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The Facts —
- Last Thursday, the historic Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia decided to remove two memorial plaques commemorating George Washington and Robert E. Lee, who were involved in the church’s history. The vestry of the church explained this decision in a letter to the congregation.
“We understand that both Washington and Lee lived in times much different than our own, and that each man, in addition to his public persona, was a complicated human being, and like all of us, a child of God.
Today, the legacy of slavery and of the Confederacy is understood differently than it was in 1870. For some, Lee symbolizes the attempt to overthrow the Union and to preserve slavery. Today our country is trying once again to come to grips with the history of slavery and the subsequent disenfranchisement of people of color.”
“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.
Because the sanctuary is a worship space, not a museum, there is no appropriate way to inform visitors about the history of the plaques or to provide additional context except for the in-person tours provided by our docents.
The Vestry believes that the memorial plaques to George Washington and Robert E. Lee should be considered together. The plaques were erected at the same time. They visually balance each other, maintaining the symmetry of our sanctuary. The men they memorialize are giants in our nation’s history and were members of this parish. Robert E. Lee has taken on outsized symbolism in the national conversation about race and inclusion.
The Vestry has unanimously decided that the plaques create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church, and an impediment to our growth and to full community with our neighbors. Accordingly, the plaques will be relocated no later than the summer of 2018.”
- On Monday night, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, was asked about this particular issue, and argued that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War” on the Fox News show The Ingraham Angle.
“History is history. There are certain things in history that were not so good, and other things that were very, very good. I think we make a mistake, though, when, as a society… we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years and say what those people did was wrong… I think it is very very dangerous, and it shows you… a lack of appreciation of history, and what history is.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which, 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first, back in those days. It’s different today.
“The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and the men and women of good faith, on both sides, made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
- According to a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll, Democratic candidate Ralph Northam leads Republican candidate Ed Gillespie by 5% in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.
The Context —
- Since the “Unite the Right” rally that centered around the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ultimately resulted in the death of one woman, and the injury of 19 others on 12 August, the removal of statues and monuments commemorating controversial historical figures has been a matter of national interest. As previously reported by The Whim:
- On 14 August, a statue dedicated to the average Confederate soldier was pulled down by protesters in Durham, North Carolina, and protester Takiya Thompson was arrested the following day.
- On the evening of 15 August, the city of Baltimore removed four Confederate monuments overnight.
- On 17 August, President Trump denounced the nationwide removal of Confederate statues.
- On the evening of 20 August, the inscription on the oldest monument to Christopher Columbus was destroyed by protesters, who uploaded a video of the act of vandalism on YouTube.
- On 21 August, The Whim reported that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (California) and Senator Cory Booker (New Jersey) had released statements calling for the removal of Confederate statues in the U.S. Capitol.
- On the evening of 12 September, around 100 protesters covered a statue of Thomas Jefferson with a black tarp on the University of Virginia campus.
- The issue of the removal of monuments has been a central topic of the Virginia gubernatorial race.
- During a debate between the two major candidates, Ed Gillespie said:
“My view is that the statues should remain, and that we should place them in historical context so that people can learn. We don’t have to glorify the objects of the statues, we can educate about them. We have to learn from history, and that is a difference.”
“Their’s (white supremacists) is not a political philosophy, it is a twisted mindset that is rooted in hate, that believes that people are lesser than others, that one race is superior than another, and that another religion is inferior to yours. If that’s your view, that is worse than immoral, that is the presence of evil in our world, and we must confront it and reject it. As governor, I would always do so.”
- Ralph Northam said:
“What we watched, a month ago, in Charlottesville was a horrific tragedy. A group of white supremacists […] rolled into Charlottesville, a beautiful city of Virginia, with torches, and banners, and semi-automatic weapons…
If these statues give individuals, white supremacists like that, an excuse to do what they did, then we need to have a discussion about the statues…
Personally, I would think that the statues would be better placed in museums with, certainly, historical context, but I am leaving that up to the localities.”
Historiography and the Cause of the Civil War —
- Since Reconstruction, historians have interpreted the cause of the Civil War in different ways.
- The modern historical study of this shift in interpretation is called historiography, which focuses on how different historians interpret events and why. The following historiography was compiled by CivilWarTalk.
- Beginning in 1890, just after Reconstruction, historians such as James Ford Rhodes pushed the idea that the Civil War was part of a global trend of nation-state building, and the product of “impersonal forces.”
- Beginning in the 1930s, following the Great Depression, historians like Charles and Mary Beard argued that the Civil War was the result of economic differences between the Northern and Southern states.
- Other contemporaries of the Beards, such as Avery Craven and James Randall, were more affected by the end of the first World War, and argued that the war was the result of a failure of Washington’s politicians to compromise, and that sectarianism was to blame. In the 1960’s, Michael Holt elaborated on this point, focusing on the affect of sectarianism.
- Dr. David Blight, Professor of History at Yale University spoke at length about different theories on the cause of the Civil War, as well as it’s historiography in this lecture available online for free.
- According to historian Michael Woods, most modern historians argue that, regardless of other historical processes, the issue of slavery was the focal point of the Civil War.
- Colonel Ty Seidule, Head of the Department of History at West Point, argued in this video from PragerU that “slavery was, by a wide margin, the single most important cause of the Civil War.”
- Woods wrote in his historiography of the cause of the Civil War entitled What Twenty-First-Century Historians Have Said about the Causes of Disunion, published by the Journal of American History in September 2012:
“Professional historians can be an argumentative lot, but by the dawn of the twenty-first century, a broad consensus regarding Civil War causation clearly reigned. Few mainstream scholars would deny that Abraham Lincoln got it right in his second inaugural address—that slavery was ‘somehow’ the cause of the war. Public statements by preeminent historians reaffirmed that slavery’s centrality had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Writing for the popular Civil War magazine North and South in November 2000, James M. McPherson pointed out that during the war, ‘few people in either North or South would have dissented’ from Lincoln’s slavery-oriented account of the war’s origins. In ten remarkably efficient pages, McPherson dismantled arguments that the war was fought over tariffs, states’ rights, or the abstract principle of secession. That same year, Charles Joyner penned a report on Civil War causation for release at a Columbia, South Carolina, press conference at the peak of the Palmetto State’s Confederate flag debate. Endorsed by dozens of scholars and later published in Callaloo, it concluded that the ‘historical record … clearly shows that the cause for which the South seceded and fought a devastating war was slavery.’”
“Despite the impulse to close ranks amid the culture wars, however, professional historians have not abandoned the debate over Civil War causation. Rather, they have rightly concluded that there is not much of a consensus on the topic after all. Elizabeth Varon remarks that although ‘scholars can agree that slavery, more than any other issue, divided North and South, there is still much to be said about why slavery proved so divisive and why sectional compromise ultimately proved elusive.’ And as Edward Ayers observes: ‘slavery and freedom remain the keys to understanding the war, but they are the place to begin our questions, not to end them.’ The continuing flood of scholarship on the sectional conflict suggests that many other historians agree. Recent work on the topic reveals two widely acknowledged truths: that slavery was at the heart of the sectional conflict and that there is more to learn about precisely what this means, not least because slavery was always a multifaceted issue.”
Seamus Anderson contributed to this report.