‘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.’ So wrote the great Confederate General Robert E. Lee a few years before the outbreak of the American Civil war in a letter to his wife. It is a trite observation that the average American is poorly educated but my suggestion to those in Charlottesville who would remove Lee’s statue is that they study the history of their own nation more carefully.
By analogy I can see arguments being made, for example, against the Catholic Church. I would disagree with them, but I can accept that there is at least a case to answer. But then point to Alexander Borgia or the Inquisition, not Mother Theresa. Likewise, when it comes to the Civil War, do not impugn perhaps the greatest American that ever lived and certainly by far the most attractive character of that particular conflict. Where Grant ‘the butcher’ and Sherman brought total war to civilian populations in the South, Lee and his Confederates respected the rules of chivalry, a point conceded even by partisans of the Northern cause.
Lee, as we all should know, was personally opposed to slavery. He led the Confederate armies having been offered the command of the Union’s forces, a post he refused on account his correct interpretation of the Founding Fathers’ vision. In short, his loyalty lay with the State of Virginia, not with any Federal Government. Had his state not seceded but joined the North, as did West Virginia, then he would have fought with the Union and the War would have been a lot shorter. He was by far the ablest military commander on either side, almost invariably outnumbered on the field, scoring remarkable victories nevertheless where Bonaparte before him had nearly always enjoyed numerical superiority.
Limitations of space preclude a deconstruction of an orthodox and typically un-nuanced version of history that paints a good, anti-slavery North, defeating a wicked, pro-slavery South. Suffice to say that evidence inconvenient to such an interpretation abounds. The Union’s Emancipation Proclamation occurred only well into the war; Lee promoted the induction of slaves into the military on condition that they were freed; blacks joined white confederate units where in the North black units remained segregated; in the Illinois of Abraham Lincoln only native-born blacks were allowed to dwell – those born out of the state required transit papers to justify their presence; Google images of ‘black confederates’ and you will be surprised by who is waving Dixie’s flag. The list is endless.
This is not to argue that the question of slavery was not central to the Civil War but rather an invitation to delve into the subtleties of history. Certainly for Lee and many who thought like him the overriding issue was about where sovereignty lay. The South had its own unique culture, its cuisine, its set of manners, all doubtless having evolved partly on the back of an institution which would have vanished whatever the outcome of the War. Whereas in the North, ideology, not culture – a Calvinistic ‘my way or the Highway’ and a corresponding theology of wealth prevailed. Americans ask ‘why does the rest of the world hate us?’ The answer is that it is the Yankee in them who is hated; the Yankee who forces his vision onto the rest of the planet just as he did a century and a half ago onto the South; a failure to appreciate the world as a magical coral reef of different themes and colours and cultures, each with its own way of evolving and co-existing with the whole.
In short, the antifa in Charlottesville have chosen the wrong target. The very issues that drove Lee to fight for the Confederacy should make him their hero. If they are genuinely anti-globalist and anti-fascist, then sovereignty, at the level of the individual and at the level of the nation, should be at the heart of their agenda. The state, having been fused with the nation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has now been decoupled from it and serves simply as an adjunct to international finance, making slaves of us all – in large measure because of the very thinking that inspired the Union. This process, whereby Central Government in unholy alliance with finance would erode all our liberties, had been explicitly warned against by Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and a reading of the Federalist Papers makes evident that even the most pro-Federal of their writers, such as Hamilton, were clear about decision making processes being kept at the level of the local. The so-called anti fascists, in their naive, one-world vision do the work of all our enemies. They constitute the natural allies of Goldman Sachs and the like in money’s quest to tear down any barriers that impede its march.
Indeed, the issues fought over by Lee and his compatriots have rarely been so pertinent. Secession is so often the spasm on which genuine change is predicated: an exodus from Egypt, a migration from Mecca, the founding of America itself as a result of schism in Europe. When the existing order suffocates and can no longer be tolerated a de-linking is the obvious response. The break-up of the Soviet Union, the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom, Britain’s divorce from the tyranny of Brussels, perhaps too a disintegration of the United States itself where large sections of the population speak Spanish as their main language, and the impending breakdown of the global financial order – the modern parallels are obvious.
But quite apart from Lee’s personal qualities – and his symbolic significance – there is an even more important reason for us to disregard the call to remove his statue. The disproportionate focus on such an aspiration constitutes a largely media-driven red herring, a diversion from the real issues, an exercise in intellectual cowardice. It is painless, not brave, to attack yesterday’s villains. (And I repeat, Lee is no villain). Bono versus Apartheid: easy. Bono versus the ANC: not so easy. Now we have a call in the Guardian to bring down Nelson’s Column on account of his support for slavery some two hundred years ago; in South Africa Rhodes too must fall; no doubt the Colosseum should be bulldozed because Christians were fed to the lions there; the Vatican nuked on account of the Crusades; Thomas More’s grave desecrated for his burning of heretics. Are these people antifa or are they Isis? Charlottesville to Palmyra – the road is short.
As we all know, racism and the KKK are not, in truth, pressing issues and their adherents will only ever emerge from the fringe if they are oxygenated by a mischievous press, anxious to capture what it assumes to be the short attention span of a frivolous audience. A system which enslaves us through debts that can never be repaid; huge and increasing disparities in wealth; an emerging generation unable to afford housing; the Orwellianisation of the State; the disappearance of the nation; the destruction of culture; the erosion of character; the vanishing of entire ecosystems; the dwindling of natural resources; the end of the cheap energy on which our modern civilisations have been constructed; rapidly expanding populations. These are the real issues. And yet when I open my newspaper or switch on the news I behold nothing but the most depressing celebrities or uninspiring politicians, none of them with the backbone to address today’s real problems or to challenge today’s real villains – combined not worth a fraction of a Robert E. Lee or Horatio Nelson.