How Lee and Washington Are Different: A Response to Trump’s Comments

“This week, it is Robert E. Lee,” President Trump said in a statement today about the statue in Charlottesville that led to protests there. “Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner. How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK good. Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner….You’re changing history.”

So, let’s think through the points Trump raised. I’m going to ask some questions and offer some thoughts on them, but remember, I’m not an expert. I’m an average Christian young woman who likes to promote gracious conversations on difficult topics. So let’s have at it, because I’m convinced that yelling and being angry won’t actually change anything, but engaging with ideas in a thoughtful way can and has.

Part One: What Are Statues For?

Most of the conversation about Charlottesville have focused on the violence and the hate groups, and rightly so. But a friend from college asked what I thought about the issue itself, stripped of everything that happened afterward: should Lee’s statue have been removed?

I listed Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee as my two favorite historical figures in eighth grade, mainly because even then I liked complexity. (Also possibly because I liked making people raise their eyebrows in surprise. It’s a problem.) Those two figures, the sides they represent, the conflict that follows…all very complex.

But, the thing is: statues are not complex. Statues say, “We celebrate this person and their actions.” They don’t have context, and they can’t convey nuance in a helpful dialogue. All they do is represent our values in metal and stone. That’s what we understand them to be as a culture.

I understand why people decided to remove Lee’s statue: because he gave marching orders to a group that would rather leave the Union than be told they had to free their slaves.

I see you there, Civil War buffs—yes, there are many things to consider, like economics and states’ rights and lots of fine print about motive and who shot first, but Lee and the Confederate flag are now indelibly associated with what they fought for and against, and I think that’s fair.

Part Two: Are We Changing History? If So, Is That Bad?

Trump and many others say that removing Lee’s statue is a denial of history, peer pressure by the left to be politically correct. Okay. I get that. Maybe that’s part of what’s going on, and it’s fine to dislike a culture that is easily offended.

But I think there’s a double-standard at play. Think about this: who have we decided, in America, is worthy of honor? Whose faces are on our currency, in our textbooks, mounted on plaques and busts and statues around our country?

A lot of white slaveholders…and very few men and women of color. We didn’t have to take down their statues to change history, because we never put them up.

I know that I’m now living in a time where this is the open-minded and “cool” opinion to have. If you’re skeptical, I get that. Just hear me out.

History is not objective. Never has been. We create it by what we put in, what we leave out, and the language we use, like a cinematographer creating mood and meaning through the light and angle of film shots. History changes, and when it does, that doesn’t mean it’s a shift from something inherently true to something false. It’s usually just that a different system, bias, or value is arranging and presenting the facts.

We’ve changed a lot of history, and things like Black History Month are a marginalized group trying to write important figures and events back in. In removing Lee’s statue, people are trying to stop the glorification of the Confederacy and what it was like, just like protests against Columbus Day are meant to challenge whether we should see ol’ Christopher as an explorer or exploiter. No matter what side you take, this is the natural process of recording history. You have to make value judgments along the way.

Here’s where I disagree with Trump that Washington could be next. I’m not suggesting we take Washington off the quarter, partly because his public achievements deserve celebration…and partly because we still associate him with those things and not the slaves he kept. To most of us, Washington means freedom and revolution and the Constitution. I think it’s important to note in books and classes that his rhetoric didn’t line up with his actions, but to us, Washington still stands for the ideals of justice and equality.

In contrast, Lee had solid personal character, but his public actions, the ones he’s most known for, aren’t worth celebrating, and he is deeply associated with oppression and evil.

In a simplistic way, Trump’s off-hand question, “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?” is actually relevant to whether or not we should use Jefferson as a symbol of our country. When it comes to memorials and other symbols, perception matters. If it’s not the only thing, it’s the main thing—what most people think of when they see a symbol determines its meaning.* That’s why the cross no longer means “an instrument of Roman torture” but “a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ” for example.

Part Three: Who Decides to Take Down Statues?

If representatives of a city or state decide, by listening to their constituents, that they want to make a value statement by replacing Lee Park with Emancipation Park, then that’s the exercise of democracy. If another group wants to peacefully protest, that’s also democracy. What actually happened at the protest was not democracy—it was hate and lawlessness. Mobs yanking down or demolishing Confederate monuments and statues are also examples of lawlessness. Both are examples of the occasional price sinful people demand from America for allowing freedom of expression and assembly.

But beyond the technical, tricky questions: “Emancipation.” That’s what the park in Charlottesville is now called. I don’t care what party you claim or who you voted for…isn’t that beautiful? That what we choose to celebrate is a moment of turning from evil and toward justice and freedom?

It was a long turning. Actually, it’s not over yet. Which is why what we celebrate and memorialize matters so much. That’s what will take the next generation from where we’ve been to where we’re going.

