I have written several versions of an essay on my feelings concerning the issue of the removal of Confederate monuments and statues, and I am never satisfied that I have expressed myself well, or even accurately. My words sometimes fail me when my emotions are involved.
I see this as a very complex issue. Slavery, Jim Crow, oppression, race-baiting, racial identity, Daughters of the Confederacy, artistic merit, current politics, Nazis . . . it goes on and on. Even with a Masters in Military History, I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps I will try this approach–States’ Rights, and some words from General Lee. These are two things I know to be dear to southern hearts.
During the Civil War the Confederate States claimed they were fighting for the right of individual states to make governmental decisions for themselves, including the right to own other people. They wanted no Federal interference in the expression of these rights, and felt that the election of Abraham Lincoln threatened to encroach upon this in some manner. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, southern slaveholding states chose to secede from the Union rather than seek compromise or take Lincoln at his word. “There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension,” he said in his First Inaugural Address before quoting a sentiment “found in nearly all the published speeches” he’d given up to that point:
I declare that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [i]
Although Lincoln was clear about exactly which right he was being called to task about, Lost Cause proponents have, over the last 150 + years, muddied a variety of waters until there is now a concern about just how far the rights of a state can go, and when are Federal concerns pressing upon this political line.
More directly, today–when it comes to the removal of statues and monuments to the Confederacy–just who is asking–demanding–the removal of these offensive-to-many marble and metal monstrosities? NOT the Federal governmental. They are being removed because the people who live next to them have found their voices and are demanding that they go. States are voting to remove these structures, cities are voting, local councils are arranging to remove these outdated icons of white supremacy. The Federal government has backed off to the extent that the current President does not even know what to say, or when to say it. I see this local decision making as States’ Rights writ large.
No less a personage than Robert E. Lee thought the statues were a bad idea in the first place:
And yet . . . many in the former confederation of seceded states can’t stand it. Some are even appealing to the Federal government to protect their right to bait people of color with statues of idols like Nathan Bedford Forrest [ii], Jubal Early [iii], and Unknown Southern Soldiers [iv]. Funny how States’ Rights can turn around and bite back just when least expected. The states, the cities, the neighborhoods have spoken, and this is what they say. “Get rid of the statues.” Local government, folks. Local government.
Is it not time to remove the offending statues that are keeping open the sores of a war that supposedly ended over 150 years ago? It is, at least, a beginning toward some sort of reconciliation. If we do not begin an honest conversation among our citizens, we will never move forward. We need to stop blaming the press, academic historians, and liberals. The fight for the rights of smaller political entities like cities, townships, and yes–states– has had an unexpected result. We should not celebrate the ugliness of our nation’s past. Rather we should listen to the voices of the people who have reaped the rewards of smaller government and local control and pull these icons down.
[i] Abraham Lincoln, “Inaugural Address of the President of the United States on the Fourth of March, 1861,” Senate, Ex. Doc No. 1, ordered to be printed March 8, 1861 (https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/01264_0.pdf).