The Associated Press reports on the ongoing battle over school names in the South, as activists attempt to remove the names of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and others from public schools:
“‘If it had been up to Robert E. Lee, these kids wouldn’t be going to school as they are today,’ said civil rights leader Julian Bond, now a history professor at the University of Virginia. ‘They can’t help but wonder about honoring a man who wanted to keep them in servitude.’”
We are no fans of the Confederacy, of course; the definitive judgments were passed by Abraham Lincoln (“If slavery isn’t wrong, then nothing is wrong”) and Ulysses Grant (who, after paying tribute to the bravery of Confederate soldiers in his memoirs, concluded: “Men never fought in a worse cause.”)
But, apart from our general aversion to airbrushing history, the effort to place traditional Southern heroes like Lee and Stonewall Jackson beyond the pale has implications that go far beyond the Confederacy. The argument against honoring a man like Lee is that it makes no difference that he was personally noble and courageous; that he was one of the great generals of world history; that he was not hostile toward blacks; or that he played a positive role in reconciling the sections and the races after the war. The single fact that he fought on behalf of a slave-holding society is held to disqualify him from public tokens of respect. Nothing else counts.
This is a dangerous principle, and those who advance it hope to fry fish even bigger than General Lee. The logic now being applied to Stonewall Jackson will next be applied to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and ultimately all of the founders, including those who vigorously opposed slavery, like John Adams. Indeed, today’s AP report refers to a Louisiana parish that renamed George Washington Elementary School on the ground that Washington was a slave-holder.
The AP story gives the last word to Henry Kidd, former Virginia commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who says that the efforts to ban public tributes to Lee and others are “chipping away, piece by piece, at our history.” He’s right.
POSTSCRIPT: See this piece by Michael Knox Beran in tomorrow’s National Review Online: “Never Forget, They Kept Lots of Slaves.” That’s the title of a recent New York Times Book Review article which essentially argues that nothing should be said about the Founders except that some of them owned slaves. Will this approach to discrediting the Founders, for the purpose of discrediting America, work? I don’t know. It will work in academia. How far it will spread from there remains to be seen.
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