Char­lottes­ville was right to want to re­move a statue li­on­iz­ing a traitor

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY JONATHAN HEN­NESSEY Jonathan Hen­nessey is author of “The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion: A Graphic Adap­ta­tion” and “The Get­tys­burg Ad­dress: A Graphic Adap­ta­tion.”

The Char­lottes­ville City Coun­cil nar­rowly voted this month to re­move a nearly cen­tury-old statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee from an epony­mous city park.

This was pre­dictably met with a geyser of out­rage. Com­menters have ex­co­ri­ated the de­ci­sion as a naked ma­neu­ver to re­write his­tory, mil­i­tate against South­ern her­itage and un­fairly ma­lign an honor­able and God-fear­ing mil­i­tary ge­nius and pa­triot who never de­fended slav­ery but in­stead was only stand­ing up for Amer­i­can prin­ci­ples of states’ rights, lib­erty and self-gov­ern­ment.

The City Coun­cil made the right move. Re­gard­less of his po­si­tion on slav­ery, the Civil War-era ca­reer of Lee nev­er­the­less amounts to the con­sti­tu­tional def­i­ni­tion of trea­son. And no right-minded gov­ern­ment within the United States should li­on­ize a traitor.

Af­ter all, a mon­u­ment placed in a pub­lic city park is ex­pres­sive con­duct by that city gov­ern­ment — the “small gov­ern­ment” lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of The Peo­ple. To para­phrase the Supreme Court in Pleas­ant Grove City, Utah, et al. v. Sum­mum and Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Veter­ans, Inc., pub­lic mon­u­ments are meant to con­vey and have the ef­fect of con­vey­ing a gov­ern­ment mes­sage, an of­fi­cial en­dorse­ment.

The par­tic­u­lar statue in Char­lottes­ville does not func­tion as a sim­ple re­minder or ac­knowl­edg­ment of the his­tory of the com­mon­wealth of Vir­ginia or the Con­fed­er­acy. The aes­thet­ics of the statue — which place Lee in a lofty po­si­tion above the viewer and, through the de­sign of the base on which the equestrian fig­ure sits, as­so­ciate him with the time-hon­ored pa­tri­otic sym­bol of the ea­gle — ex­press a glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Lee as a sym­bol of Amer­i­can val­ues. It is a clear state­ment that the city gov­ern­ment ap­proves of Lee, not just ac­knowl­edges his ex­is­tence.

Lee was a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer of ex­cep­tional ge­nius, charisma and tem­per­a­ment. It is true that he was no “fire-eater” when it came to defending slav­ery.

As an of­fi­cer in the U.S. Army since 1829, Lee had solemnly sworn to “bear true al­le­giance to the United States of Amer­ica, and to serve them hon­estly and faith­fully, against all their en­e­mies or op­posers what­so­ever, and to ob­serve and obey the or­ders of the Pres­i­dent of the United States of Amer­ica, and the or­ders of the of­fi­cers ap­pointed over [him].”

The Con­fed­er­acy’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for se­ces­sion, no mat­ter what pre­text — slav­ery or the ex­tremely du­bi­ous case of tar­iffs, etc. — can­not be com­pared with the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. The pre-1776 Amer­i­can colonists had no rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Par­lia­ment. The Con­fed­er­ate states had al­ways had not only am­ple but also ex­ces­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­cause of the three­fifths com­pro­mise. The South had nearly al­ways con­trolled the pres­i­dency, the leg­is­la­ture and the ju­di­ciary. By 1860, there had been eight South­ern pres­i­dents and only seven North­ern ones, sev­eral of whom, such as Franklin Pierce, Mil­lard Fill­more and James Buchanan, did not sub­stan­tively speak against or lift a fin­ger to op­pose slav­ery.

There can be no doubt: The Con­fed­er­ate states pos­sessed sta­tus, clout and eq­ui­tabil­ity of which the Amer­i­can colonists could only dream.

Any con­cept of a “War of North­ern Ag­gres­sion” is fur­ther ren­dered a fal­lacy when one con­sid­ers that even months be­fore Fort Sumter was fired upon, fed­eral prop­erty such as the U.S. Mint in New Or­leans and the post of­fice in Charleston, S.C., were seized by lo­cal and state forces. The cap­ture of a na­tion’s ter­ri­tory and as­sets has long been held as a jus­ti­fi­able crime of ag­gres­sion — and provo­ca­tion for war.

The Con­sti­tu­tion’s si­lence on the sub­ject of se­ces­sion still leaves cer­tain grounds for the act: e.g., with a con­sti­tu­tional amendment and with the in­her­ent “right of rev­o­lu­tion” re­ferred to in the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence (but not jus­ti­fi­able in the case of 1861, given the pre­vi­ously noted and long-es­tab­lished South­ern in­flu­ence in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment).

Even if se­ces­sion in Vir­ginia’s case had been jus­ti­fi­able, Lee would have been on solid ground to pro­tect the peo­ple of his state and con­duct a de­fen­sive war. How­ever, as soon as he ac­cepted the com­mand po­si­tion of the Con­fed­er­acy’s “Department of South Carolina, Ge­or­gia and Florida,” he was ef­fec­tu­ally fight­ing an aggressive war against the United States.

Re­gard­less of Lee’s po­si­tion on slav­ery, any com­mu­nity pre­serv­ing trans­par­ently wor­ship­ful and un­qual­i­fied stat­ues of him in pub­lic spa­ces is val­i­dat­ing and cel­e­brat­ing a cause an­ti­thet­i­cal to the foun­da­tional Amer­i­can ideas of re­pub­li­can­ism and pop­u­lar sovereignty.


The statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park in Char­lottes­ville in March 2014.

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