What to Do with the Remaining Public Confederate Monuments
**Short on time? Click here for a free PDF file of the notes I took while researching for this article, including many which didn’t make the final cut.**
Even after the safe removal of four monuments in New Orleans earlier this year, and the clandestine removal of four more in Baltimore earlier this month, there are still around 1,500 monuments and memorials to the Confederacy across more than 30 states. In a similar fashion to the Confederate battle flag debate from a few years ago, the current national debate is focusing on publicly displayed monuments to the Confederate cause in areas which are not battlegrounds or specific historic sites. City by city, we are in the process of deciding what to do with them.
To clarify, this debate has nothing to do with monuments or memorials to the Confederacy on private property, nor the right for private citizens to display the Confederate battle flag in public. Those are, and should remain, within an individual’s Constitutionally-protected rights. Furthermore, commentators from across the political spectrum (including The Atlantic and The National Review) think battlefields and museums remain appropriate places to display these monuments. Those who want to use their time to visit these places and learn about America’s divisive history will experience the monuments in context.
Unfortunately, creating the majority of the public memorials and statues to the Confederacy had much less to do about accomplishments in battle than it had with celebrating and promoting white supremacy over blacks, which explains why the majority were erected after the Jim Crow laws took effect, at the height of the Ku Klux Klan‘s power (1895-1915), and another spurt of monuments began after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, as Southern whites felt their superiority threatened.
As for Robert E. Lee, it is tough to find an objective article about this man who has become so polarizing. Some focus entirely on his flaws, which are perhaps more noticeable after 150 years of social progress, but others focus entirely on his strengths, neglecting how complex his character was. This failure to provide the complete picture is exactly why I listened to the recent, 33-hour biography by Michael Korda, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, and created Fountain Notes for the Next Generation of Leaders Volume 018 from the information within it.
Lee is a polarizing figure exactly because he was complex. If you want to look at him and see “nothing worth celebrating”, you will find enough evidence to support your position. If you want to make him into some mythical saintly legend, you will find enough evidence to do that too…but doing either requires being disingenuous enough to ignore the other half. Perhaps gray is the perfect color for describing him, both physically, and morally.
As you will learn in Volume 18, there are a number of similarities between Robert E. Lee and George Washington. There is no way Korda could have known three years ago that in 2017, President Trump would wonder aloud to the nation if taking down monuments to Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson would lead to removals of Washington’s own monuments and memorials. Writing in Reason, Eric Boehm calls this argument “nonsensical”.
Matthew Yglesias writes about how a Yale commission considers the concept of “principal legacy” when evaluating historical figures. To quote Yglesias, “Confederate leaders, by contrast [to the founding fathers], are being celebrated purely for doing something bad.” This statement is overly simplistic, and tosses aside the numerous admirable qualitieswhich Lee possessed, and for which he is also remembered, but it is hard to deny that Lee’s choice to fight for the South was, whether he liked it or not, a choice to fight for continued human bondage.
In order to give you a better-educated opinion on the comparisons of Lee and Washington, I moved Ron Chernow’s 41-hour biography, Washington: A Life, all the way up to the on-deck circle, and am currently listening to it in preparation for Fountain Notes Volume 019, which should be out within a few days. So, between Volumes 018 and 019, you will be one of the best-informed people you know for discussing how Lee and Washington are alike and different, and you will know what to emulate, and what to avoid, from these two lions of American history.
This still leaves us with the task at hand: What to do with the remaining public Confederate monuments. In an article where Kevin M. Levin explains the power of seeing the empty pedestals where statues of communist leaders once stood, he also mentions off-hand what is likely the best way to proceed. Speaking about how the offending statues in Prague had either been moved to museums or destroyed, he says, “The monuments were exactly where they needed to be, as determined by the community members themselves.” [emphasis mine]
New Orleans, Baltimore, and now potentially North Carolina, decided on their own, through local, elected representatives, to remove the statues which societal pressure has turned against. Yes, these monuments have been offensive to many from the start, and the Southern cries of “protect our heritage” may really be “fighting for their right to declare their ancestors good, despite the evidence of the horrors they perpetuated…”, but the key to bringing the Lost Cause era to a permanent end lies in community pressure, followed by local decisions.
Finally, while crowds of protesters, or lone actors, may be considered “local”, the moral cause of the removal effort is immeasurably strengthened, and made sustainable, by staying within the system. As Baltimore showed, even governments can take rapid, effective action when public opinion is strong enough. For those of you who would like to know more, but don’t have time to read all the articles I linked to, click here for the free PDF file of notes I took while researching for this article, many of which didn’t make the final cut, but are still plenty-relevant to the topic. Enjoy!
Top image credit: By Vera de Kok - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,