The Pandora's Box of Taking Down Confederate Monuments
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.'"