Allen Guelzo Asks: “Did Robert E. Lee Commit Treason?”

Robert E. Lee

Allen Guelzo is writing a biography of Robert E. Lee.  This is the first thing I have seen him publish on the topic.  Here are the main points of Guelzo’s argument in “Did Robert E. Lee Commit Treason?” at Athenaeum Review:

  1.  “The Constitution’s definition of treason is a very narrow one
  2.   “Lee would have to be tried in the jurisdiction where the treason occurred
  3.  “The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, would not co-operate”
  4.  “Lee’s own self defense.”

And Guelzo concludes:

In the end, one has to say, purely on the merits, that Lee did indeed commit treason, as defined by the Constitution. But the plausibility of his defense introduces hesitations and mitigations which no jury in 1865—even Underwood’s “packed jury”—could brush by easily. That, combined with the reluctance of Ulysses Grant and Salmon Chase to countenance a treason trial for Lee, makes it extremely unlikely that a guilty verdict would ever have been reached. But the jury which might have tried him was never called into being, and without a trial by a jury of his peers, not even the most acute of historical observers is really free to pass judgment on the crime of Robert E. Lee. Yet the question remains far from academic. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of global communications and cultural fluidity, the notion of treason has acquired an antique feel, not unlike medieval notions of honor or feudal loyalty. To the extent that global communications, mass migration, and instant universal commerce render national boundaries more and more meaningless, can modern individuals be held to the standard of absolute loyalty to a single political entity? “Citizenship does not free a man from the burdens of moral reasoning,” writes legal philosopher A. John Simmons. “The citizen’s job” is not to absorb obligations to the nation-state and “to blithely discharge it in his haste to avoid the responsibility of weighing it against competing moral claims on his action. For surely a nation composed of such ‘dutiful citizens’ would be the cruellest sort of trap for the poor, the oppressed, and the alienated.” Moreover, the assertion of the existence of international standards of human rights runs in direct conflict with how states regard, and are allowed to regard, the disloyal behavior of their nationals. Nor is this merely an exercise of left-internationalism; for many libertarians, treason loses the taint of moral betrayal and becomes a mechanism by which an all-powerful State prevents “dangers to its own contentment.” As it is, the Constitutional definition itself is so narrow that convictions for what might be considered treasonable offenses are prosecuted instead under the 1917 Espionage Act. But to deny that treason can occur, or that citizens can be held culpable for it, is to deny that communities can suffer betrayal to the point where their very existence is jeopardized.

Read the entire piece here.

A Retired Army General Trashes His Portrait of Robert E. Lee

Lee

Here is Stanley A. McChrystal:

On a Sunday morning in 2017 I took down his picture, and by afternoon it was in the alley with other rubbish awaiting transport to the local landfill for final burial. Hardly a hero’s end.

The painting had no monetary value; it was really just a print of an original overlaid with brushstrokes to appear authentic. But 40 years earlier it had been a gift from a young Army wife to her lieutenant husband when the $25 price (framed) required juggling other needs in our budget.

The dignified likeness of General Robert E. Lee in his Confederate Army uniform had been a prized possession of mine. I’d grown up not far from the Custis-Lee Mansion, and at West Point, Lee, the near-perfect cadet, Mexican War hero, academy superintendent, and, finally, the commander of the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, cast a long, ever-present shadow. Later, in Army quarters from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Fort Lewis, Washington, the painting reflected my fascination with leadership, and it spoke of duty and selfless service.

Although it was a portrait of a man, to many it evoked wider ideas and emotions. For like an object bathed in the light of the setting sun, Robert E. Lee’s shadow took on exaggerated size and grew steadily as America’s Civil War retreated ever further into the softer glow of history.

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

Washington and Lee University in the Wake of Charlottesville

Lee College

One might expect that Washington and Lee University, a school named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee, might respond to the tragic events of Charlottesville 2017 by removing Lee from its name or removing on-campus memorials to the Confederate general.  According to Susan Svrluga’s piece at The Washington Post, this has not happened.  But other things have changed.

