This past weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia arose from a gathering of racists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists, whose ostensible purpose was to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Over the last several years, efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces have gathered steam because more and more people are coming to realize that government should not honor people who principal claim to fame was fighting a war in defense of the evil institution of slavery.
Defenders of Confederate monuments sometimes try to argue that slavery actually had nothing to do with the Civil War and secession. This theory is undermined by the Confederates’ own explanation of their motives, including those in the Southern states’ official statements outlining their reasons for secession, which focus on slavery far more than any other issue, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who famously said that “slavery . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” and that protecting it was the “cornerstone” of the new Confederate government.
Despite longstanding mythology to the contrary, Robert E. Lee was no exception. He was a staunch supporter of slavery who chose the Confederacy over the Union in large part for that very reason and denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as a “degradation worse than death.”
Perhaps because efforts to separate the Confederacy from slavery are so implausible, defenders of keeping Confederate monuments in place increasingly resort to slippery slope arguments. Here’s Donald Trump making the case earlier today:
“I wonder, is it George Washington next week?” Trump asked….
He went on to make a slippery slope argument — equating Confederate general Robert E. Lee with presidents like Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners…
“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
In fairness, the slippery slope argument is sometimes advanced by more intellectually serious advocates than Trump. It is wrong, even so. The argument fails because there are obviously relevant distinctions that can be made between Washington and Jefferson on the one hand and Confederate leaders on the other.
One crucial distinction it misses is that few if any monuments to Washington, Jefferson and other slaveowning Founders were erected for the specific purpose of honoring their slaveholding. By contrast, the vast majority of monuments to Confederate leaders were erected to honor their service to the Confederacy, whose main reason for existing was to protect and extend slavery. I noted another key distinction here:
Some try to justify continuing to honor Confederates because we honor many other historical figures who committed various moral wrongs. For example, many of the Founding Fathers also owned slaves, just like many leading Confederates did. But the Founders deserve commemoration because their complicity in slavery was outweighed by other, more positive achievements, such as establishing the Constitution. By contrast, leading a war in defense of slavery was by far the most important historical legacy of Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate leaders. If not for secession and Civil War, few would remember them today.
Endorsing the slippery slope case against removing Confederate monuments also creates a problematic slippery slope of its own. If we should not remove monuments to perpetrators of evil for fear that it might lead to the removal of monuments to more worthy honorees, that implies that eastern European nations were wrong to remove monuments to communist mass murderers like Lenin and Stalin, and Germany and Italy were wrong to remove monuments to Nazi and Fascist leaders. After all, there is no telling where such removals might lead! By Trump’s logic, taking down German monuments to Hitler and Goebbels might lead to the removal of monuments to Immanuel Kant, who expressed racist sentiments in some of his writings. Getting rid of monuments to Lenin and Stalin might lead people to take down monuments to Picasso, who was also a communist. Where will it all stop?
In some instances, of course, the question of whether the good a historical figure did in one area outweighs the evil he did in another is a legitimately close one. For example, I believe that Woodrow Wilson was one of the worst of all the presidents, and have no objection to renaming the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. But I can understand progressives who argue that his racism and other flaws were outweighed by the good they believe he did on other issues. We differ in part because I take a far more negative view than they do of Wilson’s economic policies and of his role in the botched peace settlement after World War I. Both are major aspects of Wilson’s legacy that must be considered alongside his segregationism and his terrible record on civil liberties. By contrast, most Confederate leaders have no legacy comparable in magnitude to their role in fighting for slavery. The Wilson case is a closer call than those of Lee or Jefferson Davis.
Over time, it is inevitable that we will get some of the closer cases wrong. But that risk is inherent in the practice of honoring historical figures with monuments at all. Only a tiny minority of people can get such an honor. Deciding which few it will be inevitably involves value choices. And the decision-making process will never be perfect. The risk of making a mistake is not a good reason to continue to honor large-scale evildoers with few or no offsetting virtues. Giving undeserved honor to the evil is at least as grave an error as denying proper recognition to those who merit it.
Obviously, freedom of speech allows private individuals to honor whoever they choose. But that does not mean those who honor Confederate leaders are right to do so. And it certainly does not mean the government should continue to join them in doing so.
Trump and others also make the claim that taking down Confederate monuments is somehow “chaging” or “erasing” history. But ceasing to honor evil-doers is not the same as erasing all memory of them. No one proposes that we simply forget about Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the Confederacy – or Hitler and Stalin, for that matter. To the contrary, we should continue to remember and study all of them, and derive such lessons as we can from the history of the wrongs they committed. And we can do all of that without continuing to glorify those who fought a war to perpetuate slavery.
UPDATE: To avoid any confusion, I should incorporate by reference the qualifications I made in this post:
Perhaps some otherwise objectionable monuments should remain because they have great artistic or historical importance. Others can appropriately be displayed in museums and other facilities whose purpose is facilitating research and historical understanding, rather than bestowing honor. The same point applies to the use of Confederate flags in such settings as maps, boardgames, historical reenactments, and the like. The goal is not to literally remove all signs of the Confederacy, but to stop publicly honoring it and its leaders.