Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, “Stonewall” Jackson, Jefferson Davis, James Longstreet, George Pickett, A.P. Hill, P.G.T. Beauregard, Alexander Hamilton Stephens — all were vaunted leaders of the American Confederate South, all were gravely wrong about human nature, and all were on the morally wrong side of history. Yet statues stand to this day memorializing their feats and lives, their ideas and actions.
This fact should never have been lost on America’s leaders. Ours is a nation of people and laws. Assent of the governed is critical to our heritage and success, and it establishes the serious responsibility of morally good governance on those elected to lead. Such leadership is never easy or predictable. Its chief requirements are diligence, courage, and wisdom.
Statues to these men’s memories and honor are wrong and always have been. Our elected and civic leadership throughout the nation should long ago have harnessed the courage to take them down in a civilized, legal, orderly manner rather than leaving that heavy lifting to the mob.
I am no iconoclast, and I embrace history. History must note that the great population of statues being destroyed in protest now were themselves erected in a form of protest: Defiance of Union victory, defiance of the emancipation of slaves, defiance of the resulting economic shifts, and defiance of being made to live out the fact that all men are created equal. Left with few ways to effectively and openly act on this defiance during and after the woefully imperfect Reconstruction, the South defied quietly.
They enacted laws and developed customs that kept blacks suppressed and separate from them. They gathered in secret, closed-door societies to enforce laws and codes unwritten. They founded and named parks, libraries, schools, and colleges for their defeated heroes. In at least one place, they appointed one of their war heroes a college president then renamed the institution in his honor upon his death.
They concocted false narratives and childish euphemisms (my favorite is the “War of Northern Aggression”). They hired the best artists and spent lavish amounts of then-rare cash to erect magnificent statuary to their heroes. They did all these things in quiet yet perfectly unambiguous protest.
And protest has returned to them. The defiance these statues voiced has always been a childish, foot-stamping refusal to embrace, or at the very least accept, truth. This truth was set forth by the Creator in his very act of creation, that all men are created equal. It is a truth embraced by the overwhelming portion of we the people of the United States.
Thus, the great shame is not that the statues are being removed. It is the manner by which they are being removed and by whom: in violence by childish, thoughtless, tantrum-screaming mobs that are lashing out because it feels good. The result is the false impression these days that the mob has more sense about history than the government and the people.
That is wrong. These mobs know and care nothing of history, and they prove it daily. They want Lee out, they want Abraham Lincoln out, they want George Washington out, and Christopher Columbus while they’re at it. The mobs are neither able nor willing to make any distinction (even of centuries) between them.
One clearly warrants no noble memorial, while three do. The mob is rage-blinded to see only the sameness of their complexions, masculinity, and leadership roles. “All white male leaders must not have memorials!”
This is where America is today, led by mobs for lack of serious, principled, elected leadership. America needs leadership that comprehends the significance of history to the present and future, leadership that understands the importance of civic symbols to a society. We the people need leadership that is unwilling to cede its responsibilities to mobs.
Rather, these statues to the defiant South’s heroes should have been removed as responsible acts of rational state legislatures after hours and days of Lincoln-Douglas-level debate that would have resulted in vastly better race relations, a fortified deposit of shared civic virtue, and — I dare say it — a more perfect Union.