A new spirit of iconoclasm has gripped the United States of America. After the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville this weekend, activists have vandalized Confederate statues in Durham, N.C.; Louisville, Ky.; and Gainesville, Fla. A teenager also attacked the Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Mass., which had previously been vandalized in June.
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down,” President Donald Trump said on Tuesday. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Americans cringed at Trump comparing two Confederate generals — who took up arms against the United States — to the first president of the country and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Trump deserves credit for asking a great question, however.
Where does it stop? Tearing down historical monuments puts liberal activists in horrible company, and it has arguably inspired some anti-Semitic teenager to attack the Boston Holocaust Memorial. What happens to all the “social justice warrior” rage when all Confederate monuments are taken down? Is it even desirable for them to be taken down?
On the one hand, protesters are right to insist that the Confederacy should not be lauded as a glorious “lost cause.” The early secession documents — especially that of South Carolina — make it abundantly clear that the southern states broke away from the Union to preserve slavery, and slavery at that time was a racist institution.
That does not make those who commemorate the Confederacy necessarily racist, however. Many Americans today hail the Confederacy as an example of local government asserting local control. (Ironically, the Confederate Constitution had a supremacy clause specifically giving the national government authority over the states, invalidating the “states’ rights” argument.) They may be wrong, but they are not all racist.
The Civil War is an important part of American history. Nothing demonstrates this better than President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. In that powerful speech, Lincoln noted that both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
“The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully,” the president declared. He proposed that the Civil War was itself the punishment of God for the evil of slavery. God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”
His address included one of the most majestic lines in all English literature: “If God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”
The Civil War remains the single bloodiest war in American history, and Abraham Lincoln suggested that it was God’s direct judgment for slavery. Indeed, the hypocrisy of a nation founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” nonetheless harboring race-based slavery is heinous.
Just because the United States did not complete its vision of equality and justice until over a century later does not invalidate that vision, however. America’s principles are neither racist nor sexist, and it is those very principles that led Americans slowly to realize the horrors of racism and sexism.
The Civil War was a key moment in the story of America fulfilling its founding vision. While the Confederacy does not deserve to be celebrated as a “lost cause,” it does deserve to be remembered, and leaders like Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson should serve as a cautionary tale to today’s zealous activists.
Lee and Jackson were notable both for their military command and for treating their slaves better than most slaveholders did in the antebellum South. Indeed, they broke laws to educate their slaves.
While many have debated Lee’s views of slavery, he did call the practice a “moral & political evil in any Country.” He supported his wife and mother in liberating slaves and sending them to Liberia, and his family set up an illegal school for slaves on his Arlington plantation.
Jackson also broke the law of Virginia to conduct a weekly Colored Sabbath School for his slaves, teaching them to read and write and learn about Jesus Christ. Indeed, many former slaves and their families praised Jackson for broadening their knowledge and working to save their souls. Many of their descendants have praised him to this day.
These two leaders were conflicted on the issue of slavery, just as President George Washington (who freed his slaves on his death) and President Thomas Jefferson were.
The zeal to expunge Confederate monuments can translate into a desire to erase all monuments with which you personally disagree. Indeed, in last weekend’s Charlottesville fracas, one black protester hinted that Jefferson’s house at Monticello should be torn down.
“This is the face of [white] supremacy. This is what we deal with every day being African-American, and this has always been the reality of Charlottesville,” the woman told Vice News. “You can’t stand in one corner in this city and not look at the master sitting on top of Monticello. He looks down on us. He’s been looking down on this city for God knows how long.”
Does the memorial to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello constitute “white supremacy”? To some, it might. But Jefferson was America’s third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence. It would be a tragedy to pull down his monuments merely because he owned slaves, especially considering his very words inspired the eventual abolition of slavery.
To be clear, not every Confederate memorial necessarily deserves to be supported. In April, the city of New Orleans removed a monument which literally once had the words “white supremacy” on it. This monument commemorated the “Battle At Liberty Place,” which took place after the Civil War.
It is fully logically consistent to defend monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson while opposing the Battle of Liberty Place monument. The Civil War needs to be remembered, but the Confederacy (and the ideas of white supremacy which upheld it) should be condemned.
At the same time, all efforts to remove monuments should make liberty-loving people wary. Expunging history has long been a tool of totalitarianism.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin infamously rewrote the history books to give himself a bigger role in the 1917 Russian Revolution. Cambodian dictator Pol Pot slaughtered educated people to prevent anyone from remembering a time before his reign. Chinese dictator Mao Zedong launched a “Cultural Revolution” which destroyed historical sites across the country. None of today’s protesters are trying to be the next Stalin, Pot, or Mao, but they are adopting their tactics.
Remembering history is important, especially when it comes to the Holocaust. The hateful chanting against Jews in Charlottesville this weekend, along with the alarming rise in anti-Semitism in Europe (and its persistence across the Muslim world) should remind Americans that racism is real, and should inspire them to do everything possible to prevent history from repeating itself.
Monuments to the Civil War and to Holocaust victims are important signposts, reminding modern Americans of the past. In the case of the Civil War, Lincoln would say they should be reminders of the judgment of God against both sides for allowing the sin of slavery. The North may have won, but it was not guiltless, in his telling.
That moral men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson nevertheless fought for a government premised on evil should serve as an important reminder that history is not clear cut, and that it is possible for good people to find themselves on the wrong side. This should give modern Americans — often stubbornly judgmental of those with whom they disagree — a healthy dose of humility.
Those who wish to remove such monuments — and especially those who vandalize them — should seriously question whether their political program outweighs the vital lessons future generations should learn from the past. They should also wonder if, by advocating the removal of monuments which offend them, they might be opening the door for someone to go after monuments they cherish.
The Charlottesville city council would never have anticipated that voting against Robert E. Lee might inspire vandalism against the Holocaust Memorial in Boston. But as Richard Weaver famously warned, Ideas Have Consequences, and the idea of erasing history has had the worst consequences of all.