The debate about the Charleston, S.C., Bible study shooting has morphed into a debate about the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the Confederacy. This is not a trivial sideshow. Racism is not just a personal prejudice and an evolutionary byproduct. It resurfaces year after year because it’s been woven by historical events into the fabric of American culture.
That culture is transmitted through the generations by the things we honor or don’t honor, by the symbols and names we celebrate and don’t celebrate. If we want to reduce racism we have to elevate the symbols that signify the struggle against racism and devalue the symbols that signify its acceptance.
Lowering the Confederate battle flag from public properties is thus an easy call. There are plenty of ways to celebrate Southern heritage and Southern life without choosing one so enmeshed in the fight to preserve slavery.
The harder call concerns Robert E. Lee. Should schools and other facilities be named after the great Confederate general, or should his name be removed and replaced?
The case for Lee begins with his personal character. It is almost impossible to imagine a finer and more considerate gentleman.
As a general and public figure, he was a man of impeccable honesty, integrity and kindness. As a soldier, he displayed courage from the beginning of his career straight through to the end. Despite his blunders at Gettysburg and elsewhere he was by many accounts the most effective general in the Civil War and maybe in American history. One biographer, Michael Korda, writes, “His generosity of spirit, undiminished by ideological or political differences, and even by the divisive, bloody Civil War, shines through in every letter he writes, and in every conversation of his that was reported or remembered.”
As a family man, he was surprisingly relaxed and affectionate. We think of him as a man of marble, but he loved having his kids jump into bed with him and tickle his feet. With his wife’s loving cooperation, he could write witty and even saucy letters to other women. He was devout in his faith, a gifted watercolorist, a lover of animals and a charming conversationalist.
In theory, he opposed slavery, once calling it “a moral and political evil in any country.” He opposed Southern secession, calling it “silly” and a rash revolutionary act. Moreover we shouldn’t be overly guilty of the sin of “presentism,” judging historical figures by contemporary standards.
The case against Lee begins with the fact that he betrayed his oath to serve the United States. He didn’t need to do it. The late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor demonstrated that 40 percent of Virginia officers decided to remain with the Union forces, including members of Lee’s family.
As historian Allen Guelzo emailed me, “He withdrew from the Army and took up arms in a rebellion against the United States.” He could have at least sat out the war. But, Guelzo continues, “he raised his hand against the flag and government he had sworn to defend. This more than fulfills the constitutional definition of treason.”
More germane, while Lee may have opposed slavery in theory he did nothing to eliminate or reduce it in practice. On the contrary, if he’d been successful in the central task of his life, he would have preserved and prolonged it.
Like Lincoln, he did not believe blacks were yet capable of equality. Unlike Lincoln, he accepted the bondage of other human beings with bland complaisance. His wife inherited 196 slaves from her father. Her father’s will (somewhat impractically) said they were to be freed, but Lee didn’t free them.
Lee didn’t enjoy owning slaves, but he was considered a hard taskmaster and he did sell some, breaking up families. Moreover, he supported the institution of slavery as a pillar of Confederate life. He defended the right of Southerners to take their slaves to the Western territories. He fundamentally believed the existence of slavery was, at least for a time, God’s will.
Every generation has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture. We do that, in part, through expressions of admiration and disdain. Given our history, it seems right to aggressively go the extra mile to show that prejudice is simply unacceptable, no matter how fine a person might otherwise be.
My own view is that we should preserve most Confederate memorials out of respect for the common soldiers. We should keep Lee’s name on institutions that reflect postwar service, like Washington and Lee University, where he was president. But we should remove Lee’s name from most schools, roads and other institutions, where the name could be seen as acceptance of what he did and stood for during the war.
This is not about rewriting history. It’s about shaping the culture going forward.