The Corner

Politics & Policy

Confederate Statues and the Slippery Slope

We’ve had a number of pieces on Confederate statues here the last couple of days, with more to come. The latest is Kevin on the home-page right now. But I want to respond to the excellent pieces by Kyle Smith and Quin Hillyer, taking exception to my column arguing for, in most cases, moving the statues to battlefields, cemeteries, and museums. A big question here is the slippery slope (Kyle’s piece focuses only on that aspect).

My view is that the slippery slope is obviously very real and we’re already seeing it at play. But I’d flip this around: If you don’t think we can ultimately defend monuments to George Washington, do you really think that we’re going to defend statues of old Jeff Davis (outside of the question of whether we should)? I also find it a little hard to believe that if Baltimore gets rid of its statues of Roger Taney — not a Confederate, but an execrable figure in the story of the Civil War-era — that there’s going to be a straight-line to dynamiting Washington and Jefferson off of Mount Rushmore. Fears about the slippery slope shouldn’t be a reason for us to suspend all judgment about the public worth and historical meaning of all the statues. The fact is that there is clear moral line between the men who founded the nation and set out its ideals (imperfectly, of course) and the men who, no matter how personally honorable, tried to tear the nation apart.

Quin also makes case an affirmative case for keeping some statues. I think he makes very good points and the two of us are on different points on a spectrum here rather than diametrically opposed. Certainly, the case for the statues is strongest where there is a nexus between the figure being honored and the location, as Quin points out with Beauregard and New Orleans. Quin also says the erection of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans was a celebration of “his cause of post-war reconciliation.” If this was true in New Orleans (and I know nothing about the history of those statues), it wasn’t true everywhere.

Certainly, the black paper in Richmond seemed to have a pretty good read on what would be the drift of events when a statue of Lee went up there:

Reading the coverage from the Richmond Planet, Richmond’s prominent black newspaper, gives a very different perspective of the events surrounding the reveal of the Lee Monument. On May 7, 1890, when the pieces of the statue arrived in Richmond, a procession followed the crates to the site of the monument. The Planet noted “The boxes were decorated with bunting and Confederate Flags. On every hand could be seen the ‘Stars and Bars.’ Nowhere in all this procession was there a United States flag. The emblem of the union had been left behind…a glorification of the lost cause was everywhere manifest.” [Source: Richmond Planet May 10 1890, ed. John Mitchell Jr, p. 1]

Editor John Mitchell, Jr. allotted just under half of a column of the front page of May 31, 1890’s issue to the statue. The article described the impressive size of the crowds and the grandeur of the parade while adding that the Confederate flags they displayed and carried were “emblems of the lost cause” and “were carried with an enthusiasm that astounded many.” It was clear to Mitchell, from the number of veterans who came back to Richmond, once more joining together in the rebel yell, that “they still clung to theories which were presumed to be buried for all eternity.”  The brief article ends with the admonishment: “The south may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong Steps in so doing, and proceeds to go too far in every similar celebration. It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.”

On the second page of the same issue, a piece titled “What it Means,” discussed the display of Confederate symbols in Richmond. It warned that the result of revering Confederate generals like Lee, and  considering them equal to Washington or other Founding Fathers would have far reaching effects on the future of America.  “This glorification of States Rights Doctrine- the right of secession, and the honoring of men who represented that cause…will ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood…it serves to reopen the wound of war.”

We’ve heard a lot about the need not to erase history the last few days, and I obviously agree. But the history of these statues should weigh in our consideration of them. I think we should be clear that we are honoring the sacrifices of Confederate troops, not the Confederate cause itself, which is why I’d relocate Robert E. Lee statues to battlefields or cemeteries. As I said in my column, a Lee statue overlooking the site of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg is completely appropriate.

Finally, obviously I oppose vandalism by stupid, angry mobs, and these decisions should be made lawfully by the states and localities in question, ideally with some genuine thoughtfulness and care.