The City Council of New Orleans, at the behest of Mayor Mitch Landrieu (who in turn was acting as the urging of jazz great Wynton Marsalis) has rewritten history, vilified the 70 million-plus Americans who are descended from the Confederate Army, and ruptured the Big Easy in ways that may take years to repair.
At a time when national polls show national racial tensions at a level unseen for decades, Mayor Landrieu and the Council have ignited an unnecessary and terribly divisive civic battle over some venerable Confederate statuary, especially the monument to Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle. The sudden opprobrium heaped upon Lee and the Confederacy by Landrieu, Marsalis and the full-throated chorus of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper has not been seen since the War itself, now 150 years into our past.
The City Council, refusing to seek compromise, voted 6 to 1 to remove the landmark statues of Lee and of New Orleanian Pierre G.T. Beauregard from where they have stood since the 19th century. Two other Confederate memorials are also scheduled for removal.
I am one of those 70 million Americans whose forefathers fought for the Southern Cause. Like Mr. Marsalis, I cannot change my ancestors. Nor would I wish to. Those men did what they thoroughly believed in their time to be right. Their pictures hang on our walls, their names are in our Bibles, and we put flowers on their graves. They are a part of our families and our heritage, and we understand them in the context of their times. Whatever one may think about their cause with 150 years of hindsight and historical interpretations, one cannot doubt their valor and their sacrifice.
The fathers of many of those men fought the American Revolution and in the War of 1812. (Lee and Beauregard were highly regarded officers in the Mexican War, and both were commandants of West Point). Since 1865, the South has given a higher percentage of her sons and daughters to combat than any other region. Black and white, from San Juan Hill to Omaha Beach to Fallujah, they have served and they have died.
In 1861, the Confederacy felt that it was the North who had abrogated the Constitution.
And the easy sophomoric narrative that the American Civil War was “fought to protect slavery” and that these men were traitors drives much of this demagogic rhetoric. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he made it clear that he had no intention of ending slavery. In fact, he urged passage of the Corwin Amendment, which would have made the institution of slavery perpetual in America. Slavery was not the Southern sin, but the National Sin. It built the American economy and Wall Street. Twelve of our first seventeen Presidents were slave owners, including Ulysses S. Grant.
James Madison, who was most influential in the creation of the Constitution and The Bill of Rights argued, as did Thomas Jefferson, that the sovereign states had the right of secession.
(Some would question why Lincoln would seek Robert E. Lee to command the Northern forces if it were about ending slavery. Lee’s wife had inherited Martha Washington’s slaves.)
Historians will cherry-pick facts to suit their conclusions. But, in my opinion, it is a fact that the only good thing about the war was that it ended slavery in America, even though that was not its purpose. (If the war had ended at First Manassas, slavery would have continued, perhaps for decades.)
It is also a fact that Robert E. Lee was a man of impeccable character and honor. The divisive crusaders of New Orleans are practicing historical “presentism,” i.e., judging the past by current sensibilities and mores.
When the ever-eloquent Wynton Marsalis was two years old, I was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It was a dangerous time, and I still have a few scars from my rumbles with the KKK. That was over 50 years ago now. We have come a long, long way in our journey toward the American promise, and we obviously have a long way to go. But the gratuitous and heavy-handed action in New Orleans is a setback to the bridge building that Dr. King and millions of other Americans struggled to achieve.
What we have in New Orleans is a difference of opinion about the past. It is now a difference of opinion about the law, as the City Council’s decision is going to Federal Court. I hope and pray that the Court will be more circumspect than the political dividers of that great American city.