Politics & Policy

Confederate History and the American Soul

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., September 16, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Public spaces should be reserved for historical symbols whose animating principles, achievements, and insights we want to keep alive in contemporary politics.

On October 9th, 1896, 2,000 Confederate veterans, packed together in 40 train cars, arrived in Canton, Ohio. They were invited by the Republican nominee for president, William McKinley, who had been running a front-porch campaign for much of the election cycle, asking Americans from all walks of life to his home to hear him speak about the affairs of the day. But this particular campaign event stood out from all the others: No Republican nominee, much less president, had ever met with an organized group of Confederate veterans before.

Waiting for the rebel soldiers when they arrived were the wives of the Grand Army of the Republic, an honor guard, a band, and a manned escort to the courthouse square. Each Confederate veteran was given a pocket knife with one of McKinley’s favorite phrases from Washington’s farewell address engraved upon the hilt: “No East, no West, no North, no South, but a common country.” The Virginians formed up in the square along with a group of Union veterans, and they marched together up North Market Street to McKinley’s home. The sight of blue and grey uniforms marching side by side in lockstep was enough to reduce many of the people lining the street to tears.

McKinley gave a short speech to the assembled veterans. He said that “sectionalism was surrendered at Appomattox” and that “if we are ever forced to fight again, and God forbid that we are, we will fight together as brothers under a common flag.” After the speech, the soldiers dined as the Confederate band played in the courthouse square, and the Southern veterans, along with their wives, were escorted back to the train bound for Virginia at midnight.

It was one of the most moving and least-discussed campaign events in our history. It also encapsulates the charitable Northern stance toward Southern secessionists after the Civil War, which Kevin Williamson recounted in his thoughtful response to my argument for the removal of Confederate iconography from public spaces. The treatment of the Confederate leadership as well as the rank-and-file after the war was, by and large, characterized by reconciliation and embrace. Kevin notes that “Robert E. Lee was President U. S. Grant’s guest in the White House and became the president of Washington College, known today as Washington and Lee University,” that “President Lincoln had offered amnesty to most of the Confederate soldiers and functionaries,” and that Horace Greeley, the abolitionist, actually paid part of Jefferson Davis’s bail. With so much to do and so much to rebuild, the best policy was to let bygones be bygones and allow the country to focus its attention on the challenges at hand, challenges that were unlikely to be overcome by pursuing a policy of destruction and vengeance.

Kevin argues that this is still the best policy, and that concerning ourselves with Confederate statues would be a distraction from the real issues our country presently faces. He is right that Democrats are often inclined to use America’s troubled racial past “as political cover for a Democratic retreat from the failure of Democratic policies in Democratic cities into the safe abstraction on ‘white supremacy.’” He is right that properly understanding the events surrounding George Floyd’s death and the ensuing civil unrest is a prerequisite for any adequate redress of grievance, and that the best way to reach such understanding is to focus on the “facts on the ground in Minneapolis in the here and now.” But he is wrong to suggest that the attitudes of leading Republicans after the Civil War should inform how we think about the enduring presence of Confederate iconography in American life, and that to speak critically about this presence serves only to give political cover to the loony Left in Minnesota.

First of all, it’s clever in polemical terms to suggest that “the Confederate controversy is a Democrat-vs.-Democrat question,” but it is simply not true. It might be tempting for Republicans to say, “If some Democrats want to pull down statues of other Democrats, then that’s a mess in the Democrats’ house,” as Kevin suggests. But the mess of Confederate nostalgia was expatriated to the Republican Party some time ago, and it’s the Republicans who have some housekeeping to do if they want to see “lost cause” fanboys driven from public life. I suspect Kevin is right that “those guys in the black uniforms setting fire to the police station are not, I think we can safely assume, for the most part registered Republicans.” But it is probably just as much the case that the acne-ridden invertebrates cosplaying the Army of Northern Virginia at those braindead “Unite the Right” rallies probably all vote Republican, if they vote at all. If either party has a Confederate nostalgia problem, it is the GOP.

Secondly, and most importantly, Kevin’s argument elides the differing functions of history and politics in a democratic society. The purpose of politics, in the American tradition, is the peaceful resolution of differences within a framework of ordered liberty. It makes sense that at the end of a civil war, Republicans in the North would seek to re-establish this tradition through their treatment of the vanquished rebels. Forgiveness is the mechanism by which military enemies are transformed back into political enemies once the fighting is over. It is, consequently, apart from any considerations of Christian duty, good practical politics. The erection of Confederate statues and the flying of the Confederate flag after the war were understandable pressure-release valves that allowed politics the necessary time to re-assert itself over armed conflict as the means by which Americans resolved their differences. Needless offenses against Confederate pride would only have raised the temperature once more and threatened a further outbreak of violence between North and South. Some toleration of enduring Confederate sentiment (though not of the South’s treatment of free black men and women) was therefore required by the demands of statecraft after hostilities had ended.

