Charlottesville, Virginia, was the topic on Americans’ minds, lips and social media sites before Hurricanes Harvey and Irma briefly swept all other pressing national concerns from the headlines. In the aftermath of these destructive storms, it still remains a flashpoint issue of immense significance.
Simply put, the question posed by Charlottesville is this: Should we sanitize history by removing all reminders of our predecessors’ shameful behavior, especially monuments built to honor that behavior, or should we leave the symbols of past sins in place to remind us they should not be repeated? Though thoroughly muddled about the underlying historical facts, Gov. Paul LePage seems to have at least gotten the answer to this question right. In mid-August, the planned dismantling of a statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville public park led to demonstrations by white supremacist and neo-Nazi protestors, anti-racism counter-demonstrations, and confrontations that turned violent.
President Donald Trump made a succession of public statements about the events in Charlottesville which could most generously be interpreted as insensitive to racism and less generously as supportive of the white supremacists’ agenda.
About a week later, Gov. LePage added some unfortunate remarks of his own, although his comments contained at least one grain of sense in what was otherwise a pile of nonsense — namely that any attempt to expunge the past is a counter-productive exercise.
During a Bangor radio interview on Aug. 22, LePage criticized efforts of various Southern communities to remove statutes of Confederate leaders like Lee as misguided, the equivalent of taking books off a library shelf. After all, he said, Lee was one of the greatest generals of his time, and the Civil War didn’t start as a war over the moral issue of slavery but as dispute over property rights. Indeed, he said, “7,600 Mainers fought for the Confederacy,” because they “were farmers, and they were concerned about their land, their property.”
In his weekly radio address the following day, LePage blasted the “leftists” and “anti-fascists” for “showing up with sticks and clubs and black masks,” calling their actions “an invitation for violence.” A day later, in another radio interview, LePage admitted that he might have gotten the number of Mainers fighting for the Confederacy wrong but said the actual number didn’t really matter. The important point, he said, was that the war began as battle over property rights.
It’s not worth devoting a lot of space to refuting the bulk of LePage’s comments, so what follows is merely a fly-over.
There’s evidence that white-supremacist demonstrators, rather than the counter-demonstrators, were the ones looking for, and indeed welcoming the prospect of, violence at Charlottesville. There’s nothing in the historical record to corroborate that any significant number of Mainers sympathized with, let alone fought for, the Confederacy. To the contrary, Maine was admitted to the Union in 1820 as a free state, had a vigorous abolitionist movement, voted Republican by 62 percent in the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, and fielded the highest per-capita number of soldiers serving in the Union Army of any state.
As for the Civil War being initially fought over property rights, that’s only true in the sense that the South insisted that slaves were to be treated by law as property, not human beings. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert B. Taney, who wrote the court’s infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, “The negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” The South’s deep suspicion that President Abraham Lincoln would move to completely abolish slavery after his election in 1860 led to the rapid secession of 11 states from the Union, formation of the Confederacy, and the Civil War.
Lincoln, indeed, despised slavery, but, for pragmatic political reasons (to retain the loyalty of border slave states like Tennessee and to try to peacefully end secession), initially maintained that slavery could continue to exist in states where already allowed but not spread to territories or newly admitted states. Abolition of slavery did not become Lincoln’s primary justification for the Civil War until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, nearly 1-1/2 years after hostilities began.
Robert E. Lee was, as LePage asserted, was one of the greatest generals of his time (or, indeed, of any time). He was also a principled man, who agonized over his decision to take arms against the Union and grieved at the suffering caused by the war. As he mused somberly over the slaughter of federal troops at the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” Moreover, after the surrender of his army at Appomattox Courthouse, he consistently advocated peaceful reconciliation between North and South. He also disapproved of the erection of monuments to the Confederate cause, fearing it would “keep open the sores of war.”
Notwithstanding Lee’s wishes, the South is dotted with monuments to him as well as other Confederate heroes like Stonewall Jackson. But most of these statues were erected in the 1890s and early 1900s, well after Lee’s death (on Oct. 12, 1870) and during an era following the end of Reconstruction, when the South was freed from the constraints of military occupation by the victorious Union Army. By then, the South had rebuilt from the economic devastation of war and had managed, through violence, intimidation and legal exclusion, to impose a substitute for slavery — an apartheid system, often referred to as “Jim Crow,” which enabled it to keep its former slaves socially subservient, politically impotent and readily available as cheap, pliable labor.
By that point, white Southerners had also begun romantically reshaping history to restore their lost prestige, a script re-write which portrayed the Confederacy as a noble fight for freedom from a tyrannical federal government (often referred to as the “lost cause”) and the generals of that war as brave chivalric knights. (The brutal history of slavery was too grubby for this romantic tale). Statutes of Confederate military heroes, along with the omnipresent Confederate flag, were part of this myth and later became rallying points for white segregationists following the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Should these statutes be removed in wholesale fashion? I would argue they should not. In context, they’re as important to a mature understanding of slavery —what Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, called a “fatal stain” — as ante-bellum plantation mansions, primitive slave shacks and Civil War battlefields. Like Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps, which commemorate the Holocaust, they serve both as witnesses to the past and warnings about the future.
By leaving such symbols in place, we run the risk that hate groups will venerate them, but, by removing them, we encourage historical amnesia.
Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]