Here is a taste:

In the days after the Charlottesville conflict, the new president of the private university in Lexington, Va., William Dudley, convened a group and asked it “to lead us in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it — shapes our community.”

As this school year began, Dudley announced the changes that would — and those that would not — take place on this storied campus, where traditions carry tremendous weight: The university will keep its name, Lee Chapel will remain an integral part of campus, and the school will find ways to tell its history more fully.

The school has begun a national search for a director of institutional history, a historian who will lead the design, construction and operation of a museum and oversee all of the school’s historical sites. The museum will be dedicated to the university’s many connections to American history. Dudley envisaged close collaborations with students and faculty members to create interactive exhibits, such as a campus walk, that would delve into lesser-known parts of the institution’s history — including the role of slavery.

The challenge for Washington and Lee was different from what other colleges confronted as they considered the fate of Confederate relics. Duke University removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee last year after it was vandalized. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protesters recently toppled a monument to alumni who fought for the Confederacy. At Washington and Lee, named for two generals who helped the school endure and thrive, “they aren’t just honorifics,” the school’s president said. Both men played important, direct roles. And Lee is buried on the grounds.

Read the entire piece here.

Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

Interior_of_St._Pauls_Episcopal_Church_Richmond_VA_2013_8759347988-e1443705658980

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Back in June, I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation led by court evangelical Robert Jeffress.  In that post I referenced Tobin Grant’s 2016 Religion News Service piece on the long history of racial segregation at First Baptist. Daniel Silliman’s piece at Religion Dispatches is also worth a look.

Here is the 150th anniversary video that the congregation has been promoting:

A few comments:

  1.  The narrative revolves around three authoritarian clergymen:  George Truett, W.A. Criswell, and Robert Jeffress.
  2. It says nothing about the fact that the Southern Baptist Church was formed because southern Baptists defended slavery and white supremacy.
  3. It says nothing about Truett’s and Criswell’s commitment to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
  4. It does include an image of Robert Jeffress with Donald Trump.  Let’s remember that Jeffress defended Trump last year after the POTUS equated white supremacists and those protesting against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, First Baptist-Dallas has whitewashed it.

I thought about this June 2018 post a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of teaching the Adult Faith Formation class at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, Virginia.  St. Paul’s occupies and amazing building in the heart of Richmond.  It is located across the street from the Virginia State Capitol and adjacent to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The church was founded in 1844.

During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s.   After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause.  It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

But unlike First Baptist-Dallas, St. Paul’s decided to come to grips with its racist past.  In 2015, the church began its “History and Reconciliation Initiative” (HRI) with the goal of tracing and acknowledging the racial history of the congregation in order to “repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God each other and the broader community.”  I encourage you to visit the HRI website to read more about the way St. Paul’s is trying to come to grips with the darker sides of its past.

Public historian Christopher Graham, who co-chairs the HRI when he is not curating an exhibit at The American Civil War Museum, invited me to Richmond to speak.  He is doing some amazing work at the intersection of public history and religion.

When I think about St. Paul’s, I am reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”  It is also refreshing to see the words “repair” and “restore” used in conjunction with the word “reconciliation” instead of “Christian America.”

Southern Baptists, and American evangelicals more broadly, may immediately conclude that they have little in common theologically with St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond and can thus dismiss the congregation’s history-related efforts as just another social justice project propagated by theological liberals.  But this would be a shame.  They can learn a lot from this congregation about how to take a deep and honest look into the mirror of the past.

Did Robert E. Lee Commit Treason?

Award-winning Civil War historian Allen Guelzo is writing a biography of Robert E. Lee.  We get a taste of what he might say in his book through this lecture:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/262056399″>&quot;Did Robert E. Lee Commit Treason?&quot; by Dr. Allen Guelzo, Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/wlunews”>Washington and Lee News</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Did Robert E. Lee *Really* Put State Over Country?

