Controversy has recently surrounded the removal of a monument from its place in New Orleans and the plan to remove three more monuments from their places of honor in that city. In case you’ve missed the reports, the monument removed commemorated a white-supremacist group called the White League for a street battle it fought in 1874 to overthrow the racially mixed government of the state of Louisiana. The three monuments still slated for removal honor Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Pierre G. T. Beauregard and Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Opponents of the removal complain that it amounts to “erasing history.” The charge conjures up visions of Orwellian fiction or Stalinist reality in which the story of the past is changed and people or events are removed from public awareness so that future generations do not know of their existence. That is not what is happening in New Orleans. Monuments do not teach us history. Books do that. Monuments teach us whom to honor. They don’t tell us the story of what happened. They tell us what we should believe about the rights and wrongs of that story.
The four monuments in New Orleans honor men for fighting in the cause of slavery and white supremacy. Yes, the Civil War was about slavery. Slavery–not state rights, not the tariff, not economic oppression–was what the country had argued about throughout the 1850s, and slavery was the cause the southern states gave in their secession declarations in December 1860 and January and February 1861. In March 1861, Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, in a public speech, announced that the new Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery–subordination to the superior race–is his natural and normal condition.” The men whose statues now stand on pedestals in New Orleans no doubt wished slavery could be preserved without secession and civil war, but they proved willing to accept both if that’s what it took. They should not be honored for that.
Some charge that if we remove monuments to Davis, Lee, Beauregard, and the White League we ought also to remove monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, because they owned slaves. That doesn’t follow. Washington and Jefferson did not fight for slavery. Slavery was not at issue in their conflict. We recognize that they owned slaves and that it was a fault in them. We don’t honor them for that but in spite of it. Their great public services are worthy of honor, despite their faults. On the other hand, if there had been no Civil War, no slaveholders’ rebellion, there would be no monuments to Davis, Lee, Beauregard, and the White League. To have monuments to them is to honor their roles in fighting for slavery and white supremacy. There was nothing they did before or after the war that would have gained them monuments.
Some argue that the Lee monument was meant to honor his (often exaggerated) postwar efforts toward reconciliation. If that’s the case, why is he represented on the monument in Confederate uniform? And what services put Beauregard’s stone likeness up on a pedestal in New Orleans, depicted on horseback and in uniform? Was it his post-war job of presiding over the drawings of the Louisiana lottery? As for the White League, we all know how it got its monument. The inscription on the monument itself makes that plain.
Davis, Lee, and Beauregard all had good traits. Lee especially has excited much admiration in the century and a half since the war ended, and I find much in him that is admirable. Nevertheless, the great event in his life, and in the lives of the other two, the source of his and their fame, is one in which each of them made a terribly wrong moral decision and fought for the wrong side. There are better persons–including better southerners, better Virginians–for us to honor. I’m not crusading to take down every misguided monument across this country, but if local citizens find some of those misguided monuments offensive, I see no reason they should not have those monuments removed and stored in some place where they will not receive honor. Their subjects will still be in the history books, and that’s the place we ought to learn to understand their actions.