As statues of Confederate leaders fall one after another, in an atmosphere of bitter disunity and even hatred, it is useful to consider the historical context and the larger implications of this destruction. Let’s go back to when it all began.
There were two issues that were non-negotiable as far as the leadership of the Southern states were concerned and they were slavery and state’s rights. They saw those two issues as being inextricably entwined and indeed they were. State’s rights was a very real issue in itself and to understand it we must look at the very beginning of this nation.
Through the first 150 or more years of their existence, the 13 colonies were entirely separate entities, joined only by the sovereignty of the British government. The alliance they formed to overthrow that sovereignty was called The Articles of Confederation. Note the word “confederation.” It implies a voluntary association of equals and thus it was understood by the majority of colonial leaders.
The subsequent constitution not withstanding, many in the southern states held fast to the idea that, having entered voluntarily into the association of the United States, they ipso facto retained the right to leave that association. This is a contention that, in law, can be argued both ways. To take such a step however, there must be some advantage in sight that would outweigh the many obvious advantages of being a part of the vast political and economic sphere of a united nation and to the southern leadership there was; the maintenance of the system of slavery and the enormous financial investment therein.
State’s rights then, while a genuine legal issue in itself, was seized upon as a tool and an excuse. This is not mere historical theorizing but is documented fact. All one has to do is read the resolutions of secession passed by each of the southern legislatures. This is not difficult research. All this documentation is available on-line. These resolutions say clearly that the aspect of state’s rights they are primarily concerned with is the right to maintain slavery. There were other issues of course, such as the protective tariffs that supported northern industry while raising the cost of consumer goods for southern agriculturalists but make no mistake — slavery was the over-riding issue.
The South was defeated, slavery was ended, but racism was not ended. It continued to be symbolized by the innumerable memorials to Confederate leaders and practiced by legal segregation through the whole of the long era of Jim Crow. It continued on after that era. Racists established private “Christian” schools to combat the desegregation of public education. It continued and still continues in so many formal and informal ways we haven’t space to list them all. The attitude that “the South will rise again,” that old fashioned white supremacy will regain control is clung to by those whom we must term racists and fascists. Their hopes are symbolized by all those memorials and by the display of the Confederate flag.
Some argue that such symbols are about pride in local history and in men who fought bravely for a lost cause. That sounds very romantic but it doesn’t withstand the smell test.
The SS fought bravely for a lost cause but no one in Germany wants statues put up for them. The traitor Benedict Arnold fought bravely but even the British wouldn’t want a statue to him.
The simple fact is all those Confederate soldiers fought to preserve a way of life that was deeply immoral, inhumane and repulsive and moreover, was so by the standards of their own times. The anti-slavery literature of the pre-Civil War Era is voluminous and graphic. The British Empire had been trying to stamp out the slave trade for almost 50 years. Majority informed opinion in the entire western world was condemnatory of slavery. If we judge the slavers by the standards and context of their own era, they stand convicted.
What we have then, is a large number of memorials to people who stood for the right to hold onto a hideously cruel system that was discredited even in its own time. Seeing those memorials is a daily affront to citizens whose ancestors suffered unimaginably under that system and to all those of whatever race who reject the philosophy those southern leaders stood for.
As a general rule I am against the destruction of works of art – even ones of indifferent quality, lest we give way to modern Savanarola and have a new bonfire of the vanities.
Further, the destruction of such works of art raises some uncomfortable questions. What about memorials to the Vietnam War? That too is a discredited cause.
Will mobs now form calling for the destruction of “The Wall?” You see where this can lead and it isn’t a pretty place. The Civil War and its leaders are a part of our history and we can not change that by destroying statues. We can however, put them in historical context by removing them from places of honor and consigning them to museums. There they can be seen for what they are; not objects of veneration but rather reminders of a past we are still trying to overcome.