First, and foremost, slavery and racism are despicable, deserving our utmost condemnation. However, I believe that the tearing down of Confederate statues is an historical injustice rooted in a lack of understanding about a complex event. To discern the fate of the statues, we must look at the historical record of the Civil War.
The more I learn about the Civil War, the more nuanced my view of this tragic conflict becomes. For example, there were both Northerners and Southerners who possessed racist views about African Americans. Many Confederate soldiers did not even own slaves. Men such as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson fought out of a sense of love for their state not to preserve slavery. Lee himself said, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country.”
Before we condemn Lee and others for their willingness to defend slaveholding states, let’s look at an analogy. If Canada invaded the U.S. today, many of us would defend our home, while simultaneously condemning the moral state of America. It’s easy to condemn the past without seeing the hypocrisies of today.
Another crucial aspect of the debate regards the Union’s goals. The words of northern writers make clear that many cared more about preserving the Union than about liberating slaves. For example, look at the Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1863. At this point, the South had the momentum. Lincoln realized that he needed to galvanize the North, so he issued the Proclamation, spurring enlistments. However, the text of the Proclamation is disappointing. It liberated slaves only in states that were in rebellion, not in Union border states like Kentucky and Maryland. All this seems to throw doubt on the true motivations of Union leaders.
This is not to say that there were no Northerners fighting to end slavery or that all Southerners were noble in their quest for independence. I am saying that not every Confederate was a Nazi, and not every Northerner was Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Civil War was a complex conflict in a deeply divided nation. Neither side had absolute moral advantage over the other.
Regarding the Confederate statues, I believe we should adopt Lincoln’s philosophy at his second inaugural address when he said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Part of binding up the nation’s wounds involved memorials and statues. Today, we have forgotten Lincoln’s words as the Neo-Nazi movement shamefully co-opts Confederate memorials and Antifa protesters vandalize historical statues. I believe that many Confederates would be horrified by their association with Neo-Nazism. Before we tear down their monuments, let’s remember the complexity of the Civil War. Some statues should be removed, like the statue of Roger Taney (who issued the Dred Scott decision). Others, like those of men like Robert E. Lee, should remain. Instead of twisting history to fit our narratives, we ought to take a look at the past. Moreover, let us show “malice toward none” and sympathy toward those on both sides whose ancestors were killed or enslaved.