I love General Lee. His story is beautiful to me because it is hard, and I will memorialize him with my words, here and other places, because he was a good man facing an impossible choice, and because I can’t say with certainty what I would have done in his place.

But he chose the wrong side. No, the Civil War and its causes were not simple, and most of the North was just as racist as their brothers to the south. Still, when we evaluate the relative good or bad of large groups, we have to make a judgment somewhere. Based on my reading through the prophets and the way God judges the nations, including his own chosen people, I think the degree that they move toward justice and righteousness seems like a good criteria, and by defending the institution of slavery, the Confederacy did not do that.

Our actions have consequences. Lee, deciding whether to accept command of the Confederate army when he felt slavery was “a moral and political evil” and secession “anarchy,” understood that—felt that—more than most of us ever will. History’s judgment of Lee will go in and out, up and down, imperfectly deciding what to say about him. We’re trying to create meaning, trying to aim our country in the right direction, trying to say true things to our children.

Maybe Charlottesville got it wrong, but I don’t think so.

In the end, it’s not possible to separate the removal of Lee’s statue from the KKK and violence that followed. Academically, they’re two separate questions. Racism and hatred are pure evil and should always be denounced and decried, whereas I could make a case either way for whether Lee should continue to preside over a park named after him.

But they’re not entirely separate in practice. Symbols have deep emotional meaning and often lead to actions.

Simple things often get accused of being oversimplification, but I’m going to risk it here.

When asked what you think about the public display of symbols of the Confederacy, think about this: what do you want to celebrate?

 

*Stuffy Sociological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: Another example: people were furious when an image floated around the Internet showing a can with “Share a Coke with ISIS.” Turns out, that can was available in Egypt the year before the terrorist group became well known, where Isis is a common female name. In Egypt, Isis meant one thing. In America, ISIS meant another. It takes time and distance for us to get rid of those associations. If America lasts another few centuries, maybe then racism will be disassociated from Lee. Maybe. But I don’t think so, because the association has nowhere else to go. We are drawn towards symbols and representative figureheads as a society, whether it’s team logos and mascots or the flag and the president. Slavery was such a defining event that it has to be symbolized somehow. The Confederate flag and leaders have absorbed that association, just like the swastika and Hitler absorbed theirs. It’s arguable that Hitler deserved it more, but the effect is still the same.

6 comments

  1. Excellent thoughts. General Lee and Stonewall Jackson are actually two of my favorite historical figures, for the reasons you mentioned– they lived honorable personal lives, and in their shoes, I might have made the same decisions. The movie Gods and Generals helped me see that a lot of the Confederate soldiers and generals weren’t fighting for slavery, they were fighting for their homes, their families, and their livelihoods. If I were a Southern woman during the Civil War, I can’t say which side I would’ve chosen.
    Fortunately, there are many statues of Lee left standing elsewhere, and we’ll remember him, with or without this statue.
    But I’m glad we’re also celebrating freedom and unity. Thanks for giving me some great things to consider!

    1. Agreed! It’s always interesting for me to note the (near) total blindness they had to the biggest moral issue of their time despite their honorable personal lives. Makes me consider what issues those might be today in the American church. Thanks for reading and joining in the conversation!

  2. Amy,

    I appreciate your acknowledgement of the complexities of this issue and enjoyed your reflections on this topic even if I ultimately land on a different side of the issue. They were well-written and thoroughly engaging.

    Out of curiosity, have you seen Matt Walsh’s videos regarding this topic on his Facebook page (here is part 1: https://www.facebook.com/MattWalshBlog/videos/1657834797582957/) in which he primarily addresses the serious problem of mob rule and pressure being the deciding factor in monuments being torn down?

    I have always gone back and forth on this topic as a Christian and a Southerner and respect positions on all sides and continue to evaluate my beliefs and views on the biblical, moral, and legal/constitutional elements inherent in this conversation. Ultimately, I think Walsh’s arguments, among others, are the most compelling.

    In Christ,

    Eric

    1. Hi Eric!

      I think Walsh’s videos are a good explanation of a position that isn’t the exact opposite of mine, but comes to different conclusion. I’ve only had the chance to listen to the first one so far, but I plan to go back and listen to the second.

      Totally agree that mob rule and tearing down statues is a bad idea. I also agree that a reasonable person can take either side of this issue and that monuments should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I didn’t say this in the post, but for monuments in museums and historical sites and any other place where the purpose is to educate and inform…I don’t think you can make a good case for removing them. But from there, there are a lot of logical issues I had with his argument and consistency in his reasoning.

      Here’s just one: The most significant objective effect of the Civil War was to re-unite the Union and end slavery. Yet Walsh says that because almost everyone involved saw the fight as one for states’ rights, that’s what it was about. That was the significance. Okay. I can see that. But if that’s the logic Walsh wants to use, then I could say in the same way: a possible objective effect of the Lee monument in Charlottesville was to honor a great general in history. But most people looking at it see it as a monument for the complex-but-deeply-tainted cause he fought for, so that’s what it’s about. That’s its significance. (I haven’t had time to think this through extensively, but I feel like that’s a fair one-to-one application of that line of reasoning.)

