The cult of Robert E. Lee and may have served its purpose, but we need an alternative not erasure
Once upon a time America had a Civil War. It was not alone in that. Most nations throughout history have had not one, but several, often at regular intervals. In fact, the ability to regulate the succession without a resort to violence was one of the key advantages of the European conception first of hereditary monarchy and then of republican self-government that laid the groundwork for the expansion of the 19th century. America was not, however, a monarchy. It was not, in truth, even a republic, in the sense the ancient Greeks or Romans would have known it. Their republics, like the medieval republics of Italy or the Baltic Hansa, were self-governing cities. The United States, with its sovereign states, much more resembled a “league” or federation of republics. States retained control of their own governments, with Federal oversight distinctly limited, even to level of mandated neutrality when Rhode Island fell into a civil war of its own in 1840. The selection of electors who would vote for President was by 1860 done by popular vote almost everywhere except South Carolina where they were appointed by the state legislature, a concession to the idea that states selected their own electoral system.
The debate over the meaning of memorials to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his compatriots on the Southern side have tended to adopt one of two mutually exclusive positions. The first, that championed for a century and a half by proponents of the “Lost Cause”, that the war was fought over the constitutional question of secession, a cause whose morality was distinct from its specific manifestations such as slavery. On the other side there are those who zero in on the specific manifestation that dwarfed all others and the one cited by almost all contemporary Southern leaders in advocating secession, namely the security of the institution of slavery.
I have already made my position clear on the role of slavery in the outbreak of the Civil War. By 1861 it was fundamentally impossible to disentangle any other Southern fear or concern from the question of slavery or of its expansion. All other issues had been driven into the background of Southern internal politics and having brought the national government to a standstill during the 1850s over the issue of the expansion of Slavery, the South had sought a political battle that while unnecessary at the start of the decade, was by 1861 one which they could not afford to lose and yet survive politically. Having utilized every constitutional tool and power granted to them to wage the battle for slavery, defeat on it could only come in a form which rendered those guarantees meaningless. Having made the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act a question of federal power, they now faced a Presidential administration dedicated to non-enforcement. Having enticed the Supreme Court to enter the debate on their side with the decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford, they now faced a Lincoln Administration pledged to nullify that ruling as they had sought to nullify Tariffs they disliked under John C Calhoun in 1833. Faced with the choice of surrender on the question of slavery, remaining in the Union would have meant accepting the power of the Federal government to ensure its eventual non-viability and disappearance even if there was no immediate prospect of such power being exercised, or leaving it, they chose the latter.
As such, those critics who argue that the Southern cause was that of human bondage are correct. The conclusions they draw, however, are too simplistic. It is true that indirectly or directly, all who fought for the South fought for the preservation of slavery regardless of their personal views on the question. Consequently, it is correct to note that the debate over Robert E. Lee’s personal views is largely irrelevant. Had he succeeded in what he set out to do it would have survived at least for a time(I do not buy the idea presented in the hypothetical HBO show “Confederates” it would have lasted long into the 20th century must less into the 21st. The political optics would have turned toxic long before.).
Nonetheless he did not succeed in winning the war for the South. And as such, those monuments were not built to celebrate something that did not happen. There was a different purpose behind the monuments to General Lee. Robert E. Lee may or may not have wished to see slavery vanish, and he may well have been the greatest general of the war. But all of that mattered less than what he did at the end of the war. On April 10th, at Appomattox Court House, Lee, ignoring orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis, surrendered his entire army. More than that, he did it in definitive terms. His soldiers were not prisoners of war. The conflict would not go on. They were “all citizens of the United States.”
With the United States today so immutability one country today that the media can afford to joke about political polarization into “red” and “blue” areas on partisan lines in a way that shows no perspective on how those differences could be so deep in 1860 that a wrong election outcome could trigger secession(and threats of the same had been issued for nearly two decades), it is easy to forget how that came about. Reconstruction has, fairly and unfairly, gotten a bad reputation in American history. To Southerners, and Northern sympathizers it was for years identified with corruption and fortune seeking by northern adventurers(carpetbaggers) and southern opportunists(scalawags). More recently the focus has been on how its eventual overthrow through violence and fraud resulted in the abandonment of the African American community of the South to Jim Crow and a loss of political rights.
Both views are true, with the latter probably carrying more accuracy than the former, as the African American community were for all practical purposes “abandoned” and therefore the major victim of the collapse of the Reconstruction Republican regimes. But that has tended to obscure why that abandonment took place. Namely that the goal of Reconstruction, to bring the country back together succeeded. It succeeded not through force, which between 1865-1877 failed, but through a rewriting of history.
This accomplished by finding heroes who could unite the country. Ones who could be purified enough to be acceptable to both sections, and yet clearly identifiable enough to build a national identity. So lay the origin of both the cult of Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. It is critical to understand that both figures died conveniently early to not be tarred by the conflicts of Reconstruction or the corruption of the Gilded Age. Lincoln, cut down only five days after Lee’s surrender, became a symbol of a perfect and utopian Reconstruction which might have been, “with malice towards none.” Lee, already in ill health, retired to heading a university and died in 1870. We never learned his opinions either on the cult of the “Lost Cause” or the movement for white supremacist “Redemption” which swept the South between 1874 and 1877.
