In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Confederate monuments and their existence have once again captured national interest. President Donald Trump has defended the monuments by asking if Washington or Jefferson will follow after the removal of Robert E. Lee’s monuments. Those interested in retaining the monuments say it is a matter of preserving cultural history and remembering great leaders and generals. Others see the glorification of rebels that fought in America’s bloodiest conflict to preserve slavery.
Some believe that Lee is on a pedestal because he was a very capable general and leader; admittedly, very few historians would deny Lee’s martial prowess. The rest of the world has statues of far more vile mass murderers because they were good at leading legions of men. One would imagine Cromwell, the bane of the Irish, would not have a statue outside of the House of Commons. Or Ivan the Terrible, mastermind of the Oprichnina, in Moscow. Or Mao Zedong, arguably the only man more Stalin than Stalin himself, in China. And up until 2010, a statue of Stalin in Ukraine! A rather dark historical irony. Other countries celebrate these men because they are powerful leaders of their time, despite the death and destruction they wrought upon millions. One might even consider Robert E. Lee to be rather tame in comparison.
However, the United States is — and must be — different. The rest of the world has spent centuries deifying kings, nobles, emperors and dictators because for too much of human history we believed that only those who stood on the corpses of their enemies could govern. We have statues of Washington, not because he was a great general (he was not), but because he rejected the idea that only he or any single man could rule the United States, even when everyone of his time believed it to be so. We revere Jefferson, not because he negotiated for French military aid, but because he wrote the immortal words “all men are created equal.”
We idolize these men because, despite their mortal faults (and none were devoid of any), they represented moral leadership and a just guiding hand toward the dream of a more perfect union. Unlike the rest of the world, we only fought a great civil war once; not over which so-and-so was the rightful ruler, but over the principles and f,uture of the great democratic experiment. We place our moral beliefs on pedestals because they are…