By Matt Higgins
“However expressive, symbols can never be the things they stand for.” – Aldous Huxley
The recent controversy surrounding New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan to remove four monuments dedicated to Confederate figures and events has sparked a rowdy chorus of supporters and opponents. Landrieu and his supporters contend that the statues do not reflect the diversity or serve as proper symbols of New Orleans in the 21st century. Critics counter that the monuments do not in themselves, support slavery or white supremacy.
While it is true that the reasons for the creation and dedication of the monuments serve as symbols beyond slavery, it is also true that based on historical evidence, the monuments stand for far more than individuals or events and include the harsh realities of slavery and segregation.
The three most prevalent statues – those of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis – were erected in 1884, 1911, and 1915, respectively. During this era, the idea of the “Lost Cause” was the dominant ethos in the South, particularly among those who served the Confederacy.
The Lost Cause’s ideology is that the South agreed that the Civil War had settled the questions of secession and slavery and that neither would occur again. And Southerners asserted their loyalty to the United States. At the same time, the ideology asserts that the South lost not because the Southern cause was unjust but because of superior Northern military force.
Often, supporters of the Lost Cause will argue that the South was defending itself against an aggressive national government and that the states had the right to secede and did so in order to preserve their way of life from Northern dominance. Today, supporters of the Lost Cause will rarely mention slavery as a reason for the secession and subsequent war, but one need only to look at numerous political clashes in Congress between Northern and Southern states, as well as the Southern economy during the first half of the 19th century, to see that slavery was the obvious cause of the war.
Even after the Civil War though, slavery and inequality were mentioned as justifications for the war. At the dedication of Jefferson Davis’ statue in 1911 – which was attended by the governor and mayor. Davis’ friend and one time associate justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court Charles E. Fenner spoke honored Davis. In his speech, he stated, according to the Daily Picayune, “Property in slaves was a distinction recognized in the Constitution and the protection of that property was guaranteed.”
The Daily Picayune mentions the term Lost Cause many times in the article about the dedication.
Virginia journalist Edward A. Pollard wrote in his 1866 book , The Lost Cause, “The war properly decided only what was put in issue: the restoration of the Union and the excision of slavery, and to these two conditions, the South submits. But the war did not decide Negro equality; it did not decide Negro suffrage. . . . And these things which the war did not decide, the southern people will cling to, still claim, and still assert them in their rights and views.”
As events in 20th century clearly proved, Pollard was not only correct; he was a visionary.
One might argue that while slavery and inequality were mentioned in the adulation of the Confederate figures, this was not the dominant reason. It is true that at the dedication of Lee’s statue, most of the speeches’ content was about Lee’s honor, courage, sacrifice, and the respect his men had for him.
Nevertheless, slavery and racial inequality cannot be separated from these events and what they celebrated, which is unfortunate because there are legitimate arguments in favor of states’ rights.
In the 1980s, the federal government, supported by President Reagan, used the threat of withholding highway funds to persuade states to raise their legal drinking age to 21. This included Louisiana, the southern portion of which uses alcohol in many of its traditions.
Whether it is wise for 18-20 years old to drink is a valid debate. Nevertheless, 18-20 year olds can argue that laws recognize this age group to be adults in many other areas including military service and punishment for crimes. They can also argue, quite simply, that the federal government has no right to impose a drinking age on the states.
Public education has been under the domain state governments and many veteran teachers and administrators oppose the “Race to the Top” initiative of the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, which also uses money as a carrot and stick approach to exert its influence. Many people argue that federal government should play little or no role in how the states education their young people.
Those states like Louisiana who suffered so greatly from Katrina cannot through their state governments hold the Army Corps of Engineers legally accountable for the levee failures and ensure that the Corps maintains sound flood protection. The states’ rights, in this area, are strictly constrained. Many, in New Orleans in particular, might argue that the states ought to be able to sue the Corps of Engineers for its failures.
Just as there are legitimate arguments in favor of states rights, so are there reasons to support preservation of local traditions. For example, would anyone in his right mind want to see Café Du Monde in the French Quarter replaced by Starbucks?
Have you ever seen one of those faux Mardi Gras “celebrations” in other cities? It’s why New Orleans remains unique. Can anyone imagine going to Galatoire’s or Antoine’s and not having your usual waiter, someone who has worked there for decades?
The problem is that many Confederate defenders won’t admit that slavery was the cause for the Civil War. They often cannot acknowledge that Southern states disenfranchised blacks until the federal government intervened.
Just as defenders of the Confederate monuments refuse to see in spite of clear evidence to the contrary, how the monuments in their current form can be associated with racial oppression, opponents too often simplify the statues as nothing more than symbols of racial oppression. There is ample evidence that the statues do stand for bravery, honor, and sacrifice.
My great-great-grandfather served in the Confederate army, including at the Battle of Vicksburg. He endured a siege and nine-month prison sentence. While he wasn’t of the planter class, he did own a few slaves. Whether not he was a “good” man, I cannot say. He was certainly brave and his cause included many of the principles found in the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, I can recognize slavery was wrong because of the facts about the institution and the belief that all men are created equal. Like most people he was most likely somewhere in between the extremes of “good” and evil”
Without a proper understanding of the historical context of the statues, it does not appear that New Orleans will be able to move beyond the racial strife associated with this conflict. Let us hope that whatever replaces the monuments will more accurately reflect the complexities of these men and events.
As historian John Coski wrote, “The discipline of history strives to present the past objectively, but acknowledges historical interpretation is inevitably subjective and must evolve as new evidence and new perspectives emerge. Heritage is a presentation of the past based not on critical evaluation but on faith and the acceptance of dogma.”
Matt Higgins is an assistant professor of History at SUNO and a freelance journalist. He taught in the Jefferson Parish Public School System for four years.