In Defense of Our Second Place Trophies
Marse Robert may be gone from Richmond, but let’s not forget that Lee’s example helped Virginians become Americans again.
"Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth."
-- George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
With barely a whimper of protest, the statue memorializing General Robert E. Lee — the man who refused to raise his sword against his neighbors, redefined the nature of movement in warfare, who refused to allow The War to degenerate into a desperate guerrilla campaign, whose counsel and advice to the South was to go home and rebuild her institutions, and who gifted Virginia the institution that bears the name of two great Virginians — Washington & Lee — is faded into mist as well.
Critics will mention his ownership of human slaves without mentioning the cruelties of owning a man by the hour — which the novelist Upton Sinclair would write about in such great detail in The Jungle some 40 years later with visuals even more damning than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Critics will mention Lee’s defense of a system without nary a word of criticism for a system that bombs wedding parties in Yemen and abandons women to the cruelties of the Taliban. False equivalence? I doubt the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and the Ukraine have any special love for American foreign policy over the last 20 years.
If one is to believe the progressive left, today is even worse than the period of Lee — so goes the hyperbole.
I am no hagiographer of The Great Man by any stretch. Lee’s promise never to get involved in politics after Appomattox was broken by the modern Democratic Party and the White Sulphur Springs Manifesto of 1868 — who not only urged him to unite Southern Democrats to Northern Democratic aspirations, but signed a document affirming the following damnable phrases:
It is true that the people of the South, together with the people of the North and West, are, for obvious reasons, opposed to any system of laws which will place the political power of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feelings of enmity, but from a deep seated conviction that at present the negroes have neither the intelligence nor other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power. They would inevitably become the victims of demagogues, who for selfish purposes would mislead them, to the serious injury of the public.
Demagogues… such as these?
At this rate, it is no small secret what LBJ believed and why he discovered his love for the 1964 Civil Rights Voting Act (modeled after and building upon Republican legislation sponsored by President Eisenhower in the 1950s — the first civil rights voting act).
For all his virtues, Lee was still a man of his times who prized honor and eventually peace above justice. Lest we pretend that these Democrats were any different than today’s Democrats, the Democrats maintained this interpretation of history well into the 1970s until Republicans broke the power of the Byrd Machine in Virginia. Heck — excerpts of the segregationist era history textbooks such as Cavalier Commonwealth were not at all kind to Republicans going well into the 1970s and 1980s. Ben “Cooter” Jones ran as a Democrat with Confederate flags proudly in 2002 against Eric Cantor. Clinton-Gore buttons promoting the “Sons of the South” were prominent in the 1990s. As recently as 2012, Democratic US Senator Jim Webb — apologist for all things Confederacy — carried the Democratic battle standards against Republicans here.
That’s not history either. Ralph Northam’s affinity for hoods and blackface are no less disgusting and omnipresent than Democratic attorney general Mark Herring’s affinity for same — and for all the focus on second place trophies, Democrats have not exerted a single iota of effort to repair the damage done by Democratic politicians and policies in the wake of segregation and Massive Resistance. Other than defund the police and make their jobs more dangerous, of course.
Even Tim Kaine has his predilections.
Yet I digress.
The Tyranny Of Those Pernicious They
We seem to live in an era without heroes. Calls to tear down the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia — the university he founded and the leading apostle of human liberty in America — are already in deadly earnest. Washington & Lee University finds itself nearing a new condition as Ampersand University. Thomas Nelson Community College — named after a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, a former Virginia governor, and the man who offered American artillery a prize to fire upon his own home at the Battle of Yorktown — is now in the process of being revisited as offensive to this mysterious they.
And who are they anyhow?
Well — we really don’t know. Mostly the fiat of the governor and a few elected officials, and definitely a few hundred “wokes” who believe that violence is a perfectly acceptable substitute for deliberation, discussion and debate.
Certainly they consist of woke corporatists who benefit by the rules socialists rig. Certainly they consist of the socialists who need woke corporatism to pay for their pipe dreams.
Rest assured on this point though. They know better than you.
They will rewrite your history.
They will teach your children.
They will tell you what is acceptable speech.
They will entertain you with degeneracy and the pornographic.
They will show you mediocrity and celebrate it as diversity.
They will use violence if you impede their appetites.
They will employ intolerance for the sake of so-called tolerance.
They will call love bigotry.
They will call discernment hate.
They will call heroes racist.
They will hate you for pointing this out.
One question remains: Where do you intend to draw the line?
