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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Guest editorial: How New Orleans should compromise on the Confederate monuments

Posted By on Tue, Dec 15, 2015 at 3:53 PM

  • Lee Circle.

The following is a guest editorial by Quin Hillyer in response to the New Orleans City Council's upcoming vote on whether to remove four Confederate monuments on public land.

The Battle of New Orleans Monuments should come to an end through compromise. Mayor Mitch Landrieu should promote the compromise and thus become a uniter and a healer, rather than a divider and bully.

The compromise must include the continuation of Robert E. Lee’s perch above the circle bearing his name, with an appropriately worded new display (more about which later in this column). The other three monuments at issue, even as historically significant as they are, might best be moved off of public property (to the consternation of many well-intentioned citizens) and donated to a legitimate historical/preservationist group or museum.

This is no knock against the historical significance of the other three monuments, nor against admirable character traits that P.G.T. Beauregard or Jefferson Davis may have displayed. Likewise, the preservation of Lee atop his circle should not be seen as an insult to black citizens, much less a tacit diminution of the evils of slavery. Instead, Lee’s statue – quite accurately – should be re-cast as a symbol of reconciliation, just as Lee himself did more than perhaps any other southerner, by word and example, to help heal the wounds of the Civil War.

In addition to being a great general and legendarily effective leader of men during the Civil War – a war he, unlike some Union generals, insisted on fighting under traditional strictures against despoiling civilian life or property – Lee forged a particularly honorable and distinguished career both before and after the great conflagration.

Afterwards, he not only quite famously and repeatedly urged harmony between North and South (and the acceptance “without reserve” of the “extinction of slavery… an event that has long been sought, though in a different way… and earnestly desired” by the citizens of his home state), but also on numerous times acted, in person, to reconcile the races and uphold the dignity of newly freed black men. (The most famous example involved him, at first alone among his parishioners, kneeling at a church altar rail next to a black worshipper.)
Google Lee’s name and the testimonies not just of later idolaters but of contemporaries, as to his sterling character, innate decency and extraordinary sense of duty, are so abundant as to be remarkable. And it was no Confederate “Lost Cause” aficionado but Charles Francis Adams Jr., the famed historian, great-grandson of President John Adams and himself a colonel in the Union Army, who wrote, upon the centennial of Lee’s birth, the following:
Those who were once his enemies in war, and their descendants, have come to recognize the greatness and goodness of [Lee], whom the educated civilized world is beginning to regard as the greatest man of the century which gave him to mankind. 
Adams surely overstated the case – but such praise from this scion of a long line of famous abolitionists should give us pause when we’re tempted to impose historical revisionism (or political correctness) on current affairs.

Plenty of historians have testified in public forums about the value of maintaining a statue that has stood as long as Lee’s has. What distinguishes Lee’s from the other three is its iconic prominence: Most visitors to New Orleans are probably oblivious to Beauregard (and certainly to Liberty Place), but there’s rarely a soul who has visited the Crescent City in 131 years who is unfamiliar by name with Lee Circle.

If that circle were explicitly repurposed as a symbol of compromise and unity, it would not only preserve a famous landmark and a sense of history, but also could turn the anger and vitriol evident in last week’s City Council meeting into mutual acceptance and, eventually, positive energy.

With that said, it is important that a display at the base of the statue be worded in just the right way. As simply and concisely as possible, here’s what I recommend:

The citizens of New Orleans erected this memorial to General Robert E. Lee in 1884, and it has become one of the city’s most identifiable landmarks. The city rededicates it in 2015 not because Lee was a great general in a cause that, whatever his own motivations, effectively involved defending the indefensible institution of human bondage. Instead, Lee here is recognized for using his fame, and every bit of his justifiable reputation for personal rectitude, to promote, post-war, full reconciliation between regions and races. By his example, Lee stood for revitalization of civic purpose after great conflagrations – a theme New Orleanians, with our history of overcoming the storms of history, readily understand, embrace, and celebrate.
Now that, or something very like it, is how a great city moves into the future.

— Columnist Quin Hillyer, a New Orleans native and onetime Managing Editor of Gambit, was a founding board member in 1989 of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. These are his opinions only.

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