterparts ever did.
No, he did not consider the black race to be completely equal to the white race, but -- contrary to the cartoonish portrayal of the Northern warriors for racial equality that you get from public schools -- hardly anybody on either side believed in true racial equality. Lincoln thought the black race to be in every way inferior ("I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races"), but, rather than enslaving them, he preferred shipping them all back to Africa. Lincoln also did not favor fighting a war to end slavery ("If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it"), and in that way his opinion of the peculiar institution was practically identical to Robert E. Lee's.
Lee did not want to leave the Union. He only joined the Confederate army after his home state of Virginia seceded. As most people know, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Northern army, but Lee declined not because he didn't want to preserve the Union, but because he didn't want to march on his home and his family. Lee chose to fight beside his sons rather than against them. He chose to defend his home rather than take part in its destruction.
I'm not interested in debating here the political causes of the Civil War. When assessing the men themselves, I think it's better to look at their personal motivations. And, for the most part, the personal motivations of those who did the fighting on either side had nothing to do with slavery. Most southerner soldiers and commanders would have considered themselves to be fighting to defend their homes, just as most Union soldiers and commanders (some of whom owned slaves) were motivated by a desire to defend the Union. It seems unlikely that very many of them were thinking "We must free the slaves!" or "We must keep the slaves!" as they charged into a hail of musket fire.
But, I'm told, that is all irrelevant. As the argument goes, anyone who fought for the South was complicit in slavery, and therefore must not be honored. Their personal valor and heroism does not matter. That they were fighting to protect their families from the army that was marching through their towns and burning their homes and fields does not matter. That General Lee was a man of great dignity does not matter. The fact that General Lee won many battles while commanding an army of hungry, shoeless, dehydrated farm boys against vastly superior numbers does not matter. All that matters is that they were associated with slavery, even if indirectly. Well, if that is the standard, then a very troubling precedent has been set.
Yes, Robert E. Lee was a reluctant secessionist and, though he opposed it, he fought for a side that supported slavery. If that is enough to condemn him, then he and his confederates will not be the only ones tossed on the bonfire of history. Next, they'll come for the Founders. Once every Confederate memorial and statue has been demolished, the mob will fully set its eyes on those racist, slaveholding rebels who fought a treasonous battle of secession only 90 years prior. You can count on it.
The Founders didn't secede for slavery, but many of them both supported it and profited off of it. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the immortal words "All men are created equal," he did not mean for it to include the dozens of human beings he currently owned. If we have made slavery and racism the litmus test for deciding which historical figures deserve to be recognized, and which must be disgraced and forgotten, then we're going to have to make some major renovations to several prominent DC memorials, not to mention Mount Rushmore. It seems only a matter of time before there is a serious movement to do just that, and, if we've been among the hordes cheering as the statues of Confederate generals were knocked to the ground, what will we really be able to say in protest?
We can try to draw distinctions all we want, but the fact remains that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. So was George Washington. So was James Madison. So was John Hancock. So was Patrick Henry. Some of the Founders, like John Adams and Thomas Paine, opposed the practice, but they were largely exceptions. If Robert E. Lee, who owned no slaves and hated slavery, must be held liable for slavery because he fought on the side of those who wished to keep it legal, how can we not hold liable those historical figures who actually were slaveholders themselves? By what bizarre and twisted standard can we tear down a Robert E. Lee monument on the grounds of slavery while solemnly saluting the memorials and monuments of actual slaveowners? We can't. And the forces that have spearheaded this effort to denigrate the memories of great southern generals know that. It's all part of the plan. Mark my words.
Of course, if we've gotten into the business of stuffing those associated with slavery down the memory hole, we've got a lot of work to do. We certainly can't stop with the Confederate or colonists. Slavery was an accepted institution across the planet for thousands of years. In some parts of the world, it still is. You will be hard pressed to find a patch of humanity anywhere on the globe that does not bear the ancestral guilt of slavery. This is not a crime unique to the white man, even less is it unique to the southern white man.
I am not attempting to diminish the evil of slavery or suggest that the southerners who supported it were not morally accountable for that support. But I am saying that if we are not allowing men like Lee even the slightest bit of historical context, then how can we allow it for anyone else? If we say that Lee should have been so against slavery that he would have been willing to take up arms against his own children to abolish it, how can we be lenient with so many other historical icons? Why do we require Robert E. Lee to have had the abolitionist zeal of John Brown -- which is what would have been needed to prompt him to raise his sword against his home and his family over it -- when no one on either side had the zeal of John Brown except for John Brown? Why are Robert E. Lee and company expected to have seen slavery from a modern lens if no one else in history is held to that standard?
Well, the problem, as I say, is that others in history will soon be held to that standard. The purge will continue. The mob will move on to its next target. And how will we be better for it?
(But, hey, at least that Lenin statue in Seattle will remain standing.)
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