Robert E. Lee

Caleb McDaniel of Rice University takes on the John Kelly’s Civil War comments from a different angle. Most historians writing for the public have focused on Kelly’s suggestion that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.”  McDaniel addresses Kelly’s claim that Robert E. Lee “was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important country.”

As McDaniel writes in his recent piece at The Atlantic:

Kelly’s comments reflect a widespread misunderstanding of the power of nationalism in the antebellum era and the ways that loyalty to nation, rather than to state, had served slaveholders’ interests before the war. The notion that state loyalty was “always” stronger is a popular, if simplistic, interpretation of the conflict’s roots—one that’s been reinforced by Hollywood films, monuments to the Confederacy, and documentaries like Ken Burns’s Civil War.

He adds:

The truth is that Lee and his fellow slaveholders were ardent nationalists in the decades leading up to the Civil War, as the Princeton historian Matthew Karp described in his recent book This Vast Southern Empire. And no wonder: For most of its history, the nation had usually protected and served the interests of slaveholders. 

Read the entire piece here.

Thoughts on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

DHS Secretary John F. Kelly holds and ICE Town Hall

I am teaching the Civil War this semester.  In fact, I have class tonight.  I am thinking of starting the class with John Kelly’s recent claim that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.”

I watched the video of Kelly’s interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News.  In that video he said that “Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.”  He added, “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country.  It was always loyalty to state back in those days.  Now it’s different today.”  And then came this: “But the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

A few thoughts about Kelly’s remarks:

  1. Secession, and eventually civil war, occurred because the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 threatened a Southern way of life defined by chattel slavery and white supremacy.  Not convinced?  I invite you to read Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.  My students just finished it.
  2. Was Robert E. Lee an honorable man?  Perhaps.  I am sure that many in the South saw him as an honorable man because he was willing to join the Virginia secession movement and fight for the Southern way of life as described above.  “Loyalty to state” meant loyalty to slavery and white supremacy.  The loyalty Lee may have had to home, place, roots, family, or local community–all virtuous ideals in the abstract–was made possible by the wealth that came from slave labor.  For these reasons, Lee chose treason.
  3. Kelly is partially correct.  The Civil War did come about by a lack of compromise.  The South refused to compromise with northern Republicans like Lincoln who wanted to stop the spread of slavery.  At the start of the war Lincoln, an ardent unionist, would have gladly compromised with the Southern states where slavery already existed in order to keep the union together.  See, for example, his December 22, 1860 letter to Georgia Governor (and eventually Confederate V.P.) Alexander Stephens
  4. Kelly is also correct when he says that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” The men and women of the south made their stand because their conscience (which was informed by their understanding of Protestant Christianity) led them to believe that slavery and white supremacy was right.  Lincoln followed his conscience as well.  He believed the Union must be preserved.  Abolitionists followed their consciences too.  They believed that slavery was an abomination.
  5.  And let’s also remember, as historian David Blight has shown us, that “compromise” was what brought the Union back together after the Civil War.  This was a compromise that the Union made with white supremacists in the South.  A compromise that led to Jim Crow and segregation.

In the end, one cannot ignore the fact that Kelly has made these statements in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville.  (He actually plays the “both sides” card again, much like his boss had done in the days following the race rioting in Charlottesville).  In this sense, his remarks are more than just historical musings.  They send a clear political message.

Christ Church in Alexandria is a Church, Not a Museum

George_Washington_memorial_-_Christ_Church_(Alexandria,_Virginia)_-_DSC03516In case you have not heard, an Episcopalian church in Alexandria, Virginia is taking down a plaque memorializing George Washington.  When Christ Church opened in 1773, Washington owned a pew.  He attended the church whenever he was in town to conduct business.  It is located about nine miles from Mount Vernon. Washington also served as a vestryman in the church.

According to this piece in The Washington Times, Christ Church will also be removing a memorial marker dedicated to another famous parishioner: Robert E. Lee.

