You may have read that the statue of Robert E. Lee that stood in Charlottesville Virginia’s town square for nearly a century has been melted down and will be remade into a new piece of public art. The statue, a source of controversy in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville rally that resulted in an explosion of racial tension, was originally torn down in 2021; but to ensure the Confederate general’s legacy is permanently erased from history the statue is now gone forever.
“With the melting down of this statue, racism has now, thankfully, been completely eradicated,” said one Charlottesville resident after learning about how the bronze will be re-used for other forms of art. Another citizen commented, “All people will live in peace and harmony now that this bronze sculpture isn’t causing endless hate to spread around the world.” Taking this a step further perhaps the good people of Charlottesville should replace the hate-filled symbol of white supremacy with a symbol of peace and good will and replicate what the good people of Newark, New Jersey did, and erect a statue of George Floyd where the racist Confederate general’s monument once stood.
Yes, that was facetious, but the the problem with the wholesale canceling of historical figures is that it denies our country’s history, no matter how right, wrong, or complicated that history is. Taking these monuments down, as you’ll see when you read further. is censorship, it’s whitewashing, and an inducement to forget our own history – both the good and the bad. Like the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime that blew up the culturally significant Buddha sculptures Salsal and Shahmama after declaring them to be un-Islamic, this is a slippery slope because removing monuments and statues of historical figures now held in disfavor is a denial of historical reality. But that’s what the virtue-signaling cancel culture does – ideology always trumps, history, nuance, or circumstance. These statues no more cause racism than a taxidermist’s Bengal tiger enhances the slaughter of wildlife, and instead, should be used to fight racism when put into historical context.
Webster’s tell us a nation “Is a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” But from July 4th, 1776, until the end of the Civil War in April 1865, the United States was actually a loosely bound confederation of independent states that may have been a country, but certainly wasn’t a nation. Unlike Europe, the United States did not spring forth from a common descent, history, culture, or language. Rather, we are descendants of many nationalities whose borders were defined by war and carved out by imperial fiat and arbitrary treaties.
When referring to the New World, John Winthrop spoke of building “a city upon a hill,” while Thomas Paine wrote “We have it within our power to begin the world all over.” And so it was that America, a truly revolutionary notion was conceived in the minds of a handful of visionaries, the likes of which the world may never again see assembled in one place.
The word ‘nation’ does not appear in Declaration of Independence. And when Richard Henry Lee introduced the document to the Continental Congress in June of 1776, it declared, “That these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be free, and independent States.” Even the Preamble to our Constitution omits the term nation, to wit: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” To draw a loose analogy, when the founding fathers adopted the Constitution, they had built a steam locomotive before they laid the tracks for it to run on.
The fight against England brought the colonies together and the dynamic of existing independently from the empire bound us until the beginning of the Civil War. But Americans during that time period had their greatest loyalty to the geographical region to which they belonged. And with political factions vying for influence and even independence from California to New England we were hardly a nation.
The great French philosopher Montesquieu said a republican form of government could exist only in a small territory. He felt the thirteen colonies were already too large to be a viable functioning government. And with a diversity of lifestyles, economies, customs, and geography as varied as anywhere on earth, allegiances centered on the individual states, i.e., people considered themselves Virginians or New Englanders before they thought of themselves as Americans. As a result, we were fortunate the Civil War was only a conflict between two of the many factions in existence at the time.
Lincoln’s steadfast vision of “Union” held us together during the Civil War, but perhaps the actions of Robert E. Lee, in early April 1865 were equally as critical in preventing our country from forever splintering. Grant’s Army of the Potomac had almost caught up with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in early April 1865; but Lee was not defeated. And although his beleaguered army was reeling, he was still a day or two ahead of Grant’s forces.
Lee’s Army was cornered, but other Confederate armies were dispersed from North Carolina to Texas, and generals such as Joe Johnston and Nathan Bedford Forrest advised Lee to “evaporate into the hills and fight on as guerrillas.” Lincoln and Grant understood if Lee decided to fight a guerrilla war, Joe Johnston who was facing Sherman’s army in North Carolina, along with Forrest and perhaps other generals would have followed suit and the internecine warfare would have continued. And if that had occurred, it’s highly likely the United States, as we know it today would not exist.
Yes, Robert E. Lee was a slave owner, but let’s not forget he was also a man of the mid-19th century, not the 21st with its enlightened perceptions. More importantly the general was a man of principle. So it was that General Robert E. Lee chose to end the war with honor and surrendered to Grant on April 9th, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Integrity prevailed, the Union was preserved, and the United States began its march through history as a united nation.
Quote of the day: “We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing.”—General Robert E. Lee