In an unforgettable scene in the film Dr. Zhivago, the adaptable lawyer Komarovski bellows from the foot of the frozen stairs, where he had been flung by the eponymous hero: “We’re all made from the same clay, you know!” Komarovski, whose name suggests “mosquito” in Russian, is not a card-carrying communist, but a broad-minded member of the moral proletariat, equally at home with czarists and Bolsheviks, Reds and Whites. His only class resentment is for those insufferable types who “pretend” to be ruled by something higher than self-interest.
A similar spirit of leveling seems to be behind the efforts of Mayor Landrieu, the city council, and the protesters calling for removal of a statue from its sixty foot pedestal at Lee Circle in New Orleans. But unlike lawyer Komarovski, these pols and protesters imply that Robert E. Lee (b. January 19, 1807), the target of their iconoclasm, is not of the same—but of a baser clay than themselves. They may celebrate all the social aberrations with which our own epoch abounds, but not one of them owns slaves.
Taking the general down from his perch was estimated to cost the cash-strapped city approximately $200,000—surely an underbid. The construction (or deconstruction) firm hired by the city got such bad publicity that they have tactically withdrawn for the present. Despite this setback, the mayor and council are still resolved to listen to the mythic “voice of the people.” The question is: which voice of the people? The passionate roar of demos, the bête noir of Adams, Hamilton, even of Jefferson—who shuddered at “the canaille of the great cities”—seems likely to prevail.
This voice was heard again at Lee Circle following the election of Donald J. Trump. The Times-Picayune (11/9/15) reported that the anti-Lee faction regrouped the evening after Hillary’s unimaginable and traumatizing defeat. Protesters chanted “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA.” Graffiti artists reinforced the rhymers by spraying “Dismantle White Supremacy” and “Black Lives Matter” on the general’s pedestal—the statue of Lee himself, at sixty feet above the crowd, being too lofty for their wrath.
“I’m a gay Latina woman,” shouted a representative voice of the people, for whom the Trump victory reduced to a single message: “My country hates me … women who accuse people of sexual assault can sit the f***down and stop whining.” This hyper-activist Cassandra vowed to stare down the “backlash against progress”—a message affirmed by huzzahs from the crowd.
As the oratory subsided, demonstrators filed down St. Charles Avenue. The grievance this night focused more on the clear and present danger of a fascist presidency than on the ancient crimes of General Lee. Chants of “F***Donald Trump” fractured the mild night air; the crusaders against Lee and Trump (a strange pairing, indeed) marched under banners proclaiming “LGBT Lives Matter,” and “Love Trumps Hate.” Before reaching Canal Street, the proponents of love paused to shatter a few bank windows—a popular symbol of indignation ever since “Occupy Wall Street” used it to telling effect in 2011.
If statues could warn and enlighten, as in the ancient world, or in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, what would General Lee have to say about all of this? One thing is certain, he would be saddened to see that the “softening influence of Christianity”—which he hoped would heal the wounds of civil war—was nowhere in evidence. Unlike the bogeyman slaver, the Simon Legree denounced at city hall and in the streets, the real General Lee regarded human bondage as a bane—corrupting master more than slave.
Do the protesters remember that Lee, unlike Grant, freed his slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, at a time when he and the indispensable Stonewall Jackson were rolling out victory upon victory—when a Confederate triumph seemed likely? And even before the conflict began, Lee had acknowledged slavery to be “a moral and political evil that a more enlightened time would abhor and abolish.”
It is true that he was a “gradualist” who trusted, perhaps overmuch, on providence to eradicate the evil of human bondage; those who suffered under it owe no apologies for lacking such patience. But the one great good resulting from that fratricidal conflict, in Lee’s view, was its abolition. While Jefferson Davis and other southerners were still rationalizing the “peculiar institution,” Lee wrote after surrendering to Grant that “I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished.”
The final curtain of the conflict dropped on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. It did not have to—other Confederate captains were still in the field; and just before Lee was to offer his sword to Grant, officers pressed him to continue the conflict by irregular means. Lee rejected the proposal out of hand. He would never countenance marauding, stealing, and rapine—the inevitable concomitants of guerrilla war.
