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Why Robert E. Lee’s Character Is Irrelevant

Character traits like humility and piety don’t change the fact that Lee fought to preserve slavery.

The Robert E. Lee Statue in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo: Tom Saunders)

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Defenders of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville want you to take a comprehensive view of history. If you would only educate yourself about Lee, they urge, you’d want his statue on your own front lawn. “I will readily admit to having a soft spot for Robert E. Lee,” writes Nicholas Waddy in the Daily Caller, describing the Confederate general as “the consummate Southern gentleman, a pious Christian, and a model of dignity, perseverance, loyalty, humility, and gallantry.”

Lee should be remembered for being a driving force for reconciliation after the Civil War, Waddy argues: “Indeed, he dedicated the rest of his life to putting back together a nation that had only recently been torn asunder.” Echoing such sentiments, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, forwarded an email last week insisting that Lee was a “great man.”

For those seeking to remove the Lee statue, it’s tempting to engage in counter-arguments. In a piece in The Atlantic entitled “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” for example, Adam Serwer lays out the evidence that Lee was very much a racist, cruel slave owner and an opponent of equal rights for Black people after the war. “To the extent that Lee believed in reconciliation, it was between white people, and only on the precondition that black people would be denied political power and therefore the ability to shape their own fate,” Serwer writes.

The fact that a debate over Lee’s character is occurring at all, however, is the result of clever posturing by conservatives. In considering whether to keep or remove the Lee statue and others like it, the critical question is not whether Lee was a good man, a brilliant general or a “model of dignity.” Nor does it matter whether he was an important voice for reconciliation after the war. Such questions might be debatable, but they are also irrelevant.

Regardless of whether you find Waddy’s praise of Lee compelling or nauseating, none of it should weigh heavily in the decision to keep or remove the statue. We could concede everything he claims — for the sake of discussion, assume Lee was the most humble, gallant and benevolent general to ever raise a sword — but that does not change the fact that glorification of Lee and the Confederacy has been a primary means of asserting racial animus and white supremacy for well over a century.

Talk all you want about “Southern heritage” and the “noble” qualities of Lee, but those who see his statues as representing oppression and injustice are not imagining things. Even if we accept the common claim that Lee fought for the South, at least in part, out of his loyalty to Virginia or belief in states’ rights, the central dispute underlying the Civil War was slavery — the notion of owning other humans based on the premise of racial inferiority. His legacy cannot escape that truth, regardless of his other character traits, good or bad.

It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of Confederate monuments were erected during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, when white supremacy was being asserted visibly and aggressively in the culture of the South. This only validates the view that monuments to Lee are accurately understood as invidious symbols of racism. Such perceptions are not exaggerated or unreasonable.

Considered more fully, the position defending the Lee statue reeks with conservative hypocrisy. This is the same political demographic that rarely shows interest in a comprehensive assessment of history in other contexts. Ask a conservative to justify the Vietnam War, for example, and you’ll hear talking points about the Domino Theory and the need to fight for freedom and democracy. What you won’t hear is a more comprehensive historical summary, which reveals that the United States actually obstructed democracy in Vietnam for years. Writing in 1963, Dwight D. Eisenhower admitted the uncomfortable truth about Vietnam: “It was generally conceded that had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier.”

Vietnam is just one example. Avoidance of historical context is a deeply ingrained habit for those who would defend the worst aspects of American policy, from military adventurism abroad to the racial injustice of mass incarceration at home. Whether the topic is the nation’s hostility toward Cuba, its unseemly alliance with the repressive Saudi regime, or its support for brutal right-wing dictators all over the world, historical myopia is a prerequisite to the conservative position. A fair assessment would reveal contempt for the high-minded principles that the nation supposedly espouses, with corporate profits — not noble ideals — dictating policy.

Indeed, it seems that broad context is vitally important to conservatives only when it is least relevant. After all, nobody looks at a statue of Lee to gain a comprehensive knowledge of the man — there are biographies and history books for that. Statues, like most works of art, are displayed for visual appeal, usually with the goal of eliciting an immediate response that is rooted more in emotion than in lengthy rational deliberation. Yet suddenly, when talk of removing Lee statues gains traction, we are asked to consider historical context broadly.

Public displays, generally speaking, should reflect a consensus that the person depicted represents an idea or cause worthy of honor and respect. This makes Waddy’s position especially puzzling. Waddy is directing a statement toward contemporary Black communities that is both insensitive and absurd: Yes, I understand that in your eyes Lee represents the enslavement and oppression of your ancestors, but you should consider him in a broader, historical context. If you do, you’ll see that he was otherwise a really great guy….

There are no doubt many like Waddy who have a “soft spot” for Lee, who feel that the defeated general deserves a place in the pantheon of great Americans, but regardless of their arguments about his character, Lee will always stand for the Confederacy and the slavery upon which the Confederacy was founded. Lee’s admirers are free to honor him in their own way, in their private clubs, their homes, or even their churches if they wish. But they must accept that many Americans don’t share their sentiments, believing instead that public honor should not run to a man who led the fight for the right of white people to own Black people.

None of this means that unanimity should be the standard for erecting or maintaining public monuments — if it were, we would have no statues at all on our town squares. But to be deserving of a place of public honor, surely an individual must not represent, in the eyes of enormous segments of the population, the defense of enslavement. That is exactly what statues of Lee represent, regardless of his character otherwise.

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