A way to bridge the divide over Robert E. Lee

In an ongoing campaign to eradicate the heritage of the South connected with slavery, groups have called for the removal of statues of heroes of the Confederacy, including one of Robert E. Lee, located in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Removal was arranged, and opponents to the removal staged a protest march.  Proponents staged a counter-protest, and, with the police (on orders) doing nothing, violence erupted.

In the aftermath, Pres. Trump laid some of the blame on the counter-protesters.  He went on to say some of the protesters were not neo-Nazis, but simply people who opposed the removal of the statue of Lee.  He said:

This week, it's Robert E Lee.  I notice Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?

Trump then moved to another reporter, who asked him whether the statue of Robert E. Lee should stay up.  Trump hedged and did not answer the question.  It's not an easy question to answer.

On the one hand, Lee has been honored by many Americans, both Northern and Southern, for 150-plus years.  On the other hand, probably few of those were black Americans.  To them, Lee fought to keep blacks enslaved – which is true.  But why did he do so?  

This is what the man, in a letter to his wife, actually wrote relating to that question:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

This is a man who clearly did not believe that, as a race, blacks were at the level of whites.  But it is also clear that he did not believe that such a disparity was necessarily permanent, and he hoped that in time, it would disappear.  To put it another way, he had no ill will toward blacks and hoped for the best for them.  In fighting for Virginia – ruled by whites – he did not see himself as fighting Virginians who were black.  Toward them, his attitude was not hostile, though it certainly was paternalistic.

Is this a reason to remove his statue?  That is to say: Should Lee, notwithstanding his benign attitude toward blacks, still be condemned because he fought in defense of the South and its institutions?  Those who say yes to this question should understand that they would be condemning not only Lee, but also every Confederate soldier who fought for the same purpose.  They would be condemning the ancestors of millions of native Southerners living today.

In this writer's opinion, there is a better solution.  Keep the statue.  But with it, also include a plaque of Lee's letter that appears above along with some comment – coming from the black community – as to why, notwithstanding the understandable offense to black Americans, the statue is still retained.  "With malice toward none, and charity toward all," let us strive to heal our divisions.

In an ongoing campaign to eradicate the heritage of the South connected with slavery, groups have called for the removal of statues of heroes of the Confederacy, including one of Robert E. Lee, located in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Removal was arranged, and opponents to the removal staged a protest march.  Proponents staged a counter-protest, and, with the police (on orders) doing nothing, violence erupted.

In the aftermath, Pres. Trump laid some of the blame on the counter-protesters.  He went on to say some of the protesters were not neo-Nazis, but simply people who opposed the removal of the statue of Lee.  He said:

This week, it's Robert E Lee.  I notice Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?

Trump then moved to another reporter, who asked him whether the statue of Robert E. Lee should stay up.  Trump hedged and did not answer the question.  It's not an easy question to answer.

On the one hand, Lee has been honored by many Americans, both Northern and Southern, for 150-plus years.  On the other hand, probably few of those were black Americans.  To them, Lee fought to keep blacks enslaved – which is true.  But why did he do so?  

This is what the man, in a letter to his wife, actually wrote relating to that question:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

This is a man who clearly did not believe that, as a race, blacks were at the level of whites.  But it is also clear that he did not believe that such a disparity was necessarily permanent, and he hoped that in time, it would disappear.  To put it another way, he had no ill will toward blacks and hoped for the best for them.  In fighting for Virginia – ruled by whites – he did not see himself as fighting Virginians who were black.  Toward them, his attitude was not hostile, though it certainly was paternalistic.

Is this a reason to remove his statue?  That is to say: Should Lee, notwithstanding his benign attitude toward blacks, still be condemned because he fought in defense of the South and its institutions?  Those who say yes to this question should understand that they would be condemning not only Lee, but also every Confederate soldier who fought for the same purpose.  They would be condemning the ancestors of millions of native Southerners living today.

In this writer's opinion, there is a better solution.  Keep the statue.  But with it, also include a plaque of Lee's letter that appears above along with some comment – coming from the black community – as to why, notwithstanding the understandable offense to black Americans, the statue is still retained.  "With malice toward none, and charity toward all," let us strive to heal our divisions.

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