Here is a taste:

While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said in a letter to the congregation that went out last week.

The decision was also announced to parishioners on Sunday.

The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.

Read the entire piece here.

Let’s remember that Christ Church is a functioning congregation.  If the leadership of this congregation believe that people will be offended by commemorative material related to Washington or Lee, or if they believe that these plaques will somehow hinder the advancement of the Gospel in their midst, then the materials should definitely be removed from the sanctuary.  Finally, I am not sure political figures or military generals belong in a church sanctuary.  I would say the same thing about the American flag.

I am also glad to see that the church will be creating a separate space where the commemorative items can be explained and contextualized:

The new display location will be determined by a parish committee. That location will provide a place for our parish to offer a fuller narrative of our rich history, including the influence of these two powerful men on our church and our country,” she said in the email. “We look forward to this opportunity to continue to learn more about our own history and find new ways to introduce it to the wider community.

Read the statement from the Senior Warden of Christ Church here.

Do the Victors Really Write the Histories?

Lee

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Keenan Norris of Evergreen Valley College asks: If the victors write the histories, then why has the Confederate flag and monuments been around for so long?  It’s a great question.

Here is a taste of his piece: “To  Be Continued, or Who Lost the Civil War?”

The possibility that the victors do not necessarily write the histories is an interesting one. Today, histories and counter-histories and counters to the counter-histories can be found in most libraries and on the internet. Yet the basic truth that the victors enjoy the spoils and the heroic history books is supported, most obviously, by our historical record. Begin with the language of that record. The works of Herodotus and Livy, C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich are not written in the tongues of the defeated. We do not read about Hannibal’s valiant refusal to be a friend to Rome in his native Punic, nor about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolutionary cause in Haitian Creole, nor are Alexievich’s incredible interviews on Russia’s ongoing conflict with Chechen rebels conducted in Chechen. Moreover, the histories that have been legitimated by widely acclaimed literature and film — that have been canonized — have tended toward a heroic vision of the victors. Plutarch does not remember Alexander the Great as a bloodthirsty psychopath bent on successive genocides, nor does Gary Sinise portray Harry S. Truman as a simple-minded destroyer of worlds, though the subjugated histories of the raped, pillaged, and atom-bombed would probably have told a different tale about them.

The victors do, in fact, write the initial and most powerfully influential histories of every conflict, whether between warring armies or warring ideologies. And, when it comes to war, that history begins not with books or movies, but with the terms of peace treaties, the force of occupation, and the redrawing of borders.

Is the rebel flag an impotent symbol? Do the monuments maintained to the greatness of Confederate generals not hold persistent emotional power? There would be no petitions and no protests calling to bring those symbols down if that were the case. White supremacists and neo-Nazis would not be clashing with Antifa in pitched battles in broad daylight if no one cared. The #NoConfederate Twitter movement would not exist because the idea for an HBO show, which the Twitter movement protests, about the historical “what if” of a Confederate victory in the Civil War, would never have been considered potentially lucrative enough to bring to primetime in the first place, let alone to endure such a sustained negative public backlash if these symbols were just ugly gift-shop kitsch.

Read the entire piece here.

“If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox”

Grant-Lee

I recently reread humorist James Thurber’s classic piece, “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”  The blog of the Library of America (LOA) has posted it here.  It was originally published in the New Yorker in 1930 and got a second life thirty years later in A Thurber Carnival.

Here is some context from the LOA blog:

At the end of 1930 Scribner’s Magazine began publishing what would prove to be a short-lived series of “alternative history” pieces. The first installment, in the November issue, was “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln.” This was followed by a contribution from none other than Winston Churchill, who turned the concept on its head. It was bafflingly titled “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”—but, as we all know, Lee didn’t win the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, Churchill’s essay purported to be written by a historian in a world in which Lee had won not only the battle but also the entire war. This fictional historian, in turn, speculates what might have happened if Lee had not won the battle. This type of dizzying zaniness brought out the parodist in Thurber, who published “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” in The New Yorker in December. The next month Scribner’s published a third essay (“If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”) before bring the series to an end. All three pieces were soon forgotten, but Thurber’s parody became one of his most famous and beloved works. 