      Walsh calls Lee an “honorable, brave Christian man” and “honest, brave, a great man, one of the greatest generals in history,” and he was. Sort of. But he was also blind to the major moral issue of his time—the abuse of a race in every way possible, from the destruction of families to sexual and physical abuse, with consequences that remain to this day. (I say blind because Lee said it was evil in personal correspondence, and he mainly focused on the effects it had on white masters.) And he fought for the side associated with that evil. That seems to be to be more than a “proximity to slavery.”

      I’m also not sure I believe a racist of the 1800s is less morally culpable than one today, even though Walsh repeatedly said we all believe that. It’s kind of like saying that even though most people, even Christians, today are driven by commercialism/materialism, that we’re less morally culpable for that sin than people who lived in Little House on the Prairie days when advertising and access to commercial goods was more limited for most people. Nope. I don’t think that. Walsh said that people like me would have to conclude, “Then, they were all scumbags.” Well, yes. That’s my worldview. So no issues there.

      I don’t think it follows from that, though, that we should tear down all monuments of racist people, but that’s a whole different explanation that I started to write out (and addressed briefly in this post), but it got too long so I’m not going to say it all.

      BUT, after all that, I do think that, in the absence of Christian values in our culture, we are going to continue to see a rise of lawlessness. People who think they are fighting evil will do so with more evil. That’s a pretty scary thought.

      Thanks for contributing to thoughtful, nuanced conversation on the Internet, Eric! This is and should be the way issues should be discussed. We’d have a lot less chaos and disunity in the church if everything went down this way.

  3. This is a pretty complicated issue and you did a good job of writing about it.  

    I’m not entirely sure I agree, though.  I don’t know what the monument actually says, so it’s hard to give my exact thoughts.  But I partially see monuments as remembering something that happened, not always a way to celebrate someone or something.  Every nation and culture has dark things about it, so I think instead of hiding it or villainizing a country because of it, we should change how we discuss these issues.  When it comes to Columbus, for instance, we  should acknowledge that he was both an explorer AND someone who’s questionable actions led to the deaths of many people, because both those things are true.  We can have Columbus day be a time to remember that duality and use it to show children how and why things like that occur in history.  It can also be a day where we teach children that horrible things exist in every culture’s past, but we have the opportunity to come together and make our current nation better, rather than spending our energy hating Columbus or white people or rich people or republicans or democrats or whoever we want to blame.  As of now, to me, Columbus Day hasn’t ever been a time to celebrate the bad things that happened back then, but to appreciate that we’re here, but also to hate the bad things that happened after Columbus’ discovery.

    As far as the Robert E Lee thing…  I think it’s really sad that he is being regarded the way he is if he truly did hate slavery.  When it comes to this, truth matters just as much as perception, and I wish the monument could remain but be changed to discuss Robert E Lee’s beliefs and tough choice rather than just saying he led the south or whatever.  

    And maybe rename the park Civil War park.  Maybe continue to rename it the Emancipation park.  Maybe change the plaque in front of Robert E Lee’s statue.  Add more statues around the park that commemorate civil war heroes that fought to free slaves, that way it isn’t only about Lee.  If I had kids then I would welcome such changes to the monument, because it would provide a chance to talk about such issues and get them thinking about Lee’s situation, and maybe how they could have done better if they were in his shoes.

    If a city decides to take a monument down and the majority of the town agrees, I think that’s ok, but I don’t know if people’s reactions to these issues are as healthy as they should be, especially considering how angry and violent both sides are apparently getting.

    1. Hi Autumn! Thanks for joining in the conversation! I should clarify that I think the line of reasoning in this post doesn’t apply to monuments of Lee, say, in a museum, at a battlefield, or at a site associated with him like a birthplace or college. For those, the point is to educate and inform. If a random city builds a park and names it after someone, to me, that crosses a line between saying, “this person is important and we want to learn about him” to saying “this person symbolizes something we value.” There’s a perfectly good case for disagreeing with that, but that’s where I stand.

      Also…Lee didn’t really hate slavery. He was 100% convinced black people were inferior (as were most people at the time), but felt slavery was inevitable and that it probably did bad things to the masters’ souls. (He called it evil in private correspondence mostly because of what it does to white people, but he did inherit slaves and participate in ethically wrong practices toward them before freeing them.) See what I mean? Complicated.

      And yes, everyone’s getting angry and violent. I think one weakness I have (and that others share) is that I want to believe that everyone opposing evil will do so in a good way (like MLK Jr.)…but that’s not what’s happening. In some cases, evil (even a “lesser evil”) is being used to oppose evil, and that makes it hard for Christians especially to know how to respond.

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