Protesters rally against racial inequality and the death of George Floyd near the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., June 13, 2020. Fundamentally, so are the riots and arson and looting in Minneapolis and elsewhere. Photo: Jay Paul/Reuters
How should we think about those Confederate statues and those Confederate names on U.S. military bases?
If I were a Republican, I might be very strongly tempted to just sit this one out: If some Democrats want to pull down statues of other Democrats, then that’s a mess in the Democrats’ house. The Republicans might say, “You guys sort this one out. We’ll be over here with Honest Abe.” But, of course, they are not over there with Honest Abe — they’re down there with Dishonest Don, who cannot help but make everything about himself, even when doing so doesn’t serve his interests.
The Confederate controversy is a Democrat-vs.-Democrat question, but, fundamentally, so are the riots and arson and looting in Minneapolis and elsewhere. Those guys in the black uniforms setting fire to the police station are not, I think we can safely assume, for the most part registered Republicans. I haven’t seen a single pair of penny loafers or pleated khakis in the whole scene. We have default Democratic voters rioting in protest of the failure of Democratic policies cooked up by Democratic municipal governments and implemented, sometimes with lethal brutality, by Democrat-managed agencies. It takes a certain kind of perverse political genius for Republicans to get themselves on the wrong side of that, but there they are.
It is easy for a middle-aged white conservative to look at the fight over this statue or that base name and think of it as a silly exercise in cultural small ball, in that we could replace every statue of Jefferson Davis with a statue of Malcolm X and the schools would still stink in Philadelphia and St. Louis would still have an absurd murder rate.
The more cynical among us even suspect from time to time that these fights over monuments are provoked intentionally by the Democrats in order to distract from those Democratic governance failures in Democrat-run cities:
“Well, yes, we Democrats have been running the police department in Minneapolis lo these many years, but what about Robert E. Lee?” But people have a right to their own priorities, even if those priorities mystify middle-aged white conservatives.
For some younger people on the right, this appears to be a straightforward issue. National Review recently published an excellent essay on the subject, arguing that the Southern rebellion against the duly constituted government put in place by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson was nothing like the rebellion of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson against the duly constituted government of their time. (The essay was written by Cameron Hilditch, our new William F. Buckley fellow, who hails from Belfast, where they are the world’s leading authorities on domestic tranquility and getting everybody on the same page behind the Union.) The essay makes several excellent and true points: The Southern cause was not very much like the cause of 1776, as the Confederate leaders themselves attested, and there is no denying that the Southern cause was the cause of human bondage and white supremacy. Hilditch sums up: “Those who led a bloody rebellion against [the Union] flag to preserve an economy of human subjugation were traitors to the nation our military serves; they don’t deserve to be honored.”
That is an easy view to take in 2020. At the end of the Civil War and in its immediate aftermath, they took a different view. Surrendering Confederate troops were treated with military courtesy and offered courtesy in return, “honor answering honor” as General Joshua Chamberlain described the scene at Appomattox Court House. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for a short period of time and treated harshly at first, but ultimately he was released on bail — paid in part by Horace Greeley and Gerrit Smith, both abolitionists — and then given amnesty by President Andrew Johnson. When Greeley’s fellow Republicans criticized him for extending his hand to Davis, he dismissed them as “narrow-minded blockheads, who would like to be useful to a great and good cause, but don’t know how.” Robert E. Lee was President U. S. Grant’s guest in the White House and became the president of Washington College, known today as Washington and Lee University.
President Lincoln had offered amnesty to most of the Confederate soldiers and functionaries, with pointed exceptions: “all who are, or shall have been civil or diplomatic officers or agents of the so-called Confederate government; all who have left judicial stations under the United States to aid the rebellion; all who are, or shall have been military or naval officers of said so-called confederate government, above the rank of Colonel in the Army, or of lieutenant in the Navy; all who left seats in the United States Congress to aid the rebellion; all who resigned commissions in the army or navy of the United States, and afterwards aided the rebellion; and all who have engaged in any way, in treating colored persons, or white persons in charge of such, otherwise than lawfully as prisoners of war, and which persons may have been found in the United States service as soldiers, seamen, or in any other capacity.”
Andrew Johnson was not a president to be very proud of. But President Grant as General Grant had actually fought the war, and he carried on President Lincoln’s legacy in important ways: appointing African Americans to federal office, prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan, and pursuing the cause of civil rights through constitutional reform and other measures. Was he wrong to honor Robert Lee with a White House visit and to treat other Confederate leaders with honor and charity? Are we so much wiser?
Maybe Grant was wrong — Lee remained an important force in Southern politics, an enemy of legal and civil equality for African Americans, insisting that black Americans had “neither the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power,” an opinion that long survived him and every other veteran of the Confederacy. The country probably would have been better off if the Radical Republicans had prevailed and imposed a more invasive model of Reconstruction than the one that was implemented.
Perhaps it was the case that Grant et al. were only being practical, doing what they felt they needed to do to keep the Union together and ensure the peace. Lee praised President Johnson as someone whose policy “has been doing much to strengthen the feeling in favor of the Union among us.” And, of course, he hated the Radical Republicans and had the audacity to blame them for feelings of disunion in the South:
They are working as though they wished to keep alive by their proposals in Congress the bad blood in the South against the North. If left alone the hostility which must be felt after such a war would rapidly decrease, but it may be continued by incessant provocation. The Southerners took up arms honestly: surely it is to be desired that the good-will of our people be encouraged, and that there should be no inciting them against the North. To the minds of the Southern men the idea of “Union” was ridiculous when the states that made the Union did not desire it to continue; but the North fought for the Union, and now, if what appears to be the most powerful party among them is to have its own way, they are doing their best to destroy all real union. If they succeed, “Union” can only be a mere name.
So if it is difficult to rehabilitate the name of Robert E. Lee, General Lee himself bears more than a little of the blame for that, though what this has to do with the behavior of police officers in Minneapolis in the second decade of the 21st century is something less than obvious. There is an argument that the police misbehavior in Minneapolis and the statues in Mississippi are part of the same vast edifice of white supremacy, which must be attacked on both the symbolic and the practical fronts. And underneath the vandalism and hysteria and political opportunism, there is a reasonable argument for that point of view, not that the rioters and arsonists have any great interest in reasonable argument.
Conservatives should acknowledge that reasonable argument, but we should not permit its being used as political cover for a Democratic retreat from the failure of Democratic policies in Democratic cities into the safe abstraction of “white supremacy.” There are specific, urgent, and immediate questions that demand answers in Minneapolis, and those are questions mainly for its Democratic mayor, its Democratic city council, its progressive leadership and management class, for Democratic elected officials such as Representative Ilhan Omar, and a great many other people who are very comfortable talking about the ghastly moral failures of the Confederacy a century and a half ago but rather less eager to talk about the facts on the ground in Minneapolis in the here and now.
Of course the past matters. (It is incredible that some people who call themselves conservatives have to be reminded of that.) But the present matters, too, and surely it deserves more of our attention than some potential slight to the very mixed legacies of Braxton Bragg or John Bell Hood. Given current events, the Democrats are very eager to change the subject. They should not be accommodated.