Three decades later “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” enjoyed a second life when it was included in the hit revue A Thurber Carnival. Virtually every review proclaimed it as one of the show’s highlights. During an interview, a reporter admitted to Thurber that “the Grant skit” was one of her favorite parts of the show. Thurber responded, “A woman said to me, ‘I don’t like the bastardization of history,’ That woman didn’t know the point of the thing and she didn’t know history. And I don’t like my humor to be called mild and gentle.” 

Read the 4-page piece here.  It is worth your time.

Why the Columbus Statues Should Stay

Columbus

I am in complete agreement with this piece by Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. (And it is not just because I am half Italian).  If we are going to make an argument against Robert E. Lee statues because of the Jim Crow context in which they were erected, then we can make an argument for Columbus statues based on the same principle–the meaning Italian-Americans gave to these statues at the time many of them were erected.  (I also blogged about this here).

A taste of Ruberto and Sciorra’s piece at Process:

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.

The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominentiimposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.

The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.

Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.

Read the entire piece here.

Can We Honor Robert E. Lee Apart from the Confederacy?

Lee University

Kevin Levin raises an interesting point.  In a recent talk a member of the audience asked him if it was possible to honor Robert E. Lee with a monument for his work as president of Washington and Lee University.

Here is a taste of Levin’s post at Civil War Memory:

One question in particular caught my attention. A graduate of Washington & Lee University asked if it was possible to commemorate Robert E. Lee today in the form of a monument that focused on his time as president of the college. Imagine Lee walking astride one or two students. Lee is in civilian clothing rather than military uniform and carrying a book. Could one be erected in 2017 on campus and if one were already present would people be justified in asking for its removal or relocation?

In other words, is it possible to commemorate Lee without acknowledging his service to the Confederacy?

I attempted to answer the question by drawing a distinction between before and after Charlottesville, but admitted that I am just not sure. What do you think?

A Metric to Help Us Decide if a Monument Should Stay or Go

Confederate_Monument_-_W_face_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and one of our leading public intellectuals, offers this metric:

  1. Was the person’s or cultural artifact’s historical impact exclusively focused on slavery and racism?
  2. Did the person insist on their support of segregation and racism even in the face of vigorous arguments otherwise?
  3. Is the monument an ever-present part of experience?

Read how he develops these points here.  There is much to commend here. But even if we accept the metrics that McWhorter proposes I imagine that there will still be debate over how to parse their phrasing.  For example, what defines an “ever-present part of experience?” What qualifies as “vigorous arguments otherwise?”

Eric Foner: Robert E. Lee’s “Legend” Needs to be “Retired”

211ba-lee-sitting

Yesterday’s New York Times is running a piece by Columbia University historian Eric Foner on the legacy of Robert E. Lee.  Foner’s focus is on how Lee became a “legend” in the minds of the post-Civil War South and how his “legend” became wound-up with the so-called Dunning School of Reconstruction.  This is classic Foner.

Here is a taste:

Historians in the first decades of the 20th century offered scholarly legitimacy to this interpretation of the past, which justified the abrogation of the constitutional rights of Southern black citizens. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning and his students portrayed the granting of black suffrage during Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. The Progressive historians — Charles Beard and his disciples — taught that politics reflected the clash of class interests, not ideological differences. The Civil War, Beard wrote, should be understood as a transfer of national power from an agricultural ruling class in the South to the industrial bourgeoisie of the North; he could tell the entire story without mentioning slavery except in a footnote. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of mostly Southern historians known as the revisionists went further, insisting that slavery was a benign institution that would have died out peacefully. A “blundering generation” of politicians had stumbled into a needless war. But the true villains, as in Lee’s 1856 letter, were the abolitionists, whose reckless agitation poisoned sectional relations. This interpretation dominated teaching throughout the country, and reached a mass audience through films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic depiction of slavery. The South, observers quipped, had lost the war but won the battle over its history.

