Over the past several months, following events in Charlottesville, Virginia and elsewhere, a mass movement has erupted across America. Outraged by what they see as symbols of racism and white supremacy, activists have demanded the removal of statues memorializing prominent Confederates, notably Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as monuments to ordinary soldiers. Some public officials have voiced support, and throughout the U.S., statues are being removed, some being torn down. In addition to those monuments gracing city property, activists are calling for the ejection of statues to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other famous Southerners from Congress’ Statuary Hall. Activists have also set their sights on those buildings bearing the names of Confederate heroes. Two weeks ago in San Antonio, Texas, a school board voted to rename Robert E. Lee High School. Perhaps most incredible of all, some critics seek to sanitize works of art and ensure it is politically correct. In Memphis, Tennessee a movie theatre recently stopped showing the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind because it was deemed “racially insensitive.” This philosophy has led some to even argue against iconic national monuments to two of America’s greatest founders — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — simply because they owned slaves.
Critics often forget, however, neither founder truly believed in slavery. Jefferson called slavery “holding a wolf by the ears,” and Washington took the bold step of freeing his slaves in his will. More impressive, and often overlooked, is that neither Lee nor Jackson held slaves or believed in the practice. Nor did many Confederate soldiers. They fought to defend their states and families during a time that we today, quite frankly, struggle to comprehend. For the critics, though, it is enough they fought for the Confederacy. In their narrow-minded view, these brave warriors fought primarily to keep slavery and to divide the nation. Consequently, they must be traitors to America and all it now represents. With this preconceived starting point, the question activists ask is — why should they have monuments dedicated to them? I, too, ask that question, but I have a different “take.” The answer for me and many other historians and history buffs is simple — they stand as a testimony to where we have been and how far we have come. No one today disputes slavery was evil; no one wants it back. But most of those memorialized in stone were honorable, virtuous men — wholly devoted to their homeland, valorous in their service, steadfast in their duty.
Personally, I am glad the North won the Civil War, ending slavery and making the United States one nation, indivisible. Still, it is important we study those who came before us and honor the memory of the finest of their day. Whatever their faults, it is due to them we live in the freest nation on earth. We should not erase what we disagree with because it conflicts with our modern sensibilities. After all, future generations may condemn us for acts currently thought acceptable. Rather, we should view historical figures and events through the context of their day, through the prism of their times and their experiences, never glossing over flaws or failings, but certainly not judging by unrealistic standards. Where it is warranted, they deserve to be remembered for their accomplishments, not vilified for their imperfections. In that sprit, I am launching a new chapter for jakes-takes. In order to illustrate my point in a constructive, reasonable way, over the coming weeks I will publish a set of stories on eighteenth and nineteenth-century notable Americans, by region Southerners, but all of them good and admirable Americans, worthy of respectful study.