Confederate flag

Old Times There Are Best Forgotten

Why government-funded agencies should display Confederate symbols only at historic sites or museums



CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—White supremacist provocateur Richard Spencer showed up in my town this past Saturday to roil the debate over the city council's planned removal of statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Spencer and a few score folks carrying flaming tiki torches gathered in Lee Park, a couple of blocks from my house, where they chanted, "What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced," and "Russia is our friend." Of course, Spencer and his associates have, as my Reason colleague Robby Soave points out, the constitutional right to their express their views in public.

Spencer and his supporters are, as usual, in the wrong. The time has come to remove from public land the monuments honoring the men who led the Confederacy to defeat. But doing so doesn't mean we must then move on to purging slave-owning Founders or even memorials for dead southern soldiers. Looking back requires us to balance the good and the bad, and—on balance—Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other Confederate leaders simply don't make the cut.

Before delving more deeply into the Confederate memorial controversy, let me set out my Southern bona fides. I was born in Texas and reared on my family's dairy farm in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia. Our county schools were racially integrated in 1963 when I was in the third grade. My third grade Virginia history book referred to the Civil War as the War Between the States and asserted that that conflict was chiefly over state's rights. Virginia Generals Lee, Jackson, and Stuart were portrayed as honorable and heroic defenders of Southern rights.

My high school's team name was the Rebels and our fight song was "Dixie." It was not uncommon to see the Stars and Bars being waved in stands during football games. It is, however, worth noting that in a school in which African Americans made up less than 10 percent of the student body, my class elected a black senior as our homecoming queen.

As a student at the University of Virginia in the early 1970s, I learned that many parts of the Commonwealth had not actually desegregated until 1971. At UVA I belonged to a literary and debating society whose members drank a great deal and often sang songs commemorating the Lost Cause, including "The Bonnie Blue Flag" and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," but also Yankee tunes like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

I remained largely unconscious of how offensive Confederate symbols were to some people. That changed when my black roommate Dwayne Morris took a small Stars and Bars out of the coffee mug in which it was standing in our apartment, broke its staff in two and threw it in the trash. Several subsequent long, boozy conversations ended any residual sentimental attachment to the Lost Cause that I may have retained from my earlier schooling.

Still, as a young Virginian I never gave much thought to what the Confederate monuments and memorials that appear in nearly every southern town represented. After Reconstruction, Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAs) in the South sprang up to advocate for and oversee the repatriation the remains of Confederate soldiers and to commemorate their deaths by erecting generic war memorial statues. Ultimately, the LMAs joined together for United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1894.

It is, however, plain historical fact that most of those memorials to the Confederate dead and monuments to Confederate leaders were erected between 1890 and 1925, when Jim Crow racial apartheid was being established in the South. They were meant and served as powerful symbols of resurgent white supremacy. For example, the monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that was just taken down in New Orleans was dedicated in 1911 during a "Whites Only" ceremony featuring a living Stars and Bars formation that sang "Dixie." (The Louisiana House of Representatives just passed a bill that would block the removal of Confederate monuments without a referendum.) In Charlottesville, the Lee statue was erected in 1924 and the Jackson statue in 1921.

Frankly, I don't much worry about the generic memorials to the Confederate dead. They largely signify sorrow for the men who died in battle, an appropriate sentiment even if they died for a bad cause.

The monuments celebrating specific Confederate leaders are different. Here I turn to a perceptive distinction between monuments and memorials made by philosopher of art Arthur Danto. Cited by University of Richmond philosopher Gary Shapiro in a recent New York Times op-ed, Danto observed, "We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget." Monuments, Danto wrote, "commemorate the memorable and embody the myths of beginnings. Memorials ritualize remembrance and mark the reality of ends." Obviously, monuments have multiple meanings, but the fame of Confederate leaders unavoidably implicates their tireless efforts to maintain millions in slavery.

Rather than remove the monuments to Confederate leaders like Lee, Davis, and Jackson, Shapiro would prefer to "contextualize" them, perhaps by including additional monuments celebrating those who resisted racism and Jim Crow. At the forefront of the crusade against Confederate monuments are many fierce proponents of political correctness. Given how much I loathe the shibboleths and moral grandstanding of contemporary purveyors of political correctness, Shapiro's suggestion is initially attractive proposal, but ultimately insufficient.

In his insightful 2001 essay, "Old Times There Are Best Forgotten: The Future of Confederate Symbolism in the South," in the literary journal Callaloo, Emory University English professor Lucas Carpenter notes, "Contemporary Confederate sympathizers want free use of Confederate symbolism because they say it represents their 'heritage.' It does, of course, but it is heritage chiefly characterized by its brutal oppression of slaves and their 'free' descendants. The most important thing to know about the South is that until recently it was a region ruled by slavery and apartheid." If you think that Carpenter is overstating his case, contemplate for just a moment what your life would have been like had you been subjugated under Jim Crow.

Carpenter, whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, argues that "the only circumstances under which a government-funded agency or institution should display Confederate symbols is when their use is required to identify historic sites or otherwise convey historical information." Think Civil War battlefields, museums, and cemeteries. Carpenter, quite properly, asserts that the private display of Confederate symbols should not be suppressed by the state. After all, that would violate the free speech protections of the First Amendment. In the main, Carpenter, more or less, agrees with me that a Confederate memorial to the Civil War dead on a Southern town square can remain, but that "we must learn to see it as a reminder of what really used to be."

Since there is no end to what can offend the politically correct, where does the iconoclasm stop? After all, some faculty and students at the university that Thomas Jefferson founded as the first secular university in the world are offended that its current president quotes him in emails. Why? Because the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slaveowner. Slavery was a great moral evil, and one that Jefferson himself occasionally acknowledged. "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism," he wrote. "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."

How should we deal with the fact that many of the Founders were slaveowners? Should the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument be torn down? Washington, D.C., and Washington state renamed? "The Founders deserve commemoration because the evil they did was outweighed by other, positive achievements, such as establishing the Constitution," argues George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin. Once established in this country by the Founders, the logic of equal liberty became ineluctably extended to all individuals, no matter their race, creed, or sex. The Founders are rightly honored for creating a political system that over time enlarged the rights of its citizens.

I do believe that the vast majority of the folks who oppose removing and relocating Confederate monuments from public land sincerely do mean it when they say that they are defending "heritage, not hatred." Nevertheless, Carpenter is right when he writes, "It is, quite simply, self-destructive for democratic governments to employ divisive symbolism." No one is trying to "erase" Confederate leaders and the cause for which they fought from the historical record, but as Somin argues, "We should certainly remember them, and continue to study their deeds. We just should not honor them."