As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

That same year, however, W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction in America,” a powerful challenge to the mythologies about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that historians had been purveying. Du Bois identified slavery as the fundamental cause of the war and emancipation as its most profound outcome. He portrayed the abolitionists as idealistic precursors of the 20th-century struggle for racial justice, and Reconstruction as a remarkable democratic experiment — the tragedy was not that it was attempted but that it failed. Most of all, Du Bois made clear that blacks were active participants in the era’s history, not simply a problem confronting white society. Ignored at the time by mainstream scholars, “Black Reconstruction” pointed the way to an enormous change in historical interpretation, rooted in the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and underpinned by the documentary record of the black experience ignored by earlier scholars. Today, Du Bois’s insights are taken for granted by most historians, although they have not fully penetrated the national culture.

Read the entire piece here.

The Confederate Monuments That Have Come Down

Lee_Removal

Robert E. Lee statue comes down in New Orleans

New York Magazine has a list here.

The list includes monuments in West Palm Beach (FL), Austin (TX), Ellicott City (MD), Worthington (OH), Durham (NC), New York (NY), Daytona Beach (FL), Helena (MT), Annapolis (MD), Madison (WI), Franklin (OH), Baltimore (MD), Los Angeles (CA), San Diego (CA), St. Petersburg (FL), Gainesville (FL), Rockville (MD), Orlando (FL), St. Louis (MO), New Orleans (LA), Frederick (MD), Louisville (KY), and Boone County (MO).

Robert Lee

LeeWe live in a very strange world.  I am sure by now you have heard about ESPN football announcer Robert Lee.  On Tuesday, ESPN decided to remove him from covering the season’s first University of Virginia football game because he shares a name with the Confederate general whose statue triggered racial violence in Charlottesville.  According to this piece at The Atlantic, ESPN wanted to protect their Robert Lee from “memes and jokes.”  I guess that didn’t work out very well.

So what about all the other people in the United States named Robert Lee?  Julie Beck is asking the same question.  Here is a taste:

Both Robert and Lee are extremely common names. According to the website HowManyofMe.com, which searches a database of U.S. Census data, there are 5,128,282 Roberts in the United States, 731,046 people with the last name Lee, and a whopping 11,518 Robert Lees…

Surely some of them were named explicitly for Robert E. Lee, but many—probably most—were not. Wattenberg says that there used to be many people named for General Lee, but nowadays, “homage names are just an endangered species.” If someone chooses to go by the full “Robert E. Lee,” you might reasonably presume that they are trying to play up the Confederate connection, Wattenberg says. But the sports broadcaster Robert Lee is Asian American, and “one knows that broadcaster is not from a family proud of its Confederate ancestry,” she says.

Lee is the 22nd most common last name in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the people who share it are a fairly diverse group. White people make up 40.1 percent of Lees, 37.8 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, 17.4 percent are black, 1.3 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are Native American.

One Robert Lee, who lives in San Francisco and works as a business analyst, didn’t fully understand the significance his name holds in the United States until he went to college. He lived in Hong Kong until he was 18, and then went to Brown University.

Read the entire piece here.

W.E.B. Du Bois on Robert E. Lee

Du Bois EssaysThanks to Kevin Levin for posting this on his excellent blog Civil War Memory.  DuBois’s thoughts on Lee were published in 1928.

Here is the entire short essay:

Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: “of course, he never fought for slavery.” Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.

Today we can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits not by falsifying his moral debacle, but by explaining it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. it is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.

