– Edmund Burke.
In some ways, the hysteria surrounding the issue of what to do with monuments memorializing the Confederacy and the men who fought for it is a good thing. As an historian and employee of the National Archives for 30 years, I relish the fact that history and the impact of it on today’s society is the scorchingly hot topic of the day. On the other hand, as an historian and a keeper of our nation’s records, I could cry over the rush to hide, cover-up, obliterate that which is deemed objectionable and hurtful. Particularly painful is the attempt to remove the reminders of the past from the very institutions that are best suited to use them as teachable moments. Historical societies, museums, and the great halls of government are the very places where these monuments should be displayed, explained, and related to the events of the past that have shaped who we, as a nation, are today.
And in explaining that past, the most obvious lesson is that man is an imperfect being. The best among us have our faults, have done things in the past that shame us today. But, is the good, sometimes, the great that these men have done to be consigned to the dustbin of history because we, enlightened by progress and historical perspective, decide that the bad overwhelms the better part of their nature, their accomplishments?
If so, then let’s ignore Robert E. Lee’s 35 years of service to the United States, including being offered command of the Union forces, because of his decision to resign his commission and stand with his home and state. Now called a traitor, seditionist—the same terms his father, Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the American Revolution, was called by Great Britain as he rebelled against it.
Tear down his statues.
If so, then let’s ignore the great liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren’s herculean efforts to cobble together a nine to zero vote overturning the “Separate but Equal Doctrine,” because as Attorney General of California in 1942 he led the effort to intern Japanese/Americans because they were the “Achilles heel” that threatened California.
Tear down his statues.
If so, then let’s ignore what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did to hold the country together in the Great Depression and even more what he did to lead the world in defeating Germany and Japan, because he issued Presidential Proclamation 2537 which formally implemented the most racist action in presidential history, the internment of over 100,000 Japanese/Americans who lived in western coastal states, somehow including Arizona.
Tear down his statues. Close his memorial park. Shutter his presidential library.
I could go on and on with examples of terrible actions taken by great men: Andrew Jackson’s responsibility for the “Trail of Tears,” Woodrow Wilson’s racist action to resegregate the Federal workforce, Lyndon Johnson’s abysmal record on civil rights as a senator, Senator Robert Byrd’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan as a young man.
Tear down all their monuments. Or, let them lead us to the path of reconciliation that it seems Civil War soldiers, themselves, were able to find.
In 1938, the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg was held at the battlefield. It was the last reunion of Civil War soldiers. Only 1900 of the boys of the Blue and the Gray were alive and well enough to attend. On July 3rd, the date of Pickett’s Charge, a ceremony was held at the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge where the tide of the charge and the cause of the Confederacy crested. Men in their nineties stood on either side of the wall and shook hands, Rebel and Yankee united a final time as brothers. It seems inconceivable that they would believe that eighty years later the nation would again be riven by the same irrational hatred that led to that war.
My great grandfather fought for the Union—fought at Gettysburg and Antietam and other major battle sites. Struck by rheumatoid arthritis, his pain was treated with opium as was the case with many wounded soldiers. He, like many, became an addict. His life was ruined. Another casualty of war who, I’d like to think, if he’d lived to be at that ceremony on Cemetery Ridge, he would have been one of those to shake hands with his foe and say, “May we be enduring symbols to future generations that the result of our struggle has settled for all time that, indeed, “all men are created equal.”
It is now our turn to ensure that the history of that terrible time is presented in all its complexity and that it does not become a pawn in today’s foul atmosphere of political extremism.
Richard L. Claypoole served in a variety of leadership positions for the National Archives, including being the Director of the Office of the Federal Register and the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries and Museums. He was an editor of the Public Papers of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and editor in chief of the Public Papers of Ronald Reagan.