The Robert E. Lee Lustration
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The issue in Virginia is, in our view, the statue of Robert E. Lee. Why is it there at Charlottesville? For what does it stand? Was the city right to decide to take it down? What about all the other places that have monuments to the general? We read that there are more than a thousand. There is also Arlington House-the Robert E. Lee Memorial, amid America’s national cemetery (once the Lee estate). Congress, by a unanimous vote in 1925, made it a memorial to the confederate commander. Currently being refurbished, it is due to reopen next month.
It is important for all Americans to take a stand against the violence that erupted at Charlottesville. The Sun is in the camp that reckons President Trump made a mistake, since corrected, in failing at first to focus his condemnation on the violence that was perpetrated by the white supremacists and anti-Semites. It’s not that Mr. Trump’s reference to violence on “many sides” was wrong in the abstract. But there will be time for the rest of it. Mr. Trump failed to hit mark that had presented itself at Charlottesville.
Instead, the president gave us a dodge of the kind we hear so often from the left — like the New York Times reacting to Palestinian Arab attacks on Israelis by denouncing the cycle of violence. It’s off. It makes readers imagine the Times doesn’t take seriously violence against Jews. In reference to Virginia, it appeared, if briefly, that Mr. Trump dasn’t irk the ilk of David Duke, whose presence at Charlottesville was one of the signals of the overt racism and anti-Semitism that riddled the event.
Yet Mr. Trump is not the cause of this crisis. The fact is that people were in a fury over Lee before the violence erupted at Charlottesville and before Mr. Trump was elected. We can see why (and not just because the greatest editor to have flown the flag of the Sun, Charles Dana, rode against Lee with U.S. Grant and helped make Grant president of the Republic Lee betrayed). The central act of Lee’s life — levying war against the United States — was the constitutional definition of treason. He was lucky to escape the gallows.
It is said that in Lee’s post-war years, the ex-general stood for reconciliation. It’s hard , though, to say that reconciliation was advanced by the movement to erect so many monuments to him. It was pursued by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Charlottesville monument was one of theirs. They were animated by the Lost Cause movement. Their work was launched decades after the war, and over the years has, in our opinion, wreaked incalculable damage on our Republic.
The cause of the Union itself would have been better pursued by a proper lustration. And we suppose a form of that is what is underway in all the protests against the Lee monuments. It’s a dangerous moment, though, for the process of lustration can ignite its own kind of illiberalism. Which is why national leadership is at a premium. The National Park Service’s Web site says that it plans to reopen Arlington House-the Robert E. Lee Memorial, in September. Maybe President Trump will seize the occasion to speak about the meaning of a Lee memorial in the capital even as Charlottesville dismantles its own.