The National Park Service Responds to Charlottesville

Arlington_House_front_view

In the days following the events at Charlottesville, the National Park Service made a change to its description of Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s pre-Civil War home that now looks over Arlington National Cemetery.  Here is a taste of Russell Berman’s piece at The Atlantic:

As of August 4, according to a cache of the page accessed through archive.org, the Park Service described the Lee Memorial this way:

The Robert E. Lee Memorial honors Lee’s military and public leadership in pre- and post-Civil War America. Congress designated the memorial to recognize that “the desire and hope of Robert E. Lee for peace and unity within our Nation has come to pass.” From the portico you can contemplate our nation’s fate as you gaze across the river that once divided us.

The language now is different. The description lessens the focus on the memorial as a celebration of Lee and places it in a slightly more neutral context. It makes a new reference to “the most difficult aspects of American history,” including slavery:

Arlington House is the nation’s memorial to Robert E. Lee. It honors him for specific reasons, including his role in promoting peace and reunion after the Civil War. In a larger sense it exists as a place of study and contemplation of the meaning of some of the most difficult aspects of American History: military service; sacrifice; citizenship; duty; loyalty; slavery and freedom.

In a statement, the Park Service acknowledged it made the change this week but did not directly attribute it to the events in Charlottesville and the ensuing public debate over Confederate memorials.

“It is our mission to provide historical context that reflects a fuller view of past events and the values under which they occurred, and the update was made in that spirit,” the Park Service said. “The National Park Service is committed to sharing our nation’s history inclusively and holistically, and we have elicited scholars’ advice on how to present, more completely, the experience of those who were enslaved at Arlington House. Their stories will be prominently featured when the rehabilitation of the house, slave quarters, gardens, and exhibits is complete.”

Read the rest here.

Monuments Present a “conflict that cannot be resolved”

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Should we rename this monument?

David Bell, a historian of revolutionary France who teaches at Princeton, offers some solid perspective on the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments.  He focuses particularly on Donald Trump’s remarks comparing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Here is a taste:

In the end, if we are to have any confidence in our own moral standards, we must believe that these standards are universally applicable, across time and space. And so, we must be ready to criticize figures in the past for attitudes and practices we consider abhorrent. If our moral standards are to have any meaning, then they don’t simply apply because we believe in them. They apply because they are right.

Yes, we also need to acknowledge that an overly rigid application of this principle would soon leave us with very little history to honor and celebrate, because few, if any, prominent figures of the past lived up to the moral standards of 21st-century Americans. Taken to the extreme, it would, indeed, mean tearing down the Washington Monument, and perhaps even the Lincoln Memorial.

But countries need their history. They need heroes and leaders to venerate, to inspire new generations, and to act as a source of unity. National unity can be a very fragile thing, as Americans today know all too well. Revolutionary movements have sometimes tried to consign their national pasts to the dustbin of history and to start over. The French revolutionaries famously introduced a new calendar, numbering the years from the birth of the French republic in 1792 and condemning nearly all of what came before as darkness, feudalism and superstition, unworthy of veneration. It didn’t work. Such attempts at erasure go against the deeply human need to feel a connection with the past.

The conflict, then, is one between two principles. On one hand, we should not honor people who did things and held beliefs that were morally objectionable. On the other, we need a common history we can take pride in as a nation. It is a conflict that cannot be resolved with cheap sound bites of the sort uttered by the president and his backers this week. They can be resolved only with careful, reasoned judgments, backed up by logic and evidence.

When it comes to particular figures in the past, such judgments involve, above all, looking carefully at their entire historical record. In the case of Washington, it involves weighing his role as a slave owner against his role as a heroic commander in chief, as an immensely popular political leader who resisted the temptation to become anything more than a republican chief executive, and who brought the country together around the new Constitution. Calhoun, by contrast, devoted his political career above all to the defense of slavery. The distinction between the two is not difficult to make.

Lee’s case is clear-cut. Whatever admirable personal qualities he may have had, he was also a man who took up arms against his country in defense of an evil institution. In my view, he doesn’t deserve to be honored in any fashion.

Read the entire piece here.  This is one the best short pieces I have read on this issue.