But it must be asked: Is this still the case today? Is the toleration of Confederate iconography still necessary for the preservation of the Union? The question of grammar — “Shall we say, ‘The United States is’ or ‘The United States are?’” — over which classics scholar Basil Gildersleeve argued that the war was fought has been thoroughly resolved. There is certainly increasing geographic segregation between the professional and working classes in America, but neither secession nor civil war are live political questions in 2020. The lingering presence of Confederate symbols no longer serves the political purpose of binding up the Union’s wounds that it did in the mid-to-late 19th century.

How, then, do these symbols function in the mass politics of 2020? The purpose of national history in political terms is to establish a shared narrative that unites the citizens under a single banner, so that they feel enough in common with one another to accept the legitimacy of the government they share. The locations accorded to different statues, monuments, symbols, and flags in public spaces speak volumes about the values that a given people wish to hold up as aspirational or representative of their character. It’s important to remember the sordid parts of our history as well as the triumphs, but in this case, as in all cases, context is the key. If Confederate statues, monuments, flags, and symbols are displayed in a museum, it sends a message that Americans want to insulate contemporary politics from the veneration of the Confederate cause. It shows that Americans regard the sentiment that originally inspired the sculpting and erection of a given secessionist statue or the sewing of the stars and bars as something foreign to their own system of values, a historical curiosity rather than a living faith. Opposing the destruction and vandalism of these symbols while advocating for their removal from public places to museums strikes me as the obvious and necessary course of action. It would safeguard the memory of the conflict while also acting as a kind of moral, political, and racial disinfectant for public spaces across the country.

That’s what it ultimately comes down to: Public spaces should be reserved for historical symbols and figures whose animating principles, achievements, and insights we want to keep alive in contemporary politics. As long as they are occupied by Confederate paraphernalia, the infernal cause of the Old South with never be fully laid to rest. It will retain a kind of half-life that, yes, provides unwarranted political cover for incompetent and pernicious Democrats, but also reminds African-Americans that their claims upon the promises of the Declaration are still rejected by many of their white compatriots.

I’m writing this from my home overseas in Northern Ireland, which, it occurs to me, is actually a good point of comparison. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the conflict between Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom, and Republicans, who wanted to see it absorbed into the Irish Republic, reduced this tiny statelet to a murderous carnival of death and misery as terrorists on both sides casually orphaned entire generations of children. In 1998, a peace agreement was signed, and Northern Ireland found it necessary to undertake a project of suppressing legitimate grievances similar to the one undertaken by Union politicians after the Civil War. The same terrorists who were not above executing a disabled child such as 15-year-old Bernard Teggart in 1973 now walk the corridors of power here in Belfast. Those convicted of terror-related crimes before 1998 were released from prison, and the maximum sentence for anyone convicted of such crimes today is around three years. The promises that were made to the people of Northern Ireland about the decommissioning of terrorist-owned weapons were broken almost as soon as the agreement was signed. But support for the Good Friday Agreement, as it is popularly known, remains high here, because like the actions of Lincoln, Greeley, Grant, and McKinley, it brought peace.

I sometimes imagine what Northern Ireland might be like in 150 years’ time, supposing that the constitutional question has been definitively settled and that the majority of its citizens look back with horror upon the actions of paramilitary groups during the 20th century. I confess that I would be both bemused and disappointed if public murals and monuments honoring the IRA or the UVF were still a feature of the landscape. In fact, many of the most famous sectarian murals in Belfast have already been painted over with images of George Best, the greatest soccer player in Northern Irish history, and C. S. Lewis, the famous author from east Belfast, along with other unifying cross-community figures. We are not yet as far from the Troubles here as the United States was from the Civil War when McKinley gave his great address to the Union and Confederate soldiers gathered outside his house, and yet the sacralizing of sectarian iconography is already fading into history. That the U.S., which can boast of greater achievements than any other nation in history, should persistently cling to the public celebration of an insurrection against itself raised in defiance of its central and most sacred creed is nearly incomprehensible.

In every state in the Union, a thousand unsung heroes and heroines of the Republic lie waiting for their memories to be publicly honored. It is past time to give them the place in our communities they deserve and to move the symbols of the Confederacy to museums, so that no one can mistake the rebels’ dead, defeated cause for a living one.


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