On Confederate Statues

A statue of Robert E. Lee

 

In the past, I have defended the continued existence of the Confederate monuments.  My reasoning has been that they promote dialogue within a community and teach valuable lessons about that failed rebellion. However, I have come to realize that I can’t square their continued existence with my logic as it pertains to the Confederate Battle Flag.

My primary argument for the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from government property was (and is) as follows: we must judge a symbol by the worst thing it represents.  We can only judge the inherent goodness of a symbol as far as that symbol allows us.  The problem we face is that this judgement will always be subjective.

For example, we venerate other slave owners in this country. We have slave owners on our $1, $2, $20, $50, and $100 bills. But, in the case of some of those men, George Washington for example, we don’t judge them for slave owning. That’s because slave owning doesn’t define their reason for veneration.

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Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Grant, and Franklin all owned slaves at some point.

There comes a time when you have to accept that slavery was simply a part of the culture.

 

Why, then, do we venerate Confederate leaders?  Is it because they represent the fight against federalism?  The fight for the right of the individual over the collective?  The right of the state over the nation? Sure, you can say that.  But, you have to ask yourself why.  Why did Confederate leaders fight for states’ rights?  Why did they fight for the cause of anti-federalism?  The answer is simple  – to continue the practice of slavery.

There’s an oft-quoted line by Robert E. Lee that goes as follows: “Slavery, as an institution, is a moral and political evil.”  This is used to show that Lee, although a slave owner, viewed the casus belli of the Civil War to truly be one of states’ rights and not slavery.  What is ignored, however, is what else is included in Lee’s 1856 letter to his wife, from which that quote is drawn.  Lee also states that he believes that “slavery is a greater evil to the white race than to the colored race,” and that “blacks are better off [in America] than in Africa.”  Lee might not sound like a cookie cutter southern racist but he does sound like a prototypical African colonialist.  Indeed, if one were to study Lee’s beliefs, they’d see that Lee believed that it was necessary to civilize the Africans and that forced servitude may be necessary to accomplish that.  He didn’t like slavery, true, but he found it a useful tool.  He is emblematic of the phrase “White Man’s Burden.”

So, the question becomes, should we destroy the monuments? No.  We shouldn’t.  The Department of Veterans Affairs operates a number of Confederate Cemeteries.  The Department of the Interior operates hundreds of Civil War battlefields.  We have plenty of places to put these statues. These locations will ensure that the dialogue they create will be done within the correct context: an education of the past.  After all, that’s what the Confederacy is: the Past.  The South needs to stop pining for the past and look forward.

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