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The Confederate Statue Controversy Isn’t About Slavery, It’s About Ending America


Whether the rest of the country likes it or not, what happens in Texas matters a lot, not just because it’s the second most populous state but also because it serves as a kind of bellwether for what’s going on in those parts of America that coastal elites would prefer to ignore.

That’s especially true of the controversy over Confederate statues and symbols and names, of which there are many in Texas, along with people in power who feel obliged to get rid of them. But if you think the iconoclastic impulse to purge public memory of the Confederacy has anything to do with the Civil War or a deeper understanding of American history, you haven’t been paying attention. The campaign against Confederate heritage is really a campaign against American heritage. The goal is to divide the country into irreconcilable camps for the purpose of waging political warfare. In the end, it’s really about giving up on the idea of America as a place where, despite our many differences, we can be a united and prosperous people.

Here again Texas is a bellwether. This week, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus requested that an old plaque about the Confederacy be removed from the Capitol in Austin. The plaque itself is a piece of mid-twentieth-century Confederate Lost Cause paraphernalia that was erected in 1959, likely in protest of the Civil Rights movement. It claims the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery and the Confederacy wasn’t really a rebellion. Straus, a Republican, wants the thing to come down because it isn’t accurate. And he’s right: the Confederacy was indeed a rebellion, specifically over the issue of slavery. It should probably come down, in part because it probably shouldn’t have been put up in the first place.

But in issuing his request, Straus has become the latest well-meaning public figure to blunder into the Confederate monument mêlée under the misperception that it’s all about accurately portraying history. If it were, those calling for the removal of statues and the renaming of schools would have articulated some limiting principle to prevent the defunding of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, or the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue in New York City, or the dynamiting of Mount Rushmore.

There’s No Limiting Principle To Confederate Iconoclasm

But there is no such limiting principle, which is why the Dallas Independent School District last week announced that it was not only recommending that four schools named after Confederate generals be renamed (Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and William L. Cabell elementary schools) but that those were just part of larger list of 21 school names being considered for renaming because of “the biographies of the individuals.” And who are these individuals? Among them are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Sam Houston. Houston is of course the hero of the Texas Revolution, the first president of the Republic of Texas, and the only governor of a future Confederate state to oppose secession and refuse an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.

But he did own slaves, which is probably why that school is on the list, along with Texas revolutionary heroes James Bowie and William Travis, who were killed at the Alamo. If the standard for scrubbing the names of historical figures from public places is slaveholding, then very few of America’s Founding Fathers are off the hook, including George Washington.

Here again, Texas is instructive. A statue of Washington was until recently the centerpiece of the University of Texas at Austin’s main mall, an historic sextet of buildings (locally referred to as the “six pack”) situated around a broad lawn in front of the iconic, 27-story UT tower. It’s still there, but not as a centerpiece: all the other statues have been removed.

When university officials decided two years ago in the wake of the Charleston church massacre that a statue of Jefferson Davis must go, they also took down an adjacent statue of Woodrow Wilson on the flimsy pretext that doing so would “maintain symmetry” on the mall. But then last month UT president Gregory Fenves ordered the removal, in the dead of night, of four other statues: Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, along with Confederate Postmaster John H. Reagan and James Stephen Hogg, the first native-born governor of Texas and the son of a Confederate general. The first three will be relocated to the university’s Briscoe Center for American History, where the Davis statues now sits, but it’s still unclear where the hapless bronze likeness of Hogg will land; he wasn’t a Confederate, just the son of one. But that was enough.

For The Left, America Is Irredeemably Racist

The only statue that now remains on the mall is that of Washington, erected in 1955 by the Texas Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. It sits smack in the center of the mall, for all to see. Earlier this month, student protesters at the University of Virginia draped a black shroud over a statue of Thomas Jefferson (UVA’s founder) in front of the Rotunda and put up signs calling him a “rapist” and a “racist.” They called for the removal of all Confederate plaques on the Rotunda and “adding context” to the Jefferson statue.

Nothing similar has happened yet to the Washington statue on the UT campus, but there’s no reason it won’t. After all, what is the justification for keeping this supposed symbol of slavery standing in a place of public prominence? The initial rationale for removing Davis was that, as president of the Confederate States of America, he was unique in defending and promulgating slavery (and of course getting rid of Wilson, whose racist views were well-known during his presidency, was an added bonus). But of course the rationale changed after Charlottesville, as it inevitably would have changed even without Charlottesville. Now, all the Confederates had to go—and Hogg, too. Why not Washington—or Houston, who also owned slaves?

There is no reason why not, and that gets us to the heart of the matter. This is not about the Confederacy, or even about slavery. It’s about a significant faction of the Left having decided that it’s not possible to share a country with the Americans with whom they disagree. That’s the true message of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ widely read essay in The Atlantic about how Trump has cracked open the amulet of whiteness and released its eldritch energies.

Coates’ long piece, “The First White President,” boils down to an argument that it’s impossible to support Trump without at least tacitly accepting white supremacy. It allows for no other factors in Trump’s electoral victory last year, and it paints a picture of America as an incorrigibly racist and irredeemably unjust society. For Coates, and indeed for the mobs clamoring for the eradication of Confederate symbols, coexistence is impossible because America is damned by its original sin, slavery.

For those like Straus, a moderate and thoughtful politician on the Right, it will never be enough to simply remove an historically inaccurate plaque, or politely relocate a Confederate statue to a museum. The promise of great Americans like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., that the founding promise of America—liberty and equality—is available to all, holds no sway for Coates and his milieu. They are not interested in forgiveness and reconciliation, just as they are not interested in the Civil War that ended more than 150 years ago. They are interested in the one to come.