On statues and history

Earlier today, I responded to comments on Facebook arguing that statues of Robert E. Lee should not be removed, as he was a complex historical figure, not all bad. For context, a comparison was drawn with the signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Thomas Clarke, who had expressed racist sentiments, and with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom held people as slaves. Lightly edited is my response below:

I’m happy to be critical of many of the Irish founding fathers, so I welcome all the scrutiny they get. I have problems too with the respect Arthur Griffith gets, to take another example, given his anti-Semitism. But I’d qualify that to say that critical as we are, it is not their part in advancing racism that Clarke or Griffith are most remembered for.

I also recognise that history is complex and moral values change over time. We should judge people of the past not against the standards of our age, but against the best of those of their time. There are also gradations of wrongness in how we judge historical leaders. We can treat Nathan Bedford Forrest as worse than Lee, we can treat Hitler as worse than Rommel. But we should do so within a framework that clearly condemns the Confederacy and Nazi Germany.

The generous spin on Lee as a patriot was as a man who so loved the state of Virginia, that he would fight for it, even against the United States Army to which he had hitherto dedicated his life’s service. The better view might be that the true patriots in Virginia were those who would fight against slavery, dedicated to the cause of liberty for all. That might describe only a few of the very best of Virginians in the 1860s. And a better reading of Lee’s decision might be of a man so dedicated to the state of Virginia, he would fight its cause even as it was seeking to preserve the wicked custom of slavery. Hardly commendable.

There’s space to consider the complexity of these characters in biography or biopic, as long, I’d qualify, as it doesn’t gloss over the surrounding evil of slavery or Nazism. Statues or institutions named in tribute are all too blunt. It’s all very well to say that the school named for Lee is in recognition of his valour, not that he fought for the preservation of slavery. But what a student there is most likely to know of him is the latter. That, again, is the distinction with Washington and Jefferson. Clearly they should be criticised, they held other people as if property. But very few could mistake the Washington Monument as having been erected in tribute to his life as a slaveholder, instead of as the first president or the commander in chief of the continental army. Yet let’s still consider them against their betters of their time, that Adams, the president between these two Virginians, did not hold others as slaves, and let’s give credit to his son John Quincy Adams who was a fierce abolitionist in his post-presidency when so many presidents of that early 19th century equivocated on slavery or furthered its progress.

Back to these statues. It is relevant when they were erected, and why they were erected, during the Jim Crow era. It would be as if in our lifetime, Germans had erected statues to Rommel. Why could not Germans of today decide their parents had made a mistake, their town should not be tasked with maintaining a statue in tribute to someone who got it wrong in the most significant mistake their country had made? Why could they not decide that they’d rather pay tribute to those who had risked their lives to fight Nazism. And here the comparisons between the Confederacy and Nazism are relevant, two regimes more than any other identified as being founded with a brutally discriminatory intent.

Emphasising Lee’s valour rather than his role in a fight for slavery was part of a whitewashing of the civil war, recasting it as no different to the 1776 Declaration of Independence, ignoring the commitment in the declarations of secession to the protection of slavery. This meant that southern states did not have to confront the continuing impact of slavery on their black population, and how Jim Crow Laws went against the true meaning of the Reconstruction Amendments. To continue the analogy, it would be as if we emphasised that for many Germans, the Second World War was about the theoretically defensible aim of uniting Germans under a common sovereign. I’m no nationalist, but I can appreciate the aims of a Bismarck or Garibaldi of two generations earlier for what they were. Yet someone would have to be obtuse to insist that we see the Second World War primarily through that lens. And we would be concerned if a German gymnasium named itself in honour of Rommel.

In short, I see no reason why people in America today should be bound by the decision of those in the early twentieth century to erect statues in tribute to those who ultimately were fighting to preserve slavery (whatever their primary motivation was), and as there are calls to remove them, I say they should come down.

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Barrister working in Dublin

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