Grant’s magnanimous terms of surrender encouraged Lee to hope that brotherhood could be restored. And in the five years remaining to him after the war, he strove toward that end. While president of Washington College (1865-1870) he dithered over proposals to market his war memoirs. Rather than rake over the hot coals of the recent animosity, he turned instead to a less wounding subject—the biography of his father, the Revolutionary War hero, Light Horse Harry Lee—over whose failings, the son characteristically draped a kindly veil.
It is beyond the scope of this article to trace the celebrated and heart-stirring career of Robert E. Lee. Suffice it to say that until a few decades ago, he was universally admired as a brilliant tactician, a just-war warrior and inspirer of soldiers—and as a sincere Christian worthy of emulation by boys on either side of the Mason-Dixon divide. For anyone who is interested, search out the comments of figures as disparate as F.D.R, Lord Acton, Dwight Eisenhower—or Winston Churchill. The “British Bull Dog,” remarkable neither for piety nor deference, expressed the once universal verdict of the Confederate general: “His noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.” His gentleness and kindliness shine forth in hundreds of recollections, such as that of the reporter who said that a child, thrown among strangers, would instinctively seek his hand and protection. Well, today, exalted character, especially of notably Christian stripe, is suspect. The perfect rectitude of a fearless heart no longer wins universal admiration. In fact, such a role-model “comes across as a bit of a stick,” as Roy Blount, Jr. commented in the Smithsonian Magazine (July 2003).
Recent historians and journalists are more measured and “realistic” than Winston Churchill. For critics like David Brooks, Lee’s image, exposed in public spaces, sends the wrong message. While acknowledging the general’s noble character, Brooks insists, in the New York Times (June 26, 2015), that “if we want to reduce racism” we have to “devalue symbols that signify its acceptance.” Mischaracterizing Lee’s view of slavery as “bland complaisance,” he reaches the same judgment as the demagogues and demonstrators at Lee Circle: The general’s name and image should be purged from “schools, roads and other institutions” (sic) lest they be seen “as acceptance of what he did and stood for during the war.” To exorcise our historic shame, “we must aggressively go the extra mile to show that prejudice is unacceptable…” This is not a band wagon reflex, Brooks unconvincingly insists, nor a rewrite of history: “It’s about shaping the culture going forward.” When a fastidious scribe like Brooks resorts to such limp, prefabbed phrases as the one’s I’ve italicized, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that independent judgment has bowed to PC conclusions.
For another contemporary appraisal of the controversy, an erstwhile presidential candidate has some thoughtful things to say about Lee and the father who named him. The father of Alan Keyes was a career army officer, a great reader—especially of books about the Civil War. Conforming to the zeitgeist, the elder Keyes should have repudiated Lee as a slaver and white aristo who fought to keep blacks in bondage. Instead, says Alan in an essay for The Daily Caller (06/25/15) entitled “It Was the Flag of Robert E. Lee,” his father christened him Alan Lee Keyes in honor of “the inimitable commander of the Army of the Confederacy.” Was his father, then, an Uncle Tom, a self-hating black? Alan Keyes doesn’t run the rails of this binary track—he’s far too brainy for that. No one, he writes, was ever more “adamantly opposed to slavery.” But Keyes’s father was still able to admire Lee’s character, and to revere him as a great leader and model for men.
The son isn’t signing on with those calling for the removal of Lee’s statue, or even of the Confederate battle flags. He suggests that a country that flies the rainbow flag of sexual diversity (wouldn’t we like to secede from that?) has more pressing problems than eradicating “controversial” emblems of our history. Keyes has no patience with the “presentism” that boldly denounces past evils while applauding those before our eyes. Contemplation of historic wrongs should, in his view, prompt reflection about those of our time.
Instead of waving placards, spitting obscenities, and smashing windows to express their inchoate feelings, it might do those demonstrators more rational good to read the life of Robert E. Lee. Such a study might diminish the degrading impulse to denounce what is above you. It might also stimulate resistance to the manipulations of their city’s demagogues. The reading of great lives has a tendency to check the impulse to stampede with “the canaille of the cities.” As Thomas Pangle wrote, “…one hour of reasonable reverence or aspiration for what is above us counts for more than a life time of satisfaction with what we are.”