We’re down to two. Of the four monuments hand-selected by Mayor Landrieu for removal, only two remain – those memorializing Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Pierre G. T. Beauregard.
If Landrieu remains true to form, he’ll leave Lee’s statute for last. It is the most prominent, the most controversial, and by far the most difficult to remove. The figure of Lee looming large over the city is a major fixture, and parting with it cuts deeply to many New Orleanians.
Many people, especially those who are younger, do not understand Lee’s history as an American icon of heroism, loyalty, benevolence, and reconciliation. Without a doubt, he has been held up as an inspiration to generations of Americans.
The complete record is too voluminous to recount here, but to cite but one small example, virtually every one of our presidents since the Great Depression have paid homage to Lee.
To begin with, in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the dedication of a new monument to Robert E. Lee in Dallas, Texas. There, he made the following remarks:
“I am very happy to take part in this unveiling of the statue of General Robert E. Lee.
All over the United States we recognize him as a great leader of men, as a great general. But, also, all over the United States I believe that we recognize him as something much more important than that. We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”
In the following years, especially during World War II, Robert E. Lee was often held up as embodying American gallantry and resolve, both home and abroad. Winston Churchill himself once remarked that “Lee was the noblest American who had ever lived and one of the greatest commanders known to the annals of war.”
President Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, also held Lee in high regard. Truman committed one of Lee’s prayers to memory and recited it often. He had presented his mother with a small portrait of Lee when he returned from service in WWI, which she kept by her bedside until her death. He later personally visited Lee’s statue at Gettysburg and wrote to his daughter lauding the “great man.”
Lee was no less loved by Truman’s successor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He had portraits of four great Americans in the Oval Office, one of which was of Lee. In 1960, a man wrote to Eisenhower, asking how Eisenhower could hold Lee, a man who wanted to “destroy our government,” in such high esteem. Eisenhower responded:
“General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.
From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained .
Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.”
After Eisenhower, there was President John F. Kennedy. Despite being from the northeast, Kennedy openly expressed admiration for Lee. At a speech given during the presidential campaign in North Carolina in 1960, then Senator Kennedy remarked:
“[A]s a New Englander, I recognize that the South is still the land of Washington, who made our Nation – of Jefferson, who shaped its direction – and of Robert E. Lee who, after gallant failure, urged those who had followed him in bravery to reunite America in purpose and courage.”
After President Kennedy was assassinated, he was succeeded by President Lyndon Johnson. President Johnson repeatedly invoked Lee in the cause of civil rights and ending segregation. While attempting to convince a moderate Arkansas attorney to take a seat on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Johnson compared his choice with that faced by Lee:
“You just get Robert E. Lee out, and he left West Point. He left West Point, you know, and he said he’d have to get out of the federal army and go home and look after his people. That’s what you’ve got to do because we’ve got this problem. We’ve got to have somebody that’s got judgment, got eloquence, got ability, and that sit in a room with people and disagree with them without being too disagreeable.”
In October of 1964, after signing the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson attended a fundraiser in New Orleans and openly invoked Lee in support of civil rights:
“For so long as I serve in the White House, your Government will be dedicated not to encroaching upon the rights of the States, but to helping the States meet their responsibilities to their own people. Let me be specific.
If we are to heal our history and make this Nation whole, prosperity must know no Mason-Dixon line and opportunity must know no color line. Robert E. Lee, a great son of the South, a great leader of the South–and I assume no modern day leader would question him or challenge him–Robert E. Lee counseled us well when he told us to cast off our animosities, and raise our sons to be Americans.”
Following the resignation of Johnson’s successor, Nixon, Gerald Ford assumed the presidency. In 1975, he opted to issue an official pardon to Lee. At the ceremony pardoning Lee, President Ford remarked, in pertinent part:
“In 1865, Robert E. Lee wrote to a former Confederate soldier concerning his signing the Oath of Allegiance, and I quote: “This war, being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.
As a soldier, General Lee left his mark on military strategy. As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty. As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox.
General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”
Next came President Jimmy Carter. Carter presided over the Iranian hostage crisis, and eulogized the American servicemen killed during that event at Arlington National Cemetery on May 9, 1980. He did so, in part, by comparing them favorably to Lee:
“This very land once belonged to General Robert E. Lee. Like these eight men, he was a soldier whose affection for his home and family called him to a life of service that often meant hardship, loneliness, and long separation from those he loved and even from the Nation which. he most loved.
Robert E. Lee lived by the words that he wrote to his own son: ‘Duty is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.’ The airmen and marines we are honoring today demonstrated by their lives and finally by their deaths that they understood and subscribed to that austere and honorable creed.”
It should be noted that Carter also openly came out against the removal of Confederate monuments in 2015, the same year that Mayor Landrieu announced his monument-removing initiative.
Following Carter, President Ronald Reagan too lobbed praised on Lee. At a meeting of the Texas Bar Association in 1984, Reagan said:
“Robert E. Lee, this southerner who criticized secession and called slavery a great moral wrong, would become himself an American legend; yet a man who thought-though he rode off into myth and glory, would suffer cruelly in his own time. After the dissolution of his cause, he would work to bind up the Nation’s wounds. And to those pessimistic about the Nation’s future, he once said, ‘The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. ‘It is history,’ he said, ‘that teaches us to hope.’”
Following Bush, Sr., Reagan’s successor, came President Clinton. While in his previous job as governor of Arkansas, Clinton notably signed legislation that combined the holidays of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day with Robert E. Lee Day (a law that was reversed just this year).
After Clinton, Bush Jr. came into office. Addressing WestPoint graduates in 2002, Bush humorously noted that graduates could have followed the paths of either Lee, who graduated without a single demerit, or of General Ulysses S. Grant, “who had his fair share of demits.” By this standard, Bush acknowledged in a show of self-deprecation, he was “a Grant man” during his college years.
The point of the foregoing is to establish that Lee is a part of the national fabric. He stands among the panoply of national heroes, those who have traditionally been regarded as role models for future leaders. He is not simply a stand in for some “Lost Cause” narrative or a symbol of white supremacy, as Landrieu and his gaggle of hangers-on would have us believe.
By the time the Lee Monument was dedicated in 1884, Lee had been broadly accepted as a protagonist in America’s story. A large contingent of the G.A.R., Union veterans, attended the dedication. It reflected a healing of wounds and a source of common ground.
As a symbol, Lee has influenced many of the great events, and yes, advances of the past century. Although he led the Confederate army, he was invoked in support of civil rights. Although he was a soldier, he was advanced in the cause of peace.
Those who view this as a contradiction or a false history are refusing to understand the American experience. They are shutting their eyes and closing their minds.
And that is why the loss of Lee’s statue is a loss for us all.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.