While most of the attention of the media has justifiably been focused on one particular false moral equivalence, Donald Trump blurted out another commonly used piece of faulty assessment in yesterday’s press conference. I refer to the notion that the reasons for commemorating Washington and Jefferson are on par with the reasons for commemorating the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
We commemorate Washington and Jefferson in spite of their slave-owning past. Washington was the masterful commander of the Continental Army in its triumph over totalitarian rule. As our 1st president he set the precedent for a peaceful transition of power. He presided over the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson, for his part, drafted the Declaration of Independence. He is still the most accomplished statesman this country has seen, culminating in his ascension to the office of our 3rd president. He was also a great scholar with a staggering amount of influence on policy to this day. Washington’s and Jefferson’s accomplishments merit commemoration regardless of their slave-owning sins.
Lee and Stonewall, on the other hand, are commemorated across the South for the role they played in fighting to preserve one of the most oppressive, cruel, and dehumanizing institutions that the world has ever seen. To be fair, both men had some success outside of the Civil War (Had to look this up). Lee was superintendent of West Point, an officer in the Corps of Engineers, a key aide to General Winfield Scott in the Mexican-American War, and president of Washington College. Stonewall’s accomplishments outside of the Civil War are much less illustrious, but he did serve as a 2nd lieutenant in the Mexican-American War and held a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute. However, the statues in Charlottesville, Charleston, Baltimore and elsewhere depict Lee and Stonewall as generals of the Civil War, not as lower rank officers of the Mexican-American War (a conflict whose motives also run counter to our professed values) or as academics. They are placed in public squares, not on the respective campuses of the colleges they are affiliated with. I, for one, would not take issue if they were being commemorated for their contributions to academia on the campuses of the institutions in question. However, that is not what we are talking about. We are discussing monuments to a fight that aimed to keep our fellow brothers and sisters oppressed. It is not enough to honor Lee and Stonewall for exhibiting exceptional bravery and ingenious tactical abilities under stress. We must take their cause into account. After all, there are acts of incredible bravery on all sides of military conflicts. If we do not take the motives for war into account, what right would we have to oppose monuments to stand out leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Nazi Party, or any other embodiment of mankind’s worst instances of tribalistic frenzy?
As a contextual reminder, our military went around demolishing statues of Saddam Hussein after our victory in Iraq, including the famous scene that took place in Firdos Square. We could have left those up for locals to decide whether or not they wanted that piece of history preserved. But, we didn’t because we intuitively understand that those statues are put in place by the ruling class as an indication to the populace of what they should revere if they approve of their station or what they should fear if they dare dream of a better life. Our military wanted the local population to know that it did not have to fear Saddam and his regime any more. What message do you suppose that statues of the ardent defenders of slavery sends to the local populations here in the US?
Do not worry about a slippery slope when removing monuments to the Confederacy. Those whose accomplishments exist on a different plane will not be affected. As for the “heroes” of the Confederacy, their legacies, good and bad, have been thoroughly cataloged in our history volumes. The question is whether we will continue to sanction the public winks and dog whistles that help buoy the culture of backwards bigotry we have inherited from our miseducated progenitors. I hope not.