No, Removing Monuments to Traitors Doesn’t Mean Removing Monuments to Founders

Yes, Lee and Jefferson were both slave owners. But only one of them sought to destroy the United States. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

Conservative opponents of the drive to dismantle the many monuments neo-Confederates erected to honor Confederate leaders often resort to “floodgates” or “slippery-slope” arguments that taking this step will lead to some sort of national iconoclastic frenzy wherein history is defaced and national heroes are defiled. Such arguments received a large boost when a historic Virginia church decided simultaneously to relocate from its sanctuary plaques honoring Robert E. Lee and George Washington — who both at one time worshipped there.

Sure enough, at the National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty seized on the alleged inability of Christ Church’s vestry to distinguish between the slave-holding first president Washington and the slave-holding rebel Lee to pen an elegant if flawed argument that the logic of their position is leading liberals ineluctably down the road to large-scale attacks on the Founders.

The fact that said liberals have not in fact embarked on that road is irrelevant, says Dougherty; they are prisoners of their current political imperatives, and know not what they do:

Right now, most liberals cannot quite envision the toppling of the Jefferson Memorial on account of Jefferson’s white-supremacist views. It seems so unthinkable that they genuinely don’t allow themselves to contemplate it, much less desire it. And so they are quite reassuring when they say they aren’t leading us down the slope. But they are, even if they don’t know it.

Thus Dougherty briskly dismisses disclaimers from Jamelle Bouie and others that the arguments against Lee monuments are not arguments against monuments to Jefferson or other Founders. But the evidence he adduces for this condescending I-know-where-you’re-going-even-if-you-don’t claim is hauled in from other issues (the quick transition of same-sex marriage from an aspiration to an established right) and even from other countries (the steadily growing disrepute of the Irish Republic’s founders among those seeking to reduce the Catholic Church’s influence). In the end, Dougherty simply invents arguments from future liberals for treating Confederates and Founders — perhaps even non-slave-owning Founders — the same.

It is easy to imagine a writer who grew up reading Ta-Nehisi Coates on “the First White President” looking back at Bouie’s assertion that we have statues to Jefferson on account of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence with a jaundiced eye. That future man of letters will observe that the Declaration’s invocations of liberty and its pretensions of universalism were merely Whig propaganda against a King. He will assert that Jefferson did not actually believe that all men were so endowed by their creator. He will hasten to add that as America achieved the political sovereignty, Jefferson became more convinced of white supremacy, more secure in the view that white liberty could be guaranteed only through black bondage. Many reading this argument will conclude that by raising statues to Jefferson we are crediting him only for his hypocrisy, a privilege only white racists and slavers get in America.

And why would a future liberal hold such views? Because, suggests Dougherty, liberals are obsessed with race and diversity to the exclusion of all other values. “If white supremacy will be named as the perennial problem of American life going forward, the Founders must eventually fall.”

Dougherty’s belief that liberals or “the Left” will soon become unable to distinguish the racist Jefferson from the racist Lee misses the rather central point that the latter was engaged in military treason against the Republic established by the former, for the sole purpose of creating an alternative Republic built entirely on the principle that the maintenance and expansion of human bondage was and would eternally remain essential to human progress.

Even more importantly, he misses the central importance to American history of the defeat of the Confederacy, which not only prevented the dismemberment of the United States and the preservation of slavery, but carried in its wake the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, which made possible just about everything most Americans associate with the proud accomplishments of the 20th century. Yes, the legacy of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution took many years to take root in the legal system, and the country continued to suffer from such continuing disasters as the decimation of the Native American population and the long afterlife of the Confederacy via the Jim Crow system of segregation and African-American disenfranchisement.

But as the timeline for construction of Confederate monuments shows, the fight to honor the Confederacy largely tracked the fight to reverse the Civil War’s results and hang on to white supremacy: to make the Lost Cause an ultimate winner. To a significant extent, the monument-builders were engaged in an intensive and remarkably successful effort to rewrite history to make the Civil War not a life-and-death struggle to promote the egalitarian values Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration, but something very different: a tragic disagreement between honorable men, after which the natural (white) rulers of the South regained their sovereignty. The neo-Confederates, not today’s anti-Confederate iconoclasts, were trying to obliterate history and deny American heroes (opponents of the Rebellion north and south) their due. And their efforts did not flag until their true legacy, Jim Crow, was finally dismantled via those same Reconstruction Amendments that were in the end as important as the Bill of Rights.

From this perspective, the Union and Reconstruction leaders who fought the Confederacy were “Founders,” too, perhaps less important than Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, but still essential to what America ultimately became. And honoring them along with their 18th-century forebears is why fighting the memorials to many decades of neo-Confederate propaganda is an act of historical fidelity and patriotism, not the product of liberal ideology.

But what about that church in Virginia? For one thing, Christ Church in Alexandria did not really remove the plaques honoring Washington and Lee; it removed them from the sanctuary for relocation to a different (and still prominent) site on church property. I would hope no one would think it mandatory that a religious organization forever honor secular political leaders in places normally reserved for worship. That such leaders held fellow human beings in bondage might even make them inappropriately sinful objects of veneration cheek by jowl with images of Jesus, his disciples, and the saints. But in any event, this has nothing to do with monuments in public squares, where Washington and Jefferson will remain long after Lee has been consigned to that corner of history where traitors in a bad cause seek recognition for their redeeming qualities. That’s my prophecy to rival Dougherty’s.

Monuments to Traitors and Founders Are Not the Same