Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lee and Davis and Other Confederate Superheroes

First a disclaimer—I don’t want to write this. As I said earlier this week, I do not like to write anything that is related to the Civil War. Anything I write will necessarily be divisive and this country is divided enough. And as someone who will always be a guest here in Richmond because I was born somewhere else, I know it’s not polite to say things that may upset your hosts. But, I didn’t start this. This was started by the editorial writers in the Richmond Times-Dispatch when they printed “What’s in a name?” in Thursday’s paper. The TD Opinion is in response to an attempt by citizens in Arlington County to remove the name of Jefferson Davis from the roads and streets of their county. I assume they are trying to change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway. 

After setting forth these facts and pointing out how contentious such attempt will be, the TD editors say,

Advocates of stripping Davis’ name can make a good case that, whatever his merits, he represented a cause tainted with the stain of slavery — and, so far as the United States is concerned, with treason — that has no business receiving honor today.

Excuse me: “so far as the United States is concerned?!” TD editors, do you live in a different country than the rest of us? Last time I checked, this is the United States. And yes, Virginia, Mr. Davis represented a cause more than “tainted” with treason. By stating this issue as primarily related to slavery--which even we in Richmond, after 150 years, can now acknowledge as being not particularly brotherly—and putting the treason issue as a parenthetical that only concerns “the United States” the TD editors are trying to hide the real heart of this issue.

 In the next paragraph the TD editors roll out the nuclear option. Through the use of a clever segue they turn this into a threat to our precious Monument Avenue. In their words, “To say Davis does not merit honoring is to imply that those statues [on Monument Avenue] should all be torn down.” Hey editors, relax. Those trying to change the name of Jeff Davis highway in Arlington are not going to come marching down I-95 to wreak havoc on our most famous thoroughfare.*

Now that they created the issue, the TD editors go on to defend our monuments:

Unlike certain later developments, those monuments were not erected in defiance of the civil-rights struggle for black equality in the 1960s. Their raising was meant to honor that which was honorable about the South, and to tear them down would be to repudiate not only everything bad about the Confederacy but also everything good as well.

So, erecting Richmond’s statutes of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson on what became Monument Avenue was meant to honor “that which was honorable about the South.” And, so that we can get back to the beginning point of the Opinion, I must assume that the action of our General Assembly in 1922 specifying that the Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia ran from the Fourteenth Street Bridge in Arlington to the North Carolina border near Clarksville, Virginia, was also meant to honor that which was honorable about the South.** 

Well pardon me if I disagree that Stuart, Lee, Davis and Jackson (as well as AP Hill whose monument didn’t make it to the Avenue) were that which was “honorable” about the South. I realize that all of these men faced difficult decisions when their states purported to secede from the United States. I know that General Lee was heartbroken. I just read that he initially promised to never take up arms either against the Federal Government or Virginia. I have also read that Jefferson Davis cried when he made his farewell speech in the United States Senate. Yet all but one of these men did decide to take up arms against the United States. And, Davis would have taken up arms if he were not elected President of the Confederacy. He would have much preferred to lead troops against his country.

With the exception of Jackson, who was a teacher at the Virginia Military Academy, these men were all officers of the United States at the beginning of 1861—Lee, Stuart and Hill were in the United States Army, Davis served in the United States Senate. All of them had taken an oath to support and protect the Constitution of the United States. Within months, all of them had violated their oaths by abandoning their allegiance to the United States and joining an insurrection against it. If what these men did was honorable, we need to start changing our thinking about Benedict Arnold.

Moreover, the conduct of all of our honorable Confederates amounted to treason under the United States Constitution. The Constitution defines treason quite clearly: 

 Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

Lee, Jackson, Stuart and Hill all participated directly in levying war against the United States. They led military groups that killed thousands of United States soldiers. Davis, although he may not have participated directly in military actions, was the Chief Executive Officer of the insurrection that called itself the Confederate States of America. Although they were never convicted of treason, this fact does not change the nature of their conduct.

After rejecting the removal of the monuments, the TD comes up with their solution:

A wiser way to affirm contemporary values, perhaps, is to continue striving to ensure that statutes, roadway names, and other landmarks and insignia embrace the full panoply of the state’s diversity. The monument to women of Virginia history that will soon rise in Richmond’s Capitol Square – perhaps the first such monument of its type in the country – points the proper way.

I certainly support this statement, especially because nobody (except the TD) seems to be considering destroying Monument Avenue. It’s not just a matter of affirming “contemporary values.” It would be a great idea for the City of Richmond to recognize the entirety of its long history, not just the years 1861 through 1865.

This brings me back to Jefferson Davis Highway. I support the citizens of Arlington. It is time for the General Assembly to reverse its action of 1922 and allow local jurisdictions to decide whether they want to continue to honor Jefferson Davis. In Richmond, I think the wonderful monument honoring Davis on the Avenue as well as the equally moving statute at his grave in Hollywood Cemetery are sufficient honors for a man like Davis. It’s time to change the name of those sections of U.S. Route 1 in Richmond that still bear his name to something that is more consistent with “contemporary values.” And, while we’re at it, do we really need a Robert E. Lee Bridge?

*The TD alarmism is like that of the National Rifle Association, which insists that even though the government claims it only wants to require background checks on those purchasing guns its true intent is to confiscate every gun in the country. It also resembles the statement in South Carolina’s secession document in 1860 that one of its reasons for attempting to leave the Union was that the Republican government in Washington intended to launch a war to free all the slaves.

**For a fascinating history of the Jefferson Davis Highway see


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