Certainly Virginians drew one such line with the 2A Sanctuary Movement — a source of energy that remains untapped in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election. Certainly another such line is with Critical Race Theory being crammed down our throats.
Our Founders were willing to resist over a 3% tax on tea.
Defending Our Second Place Trophies
The principle that Lee, Longstreet and Jackson were fighting for is a now-long forgotten constitutional principle of these United States. The right to do what? Own human beings as chattel — deplorable and a sin on the national character; a debt before God we have yet to repay as we fight to create a more perfect Union…
Yet much as no American goes to die for the military-industrial complex today, no Southerner was going to fight so that some rich plantation owner could own human beings for life. Northern hagiographers love to cloak their cause as saintly and just; the hard truth of the matter is that two grossly imperfect systems went to war — the latter only discovering emancipation because British Prime Minster William Gladstone was about to break the American blockade of the South’s cotton supplies as punishment for the 1862 Trent Affair.
History and heroes are complicated. Statues to Cicero abound — no one remembers what he did to Cataline or how many slaves he owned. Most of history’s heroes were complicated men with notable exception — and we all know what we did to Him.
When Virginians proposed building the Lee Memorial in early 1870s, it was not in tribute to Democratic Jim Crow laws that had yet to be passed or even conceived. Jubal Early had yet to slander James Longstreet with the “Lost Cause” narrative (*and it is debatable whether JEB Stuart’s failure to link up with Longstreet at Gettysburg — or Custer’s success in fending Stuart off — was more of an operational “failure” than Jubal Early’s dalliance in his Raid on Richmond in 1864 — Early being a day late*).
Virginia had been laid waste by Sheridan and Stoneman. There was no Marshall Plan for the South or for Southerners of either complexion — just a reorientation of the sluices of wealth to New York stock traders and London bankers. What was the fighting in vain? Was the effort so ignoble that no nobility could be found in their sacrifice?
Lee was what helped make Southerners Americans again.
Towards A More Perfect Union
Of course, I realize that other comparisons could be made. Do we build statues to King George III to make Tories American again? Or statues to the Kaiser to help German-Americans feel more American? Didn’t Mr. Kenney just write a heartbreaking work of staggering genius deploring narratives that ran against the grain of September 11th just yesterday?
Yes — I did.
I’ll confess this as well.
While Washington and Jefferson and Lee can all remain, I certainly do not mind if a statue of Oliver Cromwell comes crashing down.
Yes — I’m that sort of hypocrite.
Which is a complicated way of saying that we probably need to understand a few things. That despite the prevailing narrative of Virginian memorializing our understanding of the Recent Unpleasantness (TM) that those narratives and that history might not be a shared one. We have to respect that — though one wishes it were with more history rather than less history.
After all, we are Virginians — do we ever run out of heroes?
I don’t mind announcing as such, because memorials do consist of the values we as a society wish to honor about what is best about our forefathers.
Of course, they can’t take everything — right?
For 800 years, the Irish held their heroes without statues or monuments. Robert Emmet — that great Irish patriot and orator — begged Ireland not to write his epitaph until Ireland was whole and free from British rule. Eschewing monuments is a monument of intangibles — honor, integrity, of promises deferred.
William Faulkner reminds us that some monuments can never be destroyed so long as there is a beating heart in Virginia:
It's all now you see. Yesterday won't be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago; or to anyone who ever sailed a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when somebody thought "This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world's roaring rim.
-- William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)
Not one word of slavery or poverty or states rights or any of those things.
Nor — if you asked them today — would you hear much about the military-industrial complex, democracy, consumerism, capitalism or any of those abstractions from the veterans of Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Few praise Lee for what he defended in war. Many — very many — praise Lee for the national reconciliation he worked so very hard to achieve after Appomattox. Was Lee a perfect man able to live outside of his times? Certainly not — but the national creed isn’t to be perfect, but to be more perfect and work towards a better condition.
Lee did that in a way few others Americans did or have since.
That’s why we memorialize him. God willing — that’s why the Lee Monument should return. If it does not? Virginians will rightly still remember the great man, not because of his statues but because of his stature.
Yet there’s a deeper point to be made here. For those making sense of the failure of politicians and the purpose of lost causes — and God knows we are feeling it today in a post-Afghanistan 9/11 just 20 years after the worst terrorist attack on US soil — Lee has an awful lot more to teach us than the wokes would allow or will permit.
For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, ladies and gentlemen.
In the end, God vindicates the right.
Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.