Robt E. Lee
On Saturday, August 12th a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA to protest the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee descended into chaos and violence. The protestors were an amalgam of extreme right-wing nuts including skinheads, Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klanners so the violence was preordained. They were met by counter-protesters equally prepared for combat. So there was combat and one death when one of Neo-Nazi nuts decided to use his car as a lethal weapon.
It is sad that all this hate and violence was about a statue of General Lee who I have always considered to be a good man in a bad position. Lee came from a prominent Virginia family that had fallen on hard times. He graduated from West Point and was an officer in the US Army for 32 years. He was a founder of St. Marks Episcopal Church in San Antonio where we went to church for many years. He was an engineer and mapmaker just like my great granddaddy and they were both officers in the Confederate Army. He also gave a speech from my great granddaddy’s porch in 1869. So I have always had an affinity for the General but he chose unwisely when he resigned his commission and joined the South. My great granddaddy made the same unwise choice but back then the country was still young and many people's loyalty was to their state and not the nation.
It is hard for us here in the twenty-first century to think in nineteenth century terms. Slavery had been common throughout recorded history. The Bible and the Quran accept the condition of slavery although they both provide guidelines on the proper treatment of slaves. Ancient agriculture was vey labor intensive such that large numbers of slaves were economically necessary. But in the nineteenth century things were beginning to change.
Many people, including some slaveholders, came to see this practice as morally repugnant. Slavery is not compatible with Western Enlightenment philosophy as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. All men (and women) are created equal. Equal in rights and they should be equal in opportunity. There was a growing movement of people and groups opposed to the institution of slavery in the United States, especially in the North.
In addition, the economic progress brought on by the Industrial Revolution reduced the economic incentive of slavery. In 1800 83% of the US population was engaged in agriculture. By the eve of the Civil War in 1860 this percentage was down to 53%. Now it is 2%. Thanks to mechanization, slavery would soon make less and less sense. The only slavery that still exists in the Western world is the sex trafficking of people because of the illegal profits it generates.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both slaveholders and, while they knew that this practice must be eliminated, they both had difficulty extricating themselves from owning slaves. George Washington freed his slaves on his death but not those owned by his wife, Martha. Jefferson proposed several plans to eliminate slavery in the new nation but nothing came to fruition.
People live out their lives in confusion about the events swirling around them, a fog that only becomes clear with the passage of time. Just as we lack perspective on the events going around us, so our ancestors also suffered from a lack of perspective. What we now see as clear pathways they saw as blind alleys and dead-ends.
But just because it is difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of nineteenth century plantation owners and understand the quandary that slavery presented to them does not mean we should glorify this past. Our current age is built on the discoveries and mistakes of past eras. But they are eras in and of the past and we, with our hard won knowledge, cannot afford to go back in time to a more primitive era. The antebellum South may have been a paradise for wealthy planters but it was hell on earth for many others. It is time to take the Confederate statues down. Put them in museums so that we do not forget our past but do not present them as symbols of something admirable. Their only redeeming value is not for the past they represent but for insight into the mindset of the people that put these statues on display and those that seek to keep them on display. I respect my southern heritage but I am glad the North won the Civil War.