CRB: There goes Robert E. Lee

This weekend comes news that the city of Charlottesville has officially removed the statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park. Fox News story on the removal of the statue is posted reports: “Viewing areas for the removal of the statues were erected so that bystanders could watch cranes lift the statues from their plinth blocks; the process was nearly complete just before 9 a.m.” Politico reports: “Spectators by the dozens lined the blocks surround the park, and a cheer went up as the statue lifted off the pedestal.”

Yes, indeed, free at last in Emancipation Park! (If we may still call it that.)

The Spring issue of the Claremont Review of Books went to press this past May. It remains relevant and timely in every respect I can think of. However, it is especially timely in this context. Looking back on the last year, I think, the CRB commissioned and published Christopher Caldwell’s review/essay “There goes Robert E. Lee.” Caldwell’s essay concludes:

One of the great contemporary delusions is to assume that, when rioters tear down a statue of Thomas Jefferson or demand that an Abraham Lincoln school be renamed, they are demonstrating their historical ignorance, and have somehow “got the wrong guy.” Oh, no. They reject the idea that the Civil War was fought between a morally pure North and a morally irredeemable South. In this they have a point. The war was indeed fought between two sections that had each tolerated slavery to varying degrees, and finally faced an irreconcilable difference over whether any part of that institution could be tolerated. But there has been a shift in our understanding of what this means. Whereas earlier Americans understood slavery primarily as a problem of liberty, today’s Americans understand it primarily as a problem of race. It seemed for several generations that the end of slavery had removed the only obstacle to honoring both sides of the Civil War. But in the newest generation, the persistence of American racial prejudice can be a reason to honor neither.

Although there may have been ambivalence about the war’s origins, there was none in its resolution. “In the course of three and a half years,” wrote the British military historian Spenser Wilkinson a century ago, “the resistance of the Confederacy was crushed, its cause lost, and every interest and principle that had been invoked in its behalf abandoned for ever.” Abandoned forever is right. Whether they were erected in that spirit or not, Confederate statues, road names, and ceremonies today betoken the settlement of the constitutional and moral question from which the Civil War arose—not the reopening of it.

“Human nature will not change,” Lincoln said shortly after his re-election in 1864. “In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to avenge.” That is the spirit in which Americans have tended to remember, and should remember, Robert E. Lee, one of the bravest and most principled among them, even if his bravery is of the sort they cannot always match and his principles of the sort they cannot always honor.

Caldwell’s long essay makes for a timely and educational weekend read.

Responses