The result is that both characters were pure. That is how they entered schools history books for more than a century. In contrast to Jefferson Davis or other Confederate leaders, Lee was ambiguous on secession and slavery, glad that the former question had been settled in 1865 and that the latter institution was gone. Lincoln loved the country so much he sacrificed himself for it. He would never have made the mistakes his successors did. Whether those mistakes were pushing too hard for civil rights(as the Radical Republicans did) or not hard enough(As his successor Andrew Johnson did) was left to the specific students. The main message was that both sections had American heroes, who if they had been alone, absent the corrupting influence of the Southern fireeaters, the Northern abolitionists, and the self-serving politicians who exploited them, the conflict might have been avoided.
This history was oversimplified at best, a lie at worst. But that was not the point. The goal was to find a way for Southern school children to find a Northerner they could idolize in Lincoln, and thereby throw off any affection for slavery or desire for secession without being taught to abandon their own identity. It was for Northerners to find a way to integrate at least some Southerners as figure in American history. As such it was successful. For all the Confederate monuments in the South, and all the celebration of the Lost Cause and discussion of what might have been at Gettysburg, there was never after the way a serious political demand to revisit secession. The issue was dead, unthinkable. Even at the height of KKK violence or during the battles over Brown v. Board of Education, Southerners fought their battles as Americans, sometimes claiming to be the “true” Americans. The reintegration of white Southerners into the American nation and the instillation of American nationalism following a devastating war which killed one in four males of military age in the region must stand as one of the great success stories of world history.
Its very success is part of the reason why there is so much trouble today. The movement to remove the Confederate monuments actually derives from two separate sources. The first, is of course, concern for those who were “sold out” in order to promote reconciliation following the Civil War. African Americans were forced to pay the costs of reconciliation, and it is easy to understand why they would be less than enthused about such monuments.
But African Americans have lived with them for decades, in many cases in cities where African American voters make up a large majority and African American politicians dominate local politics. The crowds of counter protestors in Charlotte were not majority or even plurality African American. The major force driving the current controversy is not African Americans, but white liberals, even if they obstensibly claim to be speaking on behalf of the Southern African American community. And while the Confederate statues are a target, they are a target of a greater campaign against nationalism and nationalist history being waged around the world, one which insists nations live up to their sins. Whether it be demands that Emmanuel Macron admit France was in the wrong in Algeria, or demands that British students learn about the “crimes” of the Empire, but the left has not only become multicultural but become explicitly anti-national and targeted any hero for destruction. As with many things, the Obama administration steered clear of this sort of thing during its first two years before throwing caution to the wind in the final two years, and removing Andrew Jackson, the founder of the modern Democratic party celebrated at Jefferson-Jackson dinners but now reviled due to his treatment of Native Americans, from the twenty dollar bill in favor of Harriet Tubman. Tubman, interestingly enough, was herself the product of an orchestrated campaign of historical revisionism, when US schools looking for prominent African Americans and women for use in history curriculums, stumbled across the story of the then-obscure figure and turned her into a household name. Nonetheless, the demand for perfection prefaced the attack on the Confederate Monuments. The debate over them is not on whether on net these individuals did good, but merely whether they supported bad things or fought for a bad cause, which is enough to damn them. It is hardly a surprise that such demands have now spread to Christopher Columbus and Lee’s Northern nemesis Ulysses S. Grant.
This is a misunderstanding of why we have history. I understand where many on the Left are coming from. When I was a teenager, I too was shocked to discover that many of the conventional wisdoms I had been taught were oversimplified or untrue. I too took pleasure in smashing sacred cows and saw my role as a historian as revealing these “myths” for what they were. But unlike Howard Zinn or Oliver Stone, who made a career out of being historical demolition artists, the more I read the more I realized the complexity of history. There are monsters in history, and there are very few heroes, but the overwhelming majority of historical people were just that, people. And to take a contemporary moralistic outlook is to remove any context as to why people made the choices they made, which also removes any possible understanding of how we can apply those lessons today. Most importantly, it ignores why we have history. UK Prime Minister Theresa May caused controversy when she suggested that those who consider themselves “citizens of the world” are in reality “citizens of nowhere” but there is something to be said that being cosmopolitan or above race, gender, nation, or ethnicity is a luxury only money can buy. For someone growing up in a small town whose only famous figure in two centuries led a Confederate regiment into an ambush at Shiloh, that statue is home, and has meaning that cannot be made up by lectures from adjunct professors from places they have never heard of.
The great problem the Left has faced in terms of nationalism is that the Left has sought its destruction without trying to replace it with anything. That to is why the attacks on Confederate monuments is a deadend for them. It may well be that the Confederacy was an evil cause. It is undoubtable true that that millions would have suffered if the South had won, and I would venture that the entire would have been a much worse place over the last 150 years. But the critics of the monuments are not presenting an alternative history. They are not championing statues of James Longstreet or William Mahone, both Confederate Generals who were outspoken supporters of Civil Rights after the war. They merely are picking targets to take down, but nothing to build. In the process, they will repeat the pattern of uniting individuals who might agree with them on the merits of many of the cases(Confederate monuments, Jefferson Davis shouldn’t be in the US Capitol building) but who see this as a cultural battle in which the critics stand for an anti-American unpatriotic elite.
I am open to the view that Robert E. Lee has served his historical purpose and his celebration now brings more harm than good. But that means acknowledging what the cult has accomplished along with its drawbacks, and offering another narrative that can include both southern whites and African Americans. Replacing a narrative of Southern history which excludes African Americans by replacing one which excludes whites or demonizes their history is first of all politically non-viable(it will generate a backlash), but also deepens divisions. There needs to be less pointing out the flaws of the Confederacy, those are beyond contest, and more work to establish an alternative, inclusive, view of history.