Last week, activists destroyed the Charlottesville, Virginia Robert E. Lee monument in secret. They said it was to prevent violence, but not their own.
The Washington Post attended the event and documented the final moments for Lee’s face. The iconoclasts fashioned it into a “death mask” and then melted it down, creating a haunting image captured by the Post’s photographer. You could almost see Lee weeping. At the very least, the molten metal bleeding through the cracks in his face highlighted what looked like despondence, a weary expression of sorrow and defeat, not defiance.
That was the postwar Lee, so eloquently captured by all who met him in the years after the war and beautifully presented in verse by Donald Davidson. Lee had been worn down by the war and burdened with despair. He was lost in the mountains.
One University of Virginia “Black Lives Matter” activist who witnessed the event called it an execution. This is what the iconoclasts wanted from the beginning. Lee and Jefferson Davis survived to old age and were never tried for treason. They avoided the noose, but Lee could not avoid the flames.
That was the point. Lee and those who supported him had to be publicly humiliated. This was vengeance.
The group responsible for this illegal act of destruction–and it was illegal as they had promised the monument would be preserved in accordance with State law–insisted that the metal will be turned into an “inclusive” monument with an ironic title, “Swords into Plowshares”.
Ironic because Southerners had already sheathed their swords for peace and hammered them into plowshares. The monuments were the full expression of that movement.
It was called “reconciliation.” As the Richmond Times-Dispatch recounted in May 1924 after the Charlottesville Lee Monument was unveiled:
“A note common to all the addresses, amounting almost to a keynote, was the realization of the fortunate fact that the sections are becoming free of the rancor produced by the Civil War. To the efforts of General Robert E. Lee ‘more than to those of any other leader North or South,’ said President Smith of Washington and Lee, ‘the country owes the obligation in a single generation of sectional bitterness after the close of the War Between the States [emphasis added].'”
The Lee Monument represented healing to those who commissioned, designed, and erected it in the early twentieth century, right around the fiftieth anniversary of the War. The same could be said for the dozens of Union monuments built during the same period. Veterans from both sides of the conflict often attended dedication ceremonies. Our current iconoclasts could learn something from men who flung actual lead at one another and then shake hands across the political and social divide while honoring one another with monuments and praise.
Just a few years earlier, another monument dedicated in Virginia expressly used the Biblical verse, “They have beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks”, to describe the intent of the memorial.
That monument, designed by Jewish sculptor Moses Ezekiel and dedicated by both William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, offered a real inclusive arrangement of figures, including black Southern women and men, while concurrently highlighting a laurel wreath of peace. As President Taft, a Northerner, said at the dedication of the cornerstone in 1912:
“It fell to my official lot, with universal popular approval, to issue the order which made it possible to erect, in the National Cemetery of Arlington, the beautiful monument to the heroic dead of the South that you founded today. The event in itself speaks volumes as to the oblivion of sectionalism. It gives me not only great pleasure and great honor, but it gives me the greatest satisfaction as a lover of my country, to be present, as President of the United States, and pronounce upon this occasion the benediction of all true Americans.”
The tone of the iconoclast does not resemble anything of this original “plowshare” movement. Healing takes a backseat to retribution. The cheers, jeers, vandalism, destruction, and violence highlights their commitment to revolution, not reconciliation. There is no room for dissent in their petty, distorted, ideological world.
The modern activist iconoclast has nothing in common with the real “inclusive” reconciliationists, men who understood peace and healing. Like the French Jacobins who dedicated their lives to tearing down the ancien regime only to realize that the new order demanded their blood as well, their proposed “inclusive public art” may one day be deemed divisive and replaceable. It would be fitting for it to be melted down and destroyed, even if the ghost of Robert E. Lee lives on in the metal.
Perhaps it is best that Lee astride Traveller cannot witness the degradation of American society any longer. The University of Virginia, Jefferson’s university designed to protect Southern men from the “dark Federalist mills of the North”, has been bulldozed by the very mentality he wished to avoid. Lee, a man universally recognized by generations of Americans as the model of the Christian gentlemen, offered a silent rebuke to their insecure world.
He, like Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Henry, was Old Virginia, a Virginia that now barely exists.
But if Americans really believed in “inclusion” and “reconciliation”, the effort to destroy these monuments, like the “Naming Commission’s” planned demolition of the Arlington Confederate Monument, would be passionately resisted.
Perhaps the iconoclasts have overplayed their hand. Lee is gone, but when even Elon Musk recognizes that the iconoclasts are seeking “extinction” over “inclusion”, the tide may in fact turn. It is always darkest before the dawn.