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Lee and Jefferson

In New York City, a statue of Thomas Jefferson has graced the City Council chamber for 100 years. This week, the Public Design Commission voted unanimously to remove it.

“Jefferson embodies some of the most shameful parts of our country’s history,” explained Adrienne Adams, a councilwoman from Queens. Assemblyman Charles Barron went even further. Responding to a question about where the statue should go next, he was contemptuous: “I don’t think it should go anywhere. I don’t think it should exist.”

When iconoclasts topple Jefferson, they seem to validate the argument advanced by defenders of Confederate monuments that there is no escape from the slippery slope. “First, they come for Nathan Bedford Forrest and then for Robert E. Lee. Where does it end? Is Jefferson next? Is George Washington?”

No historical figure is without blemish, they protest. And it’s unfair to condemn our ancestors using today’s standards. If owning slaves is the discrediting fact about Lee, how then can we excuse George Washington? As if on cue, “TFG” chimed in with a statement chiding the city for “evicting” the “late, great Thomas Jefferson, one of our most important founding fathers.” Not so important, apparently, that former President Donald Trump felt the need to learn about him though, because the next phrase was “a principal writer of the Constitution of the United States.” Sigh. No, Jefferson was in Paris during the Constitutional Convention. He authored another founding document Trump hasn’t read. But never mind.

There is an answer — a reason why it’s right to remove Robert E. Lee from his pedestal in Richmond, Virginia, yet wrong to exile Thomas Jefferson from a place of honor in American life. It requires grappling with the full complexity of human beings and the mixed legacy of history. We must, as William Shakespeare said, “Take them for all in all,” that is, judge them for their entire lives, not just a part.

People who defend monuments to Lee on the grounds that he played an important role in our history are confusing significance with honor. Lee surely played a huge role in our history, but as the leader of an army whose aim was to destroy the union. That made him a textbook traitor. As Ulysses Grant put it in his memoir, recalling his feelings upon accepting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Lee had fought “valiantly” but for a cause that was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Is it fair to judge Lee by our modern standards? Perhaps not, but even by the standards of his own day, he is wanting. Much has been made of Lee’s supposedly agonizing decision to resign his U.S. Army commission because he could not “raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children.” But others, including Gen. Winfield Scott, who offered Lee command of the Union army in 1861, also hailed from Virginia, yet remained loyal, as did Virginian Gen. George Henry Thomas, and an estimated 100,000 white Southerners who fought for the Union.

As the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee enslaved all of the Black Union soldiers he captured as well as free Black Pennsylvanians his army encountered.

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