The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
There is room for debate over when it is appropriate to rename institutions or remove or relocate statutes and memorials to disgraced public figures. For myself, I think the burden on those calling for such changes should be rather high, and I generally prefer supplementing such memorials or displays–such as by adding statues or memorials of other, more deserving figures–over removal. History is important, including (perhaps especially) when it concerns our shortcomings as a nation.
The one context in which I think such historical effacement is justified concerns memorials to leaders of the Confederacy. While I think it is perfectly appropriate, indeed important, to have such historical artifacts in museums and appropriate venues, I think it is appropriate to remove the names and visages of Confederate leaders from places of honor. There is no good reason to have such statutes in public squares or the names of Confederate generals on U.S. military bases.
My reasons are quite simple: The Confederacy was a traitorous uprising expressly inspired by a desire to maintain slavery as a racial institution.
While the true causes of secession have not always been adequately covered in history books (some of which repeat the fable that southern states seceded over tariffs or suggest it was a "war of Northern aggression), the historical record is abundantly clear. The South seceded over slavery, preemptively seeking to leave the Union after their preferred candidate lost the Presidential election.
The relevant original documents speak for themselves. As southern states seceded, they identified the need to protect slavery as their cause, expressly repudiated the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and were more-than-willing to trample the rights of free citizens in the service of protecting slavery (as well as to prohibit any of the confederate states from seceding).
In his infamous "Cornerstone Speech", Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens declared:
The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
The Confederate states seceded from the Union, and started a war, to protect the institution of slavery. (And, yes, the Confederacy started the war—announcing secession before Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated, and firing the first shots Fort Sumter.)
And they lost, too.
This history is something to remember, but neither the secessionist cause, nor its leaders, are something to commemorate.