I will readily admit to having a soft spot for Robert E. Lee. As an undergraduate, I attended Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. President George Washington was a major benefactor of the school, while General Lee assumed the Presidency of “Washington College” in 1865, shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. He did so partly because he viewed it as an opportunity for promoting reconciliation between North and South. Indeed, he dedicated the rest of his life to putting back together a nation that had only recently been torn asunder. He was, in short, the consummate Southern gentleman, a pious Christian, and a model of dignity, perseverance, loyalty, humility, and gallantry.
As a general, Robert E. Lee was admired by those who fought for and against him. Even General Ulysses S. Grant, Lee’s nemesis, when he became President in 1869, hosted Lee at the White House. His work as a peacemaker after the war, however, is, if anything, even more impressive, and an even more compelling argument for why he should be hailed today as an American hero. It is ironic, therefore, that so much energy is currently being spent on litigating the historical legacy of General Lee. In his own lifetime, men who had every reason to despise him, as a “rebel” and and as the engine of death that claimed the lives of so many of their comrades, nonetheless honored him as a worthy adversary. Why, then, 150 years later, would anyone want to extirpate his memory? It beggars belief. And yet, that is exactly what many liberals seem hellbent on doing. Not content with imposing their poisonous ideology on the living, they also insist on dominating the dead.
When I think back to my days at Washington and Lee, one story about General Lee stands out. Supposedly, a young couple with a newborn son once asked Lee what lesson, above all others, they should teach their boy. He thought about it, and said “Teach him to deny himself.” Needless to say, this is a lesson that few ever learn in this day and age. That is tragic enough. It seems to me, though, that the people who are agitating for the removal of Confederate monuments, including statues of General Lee, are particularly out of touch with this moral truism. Why? Because to demand the obliteration of symbols that cause you unease, to assume that the world owes you perfect emotional equanimity, and indeed affirmation and approbation, is the height of selfishness. We are told that Confederate memorials should be decommissioned because some black people, in particular, equate them with racism, and racism makes them upset (understandably), and therefore the offending symbols have no place in our public spaces. Fair enough. But the rejoinders are compelling.
First, where it is written that the purpose of historical monuments is to convey messages that people happily receive? Rather, should not the lessons of history sometimes be jarring or disconcerting? In addition, does removing the symbol really mitigate whatever historical wrongs produced the grievance in the first place? Is it possible to rank and classify instances of historical wrongdoing, so that we can decide which events, institutions, and people are to be expunged? Would this not tend to produce a chaotic process by which history would be politicized and constantly renegotiated? Will any historical figure, when placed under critical examination, be judged sufficiently inoffensive, much less heroic, to merit inclusion in our national pantheon? And, if there is a standard by which some historical symbols can be reasonably discarded, then surely in a democracy the views of the majority will carry some weight. Much as the leftist media would like to perpetuate the falsehood that only “white nationalists” value Southern heritage, the truth is otherwise. Tens of millions of patriotic Americans honor the South. The vast majority of Americans, moreover, equate Confederate memorials, and the Confederate flag, with Southern pride, not racism, and so to obliterate these symbols, especially in Southern states where the majority of the citizenry embraces them, is not just undemocratic, but anti-democratic. Is that really how we want our historical memory and our national identity to be formed – based, more often than not, on the political agitation of a handful of extremists, and the elite wisdom of “experts”, all without reference to the views of the people?
To return to General Lee’s dictum that we should all learn to “deny ourselves,” it is supremely arrogant for any person, or any group, to assume that everyone, everywhere, throughout time, should be judged by a single idiosyncratic moral compass. How much better would it be, both from an individual moral standpoint and from the standpoint of our national life, if instead of battling to impose our historical and moral perspectives on one another, we acknowledged the diversity of values and points of view that have informed the American experience from the very beginning. Ours is not now, and it never was, a nation of saints. Our history includes grave errors in policy, and gross personal indiscretions, that no one profits from obscuring. On the contrary, by acknowledging the complexity of our past, and the virtues and vices of our “heroes”, we come to a more mature and nuanced understanding to what it is to be an American. Surely this is better than attempting to silence those who see America differently, better than excoriating the memory of those whose values differ from one’s own. Lest we forget, according to the remorseless logic of modern political correctness, virtually every historical figure would stand condemned of one monstrosity or another: whether it were patriarchal attitudes, or homophobia, or perhaps disdain for the “differently abled”. It is simply unrealistic to apply a moral purity test to each and every American hero, and to expect a single one of them to pass (unless, of course, the heroes of the left are held to a different standard). More than being unrealistic, though, it is immature, petty, and self-righteous. It is, frankly, un-American.
I honor the legacy of General Lee, and of many other men who fought for the Confederacy. I do so not because they were perfect men, fighting for a perfect cause, but because they were mortal men striving to do what was right and, inevitably, failing much of the time. They were Americans, in short, like you and me. And who is to say that one day the men and women of the future will not look back on us, and decide that our values were indefensible, and our actions were scandalous? I would like to think, though, that, if they reach that conclusion, they will at least be able to see our virtues and our vices in perspective. If not, I fear our statues too may be toppled, and that would be a shame, because every generation of Americans, no matter its flaws, weaves something worthwhile into our national tapestry. I, for one, refuse to be deleted from history, and I refuse to delete any of my forbears for the same reason. Few rights are absolute, but the right to be remembered, well, that is a right that only a fanatic would infringe.
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred. He blogs at www.waddyisright.com.