Source: James DeMers
A historical figure whose international relevance had been negligible until very recently is that of the Confederate General from the American Civil War (1861-1865), Robert E. Lee. Military historians widely consider Robert E. Lee to be one of the finest army commanders in history, and has come to be regarded as somewhat of a cult hero from many in the southern US states which he represented.
So, if you’re reading this, you will surely know about the current controversy regarding monuments and memorials to Confederate leaders – Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson being the main targets of this. And the underlying argument to those opposing Lee’s (et all) memorialisation is that he represents the slave trade that existed chiefly among the southern US states in 17th and 18th Century America.
Now, you would be hard pressed to find anybody that would defend slavery as an institution – and the emancipation that came out of General Lee’s defeat, and the Confederacy’s terms of surrender, is undoubtedly a good thing. But some things are worth noting about the individual ‘Robert E. Lee’.
You are certainly not going to hear a moral defence of the Confederacy here, nor of slavery. But it is important to consider the historical context in which these figures lived.
General Lee did not take up arms out of an immoral want to continue to own slaves. He did it because 1. He felt an understandable allegiance to his home states, and 2. That was the most effective use of his military prowess.
Slavery, as it existed in the 19th century, was not a moral issue. It was hardly even a civil rights battle at this stage. It seems insulting to say but, at the time, slavery – and even the ending of the slave trade – was more a political manoeuvre than a moral epiphany on the part of the lawmakers.
Slavery was a social, political, and cultural truth and there was ne’er a mention of it as any kind of moral quandary. Even in the mid-19th century, probably so recent in our past that we are reticent to recall, people were just like land or property – they could be conquered, owned, bought, and sold. And this had been the case since time in memoriam.
What we must consider now, is how our historical figures hold up to the moral scrutiny of the modern world – because the answer is not good. It is also unfair to judge our past figures on our own unique perceptions of morality when morality itself has shifted drastically throughout history.
If we are to now hold our figures of history to the moral standards of today, I fear that our history books would be nigh-on empty in a short while.
Democracy is one of the defining features of our ‘civilised’ modern world and yet, the culture of Ancient Athenian philosophy that begat Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and the plenitude of cultural enrichment to come from these times – these were all facilitated by the subjugation of the subservient slave race that built most of Antiquity. The Ancient Greek slave culture was even so developed as to have several different categories of citizen, from free citizen to the ‘owned’ groups of Penestae or Helots. Should we, therefore, tear down the Parthenon once we’re done with General Lee, the Founding Fathers, and Admiral Nelson?
While an extreme, and clearly sarcastic rhetorical, this does demonstrate the ridiculousness that we encounter when we hold our ancestors to such a rigid interpretation of moral absolutism. In fact, even the very concept of Moral Absolutism can be traced back to these classical philosophers of Ancient Greece, ironically.
We should, instead, view our history with a lens of moral relativism. Understanding the world in which our ancestors lived and cutting them the requisite slack for their actions.
Now, does that mean that we ought to declare all of history as ethically neutral? Of course not. There are certainly figures in history whose actions cannot be condoned even by the standards of their own time, but that’s just it: ‘by the standards of their own time’.
The effect of a Robert E. Lee statue and the offense it might cause to an African-American has been compared to a how a Jew might react to a statue of Adolf Hitler but the distinction between the two is clear…
So, did Robert E. Lee hold any kind of moral opinions that would be considered ‘regressive’ by the standards of the world he inhabited? No, the world’s first anti-slavery act was not passed until Lee was already nearing his late twenties and any anti-slavery legislation didn’t enter the US congress until Lee’s mid-fifties.
Well, did he engage in any action that would be considered unduly cruel or unusual by the standards of his own time? Also, no, owning slaves, and condoning the practice was commonplace – particularly in the States he lived.
Adolf Hitler – the exemplar of evil – is still not justified in his actions on any level, even by the standards of the day.
Lee was unlucky to happen to exist at a time where the world was about to make seismic shifts in its moral standards and revolutionary concepts of equality and individual rights. Robert E. Lee was not an evil man. Robert E. Lee was simply a victim of his time.
By Aaron Dellapina