Thomas Jefferson > Robert E. Lee

I’m pretty indifferent to the controversy over the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans. Whether or not there’s a statue of the man in New Orleans, is a matter for the residents and taxpayers of New Orleans.

Nevertheless, I find it a bit odd that so many conservatives are singing the praises of a man who spent his entire career as a government employee and who rose to prominence as a military officer who largely spent his time helping the US government murder Mexicans whose only crime was attempting to defend their country from the American invasion of 1846-1848..

Lee is perhaps most notable in that war for helping the US Army get the upper hand at the battle of Cerro Gordo, where 1,000 Mexicans were killed for no good reason. But it did put a shiny medal on Robert E Lee’s chest!

This sort of behavior, apparently, is what passes for “gentlemanly” and “honorable” in some corners of the American blogosphere. He only “did his duty” his supporters will tell us. This, of course, implies that were Lee in the US Army in 2003, he would have “dutifully” rained down death on Iraqi women and children just as he paved the way for US forces to rape women and burn churches as they did in the Mexican invasion 150 years earlier.

Basically, the man was a 19th-century equivalent of David Petraeus, but since Lee’s war crimes were perpetrated a long, long time ago, we’re to interpret them as the acts of a gentleman. Moreover, Lee was already fabulously wealthy by the 1840s, and could have easily resigned his position rather than invade a neighboring country for no purpose other than to steal its land and wealth. 

Now, I know what Lee’s supporters will say. They’ll accuse me of siding with the authoritarian PC regime by supposedly nit-picking some minor offense that Lee committed. Lee today, Thomas Jefferson tomorrow!  To which there are a couple of responses. First of all, waging war against the Mexicans was never some “minor offense.” It was and is the moral equivalent of any modern invasion of a non-belligerent nation motivated by pure avarice. And secondly, Robert E. Lee ain’t no Thomas Jefferson. He never wrote anything worth reading today, and he’s not even in the same ballpark as Jefferson in terms of important contributions to humanity. Jefferson was both nationally and internationally influential. He was an important political theorist, and remains one today. Jefferson was also notable — unlike Lee — for having a particular disdain for war. Jefferson’s embargo, while a horrible miscalculation, was an attempt to keep the US out of the Napoleonic wars. Moreover, if you want to see the difference between a good declaration of independence, and a terrible one, read Jefferson’s Declaration, and then read some of the declarations of secession put out by the states of the Confederacy. The latter — which Lee fought to enact — are mostly whiny lists complaining of how the mean ol’ Northerners are ignoring the fugitive slave laws. The Mississippi declaration goes so far as to claim that the preservation of slavery is identical to the preservation of civilization itself. That’s a far cry Jefferson’s defense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When it comes to Jefferson and Lee, there is no equivalence. Not even remotely.

I agree it’s important to oppose those who want to wipe American history clean of anyone who isn’t sufficiently PC for the tastes of University sociology professors. But, that can be done without supporting people like Lee. Moreover, there are plenty of northern officers from the Civil War who deserve a lot less honor than they get. If some people want to rename Sheridan, Meade, Lincoln, and Grant streets in Denver, they have my blessing. General Sheridan, of course, once declared that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” and then did his best to prove it.  Rename those streets after William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and others who had better things to do than shoot either Mexican peasants, Virginia farm boys, or Lakota women. If Lee’s backers want to me to support a plan to replace a statue of Lee with a statue of Jefferson, then they have my full support. Either way, I’m not going to lose much sleep over it.


12:41 pm on May 24, 2017